Of Mice and Men

John Malkovich on acting: "You're treated like a recalcitrant, moody, trained organ-grinder monkey"

John Malkovich belongs to the most mistrusted and misunderstood genus in American movies: the intelligent actor. "It's not just that you're treated like a recalcitrant, moody, trained organ-grinder monkey," he says in a soft, measured monotone during a recent publicity stopover, "but you're asked to do things that you know are stupid, that you know won't work, and to say things you know are idiotic." So Malkovich made sure, when he cast Javier Bardem as a South American detective in his directorial debut, The Dancer Upstairs, that they agreed on how restrained the character would be. "Javier is a very exuberant, big, and even flashy -- which is not to say untrue -- performer," Malkovich allows. "Putting him in [this] movie is like putting a battleship on a creek. 'Be careful. Watch the shoreline.' There were 2,000 shots in this film and maybe twice or three times I might have said after [a] take, 'You can do less. It's OK.'"

The Chicago-bred Malkovich, who now lives in France, played a director in Manoel de Oliveira's I'm Going Home (and also in the cult fave Shadow of the Vampire, which he says he wrote -- and rewrote -- quite a bit of). It's tempting to see the Portuguese master's influence in the deliberate Dancer, but Malkovich demurs. "I suppose you could look at it as a European film, but I would say it's like a film from the '70s," he says, standing by a hotel window and drawing on a filterless cigarette. "I think this film has a terrific pace, but it's not afraid of sitting there. I mean, I could have sat there longer many times, which Manoel would have done, I think. [But] a thriller requires, by definition, a tighter construction." The Dancer Upstairs opens this Friday at the UA Galaxy, the Empire, the Shattuck (in Berkeley), and the CinéArts (in Sausalito). Next up, says Malkovich, "I'm playing the man who pretended to be Stanley Kubrick in England for two years, which is pretty hilarious. I've committed, but whether the people with the money have may be a different story. It usually is."

The Devil's Backbone"To go from one man's paranoid nightmare to another's post-Victorian evaporating dream is really a strange experience," Matthew Robbins relates with a chuckle. The Sea Cliff screenwriter is currently adapting H.P. Lovecraft's novel At the Mountains of Madness for DreamWorks and Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows for Disney, both to be directed by his writing partner, Guillermo del Toro (Cronos, Blade 2). The two have had no hesitation about reworking the source material, Robbins reports.

"The Lovecraft is a strange, brooding, atmospheric piece with few characters and little story," he explains. "Lovecraft's great gift is to put you in the middle of strangeness and to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. But in terms of movie narrative, we had to invent the characters and create the dramatic structure." As for Grahame's beloved children's classic, he says, "The characters are well-established and iconic. The book itself is a charming collection of loosely connected incidents, but there's nothing resembling a plot." Both movies will have sizable budgets, with Willows combining live action and computer graphics.

A few days after we spoke, Robbins jetted to Prague (via Slovenia, where he was invited to sit on a screenwriting panel) to meet with del Toro on the set of the director's current movie, Hellboy (coming next summer). Before he left, Robbins caught the premiere of Zorro, the Michael Smuin ballet now at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, for which he wrote the libretto.

Top BananaThe Weather Underground, co-directed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel, won the Golden Gate Award for Documentary Feature at the just-wrapped S.F. International Film Festival, while John Shenk and Megan Mylan's Lost Boys of Sudan garnered the GGA for Bay Area Documentary. S. Smith Patrick's The Children of Ibdaa: To Create Something Out of Nothing was adjudged best Bay Area Documentary Short, and Christopher Arcella's Frequency Response-Observations scored the GGA for Bay Area Narrative Short. The Brazilian black comedy The Man of the Year took home the SKYY Prize for best first feature. ... Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato will receive the 2003 Frameline Award next month at the S.F. International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. The L.A. duo's new documentaries, School's Out: The Life of a Gay High School in Texas and Dark Roots: The Unauthorized Anna Nicole Smith Story, will screen along with Party Monster, their feature debut starring Macaulay Culkin.

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