James Toback has had a crazy career. After two classics of bleak 1970s American filmmaking — “The Gambler,” with James Caan, and “Fingers,” with Harvey Keitel — he co-wrote “Bugsy” with Warren Beatty, and he’s frequently worked with Robert Downey Jr. on “The Pick-Up Artist,” “Two Girls and a Guy” and “Black and White” (where he hits on Mike Tyson).
But there have been gaps when Toback couldn't get anything off the ground. “Seduced and Abandoned,” which will play on HBO, follows Toback and Alec Baldwin as they try to get a sex-filled drama set in Iraq off the ground while roaming the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. It doesn’t work, but they're left with a satirical documentary that, with a series of chats with the likes of Ryan Gosling and Jessica Chastain, points to how difficult it is to fund non-blockbusters these days.
It’s not a particularly optimistic portrait of how difficult it is to get mid-level films made these days. How surprised were you by your findings?
I was not overwhelmingly surprised by the general climate. I was surprised by the specifics, particularly the numbers being as low as they were. I find it fascinating, except that they involve blockades to my own progress. There are things in life you would find much more amusing if they didn’t affect you adversely.
But you still wound up with a movie.
In the case of this movie, that is to say the movie we’re trying to get financed within the movie, we had the uniquely pleasant experience knowing that even if it didn’t ork out, we had this movie that would come out of it. In effect it was two for the price of one, or one for the price of one. We wouldn’t come out empty.
Is this film a reaction to having fallow periods, where you couldn’t get anything made?
I have enough experience over the years to know that no is a much more common answer than yes. Over the years I can’t count the number of times people have said, “This sounds great,” then say, “I don’t know, I’m not sure about that,” then the next day say “No.” I’ve had conversations end where I had felt there was a commitment, and the next day they don’t remember the conversation.
What’s different today versus the past?
You have to find the number where people say, “I can’t really get hurt.” Because once they’re saying, “That’s a bit much for me,” you know you’re almost certainly not going to get it. There aren’t a lot of bold people around anymore. The idea of risk used to be endemic to filmmaking. If you look at the early days or early middle days of Hollywood, that was part of making movies. You financed a movie knowing you could lose the money. There was no guarantee. You invested and like any investment, it might succeed or fail. Now you have this pathetically, grovelingly, frighteningly cautious mentality that says the model is “I should always be covered. I want the money in my left pocket before I take it out of my right.”
Are you still trying to get the film within the film made?
I wouldn’t say we’re actively trying. It’s still there. I will admit that I’ve been a bit sidetracked by some other movies I’m involved with. Sometimes all of a sudden things come together when you drop your intensity. I was struggling like crazy to get “Harvard Man” made. Leonardo Di Caprio was going to do it in ’94. But the plug was pulled. When I backed off and stopped pushing [in the early ‘00s], it just fell in my lap.
Bonus story: Toback reminisces about a bygone era of distribution: “'Fingers,' when it opened in Chicago, it opened on a double bill at an exploitation house with 'Drum,' the sequel to 'Mandingo.' On the marquee — Roger Ebert told me this — it read 'Ken Norton is 'Drum.' Jim Brown is 'Fingers.'" (Jim Brown is a supporting character in “Fingers.” The lead is Harvey Keitel.)