Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Charlie Chaplin: The Lost Interview

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

‘The Tramp was something within me’ - Charlie Chaplin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RM Is realism an integral part of comedy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RM Do you worry about sentimentality or cliche?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RM Is it that we want relief from tragedy?

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Bodies and Souls: An Interview with Robert Rossen

The Hustler (Directed by Robert Rossen)
Robert Rossen was an American screenwriter, producer and film director whose career spanned three decades. He was the writer of The Roaring Twenties (1939), The Sea Wolf (1941), Edge Of Darkness (1943), The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers (1946); director of Body And Soul (1947), The Brave Bulls (1950); writer and director of All The King’s Men (Academy Award, 1949), Alexander The Great (1956), Island In The Sun (1957), The Hustler (1962), Lilith (1964).

The following interview is one of the last granted by Robert Rossen, who died February 18, 1966. It took place in Rossen’s Upper West Side apartment in New York on December 23, 1965. The interviewer was Daniel Stein, a student of film history at The University of Wisconsin.

 I’d like to start by asking about the East Side where you were brought up. Do you find that the East Side experience helped you in making ‘The Hustler’ and ‘Body And Soul’?

 Oh yes, very definitely. First I want to make it clear about the East Side. When you say East Side what it usually means to people is that you lived on the lower East Side of Manhattan in Jewish neighborhoods, the ghetto, etc. I didn’t quite have that kind of experience. I lived on the East Side in the middle of Manhattan, and my experience was not a ghetto experience, but it was worse. I never quite lived with Jewish surroundings, so I never had the sense of community that you had, even if you lived in a ghetto. I was always living in a hostile environment with Irish kids, Poles, Italians, Germans... I lived in Yorkville for a while, so that I probably had a clearer look at the impact of environment on character and vice versa than I would have had otherwise, because if I had lived in a Jewish neighborhood my concept of reality would have been within that community, which was in a sense almost a conformed community. Whether you were poor or rich it really didn’t make much difference, but you were poor so certain things followed. But the very fact that you were in opposition to, and running away from your own background made you take a pretty hard look at it in order to determine how you would exist in what I call a pretty total jungle. You see the difference?

Body And Soul (Directed by Robert Rossen)
STEIN:  Yes. I’ve read that you are concerned primarily with character and the effect of environment. In many of your films this is the theme, but then again in some of your other films you go away from this theme, I think – such as in ‘Alexander (The Great)’.

ROSSEN: Well, you make an assumption that my preoccupation is primarily with the effect of  character on environment, etc. It really isn’t, because once character is formed... well, let’s take as an example All The King’s Men, the background of Willie Stark or Huey Long, or whatever the hell you want to call him. The effect of character on him and his character on his environment is very sharp. Actually he was a red neck, which meant he was a backwoodsman. Within that came: (a) his antagonism, or his hostility, his hard look at it and what it made of him; but also (b) that the answer for him, which you would find in any character relationship like that, was the desire toward power and the absolute belief that if he had power, he would do things that would help people.

STEIN: That is also, in a certain sense, the theme that comes out in ‘Lilith’.

ROSSEN: Oh yes, yes, because the drive toward power never permits itself to be naked and always needs a rationale, whether it’s the rationale of a schizophrenic or the rationale of a Willie Stark. It needs it because it cannot face the fact that the need for power becomes primarily a subjective need. We like to think, as Lyndon Johnson likes to think – I am positive he thinks this way – that his tremendous power or his drive toward power is for the good of the many. How could he face the fact that his need has become a subjective thing?

STEIN: But you also make a point in your films that this power tends to destroy itself in people.

ROSSEN: Well yes, and isn’t it true? I mean that it is certainly much truer in a complex society. But then again if you go back to the era of Alexander, which was not as complex a society, you find the same power motives. With him it’s the other way around. Power for him was a natural and inevitable thing based on his background, and his constructive use of power did not come until the last three or four years of his life. Not until then did he begin to understand that power could be a constructive weapon.

Body And Soul (Directed by Robert Rossen)
STEIN: Concerning ‘Alexander The Great’, was there any kind of conflict between what you wanted to do with this historical setting and what the studio demanded of you?

ROSSEN: No, there wasn’t any conflict. The only pressures – and I could have withstood them, I suppose, if I had been strong enough at the time – were pressures on cutting the film, on getting it down in size. You see Alexander originally was a three hour picture. I wanted it done with an intermission. They got very frightened at the length, and they finally wore me down. Actually, it’s a much better picture in three hours than it is in two hours and twenty minutes, precisely for one reason. It unveils the various guilts Alexander felt toward his father much more deeply – for instance his chase of Darius. It is not just a simple chase to kill the Emperor of the Persian Empire. The chase for Darius is tied up with his tremendous feeling that as long as a father figure is alive in royalty, he has to kill him.

Is this based on fact?

 This is based on what I have read, and I did about three years of research personally.

 You were really drawn to the subject?

Oh yes, I was completely drawn to the subject. You know, Plutarch records – but then there were so many other books on Alexander – that Alexander actually had to kill Darius. If Darius had had a wife, he would have had to go to bed with her. So he did the next best thing, he took one of his daughters. But the daughter story I don’t quite believe; even though it’s hinted at, I just don’t believe it. I think this has gone into the realm of legend, and in terms of legend, I think practically every country in the East has a legend claiming Alexander as their hero or god, or what have you. Egypt does. The Indians still do, they call him the ‘Esconda.’ Jews have a legend that he came to the gates of Jerusalem and was so impressed with monotheism that he spared Jerusalem. So I was fascinated. You see, I think it’s natural for people to want power, but then I think you have to decide what you mean by power. Is it the power to move people or is it the power to create things? You see the problem? Power is such a complex kind of subject, because you see there are certain things in power that are very human and very right and very neat­ – the power, let’s say, of a girl singer to get on the stage and hold an audience by sheer force of her personality or voice. That’s power at a given moment and a given time, but that power is a good power, that power is a creative power, that power is an expression of human personality which is primarily what we are all after and don’t have now – and why we are so buggered up.

All The King’s Men (Directed by Robert Rossen)
 We were talking about ‘Body And Soul’ and ‘The Hustler’. Those two pictures came very much out of your background, didn’t they?

ROSSEN: Yes they did. I once wrote a play thirty years ago called Corner Pocket. It wasn’t done; I didn’t want it to be done, but everybody wanted to do it. It was a play about a poolroom. I spent a lot of my time from about fifteen to nineteen years old, in a poolroom, so obviously I was attracted to it. But the aspect of poolrooms that I was attracted to was not in The Hustler. The aspect I was originally attracted to was my thought that pool halls, at a certain stage in the life of America, were a poor man’s opium den. There was no place in the world where you could lie and be believed like in a poolroom; no place in the world where a guy who was running a laundry wagon, you know, who was a shit, a nothing on the outside, suddenly walks in and shoots a good game of pool, and tells lies. He sits around and bullshits – it’s a place to stay in, you know, till 3 or 4 in the morning or it’s a place to go to at 11 in the morning. That was the basis of my play, but then I read this book and there were other things in it, which were also very valid, which I totally understood. The best kind of pictures you can get are films that are not at all intellectually constructed, but drawn out of your experience and senses.

STEIN: Was the same thing true of your involvement in ‘Body And Soul’?

 Yes, I used to fight around. I knew Canada Lee before he became an actor.

 Wasn’t Garfield also a fighter?

 Sure. And Canada Lee was about, I’d say, the second top-ranking welterweight fighter in the world before he became an actor. So we all talked shorthand­ – fighting had to have truth if nothing else. I knew Garfield ten – no more than that – fifteen years before. We used to meet on the Intervale Avenue Subway station, and I knew him as an actor. I didn’t have to direct him in certain parts of the film. All I had to say was yes or no because he totally understood it...

Alexander The Great (Directed by Robert Rossen)
STEIN: A new film came out called ‘The Cincinnati Kid’. It has been called a bad ‘Hustler’, but I think ‘Lilith’ was called a poor ‘David And Lisa’.

 I don’t think the critic knows what he is talking about. First of all, I never saw David And Lisa, very deliberately. And secondly, the theme of David And Lisa is completely antithetical to the theme of Lilith. I understand David And Lisa is very well made but it is a very small story and has no implication of any size outside of its immediate story. Lilith, I thought, had enormous implications. I think the critics were shocked by it, shocked because I made it. They never expected me to make that kind of picture, because they associated me with something else.

 With the tough type of ‘Hustler’?

 That’s right – and I knocked them right on their ass, because critics, once they set you up in their minds, and they have created the image, don’t want you to destroy that image. It is very comfortable and safe and sane for them for – how should I put it – for you to stay in the image. They don’t have to start saying ‘Now why did he make this picture? What made him change? Why did he do it?’ That makes them work, and critics don’t like work.

 Although the style was different the content wasn’t really so different and I think that’s what the critics missed. My question is why do you think that they missed this? They really didn’t examine the social consequences of it at all.

Alexander The Great (Directed by Robert Rossen)
 They didn’t all miss it. Some of the critics liked it very much. I just got a copy of the French paper Combat. They understood the picture and liked it very much. Of course, I don’t think a lot of American critics got The Hustler, but the European critics did. I don’t think (film critic) Archer Winsten still knows what the picture was about.

 Do you think the American critics are weak now?

 No. I think that everybody is playing a game, they’re wearing masks. They’ve created a certain style for themselves and they live up to this style. I think they are doing things for each other. It’s like the in-group in literature, you know, writing to please each other and I don’t think they do any real work; it’s too easy – they’re established.

STEIN: To change the subject a bit, was ‘Lilith’ a financial success?

ROSSEN: I think that Lilith released today would do better financially than when it was released two or three years ago.

STEIN: Why do you say that?

ROSSEN: Because I think that advances in films go very quickly. In other words, I think audiences catch on more. For instance I think that if Alexander had been released three years after it was released – still being the same picture – it would have done a better business than it did then. You would already have had a kind of audience tuned to historical films which they weren’t at that time.

The Hustler (Directed by Robert Rossen)
STEIN: Do you think part of the problem was that the audiences and the critics were tuned into films like ‘David And Lisa’ and this film ‘Lilith’ came right on its heels, so that they...

ROSSEN: Oh sure. As I said I didn’t see the film David And Lisa so I don’t know, but it was the same subject, although I think Lilith was a more complex picture.

STEIN: I think it’s much more profound.

ROSSEN: Well, maybe that’s why they could accept David And Lisa.

STEIN: But they were looking for the same thing.

ROSSEN: They were, but maybe it didn’t come off. I thought it came off. However, there is one thing I think I missed. I didn’t know it but my star almost killed me. I made a terrible mistake in casting.

STEIN: Warren Beatty?

ROSSEN: Yes. A young guy who wants to do something good, who has all kinds of decent instincts, walks in there, totally healthy and totally well and as he gets into this world, he, too, begins to have doubts and he, too, on the basis of his own experience, begins to get entangled. But, you see, he never gave you the feeling of entanglement, because right from the beginning he belonged in that institution. He was psychotic from the start.

Lilith (Directed by Robert Rossen)
STEIN: Now part of that – I understood this in the film – but part of what drew me away was the slight innuendo that the character was already sick from the beginning.

ROSSEN: Yes, that was in the book too, but the point is you should have gotten the feeling that this American guy had gone through a war experience, come back with a new sense, didn’t want to take that old crappy job they had around, but was a guy who really meant what he said when he said ‘I want to do something.’ You never believed him for a moment. You see, it was wrong casting and there was nothing I could do... I liked the picture. I think what it had to say was an important comment to make for today’s society, because I don’t think it has even been touched yet­ this whole question of inner life. I think there is only one man that I know of in films who really understands how to do it, and that’s (Ingmar) Bergman… I think Bergman does things that are really trying to get into the twentieth century. The whole approach to that part of life which is subjective and yet has to be objective because we have no other defense.

STEIN: What do you think of the films of Antonioni and Sidney Lumet, the American director?

ROSSEN: Antonioni I like. But I think he begins to imitate himself. I liked L’Avventura very much, especially the last part. I can’t say I think very much of the rest of his pictures. Lumet will always do a good picture, but never a great one. He lacks the one thing: spontaneity. Everything is too laid out. Television really got him over the years. It’s all too well planned. That’s why he likes the work in studios. Anybody who likes to work in studios likes to work in them because you cannot improvise. You go on location in a real setting and everything around you leads you into another idea. You can go down, looking for this and you find that. You’ve got to have the guts to have this spontaneous quality of getting it right away.

STEIN: I understand you shot a lot of ‘All The King’s Men’ spontaneously, that you took people, real people, and that you shot in actual hotel rooms?

ROSSEN: Oh yes, I only had one set in the whole picture – the Governor’s mansion – that was the only set.
Lilith (Directed by Robert Rossen)
STEIN: But where was the judge’s house?

ROSSEN: An older house in Stockton, California. I shot the impeachment scene with Stockton lawyers and judges in the courtroom.

STEIN: And the crowd – all the scenes were natural?

ROSSEN: Oh yeah, I even gave the cameramen phony cameras. I didn’t even know what was going to happen.

STEIN: You did the same thing in ‘The Brave Bulls’, didn’t you?

ROSSEN: Totally. The Brave Bulls was all shot on location. I think again there were maybe one or two sets in the picture. I discovered the idea of ‘skills’ from the first picture I did. Of not using actors when the predominant quality of what they are doing is a skill.

I did a picture called Johnny O’Clock. The guys backing the picture were gamblers – gunmen. They were very nice guys, but when it came down to shooting the gambling scenes, it was very funny. They insisted on bringing their own equipment in – the mother-of-pearl chips, their own dealers, the whole business. ‘It’s gotta be effective because we’re well known all over Havana, New York... ’ So I said ‘Fine, bring the guys in; they’ll show the actors what to do.’ And I watched these guys. They were amazing. Nobody could riffle a deck or could make a call or could watch a customer like these guys. So I wondered what I was doing fooling around with actors, and I stayed with that group in the picture. Then when it came to Body And Soul, I knew a lot about fighting. (Cameraman) Jimmie Howe, who used to be the Champion on the Pacific coast, knew a lot of these guys, and he knew a lot about fighting so we decided that in the whole mish-mash there would be absolutely no actors, and that’s the way we shot it.

– Excerpt from Daniel Stein: An Interview With Robert Rossen. Arts in Society: The Film Issue 4 (Winter 1966-67).

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

David Lynch: In the City of Dreams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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