Larry Charles, Dylan's Director, Un-'Masked'
He's not Bob Dylan. He's Bob Dylan's director.
His is not the voice of a director whose debut feature film has been the victim of "malicious corporate critics lying in wait." Larry Charles, of Seinfeld, Mad About You, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and, now, the Bob Dylan-driven Masked and Anonymous, is in Austin for a preview screening, and he's soft-spoken but upbeat, poised, personable, and optimistic about the bizarrely ambitious film's future. In it, Dylan stars as recently imprisoned and dustbin-irrelevant troubadour Jack Fate, released to headline a "Network" benefit concert for the sick and hungry of a post-apocalyptic America. Filled with songs from across the Dylan spectrum, some his renditions and some not (think Italian hip-hop, Japanese pop, Turkish synth-rock, and a little girl doing "Times They Are A-Changin'" a cappella), and almost as many movie stars (Angela Bassett, Jeff Bridges, Penelope Cruz, John Goodman, Ed Harris, Val Kilmer, Jessica Lange, Giovanni Ribisi, and Luke Wilson), the film -- with a screenplay credited to Rene Fontaine and Sergei Petrov but likely the work of Dylan and Charles -- was a critical bust at Sundance yet still finds itself as one of the summer's most intriguing (if inscrutable) releases.
Austin Chronicle: So, whose world-view is it more warping to peep through, Larry David's or Bob Dylan's?
Larry Charles: [laughs] It's a photo finish, I would say. Actually, I often compare them to each other, despite the fact that they themselves aren't deeply aware of each other so much. I think, over the years, having had the fortune to work with a number of great people, I've gained an appreciation for and a definition of what genius is, and Larry and Bob are both geniuses. They're like savants, mining similar kinds of territory, and they're unswerving in terms of their vision. They just cannot be deterred. And they cannot adjust to the marketplace.
AC: Sort of like this film?
LC: Well, this film is about as noncorporate as it gets, despite the names involved. It's a truly independent movie. The financing comes from outside sources, the methodology is outside the system, and it's full of insiders willing to go outside of things and take some risks.
AC: To what degree were things improvised? I've read that the sequence with Dylan and his band doing "Dixie," which for me was a really crucial, moving thing, was a warm-up that you insisted on shooting.
LC: It was, it was! There was a ton of cool stuff like that, which people won't see in the theatrical version. Hopefully, somewhere down the line, they will, because I think it has some definite historical value. I mean, Dylan doing part of Peggy Lee's "Fever" to get loose? ... The script was incredibly dense and specific, but I was fully committed to shooting every word of it while still trying to keep my antennae up. A lot of critics have expressed this sense of the haphazard, but it wasn't like that. Everything was intentional, but within that cognition and awareness and consciousness, I left room for the spontaneous. Shooting digital allows that.
AC: Speaking of the script ...
LC: It went through many permutations. We could have worked on it forever. I would say beyond that, without getting into specifics about authorship, the thing about Bob Dylan's work, early and later, is this notion of a poet experimenting with the language. It means taking a line that seems poetic and tearing it apart, taking it in different directions, and stretching it to the point where it almost becomes an irritant in order to make you listen a little harder. In this case, I wanted to remain faithful to the script while still making a great movie from it, to reinvent that script as a synthesis of acting, cinematography, story, sound, genre, and theme. I remember watching, say, a Neil Simon movie when I was a kid, and the director would defer so rigidly to the script that the movie would die. It was flat. I wanted Masked and Anonymous to be vital. And that can only happen when you make yourself available to it.
See Film listings for Masked and Anonymous' review and showtimes.