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Mel Gibson is unrecognisable in a support role, the lead role was part therapy for its then jailed star Robert Downey jnr, and the screenplay is a mixture of the real and the surreal. So when Keith Gordon got the offer to direct The Singing Detective, he could hardly wait, he tells Andrew L. Urban.

The material has been around Hollywood “forever,” says director Keith Gordon of The Singing Detective, “but everybody’s been too scared to make it, especially as they were thinking of a big studio movie. It was Mel Gibson who picked it up, and it was Mel who wanted to do it as small independent film.” And it was also Mel who thought of casting his good friend Robert Downey jnr, then at a low point in his life (early 2002), languishing in jail for one of his drug-related offences, in the title role.

"the humour and the pathos"

“Mel realised this would be a great role for Robert … the combination of the humour and the pathos, the character coming from a dark place to a light place, it made a lot of sense,” says Gordon. And it was “probably Robert who brought me in,” he adds, “because we’d acted together years before and we’d sort of kept touch a bit and he’d say, ‘listen, I love the movies you’re doing and I’d really like to work with you…’ and I guess he meant it because they called me.”

Just 10 weeks after that phone call, Gordon was on set for the first day of shooting. And that was almost 10 years since Gordon first read the script, when Dennis Potter first wrote it. “I was a huge fan of it, how he took the original tv series and turning it into something new… I was a Potter fan in general, not just Singing Detective or Pennies From Heaven, but everything Dreamchild to Lipstick On Your Collar … he’s just one of the best dramatists of the second half the 20th century. So the chance to work on any of his material was like a gift.”

But Gordon knew there would be sceptics, so while he had no misgivings about making the film, he knew there would be people who’d say “how dare you do this, tinkering with the original - but I didn’t care, I just loved the material.” And what is the material? It’s a wild, inventive and death-defying story: Almost completely immobile with acute psoriasis, his body a mess of sores and scabs, struggling novelist Dan Dark (Robert Downey jnr) lies deeply disturbed, angry and aggressive in a hospital bed. His hallucinations throw him into the midst of a strange noir thriller, in which his wife (Robin Wright Penn) is cheating on him with a cold hearted figure from Dan’s childhood (Jeremy Northam), and two strange gangsters (Adrien Brody, Jon Polito) are after him. To make things worse, his doctors all seem quite mad, breaking into song while circling his bed. Assigned to goggle eyed Dr Gibbon (Mel Gibson), Dan is forced to confront his demons.

"a cast that bristles with kudos"

Here is the respected but relatively low profile director working with a cast that bristles with kudos: Downey jnr, for all his self-destructive behaviour is a sensationally gifted actor with an amazing track record (he met Gordon on the set of Back to School in 1986); both Robin Wright Penn and Adrien Brody (The Pianist) are highly respected, and Mel Gibson needs no introduction. How did Gordon entice Gibson to take on this nerdy support role, almost unrecognisable behind a wig and bottle-base glasses?

“Actually, he decided that. When they offered me the job, they said, by the way, Mel wants to play this part. My first reaction was, ew, that’s odd. This is a 65 year old guy… but I thought, it’ll be okay, it’ll be Mel doing Mel doing a cameo. But when we sat down to talk about it, he said, no, no, no, I want to play this guy. Then I started to get excited about the idea because I think Mel is a fabulously talented actor…a lot of what he’s done is Mel the movie star, but I could see the gleam in his eye; he wanted to get lost in this part. I thought that’d be a blast. And he made it so much fun.”

Gibson paid for his own special make up, as there wasn’t anything in the budget, and even flew people out from London to do the hairpiece. “I hope he does more of this – he’s so good at it,” says Gordon.

Gordon himself started as an actor, and worked with directors like John carpenter and Brian De Palmer, Bob Fosse. His move to the other side of the camera began with Static (1987) which he co-wrote and co-produced – and for which he won the Best Actor award at the Madrid Film Festival. A decade later he was directing Nick Nolte in Mother Night, and in 2000 he adapted and directed Waking The Dead, starring Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connelly, a mysterious romantic comedy that’s as far from The Singing detective as Star Wars is from Shrek.

The Singing Detective – which is certainly bizarre in an enjoyable way – came to Gordon as a series of images as he read the script. “More than the tv series, the film is about the creative process and how it intertwines with working our way through our life messes. So I felt that when the character goes into his fantasy world it should feel unfinished… like the sets aren’t really done but we’re in a limbo world. If you’re in a bar there’s no wall…it’s floating in space, because it’s inside a man’s brain as he’s creating it for the first time.”

"a film of total contrasts"

That of course is in direct contrast to the hospital in which he is lying, “where there is way too much light, too much nasty fluorescent …ugliness. And this man’s ashamed of his skin and of who he is.” It’s a film of total contrasts, and of extremes, the real and the surreal. As for the genre, or how to describe it, Gordon has it down pat. “I usually say it’s your basic comedy drama surrealist lip-synch 1950s rock n’roll musical film noir expressionist character study of a man losing his mind.”

Published July 8, 2004

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Keith Gordon


... onset with Robin Wright Penn and Robert Downey Jnr

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