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Grantland Q&A: Adam Goldberg Drinks a Bottle of Water, Announces His Semiretirement From Vine, and Sets the Record Straight on 2 Days in Paris

Adam Goldberg

Adam Goldberg showed up at Little Dom’s in Los Feliz on time, wearing a white V-neck T-shirt and carrying a largish video-camera bag. His face was narrower and more angular than it looks onscreen and he appeared to have gotten a haircut earlier that same day; there were still small flecks of cut hair sticking to his ears. We sat in the Dino Stamatopolous booth; Goldberg ordered and drank an entire bottle of sparkling water and was deeply apologetic to our waiter about not ordering anything else, as if this transgression would otherwise haunt him for days.

Goldberg began acting professionally in the early ’90s, after dropping out of Sarah Lawrence. He’s still best known for the roles he played in two iconic ’90s films — Private Mellish in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, and Mike Newhouse, the “I wanna dance” guy from Dazed and Confused, each doomed in his own way. Unless you count his appearance as a Semitic superhero in the “Jewxploitation” satire The Hebrew Hammer — to which a sequel, pitting the Hammer against Hitler, the “Jewish Joker,” is currently being crowdfunded — he has never really been handed a breakthrough leading-man moment to maximize or bungle. In another, more uptight age, he might have been a sex symbol.

Recently, he has taken a couple of short rides on series television; earlier this year, in Mary Harron’s Lifetime movie Anna Nicole, he played Anna Nicole Smith’s manager Howard K. Stern, and seemed to be the only person in the cast who understood that he was in a comedy. He has also spent the last few years working on a range of smaller, weirder, more personal projects. He’s about to start directing his fourth film, No Way Jose; Strangers’ Morning, a new album of neurotic space-pop songs by his more-or-less-one-man-band the Goldberg Sisters, goes on sale this week. And over the course of the last year or so he became one of the first acknowledged auteurs in the world of Vine, an enthrallingly useless iPhone video-looping app that Goldberg has used to produce a series of funny, occasionally proudly Lynchian, surprisingly complex six-second films about an “>anxiety-prone, obsessive character named Adam Goldberg. It’s the perfect medium for an actor who knows a thing or two about making the most of brief moments.

Goldberg had a camera with him because he was meeting a friend later to tape some No Way Jose rehearsals, so we started by discussing that film.

What can you tell me about No Way Jose?

It’s just this real small film that I have. I’d been writing this thing for a long time, and I decided months ago to just kind of make it and not send [the script] around and wait to get millions of dollars of financing. It was written in a very self-contained fashion — there were different iterations of how it could be made. But it was written largely for friends, largely non-actors, and [set] in locations that I knew we could have, houses that I knew people lived in, that sort of thing.

I’m calling it a coming-of-middle-age story. It’s this guy named Jose — Jose Stern — formerly Joseph Stern, until in his 20s he learns that he’s one-eighth Mexican and sort of de-Jewifies his name and calls himself Jose. He plays in this indie rock band called Jose and the Borges. When we start the movie, we see him having this kind of almost beatific moment playing in Griffith Park with his band, and then you cut back wider to reveal that he’s playing at a children’s birthday party. So he’s been relegated to trying to cash in on the trendy hipster kid-rock scene, but playing his old songs. That’s the specific context. But really it’s about his relationship with this ideal woman, this perfect woman for him, the yin to his yang, I guess, who’s warm and grounded and wholly un-neurotic and insanely supportive and not an artist of any kind. She’s a veterinarian. They have what could be, and by perception would be, this ideal situation, or at least it is for him, and she ends up discovering something about him in our early scenes through an iPhone app that she deems to be, like, one of the biggest acts of betrayal and passive-aggression in the history of ambivalent men.

Basically she kicks him to the curb, and he sort of spends the rest of the film kind of living with his falling-apart-at-the-seams, married-with-children friends, and seeking counsel from barely functional poets who don’t write, critics who don’t write, this very sort of hapless group of older, decaying intelligentsia, and sort of retracing the steps of his relationship, you know, going back in time. It’s basically him trying to find which direction he’s going in, y’know? Whether he’s going to stay as this stultified, miserable kind of guy, or whether there’s going to be some forward motion in his life.

Do you see a lot of that out here? That stagnating-intellectual type of person?

I mean, I personally do, but I don’t know that I can make a generalization about it. I’m definitely using Los Angeles, but to me it’s not about that, really. I think it’s really just about a guy who’s frightened, that’s really ultimately all it’s about. He doesn’t fly; he doesn’t make commitments; he doesn’t take vacations. He doesn’t move forward; he cycles. He’s in a sort of cyclical kind of inertia. I think you get to a certain point in your life, and you basically become someone on one side of it or a person on another side of it, and so here he is at the precipice, needing to make that choice. Is he going to go down this road, or is he just going to sit down at the crossroads altogether, you know? But it’s not man-child stuff. I’m not playing a dumb guy. It’s not that kind of life.

Sure. Most of the people I know who’ve found themselves in that kind of stasis are really smart.

Right — he’s basically outfought himself. And he has rationalizations for this and that, and not doing this and that. And he’s really not living life. He hasn’t been on a plane since 9/11 because he was supposed to fly on 9/12, and that still freaks him out.

Did you deliberately write a small movie so that it would be easier to get it made?

Well, no — I wanted to tell this really specific story. I mean, to be honest, the idea of writing it for friends, particularly a group of them who are really not at all actors, is completely terrifying and not the least bit convenient, really. It’d be much easier just to cast [actors] and have them act. You’re sort of weighing your cost-benefit analysis. I get these incredibly original characters who you haven’t seen in a movie before, but I need to do a lot of work to kind of get them to a place where it all feels like — I mean, I have to seem like I’m not acting, and they have to seem like they’re acting, if that makes any sense.

But no, it wasn’t exactly written that way by design. I was thinking that I wanted to make something unlike my other two films, particularly my last film, which was a much more visual film that relied very heavily on mood. I wanted to make something that I’d been encouraged to make over the years — not by the world, but by friends and collaborators — which was something that’s a little bit more verbal and personal and funny. It’s almost like a play. In fact, I had to consciously start making breaks in it so that there could be some cinematic breath and music and that kind of thing, because it was shit-tons of dialogue, y’know?

It’s interesting that you see those films as mood pieces first. I guess the records are that way, too — I imagine they seem confessional to you, but the confession tends to be pretty veiled, I think.

Oh, yeah. Well, that’s good. They seem insanely confessional to me. I mean, the funny thing is I Love Your Work, my other movie — I got accused of nothing but navel-gazing and making a movie about myself. And my first film, Scotch and Milk, was insanely personal, it’s just that it was shot in black-and-white and it had a lot of jazz and it was unclear when or where it took place. I don’t write things that aren’t personal; I don’t create things that aren’t personal. I have no interest in doing that, really. I definitely like style a lot, so there’s that, but that’s, to me, separate from the impetus for actually creating something; it’s usually to express something that’s personal. I mean, there’s definitely some songs on [Stranger’s Morning], quite a few, really, that were born out of loops I was making on a loop pedal and lyrics I improvised as I was recording my demos, and I just actually kept the improvised lyrics. And other songs I’m writing in a journal — but less and less, I would say.

The process of recording and the process of writing became one thing?

Yeah, totally. Totally. There’s a lot of reasons why I don’t like to play live, but that’s one of the reasons, which is that, to me, they’re inextricably tied, this idea of recording and writing are really one and the same, and they always have been, for me. I came to writing music really late — relatively really late, like 23. Like, my guitar, my amp, and my four-track probably were bought around the same day, if not the same day, and so those things were one and the same to me. I’m not saying I haven’t written songs where I’ve sat at the piano. But then there are other ones where you have a mood; you get an idea, and then you kind of just start recording, you know? And many of these were just snippets, little 15-second, 20-second, 30-second snippets, a verse or a verse and a chorus, or “Maybe this is a bridge.” Many of them just started as little seeds that were just uploads to my Tumblr blog, which became this kind of place I was just using to store whatever photo I had taken that day and whatever recording I had made that day. And then I looked back, and I was like, “Jesus Christ, I have, I mean, quite literally hundreds over the past three years of recordings. So, OK, which ones are songs?” And I narrowed it down until I landed at 14.

You’d made a rule for yourself where you had to put something on that Tumblr every day.

Well, for the first year, yeah. It didn’t start out that way, but then the OCD kicked in, and before I knew it, yeah, it was like a dogma, that every day a photo — an analog photo, an instant photo usually — would have to be scanned and uploaded, or a recording, and it would have to alternate. So photo one day, or recording the next day, and it could be anything. And if I was out of town without my guitar I would do some a cappella thing or whatever. But then after that year elapsed, I was like, “OK, great — I never have to do this again.” Because [during that year] I’d wake up at two in the morning and be like, “Fuck, I didn’t do the recording,” and I’d go record something, anything. It was completely insane and clearly indicative of some sort of mental issue. But then after I no longer placed that restriction on myself, then actually more stuff came out — because I also had a “No more than once a day” rule, so then I could do much more. And then there’d be times where Tumblr had some weird thing where you can’t upload more than one song, I guess, and then I would join SoundCloud and trick it, because then you could upload one song to Tumblr and then another song to SoundCloud and put that in there. So it just became another version of, you know, like a tape recorder, really, which is what I used to use to try and find my ideas.

Except that it was public.

Yeah. I mean, for the most part, yeah, it was public. In the very beginning, I had zero followers; eventually I got listed in the directory on Tumblr, but as a photographer, so —

And I don’t know who uses that directory anyway.

Enough people that that’s how I got a following. It works — you just get a bunch of random people who may not like anything that you do. I think they follow whoever’s up there. I’ve been trying to contact Tumblr, to no avail, because I think it would be a really interesting thing to sort of profile this idea that this album was kind of built there.

Nobody’s gotten back to you?

No. It’s funny: I did this photography campaign for Land Rover’s Tumblr page and was put in direct touch with [Tumblr] after I did that thing: nothing.

All you want is to be a Tumblr spokesman and you can’t make it happen.

I’m probably too long in the tooth, you know?

You mentioned scanning analog photographs, and the packaging for the Goldberg Sisters album is fairly elaborate. You seem to like holding on to things in physical storage mediums. Do you ever wonder why you’re carting all this shit around?

Well, I mean — I had to have something built in my office because it was getting so out of control. I had sort of put down photography for a long time, and I had stopped recording on tapes for a long time, although I have boxes and boxes and boxes and boxes and boxes of cassettes. But then I kind of rebooted my love of taking analog photos a few years ago, and yeah, it got to the point where it was eating the house. It drives my girlfriend completely insane. Because between my photos here and my music over here, it’s just a complete melee, and it really does eat the whole house. She’s like, “I thought that [stuff] was up there,” and somehow it’s just walked into the living room, and then there’s strands of it in the kitchen, and somehow it’s in the bedroom. I have a whole recording studio in my garage, but still it works its way up through the rafters, into the heating vents, and then next thing you know, there’s a pedal board in the bathroom. So yeah, I have too much shit.

Was a lot of this stuff recorded at night? Both the album and the Vine videos have a real nocturnal feel to them.

I was moonlighting as a vocalist, let’s put it that way. At a certain point, we’d basically finished recording and I kept doing the vocals, so then it would be night. But it’s certainly nocturnal in the sense that many of these songs were sort of born in the night, y’know? Nocturnal emissions. That’s where I live, usually. [During recording] we tried to keep somewhat regular-ish hours. We would work from twelve to eight or something like that, and then towards the end, I would moonlight. I was doing a lot of the soft synth stuff, so all the strings, and those kinds of arrangements. And the Vines are mainly a totally nocturnal thing. There’s no question that it’s a byproduct of my insomnia, and my love of the night and what it evokes, which is usually something sort of terrifying or spooky or dreamlike. But, yeah — I’m sure it’s like a four-to-one night-to-day ration in all those Vines.

I think I’m semi-retired from Vine. I’ve done a couple recently, to sort of promote the record in as batshit or creative a way as I possibly can. But I actually thought I would never Vine again after I did this job for Orange. We went to France and I did 40 [Vines], but we would take hours and hours to make one. We’d build sets and do rear-screen projection and then the fuckin’ app would jam and wouldn’t load, and we’d do it again. But I actually really loved that process. It was kind of what got me goosed to make [No Way Jose], come hell or high water, whether it was on a Red [camera] or a 5D or whatever — just to do it ourselves. It was not long after [France] that I just called my DP who’s worked with me on my other movies and said “We’re making this, let’s pick a date.” I think the Vine experience definitely got me more in that mind-set and less in the mind-set of, “Let’s go shop this thing around, and not have my agents do anything, because it’s meaningless to them to make a $50,000 film [unless] it makes a bunch of money. We had that experience on 2 Days in Paris. I didn’t give a shit. I’m making this home movie in Paris, but then it makes $20 million worldwide, and then it’s like, “Oops.” It would’ve been nice to pay attention.

That’s a good movie. I know you don’t care for it, but —

[Laughs.] You do? How do you know that?

I’ve read here and there that you’re not happy with the way it came out.

No, here, I’ll be clear about it. I’ll be very, very clear about it. I will tell you exactly what happened, how ‘bout that? Want to spend the last five minutes talking about that?

Sure. Go for it.

Because [Julie Delpy] doesn’t seem to have any problem talking about what she thinks happened. Uh, so, Julie and I used to be boyfriend and girlfriend, many years ago, at the end of the ’90s, and then a few years later, I’d split up with my girlfriend at the time, was living in a hotel room, and Julie called. I was definitely of the mind-set of, like, “Anybody who’s calling me and who’s nice at this point, I love.” So Julie and I sort of rekindled our friendship, over this idea about making this film — for which there was no script — and we began to talk about the idea. The whole premise is absolutely, entirely her idea, but [my] character was obviously an amalgam of me and whatever relationship that she had since we were together. But the personality traits were obviously mine. And the idea was that we were going to co-write this, much in the same way that she claims — and I believe she and Ethan [Hawke] did — co-write Before Sunrise with Rick [Linklater] and which they have since been credited in doing on their subsequent films. And how that process went for me [on Paris] was different than it was for her. She would write and write and write; I would sort of submit ideas, and then she would come over; we would improvise stuff. It was a very collaborative sort of workshop process.

Once I got there, there were all kinds of things that sort of went haywire. And at the end of the day they needed a deal to close really fast, so the money could go into equity and blah blah blah, and it would cost more if it said “co-written by,” because it was France and something to do with me being in the [Writers] Guild. Whatever it was, I said, “I don’t care, and I trust you, and I’m sure you’ll honor whatever my contribution is.” But we kind of butted heads when we actually were there [in Paris], over creative things, and there are two wildly different versions of how that happened. At one point, I just said, “Fuck it, this is becoming a whole different thing. I’m not a fan of this voice-over. I think it makes it a totally subjective movie, in an Annie Hall kind of way.”

My contribution is different than what she says my contribution is. I can show you the script; it’s about 85 pages. It’ll say “He can’t order a cheeseburger, because he doesn’t speak French.” That’s all it says. And then I’d improvise five minutes of whatever. That’s fine. Y’know, whatever — some people do that on movies and they don’t get writing credit. That’s not the issue. Do I think some of it’s entertaining? Yeah, absolutely I do, and I’m proud of what I did in that movie, you know? And I think she’s great in it. But again, it was a very collaborative process. I’d say, “Remember when we were together how you would flip out how my dog pooed in your backyard? Remember when we were all eating dinner, and you thought you had to go to the hospital because you suddenly decided you were allergic to mussels, and you called 911 and you were flirting with the fireman? You should put that in the movie.”

Anyway — I guess the final straw was when we were doing press. This was pretty amazing. We’re in front of the [audience] at the Tribeca Film Festival, and someone says, “How much of this was improvised?” And I deferred, and she goes, “About five percent,” and I go, “Ha!” And she starts yelling at me — in front of everyone, people can attest to this, going “What are you talking about? Do you want to read the script, Adam?” And I’m literally going, “Don’t do this.” I mean, we’re inches away from the front row. I go, “Please don’t do this here; please don’t do this here.” And she goes “Why don’t you read the script?” I go, “Uh … ” and that was that. And then she said I was a complete douchebag in some interview, because she obviously has more control of the press of that movie.

[Delpy called him “a hateful man” and “a very good actor, but a man with many problems” in a 2007 interview; in the 2012 Paris sequel 2 Days in New York, Goldberg’s character is out of the picture and Delpy’s Marion is comfortably cohabitating with a radio host played by Chris Rock.]

But, having said that, it did inspire me to say, “OK, instead of bitching about it and bitching about how maybe I didn’t get the credit I thought I deserved or whining about how our relationship had fucked up what could’ve been a really good thing, which might’ve included future projects together and whatever else, why don’t I just shut up and write something that’s funny?” It was kind of the impetus, in many ways, for doing No Way Jose, which I started a long time ago — in part because it’s not my inclination to sit down and write something funny. My inclination is to write something like this other film idea I’ve had for a long time, which is rather dark and more along the lines of something like [John Frankenheimer’s] Seconds. But my contribution to [Paris] did remind me of what I was capable of doing, that I was someone who had funny ideas, you know what I mean? So why not do that, and do it with my friends, much in the same way that I did in the ‘90s with Scotch and Milk, only this time not make it in black-and-white, and not make it impossible to follow?

That’s probably a good choice to make.

Yeah.

Do you think the collaboration on Paris was doomed to not work out for the same reason your relationship didn’t work out?

Oh, you know, I mean, they’re mirror images. I know the reason that that movie works, inasmuch as it works, or inasmuch as people who like it think it works, is because of our [dynamic]. When we were together, it was funny. It was a funny relationship. We should never have been together; it was completely ridiculous. It was like, y’know, oil and oil. But we were fun at dinners, because we were self-aware about it. We would perform, let me just put it that way. We would perform for our friends. We would argue-perform for our friends, and no one else could get a word in edgewise, and there was something kind of funny about that, and I think that’s the dynamic that you see. There’s a kind of real fluidity there, so it’s funny. I mean, you can’t make that shit up. You can’t. I think that that’s what I’m getting out of working with my friends [on No Way Jose], and it’s been great. I think you get a real special benefit from people that you’re close to.

There’s that bleed between fiction and reality, yeah.

Yeah. I mean, for instance, with this group of guys in the film — some of them are non-actors, but another one of them is a great actor named Pat Healy. Who’s also a friend of mine for many years. But he’s playing a guy that we both know. So he’s not playing himself, while other people are playing a version of themselves — so there’s a lot of bleed, y’know?

John Cassavetes’s movies have that same feeling. Like it’s a circle of friends. I’ll make that comparison so that you don’t have to.

That’s funny that you say that. I’ve stopped doing that, because it makes me sound like such an a-hole. But Cassavetes has always been a hero of mine, and even when the films haven’t necessarily worked for me, his process is a touchstone in some way. There’s much more breath in this film than anything I’ve ever written. The scenes are scenes; they’re real-time scenes. It’s not a series of montages and then people talk for two minutes. You’re seeing the evolution of a discussion, and every scene is meant to exist to move this character in one direction or another, but the idea of saying, “All right, let’s open this up; let’s write fewer scenes but make them a little bit longer and really cross into that world where you’re not sure anymore.” I’ve literally been in situations when we’ve been working where I’m like, “I’m actually not sure. Are you asking me this as Adam?” That’s what I want to get to.