Monday, 14 July 2014

Theo Angelopoulos: Writing and History

Ulysses’ Gaze (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
The script is the raw material for cinema, as soon as it is written I forget all about it. A script becomes something else when it is transferred to film… For example, the script for ‘Voyage To Cythera’ and the actual movie have a distant relationship. Scripts remain much closer to the original idea behind a movie. Nevertheless, their role, their meaning alters significantly as soon as filming begins or, to put it in a slightly different way, a script is the movie up until the moment when the first scene is shot. As soon as this happens, the script and the movie go their separate, often considerably different pathways.  – Theo Angelopoulos
The great Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos collaborated with Italian screenwriter Tonino Guerra and the Greek novelist Petros Markaris on several of his films. In the following extract from an interview with Dan Fainaru in 1999, Angelopoulos discusses his writing methods and the personal and political background to his work:

Q: This is a strange relationship, him [Tonino Guerra] being an Italian who does not speak Greek, while you do not speak Italian. And yet, it is with him you start writing your scripts.

A: It is true we do not need to speak the same language, but we are both men of the South. I believe that all the Mediterranean people have some­thing in common. Not only because there are ancient roots common to all of us, having been in contact with each other for thousands of years, but also because of the proximity of the sea and the similitude of the climate. I never feel abroad when I am in Italy.

With Tonino, it was an instant relationship. He was working at the time with Andrei Tarkovski in Rome on Nostalghia. Andrei and I shared the same flat for a couple of weeks, a flat owned by an assistant director who worked with me on Megalexandros and with Tarkovski on Nostalghia. All I knew about Tonino at the time was his work with people like Fellini and Antonioni, but Andrei seemed to be very happy with their collaboration. I asked my assistant, the owner of the flat, to introduce us, and he arranged for me to go over to Tonino’s place. I intended to meet him, get to know him, and then see whether there was a way for us to cooperate.

Five minutes after I stepped into his flat, we were already at work. We immediately realized we were speaking the same language – in film terms of course, because when we met I spoke French and he spoke Italian but we understood each other perfectly. We also discovered there are many things for which we share the same affection and love. What I like about Tonino is not only the fact that he is a poet, but also that earthly, peasant side, which for me, is very important.

The Travelling Players (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
Q: In practice, how do you proceed when you meet to work on a script?


A: I must first explain that while basically, I am the author of my own scripts, I always need another person who will play the devil’s advocate, the psychoanalyst or whatever, to give me a different perspective of the things I have in mind. He is to be the first person to hear my ideas in the raw, and his feedback helps me choose the right direction. In the case of Tonino, most of the time he acts the part of the psychoanalyst. I am not sure many people work together the way we do.

Once a film is finished and I feel I am ready to start the next one, I go to his village in the mountains. We sit down, talk about everything and any­thing, have a drink, and then go to lunch. Later, as we sit down and relax, he will ask me whether I have anything in mind I would like to work on. At this point I am still doubtful. I start talking, telling him different stories I had been reflecting upon, ideas that caught my fancy, images that stuck in my mind, nothing yet very organized one way or another. I am walking back and forth; he listens to me, sitting down. When there is something he con­siders to be of particular interest, he stops me and writes it down...

The Hunters (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
Later, we go through all the things he has noted, and we try to see whether there is a coherent idea in there. To do this, I take the notes, go to the room he has prepared for me, pore over them for a few hours, then come back to the sitting room, and suggest a way to proceed. We go out, have a coffee, talk about the direction I proposed. He would tell me whether he likes it or not and add a few other related ideas he had in the afternoon while I was working in my room. Out of it comes another version, an im­proved one, of the same idea, and we go on like this for three, four days, discussing various options for the script.

But we do not do it all the time, from morning till night. We eat, we go for long walks, we meet people in the village, and we also talk about the script. When I leave, I already have in mind a first draft. I call him and tell him about it, or I put it on paper and send him a copy. But he, too, prefers to hear me tell it, rather than read it. He gives me his opinion, and then I start working with a second person.

Tonino assists at the birth of the original idea. And sometimes he can be quite insistent on certain details. For instance, he once called me in Greece after we had already completed the script for Landscape in the Mist, and he told me: ‘Listen Theo, we absolutely have to have a hen in the movie.’ ‘Where do you want me to put it?’ I asked. ‘I don’t know where,’ he re­plied, ‘but I feel we have to put a hen, somewhere.’ He was right and one of the scenes in the film opens with a hen.

O Megalexandros (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
The second person I work with is my first reader. In the past it was Tha­nassis Valtinos; these days it is Petros Markaris. Through him I get a first reaction to my script. Markaris, by the way, has written a whole book in which he describes our cooperation on Eternity and a Day. He never told me, but he documented everything we did, all our phone conversations, our dis­cussions – he didn’t leave anything out.

Part of his job is to take the script I have written by hand and type it into a computer – I still can’t use a type­writer, let alone a computer. He sends me this draft, and I put in my own corrections and additional remarks, and send it back to him. This goes on for some time, we either meet or exchange faxes of the drafts as they progress from one stage to the next, until I reach the point when I feel the others have given me everything they can, and I put in the last touches on my own. But the final shooting script you will find only if you take it off the finished print of the film. If you compare that with the script I have when I start shooting, you will find there are huge discrepancies between them.

O Megalexandros (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
Q: You have often talked in the past about the possibility of your adapting a literary work but until now it has never happened. All your screenplays are based on original scripts.


A: I tried my hand at adaptations several times, but every single time, I gave up in the middle. It is difficult to adapt a book, certainly a book you love, without losing some of its original flavor and qualities. I can’t think of a successful adaptation of a great novel. I believe the best novels to turn into films are either thrillers or second-class literature.

Orson Welles, for instance, took a rather routine crime story and made a masterpiece out of it in Touch of Evil. There are many more examples of this kind, for instance several of Godard’s films. As for myself, right now I do not feel like doing a crime story, though I am still tempted by Malraux’s Human Condition. But I realize that there will be always something missing in the transition to the screen...

Voyage To Cythera (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
Q: Your parents are from the South, the Peloponnesus and Crete. And yet you seem to be obsessed with the North, with dark skies, cold winters, heavy rains.


A: It’s a question I am often asked. I have no explanation. I have often tried in the past to find one, but couldn’t really. Maybe one has to look far back; a psychoanalyst might unveil the real sources. What I can tell you is that when I set out to make my first feature film, Reconstruction, I remember one after­noon, in the small village where the story took place. The landscape was all shades of gray, the dark sky, the drab little houses, the stony hills. It was raining, just a drizzle; a thin fog was covering the mountain, and the village was practically deserted. Most people had gone to Germany like so many other Greeks in the fifties, in search of a better life. Only a few old women dressed in black, barely visible in the gloomy light, sneaked silently through the narrow streets.

Suddenly I heard an old, cracked voice, singing a very old song. It was an ancient old man, singing ‘Oh, little lemon tree . . . Oh, little lemon tree . . . ,’ the song I finally used in the film. It was a magic moment which marked me for life: the rain, the fog, the gray stones, the women in black looking like ghosts, and the old man singing. This deserted village, a forgotten corner in a land ruled by military dictatorship, was for me the image of a country drained out by the constant flow of departing emigrants, and the only thing left in it is an old love song.

This image has probably imprinted itself in my subconscious, the matrix for all the films to follow. This is the reason I believe the first film is the original seed. Everything that comes later is either a variation, a development, or an elaboration evolving from that first theme. For me, Reconstruction contains all the themes I later developed. I really think one always does the same film, over and over again. Lately I watched again a number of Bergman films, and this is true for him as well.

Landscape In The Mist (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
Q: Was it at home, from your parents, that you first acquired the love for culture?

A : Not really. My father was a shopkeeper, my mother was a simple house­wife mostly concerned with the well-being of her children. I don’t remember the origins, but I know I started writing for the first time during the civil war, in Athens, towards the end of 1944, a period we still call ‘The Red Decem­ber.’ The communists, who suspected him of being a liberal, arrested my father. As a matter of fact, the person who arrested him was my own cousin, because you have to know that my family – like the rest of the country – was divided in two, part liberal and part communist. During my father’s absence, for reasons that are still not very clear to me, I wrote my first poems. And since that time, I sincerely believe that poetry was the foremost influence in my life...

He was away for a few months, kept somewhere in the center of Greece, and once he was released, he had to walk all the way home, half the length of the country. I remember seeing him at the end of the street, at the time children were still playing in the street, walking slowly towards us. I rushed home and called my mother. We knew he was supposed to come home, but when I told her I’d seen him, she rushed into the street to greet him. Once back inside, we were in such a state, no one could utter a single word. We sat around the table, drank our soup looking at each other in silence. We all felt like crying but kept back our tears. This is, as you may remember, the opening scene of Reconstruction.

Ulysses’ Gaze (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
Q: Do you remember anything of the German occupation?


A: I have said it often enough – I am a war child. When I was born, Greece was ruled by a dictator, General Metaxas. In 1940, the Italians invaded Greece. The first sound I remember is that of the war sirens. And the first image is that of Germans entering Athens, just as I painted it in the opening sequence of Voyage to Cythera. It’s all there, including the episode of the young German soldier directing traffic, the child touching his shoulder, and then running away into a maze of narrow streets with the soldier chasing him. One way or another, I have the feeling that we always dip into our own reservoir of memories and relive certain episodes we have experienced in real life. My work is full of all those special moments of my childhood and adolescence, my emotions and dreams at that time. I believe the one source for everything we do is there.

Q: When did you first take on a distinct political stand?


A: As long as I was in Greece, I considered myself apolitical. Only when I got to Paris did I choose, consciously, to join the Left. Of course, in the fifties, I took part in all sorts of student demonstrations, for instance to support Cyprus, but there was no political conscience behind it. I stayed away when­ ever left-wing and right-wing students would fight on the campus.

At the same time, that is after I graduated high school, I was beginning to realize that my interest in cinema was gradually growing almost into an obsession. I was frequenting all-day cinemas showing detective stories of which I saw a lot. Naturally, the American classics of the genre – Huston, Polonski, Hawks, Walsh – figured at the top of the list. But the first film I ever saw was Michael Curtiz’s Angels with Dirty Faces. I still remember the scene where James Cag­ney is taken to the electric chair, the shadows on the wall, his scream: ‘I don’t want to die.’ I must have been nine or ten at the time. This may ex­plain my fascination to this day with detective stories, be they novels or films...

The Suspended Step Of The Stork (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
Q: History and  politics were once in the forefront of every film you made. Now, they are still there, very evident, but much more in the background. Not to mention the quote from ‘The Suspended Step of the Stork’ which says: ‘Politics is nothing more than a career.’ You said earlier you were a man of the left; you certainly still are, but not in the same way.

A: I think many things have changed around us through the years that have been making film. Already in Megalexandros I tried to portray a freedom fighter that turns into a tyrant. I felt that everything we believed in changes once it touches power. The film was a reflection on two themes, power and property. They corrupt all those who, to start with, may have been sincere idealistic socialists. I saw all around me the things that were happening under socialist regimes. I couldn’t help noticing the changes taking place in all those people who were behind May ‘68. All the ideals we once had were being twisted and fading away.

My first film to move history from the fore­front to the background was Voyage to Cythera. It deals with people who be­lieved once in historical perspective and political change, only to discover, thirty years after sacrificing practically everything they had for the revolu­tion, that they are rejected by one and all. It is a political odyssey that ends with the old man, the hero who once dreamed of changing the world, and his wife, the only one who remained at his side, drifting out into the sea...

The Suspended Step Of The Stork (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
Q: It has been often said that each one of your films is a sequel of the previous one. Do you agree?


A: It’s true. This is the reason you will never find the word ‘End’ at the end of any of my films. As far as I am concerned, these are chapters of one and the same film that goes on and will never be finished, for there is never a final word on anything. I believe we never manage to do more than a frac­tion of the things we’d like to do. My last film, Eternity and a Day, is attempt­ing to convey the idea that a few words, acquired here and there, are never enough to complete a whole poem.

Q: Your films seem to be very personal not only because your way of doing them is so different from all others, but also because they really talk about yourself, all through. One is often under the impression that your protagonist, even though an actor plays the part, is a reflection of yourself projected in a dramatic context quite close to certain aspects of your life. You even told me once that you seriously consid­ered playing one of the parts, yourself.

A: Yes, it is a bit like that. There are of course directors who play in their own films, like Orson Welles. Sometimes one cannot avoid the feeling, particularly when the film is very close to yourself, that no actor could do justice to the part. I felt like this in Eternity and a Day. In the early stages, I was uneasy with Bruno Ganz in the lead, but deep down it was my own identification with the part that generated my fear that no actor could fully satisfy my expectations.

This is the reason that, at a certain point, I stopped the shoot. I needed to put myself at a certain distance from the script, put it in perspective and see the character wearing the features of another person. One could say the same things when discussing Voyage to Cythera or Ulysses’ Gaze. The truth is that these characters are composite images. There is a smaller or greater part of yourself in each one of them, but there are also other persons you have known. It is never quite you but certainly some of you is always there. And the deeper you go into those characters, the closer they are to your intimate self.

Eternity And A Day (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
Q: Another constant concern in your films is the father-son relationship.


A: As I have told you before when we talked about my childhood, the father figure is very important in my own past. The absence of the father who has been taken away – and we had no idea whether he was still alive or not – has been a heavy load on all of us. Since my very first film, it was a crucially important point. Reconstruction opens with the return of the father. Later films deal with the search for the father figure, whether a real or a fictitious father, one who could be a point of reference for the entire film and its pro­tagonist.

Q: Another characteristic of your films – practically all of them are road movies.

A: Yes, but with a difference. Usually, in road movies, the characters roam from one place to another without a definite purpose. In my films, these journeys always have a goal. In Voyage to Cythera, for instance, it is the journey to the imaginary island of one’s dreams, the island of peace and happiness. In Landscape in the Mist the children are looking for their father. The reporter in The Suspended Step of the Stork is travelling around for a definite reason; he is trying to unveil the mystery of the politician who disappeared. In Ulysses’ Gaze the entire trip through the Balkans is determined by the wish to find some pieces of lost film.

Q: You said once that some films come from the heart, others from the mind. Is it true in your case?


A: Some films have at their origins an intellectual premise. In others, it is sentiment. For instance, The Hunters was almost entirely conceived intellec­tually. The same for Days of ‘36. The Beekeeper comes straight from the heart. Most of my films are in-between, a combination of both.

Eternity And A Day (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
Q: There are, in your films, whether they come from the heart or the mind, magi­cal moments that will stay with me forever. The party in ‘The Travelling Players’, the last shot of the old couple on the raft in ‘Voyage to Cythera’, the rape in ‘Land­scape in the Mist’, the wedding in ‘The Suspended Step of the Stork’, the New Year party and Lenin’s statue on the barge in ‘Ulysses’ Gaze’, the bus ride in ‘Eter­nity and a Day’. And these are only a very few examples. Every time they occur, one is left amazed again and again by their originality, their imagination and poetry. Is it something that just happens while you’re shooting the film or is it carefully prepared beforehand?


A: Both. The bus ride was not at all written this way. Originally, in this scene, there were just the writer and the boy. It was an almost realistic scene, which could, of course, be very moving. Two persons in an empty bus, cross­ing the city in the rain. But somehow, I had the feeling it was not enough. This is why it took so long to shoot this scene. As we were shooting, I was gradually changing it. Finally, I did the scene twice, once following the script, a second time throwing the script away. The second version is the one we used. The scene of the party in The Travelling Players, when two men are dancing the tango together, had originally a few lines of dialog. Once we started rehearsing it, I decided to change it.

The scene was taking place in 1946 – people were still wearing at the time bowler hats, striped suits, and so on. At a certain moment, during a break in the rehearsal, I noticed two men, both wearing bowler hats, standing next to each other. The pianist was play­ing a few notes of a tango, one of them approached the other, and they started dancing together. That was completely unexpected. I had not written it in the script, not even thought of it, but that is how I rounded up this scene, and I believe it was the right way to do it. Sometimes, it’s this kind of improvisation on the spot; sometimes you know what you’re going to do a few days early. For the rape scene in Landscape in the Mist, it was like that. It was not in the script, but I had it already in mind several days before we shot it.

Eternity And A Day (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
As for the marriage scene in The Suspended Step of the Stork with the bride on one side of the river, the bridegroom on the other – when I wrote the script, the scene was different, but I felt something was missing there. Then, one day, I was in New York on a bus going to Bronx through Harlem. At a stop, I saw a small black boy improvising some dance steps on one side of the street, and on the other side, there was another small black boy, who was answering him with his own dance steps. Nothing out of the ordinary, maybe, but I immediately saw the river in the middle.

And there is some­thing else, something I read in 1958 about an island near Crete, a very small one, completely isolated in the winter. During those long months, the shep­herds who live there use a sign language to communicate with a Cretan priest, who would watch for them at certain hours. They would inform him if someone was dead on their side, he would say mass in Crete for the de­ceased person, and they would bury the corpse on the small island. The combination of these two sources of inspiration resulted in the marriage as you see it in The Suspended Step of the Stork. The New Year party in Ulysses’ Gaze was written more or less the way it is played. I knew it was all going to be in one shot, but I felt, when writing it, there was something missing, and as we were rehearsing, I added light touches here and there.

As for the barge with Lenin’s statue on it, this marks for me the end of an era. I had prepared the sequence beforehand, but the idea of having the peasants watching it float down the Danube and crossing themselves as it went by originated with something I saw in Constanza, a Romanian port on the Black Sea. A crane was moving a huge head of Lenin from a ship to a barge, when a fishing boat just happened by. The couple on it, a man and a woman, stood up, shocked, as if Lenin had just come back to life. The woman covered the man’s eyes and instinctively made the sign of the cross.

But I have to say that strangely enough there are scenes you believe are crucial when you write the script, but do not seem at all like this once you have shot them. While other scenes, which you may not have been very keen on, turn out to be key moments in the film.

– Extracted from ‘Dan Fainaru: And About All The Rest’ in Theo Angelopoulos: Interviews (Ed. Dan Fainaru, University Press of Mississippi, 2001)

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