LASSE HALLSTROM Interviewed – THE HOAX

     March 31, 2007

A week or so ago I got to participate in a roundtable interview with Director Lasse Hallstrom for the upcoming movie The Hoax. Here is the studio provided synopsis:

The Hoax is inspired by true events in the life of Clifford Irving, the writer who nearly pulled off one of the most audacious media scams in history, when his “autobiography” of Howard Hughes was published. Richard Gere stars as Irving, who claimed the book was based on in-person interviews he conducted with the reclusive billionaire, which were in fact completely bogus. Alfred Molina, Marcia Gay Harden and Hope Davis also star.

While a lot of you might be unfamiliar with the legend of Howard Hughes, I knew quite a lot about him going in and quite enjoyed this movie. While some of the film has some fake scenes put in to help the story along, most of what was shot was based on what actually happened. The story is fascinating.

If you haven’t seen a trailer yet click here to check it out.

Otherwise here is the interview with Lasse. He talks about all the usual things like how the film came to get made, the casting of all the key characters, and of course what he is working on now.

CAN YOU TALK ABOUT HOW YOU CAME TO MAKE THIS FILM.

I got the script sent by my agent 4 or 5 years ago. I knew it had been around for a couple of years. No one had — I thought it was just very surprising that no one had made it. It had been around for like 2 years. I immediately felt this was something I wanted to do because it had the true story of this man — such an astounding story — and it was written in a tone that had the dramatic and the comedic, and Bill Wheeler’s writing was so well-observed of human behavior — you really heard these voices. And he writes the way people speak. I really loved all this — so that’s how that started. I didn’t know about the story at all. During that period I was in Stockholm, so I knew about Howard Hughes but the Clifford Irving story never got to me till I read the script.

DID YOU MEET CLIFFORD IN PERSON AND WHEN YOU MET HIM, WAS IT HARD TO TELL WHEN HE WAS BEING TRUTHFUL AND WHEN HE WAS JUST TRYING TO SPIN THE STORY EVEN TODAY.

I have not met him yet. I think we didn’t really avoid him, but we never got to meet — I never really encouraged a meeting, cause I was nervous — I think Richard was too — nervous about being in some odd direction we didn’t want to go. But I talked to him on the phone once, and we’ve been exchanging e-mails, he’s been commenting on the script and he was an adviser for a while. But then he retired from that. So it’s been — yeah, I’m really looking forward to meeting him if I have a chance now, but up to this point I only know him from the footage and from the book and from this one conversation we had and our e-mail exchanges.

WHAT ABOUT THE CASTING OF RICHARD IN ROLE OF CLIFFORD?

I had wanted to work with him for several years. My wife had worked with him on a movie called Mr. Jones, and I got to know him a little through that. And he happens to be living up there in upstate — in Upper Westchester — we’re almost neighbors there. We’ve met occasionally socially, and fantasized about working, so there had been like a couple of other projects that never happened. But this one I just called him and asked him to read the script. I think he called back like two days later and said he wanted to do it. It was the most straightforward simple, non-agency way to do it that I experienced. I think he’s never done it either that way. It was quite simple and straightforward and we started shooting a couple of months later.

WHY WASN’T MOLINA’S WIFE EVER SHOWN IN THE FILM?

It was Bill Wheeler’s idea. It was just a conscious choice of just having this man constantly referring to his wife’s decision and the importance of that offscreen wife. Kind of a fun way of dealing with her. He’s always hiding behind whatever his wife says. So she was never really considered being on screen.

SHE WAS NEVER PART OF THE PLOT, RIGHT?

That’s a little bit of an invention. The fact that Clifford tricks him to go to bed with his girl. That’s part of the writer’s invention. I think it portrays what Clifford Irving was able to do, but he didn’t do with this particular — this actually did not happen. So that’s what I’ve been kind of struggling with most — the fact that this was dramatic invention. It does seem as if Clifford Irving seemed to be betraying so many friends. He was certainly capable of doing these kinds of things, it seems. The people at the publishing company were all his friends, and that’s partly why they trusted him. It doesn’t really show in the film, but they were all old friends — he’d been publishing several books with them. So friends were, betrayed, for sure.

WHAT WAS THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE DIRECTING THIS FILM, COMPARED TO OTHER FILMS YOU’D DIRECTED?

First, I really enjoyed going into a lighter direction here — to do something that was more ironic and had more of a range of — a wider range — and it was free form for me, the storytelling is about more playful with the medium of film than anything I’ve done, at least with features. So I added the idea of weaving some of the documentary footage in there and I really enjoyed the editing process and having fun with the visuals of it. My earlier movies, the free form movies I’d made before this were striving for stronger sentiment. It was great to be able to be more ironic. It felt like this film was very close to me and I think was close to my temperament in storytelling. And I hold this film very high.

WHAT IS THE FASCINATION FOR THESE PEOPLE WHO PULL HOAXES ON US, BECAUSE THERE WAS THE FASON BLAIR THING, SHATTERED GLASS, SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION . . . WHY ARE PEOPLE SO GULLIBLE?

Yeah, you’re fascinated by actors that actually do convince you. The guts that it takes — I was in cold sweat reading the script the first time as he was hitting obstacles and upping the ante each time he hit a wall, he kept going in a way that really intrigued me. I would never be able to do such a thing. I guess that’s part of why we are attracted to it. I loved his guts. I loved how bold he was with this. You know, you’re envious of his charm — how was he able to convince these people? The energy and the charm of this man, it’s something to strive for, of course. And there’s a lot of betrayal in this, so I’m torn about the character, of course. I do like his charm, it’s a kind of character who’s not too common. In top positions of some of our leaders . . . you know people in top positions tend to have this kind of capacity of charming their way and lying their way through life. Not that I make any comparison with what a psychopath does, but you could say — I mean that’s one of the first descriptions of a psychopath, is someone who doesn’t really care what happens to people around him, as long as he gets what he needs. I’m not saying it’s related to this, but it’s sort of interesting that you see some of that in so many top positions, I’d say.

DO YOU KNOW THE REAL REASON WHY HE DID THE HUGHES BOOK?

I have not heard a version yet that I believe in. I think Clifford Irving himself on the phone told me — he just didn’t know why he did it. He’d forgotten why he did it — that’s what he said to me. Though you look at — he made this book on the art forger . . . and you can just imagine what the conversations were in those restaurants in Ibiza as Clifford told his story. And I imagine that it was more of a happening — which was very much of the early seventies like art form, wanting to do a big happening and wanting to play around with the establishment. And I think they invented this over a restaurant table in Ibiza?? That’s my theory.

HOW RELIABLE DO YOU THINK IRVING‘S OWN BOOK, HOAX, IS?

I really don’t know. I’ve been trusting more the book that a journalist wrote, the New York Times journalist wrote on it. I think — in my experience, there have been so many 180 degree turns with Clifford, and some of these things that we see in the film were actually spelled out as true when Bill Wheeler wrote the script. He turned on it and claimed it was untrue — whether it was weeks or months or years later. He saw the film several weeks ago and he was observed saying that he loved it and he has now turned and said — I think the opposite. So he’s certainly not reliable here, and I guess some of the elements of the hoax, some of the details of the hoax, I really don’t believe in. And when it comes to his story about the romance with Nina Van Palendt and he didn’t cheat — it was just two incidents as he happened to meet her over and over again. I just didn’t believe in some of that. I’m a long way in answering this, but I just don’t know what’s true and what’s not. Certainly, stories keep changing. That’s for sure.

ARE YOU WORRIED ABOUT HIM GOING TO THE PRESS AND USING THIS AS AN OPPORTUNITY FOR A MEDIA OUTLET. OR IS THE FEELING THAT IT WILL JUST DRAW MORE ATTENTION TO THE MOVIE —

Yeah, he can do whatever he wants. I’d love to have some discussion — almost wanting to inspire him to go talk about it. I don’t think he — I heard he’s willing to do something from Aspen. He was going to come and host a screening, and he was willing to do that a couple of weeks ago, but he changed his mind (laughs) on that one too. So that would be great. But basically the major beats in the story are true.

IS IT TRUE THAT HE WENT DOWN, THAT HE WAS ALMOST TURNING INTO HH WHEN DOING THE TAPING? THAT MENTALLY HE ALMOST HAD A BREAKDOWN IN SOME WAY?

No, I think that was dramatic, but when you read his book, it’s a very pressured man at the end of it. you can’t imagine how deeply he had to get into the mind set of Howard Hughes, as they were doing these interviews. Because that’s what happened: they sort of entered the mind of Howard Hughes, and they were alternating playing Howard Hughes, Dick and Clifford. In the film, we only had Clifford doing it, but you can just imagine what it took to really have to start believing this story and I think he really had to start believing that what he was saying was true to survive it. And he was on 60 minutes to talk about the prune and all the details of that. I think he really had to believe it at some point. Maybe we were pushing that a little bit further . . .

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HOW DIFFICULT TO DO A PERIOD FILM WHEN THE PERIOD IS COMPARATIVELY RECENT?

I didn’t worry too much about recreating — you know, I’m very much into look at the performance, try to help actors be as real as they possibly can be. And Oliver Stapleton I think had tried to start the film in the 70s and try to emulate the look of that . . . obviously did much more research on the backdrop of this than I did. I can’t say that it was a challenge to me. I guess a challenge was to — the script was at times very light and the weaving of the dramatic and true parts of the story and the comedic takes o0n it, and we were, I guess, at times tempted to go comedic with it and got carried away a couple of times, I think. So in trying to stay calm here and . . . doing it more for real was the challenge. It was very tempting to go a bit more comedic with it.

DO YOU THINK DICK SUSKIND WAS A NATURALLY COMEDIC CHARACTER IN THE STORY?

The real Dick Suskind, I think, had more personal authority and wasn’t as reliant on Clifford Irving as the character is in the film. So I think that’s also a bit of a dramatization, though he was a researcher with Clifford and he was the second fiddle here and they were close friends and they did it all together. But Fred is probably not off to portray the real Dick here. It’s more of a dramatization of him.

WAS THERE ALSO DRAMATIC LICENSE RE THE WATERGATE BREAK-IN AND WHERE HUGHES GOT OFF ON THE FINE WAS THERE REALLY THAT PROXIMITY IN TIME? THE FINE THAT HE WAS SUPPOSED TO GET — THE AMERICAN AIRLINES THING?

Right. All that according to George and Bill who really started this in detail, it is true. And so many biographies from those who were involved in Watergate and their quotes — again Clifford Irving said he met someone in jail, one of the burglars, who said, if it wasn’t for you I wouldn’t be here. Also Dean is referring to this and there are several sources that actually claim that they had guessed the amount of money that Howard Hughes had offered Nixon precisely so Nixon was afraid that this was a true story and it was going to damage him. He wanted to get hold of what the Democrats knew about the Hughes story, so that is the true part of the story and the more you started that, the more fascinating it becomes. That’s an absolute true element to the story, and the book could actually been the main instigator of the break-in.

COULD YOU TALK ABOUT CASTING MARSHA?

She’s just a fantastic actress, a bit of a look-alike to Edith. She is doing the real Edith’s accent/ she was from Switzerland, she was a painter, we’re using her real paintings in the film. And it’s the hairdo of the real Edith, so when you look at that hair, it’s actually the kind of haircut that Edith had. So we tried to stay true with that. Richard changed his hairline, he added as you can tell a little something to his nose…and I am by the way very proud of his performance, and I’d never had such enjoyable collaboration with an actor. He seemed to really appreciate the way I work. He works the same. Like last minute, last second impulses is really what we’re striving for. And we really enjoyed the making of it.

WAS A LOT OF IT AD LIBBED?

Some of the ad libs are in the film, but mostly we came back in editing to what was on Bill Wheeler’s page. But I guess the ad libbing also helped actors a little but in their performances. Some additions were made, but mostly it’s Wheeler’s script.

CAN YOU TALK ABOUT WHAT YOU’RE WORKING ON RIGHT NOW?

I’m directing a television pilot for Fox network. And it’s a detective story set in New York in present times, but it covers — it’s about a man who’s been around since the 1500s and had many different lives. It’s quite a fascinating story. I like the script a lot. I’m doing that for another two weeks. It’s called New Amsterdam.

EVER DONE TELEVISION BEFORE?

In Sweden, yes. I was in television — started off is a television producer before I made my first feature in 74.

ISN’T IT MUCH QUICKER THAN DOING A FILM? HOW ARE YOU HANDLING THAT?

With this pilot it isn’t. It’s like making a short film. It’s really pretty similar. We’ve got a generous schedule for it. So it’s not too different. But I’d love to get into making television again, so that’s why I’ve started out and I want to see if I can come up with my own idea for a pilot for next year.

HOW DIFFICULT TO LAND ELI WALLACH?

Oh, I think he was available to do it. Yeah, he’s 91, 92, and he was such a charming man. No signs of that age. He knew his lines and did all kinds of variations of what he had to do, so it was just great to meet him.

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