Watching De Niro Play Your Dad, In A Movie About You

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Nick Flynn's latest memoir is "The Reenactments." (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Nick Flynn's latest memoir is "The Reenactments." (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

In his 2004 memoir "Another Bulls**t Night In Suck City," Nick Flynn wrote about his parents' divorce, his mother's suicide and his father's alcoholism and homelessness.

Flynn himself struggled with addiction, but he also found work at a Boston homeless shelter where his dad, who Flynn hadn't seen in years, turned up as a client.

The book became a best seller and was made into the 2012 film "Being Flynn," starring Robert De Niro as Flynn's father, Julianne Moore as Flynn's mother, and Paul Dano as Flynn.

Nick Flynn was deeply involved in the production of the film. He took Robert De Niro to meet his father, answered Julianne Moore's questions about the drugs that his mother took, and was on the set during much of the filming.

As he told Here & Now's Robin Young, the experience of watching and helping to make the movie provoked a myriad of emotional responses.

Flynn writes about that experience in his new memoir, "The Reenactments" (read excerpt below):

"Some days... I was elated, some days I was completely thrown off balance, some days I was you know, just in complete awe of being in the presence of Robert De Niro, some days I was bored out of my mind, you know it's a very strange experience."

____Book Excerpt: 'The Reenactments'

By: Nick Flynn____

The Reenactments book cover

Chapter One

(2011) All hushed, seven of us huddle in a kitchen, stare into a monitor. It’s about to start. The actress playing my mother (Julianne Moore) stares back at us—she’s in the middle of a living room, the room is just behind this wall, but I haven’t gone into the living room, not yet. A set of headphones hangs from an empty chair with my name on them—Dan points to them, points to my head. It’s only the sixth day of shooting, we are in a house in Queens, the owner rents it out at times for films like this, films that contain flashbacks to 1970s smalltown America. This kitchen—paneling stamped to look like wood, avocado-green refrigerator, seamless linoleum floor that looks like tiny bricks—is perfect. It’s supposed to be my childhood home, but we will never step outside this house. Today and tomorrow are all interiors—-after that we will be gone. Julianne is soaking wet, having just failed to throw herself into the ocean. Or, rather, having failed to keep herself under the waves after she did. You will know this by the next scene, from the note she will write—I know it already, having read the script, having written the book, having been there the first time around. We are meant to imagine that the ocean is near—walking distance—near enough for her to still be wet, which it was. Julianne stands there, waits, eyes downcast, looking toward the familiar carpet, a version of the wall-to-wall we once had (textured, harvest gold). At ACTION she begins to sob, or wail. I think of Saramago’s Blindness, how no one was there, at the beginning of the universe, God’s hands (hands?) working the nothingness into the somethingness, yet everyone knows what happened.

Antonio Damasio, the clinical neurobiologist, in The Feeling of What Happens, offers this:
The neurobiology of consciousness faces two problems: the problem of how the movie-in-the-brain is generated, and the problem of how the brain also generates the sense that there is an owner and observer for that movie. The two problems are so intimately related that the latter is nested within the former. In effect, the second problem is that of generating the appearance of an owner and observer for the movie within the movie . . .
I’m sitting on my childhood couch (plaid), in my childhood home (Third Cliff), even though I haven’t entered that house in years. If I were fifteen I’d be stoned, and if my mother came in she might be stoned as well. If this were my couch (is this my couch?). I ask Tom, who has something to do with set dressing, Was all this furniture here? He looks around: Some of it was. Here’s the new thinking: the brain creates the mind.It seems obvious, once you think about it (In this it resembles all the old thinking).One way the brain does this, according to Damasio, is by “creating images which are unconscious momentary patterns on sheets of neurons called maps.” Unlike our usual map, though, these maps won’t really help you to find your way, not out of this. Each is momentary, one small point in the house you’ve been wandering, lost, all these years.

How did I end up in Queens, in this house which is not my house, watching a woman who is not my mother (yet somehow is) reenact the last moments of her life? How? I said yes (yet I could have just as easily said no)—it’s as simple as that. After all, how often are you offered the chance for a complete reenactment of the day of the disaster? After all, who doesn’t feel, at times, like you are watching the movie being made of your life (if only you had just one more take things might have worked out better)? After all, whose childhood home doesn’t feel like a prop, until you leave it, then it is the dream you enter, night after night.

The director (Paul Weitz) yells, CUT, and a frenzy of activity invades Julianne’s solitude—the lights must be adjusted, the camera moved in closer. Hair redampened, makeup retouched. Then someone (not Paul) yells, SET, and just as quickly everyone vanishes. At ACTION Julianne begins to wail again, but this time in a way that is almost animal—a three-in-the-morning, dying-in-the-woods animal sound. Water drips from Julianne’s sleeve onto the carpet. A lamp behind her bleeds light into the living room (strange term, living room)—the window beside it, also bleeding.

Anne Carson, in her introduction to her translation of Sophocles’ Electra, catalogues Electra’s various cries throughout the play, each with its own significance. Let us consider how Electra constructs her screams. You know the story: Electra’s father (Agamemnon) is murdered by her mother (Clytemnestra) and her stepfather (Aegisthus). Electra declares, I cannot not grieve, and so she wails, rages, laments, despairs.

I think of this as I watch Julianne. I watch each take.

Then it’s over—CUT. Paul goes to her, I can see them on the screen, he is telling her something—about tears, I imagine—while a woman adjusts her hair. Then someone calls out, SET, and everyone, at once, vanishes—my mother is alone again, looking down at the carpet. At ACTION she holds herself this time as she sobs, and then she stops, stares into a middle distance for what seems forever (For the dead, I see, feel no pain)—CUT. The costumer joins her onscreen, wraps a white terry-cloth bathrobe around her shoulders. Then she steps out of the frame of the monitor, and all that remains is an empty room. On her way out, on her way to her trailer, she passes close by me, but I do not reach out, I do not say hi, though we had spoken just yesterday, the first day she was my mother.

The feeling of what happens—the last thing my mother’s hand would touch was a pen, the last words she would write were, I feel too much. She wrote these words, this phrase, three times—
I feel too much
I feel too much
I feel too much
—each letter getting larger as she wrote, until by the last page there was only room for these four words. Then nothing, then silence—no, not silence, no—the last thing her hand would touch wasn’t a pen, wasn’t a word, wasn’t a note, no, that’s not right.

Dark polyethylene filters are being taped to the windows, making it night. The actor playing me when I’m eleven (Liam Broggy) is sitting beside me on the couch (this looks nothing like my childhood home). We’re between shots (this is how poor people live), the lights are being moved (except I did have this awful white paneling in my bedroom), Yesterday, when we first met, Liam told me he wanted to be a writer. I was distracted by his—my, our (the?)—mother (Julianne), who was standing a few feet away, holding a basket of laundry. I hadn’t spoken to her yet, I didn’t know if I could. She was about to read my notebook, the words I wrote, years ago, a story I was working on, which may or may not have set in motion her suicide. The notebook was hidden, misplaced, behind a pillow on the couch we are now sitting on. Liam asked me, What do you have to do to become a writer? I looked at him (is this what people mean when they refer to their inner child?). What do you have to do? You write, to be a writer you have to write. . . . My inner child, and what do I do? I snap, I bark, I’m short. Now I’m trying to make it up to him. I tell him I started out trying to write things that were like what I liked to read—mysteries, science fiction, horror. Philip K. Dick, Vonnegut, Poe.
What do you read? I ask.
Yesterday was the sixth day of filming, it was Julianne’s first day, I knew that, I couldn’t help but know it, as the day approached. I couldn’t help but think, perversely, that on Wednesday, in two days, I would meet my mother again, after so many years. I even told a friend in Texas, Tomorrow I get to see my mom again, and he looked at me with horror, maybe pity, hard to tell. On the sixth day God created man and woman and gave them dominion over the fish and the earth and birds and all that crawls and slithers. On the sixth day God created the only animal that commits suicide.

The neurobiologist Vilayanur (V. S.) Ramachandran, in A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness, offers this:
One common fallacy is to assume there is an image inside your eyeball, the optical image, exciting photoreceptors on your retina and then that image is transmitted faithfully along a cable called the optic nerve and displayed on a screen called the visual cortex. This is obviously a logical fallacy because if you have an image displayed on a screen in the brain, then you have to have someone else in there watching that image, and that someone needs someone else in his head, and so on ad infinitum.
Now Paul, like some demented god, leans over Julianne, telling her what to write in her note. Then he takes me aside, asks me if there is anything she could write between the passage where she reads my notebook and the passage where she tells me she tried to throw herself in the ocean. This, I’m learning, is part of the reason I’m here—to fill in the white space hovering around the story of what happened. I take a page and write, “I tried so hard, I wanted everything to be alright.”
Perfect, Paul says.
Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. I wasn’t aware our first day with Julianne was Ash Wednesday until one of the women from the office came to set with the little X smudged onto her forehead (the thumbprint of the priest). If you’re Catholic (I’m not), then you know you’re supposed to give something up for Lent—cigarettes, chocolate, porn. It is a period meant, for believers, to be a reenactment of the time Jesus went into the desert—a time of prayer, repentance, almsgiving. Of self-denial. To contemplate, to meditate, to evaporate. To escape, briefly, the cage of ego. Forty days is what we usually say when we talk about Jesus in the desert, but what this means is simply a long time—like Noah’s rain, like Moses on the mountain. More than a month. Long enough to starve, which is why we give something up—anything—in order to empathize with Jesus, with his sacrifice. Most scholars, though, agree that Jesus must have eaten something in the desert—some berries, some leaves, whatever grew there. Not much, but something. No one goes for forty days without food, not even Christ himself.

As Julianne readies herself for the next take, the line producer (Caroline) touches my thigh, to offer comfort (I guess), but it feels like an electric prod. This morning, when I first got to set, Paul’s assistant (Dan) tried to pitch me two ideas for movies—one about a cat who spits up diamonds, the other a homoerotic prison flick. It was, it seemed, his job to distract me—I was only too willing to be distracted. When Julianne stops crying, Paul turns to me, asks if I’m okay, then asks if I have anything for him, by which he means do I have any input on what we are seeing. What I am seeing is my mother on the day of her suicide, a day I’ve only imagined, endlessly, not having been with her on that day. I ask if the room has changed in the ten years since yesterday, when Liam played me. It hasn’t really, and I’m unsure if it should—it didn’t seem our house ever changed. Yesterday Paul took me aside and said I didn’t have to come, not on Julianne’s days, but where else would I go?
We will be filming for forty days.
I just counted the days out on my calendar.
If you have an image displayed on a screen in the brain, then you have to have someone else in there watching that image. . . . This imagined someone inside our heads, watching the movie in our brains, is known among neurobiologists as the homunculus. Some call it the ghost in the machine. Almost all neurobiologists believe that there is no homunculus—no one but us inside our heads, in spite of what it may feel like. Yet this feeling, this sensation, brings up what is known as “the hard problem of consciousness”—what is it exactly that creates this feeling of knowing, of watching our lives, self-consciously, as they unfold? Another word for this is qualia—the sensation of having a sensation—the sense that there is something separate, or parallel, or outside of, our consciousness, outside of what we think of as “self.” Most neurobiologists insist qualia are illusory, wholly generated from within, from chemicals firing between our synapses.

Now the cameraman (Gerard—another tiny god) rides his infernal machine toward Julianne, his eye to the lens. The grips have built a little train track in the living room—the camera is on a little train, and the cameraman sits on his little seat. The camera is inexorable as it pushes in toward her. Julianne sits with a towel around her shoulders—she has read my notebook (the prop notebook), she has tried to throw herself into the ocean (the ocean we will never see), and now she is writing her note. Now she is writing what I just wrote.


Throughout my whole life, Teilhard de Chardin wrote, during every minute of it, the world has been gradually lighting up and blazing before my eyes until it has come to surround me, entirely lit up from within. As my mother, as Julianne, writes her note I wonder about fury, her fury—is she holding on to the pen, or is the pen holding, propping, her up? It is, perhaps, only at this moment, in seeing this, in being here, that I have allowed myself to wonder about that, about her fury.

The owner of this house, I think his name is John, I saw him yesterday making his way to the basement, where (I hear) he has set up a room entirely dedicated to baseball—signed baseballs in glass cases, baseball bats on the walls, posters of Jeter, framed cards from bubblegum packs, baseball hats, memorabilia. The cameraman tells me I have to go down there to see it, but I never do. John reminds me of my father, the way he inhabits his body—in it but not of it, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses say about their place in the world. I was on my way upstairs as he was heading down. I heard there was a bathroom upstairs, which seemed odd, which seemed somehow not right, that the faucets would actually work here, that the toilet would flush. Isn’t this a prop? Isn’t this a dream? Where do you piss in your dreams?

On the way to the airport yesterday, to fly from Texas to here, someone on the radio was talking about a television show from the 1950s called This Is Your Life, apparently a prototype for our current reality television. The format was this: someone (usually an average American) would be invited before a studio audience, and one by one the significant figures from his or her life would be paraded out—to tell a short vignette, to have a brief reunion. Always there would be at least one dramatic moment, a wild card—a long-lost love, a missing childhood friend, but occasionally they pushed even deeper. In one episode a woman who had lost her entire family—mom, dad, siblings—in the Holocaust (though they didn’t yet call it the Holocaust) is reunited with a brother, long considered dead. In another episode a man, a Japanese minister (Kiyoshi Tanimoto), who survived the bombing of Hiroshima, gets to meet one of the U.S. pilots (Robert A. Lewis) of the Enola Gay, the plane that carried the bomb (Little Boy). As copilot on the Enola Gay that day, it was Lewis who, as he watched the city below him burst into flame, uttered My god, what have I done? Lewis had, seemingly, stopped off at a bar before the show—to hear him it seems like he is breaking down, about to break down. The Japanese minister seems calm, the radio tells me—he is there with two women who survived the blast yet got deformed by it. By the radiation. By the fallout. By the isotopes. By the half-life.

If you have an image displayed on a screen in the brain, then you have to have someone else in there watching that image, and that someone needs someone else in his head, and so on ad infinitum. . . . And what happens when the images in your head begin to move, first in your dreams, then inside your waking, and then she is standing right in front of you, impossibly, again? What happens when she begins to speak the words you wrote for her to speak, the words that were spoken to you, that you transcribed? What happens when you can sit on the couch in your childhood home and speak to your childhood self, and all you want to do is warn him not to write, not to write a word, even though you know it will be impossible to stop him?

In For the Time Being Annie Dillard offers this: According to Inuit culture in Greenland, a person possesses six or seven souls. The souls take the form of tiny people scattered throughout the body. . . .

Hidden behind Julianne, just out of sight of the camera, behind that wall, is the guy that turns the lamp on (Tom), and the guy who found the lamp (Ryan), and the woman who will adjust her hair (Monica). My mother looks utterly alone, but they are lurking around her, just out of sight.

Dillard goes on to note that, in Buddhism, it is always a mistake to think your soul can go it alone.

My god, what have I done?

Or did the copilot say, My god, what have we done?

Excerpted from the book THE REENACTMENTS by Nick Flynn. Copyright © 2013 by Nick Flynn. Reprinted with permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.


This segment aired on January 16, 2013.


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