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The labour of Love Liza
It took six years for the Hoffman brothers, acclaimed actor Philip Seymour and writer Gordy, to bring their film about a husband's grief to the screen

By JENNIE PUNTER, Special to The Globe and Mail
September 13, 2002

It has been 30 years since Philip Seymour Hoffman and his older brother Gordy Hoffman visited Toronto together. "We're from Rochester, so we came up here a lot when we were kids to visit the CNE," recalls Philip. "We'd stay at HoJo's."

The brothers' accommodations are more luxurious on this visit. They are in town to promote and celebrate the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of Love Liza. The decidedly quirky dark comedy, set for release in Canada early next year, won Gordy the Waldo Salt Award for best screenwriting at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, and stars Philip as a successful Web designer who starts sniffing gasoline and becomes enamoured of the world of model-airplane hobbyists after his wife's suicide.

Love Liza marks the feature directorial debut of the character actor Todd Louiso (High Fidelity, Jerry Maguire), the third member of the tenacious triumvirate. At a press conference on the weekend, the three friends talked about the discussions and debates that took place over the five years it took to get the film made. Later, the Hoffman brothers sat down together to elaborate on the labour of Love Liza and, not surprisingly, compliment each other while trying to crack each other up.

"I wrote it in an 18-day period in August of 1996 and showed it to Philip on Labour Day weekend," Gordy recalls. "Todd got involved a year later, and gave me notes on the script and then it was a process of conversations and sometimes passionate debates. So it was six years from the first draft to financing it and walking down those paths of dead ends and finding new ones opening up, with Philip's stature as an actor growing during that time, and all these things contributed to the movie finally getting shot."

Philip Seymour Hoffman stars in eight feature films scheduled for release this year or early next year, including Spike Lee's The 25th Hour, Red Dragon and Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love, premiering at TIFF today and tomorrow. But the award-winning actor is particularly proud of Love Liza, which had festival screenings Sunday and Monday, not only because his brother wrote it, but because, speaking as someone with more than 30 feature films (Happiness, Almost Famous, Anderson's Magnolia and Boogie Nights) to his credit, he feels the end result has the rare quality of reflecting what he first read on the page. "It's the most uncompromised film I've ever done, script-wise to film," Philip says.

"Usually what happens, even in big movies, is that ideas get shelved because of time. We were up against a lot shooting Love Liza, but one reason I'm really proud when I watch it is that you're seeing the film we made, you're not seeing somebody else's film. It's an incarnation of what Gordy wrote, Todd's vision and my ideas of the character. I feel almost vulnerable watching it, because there's nothing between our idea and process and the film itself."

As far as on-screen addictions and benders go, gas-huffing may sound like an unusual and unbelievable route for a middle-class character to take. But it was that very notion that inspired Gordy's award-winning screenplay. "I was a cab driver in Chicago and I spent a lot of time in gas stations," he explains. "One day I saw this woman hanging around a gas pump and it looked like she didn't have a car, so it seemed kind of weird to me. And the sentence popped into my head, 'Normal guy starts huffing gas' and I wrote it down on a little card. So when I read that sentence later, I started to think about why and everything flowed from that."

"My character is in such a state of grief that he's acting completely on instinct and compulsion, doing things without really knowing why," Philip adds.

In one scene, the character has been huffing gas and a co-worker comes to the door and asks him about the smell. "I got to that point in the script and I had to come up with something," Gordy says. "It was like when your mother comes to your room and says, 'It smells like cigarettes in here,' and you say, 'Oh, I was just lighting some matches.' I was committed to staying in that chair and finishing the screenplay, so the first thing I thought of was having the character make up the excuse that he's into building remote-control model airplanes."

When asked if they ever built model planes when they were growing up, the brothers look at each other and Philip says, "I seem to remember Krazy-gluing something together."

"Yeah, we never made the ones with engines, but we definitely built stuff with glue," Gordy adds.

"We probably tried sniffing the glue," Philip remarks. Gordy laughs, then goes into a short routine of a kid opening up a model kit, throwing out the pieces and opening up the glue and saying, "Hmm, this has an interesting smell." Philip starts laughing and before he can stop, Gordy launches into a story his younger brother has definitely heard before. "I'm not a big fan of research, well, I'm too lazy I guess. I wrote this play once and there's a part where Tetracycline is supposed to help the people by treating this virus or something," Gordy recalls. "Our sister went to Yale for nursing and after the play I called her and basically she told me I got it totally wrong." (Philip is cackling uncontrollably through this whole story.)

"When I wrote about model airplanes in Love Liza, I wrote that they run on special fuel, and since it was so long before it finally got made, I had a chance to make sure I wasn't just making that up," adds Gordy.

With Philip set to engage audiences in a string of feature-film performances, and Gordy poised to direct his first feature this coming spring, the Hoffman brothers are certainly flying high this year.

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