Friday, 21 December 2012

The Coen Brothers: Fargo, Crime and Realism

Fargo (Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)
‘Based on actual events’ the Coen Brothers’ Fargo tells the story of indebted Minneapolis car salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) who hires two lowlifes Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife Jean (Kristin Rudrüd) and ransom her for money from his rich father-in-law Wade (Harve Presnell). The scheme unravels when one of the kidnappers kills a state trooper during a routine traffic stop. As Carl and Gaear leave more bodies in their wake, the pregnant local police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) begins to investigate. 

From its opening shot – in which a car trundles down a harsh, snowy road – to its bleak conclusion, the film transforms its dull, Upper Midwestern landscape into the setting for a narrative that explores the soul of modern America. The Coens take a standard film noir plot and transform it into epic drama, forming out of the grim events a portrait of the pursuit of the American Dream and its consequences. 

The films of the Coen brothers are often noted for their highly self-conscious relation to preceding film forms. In Fargo the screenplay resolutely undermines the traditional police procedural, most notably with the creation of the main female police investigator. Fargo deliberately turns against film convention in favour of a naturalism that gives its characters identifiable, clearly grounded lives. There’s a richness in the portrayal of the characters that fills the movie with closely observed, realistic details instead of clichés. This extends to the portrayal of the ineptitude of Carl and Jerry – the would-be ‘masterminds’ of Fargo’s kidnap plot. As Ethan Coen explains:
One of the reasons for making them simple-minded was our desire to go against the Hollywood cliché of the bad guy as a super-professional who controls everything he does. In fact, in most cases criminals belong to the strata of society least equipped to face life, and that’s the reason they’re caught so often. In this sense too, our movie is closer to life than the conventions of cinema and genre movies.
In the interview which follows, initially published in 1996, Joel and Ethan Cohen discuss the writing and filming of Fargo, its precise characterizations, acting performances and the visual style that emphasizes the spiritual landscape of the bleak Midwestern setting:

Did some news item inspire ‘Fargo’, as the press kit suggests, or is that another false trail that you two have laid?

JOEL COEN: In its general structure, the film is based on a real event, but the details of the story and the characters are fictional. We were not interested in making a documentary film, and we did no research about the nature of the murders or the events connected to them. But in warning viewers that we had found our inspiration from a real story, we were preparing them to not view the film like an ordinary thriller.

Did this kidnapping of a wife organized by her husband create a good deal of sensation in 1987?

ETHAN COEN: It didn’t. In fact, its surprising how many things of this land get very little publicity. We heard about it from a friend who lived very close to where the story unfolded in Minnesota, which also happens to be where we are from.

Why did you call the film ‘Fargo’ when the important action of the film is set in Brainerd, which is in Minnesota, and not ‘Fargo’?

JC: Fargo seemed a more evocative title than ‘Brainerd’ – that’s the only reason.

EC: It was just that we liked the sound of the word – there’s no hidden meaning.

JC: There was, to be sure, a kind of western connection with Wells Fargo, but that was not part of our intention, and it’s too bad that some people should have thought so.

Here you returned somewhat to the territory of your first films, ‘Blood Simple’ and ‘Raising Arizona’.

JC: There are some similarities, but also some important differences. These three films are all small-scale productions, their main themes relate to criminality, to kidnapping, and they are also very specific in their reference to geographical locale. Furthermore, Frances McDormand plays a role in Fargo and Blood Simple. But we have always thought that Blood Simple belongs to the tradition of flamboyant melodrama, as given expression in the novels of James M. Cain, along with some influence from the horror film. In Fargo, we tried out a very different stylistic approach, introducing the subject in a quite dry fashion. Our intention was also that the camera should tell the story like an observer. The structure of the film also follows from the origin of the story in an actual event: we allowed ourselves more digressions and detours. Each incident did not necessarily have to be connected to the plot. We also allowed ourselves to withhold the appearance of the heroine, Marge Gunderson, until the middle of the film.

EC: This is also a way of signifying to the viewer that he was not watching a genre film, that we were not going to satisfy expectations of this kind. In this way too, the film differs from Blood Simple.

What is it that drew you to the subject?

JC: There were two or three things about the actual events that interested us. In the first place, the story takes place in a time and place with which we were familiar and could explore. And then again it features a kidnapping, a subject that has always fascinated us. In fact, we had a screenplay that was quite different from Fargo that we would have been very happy to shoot. Finally, this subject offered us the chance to shoot a crime film with characters quite different from genre stereotypes.

EC: It’s probably not a subject we would have worked with had it not been connected to this particular context. When we begin writing, we need to imagine in a quite specific way the world where the story unfolds. The difference is that until this point these universes were purely fictional, while in the case of Fargo there was an air of authenticity we had to communicate. Since we come from the area, that helped us take into account the particular character of the place.

A ‘dialogue coach’ is listed in the credits. Is that a gag?

EC: No, not at all. Most of the actors come from this part of the country, and they did not need coaching, but Frances McDormand, Bill Macy, and Harve Presnell had to have some training so their accents would blend with the others. This was partly how the characters were developed, and it also contributed to the air of authenticity.

JC: The people there speak is a very economical fashion, which is almost monosyllabic. This seems as exotic to other Americans as it does to you Europeans! In fact, the Scandinavian influence on the culture of that area, the rhythm of the sentences, the accent, all of this is not familiar at all to the rest of America. The story could have just as well taken place on the moon! New Yorkers have a general conception of Midwesterners, but they know nothing about these cultural ‘pockets,’ these microsocieties with their idiosyncrasies and peculiarities.

EC: When we were small, we were not really conscious of this Scandinavian heritage that so strongly affects this part of the country simply because we had no points for comparison. When we got to New York City, we were astonished not to find any Gustafsons or Sondergaards. Certainly, all the exoticism comes from this Nordic character, with its polite and reserved manner. There’s something almost Japanese in this refusal to register even the least emotion, in this resistance to saying no. One of the sources of comedy in the story comes from the opposition between this constant avoidance of all confrontation and the murders gradually piling up.

JC: We didn’t need to do any research since this manner of speech, these expressions, these sentence cadences were familiar to us. Our parents had always lived in this part of the country, and that means we returned there regularly and were familiar with the culture. After all, it’s this culture that shaped us. Because we had not lived there for some time, we had the feeling of being separated in part from the environment where we had grown up.

The episode between Marge and her old high-school friend is a digression from the central narrative, which is fairly compressed.

EC: Someone mentioned to us that in this scene, Frances acts in the very restrained manner of an Oriental, while her Japanese friend is talkative and irrational in the American style. It was certainly our intention while writing this sequence that it should be a digression.

JC: We wanted to provide another point of view on Frances’s character, one that had nothing to do with the police investigation. This is also what happens in the scenes with her husband.

EC: Our intention was to demonstrate that this story is more closely connected to real life than to fiction, and we felt free to create a scene that had no links to the plot.

‘The Hudsucker Proxy’ is no doubt your most stylized film. This one, in contrast, is probably your least.

JC: We wanted to take a new approach to style in this film, to make something radically different from our previous films. And it is true that we were pressured in this direction because the preceding film was the most ‘theatrical’ of them all. But curiously, working from actual events, we came to yet another form of stylization, in the largest sense of that term. The end result was then not as different as we imagined it would be!

A little like Kubrick did with ‘Dr. Strangelove’, you begin with a somewhat documentary presentation, then little by little, with icy humor, everything comes unglued and turns in the direction of the absurd.

EC: That resulted in part from the nature of the story. There is a plan that is established at the beginning and which in the end changes as the characters lose control of it.

JC: That’s an effect implicit in the form of the story. When a character, in the first scene, tells you how things are going to go, we know very well that the unfolding of the story will go in a quite different direction. Others have also made reference to Kubrick, and I see the connection. His approach to the material is very formal, but then progresses regularly from the prosaic to the baroque.

How did you succeed in never falling into caricature, a danger because of the kind of story you work with?

JC: I suppose intuition plays some role with regard to our choice of style, and, even more, it depends a great deal on the actors and their ability to know when they might be going too far. For example, Frances’s way of presenting her character is very sincere, very direct. That prevents Marge from becoming a parody of herself. Frances was very conscious of the dangers posed by excessiveness because of the quirk she used of dragging out the end of every sentence.

EC: We worked constantly on the set making adjustments with the actors. They’d give us a fairly wide range of behaviors for their characters, and we never stopped discussing that while shooting proceeded.

JC: We worked a good deal on ‘feeling.’ It’s hard to say in words why Marge, in the film, is not a caricature, but a real person with three dimensions.

EC: What’s certain about this is that when we were writing the screenplay and the actors were interpreting their roles, none of us thought of the story as a comedy.

JC: And that certainly helped, at the same time, to create comic effects and make the characters plausible. The comedy would not have worked if the film had been shot as a comedy, instead of sincerely and directly.

The relationship between Marge and her husband is also quite strange.

JC: We were intrigued from the moment we started casting by the notion of very simple interplay between them and by the impassive expression of John Caroll Lynch, which seemed to suit the tone of the film perfectly.

EC: He is the perfect incarnation of the undemonstrative personality of people from that region. The relations between husband and wife are based on what is not said, and yet they succeed nevertheless in communicating in some sense.

The end seems to be a parody of the classic Hollywood happy ending with the husband and wife on their bed symbolizing the return to order and to the natural.

JC: It is true that this is a return to order, but we did not have the intention of finishing up with a scene that’s a parody. There was an article in the New York Times in which the writer asked why the people in Minnesota did not like the film’s end, even though everything turned out for the best, as they are fond of believing there!

The only point at issue in the ending has to do with money. But isn’t money the film’s principal subject?

JC: All the characters in the film are obsessed with money.

EC: At the same time, we did not want to be too specific, for example, concerning the debt Jerry owes. It was enough to understand that this character had trapped himself by getting involved in some deal that had turned out badly. Moreover, during the entire film, Jerry is a pathetic loser who never stops improvising solutions in order to escape from the impasses he finds himself blocked by. He never stops trying everything, never stops bursting with activity. That almost makes him admirable!

JC: What we found interesting from the beginning in the character played by William Macy is his absolute incapacity, for even one minute, to project himself into the future so that he might evaluate the consequences of the decisions he has made. There is something fascinating about his total inability to gain any perspective. He’s one of those people who build a pyramid but never think for a minute about it crumbling.

Did writing the screenplay take a lot of time?

EC: We had begun it before shooting The Hudsucker Proxy; afterward we went back to it, so it is pretty hard for us to estimate the time it all took. But two years had passed. What is certain is that the writing was easy and relatively quick, especially in comparison with our other screenplays, such as the one for Miller’s Crossing.

Was it determined from the beginning that the wife, once kidnapped, would no longer be a physical presence?

JC: Yes, absolutely. And at a certain point in the story, it was also evident to us that she would cease to be a person for those who had kidnapped her. Moreover, it was no longer the actress Kristin Rudrud who played her, but a double with a hood over her head. In this case, we had no interest in the victim. It did not seem that at any point the husband himself was worried about what might happen to her. And Carl, one of the kidnappers, didn’t even know her name.

Did you pick Steve Buscemi for this part before you had settled on Peter Stormare to play the other bad guy?

EC: In fact, we wrote the parts for these two comedians. And it was the same for Marge, played by Frances McDormand. Peter is an old friend, and he seemed an interesting choice for the role. Of course, his character is an outsider in the milieu where he finds himself, but at the same time he has an ethnic connection to it.

How do you work with your music director Carter Burwell?

JC: He has worked with us since our first project. Usually, he screens the film all the way through, then he plays a little bit of what he has in mind for us on the synthesizer so that he can give us some idea of what direction he’d like to go in. Before planning the orchestration, he plays parts of it for us on the piano, and we think about the connections these might have with certain sequences of the film. Then he goes on to the next step.

EC: In the case of this film, the main theme is based on a popular Scandinavian melody that Carter found for us.

JC: This is often how we work with him. For Miller’s Crossing, the music came from an Irish folk tune that he used as the basis for his orchestration, adding bits he wrote himself. For Raising Arizona, he used a popular American tune that Holly Hunter sings part of. On the other hand, for Blood Simple and Barton Fink, the music is all his own composition; it wasn’t inspired by anything else. For The Hudsucker Proxy, it was different yet again, a mix of an original composition by Carter and bits and pieces of Khachaturian.

EC: After he completes the orchestration, we go along with him to the sound recording studio. For our last two productions, he directed the orchestra himself. While the film is projected, we are still able to make last-minute changes. All told, the collaboration with him does not last more than two or three months.

How long did the editing take?

JC: About twelve weeks. That was a pretty short time for us because usually we take more, depending on whether we start editing while we’re still shooting.

Did the principal photography pose any problems for you?

JC: It was easier for us in this case than with our other films. We talked it over a great deal with Roger Deakins because we wanted to shoot a good many exterior long shots. From the very beginning, we determined to use nothing but shots where the camera does not move.

EC: Afterward we decided that this purist attitude was pretty stupid.

JC: And so we decided then to move the camera sometimes, but in such a way that the viewer would not notice it. We didn’t want to make the camera movement dramatic like we’d done in the past because we did not want to emphasize the action, make it seem either too dramatic or

EC: Roger Deakins worked on this production with a camera operator although, in the past, he was most often his own camera operator, including the two films he had made for us. This time he did not take charge of everything because he was often busy with the camera. On Fargo, we had problems with the weather because we needed snow, but the winter when we shot the film was particularly mild and dry. We had to work in Minneapolis with artificial snow. Then, because the snow didn’t always work out, we had to travel in the end to North Dakota to shoot the large-scale exteriors. There we found exactly what we were looking for: a sky with a very low ceiling, no direct sunlight, no line marking the horizon, only a neutral and diffuse light.

JC: The landscapes we used were really dramatic and oppressive. There were no mountains or trees, only desolate flatlands extending into the distance. That’s what we wanted to put on the screen.

Do you spend a lot of time looking through the camera?

JC: For the first film we made with Roger Deakins, Barton Fink, we were constantly looking through the viewfinder. For Hudsucker Proxy, less. And even less in the case of Fargo. This was no doubt a reflection of the material in each case and of the visual effects we were looking for, but it also resulted from our developing collaboration with the director of photography. When we work regularly with someone, we rather quickly develop a sort of telepathic language. I also think that Roger likes to work with people like us who take an active interest in problems of lighting, rather than with directors who depend entirely on him.

There’s a contradiction between what it says in the press kit, which credits you with the editing, and the film credits that name a certain Roderick Jaynes.

JC: Whenever we edit the film ourselves, we use the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes. We prefer a hands-on approach rather than sitting next to someone and telling them when to cut. We think that’s easier. In any case, there are two of us in the editing room. As for everything else, we work together, and we never have the feeling of isolation that other people sometimes have. On Barton Fink and Blood Simple, we were also our own editor. On the other projects, we have used an editor, but we were always there, of course, whenever we could be. But if we called upon Tom Noble or Michael Miller in these other cases, it was because the editing, for reasons of scheduling, had to start while we were shooting.

Your films are set in New Orleans [sic], in New York, in Hollywood, in the West, or the Midwest. It seems you are interested in exploring American geography.

JC: We would like to shoot somewhere else, but, bizarrely, the subjects we come up with are always set in America. That’s what seems to attract us.

EC: It’s always necessary, or so it seems, that the universe in which our stories take place has some kind of connection, however distant, with us. In the case of Fargo, the connection was obviously even closer.

JC: We have a need to know a subject intimately or, at least, feel some emotional connection to it. At the same time, we are not interested unless there is something exotic about it. For example, we know Minnesota very well, but not the people who inhabit Fargo or their way of life. On the other hand, in the case of Barton Fink and Miller’s Crossing, the exoticism came from the story’s being set in a distant time.

What are your connections with the characters in ‘Fargo’, who for the most part seem somewhat retarded?

JC: We have affection for them all and perhaps particularly for those who are plain and simple.

One of the reasons for making them simple-minded was our desire to go against the Hollywood cliché of the bad guy as a super-professional who controls everything he does. In fact, in most cases criminals belong to the strata of society least equipped to face life, and that’s the reason they’re caught so often. In this sense too, our movie is closer to life than the conventions of cinema and genre movies.

JC: We are often asked how we manage injecting comedy into the material. But it seems to us that comedy is part of life. Look at the recent example of the people who tried to blow up the World Trade Center. They rented a panel truck to use for the explosion and then, after committing the crime, went back to the rental agency to get back the money they left on deposit. The absurdity of this kind of behavior is terribly funny in itself.

What projects are you working on?

EC: At this point we’re working on two screenplays but don’t know which one we’ll finish first or which one will get financing first.

JC: One is also about a kidnapping, but of a very different sort. [This is a reference to The Ladykillers project, released in 2004]. The other is a kind of film noir about a barber from northern California, at the end of the 1940s. [This is the project that became The Man Who Wasn’t There.]

– From Closer to Life Than the Conventions of Cinema by Michel Ciment and Hubert Niogret (Positif, 1996). Revised version in The Coen Brothers: Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers) Ed. William Rodney Allen. (University Press of Mississippi, 2006).


Thursday, 13 December 2012

Mackendrick and Odets: The Screenwriting Process

Sweet Smell of Success (Directed by Alexander Mackendrick)
A fast-paced, cynical journey through New York Sweet Smell of Success (1957), directed by Alexander Mackendrick, stars Burt Lancaster as the ruthless Broadway gossip columnist J. J. Hunsecker, and Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco, the unscrupulous press agent Hunsecker employs to break up the relationship between Susan (Susan Harrison), Hunsecker’s sister, and her jazz-musician boyfriend Steve (Martin Milner). Featuring acerbic dialogue and an elegantly structured screenplay by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, with striking neon cityscapes from Oscar-winning cinematographer James Wong Howe, Sweet Smell of Success is a brilliant exposé of the seamy journalistic underbelly of 1950s Manhattan.

Sweet Smell of Success was the high-point of Alexander Mackendrick’s career which also included the classic Ealing films Whisky Galore! (1949), The Man in the White Suit (1951), and The Ladykillers (1955). Working in Hollywood, however, proved difficult for the Scottish director, his perfectionism often bringing him into conflict with the studio system. As a result, only a handful of projects followed in the 1960s culminating in Don’t Make Waves (1967), a comedy in which Tony Curtis embraces Californian hedonism and of which Mackendrick himself said was ‘a humiliation even to have to talk about it’.

In 1969, Alexander Macken­drick retired from the film industry and became founding dean of the film school at the newly established California Institute of the Arts. A dedicated and passionate teacher of film theory (‘Film writing and directing cannot be taught, only learned, and each man or woman has to learn it through his or her own system of self-education’), he became one of the form’s most renowned instructors attracting aspiring filmmakers from around the world.

Though reluctant to use his own films while teaching, a notable exception was Sweet Smell of Success, which served as the basis for one of his most insightful lecture notes. In the extract that follows, Mackendrick describes how the original screenwriter on the project, Ernest Lehman, author of the novel on which the film is based, became ill and was replaced by Clifford Odets.

Odets had been a successful Broadway playwright during the 1930s and had written for the radical Group Theatre collective such works as Waiting for Lefty and Golden Boy (the title character of the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink, was loosely based on Odets). As a Hollywood screenwriter, Odets had worked on the script for Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious and on early drafts of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Faced with Lehman’s script of Sweet Smell of Success, Odets chose to rework it fully into one that, while preserving the outline of the original, became more dense, dramatic and filled with expressive dialogue.

This process is described in the following excerpt from Alexander Mackendrick’s On Film-Making:

Clifford Odets was a playwright of some importance in the history of American drama, but as a screenwriter he was extremely theatrical. I have to admit, I found his dialogue mannered and very artificial, not at all realistic. At the same time, I recognized that not only is the whole plot of Sweet Smell of Success somewhat exaggerated, it also deals with an environment and characters who seem to enjoy quite grotesquely colorful forms of speech. (On another level, Damon Runyon’s stories of the same environment have a similarly preposterous style.) Clifford sensed, I think, that I was concerned about the problem of style and explained to me: ‘My dialogue may seem somewhat overwritten, too wordy, too contrived. Don’t let it worry you. You’ll find that it works if you don’t bother too much about the lines themselves. Play the situations, not the words. And play them fast.’ I found this to be a marvelous piece of advice. Indeed, it reinforced my understanding of dialogue in film: the spoken word is often at its most effective when the actors concentrate not on the words and their literal meaning but on the actions that underlie them, the real intentions and motivations of the characters. A line that reads quite implausibly on the printed page can be quite convincing and effective when spoken in a throwaway or incidental fashion by the actor.

Ernie Lehman and I had become friends during a period when we were both under contract to Hecht-Hill-Lancaster. I had been preparing a ­project that was canceled because of casting problems, while Ernie had been assigned as not only the writer of Sweet Smell of Success but also as director. He began, however, to have ­second thoughts about choosing it as his first directing assignment and decided he would be safer if he remained as writer-producer. [Lehman’s version of the story is different.] He asked me if I would like to direct it. I liked the material for several reasons. One was that I had always hankered to make a melodrama, a film noir, as it has been called, and felt this was a chance to get out of a reputation I had for small, cute British comedies. Another was that, though it was in England, I’d had some experience of the world of tabloid journalism and was both repelled and fascinated by some of its grubbier aspects. A third was that I liked the idea of trying to capture on-screen the atmosphere of Manhattan. (It has been done many times since, of course, but Sweet Smell of Success was actually one of the first attempts to shoot night scenes on location in the city.) I also appreciated the themes of the story and felt I could work well with Ernie Lehman, though did explain to him and the producers that there were certain things about the first draft that worried me a good deal, not least that it wasn’t very cinematic. Just about every scene consisted of an exchange of dialogue between two people sitting at a table in a restaurant, at a bar, or in a nightclub. The screenplay was nothing but talk, with little consideration given to physical surroundings and visual atmosphere.

My earliest reaction was that, though such an approach was necessary for much of the story, we could at least make an attempt to move it out into the streets. I felt that one of the ­characteristic aspects of New York, particularly the square mile that constitutes the area between Forty-second Street and Fifty-seventh Street (the theater and nightclub district), is the neurotic energy of the crowded sidewalks. This, I argued, was essential to these characters, people driven by the uglier aspects of ambition and greed. Without it, they would seem to be even more unbelievable than they already were. I was enormously lucky to discover that the producers were instantly receptive to this idea, and even before we set down to work on the screenplay, the producers allowed me to take the camera­man (the great Jimmy Wong Howe) and the production designer (Eddie Carrere) on a reconnaissance trip to New York to explore the locations. It was on this visit to the city that we developed the formula of starting many of the scenes in exteriors, beginning with short passages of dialogue on the claustrophobic Manhattan streets outside the bars, apartment buildings, and offices, before following the characters into the interiors. A complex matter this was, since it meant very careful matching between material shot on night locations in New York and studio-built sets on the soundstages of Goldwyn Studios in Hollywood. I am not at all sure that this effect helped the film to be less theatrical, but do feel it contributed to the inward aggression that helped to make the scenes work. Though the screenplay is immensely talky and the­atrical, I think the camera helped ­disguise this.

In retrospect, I realize I may have been falling into a trap that is not uncommon in the profession: when a director is uneasy about some aspects of the script but does not know how to resolve them, he will often retreat into concentrating on more technical challenges that allow him to escape from things that are more important. The truth, perhaps, was that I was uncomfortable about characters and situations that I did not really believe in, and hoped to conceal these fundamental flaws by the fancy footwork of visual effects. A common fallacy is that you can make a piece of writing conceived in theatrical terms more cinematic by ‘opening it out.’ This usually means keeping the same dialogue but playing the scene against backgrounds of more pictorial interest. Though this may indeed help to provide more atmosphere, it does not necessarily make the scenes any more interesting.

At this point came a major disaster: Ernie Lehman fell ill. With only a month or so before shooting was due to start, a date that could not be postponed because of contracts to the ­principal actors, we were faced with the task of finding a new screenwriter to solve a number of the problems we had identified in the script. By enormous good fortune, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster had just put Clifford Odets under contract to work on another project, and we were able to persuade him to do what, at that juncture, seemed a relatively simple job of story doctoring: polishing the dialogue and making some minor adjustments to the scene structure. We could not have been more wrong. It is, of course, well-known that few writers are able to resist the temptation of changing the work of another screenwriter, but none of us realized how much work Clifford found that he had to do. Very little of Ernie’s script was left in the end, though the basic themes remain in the film we know today, and with the exception of the final scenes, the plot was substantially as originally conceived. What Clifford did, in effect, was to dismantle the structure of every single sequence in order to rebuild situations and relationships into scenes that were more complex and had much greater tension and dramatic energy. Disastrous as this process was from the point of view of the production, the truth is that, for me personally, it was an experience that taught me a staggering amount. I can make no claims for the completed film, but what I can say is that without this work done by Odets, the film would have had none of the vitality you see up on the screen.

It is not easy to explain Clifford’s process. It took place mostly in story conferences, daily meetings between three people: Odets, producer Jim Hill, and myself. Much of the discussion was lively, aggressive argument in which it seemed that we ripped every scene to shreds, to the point where I was growing increasingly nervous that nothing would be left. But what I slowly began to recognize was that I was being given the privilege of watching the processes of a dramatic intelligence working out the intricacies of character interaction. There was an interesting pattern to Clifford’s work on the successive drafts of a scene. During a story conference, he would improvise in the way an actor does, sometimes using a tape recorder, more often just talking and making notes. Then he would go off on his own to sketch out a scene that he would come back and read (perform, in fact) for our benefit. His acting, to my mind, was atrocious. Moreover, the scene would usually be horrendously overwritten and much too long. Then he would set about cutting it down quite ruthlessly. Clifford was, in fact, much more drastic in the editing of his own first drafts than any other writer I have worked with. In effect, during this process he would reduce the scene to a bare bones of the essential moves of the dramatic action. All that would be left were the key lines that triggered a shift in the story, a peripety of some kind.

The scene was still in Clifford’s handwriting. Nothing had been typed. At this stage, it was my impulse to beg him to have it typed up so we could examine it. But he always managed to frustrate me in this and tried to keep the material as flexible as possible as he began to find new problems with it. Often this was because as he improvised the situation by playing it from the point of view of one of the characters, he uncovered previously unnoticed problems related to interrelated characters. Retaining only the essentials of the scene, he would then switch points of view as he improvised the complementary reactions of another figure. Once more the scene would expand, and once more Clifford would drastically cut it down again, keeping – at each successive stage – only the essentials from the previous draft, creating a piece of writing with more and more density and sinew.

Naturally, this was a time-­consuming process. The real reason why many scripts are too long is wittily put in the apology of a correspondent who explained at the end of an extremely discursive letter: ‘I’m sorry this is such a long letter. I didn’t have time to write a short one.’ Dramatic economy, which includes the ability of the writer to cut what at one point he might have considered to be his best work ever, is one of the most important skills a writer can have, learned only through much experience, combined with a ruthless attitude and an utter lack of sentimentality. It takes effort, lots of effort. It means rewriting and rewriting and rewriting – a constant ­process of distillation. Simply put, I find that many student films are too long simply because not enough effort has been put into the hard work of making them short.

Odets’s process was his extraordinary method of building the dramatic mechanisms of a scene. It often required him to produce a number of drafts of dialogue that were progressively dismantled and then cannibalized into subsequent versions. In early drafts, the dialogue was heavily weighted in favor of one of the characters, who would be permitted lengthy and even cumbersome exposition, quite simple and one-sided explanations of attitude. These were often very near to being overt expressions of internal thought. The next stage might be Clifford’s examination of the reactions to such monologues. Much of what he had written would then have to be revised because ‘He wouldn’t be able to say that because She wouldn’t let him get away with it – She’d interrupt him by pointing out that . . .’ While working on these early drafts, Odets was well aware that he was including far too much material, that it would need to be compressed and cut down. But that was the point.

Certain things emerged during this process. A particular line of dialogue that was important or expressive of a significant idea might have to be eliminated from the speech of one of the characters. But it was sometimes possible to retain it by transferring it to one of the other characters (though not necessarily in the same scene). Implausible as a direct statement, it would work fine as an attribution in someone else’s mouth. Complex and sophisticated characters are apt to be unwilling, unable, or reluctant to explain their feelings and purposes, particularly in situations of conflict. The dramatist often finds it convenient to explain His feelings by rewriting them in the form of Her attributions of feelings and thoughts about Him. Things that He would never admit, or may not even recognize about himself, can be made explicit thanks to Her. (‘Methinks she doth protest too much’ is a convenient phrase to remember).

Odets, describing his methods of fashioning a tightly knit and dense script, offered this advice: see that each of the characters arriving in a confrontation scene comes with ammunition (as he used to remark, a character has to have ‘a back to his head and money in his pocket’). The climax of many effective plays or screenplays features a scene in which two characters, often the protagonist of the story and an antagonist, confront each other. In Hollywood jargon, this is sometimes referred to as the shoot-out, even when the weapons are purely verbal. Intelligent characters (and scenes between characters who have little intelligence are apt to be dull) usually arrive with a number of moves that have been mentally rehearsed in advance. They have thought out not only what they mean to say but also how it will probably be received.

An argument is, in this sense, like a chess or card game. The instigator, A, is likely to have a fairly clear scheme of opening moves. He will have several gambits in mind and is prepared for the countermoves these may provoke. Similarly, his opponent, B, has foreseen A’s intentions and has prepared either defensive tactics or a counterattack. Thus a confrontation scene between A and B will often begin with a number of dialogue exchanges that are an exploration of prepared positions, probing for strengths and weaknesses, while also establishing psychological bases. Tension in a scene of this kind clearly arises out of conflict, the clash of wills. The first task of the writer is therefore to be as clear as possible when it comes to the desires of each of the confronting characters. What exactly does A want? What obstacles does he expect B to raise? How does A expect to overcome these obstacles? Through what persuasion? What promise? What threat?

In this respect, once the psychological vying between characters has resulted in, perhaps, one character winning out over the other (albeit temporarily), then come the important expository surprises as certain pieces of information, perhaps unknown to one character, become, in the hands of another, an ace, a trump card. Such dynamics can produce a shift of the dramatic equilibrium, a peripety of sorts. In an intricately plotted scene, there can be more than one such trumping move. Thus it is another of the tasks of the writer to think out just these points where ignorance of some key information leaves one of the characters vulnerable, a move in which the tables can be turned by the other.

Plot moves, however, are only one of the elements in an effective confrontation scene. Indeed, a scene that rests solely on a clash over plot points is likely to be thin stuff. One sees too much of this kind of writing in television stories where characters act aggressively but have no emotional depth or variety of feelings, no potential for shifts of mood, no capacity for character growth. Thus a character who holds our interest will, during such scenes, often discover something unexpected, some contradiction within his or her own personality, an unforeseen emotional impulse.

The effect of Odets’s ideas about density created a depth and conviction to the characters of Sweet Smell of Success, greatly enhancing many scenes. As a process, it seemed to me rather like the weaving of a fabric that because of the tensions of multiple interlocking strands is supremely strong. Clifford would frequently use secondary characters in this way, establishing them as the basis for triangulation, the three-way interplay of characters. I had, as I say, noted that the original screenplay seemed to have a great many scenes that were simple dialogues, interaction between two people. Clifford’s instinct seemed always to devise patterns of three, four, and five interacting characters. One of his private pleasures was listening to chamber music, especially small string ensembles and ­quintets. Clifford admired compositions in which the voices of five instruments were thematically interwoven, yet each with a clearly identifiable melodic line contributing to the harmonic ­pattern. As such, he wanted to make certain scenes in his screenplay follow a similar pattern, where there would be a quintet of voices. There are several instances in the script of Sweet Smell of Success where I think Odets was particularly successful in doing this.

In the first story conference between Odets, myself, and the producer, Jim Hill, I presented some of the ideas I had already been working on with Ernest Lehman. I had the idea of beginning the film with a sequence I felt would set the general tone of the film: the frantic activity that surrounds the moment when the first edition of a big city newspaper hits the streets (it was finally used as background for the titles). I explained how I could use posters on the side of the delivery trucks and the masthead of the column itself to set in motion the sequence of scenes that would build slowly to the introduction of the figure of the columnist. I suggested this would be a better start than the [proposed] ambiguous scene of the suicide that introduced voice-over narration and flashback. (Privately, I have a distaste for these two things, both of which are often a sign of the failure to create scenes in which the exposition is presented in terms of present dramatic action.) I had no need to argue the point, for Odets had already been feeling much the same way. Encouraged, I also made the suggestion that we could establish the profession of Sidney (Tony Curtis’s character) visually if we could play a scene not in his home, rather in an office where the set design and incidental activity could show just how a press agent lives. Perhaps, I said, Sidney could actually have a bedroom attached to his office, something that would indicate his association with the newspaper column and the degree to which he was dependent on his job.

Odets again seized on this. Pursuing the same line, he said he had been thinking about the roles of Sidney’s mother and the brother. In Lehman’s early draft, these two characters appeared in the early scenes but were substantially absent thereafter. Useful, of course, as supporting roles to reveal the background of the protagonist, but without much connection with the rest of the action. Possibly, he thought, there were other, more interesting ways to make the same points using characters already established in the script. For example, instead of the character of the mother, Odets proposed that the character of the theatrical agent could be a relative of Sidney’s, his mother’s brother (such a person would have the right to scold Sidney in much the same fashion as the brother and the mother). [In Odets’s script, this is the character of Frank D’Angelo, who represents Steve Dallas.] The idea of the bedroom/office also prompted Odets to suggest that Sidney has a secretary, Sally, who also sleeps with him on occasion, a sad and slightly squalid relationship that was not only rich in its implications of character but that meant scenes now devoted to character exploration could be more explicitly relevant to the plot. (The early scene in Odets’s draft with Sidney and Sally in his office, where he gives a self-justifying speech, is not only an early statement of the story’s theme, thus anticipating situations in the climax of the story, it also gives a depth to Sidney’s character, as it shows us his attitude to his secretary, who he treats with such little respect. Thus the character, theme, and plot are all functioning at once in the scene).

Clifford promised to work on these ideas. Then he began to focus on the scene he felt needed the most work: the introduction, in the 21 Club, of the figure central to the whole subject, J. J. Hunsecker. Lehman’s original version contained three characters sitting at the newspaper columnist’s table, but very little use was made of them. They were merely extras to the scene, while in Odets’s version, each of the five ­characters is continuously in play throughout. For purposes of exposition, Odets had considerably expanded their parts, making them foil figures and effectively providing a compact subplot for them. Like Odets, I felt the scene was not really as powerful as it ought to be, but having no positive suggestions, I had made no complaint. Odets proceeded to give us a demonstration of the way a practiced dramaturge, a man with long experience of such difficulties, explores for ideas to solve them.

‘I don’t understand!’ he declared with force. ‘This man Hunsecker is a newspaper columnist. I know what that means. What I don’t understand is why everybody seems so terrified of him. Why?’ Jim Hill protested to Odets, ‘Oh, come on, Clifford, he’s not just any columnist. Everybody knows how he behaves.’ ‘No, they don’t,’ said Clifford. ‘Some people might know. Maybe you and I know, but most people have no idea. This is a man who treats one of his associates as if he were dirt. But Sidney just sits there and takes it. Why does he need it? Why doesn’t he just get up and walk away?’ Jim protested again: ‘He can’t walk away. It’s his living.’ ‘How?’ asked Clifford. ‘How? Because a press agent has to get his clients’ names into the paper. That’s what they pay him for. And besides that . . .’ Jim, in some exasperation, went on to elaborate on the relationship between Sidney and Hunsecker. While he was doing so, Odets scribbled notes on his memo pad, then switched his attack. ‘But why is everybody else so much in awe of this creature? He insults everybody, but nobody talks back to him. I just don’t believe in this man.’ Once more Hill insisted, ‘Don’t you understand? This guy Hunsecker is a man who can tell presidents what to do!’ Scribbling again, Clifford said more quietly, ‘Oh, sure. But where does it say that? And even if somebody says it, I don’t believe it. You’ve got to show me.’

During all of this, I made no comment, as I saw Odets’s point clearly. But what had begun to worry me was that, if he was correct (and I felt he was), then there would need to be a lot more expository talk, a lot more of the kind of verbiage I felt was already bogging down the momentum of the story. More exposition, I felt, was bound to weaken the scenes rather than strengthen them. What Clifford had been scribbling down as he talked were Jim Hill’s answers that were later worked into the dialogue of the script. Clifford was actually using Jim as a foil, or rather was playing the role of foil himself so that Jim was provoked into improvising the answers to the questions that had not been properly addressed in the first draft script. As for myself, I was indeed correct in my fear that the 21 Club scene would have to be longer and more elaborate. But Clifford’s skill meant that, as it was transformed from primarily a two-hander into a five-cornered exchange of considerable complexity, the scene became brilliantly tense.

Though I personally was often uneasy about Odets’s dialogue, I had nothing but admiration for his skill in scene construction. His adeptness in this kind of dramatic carpentry was quite extraordinary and is something we can all learn from. As I examined Clifford’s version of the scene, I realized that its strength was in the ensemble structure he had constructed. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that at any given moment each of the five characters present is involved in some way with every one of the other four. There are, in a sense, twenty-five separate interactions. This, of course, had an immediate effect on the way in which camera coverage was planned, and I had to think very carefully before it was time to rehearse and before it became my task to design the staging.

– Excerpt from ‘On Film-Making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director’ by Alexander Mackendrick, edited by Paul Cronin (Faber and Faber, 2005)


Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Herzog: In the Shadow of the Vampire

Nosferatu (Directed by Werner Herzog)
Based on F.W. Murnau’s silent classic, Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) was a dual-language production shot simultaneously in English and German starring the volatile Klaus Kinski as the vampire Count Dracula and Isabelle Adjani as Lucy Harker.

A homage to the 1922 Murnau classic and a tribute to German silent cinema, Herzog’s film is an evocative and visually striking lament on the loss of innocence as articulated by Bram Stoker’s original 1897 novel, Dracula

Herzog’s film is not a direct copy of its cinematic source, although it does offer an occasional shot-for-shot reflection. Unable to shoot in Bremen, as Murnau had in 1922, Herzog began filming instead in the Dutch town of Delft. Memories of the German occupation of the area resulted in a degree of tension between the local townspeople and the German production crew which was exacerbated by Herzog’s decision to release thousands of rats during the film’s plague sequence.

Further complicating matters, Klaus Kinski was having to undergo hours of daily make-up to capture his part as Count Dracula, while the notoriously temperamental actor was also having to cope with the personal storm surrounding the impending break up of his marriage. Despite Kinski’s personal problems and manic tendencies, Herzog recalls that Kinski was calm and contented during the production – a tribute perhaps to Herzog’s ability to channel his star’s demons into a vulnerability crucial to the part.

Avoiding traditional horror film tropes the film had a mixed reception on release. The critic David Denby, however, perceptively noted at the time that ‘the young German director has made not a conventional horror film (there are no shocks) but an anguished poem of death’. Herzog’s undead creature is a forbidding force of Nature, even as he is a manifestly destructive killer. But he is also an intensely sympathetic demon spurred on by a terrifying blood lust and the need to die even as he lacks the means to realise that end.

For Jack Kroll, ‘when the Dracula figure lurches ashore in F.W. Murnau’s classic 1922 Nosferatu, carrying his coffin filled with native earth, it was a chilling premonition of Hitler’s imperialism of death, the desire to necropolize the world. Following Murnau, Herzog’s Nosferatu mixes such resonances with a surprisingly successful attempt to humanize Dracula.’

Herzog’s spare, precise screenplay gives precedence to the film’s visuals over a more literary approach. Drawing on Stoker’s familiar narrative, the plot is revealed through action, movement and the changing lighting and emotional canvas of Herzog’s impressive cinematic design.

In an interview published in Herzog on Herzog, the director discusses the filming of Nosferatu, his working relationship with Klaus Kinski at the time, as well as the making of Woyzeck which was shot immediately afterwards:

For ‘Nosferatu’ did you go back to the original Stoker novel or did you base your own script directly on Murnau’s film?

I could probably have made a vampire film without the existence of Murnau’s film, but there is a certain reverence I tried to pay to his Nosferatu and on one or two occasions I even tried to quote him literally by matching the same shots he used in his version. I went to Lübeck where he filmed the vampire’s lair and found among the few houses there not destroyed during the war those Murnau had used. They were being used as salt warehouses, but where in 1922 there had been small bushes, I found tall trees.

The reason Murnau’s film is not called Dracula is because Bram Stoker’s estate wanted so much money for the rights, so Murnau made a few unsubtle changes to his story and retitled it. My own film was solely based on the original Nosferatu, though I knew I wanted to inject a different spirit into my film. In Murnau’s film the creature is frightening because he is without a soul and looks like an insect. But from Kinski’s vampire you get real existential anguish. I tried to ‘humanize’ him. I wanted to endow him with human suffering and solitude, with a true longing for love and, importantly, the one essential capacity of human beings: mortality. Kinski plays against his appendages, the long fingernails and the pointed ears. I feel that his vampire is actually a very erotic figure. Moreover, in the film evil does not have only negative aspects; for example, the plague scene where there is real joy.

Stoker’s novel is a kind of compilation of all the vampire stories floating around from romantic times. What is interesting is that it focuses so much on new technology; for example, the use of telegrams and early recording machines, the Edison cylinders. Like the changes society was undergoing in the nineteenth century, there may well be something similar taking place today, as for some time we have been living in the digital age. In both cases there is something of an uneasiness in society, and vampire stories always seem to accumulate in times of restlessness. The novel is strangely obsessed with these kinds of things, and in this way Stoker was quite far-sighted by somehow anticipating our era of mass communication. At its heart, the vampire story is about solitude and now, more than a century later, as we witness this explosive evolution of means of communication, Stoker’s work has a real and powerful actuality to it. His story is structured in an interesting way, using all these forms of communication to carry the story along, something which does not emerge in film versions.

While we are talking about communication, allow me to add something. It is my firm belief, and I say this as a dictum, that all these tools now at our disposal, these things part of this explosive evolution of means of communication, mean we are now heading for an era of solitude. Along with this rapid growth of forms of communication at our disposal – be it fax, phone, email, internet or whatever – human solitude will increase in direct proportion. It might sound paradoxical, but it is not. It might appear that these things remove us from our isolation, but isolation is very different from solitude. When you are caught in a snowdrift in South Dakota, fifty miles from the next town, your isolation can be overcome with a mere cellular phone. But solitude is something more existential.

There was a great deal of press at the time about the fact that you let thousands of rats loose in the town square in Delft, the town in Holland which substituted for Wismar in the film.

I was looking for a northern German or Baltic town with boats and canals and a Dutch friend of mine suggested Delft. As soon as I saw the town I was fascinated by it. Delft is so tranquil, so bourgeois, so self-assured and solid and has remained unchanged for centuries. Because of this I felt it would be the perfect place to shoot this story. The horror and destruction would show up very effectively in such a clean and uncontaminated town. I have always felt that rats possess a kind of fantasy element in that they are the only mammals whose numbers surpass those of man. The figure is something like three to one, and our fear of the creatures stem in part from this fact. Before we started shooting I explained to the city council in Delft exactly what I had in mind, and got an OK on everything. I had presented to them in great detail the technical plans we had to prevent a single rat from escaping. But many people in Delft were nervous because the town is full of canals and for decades there was a very serious rat problem which had only recently been overcome. So there was a developing feeling of unease.

Where did you get the rats from?

They were from a laboratory in Hungary and it was very difficult to transport them across Europe. At every border customs checked the medical certificates, and one time an official opened one of the boxes to check the contents and fainted. When we bought the rats they were snow white and had to be dyed grey. There was a huge factory in Germany that produced shampoo and hair dye that would test their products on rats because the texture of rat hair is very similar to that of human hair. I went to this factory along with Henning von Grierke, a painter who did the set design of the film, and Cornelius Siegel, the special-effects expert who taught at the University of Bremen. Cornelius was the guy who set the glass factory on fire in Heart of Glass and single-handedly built the clock that you see at the start of Nosferatu. We asked at the factory how we should go about dyeing 10,000 rats and they gave us the idea of dipping the wire cages for a second into the dye. Cornelius designed this massive conveyor belt for dipping, washing and drying. We had to wash them off with lukewarm water immediately and blow-dry them with a huge system of hair-dryers otherwise they would have caught pneumonia.

What we did before we released the rats in the town was to seal off every single gully, every single side street and doorway. Along the canal we fixed nets to prevent any single animal from getting into the water and even had people in boats down in the canal to collect any creatures that might have escaped. When filming in the town square we had a movable wooden wall just behind the camera, and another in an alley at the end of the street. When the signal was given, both walls moved out of their hiding places and would noisily move towards each other, trapping the rats in an increasingly narrower space so they could then be caged. Fact is, we never lost a single rat.

This was your second outing with Kinski. What was he like to work with this time?

Kinski loved the work and for pretty much the whole time on set he was happy, even though he would throw a tantrum maybe every other day. He was at ease with himself and the world at the time and loved to sit with his Japanese make-up artist Reiko Kruk for hours and hours. He would listen to Japanese music as she sculpted him every morning, putting his ears and fingernails on. We had to do the teeth and ears and shave his head every morning and just seeing him with this enormous patience was a fine sight. I would walk in and sit with him for fifteen minutes. We did not talk, we just looked at each other in the mirror and nodded at each other. He was good with the project, and he was good with himself. Though the film is close to two hours and Klaus is on screen for maybe seventeen minutes, his vampire dominates absolutely every single scene. That is the finest compliment I can give him for his performance. Everything in the film works towards these seventeen minutes. His character is constantly present because of the story and the images which intensify this sense of doom and terror and anxiety. It took fifty years to find a vampire to rival the one Murnau created, and I say that no one in the next fifty years will be able to play Nosferatu like Kinski has done. This is not a prophecy, rather an absolute certitude. I could give you fifty years and a million dollars to find someone better than Kinski and you would fail. And I think Isabelle Adjani is also quite remarkable in the film, the perfect counterpart to Kinski’s monster. Her role was an extremely difficult one: she had to be frightened of the vampire and at the same time be attracted to him, something she really managed to communicate to the audience.

Like some of your other features, there was more than one language version of ‘Nosferatu’. What language did you shoot the film in originally?

As with Aguirre, where we had people from sixteen countries on the set, English was the common language. This included Kinski and Adjani. As a filmmaker you have to make a choice, not just to make communication on set easier, but also for the sake of the international distributors, and for them English is always the preferred language. But even though the film was shot in English, we did dub a German version of the film which I have always considered the more convincing version. I do not dare to speak of the ‘better’ version. I speak of the more ‘culturally authentic’ version.

Where did you film the scene at Dracula’s castle?

Whatever you see of Transylvania was shot in former Czechoslovakia, much of it actually in Moravia at the castle of Pernstein, and in the High Tatra mountains. Originally, I had wanted to shoot in Transylvania proper, in Romania, but was not allowed to because of problems with the Ceausescu regime. I actually never received a direct refusal from the government, but got word from some friendly Romanian filmmakers who were very supportive of my wishes to shoot in the Carpathians. They advised me to leave the country immediately and not wait for permission, as it would never come as long as Ceausescu was around. Parliament had bestowed upon him the title of the new Vlad Dracul, the historical defender of Romania. The title had a contemporary meaning: Ceausescu defending the country against the Soviet Empire. It turned out these local filmmakers were right, though I had a wonderful time in Romania searching for locations, methodically travelling every path of the Carpathian mountains.

Five days after you finished shooting ‘Nosferatu’, you continued with the same crew and, of course, lead actor, and shot ‘Woyzeck’. Why did you make these films back to back?

Today Woyzeck seems like a little hiccup after Nosferatu. It took seventeen days to shoot and only five days to edit, and I would have started shooting the day after we finished Nosferatu but we had to let Kinski’s hair grow for the role. It was mainly for technical and bureaucratic reasons that we continued with the same crew on a new film. At that time in Czechoslovakia it was an endless saga to obtain shooting permits. We had ended up shooting the second half of Nosferatu in Moravia and other places in the eastern part of Slovakia, and I thought it was a good idea to just continue shooting Woyzeck but tell the authorities it was still Nosferatu we were working on. Actually we did start shooting pretty much the day after Nosferatu was completed, and I just shot around Kinski’s part.

Woyzeck (Directed by Werner Herzog)
I don’t think that Kinski has ever been better. It is a truly stunning performance.

Kinski was never an actor who would merely play a part. He would exhaust himself completely and after Nosferatu he remained deeply in the world that we had created together, something that was glaringly apparent from the first day he walked on to the set of Woyzeck. This really gave his performance a different quality and from the opening scenes of the film he seems to be so fragile and vulnerable. Look at the shot of him just after the title sequence where he is just staring into the camera. There is something not quite right with his face. It was actually swollen on one side. What happened was that when he was doing his push-ups during the title sequence the drill major kicks him to the ground. Klaus said to me, ‘He’s not doing it right, he has to really kick me. He can’t just pretend to kick me.’ The man who does the kicking is actually Walter Saxer, the man who is being screamed at by Kinski in Burden of Dreams a couple of years later. Kinski was kicked so hard into the cobblestones on the ground that his face started to swell up. I saw this and said to him, ‘Klaus, stop: do not move. Just look at me.’ He was still exhausted from doing his push-ups, but he looks with such power into the camera that it really sets up the feel of the rest of the film.

At the same time he loved playing the part so much and in many ways was very much in balance with himself during the shoot. If something would not go as I had hoped, he would say to me things like, ‘Werner, what we are doing here is important, and just striving for it will give it its appropriate size. Don’t worry, it will fall in place.’ He worked very hard on the text and, unlike so many other times, he generally knew his lines. It was truly a joy to work with him for those days, and I think back on that time with genuine fondness. And yes, he is so good in the role. He truly captured the spirit of the part; there is such a smouldering intensity to him.

This was clearly a project that had been on your mind for a while.

My film of Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck is probably my simplest connection to what is the best of my own culture, more so than Nosferatu, which was more an explicit connection to a world of cinema. Though I have always worked within German culture, making a film of Woyzeck meant to reach out to Germany’s most significant cultural history, and for this reason there is something in the film that is beyond me. It touches the very golden heights of German culture, and because of this the film sparkles. Yet all I did was reach up and touch these heights.

I had wanted to make a film of Woyzeck for some time. For me there is no greater drama in the German language. It is of such stunning actuality. There is no really good English translation of Woyzeck, nothing really completely satisfying. The drama is a fragment, and there has been a very high-calibre debate within academic circles as to which order the loose, unpaginated sheets should go in. I used an arrangement of scenes that made the most sense as a continuous story and I think most theatrical productions use this same shape.

‘Woyzeck’ is probably my favourite of your features. It is such a tremendously inventive piece of cinema, the way you filmed it in a series of long takes.

We used a series of four-minute-long shots, and so the film is essentially made up of about twenty-five cuts, plus a couple of smaller takes. It was very difficult to maintain this: no one was allowed a mistake. It is a film of such economy that I will probably never achieve again. What made the whole approach exciting is that the film space is created not by cuts and the camera’s movement but wholly by the actors, by the force of their performances and their use of the space around them. Look at the scene where Woyzeck tries to flee from the drum major: he heads directly into the lens of the camera and at the last moment is pulled back. In a shot like that Kinski creates a space far beyond that of the camera; he is showing that there is a whole world behind, around and in front of the camera. You feel he is crawling desperately towards you, even into you. So the creation of space – and how as a director I used it – became even more important than normal in Woyzeck.

I truly like filmmakers who are daring enough to show a whole sequence in one single shot. You really have to let your pants down if you are trying that. What you show on screen has to be very strong in order to hold the audience for three or four minutes. Poor filmmakers will often move the camera about unnecessarily and use flashy tricks and an excess of cuts because they know the material is not strong enough to sustain a passive camera. This kind of film-making – full of unnecessary jump cuts and things like this – gives you a phony impression that something interesting might be going on. But for me it is a clear sign that I am watching an empty film.

–  Extract from Herzog on Herzog. By Werner Herzog. Ed. Paul Cronin. (Faber, 2002).