Filmmaker James Toback is the éminence grise of shooting the shit and telling a good yarn. The raconteur of raconteurs, you can ask him about the sincerity in his upcoming HBO documen—err, film, “Seduced & Abandoned,” and he’ll somehow end up on a hilarious (and off-color) tangent about Robert Downey Jr. in “Two Girls and a Guy” (the 1997 Toback film, famous for its RDJ-eating-Heather-Graham’s butt scene). James Toback, the director of “Fingers” (1978), “Black and White” (1999) and the documentary “Tyson” (2008), loves to talk.
His HBO doc/film, “Seduced & Abandoned” hit the cable channel this week after premiering earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival (our review). It’s funny, entertaining and insightful portrait about the movie industry that could jokingly be subtitled (in the spirit of Toback’s always-blue, often sardonic and self-deprecating humor), “Whose d*ck do you need to suck here to get a movie made?” The picture stars Toback and friend Alec Baldwin and chronicles their efforts to make “Last Tango In Tikrit,” an erotic drama set against the backdrop of the Iraq War (Neve Campbell who starred in Toback’s “When Will I Be Loved” would have been the would-be female lead). So they travel to Cannes, try and get funding and watch just how hard it is to get a movie made. The Playlist recently had the chance to speak with Toback (the full interview soon) and while he says, ‘Tikrit’ won’t be next, he does have several projects percolating.
One of them is a remake of “The Gambler,” the 1974 drama, directed by Karel Reisz that starred James Caan and Lauren Hutton. Written at the age of 30, it was his first professionally published screenplay, and Toback cried foul when it was announced Martin Scorsese was directing the remake in 2011 (he’s since come and gone and currently Rupert Wyatt is attached to direct with Mark Wahlberg and Brie Larson to star). No one had contacted him at the time about it; Paramount just gave the picture a development green light. But the reason Toback was so upset was because “The Gambler” is very autobiographical and personal, based on his own experiences as a creative writing teacher at the City College of New York (yes, he had a gambling problem, yes, he borrowed money from a student).
So part of the impetus to interview Martin Scorsese for “Seduced & Abandoned” (this was a few Cannes ago) was to get him to talk about “The Gambler” problem (as well as the state of making movies today, which is what a lot of the doc is about). “I felt that it would have been the expected thing given that I wrote it from my own life, with my own family as characters based on me,” Toback said of someone giving him a head’s up about the remake.
Toback says his public grievances with the project weren’t intended for anything more than airing his problems with what he felt was a déclassé move on the part of the producers and studio, but it's now resulted with him as an executive producer on the film. “Listen if they'd come to me and said, ‘Do you want to rewrite it, do you want to do your own ‘Gambler’ now?’ I actually would have said yes,” he admitted. “Only I probably would have done it as a sequel rather than a remake. I mean you could do either but I think they’re vibrant interesting characters.”
It’s an intriguing possibility. Where would a guy morally compromised in his 30s to the degree that he alienates friends and family for life be in his 50s? But of this specific iteration, Toback seems hopeful. “Wahlberg is constantly growing as an actor,” he said, giving specific plaudits to “Ted,” “The Fighter” and “Pain & Gain” actor. “I think he's always been good but I have been really impressed the last few times I've seen him in. I thought that he was terrific in this movie he did with the Rock that Michael Bay directed. He's got a combination of humor and serious now that very few actors get.”
So what’s next for Toback? Another HBO movie built in the image of his down and dirty pictures made in the ‘90s with simple settings and low budgets. “It's an original story—essentially something that [HBO producers] thought I could exploit from my own life which I’d been doing,” he said without revealing too much. But there’s also a lo-fi project that could come first. “There's something else that I want to do very quickly before that along the lines of ‘Two Girls and A Guy’ which I might just be able to do, like shoot for ten days in three weeks,” he said.
But not so far down the horizon is a long gestating movie about Victoria Woodhull—leader of the woman's suffrage movement in the 1870s—which he may finally make. Some 35 years in the making, Toback said the picture which he wrote was almost made in 1978 with director George Cukor along with Faye Dunaway and Cary Grant to star (talk about great ones that got away).
“Now I'm going to have a chance to make that movie,” he said excitedly. “It's the only script I've written that hasn't been made and it's my best script and finally I think it's going to get done. Then it would be time for me to pack it in and that's it, I’ve had a great life. Bring on the people I need to kill before I die, do that in a three day period and then that’s it.”
“Seduced & Abandoned” is on HBO and HBO Go now. More from this interview soon.