Friday, 27 September 2013

Writing ‘Hud’: A Conversation

Hud (Directed by Martin Ritt)
The distinguished screenwriting team of Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr., first met as young writers at MGM and were married in 1946. Irving Ravetch, born in Newark, New Jersey, was an aspiring playwright, who’d attended UCLA before coming to MGM. Harriet Frank, Jr., was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, and eventually attended UCLA while her mother was working as a Hollywood story editor. After their marriage, the Ravetches worked independently for over ten years before beginning their first collaboration on Martin Ritt’s The Long Hot Summer (1958) starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. This experience initiated a remarkable series of collaborations with Martin Ritt that extended over eight films and included Hud (1963), starring Paul Newman and Patricia Neal, for which the Ravetches were nominated for an Academy Award; Hombre (1967), also with Paul Newman; Norma Rae, featuring Sally Field, for which the Ravetches received their second Oscar nomination; and Stanley and Iris (1990), starring Robert De Niro and Jane Fonda. They also wrote various scripts for other directors, including an adaptation of William Inge’s The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960), directed by Delbert Mann and starring Robert Preston and Dorothy McGuire, and an adaptation of William Faulkner’s The Reivers (1969), directed by Mark Rydell and featuring Steve McQueen.

For Hud they took a minor character from Larry McMurtry’s first novel Horseman, Pass By, and transformed him into one of the most eerily compelling characters in motion picture history. The Ravetches’ uniquely close relation with the film’s director Martin Ritt, and also with its leading actor, Paul Newman, led to a devastating cinematic character study of evil and self-absorption.

– The following extract is from a conversation with William Baer in which Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. discuss their screenwriting collaboration, working with Martin Ritt and the depiction of evil in Hud:

BAER: After the success of ‘The Long Hot Summer’ (1958), you wrote your second film for Martin Ritt, an adaptation of Faulkner’s ‘The Sound and the Fury’ (1959). Then you wrote screenplays for Vincente Minnelli (‘Home from the Hill’, 1960) and Delbert Mann (‘The Dark at the Top of the Stairs’, 1960). How did you come upon the source material for your next film, Larry McMurtry’s first novel, ‘Horseman, Pass By’?

RAVETCH: I found the book in a bookstore, took it home, and read it. Then I asked Harriet to read it.

FRANK: It’s a beautifully written book. McMurtry was very young at the time, and it was clear that he was a very gifted writer.

RAVETCH: And since we’d enjoyed working with Marty and Paul so much, we wanted to do it again, and we thought the book could be adapted in such a way as to create a leading role for Paul. So we acquired the rights to the book.

BAER: Before we get to the specifics about writing ‘Hud’, I’d like to ask you about your approach to literary adaptation and literary collaboration. First, let’s talk about adaptation. In the past, you’ve referred to your scripts based on other literary sources as being more like ‘hybrids’ than adaptations.

RAVETCH: Yes, very much so. The Long Hot Summer, for example, was probably 95 percent ours and only 5 percent Faulkner. The Hamlet’s a marvelous book—brilliant and hysterical—and Faulkner’s Barn Burning is one of the great American short stories, but in actually writing the film, we basically took one of the characters from the novel, altered him drastically, and then created a new story around him. On the other hand, The Reivers, which we did many years later, is almost entirely from the book. It’s 100 percent Faulkner because we found it readily adaptable to film. So our approach to adaptations, whether it be Faulkner or someone else, really runs the gamut because it’s always crucial to focus on what’s best for the film.

BAER: Faulkner, who was a screenwriter himself, seemed to understand that approach since he called ‘The Long Hot Summer’ a ‘charmin’ little movie.’

RAVETCH: Well, I’m glad to hear that. Faulkner is absolutely our favorite novelist of all American novelists, and we always worried that he might have hated what we did in The Long Hot Summer.

FRANK: Faulkner’s definitely America’s glorious writer, but you’re right. He knew all about screen adaptation. He’d worked with Howard Hawks, and he worked on the screen adaptation of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, so he knew from personal experience that film and fiction are two very different mediums.

BAER: So how do you collaborate? How do you actually go about creating a script together?

FRANK: First, we talk out an outline, and since we want to stay married, we talk it out very amiably. At that point, we’re not laying out an absolute chapter-and-verse for every single moment in the screenplay; we’re, instead, creating large blocks of organization, so we can visualize the line of the story, and get ready to go. We usually start with a one-page outline listing about thirty-five to forty-five major scenes.

BAER: Irving once said that ‘The script is not so much written as it’s talked onto the page.’

FRANK: That’s right. That’s how we do it. Once we’re ready to begin, we start ‘talking’ the screenplay to each other. Out loud. It’s a line-for- line conversation. In truth, we get so involved that we can’t even tell who starts a line or who finishes it. It’s a very animated, running conversation where we act out the lines – Irving’s a very good actor and I’m not! – along with a running commentary like, ‘That’s good,’ or ‘That’s lousy,’ or ‘Why not try this?’

RAVETCH: And there’s no ego involved. None. Over the years, we’ve heard about a number of other collaborators who do a lot of screaming at each other, but we never raise our voices.

FRANK: We want to stay married!

RAVETCH: Yes, but as conscientious writers, we can’t let our egos get in the way; otherwise, it will start to interfere with the work and ruin it.

FRANK: And from many years of experience, I can tell you that Irving is never a man of ego. He’s never aggressively critical, although, if he hates something, he’s very honest and plainspoken. So we have none of that push-me-pull-me business. We work things out amicably, and we don’t waste time arguing.

RAVETCH: Who was that married couple at Metro who collaborated on so many scripts? They did The Thin Man and It’s a Wonderful Life.

FRANK: Hackett and Goodrich.

RAVETCH: Yes, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Apparently, they also had a seamless and unegotistical collaboration.

BAER: So who types the script?

RAVETCH: I do. I sit at the typewriter, and Hank paces around. We always work in the mornings, nine to one, five days a week. Usually, we’d get about three pages done each day, and those pages are finished pages. We’d polish them as we go, over and over again, doing our revising as we proceed. So when we’re finished, we’re really finished. We very seldom do any revising.

BAER: How long does a script usually take?

FRANK: About ten weeks.

BAER: Now the McMurtry project, which was eventually titled ‘Hud’, was the first film in a three-picture deal for the newly-formed Salem Pictures, which was established by Martin Ritt and Paul Newman in agreement with Paramount and Columbia. Were you partners in Salem Pictures?

RAVETCH: No, we weren’t.

BAER: But Irving was listed as a producer on the film?

RAVETCH: Well, you know that Hollywood is always pretty loose with the term ‘producer.’ All I did was find the source material.

BAER: But I think you’re being too modest. The whole idea for the picture came from the both of you. Weren’t you involved in the casting?

RAVETCH: Yes, Marty always kept us with him, from the beginning to the end.

FRANK: Yes, he truly embraced us as collaborators. It was a very unusual relationship. Just glorious!

BAER: Let’s talk about that relationship.

RAVETCH: We made eight films with Marty Ritt, and on every single one of those pictures, we were with Marty from the pre-production and casting to the final advertising campaign. We were also on the set every single day, and he invited us to the rushes every single morning. It was a true collaboration, and we always had a marvelous time. Marty Ritt was an extraordinary man in many ways, and unlike most directors, he never insisted on a vanity credit.

FRANK: That’s right, Marty’s films never opened with the credit, ‘Film by Martin Ritt.’ Never. He was a class act, and he was never concerned with ego.

RAVETCH: And he was always willing to try something new, something ‘difficult.’

BAER: Well, ‘Hud’ was certainly a unique picture in many ways, but, most significantly, it dared to portray a central character who was a ‘pure bastard’ – and who remained totally unredeemed and unrepentant at the end of the picture.

RAVETCH: Yes, we sensed a change in American society back then. We felt that the country was gradually moving into a kind of self-absorption, and indulgence, and greed – which, of course, fully blossomed in the eighties and the nineties. So, we made Hud a greedy, self-absorbed man, who ruthlessly strives for things, and gains a lot materially, but really loses everything that’s important. But he doesn’t care. He’s still unrepentant.

FRANK: In our society, there’s always been a fascination with the ‘charming’ villain, and we wanted to say that if something’s corrupt, it’s still corrupt, no matter how charming it might seem – even if it’s Paul Newman with his beautiful blue eyes. But things didn’t work out like we planned.

BAER: It actually backfired.

RAVETCH: Yes, it did, and it was a terrible shock to all of us. Here’s a man – Hud – who tries to rape his housekeeper, who wants to sell his neighbors’ poisoned cattle, and who stops at nothing to take control of his father’s property. And all the time, he’s completely unrepentant. Then, at the first screenings, the preview cards asked the audiences, ‘Which character did you most admire?’ and many of them answered, ‘Hud.’ We were completely astonished. Obviously, audiences loved Hud, and it sent us into a tailspin. The whole point of all our work on that picture was apparently undone because Paul was so charismatic.

BAER: Paul Newman actually took much of the blame on himself, feeling that he’d portrayed Hud as far too vital and appealing and charming. But Martin Ritt disagreed, saying that the film clearly revealed Hud for exactly what he was, and denying that any of the film’s creators could have possibly anticipated the rising cynicism of the baby-boom generation. How do you feel about that?

RAVETCH: I think they were both right, and both innocent. We could have never anticipated the reaction of those audiences, especially the young people, and if we had known beforehand, we would have definitely done things differently.

BAER: That was a time when young people were looking for rebels to emulate.

FRANK: That’s right.

RAVETCH: That’s true, but Hud’s more than just a bit rebellious. He’s truly villainous. But, of course, that’s the way things have gone in our society. In many movies today, there’s a stream of endless violence and murder and high-tech fireballs, and the young audiences are eagerly clapping, and laughing, and banging their feet. They love it. So what have we created? What kind of society is that? Back in the early sixties, we knew something was in the air, but we never could have anticipated what’s come to pass.

BAER: In McMurtry’s novel, Hud’s a minor and infrequently seen character, so one of the key changes in the script is the expansion of Hud’s role. Was that alteration made to accommodate Paul Newman?

RAVETCH: Yes, we were specifically trying to create material that would interest both Paul and Marty. So we enlarged the character of Hud and wrote the part with Paul in mind.

BAER: Many critics have drawn comparisons between ‘Hud’ and ‘Shane’ since, in both films, a young boy is attracted to a charismatic man. Shane, of course, despite his past, is an admirable western hero, but Hud is not, and young Lon must decide whether he will be lured into the immoral but seemingly exciting lifestyle of Hud, or whether he’ll eventually side with his grandfather, Homer Bannon, a man of high integrity and old-fashioned values. Was it a complete coincidence that the role of Lon was played by Brandon de Wilde, who’d also played the part of Joey Starrett, the young boy in ‘Shane’?

RAVETCH: I never thought about that before.

FRANK: I don’t think it ever crossed our minds.

RAVETCH: I can certainly see that there’s lots of parallels in the two stories, but the casting of Brandon in Hud was just a coincidence. He was the only young actor we could find who we felt was right for the part...

BAER: Alma’s an excellent counterpart to Hud, who, as his father clearly states, is an ‘unprincipled man.’ But in the novel, Hud’s even worse, and I’d like to ask you about two important changes that you made in the script. The first is the fact that in the novel, Hud actually rapes Halmea, whereas in the script his assault on Alma is thwarted by Lon’s intervention.

RAVETCH: Well, the change highlights Lon’s significance in the film, and it also helps to keep Hud human. We didn’t want to create a character who was totally and simplistically evil, so Lon’s intervention prevents the drunken Hud from going too far.

FRANK: Also, in the film, Alma’s definitely attracted to Hud. There’s a real chemistry between them – there’s clearly something in the air – and the two of them are playing a very sophisticated, sexual ‘card game.’ But when Hud gets drunk, he ruins everything, and his attempted rape both insults and violates Alma, and she decides to leave. But up to that point, things might have worked out if Hud hadn’t been so crude and vile. At the bus station, Alma clearly admits it, saying, ‘You want to know something funny? It would have happened eventually without the roughhouse,’ and Hud’s final comment to the departing Alma is: ‘I’ll remember you, honey. You’re the one that got away.’ So thwarting the rape in the film allowed for much more subtlety in their relationship.

BAER: Similarly, at the end of the novel, Hud actually shoots his wounded father-in-law, claiming it to be a mercy killing, and he ends up indicted for ‘murder without malice’ – although he expects to get a suspended sentence. In the script, however, Hud doesn’t kill his father, who dies of his injuries and a broken will.

RAVETCH: That’s another attempt to humanize Hud, so he wouldn’t be one-dimensionally evil. In that scene at the end, with his father dying in his lap, there’s a subtle sense of unspoken grief. Hud’s a villain, but he’s a villain with seeds of something worth preserving.

FRANK: What? Leave the room! We’ll have none of that, Mr. Ravetch!

RAVETCH: But he’s human; he’s not all dark.

FRANK: We can discuss that tomorrow morning in divorce court!

RAVETCH: But in that crucial scene with Lon and his dying father, Hud tries in some way – a very laconic way – to give the young boy some kind of consolation. There’s something decent going on.

FRANK: But not nearly enough. There’s something in the American psyche that’s sadly attracted to the dangerous, the flamboyant, and the immoral. And that’s exactly what we were trying to show in that film.

RAVETCH: Well, now you can see how we collaborate!

FRANK: Yes-no, yes-no, back-and-forth.

BAER: Let’s try another important topic. One of the most famous scenes in the film is the killing of Homer’s herd of cattle to prevent the spread of hoof-and-mouth disease. The scene is expertly directed by Martin Ritt and powerfully shot by James Wong Howe. A number of critics have suggested that the scene, in some way, recalls the terrible human genocides of the twentieth century. Was that on your minds when you were writing the scene?

RAVETCH: Yes, we certainly had that in mind when we were writing that scene.

FRANK: Yes, the undertone was clearly intended.

RAVETCH: Definitely...

BAER: Let’s talk about the end of the script. Just like in the novel, young Lon leaves the ranch to get away from Hud, and he hitches a ride with a trucker who recalls Lon’s grandfather, Homer, and refers to him as the ‘old gentleman.’ But this scene was eventually cut from the movie. Do you know why?

RAVETCH: It was too much of a dying fall. Marty always had a gutsy, muscular attack on life in general – and, in his films, he would always opt for the punchiest moments he could get. And it definitely seemed more dramatic to end the film with Hud shutting the door and making his ‘The hell with you’ gesture.

BAER: Was the script ending ever shot?

RAVETCH: No, Marty was satisfied with closing on Paul, and so were we.

BAER: Let’s talk some more about that final scene. The film ends with Hud completely alone on the deserted ranch. He goes into the empty house, gets a beer, and comes back to the screen door. Then he looks out, as if wondering if he should go after Lon, but then he shrugs, makes a dismissive hand gesture – as if to say, ‘the hell with it’ – and shuts the door. It’s a very powerful ending – reminiscent of the Greek tragedies and so many of Faulkner’s novels – illustrating the fall of a once-great household. Did you think about that larger theme as you were writing the script?

RAVETCH: Not specifically, although it’s clear that the film is about the fall of Homer Bannon and everything he’d built and stood for. But in writing the very end of the film, we relied more on a gut instinct that that’s exactly how Hud would have reacted under those circumstances. He’d be consistent. He’d be Hud. It’s an odd movie in a way because Lon is the central character in that he’s the one who has to make the crucial choice, but Hud’s also the main character since he’s always at the center of everything. So Marty decided – we all did, in fact – to end the film with Hud...

– William Baer: Hud: A Conversation with Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. Michigan Quarterly Review vol. XLII, no. 2, Spring 2003. For the full article see here


Monday, 16 September 2013

Robert Towne: Remembering Chinatown

Chinatown (Directed by Roman Polanski)
While evoking the classic detective genre, ‘Chinatown’ also distorts it, setting up another line of expectation. Unlike the classic detective whose failure to fit into the domestic world is presented as heroic, Gittes is portrayed as somewhat incomplete. We sense a sorrow under his glibness and a loss we will later learn is connected with Chinatown. Unlike the classic detective whose life, not his emotions, turns on the working out of the plot, Gittes’s whole personality is threatened by his growing involvement with Mrs. Mulwray. We don’t expect him to be sitting calmly at his desk the day after Mrs. Mulwray is shot, waiting for whoever comes over the transom, the way we do with Sam Spade at the end of ‘The Maltese Falcon’. At the end of ‘Chinatown’, we believe Gittes is emotionally destroyed. 
‘Chinatown’ evokes not only the detective genre, but also the restorative three-act genre in which a character’s vulnerability is exposed, addressed, and then overcome. This double expectation of triumph – justice will be done by the detective and he will overcome his vulnerability – is turned topsy-turvy when the criminal, Noah Cross, defeats the detective by getting away with his crimes, and Mrs. Mulwray, the only person to have touched Gittes since his last fling in Chinatown, is shot. The story gains its power precisely because of the extent to which it invites us to believe that our expectation of a happy ending will triumph over a darker reality. When our expectations are not met, the darker reality seems all that much more oppressive because it has penetrated the apparently safe frame of the story.
 – Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush: Alternative Scriptwriting: Successfully Breaking the Rules.

Often cited as a ‘perfect’ script in terms of its structure, characters and dialogue, Chinatown is now out on DVD in a new special collectors’ edition. Screenwriter Robert Towne was nearly 40 and Chinatown his first produced original screenplay, his previous efforts having been literary adaptations such as 1973’s The Last Detail. Robert Towne recently spoke to Alex Simon of The Hollywood Interview about his discovery of Los Angeles’ hidden past, the novels of Raymond Chandler and 
how his reworking of the classic detective story was created:

Let’s start at the beginning. How was ‘Chinatown’ born?

Robert Towne: There are so many moments that contributed to the ultimate birth, if you want to call it that, of Chinatown, but it had its origins in the fact that the script of The Last Detail was having trouble getting made because of the (profanity) in it. There was kind of a counter-reformation going on in Hollywood at that time. Richard Hefner was head of the ratings board, and I guess they had the feeling movies had gone too far, too fast with this newfound freedom we suddenly had. There was a hilarious moment with (Columbia Pictures Chairman) David Begelman where he asked ‘Bob, would 20 ‘motherfuckers’ be more dramatic than 40 ‘motherfuckers’?’ To which I responded ‘Yes David, but the swearing is not used for dramatic emphasis. It’s used to underline the impotence of these men who will do nothing but swear even though they know they’re doing something unjust by taking this poor, neurotic little kid to jail for eight years for stealing 40 bucks.’ So I felt sort of hamstrung. Then I saw a copy of Old West Magazine that was part of the L.A. Times, this was about 1969. In it, was an article called ‘Raymond Chandler’s L.A.’ I don’t remember the copy that well, but the part that got me were about half a dozen photographs taken in 1969 meant to represent L.A. in the ‘30s. There was a shot of a Plymouth convertible under one of those old streetlamps outside of Bullock’s Wilshire. There was a shot of a beautiful Packard outside of a home in Pasadena. There was another shot of the old railway station downtown. I looked at them, and realized ‘My God, with a selective eye, you could recreate the L.A. of the ‘30s.’ Then owing to a number of other experiences – walking on the Palisades and things like that which brought back a lot via sense memory, I began to realize and reflect upon how much I felt had been lost about the city in the intervening 30-35 years. ’37 was just beyond my recall, but the ‘40s weren’t, and pre-1945 they were basically the same thing. So I thought about that, and then, since we were stuck in limbo on The Last Detail, I went to Jack (Nicholson) and said ‘What if I wrote a detective story set in L.A. of the ‘30s?’ He said ‘Great.’ The one feeling I had was a desire to try and recreate the city. But that was just the beginning. Then owing to a building project near where I lived, I got a chance to see the corruption of city hall first-hand, which is where that element of the plot got into Chinatown. I then had to go to Oregon where Jack was filming Drive, He Said. I hadn’t really read Raymond Chandler at that point, so I started reading Chandler. While I was there at University of Oregon, I checked out a book from the library called ‘Southern California Country: Island on the Land.’ In it was a chapter called ‘Water, water, water,’ which was a revelation to me. And I thought ‘Why not do a picture about a crime that’s right out in front of everybody. Instead of a jewel-encrusted falcon, make it something as prevalent as water faucets, and make a conspiracy out of that. And after reading about what they were doing, dumping water and starving the farmers out of their land, I realized the visual and dramatic possibilities were enormous. So that was really the beginning of it.

When you wrote it initially, you did so specifically for Nicholson to play Gittes, and Jane Fonda to play Evelyn Mulwray?

Well with Jack, yes, I wrote the part for him, in his voice, so to speak. We'd been close friends for a long time. But with the part of Evelyn, there were several actresses at the top of the list, and Jane was one of them. But Jack was Gittes. I could not have written that character without knowing Jack. We had been roommates, and we’d studied acting with Jeff Corey for years, so he was, in a very real sense, a collaborator. 

The actual writing of the script was very difficult for you. The first draft took you nine months?

Oh yeah, that was due to a combination of things. I had to get out of my house. I was having domestic difficulties, so I took myself and my dog over to Catalina, and worked at The Isthmus for several months, then was reduced to finding places around the city: Curtis Hanson loaned me an apartment… but just moving around wasn’t the sole problem. It was also that the writing of it was just tough: writing scenario, after scenario, after scenario was just so complicated that after a certain point, I thought I’d never get through it.

The first draft ran 180 pages?

I think so. 178, maybe. Not that bad, actually. I mean, the final draft was 140-something.

In the final draft that you published, there were lots of snippets of little scenes that, if there were actually filmed, were cut from the final film.

I think they were filmed, yes, and it’s a shame that they destroyed them, but most of them weren’t bad.

The one ‘lost scene’ that really sticks out in my mind is when Gittes is flying to Catalina, and the pilot gives him all this backstory on Evelyn and the Cross family.

Yeah, I miss that one, too.

That’s another thing about the film that has always made it stand out: you populated it with all these great little throwaway characters that are so memorable, even if they have just one or two lines. This, coupled with the casting that Polanski and the casting director pulled off, with actors who all had such great faces…

Well, those secondary characters were, I think, effective because they all had detailed backstories, some of which actually came out briefly in the movie, like when Gittes is talking to Mulvihill outside the elevators, and Gittes asks ‘What are you doing here?’ Mulvihill answers ‘They shut my water off, what’s it to you?’ And we learn that he’d been a rum runner when he was Sheriff of Ventura County. Escobar also had a very lengthy backstory, that he’d lost family in the Owens Valley dam disaster, and wasn’t too sorry to see Hollis Mulwray go.

It was also an interesting choice you made to have a Mexican police lieutenant, because in 1937, I’m sure Escobar would have been one of the first.

Yeah, probably and again, that was a deliberate choice.

And Perry Lopez, what a terrific actor.

He was very good, wasn’t he? He passed away last year. His health was failing for a while. I think he had lung cancer. It was a real shame. But part of writing those backstories for all the characters, they were very detailed, and that also contributed to how much time it took to write the script.

I also loved Wally, the mortician. Again, he only has one scene, but his character stays with you.

Yeah, that was a guy named Charles Knapp. Terrific character actor.

Even the players who didn’t have any dialogue, like when Gittes turns to his right during the city council meeting and sees those two old farmers in the audience whose faces looked right out of a Matthew Brady photo from the 19th century.

Roman is a very meticulous filmmaker and really took his time when it came to the casting, down to the smallest roles.

Let’s talk about the look of the film. You had the best in the business in charge of production design and costumes: Richard and Anthea Sylbert.

Yeah, all those fine details were very important to us. They were old friends, too. Really, we all knew each other on the film pretty well.

That’s another interesting detail. You were all part of the same social circle, so much so that you named a lot of the characters after friends: Gittes, Mulvihill…

Well, Gittes was named after my friend (producer) Harry Gittes, but Muvihill wasn’t named after my friend Charles Mulvihill, which is an understandable conclusion you would have. He was named after a real estate broker that had worked with my father. I liked the name. There was another one, an old-time salesman my father knew, called Bagby. He became the character of Mayor Bagby.

Another interesting thing is that when you initially showed the script to both Evans and Polanski, they couldn’t make head or tails of it.

Yeah, that was truer of Evans than Polanski. Roman picked the first two drafts apart so we could start rewriting it. While Roman was still in Europe, I did a second draft, and those two drafts were the drafts off of which we worked to create the shooting script, which was the third draft.

And how long did that third draft take?

We spent nearly every day together for about six weeks. I brought my dog, Hira, with me to a lot of our initial meetings. Hira would go lie on Roman’s feet, which would drive him crazy, and finally he said ‘That’s enough of that dog!’ (laughs)

What was Polanski’s creative process like, and what elements did he bring to the story? I know the biggest bone of contention the two of you had was about the film’s ending.

Yeah, but in the end, that was such a small part of our daily working relationship, and it only came up at the end. We didn’t spend a lot of time on it, to be honest. Roman said ‘I want it written this way,’ and I responded ‘I think it would be very bad if I wrote it that way.’ He said ‘Well, try it anyway.’ So I did, and brought it back to him and said ‘See, it’s so melodramatic.’ Roman said ‘No, it’s perfect.’ We said more about it, but not much. That was that. We sat down, and I don’t remember what draft, probably the first because there were things about the first draft that were much better than the second, although there were individual scenes in the second draft that may have been used. So we sat down, and we wrote a one-sentence description of each of the scenes that we were working on. We then pasted those onto the door of the room where we were working, and we just moved these little strips of paper up and down, readjusting the structure, to see where there were holes, adding scenes, and that’s how we worked on it. And what changes were made in the dialogue were made as I wrote. Roman, with rare exception, did not have any difficulty with the dialogue.

That was always one of your strengths though, as a dialogue man.

Yeah, I mean I guess you’d have to say that. The structure was extremely difficult, though, as it would have been for anybody.

But what resulted from all that work was that the screenplay for ‘Chinatown’ is now regarded by most film and film writing scholars as the paradigm for the perfect screenplay, in terms of its structure.

Well, I don’t have to tell you that we weren’t trying to write a screenplay that was perfectly-structured. We were just trying to make it make sense. I remember, even without Roman, the first structural question, which may seem absurd now after the fact, was the question of which revelation comes first, the incest or the water scandal? And of course, it was the water scandal. When I realized that, I realized how foolish it was even to have asked the question. But the water scandal was the plot, essentially, and the subplot was the incest. That was the underbelly, and the two were intimately connected, literally and metaphorically: raping the future and raping the land. So it was a really good plot/subplot with a really strong connection. In the first draft, as I recall, it was pretty much a single point-of-view. And in the second draft I tried changing that for purposes of clarification and I think in the end, that’s what made the second draft weaker than the first draft. It’s one of the very, very few detective movies, including The Maltese Falcon, which has a singular point-of-view.

But in detective fiction, almost all of it is written from a singular point-of-view.

Yeah but remember, I hadn’t read much detective fiction up to that point. I had to take it upon myself to read Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. But of the two, I think Chandler was the more influential, probably because his stories were set in L.A.

Chandler was one of the great 20th century writers.

Oh yeah, he was a wonderful prose stylist. He was very useful to me in one sense in that Gittes is the sort of opposite of (Philip) Marlowe: the tarnished knight who wouldn’t do divorce work, who didn’t really care about his physical appearance. Where Gittes was more than something of a dandy, a clotheshorse, absolutely vain, and Jack playing him that way was half-kidding. Jack was a great-looking kid, but he wasn’t considered a leading man until he did Chinatown.

But the great thing about the ‘70s was that you had guys that weren’t pretty, who were just good-looking the way normal people are good-looking, being cast as leading men.

Yeah, that’s true. Jack would actually joke about his looks. He’d say ‘I have perfect tear drop nostrils,’ (laughs) shit like that. He was kidding, but that aspect of his character certainly found its way into Gittes.

The other thing that struck me, especially with this new high-def transfer used on the DVD, was what a perfect profile Nicholson had then. It would have made the Barrymores jealous.

He had a great profile.

He was all right angles, as a young man.

Yeah, he was a great looking kid.

Let’s talk about some more of the casting. I know she won the Oscar for ‘Network’, but I think this remains Faye Dunaway’s best work. She had such a haunting look in the film, almost as though her face was a death mask, showing that she was dead inside.

Yes, you know almost as soon as you see her that she’s damaged goods, you just don’t know how. She evokes mystery, but doesn’t tip it off.

Another detective story cliché which you turned on its head is that the woman is always the Black Widow, whereas in Chinatown, she turns out to be the victim.

Yes, just as in many ways, Gittes is also the opposite of the hardboiled detective. He’s cynical, but with his own kind of idealistic streak.

Tell us about John Huston, whose Noah Cross is one of the great screen villains of all-time.

John and that performance are absolutely central to that movie. His weight, his sort of patina of grandfatherly charm is a perfect receptacle, if you will, for the evil that is at the heart of Chinatown.

This is what makes him so dangerous: his charm. He’s not like Darth Vader or even someone like Gordon Gekko, both of whom are clearly evil from the get-go. It’s like the old saying ‘When the devil comes at you, it will be with a smile, not with a sneer.’

Yes, exactly. And the story never could have succeeded without John Huston playing that character as you described.

And his mispronunciation of Gittes as ‘Gits’ was an honest mistake that Huston made?

Yes, that’s right. That came out on the set, and then Roman kept it in. That was Roman as much as it was Huston. It’s a great touch: he’s so rich, he doesn’t give a shit if he gets your name right or not.
(laughs) Yes, and you never knew whether he was doing it out of carelessness or perversity. That’s the point.

Did you get to know Huston at all during the shoot?

A little bit.

What was your involvement in the actual filming once you turned in the final draft?

Not much. I would watch the dailies every day, but I stayed off the set.

You mentioned when we spoke before that everyone was expecting the film to be a disaster.

Initially, the shooting of it was going badly with Roman’s first cameraman, Stanley Cortez, and he replaced Cortez with John Alonzo, which was very fortunate. It just seemed that it was one series of difficulties after the other, and we didn’t know how it was going to hang together. Then, the score that we had written for the film (by Phillip Lambro) was an abomination, and we had to bring in Jerry Goldsmith at the last minute, who did that amazing score that’s on the film now, which is also part of what makes the film work so beautifully.

I wonder if that original score is what plays on the trailer? Because it sure isn’t the Goldsmith score.

It’s possible, but I’m not sure. I don’t remember the music from the trailer.

And Goldsmith did the score in six days?

No, no. Ten. (laughs) There was no time at all, and Evans and I were on the scoring stage while Jerry was doing it. Roman was actually in Italy, directing an opera.

Did Polanski involve you in the casting process?

Oh yeah, and I was thrilled with the choice of Huston. Actually, there was a point where we were hoping to get (director) Bill Wellman for Mulwray, but I think he died shortly before we started pre-production (Wellman died in December, 1975). He was an amazing man, Wellman. I never got to meet him, although I did sit next to him at a screening once.

When did you realize that not only was ‘Chinatown’ not a disaster, but something very special?

The first time I saw the completed film was at a screening for Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. The score was there, the print was there and I felt, when the lights went up, ‘Well, maybe it’s not a complete disaster.’ (laughs) The first inkling I had was when The Reporter critic ran up to me and started gushing about the film, and I thought ‘Well, that’s nice. It’s probably an aberrant reaction, but I’ll take it.’ (laughs) Then the reviews came out, and… you know the rest.

‘Chinatown’ was nominated for 11 Oscars and you were the sole winner of the group. Not bad for your first produced original screenplay.

No, that was nice. That was very nice.

So what was it like for you when, finally, you made the transition from being struggling writer to being one of the top dogs in town?

It happened so fast, almost overnight. One minute I was broke, and then these three movies got produced back-to-back, almost simultaneously. Then within a year, all three were released.

Did it take some time to process that new position?

No, not really. My main feeling was a tremendous sense of relief. There I was 37, 38 years-old and feeling like a failure with nothing produced, other than having a position as sort of a subterranean character who’d done some uncredited work on Bonnie & Clyde and The Godfather. I’d done a re-write of The New Centurions, but took my name off it. It was just a sense of relief that I’d finally had a body of work produced that I was proud of before I was 40. I remember talking to my dad, who was always very worried about me, and saying ‘Dad, I finally have a place in this business,’ and it happened before I was 40, and it didn’t look like there was a snowball’s chance in hell that was going to happen a year earlier. Above all, I was relieved for my dad, that he knew his son was going to be okay.

Your dad was in the apparel business, right?

Yeah, he owned a store that sold ladies’ apparel, and then went into the real estate business, and my familiarity with the real estate business as a result of his profession, actually found its way into Chinatown.

Let’s talk about some of the real-life counterparts to the characters in the film. I know that Hollis Mulwray is based, loosely, on William Mulholland.

Yeah, very loosely. With Noah Cross, I’m not sure who he was based on. I was probably thinking of the Chandler family and Harrison Gray Otis, people like that. He’s one of those guys that was a member of the Tuna Club and the California Club. The old saying was that the Tuna Club ran L.A., and that’s what the Albacore Club was based on, in the movie. They ran the city, like an oligarchy.

You once described the Mulwrays as ‘California Yankees.’

Yes, it’s a very particular subculture that exists here. A kind of casual elitism, I guess you’d say. It doesn’t have the intellectual bent that you’d find in a place like the Harvard Club in New York, or similar places.

How do you feel Chinatown holds up 35 years later?

Well, I like it a lot more now than I did 35 years ago (laughs), that’s for sure. I think it’s a good film.

Could ‘Chinatown’ be made today?

No. It would cost too much money, and no major studio would want to deal with a story of that complexity.

At least one of the advantages you had was that your producer, Robert Evans, was the studio’s head of production, and he stayed out of the way.

Yeah, it would have been tough even then without Evans, that’s true, maybe even impossible. I think (then-President of Paramount Pictures) Frank Yablans always thought it was a fucked-up project. I think they were all very pleasantly surprised at the success of it, though.

This was originally planned as part of a trilogy, with ‘The Two Jakes’ being the second part, and ‘Cloverleaf’ being the third.

No, I don’t know where the title Cloverleaf came from. It was actually supposed to be Gittes vs. Gittes, took place in 1968, and was about the era when no-fault divorce became legal in California.

Is there any chance this will ever see the light of day?

No, I would have to say no chance. I mean, anything is possible, but I doubt it.

Another thing struck me: your social circle made this film, made ‘The Last Detail’, made ‘Shampoo’, and that’s something you don’t see much anymore.

I don’t know. What about Judd Apatow and his group?

I don’t know them, so I can’t speak with any real authority, but I get the sense that all those younger guys he works with have more a student-teacher relationship with him. You, Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, Polanski, Hal Ashby, you were all contemporaries, all equals, all collaborators, and after you were done shooting for the day, you’d have dinner together. Has Hollywood changed that much socially since then?

Well, I can’t really answer that. We were all friends, and collaborators, that’s true. The guys hung out more than the girls did. Our wives and girlfriends really weren’t part of the equation at that time.

Brian De Palma made an interesting comment once about his group that hung out in the Malibu Colony during the ‘70s: him, Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Margot Kidder, that once the era of the blockbuster started after the mid-70s, and people began making astronomical amounts of money, as opposed to just making a comfortable living, that’s when the fractures started, in terms of their relationships with each other.

That’s quite possibly true. I think the promise of making money split a lot of us up.

Who’ve you remained friendly with over the years?

You mean those of us who are still alive? (laughs) Well, I don’t see him much, but I’m friendly with Jack, very friendly with Warren (Beatty).

Do you talk to Polanski at all? 

Oh yeah, we’re still very friendly. I forgot to mention him. I’ve managed to see him once a year or every couple years when I go to Europe.

Any comment on his current situation?

No, I’m sure you know how I feel about it. I love Roman. I have an enormous respect and affection for him. I’ll tell you my favorite story about Roman: when we started working on the re-write of Chinatown, Roman presented me with a book, a gift, called How to Write a Screenplay. He inscribed it ‘To my dear partner, with fond hope.’ (laughs)

– Alex Simon: Forget it Bob, it’s Chinatown. Robert Towne looks back on Chinatown’s 35th anniversary. For the original article please check out Alex Simon and Terry Keefe’s great collection of interviews at


Saturday, 7 September 2013

Scorsese: Goodfellas, Gangsters and Guilt

Goodfellas (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
Goodfellas is about guilt more than anything else. But it is not a straightforward morality play, in which good is established and guilt is the appropriate reaction toward evil. No, the hero of this film feels guilty for not upholding the Mafia code – guilty of the sin of betrayal. And his punishment is banishment, into the witness protection program, where nobody has a name and the headwaiter certainly doesn't know it. What finally got to me after seeing this film – what makes it a great film – is that I understood Henry Hill's feelings. Just as his wife Karen grew so completely absorbed by the Mafia inner life that its values became her own, so did the film weave a seductive spell. It is almost possible to think, sometimes, of the characters as really being good fellows. Their camaraderie is so strong, their loyalty so unquestioned. But the laughter is strained and forced at times, and sometimes it's an effort to enjoy the party, and eventually, the whole mythology comes crashing down, and then the guilt – the real guilt, the guilt a Catholic like Scorsese understands intimately – is not that they did sinful things, but that they want to do them again. – Roger Ebert
In the following extract from Richard Schickel’s Conversations with Scorsese, director Martin Scorsese discusses guilt, celebrity and the gangster in his great movie of mob life Goodfellas:

RICHARD SCHICKEL: Your next full-length feature after ‘Last Temptation’ was ‘Goodfellas’ in 1990, which I suppose with ‘Raging Bull’ is one of my two favorite movies of yours. Perhaps part of my feeling for that is based on the fact that most of us share a sort of love for gangsters as outsiders, or rebels. I mean, we always sort of sympathize with the gangster Jim Cagney, or people like him. They seem to have such a nice, rich life: lovely meals they’re always making for each other, a certain amount of friendship, brotherhood, and all that. They enjoy the good life, and at the same time they get to whack people.

MARTIN SCORSESE: When I was doing The Color of Money in Chicago, I was reading The New York Review of Books and saw a review of a book by Nick Pileggi called Wiseguy. It seemed like Nick was taking us through the different levels of purgatory and hell in the underworld, like Virgil or like Dante. Irwin Winkler said, ‘Are you interested in that?’ I said yes and he bought it for me. I said yes because I thought Nick was telling the story in a different way. It’s about that lifestyle, and the dangerous seduction of that lifestyle.

I remember I was talking to Marlon Brando from time to time, and he said, ‘Don’t do another gangster picture. You’ve done Mean Streets, you did the gangsters in Raging Bull. You don’t have to do that.’ I came to feel the same way. So I said to Michael Powell, ‘I think I don’t want to do this Goodfellas thing,’ or Wiseguys, as it was then called.

Michael Powell went back to his apartment with Thelma Schoonmaker, whom he’d married right after Raging Bull. He couldn’t see anymore, so she read the script to him. I was in the editing room, I remember, in the Brill Building, and suddenly he called and said, ‘This is wonderful. You must do it. It’s funny and no one’s ever seen this way of life before. You must do it.’ And that’s why I did it.

RS: Well, there’s a William Wellman story on ‘Public Enemy’. He found the script and he took it to [Darryl] Zanuck, who was running Warner Bros. It was then called ‘Beer and Blood.’ He loved it – these young writers had lived in Chicago and knew some of the mobsters. But Zanuck said, I can’t do another one of these. I’ve just done this, I’ve just done that. Tell me one good reason to do it. And Wellman said, ‘Because I’ll make it the toughest one you ever saw.’ And Zanuck said, ‘You got it.’ You could argue that, of all the modern gangland things, ‘Goodfellas’ is the toughest one of all. Was there some aspect of ‘Goodfellas’ for you that was like Wellman’s attitude, that you could do it tougher?

MS: I thought of it as being a kind of attack.

RS: Attack?

MS: Attacking the audience. I remember talking about it at one point and saying, ‘I want people to get infuriated by it.’ I wanted to seduce everybody into the movie and into the style. And then just take them apart with it. I guess I wanted to make a kind of angry gesture.

RS: Why were you angry?

MS: I guess I used to feel I was the outsider who has to punch his way back in, constantly. Some people don’t have to do that, but I do. I’m not just talking about films, but everything.

I get angry about the way things are and the way people are. I get very involved in stories and the way a character behaves and the way the world behaves. More than anger, I think, maybe it’s caring about how characters behave, how the world behaves. I’m curious about those things. I still get excited by the story. I still get upset by what a character does. And the anger is something to get me working. I have to get sometimes rather upset with myself or a situation before I can really start working, thinking clearly. Some other people can do it very quickly, which doesn’t mean they don’t put energy into it. But they don’t put their heart and soul into it. I’m one of those people who does. It’s every minute of the day and night.

In the Rolling Stones documentary, I do a takeoff on myself for the first ten minutes. It’s about everything that could go wrong for me as the director. And things do go wrong. And they affect you.

I remember a priest told my father to come to talk to him and bring me with him to the rectory one day. I wondered why, what I did that was so bad? I must’ve been about twelve. He said something about me going around with the seriousness and the weight of the world on my shoulders. At that age I shouldn’t be that way, the priest said. I should have been enjoying my life. And he told my father something I’ll never forget. He said, ‘This boy,’ he says, ‘behaves.’ I did really, because I always was sick and never got in trouble.

But then later, when they threw me out of the preparatory seminary, the monsignor told my father, ‘Your son? There’s a brick wall. Don’t hit your head against it, you’re going to get hurt.’ The monsignor gets up, mimes hitting his head against the brick wall, and that was the end of it.

Everybody cares about what they do. But I tend to get emotionally involved, or let it get to me. I get too emotionally involved with everything. So over the years it became funny. Except when it wasn’t funny. In my mind, whether it’s the stroke of a pen or a bullet, a lot can happen to people. In our America, businesspeople are slaughtered every day. People are robbed every day.

RS: Well, there’s that whole theory of Robert Warshow, about ‘the gangster as tragic hero.’

MS: I was going to mention Warshow.

RS: I’m not sure I completely buy into that in a movie like ‘Goodfellas’; there’s actually nothing very tragic about those guys.

MS: No.

RS: What happens to Henry Hill is not tragic; he’s just not having fun anymore.

MS: Right. Too bad for him!

RS: And it’s not a tragic ending.

MS: No, he’s still breathing.

RS: I guess I need you to explain where you’re coming from with that because it really is a unique movie, I think. You’ve said you can’t see ‘The Sopranos’ in it, but I see a sort of precursor in it.

MS: A lot of the wonderful actors in The Sopranos were in my pictures, so we always talk about it. A lot of the people in Goodfellas are not on the upper levels, so they’re not tragic. It’s just everyday tragedy. These guys are dealing on the everyday level. I knew them as people, not as criminals. If something fell off the truck, you know, we all bought it. It was part of surviving, part of living. Some of those guys were smarter than others. Some overstepped their bounds and were killed. That was based on reality.

There’s a danger in idolizing that world, but many of the police who were down there in that neighborhood were on the take. I was surprised the first time I saw the American system at work, which was in Twelve Angry Men, Sidney Lumet’s film. Today, I credit the priests in the neighborhood who screened a 16 millimeter print of it down in the basement of the church for some of the kids. It was like being on Mars.

RS: The surrogate in your film, practicing that idolization as a kid, is the Henry Hill character.

MS: Yes. If you engage in that life, certain things are expected of you. First of all, to make a lot of money for everybody. Or to be the muscle. You have to perform, and you have to be careful: the scene that Joe Pesci asked to be put in, and improvised with Ray Liotta – the ‘You think I’m funny?’ scene – shows that you could be killed any second. They don’t care who’s around. The trick in the picture was to sort of ignore that danger, make it a rollicking road movie in a way – like a kind of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby picture, with everybody on the road and having a great time.

When the Sicilian police finally broke up the Mafia in the early nineties, they arrested some guy – I forget his name, but he was the second in command – and an Italian reporter asked him if any movie about that world was accurate. And he said, Well, Goodfellas, in the scene where the guy says, ‘Do you think I’m funny?’ Because that’s the life we lead. You could be smiling and laughing one second, and [snaps fingers] in a split second you’re in a situation where you could lose your life.

RS: Quite an amazing anecdote.

MS: That is exactly where you live all the time. That’s the truth of it. Now that happened to Joe Pesci, originally, with a friend of his. He got out of it just by doing what Ray did. So when he told me the story, I said, ‘We’ve got to use that. That really encapsulates it completely. That’s the lifestyle.’

Remember when Jimmy Cagney got the AFI [American Film Institute] award, he thanked somebody I think was called Two-Times Ernie and the other street guys he knew as a kid. Because they taught him how to act. The kids in my neighborhood who told stories on the street corner, they’d have you enthralled, and often with a sense of humor about themselves. And these were some tough kids.

I’ll never forget one of the toughest I’d ever met telling a story about losing a fight in such a funny way, and not being embarrassed about it. [Laughs.] Not losing any dignity. I thought, That is brilliant: to accept the fact that he was knocked down so badly, had to get up again, get knocked down again. We were all laughing, and he was laughing. I’ll never forget it.

In the Wiseguy book, Henry Hill speaks that way, almost like a standup comic. He’s got his own rhythm. There’s a truth to it. Someone owes you money, and he doesn’t pay you. So you go to him, and he says, ‘Oh, my wife got sick.’ ‘Fuck you, pay me.’ ‘My daughter is –’ ‘Fuck you, pay me,’ a guy like Hill says. ‘My mother –’ ‘Fuck you, pay me’.

RS: De Niro in ‘Mean Streets’ has no conscious sense of consequences, always living in the moment. That’s symbolized in ‘Goodfellas’ by the great tracking shot into the Copacabana, when they all go out on the town. That’s the privileged moment they pay for in blood and death.

MS: Well, the Copacabana – that’s the top of the line for Henry – it was Valhalla. When you were able to get a table there, it was like being in the court of the kings. The Mob guys were really the ones in charge. The Copa lounge was always more significant because the real guys were up there. That’s why you have a lot happening in Raging Bull in the Copa lounge. My friend’s father, the one who would read and listen to opera, his father was the head bartender there. We have him in Raging Bull. Nice guy.

Everyone paid for the privilege eventually. The danger of the picture is that young people could look at it and think, Hey, what a great life. But you’ve got to see the last hour of the picture when things start going wrong in a big way.

RS: I think in one of the voice-over lines Henry Hill says, You only have it for maybe ten years.

MS: That’s right.

RS: That made me think about celebrity. Ballplayers, for example, only have maybe ten years.

MS: Right. Actors, filmmakers, you’ve got about ten years. Some of the greatest filmmakers had a run for ten years. It’s part of American celebrity.

– From Richard Schickel: Conversations with Scorsese (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011). Copyright © 2011 by Richard Schickel.