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Michael Douglas, Matt Damon re-enact Liberace's life in 'Behind the Candelabra'

Michael Douglas and Matt Damon
Michael Douglas and Matt Damon
HBO

The dramatic film “Behind the Candelabra” (based on Scott Thorson’s memoir of the same name) takes a behind-the-scenes look at the life of iconic pianist Liberace during the years that he had a volatile romance with Thorson, who was his secret lover from 1976 to 1981. The affair, which was known only to Liberace’s closest associates at the time, began when Thorson was in his late teens and Liberace was in his early 60s. The movie shows the high and lows of their relationship, whose problems included Liberace’s infidelities and Thorson’s drug addiction. Thorson’s 1980s palimony suit against Liberace is also portrayed. In the movie, Douglas plays Liberace and Matt Damon is Thorson.

Michael Douglas and Matt Damon at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France
Michael Douglas and Matt Damon at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France
Getty Images

In the U.S., “Behind the Candelabra” was acquired by HBO, which premiered the movie to record ratings in May 2013. (It was HBO’s highest-rated TV-movie of the year.) “Behind the Candelabra” also won numerous awards, such as 11 Emmy Awards that included Outstanding Miniseries or Movie. Among these honors, Douglas won pretty much every award he was nominated for in relation to “Behind the Candelabra.” Although “Behind the Candelabra” was not released in U.S. cinemas, the movie was released in cinemas in other countries. “Behind the Candelabra” had its world premiere at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, where Douglas, Damon, Soderbergh, producer Jerry Weintraub, and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese gathered for a press conference before the movie’s premiere.

Who on this panel knew Liberace? And for those who didn’t, what were your memories of him?

Weintraub: I knew Liberace. I’m the only one old enough to have known Liberace. He was a great guy, a fantastic performer, one of the greatest pianists we ever had to come out of the United States. He was a great host and a lovely man. He led a wonderful life, except for the secret that he had to hold: that he was a homosexual in America, which didn’t work at that time. He couldn’t come out of the closet. And he had a huge audience of women. In fact, right before he died, he played three weeks of sold-out performances at Radio City Music Hall, a very large venue in New York. He was a brilliant artist and very flamboyant and a great guy.

Douglas: I just met him briefly, once when I was 12 years old, visiting my father, who had a house in Palm Springs, California, where Lee (as his friends called him) also had a house. Literally, we were at a crossroads, and this car stopped. I think it was a Rolls Royce convertible. I remember it was a bright Palm Springs day, and between the gold around his neck and his rings, the light was bouncing off of him outside. He had a great smile and hair out of place. Now I know why.

He was charming. I talked to my father, Kirk [Douglas], who knew him well. Just reiterating what Jerry said: He was a wonderful, wonderful host, very generous, loved nice things and was the forefather to Elton John and Lady Gaga and some other people, in terms of creating that style.

LaGravenese: I saw him on television as a child. “The Ed Sullivan Show” or one of his specials. The women in my family loved him very much. They’re the ones who told me the story of how Sonja Henie broke his heart and that’s why he was single. They believed that completely. They had no idea he was gay.

Damon: I’d heard of him. I remember him being a presence. I was born in 1970, and throughout the ‘70s, there’d be specials, and you’d see him. He was less of a presence in my life than in my mother’s. My mother told me that they would sit around and watch him. My grandmother was an excellent piano player, and she loved watching him play. And so, whenever he was on, they would stop everything and watch.

Soderbergh: I have memories of watching him as a kid. I remember watching my parents watch him. At 7 or 8 years old, I didn’t know quite what to make of him. He seemed very enthusiastic and a very arresting person to look at visually because of the outfits.

I just remember being fascinated by how fascinated my parents were by watching him. Until I talked to Michael on the set of “Traffic” about playing him, from that point to the set of “Traffic,” I literally don’t think I ever thought of him again. In the interim, I didn’t think of him at all. It just sort of popped into my head.

Michael, what did you think when Steven approached you to play Liberace?

Douglas: I thought he was messing with me. I was playing a drug czar in this movie “Traffic,” and I saw this pensive look on Steven’s face, and he said, “Have you ever thought of Liberace?”

And I said, “What does that have to do with …?” He had me a little paranoid there for a moment. We teased about it. I tried to do a takeoff on [he imitates Liberace’s voice] “Thank you very much.” And I forgot about it.

And seven years later, I guess Steven found the outlet through this book “Behind the Candelabra” that was written by Matt’s character Scott Thorson, who’s probably the love of Lee’s life. I got together with Jerry [Weintraub] and hired Richard for the screenplay and showed the book to Matt with the picture of Scott with the chauffer’s outfit on and Lee with the whole robe.

And I said, “You as Scott and [Liberace played by] Michael Douglas.” And it was great. [Douglas gets emotional and tears up.] It was right after my cancer. This beautiful gift was handed to me. I’m eternally grateful to Steven and Matt and Jerry for waiting for me.

Michael and Matt, when did you feel that you found the key to playing these characters?

Damon: For me, this is the seventh time I’ve worked with Steven. I wasn’t sure. I said the day before we started, “What is this thing?” But I trust him completely. I really mean that.

And just to talk about process for one second, because it’s a film festival and I can do this, there’s something Steven did on this movie. I worked with directors before who cut in camera, which is an incredible thing. Spielberg does it, the Coen brothers, George Clooney does it, Clint Eastwood does it, Steven [Soderbergh] does it. But because of technology, Steven took it to a different level this time, which was we all had access to a website The Pix website.

And basically, our days would go like this: We’d go to work, we’d shoot a scene, and we’d go home, usually fairly early. We shot this film in 33 days, which is pretty fast for a period movie, particularly one that deals with different times and prosthetics and all that stuff.

So at the end of the day, I’d get home in time to have dinner with my kids. I’d put them in a bath and read them a story and come downstairs. By the time I’d come downstairs, I’d open up my iPad, and there would be a [messages saying], “Go to The Pix website.” And I would look at what we shot that day, completely cut together.

And so, for Michael and for me, we were playing these roles, and information is the best thing you can get as an actor, to understand the movie that you’re in. The best description of filmmaking I ever heard was from Steven [Soderbergh] 12 years ago. He said, “Directing is like making a giant mosaic from an inch-and-half away.” So you’re making a city-block-long mosaic, and you’re right up against it.

This new way of giving all of us information, with Michael and I and Jerry an all the keys on the show — hair and makeup, wardrobe, production design — everybody, every night would get this delivery, and they would get to see the movie as we were making it in real time. And so, we all knew the movie we were making — particularly when you’re playing a character like this, where it’s about the deterioration of this guy incrementally. Michael and I would talk about it.

We could go back and look at a scene that we shot three weeks ago, exactly as it would appear in the final film, just about, and we’d be able to gauge our performances just like that. As nervous as I was at the outset, my nerves were completely put at ease by this thing that Steven did in this process that I’d never seen done before and was really a gift to all of us.

Douglas: As Matt said, we finished shooting on a Friday. And on Monday, Steven had his first cut. He was serious about that. The script was great. The script was fantastic. So you knew right there, forgetting the part, that you had this wonderful picture and all the other elements. Liberace, people knew him.

This was the first time I played a big character that people actually knew. I had a lot of trepidation, particularly in the area of Lee [being] a big Pollack, a big, broad-chested [man]. One of his thighs was the size of two of mine, so I was a little put off, in terms of the physicality aspect. But I sort of it attacked it initially vocally. I tried to get the voice right.

Steven and I talked about the “Boogie Woogie” number. And Steven felt, “Look, if we can nail that, then we don’t have to go back to a lot of musical stuff.” So I asked Steven, “Look, please find a number where you have film of Liberace playing it, because I’m not a pianist.” We started off with a piano teacher. I said, “This is not going to work.”

By having it on a screen, I could watch it and get my hands in the right places, doing it over and over and over again, you can get close enough. Only an expert can pick up little finger movements. Other than that, you were there. So that was the music and the voice.

And as Matt said, we were really blessed to do hair and makeup tests with really talented people. It was my first time using appliances. We had at least three changes. The first look when [Scott Thorson and Liberace] meet. And then when we were at home together and got fat together.

And then we had the cosmetic-surgery look. So there were different looks that required different appliances. In this high-definition day, hair and makeup is always very nervous if you see anything. But I thought they did an excellent, excellent job. And one day, it all comes together.

Ellen Mirojnick did a great job with the costumes. And we had hair and makeup and put it all on together. And there we were. With the security of knowing each other, having worked with Steven before, knowing Matt, you don’t have to go through that formal dance of introductions. As [Matt Damon] said, we both read the script, so let’s get it on. What flavor lip balm are you likely to use? And it was a gas. We all like to work quickly. No one’s quicker than Steven. It was a wonderful experience.

Steven, can you talk about why Hollywood movie studios turned down “Behind the Candelabra”? And Michael, how has independent filmmaking in Hollywood changed from when you first started making movies?

Douglas: I live back East, so I don’t live in Hollywood, per se. But I would say it’s still difficult for small, independent pictures. Studios still seem to be wed to gambling on very, very large budgets with very, very large marketing budgets, if they can make it happen.

I don’t think the studios’ problem with “Behind the Candelabra” was because of the gay issue. It’s just that they don’t like to be bothered with smaller pictures with smaller budgets. It’s just not in the wheelhouse. And therefore cable television in the United States has become an access point.

Many of us have been involved in small, independent pictures that have no marketing budget, where it’s very frustrating. You work for nothing, and the only advertising is you going on talk shows and all of that. This was a wonderful combination of the two that Jerry came up with: HBO secured in the States and [in cinemas] worldwide.

Soderbergh: Yeah, I think the feeling was when we were going around with it four or five years ago, the sense was, “We’re not convinced that there’s an audience for this film, except for people who are gay.” And when they sort of looked at the economics of releasing the movie, you’re going to spend $25 million to release a movie, which means you’ve to make $50 million to get your $25 million back. And I think there was a sense that it was a very risky proposition.

And to be fair, seeing the film and seeing how emotional it is, it’s hard to look at a piece of paper and imagine what this is going to be like and these performances. At the end of the day, I’m supposed to be the person with the imagination that’s going to go out and make the movie. So I understand, to a certain extent, how somebody looks at a document and can’t see the UFO.

But looking back, this all worked out exactly the way it was supposed to work out. And the bottom line was that we just wanted to make this movie. And we got to. I’m not complaining. I’m very happy.

For more information: "Behind the Candelabra" website