Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Billy Wilder: The Art of Collaboration

Sunset Boulevard (Directed by Billy Wilder)
In 1996 James Linville conducted an interview for The Paris Review with screenwriter-director Billy Wilder on his extensive career. Published as Billy Wilder, The Art of Screenwriting No. 1 it remains one of the most celebrated accounts of the screenwriter's craft. In the following extract Billy Wilder discusses working with the writers Charles Brackett on Sunset Boulevard, I.A.L. Diamond on Some Like it Hot and Raymond Chandler on Double Indemnity.

For a long time I wanted to do a comedy about Hollywood. God forgive me, I wanted to have Mae West and Marlon Brando. Look what became of that idea! Instead it became a tragedy of a silent-picture actress, still rich, but fallen down into the abyss after talkies. ‘I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.’ I had that line early on. Someplace else I had the idea for a writer who is down on his luck. It didn’t quite fall into place until we got Gloria Swanson.

We had gone to Pola Negri first. We called her on the phone, and there was too much Polish accent. You see why some of these people didn’t make the transition to sound. We went to Pickfair and visited Mary Pickford. Brackett began to tell her the story, because he was the more serious one. I stopped him: No, don’t do it. I waved him off. She was going to be insulted if we told her she was to play a woman who begins a love affair with a man half her age. I said to her, We’re very sorry, but it’s no use. The story gets very vulgar.

Gloria Swanson had been a big star, in command of an entire studio. She worked with DeMille. Once she was dressed, her hair done to perfection, they placed her on a sedan and two strong men would carry her onto the set so no curl would be displaced. But later she did a couple of sound pictures that were terrible. When I gave her the script, she said, I must do this, and she turned out to be an absolute angel.

I used stars wherever I could in Sunset Boulevard. I used Cecil B. DeMille to play the big important studio director. I used Erich von Stroheim to play the director who directed the first pictures with Swanson, which he in fact did. I thought, Now, if there is a bridge game at the house of a silent star, and if I am to show that our hero, the writer, has been degraded to being the butler who cleans ashtrays, who would be there? I got Harry B. Warner, who played Jesus in DeMille’s biblical pictures, Anna Q. Nilsson, and Buster Keaton, who was an excellent bridge player, a tournament player. The picture industry was only fifty or sixty years old, so some of the original people were still around. Because old Hollywood was dead, these people weren’t exactly busy. They had the time, got some money, a little recognition. They were delighted to do it...

Sunset Boulevard (Directed by Billy Wilder)
You’re never quite sure how your work will be received or the course your career will take. We knew we’d gotten a strong reaction at the first big preview of Sunset Boulevard. After the screening, Barbara Stanwyck went up and kissed the hem of Gloria Swanson’s robe, or dress, or whatever she was wearing that night. Gloria had given such an incredible performance. Then in the big Paramount screening room, Louis B. Mayer said loudly, We need to kick Wilder out of America if he’s going to bite the hand that feeds him. He was with his contingent from MGM, the king then, but in front of all his department heads, I told him just what he could do. I walked out just as the reception was starting.

Although the movie was a great success, it was about Hollywood, exaggerated and dramatized, and it really hit a nerve. So on the way down the steps I had to pass all those people from MGM, the class studio . . . all those people who thought this picture would soil the taste of Hollywood.

After Sunset Boulevard, Brackett and I parted friends. Twelve years together, but the split had been coming. It’s like a box of matches: you pick up the match and strike it against the box, and there’s always fire, but then one day there is just one small corner of that abrasive paper left for you to strike the match on. It was not there anymore. The match wasn’t striking. One of us said, Look, whatever I have to give and whatever you have to offer, it’s just not enough. We can end on the good note of Sunset Boulevard. A picture that was revolutionary for its day.

How do collaborators work together?

Brackett and I used to share two offices together with a secretary in between. When we were writing he always laid down on the couch in my office while I would walk around with a stick in my hand.

Why the stick?

I don’t know. I just needed something to keep my hands busy and a pencil wasn’t long enough. He always had the yellow legal tablet, and he wrote in longhand, then we’d hand it to the secretary. Brackett and I would discuss everything, the picture as a whole, the curtain situations—first act, second act and then the end of the picture—and the curtain lines. Then we would break it down and go to a specific scene and discuss the mood and so forth, then we’d figure out what bit of the story we’d tell in those ten pages of the scene.

Some Like It Hot (Directed by Billy Wilder)
Was it the same working with I. A. L. Diamond?

Pretty much the same as with Brackett. Discuss the story, break it down into scenes, and then I would dictate and he would type. Or he would sit there thinking, and I would write on a yellow tablet and show it to him.

How’s this? I’d say.

No. No good, he’d say. Never in an insistent way, however.

Or he might suggest something to me, and I’d shake my head. He’d just take it, tear it up, and put it in the wastebasket, and we’d never come back to it.

We had a great deal of trust in each other. But sometimes with writing you just can’t tell, especially if you’re writing under pressure. Diamond and I were writing the final scene of Some Like It Hot the week before we shot it. We’d come to the situation where Lemmon tries to convince Joe E. Brown that he cannot marry him.

‘Why?’ Brown says.

‘Because I smoke!’

‘That’s all right as far as I’m concerned.’

Finally Lemmon rips his wig off and yells at him, ‘I’m a boy! Because I’m a boy!’

Diamond and I were in our room working together, waiting for the next line—Joe B. Brown’s response, the final line, the curtain line of the film—to come to us. Then I heard Diamond say, ‘Nobody’s perfect.’ I thought about it and I said, Well, let’s put in ‘Nobody’s perfect’ for now. But only for the time being. We have a whole week to think about it. We thought about it all week. Neither of us could come up with anything better, so we shot that line, still not entirely satisfied. When we screened the movie, that line got one of the biggest laughs I’ve ever heard in the theater. But we just hadn’t trusted it when we wrote it; we just didn’t see it. ‘Nobody’s perfect.’ The line had come too easily, just popped out.

Double Indemnity (Directed by Billy Wilder)
I understand your collaboration with Raymond Chandler was more difficult?

Yes. Chandler had never been inside a studio. He was writing for one of the hard-boiled serial magazines, The Black Mask—the original pulp fiction—and he’d been stringing tennis rackets to make ends meet. Just before then, James M. Cain had written The Postman Always Rings Twice, and then a similar story, Double Indemnity, which was serialized in three or four installments in the late Liberty magazine.

Paramount bought Double Indemnity, and I was eager to work with Cain, but he was tied up working on a picture at Fox called Western Union. A producer-friend brought me some Chandler stories from The Black Mask. You could see the man had a wonderful eye. I remember two lines from those stories especially: ‘Nothing is emptier than an empty swimming pool.’ The other is when Marlowe goes to Pasadena in the middle of the summer and drops in on a very old man who is sitting in a greenhouse covered in three blankets. He says, ‘Out of his ears grew hair long enough to catch a moth.’ A great eye . . . but then you don’t know if that will work in pictures because the details in writing have to be photographable.

I said to Joe Sistrom, Let’s give him a try. Chandler came into the studio, and we gave him the Cain story Double Indemnity to read. He came back the next day: I read that story. It’s absolute shit! He hated Cain because of Cain’s big success with The Postman Always Rings Twice.

He said, Well, I’ll do it anyway. Give me a screenplay so I can familiarize myself with the format. This is Friday. Do you want it a week from Monday?

Holy shit, we said. We usually took five to six months on a script.

Don’t worry, he said. He had no idea that I was not only the director but was supposed to write it with him.

Double Indemnity (Directed by Billy Wilder)
He came back in ten days with eighty pages of absolute bullshit. He had some good phrases of dialogue, but they must have given him a script written by someone who wanted to be a director. He’d put in directions for fade-ins, dissolves, all kinds of camera moves to show he’d grasped the technique.

I sat him down and explained we’d have to work together. We always met at nine o’clock, and would quit at about four-thirty. I had to explain a lot to him as we went along, but he was very helpful to me. What we were doing together had real electricity. He was a very, very good writer—but not of scripts.
One morning, I’m sitting there in the office, ten o’clock and no Chandler. Eleven o’clock. At eleven-thirty, I called Joe Sistrom, the producer of Double Indemnity, and asked, What happened to Chandler?

I was going to call you. I just got a letter from him in which he resigns.

Apparently he had resigned because, while we were sitting in the office with the sun shining through, I had asked him to close the curtains and I had not said please. He accused me of having as many as three martinis at lunch. Furthermore, he wrote that he found it very disconcerting that Mr. Wilder gets two, three, sometimes even four calls from obviously young girls.

Naturally. I would take a phone call, three or four minutes, to say, Let’s meet at that restaurant there, or, Let’s go for a drink here. He was about twenty years older than I was, and his wife was older than him, elderly. And I was on the phone with girls! Sex was rampant then, but I was just looking out for myself. Later, in a biography he said all sorts of nasty things about me—that I was a Nazi, that I was uncooperative and rude, and God knows what. Maybe the antagonism even helped. He was a peculiar guy, but I was very glad to have worked with him.

- ‘Billy Wilder: The Art of Screenwriting No. 1’. Interviewed by James Linville. The Paris Review, 1996. Full interview here.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Charlie Chaplin: The Lost Interview

City Lights (Directed by Charlie Chaplin)
‘If only one of Charles Chaplin's films could be preserved, ‘City Lights’ (1931) would come 
the closest to representing all the different notes 
of his genius. It contains the slapstick, the
 pathos, the pantomime, the effortless physical 
coordination, the melodrama, the bawdiness, 
the grace, and, of course, the Little Tramp – the 
character said, at one time, to be the most 
famous image on earth.’
– Roger Ebert

‘The Tramp was something within me’ - Charlie Chaplin

In 1966, Charlie Chaplin talked to Richard Meryman about the inspiration behind his films. The full interview was never published. The following extract is an edited version that appeared in Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema, by Jeffrey Vance.

Richard Meryman: This interview is entirely concerned with your work and your art, and nothing else. I want to give some indication of how you work.

Charlie Chaplin: The summation of my character is that I care about my work. I care about everything I do. If I could do something else better, I would do it, but I can’t.

RM Can you talk about the moment you created the Tramp outfit?

CC It all came about in an emergency. The cameraman said put on some funny make-up, and I hadn’t the slightest idea what to do. I went to the dress department and, on the way, I thought, well, I’ll have them make everything in contradiction - baggy trousers, tight coat, large head, small hat - raggedy but at the same time a gentleman. I didn’t know how I was going to do the face, but it was going to be a sad, serious face. I wanted to hide that it was comic, so I found a little moustache. And that moustache was no concept of the characterisation - only saying that it was rather silly. It doesn’t hide my expression.

RM When you looked at yourself, what was your first reaction?

CC It’ll do. It didn’t ignite anything. Not until I absolutely had to play it in the presence of the camera. Making an entrance, I felt dressed; I had an attitude. I felt good, and the character came to me. The scene [from Mabel’s Strange Predicament] was in a hotel lobby, and the Tramp was trying to pretend to be one of the guests just so he can get anchored on a soft seat and rest for a while. Everybody looked at him a little suspiciously, and I did all the things that the guests were doing in the hotel, looked at the register, took out a cigarette, lit it, watched the passing parade. And then I stumbled over the cuspidor. That was the first gag I ever did. And the character was born. And I thought, this is a very good character. But not every character I played followed the same format for all the comedy ideas after that.

One thing I intended to remain - not so much the dress of the Tramp, but the sore feet. No matter how rambunctious or exuberant he felt, he always had these very tired, big feet. I inquired of wardrobe that I wanted two large pairs of old shoes, because I had absurdly small feet, so I wanted these big shoes, and I knew they would give me a comic gait. I’m naturally very graceful, but trying to be graceful in big feet - that’s funny.

RM Do you think the Tramp would work in modern times?

CC I don’t think there’s any place for that sort of person now. The world has become a little bit more ordered. I don’t think it’s happier now, by any means. I’ve noticed the kids with their short clothes and their long hair, and I think some of them want to be tramps. But there’s not the same humility now. They don’t know what humility is, so it has become something of an antique. It belongs to another era. That’s why I couldn’t do anything like that now. And, of course, sound - that’s another reason. When talk came in I couldn’t have my character at all. I wouldn’t know what kind of voice he would have. So he had to go.

RM What do you think was the great appeal of the Tramp?

CC There is that gentle, quiet poverty. Every soda jerk wants to dress up, wants to be a swell. That’s what I enjoy about the character - being very fastidious and very delicate about everything. But I never really thought of the Tramp in terms of appeal. The Tramp was something within myself I had to express. I was motivated by the reaction of the audience, but I never related to an audience. The audience happens when it’s finished, and not during the making. I’ve always related to a sort of a comic spirit, something within me, that said, I must express this. This is funny.

RM How does a gag sequence come to you? Does it come out of nothing, or is there a process?

CC No, there is no process. The best ideas grow out of the situation. If you get a good comedy situation it goes on and on and has many radiations. Like the skating rink sequence [in The Rink]. I found a pair of skates and I went on, with everybody in the audience certain that I was going to fall, and instead I came on and just skated around on one foot gracefully. The audience didn’t expect it from the Tramp. Or the lamppost gag [in Easy Street]. It came out of a situation where I am a policeman, and am trying to subdue a bully. I hit him on the head with a truncheon, and hit him and hit him. It is like a bad dream. He keeps rolling his sleeves up with no reaction to being hit at all. Then he lifts me up and puts me down. Then I thought, well, he has enormous strength, so he can pull the lamppost down, and while he was doing that I would jump on his back, push his head in the light and gas him. I did some funny things that were all made off the cuff that got a tremendous laugh.

But there was a lot of agony, too. Miserable days of nothing working, and getting more despondent. It was up to me to think of something to make them laugh. And you cannot be funny without a funny situation. You can do something clownish, perhaps stumble, but you must have a funny situation.

RM Do you see people doing these things, or do they all come out of your imagination?

CC No, we created a world of our own. Mine was the studio in California. The happiest moments were when I was on the set and I had an idea or just a suggestion of a story, and I felt good, and then things would happen. It was the only surcease that I had. The evening is rather a lonesome place, you know, in California, especially in Hollywood. But it was marvellous, creating a comic world. It was another world, different from the everyday. And it used to be fun. You sit there and you rehearse for half a day, shoot it, and that was it.

RM Is realism an integral part of comedy?

CC Oh, yes, absolutely. I think in make-believe, you have an absurd situation, and you treat it with a complete reality. And the audience knows it, so they’re in the spirit. It’s so real to them and it’s so absurd, it gives them exultation.

RM Well, part of it is the cruelty, there was a lot of cruelty.

CC Cruelty is a basic element in comedy. What appears to be sane is really insane, and if you can make that poignant enough they love it. The audience recognises it as a farce on life, and they laugh at it in order not to die from it, in order not to weep. It’s a question of that mysterious thing called candour coming in. An old man slips on a banana and falls slowly and stumbles and we don’t laugh. But if it’s done with a pompous well-to-do gentleman who has exaggerated pride, then we laugh. All embarrassing situations are funny, especially if they’re treated with humour. With clowns you can expect anything outrageous to happen. But if a man goes into a restaurant, and he thinks he’s very smart but he’s got a big hole in his pants - if that is treated humorously, it’s bound to be funny. Especially if it’s done with dignity and pride.

RM Your comedy in part is a comedy of incident, too. It’s not an intellectual thing, it’s things that are happening, that are funny.

CC I’ve always thought that incidents related will make a story, like the setting up of a pool game on a billiard table. Each ball is an incident in itself. One touches the other, you see. And the whole makes a triangle. I carry that image a great deal in my work.

RM You like to keep a terrific pace going and you pack incidents one on top of the other quite a bit. Do you think this is characteristic of you?

CC Well, I don’t know whether it’s characteristic of me. I’ve watched other comedians who seem to relax their pace. I can feel my way much better with pace than I can with being slow. I haven’t the confidence to move slow, and I haven’t the confidence in what I’m doing.

But action is not always the thing. Everything must have growth, otherwise it loses its reality. You have a problem, and then you intensify it. You don’t deliberately start with intensifying it. But you say, well, now, where do we go from here? You say, what is the natural outcome of this? Realistically and convincingly, the problem keeps getting more and more complicated. And it must be logical, otherwise you will have some sort of comedy, but you won’t have an exciting comedy.

RM Do you worry about sentimentality or cliche?

CC No, not in pantomime. You don’t worry about it, you just avoid it. And I’m not afraid of a cliche - all life is a cliche. We don’t awaken with any sort of originality. We all live and die with three meals a day, fall in and out of love. Nothing could be more of a cliche than a love story, and that must go on, so long as it is treated interestingly.

RM Did you do the eating of the shoe gag [in The Gold Rush] many times?

CC We had about two days of retakes on it. And the poor old actor [Mack Swain] was sick for the last two. The shoes were made of liquorice, and he’d eaten so much of it. He said, ‘I cannot eat any more of those damn shoes!’ I got the idea for this gag from the Donner party [a wagon train of 81 pioneers who, heading to California in 1846, became trapped by snow in the Sierra Nevada]. They resorted to cannibalism and to eating a moccasin. And I thought, stewed boots? There’s something funny there.

I had an agonising time trying to motivate the story, until we got into a simple situation: hunger. The moment you’ve solved the logic of a situation, its feasibility, reality and possibility of being able to happen, ideas fly at you. It is one of the best things in the picture.

RM Did you have any doubts or concerns going into sound?

CC Yes, oh, naturally. In the first place, I had experience, but not academic training, and there’s a great difference. But I felt I had talent, I felt I was a natural actor. I knew it was much easier for me to pantomime than it was to talk. I’m an artist, and I knew very well that in talking a lot of that would disappear. I’d be no better than anybody else with good diction and a very good voice, which is more than half the battle.

RM Was it a question of having an extra dimension of reality that might hurt the fantasy of silent film?

CC Oh yes. I’ve always said that the pantomime is far more poetic and it has a universal appeal that everyone would understand if it were well done. The spoken word reduces everybody to a certain glibness. The voice is a beautiful thing, most revealing, and I didn’t want to be too revealing in my art because it may show a limitation. There are very few people with voices that can reach or give the illusion of great depth, whereas movement is as near to nature as a bird flying. The expression of the eyes - there’s no words. The pure expression of the face that people can’t hide - if it’s one of disappointment it can be ever so subtle. I had to bear all this in mind when I started talking. I knew very well I lost a lot of eloquence. It can never be as good.

RM Do you have a film that’s a favourite?

CC Well, I think I liked City Lights. I think it’s solid, well done. City Lights is a real comedy.

RM That is a powerful film. What impressed me is how close tragedy and comedy are.

CC That has never interested me. That’s been the feeling, I suppose, of subjectivity. I’ve always felt that, and it has more or less been second nature with me. That may be due to environment also. And I don’t think one can do humour without having great pity and a sense of sympathy for one’s fellow man.

RM Is it that we want relief from tragedy?

CC No, I think life is much more. If that were the reason I think there would be more suicides. People would want to get out of life. I think life is a very wonderful thing, and must be lived under all circumstances, even in misery. I think I would prefer life. Prefer the experience, for nothing else but the experience. I think humour does save one’s sanity. We can go overboard with too much tragedy. Tragedy is, of course, a part of life, but we’re also given an equipment to offset anything, a defence against it. I think tragedy is very essential in life. And we are given humour as a defence against it. Humour is a universal thing, which I think is derived from more or less pity.

RM Do you think there is such a thing as a genius?

CC I’ve never known quite what a genius was. I think it’s somebody with a talent, who’s highly emotional about it, and is able to master a technique. Everybody is gifted in some way. The average man has to differentiate between doing a regular sort of unimaginative job, and the fellow who’s a genius doesn’t. He does something different, but does this very well. Many a jack-of-all-trades has been mistaken for a genius.

– This is an edited extract from an interview in Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema, by Jeffrey Vance. A copy of the complete transcript, from which this excerpt was taken, is preserved in the Chaplin Archives.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Budd Schulberg: Waterfront Memories

On the Waterfront (Directed by Elia Kazan)
Budd Schulberg was born in New York in 1914, son of B.P. Schulberg, production chief at Paramount Studios. Schulberg grew up in Hollywood becoming a script reader and then a screenwriter after completing his education at Dartmouth College. He began to write and publish short stories in the 1930s and became a member of the Communist Party after visiting the Soviet Union in 1934. He would later recall his decision to join the party: ‘It didn’t take a genius to tell you that something was vitally wrong with the country. The unemployment was all around us. The bread lines and the apple sellers. I couldn’t help comparing that with my own family’s status, with my father; at one point he was making $11,000 a week. And I felt a shameful contrast between the haves and the have-nots very early’.

His commitment to the Communist Party ended after it insisted that his first novel be written to reflect Marxist dogma. He eventually published What Makes Sammy Run (1941), about an unscrupulous Hollywood studio mogul, to great critical acclaim.

During World War II, Schulberg worked in the OSS, the intelligence-gathering forerunner to the CIA. Working with director John Ford’s film unit, he documented the atrocities of the concentration camps, then personally arrested the Nazi film-maker Leni Riefenstahl at her Austrian chalet.

After the war, Schulberg published The Disenchanted (1950), his semi-fictionalized account of collaborating with F. Scott Fitzgerald on a screenplay.

In 1951 Schulberg was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during its investigation of the Communist Party’s alleged influence on the film industry. Having been named himself Schulberg acknowledged his former membership, offering his full cooperation. In his testimony before the Committee, Schulberg claimed he left the party because it refused to break with the Soviet dictatorship, and had tried to influence his work. He publicly named eight other Hollywood figures as members, including the screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. and the director Herbert Biberman – two of the Hollywood Ten who claimed the First Amendment gave them the right to silence before the committee. Schulberg’s testimony was seen as a betrayal. The liberal consensus in Hollywood was that Lardner had acquitted himself with more dignity before the committee when asked if he had been a Communist: ‘I could answer it, but if I did, I would hate myself in the morning.’

In a 2006 interview with the New York Times, Schulberg claimed that in hindsight he believed that the attacks against Communists in the United States were a greater threat to the country than the Communist Party itself. But he said he had named names because the party represented a genuine threat to freedom of speech: ‘They say that you testified against your friends, but once they supported the party against me, even though I did have some personal attachments, they were really no longer my friends... and I felt that if they cared about real freedom of speech, they should have stood up for me when I was fighting the party.’

After his testimony Schulberg worked on the screenplay for On the Waterfront which grew out of a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles written for The New York Sun about the influence of organized crime on the New York docks. The film was directed by Elia Kazan who had also testified before the Committee. Marlon Brando played the washed-up boxer, Terry Malloy, who turns against the power of the mob.

The allegorical parallels between the film and the McCarthy hearings are a subject of continuing controversy. The issue has been played down by Schulberg and Kazan. In his autobiography Kazan claimed he had wanted to do a picture about the waterfront long before the HUAC hearings. For Schulberg the film is a tragedy in which the system comes up against the little guy, a fixed fight in a world where ‘the love of a lousy buck’ and a ‘cushy job’ were ‘more important than the love of man,’ in the words of Father Barry, the crusading priest in On the Waterfront played by Karl Malden.

‘It’s the writer’s responsibility to stand up against that power,’ Schulberg later said. ‘The writers are really almost the only ones, except for very honest politicians, who can make any dent on that system. I tried to do that. And that’s affected me my whole life.’

In the following interview from 1998, Budd Schulberg recalled the making of On the Waterfront after a screening in New York.

Budd Schulberg: When I saw the other day on a list that our old movie was in the top ten... as one of the best pictures of all time, I thought again about travelling to Hollywood - Kazan and me. Kazan who directed this film, who already won an Academy Award for A Gentleman’s Agreement – all the way out telling me what a great script we had. He was saying we were so lucky because [he] had Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar and that [On the Waterfront] is one of the best three scripts [he'd] ever had. And I was worried... I told him I was worried about coming back [to Hollywood]. I told him I didn’t think they would like it out there.

Kazan was annoyed with me. I’ll try to make it brief, but we got off the train and there was no one to meet us and I said, ‘Kaz, there’s no limo’. Now Kazan is a very down to earth guy and he said ‘we don’t need a limo, I hate limos’. So we went up to the Beverly Hills Hotel and got there, checked in and no invitations from Daryl Zanuck – it was a film to be made for Zanuck – no invitation to come down to Palm Springs and play croquet. I said ‘there’s no invitation to play croquet’. Kazan says ‘I HATE croquet!’

And we went up to the room, we had a little suite, and there weren’t no flowers. I looked around and didn’t see no flowers. And I said, ‘Kaz, we have no flowers’. Kazan says, ‘What it is with you, I don’t need flowers. To hell with the flowers.’ And I said, ‘Kaz, you come from New York, I come from Hollywood. And I know the unspoken language of Hollywood and Zanuck is telling us something’. Kazan didn’t believe me.

But the following Monday, when Daryl Zanuck met us, raving about Cinemascope, he said ‘I’m so excited, I’m so excited, we have this great new medium, Cinemascope’. He said ‘that’s the great thing about our business. First it was flickers, and the films jumped, and then we learned how to make them more smoothly. And then we had colour and then we had sound and now we have the Cinemascope. 

Kazan and I looked at each other because we had written that this film should be something in flat black and white. As he went on about what could be done, he said, ‘Can you imagine what Prince Valiant would look like in Cinemascope?’ And finally Kazan said, ‘Daryl, what about our picture?’ There was a long, pregnant pause and Mr. Zanuck said, ‘Boys, I’m sorry, but I don’t like a single thing about it’. And I think I was quiet and Kazan said not a single thing.

He said, ‘Whatta ya got except a bunch of sweaty longshoremen’. And that stabbed me in the heart because when Kazan came to talk with me about doing this movie, I went down on the Lower West Side, in the Chelsea area – you’ll see some of that experience up here in the movie – and I got involved with an amazing man, one of the most amazing I ever met, the waterfront priest – Father John Corridon.

I mean, we’ve learned now that the ILA – the International Longshoreman’s Association – was totally in the hands of the mob. They were killers and thieves. Corridon was really filling the vacuum and trying to guide the rebel longshoremen into making some effort to win back their young and make a real living. This went on for several years and I hung in with these people. I love these people and when Zanuck said that all you got is a lot of sweaty longshoremen... my heart was broken. After that, every studio in town, had the same reaction.

We went to Warners, Paramount, MGM, every single one said no. They wouldn’t make the picture. And as I said... what we were talking about a few minutes ago... one thing that really warmed me to Kazan... and I tried, I really tried... and I turned on him. Back at the hotel... I was so mad. I had spent about two years, I had actually mortgaged my farm, I was going broke doing this movie... and I turned on him and I said, ‘Goddamit, I told you they weren’t going to make this movie’. And Kazan said, ‘Budd, I promise I’ll make it. I have to get on the docks with a handheld IMO and use the actual longshoremen – the rebel longshoremen who were working with Ed Xavier and some of the actors out of the (Actor’s) Studio and make this movie. And that’s pretty much how it was made. It really was the longest of the longshots. It was almost accidental that the movie ever got made at all. It was a longshot.

It was all shot in Hoboken, New Jersey, across the river from the Manhattan West Side docks. It was made for 800,000 dollars and it was shot in 37 days. And every single night, every single night, twelve o’clock, one’o clock, two o’clock my phone would ring and it would be our producer, Sam Speigel and he would say, ‘Budd, you’ve got to make them go faster, you’ve got to make them go faster’. So, the film was a film that was almost like our own film, that nobody would like so we would say to each other, ‘Oh well, it doesn’t matter that nobody likes it, at least we like it’. And so, I’m really pleased that you’re here to see the movie and that there’s still that much interest in it after all these years.

Question: What were the initial reactions after the film was made?

Budd Schulberg: Our producer, Sam Speigel, was still very worried. Columbia had looked at it and they didn’t like it. So Sam Speigel got the idea that maybe it needed some kind of lift, and he got Bernstein to do the score for the film. It was the only one that he ever wrote and he did a terrific job. And when we got all those Oscar nominations and we won... all those Oscars, we were really amazed that Bernstein was left out completely. But the score wasn’t left out, it’ll always be there. Occasionally it’s played in philharmonic programs and it was the only one he did and he did one hell of a job at that.

Question: In most modern films, the score fades into the background, but in your film the score is right up in front. Was that Speigel, or was that your choice?

Budd Schulberg: That was in the mixing. As the writer of the picture, as much as I admired the score, there were times that I thought it was maybe it was a little bit... too loud. (laughter)

Question: I know it’s a general question, but how do you approach writing dialogue. Is there a certain method that you use?

Budd Schulberg: One thing you do in writing dialogue is that you make up as little of it as you can and you listen as much as you can. Watching it this evening, I was reminded how many times something in there was not really written by me, I simply wrote down what they were actually saying. The scene in the hold, after Doogan gets killed, Father Barry comes down and when he talks about Christ and the shake-up, that was something that I actually heard. When I heard the real waterfront priest talk about that Christ is here and he carries a hook and he sees the men who get passed over and who gets the jobs and the wine and I was just so amazed by it that I just had to try and put this old sermon, or whatever you call it, in the film.

Dialogue, you try to build your characters... if you try to get an idea about who you’re writing about, then you listen to that person or those people. When Charlie gets killed, the ordinary cliché for Terry would be ‘I’ll get ‘em’ or ‘I’ll kill ‘em’ or something like that, but I actually heard a longshoreman say ‘I'll take it out of their skulls!’ And it just rang a bell, a loud bell, that that’s the line I should use.  I’ll say what I heard my friend the longshoreman say, ‘I'll take it out of their skulls’. So a lot of dialogue comes out of listening, carefully, to the characters and getting an ear for how they talk and plus, you have to shape your scenes and build your scenes on all of that. I find it very, very valuable, I think. 

– Interview transcript with Budd Schulberg in ‘New York Conversations’, by Mikael Colville-Andersen.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’: An American Nightmare

Psycho (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
When Alfred Hitchcock was interviewed by Francois Truffaut in the fall of 1962, he had this to say on Psycho: ‘It wasn’t a message that stirred the audiences, nor was it a great performance... they were aroused by pure film.’ Adding that it ‘belongs to filmmakers, to you and me.’

Made in the spirit of a low-budget movie (Psycho cost $800,000), Hitchcock utilised his television crew from Alfred Hitchcock Presents, shot in what was then an unfashionable black and white, deployed long sequences without dialogue and eschewed the traditional narrative path by having the female lead killed early on. Moreover, Hitchcock forced the audience to be attentive while breaking convention, guiding the audience to switch allegiance from Marion Crane’s (Janet Leigh’s) theft and escape, to an audacious sympathy with Anthony Perkins’ mother-fixated serial-killer, Norman Bates. The death of Marion Crane in the infamous shower sequence is followed by Norman’s painstaking clean-up of the crime scene and disposal of her body, car and stolen cash, into a nearby lake. A complex chain that plays with the audience’s identification with Norman’s feelings of fear and guilt.

The film’s melodramatic second half provides two potent set-piece shocks. The private detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam) is killed in a scene that uses back-projection to follow his death-tumble down the stairs. And the secret of Norman’s relationship with his mother is disclosed.

Hitchcock’s relish in how film affects his audience is most apparent in Psycho. ‘I was directing the viewers,’ the director told Truffaut in their book-length interview. ‘You might say I was playing them, like an organ.’

What makes Psycho timeless, however, is that it connects directly with its audience’s primal fears and concerns. Marion Crane takes a detour into a world of randomness, guilt and death. And yet on several occasions Hitchcock remarked that Psycho is a film made with a sense of amusement. ‘It's a fun picture,’ he once quipped. In his book The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures, Donald Spoto writes that the sharp wit of the film is a refusal to submit to the horror and oppression of those fears and impulses which the film so relentlessly explores:
For most, a first viewing of Psycho is marked by suspense, even mounting
terror, and by a sense of decay and death permeating the whole. Yet for all its
overt Gothicism – forbidding gingerbread houses, the abundance of mirrors,
terrible dark nights of madness and death – repeated viewings leave a sense,
above all, of profound sadness. For Psycho describes, as perhaps no other
American film, the inordinate expense of wasted lives in a world so comfortably
familiar as to appear, initially, unthreatening: the world of office girls and
lunchtime liaisons, of half-eaten cheese sandwiches, of motels just off the main
road, of shy young men and maternal devotion. But these may just be flimsy
veils for spiritual, moral and psychic disarray of terrifying ramifications.
Psycho postulates that the American dream has become a nightmare, and that
all its components play us false. Hitchcock reveals the emptiness of the dream
that a woman can flee to her lover and begin an Edenic new life, forgetting the
past. He shows that love stolen at mid-day, like cash stolen in later afternoon,
amounts to nothing. He shatters the notion that intense filial devotion can
conquer death and cancel the past. Finally, the film treats with satiric, Swiftian
vengeance the two great American psychological obsessions: the role of Mother,
and the embarrassed secretiveness which surrounds both love-making and the
These concerns, these vulnerabilities, raise Marion Crane and Normal Bates
almost to the level of prototypes; thus Hitchcock’s insistence on audience
manipulation and the resulting identification of viewer with character….
Broader in scope than the bizarre elements of its plot indicate, Psycho has
the dimensions of great tragedy, very like Oresteia, Macbeth and Crime and
 In method and content, in the sheer economy of its style and in its
oddly appealing wit, it is one of the great works of modern art.
– Donald Spoto. The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures. New 
York: Hopkins and Blake, 1976.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Bresson on Bresson

A Man Escaped (Directed by Robert Bresson)
Following on from last week’s post in which screenwriter and director Paul Schrader discussed the influence and style of Robert Bresson’s ‘Pickpocket’, here is an extract from a 1970 interview with Bresson by Charles Thomas Samuels in which the great French director reflects on his career up to that point. In this section Bresson discusses ‘Pickpocket’ (1959) and the compelling ‘A Man Escaped’ (1956) based on the memoirs of André Devigny, a prisoner of war held at Fort Montluc by the Nazis during World War II. 

S: I want to ask some questions about A Man Escaped, which, by the way, seems to me your greatest film. Incidentally, does that judgment upset you?

B: I don’t know how to make such comparisons. But there may be something in what you say. When I finished it, I had no idea about its value. Yet I had, for the first time in my life, an impulse to write down everything I felt about the art of filmmaking, and for that reason A Man Escaped is precious to me...

S: A Man Escaped shares with The Trial of Joan of Arc an implication of French nationalism. Did you want that?

B: No, the prisoner could have been a young American or a Vietnamese. I was interested only in the mind of someone who wishes to escape without outside help….

S: Though you create very well the experience of being in prison, you never show the brutality. For example, you don’t show Fontaine being beaten. You only show him afterward. Why?

B: Because it would be false to show the beating since the audience knows that the actor isn’t really being beaten, and such falsity would stop the film. Moreover, this is what it was like when I was a prisoner of the Germans. Once I heard someone being whipped through a door, and then I heard the body fall. That was ten times worse than if I had seen the whipping. When you see Fontaine with his bloody face being brought back to the cell, you are forced to imagine the awfulness of the beating - which makes it very powerful Furthermore, if I showed him being taken from his cell, being beaten, then being returned, it would take much too long.

S: There is another wonderful effect of concentration in this scene: Fontaine says, ‘After three days I was able to move again,’ although only a few seconds of film time have passed. This suggests how quickly he restores himself and how much courage he has.

B: That is very important. His will to go on establishes a rhythm of inexorability that touches the public. When men go to war, military music is necessary, because music has a rhythm and rhythm implants ideas.

A Man Escaped (Directed by Robert Bresson)
S: Whenever we see the window in Fontaine’s cell, it glows like a jewel. Was that a special effect?

B: No, but I do remember that I worked with my cinematographer to obtain just the right degree of light from both window and door.

S: There is one thing in the film that seems uncharacteristic in its patness. When Fontaine is sentenced, the scene takes place at the Hotel Terminus...

B: Every city in France had such a hotel where the Gestapo stayed during the occupation.

S: You didn’t desire the pun?

B: Of course not. Everything in this film is absolutely factual. I had no trouble inventing details and was familiar with the history of the place. All of the characters’ actions take place exactly where they occurred in real life.

S: You search for mystery in your films. It seems to me that here you really attain it because although the title tells us that he will escape, the film is very suspenseful.

B: The important thing is not ‘if’ but ‘how’. Here is another mystery: Although every detail of the film came from the report of Andre Devigny, I invented the dialogue with the young boy who is finally brought to Fontaine’s cell. When I read it to Devigny, I was very worried about his reaction. Do you know what he said? ‘How true!’ This shows that truth can be different from reality, because in the actual event, as Devigny told me, he behaved as if the boy were a woman he needed to seduce in order to make good his escape. In my film, on the other hand, I show Fontaine dominating the boy. You know, I wanted to call the film ‘Help Yourself,’ and that’s why I showed Devigny as dominating in the last scenes. Help yourself and God will help you.

S: There are other great moments in the film. For example, when Fontaine tells the old man in the next cell that his own attempt to escape is being made for the old man, too, or the moments when a community is achieved by means of men tapping on the walls. I could go on. This film is your greatest, I think, not because it is technically superior to the others but because it is richer in content.

B: Mouchette is rich, too!

S: I would place Mouchette with A Man Escaped among your greatest films.

B: But it seems to me there is a little too much spectacle in Mouchette.

Pickpocket (Directed by Robert Bresson)
S: You added a lot to the Bernanos novel in Mouchette. Conversely, Pickpocket, which is an original, appears to be inspired by Crime and Punishment. For the viewer aware of this parallel, there is a problem in Pickpocket. In Crime and Punishment, whether justifiably or not, Raskolnikov thinks of his crime as benefiting humanity and thus earns a measure of sympathy. Your hero has no excuse for the crime and thus seems a little pretentious in his desire to be taken as a superior being.

B: Yes, but he is aware that pickpocketing is very difficult and dangerous. He is taken with the thrill of that. He is pretentious perhaps, like Raskolnikov, but on quite a lesser scale. Like Raskolnikov, he hates organized society...

S: What I am trying to explore with you is the emotional problem for the spectator.

B: I never think of the spectator.

S: But you can see that your hero might appear unsympathetic.

B: He is unsympathetic. Why not?

S: I am also puzzled, in view of your uninterest in psychology, at the heavy psychological emphasis in this film. Let me explain. As we see the hero stealing, we don’t know his motive, but toward the end of the film we find out that he previously stole from his mother. We then realize his psychological motivation; he stole from his mother, felt guilty about that, was ashamed to confess to her, and, therefore, commits crimes so as to be punished and fulfill his need for penitence.

B: Perhaps, but only a psychiatrist would explain it like that. As Dostoyevsky frequently does, I present the effect before the cause. I think this is a good idea because it increases the mystery; to witness events without knowing why they are occurring makes you desire to find out the reason.

S: But this doesn’t answer my question. Here, in the first of your films from an original story, you, who profess to dislike psychology, are at your most psychological. Why?

B: You think it’s psychological? I didn’t mean it to be. I simply showed a man picking pockets until he was arrested. I included the fact that he stole from his mother simply to provide evidence the police needed in order to be put on his track.

S: In other words, you didn’t put it in as explanation but rather as plot device?

B: Yes. It is only to make the chief of police certain that Martin is a thief. What interested me is the power this gave the inspector, because the inspector liked to torture him – as in that long scene, where the hero doesn’t know how much the inspector knows. In fact, I originally wanted to call the film ‘Incertitude.’

S: There is something else I rather doubt you wanted in the film. The hero of your film is a criminal in two ways: He is a thief, and he denies God.

Pickpocket (Directed by Robert Bresson)
B: On the contrary, I make him aware of the presence of God for three minutes. Few people can say they were aware of God even that long. This line of dialogue is very personal; it shows that although influenced by Dostoyevsky, I made my story benefit from my own experiences. At his mother’s funeral, a singer sings the Dies Irae in exactly the same simple way another singer sang it at my mother’s funeral in the Cathedral of Nantes, where, apart from ten nuns, my wife and I attended the service alone. Somehow this Dies Irae made a strange impression on me; I could have said then, like my pickpocket, ‘I felt God during three minutes.’

S: This raises another question. You are famous for maintaining your privacy. I didn’t even know you were married, and it was a great surprise when your wife came to the door. Isn’t Pickpocket a game of hide-and-seek since, according to you, it reflects so much of your personal experience, although if you hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t have known it?

B: I hate publicity. One should be known for what he does, not for what he is. Nowadays a painter paints a bad painting, but he talks about it until it becomes famous. He paints for five minutes and talks about it on television for five years.

S: That reminds me of Godard. He makes bad films, but he defends them so interestingly.

B: His films are interesting. He upsets the official cinema, which cares only for profits. He taught films how to use disorder.

S: Don’t you think his purpose is more important than the individual results – which aren’t very good?

B: When he uses professional actors, I don’t like his films, but when he doesn’t, he makes the best that can be seen.

S: On this matter of your zeal for truth: There are moments in Pickpocket which seem to me to be true only to your peculiar style. For example, in the opening scene where the hero steals the purse, the people at the racetrack are preternaturally calm. I can’t believe that people watch a race so impassively.

B: But not every part of a racetrack crowd reacts in the same way. There are always certain people who watch impassively. I didn’t want him to commit his theft when people were shouting; I wanted it to happen in silence, so that one could hear the crescendo of the horses’ galloping.

S: But such a scene, even among sympathetic viewers, raises the question of whether we are seeing truth in your films or the reflection of a very deliberate and personal style. I ask myself that question occasionally in Pickpocket and almost always in The Trial of Joan of Arc.

B: If that happens, it is my fault. My style is natural to me. You see, I want to make things so concentrated and so unified that the spectator feels as if he has seen one single moment. I control all speech and gesture so as to produce an object that is indivisible. Because I believe that one moves an audience only through rhythm, concentration, and unity.

Interview with Robert Bresson – Charles Thomas Samuels, Encountering Directors, New York: G.P. Putnam & Sons, 1972.