Interview with Stephen Ryder
Stephen Ryder's voice
is forceful and worn in the way of a man who has a lot of stories and
knows that the stories are good ones. A published poet, a professor of
dialogue and writing at NYU, and a former police officer and journalist
nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Op/Ed in 1976, he is a magnetic
personality and a graceful speaker: careful not to interrupt and
catching one off guard with an incisive question born of his experience
as a professional interrogator. Mr. Ryder's new film L.I.E. bristles
with a brittle reality balanced against a deep scholarly vein that is
surprising only until you speak with the man. Also generous with his
time, Mr. Ryder sat down with Film Freak Central recently to share some
of his thoughts on his movie, Jack Valenti and the M.P.A.A., and Walt
Film Freak Central: First
off, Mr. Ryder, I wanted to thank you for taking the time in light of
recent events to sit down and do an interview with us. The quality of
your work in L.I.E. is such that we see it as a great honor to not only
bring the film to a wider audience to the extent that we are capable,
but also to allow you a forum for the discussion of the many literary
allusions and implications of your work.
Let's start with
Big John. He's a fascinating screen persona--a deeply flawed human being
who finds grace through the protection of a young boy and the fine
things with which he surrounds himself. Knowing your background as a
police officer and journalist, would you talk about the insight into
people who do monstrous things that led you to the creation of Big John?
Stephen Ryder: I've
lived a long time, irrespective of my experience in police work and
journalism. I learned that sometimes good people do bad things--most of
us know that. But what some of us don't seem to be quite so cognizant of
is that sometimes, bad people do good things. I was hoping to illustrate
this innate contradictory human quality when I created the Big John
don't regard gay men who have teenaged lovers as "monstrous."
Inter-generational relationships exist in both heterosexual and
homosexual spheres and have throughout history. While I most definitely
do not endorse this inclination, I refuse to demonize or dehumanize an
entire class of people simply because I don't understand them.
Elvis Presley met and
fell in love with Priscilla, (whom he met while in the U.S. Army
stationed in Frankfurt, Germany) when she was TWELVE. By the time she
was FOURTEEN, her father had given her PERMISSION to live with Elvis at
his home in Memphis, Tennessee. Elvis Presley is on a U.S. postage
stamp. No one referred to him then or now as a pedophile. Yet Big John,
whose live-in lover is pushing 20, and whose current love-interests are
both pushing 16--is a pedophile. What bullshit. It is the thinnest
veneer for homophobia.
Being something of
a loner and an intellectual in a decidedly anti-intellectual landscape,
Big John's connection with Howie is a fascinating organism that hints at
a mentor relationship. Can you talk about the identification between the
man and the child, and how that relationship works to offset Howie's
lack of connection with his own father?
There were three guys
like this in my neighborhood in the Bronx when I was growing up in the
1940's and 50's. Referred to as "Big John" (or "John The
Queer" by some), Phil The Milkman (he was the actual milkman), and
a mean, dangerous, whacko ex-Marine named Joe, who had just come home
from combat in Korea in 1954. Each of these guys had hung out a shingle
and any boy from about the age of thirteen or fourteen knew where to go
if he wanted beer, cigarettes, dirty movies and oral sex. These
practitioners resided in situ for a couple of generations and it was,
apparently, a well-kept open secret.
Except for the time
Joe got shot in the hip in front of Randy's Candy store, and the time
crazy little Frankie trashed Big John's antique-strewn apartment,
causing him to leave town abruptly, thirty years went by without any
fuss or any parents finding out. I never met Phil, I went up to Big
John's house once when I was 15 (we played chess--he never made a move),
and I hated Joe and he hated me.
To answer your
question directly--some boys need to talk to a man, preferably his
father--but on some issues, definitely NOT his father. The fathers of my
generation of boys were not very engaged, and if the boy is different
from, or smarter than his own father, he needs to seek a man who is more
like himself. I think that is what was going on in the film. That man's
ethnicity, religion or sexual preference wouldn't make any difference to
an adventurous, alienated, experimental youngster.
You've called Big
John a "Falstaff" figure (recalling that Falstaff's first name
is also "John"), making Howie a young King Henry (again the
mentor relationship). In addition to the essential optimism of Howie's
last monologue, this referencing of the bittersweet end of the
relationship between Shakespeare's Falstaff and Henry points to a bright
future for young Howie. Can you speak of the extent to which Shakespeare
informed the relationships of the characters in L.I.E.? Is there a
particular play upon which you based the structure of the film?
Ah, Shakespeare. No, I
didn't base the story on any of his plays, but rather on William
Shakespeare's own life. I am convinced he was in love with 16-year-old
Henry Wriothesly, Earl of Southampton, to whom, it appears, he wrote his
sonnets. Now from all accounts, young Henry was a blond-haired,
blue-eyed Taylor Hansen type fairly renowned for a disposition as
pleasing as his countenance. It appears as well that young Henry was
fairly taken with Shakespeare, inasmuch as he financed his work and was
a devoted fan. Read sonnet 62L--very
But of course, falling
into the Falstaff character was unavoidable for Big John, and yes, I
meant to indicate that Howie would be alright down the road.
Presley met and fell in love with Priscilla when she was
TWELVE. No one referred to him then or now as a
How much, if any,
did veteran character actor Brian Cox contribute to the character of Big
I was never on the
set, except for one day for a few hours. Writers are sometimes not
welcome, and I certainly wasn't, so I don't know about a lot of things
relative to the actual filming. I was hired by the Director to write a
script based on his idea about two boys who broke into houses, and there
was a mention of a man in a van referred to as "The Bloated
man." After I wrote and re-wrote the script many times--sometimes
with Michael's collaboration, my job was, officially, done.
I do know that
regarding the dialogue, with the exception of two parenthetical ad libs
about food, Cox played the role As Written--verbatim. He is a wonderful,
talented actor and a real gentleman. He has the greatest respect for
writers and treated the script like it was the Bible. During press
conferences I have sat next to him and when they ask him how he prepared
for the role, or how he researched it, he would say: "I read the
How much coaching,
if any, was required on-set of your remarkable young cast?
Paul Dano was the
perfect, quintessential "Howie" (read: Holden Caulfield) from
the first audition. Likewise Billy Kaye, also James Costa. These boys
were brought to us by Judy Henderson as her initial choices. She's one
of the best casting directors in the business, we were lucky to have
her. They usually nailed it on the first take, I am told. But again,
since I was never on the set, you have to ask the Director about that.
How much script
evolution occurred during the physical production between you and
Michael Cuesta, and/or you and the cast?
While the director
telephoned me often during the filming, it was only when a scene wasn't
working or he had some other problem that he wanted my advice about. I
was not really encouraged to have anything to do with the cast, so I
didn't, although Paul's father and mother have a good relationship with
me, and so does he. We talk often now.
There are two
pivotal scenes in the relationship between Big John and Howie--the first
comes when Howie quotes Walt Whitman's "Song of
Myself"--the second comes in the now-infamous straight razor scene.
Whitman is that most American of poets--one with an unflagging
patriotism, a sense of blossoming self-awareness, and a surprisingly
clear-eyed view of how the United States so often fails to live up to
the promise of its creed. What was your intention in Howie's recitation
of a portion of "Song of Myself"--his entire relationship with
Big John seems to change at that point.
Well, I was trying to
think of what it would be that would knock John off his predatory feet.
I was always trying to undermine his arrogant self-assurance with the
humble facts of his life. His mother on the answering machine talking
about his hemmoroids, his obviously deficient boyfriend--what did he
really admire? Classical intelligence, intellectual elegance. His
Chagall, his Steinway--his French. What would make him fall in LOVE? A
boy like him, that's what. Himself at fifteen--the lost child in his
soul. After all, they used to call these guys "Inverts."
That's not entirely inaccurate, methinks.
So, I had Howie recite
Whitman's paen to puberty, a poem I knew Big John would know well. And
the loneliness, alienation and self-awareness it speaks of would lead
John to think he and Howie were kindred spirits. And maybe they are.
Nothing defangs a jungle cat as effectively as falling in love, and so
it was here that John lost his power over the boy, and the boy, with
perfect instincts, knew it. Both characters arc right here--a magical
The fragment of the
poem in the film is about desire, it is preceded in the poem by a
portion known as the "o solitary me" section which describes a
burgeoning self-awareness in the speaker. How did Whitman's personal
journey inform Howie's own self-discovery during the course of the film?
It is obvious that
Walt Whitman knew, at an early age, that he was quite different from
other boys. His poetry did not redeem him in his early life, however,
for as you know, Leaves of Grass was self-published--no one would
touch it. Whitman was a decent man, a kind-hearted softie in a cruel
time. His ministrations to dying young soldiers in the Civil War are
heartbreaking testimonials to his sensitivities. But I wouldn't make too
much of his connection with Howie. Suffice it to say that at fifteen,
every boy can relate to lines like "nevermore the cries of
unsatisfied love be absent from me" and "the sweet Hell
Shakespeare's "Sonnet 62"
of self-love possesseth all mine eye
all my soul and all my every part;
for this sin there is no remedy,
is so grounded inward in my heart.
no face so gracious is as mine,
shape so true, no truth of such account;
for myself mine own worth do define,
I all other in all worths surmount.
when my glass shows me myself indeed,
and chopp’d with tann’d antiquity,
own self-love quite contrary I read;
so self-loving were iniquity.
thee, myself,--that for myself I praise,
my age with beauty of thy days.
I know that there
was a bit of dialogue deleted during the straight-razor scene; how was
that scene conceptualized in your mind, and can you talk about any
changes that might have occurred in its journey to the screen?
I get a kick out of
all the reaction to "the shaving scene." It has already
become a classic of Cinema. Rex Reed said, in his review, "The
most erotically-charged scene ever filmed." (!)
He went on to say
"The sexual tension was so palpable that the woman in the seat
next to me nearly fainted." I am delighted by all this, but I
meant NO sexual innuendo at all, and I don't know, but I don't think
the director did either.
That scene evolved
in an interesting way. One day Michael Cuesta called me on the phone
after reading my latest script rewrite and said. "They're not
BONDING enough--what would bond them--how would they bond? (Meaning
Howie and John.) How does a man bond with a boy?" Michael's son
was only about two years old at the time, mine were already in their
"He teaches him
how to shave," I said. Then, in an instant, Michael knew it was
And it was his
decision to use a straight razor. I argued against it and I was wrong.
It was a stroke of genius on Michael's part. I wasn't on the set and
the first time I saw the scene was in the theater.
You want to hear the
dialogue that was deleted from that scene?
Big John: "You
know, there's a book, Cyrano De Bergerac, by Edmond Rostand.
It's a story about a guy with an exaggerated proboscis--a real long
one. That nose was a metaphor, an insignia of his inescapable 'differentness.'
Isolated from society at large, he compensated for his sense of
inferiority by becoming the finest swordsman in all of France. And a
rapier wit, to boot!" (A beat)
Howard--you and Cyrano are much alike. But since you have a cute
little nose...(he tweaks Howie's nose)...that can't be it. You're
different in other ways. You're like a diamond in a coal bin. (A beat)
So it follows that you must become a great swordsman--so no one will
trifle with you.
Brian Cox told the
press that he loved that dialogue, but he and I agree that the scene
works better without it. It was Michael's decision to delete the
dialogue, I am told, when he watched the dailies of that scene and saw
the visual power, he said--"Let's see it one time without the
sound." He made the right decision and my hat is off to him on
But I still had only
envisioned the scene as a sacred ceremony: an intimate rite of passage
between a father and a son. I never even imagined a sexual component,
but I guess I'm a real square in that department. I wanted to show
that Howie's father had not done the things a father should do with a
son, like teaching him to drive and to shave, and that John had the
instincts--all perfectly legit, to teach a boy these things. Maybe
because he was a devotee of the cult of maleness as celebrated in the
Marine Corps and the Police, these symbolic rites would mean a lot to
I wanted to
address the miscarriage of justice that has occurred in the MPAA's
branding of this film as "NC-17"--thus robbing it of
countless screens and advertising opportunities. A dangerous topic to
be sure, the pedophilia elements in the plot of L.I.E. are handled
with the utmost respect and seriousness. The film is about a
pedophile, not pedophilia--a crucial distinction. I wanted to offer
you the opportunity to discuss the rating if you wish, and your views
about why you think the MPAA has ruled in this way.
You don't have the
space and I don't have the time to say all I would like to say about
the sanctimonious pinheads calling themselves the MPAA and hiding
behind their sheets. But let me be crystal clear on this: I can
discern no philosophical difference between these hypocritical,
narrow-minded, blue-nosed religious fanatics and the Taliban.
Seriously. Of course the MPAA is not psychotic enough, or bold enough
to commit mass murder, but their doctrine of ignorance and repression,
and the arrogance of their supposition that their values are the one
size that fits all is theologically indistinguishable from any other
It is a sad
commentary on the cowardice of this industry that they allow
themselves to be dictated to by the latter-day Joseph McCarthys of the
MPAA. People who meet in secret and describe themselves as
"parents." "Parents?" Well THAT narrows it down!
Attila, Joseph Goebbles and O.J. Simpson fit into THAT category.
That's a qualification? I can't understand why someone has not filed a
class-action suit against the "MPAA" under the RICO statute
(Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organization Act) for acting in
Restraint of Trade in Inter-State Commerce. Great financial harm is
done to corporations that have invested millions of dollars in their
film products, people are put out of work, and careers are truncated
by this secret organization. "Oh, but compliance is
voluntary!" Replies Jack "Johnny Scissors" Valenti.
"voluntary" as paying a bookie.
can discern no philosophical difference between [the Motion
Picture Association of America] and the Taliban."
Finally, I wanted
to give you an opportunity to talk about your upcoming book, and your
new film project, a retelling of Romeo & Juliet.
My book Dinner
Behind The Lines (Bennington Books, NY) is available now at Barnes
& Noble and on Amazon.com
or by e-mail. It's a collection of
poems and stories in soft cover. I have three film projects moving
forward. I can't believe how busy I am now.
Only Perfect is
a Romeo & Juliet-inspired romance set in present-day Montreal, the
kids being quite young (twelve-thirteen). The girl, "Michelle
Beaubien," is an upscale Francophone Quebecois, and the boy,
"Coleman Hawkins," is a poor Anglophone living in the East
End. The story deals with the classic family conflict exacerbated by
ethnic differences and socio-economic factors. It treats young love with
respect and detail, and never sinks to pubertal comedy or cheap
titillation. Because this film too goes where no film has gone before
(but not in the direction of sex) I have attracted the attention of one
of Canada's best directors and we are conferring now on production
budgeting and schedules.
Night Of The Black
Mamba--a feature film--is a spy thriller told as the very personal
story of a former CIA operative who is living quietly in America and
trying to write a book that certain people don't want to see in print.
Brian Cox and Armand Asante have both expressed interest in playing lead
roles and have requested current scripts.
tell you anything about this one--a feature film--the script is complete
up to a shooting script. It is ready to go now. A well-known,
award-winning Canadian director is negotiating with me on this one as we
Kings Of The Earth--This
one is a Big-Budget Whopper! A conspiracy within NASA with links to
Ancient extra-terrestrial visitors to earth who have become us. They are
not bugs. Our protagonist, John McCallister, has inadvertantly uncovered
their grand plan, and he wants to stop them. If they don't stop him
At this time, I don't
know which one will go into production first, but stay tuned!
Ryder, Film Freak Central thanks you again for your time and for your
film. Your contribution to screen literature is a welcome one, and I wish
you the best of luck in L.I.E.'s continuing success and in all of
your future endeavors.-Walter Chaw