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Cast by the Sea

Director Michael Caton-Jones reunites THIS BOY'S LIFE co-stars Robert De Niro and Eliza Dushku, along with acclaimed actress Frances McDormand, in CITY BY THE SEA

By Pamela Harland     September 10, 2002

Robert De Niro, Michael Caton-Jones and James Franco on the set of CITY BY THE SEA
© 2002 Warner Bros.
Waiting nine years to work again with one of Hollywood's top-notch actors is always worth the wait for actress Eliza Dushku. So when THIS BOY'S LIFE director Michael Caton-Jones wanted Dushku to act alongside Robert De Niro once again for his new crime drama CITY BY THE SEA, she didn't think twice about it.

"It was nice to come back in and do it again," says the now 21-year-old Dushku who is best known for her stint as Faith the vampire slayer on BUFFY. "It was really exciting because I didn't really know who [Robert De Niro] was back then so I got another chance to get to hang out with him and watch and take notes."

Caton-Jones agrees the second time around was much more fulfilling for him as well.

"It was a lot easier for me this time," says Caton-Jones. "Mainly because you know you have a shorthand way of working and you are more aware of the strengths and weaknesses. You also worry less about getting certain things. I could actually shut my mouth a lot more this time."

Frances McDormand in CITY BY THE SEA

In CITY BY THE SEA De Niro plays detective Vincent LaMarca who is in the middle of investigating a murder when he suddenly finds his estranged son Joey (James Franco) at the center of the case. Dushku plays Joey's ex-girlfriend Gina who is also the mother of his son. And Frances McDormand stars as Michelle, Vincent's casual girlfriend who finds herself having to decide whether or not to stand by LaMarca through his crisis.

McDormand, 45, didn't mind playing another "girlfriend" type opposite De Niro because she says both De Niro and Caton-Jones allowed her to voice her opinions on her character and incorporate those views into the film.

"There was a scene that I had questions about and I asked about it," says McDormand. "And then Michael asked me what I thought and I told him, probably more than he wanted to know. And then he said to Bob, 'What do you think?' And Bob said, 'Well, I thought it was fine until Fran got here.' This is the basis of our relationship which I think is a really good element."

Appealing as it was to saddle up again with Caton-Jones, De Niro says he wanted to do the role because of the script foremost, even though playing a cop again treads on familiar territory for the 59-year-old De Niro.

"He was a cop but also a guy who was in a situation that you could empathize with and relate to," says De Niro. "I could. So he was a cop, yes, and that's part of the whole structure of the thing but it's not the essence of it. It's about what happens with a father and a son, the father not being there and sort of giving up at one point and then being forced to go back because of what he does do and face it."

Robert De Niro, Michael Caton-Jones and James Franco on the set of CITY BY THE SEA

Although the role is based on a real story and person, De Niro says he never did get to meet the real Vincent LaMarca, which worked to his advantage on this particular project.

"I always want to meet the person," says De Niro, "but in this case I maybe felt that the script ... I was very satisfied with it. And there's always a benefit to meeting the real person, to say the least, even if you get a bit of information. In this case, I guess I was so into the script that I just didn't do it this time. But I'm very happy to meet him now."

De Niro's emphasis on the writing is clear. He feels strongly about having a comprehensive and well-articulated story and script already being down on paper before he takes step one onto the set. And if it isn't there the film will suffer greatly for it.

"No matter who you could do a story about it could be about Christ if the script at the end of the day isn't there then there's nothing," says De Niro. "Everybody wants to make a story about this and that saying, 'I have a life story and it's great,' but you have to have the script. You have to have what's there. So that was the most important thing."

Almost as significant as the writing to director Caton-Jones is location. He feels the setting works as another lead character for the film.

"It's very important where a film is set," says Caton-Jones. "I think you can influence the emotions, and if you choose carefully, the background. And in this case it was very important for me to try and reflect what [LaMarca's] emotional journey may be. In doing that we shot in Asbury Park in Jersey and basically we left it the way it was. It was rundown and a bit surreal."

Also a bit surreal for both McDormand and Dushku was De Niro's uncanny ability to improvise, something both of the actresses weren't accustomed to, especially with the likes of Robert De Niro who is known for his "in the moment" spontaneity with new dialogue.

"He is a master of it," says McDormand. "And I'm really bad at it. I'm always like, 'The script, stay with the script.' I think it was done more in some of the scenes that the dialogue went back and forth faster. And it was exciting for me because I'm not good with it in cinema. I'm more of a stick-to-the-script actress. So it's great to be thrown off. I loved it."

Eliza Dushku in CITY BY THE SEA

Unfamiliar with ad-libbing as well, Dushku says she took the whole experience as a great opportunity to learn from the "master".

"It's a little intimidating going into an improvisational act with Bob, that's for sure," says Dushku. "But at the same time you can get a lot of stuff that isn't written on the page. A lot of emotions and things that are very spontaneous come out."

An area where the Academy Award-winning veteran McDormand does feel confident in is spewing some show business longevity advice for the young Dushku.

"Have a life," says McDormand. "Make sure you have a life. You have to have a life because every actor, even Bob, is unemployed at some point. And you've got to know what to do when you are unemployed. If you don't know what to do when you are unemployed then you are always going to be looking for somebody to give you a job."

Advice from De Niro, naturally, comes in a more ambiguous form.

"As you get older you realize what's important and what's not important," explains De Niro. "It's better to be more relaxed about approaching [acting] than to be worried. It makes it easier because you are going to get there anyway. So you shouldn't worry about it."

De Niro admits, however, on set he was more protective and playful like a father with Dushku than a mentor.

"Well, with Eliza, we just bothered her a lot about her boyfriend," laughs De Niro.

Which, says Dushku, kept her from revealing her boyfriend to the very intimidating actor.

"Bob was like, 'Who you dating?'" laughs Dushku, "'I'll break his legs!'"

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