LAFF 2015 Interview: Rene Russo and G.J. Echternkamp
Every kid probably thinks their parents would make a good movie. Most are probably the same as all the others, doing their best, making some mistakes, but hopefully none that cause irreversible damage. But G.J. Echternkamp made not one, but two movies about his mother and stepfather. The first was the documentary, Frank and Cindy, in 2007. This year, the feature film version of Frank and Cindy premieres at the Los Angeles Film Festival starring Oliver Platt as Frank and Rene Russo as Cindy.
So why not just one, but two movies about Frank and Cindy? Well, Frank Garcia was the bass player of OXO. Never heard of them? Their one hit was “Whirly Girl.” During their height, Cindy married Frank with dreams of a rock n’ roll life. But after the failure of the band, and Frank giving up on music, they stayed together, albeit with Frank living in the basement peeing into coffee cans.
Echternkamp decided to film Frank and Cindy for the documentary, which currently only exists in edited form as a This American Life episode. Echternkamp told me that DVDs of the doc going for over $100 on Amazon are actually copies of his film festival press screener.
The new Frank and Cindy film starring Russo, Platt and Johnny Simmons as G.J. premiers at LAFF Tuesday, June 16 at 8:30 PM. Tickets are available now. I spoke with Russo and Echternkamp on a conference call line, which gave Russo nostalgia.
Rene Russo: This is like a party line. I remember party lines. They’re really fun to listen into. Oh my God, I love party lines.
CraveOnline: Did you actually call party lines in the ‘90s?
Rene Russo: Well, this isn’t the ‘90s. We’re going back to the ‘70s party lines. I loved them. Oh my God, was there anything better than listening in on someone else’s conversation? I don’t remember doing it in the ‘90s though.
That’s when I saw commercials for party lines but I never called because they charged too much.
Rene Russo: See, in my day, you just could pick the phone up and someone would be on there talking. I don’t even know, to tell you the truth, how did that even work? You would probably know best, G.J. Now they can just sit outside on the street with some technical device and hear everything we’re saying.
Now it’s Chat Roulette, right?
G.J. Echternkamp: Yeah, that was the thing for a while.
So it’s one thing playing a character who is based on a real person who is still with us, but how did you feel about actually playing the director’s mom?
Rene Russo: You know what? I really wanted G.J. to direct the film because when I saw the documentary, I thought he really had his own voice and I trusted he could do it. Who better than to be in the hands of Cindy’s son? He was incredible because he knew every inflection and everything about her.
I think maybe for me, he was able to teach me or show me a lot, help me to understand Cindy. I can’t relate to Cindy totally but I’m a mother. So if you’re a mother, by nature you’re guilty and you feel bad about everything you tried to do. You’re remorseful and you’re all of those things. I think I saw Cindy as a phenomenally complicated, beautiful, wild, smart, funny character. It just doesn’t get any better than Cindy, and brave to let G.J. film her like that with such transparency is so rare and it was just so exciting. Honestly, I would not have wanted to do it with anyone else.
So having her son as the director was more comfort than pressure.
Rene Russo: It was a comfort, yeah. Cindy wasn’t that difficult for me to channel in some way. I think after meeting me he understood that I’m more like his mother than he probably ever imagined.
G.J. Echternkamp: The very first thing you said to me was literally Cindy. It was you just being you but for a moment I’m like, “Is she doing this on purpose? That’s so much like Cindy I can’t even believe it.” But it was literally just you.
Rene Russo: Well, I’d already seen the documentary so I kind of already sort of got who she was a little bit. Once you listen to those tapes over and over, she was one person that was really easy for me to [embody].
Did you recreate any dialogue verbatim from the documentary, and was the narrative version an opportunity to portray the things you weren’t filming?
G.J. Echternkamp: Yeah, absolutely. When I went into it, the last thing I wanted to do is just do a shot for shot remake of the documentary. I saw it as an opportunity to tell aspects of the story that I couldn’t capture on camera, or that I couldn’t explain elegantly because they weren’t happening visually as you saw them. So there are definitely scenes that are my favorite scenes from the documentary that are pretty much transcribed. And then there’s a lot of stuff in there that’s more behind the scenes stuff or the things that I didn’t get.
I did want to also be fair. In being fair, I thought I should portray myself or my character in a way that isn’t just oh, here’s this poor kid with these crazy parents. To sort of show that I was flawed or that I was affected in some way by it.
Hollywood can be so concerned with likability, especially women’s characters. Was playing Cindy a chance to really embrace someone with flaws?
G.J. Echternkamp: I think that’s the premise of the whole thing. What do you think, Rene?
Rene Russo: It’s a very good question. I don’t think I necessarily went into it thinking about that but you are right. That is true. I really thought that she was just such a fully realized person in so many ways and in so many interesting facets. I could relate to every one of them. Look, yes, we’re all desperately flawed, oh my God. I’ve got a little note on my board that says, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a brave battle.” I look at that every day, so for Cindy, I have just compassion for her. I have such respect for her and I’ve also, for G.J., just also as a mother just hurt for G.J. and what he’s gone through in his life.
G.J. Echternkamp: I would venture to say though that you’re one of those people that probably saw the documentary and related to her instantly. There’s even more scenes in the documentary where she’s just flipping out. It was very shocking to me to have people say, “Oh, this woman, your mother, she’s a banshee, she’s a harpy, she’s pathological, what’s wrong with her?” It never even crossed my mind at the time that anyone would think that. That was just who she was and I thought she was amazing. So going into the film, I felt like I wasn’t going to try to water any of that down. If you can love somebody at their worst then that’s who the real person is.
Rene, in all of your movies, I always got that you were different characters in each one, but this is the first one that probably doesn’t even look like you. Was that an extra level of transformation performance you did?
Rene Russo: I have to say, we took liberties. At the end of the day, I thought, “Oh, you know what? Cindy is a lot better looking than I am” as I was looking at myself in the mirror.
G.J. Echternkamp: With all the makeup.
Rene Russo: In other words, I think we aged me up maybe a little bit too much. Cindy’s a beautiful woman, so I think because we wanted to show all women, we have our worst and then we have our best. So I think we really sort of overdid it a little bit with that, but it was amazing to go in there in the morning.
I said to G.J., it’s the only time I’ve ever taken my makeup off and looked better. Then when I saw some of the photos, I said, “Oh, your mom will be devastated. She was so much prettier than this.” It was very interesting. We had a phenomenal makeup department too, Lee Grimes’ special effects makeup. Makeup and clothes and everything is just so helpful too, and the hair was put on at the end of it. It all works together. It just came together and I had such amazing people to work with across the board.
G.J. Echternkamp: Addressing the fact that I think we made her a little older is probably a little bit of a cinematic sleight of hand. You do say you’re 20 years older than him, and even in the doc it doesn’t even seem believable. So there is something to try to say like, “Well, maybe she looks 20 years older than him?” and also I think the point of it was to show how willing she was to be on camera without makeup, hair in curlers and what a bold move that was for Cindy to do. But that point had to maybe be exaggerated just a little bit.
Is Cindy going to be at the premiere?
G.J. Echternkamp: Um, you know, they asked me about it. Frank and Cindy were like, “Do you want us to go? Should we be there?” I got the sense that they would go if I wanted them to, but at this point they’ve already sort of done it and had their attention. I think it was maybe a little tough for them at first and then they embraced it, but I don’t know if they necessarily want to go through it again. I think at this point, they would rather just pass the torch onto the actors and stay home and eat pizza.
Rene Russo: Boy, do I understand that. I’d like to go there with them. [Both Laugh]
G.J. Echternkamp: Yeah, they’ve gotten enough attention. They’ve been through the Frank and Cindy thing once before. I don’t know if they want to do it again. They would do it if I asked them but I don’t want to force them.
You were talking about this movie when you were doing your Nightcrawler press. How long have both of you been waiting for this movie to be seen?
Rene Russo: I think probably G.J., you should speak to that because I feel like years, probably.
G.J. Echternkamp: Well, you know, the process of making the movie was kind of your classic story where Rene signed on and was involved, we’d talk about it for a long time. But then we’d get a cast together, be close to doing it and then somebody’s schedule would conflict and we’d have to start all over again. From script to release tends to be a few years, or many years.
Finally it did get done and it got done right which was all I cared about. So even when I stalled, I was only stalling so it would be done in a way that I thought was [right]. This is a tough one for me because any other movie maybe I wouldn’t have so much invested in. It’s the legacy of my parents and something I make for them that they will see so whatever time it took was always worth it to me to get it right so that I’d be proud of it.
Rene, I have a few questions about your classic movies. One is that you had such a strong presence in action movies, the first being Lethal Weapon 3. That actually came out after Thelma & Louise and Terminator 2, but do you feel you played a role in the real boom of action heroines we still see now?
Rene Russo: It’s funny you should say that. I was thinking that the other day. I thought, “Wow, I was kind of one of the first to be able to hold a gun and point it at someone and say, ‘Go fuck yourself.’” I remember going up for the part. I was modeling at the time so Dick Donner, I went into the room and he kind of just wrote me off. I could tell it was like, “Oh God, she’s a model.” I could almost see his eyes rolling back in his head. He turned me down and it was the only time I had ever called someone back and said, “Please, you don’t know me. Can I come in your room.”
He didn’t know, but I’m kind of a street girl. I’m definitely that. I was mugged by five guys and hit one of them and told him to go fuck off and he got in my face two inches away from me, because people don’t know that about me. So I went in the room and he’s like, “Okay, here we go.” He was just like, “Wow, you can!” I don’t think that many actresses could do that at the time. I just had that particular color. I was lucky. I was at the right place at the right time.
On the other side though it was kind of unfortunate because I did get pigeonholed a little bit as your tough, strong, capable woman which I’m not sure that would have been my ideal plan for my career, but I can’t complain. Things are good, but I thought about that the other day. I was one of the first, yes.
Was it really a typecast? Because I thought there were really only Lethal Weapon, In the Line of Fire and Outbreak, but you did well balancing it with Get Shorty, Tin Cup and other comedies. Was it more of a struggle than it appeared?
Rene Russo: You know what, you’re right. I guess in a way, I would have loved to have just done more comedies, so I spent a lot of years doing even The Thomas Crown Affair, strong capable women which is fine. It’s great, but it was always so much more fun to do comedies. I love comedy which is one of the reason with Frank and Cindy, I saw it and it is. It’s got everything. It’s got comedy, it’s dramatic. There’s just so much in there. I’ll never have a part like Cindy ever. It just won’t happen. She’s got every color in the paintbox.
Well, one of my all time favorite movies was Mr. Destiny. I don’t know if you hear about that one much, but I definitely related to it as a kid. When I got a little older I realized wait a minute, he’s cheating on someone, whichever reality he was in.
Rene Russo: [Laughs heartily]
Is that a movie you hear about from fans and was it a fond memory?
Rene Russo: Yeah, that was my second or third film. I was always afraid. I’m always afraid every time I go into a movie, so I don’t know if I look back and go, “a fond memory” necessarily. Maybe a terrifying one, but I have to look back and that was very early on in my career so it was a little bit scary. I look back and I just think, “Wow, I can’t believe I actually managed to do it.”
What are each of your favorite films, maybe for G.J. as filmmakers you admire and Rene for performances you admire?
G.J. Echternkamp: I grew up loving Terry Gilliam movies. Probably my favorite movies as a kid were Baron Munchausen and Time Bandits because I just hadn’t seen anything quite like them. Then moving on as a teenager to Tim Burton. I was always into fantasy and things that were out there. I love Total Recall, Paul Verhoeven.
So I grew up seeing movies and it wasn’t until later that I was in film school and Kubrick Films or Terrence Malick films. It’s more for me the films where I can distinctly identify a type of voice or type of style or type of tone that I’ve never seen before. Even one that I love that no one seems to love is Bubba Ho-Tep. I saw that movie, I was like, “Wow, I’ve never seen anything like this. I don’t know what’s going to happen next.” I love it when I don’t know what’s going to happen next. That’s my favorite thing in the world. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is one of my favorites. I think it’s a perfect film.
Rene Russo: So many. I love everyone from Claudette Colbert to Helen Mirren. The last thing I saw Helen Mirren in was on Broadway, The Audience. Honest to God, it was just one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen. I just couldn’t believe what I was watching. There are so many movies that inspire me. There are so many people that inspire me.
Sometimes it’s not even an actor. I remember just recently going to see an art exhibit and I walked out fully inspired from that, so I’m not sure it necessarily has to be a movie necessarily, but there are so many that I love. I love Preston Sturges and all of his writing. I love romantic comedies, I love drama. I don’t like horror films and I don’t really like action films that much. I’ll sit through anything. I will not leave the theater. I just cannot leave the theater once the movie starts, even if I don’t like the movie. I will learn something from it.
G.J. Echternkamp: When was the last time you saw Charade? I feel like that’s the movie I would probably put in a time capsule and send to aliens if I had to pick one.
Rene Russo: If I had to pick one actress, I’d say Judy Holliday. If I had to pick one film, I don’t know. I couldn’t pick one film. I’m going to get off the phone now and I’m going to think of a film.
You said you’re not much of a fan of action movies. Did doing them give you more appreciation for them or make them even more of a grind?
Rene Russo: I do have a lot of appreciation for them. They’re very difficult to make, I have to tell you. They really are. Those stunt people are just absolutely amazing. I guess what it is is I just love human interaction so much that I just wait for the action to be over, whether it was a Bond movie or whatever, get that over with. I want to get to the humanity of film. I want to get to that stuff. So I don’t really like action. I appreciate it. There’s an incredible art form to it.
I would recommend Mad Max: Fury Road. That has a good balance of both.
Rene Russo: I will tell you I heard the new Mad Max is fantastic and I bet I’m going to love that. Yes, absolutely. I haven’t seen it yet but I heard it was just great.