Thursday, September 13, 2007

Duck-ing with writer-director Nic Bettauer

Nic Bettauer wrote and directed an independent film called "Duck," starring Philip Baker Hall and the duck from the Aflac commercials. We spoke by phone:

Philip Baker Hall is one of my favorite character actors and it was a real pleasure to see him in a lead role. How did that come about?

I’ve been known to try to do things backwards, but in this case there was no way other than protocol. I made an offer through his agent and the system worked. I did not have him in mind while I was writing it because if you picture a patticular actor you get lazy and think of all the wonderful things he could do with the role, but once I’m done, I like to think about what the actor can bring to it, sometimes things I never thought of. With Philip, this was different than a lot of the roles he’s been playing. I like to offer someone something he hasn’t done on every level. That’s how without having a lot of money you take a risk on people. It is also how you make it worth it for them in other ways than money.

He has a gorgeous voice, wonderful for this movie because so much of it is essentially a monologue.
His voice is a stunner, it just cuts to the quick, love to have him read the audio book.

Most directors worry about working with animals, especially those not easy to train. How did you come to write a movie starring the Aflac duck?
When I was writing I tried not to censor myself but then when it got to making it I was like wow. It was important that it was all live, so I went after the best quality duck. We had great ducks and trainers. Ducks are very social. Our "hero duck" #30 was the best listener and we had stand-ins with different personalities. So we would say, "Is this a job for #27 who liked to walk ahead?" or for another who loved to be held. You might have to switch ducks because you could not have it all in one shot. But they were very charismatic. We had to know the ducks and think like a duck in a way. With three different ages of ducks in the movie, we had 1-2 babies, some teenage, and about 6 big ducks, always more than one on the set just in case. At one point we wanted the duck to look grubby but we learned the derivation of the expression "water off a duck's back." They just always look pristine.

What is the duck's purpose in the story?
Philip Baker Hall is so real and his character's relationship with the duck was like the one I have with my dog, who is my writing partner. Philip plays it so straight. When he was working with the duck he was looking at his alter ego, almost speaking to the part of himself that was keeping him alive. He is almost speaking to himself or treating the duck like a replacement for his son or his wife. As long as he is teaching or learning life is worthwhile, so taking care of the duck gave him a purpose. Now Philip and I have been intellectualizing it but it’s not really the way I think when I write.

How did French Stewart become involved in this project?
I really adore him. He is so interesting. He came in and read. It is problematic not to be typecast when you are so huge on a TV show. He was doing a lot of theater, smaller projects. He was a bit different than I had thought of the character and that is so exciting, it brought so much to the film. People capable of being funny are usually capable of the exact opposite.

The one smart thing I did unbeknownst to myself at the time -- because the movie is a set of vignettes, we would end up filming one additional character a day. Some really interesting people worked with us because we only needed a day of their time. People really came through for us, a nice influx of creative energy, a breath of fresh air each day.

The movie is set in 2009. Why set it in the future and why just a couple of years in the future?
I wanted it to be slightly in the future so that it was a bit of a cautionary tale about where we were headed but still with hope to make a change. I not want to make it so far ahead that it was irrelevant. It is a fable. It’s not what I necessarily predict. At one point he says the President is Jeb Bush. That was not a prediction. I did not want to use a realistic candidate because it would be distracting. By chosing Jeb Bush as the answer I was talking about this administration.

What's next?
Next is my version of a cop movie, a character piece, an anti-hero cop, and I am currently obsessing over Chris Cooper [to play the lead]. The character says everything I wish I could but shouldn’t in polite company. I would love to keep this character, maybe a series. I grew up on the 70’s NY cop films.

Duck is bittersweet, but also funny, isn't it?
I do think there’s a lot of humor in "Duck." It is a bit surreal, a bit acerbic, a little Sartre. You never know what people will see, absurdist kind of humor but also sad. I like to find the funny in sad, if you can do that in real life you’ll be okay.

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