An accomplished television director, Allen Coulter had the unique ability to helm projects ranging from serious period drama to light-hearted comedy. Following his successful and high-profile work on the HBO series’ “The Sopranos” and “Sex and the City,” Coulter made the difficult transition to feature film directing.
Born in College Station, TX, Coulter studied theater direction at the University of Texas before moving to New York to pursue his love of film. Working odd jobs in New York, he managed to scrap up enough money to make his first short film, “The Hobbs Case.” Coulter’s received his first professional credit on the horror Sci-Fi series “Tales of the Darkside” (1983-1988). He next found directorial and writing work on another syndicated series, “Monsters” (1988-1991), as well as the ABC After School Special, “It’s Only Rock & Roll” (1991). Coulter eased his way onto more prominent TV sets, landing work on a number of series, including “Prince Street” (NBC, 1997), “Michael Hayes” (CBS, 1997-1998) and both popular Chris Carter sci-fi shows, “The X-Files” (Fox, 1993-2002) and “Millennium” (Fox, 1996-1999).
Coulter’s first major milestone as a television director came in 1999 with the premiere of the HBO flagship series “The Sopranos” (1999- ), which he also produced. He received four Emmy nominations for Outstanding Directing in a Dramatic Series, as well as two DGA Award nominations for his work on the series. A proven commodity, Coulter also directed the iconic HBO comedy series, “Sex and the City” (1998-2004), receiving two DGA Award nominations for his work in 2001 and 2002. Coulter went on to direct an episode of “Six Feet Under” (HBO, 2001-2005) and the pilot for the gritty drug-trafficking miniseries “Kingpin” (NBC, 2003).
After a two year absence, Coulter returned to HBO in 2005 to direct an episode of the award-winning historical miniseries “Rome” (2005), which graphically chronicled the rise of the Roman Empire. After working on so many HBO programs that most critics liken to mini movies for the small screen, transitioning to the big screen was not that big a leap for the talented director. Coulter makes his feature film directorial debut with the detective drama, “Hollywoodland,” featuring Ben Affleck, Adrien Brody and Diane Lane, set in and around June 16, 1959 as it delves into the apparent suicide of George Reeves. The director talked exclusively to Paul Fischer.
Question: How long have you been aware of the whole George Reeves thing? I mean what was really interesting about this movie is after I saw it I did my own research and I was amazed how accurate the film reflected what went on at the time.
Coulter: Well thank you. I have to attribute a lot of that to Paul Bernbaum’s original script. I mean he did heavy research for this film and really did an extraordinary job of finding a way to translate all that fact into a dramatic story that didn’t take six hours to tell. So in that sense a lot of the research was done originally there and I did an enormous amount of research as well, as did my production designer and costume designer and so on to lend a kind of depth to that accuracy. we were trying really hard to be true to the period as well as true to the characters and actual facts of the story. Now inevitably you do things for dramatic reasons…
Question: Yeah, you’ve got the character played by Adrien who was not the real guy right?
Coulter: No, he’s a creation inspired by real people but really a completely fictitious character because we didn’t want to make a bio-pic. That’s a different category and a different kind of thing, and that was not our interest really. I mean we were interested in looking at this story through the eyes of the detective, and one of the things I really tried to do once I got involved was to enhance that character and try to make him as interesting to watch as George Reeves who was of course as we know a fascinating and very complex man. It was a challenge to make the Louis Simo character that interesting and to put him at the centre of the story so that we witness the story through his eyes if you will. And one of the things that we did was, it was important to make sure that George’s story resonated with Louis and actually affected Louis’s life, because otherwise you’re looking at two separate stories that have no bearing on each other.
Question: Now how complicated a film was this to cast? You look at George Reeves as Superman and you don’t necessary see, ah, Ben Affleck, perfect. What were you looking for and how did you come across the casting decisions?
Coulter: That’s a good question. I mean some of these things are inevitable. I felt that whoever played George needed to exude a certain charm, which he was noted for, a certain glamour, which he certainly had in spades, particularly as a young man, and at the same time a kind of stolidity, a kind of solidness. He’s an old fashioned guy. You know, he’s a man from a different generation, in a time when people carried themselves with a certain formality and had elocution lessons. He’s an old-style actor and kind of was representing old Hollywood and I thought I needed somebody who could carry off those qualities. So when I met Ben, after our discussions, it seemed that we were thinking about the same guy and that he was committed to doing that. And, of course, the first day on the set he came in and he had gained 20 lbs, had a different voice and he was absolutely committed to embodying that kind of somewhat old-fashioned man.
Question: Now why do you think a movie like this would resonate with contemporary audiences? I mean so many of today’s young generation either wouldn’t have seen or don’t remember the events leading up to George Reeves’ death.
Coulter: Well of course one never knows how it’s going to resonate frankly, but I mean there are a variety of things. I mean, we can’t ignore the fact that for certain people Diane Lane is one of the most beautiful, striking and fascinating actresses around and Ben in his own right has qualities that attracts an enormous audience to him. I think frankly a younger crowd may like Ben but they also may find themselves drawn to Adrien because of his kind of hippness factor. I think the other thing is this, I think that the notion – and this is one of those things that sounds a little heady but I think it’s true – the notion that human beings always end up wanting to be more than who they are, feeling in a sense dissatisfied with what life has given them, with their lot in life, and carry with them this desire for a certain kind of recognition that they don’t have, a certain kind of stardom if you will. So I think that that increasingly – I wouldn’t say this is a good thing – but I think increasingly people feel this… feel drawn toward the notion of being a star or a celebrity. I mean we don’t need to look any further than a lot of the so-called reality shows on TV to see that there is this increasing obsession with celebrity, with being a player, with being a star and all this. Even the most common life, common man if you will, seems to have this desire. Now I think that is something that of course Reeves wanted in the old fashioned way, to be a star of a certain kind. He didn’t find being a star to 30 million kids acceptable, but wanted a different kind of stardom. He wants – he says – Clark Cable’s career, whereas the Simo character wants to be a player, like Rick Harris the top detective agency in Hollywood at that time – an adaptation of the real company but the same idea. He wants to be a player. I think that when people look at this they may unconsciously recognize this tendency to want to be known, to want to be photographed and have their picture appear in the paper, as Simo talks about, so I think that to a degree people recognize in these characters – and I hope it resonates to them – some of their own tendencies, and I hope also that it’s a little bit of a precautionary tale of where that can lead.
Question: Did you form a hypothesis or an opinion I should say as to Reeves’ death? Do you believe that it was suicide or do you believe that there was something else going on?
Coulter: You know I tend to side with Louis Simo in that he ultimately arrives at his own thought. Like Rashomon, there are various, in this case three versions of what might have happened on that night, and I tend to side with Simo. What I tried to do was to leave the door open to these other possibilities, because we don’t know what happened – nobody was in the room that night – and because there are these various theories that something happened other than what was reported in the papers, I wanted to leave that possibility open. I didn’t want to be the person who said to you this is what happened on that night because I don’t know and no one really knows. So it was my idea and Paul Bernbaum’s obviously – that it be an open question at the end of this but with the detective having his own theory, his own feeling that this was the most likely thing that happened, but I didn’t kick the other doors shut either.
Question: What kind of doors has this movie opened up for you? What are you going to be doing next for example?
Coulter: You know, good question. My wife asked me the same thing. [Laughter]. You know I don’t know. I’m looking at several things. I mean I’m really actively looking. I tend to be very careful about the things I choose and tend to be drawn to stories about real human beings with their own real problems- that’s why I like this project – things that one could say belong to a certain genre but with a difference. I think that this is not a typical detective story. After all, you’ve got a guy who’s trying to act like a detective but he’s self conscious about it. I mean it takes Simo the entire movie to understand that it is just a job. But aside from this one thing called Bodyguard of Lies that’s based on a true story about a man in the Second World War who spied for the English on the Germans, I’m still looking.