Tina Bexson interviews Daryl Hannah on why she appeared in ‘Dancing at the Blue Iguana’, an improvised film about Los Angeles pole dancers and strippers

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The Making of ‘The Blue Iguana’: Interview with Daryl Hannah by Tina Bexson

In a strip club Deep in Los Angeles San Fernando Valley Daryl Hannah defies gravity as she gradually gyrates upside down around a tall pole, her long blonde hair cascading to the ground. A dreamy somewhat stoned smile escapes from her lips as Marianne Faithful’s “Angel” gathers momentum and she flips over onto her transparent platform shoes.

But hang on, what’s happening? Why have we cut to the dressing room? This isn’t sexy in the way we know it. It’s complete chaos. Pandemonium. There’s a saga about a missing g-string; a positive pregnancy test; and a dispute over where Nico, the visiting porn star, should sit.

This is ‘Dancing at the Blue Iguana’, a new film by Michael Radford, the filmmaker  who has managed to resist any form of categorisation. And this is no exception. It offers a sharp contrast to the fishing village of ‘Il Postino’, the group of decadent colonialists of ‘White Mischief’, or the Orwellian futuristic vision of ‘1984’.

Conceived entirely by improvisation, with both script and character emerging from the efforts of a cast (including Hannah, Jennifer Tilly and Sandra Oh) who were unafraid to delve into the contradictory darker sides of their psyches, ‘Dancing at the Blue Iguana’ is unique. Even Mike Leigh has never gone this far with his penchant for improvisation. But it offers a further deviation in its portrayal or rather probing of the unsettling world of strip tease for there’s the psychological exposure along with the physical.

“It’s not Striptease, the Demi Moore thing,” insists Hannah, (who plays Angel), as she takes an enormous bite out of a cream scone in the lounge of the Covent Garden Hotel, where I’m interviewing her this morning. “It’s amazing how the nudity becomes the background. That’s what the film was for, to find the people and not focus on the body parts.”

Though in all honesty it’s hard not to focus on them, they are in tiptop form, and this is undoubtedly a very sexy film. But every aspect was meticulously researched during the five months the actresses frequented Hollywood strip clubs to learn the lingo, the routines, the dances, the pole tricks, and the interaction with punters.

“ I had no choice but to do a lot of research because I had no idea what the world of an exotic dancer or stripper was apart from the clichés you get from cheesy movies”, reveals Hannah. So at 3pm everyday, after rehearsals, and when the strip clubs were closed for cleaning, she was taught the routines by the strippers she befriended. Some of them, mainly the stripper Nikki, feature in her documentary, ‘Strip Notes’, that she made during her time in the clubs.

“I was black and blue for two and a half months, I must have looked like I’d been brutally assaulted, but I got into incredible shape,” explains Hannah. You will no doubt recall her lithe athletic mermaid in ‘Splash’ or her acrobatic android in ‘Blade Runner’.

“Doing all those slow motion squats and presses mean you immediately get your thighs toned and it really builds up your upper body strength, your stomach muscles. Those girls don’t need to go to the gym because they’re in the ‘gym’ every night when they are working. The more experienced use it to do these miraculous things that look as though they are floating with no limbs attached, it’s sensuous, and very gymnastic.”

“I learned to do a dozen pole tricks upside down,” she continues, “you feel like a kid swinging around on the jungle gym, I really enjoyed it.” (So did Sheila Kelley, who played Stormy, in fact so much that she had a pole installed in her house after the film.)

Perfecting a suitably slinky, not to mention, stimulating routine is one thing but performing for real in front of a live audience is a real tester. Hannah did a few routines in a bikini bar but the girls in the clubs proper also threw her up on stage at the beginning of the night when the places were only littered with a few customers.

“Then they grabbed the front row seats and lined the stage with dollar bills. Most of my money was from them. All my nerves went because they were cheering me on and laughing with me, they kind of shielded me from knowing that there was anybody else there.”

One of these clubs had quite a high profile clientele: “I’d see a lot of people from my industry there. And even though I was in disguise and got away with it for a while, I didn’t want to push it too much because it was very important that my cover was maintained.” But in her documentary the club owner, Eddie, tells us that a punter told him that his stripper currently on stage “looked just like Daryl Hannah.”

The only time she really stripped in front of a big audience was in front of a bunch of extras in the film. “Here I wanted to show that Angel really knew what she was doing, that she’d been working for quite a long time, but I also wanted her to have a kind of ethereal dance routine, because it fitted in with her character, dreamy and flirty.”

“But I was kind of disappointed with myself. I was trying to emulate Nikki who you saw in the documentary, and who I got a lot of my characteristics and story ideas from. Most dancers have a really practised and studied hypnotic stare. Nikki was just the opposite, she would giggle and wave at people and carry on conversations. She’s silly and light and I really wanted to pull that off on stage as well. But I was so nervous when I was actually dancing that I couldn’t so I made another choice and decided to be the ‘stoned Nikki’ instead and just did my routine with my eyes closed. I wish I had been able to get over my nerves enough to be the way she is. “

Hannah says that she didn’t even think that those kind of characters existed in the world until she’d met some of the girls, and it was in the dressing room that she got an insight into their real desires and motivations, which she would then use later. Here it was mostly “bare naked ladies” who stripped off more than the physical layers as they laughed, swore, argued and occasionally punched.

“I was hearing all these funny stories in there. I’ve been in a lot of comedies (Hannah was in Roxanne with Steve Martin, Grumpy Old Men with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and the romantic comedy Too Much with Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas) but I’ve never got to play a comic role. I’m always the straight man to the comedian, and I thought, this is a chance for me to be funny. Also Jennifer (this is the fourth time Tilly and Hannah have worked together), who usually plays a brazenly comic character, wanted to play someone a little harder, so we decided to switch places.”

Hannah is indeed very funny. Things happen to Angel, who is an endearing and curious mix of vulnerability and jadedness, a child-woman that Hannah naturally tuned into. There’s a great scene with no cuts, when she gets arrested for grass (partly based on one of Nikki’s experiences) whilst asking an officer to take a photograph of her in front of a huge billboard featuring her in an ad for the show. All the dialogue was improvised; created on the spot from the recesses of the casts’ imaginations. The rather confused Angel comes out with absurd lines: “Officer, is this going to be on the news and everything?” and “But I didn’t inhale.”

A Russian hit man taking ‘time out’ visits the club and develops an obsession with Angel, further fuelling her fantasy world. There’s some languid scenes of her outside the club attempting to smoke movie star style, clad in a ludicrous long white fluffy coat whilst he spies down on her from a window above. “When I was doing my research I would see the girls go outside for a smoke and that was their only respite. So even girls who weren’t smokers became smokers, including myself for the time I was making the film, because its your only chance to get some fresh air, and look up at the stars and imagine being somewhere else or someone else.”

Hannah, herself, became so embroiled in the construction of her character that she would often imagine what Angel’s reactions would be for many months after the film was completed. “Where ever I’d be, I’d start giggling to myself, thinking about what Angel would be saying right now, I could hear her takes on things, it cracked me up. You could throw her into any environment, in any country, with anyone, and she would be as funny and sad and as ridiculous as she is. But I’d like to only work like this, to have time to research and be so involved in the character that no matter what situation you’re in, you are the character.”

Radford’s decision to improvise on film was only made after they had started shooting a script taken from the scenes they had improvised in rehearsal (he’d had these transcribed and made into a script). But he missed the freshness and threw the scripts away and got them to re-improvise the scenes with new dialogue. “It was a totally insane idea to take on”, says Hannah, “but he’s so brave and it’s so cool he had enough respect with actors to give them that trust.”

Still, it was a big gamble. There was no guarantee the film would be made so none of the cast would receive any payment. Then they were told they’d be no financing until the financiers had viewed what they had come up with. Not everyone Radford was initially interested in was prepared to take that risk. But he was very happy with who he got in the end and has said that he’d always wanted to work with Sandra Oh and Jennifer Tilly. He has also said that “the biggest surprise was Daryl – she literally forced herself on me. She’s so interesting to watch, so brilliant and profound.”

Hannah certainly has no regrets, apart from not taking more time to understand the male psyche perhaps. “I had so much to learn: getting my character, story, wardrobe, my look, my routine, dancing, that the one thing I really didn’t spend time doing was understanding the customer and the relationship I was supposed to have with them.”

“But I certainly learned how to move sensuously with confidence. I’d always felt kind of awkward and geeky before when I tried to act or move in a sexy way. But you can analyse it and break it down and learn a few little tricks. On the other hand it’s not a job I would ever want. Being in the clubs was fascinating whilst doing research and making a documentary, but it was hard, those environments are hard on the soul.”

So is Hollywood and at least Hannah built up close bonds with the dancers, some of which are still there today. “They really support each other which is something I haven’t experienced in my profession amongst other actresses or movie people,” she adds ruefully.“ But what I found most surprising was their sense of humour and irony. I’d often hear them say (she adopts a drawn out tired voice) ‘I cant believe this, its Friday night, I’m in Hollywood, and I’m crawling around on my hands and knees – I’m a stripper!’”

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Tina Bexson investigates the real life story behind William Friedkin’s, ‘The French Connnection’ for Hotdog Magazine and Spike.

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Real-life drug-busting narc Sonny Grosso was the inspiration for The French Connection, advised Coppola on The Godfather and cruised gay bars with Pacino in Cruising.

Story by Tina Bexson –

http://www.spikemagazine.com/the-french-connection-grosso-point-blank.php

A dozen or so shiny, black suits and their flashy women were enjoying the exotic floor show of Manhattan’s Copacabana nightclub, whilst the slick-haired man at the head of the table splashed the cash around. It was a sight that would change the lives of the two off-duty NYPD narcotics agents quietly sipping their drinks and surveying the scene from the terrace above.

The man with the dough was Pasquele “Patsy” Fuega, a major player in a Mafia-linked New York drugs ring. “I recognised a lot of the others as being dope pushers up in Harlem,” Detective Sonny Grosso recalls. “I told Egan and he wanted to put a tail of the Patsy at the end of the night.”

So Grosso and partner Eddie Egan tailed Patsy and his bouffant blonde as they drove off on a stop-start tour of the Lower East Side, before heading across the East River and drawing up in front of a Brooklyn diner at 5am. Suspicion was aroused and they set up round-the-clock surveillance and wiretaps. That was just the beginning. During the next four months they uncovered an operation that had 50kg of heroin being smuggled from France to New York every six weeks for a quarter of a century.

The investigation culminated in one of the biggest drug hauls in American history, worth a mega ¢32m, all thanks to a chance encounter in a nightclub in 1961.

Shoot forward ten years, and chance changes Sonny Grosso’s life again. Up-and-coming filmmaker Phil D’Antoni and maverick director William Friedkin decide to turn the case into a film, The French Connection, based on Robin Moore’s factual book of the same name, and starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider as Egan and Grosso (renamed Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo). Once released it became a worldwide box-office hit, winning five Oscars and beating A Clockwork Orange and The Last Picture Show for best film. It had it all: realistic locations, spontaneous camerawork, an unromantic portrayal of policing, and unbeatably pacey action. All of which proved ot be a major catalyst in the revival of the cop genre in the ‘70s, evident in movies such as Serpico and Dirty Harry.

The French Connection’s authenticity was down to advice from the experts. Friedkin immediately hired Egan (who died of cancer in 1995) and Grosso. Not only were they the film’s inspiration – both played small roles – but proved unbeatable technical advisors and location scouts. In fact, they were cinema’s first cop consultants, earning $150 each for working every day of the 60-day shoot as well as continuing 12-hour nightly shifts with the NYPD.

It wa the weeks in pre-production that helped dictate the raw undertones of Friedkin’s feature. Not only did Grosso and Egan grow up in East Harlem, it was also their beat, they knew the score. And in the weeks leading up to the shoot, Hackman, Scheider and Friedkin were taken on a journey they would never forget.

Grosso: “We let them run through the whole gambit with us: the investigations, arrests, even the paperwork and court appearances so they could see us testify. In the beginning they were all shocked by what they saw.

“The first time we hit a shooting gallery it was on 110th Street and 5th Avenue, that’s Harlem. There were about 20 people shooting p. One was a massive woman, about 260 pounds, with a tube around her arm and the needle still jabbed in a vein.

“They came with us when we hit the bars and interrogated people. No one knew they were actors and we let them question the dealers and addicts so they got to feel comfortable dealing with them as though they were policemen. That’s why the movie stands up so well, they’d done it for real.”

In one of two Harlem bar scenes, the extras were all cops posing as drug addicts and pushers. In the other, they were all off the street. “They were people Eddie and I had busted at one time or another. We went to see them at some centre where they were trying to re-habilitate themselves and when we asked if they wanted to be in the movie, they all jumped at the chance. It was that which gave it a real wild smell.”

There were a couple of gun-running scenes, so Grosso and Egan taught them exactly how to hold and fire the weapons during sessions at the police firing range. “They both used our guns in the film, too. Scheider also wore my watch and ring so he felt really comfortable. He wanted my shorts, but I wouldn’t let him have those.”

Scheider was, of course, an excellent choice to play Grosso – same build and colouration; and he hit the right note as the careful detective known for seeing the dark side to situations, hence the nickname “Cloudy” (given to him by Egan). Grosso was the perfect antidote to the flamboyant, risk-taking Egan who mastered disguises such as a hot dog vendor, a deaf mute and a priest. He was nicknamed “Popeye” for his constant “popeying” around Manhattan’s drinking holes. As Grosso says: “He was a real character, way out there, and a great cop.”

Egan’s idiosyncrasies are marked out early in the film. His bizarre method of confusing suspects during interrogation by asking them whether they “picked their feet in Poughkeepsie” is used in the scene when Hackman, dressed as Father Christmas, questions a young guy he and Scheider had chased through the streets. Grosso, having witnessed this so often during the ten years they worked together, hoped Friedkin wouldn’t use it. But he did. “Friedkin loved it. So did Hollywood. They lapped it up, so did the public,” he groans.

Hackman didn’t lap it up, however. Grosso: “Hackman got all disturbed the first time he saw us arrest and lock up a guy. He kept saying, ‘I’m not a copy, I shouldn’t be involved in this.’ Then, when we took the guy to court, he couldn’t wait to get him a hot dog when he was hungry, but Eddie was having none of it. I tried to explain that we had to arrest and bring to court 30 people a month, and bring in another 130 for questioning. If we bought everyone a hot dog, we’d be broke. About three weeks later, he saw the same guy in another shooting gallery. Then he started to get the idea.”

Hackman was far from ecstatic about portraying such an unconventional and sometimes prejudiced cop, and became increasingly irritated by Egan’s Irish “charm”, recalls Grosso: “Eddie was always teasing and chastising Gene. I think Gene had a bit of a problem with the character at the beginning. But as time went on I think he found that there were many similarities between them. When I saw the final cut I was amazed how much Hackman had become Eddie. It gives you the respect you have to have for actors who, with the proper research and direction, actually become the people they play, such as De Niro in Raging Bull.”

It was a great true-life story for the big screen, but the mechanics of filmmaking meant artistic licence was employed to ensure optimum visual effect. The famous scene where Hackman chases an L train was based on an actual chase in which Egan and Grosso tried to keep ahead of a subway train between Penn Station and Grand Central so they could catch the drug-dealing Frenchman as he got off. To make it more visual, D’Antoni and Friedkin got Hackman to chase an L train which ran above ground along an elevated railway line. A kamikaze stuntman drove the car, driving flat out whilst weaving through the traffic to keep up with the train. The inspired filmic version of this event makes a great action sequence and culminates with Hackman shooting the unarmed Frenchman in the back. Then there’s the ominous and frenzied climactic shoot-out, giving a suitably ambiguous ending to the complicated tale.

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Grosso’s new vocation as technical advisor didn’t end here. While Friedkin was completing the final shoot of The French Connection on Wards Island, Francis Ford Coppola was preparing to shoot the interior scenes for The Godfather nearby. Friedkin took Grosso over to meet Coppola. “Friedkin told Coppola that he couldn’t make a movie in New York without ‘Grosso and his gorillas’, so I was hired on the spot. I found locations, showed them how to search, hammered the crowds, drove cars and provided 75 cops as extras as well as members of my family for the wedding scene.”

Grosso made two small appearances in The Godfather as Phil, one of Captain McClusky’s (Sterling Hayden) cops. The first was outside the hospital when McCluskey orders him to lock up Michael (Pacino) and he says: “Give him a break Captain, he’s a war hero. He’s not mixed up with the mob.” They had to do about 18 takes. “I wanted to kill myself,” laughs Grosso. “Because I was acting with Pacino and Hayden, my voice went up in the air like a woman being chased in a dark alley. I learned how difficult it is to be an actor.”

“Phil” was also one of the four guys who shot Sonny Corleone (James Caan) in his car by the tollbooth out on Long Island. “I said to Coppola, ‘If four buys are shooting at him with machine guns each holding 45 slugs, not only would you not find Jimmy Caan, you wouldn’t find the car. They’d all be completely blown away.’

“The next day Coppola called me over, he was such a gentleman, and said: ‘I thought about what you said Sonny, but Jimmy Caan is bigger than life in this movie and we’ve got to kill him bigger than life.’ I still thought he was making a tremendous mistake, but I was dealing with reality and he was dealing with movies. Not only did I learn that he was right, but I also learned that that scene ended up being one of the most memorable in movie history.”

It was on Cruising (1980) that Grosso really came into his own as a technical expert. Reunited with Friedkin, he worked with Al Pacino tracing an undercover cop’s troubled journey into Manhattan’s S&M gay underworld to fish out a crazed killer. Grosso had spent over five years working undercover on all kinds of cases, including a community of deaf mutes (for which he had to learn sign language) and homosexual rings. “We took Pacino out to the gay clubs in Greenwich Village to show him how to operate in that world, so he could observe and get a feeling for how people act.”

But just as Hackman and Scheider would never know what it was really like to work as a narcotics agent, to live immersed in the overlapping worlds of the cop and the mobster, Pacino would never experience the reality of undercover work. He would never know what it took to actually get results, nor would he ever have to master the psychological tactics, or experience the fear.

“Apart from mastering your cover story, the biggest thing is to know how to get information without anyone realising; also, to know how to remember faces, times, locations so you can go back and complete a report. You’ve got to remember to adopt all the characteristics, too. It’s stupid, but I was once trying to buy marijuana in East Harlem. I wasn’t smoking because I don’t smoke, and a guy came over and asked if I wanted a cigarette… I almost said ‘no’.”

Then there’s the decision on whether to take protection. “You’re often afraid to wear a wire or carry a gun into the bars because women will pat you down or touch you in all different places when they hug you – they’re told to do that to check if you’re carrying. So you need to be really creative about where you’re gonna carry a pistol.

“I was once searched when I was carrying a gun in my crotch, they never pulled my pants down, but it got pretty hairy. I don’t konw what they would have done if they’d found it. Same goes with a wire. I’d wear it in a real strategic spot running down the lining in the back of my jacket. They won’t always pursue a search if you have a good line of crap, but you’ve got to have the bravado to call their bluff. I don’t want to make out this is 007, but it’s a dangerous job.”

Grosso went on to advise on many other movies as well as being story consultant on numerous television projects, including Kojak, The Rockford Files and Baretta. He formed his own production company, Grosso-Jacobson Communications Corp, in 1980. They’ve produced some of the most successful TV movies and action series sold worldwide, starring big names such as Martin Sheen and Paul Sorvino.

Still, doesn’t he miss the danger of being a cop and the thrill of the chase? At least that dry sense of humour is still evident in his reply: “What I do is I go once a month to a precinct and the cops let me slam the cell door a few times. Every cop says you get an orgasm when you hear it close.”

This article originally appeared in Hotdog magazine. Many thanks to Tina Bexson for permission to republish.

The Norowzian Redemption

Tina Bexson interviews Mehdi Norowzian, director of Leo which tells a tortured tale with two seemingly disparate but concurrent story lines, one of which has a killer of a twist. Best of all, it’s a dysfunctional ‘family’ drama without either excessive meandering, ‘drama’, or sentiment.

 

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City of the Dead – Cairo, December 2016.

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Called el’arafa by locals, the four mile long Islamic cemetery and necropolis lies below the Mokattam Hills in southeastern Cairo. But it is not only a home for the dead. Half a million or so of the living also inhabit the vast area where they reside among the tombs of their ancestors.

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Children playing in City of the Dead, Cairo (Qarafa, el-Arafa). Cairo, December, 2016

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A certain comfort is thought to be found for those living so close to their deceased ancestors though they are not always treated with respect by outsiders who fear both their perceived morbid desire to reside with the dead and the crime and drug taking that is believed to have increased since  the 25 January Revolution in 2011.

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Dating back to the Seventh century, many of the tombs are more akin to tiny dwellings occasionally surrounded by surprisingly lush ‘gardens’. On the outskirts of some areas concrete apartment blocks have also sprung up. No surprises there though. Egypt’s population of 95 million is rapidly expanding at a staggering rate of 33.3 percent. At least 20 million inhabit Cairo’s metropolitan area where the majority live in abject poverty in extremely crowded conditions so el’arafa offers some kind of replacement for the poor. Its residents now have a few schools, many shops, fruit and vegetable stalls, electricity, hot water, a medical centre, garages, a post office, madrasas, Sufi colleges, and of course, a plethora of mosques.

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(All photography by Tina Bexson)