Philip Seymour Hoffman and Todd Louiso met over ten years ago, when both were acting in Scent of a Woman. Since then, they have become friends, lived together for a year and a half, and worked together on a short film, The Fifteen Minute Hamlet (1995), Louiso directing, Hoffman acting. Then came the big challenge: For his feature directorial debut, Louiso directed Hoffman in the starring role of Love Liza, a film written by Hoffman’s brother, Gordy. Dream scenario? Or a nightmare in which two people who used to love and respect each other bicker and fight, with director-friend bossing actor-friend around twenty-four days, at the end of which they’re no longer on speaking terms?
“Phil and I were taking a chance working together,” Louiso says, sitting next to Hoffman on a cozy couch at the Hamptons Film Festival. “But I didn’t have a hard time telling him what I wanted, and he didn’t have a hard time telling me what he wanted. There’s a comfort level; there’s already a language that’s been created.” Hoffman agrees. “Bad stuff can happen and you know it’s going to be okay,” he says. “You move on. I mean, we lived together.”
The collaboration—between Louiso, Hoffman, and the rest of the cast and crew—was extremely successful. Love Liza won critical acclaim at Sundance 2002, as well as the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award.
Even on the most auspicious productions the road from script to screen is scattered with obstacles, especially for a first-time director with a small budget. Having a script, funding, a cast, and a crew in place does not a brilliant movie make. One of the classic mistakes that independent filmmakers make is believing that having an artistic vision or a great script means they’ll be crackerjack directors. Unfortunately, being blessed with creative mojo doesn’t ensure that a filmmaker will have the knack for directing actors. Communicating with a cast and drawing out strong performances is a specialized and difficult skill.
Louiso, an experienced actor, realized quickly that directing a feature film is very different from acting in one. While an actor can focus primarily on his or her part, the director is responsible for making sure the cast and crew do their jobs, and is ultimately accountable for every frame of the completed film. “It was the hardest thing I ever had to do, just to be responsible in that way,” Louiso says. “You’re worried about everything and everyone. It shaved a couple years off my life. I smoked so much and didn’t eat. But it’s also the most rewarding thing I’ve done so far.”
A director has to balance his or her own needs with those of the cast and crew on one side and the producers on the other, and they often conflict. And in the midst of all this negotiating, the film is happening, in real time. The camera is rolling, capturing the action that will become the movie. “You’re always feeling pressure from the producers to get in there and move on,” Louiso says. “But you have to take your time. You’re making the film. This is it. People can whisper in your ear, ‘Oh, we’ll get that shot later.’ But usually you’re not going to get it later, and you can forget that when you’re in the heat of the shoot.”
Hoffman adds, “In film, if something’s not working it’s usually not just the actor. It’s usually the whole damn thing that’s not working. It’s a we problem, usually. It’s a DP/director/actor/script problem. It’s like, how do we make it work? ’Cause it’s not working right now.”
For Louiso, the trick to making it work was hiring people—especially actors—that he knew he could rely on to do their jobs well. “Trusting your actors is key. And in order to trust them, you have to cast well,” he says. “With this film, I felt the need to allow the actors to explore and feel comfortable doing that. Otherwise you won’t get these kinds of gems out of them. You have to coax them out by allowing them to explore.”
“Filmmaking is such a collaborative art form. I try to use people I like and open myself up to them,” he says. “I’m not a tyrant who says, ‘It has to be this way.’” Louiso found a system for working with his actors that basically involved giving them room to play. He would clear the set of everybody except the actors in the particular scene; Lisa Rinzler, the DP (Pollock, Three Seasons); and himself. Then they’d plan the shot together. “I have a game plan of what I want to happen, but I would let Phil come in and I would tell him my ideas, and he would say, ‘Well, I don’t feel like doing that. I feel like doing this,’” Louiso says. “The DP would interject what she was thinking. I’d just try to keep things very minimal.”
Hoffman says this system was ideal for him. “It was really good that way. Lisa, Todd, and I would go in there and just work it out,” he says. “We wouldn’t spend too much time. We’d just go in, set it up, and roll.”
Before the shoot, Louiso had almost no time to rehearse with his cast. “I wish we’d had more,” he says. “But I guess I just try to create an atmosphere where the actors don’t feel rushed, especially when you’re on a shoot that’s so short—twenty-four days in fifty-two locations, working six-day weeks.” He says, however, that Hoffman’s performance was not at all diminished by the lack of rehearsal. “We’d talked about it so much through the years and we both knew the script so well, so there was something we knew about it already inside of us.”
There were, of course, disagreements, but they were not the norm. For example, in a scene in which Wilson, the character Hoffman plays, goes swimming in a lake, Louiso says he wanted to get more coverage of Hoffman swimming, while the actor preferred focussing on his lines. Hoffman won the battle. “It was hard for me to say, ‘Keep swimming,’ when it was thirty-degree weather and he was out on the lake,” Louiso laughs. Of their occasional differences of opinion, Louiso says, “I’d let him do what he wanted and then I would make the decision in the cutting room.”
Being an actor with nearly a dozen films under his belt (High Fidelity, Jerry Maguire) served Louiso in many ways in his role as director. For one, he is fortunate to have built relationships with a lot of actors that he trusts. Besides a few people in the film (Kathy Bates, for example), the majority of cast members were friends that he had worked with through the years. “They’re all people I knew I could count on to show up and whose work I love,” he says. “That’s hard to do in an independent film. If you’re shooting on location, you’re forced to use actors who are local. But because I’m an actor, I asked them to do me this favor, and they were all incredible enough to do that for me.”
Counting a talent like Hoffman among those friends certainly helps. According to Louiso, his leading man continually astounded him. Love Liza is an intense story about a man struggling to find meaning in his life after his wife commits suicide. Hoffman, playing Wilson, the stunned widower, is on screen for almost the entire length of the film, and he remains completely engaging throughout. “Every day, every take almost, Phil would do something that would make me incredibly happy and in awe of him,” Louiso says. He describes a shot in which Hoffman sniffs a rag soaked in gasoline and hallucinates seeing his wife. “He just does it with his eyes and his face, and I remember being so moved,” Louiso says. “I don’t know how to put into words how I felt. He just amazed me. We just put on the camera and let him do what he wanted to do.”
In that particular scene, the script merely called for Wilson to huff intensely, but Louiso came up with the hallucination idea and Hoffman loved it. “I would have something in my head, the way I heard a line,” Louiso recalls. “And he would tweak it and I’d be amazed at how he would interpret it.”
Even though Wilson is a character going through hell, Hoffman stresses how important it is to recognize that he is much more than just distraught. “There’s, like, a twenty-five-minute section of the movie where he’s devastated,” Hoffman says. “He’s not depressed. You are, because you know his journey. You see where he’s going and there’s no way of stopping it. His wife committed suicide. He walked in. His wife is dead in the garage. You meet him two days later. That’s the movie. What I’m getting at is devastating, yeah, but Wilson is lots of things.
“That’s what drew me into the movie,” he continues. “When I first read it, I laughed. I was completely bamboozled and shocked. I was moved. It’s not just some guy hanging by a noose for an hour.”
Hoffman’s argument is a bit tough for a filmgoer to grasp, because the film is so unsettling. But just go with it for a minute: Assume that the guy isn’t devastated. How do an actor and director create a character going through what he’s going through and give him emotional dimensionality? How do they work together to bring that dimensionality from the script to the screen?
“What’s actually happening is he’s enjoying himself,” Hoffman explains. “He’s running around and sniffing gas and swimming in places he shouldn’t swim. When he goes swimming, the water was, like, thirty-five degrees. It was really cold. So, we’re not gonna sit there and talk about the wife’s death,” he says in a melodramatic tone. “You’re very upset. You’re very sad. No,” he says, himself again. “What you’re going to talk about is, ‘Okay, the water’s very cold. So, when you get out there, swim in the water, but then run back. We’re going to have this long lens on you.’ Todd isn’t going to sit here and worry me with all the emotional doldrums. In acting the part and in talking to Todd about it, it was all about how not to feel what you’re feeling watching the movie. What Wilson is doing is doing everything to not actually sink into a chair and go, ‘Oh God, she’s dead’ for two hours.”
“He’s a very internal character,” says Louiso. “The problem was how do you have a protagonist who’s so internal and how do you inform the audience who he is and get them to feel for him? That’s a huge credit to Phil. He did all that. I tried to put the camera on him in certain ways and use music to fill the silences. But the silences allowed me to really be a director. That’s the beauty of film. It’s image-based, and I wanted it to be a really quiet film, especially in Wilson’s life right now. This person is gone from his life.”
“Acting in it, you have to worry more about what the script says he’s doing,” says Hoffman. “You’re going to create the emotion no matter what, because it’s an upsetting story, so you worry more about what he’s doing—what he’s doing so that he doesn’t just sit there and cry. That’s how I looked at it a lot of the time. How is he distracting himself from the pain he’s going through?”
Behind-the-scenes drama can often rival what the audience watches on screen. At one point during the twenty-four-day shoot, the crew learned that an enormous amount of footage was unusable because of a bad shutter on the camera. They were sending dailies to a lab in LA from location in Alabama and by the time they learned of the mishap they had shot about four days’ worth of useless footage.
When disaster strikes a production, it falls on the shoulders of the director to hold everything together. “I thought I’d die at that point, but I’m still here,” Louiso says. “It was the worst thing that could have happened, but you have to rally the troops and say, ‘All right, this is a chance to improve and rethink the shots.’ And we did that.”
Hoffman also tried to see the crisis as an opportunity. “If you ever get a chance to go back to things in films, you can always go, ‘Well, what can we do better?’” he says.
At this point, Louiso’s ability to empathize with the actors became invaluable. “As an actor you think, ‘I did it. It’s over. I can live with that.’ And then you have to reshoot, and it’s incredibly painful,” he says.
How did Louiso put his shattered cast back together? “Just to be supportive and not to dismiss their feelings. You have to allow people to be pissed off, allow them to have those feelings and not try to fight them. You have to be the rock. You have to be really strong and allow the others to fall apart.”
Overall, Hoffman and Louiso agree that the Love Liza shoot was a positive experience, disasters and all. The first-time feature director and the well-known actor carrying an entire film for the first time supported each other with astounding success. And they have an emotional powerhouse of a film to show for it. “Phil’s in everything but something like eight scenes, and in editing I never got tired of watching him,” says Louiso. “He and I trusted each other and we were on the same page aesthetically. In the end, he allowed me to dictate how the film was going to look. He trusted me to do that.”