It feels like it was essentially yesterday that we talked to George Hickenlooper, the director of "Casino Jack," who died suddenly last night at the age of 47.
Hickenlooper was found dead this morning in Denver, where he had traveled to support the gubernatorial campaign of his cousin, John Hickenlooper, and attend this coming week's Starz Denver Film Festival. We'd met and spoken to the filmmaker at last month's Toronto International Film Festival, and he came across as vibrant, candid and articulate in promoting the Kevin Spacey-starring Abramoff biopic, which is scheduled to come out in December.
The director spoke about his hopes for John's gubernatorial bid in Colorado (it's a tight race, he said, but the poll data was encouraging) his new project ("How to Make Love Like an Englishman," a drama with Pierce Brosnan about an older professor reevaluating his life, which he was preparing to shoot in November) and his interest in the intersection of politics and idealism.
"There's something unique about the United States, a sense of individual rights and freedoms, and a sense of social and civic responsibility that we contributed to so much of the world," he said. "We lost that mission in the 1980s and 1990s, when we entered a gilded age, and the culture of individualism became a culture of avarice. It's seen in every aspect of our culture. Everything is totally commodified, even in box office. Do you care how many Big Macs McDonald's sold last week? How is that relevant? And that kind of feasting and ravenous thinking has seeped into the pores of our culture such that we've lost a sense of ourselves."
Hickenlooper was an independent filmmaker par excellence, struggling to get movies his way even if they were out of sync with the Hollywood fashion. His best known work, "Hearts of Darkness," which took a compelling behind-the-scenes look at the shooting of "Apocalypse Now," documented some of those same struggles, while his 2006 Andy Warhol-Edie Sedgwick movie "Factory Girl" examined the troubled souls and diverse company of an artist. He also directed the documentary "Mayor of the Sunset Strip," about pop impresario Rodney Bingenheimer, and the feature drama "The Man From Elysian Fields," about a novelist who threatens to crack under various pressures.
"It's tough when you're a filmmaker because you go into a studio and they say 'You gotta like a character,' " he said. " 'You gotta sympathize.' And I think 'No you don't.' Travis Bickle -- do you like Travis Bickle? No. But you empathize with his loneliness."
Hickenlooper said that both politics and filmmaking had a tendency to increase one's cynicism, something he thought about a lot after studying and meeting with Abramoff, whom he found flawed and tragic. But he said it was important to fend off those thoughts. "Most people, 95% of people, are good people. It's the 5% who get seduced by power," he said, adding, "Abraham Lincoln said if you want to test a man's character, give him power."
Hickenlooper summed up a worldview both pragmatic and ambitious.
"As a storyteller I want my films to entertain -- what is it Louis B. Mayer said, 'if you want to send a message, call Western Union?' -- but I do want them to be worldly and relevant. I'm fascinated by failure, and I'm fascinated by finality. Shakespeare's historical plays are more universal than his comedies because they relate to the finality of life. Without finality, life would not be beautiful."
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: George Hickenlooper at the Toronto International Film Festival last month. Credit: Dan Steinberg/AP
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