James Caan is one of the all-time great Hollywood actors. Older audiences are sure to know him from his role as Sonny Corleone in the Godfather. Younger audiences might know of his earlier film fame, but are almost certain to know him as Ed Deline from the popular television show Las Vegas, which ran for five years between 2003 and 2008.
We caught up with Mr. Caan to talk about his latest project, Open Film. That and we got into a whole slew of questions and answers on a variety of topics. This is a must read, must listen to interview for any James Caan and Hollywood fan.
And if you’ve been in a cave and don’t know the depth and breadth of what James Caan’s done in Hollywood, this interview is sure to get you looking at his decades of sensational work product.
Listen to the James Caan interview:
Chris Yandek: Before we get talk about Open Film, what’s going on in your life? What’s new in the world of James Caan?
James Caan: “What’s new in the world of James Caan?”
CY: “Sure. Yup. Absolutely.”
JC: “Well, my back hurts, my ankle, my shoulders. I’ve had 12 operations. I get up in sections now. Let’s see, yeah, pretty much like if you look at the little pinky, the nail on your right hand, that little pinky nail, that’s the only thing on my body that don’t hurt. So basically that’s what’s going on.
On a serious note, I finished a picture in New York called Henry’s Crime. I just got home I guess the beginning of February, a picture with Keanu Reeves and Vera Farmiga and you know, kind of a fun little picture. Right now just talking to different people to see who might give me a job.”
CY: With Open Film I’d love to know, being from that earlier Era of Hollywood, how do you think and what do you think about how the filmmaking, the production and everything else has changed compared to those earlier decades that you worked in? How Open Film using the online distribution and the online technology?
JC: “I think, you know, years ago when the studios were run by filmmakers whether they were bastards or not was not relevant, but that’s what they did for a living. They made films. I mean Jack Warner, Cohen, Disney all the guys. That was their business. Today we’re dealing with guys who really aren’t filmmakers. They’re corporate heads and they only care about how many butts are in the seats at the end of the day.
So I think that the whole outlook and quality of films are all and all the plots and all this CGI stuff, and the digital is all aimed at an audience that is at least 20 years younger by far than they were 20 years ago. Everything is sort of aimed from to the 14 to the 21 or 23 year old you know. Whereas I believe in the late 70s or through the 70s I think that the scope of all the pictures were just more character driven, more story driven.
Like my parents used to go to the movies. It was a hobby. They’d go Tuesdays and Saturdays or whatever and then go to Chinese food or whatever. It was just a hobby, which a lot of the baby boomers did as well and today they don’t do that. Today they go to a movie. They don’t go to the movies cause the movies, all the movies were pretty good. I think the talent in general was on a whole a little richer – actors, directors, producers and certainly writers.
Today anymore, these, a writer whose in his 50s doesn’t get to work because he’s 50. I found that out when I was talking to a couple of these guys who write for television. They told they’re writing under pseudonyms. I go, what are you talking about? They said, ‘Well, you know, if you’re not 30 they don’t even read your stuff cause they don’t think you connect with the people who are viewing these shows. So I said, ‘You’re telling me a guy like Bill Goldman who whatever he is, 80 something isn’t better than some 25 year old guy that just graduated college?’ I mean, it’s just insane.”
JC: “And the same goes with the directors. So this is sort of a long winded thing, but it’s basically, it’s a great first question because I tried to start something a while ago called Boomer Films and I’m not much of a producer. I like to stay in my trailer, say my lines, go back to my trailer because I realized that the baby boomer market is the largest market out there and I also realize it’s the market with the most disposable income you know, but nothing is made for them. And the only things that are made for them are the independent films.
So now in the full circle I know my son who’s on our board has made some, couple great little films for a million bucks, for two million bucks. One which I think was called Dallas 362. I don’t know if you guys saw it or not. It won the grand prize, but then you gotta deal with distribution. I mean there’s a monopoly on that. So this whole question leads me to why I’m so involved or why I got involved with Open Film. From my perspective, I have these geniuses and I don’t know anything about. That’s the nicest thing I’ll ever say about you Dimitri [Kozko], you geek.
But I have an unbelievable team of technicians who can come up with anything. The quality that they can reproduce on your computer is the exact quality that you shot it in and our launch pad and all our programming material and I mean it’s just mind boggling to me because basically I just learned how to play solitaire on the computer and I thought I was pretty smart.
So in this long winded answer, it’s a goon because it actually defines my kind of lust for this whole operation as to try to find or get back to finding the best talent because I believe this business has nothing but. There is so much luck involved. Too much of a percentage of luck is involved. I’ve met too many talented young people who never had a shot and were never at the right place at the right time. So I don’t know if I answered any of your questions.”
CY: I think you pretty much summed up Open Film in a nutshell.
JC: “Yeah. It was a good first question as I started getting into it because I know one of your questions is why did you get involved.”
JC: “I watched my son go through trying just to make films. Bobby Duval and I are always looking for films and some of the scripts I get like just insane. I mean they’re insane. I mean I’d rather sell pencils.”
CY: So is your motivation in a sense because many of the big studios are looking at the bottom line maybe to hope make some independent films that big studios just wouldn’t invest in? Is that possibly a motivation also?
JC: “Well, look, there’s a huge gap between for example those huge movies the studios are making Avatar, etc, etc. All of these green screen things and by the way, I’m not knocking them. Some of them are fantastic and they’re great and then there’s the home videos and that gap in between. By the way, all our guys who submit to us, they have to meet a certain standard.
That’s a rule with our contest and giving money away and finding maybe if we find two to three great directors a year or two or three great actors then we’ve done something well and when we have a sister company called Open Film Studios, which will co-finance along with they get prize money toward their next project.
And if our boss Mike who runs Open Film Studios likes it, will produce it and hopefully have a good as we go along get, make great relationships with distributors and obviously have a great relationship with all the film festivals which basically is terribly important to independent films you know.”
CY: What do you think about all this digital stuff today that they’re using just to make films?
JC: “I’m an idiot, I mean when it comes to that. I don’t want to be like – there’s some of it that I really enjoy, but it’s just too much of it. I like sometimes to sit back and watch some great performances and watch a great story and the only place I find it now unfortunately except for something like The Hurt Locker or something all of a sudden.”
CY: Well. With Kathryn Bigelow. Well done.
JC: “Just a fantastic film. Excuse me. Whoever that is Honey just tell them will call back. Someone took it. I was talking to my honey.”
CY: Yes. As you were talking about The Hurt Locker.
JC: “Yeah. I’m was saying look, I don’t know how many films are made and to get one or two of those kind of pictures found. Even I thought Jeff [Bridges] was great. I’m not that nuts about the picture, but I thought Jeff was great in Crazy Heart. That started as an independent and those are the ones that get through, but there is a lot more out there that never gets seen.
So at least with us if I’m a filmmaker, a young filmmaker and the reason I can relate to is because like I said, my son writes great, but he’s also a working actor and a director, but I know so many of them who just have great ideas. I’ve seen great short films that they’ve made. They don’t have the ability to get it out there. Now we also have a fan base, not so much a fan base, but a distribution network so to speak of like about 12 million right now around the world.
And if I’m a filmmaker, forget the little bit of money I can make. I think, I believe the most important thing is to get it seen because that’s what you make it for, you know, to get it seen and that’s expanding on a daily basis. We hope that through these contests and will get people involved to see some of the pictures that we select, some of the pictures that Mark Rydell likes, Bobby Duval likes that I like.”
CY: To become something.
JC: “Yeah. The number one getting seen. Don’t you think that’s like the essence? When I make a film, the money I make is not gonna really change my life, but the gratification I get from people saying Jesus, I loved your film and that is so much richer I think.”
CY: I see you’ve got a lot of upcoming projects and are still keeping busy. When you were on set working with legends John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, and Marlin Brando of course and now you’re the veteran actor on set, so how does that feel to be the guy now when younger talents come up to you and try to learn things from you? How does that make you feel?
JC: “Well, you know, that’s funny. There’s nothing in the world I would trade for that feeling. I mean and now I did a series because hard times till make a monkey because I had to. I got a personal problem. I got robbed by my accountant, all this terrible stuff, and I was forced to do something. I talked to my son. I said, ‘I really feel like I’m letting down the people that respect me and I don’t want to ever give that up.’ That’s the great asset that I’ve gotten through the years. Some of these guys are so terrific. Johnny Depp and [Leonardo] Dicaprio and so on and so forth and when they look up to me I can’t explain or they ask me a question or people of that nature I can’t, I can’t. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world and I don’t want to let them down by doing crap.”
CY: Of all the classic movies you’ve done is there any one that stands out?
JC: “Well, listen, certainly The Godfather because Frances was a genius and he surrounded himself with, look at all these people that have come out of that movie. He was the best as far as knowing acting, knowing cinematography, writing and he was great. You have like Walter Murch who’s the big sound guy today. You have Dean Tavalouris who’s the great set decorator, Gordy Willis. All of those people that have come out of that movie who are giants today in their respected fields and the actors and so on so that certainly, but I have other pictures.
Michael Mann’s first picture Thief I personally like a lot selfishly from an acting standpoint because it was a character that I created. It was not so much fun cause he was nuts. We worked 18 hours a day, but I liked that. I had a lot of fun oddly enough with [Barbra] Streisand in that movie. That was just kind of fun doing that Billy Rose character and Rollerball was a really active film and I’m kind of a half jock, wannabe pro and The Gambler,Misery. I’ve been really fortunate. I’ve worked with some really great people.”
CY: The Godfather, here you are. You’re this young working actor and you’re working alongside Marlon Brando. Did you feel intimidated and did that experience help you with your future roles?
JC: “Yeah. Listen. Let me tell you something. Anybody in my era you know, anybody, here I am like 30 years old and you know it’s Marlon Brando. Any one actor that says he wasn’t an influence on their life is full of shit ok? To put it bluntly they’re lying cause he was without a doubt to me the biggest influence young actors of my era looked up to. Then working with him was great. The greatest thing was once I got over oh my God! It’s Marlon.
He was great. The next thing we became pretty good friends cause everything I said he laughed at. I think that’s cause I’m stupid, but (Laughs) we just had a great time and then I was with Robert Duval and just you know that was great. Marlon, yeah, it was something to watch him work and there’s a lot of things that I took some subconsciously or self-consciously in the rest of my career.”
CY: One other one people wanted to know about coincidentally you mention Streisand, Funny Lady.
JC: “Really? Somebody asked you about that?”
CY: Yeah. People wanted to know about Funny Lady more than anything else. What I’d love to know is what was it like working with Barbra and from that experience, did you think she’d still be around and bigger than ever today?
JC: “I had heard when they started you know, it was real funny because there were three pictures. At the time I think I was doing Gamber, but I had done a couple. At the time I was really fortunate and I could do whatever I wanted. Michael Mann was sitting on the little bench outside my trailer one day, never even heard of him. Read this script and I was really fortunate, I was really blessed in that I read it and I said, ‘Yeah. I like it.’ And boom I got it done and made a deal in a week with Columbia.
So I was blessed with that. There was this one time when Barbra had came to me or her representatives came to me to do a picture and I turned it down. Well, I turned another one down and what happened was I think she thought I didn’t like her which of course was not the case at all and then they came up with Funny Lady and I did it and you know some people said oh, she was tough and this. I had a great time with her. I’d kick her in the butt if she messed around I told her. (Laughs) So I really had a good time with her and it was just really a fun character to play.”
CY: James Lipton of Inside The Actors Studio mentioned that you talk about in that interview with him that you did a few years ago you just talk about how you raised hell when you were a young kid in school on PS 150 in Sunnyside, Queens. Ara Chekmayan’s father actually went to school with you and was one of your childhood friends. He was a director, nominated for an Oscar and won three Emmys. So Ara just wanted to ask you a few things.
[Chris introduces Ara Chekmayan to the interview.]
Ara Chekmayan: James, a lot of people know you that you played football from the movie Brian’s Song, but what people may not know is that you also played baseball. My dad actually showed me once a piece of paper that he had saved with a lineup from a game when everyone wrote down their name and the position that you had played was third baseman. I don’t know if you recall.
JC: “I was third and shortstop. It was cool.”
AC: My dad said that you guys used to when you were at PS 150 you guys were always in trouble. I think you found a supply room where you guys had like a card table. You used to be hiding out in there.
JC: “I wasn’t much for hiding. I was a braggadocios little bastard. I didn’t hide. I didn’t play cards. I know that my childhood was spent in that schoolyard playing three on three basketball all day long and then we played softball. Sunny Side became the World Champions in slow pitch. World Champions.”
AC: Did you guys, you remember hanging out at The Broiler, which was on Queens Boulevard?
JC: “Oh yeah. The Broiler was a little hamburger joint up on 41st and Queens Boulevard. Who is this? Your dad?”
AC: Yeah, yeah. My Dad.
JC: “What is your dad’s name?”
AC: Ara Chekmayan. He said the guy that used to run that place was like an opera fanatic. Do you remember that? He was playing music all the time. Opera music?
JC: “I don’t know. We had a bunch of nuts in that neighborhood. I remember guys telling me now, they go, living out here in California when I first came in I go jeez, we got some trees. Well, this tree is this and that tree is that and this one gets this. I said listen, I had a tree eight blocks from my house ok and it was called the forest. I’ll met you at the forest ok? That was one tree. Just put in trees. I don’t know nothing about trees. So that was our neighborhood. It was really the cement jungle.”
AC: I don’t think people realize you’re a New York guy. You’re a real New York guy.
JC: “They don’t realize it? What they don’t realize is that I’m not Italian. I won the Italian of the year twice. Twice. Honest to God. I won Italian of the year in New York. I said I really can’t accept this award.”
AC: It’s such a small world. My great uncle who was Fred. He said that he used to, my great uncle had taken you to some baseball games cause he knew Leo Durocher. I don’t know if you remember. He had a dog named Skippy.
JC: “Skippy? What’s his name?”
AC: My great uncle was Fred Rupanian. He had a dog named Skippy, like a wired hair terrier.
JC: “No. Listen. I can’t remember him let alone his dog. I don’t know. I had a couple very close friends and then we played ball with a bunch of guys. I can’t remember. I remember my best buddies’ names you know?”
JC: “I don’t remember a lot of names. I know for sure that if they played ball, that’s all we did. Then I went off to Michigan State and played a little there and then they sent me home in a box. I was 16 when I went. Not because I was bright, because my high school wanted to get rid of me so bad.”
AC: Cause one of the first TV series my dad saw you in was Combat. I don’t know if you recall being in that?
JC: “Yeah, yeah. When I first came out there. I had to call my parents. I spoke German in it. I had to call my parents to help me talk German.”
AC: Well thank you.
JC: “You bet. Say hello to your father and great uncle and his Skippy.”
CY: It’s a small world James Caan. I’d like to ask you in closing as someone who’s been around the block and seen a lot of things across the world, what do you make of the world today and the United States in general? Just someone who’s been around high profile people from all walks of life and how society has grown upon as you continue to be an actor in this industry and just in general?
JC: “I am not like these actors who have these, their political views. I’m not interested unless they have some political science degree which none of them do and it really pisses me off that I get lumped in with the Hollywood Liberal Contingency because I’m not. I think just family values is like, we’ve gotten so far away from it and being politically correct instead of being correct. I mean it’s just everything has become political and government has gotten so big and we don’t need rules. I don’t know. Destructive. I’m gonna get hell for that, but the ACLU is nothing but destructive to me and you know and bigotry is dead and sometimes you know there’s bigotry from every color.
The whites are bigoted. The blacks are bigoted and sometimes when the country is in crisis like it is now under this, well, nevermind, I won’t get into that. Sometimes the lack of nationalism and the feeling for your country in times like this sometimes draws people together because we gotta stop calling ourselves black Americans, white Americans, African Americans, Irish Americans and call ourselves Americans. That’s all I know.”
CY: We’re one big melting pot of Americans.
JC: “Well, that’s what it was meant to be. We seem to be going away from it with all these special interests. That’s bullshit. It’s the land of opportunity and now they’re trying to take that away. Now are they gonna punish you if you come from nothing and you made something? Share the wealth? What is that? Where’s the incentive for people who don’t want to put out and work hard and gain? You know. I think people in general are good hearted. I don’t know. There’s too many ways to beat the system now without trying. I’m not for it.”
CY: Finally, I’d love to just give an honest projection because you can see it because you lived it. Hollywood has changed a lot in the last few decades of course. As a working actor today, how do you see how much has changed? What do you think has changed so much?
JC: “Well, I think I gave you that answer up front which is I think in general, certainly there’s some great films to come out, but the amount is so small, like the well written scripts you know, not so much. Everything’s just violence and vulgar. By the way, you know there’s room for everything, but there seems to be an abundance of films that make no sense whatsoever other than, these directors. The point is sometimes you feel they don’t need actors at all and sometimes if they get a good actor it’ll detract from their directorial prowess and their work with the CGI companies. Well, that pisses me off obviously. Again, that’s why I’m working with a lot of desire with this company.”
CY: Anything you want to add in closing before we let you go?
JC: “No. I just hope you guys will help us get the people to watch and help find some new young talent and that’s what we’re gonna do.”
You can find out more information about Open Film at http://www.openfilm.com
Thanks to Ara Chekmayan for joining this interview. You can find him on the web at http://www.tacticalpr.com