“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, by far,” producer-director Robert Greenwald said of making the new film biography of sixties activist Abbie Hoffman, “Steal This Movie!” In Dallas for a screening of the picture at the USA Film Festival, the long-time independent filmmaker, who has originated more than thirty pictures over the last decade and a half and won some thirty Emmy, Golden Globe, Cable Ace and DGA nominations for his work, spoke of his commitment to putting the story onto the screen but also of the difficulty in doing so.
Greenwald’s effort obviously sprang from a personal belief in the subject and its relevance to today’s audiences. “Here’s somebody who made a lifelong commitment to things outside of his own self-interest, things that weren’t about greed,” he said of the activist, who died in 1989. “This is a man who has a real passion about something, and it’s not a passion about a promotion or a paycheck. And that’s a great story, and that’s the story I want to tell, and I can do it without being preachy, hopefully–a story that can reverberate for any generation or age group.”
Greenwald actually met Abbie Hoffman years ago, when the radical was still underground, pursued by law officials. “I got to know Anita Hoffman [Abbie’s wife] in Venice, California, where I live and where, fifteen or sixteen years ago, she and her son played with my younger daughter,” he explained. Soon Hoffman himself contacted Greenwald by phone, and arranged a meeting. “He was incredibly courageous and charismatic and brilliant–the fastest mind,” the director recalled. “Of course,” he added, “I didn’t know he was also manic,” going on to describe Hoffman as “troubled, difficult, and complex” too. (The activist was eventually diagnosed as manic-depressive.)
More recently, Greenwald was talking about the sixties with his daughter, and became reacquainted with Hoffman’s book, “Letters from the Underground.” It suddenly struck him that Hoffman’s was an important story, for its social and political themes as well as its personal elements, and so he got back in touch with Abbie’s widow about doing a film about him. Anita was originally concerned about turning her late husband’s life into a typically cliched Hollywood movie–when a studio, long ago, sent a proposed script about himself to Hoffman, Abbie was so incensed by the treatment that he promised to go to every theatre where the picture showed and burn it down–but Greenwald assured her that “no studio will make this movie anyway,” and she agreed to cooperate.
Greenwald set to work fashioning a script, which proved a considerable struggle. “You can’t just do the sixties using traditional form–we had to, in some way, find a form that could capture the energy of it,” he explained. Ultimately the writers settled on a screenplay that fell into two distinct parts, the first dealing with Hoffman’s activist phase and the second with his time underground and after, using the character of a reporter to serve as the audience’s eyes and ears as he researched Abbie’s story. “At one time,” Greenwald mused, “we used to [describe it as] ‘Citizen Kane’ meets ‘GoodFellas,’ because there was a lot more voiceover.”
Finally Greenwald had a script which “at least on paper, was something that I felt had life, vitality, energy, something to say and hopefully was not too preachy, but yet talked about what I strongly believe–that Abbie and these other people made a real commitment to values outside themselves. That was the single most important message of that period of time, the sixties–that you didn’t just have to worry about a bigger paycheck or a bigger promotion, or more millions of dollats on the Internet.” He then set about raising money to make the picture, but even as he went about doing so was faced with two large problems–casting, and making sure that he could get the “feel” of the period right on celluloid.
The first difficulty he solved by signing Vincent D’Onofrio and Janeane Garofalo for the lead roles of Abbie and Anita. Actually, he was contacted by Vincent’s agent. “I had not thought of him for the role, and I didn’t know who could do it,” Greenwald remarked. But though D’Onofrio didn’t much resemble Hoffman externally, the director became convinced that he could capture the character’s essence, and eventually saw him undergo an “amazing transformation” in portraying Abbie. “Now, I can’t think of anybody else” in the role, Greenwald said with satisfaction. As for Garofalo, she too read the script and contacted Greenwald about playing Anita. “‘Look, you’re never going to hire me, but I love this script,'” the director remembered Garofalo telling him. “I never get the roles I want.” When he finally called her to say she’d won the part, the actress was first disbelieving, but then immersed herself in the role so completely that she was able to improvise answers that, as Anita, she gave to the reporter in the finished picture. “Because she had the research, and by that point she had connected to the role, she had the creativity [to do it],” Greenwald remembered with a touch of amazement. “Most of the answers that you see are improvised.”
The texture of the film was also hard to capture exactly. “I was terrified that I would not get the feeling of the sixties right,” Greenwald remarked. “Script aside, story aside, there’s a smell, there’s a feel–it’s almost tactile, that sense of it–and I looked at really good filmmakers who had not gotten it. And that began two months of sleepless nights. And then a series of steps that I took–four or five key decisions–hopefully helped me to capture it as closely as possible.” Part of the process was to use found footage, but carefully to insert new shots into it “to create the world,” as Greenwald put it: “The way…[was] to edit this documentary footage like it was going to be a movie but have spots where my first-unit stuff would go.” Through careful storyboarding and editing, as well as exacting preparation with the costume and production designers, Greenwald was able to mesh together his new material with old footage with remarkable success. “There are times now when I watch the movie that I cannot remember certain shots–like particularly the gassing [by the police]. I’m looking, I’m saying, ‘Was that my shot?’ I actually cannot remember,” he enthused.
Now he hopes that a small, character-and-issues driven film like “Steal This Movie!” can attract enough publicity to let its intended audience learn about it before its release by Lions Gate Films later this month. Whatever the boxoffice outcome, however, Greenwald clearly feels that all his effort was worth it. “When you can combine your social values with your work, you’re lucky,” he said. “If you do things that you believe in, you hope they’ll have a positive…effect on people.” His attitude represents a rare and refreshing instance of social consciousness in today’s megahit-obsessed filmmaking community.