Friday, 15 August 2014

Akira Kurosawa: On Screenwriting

Red Beard (Directed by Akira Kurosawa)
In October 1990, Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez visited Tokyo during the shooting of Akira Kurosawa’s penultimate feature, Rhapsody in August. García Márquez, who spent some years in Bogota as a film critic before penning landmark novels such as One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, spoke with Kurosawa for several hours on a number of subjects. In the following extract Kurosawa discusses how he approaches the task of writing a script:

Gabriel García Márquez: I don’t want this conversation between friends to seem like a press interview, but I just have this great curiosity to know a great many other things about you and your work. To begin with, I am interested to know how you write your scripts. First, because I am myself a scriptwriter. And second, because you have made stupendous adaptations of great literary works, and I have many doubts about the adaptations that have been made or could be made of mine.

Akira Kurosawa: When I conceive an original idea that I wish to turn into a script, I lock myself up in a hotel with paper and pencil. At that point I have a general idea of the plot, and I know more or less how it is going to end. If I don’t know what scene to begin with, I follow the stream of the ideas that spring up naturally.

García Márquez: Is the first thing that comes to your mind an idea or an image?

Kurosawa: I can’t explain it very well, but I think it all begins with several scattered images. By contrast, I know that scriptwriters here in Japan first create an overall view of the script, organizing it by scenes, and after systematizing the plot they begin to write. But I don’t think that is the right way to do it, since we are not God.

García Márquez: Has your method also been that intuitive when you have adapted Shakespeare or Gorky or Dostoevsky?

Kurosawa: Directors who make films halfway may not realize that it is very difficult to convey literary images to the audience through cinematic images. For instance, in adapting a detective novel in which a body was found next to the railroad tracks, a young director insisted that a certain spot corresponded perfectly with the one in the book. ‘You are wrong,’ I said. ‘The problem is that you have already read the novel and you know that a body was found next to the tracks. But for the people who have not read it there is nothing special about the place.’ That young director was captivated by the magical power of literature without realizing that cinematic images must be expressed in a different way.

García Márquez: Can you remember any image from real life that you consider impossible to express on film?

Kurosawa: Yes. That of a mining town named Ilidachi, where I worked as an assistant director when I was very young. The director had declared at first glance that the atmosphere was magnificent and strange, and that’s the reason we filmed it. But the images showed only a run-of-the-mill town, for they were missing something that was known to us: that the working conditions in (the town) are very dangerous, and that the women and children of the miners live in eternal fear for their safety. When one looks at the village one confuses the landscape with that feeling, and one perceives it as stranger than it actually is. But the camera does not see it with the same eyes.

García Márquez: The truth is that I know very few novelists who have been satisfied with the adaptation of their books for the screen. What experience have you had with your adaptations?

Kurosawa: Allow me, first, a question: Did you see my film Red Beard?

García Márquez: I have seen it six times in 20 years and I talked about it to my children almost every day until they were able to see it. So not only is it the one among your films best liked by my family and me, but also one of my favorites in the whole history of cinema.

Kurosawa: Red Beard constitutes a point of reference in my evolution. All of my films which precede it are different from the succeeding ones. It was the end of one stage and the beginning of another.

García Márquez: That is obvious. Furthermore, within the same film there are two scenes that are extreme in relation to the totality of your work, and they are both unforgettable; one is the praying mantis episode, and the other is the karate fight in the hospital courtyard.

Kurosawa: Yes, but what I wanted to tell you is that the author of the book, Shuguro Yamamoto, had always opposed having his novels made into films. He made an exception with Red Beard because I persisted with merciless obstinacy until I succeeded. Yet, when he had finished viewing the film he turned to look at me and said: ‘Well it’s more interesting than my novel.’

García Márquez: Why did he like it so much, I wonder?

Kurosawa: Because he had a clear awareness of the inherent characteristics of cinema. The only thing he requested of me was that I be very careful with the protagonist, a complete failure of a woman, as he saw her. But the curious thing is that the idea of a failed woman was not explicit in his novel.

García Márquez: Perhaps he thought it was. It is something that often happens to us novelists.

Kurosawa: So it is. In fact, upon seeing the films based on their books, some writers say: ‘That part of my novel is well portrayed.’ But they are actually referring to something that was added by the director. I understand what they are saying, because they may see clearly expressed on the screen, by sheer intuition on the part of the director, something they had meant to write but had not been able to.

García Márquez: It is a known fact: ‘Poets are mixers of poisons.’ But, to come back to your current film, will the typhoon be the most difficult thing to film?

Kurosawa: No. The most difficult thing was to work with the animals. Water serpents, rose-eating ants. Domesticated snakes are too accustomed to people, they don’t flee instinctively, and they behave like eels. The solution was to capture a huge wild snake, which kept trying with all its might to escape and was truly frightening. So it played its role very well. As for the ants, it was a question of getting them to climb up a rosebush in single file until they reached a rose. They were reluctant for a long time, until we made a trail of honey on the stem, and the ants climbed up. Actually, we had many difficulties, but it was worth it, because I learned a great deal about them.

García Márquez: Yes, so I’ve noticed. But what kind of film is this that is as likely to have problems with ants as with typhoons? What is the plot?

Kurosawa: It is very difficult to summarize in a few words.

García Márquez: Does somebody kill somebody?

Kurosawa: No. It’s simply about an old woman from Nagasaki who survived the atomic bomb and whose grandchildren went to visit her last summer. I have not filmed shockingly realistic scenes which would prove to be unbearable and yet would not explain in and of themselves the horror of the drama. What I would like to convey is the type of wounds the atomic bomb left in the heart of our people, and how they gradually began to heal. I remember the day of the bombing clearly, and even now I still can’t believe that it could have happened in the real world. But the worst part is that the Japanese have already cast it into oblivion.

– Extract from: García Márquez / Kurosawa (via
Full article here


Friday, 25 July 2014

Graham Greene: ‘The Third Man’ as Story and Film

The Third Man (Directed by Carol Reed)
Sometime in 1947 the prolific producer Alexander Korda, a Hungarian émigré and head of London Films, had the idea to make a film set in Vienna, which at the time was divided into zones and occupied by American, British and French forces. It would make a good backdrop, but this wasn't the only reason for Korda’s interest.

London Films had certain reserves of currency in Austria and this was a time when currency exchange was difficult, requiring permission from government and central banks. Korda scouted out various writers but soon settled on Graham Greene, whom he greatly admired. Greene, Korda and director Carol Reed had collaborated on ‘The Fallen Idol’ (1948), adapted by Greene from his own short story (and at the time in the process of being shot), and Korda wanted to do it again.

He pestered Greene and the writer eventually presented him with a fledgling idea in the form of a single sentence:
I had paid my last farewell to Harry a week ago, when his coffin was lowered into the frozen February ground, so that it was with incredulity I saw him pass by, without a sign of recognition, among the host of strangers in the Strand.
Korda was hooked and ‘The Third Man’ was conceived. The writing didn’t come easily for Greene until the end of September 1947 when suddenly his ‘Risen-from-the-dead story’, as he called it, fell into place in his mind.

From Vienna Greene travelled via Prague to Rome, where he met his mistress and, with money he received for the commission, bought a villa in Anacapri, where he finished the short story, which he delivered to Korda.

At the end of April 1948 Korda, with Reed accompanying him, travelled to the United States to meet with the legendary producer David O. Selznick (who had been responsible for ‘Gone with the Wind’ (1939) with a view to bringing in American finance. By the middle of May a deal had been signed for four films. In return for the right to release Korda’s films in the US Selznick would provide finance and give Korda access to the stars Selznick had under contract. ‘The Third Man’ would be the film to inaugurate the deal... (Rob White: The Origins of The Third Man).

The following observations on story writing and film were written by Graham Greene as a preface to his novella, ‘The Third Man’, published by Viking Press.

The Third Man was never written to be read but only to be seen. Like many love affairs, it started at a dinner table and continued with many headaches in many places, Vienna, Venice, Ravello, London, Santa Monica.

Most novelists, I suppose, carry round in their heads or in their notebooks the first ideas for stories that have never come to be written. Sometimes one turns them over after many years and thinks regretfully that they would have been good once, in a time now dead. So twenty years back, on the flap of an envelope, I had written an opening paragraph:

I had paid my last farewell to Harry a week ago, when his coffin was lowered into the frozen February ground, so that it was with incredulity that I saw him pass by, without a sign of recognition, among the host of strangers in the Strand.

I, no more than my hero, had pursued Harry, so when Sir Alexander Korda asked me to write a film for Carol Reed to follow our Fallen Idol, I had nothing more to offer than this paragraph. Though Korda wanted a film about the four-power occupation of Vienna, he was prepared to let me pursue the tracks of Harry there.

To me it is almost impossible to write a film play without first writing a story. Even a film depends on more than plot, on a certain measure of characterization, on mood and atmosphere, and these it seems to me almost impossible to capture for the first time in the dull shorthand of a script. One can reproduce an effect caught in another medium but one cannot make the first act of creation in script form. One must have the sense of more material than one need to draw on. The Third Man, therefore, though never intended for publication, had to start as a story before it began those apparently interminable transformations from one treatment to another.

On these treatments Carol Reed and I worked closely together, covering so many feet of carpet a day, acting scenes at each other. No third ever joined our conferences: so much value lies in the clear cut-and-thrust of argument between two people. To the novelist, of course, his novel is the best he can do with a particular subject; he cannot help resenting many of the changes necessary for turning it into a film or a play. But The Third Man was never intended to be more than the raw material for a picture. The reader will notice many differences between the story and the film, and he should not imagine these changes were forced on an unwilling author: as likely as not they were suggested by the author. The film, in fact, is better than the story because it is in this case the finished state of the story.

Some of these changes have obvious superficial reasons. The choice of an American instead of an English star involved a number of alterations. For example, Mr. Joseph Cotten quite reasonably objects to the name Rollo. The name had to be an absurd one, and the name Holley occurred to me when I remembered that figure of literary film, the American poet Thomas Holley Chivers. An American, too, could hardly have been mistaken for the great English writer Dexter, whose literary character bore certain echoes of the gentle genius of Mr. E.M. Forster, so that the confusion of identities would have been impossible, even if Carol Reed had not rightly objected to a rather far-fetched situation involving a great deal of explanation that increased the length of a film already far too long.

Another minor point: in deference to American opinion, a Romanian was substituted for Cooler, since Mr. Orson Welles’ engagement had already supplied us with one American villain. (Incidentally, the popular line of dialogue concerning Swiss cuckoo clocks was written into the script by Mr. Welles himself).

One of the very few major disputes between Carol Reed and myself concerned the ending, and he has been proved triumphantly right. I held the view that an entertainment of this kind, which in England we call a thriller, was too light an affair to carry the weight of an unhappy ending. Reed on his side felt that my ending – indeterminate though it was with no words spoken – would strike the audience, who had just seen Harry die, as unpleasantly cynical. I admit I was only half-convinced: I was afraid few people would wait in their seats during the girl’s long walk from the graveside and that they would leave the cinema under the impression of an ending as conventional as mine and more drawn-out. I had not given enough consideration to the mastery of Reed’s direction, and, at that state, of course, we neither of us could have anticipated Reed’s brilliant discovery of Mr. Karas, the zither player.

The episode of the Russians kidnapping Anna (a perfectly possible incident in Vienna) was eliminated at a fairly late stage. It was not satisfactorily tied into the story, and it threatened to turn the film into a propagandist picture. We had no desire to move people’s political emotions: we wanted to entertain them, to frighten them a little, to make them laugh.

Reality, in fact, was only a background to a fairy tale; none the less, the story of the penicillin racket is based on a truth all the more grim because so many of the agents were more innocent than Joseph Harbin. The other day in London a surgeon took two friends to see the film. He was surprised to find them subdued and depressed by a picture he had himself enjoyed. They then told him that at the end of the war when they were with the Royal Air Force they had themselves sold penicillin in Vienna. The possible consequences of their act had never before occurred to them.

– Graham Greene: ‘The Third Man’ as a Story and a Film (Viking Press, 1950).


Monday, 14 July 2014

Theo Angelopoulos: Writing and History

Ulysses’ Gaze (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
The script is the raw material for cinema, as soon as it is written I forget all about it. A script becomes something else when it is transferred to film… For example, the script for ‘Voyage To Cythera’ and the actual movie have a distant relationship. Scripts remain much closer to the original idea behind a movie. Nevertheless, their role, their meaning alters significantly as soon as filming begins or, to put it in a slightly different way, a script is the movie up until the moment when the first scene is shot. As soon as this happens, the script and the movie go their separate, often considerably different pathways.  – Theo Angelopoulos
The great Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos collaborated with Italian screenwriter Tonino Guerra and the Greek novelist Petros Markaris on several of his films. In the following extract from an interview with Dan Fainaru in 1999, Angelopoulos discusses his writing methods and the personal and political background to his work:

Q: This is a strange relationship, him [Tonino Guerra] being an Italian who does not speak Greek, while you do not speak Italian. And yet, it is with him you start writing your scripts.

A: It is true we do not need to speak the same language, but we are both men of the South. I believe that all the Mediterranean people have some­thing in common. Not only because there are ancient roots common to all of us, having been in contact with each other for thousands of years, but also because of the proximity of the sea and the similitude of the climate. I never feel abroad when I am in Italy.

With Tonino, it was an instant relationship. He was working at the time with Andrei Tarkovski in Rome on Nostalghia. Andrei and I shared the same flat for a couple of weeks, a flat owned by an assistant director who worked with me on Megalexandros and with Tarkovski on Nostalghia. All I knew about Tonino at the time was his work with people like Fellini and Antonioni, but Andrei seemed to be very happy with their collaboration. I asked my assistant, the owner of the flat, to introduce us, and he arranged for me to go over to Tonino’s place. I intended to meet him, get to know him, and then see whether there was a way for us to cooperate.

Five minutes after I stepped into his flat, we were already at work. We immediately realized we were speaking the same language – in film terms of course, because when we met I spoke French and he spoke Italian but we understood each other perfectly. We also discovered there are many things for which we share the same affection and love. What I like about Tonino is not only the fact that he is a poet, but also that earthly, peasant side, which for me, is very important.

The Travelling Players (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
Q: In practice, how do you proceed when you meet to work on a script?

A: I must first explain that while basically, I am the author of my own scripts, I always need another person who will play the devil’s advocate, the psychoanalyst or whatever, to give me a different perspective of the things I have in mind. He is to be the first person to hear my ideas in the raw, and his feedback helps me choose the right direction. In the case of Tonino, most of the time he acts the part of the psychoanalyst. I am not sure many people work together the way we do.

Once a film is finished and I feel I am ready to start the next one, I go to his village in the mountains. We sit down, talk about everything and any­thing, have a drink, and then go to lunch. Later, as we sit down and relax, he will ask me whether I have anything in mind I would like to work on. At this point I am still doubtful. I start talking, telling him different stories I had been reflecting upon, ideas that caught my fancy, images that stuck in my mind, nothing yet very organized one way or another. I am walking back and forth; he listens to me, sitting down. When there is something he con­siders to be of particular interest, he stops me and writes it down...

The Hunters (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
Later, we go through all the things he has noted, and we try to see whether there is a coherent idea in there. To do this, I take the notes, go to the room he has prepared for me, pore over them for a few hours, then come back to the sitting room, and suggest a way to proceed. We go out, have a coffee, talk about the direction I proposed. He would tell me whether he likes it or not and add a few other related ideas he had in the afternoon while I was working in my room. Out of it comes another version, an im­proved one, of the same idea, and we go on like this for three, four days, discussing various options for the script.

But we do not do it all the time, from morning till night. We eat, we go for long walks, we meet people in the village, and we also talk about the script. When I leave, I already have in mind a first draft. I call him and tell him about it, or I put it on paper and send him a copy. But he, too, prefers to hear me tell it, rather than read it. He gives me his opinion, and then I start working with a second person.

Tonino assists at the birth of the original idea. And sometimes he can be quite insistent on certain details. For instance, he once called me in Greece after we had already completed the script for Landscape in the Mist, and he told me: ‘Listen Theo, we absolutely have to have a hen in the movie.’ ‘Where do you want me to put it?’ I asked. ‘I don’t know where,’ he re­plied, ‘but I feel we have to put a hen, somewhere.’ He was right and one of the scenes in the film opens with a hen.

O Megalexandros (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
The second person I work with is my first reader. In the past it was Tha­nassis Valtinos; these days it is Petros Markaris. Through him I get a first reaction to my script. Markaris, by the way, has written a whole book in which he describes our cooperation on Eternity and a Day. He never told me, but he documented everything we did, all our phone conversations, our dis­cussions – he didn’t leave anything out.

Part of his job is to take the script I have written by hand and type it into a computer – I still can’t use a type­writer, let alone a computer. He sends me this draft, and I put in my own corrections and additional remarks, and send it back to him. This goes on for some time, we either meet or exchange faxes of the drafts as they progress from one stage to the next, until I reach the point when I feel the others have given me everything they can, and I put in the last touches on my own. But the final shooting script you will find only if you take it off the finished print of the film. If you compare that with the script I have when I start shooting, you will find there are huge discrepancies between them.

O Megalexandros (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
Q: You have often talked in the past about the possibility of your adapting a literary work but until now it has never happened. All your screenplays are based on original scripts.

A: I tried my hand at adaptations several times, but every single time, I gave up in the middle. It is difficult to adapt a book, certainly a book you love, without losing some of its original flavor and qualities. I can’t think of a successful adaptation of a great novel. I believe the best novels to turn into films are either thrillers or second-class literature.

Orson Welles, for instance, took a rather routine crime story and made a masterpiece out of it in Touch of Evil. There are many more examples of this kind, for instance several of Godard’s films. As for myself, right now I do not feel like doing a crime story, though I am still tempted by Malraux’s Human Condition. But I realize that there will be always something missing in the transition to the screen...

Voyage To Cythera (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
Q: Your parents are from the South, the Peloponnesus and Crete. And yet you seem to be obsessed with the North, with dark skies, cold winters, heavy rains.

A: It’s a question I am often asked. I have no explanation. I have often tried in the past to find one, but couldn’t really. Maybe one has to look far back; a psychoanalyst might unveil the real sources. What I can tell you is that when I set out to make my first feature film, Reconstruction, I remember one after­noon, in the small village where the story took place. The landscape was all shades of gray, the dark sky, the drab little houses, the stony hills. It was raining, just a drizzle; a thin fog was covering the mountain, and the village was practically deserted. Most people had gone to Germany like so many other Greeks in the fifties, in search of a better life. Only a few old women dressed in black, barely visible in the gloomy light, sneaked silently through the narrow streets.

Suddenly I heard an old, cracked voice, singing a very old song. It was an ancient old man, singing ‘Oh, little lemon tree . . . Oh, little lemon tree . . . ,’ the song I finally used in the film. It was a magic moment which marked me for life: the rain, the fog, the gray stones, the women in black looking like ghosts, and the old man singing. This deserted village, a forgotten corner in a land ruled by military dictatorship, was for me the image of a country drained out by the constant flow of departing emigrants, and the only thing left in it is an old love song.

This image has probably imprinted itself in my subconscious, the matrix for all the films to follow. This is the reason I believe the first film is the original seed. Everything that comes later is either a variation, a development, or an elaboration evolving from that first theme. For me, Reconstruction contains all the themes I later developed. I really think one always does the same film, over and over again. Lately I watched again a number of Bergman films, and this is true for him as well.

Landscape In The Mist (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
Q: Was it at home, from your parents, that you first acquired the love for culture?

A : Not really. My father was a shopkeeper, my mother was a simple house­wife mostly concerned with the well-being of her children. I don’t remember the origins, but I know I started writing for the first time during the civil war, in Athens, towards the end of 1944, a period we still call ‘The Red Decem­ber.’ The communists, who suspected him of being a liberal, arrested my father. As a matter of fact, the person who arrested him was my own cousin, because you have to know that my family – like the rest of the country – was divided in two, part liberal and part communist. During my father’s absence, for reasons that are still not very clear to me, I wrote my first poems. And since that time, I sincerely believe that poetry was the foremost influence in my life...

He was away for a few months, kept somewhere in the center of Greece, and once he was released, he had to walk all the way home, half the length of the country. I remember seeing him at the end of the street, at the time children were still playing in the street, walking slowly towards us. I rushed home and called my mother. We knew he was supposed to come home, but when I told her I’d seen him, she rushed into the street to greet him. Once back inside, we were in such a state, no one could utter a single word. We sat around the table, drank our soup looking at each other in silence. We all felt like crying but kept back our tears. This is, as you may remember, the opening scene of Reconstruction.

Ulysses’ Gaze (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
Q: Do you remember anything of the German occupation?

A: I have said it often enough – I am a war child. When I was born, Greece was ruled by a dictator, General Metaxas. In 1940, the Italians invaded Greece. The first sound I remember is that of the war sirens. And the first image is that of Germans entering Athens, just as I painted it in the opening sequence of Voyage to Cythera. It’s all there, including the episode of the young German soldier directing traffic, the child touching his shoulder, and then running away into a maze of narrow streets with the soldier chasing him. One way or another, I have the feeling that we always dip into our own reservoir of memories and relive certain episodes we have experienced in real life. My work is full of all those special moments of my childhood and adolescence, my emotions and dreams at that time. I believe the one source for everything we do is there.

Q: When did you first take on a distinct political stand?

A: As long as I was in Greece, I considered myself apolitical. Only when I got to Paris did I choose, consciously, to join the Left. Of course, in the fifties, I took part in all sorts of student demonstrations, for instance to support Cyprus, but there was no political conscience behind it. I stayed away when­ ever left-wing and right-wing students would fight on the campus.

At the same time, that is after I graduated high school, I was beginning to realize that my interest in cinema was gradually growing almost into an obsession. I was frequenting all-day cinemas showing detective stories of which I saw a lot. Naturally, the American classics of the genre – Huston, Polonski, Hawks, Walsh – figured at the top of the list. But the first film I ever saw was Michael Curtiz’s Angels with Dirty Faces. I still remember the scene where James Cag­ney is taken to the electric chair, the shadows on the wall, his scream: ‘I don’t want to die.’ I must have been nine or ten at the time. This may ex­plain my fascination to this day with detective stories, be they novels or films...

The Suspended Step Of The Stork (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
Q: History and  politics were once in the forefront of every film you made. Now, they are still there, very evident, but much more in the background. Not to mention the quote from ‘The Suspended Step of the Stork’ which says: ‘Politics is nothing more than a career.’ You said earlier you were a man of the left; you certainly still are, but not in the same way.

A: I think many things have changed around us through the years that have been making film. Already in Megalexandros I tried to portray a freedom fighter that turns into a tyrant. I felt that everything we believed in changes once it touches power. The film was a reflection on two themes, power and property. They corrupt all those who, to start with, may have been sincere idealistic socialists. I saw all around me the things that were happening under socialist regimes. I couldn’t help noticing the changes taking place in all those people who were behind May ‘68. All the ideals we once had were being twisted and fading away.

My first film to move history from the fore­front to the background was Voyage to Cythera. It deals with people who be­lieved once in historical perspective and political change, only to discover, thirty years after sacrificing practically everything they had for the revolu­tion, that they are rejected by one and all. It is a political odyssey that ends with the old man, the hero who once dreamed of changing the world, and his wife, the only one who remained at his side, drifting out into the sea...

The Suspended Step Of The Stork (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
Q: It has been often said that each one of your films is a sequel of the previous one. Do you agree?

A: It’s true. This is the reason you will never find the word ‘End’ at the end of any of my films. As far as I am concerned, these are chapters of one and the same film that goes on and will never be finished, for there is never a final word on anything. I believe we never manage to do more than a frac­tion of the things we’d like to do. My last film, Eternity and a Day, is attempt­ing to convey the idea that a few words, acquired here and there, are never enough to complete a whole poem.

Q: Your films seem to be very personal not only because your way of doing them is so different from all others, but also because they really talk about yourself, all through. One is often under the impression that your protagonist, even though an actor plays the part, is a reflection of yourself projected in a dramatic context quite close to certain aspects of your life. You even told me once that you seriously consid­ered playing one of the parts, yourself.

A: Yes, it is a bit like that. There are of course directors who play in their own films, like Orson Welles. Sometimes one cannot avoid the feeling, particularly when the film is very close to yourself, that no actor could do justice to the part. I felt like this in Eternity and a Day. In the early stages, I was uneasy with Bruno Ganz in the lead, but deep down it was my own identification with the part that generated my fear that no actor could fully satisfy my expectations.

This is the reason that, at a certain point, I stopped the shoot. I needed to put myself at a certain distance from the script, put it in perspective and see the character wearing the features of another person. One could say the same things when discussing Voyage to Cythera or Ulysses’ Gaze. The truth is that these characters are composite images. There is a smaller or greater part of yourself in each one of them, but there are also other persons you have known. It is never quite you but certainly some of you is always there. And the deeper you go into those characters, the closer they are to your intimate self.

Eternity And A Day (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
Q: Another constant concern in your films is the father-son relationship.

A: As I have told you before when we talked about my childhood, the father figure is very important in my own past. The absence of the father who has been taken away – and we had no idea whether he was still alive or not – has been a heavy load on all of us. Since my very first film, it was a crucially important point. Reconstruction opens with the return of the father. Later films deal with the search for the father figure, whether a real or a fictitious father, one who could be a point of reference for the entire film and its pro­tagonist.

Q: Another characteristic of your films – practically all of them are road movies.

A: Yes, but with a difference. Usually, in road movies, the characters roam from one place to another without a definite purpose. In my films, these journeys always have a goal. In Voyage to Cythera, for instance, it is the journey to the imaginary island of one’s dreams, the island of peace and happiness. In Landscape in the Mist the children are looking for their father. The reporter in The Suspended Step of the Stork is travelling around for a definite reason; he is trying to unveil the mystery of the politician who disappeared. In Ulysses’ Gaze the entire trip through the Balkans is determined by the wish to find some pieces of lost film.

Q: You said once that some films come from the heart, others from the mind. Is it true in your case?

A: Some films have at their origins an intellectual premise. In others, it is sentiment. For instance, The Hunters was almost entirely conceived intellec­tually. The same for Days of ‘36. The Beekeeper comes straight from the heart. Most of my films are in-between, a combination of both.

Eternity And A Day (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
Q: There are, in your films, whether they come from the heart or the mind, magi­cal moments that will stay with me forever. The party in ‘The Travelling Players’, the last shot of the old couple on the raft in ‘Voyage to Cythera’, the rape in ‘Land­scape in the Mist’, the wedding in ‘The Suspended Step of the Stork’, the New Year party and Lenin’s statue on the barge in ‘Ulysses’ Gaze’, the bus ride in ‘Eter­nity and a Day’. And these are only a very few examples. Every time they occur, one is left amazed again and again by their originality, their imagination and poetry. Is it something that just happens while you’re shooting the film or is it carefully prepared beforehand?

A: Both. The bus ride was not at all written this way. Originally, in this scene, there were just the writer and the boy. It was an almost realistic scene, which could, of course, be very moving. Two persons in an empty bus, cross­ing the city in the rain. But somehow, I had the feeling it was not enough. This is why it took so long to shoot this scene. As we were shooting, I was gradually changing it. Finally, I did the scene twice, once following the script, a second time throwing the script away. The second version is the one we used. The scene of the party in The Travelling Players, when two men are dancing the tango together, had originally a few lines of dialog. Once we started rehearsing it, I decided to change it.

The scene was taking place in 1946 – people were still wearing at the time bowler hats, striped suits, and so on. At a certain moment, during a break in the rehearsal, I noticed two men, both wearing bowler hats, standing next to each other. The pianist was play­ing a few notes of a tango, one of them approached the other, and they started dancing together. That was completely unexpected. I had not written it in the script, not even thought of it, but that is how I rounded up this scene, and I believe it was the right way to do it. Sometimes, it’s this kind of improvisation on the spot; sometimes you know what you’re going to do a few days early. For the rape scene in Landscape in the Mist, it was like that. It was not in the script, but I had it already in mind several days before we shot it.

Eternity And A Day (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
As for the marriage scene in The Suspended Step of the Stork with the bride on one side of the river, the bridegroom on the other – when I wrote the script, the scene was different, but I felt something was missing there. Then, one day, I was in New York on a bus going to Bronx through Harlem. At a stop, I saw a small black boy improvising some dance steps on one side of the street, and on the other side, there was another small black boy, who was answering him with his own dance steps. Nothing out of the ordinary, maybe, but I immediately saw the river in the middle.

And there is some­thing else, something I read in 1958 about an island near Crete, a very small one, completely isolated in the winter. During those long months, the shep­herds who live there use a sign language to communicate with a Cretan priest, who would watch for them at certain hours. They would inform him if someone was dead on their side, he would say mass in Crete for the de­ceased person, and they would bury the corpse on the small island. The combination of these two sources of inspiration resulted in the marriage as you see it in The Suspended Step of the Stork. The New Year party in Ulysses’ Gaze was written more or less the way it is played. I knew it was all going to be in one shot, but I felt, when writing it, there was something missing, and as we were rehearsing, I added light touches here and there.

As for the barge with Lenin’s statue on it, this marks for me the end of an era. I had prepared the sequence beforehand, but the idea of having the peasants watching it float down the Danube and crossing themselves as it went by originated with something I saw in Constanza, a Romanian port on the Black Sea. A crane was moving a huge head of Lenin from a ship to a barge, when a fishing boat just happened by. The couple on it, a man and a woman, stood up, shocked, as if Lenin had just come back to life. The woman covered the man’s eyes and instinctively made the sign of the cross.

But I have to say that strangely enough there are scenes you believe are crucial when you write the script, but do not seem at all like this once you have shot them. While other scenes, which you may not have been very keen on, turn out to be key moments in the film.

– Extracted from ‘Dan Fainaru: And About All The Rest’ in Theo Angelopoulos: Interviews (Ed. Dan Fainaru, University Press of Mississippi, 2001)

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Orson Welles: On Writing ‘Citizen Kane’

Citizen Kane (Directed by Orson Welles)
Overwhelmingly, endlessly, Orson Welles shows fragments of the life of the man, Charles Foster Kane, and invites us to combine them and to reconstruct him. Form of multiplicity and incongruity abound in the film: the first scenes record the treasures amassed by Kane; in one of the last, a poor woman, luxuriant and suffering, plays with an enormous jigsaw puzzle on the floor of a palace that is also a museum. At the end we realize that the fragments are not governed by any secret unity: the detested Charles Foster Kane is a simulacrum, a chaos of appearances... In a story by Chesterton — ‘The Head of Caesar,’ I think — the hero observes that nothing is so frightening as a labyrinth with no center. This film is precisely that labyrinth.  (Jorge Luis Borges)
The following extracts are taken from an interview with Peter Bogdanovich in which Orson Welles discusses the writing of Citizen Kane:

Peter Bogdanovich: There’s a film written by Preston Sturges called ‘The Power and the Glory’ [1933] which has been said to have influenced you in the flashback style of ‘Kane’. Is that true?

Orson Welles: No. I never saw it. I’ve heard that it has strong similarities; it’s one of those coincidences. I’m a great fan of Sturges and I’m grateful I didn’t see it. He never accused me of it – we were great chums – but I just never saw it. I saw only his comedies. But I would be honored to lift anything from Sturges, because I have very high admiration for him...

PB: The idea for the famous breakfast scene between Kane and his first wife [the nine-year deterioration of their marriage is told through one continuing conversation over five flash-pans] –

OW:  – was stolen from The Long Christmas Dinner of Thornton Wilder! It’s a one-act play, which is a long Christmas dinner that takes you through something like sixty years of a family’s life –

PB: All at dinner –

OW: Yes, they’re all sitting at dinner, and they get old – people wheel baby carriages by, and coffins and everything. That they never leave the table and that life goes on was the idea of this play. I did the breakfast scene thinking I’d invented it. It wasn’t in the script originally. And when I was almost finished with it, I suddenly realized that I’d unconsciously stolen it from Thornton and I called him up and admitted to it.

PB: What was his reaction?

OW: He was pleased...

PB: Just how important was [Herman J.] Mankiewicz in relation to the script?

OW: Mankiewicz’s contribution? It was enormous.

PB: You want to talk about him?

OW: I’d love to. I loved him. People did. He was much admired, you know.

PB: Except for his part in the writing of ‘Kane’... Well, I’ve read the list of his other credits...

OW: Oh, the hell with lists – a lot of bad writers have wonderful credits.

PB: Can you explain that?

OW: Luck. The lucky bad writers got good directors who could write. Some of these, like Hawks and McCarey, wrote very well indeed. Screenwriters didn’t like that at all. Think of those old pros in the film factories. They had to punch in every morning, and sit all day in front of their typewriters in those terrible ‘writers’ buildings.’ The way they saw it, the director was even worse than the producer, because in the end what really mattered in moving pictures, of course, was the man actually making the pictures. The big-studio system often made writers feel like second-class citizens, no matter how good the money was. They laughed it off, of course, and provided a good deal of the best fun – when Hollywood, you understand, was still a funny place. But basically, you know, a lot of them were pretty bitter and miserable. And nobody was more miserable, more bitter, and funnier than Mank,... a perfect monument of self-destruction. But, you know, when the bitterness wasn’t focused straight onto you, he was the best company in the world.

PB: How did the story of ‘Kane’ begin?

OW: I’d been nursing an old notion – the idea of telling the same thing several times – and showing exactly the same scene from wholly different points of view. Basically, the idea Rashomon used later on. Mank liked it, so we started searching for the man it was going to be about. Some big American figure – couldn’t be a politician, because you’d have to pinpoint him. Howard Hughes was the first idea. But we got pretty quickly to the press lords.

PB: The first drafts were in separate versions, so when was the whole construction of the script – the intricate flashback pattern – worked out between you?

OW: The actual writing came only after lots of talk, naturally,...  just the two of us, yelling at each other – not too angrily.

PB: What about the ‘Rashomon’ idea? It’s still there to a degree.

OW: It withered away from what was originally intended. I wanted the man to seem a very different person depending on who was talking about him. ‘Rosebud’ was Mank’s, and the many-sided gimmick was mine. Rosebud remained, because it was the only way we could find to get off, as they used to say in vaudeville. It manages to work, but I’m still not too keen about it, and I don’t think that he was, either. The whole shtick is the sort of thing that can finally date, in some funny way.

PB: Toward the close, you have the reporter say that it doesn’t matter what it means  –

OW: We did everything we could to take the mickey out of it.

PB: The reporter says at the end, ‘Charles Foster Kane was a man who got everything he wanted, and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get or something he lost, but it wouldn’t have explained anything...’

OW: I guess you might call that a disclaimer – a bit corny, too. More than a bit. And it’s mine, I’m afraid.

PB: I read the script that went into production... There were so many things you changed on the set, or, anyway, after you’d started shooting. From the point of view of Kane’s character, one of the most interesting is the scene where you’re remaking the front page for about the twentieth time. In the script, Kane is arrogant and rather nasty to the typesetter. In the movie, he’s very nice, even rather sweet. How did that evolve?

OW: Well, all he had was charm – besides the money. He was one of those amiable, rather likable monsters who are able to command people’s allegiance for a time without giving too much in return. Certainly not love; he was raised by a bank, remember. He uses charm the way such people often do. So when he changes the first page, of course it’s done on the basis of a sort of charm rather than real conviction... Charlie Kane was a man-eater.

PB: Well, why was it in the script the other way?

OW: I found out more about the character as I went along.

PB: And what were the reactions of Mankiewicz to these changes?

OW: Well, he only came once to the set for a visit. Or, just maybe, it was twice...

PB: Before shooting began, how were differences about the script worked out between you?

OW: That’s why I left him on his own finally, because we’d started to waste too much time haggling. So, after mutual agreements on story line and character, Mank went off with Houseman and did his version, while I stayed in Hollywood and wrote mine. At the end, naturally, I was the one who was making the picture, after all – who had to make the decisions. I used what I wanted of Mank’s and, rightly or wrongly, kept what I liked of my own.

PB: As you know, Houseman has repeatedly claimed that the script, including the conception and structure, was essentially Mankiewicz’s.

OW: It’s very funny that he does that, because he deserves some credit himself. It’s very perverse, because actually he was a junior writer on it, and made some very important contributions. But for some curious reason he’s never wanted to take that bow. It gives him more pleasure just to say I didn’t write it...

PB: What was the influence of your guardian, Dr. Bernstein? And why did you give that name to the character in ‘Kane’?

OW: [laughs] That was a family joke. He was nothing like the character in the movie. I used to call people ‘Bernstein’ on the radio all the time, too – just to make him laugh... I sketched out the character in our preliminary sessions – Mank did all the best writing for Bernstein. I’d call that the most valuable thing he gave us...

PB: Yes, that scene with the reporter [William Alland] –

OW: That was all Mank, by the way – it’s my favorite scene.

PB: And the story about the girl: ‘One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry... There was another ferry pulling in, and... a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on... I only saw her for a second... but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since, that I haven’t thought of that girl.’

OW: It goes longer than that.

PB: Yes, but who wrote it?

OW: Mankiewicz, and it’s the best thing in the movie. ‘A month hasn’t gone by that I haven’t thought of that girl.’ That’s Mankiewicz. I wish it was me.

PB: Great scene.

OW: If I were in hell and they gave me a day off and said, ‘What part of any movie you ever made do you want to see?’ I’d see that scene of Mank’s about Bernstein. All the rest could have been better, but that was just right...

PB: You once said about the editing of ‘Kane’, ‘There was nothing to cut.’ What did you mean?

OW: When I made Kane, I didn’t know enough about movies, and I was constantly encouraged by [cinematographer Gregg] Toland, who said, under the influence of Ford, ‘Carry everything in one shot – don’t do anything else.’ In other words, play scenes through without cutting, and don’t shoot any alternate version. That was Toland in my ear. And secondly, I didn’t know how to have all kinds of choices. All I could think of to do was what was going to be on the screen in the final version. Also, I had a wonderful cast...

PB: Why did you decide not to have credits at the beginning of ‘Kane’? No one had ever done that before.

OW: The script dictated that. Look at all the other things that go on at the beginning, before the story starts: that strange dreamlike prologue, then ‘News on the March,’ and then the projection-room scene – it’s a long time before anything starts. Now, supposing you’d added titles to all that. It would have been one thing too much to sit through. You wouldn’t have know where you were in the picture.

PB: In that prologue you just mentioned, why does the light in his bedroom suddenly go off – and then come on again after a moment?

OW: To interest the audience. We’d been going on quite a while there with nothing happening. You see a light in the window – you keep coming nearer – and it better go off, or a shadow had better cross, or something had better happen. So I turned the light off – that’s all.

PB: Then you cut inside.

OW: That’s right. Maybe the nurse turned it off because it was getting in his eyes. Who knows? Who cares? The other answer is that it symbolized death. Got that? All right...

PB: What did you mean by the mirrors at the end, when Kane walks by and you see his image reflected many times?

OW: I don’t think a moviemaker should explain what he means. About anything. Leave it to the customers. Why spoil things for people who enjoy finding their own meanings?

PB: But you just explained the light going off –

OW: Next.

PB: The black smoke at the end has been said to symbolize the futility of his life...

OW: I don’t know – I hate symbolism.

PB: Fritz Lang said he dropped the use of symbols when he came to America because somebody at MGM said to him, ‘Americans don’t like symbols.’

OW: I’m one of those Americans. I never use it. If anybody finds it, it’s for them to find. I never sit down and say how we’re going to have a symbol for some character. They happen automatically, because life is full of symbols. So is art. You can’t avoid them; but if you use them, you get into Stanley Kramer Town.

PB: I know you hate to think up titles –

OW: No! I love to think ’em up, but can’t! Citizen Kane came from George Schaefer – the head of the studio, imagine that! It’s a great title. We’d sat around for months trying to think of a name for it. Mankiewicz couldn’t, I couldn’t, none of the actors – we had a contest on. A secretary came up with one that was so bad I’ll never forget it: A Sea of Upturned Faces.

PB: Can we talk about Leland’s betrayal of Kane?

OW: He didn’t betray Kane. Kane betrayed him.

PB: Really?

OW: Because he was not the man he pretended to be.

PB: Yes, but, in a sense, didn’t Leland –

OW: I don’t think so.

PB: I was going to say something else. Didn’t Leland imagine that Kane was one thing and then was disappointed when he wasn’t?

OW: Well, it comes to the same thing. If there was any betrayal, it was on Kane’s part, because he signed a Declaration of Principles which he never kept.

PB: Then why is there a feeling that Leland is petty and mean to Kane in the scene when he gets drunk?

OW: Because there he is – only there, because he’s defensive. It’s not the big moment. The big moment is when he types the bad notice afterward. That’s when he’s faithful to himself and to Kane and to everything.

PB: I wonder if that’s as simple as your answer is now, because if you were put in a position like
that –

OW: I’m not his character. I’m a totally different kind of person from Jed Leland. I’m not a friend of the hero. And he’s a born friend of the hero, and the hero turned out not to be one. He’s the loyal companion of the great man – and Kane wasn’t great; that’s the story. So of course he’s mean and petty when he’s discovered that his great man is empty inside.

PB: Well, maybe one feels that Leland could have afforded to write a good review.

OW: Not and been a man of principle. That Declaration of Principles Kane signed is the key to it. Leland couldn’t – no critic can. He’s an honest man. Kane is corrupt. I don’t think he betrays Kane in any way.

PB: Well, one has an emotional response to Kane in the picture, and I certainly felt that Leland betrays him – I felt that emotionally.

OW: No, he doesn’t. You’re using the word ‘betrayal’ wrong. He’s cruel to him, but he doesn’t betray him.

PB: Well, he betrays their friendship, then.

OW: He doesn’t. It’s Kane who betrayed the friendship. The friendship was based on basic assumptions that Kane hadn’t lived up to. I strongly and violently disagree with that. There is no betrayal of Kane. The betrayal is by Kane.

PB: Then why do I somewhat dislike Leland?

OW: Because he likes principles more than the man, and he doesn’t have the size as a person to love Kane for his faults.

PB: Well, then, there you are.

OW: But that’s not betrayal. ‘Betrayal’ is a dead wrong word. He simply doesn’t have the humanity, the generosity of spirit, to have been able to endure Kane...

PB: Do you think that Thompson, the reporter, is changed by going through the Kane story? Is he altered?

OW: He’s not a person. He’s a piece of machinery –

PB: To lead you through.

OW: Yes.

PB: Was there any mystery before the Rosebud element? I mean, did you try anything else?

OW: Yes. And there was a scene in a mausoleum that I wrote – it was a quotation from a poem or something, I can’t remember – and Mankiewicz made terrible fun of it. So I believed him and just said, ‘All right, it’s no good.’ It might have been good – I don’t remember it, because I was so ashamed from Mankiewicz’s violent attack on it.

PB: Why did you begin and end with the No Trespassing sign?

OW: What do you think? Anybody’s first guess has got to be right.

PB: A man’s life is private.

OW: Is it? That should theoretically be the answer, but it turns out that maybe it is and maybe it isn’t...

PB: Is the name Kane a play on Cain?

OW: No, but Mankiewicz got furious when I used that name, because he said that’s what people will think. We had a big fight about that.

PB: The original name was Craig.

OW: Yes. And I said I thought Kane was a better name –

PB: Just because it was a better name –

OW: Yes. And Mankiewicz made the other point: ‘They’ll think you’re punning on Cain’ and all that, because we had a big murder scene in the original script. And I said they won’t, and he said they will, and so on. I won...

PB: Did you notice an influence on Hollywood films from ‘Kane’?

OW: You couldn’t mistake it. Everybody started having big foreground objects and ceilings and all those kind of compositions. Very few people had ever even used a wide-angle lens except for crowd scenes.

PB: But the effect wasn’t in terms of story construction?

OW: No, the things that I valued didn’t seem to have much effect on anybody. But the most obvious kind of visual things, everybody did right away.

PB: It seemed to me that your memory of your mother is reflected in the scenes with Kane’s mother.

OW: Not at all. She was so different, you know.

PB: I don’t mean the character, but the affection of Kane –

OW: Really no comparison. My mother was very beautiful, very generous, and very tough. She was rather austere with me.

PB: Well, the mother in ‘Kane’ was not a sentimental mother –

OW: It isn’t that. There’s just not any connection.

PB: It’s not so much the mother herself but the emotion of remembering a mother. As in the scene where you meet Dorothy Comingore and tell her you’re on a trip in search of your youth, and she has that line, ‘You know what mothers are like.’ And you say, in a sad, reflective tone, full of memories, ‘Yes.’ It’s one of my favorite moments in the picture.

OW: No, Peter, I have no Rosebuds.

PB: But do you have a sentiment for that part of your past?

OW: No... I have no wish to be back there... Just one part of it, maybe. One place. My father lived sometimes in China, and partly in a tiny country hotel he’d bought in a village called Grand Detour, Illinois. It had a population of 130. Formerly it was ten thousand, but then the railroad didn’t go through. And there was this hotel which had been built to service the covered wagons on their way west through southern Illinois (which is real Mark Twain country, you know, and people like Booth Tarkington). My father spent a few months of his year there, entertaining a few friends. They never got a bill. And any legitimate hotel guests who tried to check in had a tough time even getting anyone to answer that bell you banged on the desk. Our servants were all retired or ‘resting’ from show business. A gentleman called Rattlesnake-Oil Emery was handyman. One of the waitresses had done bird calls in a tent show. My father was very fond of people like that.

Well, where I do see some kind of Rosebud, perhaps, is in that world of Grand Detour. A childhood there was like a childhood back in the 1870s. No electric light, horse-drawn buggies – a completely anachronistic, old-fashioned, early-Tarkington, rural kind of life, with a country store that had above it a ballroom with an old dance floor with springs in it, so that folks would feel light on their feet. When I was little, nobody had danced up there for many years, but I used to sneak up at night and dance by moonlight with the dust rising from the floor... Grand Detour was one of those lost worlds, one of those Edens that you get thrown out of. It really was kind of invented by my father. He’s the one who kept out the cars and the electric lights. It was one of the ‘Merrie Englands.’ Imagine: he smoked his own sausages. You’d wake up in the morning to the sound of the folks in the bake house, and the smells... I feel as though I’ve had a childhood in the last century from those short summers.

PB: It reminds me of ‘Ambersons’. You do have a fondness for things of the past, though –

OW: Oh yes. For that Eden people lose... It’s a theme that interests me. A nostalgia for the garden – it’s a recurring theme in all our civilization.

– From Peter Bogdanovich: Interview with Orson Welles. In Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane:  A Casebook (ed. James Naremore. OUP, 2004)


Friday, 6 June 2014

Walter Hill: Last Man Standing

Southern Comfort (Directed by Walter Hill)
Walter Hill developed his craft as a screenwriter and director while working as a second assistant director on Bullitt (1968), Take the Money and Run (1969), and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Hill’s first screenplay, Hickey and Boggs, was produced in 1972. Later, he penned The Getaway (1972) for director Sam Peckinpah, who became a major influence on his own filmmaking style. Hill also wrote The MacKintosh Man (1973) which was directed by another mentor, John Huston. 

In 1975, Hill directed his first feature film Hard Times starring Charles Bronson and James Coburn. He achieved great success in 1979 with the stylized gang movie The Warriors, which he wrote and directed and was released the same year he wrote and produced the hit science fiction thriller Alien (1979). The 1980s brought more success with films like The Long Riders (1980), Southern Comfort (1981), 48 Hrs. (1982), Another 48 Hrs. (1990), Brewster’s Millions (1985), and Red Heat (1988). Hill also wrote and directed episodes of the television series Tales from the Crypt (1989-1991) and the westerns Geronimo: An American Legend (1993), Wild Bill (1995), and Last Man Standing (1996). 

The following discussion is an edited extract from an interview with Jon Zelazny.

JON: A couple years ago, you did an audio commentary and on-camera intro for a new DVD edition of ‘The Warriors’. It was the first time I’d ever seen you; is it my imagination, or have you kept a low profile over the years?

WALTER HILL: I’d never done a commentary before on one of my films. I don’t like the idea of explaining a movie; I think it inevitably comes off as ego-driven, or pitiful: ‘Hey, look at this! I did this; isn’t it terrific?’ I think a good book or a good film speaks for itself. Also, people always want to ask you what a film ‘means,’ which is another reason why I don’t even like doing interviews like this – nothing against you.

The Warriors (Directed by Walter Hill)
Do you have a particular term for the kinds of stories you tell? Whatever the genre, they primarily concern men in violent conflict – 

Somebody once asked me why I never did horror films, just action, and what was the difference? I said horror movies terrorize women, and action movies terrorize guys. For some reason, several people found that definition objectionable. (chuckling) I thought it was brutally accurate... I didn’t answer that too well, did I?

I’m a big Anthony Mann fan, and there are a lot of parallels between your bodies of work. Mann said his movies were about ‘the use of violence by thoughtful men.’

The kinds of stories I like to tell are part of a tradition – and I’m not comparing myself to, or placing myself as the equal of some of the great storytellers I’m going to mention; I’m artistically modest, as everyone ought to be – but it’s the tradition practiced by Robert Aldrich, Anthony Mann, Don Siegel, Howard Hawks, Sam Fuller.

I think there’s less room in the marketplace now for the kinds of stories I enjoy telling, and which I tend to think of as my strength; action movies today are more fantasy, exaggerated, comic book… That sounds pejorative… but tastes change. Audiences change. I think the older tradition was more intellectually rigorous, and the newer tradition is more pure sensation… and that’s not necessarily bad…

The Warriors (Directed by Walter Hill)
As a youngster, were you more interested in books or movies?

Both. I was particularly interested in the Western genre, in pulp novels of the thirties and forties, and film noir. That’s probably why I liked EC Comics as well; because they were so dark. I lived a lot at a fantasy level, I think. I was asthmatic. Stayed at home a lot. Didn’t go to school for weeks at a time. My mother and my grandmother taught me how to read.

Do you remember what movies first made you conscious of the director… or simply that there was someone making decisions about how the story was being told?

I began reading about films when I was in high school; my awareness of directors probably came later. The first filmmaker other than Orson Welles I was really terribly aware of – and who made me aware of what directors do – was Ingmar Bergman. And I saw his very early ones, before he became kind of fashionable. The other filmmaker who impressed me at a very early age was Kurosawa. I got quite interested in these foreign films, and I read a lot of criticism about them, which in turn opened my eyes to American film, and kind of led me to rediscover American genre film. I mean, I’d seen Howard Hawks films and Don Siegel films growing up, but without that awareness of their sensibilities.

But Welles was the first?

I’d seen Kane and Ambersons on TV when I was a kid. My dad and mom told me a lot about him. He was, of course, quite famous in a notorious sense. Even down in Long Beach, where I’m from.

The Warriors (Directed by Walter Hill)
Your first two movies had big movie stars; ‘The Warriors’ did not. What’s the difference, and which do you prefer?

The presence of movie stars is something you feel more in the reaction of the people that surround the movie. It doesn’t have much to do with the filmmaking process.

Though stars certainly influence a picture with their well-known personas. I assume the young cast of ‘The Warriors’ was much more dependent on you to help shape their performances?

That’s true. One had to intuit what their personas were, and try to work out how they would play. It is an advantage to go in with a sense of what an actor will bring to it… though a mistake actors make consistently is they think they can play anything, and a mistake directors make is they think actors can only do what they’ve done before.

My favorite advice to directors about casting that I read was by the great Broadway director George Abbot, who said ‘Directors like to think there’s only one actor who can play a certain part, but there’s always somebody else.’ I think that’s true.

The Long Riders (Directed by Walter Hill)
Early in your career, you wrote scripts for John Huston and Sam Peckinpah. What did you pick up from them… or from the other prominent directors you worked for, like Norman Jewison or Woody Allen?

They were all talented filmmakers; interesting individuals, but as far as learning anything… I think what you learn is everyone makes their own way.

As far as creativity goes, I think you get your head to a place where things are discovered, not invented. It’s that Platonic idea that you don’t really write a poem; it’s already there, and you find it. I think that’s true for the audience as well: they discover what they already know or intuit. And that’s the most ideal relationship between the audience and the storyteller.

Now Huston and Peckinpah had very similar outlaw personalities. At the same time, they were wildly disparate fellows; Sam worked in a much narrower – some would say deeper – channel, while Huston had a wider field of interest. I think it was also important that he was a much more omnivorous reader… which isn’t to say he was smarter or more talented, but he possessed a worldview, and sophistication, that went way beyond the very restricted world Sam chose to live in.

I think you see that in Peckinpah’s films. In his later career, he seemed to be sinking into pure nihilism, while Huston always loved these offbeat character studies – right up to ‘Prizzi’s Honor’ (1985) and ‘The Dead’ (1987).

I think one of the biggest differences was that Peckinpah was purely a guy of film. He worked in it his whole life, from the time he got out of the Army, and his heroes were filmmakers, like Kurosawa and Bergman. Huston was from the generation before that; most of his generation never really regarded filmmaking as a serious artistic pursuit.

The Long Riders (Directed by Walter Hill)
I guess that’s why Huston could make so many films he didn’t really care about. He could take a job and just amiably do the work in a way Peckinpah never really could.

Huston was a soldier of fortune, as anybody in film has to be to some degree. He also liked to travel, and to drink. He liked high society, beautiful women, horse races, and buying great art… and to live that kind of life, you have to make a lot of money. John could turn a buck… Sam mostly lived in a trailer in Paradise Cove.

And only made about a third as many pictures as Huston did.

But what’s so memorable about Sam is what a powerful, personal, artistic stamp he put on his work. His name alone conjures up a vision… I think what we respond to most with Sam is his purity of commitment. And that’s always easier to idolize. And I’m not a critic, but I think it’s true his work fell into severe decline, while Huston was – in and out – but basically good until the end...

What’s tricky when you look at those guys – any of those American masters of genre film – is understanding how they transcended all the hackwork going on around them. With Kurosawa or Bergman, the artistic quality of their pictures is obvious; with directors like Ford, Hawks, or Mann, you have to look harder. What usually distinguishes their work is their sensibility.

The Long Riders (Directed by Walter Hill)
Did you always aspire to continue in that tradition?

I came into the business at an interesting time… when it was still like running away to join the circus. But within five years, the whole sensibility changed. Young people coming in, the so-called next generation, were all very influenced by European and Japanese cinema. The people who were older than me – like John Huston – their attitude was, if you have artistic ambitions, you should be off writing novels or plays. The cultural primacy of film as an attitude came from my generation, and the one after…

We should probably get back to ‘The Warriors’ at some point. From your comments on the DVD, it sounds like you essentially discarded Sol Yurick’s novel, and went back to the original Greek history tale for inspiration.

The movie was thrown together very quickly, and for very little money. The producer, Larry Gordon, and I were going to do a Western, and the financing collapsed at the last minute. He was trying to do a deal at Paramount, and said maybe he could get The Warriors going. I read it, and loved it, but I said, ‘They’ll never let us make this. It’s too good an idea.’ Then – I’ll be a sonuvabitch – he got it going…

Then I had to figure out how to do it. The novel attempts a kind of social realism that I didn’t think worked very well. But there’s a scene in it where one of the gang members is reading a comic book about the march of Xenophon and the 10,000, and he says, ‘Hey, this is just like us!’ And I thought, that’s the way to do the movie –

Southern Comfort (Directed by Walter Hill)
I take it that also inspired the comic book framing device you’ve added to the new edition. Had you been a big reader of comic books?

I read a lot of the EC Comics back in the fifties. I never particularly liked superheroes. People think of comics as exclusively about superheroes, but back then you had horror comics, and humor, and romance, and westerns; there was a whole experience one could have outside of superheroes. I particularly liked the EC comics because they were darker.

I saw The Warriors as graphically driven, as situational; it was broad, easy to understand, but kind of self-mocking at the same time… those were the aspects that suggested a comic book flavor to me. The idea really came up because when Paramount made the movie – and Paramount was a very different place back then – they hated it. They couldn’t understand what the fuck it was, or what it was about. They wouldn’t show it to critics. So I was trying to explain it to them: ‘In some sense, it’s science fiction, or… imagine a comic book based on a story from Greek history…’ But it was like talking to the fucking wall.

To be fair, it’s pretty unique. The only movie I can think of that looks like it might have been an influence is ‘West Side Story’ (1961)… uh, was it?

I honestly had not seen the movie, but I certainly knew what it was, so to say you weren’t influenced by something so pervasive in the culture is probably naïve. I think we’re all influenced by everything.

When you and your designers began to conceptualize all the exaggerated costumes and make-up the various gangs would be wearing… were you ever afraid audiences were just going to laugh?

Yeah, I was.

Southern Comfort (Directed by Walter Hill)
The whole idea… when you really think about it, it’s just audacious.

I don’t think I could have done it as my first movie, but at that point I thought, ‘Well, they’re either going to buy it, or not.’ If I deserve credit for anything, it was for knowing I couldn’t go halfway. Halfway was death. And I just didn’t think it could be done realistically; the premise of the story was ridiculous. I think that was something Sol Yurick never understood about his own novel: he was trying to be socially accurate within this preposterous plot. Most people probably would have tried to make the movie more real; I said no, let’s make it more unreal.

I consider it a pretty good movie for the first… well, the first hour or so. We never really figured out what the hell to do at the end.

One of your tasks is deciding the characters’ fates. Who has transgressed, who should be punished, and to what degree. Movie scholars like to point out that Sam Peckinpah’s father was a conservative, Western-style judge; can you describe the influences in your upbringing you’d most credit with shaping your moral perspective?

My parents, and many of my extended family, were people who had a high sense of ethical responsibility, and some members of my family were definitely churchgoers. I went to church every Sunday until I was about fifteen or sixteen, before I could ‘escape,’ which is how I thought of it back then. I now perceive it – and the lessons I was taught – to be gold. One of the things I’ve found to be the most interesting about making Westerns is that it’s like walking around in the Old Testament; the stories are all about primary ethical concerns. Of course, most storytellers shrink from that whole idea of being a moralist, from taking that responsibility –

Southern Comfort (Directed by Walter Hill)
But somebody has to make those calls. In drama or comedy, characters’ fates can be much less decisive, but a story based on a collision between shades of good and evil – 

There are no set rules; it’s just a matter of your taste. But you’re right; storytelling in some specific way requires you to be judgmental about the characters. I think you can be forcefully judgmental and still be a great artist, or you can be more open-ended, which I think the greater artists tend to be.

Have the shifting moral standards driven you crazy over the years?

If you’re someone who thinks society is always supposed to be moving forward, that the story of history is the story of progress, and that we are all moving towards some idea of utopia, then I don’t fit it. I don’t have that worldview. While there are certainly discoveries made in science that materially alter the way we live, I think most of the ethical guidelines that determine personal human behavior have remained remarkably constant, for thousands of years. As we said, audiences change, especially when you’re dealing with popular entertainment… but ultimately they’ll always come around again for a good story.

What inspired ‘Southern Comfort’?

David Giler and I had a deal with Fox; we were supposed to acquire and develop interesting, commercial scripts that could be produced cheaply. Alien (1979) was one of them, and Southern Comfort was another. We wanted to do a survival story, and I’d already done a film in Louisiana.

Southern Comfort (Directed by Walter Hill)
I meant was there some actual incident where Cajuns had clashed with the Guard?

No, that was just our story. And we were very aware that people were going to see it as a metaphor for Vietnam. The day we had the cast read, before we went into the swamps, I told everybody, ‘People are going to say this is about Vietnam. They can say whatever they want, but I don’t want to hear another word about it.’

If you know about Vietnam, you can make those connections, but the story certainly stands on it’s own.

And Vietnam is hardly the oppressive presence today that it was in 1980. The story becomes much more universal.

I think the biggest parallel is visual: that swamp looks like Vietnam. You’d have to do some research to be able to discuss the parallels with Iraq. As a former Army officer, I think your depiction of military characters, dialogue, and attitude is dead-on; in ‘Southern Comfort’, and ‘Geronimo’ (1993) as well. Both depict soldiers during peacetime. Warriors without true wars, stuck doing shit work… you have a very intuitive understanding of that mentality.

I’m pleased to hear you say that, but I think it’s just my intuition about human nature. And what I’ve read. People I’ve known. I have an uncle who was a career military guy. Wonderful man. Now in his eighties.

Geronimo: An American Legend (Directed by Walter Hill)
In my few years in uniform, I certainly met versions of all your Army characters.

I was never happy about the title Geronimo. It’s not about Geronimo. It should have been called The Geronimo War.

Or ‘The Three White Guys Who Caught Geronimo’.

Right. It’s as much about the Army as it is Geronimo. That came out of my reading of historical accounts, and realizing that so much of what we think we know about the Indian campaigns is wrong. The Army is generally depicted as the enemy of the Apache, but in many cases, the people who were most sympathetic to their plight were those soldiers.

Because they were there. They saw what the deal was.

And tragically, it was these same soldiers who then had to go out and be the tip of the spear.

Yeah, the moral trap they eventually find themselves in is heartbreaking.

I thought the character of Gatewood, who was a real person, would be of great interest. But not a lot of people saw the film...

There’s a longer version that exists. They cut about twelve minutes for the theatrical release, and most of it was about Army life. I always thought they should do a DVD release of the full version. It was damn good.

Geronimo: An American Legend (Directed by Walter Hill)
It seems like half the shots in ‘Southern Comfort’ show those guys sloshing through swamp water up to their knees. How did the actors keep from getting trench foot?

That was a very tough movie. I don’t know how we ever…

I know you can’t keep guys in the water that long.

We did. We went out there every day, and just slugged it out. I was in the water too; it wasn’t like I was directing from some safe island.

Were you wearing waders?

Yeah, we had wetsuits on underneath. But it was just miserable. We were out there about fifty days. Six days a week, for nine weeks. And just to get out there took this enormous drive; we had to get up at four in the morning to be ready to shoot at the crack of dawn.

So nobody had to ‘act’ exhausted.

I’ll say this about that cast: they didn’t complain much. They knew what they were getting into, they were all in very good physical condition, and they went out there and just took it. It was very much a collective experience, and it’s certainly one of my favorite films. Sometimes pictures become favorites for reverse reasons: because it was hard to make, or because people didn’t much care for it. It didn’t do particularly well. It did better overseas; the foreign critical reception was very good.

What were the circumstances of the American release?

Well, it was a negative pick-up. The studios, especially in those days, tended to treat those like the stepchildren in 19th century novels. So they didn’t spend a great deal of money trying to get us launched. The movie didn’t cost too much, so it wasn’t like it was some huge financial disaster… but I think the subject matter is just not widely appealing.

48 Hrs. (Directed by Walter Hill)
How did you get involved in ‘48 Hrs.’?

Larry Gordon had an idea for a crime movie set in Louisiana where the governor’s daughter is kidnapped, and has dynamite taped to her head, and the bad guys are going to kill her in 48 hours. The family assigns a top cop to rescue her – one aspect of the story was the cop getting one of the kidnapper’s old cellmates out of jail to help him.

Roger Spottiswoode, my editor on Hard Times, wanted to be a director. I told him he should try writing, so Larry gave him a shot rewriting that kidnap story. Roger was living in my house at the time, so we discussed it a lot. His draft got the story out of Louisiana, got rid of the dynamite on the girl’s head, and made it a more realistic, big city cop thriller.

That was at Columbia. Then Larry’s deal switched over to Paramount, a few more drafts were written, and then they asked me to rewrite it for Clint Eastwood. Larry and I flew up to Carmel to see him and he liked the project, but felt he’d already done that kind of cop character enough, so he wanted to play the criminal. I began tailoring it to that end when Eastwood decided to do Don Siegel’s Escape From Alcatraz (1979), and since he played a prisoner in that one, that was really the end of his interest in our project. At which point I suggested we try to get Richard Pryor to play the criminal.

Was that your first notion that the piece had the potential to be funny as well?

Yeah, I’d say so. Again, the story was preposterous; why not make it kind of humorous?

48 Hrs. (Directed by Walter Hill)
Was that also when you decided the prisoner would be black?

Yeah. The part wasn’t written that way yet; it was just a verbal concept. But Paramount did not see the wisdom of that, so I went off and did The Long Riders and Southern Comfort, and then I got a call saying Nick Nolte wanted to do 48 Hrs., and was I interested in doing it with him and a black actor? I said, ‘Absolutely.’

The reason it finally got going was because Michael Eisner, who was running Paramount then, wanted a second movie for Christmas time – they had Airplane II (1982) as their big Christmas release, and he wanted a thriller for some non-Christmas-y counter-programming. But we couldn’t get Richard Pryor, who was a huge star by then, so we decided to go for Gregory Hines, but he wasn’t available either. Eddie Murphy’s agent had sent me a lot of tapes of him, and Paramount approved him, so we went with him.

We had one tough break in that Eddie couldn’t shake out of his TV show early. We’d already been shooting for two weeks before he joined us, so he came in absolutely cold. It was his first film, and he was a seasoned performer, but not a trained film actor, and we really could have used a good week of rehearsal. It’s one of the few times I’ve been sorry I didn’t rehearse. One old-time director told me once, ‘Don’t ever fuckin’ rehearse. All that happens is the actors don’t like the script.’ And there is some merit in that.

What’s your S.O.P. in that regard?

Well, action movies, with all their physicality, tend to be hard to rehearse.

Which of your films was most rehearsed?

Probably The Warriors… just because with more experienced actors, it’s easier to work things out on the set.

48 Hrs (Directed by Walter Hill)
When did you start to realize during ‘48 Hrs.’ that Eddie Murphy wasn’t just funny, he was really, really, really funny?

What I realized right away was that he was really good; that he was bringing something to it. There were always these stories that circulated about tension between the studio and me; that they were angry, and even talked about firing me, because they didn’t think Eddie was very funny… and it’s true they brought me in to talk about that.

Were they expecting a more traditional comedy?

That’s how I took it: that to them, a funny movie with a black guy meant the guy should act like Richard Pryor. And I was perfectly happy with the way things were going. I thought Eddie was doing a very good job.

Of the movies you admired, which ones most informed that tone?

Probably the most obvious example is Robert Aldrich’s work, particularly The Dirty Dozen (1967). As far as guys playing off each other like that, I think the great master was Howard Hawks.

I think both Murphy and Nolte’s characters understand that the antagonism between them is a game they’re playing. It’s a tough game, a dangerous game, a nasty game, but these guys are positioning each other. They’re also not so thin-skinned that some casual remark is going to alter their attitudes. I don’t think Nolte’s character is really a racist.

48 Hrs. (Directed by Walter Hill)
Were you amused when everyone in Hollywood then decided the ticket to success was to do a cop movie where one of the cops was played by a comedian? There were a slew of those for the rest of the decade.

What surprised me was how they didn’t quite understand what the motor of it was. It was always called a ‘buddy cop’ movie for instance, when in fact they’re not buddies. They don’t like each other. I think what the imitators always tried to do was copy the structural foundation of 48 Hrs., but fill it in with the more homogenized sensibility of Beverly Hills Cop.

Often when directors score such a massive hit, they’ll use their new clout to mount some kind of epic… be it an ‘El Cid’ or a ‘Heaven’s Gate’. I’m curious why you never did.

I don’t know. The closest I probably came to doing an epic was when Warren Beatty talked to me about doing Dick Tracy (1990). But it didn’t work out.

Lucky for you!

(chuckling) Well, I like Warren… but we certainly disagreed on the way it should go. I had in mind something much more like The Untouchables (1987).

I guess I’ve always just been interested in telling the kinds of stories that appeal to me. You can make films for three concerns: for the mass audience, for yourself, or for the critics. I’ve probably been guilty of making films more for myself, and hoping the audience will like them as well.

– Excerpted from Jon Zelazny: ‘Kicking Ass with Walter Hill’ (For the full interview go to:, Dec. 8, 2012).