Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Bodies and Souls: An Interview with Robert Rossen

The Hustler (Directed by Robert Rossen)
Robert Rossen was an American screenwriter, producer and film director whose career spanned three decades. He was the writer of The Roaring Twenties (1939), The Sea Wolf (1941), Edge Of Darkness (1943), The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers (1946); director of Body And Soul (1947), The Brave Bulls (1950); writer and director of All The King’s Men (Academy Award, 1949), Alexander The Great (1956), Island In The Sun (1957), The Hustler (1962), Lilith (1964).

The following interview is one of the last granted by Robert Rossen, who died February 18, 1966. It took place in Rossen’s Upper West Side apartment in New York on December 23, 1965. The interviewer was Daniel Stein, a student of film history at The University of Wisconsin.

STEIN:
 I’d like to start by asking about the East Side where you were brought up. Do you find that the East Side experience helped you in making ‘The Hustler’ and ‘Body And Soul’?

ROSSEN:
 Oh yes, very definitely. First I want to make it clear about the East Side. When you say East Side what it usually means to people is that you lived on the lower East Side of Manhattan in Jewish neighborhoods, the ghetto, etc. I didn’t quite have that kind of experience. I lived on the East Side in the middle of Manhattan, and my experience was not a ghetto experience, but it was worse. I never quite lived with Jewish surroundings, so I never had the sense of community that you had, even if you lived in a ghetto. I was always living in a hostile environment with Irish kids, Poles, Italians, Germans... I lived in Yorkville for a while, so that I probably had a clearer look at the impact of environment on character and vice versa than I would have had otherwise, because if I had lived in a Jewish neighborhood my concept of reality would have been within that community, which was in a sense almost a conformed community. Whether you were poor or rich it really didn’t make much difference, but you were poor so certain things followed. But the very fact that you were in opposition to, and running away from your own background made you take a pretty hard look at it in order to determine how you would exist in what I call a pretty total jungle. You see the difference?

Body And Soul (Directed by Robert Rossen)
STEIN:  Yes. I’ve read that you are concerned primarily with character and the effect of environment. In many of your films this is the theme, but then again in some of your other films you go away from this theme, I think – such as in ‘Alexander (The Great)’.

ROSSEN: Well, you make an assumption that my preoccupation is primarily with the effect of  character on environment, etc. It really isn’t, because once character is formed... well, let’s take as an example All The King’s Men, the background of Willie Stark or Huey Long, or whatever the hell you want to call him. The effect of character on him and his character on his environment is very sharp. Actually he was a red neck, which meant he was a backwoodsman. Within that came: (a) his antagonism, or his hostility, his hard look at it and what it made of him; but also (b) that the answer for him, which you would find in any character relationship like that, was the desire toward power and the absolute belief that if he had power, he would do things that would help people.

STEIN: That is also, in a certain sense, the theme that comes out in ‘Lilith’.

ROSSEN: Oh yes, yes, because the drive toward power never permits itself to be naked and always needs a rationale, whether it’s the rationale of a schizophrenic or the rationale of a Willie Stark. It needs it because it cannot face the fact that the need for power becomes primarily a subjective need. We like to think, as Lyndon Johnson likes to think – I am positive he thinks this way – that his tremendous power or his drive toward power is for the good of the many. How could he face the fact that his need has become a subjective thing?

STEIN: But you also make a point in your films that this power tends to destroy itself in people.

ROSSEN: Well yes, and isn’t it true? I mean that it is certainly much truer in a complex society. But then again if you go back to the era of Alexander, which was not as complex a society, you find the same power motives. With him it’s the other way around. Power for him was a natural and inevitable thing based on his background, and his constructive use of power did not come until the last three or four years of his life. Not until then did he begin to understand that power could be a constructive weapon.

Body And Soul (Directed by Robert Rossen)
STEIN: Concerning ‘Alexander The Great’, was there any kind of conflict between what you wanted to do with this historical setting and what the studio demanded of you?

ROSSEN: No, there wasn’t any conflict. The only pressures – and I could have withstood them, I suppose, if I had been strong enough at the time – were pressures on cutting the film, on getting it down in size. You see Alexander originally was a three hour picture. I wanted it done with an intermission. They got very frightened at the length, and they finally wore me down. Actually, it’s a much better picture in three hours than it is in two hours and twenty minutes, precisely for one reason. It unveils the various guilts Alexander felt toward his father much more deeply – for instance his chase of Darius. It is not just a simple chase to kill the Emperor of the Persian Empire. The chase for Darius is tied up with his tremendous feeling that as long as a father figure is alive in royalty, he has to kill him.

STEIN: 
Is this based on fact?

ROSSEN:
 This is based on what I have read, and I did about three years of research personally.

STEIN:
 You were really drawn to the subject?

ROSSEN: 
Oh yes, I was completely drawn to the subject. You know, Plutarch records – but then there were so many other books on Alexander – that Alexander actually had to kill Darius. If Darius had had a wife, he would have had to go to bed with her. So he did the next best thing, he took one of his daughters. But the daughter story I don’t quite believe; even though it’s hinted at, I just don’t believe it. I think this has gone into the realm of legend, and in terms of legend, I think practically every country in the East has a legend claiming Alexander as their hero or god, or what have you. Egypt does. The Indians still do, they call him the ‘Esconda.’ Jews have a legend that he came to the gates of Jerusalem and was so impressed with monotheism that he spared Jerusalem. So I was fascinated. You see, I think it’s natural for people to want power, but then I think you have to decide what you mean by power. Is it the power to move people or is it the power to create things? You see the problem? Power is such a complex kind of subject, because you see there are certain things in power that are very human and very right and very neat­ – the power, let’s say, of a girl singer to get on the stage and hold an audience by sheer force of her personality or voice. That’s power at a given moment and a given time, but that power is a good power, that power is a creative power, that power is an expression of human personality which is primarily what we are all after and don’t have now – and why we are so buggered up.

All The King’s Men (Directed by Robert Rossen)
STEIN:
 We were talking about ‘Body And Soul’ and ‘The Hustler’. Those two pictures came very much out of your background, didn’t they?

ROSSEN: Yes they did. I once wrote a play thirty years ago called Corner Pocket. It wasn’t done; I didn’t want it to be done, but everybody wanted to do it. It was a play about a poolroom. I spent a lot of my time from about fifteen to nineteen years old, in a poolroom, so obviously I was attracted to it. But the aspect of poolrooms that I was attracted to was not in The Hustler. The aspect I was originally attracted to was my thought that pool halls, at a certain stage in the life of America, were a poor man’s opium den. There was no place in the world where you could lie and be believed like in a poolroom; no place in the world where a guy who was running a laundry wagon, you know, who was a shit, a nothing on the outside, suddenly walks in and shoots a good game of pool, and tells lies. He sits around and bullshits – it’s a place to stay in, you know, till 3 or 4 in the morning or it’s a place to go to at 11 in the morning. That was the basis of my play, but then I read this book and there were other things in it, which were also very valid, which I totally understood. The best kind of pictures you can get are films that are not at all intellectually constructed, but drawn out of your experience and senses.

STEIN: Was the same thing true of your involvement in ‘Body And Soul’?

ROSSEN:
 Yes, I used to fight around. I knew Canada Lee before he became an actor.

STEIN:
 Wasn’t Garfield also a fighter?

ROSSEN:
 Sure. And Canada Lee was about, I’d say, the second top-ranking welterweight fighter in the world before he became an actor. So we all talked shorthand­ – fighting had to have truth if nothing else. I knew Garfield ten – no more than that – fifteen years before. We used to meet on the Intervale Avenue Subway station, and I knew him as an actor. I didn’t have to direct him in certain parts of the film. All I had to say was yes or no because he totally understood it...

Alexander The Great (Directed by Robert Rossen)
STEIN: A new film came out called ‘The Cincinnati Kid’. It has been called a bad ‘Hustler’, but I think ‘Lilith’ was called a poor ‘David And Lisa’.

ROSSEN:
 I don’t think the critic knows what he is talking about. First of all, I never saw David And Lisa, very deliberately. And secondly, the theme of David And Lisa is completely antithetical to the theme of Lilith. I understand David And Lisa is very well made but it is a very small story and has no implication of any size outside of its immediate story. Lilith, I thought, had enormous implications. I think the critics were shocked by it, shocked because I made it. They never expected me to make that kind of picture, because they associated me with something else.

STEIN:
 With the tough type of ‘Hustler’?

ROSSEN:
 That’s right – and I knocked them right on their ass, because critics, once they set you up in their minds, and they have created the image, don’t want you to destroy that image. It is very comfortable and safe and sane for them for – how should I put it – for you to stay in the image. They don’t have to start saying ‘Now why did he make this picture? What made him change? Why did he do it?’ That makes them work, and critics don’t like work.

STEIN:
 Although the style was different the content wasn’t really so different and I think that’s what the critics missed. My question is why do you think that they missed this? They really didn’t examine the social consequences of it at all.

Alexander The Great (Directed by Robert Rossen)
ROSSEN:
 They didn’t all miss it. Some of the critics liked it very much. I just got a copy of the French paper Combat. They understood the picture and liked it very much. Of course, I don’t think a lot of American critics got The Hustler, but the European critics did. I don’t think (film critic) Archer Winsten still knows what the picture was about.

STEIN:
 Do you think the American critics are weak now?

ROSSEN:
 No. I think that everybody is playing a game, they’re wearing masks. They’ve created a certain style for themselves and they live up to this style. I think they are doing things for each other. It’s like the in-group in literature, you know, writing to please each other and I don’t think they do any real work; it’s too easy – they’re established.

STEIN: To change the subject a bit, was ‘Lilith’ a financial success?

ROSSEN: I think that Lilith released today would do better financially than when it was released two or three years ago.

STEIN: Why do you say that?

ROSSEN: Because I think that advances in films go very quickly. In other words, I think audiences catch on more. For instance I think that if Alexander had been released three years after it was released – still being the same picture – it would have done a better business than it did then. You would already have had a kind of audience tuned to historical films which they weren’t at that time.

The Hustler (Directed by Robert Rossen)
STEIN: Do you think part of the problem was that the audiences and the critics were tuned into films like ‘David And Lisa’ and this film ‘Lilith’ came right on its heels, so that they...

ROSSEN: Oh sure. As I said I didn’t see the film David And Lisa so I don’t know, but it was the same subject, although I think Lilith was a more complex picture.

STEIN: I think it’s much more profound.

ROSSEN: Well, maybe that’s why they could accept David And Lisa.

STEIN: But they were looking for the same thing.

ROSSEN: They were, but maybe it didn’t come off. I thought it came off. However, there is one thing I think I missed. I didn’t know it but my star almost killed me. I made a terrible mistake in casting.

STEIN: Warren Beatty?

ROSSEN: Yes. A young guy who wants to do something good, who has all kinds of decent instincts, walks in there, totally healthy and totally well and as he gets into this world, he, too, begins to have doubts and he, too, on the basis of his own experience, begins to get entangled. But, you see, he never gave you the feeling of entanglement, because right from the beginning he belonged in that institution. He was psychotic from the start.

Lilith (Directed by Robert Rossen)
STEIN: Now part of that – I understood this in the film – but part of what drew me away was the slight innuendo that the character was already sick from the beginning.

ROSSEN: Yes, that was in the book too, but the point is you should have gotten the feeling that this American guy had gone through a war experience, come back with a new sense, didn’t want to take that old crappy job they had around, but was a guy who really meant what he said when he said ‘I want to do something.’ You never believed him for a moment. You see, it was wrong casting and there was nothing I could do... I liked the picture. I think what it had to say was an important comment to make for today’s society, because I don’t think it has even been touched yet­ this whole question of inner life. I think there is only one man that I know of in films who really understands how to do it, and that’s (Ingmar) Bergman… I think Bergman does things that are really trying to get into the twentieth century. The whole approach to that part of life which is subjective and yet has to be objective because we have no other defense.

STEIN: What do you think of the films of Antonioni and Sidney Lumet, the American director?

ROSSEN: Antonioni I like. But I think he begins to imitate himself. I liked L’Avventura very much, especially the last part. I can’t say I think very much of the rest of his pictures. Lumet will always do a good picture, but never a great one. He lacks the one thing: spontaneity. Everything is too laid out. Television really got him over the years. It’s all too well planned. That’s why he likes the work in studios. Anybody who likes to work in studios likes to work in them because you cannot improvise. You go on location in a real setting and everything around you leads you into another idea. You can go down, looking for this and you find that. You’ve got to have the guts to have this spontaneous quality of getting it right away.

STEIN: I understand you shot a lot of ‘All The King’s Men’ spontaneously, that you took people, real people, and that you shot in actual hotel rooms?

ROSSEN: Oh yes, I only had one set in the whole picture – the Governor’s mansion – that was the only set.
Lilith (Directed by Robert Rossen)
STEIN: But where was the judge’s house?

ROSSEN: An older house in Stockton, California. I shot the impeachment scene with Stockton lawyers and judges in the courtroom.

STEIN: And the crowd – all the scenes were natural?

ROSSEN: Oh yeah, I even gave the cameramen phony cameras. I didn’t even know what was going to happen.

STEIN: You did the same thing in ‘The Brave Bulls’, didn’t you?

ROSSEN: Totally. The Brave Bulls was all shot on location. I think again there were maybe one or two sets in the picture. I discovered the idea of ‘skills’ from the first picture I did. Of not using actors when the predominant quality of what they are doing is a skill.

I did a picture called Johnny O’Clock. The guys backing the picture were gamblers – gunmen. They were very nice guys, but when it came down to shooting the gambling scenes, it was very funny. They insisted on bringing their own equipment in – the mother-of-pearl chips, their own dealers, the whole business. ‘It’s gotta be effective because we’re well known all over Havana, New York... ’ So I said ‘Fine, bring the guys in; they’ll show the actors what to do.’ And I watched these guys. They were amazing. Nobody could riffle a deck or could make a call or could watch a customer like these guys. So I wondered what I was doing fooling around with actors, and I stayed with that group in the picture. Then when it came to Body And Soul, I knew a lot about fighting. (Cameraman) Jimmie Howe, who used to be the Champion on the Pacific coast, knew a lot of these guys, and he knew a lot about fighting so we decided that in the whole mish-mash there would be absolutely no actors, and that’s the way we shot it.

– Excerpt from Daniel Stein: An Interview With Robert Rossen. Arts in Society: The Film Issue 4 (Winter 1966-67).

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Terrence Malick: Days of Heaven

Days of Heaven (Directed by Terrence Malick)
One-of-a-kind filmmaker-philosopher Terrence Malick has created some of the most visually arresting films of the twentieth century, and his glorious period tragedy Days of Heaven, featuring Oscar-winning cinematography by Nestor Almendros, stands out among them. In 1910, a Chicago steelworker (Richard Gere) accidentally kills his supervisor, and he, his girlfriend (Brooke Adams), and his little sister (Linda Manz) flee to the Texas panhandle, where they find work harvesting wheat in the fields of a stoic farmer (Sam Shepard). A love triangle, a swarm of locusts, a hellish fire — Malick captures it all with dreamlike authenticity, creating a timeless American idyll that is also a gritty evocation of turn-of-the-century labor. (via criterion.com).
In May 1979, Terrence Malick candidly explained the origin of his ideas for Days of Heaven and how he went about making it happen. This interview was originally published in French and is sourced from the book Quinze Hommes Splendides by Yvonne Baby. 

It was in Austin, Texas that I had the idea for Days of Heaven. I found myself alone for a summer in the town I had left when I was a high school student. There were those green, undulating hills, and the very beautiful Colorado river. The place is inspired. It is inspiring, and there the film came to me all together.

I had not liked working at harvest time, I have a very good memory of it, of wheat, and the comings and goings in the fields, and of all the people I met. They were mostly petty criminals who were on their way to Phoenix, Arizona or Las Vegas for the rest of the year.


Like those of the film, these were not people of the soil, but urban dwellers who had abandoned their city, their factories. Rather than criminals, it would be fairer to say they lived on the margins of crime, fed by elusive hopes. At the time of the film, those who worked the seasons hated their jobs and the farmers did not trust them. They could not touch the machinery: if something was breaking, they had to signal by raising their hat on a stick. To distinguish themselves, they were always putting on their best clothes. I had noticed that myself when I was a teenager. To the farmers they were bringing – and this is still true – a piece of their homeland and of new horizons. And farmers sat down to listen – charmed – to hear the story of these workers. Already the farmers were almost nothing more than businessmen and they felt nostalgia for those days of yesteryear where they were themselves caretakers of their earthly riches. Workers and farmers were embodying people whose hopes were being destroyed, some more than others, by opulence or poverty. All were full of desires, dreams, and appetites, which I hope permeates the film. For these people, happiness comes and goes, they are fleeting moments. Why? They don’t know, just as they don’t know how to achieve happiness. If they see before them another season, another harvest, they feel unable to build a life.


Though this is familiar to a European, it may seem puzzling for Americans. Americans feel entitled to happiness, and once they manage to find it, they feel as if they own it. If they are deprived of it, they feel cheated. If they feel it has been taken away from them, they imagine they have been done wrong. This guilt I have felt from everyone I've known. It's a bit like a Dylan song: they have held the world in their hands and let it slip through their fingers.

As for the title, it is a feeling that a place exists that is within reach and where we will be safe. It is a place where a house will not rest on the sand, where you will not become crazier by fighting again and again against the impossible.

Linda [Manz], the teenage girl, is the heart of the film. She was a sort of street child we had discovered in a laundromat. For the role, she should have been younger, but as soon as I spoke to her, I found in her the maturity of a forty-year old woman. Non-judgmental and left to her own imagination, she had her own ideas [for the role] giving the impression of having actually lived this life instead of having to invent and play within another.


At first it was a bit frustrating to work with her. She couldn’t remember her lines, couldn’t be interrupted, and was difficult to photograph. Despite this, I started to love her and I believed in her more than anything else. She transformed the role. I am glad that she’s the narrator. Her personality shines through the film’s objectivity. Every time I gave her new lines, she interpreted it in her own way; when she refers to heaven and hell, she says that everyone is bursting into flames. It was her response to the film on the day when she saw the rushes. That comment was included in the final version. Linda said so many things that I despaired being unable to keep them… I feel like I have not been able to grasp a fraction of who she really is.

With Nestor Almendros, we decided to film without any artificial light. It wasn’t possible in the houses at night, but outside, we shot with natural light or with the fire. When the American team was saying, ‘This is not how we should proceed,’ Nestor Almendros, very courageously insisted. As we filmed, the team discovered that it was technically easier, and I was able to capture absolute reality. That was my wish: to prevent the appearance of any technique, and that the photography was to be processed to be visually beautiful and to ensure this beauty existed within the world I was trying to show, suggesting that which was lost, or what we were now losing. Because he is also a filmmaker, Nestor Almendros understood Days of Heaven in every way.


I wanted the omnipresence of sound, so I used the Dolby system. Dolby purifies sound and is able to record multiple audio tracks (e.g. wind, the rustle of corn stalks, the pulse of crickets). I wanted to remove any distance from the public. It was my secret intention; to make the film experience more concrete, more direct. And, for the audience, I am tempted to say, experience it like a walk in the countryside. You’ll probably be bored or have other things in mind, but perhaps you will be struck, suddenly, by a feeling, by an act, by a unique portrait of nature. That’s what I wanted, that is how the Dolby and technological developments improved our work.

It would be difficult for me to make a film about contemporary America today. We live in such dark times and we have gradually lost our open spaces. We always had hope, the illusion that there was a place where we could live, where one could emigrate and go even further. Wilderness, this is the place where everything seems possible, where solidarity exists – and justice – where the virtues are somehow linked to this justice. In the region where I grew up, everyone felt it in a very strong way. This sense of space disappearing, we nevertheless can find it in cinema, which will pass it on to us. There is so much to do: it’s as if we were on the Mississippi Territory, in the eighteenth century. For an hour, or for two days, or longer, these films can enable small changes of heart, changes that mean the same thing: to live better and to love more. And even an old movie in poor and beaten condition and can give us that. What else is there to ask for?


– An interview for Le Monde with Terrence Malick from 1979, translated by Hugues Fournier and Paul Maher Jr., from the book by Yvonne Baby, Quinze Hommes Splendides. Article available on Justin Wiemer’s blog here.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Ingmar Bergman: Why I Make Movies

Fanny and Alexander (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
In a 1960 magazine article, Ingmar Bergman wrote about how a film begins for him – ‘with a chance remark... a few bars of music, a shaft of light across the street’. His respect for the magic of movies remains an inspiration for writers and directors today.

During the shooting of The Virgin Spring, we were up in the northern province of Dalarna in May and it was early one morning, about half past seven. The landscape there is rugged, and our company was working beside a little lake in the forest. It was very cold, about 30 degrees, and from time to time a few snowflakes fell through the gray, rain-dimmed sky. The company was dressed in a strange variety of clothing – raincoats, oil slickers, Icelandic sweaters, leather jackets, old blankets, coachmen’s coats, medieval robes. Our men had laid some 90 feet of rusty, buckling rail over the difficult terrain, to dolly the camera on. We were all helping with the equipment – actors, electricians, make-up men, script girl, sound crew – mainly to keep warm.

Suddenly someone shouted and pointed toward the sky. Then we saw a crane high above the fir trees, and then another, and then several cranes, floating majestically in a circle above us. We all dropped what we were doing and ran to the top of a nearby hill to see the cranes better. We stood there for a long time, until they turned westward and disappeared over the forest. And suddenly I thought: This is what it means to make a movie in Sweden.

This is what can happen, this is how we work together with our old equipment and little money, and this is how we can suddenly drop everything for the love of four cranes floating above the treetops.

Smiles of a Summer Night (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
My association with film goes back to the world of childhood. My grandmother had a very large old apartment in Uppsala. I used to sit under the dining room table there, ‘listening’ to the sunshine that came in through the gigantic window. The bells of the cathedral went ding dong, and the sunlight moved about and ‘sounded’ in a special way. One day, when winter was giving way to spring and I was five years old, a piano was being played in the next apartment. It played waltzes, nothing but waltzes. On the wall hung a large picture of Venice. As the sunlight moved across the picture, the water in the canal began to flow, the pigeons flew up from the square, gesticulating people were engaged in inaudible conversation. Bells sounded, not from Uppsala Cathedral, but from the picture itself. And the piano music also came from that remarkable picture of Venice.

A child who is born and brought up in a vicarage acquires an early familiarity with life and death behind the scenes. Father performed funerals, marriages, baptisms; he gave advice and prepared sermons. The Devil was an early acquaintance, and in the child’s mind there was a need to personify him. This is where my magic lantern came in. It consisted of a small metal box with a carbide lamp – I can still remember the smell of the hot metal – and colored glass slides: Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, and all the others. The Wolf was the Devil, without horns but with a tail and a red mouth, strangely real yet incomprehensible, a picture of wickedness and temptation on the flowered wall of the nursery.

When I was 10 years old, I received my first rattling film projector, with its chimney and lamp. I found it both mystifying and fascinating. The first film I had was nine feet long and brown in color. It showed a girl lying asleep in a meadow who woke up and stretched out her arms, then disappeared to the right. That was all there was to it. The film was a great success and was projected every night until it broke and could not be mended anymore.

The Seventh Seal (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
This little rickety machine was my first conjuring set. And even today I remind myself with childish excitement that, since cinematography is based on deception of the human eye, I really am a conjurer. I have worked it out that if I see a film with a running time of one hour, I sit through 27 minutes of complete darkness – the blankness between frames. When I show a film, I am guilty of deceit. I use an apparatus which is constructed to take advantage of a certain human weakness, an apparatus with which I can sway my audience in a highly emotional manner – make them laugh, scream with fright, smile, believe in fairy stories, become indignant, feel shocked, charmed, deeply moved, or perhaps yawn with boredom. Thus I am either an impostor or, where the audience is willing to be taken in, a conjurer. I perform conjuring tricks with an apparatus so expensive and so wonderful that any performer in history would have given anything to own or to make use of it.

A film for me begins with something very vague – a chance remark or a bit of conversation, a hazy but agreeable event unrelated to any particular situation. It can be a few bars of music, a shaft of light across the street. Sometimes in my work at the theater I have envisioned actors made up for yet unplayed roles.

These are split-second impressions that disappear as quickly as they come, yet leave behind a mood – like pleasant dreams. It is a mental state, not an actual story, but one abounding in fertile associations and images. Most of all, it is a brightly colored thread sticking out of the dark sack of the unconscious. If I begin to wind up this thread, and do so carefully, a complete film will emerge.

Wild Strawberries (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
This primitive nucleus strives to achieve definite form, moving in a way that may be lazy and half-asleep at first. Its stirring is accompanied by vibrations and rhythms that are very special, and unique to each film. The picture sequences then assume a pattern in accordance with these rhythms, obeying laws born out of and conditioned by my original stimulus.

If that embryonic substance seems to have enough strength to be made into a film, I decide to materialize it. Then comes something very complicated and difficult: the transformation of rhythms, moods, atmosphere, tensions, sequences, tones, and scents into words and sentences, into an understandable screenplay. This is an almost impossible task.

The only thing that can be satisfactorily transferred from that original complex of rhythms and moods is the dialogue, and even dialogue is a sensitive substance that may offer resistance. Written dialogue is like a musical score, almost incomprehensible to the average person. Its interpretation demands a technical knack plus a certain kind of imagination and feeling – qualities that are often lacking even among actors. One can write dialogue, but how it should be delivered, its rhythm and tempo, what is to take place between the lines – all this must be omitted for practical reasons. A script with that much detail would be unreadable. I try to squeeze instructions as to location, characterization, and atmosphere into my screenplays in understandable terms, but the success of this depends on my writing ability and the perceptiveness of the reader, which are not predictable.

Through a Glass Darkly (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
Now we come to essentials by which I mean montage, rhythm, and the relation of one picture to another: the vital third dimension without which the film is merely a dead product from a factory. Here I cannot clearly give a key, as in a musical score, or a specific idea of the tempo that determines the relationship of the elements involved. It is quite impossible for me to indicate the way in which the film ‘breathes’ and pulsates.

I have often wished for a kind of notation which would enable me to put on paper all the shades and tones of my vision, to record distinctly the inner structure of a film. For when I stand in the artistically devastating atmosphere of the studio, my hands and head full of all the trivial and irritating details that go with motion picture production, it often takes a tremendous effort to remember how I originally saw and thought out this or that sequence, or what the relation was between the scene of four weeks ago and that of today. If I could express myself clearly, in explicit symbols, then the irrational factors in my work would be almost eliminated, and I could work with absolute confidence that whenever I liked I could prove the relationship between the part and the whole and put my finger on the rhythm, the continuity of the film. Thus the script is a very imperfect technical basis for a film. And there is another important point that I should like to mention in this connection. Film has nothing to do with literature; the character and substance of the two art forms are usually in conflict. This probably has something to do with the receptive process of the mind. The written word is read and assimilated by a conscious act of the will in alliance with the intellect; little by little it affects the imagination and the emotions. The process is different with a motion picture. When we experience a film, we consciously prime ourselves for illusion; putting aside will and intellect, we make way for it in our imagination. The sequence of images plays directly on our feelings without touching on the intellect.

The Silence (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
Music works in the same fashion; I would say that there is no art form that has as much in common with film as music. Both affect our emotions directly, not by way of the intellect. And film is mainly rhythm; it is inhalation and exhalation in continuous sequence. Ever since childhood, music has been my greatest source of recreation and stimulation, and I often experience a film or play musically.

It is mainly because of this difference between film and literature that we should avoid making films out of books. The irrational dimension of a literary work, the germ of its existence, is often untranslatable into visual terms – and it, in turn, destroys the special, irrational dimension of the film. If, despite this, we wish to translate something literary into film terms, we must make an infinite number of complicated adjustments that often bear little or no fruit in proportion to the effort expended. I myself have never had any ambition to be an author. I do not want to write novels, short stories, essays, biographies, or even plays for the theater. I only want to make films – films about conditions, tensions, pictures, rhythms, and characters that are in one way or another important to me. The motion picture and its complicated process of birth are my methods of saying what I want to my fellow men. I am a filmmaker, not an author.

Thus the writing of the script is a difficult period but a useful one, for it compels me to prove logically the validity of my ideas. In doing this, I am caught in a conflict – a conflict between my need to transmit a complicated situation through visual images and my desire for absolute clarity. I do not intend my work to be solely for the benefit of myself or the few but for the entertainment of the general public. The wishes of the public are imperative. But sometimes I risk following my own impulse, and it has been shown that the public can respond with surprising sensitivity to the most unconventional line of development.

Winter Light (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
When shooting begins, the most important thing is that those who work with me feel a definite contact, that all of us somehow cancel out our conflicts through working together. We must pull in one direction for the sake of the work at hand. Sometimes this leads to dispute, but the more definite and clear the ‘marching orders,’ the easier it is to reach the goal which has been set. This is the basis of my conduct as director, and perhaps the explanation for much of the nonsense that has been written about me.

While I cannot let myself be concerned with what people think and say about me personally, I believe that reviewers and critics have every right to interpret my films as they like. I refuse to interpret my work to others, and I cannot tell the critic what to think; each person has the right to understand a film as he sees it. Either he is attracted or repelled. A film is made to create reaction. If the audience does not react one way or another, it is an indifferent work and worthless.

I do not mean by this that I believe in being ‘different’ at any price. A lot has been said about the value of originality, and I find it foolish; either you are original or you are not. It is completely natural for artists to take from and give to each other, to borrow from and experience one another. In my own life, my great literary experience was Strindberg. There are works of his which can still make my hair stand on end. And it is my dream to produce his A Dream Play someday.

The Virgin Spring (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
On a personal level, there are many people who have meant a great deal to me. My father and mother were certainly of vital importance, not only in themselves but because they created a world for me to revolt against. In my family there was an atmosphere of hearty wholesomeness that I, a sensitive young plant, scorned and rebelled against. But that strict middle-class home gave me a wall to pound on, something to sharpen myself against. At the same time my family taught me a number of values – efficiency, punctuality, a sense of financial responsibility – which may be ‘bourgeois’ but are nevertheless important to the artist. They are part of the process of setting for oneself severe standards. Today as a filmmaker I am conscientious, hardworking, and extremely careful; my films involve good craftsmanship, and my pride is the pride of a good craftsman.

Among the people who have meant something in my professional development is Alf Sjöberg, who directed my first screenplay, Torment, and taught me a great deal, as did [film producer] Lorens Marmstedt after I directed my first (unsuccessful) movie. I learned from Marmstedt the one unbreakable rule: You must look at your own work very coldly and clearly; you must be a devil to yourself in the screening room when watching the day’s rushes. Then there is [screenwriter] Herbert Grevenius, one of the few who believed in me as a writer. I had trouble with scriptwriting and was reaching out more and more to the drama, to dialogue, as a means of expression. He gave me great encouragement.

Finally, there is Carl-Anders Dymling, my producer. He is crazy enough to place more faith in the creative artist’s sense of responsibility than in calculations of profit and loss. I am thus able to work with an integrity that has become the very air I breathe – one of the main reasons I do not want to work outside of Sweden. The moment I lose this freedom I will cease to be a filmmaker, because I have no skill in the art of compromise. My only significance in the world of film lies in the freedom of my creativity.

Persona (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
Today, the ambitious filmmaker is obliged to walk a tightrope without a net. He may be a conjurer, but no one conjures the producer, the bank director, or the theater owners when the public refuses to go to see a film and lay down the money by which producer, bank director, theatre owner, and conjurer live. The conjurer may then be deprived of his magic wand. I would like to be able to measure the amount of talent, initiative, and creative ability that has been destroyed by the film industry in its ruthlessly efficient sausage machine. What was play to me once has now become a struggle. Failure, criticism, public indifference all hurt more today than yesterday. The brutality of the industry is unmasked – yet that can be an advantage.

So much for people and the film business. I have been asked, as a clergyman’s son, about the role of religion in my thinking and filmmaking. To me, religious problems are continuously alive. I never cease to concern myself with them, and my concern goes on every hour of every day. Yet it does not take place on the emotional level but on an intellectual one. Religious emotion, religious sentimentality, is something I got rid of long ago – I hope. The religious problem is an intellectual one to me: the problem of my mind in relation to my intuition. The result is usually some kind of tower of Babel. Philosophically, there is a book that was a tremendous experience for me: Eino Kaila’s Personality. His thesis that man lives strictly according to his needs – negative and positive – was shattering to me, but terribly true. And I built on this ground.

People ask what are my intentions with my films – my aims. It is a difficult and dangerous question, and I usually give an evasive answer: I try to tell the truth about the human condition, the truth as I see it. This answer seems to satisfy everyone, but it is not quite correct. I prefer to describe what I would like my aim to be.

Shame (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
There is an old story of how the Cathedral of Chartres was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Then thousands of people came from all points of the compass, like a giant procession of ants, and together they began to rebuild the cathedral on its old site. They worked until the building was completed – master builders, artists, laborers, clowns, noblemen, priests, burghers. But they all remained anonymous, and no one knows to this day who rebuilt the Cathedral of Chartres.

Regardless of my own beliefs and my own doubts, which are unimportant in this connection, it is my opinion that art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship. It severed an umbilical cord and now lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. In former days the artist remained unknown and his work was to the glory of God. He lived and died without being more or less important than other artisans; ‘eternal values,’ ‘immortality,’ and ‘masterpiece’ were terms not applicable to his case. The ability to create was a gift. In such a world flourished invulnerable assurance and natural humility.

Today the individual has become the highest form, and the greatest bane, of artistic creation. The smallest wound or pain of the ego is examined under a microscope as if it were of eternal importance. The artist considers his isolation, his subjectivity, his individualism almost holy. Thus we finally gather in one large pen, where we stand and bleat about our loneliness without listening to each other and without realizing that we are smothering each other to death. The individualists stare into each other’s eyes and yet deny each other’s existence. We walk in circles, so limited by our own anxieties that we can no longer distinguish between true and false, between the gangster’s whim and the purest ideal.

Thus if I am asked what I would like the general purpose of my films to be, I would reply that I want to be one of the artists in the cathedral on the great plain. I want to make a dragon’s head, an angel, a devil – or perhaps a saint – out of stone. It does not matter which; it is the sense of satisfaction that counts. Regardless of whether I believe or not, whether I am a Christian or not, I would play my part in the collective building of the cathedral.


– This story was originally published in September 1960 issue of Horizon magazine. Reprinted here.


Thursday, 15 January 2015

Francesco Rosi: History and Realism

Illustrious Corpses (Directed by Francesco Rosi)
The celebrated Italian filmmaker Francesco Rosi died this month aged 92. For over half a century Rosi practised a highly-charged, politically-engaged cinema which earned him the title of Italy’s cinematic ‘poet of civic courage’. 

After working as an assistant director to Luchino Visconti, Rosi directed his first feature film in 1957, La sfida (The Challenge), the story of a young Neapolitan hood who challenges a local Camorra boss for supremacy. In 1961 Rosi established his international reputation with Salvatore Giuliano – based on the true account of a small-time Sicilian black marketeer who rose to become a legendary outlaw and was killed in mysterious circumstances.

Rosi’s film set out to investigate the mystery and to question the official version of events. Salvatore Giuliano became the first of Rosi’s ‘cine-inchieste’ (film investigations), what he characterised as not ‘documentary’ but documented films. These were, in Millicent Marcus’s words, ‘cinematic investigations into cases involving power relationships between charismatic individuals, corporations, criminal organisations and the state.’

Rosi would make several more films in the 1960s including Il momento della verità (The Moment of Truth, 1964). It was to be the 1970s, however—the decade that in Italy would be recalled as ‘the years of lead’, characterised by social instability, political discord and terrorism – which would provide Rosi with the opportunity to make what are regarded as his finest films.

Il Caso Mattei (The Mattei Affair, 1972), Lucky Luciano (1973) and Cadaveri Eccellenti (Illustrious Corpses, 1976) in varied ways harked back to the investigative cinematic style that Rosi had developed in Salvatore Giuliano.

In the following extract from an interview with Cineaste Magazine Francesco Rosi discusses his working methods, his cinematic style and his commitment to social justice.

Salvatore Giuliano (Directed by Francesco Rosi)
Cineaste: Your films are political, it seems to me, as much because of the way they are structured as because of your subject matter.

Francesco Rosi: Yes, many of my films – such as Salvatore Giuliano, Hands Over the City, Lucky Luciano and The Mattei Affair – are structured as investigations into the relationship between causes and effects. When I devised this method in Salvatore Giuliano, this search for the truth became the narrative line of the film. I wanted to pose questions to the audience, questions I either didn’t know the answers to or did not wish to give answers to. My films are not policiers, or thrillers, but instead aim to provoke, to insinuate doubts, to challenge the official statements and certainties from the powers that be which hide real interests and the truth.

As the narrator, the storyteller, I communicate my impressions to the audience, whom I consider a traveling companion in my investigation into human feelings and into facts that cannot always be accepted for what they appear to be. These facts, these events, need to be interpreted, and this interpretation is what gives rise to ambiguity.

In some of the Italian mysteries that my films have dealt with, a single truth doesn’t exist, so I don’t want to offer a simple answer. The films are interested in the search for truth and in encouraging reflection. To be effective, the questions the films ask must continue to live in the viewer even after the film is over. After my first few films, in fact, I stopped putting the words ‘The End’ at the conclusion because I think films should not end but should continue to grow inside us. Ideally, they should grow inside us over the years, the same way that our historical memory grows inside of us – and films are our most vital historical documentation. This power of suggestion is what defines the greatness of a film, and what I would even say is its function.

Salvatore Giuliano (Directed by Francesco Rosi)
Cineaste: What sort of political influence does the cinema, vis-a-vis television or the press, have in Italy today?

Rosi: Some films have anticipated what is currently going on in Italy. One example is my film, Hands Over the City, not because of any particular prophetic qualities or talents, but because films are a testimony to the reality in which we live and to a filmmaker’s desire to understand, to his or her ability to know how to see. Sometimes a filmmaker can see things before they’ve become clear to everyone else. Some things are just sitting there waiting to be seen by eyes that know how to see or by the political will to show these things to other people.

The political function of a film is to provoke and sometimes films produce results. I don’t think films can change politics or history, but sometimes they can influence events. For example, thanks to the public showings of Salvatore Giuliano in 1962, two Italian politicians – Girolamo Li Causi of the Italian Communist Party and Simone Gatto of the Italian Socialist Party – called for the establishment of the first Anti-mafia Commission. A few months after the first screenings of the film, Parliament agreed to establish the commission because, in the face of a film like this – which documented the cooperation between the Mafia, government institutions, and the various police forces in Italy – it could no longer deny to the public the existence of such activities.

Cineaste: Do you prefer to have your films shown in theaters or would you be more interested in having them shown on TV so as to reach a larger audience?

Rosi: I prefer theaters because the true destination of a film is movie theaters. The showing of a film on TV can naturally reach a large public, but it’s not the same thing. Films shown on TV tend to be seen in a very distracted manner because of all the interruptions that occur at home – the telephone ringing, talking to friends, going to the bathroom, whatever – whereas seeing a film in a theater requires concentration. The movie-going ritual is part of the mysterious power that films have. When I go to a movie theater, and sit down in the dark amidst hundreds of people I don’t know, I can feel their response to the film, and it becomes a social event.

Salvatore Giuliano (Directed by Francesco Rosi)
Cineaste: One of the characteristics of classic neorealism that one sees continuing in your work is the prominent use of non-professional actors. Would you explain your reasons for that?

Rosi: Well, a film like Salvatore Giuliano was made almost entirely without professional actors because I wanted to make it, in a very real sense, as a psychodrama. That is, I wanted to shoot in the places where Giuliano had lived, in the town where he was from, under the eyes of his mother and family, in the courtyard where his body was found, and, above all, with the participation of many of the people who ten years earlier had known Salvatore Giuliano and who had lived with him.

I wanted to involve these people in my film because I was sure their participation would convey elements of their suffering. In the scene shot in Montelepre, for example, where the women rush from their homes to the town square to protest the army’s arrest of their husbands and sons, these women had been involved in the actual events. I knew that involving them in the film would provoke a huge emotional response, a remembrance of what had happened to them.

There were also only two or three professional actors in Hands Over the City. Carlo Fermariello, who played De Vita, the opposition councilman, and who became the lead actor in the film along with Rod Steiger, was not a professional actor. The guy who played the outgoing mayor in the film was a Neapolitan who had previously been a car salesman in Detroit before returning home. And the lawyer who was on the committee of inquiry was a real Neapolitan lawyer. I knew that their participation, because of their personal experience and sensitivity, would add a great deal to the film. When I chose Charles Siragusa to play himself in Lucky Luciano, I knew that by not using a professional actor for the part I would lose something in terms of the ability of an actor, but I was also sure I would gain something because of Siragusa’s involvement in the actual prosecution of Luciano.

The Mattei Affair (Directed by Francesco Rosi)
Cineaste: One sees a real continuity among the key technicians you work with from film to film.

Rosi: I always prefer working with the same collaborators because we know each other and our working methods well. Gianni Di Venanzo was the director of photography on my first five films, and, following his death in 1966, all my other films have been made with Pasqualino De Santis. But even on the films with Di Venanzo, Pasqualino was the camera operator on three of them, so we had already begun to develop an intimate working relationship. Pasqualino is a great cameraman. We were able to take shots with a hand-held camera for The Mattei Affair and Chronicle of a Death Foretold. De Santis is an extremely sensitive director of photography, but one who always likes to take risks, to try different ways of lighting a scene. He lights with very minimal means, with few artificial lights. He’s also a great connoisseur of film stocks and is always willing to try new things.

Cineaste: Who makes decisions regarding camera placement and movement?

Rosi: These are decisions the director makes and then with the cameraman you translate these decisions technically.

Cineaste: Do you do this in advance or on the set? Do you do much storyboarding?

Rosi: I decide the day before how I’m going to shoot a scene. The last thing I do in the evening, before closing up the set for the night, is to explain what I’m going to do the next day. I think this sort of work has to be prepared in advance, but obviously this can’t be a set rule, and many times I decide on the camera position when I’m on location. There are many circumstances in which you may have to change everything at the last minute.

Sometimes, for some sequences, I prepare a little storyboard, as in Illustrious Corpses or Chronicle of a Death Foretold, but I don’t use the American system of preparing a storyboard for the entire film before it’s shot. I do like to prepare the work in advance so I can explain it first to my cameraman and director of photography to assure that it will be done in the best possible way from a technical point of view.

Lucky Luciano (Directed by Francesco Rosi)
Cineaste: How do you work with your editor?

Rosi: First of all, I only begin to edit a film after I’ve finished shooting. I never let the editor edit the film on his own. I sit at the moviola with the editor and we work together because I’ve thought about the editing while I’m shooting, so I already have the montage in mind. Nevertheless, while working at the moviola I might decide to change many things. With The Mattei Affair, for example, many changes were made right at the moviola. This is something you can tell because of all the different kinds of material I used in that film. I don’t often shoot a lot of coverage but many times I shoot with two cameras, not to have more choices but to have different perspectives on the same scene.

Cineaste: In many of your films, the Mafia is portrayed as a very powerful element of society, and so thoroughly entrenched as to perhaps be ineradicable.

Rosi: The Mafia has great power but it is not invincible. This has been proved in Italy over the last few years. For example, a so-called maxi-trial was instigated by a group of magistrates in Palermo – including Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsalino – which showed that a lot can be accomplished in the war against the Mafia. This trial marked a turning point and recently the state has been hitting the Mafia very hard. This doesn’t mean that in a short period of time you’re going to achieve significant results against such a complex phenomenon as the Mafia, but it does signal a major change in public opinion. We must also recognize a fundamental change in the Mafia culture itself. The Mafia and the Camorra – the Neapolitan version of the Mafia – are not just criminal societies, they’re also cultures, certain mentalities.

When I made Salvatore Giuliano, they didn’t even say the word ‘Mafia’ in Sicily. But in Sicily today young people organize protest marches against the Mafia and civic society has responded very strongly to such protests. People are aware of the sacrifice on the part of many judges, policemen, journalists, and even politicians who have paid with their lives in this struggle, and so there is a growing public awareness that we can and must achieve results against the Mafia.

Lucky Luciano (Directed by Francesco Rosi)
Cineaste: How do you evaluate the overall political situation in Italy today?

Rosi: Everything’s in movement in Italy today. On the part of Italian civic society, there’s a huge demand for change, a very strong protest against a system of political and economic corruption, in connection with organized crime. We can’t really say there are definite efforts today that will lead to conclusions, but I and many others believe that there is a movement of sorts that will lead to a second risorgimento, a second rising up, like the first risorgimento for Italian independence in the nineteenth century.

Cineaste: What political party is going to be able to take the lead here? Are we looking for a new Garibaldi?

Rosi: No, there is no new Garibaldi for now. But what is important is that there is all this movement, a very strong demand for change, and a rejection of a system of corruption that has tarnished, more or less, every political party.

– From Rosi’s interview with Gary Crowdus and Dan Georgakas reprinted in Dan Georgakas and Lenny Rubenstein (eds.), Art, Politics, Cinema: The Cineaste Interviews, London, Pluto Press, 1985.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Francis Ford Coppola: Personal Stories

The Conversation (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
The following discussion with screenwriter and director Francis Ford Coppola is an edited extract from an interview published in The Rumpus.net in 2012 to mark the release of his movie Twixt. Coppola talks at length about filmmaking, the importance of the script and his ‘new beginning’ of self-financed ‘student’ films while offering the following advice to aspiring filmmakers: ‘Suspend your self-doubt, do only the work you love, and make it personal’.

Rumpus: Do you think there’s a danger in teaching writing – formulaic scripts?

Coppola: Dramatic structure and theater plays are thousands of years old. It’s amazing how much dramatic structure is influenced by the Greeks. The novel’s only a few hundreds of years old, but in the novel there’s still so much room for invention. That’s why I was annoyed when they were saying the big thing for movies now is going to be 3-D. The cinema’s only a hundred years old, you don’t think that even in the writing of the film there’s so much left to accomplish?

How do you feel about adaptations?

I don’t feel that books should become movies. I feel that movies should be written fresh and new. They should also never make remakes. With all the money and effort you should at least try to give something to the world that’s uniquely for cinema and not adapted from a book. Also, the short story does much better in translation to film than a novel. It’s already in the right shape and size. A movie is like writing a haiku. You have to be so pared down. Everything has to be so loaded and economic...

Of all your work, what do you feel the most personal connection to?

In my earlier career I liked The Rain People (1969), because that was my first film where I got to do what I wanted to do. I was young; I wrote the story based on something that I had witnessed. Few people know that film. It’s about a young wife who loves her husband but doesn’t want to be a wife, and one day gets in her station wagon and leaves a note with his breakfast and takes off. In a way it preceded the women’s movement. It’s curious for a guy like me to do. Then I made The Conversation (1974), which was an original as well. That’s what I wanted to be doing. The Godfather (1972) was an accident. I was broke and we needed the money. We had no way to keep American Zoetrope going. I had no idea it was going to be that successful. It was awful to work on, and then my career took off and I didn’t get to be what I wanted to be.

The Conversation (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
What did you want to be?

I wanted to be a guy who made films like The Rain People and The Conversation. I didn’t want to be a big Hollywood movie director.

What was your reaction to suddenly having all this fame?

Well, it was the first time I had any money. I was always a starving student and money was always a big problem. Suddenly I had all this money. I bought this building, and I bought a nice house. I didn’t want to ever do a second Godfather. I was so oppressed during The Godfather by the studio that when Mr. Big, who owned the whole conglomerate, said, ‘What do we have to do to get you to do it?’ I had suggested that I would supervise it and pick a director to do the second Godfather. I don’t know why there should be a second Godfather. It’s a drama, it’s the end, it’s over. It’s not a serial. When I went back and told them I had chosen Marty Scorsese to do it they said absolutely not. Finally I told them I’d do it, but I didn’t want any of those guys to have anything to do with it. To see it, to hear the soundtrack, the casting, their ideas, nothing. So I made Godfather 2 (1974) because I’d always been thinking about trying to write something about a father and son at the same age, two stories juxtaposed. I had total control and it was a pleasure, I must say. I did that and won all these Oscars and had all this success for doing that.

Then when I wanted to do Apocalypse Now (1979), no one would do it. I couldn’t believe it. I was so disgruntled that I had played by their rules and won, yet they still didn’t want to make it. So I just went on myself, and took all the money and property I had, went to the bank, and made Apocalypse Now myself. When it came out it was very dicey. People didn’t know what to make of it; it got bad reviews. My films have always gotten a lot of bad reviews. I was very scared that I was going to be wiped out because the Chase Manhattan Bank had all my stuff. I decided I would make a movie that would be very commercial. Every time I’ve tried to do something commercial it’s always failed. So I made One From The Heart (1982).

And what happened was that Apocalypse Now, little by little, started to be a big success and thought of as a classic, a great movie. But by then I was already making One From The Heart and that was a big flop and I lost everything. So from age forty to age fifty I just had to pay the Chase Manhattan Bank all that money, and I just barely ended up holding onto everything. So ironically, the thing I did to solve the problem ended up causing a problem. All this takes a big emotional toll. It took ten years of making a movie every year to pay off the bank.

The Conversation (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
Was that depressing?

Yeah. I wanted to be making other kinds of movies. When you do movies like that for hire, you’re a prostitute. If you’re a prostitute you’ve got to find something about the client to enjoy. Nice eyes, a sense of humor, nice hair. You have to do that with the movies. You have to find something to fall in love with because it’s a process you can’t do without loving it.  Every year I had to go get a job to pay off the bank.

When you returned, you developed a new set of rules for your filmmaking process – that they be based on your own original screenplays, involve a personal component, and be self-financed. How did you arrive at this set of rules and what have been its challenges and rewards?

I wanted a clean slate so I decided to embark on a series of ‘student films’ for myself to begin anew. I thought, ‘How do you be like a student?’ Easy, you have no money. If you have no money to pay for everything, that’s when things get interesting. The films I make now have to be inexpensive enough that I can finance them myself. This was how I made a new beginning for myself. There’s a scene in a Kurosawa movie where they get this guy, and they practically kill him, and he’s in a box. He just has this knife, and these leaves are blowing, and he throws the knife and tries to get the knife to go through a leaf, and that’s how he builds himself up. I had to do that: be broken in a box and have a second life. To do that I needed to be a student. I thought I should try to make movies with nothing. No money, just whatever I have. So I made Youth without Youth (2007), then Tetro (2009), which was very personal, then this wacky film Twixt (2011). I really wanted to make this last film to have fun, but even that got personal...

The Rain People (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
What was your life like growing up?

I didn’t grow up with anyone. I lived in a different place every six months. I went to 24 schools before college.

How did that affect you? Your social skills?

I didn’t do well in school. I have no social skills. I didn’t have any friends. First of all, I was always the new kid. Second of all, my name is Francis, which was a girl’s name. And also there was a famous series of movies called Francis the Talking Mule, the predecessor to Mr. Ed. I got picked on but I had one thing on my side: I could beat them up. I didn’t lose any fights. I didn’t go looking for them, either, but I could always get them in a headlock and win.

I wanted friends, though. For a couple years, I was paralyzed with polio. I always had this yearning to be part of a group. That’s why I think I gravitated towards theatre, because there’s a tradition of being part of a troupe. You do the play, rehearse together, have coffee together, work on the sets late at night, there’s a real sense of camaraderie that film doesn’t have. Film school was like ‘every man for himself.’ It’s always been a mystery to me that in every film school in the world they want nothing to do with the drama department. I mean they’ll go out with the girls in the drama department, but there’s a different culture. They just don’t gel. Theatre people are considered weird by the film people.

Also, in those days, the young men in film were all about camera, films, and editing, and that’s the least important thing. Orson Welles said once that you could learn those aspects of film in a weekend. The hard parts of film are acting and writing. Most film students know nothing about acting. Acting for film classes starts boiling down very quickly to marks on the floor and acting for the camera. The big advantage I had is that I had been a theatre major, and that made me have to work with actors. I never wanted to be an actor, but I was interested in knowing how to help them.

The Godfather (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
That seems to me to be one of the most interesting things about being a director, working with actors.

If you look at the statistics of all of the people who become movie directors, the success rate is the highest by far among actors becoming directors. It makes total sense, because acting is fundamentally one of the two main ingredients: acting and writing. You never hear of a movie that’s so wonderful because of the photography or the art direction being great. It’s usually the acting or writing; without those two things you don’t have anything...

So many aspiring filmmakers are daunted by how much money films cost to make. Does that ever deter your ambition?

In terms of money, I have a magic box. I do. In that box is an infinite amount of money. So when I have a worthy project I just go in that box and I take out the money. The box doesn’t exist and therefore there’s nothing in it. But I believe there is. And ultimately that’s what happens. At the time, if I ever have a script doing what I wish that it could do, then I would figure out where to get the money.

How do you compose your screenplays?

Sometimes when I write screenplays I first write them in prose so I can enter into the characters’ thoughts. I guess in the old days that was like a treatment. I write it as if it were a novel, then adapt into a screenplay. It’s how I find out about the piece and the themes.

The Godfather (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
After all you’ve accomplished what are your remaining ambitions?

I don’t have any real ambitions besides making a great film, the one. Whether that will happen, I don’t know. Even if I don’t get to make it, working on it is its own reward.

Do you show anyone your work?

I’m sure I’ll write a draft of this script and then be careful about getting an opinion. I remember showing The Godfather to all the film cognoscenti of San Francisco, and they all came out after the film and only one person said that it was something good: Bob Towne, the screenwriter. He wrote Chinatown. He was the only one who thought it was good. So all these people who buzz around the film business know nothing. No one does.

Is there anyone outside of the film world you trust to read your work?

I have to say I really don’t have anyone. I wish I did. I’d give anything. But I also wish I had a movie studio to call home, like United Artists, which was such a great company which was destroyed. If I have time I’ll try to resurrect United Artists. There’s a lot of people in my life who I love and care about, but whose ideas about film and scripts are very conventional, and I don’t think they’d see things in front of them. I’ve got to think about someone who I could really show it to. That’s a big question.

Do you ever get critical of your work when still writing it?

Oh, I’m very critical of it, but I have a rule. When you write six pages, you turn it over and don’t read it until you’ve written the whole thing. A young person, any person really, has a hormone injected into their blood stream that makes them hate what they’ve just written. It gets better a few months later when you read it. Do it, write it, and turn the pages over and feel good about it. Then the next day pick up from where you left off. A lot of times when you’re writing you can get lost in making revisions to things that later you’re just going to cut out later. If you decide halfway through the character isn’t a man but a woman, then just change it later. But don’t go back. Go forward because you have no idea where it’s going to go. Let it tell you what it’s going to be.

Apocalypse Now (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
How do you compare yourself now with yourself as a young filmmaker?

It’s dangerous to try to compete with myself as a young man. All those things I did then, I did then. I don’t want to run after that. I want to see things different. The best thing I can do is start over again.

I’m reminded of the opening to Shunryu Suzuki’s book ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’: ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.’ How are you both an expert and an amateur?

I am an amateur in that I do what I do out of love and I go blindly wanting above all to learn. I am an expert in that I have done this kind of creative work all my life and know that even though I am perhaps lost at the moment, ultimately I will find my way.

Do you think risk is involved with your artistic growth?

Yes, without risk I don’t think there can be art.

What’s the best advice you can give another artist?

Suspend your self-doubt, do only the work you love, and make it personal.

You’re at the age now where a lot of people sit back and rest on their laurels – what keeps you creating?

Somehow I haven’t done (in cinema) what I always dreamed of doing, and am ever hopeful that now I’ll be in a position to accomplish that. I wish to write something big and as full of emotion as I feel I am. I am learning so much about writing and am hopeful that I am on the verge of accomplishing this goal. I wonder if when I get all this done, if I’ll be able to take the leap beyond melodrama and stand back and say to my incorrigible imagination, how can I take this to a level not like the movies I grew up with, but beyond that? I want to make a film that breaks your heart, but I’ve never done it.


– Extract from ‘The Rumpus Interview with Francis Ford Coppola’ by Anisse Gross · August 17, 2012. The full article can be viewed at http://therumpus.net.