On the night of December 22, 2016, inside the intimate setting of the historical Clay Theater in San Francisco, Val Kilmer casually emerged from the dark void of the audience, seemingly appearing out of nowhere to take the stage and present his indelible masterpiece, “Cinema Twain,” the film of his one-man play “Citizen Twain,” which he also wrote, produced and directed. He addressed the packed crowd humbly, as if he was the student and the faces that occupied the theater seats his teachers, welcoming feedback after the screening. However, after 90 minutes, the audience would soon come to realize that he was in fact the maestro, and they, along everyone who has had the pleasure of viewing this show, mere instruments of his creative dominion.
Behind the Character
Kilmer is focusing his efforts on fundraising to adapt “Cinema Twain” into a feature length film, which, if it is half as good as its meta-stage predecessor, will be a sure-thing for above-the-line nods come awards season. On the cusp of five additional screenings of “Cinema Twain” in February, the mastermind behind this Mark Twain biopic was kind enough to find the time to chat with Awards Circuit this week about the 13-year-in-the-making project: past, present and future.
Waiting in line before “Cinema Twain,” viewers had no idea what to expect. Where has Val Kilmer been the last 13 years, aside from the occasional small role? Why did he choose to write a play about Twain? The phrase “passion project” has become canon in the world of filmmaking, although, with every popular phrase, it is susceptible to becoming overused and losing its true meaning. The film seemingly epitomizes a passion project in the truest sense of the term.
“For years I’ve been looking for a film to direct as it’s always been an interest. And I finally found one in the incredible diversity of world inhabited by one of my heroes Mary Baker Eddy, the genius who founded Christian Science, and her most famous detractor Mark Twain,” Kilmer replied when asked what specifically drew him to the idea of portraying this relationship. At the heart of this story is Twain and Eddy’s truly remarkable relationship. It captures the anguish, jealousy and fascination that Twain had with Eddy; he was equal parts impressed and angered by both her succinct definition of God and her influence as a writer.
The last point Kilmer made before the screening in December was that these stage productions were not only meant to smooth the surface of his script and production, but also to develop his character. Each night, he would evolve. This also allowed Kilmer to have more creative control by interacting with the audience in a productive way that would move his scripted plot forward. He wanted to keep this process close to him:
“I haven’t tried to make my film through a studio…When the screenplay was done, I realized I wasn’t able to raise the money because I knew what I wanted to do as a director but I wasn’t ready to play the role- so I wrote the play to research the character.”
One might think San Francisco would have received the highest demand, given that Mark Twain began his career in journalism here, which spawned several memorable quotes about this wonderful city. With Mark Twain being one of the most famous American authors, of course this was not the case.
In explaining the reception he has garnered since showing “Cinema Twain,” Kilmer noted, “Everywhere we’ve gone, up and down the [California] coast and into Arizona where my mom lives, we’ve sold out with flattering ease.” It comes as no surprise that Twain left his mark, pun intended, everywhere. His influence has only grown since his death, and that certainly offers a sliver of hope that the world has not lost its sense of humor and admiration for witty wordplay.
The play begins in the present day (this particular performance was taped in Pasadena in 2013). Immediately, Kilmer’s Twain establishes a recurring motif. He proclaims, “I recognize that I am dead, but I do not realize it,” therein acknowledging where he is, when he is, and that he is in fact dead. Though he is aware he is dead, he does not want to accept it.
Throughout the play, Kilmer repeatedly breaks the fourth wall and engages the audience in character, taking notes rigorously on his hand with his imaginary pencil about which of his jokes are still relevant 100 years posthumously, and those that are either no longer relevant or clearly go over the audience’s head. Kilmer cleverly incorporates the “trial and error” point he made before the screening into the actual production, responding to the audience’s reactions, or, occasionally, lack-thereof; he endearingly pesters the audience to add social commentary about how shallow the world has become, whether it was telling them to explain to their children and grandchildren that newspapers are just thin iPads, or that they could not be bothered with anything that was not Kardashian-related. Audience interaction spurred creative interaction and fueled his performance. Kilmer’s Twain makes a point, highlighting the drastic shift over the last 100 years since his death of the diminishing value of words and the increasing obsession with celebrity culture.
At times, Kilmer’s rehearsal and preparation for the role endearingly annoyed his family. This was a humorous moment during the Q&A, but it also shed light on the importance of familial support and bonding. His son, Jack, is a rising talent in his own right, having appeared in Gia Coppola’s (granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola) successful directorial debut, “Palo Alto.” His daughter, Mercedes, is studying acting, and already has a few credits on her resume. Kilmer explained that they absolutely embraced the process, and offered objective and humble insight on his influence on their pursing of the dramatic arts:
“I’m sure it’s in spite of not because of my devotion- but my kids are remarkably accepting and tolerant of people and eccentrics. They love them as I do – and acting is a very self oriented occupation- one has to spend a good deal of time alone just sitting there figuring it all out, and writing is worse.”
Kilmer also wrote the play. It is worth mentioning this again, because acting and directing alone is a daunting feat, but to act, direct and write is a nearly unattainable feat in the medium of film. During the play, cues would come in the form of a light from “God,” sending down newspapers, giving Kilmer’s Twain direction on where to take the play’s plot.
“God wants me to apologize to Mary Baker Eddy [founder of Christian Science] for accusing her of plagiarism! I will not!” Kilmer shouts. Throughout the play, he goes back and forth between telling his life story and going back to Eddy, eventually apologizing to her. Kilmer explained that although Twain publicly criticized Eddy, he greatly admired her, and spent the last 10 years of his life obsessed with her; he struggled with his own mortality, secretly believing Eddy might hold the only cure for his neurotic, existential crisis. “I love Twain’s vanity and jealousy of her talent,” Kilmer revealed