Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Writing for Hitchcock: Interview with Ed McBain

The Birds (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
When Alfred Hitchcock started work on his film, The Birds (1963), he asked critically-acclaimed New York novelist Evan Hunter (also known as crime writer Ed McBain) to write the script. Hitchcock knew Hunter could work in the Hollywood milieu from his contributions to Alfred Hitchcock Presents (the director’s long-running television show) as well as Hunter’s other screenplay adaptations of his best-selling novels. He later confided in Hunter that he chose a famous novelist to write the screenplay for The Birds to garner the critical respect and recognition that had eluded his other films.

The following interview with Ed McBain (Evan Hunter) was conducted by Charles L.P. Silet courtesy of MysteryNet.

MysteryNet: When did you first meet Hitchcock?

Hunter: I met him after he had done First Offense, which was a serious story of mine, on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I didn’t write the screenplay for that but it was based on my story. When I did write one it was based on a story by Robert Turner. It was a difficult thing to do because the story was just an internal monologue, the kid thinking about the electrocution of his father at 11:00 o’clock. I transferred it to a bar where the kid’s drunk and trying to get drunker and is obnoxious and I put in all the bystanders in the bar to open it up.

This may have been in Hitch’s mind when he called upon me to do The Birds, because the Daphne du Maurier story, The Birds involves just two people in a cottage. They hardly say anything, there’s no dialog in the entire story. Hitch also told me later, and I learned later from other sources, that he was looking for some ‘artistic respectability’ with The Birds. This was something that had always eluded him, and he deliberately chose to work with a successful New York novelist, rather than a Hollywood screenwriter, many of whom are much better screenwriters than I am.

MysteryNet: Tell us a little bit about your experience of working with Hitchcock.

Hunter: Hitch told me on the phone that he had called my agent and asked if I would want to do The Birds. I’d had some stuff done on his television show, so I vaguely knew him. But I wasn’t familiar with du Maurier’s story, so I said ‘Let me read it.’ I read it and it sounded interesting and I accepted the job. But when I spoke with him he said ‘Forget the story now that you’ve read it, because all we’re using is the title and the notion of birds attacking people.’ He said, ‘That’s it. So when you come out to the coast, come out with some ideas we can pursue and I’ll have some and we’ll talk further.’ In the first two days we shot down my ideas and his ideas, and started from scratch.

MysteryNet: And as you worked you worked in tandem?

Hunter: We spent a lot of time trying to figure out who the girl was going to be – that’s Hollywood talk: ‘the girl;’ it ain’t my talk – and ‘the boy’ and figured out how we were going to get the story going. I would come in every day having thought the night before and he would always say ‘Tell me the story so far,’ and I would tell him and then he would start shooting holes in it. He was always thinking in terms of the shot he could get, and I was always thinking in terms of the logic of the actions of the characters. He wanted a scene where Melanie Daniels rents a boat and goes across the inlet and gets hit by a bird. That’s the first bird attack.

I would think why is she going to all this trouble renting a boat when she could easily drive around? But it was a good working relationship. He was meticulous about the circumstances in the script. There are holes you could drive Mack trucks through in some thrillers. He said ‘In my films I’d like to think that if you’d reel it back you’d say, ‘Oh, yeah, there it is.’ Nowadays of course we can do that through video replay.

MysteryNet: You said that you worked with other directors and often times the script gets so changed it’s hardly recognizable. How much of The Birds is really yours?

Hunter: Most of it is. The most noticeable deletion was not shooting the end of the script as I had written it. I had another ten pages of script that he did not shoot, or if he shot I never saw them. And the most noticeable addition was the scene where in an attempt to give the girl some depth at the birthday party for the children Rod Taylor takes her up on a hilltop and removes from one pocket of his jacket a martini shaker, and then from the other pocket two martini glasses and pours martinis for them. On this hilltop they start talking about her empty life.

It’s a stupid scene and I don’t know who wrote it. Rod Taylor said to me, the day they were shooting it and I was on the set, he said ‘Evan, did you write this scene?’ I read it and I said, ‘No,’ and he said, ‘We’re shooting it this morning.’ I said ‘Well, let me talk to Hitch about it.’ I went to Hitch and said ‘This is a dumb scene, it’s going to slow down the movie enormously, slow down the point where the birds attack the children at the birthday party, and it serves no purpose and I don’t think it should be in the movie.’ And he looked me dead in the eye and he said ‘Are you going to trust me or a two-bit actor?’

MysteryNet: What was in the ending that you wrote?

Hunter: Mitch leaves with his family driving a convertible with a cloth top and there was a reason for that. And the reason was that I wanted to make the final assault the birds attacking the car’s top. Also in my version, as we leave the farmhouse we see the devastation that was wreaked on the town itself. We see overturned school buses and signs of people having defended their homes against the bird attacks. So it becomes not just an isolated attack on Mitch and his family but a town-wide attack with implications that it may have gone even beyond the town.

Mitch and his family finally get to another road block and it’s covered with birds and Mitch gets out and moves some stuff and he gets back into the car. As they start driving through it the birds all come up off the roadblock and start attacking the car as they’re driving out of town. In that area in Northern California the coast roads have these horseshoe curves but the birds fly in a straight line after the car, and as they attack the canvas top we see from inside the car looking up all these beaks tearing at the canvas and finally the whole top goes back and the birds are hovering over the car.

Just then the road straightens out and Mitch hits the gas pedal and the car moves off and the birds just keep falling back, falling back, falling back. In the car they all catch their breath and Mitch’s sister says, ‘Mitch do you think they’ll be in San Francisco when we get there?’ and he says, ‘I don’t know, honey,’ and that’s the last line of the movie.

MysteryNet: Why didn’t Hitchcock shoot it that way?

Hunter: I think he was very tired by then, and this would have required a lot of work with the scene in the car where four characters are in a tight space and the camera is in with them watching the beaks and then the scene of the birds hovering and the birds following and the helicopter shots, animation, everything. It was just too much to do.

MysteryNet: What about the restaurant scene which you wrote in Connecticut and you shipped back to Hitchcock in Hollywood?

Hunter: I love that scene, that was like a one act play. Hitch called and he said I need something more. I don’t know how we discovered where we would take them, the central characters, Melanie and Mitch, but once I knew it was a restaurant, ‘The Tides’, then I had the whole scene in place and it just wrote itself.

MysteryNet: It’s a scene which sort of explains, or provides, a kind of logic, to explain the birds’ behavior.

Hunter: That’s right. It’s really a scene of great confusion because nobody knows what the hell is happening. We made, if you’ll forgive the expression, an ‘artistic’ decision early on that we were never going to explain the bird attacks, never. Otherwise the film would become science fiction and we didn’t want to do that.

MysteryNet: Was Hitchcock easy to work with?

Hunter: Oh yeah, I loved working with him. He was like the father anyone wished he would have. He was intelligent, he was world-traveled. He knew everybody, he was famous, he was a star in his own right. I don’t know how many people would recognize Steven Spielberg if he walked into a restaurant, maybe in Hollywood, but I don’t think they would in Iowa. But if Hitch walked in they’d damn well know him. He was a big, big star. One of the few directors I think who has ever had such a high profile.

– Charles L.P. Silet: ‘Writing For Hitchcock: An Interview with Ed McBain’. Original article here

Friday, 18 March 2016

Approaching the Sequel: Syd Field Interviews James Cameron

(Terminator 2: Directed by James Cameron)
In 1992, screenwriting teacher and author Syd Field approached writer-director James Cameron for an interview. The following excerpt is from the discussion on the origins of Terminator 2: Judgment Day

He paused for a moment, took a sip of coffee, and said that ‘from a writing standpoint, the things that interested me the most were the characters. When I was writing Ripley for Aliens there were certain things known about her and her experience, but then we lost track of her. In the sequel I was picking her up at a later point and seeing what the effects of those earlier traumas were. With Ripley there was a discontinuity of time, but experientially it was continuous for her because she just went to sleep, and when she woke up, time had gone by.

‘It was much different, much more interesting with Sarah. I had to backfill those intervening nine years, so I had to find efficient ways of dramatically evoking what had happened to her. The tricky part was having it all make sense to a member of the audience who didn’t remember or hadn’t seen the first film. Basically, I had a character popping onto the screen in a certain way, and therefore had to create a back story for that character. I told myself I had to write the script just like there had never been a first film. The sequel had to be a story about someone who encountered something nobody else believes, like the opening scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where Kevin McCarthy swears he’s seen something shocking, and nobody believes him; then he starts telling the story.

‘In Terminator 2, the first time we meet Sarah, she’s locked up in a mental institution, but the real question is, is she crazy? The advantage of a sequel is that you can play games you can’t play in the original. For example, I know the audience knows the Terminator is real. So they’re not going to think she’s crazy. But the question still remains: Is she crazy? Has the past ordeal made her nuts? I wanted to push her character very far.

‘The strange thing that happened in the wake of the film is that a lot of people made the mistake of thinking I was presenting Sarah Connor as a role model for women. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I wanted people to invest in her emotionally, to feel sorry for her, because she had been through such hell. And people made a straight-line extrapolation from Ripley to Sarah.

‘They’re very different characters. Ripley’s been through a trauma, but she has certain innate characteristics of leadership and wisdom under fire; she’s a true hero. Sarah’s not really a hero. She’s an ordinary person who’s been put under extreme pressure, and that makes her warped and twisted, yet strengthened, in a sad way. It’s like you don’t want this to happen to her. The initial image of her had a big scar running down the side of her face, and we actually did makeup tests with scars, but it would have been a real nightmare to deal with a scar like that in production on a day-to-day basis. I really wanted her to look like Tom Beringer in Platoon (Oliver Stone). And Linda was up for it, because the last thing she had done was play Beauty in Beauty and the Beast for three years. It’s a tribute to her as an actor that she was able to pull off that severity without the help of any makeup whatsoever.’

In theater the main ingredient of modern tragedy is an ordinary person who is in an extraordinary circumstance; the situation creates the potential for tragedy. Sarah Connor is no hero; she’s an ordinary person who just happens to be placed in extraordinary circumstances. The situation has the potential for tragedy, but in this case, the Terminator, the Schwarzenegger ‘character,’ becomes the hero.

That was another major problem Cameron had to confront in the sequel. ‘There’s a strange history that happened with the first film,’ he explains. ‘A year or two after The Terminator came out, people remembered the film fondly. They remembered Schwarzenegger from the other roles he had played, like Commando or Predator (Jim Thomas, John Thomas), where he was running around with a machine gun in his hand, spraying bullets everywhere, like he had in The Terminator. But there was this curious blurring of distinction that he was the bad guy in The Terminator.

‘That made me very nervous,’ he says. ‘I knew the ‘bad guy being the hero’ could get me into some pretty dangerous territory, morally and ethically. I absolutely refused to do another film where Arnold Schwarzenegger kicks in the door and shoots everybody in sight and then walks away,’ he said, choosing his words carefully. ‘I thought there must be a way to deflect this image of bad guy as hero, and use what’s great about the character. I didn’t know exactly what to do, but I thought the only way to deal with it would be to address the moral issues head-on.’

For the screenwriter, the challenge is to find a way to deal with this situation so it springs out of the story context and is based on the reaction of character. The dramatic need, the dramatic function of the Terminator is to terminate, to kill anybody or anything that gets in its way. Because he is a cyborg, a computer, he cannot change his nature; only a human or another robot can change the program. So to change the bad guy into a good guy requires changing the dramatic situation, the circumstances surrounding the action. Cameron had to find a way to change the context yet keep Terminator’s dramatic need intact.

‘The key was the kid,’ Cameron explains. ‘Because it’s never really explained why John Connor has such a strong moral template.

‘For me, John was pushed by the situation where he sees the Terminator almost shoot the guy in the parking lot. I think everybody invents their own moral code for themselves, and it usually happens in your teens based on what you’ve been taught, what you’ve seen in the world, what you’ve read, and your own inherent makeup.’

John Connor intuitively knows what’s right ‘but can’t articulate it,’ Cameron continued. ‘John says, ‘You can’t go around killing people,’ and the Terminator says, ‘Why not?’ And the kid can’t answer the question. He gets into a kind of ethical, philosophical question that could go on and on. But all he says is, ‘You just can’t.’

‘I thought the best way to deal with this was not be coy about it and hope it slides by, but to tackle it head-on, make this a story about why you can’t kill people,’ continued Cameron.

He paused a moment, stared at the blinking light on the telephone. ‘What is it that makes us human?’ he asked. ‘Part of what makes us human is our moral code. But what is it that distinguishes us from a hypothetical machine that looks and acts like a human being but is not?

‘Essentially you’ve got a character associated with being the quintessential killing machine; that is his purpose in life. Devoid of any emotion, remorse, or any kind of human social code, he suddenly finds himself in the strangest dilemma of his career. He can’t kill anybody, and he doesn’t even know why. He’s got to figure it out. He’s got to, because he’s half human. And he figures it out at the end. The Tin Man gets his heart. ‘Once I clicked into that, I saw what the whole movie was going to be about.’

Every screenwriter knows that there are four major elements that make up the visual dynamics of screen character. One, the main character or characters must embody a strong dramatic need.

Dramatic need is what your main character wants to win, gain, get, or achieve during the screenplay. What drives your character through the obstacles of the story line, through the conflicts of plot? In the case of Sarah Connor, John Connor, and the Terminator, the dramatic need is to destroy the future by destroying the one vital computer chip that will determine that future. To destroy that computer chip they will have to destroy the creator of that chip, Miles Dyson, along with the manufacturing entity, Cyberdyne. They will also have to destroy the Terminator 1000, sent back from the past to protect the future. It is this dramatic need that pushes the entire story line through to its completion.

In some screenplays a character’s dramatic need will remain constant throughout the entire story, as it does in Terminator 2. In other screenplays, the dramatic need will change based on the function of the story. In Witness, for example, the dramatic need of John Book changes after Plot Point I. The same thing happens in Thelma and Louise. If the dramatic need of the character changes, it usually will occur after the Plot Point at the end of Act I.

The second element that makes good character is a strong point of view, the way your character views the world. Point of view is really a belief system. ‘I believe in God,’ for example, is a point of view. So is ‘I don’t believe in God.’ So is ‘I don’t know whether there is a God.’ All these are belief systems.

What we believe to be true is true. For Sarah, nothing can alter her belief that the future is already here. On August 29, 1997, the nuclear holocaust will be unleashed and sweep across the planet like some wild wind destroying everything in its path. That we know from The Terminator. This inevitability defines Sarah’s point of view and motivates everything she does.

The third thing that makes good character is attitude – a manner, or an opinion. People express their attitudes, or their opinions, and then act on them: Dr. Silberman has the opinion that Sarah Connor is loony and acts on that. And he’s not ready to change that opinion, no matter what she says or does, at least not for another six months of her incarceration.

The fourth component that makes good character is change: Does the character change during the course of the screenplay? If so, how does he or she change, and what is the change? Can you trace this character arc from beginning to end?

In discussing Terminator 2, Sarah ‘does not change that much,’ Cameron said, ‘although she goes through a kind of epiphany after she experiences her character crisis [the moment when she cannot kill Miles Dyson]. But her crisis happens relatively early in the story.’

But what if your character is a robot? If you consider the prospect of an emotional change occurring within a robot, you find there’s an immediate contradiction. A robot cannot change unless it has been reprogrammed by someone or something outside itself. In this case, as Cameron has mentioned, there will be a major change within the Terminator. At the beginning of the screenplay, Schwarzenegger’s dramatic need is simple: to protect and save John Connor. That is the first directive of the warrior machine, to preserve itself so it can function.

During the story there is a change in the Terminator’s ‘character,’ and his dramatic need changes to fit the moral beliefs of John Connor. And we know the Terminator cannot change his need, he ‘cannot self-terminate’; he needs John Connor to do that for him. This means that the Terminator has to disobey his own built-in program.

To do that, Cameron said, ‘he must make a command decision, and it is the only true act of free will that he has in the entire film.’

Wait a minute. A robot with free will? Even though that’s a contradiction, it’s the basic issue that concerned Cameron in approaching the sequel. If you look at the two films you’ll see there’s a thematic continuity that runs between them, because both deal with the conflict between destiny versus free will.

If these films are about anything, Cameron maintained, it’s an exploration of the eternal conflict between destiny and free will. How do you get that to work? I asked him.

Cameron took another sip of coffee, put down the cup, and asked, ‘At what point is everything we do in life preordained in some way?’ In other words, if we can go forward in time and look back on it, if we can jump around in time, then isn’t everything we do in our life already part of a movie that’s already been shot? Or is there a way you can change it? Can you get it to a certain point on the decision tree and then go the other way?

He paused for a moment, thinking. ‘Basically, what I did in Terminator 2 is say that everything is meant to be a certain way. At least to that point in time where they’re sending somebody back from that future. But can you grab that line of history like it’s a rope stretched between two points, and pull it out of the way? If you can pull it just a little bit before it rebounds, and cut it exactly at that moment, then you can change it and go in a different direction. Like catastrophe theory. If you do that you get a future that no longer exists at all, except in the memories of the people that are here now. They have a memory of a future that will never happen, which is curious, because it defies our Newtonian view of the world. But it is possible.

‘That became my point of departure,’ he said, smiling slightly. ‘It’s like the Terminator’s been born from the forehead of Zeus but he’s an anomaly in our time because he’s the only one who has memories of a time that will never exist. He becomes an integral part of the ongoing fabric of the world, and it’s his existence here that prevents that particular future from ever popping into existence. In a spiritual sense, it would be like a manifestation of God changing the path.’

I took a sip of coffee, and as I put down the cup I casually mentioned that there seemed to be a spiritual awareness creeping into the American screenplay. As we study the forces of destruction to our environment; sense the wanton violence raging throughout the land; experience the decay of the cities, the dissatisfaction with politics and politicians, the failure of the American Dream, the helplessness of the homeless, it seems we’re becoming more and more aware that a spiritual aspect is missing from our lives. There’s a longing to incorporate into our lives some kind of spiritual perspective about the moral order of the universe.

Cameron agreed, then continued, ‘There’s a million ways to look at all these different paradoxes and ellipses. As a matter of fact, in the first script I wrote a scene where Sarah is driving along, talking to herself on the tape machine, and she says, ‘But if you had done this then this would have happened, and if you did that then that would have happened and then you wouldn’t have even existed, and I could go crazy thinking about it. I just have to deal with what’s in front of me.’

‘Ultimately, it gets back to morality,’ Cameron concluded. ‘Because if the universe can’t be explained, if everything can’t be known, then we’ll never know what’s right or what’s wrong. We can only know what we feel is right and wrong, which is why I like the idea of the kid spontaneously creating a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s the same way in River’s Edge (Neal Jimenez) when the little kid is about to shoot his brother, and he suddenly realizes he can’t, you don’t do something like that. Even if nobody’s ever told him, he knows it.

‘As I got ready to write the screenplay,’ Cameron said, ‘I kept asking myself, What’s the real goal of this movie? Are we going to blow people away and get them all excited? Is that it? Or is there a way we can get them to really feel something? I thought it would be a real coup if we could get people to cry for a machine. If we could get people to cry for Arnold Schwarzenegger playing a robot, that would be terrific.

‘That was the fun of the whole thing. It wasn’t all the chases and special effects and all that stuff, though I get off on that on a day-to-day basis. I love sitting at the KEM [the editing machine] and making cuts and getting the action working, but when I look back I feel the real thrill was being able to contour a response that was totally opposite from what we got the first time. And to just have fun with that. To play against the expectations. You’ve got to do that in a sequel.’

And that’s where we begin.

– ‘Approaching the Sequel’ by Syd Field. From Four Screenplays (New York: Dell Publishing, 1994), 90–97. 


Thursday, 18 February 2016

Akira Kurosawa on ‘Stray Dog’

Stray Dog (Directed by Akira Kurosawa)
A bad day gets worse for young detective Murakami when a pickpocket steals his gun on a hot, crowded bus. Desperate to right the wrong, he goes undercover, scavenging Tokyo’s sweltering streets for the stray dog whose desperation has led him to a life of crime. With each step, cop and criminal’s lives become more intertwined and the investigation becomes an examination of Murakami’s own dark side. Starring Toshiro Mifune, as the rookie cop, and Takashi Shimura, as the seasoned detective who keeps him on the right side of the law, Stray Dog (Nora Inu) goes beyond a crime thriller, probing the squalid world of postwar Japan and the nature of the criminal mind. – (via Criterion)

The following is a brief excerpt from Kurosawa’s autobiography, Something Like an Autobiography, in which he discusses the writing and production of Stray Dog.

Maupassant instructed aspiring writers to extend their vision into realms where no one else could see, and to keep it up until the hitherto invisible became visible to everyone. 

I first wrote the screenplay of Stray Dog in the form of a novel. I am fond of the work of Georges Simenon, so I adopted his style of writing novels about social crime. This process took me a little less than six weeks, so I figured that I’d be able to rewrite it as a screenplay in ten days or so. Far from it. It proved to be a far more difficult task than writing a scenario from scratch, and it took me close to two months.

But, as I reflect on it, it’s perfectly understandable that this should have happened. A novel and a screenplay are, after all, entirely different things. The freedom for psychological description one has in writing a novel is particularly difficult to adapt to a screenplay with­out using narration. But, thanks to the unexpected travail of adapting the descriptions of the novel form to a screenplay, I attained a new awareness of what screenplays and films consist of. At the same time, I was able to incorporate many peculiarly novelistic modes of expres­sion into the script.

For example, I understood that in novel-writing certain structural techniques can be employed to strengthen the impression of an event and narrow the focus upon it. What I learned was that in the editing process a film can gain similar strength through the use of comparable structural techniques. The story of Stray Dog begins with a young police detective on his way home from marksmanship practice at the headquarters’ range. He gets on a crowded bus, and in the unusually intense summer heat and crush of bodies his pistol is stolen. When I filmed this sequence and edited it according to the passage of chrono­logical time, the effect was terrible. As an introduction to a drama it was slow, the focus was vague and it failed to grip the viewer.

Troubled, I went back to look at the way I had begun the novel. I had written as follows: ‘It was the hottest day of that entire summer.’ Immediately I thought, ‘That’s it.’ I used a shot of a dog with its tongue hanging out, panting. Then the narration begins, ‘It was unbearably hot that day.’ After a sign on a door indicating ‘Police Head­quarters, First Division,’ I proceeded to the interior. The chief of the First Detective Division glares up from his desk. ‘What? Your pistol was stolen?’ Before him stands the contrite young detective who is the hero of the story. This new way of editing the opening sequence gave me a very short piece of film, but it was extremely effective in drawing the viewer suddenly into the heart of the drama.

Stray Dog is made up of many short scenes in many different settings, so the little sound stage we used was cleared and redecorated with lightning speed. On fast days we shot five or six different scenes on it. As soon as the set was ready, we’d shoot and be done again, so the art department had no choice but to build and decorate sets while we slept.

At any rate, the filming of Stray Dog went remarkably well, and we finished ahead of schedule. The excellent pace of the shooting and the good feeling of the crew working together can be sensed in the completed film.

I remember how it was on Saturday nights when we boarded a bus to go home for a day off after a full week’s hard work. Everyone was happy. At the time I was living in Komae, far out of the city near the Tamagawa River, so toward the end of the ride I was always left alone. The solitary last rider on the cavernous empty bus, I always felt more loneliness at being separated from my crew than I did joy at being reunited with my family.

Now the pleasure in the work we experienced on Stray Dog seems like a distant dream. The films an audience really enjoys are the ones that were enjoyable in the making. Yet pleasure in the work can't be achieved unless you know you have put all of your strength into it and have done your best to make it come alive. A film made in this spirit reveals the hearts of the crew.

– Excerpt from ‘Akira Kurosawa: Something Like an Autobiography’ (Vintage Books, 1983)

Monday, 18 January 2016

Jim Jarmusch: The Limits of Control

The Limits of Control (Directed by Jim Jarmusch)
The Limits of Control is in many ways a companion piece to Jim Jarmusch’s previous film Broken Flowers as it is structurally similar and spends a lot of time focusing on the ‘dead time’ in life that is occupied by waiting for something to happen or being in transit. However, The Limits of Control has even less narrative drive than Broken Flowers making it a more meditative experience. The repetition of dialogue, actions and motifs plays a big part in The Limits of Control giving it a Zen like quality that is akin to dreaming.

The following extract is from an interview with Jim Jarmusch for Film Comment Magazine on the writing and making of the film.

You’ve often said that your approach to writing is that you accumulate material and ideas in notebooks, and find the story through the development of characters. Is that applicable here?

JIM JARMUSCH: Yeah, maybe even more so to this. I mean, this came out of frustration because I had another project that took a long time to write, which means four months. I had written it for specific actors, as I always do, and it was a story for two people and one of them loved it and the other one didn’t really want to do the film, and that threw me for a loop. So then – I don’t know if I want to say I wasted time, but it was a somewhat bigger film for me, maybe $10-15 million, but the people who were interested in financing it started pulling this kind of traditional thing where they were giving me lists of actors that would replace the actor I had written for that would make it possible for them, and they were not actors that I wanted to work with, or that I had imagined. I’m not a studio filmmaker, so it just seemed like, Wow, I’m entering this kind of structure. So I basically got frustrated and put that script away in a drawer.

I had a lot of little elements for this film in my head. First of all, Isaach De Bankolé – wanting to write a character for him that was very quiet, possibly criminal, on some kind of mission. Then I had the idea of shooting in Spain for disparate reasons: one was the incredible architecture of Torres Blancas, this building in Madrid from the late Sixties that has almost no right angles in it and it’s very strange. I first encountered it maybe 20 years ago, an old friend of mine, Chema Prado, the head of the cinematheque in Spain now, has had an apartment there for years. And Joe Strummer’s widow, Lucinda, gave me a photograph of this house in the south of Spain, outside of Almería, and said that Joe always said, ‘We gotta show Jim this house, he’s gonna want to film it.’ So I had those elements. Then Paz De La Huerta, who I’d known since she was a teenager – somebody told me, you know, Isaach and Paz are in four films together, some of them student films. And I said, Man, I’m going to use them in a film together then! So that was another element. So that’s always my procedure – having these initial ideas. And I was listening to a lot of music by these bands Boris, Sunn O))), Earth, Sleep – it’s a certain genre of noise-oriented rock with some allusions to metal, but Sunn, for example – if you listen to some of their stuff without knowing what genre it is, you might think you were listening to some avant-garde classical music or electronic-generated feedback.

But anyway, that stuff was floating around in me, so it’s my normal process to have these things and then start drawing details and eventually a plot. But this one I kept very minimal because I wanted it to expand while we were shooting. I wrote the story in Italy over a period of a week or so, and I wrote a 25-page story, and there wasn’t really dialogue in it at all. So I used that and I took that to Focus and said, I want to make a film based on this story, I’m going to expand it as I go; I wanna cast these people. And they were like, Wow, yeah, great… I felt they’d say, Go write a script and come back, but instead they said, No, if that’s how you wanna do it, we’re interested in that. So they financed the film. And Chris Doyle and I had wanted to work together for a long time; we’d made one music video together, but we’d known each other a long time; he was actually going to shoot the other film that fell through, and he even put off certain films for that one, and gave up some things, and then he did the same for this as well because our schedule got moved. So he was very supportive in that way, waiting to work together. And we talked a lot about my little 25-page story; in New York, whenever he’d come through town, we’d spend a week or so just talking, listening to the music, getting general ideas for the images. Then we went to Spain and started getting locations.

So your approach to writing is very free-associative.

I don’t know how other people do it, and I don’t like scripts as a form. I don’t read other people’s scripts because I had a lawsuit against me some few years ago, and I hadn’t read the guy’s script, so scripts are always returned unread. So I don’t read scripts; I only read if a friend of mine asks because they’re going to make a film out of it, they’re not offering it to me. But I hate the form; I just don’t like it. Unless I know the director and their style, and the places they’re gonna shoot, I have a really big problem visualizing scripts. So for me, a script is only a map; it’s a roadmap that is created beforehand that has to grow as we work. So I kind of just emphasized that with this film. I took that further and had less to start with…

Than ever before, it seems to me.

I knew the film wanted from the beginning, because I wanted to let it find itself, and also while working be very aware that anything can change and new ideas will come. So they have to be sifted through or received, and thought about. The problem with this film strategically following that was that our shooting schedule was too short. And that became really exhausting because I have these great actors coming in only for a few days, and I have to get their wardrobe, and rehearse, and write their stuff. And also while having shot a 16-hour day. I wanted to have a longer shoot, but we got backed up against the Easter holiday, which in Spain is a whole week. And so keeping our crew and everything would have gone way over our budget so we worked our asses off to shoot it fast, but also to keep ideas coming. So I just put myself in a kind of suspended state of, Okay, you’re not going to get any sleep for six weeks, you’re gonna have to prepare yourself and work this way. So I spent weekends writing dialogue and stuff, trying to prepare for the next scenes with the actors coming in. Luckily, Chris Doyle is extremely fast and focused while he’s working. So without him, I don’t know how I ever would have shot the film in six and a half weeks or whatever it was; it ended up being about seven, I guess. And you’re moving all around Spain too; it was hard, shooting in train stations and stuff.

The movie has the minimal structure and trappings of a thriller, but it requires a different kind of engagement from the viewer; there’s a different kind of contract being made with the viewer in this movie than in the traditional genre movie. You could compare it to certain Rivette films like ‘Pont du Nord’ or ‘Paris Belongs to Us’.

Out 1 especially. Part of me wanted to make an action film with no action in it, whatever the hell that means. For me the plot, the resolution of the film, the action toward the end is not really of that much interest. It’s only metaphorical somehow.

It’s not cathartic.

No, and it’s not traditional in that it even says, ‘Revenge is useless,’ so it’s not a revenge plot. This sounds very simplistic but to me it’s more about the trip and the kind of trance of the trip for the character than the ending being a kind of…


Yeah. It’s there as a kind of convention, you know? But it’s definitely metaphorical. It’s an accumulative approach in terms of the contract with the audience. It requires them to allow things to accumulate, and in a way, just be passive receptors of the trip he takes.

And the film is also a celebration of cinema in a way that the artifice of cinema is definitely referred to as a positive thing, as something I love. This is not a neo-neo-realism style of film; it’s fantastic in a certain way. I didn’t want to make a film that people had to analyze particularly while watching it. I really wanted to make a film that was kind of like a hallucinogenic in the way that, when you left after having seen it, I hope the audience will look at mundane details in a slightly different way. Maybe it’s only temporary, maybe for only 15 minutes, but I wanted to do something to… I don’t know, just trigger an appreciation for one’s subjective consciousness. I was just thinking the other night that in a way, for me, the poet Neruda is a huge inspiration. All those beautiful odes to mundane objects. I kind of wanted to just build that kind of sense of perception of things through this character and how he sees the world. But he’s on a mission, and that’s another element – I’ve always liked this kind of game structure in things. The title comes from an essay by William Burroughs. And Burroughs, his use of cut-ups, and re-arranging found things, was very interesting to me in the same way that Burroughs was very interested in the I-Ching as a motivator. Or Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategy cards. Or the French poets… Queneau made this book, Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, that has little strips you can move around. All of these things were inspiring, I didn’t realize until we were editing the film that I was using Oblique Strategies all along the way. I was weaving things, in a way...

I have the sense that in this film you’ve gone further in the direction of working from and being led by your unconscious – by setting up a situation where you didn’t have the usual comfort zones to rely on. Working fast with no script in a country where you don’t speak the language, working with a cameraman you don’t have an established routine with.

I wanted very badly to sort of break something – maybe it’s like breaking the idea of a frame I’m always looking through, that the frame could now be rubber, conceptually. I’d think of how I want to translate a scene from my imagination to the screen, and thought maybe I’m too rigid. I’ve always believed that limitations are a strength in a way. Which is why I maybe fell back on the hard-cuts, thinking, Let’s impose something that will make us stronger somehow. And for this film I needed to not have, first of all, a fully fleshed out script.

But you’re absolutely right, that the whole thing was wanting to break something in myself to tap into this intuition, which I’ve been trying to use all along. I’ve always been non-analytical in my films. I’ve always put things in the film without analyzing why. Or what do they mean? Or what am I trying to say? They drew me or pulled me towards them. So this time I wanted to do that even more. And so the structure of making a film and a production based on only 25 pages, ensured that there’s no other way to make it. You’re going to have to follow your instincts. And once you’ve got the cast, the money, the crew, and the locations: the train has left the station. And I had a really good feeling when the train had left the station, though I didn’t have a map of where it was going really. Or a map with only line drawing, sketched outlines. It was a very liberating thing. I can’t analyze if we’re successful but we felt like we were successful in following that instinctual strategy. We were happy to be on the boat that had left the shore and we were gone, you know. 

– Excerpt from Jim Jarmusch Interviewed by Gavin Smith. From Film Comment, May/June 2009 issue.

Full article here

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Rene Clement: On Adapting Patricia Highsmith

Purple Noon (Directed by Rene Clement)
Plein Soleil (Purple Noon) is Rene Clement’s 1960 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s first Ripley novel,  The Talented Mr Ripley, starring a young Alain Delon as Tom Ripley. The following is excerpted from an interview with Rene Clement that originally appeared in the February 1, 1981, issue of L’avant-scène: Cinéma. It was conducted by Olivier Eyquem and Jean-Claude Missiaen and translated for the Criterion release of the film by Nicholas Elliott.

How did you first encounter Patricia Highsmith’s novel?

[Actor] France Roche had told me about it first, but I hadn’t had the time to take a serious look at it. Then [producer] Robert Hakim brought me the book and asked me if I was interested in adapting it. That’s where everything started. I was immediately attracted to the novel’s ambiguity and feeling of uneasiness, which are constants in Highsmith’s work. Those who try to cultivate ambiguity in the thriller genre don’t always succeed, but Highsmith achieves something quite deep and genuinely successful. I thought I would work with [Jean] Aurenche and [Pierre] Bost, my usual collaborators, but Hakim dragged his feet. He had just produced À double tour, adapted by Paul Gégauff, and, possibly wanting to coast on the New Wave’s popularity, he suggested I work with him.

Gégauff was a good choice, especially for the first part of the film.

At first, I worked with two scriptwriters who didn’t provide very fruitful results. In the meantime, I found the film’s denouement by myself. Gégauff is a very sharp man, whom I greatly appreciated. We pulled off all sorts of acrobatics to make the action unfold more believably. We were a little rushed toward the end, but Hakim, who is an intelligent, efficient man with an admirable knowledge of his trade, proved very understanding. He said some extremely sensible and positive things about the work we had accomplished.

We started shooting, but I was missing certain scenes. So there was a certain amount of improvisation during the shoot, notably for the episode of Greenleaf’s death, which came out of circumstances I tried to make the most of, and for the seduction of Marge, which I wrote on set during the lunch break, because I could ‘feel’ [Alain] Delon and [Marie] Laforêt and knew what they were each capable of. Cocteau used to tell me: ‘You always have to be ready for the unexpected.’ You shouldn’t refuse to shoot because it hasn’t been set down in writing; you have to move forward. Paper and writing are very cut-and-dried. A script is like a score that is missing any indication of tempo. You have to breathe life into it. It demands an element of improvisation.

Patricia Highsmith appears indifferent to material plausibility and the actual details of Ripley’s scheme. Ripley practicing Greenleaf’s signature takes up about twenty shots in the film, while it is disposed of in a single sentence in Highsmith’s novel.

In that regard, the novel was completely indefensible. It was very difficult to adapt, and we were only able to find satisfactory solutions by taking liberties. In my opinion, a director must always prove what he puts forward. A writer can allow himself to say that a woman is incredibly beautiful, that she has delicate features and that her eyes are uniquely gentle. But as a director, I have to show her and ask myself who will play her. I can’t just dream anything up. If a sequence has two or three elements that crucially determine the action but are simply unbelievable, I can’t say, ‘Did you see that? It’s unbelievable!’ The script has to make them plausible. If you look closely at the adaptation of Purple Noon, you will see our efforts in that direction.

Carrying over the ambiguity of the character of Ripley meant giving him a physical reality, in such a way that the sensations he experienced – his fear, his sweat – were constantly on-screen.

That is a game played in collaboration with the actor. After Alain killed the fat American, Freddy, I told him, ‘You shouldn’t have killed him. Figure it out – it’s your business now . . . Oh, if you had been more intelligent, you would have kept Freddy at bay, you would have seized another opportunity. But you didn’t premeditate anything, you’re not a real criminal, and you’re stuck. Forget the rest of the script – it’s up to you now. Get him down the stairs or you’ll go to jail.’ But a corpse is heavy, and you don’t dispose of it as easily as in a novel; Delon had a hell of a time. As for me, I was there to film Ripley’s suffering. That was the game we were playing together, and that’s the attitude you should have when you really love what you’re doing and you respect the people with whom you’re working.

The signatures scene in the hotel seems to have been extraordinarily minutely prepared. Had you written everything, down to the smallest gesture?

No, you can’t get all those details down in a script; that’s part of the creation. There are ten thousand ways of approaching a script. For instance, imagine illustrating the following action: ‘The man is at the window. He turns around, sits down. A woman enters.’ Some filmmakers – note that I say ‘filmmakers,’ not ‘directors’ – stick to the syntactic basics. But a director knows that when the man sits down, the cushion he rests on will rise up in a certain manner, and that through the crack we will discover something strange, etc. But he can’t put all that down in writing. He would wind up with a three-hundred-page novel. Would it make any sense to describe it? Would there be any hope of recapturing it on set? We ridicule directors who maniacally try to realize the images they carry in their minds, who stamp their feet and make a scene if the car passing in the background isn’t the right color. But maybe that color really does have its importance. How do you make a crew search your fantasies to find the exact reasons to reproduce what you more or less clearly imagined?

Should the director keep things a little mysterious for his crew?

Absolutely not. On the contrary! Your crew should know as much as possible about what you are trying to achieve. It must be with you. It would be illogical to leave your collaborators in the dark. Enthusiasm is born of shared work. The important thing is to know what you want. And to remain flexible so you can bring to life that entire part of the mise-en-scène that cannot be set down in writing, bring back to life the memories you carry. For instance, Ripley devouring a peach immediately after Greenleaf’s death, or eating a chicken after murdering Freddy – those incidents come from my memories of police reports I had read years earlier. I remembered that many policemen observed a type of bulimia among murderers after their crimes. A little like the banquets that follow funerals: life’s revenge over death. These memories reemerged, and I made Delon eat like a feline in the apartment scene; he shelters himself from the camera, he hides. That seemed very interesting to me.

We never really learn about Ripley’s past. The shot of the children dancing in a circle is one of the few moments where we can guess at it. It is like a rush of innocence rising up in a very nostalgic manner.

By having Ripley watch the children turning on the sidewalk, I mostly wanted to show that life went on while this horrible thing took place. It’s like the spider we see before the railroader’s execution in La bataille du rail. It is more important than this man sentenced to the firing squad, who is already nothing. And he isn’t even dead yet, while the spider ambles about freely, accountable to no one. And here, see these children enjoying themselves, dancing in a circle, far from this tragic event, safe in their own world . . . But it’s true, we don’t know Ripley’s past. In fact, it is very ambiguous; when Marge tries to find out about him, Greenleaf pretends not to know him. I don’t believe Greenleaf, but what I like is that neither he nor Ripley told me everything. I like that. Julien Green once told me, ‘I started one of my novels with a really important character who was supposed to be the main thread, but at a certain point, he played a dirty trick on me: he took off, leaving me there with a young woman and a rather elderly gentleman whom I did not know.’ ‘Well?’ I asked him. ‘Well, what do you want? I kept talking with them.’ I like the attitude of being somewhat led by your characters, because it seems to me to provide a guarantee of authenticity. And in this case, when Greenleaf says, ‘I’ve never seen him in my life,’ I ask myself, Hmm, why isn’t he telling me the truth? It would seem so simple to make up another story. But Marge is referring to his own childhood, which is probably what bothers him.

There is a fascinating aspect of Ripley’s character that we also find in Highsmith’s novel. What I would call his ‘sponge’ side. Ripley moves in a certain social context upon which he models himself, and absorbs everything about it. He has to make those he encounters love him.

The secret is Dostoyevsky. That’s where I went looking when I was adapting Purple Noon, particularly in The Insulted and Humiliated. Purple Noon is the story of a dreadful character who has killed two people, tried to steal, and attempted to seduce a young woman to squeeze money out of her. He is a horrible guy, but you don’t make films with despicable people – that doesn’t work. People want to relate, they want to identify. I’m stating the obvious. So how will I make Ripley likable? By humiliating him. At the beginning of the film, Ripley is nothing. Freddy doesn’t even look at him; he calls him ‘chum,’ which is openly disdainful. O’Brien acts high and mighty around him. Riccordi can’t remember his name. He is treated feudally, which puts everyone on his side. Many viewers even think it’s too bad he gets caught at the end. After everything he did!

So there is this entire social contrast between money and poverty, the outcast and the rich. From the start, Ripley’s approach is determined by the offer Greenleaf’s father makes to him. And Philippe has no desire to go home; all he wants to do is happily squander his fortune! Humiliation is always lurking in the background symbolically. It is what gives Ripley heft.

Couldn’t you have spared him the punishment? Highsmith lets him get away . . .

No, no, there’s no way around it; you cannot transgress. But let me tell you the ending I dreamed of: Ripley has taken revenge; he too is, for he has been able to want something through to its conclusion. Here he is on the restaurant terrace, with that boat in the background raising its black sail. Everything has come to a stop, even the wind. But no, the boat sails on. What will happen? Ripley is rich; he continues traveling. He goes to Athens – why not? He disembarks at the harbor, and all at once we see two policemen apparently waiting for him at the end of the footbridge. We assume he’s done for. But no: the rule there is for two policemen to be posted at every boat’s arrival. Ripley makes it through without any trouble. Everything is fine. He winds up at the Parthenon, sitting on the steps . . . asking himself if he should turn himself in to be someone, to find a place back in the society that had stuck him in a hole. Everything he did becomes meaningful in the face of a well-structured, specific society, but not in the void.

That was the ending I dreamed of shooting, but who would have understood it and how would I have expressed it? It was very difficult. Hakim talked me out of it, and he was certainly right. So I came back to the epilogue I had thought of from the beginning and which we used in the film. Somehow it reassures people. It is immanent justice.

Ripley does not premeditate. He gambles everything on Marge’s love.

I think that Ripley’s use of revenge was a noble art, which filled him with the kind of creative joy experienced by certain artists. He played with fire. The letter to Marge was a close call; it nearly gave him away. The signature was very well imitated, but Greenleaf never signed that way when he wrote to Marge. A serious mistake! We know how many schemes have collapsed due to insignificant details.

And he stays in Italy, where all of Greenleaf’s friends live.

He has no choice; he is penniless. He constantly gets stuck in impossible situations. In real life, you might risk one, two, maybe three brazen acts, but never four; you’d be too scared. But Ripley keeps going, and that is what makes him remarkable. He is also very intelligent. ‘You know, I look like this. But my imagination . . .’

Revenge is only a part of Ripley’s plan.

That’s very clear, especially in the mirror scene; he is already seeking to usurp Greenleaf’s identity.

How do we interpret the Marge-Greenleaf-Ripley triangle? Is seducing Marge a means for Ripley to complete his identification with Greenleaf or is it simply a way to get the money?

It’s a complex matter. Disguising himself, imitating Greenleaf’s voice, the letter – which in and of itself is taking possession of Greenleaf – the villa to which Ripley returns to possess Marge . . . It seems like mimicry, but it is mostly anthropophagy. Which reminds us of one of the most obscure and distant aspects of our nature. To consume the bread and the wine – ‘This is my body, this is my blood’ – isn’t that also anthropophagy? What about the mother who tells her child, ‘Oh, I could eat you up!’ And what is physical love, in a way, other than anthropophagy? We are neck-deep in this context, whether we like it or not.

And here we have a total absorption of Greenleaf by Ripley. What else would Ripley be doing when he orders Marge, ‘Play, play for me’? [. . .]

Was it a problem for you to have American characters played by Delon and Ronet opposite actors Frank Latimore and Bill Kearns?

That wasn’t important to me. Take a Japanese man, a Brit, and an American: as soon as you get past folklore, you’ll find the same man. When you read Dostoyevsky, you’re dealing with profoundly Slavic reactions. Why would that interest you if you weren’t experiencing them too? Let’s expose the action, strip it bare, like Gaston Baty did when he placed his actors in front of a curtain. Giving Delon or Ronet an American accent would have been a useless addition.

And we all know perfectly bilingual people who have made a life in France or Europe and don’t want to leave, because they don’t like America. Greenleaf feels good where he is. He wants to go to Taormina, not to Los Angeles.

Wasn’t Alain Delon initially considered to play Greenleaf?

We have to reestablish the correct chronology. Delon was never considered to play Greenleaf, but we did consider another actor, whose name I won’t mention. I didn’t agree with the Hakim brothers about this, though this other actor would have provided better marquee value at the time. Delon wasn’t a star yet and had not done anything to tempt a producer. When this vacuum for the part of Greenleaf occurred, Delon’s agent, Georges Beaume, contacted me [it’s unclear why Clément names Beaume, as Olga Horstig was Delon’s agent at the time; Beaume would not fill that role until later]. I went to see Michel Boisrond’s Faibles femmes. Delon did not really shine in it; he did not stand out. Nonetheless, there was something that interested me in certain ways. Georges Beaume came to see me with Alain. We talked, and Georges came up with the idea of switching Ronet’s and Delon’s parts, adjusting them based on the two actors. It became obvious to us that Ronet would be better in the part of Greenleaf, and Delon in that of Ripley.

And Alain became Ripley more and more, following everything that was said to him to the letter. He had an exceptional ability to concentrate, a surprisingly fine ear. A receptive actor of this quality is rare and very pleasant for a director. How many actors only understand what they already know? It was thanks to this acuity that I was able to play the game I was telling you about. Faced with the truth I was seeking, I always had Delon, ready to take on every impossibility of the action, for it is impossibility that makes the drama move forward, of course.

‘Purple Noon’ was also the first film you made with Henri Decaë, who later worked with you on ‘Le jour et l’heure’, ‘Che gioia vivere’, and ‘Les félins’.

I wanted a certain style of photography and for Decaë to capture the light of the Gulf of Naples. The Naples sky is like no other. I observed it when I was traveling around the bay, spending entire days on a boat. When the sun rises in the morning, around five thirty or six, a marvel on the order of grace occurs. The air is light, a little sulfury; and the sulfur slowly becomes white, pastel, blue; and the gentle rocking makes one think of Bellini’s music. That’s where we come back to Ripley: why wouldn’t he also let himself be rocked to Taormina? With Marge, who inherited all that money? Notice that these sequences are punctuated by the Naples-Ischia crossing, with the small boat that crosses the bay and goes back down to Mongibello, toward that water-surrounded territory that is a little like Cythera.

Film shoots at sea are among the most challenging.

If you film the sea from two different angles, it won’t be the same color. Everything depends on the reflection of the sky. If the incidences aren’t the same, the color will change from one shot to the next, and it will be impossible to match them. You can’t put two shots on open water next to each other. The first one will be blue, the next green. It’s terrifying. You have to shoot cutaways to get from one color to the other by playing against the sky’s coloring.

When you’re at sea, you’re constantly confronted with the unexpected. Everyone knows the legend that the Flying Dutchman appears when a death has occurred on a boat. In Purple Noon, a white ship appears in the background right after Greenleaf’s murder. Isn’t it amazing that our Flying Dutchman arrived right as we were shooting this scene? It wasn’t called for, obviously; how could I put that in a script? Do you think a lot of ships with square lights go by in the Mediterranean?

We were quietly eating our spaghetti when it came along. It was an extraordinary sailboat belonging to the king of Denmark. We rushed to our boat. I asked Alain to jump at the same time, so I could get a first shot of him. We were being offered the Flying Dutchman!

Similarly, when I was preparing to shoot Greenleaf’s murder, the sea got whipped up and the wind suddenly got colder. In one morning, we filmed what would normally have taken a week’s work. Camera in hand, Decaë did everything I asked with tremendous courage. I know sailing – it’s my favorite sport – otherwise I wouldn’t have taken the risk. There were twenty people locked inside the Marge. We came down from the sailboat as quickly as we could to board a big launch, leaving Alain to get by alone, following the instructions I gave him by walkie-talkie. Alain was seasick; he couldn’t feel the deck move beneath him without feeling ill. It took great courage on his part to do it. Decaë was astride the launch’s stem as it leapt six feet over the waves, trying to frame this boat coming straight at us, and we were all wondering if Alain would be able to prevent the boat’s inertia from making it go adrift.

I knew a few tricks, like pointing the ship toward the wind, which gives a real cannon blast, but ran the risk of tearing the cotton sails, which were quite worn. I was in my own reality, and Alain, carried away by everything that was happening, gave us the scene you’ve watched.

In this case, we found ourselves in direct continuity with what I instinctively try to produce – which is to create when the opportunity arises to do so.

Had you planned for the storm?

It could have not happened, but we always had to be ready, just in case . . . Now if it hadn’t happened, I don’t know if we could have waited for it to happen . . .

How did you shoot the interiors of the boat?

The producers found us an abandoned movie theater close to the port. Paul Bertrand thought of building the boat set in there. I had a crane installed on risers three feet off the ground, with a track all along the set. The boat was on springs. A small part of the deck was removable, and I could use my crane to make the camera go down wherever I wanted – do a tracking shot, a pan, jump from one side to the other. The end of the crane was narrow enough to allow all these maneuvers. It was my ‘secret’: the narrower the place, the more I used my crane. I had already tried all this out on Gervaise, where much of the banquet was filmed like this. The crane is a way of moving the camera, and not simply a device to make it go up and down, as some believe. It is as if you took a weightless camera between your thumb and index finger, as if you put it on the tip of a weasel’s nose to look in every nook and cranny.

The rest of the film was shot on location. Apart from the Marge interiors, we only spent one day on a soundstage: for the scene in Ripley’s apartment, which was shot in Joinville.

How did you work with Rota?

He was a marvelous, multitalented character, with an admirable understanding of images. When he asked me what kind of music I wanted for Purple Noon, I still didn’t ‘hear’ any, but I had quite a specific intuition. ‘What do we see in this film?’ I asked him. ‘The Bay of Naples. And for me, Naples is Bellini. I can easily see Norma. That’s Ripley. It’s ‘Casta Diva.’’ We started thinking about it, and we got a melody line from Bellini. What was I looking for? I wanted to understand what Greenleaf, Marge, and maybe Ripley liked about the Bay of Naples. I saw a ship dancing on the waves, going toward that island – and anytime you go toward an island, all sorts of legends come alive – leaving again . . . You have to admit, it is quite pleasant to let yourself be rocked by that beautiful light, with those bluish mountains dominating the dark blue horizon, that calm, that mildness, those jasmine and orange-tree scents crossing the entire bay . . .

The credits start with this theme, but we don’t reach the end of it. And we nibble at it bit by bit, measure by measure, painstakingly moving forward . . . And Ripley has to work hard to make a living.

To start a theme and leave it hanging is to create a tension; the viewer is waiting for the chord. If you listen to the soundtrack, you’ll see how the first measures are hard and rapped out. It’s difficult to get to the first twist, which provides an answer after Ripley has had his first successes. But we’re not sure yet that we’ll get to the end, and completion is only attained over the very last shots. ‘Phew! He saved the best for last.’

Speaking of the soundtrack, it should be added that the film was entirely dubbed and that nothing remains of the original sound. The Italian sound engineer, who was used to the local method of post-synchronizing every film, had made a recording just good enough for the edit. There was interference, background noise, people talking. Everything had to be redone here. So I hired a boom operator. In order to re-create the real audio perspectives, I had him run after the actors as they went off in every direction. I remember Delon and Ronet chasing each other around the auditorium, jumping over a piano to get the right breathing, the inflections I was asking for. So Purple Noon is not truly a dubbed film; you can’t tell.

For the sound of the sea, we tried and failed to get sound from Hollywood. I decided to make it myself. I imitated the sound of the sea, the wind, and the waves at the microphone. I would record them on a tape recorder at home, then mix them in the studio. Purple Noon is the kind of film you make passionately, where every detail counts. We all believed in it.

I always tried to move forward, to evolve, rather than to repeat myself. People like to classify you. After Forbidden Games, it would have been great to say, ‘Clément equals childhood specialist.’ But what does that mean? I have always been humble in the way I situate myself vis-à-vis the fantastic means of expression in cinema, of which so much remains to be explored. I always wanted to make studies of various situations and places. It’s a workshop spirit: ‘We’ve studied that; now we’re going to study this.’ Each time, I try to take advantage of what I’ve learned, to make one plus two lead to three, and for the latest film to be the sum of all those that came before. I tried to move forward one step at a time; I go up the stairs step by step toward . . . I don’t know what floor. My life and destiny will decide that . . . People have had the impression I was searching for my way; in fact, I was always trying to go further. But perfectionism is a kind of vise that can close in on you. You have to avoid falling prey to it, and to always have more tools to tell stories.

– ‘The Kind of Film You Make Passionately’: René Clément on Purple Noon. Interview by Olivier Eyquem and Jean-Claude Missiaen. In L’avant-scène: Cinéma. February 1, 1981. Translated by Nicholas Elliott. Courtesy of www.criterion.com

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Paul Thomas Anderson: Blood and Oil

There Will Be Blood (Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson) 
Paul Thomas Anderson famously dropped out of NYU film school after just a couple of days, intent on beginning a career making movies. At 26, the writer-director released his debut feature, 1996’s Hard Eight, which featured several actors that would become part of his troupe, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, and Philip Baker Hall. Anderson’s real breakthrough, though, came via 1997’s Boogie Nights, an ensemble piece set in the porn industry. His even more sprawling Magnolia – another melancholy love letter to southern California – earned Oscar nominations and high praise; he followed that with the unsentimental romantic comedy Punch Drunk Love, starring Adam Sandler. Then Anderson seemed to disappear.

It turned out he was working on his magnum opus – There Will Be Blood. The film, loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, stars Daniel Day Lewis in a remarkable performance as a single-minded 19th-century oil prospector. A departure from Anderson’s other films, Blood ditches modern-day L.A. and his regular group of actors and focuses largely on one character – Day Lewis is in nearly every scene of the 158-minute film – and the effect of his dark drive on those around him, particularly a young preacher played by Paul Dano. One of 2007’s best films, it renders this seemingly small story huge and powerful. After the film’s release Anderson spoke to The A.V. Club about Day Lewis, the melancholy of finishing work, and ‘message movies’.

The A.V. Club: How did you first encounter Upton Sinclair’s book?

Paul Thomas Anderson: I was in London, in Covent Garden, and it’s impossible to miss. The title is in this enormous red lettering with an exclamation mark. Oil! That was the first I ever saw it, or heard of it. I had never read Upton Sinclair. I didn’t read The Jungle in high school or anything like that. But it’s pretty terrific writing.

AVC: What’s your process of adapting like? Had you ever tried to adapt something before? All of your produced screenplays have been originals.

PTA: It felt like the first thing, but when I first started out, I got a job adapting a book by Russell Banks called Rule Of The Bone. I didn’t do a very good job. I didn’t really know what I was doing in general, let alone how to adapt a book. I really was confused by that, because I loved the book. I remember being taught in school that you would underline things that you liked. I remember just underlining everything as a kid, thinking, ‘This has all gotta be important!’ I would just underline the whole thing! [Laughs.] I remember my dad saying, ‘I don’t think you understand. Just underline key ideas.’ Anyway, I think that’s what I did on that Russell Banks book. I felt like my job was to somehow transcribe it, which in that case, really wasn’t the right thing to do.

So with There Will Be Blood, I didn’t even really feel like I was adapting a book. I was just desperate to find stuff to write. I can remember the way that my desk looked, with so many different scraps of paper and books about the oil industry in the early 20th century, mixed in with pieces of other scripts that I’d written. Everything was coming from so many different sources. But the book was a great stepping-stone. It was so cohesive, the way Upton Sinclair wrote about that period, and his experiences around the oil fields and these independent oilmen. That said, the book is so long that it’s only the first couple hundred pages that we ended up using, because there is a certain point where he strays really far from what the original story is. We were really unfaithful to the book. [Laughs.] That’s not to say I didn’t really like the book; I loved it. But there were so many other things floating around. And at a certain point, I became aware of the stuff he was basing it on. What he was writing about was the life of [oil barons] Edward Doheny and Harry Sinclair. So it was like having a really good collaborator, the book.

AVC: When you finish a film, are you generally pretty confident in it? At what point in the process do you know that it’s good, or great, or the opposite? Do you need to see it with an audience?

PTA: It’s back and forth all the way along. You definitely have moments of confidence, where you feel like, ‘We got something great today!’ And you go home at night, completely unable to sleep, mad with enthusiasm and confidence. A couple of days later, you’re lost again and struggling to make sense out of something. But that’s okay. I actually enjoyed the struggles that we had trying to shape Blood, to get the pacing right, the rhythm of it. I showed it to family and friends, and we kind of knew the parts that we didn’t like, or that we wanted to work on. Speaking for me and Dylan [Tichenor, editor], we knew the parts that we wanted to work out, that we weren’t happy with. But there’s a certain point where you’re desperate to show it to somebody, and you put it in front of friends and family, and, lo and behold, the thing that you suspected wasn’t working certainly was not working. And then you get that thing that opens your eyes to the bits and pieces you thought were flying that really weren’t as great as you thought. Face to face with having to show it to your friends, you find yourself becoming a little less confident. It’s that battle, a never-ending thing. Then when you do get to the end – I know when we got to the end of this film – we were really happy. I really felt like we did what we wanted to do, that we’d worked it hard enough that we could be proud of it. But that said, nothing prepares you for that melancholy when you’ve finished it. It’s always a little bit depressing.

AVC: It’s strikingly dissimilar to the rest of your movies; did you feel, when you were making it, that you were outside your comfort zone?

PTA: The struggles are the struggles no matter what. It definitely felt good to be outside of the comfort zone. I remember feeling like, ‘I should really try to enjoy this, because it will be over so fast.’ And it was. We had such a good time making the film, and I remember jumping ahead to the end, saying ‘In three months, it’s going to be over.’ Quite honestly, I wish we were still making the movie. It’s been really hard to let go of.

AVC: And yet it’s easily the darkest thing you’ve ever done.

PTA: Definitely. But I like that. That’s a good thing – it feels right. [Laughs.]

AVC: You’ve described it as a horror movie. Do you still feel that way?

PTA: I do feel that way, in the way of, ‘What’s the best way to look at this story?’ You’re always coming up with bullshit ways to describe it, that for whatever reason can help communicate to everyone, like, ‘We’ve got to think of this movie as a boxing match between these two guys, and attack it like a horror story.’ Those are just ways to describe whatever the marching orders might be. They come in handy, those kinds of descriptions.

AVC: It’s a bit surprising at how many laughs Daniel Day Lewis gets in uncomfortable spots, especially at the end.

PTA: It’s great, isn’t it? [Laughs.]

AVC: Is that how you felt when watching it with an audience? Were you expecting people to laugh?

PTA: I wasn’t expecting it, but I was hoping for it! We used to laugh so much, but there is this completely nerve-wracking feeling, like, ‘Fuck, I hope they laugh.’

AVC: How much, if any, of Lewis’ character’s misanthropy do you share? I just read this ‘New Yorker’ review that described you as ‘pessimistic, even apocalyptic,’ which seems incredibly off the mark.
PTA: Yeah. Fuck, I’ll take it. Sure. Yeah. [Laughs.]

AVC: But do you have that in you?

PTA: Absolutely, absolutely. We all do, don’t we? I know that I do. It would be insane to say that I don’t, that we all haven’t had murderous thoughts. But we’re socialized. We don’t really do those things that we think about doing.

AVC: Do you have any of the character’s ‘competition’ in you?

PTA: From time to time, certainly yes, of course. But mostly, no. As I get older, I have less and less of it in me.

AVC: You wrote the part for Daniel Day Lewis. Had you met him before?

PTA: I hadn't, no.

AVC: So was sending him a half-finished script a shot in the dark?

PTA: More or less, but we had a mutual friend who had let me know how Daniel felt about Punch Drunk Love, which was that he was incredibly complimentary. So I was armed with that to give me a boost of confidence. Without that, I don't know what I would have done. I mean, yes, I would have made that leap and risked failure. But it was really nice to have that kind of encouragement to think, ‘Well, he liked that.’

AVC: You’ve said that you spent a lot of time preparing, the two of you. What was the process like, working out what his character would be like, and how you were going to tell the story?

PTA: Well, we spent a couple of months together in New York. I just remember a lot of eating breakfast and a lot of walking around, more or less getting to know each other and not talking that much about the movie – just this flirtation, like dogs sniffing each other out, to get to know somebody that you’re gonna get married to. We decided that we would make the film together, or more to the point, he decided that he would make the film with me. [Laughs.] Then we went in separate directions; I was back in California and he was in Ireland. That was a really good time, because we were separately doing our work. I was still working on the script, and he was doing whatever he was doing. We never really asked each other what we were up to that much. As far as I’m concerned, I didn’t need to give him anything more than he wanted to know. I was just there to answer any questions he might have. It was certainly not my job to start babbling away.

Those were really good days, and they accidentally went on for two years, because we tried to get the film going, and we couldn’t get it going, and life intervened. There were babies born, backs broken – he hurt his back. One thing led to another, and we just did that more or less for a year. We thought it was time really well spent, and then when we started filming, I can’t even tell you: It was like we were cooped up in the starting gate, and the second the starting gate opened, we fell flat on our faces with all of this energy. We had the most horrendous beginning of a film, for two weeks, just completely off of the mark. We got it together finally, but it was hilarious. We had been cooped up for too long.

AVC: So did you have two weeks of wasted film?

PTA: A little bit. There was some stuff that was salvageable. There was some stuff that we got that was good, really good, actually. But mixed in was some stuff that I wouldn’t show to anyone – the most embarrassing, off-the-mark kind of stuff...

AVC: Your movies always seem very tidy. They might be sprawling, but they’re very unambiguous. The conceit of so many independent films is to be ambiguous, maybe for its own sake.

PTA: I take that as a high compliment, actually. Thank you. I really do. We could have titled the movie There Will Be A Morally Unambiguous Ending. [Laughs.] That’s really nice of you to say. Thanks.

AVC: Is ambiguity not in your filmmaking genes, then? Does it not appeal to you?

PTA: I don’t know. It would require me to get objective and think too much. I’ll just take the compliment….

– Paul Thomas Anderson. Interview: The Onion AV Club by Josh Modell, January 2nd, 2008 

Full article can be found here