Bruce Dern 

Six directing geniuses, so-called 'Dernsies' and shooting John Wayne in the back

It was humbling to hear Bruce Dern say, "Thanks for doing your fucking homework," after talking with the two-time Oscar nominee. Those words came at the end of a salty conversation with one of Hollywood's baddest bad asses. In anticipation of his appearance at the 2015 Sun Valley Film Festival (March 4-8), our free-wheeling dialogue with Dern could have filled this entire edition of Boise Weekly—all the more reason to attend his SVFF Coffee Talk on Saturday, March 7. Below are some of the highlights of our conversation.

We're talking to you while you're on a film set in Colorado, yes?

We're shooting at 10,400 feet, right above Telluride, Colo., and we're making Quentin Tarantino's new film.

The Hateful Eight, which we're all anxious to see later this year. What can you tell us about it?

We're shooting in Super Panavision: It's a lot like the old Cinemascope. [The Hateful Eight] is an 1870s-era western. It's actually more like an opera and, as far as I'm concerned, Quentin finally has the huge canvass that he has always deserved.

When it comes to directors, you've worked with the best of the best.

I'll tell you my list of six geniuses: No. 1, I was under contract for Elia Kazan from 1958 to 1963. He only had five of us under contract: Rip Torn, Pat Hingle, Geraldine Page, Lee Remick and Bruce Dern. No. 2 on my list was Mr. Hitchcock. I worked on two features: Marnie and Family Plot, and two of his television shows.

I need to pause you there. Hitchcock is such an enigma. What was he like to work with?

I had as much freedom with him as anyone else in my career. I asked him why he had chosen me and Hitchcock said [Dern gives a pitch-perfect Hitchcock impression], "I have 1,200 perfect frames hanging on my wall designed for this movie. But none of them are entertaining. That's why you're here. You're unpredictable."

Next on your genius list is...

Douglas Trumbull, who directed me in Silent Running and was responsible for the special effects in Kubrick's 2001. No. 4 is Francis Ford Coppola. I did a movie called Twixt for Coppola that, to this day, was never released. No. 5 has to be Alexander Payne who, of course, directed me in Nebraska and No. 6 is Quentin Tarantino.

And yet there were so many other greats that you've worked with.

Hal Ashby [Coming Home], Jack Clayton [The Great Gatsby], John Frankenheimer [Black Sunday], Michael Ritchie [Smile], Mark Rydell [The Cowboys], Sydney Pollack [They Shoot Horses Don't They].

I would be remiss if I didn't ask about my favorite Western of all time, The Cowboys. When you first saw the script that called for your character to shoot John Wayne's character in the back, did you have any idea what you were getting into?

The first day on set, John Wayne pulled me over and said [Dern does a hilarious John Wayne impression] "Every day, I want you to make those kids absolutely terrified of you. So I want you to feel free to kick my ass in front of them anytime you want." One of the lucky things about me is that I was lucky enough to work with legends like Wayne. We're not legends today. They give us awards and stuff, but you can't be a legend today. Even John Legend can't be a fucking legend. But back then, stars were bigger than life.

So it was a pretty stunning on-screen moment when you shot the biggest star there was... in the back, no less.

Now keep in mind that John Wayne really despised anti-war protesters at the time. Anyway, just before I shot him, he leaned into me—and he had already downed about three fingers of Wild Turkey by then—and he said, "Ooh, they're going to hate you for this." I didn't miss a beat. I looked up at him and said, "Maybe; but in Berkeley, I'll be a fucking hero." He put his arm on my shoulder and said, "That's why this prick is in my movie. He understands that bad guys can be funny."

Let's fast-forward to your Oscar nominated performance in Coming Home (1978). It's my understanding that the famous final scene of that film was not in the original script.

We got to the end of the shoot and the director [Hal Ashby] asked me what I thought of the original ending. I told him it wouldn't work. It was way too similar to another movie, Lonely Are the Brave. We made a change. We went to the beach the next morning at 4 a.m. with just a few members of the crew. The photographer only had an 8-millimeter home movie camera and only had about a minute-and-a-half of film left. I said, "OK. Just stay with me." I walked across the beach, carefully took off my Marine uniform and laid it out very carefully, pulled off my wedding ring and walked into the ocean. I remember Hal Ashby telling me, "I need a Dernsie for that scene."

Hold it. What's a "Dernsie?"

Something Jack Nicholson came up with years before. It's how he described my ability to embellish a character, giving a beginning, middle and end to a character, even if it wasn't in the script.


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