Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Jean-Pierre Melville on ‘Le Cercle Rouge’

Le Cercle Rouge (Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville)
I’m not interested in realism. All my films hinge on the fantastic. I’m not a documentarian; a film is first and foremost a dream, and it’s absurd to copy life in an attempt to produce an exact re-creation of it. Transposition is more or less a reflex with me: I move from realism to fantasy without the spectator ever noticing. -– Jean-Pierre Melville
The following discussion of Jean-Pierre Melville’s masterpiece of crime cinema Le Cercle Rouge is excerpted from Melville On Melville, a book-length interview with the great French director by Rui Nogueira first published in 1971.

How do you feel about your twelfth film, ‘Le Cercle Rouge’?

Since there’s no knowing if there will be a thirteenth, l have to talk about Le Cercle Rouge as though it were my ‘latest’ film – as you say when you’ve just completed a picture – but also my ‘last’ film [Melville would make one more film, Un Flic, in 1972]. Which in turn obliges me to speak about my filmmaking career as a whole, as well as my life as a spectator. Maybe I won’t want to make any more films. That could happen, supposing fate decreed that I wasn’t to be allowed to rebuild my studios here, and I decided to go live in America, not to make films there, but to write. So I really am obliged at this point to take stock of twenty-five years of professional activity and some forty-five years’ activity as a moviegoer. I’ll begin by being hard on myself, before moving on to other people. Then I’ll talk about the film, but also about what it’s like working on a film surrounded by people who haven’t at all the same reasons for being involved in it, for living in it, while it’s being made.
All right, then. If I look at myself very objectively, I realize that I’ve become impossible. Not egocentric – I’m not in the least egocentric – but, if I may be allowed to coin a word, opocentric; ‘opo,’ from opus. As I grow older, in other words, nothing matters except my profession and therefore my work, by which I mean the work at hand, which I think about day and night and which takes precedence over everything – I repeat, everything – else in my thoughts... I’m not talking about my affections, of course. So, I begin thinking about the film I’m working on as soon as I wake up in the morning – and I’m always working on one, even if I’m not actually shooting – and only when I go to sleep at night do I stop thinking about it. That’s pretty extreme, and I was made aware of it last night. I was having dinner with Léo Fortel, and at the next table there were two girls and two young men. One of the two men was obviously part French, part Indo-Chinese... and opposite him was a ravishing Asian girl; I think she must have been of mixed parentage, with extraordinary hair – probably a wig – pitch-black, in Joan of Arc style but longer, and the most fantastic face. I was staring at her throughout the meal, but when Léo asked me if I wanted him to get her name and address, I said no. ‘Really?’ he said. ‘But why not?’ ‘Because I don’t have a film in mind for her,’ I said. And I realized that beautiful women interest me only insofar as I can use them in a film. You see how far it’s gone?
 
Le Cercle Rouge is by far the toughest movie I have tackled, because I worked the plot out myself and I didn’t do myself any favors in writing my scenes. I said to myself, ‘This is going to be difficult to shoot, but I don’t care, I want to do it.’ And I did manage to film what I had written. But instead of completing it in fifty days, which would have been normal, it took me sixty-six days.

What is Le Cercle Rouge? Le Cercle Rouge, to my mind, is first and foremost a heist story. It’s about two professional crooks, Delon and Volonté, and another man, Montand, who is a sort of unplanned helper.

As I’ve told you, I wanted to write a heist script long before I saw The Asphalt Jungle, before I’d even heard of it, and well before things like Rififi. I think I also told you that I was supposed to make Rififi? No? Well, I was the person who got the producer to buy the rights: he announced that I was to direct the film, and then I didn’t see him again for six months. Finally, the film was made by [Jules] Dassin, who had the extreme courtesy to say that he would do it only if I wrote to tell him that I was happy about the arrangement. Which I did.


So I’ve wanted to ‘do a robbery’ since about 1950, around the time I finished Les Enfants Terribles. I’d like Le Cercle Rouge to be masterly, of course, but I don’t know yet if it will be; I think the elements are sufficiently interesting to make a good sequence, and time will tell if I’ve set the robbery in the right context or not. It’s also a sort of digest of all the thriller-type films I have made previously, and I haven’t made things easy for myself in any way. For instance, there are no women in the film, and it certainly isn’t taking the easy way out to make a thriller with five leading characters, none of whom is a woman.

Was ‘Le Cercle Rouge’ one of the twenty-two scripts destroyed when your studio burned down?

No. Actually, with my memory, I could have taken any one of those scripts and rewritten it down to the last comma. But if I had, I would have done it differently. I don’t like to repeat myself. I will never film those burned scripts, because I wouldn’t want to do them now even if I still had them in my drawer – which doesn’t mean that I won’t often use ideas from those scripts, as I in fact did for the relationship between the head of Internal Affairs and Captain Mattei in Le Cercle Rouge.

The Cercle Rouge script is an original in the sense that it was written by me and by me alone, but it won’t take you long to realize it’s a transposed western, with the action taking place in Paris instead of the West, in the present day rather than after the Civil War, and with cars instead of horses. So I start off with the traditional – almost obligatory – conventional situation: the man just released from jail. And this man corresponds pretty much to the cowboy who, once the opening credits are over, pushes open the doors of a saloon.
Originally you had a different cast in mind, didn’t you?

Yes. Captain Mattei, who is played by André Bourvil – and played beautifully – was a part originally intended for Lino Ventura. The ex-cop, Jansen, turned crook and alcoholic, was to have been played by Paul Meurisse and not Yves Montand. And I had thought of offering [Jean-Paul] Belmondo the role of Vogel, finally played by Gian Maria Volonté. I think that if Delon hadn’t wanted to do Borsalino with Belmondo, I would have got them both together in Le Cercle Rouge... But every film is what it is, and it stands or falls on its own merits. A film is a moment out of one’s life. In my case, at least, you must remember, it represents fourteen months of uninterrupted work squeezed into twelve – 1968 was a completely wasted year for me, because I’d signed a contract with the Hakim brothers to make La Chienne, and they found a way not to honor it. They made me lose a whole year immediately following the fire at my studios, which was a terrible blow in a lot of ways; because losing the studios and all they represented in terms of money and opportunities was bad enough, but then to be reduced to twelve months of unemployment by a contract retaining exclusive rights over your services and preventing you from doing anything else whatsoever – that is a terrible blow. So, those fourteen months of work squeezed into twelve, because in 1966 I made Le Deuxième Souffle, in 1967 I made Le Samouraï, in 1968 I did nothing, in 1969 I did Army of Shadows, and in 1970 Le Cercle Rouge. Well, when you reach my age, you’re entitled to think that a film is an important thing in your life, because it represents at least a year’s work and then dogs you for another year: you remain the man of last year’s film, or of your last film shown. So in fact a film may be said to take up two years of your life.
In the shooting script for ‘Le Cercle Rouge’, when Captain Mattei is hunting Vogel after his escape, you have him say, ‘He isn’t Claude Tenne. I couldn’t ask the minister of the interior to block every road in France.’ Who is this Claude Tenne?

Claude Tenne was a member of the OAS, and during the Algerian crisis, he was tried and imprisoned for his anti-government activities. He managed to escape from prison on the Île de Ré by folding himself into four and hiding inside a military trunk, a sort of big iron trunk, though not so very big, actually – I have no idea how he did it. And at the time, roadblocks were set up all over France.

At another point in the script, you describe Jansen as follows: ‘Jansen, stretched out on his bed, fully dressed, filthy, unshaven, with a three-day beard. Like Faulkner in one of his alcoholic bouts.’

Yes, I imagine Faulkner or Hemingway as being like that in their bouts of alcoholism. As a matter of fact, I think there are many eyewitness accounts of how Faulkner sometimes used to stay shut up in his room with his bottles for a week, with orders that he wasn’t to be disturbed.

But Jansen’s hallucinations – rats and spiders crawling slowly toward him – are the sort of nightmares Edgar Allan Poe might have dreamed up.

Well, of course. You know that Poe and Melville have a great deal in common... But now I’m getting mixed up, forgetting when I say Melville that it’s not me, but the great...
Could you tell us about your working relationship with the cast of ‘Le Cercle Rouge’?

I had an excellent relationship with Delon during shooting. We have an extraordinary personal understanding, which enables us to work in a very special way.

This was the first time I worked with Yves Montand, who is a very fine actor, but he comes from the music hall and that’s what sets him apart from Delon. Delon is enormously gifted and doesn’t need as much preparation as Montand, who is a perfectionist like me. Montand is the sort of actor who arrives on set in the morning with the whole thing in his head. Everything went beautifully with him too – he’s enormously willing and dedicated. If you want proof, consider what he’s just been doing in [Costa-Gavras’s] The Confession. This man, known to the whole world as a Communist, has had the courage to accept the role in The Confession of a character who accuses the Communist regime of having committed inconceivable crimes... Anyhow, it was marvelous working with Montand, and I hope to make many more films with him. In the first place, because he’s a man of about my age – he’s three years my junior, actually – so he’s easier for me to use as a vehicle than a much younger actor. Alain and Jean-Paul, let’s say, are vehicle characters for me because they are thirty-five years old, and if I give Delon a mustache, that’s it, he’s the man, not just a nice-looking young man but the man. Handsome, maybe, but it doesn’t matter, because it no longer gets in the way. Anyway, to my mind, Montand is also handsome.
 
André Bourvil is an excellent actor, one of the best in France, but he probably isn’t a priori a Melvillean actor. I think he gives a very fine performance in my film, and I’m all the more convinced of this after going through the whole film again on the cutting table: there are moments where Bourvil is absolutely staggering. In his case, I’m very happy about the casting change, because Bourvil brings an element of humanity to the part that I hadn’t expected and Lino Ventura certainly wouldn’t have provided. Lino Ventura would have been ‘the Police Captain,’ and there would have been no surprises. Whereas with Bourvil – thanks to Bourvil – there are quite a few.

As for François Périer, there’s really nothing more to be said. Everyone knows he’s one of our finest actors. I remember the evening I met you outside a cinema where they were playing Le Samouraï, and we both exclaimed together, ‘Périer is fantastic!’ This film can add only a little to his reputation. The astonishing thing, though – and it’s one of the distressing aspects of this business – is that at this moment, François Périer isn’t rated as a star, and he should be. This upsets me, just as it upsets me that [American character actor] Richard Boone isn’t a star. But in this area, it’s still the distributor who lays down the law and not the filmmaker... Distributors won’t take the risk. They always say, ‘No, no, think of the billing, use name actors, etc.’ I think it’s a pity you can’t even think of making an expensive film, costing, say, a billion old francs, with unknowns. I could make a film tomorrow with unknowns if it cost three hundred million, but not a billion. They’ll pay out three hundred million on my name because they know more or less what sort of merchandise they’ll get from me, but they won’t give me more. The billion for Le Cercle Rouge was possible because I had Delon, Bourvil, and Montand, and because there was a sizable Italian coproduction interest, since I was using an Italian actor, Gian Maria Volonté – totally unknown in France, I might add – whom I’d had in mind to play Vogel after seeing him in Carlo Lizzani’s Banditi a Milano.

If you want me to talk about Gian Maria Volonté, that’s a very different story. Because Gian Maria Volonté is an instinctive actor, and he may well be a great stage actor in Italy, he may even be a great Shakespearean actor, but for me he was absolutely impossible, in that on a French set, in a film such as I was making, he never at any moment made me feel I was dealing with a professional. He didn’t know how to place himself for the lighting – he didn’t understand that an inch to the left or to the right wasn’t at all the same thing. ‘Look at Delon, look at Montand,’ I used to tell him. ‘See how they position themselves perfectly for the lights, etc., etc.’ I also think the fact that he is very involved in politics (he’s a leftist, as he never tires of telling you) did nothing to bring us together. He was very proud of having gone to sit in at the Odéon during the ‘glorious’ days of May–June 1968; personally, I didn’t go to sit in at the Odéon. It seems, too, that whenever he had a weekend free, he flew back to Italy. That’s what I call a supernationalist spirit. I once said to him, ‘It’s no use dreaming of becoming an international star so long as you continue to pride yourself on being Italian – which is of no consequence, any more than being French is.’ But for him, everything Italian was marvelous and wonderful, and everything French was ridiculous. I remember one day, we were setting up a rear-projection scene, and he was smiling to himself. I asked him why, and he said, ‘Because...  you’ve seen Banditi a Milano? There are no rear projections in Banditi a Milano. Everything was shot direct, inside a moving car.’ ‘Really?’ I said. ‘And were you shooting night scenes like this? Were you inside a car filming the action going on outside at night?’ ‘Well, no,’ he said, and it seemed to sink in that we weren’t using rear projection just to amuse him. He’s a strange character. Very wearying. I can tell you, I won’t be making any more films with Gian Maria Volonté.
Can you draw any conclusions from the twelve films you’ve made since 1947?

In these twenty-three years, or let’s say these twenty-five years, because after all, it was in 1945 that I founded my production company – I was demobilized in October 1945 and formed the company on November 5, 1945 – in these twenty-five years of professionalism, I’ve done lots of things. First, in 1947, I got the idea of building my own studios, which I did. At one point, I was the only filmmaker in the world to have his own studios. This period lasted from 1949, when I made Les Enfants Terribles, till 1967 – eighteen years in all, with a short break when I gave the studios up for a time, before being able to rebuild them as I wanted. Then in June 1967, they burned down. Nothing much remains, but I am rebuilding them, even though I haven’t received the permit yet from the city of Paris. So parallel to the films I have made... Well, in an article I received yesterday, there’s a sentence that reads, ‘. . . the novel Le Silence De La Mer, which was adapted for the screen by the father of the new French cinema, Jean-Pierre Melville.’ This was published in the Algerian newspaper El Moudjahid, by the critic Ahmazid Deboukalfa. I don’t know this man except by name, but I’m delighted to know that someone outside France remembers from time to time that it was Melville, after all, who shook things up in 1947.

Then in 1957, I built a screening room on the rue Washington, along with editing rooms, but since leasing out screening space and editing rooms isn’t my business, I sold my interest. However, I’ve always felt the need for some parallel creative activity, in building and materials, because cinema isn’t created with ideas alone. There’s the whole mechanical side of it, and, of course, projection. For instance, during the three years my studios were leased out to Pathé-Marconi, I couldn’t stand not having my own screening room, so I built one, which I leased out to other people but could use myself in the evenings to run through any films I wanted to see. This sort of thing will always happen with me. At the moment, I’m ruining myself in advance to create a screening room here on the rue Jenner, which is going to be marvelous because if, for instance, Monsieur Cocteau of Fox were to lend me a print of The Kremlin Letter tomorrow morning, what a joy it would be to screen it here during the morning and then return it to the Balzac Cinema at 1:30 p.m., in time for the first show.

I don’t know what will be left of me fifty years from now. I suspect that all films will have aged terribly and that the cinema probably won’t even exist anymore. My guess is that the final disappearance of cinemas will take place around the year 2020, so in fifty years’ time, there will be nothing but television. Well, I would be happy if I got one line in the Great Universal Encyclopedia of the Cinema, and I think that’s the sort of ambition every filmmaker must have. This is a business in which you have to be not arriviste, certainly not that, nor yet ambitious, which I’m not, but you have to have ambition in what you do, which isn’t at all the same thing. I’m not ambitious, I don’t want to be something – I have always been what I am, I haven’t become anything – but I’ve always had, and I shall always try to retain, this feeling that ambition in one’s work is an absolutely healthy, justifiable thing. You can’t make films just for the sake of making films. If fate wills that I should make more films, I’ll try to remain faithful to this ideal of being ambitious when I start a film; not being ambitious between films, but being ambitious when I start work, telling myself, ‘People have to enjoy this.’ That’s my ambition: to fill cinemas.


– ‘Melville on Le Cercle Rouge’ in Rui Nogueira: Melville on Melville (Martin Secker & Warburg, 1971). This excerpt from criterion.com, April 12, 2011.

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Jim Jarmusch: Open Letter to John Cassavetes

Night on Earth (Directed by Jim Jarmusch)
‘Life has no plot, why must films or fiction?’ - Jim Jarmusch 

Jim Jarmusch is a director interested in what occurs on the margins of existence. Like one of his favourite directors, John Cassavetes, he is keen to document the seemingly trivial events that people often fail to appreciate and show that they too are filled with compelling drama. Jarmusch’s films are peopled by characters without any sense of direction in life, drifters who accidentally fall into risky situations – much like life itself. It is the delicacy of the speaking and acting in Cassavetes’ films that impresses Jarmusch the most – and Jarmusch is very much a director who prioritises the actor. Jarmusch creates the characters first, often with a particular actor in mind, and then ‘the plot kind of suggests itself around the character’. Before filming starts the actors rehearse scenes that are never filmed, but are deemed necessary to establish a tone and identity for when the actual filming begins. This process results in convincing, realistic characters fleshed out with their own shades and subtleties. In September 2000, Jarmusch wrote an open letter to John Cassavetes in tribute to the great American film-maker. It was published in Tom Charity’s excellent ‘LifeWorks’.

OPEN LETTER TO JOHN CASSAVETES

There’s a particular feeling I get when I’m about to see one of your films – an anticipation. It doesn’t matter if I’ve seen the film before or not (by now I think I’ve seen them all at least several times) I still get that feeling. I’m expecting something I seem to crave, a kind of cinematic enlightenment. As a film fan or as a filmmaker (there isn’t really a clear dividing line for me anymore) I’m anticipating a blast of inspiration. I want formal enlightenment. I need the secret consequences of a jump-cut to be revealed to me. I want to know how the rawness of the camera angles or the grain of the film material figures into the emotional equation. I want to learn about acting from the performances, about atmosphere from the light and locations. I’m ready, fully prepared to absorb ‘truth at twenty-four-frames-per-second.’

But the thing is this: as soon as the film begins, introduces its world to me, I’m lost. The expectation of that particular enlightenment evaporates. It leaves me there in the dark, alone. Human beings now inhabit that world inside the screen. They also seem lost, alone. I watch them. I observe every detail of their movements, their expressions, their reactions. I listen carefully to what each one is saying, to the frayed edges of someone’s tone of voice, the concealed mischief in the rhythm of another’s speech. I’m no longer thinking about acting. I’m oblivious to ‘dialogue.’ I’ve forgotten the camera.

The enlightenment I anticipated from you is being replaced by another. This one doesn’t invite analysis or dissection, only observation and intuition. Instead of insights into, say, the construction of a scene, I’m becoming enlightened by the sly nuances of human nature.

Your films are about love, about trust and mistrust, about isolation, joy, sadness, ecstasy and stupidity. They’re about restlessness, drunkenness, resilience and lust, about humor, stubbornness, miscommunication and fear. But mostly they’re about love and they take one to a far deeper place than any study of ‘narrative form.’ Yeah, you are a great filmmaker, one of my favorites. But what your films illuminate most poignantly is that celluloid is one thing and the beauty, strangeness and complexity of human experience is another.

John Cassavetes, my hat is off to you. I’m holding it over my heart.

– Jim Jarmusch. From ‘John Cassavetes: Lifeworks’ by Tom Charity.


Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Paul Schrader: Steps to Writing a Script


Taxi Driver (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
Paul Schrader clarified the screenwriting development process in an interview with Richard Thompson from 1976 when ‘Taxi Driver’ had just opened. Below are excerpted comments from that interview. 

Paul Schrader: I think there are three steps to writing a script. First, you have to have a theme, something you want to say. It doesn’t have to be a particularly great thing, but you have to have something that’s bothering you. In the case of Taxi Driver, the theme was loneliness. Then you find a metaphor for that theme, one that expresses it. In Taxi Driver, that was the cabbie, the perfect expression of urban loneliness. Then you have to find a plot, which is the easiest part of the process. All plots have been done; they’re fairly easy, you just work through all the permutations until the plot accurately reflects the theme and the metaphor. You push the theme through the metaphor and you should come out with the plot.

Schrader reveals how he arrived at his plot for ‘Taxi Driver’:

Two things happened which tied the project [Taxi Driver] together: a Harry Chapin song called ‘Taxi,’ in which an old girlfriend gets into a guy’s cab; and [Arthur] Bremer shot [Presidential Candidate, George] Wallace. That was the thread which led to the script. Maybe I shouldn’t admit to this, but why not be honest? After all, there’s really nothing new on the face of the earth.

Elaborating on his method Schrader goes on to explain:

One of the problems with screenwriters is that they think first in terms of plot or in terms of metaphor, and they’re going the reverse way; it’s awfully hard to do. Once you have a plot, it’s hard to infuse a theme into it, because it’s not an indigenous expression of the plot; that’s why you must start with the theme and not the plot.

Metaphor is extremely important to a movie. A perfect example is Deliverance, where you have point A and point B, and four men going from A to B—the first time [theme] for the men, the last time [metaphor] for the river. On the strength of that metaphor, you could put the Marx Brothers in that boat and something would happen. When somebody walks up to you and says, ‘I’ve got a great idea for a Western and this is the twist,’ you know right off the bat that they’re in trouble, because they’re coming at it the wrong way. Maybe they’ll be able to write a novel that sells, make a lot of money, and live in Beverly Hills; but it’s not interesting to me; not something I really care about.

Taxi Driver (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
As Pipeliner [his first script] was falling through, I got hit with two other blows to the body at the same time: my marriage fell through, and the affair that caused the marriage to fall through fell through, all within the same four or five months. I fell into a state of manic depression. I was living with someone at the time, and she got so fed up with me that she split. I was staying in her apartment waiting for the cupboard to run out of food.

I got to wandering around at night; I couldn’t sleep because I was so depressed. I’d stay in bed till four or five P.M. then I’d say, ‘Well, I can get a drink now.’ I’d get up and get a drink and take my bottle with me and start wandering around the streets in my car at night. After the bars closed, I’d go to pornography. I’d do this all night, till morning, and I did it for about three or four weeks, a very destructive syndrome, until I was saved from it by an ulcer; I had not been eating, just drinking.
When I got out of the hospital I realized I had to change my life because I would die and everything; I decided to leave L.A. That was when the metaphor hit me for Taxi Driver, and I realized that was the metaphor I had been looking for: the man who will take anybody any place for money; the man who moves through the city like a rat through the sewer; the man who is constantly surrounded by people, yet has no friends. The absolute symbol of urban loneliness. That’s the thing I’d been living; that was my symbol, my metaphor. The film is about a car as the symbol of urban loneliness, a metal coffin.

I wrote the script very quickly, in something like fifteen days. The script just jumped from my mind almost intact ...When you’re writing films, you’re dealing with a kind of nascent, primitive force that’s alive.

The Yakuza (Directed by Sidney Pollack)
Schrader goes on to recall:

Before I sat down to write Taxi Driver, I re-read [Jean-Paul] Sartre’s Nausea, because I saw the script as an attempt to take the European existential hero, that is, the man from The Stranger, Notes From The Underground, Nausea, Pickpocket, Le Feu Follet, and A Man Escaped, and put him in an American context. In so doing, you find that he becomes more ignorant, ignorant of the nature of his problem. Travis’s problem is the same as the existential hero’s, that is, ‘should I exist?’ But Travis doesn’t understand that this is his problem, so he focuses it elsewhere, and I think that is a mark of the immaturity and the youngness of our country. We don’t properly understand the nature of the problem, so the self-destructive impulse, instead of being inner-directed, as it is in Japan, Europe, any of the older cultures, becomes outer-directed. The man who feels the time has come to die will go out and kill other people rather than kill himself. There’s a line in The Yakuza which says, ‘When a Japanese cracks up, he’ll close the window and kill himself; when an American cracks up, he’ll open the window and kill somebody else.’ That’s essentially how the existential hero changes when he becomes American. There is not enough intellectual tradition in this country, and not enough history; and Travis is just not smart enough to understand his problem. He should be killing himself instead of these other people. At the end, when he shoots himself in a playful way, that’s what he’s been trying to do all along.

- Paul Schrader interviewed by Richard Thompson,  Film Comment magazine, March-April 1976.

See also my post ‘Notes on Taxi Driver’ here where Schrader further discusses the background to his screenplay for the film.

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Michael Powell: Obsession and Creativity

Peeping Tom (Directed by Michael Powell)
Michael Powell graduated from ‘quota quickies’ of the 1930s to a distinguished career in partnership with Emeric Pressburger, directing such classics as A Matter of Life and Death, Tales of Hoffman, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. The Powell and Pressburger team came to be associated with superbly crafted, emotionally and visually intense works that show British cinema at its most creative and accomplished. After their partnership ended Michael Powell went onto direct the cult classic Peeping Tom - a disturbing study of obsession and voyeurism. This is an excerpt from an interview with Michael Powell in the 1980s, while living in America, in which he discusses the making of Peeping Tom and its hostile reaction at the time of its release.

Obsessiveness and creativity link many of your characters - Anton Walbrook in The Red Shoes and Hoffmann, and Mark Lewis of Peeping Tom.

All artists are more or less obsessed. They’re more interesting when they are - and obsessive.

What led you to make Peeping Tom?
 
I got in touch with Leo Marks because I’d heard that he’d done a very clever scene involving a cryptogram for Carve Her Name with Pride. It was just after I’d parted from Emeric Pressburger. He first suggested a story of a double agent who betrays both sides but I said I didn’t want to do a spy story. We talked for two or three weeks. Finally, he came to me with this idea, ‘Would you like to make a film about a young man who murders people with his camera?’ I said [clicking his fingers], ‘Yes! You’re on! Just tell me the idea.’ He gave me some ideas and I commissioned him. After that he came round twice a week with more sequences and I would criticise them and he would re-write them. Gradually the script was done that way but he wrote the whole script. It was his idea. Leo Marks.
 
Was the idea of audience identification with the killer there from the start?
 
Yes. It’s the way you shoot it. You can look on at a thing or you can preach about it or you can absolutely identify yourself with the young cameraman. Since any good director turns himself into a camera – I Am a Camera is the story of every director - I decided to do it that way. I did the horrifying sequence with the young boy with my son Columba, who was about seven at the time, because I knew he wouldn’t be frightened if he did it with me. Then, as he played my son, I played his father in the film within the film. It gradually grew like that so it became a family affair and the family practically turned into a lens.
 
Did you anticipate the storm which arose when the film was released?
 
No. I was very surprised because they weren’t just bad reviews but vicious attacks. They more or less said that I was morbid and diseased in my mind and was trying to influence other people to be the same. I don’t think any director had a worse attack. I was completely taken aback, very surprised, and it did me a lot of harm professionally. It meant that any subject I wanted to do which was unusual - and I have a whole shelf of them - I wasn’t allowed to. I could not raise the money. What I should have done when I realised this was I should have come straight here [to America]. They have not got the prejudices here. I knew my films were known there. I didn’t know they were so admired although I’ve kept friendships here for the forty or fifty years since I started with an American company. But I clung to England because I’m English and naturally wanted to make English films. But I should have seen the writing on the wall and cut and run.
 
Was Peeping Tom’s voyeurism influenced by Hitchcock?
 
No, not at all. In Psycho, which I think is his best picture, there’s so much humour inside which saves it. I think he got criticised but they didn’t take it so seriously as they took me.



 
Don’t you think England has a particularly negative attitude towards creativity, and people doing things in new directions, which is harmful in the end?
 
I don’t know whether it is a general thing. If they do attack an artist, they’re worse than anybody because a certain amount of hypocrisy comes into it as well. Look at Francis Bacon. He really got severely mauled. But I don’t think the English public and cognoscenti are worse than any others. Perhaps there is a source of hypocrisy which I added to it. Also, being islanders, they really are insular. They’re a bit isolated from continental thought and I never have been. I’ve always been very closely identified with everything that’s happening there. I know a lot about it, a lot about art, and they may be a little bit jealous.
 
I’ve read that you originally wanted Pamela Brown to play Anna Massey’s other instead of Maxine Audley.
 
Yes, because she and Anna Massey could easily be mother and daughter. They look a bit like each other and have almost the same colour hair. Pamela’s was a deep red. Anna’s was more chestnut. They would have made a wonderful mother and daughter.
 
Mark’s stepmother is blonde. So are the prostitutes he kills. Was he taking something against his stepmother out of them?
 
Well, I didn’t go that deeply into it except instinctively.

I have read somewhere that you have stated your admiration for Walt Disney.
 
He was one of the great innovators in film. One of the things I like was - when talkies came in, a lot of the timing of silent films went out of the window and nobody made those marvellous slapstick comedies any more because there were only verbal jokes. But Disney kept on making those wonderful cartoons for at least another ten years so he kept the whole idea of film comedy and narrative through image alive. People don’t realise that they owe an enormous lot to him. His films still move. For five years they just bogged down in a welter of talk. He was a great inventor and innovator. I was very fond of him. Whenever I was in Hollywood after the war, I always spent a day with him.
 
There are surrealistic and fantasy elements in all of your films, particularly The Small Back Room. Which branch of surrealism interests you?
 
I don’t altogether agree about surrealism because, trained as I have been from the very early days, films are surrealistic. Any film. Because anybody who can start to tell a story in a street or a field just using a camera and an actor - that’s pure surrealism. Anything may happen. It’s more expressionism that you are referring to. This was a sequence where David Farrar was waiting for the girl to come back to the room. There’s a wonderful shot of him underneath, the bottle falling over on him. We made several bottles of different sizes and shot them from different angles and had great fun doing it. But the critics jumped on me immediately, ‘Oh, Michael Powell with his German tendencies and German art director must have these German expressionist ideas!’
 
There are somethings which have worked very well like those giant pencils in Mark’s pocket in Peeping Tom.
 
They were about three-and-a-half feet long. That’s the only way you could have done that. Leo wrote the sequence just like that - the pencils fall out of his pocket. I said, ‘You realise, Leo, they’re only that big. The gantry of a studio is forty feet up. I can do it all right.’ When he saw it, he said that it was one of the best shots in the picture but he never knew at the time. I asked the prop man to give me some dummy pencils and pens to drop in this sequence, three feet long! And it worked.

- Michael Powell interviewed by Tony Williams. Films and Filming: Nov 1981