Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Michelangelo Antonioni: A Study in Color

Red Desert (Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni) 
Red Desert (1964) was Antonioni’s first color film: a bold experiment in tone and design which often borders on the abstract. Giuliana (Monica Vitti) is a young mother recovering from a nervous breakdown. Her emotional insecurity propels the film’s journey through Antonioni’s preferred psychological terrain: the isolation, withdrawal and anxiety associated with life in a society where no one really belongs. With her engineer husband Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) absent, Giuliana forms an attachment to businessman Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris). It’s a relationship conducted against the bleak industrialised landscape of the Ravenna valley, a foggy, empty no-man’s land over which cranes and pylons loom like alien installations. It’s this nightmarish vision of the future that fascinates Antonioni – a landscape that almost deprives his characters of possibility. As the director once said, it was always the people, not the machines, that were broken in his films. Red Desert is the purest articulation of Antonioni’s cinematic vision. It’s a film in which the characters’ alienation is mirrored by an environment which is both forbidding and alluring in its detachment. ‘There’s something terrible in reality,’ says Giuliana at one point. ‘And I don’t know what it is.’ Antonioni’s images exist in a strange realm of their own. At times Red Desert feels like it has more in common with modern art than it does with traditional cinematic narrative. Antonioni once said of a Mark Rothko painting, ‘It’s painted anxiety’ – an apt description of Red Desert’s visual landscape. For all its formal virtuosity Red Desert is a poignant and compelling journey into a woman’s fractured state of mind. Michelangelo Antonioni gave an insight into his cinema and working methods in an interview with Pierre Billard in 1965:

In general, where does the original idea for your films come from? 

It seems to me that no one engaged in creative activity can answer that question in good faith. Lucidity is not one of my outstanding qualities. I look at everything, avidly, and I also think I listen a great deal. One thing is certain: ideas come to me unexpectedly. But I’m not really interested in getting to the bottom of such a question.

What does the writing of the scenario mean for you: clarifying the dramatic line, making the visual aspect of the film more specific, familiarizing yourself with the characters? 

To me, the visual aspect of a film is very closely related to its thematic aspect in the sense that an idea almost always comes to me through images. The problem lies elsewhere. It has to do with restricting the accumulation of these images, with digging into them, with recognizing the ones that coincide with what interests me at the time. It’s work done instinctively, almost automatically, but it involves a great deal of tension. One’s whole being is at stake: it is a precise moral choice. What people ordinarily call the ‘dramatic line’ doesn’t interest me. One device is no better than another, apriori. And I don’t believe that the old laws of drama have validity any more. Today stories are what they are, with neither a beginning nor an end necessarily, without key scenes, without a dramatic arc, without catharsis. They can be made up of tatters, of fragments, as unbalanced as the lives we lead. Familiarize myself with characters? But the characters are not strangers that I may or may not be on intimate terms with; they emerge out of me, they are my intimate inner life.

What does the fact that you work in collaboration with others on your scenario mean to you?

Every time I have tried to let others write parts of a rough script, the result, even if it was excellent from an objective point of view, was something foreign to me, something close to what I wanted without ever coinciding with it exactly. And that gave me a terrible sense of impotence. Then began the great task of selecting, correcting, even adapting work that was as difficult as it was useless, because it inevitably led to compromise. I can never manage to be objective when I judge the work of my collaborators. The film stands between me and them. So, after trying this a few times, I ended up writing almost all the shooting scripts of my films myself. However, I haven’t ruled out collaborations altogether. I don’t choose my collaborators on the basis of our affinities, but for the opposite reason. I need to have people who are very different from me around me, people with whom there can be animated, lively discussions. We talk, we discuss things for months before the film. We talk about a lot of things. Sometimes we also talk about the film, but not necessarily. What I say ricochets off them, comes back to me in the form of criticism, commentary, suggestions. After a certain time, the film becomes clear. It is only then that I begin to write the rough script. I work many hours a day, often beginning at dawn, until I’m completely exhausted.

What form does your script take in its final phase? 

The shooting script is never definitive for me. It’s notes about the direction, nothing more. There are no technical notations such as used to be made. The placing of the camera, the use of various lenses, the movements of the camera, all concern the phase in which the film is shot, not that in which the script is written. I would say the same thing about dialogue. I have to hear the dialogue in the living voices of the actors, that is to say of the characters, within the scene, to decide whether or not it’s right. And then there’s another factor. I believe in improvisation. None of us has the habit of preparing for a meeting to further business, love, or friendship; one takes these meetings as they come, adapting oneself little by little as they progress, taking advantage of unexpected things that come up. I experience the same things when I’m filming.

Can the choice of locations or actors influence the scenario, and if so, how? 

In general, I decide upon the outdoor locations before writing the shooting script. In order to be able to write, I need to have the surroundings of the film clearly in mind. There are times too when an idea for a film comes to me from a particular place. Or more precisely, when certain locales come to mind because of the themes or characters running through my head. It’s sometimes a rather odd series of coincidences.

What possibilities for improvisation do you allow for while you’re filming? 

Speaking of improvisation, I must add something to what I said before. If I think of the past, it’s possible for me to say that I have always lived minute by minute. It’s the way I live even today. Every moment of the day is important to me, every day is a new experience. And this doesn’t change when I’m shooting. On the contrary, the pull of reality increases during shooting, because you’re in an extremely receptive state, and because you’re making new contacts, you’re establishing often unexpected relationships with the crew, and these relationships are constantly changing. All that has a definite influence on my work, and leads me to improvised decisions, and even to radical changes. This is what I mean by improvisation.

How are your relations with the crew? 

Excellent. I try to create a cordial atmosphere. I like to have people laughing and joking around me. People who seem to have no problems. It’s quite enough that I have problems. I admit, however, that I am very demanding. I don’t allow anybody around me to show that he doesn’t know his business. Or that he’s unwilling to work. There is a certain laziness about crews, it’s natural, inevitable. But it’s what I dislike most. When I happen to scream at someone (as all directors do, it seems), I’m railing against this sort of indifference.

What are your relations with the actors? 

I’ve always had excellent relations with actors sometimes too good. Hearing me say that may seem odd, but it’s true. Even with Jeanne Moreau, who claims the opposite, I have never I repeat never had arguments during filming. I know, however, that actors feel somewhat uncomfortable with me; they have the feeling that they’ve been excluded from my work. And as a matter of fact they have been. But it is precisely: this form of collaboration, and no other, that I ask of them. Only one person has the film clearly in mind, insofar as that is possible: the director. Only one person fuses in his mind the various elements involved in a film, only one person is in a position to predict the result of this fusion: the director. The actor is one of these elements, and sometimes not even the most important. There is one thing the actor can’t do, and that is to see himself in the view-finder; if he could, he’d come up with a number of suggestions regarding his acting. This privilege is reserved to the director, however, who will thus limit himself to manipulating ‘the actor element’ according to criteria and exigencies known to him alone. There are various ways of getting certain expressions from actors, and it is of no interest to know whether or not there is a corresponding mood behind these expressions. I have often resorted to foreign actors for practical reasons: agreements with distributors, unavailability of Italian actors, and so forth. But sometimes it was because I thought actors were better suited to the roles than those at my disposal here.

Do you prefer to record the sound on the set or to dub it afterwards? 

When I can, I prefer recording on the set. The sounds, the noises, and the natural voices as picked up by microphones have a power of suggestion that can’t be obtained with dubbing. Moreover, most professional microphones are much more sensitive than the human ear, and a great many unexpected noises and sounds often enrich a soundtrack that’s been made on the set. Unfortunately, we are still not advanced enough technically to be able to use this system all the time. Shooting indoors it’s hard to get good sound. And dubbing also has its advantages. Sometimes I find that the transformation of a noise or of a sound becomes indispensable for certain special effects. Thus in certain cases it is necessary to change the human voice.

Who decides on the exact framing and the camera movements? 

I can’t imagine a director who would leave that up to other people. Excluding or including a detail, even an apparently secondary one, in the film image, choosing the angle of the shot, the lenses, the camera movements, are all decisions essential to the success of a film. Technique is not something that can be applied from outside by just anybody. Practically speaking, technical problems don’t exist. If style is there, it permeates technique. If style is missing, the problem disappears.

Do you shoot any sequences from several angles so as to have greater freedom when you edit? 

Until Red Desert, I always filmed with a single camera, and thus from a single angle. But from Red Desert on, I began using several cameras with different lenses, but always from the same angle. I did so because the story demanded shots of a reality that had become abstract, of a subject that had become color, and those shots had to be obtained with a long­ focus lens. Obviously I have the editing of the film clearly in mind during shooting. And it is only when I am led by circumstances to improvise, and consequently to shoot quickly, that I try to accumulate protection takes.

How much do you have to do with the cutting of your films? 

I have always had an editor at my side on all my films. Except for Story of a Love Affair, this editor has been Eraldo da Roma. He is an extremely able technician with vast experience, and a man who loves his work. We cut the films together. I tell him what I want as clearly and precisely as possible, and he does the cutting. He knows me, he understands immediately, we have the same sense of proportion, the same sensibility concerning the duration of a shot.

What is the role of music and the soundtrack in your films? 

I have always opposed the traditional musical commentary, the soporific function ordinarily assigned to it. It’s this idea of ‘setting images to music,’ as if it were a question of an opera libretto, that I don’t like. What I reject is this refusal to let silence have its place, this need to fill supposed voids. The only way to accept music in films is for it to disappear as an autonomous expression in order to assume its role as one element in a general sensorial impression. And with color films today this is even more necessary.

Do you concern yourself with the public and its possible reactions at any stage of making your films? 

I never think of the public. I think of the film. Obviously, you’re always speaking to someone, but this partner in the conversation is always an ideal one (perhaps another self). If this weren’t true, I wouldn’t know what to base my work on, since there are at least as many publics as there are continents or human races not to mention nations.

What phase of making a film presents the most difficulty, requires the most effort?  

Each film has its own history. One will demand inhuman efforts during shooting, another intellectual tension at the scripting stage, another an iron will during the cutting or the dubbing, when you’d swear that the material you have on hand is completely different from what you wanted. And then we each have our private lives which are not broken off during filming; on the contrary, they acquire new point and bite, giving our work a function that is sometimes stimulating, sometimes debilitating, sometimes calming, and so forth.

Do you feel that the language of film has evolved, and to what extent do you think you have contributed to this evolution? 

My contribution to the formation of a new cinematic language is a matter that concerns critics. And not even today’s critics, but rather those of tomorrow, if film endures as an art and if my films resist the ravages of time.

– PIERRE BILLARD From Cinema 65 100, November 1965. Originally translated in L’avventura. A Film by Michelangelo Antonioni, New York: Grossman Publishers, 1969. 

Friday, 24 February 2012

Jean Cocteau: The Art of Film

Orphée (Directed by Jean Cocteau)
A poet and novelist who became a film-maker in his forties, Jean Cocteau proceeded to write and direct films on fantastic themes, marked by great visual beauty, full of haunting images and distinctly dreamy, almost mystical performances from a trusted company of actors that included Jean Marais. Cocteau once remarked that ‘when I make a film, it is a sleep in which I am dreaming’.

Jean Cocteau was born in 1889 to faintly artistic, middle-class parents. Accounts of his early life suggest only a passing interest in film. Instead it was theatre, under his mother’s influence, which dominated his upbringing. Through her, he developed the ‘fever of crimson and gold’ that would shape his artistic life. Cocteau would go on to make use of all the media available to him to create an intricate personal mythology. Novelist, poet, painter, playwright, designer –  all of those disciplines are reflected in his films. His three celebrated films of the fantastic – ‘Blood of the Poet’, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Orphée’ – are central to his visual legacy, yet Cocteau always maintained that as a filmmaker he was only an amateur.

In the following extract Jean Cocteau discusses his creative process. It’s taken from an interview he gave a few months before his death in the Autumn of 1963:

Jean Cocteau: I feel myself inhabited by a force or being – very little known to me. It gives the orders; I follow. The conception of my novel Les Enfants Terribles came to me from a friend, from what he told me of a circle: a family closed from societal life. I commenced to write: exactly seventeen pages per day. It went well. I was pleased with it. Very. There was in the original life story some connection with America, and I had something I wanted to say about America ... The being in me did not want to write that! Dead halt. A month of stupid staring at paper unable to say anything. One day it commenced again in its own way.

Interviewer: Do you mean the unconscious creates?  

I long said art is a marriage of the conscious and the unconscious. Latterly, I have begun to think: Is genius an at-present undiscovered form of the memory? 

Do you keep a sort of abstract potential reader or viewer in mind when you work?

You are always concentrated on the inner thing. The moment one becomes aware of the crowd, performs for the crowd, it is spectacle.
Can you say something about inspiration?
It is not inspiration; it is expiration.

 Beauty and the Beast (Directed by Jean Cocteau)
Are there any artificial helps—stimulants or drugs? You resorted to opium after the death of [your friend] Radiguet, wrote your book about it, ‘Opium’, and were, I believe, in a period of disintoxication from it when you wrote ‘Les Enfants Terribles’.
It is very useful to have some depressant, perhaps. Extreme fatigue can serve. Filming Beauty and the Beast on the Loire in 1945 immediately at the end of the war, I was very ill. Everything went wrong. Electricity failures nearly every day; planes passing over just at the moment of a scene. Jean Marais’s horses made difficulties, and he persisted in vaulting onto them himself out of second-floor windows, refusing a double, and risking his bones. And the sunlight changes every minute on the Loire. All these things contributed to the virtue of the film. And in The Blood of a Poet Man Ray’s wife played a role; she had never acted. Her exhaustion and fear paralyzed her and she passed before the cameras so stunned she remembered nothing afterward. In the rushes we saw she was splendid; with the outer part suppressed, she had been let perform…
[The director] Rossellini, in Rome, told me that if he were to put down in a script all his imagination casts up for the scene he would have to write a novel; but in fiction we must put it down, or it is lost.
And the public is lazy! You ask them to enter into habits of thinking other than their own, and they don’t want to. And then . . . what you have written in autograph changes in typewriting, and again in print. Painting is more satisfying because it is more direct; you work directly on the surface.
What do you think of the French new-novelists who are beginning to abandon subject [in their work]?
... I read detective fiction, espionage, science fiction.
Do you recommend, then, to writers they read nothing serious at all?
[shrugs] I myself do not.

Les Enfants Terribles (Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville)
You wrote one of your novels in three weeks; one of your theatre pieces in a single night. What does this tell us about the act of composition?
If the force functions, it goes well. If not, you are helpless.
Is there no way to get it started, crank it up?
In painting, yes. By application to all the mechanical details one commences to begin. For writing, ‘one receives an order…’
Françoise Sagan describes how writing begins to flow with the use of the pen. I thought this was a rather general experience.
If the ideas come, one must hurry to set them down out of fear of forgetting them. They come once; once only. On the other hand, if I am obliged to do some little task – such as writing a preface or notice – the labor to give the appearance of easiness to the few lines is excruciating. I have no facility whatever. Yes, in one respect what you say is true. I had written a novel, then fallen silent. And the editors at the publishing house seeing this, said, ‘You have too great a fear of not writing a masterpiece. Write something, anything. Merely to begin’. So I did—and wrote the first lines of Les Enfants Terribles. But that is only for beginnings — in fiction. I have never written unless deeply moved about something. The one exception is my play La Machine à Écrire. I had written the play Les Parents Terribles and it was very successful, and something was wanted to follow. La Machine à Écríre exists in several versions, which is very telling, and was an enormous amount of work. It is no good at all. Of course, it is one of the most popular of my works. If you make fifty designs and one or two please you least, these will nearly surely be the ones most liked. No doubt because they resemble something. People love to recognize, not venture. The former is so much more comfortable and self-flattering. It seems to me nearly the whole of your work can be read as indirect spiritual autobiography.

The Blood of a Poet (Directed by Jean Cocteau)
The wound in the hand of the poet in your film ‘The Blood of a Poet’ — the wound in the man’s hand out of which the poetry speaks – certainly this reproduces the ‘wound’ of your experience in poetry around 1912-1914?

The work of every creator is autobiography, even if he does not know it or wish it, even if his work is ‘abstract’. It is why you cannot redo your work.

Not rewrite? Is that absolutely precluded?

Very superficially. Simply the syntax and orthography. And even there… I leave repetitions, mistakes, words badly placed quite unchanged, and there is no punctuation. It would be artificial to impose punctuation on a black river of ink.

– Jean Cocteau, The Art of Fiction No. 34. Interviewed by William Fifield. The Paris Review 

Monday, 20 February 2012

David Lynch: In the City of Dreams

Mulholland Drive (Directed by David Lynch)
David Lynch’s ‘Mulholland Drive’ was originally developed as a two-hour pilot for a TV series in 1999, but was rejected by ABC. It was re-conceived by Lynch as a feature film with $7 million in French funding from CanalPlus. The extra money allowed for additional shooting and a new round of post-production. ‘Mulholland Drive’ premiered at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival to critical acclaim. David Lynch spoke about the film to music website NY Rock in Oct. 2001:

NY Rock: Your actors often say they have no idea what your movies are about when they’re making them. Do you like keeping your cast as disoriented as your characters?
David Lynch: Well, not like a game, no. But what’s important is that the actors have all they need to go forward with a character. Just like the way we all go through the world. We don’t know all there to is know about the world. But we know our role, even though to a certain degree we don’t know that. So it’s partly to protect the whole thing, and not have anything leak out of it. Sometimes, when you say things out loud, some of the power leaks out of the thing.
Is it important to you that the audience comes away satisfied with understanding what they’ve just seen?
Yes. In that process, the characters walk in. They start talking, you feel a mood, and you see a thing. And it can string itself together into a story that thrills you. Since I’m a human being, and if I stay true to those ideas that were thrilling to me, I hope that others have that same thrill. And the beauty of it is that I enjoy catching the ideas. I enjoy translating them, and I enjoy sharing them.
Are we supposed to not quite know what’s going on with some of these characters when the movie is over?
I think you do. It’s like eventually life seems to make sense, even though a lot of times it doesn’t seem to, or little bits of it don’t. And I think that with the human mind and intuition going to work, there’s some feeling your way to know what every character is. The mind can almost not help itself, but go and find harmonics in the real world.
How do you develop a movie like ‘Mulholland Drive’, that is so episodic?
When you make a feature film, there are ideas that like come on a Tuesday, and ideas that may come three months later, that go in the story before the ideas you got on Tuesday. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that one day the whole thing is done. 

And how it got there is made up of so many strange things, that it isn’t funny. It’s just a blessing that it’s done, and you feel good about it. That’s the way anything happens. Like paintings take so many strange courses before the painter says, this is finished. 

I like to go into a theater, see those curtains open, and feel the lights going down. And go into a world and have an experience, knowing as little as I possibly can. And I think we owe it to an audience to let them experience a thing for themselves.

Mulholland Drive (Directed by David Lynch)
Mulholland Drive is quite an enigmatic tale. Are you obsessed with mysteries?
Well, I don’t like mysteries that involve the government and foreign countries, and things like that. I like closer-to-home mysteries. Like Rear Window, that’s my cup of tea.
How important is style when you’re telling a story?
Style comes out of ideas. Sound, pace and locations come out of ideas. Characters, everything comes out of ideas. Never go against the ideas, stay true to them. And it will always tell you the way you go.
How do you work so eccentrically within Hollywood?
I’m not within the Hollywood system. I’ve never made a studio picture. I live in Hollywood and I love Hollywood. But there is no such thing as the Hollywood system. It’s always changing. And I’m surprised that I’ve been so fortunate, that I keep getting to make films. But I’m not part of the system.
But you’re very vocal against the Hollywood establishment in ‘Mulholland Drive’. You pretty much equate them with thugs and gangsters.
Yeah, but if I said, Okay, I’m going to make a film about the Hollywood industry, that would be absurd. It came out of the ideas. This story is a little bit about the business in what it touches, but it’s about other things as well.
What do you admire about Hollywood, and is that an easy question to answer?
It doesn’t matter if it’s an easy question to answer. I love the light. I love the feeling in the air that I sometimes catch of old Hollywood. And I love the feeling in the air of L.A., of we can do anything. It’s a creative feeling in L.A. It’s not stifling to me, and it’s not oppressive. It’s a feeling of freedom. And maybe it comes from the light. I don’t know; it’s something in the air.
Then where does the Justin Theroux character in ‘Mulholland Drive’ fit in, the director who has his hands tied and life threatened by his studio?
You can do anything, but sometimes we get ourselves in situations where we run into some trouble. I’m not saying L.A. is a place where you just skip by. There is a feeling, to me, that sure you can get in trouble. But you can get out of it too. And there is a feeling of wanting to create something in that town. I don’t know where it comes from.
Why did you choose a coffee shop for the restaurant setting in the movie rather than one of those swank eateries so identified with LA?

That’s the beauty of life, that you can sometimes find good food in a good coffee shop.

Mulholland Drive (Directed by David Lynch)
There are a couple of naked, sex-crazed women in ‘Mulholland Drive’. How do you approach nudity in a movie?
Behind it all is not violating the character. And keeping it in line with the fact that at least one of the girls was very much in love. So keeping it in the correct feeling is the key. Too little nudity breaks it, and too much breaks it. So I’m always looking for that balance point, and through action and reaction.
What’s behind the darkness of mood that you cultivate with such intensity?
It’s not like you do something just to do something. You are true to the ideas. Each scene has a mood, a pace and a kind of feel that the ideas gave you. And so you try to stay true to that, and all the elements that go together to make it.
How hard is it to mix sinister and comic moments?
No, no, that’s the beauty of it. When ideas come to you that are not just one genre, there are many things floating together. It’s beautiful, and a lot like real life. You know, you’re laughing in the morning and crying in the afternoon, and there’s a strange event after lunch. It’s just the way it is.
What are you thoughts about the influence of the digital revolution on moviemaking?
It’s just like the pencil and the paper. Everybody’s got a pencil and paper, but how many great things are written. These are tools, but you have to focus on the ideas and tell the story. It’s all about the story, and how the story is told. 

Some of these new tools do open the world for a bunch of new stories. But I don’t think we know what those are yet, because right now this is kind of an experimental time. But I think a bunch of stories are going to pop up that marry with those kinds of new qualities.

– Excerpted from ‘Prairie Miller: Interview with David Lynch’ at NY Rock.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Alfred Hitchcock: On Making ‘The Birds’

The Birds (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
Following on from my previous post on the Alfred Hitchcock retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art in 1963. The exhibition culminated with the American premiere of Hitchcock’s recently completed ‘The Birds’. As part of the retrospective, Peter Bogdanovich conducted an extensive interview with Alfred Hitchcock about his career. The interview concluded with Hitchcock discussing the making of ‘The Birds’, his preparations for his next film ‘Marnie’ and some unrealized projects:

In The Birds, as in a lot of your films, you take ordinary, basically average people, and put them into extraordinary situations.

This is for audience identification. In The Birds, there is a very light beginning, girl meets boy, and then she walks right into a complicated situation: the boy’s mother’s unnatural relationship to him, and the school teacher who’s carrying a torch for him. This girl, who is just a fly-by-night, a playgirl, comes up against reality for the first time. That transmits itself into a catastrophe, and the girl’s transition takes place.

What do you feel the picture is really about?

Generally speaking, that people are too complacent. The girl represents complacency. But I believe that when people rise to the occasion, when catastrophe comes, they are all right. The mother panics because she starts off being so strong, but she is not strong, it is a facade: she has been substituting her son for her husband. She is the weak character in the story. But the girl shows that people can be strong when they face up to the situation. It’s like the people in London, during the wartime air raids.

Isn’t the film also a vision of Judgment Day?

Yes, it is. And we don’t know how they are going to come out. Certainly, the mother was scared to the end. The girl was brave enough to face the birds and try to beat them off. But as a group they were the victims of Judgment Day. For the ordinary public – they got away to San Francisco – but I toyed with the idea of lap-dissolving on them in the car, looking, and there is the Golden Gate Bridge – covered in birds.

How did you come to choose The Birds as a vehicle?

I felt that after Psycho people would expect something to top it before going on to something else. I’ve noticed that in other ‘catastrophe’ films, such as On the Beach, the personal stories were never really part of it at all. I remember a film called The Pride and the Passion which was about pulling that huge gun. Well, they stopped every night to have a bit of personal story; then the next morning they went back to the gun again. It was terribly devised, no integration at all. They don’t realize that people are still living, emoting, while pushing the gun. That was one of the things I made up my mind to avoid in The Birds. I deliberately started off with light, ordinary, inconsequential behavior. I even compromised by the nature of the opening titles, making them ominous. I wanted to use very light, simple Chinese paintings of birds – delicate little drawings. I didn’t because I felt people might get impatient, having seen the advertising campaign and ask, ‘When are the birds coming on?’ That’s why I give them a sock now and again – the bird against the door, bang! Birds up on the wires, the bird that bites the girl. But I felt it was vital to get to know the people, the mother especially, she’s the key figure. And we must take our time, get absorbed in the atmosphere before the birds come. Once more, it is fantasy. But everything had to be as real as possible, the surroundings, the settings, the people. And the birds themselves had to be domestic birds – no vultures, no wild birds of any kind.

Aren’t there a lot of trick-shots in the picture?

Had to be. There are 371 trick-shots in it, and the most difficult one was the last shot. That took 32 different pieces of film. We had a limited number of gulls allowed. Therefore, the foreground was shot in three panel sections, left to right, up to the birds on the rail. The few gulls we had were in the first third, we re-shot it for the middle third, and for the right-hand third, using the same gulls. Just above the heads of the crows was a long, slender middle section where the gulls were spread again. Then the car going down the driveway, with the birds on each side of it, was another piece of film. The sky was another piece of film, as was the barn on the left, and so on. These were all put together in the lab.

How do you feel, on the whole, about using trick-effects and process-shots?

It is a means to an end. You must arrive at it somehow. A very important thing about The Birds: I never raised the point, ‘Can it be done?’ Because then it would never have been made. Any technician would have said ‘impossible’. So I didn’t even bring that up, I simply said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do.’ No one will ever realize that had the pioneering technical work on it not been attempted, the film would not have been made. Cleopatra or Ben Hur is nothing to this – just quantities of people and scenery. Just what the bird trainer has done is phenomenal. Look at the way the crows chase the children down the street, dive all around them, land on their backs. It took days to organize those birds on the hood of the car and to make them fly away at the right time. The Birds could easily have cost $5,000,000 if Bob Burks and the rest of us hadn’t been technicians ourselves.

Marnie (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
What will Marnie be like?

It is the story of a girl who doesn’t know who she is. She is a psychotic, a compulsive thief, and afraid of sex, and in the end she finds out why. In terms of style, it will be a bit like Notorious

Marnie is a thief, but evidently we are in sympathy with her. How is this achieved?

This comes under the heading of rooting for the evildoer to succeed – because in all of us we have that eleventh commandment nagging us: ‘Thou shalt not be found out.’ The average person looking at someone doing evil or wrong wants the person to get away with it. There’s something that makes them say, ‘Look out! Look out! They’re coming!’ I think it’s the most amazing instinct – doesn’t matter how evil it is, you know. Can’t go as far as murder, but anything up to that point. The audience can’t bear the suspense of the person being discovered. ‘Hurry up! Quick! You’re going to be caught!’

[Bogdanovich concludes by listing several ‘unrealized projects’, Frances Iles’ 1931 novel ‘Malice Afterthought’, David Duncan’s story ‘The Bramble Bush’, which Hitchcock worked on during 1953-54, ‘Life of a City’, and Ernest Raymond’s ‘We, the Accused’, based on the Crippen case. Hitchcock commented on the last two projects.]

Life of a City

This is something I’ve wanted to do since 1928. I want to do it in terms of what lies behind the face of a city – what makes it tick – in other words, backstage of a city. But it’s so enormous that it is practically impossible to get the story right. Two or three people had a go at it for me but all failed. It must be done in terms of personalities and people, and with my techniques, everything would have to be used dramatically.

We, the Accused

This was the story of a man who murdered his wife, ran off with his secretary, and was arrested on board ship, in about 1910. It is almost the definitive case of murder, trial and execution. It would be a very long picture, with detailed characterization, but I’m afraid it’s terribly downbeat – and the man is middle-aged – so it wouldn’t be very commercial. And you would have to spend some money on it.

– Alfred Hitchcock: 1963 interview with Peter Bogdanovich at MoMA.org

Monday, 13 February 2012

Alfred Hitchcock: On Creating Suspense

Vertigo (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
In 1963 Peter Bogdanovich prepared the first complete Alfred Hitchcock retrospective in America, ‘The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock’ at The Museum of Modern Art. As part of the exhibition Bogdanovich conducted an extensive interview with Hitchcock about his career. In the following excerpt Hitchcock discusses the role of suspense in ‘Vertigo’ and ‘Psycho’:

Isn’t ‘Vertigo’ about the conflict between illusion and reality?

Oh, yes. I was interested by the basic situation, because it contained so much analogy to sex. Stewart’s efforts to recreate the woman were, cinematically, exactly the same as though he were trying to undress the woman, instead of dressing her. He couldn’t get the other woman out of his mind. Now, in the book, they didn’t reveal that she was one and the same woman until the end of the story. I shocked Sam Taylor, who worked on it, when I said, ‘When Stewart comes upon this brunette girl, Sam, this is the time for us to blow the whole truth.’ He said, ‘Good God, why?’ I told him, if we don’t what is the rest of our story until we do reveal the truth. A man has picked up a brunette and sees in her the possibilities of resemblance to the other woman. Let’s put ourselves in the minds of our audience here: “So you’ve got a brunette and you’re going to change her.” What story are we telling now? A man wants to make a girl over and then, at the very end, finds out it is the same woman. Maybe he kills her, or whatever. Here we are, back in our old situation: surprise or suspense.

Vertigo (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
And we come to our old analogy of the bomb: you and I sit talking and there’s a bomb in the room. We’re having a very innocuous conversation about nothing. Boring. Doesn’t mean a thing. Suddenly, boom! The bomb goes off and they’re shocked – for fifteen seconds. Now you change it. Play the same scene, insert the bomb, show that the bomb is placed there, establish that it’s going to go off at one o’clock – it’s now a quarter of one, ten of one – show a clock on the wall, back to the same scene. Now our conversation becomes very vital, by its sheer nonsense. ‘Look under the table! You fool!’ Now they’re working for ten minutes, instead of being surprised for fifteen seconds. Now let’s go back to Vertigo. If we don’t let them know, they will speculate. They will get a very blurred impression as to what is going on. ‘Now,’ I said, ‘one of the fatal things, Sam, in all suspense is to have a mind that is confused. Otherwise the audience won’t emote. Clarify, clarify, clarify. Don’t let them say, “I don’t know which woman that is, who’s that?” ‘So,’ I said, ‘we are going to take the bull by the horns and put it all in a flashback, bang! Right then and there – show it’s one and the same woman.’ Then, when Stewart comes to the hotel for her, the audience says, “Little does he know.”

Vertigo (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
Second, the girl’s resistance in the earlier part of the film had no reason. Now you have the reason – she doesn’t want to be uncovered. That’s why she doesn’t want the grey suit, doesn’t want to go blond – because the moment she does, she’s in for it. So now you’ve got extra values working for you. We play on his fetish in creating this dead woman, and he is so obsessed with the pride he has in making her over. Even when she comes back from the hairdresser, the blond hair is still down. And he says, ‘Put your hair up.’ She says, ‘No.’ He says, ‘Please.’ Now what is he saying to her? ‘You’ve taken everything off except your bra and your panties, please take those off.’ She says, ‘All right.’ She goes into the bathroom. He’s only waiting to see a nude woman come out, ready to get in bed with. That’s what the scene is. Now, as soon as she comes out, he sees a ghost – he sees the other woman. That’s why I played her in a green light.

You see, in the earlier part – which is purely in the mind of Stewart – when he is watching this girl go from place to place, when she is really faking, behaving like a woman of the past – in order to get this slightly subtle quality of a dreamlike nature although it was bright sunshine, I shot the film through a fog filter and I got a green effect – fog over bright sunshine. That’s why, when she comes out of the bathroom, I played her in the green light. That’s why I chose the Empire Hotel in Post Street – because it had a green neon sign outside the window. I wanted to establish that green light flashing all the time. So that when we need it, we’ve got it. I slid the soft, fog lens over, and as she came forward, for a moment he got the image of the past. Then as her face came up to him, I slipped the soft effect away, and he came back to reality. She had come back from the dead, and he felt it, and knew it, and probably was even bewildered – until he saw the locket – and then he knew he had been tricked.

Psycho (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
Do you really consider ‘Psycho’ an essentially humorous film?

Well, when I say humorous, I mean it’s my humor that enabled me to tackle the outrageousness of it. If I were telling the same story seriously, I’d tell a case history and never treat it in terms of mystery or suspense. It would simply be what the psychiatrist relates at the end.

In ‘Psycho’, aren’t you really directing the audience more than the actors?

Yes. It’s using pure cinema to cause the audience to emote. It was done by visual means designed in every possible way for an audience. That’s why the murder in the bathroom is so violent, because as the film proceeds, there is less violence. But that scene was in the minds of the audience so strongly that one didn’t have to do much more. I think that in Psycho there is no identification with the characters. There wasn’t time to develop them and there was no need to. The audience goes through the paroxysms in the film without consciousness of Vera Miles or John Gavin. They’re just characters that lead the audience through the final part of the picture. I wasn’t interested in them. And you know, nobody ever mentions that they were ever in the film. It’s rather sad for them.

Psycho (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
Can you imagine how the people in the front office would have cast the picture? They’d say, ‘Well, she gets killed off in the first reel, let’s put anybody in there, and give Janet Leigh the second part with the love interest.’ Of course, this is idiot thinking. The whole point is to kill off the star, that is what makes it so unexpected. This was the basic reason for making the audience see it from the beginning. If they came in half-way through the picture, they would say, ‘When’s Janet Leigh coming on?’ You can’t have blurred thinking in suspense.

Didn’t you experiment with TV techniques in ‘Psycho’?

It was made by a TV unit, but that was only a matter of economics really, speed and economy of shooting, achieved by minimizing the number of set-ups. We slowed up whenever it became really cinematic. The bathroom scene took seven days, whereas the psychiatrist’s scene at the end was all done in one day.

How much did Saul Bass contribute to the picture?

Only the main title, the credits. He asked me if he could do one sequence in Psycho and I said yes. So he did a sequence on paper, little drawings of the detective going up the stairs before he is killed. One day on the picture, I was sick, and I called up and told the assistant to make those shots as Bass had planned them. There were about twenty of them and when I saw them, I said, ‘You can’t use any of them.’ The sequence told his way would indicate that the detective is a menace. He’s not. He is an innocent man, therefore the shot should be innocent. We don’t have to work the audience up. We’ve done that. The mere fact that he’s going up the stairs is enough. Keep it simple. No complications. One shot.

Did you intend any moral implications in the picture?

I don’t think you can take any moral stand because you’re dealing with distorted people. You can’t apply morality to insane persons.

– Alfred Hitchcock: 1963 interview with Peter Bogdanovich at MoMA.org

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Peter Bogdanovich on The Searchers

The Searchers (Directed by John Ford)
One of the key figures leading the renaissance of American cinema in the 1970s, Peter Bogdanovich (b. 1939) began his career as an actor, taking classes with Stella Adler, before distinguishing himself as a writer and film curator. After one of his articles drew the attention of producer Roger Corman, Bogdanovich took the opportunity to direct his first film, Targets, a stylised tale of a serial killer starring Boris Karloff in one of his final roles. Bogdanovich’s three subsequent films, The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon, were successful reinventions of studio-era genres – the Western, the screwball and small-town comedy.

An important film historian, Bogdanovich has made a significant contribution to cinematic history with his writing and interviews with the great directors of the studio era including Fritz Lang, Leo McCarey, Joseph H. Lewis and most notably Orson Welles and John Ford, of whom Bogdanovich became a respected authority. Indeed Bogdanovich’s documentary, Directed by John Ford, ranks as one of the most influential portraits of the veteran director. In a recent post on his blog at indiewire, Bogdanovich outlined his thoughts on John Ford’s masterpiece The Searchers in which he suggests that the key to the undiminished power of the film lies in the archaic and mythical power of its narrative:

The picture begins with the classiest Western opening of all, a black screen becoming a door that opens from within a home to the red desert outside this settlers’ house as the whole family – father, mother, three children (two daughters, one son) and a dog – walk onto the porch while a lone horseman rides up from the gigantic red buttes in the far distance. The rider is the father’s long-absent brother, Ethan Edwards (Wayne), returned for the first time since the end of the Civil War, three years previous, during which Ethan was on the side of the Confederacy, a loner who has spent the bitter years since then fighting as a hired gun in Mexico. What is conveyed in a few small private moments is that Ethan is chastely in love with his brother’s wife, and she with him, though neither would think of showing it in any overt way.

There is the alarm of a Comanche uprising, and Ethan rides off with the sheriff’s posse to check on a nearby ranch. While he and the others are gone, Comanches attack Ethan’s brother’s house, brutally murdering the man and his young son, raping and killing the beloved wife and teenage daughter, abducting the eight-year-old little girl, burning down the house from which we have emerged so recently to begin this story of Ethan’s subsequent ten-year search. He and an adopted ‘quarter-breed‘ (Jeffrey Hunter) become the searchers not only to find the kidnapped young niece but also to avenge the terrible deaths by executing the destroyer, a proud and virile Comanche chief, who will become the child’s husband. The search is both love-and-vengeance ridden and racial.

The saga that ensues is remarkably vivid, filled with incident, superbly composed, emotionally complicated, often darkly funny, deeply moving. That Ethan’s obsessive fury and hatred in some way turns against the young victim as well is among the most troubling aspects of the story, resolved by Ford (at odds with the novel) in one of the most profoundly touching moments in picture history. The ironic theme of the work, spoken by settler Olive Carey, is that all the sufferings these ‘Texicans’ (read Americans) must endure will make it possible for future generations to live in harmony and peace. Although Ethan succeeds in his quest, at the end another settler’s door closes on him walking away toward horse and desert as alone as ever; thus concluding John Ford’s penultimate poetic landmark of the West that has shaped us, that haunts us still as both history and myth.

– Extract from ‘Peter Bogdanovich: The Searchers’ at indiewire 

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Ben Gazzara: Working with John Cassavetes

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (Directed by John Cassavetes)
The great actor Ben Gazzara passed away on 3rd February 2012. Ben Gazzara was born August 28, 1930 in New York City, the son of Sicilian immigrants. After studying at The Actor’s Studio, Gazzara established himself on Broadway in the original productions of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof and A Hatful of Rain in 1955. Otto Preminger’s film Anatomy of a Murder made him a star with his powerful portrayal of a murder suspect on trial.

Gazzara’s first collaboration with John Cassavetes was the 1970 drama Husbands in which he co-starred with Cassavetes and Peter Falk as friends who go on an extended binge following the death of a mutual friend. Gazzara followed this with his seminal role in Cassavetes' masterpiece The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, playing Cosmo Vitelli, an L.A. nightclub owner in debt to the mob. He then appeared in Cassavetes’ compelling Opening Night as stage director Manny Victor who struggles with the unstable star of his show played by Cassavetes’ wife Gena Rowlands. Ben Gazzara was interviewed by Alex Simon in 2004 on his work with Cassavetes:

When did you and John first meet? 

Ben Gazzara: We were young actors in New York together. We were friendly, would say ‘hi’ to each other, but we were also rivals, up for the same parts and things, so we never became friends at that point. I was doing this TV series here in LA years later called Run For Your Life, and he was doing a couple pilots over at Universal. I asked him ‘If they both sell, which show are you going to do?’ He said ‘Neither of them. I don’t worry about that stuff. I’m not doing it for the money. I’m doing it for the raw stock and a hand-held camera, because I’m going to shoot a picture up at my house.’ And of course, that was Faces. So, time goes on, and I’m finished with the series, and I saw very little of John, and I’m leaving the studio the day I finished shooting the 86th episode, the final show of my series, and John is driving off the lot. He says ‘Ben, did Marty (Baum, their agent) tell you?’ I said ‘No, tell me what?’ ‘We’re gonna do a picture together!?’ I said ‘Oh, okay.’ I thought, ‘bullshit!’ because you hear that all the time, as an actor. Sure enough, a week later, we go to the old Hamburger Hamlet on the strip, and he tells me I’m going to be the star of Husbands, more or less.

He said ‘I’m going to Europe to shoot this gangster picture (Machine Gun McCain, 1968). I think I can get the money from this Italian producer.’ So I said, ‘okay, sure,’ still not quite believing him. I had to go to Czechoslovakia to do a war picture with George Segal and Robert Vaughn (The Bridge at Remagen, 1969), then the day the Russians moved in, that day in August, I get a call from John: ‘Ben, don’t get killed! I got the money! I got the money to make the picture!’ So I went to London, and we started rehearsing Husbands. That was 1968. And for me, it was like getting out of jail. As a young actor, I was in on the creation of projects. My first plays in New York were written around improvisation, which is what I love. Being on the TV series, sure I was making a lot of money, but I was playing the same guy in the same fuckin’ predictable situations. But here, I was free, able to let it go.

Husbands (Directed by John Cassavetes)
Tell us more about the experience of doing Husbands.

Well, John and I became dear, dear friends. We did a couple films together after that and we would’ve done more.

What was the process like, working with John?

A lot of people had the misconception that John improvised his films, which wasn’t true. We rehearsed for two or three weeks before we shot. Occasionally a scene would be completely improvised, but only occasionally. The rehearsal was in order to give the impression of it happening for the first time, and also for the purpose of rewriting. John loved to rewrite on his feet. He’d just tear things apart, and try six, seven different ways of doing things. So by the time you got on the floor, with the camera present, you were pretty secure with where you were. John’s films were made through his actors. He loved being surprised during rehearsals and wanted you find things within yourself that would even surprise you. He wasn’t afraid of taking any trip you wanted to take. The only thing John hated was if you didn’t try, if you didn’t ‘put it up,’ as he used to say. ‘Put it up!’ So I felt right at home, because that way of working was my idea of joy: where everything is open and everything is possible and nobody can do wrong. There is no wrong. It might not be right, but it ain’t wrong.

Emotionally, John’s films can be very tough to watch. Did they take a toll on you as an actor? 

Only when they were drawing to an end. It was always very tough to say goodbye to the experience, especially on Husbands, because there was a lot going on there. It was about friendship. We became friends, and who knew if we were ever going to see each other again, because most films are ‘I’ll call ya, I’ll call ya, I’ll call ya,’ and nobody ever calls anybody. But John was the glue that really kept my friendship with Peter together. Since John died, Peter and I see each other very infrequently. But when John was alive, we all used to see each other constantly.

He also did that cameo in your film Capone (1975) playing the gangster Johnny Torrio.

Yeah, he did that as a favor, he was so sweet. He walked on the set, did the scene, went back to his office on the lot! For no money! He didn’t get paid for that.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (Directed by John Cassavetes)
There are many filmmakers now, particularly on the independent scene, who have been highly influenced by John’s work. He’s left a lasting legacy.

I know, isn’t that interesting? When he was making these films, he couldn’t get a dime to make them. And now, every kid in film school is talking about his work. That was the thing about John, a lot of guys could get beaten down by rejection, but ‘no’ didn’t exist for him.

‘That which does not kill you makes you stronger.’ 

That’s right! The major studios didn’t want to do it, fine. He put up his own money. ‘I’ll do it!’ The people at the studios just didn’t get it, didn’t get the stories, didn’t get the characters.

John wasn’t afraid to have characters that weren’t necessarily likeable. Your character in Husbands, for example, was a real son of a bitch on many levels, but you still cared about the guy! 

I know. Well, he was scared, and he was ignorant. John loved that. He used to say ‘I love ignorance.’ What he meant was, the ignorant are ingenuous, but they would vent with such a strong belief. John used to say, I don’t know if he was serious or not, that he was going to make Husbands II, and the opening would be on the Grand Canal in Venice. I would be with a new, young wife, he and Peter would pull up and we’d all meet on motor boats. Wouldn’t that have been a great opening?

Yeah. They probably would’ve been there for a dental convention, right?

(laughs) Yeah, that’s right!

Let’s talk about Cosmo Vitelli, a great character. 

In his heart, in his gut, although he’s an unsophisticated man, he’s really an artist. He lives in his art, his art being this cockamamie strip show he puts on at this seedy fuckin’ joint he owns. That’s his life. And when these gangsters come to take that away, it’s thing he cares about the most. To the point of, in one of my favorite scenes, when he’s on his way to do the hit and could possibly get killed doing it, he stops to call to see how the show is going! To me, that film was a metaphor for John’s life: the never-ending battle against those nuisances who try to keep you from doing your work. (pause) Do you think Cosmo died in the end?

Yeah, absolutely. I think he sat down in front of his club and bled to death, but like a good captain, he stayed with his ship, and in that sense, he won the battle. 

Yeah. And you know something, John and I never talked about that, about whether Cosmo died or not. I never asked him and he never asked me.

But it doesn’t really matter because ultimately, that’s not what the film is about. 


Opening Night (Directed by John Cassavetes)
Let’s talk about Opening Night.

Again, we have a film about the theater. John’s theater life was very limited. He was the stage manager for a play called The Fifth Season, but I don’t think he ever acted on Broadway. But, obviously his love of the theater and memories of the theater were present here, because it’s a remarkable film. Not only is it about the theater, but it’s about aging. It’s about doing good work and what you have to call on in order to do good work. The work was the thing that was most important to John.

Was it all downhill working with other directors after you had been directed by John? 

I wouldn’t say ‘downhill,’ but it was certainly different. It such a rare and unique experience being in on the creation of an event. It’s rare to find a director with the lack of ego to do that.

- Ben Gazzara from ‘Alex Simon: Remembering John Cassavetes’. Full article here.