James Toback and Roman Polanski in "Seduced and Abandoned."
James Toback and Roman Polanski in "Seduced and Abandoned."

In May 2012, James Toback descended on Cannes with cohort Alec Baldwin to shoot in ten days the documentary "Seduced and Abandoned" (HBO, October 28). This May, writer-director Toback ("Tyson," "The Pickup Artist") returned to Cannes to screen the film and discuss it with interested parties. Of which I am most definitely one, having thoroughly relished his supremely entertaining and frequently illuminating portrait of the sorry state of the film business today. 

If "Seduced and Abandoned" meanders and strays off course throughout, it matters not a jot because Toback and Baldwin form a magnificent double act, and the talent they’ve rounded up to spout off includes Bertolucci, Scorsese, Polanski, Coppola, Chastain and Gosling.

They all prove willing accomplices for Baldwin and Toback’s canny probing, yielding endlessly fascinating nuggets about the industry and their own careers. The nuts and bolts of the doc, though, are Baldwin and Toback’s efforts to raise the financing for a fictional (we think) sex romp to be headlined by the "30 Rock" star and Neve Campbell, set in Iraq and titled "Last Tango In Tikrit," which allows producers, financiers and studio men, including Ron Meyer and Jeffrey Katzenberg, to reveal the realities of modern-day filmmaking (“I love Neve/Alec but…”).

Surprisingly, given its Cannes setting, the press screening was sparsely attended, but "Seduced and Abandoned" has been greeted with positive critical reaction (Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian labelled it “a guilty-pleasure romp of a documentary”). And Toback is a renowned talker, so I was looking forward to a motormouth encounter when I met him in his Carlton hotel room, where he was packing in readiness to leave the festival. His young son was still trying to sleep in the bed, prompting right off the bat a salacious story about George Cukor…

James Toback: I was working with George Cukor for a year at his house on my Victoria Woodhull script [American suffragette and free-love advocate], which is the one great unfinished movie of my life, and George was grilling me every morning on the erotic details of the night before. He never would divulge anything about his own obviously quite lurid life and one morning I got there early and coming out of the bedroom was a boy – probably younger than [my son] Andre, about 11 or 12 – in a bathrobe. I looked at the boy and Cukor’s mouth was twitching, he didn’t know what to say. Then he said, “This is my gardener’s nephew,” as if that somehow made it less incriminating. Throughout the entire day, he punctuated our conversation with, “Now, the gardener’s coming tomorrow and he always brings his nephew,” trying to make this association innocent. I finally said to him, “George, you’re talking to me! I’m not judgmental!” “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Matt Mueller: Are you pleased with "Seduced and Abandoned"’s reception in Cannes?

Toback: It does seem to be going down well. We shot exactly a year ago without worrying about the fact that we didn’t have a clear idea of the movie. We were just shooting everything that interested us and we had certain themes that we were exploring and an array of different people that we wanted to talk to. When you have a script, you think you know exactly what you’re doing but we didn’t even have an outline.

How did you hook up with Alec Baldwin for this project?

We had hit it off when we met on the set of "Alice" years before. I was in a scene with him, a scene that I rewrote. I said to Woody [Allen], “Do you mind if I rewrite a couple of my scenes?” He said, “No, no, not at all.” So I did and the scenes I rewrote got cut out of the movie. Alec and I had a rapport, then we met again at the East Hampton Film Festival and we both felt, "Let’s get our relationship going again; let’s not blow it this time."

So over the next six or seven months, we met between 50 and 60 times, usually at the Harvard Club or the Grand Havana Room, which is his hangout as a cigar degenerate. It became clear that not only did we want to do a movie together but he wanted to do a movie about where film is today. Because obviously it’s in a crisis state right now, and everybody in the movie agrees with that. In fact, Tom Bernard said to me a couple of years ago, “Nobody knows anymore. Everybody’s kind of floundering around wondering what to do.” To do serious movies is a fluke now. I said to Alec, “Great, let’s do it,” and I suggested Cannes as the physical backdrop because all of international cinema is here during the festival.

Was it difficult raising the money?

We had to shoot last May, otherwise we weren’t going to be able to do it. It wasn’t as if the dates were going to move. I found it fortunately. There’s a guy Alan Helene who is one of the three financiers and he happened to know my movies pretty much by heart, which unfortunately not many people do. Or even not by heart. He corralled two others and we had enough to get here and do it. That all happened in the two months leading up to shooting. Then we took 10 months to edit it, which is a luxury on any movie.

Was it difficult shaping the film?

We were floundering for quite a while. The only thread was that we were trying to get money for another movie but that was clearly not enough, and what were we going to do with all these conversations with all these people that had nothing to do with that? It only fell into place by a combination of instinct and luck, and it was only the last month that I felt the movie was there. If I’d had to stop a month earlier, it would have been 60 percent of what it is now. The last two weeks was really quite remarkable. Editing is mysterious, the way writing is – it just all of a sudden takes over and you’re following it instead of leading it.