“The Tomorrow Man”… with an Eye to Yesterday
Elliot Kotek in conversation with John Lithgow, Blythe Danner & Noble Jones
John Lithgow’s 40-plus years in the entertainment industry has him sitting in rarefied air with two Oscar nominations, Grammy nomination and multiple SAG, Golden Globe, Tony & Emmy awards. Choosing whom to partner with Lithgow in this cinematic two-hander, director Noble Jones wisely went with Blythe Danner, herself an acclaimed actress who had landed on the stage as a peer of Lithgow’s, and who’d quickly caught the attention of the public with a Tony Award in one of her first Broadway plays, Butterflies are Free.
Billed as a story about Lithgow’s Ed Hemsler, who spends his life preparing for a disaster that may never come and Danner’s Ronnie Meisner, who spends her life shopping for things she may never use, Jones’s The Tomorrow Man is a love story about a couple of a certain age, and their stuff.
As Jones’s debut feature film, The Tomorrow Man is an understated and moving study, and while the film didn’t quite land at the box office following its Sundance Film Festival premiere, it is certainly an additive element of expression for its creator, himself a musician, performer, acclaimed cinematographer (David Fincher’s The Social Network) and music video director (Taylor Swift, Keith Urban, Ziggy Marley, etc).
Beyond Cinema: Noble…as an artist of many modalities, what about this story compelled you to explore it in this format?
Noble Jones: Well, I had written other things. Larger, bigger, more fanciful things. But I was just looking for something really intimate, small and character based. I'd done some travel and I just thought about characters in the Midwest and how they deal with the world changing, 'cause one of the beautiful things about not living in say New York, Los Angeles, is things are slower in a way, but in a nice way. There's a kind of permanence and an expectation.
But the world is changing, and rapidly. I just thought about what it might be like for someone to have to deal with this freight train of change and just grappling with it day to day and what it's like. So this was kind of like a love story, but ultimately it's also about thinking a bit about the world and how to navigate your way through it.
BC: In terms of the first image that popped into your head for this story, was it Ed? Was it Ronnie? Was it that location?
Noble: It's a tiny, tiny, tiny figure on a vast, vast, vast, vast landscape called the Midwest.
BC: That's what I love about the description of the film - it just says “somewhere in America.” Is that by intention?
Noble: Absolutely. We did quite a bit of work to make sure that no one knew where we shot it…It was trying to find just the right framing. A little left, a little right, you'll get a cell tower or something like that. But that was the idea, to find just the right expanses of land or little trees and things like that to kind of capture the topography of the Midwest.
BC: And when you went about creating your set – obviously, you've got a rich history with David Fincher. What from his set did you take in terms of mood or ethos?
Noble: That's a tough one. We are simpatico on a lot of points of view. The truth is, I would get a kick out of anybody that determined after seeing the film where the Fincher references are, 'cause there's a few. But you try to find your own voice and way. I certainly try to apply his level of craft and exactitude to the process.
Then of course he loaned me his camera -- he said, “Use this.” So I said, “Oookay, fine.”
BC: That's cool. And John, Blythe, talk about your first meetings with Noble? I know it's always interesting meeting with a person who's embarking on this adventure for the first time and there's a certain level of trust and intimacy that needs to be created for that to happen. Where did you meet?
John Lithgow: Didn’t we have lunch together?
Noble: Yeah, he ate off my plate. Lunch was cool.
Noble: Yes, you did.
Lithgow: Well, I was trying to see how he would react [laughs]. I'd read the script, I was completely captivated by it. I thought, “Wow, who is this guy who wrote this completely original and surprising script and thought of me for the main role?” Not something that happens all that often for me in film. And I just told my agent “Yeah, the most urgent thing is for the two of us to meet and to just get to know each other.” We did, and ... I knew that he had written it, would direct it and would even shoot it. I'd been through that a couple of times on a couple of other projects, which were a big mistake. And so I just thought, okay, impress me, Noble, let's see if I have confidence in this guy.
It was simply no problem at all. Of course the other element in all this was that Blythe was the only name that was brought up for this role and I thought what a wonderful pairing. I knew Blythe. We'd both come out of New York theater in the 70s, so we have about 200 mutual friends, all of whom have worked with her… and I had not. So, this sounded like a great thing and it's a movie, you knew even from the script, of such delicacy, the tune had to be just right, somewhere between comedy and dread. I just saw myself in it, saw Blythe in it, and somehow, after lunch, mainly because he didn't mind me eating off his plate, I had great faith in him. And it was all borne out.
It was really a happy experience. I've been to Sundance often and I've sat with five or six people in an interview. Here, there were big parts for two people… and Noble was just marvelous. We were thick as thieves, the three of us.
Blythe Danner: Well, comedy and dread has always attracted me[, too]. It's rare one finds them in a script. And of course, John... How many years since the 70s, I've longed to work with John, so I was thrilled about that. And to meet Noble, we either had lunch or coffee. I don't think I drank from your cup? And it just intrigued me and I was delighted to be asked to do this role. I'm usually somebody's grandmother or a little thing here or there… It was very lovely to have a love story at our age. It was wonderful. And we felt in very good hands from the start.
BC: You both mentioned the theater. You both came out of the gate with early accolades, both won Tonys very young. Did you get a chance to rehearse for the film, did you get that theatrical process?
Lithgow: Not at all.
Danner: The seat of our pants flying.
Lithgow: We read through the script once.
Noble: Yeah. The night before.
Danner: It's more and more the norm I think.
Lithgow: Yeah, but that's a credit to the script.
Danner: That's right.
Lithgow: The script did not need fussing with. Every scene played, and we knew that when we read it out loud and we knew that when we read it to ourselves.
BC: It also seems like less and less people are getting that experience that each of you had to hone a craft before stepping into a film. Do you feel like, without that experience in the theater, that things would have been vastly different?
Danner: Perhaps. It's in your muscle memory. I've worked with a lot of actors who haven't had the theater experience and sometimes they're just lazier. They're not as willing to have to carry the weight that you have to.
Lithgow: Yeah. We really come from so many of the same experiences. We were very much on the same page in terms of work ethics and a lot of marvelous things came out of that. Noble can speak to that better than I, but there is a wonderful moment which was written and intended, but it turned into something quite magical where the two of us end up singing a song. I think ... it just came out of nowhere. It comes at a beautiful moment in the script and it's quite surprising. You don't see it often. I think it comes of having just ease and trust in each other. That's one example of a lot of things, great things that happened, just because I was so comfortable working with Blythe.
BC: Yeah. That's a good transition to music. Noble, you have a vast amount of experience crafting stories in the short form, music videos for various amazing, talented artists. When we were speaking before the interview, you labeled those art forms as being completely separate from film.
Noble: Well, now that we're being recorded, I deny everything I've said. No… it's not so much that they're separate but, in my mind, ultimately, I'm a musician, so they're two separate loads and it was always different to meld the two because I saw the paths so different as far as my pursuit professionally.
Then there was a conscious moment, I remember, where I said I am not going to pursue a career as a musician. I'm going to pursue a career as a filmmaker. There are different disciplines to it and different requirements. If you're a music video director, you serve a different master than if you're a film director.
I found that some of the videos that I liked the most done by other people, Fincher and other guys, Mark Romanek is one of my favorite guys as well, is they weren't story based as much as they were just these wonderful collections of images based on theme and then exploration of that theme in a really imaginative way. So that was the thing that I really enjoyed the most about it. But I couldn't help myself and I started making movies out of them and I get a lot of artists pissed off at me. But it was fun.
BC: And in terms of wanting to control the imagery and the story and, as John was saying, be the person behind the camera and the person who wrote the script and directed the film, is that just your process, because you want to control the vision? Is it a preference or a pursuit?
Noble: A bit of both. A lot of the process of finding your way in the film industry is securing the material and then making sure that you have adequate resources and talented people around you. We had all that, fortunately, on this film. I like writing, so I wrote, and someone said yes. And then I shot because I always enjoyed shooting. That's always a lot of fun. As you know, I shot a few things for Fincher and so that was a bit of a positive reinforcement. Then directing was always first and foremost my interest in storytelling, those moments when you feel like you have the audience in your thrall. So they all came together.
BC: To bring it back to the film, what's the takeaway when someone's leaving this theater and they're seeing this story --
Noble: We're gonna be very quiet about what it's exactly about.
BC: Then what's the take away? Do you want people just to have a sort of experience or a mood or do you want them to come away with a certain message?
Noble: Yeah, absolutely. It's a hopeful movie. It's a love story. I want people to think, absolutely, and feel. But it's hopeful. I like to think it's very hopeful.
BC: Because I have two young kids, I've been hearing your voices a lot, Blythe’s with Howl's Moving Castle and John’s by revisiting Shrek and the poetry episode of HBO’s Classical Baby with “The Owl and the Pussycat.” So your voices are very much alive in my house.
Lithgow: Yes. [Laughs] And I might have done kid’s albums.
Danner: Yes. You have to get them.
Lithgow: Find “Singing in the Bathtub” and “The sunny side of the street.” My pride and joy.
BC: Talk to me a little bit on the power of voice and what you believe to be the magic of it.
Lithgow: Well, both of us come from the stage and the stage is a vocal medium. The heart of so much of our theater is Shakespeare. Shakespeare's plays were performed out of doors on a completely bare stage. They had nothing but the words and the voices. And films are very much a visual medium but I do think that, as an actor, to the extent that I bring value to a project, a lot of that value is what I bring from the theater. And a lot of what I bring from the theater is the voice.
This is a wonderful piece of writing. It's a script that reminds me of a play. There are long sustained speeches that really hold your attention, and that's unusual in a film. They're speeches that really move the story forward and give it an arc. It's one of the things that appealed to me reading the script immediately was great lines. Good speeches. A couple of good speeches. That's what I like.
Screenplays are not supposed to jump out at you. You're not supposed to hear the language as if it's a play. But I love it when it does.
BC: And Blythe?
Danner: Well, my great desire when I was a girl was to be a jazz singer. I became too apprehensive about all that, but I just so adored jazz. A friend of mine and I always went to see Miles Davis and [Charles] Mingus and I was just so enamored with that. I let that go because I got hired as an actress. I thought I can at least pay the bills, I hope. I did a play on Broadway … “Betrayal” – Harold Pinter. Sir Peter Hall directed it, and the biggest compliment I have ever gotten from a director or anyone, he said, “You know, you're giving a jazz performance?” …And I thought “Oh gosh, I'm able to incorporate this great love I have into this performance.”
Lithgow: Are we gonna tell them our secret?
Danner: If you want to… we almost worked together. [John] was supposed to do it [instead of Roy Scheider].
Lithgow: Yeah. This is the first I've worked with Blythe. That's because I turned down the other role in “Betrayal.”
BC: No way.
Lithgow: 40 years ago?
BC: That's amazing.
Lithgow: Something like that. The single worst choice I ever made was between “Betrayal” and another play that flopped in one week. Agony. Except that, as a result, I was free to accept another job that rehearsed three weeks in LA, and that's when I met my wife of 38 years.
BC: So, a little bit of magic.
Lithgow: It was from that that I devised the model that I live by:
When you have a big choice to make as an actor, never worry.
Whatever choice you make, it's sure to be the wrong one.
[This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.]
WHERE’S MY ROY COHN?
At the 2019 Beyond Cinema Studio at the Sundance Film Festival, we sat down for a conversation with Where’s My Roy Cohn director and fellow journalist Matt Tyrnauer (Studio 54; the Oscar-shortlisted Valentino: The Last Emperor).
An origin story, if you will, about how we came to have Donald Trump as the President of these United States, and a look up the food chain from Netflix’s 2017 doc Get Me Roger Stone, Where’s My Roy Cohn is an unbridled, paralyzing portrait of a man who preceded and, perhaps, crafted the careers of Stone and Trump - a man whose life was lived alongside the villainous Joseph McCarthy as that senator persecuted communists and homosexuals during a darker period of this young country’s history.
Beyond Cinema: Whenever we have a filmmaker like yourself to talk to, we try to look at the films that led them to this one – we are fans of Studio 54 and were wondering whether or not this film, the Roy Cohn documentary, was born a little bit out of your work on 54?
Matt: As you know, when you're making an archival doc, you watch hundreds of hours of archival footage and, during the election year of 2016, I was making the Studio 54 film and Roy Cohn was a major player in that story and there happened to be a lot of great archival footage of him cause he was a, as you might say, media whore [who was] all over New York media in the 70s. It was obviously way pre-digital and I'm sitting there watching this saying, “Wow, that is a character."
I knew about Roy Cohn but I didn't realize there was so much of him on film as this pitbull lawyer in the middle of the whole Studio 54 mess. So, thinking to myself, well, no one's done the Roy Cohn doc, obviously Trump's not going to win, so we'll never have to think about Trump again and the only thing that makes Roy Cohn relevant and financible as a film topic is if Trump wins and that's not going to happen. So, that was on my mind, I really was thinking about that and having a kind of whoof, I'm so glad that I won't be making a Roy Cohn movie because no one will ever finance it. Then, on election night, in my misery and mourning for the result, I thought this is the film I should do because it's suddenly massively relevant - the next day I wrote the treatment and we were off.
Beyond Cinema: In almost a strange way, it's like the stand-up comedy mantra that what's good for the world is not good for me, but what's bad for the world is great for my art.
Matt: Well, yeah, that's a good point.
Beyond Cinema: Let's talk about this film from a filmmaking standpoint. What were the challenges that you encountered for this one in particular.
Matt: Well, there are two genres of documentary that I make – one is cinema verite, the other is archival and this is an archival documentary. So, the challenge is just very different in those two forms. This is a sprawling narrative, so that's really where the challenge is. You're condensing the second half of the 20th Century and then bringing it into the 21st, and the subject is politics and society, and sociology, which are not innately sexy to a general audience. So, figuring out what the story is, is always the principal challenge of any film and making a political documentary for a mass audience that doesn't get dumbed down in any way, is the biggest challenge.
This is the most overtly political film I've made and politics is a huge interest of mine and I would argue that all of my films are political, but you would have to be from another planet not to realize that this one was more political.
For this film, I quote two brilliant platitudes. First is the George Santayana quote which is,
“Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it,”
And the second is the Gore Vidal quote,
“We live in the United States of Amnesia.”
This film is meant to be the antidote to that. If you're a filmmaker, you have a really extraordinary platform. Take it from someone who's been a writer for a very internationally known magazine and also the maker of independent film that even the smallest film is an exponentially more powerful platform than anything written. So, there's a huge opportunity for anyone that has the platform and can find distribution for serious documentary film, or any film, to speak up when it's viable to do so and, after the election of 2016, there was only one story I thought that was worth telling and this is it.
Beyond Cinema: We would love for you to talk about how you approach the idea that, as the center of this film, you’re possibly at times creating sympathy for the devil.
Matt: It's all story, really. I learned this from Bob Eisenhardt who was an editor I worked with, he cut my first film, Valentino The Last Emperor. I think he's the grand master of documentary editors and he's a man of few words but, in his work and in my collaborations with him, I've learned the essential I think, which is that story is everything and if it's not serving your story, it must go. So, sympathy for the devil wasn't my mandate here or my desire but what makes your character tick is an essential part of crafting your narrative and, in that, you find glimmers of sympathy for the protagonist. They're not made up, they were essential to the story and to understanding who this person is, where he came from, why he became the person is and what he did.
A lot of that has to do with his upbringing and the person he was, which was a gay man who was born of great privilege and, for whatever reason, used his tremendous intelligence to act in really bad ways throughout his life. I don't know whether you agree or not, but I think most of the sympathy for the devil in this film comes from it being about a guy born in the 1920s to wealthy Jewish parents who, in the parlance of the time, had a problem. No one says that anymore but he had a problem in that he was gay, homosexual. I think a lot of his actions and a lot of his acting out and a lot of his arrested development comes from the really terrifying journey of gay men in the middle 20th Century, though I'm not excusing him by any stretch of the imagination.
Beyond Cinema: And the film doesn't. I want to throw some more current names at you and ask for your comparison to Roy Cohn – people like a Lee Atwater or a Roger Ailes or, maybe more obviously, Steve Bannon.
Matt: Well, part of what this film does is show you the origin of the forces that are shaping the world we live in now. The film, in its parts, argues that Roy Cohn was absolutely essential in the creation of the demagogic right wing takeover of the American government that we are enduring today, and Roger Stone and Lee Atwater are direct products of Roy Cohn. I think Roy Cohn would've been a bold footnote to American history had Trump not won. I think he would have been significant, but I really think he would've been a footnote.
That he was both the Svengali of Joseph McCarthy and the creator of Trump is of tremendous significance to the story of the right-wing political complex that is dominating the political culture narrative right now. So this makes him the modern Machiavelli. Stone is Roy Cohn, Donald Trump is Roy Cohn. They're the same entity really. Lee Atwater had other influences and comes from the southern fascist wing of transactional politics that Cohn wasn't directly involved in, but that isn't a part of the coalition that Cohn was an integral part of.
Beyond Cinema: See, it's interesting because I would not characterize a Donald Trump as Cohn as much as a McCarthy, because, as I was watching it, I was thinking to myself “Is Stephen Miller the next gen Roy Cohn?”
Matt: Yeah, he might be. I don't know enough about really what's being talked about in the White House right now but, you know, the film premiered two days ago, I've talked to some journalists here, and some people that are really day-to-day in the swim of political reporting, and Stephen Miller's name comes up a lot and he might be, but I don't think there'll ever be anyone that quite has the full spectrum of Roy Cohn's power base. I think the world's changed too much. Trump essentially swallowed Cohn's methods and philosophy whole, and the difference between them is that Cohn never was viable as a front man of a political candidate or an elected official because he had been discredited in his McCarthy period.
He certainly intended to run for office, and Trump, through an accident of history, becomes the most important politician of our time using Cohn's methods. So I see Cohn as… almost like a virus who infects empty vessels and supercharges them – and we can get into all the science fiction rhetoric here, it's almost like Ridley Scott “Aliens” territory - and Cohn did it with McCarthy and then the really, almost surreal fact is that he did it again a couple generations after McCarthy in the 70s and 80s with Trump as his apprentice, and Cohn dies in 1986 and a couple generations later this [presidency] emerges and it's directly traceable to the dark genius of Roy Cohn.
Beyond Cinema: I want to read something from your director's statement.
Matt: Uh-huh (affirmative)
"My hope is to help light the fires of cultural recognition. The film is intended to elucidate, educate and motivate people worldwide to act now and to reject the darkest impulses of the American psyche before they overwhelm us.”
Beyond Cinema: Do you have a fear at all that we've already gone past that moment for self-correction?
Matt: I think we're very close to the precipice. Most democracies have not made it very far past the 200-year mark, that's why I made the film. If you go and look at the very famous literature on the Third Reich, you can see that things can degenerate very quickly and the warning signs are all there. There was a book written last year called “How Democracies Die,” that, I think, lays this out very clearly.
I think things can fall apart in a million different ways, some of which we probably can't even perceive. All through the 20th century there were tripwires that no one recognized because people hadn't shaken off the 19th century… that's how World War I begins and the resolution of World War I lead directly to World War II only 20 years later. So, now, there are all sorts of tripwires that we haven't recognized yet and I think part of that can be attributed to Trump's rise because we're all drinking from a fire hose of information now and we can't see the forest from the trees and I think these [tripwires] exacerbate the dangerous inflection points of the times we live in.
So it's a really, really dangerous period but I think it's important - and this is really where documentary film comes in - since we are drinking from a fire hose of a 24-hour news cycle, and it's on our phones, in our hands and sometimes the phone's in bed with you – so, I mean, you're literally in bed with the news cycle. It's a very different thing but documentary film allows you to sit down for an hour, for 90-minutes, and really take a bit of a step back and get a greater perspective - I hope this film fulfills that.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]