Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Terrence Malick: Days of Heaven

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Ingmar Bergman: Why I Make Movies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Thursday, 15 January 2015

Francesco Rosi: History and Realism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cineaste: Who makes decisions regarding camera placement and movement?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 12 December 2014

Francis Ford Coppola: Personal Stories

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

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

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

How do you feel about adaptations?

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

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

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

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

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

What was your reaction to suddenly having all this fame?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did that affect you? Your social skills?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you compose your screenplays?

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

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

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

Do you show anyone your work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you think risk is involved with your artistic growth?

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

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

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

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

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


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

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Eric Rohmer: Moral Tales

My Night At Maud’s (Directed by Eric Rohmer)
A former editor of the pioneering film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, Eric Rohmer (1910-2010) became one of the leading figures of the French New Wave. Working well into his eighties, his influential body of work is renowned for its originality, restrained visual style and witty and articulate dialogue. Rohmer’s reputation was established with his ambitious Moral Tales series of films, each based around a common theme of – in his description: ‘a man meeting a woman at the very moment when he is about to commit himself to someone else’. 

The following extract is taken from an interview with Eric Rohmer by Graham Petrie originally published in 1971.

You began your series of ‘Moral Tales’ with two films in 16mm?

‎‏Yes, the first two are in 16mm. This was because the Nouvelle Vague had established itself; those whose films had done well were setting out on a successful career, but those whose films hadn’t done so well, like myself with [feature debut] Le Signe du Lion (1962), were having problems with continuing. So I decided to go on filming, no matter what, and instead of looking for a subject that might be attractive to the public or a producer, I decided that I would find a subject that I liked and that a producer would refuse. So here you have someone doing exactly what he wants to. And as you can’t do this on 35mm, I made the films on 16mm. That way it didn’t cost very much, just the price of the film stock. I found people willing to work for me out of friendship, either as technicians or actors. The first was a very short film, [The Bakery Girl of Monceau, 1963] only 25 minutes long, the second a bit longer than that, [Suzanne’s Career, 1963] and then I decided to make the third, which was La Collectionneuse (1967) and I realized that, as long as you were economical with the amount of film you used, it wouldn’t really cost much more to do it on 35mm, especially if you used color. Fortunately I met a friend who could advance me enough to pay for film stock and we used 5,000 meters for a film that ended up 2,500 meters long – that means almost a 2:1 ratio. And that is how I made La Collectionneuse with no money.

The Bakery Girl Of Monceau (Directed by Eric Rohmer)
Can you tell me something about the subject-matter of these first two films?
‎‏
In the first two Moral Tales I’m telling the story of a young man who meets up with a young girl or woman at a time when he’s looking for another woman. You find this idea very clearly in the first film, which is about a boy who sees a girl in the street and falls in love with her but doesn't know how to become acquainted with her. He tries to follow her to find out where she lives, but loses track of her. So he makes up his mind to make a systematic search for her, and as he usually eats in a restaurant frequented by students he decides to go without dinner and use the time to look for her in the district round about. And as he gets hungry he starts going into a baker’s shop every day and buys some cakes to eat while he’s exploring the area. He notices that the assistant in the shop is becoming interested in him, perhaps falling in love, and as he is getting a bit bored, he starts flirting with her. He gets caught up in the game he’s playing with her and finally makes a date with her, just to see what will happen. But just as he’s going to meet her, he comes across the first girl, the one he’d seen right at the beginning of the story, who lives just opposite the baker’s but had sprained her ankle and couldn’t go out, which is why he hadn’t seen her. She had seen him go in there every day, but. thinking that he knew where she lived, she assumed that he just went in there so that she would notice him. She doesn’t know anything about the girl in the bakery. It’s a very slight story, an anecdote really.

‎‏The second film is a little more complex because it lasts longer. It’s the story of a young boy who has a great admiration for one of his friends, a student; he’s younger than him and rather dominated by him. At the same time he holds it against the other that he sees him a lot with girls he doesn’t like very much. For example, the other one has a girl that he doesn’t like, she’s not even a student, she has a job in an office and he finds this a bit vulgar. The friend neglects her, he wants to get rid of her, and this girl, who is in love with his friend, attaches herself to him and begins to flirt with him just because of his friendship with the one she really likes, and he wants to get rid of her too and can’t. So it’s the story of this boy who spends all his time with this girl who’s trying to make advances to him, and at the same time his friend amuses himself by jeering at the girl and making fun of her, he even takes all her money from her because she’s ready to do anything to keep him. The boy is ashamed of all this and at the same time he daren’t do anything to antagonize the friend he admires so much. So that’s the situation: he’s ashamed of going along with the game his friend is playing, but he doesn’t dare to reproach him frankly and say ‘no.’ There’s a second woman here too, an attractive young girl, and the young boy the film is about is a little bit in love with her, but she looks on him as just a youngster and isn’t interested in him. There’s really nothing but failure in the film: the boy spends all his time with a girl he doesn’t like and the one he would like to go out with is inaccessible and each time he sees her he doesn’t know what to say and is aware anyway that she would refuse him. The characters are all very young: the boy is 18 and his friend is 21...

La Collectionneuse (Directed by Eric Rohmer)
Do you think this idea of the man who hesitates between two women is the connecting link between all the ‘Moral Tales’?

‎‏He doesn’t really hesitate, it just happens that at the very moment that he’s made his choice, made up his mind, another woman turns up. But there isn’t really any hesitation, all that happens is that this confirms his choice. In La Collectionneuse for example, he just spends a week with her and then leaves her. In My Night at Maud’s (1969) too it’s an adventure for him, but he doesn’t hesitate between one girl and the other; if he’d had an affair with Maud it would have lasted a week and then it would have been over. In my latest film the hero’s choice is already made, he’s going to get married, and if he has an adventure it's nothing more than that.

‎‏Did you start this series with very precise ideas about the subject-matter?

‎‏Yes, I had had the stories in my mind for a long time, and when I started the series I knew what the theme of each tale would be. But I hadn’t developed them, they were still very vague.

‏You’ve made some in color and some in black-and-white...

‎‏Three in black-and-white, two of them in 16mm and Maud in 35. La Collectionneuse and Claire’s Knee (1970) are in color and the final one, for which I haven’t decided on a title yet, will be too. I haven’t written the script for it yet. I’m still thinking about it.

La Collectionneuse (Directed by Eric Rohmer)
Why did you choose black-and-white for ‘Maud’?

‎‏Because it suited the nature of the subject-matter. Color wouldn’t have added anything positive to it; on the contrary, it would only have destroyed the atmosphere of the film and introduced distracting elements that had no useful purpose. It’s a film that I saw in black-and-white, I couldn’t see any color in it. There is nothing in it which brings colors to mind, and in fact there weren’t any colors in what I filmed – for example I filmed a town in which the houses were grey, certainly there were a few colored hoardings and road-signs, but I avoided these, you don’t see them because they weren’t interesting. There is a stone church and there are no colors in that church. Then there is snow – no color there either. The people are really dressed in black or in grey, they’re not wearing anything colored. The apartment too didn’t have any color in it, it was decorated in grey already. I was concerned above all with exploiting the contrast between black and white, between light and shadow. It’s a film in color in a way, except that the colors are black and white. There’s a sheet which is white, it’s not colorless, it’s white. In the same way the snow is white, white in a positive way, whereas if I had shot it in color, it wouldn’t have been white any more, it would have been smudged, and I wanted it really white.

So you don’t agree with directors like Antonioni who say it’s no longer possible to make films in black-and-white and that all films should be in color?

‎‏I would agree that nowadays the normal thing would be to make films in color, and it might seem a bit archaic to film in black-and-white. And yet 1 don’t agree really. I think that man has a very strong feeling for black-and-white; it doesn’t just exist in photography, it’s there in drawings and engravings too – painters created pictures in color, but they also worked in black-and-white for drawings and engravings, in order to create a certain effect. As a result I think that black-and-white is now accepted by the public, and so I think that people are wrong when they say that black-and-white is impossible nowadays. It’s a very curious phenomenon. I think that black-and-white will always exist, even if it’s true that it will be an exception and the use of color will be standard. However, it’s quite certain that at the moment film-makers aren’t particularly inspired by color; most films in color have the same banal look about them and might as well be in black-and-white. Color adds nothing to them. For me color has to contribute something to a film, if it doesn’t do this, I prefer black-and-white for, despite everything, it gives a kind of basis, a unity, which is more useful to a film than color badly used.

My Night At Maud’s (Directed by Eric Rohmer)
What would you say color contributes to ‘La Collectionneuse’ and ‘Claire’s Knee’?

‎‏I didn’t use color as a dramatic element, as some film-makers have done. For me it’s something inherent in the film as a whole. I think that in La Collectionneuse color above all heightens the sense of reality and increases the immediacy of the settings. In this film color acts in an indirect way; it’s not direct and there aren’t any color effects, as there are for example in Bergman’s most recent film, his second one in color, where the color is very deliberately worked out and he gets his effects mainly by the way he uses red. I’ve never tried for dramatic effects of this kind, but, for example, the sense of time – evening, morning, and so on – can be rendered in a much more precise way through color. Color can also give a stronger sense of warmth, of heat, for when the film is in black-and-white you get less of a feeling of the different moments of the day, and there is less of what you might call a tactile impression about it. In Claire’s Knee I think it works in the same way: the presence of the lake and the mountains is stronger in color than in black-and-white. It’s a film I couldn’t imagine in black-and-white. The color green seems to me essential in that film, I couldn’t imagine it without the green in it. And the blue too – the cold color as a whole. This film would have no value for me in black-and-white. It’s a very difficult thing to explain. It’s more a feeling I have that can’t be reasoned out logically.

What exactly do you mean by the word ‘moral’ in the title of this series of films?

‎‏In French there is a word moraliste that I don’t think has any equivalent in English. It doesn’t really have much connection with the word ‘moral’,  a moraliste is someone who is interested in the description of what goes on inside man. He’s concerned with states of mind and feelings. For example in the eighteenth century Pascal was a moraliste, and a moraliste is a particularly French kind of writer like La Bruyere or La Rochefoucauld, and you could also call Stendhal a moraliste because he describes what people feel and think. So Moral Tales doesn’t really mean that there’s a moral contained in them, even though there might be one and all the characters in these films act according to certain moral ideas that are fairly clearly worked out. In My Night With Maud these ideas are very precise; for all the characters in the other films they are rather more vague, and morality is a very personal matter. But they try to justify everything in their behavior and that fits the word ‘moral’ in its narrowest sense. But ‘moral’ can also mean that they are people who like to bring their motives, the reasons for their actions, into the open, they try to analyze, they are not people who act without thinking about what they are doing. What matters is what they think about their behavior, rather than their behavior itself. They aren’t films of action, they aren’t films in which physical action takes place, they aren’t films in which there is anything very dramatic, they are films in which a particular feeling is analyzed and where even the characters themselves analyze their feelings and are very introspective. That's what Moral Tale means.

My Night At Maud’s (Directed by Eric Rohmer)
In ‘Maud’ and ‘Claire’s Knee’ in particular you show us some people around 35-40 years old and also some who are very much younger. Do you think there is now a real disparity between these age groups, in the way that people often talk of the new generation having a completely different set of customs and moral values?

‎‏My films are pure works of fiction, I don’t claim to be a sociologist. I’m not making investigations or collecting statistics. I simply take particular cases that I have invented myself, they aren’t meant to be scientific, they are works of imagination. Personally, I’ve never believed very much in the idea of a difference between age groups, I don’t think it’s very strong and it’s certainly not an opposition between one group and another, and I don’t think it’s so very much stronger nowadays than it was before. And even it it is true, it doesn’t interest me very much. It’s not something I’m concerned with. The fact that the young generation today in 1971 might as a whole have a certain kind of mentality doesn’t interest me. What interests me is to show young people as they really are just now, but also as they might be if they were fifty years old or a hundred years old, and the events of the film could have taken place in Ancient Greece, for things haven’t changed all that much. For me what is interesting in mankind is what is permanent and eternal and doesn't change, rather than what changes, and that’s what I’m interested in showing.

‎‏I read in an interview that once you had finished this series you planned to do something completely different, perhaps a film with a historical setting?

‎‏No, I didn’t really mean that. Certainly once I've finished the Moral Tales I want to do something else, I want to have a change and I don’t want to go on with them. I’ll do six, that’s all, and I’ve still one to go. But I don’t know what I’ll do next...

What do you think about what is happening in films just now? Do you think a new kind of cinema is coming into being?
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I’ve no idea. There may be people who are creating a ‘new’ kind of cinema, but you have to ask how new it really is, if it doesn’t just form part of the ‘eternal avant-garde’, which sometimes just rediscovers ideas that were avant-garde years ago. For me what is really new is those ideas that never date. But I don’t know very much about this new cinema, especially the young American cinema. I don’t want to judge it; I make films that are right for me, and other people have their own ways to follow. What I want is for everyone to be able to take his own way and find his own public. But I go very seldom to the cinema, I don’t write criticism any more, and I don’t have enough knowledge to reply properly to your question.

Claire’s Knee (Directed by Eric Rohmer)
Have you ever wanted to make a film in the United States?

‎‏No. First of all I don’t speak English and I couldn’t work in a country where I don’t know the language. And I want to show the reality of life in France, I don’t want to deal with a way of life I don’t understand. At a pinch I could make a documentary about life in a foreign country, but that’s a different matter. Also I have a very personal way of working and in France I have a great deal of freedom in this respect. I work with an extremely small crew; I have no assistant director, no script- girl, and I take care of the continuity myself. Perhaps I make mistakes and put an ashtray here when it should be there, but that’s just too bad. And as usually there are no special clothes for the actors and few objects of special importance, in the long run there are no problems with this way of working. I use very few technicians because there are very few camera movements, but those technicians that I have are excellent, even though there aren’t many of them. In other countries you have crews that are quite terrifying. I use five or six people and there you have sixty. That frightens me and I would be quite incapable of working in that way. I don’t like to be the big boss who dominates everyone else; I like to be close to everyone, and I don’t see how I could work under these conditions in the United States. I can show on the screen only those things I know about, and I think there’s still a lot to deal with in France. There’s the question of language too: I place a lot of importance on speech, on style, on voice quality and intonation, and it’s very important. The French language counts for a great deal in my films. I’m a writer too, I write my own scripts, and as a writer the French language is important to me.
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‎‏What films or directors have most influenced your own, in style or themes?

‎‏Silent films above all, though I don’t know how direct the influence is. People say that there is a lot of talk in my films, that I express myself through speech rather than images, and yet in actual fact I learned about cinema by seeing the films of Griffith, Stroheim, and Murnau. and even the silent comedies. That’s how I learned about cinema. There are two directors after the silent period whom I like very much and these are Jean Renoir and Roberto Rossellini; they are the people who most influenced me. As for the others, I admire Americans like Hitchcock, but I don’t think I’ve been really influenced by them; if I have, it’s quite unconsciously. I can tell you whom I admire, but influence is a different matter, for sometimes you don’t even know yourself who has influenced you and I’m perhaps not the right person to talk about it.

Claire’s Knee (Directed by Eric Rohmer)
Do you prefer to work for a small audience that will appreciate what you are doing, rather than for a large public?

‎‏Yes, certainly. If it depended only on me, instead of attracting people to my films, I would try to drive them away. I would tell them the films are more difficult than they really are, because I don’t like to deceive people, I like to show my films to people who can appreciate them. I’m not interested in the number of spectators. Having said that, it’s true that a film is a commercial undertaking and ought to recover its costs. But as my films don’t cost much, I don’t think I need a very large audience, and I’ve always thought that they should be shown in theaters that aren’t too big. The intimate character of my films doesn’t suit a theater or an audience too large for them. And I don’t think they are suited to a mass reaction or a collective reaction. It’s better if the spectator feels he is experiencing a completely personal reaction to it. Each reaction should be unique, individual, different. I think the film is enjoyed better if the spectators aren’t sitting too near one another, if the theater isn’t too full, and they don’t know each other. Then each has a different reaction. That’s better than a theater where there’s a uniform reaction. I don’t like watching one of my films in public and it distresses me if everyone laughs in the same place, as my film wasn’t made with that in mind. I didn’t write something just to make everyone laugh at the same time. It’s all right if someone smiles, but it shouldn’t happen at exactly the same place in the film. Perhaps this is because my films are more like reading than like watching a spectacle, they are made more to be read like a book than seen like something on the stage. So it distresses me to see a collective reaction.

‎‏Would you agree that the endings of your films tend to be rather sad?

‎‏They are not what one is expecting to happen, they are to some extent against the person concerned. What happens is against the wishes of the character, it’s a kind of disillusionment, a conflict – not exactly a failure on his part but a disillusionment. The character has made a mistake, he realizes he has created an illusion for himself. He had created a kind of world for himself, with himself at the center, and it all seemed perfectly logical that he should be the ruler or the god of this world. Everything seemed very simple and all my characters are a bit obsessed with logic. They have a system and principles, and they build up a world that can be explained by this system. And then the conclusion of the film demolishes their system and their illusions collapse. It’s not exactly happy, but that’s what the films are all about.

‎‏– Extract from ‘Graham Petrie – Eric Rohmer: An Interview’. Film Quarterly 24, no. 4 (Summer 1971): 34-41.