Interview: Robert Benton on ‘The Human Stain’ (2003)

Interview: Robert Benton on ‘The Human Stain’
By Scott Holleran

From 1967, when he co-wrote Bonnie and Clyde with his partner David Newman, to his current picture, The Human Stain, which has been caught in a cultural controversy, writer and director Robert Benton’s movies have left their mark on Hollywood.

Army veteran Benton’s intense interest in people—their emotions, their thoughts, their actions—is evident in the tremendous scope of his career, from his dramatizations of divorce (the 1979 Oscar-winning Best Picture, Kramer vs. Kramer) and widowhood (Places in the Heart) to his stories of a heavy-drinking grandfather (Nobody’s Fool) and his adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate.

Mr. Benton, 71, talked to me from New York about his fascinating career, his current projects and his philosophy of making movies. [Author’s note: the following interview contains several spoilers for The Human Stain; read my review here].

Scott Holleran: What central principle drives what movies you make?

Robert Benton: I’m looking for something that’s different from what I did last time. Scripts survive a kind of winnowing process, and I reach the point where I enjoy these characters enough to spend two years with them.

Scott Holleran: What was it about your friend Nicholas Meyer’s script that attracted you to The Human Stain?

Robert Benton: I had originally wanted to write it myself but I found that [Mr. Meyer] was doing it. Then, when it came across my desk, he had eliminated what I would have eliminated. For example, [Benton agreed with Meyer’s decision] to begin with the car crash—that sets up a kind of echo that doesn’t exist in the book [The Human Stain by Philip Roth].

Scott Holleran: Are you troubled by some critics’ complaints about the casting of Anthony Hopkins as too white and Nicole Kidman as too glamorous?

Robert Benton: I wish they hadn’t been troubled by it, but I’m not troubled by what they’re saying. People were horrified by the casting [in] the first picture I did [Faye Dunaway as Bonnie and Warren Beatty as Clyde in Bonnie and Clyde]. It was interesting that [the criticism] was sort of collectively unified. It’s probably a very flawed movie, and I probably can’t see that right now but I am very proud of this movie. At this point, I think it’s the boldest movie I’ve done. The theme [is not about a black man who tries to pass as white, it’s about] the tension between individual freedom and the responsibility to one’s community that never can be resolved.

Scott Holleran: Kidman also starred in your movie Billy Bathgate

Robert Benton: She’s one of my favorite actresses. I like her a lot. She goes in and you talk over what you want to do, and she goes in and she does it. She’s a character actor. I believe the key to directing is to hire good actors and let them act. Early on, I said [to Kidman about her Human Stain character, Faunia Farley] the model for this picture is the wild child. I love that [Kidman’s character] uses sex to avoid intimacy, and it is that intimacy that is so terrifying to her. [Kidman] took it from there.

Scott Holleran: Do you think Miramax’s promotional emphasis on the lesser known Wentworth Miller, who plays the Anthony Hopkins character as a young man, was an attempt to play the race card?

Robert Benton: What they found and what I found in the previews is that African-American and mixed race people have a very positive response to the film. They decided to go with that. I did not love some of the ads they did in the beginning, and I thought it was a classier film than that but they know about marketing and I don’t.

Scott Holleran: Why did you begin The Human Stain with such jarring language?

Robert Benton: It was in the script and it was in the book. I did [shoot] an alternate version because I was uncertain about [the profanity-laden opening narration]. In hindsight, I wouldn’t have done it that way.

Scott Holleran: The opening narration includes a reference to the Sept. 11, 2001, Islamic terrorist attack on America—

Robert Benton: I would have loved to have gotten rid of that [reference].

Scott Holleran: What do the references to former President Clinton’s sex scandal add to the picture?

Robert Benton: It’s a huge part of the book. [Coleman Silk’s conflict] makes the Monica Lewinsky time seem so innocent [in contrast].

Scott Holleran: In one scene, Coleman’s mother says he ought to be “proud of his race” but later says she never thought of him as black or white. How do you account for the contradiction?

Robert Benton: The second line is from the Roth novel and the first line is not. I didn’t see that discrepancy—and now I see it. I think the first line is a late 20th century line and it sounds false. I was worried that I would be perceived as condoning an Uncle Tom-ism.

Scott Holleran: Is one’s identity based on one’s race?

Robert Benton: To some degree. One of the things that’s so complicated is: What does form one’s identity? It should be a factor but it shouldn’t determine your identity. You shouldn’t be ashamed of who you are.

Scott Holleran: You have said you wanted to present the story as a mystery with no answers—

Robert Benton: I’m so sick of movies that have to give you some kind of answer that is so unsatisfying—movies have gotten so pat. Station Agent ends with a question and I love that. It’s pat answers, not answers as such, that I don’t like.

Scott Holleran: Is The Human Stain tragic or triumphant?

Robert Benton: It’s cautiously hopeful. There’s a notion that in all that is outwardly tragic there is something embedded that is not tragic. You have to understand that I’m a religious person, and I’m going to ram hope down your throat.

Scott Holleran: Why do you think your last movie, 1998’s Twilight, failed at the box office?

Robert Benton: Ultimately, it may have made its money back, but it failed for two reasons: if you do a private eye movie you have to deliver on moments of adrenaline, and I didn’t. Second, there’s been a shift. Private eye movies have morphed from [classic mysteries such as] The Big Sleep into drug movies. Movies inspired by drugs take the rhythm of drugs and we live in a drug culture. Traffic is an example of a drug culture movie.

Scott Holleran: Are movies dumbed down to a perceptual level?

Robert Benton: We’re a much more visual culture, and we listen less than we used to.

Scott Holleran: You co-wrote Bonnie and Clyde. Did that movie glorify criminals?

Robert Benton: I don’t think so. It wasn’t intended to. It was to see them in a different light. I wanted to see criminals without moralizing [about] them. I want to see them as people. They led a wretched life and they had maybe 15 minutes of fun. They were people who wanted to be stars. In a world where they had no outlet, they wanted to be stars. And that ambition for stardom is so heartbreaking. [Yet] I know that if I were in a room with them, they would shoot me first.

Scott Holleran: Why not make a movie about people who are not depraved?

Robert Benton: I think Places in the Heart and Nobody’s Fool are about good people who are noble.

Scott Holleran: Would you make a movie about a hero without feet of clay?

Robert Benton: I wouldn’t know how to do that. I like going to see those movies. I’d love being asked to do a James Bond movie, but I know he’d end up being someone with a certain amount of regret.

Scott Holleran: You worked on the screenplay for Superman. How did that come about?

Robert Benton: I had sold The Late Show [script] to [Robert] Altman, who was the producer, and [writing partner David Newman and I] were to start pre-production by the end of February 1976. We were making very little money, I had a family, and David [Newman] and I were offered [the chance to write] Superman. I had to report to Los Angeles [for The Late Show] but I had time to do one draft and one set of revisions [for Superman] from [The Godfather novelist] Mario Puzo’s written material. So we were bound by what Puzo had written. Then [Superman‘s director] changed from Guy Hamilton to [Richard] Donner and he brought in Tom Mankiewicz [to write]. The initial script that David and I did was based on the Puzo story. It was Superman on the farm, and we also wrote some of the stuff where he first rescues Lois Lane. David wrote one of the movie’s best lines, when Lois is [literally swept off her feet for the first time by Superman] and says: “I know you’re holding me but who’s holding you?” That was David Newman’s line.

Scott Holleran: Did you consciously seek to re-create a 1930s-type farce with What’s Up Doc?

Robert Benton: Yes. [What’s Up Doc? director] Peter [Bogdanovich] had just done The Last Picture Show, and I was about to do [1972’s] Bad Company and we had a great time. He was living in that old Art Deco apartment building on Sunset Boulevard where [director] Howard Hawks had lived, and we would pick up [actress] Cybill [Shepherd], pick up soft drinks and candy and go watch [directors] Preston Sturges and [Ernst] Lubitsch movies. The objective was to remake Bringing Up Baby. And we screened [What’s Up Doc?] for [the movie’s lead actor] Ryan O’Neal and [lead actress] Barbra Streisand, and they both hated it. I gave 30 pages [of the script] to Ryan, and he threw it in a swimming pool.

Scott Holleran: How would you describe director Peter Bogdanovich?

Robert Benton: He’s really literate and informed, and he was one of a handful of people who loved movies and wanted to spend his life making them.

Scott Holleran: Why was Places in the Heart received as a save-the-farm picture?

Robert Benton: Because there were two other movies that came out around the same time that were farm pictures. I never thought [Places in the Heart] was a farm picture. My original title was Town. It was about the town in some sense. Almost all the pictures, I’ve done are about family—and really about making a family that is almost always not blood related. Part of a civilizing act [is that] we make families. We make order of things. Nobody’s Fool is about a family that [Paul Newman’s character, Sully] creates.

Scott Holleran: You wrote and directed The Late Show starring Lily Tomlin and Art Carney, who recently died. How would you describe Mr. Carney’s abilities?

Robert Benton: He was great—he was extraordinary. The crew just adored him.

Scott Holleran: Why didn’t Ms. Tomlin’s career in pictures take off?

Robert Benton: I don’t know. She’s wonderful. The best line in the movie was written by her: she’s there with [actor] Bill Macy driving [in a beat-up car] and she says: “Not only is this car a toilet but you are an attendant.”

Scott Holleran: Do you regard Still of the Night as a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock?

Robert Benton: Yes.

Scott Holleran: From Bonnie and Clyde, which sprang from your father’s ideas, to The Late Show and The Human Stain, your movies bear relation to your late father, whose two brothers were murdered. Is every picture a personal exploration for you?

Robert Benton: Yes. It’s the only way I can bind my way into it.

Scott Holleran: Like The Human Stain, Kramer Vs. Kramer might also be considered politically incorrect, because the working mother walks out on her child. Has the response to Joanna Kramer changed over the years?

Robert Benton: When I decided to do the book [a novel by Avery Corman], a woman friend came to me and said, “Make sure Joanna Kramer is sympathetic.” She is the most moral character in the film because she [acts in her child’s best interest] at the end.

Scott Holleran: You’ve expressed admiration for director Howard Hawks. Is he your favorite director?

Robert Benton: Yes. I admire [director John] Ford and I love Howard Hawks. Rio Bravo is my favorite movie. The first time I saw it, I walked out in the middle because it was not what I thought an artistic movie should be. The second time I saw it, it was my favorite movie. It meant rethinking a lot of my notions about what art was. Art is, for me, what[ever] moves me; something that’s almost invisible and has meaning—like real happiness. Real happiness is almost invisible and has powerful, profound meaning.

Scott Holleran: Who are your favorite people in movies today?

Robert Benton: The greatest director living is Ermano Almi. I really do love and admire [director Francis Ford] Coppola. I would love to work with [actors] [Robert] Duvall and [Adrien] Brody. I’d love to work with [Gene] Hackman again. I like [actress] Naomi Watts.

Scott Holleran: Is your next movie Appointment in Samarra, based on the novel by John O’Hara?

Robert Benton: I’m doing a picture with [producer] Scott Rudin, and once that’s turned in I’ll turn in the first draft of Appointment in Samarra. [As to which movie will be released first,] a lot will depend on casting. Appointment in Samarra‘s theme is a man who will not put up with the conventions of a small city in America in the 1920s. It’s a tragic story.

Scott Holleran: Is Hollywood anti-serious?

Robert Benton: Star Wars and Jaws changed movies in America because they were not language dependent and they could be marketed around the world. Corporations saw that, and they began to buy up movie studios. Movies until then were made by entrepreneurs, and corporations can’t make entrepreneur-type movies. There is a dumbing down, but I do think the pendulum will swing back. I cannot help but believe that will happen again. City of God, The Station Agent—there are amazing movies being made, and movies are being changed drastically. Digital will make it cheaper [to make movies] and [movies will be made] with more freedom. They will become better and more inventive. I am so optimistic about that.

Posted November 26, 2003 on Box Office Mojo