Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Elia Kazan: Writing for the Theatre, Writing for the Screen

A Streetcar Named Desire (Directed by Elia Kazan)
Elia Kazan’s The Pleasures of Directing is a fragment from an unfinished book that the great director began writing as he was approaching his eightieth year. His aim was to show readers the process of directing a film or a play, and the technical aspects were to be spliced with observations on the character and talents of the writers and artists he worked with and the way their collaboration evolved.

In the following extract Kazan draws on his experience as a groundbreaking director in the mediums of film and theatre to contrast the art of writing for the theatre to the process of writing for the screen:

A director should know everything about playwriting and/or screenplay writing, even if he is unable to write, is incapable of producing anything worth putting before an audience. He must be able to see the merits but also anticipate the problems involved in producing a script. The director is responsible for the script. Its faults are his responsibility. There is no evading this. He is there to guide the playwright to correct whatever faults the script has. At the same time he must respect the merits of the playwright’s work during the tensions of production. He is responsible for the protection of the manuscript.

Note that the word is not ‘playwrite,’ it’s ‘playwright.’ A play for the theatre is made as much as it is written. A film is made, not written. They are both constructions. The construction tells the story more than the words.

On The Waterfront (Directed by Elia Kazan)
In the movies, the director should be co-author (ideally) because that is what inevitably he is. He should work on the screenplay with the writer from the very beginning. The manner in which the story is developed tells more than the words do. The problems that arise during production are almost always problems of construction. Since so much of the story of a film is told by visual images, the director is the co-creator. A screenplay is not literature – a film is constructed of pieces of film joined together during the editing process. The most memorable films are not usually treasured for their literary values. But in film as well as in works for the stage, story construction is a major component.

A filmscript is more architecture than literature. This will get my friends who are writers mad, but it’s the truth: The director tells the movie story more than the man who writes the dialogue. The director is the final author, which is the reason so many writers now want to become directors. It’s all one piece. Many of the best films ever made can be seen without dialogue and be perfectly understood. The director tells the essential story with pictures. Dialogue, in most cases, is the gravy on the meat. It can be a tremendous ‘plus,’ but it rarely is. Acting, the art, helps; that too is the director’s work. He finds the experience within the actor that makes his or her face and body come alive and so creates the photographs he needs. Pictures, shots, angles, images, ‘cuts,’ poetic long shots – these are his vocabulary. Not talk. What speaks to the eye is the director’s vocabulary, his ‘tools,’ just as words are the author’s. Until Panic in the Streets, I’d directed actors moving in and out of dramatic arrangements just as I might have done on stage, with the camera photographing them mostly in medium shot. My stage experience, which I’d thought of as an asset, I now regarded as a handicap. I had to learn a new art.

Baby Doll (Directed by Elia Kazan)
A true artistic partnership between a writer and a filmmaker is an excellent solution, but it’s rarely arrived at. The dialogue remains an adjunct to the film rather than its central element. What can be told through images, through movement, through the expressiveness of the actor, what can be told without explicit and limiting dialogue, is best done that way. Reliance on the visual allows the ambiguity, the openness of life.

In the work of the best playwrights there is a mysterious, surprising quality. This play is unlike that of any other playwright. You may realize that the author is dealing with a strongly felt personal concern so important to him that it has been able to arouse the degree of energy necessary to produce a total manuscript. He has something to say; it is his message. The director of a screenplay has to appreciate what the writer is trying to say and stand up for it as surely as if he wrote the words himself. He is responsible for the writer’s theme and must ‘realize’ it, make it come to life for an audience. In film this consists of the choice and arrangement of images.

Most screenplays are adaptations of novels, stage plays, stories, news items, history. But the most interesting scripts verge on autobiography. The writer speaks to you, through the screen, using all the means of this form that are special to it, the succession of images as well as words. The best screen work has this element, even if the story appears to be objectively observed. The story is molded by the writer’s beliefs and feelings.

Splendor In The Grass (Directed by Elia Kazan)
The subject of writing for the theatre or screen defies easily formulated rules. The best rule of screen and play writing was given to me by John Howard Lawson, a onetime friend. It’s simple: unity from climax. Everything should build to the climax. But all I know about script preparation urges me to make no rules, although there are some hints, tools of the trade, that have been useful for me.
One of these is ‘Have your central character in every scene.’ This is a way of ensuring unity to the work and keeping the focus sharp. Another is: ‘Look for the contradictions in every character, especially in your heroes and villains. No one should be what they first seem to be. Surprise the audience.’

It is essential that the viewer be able to follow the flow of events. If you keep trying to figure out who is who and where it’s all happening and what is going on, you can’t emotionally respond to what’s being shown to you. But keep in mind that the greatest quality of a work of art may be its ability to surprise you, to make you wonder.

Another rule I have found useful is: Every time you make a cut, you improve a scene. Somerset Maugham, a wise old man, said that there are two important rules of playwriting. ‘One, stick to the subject. Two, cut wherever you can.’ Another wise man said: ‘If it occurs to you that something might be cut, it should be cut.’

Paul Osborn, an experienced and smart playwright and screenwriter, invited me to a screening of a movie made by the producer Sam Goldwyn. Sam asked Paul his opinion. ‘Needs cutting,’ said Paul. This made Sam frantic because he thought the same but didn’t know what to do about it. ‘But where?’ he asked. Paul answered, ‘Everywhere.’

America, America (Directed by Elia Kazan)
There’s no such thing as realistic theatre. The very presence of the audience, the fact of selection of any kind, the very taking off of the fourth wall, makes it not realistic. I’m not interested in what’s called realism. I don’t believe I’ve worked ‘realistically’ or ‘naturalistically’ either. What our stage does is put a strong light on a person, on the inner life, the feelings of a person. These become monumental. You’re not seeing the characters in two dimensions. They’re out there living right in your midst. It puts a terrific emphasis on what’s said too. You can no longer pretend a character is talking only to the partner he’s playing with. He’s talking in the midst of eleven hundred people and they’re there to hear him. They can hear his breathing, so right off the bat, the theatrical exists. You can’t duck it.

Stage operates through illusion. There’s nothing between the actor and the audience. Only he – without help – can project the idea to the audience. In movies, the camera helps out – moves the idea along. Sometimes it can talk, as it closes in or backs up, helps express emotion, what a character is thinking; or it can anticipate action. The more words, usually the lousier a movie script. Movies must be the real thing. Camera gives the plot an assist, helps the story get there.

– Extract from ‘The Pleasures of Directing’ in Elia Kazan: Kazan on Directing (Vintage Books, 2010) 

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Night and the City: In the Labyrinth

Night And The City (Directed by Jules Dassin)
‘Night and the City’ is Jules Dassin’s masterpiece and one of a string of superb film noirs Dassin made in the late 1940s and early 1950s which included ‘Brute Force’, ‘The Naked City’ and ‘Thieves Highway’. With his career in the United States over as a result of the McCarthy witchhunts, Dassin made his way to England and, with the backing of 20th Century Fox, began production on this dark uncompromising tale based on a novel by Gerald Kersh which tells the story of small-time hustler Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) looking for his one big break. Dassin’s vision of post-war London is of a bleak, scarred Dickensian Inferno. From the opening scenes at St. Paul’s Cathedral to the final scenes at Hammersmith Bridge where Fabian’s journey ends, London is portrayed as a dark maze-like city from which there is no escape. Dassin’s remarkable use of camera angles, with the assistance of cinematographer Mel Greene, traps Fabian in a net of his own making. At the end of the film there is no redemption for Harry Fabian, just the bleak realization that he took on the city and lost. As part of the Criterion Collection’s DVD edition of ‘Night and the City’ film critic Paul Arthur contributed a fine essay from which the following extract is taken:

Within film noir’s unparalleled roster of resonant titles – Kiss of Death, Out of the Past, Where Danger Lives, to name three – none is more emblematic or iconographically cogent than Night and the City. Juxtaposing two of noir’s essential, virtually ontological qualities, the title of Jules Dassin’s underrated elegy for a self-annihilating hustler reminds us not only that darkness is the visual corollary of almost all consequent action in noir—the idea of a ‘daylight’ noir being as perverse as a ‘nocturnal’ Western – but that nighttime functions throughout the series as a sort of Platonic entity, embracing a host of nonliteral meanings. Along with common associations of mystery and moral ambiguity, darkness takes on a specifically urban coloration. Indeed, film noir caps a long-standing cultural tradition in which cities are cast as a dominion of shadows and corruption. And perhaps no noir city is quite so hellish, so imbued with the stench of mortality, as the London depicted in Night and the City...

Working in and around London’s Soho district, rather than the familiar haunts of New York or Los Angeles, Dassin and company did not have to subtly evoke lingering effects of wartime bombing; they are clearly inscribed in blasted, nightmarish landscapes recruited for the film’s climactic scenes... Like The Third Man, made in Vienna the previous year, Night and the City maps the downward journey of an unabashedly American adventurer against a prime locus of European destruction, yielding the specter of the ‘secret’ city to which all film noir, regardless of actual setting, pays unspoken tribute. 




Dassin’s tour guide to this anxious, fearful milieu is Harry Fabian, a nightclub tout and would-be wrestling promoter whose overweening desire to ‘be somebody’ is curdled by a relentless exploitation of human vulnerabilities, his own included. Harry, famously referred to by a romantic rival as ‘an artist without an art,’ is a figure of palpable instability, always in the midst of a surefire shady venture, some criminalized shortcut to what he describes as ‘a life of ease and plenty.’ Unfortunately, every jittery step he takes brings him closer to immanent disaster and death (in addition to morbid visual cues, variants of the phrase ‘You’re a dead man’ are a key dialogue motif). Worse still, his precipitous actions drag down everyone around him – although, with the exception of his mistreated girlfriend, Mary Bristol, these underworld characters largely deserve their malign fates. Mary works at the same sleazy club to which Harry lures unsuspecting tourists. The grotesque owner, Phil Nosseross, barely tolerates Harry’s loan requests but fails to register the illicit connection between Harry and his wife, Helen, a liaison founded less on sexual passion than mutual greed. Harry’s current scheme involves tricking an aging Greco-Roman wrestling champion, Gregorius, into matching his young protégé against the Strangler, a vulgar but popular entertainer employed by Kristo, shady kingpin of professional wrestling and, not coincidently, Gregorius’s estranged son.



Given Harry’s history of entrepreneurial fiascos, it is only fitting that his dream of a wrestling empire seems doomed from the start. Narcissistic to a fault, Harry pays no heed to warnings about Kristo’s vicious power and is slow to intervene in a chain of calamitous miscalculations until it is too late. Once the tenuous leverage he held on Kristo’s hunger for revenge vanishes in a heap of dying flesh, Harry must flee for his life, unsuccessfully seeking refuge with former underworld colleagues for whom he is now the mere object of a lucrative bounty hunt. Closing a circle that began with the film’s opening shots, Harry becomes the archetypal man-on-the-run, an image he himself sadly admits, pursued this time not by a single angry creditor but by an entire rogues’ gallery. In contrast to the majority of noir heroes, Harry is not an inveterate loner cut off from potentially redemptive social connections. Until near the end of Night and the City, he navigates smoothly through London’s subterranean network, engaging in a flurry of illegal transactions. Thus the early demonstration of a secure, outlaw niche makes his ultimate isolation even more emotionally wrenching. If noir protagonists in general lose markers of a stable identity as they descend the social ladder, Harry’s loss is particularly extravagant. 




The frenetically disjunctive movements accompanying Harry’s flight might well have expressed personal anxieties specific to Dassin’s life. On the heels of several relatively successful Hollywood outings, including pioneering work on semi-documentary techniques in The Naked City, the director was, like many of his creative friends, caught up in the anticommunist hysteria of the late 1940s. Under imminent threat of being forced to testify before HUAC, and almost certain blacklisting, Dassin says he was told to ‘beat it’ to England to avoid persecution. The project that awaited him, a loose adaptation of Soho denizen Gerald Kersh’s 1938 novel, struck him as somewhat frivolous, and he would later downplay the film’s artistic merits. Nevertheless, it is not far-fetched to read Harry Fabian’s predicament in part as Dassin’s allegorical response to his own hasty emigration, and to the paranoid atmosphere of betrayal and cutthroat ambition he left behind in Cold War Hollywood. 



Stylistically, Night and the City represents the flipside of The Naked City, with overheated lighting patterns, bizarre angles, and claustrophobic compositions replacing the more methodical, unhurried organization of the earlier film. Further, the dire Dickensian—or perhaps Brechtian, given latent parallels with The Threepenny Opera – vision of London on display belies the kind of sober, social realist sketch of class divisions and antagonisms evident in The Naked City. 




At the heart of Night and the City is a master trope: the urban labyrinth. Cities in film noir are not simply dangerous, or bristling with iconographic menace—they are visualized as death traps, spaces from which there can be no escape. This common pattern finds summary expression in Dassin’s film. Nearly every setting is crammed with architectural grids, frames, culs-de-sac, narrow stairways, perspectives that choke off the mobility and freedom of human subjects. The wrestling ring is a venerable symbol of existential constriction; far more original, and more depressing, is Nosseross’ cage-like office and the vertiginous brick tower in which Harry takes brief refuge during his flight. In early scenes, Harry commands secret urban passageways, rooftop bridges, and back alleys that afford easy transit between private and public, legal and illicit sites of operation. Once he is branded an outcast among outcasts, his knowledge of the labyrinth can no longer save him from extinction. Instead, he is forced to abandon familiar routes as he plunges into the city’s forlorn margins: first, an eerie construction site whose minatory shapes resemble canvases by Bosch or maybe de Chirico, then the riverside shack of black-marketeer Annie, a last stop before his suicidal bid to complete one profitable con. By the end, Harry is a virtual zombie, his slimy ebullience reduced to morbid self-pity. Without engendering genuine sympathy, the exhausting gyrations of this character eventually produce a spark of recognition, albeit trailed by a black cloud of dread.

– Paul Arthur: ‘Night and the City: In the Labyrinth’. From the Criterion Collection DVD.

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

John Cassavetes: On Being Independent

Faces (Directed by John Cassavetes)
John Cassavetes’s fourth feature, “Faces,” from 1968, is a classic independent production made before such things were in vogue. He financed the film himself from his paychecks for acting gigs and even with a mortgage on his home; the star is his wife, the actress Gena Rowlands; he filmed in their house and edited in their garage; and when the film was completed, he distributed it himself. Then it received three Oscar nominations (Cassavetes, for Best Original Screenplay, and the film’s co-stars, Lynn Carlin and Seymour Cassel, for Best Supporting Actress and Actor). Even more important than its acclaim is its artistry: “Faces” is the core of Cassavetes’s work. He started his career as an independent, with “Shadows” (1959), which he financed with a precursor to Kickstarter, an appeal on a radio show. He then directed two Hollywood features, “Too Late Blues” and “A Child Is Waiting,” and chafed under studio restrictions. The freedom with which he made “Faces” bore aesthetic fruit. With this story of marriage on the rocks and the desperate quest for love, Cassavetes conjured an air of tragic exuberance that’s as original as it is thrilling. The liberated actors blend impulsive comedy, intense physicality, and agonized tenderness; the spontaneous camera work offers soul-baring closeups and sculptural compositions. With its unsparing confessional drama, “Faces” set the themes, the moods, and the styles for the rest of his career. It also inaugurated a new era in the history of cinema, opening possibilities that most directors have yet to confront or even admit.

– Richard Brody

In the following extract John Cassavetes discusses his approach to independent filmmaking.

It’s hard to explain what ‘independence’ means – but to those who have it, film is still a mystery, not a way out. There are other independents, of course, but they haven’t really hit the limelight yet, so not enough is at stake. To still do what you want after ten years, twenty years, is some- thing. I’ve known a lot of filmmakers who started out with enormous talents and lost momentum. I don’t say they’re selling out, but somehow if you fight the system you’re going to lose to it. That is basically the point. I don’t care whether you’re a painter or an architect, you can’t fight the system. In my mind, if you fight the system it only means you want to join it. So it is very important that you do something you like, that you’re involved in enough to hold your interest no matter how long it takes. If the film doesn’t involve you, it’s what we call a ‘stepping- stone’ picture, you know, a stepping-stone to art, and that’s all right too. Take a guy like Polanski who did pictures in Poland, Knife in the Water and later Repulsion. You could see in those works a pulse that was meaningful and creative and intense. You can’t dispute the fact that he’s an artist, but yet you have to say that Rosemary’s Baby is not art. It is a dictated design – boom, boom, boom, boom. People are used within that design to make a commercial product to sell to people. I’m not saying that is bad. I was in it. I’m fine. I’m happy. But it isn’t art. I think Dirty Dozen in its way is more artistic because it’s compulsively going forward, trying to make something out of the moment without preordaining the way the outcome is going to be.


The real tragedy is that other poor young filmmakers are coming along who will go out and conform before they’ve even opened their mouths. This whole culture – there is only one art in America, and that’s money. Raising money, and business. That’s what everyone is interested in: screwing somebody and making profit. We went to the Pratt Institute the other night and one of the kids said, ‘16mm is not for me.’ You know? ‘It’s not for me! We want to get out of this student stuff! We want to get into the real thing!!!’ I make films for the big studios, but I’ve never told them the truth. I’ve never been nice to them, and the understanding is there that I go my way and they go their way. If I can’t do what I want with them, I’ll go 16mm, and if I can’t do it there, I’ll go to 8mm.

Los Angeles is a movie town. Most of the people who work there are connected in one way or another with the entertainment industry. All of them are filled with ambition and ideas. To be an individual in Los Angeles is like being an individual in the Army. To retain a personality that comes out of a lifetime of hard work is a virtual impossibility. It is not because there is no talent and that people don’t come with the same vitality to Hollywood, but rather because the rules stress low-profile, subdued voices, mellowness, polite fear and vicious hypocrisy. The expression ‘to fit in’ is used in Hollywood. ‘To fit in’ is to give up your mind in favor of your position. Occasionally a character escapes. A single-minded fanatic, obsessed with separate visions of family, pain, driving the straight ones crazy while trying to transfer those feelings into a slick medium – a medium so regulated, so intoxicated with profits, so violently and quietly competitive that its boundaries make the Berlin Wall seem like something out of Disney.


I work with a group of people who tell me to go screw myself all the time and who disagree and say, ‘I don’t like the picture,’ and who are honest, and who work hard, and who are disciplined by themselves. And that keeps me alive. It’s staying with people that you’re comfortable with. Not that agree with you, but are comfortable with and not assuming a posture of being somebody, because you’re never going to be anybody! You just enjoy the work. It’s like somebody says, ‘When we have some money we’re going to really be happy,’ or ‘When we get this car, then things are going to change.’ They never change. The only time they ever change is when you have good times. So if you can work with people and enjoy yourself and talk only about what’s at hand, only about your movie and going into your movie and getting deeper into it and getting laughs out of it and abusing it, and treating it like a person. Because listen, that love affair’s going to last, what – a couple of months or a year? – and then you’re going to leave that movie and that’s the end of it. I haven’t seen Shadows since the day we finished it. It’s really a brutal thing, but I have no further interest once a picture has been finalized. I don’t think I will ever see Faces again. It’s like a love affair that’s gone.


We always try to think about what was the very best time of our lives. Usually it’s college or something like that. Making Faces was the very best time of my life – because of the people. I’d never met people like that, and I’m talking about every single member of that company and cast, people who made my life really worth living. I never thought once during the whole time we were making that film that there was anything else in the world except those people; they were that devoted and pure. There is a certain desire to making a film, when you really put it in and put it up and you know no limit and you’re really willing to die for the film you’re making. Now that sounds crazy. If you die for your country, it’s not so good, but in film if it’s the last thing you ever do, you want your picture to be done. With that attitude, making it that way, a man moves through life really using himself, really making something of his life.

John Cassavetes – excerpted from Cassavetes on Cassavetes, ed. R. Carney.