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Like some thrill-seeking thing


Ryan Phillippe has the new Wyclef cd on the coffee table in his hotel room. He likes the album, especially the Mary J. Blige track, but thinks the Kenny Rogers is a little silly. I like him already. Though he’s been on the road for days, talking to too many people about his new movie, The Way of the Gun, Phillippe says he volunteered for the job because he “believes in it.” Looking sharp in his tight black designer T-shirt, he leans back into the sofa, plainly a very nice person, and quite unlike his character, Parker, who, with his partner Longbaugh (played brilliantly by Benicio del Toro), kidnaps a very pregnant surrogate mother (Juliette Lewis), hoping to extract millions from the gangster/tycoon who’s paying her to carry the child. All are soon entangled in a ferocious and violent struggle for power, money, and some kind of respect.



Cynthia Fuchs:

You’re picking some offbeat projects (Cruel Intentions, 54), but it probably would be easy for you to go the Freddie Prinze Jr. route, into romantic teen comedies.



Ryan Phillippe:

Sure, I’m offered that stuff, and they offer a lot of money too, but I don’t even think twice about it.



CF:

Why is that?



RP:

Because I don’t want to see it. There was a time — before I made movies — when I was more forgiving, but now that I’ve learned as much as I have, I want to do movies that I want to see, that have their own unique flavor. The idea of doing something that you’ve seen a thousand times before doesn’t appeal to me. Granted, there are times when, for business reasons, you do something that’s more mainstream. But even then, I try to find something that has a dark or subversive aspect. I’m drawn to things that make me feel like I’m taking a risk, that scare me, or make me worry about the way that my mom’s going to react. It’s like some thrill-seeking thing.



CF:

You could say that the neo-violent, indie-guy genre that Way of the Gun appears to fit — superficially anyway — is not so subversive anymore.



RP:

To me there’s a distinct difference between this movie and those that clearly fit the genre. I can understand the aesthetic similarities, but I think Chris’s dialogue is better, personally. Tarantino’s movies, I really enjoy, certainly, and when I was 19 and 20, I was really into them. But I think Chris has more of a message, not so much glorification. It’s pretty raw and challenging, sometimes uncomfortably so. Chris doesn’t insult the intelligence of the audience. To me, this movie is more like a modern Western, like Peckinpah. Chris calls it a Western with cell phones. We don’t do any of the double-fisted gun moves, we stayed away from all the BS that looks cool; we wanted it to look like surveillance footage rather than some of those movies that tend to get masturbatory, just in coolness.



CF:

What are some of the thematic differences you see?



RP:

Tarantino’s stuff in its inception was all about finding a way for him to break into Hollywood. This movie, to me, is very anti-Hollywood and un-PC. None of the characters are dressed really snappy, nobody has perfectly done hair and makeup. There’s a glossiness in those movies that I didn’t see in them then, but do see now. They were entertaining but somehow superficial. It’s not that this movie is a cinematic revelation, but I know it was born out of Chris’s frustration with this business, and the fact that he was pigeonholed and studios only wanted to hire him if he could give them the Disney version of *Usual Suspects*. Knowing that he was writing it as a kind of resignation and also defiance to a fate, it has a distinctly different theme.



CF:

Some viewers won’t like it because it’s raw and offensive.



RP:

Yeah, I think you have to be attracted to this kind of tone to enjoy it on every level. But it has moments throughout, and performances — particularly Benicio del Toro’s — that I think are eminently worth watching. It’s got a really diverse cast and has a lot of forward-thinking ideas about contract fertility and some racial underpinnings. It’s an honesty thing. You should in no way emulate these guys, but at the same time, everybody’s heard the comments they make, or has experience with these stifled ideas about the world, about gays, or whatever. Benicio’s character has no development: he’s like a child. So many studio movies beg you to love the lead character instantly. This one lets you make up your own mind.



CF:

That calls up the current concern about pop culture icons expressing rage and frustration and a sense of victimization, without a moral resolution. Here Parker, at least, through his voice over, spells out his anger and his philosophy.



RP:

Right. Parker and Longbaugh have a history, a reason why they are the way they are. Benicio and I, we never call each other by name, but these names, Parker and Longbaugh — they’re taken from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, their real names — indicate the friendship, and we have an unspoken connection, a shorthand.



CF:

Along with the Western theme, there’s a noir angle, in the voice over and Parker and Longbaugh’s hard attitudes.



RP:

Yes, and in the movie’s pace too. There’s not a lot of fast cuts or fancy camerawork. It’s told mostly from a distance. It’s unique to our time period, but not original, because the film has clear influences. I’d like to see more of this kind of visual and tonal change in movies.



CF:

Were you able to bring some of that desire to this set? Was Chris open to your ideas?



RP:

He was. And that’s unusual with a writer-director, because they’re usually so married to every bit of punctuation. Chris is really unselfish that way, and understands film as a collaborative process, that cannot be one man’s vision. At the same time, Chris was directing his first film, I’d been in nine, Benicio in ten or twelve, Juliette [has experience], and of course, James Caan. So Chris did wisely defer to some of our experience, but I think that makes a great filmmaker. Benicio in particular spent time with him developing the story.



CF:

Do you think the “way of the gun” — as an basic concept — challenges conventions of masculinity, maybe through the variations on “male buddy” team?



RP:

The guys are all pretty well defined [by each other]. I think that mine and Benicio’s is the purest bond, though Sarno and Abner have something really great. Taye Diggs and Nicky Katt, they’re together just out of circumstances, though they develop into a kind of husband-wife relationship. You know, even though we don’t have that many scenes together — they are broken down into pairs — we spent so much time on the set together that it felt like more of an ensemble piece. I feel like I really worked a lot with Jimmy Caan, but we only had one scene together.



CF:

Do you look for movies where you’re not the only star?



RP:

It’s way too much pressure. And usually star vehicles are sub-par quality, because they’re “insert actor” projects. I learn so much more in an ensemble movie. I really respond to diversity, a broader landscape, with actors of different ages and races and backgrounds.



CF:

I know that you’re doing some producing.



RP:

Yes, with a company called Intermedia. I’ve got about five projects in development, one based on a novel I optioned, White Boy Shuffle, and another on a news story. It’s so much more fulfilling. A film goes through so many hands, that by the time it’s done, it might not resemble what you thought you were making. To be more involved and more aware is appealing to me. There are a lot of good stories out there, but I haven’t found too many great scripts. I want to be able to effect some sort of change in the business, by being a more decent producer, making more positively-themed movies.



CF:

It sounds like you’re going to be a very hands-on producer.



RP:

Yes, I’m not doing it to make money, I’m doing it to make interesting films. A lot of producers cookie cut movies one after another, but I’ll be a little more careful, and have the opportunity to be, because I have the acting career to subsidize the producing.



CF:

When you say you want to make “positively-themed” movies, you don’t mean “happy” or conventionally moralistic.



RP:

No. But at the same time, I think there are some messages: Way of the Gun is anti-gun in a lot of ways. But in a broader sense, when I have more control, I want to expose people to new ideas. I know that when I grew up I was pretty sheltered, and didn’t come to understand much about the world until I was in my really late teens and early twenties, and that process continues. I want to make movies that people talk about when they leave the theater, that aren’t clear-cut, but effective and fulfilling in some sense. And I’ve seen a lot of women get passed over for jobs in this business, and so the person I hired to write White Boy Shuffle is a black woman, Elizabeth Hunter. I want to be able to give people opportunities that they don’t usually get. Being able to do those sorts of things is important to me. I happened to be born in such a way that I don’t face those prejudices, but I should use what comes easier to me because of that, to help. And I want to, in a non-preachy sense, enlighten people. There are ways to do it. Look at music: I’ve always loved hiphop and rap, and now there’s this whole progressive movement, with De La Soul and Mos Def, Common. It’s some of the best stuff around.



CF:

Hip-hop is a good example of a movement — and industry — that continues to adapt and expand.



RP:

And that’s something we’re going to see more of. People are afraid of the new technologies, [like] the Internet, but it’s going to create a more free market for ideas. If people have more choices and start to spend money on things that mean a little bit more, the market might change. The internet allows for that: it’s not about being told what you should like. Kids’ll have a chance to hear musicians they haven’t heard before and short films will have venues.



CF:

Do you worry about industry categories, like “black films” or “white films”?



RP:

That’s one of the things I’d like to help change. To me, White Boy Shuffle is sort of like Catcher in the Rye, the story is so universal. The point is to expand the scope of what a movie can possibly mean or be, to get people involved because they’re artistic or understand the point of the material, not just because they fit a certain bill aesthetically.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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