Tuesday, 27 November 2012

John Michael Hayes: On Writing Rear Window

Rear Window (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
John Michael Hayes wrote the screenplays for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1955), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Based on a Cornell Woolrich short story, the screenplay for Rear Window was Hayes’ first project with a major director. A keen writer of dialogue, Hayes quickly understood that because Hitchcock grew up in silent films, he had a tendency to rely on the camera as much as possible. He later recalled: ‘I caught some of that spirit. Hitchcock taught me about how to tell a story with the camera and tell it silently.’

The critic Chris Wehner takes up this idea in a 2002 interview with John Michael Hayes in which he discusses the writing of Rear Window. It provides a fascinating insight into Hayes’ working methods and his relationship with the great director:

Rear Window is considered to be Hitchcock’s most ‘cinematic‘ picture. At times it had to communicate a lot to the audience without a word ever being spoken. This isn’t surprising as Hitchcock started directing in 1922, during the silent era, making several silent films. By 1954, the year Rear Window was released he had clearly mastered the art of directing. However, before he could unleash his visual brilliance there had to be a great script from which to allow such a great movie to be made.

Think of the drawbacks to the story. First, the protagonist is bound to a wheelchair and is most of the time a reactive participant who is essentially isolated. Second, the antagonist doesn’t say more than a dozen words (at least that we hear), and isn’t confrontational with the protagonist until the very end. Hitchcock often said, ‘the better the villain, the better the picture.’ The obstacles placed in the protagonist’s way were rooted in circumstance and happenstance – nothing placed by the antagonist. Thirdly, the entire movie takes place in an apartment and what is seen from the window. What might at first be seen as limitations were most likely viewed as cinematic possibilities and challenges that Hitchcock could not refuse.

John Michael Hayes’ screenplay was based on Cornell Woolrich’s original 1942 short story ‘It Had to Be Murder’. He was assigned to write the script after one meeting with Hitchcock.

Hitchcock didn’t sign on to direct the picture until after reading a thirteen page treatment by playwright Joshua Logan. Logan’s work laid the foundation from which Hayes wrote his treatment.

The short story lacked several important details which were added to the screenplay. It did not have a strong female character, or love interest, and Logan keenly injected that into the narrative. But, for the most part, it stuck closely to the source material. Logan’s treatment opens with New York City and Jefferies (the name is spelled ‘Jeffries‘ in Woolrich’s story and Logan’s treatment), who’s isolated in his apartment due to a broken leg in a cast. Logan created Trink, a love interest for Jeff, who is later renamed Lisa by Hayes. Also, in Logan’s treatment, Jeff is a sports writer, which is later changed to a photographer by Hayes. As in the final movie, Logan’s treatment has Jeff’s love interest go into the killer’s (Thorwald) apartment where she is discovered. The killer later comes after Jefferies when he is alone. But before he can kill Jefferies he is himself killed. Which, of course, was changed by Hayes.

Logan’s treatment clearly laid the foundation for Hayes to build on, but it had several problems and lacked numerous elements that Hitchcock and Hayes would add to strengthen the story: story elements, richer characters, more conflict, and better visuals.

Hayes constructed a convincing narrative with richly drawn characters and keenly raised the emotion and drama by injecting well placed conflict. Hayes knew that everything hinged on Jefferies’ character. He had to build a sympathetic protagonist the audience would absolutely love spending time with in order for the movie to work. He fleshed out Jefferies’ background, his relationship with Lisa, and his own internal conflict and emotional resolve. The result is a classic Thriller.

Tell me about your first meeting with Hitchcock.
I was given a copy of the Woolrich story by my agent, and was told to meet with Hitchcock later that week for dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel. My job was simple: Read the Woolrich piece, and be prepared to discuss it in great detail and length. It was not unlike preparing for the most important book report of one’s life.

The meeting itself was a near fiasco. It felt much more like a personal test of endurance than anything resembling a story conference. Hitchcock arrived late and, with time to sit and worry over his arrival, I had a couple of drinks, which I wasn’t entirely used to. Upon his arrival, we had a feast for the ages, along with copious amounts of alcohol.

Plied by the liquor, I rambled on for much too long about Hitchcock’s prior films. And I wasn’t entirely complimentary. Hitchcock appeared to listen, but once the meal itself was finished he abruptly left. And we had never even spoken about Rear Window at all. Later, after returning home, my wife asked how the meeting went. I told her we’d better start packing our bags, as I felt quite strongly that my opportunity with Hitchcock had vanished along with any future career I had envisioned in the industry.

Amazingly, upon reporting for work on Monday, I was told that Hitchcock immensely enjoyed our dinner and that I was to be hired immediately.

When you started working on a story in outline or treatment form, did you start with characterizations, plot, situations, structure, or what?
In crafting any story, you need to go into it holding dearly a clear understanding of where it is you want to end up. If you delve into a script with no clear concept of how you want it to end, you’ll flounder while looking for ways out of the problems you’ve brought upon your own script. In other words, any lack of direction in regards to your ending directly affects the entire script itself. You’ll spend days trying to re-vamp problems you’ve created by not having a clear direction from the get-go.

In Rear Window there isn’t your typical strong villain and the protagonist is bound to a wheelchair, so how difficult was it to maintain a level of tension and suspense? 
Having non-typical characters was of no real hindrance to the establishment of tension and suspense. In reality, there was a lot to work with. With a non-typical villain, you had the built-in opportunity to engage the characters in a ‘It couldn’t be him. Could it? He’s just a regular fellow’ form of banter, just as much as having the protagonist limited in his physical actions helped the suspense of, ‘How in the world is he going to defend himself, if need be?’ Writers sometimes habitually overdo it in how their characters move, act, and depict themselves. Grand flourish in a villain works for Bond movies, I suppose, but, in the world you and I live in, true villains don’t act as such. At least not on any level you or I may have experienced. There’s a form of everyday villainy that is largely forgotten now in cinema. And that’s what audiences can align best with –what it is they see and know in everyday life.

You really fleshed out Cornell Woolrich’s short story by adding the love story and fully developing Jefferies’ character, among other things, which were not in the book. Was this your idea or Hitchcock’s? 
The idea of adding the Fremont character was mine, and it was based upon my wife, Mel, who was in fact a high fashion model herself. The love interest is a requirement, or at least it was at the time and place in which the story was crafted. My opinion was, and still is, that we all fall very hard in love sooner or later, and can clearly relate to the concept of peril brought upon those that we strongly care about. As well as the simple fact that having a headstrong, yet imperiled, female character could add a great bounty to the story. As for Jefferies, it was necessary simply due to the relative brevity of the original work. That much was clearly visible by all from the beginning of the project.

While you were writing the treatment and script for Rear Window, how involved was Hitchcock? 
Early on he was still working on Dial M for Murder. One of the greatest assets of working with Hitchcock was that he essentially left you, the writer, alone to do your work. Once I completed the work expected of me, Hitchcock and I would then literally pore over the material almost shot by shot. That was primarily his biggest involvement at that stage of development – after I had completed the first expectations of my task. Unlike a lot of other directors and producers, he didn’t bother you constantly for pages in order to summarily reject them.

What were the best and worst things about working with Hitchcock? 
The best part of working with Hitchcock was the autonomy to do the job you were hired to do without interference, as I’ve mentioned above. The worst part was his distinct stinginess in being able to offer credit where credit was due. It was of paramount importance for him to be seen as a one-man show, but that just simply wasn’t the truth, at least not in my experience.

Looking back on how the two of you parted ways, what do you suppose it was? 
What it was is exceptionally simple: He wasn’t for a moment willing to allow anyone to believe he couldn’t do it all on his own. I believe in application of credit where credit is due – if you’ve earned it, you need to be respected, regarded, and properly credited for it. At times in our work together, Hitchcock wasn’t willing to allow that...

– From ‘Chris Wehner: Interview with Rear Window scribe John Michael Hayes’ (Screenwriter’s Monthly, Dec. 2002)


Monday, 19 November 2012

Antonioni Discusses The Passenger

The Passenger (Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni)
Originally released in 1975, Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger is, on one level, a thriller about a man trying to escape his past. This poignant film is a profile of an exhausted journalist, played by Jack Nicholson, whose means of escape is to take over the identity of a dead man. However, Antonioni is less interested in the suspense inherent in Nicholson’s situation, rather the plot is the starting point for a portrait of a man in spiritual and psychological crisis. 

Based on an original story by Mark Peploe and filmed from a screenplay by Peploe, Peter Wollen and Antonioni, The Passenger begins with Nicholson in remote Africa completing work on a documentary about rebels in Chad attempting to overthrow a tyrannical government. In a bar, he meets a stranger named Robertson (Charles Mulvehill) who unexpectedly dies in an adjoining hotel room (and who, unknown to Locke, is an in-demand arms dealer). Upon discovering the body, Locke — unhappily married and  sickened by the compromises of his work – assumes the dead man’s identity. 

Antonioni further suggests that Locke’s desire to identify with and absorb an alien personality is synonymous with the movie audience’s desire to identify with, and therefore live vicariously through, the experiences of fictional cinematic characters.

As Locke takes on Robertson’s life and commitments, it turns out that Locke has merely assumed one bleak prison for another. His odyssey takes him from Africa to Spain, Germany and England in a doomed flight from the past. In The Passenger, the only motif more prevalent than doubles is the image of spirals (from swirling sand, tyre marks in the dust, a rotating fan, or Antonioni’s spiralling camera movements) – a looped pattern which resolves to the idea that the cycle of life ends where it begins: in nothingness.

The famous climax of the film – a final sequence lasting seven minutes and taking eleven days to shoot – is a synthesis of the movie’s themes and a tribute to Antonioni’s virtuosity as a director. 

Antonioni considered The Passenger his most stylistically mature film. He also considered it a political film due to its topicality and the fact that it ‘fits with the dramatic rapport of the individual in today’s society.’

In the following interview with Larry Sturhahn and Betty Jeffries Demby, originally published in 1975, Antonioni discusses the making of The Passenger and analyses its place in the context of his work.

BETTY JEFFRlES DEMBY: Did you do the screenplay for ‘The Passenger’? 

MICHELANGELO ANTONIONI: I have always written my own scripts, even if what I wrote was the result of discussions with my collaborators. The Passenger, however, was written by someone else. Naturally I made changes to adapt it to my way of thinking and shooting. I like to impro­vise  – in fact, I can’t do otherwise. It is only in this phase – that is, when I actually see it –  that the film becomes clear to me. Lucidity and clear­ness are not among my qualities, if I have any.

LARRY STURHAHN: In this case, were there any major changes in the screenplay? 

MA: The whole idea, the way the film is done, is different. The mood is changed – there is more of a spy feeling, it’s more political.

LS: Do you always adapt a piece of material to suit your particular needs? 

MA: Always, I got the idea for Blow-Up from a short story by Cortazar, but even there I changed a lot. And The Girlfriends was based on a story by Pavese. But I work on the scripts by myself with some collaboration, and as far as the act of writing is concerned, I always do that myself

LS: I have often felt that the short story is a better medium to adapt to film because it’s compact and about the same length as a film.

MA: I agree. The Girlfriends was based on a short novel, Among Women Only. And the most difficult pages to translate into images were the best pages as far as the novel and the writing were concerned. I mean the best of the pages – the pages I liked the most – were the most difficult. When you have just an idea it’s easier. Putting something into a differ­ent medium is difficult because the first medium was there first. In a novel there’s usually too much dialogue – and getting rid of the dialogue is difficult.

LS: Do you change the dialogue even further when you’re on the set?

MA: Yes, I change it a lot. I need to hear a line pronounced by the actors.

LS: How much do you see of a film when you’re looking at the script? Do you see the locations? Do you see where you’re going to work with the film?

MA: Yes, more or less. But I never try to copy what I see because this is impossible. I will never find the exact counterpart of my imagination.

LS: So you wipe the slate clean when you’re looking for your location?

MA: Yes. I just go and look. I know what I need, of course. Actually, it’s very simple.

BJD: Then you don’t leave the selection of location up to your assistants?

MA: The location is the very substance of which the shot is made. Those colors, that light, those trees, those objects, those faces. How could I leave the choice of all this to my assistants? Their choices would be entirely dif­ferent from mine. Who knows the film I am making better than me?

BJD: Was ‘The Passenger’ shot entirely on location? 

MA: Yes.

BJD: I believe most of your other films were too. Why do you have such a strong preference for location shooting?

MA: Because reality is unpredictable. In the studio everything has been foreseen.

BJD: One of the most interesting scenes in the film is the one which takes place on the roof of the Gaudi cathedral in Barcelona. Why did you choose this loca­tion?

MA: The Gaudi towers reveal, perhaps, the oddity of an encounter between a man who has the name of a dead man and a girl who doesn’t have any name. (She doesn’t need it in the film.)

BJD: I understand that in ‘Red Desert’ you actually painted the grass and col­ored the sea to get the effects you wanted Did you do anything similar in ‘The Passenger’?

MA: No. In The Passenger I have not tampered with reality. I looked at it with the same eye with which the hero, a reporter, looks at the events he is reporting on. Objectivity is one of the themes of the film. If you look closely, there are two documentaries in the film, Locke’s documentary on Africa and mine on him.

BJD: What about the sequence where Nicholson is isolated in the desert? The desert is especially striking, and the color is unusually intense and burning. Did you use any special filters or forced processing to create this effect?

MA: The color is the color of the desert. We used a filter, but not to alter it; on the contrary, in order not to alter it. The exact warmness of the color was obtained in the laboratory by the usual processes.

BJD: Did shooting in the desert with its high temperatures and blowing sand create any special problems for you?

MA: Not especially. We brought along a refrigerator in which to keep the film, and we tried to protect the camera from the blowing sand by cov­ering it in any possible way.

BJD: How do you cast your actors?

MA: I know the actors, I know the characters of the film. It is a question of juxtaposition.

LS: Specifically, why did you choose Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider?

MA: Jack Nicholson and I wanted to make a film together, and I thought he would be very good, very right for this part. The same for Maria Schneider. She was my understanding of the girl. And I think she was perfect for the role. I may have changed it a bit for her, but that is a real­ity I must face: you can’t invent an abstract feeling. Being a ‘star’ is irrel­evant – if the actor is different from the part, if the feeling doesn’t work, even Jack Nicholson won’t get the part.

LS: Are you saying that Nicholson acts like a star, that he’s hard to work with? 

MA: No. He’s very competent and a very, very good actor, so it’s easy to work with him. He’s intense, yet he doesn’t create any problems – you can cut his hair (I didn’t), he’s not concerned about his ‘good’ side or whether the camera is too high or too low; you can do whatever you want.

BJD: You once said that you see actors as part of the composition; that you don’t want to explain the characters’ motivations to them but want them to be pas­sive. Do you still handle actors this way?

MA: I never said that I want the actors to be passive. I said that sometimes if you explain too much, you run the risk that the actors become their own directors, and this doesn’t help the film. Nor the actor. I prefer work­ing with the actors not on an intellectual but on a sensorial level. To stim­ulate rather than teach.

First of all, I am not very good at talking to them because it is difficult for me to find the right words. Also, I am not the kind of director who wants ‘messages’ on each line. So I don’t have anything more to say about the scene than how to do it. What I try to do is provoke them, put them in the right mood. And then I watch them through the camera and at that moment tell them to do this or that. But not before. I have to have my shot, and they are an element of the image – and not always the most important element.

Also, I see the film in its unity whereas an actor sees the film through his character. It was difficult working with Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider at the same time because they are such completely different actors. They are natural in opposite ways: Nicholson knows where the camera is and acts accordingly. But Maria doesn’t know where the cam­era is – she doesn’t know anything; she just lives the scene. Which is great. Sometimes she just moves and no one knows how to follow her. She has a gift for improvising, and I like that – I like to improvise.

LS: Then you don’t preplan what you are going to do on the set? You don’t sit down the evening before or in the morning and say, ‘I’m going to do this and this’? 

MA: No. Never, never.

LS: You just let it happen as you’re on the set? 

MA: Yes.

LS: Do you at least let your actors rehearse a scene first, or do you just go right into it?

MA: I rehearse very little – maybe twice, but not more. I want the actors to be fresh, not tired.

BJD: What about camera angles and camera movement? Do you carefully pre­plan in this area?

MA: Very carefully.

LS: Are you able to make decisions about print takes very soon, or do you –? 

MA: Immediately.

LS: Then you don’t shoot a lot of takes?

MA: No. Three. Maybe five or six. Sometimes we may do fifteen, but that is very rare.

LS: Would you be able to estimate how much footage you shoot per day? 

MA: No.

LS: Just whatever you can accomplish?

MA: In China I made as many as eighty shots in one day, but that was very different work; I had to rush.

LS: How long did it take to do the final scene of ‘The Passenger’?

MA: Eleven days. But that was not because of me but because of the wind. It was very windy weather and so difficult to keep the camera steady.

BJD: One critic has said that the final seven-minute sequence is destined to become a classic of film history. Can you explain how you conceived it?

MA: I had the idea for the final sequence as soon as I started shooting. I knew, naturally, that my protagonist must die, but the idea of seeing him die bored me. So I thought of a window and what was outside, the afternoon sun. For a second, just for a fraction – Hemingway crossed my mind: ‘Death in the Afternoon.’ And the arena. We found the arena and immediately realized this was the place. But I didn’t yet know how to realize such a long shot. I had heard about the Canadian camera, but I had no first–hand knowledge of its possibilities. In London, I saw some film tests. I met with the English technicians responsible for the camera and we decided to try. There were many problems to solve. The biggest was that the camera was 16mm and I needed 35mm. To modify it would have involved modifying its whole equilibrium since the camera is mounted on a series of gyroscopes. However. I succeeded in doing it.

LS: Did you use a zoom lens or a very slow dolly?

MA: A zoom was mounted on the camera. But it was only used when the camera was about to pass through the gate.

LS: It’s interesting how the camera moves toward the man in the center against the wall but we never get to see him, the camera never focuses on him.

MA: Well, he is part of the landscape, that’s all. And everything is in focus – everything. But not specifically on him. I didn’t want to go closer to anybody. The surprise is the use of this long shot. You see the girl out­side and you see her movements and you understand very well without going closer to her what she’s doing, maybe what her thoughts are. You see, I am using this very long shot like closeups, the shot actually takes the place of closeups.

LS: Did you cover that shot in any other way or was this your sole commitment? 

MA: I had this idea of doing it in one take at the beginning of the shoot­ing and I kept working on it all during the shooting.

LS: How closely do you work with your cinematographer?

MA: Who is the cinematographer? We don’t have this character in Italy.

LS: How big a crew do you work with?

MA: I prefer a small crew. On this one I had a big crew – forty people­ but we had union problems so it couldn’t be smaller.

LS: How important is your continuity girl to your work?

MA: Very important. Because we have to change in the middle, we can’t go chronologically.

BJD: How closely do you work with your editor?

MA: We always work together. However, I edited Blow-Up myself and the first version of The Passenger as well. But it was too long and so I redid it with Franco Arcalli, my editor. Then it was still too long, so I cut it by myself again.

BJD: How closely does the edited version reflect what you had in mind when you were shooting?

MA: Unfortunately, as soon as I finish shooting a film I don’t like it. And then little by little I look at it and start to find something. But when I finish shooting it’s like I haven’t shot anything. Then when I have my material – when it’s been shot in my head and on the actual film – it’s like it’s been shot by someone else. So I look at it with great detachment and then I start to cut. And I like this phase.

But on this one I had to change a lot because the first cut was very long. I shot much more than I needed because I had very little time to prepare the film – Nicholson had some engagements and I had to shoot very quickly.

LS: So you didn’t have time before the shooting to cut your screenplay down to size. 

MA: Right. I shot much more than was necessary because I didn’t know what I would need. So the first cut was very long – four hours. Then I had another that ran two hours and twenty minutes. And now it’s two hours.

LS: Do you shoot lip sync – record the sound on location? 


LS: What about dubbing?

MA: A little – when the noise is too much.

BJD: The soundtrack is an enormously important part of your films. For ‘L’avventura’ you recorded every possible shading of the sound if the sea. Did you do anything similar for ‘The Passenger’?

MA: My rule is always the same: For each scene, I record a soundtrack without actors.

BJD: Sometimes you make critical plot points by using sound alone. For instance, in the last sequence we have only the sound of the opening door and what might be a gunshot to let us know the protagonist has been killed. Would you comment on this?

MA: A film is both image and sound. Which is the most important? I put them both on the same plane. Here I used sound because I could not avoid looking at my hero – I could not avoid hearing the sounds con­nected with the actual killing since Locke, the killer, and the camera were in the same room.

BJD: You use music only rarely in the film, but with great effectiveness. Can you explain how you choose which moments will be scored?

MA: I can’t explain it. It is something I feel. When the film is finished, I watch it a couple of times thinking only about the music. In the places where I feel it is missing, I put it in – not as score music but as source music.

LS: Who do you admire among American directors?

MA: I like Coppola; I think The Conversation was a very good film. I like Scorsese; I saw Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and liked it very much­ it was a very simple but very sincere film. And you have Altman and California Split – he’s a very good observer of California society. And Steven Spielberg is also very good.

LS: I have the impression from your films that your people tend to just appear full-blown in a particular situation, that there’s not much  of a past to your characters. For instance, we find Nicholson in an alienated place with no roots behind him. And the same for the girl; she’s just there. It’s as though people are just immediately in an immediate present. There’s no background to them, as it were.

MA: I think it’s a different way of looking at the world. The other way is the older way. This is the modern way of looking at people. Today everyone has less background than in the past. We’re freer. A girl today can go anywhere, just like the one in the film, with just one bag and no thoughts for her family or past. She doesn’t have to carry any baggage with her.

BJD: You mean moral baggage?

MA: Precisely. Moral, psychological luggage. But in the older movies peo­ple have homes and we see these homes and the people in them. You see Nicholson’s home, but he’s not tied down, he’s used to going all over the world.

BJD: Yet you seem to find the struggle for identity interesting.

MA: Personally, I mean to get away from my historical self and find a new one. I need to renew myself this way. Maybe this is an illusion, but I think it is a way to reach something new.

RJD: I was thinking of the television journalist like Mr. Locke getting bored with life. Then there’s no hope for anything because that’s one of the more interesting careers.

MA: Yes, in a way. But it’s also a very cynical career. Also, his problem is that he is a journalist – he can’t get involved in everything he reports because he’s a filter. His job is always to talk about and show something or someone else, but he himself is not involved. He’s a witness not a protagonist  And that’s the problem.

LS: Do you see any similarity between your role as a film director and the role of Locke in the film?

MA: In this film it may be yes; it’s part of the film. But it’s different in a way. In The Passenger I tried to look at Locke the way Locke looks at real­ity. After all, everything I do is absorbed in a kind of collision between myself and reality.

LS: Some people think of film as being the most real of the arts and some think it’s purely illusion, a fake, because everything in a movie is still pictures. Can you speak a bit about this in relation to ‘The Passenger’?

MA: I don’t know if I could speak about it – if I could do the same thing with words I would be a writer and not a film director. I don’t have any­ thing to say but perhaps something to show. There’s a difference.

That’s why it’s very difficult for me to talk about my films. What I want to do is make the film. I know what I have to do. Not what I mean. I never think the meaning because I can’t.

LS: You’re a film director and you make images, yet I find that in your films the key people have a problem with seeing – they’re trying to find things or they’ve lost something. Like the photographer in ‘Blow-Up’ trying to find reality in his own work. Are you, as a director working in this medium, frustrated at not being able to find reality?

MA: Yes and no. In some ways I capture reality in making a film – at least I have a film in my hands, which is something concrete. What I am fac­ing may not be the reality I was looking for, but I’ve found someone or something every time. I have added something more to myself in making the film.

LS: Then it’s a challenge each time?

MA: Yes! I fight for it. Can you imagine? I lost my male character in the desert before the ending of the film because Richard Harris went away without telling me. The ending was supposed to be all three of them – the wife, the husband, and the third man. So I didn’t know how to finish the film. I didn’t stop working during the day, but at night I would walk around the harbor thinking until I finally came up with the idea for the ending I have now. Which I think was better than the previous one – for­tunately.

BJD: Have you ever wanted to make an autobiographical film?

MA: No. And I’ll tell you why: Because I don’t like to look back; I always look forward. Like everyone, I have a certain number of years to live, so this year I want to look forward and not back – I don’t want to think about the past years, I want to make this year the best year of my life. That is why I don’t like to make films that are statements.

BJD: It’s been said that in a certain sense a director makes the same film all his life – that is, explores the different aspects of a given theme in a variety of ways throughout his pictures. Do you agree with this? Do you feel it’s true for your work?

MA: Dostoevsky said that an artist only says one thing in his work all through his life. If he is very good, perhaps two. The liberty of the para­doxical nature of that quotation allows me to add that it doesn’t com­pletely apply to me. But it’s not for me to say.

– ‘Antonioni Discusses The Passenger’ in The Architecture of Vision: Writings and Interviews on Cinema. University Of Chicago Press (2007).


Friday, 9 November 2012

Francois Truffaut: Autobiography and Alter Ego

The 400 Blows (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
A cinephile from a young age, François Truffaut first made his cinematic mark as an outspoken critic for Cahiers du cinéma in the 1950s, opposing the French film industry’s established form and techniques and urging for the director to be regarded as the ‘auteur’, or author, of the film. Truffaut then became an auteur himself, beginning  with The 400 Blows, which won him the best director award at Cannes and introduced the French new-wave to an international audience. The 400 Blows remains one of Truffaut’s most popular and seminal works. It was followed by two key films of the French new wave, Shoot the Piano Player – adapted from the David Goodis’ thriller Down There – and Jules and Jim – the story of a love triangle set in pre-war Paris. Truffaut also continued to follow the exploits of The 400 Blows main character Antoine Doinel — played by Jean-Pierre Léaud — through the 1970s (Stolen Kisses, Bed and Board, Love on the Run), while directing such classics as Day for Night and The Last Metro, which displayed his passion for art and life. Shortly before his untimely death in 1983 Truffaut was interviewed by Bert Cardullo. The discussion mainly centered around the making of The 400 Blows. In this extract Truffaut talks about his early career and how his filmmaking process was influenced by his work as a film critic and his lifelong obsession with watching movies. 

We know you were a film critic before you became a director. What film was your first article about?

Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times [1936], an old print of which I saw in a film club. It was seized afterwards by the police because it was a stolen copy! Then I started writing for Cahiers du cinéma, thanks to André Bazin. I did an incendiary piece in Cahiers against French films as typified by the screenwriters Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, the fossils of French cinema. That article got me a job at the weekly Arts and Entertainments, where I wrote the film column for four years.

I think being a critic helped me because it’s not enough to love films or see lots of films. Having to write about films helps you to understand them better. It forces you to exercise your intellect. When you summarize a script in ten sentences, you see both its strengths and its weaknesses. Criticism is a good exercise, but you shouldn’t do it for too long. In retrospect, my reviews seem more negative than not, as I found it more stimulating to damn rather than praise; I was better at attacking than defending. And I regret that. I’m much less dogmatic now, and I prefer critical nuance.

The 400 Blows (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
You were a film critic for four years, but all the while you were looking for an opportunity to make a film, right?

Oh yes, absolutely. I started making little movies in 16mm that weren’t worth showing. They had all the same flaws as most amateur films: they were extremely pretentious; and they didn’t even have a storyline, which is the height of conceit for an amateur. I probably learned something from this work, like how to suggest rather than show. But in the first of these shorts, there was nothing but doors opening and closing – what a waste!

My first real film, in 1957, was Les Mistons – ‘The Mischief Makers’ in English. It had the advantage of telling a story, which was not common practice for short films in those days! It also gave me the opportunity to start working with actors. But Les Mistons also had commentary interspersed with its dialogue, so that made making it much simpler…

Is it awkward for a writer-director to have been a critic first? When you start a scene, does the critic in you tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘I don’t think so!’

It is indeed rather awkward, because not only was I a critic, I have also seen nearly three thousand films. So I always tend to think, ‘But that was done in such-and-such a film,’ ‘Compared to X’s movie, this is no good,’ etc. Plus, however necessary they may be, I’m very skeptical of storylines. So much so that I turn a script’s narrative over in my head endlessly, to the point that often, at the last minute, I want to cancel the filming of it.

The 400 Blows (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
How, then, do you ever manage to complete a film?

Because the advantage of cinema over novels, for instance, is that you can’t just drop it. The machine’s in gear, contracts are signed. And besides, I like actors a lot, at least some of them –those I choose! There are promises to be kept, there is motivation to keep your word. But once you’ve begun, that type of problem falls away, that doubt of a general nature. Then there are just the daily problems of moviemaking, which are strictly technical and can be solved amid all the noise and laughter – it’s really quite exhilarating. When the filming is over, though, the doubts come back.

What was the provenance of ‘The 400 Blows’?

When I was shooting Les Mistons, The 400 Blows already existed in my mind in the form of a short film, which was titled ‘Antoine Runs Away.’

What caused you to lengthen Antoine’s story and make ‘The 400 Blows’ longer?

It was because I was disappointed by Les Mistons, or at least by its brevity. You see, I had come to reject the sort of film made up of several skits or sketches. So I preferred to leave Les Mistons as a short and to take my chances with a full-length film by spinning out the story of ‘Antoine Runs Away.’ ‘Antoine Runs Away’ was a twenty-minute sketch about a boy who plays hooky and, having no note to hand in as an excuse, makes up the story that his mother has died. His lie having been discovered, he does not dare go home and spends the night outdoors. I decided to develop this story with the help of Marcel Moussy, at the time a television writer whose shows dealt with family or social problems. Moussy and I added to the beginning and the end of Antoine’s story until it became a kind of chronicle of a boy’s thirteenth year – of the awkward early teenaged years.

In fact, The 400 Blows became a rather pessimistic film. I can’t really say what the theme is – there is none, perhaps – but one central idea was to depict early adolescence as a difficult time of passage and not to fall into the usual nostalgia about ‘the good old days,’ the salad days of youth. Because, for me in any event, childhood is a series of painful memories...

The 400 Blows (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
Does the screenplay of ‘The 400 Blows’ constitute in some ways your autobiography?

Yes, but only partially. All I can say is that nothing in it is invented. What didn’t happen to me personally happened to people I know, to boys my age and even to people that I had read about in the papers. Nothing in The 400 Blows is pure fiction, then, but neither is the film a wholly autobiographical work.

Let me put my question another way: it has often been said that Antoine Doinel was you, a sort of projection of yourself. Could you define that projection, that character?

There is indeed something anachronistic or composite-like about Antoine Doinel, but it’s difficult for me to define. I don’t really know who he is, except that he is a kind of mixture of Jean-Pierre Léaud and myself. He is a solitary type, a kind of loner who can make you laugh or smile about his misfortunes, and that allows me, through him, to touch on sad matters – but always with a light hand, without melodrama or sentimentality, because Doinel has a kind of courage about him. Yet he is the opposite of an exceptional or extraordinary character; what does differentiate him from average people, however, is that he never settles down into average situations. Doinel is only at ease in extreme situations: of profound disappointment and misery on the one hand, and total exhilaration and enthusiasm on the other. He also preserves a great deal of the childlike in his character, which means that you forget his real age. If he is twenty-eight, as Léaud was in 1972, you look at Doinel as if he were eighteen: a naïf, as it were, but a well-meaning one for all that.

The 400 Blows (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
A related question: Is it because Montmartre holds personal childhood memories for you that you came back to it in at least two of your Antoine Doinel films – the first two, as a matter of fact – ‘The 400 Blows’ and ‘Love at Twenty’ (1962)?

Yes, most likely. It’s easier to orient myself when I shoot on familiar streets. Also, when you’re writing, you tend to think of people and places you know. So you wind up coming back to these familiar places and people for my method of writing, I started making ‘script sheets’ when I began work on The 400 Blows. School: various gags at school. Home: some gags at home. Street: a few gags in the street. I think everyone works in this way, at least on some films. You certainly do it for comedies, and you can even do it for dramas. And this material, in my case, was often based on memories. I realized that you can really exercise your memory where the past is concerned. I had found a class photo, for example, one in the classic pose with all the pupils lined up. The first time I looked at that picture, I could remember the names of only two friends. But by looking at it for an hour each morning over a period of several days, I remembered all my classmates’ names, their parents’ jobs, and where everybody lived.

It was around this time that I met Moussy and asked him if he’d like to work with me on the script of The 400 Blows. Since I myself had played hooky quite a bit, all of Antoine’s problems with fake notes, forged signatures, bad report cards – all of these I knew by heart, of course. The movies to which we truants went started at around ten in the morning; there were several theaters in Paris that opened at such an early hour. And their clientele was made up almost exclusively of schoolchildren!

The 400 Blows (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
As a former critic, if you had had to talk about ‘The 400 Blows’, would you have spoken about it in the glowing terms used by most critics?

No, I don’t think so. I honestly think I’d have liked it, because I like the ideas in the picture – they’re good ideas – but I wouldn’t have gone so far in praising The 400 Blows as the critics did. I couldn’t have called it a masterpiece or a great work of art, because I can see too clearly what’s experimental or clumsy about it.

Could you say something about the relationship, in your career, of ‘Shoot the Piano Player’ to ‘The 400 Blows’?

Shoot the Piano Player, my second feature film, was made in reaction to The 400 Blows, which was so French. I felt that I needed to show that I had also been influenced by the American cinema. Also, after the exaggerated reception and publicity for The 400 Blows its disproportionate success – became quite agitated. So I touched on the notions of celebrity and obscurity in Shoot the Piano Player – reversed them, in fact, since here it is a famous person who becomes unknown. There are glimpses in this film, then, of the feeling that troubled me at the time.

Shoot the Piano Player (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
I had made The 400 Blows, in a state of anxiety, because I was afraid that the film would never be released and that, if it did come out, people would say, ‘After having insulted everyone as a critic, Truffaut should have stayed home!’ Shoot the Piano Player, by contrast, was made in a state of euphoria, thanks to the success of The 400 Blows. I took great pleasure in filming it, far more than in The 400 Blows, where I was concerned about Jean-Pierre Léaud. I was wondering whether he would show up each day, or, if he did, whether he had had a fight the night before and would appear on the set with marks all over his face. With children, we directors worry more, because they do not have the same self-interest or self-regard as adults.

Léaud’s work gave birth not only to ‘The 400 Blows’, but to the whole Antoine Doinel saga, which I think is unique in the history of cinema: starting in 1959, to follow a character for twenty years, watching him grow older over the course of five films. Let’s talk now about the other films in the cycle: ‘Love at Twenty’, ‘Stolen Kisses’ [1968], ‘Bed and Board’ [1970], and ‘Love on the Run’ [1979]. At the end of ‘The 400 Blows’, we left Jean-Pierre Léaud on the beach. He had just escaped from a reform school, where he had been up to some mischief and had suffered various misfortunes.

When I brought him back, in Love at Twenty – which was really just a sketch, called ‘Antoine and Colette,’ as part of an anthology film – he was eighteen and perhaps living on his own. In any case, you no longer see his family in this film. Antoine is starting his professional life, working in a record company, and we see his first love affairs a few months before he must go into the army. Stolen Kisses is simply the continuation of the adventures of Antoine Doinel. It is the same character: like me but not me; like Jean-Pierre Léaud but not Léaud.

Stolen Kisses (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
I must say that I like to start with more solid material than this. I like having two or three reasons to make a movie: say, the coming together of a book I want to adapt or an atmosphere I want to depict with an actor that I want to film. In Stolen Kisses, I admit, I just wanted to work with Jean-Pierre Léaud again; I more or less set a specific date by which I wanted to begin making a film with him. And with my screenwriters Claude de Givray and Bernanrd Revon, I sat down and said, ‘What are we going to do with Léaud?’ For his professional life, we adopted a perfectly simple solution. Leafing through a phone book, we found an ad for private detectives. We thought, ‘Here’s a job you don’t see in French films, usually only in American movies about a famous detective named Marlowe.’ But it should prove funny in France. For Doinel’s romantic life, I suggested putting him opposite a girl his own age, even younger. We’d even suppose that he wrote her when he was in the army and therefore already knows her. We would then have him live what I think is every young man’s fantasy: an affair with a married woman. I thought right away of Delphine Seyrig for the part of the married woman, because I didn’t want this affair to be sordid but instead a bit dreamlike or idealized.

In ‘Bed and Board’ you were examining the problems of romantic relationships. How did you approach them?

Not really as problems. More as a chronicle, with some happy scenes and some serious or dramatic scenes.

Bed and Board  (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
‘Shoot the Piano Player’ has similar changes of tone.

It does. They were planned in that film, since they were also in the American David Goodis’s source novel – but the changes of tone were reinforced during the shooting because I realized I was faced with a film without a theme. The same thing happened spontaneously in Stolen Kisses and Bed and Board, themselves movies without clear subjects: some days during the shooting I stressed the comical side, other days the dramatic side. Compared to what I did in Stolen Kisses, though, in Bed and Board I tried to be much funnier when something was funny, and much more dramatic when something was dramatic. It’s the same mixture in both films, but in Bed and Board I just tried, so to speak, to increase the dosage. And I did this in part by showing Antoine Doinel as a married man.

It was around ten years later that I made Love on the Run, which included flashback sequences from the earlier Doinel films and had the feeling of a conclusion for me. When the characters in Love on the Run talk about a memory, I was able to show that memory, while still telling a story happening in the present and with new characters. There is a summing up in this film, since I had already decided that, once it was finished, I would no longer use the character of Antoine Doinel.

Bed and Board  (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
So, in the end, you were happy with this film?

To tell the truth, I wasn’t happy with Love on the Run. This picture was, and still is, troubling for me. People may well enjoy it, but I’m not happy with it. It didn’t seem like a real film to me. For one thing, the experimental elements in it are too pronounced. A movie often has an experimental feel in the beginning, but by the end you hope it feels like a real object, a real film, so that you forget it’s an experiment.

But in defense of your own movie, it’s a kind of diary on film. You watch a character through his evolution.

Yes, but did he really evolve? I felt that the cycle as a whole wasn’t successful in making him evolve. The character started out somewhat autobiographical, but over time it drew further and further away from me. I never wanted to give him ambition, for example. I wonder if he’s not too frozen in the end, like a cartoon character. You know, Mickey Mouse can’t grow old. Perhaps the Doinel cycle is the story of a failure, even if each film on its own is enjoyable and a lot of fun to watch.

That said, Antoine Doinel’s life is just a life – not an exhilarating or prodigious one, but the life of a person with his own contradictions and faults. When I have a man like this as the main character on screen, I focus on his weaknesses. I also did this outside the Doinel cycle: Charles Aznavour in Shoot the Piano Player, Jean Desailly in The Soft Skin, and Charles Denner in The Man Who Loved Women are not heroes, either. American cinema is great at depicting ‘heroes,’ but the vocation of European cinema may be to express the truth about people, which means to show their weaknesses, their contradictions, and even their lies...

Love on the Run (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
In 1957 you wrote the following: ‘The films of the future will be more personal than autobiography, like a confession or diary. Young filmmakers will speak in the first person in order to tell what happened to them: their first love, a political awakening, a trip, an illness, and so on. Tomorrow’s film will be an act of love.’ If someone wanted to make movies today, would you tell that person, ‘Tell us about your life. There’s nothing more important or more interesting.’ Or would you say, ‘The industry is tougher now. Conform to it and don’t listen to what I said.’

Very tactfully put... My prediction was fulfilled beyond my wildest dreams – you know that. So I wouldn’t say the opposite today. But I would say, ‘Talk about what interests you, but make sure it interests others, too.’

– From ‘Action! Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran,’ edited by Gary Morris (London: Anthem Press).

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Breaking Bad: Vince Gilligan On Meth And Morals

The great AMC drama series Breaking Bad stars Bryan Cranston as Walter White, a high-school chemistry teacher with financial problems. When White discovers he is suffering from terminal cancer he snaps and decides to use his chemistry background to pay for his medical expenses and to take care of his family’s future: he goes into partnership with a former student, played by Aaron Paul, and starts producing and dealing crystal meth.

Breaking Bad was created by Vince Gilligan, who previously worked as a producer and writer on The X-Files. In September 2011 Gilligan was interviewed on the NPR programme Fresh Air by Terry Gross who asked him where the idea for the critically acclaimed show came from, how he came to write convincingly about chemistry and the drug trade, and the direction of the final season.

‘I suspect it had something to do with the fact that when I came up with the idea for Breaking Bad, I was about to turn 40 years old, and perhaps I was thinking in terms of an impending midlife crisis,’ he says. ‘To that end, I think Walter White, in the early seasons, is a man who is suffering from perhaps the world’s worst midlife crisis.’

‘[Because] Walter White was talking to his students, I was able to dumb down certain moments of description and dialogue in the early episodes which held me until we had some help from some honest-to-god chemists,’ says Gilligan. ‘We have a [chemist] named Dr. Donna Nelson at the University of Oklahoma who is very helpful to us and vets our scripts to make sure our chemistry dialogue is accurate and up to date. We also have a chemist with the Drug Enforcement Association based out of Dallas who has just been hugely helpful to us.’

‘My writers and I took a former drug dealer to lunch and picked his brain for a couple of hours,’ says Gilligan. ‘I think he was moving large quantities of marijuana – not methamphetamine – but a lot of the same general philosophies apply to both in the sense of: How do you stay one step ahead of the police? How do you launder large quantities of cash? So things such as that, we seek professional help – just as we do with the chemistry.’

‘There will be 16 more episodes in Season 5. How much darker can Walt get? Is his journey complete – his journey along that arc from good guy to bad guy? At this point, it’s a tricky thing to answer,’ he says. ‘Probably a casual viewer to the show might think [the show is] about morality or amorality. I suppose that there are things that Walt does probably need to atone for – and perhaps he will, when it’s all said and done.’

In an extensive interview in 2010 Vince Gilligan discussed in detail his attitude towards writing and the writing process on Breaking Bad with Kasey Carpenter:

VG: I always like hearing how other writers work. The way we do it is that the breaking of the episode is the hardest part, and the single most important part. We spend the most time on that. It’s very much an all hands on deck scenario. Back on The X-Files, when we did episodes that were stand alone episodes, writers could retreat to their separate offices and brainstorm, take walks, whatever - to figure out their episode. But with a show as serialized as Breaking Bad that just doesn’t work, so what we do is we sit around a big conference table in our very un-fancy offices here in Burbank, and it’s very much like being on a sequestered jury that never ends. Six writers and myself plus our writer’s assistant who, sort of like a court reporter, takes down the notes of what we’re saying on her laptop as we talk so every now and then if we need to pick through the chaff, we can find something good that we would’ve missed if she hadn’t have typed it down. It takes us about two weeks per episode to break it out, five days a week, Monday through Friday, seven to ten hours a day. And the average is pretty consistent, two weeks to break out an episode. We stare at these four three-by-five corkboards that ring the room, we fill one at a time, and when we get to the fifth episode in the cycle, we take number one down from the board and replace it, and so on. Two weeks per corkboard. Each board has: teaser, act one, act two, act three, act four - and brick by brick we build out these episodes, we write out on index cards with sharpies, and each card represents not necessarily a scene, but a beat within a scene so that a teaser will be five or six index cards, and each act will be somewhere between sixteen and eighteen cards, and we try to put as much detail as possible into this portion of the creating of the episode.

KC: If you write better in the beginning, you have less to clean up later.

VG: Exactly. In other words, we try to build the best architectural drawings in the beginning so that any of the writers in the room can go off and write a particular episode by themselves. We cycle through the writers, everyone gets their name on at least two scripts, one by themselves and one shared towards the end of the season. The idea being that it is a group effort. And as I said before, we are asking ourselves those two questions, except we’re asking them over and over again, where is each character’s head at, and what happens next. We can spend a whole day just talking through where Walt’s head is at. He’s done this, he’s done that, and he’s responsible for a plane crash, what is he afraid of, what is he hoping for, what is his goal? And we are trying to think thematically, but we’re employing simple showmanship as well. We want to keep the audience interested, we want to keep the thing moving along like any good cliffhanger/potboiler story. But also, we’re trying to be true to the characters.

KC: What advice do you have for writers?

VG: Well I don’t have any advice that hasn’t been heard a hundred times before, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. Writers should write, whether or not you’re getting paid to do it. You’re not a writer unless you’re writing. Then the only differentiation is ‘am I writer who’s making a living off of it, or am I a writer who is currently unsold?’ – and that isn’t a big differentiation. The real differentiation is, are you a writer...?

KC: [laughs] And you can fall in and out of those two pretty easily.

VG: Yes you can, very easily. So that’s not a differentiation worth making. The only one worth making is: are you a writer? Do you write every day? Are you actively involved in creating something, whether you sell it or not. Or are you someone who likes to think about being a writer, but doesn’t actually get much done. That is the only differentiation worth noting. Read as much as possible, view as much as possible. As far as the literary end of things, I don’t have as much experience with novels and short stories, but I can speak to how it is to get a job in the movie and television end of things, although someday I would like to write a book. I don’t know if I’d be any good at it, but that’s always the reason to try something new, to see if you’d be any good at it.

KC: Well it is a lot more solitary than your current situation.

VG: Very true. I like the idea that you can do it anywhere in the world.

KC: And you don’t have to worry about budgetary constraints, CGI, casting, or any of that - it’s just you and the paper, you create your own world and it doesn’t cost you a thing.

VG: That’s true too. I like that. But as far as making it into television or movies, my best advice I give when I’m asked how to get an agent, how to get your stuff read – which is a time-honored question – my answer to that, to speak to how I got started, is to enter screenwriting contests. I was entering these competitions from college on, and I would enter every contest that came down the pike, and once I started writing feature-length things, I would enter these screenplays in every competition I could find. That is how I got my start in the business because of one of those contests, The Governor’s Screenwriting Competition, in my home state of Virginia. I was lucky enough to be one of the winners of it back in 1989, and it was small contest with only thirty or forty entries...

- Extract from ‘Terry Gross: Breaking Bad: Vince Gilligan on Meth And Morals’. NPR article and audio link here

- Extract from ‘Kasey Carpenter: The Voice in Walter White’s Head: An interview with Breaking Bad's creator Vince Gilligan’. Full article here.