It was A Small Circle of Friends (1970), a rotten collegiate movie about an indulgent band of 60s somethings, that spoiled things forevermore on the Harvard campus. The havoc caused by the Small Circle shoot, the extreme damage to the grass on Harvard Yard, led to a still-intact ban on film production. That's why James Toback (Two Girls and a Guy, Black and White), a proud 60s graduate at Harvard, was forced to shoot the bulk of his autobiographical new movie, Harvard Man, far away in Toronto.
"Harvard did everything but," Toback told me, when his alma mater was lobbied for help. "They let us use the Harvard name, and the basketball uniforms, but we could not set foot on Harvard property." Interiors - classes, dorm rooms, a basketball court - were Canada-done; the Rhode Island estate of the Mafioso father of a "femme fatale" undergrad (Sarah Michelle Gellar) was relocated to Lake Ontario. But shooting finally came home to Cambridge earlier this month for the last burst of production. "We filmed on Harvard Square, into Harvard Yard, at Sanders Theater, looking at Adams House," Toback said, "a great Harvard look without a camera in a Harvard building."
For key exteriors, filming moved to the banks of the Charles, with Harvard buildings strategically in the background of the emoting actors. Toback invited me to eavesdrop on the Memorial Drive shooting for two afternoons.
The first day, I watched a well-performed scene in which the movie's emrging star, Adrian Grenier, playing a Harvard basketball player deep into an acid trip, runs into the young lady with multi-colored hair who has sold him the drug. But the second day I observed was a loss: Grenier, combatting a real-life stomach bug, couldn't get up the energy to really be in character for a meaningful walk along the river with the woman he loves: his Harvard philosophy prof (Chasing Amy's Joey Lauren Adams).
"You have to get some sleep," Toback told him. "Today has been a disaster, so beneath the level of the rest of the movie, it's dead. Eat, relax, go over the script. We'll shoot tomorrow."
"It's a wrap," the Assistant Director announced, in mid-afternoon. The crew packed up, and Toback and I walked into Harvard Square for coffee. What was the inspiration for this contemporary-set movie? I asked its writer/director.
"It's the lingering memory of my LSD flip-out in 1965, when I was 19 and a sophomore at this august institution of learning. Although I was doing well at Harvard, an undergraduate who 'had everything going for him,' I knew that my drug consumption was taking over my life. I couldn't get through the morning without getting high. I would roll out of bed, brush my teeth, maybe smoke a joint laced with hash."
The antidote for this lowly dependency? LSD!
"I went to Switzerland and got it from the Sanders Laboratory, and I put it in sugar cubes. I felt, having read Aldous Huxley, Robert Graves, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, that I was going to the outer edge of my consciousness. Why live in a box when I could live without limits? And this would cure me, paradoxically, of my drug entrapment, of this embarrassing, petty enslavement.
"I did go way out, but I didn't realize I couldn't go back. This was two years after Leary, and I had taken the largest dose ever to that time!"
For the first nine hours, Toback felt ecstatic. But his acid trip dragged on and on and on. For eight days.
"There's no way of expressing through words what happened. The self left, and the self is tied to language. The odds were that I would commit suicide, gladly blow my brains out on a bridge and go into the Charles. But what if I did that and still existed afterward? If you had guaranteed my death, I'd have grabbed it."
So drugs are in Harvard Man and also, a Toback signature, hot and graphic sex. "The movie starts with a split-screen opening credit," the filmmaker explained with relish, "a Harvard-Holy Cross basketball game and this Harvard philosophy major fucking Sarah Michelle Gellar, with the camera right behind his naked ass."
There's more: a realistic look at American college life.
"All you get are these goofball Animal House off-shoots. That's the sole way undergrad life has been represented, as a Spring Break practical joke. My movie has the right language, a real sense of the academic. Joey gives two lectures, on Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, dense, serious, philosophical, what you actually would be hearing in a classroom."
Toback could screen-write professor oratory because, well, he'd been one, teaching Literature at CCNY in 1971 in what he considers the world's greatest English department: Donald Barthelme, Ishmael Reed, Joseph Heller, John Hawkes, Israel Horowitz. Then came movies: Toback's script for The Gambler (1974), then his torrid directorial debut with the Harvey Keitel-starring Fingers (1978).
"I'm the only guy in my age bracket still making movies about young people," Toback said, a vigorous independent at 55, annoyed at unnamed colleagues who take millions for impersonal, sluggish Hollywood assignments. "They shoot their own asshole...with special effects."