Louis Malle’s “My Dinner with Andre,” released in 1981, documented a two-hour conversation between the courtly, garrulous actor-stage director Andre Gregory and the diminutive, nasally defiant actor-playwright Wallace Shawn. If you were one of the many dazzled by it, you will undoubtedly want “Before and After Dinner,” the new documentary on Andre Gregory conceived and directed by his wife, Cindy Kleine, to see the light of day.
Kleine has planned on raising $75,000 via the fundraising web site Kickstarter, to finish the film’s post-production process. The auction, which ends August 25th, is now roughly $30,000 shy of its target. A few publications, including the Boston Globe, have already raved about the film, an intimate, loosely-structured ode to Kleine’s husband, whom she met when she was 39 and he was 63; the pair married in 2000.
Kleine’s 2008 debut feature-length documentary, “Phyllis and Harold,” was a look at her parents’ warped marriage; it took twelve years to complete and–much like reading someone’s diary out loud–alternately fascinated and repelled critics with its exposing, open-book style. The marriage on display in “Before and After Dinner” is a happier and calmer one; Kleine has pointed out in interviews that very few films are made about content marriages. But the film isn’t only about Kleine and Gregory’s relationship. Nor does it resort to picking over the highs and lows of his career, which has taken him from intellectual tour de forces like “Vanya on 42nd Street” to bit parts in films like Goldie Hawn’s “Protocol” and Sylvester Stallone’s “Demolition Man. (The financing Kleine is seeking is mainly for the rights to the clips of these lesser-known appearances, which are shown and discussed here to hilarious effect).
The most gripping subplot in the film involves Gregory’s fear that his alarmingly distant father, a closeted Jew that took his family from Germany to Paris to London to the U.S. to escape the various horrors of World War II, was secretly employed by Hitler as an economic spy. “Before and After Dinner” chronicles his mission to validate this claim, but it never loses its lighthearted appeal, its devotion to Gregory as a publicly awe-inspiring, privately goofy individual.
Screen Comment met with Kleine yesterday to discuss her new film.
Screen Comment: When did you first become aware of Andre Gregory? Had you heard of him even before you saw “My Dinner With Andre”?
Cindy Kleine: I hadn’t, and I didn’t see “My Dinner With Andre” until the late eighties. I was totally captivated. When I met him–it was at his house, my friend introduced us–I didn’t know that he was a theater director. So many people only know him from that film, and not that he had this underground existence as a phenomenal artist.
Was it pretty clear from the beginning that he was the one for you?
When I first shook his hand, I didn’t let go, and we both laughed. I still remember, fifteen years later, looking into this man’s eyes and knowing he was an incredibly loving, extraordinary person, and that he’d somehow be in my life. It was extremely confusing, because he was so much older than I was, and I was never particularly attracted to older men, but there was a strong connection, which I was probably able to feel because I was older, I was 39. I definitely knew what I didn’t want.
I was working on “‘Til Death Do Us Part” [the 1998 short film that evolved into “Phyllis and Harold”] and he was working on his play “Bone Songs,” which was about his family. That was one of the things we completely bonded over, in the first hour of meeting each other. We were both reading the same book, “The Drama of the Gifted Child,” by Alice Miller, and had underlined a lot of the same passages. We liked the same directors, like Andrei Tarkovsky. We also shared the same dark sense of humor.
When did you get the idea to do a film on him?
We started talking around 2006. People always told him he should write memoirs, but he’s not a writer. He likes working with people, he likes collaboration. We talked about making a kind of memoir film, but I never got the motivation. Then [in 2009], his brother sent him this piece of information about his father, and he embarked on an investigation. He wanted to see if this would explain in some way what he’d always felt about his father. To me, that was a great starting point, narratively. I knew that most of his life’s work comes out his family background. We were in London when that happened, and when we got home the following Fall, I thought of bringing him to the cemetery where his parents were buried. He hadn’t been there in many years, so we took a field trip with the camera, and it invoked the story about his father, and he started crying. That’s how I got into the shooting of the film.
Was it difficult to persuade him to do such an intimate movie?
Not at all. He loved every minute of it. He’s the least camera-shy or guarded person I’ve ever met. He’ll do or say anything in front of anyone, as you see in the film. He’s so different from Wally [Shawn]. I am totally self-conscious. I hate being on camera, I hate interviews, I hate it all! [laughs] I don’t know how he got that quality.
Did you want the movie to be more exclusively about the Nazi claim, or did you envision more of a straight documentary about him?
I never wanted to make a straight documentary about him. My films are always personal, which means not straight. But I didn’t want the film to be just about [the claim]. I saw that as one narrative thread, because it was so closely associated with the background of his work, with the darkness of the subject matters he’s been drawn to. Because of the confusion of his upbringing, and his working through that, he’s very clear and truthful with actors. So I knew everything was linked, in that way.
Andre’s not Johnny Depp, but he’s famous in a certain cult way. So there’s the public guy who fans know and greet when he walks down the street and they adore him, and then there’s the very private guy behind-the-scenes, cutting his finger with the butter knife–the kind of goofball guy, at home. I wanted to portray both the public and private persona.
I also wanted to tell the story of our good marriage. That can be a challenge, because there are almost no films about good marriages. People perceive that good marriages aren’t interesting, which I completely disagree with. What makes a marriage work is mysterious and rare. Have you seen Mike Leigh’s “Another Year”? It has a really beautiful marriage in it, and it’s so enjoyable to be around people that are happy together.
Did you worry about there not being enough tension in the story, besides the subplot about his father’s past?
I didn’t want to make it hagiographic. I hate films like that. There are a lot of biopics that are just too glowing, and you know that that can’t be the whole story. But I wasn’t afraid it would be narratively boring, because I was working with the greatest documentary editor ever, Jonathan Oppenheim. We had over one hundred hours of material, and we edited for about a year and a half. I talked a lot with him about how to portray Andre and our relationship with a kind of honesty and realness. People who have seen the film say it’s true to who he is as a person, what it feels like to be his friend.
How would you say Andre has changed in the thirty-plus years since “My Dinner With Andre”?
Well, he would say that his whole life has changed completely. He had a thirty-three-year marriage to someone he married when he was 24. He had children with that person and then she died [in 1992]. From that point on, he took years to figure out who he was, because he got married so young. He was very ambitious when he was young. He was already establishing theaters, moving from place to place. He was in his late fifties when his life as he knew it ended. He went through an enormous transformation. He’d always lived uptown and then moved down to the Village, where we now live. He started living his own life for the first time, divorced from his parents’ life and values, the life he’d established as a young husband and father, and he started to live his artist’s life. And then he met me. If we’d met each other years before, we would have run away from each other, because we wouldn’t have been each other’s type. He became a much happier person, more centered.
Speaking of which, was there scrutiny in your or his family, when you first married, about the age difference?
I have a small family and they loved Andre. There probably was in his family, but I didn’t think about it much. I thought about it when we were first together and would go out in public. I was aware of older women looking, and being judged. “Oh, there’s a young girl with an old man, how disgusting!” I myself used to judge that. It didn’t bother me, it was just something I noticed and was amused by. It actually taught me how easily we judge people from the outside, when we know nothing about the marriage. It made me less judgmental. When we first met, I thought, “This is crazy! I couldn’t be attracted to him.” But then I got over it. I only think about it now when he gets ill. Usually we feel like the same age.
I read some reviews of “Phyllis and Harold” and noticed that every reviewer, positive or negative, picked up on how intimate the film is. Did the reviews affect how you shaped “Before and After Dinner”?
It definitely didn’t. I had only made short films before “Phyllis and Harold” and I had never gotten reviews, so I was terrified. The only negative review I remember was the one in the New York Times. I was devastated because the Times has so much influence on whether anyone sees the film. But it got a really good review in the New Yorker and other places, so I focused on that. Over the years, I’ve become much more steely, and aware that my work is very personal and not everyone’s cup of tea. I still get fan mail from strangers that (sic) have seen “Phyllis and Harold.” But there are people uncomfortable with anything personal. I am [admittedly] terrified about what people will say about “Before and After Dinner.”
Do you have any other film projects in the works?
My next project is to go back to painting. After having to raise the money, after eight weeks of Kickstarter, I just cannot imagine doing it again, unless I found some angel producer that could hand me money for a project. I said that after “Phyllis and Harold,” though, that I’d never make another movie again, and then I did (photo: Daniel Bodner).
“Before and After Dinner” is the subject of a KICKSTARTER campaign; your contribution, however small, will help ensure this film gets finished. Visit the donations site here. Thanks for sharing this article.