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Val Kilmer and D.J. Caruso: Swimming “The Salton Sea”

With a resume that includes Real Genius, The Doors, Batman Forever, Heat, Willow, and Top Gun, superstar Val Kilmer is a man that needs no introduction. His latest film The Salton Sea, opens on April 26, 2002. We sat down with Kilmer and Sea director D.J. Caruso during their recent visit to San Francisco.

filmcritic.com: Talk about how each of you become involved with The Salton Sea project?

Caruso: Frank Darabont was very instrumental in my involvement in this project. He had seen a short film of mine and hired me for a small HBO film Black Cat Run, which had a budget of about $3 million. That project led to Castle Rock generating interest in me, and they asked if I had anything else, and when I found the script for The Salton Sea, I brought it to Castle Rock with Frank attached to it. Frank said to me that Castle Rock would never make this movie because it was way too dark for the studio that made Miss Congeniality. Not to dismiss those types of films but The Salton Sea was not typical Castle Rock stuff. But, Rob Reiner was looking for something that was a little dirtier to make the company a little more diverse.

Kilmer: The very first page of the screenplay was exciting to read. The main character was described as playing a trumpet on the floor, bleeding, and the room’s on fire, and he doesn’t seem to mind. Money floating all around his head, and he says so casually, ‘I don’t know who I am anymore and maybe, you can help me.’ I instantly wanted to find out more about this character and what was happening to him.

I’ve played Hamlet before and like Hamlet, the character of Tom Van Allen in the film assumes an identity in order to inflect the revenge upon the murderers of his wife. In order to do so, he becomes this pseudo detective and gets lost inside the identity and the world he assumes. This is appealing to an actor because of the complex subject of identity is usually very fertile ground.

How did you approach the character of Tom Van Allen?

Kilmer: I just seemed to jump right in. Having played Hamlet, I had visceral memories of parts of the play in conjunction with the Tom Van Allen character. You don’t think about Hamlet when you watch the film, but it shares similar terrain and has a strange balance to it. I tried to serve the character as best I could and I was happy with the suggestions I made while working on the film.

One original element was that the character wasn’t a user, he was pretending to be a speed freak. That wouldn’t have worked in an accurate sense for the character and story because the character can’t live in this crazed drug world and stay up for five days straight – even people who stay up for two days get a little loopy.

The film is not about drugs and a bunch of speed freaks. The screenwriter found this arena to be strongly compelling because he had done a lot of coke, not speed, and drew some of those experiences into the film. He employed this world of speed as a backdrop for the film because it’s so vivid and it represented aspects of way to dramatize this character’s pain. You kind of get locked into a routine with speed, and it’s like a broken record until you get off of it or die or get lost with the pain of emotional abyss, from which you can never escape. To me, it’s a love story – it’s a hard one but filled with much hope.

My role in The Salton Sea really affected me in a strange way. Rather than becoming lost or overpowered by it, I was so happy at the end of the day to go home, take a shower, and wash the flames off my arms. The sky was bluer, the trees were greener, and I’d hug my kids like I just narrowly escaped an accident or something. It’s a heavy world and a hard role, but I feel like I’m a survivor in the end.

Let’s talk about the tattoos.

Kilmer: That’s an idea I had when I started doing research for the film. All the speed freaks have stories about their tattoos – even if there isn’t a story, a big giant dragon could end up scrawled across someone’s chest when they woke up four days later and didn’t know how it got there. Whatever happened, there was usually a good story attached to it. I like the idea of a character unconsciously provoking his enemies by branding himself with the name of the place were his wife was killed on his back… and I thought it would make a good poster.

Do either or you know or meet any speed freaks during filming?

Kilmer: Of course, I work in Hollywood (laughs). I actually do – quite a few musicians. One of the guys in the movie – Josh Todd – I didn’t know he had done a lot of speed but I know him from his band and when I called him up and asked him if he knew any speed freaks, he said, ‘ Yeah, I was.’

Then, he started telling me stories of being all happy when he got home after four days or partying and being able to eat a piece of bread. It was almost like he was describing being captured by the Viet Cong, and I couldn’t imagine paying for this stuff. He said that the rush is so great when you start, you don’t really notice it until you try to stay up for two weeks.

If you don’t have anything to believe it, drugs are not the cause but the symptom of longing. We all need something to believe in.

D.J., isn’t a film like The Salton Sea commercially risky?

Caruso: It’s commercial risky because Castle Rock has a distribution deal with Warner Brothers and between you and I – and the whole world, I guess – Warner Brothers would have never made this movie – never ever ever. They’ve told me that they really like this movie – they think it’s a good film – but they would never make it because they aren’t that adept at marketing a film like this. At times, you’d say, how would Miramax have handled this kind of movie – what angle would they approach in the marketing. It’s been kind of hard to make the type of film I wanted to make and that is why Castle Rock didn’t let it the budget balloon to twenty or thirty million.

The film was originally slated to come out at the end of 2001. Why the delay?

Kilmer: It was delayed initially because of September 11, but it also didn’t feel like a Christmas movie. The only way to sell it would be to have two giant rails of speed on the poster and proclaim, ‘Have a White Christmas’ (laughs). The question was how to celebrate this environment and this lifestyle during the Christmas season – it felt inappropriate.

People might find a lot of similarities with this film and with Memento.

Caruso: It’s almost inevitable that people will compare the films because both lead characters are tattooed, both lost their wives, both films carry voiceovers, and each holds a certain noir feel. I believe that is where the comparison sort of ends. I think Memento was genius, but the thing I think is most upsetting is the fact that you think that you’re making this brilliant film – nothing has ever been made before in this caliber – and on the day that I wrapped the film and started post-production, I open the paper and see the ad for Memento and said, ‘What is this movie – what a minute here!’

There ar
e definitely similarities in the two films, but I feel we have two completely different movies.

Was the studio responsible for the quaint Hollywood ending of The Salton Sea?

Caruso: To address that question, you have to reexamine the studio system in the 1970s. Films like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and even that Warren Beatty film The Parallax View – in which Beatty’s character dies in the end. You look at those films and say, ‘Geez, those films could not be made today in the Hollywood studio.’ Why directors were allowed to make those types of choices with their films, I don’t know, but I do know that I am not going to be naïve enough to say that I’m going to be the first director to successfully navigate my way through the system and make it work. The system is a scary thing and I am learning how to maintain the integrity of a filmmaker – such as Peter Weir – who can create balanced work of films that make the studios commercially happy and still maintain an artistic edge to his works.

Val, compare the directing of D.J. with other directors you have worked with.

Kilmer: Well, he’s much better in bed than Oliver Stone (laughs).

D.J., were you nervous about the negative buzz Val has received in the past couple years?

Caruso: When I met Val for the first time, we had a meeting which ran about four and half hours long. I told him, in a very selfish way, that he was the right guy for this part and I would love for him to do it. John Frankenhiemer has been very vocal about his relationship with Val and has even stated, ‘I wouldn’t cast Val Kilmer for The Val Kilmer Story‘ (laughs)… but I told Val, ‘You don’t need to justify or defend these accusations and tell me what’s true and not true, I just know that you are a really talented actor and I want you to be on board for this movie.’ Thank God, it worked out great.

Val loves to be directed and wants the director to be so much of a participate in the process that he could be regarded as consuming and that aspect may have had a negative response from other directors. I didn’t mind it because I felt we shared a common bond of wanting the film to be as good as possible. I can’t speak for other directors, but I remember Val telling me a story about working with Joel Schumacher and one time, when he asked for direction on a particular scene, Joel said, ‘You’re just fucking Batman, just go out there and do it!’ I think that if you say something like that to an actor like Val, it’s wrong because he seems to take a more intellectual approach to his work. Anyway, Joel directed DC Cab, didn’t he? (laughs)

Val, from all the directors you’ve worked with, who’s your favorite and who’s the biggest pain in the ass?

Kilmer: Oh, I love each and every one of them uniquely. They’re like ex-wives – they all have a special place in my heart.

Photos by Jennifer Wanderer, wanderermedia.com.

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