Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Charlie Chaplin: The Lost Interview

City Lights (Directed by Charlie Chaplin)
‘If only one of Charles Chaplin's films could be preserved, ‘City Lights’ (1931) would come 
the closest to representing all the different notes 
of his genius. It contains the slapstick, the
 pathos, the pantomime, the effortless physical 
coordination, the melodrama, the bawdiness, 
the grace, and, of course, the Little Tramp – the 
character said, at one time, to be the most 
famous image on earth.’
– Roger Ebert

‘The Tramp was something within me’ - Charlie Chaplin

In 1966, Charlie Chaplin talked to Richard Meryman about the inspiration behind his films. The full interview was never published. The following extract is an edited version that appeared in Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema, by Jeffrey Vance.

Richard Meryman: This interview is entirely concerned with your work and your art, and nothing else. I want to give some indication of how you work.

Charlie Chaplin: The summation of my character is that I care about my work. I care about everything I do. If I could do something else better, I would do it, but I can’t.

RM Can you talk about the moment you created the Tramp outfit?

CC It all came about in an emergency. The cameraman said put on some funny make-up, and I hadn’t the slightest idea what to do. I went to the dress department and, on the way, I thought, well, I’ll have them make everything in contradiction - baggy trousers, tight coat, large head, small hat - raggedy but at the same time a gentleman. I didn’t know how I was going to do the face, but it was going to be a sad, serious face. I wanted to hide that it was comic, so I found a little moustache. And that moustache was no concept of the characterisation - only saying that it was rather silly. It doesn’t hide my expression.

RM When you looked at yourself, what was your first reaction?

CC It’ll do. It didn’t ignite anything. Not until I absolutely had to play it in the presence of the camera. Making an entrance, I felt dressed; I had an attitude. I felt good, and the character came to me. The scene [from Mabel’s Strange Predicament] was in a hotel lobby, and the Tramp was trying to pretend to be one of the guests just so he can get anchored on a soft seat and rest for a while. Everybody looked at him a little suspiciously, and I did all the things that the guests were doing in the hotel, looked at the register, took out a cigarette, lit it, watched the passing parade. And then I stumbled over the cuspidor. That was the first gag I ever did. And the character was born. And I thought, this is a very good character. But not every character I played followed the same format for all the comedy ideas after that.

One thing I intended to remain - not so much the dress of the Tramp, but the sore feet. No matter how rambunctious or exuberant he felt, he always had these very tired, big feet. I inquired of wardrobe that I wanted two large pairs of old shoes, because I had absurdly small feet, so I wanted these big shoes, and I knew they would give me a comic gait. I’m naturally very graceful, but trying to be graceful in big feet - that’s funny.


RM Do you think the Tramp would work in modern times?

CC I don’t think there’s any place for that sort of person now. The world has become a little bit more ordered. I don’t think it’s happier now, by any means. I’ve noticed the kids with their short clothes and their long hair, and I think some of them want to be tramps. But there’s not the same humility now. They don’t know what humility is, so it has become something of an antique. It belongs to another era. That’s why I couldn’t do anything like that now. And, of course, sound - that’s another reason. When talk came in I couldn’t have my character at all. I wouldn’t know what kind of voice he would have. So he had to go.

RM What do you think was the great appeal of the Tramp?

CC There is that gentle, quiet poverty. Every soda jerk wants to dress up, wants to be a swell. That’s what I enjoy about the character - being very fastidious and very delicate about everything. But I never really thought of the Tramp in terms of appeal. The Tramp was something within myself I had to express. I was motivated by the reaction of the audience, but I never related to an audience. The audience happens when it’s finished, and not during the making. I’ve always related to a sort of a comic spirit, something within me, that said, I must express this. This is funny.

RM How does a gag sequence come to you? Does it come out of nothing, or is there a process?

CC No, there is no process. The best ideas grow out of the situation. If you get a good comedy situation it goes on and on and has many radiations. Like the skating rink sequence [in The Rink]. I found a pair of skates and I went on, with everybody in the audience certain that I was going to fall, and instead I came on and just skated around on one foot gracefully. The audience didn’t expect it from the Tramp. Or the lamppost gag [in Easy Street]. It came out of a situation where I am a policeman, and am trying to subdue a bully. I hit him on the head with a truncheon, and hit him and hit him. It is like a bad dream. He keeps rolling his sleeves up with no reaction to being hit at all. Then he lifts me up and puts me down. Then I thought, well, he has enormous strength, so he can pull the lamppost down, and while he was doing that I would jump on his back, push his head in the light and gas him. I did some funny things that were all made off the cuff that got a tremendous laugh.

But there was a lot of agony, too. Miserable days of nothing working, and getting more despondent. It was up to me to think of something to make them laugh. And you cannot be funny without a funny situation. You can do something clownish, perhaps stumble, but you must have a funny situation.

RM Do you see people doing these things, or do they all come out of your imagination?

CC No, we created a world of our own. Mine was the studio in California. The happiest moments were when I was on the set and I had an idea or just a suggestion of a story, and I felt good, and then things would happen. It was the only surcease that I had. The evening is rather a lonesome place, you know, in California, especially in Hollywood. But it was marvellous, creating a comic world. It was another world, different from the everyday. And it used to be fun. You sit there and you rehearse for half a day, shoot it, and that was it.


RM Is realism an integral part of comedy?

CC Oh, yes, absolutely. I think in make-believe, you have an absurd situation, and you treat it with a complete reality. And the audience knows it, so they’re in the spirit. It’s so real to them and it’s so absurd, it gives them exultation.

RM Well, part of it is the cruelty, there was a lot of cruelty.

CC Cruelty is a basic element in comedy. What appears to be sane is really insane, and if you can make that poignant enough they love it. The audience recognises it as a farce on life, and they laugh at it in order not to die from it, in order not to weep. It’s a question of that mysterious thing called candour coming in. An old man slips on a banana and falls slowly and stumbles and we don’t laugh. But if it’s done with a pompous well-to-do gentleman who has exaggerated pride, then we laugh. All embarrassing situations are funny, especially if they’re treated with humour. With clowns you can expect anything outrageous to happen. But if a man goes into a restaurant, and he thinks he’s very smart but he’s got a big hole in his pants - if that is treated humorously, it’s bound to be funny. Especially if it’s done with dignity and pride.

RM Your comedy in part is a comedy of incident, too. It’s not an intellectual thing, it’s things that are happening, that are funny.

CC I’ve always thought that incidents related will make a story, like the setting up of a pool game on a billiard table. Each ball is an incident in itself. One touches the other, you see. And the whole makes a triangle. I carry that image a great deal in my work.

RM You like to keep a terrific pace going and you pack incidents one on top of the other quite a bit. Do you think this is characteristic of you?

CC Well, I don’t know whether it’s characteristic of me. I’ve watched other comedians who seem to relax their pace. I can feel my way much better with pace than I can with being slow. I haven’t the confidence to move slow, and I haven’t the confidence in what I’m doing.

But action is not always the thing. Everything must have growth, otherwise it loses its reality. You have a problem, and then you intensify it. You don’t deliberately start with intensifying it. But you say, well, now, where do we go from here? You say, what is the natural outcome of this? Realistically and convincingly, the problem keeps getting more and more complicated. And it must be logical, otherwise you will have some sort of comedy, but you won’t have an exciting comedy.

RM Do you worry about sentimentality or cliche?

CC No, not in pantomime. You don’t worry about it, you just avoid it. And I’m not afraid of a cliche - all life is a cliche. We don’t awaken with any sort of originality. We all live and die with three meals a day, fall in and out of love. Nothing could be more of a cliche than a love story, and that must go on, so long as it is treated interestingly.


RM Did you do the eating of the shoe gag [in The Gold Rush] many times?

CC We had about two days of retakes on it. And the poor old actor [Mack Swain] was sick for the last two. The shoes were made of liquorice, and he’d eaten so much of it. He said, ‘I cannot eat any more of those damn shoes!’ I got the idea for this gag from the Donner party [a wagon train of 81 pioneers who, heading to California in 1846, became trapped by snow in the Sierra Nevada]. They resorted to cannibalism and to eating a moccasin. And I thought, stewed boots? There’s something funny there.

I had an agonising time trying to motivate the story, until we got into a simple situation: hunger. The moment you’ve solved the logic of a situation, its feasibility, reality and possibility of being able to happen, ideas fly at you. It is one of the best things in the picture.

RM Did you have any doubts or concerns going into sound?

CC Yes, oh, naturally. In the first place, I had experience, but not academic training, and there’s a great difference. But I felt I had talent, I felt I was a natural actor. I knew it was much easier for me to pantomime than it was to talk. I’m an artist, and I knew very well that in talking a lot of that would disappear. I’d be no better than anybody else with good diction and a very good voice, which is more than half the battle.

RM Was it a question of having an extra dimension of reality that might hurt the fantasy of silent film?

CC Oh yes. I’ve always said that the pantomime is far more poetic and it has a universal appeal that everyone would understand if it were well done. The spoken word reduces everybody to a certain glibness. The voice is a beautiful thing, most revealing, and I didn’t want to be too revealing in my art because it may show a limitation. There are very few people with voices that can reach or give the illusion of great depth, whereas movement is as near to nature as a bird flying. The expression of the eyes - there’s no words. The pure expression of the face that people can’t hide - if it’s one of disappointment it can be ever so subtle. I had to bear all this in mind when I started talking. I knew very well I lost a lot of eloquence. It can never be as good.


RM Do you have a film that’s a favourite?

CC Well, I think I liked City Lights. I think it’s solid, well done. City Lights is a real comedy.

RM That is a powerful film. What impressed me is how close tragedy and comedy are.

CC That has never interested me. That’s been the feeling, I suppose, of subjectivity. I’ve always felt that, and it has more or less been second nature with me. That may be due to environment also. And I don’t think one can do humour without having great pity and a sense of sympathy for one’s fellow man.

RM Is it that we want relief from tragedy?

CC No, I think life is much more. If that were the reason I think there would be more suicides. People would want to get out of life. I think life is a very wonderful thing, and must be lived under all circumstances, even in misery. I think I would prefer life. Prefer the experience, for nothing else but the experience. I think humour does save one’s sanity. We can go overboard with too much tragedy. Tragedy is, of course, a part of life, but we’re also given an equipment to offset anything, a defence against it. I think tragedy is very essential in life. And we are given humour as a defence against it. Humour is a universal thing, which I think is derived from more or less pity.

RM Do you think there is such a thing as a genius?

CC I’ve never known quite what a genius was. I think it’s somebody with a talent, who’s highly emotional about it, and is able to master a technique. Everybody is gifted in some way. The average man has to differentiate between doing a regular sort of unimaginative job, and the fellow who’s a genius doesn’t. He does something different, but does this very well. Many a jack-of-all-trades has been mistaken for a genius.

– This is an edited extract from an interview in Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema, by Jeffrey Vance. A copy of the complete transcript, from which this excerpt was taken, is preserved in the Chaplin Archives.

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

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).

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

David Lynch: In the City of Dreams

Mulholland Drive (Directed by David Lynch)
David Lynch’s ‘Mulholland Drive’ was originally developed as a two-hour pilot for a TV series in 1999, but was rejected by ABC. It was re-conceived by Lynch as a feature film with $7 million in French funding from CanalPlus. The extra money allowed for additional shooting and a new round of post-production. ‘Mulholland Drive’ premiered at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival to critical acclaim. David Lynch spoke about the film to music website NY Rock in Oct. 2001:

NY Rock: Your actors often say they have no idea what your movies are about when they’re making them. Do you like keeping your cast as disoriented as your characters?
      
David Lynch: Well, not like a game, no. But what’s important is that the actors have all they need to go forward with a character. Just like the way we all go through the world. We don’t know all there to is know about the world. But we know our role, even though to a certain degree we don’t know that. So it’s partly to protect the whole thing, and not have anything leak out of it. Sometimes, when you say things out loud, some of the power leaks out of the thing.
  
Is it important to you that the audience comes away satisfied with understanding what they’ve just seen?
      
Yes. In that process, the characters walk in. They start talking, you feel a mood, and you see a thing. And it can string itself together into a story that thrills you. Since I’m a human being, and if I stay true to those ideas that were thrilling to me, I hope that others have that same thrill. And the beauty of it is that I enjoy catching the ideas. I enjoy translating them, and I enjoy sharing them.
  
Are we supposed to not quite know what’s going on with some of these characters when the movie is over?
      
I think you do. It’s like eventually life seems to make sense, even though a lot of times it doesn’t seem to, or little bits of it don’t. And I think that with the human mind and intuition going to work, there’s some feeling your way to know what every character is. The mind can almost not help itself, but go and find harmonics in the real world.
  
How do you develop a movie like ‘Mulholland Drive’, that is so episodic?
      
When you make a feature film, there are ideas that like come on a Tuesday, and ideas that may come three months later, that go in the story before the ideas you got on Tuesday. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that one day the whole thing is done. 

And how it got there is made up of so many strange things, that it isn’t funny. It’s just a blessing that it’s done, and you feel good about it. That’s the way anything happens. Like paintings take so many strange courses before the painter says, this is finished. 

I like to go into a theater, see those curtains open, and feel the lights going down. And go into a world and have an experience, knowing as little as I possibly can. And I think we owe it to an audience to let them experience a thing for themselves.

Mulholland Drive (Directed by David Lynch)
Mulholland Drive is quite an enigmatic tale. Are you obsessed with mysteries?
      
Well, I don’t like mysteries that involve the government and foreign countries, and things like that. I like closer-to-home mysteries. Like Rear Window, that’s my cup of tea.
  
How important is style when you’re telling a story?
      
Style comes out of ideas. Sound, pace and locations come out of ideas. Characters, everything comes out of ideas. Never go against the ideas, stay true to them. And it will always tell you the way you go.
  
How do you work so eccentrically within Hollywood?
      
I’m not within the Hollywood system. I’ve never made a studio picture. I live in Hollywood and I love Hollywood. But there is no such thing as the Hollywood system. It’s always changing. And I’m surprised that I’ve been so fortunate, that I keep getting to make films. But I’m not part of the system.
  
But you’re very vocal against the Hollywood establishment in ‘Mulholland Drive’. You pretty much equate them with thugs and gangsters.
      
Yeah, but if I said, Okay, I’m going to make a film about the Hollywood industry, that would be absurd. It came out of the ideas. This story is a little bit about the business in what it touches, but it’s about other things as well.
  
What do you admire about Hollywood, and is that an easy question to answer?
      
It doesn’t matter if it’s an easy question to answer. I love the light. I love the feeling in the air that I sometimes catch of old Hollywood. And I love the feeling in the air of L.A., of we can do anything. It’s a creative feeling in L.A. It’s not stifling to me, and it’s not oppressive. It’s a feeling of freedom. And maybe it comes from the light. I don’t know; it’s something in the air.
  
Then where does the Justin Theroux character in ‘Mulholland Drive’ fit in, the director who has his hands tied and life threatened by his studio?
      
You can do anything, but sometimes we get ourselves in situations where we run into some trouble. I’m not saying L.A. is a place where you just skip by. There is a feeling, to me, that sure you can get in trouble. But you can get out of it too. And there is a feeling of wanting to create something in that town. I don’t know where it comes from.
  
Why did you choose a coffee shop for the restaurant setting in the movie rather than one of those swank eateries so identified with LA?

That’s the beauty of life, that you can sometimes find good food in a good coffee shop.

Mulholland Drive (Directed by David Lynch)
There are a couple of naked, sex-crazed women in ‘Mulholland Drive’. How do you approach nudity in a movie?
      
Behind it all is not violating the character. And keeping it in line with the fact that at least one of the girls was very much in love. So keeping it in the correct feeling is the key. Too little nudity breaks it, and too much breaks it. So I’m always looking for that balance point, and through action and reaction.
  
What’s behind the darkness of mood that you cultivate with such intensity?
      
It’s not like you do something just to do something. You are true to the ideas. Each scene has a mood, a pace and a kind of feel that the ideas gave you. And so you try to stay true to that, and all the elements that go together to make it.
  
How hard is it to mix sinister and comic moments?
      
No, no, that’s the beauty of it. When ideas come to you that are not just one genre, there are many things floating together. It’s beautiful, and a lot like real life. You know, you’re laughing in the morning and crying in the afternoon, and there’s a strange event after lunch. It’s just the way it is.
  
What are you thoughts about the influence of the digital revolution on moviemaking?
      
It’s just like the pencil and the paper. Everybody’s got a pencil and paper, but how many great things are written. These are tools, but you have to focus on the ideas and tell the story. It’s all about the story, and how the story is told. 

Some of these new tools do open the world for a bunch of new stories. But I don’t think we know what those are yet, because right now this is kind of an experimental time. But I think a bunch of stories are going to pop up that marry with those kinds of new qualities.

– Excerpted from ‘Prairie Miller: Interview with David Lynch’ at NY Rock.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Ingmar Bergman: Why I Make Movies

Fanny and Alexander (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
In a 1960 magazine article, Ingmar Bergman wrote about how a film begins for him – ‘with a chance remark... a few bars of music, a shaft of light across the street’. His respect for the magic of movies remains an inspiration for writers and directors today.

During the shooting of The Virgin Spring, we were up in the northern province of Dalarna in May and it was early one morning, about half past seven. The landscape there is rugged, and our company was working beside a little lake in the forest. It was very cold, about 30 degrees, and from time to time a few snowflakes fell through the gray, rain-dimmed sky. The company was dressed in a strange variety of clothing – raincoats, oil slickers, Icelandic sweaters, leather jackets, old blankets, coachmen’s coats, medieval robes. Our men had laid some 90 feet of rusty, buckling rail over the difficult terrain, to dolly the camera on. We were all helping with the equipment – actors, electricians, make-up men, script girl, sound crew – mainly to keep warm.

Suddenly someone shouted and pointed toward the sky. Then we saw a crane high above the fir trees, and then another, and then several cranes, floating majestically in a circle above us. We all dropped what we were doing and ran to the top of a nearby hill to see the cranes better. We stood there for a long time, until they turned westward and disappeared over the forest. And suddenly I thought: This is what it means to make a movie in Sweden.

This is what can happen, this is how we work together with our old equipment and little money, and this is how we can suddenly drop everything for the love of four cranes floating above the treetops.

Smiles of a Summer Night (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
My association with film goes back to the world of childhood. My grandmother had a very large old apartment in Uppsala. I used to sit under the dining room table there, ‘listening’ to the sunshine that came in through the gigantic window. The bells of the cathedral went ding dong, and the sunlight moved about and ‘sounded’ in a special way. One day, when winter was giving way to spring and I was five years old, a piano was being played in the next apartment. It played waltzes, nothing but waltzes. On the wall hung a large picture of Venice. As the sunlight moved across the picture, the water in the canal began to flow, the pigeons flew up from the square, gesticulating people were engaged in inaudible conversation. Bells sounded, not from Uppsala Cathedral, but from the picture itself. And the piano music also came from that remarkable picture of Venice.

A child who is born and brought up in a vicarage acquires an early familiarity with life and death behind the scenes. Father performed funerals, marriages, baptisms; he gave advice and prepared sermons. The Devil was an early acquaintance, and in the child’s mind there was a need to personify him. This is where my magic lantern came in. It consisted of a small metal box with a carbide lamp – I can still remember the smell of the hot metal – and colored glass slides: Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, and all the others. The Wolf was the Devil, without horns but with a tail and a red mouth, strangely real yet incomprehensible, a picture of wickedness and temptation on the flowered wall of the nursery.

When I was 10 years old, I received my first rattling film projector, with its chimney and lamp. I found it both mystifying and fascinating. The first film I had was nine feet long and brown in color. It showed a girl lying asleep in a meadow who woke up and stretched out her arms, then disappeared to the right. That was all there was to it. The film was a great success and was projected every night until it broke and could not be mended anymore.

The Seventh Seal (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
This little rickety machine was my first conjuring set. And even today I remind myself with childish excitement that, since cinematography is based on deception of the human eye, I really am a conjurer. I have worked it out that if I see a film with a running time of one hour, I sit through 27 minutes of complete darkness – the blankness between frames. When I show a film, I am guilty of deceit. I use an apparatus which is constructed to take advantage of a certain human weakness, an apparatus with which I can sway my audience in a highly emotional manner – make them laugh, scream with fright, smile, believe in fairy stories, become indignant, feel shocked, charmed, deeply moved, or perhaps yawn with boredom. Thus I am either an impostor or, where the audience is willing to be taken in, a conjurer. I perform conjuring tricks with an apparatus so expensive and so wonderful that any performer in history would have given anything to own or to make use of it.

A film for me begins with something very vague – a chance remark or a bit of conversation, a hazy but agreeable event unrelated to any particular situation. It can be a few bars of music, a shaft of light across the street. Sometimes in my work at the theater I have envisioned actors made up for yet unplayed roles.

These are split-second impressions that disappear as quickly as they come, yet leave behind a mood – like pleasant dreams. It is a mental state, not an actual story, but one abounding in fertile associations and images. Most of all, it is a brightly colored thread sticking out of the dark sack of the unconscious. If I begin to wind up this thread, and do so carefully, a complete film will emerge.

Wild Strawberries (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
This primitive nucleus strives to achieve definite form, moving in a way that may be lazy and half-asleep at first. Its stirring is accompanied by vibrations and rhythms that are very special, and unique to each film. The picture sequences then assume a pattern in accordance with these rhythms, obeying laws born out of and conditioned by my original stimulus.

If that embryonic substance seems to have enough strength to be made into a film, I decide to materialize it. Then comes something very complicated and difficult: the transformation of rhythms, moods, atmosphere, tensions, sequences, tones, and scents into words and sentences, into an understandable screenplay. This is an almost impossible task.

The only thing that can be satisfactorily transferred from that original complex of rhythms and moods is the dialogue, and even dialogue is a sensitive substance that may offer resistance. Written dialogue is like a musical score, almost incomprehensible to the average person. Its interpretation demands a technical knack plus a certain kind of imagination and feeling – qualities that are often lacking even among actors. One can write dialogue, but how it should be delivered, its rhythm and tempo, what is to take place between the lines – all this must be omitted for practical reasons. A script with that much detail would be unreadable. I try to squeeze instructions as to location, characterization, and atmosphere into my screenplays in understandable terms, but the success of this depends on my writing ability and the perceptiveness of the reader, which are not predictable.

Through a Glass Darkly (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
Now we come to essentials by which I mean montage, rhythm, and the relation of one picture to another: the vital third dimension without which the film is merely a dead product from a factory. Here I cannot clearly give a key, as in a musical score, or a specific idea of the tempo that determines the relationship of the elements involved. It is quite impossible for me to indicate the way in which the film ‘breathes’ and pulsates.

I have often wished for a kind of notation which would enable me to put on paper all the shades and tones of my vision, to record distinctly the inner structure of a film. For when I stand in the artistically devastating atmosphere of the studio, my hands and head full of all the trivial and irritating details that go with motion picture production, it often takes a tremendous effort to remember how I originally saw and thought out this or that sequence, or what the relation was between the scene of four weeks ago and that of today. If I could express myself clearly, in explicit symbols, then the irrational factors in my work would be almost eliminated, and I could work with absolute confidence that whenever I liked I could prove the relationship between the part and the whole and put my finger on the rhythm, the continuity of the film. Thus the script is a very imperfect technical basis for a film. And there is another important point that I should like to mention in this connection. Film has nothing to do with literature; the character and substance of the two art forms are usually in conflict. This probably has something to do with the receptive process of the mind. The written word is read and assimilated by a conscious act of the will in alliance with the intellect; little by little it affects the imagination and the emotions. The process is different with a motion picture. When we experience a film, we consciously prime ourselves for illusion; putting aside will and intellect, we make way for it in our imagination. The sequence of images plays directly on our feelings without touching on the intellect.

The Silence (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
Music works in the same fashion; I would say that there is no art form that has as much in common with film as music. Both affect our emotions directly, not by way of the intellect. And film is mainly rhythm; it is inhalation and exhalation in continuous sequence. Ever since childhood, music has been my greatest source of recreation and stimulation, and I often experience a film or play musically.

It is mainly because of this difference between film and literature that we should avoid making films out of books. The irrational dimension of a literary work, the germ of its existence, is often untranslatable into visual terms – and it, in turn, destroys the special, irrational dimension of the film. If, despite this, we wish to translate something literary into film terms, we must make an infinite number of complicated adjustments that often bear little or no fruit in proportion to the effort expended. I myself have never had any ambition to be an author. I do not want to write novels, short stories, essays, biographies, or even plays for the theater. I only want to make films – films about conditions, tensions, pictures, rhythms, and characters that are in one way or another important to me. The motion picture and its complicated process of birth are my methods of saying what I want to my fellow men. I am a filmmaker, not an author.

Thus the writing of the script is a difficult period but a useful one, for it compels me to prove logically the validity of my ideas. In doing this, I am caught in a conflict – a conflict between my need to transmit a complicated situation through visual images and my desire for absolute clarity. I do not intend my work to be solely for the benefit of myself or the few but for the entertainment of the general public. The wishes of the public are imperative. But sometimes I risk following my own impulse, and it has been shown that the public can respond with surprising sensitivity to the most unconventional line of development.

Winter Light (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
When shooting begins, the most important thing is that those who work with me feel a definite contact, that all of us somehow cancel out our conflicts through working together. We must pull in one direction for the sake of the work at hand. Sometimes this leads to dispute, but the more definite and clear the ‘marching orders,’ the easier it is to reach the goal which has been set. This is the basis of my conduct as director, and perhaps the explanation for much of the nonsense that has been written about me.

While I cannot let myself be concerned with what people think and say about me personally, I believe that reviewers and critics have every right to interpret my films as they like. I refuse to interpret my work to others, and I cannot tell the critic what to think; each person has the right to understand a film as he sees it. Either he is attracted or repelled. A film is made to create reaction. If the audience does not react one way or another, it is an indifferent work and worthless.

I do not mean by this that I believe in being ‘different’ at any price. A lot has been said about the value of originality, and I find it foolish; either you are original or you are not. It is completely natural for artists to take from and give to each other, to borrow from and experience one another. In my own life, my great literary experience was Strindberg. There are works of his which can still make my hair stand on end. And it is my dream to produce his A Dream Play someday.

The Virgin Spring (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
On a personal level, there are many people who have meant a great deal to me. My father and mother were certainly of vital importance, not only in themselves but because they created a world for me to revolt against. In my family there was an atmosphere of hearty wholesomeness that I, a sensitive young plant, scorned and rebelled against. But that strict middle-class home gave me a wall to pound on, something to sharpen myself against. At the same time my family taught me a number of values – efficiency, punctuality, a sense of financial responsibility – which may be ‘bourgeois’ but are nevertheless important to the artist. They are part of the process of setting for oneself severe standards. Today as a filmmaker I am conscientious, hardworking, and extremely careful; my films involve good craftsmanship, and my pride is the pride of a good craftsman.

Among the people who have meant something in my professional development is Alf Sjöberg, who directed my first screenplay, Torment, and taught me a great deal, as did [film producer] Lorens Marmstedt after I directed my first (unsuccessful) movie. I learned from Marmstedt the one unbreakable rule: You must look at your own work very coldly and clearly; you must be a devil to yourself in the screening room when watching the day’s rushes. Then there is [screenwriter] Herbert Grevenius, one of the few who believed in me as a writer. I had trouble with scriptwriting and was reaching out more and more to the drama, to dialogue, as a means of expression. He gave me great encouragement.

Finally, there is Carl-Anders Dymling, my producer. He is crazy enough to place more faith in the creative artist’s sense of responsibility than in calculations of profit and loss. I am thus able to work with an integrity that has become the very air I breathe – one of the main reasons I do not want to work outside of Sweden. The moment I lose this freedom I will cease to be a filmmaker, because I have no skill in the art of compromise. My only significance in the world of film lies in the freedom of my creativity.

Persona (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
Today, the ambitious filmmaker is obliged to walk a tightrope without a net. He may be a conjurer, but no one conjures the producer, the bank director, or the theater owners when the public refuses to go to see a film and lay down the money by which producer, bank director, theatre owner, and conjurer live. The conjurer may then be deprived of his magic wand. I would like to be able to measure the amount of talent, initiative, and creative ability that has been destroyed by the film industry in its ruthlessly efficient sausage machine. What was play to me once has now become a struggle. Failure, criticism, public indifference all hurt more today than yesterday. The brutality of the industry is unmasked – yet that can be an advantage.

So much for people and the film business. I have been asked, as a clergyman’s son, about the role of religion in my thinking and filmmaking. To me, religious problems are continuously alive. I never cease to concern myself with them, and my concern goes on every hour of every day. Yet it does not take place on the emotional level but on an intellectual one. Religious emotion, religious sentimentality, is something I got rid of long ago – I hope. The religious problem is an intellectual one to me: the problem of my mind in relation to my intuition. The result is usually some kind of tower of Babel. Philosophically, there is a book that was a tremendous experience for me: Eino Kaila’s Personality. His thesis that man lives strictly according to his needs – negative and positive – was shattering to me, but terribly true. And I built on this ground.

People ask what are my intentions with my films – my aims. It is a difficult and dangerous question, and I usually give an evasive answer: I try to tell the truth about the human condition, the truth as I see it. This answer seems to satisfy everyone, but it is not quite correct. I prefer to describe what I would like my aim to be.

Shame (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
There is an old story of how the Cathedral of Chartres was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Then thousands of people came from all points of the compass, like a giant procession of ants, and together they began to rebuild the cathedral on its old site. They worked until the building was completed – master builders, artists, laborers, clowns, noblemen, priests, burghers. But they all remained anonymous, and no one knows to this day who rebuilt the Cathedral of Chartres.

Regardless of my own beliefs and my own doubts, which are unimportant in this connection, it is my opinion that art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship. It severed an umbilical cord and now lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. In former days the artist remained unknown and his work was to the glory of God. He lived and died without being more or less important than other artisans; ‘eternal values,’ ‘immortality,’ and ‘masterpiece’ were terms not applicable to his case. The ability to create was a gift. In such a world flourished invulnerable assurance and natural humility.

Today the individual has become the highest form, and the greatest bane, of artistic creation. The smallest wound or pain of the ego is examined under a microscope as if it were of eternal importance. The artist considers his isolation, his subjectivity, his individualism almost holy. Thus we finally gather in one large pen, where we stand and bleat about our loneliness without listening to each other and without realizing that we are smothering each other to death. The individualists stare into each other’s eyes and yet deny each other’s existence. We walk in circles, so limited by our own anxieties that we can no longer distinguish between true and false, between the gangster’s whim and the purest ideal.

Thus if I am asked what I would like the general purpose of my films to be, I would reply that I want to be one of the artists in the cathedral on the great plain. I want to make a dragon’s head, an angel, a devil – or perhaps a saint – out of stone. It does not matter which; it is the sense of satisfaction that counts. Regardless of whether I believe or not, whether I am a Christian or not, I would play my part in the collective building of the cathedral.


– This story was originally published in September 1960 issue of Horizon magazine. Reprinted here.


Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Writing with Buñuel


The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie (Directed by Luis Buñuel)

Jean-Claude Carriere collaborated with Luis Bunuel on six film classics including The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie and Belle Du Jour. Here he describes their unique way of working:

Buñuel had a type of surreal, I would say, tendency, or inclination and I did as well. We were never rational. When he made An Andalusian Dog, his first film with Salvador Dali they had one rule. The rule was that when one of them proposed an idea the other had three seconds, no more, to say yes or no. They didn't want the brain to intervene. They wanted an instinctive reaction coming, hopefully, from their subconscious.

We used this process often although it was not easy. When you propose something you always want to explain your reasons for why you proposed this or that. And that must be - you know - put aside. It is a very difficult way of working. It requires a very alert mind to constantly be creative and invent and find new things to propose - all without becoming exhausted. Gradually, step by step you discover, and I'm quoting Buñuel here, that the human imagination is a muscle that can be trained and developed like memory. It is one of the faculties of the brain that knows no limits. If I learned one thing from Buñuel, that would be it.

- Jean-Claude Carrière 

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Billy Wilder: Writing Pictures


Sunset Boulevard (Directed by Billy Wilder)

Billy Wilder on novelists in Hollywood and the craft of screenwriting:

Interviewer: Why have so many novelists and playwrights from the East, people like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker, had such a terrible time out here [in Hollywood]?

Billy Wilder: Well, because they were hired for very big amounts of money. I remember those days in New York when one writer would say to the other, I'm broke. I'm going to go to Hollywood and steal another fifty thousand. Moreover, they didn't know what movie writing entailed. You have to know the rules before you break them, and they simply didn't school themselves. I'm not just talking about essayists or newspapermen; it was even the novelists. None of them took it seriously, and when they would be confronted by their superior, the producer or the director, who had a louder voice and the weight of the studio behind them, they were not particularly interested in taking advice. Their idea was, Well, crap, everybody in America has got a screenplay inside them--the policeman around the corner here, the waiter in Denver. Everybody. And his sister! I've seen ten movies. Now, if they would only let me do it my way . . . But it's not that easy. To begin to make even a mediocre film you have to learn the rules. You have to know about timing, about creating characters, a little about camera position, just enough to know if what you're suggesting is possible. They pooh-poohed it.

I remember Fitzgerald when he was working at Paramount and I was there working with Brackett. Brackett, who was from the East, had written novels and plays, and had been at Paramount for years. Brackett and I used to take breaks and go to the little coffee joint across the street from the studio. Oblaths! we used to say. The only place in the world you can get a greasy Tom Collins. Whenever we saw Scott Fitzgerald there, we'd talk with him, but he never once asked us anything about writing screenplays.

Pictures are something like plays. They share an architecture and a spirit. A good picture writer is a kind of poet, but a poet who plans his structure like a craftsman and is able to tell what's wrong with the third act. What a veteran screenwriter produces might not be good, but it would be technically correct; if he has a problem in the third act he certainly knows to look for the seed of the problem in the first act. Scott just didn't seem particularly interested in any of these matters.

- Billy Wilder (from the Paris Review Interviews)

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Patricia Highsmith II: The Talented Mr. Ripley

Plein Soleil/Purple Noon (Directed by Rene Clement)

The second part of Patricia Highsmith’s 1988 interview from Sight And Sound. She discusses other cinematic adaptations of her books including the Ripley series - the best of which is René Clément’s stylish 1960 adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley - Plein Soleil (Purple Noon) - starring Alain Delon as the pathological Ripley who ingratiates himself into the lives of the rich and idle. 

Several of Highsmith’s favorite versions of her works have been for television: a West German adaptation of Deep Water, and a Quebec retelling of several short stories. She thinks Le Meurtier (Enough Rope, 1963), from her 1954 novel, The Blunderer, is ‘a jolly good film,’ and she is negotiating now to sell rights for a remake. She must choose between competing bidders: an Italian producer and French filmmaker, Claude Chabrol.

‘Lately I ask for 4, 5 ,6-page treatments from [potential] buyers of my books. I turn down plenty of them because they aren’t inspired.’ Le Meurtier, directed by Claude Autant-Lara, moved Highsmith’s New York setting to Southern France. ‘I hope this time it will be set in California,’ she says. And why? A character in The Blunderer is a sadistic New Jersey policeman who commutes into New York and beats up murder suspects as part of his investigations. ‘In a way, I made a mistake,’ Highsmith admits, ‘because a New Jersey policeman can’t operate that way in New York. But in California, he can move between different counties.’

In 1952, under the nom de plume Claire Morgan, Highsmith published The Price of Salt, a novel of lesbian love, notably radical in its day for having a happy ending. The heroine, Therese, rejects her boyfriend (who is given to quoting from A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man) for a passionate new life in the arms of sophisticated Carol. This was Highsmith’s only overtly gay novel prior to her new Found in the Street, which is set in the casually bisexual New York art world. Critics, however, have noted homosexual underpinning in Highsmith’s many tales of unusual male friendships, especially the four Ripley novels. Tom Ripley is constantly mistaken for being ‘queer.’ He likes to attend all-guy parties and to masquerade in other men’s clothes, particularily the garments of males who obsess him. In The Talented Mr. Ripley, he develops an undeniable crush on Dickie Greenleaf. When Greenleaf spurns him, Ripley kills the young man, By the fourth novel, The Boy Who Followed Ripley, her hero, Tom, has committed eight murders (by Highsmith’s count) and got away with all of them.

‘I don’t think Ripley is gay,’ Highsmith says adamantly in Toronto. ’He appreciates good looks in other men, that’s true. But he’s married in later books. I’m not saying he’s very strong in the sex department. But he makes it in bed with his wife.’ In The American Friend, an idiosyncratic reading of Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game, Wim Wenders made Ripley (Dennis Hopper) into a bachelor once again. ’Ripley has some nice friends though,’ Wenders told an interviewer. ’He’s not a solitary and he’s not a homosexual. Not explicitly. But the way he handles Jonathan has a lot to do with homosexuality.’ When these comments were quoted to her, Highsmith counters, ’Ripley is married. And he’s not lost. He has his feet on the ground.’ As for Wenders, Highsmith says, ’He mingled two books for The American Friend. One of them he didn’t buy.’ (Wenders’ frame story concerns forged paintings, a plot fragment borrowed, uncredited, from Ripley Under Ground).

The American Friend (Directed by Wim Wenders)
Highsmith met Wenders before The American Friend, when he tried to buy film rights to one of her books. According to Wenders, the novels he was interested in, Cry of the Owl and The Tremor of Forgery, were already optioned. Highsmith suggested he read the one she had just finished writing. ‘It was Ripley’s Game,’ said Wenders, ’and I liked it from the beginning.’ And Highsmith liked Wenders. ‘There’s something about him that’s OK. His artistic quality, his enthusiasm.’ The American Friend she concedes, has a certain ‘stylishness,’ and she thinks the scenes on the train are terrific. Also, she liked Wenders’s Paris, Texas. But, back in The American Friend, she is confused by Dennis Hopper’s highway cowboy rendition of Ripley. ‘Those aren’t my words,’ she says of his philosophical soliloquies.

Highsmith thinks that handsome Alain Delon was excellent as Ripley in Plein Soleil/Purple Noon (1959), Rene Clement’s adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, though she was jolted by the ending - not hers - in which Ripley is caught after throwing the murdered Dickie Greenleaf overboard. But perhaps she says, Strangers on a Train’s Robert Walker might have been the best Ripley of all, if he had lived. Alas, Highsmith has become bored in Toronto talking about the movie versions of her novels. Finally, she says, film directors can do what they want with her books, once she has signed the contract. Especially since she isn’t interested in doing the scripts herself. ’I started screenplays two or three times, and I can assure you that I failed. I don’t think in the way a playwright thinks. So if people have bought something of mine, they know by now that I will decline writing it for the movies.

Anyway, I don’t want to know movie directors. I don’t want to be close to them. I don’t want to interfere with their work. I don’t want them to interfere with mine.’ She rarely sees movies. When she does, it is usually to catch up, such as on a jaunt to the Locarno Film Festival near her home. A decade ago, Highsmith was president of the jury at the Berlin Film Festival. ’I was not particularily good at it,’ she remembers. ‘I hated cracking the whip, and these juries turn into political things. Some fellow from the Third World kept hammering for prizes for a Communist film which was rotten.’ An obvious final question. Does Highsmith have a favorite movie of all time? ’No.’ Not Citizen Kane or Casablanca? ‘No, no,’ she says again, but then she smiles to herself. ‘Maybe Gone With the Wind - and it’s a great book as well.’ -

Patricia Highsmith interviewed by Gerald Peary.