I've heard that the story of "Dream With the Fishes" is partially autobiographical. Where did the idea come from?
I had a close friend with whom I had a very antagonistic relationship. He was a very wild guy. We traveled around together and I would watch him do things I would never do in a million years. We got into a huge fight in New Orleans and we went our separate ways. I had saved for years to go to Europe with him--and I went off to Europe on my own. While I was there, I got word that he was sick. And I came back. And essentially all the money I had been saving for years to live in Europe on I ended up spending in the last few weeks of his life, spending time with him and helping him live out his fantasies.
You always hear about the negative side of death, but you don't hear about the positive side of it. Which is, you know, as you're spending time with this person you know this may be some of your last time, you're really living every moment to the fullest. And watching them do the same. Trying to enjoy every moment. And it really altered my life. From that point on is when I really got serious about writing.
Your film takes inspiration from some of the great American films of the seventies...
The studios used to make movies like "Harold and Maude" or "The Last Detail" or "Midnight Cowboy," which had a ring of real life about them. They were films that got their humor and drama from characters and situations that you felt that you could touch--smaller people and smaller stories that felt large because they were touching on themes that everyone can relate to. But when the blockbuster came along, Hollywood went with these high concept things about people blowing up things that kind of became more and more sensationalistic. How many of us have flown missions over a foreign country or got caught as a secret agent or something? I think that when you get past the age of fifteen, some of the fascination of that gets diminished.
I also felt what was great about those films is they didn't say this is a drama or this is a comedy. They intertwined both. Because life is both things. It's not like, the next few days of my life are only gonna be drama, and then the next few days are only gonna be comedy. They're inherently interlaced. And there was a lot of time and work put into the writing of those films. They weren't just some high concept movies that were dashed off.
Everything in "Dream with the Fishes" either happened to me or a friend of mine. And when I'm in the audience watching the film with people, people respond to it because they recognize that.
Those films also predated the notion of political correctness...
I think sometimes in film if you're cowering too much to the P.C. concept you end up with characters that come out as wooden as a Movie of the Week from the Seventies. Where everybody's trying to be a positive representation of who they are, you know? And in reality people are screwed up and have problems no matter what sex or race they are. And watching movies about people that are completely perfect is pretty boring. So we start out with a bunch of flawed characters who maybe by the end are slightly less flawed. They've grown a little bit.
Why did you make Terry a voyeur?
Originally Terry being a voyeur wasn't in the story. At one point Jeffrey Brown, who collaborated on the story with me, came up with the idea that for one of their fantasies they should look at people with binoculars. And then I thought, if he's gonna be a voyeur we should go all the way with it. Because for dramatic purposes, if one guy is completely engaging in life and the other guy is completely disconnected from life--how much more disconnected from life can you be than to be a literal voyeur? As somebody who watches but does not touch.
Is the film, at its heart, a love story?
I think it is a love story between two men. But not in the conventional sense. Of course there's also the love with the female characters in the film.
And I think too often Hollywood tries to make films black and white--like this is just a drama or this is just a comedy. It tends to recognize only one kind of love, to sort of categorize or ghettoize that word. And I think there are many possibilities, many ways to love.
The female characters are extremely strong-willed....
Well, one thing I noticed is that the relationships that are portrayed in the movies are so often: "I love you, you truly love me, etc." In reality, most relationships are kind of screwed up. And if you're going to have characters as out there and weird as Nick and Terry, you need women that can stand up to them in their weirdness, you know what I mean? And I feel that Liz and Elise do that. You know, what kind of relationship would Nick be in? And what kind of person would put up with him? And I know a lot of people who are involved in these very codependent relationships. But that doesn't mean that it's not a choice to be in that relationship. You may know a relationship's bad, and you may actually still be choosing to be in it. And that may not be politically correct, but it's a choice that to me has the ring of truth. I see that happening all the time. And Elise's character is sort of based again on a person I knew in real life. She contains the spirit of some people that I really admired.
Nick has a singular relationship with his Dad. They're like two battering rams.
A lot of the time the way love is expressed between men in this culture is in an adversarial way. Because they're not allowed to express it in other ways. So this whole ritual they have of getting drunk together and knuckle-busting and trading shoulder punches and eventually head-butting is again based on two sons and a father I know who are carpenters. And they're Norwegian carpenters. And when they get drunk this is what they do.
Did the locations have any kind of special resonance for you? Were they places that things happened to you in your life?
I grew up in this area. And some of the last times that I spent with this friend of mine did take place out here. But also, I haven't seen San Francisco used in a ton of independent films lately. Those films usually take place in Los Angeles, New York or somewhere in the Midwest. And I also wanted to make an unexpected twist from the urban setting of the first half and go to a rural place in the second half of the film.
The color shifts at that time too...
We tried to get the look of the film stocks from the seventies, but they don't make those film stocks anymore. So my director of photography Barry Stone came up with a photographic process that's never been done before. And we applied that process in the first half of the film when they're doing the sort of darker fantasies. And then when we go to the second half of the film where it becomes more about sort of like coming to terms with your past, it shifts to normal color, you know. And then at the end again it goes back to the original look.
What does the title mean to you?
It means a lot of things. The most obvious is a twist on the "Godfather" term "he sleeps with the fishes," which means he's dead.
So it's a death metaphor?
Oh, yeah. Death and rebirth. Water is a metaphor for spirituality and rebirth. Because I actually see this film more about rebirth and living than I do being about death. I think Terry learns how to live--to touch life now. As opposed to waiting around for it to happen for you. And the one thing you really get when you're around someone who's passed on is: the only way to be truly alive is to have death on your left shoulder. If you realize that you're only here for a short time, you don't postpone living out your dreams.
Initially in the film Terry says I don't dream. And by the end of the movie he's absorbed a bit of Nick's ability to dream.
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