Capone goes to EXTRAORDINARY MEASURES to talk with Harrison Ford!!!
Published at: Jan. 20, 2010, 12:49 p.m. CST by Capone
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
Most times, you say Yes to interviewing someone because you like the particular movie they're out promoting, and every so often, you say Yes because the subject is someone you just can't say No to, even if that someone is in a movie you're not particularly fond of. Harrison Ford was in a series of films--going back to George Lucas' AMERICAN GRAFFITI--that literally changed the way I looked at and loved movies. And I knew that agreeing to interview him would be that I likely would not be able to talk about any of the films that literally shaped my life in many ways (the STAR WARS and INDIANA JONES movies, BLADE RUNNER, the Jack Ryan works, THE FRISCO KID, THE CONVERSATION, WITNESS, THE FUGITIVE, WORKING GIRL, FRANTIC, AIR FORCE ONE), because Harrison Ford is a man who doesn't like to talk about the past. Hell, he hardly likes to talk about the present, and barely acknowledges the future.
So walking into a room to interview Chicago-native Ford was an anxiety-filled event that turned out better than I'd imagined (I and the two other writers who interviewed him jointly actually got him to laugh more than once), but not nearly as exceptional as I'd hoped. Ford came to Chicago to discuss his latest film as an actor and his second (after K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER) as executive producer, the medical research drama EXTRAORDINARY MEASURES, co-starring Brendan Fraser and Keri Russell and directed by Tom Vaughan (WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS; STARTER FOR 10). The film is the first for CBS Films. In the film, Ford plays Dr. Robert Stonehill, a fictional character who is an amalgam of doctors that helped the real-life John Crowley (Fraser) discover a treatment for Pompe Disease, a rare genetic disorder that afflicts children and keeps them living past a single-digit age. And I knew going into a conversation with Ford that we might talk about nothing more than this movie.
In doing my research on Ford, I discovered interview after interview where his responses were one-word or one-sentence answers to a question, and I was determined to not have that happen. I already knew all I needed to know about his thoughts on/knowledge of a fifth INDIANA JONES entry--he'd be interested in doing one…Lucas has a great, crazy idea that he's working on…Ford would like to see a deepening of the relationship between Indy and his son, Mutt [Shia Labeouf]--so I didn't really feel like blazing down that road in a hurry. My intention was to make this a conversational, hopefully informative interview that explores a little of how Ford made EXTRAORDINARY MEASURES come to life, since he's been involved in this project since its inception and he helped create the Stonehill character. Would I have rather turned our talk into my next AICN: Legends column? Oh Lord, yes. But I knew that wasn't going to happen. (By the way, I've scheduled interviews for the next couple Legends pieces that are beyond awesome.)
So for better or worse (I'm sure you'll let me know which), he's my talk with Harrison Ford. And please be reminded, there were two other journalists asking question along with me; I've indicated which inquiries were mine. I think this is fairly solid stuff, especially considering the subject. It's not my best work, but it's far from the most contentious interview I've ever done. I actually found Harrison Ford pretty darned pleasant. Enjoy…
Harrison Ford: Good to meet you. Hi, guys.
Question: I wanted to start by asking, this is the second film that you have produced and in both of the films that you have produced have been inspired by real-life incidents. I would like for you to talk about them, in terms of filmmaking and as an actor, when doing something like that about trying to balance between conveying the reality of the story and making it into an entertaining film.
HF: You know, I think this is the first time that I ever thought about the fact that both cases in which I’ve taken executive producer credit have been true stories. I suppose it has to do with the amount of work that was done and how early on you have got to be involved in order to take the credit in a righteous sense. I think usually I only want to take the credit when I have been involved with the project either before the director or from the inception of the material, and very often in the past I have been involved on the collaborative level. Very early in my career, I had enough success to have story approval and casting and director approval, so I’ve done parts of it. I’ve always been interested in collaborating.
In this case and let’s just talk about this case, because we don’t have that much time [laughs], the Crowley story is true and we had a lot of rich material there. In order to manipulate and manage the time scale and the drama of the piece, we had to create a character that would represent a lot of the different scientists and researchers that Crowley worked with. And we had to make choices about how to present the science and how to create a character for myself, because that was my true ambition in becoming involved in development. I went and did my research on the science, so that I understood the science to start with, and then I did particular research at the University of Nebraska and other places to inform myself of the reality of academic science and research. I came up with a lot of the details, which are flushed out in the story.
The character is invented. The particular personality of the character is invented to take advantage of the dramatic opportunity to have both ally and adversary in the same character, a character that makes it difficult for Crowley, at the same time makes it possible for Crowley, whose passion equals Crowley in some sense, but has a very different point of view…a very different reality than Crowley, a guy who is interested in the disease on an intellectual level, on the cellular level, and had probably never met a Pompe patient and has no ambition to meet a Pompe patient. Although he’s a medical doctor, that’s not what he is interested in. He’s a guy who works alone or with a group of students who look up to him and is used to that, a guy who fishes alone, lives alone, and works alone, a master of his universe, but watching his universe shrink as his time is running out to make his life’s work into something that others will recognize and value. When he meets Crowley, he meets the opportunity of his lifetime. Crowley is impressed and reaching out desperately. Who is he going to trust, but somebody who trusts himself, somebody with an equal passion to him? Not yet aware or not withstanding the guy’s eccentricity, he turns to pin his hopes on Stonehill. And that’s that. [laughs]
Question: Why this disease, an orphan disease, as opposed to anyone else to make a film about? After you read "The Cure"…
HF: Because, that’s what I read. That was a real story. That was a particular story. There was a lot of opportunity in the context to that story.
Question: Do you want this film to make people better aware of this particular disease?
HF: Well that’s a nice by-product of it, but no, I wanted to make a movie that whether or not they are interested in Pompe--I didn’t make this film, because I’m a crusader for a righteous healthcare system or because I want to indict the pharmaceutical industry or I want to make a film about Pompe. I want to make a film that explores the issues of healthcare and explores the issue of living with disease, explores the opportunities and is fair about those things. But at the same time is an entertainment, an experience that is cinematic in nature that the audience can go to a theater with and exercise not their particular ire about the healthcare system, but their common humanity that they can feel good about having spent two hours in a theater and leave it without having suffered simply a kinetic experience, but have the opportunity to have an emotional experience, because that’s what I value in the theater and that’s what I want to sell.
So I’m not looking for a bully pulpit to tell people about Pompe. It’s a worthy part of our ambition that people have a fair understanding of what it’s like for the Crowleys to have gone through this. This is not about Pompe; this is about human nature and perseverance and the qualities that it takes to get shit done--to get “things” done. Now you have a choice when you get back to the office.
Capone: You mentioned earlier, the idea that science and research is an intellectual process. Did you have many conversations about how to make an intellectual process work on a movie screen as entertainment?
HF: Sure, sure. That was the first thing I set out to do. “Let’s help ourselves figure out how to get science out of the head and into visual storytelling.”
Capone: That scene in the bar with you and Brendan is good, where you are just walking him through what the disease is.
HF: The scene in the bar represents one of our most challenging scenes. We had the basic time scale here; we know this guy [Crowley] has left work without telling anyone--even his wife--where he has gone. He has traveled to Nebraska. He’s reaching out desperately to a guy that he thinks hung up on him on the phone, the guy who’s work is mentioned in a lot of the research that he is doing, a guy who has got a new focus on how to mitigate the disease and the guy turns out to be… When he says that his kids are suffering from Pompe syndrome, he’s like “Oh, Jesus”
"You should have called me before you came out here. I don’t see patients.” So what is it that attracts Crowley to him? How could we give this scene an emotional context? How can we give it the opportunity for both the audience to learn what’s special about Stonehill’s research, and to find out why this guy might be the one to grab on to, and it’s his passion and his belief that we hit upon as the right hook, rather than some other way of doing it.
Question: I’m just curious about how this project came to you. Was this something that you went seeking out?
HF: No, I was looking for material to develop for myself working with the Shambergs [Carla Santos and Michael Shamberg, two of the film's producers]. "The Wall Street Journal" articles that Geeta Anand wrote came to our attention, this is part of the story. There was no part in it for me at that point, because there were a lot of different scientists mentioned, so we had to think about that. The first notion was that I would play the father, and it was like, “No, I’m too old to play the father.” You'd have had to make up this whole story about why this old fart is the father of these two young kids. [laughs] It didn’t make sense, so I said, “Maybe there’s something on the science side of it that would be good for me.” At the same time, we were developing other properties, none of which lived to tell the tale, but this material gave back. That’s one of those things you find, the good stuff always gives back. It supports your ambition. The depth of the well doth sustain you.
Capone: When you were developing this character, did you set out to create a character that’s unlike anyone you have played before? Or play a type that you are not as well known for playing, maybe to show people you have a few surprises left?
HF: No. I always think you make a character out of those things that help tell the story. “What’s going to sustain the drama of this? What kind of personality would present obstacle and opportunity? How do we get the most drama out of this?” That’s how you end up with a character, and then once you have made those decisions, you phrase it and you give it depth and you give it believable behavior. I think the strongest position for an actor is to be an ally to the story. I’m not an actor who will sit there and say “My character wouldn’t do that.” “Okay, we’ll get somebody else.” My character does whatever helps tell the story, and if I can’t make it real, then I’ll figure out why I can’t make it real. But usually there’s a way to figure out how to make it real.
Question: One of the things I was thinking about was that the character here reminded me a little bit about the character you played in THE MOSQUITO COAST, in the way that you have this very tunnel-visioned obsession with doing one thing without seeing the bigger picture in terms of the family. This might be from someone who has seen too many movies and might be reading into something, too.
HF: [smiles] No, you’re only talking about two movies, so you’re not seeing too many movies. I think sure, there’s something in that, yeah. That was the last time I played a guy that was a bit of a prick. I think, I can’t remember.
Question: Well, WHAT LIES BENEATH.
HF: That’s a whole different kind of prick. [laughs]
Capone: How do you keep a movie like this from being overly sentimental? That’s the trap you're always trying to avoid.
HF: That’s a conscious choice, to not do that. It’s the recognition that that’s not a virtue, that being sentimental or being in love with the opportunity to make people sad is not a fulsome movie experience. So you have to be careful when you are dealing with something like this.
Question: So then you make the film not feeling like it’s exploiting something, but telling something?
HF: You have to allow the audiences to experience the characters and the story, rather than feel like they are being lectured to and manipulated and managed. I think the key always is letting the audience learn by experiencing their emotional consistency with the characters. Again, you have to think about how to visually and emotionally present information, rather than just tell the audience things.
Question: Showing the movie to the Crowleys, what was that experience like?
HF: I wasn’t there, but their reaction was favorable, and I think they felt positive about our efforts. I’m not going to quote John Crowley, that’s just self serving.
Question: So it felt authentic [to them], even though decisions had to be made, like a timeline had to be changed and characters had to be compressed? They understood that changes had to be made?
HF: Yes, they did and that’s important because they were giving us permission to tell their story, so we cared a lot about whether they felt they were served fairly.
Capone: In your research and in meeting scientists and researchers, did you actually find several of them that had these kinds of anger-management issues, because you would almost understand it if they did, because there’s a lot going against them.
HF: No, I never did. I found really nice, well-adjusted people that liked living in Nebraska and thought it was a good place to raise their kids. I didn’t find anybody like this guy. But I can see that these circumstances might produce somebody like that.
Capone: It seems like they endure the perfect storm of bad circumstances, especially when it comes to money. There was that quote about how the football coach makes more than their entire budget for a year.
HF: It was one of the lines from that bar scene. The football coach makes more money personally. His salary is more than the entire science budget for his department. Go figure. The administrators will tell you that football is what pleases the alumni, and they contribute to the school in support of their old alma mater’s football team. They don’t give a shit about the science that’s going to affect 400,000 people in a developed world.
Capone: And the pharmaceutical companies don’t either, even though you're not taking a swipe at them, but it is a business.
HF: The pharmaceutical companies are willing to do it, because there’s something called the Orphan Drug Act, which is a federal government program to give them tax subsidies and patent rights, because there’s no expectation of our reasonable profit.
Capone: All right. Thanks a lot.
HF: Thank you, guys. It was a pleasure meeting you. You take care.
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