Upon sitting down in the conference room at the Charles Hotel for a brief interview with The Crimson, Alek Keshishian '86 tossed a pack of Marlboro Lights on the table with his left hand and inhaled Primatine Mist with his right. He waggishly shook his longish gray-streaked hair, explaining, "This is for my asthma, man."
Like asthmatic smokers everywhere--well, at least like Tonya Harding--Alek Keshishian is talented and driven. Not quite 30, he is well on his way to a long, lucrative Hollywood career. He has already made two major films, the recently released "With Honors" and the critically acclaimed documentary of Madonna's Blond Ambition tour, "Truth or Dare."
Possible future projects include a film about the life of Hart Crane and a movie version of his Harvard thesis ("Wuthering Heights," the pop opera). Undoubtedly, his success will continue, for, in the precise, insightful words of Brandon Fraser, star of "With Honors": "Alek's adept at telling the story; he has--I mean I admire this quality in his work, which is the capacity of technically telling the story by knowing where to put the camera. That's a skill that's, that's, it's not usually learned in terms of the physical talent, whatever that is. He has that; he certainly does."
Crimson: When you get to Harvard, the movie they show everybody is "Love Story." And I was thinking, "Love Story" is sort of boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl. And this is sort of boy meets bum, boy gets bum, boy loses bum. It's sort of a baroque variation of "Love Story" to me. I don't know if you had it in your mind when you filming the movie...
Alek Keshishian: Well, being kind of anal, I guess I did. You know what? I didn't have "Love Story" in mind. I didn't. First of all, "Love Story" is about graduate students.
Q: It's about undergrads.
A: She was a graduate student, wasn't she? Wasn't she in med school?
Q: I didn't think so
A: I thought she was. I don't know. I might be wrong; I might be confusing it with "Paper Chase"... If it wasn't, they were really old to be playing those characters. Or maybe they were undergrads and it took them through graduate school. At any rate, you do have a point, but one could make that same point about a lot of movies. There are a classic number of stories that are told repeatedly, and hopefully you try to make them still work viscerally.
If you want to critically take them apart, most movies will lend themselves to that kind of layout, especially a Hollywood studio picture...They wait until their script gets like that before they let you make the movie--until you've proven yourself like a Spielberg or an Oliver Stone or something, at which point they'll let you make "difficult movies"...
What I mean by "difficult movie" is a difficult movie for Hollywood to market. How do you market a black-and-white movie about the Holocaust? Well- if I went in there and told them I want to shoot a black-and-white about the Holocaust, will you give me twenty-seven million dollars, of course they're gonna say no. You kinda have to work to that point. If I want to make a movie version of the play "Bent," which is about gays during the Holocaust, they're not gonna finance that for me right now, you know? I'm gonna need to pay my dues for them and make what's considered "entertainment movies."
Q: I got the feeling when I saw this movie, I thought, wow--this will be another "Love Story"--
A:--for Harvard students.
Q: Right, I could see people seeing it over and over and over again. And I could see a few persisting questions that would keep coming up with each screening. I think one would be, when Brendan Fraser's hard drive crashes: 1. Why didn't he back up on floppy? And 2. Why was he using that cheap IBM clone?
A: Well, he was using the cheap IBM clone because he is a scholarship student who doesn't have much money, so that answer is easy. In fact, we chose that computer even though we had a deal with Apple because I said that his character wouldn't be able to afford--that computer should be a fifth-generation hand-me-down that he, like, bought for twenty-five bucks.
As far as the floppy goes, we played with this. I mean, if I'm gonna be really honest with you guys, I'm gonna say that part of the problem was that the whole deal thing got very, very complicated. The way I justified it, or the way we justified it--for better or for worse--was this: He didn't a store it on floppy drive. Why? Because he was reckless...but maybe more importantly because he had a hard copy. He had a xerox. In other words, what were the chances of both things going wrong? Well, as it turns out, it was his own character flaw that made him essentially lose that thesis in the first place.
In other words, great, the lightning struck--that happens, that's happened to me. I've lost things on my computer--by the way, I have a floppy on my computer as well, and there's a lot of stuff that I don't store in it--important stuff. You just don't get around to it, and you become so reliant on the thing. 99 percent of the time, it's working fine.
So you write, like, that intensive, incredible ten-page treatment, and you're just working on it, and you're about to print it out, and you're just making one more change, and it gets lost--and you didn't store it on floppy. You just didn't.
Granted, he had ten chapters--it's important. But I think you gotta get past that--really that's not why this story began. This story began when he dropped his thesis in the grate. And what made him do that? It was his cockiness. He is a bit compulsive, as one of them says. Moira's telling him wait until morning. What, do you think someone's gonna come in and steal it? I mean, your arrogance about the importance of these pages that it can't wait until morning. His arrogance when he turns around to her and says, "Face it, Courtney, you just can't keep up with me. I didn't ask you to come along." And it's almost like, he does statement after statement after statement, and he falls. And really, ultimately, the floppy disk thing? Pretend he had floppy disks, and he decided that he was gonna take the floppy disks to the Science Center to get them printed out, and the floppy disks fell. It just felt like pages were kinda more, visually immediate.
Q: One meal, and you get the floppy disk back.
A: Yeah, right. You would have had to have done a scene where Simon went to the Science Center and printed out the floppy disk and turned it into pages again. I don't know. God, if that's the biggest question people have I'll be happy. It's a good point, but I think it's one that we were aware of, and we just did the best we could.
The Cast: Harvard is Cool. Very Cool.
With the release of "With Honors," we have had the opportunity to scrutinize the cast, but they had an earlier opportunity to evaluate us. For three heady weeks last spring, Hollywood came to Harvard. The cast of "With Honors" spent one week hanging out with students and crashing their parties and then filmed the movie for the other two. Since then, the campus has lived with the uncertainty: What did the actors think of Harvard? Are we cool? That is, the campus has lived with the uncertainty--until now. In brief interviews with the Crimson, actors Patrick Dempsey and Moira Kelly finally open up about their Harvard experiences.
Q: When you visited Harvard, what did you think of the parties, and what did you think of the people?
Patrick Dempsey; Well, I think it doesn't matter who is a student at that point. It doesn't matter what college you go to, it was a basic college party. You know, there was the beer. I was like, is there any wine here? No no no, it was just beer, keg parties, stuff like that. And it'd depend on where you were at, what final club you went to. You know, the Lampoon is a different party altogether than from like, say, you go to the Owl Club. That's whole, a whole, a whole different ballgame...
The people I've met here have been real cool to me. I've had a really good time. All the final clubs opened their doors to me--except for the Phoenix. The Phoenix was really stuffy. Which one is the really stuffy one, man, that was so, I don't know, I hate to bite the hand that feeds me. Which one is it? It's on Mt. Auburn, right?...They're a little stuck in tradition, let's say, you have to sign in. And I just barged right in, went to the second floor, went into the private room, and just had a great time...
Everybody's pretty bright that I ran into, you know, the only thing that's missing is just being out in the world. And that was the thing that came up the most in conversation, was what's it like being outside. The students I ran into wanted to get out. They were tired of being here. The novelty of being at Harvard, it was like all right, yeah, okay, so, next, been there, done that, let's move on. And that surprised me. It was good; there was no pretension about it. Everybody was sort of like well it took a lot of work to get in here now I can have a little bit more fun, freedom, and it's like, what do I want to do?
Q: You visited Harvard.
Moira Kelly: Yeah.
And what did you think--are we cool?
A: You're very cool, actually, you're very cool. I was excited to play a Harvard student 'cause I got a diploma at the end of the film for Courtney Blumenthal. I kinda wanted it to say Moira Kelly, so my mom could hang it on the wall.
I'm impressed. I'm very impressed with the Ivy League school situation. Having been in college myself, and I visited a lot of colleges. There is a similar feeling about trying to decide what you want to do with the rest of your life, and everyone has that doubt and that confusion, and you wonder if you're doing the right thing.
But I find at Harvard they're more scholastically driven than any other colleges. They party; they have good times; they're human beings. But they're more motivated by their work...On a large scale, the majority of kids do not care. But they still have the same fears; they'd rather party, though, than study. Which you might want to at Harvard, too, but you guys can handle the partying and study because you're so smart. I'm kidding.