Why 'River's Edge' Director Tim Hunter Likes to 'Push Characters as Far as He Can'
Accompanied by Nicolas Cage and Robin Tunney, director Tim Hunter experiments with noir in 'Looking Glass.'
There are many reasons why people might describe River’s Edge, an early project by veteran filmmaker Tim Hunter, as important, perhaps the most significant being the way in which the actors—Keanu Reeves, Ione Sky, and Crispin Glover—work off one another. Another reason may be due to the film's rawness and the genuine, palpable quality of its emotional depth.
Hunter's newest film, Looking Glass, is a story about two people fleeing troubled pasts. Played by Nicolas Cage and Robin Tunney, they take ownership of a desert motel and find themselves mired in crime-laced, seedy history, complete with a two-way mirror in each room and a dead pig in the swimming pool. The film is no less raw than River's Edge, but it's on a much more personal and quieter scale; it's more a tone poem than a story of suspense, balancing between character-driven drama and compulsivity noir (if there is such a genre). Cage is as restrained as you'll ever see him; the phrase "still waters run deep" comes to mind, except in this case you might say "still waters run dark," a quality for which Tunney's openness and vulnerability provide a fitting counterpoint.
Inbetween River's Edge and Looking Glass, Hunter has directed several films (including Tex and The Saint of Fort Washington) and countless television series (Mad Men, Hannibal, Breaking Bad, and Deadwood). NFS caught up with Hunter to discuss his new film and filmmaking process.
No Film School: One thing I wanted to ask is how you developed the characters in the film with your actors.
Tim Hunter: Well, the script came to me fully formed with Nic Cage already attached to it, and so it wasn’t a situation where he was looking to me to do an extensive director’s script polish. Nic had approved it, but I did feel that because of the potential complexity of the relationship between his character and his character's wife–two very compromised people in a precarious place, trying to make a new start, not realizing they’ve got themselves in a situation where a murder-mystery plot is going to put them to the test–that there were some key scenes between them that would benefit from some additional writing, some amplification of their feelings. The characters are not all that articulate about what they’re feeling.
Subtext is fine if the story is clear, but sometimes you need to get into a scene and let them have at it a little more, in terms of letting their emotions loose and letting the audience know where they’re at. And so we picked certain key scenes to serve as markers along the course of the film, and Nic and Robin were willing to explore those scenes. That’s how I worked with them on the script. In terms of the acting, I’m kind of a quiet guy on the set. I like to keep things kind of calm, just moving forward. Sometimes, I feel that rubs off on the actors, who then get a little less histrionic, and get a little deeperin a quieter, more nuanced sense. It’s a big performance for Nic Cage, but it’s on a much quieter register.
"I also have a soft spot for soap operas on TV, as they deal with emotions that I consider to be of value."
NFS: Many of the films and TV shows you’ve worked on have involved outsiders—criminals, delinquents, the homeless. What have you learned about these characters over time? How has your attitude toward them changed?
Hunter: Well, that’s really a tough question to ask a guy who’s done 80 TV shows [laughs]. I’m really very script-oriented. My dad was a writer and I started out as a writer, and so I’m really a deliver-the-script guy. I really like to explore a scene in terms of the character, with the actors, of course, but my basic technique is to see what a scene's different dimensions are and expand how the characters might be feeling.
In terms of the characters being outsiders, in River’s Edge you have a bunch of disenfranchised kids who simply don’t have the cultural tools and whom society hasn't given the education or the means to deal with the extremity of the situation that they're in. In TV, I’m often considered primarily as a melodrama guy; I also have a soft spot for soap operas on TV, as they deal with emotions that I consider to be of value. I like to push the characters as far as I can, but never past the point of their own reality.
NFS: It’s been said in recent years that there’s more room to take risks in television than in film. How do you feel about that statement?
Hunter: I do think that’s true. I think there’s wonderful writing in television. When they hand you a script on the first day of shooting, it’s like you’ve just been dealt a hand of cards and you have to figure out how to play it. But certainly, some of the stuff I’ve done in the past years—Mad Men, Hannibal, Breaking Bad, Dexter—has wonderful writing and wonderful acting, and of course, it feels great when you can work with scenes as good as the scenes in the first season of Mad Men. Just deliriously wonderful writing! So this thing you hear all the time, that a lot of the material written for TV has more depth, may not always be true, but there certainly is a lot of truth to it.
NFS: What influences were percolating in your mind when you made this film?
Hunter: Well, it’s hard not to think of Hitchcock when you’re making a picture about hotel voyeurism. I love Hitchcock, and I try not to be too imitative of him, although I know his work well enough to have fun with the montage technique he used. I was also thinking about Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, and some of the other great noir directors. We were pushing the color to a sort of lurid Technicolor point like you might find in a picture like Written on the Wind. We were also influenced by modern still photographs. My Director of Photography, Patrick Cady, and I were looking at a lot of pictures by a photographer named Todd Hido, who teaches at Cal Arts and takes a lot of photographs of tract houses, motels, and warehouses, managing to bathe them in these washes of color, like dark nighttime turquoise blues and oranges.