Q&A: Hoffman makes directoral debut

By David Orlikoff

Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Ortiz have worked together for more than a decade as two prominent members of the LAByrinth Theater Company. Their latest venture, “Jack Goes Boating,” is an adaptation of the successful play they starred in and is the first film Hoffman has directed after years of performing for theater.

Jack (Hoffman) and his best friend Clyde (Ortiz) are limo drivers for Jack’s uncle in New York. The drama begins when Clyde’s wife Lucy sets him up with someone from the office. I had the chance to meet with Hoffman and Ortiz with some other college journalists at their room in the Elysian hotel last week and talked about acting, directing, their background in theater and how it shaped this film.

The Chronicle: As an actor, what do you like to get from a director, and how is your approach to directing informed by your acting experience?

Philip Seymour Hoffman: I’ve been directing theater for 13 years, so I had time to have that evolve or develop. Being an actor and being a director kind of work well together if that’s how your mind works, and I feel like my mind does. When I first started directing, [I] start[ed] to see [my]self in other actors. As an actor, you are very subjective. It’s almost very hard to be aware of where you are and if it’s working. As a director, you are incredibly objective. You can see where people are struggling and maybe need a little nudge this way or that and you see yourself in those circumstances. So when I would go back to acting I started to have a little more understanding or empathy toward what certain directors wanted me to do or how they perceive me.

I personally don’t want a director to be any certain way to me as an actor. I definitely want them to be in charge, and I definitely want them to be honest. I don’t want them to settle. So how they go about directing is always different, but those three things are really important: They are in charge, they are honest and they don’t want to settle. Some directors will just be like, “Oh that’s fine, it’s good enough.” I don’t want to feel that. I want to know and don’t be scared to tell me it’s not right. Don’t be scared to tell me you want more. Even if I’m giving off the energy of “don’t come near me because I’ve done it enough,” please still come near me and make me do it because that is the director’s job—to keep confronting the actor even when it looks like they don’t want to be confronted. And as an actor I appreciate that very much, after the fact.

The Chronicle: How did you transition from the usually more collaborative medium of theater to the usually less collaborative medium of film?

John Ortiz: One thing we did was we kept the same writer for the screenplay. Even though we were mindful it needed to be different, we were mindful we had something great going on, and faith does a lot. So we took it a step further and made sure everyone who was part of the culture of LAByrinth was involved however they wanted to be. So you have amazing actors with one line—I mean it’s peppered throughout the film. It was about immersion, and that’s what we do at LAByrinth. And when we’re doing it well, that’s when it’s really special. That’s what separates us from the average theater company where they go and put up a show to sell this amount of tickets. We don’t know what show we’re going to do but you’re an amazing person and you’ve got this amazing idea, so let’s make it happen.

The Chronicle: The original production was said to have been a very cinematic play and this film was very theatrical. Did you prefer producing the play or the film?

PSH: I don’t think the film is very theatrical. I challenge that. I think because you know it’s a play, that’s what you project onto it and if you didn’t know it was a play, it wouldn’t even be a thought. You wouldn’t even think that for a second, you just wouldn’t. You’d just think that’s the screenplay. And there are a lot of films I see that aren’t plays that have very long scenes in them and no one ever talks about, “it looks like a play.” Or there’s one 10-minute shot. I’m thinking about Michael Haneke stuff. And that stuff is incredible. And what’s incredible about it is sometimes it doesn’t cut for 10 minutes and you are just watching the scene unfold from far away as if it’s a proscenium stage and there it is and we talk about that as great cinema, and it is great cinema.

Theatrical is a general word, because what is theatrical? It’s odd even when you are in the theater and you do a play and just because this person has done film they will [say], “They are trying to make it cinematic on a stage.” And I’m like, “Wha-what do you mean? It’s the stage. I can’t make it cinematic—It’s happening right in front of you.” And just because the lights are really low and whatever. And I feel like, “screw it man.” Both these mediums should just be complementing each other and feeding each other and helping each other break the rules and if you want to bring film into the theater or bring theater into films, it should just be up for grabs. Let’s go for it. Let’s not delineate it. Let’s not separate. Why aren’t we letting these things feed each other? Do you know what I mean? We tried to take whatever we were working on in the play, keep developing it into the film, not be scared that it wasn’t on a stage, not be scared that it was going into a film and just trust that those things would influence each other.

The Chronicle: How did this come about? Had you two been planning to work on a film together for some time?

JO: We tried very hard not to bring film into the company, especially as our careers were taking off in film. And we did that for a lot of reasons. One is, it’s really hard to be committed to doing theater. Because there is very little money involved, it’s really hard work and it takes you out of commission for a long time when you are working on something. And the nature of LAByrinth is unorthodox so it’s even harder because it is essentially run not by Phil and I, but by the membership, which is over a hundred amazing kick-ass actors who can be crazy at times. So it needed a very precise focus and commitment to be able to honor that and to keep the mission true. And the mission was a lot about process, and so the minute you bring film into it or some kind of result oriented thing, you are cutting into the heart of the company. And so what’s really amazing is that with this, it happened organically. It happened because it needed to happen and it was in front of us and it just made sense to continue riding the wave of this collaboration and it just was right, and without cutting into or compromising the theater.

The Chronicle: How much do economics factor into Jack’s situation?

PSH: It’s hard to change something about your life and keep everything else the same. It’s hard to start doing something different if everything else, you haven’t dealt with. I think sometimes in order to truly change a crucial component of your personality you actually have to change your life somehow. And so I think with Jack, the idea of just getting a job that takes him away from where he’s been for so long, like at the MTA, is the actual changing. I don’t even know if he will make more. He might make more as a limo guy than at the MTA [laughs].