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The Reeler Blog

Open Hearts: Latest Killer Take Personal for Robinson

It only took a year after its premiere festival run at Tribeca, but Lonely Hearts, the latest screen take on the true-crime legend of 1940s serial killers Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez, finally opens this week in New York. Starring Salma Hayek and Jared Leto as the respective lovers/murderers whose brutal crime spree became a tabloid sensation and the bete noire of New York City detectives Elmer Robinson (John Travolta) and Charles Hildebrandt (James Gandolfini), the story yields an added resonance for its place in the filmmaker's family history: Elmer was Todd's grandfather.


Extended family: Todd Robinson (right) with John Travolta on the set of Lonely Hearts (Photo: Millennium Films)

The Reeler recently spoke with Robinson about the cultural and personal impact of the Lonely Hearts mythos, and how Travolta worked with him to find the brooding detective 60 years on.

STV: So I saw this premiere at Tribeca '06; a year later, it's getting a release. Why the slow turnaround?

TR: It was just one of those business things that I wasn't a part of at all. They were just trying to make the deals, and it took a while to just stay at it.

The Lonely Hearts Killers story is a famous one that's been told before onscreen, but you have a personal take on it. How does this kind of build on the folklore in classics like The Honeymoon Killers?

It didn't really have anything to do with changing The Honeymoon Killers; I wasn't even aware the story had been treated in film. This is a story that had been kicking around my family for years; I was 2 when The Honeymoon Killers came out; it was a fringe movie that wasn't even on my radar. We figured we were the only people who knew about it in our family. I didn't realize that it had been this tabloid case that sort of took on a life of its own.

Really, what happened was that I was sent a book by a friend called The Encyclopedia of Crime, and it was being sent to me for consideration of something else. I was flipping through it and -- boom -- there was a page on Hernandez and Beck, and I was like, "Holy smokes, there's my grandfather's case." He's in one of the famous pictures of them. I started kicking the idea around, and then I went on the Internet and said, "Oh man -- somebody's beat me to the punch! There's already been a movie made." I wasn't really sure if I had anything to add to the story until I started querying family members, and my mother explained the circumstances that had sort of revolved around my grandmother's death. It was really being driven by this interest in deconstructing the patriarchal dysfunction in my family.

You're essentially looking at cultural mythology through a personal prism. You're a veteran writer/director, but what were the emotional or personal costs?

You never really understand the significance of what you're doing while you're doing it, and on a personal level, this gave me an opportunity to really sort of get in there with my father and talk to him about what his relationship was like with his father. In so doing, I was able to better understand my relationship with my Dad, and kicking it the other way, maybe be a better father myself to my son. There was all that sort of introspection going on. And then, sadly, my Dad passed away suddenly in the middle of making the movie. And yet because of the movie, I had been able to have what turned out to be very precious time with him.

But once you're actually making a movie -- whether you're the writer of the material -- the stress of just making your days and getting the movie photographed properly; it's sort of a different universe. I wasn't thinking of the personal aspects of it at that point. I was trying to photograph a screenplay, and do it the best I could.

In terms of developing the Elmer Robinson character with John Travolta, what are the stakes? This is your grandfather, after all. Did John work with you to determine and uphold a standard or ideal?

First of all, the words I wrote were going to come out of the guy's mouth; he knew the text and committed to the movie. There's synergy and there's an understanding that we're both trying to do the same thing. So there's that. Then he personally was able to meet my family -- he met my Dad. He met the people who knew the character he was playing the best. And of course I knew my grandfather, too. He had a great sense of reference for that. And then we talked about acting choices. We settled on this sort of image for him that he's sort of this raging bull. Everything he touches, he breaks or bends, including his relationships. He bulked up for the part; he and Jim [Gandolfini] are these big, formidable guys, but the thing that troubled john initially about the part was that he had so little to say, and in most things he's cast in, he's this very smart, quick, erudite guy, and in this, it was very much an internal performance.

The greatest tribute that John got was from my Dad, who was on the set one day and happened to be standing next to me and I think we were in the prison set. And the light was just kind of right. And my Dad just kind of spontaneously said, "That's him. There he is." He saw the spirit of his father somehow. He just saw it, and it was authentic for him. And I thought that was a great compliment to John. I'm forever in his debt for taking a chance on me.

Posted at April 13, 2007 1:36 PM

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