Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Budd Schulberg: Waterfront Memories

On the Waterfront (Directed by Elia Kazan)
Budd Schulberg was born in New York in 1914, son of B.P. Schulberg, production chief at Paramount Studios. Schulberg grew up in Hollywood becoming a script reader and then a screenwriter after completing his education at Dartmouth College. He began to write and publish short stories in the 1930s and became a member of the Communist Party after visiting the Soviet Union in 1934. He would later recall his decision to join the party: ‘It didn’t take a genius to tell you that something was vitally wrong with the country. The unemployment was all around us. The bread lines and the apple sellers. I couldn’t help comparing that with my own family’s status, with my father; at one point he was making $11,000 a week. And I felt a shameful contrast between the haves and the have-nots very early’.

His commitment to the Communist Party ended after it insisted that his first novel be written to reflect Marxist dogma. He eventually published What Makes Sammy Run (1941), about an unscrupulous Hollywood studio mogul, to great critical acclaim.

During World War II, Schulberg worked in the OSS, the intelligence-gathering forerunner to the CIA. Working with director John Ford’s film unit, he documented the atrocities of the concentration camps, then personally arrested the Nazi film-maker Leni Riefenstahl at her Austrian chalet.

After the war, Schulberg published The Disenchanted (1950), his semi-fictionalized account of collaborating with F. Scott Fitzgerald on a screenplay.

In 1951 Schulberg was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during its investigation of the Communist Party’s alleged influence on the film industry. Having been named himself Schulberg acknowledged his former membership, offering his full cooperation. In his testimony before the Committee, Schulberg claimed he left the party because it refused to break with the Soviet dictatorship, and had tried to influence his work. He publicly named eight other Hollywood figures as members, including the screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. and the director Herbert Biberman – two of the Hollywood Ten who claimed the First Amendment gave them the right to silence before the committee. Schulberg’s testimony was seen as a betrayal. The liberal consensus in Hollywood was that Lardner had acquitted himself with more dignity before the committee when asked if he had been a Communist: ‘I could answer it, but if I did, I would hate myself in the morning.’

In a 2006 interview with the New York Times, Schulberg claimed that in hindsight he believed that the attacks against Communists in the United States were a greater threat to the country than the Communist Party itself. But he said he had named names because the party represented a genuine threat to freedom of speech: ‘They say that you testified against your friends, but once they supported the party against me, even though I did have some personal attachments, they were really no longer my friends... and I felt that if they cared about real freedom of speech, they should have stood up for me when I was fighting the party.’

After his testimony Schulberg worked on the screenplay for On the Waterfront which grew out of a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles written for The New York Sun about the influence of organized crime on the New York docks. The film was directed by Elia Kazan who had also testified before the Committee. Marlon Brando played the washed-up boxer, Terry Malloy, who turns against the power of the mob.

The allegorical parallels between the film and the McCarthy hearings are a subject of continuing controversy. The issue has been played down by Schulberg and Kazan. In his autobiography Kazan claimed he had wanted to do a picture about the waterfront long before the HUAC hearings. For Schulberg the film is a tragedy in which the system comes up against the little guy, a fixed fight in a world where ‘the love of a lousy buck’ and a ‘cushy job’ were ‘more important than the love of man,’ in the words of Father Barry, the crusading priest in On the Waterfront played by Karl Malden.

‘It’s the writer’s responsibility to stand up against that power,’ Schulberg later said. ‘The writers are really almost the only ones, except for very honest politicians, who can make any dent on that system. I tried to do that. And that’s affected me my whole life.’

In the following interview from 1998, Budd Schulberg recalled the making of On the Waterfront after a screening in New York.

Budd Schulberg: When I saw the other day on a list that our old movie was in the top ten... as one of the best pictures of all time, I thought again about travelling to Hollywood - Kazan and me. Kazan who directed this film, who already won an Academy Award for A Gentleman’s Agreement – all the way out telling me what a great script we had. He was saying we were so lucky because [he] had Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar and that [On the Waterfront] is one of the best three scripts [he'd] ever had. And I was worried... I told him I was worried about coming back [to Hollywood]. I told him I didn’t think they would like it out there.

Kazan was annoyed with me. I’ll try to make it brief, but we got off the train and there was no one to meet us and I said, ‘Kaz, there’s no limo’. Now Kazan is a very down to earth guy and he said ‘we don’t need a limo, I hate limos’. So we went up to the Beverly Hills Hotel and got there, checked in and no invitations from Daryl Zanuck – it was a film to be made for Zanuck – no invitation to come down to Palm Springs and play croquet. I said ‘there’s no invitation to play croquet’. Kazan says ‘I HATE croquet!’

And we went up to the room, we had a little suite, and there weren’t no flowers. I looked around and didn’t see no flowers. And I said, ‘Kaz, we have no flowers’. Kazan says, ‘What it is with you, I don’t need flowers. To hell with the flowers.’ And I said, ‘Kaz, you come from New York, I come from Hollywood. And I know the unspoken language of Hollywood and Zanuck is telling us something’. Kazan didn’t believe me.

But the following Monday, when Daryl Zanuck met us, raving about Cinemascope, he said ‘I’m so excited, I’m so excited, we have this great new medium, Cinemascope’. He said ‘that’s the great thing about our business. First it was flickers, and the films jumped, and then we learned how to make them more smoothly. And then we had colour and then we had sound and now we have the Cinemascope. 

Kazan and I looked at each other because we had written that this film should be something in flat black and white. As he went on about what could be done, he said, ‘Can you imagine what Prince Valiant would look like in Cinemascope?’ And finally Kazan said, ‘Daryl, what about our picture?’ There was a long, pregnant pause and Mr. Zanuck said, ‘Boys, I’m sorry, but I don’t like a single thing about it’. And I think I was quiet and Kazan said not a single thing.

He said, ‘Whatta ya got except a bunch of sweaty longshoremen’. And that stabbed me in the heart because when Kazan came to talk with me about doing this movie, I went down on the Lower West Side, in the Chelsea area – you’ll see some of that experience up here in the movie – and I got involved with an amazing man, one of the most amazing I ever met, the waterfront priest – Father John Corridon.

I mean, we’ve learned now that the ILA – the International Longshoreman’s Association – was totally in the hands of the mob. They were killers and thieves. Corridon was really filling the vacuum and trying to guide the rebel longshoremen into making some effort to win back their young and make a real living. This went on for several years and I hung in with these people. I love these people and when Zanuck said that all you got is a lot of sweaty longshoremen... my heart was broken. After that, every studio in town, had the same reaction.

We went to Warners, Paramount, MGM, every single one said no. They wouldn’t make the picture. And as I said... what we were talking about a few minutes ago... one thing that really warmed me to Kazan... and I tried, I really tried... and I turned on him. Back at the hotel... I was so mad. I had spent about two years, I had actually mortgaged my farm, I was going broke doing this movie... and I turned on him and I said, ‘Goddamit, I told you they weren’t going to make this movie’. And Kazan said, ‘Budd, I promise I’ll make it. I have to get on the docks with a handheld IMO and use the actual longshoremen – the rebel longshoremen who were working with Ed Xavier and some of the actors out of the (Actor’s) Studio and make this movie. And that’s pretty much how it was made. It really was the longest of the longshots. It was almost accidental that the movie ever got made at all. It was a longshot.

It was all shot in Hoboken, New Jersey, across the river from the Manhattan West Side docks. It was made for 800,000 dollars and it was shot in 37 days. And every single night, every single night, twelve o’clock, one’o clock, two o’clock my phone would ring and it would be our producer, Sam Speigel and he would say, ‘Budd, you’ve got to make them go faster, you’ve got to make them go faster’. So, the film was a film that was almost like our own film, that nobody would like so we would say to each other, ‘Oh well, it doesn’t matter that nobody likes it, at least we like it’. And so, I’m really pleased that you’re here to see the movie and that there’s still that much interest in it after all these years.

Question: What were the initial reactions after the film was made?

Budd Schulberg: Our producer, Sam Speigel, was still very worried. Columbia had looked at it and they didn’t like it. So Sam Speigel got the idea that maybe it needed some kind of lift, and he got Bernstein to do the score for the film. It was the only one that he ever wrote and he did a terrific job. And when we got all those Oscar nominations and we won... all those Oscars, we were really amazed that Bernstein was left out completely. But the score wasn’t left out, it’ll always be there. Occasionally it’s played in philharmonic programs and it was the only one he did and he did one hell of a job at that.

Question: In most modern films, the score fades into the background, but in your film the score is right up in front. Was that Speigel, or was that your choice?

Budd Schulberg: That was in the mixing. As the writer of the picture, as much as I admired the score, there were times that I thought it was maybe it was a little bit... too loud. (laughter)

Question: I know it’s a general question, but how do you approach writing dialogue. Is there a certain method that you use?

Budd Schulberg: One thing you do in writing dialogue is that you make up as little of it as you can and you listen as much as you can. Watching it this evening, I was reminded how many times something in there was not really written by me, I simply wrote down what they were actually saying. The scene in the hold, after Doogan gets killed, Father Barry comes down and when he talks about Christ and the shake-up, that was something that I actually heard. When I heard the real waterfront priest talk about that Christ is here and he carries a hook and he sees the men who get passed over and who gets the jobs and the wine and I was just so amazed by it that I just had to try and put this old sermon, or whatever you call it, in the film.

Dialogue, you try to build your characters... if you try to get an idea about who you’re writing about, then you listen to that person or those people. When Charlie gets killed, the ordinary cliché for Terry would be ‘I’ll get ‘em’ or ‘I’ll kill ‘em’ or something like that, but I actually heard a longshoreman say ‘I'll take it out of their skulls!’ And it just rang a bell, a loud bell, that that’s the line I should use.  I’ll say what I heard my friend the longshoreman say, ‘I'll take it out of their skulls’. So a lot of dialogue comes out of listening, carefully, to the characters and getting an ear for how they talk and plus, you have to shape your scenes and build your scenes on all of that. I find it very, very valuable, I think. 

– Interview transcript with Budd Schulberg in ‘New York Conversations’, by Mikael Colville-Andersen.

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Patricia Highsmith I: Strangers On A Train

Strangers On A Train (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)

Patricia Highsmith gave a rare interview with Gerald Peary for Sight And Sound Magazine in 1988. The author of Strangers on a Train, the Ripley novels, and other suspense classics, she discussed her writing process, Alfred Hitchcock's Strangers On A Train and other adaptations of her work:

Born in Fort Worth, Texas, Highsmith grew up in New York City. She took a degree at Barnard College. Then came years of traveling about Europe. Today she lives in Switzerland alone.‘I can’t write if someone else is in the house, not even the cleaning woman. I like to work for four or five hours a day. I aim for seven days a week. I have no television – I hate it. I listen to the BBC World Service starting at 2 in the morning until 4. I switch off the light and listen in bed. I don’t set the alarm to get up. I get up when I feel like it.’

She owns no copies of films made from her books, not even Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 version of her first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950). ‘It seems to be entertaining after all these years,’ she acknowledges. ‘They keep playing it on American TV, ancient as it is. A few years ago, there were requests to me, “Can we make this?” I said that I have no rights. Contact the Hitchcock estate, which won’t release it for a remake.’

Strangers on a Train was sold outright for $7,500, with ten per cent of that to Highsmith’s agent. A meager recompense, some would say, but Highsmith disagrees. ‘That wasn't a bad price for a first book, and my agent upped it as much as possible. I was 27 and had nothing behind me. I was working like a fool to earn a living and pay for my apartment. I didn’t hang around films. I don’t know if I’d ever seen Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes." Anyway, she heard later that Robert Bloch was paid only $9,000 by Hitchcock for his novel Psycho.

About Strangers on a Train: she adores Robert Walker as the psychopathic Bruno. (‘He was excellent. He had elegance and humor, and the proper fondness for his mother.’) Highsmith is less pleased with Ruth Roman as Ann Morton, Guy’s love interest. (‘She should be much warmer.’) And she regrets Hithcock’s decision to turn Guy (Farley Granger), an architect in her novel, into a championship-winning tennis player. Highsmith: ‘I thought it was ludicrous that he’s aspiring to be a politician, and that he’s supposed to be in love with that stone angel.’ She only talked to Hitchcock once, while Strangers on a Train was in pre-production. ‘I was in New York. He was in California. He rang me to make a report on his progress and said, “I'm having trouble. I've just sacked my second screenwriter.’”

Hitchcock eventually hired Raymond Chandler to write the final script. Highsmith never met Chandler or seemingly any other writer of suspense novels. She doesn’t read them, she says, except, over and over again, the master: Dostoevsky. Also Graham Greene, a declared Highsmith admirer, with whom she exchanges occasional letters. ‘I have his telephone number but I wouldn’t dream of using it. I don't seek out writers because we all want to be alone.’

Highsmith has never seen Once You Kiss a Stranger, a 1969 Warners variation on Strangers on a Train, in which a crazy girl (Carol Lynley) offers to assassinate the chief competition of a golf pro (Paul Burke) if this golfer will bump off her psychiatrist.‘God knows, it was certainly done behind my back!’ Highsmith laughs. ‘Strangers on a Golf Course.’

The writer says she is ‘not mad about’ Claude Miller's 1997 Dites-lui que je l'aime from her novel, This Sweet Sickness, and she loathes Ediths Tagebuch, the 1983 West German film by Hans Geissendorfer, drawn from her Edith’s Diary, a rare Highsmith novel with a female protagonist. In the book, Edith Howland, a suburban Pennsylvania housewife, suffers mightily because her homebound son, Cliffie, is so passive, unambitious, mediocre. In the movie, which is set in Germany, Cliffie becomes a psychotic who lusts after Edith, his mom (Angela Winkler).  ‘It's dreadful!’ Highsmith says. ‘Making the son in love with the mother is a lot of Oedipal crap.’ She was taken aback because Geissendorfer’s version of The Glass Cell/Die Glaserne Zelle (1977) was a decent, sensitive film, a notable portrayal of the anguish of a man (Helmut Griem) out of prison for a white-collar crime, who suspects that his wife (Brigitte Fossey) is enmeshed in a love affair...

- Patricia Highsmith interviewed by Gerald Peary.

The Art of John Cassavetes

The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie (Directed by John Cassavetes

"Cassavetes made things hard to understand. That's why a work of art exists."

Cassavetes' insights came from life, not from theory – which is of course the best place to get them. It's the opposite to how most critics function, which is why a critic has to be very, very careful about the conclusions he draws. The films didn't begin as ideas. Shadows didn't begin as a study of “beat drifters” or “race relations.” It was Cassavetes' effort to give voice to the mixed-up feelings he had as a young man (particularly about his relation to his brother). Faces and Husbands didn't originate as analyses of the “male ego” or studies of the frustrations of “suburban life.” They were Cassavetes giving voice to his own personal disillusionments about marriage, middle-age, and his career. They were documentaries of everything he knew and felt at that point in his life – not sorted out into a series of “points” or “critiques” or “views.”

That's actually a fairly unusual way to proceed. La Dolce Vita was released three years before Cassavetes wrote Faces, and has some superficial similarities with it (as well as being referred to in it). I sat through a screening the other night at Harvard and the scenes practically had labels on them. This one was an attack on the idle rich. That one was a critique of on the superficiality of journalists. This other one commented on the vapidity of modern architecture. The majority of films are organized this way. Look at NashvilleWelcome to the DollhouseMagnolia, and American Beauty. They have theses. They make points. The characters represent generalized views and ideas – and the critics eat it up! They love abstract movies, since they make their jobs easy. Films that originate in ideas can be translated back into ideas with almost nothing lost in the translation. These films are eminently discussible. You can write an essay about them. Because ideas are abstract. They are simple. They say one thing. They stand still.

Cassavetes' work resists that kind of understanding. Every time we want to lasso a character or a scene with an idea, it scoots away from us. The incredibly detailed behaviors, facial expressions, and tones of voice that comprise his scenes defeat generalizations. The characters in Faces and Husbands are too changeable, too emotionally unresolved to be pigeonholed intellectually. As Cassavetes says in Cassavetes on Cassavetes, they may be bastards one minute but they can be terrific the next. In A Woman Under the Influence just when we're about to decide that Nick Longhetti is a “male chauvinist,” he says or does something kind and thoughtful. Just when we want to turn Mabel into an “oppressed housewife,” she sleeps with another man to show us she is not under the thumb of her husband and has genuine emotional problems. The racial incident at the center of Shadows invites an unwary critic to view the main drama of the film as being about race, but the film's narrative and characterizations subvert the attempt. The racial misunderstanding at the center of the film is largely a device to create other, more interesting, more slippery dramatic problems for them to deal with. The characters are given such individualized emotional structures of feeling that it becomes impossible to treat them generically as racial representatives. We can't factor out their personalities. Character is at the heart of Cassavetes' work, always displacing incident as the center of interest, and the particularity of the characterizations in all of the films prevents us from treating the characters' situations in a depersonalized way, which is what ideological analysis always requires to some extent.

I'm convinced that this aspect of Cassavetes' work is the reason that during his lifetime reviewers wrote off his work as being confused or disorganized. They wanted to be able to label characters and situations, and when they couldn't, decided it was the films' fault. They wanted to be able to stabilize their relationship to an experience by being able to maintain a fixed point of view on it. In Shadows, they wanted to be able to conclude that Lelia and Ben were victims of racial prejudice; in Faces, that the figures were being morally judged; in Husbands, that the three men were being satirized. When the movies defeated such easy relationships to the experiences they presented, the critics wrote them off as muddle-headed, self-indulgent actors' exercises. 

Cassavetes made things hard to understand. That's why a work of art exists. Otherwise, you might as well write an essay about your subject. Real art is never reducible to the sort of moral lessons and sociological platitudes that Spike Lee or Oliver Stone give us or that reviewers and academic critics want. Art speech is a way of experiencing and knowing far, far more complex than the ways journalists, or history, sociology, or film professors think and talk.

- Raymond Carney on John Cassavetes

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Wim Wenders: Impossible Stories

The American Friend (Directed by Wim Wenders)
German filmmaker Wim Wenders came to prominence in the 1970s with his acclaimed trilogy of road movies, Alice in the Cities (1974), The Wrong Move (1975), Kings of the Road (1976), and his adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game as The American Friend (1977). After the documentary Lightning Over Water (1980) about the final days of director Nicholas Ray, Wenders embarked on Hammett (1982), a fictional account of the life of writer Dashiell Hammet, for producer Frances Ford Coppola. Friction with Coppola led to a break in the production in order for the script to be rewritten. In the interval Wenders returned to Europe to film The State of Things (1982) about a film crew stranded in a seaside hotel waiting for the missing producer to come up with the finance in order for the film to be completed.

The following talk from 1982 by Wenders was given at a summer film colloquium in Livorno on narrative technique. It documents his loss of faith in film images and his subsequent resolve to find a new, more viable relation between images and narrative. 

Where French and German each have a single word for it, English has only a two-part phrase: to ‘tell stories’. That hints at my difficulty: the man you’ve invited to talk to you about telling stories is a man who over the years has had nothing but problems with stories.

Let me go back to the very beginning. Once I was a painter. What interested me was space; I painted cityscapes and landscapes. I became a film-maker when I realized that I wasn’t getting anywhere as a painter. Painting lacked something, as did my individual paintings. It would have been too easy to say that they lacked life; I thought that what was missing was an understanding of time. So when I began filming, I thought of myself as a painter of space engaged on a quest for time. It never occurred to me that this search should be called ‘storytelling’. I must have been very naive. I thought filming was simple. I thought you only had to see something to be able to depict it, and I also thought a storyteller (and of course I wasn’t one) had to listen first and speak afterwards. Making a film to me meant connecting all these things. That was a misconception, but before I straighten it out, there is something else I must talk about.

Alice in the Cities (Directed by Wim Wenders)
My stories all begin from pictures. When I started making my first film, I wanted to make ‘landscape portraits’. My very first film, Silver City, contained ten shots of three minutes each; that was the length of a reel of 16 mm film. Each shot was of a cityscape. I didn’t move the camera; nothing happened. The shots were like the paintings and watercolours I’d done previously, only in a different medium. However, there was one shot that was different: it was of an empty landscape with railway tracks; the camera was placed very close to these. I knew the train schedule. I began filming two minutes before one was due, and everything seemed to be exactly as it had been in all the other shots: a deserted scene. Except that two minutes later someone ran into shot from the right, jumped over the tracks just a couple of yards in front of the camera, and ran out of the left edge of the frame. The moment he disappeared, even more surprisingly, the train thundered into the picture, also from the right. (It couldn’t be heard approaching, because there was no sync. sound, only music.) This tiny ‘action’ – man crosses tracks ahead of train – signals the beginning of a ‘story’. What is wrong with the man? Is he being followed? Does he want to kill himself? Why is he in such a hurry? Etc., etc. I think it was from that moment that I became a storyteller. And from that moment all my difficulties began too, because it was the first time that something had happened in a scene I had set up.

Alice in the Cities (Directed by Wim Wenders)
After that, the problems came thick and fast. When I was cutting together the ten shots, I realized that after the shot where the man crosses the tracks hell for leather there would be the expectation that every subsequent shot would contain some action. So for the first time I had to consider the order of the shots, some kind of dramaturgy. My original idea, simply to run a series of fixed-frame shots, one after another, ‘unconnected’ and in no special order, became impossible. The assembling of scenes and their arrangement in an order was, it seemed already, a first step towards narrative. People would see entirely fanciful connections between scenes and interpret them as having narrative intentions. But that wasn’t what I wanted. I was only combining time and space; but from that moment on, I was pressed into telling stories. From then on and until the present moment, I have felt an opposition between images and stories. A mutual incompatibility, a mutual undermining. I have always been more interested in pictures, and the fact that – as soon as you assemble them – they seem to want to tell a story, is still a problem for me today.

My stories start with places, cities, landscapes and roads. A map is like a screenplay to me. When I look at a road, for example, I begin to ask myself what kind of thing might happen on it; similarly with a building, like my own hotel room here in Livorno: I look out of the window, it’s raining hard and a car stops in front of the hotel. A man gets out of it and looks around. Then he starts walking down the road, without an umbrella, in spite of the rain. My head starts working on a story right away, because I want to know where he’s going, what kind of street he might be turning into.

The Wrong Move (Directed by Wim Wenders)
For a writer, a story seems to be the logical end-product: words want to form sentences, and the sentences want to stand in some continuous discourse; a writer doesn’t have to force the words into a sentence or the sentences into a story. There seems to be a kind of inevitability in the way stories come to be told. In films – or at least in my films, because of course there are other ways of going about it – in films the images don’t necessarily lead to anything else; they stand on their own. I think a picture stands on its own more readily, whereas a word tends to seek the context of a story. For me, images don’t automatically lend themselves to be part of a story. If they’re to function in the way that words and sentences do, they have to be ‘forced’ – that is, I have to manipulate them.

My thesis is that for me as a film-maker, narrative involves forcing the images in some way. Sometimes this manipulation becomes narrative art, but not necessarily. Often enough, the result is only abused pictures.

I dislike the manipulation that’s necessary to press all the images of a film into one story; it’s very harmful for the images because it tends to drain them of their ‘life’. In the relationship between story and image, I see the story as a kind of vampire, trying to suck all the blood from an image. Images are acutely sensitive; like snails they shrink back when you touch their horns. They don’t have it in them to be carthorses: carrying and transporting messages or significance or intention or a moral. But that’s precisely what a story wants from them.

Kings of the Road (Directed by Wim Wenders)
So far everything seems to have spoken out against story, as though it were the enemy. But of course stories are very exciting; they are powerful and important for mankind. They give people what they want, on a very profound level – more than merely amusement or entertainment or suspense. People’s primary requirement is that some kind of coherence be provided. Stories give people the feeling that there is meaning, that there is ultimately an order lurking behind the incredible confusion of appearances and phenomena that surrounds them. This order is what people require more than anything else; yes, I would almost say that the notion of order or story is connected with the godhead. Stories are substitutes for God. Or maybe the other way round.

For myself – and hence my problems with story – I incline to believe in chaos, in the inexplicable complexity of the events around me. Basically, I think that individual situations are unrelated to each other, and my experience seems to consist entirely of individual situations; I’ve never yet been involved in a story with a beginning, middle and end. For someone who tells stories this is positively sinful, but I must confess that I have yet to experience a story. I think stories are actually lies. But they are incredibly important to our survival. Their artificial structure helps us to overcome our worst fears: that there is no God; that we are nothing but tiny fluctuating particles with perception and consciousness, but lost in a universe that remains altogether beyond our conception. By producing coherence, stories make life bearable and combat fears. That’s why children like to hear stories at bedtime. That’s why the Bible is one long storybook, and why stories should always end happily.

Of course the stories in my films also work as a means of ordering the images. Without stories, the images that interest me would threaten to lose themselves and seem purely arbitrary.

Kings of the Road (Directed by Wim Wenders)
Of course the stories in my films also work as a means of ordering the images. Without stories, the images that interest me would threaten to lose themselves and seem purely arbitrary.

For this reason, film-stories are like routes. A map is the most exciting thing in the world for me; when I see a map, I immediately feel restless, especially when it’s of a country or city where I’ve never been. I look at all the names and I want to know the things they refer to, the cities of a country, the streets of a city. When I look at a map, it turns into an allegory for the whole of life. The only thing that makes it bearable is to try to mark out a route, and follow it through the city or country. Stories do just that: they become your roads in a strange land, where but for them, you might go to thousands of places without ever arriving anywhere.

What are the stories that are told in my films? There are two sorts; I draw a sharp distinction between them, because they exist in two completely separate systems or traditions. Furthermore, there is a continual alternation between the two categories of film, with a single exception, The Scarlet Letter, and that was a mistake.

The American Friend (Directed by Wim Wenders)
In the first group (A) all the films are in black and white, except for Nick’s Film (Lightning Over Water), which belongs to neither tradition. (I’m not even sure that it counts as a film at all, so let’s leave that one out.) In the other group (B) all the films are in colour, and they are all based on published novels. The films in group A, on the other hand, are based without exception on ideas of mine – the word ‘idea’ is used loosely to refer to dreams, daydreams and experiences of all kinds. All the A-films were more or less unscripted, whereas the others followed scripts very closely. The A-films are loosely structured, whereas the B-films are all tightly structured. The A-films were all shot in chronological sequence, beginning from an initial situation that was often the only known point in them; the B-films were shot in the traditional hopping-around way, and with an eye to the exigencies of a production team. With group A films, I never knew how they would finish; I knew the endings of B-films before I started.

Basically all the group A films operate in a very open system, the B-films in a very closed one. Both represent not only systems but also attitudes: openness on the one hand, discipline on the other. The themes of the A-films were identified only during shooting. The themes of the B-films were known; it was just a matter of deciding which bits should go in. The A-films were made from the inside, working out; the B-films the opposite. For the A-films a story had to be found; for the B-films the story had to be lost sight of.

The fact that – with the exception of the already-mentioned mistake – there has been a constant pendulum swing between A- and B-films shows that each film is a reaction to its predecessor, which is exactly my dilemma.

The American Friend (Directed by Wim Wenders)
I made each of my A-films because the film before had had too many rules, hadn’t been sufficiently spontaneous, and I’d got bored with the characters; also I felt that I had to ‘expose’ myself and the crew and the actors to a new situation. With the B-films it was exactly the other way round: I made them because I was unhappy that the film before had been so ‘subjective’, and because I needed to work within a firm structure, using the framework of a story. Actors in the B-films played parts ‘other’ than themselves, represented fictional characters; in the A-films they interpreted and depicted themselves, they were themselves. In these films I saw my task as bringing in as much as possible of what (already) existed. For the B-films, things had to be invented. It became ever clearer that one group could be called ‘subjective’ and the other ‘search for objectivity’. Though, of course, it wasn’t quite so simple.

In what follows I will talk about how the A-films began, and the role that story played in them. My first film was called Summer in the City; it’s about a man who’s spent a couple of years in prison. The first frame shows him emerging from prison and suddenly confronting life again. He tries to see his old friends and get into his old relationships, but he quickly realizes that nothing can be the way it was before. In the end he takes off and emigrates to America. The second film in the A-group, Alice in the Cities, is about a man who’s supposed to be writing a feature about America. He can’t do it, and the film begins with his decision to return to Europe. He happens to meet a little girl, Alice, and her mother, and promises to take her back to her grandmother in Europe. Only he doesn’t know where she lives; all he has is a photograph of the house. The remainder of the film is taken up by the search for the house.

The State of Things (Directed by Wim Wenders)
A man tries to kill himself – that’s how Kings of the Road starts. By chance, there’s another man watching, so he gives up his kamikaze behaviour. The other man is a truck-driver. They decide to travel together – pure chance, again. The film is about their journey and whether the two have anything to say to each other or not.

The last of the A-films, The State of Things, is about a film crew who have to stop working because the money’s run out and the producer’s vanished. The crew don’t know whether they’ll be able to finish the shoot or not. The film is about a group of people who’ve lost their way, particularly the director, who in the end goes to Hollywood to look for the producer.

All these films are about people who encounter unfamiliar situations on the road; all of them are to do with seeing and perception, about people who suddenly have to take a different view of things. To be as specific about this as I can, I’d like to go back to Kings of the Road. How did that come about? One answer would be: because I’d just finished The Wrong Move – it was a reaction to that previous work. I felt that I had to devise a story in which I could investigate myself and my country – Germany (the subject of my previous film too, though treated in a different way). This time it was to be a trip to an unknown country, to an unknown country in myself, and in the middle of Germany. I knew what I wanted but I didn’t know how to begin. Then everything was set off by an image.

I was overtaking a truck on the Autobahn; it was very hot and it was an old lorry without air-conditioning. There were two men in the cab, and the driver had opened the door and was dangling his leg out in order to cool off. This image, seen from the corner of my eye when driving past, impressed me. I happened to stop at a motorway cafe where the lorry also stopped. I went up to the bar where the two men from the lorry were standing. Not a word passed between them; it was as though they had absolutely nothing in common. You got the impression they were strangers. I asked myself what do these two men see, how do they see, as they drive across Germany?

The State of Things (Directed by Wim Wenders)
At that time I was doing quite a lot of travelling around Germany with my previous film, The Wrong Move. During my travels I became aware of the situation of the rural cinema. The halls, the projection booths and the projectionists all fascinated me. Then I looked at a map of Germany and I realized there was one route down through it that I barely knew. It ran along the border between the GDR and the FRG; not only down the middle of Germany, but also along the very edge. And I suddenly realized that I had everything I needed for my new film: a route and the story of two men who don’t know each other. I was interested to see what might happen to them, and between them. One of them would have a job that was something to do with the cinema, and I knew where the cinemas were to be found: along the border.

Of course that’s not enough to make a story. All the films in the A-group started off with a few situations that I hoped might develop into a story. To assist that development, I followed the method of ‘day-dreaming’. Story always assumes control, it knows its course, it knows what matters, it knows where it begins and ends. Daydream is quite different; it doesn’t have that ‘dramaturgical’ control. What it has is a kind of subconscious guide who wants to get on, no matter where; every dream is going somewhere, but who can say where that is? Something in the subconscious knows, but you can only discover it if you let it take its course, and that’s what I attempted in all these films. The English word ‘drifting’ expresses it very well. Not the shortest line between two points, but a zigzag. Perhaps a better word would be ‘meander’, because that has the idea of distance in it as well.

A journey is an adventure in space and time. Adventure, space and time – all three are involved. Stories and journeys have them in common. A journey is always accompanied by curiosity about the unknown; it creates expectations and intensity of perception: you see things on the road that you never would at home. To get back to Kings of the Road: after ten weeks’ filming we were still only halfway through, though I’d aimed to finish the film in that time. There was no money to go on filming, and we were still a long way short of an ending. The problem was: how should the journey end? Or: how might it be converted into a story? At first I thought of an accident. If it had been shot in America, it would certainly have finished with an accident. But thank God we weren’t in America; we were free to do otherwise and get to the ‘truth of our story’. So we broke off the filming and I tried to raise money for another five weeks’ shooting. Of course a film of that type can be literally never ending, and that’s a danger. The solution, finally, turned out to be that the men would have to realize they couldn’t go on like that; a break had to come and they would have to change their lives.

The State of Things (Directed by Wim Wenders)
But before that I had another idea, another ‘bend’ in the meander: the two protagonists look for their parents. I thought that might lead them to break off their relationship. So we filmed a long story about the first of them, how he visits his father, and then another long story about the second returning to the place where he grew up with his mother. Unfortunately, though, that only improved their relationship and left us even further from an ending than we were before. Suddenly, and for the first time, the two were able to speak to each other. We broke off the filming a second time. I thought the film might end with them both questioning what they had done before their relationship, and reconsidering their aims in life. The one travelling from cinema to cinema wonders whether there was any sense in keeping these places going, and the other goes back to his work as a paediatrician and speech therapist. In the end, that was how we shot it.

The State of Things is also about stories. Of course the director figure represents my own dilemma, to a certain extent; at one stage he actually says: ‘Life and stories are mutually incompatible.’ That’s his theory as a director. Later on, though, when he goes back to Hollywood, he himself becomes embroiled in a story, in one of those stories he never believed in, and in the end it kills him. Paradoxical, of course. And that’s really the only thing I have to say about stories: they are one huge, impossible paradox! I totally reject stories, because for me they only bring out lies, nothing but lies, and the biggest lie is that they show coherence where there is none. Then again, our need for these lies is so consuming that it’s completely pointless to fight them and to put together a sequence of images without a story – without the lie of a story. Stories are impossible, but it’s impossible to live without them.

That’s the mess I’m in. 

– Wim Wenders: Impossible stories. Talk given at a colloquium on narrative technique, 1982. In Wim Wenders: The Logic of Images: Essays and Conversations (Faber and Faber, 1992)


Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Leigh Brackett: Watching the Detectives

The Big Sleep (Directed by Howard Hawks)
Screenwriter Leigh Brackett is known primarily for her scripts for Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946), Rio Bravo (1959), Hatari! (1962), El Dorado (1967), and Rio Lobo (1970). A successful science-fiction writer she also contributed the first draft of George Lucas’s The Empire Strikes Back (1980) widely regarded as the best of the Star Wars films. Starting out on ‘B’ movies her first major screenwriting assignment was for Howard Hawks’ 1946 version of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Hawks had read Brackett’s pulp crime novel No Good From A Corpse and hired her to work with William Faulkner on the script for his adaptation of Chandler’s convoluted private-eye story. Brackett went on to work on several more projects for Hawks, as well as for other directors. In the 1973 version of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, Leigh Brackett updated the quintessential 1940s private-eye novel for director Robert Altman’s film. In the following extract from an interview with Steve Swires she discusses working on both Chandler adaptations and how the intervening years had changed the conception of Philip Marlowe as the detective-hero.

Your first screenplays were for ‘The Vampire’s Ghost’ [1945], a ‘ten-day wonder’ at Republic, and ‘Crime Doctor’s Manhunt’ [1946], part of the ‘Crime Doctor’ series at Columbia. You went from those ‘B’ movies to ‘The Big Sleep’, directed by Howard Hawks, in 1946. How did you manage so prestigious an advancement?
The ‘ten-day wonder’ was because my agent, Hugh King, had been with Myron Selznick, my agency at that time, and he had gone over to Republic as story editor and had sort of managed to shoehorn me in because they were doing this horror film. They decided to cash in on the Universal monster school, and I had been doing science fiction, and to them it all looked the same – ‘bug-eyed monsters.’ It made no difference. I did The Vampire’s Ghost there, and just out of the clear blue sky this other thing happened, purely on the strength of a hard-boiled mystery novel I had published. Howard Hawks read the book and liked it. He didn’t buy the book, for which I can’t blame him, but he liked the dialogue and I was put under contract to him.

The Big Sleep (Directed by Howard Hawks)
You worked on the screenplay of ‘The Big Sleep’ with William Faulkner. I wouldn’t say that you collaborated, but both of your names are in the credits as having written the script, along with Jules Furthman.
I went to the studio the first day absolutely appalled. I had been writing pulp stories for about three years, and here is William Faulkner, who was one of the great literary lights of the day, and how am I going to work with him? What have I got to offer, as it were? This was quickly resolved, because when I walked into the office, Faulkner came out of his office with the book The Big Sleep and he put it down and said: ‘I have worked out what we’re going to do. We will do alternate sections. I will do these chapters and you will do those chapters.’ And that was the way it was done. He went back into his office and I didn’t see him again, so the collaboration was quite simple. I never saw what he did and he never saw what I did. We just turned our stuff in to Hawks.
Jules Furthman came into it considerably later, because Hawks had a great habit of shooting off the cuff. He had a fairly long script to begin with and he had no final script. He went into production with a ‘temporary.’ He liked to get a scene going and let it run. He eventually wound up with far too much story left than he had time to do on film. Jules came in and I think he was on it for about three weeks, and he rewrote it, shortening the latter part of the script.
The Big Sleep (Directed by Howard Hawks)
If you try to watch the film as a standard mystery, fitting all of the clues together to logically develop a hypothesis as to who the murderer might be, you find yourself continually frustrated by the narrative development .
I think everybody got very confused. It’s a confusing book if you sit down and tear it apart. When you read it from page to page, it moves so beautifully that you don’t care, but if you start tearing it apart to see what makes it tick, it comes unglued. Owen Taylor, I believe, was the name of the chauffeur. I was down on the set one day and Bogart came up and said, ‘Who killed Owen Taylor?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ We got hold of Faulkner and he said he didn’t know, so they sent a wire to Chandler. He sent another wire back and said: ‘I don’t know.’ In the book it is never explained who killed Owen Taylor, so there we were.

In writing your portion of the screenplay, did you have any concept in mind of the role of the private eye as an archetypal hero?
I don’t think I dissected it that much. I was very much under the spell of Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and I have written a few stories myself in that same vein. Something struck me. I liked it and I felt it, but I don’t think I really analyzed it as I might do now, but I was a lot younger then. I just sort of accepted it.
The Big Sleep (Directed by Howard Hawks)
Are there contributions you made to the characterization of Philip Marlowe which are distinct from Hawks’?
I don’t know that I contributed too much to Marlowe, because I was taking directly from the book. This was the bible, and I wouldn’t dream of changing it. I think that the characterization of Marlowe as done by Bogart and directed by Hawks was entirely their own. On the other hand, I think Bogart was ideal and, as far as I was concerned, he was the greatest actor that ever happened. I adored him. Actually, it was a joy to watch him on the set because he was stage trained. On a Hawks film nobody gets their pages until five minutes before they’re going to shoot. Bogart would put on his horn-rims, go off in a corner, look at it, and then he’d come back on the set and they’d run through it a couple of times, and he’d have it right down, every bit of timing, and he’d go through about fourteen takes waiting for the other people to catch up to him.
I don’t like to say this, because it sounds presumptuous, but Hawks and I kind of tuned in on the same channel with regard to the characters, and I think this is probably one reason that I worked with him so long. He was able to get out of me what he wanted because I had somewhat the same attitude towards the characters as he did.
The Big Sleep (Directed by Howard Hawks)
There is a revisionist effort popular with such critics as Pauline Kael and Richard Corliss to consider the work of the screenwriter in contrast to the auteur theory, which postulates the director as the author of the film. When you look back on the movies that you wrote for Hawks, do you see them as Leigh Brackett films or Howard Hawks films or as collaborations?
It’s a collaboration. The whole thing is a team effort. A writer cannot possibly, when he’s writing a film, do exactly what he wants to do as when he’s writing a novel. If I sit down to write a novel, I am God at my own typewriter, and there’s nobody in between. But if I’m doing a screenplay, it has to be a compromise because there are so many things outside a writer’s province. Hawks was also a producer, and he had so many things to think about that had nothing to do with the creative effort – with the story – like cost and budget and technical details that you must learn to integrate. You cannot possibly just go and say: ‘Well, I want to do it thus and such and so, because presently they say: ‘Thanks very much and goodbye.’ It just has to be that way.
You came out of the tradition of the pulp magazines, where you were allowed a degree of creative control. How did you react to having less control over your work in Hollywood?
I sort of went off into corners and wept a few times at things that made me very unhappy. I think the hardest thing about adapting to working with other people was that. Because I was a fiction writer primarily, and I was used to writing in a little room with the door shut, just myself and the typewriter – all of a sudden I’m sitting in this room with film people and I’ve got to talk ideas. God I froze. Everything I was about to say sounded so dreadful. It took me quite a few years to adapt and also to learn my craft, because I don’t think there’s anything better than screenwriting to teach you the construction of a story.

The Big Sleep (Directed by Howard Hawks)
I was very poor on construction when I first began. If I could hit it right from the first word and go straight through, then it was great. If I didn’t, I ended up with half-finished stories in which I had written myself into a box canyon and couldn’t fight my way out. In film writing you get on overall conception of a story and then you go through these endless story conferences. Hawks used to walk in and he’d say: ‘I’ve been thinking . . .’ My heart would go right down into my boots. Here we go: Start at the top of page one and go right through it again. But you still have to keep that concept. It’s like building a wall. You’ve got the blocks, and you’ve got the wall all planned, and then somebody says: ‘I think we’ll take this stone out of here and we’ll put it over there. And we’ll make this one a red one and that one a green one.’ You’re still trying to keep the overall shape of the story, but you’re changing the details. It took me a long time, but I finally learned how to do it. It was exhausting.
One of the observations gleaned from an auteur-oriented examination of Hawk’s films is that certain sequences keep repeating themselves, being remade in different settings with different actors. For example, the scene in ‘The Big Sleep’ where the gangster is in the house with Bogart and Bacall while his henchmen are waiting outside. Bogart throws him out and Hawks cuts to a shot of the door being riddled with bullets. That scene is reshot in ‘El Dorado’ where John Wayne throws a cowboy out of a saloon and Hawks again cuts to a shot of the door being riddled with bullets from the henchmen waiting outside. Your wrote the screenplay for ‘El Dorado’. Did you do that deliberately, or was that Hawks?
That was Hawks. I have been at swords’ points with him many a time because I don’t like doing a thing over again, and he does. I remember one day he and John Wayne and I were sitting in the office, and he said we’ll do such and such a thing. I said: ‘But Howard, you did it in Rio Bravo. You don’t want to do this over again.’ He said: ‘Why not?’ And John Wayne, all six feet four of him, looked down and said: ‘If it was good once it’ll be just as good again.’ I know when I’m outgunned, so I did it. But I just don’t like repeating myself. However, I’m wrong about half the time…

The Long Goodbye (Directed by Robert Altman)
From what you’ve said, it sounds as though it was a very lively atmosphere around the sets of the Hawks films, with his spontaneously creative working habits. It must have prepared you, then, for Robert Altman, who I understand also likes not to inform the cast as to what they’ll be shooting the next day. In fact, many times he doesn’t bother to worry about it himself. How were you brought into the project of writing the screenplay for ‘The Long Goodbye’?
Elliott Kastner, who was the executive producer, used to be my agent at MCA a long time ago and we’re good friends. He remembered The Big Sleep and he wanted me to work on The Long Goodbye . He set the deal with United Artists, and they had a commitment for a film with Elliott Gould, so either you take Elliott Gould or you don’t make the film. Elliott Gould was not exactly my idea of Philip Marlowe, but anyway there we were. Also, as far as the story was concerned, time had gone by – it was twenty-odd years since the novel was written, and the private eye had become a cliché. It had become funny. You had to watch out what you were doing. If you had Humphrey Bogart at the same age that he was when he did The Big Sleep, he wouldn’t do it the same way. Also, we were faced with a technical problem of this enormous book, which was the longest one Chandler ever wrote. It’s tremendously involuted and convoluted. If you did it the way he wrote it, you would have a five-hour film.

I worked with another director who was on it before, Brian G. Hutton. He had a brilliant idea which just didn’t work, and we wrote ourselves into a blind alley on that. It was a technical problem of plotting – the heavy had planned this whole thing from the start. So what you had was a prearranged thing where everybody sort of got up out of several boxes and did and said exactly what they had to do and say in order to get you where you had to be. It was very contrived and didn’t work. Brian had to leave because he had another commitment, so when Altman came onto it I went over to London for a week. He was cutting Images [1972], which was a magnificent film – beautiful, powerful. We conferred about ten o’clock in the morning and yakked all day, and I went back to the hotel and typed all the notes and went back the next day. In a week we had it all worked out. He was a joy to work with. He had a very keen story mind.
The Long Goodbye (Directed by Robert Altman)
Mark Rydell played the character Marty Augustine in ‘The Long Goodbye’. He is an old friend of Altman’s, so I imagine they were able to work together more easily. Rydell claimed that he knew intuitively what Altman’ s conception of the movie was, which many critics, as well as many members of the audience, missed – the satirization of the genre of the private-eye film, by placing the conventions of the forties in direct conflict with the realities of the seventies. Were you aware of Altman’s intentions during your story conferences?
Actually, I was more aware of the construction of the thing, which is more my department. What he does with it after he gets the script is something else again. I don’t think I was quite as aware of the satire as I became later.

Jay Cocks of ‘Time’ magazine accused Altman of mocking ‘an achievement to which at his best he could only aspire,’ because he tried to demythologize Philip Marlowe. I imagine a lot of critics who are in their forties and fifties now grew up with the myth of Bogart as Marlowe, and hated to see the end of the film in which Marlowe murders Terry Lennox with no remorse. In fact, after he commits the murder, he dances down the road whistling ‘Hooray for Hollywood!’ You are responsible, to some degree, for helping to create and propagate that original myth with ‘The Big Sleep’. Then you turned around and helped to sabotage it in ‘The Long Goodbye’. Do you consider that a betrayal of your earlier values?

The Long Goodbye (Directed by Robert Altman)
No. Actually the ending, where Marlowe commits the murder, was in the script before Altman came onto it. The ending of the book was totally inconclusive. You had built up a villain. You feel that Marlowe has been wounded in his most sensitive heart, as it were – he’s trusted this man as his friend; the friend has betrayed him. What do you do? We said let’s just face up to it. He kills him.
In the time that we made The Big Sleep you couldn’t do that because of censorship, had you wanted to do it. We stuck very closely to Chandler’s own estimate of Marlowe as a loser, so we made him a real loser – he loses everything. Here is the totally honest man in a dishonest world, and it suddenly rears up and kicks him in the face, and he says: ‘The hell with you.’ Bang! I don’t know whether we were right to do it, but I don’t regret having done it. It felt right at the time. This was the way it turned out.

What do you think of the conceptions and characterizations of Marlowe as portrayed in the other film versions of Chandler’s novels?
I thought Murder My Sweet [1944] was a beautiful film. The others all had points of excellence and also points where they didn’t quite come across. The experimental business of ‘I am a camera’ in Lady in the Lake [1946] didn’t work too well.
It has been said that Philip Marlowe was sort of the son of Sam Spade. As Chandler said: ‘Down these mean streets must go a man who is not himself mean.’ In other words, here is the knight in shining armor with a shabby trench coat and snap-brim felt hat. I think he is a universal folk hero who does not change down through the ages except in the detail of his accoutrements. He’s not carrying a sword but a .32 automatic. The essential is that here is a man who is pure in heart, who is decent and honorable and cannot be bought – he is incorruptible. I think the concept was damn good, a very moral concept.

The Long Goodbye (Directed by Robert Altman)
What did you think of Gould’s performance, miscast as he was?
I thought he did a beautiful job. However, the thing about Elliott is that he isn’t tough. His face is gentle, his eyes are kind, and he doesn’t have that touch of cruelty that you associate with these characters.
With all of the disappointments that you’ve suffered – having your scripts revised without your approval to produce inferior versions of previous pictures – will you continue to write screenplays? Is there anything on the horizon that we can look forward to?
There’s nothing definite at the moment. I have an original Western screenplay out and around, and I’m hopeful. It’s a comedy. There are a number of things on the fire with television. As you know, the whole picture has changed out there very greatly in recent years. You grab what you can get. I wrote a script for The Rockford Files that was telecast last season.
But I greatly enjoy the work. It’s a challenge. It’s more technical than creative. What you have to be is a very good journeyman plumber and put the parts together. And then, if you can still inject a little bit of something worthwhile, you’ve done as much as can be expected.
– Extract from Leigh Brackett: Journeyman Plumber. Interview by Steve Swires in Backstory 2. Ed. Pat McGilligan.