Strange but true – there are Web sites where viewers can participate by having sex with adult industry professionals. Robert Nathan, making his feature directorial debut, and his writing/producing partner Lukas Kendall, have imagined a number of things that could easily go wrong in this scenario. The result is the “found footage” thriller LUCKY BASTARD, which opens theatrically Friday April 5.
Nathan, a journalist and novelist as well as a writer/producer, was previously nominated for (among other honors) four Emmys and an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. His TV credits include LAW & ORDER, ER and FAIRLY LEGAL. He took time to answer questions about LUCKY BASTARD in great depth.
ASSIGNMENT X: How did you and Lukas Kendall originally become partners?
ROBERT NATHAN: It was 1996. Lukas heard me speak on a panel with my college classmates Scott Turow and Henry Bromell. Henry died two weeks ago; he was one my oldest friends. I was writing at Paramount at the time, developing television shows. Lukas called and asked to come over and talk about becoming a writer. I said yes because I pretty much always say yes. I think it’s part of a writer’s responsibility. If you’re lucky enough to make a living doing work you love, I think you should help other people do it, too. A lot of people have done it for me. Lukas and I both knew right away we had a lot in common in our approach to storytelling and wanted to work together. So we started passing ideas and drafts back and forth to find that weird road to collaboration that any writing team has to find. A lot of it’s about having a thick skin. Nobody, including me, likes being told, “This isn’t very good.” But if you can’t be honest with a writing partner, you’re in trouble. Nothing good’s going to get done. I can’t explain why Lukas and I were able to be honest with each other immediately. Somehow we just were. Sixteen years later we were doing what I hoped we’d be doing – making movies together.
AX: What was the genesis of LUCKY BASTARD?
NATHAN: Lukas was surfing the web and saw something about a site offering a contest to let fans [have sex] with a p**n star. He thought it was one of the strangest things he’d ever seen. I had the same reaction. Who would do that? Is that safe? What kind of person would want to have sex with somebody they didn’t know and then actually have it on the Net? It seemed to both of us a natural setting for a story. First there was the level of saturation of p**n. Every second of every day in this country, three thousand dollars is being spent on pornography. Every second, there are 28,258 internet users watching p**n. Every thirty-nine minutes, a new p**nographic video is being made. It’s staggering. It’s an enormous business hardly anybody talks about, and when they do it’s either jokey or with contempt. But that’s our way of avoiding the truth. A lot of people may act like they have contempt for p**n, or make fun of it, but they’re buying or watching the industry’s products. The thing that happened to make the subject new again is the birth of the Internet. It made p**n instantly available like it never was before, a lot of it for free. So you didn’t have to go into some seedy store on the edge of town to buy it. That alone made me start thinking about what p**n means in our culture. What was it doing to our lives? How did it affect people’s relationships?
Those first questions Lukas asked led him straight to the idea of a suspense thriller. But we also wanted to make something different. We thought the potential of “found footage” hadn’t been touched. You always wonder in a lot of those movies why someone still has a camera in his hand when his life is at stake. So we needed a conceit, an idea, for “found footage” to make sense. The idea of a Web site documenting its own contest was the next step. The audience wouldn’t have to wonder why cameras were running. I grew up at the very beginning of reality television. AN AMERICAN FAMILY, the documentary about the Loud family, changed the way we saw everything. The whole country was riveted to their TV sets. The Louds gave birth to a genre where a house has lots of cameras and we voyeuristically watch people living their lives. It’s very strange when you think about it. REAL WORLD was totally unreal. SURVIVOR looks real, but it’s a complete contrivance. All those “bachelor” shows are, too. Reality TV does weird things to our perception of reality, because at some level, we know that what looks real was set up. We know those relationships were set in motion artificially. So we took that idea and said, “What if our p*rn site records its contest like that, with cameras everywhere running all the time?” And then we were on the road to the script. We knew we could go somewhere thematically where no one had gone, but we could do it as a suspense thriller. I kept thinking about people being thrown off REAL WORLD by their housemates or people being thrown off SURVIVOR, and I realized we could say something about our society. We could show how the essence of a lot of reality television, like those early episodes of AMERICAN IDOL was about humiliation as entertainment. And we could make a movie about sex as a commodity. I mean, really, we live in a fairly sick culture. A lot of it we just don’t talk about.
It’s very odd how some p**n is shot. Like you’ll watch something graphic and really disturbing, like S & M, and these days they’ll actually interview the performers at the end to tell you, this isn’t real, nobody was really hurt, this was all an act, a fantasy, so don’t get the idea that hurting people is a good thing. Who would have thought twenty years ago that p**n would have a “coda” for the performers to discuss what they were doing? Who would have thought we’d end up here?
AX: Have there been any serious incidents associated with this type of website?
NATHAN: Not that we know of. We do know some of the fallout from reality shows. People who come out of them psychologically in trouble, physically in trouble. It goes right back to 1970 and Pat and Bill Loud who – willingly or unwillingly, who can tell? – got divorced on national television. That’s the thing about making “reality.” Terrible things can happen. Like they do in LUCKY BASTARD.
AX: What was the division of writing responsibilities, if any, between you and Lukas Kendall?
NATHAN: By the time we finished the script, we couldn’t remember who’d written what. I started with structure and Lukas started with dialogue. Lukas writes brilliant dialogue. When I read his first draft I was just plain stunned. I thought Ashley’s [Betsy Rue] speech to the camera about her life – the p**n star making a joke about the meaning of the word “adult” in “adult entertainment” – wasn’t just insanely funny, it was also heartbreaking and poignant at the same time. I was laughing, but I wanted to cry for her. Lukas taps into pieces of the human heart that are so powerful. By the end we were talking about every word, every scene, how to deepen the character arcs. There isn’t a page of the script that both of us didn’t labor over together.
AX: What was the casting process like?
NATHAN: At the beginning of casting, I was worried we wouldn’t find mainstream actors who would put their guts on the line and tackle material this off-center. And some of them had to do nudity. Our casting director, Christine Sheaks, who’s cast a ton of movies and knows everybody, wasn’t worried at all. She made me remember what I knew but forgot. Actors are like the rest of us. They want to do interesting work. So it wasn’t as hard for every part as I thought it would be. Lukas and I had coffee with Don McManus and we knew we’d found our Mike. I knew how brilliant an actor Don was. He started with Joe Papp doing Shakespeare, and in a really weird coincidence he was in one of the earliest episodes of LAW & ORDER that I wrote way back in the first season in 1990. He’s sophisticated and smart and lovable, and he’s tough and edgy and kind of emotionally unpredictable. He was perfect. Jay Paulson’s work I knew from TV and movies. I’d loved him on MAD MEN. The second he walked in and started talking, we had our Dave.
The toughest part was Ashley, the p**n star who’s only doing it because it’s a job. She’s got two kids to feed. We needed an actress who could convince us she’d been through hell but had come out on the other side with her humanity intact. We also needed a difficult combination of qualities to find. Sexy with humor. You can count on one hand the number of great actresses you’ve seen who can be uproariously funny and very sexy at the same time. A dozen actresses came in to read for the part and if I hadn’t been in casting sessions for twenty years, I would have been depressed. But I’d been there. You don’t lose faith. You just keep listening to actors until the right one walks in. Well, actually, I did lose faith. The part required a lot of nudity and so the actress had to be willing to be naked, and then also be funny and sexy. There were a couple of days when I thought we’d never find her. Then Betsy Rue walked in and I wanted to celebrate. She’s a terrifically gifted actress with tremendous presence and range, and she works hard but makes it look easy, and she’s beautiful, sexy, funny, soulful, and everything else you could ask for. It was like that for every part. Christine never gave up. She just kept them coming in the door until we found who we needed. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever cast but in the end it was so satisfying. There are a lot of highs making TV and movies, and one of them is seeing an actor come in and nail it, inhabit the character right in front of you. It happened for every part in this movie.
AX: Did you have to change anything/tone anything down to accommodate the actors?
NATHAN: We didn’t need to tone anything down. Our actors wanted to go for broke in every scene. Not one of them flinched at the language or the nudity or the emotional violence. Any changes we made on the set were about the sound of words. Sometimes an actor will find a better way to do something, to change one word and make the moment better. I always go with that. Some people say directors play actors as if they were instruments. Even though I had worked with actors only as a producer before this movie, my feeling is, they’re instruments, but they also do a lot of their own playing. Let them find things in the script that you don’t know are there. With good actors, they always do. Jay Paulson can do more with a look, a glance, a tightening of his face – without saying a word – than a lot of actors can do with a page of dialogue. Catherine Annette has a moment where the look on her face conveys pain and sadness but what comes out of her mouth is anger. She’s doing a dozen layers of emotion in the flicker of an eye. It’s a brilliant small moment and it’s what makes a movie live. But no, we never toned down anything for the actors. They were there to make the script work and they put in brutal long days to do it.
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Article: Exclusive Interview with LUCKY BASTARD director Robert Nathan – Part 1