Friday, 29 November 2013

John Huston: The Poetry of Failure

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Directed by John Huston)
John Huston directed 37 features during a near half-century career among the first-rank of American filmmakers. His work ranges from cult films to perennial favourites including The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The African Queen (1951), The Red Badge of Courage (1951), Moby Dick (1956), The Misfits (1961), The Night of the Iguana (1964), Fat City (1972), The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), The Man Who Would Be King (1975), Wise Blood (1979), The Dead (1987) as well as two distinguished war documentaries — The Battle of San Pietro (1945) and Let There Be Light (1946). 

John Huston began working in the movies as a screenwriter. Among his credits are such renowned and commercially successful scripts as Jezebel (1938), Juarez (1939), Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940), High Sierra (1941), and Sergeant York (1941); and he worked with top directors at Warner Bros. including William Wyler, Anatole Litvak, William Dieterle, Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks. 

As a filmmaker particularly identified with the literary masterworks he transformed into cinema, Huston has acknowledged the wide literary influences on his films. For Huston the act of writing is essential and he has commented on the intimate connection between writing and directing: ‘There’s really no difference between them, it’s an extension, one from the other. Ideally I think the writer should go on and direct the picture. I think of the director as an extension of the writer.’

Huston’s protagonists are often either independent professionals whose tough exteriors hide a dedication to principle, like the detective Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, or losers whose obsession with a doomed quest leads to their destruction, like the three gold-seekers in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. According to critic Gilles Jacob ‘the tragedy of rapacity and the poetry of failure are two essential themes of the Hustonian world. The desire to obtain what is coveted at any cost of blood, the taste of having more and more, set into motion a dark world that is hardened against pain…’

The following extract is taken from an interview with Gideon Bachmann during the shooting of the Noah’s ark sequence for The Bible: In the Beginning (1966), in which John Huston talks about his writing methods and approach to making films:

The Maltese Falcon (Directed by John Huston)
How does the script get written? Do you do it alone?  And how long does it take you?

There are no rules. I’ve written scripts and made pictures out of them in two weeks. At other times I’ve worked a year and a half just on a script. The Maltese Falcon was done in a very short time, because it was based on a very fine book and there was very little for me to invent. It was a matter of sticking to the ideas of the book, of making a film out of a book. On Treasure of the Sierra Madre, I wrote the script in about 3-4 months, but I had had quite a long time to think about it before. The actual making of the film didn’t take very long, but I had had the idea of making it since before the war. It was the first film I made after the war.

You wrote that one alone, and got an Oscar for writing it. But don’t you sometimes write together with other people? Or, when other people write for you, do you take a very active part or do you leave them pretty much alone?

When I do not write alone – and of course you must remember that I began my film career as a writer, not as a director – I work very closely with the writer. Almost always I share in the writing. The writer will do a scene and then I’ll work it over, or I’ll write a scene and then the other writer will make adjustments later. Often we trade scenes back and forth until we’re both satisfied.

The Maltese Falcon (Directed by John Huston)
You don’t like to work with more than one other writer?

Not really. But sometimes other people make additions. For example, the writer of a play or a book on which I  am basing a film. Tennessee Williams, for example, came and worked with Anthony Vay and myself on the script for Night of the Iguana. He didn’t come there to write, but once he was there he did do some writing, and actually he did some rather important writing for the film. But such cases are the exception.

Could you put into words some principles you employ in order to put ideas into film form? Do you feel there are any rules a writer for the cinema must follow?

Each idea calls for a different treatment, really. I am not aware of any ready formula, except the obvious one that films fall into a certain number of scenes, and that you have to pay attention to certain limitations that have to do with time, according to subject. Depending on what you are writing about, you have to decide the time balance between words and action. It seems to me, for example, that the word contains as much action as a purely visual scene, and that dialogue should have as much action in it as physical motion. The sense of activity that your audience gets is derived equally from what they see and from what they hear. The fascination, the attention of the man who looks at what you have put together, must be for the thoughts as much as for the happenings in your film. In fact, when I write I can’t really separate the words from the actions. The final action – the combined activity of the film, the sum of the words and the visuals – is really going on only in the mind of the beholder. So in writing I have to convey a sense of overall progression with all the means at my command: words and images and sounds and everything else that makes film.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Directed by John Huston)
This brings up one of the basic questions about films that adapt literary works: in a book there are many things that you can’t see or hear, but which in reading you translate directly into your own interior images and feelings. Emotions that are created in you neither through dialogue nor action. How do you get these into film? The monologues from ‘Moby Dick’, for example?

Well, first of all, I try to beware of literal transfers to film of what a writer has created initially for a different form. Instead I try to penetrate first to the basic idea of the book or the play, and then work with those ideas in cinematic terms. For example, to see what Melville wanted to say in the dialogues, what emotions he wanted to convey I always thought Moby Dick was a great blasphemy. Here was a man who shook his fist at God. The thematic line in Moby Dick seemed to me, always, to have been: who’s to judge when the judge himself is dragged before the bar? Who’s to condemn, but he, Ahab! This was, to me, the point at which I tried to aim the whole picture, because I think that’s what Melville was essentially concerned with, and this is, at the same time, the point that makes Moby Dick so extremely timely in our age. And if I may be allowed the side-observation: I don’t think any of the critics who wrote about the film ever mentioned this.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Directed by John Huston)
I suppose you are speaking about the problem of taking personal responsibility in an age where the group has largely attempted to make decisions for the individual. This is an interpretation of Melville, or perhaps I should say ONE interpretation of Melville. And so in the attempt to understand the basic idea of a work (in order to translate those ideas into film) you are really doing more than that: you add your own interpretation, you don’t just put into images what the original author wanted to say.

I don’t think we can avoid interpretation. Even just pointing a camera at a certain reality means an interpretation of that reality. By the same token, I don’t seek to interpret, to put my own stamp on the material. I try to be as faithful to the original material as I can. This applies equally to Melville as it applies to the Bible, for example. In fact, it’s the fascination that I feel for the original that makes me want to make it into a film.

What about original material, where you are not adapting a play or a book? Are there any ideas of yours, basic ideas, which you try to express in your work? Do you feel that there is a continuity in your work in terms of a consistent ideology? In short, do you feel you are trying to say something coherent to mankind?

There probably is. I am not consciously aware of anything. But even the choice of material indicates a preference, a turn of mind. You could draw a portrait of a mind through that mind’s preferences.

The Asphalt Jungle (Directed by John Huston)
Well, let me do that for a minute, and see if what I see as a unifying idea in your work is indeed a coherent feeling on your part. I see that in your films there is always a man pitched against odds, an individual who seeks to retain a sense of his own individuality in the face of a culture that surrounds and tends to submerge him. I would call the style of your films the style of the frontier, or what the frontier has come to symbolize in American culture: a sense of rebellion against being put into a system, into a form of life and into a mode of thinking rigidly decided by others.

Yes, I think there is something there. I do come from a frontier background. My people were that. And I always feel constrained in the presence of too many rules, severe rules; they distress me. I like the sense of freedom. I don’t particularly seek that ultimate freedom of the anarchist, but I’m impatient of rules that result from prejudice.

In any case, you believe that at the basis of every film of yours there is a basic idea, whether an idea of yours or one of another author. But how do you proceed to put that idea into film form? In writing, what do you do first, for example?

I don’t envisage the whole thing at the beginning. I go a little bit at a time, always asking myself whether I am on the track of the basic thought. Within that, I try to make each scene as good as I can. This applies both to the writing and to the directing – to the whole process of preparation and production, in fact – which are only extensions of the process of writing. It’s hard to break down into details.
The Asphalt Jungle (Directed by John Huston)
Do you mean to say that you do not write the whole script in the beginning?

Oh yes, oh sure. I am speaking about the making of the film. I try to make it in sequence as much as possible, to develop the making of the film along with the development of the story within the film. I try, for example, to give my actors a sense of development not only within the troupe, but also a sense of development within the story of the film. And I improvise if necessary. This is not a luxury; when one shoots as much on location as I do, improvisation is a necessity. Everything that happens in the process of making the film can contribute to the development of that film’s story. But of course one always tries to remain within the bounds of the controllable as much as one can, to stay within the bounds of the script. But one must be open to take advantage of the terrain, of the things that the setting can give you.

Do you write your scripts with the idea of change and improvisation already in mind?

Improvisation is used more today than it used to be. Partly this is caused by a new, less rigid approach to filmmaking, and also partly by the decentralization of the production process. Actors have become producers, they have commitments of conflicting sorts, and it is no longer possible to prepare a script in great detail in a major studio set-up, and then call in your contract actors, whose time you control completely, and make the film in exact accordance to plan. It has simply become essential today to be more flexible, to adjust to new conditions, both practical and aesthetic.

Do you see this as a positive or a negative development?

It has certainly helped some directors to come into their own, people who could never have succeeded under the old, less independent system. Some French and Italian directors – Fellini in the vanguard – have found it possible to tell much more subjective stories, often their own, in a valid cinematographic way. Like 81/2 for example.

Moby Dick (Directed by John Huston)
What is the technical process of your scriptwriting?

Usually I write in longhand first, and then dictate a later version. I use a standard script form: action on the left and dialogue on the right. When it’s finished it’s mimeographed and distributed to the people who need to see it. I often change again later. Sometimes I finish the final version on the set itself, or change again something I’ve written as a final version the day before. Mostly these changes come to me when I hear the words first spoken by an actor. It’s always different once it comes out of a living person’s mouth. By this I do not mean that I try to adjust to an actor’s personality – I try to do that as little as possible. When I write, I don’t have in mind an actor, but a character. I don’t conceive this character with a specific star in my mind. I guess what I am trying to do with this constant changing, is to try to put to work more than my own imagination, or at least allow my imagination the liberty of play, the liberty of coming out of its cage – which is me, my body, when I am alone and writing – and in this way it begins to live and to flower and gives me better service than when I put it to work abstractly, alone, in a room with paper and pencil, without the living presence of the material. Then, when the character has been born out of this extended imagination, I have to look for someone to play the role, and this someone isn’t always necessarily the person who I thought could play it originally, because often it no longer is the same character. In fact, I’ve often – at least, sometimes – delayed the making of a film because I couldn’t find anybody to play the new and adjusted character that I had finally arrived at construing. Although in my experience you usually find someone; there are enough good actors if you are willing to wait a little.

Is it possible for you to tell how much of your writing comes from inside you, at the start, and how much is written in adjustment to a situation or to hearing your words spoken? And do you also adjust to location, for example? I mean, when you write about Sodom, do you write for Vesuvius, for the landscape where you decided to shoot those sequences?

It’s the same thing as trying to interpret Melville. You write for an ideal. Then when you make the film, you try to live up to that ideal. Casting, locating, shooting: you try to stick to what you start with. Sometimes there are problems when the material changes in my hands, sometimes I have even miscast my own films. But generally these adjustment problems can be overcome. I’ve been pretty lucky that way. In fact, I can usually do pretty much exactly what I set out to do. I’ve been lucky.

Moby Dick (Directed by John Huston)
Is that what gives you this tremendous peace that you seem to have on the set? I have watched perhaps a hundred directors shooting, and nobody is as calm. And you have this kooky set: this silly ark with all these animals, peacocks flying among the long necks of giraffe, hippos who refuse to act the scenes written for them, a hundred breakdowns a day with technical things caused by the animals, and you just stride through the whole thing in your Noah costume, feeding the giraffes, smiling and taking it easy...

I am astonished myself. And I marvel at the patience of everybody, especially the animals, who are among the best actors I’ve ever worked with ...

All typecast, too. . . . But, is that an answer?

In a way, yes. You see, in working with actors, I try to direct as little as possible. The more one directs, the more there is a tendency to monotony. If one is telling each person what to do, one ends up with a host of little replicas of oneself. So, when I start a scene, I always let the actor show me for the start how he imagines the scene himself. This applies not only to actors; as I tried to indicate before, I try to let the whole thing work on me, show me. The actors, the set, the location, the sounds, all help to show me what the correct movement could be. So what I said about the animals wasn’t only a joke. Because, you see, the animals have one great advantage as actors; they know exactly what they want to do, no self-doubts, no hesitations. If you watch them, quite extraordinary opportunities present themselves, but you must see them. Here in the Noah’s Ark sequence of The Bible this has happened a number of times. Animals do remarkable things. The hippo opened his mouth and let me pet him inside.

Is that when you wrote the line, which you say to Noah’s wife at that point: ‘There is no evil in him, wife. Do not fear him!’

Exactly. And very fine actors are as much themselves as animals are. I would rather have someone whose personality lends itself to the role than a good actor who can simulate the illusion of being the character. I do not like to see the mechanics of acting. The best you can get, of course, is when the personality lends itself exquisitely to the part and when that personality has the added attribute of being technically a fine actor so he can control his performance. That is the ideal.

Night of the Iguana (Directed by John Huston)
What do you consider to be the attributes of a fine actor?

The shading he can give a line, his timing, his control, his knowledge of the camera, his relationship to the camera – of course, I’m talking about film acting.

What should an actor’s relationship to the camera be?

He must have an awareness of the size of his gesture, his motion, in relation to the size that his image will be on the screen. It isn’t absolutely an essential quality, but it is very useful. I don’t mean that I tell him the focal length of the lens I’m using and expect him to adapt himself accordingly, but a good actor has an almost instinctual awareness of these things. When an actor comes from the stage, he usually has to make adjustments of this kind. He doesn’t need to project, he doesn’t need to make his voice heard over a distance. He can speak very quietly. He can be more economical in every way before the camera than he could be on the stage. And he can work with the small details of his face...

What else, besides controlling the actors, does your job of directing include? How much control do you exercise over the camera, the light, the, sets, the other mechanics?

Lighting is almost completely up to the cameraman, who of course must be in complete sympathy with the director. The set up is something else. There you’re telling the story, the composition will appear on the screen, also the movement of the camera. The variety of material to be included in the shot, and its displacement, those are things I try to control. Again, when I decide about these things, I go by the rules that are imposed upon me by the central idea, by what I’m trying to say, and how I’ve decided to say it. And I choose set-ups and camera angles that will tell my story as quickly and as strongly and as surely as possible.

The Bible: In the Beginning (Directed by John Huston)
Do you have the precise set-up in mind when you write the script?

No. I write first, then seek the set-up that demonstrates. And I find that if the set-up is chosen well, I hardly ever have to change a line for set-up or a set-up for a line. The fact that I write the words first, doesn’t mean the words have precedence. I find that dialogue and camera set-up are not at war. I don’t seek a set-up to carry a certain word: I seek a certain word and a certain set-up to carry a certain idea. Sometimes one single word is enough for this, or even complete silence, if the image is right.

Do you think the less words spoken in a film, the better a film it is? 

Depends on the film. Some films depend on words. Take Night of the Iguana. Take the spoken words out of that, and you won’t have very much.

Is that only because that particular script was based on a play? Or do you feel that scripts that are very word-oriented could also be read as literature like a play can?

I don’t think you can make rules. In the case of Iguana the words were important because they carried Tennessee Williams’ thoughts. But I think a good screenplay could be read as literature, too. It simply depends on the particular material.

You are not taking sides, then, in the perennial controversy over what’s more important in film, the word or the image?

I don’t see that they are in conflict. Depending on what is being said, they complement each other in the hands of a good craftsman.

– Gideon Bachmann and John Huston: How I Make Films: An Interview with John Huston. Film Quarterly Vol. 19, No. 1 (Autumn, 1965), pp. 3-13.

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