Interview: Robert Benton on ‘Feast of Love’
By Scott Holleran
At a coastal hotel lobby during a recent visit to southern California, writer and director Robert Benton (Kramer Vs. Kramer, Nobody’s Fool, The Human Stain) talked with me about his new picture, the romantic ensemble piece Feast of Love, featuring Morgan Freeman, Greg Kinnear and Jane Alexander. Mr. Benton, interviewed before the movie opened, discussed certain scenes, the cast and his thoughts on love. [Author’s note: read my review here].
Scott Holleran: Does Feast of Love capture your philosophy of love?
Robert Benton: That’s a very good question. A long time ago, someone said to me, “you do work for several different reasons,” one of which is that you have something you want to say that you want other people to hear. The other reason is that you’re looking for something you don’t know and you’re trying to find out what it is. I would put this movie into that category; it is an exploration of something—and the movie may reveal this—that I don’t fully understand. I’m fascinated by that complicated thing that is love. In all of my films, if there’s been a thread, it is about the family as an extension of community—this is about a community that sort of forms themselves. They will change and morph and disappear in time. For this one period of time, this is a family, this is a community.
Scott Holleran: Is that an extension of the self-made man to the idea of family?
Robert Benton: It is exactly that—it goes back to the self-made man. This is the God-given family, or, the family you don’t set out consciously to find that you stumble upon along the way—a family that can save your life.
Scott Holleran: These characters don’t merely stumble by accident; they make choices. Morgan Freeman’s character, Harry, chooses whether to accept the character played by Alexa Davalos.
Robert Benton: Yes, [he has to] to accept life or reject life and it’s very hard to do because he’s set himself ideologically, emotionally, on a path of rejecting life—of shutting down, of beginning to choose death. I have lived long enough that I’ve seen friends of mine who have begun that process and it’s nothing they’re aware of. If there is a theme, it’s the huge power of life to reexert itself. Bradley [Greg Kinnear’s character] is a good example. Love is Bradley’s addiction—and it’s great about him—it’s far from a failing, which it seems to be for a long time, because he’s not getting any wiser. His need to love overpowers his judgment about who to love. Life sort of takes care of that for him. I think he knew how to love but he didn’t know how to be loved—he thought if he loved, it was enough and that he could love [enough] for both sides. Finally, he found someone who loves him. It’sBaxter’s line from the book: “Finally, Bradley found somebody who loved him as much as he loved them.”
Scott Holleran:—which Margit as much as says to him while they’re dancing.
Robert Benton: Yes.
Scott Holleran: How do you define love?
Robert Benton: Love can be desire, it can be need. But love is the ability to not be at the center of your own universe—that you don’t live in a bare and chilly world, that you are bound to other humans.
Scott Holleran: Bound by what?
Robert Benton: I’m suspiciously religious about it. I think there is something inherently religious within that book, whether it’s conscious on his part or not. But I see religion as a personal exploration of one’s relationship to the world and to oneself and it is constantly up for grabs.
Scott Holleran: Feast of Love is optimistic, but it is different than, say, Nobody’s Fool, which is also somewhat optimistic but centrally Sully’s [Paul Newman’s character’s] story. This is about being interconnected.
Robert Benton: Nobody’s Fool is about someone who didn’t understand himself; he spent the movie finding out he was more valuable than he thought he was in the beginning. It’s his story. In Feast of Love, it’s not just Harry’s story.
Scott Holleran: Did you deliberately put the music in the background?
Robert Benton: The music always had to be there—we needed contemporary songs. A lot of that is Andy Mondshein, the editor. He has a very deft ear for music. I had talked with him and I had never met him but he was always on the list of people I wanted to work with. It was also [producer] Tom Rosenberg, who always wanted to be able to hear the dialog. That was very important to him.
Scott Holleran: Feast of Love’s drawings were by Sallie Benton. Any relation?
Robert Benton: That’s my wife. She did a painting for Robert Altman’s The Wedding. I wanted there to be a sense of Bradley’s erotic life with Kathryn [Selma Blair]; you get a sense of it through the two nudes.
Scott Holleran: Why did you abandon the lesbian couple so early in the story?
Robert Benton: The book abandoned them. [Later,] we all agreed that we should have brought them back. I wanted to use Jenny, Kathryn’s girlfriend, as a nurse in the hospital but we couldn’t get her. In hindsight, it would have been better.
Scott Holleran: The cast is terrific. How did each person capture the quality you were looking for in that particular character? Let’s start with Greg Kinnear as Bradley.
Robert Benton: I wanted him to be someone who was an innocent—who seemed to be foolish but that you liked. It’s a friendship with Harry—it’s not romanticized, but it’s there. He’s the one who unlocked the door [to love] for Harry—
Scott Holleran: He gave everything back to Harry that Harry had given to him.
Robert Benton: Yes. He was the only person who could have persuaded Harry to listen to him and I thought it should be a moment where a character turns and this character you thought was this sort of lovable, foolish guy turns out to be much smarter than you thought.
Scott Holleran: So there’s a sincerity about Greg Kinnear?
Robert Benton: You bet. I believe that Kinnear is the closest we’ll ever have to [someone like] Jack Lemmon. I’ve seen him from the beginning. In As Good As It Gets, he’s breathtaking. He’s extraordinarily good in Sabrina.
Scott Holleran: Radha Mitchell?
Robert Benton: There’s a nervousness in her which I felt was the character. I had seen her in Man on Fire and I felt she was like a kind of high-strung racehorse. She had to do something for which every woman was going to hate her—she was the character that was closest to Meryl [Streep] in Kramer Vs. Kramer—she’s having an affair with a married man with no remorse about it and then she breaks up that marriage. I felt that [Mitchell] could do it [in a way that] you care about her. That scene with David [Billy Burke]—that’s really a love scene—the movie turns in some powerful way at that point because you know how much they love each other.
Scott Holleran: How was that scene adapted from the novel?
Robert Benton: It’s not exactly the same. In the book, he slaps her and the movie lets her slap him back.
Scott Holleran: Alexa Davalos?
Robert Benton: I was originally looking for a very different actress—a thin, goofy, stringy blonde, someone who looked more like Toby [Hemingway, the actor who plays opposite her]. I’d been seeing a lot of actresses, and I love casting, and I saw her sitting there and I thought ‘she’s not right.’ We had a talk and she read and there was something in her that was extraordinarily moving and she had a kind of presence. I gave her some direction and I was amazed. I brought her back and brought her back and, somewhere along the way, she was created for the ending—her weight comes at the end of the picture. That’s where her enormous gift as an actor shows up. She has an instinct for getting into the heart of something. She has that thing that Meryl [Streep] has—she can read the telephone book and make you cry.
Scott Holleran: Fred Ward?
Robert Benton: I love Fred. He could have used another scene and I may have cut this movie too tight. In the book, he has two more scenes—he tries to rape her—and I thought that was just not workable.
Scott Holleran: Toby Hemingway?
Robert Benton: Tom Rosenberg said he had found this kid who had done one small role in a movie called The Covenant and he came in. He was exactly right—he had the blond hair and—he has more piercings and tattoos in the book—he has this gift of a kind of goofiness and being able to be present. He has the ability to play himself in a very good way.
Scott Holleran: Selma Blair?
Robert Benton: I’ve always loved Selma. I always wanted to work with her—I’d love to do a whole movie with Selma. She did me a favor with this.
Scott Holleran: Missi Pyle?
Robert Benton: She’s so good. Again, she did us a favor. I thought she was terrific [in the role].
Scott Holleran: You use the interconnected ensemble vehicle without a sense of manipulation. Did you set out to make this type of movie?
Robert Benton: It’s part of the book. I’m attracted to the interconnected story. While Nobody’s Fool was centered around Sully, there were satellites around Sully; there were connecting stories. I think I’m drawn to those stories, maybe because I’m dyslexic and I have a short attention span. I love ensemble pieces. I guess I’m drawn to family and community. That relationship is more interesting than anything.
Scott Holleran: Differentiate Feast of Love from Crash.
Robert Benton: I don’t want to put down anyone else’s movie. But Feast of Love is less political than Crash. It’s less controversial, less topical. It’s hopefully about values—deeper than just our culture—more about our humanity. The concerns of Crash are more social; the concerns of Feast are more personal and emotional.
Scott Holleran: Did you see Babel?
Robert Benton: Yes. I didn’t love all of Babel but I think that the end shot of Babel of that man with his daughter was one of the most disturbing and beautiful shots. It was a brilliant ending shot to that picture. It completed the film but it was incredibly disturbing and moving and I thought, ‘wow,’ I wish I was a good enough director to have done something that brilliant. That said, perhaps both of those directors are less optimistic than I am—and maybe less middle class than I am. This is an old-fashioned movie.
Scott Holleran: You recently referred to Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest as a movie you didn’t want to end as an example of the idea that economy is the most important factor, for you, to enjoy the picture. Do you think you’ve achieved that with your motion pictures?
Robert Benton: I don’t know. I’ve tried to—I’ve tried to make them short enough or economical that nobody looks at their watch. You can’t love your characters more than God does—you can’t—you can only enjoy them so much and then you have to let them go. Again, it may be chemically related to my dyslexia, because I like short movies.
Scott Holleran: What was your governing principle pertaining to nudity?
Robert Benton: What I didn’t want is for them to be posed. They had to be willing to trust that I wasn’t going to embarrass them. I said to all the actors, ‘make sure you’re prepared to do it—don’t say yes and think it will solve itself later.’ I keep a tightly closed set. I had a woman assistant director, a woman boom operator, and only a few of us in the room.
Scott Holleran: Were organic cigarettes smoked in the book, too?
Robert Benton: No. That’s something that [writer] Allison Burnett put in. [Radha Mitchell’s character] smoked in the book—she’s the only character that does smoke—but the organic cigarettes were [added by] Allison Burnett.
Scott Holleran: You recently stated that Morgan Freeman defines moral weight as an actor. How do you think he projects that quality?
Robert Benton: He’s the best listener. He’s there and he pays attention. Moral weight is someone whom you believe considers what he’s saying.
Scott Holleran: What’s the status of Appointment at Samarra, your adaptation of the story by John O’Hara?
Robert Benton: The script exists and we are now in the midst of beginning the casting process. I’m a huge John O’Hara fan. He is a greater short story writer than a novelist—his novels sometimes get big and overblown—but he’s a beautiful writer. He writes behavior extraordinarily well. The prose is simple and clean. There’s nothing there that’s not necessary. There’s not a lie. Imagine Kissing Pete, which is a novella more than a short story, is arguably one of the great works of the latter 20th century. There was a time when I wanted to do a movie of that. It’s the most utterly depressing story in the world, except for the last two minutes but you couldn’t get anyone to sit for two hours for the last two minutes. His work is not generous but there’s an enormous amount of internal voice in Appointment at Samarra and how do you make a movie in which love, even great love, is not enough? But something happened and I found a door into it.
Scott Holleran: What is the theme?
Robert Benton: Sometimes, love is not enough, no matter how much you love somebody. It’s just not enough—love’s not always going to save your life. It’s just not. It is about the failure of love. I’ve never done that.
Scott Holleran: What’s the status of the movie?
Robert Benton: It’s a Lakeshore project and I’ve met with several actresses for [playing] Caroline. We’re talking to one actor for [the male lead].
Scott Holleran: Is Kramer Vs. Kramer your most commercially successful picture?
Robert Benton: Yes. What’s Up, Doc?, Bonnie and Clyde and Superman: The Movie were all successful, too. But Kramer Vs. Kramer is the biggest moneymaker.
Scott Holleran: Do you pay attention to box office?
Robert Benton: I do. I really do, because, in some sense, an audience tells you something about a movie. If you can’t get people to go see the movie, there’s probably a reason for that and I’d be wise to understand the reason.
Scott Holleran: What was the reason more people didn’t see The Human Stain?
Robert Benton: I didn’t make it sexy enough—and I don’t mean erotic. I didn’t make it juicy enough. I would be reluctant to cast an actor who has been on the cover of W and Vogue more than once a year. Overall, I’m pleased with it.
Scott Holleran: Why haven’t you done an audio commentary for DVDs?
Robert Benton: I’m uncomfortable with it.
Scott Holleran: You’ve also recently embraced the independent picture and you said you like that an independent movie has to be made quickly and with less money. It seems like you’re implying that it forces you to work on a tighter deadline and that can be creatively productive. Is that right?
Robert Benton: Yes. I always used to fight for bigger budgets and I think I was wrong. I did this picture in 41 days and I could have done it in 38 days, if they had allowed me to cut a few scenes, and I never broke a sweat. I had a wonderful crew and it was fine.
Scott Holleran: What was the last movie you paid to see?
Robert Benton: Shortbus, a fabulous movie. I recently went to see The Bourne Ultimatum. I saw Spider-Man 3 and I liked it. I think Sam Raimi’s a really good director. I’ve not seen the latest Harry Potter picture; my favorite was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Scott Holleran: Which actors would you love to work with that you haven’t worked with?
Robert Benton: Robert Duvall. I’d love to work with Gene Hackman again. Ralph Fiennes. Cate Blanchett. Tilda Swinton. Rachel Weisz. I’d love to work with Reese Witherspoon—I loved working with her on Twilight.
Scott Holleran: What are five favorite movies?
Robert Benton: Do you want the pictures I admire—or the pictures I love?
Scott Holleran: Both and why are they mutually exclusive?
Robert Benton: I admire The Searchers. I don’t love The Searchers. I love and admire Rio Bravo. I love and admire Rules of the Game. I love and admire The Fallen Idol. I love and admire Children of Paradise. I love Ride the High Country. I love and admire The Godfather, Part II. I love and admire Fanny and Alexander. I love and admire 8 1/2.
Scott Holleran: Are there highly regarded movies you don’t love or admire?
Robert Benton: I don’t love Citizen Kane, though I admire it. I don’t love and I don’t admire Casablanca or High Noon.
Posted on October 7, 2007 on Box Office Mojo