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.

 

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.