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John Cusack Talks About "Max"
by Rebecca Murray and Fred Topel

John Cusack and Molly Parker in "Max"
Photo©Lions Gate Films - All Rights Reserved.

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"Max" is the directorial debut of Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Menno Meyjes. The movie stars John Cusack as Max Rothman, a celebrated art gallery owner who befriends an aspiring young artist and fellow war veteran, Adolf Hitler (Noah Taylor). Despite Max's assistance and encouragement, Hitler is unsuccessful as an artist and turns all of his energy to politics.

Casting the crucial role of Max had producer Andras Hamori and writer/director Meyjes stumped. No one actor seemed to jump to the head of the line until one evening the two spotted a photo of John Cusack on the cover of a magazine. Hamori recalls, "Just as if we were in a bad movie, we both paused, gasped, turned to each other and said, 'This is Max Rothman.'" Fortune further smiled on the two when Cusack reacted positively to the script. "By some total miracle, when John read the script he become intrigued by the script and fought for it. He became totally obsessed with 'Max,'" says Hamori.


"Max" is a very intense movie. What was the toughest part of making this film?
I think just trying to pull it off. I think it would be like doing a classic kind of epic play. It was a pretty intense high-wire act, just trying to do this film. We were trying to portray the birth of modernism and the examination of the most kind of profound evil [while] putting a human face on it. [The story is] a confusion of art and politics and part history and social history. It's a very ambitious piece. It wasn't like you walked in and said, “Ah, this is a slam-dunk. We've got this.”

How did you get involved with "Max?"
The [script] came in and I grabbed on to it. Menno [Meyjes] had, for some reason, needed a one-armed German-Jewish art dealer and he just thought of me. He saw me more as a German for this. Where I grew up the Irish, the Jews, and the Italians all hung out together. So I grew up with screaming Irish, Jewish, and Italians debating politics.

How hard was it to concentrate on the acting with your arm physically tied behind you?
The hard part was the geometry of it was off-kilter a little bit. We didn't have a lot of money so there was a constant sense of paranoia, “Did you see the arm? Did you see the arm?” It was real hard.

How did you research your role?
I did a lot of research on German Jews and I was lucky enough to have found this book by a Yale professor who did this real exhaustive research on it. And like every one else, there were different levels of connection to the Judaism. Many of them just saw themselves as Germans who just happened to be Jewish, the same way that I'm American but happen to be Catholic. I was raised Catholic but it's not like I walk around each day thinking, “I'm a Catholic. I'm a Catholic.” They were just Germans and they were patriots.

Was special care taken to not oversimplify a character like Hitler or oversimplify his motivations?
I think we did the opposite. I think a lot of films have oversimplified this kind of power-hungry demonic monster, which is certainly true. This kind of talks about some of the other things. The nature of the film addresses the question. The nature of the film is to examine it and not oversimplify his motives.

What do you think are the culminating factors that led him to become this great exterminator?
Repressed emotions, the inability to express it, and cowardice. The film kind of postulates his inability to honestly express himself through his art caused him to then give up art and try the field of politics. Those two things together, that was his evil genius. [It] had to do with that fusion of art and politics and him being very ahead of the curve - to a horrible end.

There's no doubt that he was a sophisticated black genius. He saw the power of modern art. He hated the content of it because it was humanizing the anti-war movement but he found the power from it. He took the colors, the notions of it, into propaganda - this vapid performance art piece. He had the actual power. If you cross this confusion of art and power and his descent into the black arts, the occult, that explains a lot. Seeing it through the prism of art.

His fascism comes from anger and sexual frustration and class denied. You see it today and think, “How could some of these hardcore Islamic fundamentalists do that?” Well, they're living in poverty and they are living in some situation that feels hopeless. They can either feel hopeless and sexually frustrated living in a room full of 20 people - they don't have any upwardly mobile things to strive for - they can either be losers or they can be God's warriors. What are they going to choose? There are also the social and the class and the economic issues that we add in to it. Ultimately, I think he made a choice to turn. He made a great criminal choice not to take responsibility for own his life. He took the path of less resistance, which is to hate. That's the easiest thing to do. He wouldn't pay the price to be a great artist; the toll was too high. These are complex answers to the question about oversimplifying. I think the film is the opposite - simplistic.

Have you thought about once the film comes out there might be potential backlash? The subject matter could be misconstrued and people might think you're trying to glorify Hitler and make him an every-day kind of guy. Are you prepared to defend the film?
I think it's a deeply moral film, a responsible film, and if you say, "How dare you portray Hitler with a human sense of desire," I'd have to say, “What planet are you living on?” If you want to have that argument intellectually, sit down and have it, bring it on.

He's a complete coward and a thief. It's very comforting to think of evil as a guy who came down in pink vapors and arrived on Earth and then did supernatural evil things and then left in a cloud of dust and fire. But that's not the way it was, sorry to say.

That's what makes this film so great. It actually shows a disturbed man coming back from war.
It shows how his humanity gets poisoned and he makes choices, right? The fact that the man is human doesn't make the man less culpable, it makes him more culpable. If he's not human, then he's beyond human reckoning. You don't have to worry about it happening because he wasn't human, he's not one of us. You don't have to think about any of the factors that lead to his rise or any of that stuff, right? He wasn't human and we're all clean. If he was human, then we've got to deal with it.

The only people who've attacked the film are the people who haven't seen it. It hasn't been attacked here. This film was castigated by people who didn't have the sense to come see what we made. I sort of get off on all that, too. I like to debate. I feel that time will be really good to this film.

What do you think of Noah Taylor's portrayal of Hitler?
I think he's brilliant. I don't know many actors who'd have the guts to do it. I think he was kind of calculating the clinical [part] of how he was going to be able to do it and he just sort of let himself be vacant in a very interesting way. Spiritually vacant, you know? He's a great, great actor.

Do you think about awards when you do a movie like "Max?"
No. Theoretically you hope that it's respected and liked but I don't know if awards help it that much, in terms of the life of the movie or how respected it is. A lot of the awards now have to do with people buying them. It depends if the companies decide to buy them. Harvey Weinstein and DreamWorks paid $50 million to buy Academy Awards. It's not objective; it's not like the Nobel Prize. It's all kind of fad and where the money flows.

You've excelled at so many romantic comedies. What is your idea of romance?
I don't know. My idea of romance? It would be personal with whoever you're romantic with.

Would you ever use one of your movie character stunts to sweep someone off of their feet?
I probably would be capable of just about anything. Nothing - no stunt - would be too low.

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