Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Nicholas Ray: The Last Interview

Johnny Guitar (Directed by Nicholas Ray)
The following interview with the American director Nicholas Ray appeared in a post at the Italian online film magazine La Furia Umana titled ‘Nicholas Ray: The Last Interview, with Kathryn Bigelow and Sarah Fatima Parsons.’ In his preface, Tom Farrell gives the background for the interview, and added that it originally appeared in the July, 1979, issue of the French magazine Cinématographe:
In May 1979, during a break from filming Lightning Over Water in collaboration with Wim Wenders, Nicholas Ray granted an interview to Kathryn Bigelow and Sarah Fatima Parsons. It was to be Nick’s last interview before dying of heart failure about a month later. At that time, Kathryn Bigelow was a graduate film student at Columbia University, where she earned a master’s degree, but had not yet directed her first feature film. Her close friend, Sarah Fatima Parsons, was a journalist from West Germany… Although suffering from cancer and going in and out of the hospital for treatment during the final weeks of his life, Nick Ray was remarkably lucid in this conversation about his work, making it a valuable source for further study. 
A conversation with Nicholas Ray shortly before his death, which associates small memory pieces about his life and films.

Nicholas Ray: You know, I hate watching Johnny Guitar on television. But I really appreciate what Andrew Sarris wrote in the Village Voice: With Johnny Guitar Nick Ray reaches the absolute criteria of the auteur theory.

Question: What did you think when you went to Europe and noticed how filmmakers, especially, the French ones, were influenced by your work? Truffaut, for example?

NR: And also Godard, Rohmer. Yes, I did have a strong influence on their work. I’m not sure if it was always for the best. I remember one evening I was driving home during the filming of Rebel Without A Cause. We shot a scene between Jim and Plato. I was whistling. I was really thrilled thinking, My God, the French will adore that scene.

Johnny Guitar (Directed by Nicholas Ray)
Q: Your films have also influenced the new German and American cinema.

NR: I hear that Wim Wenders is going to start a new film soon, Hammett.  He’s a great guy. I think he’s had a hard time with the screenplay.

Q: He originally wanted to write it with the author of the book, Joe Gores.

NR: He tried but it didn’t work out. It seldom does with the author of a book. A lot of filmmakers have failed. I myself thought I could do it, but it was a failure. Authors fall in love with their own words, and you have to be pitiless as a director or screenwriter.

Q: So that it won’t become literature?

NR: Yes, that’s right. I mean it’s another kind of literature. They tend to get excited about one sentence, visualize it, and then it becomes really monotonous. You should never talk about something you can show, and never show something you can talk about.

Q: Doesn’t it have something to do with what actors bring to a film?

NR: Absolutely. An actor can be as talented as another, but if he doesn’t stick to what the director’s intentions are, it all falls down. I adore working with actors.

Johnny Guitar (Directed by Nicholas Ray)
Q: You come from the theater. I would imagine you have a particular method of work.

NR: Yes, I do have my method, as other directors do.

Q: What do you think of all the different interpretations?

NR: It’s one of the beauties of cinema, or of any kind of art for that matter. Sort of a contradiction. I don’t try to manipulate people. You’re on. Do what you want. Some interpretations are shocking to me because they are ridiculous, but then again, why not? I have entered the kingdom of contradiction, but it’s just as well. It adds to the reflection, even if sometimes it drives me crazy.

Q: Are you painting these days?

NR: No, I haven’t in a long time.

Q: What kind of painting are you interested in?

NR: I was always a fan of German and Swedish expressionism. Edvard Munch, and medieval art too. I think my films express this tendency.

Q: Yes, like the colors and set design of the saloon in ‘Johnny Guitar’.

NR: I had it built on the side of a mountain, in the desert, because I loved the shape and color of the rocks there. It’s a kind of medieval Frank Lloyd Wright.

Johnny Guitar (Directed by Nicholas Ray)
Q: For how long did you work with Frank Lloyd Wright?

NR: One year. I was studying theater in New York, but since I come from Wisconsin I would stop at his place once in a while. He came for a conference at Columbia University. I went to listen to him, and then congratulated him at the end. We took a walk together, and he asked me if I would become one of his first students, and I went over there to get a master’s in theater.

Q: When you designed the sets for ‘Johnny Guitar’, did you harmonize the colors specifically after any painters?

NR: I wasn’t inspired by other painters, but of course I followed a principle of pictures. I kept the posse in black and white during the whole film. Herb Yates, the studio owner who was in Europe during the shooting of the film, looked at the dailies when he came back. And he said, Nick, I love what I’m seeing, but it’s a Technicolor film and everything’s in black and white.

Q: You have used stereotypes, black for evil, white for good, and with a lot of humor.

NR: But the black and white are combined within the posse. They are penguins.

Q: The same combination when Joan Crawford wears a white dress with a black shotgun.

NR: That’s baroque.

Johnny Guitar (Directed by Nicholas Ray)
Q: James Dean, who was an archetypal figure of the 1950s, has become trendy again in the 70s. What do you think of this cult of youth? Of the frustrated aspirations of teenagers?

NR: This is all due to the negligence of an opulent society, the non-involvement, the lack of progress.

Q: All those also characterized the 50s?

NR: Of course. It was a time of opulence. It’s easy to put labels on things, but it shouldn’t be that simple. I don’t know all the different forces in the present. This period of searching that we are living now is quite positive, but at the same time there’s a big waste of time, a great irresponsibility. All the rich kids (talking about film students) spending 5000 or 6000 dollars a year to make their films.

Q: Do you think someone who’s rich or supported by their parents doesn’t have the necessary energy to fight for work, or that urgency in the effort?

NR: It’s not a question of being able to fight for work. They are given all possibilities. They can talk about any subject matter they want to. But that’s the point. Those subjects are so trivial.

Q: Which projects would you like to achieve now?

NR: I try to imagine something new. It’s very disappointing not to be totally excited of something. I need that.

In A Lonely Place (Directed by Nicholas Ray)
Q: In your film ‘In A Lonely Place’ Humphrey Bogart for the first time in his career played a fragile character.

NR: Yes, I thought Bogie was fantastic, and in both films I did with him I took the gun out of his hands. The gun was a constant prop for him. For him as well as for me. ‘In A Lonely Place’ was a very personal film.

Q: Do you mean in terms of your marriage to Gloria Grahame? Didn’t she leave you to marry your son?

NR: Oh, yes, it’s good for the tabloids, but not very interesting. It happened years ago.

Q: Oedipus?

NR: No, there’s nothing Oedipal about it. That is always what people believe, but it’s not that terrible really. Oedipus’s fate is to kill his father. But, shit, it’s never been a bloody relationship. They are divorced today. Only two or three close friends have looked at the situation quietly. Everybody thought it was gloomy, and it made me feel like locking my door. And I don’t think it was very healthy for my son. 

In A Lonely Place (Directed by Nicholas Ray)
Q: While shooting ‘In A Lonely Place’ were you aware of Hollywood’s cynicism as strongly as the Humphrey Bogart character is?

NR: No, I don’t think it appears in the film. I tried to treat Hollywood the way I would a Pennsylvania cattle town. In Beaver, Pennysylvania, same things happen as in Hollywood. It’s just not as much in the lights as it is in Hollywood.

Q: The real intensity of ‘In A Lonely Place’ lies in the fact that there’s no way for that man and that woman to get a fresh start. Suspicion triumphs.

NR: Yes, we don’t really know anything about them. In the first draft of the screenplay that I had written with Bundy Solt the end was more clearly stated. He killed her and Frank Lovejoy arrested him. But I didn’t like that ending. So I kicked everyone off the set, except for the actors, and we improvised the ending. We don’t know exactly what it means. It’s the end of their love of course. But he could also drive off in his car and fall off a cliff, stop over in a bar to get drunk, or else go home or to his old mother. Anything is possible. It’s up to the imagination of the audience.

Q: Wim Wenders in ‘The American Friend’ seems to use the narration as an excuse to displace highly complex characters in beautiful and elaborate backgrounds. The story becomes almost superfluous.

NR: And obscure.

In A Lonely Place (Directed by Nicholas Ray)
Q: Is it important to break the narrative linear structure?

NR: It’s the way I’ve chosen for my autobiographical project. It’s not chronological but based on spontaneity. Because things that are of any interest to you, that you write about in the present form, you might as well have heard them half an hour ago on radio, or else when you were nine.

Q: Did you enjoy working on ‘The American Friend’?

NR: I loved it. I enjoy playing once in a while. It allows me to sum things up, to tell myself that my way of working is still the right one. On the first day I found myself doing what I always scream at my actors not to do. We broke it down and began writing my part while shooting. Wim is very patient, and I felt very good, which is not always the best thing for an actor, feeling at ease. Sometimes it’s good to scare them to death.

Q: While shooting ‘Johnny Guitar’ I read that you would bring flowers to Mercedes McCambridge but not to Joan Crawford, or vice versa, just to create a tension between them. Is that true?

NR: One night Joan Crawford got drunk and threw Mercedes McCambridge’s clothes on the highway. She was absolutely great at work, but sometimes anger won over her temperament. They were very different and Crawford hated McCambridge.

Rebel Without A Cause (Directed by Nicholas Ray)
Q: Your films come from a very precise cultural period, and yet they do have a profound influence on our times.

NR: Do you think so? You think my films influence the culture of our time?

Q: Yes.

NR: How is that?

Q: The media project a certain image.

NR: They are reflecting it.

Q: Both.

NR: That isn’t influence.

Q: Doesn’t it work both ways?

NR: The important thing is people.

Q: Aren’t you talking about conformity?

Rebel Without A Cause (Directed by Nicholas Ray)
NR: How far does conformity go? Only a small number of women have gone through the ‘Annie Hall’ syndrome. You see very few of them in cities of 50,000 people or less.

Q: But ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ has influenced the youth culture we were talking about.

NR: It got a lot of people excited over someone they rediscovered. After this resurrection we will need another 20 years to rediscover it in a cave.

Q: Nevertheless, does James Dean symbolize something out of the social order, a sort of rupture that we’re still fascinated by? The film shows the symbols that society has attached to itself.

NR: The real interesting character of the film is Plato played by Sal Mineo. People wanted to believe in a story. There’s no story. I just wanted to influence parents.

Q: To make them understand what they were doing to their kids?

NR: No, what they were doing to themselves. All the parents of that time had become a lost generation, and I always hear the same things about it, the same words. It’s all so dated.

Rebel Without A Cause (Directed by Nicholas Ray)
Q: In ‘Rebel without A Cause’ parents represent law and order.

NR: Yes, I characterized them very deliberately. I’m very prejudiced for young people. But it was hard to reach adults.

Q: Is it a political film?

NR: Yes, Abbie Hoffman said it. Fuck politics. Politics is living.

Q: But in ‘Rebel’ Jim and Judy seem to rebel against law and order, only to return to that law and order at the end... The film works within the space of that ellipse.

NR: That’s when earthquakes happen.

Q: What did James Dean bring to the film?

NR: He didn’t write the dialogue. Stewart Stern and myself did a lot of improvisations. Jimmy was immensely talented due to his open imagination.

Rebel Without A Cause (Directed by Nicholas Ray)
Q: Did he imitate you?

NR: Oh, he would copy my mannerisms, but I don’t think he ever imitated me because that’s an aspect of directing I hate. I never try to show an actor what to do or what to say. He has to find out for himself. The role of the director is to guide him to that state, and then to implement it. Otherwise, everyone is going to imitate the director, and no director however talented can play all the roles.

Q: While directing are you often confronted by actors’ weaknesses?

NR: Oh, yes, it’s a great cathartic experience for them, and they tend to be stronger, becoming aware of their own limitations.

Q: Werner Herzog in ‘Heart Of Glass’ hypnotized his actors, which tends to increase the hierarchy.

NR: To hypnotize an actor is to tell him when to wake up, to walk left, and go down the stairs. An actor must somehow contribute to the direction. One must be able to trust in his spontaneity, to set it in motion. We must help him get there.

Q: The character played by James Dean is sort of a synthesis of his own catharsis, and your concept of what a character should be.

NR: Yes, of my own will to accept or dismiss the character.

– Article also available at: http://nicholasrayfoundation.org

   

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Wim Wenders: Impossible Stories

The American Friend (Directed by Wim Wenders)
German filmmaker Wim Wenders came to prominence in the 1970s with his acclaimed trilogy of road movies, Alice in the Cities (1974), The Wrong Move (1975), Kings of the Road (1976), and his adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game as The American Friend (1977). After the documentary Lightning Over Water (1980) about the final days of director Nicholas Ray, Wenders embarked on Hammett (1982), a fictional account of the life of writer Dashiell Hammet, for producer Frances Ford Coppola. Friction with Coppola led to a break in the production in order for the script to be rewritten. In the interval Wenders returned to Europe to film The State of Things (1982) about a film crew stranded in a seaside hotel waiting for the missing producer to come up with the finance in order for the film to be completed.

The following talk from 1982 by Wenders was given at a summer film colloquium in Livorno on narrative technique. It documents his loss of faith in film images and his subsequent resolve to find a new, more viable relation between images and narrative. 

Where French and German each have a single word for it, English has only a two-part phrase: to ‘tell stories’. That hints at my difficulty: the man you’ve invited to talk to you about telling stories is a man who over the years has had nothing but problems with stories.

Let me go back to the very beginning. Once I was a painter. What interested me was space; I painted cityscapes and landscapes. I became a film-maker when I realized that I wasn’t getting anywhere as a painter. Painting lacked something, as did my individual paintings. It would have been too easy to say that they lacked life; I thought that what was missing was an understanding of time. So when I began filming, I thought of myself as a painter of space engaged on a quest for time. It never occurred to me that this search should be called ‘storytelling’. I must have been very naive. I thought filming was simple. I thought you only had to see something to be able to depict it, and I also thought a storyteller (and of course I wasn’t one) had to listen first and speak afterwards. Making a film to me meant connecting all these things. That was a misconception, but before I straighten it out, there is something else I must talk about.

Alice in the Cities (Directed by Wim Wenders)
My stories all begin from pictures. When I started making my first film, I wanted to make ‘landscape portraits’. My very first film, Silver City, contained ten shots of three minutes each; that was the length of a reel of 16 mm film. Each shot was of a cityscape. I didn’t move the camera; nothing happened. The shots were like the paintings and watercolours I’d done previously, only in a different medium. However, there was one shot that was different: it was of an empty landscape with railway tracks; the camera was placed very close to these. I knew the train schedule. I began filming two minutes before one was due, and everything seemed to be exactly as it had been in all the other shots: a deserted scene. Except that two minutes later someone ran into shot from the right, jumped over the tracks just a couple of yards in front of the camera, and ran out of the left edge of the frame. The moment he disappeared, even more surprisingly, the train thundered into the picture, also from the right. (It couldn’t be heard approaching, because there was no sync. sound, only music.) This tiny ‘action’ – man crosses tracks ahead of train – signals the beginning of a ‘story’. What is wrong with the man? Is he being followed? Does he want to kill himself? Why is he in such a hurry? Etc., etc. I think it was from that moment that I became a storyteller. And from that moment all my difficulties began too, because it was the first time that something had happened in a scene I had set up.

Alice in the Cities (Directed by Wim Wenders)
After that, the problems came thick and fast. When I was cutting together the ten shots, I realized that after the shot where the man crosses the tracks hell for leather there would be the expectation that every subsequent shot would contain some action. So for the first time I had to consider the order of the shots, some kind of dramaturgy. My original idea, simply to run a series of fixed-frame shots, one after another, ‘unconnected’ and in no special order, became impossible. The assembling of scenes and their arrangement in an order was, it seemed already, a first step towards narrative. People would see entirely fanciful connections between scenes and interpret them as having narrative intentions. But that wasn’t what I wanted. I was only combining time and space; but from that moment on, I was pressed into telling stories. From then on and until the present moment, I have felt an opposition between images and stories. A mutual incompatibility, a mutual undermining. I have always been more interested in pictures, and the fact that – as soon as you assemble them – they seem to want to tell a story, is still a problem for me today.

My stories start with places, cities, landscapes and roads. A map is like a screenplay to me. When I look at a road, for example, I begin to ask myself what kind of thing might happen on it; similarly with a building, like my own hotel room here in Livorno: I look out of the window, it’s raining hard and a car stops in front of the hotel. A man gets out of it and looks around. Then he starts walking down the road, without an umbrella, in spite of the rain. My head starts working on a story right away, because I want to know where he’s going, what kind of street he might be turning into.

The Wrong Move (Directed by Wim Wenders)
For a writer, a story seems to be the logical end-product: words want to form sentences, and the sentences want to stand in some continuous discourse; a writer doesn’t have to force the words into a sentence or the sentences into a story. There seems to be a kind of inevitability in the way stories come to be told. In films – or at least in my films, because of course there are other ways of going about it – in films the images don’t necessarily lead to anything else; they stand on their own. I think a picture stands on its own more readily, whereas a word tends to seek the context of a story. For me, images don’t automatically lend themselves to be part of a story. If they’re to function in the way that words and sentences do, they have to be ‘forced’ – that is, I have to manipulate them.

My thesis is that for me as a film-maker, narrative involves forcing the images in some way. Sometimes this manipulation becomes narrative art, but not necessarily. Often enough, the result is only abused pictures.

I dislike the manipulation that’s necessary to press all the images of a film into one story; it’s very harmful for the images because it tends to drain them of their ‘life’. In the relationship between story and image, I see the story as a kind of vampire, trying to suck all the blood from an image. Images are acutely sensitive; like snails they shrink back when you touch their horns. They don’t have it in them to be carthorses: carrying and transporting messages or significance or intention or a moral. But that’s precisely what a story wants from them.

Kings of the Road (Directed by Wim Wenders)
So far everything seems to have spoken out against story, as though it were the enemy. But of course stories are very exciting; they are powerful and important for mankind. They give people what they want, on a very profound level – more than merely amusement or entertainment or suspense. People’s primary requirement is that some kind of coherence be provided. Stories give people the feeling that there is meaning, that there is ultimately an order lurking behind the incredible confusion of appearances and phenomena that surrounds them. This order is what people require more than anything else; yes, I would almost say that the notion of order or story is connected with the godhead. Stories are substitutes for God. Or maybe the other way round.

For myself – and hence my problems with story – I incline to believe in chaos, in the inexplicable complexity of the events around me. Basically, I think that individual situations are unrelated to each other, and my experience seems to consist entirely of individual situations; I’ve never yet been involved in a story with a beginning, middle and end. For someone who tells stories this is positively sinful, but I must confess that I have yet to experience a story. I think stories are actually lies. But they are incredibly important to our survival. Their artificial structure helps us to overcome our worst fears: that there is no God; that we are nothing but tiny fluctuating particles with perception and consciousness, but lost in a universe that remains altogether beyond our conception. By producing coherence, stories make life bearable and combat fears. That’s why children like to hear stories at bedtime. That’s why the Bible is one long storybook, and why stories should always end happily.

Of course the stories in my films also work as a means of ordering the images. Without stories, the images that interest me would threaten to lose themselves and seem purely arbitrary.

Kings of the Road (Directed by Wim Wenders)
Of course the stories in my films also work as a means of ordering the images. Without stories, the images that interest me would threaten to lose themselves and seem purely arbitrary.

For this reason, film-stories are like routes. A map is the most exciting thing in the world for me; when I see a map, I immediately feel restless, especially when it’s of a country or city where I’ve never been. I look at all the names and I want to know the things they refer to, the cities of a country, the streets of a city. When I look at a map, it turns into an allegory for the whole of life. The only thing that makes it bearable is to try to mark out a route, and follow it through the city or country. Stories do just that: they become your roads in a strange land, where but for them, you might go to thousands of places without ever arriving anywhere.

What are the stories that are told in my films? There are two sorts; I draw a sharp distinction between them, because they exist in two completely separate systems or traditions. Furthermore, there is a continual alternation between the two categories of film, with a single exception, The Scarlet Letter, and that was a mistake.

The American Friend (Directed by Wim Wenders)
In the first group (A) all the films are in black and white, except for Nick’s Film (Lightning Over Water), which belongs to neither tradition. (I’m not even sure that it counts as a film at all, so let’s leave that one out.) In the other group (B) all the films are in colour, and they are all based on published novels. The films in group A, on the other hand, are based without exception on ideas of mine – the word ‘idea’ is used loosely to refer to dreams, daydreams and experiences of all kinds. All the A-films were more or less unscripted, whereas the others followed scripts very closely. The A-films are loosely structured, whereas the B-films are all tightly structured. The A-films were all shot in chronological sequence, beginning from an initial situation that was often the only known point in them; the B-films were shot in the traditional hopping-around way, and with an eye to the exigencies of a production team. With group A films, I never knew how they would finish; I knew the endings of B-films before I started.

Basically all the group A films operate in a very open system, the B-films in a very closed one. Both represent not only systems but also attitudes: openness on the one hand, discipline on the other. The themes of the A-films were identified only during shooting. The themes of the B-films were known; it was just a matter of deciding which bits should go in. The A-films were made from the inside, working out; the B-films the opposite. For the A-films a story had to be found; for the B-films the story had to be lost sight of.

The fact that – with the exception of the already-mentioned mistake – there has been a constant pendulum swing between A- and B-films shows that each film is a reaction to its predecessor, which is exactly my dilemma.

The American Friend (Directed by Wim Wenders)
I made each of my A-films because the film before had had too many rules, hadn’t been sufficiently spontaneous, and I’d got bored with the characters; also I felt that I had to ‘expose’ myself and the crew and the actors to a new situation. With the B-films it was exactly the other way round: I made them because I was unhappy that the film before had been so ‘subjective’, and because I needed to work within a firm structure, using the framework of a story. Actors in the B-films played parts ‘other’ than themselves, represented fictional characters; in the A-films they interpreted and depicted themselves, they were themselves. In these films I saw my task as bringing in as much as possible of what (already) existed. For the B-films, things had to be invented. It became ever clearer that one group could be called ‘subjective’ and the other ‘search for objectivity’. Though, of course, it wasn’t quite so simple.

In what follows I will talk about how the A-films began, and the role that story played in them. My first film was called Summer in the City; it’s about a man who’s spent a couple of years in prison. The first frame shows him emerging from prison and suddenly confronting life again. He tries to see his old friends and get into his old relationships, but he quickly realizes that nothing can be the way it was before. In the end he takes off and emigrates to America. The second film in the A-group, Alice in the Cities, is about a man who’s supposed to be writing a feature about America. He can’t do it, and the film begins with his decision to return to Europe. He happens to meet a little girl, Alice, and her mother, and promises to take her back to her grandmother in Europe. Only he doesn’t know where she lives; all he has is a photograph of the house. The remainder of the film is taken up by the search for the house.

The State of Things (Directed by Wim Wenders)
A man tries to kill himself – that’s how Kings of the Road starts. By chance, there’s another man watching, so he gives up his kamikaze behaviour. The other man is a truck-driver. They decide to travel together – pure chance, again. The film is about their journey and whether the two have anything to say to each other or not.

The last of the A-films, The State of Things, is about a film crew who have to stop working because the money’s run out and the producer’s vanished. The crew don’t know whether they’ll be able to finish the shoot or not. The film is about a group of people who’ve lost their way, particularly the director, who in the end goes to Hollywood to look for the producer.

All these films are about people who encounter unfamiliar situations on the road; all of them are to do with seeing and perception, about people who suddenly have to take a different view of things. To be as specific about this as I can, I’d like to go back to Kings of the Road. How did that come about? One answer would be: because I’d just finished The Wrong Move – it was a reaction to that previous work. I felt that I had to devise a story in which I could investigate myself and my country – Germany (the subject of my previous film too, though treated in a different way). This time it was to be a trip to an unknown country, to an unknown country in myself, and in the middle of Germany. I knew what I wanted but I didn’t know how to begin. Then everything was set off by an image.

I was overtaking a truck on the Autobahn; it was very hot and it was an old lorry without air-conditioning. There were two men in the cab, and the driver had opened the door and was dangling his leg out in order to cool off. This image, seen from the corner of my eye when driving past, impressed me. I happened to stop at a motorway cafe where the lorry also stopped. I went up to the bar where the two men from the lorry were standing. Not a word passed between them; it was as though they had absolutely nothing in common. You got the impression they were strangers. I asked myself what do these two men see, how do they see, as they drive across Germany?

The State of Things (Directed by Wim Wenders)
At that time I was doing quite a lot of travelling around Germany with my previous film, The Wrong Move. During my travels I became aware of the situation of the rural cinema. The halls, the projection booths and the projectionists all fascinated me. Then I looked at a map of Germany and I realized there was one route down through it that I barely knew. It ran along the border between the GDR and the FRG; not only down the middle of Germany, but also along the very edge. And I suddenly realized that I had everything I needed for my new film: a route and the story of two men who don’t know each other. I was interested to see what might happen to them, and between them. One of them would have a job that was something to do with the cinema, and I knew where the cinemas were to be found: along the border.

Of course that’s not enough to make a story. All the films in the A-group started off with a few situations that I hoped might develop into a story. To assist that development, I followed the method of ‘day-dreaming’. Story always assumes control, it knows its course, it knows what matters, it knows where it begins and ends. Daydream is quite different; it doesn’t have that ‘dramaturgical’ control. What it has is a kind of subconscious guide who wants to get on, no matter where; every dream is going somewhere, but who can say where that is? Something in the subconscious knows, but you can only discover it if you let it take its course, and that’s what I attempted in all these films. The English word ‘drifting’ expresses it very well. Not the shortest line between two points, but a zigzag. Perhaps a better word would be ‘meander’, because that has the idea of distance in it as well.

A journey is an adventure in space and time. Adventure, space and time – all three are involved. Stories and journeys have them in common. A journey is always accompanied by curiosity about the unknown; it creates expectations and intensity of perception: you see things on the road that you never would at home. To get back to Kings of the Road: after ten weeks’ filming we were still only halfway through, though I’d aimed to finish the film in that time. There was no money to go on filming, and we were still a long way short of an ending. The problem was: how should the journey end? Or: how might it be converted into a story? At first I thought of an accident. If it had been shot in America, it would certainly have finished with an accident. But thank God we weren’t in America; we were free to do otherwise and get to the ‘truth of our story’. So we broke off the filming and I tried to raise money for another five weeks’ shooting. Of course a film of that type can be literally never ending, and that’s a danger. The solution, finally, turned out to be that the men would have to realize they couldn’t go on like that; a break had to come and they would have to change their lives.

The State of Things (Directed by Wim Wenders)
But before that I had another idea, another ‘bend’ in the meander: the two protagonists look for their parents. I thought that might lead them to break off their relationship. So we filmed a long story about the first of them, how he visits his father, and then another long story about the second returning to the place where he grew up with his mother. Unfortunately, though, that only improved their relationship and left us even further from an ending than we were before. Suddenly, and for the first time, the two were able to speak to each other. We broke off the filming a second time. I thought the film might end with them both questioning what they had done before their relationship, and reconsidering their aims in life. The one travelling from cinema to cinema wonders whether there was any sense in keeping these places going, and the other goes back to his work as a paediatrician and speech therapist. In the end, that was how we shot it.

The State of Things is also about stories. Of course the director figure represents my own dilemma, to a certain extent; at one stage he actually says: ‘Life and stories are mutually incompatible.’ That’s his theory as a director. Later on, though, when he goes back to Hollywood, he himself becomes embroiled in a story, in one of those stories he never believed in, and in the end it kills him. Paradoxical, of course. And that’s really the only thing I have to say about stories: they are one huge, impossible paradox! I totally reject stories, because for me they only bring out lies, nothing but lies, and the biggest lie is that they show coherence where there is none. Then again, our need for these lies is so consuming that it’s completely pointless to fight them and to put together a sequence of images without a story – without the lie of a story. Stories are impossible, but it’s impossible to live without them.

That’s the mess I’m in. 

– Wim Wenders: Impossible stories. Talk given at a colloquium on narrative technique, 1982. In Wim Wenders: The Logic of Images: Essays and Conversations (Faber and Faber, 1992)


   

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Leigh Brackett: Watching the Detectives

The Big Sleep (Directed by Howard Hawks)
Screenwriter Leigh Brackett is known primarily for her scripts for Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946), Rio Bravo (1959), Hatari! (1962), El Dorado (1967), and Rio Lobo (1970). A successful science-fiction writer she also contributed the first draft of George Lucas’s The Empire Strikes Back (1980) widely regarded as the best of the Star Wars films. Starting out on ‘B’ movies her first major screenwriting assignment was for Howard Hawks’ 1946 version of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Hawks had read Brackett’s pulp crime novel No Good From A Corpse and hired her to work with William Faulkner on the script for his adaptation of Chandler’s convoluted private-eye story. Brackett went on to work on several more projects for Hawks, as well as for other directors. In the 1973 version of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, Leigh Brackett updated the quintessential 1940s private-eye novel for director Robert Altman’s film. In the following extract from an interview with Steve Swires she discusses working on both Chandler adaptations and how the intervening years had changed the conception of Philip Marlowe as the detective-hero.

Your first screenplays were for ‘The Vampire’s Ghost’ [1945], a ‘ten-day wonder’ at Republic, and ‘Crime Doctor’s Manhunt’ [1946], part of the ‘Crime Doctor’ series at Columbia. You went from those ‘B’ movies to ‘The Big Sleep’, directed by Howard Hawks, in 1946. How did you manage so prestigious an advancement?
The ‘ten-day wonder’ was because my agent, Hugh King, had been with Myron Selznick, my agency at that time, and he had gone over to Republic as story editor and had sort of managed to shoehorn me in because they were doing this horror film. They decided to cash in on the Universal monster school, and I had been doing science fiction, and to them it all looked the same – ‘bug-eyed monsters.’ It made no difference. I did The Vampire’s Ghost there, and just out of the clear blue sky this other thing happened, purely on the strength of a hard-boiled mystery novel I had published. Howard Hawks read the book and liked it. He didn’t buy the book, for which I can’t blame him, but he liked the dialogue and I was put under contract to him.

The Big Sleep (Directed by Howard Hawks)
You worked on the screenplay of ‘The Big Sleep’ with William Faulkner. I wouldn’t say that you collaborated, but both of your names are in the credits as having written the script, along with Jules Furthman.
I went to the studio the first day absolutely appalled. I had been writing pulp stories for about three years, and here is William Faulkner, who was one of the great literary lights of the day, and how am I going to work with him? What have I got to offer, as it were? This was quickly resolved, because when I walked into the office, Faulkner came out of his office with the book The Big Sleep and he put it down and said: ‘I have worked out what we’re going to do. We will do alternate sections. I will do these chapters and you will do those chapters.’ And that was the way it was done. He went back into his office and I didn’t see him again, so the collaboration was quite simple. I never saw what he did and he never saw what I did. We just turned our stuff in to Hawks.
Jules Furthman came into it considerably later, because Hawks had a great habit of shooting off the cuff. He had a fairly long script to begin with and he had no final script. He went into production with a ‘temporary.’ He liked to get a scene going and let it run. He eventually wound up with far too much story left than he had time to do on film. Jules came in and I think he was on it for about three weeks, and he rewrote it, shortening the latter part of the script.
The Big Sleep (Directed by Howard Hawks)
If you try to watch the film as a standard mystery, fitting all of the clues together to logically develop a hypothesis as to who the murderer might be, you find yourself continually frustrated by the narrative development .
I think everybody got very confused. It’s a confusing book if you sit down and tear it apart. When you read it from page to page, it moves so beautifully that you don’t care, but if you start tearing it apart to see what makes it tick, it comes unglued. Owen Taylor, I believe, was the name of the chauffeur. I was down on the set one day and Bogart came up and said, ‘Who killed Owen Taylor?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ We got hold of Faulkner and he said he didn’t know, so they sent a wire to Chandler. He sent another wire back and said: ‘I don’t know.’ In the book it is never explained who killed Owen Taylor, so there we were.

In writing your portion of the screenplay, did you have any concept in mind of the role of the private eye as an archetypal hero?
I don’t think I dissected it that much. I was very much under the spell of Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and I have written a few stories myself in that same vein. Something struck me. I liked it and I felt it, but I don’t think I really analyzed it as I might do now, but I was a lot younger then. I just sort of accepted it.
The Big Sleep (Directed by Howard Hawks)
Are there contributions you made to the characterization of Philip Marlowe which are distinct from Hawks’?
I don’t know that I contributed too much to Marlowe, because I was taking directly from the book. This was the bible, and I wouldn’t dream of changing it. I think that the characterization of Marlowe as done by Bogart and directed by Hawks was entirely their own. On the other hand, I think Bogart was ideal and, as far as I was concerned, he was the greatest actor that ever happened. I adored him. Actually, it was a joy to watch him on the set because he was stage trained. On a Hawks film nobody gets their pages until five minutes before they’re going to shoot. Bogart would put on his horn-rims, go off in a corner, look at it, and then he’d come back on the set and they’d run through it a couple of times, and he’d have it right down, every bit of timing, and he’d go through about fourteen takes waiting for the other people to catch up to him.
I don’t like to say this, because it sounds presumptuous, but Hawks and I kind of tuned in on the same channel with regard to the characters, and I think this is probably one reason that I worked with him so long. He was able to get out of me what he wanted because I had somewhat the same attitude towards the characters as he did.
The Big Sleep (Directed by Howard Hawks)
There is a revisionist effort popular with such critics as Pauline Kael and Richard Corliss to consider the work of the screenwriter in contrast to the auteur theory, which postulates the director as the author of the film. When you look back on the movies that you wrote for Hawks, do you see them as Leigh Brackett films or Howard Hawks films or as collaborations?
It’s a collaboration. The whole thing is a team effort. A writer cannot possibly, when he’s writing a film, do exactly what he wants to do as when he’s writing a novel. If I sit down to write a novel, I am God at my own typewriter, and there’s nobody in between. But if I’m doing a screenplay, it has to be a compromise because there are so many things outside a writer’s province. Hawks was also a producer, and he had so many things to think about that had nothing to do with the creative effort – with the story – like cost and budget and technical details that you must learn to integrate. You cannot possibly just go and say: ‘Well, I want to do it thus and such and so, because presently they say: ‘Thanks very much and goodbye.’ It just has to be that way.
You came out of the tradition of the pulp magazines, where you were allowed a degree of creative control. How did you react to having less control over your work in Hollywood?
I sort of went off into corners and wept a few times at things that made me very unhappy. I think the hardest thing about adapting to working with other people was that. Because I was a fiction writer primarily, and I was used to writing in a little room with the door shut, just myself and the typewriter – all of a sudden I’m sitting in this room with film people and I’ve got to talk ideas. God I froze. Everything I was about to say sounded so dreadful. It took me quite a few years to adapt and also to learn my craft, because I don’t think there’s anything better than screenwriting to teach you the construction of a story.

The Big Sleep (Directed by Howard Hawks)
I was very poor on construction when I first began. If I could hit it right from the first word and go straight through, then it was great. If I didn’t, I ended up with half-finished stories in which I had written myself into a box canyon and couldn’t fight my way out. In film writing you get on overall conception of a story and then you go through these endless story conferences. Hawks used to walk in and he’d say: ‘I’ve been thinking . . .’ My heart would go right down into my boots. Here we go: Start at the top of page one and go right through it again. But you still have to keep that concept. It’s like building a wall. You’ve got the blocks, and you’ve got the wall all planned, and then somebody says: ‘I think we’ll take this stone out of here and we’ll put it over there. And we’ll make this one a red one and that one a green one.’ You’re still trying to keep the overall shape of the story, but you’re changing the details. It took me a long time, but I finally learned how to do it. It was exhausting.
One of the observations gleaned from an auteur-oriented examination of Hawk’s films is that certain sequences keep repeating themselves, being remade in different settings with different actors. For example, the scene in ‘The Big Sleep’ where the gangster is in the house with Bogart and Bacall while his henchmen are waiting outside. Bogart throws him out and Hawks cuts to a shot of the door being riddled with bullets. That scene is reshot in ‘El Dorado’ where John Wayne throws a cowboy out of a saloon and Hawks again cuts to a shot of the door being riddled with bullets from the henchmen waiting outside. Your wrote the screenplay for ‘El Dorado’. Did you do that deliberately, or was that Hawks?
That was Hawks. I have been at swords’ points with him many a time because I don’t like doing a thing over again, and he does. I remember one day he and John Wayne and I were sitting in the office, and he said we’ll do such and such a thing. I said: ‘But Howard, you did it in Rio Bravo. You don’t want to do this over again.’ He said: ‘Why not?’ And John Wayne, all six feet four of him, looked down and said: ‘If it was good once it’ll be just as good again.’ I know when I’m outgunned, so I did it. But I just don’t like repeating myself. However, I’m wrong about half the time…

The Long Goodbye (Directed by Robert Altman)
From what you’ve said, it sounds as though it was a very lively atmosphere around the sets of the Hawks films, with his spontaneously creative working habits. It must have prepared you, then, for Robert Altman, who I understand also likes not to inform the cast as to what they’ll be shooting the next day. In fact, many times he doesn’t bother to worry about it himself. How were you brought into the project of writing the screenplay for ‘The Long Goodbye’?
Elliott Kastner, who was the executive producer, used to be my agent at MCA a long time ago and we’re good friends. He remembered The Big Sleep and he wanted me to work on The Long Goodbye . He set the deal with United Artists, and they had a commitment for a film with Elliott Gould, so either you take Elliott Gould or you don’t make the film. Elliott Gould was not exactly my idea of Philip Marlowe, but anyway there we were. Also, as far as the story was concerned, time had gone by – it was twenty-odd years since the novel was written, and the private eye had become a cliché. It had become funny. You had to watch out what you were doing. If you had Humphrey Bogart at the same age that he was when he did The Big Sleep, he wouldn’t do it the same way. Also, we were faced with a technical problem of this enormous book, which was the longest one Chandler ever wrote. It’s tremendously involuted and convoluted. If you did it the way he wrote it, you would have a five-hour film.

I worked with another director who was on it before, Brian G. Hutton. He had a brilliant idea which just didn’t work, and we wrote ourselves into a blind alley on that. It was a technical problem of plotting – the heavy had planned this whole thing from the start. So what you had was a prearranged thing where everybody sort of got up out of several boxes and did and said exactly what they had to do and say in order to get you where you had to be. It was very contrived and didn’t work. Brian had to leave because he had another commitment, so when Altman came onto it I went over to London for a week. He was cutting Images [1972], which was a magnificent film – beautiful, powerful. We conferred about ten o’clock in the morning and yakked all day, and I went back to the hotel and typed all the notes and went back the next day. In a week we had it all worked out. He was a joy to work with. He had a very keen story mind.
The Long Goodbye (Directed by Robert Altman)
Mark Rydell played the character Marty Augustine in ‘The Long Goodbye’. He is an old friend of Altman’s, so I imagine they were able to work together more easily. Rydell claimed that he knew intuitively what Altman’ s conception of the movie was, which many critics, as well as many members of the audience, missed – the satirization of the genre of the private-eye film, by placing the conventions of the forties in direct conflict with the realities of the seventies. Were you aware of Altman’s intentions during your story conferences?
Actually, I was more aware of the construction of the thing, which is more my department. What he does with it after he gets the script is something else again. I don’t think I was quite as aware of the satire as I became later.

Jay Cocks of ‘Time’ magazine accused Altman of mocking ‘an achievement to which at his best he could only aspire,’ because he tried to demythologize Philip Marlowe. I imagine a lot of critics who are in their forties and fifties now grew up with the myth of Bogart as Marlowe, and hated to see the end of the film in which Marlowe murders Terry Lennox with no remorse. In fact, after he commits the murder, he dances down the road whistling ‘Hooray for Hollywood!’ You are responsible, to some degree, for helping to create and propagate that original myth with ‘The Big Sleep’. Then you turned around and helped to sabotage it in ‘The Long Goodbye’. Do you consider that a betrayal of your earlier values?

The Long Goodbye (Directed by Robert Altman)
No. Actually the ending, where Marlowe commits the murder, was in the script before Altman came onto it. The ending of the book was totally inconclusive. You had built up a villain. You feel that Marlowe has been wounded in his most sensitive heart, as it were – he’s trusted this man as his friend; the friend has betrayed him. What do you do? We said let’s just face up to it. He kills him.
In the time that we made The Big Sleep you couldn’t do that because of censorship, had you wanted to do it. We stuck very closely to Chandler’s own estimate of Marlowe as a loser, so we made him a real loser – he loses everything. Here is the totally honest man in a dishonest world, and it suddenly rears up and kicks him in the face, and he says: ‘The hell with you.’ Bang! I don’t know whether we were right to do it, but I don’t regret having done it. It felt right at the time. This was the way it turned out.

What do you think of the conceptions and characterizations of Marlowe as portrayed in the other film versions of Chandler’s novels?
I thought Murder My Sweet [1944] was a beautiful film. The others all had points of excellence and also points where they didn’t quite come across. The experimental business of ‘I am a camera’ in Lady in the Lake [1946] didn’t work too well.
It has been said that Philip Marlowe was sort of the son of Sam Spade. As Chandler said: ‘Down these mean streets must go a man who is not himself mean.’ In other words, here is the knight in shining armor with a shabby trench coat and snap-brim felt hat. I think he is a universal folk hero who does not change down through the ages except in the detail of his accoutrements. He’s not carrying a sword but a .32 automatic. The essential is that here is a man who is pure in heart, who is decent and honorable and cannot be bought – he is incorruptible. I think the concept was damn good, a very moral concept.

The Long Goodbye (Directed by Robert Altman)
What did you think of Gould’s performance, miscast as he was?
I thought he did a beautiful job. However, the thing about Elliott is that he isn’t tough. His face is gentle, his eyes are kind, and he doesn’t have that touch of cruelty that you associate with these characters.
With all of the disappointments that you’ve suffered – having your scripts revised without your approval to produce inferior versions of previous pictures – will you continue to write screenplays? Is there anything on the horizon that we can look forward to?
There’s nothing definite at the moment. I have an original Western screenplay out and around, and I’m hopeful. It’s a comedy. There are a number of things on the fire with television. As you know, the whole picture has changed out there very greatly in recent years. You grab what you can get. I wrote a script for The Rockford Files that was telecast last season.
But I greatly enjoy the work. It’s a challenge. It’s more technical than creative. What you have to be is a very good journeyman plumber and put the parts together. And then, if you can still inject a little bit of something worthwhile, you’ve done as much as can be expected.
– Extract from Leigh Brackett: Journeyman Plumber. Interview by Steve Swires in Backstory 2. Ed. Pat McGilligan.