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RUDOLPH, ALAN: Afterglow

Afterglow director Alan Rudolph wonders aloud to PAUL FISCHER from his office in New York, whether he might be considered ‘tepid’ now, what with Julie Christie’s Oscar nomination for her role in his film.

Alan Rudolph, whose father was a director in the fifties, doesn't seem to mind that his films polarise the American critics. From works as diverse and audacious as Choose Me and Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle, through to his latest work, Afterglow, critics seem consistently divided. "I've learnt a long time ago in this country that you just make a film and you duck; you tell the truth the best you can and you run like hell in the other direction, because American critics have become very lazy."

When talking about Afterglow, however, the one element of that film on which the critics were unanimous was the performance of Britain's Julie Christie. "So it became a kind of schizophrenic response for them."

Afterglow introduces us to two unhappily married couples. Jeffrey Byron (Jonny Lee Miller) is a cold, seemingly-heartless businessman who is sexually indifferent to his young wife, Marianne (Lara Flynn Boyle). For her part, Marianne is so obsessed with having a baby that she never attempts to interact with her husband on a human level. All she's interested in is seducing him during those few days when she's ovulating. After he refuses to make love, she decides to find someone else to play the role of sperm donor. The other couple, Lucky (Nick Nolte) and Phyllis Mann (Julie Christie), are an older pair, but they're no more content than Jeffrey and Marianne. A mysterious fracture in their past relationship has driven them apart. They remain married as a matter of convenience, but, since Phyllis won't allow Lucky to touch her, they have an unspoken agreement whereby he can fool around as much as he wants provided that no lasting bond is established as a result of these affairs. The landscape of emotional pain between them is palpable.

The four characters begin interacting when Marianne hires Lucky as a handyman to fix a door in their apartment. The two of them are immediately attracted to one another, and it doesn't take long before they're lounging together, naked, in her pool. Meanwhile, Jeffrey, who is captivated by older women, runs into Phyllis in a hotel bar, is smitten, and invites her to accompany him on a weekend retreat to the mountains.

In trying to explain where such a personal film came from, Rudolph jokingly defines it "as one of those unwashed soap operas that I seem to think of," he says laughingly. "It was really written out of survival just to get my next thing going and it seems to be an extension of a lot of things I had been doing." More specifically, the writer/director adds, if you don't take the film too literally, "it's really like a page out of a diary of a marriage. Maybe it's just one couple who are watching it manifested in different forms. But I wanted to make a film that was both humorous and serious simultaneously." It seems such a personal and intimate piece, that one can imagine it being based on Rudolph's experiences, but not so. "None of my films are. When I was doing it, I knew that Afterglow was at the end of a whole chapter in my work, a culmination of these little serious farces that I'd been making."

Despite his low budget ["single digit movie-making"], Rudolph has managed to attract formidable casts. On Afterglow, to begin with, is Nick Nolte, who has gone from expensive studio player to independent, character-driven roles. "I think Nick made a real conscious decision several years ago to shun all of the Hollywood crap, after having made a lot of money, and do challenging work. I think part of it is that a lot of these actors enjoy becoming character actors, finding rich characters. Nick loves being a truth seeker, and he's an inspiration."

As for Christie, who remains hugely selective about her work, Rudolph recalls that "I don't even remember her agreeing to do the movie. We went from reading the script to starting work, it was that simple. She's an incredibly honest actor, just gets in there and does it and hates rehearsals, unlike Nick. Before we started, she asked me not to insist she improvise; by the time we'd finished, she was doing it with the best of them." But Christie's luminous performance did win the actress an Oscar nomination, not that Rudolph was expecting it.

"I didn't think we had a chance. But I think what happened was, she won two of the major critics' prizes in America, and I think then the Academy had to pay attention. Initially, they wouldn't even screen it for the Academy until that happened."

The Oscar nomination has also been a boost in Rudolph's career, almost legitimising it after all this time. "You think I might be tepid now?" he asks laughingly.

Rudolph sees Afterglow as being about "this unnatural dance we all go through of trying to find partners. Here, it's 'I love you, I love you, good, let's get married, we don't have to deal with that again.' But love is a living thing, and to me, marriage seems to be about forgiveness more than anything else. It's the most UNNATURAL act between two people, but it's also the most honourable. On one level, it seems to be completely instinctual, and on the other hand, completely impossible. In this film, you have a couple like Julie and Nick, and the thing that keeps them together through all these adversities, is love somewhere, that's really back there, in a deep, profound way. Who knows WHY these things work? "

Rudolph is the son of film director Oscar Rudolph, so one assumes that given such a background, he would automatically have wanted to follow his dad's footsteps. "Almost in any generation, there's a job to kind of rebel against your parents' generation. Maybe it's because from my whole life, there was some form of movie business talked about at our kitchen table, so I wasn't interested at all. It was also at a time when the American movies were really bad, so nothing interested me on that level, except that I had an itch to write."

That all changed when his brother bought him a Super 8 camera, and a whole new world opened up to him. "I then started to make these little shorts, first for myself, then for all these people who were in film school; I was known as 'Cyrano de Filmiac'. I would do everybody's film for them, charge them money, get more film and make more movies." Then he started out working with Altman, recalling that when he began doing films 'legitimately' he "used the same techniques as when I made those shorts; I simply didn't know any better as I was completely self-taught."

All that has changed, as his work became increasingly sophisticated. He's currently cutting together Breakfast of Champions which he’s been wanting to do for over 20 years. Not only did Bruce Willis agree to do the film for little money, but he was so passionate about it, he even raised the money himself "and he now owns the film. He's incredible." Co-starring Nick Nolte and Barbara Hershey, the film's exploration of madness, may well be the most anticipated film of the year, and Rudolph has no doubt that once again, it's set to polarise the critics, "but I think this is my best work and am so proud of it."

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In 1985, director Alan Rudolph was named by the Toronto Film Festival as one of ten filmmakers whose work would shape the next decade of cinema. He was the only American on the list. Individualistic, idiosyncratic, intellectual and former protege of Robert Altman, Rudolph remains one of the most fascinating and important directors of his generation, yet his work continues to divide critics. He is now working on his next film, an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, starring Bruce Willis and Nick Nolte.

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