Thursday, 12 November 2015

Paul Thomas Anderson: Blood and Oil

There Will Be Blood (Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson) 
Paul Thomas Anderson famously dropped out of NYU film school after just a couple of days, intent on beginning a career making movies. At 26, the writer-director released his debut feature, 1996’s Hard Eight, which featured several actors that would become part of his troupe, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, and Philip Baker Hall. Anderson’s real breakthrough, though, came via 1997’s Boogie Nights, an ensemble piece set in the porn industry. His even more sprawling Magnolia – another melancholy love letter to southern California – earned Oscar nominations and high praise; he followed that with the unsentimental romantic comedy Punch Drunk Love, starring Adam Sandler. Then Anderson seemed to disappear.

It turned out he was working on his magnum opus – There Will Be Blood. The film, loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, stars Daniel Day Lewis in a remarkable performance as a single-minded 19th-century oil prospector. A departure from Anderson’s other films, Blood ditches modern-day L.A. and his regular group of actors and focuses largely on one character – Day Lewis is in nearly every scene of the 158-minute film – and the effect of his dark drive on those around him, particularly a young preacher played by Paul Dano. One of 2007’s best films, it renders this seemingly small story huge and powerful. After the film’s release Anderson spoke to The A.V. Club about Day Lewis, the melancholy of finishing work, and ‘message movies’.

The A.V. Club: How did you first encounter Upton Sinclair’s book?

Paul Thomas Anderson: I was in London, in Covent Garden, and it’s impossible to miss. The title is in this enormous red lettering with an exclamation mark. Oil! That was the first I ever saw it, or heard of it. I had never read Upton Sinclair. I didn’t read The Jungle in high school or anything like that. But it’s pretty terrific writing.

AVC: What’s your process of adapting like? Had you ever tried to adapt something before? All of your produced screenplays have been originals.

PTA: It felt like the first thing, but when I first started out, I got a job adapting a book by Russell Banks called Rule Of The Bone. I didn’t do a very good job. I didn’t really know what I was doing in general, let alone how to adapt a book. I really was confused by that, because I loved the book. I remember being taught in school that you would underline things that you liked. I remember just underlining everything as a kid, thinking, ‘This has all gotta be important!’ I would just underline the whole thing! [Laughs.] I remember my dad saying, ‘I don’t think you understand. Just underline key ideas.’ Anyway, I think that’s what I did on that Russell Banks book. I felt like my job was to somehow transcribe it, which in that case, really wasn’t the right thing to do.

So with There Will Be Blood, I didn’t even really feel like I was adapting a book. I was just desperate to find stuff to write. I can remember the way that my desk looked, with so many different scraps of paper and books about the oil industry in the early 20th century, mixed in with pieces of other scripts that I’d written. Everything was coming from so many different sources. But the book was a great stepping-stone. It was so cohesive, the way Upton Sinclair wrote about that period, and his experiences around the oil fields and these independent oilmen. That said, the book is so long that it’s only the first couple hundred pages that we ended up using, because there is a certain point where he strays really far from what the original story is. We were really unfaithful to the book. [Laughs.] That’s not to say I didn’t really like the book; I loved it. But there were so many other things floating around. And at a certain point, I became aware of the stuff he was basing it on. What he was writing about was the life of [oil barons] Edward Doheny and Harry Sinclair. So it was like having a really good collaborator, the book.

AVC: When you finish a film, are you generally pretty confident in it? At what point in the process do you know that it’s good, or great, or the opposite? Do you need to see it with an audience?

PTA: It’s back and forth all the way along. You definitely have moments of confidence, where you feel like, ‘We got something great today!’ And you go home at night, completely unable to sleep, mad with enthusiasm and confidence. A couple of days later, you’re lost again and struggling to make sense out of something. But that’s okay. I actually enjoyed the struggles that we had trying to shape Blood, to get the pacing right, the rhythm of it. I showed it to family and friends, and we kind of knew the parts that we didn’t like, or that we wanted to work on. Speaking for me and Dylan [Tichenor, editor], we knew the parts that we wanted to work out, that we weren’t happy with. But there’s a certain point where you’re desperate to show it to somebody, and you put it in front of friends and family, and, lo and behold, the thing that you suspected wasn’t working certainly was not working. And then you get that thing that opens your eyes to the bits and pieces you thought were flying that really weren’t as great as you thought. Face to face with having to show it to your friends, you find yourself becoming a little less confident. It’s that battle, a never-ending thing. Then when you do get to the end – I know when we got to the end of this film – we were really happy. I really felt like we did what we wanted to do, that we’d worked it hard enough that we could be proud of it. But that said, nothing prepares you for that melancholy when you’ve finished it. It’s always a little bit depressing.

AVC: It’s strikingly dissimilar to the rest of your movies; did you feel, when you were making it, that you were outside your comfort zone?

PTA: The struggles are the struggles no matter what. It definitely felt good to be outside of the comfort zone. I remember feeling like, ‘I should really try to enjoy this, because it will be over so fast.’ And it was. We had such a good time making the film, and I remember jumping ahead to the end, saying ‘In three months, it’s going to be over.’ Quite honestly, I wish we were still making the movie. It’s been really hard to let go of.

AVC: And yet it’s easily the darkest thing you’ve ever done.

PTA: Definitely. But I like that. That’s a good thing – it feels right. [Laughs.]

AVC: You’ve described it as a horror movie. Do you still feel that way?

PTA: I do feel that way, in the way of, ‘What’s the best way to look at this story?’ You’re always coming up with bullshit ways to describe it, that for whatever reason can help communicate to everyone, like, ‘We’ve got to think of this movie as a boxing match between these two guys, and attack it like a horror story.’ Those are just ways to describe whatever the marching orders might be. They come in handy, those kinds of descriptions.

AVC: It’s a bit surprising at how many laughs Daniel Day Lewis gets in uncomfortable spots, especially at the end.

PTA: It’s great, isn’t it? [Laughs.]

AVC: Is that how you felt when watching it with an audience? Were you expecting people to laugh?

PTA: I wasn’t expecting it, but I was hoping for it! We used to laugh so much, but there is this completely nerve-wracking feeling, like, ‘Fuck, I hope they laugh.’

AVC: How much, if any, of Lewis’ character’s misanthropy do you share? I just read this ‘New Yorker’ review that described you as ‘pessimistic, even apocalyptic,’ which seems incredibly off the mark.
PTA: Yeah. Fuck, I’ll take it. Sure. Yeah. [Laughs.]

AVC: But do you have that in you?

PTA: Absolutely, absolutely. We all do, don’t we? I know that I do. It would be insane to say that I don’t, that we all haven’t had murderous thoughts. But we’re socialized. We don’t really do those things that we think about doing.

AVC: Do you have any of the character’s ‘competition’ in you?

PTA: From time to time, certainly yes, of course. But mostly, no. As I get older, I have less and less of it in me.

AVC: You wrote the part for Daniel Day Lewis. Had you met him before?

PTA: I hadn't, no.

AVC: So was sending him a half-finished script a shot in the dark?

PTA: More or less, but we had a mutual friend who had let me know how Daniel felt about Punch Drunk Love, which was that he was incredibly complimentary. So I was armed with that to give me a boost of confidence. Without that, I don't know what I would have done. I mean, yes, I would have made that leap and risked failure. But it was really nice to have that kind of encouragement to think, ‘Well, he liked that.’

AVC: You’ve said that you spent a lot of time preparing, the two of you. What was the process like, working out what his character would be like, and how you were going to tell the story?

PTA: Well, we spent a couple of months together in New York. I just remember a lot of eating breakfast and a lot of walking around, more or less getting to know each other and not talking that much about the movie – just this flirtation, like dogs sniffing each other out, to get to know somebody that you’re gonna get married to. We decided that we would make the film together, or more to the point, he decided that he would make the film with me. [Laughs.] Then we went in separate directions; I was back in California and he was in Ireland. That was a really good time, because we were separately doing our work. I was still working on the script, and he was doing whatever he was doing. We never really asked each other what we were up to that much. As far as I’m concerned, I didn’t need to give him anything more than he wanted to know. I was just there to answer any questions he might have. It was certainly not my job to start babbling away.

Those were really good days, and they accidentally went on for two years, because we tried to get the film going, and we couldn’t get it going, and life intervened. There were babies born, backs broken – he hurt his back. One thing led to another, and we just did that more or less for a year. We thought it was time really well spent, and then when we started filming, I can’t even tell you: It was like we were cooped up in the starting gate, and the second the starting gate opened, we fell flat on our faces with all of this energy. We had the most horrendous beginning of a film, for two weeks, just completely off of the mark. We got it together finally, but it was hilarious. We had been cooped up for too long.

AVC: So did you have two weeks of wasted film?

PTA: A little bit. There was some stuff that was salvageable. There was some stuff that we got that was good, really good, actually. But mixed in was some stuff that I wouldn’t show to anyone – the most embarrassing, off-the-mark kind of stuff...

AVC: Your movies always seem very tidy. They might be sprawling, but they’re very unambiguous. The conceit of so many independent films is to be ambiguous, maybe for its own sake.

PTA: I take that as a high compliment, actually. Thank you. I really do. We could have titled the movie There Will Be A Morally Unambiguous Ending. [Laughs.] That’s really nice of you to say. Thanks.

AVC: Is ambiguity not in your filmmaking genes, then? Does it not appeal to you?

PTA: I don’t know. It would require me to get objective and think too much. I’ll just take the compliment….

– Paul Thomas Anderson. Interview: The Onion AV Club by Josh Modell, January 2nd, 2008 

Full article can be found here

Friday, 9 October 2015

The Storyteller - Interview with Suso Cecchi d’Amico

The Leopard (Directed by Luchino Visconti)
Suso Cecchi d’Amico (1914-2010) was one of the most prolific screenwriters in European film history. She wrote over 100 screenplays from 1947 including Bicycle Thieves (1948), most of Luchino Visconti’s films including Senso (1954), White Nights (1957), Rocco and His Brothers (1960), The Leopard (1963), Ludwig (1972) and Conversation Piece (1974); as well as films for Antonioni, Fellini, Rosi, Luigi Comencini and Monicelli. She also collaborated with Martin Scorsese on the documentary My Voyage to Italy (2001).  

The following is an edited extract from an interview with Suso Cecchi d’Amico from 1999 with Mikael Colville-Anderson in which she discusses her distinguished career and her approach to the craft of screenwriting. 

MCA: It’s safe to say that you’ve had an illustrious career writing for a great number of Italian directors. How did it all start?

SCA: Actually, it was someone else’s idea. It was not my plan at all. It was because I knew all the cinema people in Rome since my father was a very well-known writer. I can remember being given a screenplay to read because they wanted a young woman’s reaction. I have done the same thing with my own children throughout the years. Given them a comedy to read to see if they thought it was funny or not.

Then one day someone asked me the question. Why don’t you write a screenplay? I said I would give it a try but it had never occurred to me before that. At that point I had done many translations of literary works, so I merely approached it as another job. They were pleased with what I did and asked me to stay on.
Bicycle Thieves (Directed by Vittorio De Sica)
MCA: Did that first effort become a film?

SCA: No, but not because it was a bad script. It was because of a reaction. Let me explain. Ponti wanted to produce a film ‘inspired’ by the big hit at the moment, Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde. So we were working on a story based on a particular novel. I had a very important team: the director Castellani and two other writers: Alberto Moravia and Ennio Flaiano.

We were sitting around the table discussing the story when we heard on the radio that the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. It was quite a shock. We looked at each other and said, ‘what on earth are we doing?’ We stopped working and went over to Ponti and said, ‘Look. We are not interested in this story. Let us do something alive. Something that deals with life’. So we never finished that story á la Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde.

MCA: So the atom bomb dropped and...

SCA: Yes. That story about a professor and a girl suddenly seemed so... Well, we just knew we had to do something different.

MCA: What film came of that fateful experience?

SCA: To Live in Peace (Vivere in pace, 1947). It was directed by Luigi Zampa and based on a little story I had written.

MCA: That was your first film.

SCA: Yes, but I still only regarded it as a job. Screenwriting is the work of an artisan, not a poet. Let us be clear about that. I am not a poet, I am an artisan.

The Lady Without Camelias (Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni)
MCA: So screenwriting is not an art, it is a craft.

SCA: In my opinion. But then cinema is not art either.

MCA: Never has been?

SCA: It may be that it gives you that impression but it is reality. Art must be created by one person alone. Cinema is the work of a team and on a team there are unexpected elements. The sun going behind the clouds, the actor coming down with a cold. But true creating, true art is the work of one person. I’m sorry to disappoint you about the work of the screenwriter. It can be very useful, very beautiful work. Work that can carry the same weight as a written story but it cannot live on its own.

MCA: A lot of screenwriters have found their inspiration in literature. Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, etc. So many screenwriters want to be writers and believe they are writers. The act of writing a screenplay, inventing characters and writing dialogue. Isn’t that still writing?

SCA: Yes, but a screenwriter writes with his eyes. That’s very important. A writer must find the words to describe things. A screenwriter must invent the images. It’s quite different. All the discussions comparing the two are useless. They are two different things. Two different forms of expression. You can’t compare a word with an image.

Le Amiche (Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni)
MCA: Literature’s influence on cinema is obvious. But has cinema influenced literature?

SCA: Oh yes. A great influence. Especially since the war. The young people today are much more accustomed to literature that has been influenced by cinema. So often you read new novels which resemble film treatments but it is not great literature. In Italy we have never had a narrative tradition in literature like they have had in England or America. There has only been one big novel, I Promessi Sposi, by Alessandro Manzoni, that’s all. A very poor narrative tradition. Now we have thousands. Not very important, not very talented, all very young. And there is no doubt that it all descends from cinema.

MCA: A great deal of literary tradition has been lost then?

SCA: Without a doubt.

MCA: But you have been greatly influenced by literature.

SCA: Yes. I’ve stolen a lot.

MCA: You’ve stolen?

SCA: Yes. I’ve always said that stealing from literature is important. Take Dostoyevsky for example. We have stolen so much from him. Characters, situations, what have you. Look at Rocco and His Brothers (Rocco e i suoi fratelli, 1960). It’s clear. Rocco is the Prince. Of course it’s different but it comes from Dostoyevsky.

MCA: Is the future of cinema in danger?

SCA: Yes, because all we have now are mediocre films.

Rocco and His Brothers (Directed by Luchino Visconti)
MCA: Is it necessary to go back to the old masters?

SCA: You can still return to them for inspiration. There is still a lot of material there. But the young people don’t read the classics. Maybe those small condensed books you can buy. Just imagine Tolstoy. Imagine how many characters you can steal from War and Peace alone. (she smiles) Marvellous, rich characters.

MCA: Who is your greatest inspiration?

SCA: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky – I’m confessing my theft here (laughs) – but those two and there are so many more.

MCA: How is it to have spent so many years as a screenwriter? Especially since you began rather reluctantly.

SCA: I still really enjoy it and I am still working. Unfortunately we are not living in a good time for cinema. The disaster is that films cost too much to produce. You become too careful...

When I began making films it was very inexpensive to produce them. In Italy, back then, the cinemas were obliged to show Italian films for a minimum of 18 days in the peak seasons. That meant that nobody killed themselves if they made a disaster. You could make some money but you could never lose a lot. That gave the producers and writers the courage to make the films they wanted to make. Because that is what is important, to make films for yourself and not to think about profits. If you are pleased with what you have done, that is enough. Nowadays you have to write films that can be understood by the Japanese. I have no idea what the Japanese like. You must make films that travel all over the world. It is not enough to make films for yourself and your friends.

White Nights (Directed by Luchino Visconti)
MCA: Your work with Visconti had a great influence on your career. What about the other directors you have worked with?

SCA: The first director I worked with was a very modest man, Luigi Zampa. He worked with a passion and did as he pleased. He was a very popular director and it was a great experience to work with him. I am very grateful to him. It was much more simpler then. It was for him that I wrote the best screenplay I have ever written in my life – in my opinion. It wasn’t the best film, The City Stands Trial (Processo alla città, 1952), but it was the best screenplay.

MCA: What about De Sica?

SCA: Working with De Sica was a great experience. He was an actor and it was different to work with him because it was like seeing your work on a stage. It is absolutely necessary to work closely with a director. To understand what he likes, how he feels, what he wants. I think it’s useless to write something that doesn’t feel right for the director. For example, comedy. It is impossible to teach comedy to someone. If the director doesn’t understand comedy it is pointless.

The first film I wrote for Antonioni – Camille Without Camelias (La Signora senza Camelie, 1953) – we thought it was a comedy. I wrote it together with Antonioni. He was a very amusing man, believe it or not. Full of humour. We wrote it as a comedy and when we started shooting and I saw the first dailies I thought it was a disaster. And it was. It was impossible for him to make a comedy. He didn’t have the rhythm for it. After you’ve seen his later work and you could never imagine that he would make a comedy.

The second was with a young man, very nice, very clever. He had been Monicelli’s assistant for years and was directing his first film. It was a kind of a sequel to Monicelli’s Big Deal on Madonna Street (I Soliti ignoti, 1958), a very funny, popular film. It was a disaster. He didn’t have the rhythm either. You can’t teach it. There was never a moment of doubt that he didn’t have a talent for comedy. He was Monicelli’s assistant and was an amusing fellow.

Salvatore Guiliano (Directed by Francesco Rosi)
MCA: Is it difficult to collaborate with a director?

SCA: Sometimes. You have to figure out what the director wants. You can impose your point of view on him but he doesn’t think it’s right for him it’s better not to insist.

MCA: You’ve written many comedies in your career.

SCA: I’ve written many comedies and enjoy writing them very much. It is my favourite genre. Writing comedy is best when you are a team. Not drama. Writing drama is best done alone. But comedy is best written in a team. You must laugh when you’re writing and you can hear immediately if the lines are funny or not when you say them to each other.

MCA: What do you think about the anonymity of the screenwriter? Is it enough to be the lady who wrote for Visconti or the guy who wrote for Polanski? What is the writer’s role in the process? Is it a good thing that the writer is anonymous?

SCA: The writer is very important. The screenplay is the reason that there is a film to make. He is one of the most important people in the process and the only one who deserves to be called author. However, as the director can’t do without the writer, the writer can’t do without the director. That brings you to the conclusion that the film is a common work created by many indispensable people.

MCA: But the director gets all the credit.

SCA: Yes, but that is even silly. When I started, the director was not that important. The only names you knew where that of the actors. All those American comedies we loved so much in the 30’s, we knew all the actors and actresses names, not the director.

Senso (Directed by Luchino Visconti)
MCA: Looking at the credits of your earlier films, it appears that there were many writers involved in the screenplay.

SCA: When I was young I had a group of friends and we made films together. We were all on the set, even the writers, all the time. For the films we did during neo-realism – or what they call neo-realism – we had no money so we just shot on the streets or in houses. We couldn’t afford actors and there weren’t many actors around because the standard of theatre was very poor. Besides, all the theatres were bombed. So, we just found people on the streets. You would meet a person who was right for the role and ask them to play it. That was it.

MCA: What do you mean by ‘what they call neo-realism’?

SCA: It was only afterwards that someone else, somewhere else in the world decided to call it ‘neo-realism’ and write many books about it. Despite the fact that it was only a little group of friends who just wanted to make films and went out into the streets to do so. If we had as many newspapers and magazines back then as we do now, maybe many of us would have become journalists instead of making films. But there weren’t many papers and making film was inexpensive and we merely wanted to tell our stories about our experiences of that era.

For example, Roma, Open City (Roma, città aperta, 1946) was made by Rossellini without a producer. All the friends who were involved went out rounding up raw film for Rossellini to shoot his film. Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di biciclette, 1948) was more expensive because De Sica was such a well-known actor in Italy. He got the most important lawyer in the country to finance the film, a clever man who understood that something may come out of this venture.

We worked on the screenplay for months. Going around Rome and collecting stories to tell. The beginning of the film was loosely inspired by a short story written by a painter about a bicycle. Apart from that, we just wandered around Rome together. We wanted to make a portrait of Rome at that time, so soon after the war.

The Leopard (Directed by Luchino Visconti)
MCA: On the full credits of the ‘Bicycle Thieves’ there are seven or eight different writers credited. That seems strange today when writers fight tooth and nail for the credit.

SCA: Yes, because it wasn’t important who got the credit. We were friends who wanted to make films. That was the only important thing. One of the writers credited was dead when we made the film. He was a friend of De Sica who had wanted to work on the next film but he died before we started shooting. De Sica put his name on as a kind of tribute.

All the films at that time had many writers credited. Often we put our friends names on just so they could get paid and then told the producer we had consulted them. We did that for Fellini when he was young and had no money. So there are films out there for which Fellini is credited as the screenwriter, but he never wrote them. I saw an old film a few days ago and there were nine screenwriters. I know exactly who the writers were and there were certainly not nine of them. (laughs)

MCA: Your name is most often associated with Luchino Visconti. Did that collaboration have a big influence on your career?

SCA: I had already made several films before working with Luchino. We were very good friends when I first worked with him. He was a perfectionist. He wanted to know everything about the film process and he could have done every job on the film set, from the lighting to the camera to the screenwriting.

On the first screenplay we wrote together, which wasn’t made, we both wrote equally. He was more than a sparring partner. However, as we made more films together, I wrote most of the screenplays. On the Proust project, I hardly spoke with him during the writing process because we knew each other so well. That was the easiest screenplay I ever wrote.

Ludwig (Directed by Luchino Visconti)
MCA: You used to make Visconti tell you the story, verbally, so that you could understand what he wanted to do.

SCA: Yes. That was very important. And then we would discuss the story. We were talking about literature before and I recall that Visconti and I, even though he didn’t live very far from here, wrote many, many letters to each other. If someone were to read those letters they wouldn’t understand them because we had so many names, so many references to literary characters that it would seem like some kind of code. We had the same passion and knowledge for literature.

MCA: You mentioned that you are still active as a screenwriter.

SCA: Yes, I have been writing on various things. Among others, I have written for Martin Scorsese on his documentary My Voyage to Italy. Years ago he was here with Fellini and told us the story about how Italian cinema influenced him growing up in New York. Fellini suggested that he make a film about it and we have worked together on that. But now that film has become much bigger than he expected. It went from one hour to three hours. Also, I am writing various screenplays. I still enjoy it very much.

MCA: You were often on the set as the screenwriter. That is rare these days.

SCA: Yes, in the old days it was very important. Especially in the neo-realism period. We always had to change the dialogue. If a scene was written for the sunshine and it rained, we would have to change it on the spot. And Visconti wanted me there. He was very faithful to what I had written but I was always on the set.

MCA: They were glamorous times. Do you miss those golden days of Italian cinema?

SCA: Very much so. Mostly because it was done with passion. Because you were making the films you wanted to make.

Conversation Piece (Directed by Luchino Visconti)
MCA: Haven’t you ever considered directing?

SCA: No. They’ve asked me so many times but I know that I don’t have the character for it. It would be a disaster. I always use one example. If the producer of a Fellini or a Visconti film went to them and asked if the 30 horses they wanted in such and such a scene could be cut down to 10, Visconti and Fellini would both shout, ‘No, no, no. I’ve changed my mind. Now I want 50 horses and I won’t continue until I get them’. I couldn’t do that. I would probably settle for five horses. No, I’m very bad at being in command. You need to have a very particular character to be a good director.

MCA: After over 100 films you must have developed some personal rules which you use when you write.

SCA: I’ve been working for so long that I have developed some laws, some rules that I work with but I never tell them to my pupils when I’m teaching. They would think I’m crazy. But I do remember a booklet I read many years ago. It was written by an assistant to Cecil B. DeMille. She wrote that every scene should contain three elements: the crucial moment of a situation, the beginning of a new one and the end of the first one. I thought that was amusing. I have kept that in my head for many years.

MCA: What are your views on the so-called ‘Hollywood’ structure?

SCA: I don’t think it is so important. I have my own rules and don’t like that something simply MUST happen in the 12th minute or what have you. One must write with instinct. But the three act structure has worked for centuries, so it must be a good thing. Whenever I am asked to write about the screenplay I always read books written by my colleagues as inspiration. Jean Claude Carriere’s book, The Secret Language of Film is really one of the few that has made a lasting impression.

I have also studied Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) for many years in order to learn from the structure and try to use it in my own work. I have seen that film countless times. But again, that is my own way of working.

MCA: Finally, is there any film in the history of cinema that you wish you had written?

SCA: (thinks for a long moment) I would have to say A Slave of Love (1976) by Nikita Mikhalkov.

– ‘The Storytellers: Interview with Suso Cecchi d’Amico’. By Mikael Colville-Andersen (original article here).

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Ernest Lehman: Writing ‘North by Northwest’

North by Northwest (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
Ernest Lehman (1915–2005), one of the most acclaimed screenwriters in Hollywood history, was born in New York City. After graduating from City College of New York, he worked for a publicity agency that specialized in a Broadway/Hollywood clientele. His early short stories, often related to theater and film, began to appear in prestigious journals like Collier’s and Esquire, and his short novel Sweet Smell of Success was first serialized in Cosmopolitan. After moving to Hollywood in 1953, his first screenplay was Executive Suite (1954), directed by Robert Wise. His subsequent films include: Sabrina (1954),  The King and I (1956), Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), From the Terrace (1960), Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), West Side Story (1961), The Sound of Music (1965), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and Hitchcock’s final film, Family Plot (1976). His various screenplays received five Writers Guild Awards and were nominated four times for Academy Awards. In 2001, he became the first writer in film history to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The following extract is from a conversation with William Behr on Lehman’s writing of Hitchcock’s classic thriller North by Northwest.

In 1957, you were one of the most sought after screenwriters in Hollywood, and Alfred Hitchcock decided that he’d like you to write his next picture.

LEHMAN: That’s right. MGM had bought a novel called The Wreck of the Mary Deare, and they told me that Hitch wanted me to write it.

Had you met him before?

LEHMAN: Just once. We were introduced by Bernard Herrmann, and we had lunch together. Benny thought we’d get along well, and we did.

So why did you turn down ‘The Wreck of the Mary Deare’?

LEHMAN: When I read the novel, I just didn’t see the movie in it. It was mostly a naval inquiry into something that had happened in the past, and I felt it would be too static.

But the book began with a very intriguing scene.

LEHMAN: Yes, the ship was found in a channel with nobody on board. But that was the only good scene in the whole novel. All the rest of it was the inquiry.

But Hitchcock still wanted you for the picture.

LEHMAN: My agent, who was also Hitchcock’s agent, let me know that Hitch was very upset that I’d turned him down. I guess he wasn’t used to that. So a couple of weeks later, my agent asked me if I’d be willing to have lunch with Hitchcock at the Polo Lounge. So I said, ‘Why not? I’m sure we’ll have a good time together.’ And we did have a good time, and I came away thinking, ‘Maybe Hitch knows how to do the picture.’ So even though I still had my doubts, I decided to do it.

Did you talk much about the picture at that meeting?

LEHMAN: Not at all.

Then how did things go when you started working on the script?

LEHMAN: Well, I went to his house every day for about three weeks, and I realized that every time I brought up the subject of Mary Deare, he would change the subject. So, I began to suspect that he didn’t know any more about how to do the picture than I did. Finally, I went to his house one morning and said, ‘I’ve got bad news for you, Hitch. You’ll have to get another writer. I don’t know how to write this picture.’ And he said, ‘Don’t be silly, Ernie. We’ll do something else.’ And I said, ‘But what’ll we tell MGM?’ And he said, ‘We won’t tell them a thing.’ And that’s how it evolved.

How did you break the news to MGM?

LEHMAN: That was later on, when we were working on North by Northwest, and Hitch said, ‘Don’t you think it’s time we told MGM that we’re not doing Mary Deare?’ Everybody at the studio thought we were moving along just fine with the picture. People used to salute me in the hallways and say, ‘Hello, Skipper, how’s it going?’ But Hitch wanted me to tell them, and I said, ‘I’m not going to tell them. You’re going to have to do it.’ So, he did it. He went to a meeting and told them that it was taking too long to write Mary Deare, and that we were planning to do another script instead. The studio people, who apparently assumed that Hitch was now planning to do two pictures for the studio, were delighted. Then he glanced down at his wristwatch, said he had to go – because we didn’t really have a story at that point – and left. And that was that.

After you’d decided to do an original script, I believe Hitchcock suggested a film on the life of Jack Sheperd, an eighteenth century English escape artist?

LEHMAN: Yes. After the decision to drop Mary Deare was made, we spent a couple of months just talking about ideas and possibilities. And Hitch brought up a lot of subjects that I wasn’t interested in, and, I guess, I brought up a few that he wasn’t interested in. And one of his suggestions was a picture about an escape artist, which didn’t interest me at all.

You once discussed the fact that, in those days, doing an original script was looked down on in Hollywood circles.

LEHMAN: That’s right. It wasn’t as highly regarded as it is now. If you were at a party back then, and somebody said, ‘What are you doing these days?’ and if you answered, ‘I’m doing an original script,’ it suggested that you really weren’t doing anything at all – since almost all of the pictures back then were adaptations of plays or novels.

And those scripts would have the prestige of the book or the play behind them.

LEHMAN: Exactly.

Was it different with this project, given that you were working with Hitchcock?

LEHMAN: Well, for me personally, none of this mattered anyway. I never went to a party where anyone said, ‘Oh, you’re doing an original? Too bad.’ That never happened.

Once you were finally under way on the script, you decided to do ‘the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.’ What did you mean by that?

LEHMAN: I meant something that was witty and entertaining, with lots of suspense, and all kinds of colorful locales – things like that. Everything that I’d enjoyed in Hitchcock pictures from the past.

The one I think of the most is ‘The 39 Steps’, where you have someone who from out of nowhere falls into a complicated spy web, and the action of the film moves around quite a bit, up to Scotland and then back to London.

LEHMAN: Was there humor in it?

Yes, especially between the leads. Remember when they were handcuffed together?

LEHMAN: Yes, I do. I think that was Robert Donat and Madeline Carroll.

It was. Now, in the process of writing the film, it seems that you began with a list of disparate ideas that Hitchcock mentioned as possible scenes for the movie. Could you discuss them?

LEHMAN: Yes. They were all wonderful, and I took them all down, and I never used most of them. For some reason, Hitch wanted to do the longest dolly shot in cinema history. The idea was that the shot would begin with an assembly line, and then you’d gradually see the parts of the car added and assembled, and, all the while, the camera’s dollying for miles along with the assembly line, and then eventually there’s a completed car, all built, and it’s driven off the assembly line, and there’s a dead body in the backseat.

Did you try to work that one into the script?

LEHMAN: Not really. It was intriguing, but it had no place in the picture. Then Hitch told me another one: there’s a speech being made at the General Assembly of the United Nations, and the speaker suddenly stops. He’s irritated, and he says he’s not going to continue until the delegate from Brazil wakes up. So a UN page goes over to the man, taps him on the shoulder, and the delegate falls over dead. But he’d been doodling – and that’s the only clue to the murder – and his doodling is a sketch of the antlers of moose.

So I said, ‘Well, that’s intriguing – now we’ve got the United Nations, and Detroit, and what might seem like a reference to northern Canada.’ And Hitch said that he’d always wanted to do a scene at Lake Louise where a family is having a reunion – a get-together – and a twelve-year-old girl takes a gun out of a baby carriage and shoots someone. I realize that all these ideas sound very peculiar and unrelated, but I took them all down and thought about them.

Wasn’t there something in Alaska?

LEHMAN: Yes. There’s a hole in the ice, and an Eskimo is fishing, and a hand suddenly comes up out of the water. As you can see, all these ideas seemed to be moving in a northwesterly direction, starting in New York. Hitch also mentioned something about wanting to do a shot where people take off in a little plane that has skis on the ice instead of wheels, and that reinforced the idea of heading northwest. So, I started calling the project In a Northwesterly Direction.

Where did Mount Rushmore come in?

LEHMAN: That also came up in those discussions. Just like he’d said, ‘I always wanted to do a dolly shot in an auto factory,’ he said, ‘I always wanted to do a chase across the faces of Mount Rushmore.’ And I thought, ‘Hey, I really like that idea.’ And that was the seed of the flower that took eleven months to grow. But I had to ask myself, ‘Who’s chasing whom over the faces of Mount Rushmore?’ and ‘How do they get there?’ and ‘Why?’ And that took quite a bit of doing on my part. I remember that I used to squeeze out a tiny bit of the screenplay every day, fully convinced that it would never actually become a movie.

There were many nights when I would be driving home from the studio thinking that we were just kidding ourselves – and wondering how long the charade would go on. The truth is, even with all my experience, I really didn’t know how to write the script. I’d never written a movie like that before, but gradually I eked it out – or, at least, the first sixty-five pages – and then Hitch went off to make Vertigo. So I’d sit there in my lonely office, and many times I’d go home at night having written less than half a page, completely discouraged. And several times I tried to quit while he was away, but my agent wouldn’t let me, saying, ‘You’ve already quit The Wreck of the Mary Deare, you can’t quit this one too.’ So I was kind of trapped into doing it.

Like Roger Thornhill.

LEHMAN: Yes, like my own character, always wondering, ‘How can I get out of this?’ And the only way I could get out of it was to ‘write’ my way out of it. And I think that, despite the unpleasantness of having to work under those conditions, I wound up at the top of my form as a writer, and, later, Hitch was at the top of his form when he directed the picture. In a sense, it’s unlike any picture he ever made. And it seems to have legs. They’ve just re-released the film in Australia as a feature – all over again.

It’s still extremely popular.

LEHMAN: Yes, it’s just incredible what endurance it has. It’s kind of timeless.

It is. And one of its great pleasures is the ingeniousness of the plot. You can’t watch the film without being amazed at how it keeps working itself out, how it keeps progressing. Given all its complications, it’s amazing that you were actually writing the script without an overall plan without knowing where you were going, except to Mount Rushmore.

LEHMAN: And I think that difficulty turned out to be very positive and beneficial. Since I never knew where I was going next, I was constantly painting myself into corners, and then trying to figure a way out of them. As a result, the picture has about ten acts instead of three, and if I’d tried to sit down at the beginning and conceive the whole plot, I could have never done it. Everything was written in increments: moving it a little bit forward, then a little bit more, one page at a time. Saying to myself, ‘Okay, you’ve got him out of Grand Central Station. Now he’s on the train, now what? Well, there’s no female character in it yet, I better put Eve on the train. But what should I do with her? And where should they meet? Well, let’s see, I’ve ridden on the 20th Century, how about the dining car?’ That’s the way it went, very slowly. Always asking, ‘What do I do next?’ So, in the end, the audience never knows what’s coming next, because I didn’t either.

It pays off consistently, and most thrillers don’t.

LEHMAN: And it’s not just suspense. It’s not like Shadow of a Doubt or Vertigo. It’s not really a ‘dark’ picture at all.

But it does have definite affinities with other Hitchcock films, and I wonder if you thought about any of them while your were writing ‘North by Northwest’? Like ‘The 39 Steps’ or ‘Saboteur’ or ‘Notorious’?

LEHMAN: Not at all. As a matter of fact, I’d forgotten all about The 39 Steps, and I was a little chagrined when somebody reminded me about it. I was a kid when that picture came out, and I’d mostly forgotten it. Then somebody reminded me that there was a helicopter chase in the film.

Well, it’s not really a chase. Robert Donat is being pursued over the Scottish moors by the police, and there’s a single, cut away shot of a surveillance hover craft. On the other hand, there is an extended train scene in the film as well as the other similarities I mentioned earlier.

LEHMAN: Well, I guess if you write long enough, all kinds of parallelisms will pop up. And if you’ve gone to the movies all your life, you’re bound to absorb certain things, and then reuse them without realizing that you’re doing it. I’m sure that it happens, but when I was writing North by Northwest, I had no other films in my mind. I was struggling too much with the one I was working on.

Is it true that the idea of the nonexistent spy, Kaplan, was suggested to Hitchcock by a New York newspaperman?

LEHMAN: Yes. That was back when Hitch and I were bouncing around ideas, and he said, ‘You know, I was at a cocktail party in New York, and Otis Gurnsey told me that the CIA had once used a nonexistent decoy.’ Gurnsey, who was a drama writer for the New York Sun, was wondering if Hitch could use it in one of his films sometime – and we did.

I didn’t know that the CIA actually did it?

LEHMAN: As far as I know, they did.

This may be a bit of a stretch, but I wonder if you were influenced by the 1956 British film ‘The Man Who Never Was’, which told the true story of the extraordinary World War II deception in which the British Secret Service took a corpse, dressed it up, gave it phony papers, and dropped it in the ocean off the coast of Spain? The deception was so effective that Hitler significantly altered his defenses for the Allied invasion of Italy.

LEHMAN: I’m sure I didn’t have it in mind, but, now that you mention it, I do remember that film. I guess you can never be sure where the hell your ideas come from. It’s very hard to describe how one ‘writes,’ the actual process – unless you’re writing an essay or an article, then you’ve got something specific to focus on. But when you’re writing an original screenplay, you can’t help but wonder where some of your ideas come from. Often, they just pop into your head in response to the questions you ask yourself. ‘How do I get out of this?’ or ‘How do I get them to say that?’ I decided to make Thornhill an advertising executive so he could talk in a kind of clever repartee, rather than speaking in a straightforward manner. I felt that would be more amusing, and that it sounded like something Cary Grant could do very well. That’s one thing about that script that I’m very proud of – the dialogue, the repartee. Nobody ever says anything straight. Yet even though it’s rather oblique, it’s still perfectly understandable.

It’s one of the cleverest scripts ever written, both for its plot and its dialogue. Now, I also wanted to ask you about your on site research trip for the film.

LEHMAN: Well, I pretty much followed Thornhill’s movements, beginning in New York where I spent five days at the United Nations. I was looking for a place where a murder could take place, and when they found out what I was up to, they banned Hitchcock from shooting there. So, he had to build his own sets in Culver City.

They’re very convincing.

LEHMAN: Yes, they are. I think Hitch managed to steal one shot at the UN – Cary walking up the steps and into the building – but that was it. Then, I went to a judge in Glen Cove, Long Island, and had him put me through the business of being arrested for drunk driving. I had no idea how to write that scene, and going through the process was a lot of fun.

Didn’t you also check out the home of the Soviet ambassador while you were out on Long Island?

LEHMAN: Yes, in Glen Cove. That’s where the Russian delegation lived during the Cold War. They rented a mansion out there for the United Nations sessions.

Then, you headed ‘northwest.’

LEHMAN: Well, even though I’d traveled on the 20th Century when I was a New Yorker – and I certainly knew Grand Central Station and all that – I decided to take a trip on the 20th Century Limited just in case something useful stuck in my mind. So, I got off at the LaSalle Street Station in Chicago, went to the Ambassador East Hotel, and checked things out. Then, I took the bullet train to Rapid City, South Dakota, hired a forest ranger on his day off, and started climbing Mount Rushmore. I wanted to climb to the top and see what was up there. But it was an absolutely idiotic thing to do. Halfway up, I looked down and thought, ‘God, I’m just a screenwriter. What the hell am I doing up here? One slip and I’m dead!’ So, I gave the Polaroid camera to the forest ranger, and I told him to go up to the top and take photos of everything.

Did you wait where you were until he came back, or did you climb down by yourself?

LEHMAN: I came back down by myself. Very, very carefully. It might be more accurate to say that I crawled back down. It was an absolutely idiotic idea.

Were the Polaroids any good?

LEHMAN: Yes, but I was surprised that there’s nothing much up there. Then the Department of Parks found out that we were planning to have people fall off the face of their famous monument, and they banned Hitchcock from shooting up there. He was furious. So the whole thing had to be constructed in Culver City. It was a marvelous job of set design. There was only one long shot that Hitch got at Rushmore. It was taken from the cafeteria, and they couldn’t stop him from doing that. Looking back on it all, it was a very memorable project. But there was a lot of drama behind the drama – especially trying to get the script finished. There were constant, endless, seemingly insurmountable crises of script, but, somehow, I finished the first sixty-five pages, and I sent them off to Hitch. He was on vacation in the Bahamas at the time, and he sent me back a very enthusiastic, four-page, handwritten letter. He loved the first sixty-five pages – which was high praise from Hitch – and it was very encouraging.

So I kept pressing forward, and Hitch, confident that I now knew what the hell I was doing, moved over to MGM from his home base at Universal, and started story-boarding the script with his art director, and casting the roles. And all the time, I’m sitting there in my office sweating the fact that I have no idea whatsoever why the hell they’re all going to Mount Rushmore! Why were these people heading to South Dakota? I had no idea! So, the last act of the script was blank. Actual blank pages! Then Cary Grant came on the picture with some astronomical salary, and I was still sitting there in my office with nothing but a partially-completed script. So I called up Hitch, and I told him we were in big trouble. He came rushing over to my office, sat across from me, and the two of us stared at each other.

Finally, he suggested that we call in some mystery novelist to help us kick around ideas, but I didn’t like the idea. After all, I was getting paid by MGM to write the thing, and I felt that it would make me look pretty foolish. I kept saying, ‘God, what’ll they say about me upstairs?’ and Hitch would say, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll tell them it’s all my fault. I’ll tell them I should’ve been able to help you, but I couldn’t – or something like that.’

Then we went to his office – it was about six o’clock in the evening – and we kept talking about his idea, even discussing which mystery writer we should get, and, all the time, the right side of my brain was working, and suddenly, as I was listening to him – not really ignoring him – I said, ‘She takes a gun out of her purse and shoots him.’ So where the hell did that come from? It just popped into my head. That’s the way it works sometimes: you’ve got a problem and, no matter what else is going on around you, the right side of your brain keeps working on it and then, suddenly, it pops out of nowhere. And Hitch took it right in stride. Even though I’d completely changed the subject and suddenly blurted out, ‘She takes a gun out of her purse and shoots him,’ he didn’t miss a beat and responded, ‘Yes, the Polish Underground sometimes killed their own members, just to prove they weren’t in the Underground.’ And I said, ‘Yes, but these are fake bullets. That’ll convince Van Damm that he has to take her away with him. Now that she’s a fugitive, he’ll decide to take her on the plane.’ And, instantly, I had the whole last act.

It must’ve been quite a relief.

LEHMAN: It sure was. For both of us.

And it’s still a very effective scene when she pulls out that gun in the Rushmore cafeteria.

LEHMAN: It’s crazy, but it worked...

Okay, now that the script’s finally done, you have this long history of warring with directors and actors who try to alter your dialogue. So it must have been quite a relief to work with Hitchcock, who didn’t allow that kind of thing.

LEHMAN: That’s definitely true. He never allowed a word to be changed. Just like Billy Wilder. Absolutely. I could be pretty awful about people messing with my lines; I guess I’m a very passive-aggressive person. I remember one time on From The Terrace, when they were rehearsing downstairs in New York, and I was up in my apartment at the Plaza Hotel, and the director called me and said, ‘Paul Newman’s struggling. He says he can’t read one of his speeches. He doesn’t know how to do it.’ So, I said, ‘I’ll be right down there.’ I immediately went downstairs, walked over to Paul, took the script, read the speech, handed him back the script, and said, ‘There, I read it. Now, you do it.’ It was very rude. But I was always very protective of my scripts, and Hitch respected that…

Could you discuss the metamorphosis of the title?

LEHMAN: As I mentioned earlier, all of Hitch’s original ideas – even the ones I didn’t use – seemed to be unconsciously moving in a northwesterly direction. So, that’s what I called the project for quite a few months, In a Northwesterly Direction. Finally, after Hitchcock told them that I was writing an original screenplay instead of The Wreck of the Mary Deare, the head of the story department, Kenneth McKenna, heard the title, and he said, ‘Why don’t you use North By Northwest as a working title?’ So we did.

And Hitchcock and I were always certain that it was only a working title and that we’d change it later when we came up with something better, but we never did… It wasn’t until after the picture was done, that somebody wrote in and pointed out the quotation from Shakespeare where Hamlet says, ‘I am but mad north-northwest.’ And the same thing’s true with the direction. When we were making the picture, we had no idea that ‘north by northwest’ wasn’t an actual direction. For some reason, it sounded right to us.

One of the most famous and most discussed sequences in American film is the crop duster attack on Thornhill. How did it transform from a cyclone to a crop duster?

LEHMAN: One day, Hitch said to me, ‘I’ve always wanted to do a scene in the middle of nowhere – where there’s absolutely nothing. You’re out in the open, and there’s nothing all around you. The camera can turn around 360 degrees, and there’s nothing there but this one man standing all alone – because the villains, who are out to kill him, have lured him out to this lonely spot.’ Then Hitch continued, ‘Suddenly, a tornado comes along and....’ ‘But Hitch,’ I interrupted, ‘how do the villains create a tornado?’ and he had no idea.

So I wondered, ‘What if a plane comes out of the sky?’ And he liked it immediately, and he said, ‘Yes, it’s a crop duster. We can plant some crops nearby.’ So we planted a fake cornfield in Bakersfield and did the scene that way. And, like you said, it became a very famous sequence. As a matter of fact, that’s how I knew that Cary Grant had died. Every channel on TV was showing that shot of Cary running away from the plane. It’s strange, isn’t it, that such a distinguished career should be remembered mostly for that one shot?

But it’s an unforgettable image.

LEHMAN: Yes, it is.

I wonder if you were surprised at all by the way Hitchcock did the crop duster sequence. I know that you and Hitchcock discussed every shot in the film, but still, not many directors would’ve had the nerve or the confidence to shoot a seven minute sequence with only a few lines of dialogue.

LEHMAN: Well, that’s the way I wrote it, almost shot by shot. I pictured it that way, and I even acted it out for Hitch. But you’re right, only Hitchcock would’ve had the guts to let all those cars go by with nothing else happening. But taking risks was one of Hitch’s trademarks, and, since the audience knew it was a Hitchcock picture, they were willing to be patient.

And the scene grows more and more ominous. You know that ‘something’ is coming.

LEHMAN: Yes, like when the truck is approaching, and you start to wonder if it’ll run him down, but, instead, there’s just lots of dust. It’s very surprising, and very effective. Hitch felt that the longer you can keep the audience waiting, the better.

Over the course of your career, you had a habit of suggesting camera shots to the directors you worked with. How did Hitchcock react to that?

LEHMAN: The only time he ever really got angry at me – though I’m sure he got mad at me at other times – was about that very thing. Fed up, he suddenly burst out, ‘Why do you insist on telling me how to direct this picture?’ And I said, ‘Why do you insist on telling me how to write it?’ But that’s the way I was. I’d get a picture in my head, and if I had a good idea about how it should be shot, I’d put it on paper. Why not?

Some directors, like Robert Wise, who did four of my pictures, appreciated my suggestions. I remember that sometimes I’d go down to the set, and I’d be astounded. I’d see Bob building this huge set, and I think to myself, ‘God, just because I put those words on the paper, look at what’s happening here! Be careful! Be sure it’s a good idea!’ But Bob always listened, unless it was something really terrible. So on North by Northwest, I tried to develop a Hitchcock frame of mind. I became like Hitchcock, and I tried to think like him. And whenever Hitch didn’t like something I suggested, he’d simply say, ‘Oh, Ernie, that’s the way they do it in the movies.’ And then I’d know better, and I’d try to write the scene over again.

When the picture was finished, it was Hitchcock’s longest film at 136 minutes, and an anxious MGM wanted to cut out the forest scene at Mount Rushmore when Thornhill and Eve are finally able to talk to each other without the previous lies and deceptions. It’s clearly one of the best and most important scenes in the movie. Did you get involved in the arguments over this?

LEHMAN: Actually, they just wanted to cut the scene down, not to cut it out entirely. Because you have to have that scene in the film – which, by the way, was very difficult to write. All the deception is gone, and they’re very serious, but they’re still being clever – because that’s the way they are. Anyway, we kept the whole scene. Sol Siegel asked us down to the screening room, and we watched the scene, and he pleaded with Hitch to cut it down. But Hitch said no. He said that ‘it would spoil the picture,’ and he was adamant. He knew that he had the final word – given his contract. Besides, the studio people were pretty much in awe of Hitchcock, and they were very afraid of offending him.

The scene actually is a bit long, but I didn’t know how to write it any shorter. And the transition is absolutely necessary. Another scene that was extremely difficult to write was the one in Eve’s hotel room after she’s just tried to have him killed by the plane. How do you play it? You can’t have him get too angry, because then you won’t have a relationship. So, I tried having him be angry with her in a slightly affectionate way: ‘How does a girl like you get to be a girl like you?’

What also helps is his deception in the bathroom. When we realize what Thornhill is up to, we can accept what came before, thinking, ‘So that’s why he contained his anger’ because he’s planning to follow her.

LEHMAN: Yes, I’m glad that works.

‘North by Northwest’ is a classic in the thriller genre, but it also has serious underlying themes, and I’d like to ask you about two. The first is Thornhill’s ‘remaking’ himself from a smug, slick, self absorbed Madison Avenue liar into a man who becomes extremely heroic and compassionate at the end. First, his identity is stripped away, and then all the comforts and protections of his easy, shallow life are similarly removed before he can remake himself.

LEHMAN: Well, this may sound strange, but I wasn’t consciously trying to remake him or redeem him. It happened unconsciously.

But he’s so glib in the beginning . . .

LEHMAN: I know. He even steals a cab.

That’s what I mean. Would he do that at the end?

LEHMAN: I don’t think he would.

So he’s matured. He’s changed himself.

LEHMAN: Yes, as a result of his wild escapade.

But you’re the one who wrote it the one who made him mature.

LEHMAN: I know, but it wasn’t conscious. I think I have little computers in my head that work unconsciously. And I’m glad they do. Who knows where this stuff comes from?

Well, maybe you’ll say the same thing about the next question which relates to the ‘marriage’ theme in the movie. British critic Robin Wood and others have written quite perceptively about this aspect of the film which portrays two shallow people, afraid of commitment, who eventually find love and, at the very end of the picture, marriage.

LEHMAN: Well, you know, we were forced to put in that very last line on the train, ‘Come along, Mrs. Thornhill.’ It’s actually dubbed over. If you watch it carefully, you won’t see Cary’s lips moving. That was the old production code. What a difference from today!

Yes, but it’s still a logical progression from the previous scene when Thornhill proposes to Eve on Mount Rushmore. And that scene follows naturally from their discussion in the woods when Eve explains how sad and pathetic her life has been, and Thornhill asks, ‘How come?’ and she responds, ‘Men like you.’ But Thornhill, confused, asks, ‘What’s wrong with men like me?’ and Eve replies, ‘They don’t believe in marriage.’ Then the always clever, twice divorced Thornhill says, ‘I’ve been married twice,’ and Eve responds, ‘See what I mean?’

LEHMAN: Yes, you’re right. And that scene in the forest definitely makes it better – it leads naturally to the ending. But I still can’t honestly say that I would’ve put that final line in the picture. But who knows? That was forty years ago. All I can say is that the marriage theme rose naturally out of my struggles with the plot, and I didn’t dwell on it very much when I was writing the script…

– From ‘A Conversation with Ernest Lehman’. In Classic American Films: Conversations with the Screenwriters. By William Baer.


Monday, 13 July 2015

Paul Schrader on ‘Light Sleeper’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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