The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Val.
How did this project manifest?
Leo Scott: I was editing a half hour comedy where Val Kilmer was playing himself as a motivational speaker in this sort of parallel universe. It was such a great performance, so bonkers and I wanted to tell him that. The director Harmony Korine insisted that I tell him and gave me his email address. I wrote him and within thirty seconds he replied to me and that was beginning of our sort of friendship. Val then asked me to help him edit together some of the plays he was doing as he was touring as Mark Twain, his one-man play Citizen Twain. I would edit these together and send them back to Val. He then asked me to help him film behind the scenes, and I started recording that process. A year or two after working with him on that he asked me to help him digitize this mountain of tapes that he had been gathering for decades and I couldn’t believe how enormous this archive was. I would take away these boxes and digitize them with the help of an assistant. Even after nine months I wasn’t even through them all… every different format you could imagine and incredible materials that would blow your mind. We started making a piece around the Mark Twain character, around the idea of acting and creating a role. After early assembly we had to abandon the project because Val was dealing with some health issues. We put it aside but it was always there in my mind. It wasn’t until two or three years later when Ting, my friend and collaborator and fellow editor came to me since she had seen some of this material a few years earlier.
Ting Poo: Leo and I had reconnected after a few years and I always remembered him in his garage with all those tapes. I had seen some of the material before and it had stuck with me. You don’t forget something like that in terms of film history—never before seen footage from all these iconic movie sets. But also, on a human level that he recorded his own personal life with so much diligence and all these intimate moments with his family and childhood. I asked Leo, whatever came of all that amazing stuff? And he said we had put it aside, but now might be a great time to pick it up. So we went to Val and asked if he’d be willing to make something bigger out of it, encompassing a life story of his career and personal life and he was up for it. We cut together a short three-minute piece that represented what our vision for what the film could be tonally. We really wanted to lean into this kind of first-person story told from his perspective, because the footage really lent itself to that. It was seeing his life—his incredible life—through his lens and his eyes.
It was seeing his life—his incredible life—through his lens
Was there any one moment that really crystallized for you two that this could be a feature film?
LS: I think it’s more than just the interesting footage from movie sets. It’s Val and his life and his incredible arc and all the different sides to him. It’s difficult to do a first-person story in feature length because very few characters would sustain that… even those ones that would be interesting certainly wouldn’t have filmed their whole lives like he did. It’s an incredible combination to have this amazing life and have had it filmed. It’s more about the man in the middle than any particular piece of footage. But obviously you can name any number of memorable things that I knew had to go into the film. From him cutting his hair in the video with the fireplace in the 90s to Slab Boys, his early Broadway performance or seeing the young Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon and Kevin saying “is that a real video camera Val?”. There are thousands of golden little pieces scattered throughout the archive.
TP: There’s also an artistic nature to the way some of it is shot—aside from all the behind-the-scenes movie footage, the things that catch his attention and the sort of dreamy nature in which he would shoot himself sometimes. He’d do little camera tricks where he’d appear in frame all of sudden, like on a beautiful landscape in New Mexico. That’s someone that’s trying to make an artistic moment in camera, because that’s how it was done back then. It’s those little things that pointed to his personality as an artist. There was footage where he wasn’t just documenting the situation, but it was an artist trying to speak.
The opening felt pitch perfect right down to the Harry Nilsson song. I imagine you could’ve found a thousand different ways into the film. How did you choose the opening?
TP: The Nilsson song was in there pretty early and it helped that Val is a big fan of his. We asked Val who his favorite musical artists were and a lot of them made it into the film. The sequence itself where we introduce Jack as a voiceover character, we probably played with that over and over again and didn’t really get it right until the end. There was part of us that wanted to leave him as a reveal to the very end, so that this voice would come in and maybe the reveal that it was his son would’ve been more emotionally effective. But then he ended up sounded so much like Val that we didn’t want people to be hung up throughout the film wondering who is this, is this Val, is this someone they cast to sound like him? We didn’t want it to be a distraction. So we decided to do a little bit up front and then reveal him right away so that you can then get lost in the voice. And then after a while, it really does feel like it’s Val speaking to you.
LS: In addition to that, we did like this idea of Val making scrapbooks because that’s something he does and has done before; he has made physical art as long as he’s been making movies. The scrapbook motif is also inspirational for how we put together the film—the idea of a scrapbook and how he puts things together and these interesting juxtapositions that he finds. They’re very unique to his mind. He’s been doing these since the late 90s, and if you got to see any of them, they’re quite extraordinary. We wanted that to inspire the way we put the film together. Putting things together that make sense in a maybe slightly obtuse way…
TP: More of a cinematic, impressionistic scrapbook of different moments of his life.
Which themes resonated to you early on and perhaps evolved or changed during the filmmaking process?
LS: I feel like you set out to make one film and you write it down, and our paper version of the film evolved so much and it’s a completely different shape now. There are a lot of similar ingredients but I’d say the themes that we set out with did come through and I feel we did succeed in making Val feel understood.
TP: I think our biggest goal was to represent a very complex and intense creative spirit. We wanted to do justice to this person that we had gotten to know because people just don’t know who he is as a person, and he’s a really remarkable human being to be around. Hopefully you get some sense of what it’s like to be around him from watching the film.