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

Friday, 9 October 2015

The Storyteller - Interview with Suso Cecchi d’Amico

The Leopard (Directed by Luchino Visconti)
Suso Cecchi d’Amico (1914-2010) was one of the most prolific screenwriters in European film history. She wrote over 100 screenplays from 1947 including Bicycle Thieves (1948), most of Luchino Visconti’s films including Senso (1954), White Nights (1957), Rocco and His Brothers (1960), The Leopard (1963), Ludwig (1972) and Conversation Piece (1974); as well as films for Antonioni, Fellini, Rosi, Luigi Comencini and Monicelli. She also collaborated with Martin Scorsese on the documentary My Voyage to Italy (2001).  

The following is an edited extract from an interview with Suso Cecchi d’Amico from 1999 with Mikael Colville-Anderson in which she discusses her distinguished career and her approach to the craft of screenwriting. 

MCA: It’s safe to say that you’ve had an illustrious career writing for a great number of Italian directors. How did it all start?

SCA: Actually, it was someone else’s idea. It was not my plan at all. It was because I knew all the cinema people in Rome since my father was a very well-known writer. I can remember being given a screenplay to read because they wanted a young woman’s reaction. I have done the same thing with my own children throughout the years. Given them a comedy to read to see if they thought it was funny or not.

Then one day someone asked me the question. Why don’t you write a screenplay? I said I would give it a try but it had never occurred to me before that. At that point I had done many translations of literary works, so I merely approached it as another job. They were pleased with what I did and asked me to stay on.
Bicycle Thieves (Directed by Vittorio De Sica)
MCA: Did that first effort become a film?

SCA: No, but not because it was a bad script. It was because of a reaction. Let me explain. Ponti wanted to produce a film ‘inspired’ by the big hit at the moment, Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde. So we were working on a story based on a particular novel. I had a very important team: the director Castellani and two other writers: Alberto Moravia and Ennio Flaiano.

We were sitting around the table discussing the story when we heard on the radio that the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. It was quite a shock. We looked at each other and said, ‘what on earth are we doing?’ We stopped working and went over to Ponti and said, ‘Look. We are not interested in this story. Let us do something alive. Something that deals with life’. So we never finished that story á la Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde.

MCA: So the atom bomb dropped and...

SCA: Yes. That story about a professor and a girl suddenly seemed so... Well, we just knew we had to do something different.

MCA: What film came of that fateful experience?

SCA: To Live in Peace (Vivere in pace, 1947). It was directed by Luigi Zampa and based on a little story I had written.

MCA: That was your first film.

SCA: Yes, but I still only regarded it as a job. Screenwriting is the work of an artisan, not a poet. Let us be clear about that. I am not a poet, I am an artisan.

The Lady Without Camelias (Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni)
MCA: So screenwriting is not an art, it is a craft.

SCA: In my opinion. But then cinema is not art either.

MCA: Never has been?

SCA: It may be that it gives you that impression but it is reality. Art must be created by one person alone. Cinema is the work of a team and on a team there are unexpected elements. The sun going behind the clouds, the actor coming down with a cold. But true creating, true art is the work of one person. I’m sorry to disappoint you about the work of the screenwriter. It can be very useful, very beautiful work. Work that can carry the same weight as a written story but it cannot live on its own.

MCA: A lot of screenwriters have found their inspiration in literature. Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, etc. So many screenwriters want to be writers and believe they are writers. The act of writing a screenplay, inventing characters and writing dialogue. Isn’t that still writing?

SCA: Yes, but a screenwriter writes with his eyes. That’s very important. A writer must find the words to describe things. A screenwriter must invent the images. It’s quite different. All the discussions comparing the two are useless. They are two different things. Two different forms of expression. You can’t compare a word with an image.

Le Amiche (Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni)
MCA: Literature’s influence on cinema is obvious. But has cinema influenced literature?

SCA: Oh yes. A great influence. Especially since the war. The young people today are much more accustomed to literature that has been influenced by cinema. So often you read new novels which resemble film treatments but it is not great literature. In Italy we have never had a narrative tradition in literature like they have had in England or America. There has only been one big novel, I Promessi Sposi, by Alessandro Manzoni, that’s all. A very poor narrative tradition. Now we have thousands. Not very important, not very talented, all very young. And there is no doubt that it all descends from cinema.

MCA: A great deal of literary tradition has been lost then?

SCA: Without a doubt.

MCA: But you have been greatly influenced by literature.

SCA: Yes. I’ve stolen a lot.

MCA: You’ve stolen?

SCA: Yes. I’ve always said that stealing from literature is important. Take Dostoyevsky for example. We have stolen so much from him. Characters, situations, what have you. Look at Rocco and His Brothers (Rocco e i suoi fratelli, 1960). It’s clear. Rocco is the Prince. Of course it’s different but it comes from Dostoyevsky.

MCA: Is the future of cinema in danger?

SCA: Yes, because all we have now are mediocre films.

Rocco and His Brothers (Directed by Luchino Visconti)
MCA: Is it necessary to go back to the old masters?

SCA: You can still return to them for inspiration. There is still a lot of material there. But the young people don’t read the classics. Maybe those small condensed books you can buy. Just imagine Tolstoy. Imagine how many characters you can steal from War and Peace alone. (she smiles) Marvellous, rich characters.

MCA: Who is your greatest inspiration?

SCA: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky – I’m confessing my theft here (laughs) – but those two and there are so many more.

MCA: How is it to have spent so many years as a screenwriter? Especially since you began rather reluctantly.

SCA: I still really enjoy it and I am still working. Unfortunately we are not living in a good time for cinema. The disaster is that films cost too much to produce. You become too careful...

When I began making films it was very inexpensive to produce them. In Italy, back then, the cinemas were obliged to show Italian films for a minimum of 18 days in the peak seasons. That meant that nobody killed themselves if they made a disaster. You could make some money but you could never lose a lot. That gave the producers and writers the courage to make the films they wanted to make. Because that is what is important, to make films for yourself and not to think about profits. If you are pleased with what you have done, that is enough. Nowadays you have to write films that can be understood by the Japanese. I have no idea what the Japanese like. You must make films that travel all over the world. It is not enough to make films for yourself and your friends.

White Nights (Directed by Luchino Visconti)
MCA: Your work with Visconti had a great influence on your career. What about the other directors you have worked with?

SCA: The first director I worked with was a very modest man, Luigi Zampa. He worked with a passion and did as he pleased. He was a very popular director and it was a great experience to work with him. I am very grateful to him. It was much more simpler then. It was for him that I wrote the best screenplay I have ever written in my life – in my opinion. It wasn’t the best film, The City Stands Trial (Processo alla città, 1952), but it was the best screenplay.

MCA: What about De Sica?

SCA: Working with De Sica was a great experience. He was an actor and it was different to work with him because it was like seeing your work on a stage. It is absolutely necessary to work closely with a director. To understand what he likes, how he feels, what he wants. I think it’s useless to write something that doesn’t feel right for the director. For example, comedy. It is impossible to teach comedy to someone. If the director doesn’t understand comedy it is pointless.

The first film I wrote for Antonioni – Camille Without Camelias (La Signora senza Camelie, 1953) – we thought it was a comedy. I wrote it together with Antonioni. He was a very amusing man, believe it or not. Full of humour. We wrote it as a comedy and when we started shooting and I saw the first dailies I thought it was a disaster. And it was. It was impossible for him to make a comedy. He didn’t have the rhythm for it. After you’ve seen his later work and you could never imagine that he would make a comedy.

The second was with a young man, very nice, very clever. He had been Monicelli’s assistant for years and was directing his first film. It was a kind of a sequel to Monicelli’s Big Deal on Madonna Street (I Soliti ignoti, 1958), a very funny, popular film. It was a disaster. He didn’t have the rhythm either. You can’t teach it. There was never a moment of doubt that he didn’t have a talent for comedy. He was Monicelli’s assistant and was an amusing fellow.

Salvatore Guiliano (Directed by Francesco Rosi)
MCA: Is it difficult to collaborate with a director?

SCA: Sometimes. You have to figure out what the director wants. You can impose your point of view on him but he doesn’t think it’s right for him it’s better not to insist.

MCA: You’ve written many comedies in your career.

SCA: I’ve written many comedies and enjoy writing them very much. It is my favourite genre. Writing comedy is best when you are a team. Not drama. Writing drama is best done alone. But comedy is best written in a team. You must laugh when you’re writing and you can hear immediately if the lines are funny or not when you say them to each other.

MCA: What do you think about the anonymity of the screenwriter? Is it enough to be the lady who wrote for Visconti or the guy who wrote for Polanski? What is the writer’s role in the process? Is it a good thing that the writer is anonymous?

SCA: The writer is very important. The screenplay is the reason that there is a film to make. He is one of the most important people in the process and the only one who deserves to be called author. However, as the director can’t do without the writer, the writer can’t do without the director. That brings you to the conclusion that the film is a common work created by many indispensable people.

MCA: But the director gets all the credit.

SCA: Yes, but that is even silly. When I started, the director was not that important. The only names you knew where that of the actors. All those American comedies we loved so much in the 30’s, we knew all the actors and actresses names, not the director.

Senso (Directed by Luchino Visconti)
MCA: Looking at the credits of your earlier films, it appears that there were many writers involved in the screenplay.

SCA: When I was young I had a group of friends and we made films together. We were all on the set, even the writers, all the time. For the films we did during neo-realism – or what they call neo-realism – we had no money so we just shot on the streets or in houses. We couldn’t afford actors and there weren’t many actors around because the standard of theatre was very poor. Besides, all the theatres were bombed. So, we just found people on the streets. You would meet a person who was right for the role and ask them to play it. That was it.

MCA: What do you mean by ‘what they call neo-realism’?

SCA: It was only afterwards that someone else, somewhere else in the world decided to call it ‘neo-realism’ and write many books about it. Despite the fact that it was only a little group of friends who just wanted to make films and went out into the streets to do so. If we had as many newspapers and magazines back then as we do now, maybe many of us would have become journalists instead of making films. But there weren’t many papers and making film was inexpensive and we merely wanted to tell our stories about our experiences of that era.

For example, Roma, Open City (Roma, città aperta, 1946) was made by Rossellini without a producer. All the friends who were involved went out rounding up raw film for Rossellini to shoot his film. Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette, 1948) was more expensive because De Sica was such a well-known actor in Italy. He got the most important lawyer in the country to finance the film, a clever man who understood that something may come out of this venture.

We worked on the screenplay for months. Going around Rome and collecting stories to tell. The beginning of the film was loosely inspired by a short story written by a painter about a bicycle. Apart from that, we just wandered around Rome together. We wanted to make a portrait of Rome at that time, so soon after the war.

The Leopard (Directed by Luchino Visconti)
MCA: On the full credits of the ‘Bicycle Thieves’ there are seven or eight different writers credited. That seems strange today when writers fight tooth and nail for the credit.

SCA: Yes, because it wasn’t important who got the credit. We were friends who wanted to make films. That was the only important thing. One of the writers credited was dead when we made the film. He was a friend of De Sica who had wanted to work on the next film but he died before we started shooting. De Sica put his name on as a kind of tribute.

All the films at that time had many writers credited. Often we put our friends names on just so they could get paid and then told the producer we had consulted them. We did that for Fellini when he was young and had no money. So there are films out there for which Fellini is credited as the screenwriter, but he never wrote them. I saw an old film a few days ago and there were nine screenwriters. I know exactly who the writers were and there were certainly not nine of them. (laughs)

MCA: Your name is most often associated with Luchino Visconti. Did that collaboration have a big influence on your career?

SCA: I had already made several films before working with Luchino. We were very good friends when I first worked with him. He was a perfectionist. He wanted to know everything about the film process and he could have done every job on the film set, from the lighting to the camera to the screenwriting.

On the first screenplay we wrote together, which wasn’t made, we both wrote equally. He was more than a sparring partner. However, as we made more films together, I wrote most of the screenplays. On the Proust project, I hardly spoke with him during the writing process because we knew each other so well. That was the easiest screenplay I ever wrote.

Ludwig (Directed by Luchino Visconti)
MCA: You used to make Visconti tell you the story, verbally, so that you could understand what he wanted to do.

SCA: Yes. That was very important. And then we would discuss the story. We were talking about literature before and I recall that Visconti and I, even though he didn’t live very far from here, wrote many, many letters to each other. If someone were to read those letters they wouldn’t understand them because we had so many names, so many references to literary characters that it would seem like some kind of code. We had the same passion and knowledge for literature.

MCA: You mentioned that you are still active as a screenwriter.

SCA: Yes, I have been writing on various things. Among others, I have written for Martin Scorsese on his documentary My Voyage to Italy. Years ago he was here with Fellini and told us the story about how Italian cinema influenced him growing up in New York. Fellini suggested that he make a film about it and we have worked together on that. But now that film has become much bigger than he expected. It went from one hour to three hours. Also, I am writing various screenplays. I still enjoy it very much.

MCA: You were often on the set as the screenwriter. That is rare these days.

SCA: Yes, in the old days it was very important. Especially in the neo-realism period. We always had to change the dialogue. If a scene was written for the sunshine and it rained, we would have to change it on the spot. And Visconti wanted me there. He was very faithful to what I had written but I was always on the set.

MCA: They were glamorous times. Do you miss those golden days of Italian cinema?

SCA: Very much so. Mostly because it was done with passion. Because you were making the films you wanted to make.

Conversation Piece (Directed by Luchino Visconti)
MCA: Haven’t you ever considered directing?

SCA: No. They’ve asked me so many times but I know that I don’t have the character for it. It would be a disaster. I always use one example. If the producer of a Fellini or a Visconti film went to them and asked if the 30 horses they wanted in such and such a scene could be cut down to 10, Visconti and Fellini would both shout, ‘No, no, no. I’ve changed my mind. Now I want 50 horses and I won’t continue until I get them’. I couldn’t do that. I would probably settle for five horses. No, I’m very bad at being in command. You need to have a very particular character to be a good director.

MCA: After over 100 films you must have developed some personal rules which you use when you write.

SCA: I’ve been working for so long that I have developed some laws, some rules that I work with but I never tell them to my pupils when I’m teaching. They would think I’m crazy. But I do remember a booklet I read many years ago. It was written by an assistant to Cecil B. DeMille. She wrote that every scene should contain three elements: the crucial moment of a situation, the beginning of a new one and the end of the first one. I thought that was amusing. I have kept that in my head for many years.

MCA: What are your views on the so-called ‘Hollywood’ structure?

SCA: I don’t think it is so important. I have my own rules and don’t like that something simply MUST happen in the 12th minute or what have you. One must write with instinct. But the three act structure has worked for centuries, so it must be a good thing. Whenever I am asked to write about the screenplay I always read books written by my colleagues as inspiration. Jean Claude Carriere’s book, The Secret Language of Film is really one of the few that has made a lasting impression.

I have also studied Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) for many years in order to learn from the structure and try to use it in my own work. I have seen that film countless times. But again, that is my own way of working.

MCA: Finally, is there any film in the history of cinema that you wish you had written?

SCA: (thinks for a long moment) I would have to say A Slave of Love (1976) by Nikita Mikhalkov.

– ‘The Storytellers: Interview with Suso Cecchi d’Amico’. By Mikael Colville-Andersen (original article here).

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Ernest Lehman: Writing ‘North by Northwest’

North by Northwest (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
Ernest Lehman (1915–2005), one of the most acclaimed screenwriters in Hollywood history, was born in New York City. After graduating from City College of New York, he worked for a publicity agency that specialized in a Broadway/Hollywood clientele. His early short stories, often related to theater and film, began to appear in prestigious journals like Collier’s and Esquire, and his short novel Sweet Smell of Success was first serialized in Cosmopolitan. After moving to Hollywood in 1953, his first screenplay was Executive Suite (1954), directed by Robert Wise. His subsequent films include: Sabrina (1954),  The King and I (1956), Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), From the Terrace (1960), Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), West Side Story (1961), The Sound of Music (1965), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and Hitchcock’s final film, Family Plot (1976). His various screenplays received five Writers Guild Awards and were nominated four times for Academy Awards. In 2001, he became the first writer in film history to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The following extract is from a conversation with William Behr on Lehman’s writing of Hitchcock’s classic thriller North by Northwest.

In 1957, you were one of the most sought after screenwriters in Hollywood, and Alfred Hitchcock decided that he’d like you to write his next picture.

LEHMAN: That’s right. MGM had bought a novel called The Wreck of the Mary Deare, and they told me that Hitch wanted me to write it.

Had you met him before?

LEHMAN: Just once. We were introduced by Bernard Herrmann, and we had lunch together. Benny thought we’d get along well, and we did.

So why did you turn down ‘The Wreck of the Mary Deare’?


LEHMAN: When I read the novel, I just didn’t see the movie in it. It was mostly a naval inquiry into something that had happened in the past, and I felt it would be too static.

But the book began with a very intriguing scene.

LEHMAN: Yes, the ship was found in a channel with nobody on board. But that was the only good scene in the whole novel. All the rest of it was the inquiry.


But Hitchcock still wanted you for the picture.

LEHMAN: My agent, who was also Hitchcock’s agent, let me know that Hitch was very upset that I’d turned him down. I guess he wasn’t used to that. So a couple of weeks later, my agent asked me if I’d be willing to have lunch with Hitchcock at the Polo Lounge. So I said, ‘Why not? I’m sure we’ll have a good time together.’ And we did have a good time, and I came away thinking, ‘Maybe Hitch knows how to do the picture.’ So even though I still had my doubts, I decided to do it.

Did you talk much about the picture at that meeting?

LEHMAN: Not at all.

Then how did things go when you started working on the script?

LEHMAN: Well, I went to his house every day for about three weeks, and I realized that every time I brought up the subject of Mary Deare, he would change the subject. So, I began to suspect that he didn’t know any more about how to do the picture than I did. Finally, I went to his house one morning and said, ‘I’ve got bad news for you, Hitch. You’ll have to get another writer. I don’t know how to write this picture.’ And he said, ‘Don’t be silly, Ernie. We’ll do something else.’ And I said, ‘But what’ll we tell MGM?’ And he said, ‘We won’t tell them a thing.’ And that’s how it evolved.

How did you break the news to MGM?

LEHMAN: That was later on, when we were working on North by Northwest, and Hitch said, ‘Don’t you think it’s time we told MGM that we’re not doing Mary Deare?’ Everybody at the studio thought we were moving along just fine with the picture. People used to salute me in the hallways and say, ‘Hello, Skipper, how’s it going?’ But Hitch wanted me to tell them, and I said, ‘I’m not going to tell them. You’re going to have to do it.’ So, he did it. He went to a meeting and told them that it was taking too long to write Mary Deare, and that we were planning to do another script instead. The studio people, who apparently assumed that Hitch was now planning to do two pictures for the studio, were delighted. Then he glanced down at his wristwatch, said he had to go – because we didn’t really have a story at that point – and left. And that was that.


After you’d decided to do an original script, I believe Hitchcock suggested a film on the life of Jack Sheperd, an eighteenth century English escape artist?

LEHMAN: Yes. After the decision to drop Mary Deare was made, we spent a couple of months just talking about ideas and possibilities. And Hitch brought up a lot of subjects that I wasn’t interested in, and, I guess, I brought up a few that he wasn’t interested in. And one of his suggestions was a picture about an escape artist, which didn’t interest me at all.

You once discussed the fact that, in those days, doing an original script was looked down on in Hollywood circles.


LEHMAN: That’s right. It wasn’t as highly regarded as it is now. If you were at a party back then, and somebody said, ‘What are you doing these days?’ and if you answered, ‘I’m doing an original script,’ it suggested that you really weren’t doing anything at all – since almost all of the pictures back then were adaptations of plays or novels.

And those scripts would have the prestige of the book or the play behind them.

LEHMAN: Exactly.

Was it different with this project, given that you were working with Hitchcock?

LEHMAN: Well, for me personally, none of this mattered anyway. I never went to a party where anyone said, ‘Oh, you’re doing an original? Too bad.’ That never happened.


Once you were finally under way on the script, you decided to do ‘the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.’ What did you mean by that?

LEHMAN: I meant something that was witty and entertaining, with lots of suspense, and all kinds of colorful locales – things like that. Everything that I’d enjoyed in Hitchcock pictures from the past.

The one I think of the most is ‘The 39 Steps’, where you have someone who from out of nowhere falls into a complicated spy web, and the action of the film moves around quite a bit, up to Scotland and then back to London.

LEHMAN: Was there humor in it?

Yes, especially between the leads. Remember when they were handcuffed together?

LEHMAN: Yes, I do. I think that was Robert Donat and Madeline Carroll.

It was. Now, in the process of writing the film, it seems that you began with a list of disparate ideas that Hitchcock mentioned as possible scenes for the movie. Could you discuss them?

LEHMAN: Yes. They were all wonderful, and I took them all down, and I never used most of them. For some reason, Hitch wanted to do the longest dolly shot in cinema history. The idea was that the shot would begin with an assembly line, and then you’d gradually see the parts of the car added and assembled, and, all the while, the camera’s dollying for miles along with the assembly line, and then eventually there’s a completed car, all built, and it’s driven off the assembly line, and there’s a dead body in the backseat.


Did you try to work that one into the script?

LEHMAN: Not really. It was intriguing, but it had no place in the picture. Then Hitch told me another one: there’s a speech being made at the General Assembly of the United Nations, and the speaker suddenly stops. He’s irritated, and he says he’s not going to continue until the delegate from Brazil wakes up. So a UN page goes over to the man, taps him on the shoulder, and the delegate falls over dead. But he’d been doodling – and that’s the only clue to the murder – and his doodling is a sketch of the antlers of moose.

So I said, ‘Well, that’s intriguing – now we’ve got the United Nations, and Detroit, and what might seem like a reference to northern Canada.’ And Hitch said that he’d always wanted to do a scene at Lake Louise where a family is having a reunion – a get-together – and a twelve-year-old girl takes a gun out of a baby carriage and shoots someone. I realize that all these ideas sound very peculiar and unrelated, but I took them all down and thought about them.

Wasn’t there something in Alaska?

LEHMAN: Yes. There’s a hole in the ice, and an Eskimo is fishing, and a hand suddenly comes up out of the water. As you can see, all these ideas seemed to be moving in a northwesterly direction, starting in New York. Hitch also mentioned something about wanting to do a shot where people take off in a little plane that has skis on the ice instead of wheels, and that reinforced the idea of heading northwest. So, I started calling the project In a Northwesterly Direction.

Where did Mount Rushmore come in?

LEHMAN: That also came up in those discussions. Just like he’d said, ‘I always wanted to do a dolly shot in an auto factory,’ he said, ‘I always wanted to do a chase across the faces of Mount Rushmore.’ And I thought, ‘Hey, I really like that idea.’ And that was the seed of the flower that took eleven months to grow. But I had to ask myself, ‘Who’s chasing whom over the faces of Mount Rushmore?’ and ‘How do they get there?’ and ‘Why?’ And that took quite a bit of doing on my part. I remember that I used to squeeze out a tiny bit of the screenplay every day, fully convinced that it would never actually become a movie.

There were many nights when I would be driving home from the studio thinking that we were just kidding ourselves – and wondering how long the charade would go on. The truth is, even with all my experience, I really didn’t know how to write the script. I’d never written a movie like that before, but gradually I eked it out – or, at least, the first sixty-five pages – and then Hitch went off to make Vertigo. So I’d sit there in my lonely office, and many times I’d go home at night having written less than half a page, completely discouraged. And several times I tried to quit while he was away, but my agent wouldn’t let me, saying, ‘You’ve already quit The Wreck of the Mary Deare, you can’t quit this one too.’ So I was kind of trapped into doing it.


Like Roger Thornhill.

LEHMAN: Yes, like my own character, always wondering, ‘How can I get out of this?’ And the only way I could get out of it was to ‘write’ my way out of it. And I think that, despite the unpleasantness of having to work under those conditions, I wound up at the top of my form as a writer, and, later, Hitch was at the top of his form when he directed the picture. In a sense, it’s unlike any picture he ever made. And it seems to have legs. They’ve just re-released the film in Australia as a feature – all over again.

It’s still extremely popular.

LEHMAN: Yes, it’s just incredible what endurance it has. It’s kind of timeless.

It is. And one of its great pleasures is the ingeniousness of the plot. You can’t watch the film without being amazed at how it keeps working itself out, how it keeps progressing. Given all its complications, it’s amazing that you were actually writing the script without an overall plan without knowing where you were going, except to Mount Rushmore.

LEHMAN: And I think that difficulty turned out to be very positive and beneficial. Since I never knew where I was going next, I was constantly painting myself into corners, and then trying to figure a way out of them. As a result, the picture has about ten acts instead of three, and if I’d tried to sit down at the beginning and conceive the whole plot, I could have never done it. Everything was written in increments: moving it a little bit forward, then a little bit more, one page at a time. Saying to myself, ‘Okay, you’ve got him out of Grand Central Station. Now he’s on the train, now what? Well, there’s no female character in it yet, I better put Eve on the train. But what should I do with her? And where should they meet? Well, let’s see, I’ve ridden on the 20th Century, how about the dining car?’ That’s the way it went, very slowly. Always asking, ‘What do I do next?’ So, in the end, the audience never knows what’s coming next, because I didn’t either.


It pays off consistently, and most thrillers don’t.


LEHMAN: And it’s not just suspense. It’s not like Shadow of a Doubt or Vertigo. It’s not really a ‘dark’ picture at all.

But it does have definite affinities with other Hitchcock films, and I wonder if you thought about any of them while your were writing ‘North by Northwest’? Like ‘The 39 Steps’ or ‘Saboteur’ or ‘Notorious’?

LEHMAN: Not at all. As a matter of fact, I’d forgotten all about The 39 Steps, and I was a little chagrined when somebody reminded me about it. I was a kid when that picture came out, and I’d mostly forgotten it. Then somebody reminded me that there was a helicopter chase in the film.

Well, it’s not really a chase. Robert Donat is being pursued over the Scottish moors by the police, and there’s a single, cut away shot of a surveillance hover craft. On the other hand, there is an extended train scene in the film as well as the other similarities I mentioned earlier.

LEHMAN: Well, I guess if you write long enough, all kinds of parallelisms will pop up. And if you’ve gone to the movies all your life, you’re bound to absorb certain things, and then reuse them without realizing that you’re doing it. I’m sure that it happens, but when I was writing North by Northwest, I had no other films in my mind. I was struggling too much with the one I was working on.


Is it true that the idea of the nonexistent spy, Kaplan, was suggested to Hitchcock by a New York newspaperman?

LEHMAN: Yes. That was back when Hitch and I were bouncing around ideas, and he said, ‘You know, I was at a cocktail party in New York, and Otis Gurnsey told me that the CIA had once used a nonexistent decoy.’ Gurnsey, who was a drama writer for the New York Sun, was wondering if Hitch could use it in one of his films sometime – and we did.

I didn’t know that the CIA actually did it?

LEHMAN: As far as I know, they did.

This may be a bit of a stretch, but I wonder if you were influenced by the 1956 British film ‘The Man Who Never Was’, which told the true story of the extraordinary World War II deception in which the British Secret Service took a corpse, dressed it up, gave it phony papers, and dropped it in the ocean off the coast of Spain? The deception was so effective that Hitler significantly altered his defenses for the Allied invasion of Italy.

LEHMAN: I’m sure I didn’t have it in mind, but, now that you mention it, I do remember that film. I guess you can never be sure where the hell your ideas come from. It’s very hard to describe how one ‘writes,’ the actual process – unless you’re writing an essay or an article, then you’ve got something specific to focus on. But when you’re writing an original screenplay, you can’t help but wonder where some of your ideas come from. Often, they just pop into your head in response to the questions you ask yourself. ‘How do I get out of this?’ or ‘How do I get them to say that?’ I decided to make Thornhill an advertising executive so he could talk in a kind of clever repartee, rather than speaking in a straightforward manner. I felt that would be more amusing, and that it sounded like something Cary Grant could do very well. That’s one thing about that script that I’m very proud of – the dialogue, the repartee. Nobody ever says anything straight. Yet even though it’s rather oblique, it’s still perfectly understandable.


It’s one of the cleverest scripts ever written, both for its plot and its dialogue. Now, I also wanted to ask you about your on site research trip for the film.

LEHMAN: Well, I pretty much followed Thornhill’s movements, beginning in New York where I spent five days at the United Nations. I was looking for a place where a murder could take place, and when they found out what I was up to, they banned Hitchcock from shooting there. So, he had to build his own sets in Culver City.

They’re very convincing.

LEHMAN: Yes, they are. I think Hitch managed to steal one shot at the UN – Cary walking up the steps and into the building – but that was it. Then, I went to a judge in Glen Cove, Long Island, and had him put me through the business of being arrested for drunk driving. I had no idea how to write that scene, and going through the process was a lot of fun.

Didn’t you also check out the home of the Soviet ambassador while you were out on Long Island?

LEHMAN: Yes, in Glen Cove. That’s where the Russian delegation lived during the Cold War. They rented a mansion out there for the United Nations sessions.

Then, you headed ‘northwest.’

LEHMAN: Well, even though I’d traveled on the 20th Century when I was a New Yorker – and I certainly knew Grand Central Station and all that – I decided to take a trip on the 20th Century Limited just in case something useful stuck in my mind. So, I got off at the LaSalle Street Station in Chicago, went to the Ambassador East Hotel, and checked things out. Then, I took the bullet train to Rapid City, South Dakota, hired a forest ranger on his day off, and started climbing Mount Rushmore. I wanted to climb to the top and see what was up there. But it was an absolutely idiotic thing to do. Halfway up, I looked down and thought, ‘God, I’m just a screenwriter. What the hell am I doing up here? One slip and I’m dead!’ So, I gave the Polaroid camera to the forest ranger, and I told him to go up to the top and take photos of everything.


Did you wait where you were until he came back, or did you climb down by yourself?

LEHMAN: I came back down by myself. Very, very carefully. It might be more accurate to say that I crawled back down. It was an absolutely idiotic idea.

Were the Polaroids any good?

LEHMAN: Yes, but I was surprised that there’s nothing much up there. Then the Department of Parks found out that we were planning to have people fall off the face of their famous monument, and they banned Hitchcock from shooting up there. He was furious. So the whole thing had to be constructed in Culver City. It was a marvelous job of set design. There was only one long shot that Hitch got at Rushmore. It was taken from the cafeteria, and they couldn’t stop him from doing that. Looking back on it all, it was a very memorable project. But there was a lot of drama behind the drama – especially trying to get the script finished. There were constant, endless, seemingly insurmountable crises of script, but, somehow, I finished the first sixty-five pages, and I sent them off to Hitch. He was on vacation in the Bahamas at the time, and he sent me back a very enthusiastic, four-page, handwritten letter. He loved the first sixty-five pages – which was high praise from Hitch – and it was very encouraging.

So I kept pressing forward, and Hitch, confident that I now knew what the hell I was doing, moved over to MGM from his home base at Universal, and started story-boarding the script with his art director, and casting the roles. And all the time, I’m sitting there in my office sweating the fact that I have no idea whatsoever why the hell they’re all going to Mount Rushmore! Why were these people heading to South Dakota? I had no idea! So, the last act of the script was blank. Actual blank pages! Then Cary Grant came on the picture with some astronomical salary, and I was still sitting there in my office with nothing but a partially-completed script. So I called up Hitch, and I told him we were in big trouble. He came rushing over to my office, sat across from me, and the two of us stared at each other.

Finally, he suggested that we call in some mystery novelist to help us kick around ideas, but I didn’t like the idea. After all, I was getting paid by MGM to write the thing, and I felt that it would make me look pretty foolish. I kept saying, ‘God, what’ll they say about me upstairs?’ and Hitch would say, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll tell them it’s all my fault. I’ll tell them I should’ve been able to help you, but I couldn’t – or something like that.’


Then we went to his office – it was about six o’clock in the evening – and we kept talking about his idea, even discussing which mystery writer we should get, and, all the time, the right side of my brain was working, and suddenly, as I was listening to him – not really ignoring him – I said, ‘She takes a gun out of her purse and shoots him.’ So where the hell did that come from? It just popped into my head. That’s the way it works sometimes: you’ve got a problem and, no matter what else is going on around you, the right side of your brain keeps working on it and then, suddenly, it pops out of nowhere. And Hitch took it right in stride. Even though I’d completely changed the subject and suddenly blurted out, ‘She takes a gun out of her purse and shoots him,’ he didn’t miss a beat and responded, ‘Yes, the Polish Underground sometimes killed their own members, just to prove they weren’t in the Underground.’ And I said, ‘Yes, but these are fake bullets. That’ll convince Van Damm that he has to take her away with him. Now that she’s a fugitive, he’ll decide to take her on the plane.’ And, instantly, I had the whole last act.

It must’ve been quite a relief.

LEHMAN: It sure was. For both of us.

And it’s still a very effective scene when she pulls out that gun in the Rushmore cafeteria.

LEHMAN: It’s crazy, but it worked...

Okay, now that the script’s finally done, you have this long history of warring with directors and actors who try to alter your dialogue. So it must have been quite a relief to work with Hitchcock, who didn’t allow that kind of thing.

LEHMAN: That’s definitely true. He never allowed a word to be changed. Just like Billy Wilder. Absolutely. I could be pretty awful about people messing with my lines; I guess I’m a very passive-aggressive person. I remember one time on From The Terrace, when they were rehearsing downstairs in New York, and I was up in my apartment at the Plaza Hotel, and the director called me and said, ‘Paul Newman’s struggling. He says he can’t read one of his speeches. He doesn’t know how to do it.’ So, I said, ‘I’ll be right down there.’ I immediately went downstairs, walked over to Paul, took the script, read the speech, handed him back the script, and said, ‘There, I read it. Now, you do it.’ It was very rude. But I was always very protective of my scripts, and Hitch respected that…


Could you discuss the metamorphosis of the title?

LEHMAN: As I mentioned earlier, all of Hitch’s original ideas – even the ones I didn’t use – seemed to be unconsciously moving in a northwesterly direction. So, that’s what I called the project for quite a few months, In a Northwesterly Direction. Finally, after Hitchcock told them that I was writing an original screenplay instead of The Wreck of the Mary Deare, the head of the story department, Kenneth McKenna, heard the title, and he said, ‘Why don’t you use North By Northwest as a working title?’ So we did.

And Hitchcock and I were always certain that it was only a working title and that we’d change it later when we came up with something better, but we never did… It wasn’t until after the picture was done, that somebody wrote in and pointed out the quotation from Shakespeare where Hamlet says, ‘I am but mad north-northwest.’ And the same thing’s true with the direction. When we were making the picture, we had no idea that ‘north by northwest’ wasn’t an actual direction. For some reason, it sounded right to us.

One of the most famous and most discussed sequences in American film is the crop duster attack on Thornhill. How did it transform from a cyclone to a crop duster?

LEHMAN: One day, Hitch said to me, ‘I’ve always wanted to do a scene in the middle of nowhere – where there’s absolutely nothing. You’re out in the open, and there’s nothing all around you. The camera can turn around 360 degrees, and there’s nothing there but this one man standing all alone – because the villains, who are out to kill him, have lured him out to this lonely spot.’ Then Hitch continued, ‘Suddenly, a tornado comes along and....’ ‘But Hitch,’ I interrupted, ‘how do the villains create a tornado?’ and he had no idea.

So I wondered, ‘What if a plane comes out of the sky?’ And he liked it immediately, and he said, ‘Yes, it’s a crop duster. We can plant some crops nearby.’ So we planted a fake cornfield in Bakersfield and did the scene that way. And, like you said, it became a very famous sequence. As a matter of fact, that’s how I knew that Cary Grant had died. Every channel on TV was showing that shot of Cary running away from the plane. It’s strange, isn’t it, that such a distinguished career should be remembered mostly for that one shot?


But it’s an unforgettable image.

LEHMAN: Yes, it is.

I wonder if you were surprised at all by the way Hitchcock did the crop duster sequence. I know that you and Hitchcock discussed every shot in the film, but still, not many directors would’ve had the nerve or the confidence to shoot a seven minute sequence with only a few lines of dialogue.

LEHMAN: Well, that’s the way I wrote it, almost shot by shot. I pictured it that way, and I even acted it out for Hitch. But you’re right, only Hitchcock would’ve had the guts to let all those cars go by with nothing else happening. But taking risks was one of Hitch’s trademarks, and, since the audience knew it was a Hitchcock picture, they were willing to be patient.

And the scene grows more and more ominous. You know that ‘something’ is coming.

LEHMAN: Yes, like when the truck is approaching, and you start to wonder if it’ll run him down, but, instead, there’s just lots of dust. It’s very surprising, and very effective. Hitch felt that the longer you can keep the audience waiting, the better.

Over the course of your career, you had a habit of suggesting camera shots to the directors you worked with. How did Hitchcock react to that?

LEHMAN: The only time he ever really got angry at me – though I’m sure he got mad at me at other times – was about that very thing. Fed up, he suddenly burst out, ‘Why do you insist on telling me how to direct this picture?’ And I said, ‘Why do you insist on telling me how to write it?’ But that’s the way I was. I’d get a picture in my head, and if I had a good idea about how it should be shot, I’d put it on paper. Why not?

Some directors, like Robert Wise, who did four of my pictures, appreciated my suggestions. I remember that sometimes I’d go down to the set, and I’d be astounded. I’d see Bob building this huge set, and I think to myself, ‘God, just because I put those words on the paper, look at what’s happening here! Be careful! Be sure it’s a good idea!’ But Bob always listened, unless it was something really terrible. So on North by Northwest, I tried to develop a Hitchcock frame of mind. I became like Hitchcock, and I tried to think like him. And whenever Hitch didn’t like something I suggested, he’d simply say, ‘Oh, Ernie, that’s the way they do it in the movies.’ And then I’d know better, and I’d try to write the scene over again.


When the picture was finished, it was Hitchcock’s longest film at 136 minutes, and an anxious MGM wanted to cut out the forest scene at Mount Rushmore when Thornhill and Eve are finally able to talk to each other without the previous lies and deceptions. It’s clearly one of the best and most important scenes in the movie. Did you get involved in the arguments over this?

LEHMAN: Actually, they just wanted to cut the scene down, not to cut it out entirely. Because you have to have that scene in the film – which, by the way, was very difficult to write. All the deception is gone, and they’re very serious, but they’re still being clever – because that’s the way they are. Anyway, we kept the whole scene. Sol Siegel asked us down to the screening room, and we watched the scene, and he pleaded with Hitch to cut it down. But Hitch said no. He said that ‘it would spoil the picture,’ and he was adamant. He knew that he had the final word – given his contract. Besides, the studio people were pretty much in awe of Hitchcock, and they were very afraid of offending him.

The scene actually is a bit long, but I didn’t know how to write it any shorter. And the transition is absolutely necessary. Another scene that was extremely difficult to write was the one in Eve’s hotel room after she’s just tried to have him killed by the plane. How do you play it? You can’t have him get too angry, because then you won’t have a relationship. So, I tried having him be angry with her in a slightly affectionate way: ‘How does a girl like you get to be a girl like you?’

What also helps is his deception in the bathroom. When we realize what Thornhill is up to, we can accept what came before, thinking, ‘So that’s why he contained his anger’ because he’s planning to follow her.

LEHMAN: Yes, I’m glad that works.

‘North by Northwest’ is a classic in the thriller genre, but it also has serious underlying themes, and I’d like to ask you about two. The first is Thornhill’s ‘remaking’ himself from a smug, slick, self absorbed Madison Avenue liar into a man who becomes extremely heroic and compassionate at the end. First, his identity is stripped away, and then all the comforts and protections of his easy, shallow life are similarly removed before he can remake himself.

LEHMAN: Well, this may sound strange, but I wasn’t consciously trying to remake him or redeem him. It happened unconsciously.


But he’s so glib in the beginning . . .

LEHMAN: I know. He even steals a cab.

That’s what I mean. Would he do that at the end?

LEHMAN: I don’t think he would.

So he’s matured. He’s changed himself.

LEHMAN: Yes, as a result of his wild escapade.


But you’re the one who wrote it the one who made him mature.

LEHMAN: I know, but it wasn’t conscious. I think I have little computers in my head that work unconsciously. And I’m glad they do. Who knows where this stuff comes from?

Well, maybe you’ll say the same thing about the next question which relates to the ‘marriage’ theme in the movie. British critic Robin Wood and others have written quite perceptively about this aspect of the film which portrays two shallow people, afraid of commitment, who eventually find love and, at the very end of the picture, marriage.

LEHMAN: Well, you know, we were forced to put in that very last line on the train, ‘Come along, Mrs. Thornhill.’ It’s actually dubbed over. If you watch it carefully, you won’t see Cary’s lips moving. That was the old production code. What a difference from today!

Yes, but it’s still a logical progression from the previous scene when Thornhill proposes to Eve on Mount Rushmore. And that scene follows naturally from their discussion in the woods when Eve explains how sad and pathetic her life has been, and Thornhill asks, ‘How come?’ and she responds, ‘Men like you.’ But Thornhill, confused, asks, ‘What’s wrong with men like me?’ and Eve replies, ‘They don’t believe in marriage.’ Then the always clever, twice divorced Thornhill says, ‘I’ve been married twice,’ and Eve responds, ‘See what I mean?’

LEHMAN: Yes, you’re right. And that scene in the forest definitely makes it better – it leads naturally to the ending. But I still can’t honestly say that I would’ve put that final line in the picture. But who knows? That was forty years ago. All I can say is that the marriage theme rose naturally out of my struggles with the plot, and I didn’t dwell on it very much when I was writing the script…



– From ‘A Conversation with Ernest Lehman’. In Classic American Films: Conversations with the Screenwriters. By William Baer.