As acting legends go, Michael Douglas is surprisingly low-key: as I walked nervously into the hotel room his PR reps had set up during his stay at the Toronto International Film Festival, he was as warm and laid-back as if we’d been lifelong buddies. Douglas was in town promoting the premiere of his new indie thriller The Reach, co-starring Jeremy Irvine and directed by Jean-Baptiste Leonetti, and he was open about the challenges of making such a physically demanding project as well as the promise of his forthcoming time with Marvel. One day before heading off to shoot Ant-Man, Douglas talked about roughing it in the desert, American leading men, and why directors ought to listen to his creative advice.
You’ve been to Toronto and TIFF before.
Yes, I’ve been here a number of times. I did The In-Laws, I’ll Never Tell, perhaps three or four other pictures here. As far as the festival is concerned, I had a picture called The Solitary Man here.
Do you like coming to the film festival? Is it a nice experience for you?
Not really, actually, usually because I’m working. In this case I have to go and start shooting Ant-Man tomorrow. It’s mostly just junket stuff all day long. You’re trying to get a dinner out with friends at night but when you’ve done this long enough you’re smart enough to know that you want to get some rest so that you can try to enjoy the day. I do have a particular affinity for the Toronto festival; I think everyone does. It’s weathered itself well. The Canadian audience particularly just love cinema and are inherently on your side, rather than looking for trouble. It’s designed for people who like movies, and it gives me a chance to catch up with some old friends from Toronto.
It’s always nice to see a festival that can accommodate both really art-house films and also some more thriller-style mainstream films like that.
Yeah, sure, we’re a borderline festival film. The book that The Reach is based upon is a young adult’s book that this guy Rob White used to write out of the ’60s and ’70s, fairly commercial in nature. It’s a super classic hunt in the desert, so I guess we’re a borderline festival film.
I like the combination — the cinephiles might take to the Most Dangerous Game aspect of this, but it’s still a crowd-pleasing thriller at the end of the day. What was it like doing practically the whole shoot out there in the desert?
Yeah, that was the real challenge. Although I loved the original story, Robb White’s Deathwatch, and Stephen Susco’s screenplay, the question is still, “How do you do a thriller in bright sunlight, in the middle of the day, in the desert, with not a lot of things to hide behind?” I think he plotted it out pretty well, but that was the real challenge. Then the other part was just the practicality of it. With the time we had to get it done, could we get it done as well as we could? I really have to thank Jeremy [Irvine], because I’m always looking a little bit with jaundice at some of the young actors, with regard to their work ethic, given the stories you hear. We auditioned a lot of kids for these roles, for this all-American, northern-New Mexico high-school couple, and lo and behold, we ended up with a Brit and [for the female lead] an Aussie. I don’t know what that says about our young American actors, because we certainly auditioned a number of them, but these guys clearly have a work ethic. It really showed in this; Jeremy was fantastic in by far the most difficult movie he’s ever done in his life.
He got a tough break, but I’m sure it must have been tough for you too, being out there.
Yeah it was, but you know it’s coming. It’s not a big surprise so you’re geared for it. Everybody got along really well. These sorts of things are set from the top, and inspired by me, being the producer. But when we have a guy like this, whose work ethic sets everyone else an example, running around in his underwear, barefoot, either freezing his ass off at night or dying of heat during the day, with all the effects stuff, and not really complaining — it raises everybody’s game. That’s the part of movie-making I love. I love that challenge; working without a safety net.
Do you find in a movie like this, when there are really only two actors all the time, you have to raise your game in that respect too?
There is no green screen, no effects, so you have got to make this story work and survive on the storyline and plot, dialogue and performances. I do whatever I can do — although I didn’t ever have to worry about this with Jeremy — it’s in my interest to make him as comfortable as possible, and to encourage. Some guys, out of their own insecurities, try to intimidate younger actors, or put them off their game, competitively, which makes no sense whatsoever. I think it comes from my background as a producer, which means I look out for the movie, and want everybody to be as good as they possibly can be. I think this has been a really good picture for Jeremy, and I think he did a great job, and showed everybody how strong he can be.
I can’t imagine how intimidating it must be to act besides a distinguished, older actor.
Yeah, I didn’t really think about that, but you’re probably right. As I said, I try to make him as comfortable as I can, just so he is encouraged to do whatever he wants to do, to step out and not feel restricted.
I was thinking about your history as a producer, and the kind of directors that you’ve worked with — what are the challenges when working with a director with a short resume?
Whether they have a lot of experience or little, you want to be sure they have a vision, and that they have a picture in their mind of the movie. Whatever level they are, I have a habit of talking a movie through with a director, and I do it at my expense — I’m the one who really needs it. In truth, my secret is that I’m really trying to find out how much of a vision the director has. It really depends. Michael Cahill, with King of California , had never directed before, but he had a good, solid screenplay, so that helped him a lot. Normally, whether it’s a first-time director or a pro, if you’ve cast correctly, you don’t have a lot to say to your actors. Unless for some reason they really go off on a bad tangent. I get nervous with those directors who feel a nervous need to direct when, in fact, they have a whole lot of other things to worry about. I support filmmakers. Every picture where I’ve had the final cut as producer I’ve been able to share that with the director so that they haven’t felt shut out. On the other side of it, I like to be a sounding board. It’s lonely being a director and I like the director to not feel threatened when talking or debating about things.
You said you’re starting to shoot Ant-Man?
That’s now being directed by Peyton Reed?
That’s right, yeah.
It’s been interesting, with Peyton Reed replacing Edgar Wright in the Ant-Man director’s chair.
It was a weird situation, yes, but this is the Marvel world. It’s a new world to me. When I got into it, I probably would’ve made some value judgments, but now I realize that this is a different kind of world. They have a phenomenal track record. This is a real example of how I’m an actor-for-hire. I’ve never dealt with a green screen before, so I’m just gonna do my bit, and then watch.
Tell me a bit about your role in the film.
I play a guy named Dr. Henry Pym, who is actually the guy who invents this special serum which can reduce a man down to the size of an ant. I was the original Ant-Man!
Do you have to do any stunt work?
No, no, not for this one. I work with Paul Rudd, who stars in the movie, who will actually be my protégé in the film. I’ve never worked with him before, but he’s a lovely guy.
It’s gonna be interesting to see you work with someone who’s chiefly known as a comedian. Is the film chiefly comic?
Not really, although I think there are more comic moments than most of the Marvel films. It is more humanitarian based in terms of the amount and size of the green screen. Again, I’m not to say, because I’m not sure how they’re going to shape it.
I hear they run a pretty tight ship over there at Marvel.
Yes, they oversee it thoroughly. Kevin Feige has been the gentleman who has overseen all of their pictures so far, and they seem to have been pretty successful. They know what they’re doing.