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Film Festival: Michael Douglas interview
Festival honoree talks about his career, the industry, and the future
Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones on the red carpet on Broughton Street Saturday night - photo by Jim Morekis

ONE OF HOLLYWOOD'S most successful and dynamic figures both in front of and behind the camera, Michael Douglas lets family life slow him down only a little bit.

He and wife Catherine Zeta-Jones and their two children arrive at The Mansion on Forsyth after a busy day sightseeing at Fort Pulaski. Daughter Carys, four-and-a-half, has fallen asleep on the drive back into town, and her father carries her on one shoulder.

Son Dylan, 7, is doing what all boys do after a trip to Ft. Pulaski: playing soldier. He brandishes a large stick as a rifle, and wears a souvenir Civil War soldier’s cap.

Douglas stops to shake hands before going briefly with his family to their room, but a few minutes later he emerges to do a few interviews prior to accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award for Acting later that evening at the Savannah Film Festival.

Looking trim and wearing a pastel polo shirt and khakis, Douglas sits with me in the wine cellar of The Mansion, which this afternoon serves as an impromptu interview room. Though no less charismatic, he’s certainly less intense in person than onscreen, with a relaxed, courteous and confident attitude.

Did you get a chance to golf yet?

Michael Douglas: No, you know I didn’t bring anything with me. Tab Turner was down here, a friend of mine. We’re actually developing a script. Tab is an incredible litigation lawyer out of Little Rock, Arkansas. He’s done some major cases. He did the Ford SUV rollover case. He sued OPEC! Anyway he was down here. And the kids are with me, and Catherine, and we’ve just been doing a little sightseeing.

You’ve produced and acted in some of the most socially relevant films of our time: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, China Syndrome, Fatal Attraction, Wall Street, Falling Down, War of the Roses. Now it seems like documentaries and indies are the only place to find social and political messages. Is mainstream film still able to move people on that level?

Michael Douglas: When you say “mainstream,” there’s no interest in moving anybody. You always like to think of movies as being a little bit of a struggle between art and commerce. But with mainstream, your studio films, it’s strictly commerce. We’ve seen a dramatic change from a cottage industry of independent studios into this huge vertically integrated entertainment monolith. So it’s not as interesting.

Secondly, you’ve got a lot of really good writing talent that’s left feature films and gone into television -- because they can develop series, it’s financially more rewarding, they’re less dependent on producers for shows, so a lot of them can move over. And you have certain people, you know, George Clooney, he certainly makes a conscientious effort every other film, or every couple of films, to do something thought provoking. But it’s really, really tough.

And then you have this pending writer’s strike coming up — which I think is going to happen — which is largely about eliminating residuals or profits from people that are profit participants. And actors and writers survive on residuals in thin times.

That decision will be made Oct. 31.

Michael Douglas: Yeah, at one time there was talk about waiting until June 30 of next year, but then they realized that TV’s the only place they have control -- the studios would just stockpile scripts.

The last time there was a writer’s strike the world got reality TV. What horrible thing awaits us now?

Michael Douglas: Yeah, I think you’re going to be getting a lot more reality TV. I think the strike might go on for awhile. The writers felt they negotiated a bad deal last time out — and they did, as far as video and DVDS, which were so downplayed by the studios. They felt they were shortchanged on that, so they’re going to try and make up for it.

You’re working on a sequel to Wall Street called Money Never Sleeps, after one of Gordon Gekko’s famous lines in the first film. Where is that project at right now?

Michael Douglas: Money Never Sleeps is still in development. Stephen Schiff is writing it. I’m not the producer on that, Ed Pressman is.

Will it be affected by the strike?

Michael Douglas: It will be. When they strike that’ll be it, and you can’t do any more work on projects. What happened last time they went out on strike, when it was over they ended up making some bad movies to get going, which hurt them anyway. So it had a doubly painful effect.

I’m fascinated that you’re resurrecting Gordon Gekko at this particular point. Why do you think now’s the perfect time to bring him back?

Michael Douglas: Well, Gordon gets out of jail, and then what? Globalization has taken over since 20 years ago. And now he’s limited as to what he can do in terms of owning major shares of companies. That’s just one of a few projects I’m working on. I’m developing kind of a takeoff on Romancing the Stone, which is going to be shot in India. I’ve got an art forgery story, and also this one I’m working on with Tab Turner about the SUV rollovers.

Your latest release, King of California, was critically very well received but the public hasn’t heard much about it. What’s happening with that?

Michael Douglas: King of California has opened in a limited release. It was done by a very small independent studio and had a very limited marketing budget, and it’s been in a few territories.

It’s kind of frustrating for me, because it’s getting excellent reviews, very good reviews. It’s also getting good reviews for me personally. We hope that maybe at awards time it’ll get a little more attention. It’s a lovely picture.

By far the biggest complaint I hear from filmmakers is about the current distribution system and how hard it is for good movies to get a fair shake. Is there a way to fix this from within, or will small studios have to go their own way somehow?

Michael Douglas: The system’s going to change, as the digital world comes increasingly more and it takes less money to make pictures. The whole going-to-the-theatre experience will always be there. Going to the theatre was like the first place your parents let you go and get out of the house and you didn’t have to have a guardian. You could meet your friends at the movie theatre. That’s always an important rite of passage.

But what you’re seeing is the overlap of the Internet and what’s coming on, other alternatives. Yes, the marketing cost is very, very painful, and very hard for pictures where the actual production costs are dramatically coming down, but the costs to market it, the advertising, is still so high.

Unlike most actors who get into producing late in their careers, you’ve been a producer from day one. Is there creative tension between the two roles?

Michael Douglas: Yeah, I don’t enjoy producing and acting in the same movie. I do it sometimes out of necessity, but the joy of acting is the self-involvement, the selfish act of not having to think about anything else. Whereas producing is me responsible for everything all the way around. When you do them both, you tend to cut yourself short as an actor.

No one will quibble with your Lifetime Achievement Award tonight, but I want to know which of your achievements means the most to you personally, whether or not it was “important” in a larger sense.

Michael Douglas: You know, I’ve got a pretty good batting average. It always surprises me when I look back. I haven’t done as many films as people think, but a large number of them have been received well. I’m proud about that.

And within that context, as an actor I’ve really tried to be accepted in different styles and tones, comedy and drama. I particularly like those pictures I call “the gray area,” the ones that bring nervous laughter. Like Falling Down, War of the Roses, Wonderboys. Yeah, I like those.

All in all, I’m proud. You work as hard on your failures as your successes.

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