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John Cusack started out playing sensitive, angsty roles in romantic comedies like Sixteen Candles, The Sure Thing, and Say Anything…; even in quirkier early films like Better Off Dead, Tapeheads, and One Crazy Summer, he tended to be the sympathetic, vulnerable, put-upon type. He's done romantic comedies since then, but since the '90s, Cusack has looked for darker, more complicated, and particularly odder roles in the likes of The Grifters, True Colors, and Being John Malkovich. In 1997, he co-wrote and co-produced Grosse Pointe Blank, a box-office hit and lingering cult favorite in which he plays an assassin who winds up attending his 10th-anniversary high-school reunion. Since then, he's alternated unremarkable genre outings (Must Love Dogs, Runaway Jury, Identity) with odder fare, which he often helps produce: High Fidelity, Max, and the new Grace Is Gone, in which he plays an ultraconservative dad panicking over the question of how to tell his children that their soldier mom has died in action in Iraq. After a Chicago critics' screening of Grace Is Gone, The A.V. Club sat down with Cusack to discuss his move into producing, his 10 "good" films, and the prospect of getting too old for rom-com roles.
The A.V. Club: Do you think of Grace Is Gone more as a political film, or as a personal one?
John Cusack: I don't know if there's a difference. I guess I'd have to define political. I think in the time we made it, the Bush administration decided they wanted to ban the photos of the dead coming home. So to do a story about grief for 90 minutes is actually, in a strange way, a political statement. It may not be partisan, but even just the acknowledgment of the grief—these guys wanted to just throw it under the rug. In the meantime, they were sort of privatizing the war and bringing in mercenaries, and not funding the troops.
AVC: So in a way, making it was a political act.
JC: But I don't think it's a political film. But I think everything has some politics to it. It's just whether or not it admits to it. Politics is weird. I don't even know what that means any more.
AVC: But that's just it—it's become very difficult in this country to discuss politics rationally. Did that come up when you were planning or making the film? Were there conflicts about how to address the issues you raise?
JC: I think one of the things that was nice about the story was that it pierced through the script. Everything gets reduced to the common rubble of partisan bickering, like "I'm the left, you're the right. You're conservative, I'm liberal. It's your fault." Everybody just yells at each other, but this one just seemed to cut through all that stuff, and be a meditation on grief. I don't know if we succeeded, but that was our plan. We wanted to get beyond all that, to just go, "Look, man." There were just so many people that died in the war. So many families that are affected. I thought, "We'll just tell a story of one of the coffins coming home." It was a pretty nice script, I thought. And I thought just the idea—the arguments are coming from a true believer who's lost somebody, and from a 12-year-old girl. I thought, "Well, if anybody's earned the right to ask these questions, they have." At that time, people were still supporting this fiasco.
AVC: People still are. Is there a timeliness issue? Were you concerned about getting the film out while the issues are still fresh?
JC: Yeah, I think so. We wanted to get it out as fast as possible, as kind of a real-time response to it all.
AVC: You've been vocal about the war yourself, but you're playing a character who comes across as politically conservative—
JC: Very conservative.
AVC: Was there a plan to present pro-war and anti-war viewpoints so it would be accessible to both sides?
JC: Yeah. I wrote this big thing where I interviewed [author] Naomi Klein on The Huffington Post. Yeah, I'm very vocal about it. That doesn't mean I can't be compassionate for people who disagree with me, or coming from a different point of view. So I wanted to get inside that guy's head without any condescension.
AVC: Do you think of Grace Is Gone as specifically a film about Iraq, or could this be about war and grief in general, applicable to other times and places?
JC: I can't imagine it not being Iraq, but I can't imagine there being too many modern wars that are just causes any more. I suppose there could be. It just doesn't feel that way. With another war, the sense of betrayal would be different.
AVC: As a producer, how closely were you involved in determining the tone or content of the film?
JC: It was a pretty small group: the writer-director, me, and then the kids and the director of photography, and those are really all the people who are doing it. As a producer, you make sure you get the right kind of keys to come in and support the movie, and then you know how long it'll take to shoot something. And you know the atmosphere and what you need to do well so you can create that atmosphere.
AVC: How do you go about creating the atmosphere you want?
JC: I've just been doing it for a long time, so I know about it a little bit. So you create a nice bubble for the director and the actors and for people to think—to keep too many cooks out of the kitchen. You'd have to be on the set to understand. I mean, I can try to explain it you.
JC: You want to create an atmosphere where actors can concentrate, where they can get some momentum where they work. That they're not second-guessed. That they feel like they can make mistakes. That their own individuality is the most important thing. Their opinions matter. All the stuff—all the trucks, all the lights, the cameras, everything that's there, all this hubbub and all these people walking around, all of it so you can capture a human moment on a screen—that's what everyone's here for. Get the fuck out of the way. Be quiet. But I don't say that in front of them. You try to create a little bit of a sacred space.
AVC: How did that compare to your role in producing High Fidelity?
JC: Same thing.
AVC: It doesn't depend on the other people you're working with, or the size of the project?
JC: Nope. High Fidelity was just a bigger gig. It was more complicated.
AVC: Was it different coming into Grosse Pointe Blank as a first-time producer? Did you go in knowing how you wanted to handle that role?
JC: Well, it's all like managing a tidal wave. It's all kind of a clusterfuck. But I know enough around the set where I know, "Well, this is what it'll take to get this done," and "This is not realistic," and "Do we have enough for this?" And usually I've either written the script or, if I'm producing, I know it. I've been around. I've done it for a while. I'm not a numbers-cruncher, but I have an intuitive sense of "No, you don't have enough time for this, so that's gonna mean more money."
AVC: Has your role changed at all as you've produced several films and gotten more experienced?
JC: Yeah. I mean, it comes to the same thing, which is getting all these cameras around to create moments onscreen. All the rest of it is distraction that you have to get out of the way.
AVC: What about your role as an actor? As you've gotten more involved in the technical aspects of filmmaking, have you wanted more involvement in shaping films you aren't writing or producing?
JC: Yeah, but I won't do that as an actor as much, except for if it affects my role. I'll offer my opinion, but it's other people's jobs. As a producer, you say, "Hey, this is really my production, and I'm responsible for it." You have other partners, but it's your party. So it's nice that way. But mostly it all comes to the same stuff, which is… I'm much more about the script and the actors and trying to find stuff. So that doesn't change when you work on the script. You work on the script with the director and the other actors, and you try to figure out a way to either make the genre better, or do something original and not embarrass yourself.
AVC: Have you traditionally been the kind of actor who suggests line changes, or points out things that don't work?
JC: Yeah, those are called pain in the asses. [Laughs.]
AVC: Are you a pain in the ass?
JC: I don't know. It depends on your point of view.
AVC: From your point of view—
JC: No, I'm not. But I'm demanding on material as much as I can be. Some things are what they are. They're never going to be anything more than they are. You try to make it as good as you can, but with an action movie or whatever it is, you're doing it so you can get leverage to go do Grace Is Gone or whatever these other ones are. So there's a ceiling on how good you can make something. But you try, right? You try your best. Then with other things, you can do very, very experimental stuff, and then you can really dig into it.
AVC: With that in mind, you recently told The Guardian that you'd made 10 good films—
JC: I didn't say that, actually.
AVC: What exactly did you say?
JC: I said I'd made 10 or 15 good films, and some of them are okay, but that's still a pretty good batting average. My point was that it's hard to make good films, but I'm not under any illusion that you do all the time. What I was saying also was that there were some that really don't work, and I just black them out. [Laughs.] It's like an old yearbook photo. You try to pretend like it doesn't exist. There's parts that are good in some films, but it's just hard to make something work. It's not a given that any time you show up it's gonna be fantastic, you know? You work your ass off, but sometimes you stink. I didn't say there are just 10, and I didn't say there wasn't any value in any others. That guy extrapolated that. I said 10 or 15 good films, and out of 45, 50 in 20 years, that's pretty good. That'd be like a major-leaguer hitting over .300. That's not bad.
AVC: Do you think those "10 or 15 good" films are roughly the same ones everyone would name, or are there films on your personal list that would surprise people?
JC: I don't know. I would say a movie like Max, which didn't get shown, but I think when it did get shown, people liked it a lot. I'd put that on the good list. Eight Men Out, I think is a good film. Just films that work as a whole.
AVC: As opposed to films that have good scenes, or good roles?
JC: Yeah, there's parts where the first hour's good, but then the rest doesn't work.
AVC: Do you personally find that those films go wrong in production, or do you actually go in thinking, "Maybe I'm not going to be so proud of this one, but it'll get my name out there?"
JC: I think there's a combination of both of those, and some denial is involved too. You always convince yourself that it's good, but then a lot of times, there's a problem in the script that doesn't get addressed, or a problem in casting, or a director who kind of loses his mind, or a studio that decides they want to cut a movie for the test-market screenings. Those were originally designed to figure out how to market a film, but now, they're literally cutting to try to satisfy as many markets as they can all at once. That kind of editing by definition destroys some people's vision of a film, because how can you be all things to all different demographics? You can't. Why should you? So a lot of times, you make it and the studios just hack it up. And by the way, sometimes the studios are right and the directors fuck it up.
AVC: Do you have an example of that? I've never heard an actor say that before.
JC: Well, they're full of shit.
AVC: Is there a film like that which you could actually speak out on?
JC: A bunch. Directors or filmmakers or actors, people who say "This has got to be in the movie," and it's not right for the movie, or it slows it down.
AVC: But nothing you could name names on?
JC: Well I could, except then I'd be naming people who fucked up. And then they would be like "Why did you say that about me in the paper?" But, I mean, I've done it.
AVC: How so?
JC: I've tried to keep in things that were not right, or acted out of vanity instead of seeing the forest for the trees. I've lost my way. People lose their way. They get snowblind.
AVC: Are you talking about stuff you've produced? Written? Acted in? Is there an example?
JC: Yeah, let me think… Yeah. But I won't talk about it.
AVC: How much does the process of making a film—whether you enjoy actually being involved in the production process—affect whether you end up looking at it and saying "That's one of the good ones?"
JC: Sometimes you think there is a much better film in there than the cut presented. People come up against themselves in the process, so whatever a director's got, or whatever you're afraid of, or whatever your issue is as you try to work on the film, you'll come up against it. You've gotta transcend that issue to make it good, because some directors want to make a movie about emotion because they're afraid of emotion. And then when they cut the movie, they actually will cut away from… They don't understand that you actually have to go to that place. They won't go there. You can see it, you can feel it in their movies. The aesthetics are frightened of where they need to go. And as actors, you can do "I don't want to go all the way here, I'm too afraid to go into that door. I don't want to go in there." And you think, and you try, and sometimes you just chicken out.
AVC: Do you find that happens less often on films where the director isn't the editor, or films where the producers take a really strong role?
JC: I find that usually when there's a lack of producers, actually. It's a really healthy thing, because there's a lot of directors and writers who want total autonomy, and their vision isn't really… They've gotten it to a certain place, and I know all directors think they're auteurs, that it's an auteur's business. But it's not. It's really a collaborative business between three or four different people to make a movie. Financiers, creative financiers, writers, the actors, the director. And the producer can be a good check and balance of all that. So there have been a lot of directors who've had great producers, or had a strong, creative film company behind them, and they made them make the film better. And then the film is very successful, and they went on and did more, and then they had their auteur vision, and their movies sucked, because all they do is listen to everybody tell them how great they are. There's nobody who says, "That's not a very good idea." Everybody isn't Federico Fellini or Tim Burton, but everybody pretends they are.
AVC: Did you feel a need to go into producing at all because of that?
JC: I wanted to just be a filmmaker, and I thought I wanted to do all the aspects, and it seemed like as a producer was the best way to do it, because I could have… You never have control on a movie, but you have as much control as you can. You can push it through, and you can hire the right people, you know? I hired the directors on all the movies. Not Grace Is Gone, because the script came with the writer-director and another production entity, Plum Pictures. So you get to set up the way you like to work.
AVC: What about roles? Do you produce in order to get the roles you want?
JC: Yeah. Or to get some role that I want to do done.
AVC: You've complained in the past that you get typecast a little. What kind of materials are you looking for these days?
JC: I don't know. Something good.
AVC: How did the role in Being John Malkovich come about? That's not exactly your signature role. It's a really quirky film.
JC: That's more like Grace Is Gone, or Max. It's much more character-oriented.
AVC: With roles like that, do the filmmakers come to you, or do you seek out projects deliberately?
JC: That one, I'll have to give myself credit. I was pretty smart about it, because I went to William Morris and said, "Give me the craziest, most unproducable script you can find." And they said, "Well…" And I said, "No, come on, give me something that is just the most bizarre thing you've ever read, and I want to read that." And they went, "Oh, well, there's Charlie Kaufman, but he's great. I could give you that." I read it and I said, "All right, I want to do this. Track this. If anyone else does this, and I'm not the first in the door, I'm leaving you guys." And they delivered. They tracked it. So yes, if a piece of material jumps out at me like that… I mean, he was this obviously huge talent.
AVC: A lot of your signature roles are kind of boyish, arrested-development types, but with Grace Is Gone, you're playing a father, an older man, a conservative—a lot of the particulars in the role seem new and different for you. Are you specifically looking for new and different roles?
JC: I don't know if it's different; it's just a good role, you know? [Laughs.] So I've gotten a good one. I mean, I thought that the stuff I've been able to produce, whether they succeed or not, they've always been pretty good roles. And some of the stuff I've been lucky enough to be in—Being John Malkovich and the other ones—they're just good roles. I think it's more about having that stuff rather than that typical romantic comedy, where they want you to be a romantic person, or action movies. They want you to do those stock movies, so I guess complaining would be an annoying thing. I was probably just pointing out that the studios don't offer you the most adventurous stuff, which is kind of an obvious statement.
AVC: Yeah, but not necessarily one that everybody would make.
JC: They basically say, "Do what you did before."
AVC: Have you reached a point—
JC: No. [Laughs, pauses.] What were you going to ask?
AVC: Do you miss the boy roles? Eventually, everybody gets too old to play romantic-comedy leads. Will you miss that, or are you going to be happy to not have the studio coming to you saying "Do what you did that time?"
JC: I don't know. Hopefully I'll just find a better opportunity for it. I have this mixture of enthusiasm and blackness, which is kind of interesting, so hopefully I'll just find a better venue for it. I mean, I would never put myself anywhere near the rarified air of Paul Newman, but he was boyish in his 40s and 50s. That's part of what makes him alive. So I don't really know what it means. But no, I don't really like romantic comedies, so I don't really care. I never go see 'em.
AVC: You never see the ones you're in?
JC: I've seen a couple of those.
AVC: It doesn't change your mind?
JC: I liked some. If there's a really good one, I'll like it, but I don't like most genre movies.