Friday, 22 June 2018

Writing to the Beat: An Interview With Horton Foote

To Kill a Mockingbird (Directed by Robert Mulligan)
One of the foremost American playwrights Horton Foote has had a steady and impressive parallel career as a screenwriter.  He has adapted his plays into novels, teleplays, and films with surprising frequency and success. The list of his script credits includes adaptations of popular works by Harper Lee, William Faulkner, and John Steinbeck. He has the distinction of having twice received an Oscar for Best Screenplay: in 1962 for To Kill a Mockingbird and again in 1983 for Tender Mercies.

The following extract is from an interview with Joseph A. Cincotti in which Foote discusses the influence of the Method technique on his work as a writer.

I know you studied for a long time as an actor and were influenced by the Method. Can you tell me a little bit about Tamara Daykarhanova? 
I stumbled on her early when I was a young actor. A very well-known actress of the 1930s, named Rosamond Pinchot, met me on the street in New York and told me she would pay me to be her scene partner, working with Tamara. That’s how I met Tamara. Tamara Daykarhanova was a student of Stanislavski’s. In Hollywood, Tamara started her own studio [the Tamar Daykarhanova School for the Stage]. She brought into the studio Andrius Jilinsky and [his wife] Vera Soloviova, both from the Moscow Art Theater. They taught the Stanislavski system, which I am very indebted to because it taught me a great deal about play structure. I worked in Tarmara’s studio with Vera for about two years, out of which we started a company called the American Actors Company [in 1938]. I guess, you’d call it an off-off-Broadway company now, but it was over a garage. That is where I first started writing.

What did she teach you? 

First of all, for me there was a whole period of unlearning the bad habits I had picked up in my conventional training as an actor, which was to be very vocal and to work things out vocally rather than to find my inner life. They gave us a whole series of exercises for actors.

To Kill a Mockingbird (Directed by Robert Mulligan)
Are you still, these fifty or more years later, influenced by the Method? Do you still find yourself writing in the beat? 

Absolutely. The whole sense of the through-line, the sense of actions, what people want on stage.

Can you explain what the ‘beat’ is? 

It’s just an arbitrary term. It’s like, what is the beginning of an action and the end of an action, you might say. The first beat of the play might be any moment that begins and ends.

The smallest unit of acting? 

It could be. As you work on, you try to make the beats larger. At first, you might break them down into infinitesimal beats; then you try to make them larger. Some people use the term ‘beats’. Other people use the term ‘actions’. It all means the same thing, really. The reason I like to use the word ‘beat’ is it’s almost a musical term. It’s like a musical phrase.

How did the Stanislavski system or method help you as a writer? 

It applied to me wonderfully as a writer, because in my work as an actor, I would break a play down so that, without really knowing it, I was studying its structure in the sense of what it was the characters wanted. That’s really much more important than the result of the character: what do they want, what causes the conflict between them, what is the structure of the scene, what is the overall through-line of the play, what is the spine, what does everything kind of hold on to. That was one way in which I could instinctually, as an actor, work on trying to understand the play.

To Kill a Mockingbird (Directed by Robert Mulligan)
Can you think of any other writers you would consider Method or system writers? 

Oh, I don’t think anybody in the modern theater has escaped it. They may think they have. They may disallow it or think it’s tiresome or unnecessary. But you can’t be in our theater and not have been, on some level, influenced either for or against the system or the Method. How is that possible?

Can we talk about ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘Of Mice and Men’? When your telephone rings and someone asks you to adapt a work of literature, what is your reaction? 

Well, I don’t like to adapt, to begin with. It’s a very painful process—a big responsibility— particularly if you like something, which I usually have to do. In the case of Mockingbird, it was sent to me, and I said, ‘I’m not going to read it because I don’t want to do it.’ My wife read it— she’s passed on now—but she had enormous influence on me. She said to me, ‘You’d better stop and read this book.’ So I read it and felt I could really do something with it. [The producer] Alan [Pakula] and [the director] Bob [Mulligan] had offered it to Harper [Lee, the book’s author] to adapt, and she didn’t want to do it. They felt she and I should meet, so they brought Harper out to Nyack, and we had an evening together and kind of fell in love. That script was a very happy experience.

Of Mice and Men (Directed by Gary Sinise)
Was it harder or easier to adapt than you thought it would be? 

Not hard, because first of all, Alan Pakula was the producer, and he’s very skillful. I have to find ways to get into things. I had read R. P. Blackmur, a critic I admired, and he wrote a review-essay about it called A Scout in the Wilderness, comparing the novel to Huck Finn. That meant a lot to me because Huck Finn was something I always wanted to do and still would like to do as a film—if you could, although you would have to wait until the era of being politically correct about it has passed. The comparison to Huck Finn made my imagination go.

Harper also told me that [the character of] Deal was based on Truman Capote, and that was very helpful to me. The contribution Alan made was to say, ‘Now look, just stop worrying about the time frame of the novel and try to bring it into focus in one year of seasons: fall, winter, spring, summer.’ Architecturally, that was a big help. Then I felt I could compress and take away and add from that point of view.

Tender Mercies (Directed by Bruce Beresford)
Of Mice and Men, again I resisted. But I had great respect for [the actor-director] Gary Sinise. My great resistance there was it had been done so much—what in the world could anybody ever say that was different? I had spent my young manhood pretending I was Lenny. Everybody was doing Lenny in those days. But then I reread the novella, and I was struck by how fresh it seemed, particularly how it related to today, with the rootlessness and the hopelessness and the migratory conditions. I felt quite taken with it. Then—I know I’ll get into trouble for saying this, because it’s considered a classic—I happened to run off the [Lewis] Milestone film [Of Mice and Men, 1940], which I decided was terrible. I thought it was full of clichés and everything I didn’t want to do. Gary agreed with me. He said, ‘Don’t pay any attention to that silly thing.’ He had a great passion about the male-bonding idea. He sent me a film, which I’d never seen, called Scarecrow, with Al Pacino, who I think is a remarkable actor, and Gene Hackman, also a wonderful actor. It is a tale of two guys on the road—very different from Steinbeck—but suddenly, I found myself interested in doing Of Mice and Men and exploring it.

Were you on the set of all of your big four films?

No, just the middle two [Tender Mercies and The Trip to Bountiful]. For Mockingbird, I was there for all of the casting. I did some of the screen tests. I played Gregory [Peck’s] part in some of the screen tests with the kids. With [Gary] Sinise, I was there for the first week, and I went back the last week.

Do actors recognize that you are writing in the ‘beat’?

I don’t talk about it. But I think that’s why actors like my work. Mostly, too, because they love the subtext of it.

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