Director Coulter Discusses 'Hollywoodland'

Ben Affleck

Ben Affleck plays George Reeves in 'Hollywoodland.' Focus Films hide caption

itoggle caption Focus Films

Director Allen Coulter's latest project is Hollywoodland, a film that probes the mysterious death of TV Superman George Reeves. Coulter speaks with Liane Hansen about the project.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The new movie Hollywoodland opens across the country this Friday. It's the story of one of Hollywood's most enduring mysteries, the 1959 death of George Reeves, the man who played Superman on TV. Was it murder or suicide? The movie doesn't give an answer, but it does provide a noir-ish vision of Hollywood at a time of transition.

(Soundbite of Hollywoodland)

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As character) Adventures of Superman, 91 rating.

Mr. BEN AFFLECK (Actor): (As George Reeves) What does that mean? No adults are watching?

Unidentified Man: (As character) No, they're watching with the kids, George. Families. Kellogg's has ordered 26 more. They want to film in color.

Mr. AFFLECK: (As Reeves) Wow. I'll get to wear the blue and red.

Unidentified Man: (As character) Maybe you ought to put that out.

Mr. AFFLECK: (As Reeves) What for?

Unidentified Woman (Actor): (As character) Superman doesn't smoke.

HANSEN: George Reeves aspired to be more than a television actor, but despite roles in Gone With the Wind and From Here to Eternity, Reeves found himself typecast in tights and a cape. Allen Coulter, of HBO's The Sopranos and Sex in the City fame, directed the film. It's his directorial debut on the big screen. When he came into our studio, he explained how he first got his hands on the script.

Mr. ALLEN COULTER (Director): The script came to me really kind of over the transom from my agent and I read it and within about five pages I knew I wanted to do it.

HANSEN: What was in that five pages that immediately told you you wanted to make this film?

Mr. COULTER: Well, it was this great period piece, this great Hollywood noir milieu, a really interesting and arresting angle on telling what should be a biopic sort of story. Instead it had this feeling of a great drama. And you saw very quickly that Reeves was a very complex man. It began, as the movie does, with the end of the story in a way. And then you start retracing and discovering who George was. And it was just such an absolutely fabulous combination of starting with the glamorous world of Hollywood in the late '40s, early '50s and the real time world being 1959, where the Hollywood system is starting to fade away and the television world is rising to eminence, you know.

HANSEN: Whose story is this? Is it the story of the fictional detective, Louis Simo, played by...

Mr. COULTER: Adrian Brody.

HANSEN: ...Adrian Brody? Is it George Reeves's story, played by Ben Affleck? Is it the relationship that George Reeves was having with the wife of the head of the studio, Toni Mannix? She's played by Diane Lane? Whose story are you telling?

Mr. COULTER: Well, it - ultimately its Adrian's. It's Louis Simo, that character, the detective. And it's through his eyes that we track this story and get to know George, really. He takes this case on. And he's hired by the mother to prove that her son was murdered. He's based on a real - a series of real people, but he's a fictitious character. As he gets involved in the case he goes from a kind of cocky guy who's just taking this as a money job to someone who's deeply empathetic with George by the end of the story.

HANSEN: Was it difficult doing what essentially is a murder mystery without a real ending?

Mr. COULTER: Well, I like that, because we don't know the ending. No one that's ever admitted it was in the room with George that night on June 16th, 1959 at roughly one o'clock in the morning. So we don't know quite. He went up to his room and allegedly took a gun out of the drawer and as reported by the police, according to Lenore Lemon, his then girlfriend, as said to her friend sitting downstairs, he's going to shoot himself. And next thing you know there's the sound of the gun. And there the story begins.

HANSEN: Did you watch old Superman clips and...

Mr. COULTER: Yeah. We - Ben...

HANSEN: This is Ben Affleck?

Mr. COULTER: Ben Affleck should probably go into the Guinness Book of World Records for having watched all 112 episodes. I didn't need to watch that many, fortunately, because the movie's about George Reeves, not about Superman, and not about the series, really. So I watched enough to get a sense of who I thought George was, both as an actor and as a person, because occasionally the real person peeks through. So I watched enough to get a sense of that.

HANSEN: What kind of direction did you give Ben Affleck about the character George Reeves, given that you said you understood who he was as a person and an actor?

Mr. COULTER: Well, when we first met, you know, one of the first things I said was, you know, people in those days - men and women - didn't act the way we do. I don't mean just as an actor. I mean as human beings. They were more decorous, if you will, more reserved in their way of dressing and so on. I mean they're still human beings, but they carried themselves different, they behaved differently. And one of the comments I once made to David Chase as a sort of conversation...

HANSEN: He's the creator...

Mr. COULTER: The creator of...

HANSEN: ...of The Sopranos, in which you're associated with closely.

Mr. COULTER: Yes. And David and I were talking about this subject. And I said, you know, you'll never be as old as Clark Gable. And what I meant was that there was a certain demeanor that people had in those days that we simply don't have, a kind of quality of manliness that the men had, and so we - Ben and I talked about that, that George had that demeanor, a kind of reserve, and he was a very stolid guy. He had a - his voice was, you know, trained at the Palacino Playhouse, and - and so we talked about that. And plus that George was heavier, so Ben said, yes, immediately he would gain 20 pounds. And he did. And we changed him prosthetically, changed the shape of his nose and his hairline and his color of his eyes. And with the weight and his development of this voice that really does sound like George - it wasn't an imitation but it kind of embodied - but it kind of embodies him - and then of course we talked about who we though he was and his desperate need to be a star of a different kind than he became.

HANSEN: You use some black and white footage in the film. There's a clip from the film From Here to Eternity, and Ben Affleck as George Reeves is doing a scene with Burt Lancaster. And first of all, where did you get something that essentially became an outtake, because you give us the sense in the story that that scene was cut out because everyone saw George Reeves on the screen and started laughing and say, Superman, Superman. So that sort of signals the death now of his movie career. But where did you get the footage?

Mr. COULTER: Well, I have to confess. That scene is in the movie. The reality is this, that we were told initially that the scene was cut, but when we examined the film we saw that it wasn't. Word was that his part had possibly been trimmed as a result of the catcalls that the screening received. The screening did receive those catcalls. And people who saw the movie, and Jack Larson among them, said yes, people shouted out Superman when they saw George Reeves appear on the screen.

We took some license there because - you just said it - in truth, Superman was the death of his career as a serious actor. And the simplest way to tell the audience, our audience, that was to have, you know, Buddy Adler hold up his hands and make this sign of the scissors cutting through the projected beam. And it was - I had him put his hand right into the beam, because I thought it was the most vivid way to metaphorically say this is the end of this man's career as a serious actor. And so we took that license dramatically. As Jim Beaver said, to make the film really accurate we needed to make a film that ran 45 years long.

HANSEN: There's one - a couple of shots that happened in the film that add to the mystery of whether or not George Reeves committed suicide or was murdered. And there are Catholic holy prayer cards that's on the bed, they're scattered. In the Catholic tradition suicide is considered a sin. Are those cards put there for a purpose?

Mr. COULTER: You know, those cards were there, as pointed out in the scene when he goes to the house. He asks - he says, were these in the report? And Detective Patterson says they weren't there then. Someone snuck in after the fact and placed these prayer cards over the various bullet holes in the room. And that was - and that's reported and is a fact. We now know who placed them, but I'll tell you later.

HANSEN: You're not going to give away the ending...

Mr. COULTER: No.

HANSEN: ...non-ending of the film?

Mr. COULTER: Well, it's never revealed in the movie, because Louis Simo doesn't know. And therefore we didn't think it was fair to tell anything that Simo didn't know. You know, we tried - and I tried - to make it clear that the camera belonged to Louis Simo, that it often tracks over his shoulder and it's frequently handheld and it rides very closely with him, like a partner almost, throughout the movie. And in fact there's a moment when George and Simo seem to be in the same room together almost, as if they were in the same room at the same moment.

HANSEN: All right, just between us and...

Mr. COULTER: Yes.

HANSEN: ...and a few million listeners, what do you think happened on that night in 1959?

Mr. COULTER: Well, I'll give you the answer that I've sort of developed, because I've been asked that before, believe it or not. And an answer is that I don't know. And I don't know any more than anybody who could read the material would know. And all of the actors and myself believe that the risk of our revealing our personal opinions, which we think are not particularly valid, is that we stain the whole movie because people will think, a-ha, they know. And the truth is we don't know. And I think one of the exciting and strange things is that after all this time it still remains a mystery.

HANSEN: Director Allen Coulter's new film, Hollywoodland, opens in theaters nationwide this Friday. Thanks so much for coming in.

Mr. COULTER: Thanks so much.

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