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James Toback Talks HBO Cannes Doc 'Seduced and Abandoned,' Entertaining Double Act with Alec Baldwin

Photo of Matt Mueller By Matt Mueller | Thompson on Hollywood October 20, 2013 at 2:36PM

Last May, James Toback descended on Cannes with cohort Alec Baldwin to shoot in ten days the documentary "Seduced and Abandoned" (HBO, October 28). This May, Toback 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.

Alec Baldwin, James Toback and Thierry Fremaux in 'Seduced and Abandoned'
Alec Baldwin, James Toback and Thierry Fremaux in 'Seduced and Abandoned'
What was the breakthough?

I proposed an idea that tied certain things together visually, went out for a couple of hours while my editor did them – I’m a Luddite; my son was sharper than I was when he was three – and when I came back I said to him, “How do you think it worked?” He said, “Very well,” which for him – he’s very understated – is like saying, “It’s the greatest leap forward in human history.” Like with Alec in the movie, he balances my exuberance with a restrained enthusiasm. It’s like Coppola says in the movie about putting two pieces of film together and we show that great cut from "2001": it sometimes has an effect exponentially more significant than it would seem to if you just described what you did factually. 

The names you’ve rounded up are illustrious. Was it difficult getting the likes of Scorsese, Polanski and Bertolucci to sit down for you?

No! Most shocking to me was that everyone we approached wanted to be in the movie. With Ryan Gosling, who I think is sensational in the film, it took about 20 minutes for him to relax because neither of us really knew him before. Everybody else, it was like two seconds: it’s as if they’d all been waiting their entire lives to have a chance to unburden themselves. And some of them say subtly startling things.

What were the most startling revelations for you?

Very few people have picked up on this but it’s something Ron Meyer says. In the moments of grandiosity and pomposity which dominate most of their conversation, the executives of Hollywood would never actually admit this but the assumption always is what Eisner said to Beatty, Diller and me in 1978 during a meeting at Paramount: a good movie is a movie that makes money; a bad movie is a movie that loses money. Period. Ron Meyer admits and even assumes that there’s such a thing as a good movie that will so-called flop, and a bad movie that will make a lot of money, but he at least maintains that distinction, which is a risky thing to do. But he covers himself by saying that if he loves a movie and everybody else at the studio hates it, they don’t make the movie. In the old days, even 20 years ago, executives bragged about having a greenlight power that basically meant, "I can do whatever the fuck I want and it’s your job to agree with me." I say to him in the film,"Isn’t that detrimental to any kind of potential artistry or art in film?" And in a way he agrees by citing his own different experience as an agent when he could go in and get a movie done in one conversation with Tom Pollock. Now he says there’s nowhere you can do that, and I would assume he’s right.

A sad state of affairs…?

Absolutely. Even John Calley, who was the most advanced guy in every way as far as I was concerned, wanted to do a Miles Davis movie when he was running Sony and he asked me if I wanted to do it. I said, "Yeah, I knew Miles, I think that’d be great." Three days later, he said, “We’ve got to shelve that; I can’t get any support for it here.” I said, “What do you mean you can’t get any support? Tell them to go fuck themselves. You run the fucking company.” He said, “Jim, it just doesn’t happen that way anymore.” It was his idea and his passion and he hired everybody there, Amy Pascal, that whole group, and yet he understood at that time, around 2003, that it was all corporate and compartmentalized. No more megalomania.

This article is related to: Interviews, Cannes Film Festival, James Toback, Seduced and Abandoned, Festivals, HBO , HBO, Documentary, Interviews

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.