Richard Gere has been a part of American film culture for over 2 decades. His has been a long and steady road well travelled, from stardom to Buddhism and somewhere in between. In his latest film, The Mothman Prophecies, Gere stars as a Washington Post reporter drawn to mysterious and eerie events following the macabre death of his wife.
Part sci-fi, part-horror, it’s part true. The usually publicity shy Gere was in good spirits when we met in Los Angeles to talk about eerie prophesies and the revival of the Hollywood musical, all in the space of one interview.
Question: How cheerful you are?
Gere: I’m overcompensating. (jokes)
Question: The notes for The Mothman Prophesies say that this is not science fiction. Everyone who worked on it agrees. Can you comment on that?
Gere: I didn’t write that and I don’t think I signed it. It wasn’t passed by me. My lawyer hasn’t seen it.
Question: Is it real to you?
Gere: It begs a lot of questions. What is real? My interest in the piece is that it calls into question all of our assumptions about perception and what is out there. Even in the simple sense of being in this room. what is across the table. What is the table? What is out here? How does that happen. It’s all based on the content of your mind and your heart what is out there. It’s not a definitive thing. It’s very fluid thing, this thing called reality.
Question: It wasn’t just the character you found intriguing?
Gere: No. It was the piece itself. When I first read the script years ago, it was going through a development process to arrive at this balance of different elements it has, it was just a great read. It has a great narrative drive to it. You wonder what’s going on. What’s next? How does it end? On a simple narrative level, it functioned well.
Question: Have you ever had any supernatural experiences?
Gere: Everything is a supernatural experience is what I’m saying. This idea of perception just in a narrow field, it’s the broad field. What the brain does is this peculiar thing. It has an initial perception whether it’s projecting or not. From that time on, it never sees something freshly again. It fits it into a category of the original decision it made based on the first perception. Nothing is ever what it is again. You have one shot basically of seeing a human being. The brain catalogues and measures it. Does its thing on what this is and then compares every other perception. It’s sort of like a human being, so we’ll make it a human being. It’s sort of white so we’ll make it white. It’s sort of a table so we’ll make it a table. At that point it’s all a dead experience. You’re living in a voodoo dream. Maybe a baby the first time it opens its eyes and is flashed with light, that’s a pure perception, but after that point, we are literally living in second and third hand realities. If that is the case, then many things are going on around us that we just don’t see because the brain already has made decisions to bypass it.
Question: You brought the script to the stage where it was more balanced. Can you elaborate?
Gere: We kind of went in different directions that overcompensated in many different ways. The first one I thought was maybe too much in the monster behind the door. In fact, there was a shape of a person that actually did encounter that; my character actually had an episode; we had a bit of a conversation on the road. But it was misleading and it wasn’t helping anything because it was too concrete, too crystallized. So we started to pull back from that. OK. This is a metaphysical movie, let’s push that and start to discuss it. Then it got too wordy and dry as we started going in these verbally smarter territories. It was really difficult to find the balance in these things. The character that made the most changes was the Alan Bates character, which was all over the place. Originally, that was a maniac, but Alan found a really good balance of a guy who’s had experiences, who’s a reputable person, who’s not crazy and was able to communicate a lot of information about this experience. One of the most important points I’m having in my discussion with him is when I ask are they benevolent and he laughs and says, you’re asking questions as if they are human. This goes back to that question about the brain and my answer to that. All the people who encountered this experience with this energy or whatever frame it in terms of how the brain see the human being, comparing it to that, instead of allowing a larger experience. When Kamu has an epiphrenal experience, an outside the body experience, he would see grey ooze, he would see nausea. When Francis has an out of body experience, he sees beautiful crystal universes. Clearly, this is based on perception of the people, the content of their minds. People were having different types of experiences; they were entering a zone of some kind. The content of the zone is up to them.
Question: How typical is it that you follow the development of a script for this long?
Gere: This is longer. It went on for 2 or 3 years. The producer, Tom Rosenberg had bought it as a spec script and kept working on it. I was involved, not so involved, involved through many drafts and many writers. When Mark Pellington came in and did a draft he seemed to bring in all the disparate elements from all the drafts that it started to make sense. We worked heavily on refining and improving that version of it. That’s basically what we have now.
Question: Did you go to the Washington Post to do research for this?
Gere: No. I’ve done that before so I felt it wasn’t important to do that in this case. The most important thing was to have an empirical mind going into this. This is a guy who wants the facts. That works if you’re a cop or a private detective or a reporter or whatever. This is a guy who wants to know the facts. How big? How much does it weigh? What colour is it? What happened? Give me the facts. Obviously we go through a voyage, where the facts are irrelevant and this whole empirical side of his brain is exploding. In his house there, it’s pure emotions.
Question: Any empirical elements to your personality? In order to get into this character you had to have a more empirical perspective. Did you have to work on that?
Gere: No. Anything I felt, I didn’t have to reach for.
Question: You re-teamed in this movie with Laura Linney. Was that your idea?
Gere: I can’t remember, but it was a perfect idea. Whosever idea it was I’ll take credit (laughs).
Question: What do you like about Laura?
Gere: Laura’s terrific. She’s a consummate professional, completely creative. Gives herself to the project. One of the tricks for everyone in this was to make believable that they were experiencing something or fighting the belief that they were experiencing something. Laura’s character and mine were the empiricists. She’s the cop and I’m the reporter. That was the beginning of our affinity for each other. The movie starts with Debra Messing. If she didn’t pull off that she’d experienced something and it totally freaked her out, the movie couldn’t start. It had to be believable that we had a relationship that was meaningful and deep.
Question: Did other versions of the script have your character develop a romantic relationship with Laura’s character?
Gere: There were versions that did that but it felt forced. I’m sure it was some studio influence that said we have to have a romance. We tried it but it felt forced. It was kind of silly.
Question: A relationship develops between them.
Gere: It’s hardly romantic. The expectation is that they’ll continue their friendship and maybe it’ll go there. Who knows?
Question: What’s happening with ‘Chicago’? You’ve started shooting that?
Gere: Yeah. We started 12th of December.
Question: Is that your first stab at the genre?
Gere: On film, yeah. It’s ironic that I’d started in my career in New York doing musicals. It was the time of rock operas (he clears throat). I had hair down to my tits and could play a lot of instruments. At that time it was an easy time to get work if you could do things like sing and play instruments.
Question: What did you do?
Gere: The first show I did was a thing called “Soon.” It didn’t go anywhere. It was on Broadway. I was making money on Broadway. Then a piece off-Broadway about Richard Farrino , his life and work. I played him. (clears throat again)
Question: So why return to it now?
Gere: It came to me. The script was sensed.
Question: You saw the Broadway show?
Gere: I was going to say that. I really didn’t like it, to tell you the truth. I can see why because it wasn’t intended as a full production. It was a limited engagement presentation of the material. It took off but it never evolved into a full production so you don’t get the plot, you don’t get the thing Fosse was after when they developed the piece. After going back and listening to the original musical and reading the current script that it evolved. The film works on so many different levels. It’s more like a Dennis Potter piece now. A lot of presentational stuff in naturalistic settings. I think it’s terrific. I had to learn how to Broadway sing. Even when I was doing musicals back then, it was rock. My voice was a little black so I had to whiten myself up and have these big operatic tones so it was fun to go through that process.
Question: How is it working with Catherine Zeta-Jones?
Gere: I don’t work with her that much. Most of my work is with Renee. They’re wonderful women and so talented. People are going to be knocked out.
Question: Are you in a tuxedo or Chicago lawyer in fancy stripes?
Gere: Neither. (laughs) It’s more like Cotton Club. It’s more that feeling. It’s more street reality, naturalistic based. Then it goes into these fantasy Potter-esque fantasy sequences in vaudeville clubs. Then, the costumes become vaudevillian. They’re kind of expressionistic versions of that period.
Question: Is the musical genre coming back?
Gere: If they make money they’ll come back. If they don’t they’ll go to sleep again for a while.
Question: Has your rationale in selecting a project changed over the years?
Gere: No. I don’t think it has. The idea that it has to be something interesting. Is there something there that gets the motor started? If that’s not there (unintelligible). If there’s a variety of choices, I’d be drawn to the one that was more in line with my thinking or dealing in that area or something challenging in a way that was unexpected like when Chicago came up, I thought, Now, that would be fun. I haven’t done that in film. I haven’t done that type of singing ever so this is going to be all new to me. To find things that are totally fresh to your experience like that is rare. To work with the people who were cast and the director, that was an easy choice. I would not have done the original couple scripts. It had to find this peculiar balance that had this openness of possibility before I could commit myself to it. Also, when you’re dealing with realms of the spirit, you have to be careful about what you say. In the original scripts, everyone who went to the zone had these horrific experiences and these entities were really mischievous and that didn’t feel right to me. I think those entities exist but I also think the opposite exists. I felt it needed to have a balance or at least an openness of possibility, which is when we started evolving this idea that everything is a projection, which is my belief anyhow.