How Val Kilmer's children helped tell his story in the intimate documentary 'Val'

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At the end of his one-man show as Mark Twain, Val Kilmer would sit on-stage as his makeup was removed while taking questions from the audience, slowly revealing the real person behind the construct everyone had been looking at.

Told from the perspective of where the actor is now, the new documentary "Val" feels as intimate and vulnerable as that moment.

The film presents a warm and endearing portrait of Kilmer — from his early years growing up in Chatsworth and attending Juilliard, to the heights of his movie stardom in films such as “Top Gun,” “The Doors,” “Tombstone” and “Batman Forever.”

Using footage that Kilmer himself shot over decades, the documentary's directors and editors Leo Scott and Ting Poo also depict how their subject grappled with throat cancer and a tracheostomy that has made it difficult for him to speak.

For the 61-year-old Kilmer, revisiting his life in the form of a documentary has been emotional and meaningful.

“It has been a joyous experience. It makes me happy to see the richness of the life I’ve had,” said Kilmer via email. “It was just so satisfying and enriching.”

“Val” recently premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, though Kilmer was unable to attend. The film opens in a limited theatrical release today via A24 and begins streaming Aug. 6 on Amazon Prime Video.

During a recent video interview, Kilmer’s children, Mercedes and Jack — who both feature prominently in the film — said they never expected the trove of home movie footage their father shot throughout their lives to end up in a documentary.

“He's very private,” said Mercedes Kilmer of her father. “I think he has the reputation of being difficult, which is deserved and undeserved. I think he's always had not a really trusting relationship with putting himself out there to the public. I thought I would just, like show [the footage] to my kids one day.”

A young woman and a young man pose in front of a crowd of people.
Mercedes Kilmer and Jack Kilmer attend the "Val" photocall during the 74th annual Cannes Film Festival. (Getty Images)

“Just watching the footage he captured over the years — half of it is of his children. Who he is around his children is one of the most beautiful parts of him,” said Poo during a separate interview. “Their relationship now is just such a central part of his character. And so we wanted Jack and Mercedes to be as much a part of the film present day as they are in the archival footage.”

The film draws from more than 800 hours of footage from Kilmer’s personal archive, going back to homemade spoofs of movies such as “Jaws” and “The Great Race” he made as a teenager with his brothers, including his younger brother, Wesley, who died in 1977.

Kilmer continued filming himself through his career — including backstage footage with Kevin Bacon and Sean Penn when they appeared in a 1983 Broadway production of the play “The Slab Boys,” and moments behind the scenes of many of his biggest movies. The doc also features elaborate audition tapes Kilmer made for the likes of filmmakers Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese for roles he did not get.

Scott and Poo drew from another 200 hours of interviews, footage from Kilmer's films and more. (Poo noted that Marlon Brando also had a camera shooting his own behind-the-scenes footage of 1996's misbegotten “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” adding wistfully, “I don't know where that footage is, but I would have loved to get our hands on it.”)

The film is narrated by Jack Kilmer, reading words written by his father. At one point early in the film Jack Kilmer is seen onscreen saying, “My name is Val Kilmer.” It may be the film’s boldest creative move, as the voice of young Kilmer sounds so much like that of his father.

“It was shocking to hear how much he sounded like the young version of me,” said Val Kilmer. “There were several times when I couldn’t tell who was talking.”

For Jack Kilmer, who has appeared in films such as “Palo Alto,” “Woodshock” and “Hala,” it seemed perfectly natural to pitch in to speak for his father. But he didn’t expect to sound so much like him.

“I thought I was in my normal voice,” said Jack Kilmer. “It was interesting doing the narration because our goal was to get me to sound as natural as possible. What do you think, Mercedes? Did I sound like me?"

“I often think that Jack sounds like my mom — like sometimes if I call you and you pick up, I think it sounds like my mom,” said Mercedes Kilmer. “But when his voice came on in the screening, I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’”

“You'll have to ask that question to someone else because I'm just trying to sound cool,” said Jack Kilmer of whether he was reading as himself or as his father.

The filmmakers initially tried a version where they didn’t reveal who was speaking until later in the film, but they ultimately preferred acknowledging the switch up front.

“We wanted to set it up from the beginning, that's his son, just so there's no question,” said Scott, “but then halfway through the film, you forget, and it's just Val talking to you.”

Mercedes, 29, appeared in the 2020 film “Paydirt” alongside her father. She and Jack, 26, are Kilmer’s children from his marriage to actress Joanne Whalley. As detailed in "Val," Kilmer first saw Whalley onstage in London while he was shooting his screen debut “Top Secret!,” and the two first met making the fantasy film “Willow.” (Once married, they also made “Kill Me Again.”)

The documentary features happy footage from their wedding in 1988 and audio of a painful phone call regarding visitation with the children following their divorce in 1996. Whalley is seen at various points in "Val" but isn’t a real presence until a trip with their children to Arizona following the death of Kilmer’s mother in 2019.

“Joanne and I have a tremendous respect for one another and she was and is a huge part of my life so there is no way she wouldn’t be in a film about my life,” said Kilmer. “I’m also on my best behavior in respect to how I included our story.”

According to Jack and Mercedes, their mother has not yet seen "Val."

“We had some conversations about it,” said Jack of how his parents’ relationship is depicted in the movie. “It's something I think everyone can relate to, especially people of our generation, which is that sometimes your parents get divorced. And we've processed that in our lives and our parents have both made the huge effort to keep the other parent in our lives. You do the best that you can.”

“The way that my mom was depicted in the movie is as she is in his life,” said Mercedes Kilmer. “Obviously in our lives, she has more screen-time. Every aspect of the film is faithful to how it is from our dad's perspective. And so I thought it was presented very accurately and also very lovingly.”

While the phone call with Whalley is among the film's most emotionally raw moments, the section on the making of “The Island of Dr. Moreau” — a notoriously troubled shoot which saw original director Richard Stanley replaced by John Frankenheimer — includes some of the angriest moments. Everyone involved becomes increasingly frustrated about production and personality issues.

“Our goal was to have those tough situations and those tough moments be true to Val's experience of them,” said Poo. “And this is the same for every moment of conflict in the movie — to portray those experiences true to how he experienced them, rather than try and make a comment or editorialize on if there was anyone to blame.”

A section of the film addresses Kilmer’s longstanding reputation for being difficult to work with, chronicled in the media in the '90s and early 2000s when his star shone brightest.

I thought, naively, that the quality of the work would outweigh the perception of me being difficult,” wrote Kilmer. “One can only hope, but it is the hope that ‘kills’ you.”

“I think we wanted to include it more on his behalf than he did because he doesn't even think about that stuff,” Poo said. “He's so far beyond and evolved past whatever media gossip from years ago.”

Asked if they have a favorite performance of their father’s, Kilmer’s children go in different directions.

“I've been asked this my whole life and so I just decided to have an answer for it,” said Jack Kilmer. “Now I'm going to say ‘The Doors’ because I'm a big music guy and it's a great music movie and he sang all of those songs himself. We got to see it with Oliver Stone a couple of years ago. And it was so good.”

“I'm going to say, I love ‘Heat,’” said Mercedes of Michael Mann’s 1995 crime saga. “I'm very proud of having a real L.A. noir in the family. I love the history that film is a part of. And I love ‘Tombstone’ also. I love ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau.’ Honestly, ‘Island of Dr. Moreau’ is so cool. That was like an odyssey to make that movie.”

“‘Island of Dr. Moreau’ was extremely difficult to make,” added Jack Kilmer. “Watch ‘Val’ and you'll see how difficult it is, and then go on Reddit or go on Google and look up the filming of that movie. If anyone is interested, it's like ‘Apocalypse Now’-level problems going on in this movie.”

“And it brings together Brando and H.G. Wells and John Frankenheimer,” added Mercedes. “And my dad. It's a great backstory. And it's a great, insane movie.”

Throughout the documentary, Val Kilmer is startlingly candid about the ambivalence he feels toward his acting career. He wanted to play Hamlet onstage and wound up in the movies as Batman.

“What he perceives as his career was not always what Hollywood would perceive as his career,” said Mercedes Kilmer. “He’s been a thousand percent committed to making the best work possible. And I think it shows when as the Batman he's like, 'I couldn't act in this, I can't move.' That's not fulfilling as an actor. It's not challenging creatively. And he's always — at whatever costs to even his success — pursued what is the most creative and artistically challenging work.”

Asked if he sees the connection between the ending of his “Citizen Twain” performances and the complex vulnerability revealed in “Val,” Kilmer's emailed response was simple.

“Duhh.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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