"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Wearing a high-collared, sleeveless dress in a print of brightly colored blocks, with her platinum blond hair in a pixie cut, Michelle Williams meets me at the door as if we were shooting a scene from “Mad Men” together. “Do you need a bottle of water?” she asks brightly. “We’re trying to keep everybody hydrated today.”
Throughout our conversation in a Manhattan rehearsal studio — on what is indeed the hottest day of the year — the 31-year-old Williams seems far more relaxed and confident than the last time I saw her, which was two years ago after the Cannes premiere of “Blue Valentine.” And why shouldn’t she be? Since that time, Williams has been twice nominated for best-actress Oscars — for “Blue Valentine” and again for “My Week With Marilyn” — and the death of Heath Ledger, her former boyfriend and the father of her child, is now four years in the past and no longer a hot topic for the tabloids.
Williams remains intensely, and understandably, protective of her private life. She doesn’t even want to say for sure whether she and her daughter still live in New York City, and she says she’s determined to provide 6-year-old Matilda Ledger with what she calls a “happy, normal childhood,” affected as little as possible by the trappings of celebrity. For her own part, the one-time teen star of “Dawson’s Creek” has matured into an adult actress of remarkable clarity and charisma — although she referred to herself, several times in our conversation, as a “girl” — and, even more strikingly, one with impeccable taste.
At this point, Williams could likely get parts in any kind of movie she wanted. But if she is now the leading screen actress of her generation — and there’s really isn’t even a close second-place — one of the reasons is because she has reliably chosen personal and artistic challenges over easy money. She has made two films with no-budget ultra-indie director Kelly Reichardt (“Meek’s Cutoff” and “Wendy and Lucy”), and labored for nearly a decade alongside writer-director Derek Cianfrance to finish “Blue Valentine.” Her list of director collaborators includes Todd Haynes (“I’m Not There”), Charlie Kaufman (“Synecdoche, New York”), Martin Scorsese (“Shutter Island”) and Ang Lee (the fateful “Brokeback Mountain,” where she met Ledger and earned her first Oscar nod). One could well argue that “My Week With Marilyn” isn’t at that level, cinematically, but it’s a genuine British indie, and her performance in perhaps the most challenging role imaginable is luminous.
I was meeting Williams to talk about her new role in “Take This Waltz,” the sexy, funny and startling second feature from actress-turned-director Sarah Polley (her first was “Away From Her,” with Julie Christie). Williams plays a slightly unhinged, hipster-flavored Toronto woman named Margot, who begins the film happily married — or happily enough — to a cookbook author named Lou, who is underplayed with remarkable precision by Seth Rogen. But Margot has bumped into a slim, dark and handsome stranger named Daniel (Luke Kirby) while on a business trip, and didn’t even tell him she was married until it turns out they live in the same neighborhood. Danger lurks, and Margot is entirely too ready for it.
Margot’s dilemma is a familiar one to readers of books written by women with three names, or viewers of the Lifetime network: The dull but likable guy I’ve got, or the handsome and mysterious stranger who turns me on? But to see it applied to a highly believable contemporary young woman — and not necessarily the most sane or reliable member of the species — feels almost like a radical departure. I suppose “Take This Waltz” is a women’s picture, by definition, but I don’t mean that as a term of diminishment in the least. It’s visually and sonically beautiful, and highly ambitious both in cinematic and emotional terms. It’s a movie that confronts the kinds of questions about love and sex and duty and responsibility for which life does not provide reliable answers. And it offers another bravura performance from Williams, as an impulsive, unreliable, halfway crazy character who expresses the yearning for transformation within all of us.
Michelle, I really love this movie. At this point, I’m still not sure whether it’s my favorite of your roles. It’s between this one and “Blue Valentine” and one that people probably don’t bring up all that much, “Land of Plenty,” the one you made with Wim Wenders.
Really? No way!
I’m a big fan of that movie. I think it expresses something about the mood after 9/11, and it’s also just so beautiful.
No one ever brings that up. Not ever!
What do you remember about making that one?
It’s funny — I have something hanging in my house that somebody asked me about the other day. They said, “What is that weird scrap of paper in the frame?” I said, “Well, I was making this cool thing, this only in New York City thing.” What happened was I was making this movie and realizing that I was playing a kind of angel on earth figure, you know, a Wim Wenders kind of thing. I was thinking, thinking, thinking and then walking down the street and I stepped on this piece of paper. I picked it up and it had all the names of the angels listed on it and so I kept it with me. I said, “Ah, this is a good sign.” And at the end of the movie we were up on this building looking over at where the twin towers used to be. Somebody took a Polaroid of me and Wim, and on Wim’s back, angel wings appeared in the development. So I have this little piece, this little connective tissue, this little thing I remember.
That movie was actually really important to me — and to you! — and to not very many other people. It was the first time that a director of such esteem and talent had seen anything interesting about me. I think it was because — and in fact he said as much — he had never seen “Dawson’s Creek.” He wasn’t aware of the show at all, and when I drove to meet him at his house, he really met me, not work that I was good or bad in or perceptions that people had of me, positive or negative. He just met me, and from that experience he cast me. After we made the movie, he saw pictures of me as Jen on “Dawson’s Creek.” My passport picture at the time was a picture in, like, full makeup and hair. I was on a little break and he saw the picture and he was like [German accent], “Oh, if I had seen that I don’t think I would have cast you!” [Laughter.]
But it was such a nice boost, you know? It was so encouraging to have somebody like that say yes to you. That gave me a lot of confidence when I didn’t really have any.
That movie was also made pretty close to the ground, wasn’t it? Which maybe set you up to work on things like “Wendy and Lucy” or “Blue Valentine” or “Take This Waltz,” which has to be quite different from working on a big commercial movie.
I think that in a way it did. I had done a few independent movies before that, I can’t even remember what, and was realizing all the while, oh this is good for me. Not that it’s better than other ways of making movies but it’s good for me, this sort of familial, calm, contained environment relaxes me and allows me to try things. It allows me space. I work better that way and so having that experience on Wim’s movie set me in this kind of direction. I do see them as very linked. I see “Killer Joe,” this play I did when I was 18; and “Smelling Rats,” a Mike Leigh play that I did when I was 20; and doing “Land of Plenty,” I see those things as being directly linked to something like “Blue Valentine” or “My Week With Marilyn” or this movie. They’ve all added up into this sort of later stuff.
Talk about getting to work with Sarah Polley on this film. I understand you followed her acting career, and now she’s become, very rapidly, this amazing director.
That was — she’s also the reason that I do what I do. Up until a certain point, until I was 16 or something, I hadn’t really seen independent cinema. I hadn’t really seen art-house movies. When I said I wanted to act, I didn’t really know what that meant, I didn’t know what was possible. I just went to the cinemas and saw what my parents took us to go see. Or I watched “Sound of Music” a lot, you know, some classics at home, maybe that’s where some of the interest was. But I didn’t really have taste, I didn’t really have preferences; I just liked the idea of acting. I liked the idea of escape, abandon, other people, kind of splintering off from your life, but I didn’t know what form it could take.
And then I saw Sarah in “The Sweet Hereafter” when I was 16 or something, and I thought, whatever that is, that’s where I want to go with somebody who will let me. And so she became — she was my first person that I looked up to. I followed her, I was a fan of hers, I ardently sought out whatever she was doing. I made an effort to go see her in her movies.
That makes a lot of sense. And what a great choice for a model!
So when this came around I was beside myself that I was going to meet my hero. Sometimes when I work, even very recently before I made this movie, I played this little game with myself if I would get stuck or if I would get bored at take 10 or something. You know you’re always trying to think of something new, a way to not do what you just did the last take and keep it fresh. And so I would play WWSPD — What Would Sarah Polley Do? Even though I didn’t know her and didn’t know how she approached her work.
So I was really excited when this came around because I thought, “Oh, finally! It’s going to be like sitting at the feet of Buddha, like I’m going to get to ask all my questions.” And I got to ask all my questions, but not as an actor. More as a girl, as a woman — as a person who had done similar things and had had, in a lot of ways, similar lives and similarly strange lives. I’d never really met somebody who I could identify with so thoroughly about all the experiences. Then, when it came to acting, she didn’t — sometimes I thought, “Well, this will be great because when I don’t know what to do in a scene I’ll just say, ‘Sarah, what would you do?’” She was not willing to go there with me and wanted me to sort of do that myself, understandably. Not that she should’ve acted it out for me. It’s probably nice that she didn’t; that was where she kind of let me go on my own journey. But it was quite a feeling to meet what felt like an old friend. Maybe she felt like an old friend because I’d been stalking her for so long! [Laughter.]
That’s what a true guru does, though, right? She compels you to make your own choices.
Right, they don’t give you the answers. They give you — what? A more enigmatic way to ask the question.
Right! I think this character, Margot in “Take This Waltz,” is so interesting. You have often played characters that we like, that we identify with, and I have the feeling that in this movie that might be two different things. I saw the movie at Toronto last fall and got into some heated conversations about it, which is kind of awesome. I talked to one guy who strongly disliked it, because he felt that the movie was on your side way too much, and was endorsing the dubious choices of your character. I guess he didn’t like Margot or agree with what she does, but I don’t think you have to.
No, not at all. I think that the movie doesn’t say whether or not deciding to be with this person is a mistake or not. Maybe that person thought that it was a mistake and thus condemned her for it — but how many times have you made mistakes? How many times have you made the wrong decision? I also wish that movie characters were allowed to be fallible in a real way, not in a neatly tied up way at the end. Were allowed to be doing their best but still failing in some ways. I never thought of Margot as being cool, or necessarily making the right choices. I actually thought of her as quite awkward and kind of stuck in this weird situation, almost like a maiden. She’s stuck in this transitional phase, like there’s something kind of adolescent, she’s hanging on to something a little bit younger and a little bit less evolved than who I think she ultimately is and who I think she ultimately wants to be. I feel like she’s staying in something that’s kind of safe and cozy even though in her heart of hearts there’s this sort of nagging feeling, but I didn’t find her to be cool or right at all.
There’s wonderful chemistry between you and both of the guys in the movie, in really different ways. There’s this sad, lingering affection between you and Seth Rogen, who plays your husband, and this kind of intense erotic chemistry between you and Luke Kirby, who plays the hot other guy. Do those kinds of connections have to be rooted in something in real life? Do you have to meet the person and like them for that to happen?
I think so, I think it’s a kind of, cross your fingers and hope that you get along kind of thing. And luckily I did with both of them. I like them for different reasons, I was compelled by them for different reasons and I hope that that was a good thing. Although really I’ve had very few occasions, especially recently, of being really repulsed by somebody. [Laughter.] I think for the most part, everybody that I have been able to work with and meet has been really great and, you know, soul-searching and honest and kind. I can’t think of a problem that I’ve had where I’ve had to really suck it up and you try and get through it with somebody.
I guess that speaks to the fact that one of the major job requirements for success in your profession is an ability to relate to somebody else and connect with them, whether or not they’re going to end up being your best friend.
Yeah. It’s a weird thing, the ability to make deep connections and then detach yourself three months later when the movie’s over. Like it was all a phantom. You made this phantom in the space that existed between the two of you, that wasn’t real and has no home. You know it’s a very strange process of real and unreal. I can’t quite understand it. All I know is that it feels very real at the time, but ultimately it’s not.
Your next role is a pretty big departure, if I read the news correctly. You’re playing Glinda the Good Witch in the Oz prequel?
Yes! [Laughter.] It’s amazing. We shot it already. We’re actually going to do some additional stuff in August, but we shot it already, and it was such a nice opportunity to do something, I mean I take my work seriously whether it’s Margot or Glinda the Good Witch or whatever. They all get approached with the same kind of fear and respect and desire and, you know, thought and effort that happens wherever I go. But to make something that’s not kind of taking you to the depths of your self, to float on the surface a little bit more, is a lovely thing. To exist in the space of being a good witch and granting wishes and having little girls smile when you walk by in your big poofy dress, it’s a very nice thing for my daughter, for me to work on something that she can grasp, hang on to, understand, be excited about. I had to stop her because she was — we’d go to the park and she would randomly go up to people and say, “My mommy’s Glinda the good witch! There’s two bad witches and only one good witch and that’s my mommy!” She was so excited! I had to say, you know, “Let’s wait, let’s introduce ourselves before we talk about Glinda.”
I really don’t know you and this is just guesswork, but meeting you today you seem a little bit more comfortable now with the amount of attention that comes with this. I mean, you’ve been nominated for an Oscar three different times, you’ve been in the tabloids because of a personal tragedy, you’re constantly having to meet people like me and have television cameras stuck in your face. Has that aspect of the job gotten easier? Because for a while it didn’t seem like it was your favorite thing.
It’s a totally valid, totally interesting question. Like I said about actors, I think for the most part, my experience recently has been that people are kind and respectful. In general people that I get to meet don’t want to say something provocative, or they’re not looking for that side of the story, so I find myself more open and more trusting that the experience is going to be an OK experience. I really do try and situate our lives in such a way that we can maintain — so that I can still do the work that supports us, the work that I like to do, but that we can maintain a kind of privacy that I find essential for having a happy and normal childhood. And that I find essential for having a creative view of the world. So in some ways it has gotten easier.
But in some ways, like when I have to get my picture taken, it’s nothing — I’m already right back to where I started, I’m all kind of bumbling, unsure of myself, weird, a mess. I like this much better, just having a conversation with somebody when there’s not a camera. It’s much easier to think when you can do this, you know, instead of when you’re in some sort of, like, rigid position and you feel obliged to be a superhuman being.
Yeah. I went back and watched that ABC News interview that you did, where they sort of, kind of got you to talk about your relationship with Heath. That seemed extremely painful.
That was a bummer.
I felt so grateful that I will never have to do that! Nobody’s ever going to put me on TV and grill me about my personal life or whatever. It didn’t seem like a lot of fun.
Yeah, I know, it’s not a lot of fun. It’s such a funny thing to be in a position that you don’t want to be in and unsure of, you know, should I just … [mimes unhooking a microphone and getting up]. It’s a funny thing to be sort of sat in a chair, and there’s all the people and the bright lights, and you get asked the questions, and you feel like for some reason you have to endure it, or it’s sort of part of the job. Maybe if it was now, maybe I would’ve just taken off the mike and just taken a little break, just walked away for a minute. I don’t know. I think being a girl, being a woman, there’s always — I do fight with some idea of wanting to please people and wanting to be good and wanting to say the right thing and wanting to get through something.
It’s a very uncomfortable and hard thing to do, to draw the line or to disappoint someone, even when you’re sacrificing what feels right. It’s a real predicament, and I say things that I regret sometimes. I get it wrong a lot, but I’m always evaluating and always trying to get a handle on it. Because I do so want to do this work, and if this is a part of this work then I must figure out how to do it in a way that feels appropriate, but still kind of honest and not like I’m wasting time.
“Take This Waltz” opens this week at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center and the Sunshine Cinema in New York. It opens July 6 in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Calif., Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Calif., and Washington; July 13 in Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Indianapolis, Madison, Wis., Minneapolis, New Haven, Conn., Phoenix, St. Louis and Seattle; and July 20 in Baltimore, Boca Raton, Fla., Denver, Detroit, Lake Worth, Fla., Miami, Monterey, Calif., New Orleans, Omaha, Portland, Ore., Santa Cruz, Calif., Santa Fe, N.M., and Sarasota, Fla., with more cities to follow. It’s also available on demand from many cable and satellite providers.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)