Val Kilmer starred in movies he didn’t star in.
Packed with footage Kilmer shot himself in his 61 years, the new documentary ‘Val’ features home movies and backstage glimpses, as you’d expect. But most notable is seeing Kilmer’s own audition tapes of himself. It’s not just a few scenes here and there. They capture Kilmer living in parts – including some he’s never (officially) allowed to play.
There are images of him as Henry Hill in ‘Goodfellas’. He has dealt with Hamlet privately for years. He was so engrossed in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” that Kilmer had a friend shoot him, in combat gear, as he trudged through a California swamp. In another video, he shoots live laps in the backyard.
“I’m a big 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 PRAYER.”
“Val”, which will open in theaters a24 on July 23 and debut Amazon Prime on August 6, had its recent premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. Here in France to celebrate the occasion were his children, Mercedes and Jack Kilmer, and directors Ting Poo and Leo Scott. Kilmer, who has difficulty speaking after throat cancer and numerous trachea surgeries, was unable to attend.
But while exchanging words via email from Los Angeles, Kilmer said he felt “blessed and grateful” when “Val” made his expected arrival. For years, the hours of tires had just sat in boxes. But the loss of his voice has left Kilmer only wanting to tell his story – a limitless life of complete surrender – all the more so.
He documented much of Kilmer’s life himself. (Photo: A24 via AP)
Kilmer, himself, tends to view his life with mystical harmony and a sense of destiny. That the documentary happened – through a confluence of people and events – is, according to him, ‘once in a lifetime’.
“I should KNOW,” Kilmer said. “It’s my life.”
And much of Kilmer’s life he documented it himself. It started with 16mm shorts and film parodies featuring his brother, Wesley, who died at a young age after having a seizure in a jacuzzi. For ever after, like a habit hardened by grief, Kilmer often had a camera in his hands. In “Val” we see him shooting fresh-faced Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon backstage on Broadway in “Slab Boys”; in his trailer while shooting “Top Gun”; Marlon Brando spurring on and going to war with director John Frankenheimer over ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’.
“My brother Wesley and my mother both live in the movie,” Kilmer says. “It’s extremely meaningful to see those images and the films and art created by Wesley in the context of the rest of the story. I lost my mom on the shoot, so I’m getting more and more emotional with each viewing. There is laughter. There are tears.”
Scenes like the one he shot on “The Island of Dr. Moreau” helped give Kilmer a reputation as a “difficult” actor. But in “Val” we see an actor driven less by ego than by extreme, even manic, dedication.
“I’ve lived in the illusion almost as much as I’ve lived outside of it,” he says in “Val.” “I behaved badly. I behaved bravely. I have behaved strangely towards some. I’m not denying any of this and have no regrets because I’ve lost and found parts of myself I didn’t know existed.”
Kilmer, the youngest actor to ever accept Julliard when he left, experienced the ups and downs of fame more dramatically than most. His breakthrough came in 1984’s “Top Secret!” one of the relatively few films that traded his talent for comedy. (Another, decades later, was “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.”)
“He’s the funniest person I know,” said Jack Kilmer, 26, sitting next to his 29-year-old sister in Cannes. “Everyone who knows him says he’s so funny. He should do more comedies. All his best friends, the jokes are non-stop. Yet he is known as a serious, dramatic actor.”
Mercedes Kilmer and Jack Kilmer, children of actor Val Kilmer, pose for photographers during a photo call for the film ‘Val’ in Cannes. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)
“Val” is narrated by Kilmer, but voiced movingly by Jack. His son looks and sounds like Kilmer, who wrote the story sporadically, in text messages and scrapbooks. About halfway through the film, the directors say they’ve forgotten it’s not Val. In one scene, the filmmakers capture Jack, in a recording booth, as he pauses to ask if one of his father’s stories—a story new to him—is really true.
“Our father has so many stories,” says Jack. “You never know what you’ll get when you hang out with him. He will just drop a story on you. It’s a bit like the experience of watching this movie.”
There were other revelations for Jack and Mercedes. They had only seen a few tapes.
“I had seen footage of my parents’ wedding once before Leo showed it to me,” says Mercedes, who lives next door to her father.
“We’ve been with this film for a long time,” says Jack. “Certainly our whole life.”
Kilmer’s biggest breakthrough was, of course, “Top Gun,” a film he remembers initially not wanting to do. “I thought the script was silly and I didn’t like the warmongering in the film,” he says in the documentary. On the set of Tony Scott, he got more energy from the film. For the rest of his life, he says, “I will be called Iceman by every pilot at every airport I ever go.”
But Kilmer’s resistance to being pigeonholed and typed 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, in which Kilmer played himself, for the 2012 VICE project “The Fourth Dimension.”
Scott, fascinated by Kilmer’s free energy to create (he remembers the actor submitting videos of himself from Home Depot), continued to work with him. Together they participated in one of Kilmer’s biggest ventures, the one-man show ‘Citizen Twain’, in which he played Mark Twain.
“I wandered about my ranch for years and talked to myself before I went on the one-man show,” says Kilmer, who recently sold his 6,000-acre New Mexico ranch.
Kilmer’s prospects are, as always, enthusiastic. He continues to create in countless ways – collages, an upcoming poetry book that a24 will publish. He has a studio in Hollywood that he gives space to an inner-city theater program. And Hamlet? “Don’t take me off,” he says. “The best has yet to come.”
“I have no regrets,” Kilmer added. “I have experienced and experienced miracles.”