Monday, 23 November 2020

Robert Altman: On Inspiration and Dreams

Three Women (Directed by Robert Altman)

Three Women by Robert Altman is set in a dusty, underpopulated California resort town, where a naive southern waif, Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek), idolizes and befriends her fellow nurse, the would-be sophisticate and “thoroughly modern” Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall). When Millie takes Pinky in as her roommate, Pinky’s hero worship evolves into something far stranger and more sinister than either could have anticipated. Featuring brilliant performances from Spacek and Duvall, this dreamlike masterpiece from Robert Altman careens from the humorous to the chilling to the surreal, resulting in one of the most unusual and compelling films of the 1970s.

The following extract is from an interview with the director Robert Altman by Leo Braudy an Robert P. Kolke in front of an audience in Baltimore, Maryland, on March 28, 1981 in which he discusses his inspiration for Three Women, the ending of McCabe and Mrs. Miller and his thoughts on his Raymond Chandler adaptation The Long Goodbye.

AUDIENCE: What kind of preproduction plans do you make?

RA: When we start, when we think about a project and get it to the point where we say we are going to make a film out of this, the first decision I’ll make will be the cinematographer. I’ll set that person or at least do a lot of thinking about it and try to work out what my limitations are, or, in other words, what is out of my control. Then I decide what the visual and audio style of that film is going to be. For instance, in Nashville, or Health, or Brewster McCloud [1970] we were dealing with a real city and real places and we couldn’t control what people wore. We couldn’t say, “All right, nobody in St. Petersburg can wear a red shirt tomorrow.” We have no control, so I know I have to change the style of how that’s going to look, and I have to blend my film in with what is there. A lot of times that will determine the type of cameraman I want to use. In the case of Popeye, Three Women, and Images [1972], where we control, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, where we create the whole environment, then we can decide how we want this to look to the audience because we do the wardrobe and the construction. Then we start putting our crew together based on what we can’t control and how we are going to do it, and we cast it...

AUDIENCE: Was Three Women based on a dream and how did you cast it? I think it should have won awards.

RA: Thank you. It did, though. Shelley Duvall did win best actress at the Cannes Film Festival for it and the film itself came awful close that year except for three women who were on the jury: [director] Agnes Varda, who felt that the film was dangerous to women and should not be released, [actress] Marthe Keller, and [film critic] Pauline Kael, who loved the first two-thirds of the movie and hated the last third. I tried to point out to her that I don’t make movies in sections, but she just hated the film. But anyway, it did happen from a dream. I dreamed that I was making a film in the desert with Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall and that it was called Three Women and it was a character stealing, personality theft kind of thing. I woke up and made some notes on this yellow pad next to my bed and went back to sleep, and then I dreamed some more that I was sending my pro- duction manager out to look for desert locations and I woke up and made more notes on it and went back to sleep. Then I woke up and realized that I don’t keep a yellow pad next to my bed—the whole damn thing was a dream, but it was a dream about making a picture, not of what the picture was, but suggestions came from it. The next day was Sunday. I was depressed at the time. A film had been cancelled that we were going to do, or I chose to step out and cancel it myself. My wife was in the hospital and she was very ill at the time—we didn’t know how seriously. (She is fine now.) I called up the girl who does the casting for me and wardrobe and is probably the top creative associate I have, and I said I read a short story last night and let me tell you what it’s about, and I kind of faked through the thing. I said, do you think it could make a good movie and she said, “Yeah, can you get the rights?” And I said, “Yeah, I think so.” Within nine days of that time I went in to Alan Ladd Jr. That was the first film I did with him and I told him that story. I said I won’t write a script, but I’ll do an outline, and we had the deal for making the picture.

Three Women (Directed by Robert Altman)

LB: You were talking about actors before and the large creative input that they give to films. In Three Women and Images you were attracted to themes about people turning into other people, robbing personalities. I wonder if actors inspire you that way, the ease with which they go from role to role. Is there something fragile about the actor’s temperament?

RA: I don’t know where that comes from. It is very easy in retrospect for me to see that I make those kinds of pictures. That Cold Day in the Park [1969] was that kind of a picture, Images was that kind of picture, and so was Three Women. They are all very closely akin, what I would call an interior film—where I am dealing with the inside of the person’s head, and what they see or what you see or what I show you that they see may not necessarily be what’s happening. I have some fascination with that. Obviously, I don’t know what it is and I don’t want to know because I keep dealing with that.

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Directed by Robert Altman)

LB: When the camera at the end of McCabe and Mrs. Miller goes into Julie Christie’s eye, are we to take that as the film having been seen in some great part from her point of view?

RA: No. I don’t know what that was. I was trying to do the opposite of the normal ending because there is no way to end a film. I mean, life doesn’t stop. The only way I really know to end a film is with the main character’s death. That is the easiest way, so usually you do this big pull back, but I thought why not just go inside of somebody’s head. That little vase that she was using and looking at—we brought that into a studio or garage in order to shoot it, to get as close as we did with that—suddenly it seemed to me when we shot it that it looked like another planet. It’s just the idea that occurs. I’m sure you didn’t see it in Popeye, but if you see Popeye again, you will notice that when Popeye first comes in to the bordello looking for Wimpy and Sweet Pea, we go around that room and in one of those bottom bunks you will see the woman who I call Cinderella, the wash woman, the raggedy woman who is kind of around in the background, who also I think is probably Sweet Pea’s mother. She is lying in that bunk. The preacher is above her smoking an opium pipe and she is look- ing at this same vase, and that’s just fun for me. If it became obvious to an audience, it would be destructive.

The Long Goodbye (Directed by Robert Altman)

AUDIENCE: Was The Long Goodbye [1973] difficult to make?

RA: That was a successful film and should have been much more successful. That film was hurt originally because United Artists wanted to release it as a serious film. They had a poster of Elliot with a cat on his shoulder and a smoking gun and it looked like the ad for The Postman Always Rings Twice [1946]. People went in to see that kind of a film and they were disappointed, and they didn’t like it. We got them to pull the film, and we redid the campaign, opened it several months later in New York, and had that been the original opening, it would have been a very, very successful film. The real dyed-in-the-wool Raymond Chandler fans didn’t like it because, they said, it wasn’t true to the book or to Raymond Chandler, that wasn’t Philip Marlowe. But they weren’t thinking about Raymond Chandler, they were thinking about Humphrey Bogart. I would love to show that film to Raymond Chandler because I think that what I tried to do in The Long Goodbye was the same thing he did in the book. He used those crappy plots that he couldn’t follow himself—I never finished that book either, by the way—but he used them as a device to hang a bunch of thumbnail essays on, observations, and that’s the approach that we took on that picture.

RK: Visually it is your most elaborate film. There is not one shot in that film in which the camera is not moving.

RA: That was another experiment we tried. The camera is constantly moving, but not moving with something, not moving the way it should. You know how you would be in a crowd. You are trying to watch something and it moves and somebody is here and you are just always kind of at the wrong place at the wrong time. That was the kind of tension or attitude I was trying to get in that film. The idea came from a small sequence that we did in Images, where we did the same kind of thing in a short slice, so I felt safe with it, but it seemed to work so well in Images that we thought maybe we could do a whole film that way and The Long Goodbye was the film that followed Images.

– Leo Braudy and Robert P. Kolke. Interview with Robert Altman, In Gerald Duchovnay (ed): Film Voices.

Monday, 16 November 2020

Oliver Stone: On Film Biography

Nixon (Directed by Oliver Stone)
Writer-director Oliver Stone was in the final weeks of postproduction on Nixon when this interview was conducted. Under unavoidable pressure, appearing a bit weary, Stone was nevertheless spirited, buoyant, and often jovial, prone to laughing frequently and heartily, including at some of his own foibles. In retrospect, I have the impression that he welcomed the opportunity to emerge from prolonged, intense work on the film to begin reflecting on its processes as well as preparing himself for how Nixon [1995] would be received. Stone was also very generous with his time, despite several necessary interruptions.

While projecting twentieth-century U.S. history through the biography of the thirty-seventh president, Stone also projects a veritable history of the film medium through a profusion of techniques—from the associative metaphors of Griffith to the high-tech digital matting of Industrial Light and Magic; Soviet con- struction to the deep focus of Welles; the experimentation of the 1950s and 1960s to the Saturday afternoon newsreels of the pretelevision era. Though a “calm, thoughtful” film, as Stone describes it, the freewheeling incorporation of techniques and formal devices works to hypercharge, indeed transcend what is usually one of the most staid of genres, the solemn historical biography.
Nixon also enables Stone to amplify themes at the crux of several of his other films: the ascent and influence of the military industrial complex, the Vietnam War, the CIA-organized crime coalition, the JFK assassination, how power and avarice corrupt, how mass media pollutes American culture and society, how the 1960s were a turning point in our historical destiny, how individuals must struggle for their own redemption. The issues in Nixon, however, are viewed from the apex of power, which in part shades the steep, abrupt fall of the protagonist.

Nixon begins with the beam of a 16mm projector cutting through the confines of a dark room to show a cheerfully ingenuous 1950s-style sales training film, then moves to Nixon in the firelit gloom of the Lincoln Sitting Room in the White House pondering his own involvement in the Watergate quagmire. Stone once remarked that what each of his characters had in common was the fight for identity, integrity, and the fate of their soul—sometimes losing it, sometimes regaining it—and that he felt the highest virtue was the Socratic one: to know thyself. The juxtaposition between a lesson in self-promotion and the psycho- logical disability of the uncomprehending and unrepentant chief executive indi- cates that, by this criterion, Nixon committed the ultimate error. The confusion and doubt at the core of Nixon’s success is Death of a Salesman raised to something like the tenth power.

– Ric Gentry

The following extract from Ric Gentry’s interview with writer-director Oliver Stone revolves around the idea of cinematic biography, its limitations and possibilities.

Nixon (Directed by Oliver Stone)
RG: How do you prepare for your shot?

OS: Basically it’s a changing process. It’s somewhere in between improvisation and planning. In writing, or cowriting the material, I absorb every single line, totally, as a writer. So it’s set, in my head. It’s visualized. It’s seen. I come to the set. I’m not Hitchcock. I wouldn’t be able to function under that tedium, of shooting something prearranged. So I’m always trying to refine it in my head. So as the day goes, perception happens, enlightenment occurs. That’s what makes it interesting.
Let’s say you come to a scene and you think it out in twelve to fifteen shots and all of a sudden—it clicks. You can do it in seven. Or nine. Or four. That’s when it’s interesting because suddenly you thought you had it preconceived, you thought you had it figured out and you were wrong. So you’re obviously testing yourself and it’s a game you play, a warrior-athlete kind of thing. It’s interesting. It’s fun.

I don’t use storyboards unless it’s ultra complicated and something involving armies and a lot of money. (Where there’s) a lot of money (involved), you might have to do that. But if you can shoot it—within my confines, it’s in my head—I come up with it, my shot list, shot for shot, and that’s the one that’s ready. That’s my fallback position. Rehearsal occurs. Actors bring enormous contributions and changes. This is the second set of rehearsals by the way (on the set). The first set’s already occurred before the production. This is organized. We’re very organized. We improvise off preparation...

Nixon (Directed by Oliver Stone)
RG: How is Nixon structured?

OS: The film is the most complex structure I’ve done. More so than JFK. Natural Born Killers, if you study the structure, is also complicated. Because there are things that happen inside time, and inside of that. In Nixon, we’re outside time, inside time, outside time, inside time, it goes back and forth. I love it. It’s like going into an architecturally modern building and being surprised at every corner. Because we do things . . . there’s a newsreel in the middle of the picture [laughs] which retraces his steps. We retrace his steps two to three to four times in the movie. It is extremely complex.

RG: So you might want to go back over the same event, looking at it from a separate perspective?

OS: Yes.

RG: Like Citizen Kane in a way?

OS: Yes. It’s the totality of his life. It’s an interpretation of his life. It’s a myth about his life. [Laughs.] It’s what we choose to see Nixon as. Nixon is a prism for us, too, and looking at him we can only judge ourselves. Each person can stand in a different position and look and see and reflect and be reflected on.

RG: A man who was elected president and reelected by the most decisive margin in our history has to be a reflection of his country.

Nixon (Directed by Oliver Stone)
OS: That would be an indication. And just his years as a politician. A great many years in public life. One person described it nicely to me in saying, in each scene you never know which Richard Nixon you’re going to meet. So, in other words, sometimes you think he’s contemptible and sometimes you think he’s magnifi- cent. And you go to the things between. So I would say, it’s purpose is character study. When I was pitching it at Warner Brothers and they turned us down, I said it was a character piece, a portrait. And I implied that they could look at examples like Patton [1970] or Gandhi [1982], and consider it that way. That’s why it was called Nixon, as opposed to JFK. JFK was not a biography. JFK’s a code. I imagined it like Z. A code for something else. JFK is not featured. I’ve done biography, with [Jim] Morrison [The Doors] and Kovic and lately [Le Ly] Hayslip [Heaven & Earth, 1993]. And Boyle, Richard Boyle, to some degree [in Salvador, 1986].

RG: And the Midnight Express [1978] character.

OS: Yes.

RG: The Tony Montana character in Scarface [1983, which Stone wrote] is situated in the context of real events. I think one of the great things about your films is how they impinge on or parallel things that have occurred, often examining political situations or cultural institutions through drama. Even the style sometimes strives to make that political or cultural situation more deeply felt with a documentary kind of camera.

OS: I’ve been fracturing biography for years. And now with Nixon, I think the first hour and a half of the movie is the antecedents of the man. It’s all the threads that lead to him. At the halfway point, you come up to the Republican convention, national convention (in 1968). Halfway, and that is when he gets the power, so we enter into another arena now. What does he do now, now that we’ve seen the antecedents of the man? What are going to be the consequences? And the second part is more linear. And proceeds in more linear fashion for that reason.

JFK (Directed by Oliver Stone)
RG: So that’s his administration.

OS: Yeah, but I feel the antecedents are complex. And I’m not sure that we even got them all. I think there’s more stuff we could’ve done. But given the limitations of my mind and the script—the opening is intended as antecedent.

RG: What are some of the features of the antecedents?

OS: The threads of his life: loss, death, class warfare, bitterness, Quakerism. These are some of the antecedents. Also great idealism. We must not forget. Great idealism. Invoked by his mother. But, an idealism that is more image than reality.

RG: Is the movie too complex, too confusing to an audience?

OS: I don’t know. Maybe it is. This is a gamble again. I was afraid on Natural Born Killers. That was one of the few movies I ever took out and previewed. I had time to. But I took it out quietly to Seattle and showed it two different nights to younger people, admittedly a music audience, so it was favorable in our direction, but I was enormously relieved that they understood the effect of the film, because it was extremely fast, at that point.

This was probably the first film with that amount of imagery that quick. And I thought, maybe the synapses were just going to collapse. [Laughs.] It was scary. But—it worked. I mean, we pulled back on a lot of the chaos. There was more chaos in that cut. And we pulled back on the chaos a bit.

Natural Born Killers (Directed by Oliver Stone)
RG: In a sense, pacing it out a little less intensely or dynamically?

OS: Yeah, yeah. And pulling out some of the wild cutting, the juxtaposition of imagery is pretty insane. And we pulled back. And we pulled back even a little more with the MPAA. So by the time it came out and everyone was saying it was such a radical film, I was shocked because we made 150 cuts for the MPAA. And on top of that we’d peeled it back a bit for Warners.

I’m glad to say the director’s cut will come out now. It was a struggle for awhile to get it out, but we’re going to get out this director’s cut of NBK. Nobody has seen that film. Those are my rhythms with my editors. That’s the way the film was submitted to the MPAA. And we‘re going to add another twenty minutes of scenes on the back of the video, scenes that were never even submitted that were shot. Some of them—crazy. [Laughs.]

With Nixon, I guess I would say that although the plot is complex, the camera is quieter. More classical. Containing Nixon. And being contained by Nixon. You understand the duality. And Nixon controls much of it. Although, there are overlays, I think, of good air. You need a breather in a word film, a film about the word. This is a dialogue movie. And character movie. Character and dialogue movie. But you need air in these things. I never liked the kinds of movies that go for Academy Award performances by putting the camera on the actor and letting the actor just like run with the ball.

Natural Born Killers (Directed by Oliver Stone)
RG: Just follow the actor.

OS: Yeah, it becomes to me—they say that’s nondistracting. I find that distracting. [Laughs.] Scent of a Woman [1992] is a case in point. It’s made by a very good director but because it’s Al [Pacino], he just puts the camera on Al and that’s it. There’s no judiciousness in that. So I think that attitude is important.

Directors are faced with a tremendous temptation, and choice, each moment of each day. Directors are tested in a sense—their souls are being bought and sold every day. Are they going to sell out or not? The power resides with the actor because he’s being paid more money by the system. The actor therefore dominates or can dominate. And the director ultimately must keep him happy and sometimes suit his style; he cuts his own style to fit that of the nature of the producer, or the nature of the actor, or the nature of the studio, or the nature of the story.

And then other directors maintain their own style but it takes enormous strength to do that. Because you have to resist the power. You know, directors have limited power. They do. I mean, all this nonsense about the megalomania of the Hollywood director, it’s just bullshit because the director is very vulnera- ble. It takes a long time to make a film. Each time a film comes out you’re judged and cut to shreds, or it’s dismissed, it’s nothing. An actor can do three films a year, if he has to. A director, no way. Plus the whole process is mentally exhausting. It really drains you. It takes your body and soul.

– Oliver Stone Interviewed by Ric Gentry in ed. Gerald Duchovny. Film Voices.

Monday, 9 November 2020

Antonioni on ‘Blow-Up’

Blow-Up (Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni)
In 1966, Michelangelo Antonioni transplanted his existentialist ennui to the streets of swinging London for the Italian filmmaker’s first English-language feature. Blow-Up takes the form of a psychological mystery, starring David Hemmings as a fashion photographer who unknowingly captures a death on film after following two lovers in a park.

In the following extract Antonioni discusses the making of Blow-Up, the creative process and its inspirations.

My problem with Blow-Up was to recreate reality in an abstract form. I wanted to question ‘the reality of our experience.’ This is an essential point in the visual aspect of the film, considering that one of its main themes is to see or not to see the correct value of things.

Blow-Up is a performance without an epilogue, comparable to those stories from the twenties where F. Scott Fitzgerald showed his disgust with life. While I was filming, I was hoping that no one in seeing the finished film would say: ‘Blow-Up is a typically British film.’ At the same time, I was hoping that no one would define it exclusively as an Italian fIlm. Originally, Blow-Up’s story was to be set in Italy, but I real­ized from the very beginning that it would be impossible to do so. A character like Thomas doesn’t really exist in our country. At the time of the film’s narrative, the place where the famous photographers worked was London. Thomas, furthermore, finds himself at the center of a series of events which are more easily associated with life in London, rather than life in Rome or Milan. He has chosen the new mentality that took over in Great Britain with the 1960s’ revolution in lifestyle, behavior, and morality, above all among the young artists, publicists, stylists, or musicians that were part of the pop movement. Thomas leads a life as regulated as a ceremonial, and it is not by accident that he claims not to know any law other than that of anarchy.

Before the production of the film, I had lived in London for some weeks during the shooting of Modesty Blaise, a film by Joseph Losey star­ ring Monica Vitti. In that period I realized that London would be the ideal setting for a story like the one I already planned to do. But I never had the idea of making a film about London.

The same story could certainly have been set in New York or in Paris. I knew, nevertheless, that I wanted a gray sky for my script, rather than a pas­tel-blue horizon. I was looking for realistic colors and I had already given up, for this film, on certain effects I had captured in Red Desert. At that time, I had worked hard to ensure flattened perspectives with the telephoto lens, to compress characters and things and to place them in juxtaposition with one another. In Blow-Up, I instead opened up the perspective, I tried to put air and space between people and things. The only time I made use of the telephoto lens in the film was when I had to – for example in the sequence when Thomas is caught in the middle of the crowd.

The greatest difficulty I encountered was in reproducing the violence of reality. Enhanced and ultra-soft colors often seem to be the hardest and most aggressive. In Blow-Up, eroticism occupies a very important place, although the focus is often placed on a cold, calculated sensuality. Exhibitionistic and voyeuristic trends are particularly underlined. The young woman in the park undresses and offers her body to the photogra­pher in exchange for the negatives she wants so much to retrieve. Thomas witnesses a sexual encounter between Patrizia and her husband, and his presence as spectator seems to increase the young woman’s excitement.

The risque aspect of the film would have made filming in Italy almost impossible. Italian censorship would never have tolerated some of those images. Let’s not forget that, even though censorship has become more tolerant in many countries in the world, Italy remains the country of the Holy See.

In the film, for example, there is a scene in the photographer’s studio where two twenty-year-old women behave in a very provocative way.

Both are completely naked, although this scene is neither erotic nor vul­gar. It is fresh, light, and, I dare hope, funny. Certainly I cannot prevent viewers from finding it risque. I needed those images in the context of the film, and I did not want to give them up only because they might not meet with the taste and morality of the audience.

As I have written other times in reference to my films, my narratives are documents built not on a suite of coherent ideas, but rather on flashes, ideas that come forth every other moment. I refuse, therefore, to speak about the intentions I place in the film that, at one moment, occupies all my time and attention. It is impossible for me to analyze any of my works before the work is completed. I am a creator of films, a man who has certain ideas and who hopes to express them with sincerity and clarity. I am always telling a story. As far as knowing whether it is a story with any correlation to the world we live in, I am always unable to decide before telling it.

When I began to think about this film, I often stayed awake at night, thinking and taking notes. Soon this story, with its thousands of possibil­ities, fascinated me, and I attempted to understand where its thousands of implications would take me. But at a certain point, I told myself: let’s start making the film – that is to say, let’s try, for better or for worse, to tell the story and, then.... Today I still find myself at this stage, even if I am near­ly finished filming Blow-Up. To be frank, I am still not completely sure of what I am doing, because I am still in the ‘secret’ of the film.

I believe my work depends on both thought and intuition. For example, just a few minutes ago, I was all by myself, thinking about the next scene, and I tried to put myself in the shoes of the main character at the time when he finds the body. I stopped in the shade of the English lawn; I paused in the park, in the mysterious clarity of the London neon bill­ boards. I approached this imaginary corpse and I totally identified with the photographer. I strongly felt his excitement, his emotion, the thousands of sensations that were released in my ‘hero’ by the corpse’s discov­ery. And then I experienced his way of coming back to his senses, of thinking, and reacting. All of which lasted only a few minutes, one or two. Then the rest of the cast joined me and my inspiration, my sensations, vanished.

–  ‘E nato a Londra ma non e un film inglese’, from Corriere della Sera, 12 February 1982. Translated by Allison Cooper.