When heiress Doris Duke died in 1993 at age 81, she left her butler of six years, Bernard Lafferty, in charge of her billion dollar estate. Though no can know exactly how profound, profane or strictly professional their relationship was, Bob Balaban, the actor best known for his roles in Gosford Park and the Christopher Guest films Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind, was eager to get behind the camera to direct what might have been the world inhabited by Bernard and Doris. The film, starring Ralph Fiennes and Susan Sarandon in the title role premieres Saturday, February 9 on HBO.
What initially drew you to the project? Had you always been fascinated by Doris Duke?
I didn't know anything about Doris Duke. I knew she existed, but I didn't have any enormous thoughts or feelings about her. She was so private, yet her entire life was in the tabloids, so I thought it would be interesting to do something completely un-biographical -- it's about the internal journey of her emotional life.
Were you concerned at all about staying true to the real people portrayed?
Even if we had wanted to, I doubt we could have done any research on what caused her to open up to this guy. Everybody had opinions about how evil or not evil Bernard was and how troubled or not troubled Doris was. We're only able to imagine what they might be like, and we just wanted to make this cohesive on its own terms. We'd only get in trouble if we tried to do anything more biographical. But maybe we've hit on many wonderful truths.
Were you worried about including specific events or leaving anything out?
Sure, we could have included the daughter she adopted during this time. And in the initial script there were a number of scenes where Bernard hired and slept with hustlers, but that didn't seem to further Bernard and Doris's relationship and we didn't have much time to kill. We just cared about what was going on immediately between the two of them.
What were the biggest elements of their story that you wanted to tell?
I was really interested in the connection between two unlikely people to be bonded and the way two very damaged people are able to find solace in each other. We had to find a reason on our own terms for these characters to come together.
What was that reason? You were essentially starting from scratch, so you could have gone any number of ways...
Susan was really helpful with that. She says that every movie she's ever done, she sees as a love story, which is a great and radical thought to bring to this project. Actors and characters need goals and objectives, and this is an ideal one for Doris and Bernard. At some point she has to find out that he's completely gay, but that doesn't have to stop her. Plenty of women sleep with gay men. That isn't the biggest problem in the world. But it tells us about what kind of scenes we need to have to hit on major points in their relationship.
A story involving a fabulously wealthy and troubled woman and her mysterious gay butler clearly has serious camp potential. How did you avoid that?
When you deal with actors as gifted and sensitive as Susan and Ralph, they always find specific and unique ways to do things. Susan can play anything. There are certain actors who are chameleons who look completely different in each role, but with Susan, I mean, you know who she is. But her transformation is so internal. Everything I've seen her in, I'm like, wow, and that's a side of her I've never seen before. I think it comes from her approach. She doesn't go to a story and think, what can my personality bring to this piece? She thinks, what does this material really want to be and how can I help that? It makes her endlessly watchable.
It didn't even occur to me that Ralph would do anything that wasn't interesting and correct. The first day we had a wardrobe test to see how his clothing and makeup and hair extensions looked, I saw Ralph's body language change completely. There was something feminine about it, I guess, but you couldn't put your finger on it.
His portrayal is delicately nuanced.
After a while I realized that Ralph had it all planned out, that he was tracking throughout the film just how out he played Bernard. I think actors sometimes, whether they're gay or straight, do a kind of overall way of being. It's like, There's one way I'm going to be gay. I'm going to talk this way and walk this way. The same way they'd be like, This is my rich person or an angry person. Ralph has periods in the movie from the beginning to the end where you see all kinds of sides to him -- he only acts outrageously campy when he's having fun and being relaxed or drunk. He doesn't when he's all business. It's a game people play. I don't know anyone who acts the same all the time.
Doris also seems to have a lot to do with Bernard's ease with his sexuality.
She's encouraging him to be himself, so there's a blossoming in the movie, which also coincides with his downfall, because he's drinking heavily and he's getting out of control. He was 44 when he started working for her, was 49 or 50 when she died and three years later so did he. What's important is that our Bernard really wants to be Doris Duke. She encourages him to dress up, to be more flamboyant. He needs her encouragement to be his fuller self, not just sexually or visually. You can see Bernard evolve in the movie from a shut down, closed up sycophant to a fun-loving, sympathetic character.
What do Bernard and Doris get out of their relationship?
In our version, for her it's the physical way in which he takes care of her. If he had slept with her he'd be out on his ass in two weeks. But somebody who maybe didn't care about her money or power who was there to take care of her, whether that was the reality or just her perception, it's the first time she had that in her life. And he was in search of a mommy, and Doris is the older woman who can fulfill his emotional needs.
Though Doris lived a fairly grandiose life, the scope of the movie is fairly intimate.
We were loose and cheap and fast. It was arduous to make this movie for half a million dollars but it was also liberating. We only had about 20 days to shoot on Long Island. We couldn't go to Hawaii or Beverly Hills to shoot scenes we initially wanted, which forced us to get creative. We kept the intimacy between Bernard and Doris where it would have been anyway -- at home. Not at Tiffany's or on vacation or at a charity ball.
The look of everything is very lush on that kind of budget, though.
Susan and I borrowed everything. The orchids are from an orchid specialist Susan met on vacation in Bali, Fendi gave us her furs, Bulgari gave us her jewels. Also, I met a guy on the subway who told me he liked my work as an actor. I asked him what he did for a living. It turns out he was a dress designer. He designed the beautiful red dress Susan wears in the film for free. But he got his gown in the movie and a full page shot of it in Vanity Fair.
And what about the talent?
It also helped that we all worked for scale -- $100 a day.
I guess it pays to have friends in high places.
Yeah, but you can only call on them so often before it gets old. I'm looking to make my next movie for about $20 million.
Bernard and Doris premieres Saturday, February 9 at 8 p.m. on HBO.