Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Terry Southern on Easy Rider

Easy Rider (Directed by Dennis Hopper)
Terry Southern was an influential American short story writer, novelist and screenwriter noted for his distinctive satirical style. Southern collaborated on screenplays for several popular movies of the 1960s, including Dr. Strangelove (1964), The Loved One (1965), The Cincinnati Kid (1966), Barbarella (1968), Easy Rider (1968), and End of the Road (1969). The success of these films helped define the 1960s youth counterculture.

In the following excerpt from an interview conducted with Southern that appeared in the Paris Review in 1996 Terry Southern discusses making Easy Rider with Dennis Hopper.

What was the real story of Easy Rider? There are so many versions of how, and who created it.

If Den Hopper improvises a dozen lines and six of them survive the cutting-room floor, he’ll put in for screenplay credit. That’s the name of the game for Den Hopper. Now it would be almost impossible to exaggerate his contribution to the film – but, by George, he manages to do it every time. The precise way it came down was that Dennis and Peter (Fonda) came to me with an idea. Peter was under contract to A.I.P. for several motorcycle movies, and he still owed them one. Dennis persuaded him to let him (Denis) direct the next one, and, under the guise of making an ordinary A.I.P. potboiler they would make something interesting and worthwhile – which I would write. So they came to my place on Thirty-sixth Street in New York, with an idea for a story – a sort of hippy dope-caper. Peter was to be the actor-producer. Dennis the actor-director, and a certain yours truly, the writer.


I was able to put them up there – in a room, incidentally, later immortalized by the sojourn of Dr. W.S. Benway (Burroughs). So we began smoking dope in earnest and having a nonstop story conference. The initial idea had to do with a couple of young guys who are fed up with the system, want to make one big score and split. Use the money to buy a boat in Key West and sail into the sunset was the general notion, and indeed already salted to be the film’s final poetic sequence. We would occasionally dictate to an elderly woman typist who firmly believed in the arrival, and presence everywhere of the inhabitants of Venus; so she would talk about this. Finally I started taping her and then had her rap about it, how they were everywhere – Jack Nicholson’s thing with Easy Rider was based on that.


So you can see that during these conferences the hippy dope-caper premise went through quite a few changes. The first notion was that they not be bikers but a duo of daredevil car drivers barnstorming around the U.S. being exploited by a series of unscrupulous promoters until they were finally disgusted enough to quit. Then one day the dope smoke cleared long enough to remember that Peter’s commitment was for a motorcycle flick, and we switched over pronto. It wasn’t until the end that it took on a genuinely artistic dimension. . . when it suddenly evolved into an indictment of the American redneck, and his hatred for anything that is remotely different from himself… and then somewhat to the surprise of Den Hopper (imitates Hopper in Apocalypse Now): ‘You mean kill ‘em both? Hey, man, are you outta your gourd?!’ I think for a minute he was still hoping they would somehow beat the system. Sail into the sunset with a lot of loot and freedom. But of course, he was hip enough to realize, a minute later, that it (their death) was more or less mandatory.

Are you saying that there was no improvisation in the film?

No, no, I’m, saying that the improvisation was always within the framework of the obligations of the scene – a scene which already existed.


Then how did Dennis and Peter get included in the screenplay credits?

After they had seen a couple of screenings of it on the coast, I got a call from Peter. He said that he and Dennis liked the film so much they wanted to be in on the screenplay credits. Well, one of them was the producer and the other was the director so there was no way the Writers Guild was going to allow them to take a screenplay credit unless I insisted. Even then they said there was supposed to be a “compulsory arbitration” because too often producers and directors will muscle themselves into a screenplay credit through some under-the-table deal with the writer. They (the WGA) said I would be crazy to allow it and wanted to be assured that I wasn’t being coerced or bribed in any way, because they hate the idea of these “hyphenates” – you know, writer-producer, director-producer… because of that history of muscle. Anyway, we were great friends at the time, so I went along with it without much thought. I actually did it out of a sense of camaraderie. Recently, in Interview, Dennis pretty much claimed credit for the whole script.

Writers appear to be treated like the lowest of the breed in the film biz.

Yes. Except we still have persuasion.


Thursday, 27 October 2016

Violence and Realism: An Interview with Arthur Penn

Bonnie and Clyde (Directed by Arthur Penn)
‘Bonnie and Clyde’ is a milestone in the history of American movies, a work of truth and brilliance. It is also pitilessly cruel, filled with sympathy, nauseating, funny, heartbreaking, and astonishingly beautiful. If it does not seem that those words should be strung together, perhaps that is because movies do not very often reflect the full range of human life. (Roger Ebert, September 25, 1967).
In the following interview with Cineaste magazine Arthur Penn discusses the making of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the social and mythical background to the film, and the famous final sequence.

Cineaste: ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ was an enormously popular film but also an enormously controversial film. How do you account for the absolutely vociferous critical response, at least from some critics, which condemned the film? Were you disappointed that your artistic intentions were so misunderstood?

Penn: No, I was delighted because they were misunderstood by people who should have misunderstood, like Bosley Crowther, an old wave New York Times critic who at that time was on a crusade against violence in films in general. When he saw Bonnie and Clyde at the Montreal Film Festival, where it was first shown, he is alleged to have said to somebody that he was going to blow that film out of the water. Which he did, in his review, but it was the best advertising we could have had because people wrote scores of letters to The New York Times, which published them. Then Crowther wrote another attack, a Sunday piece, and more letters poured in, and Crowther responded again, and the more he frothed at the mouth, the more it enlisted support for the film.

It was not a film about violence, it was a metaphorical film. Violence had so little to do with it that it didn’t even occur to me, particularly, that it was a violent film. Not given the times in which we were living, because every night on the news we saw kids in Vietnam being airlifted out in body bags, with blood all over the place. Why, suddenly, the cinema had to be immaculate, I’ll never know. Crowther had philosophically painted himself into a corner by arguing that art, and particularly the cinema, has a social responsibility for setting certain mores and standards of behavior, which is a terrible argument, it just collapses in ten seconds. He was in that corner and couldn’t get out of it and it cost him his job...


Cineaste: How do you account for the film’s enormous popularity, especially with young people?

Penn: I think it caught the spirit of the times and the true radical nature of the kids. It plugged into them, it just touched all the nerves, because here were these two who, instead of knuckling under to the system, resisted it. Yes, they killed some people, but they got killed in the end, so they were heroic and martyred in that respect. I must say, in our defense, we knew a little bit of what we were doing, because the studio asked us if we wanted to do it in black and white, and Warren and I said, ‘Absolutely not. It’s gotta be a film about now. This is not a re‑creation of Bonnie and Clyde, they were a couple of thugs. We’re talking about two kind of paradigmatic figures for our times.’

Cineaste: So historical accuracy was never really a concern of yours?

Penn: Never tried, never came near. Of course, they weren’t like that. We were flagrantly inaccurate and said, right off the bat, this is metaphoric.

Cineaste: So when critics wrote that the film romanticized ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, that’s exactly what you were trying to do.

Penn: Exactly. Far from trying to do anything accurate.


Cineaste: And yet the film is not without social commentary on the period. The screenwriters, Robert Benton and David Newman, who have readily acknowledged you as the true auteur of the film, commented that they were more concerned with the mythology and that you were more concerned with social context and commentary.

Penn: What caught my fancy about the script was what I remembered as a child from the Depression, which was people in New York neighborhoods being kicked out of their homes. When I was doing research by reading newspapers from the period, what struck me was the enormity of the banks’ naiveté in holding these mortgages and then foreclosing on farm after farm after farm. It was stupidity of a monumental, punitive nature. They created a nation of displaced people who essentially began heading to California.

These kind of bucolic figures like John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde were called bank robbers by the FBI in order to aggrandize the agency when they tried to capture them. But they were really just bumpkins, who said, ‘The banks are foreclosing on the farms, so let’s go knock off the banks.’ It’s a very simple, retaliatory response, and on a small scale.

Cineaste: So the sequence with the dispossessed farmer was your contribution.

Penn: Yeah, that was a scene I built.


Cineaste: Robert Towne received a credit as ‘Special Consultant’. What was that for?

Penn: He wrote certain little scenes in the film as well as some additional dialog, but very telling dialog. In the family reunion scene, for example, when they go back to visit Bonnie’s mother, that scene was in the original script, but it didn’t include Clyde’s explanation to Bonnie’s mother about how as soon as everything blew over he and Bonnie were going to settle down and live right down the road from her. And she says, ‘You do that and you won’t live long.’ That’s Towne. He made some very salient contributions.

Cineaste: There is much made in the film of the media blowing the Barrow Gang’s exploits out of all proportion. Hoover was in office then...

Penn: Yes, but the FBI had not really been granted a national status, they were not able to go beyond state lines, and very few crimes were called national crimes. I think the Lindbergh kidnapping was one of them, so they began to call almost anything kidnapping and that gave them jurisdiction. It was an effort on Hoover’s part to build a national police force. But in this case, it was the local sheriff, Sheriff Hamer, who eventually did track them down to Louisiana – that part of it is accurate – and did blow them away. They fired something in excess of a thousand rounds of ammunition at them. It’s amazing, the pent up rage must have been enormous.


Cineaste: It’s a remarkable scene in the film, and even in film history. How was it conceived?

Penn: I had a kind of epiphany on this film where I saw the ending, literally frame by frame, before I even came near shooting it. In the earliest days, when Benton and Newman and I got together to discuss the script, I suddenly saw how that scene should look. I thought we had to launch into legend, we had to end the film with a kind of pole vault, you know, some kind of great leap into the future, as if to say, ‘They’re not Bonnie and Clyde, they’re two people who had a response to a social condition that was intolerable.’ So I thought, gee, the best way to do that is to be somewhat balletic, and, having seen enough Kurosawa by that point, I knew how to do it.

What I did do, which I think had not yet been done, was to vary the speeds of the slow motion so that I could get both the spastic and the balletic qualities at the same time. Technically, it was an enormous problem because we had to gang four cameras together, shooting simultaneously from the same vantage point. The cameras were literally joined side by side on a stand. The problem, because of the very fast speeds needed for the slowest slow motion, was that we were using up gigantic magazines and we didn’t even have time to say ‘action’ because the film would go through the camera so fast. So we said, ‘OK, when Warren squeezes the pear, that’s our cue, and everything goes.’


Cineaste: How were the bullet hits applied?

Penn: There were bundles of wires going up their legs and a special effects guy would trip them by making electrical contact with nails sticking up in a row connected to a battery. Meanwhile, as the bullets are going, someone else was pulling an invisible nylon line that took off a piece of Warren’s head, they were both going through contortions with their bodies, and all of this filmed in various slow motion speeds in four cameras.

Cineaste: How long did that scene take to shoot?

Penn: It took three or four days. We would get one take in the morning and one take in the afternoon, because it took that long to prepare. It was one of those insane moments where, as a director, you’re saying to yourself, ‘I see it this way, I see it no other way, so I’m not going to economize,’ and, meanwhile, you can see people whispering on the set, ‘This guy is nuts. What the fuck is he doing?’

I just had this vision. I knew what it would look like and, when I got into the editing room, it turned out to be a true one. Dede Allen edited the film but Jerry Greenberg, one of her assistants, edited that scene, and he was just shaking his head. I came in and I said, ‘Here’s how it goes – this shot, to this shot, then to that shot.’ It was as if I was reading it out of some other perception. I knew exactly what it would look like.


Cineaste: The various scenes of violence in the film escalate progressively in a very clear dramatic purpose. How would you describe your esthetic strategy?

Penn: The best example I can give, quoting from the film itself, is the sequence where Bonnie and Clyde, with C. W. Moss driving the car for the first time, go to rob a bank. They say ‘Wait here,’ and go into the bank, and C. W. proceeds to park the car. Now, everybody in the audience is titillated by that, and is meant to be. Then the bank alarm goes off, and out come Bonnie and Clyde who are asking, ‘Where’s the car?’ It’s wedged in between two cars, of course, because C. W. has parked it beautifully. So, into the car they go and scream, ‘Get out of here!,’ and this enormous comic tension is built up. We’ve got you laughing and laughing, and C. W. finally gets the car moving and, at that point, the guy comes out of the bank and jumps on the running board. Clyde, in a paroxysm of fear, turns and fires, and that first killing is the one that knocks you right out of the chair, because it’s a guy getting it right in the face. The intention was to disarm the audience to that point where, bam!, the shooting occurs, and then comes the scene in the movie theater where Clyde is hitting C. W. and saying, ‘You dummy,’ because he’s expressing his own remorse and panic about having killed somebody.

Cineaste: In that scene Bonnie seems relatively unaffected.

Penn: She doesn’t mind. In our choice of what we were doing, Bonnie had a more romantic view of danger. Once she’d made the determination, from the very first scene, that she was going to go downstairs and join up with this guy, she was on the qui vive.


Cineaste: Is that why you begin the film with her point of view?

Penn: Yes, it begins with a big close‑up of her lips, her hungry lips. I’m sorry it sounds so corny, but that’s what it is – a hunger for something more than her present existence.

Cineaste: Was the film’s visual style influenced by the work of Walker Evans?

Penn: Yeah, we used a lot of his photographs in the titles. The man who did them, Wayne Fitzgerald, kept saying, ‘God, there’s something not right here. I’m going to take the credits home tonight and I’ll bring them back tomorrow.’ What he put in was the sound of that box camera click and suddenly it evoked the memory we all had from our childhoods of that clicking noise of the Kodak camera shutter, and it just made the titles come alive.

– ‘The Importance of a Singular, Guiding Vision: An Interview with Arthur Penn by Gary Crowdus and Richard Porton’. First published in Cineaste, Vol. XX, No. 2/December 1993.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Terry Southern on Stanley Kubrick

Dr. Strangelove (Directed by Stanley Kubrick)
Writer Terry Southern was hired by Stanley Kubrick to make a satire out of a screenplay originally based on the novel Red Alert by Peter George. Released as Dr. Strangelove (1964), the movie takes us into the war room of a certain President Merkin Muffley, to reveal a military culture gone berserk, as its leaders cheerfully prepare for the imminent end of the world.

The following extract is taken from an interview with Terry Southern by Lee Hill in which Southern discusses his experience of working with Stanley Kubrick.

What was the status of the ‘Dr. Strangelove’ script before Stanley Kubrick decided to hire you in the fall of 1962?

When Kubrick and Peter George first began to do the script, they were trying to stick to the melodrama in George’s book, Red Alert [published under the pseudonym ‘Peter Bryant’... There was an outline. They didn’t go into a treatment but went straight into a script. They had a few pages and in fact had started shooting, but in a very tentative way. Kubrick realized that it was not going to work. You can’t do the end of the world in a conventionally dramatic way or boy–meets–girl way. You have to do it in some way that reflects your awareness that it is important and serious. It has to be a totally different treatment, and black humor is the way to go. That was Kubrick’s decision.

When you first got together with Kubrick, did you start changing the tone of the script right away?

Yeah, after the first day, at our first meeting, he told me what the situation was. All those things that I’ve told you were his very words. ‘It’s too important to be treated in the conventional way. It’s unique! The end of the world is surely a unique thing, so forget about the ordinary treatment of subject and go for something like a horror film.’ He decided to use humor. The flavor that attracted him in my novel The Magic Christian could be effective in this new approach. He would talk about the mechanics of making it totally credible and convincing in terms of the fail-safe aspect and then how to make that funny. And the way you make it funny, because the situation is absurd, is by dealing with it in terms of the dialogue and characters.


I’m curious about the day-to-day working relationship with Kubrick as you wrote the film from the preproduction period through the actual shooting.

Well, after my first day in London when he told me what he had in mind, I got settled into a hotel room not far from where he lived in Kensington. That night, I wrote the first scene, and then he picked me up at four-thirty the next morning in a limo. The limo was a big Rolls or Bentley. We rode in the backseat with the light on. There was this desk that folded down. It was very much like a train compartment. It was totally dark outside. If it got light, we would pull the shades down. He would read the script pages; then we would rewrite them and prepare them for shooting when we got to the studio, which was about an hour to an hour–and–a–half drive depending on the fog.

Kubrick is notorious for his organizational mania.

Yes, he loved nothing so much than to go into stationery stores and buy gadgets and organizational aids.

You hear all these fantastic stories about how Kubrick lives. Did you visit his home much when you were in London?

Yes, several times. He has a castlelike structure, a grand old mansion, which has this two–projector screening room. It has electric fences and security devices. It has everything except a moat. He’s super private because he lives for his children. He lives in comfort and luxury in almost total isolation.


Peter Sellers was going to play all four parts originally, including the Texan bombardier. I understand you coached Sellers on his accent.

The financing of the film was based almost 100 percent on the notion that Sellers would play multiple roles. About a week before shooting, he sent us a telegram saying he could not play a Texan, because he said it was one accent he was never able to do. Kubrick asked me to make a tape of a typical Texan accent. When Sellers arrived on the set, he plugged into this Swiss tape recorder with huge, monster earphones, and listened to the tape I made. He looked ridiculous, but he mastered the accent in about ten minutes. Then Sellers sprained his ankle and couldn’t make the moves going up and down the ladder in the bomb bay. So he was out of that part. The doctor told him he couldn’t do it. Then it was a question of replacing him. Stanley had set such store by Sellers’s acting that he felt he couldn’t replace him with just another actor. He wanted an authentic John Wayne. The part had been written with Wayne as the model.
       
Did Kubrick ever try to get Wayne to play the role?

Wayne was approached, and dismissed it immediately. Stanley hadn’t been in the States for some time, so he didn’t know anything about television programs. He wanted to know if I knew of any suitable actors on TV. I said there was this very authentic, big guy who played on Bonanza, named Dan Blocker. Big Hoss. Without seeing him, Kubrick sent off a script to his agent. Kubrick got an immediate reply: ‘It is too pinko for Mr. Blocker.’ Stanley then remembered Slim Pickens from One-Eyed Jacks [1961], which he [had] almost directed for Marlon Brando, until Brando acted in such a weird way that he forced Stanley out.


When Pickens was hired and came to London, wasn’t that the first time he had ever been out of the States?
Yes, in fact it was the first time he had ever been anywhere outside the rodeo circuit as a clown or the backlots of Hollywood. Stanley was very concerned about Slim being in London for the first time and asked me to greet him. I got some Wild Turkey from the production office and went down to the soundstage. It was only ten in the morning, so I asked Slim if it was too early for a drink. He said, ‘It’s never too early for a drink.’ So I poured out some Wild Turkey in a glass and asked him if he had gotten settled in his room. ‘Hell, it doesn’t take much to make me happy. Just a pair of loose shoes, a tight pussy, and a warm place to shit.’ One of Kubrick’s assistants, a very public-school type, couldn’t believe his ears, but went ‘Ho, ho, ho’ anyway.

Finally, I took Slim over to the actual set where we were shooting. I left him alone for a few minutes to talk to Stanley. While we were standing there talking, Stanley went, ‘Look there’s James Earl Jones on a collision course with Slim. Better go over and introduce them.’ James Earl Jones knew that Pickens had just worked with Brando. Jones was impressed and asked Pickens about the experience of working with Brando. ‘Well, I worked with Marlon Brando for six months, and in that time, I never saw him do one thing that wasn’t all man and all white.’ Slim didn’t even realize what he was saying. I glanced at James Earl Jones, and he didn’t crack [a smile]. Slim replacing Sellers worked out well because, unbeknownst to me at the time, the actor that was playing the co-pilot [Jack Creley] was taller and stockier than Sellers. Whereas Slim was about the same size [as the co-pilot] and more convincingly fulfilled the intention of this larger-than-life Texan.


To what extent did Peter Sellers’ improvisation depart from the shooting script?

It was minimal. It wasn’t like Lolita, where he improvised a great deal. His improvisational bits in Strangelove were very specific. One scene that comes to mind is when [Sterling] Hayden goes into the bathroom to kill himself, Peter’s lines are: ‘Oh, go into the bathroom and have a brushup . . . good idea.’ Sellers changed that to: ‘Splash a bit of cold water on the back of the neck . . .,’ which is more of a British thing. That was good.

What was Columbia’s reaction to this subversive black comedy that the studio had helped to finance?

Columbia was embarrassed by the picture and tried to get people to see Carl Foreman’s The Victors instead. At the time we thought we were going to be totally wiped out. People would call up the box office and be told there were no seats for Strangelove and asked if they would like to see The Victors instead. Gradually, the buzz along the rialto built word of mouth in our favor.

Wasn’t there some falling-out between Kubrick and yourself over screen credit following the film’s release?

Stanley’s obsession with the auteur syndrome – that his films are by Stanley Kubrick – overrides any other credit at all. Not just writing but anything. He’s like Chaplin in that regard. That’s the reason why he rarely uses original music in his films. [Since I had] written this great best-seller, Candy, which was number one on the New York Times best-seller list for something like twenty-one weeks, my reputation eclipsed Stanley’s; so I got total credit for all the Strangelove success in Life, the New York Times, and other publications. The credit I was getting was just so overwhelming and one sided that naturally Stanley was freaking out. He took out an ad in Variety saying I was only one of the three writers on the film, the other two being Peter George, and himself. He just lashed out. But it was like an overnight thing. I wrote a letter to the New York Times explaining that there was no mystery involved, and that I was brought in to just help with the screenplay.


Monday, 25 July 2016

John Cassavetes: The Art of Narrative

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (Directed by John Cassavetes)
In John Cassavetes’s personal cinema, the director was always trying to break away from the formulas of Hollywood narrative, in order to uncover some fugitive truth about the way people behave. At the same time, he took seriously his responsibilities as a form-giving artist, starting with a careful script (however improvised in appearance). Nowhere was the tension between Cassavetes’s linear and digressive, driven and entropic tendencies more sharply fought out than in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), one of his most fascinating achievements.


Following up his success with A Woman Under the Influence, the director thought it might be interesting to try a gangster picture to stretch himself, in effect by exchanging the domestic suburbia of quarreling married couples for a more raffish milieu, and meeting the audience halfway with some traditional Hollywood entertainment values associated with the genre: suspense, murder, double crosses, topless dancers. An amiable, courtly nightclub owner, Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara), already in debt to loan sharks, indulges his unfortunate weakness for drinking and gambling, and ends up owing twenty-three thousand dollars to gangsters, who demand that he pay off the debt by executing a competitor of theirs, a mob boss whom they inaccurately describe as a Chinese bookie. The story obeys the step-by-step fatalism of an unfolding nightmare, whereby small mistakes and temptations lead to deeper consequences, such as can be found in classic film noirs with Edward G. Robinson, Glenn Ford, and Jean Gabin. Looked at purely as narrative, there is surprisingly little waste in the script: each scene advances and intensifies the central dramatic situation. Cassavetes even fulfills the genre contract with action sequences (rare for him) that involve shootings, chases, and sinister, underlit garages, perhaps drawing on his own experience as an actor in crime movies. On the other hand, the film’s enduring power comes across most in subtle details of setting and character that play against, or in inertial counterpoint to, these obligatory propulsive scenes.


Cosmo’s strip club, the Crazy Horse West, functions as a viscous flypaper to which the film keeps attaching itself, where time dawdles and dilates in a constant night. (Cassavetes insisted these nightclub scenes be shot through gels, which created stylized pools of isolating red or blue light for the owner-impresario to walk through.) Cosmo has gilded his tawdry peep show with a series of fantasy backdrops, all introduced by the dumpy, epicene master of ceremonies, Teddy, professionally known as Mr. Sophistication, who “takes” the audience to exotic locales. Unforgettably portrayed by the Hollywood screenwriter Meade Roberts, Mr. Sophistication belongs to that tribe Dostoy­evsky called “the insulted and the injured.” He oozes affronted, buffoonish humiliation. But he also epitomizes the needy, oversensitive artist – a self-parody by Cassavetes – who is hungry for the spotlight but believes himself fundamentally homely and unloved. Teddy’s theme song, “Imagination,” becomes the film’s bleak anthem.


At bottom, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a character study of its grinning, self-estranged protagonist, Cosmo, a small-time, rough-around-the-edges businessman trying to maintain an invented persona of Mr. Lucky suavity and charm. The corsages he brings each of his “lovely ladies” – rounding them up as escorts to the gambling joint Ship Ahoy, where they will be forced to witness his defeat – are the perfect expression of his self-conscious, formal punctilio and hunger for class. Gazzara turns in a brilliant performance as the unhappy Cosmo. (That Gazzara was unhappy himself through much of the shooting, finding it hard to sympathize with or admire his character, only reinforces our sense of Cosmo as discomfited with his chump role in life.) Cosmo seems always to be sniffing himself for something rancid or fraudulent. Trying to live up to an elegant standard of sophistication, he mutes his Sicilian street temper with a false veneer of politeness and seductive blather. In a long, revealing speech near the end, he admits that he is always betraying his real nature: “Look at me—I’m only happy when I’m angry, when I’m sad, when I can play the fool, when I can be what people want me to be, rather than be myself.” Ironically, he utters this false confession as a way to motivate the troupe to get back onstage and give the customers what they want – saying, “Choose a personality,” or in other words, Fake it for me. Even at his most sincere, he’s calculating, and even at his most calculating, he is lost, unable to decide what he is undergoing or who he is. One moment he says, “I’ve never felt better in my life”; the next moment it’s “I don’t feel too hot” (no surprise, since he has a bullet lodged in his gut).


Cassavetes clearly believed the self to be a constant bluff, a desperate improvisation launched in heavy fog. He told an interviewer: “People don’t know what they are doing, myself included. They don’t know what they want or feel. It’s only in the movies that they know what their problems are and have game plans for dealing with them.” The closest thing Cosmo has to a game plan is: the show must go on. In one hilarious scene, en route to his prospective hit job, he stops in a phone booth to check up on the evening’s performance: what number are the girls and Teddy doing? He berates his help for not knowing the acts better after all these years. At bottom he is a man of the theater, at its most Felliniesque and flea-bitten. He understands two things: “I own this joint” and “Everything takes work; we’ll straighten it out.” You do your job the best you can, even if it’s just shaking your tits onstage in the no-win ­situation life hands you. It is this sort of philosophical stoicism that informs much of the nobility in Cassavetes’s grubby universe.


The plot’s biggest gamble is to make Cosmo, this likable if screwed-up schnook, actually go through with the killing. Is it plausible that someone so seemingly decent would do such a thing? We don’t know, any more than we know enough about his past to say with certainty whether it’s even the first time he’s killed someone. But if we accept Cassavetes’s model of the self as constantly in flux – provisional, unknowable, yet susceptible to the immediate claims of duty – then we may be better able to make the leap and accept the possibility.

Cosmo’s counterpart in the gangster world is Mort, shrewdly played by that superb Cassavetes regular Seymour Cassel. Morty is another character with a false self, a smiling company man hiding behind an oddly decorous manner; “Will you excuse me please? I have to freshen up,” he says to his dinner companions before ordering another rubout. Not everyone surrounding Cosmo is as empty and amoral, however. Rachel (Azizi Johari), the beautiful showgirl who is Cosmo’s lover, and her mother, Betty (Virginia Carrington), offer him an alternative of tender care. So it is all the more startling when, in a powerful scene toward the end, Betty interrupts his monologue of childhood reminiscence and sweet talk to tell him she doesn’t give a shit. “Cosmo, I think what happened was wrong,” she says, rising to full moral stature, and adds that if he won’t see a doctor to have the bullet removed, then he can’t stay in their house. Without wanting to know how he came by that bullet, she indicates to him that he represents a danger to her and her daughter, and she has an obligation to protect her family. Thus his fantasy that this black mother and daughter are his true “family” crumbles, and he retreats to the club, his only haven. So might Tony Soprano later lick his wounds in the Bada Bing! club.


In 1976, when The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was first released, it bombed at the box office, much to Cassavetes’s disappointment. Critics found it disorganized, self-indulgent, and unfathomable; audiences took their word for it and stayed away. Today, the film seems a model of narrative clarity and lucidity; either our eyes have caught up to Cassavetes or the reigning aesthetic has evolved steadily in the direction of his personal cinematic style. Now we are more accustomed to hanging out and listening in on the comic banality of low-life small talk; to a semidocumentary, handheld-camera, ambient-sound approach; to morally divided or not entirely sympathetic characters, dollops of “dead time,” and subversions of traditional genre expectations.


The film, seen today, generates considerable suspense, part of which comes from classic man-against-the-mob conventions: seeing how the noose of fate is tightened. Part of it, however, comes from Cassavetes’s perverse reluctance to play the game of simple entertainment, offering more complex rewards instead. An example is the scene where Cosmo stops off at a hamburger restaurant to pick up some meat with which to placate the guard dogs before murdering their owner. The waitress, a well-intentioned, matronly blonde, tries to convince her customer to take the burgers individually wrapped, so they won’t make a greasy mess. Cosmo obviously cannot share with her the real reason why he refuses this amenity and is reduced to repeating his request, with mounting frustration, while the bartender acts as a sympathetic bridge between the two. Classic gangster movies or film noirs often feature sharply etched cameos of garage attendants, hotel clerks, or hash slingers, but generally they perform a strict narrative function and then disappear. In this scene, however, the waitress goes beyond that point, threatening to pull you out of the hit-man narrative by insisting on her reality. Cosmo, looking tired and aggrieved, is being forced to acknowledge that every human has a distinct point of view – something he will again have to take into consideration soon enough, when he faces the old Chinese bookie, naked in the bathtub, before deciding whether to blow him away.


In Cassavetes’s cinema, these delays, these eruptions of the messy, frustrating, time-consuming, and inconvenient ways that everyone, bit player to star, asserts his or her right to be taken seriously, are not impediments to the plot but are the plot. This point is made clearer in the original, more leisurely (and, to my mind, better) version of the film, which lasted 135 minutes, as opposed to the second, tightened version of 108 minutes. In the longer version, we learn more odd details about the De Lovelies (the one who doesn’t like champagne, for instance) and get an introduction to the Seymour Cassel character at his most unctuously ingratiating. We are allowed to sink into the moment voluptuously, to see more stage routines in the nightclub, which reinforces Teddy’s/Mr. Sophistication’s role as Cosmo’s grotesque doppelgänger and makes for a better balance between crime and showbiz film. The shorter version is in some ways tougher, colder, more abstract, like a French policier; in the longer, exploratory version, Cosmo takes a while to seem completely lost, alienated. Both versions, however, end in the same ironic way, with Teddy mistaking his padrone’s philosophical spiel as proof that Cosmo “practices the best thing there is in this world – to be comfortable.” Cosmo goes off we know not where, bleeding, possibly to death, and we never see him again. The focus shifts back for the final time to the nightclub, where Teddy sings a despicably hostile rendition of “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” to the audience (and, by extension, to us), and the last line heard in the film is a chorus girl reassuring Mr. Sophistication that they really do love him, even if he thinks they don’t. We could say the same to the now departed Mr. Cassavetes.

– Phillip Lopate: ‘The Killing of a Chinese Bookie: The Raw and the Cooked’. Courtesy of www.criterion.com 


Monday, 27 June 2016

Il Divo: Interview with Director Paolo Sorrentino

Il Divo (Directed by Paolo Sorrentino)
Italian director Paolo Sorrentino’s 2008 film Il Divo tells the story of fabled Italian politician Giulio Andreotti, seven times Prime Minister, who faced accusations of conspiracy, Mafia involvement and state terror. Starring Toni Servillo as a chillingly vampiric Andreotti, the labyrinthine intrigues of Italian politics are used to explore the inscrutable personality beneath the controversy. The following interview with Sorrentino on the making of Il Divo took place at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008.

Directors from all periods have recounted Italy. Do your films talk about the south of Italy, or the country in general? Do you consider yourself a southern director? Do you see yourself as belonging to the tradition of political directors like Rosi and Rossellini?

PS: First of all, I’m very curious about other people. About their psychology, their feelings, their foolish, crazy or routine behavior. I’m interested in characters more than anything else; in real life, and therefore in films. These people who intrigue, fascinate or disgust me, may be Italian and therefore representative, albeit partially, of Italian society, and sometimes symbolic of it, as in the case of Andreotti. Political directors like Rosi and Petri are giants who can never be equaled. You can watch them, but not imitate them. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make political films today. On the contrary, we must. Only we have to find a new approach to keep pace with today’s cinema, which has changed so much since the days of the above-mentioned directors.

You depict a corrupt Italy in your latest film. Has the situation improved since the Andreotti years?

PS: Apparently not. But no one talks about corruption in Italy today, although it exists and proliferates. I think people don’t talk about it because Tangentopoli (Bribesville) was a shock for us. A revolution that did not limit itself to deciding who was honest or dishonest, but, consciously or not, changed politics and the previous political class, with endless polemics, backlashes and terrible personal tragedies.


The characters in your films always exist outside the system, like the singer Tony and the soccer player Antonio, in ‘One Man Up’, the exiled man in the pay of the Mafia in ‘The Consequences of Love’, the squalid usurer in ‘The Family Friend’, and now the exceptional politician. Is marginality a source of inspiration to you?

PS: What you’re saying about marginality applies to my previous films, but not to ‘Il Divo’. Indeed, the opposite is true for this film. Andreotti is anything but marginal. He’s a man of power who knows the ways of the world better than others, who knows how to integrate, to take the lead or to blend in, according to which is most advantageous. He is a man who combines cunning with intelligence at the highest most unimaginable level, which has enabled him to govern Italy for many years.

Aside from marginality, your characters, and therefore your films, are always marked by loneliness and melancholy; why?

PS: These feelings are often seen as negative, while they have always been genuine feelings for me, ever since I was a boy. Melancholy and loneliness stimulate the imagination and fantasy. Moreover, they’re universal feelings that we all have to reckon with sooner or later.

Your protagonists are always very ambiguous but they have a human side, though well-hidden, despite their apparent immorality. Can you explain this paradox?

PS: I don’t believe in precise, univocal definitions when it comes to individuals. People change with time and according to the situations in which they’re involved. You can be human and ambiguous at the same time. I don’t see the individual as monolithic. We are all extremely vulnerable, but very good at adapting and faking.


As a director you have a certain tendency to embellish the ugly. Why is that?

PS: It’s not something pre-established. When you tell a story you’re faced with a series of situations, actions, habits, landscapes. It doesn’t really matter whether they are beautiful or ugly in real life, because a film must necessarily have an aesthetic quality, which, for me at least, has to be gratifying. Cinema has the extraordinary power to change the aesthetic perception of tragic or horrific events. The great war films do not neglect the horror of war, but undoubtedly give it a ‘wonderful’ aesthetic image.

So, is a director’s point of view moralist, in the sense of the moralists of the eighteenth century, as opposed to libertine? For instance, do you think moralists see love as a power and libertines see it as a weakness?

PS: Since I’m absolutely crazy about pop music, whose lyrics are loaded with the word ‘love’, I would simply say that love is a power for everyone.

I get the feeling that for you, the sentimental weakness of your characters is their hidden
strength, and their humanity derives from this weakness. Do you think humanity springs from weakness?

PS: Individual weaknesses or failures can, in many cases, be a means of redemption for a person. It’s simply that an individual becomes stronger when faced with a spectre or when he realizes how low he has sunk. Unfortunately, it’s not a fixed rule. If it were, there would be no more suicides.


Regarding your movies…  How does seeking formal beauty enrich your screenplays?

PS: In various ways. There’s no fixed rule, thank goodness, otherwise a film would be boring.  However, I’ve always liked cinema that strives for formal beauty, and have nearly always remained indifferent, as a viewer, to films that suffer because they appear to develop randomly, haphazardly, even when the latter is simply a technique: The crane in ‘The Consequences of Love’; the loan shark sewing the bride’s dress in ‘The Family Friend’; Andreotti walking along the street in ‘Il Divo’.

How do your create your scenes?

PS: I plan them, at home, before shooting the film. I prepare them twice: first, after reading the screenplay, solely in relation to the story; second, after doing the location scouts, which give me more precise, detailed visual elements for creating a scene. I rarely improvise on the set, and only if I have a brilliant idea. But brilliant ideas are so rare. And they can often be wrong. I imagine the film while sitting in an armchair, and then I draw the storyboard. Besides, that’s what a filmmaker’s supposed to do: imagine the film before it exists. I project it in my head beforehand, and it is always more dazzling and precise than the end-result.

Tell us about the actual shots, which appear to be very important to you. Do you always work with the same cinematographer?

PS: Everything’s important in a film, not just the shots. Even the sound man’s mood or the quality of the catering. Any microcosm, in this case a set, can fall apart for the slightest, most insignificant thing. It’s absurd, but it’s a fact. A single shot, if well-thought out and balanced, can enthrall and say more than ten pages of dialogue – that’s why shots can’t be left to chance or delegated to others. Because it’s my job to make the film communicate and, God willing, to enthrall the audience. I always work with the same cinematographer because, naturally, he’s very good and because an understanding with the crew, and first and foremost the cinematographer, is essential to doing a good job.


How do you compose your shots? Your characters always seem like tiny figures in a vast
setting.

PS: I sit down and imagine the shots, while keeping the scene, the dialogue and the meaning of the scene fixed in my mind. I repeat, I imagine them. I imagine the lenses that are required, the angles, the height of the camera, the camera movements and the characters, and where the focus will be. All these variables are directed towards a single goal: making the scene work according to the presuppositions established in the screenplay. I imagine these things pretty accurately, and make any corrections on the set, together with the cinematographer.

Your direction conveys a vision of the world that is derisive, pathetic and political yet full of hope. How do you explain this paradox?

PS: My ‘vision of the world’ (that’s a bit high-sounding) essentially pivots on irony, which I aim for constantly. I look for it everywhere. I don’t know if it works. Life is tragic enough, and irony is the best antidote.

This is your third film with Toni Servillo. Tell us how you work, how you direct him. How did he get into the part of Andreotti?

PS: My way of directing Servillo has become increasingly minimal with every film. I don’t mean that I no longer direct him, but we know each other so well that we understand each other immediately and there’s no need to explain everything in detail. These are the advantages of knowing one another. I think the secret of our partnership, which, all things considered, is a fruitful one, is trust. An indispensable element, especially when the character is as delicate and charged with meanings as Andreotti. I was very struck by Toni Servillo’s way of getting into the Andreotti character. I had
prepared a lot of footage of the real Andreotti for him, but he chose not to watch it. He preferred to go with the screenplay and the fundamental characteristics I had chosen to depict Andreotti. I think the most difficult thing about this character is his impassiveness, his extreme restraint, because thoughts and moods had to be communicated with the slightest changes of expression while maintaining that impassiveness. So it was certainly not an easy part to play.


What about the scene in which Andreotti confesses while looking into the camera Is it a dream or a fictitious element that has nothing to do with History with a capital ‘H’, since we know Andreotti has never confessed? Maybe this scene will cause a scandal in Italy...

PS: For me, it is a dream. It couldn’t be otherwise. But it is also cathartic, for the film-goer and, perhaps, for Andreotti. I don’t know if I’ve touched on the truth, but, as the author of the story, I felt that, at least for a moment, I had to divert my objective gaze from the character and the events, and hazard an interpretation of things, establish a political, and not a penal responsibility. Regarding the latter, I never presumed to act the judge.

Another scene that conveys the character’s ambiguity is the one in which Andreotti and his wife are watching the Italian pop singer Renato Zero on television: filming the characters in tight close-up seems to fine-tune their emotions.

PS: This is another key scene in the film. I attempted to apply to the Andreottis a ‘dizzying’ dynamic that can occur in any couple’s relationship, in other words, that terrible feeling that the person with whom we’re sharing our life is a complete stranger. It’s an agonizing moment, which leaves us feeling completely lost. I’m sure it happens to all couples who’ve been together for some time. When Andreotti’s wife experiences this doubt it inevitably gives rise to a thousand more. They are no longer the usual doubts, like if your spouse is cheating on you, but doubts concerning the fate of a state, of a country, of millions of ordinary people, because Andreotti wielded so much power over the years that he decided many things in Italy.


Tell us about your relationship with music, which is an important element in your films. It’s amazing how it actually seems to be part of your way of filming. Would you say that your film language is musical?

PS: I’d like it to be musical, but I doubt that it is. Instead, I use the emotions that music arouses to write a scene more effectively. I need music to write a screenplay. It can create dizzying emotions, and a certain feeling of power or suspense – which helps me to create scenes that I want to be powerful or suspenseful. I don’t write a single word until I have a new ‘library’ of sounds that are right for the feeling of the film I’m going to develop. Inevitably, a lot of the music that has inspired the writing of a scene, winds up in the actual film.

– Interview with Director Paolo Sorrentino; via emanuellevy.com

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Jean-Luc Godard on ‘Contempt’ (Le Mépris)

Contempt (Directed by Jean-Luc Godard)
The exigencies of making a movie with a comparatively large budget and stars, based on a well-known writer’s novel, limited the experimental-collage side of Godard and forced him to focus on getting across a linear narrative, in the process drawing more psychologically complex, rounded characters. Godardians regard Contempt as an anomaly, the master’s most orthodox movie. The paradox is that it is also his finest. Pierrot le Fou may be more expansive, Breathless and Masculine Feminine more inventive, but in Contempt Godard was able to strike his deepest human chords. 

If the film is a record of disenchantment, it is also a seductive bouquet of enchantments: Bardot’s beauty, primary colors, luxury objects, nature. Contempt marked the first time that Godard went beyond the oddly-beautiful poetry of cities and revealed his romantic, unironic love of landscapes. The cypresses on Prokosch’s estate exquisitely frame Bardot and Piccoli. Capri sits in the Mediterranean, a jewel in a turquoise setting. The last word in the film is Lang’s assistant director (played by Godard himself) calling out, Action! – after which the camera pans to a tranquilly static ocean. The serene classicism of sea and sky refutes the thrashings of men.  

– Phillip Lopate on Contempt, The New York Times, June 22, 1997.


The following extract is from a 1963 interview with Jean-Luc Godard on the adaptation of Contempt from the novel by Alberto Moravia.

Moravia’s novel is a nice, vulgar one for a train journey, full of classical, old-fashioned sentiments in spite of the modernity of the situations. But it is with this kind of novel that one can often make the best films.

I have stuck to the main theme, simply altering a few details, on the principle that something filmed is automatically different from something written, and therefore original. There was no need to make it different, to adapt it to the screen. All I had to do was film it as it is: just film what was written, apart from a few details; for if the cinema were not first and foremost film, it wouldn’t exist. Méliès is the greatest, but without Lumière he would have languished in obscurity.

Apart from a few details. For instance, the transformation of the hero who, in passing from book to screen, moves from false adventure to real, from Antonioni inertia to Laramiesque dignity. For instance also, the nationality of the characters: Brigitte Bardot is no longer called Emilia but Camille, and as you will see she trifles nonetheless with Musset. Each of the characters, moreover, speaks his own language which, as in The Quiet American, contributes to the feeling of people lost in a strange country. Here, though, two days only: an afternoon in Rome, a morning in Capri. Rome is the modern world, the West; Capri, the ancient world, nature before civilization and its neuroses. Contempt, in other words, might have been called In Search of Homer, but it means lost time trying to discover the language of Proust beneath that of Moravia, and anyway that isn’t the point.


The point is that these are people who look at each other and judge each other, and then are in turn looked at and judged by the cinema – represented by Fritz Lang, who plays himself, or in effect the conscience of the film, its honesty. (I filmed the scenes of The Odyssey which he was supposed to be directing, but as I play the role of his assistant, Lang will say that these are scenes made by his second unit.)

When I think about it, Contempt seems to me, beyond its psychological study of a woman who despises her husband, the story of castaways of the Western world, survivors of the shipwreck of modernity who, like the heroes of Verne and Stevenson, one day reach a mysterious deserted island, whose mystery is the inexorable lack of mystery, of truth that is to say. Whereas the Odyssey of Ulysses was a physical phenomenon, I filmed a spiritual odyssey: the eye of the camera watching these characters in search of Homer replaces that of the gods watching over Ulysses and his companions.

A simple film without mystery, an Aristotelian film, stripped of appearances, Contempt proves in 149 shots that in the cinema as in life there is no secret, nothing to elucidate, merely the need to live – and to make films.


– From an interview in Cahiers du Cinéma, August 1963 (collected in Godard on Godard, edited by Tom Milne, Da Capo Press, 1986) 

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Writing for Hitchcock: Interview with Ed McBain

The Birds (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
When Alfred Hitchcock started work on his film, The Birds (1963), he asked critically-acclaimed New York novelist Evan Hunter (also known as crime writer Ed McBain) to write the script. Hitchcock knew Hunter could work in the Hollywood milieu from his contributions to Alfred Hitchcock Presents (the director’s long-running television show) as well as Hunter’s other screenplay adaptations of his best-selling novels. He later confided in Hunter that he chose a famous novelist to write the screenplay for The Birds to garner the critical respect and recognition that had eluded his other films.

The following interview with Ed McBain (Evan Hunter) was conducted by Charles L.P. Silet courtesy of MysteryNet.

MysteryNet: When did you first meet Hitchcock?

Hunter: I met him after he had done First Offense, which was a serious story of mine, on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I didn’t write the screenplay for that but it was based on my story. When I did write one it was based on a story by Robert Turner. It was a difficult thing to do because the story was just an internal monologue, the kid thinking about the electrocution of his father at 11:00 o’clock. I transferred it to a bar where the kid’s drunk and trying to get drunker and is obnoxious and I put in all the bystanders in the bar to open it up.

This may have been in Hitch’s mind when he called upon me to do The Birds, because the Daphne du Maurier story, The Birds involves just two people in a cottage. They hardly say anything, there’s no dialog in the entire story. Hitch also told me later, and I learned later from other sources, that he was looking for some ‘artistic respectability’ with The Birds. This was something that had always eluded him, and he deliberately chose to work with a successful New York novelist, rather than a Hollywood screenwriter, many of whom are much better screenwriters than I am.


MysteryNet: Tell us a little bit about your experience of working with Hitchcock.

Hunter: Hitch told me on the phone that he had called my agent and asked if I would want to do The Birds. I’d had some stuff done on his television show, so I vaguely knew him. But I wasn’t familiar with du Maurier’s story, so I said ‘Let me read it.’ I read it and it sounded interesting and I accepted the job. But when I spoke with him he said ‘Forget the story now that you’ve read it, because all we’re using is the title and the notion of birds attacking people.’ He said, ‘That’s it. So when you come out to the coast, come out with some ideas we can pursue and I’ll have some and we’ll talk further.’ In the first two days we shot down my ideas and his ideas, and started from scratch.

MysteryNet: And as you worked you worked in tandem?

Hunter: We spent a lot of time trying to figure out who the girl was going to be – that’s Hollywood talk: ‘the girl;’ it ain’t my talk – and ‘the boy’ and figured out how we were going to get the story going. I would come in every day having thought the night before and he would always say ‘Tell me the story so far,’ and I would tell him and then he would start shooting holes in it. He was always thinking in terms of the shot he could get, and I was always thinking in terms of the logic of the actions of the characters. He wanted a scene where Melanie Daniels rents a boat and goes across the inlet and gets hit by a bird. That’s the first bird attack.

I would think why is she going to all this trouble renting a boat when she could easily drive around? But it was a good working relationship. He was meticulous about the circumstances in the script. There are holes you could drive Mack trucks through in some thrillers. He said ‘In my films I’d like to think that if you’d reel it back you’d say, ‘Oh, yeah, there it is.’ Nowadays of course we can do that through video replay.


MysteryNet: You said that you worked with other directors and often times the script gets so changed it’s hardly recognizable. How much of The Birds is really yours?

Hunter: Most of it is. The most noticeable deletion was not shooting the end of the script as I had written it. I had another ten pages of script that he did not shoot, or if he shot I never saw them. And the most noticeable addition was the scene where in an attempt to give the girl some depth at the birthday party for the children Rod Taylor takes her up on a hilltop and removes from one pocket of his jacket a martini shaker, and then from the other pocket two martini glasses and pours martinis for them. On this hilltop they start talking about her empty life.

It’s a stupid scene and I don’t know who wrote it. Rod Taylor said to me, the day they were shooting it and I was on the set, he said ‘Evan, did you write this scene?’ I read it and I said, ‘No,’ and he said, ‘We’re shooting it this morning.’ I said ‘Well, let me talk to Hitch about it.’ I went to Hitch and said ‘This is a dumb scene, it’s going to slow down the movie enormously, slow down the point where the birds attack the children at the birthday party, and it serves no purpose and I don’t think it should be in the movie.’ And he looked me dead in the eye and he said ‘Are you going to trust me or a two-bit actor?’

MysteryNet: What was in the ending that you wrote?

Hunter: Mitch leaves with his family driving a convertible with a cloth top and there was a reason for that. And the reason was that I wanted to make the final assault the birds attacking the car’s top. Also in my version, as we leave the farmhouse we see the devastation that was wreaked on the town itself. We see overturned school buses and signs of people having defended their homes against the bird attacks. So it becomes not just an isolated attack on Mitch and his family but a town-wide attack with implications that it may have gone even beyond the town.


Mitch and his family finally get to another road block and it’s covered with birds and Mitch gets out and moves some stuff and he gets back into the car. As they start driving through it the birds all come up off the roadblock and start attacking the car as they’re driving out of town. In that area in Northern California the coast roads have these horseshoe curves but the birds fly in a straight line after the car, and as they attack the canvas top we see from inside the car looking up all these beaks tearing at the canvas and finally the whole top goes back and the birds are hovering over the car.

Just then the road straightens out and Mitch hits the gas pedal and the car moves off and the birds just keep falling back, falling back, falling back. In the car they all catch their breath and Mitch’s sister says, ‘Mitch do you think they’ll be in San Francisco when we get there?’ and he says, ‘I don’t know, honey,’ and that’s the last line of the movie.

MysteryNet: Why didn’t Hitchcock shoot it that way?

Hunter: I think he was very tired by then, and this would have required a lot of work with the scene in the car where four characters are in a tight space and the camera is in with them watching the beaks and then the scene of the birds hovering and the birds following and the helicopter shots, animation, everything. It was just too much to do.


MysteryNet: What about the restaurant scene which you wrote in Connecticut and you shipped back to Hitchcock in Hollywood?

Hunter: I love that scene, that was like a one act play. Hitch called and he said I need something more. I don’t know how we discovered where we would take them, the central characters, Melanie and Mitch, but once I knew it was a restaurant, ‘The Tides’, then I had the whole scene in place and it just wrote itself.

MysteryNet: It’s a scene which sort of explains, or provides, a kind of logic, to explain the birds’ behavior.

Hunter: That’s right. It’s really a scene of great confusion because nobody knows what the hell is happening. We made, if you’ll forgive the expression, an ‘artistic’ decision early on that we were never going to explain the bird attacks, never. Otherwise the film would become science fiction and we didn’t want to do that.

MysteryNet: Was Hitchcock easy to work with?

Hunter: Oh yeah, I loved working with him. He was like the father anyone wished he would have. He was intelligent, he was world-traveled. He knew everybody, he was famous, he was a star in his own right. I don’t know how many people would recognize Steven Spielberg if he walked into a restaurant, maybe in Hollywood, but I don’t think they would in Iowa. But if Hitch walked in they’d damn well know him. He was a big, big star. One of the few directors I think who has ever had such a high profile.



– Charles L.P. Silet: ‘Writing For Hitchcock: An Interview with Ed McBain’. Original article here