Matthew Lickona 3 p.m., Sept. 30
Interview with Still Mine star James Cromwell
Still Mine tells the story of Craig Morrison, an independent-minded old man who bumps up against the system when he sets out to build a single-story home on his property. (Craig's wife Irene has begun to suffer from dementia, and their two-story farmhouse is becoming too much for her.) Actor James Cromwell, who delivers a sterling performance as Morrison in this lovely, meditative film, gave me a hoot of an interview - deliberate, precise, and occasionally impassioned. As he noted when we spoke, he does tend to go on. But he doesn't ramble.
Matthew Lickona: Tell me what appealed to you about this project.
James Cromwell: The story is not unique, but it is impeccable, it is real, deeply felt, accurate, and important. Dementia is sort of the 900-pound gorilla in the room. It's amazing to think of Amour, this incredibly dark and in some ways discouraging picture that ends as badly as it does - you wouldn't think an audience would be attracted to it. But people were extraordinarily moved by it. Our film is the lighter side of it - not that Irene doesn't slip into dementia, but Craig doesn't go through the agony and angst that the character in Amour did. I think it's very special.
I also think it's special given what's happening in the country politically, vis a vis Mr. Snowden and Bradley Manning. This idea that we no longer have a private life, that we are all exposed to some entity whose provenance, goals, and intentions are unknown to us, and to which we somehow have to sort of submit. "Oh, that's the way it is. If they want to do it, why not? What difference does it make?" I don't choose to live in that kind of country or that kind of world. I admire people who stand up and say, "Enough." I think that's what Craig does in his life - in a very small and individual and non-political way. He says, "Enough is enough."
ML: I wanted to ask about that. It seems to me that some of Craig's narrative arc consists in his humbling himself, losing a little bit of that Yankee individualism. The film shows him opening up, coming to rely more on his children. He has to admit his own failings. He realizes he has limits.
JC: Who is this you're talking about?
ML: Your character, Craig.
ML: Yes. He won't talk to his kids until after he drags Irene...
JC: No, no, no. Sorry. I understand that's your interpretation, and that's fine. But that wasn't what I saw. He's perfectly willing to talk to his kids. But they come and they have another idea about what's right for him to do. I understand that they're concerned. But my daughter's idea is based on her own fear and insecurity, and her inability to come to terms wit this issue. She wants to put her mother in an institution. She feels her mother will be safer and better taken care of there. And that she knows better than me about how this is supposed to go. Well, I disagree. Craig disagreed. And when she finally says, "I think you did a nice job" at the end of the picture, he's surprised. This is the first compliment she's given about his capacity. You know, you get that with your kids. They don't think you know crap. Your opinions don't count very much.
Craig certainly didn't bow down to authority, either. He's taken to court. They're going to bulldoze his house. But he says, "Look, whatever happens, when my wife gets out of the hospital, she's going to have a home to go to." I believe he is not humbled. He perseveres, and it is not easy. That's the story I tried to tell.
ML: Hm. I felt like there were bits along the way, like when he apologizes to the building inspector. Or when he tries to comply with the building department's demands - getting somebody to come out and stamp the lumber, for instance.
JC: No. They never stamp the lumber. When he goes to the building commission, he says that they had an expert out and the expert checked the lumber and the lumber is fine, but the lumber is not stamped. The lady tells him, "You are still in violation of 42 regulations," and one of those is that the lumber is not stamped.
You get to a certain age. My father and I took the crosstown bus at 50th Street, and somebody shoved my father on the bus. My father was probably 85, and this young guy shoved my father. And my father turned around and took a swing at him. Nobody else noticed, but I saw it. I said, "Jesus, Dad, are you out of your mind? In New York City, you're taking a swing at some..." But there's a certain point. You try to be appropriate, you try to be civil, you try not to make too many demands, to be the good boy. And there comes a certain point.
In the film, they say, "You've got to have architectural plans." Craig says, "Why? I don't need architectural plans. I know what it looks like in my head." They say, "I'm sorry, sir, that's the regulation." He says, "Okay, all right, sorry. I'll do my best to get the plans." He makes the gesture. But what happens with authority is this: when authority gets any kind of power, they overreach, because there's never enough power. Which is what we're seeing today in our government. It happens everywhere. And there's a certain point.
You try to go along, because you know those regulations were put into effect for a reason. Because there are unscrupulous people who cut corners and who deceive the unknowing and the unwary. So government feels responsible to protect those people, and now we have to frame our houses with one stud every 16 inches. But you don't need one stud every 16 inches. We'll cut down every tree in America if we keep building houses like this. But now there's a regulation. And if you try to come up with new things - if you want to use pressed refuse as your wall supports - the regulations say you can't do that. Well, that's not right.
ML: Sounds like a dream part for you.
JC: To be totally honest, when I first read the script, I sort of missed the point of it. I read it very badly, and I made wretched suggestions to the director (Michael McGowan) as to the arc of the character.
ML: Can you be specific?
JC: The rhythm is very different from the ordinary American picture. It's very measured, very slow. There's a lot of silence. There are a lot of looks. When you read a script, and you're used to going from one act of violence to another, one car chase to another, one explosion to another, and when you're waiting for the arrival of the superhero or the werewolf or the dinosaur or the alien, you can get into what I used to call television acting. I called it that because network television has an arbitrary form: it has a crisis every twelve minutes, so that it can get the audience from one commercial to another commercial. But that has nothing to do with the way life works. So the actors, in order to fit into this artificial form, tend to overdo it some and play it [drops voice] very seriously.
When I read the script, I didn't calm down, I didn't breathe, I didn't go back and look at it again. I didn't find the implications in what it means to be in the presence of somebody who is losing their life in front of your eyes, and how that might feel. I was a smartass and I made smartass remarks. And Michael said, "Sure," because I am very compelling. But when I went back and read it again, I realized that the suggestions were all wrong. I also saw what the story could mean if it was told properly and if I acted it well.
ML: I like that notion of calming down and breathing and taking a second look.
JC: There's a picture by Werner Herzog called Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and in it, there's an examination of these prehistoric wall paintings. Herzog puts the camera on these paintings for a looong time, and there's a reason he does that. He's asking you to surrender your quick and glib judgment, and he's asking you to contemplate what was in the mind of this prehistoric human being working by candlelight with a piece of charcoal at the end of a stick, drawing these sublime figures. Not because he wanted somebody else to say, "Oh, look - a bison!" He was trying to say something about his relationship to the world, and these creatures, and what they meant. That's the beauty and the magic and the mystery and the miracle of life. Of course, we think, "It's a movie!" so we get impatient. That's what I did initially with the script.
ML: I don't know if this is an indelicate question, but could you talk about the experience of acting in a film that focuses so much on decay and the drawing near of death?
JC: That's not an indelicate question; that is the question. Well, it's pretty odd, man. This life ends. You want to get through it without regrets, but all of us have wasted great hunks of something that may not come around again. When you get to my age, you start to think, "Wow, man - just slow down and smell the roses. Look for the gesture. Look for kindness." I can't express my anger violently any more; I'm not physically capable of it. Now, I have to listen to the other person. I have to empathize. I have to adjust. I have to breathe. Every breath now is precious. Every breath is always precious. I look at it now and say, "Wow. Get your house in order, do the best you can, enjoy it while it lasts, and be prepared."
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