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John Herzfeld - Director of 15 Minutes

15 Minutes is New Line's second DVD in its new Infinifilm series. We had an opportunity to spend 15 minutes talking to the writer and director of 15 Minutes John Herzfeld about this feature packed DVD.

Please be advised that about half way through the interview we discuss a key plot point of the film. We've marked the beginning and end of this section with clear spoiler alerts, so if you haven't seen the movie you can skip over the section and not have an important plot point spoiled.

Thank you for taking some time out this morning and talk about the Infinifilm release of 15 Minutes.

My pleasure.

You must be extremely excited. It's a really wonderful DVD.

Thank you. You know, I am excited. I'm actually very excited. There are some new things on this disc that I haven't seen before on DVD's.

It was really surprising to put a DVD in, watch a movie and then find a lot of content that not only related to the movie, but also was about the subject matter. What was the whole process for you, of turning 15 Minutes into an Infinifilm?

When the film was released there were a lot of write ups which discussed the relationship between the media and criminals. I wrote an article on this topic for the L.A. Times which you can find on the disc. Because of all the surround discussion on the film I thought the idea of doing documentaries with Mark Fuhrman and Jerry Springer and all those who are really in the business was a really solid one. It was interesting hearing them comment on the subject of the movie and how it related to their own lives, their own careers, because these were the people who basically the Kelsey Grammar character was an amalgamation of. So I thought that was really unique and interesting.

I also thought it was very interesting the way that during the movie, when you get to a certain part of the movie and you'll see underneath it "Deborah Norville talks about a celebrity" or "Deborah Norville talks about the relationship between the police and a journalist." It's interesting because I had never met any of these people on this documentary. I had no contact with them before or during these two documentaries. So they were talking without any coaching from me, without any input from me, and without even hearing my opinion. My opinion stands in the theme of the movie. When I saw these documentaries, at first I thought "Jesus, are they perhaps going to be critical of the film?" I really found it fascinating how they related to and commented on the subject matter. In a way I felt the theme was validated.

I was really shocked when Mark Fuhrman said that the attorney's (Marcia Clark and Johnny Cochran) signed their deals for books for $4.2-million each before the end of the O.J. trial, which means, as he intimidated, that they had been negotiating probably from the middle of the trial on. This then means that their performances in court, so to speak, were parallel to the negotiating of their deals. Now that to me is quite a comment.

So it almost paralleled some of the things that go on between Oleg and Grammer's characters in terms of upping the ante by what the content is.

Absolutely.One of the things that Aphrodite Jones commented on that I thought was really astute was that the criminals in the movie don't know the law. They are not legal experts. They just assume that they can get off by pleading insanity. The get this legal knowledge from watching TV talk shows and reading the tabloids and magazines. This is what they think America is.

How involved were you in the way in which the documentaries were placed within the film? Where the banners came up? How things were contexted?

New Line was really the ones who really made it all happen. They're a great company, and I knew they had done an Infinifilm once before with 13 Days. With Infinifilm New Line is just trying to raise the bar and widen the margins of what is accessible to the public on a DVD - something extra than just seeing the trailer and then perhaps the video and director's commentary.

What were some of the things that helped inspire you to get ready for doing the commentary track and contributing to the DVD? Did you sit down and look at others for examples? Did you listen to other director commentary tracks?

Actually, I did no preparation. You know I own a lot of DVD's. I frankly own many, many. I own probably over 2,000 laserdiscs and almost all of the Criterion Collection. So I'm familiar with listening to directors' commentaries just as a viewer, as one who loves films, is passionate about them, and is entertained and informed by commentaries. So, I didn't study them. I was so busy at the time we were about to do the commentary, doing other things (producing another movie, finishing writing another one), that I actually went in there and sat and watched the film. As I went along, I tried to think "If I were a real film buff and wanted to know a lot about extra stuff, about what went on in the film". I wanted to provide as many insights as I could that would not only be informative, but most important of all, be entertaining. I just did one long tape. We didn't go back and do cut and trims. Basically I just opened my mouth and talked.

Well I think it came out really well.

Oh, thank you. Thank you very much. Because I just did one long take and thought, "You know what? Let it be organic. Let it be honest." Frankly, I listen to myself and at certain times, my vocabulary is not perfect. It's kind of stream-of-mouth. But I thought "You know what? That's what it is. It's honest."

One of the things I like about commentaries like that is it makes you feel like you're sitting down and watching the movie with the director. It's like having a chat with the director. The other style where things are kind of spliced together and it's really produced, sometimes feels...

Manufactured.

Yeah. It's just doesn't always let the director's personality shine, which sometimes I think tells more about a film... especially in a situation like yours where you're both the writer and director. You contributed so much to this film, so it's really great to hear you come through on the commentary track.

Well thank you. And you know, one of the things I thought for other filmmakers out there and others who want to make films, I want to let them know that one, I didn't write this script a year ago and go right into production. This is one of those labors of love I had a long time. It took me nine years to get someone to decide to pull the trigger. It took me making two other films before this for other studios to realize that shifting tone could work in a film: whether it's 2 Days in the Valley, or the HBO movie Don King: Only in America, which went from drama to comedy, that that was necessary to get this film done. And also, I just thought from a business point of view, you know, I met these two other gentlemen producers (Nick Wechsler and Keith Addis) who read the script. We were talking one day and they said "What do you got?" and I said "Well, I've got this script that I wanted to make a long time, but it's been around and rejected at a lot of places." Nick Wechsler was so much a part of getting this movie green lit. So I wanted people to know that right up front and I thought just telling the genesis and organically unraveling the story of how the movie got to the screen and little things in the movie. Again, I commentaried and then I forgot what I did. When I was watching it, you know, the Avery Brooks story of how he pulled his hamstring and then I made sure he got hit by a car so he would limp the rest of the way. Things like that. When you make the film, you have these fires that start along the way and you have to learn to put them out. You have to put them out sometimes very quickly and think on your feet. You know it's not all planned out. It's never storyboard perfect. You just have to go with the flow. Like with Oleg, who wanted to take over the video camera after while.

The other things I hope people find interesting is the relationship between Oleg and Karel, which really is mirrored in the movie where Karel would not speak Russian and Oleg would not speak Czech. That was just something I added as we went, where Emil's character told him never to speak Russian to him.

I thought just tell everything. Let everything go. That way you get a really kind of cool inside look at how the movie came to be what it is.

SPOILER WARNING!!!!

When I publish this interview, the next question I'll put big spoiler warnings because typically I don't like to talk about things that are key plot points, but I have to cover this one with you.

You often have a pretty interesting and unique narrative structure and in 15 Days, it's no different. It was pretty amazing to see Robert De Niro's character get killed off. You don't typically see one of the major key heroes played by a big-named star not make it through to the triumphant end. When you were prepping this film and going through it and through the first test screenings, how did you deal with this issue? Were you concerned that that was going to be something that would kind of leave audiences stumbling?

Everything you said is true. One, when I first wrote it, some studios read it and said, "Well you know, you can't do this." I said "But that's kind of the point of the movie; real violence has real consequence. He dies and the younger fire marshal goes on and carries the torch and learns from Eddie." They said, "Yeah, but if the movie is successful, you need a franchise so you don't kill your buddy. It's a buddy movie. You can't kill the buddy."

You know at certain points I was told that maybe certain actors would not be interested, but if you changed it and kept them alive at the end, you'd have other actors interested. It took me years to get this made and I thought, you know what? This is what I think is different about the movie. Also, in terms of the theme of the movie and in terms of showing his demise on television, I just thought it would impugn the integrity of everything I'm trying to achieve. So I really never considered it. When it was sold to New Line, they thought it was cool and different and they never told me "Let's think about changing it." Most interesting though was when Robert De Niro first read the script and I was told he was interested in talking to me about it, so I flew to New York to meet with him. In our meeting, the thing that I kept waiting for during the entire meeting as we talked about many other things was about him dying at the end of the second act. I was basically waiting for him to bring it up. And he never did. He brought up many other points and gave me notes and I went back and did a re-write. Then I handed him the re-write and he had some ideas. We then did a table read-through, which is Robert De Niro's process. That's how he decides on the movies. He wants to hear them. We did a read-through and a couple of people who were at the read-through in the smaller roles, were reading it fresh. Even some of the actors responded "Jesus, I can't believe it. The character dies?"

Do you know we made the movie and I remember some of the crew really being shocked when we did that scene and he doesn't come back? Strangely enough, when we went to the junket in the movie, we had a big room in the Foreign Press in New York. One of the first questions which was asked by a member of the Foreign press was "Mr. De Niro, it is very unusual for the hero to die two thirds of the way through the movie. Was that ever a problem or something for you to consider and did you ever worry about that?" He thought for a beat and he said "Uh, no."

I looked at him and I realized that was the first and only time it was ever discussed. It was never discussed before that. He's just that type of actor. I mean I think that's what makes him so great is that he goes with his instincts. He thought, "Well, this is part of the movie. It's the vision of the director" and we never discussed it. Never ever discussed it.

I think it was one of the more interesting twists in a buddy movie I have seen in a long time.

Yeah, and you know what? When we did test the movie, it's interesting. I think about half the crowd thought it was really fascinating and the other half didn't like it. They were kind of split, like you know, "I can't believe it." But when we asked the question "Does the movie slow down after that? Does it fall apart? Do you lose interest?" The response was "No." The people stayed with the movie. Still, half of the test audience didn't like it, but they didn't compound it by saying, "We lost interest once he died," because they wanted to find out what would happen to the antagonist and what Jordy (Ed Burns' character) would do. Again, it's not a simple A, B, C, D, this is the way it all goes. But I don't know that to me is what was fun about making the movie.

END OF SPOILER

I think Ed Burns did a great job of really being the star for the second half. I think he really has that strength within him. What was it like directing a fellow writer/director? What did Ed Burns bring to his role from that perspective?

Well you know, Ed is very New York. He comes from a background of law enforcement. His father is a cop. He's actually the public relations man for the NYPD. And his uncle is a police officer. So he knows that area very well. But Ed never really discussed anything directing wise. Neither did Robert De Niro, who did a phenomenal job directing Bronx Story. I think the only thing that Ed mentioned to me that he would maybe take from me in terms of this experience was I'm very big on rehearsals and I like to rehearse all the scenes in the movie on the locations where they're going to be shot, before we start the movie.

For example, we rehearsed everything. We went to New York and I walked the whole chase scene with him. We literally walked those six blocks. We went and rehearsed in the exact restaurant where they questioned Daphne. You name it, we went there.

Yeah, I saw some of that on the DVD. There's some great rehearsal stuff.

Yeah, so I like to do that and I think that Ed found that really beneficial and thought, as a director, he was going to do that next. For me, I think it really helps the actors. They see their environment. They see where they're going to live or where they work. Again, as we rehearse the scene, you'll see things that you change, not only in dialogue, but also in terms of the entire staging of the scene. If one of the actors comes up with something you haven't thought of, you can incorporate it right there and do a re-write. The DP might say, "We really shouldn't shoot it this way because then at 12:00 everything will be in shade, so maybe you should change the staging a bit." And then the production designer will have comments.

In this movie where I wanted, especially the entire look of the movie which was based the Francis Pacabia paintings, it was important for us to go to every location. I wanted to look at the colors and the background. For me, this is my process. I've always worked this way and it's very helpful for me. I think that all the actors benefited in some way from it. Especially when the one set we were building for Bob De Niro's apartment, as I say in the DVD, I realized he wanted to do most of the chair stuff himself, almost all of it, except for two quick cuts. I didn't want him to smash his head on the floor so that's why we built the floor of rubber. It looks like wood, but it's actually a rubber floor. I also made the living room a little sunken and made it smaller. And I discovered all this during rehearsal; otherwise I would have built the set too big and probably would have put a wooden floor in there. So things like that, which I explain on the DVD, is all part of the process. Again, I think film buffs and future filmmakers might look at it and it will give them an idea about what they're doing.

It's funny. I saw the DVD of The Train, Frankenheimer's DVD. It was right after I did my commentary that I got the DVD. On it, Frankenheimer is explaining that about two thirds of the way through The Train, Burt Lancaster is running away from the Nazi's and they shoot him in the leg and for the rest of the movie, he is limping. He explained that it was never in the script. What happened was on Burt's off day, he was exercising and really ripped his hamstring. Not unlike what happened to Avery Brooks. I laughed when I heard it. So for the rest of the movie, he's limping. It's almost the same situation that happened to me with Avery Brooks. It's that kind of stuff that I love because you see how you have to think at the last minute. You just got to rock and roll. You got to go with the flow and just do it.

Well I think that tip for future directors about the value of rehearsals can really help, especially considering that a first time director on an independent film might get 28 days. I'm sure it's reassuring for them if they can iron out some of these problems beforehand in rehearsals and have a much greater level of preparation than when they're on the set with no time. They really have an opportunity to focus on what's going on in front of them instead of worrying about "is everything going to work?"

I agree. And on another level, I am always stunned and I hear this all the time. There will be huge movies, I mean $80 to $90 million dollar movies which, because they have to get it into production because they only have the actor for a certain amount of time, or even if the actor isn't available and doing other things, they'll start the movie with a minimum rehearsal. Maybe they'll rehearse three or four days in a room. And they start the movie. The movie inevitably and invariably goes way over because no problems are anticipated. They just jump in and then it cost millions of dollars sometimes in going over because they haven't anticipated problems and haven't done enough rehearsals. I'm always stunned by that. I'm thinking, "Jeez, you have to spend that much time and that much money. Why don't you spend a little bit more money up front by rehearsing and going to the locations? Then you'll solve so many problems. It will probably help you maintain the schedule." Whether it's a small movie or a big movie, I'm always blown away when I hear movies don't rehearse. I don't get it. But everybody has their own process.

In 15 Days, you have a number of notable television actors: Kelsey Grammer, Avery Brooks, Melina Kanakaredes.

Kim Cattrall.

Was this deliberate to bring these people into the project? Do you see a big difference between working with some of the television actors and some of the theatrical actors?

No difference and none of it was intentional. We just auditioned people and the best people I thought for the role, I cast. It didn't matter to me and I didn't consider where they came from. It just was what it was.

Having said that, I think they all put in fantastic performances. You wouldn't say "Oh wow, that person's from TV" other than someone is as recognizable as Kelsey Grammer from his work on TV. So how about Charlize Theron? Did you want to bring her back to work with her again?

Absolutely 1,000 percent.

Obviously you're accredited with bringing Charlize into the film world with 2 Days in the Valley.

Yes.

What was it like working with her again now, with so much time having passed? What did you note different in her? Was she a lot different to work with?

She was no different to work with. She obviously had a lot more experience under her belt, but she was as charming and affable and as great to work with in this movie as she was on 2 Days in the Valley. I'm hoping to do a movie with her in the very near future with her as the lead. I think we have a special bond because she played the lead in 2 Days in the Valley when she had never done anything and never acted before. I would hope that actors who are "discovered" so to speak, or given their first break by a director, they should remember them because there's that first special person who believed in them.

But you know what? Honestly with her, I think I was lucky. If it wasn't me, it would be the next guy. Because she just has enormous talent. I think actors like her are like bubbles at the bottom of the ocean. They are just rising quickly and it's just a matter of who gets them to the surface to pop first, but they will get there.

It's incredible. I think you're also responsible for helping cast and bring Ving Rhames into the real critical eye. I mean he has been out there, but I don't think he had ever been so prominently featured

No he never played a movie with such a range in sense of humor. He always played the dark heavy. You know what? I think as a director, that is the most fun for me. To either work with somebody brand new. I try to do that all the time. Look at Oleg and Karel. Karel had never been in an American film before in English. And Oleg I saw on the Ultimate Fight Championships. I think Oleg had only ever had a line in a movie here and there. But you know, I think as a director, to discover new talent is great. And also to use an actor in a way that perhaps they haven't been used before is also really exciting.

I think it's exciting for the audience too. I think you see so many actors in the same kind of role over and over again where they're not really pushed. To see an actor that you know and like and you see them being a bit pushed and stretched and doing new and interesting things, I think it's very gratifying as an audience person.

Well thank you. It's a lot of fun.

So now having gone through the whole process of doing the Infinifilm and having 15 Minutes annotated the way it is and having all this content that you did during production, will this change the way that you now go into your next project?

Probably slightly it will. It won't in terms of let's say I'm shooting my next movie and I think "Boy, this will be a great something for the DVD." I'm not literally going to tell the studio, "Well you know, I know it cost about $200,000 a day, but we're going to shoot this and it's not going to be in the picture. It will be on the DVD." I don't think any studio is going to say "Yeah sure. Go ahead John." So in that sense, no. But in another sense, yeah. I'll want to make sure I get more behind the scenes stuff. Especially the rehearsals. Because that's the things I think are the coolest. I love watching the rehearsals - I videotaped all of the rehearsals - and then playing them right alongside the film. I think that's really cool. I mean here you see three months before you start the movie, you're rehearsing a scene. For example when Ed Burns and Bob meet. Then at the same time on the screen, is the picture in a small box. That to me is really cool. Then you see the genesis and then you see it come out. It's almost like letting the audience see where you came, how it changed. You know we obviously can see from Bob's haircut how short his hair is and it was a good deal before he started shooting the film. It definitely wasn't two weeks before. And I think that that I will definitely continue to do. I wish I had done it on 2 Days in the Valley because that's a lot of fun.

Well I really do appreciate you taking some time out. I think 15 Minutes Infinifilm is really an exciting DVD release. I'm sure there will be a lot of people who will be talking about it and being excited about the way in which New Line is taking a film like yours and really enriching it by providing a lot of extra really fantastic content.

Well thank you very much Geoffrey. It's been a great interview.

Buy 15 Minutes (Infinifilm Edition)

- Geoffrey Kleinman

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