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tiff 2012

Director Nick Cassavetes in Boston in November, 2006, to promote his new film, Alpha Dog, which captures the true story of a drug dealer.Pat Greenhouse/The New York Times

When Nick Cassavetes says his new film was a gamble, he's not being figurative. After financing for Yellow fell through, he took $3,000 to Oklahoma and played poker until he won enough to start shooting again.

Yellow, a genre-bending, generational drama, feels high-stakes indeed. Cassavetes started by making independent films, but went on to direct The Notebook and other big studio flicks. Now he's taken a gonzo turn. Starring his wife, Heather Wahlquist, as a hallucinating, anhedonic pillhead, the film is a tangle of themes and styles. With his mother, Gena Rowlands, as her grandmother, it's a family affair in the Cassavetes tradition.

Here, the affable, much-tattooed Cassavetes Jr. tells us how he misses his dad, the late auteur John Cassavetes, role-plays with his mom, and really feels about Charlize Theron.

What is the 11:11 tattoo on your knuckles?

My daughter has congenital heart disease, so she's sick, and they say at 11:11 you make a wish.

I'm sorry. My kid sister has 11:11 on her wrist.

That's where my daughter has it too! That's crazy. Maybe your sister is my daughter.

Maybe in one of your alternate worlds. Speaking of family, what is it like to direct your mom, Gena Rowlands?

It's role-playing: Today you're the actress and I'm the director and I get to boss you around and you're going to be difficult. Then, at the end of the day, we go back to normal. You have to completely separate your personal selves from your jobs. My dad directed me, he directed my mom, I've directed her, and now my daughter is going to direct me.

What did your dad teach you about directing?

Oh, nothing. We didn't hang out like that. He set a great example as a man, but I never had a conversation with him about making movies. I lost him when I was 29, and it's kind of bad and ironic that I never really did anything until he was dead. If I have one regret, that's it.

Your main character has a lot of fantasies and doesn't always know whether they're real. Did those ideas likewise come to you in dreams?

No, but a lot of people I've hung around know what it's like to live in that world. When I was growing up – to be quite blunt – we would work really hard, get [messed up] all night, deal with our hangovers, and come back to work the next day. That's what movie people did. It's a tradition. But what happens now is you see people who are working and getting high at the same time. You have a whole society of disaffected people just eating these pain pills.

In the film she takes 20 pills a day and doesn't even think of herself as a drug addict.

No, and the best part of it is, she is okay. Look. This movie – we know it's not about triumph and redemption and every other platitude you could see in every other movie you want. There's no moment when she meets someone and everything gets better.

If there's a better performance by a girl this year, I want to see it.

I wasn't familiar with the actor, which I liked. It wasn't like seeing Charlize Theron try to be ugly.

She bugs me.

Charlize Theron? Why?

'Cause she's an idiot, and you can quote me on that.

What's your next project?

I'm working on a super-literate, super-violent – another movie where everyone looks and me and says, "Thank you for coming, thank you for pitching that, that was so great, we'll call you…."

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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