’If the actors don’t trust me, I’m fucked. I might as well go home’ … Ana de Armas in Deep Water. Photograph: Claire Folger
British film-maker Adrian Lyne hit paydirt with a string of erotic thrillers, but Deep Water is his first movie for 20 years. Can stars (and ex-lovers) Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas outsweat Glenn Close and Michael Douglas?
The Guardian-Catherine Shoard
Adrian Lyne is 81 and hasn’t made a film for 20 years. The last one was Unfaithful, a top erotic thriller to add to his sweaty collection (Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal, 9½ Weeks). It won an Oscar nomination for Diane Lane, who we saw flushed on a train, recalling her busy afternoon with Olivier Martinez.
So, on the surface, Lyne seems a strange choice to direct Deep Water, based on a book by Patricia Highsmith about a sterile marriage. Vic Van Allen is a small-time press publisher in New England who breeds snails in the garage. His wife, Melinda, takes a string of dim younger lovers. Her trysts are not detailed; instead, Highsmith concentrates on Vic.
Lyne’s update chucks much of this. We see the sex, for starters. Melinda’s indiscretions are made explicit in their social circles. At a house party in the opening scene, a friend approaches Vic, gestures to Melinda and her new fella and asks: “They fuckin’?”
And Vic – recast as the inventor of drone microchips – not only cares about the adultery, but is aroused by it, too. “The hideous truth is that jealousy is an aphrodisiac,” chuckles Lyne. “It’s hateful and awful and destructive, but it is!” He grins down the camera in our interview: plain navy background, red Hawaiian shirt. He looks like Bill Murray in space.
“I wanted to introduce a kind of complicity,” he says. “Vic was interested in her sexually, but tried to be urbane about it. He’s rejected and you can see that he’s decimated by that and takes refuge in his snails.”
From time to time, Melinda chucks him a crumb: half a handjob, vague fellatio. These sequences are not in the novel and “a lot of people” wanted to ditch them. “The instinct is to make it mundane. Endlessly, they said: ‘Why the snails? Take the snails out!’ But it’s always the bumps that are the most interesting.”
The instinct is to make it mundane. But it’s always the bumps that are the most interesting
So Deep Water is a sort of erotic thriller after all, just one with a lot more gastropods than most. All Lyne’s signature moves are there – baths! Banisters! Very big kitchens! – but there is substance as well as style. There are also abrupt and amazing bits of domestic freakery that Lyne says he stole from Samantha, his wife of 48 years.
Working with Lyne, says the actor Finn Whittrock a few days later, was “a dream come true. My film-maker friends were pretty much in awe of him. He’s an auteur, but never quite got the credit for being so – because of the subject matter and maybe the popularity, too.”
This is probably correct. Something about Lyne’s success (Fatal Attraction was the highest grossing film of 1987) as well as his self-deprecation means he has never been a critical darling, even when he has made movies without synths and shagging. He is blithe about it at first, then, when pressed, admits being close to tears reading reviews and “sometimes getting a bit pissed off, because I don’t think they realise how much you put into it”.
Anyway, in Deep Water, Wittrock plays Melinda’s third lover, Dom: brainy as well as dishy and therefore a big threat. Everyone was lovely on set, he says, but he did feel a bit of a third wheel. Or perhaps fourth, as Lyne and his leads, Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, shared “this intense intimacy. It was a triangle. A little posse they created.”
Lyne introduced the pair when he screen-tested them at his house in late 2019. They then became a couple until breaking up early last year. “I got a very real sense that the chemistry was good,” remembers Lyne. “I remember feeling that with Glenn [Close] and Michael [Douglas].” Match-making is “pleasing, really. You just pray they won’t fall out. And they didn’t!”
Directors have to be as close to actors on a shoot as a spouse, he says – or at least a therapist. This is why he didn’t like having an intimacy coordinator to police the sex scenes. “It implies a lack of trust. And that’s all I have. If the actors don’t trust me, I might as well go home. I’ve gotta make myself vulnerable for them; for them to know I would spill my guts, do anything for them. Then, with any luck, I get the same back.”
When he shot Fatal Attraction, Close and Douglas swigged champagne before their first sex scene, margaritas before their second. “You can’t do that now!” he says wistfully. “Why is everything so serious? God, it’s not like they’re gonna get paralysed or something.”
Actually, there isn’t really a lot of sex in that film, he says – maybe a minute in total. “But that’s what people remember, I suppose because it interests them.”
For someone who has flogged it so profitably, Lyne does not seem that interested in sex, nor in nudity – possibly after so many years living in France. “You see a woman’s breasts on television. You don’t even think about it. You go to the beach and see tiny kids running around naked. What could possibly be more natural?
“Yet, in America, they’ll blur out the buttocks of a four-year-old. I find that dangerous. The suggestion that a little child naked could in any way be prurient I think is truly fucked up. That sort of loss of innocence is a pity.”
Lyne likes living near Marseille and thinks “you’re much better off in Europe”. Unfaithful was a Chabrol adaptation; Truffaut is his hero. He loves Truffaut’s line about Americans making films about heroes and Europeans about losers – and loves it even more when I relate that to Affleck in Deep Water. He looks wrecked; a bleary husk next to a stack of beefcakes.
“He really worked hard at a kind of stillness and vulnerability. At times, he said: ‘You know, it’s not in my DNA.’ And it was! I didn’t want him to be sort of Irish and ebullient and Boston. He was very childlike, in a way. I’m very proud of what he did, because I believe that he loved those snails.” Another big chuckle.
Yet despite his years shuttling between Provence and Los Angeles, when you speak to Lyne, it is as if he could be sitting next door. “He does seem extremely English,” says Whittrock. “I remember being a bit shocked that this is the guy who made Unfaithful. Like: how did that come out of you? There is a kind of civility to him that’s an interesting juxtaposition to the movies he makes. Maybe that’s why they can become heightened and not fall into the muck. There’s a purity. He does intellectualise, even though the movies are so visceral.”
I put this to Lyne, who bats it back amicably. “Well, there’s no need to be rude! If he thought I was unpleasant, I wouldn’t get a lot out of him! And Finn was wonderful. I really dragged him through the mud, but he was so sweet.”
And off he goes again: mild-mannered and happy, telling another story about how fantastic an actor was. After Whittock, it is the turn of Tim Robbins. He remembers an especially intense scene with him in Jacob’s Ladder. The cameraman was crying and he told Robbins he was wonderful. “I remember his eyes were all bloodshot from yelling and he said to me: ‘I know.’
“And in that moment, I really loved the man. I just really fucking loved him for what he’d given me. When you get something good out of an actor, you feel you’ve taken a piece of him – literally a lump of him – that he’ll never get back. You’ve got it! The movie’s got it! He gave me that! The feeling’s so marvellous. That’s why I do it.”
And suddenly Lyne doesn’t look like Bill Murray any more. He looks like the best kind of Hannibal Lecter.
Deep Water is on Amazon Prime Video from 18 March