Stephen Dorff has cracked skulls, drained blood, cried and dropped trou for his craft, and in his latest film, Felon, he shaves his melon and engages in some prodigious, prison-set knuckle-dusting. The independently financed movie, written and directed by Ric Roman Waugh, stars Dorff as small business owner Wade Porter, whose modest life with his fiancée and their three-year-old son is upended when he’s convicted of killing a man who breaks into his home, sentenced to state prison, and then ends up caught up in a self-perpetuating cycle of gladiatorial violence overseen and encouraged by a crooked prison guard. For Dorff, it was an intense experience, so much so that he even got tattooed by a convict after the production. In advance of the film’s limited theatrical release, Dorff graciously took some time to chat by phone, both about this movie, the nuttiness of Uwe Boll, and the forthcoming Public Enemies, directed by Michael Mann. The conversation is excerpted below:
Brent Simon: When I saw all the prison-yard fighting in Felon, in which you’re wearing very little, and sometimes shirtless… I was reminded a bit of the shower scuffle from Eastern Promises, and in talking to Viggo Mortensen last year he said basically you just have to resign yourself to the fact that it’s gonna hurt like hell.
Stephen Dorff: That’s a cool correlation, because it felt so bare. Obviously not as bare, because I’m not naked, but just in these thin boxers and high tops. That’s what they wore, and it was just intense, because they weren’t fights that we would really choreograph. We wanted to bring in this MMA (mixed martial arts) vibe, because that’s what’s going on in the prisons, as UFC and all this stuff is taking over sporting. I think that’s infiltrated a lot of the prisons, from Ric’s research. So we wanted the fights to be very frenetic, not as staged, no 1-2 punches. All the prison stuff I’d seen, excerpts from Corchran State Prison and some of the shivings and stabbings, they all happen at lightning speed — you come out on the yard and boom!, you get clocked. And I think Ric really stayed true to all that. He wanted them to not feel like big bouts. During filming I even thought, “Wow, are they too quick?” But I think in the end they’re not, because that’s what they are.
BS: So did you have any pads underneath?
SD: Not really. I did most of it myself, but worked with a couple other guys. The only other people that aren’t principals that aren’t actual parolees or guys that have been institutionalized in the film in real life were three or four UFC guys that came out and helped. Tommy Gunn was my double, and did some of the things were I could’ve gotten really hurt — some of the big flips and stuff. He would take some of those hits. It was cool to watch, because I didn’t know what was going on while we were doing it, they’re so frenetic that I didn’t know what was happening. But when I saw it pieced together it was very realistic.
BS: The film is shot in a very hand-held, confessional style, really up close — was that something you talked about with Ric early on, and does that change what you do as an actor?
SD: Ric knew what he wanted. I didn’t have much to do with those choices. I wanted to know who was shooting the movie — I’m always kind of curious, even when I’m just an actor — and he had this guy Dana Gonzales who is just awesome. He shot it on these little cameras, and it had this grain, and a beautiful look, I thought. We had small cameras so we could go into these cells where we don’t have any room. So again, keeping everything realistic, you’d never be able to fit a 35mm camera on some of these sets. I remember when Mike Figgis told me he did Leaving Las Vegas in 20 days in 16mm, and I remember going “Fuck!” To see what what Ric did with Super16 on this movie, and then have it blown it to 35mm, just looks so much cooler. We did the movie in probably 35 days, or maybe less — compared to Public Enemies, where we had 100 days. I knew we made something good, I could feel it, but I’ve been gone for five months and finally got home and [got to see it] and I was really proud of it. I hate seeing movies that I make; even if I like them, I don’t really like to watch myself, but I was so proud of (costar) Val (Kilmer), I thought he knocked it out of the park. I thought Harold Perrineau was so strong too — just all the actors did a really good job.
BS: Shooting at New Mexico State Penitentiary — were there special precautions taken, and had you ever done anything like that before? (Warning: slight spoiler at end of Dorff’s answer to this question.)
SD: No, I never had. We shot most of the film, where the SHU (Special Housing Unit) and the Yard are, in the old part of the prison, which is shut down, and they have shot a couple films there, some of that Adam Sandler football prison movie. They’re actually a little more friendly there, because there are so many movies being shot in New Mexico. The other part of the prison, where the bus pulls in, is a level five or six prison, which is a serious prison, and working and open, there were felons walking around in their jumpsuits. It was weird, and we were the first film, I believe, to shoot beyond those gates. When you have a film crew come into a prison that’s fully running, it’s probably not what they want, but Ric did a great job PR-wise with the warden and the mayor and governor, and worked those angles. We were kind of the underdog movie, and we didn’t have a ton of money to give them. …The actual scene where I come out, at the end, is where they really release prisoners. A guy that’s coming out after 15 years is going to come out through that same room that I came out of, and you definitely feel it.
BS: Throughout your career you’ve worked with some notably intense and/or out-there directors — Bob Rafelson, Tony Kaye, Oliver Stone, Uwe Boll, to name a few…
SD: Wow, that’s funny that you put Uwe Boll in that category. (laughs)
BS: Maybe he’s more of a category unto himself.
SD: That’s probably the best pairing he’s ever had, considering I read an article in some magazine where they called him the worst director of all time.
BS: He’s a real character, though, right?
SD: Yeah, he don’t give a fuck. He don’t give a fuck, I’ll tell you that.
BS: So who’s the most out-there director with whom you’ve worked?
SD: Well, I like artists, so I don’t mind if a director is out there. Oliver Stone is out there, every director is out there. Actors are out there. Creative people in general kind of have their own approach and their own madness, you know? And I don’t really get weirded out by that at all. Someone like Ton
y Kaye I’d been friendly with, because years ago he met me for American History X and I was kind of in between the ages — I wasn’t old enough for the Ed Norton part and I wasn’t young enough for the part of the younger brother, but I really loved that script. And then all the drama happened with him and he went off and just did commercials. But then Black Water Transit came around — which hasn’t opened yet but is going to be a pretty cool movie, I think, since we did a lot of cool shit on that. Michael Mann is pretty intense — great experience, he’s one of my favorites. I’m kind of interested in that even more now, great directors. For a minute there I did a couple films I probably shouldn’t have done, or didn’t want to do, that I made a bunch of money on, and that was fine, but ultimately it’s the director and the actors that I’m working with that I’m the most concerned about, it’s not really the size (of the film).
BS: I’m guessing Alone in the Dark was maybe one of those in that category.
SD: Yeah, I mean, you know, I was friends with Christian (Slater), and they payed me an awful lot of money for two-and-a-half weeks of time. It wasn’t really my movie, I felt like it was more Christian’s, because I wasn’t the lead in that film by any means. But Uwe and I got along great. He’s just what he is — he’s not a real filmmaker, he’s more of a videogame guy. I don’t know how he’s done what he’s done, but he keeps making his movies, so God bless him, you know? I don’t have anything negative to say about him.
BS: In some ways I think he’s the P.T. Barnum of our age.
SD: Yeah, totally. But he is crazy. (laughs)
BS: You mentioned Public Enemies — what was that experience like, and what’s the tone and look of the film?
SD: It was awesome. We just finished last week, and it’s a full-on gangster flick — 1934, the last year of Dillinger’s life, and shooting real Tommy guns and hanging out of cars, having a ball. It was a journey, with a bunch of great actors. Johnny (Depp) was incredible to work with, and very sweet to me. I’ve known him for years, but had never gotten to work with him. And Marion Cotillard is an incredible actress; Christian Bale, the list goes on. There’s so many great actors in that film. I had a really good time with Michael on it. It was long, but I think it’ll be a really good movie. I think they’re talking about a trailer or teaser going up soon, and it’ll probably be out next summer.