Months ago, while wrestling about with one of Joaquin Phoenix’s pups on the floor of his living room, the film, I’m Still Here, at that time still a work in progress, off-handedly arose in conversation. The Casey Affleck directed picture follows Phoenix’s self-imposed journey through a gauzy, turbulent, hilarious, media-soaked, tunnel of attempted creative diversification from acting to hip-hop, discussed in the following interview herein. I asked Phoenix (at the time of course unknowing his response might introduce a future interview with him and Affleck), something like this: “So, are your beats nasty, Joaquin?” to which he replied something like, “Oh, there are no beats.”
MB: Really, no beats? So it’s orchestral?
JP: You just wait and see.
Well, there are beats. And there aren’t. Move forward in time and a handful of Flaunt’s finest are watching the film on Phoenix’s couch. And it’s wonderful. Sweetly, calculatedly averse to basically all that’s been conjectured about its composition, it’s neither ‘real’ nor ‘hoax’. Here’s why: in the myriad speculation across the Internet on the nature of the film, and in turn, the state of Phoenix himself, there is virtually no middle ground ventured. There’s hate, spoofs, declarations of fatigue with the effort, as well as undying fandom.
What’s unfound out there in the land of critique is any suggestion that this landscape is itself playing an influential role in Phoenix’s journey, that the film could achieve both fiction and meta-fact. In fact, reality and hoax are both thoroughly fucked with by I’m Still Here, and the result, at times raunchy, at times heartbreaking, and entertaining throughout, is a profound portrait of contemporary artistry–complete with filmic character arc, Hollywood proclivities, defecation, tried and tested friendship, and finally, an examination of the expectations we the public thrust onto the shoulders of those who choose, or are chosen by, stardom.
Around a picnic table in Phoenix’s yard, while photographer Michael Muller, plus friend and I’m Still Here contributor Amanda Demme takes photos, myself, Flaunt Editor-in-Chief, Luis Barajas, and the film’s two primary progenitors discuss its odds and ends.
MB: Well, we’re calling this the Trust Issue to begin with.
JP: Casey hates that idea.
CA: Here’s the deal–this [interview] is nothing like what we wanted to do, but we wanted to do something for the magazine.
*It should be noted here that a week previous, we attempted an interview and failed. Here’s some highlights that followed after pressing ‘record’. Insert long, awkward pauses and some anxious pacing as you wish.
CA: The first lesson in being interviewed: do not trust the person with the mic.
JP: I know! I don’t think I’m ready. And it’s one or the other, Casey. I can’t do the in-between, I can’t take it anymore.
CA: It’s literally like we just hatched out of our shell.
JP: It’s like everyone knows you had a baby, and then you’re going to send them detailed video of your vagina after the fact. You just don’t want your friends to see your torn open…
MB: So show your vagina!
CA: I can’t! I can’t!
JP: Show it, Casey!
CA: Not happening!
*So there’s no vagina showings. We determine a reconvene, and thus, back to our evening of willed conversation.
JP: Okay, so let’s go. Casey, why did you wanna do this? [Laughing].
CA: … [says nothing]
LB: He [MB] has good questions.
MB: I don’t have any good questions. What are your guys’ favorite bits?
CA: … [says nothing]
LB: I like the scene with you [JP] and the whores!
JP: Of course you did. What’s most impressive to me is how Casey cut things together, and how we shot things. Like the scene you’re talking about which is supposed to take place with the prostitutes in New York, that was shot on two separate nights, right? One night where they’re kind of going through the computer, and another night where we actually found some people who were willing to do the scene. And the two flow so seamlessly together, and I love that stuff, and I love how Casey made it seem really authentic. A lot of Sue [Patricola’s] expressions, who plays my publicist, her reactions after Letterman were really brilliant.
*This of course refers to one of nighttime television’s more ballsy visitations, where Phoenix, despite being David Letterman desk-side, was simply “not there”.
MB: How about the contribution of Antony [Langdon]?
JP: What about it?
MB: Well, he’s very convincing. He appears to take a lot of emotional beatings, as your General Assistant.
JP: Yeah, that was really impressive. Antony doesn’t have a lot of experience acting, he’s done like a couple things, but I thought that he was really convincing, really heartbreaking at times.
CA: Ant was always game to do whatever was asked of him and to do it over and over again. He gives a great performance.
LB: How and when did you guys decide, alright, we’re going to make this fucking film?
JP: There wasn’t really a moment... It actually happened kind of organically in some ways. I don’t remember there being a decision of like, we’re doing this and then we started. We started doing it, and then we stopped, and then we started doing it, and then we stopped, and then we started again. And throughout the course of the film, I quit, usually every other day, and cursed at Casey and kicked him out of my house, and then he’d try and convince me to do it again. And that was the process.
MB: Do you think you could have done it with anyone else?
LB: And the character was something you came up with before, or the movie shaped the character?
JP: Um, no... I’ve never had any ideas that I have about a character actually make it into a movie. You have your concept of what it is, and then you get there and you start working on it... I’ve looked back at notes of mine from scripts and thought, ‘What the fuck was I thinking when I wrote down that idea?’ So I don’t think that happened. It was a real evolution.
CA: Joaquin had the idea of the character. That’s how it began. It doesn’t matter whether characters you play turn out as you first imagine them–and as Joaquin points out, they rarely do–but it matters that you have an initial idea strong enough to plant it, and it will grow. Joaquin has great ideas and often doesn’t follow up on them because he doubts himself. But he shared his idea and we decided to follow up on it. It was envisioned as something along the lines of what we ended up making, but obviously, like the vision of a character, the vision of a movie changes immensely
MB: What about your monitoring the media more so than any other period? What did you feel about what people were saying about your actions through the process?
CA: It was a murky, chaotic and confusing process. And whenever things became clear… murk, chaos and confusion were intentionally added. But how exactly do you mean?
MB: Well, the commentary of the people on the web watching this unfold? Did it impact your process?
CA: The remarks online you mean? Well… Let’s go back. This is a movie that was planned ahead of time with a lot of thought and discussion, and almost all the characters in the movie knew what was going on. They knew that Joaquin was using his own name but behaving in a way that was nothing like himself. The choices he was making and how he was making them were all thought through and performed–and performed brilliantly, believably and bravely.
MB: So all involved were hip to the plan and playout?
CA: Well, there were some who did think that what was happening was real, even people on the crew. And that did two things, really. It made for some really great reactions and a genuinely tense environment on the set that we needed. It created confusion for some people. Real emotions came into play. Nobody was hurt and everyone was told what was happening, but, honestly, Joaquin was so believable at times and so committed and so relentlessly in character that people got confused. And it was my job to help create, sustain or squash that confusion when the scene we were shooting demanded it. And that created more confusion. But that too was a performance because the film is in part about a man and his relationship to the people making a film about him.
MB: And those not performing or on the crew?
CA: Like the people we would run into on the street or at clubs and so forth? Those people assumed it was a “documentary” and therefore “real”. Beyond that there was the world at large. After Joaquin performed in Vegas, people began to blog and vlog and tweet and make mock videos and even do full entertainment T.V. reports and speculate on entertainment news shows. It was talked about on CNN and FoxNews. At that point the character that Joaquin was playing had to respond to some of it. I mean, he wasn’t living in a bubble. He was interested in the image of himself as it appeared in the world. So, to answer your question, we read the commentary of people on the web a lot for a while. It would determine how we proceeded in the movie. So the movie began to affect the real world, and the world began to respond to the movie, and the movie would incorporate that in certain ways.
MB: Aside from developing the character in months prior to filming, do you feel like this film has been growing between you two as long as you’ve been friends?
JP: Well, one of the earliest things we can talk about… Casey about 15 years ago used to call tabloids and tell them that we were going to be at some bar at some time, and we would basically stage a fight when we got outside the bar. And we did this a few times and no one ever showed up. And then, at about the same time, Casey was going around doing press for a movie, and he wanted to wear a beard for the interviews, and they wouldn’t allow him to. And I saw a picture of me recently with a beard, and I was like, wow, that was the beard that Casey was trying to do, fifteen years ago, and he finally got it in there. Looking back, over the course of knowing each other for twenty years, all the things we’ve talked about, all the things we’ve wanted to do, and we always wanted to do a movie with each other and with our friends. That there was a way to do it–you didn’t need to do it with 150 people and makeup and hair, that we could do that. And we had Larry, whose a production designer, and does special effects and props, and has worked on movies and done all of those things, so we know that he could do those things. And he had great ideas for the house, and building up the studio, and putting the posters up, and so we just felt that we had and knew the friends to make it in a way that we wanted to make it, so it’s actually been a 20 year process to make this movie.
LB: I really felt the character! I was so sad when things started to go badly!
JP: If you do feel anything [emotional] that’s from how Casey put it together, because I’ve looked at the unedited versions and it doesn’t work that way at all. There’s a lot of bad shit, a lot of outtakes and Casey managed to find the bits that weren’t terrible.
CA: Nah, man. For a long time this was a six-hour movie. When Joaquin was on camera, which was most of the time, it was very, very watchable. He taps into something that I imagine in other films was restricted and clipped because of limitations with the process, and here he got to explode with ideas and character nuances. Everything could have stayed. Everything Joaq did.
MB: How about your reception from the hip-hop community? What do you anticipate?
JP: It’s hard to imagine what anyone’s going to think.
CA: There’s really not a lot of music in it for one thing.
LB: Well, thank God.
CA: Joaquin, in reality, is such a talented musician.
JP: [laughing] Don’t say that.
CA: He worked really hard to make it seem like it was a serious effort by someone known to be creative and talented but also be just short of really good so that people would reject it. He had to be rejected.
JP: That’s not true at all. He’s trying to make me sound better. He’s trying to make it sound like I dumbed the music down and shit. But the thing is, I tried desperately hard to make it as good as possible.
LB: Well I thought it was pretty good. And I didn’t understand half of it, because that’s my accent.
*Phoenix’s dogs are going bananas on the lawn. In the background, the sun’s beginning to recede into the swampy blanket of LA.
MB: Were you surprised by people’s hater-ly response?
JP: It’s hard to be surprised by people’s reactions within the celebrity-fan relationship. People want blood. They will come up and bludgeon you to the brink of death and then clean your face, prop you up, and cheer you on. They can’t be supportive until they have nearly destroyed you.
CA: Joaquin did the concert in Miami. The crowd showed up in fake beards and with cell phone cameras ready to go. They wanted him to make an ass of himself. They wanted to see the Joaquin they saw on Letterman make a fool of himself. When Joaquin jumped off the stage at the heckler, whose a great actor by the way–Eddy Rouse. Really good. He had more in the movie but it had to get cut. So anyway, Joaquin jumped off the stage after one song. His fall from grace was complete. And then they started cheering him on. They chanted his name. The crowd came to life with so much energy. That club was buzzing electric for hours. They were exhilarated, like a high, and then it wore off and they left looking vacant.
JP: No they actually were high. Then they crashed. And left looking vacant.
CA: And I thought it was all about us… Damn.
MB: Do you think that thirst for blood is something unique to humans, Joaquin?
JP: It’s like the WWF or gladiator matches or whatever. It’s a basic, deeply seeded human impulse. Sure, they left it off the Voyager Golden Record [the phonograph placed inside the Voyager spacecraft in 1977, intended to provide information on the human race to extraterrestrial lifeforms], but it does say a lot about human nature. You know NASA wasn’t allowed to put an image of a naked man or woman on the record? They had to change them to silhouettes. Either the aliens will be confused about how we got rid of our waste or they will figure out that we were a repressed, scared, puritanical, small-minded species. They’re gonna show up on Earth in 20,000 years wanting only to know about our body shame. And all that will be here are robots and roaches.
LB: Will the robots have body shame?
JP: No, but lubricant will still be selling.
*A lull. Demme stops taking pictures and looks off contemplatively.
AD: It’s hard for an actor to transition into music. I’ve seen that before. So even if people didn’t know if it was real or not, there’s always this speculative integrity question that goes with it.
JP: We’re talking about robots, Dem.
AD: I know.
MB: The transition Amanda’s talking about doesn’t often come with the total renunciation of one vocation for another, though.
AD: Well it does for some reason, especially in music. It’s easier to become an actor coming from music, than it is from being a musician to being an actor.
JP: Well, it looks like you guys got it from here on out. [laughing] Casey are we talking about the line that you told me in Miami? About the bank account?
CA: Oh, well, we’re talking about everything aren’t we?
JP: Well, not everything.
CA: Well, not Pittsburgh.
JP: No, no, no.
CA: Are we talking about the shoes?
JP: We could.
CA: Um, I don’t think people would understand.
JP: Fuck it. Anyway, I was surprised by some responses but it wasn’t the hating exactly. When Eddie–the heckler in the Miami club–started heckling, the line that Casey gave me to respond with was, “I’ve got a million dollars in my bank account, what do you got?” And I was certain that people were going to start throwing shit and booing me. I imagined they were gonna go like, ‘what a prick’, and instead, people laughed and cheered. They fucking cheered me.
CA: It was meant to be a Michael Richards moment [referring to Richards’ screaming derogatory insults at hecklers during a comedy routine in 2006] but the crowd turned against the heckler instead for some reason. Luckily Joaquin was genius enough that he kept his reaction to it all as one of failure and shame. He could have gotten back up and soaked in the support and it would have killed the whole point of what had been set up. That was incredibly brave what he did.
MB: What about the Hollywood Minute and a Half guy? The vlogging shit talker?
JP: He’s kind of a genius.
MB: Yeah, he really smashed it out of the park, amigo.
*Barajas takes a cell phone call, wherein he calls some people bitches, or something. There’s a comfortable pause.
JP: Okay, what else?
MB: What do you fear most about the release of the film? Do you have any fears?
JP: I think we’ve been through every fear possible throughout the process.
CA: Knock on wood.
JP: Oh, Jesus. I don’t know.
MB: How about Amanda’s scene in the film?
JP: It’s pretty great, right? ‘What about Rick Ruben?’
MB: How did you find working with Puff Daddy?
JP: Diddy’s a genius, right?
CA: Yeah, he was really generous with his time, totally open to the whole experience. He’s a pro.
JP: He got it and he was game, right away. We went to Miami to meet him. We went to his house, explained what we were up to, and he was into it.
CA: We shot him later that night for about an hour. Did the scene three times. He was good all the way through.
LB: Well, that’s why it’s so great. It doesn’t feel forced.
JP: Well, a lot of it was forced. There were a lot of things that were difficult to capture. But I think the thing is, Casey actually acted a lot on this, but it was mostly off-camera. For instance, a scene with Antony toward the end where we get in argument and I slap him. And Casey was like, ‘we need a confrontation with Ant’, we’ve only got a day left in New York, and I remember being in the room, and I just couldn’t do it, and I was tired. And Casey is like ‘this is the night, we have to leave tomorrow, it has to happen.’ And I just couldn’t do it, I couldn’t feel it at all. And so Casey just went into the room and started raising his voice and being like, ‘Ant what are you doing, why aren’t you putting the tapes together, where are the lights?’ And so I walked into the room and was like, ‘where are the fucking lights? Why are you always fucking everything up?!’ And that’s what happened a lot. A lot of the energy in the room Casey would have to create and start and let it warm, and then I would come in.
LB: But that’s a good director.
JP: Yes, but most directors aren’t really capable of doing that. I think Casey was able to be convincing in those moments whether people were angry or yelling at him, but it was always in an effort to try and get me to that place. Because we really were all friends hanging out. And sometimes you’d be in a normal conversation and have to be like, ‘oh yeah, we have to do this scene’. And it was hard to get back into that trajectory, especially for a reshoot. There were so many things he was trying to do simultaneously and then it was, in addition to all the technical stuff, you have to get everyone warmed up and in the right mood and shit.
MB: Do you like being an enabler, Casey?
JP: It couldn’t have been enjoyable.
CA: No, it was not enjoyable. Usually not enjoyable. But once the film started going, it had its own momentum and created its own reality, and it took the burden off of me. And a lot of the time the burden was on Joaquin, because ostensibly it was about somebody who was acting on his own free will. Much of the burden fell on Joaq.
JP: It was very difficult and most of the hard work Casey had to own.
*Muller is measuring photo light. Demme is flipping somersaults, standing on her hands, flipping cartwheels, basically being invisible, taking photos of Phoenix’s shoes and cigarettes and ashtray and fingernails, and the like.
JP: I mean are you serious!? I’m gonna kill you Demme. And also you can’t be the person who takes the thing and then is like, ‘I don’t take the thing.’ [belly laughs all around] You’re literally the worst!
AD: Oh, I’m the worst?
JP: You’re so close to the worst that we should just call it the worst.
CA: Let’s just talk about Amanda Demme. She had to book the shows, convince very skeptical club owners and DJ’s and hosts etc that Joaquin was for real and there wasn’t gonna be any hijinks.
JP: Dem’s the best. Well, she’s so close to the best that we should just… [chuckles all around]
LB: Did you guys get paid for the shows?
JP: Yeah, but we gave it to charity.
CA: Yeah, we got paid. A big white Cadillac, drove it all over town.
MB: Joaquin, how’d you put on all the weight?
JP: That’s the easiest thing. Fried peanut butter and jelly and ice cream sandwiches.
LB: Fuck! I wanna try it! We should have a party with those on the menu.
JP: I’ll make you one dude, it’s ridiculous.
LB: We’re gonna have a party with those! That’s so Texas of you. It sounds like the god damned state fair.
JP: It’s, it’s the best.
MB: Yeah, you really porked up, dude.
CA: It was amazing, so much weight.
JP: It wasn’t so much.
LB: Yes it was!
CA: It wasn’t just that, though, it was the way Joaquin carried himself, his general appearance, he transformed.
JP: I looked beautiful!
CA: But like you put on a suit, you got in an Armani suit, which one wouldn’t do–other people would just let themselves go, but he let himself go in a way that just seemed like he was out of control, trying to hold it together, he’d wear a suit, try and go out in public.
JP: Casey put on weight too! But he wasn’t filmed.
LB: Like the husband of a pregnant lady! I don’t need that shit. I gain weight just by looking at ice cream.
JP: I’d actually wanted to be really fit for it. I wanted to be like a dude that focuses all his time, has become obsessed about working out. But Casey wanted me to be falling apart.
LB: Well, if you’re supposed to be a mess and so desperate and on all these drugs or whatever, you don’t have time to be going to the gym at six in the morning to get a six pack.
JP: Well we did do a scene that’s cut out. You know those muscle stimulators? Casey and Larry had me hooked up, full body, but we lost that footage. I mean, we lost a few cameras in the course of this. Or Casey lost them, or whatever.
MB: Okay then, how about something a little more abstract… You guys obviously spent heaps of time together in the process. But what do you two think, outside of your own process, the film says about friendship?
JP: That’s you dude, because you actually said the other day, ‘it’s really a film about friendship’.
CA: The relationship between Joaquin and Larry feels close to the heart of the movie but you never feel it till the end. Larry could do or say anything with complete sincerity and naturalism.
JP: He had said that the thing that’s important about friendship is that when a dude really needs you, and you’re going down, you’re hurting, is when it really matters. He said, ‘it doesn’t matter if I’m there when you’re successful. What’s important is that people see that a guy will be there for the other guy… [to Demme, who has her camera now inches from Phoenix’s face] What are you doing?! I mean, Jesus Christ!
LB: But would you say that a friendship is about unconditional trust?
CA: You are determined to pigeon hole the conversation aren’t you?
LB: Is there another hole I can put it in? I wanna put it in some kind of hole!
CA: I would say that Joaquin really had to trust everybody. And the thing about trust is that there’s never enough evidence to trust anyone. You have to make the choice to trust people. And Joaquin just made the choice despite most evidence telling him not to.
JP: That’s not true at all. I was like Malcolm X at the window with a gun all the time, thinking ‘where is Casey with the fucking camera?’ Every time there was rustle in the bushes, I fucking ran out, threw on the lights. I was in a perpetual state of paranoia thinking that they were filming me constantly. I was in San Francisco, I stayed up for a couple hours alone, just doing bits around the room, because I was convinced they had cameras, and I was up until one in the morning, doing monologues and all this stuff, and the cameras were there but they weren’t on.
CA: Some of the people on the film were chosen not for the roles they had on the crew, but because they were going to play characters in the movie as well–they would be a part of the cast. This is a movie about a man having a movie made about him. He alienates everyone until the only people around make up a documentary film crew. Then he alienates the film crew. So some of the crew were chosen as much for their real personality and how well suited they would be as a “cast member”as they were for what they could do on the crew. Antony was wonderfully understanding of this, and turned out to be technically very instrumental. He trusted that we had good intentions.
LB: I told Sue that if by any chance she gets the credit for being the fool in the film, people are gonna be running out of her office! They’ll be like, ‘That bitch is acting!’
JP: And a credit to Sue for being comfortable to do it.
MB: When you go to William Morris Endeavor and they’re like, ‘no scripts what
soever?’ and you’re like, ‘well, within reason… I mean, no.”
JP: That’s because Casey said it would be more believable if the character seemed like it was just a front, like he would try to do it, but in case something really good came along…
CA: I never said that at all. But the scariest thing of all the things we did, the scariest thing we did was going into William Morris Endeavor, and walking in with cameras and trying to sit down and interview Patrick Whitesell.
JP: They [WME] proved very helpful and we needed them.
LB: Has Patrick seen the film?
JP: No he hasn’t. We haven’t shown it to anyone.
CA: Yeah, we’ve only shown it to Flaunt.
LB: Oh fuck you. Sue’s seen it.
CA: Sue Gossage, Jr?
MB: Didn’t the Los Angeles Times see it, or…?
CA: No. We did a screening for distributors. The LA Times wrote something negative based on things they’d heard from people coming out. They knew we were trying to keep a lid on the content and they included some spoilers.
MB: Yeah, it was written like a screening for the media and this was his [John Horn’s] actual account. Like he was entitled to review or whatever. And it was only the scandalous stuff, just a list of deviant things or whatever.
JP: Yeah, but we knew that those things would be talked about.
MB: That’s a good thing, right?
JP: In some ways, it might be cheap and easy of us, but we did know those scenes would be talked about.
MB: And so you planned the grand dumping?
CA: Well, it was never really thought out. We knew something bad had to happen to Joaquin, something traumatic, and it had to come from a friend. And we talked about many things. But he was set on having someone shit on his face. Also, at the time of filming, we knew that the feces rig–the tube, the mechanism that was designed to come out of Antony’s anus and make it look like he was defecating–we knew that would be more profitable in the film. We patented it and it has done very well.
MB: Well, it’s a treat for a big John Waters fan like Luis.
LB: I was like, ugh, I can’t fucking believe that dude! I don’t care how you wanna play in it… I mean, as a gay man, I don’t mind feces here and there, but not on my face! Just a wash cloth here, you know, to take it out.
JP: Wow, that’s better than the real thing.
MB: You’re quite the Bruce la Bruce fan too, aren’t you, Luis?
LB: Oh I love Bruce la Bruce. I think it’s interesting that people take things to certain levels, and all of us, I think, have these things in our heads, and when you see them like that–even though they’re shocking, they make you feel a little more comfortable.
*Barajas waxes for a while about being a pervert and watching John Waters as “a boy from Venezuela...”