From the archives: Michael Douglas

(Published in 2014)

Michael Douglas offers me water and ensures that I’m comfortable during our interview at the Toronto International Film Festival. Is there anything he could get me? I decline, but thank him, acknowledging that it’s very nice of him to offer. “I’m a very nice guy,” he responds. I point out that a nice guy wouldn’t say that. Oops.

Douglas is in Toronto to premiere his newest movie, THE REACH, based on Robb White’s novel, Deathwatch.  It is a project that Douglas also opted to wear a producer’s hat on for, dedicated to bringing it to life with a specific vision — which included hiring a French director, Jean-Baptiste Léonetti (Carré blanc).

Douglas isn’t new to producing, with numerous credits on films ranging from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to The Rainmaker. He also owns a literary company that holds the rights to a lot of impressive properties. Deathwatch was one of them.

“The idea was trying to develop projects that might have a contemporary theme,” explains Douglas, “I just thought, you know, we can make this for a price. It’s an indie film and I could play the antagonist.” Though it’s hard to believe – especially given his sharp energy, Douglas turns 70 this month. Yet here he is chasing a younger demographic with this film. “Which are, you know, out of my quadrant, should we say,” he jokes.

Given the early reviews at TIFF and IMDB score, he seems to be pulling it off. “It is appealing to a younger audience too, which I was really happy about,” says Douglas.

Then there’s the “challenge of trying to make a thriller in broad daylight, in a very sparse environment, not a lot of things to hide behind. If we could pull it off, that was the exercise.”

Which brings us back to the story. In it, he gets to play a fellow by the name of Madec, an uber rich businessman who thinks he can buy anything, and buy off anyone. That’s usually true, too.  Not so this time. After securing a special license (via bribery) that allows him to go hunting bighorn sheep in the Mojave desert, he runs into a little hiccup. He accidentally shoots someone human.  His guide, an idealistic college student (Jeremy Irvine), refuses to cover it up.

That’s a pesky problem. And so, a cat-and-mouse game ensues.  Except, the cat happens to drive a $500K jazzed-up Mercedes SUV.

Regardless of what he’s like during his unscripted time off the stage, playing bad guys seems to come naturally to Douglas. The thing is, he hasn’t played that many. But you can be forgiven for thinking he has given just how much his iconic Gekko shadow overhangs his career.

“Everybody likes to play the bad guy,” says Douglas, “Because it’s more fun to play.

“You vicariously get to do things that other people would love to do. You get to be bad. And the reality is that we all attempt in life give the best impressions. Why are some ladies attracted to bad boys? Why do some guys like bad girls? There is an element of danger, there’s an element of unpredictability and it’s fun to play.”

Douglas doesn’t shy away from his Gekko character in Wall Street. “Gordon Gekko was one of the best parts I’ve ever had,” he declares, “It’s certainly one of the top three.”

No kidding. That part won him an Oscar.

“And that became kind of an archetype, Gekko and all of that whole culture,” says Douglas, “So anytime you go near that area, it’s natural that it should be brought up, but it’s not that I’ve done it so many times. It’s just that I’ve done it effectively when we’d done it.”

Of course nobody likes to think of themselves as the ‘bad guy’ while playing one (or being one). “No, you don’t think of yourself, you just think about what your mission is,” he responds, “You just assume that the screenplay is good and [as] you’re playing your role it kind of clarifies itself.”

Greed does seem to be at the crux of things for both Gekko and Madec — not to mention many real human beings around the world. So is it that wealth corrupts people, or is it just that corrupted people are able to get wealth because they are willing to do so at any cost? What comes first, the chicken, or the egg?

“Well, if greed is your main motivation and purpose for existence,” responds Douglas, “if that is what drives you, just the accumulation of money, then you’ll attempt to do it, however you can, to make more of it. So it’s the Midas touch.”

All of us have a dark side or selfish cravings, but often we tuck them away in an undusted corner, fighting against those instincts. Sometimes, deep down, we want to give in.

“Yes, I believe we all have evil in us and, do you struggle to do the right thing? In most cases, people try to, in other cases, they don’t. And I like to kind of [take] those characters that audiences love to hate and then somehow seduce the audience by the end of the movie. They’re almost over on your side.” (Telling of the audience’s inclinations, if you ask me!)

But, he warns: “It’s not going to happen in this picture!”

With The Reach, Douglas hopes to serve up audiences a good thriller.

“This is a good thriller,” he says, “We did our jobs well.”  Shot, quite literally, in a difficult environment – a desert, in this day-and-age The Reach is a rare thriller that doesn’t rely on heavy VFX or green screens. “This you’ve got mano a mano, two people in the desert, with not a lot of stuff to hide behind…It’s hard to pull off.”

Douglas praises his co-star: “I really command Jeremy, who truly committed himself to probably the most difficult shoot he’s ever going to have in his life. It was painful and extremely hard, and under a very tight schedule.”

Over the course of his career, Douglas has made all sorts of films. Some have had big budgets and entertaining premises, others more independent in spirit and thought. Historically, says Douglas, he’s made the choice to make thoughtful films – food for thought vs. fast food.

“Like a restaurant, you’re hungry, there are fast food stores…you can get two hours of entertainment and walk out of that theater after two hours and you go, ‘Well, that was fun.’ And you get on with your life. Or, if you’re fortunate enough, you could have walked out and the movie stays with you or ideas or thoughts stay with you. And historically, I like to go in that direction. That’s why I’ve sort of picked the characters that I have because it’s not clear, maybe until after the movie [ends] and you think about it.  So, yeah, I like food for thought, given the cost of making movies, rather than the fast food. ”

In The Reach there’s a real cultural divide between a villain whose whole life is based on greed and what money can buy. He is corrupt and he corrupts others. “It’s all about corruption versus idealism.”

Corruption, of course, has a way of often winning. “Sure! It goes on impugning. Corruption is part of every country in the world, the bribes and everything else.”

As for Douglas, he’s not as keen on guns and violence as his on-screen counterpart. He’s very much involved in handgun control and disarmament,  as well as working on the elimination of nuclear weapons, working with the United Nations. He supports numerous charities, and in 1998 he was appointed UN Messenger of Peace.

So, you know, maybe he’s not such a bad guy after all.

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