Synecdoche, New York
If we don't "go to the movies" in any form, our minds wither and sicken.
John McNaughton's "Mad Dog and Glory" is the oddest of cinematic ducks—it offers a plot that never goes where one expects to go, has actors playing decidedly against their usual personas and is the work of a director making his major studio debut after making one of the most notoriously brutal and off-putting movies ever made. And yet, despite these disparate ingredients (or perhaps because of them), the film somehow works beautifully. While audiences failed to turn out in droves for it when it first came out, this unusual project has gone on to find a cult following in subsequent years of people who have sparked to its charms. Those fans and the newly curious will be happy to learn that the film has finally received a long-overdue special edition Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber Studio Classics, which includes an audio commentary from director John McNaughton and archival interviews with many of the top talents who helped bring it to life.
For those unfamiliar with it, “Mad Dog and Glory” stars Robert De Niro as Wayne “Mad Dog” Dobie, a crime scene photographer with the Chicago Police Department with a latent artistic streak and a meek approach to life that has earned him his mocking nickname. One night, he ends up saving the life of a man who turns out to be Frank Milo (Bill Murray), a local crime boss who moonlights as a stand-up comedian in a club where his booking is explained by the fact that he owns the place. That isn’t all that he owns, so to speak, because as a way of thanking Wayne for saving his life, he sends over Glory (Uma Thurman), a bartender in his club working off her brother’s debt, to spend the week with him. Wayne is naturally appalled at first but as the week goes on, the two grow closer and a romance seems to be developing between them. When the week is up, Wayne refuses to turn her over and when he is unable to raise the money that she owes to Frank to buy her freedom, he is forced to literally fight for something that he loves by brawling in the street with his would-be benefactor.
Yes, the basic premise probably would not fly today and was a bit dodgy even back in the day. But “Mad Dog and Glory” deftly manages to navigate all of the inherent pitfalls to deliver an enormously entertaining work. Richard Price's screenplay takes all the varying story elements and manages to find just the right tone to cover them all and supplies his fascinating characters with memorable dialogue (“Are you married?” “No, not personally, no.”). The main actors are all excellent—De Niro and Murray both do great jobs playing against type and Thurman adds enough personality to her character to keep her from becoming nothing more than a plot device—and they ably supported by a stellar supporting cast that includes Mike Starr, David Caruso, Tom Towles and Kathy Baker.
McNaughton, best known at the time for his grisly horror classic “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” may not have seemed like anyone’s first pick to handle this material. But he gets everything right from deftly handling the shifts from drama to comedy to romance to presenting Chicago in a way that feels as if it was done by someone who is more interested in getting a real feel for the city than in capturing all the familiar visual landmarks to be had. (The only thing jarring in the whole film is the suggestion at one point that Bill Murray is playing a character who is a White Sox fan.)
To promote the release of the Blu-ray, I got on the phone with McNaughton and we discussed the history of the film—including its shooting, its re-shooting and its messed-up marketing—as well as how it stands up today.
(At the end of the interview, we talk briefly about “Normal Life,” McNaughton’s astounding and sadly little-seen 1996 true life crime drama that featured career-best performances from Ashley Judd and the late Luke Perry. This interview was conducted just after Perry’s stroke and several days before his tragic death. As he had not factored much in our original discussion, I later asked McNaughton to come up with a few thoughts on working with him and have included them into the interview.)
“Mad Dog and Glory” was your fourth feature film but your first studio project. In the wake of the notoriety surrounding the release of your first film, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” were you contacted by the studios about the possibility of working with them?
No. What I did get was an agent. When “Henry” was done, the people who funded it didn’t like it. There was a PR guy there who was a friend and, under my tutelage, he mailed video cassettes out to people all over the country and it started to pick up some steam that way. I did not get to Hollywood for a little bit but we got a little more exposure.
How did the “Mad Dog and Glory” project end up coming your way?
It was interesting. I am Martin Scorsese’s biggest fan. When I went to see “Mean Streets” when it came out, I went with a bunch of my friends that I had grown up with on the South Side. It wasn’t a multiplex, it was a duplex. I forget what the other film was but we went to see that and then snuck in to see “Mean Streets” for free. My friends and I looked like the guys on the screen—that film was basically about us, city kids. I was pretty much blown away by Scorsese from that point forward and he was one that I looked up to, to say the least. One day, I had an old loft on Milwaukee Avenue above Barry’s Cut-Rate Drugs and the phone rang. It was a woman named Melanie Freeson, who used to work as Marty’s development person. She had seen “Henry” somewhere and recommended it to Marty. Marty very much liked it and Melanie called me up and asked “Is this John McNaughton?” I said yes and she said, “I work for Martin Scorsese, he watched your film last night and he would like to talk to you.” My first reaction, of course, was, “Who is this really?” but it was all on the up-and-up.
I had tried earlier to get the film through my agent to Scorsese, but this was when someone else was his development person and that person saw it and hated it and cursed out my agent for daring to send something so disreputable to her. This was when Martin was about to produce the Jim Thompson book that Stephen Frears directed, “The Grifters.” I had read that book and was a big Jim Thompson fan so I had my agent send “Henry” to him but his development person got it and shut that down. Time passed, he got a new development person who loved it and that is how Marty saw it.
Anyway, she called and said, “Are you going to be there in 15 minutes so that he can call you?” Uh, yeah—I’ll be there. I’ll make it a point to be here in 15 minutes. Marty called and we talked about “Henry” and how much I liked the stuff that he had done. He asked if I had any projects and I was working on a couple. He said he had one he wanted me to read and he sent me “Mad Dog and Glory.” It was a great script and I, of course, said yes.
What was it about the project that was of interest to you? Obviously, it is quite different from “Henry” but it does share one similarity with it in the sense that even though it appears to be a straightforward genre film at first glance, it proves to be more of a character piece than something driven primarily by the story.
That’s true. I always start with characters. It was also good writing. After I did “Henry” and got an agent, I got sent every horse-shit horror script you could imagine reading in a lifetime and they were all rehashes of ooga-booga horror films and they were mostly crap. I have always been a voracious reader and I love good writing. Over the years, the thing that most moves me to do a film is the quality of the writing and Richard Price is pretty much on the top of the heap. It was just a wonderful script and Richard’s sense of humor was so similar to my own. It is funny because we didn’t really consider it a comedy when we made it. I teach a master class in directing at the Harold Ramis Film School at Second City and have shown it several times and find that the students think of it as a comedy. Even “Henry” has become much funnier over the years because people aren’t so shocked by it anymore.
Was the screenplay always set in Chicago?
No. Richard grew up in the Bronx and I think he has a house in Harlem these days. He has spent his life in New York and he is so New York. The script took place in New York and we were setting up to shoot it there. At that time, Universal and Scorsese were going to do a remake of Kurosawa’s “High and Low” and commissioned David Mamet to do the script. When that script finally came in, it was about 400 pages long and I think Marty told me that David sent a letter with it saying “I know you can’t do anything with this, but this is what came out.” So Marty was kind of left high and dry because he thought that was going to be his next project. Spielberg had previously approached him with the idea of doing a remake of “Cape Fear” that he had turned down the first time. Again, this is conjecture on my part but he hadn’t worked with De Niro in a lead role in a while and that gave him a chance to work with De Niro again since he was already on board. He took the assignment of “Cape Fear” and since Bob was getting into his forties and needed to be in fantastic shape for that film, he wanted to do that one first. They shut us down and took Bob away and went off to make “Cape Fear” and I wound up getting left high and dry. The day after they shut down our picture, I got a call from Eric Bogosian, who had seen “Henry” and had a show up in New York called “Sex, Drug, Rock n Roll,” which was the successor to “Talk Radio.” It was perfect because it was only a three-day shoot of a stage show. It was an abbreviated production schedule that I could fit in during the time that De Niro was leaving us and finish just before he came back.
When everybody came back to New York, the IA, the International Alliance of Theatrical—the union for all the below-the-line jobs like costumes and production design—went on strike in New York, so we couldn’t shoot. We were casting and prepping and every couple of days, we would hear, “They’re getting ready to settle!” and then they wouldn’t settle. Then we had to start thinking that we were about to start losing actors and think about where else we could shoot it. Of course, Steve Jones and myself were from Chicago as well and the casting of Bill Murray meant that it would be a perfectly serviceable location for that story. It was mostly horrible because we would make plans one day to do it in Chicago and the next day hear, “No, they are settling in New York.” Finally, we had to just pack up and come to Chicago and they didn’t settle in New York and we would have lost actors.
Were any of the actors already attached to the project when you came on board?
De Niro was interested. Marty couldn’t have been more kind or generous to me. We were meeting one day and he told me the Bob had read the script and was interested in it. It was completely up to me—he wasn’t pushing or anything—but he wanted to know if I would be interested in talking to him. I worshipped De Niro’s work and was happy to meet him and discuss it. There was this amazing meeting in Scorsese’s office—it was me and Scorsese and then Bob shows up. At first, we had been talking about Al Pacino for the part of Frank Milo. There is a knock at the door and it is Pacino. He sits down and we start talking and having a lot of laughs because those guys all have great senses of humor. While we are talking about the film, there is another knock on the door. Who could it be except for George Lucas, who just happened to be in town.
We didn’t cast Pacino for reasons that I don’t remember. Then at some point, Bob said “John, what do you think about Bill Murray?” My first reaction was “Bill Murray as a gangster?” It took about 15 seconds for the initial shock because that was not the expected idea at all. After thinking about it, I thought that it might be interesting. Bill was in New York and we got together for lunch and took a long stroll up the Hudson while talking about it and he came on board. Marty didn’t push anything on me. I read a review from somebody saying that I was given Bill Murray and Robert De Niro by Martin Scorsese and that simply wasn’t true.
See, Bill Murray as a gangster, I could accept. Bill Murray as a White Sox fan was the thing that I still have trouble buying.
Hey, being from the South Side, there was no way I was letting anybody be a Cubs fan. That just wasn’t going to happen.
So this was your first studio film and you had a big-name producer in Scorsese, big-name actors in De Niro and Murray—even Richard Price was a big name among screenwriters at that time. Obviously you had directed films before but considering the size and scope of this production, what was going through your head on the first day of filming?
The first day turned out to be a nightmare for reasons other than that because of the weather. I had two weeks of rehearsal with De Niro, Murray, and Uma, so we knew what movie we were making and I knew what to expect from them personally. I had such a great time with them because they were so respectful. The first time I had to tell Bob to do something a different way, I had a little bit of trepidation but he was totally cool and he trusted me after the rehearsal process. Unfortunately, we did have horrible weather—there was a big storm coming and we were shooting exteriors. We had some lights placed high up on a scaffold and lightning may or may not have hit the scaffold. We had to shut down and wait for the storm to pass, so after the first day, we were a half-day behind. I went home that night and couldn’t sleep—I thought my career was over. By the end of the shoot, however, we were a half-day ahead.
But yeah, the first time I had to tell Bob De Niro or Bill Murray—nobody tells Bill Murray anything unless he wants to hear it. We got along well but he told me a funny story much later. Many years ago, when I was struggling to become a director, I would take construction jobs to pay the rent. I was on a scaffold that collapsed and I fell about three stories and compressed a disc in my back. To this day, it still troubles me and when I get under a lot of stress, it acts up and I am crippled. This happened the night before we were about to start shooting nights—I was up on a ladder stapling black fabric on my windows to keep the light out so I could sleep days. I went to bed and I was fine but when I woke up, I was in crippling pain. The first few days on the set, whenever I had to get up and walk over to the actors to give them direction, just getting up out of the chair was excruciating. I was grimacing in pain and Bill Murray thought I was giving him a sort of brushback pitch—he thought I was grimacing because I thought his performance was so bad and he was brushed back by that. It sort of took us a few days for him to trust me but I had a pretty good time with him.
After the completion of principal photography, “Mad Dog and Glory” famously entered a long post-production period in which the original ending ended up being rewritten and reshot. Can you talk about the process that went into making that decision?
I read a couple of the reviews and the critics were using it to beat me, saying that the original ending would have been so much better. We shot the original ending as written. I had never done this before but when you are shooting a studio film, you put a director’s cut together and take it out and have test screenings where the audiences fill out preview cards—sheets of paper with multiple-choice questions like “Who did you like?,” “Who didn’t you like?” I learned a very important lesson and that was that sometimes things can work beautifully on the page but just don’t work when you shoot them.
The original ending that I am being beaten up over these days was that they got into a fight at the end of the movie and Murray just cleaned the street with Mad Dog because he is much bigger and a more aggressive guy. At one point, De Niro takes one lucky swing and whacks him on the chin or the nose—he doesn’t knock him down but he stuns him. During the period of being stunned, Frank has his epiphany—“What am I doing here? I am the CEO of this organization and I am out here fighting in the street like a child” Murray has this epiphany and lets Glory go, pretty much what you saw. The trouble is that actors have personas and even though Bob was playing against type, he was the Raging Bull to the public. We played the scene twice at screenings and audiences were with the fight until Bob made that one hit and they thought that was really unsatisfying. They were right and you don’t know that until you see it. We had to let De Niro come back and even though he didn’t win the fight, he at least acquitted himself. Then Marty suggested “Red River,” where Joanne Dru comes flying in when John Wayne and Montgomery Clift are about to have their shootout and breaks it up by telling them they are acting like stupid little boys. So we brought Uma in and did a little homage to “Red River” there. I do not feel as though I was put upon. I think we improved the emotion of the ending and made it better. It is a better ending.
Did you wind up making any other notable changes during this time?
At the end, after Frank Milo drives off, the original script had Bob and Uma go upstairs to his apartment, where he puts on some Louis Prima—the song he played in the restaurant while dancing at the crime scene—and begins dancing for Uma. On the page, it is just charming but on the screen, it just wasn’t working. It felt false, like a tacked-on Hollywood ending. We changed it to what we have, where Uma says, “Let’s go home,” and there is a crane shot going up the building until you see the city.
When the movie came out in 1993, it got a generally good response from critics, but never really found its audience.
Most of the reviews were good. We had a great script and a great cast. Elmer Bernstein did the score and Robby Muller shot it—a lot of good people worked on it. To this day, when I watch it or show it to students, I see that it is a character study and it doesn’t slot into any specific genre. Is it a love story? Sort of, but an odd one. Is it a cop story? Kind of, since it is about a cop. Is it a buddy picture? Well, in a way. It just doesn’t slot a genre. It is a character study that is very quirky and when you give that to a studio marketing department ... If you gave that to Harvey Weinstein in his prime, you could have gotten an Academy Award but if you give it to a studio marketing department, they only know how to market by specifics genres and had no idea of what to do with it. Universal had “Jurassic Park” coming —we came out in March and that was following in the summer. They put all their energies into that and did a weak job on “Mad Dog and Glory.” Interestingly, the head of Universal’s marketing department was fired sometime between the releases of “Mad Dog” and “Jurassic Park” and usually when they give the reason for someone departing, they say that they wanted to spend more time with their family. In this particular case, Tom Pollack, who was the head of Universal, said that they fired him for incompetence. He did not mince words.
It is a difficult film to try to sum up from a marketing perspective but it seems bizarre that all that they could come up with for the posters and ads was a visual of Robert De Niro and Bill Murray essentially staring at Uma Thurman’s cleavage.
When they sent the people in to do those photographs, we had a little bit of a rebellion—me and Steve Jones and Bob and Bill and Uma. We demanded that they send in another photographer and they did do that but the studio had no intention of not using those original photos. I could see exactly what he was shooting because they did it on the set and I was like “This is crap.” That was their marketing department and to placate Bob and Bill, they brought in this famous New York photographer who did some very nice stuff but they didn’t use any of it.
How does “Mad Dog and Glory” hold up for you today when you look at it?
It is Richard Price’s script, aside from those switches to the ending. We all took a vow that because his dialogue is so carefully rendered—if Richard Price could hang out with you for 20 minutes, he could expertly mimic your speech patterns perfectly—that we would stick to the script, even Bill Murray, the king of improv. I have watched it over the last couple of years with my students and it is an incredibly odd movie. I don’t know of anything that it is like but it is true to itself. It is beautifully filmed, the performances are great and I like the fact that we cast the actors away from type, even though that probably hurt it at the box office. Every scene in it defies your expectations of wha you think is going to come next. I am very proud of it and for the fact that it isn’t formulaic, it has held up very well over time.
As a filmmaker, what were the particular lessons that you learned from its production?
The main lesson that I learned was that I didn’t realize quite what the stakes were with test screenings. The stakes are extremely high because once you get that first reaction, it is going to stick in the mind of studio executives. On “Henry,” even though we didn’t have a studio or test screenings, the first cut, since it was our first movie, was about 2 hours and 25 minutes and the final cut is 83 minutes. We made the great mistake of showing it in black-and-white—the monitor was a 16 mm flatbed and in those days, that was in black-and-white—and we used a video camera to shoot the film off of the monitor. The quality was just crap. We showed it to the guys who funded it and I have to say, it looked like hell and they hated it. After that, even though it was cut and polished and mixed into a pretty presentable film, you can only make a first impression once. The one lesson is that when you go out there with it for the first time, make it as polished as you can possibly pull together. Now, our presentation cuts are usually within 30 seconds of what the movie will go out as and are really polished. If they don’t like it, at least they are seeing it as the film it is supposed to be. Otherwise, it just looks amateurish to test audiences and they will slaughter you.
You have done special edition Blu-rays now for “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” and “Mad Dog and Glory.” Is there any chance that we may one day see one for another great film of yours, the sadly little-seen 1996 drama “Normal Life” starring Ashley Judd and Luke Perry?
I have no idea. It would depend on someone like a Kino Lorber picking it up. It was a Fine Line feature and, once again, it was not what they expected and not well loved there. It had a very small release and that was the end of it. Strangely, I was given a retrospective at the Hof Film Festival in Germany a few years back. “A Normal Life” played and I hadn’t seen it for many years and I was just floored by it. I thought Ashley Judd’s performance in it was one of the best things that I have ever seen. When I was directing her, she was playing a crazy person, so she was behaving like a crazy person and would never do the same thing for two takes in a row. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it—there were pieces that were fabulous but she was so different from take to take that I didn’t know what Elena would do with it. Then I was watching it and thought it was one of the most amazing performances I had ever seen.
It broke my heart when I learned that Luke had passed. When we cast him in “Normal Life,” I only knew him as the heartthrob on “90210” and was not sure how good of an actor he was. For better or worse, the show made him a huge star but it also perhaps made it difficult for him to be taken seriously as an actor. Once we started shooting, it became apparent how good he was and how perfectly and generously he played against Ashley Judd, laying down the rock-steady beat she needed to allow her to fly off into insanity and mayhem. Luke was a very easy guy to work with and we remained friends from then until the awful time of his passing. He will be missed by so many at home and around the world.
Again, the studio was not particularly pleased with it. To me, it kind of showed that there is no greater formula for human unhappiness than to be ahead of your time. It sort of presaged to me what was coming to the American middle class—you could go out and work all day and still not have enough money to live. It was about the end of the American Dream, which we were about to experience a few years later. I think it really captures that. The intent was to tell their story—both of us are working but we can’t pay the bills, so we have to turn to crime. It was prescient, though that wasn’t intentional. It was picking up on the zeitgeist without knowing where it was going.
To get your Kino Lorber Blu-ray copy of "Mad Dog and Glory," click here
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