Martin Donovan and David Morse in COLLABORATOR, a film by Martin Donovan. Picture courtesy of Tribeca Film. Photo Credit: Julie Kirkwood. All rights reserved.


Also Starring:
  • Amber Dunbar
  • Connor Della Savia
Supervising Producer:
Executive Producer:
Co-Executive Producer:
Photography Director:
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* Most external filmography links go to The Internet Movie Database.

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Collaborator (2011/2012)

Opened: 07/06/2012 Limited

IFC Center07/06/2012 - 07/12/20127 days
Hollywood, CA07/20/2012 - 07/26/20127 days

Trailer: Click for trailer

Websites: Home, Facebook

Genre: Comedy/Drama

Rated: Unrated


Robert Longfellow (Martin Donovan, THE OPPOSITE OF SEX, "Boss", "Weeds") is a famous playwright who can't seem to catch a break. His recent Broadway play was met with horrible reviews and an early cancellation, and his marriage is being tested as an old flame (Olivia Williams, THE GHOST WRITER, RUSHMORE) has reentered his life during a particular moment of weakness. Retreating back to his childhood home to visit his mother (Katherine Helmond, BRAZIL), Robert crosses paths with his childhood neighbor, Gus (David Morse, THE GREEN MILE, DANCER IN THE DARK, "Treme"). A right-wing, ex-con who still lives at home with his mother, Gus is Robert's polar opposite in every possible way. When Gus holds Robert hostage at gunpoint during a drunken reunion gone terribly wrong, the drama unfolds as social status, celebrity and the imminent threat of violence converge, building up to a climax that will leave both men forever changed.

With an acclaimed acting career spanning over 20 years, including starring roles in a number of iconic Hal Hartley films beginning with TRUST in 1990, COLLABORATOR marks Martin Donovan's first time behind the camera as a writer and director, and he makes the most of it in this riveting and insightful debut.

Director's Statement

Since the age of about sixteen I have devoted myself to understanding and mastering the parameters and processes of acting. This ongoing project means I have spent my life trying to resolve the question of what motivates people. So it should come as no surprise that my first screenplay would turn out to be a character driven story. I had no genre in mind when I began writing. I didn't set out to write a hostage tragicomedy. I merely had a rough idea of two very different characters whom I wanted to force into confronting each other's deeply held beliefs about themselves and the world.

Underneath this simple premise was a passionate desire to somehow distill in as organic a way as possible the post-war American experience from the point of view of a late boomer. I was a young child in the 60's but due to having older siblings, the explosive political and social upheaval of that era slammed into our white, conservative Catholic suburban home with a vengeance. There is no question that my childhood exposure to the cauldron of this period triggered a life-long obsession with how our individual psychological makeup determines our politics and relationship to power. In a recent interview novelist Walter Mosley said that a story without political or social context is a fairy tale. This is an elegant way of articulating what I have tried to avoid (and achieve) with COLLABORATOR.

Contrary to recent trends in film and television I very consciously chose to keep the camera as still as possible. Playing the lead in my first film was certainly a factor. So much of my focus had to be about what I did in front of the camera. There was also the tremendous responsibility I felt for my very talented and seasoned cast. But I was also strongly determined to create a space and mood where the performances and story and not self-conscious directorial flourishes would be the focus for the audience. My attempt here was to create a "quiet" space in the hope that this quiet would be what draws the audience in.

The humor of the piece seemed to flow naturally from the DNA I inherited from my Irish mother. In our house there was no life crisis up to and including death that couldn't be laughed over in between the sobs. Being a product of this sensibility I gravitated toward the great comic performers of the 20th century. Icons from Groucho Marx to Richard Pryor were absorbed into my bloodstream and were surely an unconscious guiding force as I wrote.

An Interview with Filmmaker Martin Donovan

A veteran actor, Martin Donovan takes his first step behind the camera with COLLABORATOR. The writer/director has lived with this story for over six years. In what started as an interest in exploring characters with opposing political views transformed into a compelling story about a man who finds himself adrift and is brought back to reality after a life-changing circumstance.

Tell us what the story is about in your own words.

I've been working on this film for six years, and I still don't know how to put it into words. It's really hard to encapsulate it. It's a going home story. It's a guy trying to find himself. It's a hostage tragic-comedy. I have said repeatedly that it's about a playwright who goes home to visit his mother and is taken hostage by the guy who lives across the street, and all secrets are confronted. But at its core, it's a story of a man who finds himself through an extreme circumstance.

What was it like directing for the first time? What were the challenges in terms of the obstacles that you face?

The challenges were mainly getting over my sheer terror, but also, building and gaining confidence from day one. And I've heard many, many directors, great directors who talk about their terror on their first day of a film. I certainly experienced that. I wanted so much to gain the trust of my actors, and my biggest fear is that I would lose that, or somehow get on their nerves, say the wrong thing, impose on them, or invade their space. But, I've been doing this a long time, so I think my instincts are pretty good about that, having dealt with actors and having done it myself. It was really trying to build the confidence and getting comfortable being the director. Because I started out filming with David, he made me feel so comfortable and gave me so much support. He's a huge reason, if the film is good, it should be credited to David.

What led you to develop the story for the script?

I had always wanted to write. But I never had the discipline--my brain wasn't functioning in a manner to which writing is required, and I don't know the answer as to why it took so long, but it did. I finally started writing in 2003, and the starting point was the character Gus. Gus is based on a guy that I think a lot of us know, or have come in contact with. And this isn't a focal point of how I see the film, but certainly initially there was this idea, of what the psychological or the cultural factors are that determine how we, maybe not even consciously, but unconsciously align ourselves politically in the world--accepting narratives that are told to us by official sources. Looking at those people versus those who are very skeptical or highly critical of what they are told. And I wanted to get those two guys in a room. That was the starting point. But basically what I wanted to do was write as interesting and compelling of a film as I possibly could.

Being an actor, it occurred to me as I was writing some notes about the film, that I'd spent my life trying to understand what motivates people. That's my job. It's natural that the screenplay that I write is going to be character driven, and it's really how I wrote the piece. I had some kind of hostage situation in mind, the characters in a hostage situation. But I really did allow the characters to take me along as I got going. And then things began to emerge based on the characters' motivations or needs and that's how it happened really in the writing.

The film could very easily feel like a one sided account, especially in the later scenes when they are improvising. But you feel a great empathy for Gus, and there is an understanding there, as to why he is the way he is.

It would have been a failure if the film had landed on one side or the other. I would have failed as a dramatist. So I didn't want to do that. What I see in Gus is a deeply emotional attachment to a certain kind of honor, or ethic. It's misguided and it's not well informed, but it's human. These are deeply human things, attributes, responses to the world that are legitimate because they are human. We need to raise consciousness and really talk about the issues in life--I mean that's my belief. But I'm not going to condemn anybody who has a firm belief, I mean I'm going to disagree with them, but I have compassion for them.

That does come across in the writing. If anything, your character comes across a little bit colder on his side of things.

I agree. Robert is consumed with a bitterness that Gus somehow doesn't have. I mean, Gus has his anger, but he's not bitter like Robert is. Though you could argue, that Robert lost his older brother and has a reason to be bitter.

It's interesting that he goes home to see his mother. Because she's sick, but not that sick. She's not bedridden. So he's doing it for some other reasons as well.

Well, I think he's doing it first of all because he needs the money. He's looking for work. Then there's the beautiful Emma, who is hovering in the background--there's that. There is also his mother, who I think he is concerned about and probably a little guilt-ridden over. He's also having difficulty with his marriage. I mean the guy is really, this is a classic midlife crisis. He's really stuck on every front and is groping around the dark trying to regain his creative energy. Where is his love-life going? His ego is obviously in a shamble--hugely what sends people looking for affirmation and adoration from a lover. It's definitely one of the old stand bys to rebuild one's ego if someone is feeling vulnerable and depressed. I don't really think he knows, or is conscious of what he is doing. I think he's a mess. He's totally lost. Gus saves his life.

You just said that Gus saved his life--talk more about that.

Well, he's lost. I think he's lost a sense of who he is. He's lost contact with his roots, whatever creative talents. His early plays, according to the story, have him as the potential voice of a generation. He had all of this talent, but that burned out and now he's just a shell. He's hollowed and doesn't have a real identity anymore. And I think he's really trying to reconnect with himself, with his past and Gus represents a genuinely authentic person living in the world. As messed up as Gus is, there's no pretense with Gus, there's no bull. There's none of this cerebral intellectual masturbation with Gus. And Gus shares a very deep and painful loss with Robert. And they've never addressed that. When it happened, there was no deep commiserating together over the death of Robert's brother. So that hadn't been dealt with. I think that they both needed to do that. But all of these things happened by chance. It just unfolds. Everything has come apart, creative, personal and professional life. He is adrift. There is no doubt about it.

You give a very strong performance. It had to have been difficult because as the director, you have to set up the shots, deal with the cinematographer and the crew, and then you have to quickly put yourself back into that character and that situation that they're in. Talk about having to flip back and forth in regards to that dynamic.

Yeah. A lot of people have done it, back to Chaplin and lots of people since. But it depends on how you work on it. I just don't think I could have done it any sooner than I did. I don't think I was in a place of confidence about my acting, and to be able to switch back and forth, you have to have that. I was in place where I was ready to take that on. It took me a long time, but by the time we got to the set, I was ready to do it and needed to take the chance and I really believed that I could do it. I also wrote a character that was purposely very close to me, so that it wasn't a huge stretch. It was really about Gus--he was the challenge really in terms of acting. But that's not to say it wasn't a huge challenge to concentrate and be present, which is what is required.

You also had an incredible cast. Talk about bringing David on board.

I didn't know David at all before this film, but I was shooting "Weeds" with Mary Louise Parker and I started thinking about David because I knew she'd worked with him on Broadway. I asked her to tell me about David Morse, and she told me he was a genius and that I had to work with him--that I would love him. But at the same time, there was a pressure to bring in a bigger name for Gus. So we went through a few people before going back to David. One of the things about David, that I had a gut feeling about from just watching his work and getting as sense of him, was that I knew I wasn't going to have to deal with an ego. He was just so damn generous with his time and giving himself over to the project and letting me direct the film, and he was just wonderful.

And talk about what he brings to the role.

He brings everything that I wanted. There were the kind of guys that I knew that were like Gus, the sort of not bona fide Hells Angels, but guys that were into motorcycles, tattoos, biker boots, t-shirts and Marlboros and Coors beers. And there were those guys, that whole crowd when I was a kid that used to always scare the hell out of me. But, I also felt and knew that Gus was a sweet guy underneath all the bluster. And so he brings that. He brings the threat of violence, but he also has this soft heart and was exactly what I was looking for. What I wasn't anticipating was how damn adorable he was going to make Gus. I wasn't ready for that. He's just such a teddy bear. I mean the girls just adore him in this film, they are so sad, even though he's a murderer!

What I love about the hostage scene, is your character remaining almost eerily calm through the whole experience. At least externally calm--almost using his skills. And almost the same with Olivia's character in that telephone scene. Can you talk about that?

At one point, obviously we shot those scenes separately. We did the interior with David and me in Ontario in early December, and then Olivia's coverage in LA. Olivia had never met David, so she had no idea what he was doing. She had read the script in a sort of way that led her to do the scenes with just a tint of exasperation, frustration or condescension. And I had to help her through that. I had to say, you know you don't want to insult Gus for one thing. The thing about Olivia is, she's such a damn good actress, you give her a note and she's like a Porsche, you put her into the turn and she goes. You don't have to say much. So she got it immediately and was off and running. And I'm just so pleased with how the two of them worked out. I had also thought about Olivia for a very long time as well. I wanted the added ingredient of the English accent because as Americans, we're terminally infatuated with it, and so it adds to the gulf between Gus and Emma. It just gives it that added layer of distance between her and Gus. I am very, very lucky to have worked with such a fantastic cast.

Melissa Auf der Maur is in the film--she plays Robert's wife. Talk about her performance.

Melissa, she's a phenomenal bass player. Most know her as a bassist for Hole, and The Smashing Pumpkins. This was her first speaking role. She is incredibly courageous and those last shots of her, as she listens to the answering machine... I just think she's amazing.

Eileen Ryan plays Gus's mother. How did you go about casting her?

That was a delicate situation. David said I should get Eileen to play Betty, but I really didn't feel comfortable sending a script about a woman losing her son, to a woman who lost her son. But David said she's a pro, so I went out to her house before we shot the film. She made me lasagna and we danced around the notion of losing a son, and how she would deal with it in the film. I'm so glad I got her.

Was there improvisation while shooting?

No. It was all to the word of the page, exactly the way everything was written. David did throw in a few extra toasts; a couple of words were added. But all of the improv in the sketches between David and Robert were written out.

Talk about the music in the film.

We spent a lot of time getting the music right, which I'm very proud of. The composer--Manels Favre--he did beautiful work. PJ Harvey is also an old friend of mine. I was nervous but I gathered up the courage to ask her if she would consider recording this opening. I had the Brahms in mind forever, and I asked her if she'd consider this opening of the first movement of the Brahms and do it in German. And she said sure. She was in England, and got together with an opera coach and worked on it, and laid it down. I'm so thrilled with that.

The end of the movie, talk about the parallels between that and the end of a scene from a play.

I made a clear choice, a poetic choice, of revealing how he imagined his future. This traumatic event, this revisiting of his brother and what he goes through with Gus is a trigger that gets him back to writing. And I do sort of telegraph it, that his next play will involve something with Gus's life. He's going to return to NY in triumph. He sees the death of Gus as a future work that's going to be a triumph, but it is crushingly bittersweet. In the last frame he looks like a thief. He's stealing. He says that earlier too in the film. So it's very complicated, he's shattered and inspired at the same time.

Where did you shoot the film?

The film was shot in Canada and LA. The exterior shots that were bookends to the film were shot in NY over two days. We spent 18 days in Ontario and four days in Los Angeles. We got tax breaks in Canada because I have permanent residence in Canada. We had rehearsals in the house for about a few days and that was a huge advantage because I got to know David. We blocked all of the scenes and he really got to know the character.

What do you hope audiences take away from this film?

I hope I hold their attention for 80 minutes. After that it's up to them. I've been to a lot of screenings with audiences, and I'm very pleased. They seem to see and find all of the various layers, references and themes in the film, and when we have discussions after, I'm very pleased by that. It's a strange thing this film. It has very simple aspects, a very simple story. I purposely shot it as simply as I could, with no movement in the camera and no single hand shots. We're so inundated by this faux Cinema verite madness and use all of that camera motion to keep things interesting. The film didn't call for that, so that means the story and the performances have to carry it.

Are you planning to direct again?

I'm doing everything in my power to do that. I'm working on developing a screenplay now. It's a long hard haul but I hope so, absolutely.

What projects are you currently working on?

I've been shockingly busy for the last year or so. I've been working regularly on "Boss" for Starz as well as appearing in "The Firm" on NBC. Among recent films I had the great pleasure to travel to India last fall to appear in Mira Nair's THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST with Liev Schreiber, based on the novel by Mohsid Hamid.