Monday, 13 July 2015

Paul Schrader on ‘Light Sleeper’

Light Sleeper (Directed by Paul Schrader)
Following ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘American Gigolo’ in what writer/director Paul Schrader calls his ‘man in a room’ series, ‘Light Sleeper’ is the story of drug delivery boy John LeTour’s mid-life crisis, a moody urban parable awash in waves of nostalgia and low-key despair. ‘Light Sleeper’ shows us the gradual disintegration of one man’s identity, an unraveling that begins when friends die, romance sours, a career ends, and, more importantly, when the Reagan-era highlife which fueled upscale drug use inexplicably vanishes, taking with it its accompanying aura of cool... Willem Dafoe anchors the film with an excellent performance. Travis Bickle’s hair-trigger charm, his desperation to please, ages here into the quiet pain, the persistent feeling of melancholy which lies just beneath LeTour’s affable exterior. (Scott Macauley)
Scott Macaulay spoke with Paul Schrader for Filmmaker magazine just before the film’s New York opening:

FILMMAKER: ‘Light Sleeper’ is your third ‘man in a room’ film? How has the central character changed over time and how has the audience changed in relation to him?

PAUL SCHRADER: The character has gotten older as I’ve gotten older. When he was in his twenties he was angry. When he was in his thirties he was narcissistic. And now he’s forty and he’s anxious. I think that the times have changed similarly. Part of what I’ve tried to do with this character is mix a personal evolution with a social one. I think we are in very anxious times and this character is appropriate.

FM: How about in terms of ‘Light Sleeper’s position within the marketplace? Now that his character is forty, is he as resonant a character to audiences?

PS: We will see. The character is… I don’t know. I can’t answer that. I don’t see [Light Sleeper] as a mass-audience movie but then I didn’t see Taxi Driver and American Gigolo as mass-audience movies.

FM: Nostalgia is an important theme in the film. The characters seem to be nostalgic for an earlier part of their lives and American today also seems drenched in nostalgia. There’s a sense in this campaign year that the best days are behind us.

PS: The American century is coming to a close. The days when we could drive the world economic machine are over and therefore a lot of other things are over. America is having to come back to earth in a number of areas and there’s a very anxious zeitgeist in this country.

FM: Even the supposedly glamorous scenes in the film, like the nightclub scene, seem to be an expression of this winding down.

PS: Well, the main characters are too old to be doing what they’re doing. Like so many people of their age, they got into the drug business because it was fun. All the hip people were doing it. And then times changed and those people died or went straight. Here are these dealers in some kind of time warp. I based this on some people that I know and that’s how they feel about their lives. They wonder, ‘How did we end up these old fogeys in a young people’s business?’ I felt that was a wonderful metaphor for a kind of morbid nostalgia for my generation.

FM: There’s a sense today that the European art film might also be a thing of the past. As someone influenced by the earlier films of Bertolucci and Bresson, does the sense of nostalgia you express in the film apply to film culture as well?

PS: That’s a problem of finances. National cinemas in general are in bad shape. Financing for German-language or French-language films is much harder to come by. But I wouldn’t get too sad about this. It’s all cyclical. We may be going through a trough of some sort but on the other hand there are a lot of exciting things happening right now too.

FM: What do you think of Wim Wenders’s recent attack on violence in American film and his call for some sort of European response to America’s exporting of violent material?

PS: Well, I think he’s right… It’s very hard to dictate popular art by fiat. There is some sort of pact that goes between the audience and the financiers and the filmmakers. One can’t simply say, ‘We want something else.’ There has to be an interaction. I would hope that the market for violence is on the wane. There will always be a certain niche for it. I think [violence] has gotten a little too prevalent but audiences are making that correction.

FM: Do you think Wenders could have been referring to some of your films?

PS: I don’t know. Part of the problem is that we’re making [violent movies] but that they’re buying them. We make a lot of films that Americans don’t even care to see but we export them because the foreign market wants them. Chuck Norris and those kickboxing films aren’t that successful in America so we’re making them for the foreign market, not for ourselves.

FM: In your essay ’Notes on Film Noir,’ you point out some key elements of that genre, specifically romantic narration and a fear of the future. Both of these elements are present in ‘Light Sleeper’ but you seem to have made a decision to play down issues of genre and de-emphasize plot elements in favor of character study.

PS: Each of those films has the same structure. A person goes from day to day, place to place, and has a job which takes him into other worlds. He’s sort of a voyeur who looks into other people’s lives and doesn’t have one of his own. And events happen and sometimes they seem of consequence and sometimes they don’t. At some point the events coalesce and form a plot and he’s under enormous pressure. There’s an explosion and an epilogue. I like that structure. I like that idea of the plot slowly insinuating itself into the drama.

FM: What was the production history of ‘Light Sleeper’?

PS: It happened quite quickly. I had the idea in September and finished the script by Christmas and I started shooting in March. [The script] had been turned down by everybody, even with Willem attached, and then I got Susan (Sarandon] and still it was turned down with Susan attached. I was able to put together some money. I started with a video deal and then I brought in some French money and then I upped the video deal. The video company was owned by Carolco. My agent pointed out to Mario Kassar, who had not read the script, what a sweet deal this was for the French and that his company was on the video end of it. He read the script and looked at the deal and said, ‘You’re right, why don’t we make the whole thing?’ And that’s how it came about. But it had been passed on by Carolco until I put together this enticing financing arrangement.

FM: Didn’t you at one point try to make this film with your own money?

PS: What happened was, the financing was dawdling. And I had given Susan and Willem a date of March 28 to start. Francis Coppola once said to me, ‘Just start making a movie and eventually people will believe you’re going to make it and they’ll finance it.’ So one day I came into the office and said, ‘We’re going to go into pre-production.’ And then I financed the first three weeks of pre-production until we got the money. I think that that’s what really made it happen, when people realized it was going forward.

FM: Were you affected by the union turmoil that spring?

PS: I shot during the lock-out which meant that I was able to get the best crews at a low price because studios weren’t working in New York at that time. I had all the top guys who were basically doing a low budget film in lieu of nothing at all. The union salaries aren’t that exorbitant, it’s all the stuff built on top of them. If you work at scale you can make a film inexpensively. It’s also important to know that when you’re trying to make a low-budget film that looks like a big-budget film, the sacrifice has to begin at the top. It has to begin with me, Willem and Susan. Once the sacrifice begins there, then you can run it right through the whole production. It’s almost impossible to get the crew to sacrifice when people at the top aren’t sacrificing.

FM: You’ve scored ‘Light Sleeper’ with rock ballads that have an almost literal relationship to what’s on screen. The approach makes the film warmer but it also makes the emotional drama kind of obvious.

PS: Yeah, I don’t mind that. Some people have said that it’s a little too obvious, but I like it. That gets to be a personal call. When I wrote the script I had Bob Dylan’s lyrics and I asked Bob for five songs and he offered five other songs. I didn’t want the songs he wanted to give me and he didn’t want to give me the songs I wanted. But the idea even from the script stage was to have a third voice for the character. He has his dialogue voice and his diary voice and his song voice, which is his most romantic voice. Having it come out of the mouth of another person allowed it to be more romantic. [The music] sounds sort of like film scoring but in fact it’s another way the character can talk to you.

FM: I liked the epilogue but somehow it didn’t seem to me to be as upbeat as I thought it was intended. The character’s main problem in the film seems to have been making a decision and, at the end, prison just solves that problem for him.

PS: The most important thing is that at the ending he says, ‘I’ve been looking forward’ when he’s spent the last hour and 45 minutes looking backward. It’s about getting to a point in your life when you can look forward and about finding freedom behind bars, which is a very Bressonian idea. In each of those films I’ve had people say to me that the epilogue must have been added later. Each time it was written in the first draft. It’s what the film is about. Each film is about the epilogue and if I could have just filmed the epilogue I would have been fine – but of course I had to make the film in order to have the epilogue.

– Excerpt from ‘Movie High – Scott Macauley Interviews Paul Schrader about Light Sleeper’ – Filmmaker magazine, Fall 1992. [Original article here]

See also: Paul Schrader: Notes On Taxi driver and Paul Schrader: Steps to Writing a Script

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Alex Jacobs: On Writing ‘Point Blank’

Point Blank (Directed by John Boorman)
‘Point Blank’ is a masterpiece. Given the firm iconographic basis of the urban thriller, Boorman’s view of man in his own jungles becomes much more compelling. It is a crucial film in the development of the cinema’s portrait of America as a complex of organized crime. It uses the city as a structural model for society so that all the sites of the city – the prison, the sewers, the apartment block, the used-car lot – take on a natural metaphysical significance. The actual and the imaginary are perfectly joined in ‘Point Blank’. For it is not only an account of Lee Marvin’s remorseless and romantic hacking away at the syndicate, but his dream in the instant that he dies. Because the thriller is so strong and vivid a genre, Boorman was able to exploit its potential for fantasy and make the Marvin character a spectator of his own story. His expressive somnambulism is not just a search for vengeance and satisfaction, but the signs of sleep and inertia in a man actually slipping away from the world, defeated by it but inventing a story in which he triumphs as he dies. (David Thomson)
Based on Donald E. Westlake’s pulp crime novel The Hunter, written under the pen-name Richard Stark, John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) begins and ends on a deserted Alcatraz, bookending the bloody journey Lee Marvin’s criminal loner cuts across Los Angeles. A violent quest that may be a dying man’s dream. A landmark in the history of the crime movie, the script was adapted by Alexander Jacobs reworking the classic gangster text into a fractured vision of modern America.

In the following extract from an interview first published in Film Comment magazine, Alex Jacobs discusses the process of adapting Westlake’s novel, the conflicts involved in getting the script to screen, and his approach to screenwriting. 

How did the script for Point Blank come to be written?

There were three main versions of the script. The first I did during my first stay in Hollywood, in four weeks, and that consisted of writing the script once and then rewriting it completely. I only had four weeks because I was working on a picture in England. John gave me the script that the Newhouses had written, which was a craftsman-like piece of work but very old-fashioned. And the idea was to make a thriller that was enterprising. What I argued from the beginning was we couldn’t make an Asphalt Jungle, we couldn’t make a Harper, we couldn’t make a Sweet Smell of Success. I thought all those days were over – television had scraped them clean. We had to do something completely fresh. We wanted to make a film that was a half reel ahead of the audience, that was the whole idea. We made a vow that we’d have no people getting in and out of cars, no shots of car doors opening and closing, unless there was a really important reason. And then I wrote a second version which consisted mainly of long letters from me in England to John in Hollywood, plus long telephone conversations on casting and all sorts of things, and of course letters from John, which were amalgamated into a second-draft script. And then I went out to San Francisco on the shooting of the picture the first two weeks. The ending and the beginning of the film take place in San Francisco and that’s where we shot. I then wrote a lot more stuff including a completely new ending and a new beginning, some of which was done in script form, some of which was in discussion, and some of which was literally dictated to a girl and rushed out to location as they were shooting. This included the whole idea of using the sightseeing boat as a means of linking the past and the present I wrote a new ending which wasn’t used. I don’t really agree with the ending in the film at the moment – I think it’s evasive – but that’s the one that was finally shot.

What was your ending like?

We had a grandstand ending which I liked very much, because it seemed to me to be sort of Wagnerian in its own way. In this fort, Fort Point in San Francisco, you had Yost revealing himself to Walker and tempting Walker to join him, and Walker is half-tempted and half-shattered by his experiences and by the fact that he’s been used as a dupe for the whole film; all his passion, all his energy, all his madness were being used – he was like a puppet being manipulated and he becomes absolutely incensed, and he advances upon Yost who has a gun, and Yost is suddenly terrified by this mad force, because Walker is now completely insane. And Walker just advances upon him – he’s going to kill him with his bare hands, a complete animal, he’s frothing at the mouth. And Yost shoots him three times and the three bullets miss. Yost actually cannot shoot this force. He tries, his hands shake, and he suddenly realizes his age; suddenly his age sinks through him like a flood, like a great stone sucking him under, and he’s a completely old man, and he steps backward and falls off the parapet and dies. And Walker comes to at the edge of the parapet, and shaken and quivering is led away by the girl out into the world again. This was the ending we had. And I thought it bordered on the melodramatic, I thought it was really dangerous, but I thought it was a marvelous way of going for an ending to a myth, if you like. And I don’t know the ins and outs of it, but it wasn’t played that way, so I came up with other endings.

Were there other disagreements over various scenes in the film?

I can give you a very specific example – the scene when Brewster (Carroll O’Connor) arrives home and Lee has been waiting for him, and demands his money. John shot that scene before we went to San Francisco and ran the picture for me so I was completely in touch with what was happening. Now the Brewster scene was quite clearly shot wrongly. He had shot it almost as scripted but in fact had cut out a crucial love scene which is prior to the Brewster scene. It’s a scene where Angie and Lee not only make love but become extraordinarily intimate, and he begins to talk to her for the first time and tell her his fears and in fact reveals that this drive is something that he’s generated in himself and that is now dissipating him and wearing him out and crumbling him, and that he’s frightened of it. He’s frightened of where it’s going to lead him, he’s frightened of the way he cannot control it. And I think that would have matched in with my ending very well indeed.

Well, John said it wasn’t possible to shoot it or that he couldn’t shoot it and he didn’t want to. So in this sequence with Brewster the trouble was that because you didn’t have the previous love scene, and because the actor, Carroll O’Connor, is a very strong and intelligent actor, you got a complete unbalance to the scene. There are three peaks in the scene, and Carroll O’Connor took them all from Lee, which is not only dramatically wrong, it’s psychologically wrong, and it’s plot wrong, which is the most crucial point. And I pointed this out to John and he agreed, and he reshot the second half of the scene, and I think if you look very closely you’ll see that the second half of that scene is shot with a different light and at a different area, because I don’t think we could get back to the original location again. We changed it so that in the end Lee became the dominant one, which led on to the ending that we finally shot, but I think if we’d had the love scene, the scene as originally scripted in Brewster’s house could have worked.

Another change was in the wake sequence, the sequence when, after his wife’s committed suicide, the house is sort of stripped bare. The whole idea in that sequence was to show Walker completely revealed, but to no one else except himself. And the second revelation is when Walker at long last comes out of the abyss and reveals himself to the woman. The first time is when he’s in this house and he looks round and a wall is stripped bare; he looks again, the bed is gone; he looks again and the carpets have gone and his feet begin to echo over the place, and he starts packing his wife’s goods and he smells her panties and a bra, and he packs away photographs or trinkets or Welcome to Hawaii or something like that. What you get is a great sense of revelation, which is very strange and completely inside his head in many ways. And this isn’t shot in that way. I think John argues that there are really subtle touches where Lee does show certain sorts of warmth, but my general impression is that he’s too frozen-faced throughout. We showed the film to Hashimoto, one of Kurosawa’s scriptwriters, the man who’s worked with him a long time. He loved it, was very excited by it, but he said, ‘I think you should have been closer on his eyes,’ which is a marvellously perceptive view of the film, because that’s the trouble – it is, I think, too cold-blooded.

How do you feel about the wake sequence as it is filmed?

I don’t think it works. I don’t like it. I like some of its ideas, I think it is very strange, but I think it’s strange because it’s baffling and not strange because it’s got quality and atmosphere. It isn’t developed properly. You should see each room vanish as he walks through it; instead, there are times when you really don’t know whether he’s just walked from an empty room into an empty room. There should have been changes in his shirts and his face. John argues that there are changes; he says the beard gets a bit longer, but who’s going to notice that? You needed something much bolder, much clearer.

The differences in the wake sequence are interesting, because they do reveal a real difference in temperament. He did make the film colder, as you say, just through very subtle sorts of changes.

Well, I think that’s exactly the sort of relationship between writers and directors that is interesting to discuss. I mean, when you have a director as strong as John, and I suppose when you have a writer with ideas like I have, many times it’s a very happy amalgamation, as it has been with him. And of course the next step is for the writer to direct. Incidentally, the film did extraordinarily well. I don’t think it’s the greatest blockbuster of all time, but I know MGM are happy with what it finally made and all the rest of it; it’s done very well in Europe and so forth. In fact, it’s given us all a great boost But I would argue that the film would have been even more popular with this warmer quality to it. I don’t mean by that pandering to the audience, but I mean making Lee more human, less monsterish, less zombie, less killer, if you like – although he doesn’t actually kill a single person in the picture. I think the problem is that that sort of implacable, never-let-up drive is not human, and while it would have been marvelous to have continued our myth that he literally comes from the underground, roams over the surface of the earth for a brief while, then goes back into the shadows – well, by introducing the girl and all sorts of other things, we obviously go away from the essential myth. But by making him variable, by giving him variations of pace, by giving him changes of character, we would have made him human, and – I think much more understandable.

I think it’s quite possible that lots of people were repelled by the drive of the picture, which is frenetic. We did it for a reason. Both of us were extraordinarily attracted by Los Angeles – I still am – and we both hated San Francisco, hated it in the sense that it wasn’t for our picture, and it was very much a touristy sort of town, a town sort of on the asshole of America, it seemed to me. If you couldn’t face the Middle West and the West and what modern America is, you retreated to San Francisco and hung on for your dear life. It’s a very sweet sort of city, but it’s obviously not America. I love LA because it seems to me to be absolutely what America is, at least one aspect of America, and it doesn’t kid around, you know, you either take it or you don’t take it.

What are some other examples of differences between script and film, where you feel this warmer quality is lost?

Well, where he does come alive in a much richer way is the wooing of his wife down by the waterfront, the whole of the flashback sequence there, which I think is beautifully done and far beyond any hopes I would have had at that point. And I thought there should have been indications of that sort of thing in the rest of the picture. But it doesn’t come again. The whole absence of Angie at the end of the picture is a very important clue. But the crucial change is the sequence when she beats him and falls to the floor and then taunts him through the intercom about ‘You’re really dead…’ Now it seems to me that those lines are absolutely crucial, and they’ve got to be said. You can’t have them in this abstract way over the soundtrack through a round black piece of mesh through which the girl’s voice floats. That’s exactly the point where it’s got to be a confrontation between two human beings. And while I think it’s brilliantly shot sequence and some very inventive ideas. it’s really for laughs, and I think the audience reaction is one of laughs basically, and it isn’t revealing on any other level. And then if you’d gone into that very long and tender love scene after that, you would have obviously had a different picture.

Another change, which is more indirect but equally important, is the first time he meets Angie, when he awakens her in her bedroom and she finds out her sister’s dead. And at the end of that scene, I wrote that a certain intimacy begins to grow between them – she’s lying there in bed, the blankets back, her hair tousled, one shoulder bare, and suddenly a sexual element enters the scene, and it’s the temptation that is going to grow increasingly. Now that’s not shown in the film at all. It’s done in a two-shot, a lot of it done from behind Lee’s head or just to the side of Lee. But what you don’t see is a growing intimacy that should have come through a track-in, a slightly different composition, a feeling of warmth and then a drawing back again. This is in the script, it’s not in the picture.

All of these changes are consistent.

I think another point worth thinking about is that I feel there is very definitely an Anglo-Saxon attitude towards art and a non-Anglo-Saxon attitude towards art, particularly visual art. I think Anglo-Saxon culture tends toward a form of social observation. The artist sees himself and is seen as an observer of society, in which personal investigation and a personal viewpoint and a personal passion about life are less important than a highly skilled, very effective, and brilliant sketching in and drawing of a social page. Whereas it seems to me that the non-Anglo-Saxon attitude is much more towards personal investigation, a personal, passionate view of a situation, of people, often hopelessly unfair, but uniquely and individually the maker’s own. And it may well be that part of the tension between writers and directors in English-speaking cinema is that if the writer isn’t Anglo-Saxon, as I’m not – I’m Jewish and I’m certainly not Anglo-Saxon – whereas the director isn’t Jewish and is Anglo-Saxon, it could be that that’s where the dichotomy really takes place; in my view in the script, which is more passionate and warmer and richer, to my mind, than John’s, is eschewed by John because he does have this Anglo-Saxon training. I think that’s one view of it which is perfectly possible.

There’s another factor that’s strange. I think the great problem with writers and directors is to know when to change the role in the progress of the picture. I think at the beginning the writer is totally inside the picture, with the director and occasionally the producer, if you’ve got a genuinely creative producer – like Ray Wagner, the man I’m working for at the moment – outside the material, and it’s the tension between those two positions which creates the material. Then I think when the picture begins the director becomes totally involved with the material, he’s totally inside the material, and it’s the writer, and perhaps the producer, who is outside the material. But of course in most cases in the English-speaking cinema, the writer’s paid off and that’s the end of it. In Point Blank that was exactly my position. At the end of four weeks, I was sent back to England and that was that. It was only because of my relationship with John, these constant phone calls and letters, that I was able to have any effect whatsoever. And then of course John’s plea for me to come out for two weeks in San Francisco and help him again, which the producers agreed to. But under normal circumstances, you complete the script and that’s the end of it. And of course if you write pictures which are purely a stimulus for the director to go on, you’ve got to make sure you’ve got the director who can do that. I mean John is someone – I may disagree with his view of the picture – but I know that he can take it on from there. He’s a very strong director, and this means that he’ll argue and fight for what he wants and be prepared to give up the picture if he doesn’t get it. In that sense he’s very good, in that sense he deserves everything he gets. But there are many directors who are very craftsmanlike interpreters and no more. One needs to give them a different script.

How do you write for a director who is nothing but a craftsman?

Well, the first thing you have to do is to turn down work if you think that in the end you’re not going to be happy with the director. I mean one of the great problems in the English-speaking film business is your own artistic growth. A Bergman can do twelve, fourteen films before a Seventh Seal, and each of them some form of development, some form of change, some exploration. In the English-speaking cinema it’s hit and miss, catch as catch can, what comes up. Under those circumstances writers and directors and to some extent actors, I believe, have to shape their careers as purposefully as they can. And I think this involves somehow or other not doing pictures that you know are just going to be shot, trying to work with the best directors you can, and if you can’t, if through reasons of finance or contract you’ve got to take pictures – and this happens to all of us sooner or later – then I think you’ve got to find themes that you can exploit or explore to some extent in terms of your own progression. For example, I think in the English-speaking cinema, to survive, you’ve got to accept that certain genres work, certain modes are in, certain modes are out, and there are times when you can only set up films under certain conditions.

Now it seems to me if that is the case, what you’ve got to do is find a way through that genre, say with Point Blank, through a thriller, to investigate certain aspects of life that interest you. I mean I would not have chosen a thriller, frankly, but that was the way it came up. Obviously to some extent this maims you, you can only limp; you can run certain times and limp at others, but at least you make progress. It seems to me in the English-speaking world – and I make this distinction very sharply, because I think the view towards the cinema by producers and by money people in Europe is a bit different, it’s not vastly different but it’s a bit different – in the English-speaking cinema to survive either you sit in the hills like a Bresson and come down once every five years, or else you’ve got to get in the middle and put your talent on the line every day. And one hopes the talent will be there at 75 and not go out at 57, or be there at 57 and not go out at 27; but you’ve got to put your talent on the line every day. And you do put it on the line every day, because there’s an enormous amount of money to be made, there are lots of temptations, it’s very easy to relax. I think that with a writer or a director in the English-speaking cinema, then, you’ve somehow got to fashion your career as a series of progressions...

I don’t think there’s one solution, I think there are individual answers, and each one is a risk. I’m only interested in exploring my own development, and obviously I must go on and direct as soon as I can, and I’m trying to direct now. In one sense it’s easy to be a writer. You don’t have to deal with actors and actresses, you don’t have to fight with money men very often – not to that extent; you may have rows with the producer. It’s one thing to write it, another thing to shoot it, believe me, and there’s a huge difference between the two. So I think the challenge for a writer is either to go on and become a director, or to become a producer, which is less of a challenge but I can see it, or else to shut up. If writers see their work going down the drain, if they see scenes not realized, if they really are not too happy with directors, if they find in the end they settle for a good craftsman-like director, or if they find that a really inventive, individual director mangles their material, then they must direct. If they don’t, they’ve got to take their money and run, or else write their novels and write their plays or write whatever they want.

I’m interested in what you said about working in a cinema which is not oriented towards personal expression. You have concerns and obsessions that you want to explore, and yet everything in the film industry is working against that. Is this finally crippling?

Yes. Yes. I suppose I’m being very pessimistic now actually; normally I’m much more optimistic. I think that in the English-speaking cinema our development is maimed. We will never reach our full potential. And I think like everything in Anglo-Saxon life, you settle for the next best thing. You hope to fight till the day you die. You try and keep yourself as sharp as possible, you do this very consciously…

Let me ask about the kinds of things that you write in a script. You mentioned that you try to evoke a mood for a scene rather than writing details of camera angles.

Oh, I never write camera angles, ever, because that’s entirely the director’s prerogative anyway, and very often they’re impractical, because you write without seeing locations or anything else. Now that I’m in a position to choose, I try only to work closely with a director. The director’s nominated in advance, so I know with whom I’m working. Secondly, I now try more and more to work directly with a star. I think in English-speaking cinema you’ve got to work with stars, because that’s the reality of the business; and the thing to do is to find out the archetypal image of the star you’re working with and fashion something according to that.

Now that doesn’t just mean horses for courses, but it means working with the star, as in Lee Marvin’s case, to reveal not only the peaks that his audience is used to seeing, or her audience is used to seeing, but also the valleys that the audience has never seen before. If I can’t work directly with the star, I try to write a general sort of image figure of what we’re after, and then as soon as the star is nominated, I would come back on the picture even for free and write for a week to try and get the dialogue nearer the image of the star. But of course ideally, as on Point Blank, we worked closely with Lee, on the script, on the floor, on the cutting. He was a very important contributor. That’s the first thing. By the very nature of my interest in the cinema, I have a shrewd idea of what directors are about. That is, a certain director is suggested to me or else he’s going to work with me; I see his films or I’ve seen his films, I have an idea about his particular interests and obsessions. You find certain attitudes and areas in common, and then I think you must work within those areas. This is a sort of limitation, I suppose. But this is one of the realities we face within the business, and I want to work within the business. And then my personal desire is to go right into the center of a subject in the first scene.

Normally I do not like to have a long buildup. I think you’ve got to get the audience by the scruff of the neck and shove them into your mood and into your milieu and into your atmosphere and into your world straight away; if you don’t do that, I think you have lots of problems. I don’t think it’s a matter of pace or speed or action, because all these things are unimportant. In Point Blank, for example, again and again the dynamic comes because of the cut. We never show policemen, we never show explanations, we let the audience think about them afterwards. Like when Angie’s house is smashed up, well, obviously, the gang have been there, why bother with all the explanations? That’s all nonsense. I like to get the audience and well, you know, really push them onto the bed as it were, really get them going. I hate unnecessary explanations, I hate spare flesh on a script, I’m absolutely obsessed with cutting off every inch of spare flesh. This even goes for descriptive lines in the paragraphs, for instance if it was ‘John and Mary walk across the road’: I’d rather say, ‘They cross,’ and leave it at that; I’m as stupid about it as that. But I do feel that that gives it a ranginess and a sparseness. You know, the ribcage is well-stretched, it’s on the balls of its feet, it’s dancing. And I like to do that with the dialogue and I like to do that with the story, I like to do it with the characters. But this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going fast – I’m not mad about galloping horses – but what I like is that sense of tension, that sense of dynamism, which is often the juxtaposition between two sequences. You know, you jump a whole passage of time, and the audience pant up with you halfway through the scene, which I think is the way to go.

So you don’t feel dialogue is most important in writing a scene?

Oh no, no, no. I mean, one of the great problems in Hollywood is a ‘great script,’ it’s got ‘great lines,’ and I hate those sorts of scripts, because I think that at best most film dialogue is what I call signpost dialogue – ‘Go here,’ ‘come there,’ ‘grab this,’ ‘go after this,’ you know, or ‘how are you.’ I think much more is done with looks and with body movements. Obviously a certain amount of information has to be given over, and obviously one doesn’t do that in the dullest way; one does that in the freshest way one can, obviously dialect and colloquialism have to be taken into account. But I think dialogue should be kept to a minimum. In fact, I think in Point Blank the first script had under 100 lines of dialogue, and that included words like ‘Yes’ and ‘Okay’ as a line of dialogue. I think you say one or two words or one or two lines that are really pithy, and the rest goes by the boards. That’s why my scripts are very much directors’ scripts and often make the studios a bit uneasy when they read them, because they don’t have ‘great lines’ and they don’t have ‘great descriptions.’ What I like to do is to evoke a mood, I think that’s very important. I don’t think our words are sacrosanct. The stuff we write is very much the stimulus for a director to take off…

– Extracted from The Writer II: An Interview with Alexander Jacobs. Stephen Farber and Alexander Jacobs. Film Quarterly Vol. 22, No. 2 (Winter, 1968-1969), pp. 2-14 (University of California Press).

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

The World of John Ford

The Searchers (Directed by John Ford) 
Ford’s major works can be traced in a rising parabola from Steamboat ‘Round the Bend and Judge Priest in the mid-Thirties to the extraordinary American trilogy in 1939 – Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, and Drums Along the Mohawk – and then on to the postwar classics beginning with My Darling Clementine and culminating with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. How Green Was My Valley established Maureen O’Hara as the definitive Ford heroine, just as Stagecoach established John Wayne as the definitive Ford hero. The extraordinary rapport of the Wayne-O’Hara team through Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, and Wings of Eagles adds a sexual dimension to Ford’s invocation of tradition in human experience. How Green Was My Valley is also notable for introducing Ford’s visual treatment of the past as a luminous memory more real than the present, and presumably more heroic than the future. Ford and Hawks, the directors closest to the Griffith tradition, project different aspects of Griffith’s personality: Ford, the historical perspective and unified vi­sion of the world: Hawks: the psychological complexity and innate nobility of characterization. Of course, Ford can never become fashionable for the rigidly ideological critics of the Left. Too many of his characters wear uni­forms without any tortuous reasoning why. Even the orig­inally pacifistic What Price Glory is transformed by Ford into a nostalgic celebration of military camaraderie with the once raucous Charmaine emerging from the dim shad­ows as an idealization of the Chivalric Code. As a director, Ford developed his craft in the Twenties, achieved dramatic force in the Thirties, epic sweep in the Forties; and symbolic evocation in the Fifties. His style has evolved almost miraculously into a double vision of an event in all its vital immediacy and also in its ultimate memory-image on the horizon of history. – Andrew Sarris

The following extract is from an interview with John Ford by Jean Mitry. It appeared originally in Cahiers du Cinema, No. 45, March 1955 and was translated by Andrew Sarris.

The Informer (Directed by John Ford) 
Ford said he made films because it was his trade, which he liked. ‘But for producers,’ he continued, ‘there are other considerations, commercial ones, which must be re­spected. You see directors disappear, or make nothing but mediocre pictures. It is not that they have less talent, or that they have lost their ability. It is that they have turned out one film after another without box-office appeal, with the result that they lose their prestige and wind up on the beach. They must start again from the bottom to regain the confidence of producers. That can take a long time, and sometimes they are restricted to mediocre projects.’

The best directors can be defeated by this process of aesthetic attrition, and after enough setbacks they lose their ambition.

According to Ford’s calculations, directors who want to make only artistic films get a chance to do so about once every ten years. If the film is a commercial success, they get another chance, but otherwise they are through. ‘Only rarely,’ Ford added, ‘does the opportunity arise to make such films two or three times in a row.’

The secret, Ford said with the utmost seriousness, is to turn out films that please the public, but that also reveal the personality of the director. ‘That isn’t easy,’ he added.

I asked if he didn’t always do what he wanted.

‘What I want, yes, but what I would like to do, cer­tainly not.’

Stagecoach (Directed by John Ford) 
‘Do you choose your scripts or are they chosen for you?’

It depends, he explained, on the studio that employs him and on the kind of contract he signs. In rare exceptions Ford has what amounts to a choice – from among a dozen possible projects he may choose the one he likes best. In all his films, he said, he tries to maintain a certain feeling, a unity, and to retain in the script only that which contributes to this unity and sets forth his personality.

‘But that isn’t always possible,’ he exclaimed, ‘and I must make films whose success is assured in advance in order to have the right, and the opportunity, to make oth­ers that are commercial risks but more worthwhile. On their success hangs my freedom of action. In this way I have been able to make some films I wanted to make, and to make them according to my tastes and weaknesses. But I haven’t been able to make ten such films.

‘I waited four years to do The Informer and got the chance only after every sort of hesitation. Then I had a little more luck and was able to choose films which left me a certain leeway in which to express myself.’

‘But are you not also a producer?’

‘Yes, but like all producers, I am subject to the de­mands of the distributors. There’s not much freedom in being a producer. In fact, one takes on more worries – the financial ones. One is doubly responsible – for the film, and for the money. Like other producers, I hesitate to throw myself into an attractive but risky project.

Fort Apache (Directed by John Ford) 
‘At the moment I want to make – in Ireland, for very lit­tle money, a picture for my pleasure, to be called The Three Leaf Clover (later filmed as The Rising of the Moon). I hope it will express some of the poet­ry of my native land. After that I shall undertake a big Western with a subject that interests me – one that corre­sponds to what you call ‘my world.’ It is called – The Search (sic) and is set in the Rocky Mountains and concerns some pioneers who seek a little girl taken away by Indians. It’s a kind of psychological epic.’

I then ventured, the opinion that he seemed in almost all his films to have this theme of a small group of people thrust by chance into dramatic or tragic circumstances.

‘On purpose?’ I asked.

‘It seems so to me,’ he replied. ‘It enables me to make individuals aware of each other by bringing them face to face with something bigger than themselves. The situation, the tragic moment, forces men to reveal themselves, and to become aware of what they truly are. The device allows me to find the exceptional in the commonplace. I also like to discover humor in the midst of tragedy, for tragedy is never wholly tragic. Sometimes tragedy is ridiculous. I should like to do a tragedy, the most serious in the world, that turned into the ridiculous.’

She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (Directed by John Ford) 
‘Your penchant for unity of time and place,’ I asked, ‘does it tempt you to play down the story in order to make a film more universal, more abstract?’

‘Not at all!’ Ford said quickly. ‘That may be the re­sult, but it certainly is not the end. Unity of time and place is solely a means of defining the drama and individu­als, a way of getting there more directly and quickly. I look, before all else, for simplicity, for the naked truth in the midst of rapid, even brutal, action. To be as selective about time and place as one is about the action is to get rid of useless complications. When the circumstances are clearly comprehended, the force of the conflict is in­creased, since its effects are more completely understood. Time is important only when one follows individuals through all their lives.

‘I suppose everybody pursues one idea in many guises. In any event, everybody tends to emphasize those aspects of life he finds the most interesting. Movie directors cer­tainly do. What interests me are the consequences of a tragic moment – how the individual acts before a crucial act, or in an exceptional circumstance. That is everything.

‘However, a situation must never limit a director. It must never be more than a point of departure.’

My Darling Clementine (Directed by John Ford) 
‘How do you work?’ I asked. ‘Do you just shoot a scenario finalized by others, or do you collaborate on the cutting?’

‘The cutting! I do it myself. And I plan the film. When a subject interests me, I also take part in the scripting. If the subject doesn’t interest me, I am satisfied to do my job to everybody’s best interest. When I work with a scriptwri­ter, he outlines the situations, develops the continuity, writes the dialogue. The shooting arrangements, and the cutting, I do myself. We have numerous conferences with the cameraman, the set designer, and sometimes the actors. Each one knows what he has to do and understands the picture before starting to work it. A well-prepared film is shot quickly.’

I then remarked that some of my colleagues were sur­prised that American directors remain seated during the shooting of a scene. Ford was astonished.

‘What do you want them to do?’ he asked. ‘They ob­serve, they control, they direct. Everything is arranged be­forehand. There are assistants who rehearse the actors, who set the scene. It is quickly done. There is nothing more to do than to integrate it into a whole, to make it flexible. If everything goes well there’s no reason to be nervous.’

The Long Voyage Home (Directed by John Ford) 
‘Do you determine what the camera shall see?’

‘With the cameraman. It’s done in advance. A good cam­eraman knows how a shot should be framed. I have al­ways had excellent cameramen. Sometimes, when the com­position is very detailed, I may take over, but usually a few suggestions are enough.’

‘You never improvise?’

‘Oh certainly – but strictly within the predetermined framework. You can change cue, modify an incident, but the movement of the camera, like its position, is deter­mined in advance. A director who changes his mind is a director who loses time. You should make your decisions before, not during the shooting.’

‘But if a movement of the camera proves impossible?’

‘The director doesn’t know his job. You should know in advance what is and isn’t possible. I sometimes make a film in three weeks – after six months of preparation.

‘What would you think of an architect who arrived at his building wondering where to put the staircase? You don’t ‘compose’ a film on the set; you put a predesigned composition on film. It is wrong to liken a director to an author. He is more like an architect, if he is creative. An architect conceives his plans from given premises – the purpose of the building, its size, the terrain. If he is clever, he can do something creative within these limitations. Ar­chitects do not only create monuments and palaces. They also build houses. How many houses are there in Paris for every monument? It’s the same with movies. When a di­rector creates a little gem from time to time, an Arc de Triomphe, he certainly has the right to make some run­-of-the-mill pictures.’

The Searchers (Directed by John Ford) 
‘And your Arcs de Triomphe – your favorite films­ – what are they?’

Stagecoach; The Long Voyage Home; The Informer; Prisoner of Shark Island. Also The Sun Shines Bright – it’s a very simple story, the kind I like.’

‘And My Darling Clementine?’

‘Yes, if you like. My children liked it a lot. But I – you know.’

I then asked Ford about Henry Fonda, but I gathered from his manner there had been a falling out, so I did not pursue the subject. Ford’s great favorite is John Wayne. I asked him about The Quiet Man. Did he like it?

‘Yes, most certainly, especially because of the Irish set­ting; I shot it on my native heath. The actors were old family friends – they worked on it as pals. That is how I like to work.’

‘And Mogambo?’

‘I don’t know a thing about it. I haven’t even seen it. But why should I have deprived myself of a trip to Africa and the chance to make one more film? One does one’s job. The film of really personal interest is the exception.’

– Excerpt from Jean Mitry: Rencontre avec John Ford, Cahiers du Cinema 45 (March 1955). Translated by Andrew Sarris.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Bodies and Souls: An Interview with Robert Rossen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this based on fact?

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

 You were really drawn to the subject?

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

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

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

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

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

 Wasn’t Garfield also a fighter?

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

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

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

 With the tough type of ‘Hustler’?

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

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

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

 Do you think the American critics are weak now?

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

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

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

STEIN: Why do you say that?

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

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

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

STEIN: I think it’s much more profound.

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

STEIN: But they were looking for the same thing.

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

STEIN: Warren Beatty?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Terrence Malick: Days of Heaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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