Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Bodies and Souls: An Interview with Robert Rossen

The Hustler (Directed by Robert Rossen)
Robert Rossen was an American screenwriter, producer and film director whose career spanned three decades. He was the writer of The Roaring Twenties (1939), The Sea Wolf (1941), Edge Of Darkness (1943), The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers (1946); director of Body And Soul (1947), The Brave Bulls (1950); writer and director of All The King’s Men (Academy Award, 1949), Alexander The Great (1956), Island In The Sun (1957), The Hustler (1962), Lilith (1964).

The following interview is one of the last granted by Robert Rossen, who died February 18, 1966. It took place in Rossen’s Upper West Side apartment in New York on December 23, 1965. The interviewer was Daniel Stein, a student of film history at The University of Wisconsin.

STEIN:
 I’d like to start by asking about the East Side where you were brought up. Do you find that the East Side experience helped you in making ‘The Hustler’ and ‘Body And Soul’?

ROSSEN:
 Oh yes, very definitely. First I want to make it clear about the East Side. When you say East Side what it usually means to people is that you lived on the lower East Side of Manhattan in Jewish neighborhoods, the ghetto, etc. I didn’t quite have that kind of experience. I lived on the East Side in the middle of Manhattan, and my experience was not a ghetto experience, but it was worse. I never quite lived with Jewish surroundings, so I never had the sense of community that you had, even if you lived in a ghetto. I was always living in a hostile environment with Irish kids, Poles, Italians, Germans... I lived in Yorkville for a while, so that I probably had a clearer look at the impact of environment on character and vice versa than I would have had otherwise, because if I had lived in a Jewish neighborhood my concept of reality would have been within that community, which was in a sense almost a conformed community. Whether you were poor or rich it really didn’t make much difference, but you were poor so certain things followed. But the very fact that you were in opposition to, and running away from your own background made you take a pretty hard look at it in order to determine how you would exist in what I call a pretty total jungle. You see the difference?

Body And Soul (Directed by Robert Rossen)
STEIN:  Yes. I’ve read that you are concerned primarily with character and the effect of environment. In many of your films this is the theme, but then again in some of your other films you go away from this theme, I think – such as in ‘Alexander (The Great)’.

ROSSEN: Well, you make an assumption that my preoccupation is primarily with the effect of  character on environment, etc. It really isn’t, because once character is formed... well, let’s take as an example All The King’s Men, the background of Willie Stark or Huey Long, or whatever the hell you want to call him. The effect of character on him and his character on his environment is very sharp. Actually he was a red neck, which meant he was a backwoodsman. Within that came: (a) his antagonism, or his hostility, his hard look at it and what it made of him; but also (b) that the answer for him, which you would find in any character relationship like that, was the desire toward power and the absolute belief that if he had power, he would do things that would help people.

STEIN: That is also, in a certain sense, the theme that comes out in ‘Lilith’.

ROSSEN: Oh yes, yes, because the drive toward power never permits itself to be naked and always needs a rationale, whether it’s the rationale of a schizophrenic or the rationale of a Willie Stark. It needs it because it cannot face the fact that the need for power becomes primarily a subjective need. We like to think, as Lyndon Johnson likes to think – I am positive he thinks this way – that his tremendous power or his drive toward power is for the good of the many. How could he face the fact that his need has become a subjective thing?

STEIN: But you also make a point in your films that this power tends to destroy itself in people.

ROSSEN: Well yes, and isn’t it true? I mean that it is certainly much truer in a complex society. But then again if you go back to the era of Alexander, which was not as complex a society, you find the same power motives. With him it’s the other way around. Power for him was a natural and inevitable thing based on his background, and his constructive use of power did not come until the last three or four years of his life. Not until then did he begin to understand that power could be a constructive weapon.

Body And Soul (Directed by Robert Rossen)
STEIN: Concerning ‘Alexander The Great’, was there any kind of conflict between what you wanted to do with this historical setting and what the studio demanded of you?

ROSSEN: No, there wasn’t any conflict. The only pressures – and I could have withstood them, I suppose, if I had been strong enough at the time – were pressures on cutting the film, on getting it down in size. You see Alexander originally was a three hour picture. I wanted it done with an intermission. They got very frightened at the length, and they finally wore me down. Actually, it’s a much better picture in three hours than it is in two hours and twenty minutes, precisely for one reason. It unveils the various guilts Alexander felt toward his father much more deeply – for instance his chase of Darius. It is not just a simple chase to kill the Emperor of the Persian Empire. The chase for Darius is tied up with his tremendous feeling that as long as a father figure is alive in royalty, he has to kill him.

STEIN: 
Is this based on fact?

ROSSEN:
 This is based on what I have read, and I did about three years of research personally.

STEIN:
 You were really drawn to the subject?

ROSSEN: 
Oh yes, I was completely drawn to the subject. You know, Plutarch records – but then there were so many other books on Alexander – that Alexander actually had to kill Darius. If Darius had had a wife, he would have had to go to bed with her. So he did the next best thing, he took one of his daughters. But the daughter story I don’t quite believe; even though it’s hinted at, I just don’t believe it. I think this has gone into the realm of legend, and in terms of legend, I think practically every country in the East has a legend claiming Alexander as their hero or god, or what have you. Egypt does. The Indians still do, they call him the ‘Esconda.’ Jews have a legend that he came to the gates of Jerusalem and was so impressed with monotheism that he spared Jerusalem. So I was fascinated. You see, I think it’s natural for people to want power, but then I think you have to decide what you mean by power. Is it the power to move people or is it the power to create things? You see the problem? Power is such a complex kind of subject, because you see there are certain things in power that are very human and very right and very neat­ – the power, let’s say, of a girl singer to get on the stage and hold an audience by sheer force of her personality or voice. That’s power at a given moment and a given time, but that power is a good power, that power is a creative power, that power is an expression of human personality which is primarily what we are all after and don’t have now – and why we are so buggered up.

All The King’s Men (Directed by Robert Rossen)
STEIN:
 We were talking about ‘Body And Soul’ and ‘The Hustler’. Those two pictures came very much out of your background, didn’t they?

ROSSEN: Yes they did. I once wrote a play thirty years ago called Corner Pocket. It wasn’t done; I didn’t want it to be done, but everybody wanted to do it. It was a play about a poolroom. I spent a lot of my time from about fifteen to nineteen years old, in a poolroom, so obviously I was attracted to it. But the aspect of poolrooms that I was attracted to was not in The Hustler. The aspect I was originally attracted to was my thought that pool halls, at a certain stage in the life of America, were a poor man’s opium den. There was no place in the world where you could lie and be believed like in a poolroom; no place in the world where a guy who was running a laundry wagon, you know, who was a shit, a nothing on the outside, suddenly walks in and shoots a good game of pool, and tells lies. He sits around and bullshits – it’s a place to stay in, you know, till 3 or 4 in the morning or it’s a place to go to at 11 in the morning. That was the basis of my play, but then I read this book and there were other things in it, which were also very valid, which I totally understood. The best kind of pictures you can get are films that are not at all intellectually constructed, but drawn out of your experience and senses.

STEIN: Was the same thing true of your involvement in ‘Body And Soul’?

ROSSEN:
 Yes, I used to fight around. I knew Canada Lee before he became an actor.

STEIN:
 Wasn’t Garfield also a fighter?

ROSSEN:
 Sure. And Canada Lee was about, I’d say, the second top-ranking welterweight fighter in the world before he became an actor. So we all talked shorthand­ – fighting had to have truth if nothing else. I knew Garfield ten – no more than that – fifteen years before. We used to meet on the Intervale Avenue Subway station, and I knew him as an actor. I didn’t have to direct him in certain parts of the film. All I had to say was yes or no because he totally understood it...

Alexander The Great (Directed by Robert Rossen)
STEIN: A new film came out called ‘The Cincinnati Kid’. It has been called a bad ‘Hustler’, but I think ‘Lilith’ was called a poor ‘David And Lisa’.

ROSSEN:
 I don’t think the critic knows what he is talking about. First of all, I never saw David And Lisa, very deliberately. And secondly, the theme of David And Lisa is completely antithetical to the theme of Lilith. I understand David And Lisa is very well made but it is a very small story and has no implication of any size outside of its immediate story. Lilith, I thought, had enormous implications. I think the critics were shocked by it, shocked because I made it. They never expected me to make that kind of picture, because they associated me with something else.

STEIN:
 With the tough type of ‘Hustler’?

ROSSEN:
 That’s right – and I knocked them right on their ass, because critics, once they set you up in their minds, and they have created the image, don’t want you to destroy that image. It is very comfortable and safe and sane for them for – how should I put it – for you to stay in the image. They don’t have to start saying ‘Now why did he make this picture? What made him change? Why did he do it?’ That makes them work, and critics don’t like work.

STEIN:
 Although the style was different the content wasn’t really so different and I think that’s what the critics missed. My question is why do you think that they missed this? They really didn’t examine the social consequences of it at all.

Alexander The Great (Directed by Robert Rossen)
ROSSEN:
 They didn’t all miss it. Some of the critics liked it very much. I just got a copy of the French paper Combat. They understood the picture and liked it very much. Of course, I don’t think a lot of American critics got The Hustler, but the European critics did. I don’t think (film critic) Archer Winsten still knows what the picture was about.

STEIN:
 Do you think the American critics are weak now?

ROSSEN:
 No. I think that everybody is playing a game, they’re wearing masks. They’ve created a certain style for themselves and they live up to this style. I think they are doing things for each other. It’s like the in-group in literature, you know, writing to please each other and I don’t think they do any real work; it’s too easy – they’re established.

STEIN: To change the subject a bit, was ‘Lilith’ a financial success?

ROSSEN: I think that Lilith released today would do better financially than when it was released two or three years ago.

STEIN: Why do you say that?

ROSSEN: Because I think that advances in films go very quickly. In other words, I think audiences catch on more. For instance I think that if Alexander had been released three years after it was released – still being the same picture – it would have done a better business than it did then. You would already have had a kind of audience tuned to historical films which they weren’t at that time.

The Hustler (Directed by Robert Rossen)
STEIN: Do you think part of the problem was that the audiences and the critics were tuned into films like ‘David And Lisa’ and this film ‘Lilith’ came right on its heels, so that they...

ROSSEN: Oh sure. As I said I didn’t see the film David And Lisa so I don’t know, but it was the same subject, although I think Lilith was a more complex picture.

STEIN: I think it’s much more profound.

ROSSEN: Well, maybe that’s why they could accept David And Lisa.

STEIN: But they were looking for the same thing.

ROSSEN: They were, but maybe it didn’t come off. I thought it came off. However, there is one thing I think I missed. I didn’t know it but my star almost killed me. I made a terrible mistake in casting.

STEIN: Warren Beatty?

ROSSEN: Yes. A young guy who wants to do something good, who has all kinds of decent instincts, walks in there, totally healthy and totally well and as he gets into this world, he, too, begins to have doubts and he, too, on the basis of his own experience, begins to get entangled. But, you see, he never gave you the feeling of entanglement, because right from the beginning he belonged in that institution. He was psychotic from the start.

Lilith (Directed by Robert Rossen)
STEIN: Now part of that – I understood this in the film – but part of what drew me away was the slight innuendo that the character was already sick from the beginning.

ROSSEN: Yes, that was in the book too, but the point is you should have gotten the feeling that this American guy had gone through a war experience, come back with a new sense, didn’t want to take that old crappy job they had around, but was a guy who really meant what he said when he said ‘I want to do something.’ You never believed him for a moment. You see, it was wrong casting and there was nothing I could do... I liked the picture. I think what it had to say was an important comment to make for today’s society, because I don’t think it has even been touched yet­ this whole question of inner life. I think there is only one man that I know of in films who really understands how to do it, and that’s (Ingmar) Bergman… I think Bergman does things that are really trying to get into the twentieth century. The whole approach to that part of life which is subjective and yet has to be objective because we have no other defense.

STEIN: What do you think of the films of Antonioni and Sidney Lumet, the American director?

ROSSEN: Antonioni I like. But I think he begins to imitate himself. I liked L’Avventura very much, especially the last part. I can’t say I think very much of the rest of his pictures. Lumet will always do a good picture, but never a great one. He lacks the one thing: spontaneity. Everything is too laid out. Television really got him over the years. It’s all too well planned. That’s why he likes the work in studios. Anybody who likes to work in studios likes to work in them because you cannot improvise. You go on location in a real setting and everything around you leads you into another idea. You can go down, looking for this and you find that. You’ve got to have the guts to have this spontaneous quality of getting it right away.

STEIN: I understand you shot a lot of ‘All The King’s Men’ spontaneously, that you took people, real people, and that you shot in actual hotel rooms?

ROSSEN: Oh yes, I only had one set in the whole picture – the Governor’s mansion – that was the only set.
Lilith (Directed by Robert Rossen)
STEIN: But where was the judge’s house?

ROSSEN: An older house in Stockton, California. I shot the impeachment scene with Stockton lawyers and judges in the courtroom.

STEIN: And the crowd – all the scenes were natural?

ROSSEN: Oh yeah, I even gave the cameramen phony cameras. I didn’t even know what was going to happen.

STEIN: You did the same thing in ‘The Brave Bulls’, didn’t you?

ROSSEN: Totally. The Brave Bulls was all shot on location. I think again there were maybe one or two sets in the picture. I discovered the idea of ‘skills’ from the first picture I did. Of not using actors when the predominant quality of what they are doing is a skill.

I did a picture called Johnny O’Clock. The guys backing the picture were gamblers – gunmen. They were very nice guys, but when it came down to shooting the gambling scenes, it was very funny. They insisted on bringing their own equipment in – the mother-of-pearl chips, their own dealers, the whole business. ‘It’s gotta be effective because we’re well known all over Havana, New York... ’ So I said ‘Fine, bring the guys in; they’ll show the actors what to do.’ And I watched these guys. They were amazing. Nobody could riffle a deck or could make a call or could watch a customer like these guys. So I wondered what I was doing fooling around with actors, and I stayed with that group in the picture. Then when it came to Body And Soul, I knew a lot about fighting. (Cameraman) Jimmie Howe, who used to be the Champion on the Pacific coast, knew a lot of these guys, and he knew a lot about fighting so we decided that in the whole mish-mash there would be absolutely no actors, and that’s the way we shot it.

– Excerpt from Daniel Stein: An Interview With Robert Rossen. Arts in Society: The Film Issue 4 (Winter 1966-67).

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. I watched LILITH for the first time last night. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete