Director and Screenwriter
interview by Douglas Eby
Thompson has screenwriting credits for the films "Edward Scissorhands", "The Addams Family", The Secret Garden", "The Nightmare Before Christmas" and "Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey". Her 1994 directorial debut was "Black Beauty". Her new film "Buddy" is the story of a gorilla raised almost as a human child on a luxurious estate in the '20s by eccentric socialite Trudy Lintz, played by Rene Russo.
Reflecting on one of the themes of the film, Thompson says "The scary thing about me, and/or the interesting thing I guess, is that I do seem to have this story that obsesses me: about the outsider. This movie was wonderful for me because I was really able to express a lot of things; not just that story, but I was able to thicken it, I hope, with the companion story of Trudy Lintz, who's fascinating because she's both hero and villain of the piece. To counterpoint her story to the story of the outsider, which is represented in Buddy's character, was really fun, really hard and interesting for me.
"This was a time when eccentricity was honored, when people said 'What are we made of? Let's find out.' It was also a time when Freud was new, and people were exploring, as they put it 'the beast within' and thinking about the id. But now, in the '90s, what are we exploring? The child within. How much more interesting, at least to me, to be in a world where the culture is exploring the beast within, and how rich and juicy and how brave. And this is where people have had an interesting time trying to connect to Trudy Lintz: a world where someone isn't judged negatively, necessarily, for being different.
"It's a very insular movie in some respects, and there are only a couple of visitors who come to her world. But she had no self-doubt about her own obsessions. Isn't that wonderful? And what a great gift. I'm sure it's a romanticizing of the era, but I really feel that at that time there was a greater freedom to look at the things that we would now consider very strange. You weren't labeled as aberrant; you were labeled as interesting. To me, the change from that is more than a loss; it's a horror. And I think it accounts a lot for how bland our world is."
Commenting more on the theme of "outsider" and that a number of women may find it difficult to accept themselves as "different", Thompson says: "For me it's just the opposite. I don't really understand it, but this feeling of being outside, or sympathizing with the outsider, is actually such a common condition for all human beings. And because it's this thing I'm obsessed by, it gives me this really strong starting point, and takes me away, if you will. So I find it's a gift of a perspective, as opposed to a curse.
"I had a safe and protected and middle-class childhood, so there's no accounting for my having this perspective or obsession. My earliest sympathies were for animals, and I always felt a sympathy for them, for their dilemma. When you're a tiny little kid, nothing is in the right proportion to you: the table is too high, the chair's too big; nothing fits. So I think that's been the dominant theme of my life: remembering, or invoking or never losing that feeling that everything is out of proportion. And it's that way for animals as well: nothing is in proportion for them, and never will be. Even though we can become tall enough for the chairs, a dog never will.
"My parents were not encouraging of my creative interests. Not at all. Never were, never have been. I guess that would also make a person feel more alienated. But it also helped me preserve that feeling of being outside. The interests that my parents encouraged were all kind of banal interests, and I've never kept any of them. And the ones they discouraged, like my love for animals, are the things I still carry with me in my life.
"I was lucky enough to have a good education, and I was surrounded by people who also craved the life of books and the imagination. I was lucky in two respects, one of them illegal: one was I was sent to a private girls school, and just being surrounded by incredibly intelligent girls, there was no stigma about it. No one was called a 'brainiac' or made fun of, or pushed away for being smart. And all the positions of power in the school, and running the school magazine, was all done by girls, so there was no social or cultural alienation about being intelligent.
"And the other thing was I discovered LSD, and that somehow made everything make sense for me, where the world is a much stranger place than we know. And going on those drug journeys, which I did a lot, really just opened it up and made me happy in how weird the world was, as opposed to afraid of how weird it is. I think fear is the thing that keeps people so tight. Self-consciousness and fear. So I didn't have the self-consciousness of being separated as a 'brainiac' and somehow I got over my fear of the surreality of the planet. I loved taking LSD, but I don't have any urge now; I think I'm too old. I couldn't surrender the way I could when I was a teenager, and I got it at just the right time in my life."
Quoting director Allison Anders' ("Gas Food Lodging"; "Mi Vida Loca") comment that "Most women filmmakers I knows who are really achieving some success, and have their own vision, are very lonely women, for the most part, personally. Because for one thing, we've never quite figured out how to abuse our power." -- Caroline responds: "Oh, what a smart thing to say. In terms of having to claim power myself as a director, I think I shock people. I shock the crew by running a very democratic set, where I'll turn to someone I respect, and I don't care if they're an electrician or whatever, and I'll say 'Well, what do you think?' They're not used to that.
"It's not that I don't have an opinion of my own, but I love to open things up to other perspectives. I'm very secure about welcoming good ideas, and I think that's a real rarity among directors. They're often autocratic, probably usually from being insecure. I imagine it's the rare case where they're autocratic because they're so brilliant, like Fellini. And I'm happy to say when I don't know something, and that scares people too. But my "Black Beauty" crew had more than five hundred years of filmmaking experience among them. You'd be a fool not to take advantage of that. And then of course there's also special people around you who you realize by something in their eyes, know a lot more than they're permitted to share.
"But just being a director is lonely. Especially being a writer-director, because there's no one to really pow-wow with, and the decisions are ultimately yours, and that's a lonely thing. It's also a great and wonderful thing. But I lead a very lonely personal life, and I don't know if that's because I'm suffering the ostracism I would have suffered in high school if I'd gone to a normal high school.
"I haven't really thought of pursuing a career of writer and director as a choice. It was an inevitability to me. I mean, I didn't say 'No, I don't want a family, I would rather...' you know what I mean? It didn't happen that consciously. In high school, I wanted to be a veterinarian, of course. But I had a stronger urge to be a writer. And I followed that stronger urge. I come from a family that's kind of 'doctor, lawyer, Indian Chief' types, and so deviating from that was looked upon as bizarre. And they still don't really get it, or support it or have much understanding for the nature of my work, or have much interest in it.
"But I don't think success gives most people courage. I think success makes most people close down, because then they fear lack of success. But for me, it's just facing monsters and saying 'Oh, you're a monster' and then getting over the fear of monsters, then what have you got to lose? To me, risk is a 'what have you got to lose?' proposition, not out of the great gloating of success. And I don't think anyone has anything to lose, but somehow they think they do. And that's what traps people the most, this belief that there's something to lose.
"I've had a series of wonderful, supportive boyfriends; and some of them not so supportive. And I've had some great friends in my life. But this is an odd community to work in: major motion picture studios, because when you're hot, everybody loves you; when you're cold, everybody shuns you. And if you start to take that personally, you're really in trouble. But it does mean that most of the people you associate with your waking hours are not at all dependable. Well, they're utterably dependable: if you're hot, they're going to call you, if you're not, they won't. But they're not people you want to fall on, so you just have to get perspective and understand what reality is and cope with it in the way you will. And some people really can't, and it sends them into paroxysms of despair over what is sort of a given about this business: that friendship is so pretended to. That doesn't trouble me, because it's so obvious.
"What supports me is that I love my work. That's what keeps me going. I've gone back to writing after directing "Buddy" and it's a wonderful life. I write generally from about eight in the morning till two in the afternoon, and then I go horseback riding til about six, then take a shower and go see friends. That's a great life. A director's life has many wonderful things in it, but you don't really lead much life. I didn't ride my horse for a year and a half, and I'm just now beginning to have dinner with friends again. It's so all-consuming. It's perfect for someone who doesn't want to lead a life, but if you crave a life, as well as an artistic life, it's a really tough one. So for me, just turning away from being a director for a while is really important just so I can feel grounded again.
"The thing that has really allowed my creativity to flourish is a belief that I have nothing to lose, no expectations, so it's given me a tremendous amount of freedom. There's no harm in trying; they can only laugh at you, and it's probably a badge of honor when they do."
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