Henry Jaglom is one of those directors who people love or hate; indifference is hard to imagine. The divisive filmmaker’s work is talky—the dialogue is often improvised—and highly idiosyncratic, not unlike his characters. He favors telling female-centric stories, and the women in his films are often complex characters who get under your skin, if they don’t get on your nerves. Think of Karen Black, who sleeps with Michael Emil in 1983’s Can She Bake a Cherry Pie?, but won’t have sex with him. Or Tanna Frederick, Jaglom’s current muse, who chews and spits out ice cream in Queen of the Lot.
Jaglom’s new feature, Just 45 Minutes from Broadway, based on his own stage play, concerns a family of theater actors. The film plays with another of Jaglom’s favorite themes, that of actors and acting, reality and make believe, shot in parts on an actual stage, as if in homage to the film’s theatrical origins (though Jaglom provides a shrewd cinematic reveal in the final reel). The plot concerns Betsy (Julie Davis), who doesn’t work in show business, coming home to introduce her fiancé, Jimmy (Judd Nelson), to her family of actors. The reactions of her sister, Pandora (Frederick), her mother, Vivien (Diane Salinger), her father, George (Jack Heller), her uncle, Larry (David Proval), and a border named Sally (Harriet Schock) are all, expectedly, dramatic.
In the film, the writer-director features a great joke about George being disappointed that a big interview was a 15-minute Skype session. Ironically, or perhaps not, Jaglom spoke with Slant via Skype from his California office for nearly an hour. Wearing his trademark hat, he chatted about his career, his distribution company, Rainbow Releasing, his friendship with Orson Welles, and Just 45 Minutes from Broadway.
How much of Just 45 Minutes from Broadway was scripted versus improvised?
All of it was scripted except the Passover Seder scene, which was improvised. But there are set pieces in the play; for example, seeing the blue bullfrogs mating. I added things, like the father/daughter and brother/sister scenes, but essentially 95% of it is from the play. It’s the first time in my life I didn’t improvise. Usually I write, then it’s improvised, and usually it’s 50/50. That was the great fun of doing it as a film: It gave me a great opportunity to visually represent what the film is about, the reality of what’s going on and the feeling that we’re acting in our lives, and that we’re all on a stage.
The film has an appreciation for actors’ lives, and you often depict actors, filmmakers, and other talent in your films. Can you discuss this recurring theme in your work?
Just 45 Minutes from Broadway is a tribute—a love song—to actors. When I made the play into a film, the levels between film and stage echo those of someone acting or in real life—that one shouldn’t trust what a character is saying because there’s a blur between reality and what they’re truly feeling. I hinted at this in the play, but on film I’m actually able to illustrate it, using shots and scenes from the play and intercutting them with the film.
Do you think people put on airs to hide their truth? There’s a speech in Broadway about acting a certain way to escape fear. I could be acting in my questions.
Are you playing the interviewer, or being honest? Am I trying to sell you on what I believe? It’s a tricky thing to insist on a reality. But it gives relief and it validates our own existence, and nothing gives me greater satisfaction.
How do the themes of Broadway connect to your previous work—say, the actors in Hollywood Dreams and Queen of the Lot, or the reality/make-believe that comprise Venice/Venice and Festival in Cannes, or the family dynamics from Last Summer in the Hamptons?
Reality can be expressed in many different ways. It’s the way different people behave with reality that interests me. In a weird way, all of us do that. Orson Welles said we all have one or two issues and we examine them constantly in our work, and from different angles—hopefully from different angles. My issues are family, and the dream and illusion of reality.
What draws you to making films about family and reality/illusion?
I loved Hollywood films, and I grew up watching them. But I always felt there was a wall between me and them. I wanted to make films where people felt that that line was blurred. People have told me that they somehow feel less lonely by [watching] my films, because my films reveal that we’re all “bozos on this bus,” if you know that expression. And, somehow, to share that fact, that we’re all going through these things, people feel that they’re less in trouble. I try to break through that wall by showing our self-involvement while at the same time entertaining them. Because I’m in theater, my films are set in the world of actors and the worlds of actors’ reality. The other subject that obsesses me is women’s issues, which Hollywood ignores. My films Eating, Babyfever, and Going Shopping deal with women’s attitudes about food, weight, and clothing. I think people see these films and feel less alone going through these things. I try to tell the truth on film. I try to break that fourth wall.
Broadway is very stagy—deliberately so, as its set literally in a theater at times. You’ve shot films in theaters before; Someone to Love is a notable example. But you’ve also made several films—Always and New Year’s Day—that, like Broadway, are shot mostly in one single location. Why take this approach?
I like the challenge. I think our lives are mostly spent in an environment, and I like to show all the things that happen in that environment—to expand your theory, vision, interest in the confines of that, gives you a border—you cannot go beyond, or outside. I give myself self-limitations. The confine of one specific place forces you to concentrate. In Hollywood films, when you appreciate the words or the camerawork, you’re outside of the movie. I want you to just deal with people and emotions. This is the extension of the moviemaking process.