Striving Under the Influence: A Good Chat with Elvis Mitchell

Talking with Elvis Mitchell is so pleasant that you can forget you're interviewing him for an article rather than chatting with a new pal over beers after seeing a movie you both really liked.

Maybe that helps explain his success as a film critic. Sure, he's got the intellectual chops to work as the New York Times film critic for four years and, more recently, to be asked to serve as a visiting lecturer in film and African American Studies at Harvard University. But his nature is that of a from-the-gut movie fan, one who can get into talking about Tarantino and Ghostbusters and Dirty Harry movies as easily as he probes the recurring subtextual motifs of Sydney Pollack's oeuvre.

I have him on the phone to talk about his new TV show, TCM Presents Elvis Mitchell: Under the Influence, which premieres on Turner Classic Movies this Monday, July 7. In each half-hour episode of this series, Mitchell invites celebrity guests to sit down and talk about how classic film has influenced their lives. The slate of interviewees set to lend their thoughts to the program includes Sydney Pollack, Bill Murray, Quentin Tarantino, Laurence Fishburne, Joan Allen, Edward Norton, Richard Gere, and John Leguizamo.

Mitchell also currently serves as host of The Treatment for National Public Radio's flagship Los Angeles affiliate KCRW 89.9 FM, which has been broadcast nationally since 1996. He is also entertainment critic for NPR's Weekend Edition with Scott Simon, a position he has held since that show's debut in 1985, and hosts Independent Focus for the Independent Film Channel.

After watching the rough-cut versions of Under the Influence's first two epsiodes, where he sits down with Sydney Pollack (in one of the actor-director's last interviews before his death in May) and Bill Murray, I am expecting a casual, non-stuffy interview subject. What surprises me, though, is just how affable, generous, and personally engaged with me he is. If we weren't chatting and laughing over an L.A.-to-Seattle phone line, we would have been sharing a few drinks and I'm convinced he'd insist on paying the tab at the end.

It's that level of personal engagement and surprising revelations that makes Under the Influence such a welcome show in an era where the "celebrity interview" seems to have been Botoxed by the tabloid wham-bam-thank-you-glam of TMZ or Access Hollywood.

MB: What is it about Under the Influence that you believe will have movie fans tuning in every week?

Elvis Mitchell: We live in a time when more people give more thought to popular culture than ever before, and now every DVD comes with a kind of a film history, a kind of tutorial about the movie. I think people want to know a little more about that kind of thing, they want to hear what it is that really gets movies made, that excites filmmakers and movie actors about doing it. I think there's an appetite for that.

There are a lot of people who are just being given that bare-bones stuff about how much money this movie made this weekend and what it costs. There's more to movies than that, or else nobody would make them.

MB: You say in the press materials that you enjoy talking to your guests about what connects them to movies "on a primal level." I'm struck by that phrase, so I'm wondering if you're seeing that as a difference between Under the Influence and, say, its obvious comparison show, James Lipton's Inside the Actors Studio. Are you speaking with your guests on an emotional, "primal" level rather than an academic or intellectualized level?

Elvis Mitchell: One of the things that Jim does is that he has several hours with each of his guests. That's a real interrogation that he does. I'm not going to walk somebody through being three years old and seeing a film for the first time and thinking "that's what I want to do." [Laughs.] We don't do that kind of show, don't have that kind of time.

Another difference between us is -- as he has said -- he sits down with that stack of questions, and like a prosecutor he never asks a question that he doesn't know the answer to. And for me that's where it gets interesting, where I want to start is the question that I don't know the answer to and with any luck they don't know the answer either, and it becomes a conversation about that.

You know, there's a kind of connection you make when people are just weighing things out. Sometimes it gets to be that moment when somebody says "I've never said this before," because in conversation we tend to not say that kind of thing. But, you know, that's the kind of thing that happens. You caught me off-guard with your very first question, and that's what I hope we do with the show too.

MB: Something I noticed while watching the rough-cuts of the Sydney Pollack and Bill Murray interviews was that it's very clear that you have a strong emotional relationship with movies, as of course most of your viewers will--

Elvis Mitchell: --as do you.

MB: --as do I, yes. Pollack seemed to talk more about actors and his time as an actor than his career as a director. When you noted (and then showed us in a film clip) that actor Montgomery Clift used pauses the way that Pollack did as an actor, that was a very telling observation about your eye for detail when it comes to screen acting. As you spoke with both Pollack and Murray, I got a sense that you have a special love or affinity for actors on the screen.

Elvis Mitchell: Well, I'm a critic and I like to think that I pay attention to what actors do because that so informs the movie. I hope that I can bring whatever point of view I have as a critic to the interviews. Sydney even got a slight dig in at me -- he mentions "the intelligentsia" and looks right at me. Thanks, Sydney, subtle [laughs]. But the interviewees respond in kind. They offer those same kinds of anecdotes, that same kind of reflection, and that same kind of thoughtfulness about movies that they love. You saw the way he responded to talking about Clift and Paul Newman and to talking about Redford, you know, whom he worked with on nine films. Now, that's quite a relationship, that's almost like an old-school actor-director relationship. That's a lot of time on sets together, and you get to know each other really well.

I think that what we get -- because it's not people coming on to sell something -- they come in more relaxed because there's a certain kind of pressure that's not on them. On the other hand they're asking, "What's this going to be?" because of course none of them have seen the show yet, and they came in trusting TCM to a great extent, thinking that the seriousness of thought that they extend to their work would be offered to them on the show. And I hope that they got that.

MB: That certainly comes through on this side of the audience anyway.

Elvis Mitchell: Thank you.

MB: Who has surprised you?

Elvis Mitchell: Oh, God, you know, there's been a moment -- several moments -- in every single one where people would say things that just seem to come out of nowhere. There's one with Joan Allen, which is one of the upcoming shows later this year, where she mentioned an actress that was a big influence -- and I'm not giving it away, but it caught me off guard and I was really excited about that.

I'm sitting with Bill Murray and he gets this love in his eyes talking about the old screwball comedies and Margaret Sullavan, who nobody remembers. It's like she disappeared from the face of the earth, although she was one of the biggest stars around. Not just one of the biggest stars around, but she had so much scandal in her life she could be on Access Hollywood every night of the week. And to hear Bill go on about her, it's not the thing you expect to hear from Bill Murray.

And how much he loves funny women. It's great to hear that because you think, of course, that's why he and Sigourney Weaver were so well matched in Ghostbusters -- because she's a strong, funny woman who can stand toe to toe with him and have those kinds of rhythms where he had to stop and pay attention to what he was saying. There's that scene in Ghostbusters where she says, "You're just so odd," and she's saying it as if she's watching him for the first time. When you hear him talk like that you see why he responds to women. And then you can picture the scenes in Lost in Translation where he responds to Scarlett Johanson, a woman who's funny and unique -- that makes the woman sexy, that she's a real person and not just some ideal of what movies are selling us. And to hear Bill Murray say that, that completely surprised me too.

There's something in every episode, from everybody, that did that for me. At one point Richard Gere in his episode -- and I don't know if this will make the cut -- talks about musicians, and I ask him who he likes, and he says Albert King. I say, "Albert King? The blues?" He says, "Yeah, I love Albert King. I play one of Albert King's old guitars, I own one of them." And we started talking about musicals and he says, "My favorite musical -- The Harder They Come."

And so if you're asking me about surprises, I mean, John Leguizamo was not only funny, but is as quick with an observation about movies as he is with a joke or a gesture. Or Laurence Fishburne talking about Clark Gable, of all people. "Man, you and Gable?" You think about Laurence Fishburne as, really, being a creature of his era -- I thought he would talk about Richard Roundtree or Jim Brown. And when he picks up Clark Gable, you think about Fishburne's masculinity -- it's a no-nonsense masculinity the same way that Gable's was. He's very close to that.

I know I'm going on here, but I'm thinking about the responses that really brought me into the show and excited me about doing this. They make me sit up and straighten my posture and think, "Now how do I follow this up?" But also I don't need to follow it up. These people are so great I just let them talk.

MB: [Referring to a factoid in the press materials] I know I want to sit down with Quentin Tarantino and watch Meet Me in St. Louis.

Elvis Mitchell: [Laughing big] Now there's a DVD commentary I think we all want to hear. He would probably put more into two minutes of that movie than anyone else could get from the entire picture.

MB: With the interviews you've done so far for the TV show, and to a lesser extent your radio show--

Elvis Mitchell: --oh, thank you, "a lesser extent"--

MB: [sudden panic] No, no, no, I mean--

Elvis Mitchell:--oh, no, okay, this is what got me into therapy, right?

MB: Well, since we're talking about the TV show--

Elvis Mitchell: Beautifully done.

MB: How have the interviews, and the responses that you've received, influenced you as a critic professionally and also as Elvis Mitchell, moviegoer?

Elvis Mitchell: It's funny. It's that thing that always happens when you interview somebody and they mention a movie and they say something about a moment or an incident that may have just floated past you or effected you in a different way. I think, "Wow, I want to go see this again," or I want to relive it in my head again. I'm one of the people who doesn't watch movies over a lot. They kind of really resonate with me, so I just kind of play them in my head again. But it makes me rethink these movies or reconsider somebody's career, talking about Margaret Sullavan, for example.

Hearing Bill talk about Clint Eastwood. [Murray mentions that Eastwood's partners are the roles he wanted.] It's both really hilarious and completely logical. Of course! You've got Clint Eastwood as the straight man, you don't want to try to do what Clint does anyway, you want to be Jeff Bridges and get the Oscar nomination and a good death scene. That's a big part of all these Clint movies -- at some point someone is surrendered to something. In all those Dirty Harry movies, you think, the only part worse than being the third Enterprise crewmember on the left is being Clint Eastwood's partner because you know how expendable you are. There's always quite the sacrifice in a Clint Eastwood movie so that Clint can, one way or another, come to some rueful conclusion about his life -- the way he does in Million Dollar Baby -- or get revenge. So, yeah, you want to be the guy that gets sacrificed, and to see that Bill Murray is somebody who has taste and forethought when it comes to film, you know, those kinds of things excite me as an audience member and make me think, "Huh! Let me think about this again."

Hopefully I put myself in that position we always talk about as critics, as a kind of an audience surrogate, so on the show it's a different kind of role for me sitting there than it would be me watching it and maybe commenting on it. I try to put myself in the position of asking questions that I want to hear answers to, and hopefully that ends up being stuff that's new information.

MB: We have a lot of younger readers at

Elvis Mitchell: --oh, I know, yes! You haven't asked me about Madonna's brother. Have you read his book yet? I'm from Detroit, so I'm so curious about this book. Do you think the lawyers are going to take it out of the bookstores?

MB: I tell ya, if they do our gossip columnist is going to be the first one on it. For an audience of young want-to-be or up-and-coming filmmakers who are just starting out and dreaming big or actually have a film or two under their belts, what's the importance in seeking out and studying, say, the films of Sydney Pollack or other influences from previous generations?

Elvis Mitchell: I can only speak for me, but there were things that completely shocked me -- to hear Sydney Pollack talk about having been on the set with Luchino Visconti shooting The Leopard, it makes you rethink Sydney Pollack's movies. You think you know somebody, you watch the movies, and we often tend judge these things as if they took place in a vacuum, and they don't. People make movies because they've seen movies that have touched them or stirred them in some way, and they want to evoke those same moments in their films. These shows tap into that -- Bill Murray and Clint Eastwood, or Tarantino and Meet Me in St. Louis, or Fishburne and Clark Gable. You think, wow! If these people are more open than I am, then maybe I should open myself up too and go see the stuff that I don't have expectations about.

Now that we have so much information, I often end up talking to people about a movie, they have an opinion about that movie, and it ends up it's a movie that they haven't even seen. Just because they've heard so much about it. There's so much information being directed at us about films nowadays, and what's so cool about TCM as a network is that they're showing movies that a lot of people don't know about, that they get to be pleasantly surprised by.

My hope is that this audience you're talking about, these young people who want to be filmmakers, know that there's a lot of movies out there, and they'll see all these movies that they know nothing about.

Mitchell's extensive, in-depth interview with Pollack, among the last interviews Pollack ever gave, airs Monday, July 7, at 8 p.m. as the premiere episode of TCM Presents Elvis Mitchell: Under the Influence. It will be followed by a presentation of Tootsie, as well as by the Gene Kelly classic An American in Paris, one of the films Pollack claimed as a strong influence on his life and work.