Friday, 12 December 2014

Francis Ford Coppola: Personal Stories

The Conversation (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
The following discussion with screenwriter and director Francis Ford Coppola is an edited extract from an interview published in The Rumpus.net in 2012 to mark the release of his movie Twixt. Coppola talks at length about filmmaking, the importance of the script and his ‘new beginning’ of self-financed ‘student’ films while offering the following advice to aspiring filmmakers: ‘Suspend your self-doubt, do only the work you love, and make it personal’.

Rumpus: Do you think there’s a danger in teaching writing – formulaic scripts?

Coppola: Dramatic structure and theater plays are thousands of years old. It’s amazing how much dramatic structure is influenced by the Greeks. The novel’s only a few hundreds of years old, but in the novel there’s still so much room for invention. That’s why I was annoyed when they were saying the big thing for movies now is going to be 3-D. The cinema’s only a hundred years old, you don’t think that even in the writing of the film there’s so much left to accomplish?

How do you feel about adaptations?

I don’t feel that books should become movies. I feel that movies should be written fresh and new. They should also never make remakes. With all the money and effort you should at least try to give something to the world that’s uniquely for cinema and not adapted from a book. Also, the short story does much better in translation to film than a novel. It’s already in the right shape and size. A movie is like writing a haiku. You have to be so pared down. Everything has to be so loaded and economic...

Of all your work, what do you feel the most personal connection to?

In my earlier career I liked The Rain People (1969), because that was my first film where I got to do what I wanted to do. I was young; I wrote the story based on something that I had witnessed. Few people know that film. It’s about a young wife who loves her husband but doesn’t want to be a wife, and one day gets in her station wagon and leaves a note with his breakfast and takes off. In a way it preceded the women’s movement. It’s curious for a guy like me to do. Then I made The Conversation (1974), which was an original as well. That’s what I wanted to be doing. The Godfather (1972) was an accident. I was broke and we needed the money. We had no way to keep American Zoetrope going. I had no idea it was going to be that successful. It was awful to work on, and then my career took off and I didn’t get to be what I wanted to be.

The Conversation (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
What did you want to be?

I wanted to be a guy who made films like The Rain People and The Conversation. I didn’t want to be a big Hollywood movie director.

What was your reaction to suddenly having all this fame?

Well, it was the first time I had any money. I was always a starving student and money was always a big problem. Suddenly I had all this money. I bought this building, and I bought a nice house. I didn’t want to ever do a second Godfather. I was so oppressed during The Godfather by the studio that when Mr. Big, who owned the whole conglomerate, said, ‘What do we have to do to get you to do it?’ I had suggested that I would supervise it and pick a director to do the second Godfather. I don’t know why there should be a second Godfather. It’s a drama, it’s the end, it’s over. It’s not a serial. When I went back and told them I had chosen Marty Scorsese to do it they said absolutely not. Finally I told them I’d do it, but I didn’t want any of those guys to have anything to do with it. To see it, to hear the soundtrack, the casting, their ideas, nothing. So I made Godfather 2 (1974) because I’d always been thinking about trying to write something about a father and son at the same age, two stories juxtaposed. I had total control and it was a pleasure, I must say. I did that and won all these Oscars and had all this success for doing that.

Then when I wanted to do Apocalypse Now (1979), no one would do it. I couldn’t believe it. I was so disgruntled that I had played by their rules and won, yet they still didn’t want to make it. So I just went on myself, and took all the money and property I had, went to the bank, and made Apocalypse Now myself. When it came out it was very dicey. People didn’t know what to make of it; it got bad reviews. My films have always gotten a lot of bad reviews. I was very scared that I was going to be wiped out because the Chase Manhattan Bank had all my stuff. I decided I would make a movie that would be very commercial. Every time I’ve tried to do something commercial it’s always failed. So I made One From The Heart (1982).

And what happened was that Apocalypse Now, little by little, started to be a big success and thought of as a classic, a great movie. But by then I was already making One From The Heart and that was a big flop and I lost everything. So from age forty to age fifty I just had to pay the Chase Manhattan Bank all that money, and I just barely ended up holding onto everything. So ironically, the thing I did to solve the problem ended up causing a problem. All this takes a big emotional toll. It took ten years of making a movie every year to pay off the bank.

The Conversation (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
Was that depressing?

Yeah. I wanted to be making other kinds of movies. When you do movies like that for hire, you’re a prostitute. If you’re a prostitute you’ve got to find something about the client to enjoy. Nice eyes, a sense of humor, nice hair. You have to do that with the movies. You have to find something to fall in love with because it’s a process you can’t do without loving it.  Every year I had to go get a job to pay off the bank.

When you returned, you developed a new set of rules for your filmmaking process – that they be based on your own original screenplays, involve a personal component, and be self-financed. How did you arrive at this set of rules and what have been its challenges and rewards?

I wanted a clean slate so I decided to embark on a series of ‘student films’ for myself to begin anew. I thought, ‘How do you be like a student?’ Easy, you have no money. If you have no money to pay for everything, that’s when things get interesting. The films I make now have to be inexpensive enough that I can finance them myself. This was how I made a new beginning for myself. There’s a scene in a Kurosawa movie where they get this guy, and they practically kill him, and he’s in a box. He just has this knife, and these leaves are blowing, and he throws the knife and tries to get the knife to go through a leaf, and that’s how he builds himself up. I had to do that: be broken in a box and have a second life. To do that I needed to be a student. I thought I should try to make movies with nothing. No money, just whatever I have. So I made Youth without Youth (2007), then Tetro (2009), which was very personal, then this wacky film Twixt (2011). I really wanted to make this last film to have fun, but even that got personal...

The Rain People (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
What was your life like growing up?

I didn’t grow up with anyone. I lived in a different place every six months. I went to 24 schools before college.

How did that affect you? Your social skills?

I didn’t do well in school. I have no social skills. I didn’t have any friends. First of all, I was always the new kid. Second of all, my name is Francis, which was a girl’s name. And also there was a famous series of movies called Francis the Talking Mule, the predecessor to Mr. Ed. I got picked on but I had one thing on my side: I could beat them up. I didn’t lose any fights. I didn’t go looking for them, either, but I could always get them in a headlock and win.

I wanted friends, though. For a couple years, I was paralyzed with polio. I always had this yearning to be part of a group. That’s why I think I gravitated towards theatre, because there’s a tradition of being part of a troupe. You do the play, rehearse together, have coffee together, work on the sets late at night, there’s a real sense of camaraderie that film doesn’t have. Film school was like ‘every man for himself.’ It’s always been a mystery to me that in every film school in the world they want nothing to do with the drama department. I mean they’ll go out with the girls in the drama department, but there’s a different culture. They just don’t gel. Theatre people are considered weird by the film people.

Also, in those days, the young men in film were all about camera, films, and editing, and that’s the least important thing. Orson Welles said once that you could learn those aspects of film in a weekend. The hard parts of film are acting and writing. Most film students know nothing about acting. Acting for film classes starts boiling down very quickly to marks on the floor and acting for the camera. The big advantage I had is that I had been a theatre major, and that made me have to work with actors. I never wanted to be an actor, but I was interested in knowing how to help them.

The Godfather (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
That seems to me to be one of the most interesting things about being a director, working with actors.

If you look at the statistics of all of the people who become movie directors, the success rate is the highest by far among actors becoming directors. It makes total sense, because acting is fundamentally one of the two main ingredients: acting and writing. You never hear of a movie that’s so wonderful because of the photography or the art direction being great. It’s usually the acting or writing; without those two things you don’t have anything...

So many aspiring filmmakers are daunted by how much money films cost to make. Does that ever deter your ambition?

In terms of money, I have a magic box. I do. In that box is an infinite amount of money. So when I have a worthy project I just go in that box and I take out the money. The box doesn’t exist and therefore there’s nothing in it. But I believe there is. And ultimately that’s what happens. At the time, if I ever have a script doing what I wish that it could do, then I would figure out where to get the money.

How do you compose your screenplays?

Sometimes when I write screenplays I first write them in prose so I can enter into the characters’ thoughts. I guess in the old days that was like a treatment. I write it as if it were a novel, then adapt into a screenplay. It’s how I find out about the piece and the themes.

The Godfather (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
After all you’ve accomplished what are your remaining ambitions?

I don’t have any real ambitions besides making a great film, the one. Whether that will happen, I don’t know. Even if I don’t get to make it, working on it is its own reward.

Do you show anyone your work?

I’m sure I’ll write a draft of this script and then be careful about getting an opinion. I remember showing The Godfather to all the film cognoscenti of San Francisco, and they all came out after the film and only one person said that it was something good: Bob Towne, the screenwriter. He wrote Chinatown. He was the only one who thought it was good. So all these people who buzz around the film business know nothing. No one does.

Is there anyone outside of the film world you trust to read your work?

I have to say I really don’t have anyone. I wish I did. I’d give anything. But I also wish I had a movie studio to call home, like United Artists, which was such a great company which was destroyed. If I have time I’ll try to resurrect United Artists. There’s a lot of people in my life who I love and care about, but whose ideas about film and scripts are very conventional, and I don’t think they’d see things in front of them. I’ve got to think about someone who I could really show it to. That’s a big question.

Do you ever get critical of your work when still writing it?

Oh, I’m very critical of it, but I have a rule. When you write six pages, you turn it over and don’t read it until you’ve written the whole thing. A young person, any person really, has a hormone injected into their blood stream that makes them hate what they’ve just written. It gets better a few months later when you read it. Do it, write it, and turn the pages over and feel good about it. Then the next day pick up from where you left off. A lot of times when you’re writing you can get lost in making revisions to things that later you’re just going to cut out later. If you decide halfway through the character isn’t a man but a woman, then just change it later. But don’t go back. Go forward because you have no idea where it’s going to go. Let it tell you what it’s going to be.

Apocalypse Now (Directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
How do you compare yourself now with yourself as a young filmmaker?

It’s dangerous to try to compete with myself as a young man. All those things I did then, I did then. I don’t want to run after that. I want to see things different. The best thing I can do is start over again.

I’m reminded of the opening to Shunryu Suzuki’s book ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’: ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.’ How are you both an expert and an amateur?

I am an amateur in that I do what I do out of love and I go blindly wanting above all to learn. I am an expert in that I have done this kind of creative work all my life and know that even though I am perhaps lost at the moment, ultimately I will find my way.

Do you think risk is involved with your artistic growth?

Yes, without risk I don’t think there can be art.

What’s the best advice you can give another artist?

Suspend your self-doubt, do only the work you love, and make it personal.

You’re at the age now where a lot of people sit back and rest on their laurels – what keeps you creating?

Somehow I haven’t done (in cinema) what I always dreamed of doing, and am ever hopeful that now I’ll be in a position to accomplish that. I wish to write something big and as full of emotion as I feel I am. I am learning so much about writing and am hopeful that I am on the verge of accomplishing this goal. I wonder if when I get all this done, if I’ll be able to take the leap beyond melodrama and stand back and say to my incorrigible imagination, how can I take this to a level not like the movies I grew up with, but beyond that? I want to make a film that breaks your heart, but I’ve never done it.


– Extract from ‘The Rumpus Interview with Francis Ford Coppola’ by Anisse Gross · August 17, 2012. The full article can be viewed at http://therumpus.net.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Eric Rohmer: Moral Tales

My Night At Maud’s (Directed by Eric Rohmer)
A former editor of the pioneering film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, Eric Rohmer (1910-2010) became one of the leading figures of the French New Wave. Working well into his eighties, his influential body of work is renowned for its originality, restrained visual style and witty and articulate dialogue. Rohmer’s reputation was established with his ambitious Moral Tales series of films, each based around a common theme of – in his description: ‘a man meeting a woman at the very moment when he is about to commit himself to someone else’. 

The following extract is taken from an interview with Eric Rohmer by Graham Petrie originally published in 1971.

You began your series of ‘Moral Tales’ with two films in 16mm?

‎‏Yes, the first two are in 16mm. This was because the Nouvelle Vague had established itself; those whose films had done well were setting out on a successful career, but those whose films hadn’t done so well, like myself with [feature debut] Le Signe du Lion (1962), were having problems with continuing. So I decided to go on filming, no matter what, and instead of looking for a subject that might be attractive to the public or a producer, I decided that I would find a subject that I liked and that a producer would refuse. So here you have someone doing exactly what he wants to. And as you can’t do this on 35mm, I made the films on 16mm. That way it didn’t cost very much, just the price of the film stock. I found people willing to work for me out of friendship, either as technicians or actors. The first was a very short film, [The Bakery Girl of Monceau, 1963] only 25 minutes long, the second a bit longer than that, [Suzanne’s Career, 1963] and then I decided to make the third, which was La Collectionneuse (1967) and I realized that, as long as you were economical with the amount of film you used, it wouldn’t really cost much more to do it on 35mm, especially if you used color. Fortunately I met a friend who could advance me enough to pay for film stock and we used 5,000 meters for a film that ended up 2,500 meters long – that means almost a 2:1 ratio. And that is how I made La Collectionneuse with no money.

The Bakery Girl Of Monceau (Directed by Eric Rohmer)
Can you tell me something about the subject-matter of these first two films?
‎‏
In the first two Moral Tales I’m telling the story of a young man who meets up with a young girl or woman at a time when he’s looking for another woman. You find this idea very clearly in the first film, which is about a boy who sees a girl in the street and falls in love with her but doesn't know how to become acquainted with her. He tries to follow her to find out where she lives, but loses track of her. So he makes up his mind to make a systematic search for her, and as he usually eats in a restaurant frequented by students he decides to go without dinner and use the time to look for her in the district round about. And as he gets hungry he starts going into a baker’s shop every day and buys some cakes to eat while he’s exploring the area. He notices that the assistant in the shop is becoming interested in him, perhaps falling in love, and as he is getting a bit bored, he starts flirting with her. He gets caught up in the game he’s playing with her and finally makes a date with her, just to see what will happen. But just as he’s going to meet her, he comes across the first girl, the one he’d seen right at the beginning of the story, who lives just opposite the baker’s but had sprained her ankle and couldn’t go out, which is why he hadn’t seen her. She had seen him go in there every day, but. thinking that he knew where she lived, she assumed that he just went in there so that she would notice him. She doesn’t know anything about the girl in the bakery. It’s a very slight story, an anecdote really.

‎‏The second film is a little more complex because it lasts longer. It’s the story of a young boy who has a great admiration for one of his friends, a student; he’s younger than him and rather dominated by him. At the same time he holds it against the other that he sees him a lot with girls he doesn’t like very much. For example, the other one has a girl that he doesn’t like, she’s not even a student, she has a job in an office and he finds this a bit vulgar. The friend neglects her, he wants to get rid of her, and this girl, who is in love with his friend, attaches herself to him and begins to flirt with him just because of his friendship with the one she really likes, and he wants to get rid of her too and can’t. So it’s the story of this boy who spends all his time with this girl who’s trying to make advances to him, and at the same time his friend amuses himself by jeering at the girl and making fun of her, he even takes all her money from her because she’s ready to do anything to keep him. The boy is ashamed of all this and at the same time he daren’t do anything to antagonize the friend he admires so much. So that’s the situation: he’s ashamed of going along with the game his friend is playing, but he doesn’t dare to reproach him frankly and say ‘no.’ There’s a second woman here too, an attractive young girl, and the young boy the film is about is a little bit in love with her, but she looks on him as just a youngster and isn’t interested in him. There’s really nothing but failure in the film: the boy spends all his time with a girl he doesn’t like and the one he would like to go out with is inaccessible and each time he sees her he doesn’t know what to say and is aware anyway that she would refuse him. The characters are all very young: the boy is 18 and his friend is 21...

La Collectionneuse (Directed by Eric Rohmer)
Do you think this idea of the man who hesitates between two women is the connecting link between all the ‘Moral Tales’?

‎‏He doesn’t really hesitate, it just happens that at the very moment that he’s made his choice, made up his mind, another woman turns up. But there isn’t really any hesitation, all that happens is that this confirms his choice. In La Collectionneuse for example, he just spends a week with her and then leaves her. In My Night at Maud’s (1969) too it’s an adventure for him, but he doesn’t hesitate between one girl and the other; if he’d had an affair with Maud it would have lasted a week and then it would have been over. In my latest film the hero’s choice is already made, he’s going to get married, and if he has an adventure it's nothing more than that.

‎‏Did you start this series with very precise ideas about the subject-matter?

‎‏Yes, I had had the stories in my mind for a long time, and when I started the series I knew what the theme of each tale would be. But I hadn’t developed them, they were still very vague.

‏You’ve made some in color and some in black-and-white...

‎‏Three in black-and-white, two of them in 16mm and Maud in 35. La Collectionneuse and Claire’s Knee (1970) are in color and the final one, for which I haven’t decided on a title yet, will be too. I haven’t written the script for it yet. I’m still thinking about it.

La Collectionneuse (Directed by Eric Rohmer)
Why did you choose black-and-white for ‘Maud’?

‎‏Because it suited the nature of the subject-matter. Color wouldn’t have added anything positive to it; on the contrary, it would only have destroyed the atmosphere of the film and introduced distracting elements that had no useful purpose. It’s a film that I saw in black-and-white, I couldn’t see any color in it. There is nothing in it which brings colors to mind, and in fact there weren’t any colors in what I filmed – for example I filmed a town in which the houses were grey, certainly there were a few colored hoardings and road-signs, but I avoided these, you don’t see them because they weren’t interesting. There is a stone church and there are no colors in that church. Then there is snow – no color there either. The people are really dressed in black or in grey, they’re not wearing anything colored. The apartment too didn’t have any color in it, it was decorated in grey already. I was concerned above all with exploiting the contrast between black and white, between light and shadow. It’s a film in color in a way, except that the colors are black and white. There’s a sheet which is white, it’s not colorless, it’s white. In the same way the snow is white, white in a positive way, whereas if I had shot it in color, it wouldn’t have been white any more, it would have been smudged, and I wanted it really white.

So you don’t agree with directors like Antonioni who say it’s no longer possible to make films in black-and-white and that all films should be in color?

‎‏I would agree that nowadays the normal thing would be to make films in color, and it might seem a bit archaic to film in black-and-white. And yet 1 don’t agree really. I think that man has a very strong feeling for black-and-white; it doesn’t just exist in photography, it’s there in drawings and engravings too – painters created pictures in color, but they also worked in black-and-white for drawings and engravings, in order to create a certain effect. As a result I think that black-and-white is now accepted by the public, and so I think that people are wrong when they say that black-and-white is impossible nowadays. It’s a very curious phenomenon. I think that black-and-white will always exist, even if it’s true that it will be an exception and the use of color will be standard. However, it’s quite certain that at the moment film-makers aren’t particularly inspired by color; most films in color have the same banal look about them and might as well be in black-and-white. Color adds nothing to them. For me color has to contribute something to a film, if it doesn’t do this, I prefer black-and-white for, despite everything, it gives a kind of basis, a unity, which is more useful to a film than color badly used.

My Night At Maud’s (Directed by Eric Rohmer)
What would you say color contributes to ‘La Collectionneuse’ and ‘Claire’s Knee’?

‎‏I didn’t use color as a dramatic element, as some film-makers have done. For me it’s something inherent in the film as a whole. I think that in La Collectionneuse color above all heightens the sense of reality and increases the immediacy of the settings. In this film color acts in an indirect way; it’s not direct and there aren’t any color effects, as there are for example in Bergman’s most recent film, his second one in color, where the color is very deliberately worked out and he gets his effects mainly by the way he uses red. I’ve never tried for dramatic effects of this kind, but, for example, the sense of time – evening, morning, and so on – can be rendered in a much more precise way through color. Color can also give a stronger sense of warmth, of heat, for when the film is in black-and-white you get less of a feeling of the different moments of the day, and there is less of what you might call a tactile impression about it. In Claire’s Knee I think it works in the same way: the presence of the lake and the mountains is stronger in color than in black-and-white. It’s a film I couldn’t imagine in black-and-white. The color green seems to me essential in that film, I couldn’t imagine it without the green in it. And the blue too – the cold color as a whole. This film would have no value for me in black-and-white. It’s a very difficult thing to explain. It’s more a feeling I have that can’t be reasoned out logically.

What exactly do you mean by the word ‘moral’ in the title of this series of films?

‎‏In French there is a word moraliste that I don’t think has any equivalent in English. It doesn’t really have much connection with the word ‘moral’,  a moraliste is someone who is interested in the description of what goes on inside man. He’s concerned with states of mind and feelings. For example in the eighteenth century Pascal was a moraliste, and a moraliste is a particularly French kind of writer like La Bruyere or La Rochefoucauld, and you could also call Stendhal a moraliste because he describes what people feel and think. So Moral Tales doesn’t really mean that there’s a moral contained in them, even though there might be one and all the characters in these films act according to certain moral ideas that are fairly clearly worked out. In My Night With Maud these ideas are very precise; for all the characters in the other films they are rather more vague, and morality is a very personal matter. But they try to justify everything in their behavior and that fits the word ‘moral’ in its narrowest sense. But ‘moral’ can also mean that they are people who like to bring their motives, the reasons for their actions, into the open, they try to analyze, they are not people who act without thinking about what they are doing. What matters is what they think about their behavior, rather than their behavior itself. They aren’t films of action, they aren’t films in which physical action takes place, they aren’t films in which there is anything very dramatic, they are films in which a particular feeling is analyzed and where even the characters themselves analyze their feelings and are very introspective. That's what Moral Tale means.

My Night At Maud’s (Directed by Eric Rohmer)
In ‘Maud’ and ‘Claire’s Knee’ in particular you show us some people around 35-40 years old and also some who are very much younger. Do you think there is now a real disparity between these age groups, in the way that people often talk of the new generation having a completely different set of customs and moral values?

‎‏My films are pure works of fiction, I don’t claim to be a sociologist. I’m not making investigations or collecting statistics. I simply take particular cases that I have invented myself, they aren’t meant to be scientific, they are works of imagination. Personally, I’ve never believed very much in the idea of a difference between age groups, I don’t think it’s very strong and it’s certainly not an opposition between one group and another, and I don’t think it’s so very much stronger nowadays than it was before. And even it it is true, it doesn’t interest me very much. It’s not something I’m concerned with. The fact that the young generation today in 1971 might as a whole have a certain kind of mentality doesn’t interest me. What interests me is to show young people as they really are just now, but also as they might be if they were fifty years old or a hundred years old, and the events of the film could have taken place in Ancient Greece, for things haven’t changed all that much. For me what is interesting in mankind is what is permanent and eternal and doesn't change, rather than what changes, and that’s what I’m interested in showing.

‎‏I read in an interview that once you had finished this series you planned to do something completely different, perhaps a film with a historical setting?

‎‏No, I didn’t really mean that. Certainly once I've finished the Moral Tales I want to do something else, I want to have a change and I don’t want to go on with them. I’ll do six, that’s all, and I’ve still one to go. But I don’t know what I’ll do next...

What do you think about what is happening in films just now? Do you think a new kind of cinema is coming into being?
‎‏
I’ve no idea. There may be people who are creating a ‘new’ kind of cinema, but you have to ask how new it really is, if it doesn’t just form part of the ‘eternal avant-garde’, which sometimes just rediscovers ideas that were avant-garde years ago. For me what is really new is those ideas that never date. But I don’t know very much about this new cinema, especially the young American cinema. I don’t want to judge it; I make films that are right for me, and other people have their own ways to follow. What I want is for everyone to be able to take his own way and find his own public. But I go very seldom to the cinema, I don’t write criticism any more, and I don’t have enough knowledge to reply properly to your question.

Claire’s Knee (Directed by Eric Rohmer)
Have you ever wanted to make a film in the United States?

‎‏No. First of all I don’t speak English and I couldn’t work in a country where I don’t know the language. And I want to show the reality of life in France, I don’t want to deal with a way of life I don’t understand. At a pinch I could make a documentary about life in a foreign country, but that’s a different matter. Also I have a very personal way of working and in France I have a great deal of freedom in this respect. I work with an extremely small crew; I have no assistant director, no script- girl, and I take care of the continuity myself. Perhaps I make mistakes and put an ashtray here when it should be there, but that’s just too bad. And as usually there are no special clothes for the actors and few objects of special importance, in the long run there are no problems with this way of working. I use very few technicians because there are very few camera movements, but those technicians that I have are excellent, even though there aren’t many of them. In other countries you have crews that are quite terrifying. I use five or six people and there you have sixty. That frightens me and I would be quite incapable of working in that way. I don’t like to be the big boss who dominates everyone else; I like to be close to everyone, and I don’t see how I could work under these conditions in the United States. I can show on the screen only those things I know about, and I think there’s still a lot to deal with in France. There’s the question of language too: I place a lot of importance on speech, on style, on voice quality and intonation, and it’s very important. The French language counts for a great deal in my films. I’m a writer too, I write my own scripts, and as a writer the French language is important to me.
‎‏
‎‏What films or directors have most influenced your own, in style or themes?

‎‏Silent films above all, though I don’t know how direct the influence is. People say that there is a lot of talk in my films, that I express myself through speech rather than images, and yet in actual fact I learned about cinema by seeing the films of Griffith, Stroheim, and Murnau. and even the silent comedies. That’s how I learned about cinema. There are two directors after the silent period whom I like very much and these are Jean Renoir and Roberto Rossellini; they are the people who most influenced me. As for the others, I admire Americans like Hitchcock, but I don’t think I’ve been really influenced by them; if I have, it’s quite unconsciously. I can tell you whom I admire, but influence is a different matter, for sometimes you don’t even know yourself who has influenced you and I’m perhaps not the right person to talk about it.

Claire’s Knee (Directed by Eric Rohmer)
Do you prefer to work for a small audience that will appreciate what you are doing, rather than for a large public?

‎‏Yes, certainly. If it depended only on me, instead of attracting people to my films, I would try to drive them away. I would tell them the films are more difficult than they really are, because I don’t like to deceive people, I like to show my films to people who can appreciate them. I’m not interested in the number of spectators. Having said that, it’s true that a film is a commercial undertaking and ought to recover its costs. But as my films don’t cost much, I don’t think I need a very large audience, and I’ve always thought that they should be shown in theaters that aren’t too big. The intimate character of my films doesn’t suit a theater or an audience too large for them. And I don’t think they are suited to a mass reaction or a collective reaction. It’s better if the spectator feels he is experiencing a completely personal reaction to it. Each reaction should be unique, individual, different. I think the film is enjoyed better if the spectators aren’t sitting too near one another, if the theater isn’t too full, and they don’t know each other. Then each has a different reaction. That’s better than a theater where there’s a uniform reaction. I don’t like watching one of my films in public and it distresses me if everyone laughs in the same place, as my film wasn’t made with that in mind. I didn’t write something just to make everyone laugh at the same time. It’s all right if someone smiles, but it shouldn’t happen at exactly the same place in the film. Perhaps this is because my films are more like reading than like watching a spectacle, they are made more to be read like a book than seen like something on the stage. So it distresses me to see a collective reaction.

‎‏Would you agree that the endings of your films tend to be rather sad?

‎‏They are not what one is expecting to happen, they are to some extent against the person concerned. What happens is against the wishes of the character, it’s a kind of disillusionment, a conflict – not exactly a failure on his part but a disillusionment. The character has made a mistake, he realizes he has created an illusion for himself. He had created a kind of world for himself, with himself at the center, and it all seemed perfectly logical that he should be the ruler or the god of this world. Everything seemed very simple and all my characters are a bit obsessed with logic. They have a system and principles, and they build up a world that can be explained by this system. And then the conclusion of the film demolishes their system and their illusions collapse. It’s not exactly happy, but that’s what the films are all about.

‎‏– Extract from ‘Graham Petrie – Eric Rohmer: An Interview’. Film Quarterly 24, no. 4 (Summer 1971): 34-41.

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.