Interview: 50 Years of Filmmaking With Martin Landau

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CHICAGO – The legendary Martin Landau was recently in Chicago with two films in special presentation at The 45th Annual Chicago International Film Festival - the classic “North by Northwest,” also releasing on Blu-Ray tomorrow, November 3rd, 2009, and the new drama “Lovely, Still,” co-starring Ellen Burstyn.

Very few actors will ever have an experience like Mr. Landau did at the film festival in October, bringing two experiences from such different eras of their working life. We spent a lot of time with Martin discussing what’s important to him as an actor and he made clear that it’s the arc of his character that’s essential to the projects he chooses.

Landau explains, “The interesting thing is that I’ve had an interesting cross-section of directors - Joe Mankiewicz, George Stevens, Henry Hathaway, George Marshall, Tim Burton, Francis Coppola, Woody Allen, Steve Spielberg. The good directors create a playground for you and give you a lot of freedom.”

“That’s the secret - casting the right person, somebody with the range and understanding to play your character, and then opening a door and creating a space for them to have fun. I haven’t been directed, literally, in thirty years by anybody. I haven’t been given a direction. I come in with stuff and I figure if they don’t like it they’ll tell me. They don’t tell me. I hit my marks, I say the words, and I go home. All an audience wants to believe is that what’s going on between two or more people is happening for the first time ever. That’s what you have to create in a positive sense. It’s a dynamic of behavior - what’s going on NOW. That’s what’s exciting about what I do.”

Martin Landau at the Chicago International Film Festival Awards Ceremony in the Pump Room at the Ambassador East Hotel, October 17, 2009.
Martin Landau at the Chicago International Film Festival Awards Ceremony in the Pump Room at the Ambassador East Hotel, October 17, 2009.
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for

When asked if he would take a bad script if the collaborators were talented, Landau revealed that he would turn down anyone if he didn’t like the screenplay, even Woody Allen, saying that he has turned him down in the past. It’s the arc of the character - “both the story and the challenge” - that matters.

As an example, Landau brought up how he became attached to “Entourage” - “Doug Ellin wrote it for me. It was a three-episode arc. I turned it down on the basis of one script. So he says let’s have dinner. He and Jeremy Piven take me out to dinner and I told them that there’s two more scripts and I wanted to see where the character goes. So, he sends me the second one and one of the directors and Doug take me to dinner. I say, “Look, I’m not being difficult but I want to see where the character goes.” In the beginning, you think the guy doesn’t have a few cylinders working and then you see that he doesn’t even have a project and then as it goes on you think that he’s going to be taken advantage of and then he winds up getting Ari fired. I liked that and I liked where it went.”

Lovely, Still
Lovely, Still
Photo credit: The Chicago International Film Festival

Landau revealed that he may be coming back to “Entourage,” but the focus of his time in Chicago was on “North by Northwest” and “Lovely, Still”. He explained how he got the part in the former - “I was very new in Hollywood. I had been involved in the theatre and stage work and summer stock and, suddenly, I’m in a play that travels the country and winds up in L.A. Hitchcock comes and sees the play opening night and the next thing I know I get a call and read a script and the character is 180 degrees from the character I’m playing in the theater. Suddenly, I’m working with Cary Grant, who I grew up with in theaters on Saturdays with my friends. James Mason.”

“Hitchcock was legendary, even then. I had seen Rebecca, Suspicion, Saboteur, which is one of the reasons he did North by Northwest. He felt he had made a mistake by having the bad guy hanging off the Statue of Liberty. He told me that. He said [in a perfect Hitch impression], “Martin I made a terrible error. I had the bad fellow in jeopardy. No one gave a damn. DIE for Christ’s sake. It’s one of the things that made me do this film. I wanted to correct a major error on my part of judgment.” Having the good guy - a different national monument but the same scene really.”

Fifty years later and after dozens of amazing films, Landau isn’t just picked by directors, he has parts written for him. Such was the case with “Lovely, Still,” a drama co-starring Ellen Burstyn in a tale of an elderly romance with a twist. Writer/director Nicholas Faeckler sent the script to William Morris who sent it to Landau’s agent and then the real work began.

Martin Landau in North by Northwest
Martin Landau in North by Northwest
Photo credit: Warner Brothers

Landau says, “It’s a good piece and a good concept and I told my agent that I’d like to meet with the writer. I said, “How old is he?” I figured 50 or 60. Who’s going to write an older couple love story? “He’s 22 years old.” “Wow. I’d like to meet him and have lunch with him.” “Well, he lives in Omaha, Nebraska.” “Well, that’s his problem.” I wound up loving Omaha. We shot there. Anyway, he flies in and we have a 5 hour lunch at Art’s Deli in the Valley, where they don’t throw you out. I said, “The first act has to build to the date. These scenes do not belong here. These scenes need to be here.””

“The reality that you’re watching this movie on is not the actual reality. The second time is another movie. There’s double entendres and moments that it needed. He did a rewrite and for two months on the telephone, we did 5 or 6 pages at a time. I said, “If you work with me on this, I’ll do your movie.” We had a list - Ellen Burstyn, Gena Rowlands, Blythe Danner. When it was 90% there, I said send it to Ellen. She called me and said, “Marty, what the f**k are we going to do in Omaha for seven weeks?” It never got past Ellen.”

Martin Landau in North by Northwest
Martin Landau in North by Northwest
Photo credit: Warner Brothers

When it comes to his career of work, Martin Landau barely has time to watch his older films, revealing that he has several projects in some state of production, runs the Actor’s Studio on the west coast, is working on a seminar with Mark Rydell and Lyle Kessler, and is working on a stage musical that he is also shooting behind-the-scenes material on for a making-of show.

But when pressed as to which films he feels should be seen first by someone new to his career, Landau mentions some classics including “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Ed Wood,” “Tucker,” and, somewhat surprisingly, “Pinocchio,” noting that it wasn’t the first time that he had worked with “a wooden actor”.

As for what he’s working on next, Landau reveals, “I’m going to do a movie next with Jennifer Lopez, a film noir kind of movie like Double Indemnity - a lot of that stuff. We hired a director who did a pass on the script and it was terrible. We gave them another shot and it was worse. It’s a very good script as it is but the guy didn’t get it. I won’t mention his name. It looked like it was written by a farmer with a rake. It’s a good script and it’s gotten better but he didn’t get it. He’s one of the friends of another one of the producers and it took a lot of time. But now there’s a guy we’re very interested in and we’re talking to him. But that’s going to go. That’s a go project. It’s a very good one for her. It’s good.”

“North by Northwest” will be released on Blu-Ray on November 3rd, 2009 and “Lovely, Still” will open in theaters on a TBA date. content director Brian Tallerico

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