Long before Gordon Gekko, Liberace and "Fatal Attraction's" Dan Gallagher, Michael Douglas gained fame, and an Oscar, for producing "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." The film took best picture and a bevy of other Academy Awards in 1976, and made Douglas, at barely 30, something of a producing wunderkind.
It's been eight years since he's had a produced film (2006's "The Sentinel"). But that streak will break Saturday when Douglas unveils the chase thriller "The Reach" at the Toronto international Film Festival.
Based on Robb White's young-adult novel "Deathwatch" and directed by French filmmaker Jean-Baptiste Léonetti, "The Reach" is a passion project for Douglas, who produced and stars as Madec, a big-game hunter Douglas said he thinks of as a kind of "West Coast Gekko character." Intent on finding some new wall trophies, Madec arrives in the Mojave Desert from Los Angeles and enlists a young local man named Ben (Jeremy Irvine), who's tormented by a few ghosts, to help him.
A crime soon goes down, though, and Ben won't help Madec cover it up, leading to Madec viciously chase Ben across the blazing wilderness like he was one more jungle animal. It's a chamber piece of sorts, only the chamber is the vast Mojave.
In an interview, Douglas said the formal obstacles were a big part of the appeal in making the indie. "The challenge was how to shoot in broad daylight, on a wide scope, and make it thrilling and threatening," he said. "How in this day and age, with all these effect films, can we make a movie succeed on a thriller basis without any technical magic?"
Douglas received a diagnosis of tongue cancer in 2010 and spent several years battling the disease. He said that "apart from dealing with issues of mortality, I was certainly questioning whether I'd ever work again."
But he's been prolific since. Though even in this latter phase of his career Douglas hasn't been shy about playing the kind of embodiment of class privilege he's known for—he did reprise the Gekko role in "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," after all—he's also been going to some darker, edgier places, as he did with "Solitary Man," in which he plays a man flawed 10 ways from Sunday. He of course also starred as Liberace in HBO's "Behind the Candelabra," a role that garnered him an Emmy.
The move to HBO, he said, was not an accident, given some struggles he's had with independent films (other efforts in recent years include the quirky modern-day gold-digging pic "King of California").
"I have a lot of issues with this newfound phenomenon of the actor going out and promoting the movie on talk shows and, wherever he might go, based on the market size of the audience he reaches, they equate that in dollar form," he said. "In indie film that becomes your marketing budget rather than a distributor putting in hard dollars."
He added, "It's made it frustrating for a lot of people in the indie area, and I think that's why so many good writers and producers have moved on to the cable area. You can have a built-in audience [in the U.S.] and still have your picture shown theatrically around the world." ("The Reach" does not yet have U.S. distribution.)
Douglas turns 70 in a few weeks. But he remains highly active on the professional front. He's set to star as Hank Pym in the long-gestating "Ant-Man," set to start shooting this month, and also has another acting project nearly ready to go in Prague, Czech Republic. He said he'd possibly like to find a period piece to add to his resume of largely contemporary films.
Douglas added that he found "balance" with such factors as his children now being older (the youngest, Carys Zeta, is 11). Asked if the illness was a factor in his work spurt, he said, "With a vengeance, I lost a good three years there and you come out the other side and you do have a new energy source." He added, "People have different ways of smelling the roses. You'd be foolish, as you begin your third act, not to look at where the end of the play is."