Val Kilmer on a life in illusion and the new documentary Val
Val Kilmer was in movies he wasn’t.
The new documentary “Val”, packed with footage shot by Kilmer during his 61 years, includes home videos and behind-the-scenes glimpses, as you might expect. But the most remarkable thing is seeing Kilmer’s own audition tapes. It’s not just a few scenes here and there. They capture Kilmer alive in games – including some he’s never been able to (officially) play.
There are pictures of him as Henry Hill in “Goodfellas”. Hamlet whom he has attacked in private for years. He was so engrossed in being in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket that Kilmer asked a friend to shoot him, in riot gear, walking through a California swamp. In another clip, he shoots bullets live in the backyard.
“I am a firm believer in magical realism on and off the screen,” Kilmer said in an email interview. “The transformation and / or manifestation of each character is really just a PRAYER.”
“Val,” which a24 hits theaters July 23 and Amazon Prime debuts August 6, recently premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Here in France to celebrate the occasion were her children, Mercedes and Jack Kilmer, and directors Ting Poo and Leo Scott. Kilmer, who has difficulty speaking after throat cancer and numerous tracheal surgeries, was unable to attend.
But exchanging words via email from Los Angeles, Kilmer said he felt “blessed and grateful” as “Val” made his early arrival. For years, hours of tapes had sat in boxes. But losing his voice has made Kilmer only want to tell his story – a limitless life of wholehearted abandonment – all the more.
Kilmer, himself, tends to view his life with a mystical harmony and a sense of destiny. That the documentary has happened – through a confluence of people and events – he says is “once in a lifetime.”
“I should KNOW,” Kilmer said. “It’s my life.”
And for much of Kilmer’s life, he self-documented it. It all started with 16mm shorts and movie parodies with her brother, Wesley, who died as a child of an epileptic seizure in a hot tub. Forever, like a habit solidified by grief, Kilmer often had a camera in his hands. In “Val,” we see him filming fresh-faced Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon backstage on Broadway in “Slab Boys”; in his trailer during the filming of “Top Gun”; pushing Marlon Brando and at war with director John Frankenheimer on “Dr Moreau’s Island”.
“My brother Wesley and my mom are both alive in the movie,” says Kilmer. “Seeing these images, films and art created by Wesley in the context of the rest of the story is extremely meaningful. I lost my mother during the filming, so I am more and more moved with each viewing. There are laughs. There are tears.
Scenes like the one he performed on “Dr Moreau’s Island” helped give Kilmer a reputation as a “difficult” actor. But in “Val” we see an actor motivated less by ego than by extreme, even manic, dedication.
“I have lived in the illusion almost as much as I have lived outside of it,” he says in “Val”. “I behaved badly. I behaved courageously. I behaved strangely with some. I don’t deny any of this and have no regrets because I lost and regained parts of myself that I didn’t know existed.
Kilmer, the youngest actor ever accepted to Julliard when he was there, has experienced the ups and downs of stardom more dramatically than most. Her break came in 1984’s “Top Secret!” one of the few films that traded his talent for comedy. (Another, decades later, was “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.”)
“He’s the funniest person I know,” says Jack Kilmer, 26, sitting next to his 29-year-old sister in Cannes. “Everyone who knows him thinks: He’s so funny. He should do more comedies. All his best friends, the jokes don’t stop. Yet he is known as a serious and dramatic actor.
“Val” is narrated by Kilmer but expressed, movingly, by Jack. Her son looks and looks like Kilmer, who has written the narration sporadically, in text messages and scrapbooks. Around halfway through the movie, the directors say they forget it’s not Val. In one scene, the filmmakers capture Jack, in a recording booth, stopping to ask if any of his father’s stories – news to him – are really true.
“Our father has so many stories,” says Jack. “You never know what you’ll get when you spend time with him. He’s just going to tell you a story. It’s a bit like the experience of watching this movie.
For Jack and Mercedes, there have been other revelations. They had only seen a few of the tapes.
“I had seen pictures of my parents’ wedding before Leo showed them to me,” says Mercedes, who lives next to her father.
“We’ve been sitting on this movie for a long time,” says Jack. “Certainly our whole life.”
Kilmer’s biggest breakthrough, of course, was “Top Gun,” a movie he remembers he initially didn’t want to make. “I thought the script was silly and I didn’t like the warmongering of the film,” he recounts in the documentary. On Tony Scott’s set, he was more energized by the movie. For the rest of his life, he says, “I will be called Iceman by all the pilots at all the airports I fly to.”
But Kilmer’s resistance to being cataloged and labeled lasted forever. “Willow”, “Batman Forever”, “The Doors”, “Tombstone”, “The Saint”, “Heat”. Scott first met Kilmer while working with him on Harmony Korine’s short film, which Kilmer himself starred in, for the 2012 VICE project “The Fourth Dimension”.
Scott, captivated by Kilmer’s free energy to create (he recalls the actor uploading videos of himself from Home Depot), continued to work with him. Together they set up one of Kilmer’s biggest ventures, the solo show “Citizen Twain”, in which he played Mark Twain.
“I roamed my ranch talking to myself for years before setting up for the one-man show,” says Kilmer, who recently sold his 6,000-acre ranch in New Mexico.
Kilmer’s point of view is, as always, enthusiastic. He continues to create in myriad ways – collages, an upcoming poetry book that 24 will publish. He runs a studio in Hollywood which he lends to a downtown theater program. And Hamlet? “Don’t count on me,” he said. “The best is yet to come.”
“I have no regrets,” adds Kilmer. “I have witnessed and experienced miracles.
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