Monday, 30 July 2012

Charlie Kaufman I : On Screenwriting

Being John Malkovich (Directed by Spike Jonze)
One of modern cinema’s most celebrated screenwriters, Charlie Kaufman’s work includes surreal fantasy Being John Malkovich, cerebral sci-fi Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and comedy dramas Human Nature and Adaptation. The following extract is taken from an interview with Creative Screenwriting in 2001 in which Kaufman discusses his work with David and Jeff Goldsmith (the second part of the interview, devoted to Kaufman’s script Adaptation, to follow next week).

CS: When you write, do you take into consideration commercial potential or how an audience might respond to the writing?

CK: I think it’s my responsibility to write about the things that interest me. I feel that I’d be doing a disservice to anybody and everybody to not do what I thought was good. Because other than that, you should be in advertising or something.

CS: Unfortunately, too many screenwriters approach the job like they were in advertising.

CK: I think that’s what you’re trained to do. I think that’s what the studios do to a certain extent. But I think you have to ask yourself, ‘Is this interesting to me?’ ‘Is this funny to me?’ ‘Is this something I’d want to see?’ That’s something I always ask myself: ‘Is this a movie that I would go to see?’ And if the answer is yes, then it’s something to pursue. Otherwise you’re being cynical.

CS: It seems to me that your stories resonate with audiences because they’re as honest as they are imaginative.

CK: I’m fortunate to be able to do that. I guess at some point I may not be able to write that way, and I’ll have to make a living. Then I’ll have to write what other people want me to write. But right now I’m going to grab the bull by the horns and do what I want.

CS: How do you go about deciding on subject matter?

CK: I don’t conceive of things from a very conscious place. I just write about things that interest me – that I find moving – and then I trust it. I don’t think it serves me to do it any other way because that’s where I get the most passion and intimacy in my work. So I don’t know the answer; I like an idea, and then I tend to have three or four ideas that I might combine – which I did in Human Nature. Then I try to force myself to figure out how these things might fit together. I did the same thing in [Being John] Malkovich, and with Adaptation. It’s taking disparate ideas and then working out how and why they should fit together. How the story should be told.

CS: You began in TV and years ago wrote some TV pilots that remain produced. One was called Ramblin’ Pants, the other Depressed Roomies. Are there any plans to get these off the ground?

CK: I actually wrote four or five and nothing happened with them. They already made the rounds years ago.

CS: But you’re a different person now, those could be greenlit overnight.

CK: I am, but I think that I’d rather come up with something new than just go back to those.

CS: There are some fairly successful screenwriters who view their work as a grind. I get the feeling you’re someone who really loves writing.

CK: It’s important to me to do the best I can; I don’t think I’d want to approach it in any kind of weary way. I’d be ashamed to do that. Human Nature was a spec script. I wasn’t even working as a screenwriter professionally when I wrote it; I was working as a television writer. The same with  Malkovich. They were written during my television years; I just did them during hiatus.

CS: That was a while ago. How did Human Nature come to be made now?

CK: Both of those scripts had been kicking around for several years. I think I wrote them in the mid-nineties. Malkovich got made and it got positive attention; then people were interested in this one. Michel Gondry wanted to direct it. There had been others interested in directing it – at one point I was going to direct it – but Michel wanted to do it. I figured that would be good, so I came on as a producer, along with Good Machine and Spike Jonze.

CS: What was your involvement as a producer?

CK: I was involved throughout the production in every stage: pre-production, production, casting, and post. I was very involved in the editing along with Michel and Russell Icke, the editor; and the other producers, Anthony Bregman, Ted Hope, and Spike.

CS: Was that a new situation for you?

CK: This is my second film as producer. The first one was Malkovich, which I was involved in unofficially because I had a relationship with Spike, and he respects my opinion...

My involvement as producer is creative; I’m obviously not scheduling and doing that sort of stuff. It’s important for me to be there because it’s a way of having my voice heard and protecting my intentions... I’m engaged and involved because the people who direct these movies realize, correctly I think, that it’s important to have the person who wrote the material there to talk to. It doesn’t happen a lot, but I think it’s stupid, very stupid, not to utilize your resources, and the person who invented something is a very valuable resource. We’re doing post-production rewrites as things get moved around. There’s a lot of stuff to finesse or fix.

CS: Do you mean moving scenes around? Or rewriting and re-shooting?

CK: We didn’t do any re-shooting for Human Nature. We did some for Malkovich and we’re going to do some for Adaptation. But when you’re cutting a movie down and moving scenes around there’s stuff that doesn’t work anymore. You have to cheat in dialogue, to smooth it, so there’s that kind of writing to do.

CS: Being involved in the editing process must give you a new perspective on screenwriting.

CK: It really does. I think editing is most akin to writing the movie, more than any other aspect of production. It really is writing, you know? You’re doing a lot more than I would have imagined: finding connections that weren’t intended, but that work in this new form. It’s very interesting, and it requires you to really let go of what you’ve gone in with. You’re not really in service of the script anymore. Now it’s, ‘This is what you have,’ and, ‘This is what it is; now how do you make this work?’ As opposed to keep going back and saying, ‘Well this isn’t what I wrote.’ Or, ‘this isn’t how I wrote it.’ I’m fortunate because all writers should be in this situation. But it’s good for me that I’m a partner in this because I know a lot of stuff gets taken away from writers and it doesn’t resemble what their intentions were anymore.

Human Nature (Directed by Michel Gondry) 
CS: Has producing changed the way you write?

CK: One of the things I’ve realized is that in all three of the movies I’ve been involved in is if we see a softness or a problem in the script, it should be corrected at that point. The idea of ‘you’ll fix it later’ or ‘nobody will notice’ is insane. Maybe nobody does notice, but we notice and it becomes a major issue in post, like, ‘How do we solve this problem,’ etc. And then it’s glaring, and we have to do all this extra work to fix it. It happened again and again, and the thing that struck me in all cases, without going into detail, is that in almost every case we saw [the problem] before and didn’t think it would be as big a deal as it ended up being for us. So, I think motivation, character intention to the most miniscule degree, needs to be attended to.

CS: Thanks, Mr. McKee. [screenwriting guru Robert McKee]

CK: [Laughs] Right, I guess he would say something like that, but he’d be right.

CS: What’s it like for you to enter the editing room as both a writer and producer and be creatively involved with those important decisions?

CK: It’s hard, but it’s great. I definitely wouldn’t trade it in. It’s exhausting, and it’s frustrating, and it’s an enormously long process. You lose track gradually over all the different versions of the movie. You lose perspective; you don’t know what you’re watching anymore, and that’s where test screenings become very, very important.

CS: You actually like test screenings?

CK: Yes, for that reason. I don’t mean the test screenings with the numbers or whatever those things, the official ones, are. For us, I mean you can cut out a whole scene in a movie that you’ve been working on for three years, and your brain makes the connection between this moment and that moment because you have the information from the previous draft. But you can’t really know if an audience will make that same connection. So you get people saying, ‘I don’t understand the ending. I don’t understand what happened here,’ and to me that’s the most valuable thing about screenings. ‘Do we like this character?’ or ‘Is the character redeeming?’– that kind of shit I don’t care about, but I do care about if the movie makes the sense that we wanted it to make. What’s most interesting is when someone interprets something differently than you had expected them to, like the reason a character does this is because of something you wouldn’t have even considered, but it makes sense now and you understand where they’re coming from.

– Extracted From: ‘Charlie Kaufman Interviewed By David F. Goldsmith & Jeff Goldsmith. Creative Screenwriting, Volume 9, #2 (March/April 2002) & Volume 9, #6 (November/December 2002)’.


Saturday, 21 July 2012

The Discreet Charm of Luis Buñuel

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Directed by Luis Buñuel)
In Luis Buñuel’s satiric comedy, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, a group of middle-class diners sit down to dinner but never manage to start their meal, their attempts continually frustrated by a surreal sequence of events both real and imagined. The film remains one of Buñuel’s more popular and identifiable works. Buñuel's memorable set-pieces propel a hallucinatory narrative that moves with relentless comic drive. In some ways the film is a companion piece to The Exterminating Angel, Bunuel’s complex and dark 1962 masterpiece about bourgeois diners who can’t leave a dinner party after they’ve finished their meal.

Soon after the release of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie in 1972 the Mexican novelist and essayist Carlos Fuentes wrote the following celebrated article on Buñuel, who was a close friend. The piece was originally published in The New York Times:

SEEING: In his sixties, Buñuel finally achieved the choice of subject matter, the means, the creative freedom so long denied him. But Buñuel has always proved hardier than the minimal or optimal conditions of production offered him; he constantly remarks that, given a $5-million budget, he would still film a $500,000 movie. An obsessive artist, Buñuel cares about what he wants to say; or rather, what he wants to see. A really important director makes only one film; his work is a sum, a totality of perfectly related parts that illuminate each other. In Buñuel’s films, from Un Chien Andalou to The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the essential unifying factor is sight. His first image is that of a woman’s eye slit by a razor and throughout the body of his work there is this pervading sense of sight menaced, sight lost as virginity is lost; sight as a wound that will not heal, wounded sight as an interstice through which dreams and desires can flow. Catherine Deneuve’s absent regard in Belle de jour is calculated. She is constantly looking outside the confines of the screen, enlarging the space of the screen, looking at something beyond that isn’t there, that probably connects the two halves of her life.

But Buñuel’s violent aggressions against sight actually force us back to his particular way of seeing. His world is seen first as a grey, hazy, distant jumble of undetermined things; no other director shoots a scene from quite that neutral, passive distance. Then the eye of the camera suddenly picks out an object that has been there all the time, or a revealing gesture, zooms into them, makes them come violently alive before again retiring to the indifferent point of view.

This particular way of seeing, of making the opaque backdrop shine instantly by selecting an object or gesture, assures the freedom and fluid elegance of a Buñuel film. Sight determines montage; what is seen flows into what is unseen. The camera fixes on a woman’s ankle or the buzzing box a Korean takes to a brothel; the woman’s shoes lead to desire or the Korean’s stare to mystery, mystery and desire to dream, dream to a dream within it and the following cut back to everyday normality has already compounded reality with the fabulous; the meanest, most violent or weakest character has achieved a plurality of dimensions that straight realism would never reveal. The brutal gang leader in Los Olvidados is redeemed by his dream of fright and solitude: A black dog silently races down a rainy street at night. And you cannot altogether hate the stupid, avaricious people in The Discreet Charm; their dreams are too funny; they are endowed with a reluctantly charming dimension; they are doomed, yet they survive.

Cruel and destructive: Such were the adjectives reserved for his early films; now they are elegant and comical. Has the dynamite-flinging miner of Asturias, as Henry Miller called him, mellowed so much? On the contrary: I believe his technique has simply become more finely honed, his sense of inclusiveness through sight wider. More things are seen, understood, laughed at and perhaps forgiven. Besides, the author is debating himself. Is that a Buñuel stand-in who drones in The Milky Way: ‘My hatred towards science and technology will surely drive me back to the despicable belief in God?’

Sight connects. Buñuel has filmed the story of the first capitalist hero, Robinson Crusoe, and Crusoe is saved from loneliness by his slave, but the price he must pay is fraternity, seeing Friday as a human being. He has also filmed the story of Robinson’s descendants in The Discreet Charm, and these greedy, deceptive people can only flee their overpopulated, polluted, promiscuous island into the comic loneliness of their dreams. Sight and survival, desires and dreams, seeing others in order to see oneself. This parabola of sight is essential to Buñuel’s art. Nazarin will not see God unless he sees his fellow men; Viridiana will not see herself unless she sees outside herself and accepts the world. The characters in The Discreet Charm can never see themselves or others. They may be funny, but they are already in hell. Elegant humor only cloaks despair.

So in Buñuel sight determines content or, rather, content is a way of looking, content is sight at all possible levels. And this multitude of levels—social, political, psychological, historical, esthetic, philosophic, is not predetermined, but flows from vision. His constant tension is between obsessive opposites: pilgrimage and confinement, solitude and fraternity, sight and blindness, social rules and personal cravings, rational conduct and oneiric behavior. His intimate legacies, often conflicting, are always there: Spain, Catholicism, surrealism, left anarchism. But, above all, what is always present is the liberating thrust that could only come from such a blend of heritages. Certainly no other filmmaker could have so gracefully and violently humanized and brought into the fold of freedom, rebellion and understanding so many figures, so many passions, so many desires that the conventional code judges as monstrous, criminal and worthy of persecution and, even, extermination. The poor are not forcibly good and the rich are not forcibly evil; Buñuel incriminates all social orders while liberating our awareness of the outcast, the deformed, the maimed, the necrophiles, the lesbians, the homosexuals, the fetishists, the incestuous, the whorish, the cruel children, the madmen, the poets, the forbidden dreamers. He never exploits this marginality, because he makes it central to his vision. He has set the highest standards for true cinematic freedom.

The Exterminating Angel (Directed by Luis Buñuel)
And finally, this respect for freedom of his characters is translated into respect for the freedom of his audience. As they end, his films remain open, the spectator remains free. A flock of sheep enters the church of The Exterminating Angel as civil strife explodes in the streets. An empty carriage rolls down a wooded lane while the horses’ bells jingle in Belle de jour. Nazarin accepts a gift of a pineapple from a humble woman as the drums of Calanda start pounding and the whole structure of the priest’s mind turns and opens toward the future. Viridiana sits down and plays cards with her cousin and the cook as they listen to rock recordings. A bell with the face of her victim and victimizer telescopes Tristana back to the very beginning of her story. The mad husband in El zigzags his way down a monastery garden where he thinks he has achieved peace of mind. The six listless characters in The Discreet Charm, driven by an irrational urge, trudge down an unending highway.

If the end in a Buñuel film can mean exactly the contrary, the beginnings of his films can be terrifying. L’Age d’Or starts with a scorpion and that scorpion, encircled by fire, is committing suicide with its own poisonous tail. It is the center of a flaming eye. Buñuel has written: ‘The camera is the eye of the marvelous. When the eye of the cinema really sees, the whole world goes up in flames.’

DYING: We walk in silence down a wintry Parisian boulevard. Buñuel is a friend, a warm, humorous, magnificent friend, and one can be with him without having to say anything.

We reach his hotel and go up to his room. He always reserves the same one; the windows open on the black and grey tombstones, the naked trees of the Montparnasse cemetery. It has rained all day, but at this hour of the afternoon a very pure, diaphanous light seems to drip from the fast moving clouds. Buñuel starts packing for the flight back to Mexico City.

Every now and then, he gazes at the trees and murmurs: ‘I’m not afraid of death. I’m afraid of dying alone in a hotel room, with my bags open and a shooting script on the night table. I must know whose fingers will close my eyes.’

– Excerpted from ‘The Discreet Charm of Luis Buñuel’, originally published in The New York Times Magazine, March 11, 1973. ©1973 by The New York Times Company.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Kurosawa, Tarkovsky and Solaris

Solaris (Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky)
‘I was on very intimate terms with Tarkovsky. I always felt like he was my younger brother. Drinking together, we sang the theme of Seven Samurai. His expression of the element of water! It was unique, indeed. Watching this film [Solaris] always makes me want to return to Earth.’ 
- Kurosawa on Tarkovsky

Akira Kurosawa first met Andrei Tarkovsky in Moscow on his first visit to Russia in July 1971 when Kurosawa attended the Moscow Film Festival. Dodeskaden was screened and won the Special Prize. Tarkovsky then went to Japan to re-pay the visit that same fall and the two directors remained friends until Tarkovsky’s untimely death in 1986. Tarkovsky told Kurosawa that he always viewed Seven Samurai before shooting a new film. Kurosawa replied that he would always see Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev before shooting...

Originally written by Akira Kurosawa and published in May 1977 the following article titled ‘Tarkovsky and Solaris’ recalls the early relationship between the two great directors. It was translated for by Sato Kimitoshi and was subsequently adapted by Criterion for use in the insert booklet of their Solaris DVD.

I met Tarkovsky for the first time when I attended my welcome luncheon at Mosfilm during my first visit to Soviet Russia. He was small, thin, looked a little frail, and at the same time exceptionally intelligent, and unusually shrewd and sensitive. I thought he somehow resembled Toru Takemitsu, but I don’t know why. Then he excused himself saying, ‘I still have work to do,’ and disappeared, and after a while I heard such a big explosion as to make all the glass windows of the dining hall tremble hard. Seeing me taken aback, the boss of Mosfilm said with a meaningful smile: ‘You know another World War hasn’t broken out. Tarkovsky just launched a rocket. This work with Tarkovsky, however, has proved a Great War for me.’ That was the way I knew Tarkovsky was shooting Solaris.

After the luncheon party, I visited his set for Solaris. There it was. I saw a burnt down rocket at the corner of the space station set. I am sorry I forgot to ask him as to how he had shot the launching of the rocket on the set. The set of the satellite base was beautifully made at a huge cost, for it was all made up of thick duralumin.

It glittered in its cold metallic silver light, and I found light rays of red, or blue or green delicately winking or waving from electric light bulbs buried in the gagues on the equipment lined up in there. And above on the ceiling of the corridor ran two duralumin rails from which hung a small wheel of a camera which could move around freely inside the satellite base.

Tarkovsky guided me around the set, explaining to me as cheerfully as a young boy who is given a golden opportunity to show someone his favorite toybox. [The director] Bondarchuk, who came with me, asked him about the cost of the set, and left his eyes wide open when Tarkovsky answered it. The cost was so huge: about six hundred million yen as to make Bondarchuk, who directed that grand spectacle of a movie War and Peace, gaze in wonder.

Now I came to fully realize why the boss of the Mosfilm said it was ‘a Great War for me.’ But it takes a huge talent and effort to spend such a huge cost. Thinking ‘this is a tremendous task’ I closely gazed at his back when he was leading me around the set in enthusiasm.

Concerning Solaris I find many people complaining that it is too long, but I do not think so. They especially find too lengthy the description of nature in the introductory scenes, but these layers of memory of farewell to this earthly nature submerge themselves deep below the bottom of the story after the main character has been sent in a rocket into the satellite station base in the universe, and they almost torture the soul of the viewer like a kind of irresistible nostalgia toward mother earth and nature, which resembles homesickness. Without the presence of beautiful nature sequences on earth as a long introduction, you could not make the audience directly conceive the sense of having no-way-out harboured by the people ‘jailed’ inside the satellite base.

I saw this film late at night in a preview room in Moscow for the first time, and soon I felt my heart aching in agony with a longing to returning to the earth as quickly as possible. We have enjoyed marvellous progress in science, but where will it lead humanity after all? This film succeeds in conjuring up sheer fearful emotion in our soul. Without it, a science-fiction movie would be nothing more than a petty fancy.

These thoughts came and went while I was gazing at the screen.

Tarkovsky was together with me then. He was at the corner of the studio. When the film was over, he stood up, looking at me as if he felt timid. I said to him, ‘Very good. It makes me feel real fear.’ Tarkovsky smiled shyly, but happily. And we toasted vodka at the restaurant in the Film Institute. Tarkovsky, who didn’t drink usually, drank a lot of vodka, and went so far as to turn off the speaker from which music had floated into the restaurant, and began to sing the theme of the samurai from Seven Samurai at the top of his voice. As if to rival him, I joined in.

For I was at that moment very happy to find myself living on Earth.

Solaris makes a viewer feel this, and even this single fact shows us that Solaris is no ordinary science-fiction film. It truly somehow provokes pure horror in our soul. And it is under the total grip of the deep insights of Tarkovsky.

There must be many, many things still unknown to humanity in this world: the abyss of the cosmos which a man had to look into, strange visitors in the satellite base, time running in reverse, from death to life, strangely moving sense of levitation, his home which is in the mind of the main character in the satellite station is wet and soaked with water. It seems to me to be sweat and tears that in his heartbreaking agony he sqeezed out of his whole being. And what makes us shudder is the shot of the location of Akasakamitsuke, Tokyo, Japan. By a skillful use of mirrors, he turned flows of head lights and tail lamps of cars, multiplied and amplified, into a vintage image of the future city. Every shot of Solaris bears witness to the almost dazzling talents inherent in Tarkovsky.

Mirror (Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky)
Many people grumble that Tarkovsky's films are difficult, but I don't think so. His films just show how extraordinarily sensitive Tarkovsky is. He made a film titled Mirror after Solaris. Mirror deals with his cherished memories in his childhood, and many people say again it is disturbingly difficult. Yes, at a glance, it seems to have no rational development in its storytelling. But we have to remember: it is impossible that in our soul our childhood memories should arrange themselves in a static, logical sequence.

A strange train of fragments of early memory images shattered and broken can bring about the poetry in our infancy. Once you are convinced of its truthfulness, you may find Mirror the easiest film to understand. But Tarkovsky remains silent, without saying things like that at all. His very attitude makes me believe that he has wonderful potential in his future.

There can be no bright future for those who are ready to explain everything about their own film.

– ‘Akira Kurosawa: Tarkovsky and Solaris’

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Martin Scorsese: Violence and Sin

Mean Streets (Directed by Martin Scorsese)

‘You don’t make up for your sins in church – you do it in the streets.’

Inspired by Scorsese’s own experiences of growing up in Little Italy around small-time mobsters and young hoods, Mean Streets tells the story of Charlie (Harvey Keitel), a young debt collector for his gangster uncle. His ambitions to rise in the family business are hampered by his friendship with the self-destructive Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), and his relationship with his cousin Teresa (Amy Robinson) who rejects his background of Catholic guilt and street machismo. 

Less a crime film than a character study and homage to the streets of New York’s Little Italy, Mean Streets is not strictly autobiographical but in Scorsese’s words, ‘was an attempt to put myself and my old friends on the screen, to show how we lived, what life was like in Little Italy. It was really an anthropological or a sociological tract.’ 

After his feature debut with Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1967) – originally a film-school project inspired by John Cassavetes’ Shadows – Scorsese found work in Hollywood as an editor before being hired by Roger Corman to direct Boxcar Bertha (1972), a low budget genre picture set during the American depression. 

Corman then offered Scorsese another low-budget exploitation project when Scorsese’s mentor John Cassavetes urged the young director to make something more personal instead. Scorsese mentioned a script he was working on titled Season of the Witch, a sequel to Who’s That Knocking at My Door, that needed a rewrite. 

The script developed into Mean Streets and was eventually filmed in 27 days mostly in Los Angeles, where it was easier to get permits and shoot with a non-unionized crew.  Energetic, inventive and deeply personal, it is the first recognisably mature Martin Scorsese film. It opened to critical acclaim and established the careers of De Niro and Keitel and brought Scorsese to the attention of Hollywood.

In the following extract from his book Conversations with Scorsese, Richard Schickel discusses with Scorsese the events behind the making of Mean Streets: 

RS: I have to tell you: Of all your movies Mean Streets remains the hardest one for me to come to grips with.
MS: It’s an aggressive film. I didn’t think anybody was really going to see the film. Jonathan Taplin produced it. A young man named E. Lee Perry gave us the money, and I just thought it was going to be a film that ultimately might be on a shelf. But we thought it was a pretty accurate portrayal of that way of life—not on the upper levels, like The Godfather, but on the street level, what I knew and how I lived.

But it’s tough: People would get up in the middle, saying of it, ‘Please stop the screening.’ And walk out. ‘I hate pictures like this,’ they would say.

RS: Harvey, on the one hand, seems to want to be with these tough guys, he wants to be as tough as they are. He is as tough as they are, in a way. At the same time, he’s always going back to the church—there are those wonderful shots of him in the church. And the church is so beautiful and, as you said before, peaceful. It seems to me he’s projecting the conflict you felt.
MS: After about six years of working on the script and story, that’s what I channeled into it.  I had three different groups of friends. One group went to Fordham, and are now lawyers and bank presidents—good guys who made good lives for themselves. I had another friend who was more the intellectual of the group, and a loner, and I’d go with him to see Broadway plays. And then I had another couple of guys who were more street toughs. I was split among the three. When I went to NYU, in 1960, when I walked six blocks down Houston Street, it was like going to Mars. I had seen movies like Twelve Angry Men, showing the American process, and I was living with people who were not part of that.

People complain about my depiction of Italian Americans. But I can’t help them with that. I’m sorry. It’s just that it’s my perception of what I know. There are guys, as I say, who are upstanding members of the community. They’re doing fine. There are guys who are out of town, who can’t come back. There are guys who are dead. I was in the middle of it. In a way, I was trying to understand how one should behave in life. What is the moral code? What is right, and what’s wrong?
RS: Harvey’s character has a little bit of you and a little bit of your father in him, doesn’t he?
MS: Well, Harvey’s character is named after my father, Charlie, who is trying to live morally in a world that’s not moral, in a world that’s primal. But there are two things going on. There’s his relationship with his uncle, in which he can be elevated to a certain extent in that community. And I had him going to college at the same time, though he doesn’t have enough in him yet to utilize the American opportunity education provides to get the hell out of there. But he can, because he is generally a decent guy, work with his uncle and make a good living, and have a sense of dignity in that world.

He’s not a street tough. I mean, he hangs with them. But he tries to bring reason to all of this. And, ultimately, because of his relationship with Johnny and his girlfriend, Teresa [who is an epileptic], his chances are destroyed completely. He should have been killed, because he has nowhere to go. There’s no way his uncle could work with him now.

He’s messed up because he has this sense of love for the both of them. And he has to leave town and go to Texas or Florida or somewhere.

His love for the both of them, for Johnny and Teresa, is interesting, because for me it has religious implications, in that, for whatever reasons, this guy is just filled with guilt. Why he’s filled with guilt, that’s something else. There’s a kind of deep curiosity in him. He’s not part of a world in which he can go off into the desert, let’s say, and be a monk and a hermit: he’s got to deal in a rough world, a primitive world, a savage world. Can you still be a good person? Can good still happen? I know there’s no justice, but can it be worked out? And so that, along with his own feelings about leading a spiritual life, he calls down upon himself a kind of suffering.

RS: Is that what the girl represents—loss as a form of...
MS: To a certain extent. But mainly it’s Johnny. Because he says in the bar, Here comes my penance. Ultimately, I think Johnny senses something. Because at the end of the picture he says to Harvey, You’re doing it for you, not for me. So that you can feel better spiritually.

But he’s caught. He’s caught. In that world, they’re not dealing on the spiritual level. It’s fate. He has transgressed, and he’s going to have to pay for it.
RS: I don’t understand why the uncle is so dead set against the girl, who’s perfectly nice—
MS: She wants to move out. She wants to move out of the neighborhood. She’s different. She’s a troublemaker. She threatens the value of the family: to stay together and support each other.

RS: Let’s talk about De Niro. He comes on—
MS: —and he just inhabits the role.
RS: It is certainly the beginning of the Jake LaMotta...
MS: Yeah, it is. It’s the same picture, really.
RS: The main thing, I think, is that Johnny has no sense of consequence. He has no sense of being able to look ahead.
MS: Why should he look ahead? He’s got no place to go. He doesn’t have the education. He doesn’t have the temperament. And he acts out against these people, knowing to a certain extent that his youth will help him. He is all anarchy at that point.

He says, You want to stick with me, you’re coming down with me. It’s not just about how much you love me, and how much you want to take care of me. There’s a lot going on with you. You don’t even know what the hell you want out of life, he tells Harvey, in effect.

I thought what was going on between Harvey and Bob was great in those three and a half weeks of shooting. They understood that, ultimately, the relationship is based on loving each other, but that one was getting more out of it than the other. It was something that, in Charlie’s mind, was a more spiritual thing. But they’re all of them damned at the end. None of them die, which is worse, because they might as well die. The worst thing that could be—and it happens to all the characters at the end of Mean Streets—is that they wind up humiliated, not killed. Humiliated.

And so it was very real. In Mean Streets, the shooting in the car at the end was based on something I experienced. I was at NYU when it happened. I got out of a car with a friend of mine only a half hour before a shooting like that occurred. On the weekends I’d hang out with my friends—at after-​hours clubs, the backs of tenements, that sort of stuff. This kid had a car, and he was going around for a ride. He was a part-​time cop, had a gun. And so we went with him in the car a few times.

And then on Elizabeth Street one night at about two in the morning, we realized he was acting with bravado, in a way that we pulled back from. So we told him we were going to go home. So, all right, he drops us off. On Elizabeth Street you had cars parked on both sides. And he’s driving down the block. And there’s a red light, and there’s a car in front of him. And the red light changes to green, and the car doesn’t move. A guy comes over and starts talking with the driver in the first car. Our friend blows his horn. The car in front of him doesn’t move. The guys are talking. He blows his horn again. The guys continue talking. He gets out, walks up to them, he takes his gun out or his badge. He says, ‘I’m a cop. Move this car.’ The guy says, ‘All right.’ He moves the car.

The next morning, we heard our guy was driving on Astor Place. He looked over at a car next to him and the people in that car started firing shots into his car. There was another kid in the car who got shot in the eye. And it was because he talked to the wrong people the wrong way.

And that became something that was very important to me and my friend, who had left the car an hour or two earlier. Because we could have been killed. Mean Streets had to be made because I was in the car that night. I went backwards from that. How the hell did he get into a situation like that? We didn’t even know the guys. And I said to myself, That’s the story to tell.

It made you stop and think—the kind of world we’re in, the society we’re in. So, anyway, that was a major moment in my life, and that’s what Mean Streets comes out of. And it has to explode like that. I’ve seen it happen, a lot of times. It’s just the way things work. So that’s why the chaos is there. I was almost a victim of it. Another friend of mine was killed, taken out because he was a wild cannon. But by that point, I was moving to California, you know.

You get a touch of that sort of thing in Goodfellas—the poor kid who gets shot first in the foot and then in the chest. When the kid is shot in the foot, why the hell does he come back the next week? Why? Because he has no place to go. Can’t get on a plane. He doesn’t know anybody. He doesn’t have the education. And it was just one of those things. He came back. He came back and he said one word too many. You know? And that was it. It happens.
RS: One other thing: Right here at the beginning of your career the violence seems to me so characteristic of what we’d see later. It just occurs. There’s not a lot of motivation. It almost comes out of nowhere.
MS: Well, that’s the way it was. That’s the world I was in. The violence is always in the background. I’d go into a place, even in a movie theater, I always had my antennae out all the way, because I had to watch if somebody said something wrong to somebody else. Some complain that the films denigrate Italian Americans. But I’m just telling it from my perspective. That doesn’t mean that other friends of mine see it that way. But my experience is that there are certain groups of people who are aligned with certain families. I didn’t know they were called families at the time, but there were certain people with power, and if somebody hits somebody, or does something, not just on the street level, not just kids, the settling up is done, usually, in the old way, between the different groups. Lives were run that way. It’s a very tough way of living.

RS: Is that violence explicable if you really, really connect it to the Mob? And it’s only to somebody like me that the violence seems almost totally inexplicable?
MS: I don’t want to seem to contradict what I said before. But, no, at least in this world, it’s always explicable. People criticized the film for pointless violence. I said, No, there’s no such thing as pointless violence. It comes from something. In that world we have to be very careful as to who insulted whom, who brushed by another, who said something a little in a nasty way. In Goodfellas, where Joe Pesci and Ray Liotta are playing a game, and joking around, and all of a sudden Pesci is saying, Why do you say I’m funny? Well, says Ray, because you tell a funny story. Do you think I’m a clown? No, I didn’t say you’re a clown. What did you mean then? And somebody starts to speak—No, he’s a big boy, he can talk for himself. And it changes on a dime. You could be killed. You could get into a fight, not be killed, but get beaten up pretty badly if you didn’t know how to handle yourself.

I mean, there was always tension. None of this business of the happy immigrants jumping and dancing and doing tarantellas. It’s Los Olvidados. It’s Journey to the End of the Night by Céline. That is the closest of anything I ever read to the reality of the people in those Lower East Side buildings.
RS: So all of that fed into Mean Streets?
MS: Mean Streets was based on myself and a couple of friends I had, but particularly two guys. One of them thinks the Johnny Boy character is really about him, and in a way it was, but not fully. He no longer lives in New York, but he always felt angry about that.

After my father died, I realized what the hell the picture really was about: my father and that brother of his who we’ve talked about; a lot of money that was owed, a lot of sit-​downs. Every night I’d hear the drama. For twenty, twenty-​five years, that’s all I heard. About what’s right and wrong and you’re in a jungle. It had to do with the dignity of the name, and respect—walking a tightrope of respect, not being a wiseguy. Mean Streets was about him and my uncle, but I couldn’t verbalize it until after ’93 or ’94, when it really hit home.

- Extracted from ‘Richard Schickel: Conversations with Scorsese’ Alfred Knopf, New York, 2011.  

Monday, 2 July 2012

Kurosawa on Kurosawa

Seven Samurai (Directed by Akira Kurosawa)
The great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, described by Stephen Spielberg as ‘the pictorial Shakespeare of our time’, was famously reluctant to discuss his films . However, he opened up to critic Donald Richie in an interview first published in Sight & Sound magazine in 1964. Extracts were reprinted in July 2010 by way of an introduction to a season of Kurosawa’s films shown at the British Film Institute:

1. Sugata Sanshiro, 1943

Kurosawa’s debut feature, made when he was 33, is set in the late 19th century, and follows a country boy who comes to the city to study martial arts.

‘I remember the first time I said ‘Cut’ – it was as though it was not my own voice at all. From the second time on it was me all right. When I think of this first picture I remember most that I had a good time making it. And at this period it was hard to have a good time making films because it was wartime and you weren’t allowed to say anything worth saying. Back then everyone thought that the real Japanese-style film should be as simple as possible. I disagreed and got away with disagreeing – that much I could say.’

2. Drunken Angel, 1948

The film that brought Kurosawa and Mifune Toshiro together is a thriller about a hoodlum and an alcoholic doctor (his other great actor, Shimura Takashi).

‘In this picture I finally discovered myself. It was my picture: I was doing it and no one else. Part of this was thanks to Mifune. Shimura played the doctor beautifully, but I found that I could not control Mifune. When I saw this, I let him do as he wanted, let him play the part freely. I did not want to smother that vitality. In the end, although the title refers to the doctor, it is Mifune that everyone remembers.

‘His reactions are extraordinarily swift. If I say one thing, he understands ten. He reacts very quickly to the director’s intentions. Most Japanese actors are the opposite of this and so I wanted Mifune to cultivate this gift.

‘One of the reasons for the extreme popularity of this film at the time was that there was no competition – no other films showed an equal interest in people. We had difficulty with one of the characters: that of the doctor himself. Uekusa Jin and I rewrote his part over and over again. Still, he wasn’t interesting. We had almost given up when it occurred to me that he was just too good to be true – he needed a defect, a vice. This is why we made him an alcoholic. At that time most film characters were shining white or blackest black. We made the doctor grey.’

3. Rashomon, 1950

Kurosawa’s masterpiece about a rape and murder as seen from the conflicting perspectives of several characters brought Japanese cinema to the attention of international audiences when it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1951.

‘I think Kyo Machiko was marvellous in the film... so forceful. And it took about a month of work to get that.

‘We were staying in Kyoto, waiting for the set to be finished. While there we ran off some 16mm prints to amuse ourselves. One of them was a Martin Johnson jungle film in which there was a shot of a lion roaming around. I noticed the shot and told Mifune that that was just what I wanted him to be.

‘At the same time Mori [Mori Masayuki, who plays Kyo’s murdered nobleman husband in the film] had seen downtown a jungle picture in which a black leopard was shown. We all went to see it. When the leopard came on Machiko was so upset that she hid her face. I saw and recognised the gesture – it was just what I wanted for the young wife.

‘I like silent pictures and always have. They are often so much more beautiful than sound pictures are. Perhaps they have to be. At any rate, I wanted to restore some of this beauty. I thought of it, I remember, this way: one of the techniques of modern painting is simplification, I must therefore simplify this film.

‘We had our share of troubles in making the picture. After one reel was edited there was a studio fire, and another one during dubbing. I’m not happy when I think back to those times. Also I did not know that the film was being sent to Venice. And it certainly would not have been sent if Giuliana Stramigioli [head of Unitalia Film] had not seen and liked it.’

4. The Idiot, 1951

Kurosawa followed ‘Rashomon’ with an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novel. His long initial edit was heavily cut by Shochiku, and the film proved a commercial and critical failure.

‘I had wanted to make his film since before Rashomon. Since I was little I’d read Dostoevsky and had thought this book would make a wonderful film. Naturally you cannot compare me to him, but he is still my favourite author – he is the one who writes most honestly about human existence. And I think that when I made this picture I really understood him.’

‘People have said this film is a failure. I don’t think so. At least, as entertainment, I don’t think it is a failure.’

5. Ikiru (Living), 1952

Shimura Takashi gives an unforgettable performance as a bureaucrat who finds meaning in his life after learning he has cancer.

‘What I remember best here is the long wake sequence that ends the film, where from time to time we see scenes in the hero’s later life. Originally I wanted music all under this long section. I talked it over with Hayasaka [Hayasaka Fumio, the great Japanese composer who worked with Kurosawa and Mizoguchi] and we decided on it and he wrote the score.

‘Yet when it came time to dub, no matter how we did it, the scenes and music simply did not fit. So I thought about it for a long time and then took all the music out. I remember how disappointed Hayasaka was. He just sat there, not saying anything, and the rest of the day he tried to be cheerful. I was sorry I had to do it, yet I had to. There is no way now of telling him how I felt – he is gone.

‘He was a fine man. It was as though he (with his glasses) were blind and I was deaf. We worked so well together because one’s weakness was the other’s strength. We had been together ten years and then he died. It was not only my own loss – it was music’s loss as well. You don’t meet a person like that twice in your life.’

6. I Live in Fear, 1955

Kurosawa followed ‘Seven Samurai’ with this sombre film about an ageing man (played by Mifune) haunted by the prospect of nuclear war.

‘While I was making Seven Samurai I went to see Hayasaka, who was sick, and we were talking and he said that if a person was in danger of dying he couldn’t work very well. He was quite ill at the time, very weak, and we did not know when he might die. And he knew this too. Just before this we had had word of the Bikini [atomic] experiments. When he had said a person dying could not work I thought he meant himself – but he didn’t. He meant everyone: all of us.

‘As we [Hashimoto Shinobu, Oguni Hideo and Kurosawa] worked on the script we more and more felt that we were really making the kind of picture with which, after it was all over and the last judgement was upon us, we could stand up and account for our past lives by saying proudly: We made I Live in Fear. And that is the kind of film it turned into.’

7. Throne of Blood, 1957

Shakespeare is translated to 16th-century Japan in Kurosawa’s visually stunning adaptation of ‘Macbeth’.

‘I wanted to make Macbeth. The problem was: how to adapt the story to Japanese thinking. The story is understandable enough, but the Japanese tend to think differently about such things as witches and ghosts. I decided upon the techniques of the Noh, because in Noh style and story are one. I wanted to use the way Noh actors have of moving their bodies, the way they have of walking, and the general composition which the Noh stage provides.’

8. The Bad Sleep Well, 1960

Kurosawa made masterly use of widescreen in this contemporary story, an indictment of corrupt big business.

‘This was the first film of Kurosawa Production, my own unit which I run and finance myself. From this film on, everything was my own responsibility. Consequently I wondered about what kind of film to make. Making a film just to make money did not appeal to me – one should not take advantage of an audience. Instead, I wanted to make a film of some social significance. At last I decided to do something about corruption, because it has always seemed to me that graft, bribery et cetera on a public level is the worst crime that there is. These people hide behind the facade of some great organisation like a company or a corporation – and consequently no one ever really knows how dreadful they are, what awful things they do. Exposing them I thought of as a socially significant act – and so I started the film.

‘But even while we were making it, I knew that it wasn’t working out as I had planned, and this was because I was simply not telling and showing enough.’

9. Yojimbo, 1961

Mifune is at his most iconic here as a samurai who plays two rival factions of a small town off against each other. Sergio Leone famously stole the plot for ‘A Fistful of Dollars’.

‘The story is so ideally interesting that it’s surprising no one else ever thought of it. The idea about rivalry on both sides, and both sides are equally bad. We all know what this is like. Here we are, weakly caught in the middle, and it is impossible to choose between evils. It was truly an enormous popular hit. Everyone at the company said it was because of the sword-fighting. But that is not so – the reason was the character of the hero and what he does. He is a real hero, he has a real reason for fighting. He doesn’t just stand by and wave his sword around.’

10. High and Low, 1963

Kurosawa adapted Ed McBain’s novel ‘King’s Ransom’ for this riveting, influential thriller about a kidnap.

’Every picture I’ve done has come out of something that has happened to me personally. A friend of mine had a son kidnapped and that kind of barbarism upset me so that I made High and Low. Since then I’ve got lots of letters, people accusing me of teaching people how to go about kidnapping children, but that’s not what I meant. When it happened to him, it happened to me.’

11. Red Beard, 1965

Mifune’s final collaboration with Kurosawa sees him play a doctor in a rural clinic in late-19th century Japan who teaches an arrogant young intern the rewards of caring for the poor. The shoot lasted an exhausting two years.

‘I had something special in mind when I made this film because I wanted to make something… so magnificent that people would just have to see it. To do this we all worked harder than ever, tried to overlook no detail, were willing to undergo any hardship. It was really hard work and I got sick twice.’

12. Kagemusha, 1980

Kurosawa’s first film made in Japan since 1970’s ‘Dodes’ka-den’ was part-funded by 20th Century Fox, following the intervention of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola.

’I was in America for the Oscar ceremonies when I met George Lucas and Francis Coppola. They approached me and said that they’d learned a lot from my films. Lucas in particular said he would like to assist me in any way he could. At the time, I was trying to negotiate terms for the Kagemusha project with Toho, and we had reached a virtual standstill. Since it was the first time I had met them, I couldn’t tell them that I was lacking money for a project. But someone must have mentioned my problem to them, because they went to 20th Century Fox and persuaded Alan Ladd Jr to invest in the film in return for the rights outside Japan.’
(As told to Tony Rayns, 1981)

13. Ran, 1985

Kurosawa’s visually spectacular epic translated elements of Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ to 16th-century Japan.

‘What I was trying to get at in Ran – and this was there from the script stage – was that the gods or God or whoever it is observing human events is feeling sadness about how human beings destroy each other, and powerlessness to affect human beings’ behaviour.’
(As told to Michael Sragow, 1986)

– ‘Kurosawa on Kurosawa’. Sight and Sound magazine, July 2010. Original article here.