Do not expect to find gossipy stories in Illeana Douglas’s memoir I Blame Dennis Hopper: And Other Stories From a Life Lived In and Out of the Movies . Instead this reads as a genuine love story with film. Infused with passion and enthusiasm, actor/director/producer Illeana Douglas discusses her journey to become an independent voice in cinema. Illeana reveals disappointments and achievements with equal parts humor and honesty. She recounts her early and ongoing love for classic films and the art of film-making itself. She writes: “That’s how movies change us: in ways we cannot even remember. Those images of movies stay in our brain; those fragments become shards in our memories.” She recalls working with directors such as Gus Van Sant, Martin Scorsese and Allison Anders. Illeana has starred in a ton of films including Grace of My Heart, Picture Perfect, To Die For, Goodfellas, Wedding Bell Blues [check this one out. it’s so much fun], Ghost World, Return to Sender, She’s Funny That Way, Factory Girl, Happy, Texas, and Cape Fear. She directed Illeanarama and Easy to Assemble as well as several short films.
Not only did she study acting but she questioned every moment while on a film set and dissected various films to completely absorb and comprehend the film-making process. She voraciously read books about film. Illeana explains: “To me, a movie is like a roulette wheel with a series of problems where the numbers should be. The wonderful mystery of a movie is that you can never predict those problems, so fixing as many things beforehand as possible, such as answering questions in the script, is a good idea.”
I truly enjoyed this memoir. It provided so much insight and Illeana possesses such a passion for film and a respect for the entire process. She’s a great storyteller and she remembers details about everything. We met briefly when she screened Devil Talk at The Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline. Grace of My Heart is my all-time favorite film so I ask Illeana lots of questions about it.
Illeana took the time to answer some questions by email.
Amy Steele: Why did you decide to write this book now?
Illeana Douglas: We are in a period where-although movies are readily available to see-we have no context with which to talk about them. I was lucky that I had my grandfather Melvyn Douglas talking to me about working with Greta Garbo and Peter Sellers. Now that’s context! I always saw and wrote about movies-but it wasn’t until I started working with Turner Classic Movies that folks became aware of it. Yes, I’m an actress, and I do talk about my own career/life story in the book but the focus is that I am a fan of movies as much as being in them. These are 15 stories about movies or movie stars that changed my life.
Amy Steele: Why the title?
Illeana Douglas: It’s called I Blame Dennis Hopper because I wanted to tell a memoir through the movies because the movies have defined who I am. In 1969 my parents saw Easy Rider. After seeing the movie they rejected their middle class life style and became hippies. The title pays homage to him because it’s how the power of that film– Easy Rider— changed my destiny. I am an actress because of Dennis Hopper—because as a child I was raised on his philosophies—which were based on the film Easy Rider. Later on of course I met and worked with Dennis Hopper—in the movie Search and Destroy— and had my own profound experience which is what I write about in the book.
Amy Steele: You talk about films at the drive-in being a major part of your childhood and teen years. Is that how you developed such an interest in classic film and film-making in general?
Illeana Douglas: I learned about classic film I think because I was spending time with my grandfather and sitting across from Myrna Loy or Robert Anderson or Diane Baker at the dinner table. I knew they were in the movies. I wanted to be able to impress my grandfather so I started reading more about classic film so I would have something to say at the grown ups table! Then when he brought me to the set of Being There I started to get an interest in the behind the scenes making of films. He picked up on my eagerness to learn, and started sending me movie books.
Amy Steele: Your childhood did surprise me. The hippy factor and uncertainties. How did this influence your acting and shape you as a person?
Illeana Douglas: My childhood seemed like a movie. It was all out of my control. I became obsessed with movies—somehow I knew this was my way out. Movies were—when I was growing up—how you could define yourself. You looked to the movies. I wanted to be Liza Minelli, or Ruby Keeler, or Richard Dreyfuss. I looked up to these icons– still do. I knew if I could be in the movies I would be happy and that has been very true!
Amy Steele: Your grandfather [Melvyn Douglas] was a well-known and Academy-Award winning actor [Being There, Hud]. What kind of relationship did you have with him and how did he influence your decision to act? Did he know that you wanted to act and what kind of advice did he give you?
Illeana Douglas: He was of course my first mentor and my first fan. He believed in me. He gave me structure. He encouraged me to read and to learn. He said, “When you find someone to learn from don’t let go of that person”. I have tried to honor that. To respect the craft and the history of acting. He also pushed me to write. So writing has been my way of making him happy.
Amy Steele: Then your grandmother was the first democratic woman elected to Congress from California. What did you learn from her?
Illeana Douglas: She was so confident. She believed strongly in her principles-which were very liberal. Politically- it was her opinion or you were on the wrong side. She also had great taste in art, music, and antiques. These are all qualities I admire. She also loved to hear little poems or songs I had written. Pictures I had painted. She created a world that I very much wanted to be a part of.
Amy Steele: How has acting influenced your directing?
Illeana Douglas: I love acting-love it-but my heart lies in directing. Acting made me want to be a director. When I work with actors I obviously know through experience what they are going through. I have a certain empathy. They are not in control. My goal as a director is to tell the stories of emotional triumph.
Amy Steele: As with many industries (journalism for one), film is quite white-male dominated, what has been your greatest challenge as a woman in the industry?
Illeana Douglas: The greatest challenge is that an “actress” will always be treated with gender bias. It’s sad because I love acting and actresses but you will never get respect as an actress if you have opinions. Shirley Maclaine has said she’s played a hooker 8 times in movies. What does that tell you about being an actress in Hollywood?
Amy Steele: Hollywood also has issue with aging actresses. Seems once you’re over 40 you get the mom roles. What do you think could change that?
Illeana Douglas: I don’t think generally it will change. All you can do as a woman is write a great part for an older woman and try like hell to get it made. In the meantime there are other areas in show business you can work in and a lot of actresses—I’m one of them have branched out to writing and directing.
Amy Steele: As Grace of My Heart is my all-time favorite film, I adored that section and found out many things I didn’t know like that you and Allison wanted to make a film about Anne Sexton. Is there no possibility to make that film?
Illeana Douglas: We would love to collaborate on a film. I don’t think it will be Anne Sexton.
Amy Steele: Of you and Allison you said: “Allison and I both felt like female artists who didn’t quite fit in a mold.” I would think that’s a good thing. Can you explain how that shaped the film as well as your relationship with Allison?
Illeana Douglas: I wanted a collaboration with a female director in the way that male actors did with male directors. Allison is so knowledgeable about films. That was the surprise. We just clicked because we both loved movies—especially melodramas. We wanted Grace of My Heart to be a musical melodrama and I think we achieved that. We got that movie made, and I am awfully proud of it. We are friends to this day. I love her. I loved co-hosting with her on TCM and the Trailblazing Women series.
Amy Steele: You’ve worked with mostly male directors. How are things different working with a female director?
Illeana Douglas: I have actually worked with many female directors. Allison Anders, Nancy Savoca, Kathy Bates to name a few. I sought a collaboration with Allison Anders. She was the quintessential female director I wanted to work with because I felt she would bring out the best in me and she did. What I have found is that once you are on set everyone is very supportive– it’s getting to the set.
Getting a female-driven film set up and made that is the challenge. I know when I am directing a project—I get more personally involved in the hiring of women in all departments. There are more women physically on set. I have also worked with two female D.P.s [cinematographer/Director of Photography and I have found no sexism directed towards them once they are on set. Again it’s getting the job that is the problem.
Women directors tend to write their own material. It usually feels, as in the case of Grace of My Heart that the story is very personal and very real. Everything I have written for film and directed—my shorts etc. are all based on real experiences or feelings and I have turned them into a narrative. I’ve said this before and it’s widely quoted but I believe women shoot better sex scenes than male directors. They are just prettier to look at, and certainly more arousing. Some of the male depictions of sex scenes turn my stomach a little—they seem about power—not so much about love.
Amy Steele: As you worked in the Brill Building for one of your first jobs how cool was it to make a film about its history?
Illeana Douglas: I worked in the Brill Building in 1987 and continued to work there throughout the 90’s and became fascinated by its history. I’m a big music buff—so the idea that this was Tin Pan Alley fascinated me. I started to read a lot of books about it as my grandfather’s parents were actually song-writers themselves. There were so many stories of these great song-writing teams at the Brill Building. Of course the Carole King story resonated with me—as it did Allison Anders. She’s an expert on the girl groups. I was merely a fan. We would have loved to film in the actual Brill Building.I did film there with the movie Picture Perfect. The halls are square and have linoleum on them so you could move pianos around. I liked the idea of that much creativity happening in one building. We tried to create what it would have felt like to be a singer/songwriter in that era. One of my favorite scenes is writing a song with Howard (Eric Stoltz). It felt very organic. Of course it helped that Elvis Costello had written the song for us.
Amy Steele: You also stated that the 90s was the “height of independent film-making”—how and what has changed with independent film since then?
Illeana Douglas: We don’t have enough time! The 90s represented the best of that mid-range indie film—3 to 5 million dollars. Now you can either make a big budget movie that will have to have big big stars or make a movie for under a million. It might get into a festival and it will not be released in theaters, it will be VOD. We are making a lot of movies– not as many people are seeing them. Also it was filmed. Everything now is digital. Doesn’t have the warm quality of film.
Amy Steele: Why do you think you’re more of a comedic actress than a dramatic actress?
Illeana Douglas: I enjoy satire and irony. I think funny. Situations in life I find comic. I find life absurd—like a Fellini movie. I really enjoy making people laugh, it makes me happy.
Amy Steele: Illeanarama is so funny and so is Easy to Assemble –where did those ideas come from and what has doing a web series allowed you to do these days?
Illeana Douglas: I had a couple of pilots that I made that didn’t go anywhere and then I was approached by IKEA in 2007 to create some branded interstitials. Easy to Assemble came out of my feeling of wanting to do more comedic writing. I had made a number of shorts but my directing was always put on hold so I could act. Easy to Assemble which came out of Illeanarama was a way to act in projects I had written and to have a voice comedically. I had five years to write/produce/direct because of IKEA. I was able to learn how to produce, handle budgets work with actors and write scripts without the pressure of failing. I knew I would be writing and directing films and this was a fantastic training ground. We were pioneers and I will always be proud of that and thankful to IKEA.
Amy Steele: You stated: “I’m a bit of a rebel. It’s true. I challenge the system and I question authority.” I am the same way and it hasn’t helped me much. People don’t appreciate that. Has this been problematic or beneficial for you?
Illeana Douglas: I do not like unfairness, and when something is wrong I will speak up. Does it rub people the wrong way to be outspoken– yes it does. You also have to question authority because they want to corral everyone into the same thinking. I am for the individual. Women have to rebel and risk not being liked. There is no other option for a woman than to have the attitude of “I got this” but that rubs folks the wrong way.
Amy Steele: Richard Dreyfuss seems to be the actor you’ve always admired. What do you like about him?
Illeana Douglas: Everything. He’s one of our finest amd most thoughtful actors. His films in the 70’s shaped a generation. There is no performance like Jaws or The Goodbye Girl. His energy and drive is palpable and yet underneath is strong vulnerability. And he’s DAMN funny. I like what I wrote about Richard Dreyfuss, “Was he cocky… yes… was he right? Always.”
Amy Steele: You developed a special relationship with Roddy McDowall. How much did he mean to you?
Illeana Douglas: Roddy got me into keeping journals and autograph books. He was a student of film history and was one the first people to talk about film preservation. He was gracious and kind and just the epitome of class. Everyone loved him, and he was also a very talented photographer. I never saw him complain or be sad about any blow that life dealt him. His picture is on my desk, and he is always in my thoughts.
Amy Steele: What do you like best about working at TCM?
Illeana Douglas: Working with Turner Classic Movies is a dream. There is not a person who works there who has an agenda other than to celebrate movies, movie makers and to put on a pedestal the giants of the cinema. I have great respect for Robert Osborne who gave the channel a face. They are also in tune with the fans. The fans make TCM a family, and I don’t know a TV channel today that actively thinks about pleasing the fans. I have had the opportunity to interview luminaries like Richard Dreyfuss, Jerry Lewis, Eva Marie Saint.
When I was going to write a book it aligned with what I was doing with TCM—which was shining a light on the importance of films. Our Trailblazing Women series set the agenda for female filmmakers and the contributions of female filmmakers going back to 1896. Many of the films we highlighted are now being recognized –Ida Lupino, Shirley Clarke, Barbara Loden– no one was talking about them– now their films, and the films of many other female filmmakers are being recognized.
Amy Steele: What inspires you?
Illeana Douglas: Amarcord means “to remember” I am the rememberer.