my weekend with philip seymour hoffman
My wife hates it when I talk about my weekend with Philip Seymour Hoffman. We’re lying in bed in a cloud of smoke and I’m sulking because my wife just put out her cigarette in my Caesar salad. We like to smoke in bed but we don’t like other people to know about it.
My wife takes her phone from under the covers and orders me a new salad, this time from the twenty-four-hour diner around the corner. Outside it’s snowing. I don’t really care too much about the salad, but this feels like it’s about making amends. She adds chicken fingers and ranch sauce to the order then pulls the covers back up under her chin and asks for another cigarette.
I light one for her, one for me, and place it in the corner of her mouth, which makes her wince because the smoke wafts directly into her eyes. At the foot of the bed there’s a movie playing on the laptop that neither of us is really watching. It’s a movie about baseball and how a statistical approach to recruiting can allow teams with fewer resources to compete with historic franchises, which is kind of why it’s surprising that Philip Seymour Hoffman is in it. My wife hates this story about Philip Seymour Hoffman, but she knows that I have to keep telling until I can understand it. My wife looks at her phone. You have twenty-six minutes, she says. I don’t want to hear another fucking word about Philip Seymour Hoffman when those chicken fingers get here. So I skip the preamble.
My weekend with Philip Seymour Hoffman took place in the city of Savannah, Georgia, in a historic part of town known as Rainbow Row. All the houses were painted in pastels of blue and pink and peridot with ornate white balustrades. We spent most of the time in a dark sitting room, the kind with heavy furnishings and deep carpet. But we also took walks through the city’s squares, all choked with Spanish moss and swollen oak trees. At the time, I was employed as a kind of minder to people with more resources than they could responsibly manage. I’d spend every hour — not just every waking hour — with individuals who were sometimes brilliant, but were always rich, or at least under the protection of someone rich. Mostly this meant the fucked-up scions of third generation industrialists, middle-aged men desperate to turn their trust fund into a going concern. There were lots of art world types too, painters whose gallerists wanted five new paintings in a month without any overdoses, and then sometimes the actual gallerists, who didn’t trust themselves not to invest in crypto every time they went to Miami. I might seem a little gabby here, but the thing is I’m fucking fantastic at listening. I give the kind of subtle advice that you can easily believe you thought of yourself. I’m no therapist or shaman or doula — I was a musicology major before I dropped out — but I understand that the key to it all is to get out of your own way.
And so, I was in Savannah with Philip Seymour Hoffman because some people who cared very deeply about him were concerned. They were concerned at the depth and breadth of the projects he’d been discussing. There was a padlock on the refrigerator in the house in Savannah, and on the door to the wet bar downstairs. He had dreams and goals that far surpassed the bounds of cinema. Sure, he was interested in a St Martin of Tours biopic, and in directing an adaptation of a James Salter novel (or was it Norman Rush?) but he also wanted to recreate Beauvilliers’ restaurant in Paris, historically accurate and with the same menu as in 1803, and at the same time he wanted to open a public hotel called The Shipyard, in a town somewhere in the interior of Australia called Broken Hill, where all the alcohol would be brewed or distilled in vats underneath the pub itself in a network of caves. He made a strange kind of snorting noise when he said he had turned down a collaboration with Frank Ocean.
But what he wanted to tell me about most was a kind of temple or oracle he planned to build, which would not only secure his legacy but usher in a new era of self-knowledge. Up to now, he said, the entire animus of the Western world had been self-seeking. But we still weren’t there. What he was proposing was something where tarot and chatbots intersected with Catholic mysticism and machine learning. It would all coalesce into something bigger than any one person. And there would be no yoga.
I asked Philip Seymour Hoffman if this was for a movie, if this was something he wanted to direct, but he told me no: it had to be a physical place. He wasn’t yet sure where — perhaps the artificial atoll in the South China Sea, or on the Pacific Garbage Patch. It was very important to him that to get there, you had to travel by sea. I told him that as far as I knew, the Pacific Garbage Patch was more of a generalized miasma of microplastics, that it wasn’t something that could support the weight of a human body, let alone a temple. But he just looked at me like he didn’t believe me, the same way my wife looks at me when I tell this part of the story.
My wife’s phone vibrates somewhere in the bed and she pulls on a silk dressing gown the colour of tangerines, which I had actually bought for myself off The Real Real. She has to go downstairs herself to get the Caesar Salad because our apartment doesn’t have a buzzer. And while the snow keeps falling outside and cold air rushes into our smoke-filled bedroom from a window I crack open with my foot, I finish telling my story about Philip Seymour Hoffman. This temple of his, it had to be a physical place, not a place of the mind or the soul or whatever you wanted to call it. Getting there would be a pilgrimage that brought you closer to yourself, not God. Isn’t that what you want, he asked me.
But I already know who I am, I told him. He thought about that for a moment, and then it seemed like he was about to cry. Yes, he said, I believe that’s true. But you never knew your Daddy. And right there, in the dark sitting room with the deep plush carpet, I fell to my knees, and I kissed his feet.
Samuel Rutter is a writer and translator from Melbourne, Australia. Formerly the deputy editor of Astra Magazine, he is a regular contributor to T, the New York Times style magazine.