A Minute With: John Malkovich

“The Dancer Upstairs” marks John Malkovich’s ‘official’ debut as a feature film Director, but is far from his first effort driving theatrical vision. Malkovich is a two-time Academy Award nominee (“In the Line of Fire” and “Places in the Heart”), a veteran stage director and one of the founders of Chicago’s highly regarded Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

More recently, Director Spike Jonze’s bizarre comedy “Being John Malkovich” gave him the distinction (a dubious one by his own account) of being the only actor to have his name both in and above a film title.

During his recent visit to Boston for a series of press screenings, Mr. Malkovich was kind enough to share his time with the Harbus, offering insights into the new film, his personal philosophy, and a career now (officially) credited on both sides of the camera.

“The Dancer Upstairs” is set in a Latin American country that remains anonymous as it is wrung through the intensifying chaos of an undeclared revolution. Based on the novel of the same title by Nicholas Shakespeare, the story is a fictionalization of the rise of Peruvian revolutionary Abimael Guzman, leader of the Sendero Luminoso (“The Shining Path”) movement of 1980-1992.

Through the police work and private life of Detective Agustine Rejas, the film uses gritty, character-driven scenes to point out the shared, and apparently inevitable, corruptions of the sitting government and its attackers. The film centers on Rejas’ pursuit of revolutionary leader Ezequiel, the self-appointed fourth flame of communism following Lenin, Marx, and Mao, who channels the disillusionment of the country’s masses into highly produced acts of violence against the state.

As a former bourgeois lawyer turned cop, Rejas finds solace in work that barely makes ends meet but keeps his self-respect intact. Over a six year span, he tracks the revolution as it builds from isolated, rural attacks to a culmination in nightly blackouts and marshal law in the sprawling capital city. Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of this film is that within the encroaching chaos, episodes of day-to-day life go on: in Rejas’ love for his daughter, his comfortable detachment from his wife, and a reawakening he finds in his daughter’s ballet teacher, Yolanda.

However, as he corners the elusive Ezequiel, Rejas’ private life meets the same idealistic contradictions of the political face-off around him, shattering his attempts to find truth and consistency in individuals and family.

Malkovich’s pursuit of this story began as early as 1988 when he read an article by Nicholas Shakespeare entitled “Searching for Guzman”. After years developing the script with Shakespeare, and securing financiers who supported his vision for a faithful Latin American production, his vision has finally been realized. After the screening of the film, I had the chance to sit with Mr. Malkovich and ask some questions about the project.

Is there anything about this story that drew you to it as a Director as opposed to an Actor?

I started directing at the same time I started acting, so I don’t really look at a piece [purely] as an actor. I look at the whole thing anyway. I didn’t really look at this project initially as a director, or an actor, I looked at it as a producer. I’m part of a production company [Mr. Mudd Productions] with two other partners, and we’re always looking for things to produce.

If a project turns out to be something for me to direct or act in somewhere down the road, once the script is finished, then that may happen, although rarely does. This was an instance where after a year of working on the script it seemed to be everyone’s opinion that it was just better if I directed it myself, that it was just less trouble. That’s really how that came about.

Can you talk a bit about the construction of the film, about the editorial decisions you made to translate the novel into film?

The first real editorial decision was that the book has an as-told-to form where the police captain Rejas recounts his stories, his reflections and information about the story to an English journalist. So the first decision we had to make concerned the structure the story should take. How do we tell the story? Is it a linear story, does it have flashbacks, or do we just have two people talking in a restaurant? We chose a more classical form, a fairly linear story. Times had to be changed; times had to be telescoped. It couldn’t take place over 12 years really [like the novel], [we felt] it needed to take place over 6 or 7. I don’t really care for flashbacks, it’s not a form that pleases me. So we worked toward and arrived at the more linear approach we ended up with.

Everything is an editorial and structural decision in storytelling. What is so objectionable about so many films is that everything isn’t a decision- nothing has been decided at all. Every scene I decided to keep I think reflects on certain things about a character’s behavior, about the country the story takes place in. Every scene addresses structure and addresses storytelling because it reveals character.

What this film does, which almost no films do, is include a few scenes with secondary characters that are uncut. I felt that was important because they make us care more about the people we’re watching, and their goals, and what they’re up against, and so we care about what happens. Of course, in a regular film, you’d also never see this person [Detective Rejas] washing the dishes, it would be idiotic. Because he’d have a big, big gun, or he’d get a bigger, bigger gun, and he’d be very obsessed; and he wouldn’t have a family, and if he had a family he would have left them because he had a nagging wife or, actually, they would have left him because he wouldn’t remember his daughter’s birthdays. The nausea of that particular brand of short cuts and inanities is that the world isn’t like that. No matter what people do, they go on with their lives.

And what about Rejas’ relationship to his family? There seems to be a great deal of distance, but little explanation why.

To that I’d say that there are a lot of cuts [in the film] unfortunately. So, primarily it’s because I had a contract to deliver a two-hour film, but it’s also because I found that making it fuller in that aspect didn’t add to what the story was. There is distance between he and his wife. There’s also a certain comfort and a certain sense of being used to someone and a having a certain amusement with someone, but it is a sort of detached one. Since I think half the people who get married in this country get divorced, or no longer feel a requisite attachment to their spouse after a period of years, it’s not as if that would be inaccurate. People move on, they change, and often the relationships are not capable of changing with them.

Why did you choose to focus on the personal stories without much attention to the details of the political backdrop-you never explicitly address themes of corruption or the growth of the revolutionary movement that surrounds the characters.

Well, I think that’s really more the realm of non-fiction. What happened in Peru, there are plenty of books about it. Why Sendero [Luminoso] was founded, there are plenty of books about its aims and the cult of personality surrounding Guzman. That decision also reflects my belief that politics are completely personal. It’s one of the most personal things there is; in fact there is very little that is political about politics. My point is that there is some enormous, fairly worldwide confusion about what is political and what is personal. Politics surely must be a reflection of personal experiences, personal emotions, the life you have personally led.

One of the most interesting scenes is where Rejas points out the lack of any stated manifesto by the revolutionary movement. In that moment, he seems to pinpoint the real fear of Eziquel’s terror: it having no declared purpose. And in this same moment, he implicitly r
eveals that the government seems to lack any explainable cause as well.

The manifesto, it doesn’t really matter-this is what happened. When I was making this film, and ETA blew up the building 30 meters away from my hotel room, and I felt the blowblack in my room, I didn’t really care what their manifesto was. What difference does it make why people massacre people unrelated to their cause? We know why they do it-to get publicity, to induce fear, to terrorize people into accepting their goal, and to invite repression. There are many tactical reasons why, but it does little good for people on the ground.

And I think Rejas takes this job [of finding Ezequiel] for a very modern reason-because he is asked to. He doesn’t even know what the mission is. There isn’t one, there isn’t a manifesto, its his job. When I was your age we started a theatre company [the Steppenwolf theatre in Chicago], and we kept talking about writing a manifesto. We still have the theatre so many years later, but we don’t have a manifesto.