Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Alfred Hitchcock Discusses Screenwriting

North By Northwest (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
The legendary film director and ‘master of suspense’ Alfred Hitchcock shared his knowledge on film production in the 14th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. His discussion was first published in 1965 as part of a larger entry on motion pictures written by a collection of experts. A captivating read, Hitchcock’s text offers insights on the different stages of filmmaking, the history of cinema, and the relation between a film’s technical and budgetary aspects and its fundamental purpose, telling stories through images. 

The following excerpt is from Hitchcock’s discussion of the craft and role of the screenplay. Hitchcock warns against the temptation for screenwriters of overusing the physical mobility afforded by the camera: ‘It is wrong,’ Hitchcock writes, ‘to suppose, as is all too commonly the case, that the screen of the motion picture lies in the fact that the camera can roam abroad, can go out of the room, for example, to show a taxi arriving. This is not necessarily an advantage and it can so easily be merely dull.’ Hitchcock also admonishes Hollywood to remember the distinct nature of the cinematic form and be true to it, instead of making films as if they were simply the transposition of a novel or a stage play onto film.

By far the greater majority of full-length films are fiction films. The fiction film is created from a screenplay, and all the resources and techniques of the cinema are directed toward the successful realization on the screen of the screenplay. Any treatment of motion-picture production will naturally and logically begin, therefore, with a discussion of the screenplay.

The screenplay, which is sometimes known, also, as the scenario or film script, resembles the blueprint of the architect. It is the verbal design of the finished film. In studios where films are made in great numbers, and under industrial conditions, the writer prepares the screenplay under the supervision of a producer, who represents the budgetary and box-office concerns of the front office, and who may be responsible for several scripts simultaneously. Under ideal conditions, the screenplay is prepared by the writer in collaboration with the director. This practice, long the custom in Europe, has become more common in the United States with the increase of independent production. Indeed, not infrequently, the writer may also be the director.

Strangers On A Train (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
In its progress toward completion, the screenplay normally passes through certain stages; these stages have been established over the years and depend on the working habits of those engaged in writing it. The practice of these years has come to establish three main stages: (1) the outline; (2) the treatment; (3) the screenplay. The outline, as the term implies, gives the essence of the action or story and may present either an original idea or, more usually, one derived from a successful stage play or novel. The outline is then built up into the treatment. This is a prose narrative, written in the present tense, in greater or less detail, that reads like a description of what will finally appear on the screen. This treatment is broken down into screenplay form, which, like its stage counterpart, sets out the dialogue, describes the movements and reactions of the actors and at the same time gives the breakdown of the individual scenes, with some indication of the role, in each scene, of the camera and the sound. It likewise serves as a guide to the various technical departments: to the art department for the sets, to the casting department for the actors, to the costume department, to makeup, to the music department, and so on.

The writer, who should be as skilled in the dialogue of images as of words, must have the capacity to anticipate, visually and in detail, the finished film. The detailed screenplay, prepared ahead, not only saves time and money in production but also enables the director to hold securely to the unity of form and to the cinematic structure of the action, while leaving him free to work intimately and concentratedly with the actors.

Unlike the screenplays of today, the first scripts had no dramatic form, being merely lists of proposed scenes, and their content when filmed was strung together in the order listed. Anything that called for further explanation was covered in a title.

Step by step, as the form and scope of the film developed, the screenplay grew more and more detailed. The pioneer of these detailed screenplays was Thomas Ince, whose remarkable capacity for visualizing the finally edited film made a detailed script possible. In contrast were the talents of D.W. Griffith, who contributed more than almost any other single individual to the establishment of the technique of filmmaking, and who never used a script.

Rear Window (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
By the early 1920s, the writer was meticulously indicating every shot, whereas today, when the scenarist writes less in images and gives more attention to dialogue, leaving the choice of images to the director, the tendency is to confine the script to the master scenes, so called because they are key scenes, covering whole sections of the action, as distinct from individual camera shots. This practice also follows on the increasingly common use of the novelist to adapt his own books; he is likely to be unfamiliar with the process of detailed dramatic and cinematic development. The dramatist, on the other hand, called onto adapt his play, is usually found to be more naturally disposed to do the work effectively. However, the scenarist is faced with a more difficult task than the dramatist. While the latter is, indeed, called upon to sustain the interest of an audience for three acts, these acts are broken up by intervals during which the audience can relax. The screenwriter is faced with the task of holding the attention of the audience for an uninterrupted two hours or longer. He must so grip their attention that they will stay on, held from scene to scene, till the climax is reached. Thus it is that, because screenwriting must build the action continuously, the stage dramatist, used to the building of successive climaxes, will tend to make a better film scenarist.

Sequences must never peter out but must carry the action forward, much as the car of a ratchet railway is carried forward, cog by cog. This is not to say that film is either theatre or novel. Its nearest parallel is the short story, which is as a rule concerned to sustain one idea and ends when the action has reached the highest point of the dramatic curve. A novel may be read at intervals and with interruptions; a play has breaks between the acts; but the short story is rarely put down and in this it resembles the film, which makes a unique demand for uninterrupted attention upon its audience. This unique demand explains the need for a steady development of a plot and the creation of gripping situations arising out of the plot, all of which must be presented, above all, with visual skill. The alternative is interminable dialogue, which must inevitably send a cinema audience to sleep. The most powerful means of gripping attention is suspense. It can be either the suspense inherent in a situation or the suspense that has the audience asking, ‘What will happen next?’ It is indeed vital that they should ask themselves this question. Suspense is created by the process of giving the audience information that the character in the scene does not have. In The Wages of Fear, for example, the audience knew that the truck being driven over dangerous ground contained dynamite. This moved the question from, ‘What will happen next?’ to, ‘Will it happen next?’ What happens next is a question concerned with the behaviour of characters in given circumstances.

Vertigo (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
In the theatre, the performance of the actor carries the audience along. Thus dialogue and ideas suffice. This is not so in the motion picture. The broad structural elements of the story on the screen must be cloaked in atmosphere and character and, finally, in dialogue. If it is strong enough, the basic structure, with its inherent developments, will suffice to take care of the emotions of the audience, provided the element represented by the question ‘What happens next?’ is present. Often a successful play fails to make a successful film because this element is missing.

It is a temptation in adapting stage plays for the screenwriter to use the wider resources of the cinema, that is to say, to go outside, to follow the actor offstage. On Broadway, the action of the play may take place in one room. The scenarist, however, feels free to open up the set, to go outside more often than not. This is wrong. It is better to stay with the play. The action was structurally related by the playwright to three walls and the proscenium arch. It may well be, for example, that much of his drama depends on the question, ‘Who is at the door?’ This effect is ruined if the camera goes outside the room. It dissipates the dramatic tension. The departure from the more or less straightforward photographing of plays came with the growth of techniques proper to film, and the most significant of these occurred when Griffith took the camera and moved it in from its position at the proscenium arch, where Georges Méliès had placed it, to a close-up of the actor. The next step came when, improving on the earlier attempts of Edwin S. Porter and others, Griffith began to set the strips of film together in a sequence and rhythm that came to be known as montage; it took the action outside the confines of time and space, even as they apply to the theatre.

The stage play provides the screenwriter with a certain basic dramatic structure that may call, in adaptation, for little more than the dividing up of its scenes into a number of shorter scenes. The novel, on the other hand, is not structurally dramatic in the sense in which the word is applied to stage or screen. Therefore, in adapting a novel that is entirely compounded of words, the screenwriter must completely forget them and ask himself what the novel is about. All else – including characters and locale – is momentarily put aside. When this basic question has been answered, the writer starts to build up the story again.

Psycho (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
The screenwriter does not have the same leisure as the novelist to build up his characters. He must do this side by side with the unfolding of the first part of the narrative. However, by way of compensation, he has other resources not available to the novelist or the dramatist, in particular the use of things. This is one of the ingredients of true cinema. To put things together visually; to tell the story visually; to embody the action in the juxtaposition of images that have their own specific language and emotional impact – that is cinema. Thus, it is possible to be cinematic in the confined space of a telephone booth. The writer places a couple in the booth. Their hands, he reveals, are touching; their lips meet; the pressure of one against the other unhooks the receiver. Now the operator can hear what passes between them. A step forward in the unfolding of the drama has been taken. When the audience sees such things on the screen, it will derive from these images the equivalent of the words in the novel, or of the expositional dialogue of the stage. Thus the screenwriter is no more limited by the booth than is the novelist. Hence it is wrong to suppose, as is all too commonly the case, that the strength of the motion picture lies in the fact that the camera can roam abroad, can go out of the room, for example, to show a taxi arriving. This is not necessarily an advantage and it can so easily be merely dull.

Things, then, are as important as actors to the writer. They can richly illustrate character. For example, a man may hold a knife in a very strange way. If the audience is looking for a murderer, it may conclude from this that this is the man they are after, misjudging an idiosyncrasy of his character. The skilled writer will know how to make effective use of such things. He will not fall into the uncinematic habit of relying too much on the dialogue. This is what happened on the appearance of sound. Filmmakers went to the other extreme. They filmed stage plays straight. Some indeed there are who believe that the day the talking picture arrived the art of the motion picture, as applied to the fiction film, died and passed to other kinds of film.

The truth is that with the triumph of dialogue, the motion picture has been stabilized as theatre. The mobility of the camera does nothing to alter this fact. Even though the camera may move along the sidewalk, it is still theatre. The characters sit in taxis and talk. They sit in automobiles and make love, and talk continuously. One result of this is a loss of cinematic style. Another is the loss of fantasy. Dialogue was introduced because it is realistic. The consequence was a loss of the art of reproducing life entirely in pictures. Yet the compromise arrived at, although made in the cause of realism, is not really true to life. Therefore the skilled writer will separate the two elements. If it is to be a dialogue scene, then he will make it one. If it is not, then he will make it visual, and he will always rely more on the visual than on dialogue. Sometimes he will have to decide between the two; namely, if the scene is to end with a visual statement, or with a line of dialogue. Whatever the choice made at the actual staging of the action, it must be one to hold the audience...


– Excerpt from ‘Alfred Hitchcock on film production (motion picture)’.  In the 14th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (1973).

 

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Elia Kazan: Writing for the Theatre, Writing for the Screen

A Streetcar Named Desire (Directed by Elia Kazan)
Elia Kazan’s The Pleasures of Directing is a fragment from an unfinished book that the great director began writing as he was approaching his eightieth year. His aim was to show readers the process of directing a film or a play, and the technical aspects were to be spliced with observations on the character and talents of the writers and artists he worked with and the way their collaboration evolved.

In the following extract Kazan draws on his experience as a groundbreaking director in the mediums of film and theatre to contrast the art of writing for the theatre to the process of writing for the screen:

A director should know everything about playwriting and/or screenplay writing, even if he is unable to write, is incapable of producing anything worth putting before an audience. He must be able to see the merits but also anticipate the problems involved in producing a script. The director is responsible for the script. Its faults are his responsibility. There is no evading this. He is there to guide the playwright to correct whatever faults the script has. At the same time he must respect the merits of the playwright’s work during the tensions of production. He is responsible for the protection of the manuscript.

Note that the word is not ‘playwrite,’ it’s ‘playwright.’ A play for the theatre is made as much as it is written. A film is made, not written. They are both constructions. The construction tells the story more than the words.

On The Waterfront (Directed by Elia Kazan)
In the movies, the director should be co-author (ideally) because that is what inevitably he is. He should work on the screenplay with the writer from the very beginning. The manner in which the story is developed tells more than the words do. The problems that arise during production are almost always problems of construction. Since so much of the story of a film is told by visual images, the director is the co-creator. A screenplay is not literature – a film is constructed of pieces of film joined together during the editing process. The most memorable films are not usually treasured for their literary values. But in film as well as in works for the stage, story construction is a major component.

A filmscript is more architecture than literature. This will get my friends who are writers mad, but it’s the truth: The director tells the movie story more than the man who writes the dialogue. The director is the final author, which is the reason so many writers now want to become directors. It’s all one piece. Many of the best films ever made can be seen without dialogue and be perfectly understood. The director tells the essential story with pictures. Dialogue, in most cases, is the gravy on the meat. It can be a tremendous ‘plus,’ but it rarely is. Acting, the art, helps; that too is the director’s work. He finds the experience within the actor that makes his or her face and body come alive and so creates the photographs he needs. Pictures, shots, angles, images, ‘cuts,’ poetic long shots – these are his vocabulary. Not talk. What speaks to the eye is the director’s vocabulary, his ‘tools,’ just as words are the author’s. Until Panic in the Streets, I’d directed actors moving in and out of dramatic arrangements just as I might have done on stage, with the camera photographing them mostly in medium shot. My stage experience, which I’d thought of as an asset, I now regarded as a handicap. I had to learn a new art.

Baby Doll (Directed by Elia Kazan)
A true artistic partnership between a writer and a filmmaker is an excellent solution, but it’s rarely arrived at. The dialogue remains an adjunct to the film rather than its central element. What can be told through images, through movement, through the expressiveness of the actor, what can be told without explicit and limiting dialogue, is best done that way. Reliance on the visual allows the ambiguity, the openness of life.

In the work of the best playwrights there is a mysterious, surprising quality. This play is unlike that of any other playwright. You may realize that the author is dealing with a strongly felt personal concern so important to him that it has been able to arouse the degree of energy necessary to produce a total manuscript. He has something to say; it is his message. The director of a screenplay has to appreciate what the writer is trying to say and stand up for it as surely as if he wrote the words himself. He is responsible for the writer’s theme and must ‘realize’ it, make it come to life for an audience. In film this consists of the choice and arrangement of images.

Most screenplays are adaptations of novels, stage plays, stories, news items, history. But the most interesting scripts verge on autobiography. The writer speaks to you, through the screen, using all the means of this form that are special to it, the succession of images as well as words. The best screen work has this element, even if the story appears to be objectively observed. The story is molded by the writer’s beliefs and feelings.

Splendor In The Grass (Directed by Elia Kazan)
The subject of writing for the theatre or screen defies easily formulated rules. The best rule of screen and play writing was given to me by John Howard Lawson, a onetime friend. It’s simple: unity from climax. Everything should build to the climax. But all I know about script preparation urges me to make no rules, although there are some hints, tools of the trade, that have been useful for me.
One of these is ‘Have your central character in every scene.’ This is a way of ensuring unity to the work and keeping the focus sharp. Another is: ‘Look for the contradictions in every character, especially in your heroes and villains. No one should be what they first seem to be. Surprise the audience.’

It is essential that the viewer be able to follow the flow of events. If you keep trying to figure out who is who and where it’s all happening and what is going on, you can’t emotionally respond to what’s being shown to you. But keep in mind that the greatest quality of a work of art may be its ability to surprise you, to make you wonder.

Another rule I have found useful is: Every time you make a cut, you improve a scene. Somerset Maugham, a wise old man, said that there are two important rules of playwriting. ‘One, stick to the subject. Two, cut wherever you can.’ Another wise man said: ‘If it occurs to you that something might be cut, it should be cut.’

Paul Osborn, an experienced and smart playwright and screenwriter, invited me to a screening of a movie made by the producer Sam Goldwyn. Sam asked Paul his opinion. ‘Needs cutting,’ said Paul. This made Sam frantic because he thought the same but didn’t know what to do about it. ‘But where?’ he asked. Paul answered, ‘Everywhere.’

America, America (Directed by Elia Kazan)
There’s no such thing as realistic theatre. The very presence of the audience, the fact of selection of any kind, the very taking off of the fourth wall, makes it not realistic. I’m not interested in what’s called realism. I don’t believe I’ve worked ‘realistically’ or ‘naturalistically’ either. What our stage does is put a strong light on a person, on the inner life, the feelings of a person. These become monumental. You’re not seeing the characters in two dimensions. They’re out there living right in your midst. It puts a terrific emphasis on what’s said too. You can no longer pretend a character is talking only to the partner he’s playing with. He’s talking in the midst of eleven hundred people and they’re there to hear him. They can hear his breathing, so right off the bat, the theatrical exists. You can’t duck it.

Stage operates through illusion. There’s nothing between the actor and the audience. Only he – without help – can project the idea to the audience. In movies, the camera helps out – moves the idea along. Sometimes it can talk, as it closes in or backs up, helps express emotion, what a character is thinking; or it can anticipate action. The more words, usually the lousier a movie script. Movies must be the real thing. Camera gives the plot an assist, helps the story get there.

– Extract from ‘The Pleasures of Directing’ in Elia Kazan: Kazan on Directing (Vintage Books, 2010) 

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Jean-Pierre Melville on ‘Le Cercle Rouge’

Le Cercle Rouge (Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville)
I’m not interested in realism. All my films hinge on the fantastic. I’m not a documentarian; a film is first and foremost a dream, and it’s absurd to copy life in an attempt to produce an exact re-creation of it. Transposition is more or less a reflex with me: I move from realism to fantasy without the spectator ever noticing. -– Jean-Pierre Melville
The following discussion of Jean-Pierre Melville’s masterpiece of crime cinema Le Cercle Rouge is excerpted from Melville On Melville, a book-length interview with the great French director by Rui Nogueira first published in 1971.

How do you feel about your twelfth film, ‘Le Cercle Rouge’?

Since there’s no knowing if there will be a thirteenth, l have to talk about Le Cercle Rouge as though it were my ‘latest’ film – as you say when you’ve just completed a picture – but also my ‘last’ film [Melville would make one more film, Un Flic, in 1972]. Which in turn obliges me to speak about my filmmaking career as a whole, as well as my life as a spectator. Maybe I won’t want to make any more films. That could happen, supposing fate decreed that I wasn’t to be allowed to rebuild my studios here, and I decided to go live in America, not to make films there, but to write. So I really am obliged at this point to take stock of twenty-five years of professional activity and some forty-five years’ activity as a moviegoer. I’ll begin by being hard on myself, before moving on to other people. Then I’ll talk about the film, but also about what it’s like working on a film surrounded by people who haven’t at all the same reasons for being involved in it, for living in it, while it’s being made.
All right, then. If I look at myself very objectively, I realize that I’ve become impossible. Not egocentric – I’m not in the least egocentric – but, if I may be allowed to coin a word, opocentric; ‘opo,’ from opus. As I grow older, in other words, nothing matters except my profession and therefore my work, by which I mean the work at hand, which I think about day and night and which takes precedence over everything – I repeat, everything – else in my thoughts... I’m not talking about my affections, of course. So, I begin thinking about the film I’m working on as soon as I wake up in the morning – and I’m always working on one, even if I’m not actually shooting – and only when I go to sleep at night do I stop thinking about it. That’s pretty extreme, and I was made aware of it last night. I was having dinner with Léo Fortel, and at the next table there were two girls and two young men. One of the two men was obviously part French, part Indo-Chinese... and opposite him was a ravishing Asian girl; I think she must have been of mixed parentage, with extraordinary hair – probably a wig – pitch-black, in Joan of Arc style but longer, and the most fantastic face. I was staring at her throughout the meal, but when Léo asked me if I wanted him to get her name and address, I said no. ‘Really?’ he said. ‘But why not?’ ‘Because I don’t have a film in mind for her,’ I said. And I realized that beautiful women interest me only insofar as I can use them in a film. You see how far it’s gone?
 
Le Cercle Rouge is by far the toughest movie I have tackled, because I worked the plot out myself and I didn’t do myself any favors in writing my scenes. I said to myself, ‘This is going to be difficult to shoot, but I don’t care, I want to do it.’ And I did manage to film what I had written. But instead of completing it in fifty days, which would have been normal, it took me sixty-six days.

What is Le Cercle Rouge? Le Cercle Rouge, to my mind, is first and foremost a heist story. It’s about two professional crooks, Delon and Volonté, and another man, Montand, who is a sort of unplanned helper.

As I’ve told you, I wanted to write a heist script long before I saw The Asphalt Jungle, before I’d even heard of it, and well before things like Rififi. I think I also told you that I was supposed to make Rififi? No? Well, I was the person who got the producer to buy the rights: he announced that I was to direct the film, and then I didn’t see him again for six months. Finally, the film was made by [Jules] Dassin, who had the extreme courtesy to say that he would do it only if I wrote to tell him that I was happy about the arrangement. Which I did.


So I’ve wanted to ‘do a robbery’ since about 1950, around the time I finished Les Enfants Terribles. I’d like Le Cercle Rouge to be masterly, of course, but I don’t know yet if it will be; I think the elements are sufficiently interesting to make a good sequence, and time will tell if I’ve set the robbery in the right context or not. It’s also a sort of digest of all the thriller-type films I have made previously, and I haven’t made things easy for myself in any way. For instance, there are no women in the film, and it certainly isn’t taking the easy way out to make a thriller with five leading characters, none of whom is a woman.

Was ‘Le Cercle Rouge’ one of the twenty-two scripts destroyed when your studio burned down?

No. Actually, with my memory, I could have taken any one of those scripts and rewritten it down to the last comma. But if I had, I would have done it differently. I don’t like to repeat myself. I will never film those burned scripts, because I wouldn’t want to do them now even if I still had them in my drawer – which doesn’t mean that I won’t often use ideas from those scripts, as I in fact did for the relationship between the head of Internal Affairs and Captain Mattei in Le Cercle Rouge.

The Cercle Rouge script is an original in the sense that it was written by me and by me alone, but it won’t take you long to realize it’s a transposed western, with the action taking place in Paris instead of the West, in the present day rather than after the Civil War, and with cars instead of horses. So I start off with the traditional – almost obligatory – conventional situation: the man just released from jail. And this man corresponds pretty much to the cowboy who, once the opening credits are over, pushes open the doors of a saloon.
Originally you had a different cast in mind, didn’t you?

Yes. Captain Mattei, who is played by André Bourvil – and played beautifully – was a part originally intended for Lino Ventura. The ex-cop, Jansen, turned crook and alcoholic, was to have been played by Paul Meurisse and not Yves Montand. And I had thought of offering [Jean-Paul] Belmondo the role of Vogel, finally played by Gian Maria Volonté. I think that if Delon hadn’t wanted to do Borsalino with Belmondo, I would have got them both together in Le Cercle Rouge... But every film is what it is, and it stands or falls on its own merits. A film is a moment out of one’s life. In my case, at least, you must remember, it represents fourteen months of uninterrupted work squeezed into twelve – 1968 was a completely wasted year for me, because I’d signed a contract with the Hakim brothers to make La Chienne, and they found a way not to honor it. They made me lose a whole year immediately following the fire at my studios, which was a terrible blow in a lot of ways; because losing the studios and all they represented in terms of money and opportunities was bad enough, but then to be reduced to twelve months of unemployment by a contract retaining exclusive rights over your services and preventing you from doing anything else whatsoever – that is a terrible blow. So, those fourteen months of work squeezed into twelve, because in 1966 I made Le Deuxième Souffle, in 1967 I made Le Samouraï, in 1968 I did nothing, in 1969 I did Army of Shadows, and in 1970 Le Cercle Rouge. Well, when you reach my age, you’re entitled to think that a film is an important thing in your life, because it represents at least a year’s work and then dogs you for another year: you remain the man of last year’s film, or of your last film shown. So in fact a film may be said to take up two years of your life.
In the shooting script for ‘Le Cercle Rouge’, when Captain Mattei is hunting Vogel after his escape, you have him say, ‘He isn’t Claude Tenne. I couldn’t ask the minister of the interior to block every road in France.’ Who is this Claude Tenne?

Claude Tenne was a member of the OAS, and during the Algerian crisis, he was tried and imprisoned for his anti-government activities. He managed to escape from prison on the Île de Ré by folding himself into four and hiding inside a military trunk, a sort of big iron trunk, though not so very big, actually – I have no idea how he did it. And at the time, roadblocks were set up all over France.

At another point in the script, you describe Jansen as follows: ‘Jansen, stretched out on his bed, fully dressed, filthy, unshaven, with a three-day beard. Like Faulkner in one of his alcoholic bouts.’

Yes, I imagine Faulkner or Hemingway as being like that in their bouts of alcoholism. As a matter of fact, I think there are many eyewitness accounts of how Faulkner sometimes used to stay shut up in his room with his bottles for a week, with orders that he wasn’t to be disturbed.

But Jansen’s hallucinations – rats and spiders crawling slowly toward him – are the sort of nightmares Edgar Allan Poe might have dreamed up.

Well, of course. You know that Poe and Melville have a great deal in common... But now I’m getting mixed up, forgetting when I say Melville that it’s not me, but the great...
Could you tell us about your working relationship with the cast of ‘Le Cercle Rouge’?

I had an excellent relationship with Delon during shooting. We have an extraordinary personal understanding, which enables us to work in a very special way.

This was the first time I worked with Yves Montand, who is a very fine actor, but he comes from the music hall and that’s what sets him apart from Delon. Delon is enormously gifted and doesn’t need as much preparation as Montand, who is a perfectionist like me. Montand is the sort of actor who arrives on set in the morning with the whole thing in his head. Everything went beautifully with him too – he’s enormously willing and dedicated. If you want proof, consider what he’s just been doing in [Costa-Gavras’s] The Confession. This man, known to the whole world as a Communist, has had the courage to accept the role in The Confession of a character who accuses the Communist regime of having committed inconceivable crimes... Anyhow, it was marvelous working with Montand, and I hope to make many more films with him. In the first place, because he’s a man of about my age – he’s three years my junior, actually – so he’s easier for me to use as a vehicle than a much younger actor. Alain and Jean-Paul, let’s say, are vehicle characters for me because they are thirty-five years old, and if I give Delon a mustache, that’s it, he’s the man, not just a nice-looking young man but the man. Handsome, maybe, but it doesn’t matter, because it no longer gets in the way. Anyway, to my mind, Montand is also handsome.
 
André Bourvil is an excellent actor, one of the best in France, but he probably isn’t a priori a Melvillean actor. I think he gives a very fine performance in my film, and I’m all the more convinced of this after going through the whole film again on the cutting table: there are moments where Bourvil is absolutely staggering. In his case, I’m very happy about the casting change, because Bourvil brings an element of humanity to the part that I hadn’t expected and Lino Ventura certainly wouldn’t have provided. Lino Ventura would have been ‘the Police Captain,’ and there would have been no surprises. Whereas with Bourvil – thanks to Bourvil – there are quite a few.

As for François Périer, there’s really nothing more to be said. Everyone knows he’s one of our finest actors. I remember the evening I met you outside a cinema where they were playing Le Samouraï, and we both exclaimed together, ‘Périer is fantastic!’ This film can add only a little to his reputation. The astonishing thing, though – and it’s one of the distressing aspects of this business – is that at this moment, François Périer isn’t rated as a star, and he should be. This upsets me, just as it upsets me that [American character actor] Richard Boone isn’t a star. But in this area, it’s still the distributor who lays down the law and not the filmmaker... Distributors won’t take the risk. They always say, ‘No, no, think of the billing, use name actors, etc.’ I think it’s a pity you can’t even think of making an expensive film, costing, say, a billion old francs, with unknowns. I could make a film tomorrow with unknowns if it cost three hundred million, but not a billion. They’ll pay out three hundred million on my name because they know more or less what sort of merchandise they’ll get from me, but they won’t give me more. The billion for Le Cercle Rouge was possible because I had Delon, Bourvil, and Montand, and because there was a sizable Italian coproduction interest, since I was using an Italian actor, Gian Maria Volonté – totally unknown in France, I might add – whom I’d had in mind to play Vogel after seeing him in Carlo Lizzani’s Banditi a Milano.

If you want me to talk about Gian Maria Volonté, that’s a very different story. Because Gian Maria Volonté is an instinctive actor, and he may well be a great stage actor in Italy, he may even be a great Shakespearean actor, but for me he was absolutely impossible, in that on a French set, in a film such as I was making, he never at any moment made me feel I was dealing with a professional. He didn’t know how to place himself for the lighting – he didn’t understand that an inch to the left or to the right wasn’t at all the same thing. ‘Look at Delon, look at Montand,’ I used to tell him. ‘See how they position themselves perfectly for the lights, etc., etc.’ I also think the fact that he is very involved in politics (he’s a leftist, as he never tires of telling you) did nothing to bring us together. He was very proud of having gone to sit in at the Odéon during the ‘glorious’ days of May–June 1968; personally, I didn’t go to sit in at the Odéon. It seems, too, that whenever he had a weekend free, he flew back to Italy. That’s what I call a supernationalist spirit. I once said to him, ‘It’s no use dreaming of becoming an international star so long as you continue to pride yourself on being Italian – which is of no consequence, any more than being French is.’ But for him, everything Italian was marvelous and wonderful, and everything French was ridiculous. I remember one day, we were setting up a rear-projection scene, and he was smiling to himself. I asked him why, and he said, ‘Because...  you’ve seen Banditi a Milano? There are no rear projections in Banditi a Milano. Everything was shot direct, inside a moving car.’ ‘Really?’ I said. ‘And were you shooting night scenes like this? Were you inside a car filming the action going on outside at night?’ ‘Well, no,’ he said, and it seemed to sink in that we weren’t using rear projection just to amuse him. He’s a strange character. Very wearying. I can tell you, I won’t be making any more films with Gian Maria Volonté.
Can you draw any conclusions from the twelve films you’ve made since 1947?

In these twenty-three years, or let’s say these twenty-five years, because after all, it was in 1945 that I founded my production company – I was demobilized in October 1945 and formed the company on November 5, 1945 – in these twenty-five years of professionalism, I’ve done lots of things. First, in 1947, I got the idea of building my own studios, which I did. At one point, I was the only filmmaker in the world to have his own studios. This period lasted from 1949, when I made Les Enfants Terribles, till 1967 – eighteen years in all, with a short break when I gave the studios up for a time, before being able to rebuild them as I wanted. Then in June 1967, they burned down. Nothing much remains, but I am rebuilding them, even though I haven’t received the permit yet from the city of Paris. So parallel to the films I have made... Well, in an article I received yesterday, there’s a sentence that reads, ‘. . . the novel Le Silence De La Mer, which was adapted for the screen by the father of the new French cinema, Jean-Pierre Melville.’ This was published in the Algerian newspaper El Moudjahid, by the critic Ahmazid Deboukalfa. I don’t know this man except by name, but I’m delighted to know that someone outside France remembers from time to time that it was Melville, after all, who shook things up in 1947.

Then in 1957, I built a screening room on the rue Washington, along with editing rooms, but since leasing out screening space and editing rooms isn’t my business, I sold my interest. However, I’ve always felt the need for some parallel creative activity, in building and materials, because cinema isn’t created with ideas alone. There’s the whole mechanical side of it, and, of course, projection. For instance, during the three years my studios were leased out to Pathé-Marconi, I couldn’t stand not having my own screening room, so I built one, which I leased out to other people but could use myself in the evenings to run through any films I wanted to see. This sort of thing will always happen with me. At the moment, I’m ruining myself in advance to create a screening room here on the rue Jenner, which is going to be marvelous because if, for instance, Monsieur Cocteau of Fox were to lend me a print of The Kremlin Letter tomorrow morning, what a joy it would be to screen it here during the morning and then return it to the Balzac Cinema at 1:30 p.m., in time for the first show.

I don’t know what will be left of me fifty years from now. I suspect that all films will have aged terribly and that the cinema probably won’t even exist anymore. My guess is that the final disappearance of cinemas will take place around the year 2020, so in fifty years’ time, there will be nothing but television. Well, I would be happy if I got one line in the Great Universal Encyclopedia of the Cinema, and I think that’s the sort of ambition every filmmaker must have. This is a business in which you have to be not arriviste, certainly not that, nor yet ambitious, which I’m not, but you have to have ambition in what you do, which isn’t at all the same thing. I’m not ambitious, I don’t want to be something – I have always been what I am, I haven’t become anything – but I’ve always had, and I shall always try to retain, this feeling that ambition in one’s work is an absolutely healthy, justifiable thing. You can’t make films just for the sake of making films. If fate wills that I should make more films, I’ll try to remain faithful to this ideal of being ambitious when I start a film; not being ambitious between films, but being ambitious when I start work, telling myself, ‘People have to enjoy this.’ That’s my ambition: to fill cinemas.


– ‘Melville on Le Cercle Rouge’ in Rui Nogueira: Melville on Melville (Martin Secker & Warburg, 1971). This excerpt from criterion.com, April 12, 2011.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Akira Kurosawa: On Screenwriting

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

García Márquez: Does somebody kill somebody?

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

– Extract from: García Márquez / Kurosawa (via kino-obscura.com).
Full article here


   

Friday, 25 July 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

    

Monday, 14 July 2014

Theo Angelopoulos: Writing and History

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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