Lilli Taylor and Nick Flynn

Lunch Chat at Williams Inn

By: - Nov 10, 2014


During the recent Williamstown Film Festival Diane Pearlman and Berkshire Film & Media Collaborative hosted a lunch at the Williams Inn. It featured independent film star, Lilli Taylor, and her husband, Nick Flynn, a poet, essayist and author of three books of memoirs. Williams College professor, Jim Shepard, led the dialogue.

Much of the discussion focused on the difficulties of transforming his gritty, hard hitting, 2004 memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City into a film. The book relates reuniting with his deadbeat dad and the suicide of his mom.

There were so many ups and downs that a standard evening greeting from Lilli was “What happened today?”

As years dragged on with script revisions and a revolving door of potential producers and diminishing budgets Flynn hit the end of his rope.

Rather then continue the ordeal, with time expiring on options for the book, he was ready to chuck the whole thing and take back his intellectual property.

The film Being Flynn finally was released in 2012 with Robert De Niro, Julianne Moore and Paul Dano. The ordeal was so frustrating that it resulted in a third book The Reenactments which chronicled the process of making the film. He quipped about considering writing another book about writing The Reenactments.

Since his primary focus is on writing poetry and essays for magazines including The New Yorker and Paris Review the trials and tribulations of making a film were more her realm. With each new setback Lilli reassured him that this process was all quite normal.

Like their roles in the arts they are a tough and resilient couple. You got the sense that they know how to take a punch and bounce back.

Flynn was candid about dealing with an alcoholic father and eventual street person. In his twenties Flynn, who grew up in Scituate a suburb of Boston, worked at the Pine Street Inn a homeless shelter. After years of separation his father showed up as a client. That sparked the rough narrative of the book conveyed in the film. Julianne Moore portrays his mother who took her life.

On the brink of abandoning the project Flynn was invited to a meeting with De Niro. The actor told him that he liked the book but not the script. It turns out that there was another draft which eventually got done.

There were humorous comments about visiting the set and being denied entry to a trailer marked Nick Flynn. There was the irony of explaining to security that he was actually Nick Flynn. No, he was informed. This trailer is for Paul Dano who plays Nick Flynn. There was another actor who played the young Nick Flynn. It got to be a bit of a head fuck as there were in fact three Nick Flynns.

That’s enough to screw anybody up. The real Flynn with oodles of charismatic charm proves to be a bit of a twister.

Which explains why he is the perfect mate for Lilli Taylor. She has carved out a career portraying difficult, if not impossible, off the wall characters.

I asked what that says about the real Lilli Taylor who has portrayed the killer feminist and nutcase, Valerie Solanas, in I Shot Andy Warhol.

Quoting from her SCUM Manifesto (Society for Cutting Up Men) “Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex… Eaten up with guilt, shame, fears and insecurities and obtaining, if he's lucky, a barely perceptible physical feeling, the male is, nonetheless, obsessed with screwing; he'll swim through a river of snot, wade nostril-deep through a mile of vomit, if he thinks there'll be a friendly pussy awaiting him. He'll screw a woman he despises, any snaggle-toothed hag, and furthermore, pay for the opportunity.”

Convinced that Andy had stolen her ideas without credit she pumped hot lead in his gut. Ironically for Warhol who loved publicity he got bumped off page one because it was the day that Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Andy recovered but was never the same. He became gun shy about freaks and started hanging with boring one percenters.

Taylor won a prime time Emmy for her role as Lisa Kimmel Fisher, a complex screwball character in 25 episodes of the HBO series Six Feet Under.

A couple of years ago she appeared in the Williamstown Theatre Festival production of A Doll’s House by Ibsen.

Carving out a career of difficult roles hasn’t been a piece of cake. Rebounding from my provocative question she argued that Doll’s House was fairly normal. But as to those gonzo roles in general she enjoys doing them as they expand the possibilities for women. It widens the range for female actors.

To illustrate she described performing a twenty minute speech at the end of a play in which her character states that the Nazis weren’t all that bad. A couple of elderly German Jews bolted up and harangued her. That visceral response wasn’t lost on Ben Brantley of the New York Times who praised her courageous performance.

Referring to many roles in independent films she described the challenges. Producers see no need to spend money on rehearsals. Particularly with tight shooting schedules and miniscule budgets.

“I comb though scripts over and over. For all of my lines I try to find one key word for the character.” At the end of preparation that may entail a hundred words. You sensed that her approach is thorough and methodical.

When the shoot begins you have to hit the ground running. That doesn’t always work. A director might say that’s not at all how I see the character. Rhetorically, she asked why the director didn’t come to her apartment while she was preparing. She has even resorted to hiring directors to rehearse her. Sometimes it doesn’t work out and she has been fired from films.

A different approach occurred in three films with Robert Altman. Prior to the actual shooting of his Short Cuts she was in a trailer with Lily Tomlin who was improvising with another actor. Taylor joined in and from that spontaneity actually developed elements of the film.

Particularly his technique of blurred, overlapping dialogue which gave producers and film moguls fits when he introduced it in McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). They said you can’t do that. As Taylor conveyed Altman said “Yes I can” and proved it with a hit movie.

Eventually, Altman developed a technique to unscramble and make comprehensible that mumbo jumbo dialogue. Or, as Taylor explained, technicians figured it out and, typically, Altman took credit.

Having had a dust up over my provocative question I sought out Lilli while she interacted with guests after the lunch. For openers I stated that I am a huge fan and respect her work.

“Oh I knew that” she said with a huge warm smile. “I was just having some fun with you.”

We talked a bit about her role in Doll’s House. While not as wacky as some of her characters I commented that it had been cutting edge and not really a successful production.

In a 2011 review of the WTF production I wrote that "There is little or nothing, other than a superb and poignant performance by the remarkable Lilli Taylor as Kristine Linde, to praise about this utterly forgettable production of such great material."

She agreed stating “That’s what’s so great about WFF. You can come here do something far out and not worry about the reviews. This is a safe place to work and you don’t have to be concerned about whether a show gets to Broadway.”

Clearly she much enjoyed being in Williamstown and we asked if she will come back?

“Jenny’s (Gersten) not here anymore” she said. “And I don’t know the new person.”

Stay in touch Lilli and write if you find work.