Bridging 'The Divide': Perry King on acting, directing and the American west
It’s never too late to try something new. Just ask Perry King who, after roughly half a century of roles across television and film, makes his directorial debut with “The Divide,” a gorgeously lensed black and white drama set on a California ranch during the 1976 drought. King also headlines as Sam Kincaid, an aging rancher whose memory has begun to fail even as he strives to fix things with his estranged daughter, Sarah (Sara Arrington).
At age 70, King is a far cry from the character he plays, beaming with a filmmaking passions and the suggestion that he’s only getting started. Sitting down with Moviebill, King explains how an unlikely connection to his childhood set him on the path to “The Divide” and why this particular film is of such personal importance.
Moviebill: When did plans to make “The Divide” really become a reality for you?
Perry King: Jana Brown, who wrote the screenplay, and I met because she was doing interviews for a prep school I went to called St. Paul’s in Concord, New Hampshire. She was looking into doing articles about interesting alumni. Now I went to this school back in the 60s and I had a terrible time. I hated it! And that’s saying it gently. I hated it. Maybe I would have hated any school I was at. Maybe it wasn’t the school’s fault, but my experience was just horrible. So when she called me and told me that she wanted to write for the alumni magazine, I told her, “You’ve got the wrong guy. You don’t want to hear what I have to say about this school. Believe me. No one there is going to want to hear how totally negative I am about it.” Now, maybe it has totally changed since I’ve been there, but that was my experience. So she said, “Okay. Let’s not do anything about the school. Let’s do it about you and your career.” We did this article and we had so much fun working together. I’m sure you’ve had that experience working with people where you just go, “This is great! Why can’t it be like this all the time?”
Moviebill: So you decided to team up for a feature film?
Perry King: Well, we finished it and she said, “Let’s do something else together. That was so much fun.” I hadn’t met her at that point. It took me a couple of years to physically meet her. She’s coming in today. I’m going to pick her up in just an hour or so for the premiere. She said, “What have you always wanted to do?” I said, “I want to make my own movie. Someday, I want to make my own movie.” I had this cattle ranch up in Sierra Nevada that I’ve had for maybe 20 years or so. She said, “What would the movie be?” I said, “I want it to be a western.” I was clear about some of the basic stuff. I knew it should be a western and I knew the theme should be redemption. There’s only a few themes and redemption is the most powerful for me. I always think, “Everybody knows redemption. Who doesn’t need redemption now and then?” I knew that I wanted it to be a father and daughter story. I wanted it to be set in some period. Any period other than today. I said, “We should shoot it for my ranch.” So I sent her pictures of my ranch and the way it looked. Then she came up with the bones of this story. We started working on it and, probably about a year into working on it, we said, “Are we doing something for real here or are we just having fun?” We both said, “No. We’re actually going to make this movie.” That would have been 2013 and we shot in 2014. She didn’t know anything about show business except what she learned on this film, so I had to show her. I told her, “This process can take a long time. I know lots of people who spend 20 years trying to get a movie made. For lots of different reasons. It’s not just money.” I don’t think she necessarily believed me at first. She said, “We write it. We film it. What’s the problem?” But now she knows that it takes a long time. It’s hard to make a good movie or, really, any movie.
Moviebill: Did you know immediately that you wanted that black and white look?
Perry King: Yeah, that look has been in my head for four decades at least. Even when I fell in love with acting, it was from watching black and white westerns. Probably, though, if there’s any one prototype for this movie, even though it’s totally different, it’s “Hud” with Paul Newman. That’s black and white and that’s a great movie. It’s just a great movie. That movie really marked me. But there are so many great ones. Black and white is just magnificent. John Ford movies in black and white. His day for night stuff. Back in the day, you couldn’t shoot at night because the film just wouldn’t get the information. You needed huge amounts of light. So he would shoot day for night. Everybody did. But he set it up so that, when they stocked it down to look like nighttime, he put a red filter on it. I believe that’s accurate. That would really emphasize the dark and light and look like night shooting. “My Darling Clementine” was another great one. Early on in that film, when they’re doing the stuff on the ranch, that stuff is so beautiful. It had to be day for night. They couldn’t get it any other way.
Moviebill: When did you decide that owning a ranch was something you needed in your life?
Perry King: That was a film I did with Sean Young. We’ve done a couple of things together, but the first thing we did was a movie called “The Cowboy and the Movie Star”. It’s a nice, sweet little film. It’s not a great film, but I had so much fun playing the cowboy. That was back in 1993 or 1994, I think. Something like that. About 25 years ago. I was doing that movie when it came to an end and I thought, “I want to keep playing this part.” I knew that the odds of ever playing him again or even a similar part were pretty slim, so I thought, “I’ll just become this guy.” I happened to be able to buy this ranch land up there for a legitimate price. I just jumped off that cliff and bought that land, thinking, “Someday, I’m going to shoot a movie on this ranch.” I didn’t know what it was going to be.
Moviebill: Was there any hesitation in bringing your work to a place that, I imagine, is a bit of an escape from Hollywood?
Perry King: I probably wouldn’t let just any film shoot there, but this is not work for me, this film. This is pure love. This is everything I’ve ever wanted to do. This is my favorite thing I’ve ever been a part of in my entire career.
Moviebill: Is it a challenge to build a character that is someone other than you in a place that is very familiar to you personally?
Perry King: Well, one of the reasons that I had to wait so long was because I had a lot to learn. I needed to learn and I’m very, very slow. I never thought of it in those terms at all. I would go home to my own house at night but, when I was in Sam’s house, the land was his, not mine. You hope as an actor that you get to a point that’s called making a marriage where you and the part [work together]. I talk about Sam in the third person now but, when I was making the film, I didn’t. You become this person. You make that marriage. Sometimes you get close and it feels like you’re rooming with somebody, but hopefully you get to that point where there is no distance. I am him and he is me. It takes a long time. Mostly when I’ve gotten there in a film, it’s towards the end.
Moviebill: Which character do you think that that has been most true about?
Perry King: On “Lords of Flatbush” years and years ago, I remember the very last day of shooting and thinking, “I’m finally ready to begin!” Then it was over! It took me the entire shoot to get to the point where I thought Chico and me were the same guy. He was always just someone I was hanging out with. Rooming with. He taught me a lot, Chico. He taught me about being tough. We were always in character. We never dropped out. We never stopped for one second. Henry Winkler and I were both Yale graduates. The guys shooting the film, Martin Davidson and Stephen Verona, the directors, I don’t think ever knew that until the very end of shooting. We never dared tell them that we were Yale graduates pretending to be Brooklyn hoods. I think I told Stephen somewhere close to the end of shooting. [In character with a heavy accent]. “You, Stephen! Lemme tell you. This is f–ing funny, man. I graduated from Yale. I did! It’s true! I’m a Yale graduate!” He didn’t believe it because we never dropped character. So one night I was wearing my jacket and my engineer boots that they all wore. Those shit kicking boots. I’m walking across 8th Ave in New York, trying to get back to my apartment. This guy comes flying around the corner and almost hits me. Without thinking, Chico — not me. I would never do this — Chico kicks the guy’s car as it goes by and leaves a huge dent. The car screeched to a halt and this big guy gets out. If I had been Perry King, I would have run at that point. But Chico starts screaming at the guy! “Come on, you mother f–er! I’m going to kill you!” He got back in his car and left and I thought, “Thank you, Chico. That was great, man.” I learned a valuable lesson. If you can fake it, it works. When I was doing “A Few Good Men” on Broadway, I was playing Colonel Jessup, the “You can’t handle the truth!” guy. I tried to get in as good shape as I could. We were all in army fatigues. We were all in the fatigues, but we all wanted to look as buff as we could. Nicholson is a brilliant actor. He’s a hundred times the actor I will ever be. But he wasn’t right for that part. The part was written to be the young lion. It’s an interesting play. It’s not like the movie. So I shaved my head because I’m playing a Marine Colonel. That’s the way to live in New York City. You walk and see three guys who would normally have you stepping to the curb. They split, because they don’t know. You’re either the real deal — a military or Navy SEAL killer — or you’re crazy and either one, they don’t want anything to do with you.
Moviebill: You mentioned that it was important for you to have “The Divide” set in a specific time period. Why did you want it to be set in the 1970s?
Perry King: When we started, we knew that we wanted it to be period. I just wanted any period that isn’t today. That’s just more interesting to me, that the movie takes you somewhere. We picked 1976 for a couple of reasons. Because it’s a different time, it takes some traveling to get back to it, both mentally and physically. It’s interesting, but it’s not so difficult and not so expensive, frankly. I mean, the clothes I could get at a used clothing store. If it was an 1870s western with the same storyline, it would require some real attention to detail and lots more money. It drives me crazy when I see a neckerchief on someone in a movie that is obviously a modern polycarbonate neckerchief. Or the wrong weapons. They do that all the time. They’re always using a single action army Colt that was designed for the first time in 1873. You know “The Lone Ranger”? The new one with Johnny Depp? This is the kind of thing that just drives me crazy. It opens with a shot of Monument Valley. You think, “Ah! Monument Valley! Everyone knows Monument Valley, right?” Then it says, “Somewhere in Texas”. Then a big hand comes into the frame and it says “1867” while he cocks a big Colt pistol. It’s an 1873 single action Colt. Everyone that knows anything about guns knows what that gun is. It’s iconic. It’s the Peacemaker. It wasn’t built until 1873. They just said it’s 1867. That’s a $200 million dollar movie! So we picked 1976 because we could go there accurately and correctly but without going crazy. Also, it’s the last big drought in California before 2015, which is when we shot the movie.