Actor Alec Baldwin and writer/director James Toback (Black and White, Two Girls and a Guy) originally wanted to make an action/comedy with a dash of Hollywood satire thrown in, the story of a couple of actors who’ve been phoning it in for years who finally decide to start caring again. But then they made an unfortunate realization: “That’s gonna cost a lotta money.” So they came up with another idea, Baldwin explained during a conversation between the two men at New York’s 92Y on Friday. “Why don’t we go to Cannes and pitch a movie, and make a movie about pitching a movie?” The result is Seduced and Abandoned, a wise, witty, thoroughly entertaining kinda-sorta documentary (Toback calls it “an uncategorizable film”) that debuts tonight on HBO.
In the film, the pair heads to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival to pitch what they dub Last Tango in Tikrit, a riff on Bertolucci’s classic set in Iraq at the conclusion of the war, with Baldwin’s Blackwater-type Republican hawk and Neve Campbell’s liberal reporter having “end of the world sex” in a Tikrit hotel. (At 92Y, Baldwin revealed that this was actually a case of the tail wagging the dog, this storyline devised as the kind of thing they could sell at Cannes, for the purposes of the documentary they’d already decided to do.)
It’s an ideal framework for a perceptive, trenchant commentary on the current state of the movie business, which these days is almost entirely about pre-selling and financing, much of it international. The picture opens with an Orson Welles quote, in which he laments having spent 95% of his life trying to get financing to make movies, and 5% of his life making them. “It’s no way to live,” Welles concludes. Seduced and Abandoned agrees.
“There’s no such thing as independent film,” Toback said Friday. “Film in its nature is a dependent art. You are dependent on money, and you’re dependent on your collaborators.” The film is candid — sometimes surprisingly so — about the kind of horse trading that goes on behind the scenes. Of his leading man, Toback is told, “he’s a TV actor.” In one particularly eye-opening scene, Baldwin excuses himself from a meeting so Toback can talk bluntly with a possible financier, who explains exactly why stars of Baldwin and Campbell’s dimmed magnitude don’t warrant the proposed $25 million budget. He says they could make it for more like four or five million. “I’m too old for that,” Toback sighs.
One of Seduced’s keenest insights is that the $4-5 million number they’re pitched and the $200-plus million blockbuster budget seem to be the only two options in Hollywood these days; mid-range pictures, studio dramas for grown-ups, used to be a viable corner of the industry but are all but impossible to get made now. It’s all part of what Baldwin calls the “earnest, completely serious pursuit of the risk-free movie business.” It is a business, he explained at 92Y, which has been taken over by people “who not only don’t know what a good movie is — they don’t even like movies.”
It’s easy to get cynical about it all, particularly as you watch, in their film, studio heads explaining who really makes the decisions now, and money guys making depressing assumptions about what audiences want. But Seduced is not a downer. It is, first and foremost, a tribute to Cannes, where the two men enjoyed what Toback called “11 days of ecstasy — not the drug, the experience.” And it is a love letter to the movies, with testimonials from Bernardo Bertolucci, Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola on the power of cinema to transform, to elevate, to provide an escape. On Friday, Baldwin recalled Bertolucci telling him, “When I’m shooting, it’s like an ocean of pleasure.” Seduced and Abandoned knows that feeling — and the anguish of endlessly pursuing it.