Todd Robinson on writing and directing the edgy and thrilling film noir
Film noir has become the norm these days; imitators of the old 50's style crime dramas. But Lonely Hearts is very different, and extremely original - that's because it's real.
Todd Robinson wrote and directed this very personal story based on the life of his grandfather, detective Elmer Robinson; he along with his partner, Charles Hildebrandt were put on the case of the two ruthless murderers, Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez.
This indie is packed with a star-studded cast; John Travolta portrays Elmer, while James Gandolfini plays Hildebrandt. Martha Beck is played by Selma Hayek and Jared Leto takes on the role of Fernandez. The supporting cast includes Laura Dern, Scott Caan, Dan Byrd as Eddie Robinson (Elmer's son and Todd's father), and 7-year-old actress Bailee Madison (Bridge to Terabithia).
We had the chance to speak with Todd about the experience of making Lonely Hearts; take a read of what he had to say:
Were you channeling your father and grandfather while writing and then directing this film?
Todd Robinson: I think John Travolta was doing the channeling; there was a moment when my dad was on the set at one point. He looked at him, and he looked at him and said, 'There he is.' And it took me a minute and it startled me; but there were times where he saw his dad. In the writing of it, the personal moments were deconstructing the relationship between my dad and his dad. And by doing so, me and my dad were untangling our own relationship; and that made me do so with my son, so it was kind of therapeutic that way
What have you taught your son from doing this story?
Todd Robinson: I don't think it's anything I've taught him directly, but from the time I was born, culturally, I'm a little more open with my son. I give him a little more room to impose on himself on the kind of person he should be; I think that's the main thing. And, of course, I express that on him constantly as I do with my daughter as well.
The two death scenes that stood out were the cop's and during sex; both scenes were done so well and are very different, but both very brutal. How did you plan that out?
Todd Robinson: The scene with the cop was invented, because I needed a way for them to catch them; the way they caught them was so uninteresting. So the movie problem was I needed a motive, so the cop gets killed, and Leto leaves his driver's license. The violence in the movie was deliberate in a way that does not romanticize it in terms of over-cranking it. I wanted it to be in your face, dramatic, so that you, the audience, are experiencing it the way these cops did because that's what's at the heart of it.
What about the sex scene?
Todd Robinson: That scene with Jared, Salma and Alice Krige, that was all about the death of their narcissism; which to say, they're so swept up in their own sh*t that while Alice is on the floor, he still maintains an erection - there's just something really wrong with that. It's not meant to be gory, but it's to illustrate that these people are so wrapped up in this political narcissism, they don't even have time to take care of a woman taking her last breath.
To stay on the sex scene for two more things, we see Alice's boobs, but not Salma's - what's up with that?
Todd Robinson: That just proves you're a pig; by the way, I join you in my description of you.
But there's a line that Salma has right after they have sex where she says, 'The bitch won't die.' That was so perfect to describe her character.
Todd Robinson: That was actually Salma; I had it both ways, and what I discovered that in a theater, it gets a laugh. I thought we needed to let a little air out of the balloon at that point. But that was Salma; she improvised that.
The colors you chose for each character were picked so well; was that planned during pre-production?
Todd Robinson: Yeah, absolutely; it's all by design. Jackie West, my costume designer, a brilliant woman, Gary Steele, my production designer, and Peter Levy, my cinematographer, we all sat down at great length and talked about the look, the color pallet, the tones we wanted, and what matched sub-texturally. You're clearly a cinefile, so you see that. But the idea was to subconsciously steer the audience to make their own choices about the characters based on the choices they make.
Bailee Madison seems so natural as an actress, and she was only five when she made this; where did you find her?
Todd Robinson: Honestly, Phyllis Huffman, who casts the last 20 years of Clint Eastwood movies, she was my casting director; she sadly passed away this last year. She brought me one kid, and that was Bailee; she said, 'You're not going to believe this.' She was a local girl from Florida, and her mom Patty brought her in; I said, 'Ok Bailee, there's this really mean guy, and he's going to hurt your mom.' In two seconds, tears were coming down this girl's face, and I was like, 'You've got to be kidding me.' She was just a natural, and a pro; her mom is awesome, and not a stage mom at all. The two of them were such a pleasure to work with; they're awesome. And look where Bailee went, boom - she goes from my little movie to a major character in a $100 million movie. It was just great; if I could adopt her, I would.
What about the rest of this tremendous cast? What's going through your mind when all these people are saying 'yes' to your movie?
Todd Robinson: Honestly, it was so hard to put this thing together; I nearly had time to sit back and say, 'Holy mackroll, what am I about to get into.' Looking back, it was amazing to do; all of them are constant professionals, and at the top of their games.
You went to school with Jonathan Larson (Rent); what did you learn from him that you've used in your movies?
Todd Robinson: From Larson? Larson and I were extraordinarily competitive! He was my brother-in-arms, and one of my dearest friends, and I miss him every day; I sit on one of the boards of a charity in his honor. The thing with Jonathan is, my career launched before his, and we were competitive - we competed over girls, we competed over parts in plays, we competed over everything; we were like brothers, we fought over everything. And then on the eve of his greatest success, it's so unfair he never got to see his 20 years of work. He's with me every day, the standards he set; unfortunately, he died 10 years ago. Jonathan and I were in the very elite circle where we read each other's material; I read the labretta for Rent years before it made it to New York, and I shared my scripts with him. When I did White Squall, I was trying to get him a job because he needed to make some money; I was literally sitting in a pub in the Virgin Islands with Ridley Scott and a recorder listening to Jon sing, 'Yo ho, yo ho' because he just wrote these sea shanties and sent it to us on tape. He was a great friend and he was game, and so we shaped each other that way; when you start that young together, you're inseparable.
Finally, what are you working on next?
Todd Robinson: I'm working on a film called The Last Full Measure, which is my next feature project; it's the true story about a dozen or so Vietnam veterans who survived the bloodiest battle during the Vietnam War, and how they're reunited 30 years later by the man who saved all of their lives. He died 60 years later on that day he won the Medal of Honor for which they put him up for; they are united with a Washington bureaucrat who's pretty much a prick, who wants to give this guy the Medal of Honor before he dies. So far, I have Morgan Freeman, Laurence Fishburne, Robert Duvall, Bruce Willis, Andy Garcia, and Amy Madigan.
That's a pretty good group of people to be making a movie with.
Todd Robinson: It's decent material, so they want to help me get it made.
You can catch this awesome cast of Lonely Hearts in theaters April 13th; it's rated R.