It's All on Tape
Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, and Uma Thurman bring Stephen Belber's play to the screen.
When the film being junketed is called Tape, those ubiquitous tape recorders represent a kind of ironic motif. Actor-playwright Stephen Belber, one of the creators of The Laramie Project, adapted his play of the same title -- seen both Off-Broadway and at the 2000 Actors Theatre of Louisville Humana Fest -- for this low-budget indie. The project marks the first foray into digital filmmaking for director Richard Linklater, but it is his second second stage-to-screener: He also helmed Eric Bogosian's adaptation of his play suburbia. When Linklater received a copy of Tape from Ethan Hawke, with whom he's made three other films (Before Sunrise, The Newton Boys, and Waking Life), he had already been thinking about doing another stage-to-film adaptation.
"It's wonderful the way the timing worked out," says Linklater. "Like Ethan, I was attracted to the many layers of the piece, both in the characters and the story. I felt it was about the process of memory and how, over time, people can choose to play a different role in relation to an event than perhaps they did at the time of the event."
Tape features a remarkably high-profile cast in Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, and Uma Thurman... and it is obviously a labor of love for everyone involved. Shot in sequence (almost unheard of in pre-digital films) and in real time, the three-character, one-set movie tells the story of a couple of former high school classmates who hold a private, 10-year reunion of sorts. Leonard plays John, a buttoned-down filmmaker at a Michigan festival screening of his first opus. His peripatetic high school drinking/drugging bud, Vince (Hawke), is also in town, ostensibly to support John's work. During one evening at a local motel, each man questions the other's perceptions of their friendship and their relation to Amy (Thurman), a once and former girlfriend of both. This results in emotional bloodletting and chaos, along with a surprise or two.
"It's been a phenomenal experience, from start to finish," Belber tells me in a phone conversation. Writers rarely go on junkets, but Belber was around a lot during the shoot, something quite unusual on a film. "I wrote the play for two specific actor friends of mine who did the original production at the Access Theatre," he says. "I'd met Ethan, who played John in a reading of the play. I found Richard's theater background to be impressive -- they all rehearsed for two weeks, starting with table work [actors read and discuss the play while sitting around a table] just the way theater rehearsals begin. The rehearsals took longer than the shoot; the cameras were really small and they built this life-size replica of a motel room with a removable ceiling on a New York sound stage. There were lots of questions for me. We made changes as we went along. This level of participation is what the Writers Guild (WGA) was fighting for [with their threatened strike] last spring."
The film opens on November 2 in New York, just as Hawke finishes a much praised stage turn in Sam Shepard's The Late Henry Moss. His wife, Thurman -- who recently won the prestigious Independent Feature Gotham Actor Award for her contributions to New York indie filmmaking -- is on maternity leave, awaiting the couple's second child, while Leonard continues doing eight shows a week of The Music Man through the end of December. "Yeah, sometimes Eth and I would meet for breakfast on matinee days," cracks Broadway's current Harold Hill; he and Hawke met during the filming of Dead Poets Society a dozen years ago and have been friends ever since. Along with playwright Jonathan Sherman, they were also co-founders of malaparte, an early '90s Off-Broadway theater company.
In person, Leonard's chiseled good looks and preppy attire (open-neck blue shirt and chinos) offset his Peck's bad boyish charm. After filching an interviewer's cookie, he describes the genesis of Tape: "Ethan found the play... he's a regular creative Tasmanian Devil!-- and we were all attracted by the smart writing. I'm always fascinated by how people perceive each other. It's like that wonderful line from Into the Woods, 'Nice is different from good.' I have a lot in common with the character of John, and any time there's a wild card like Vince you think, 'Yeah, Ethan.' Ethan always risks perception; he doesn't care about other people's judgment. I'm more screwed up and only somewhat versatile. I'm too timid to shave my head and play a Nazi. I leave that to Ed Norton." If this bit of blatant self-deprecation weren't tempered with a big grin, it might sound disingenuous from the actor who went directly from winning a Tony Award for The Invention of Love to the title role of the Broadway Music Man.
"Doing The Music Man is like three and half hours at the gym," says Leonard. "There's a lot of mechanics and physical labor to singing and dancing, and it's great fun! The Invention of Love wasn't fun. Tape was. It was very collaborative. Ethan and I have this shorthand; we each know what the other likes and what we can do. In Tape, everybody's trying to do the best they can. You've got these two guys going round and round in a motel room and you're wondering which one's the good guy. Then Uma walks in and everything blows up. I didn't know how really good she was to work with until this film."
As the press reps usher Leonard out and Hawke in, the two friends huddle for a second; then Hawke enters in a sharp, tan suit with a plum colored shirt that sets off his baby blues. If Leonard's good looks are chiseled, the Texas-born Hawke's features call to mind a pen and ink drawing--no less attractive but smudged around the edges, with his hair falling in wisps. "I found Stephen's play when I was looking for something to pair up with a production I planned of Edward Albee's Zoo Story that never happened," Hawke relates. "When Richard and I were talking about doing something in digital, I remembered Tape. He's a true American director and he loves doing interesting things with time," Hawke continues, absently twisting one of the multiple mike wires around his index finger. "In Hollywood, I'm usually cast as a moral center, but Vince has this propensity for violent behavior and a real problem with booze and drugs. Sadly, I've known some Vinces; he's stuck in time and can't move on. He sees John and Amy as a way to move himself forward..
"Amy was the hardest part to cast," says Hawke. "She has to be a peer of John and Vince's, she has to be beautiful enough to warrant their obsession with her and smart enough to be a District Attorney. Working with Uma is fun [they met while making Gattaca], and she particularly liked the way this script explores the socio-sexual politics of the three characters. It can be hard to work together when you're in a relationship, but we both loved the material and working with Richard and Sean." How does Hawke feel now that he's a grown up family man? "Turning 30 was great," he enthuses. "I'm one of those actors who grew up in the public eye, and a lot of us don't survive. It's a challenge. But I love Uma and Maya [his daughter], and I love being in the arts and doing a lot of different things."
In 1997, Hawke had his first novel published, The Hottest State. His story of a "dazed and confused" young actor from Texas who moves to New York got respectable reviews. Now, he's added a directing stint to his acting and writing credits: The "creative Tasmanian Devil" is currently finishing post production on his first feature, Chelsea Walls. It's yet another digital stage-to-screener, this time from Naked Angels playwright Nicole Burdette. The humongous cast includes Vincent D'Onofrio, Kris Kristofferson, Harris Yulin, and Natasha Richardson plus two more malaparte chums, Steve Zahn, and Frank Whaley, along with guest appearances by usual suspects Thurman and Leonard.