Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Walter Hill: Last Man Standing

Southern Comfort (Directed by Walter Hill)
Walter Hill developed his craft as a screenwriter and director while working as a second assistant director on Bullitt (1968), Take the Money and Run (1969), and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Hill’s first screenplay, Hickey and Boggs, was produced in 1972. Later, he penned The Getaway (1972) for director Sam Peckinpah, who became a major influence on his own filmmaking style. Hill also wrote The MacKintosh Man (1973) which was directed by another mentor, John Huston. 

In 1975, Hill directed his first feature film Hard Times starring Charles Bronson and James Coburn. He achieved great success in 1979 with the stylized gang movie The Warriors, which he wrote and directed and was released the same year he wrote and produced the hit science fiction thriller Alien (1979). The 1980s brought more success with films like The Long Riders (1980), Southern Comfort (1981), 48 Hrs. (1982), Another 48 Hrs. (1990), Brewster’s Millions (1985), and Red Heat (1988). Hill also wrote and directed episodes of the television series Tales from the Crypt (1989-1991) and the westerns Geronimo: An American Legend (1993), Wild Bill (1995), and Last Man Standing (1996). 

The following discussion is an edited extract from an interview with Jon Zelazny.

JON: A couple years ago, you did an audio commentary and on-camera intro for a new DVD edition of ‘The Warriors’. It was the first time I’d ever seen you; is it my imagination, or have you kept a low profile over the years?

WALTER HILL: I’d never done a commentary before on one of my films. I don’t like the idea of explaining a movie; I think it inevitably comes off as ego-driven, or pitiful: ‘Hey, look at this! I did this; isn’t it terrific?’ I think a good book or a good film speaks for itself. Also, people always want to ask you what a film ‘means,’ which is another reason why I don’t even like doing interviews like this – nothing against you.

The Warriors (Directed by Walter Hill)
Do you have a particular term for the kinds of stories you tell? Whatever the genre, they primarily concern men in violent conflict – 

Somebody once asked me why I never did horror films, just action, and what was the difference? I said horror movies terrorize women, and action movies terrorize guys. For some reason, several people found that definition objectionable. (chuckling) I thought it was brutally accurate... I didn’t answer that too well, did I?

I’m a big Anthony Mann fan, and there are a lot of parallels between your bodies of work. Mann said his movies were about ‘the use of violence by thoughtful men.’

The kinds of stories I like to tell are part of a tradition – and I’m not comparing myself to, or placing myself as the equal of some of the great storytellers I’m going to mention; I’m artistically modest, as everyone ought to be – but it’s the tradition practiced by Robert Aldrich, Anthony Mann, Don Siegel, Howard Hawks, Sam Fuller.

I think there’s less room in the marketplace now for the kinds of stories I enjoy telling, and which I tend to think of as my strength; action movies today are more fantasy, exaggerated, comic book… That sounds pejorative… but tastes change. Audiences change. I think the older tradition was more intellectually rigorous, and the newer tradition is more pure sensation… and that’s not necessarily bad…

The Warriors (Directed by Walter Hill)
As a youngster, were you more interested in books or movies?

Both. I was particularly interested in the Western genre, in pulp novels of the thirties and forties, and film noir. That’s probably why I liked EC Comics as well; because they were so dark. I lived a lot at a fantasy level, I think. I was asthmatic. Stayed at home a lot. Didn’t go to school for weeks at a time. My mother and my grandmother taught me how to read.

Do you remember what movies first made you conscious of the director… or simply that there was someone making decisions about how the story was being told?

I began reading about films when I was in high school; my awareness of directors probably came later. The first filmmaker other than Orson Welles I was really terribly aware of – and who made me aware of what directors do – was Ingmar Bergman. And I saw his very early ones, before he became kind of fashionable. The other filmmaker who impressed me at a very early age was Kurosawa. I got quite interested in these foreign films, and I read a lot of criticism about them, which in turn opened my eyes to American film, and kind of led me to rediscover American genre film. I mean, I’d seen Howard Hawks films and Don Siegel films growing up, but without that awareness of their sensibilities.

But Welles was the first?

I’d seen Kane and Ambersons on TV when I was a kid. My dad and mom told me a lot about him. He was, of course, quite famous in a notorious sense. Even down in Long Beach, where I’m from.

The Warriors (Directed by Walter Hill)
Your first two movies had big movie stars; ‘The Warriors’ did not. What’s the difference, and which do you prefer?

The presence of movie stars is something you feel more in the reaction of the people that surround the movie. It doesn’t have much to do with the filmmaking process.

Though stars certainly influence a picture with their well-known personas. I assume the young cast of ‘The Warriors’ was much more dependent on you to help shape their performances?

That’s true. One had to intuit what their personas were, and try to work out how they would play. It is an advantage to go in with a sense of what an actor will bring to it… though a mistake actors make consistently is they think they can play anything, and a mistake directors make is they think actors can only do what they’ve done before.

My favorite advice to directors about casting that I read was by the great Broadway director George Abbot, who said ‘Directors like to think there’s only one actor who can play a certain part, but there’s always somebody else.’ I think that’s true.

The Long Riders (Directed by Walter Hill)
Early in your career, you wrote scripts for John Huston and Sam Peckinpah. What did you pick up from them… or from the other prominent directors you worked for, like Norman Jewison or Woody Allen?

They were all talented filmmakers; interesting individuals, but as far as learning anything… I think what you learn is everyone makes their own way.

As far as creativity goes, I think you get your head to a place where things are discovered, not invented. It’s that Platonic idea that you don’t really write a poem; it’s already there, and you find it. I think that’s true for the audience as well: they discover what they already know or intuit. And that’s the most ideal relationship between the audience and the storyteller.

Now Huston and Peckinpah had very similar outlaw personalities. At the same time, they were wildly disparate fellows; Sam worked in a much narrower – some would say deeper – channel, while Huston had a wider field of interest. I think it was also important that he was a much more omnivorous reader… which isn’t to say he was smarter or more talented, but he possessed a worldview, and sophistication, that went way beyond the very restricted world Sam chose to live in.

I think you see that in Peckinpah’s films. In his later career, he seemed to be sinking into pure nihilism, while Huston always loved these offbeat character studies – right up to ‘Prizzi’s Honor’ (1985) and ‘The Dead’ (1987).

I think one of the biggest differences was that Peckinpah was purely a guy of film. He worked in it his whole life, from the time he got out of the Army, and his heroes were filmmakers, like Kurosawa and Bergman. Huston was from the generation before that; most of his generation never really regarded filmmaking as a serious artistic pursuit.

The Long Riders (Directed by Walter Hill)
I guess that’s why Huston could make so many films he didn’t really care about. He could take a job and just amiably do the work in a way Peckinpah never really could.

Huston was a soldier of fortune, as anybody in film has to be to some degree. He also liked to travel, and to drink. He liked high society, beautiful women, horse races, and buying great art… and to live that kind of life, you have to make a lot of money. John could turn a buck… Sam mostly lived in a trailer in Paradise Cove.

And only made about a third as many pictures as Huston did.

But what’s so memorable about Sam is what a powerful, personal, artistic stamp he put on his work. His name alone conjures up a vision… I think what we respond to most with Sam is his purity of commitment. And that’s always easier to idolize. And I’m not a critic, but I think it’s true his work fell into severe decline, while Huston was – in and out – but basically good until the end...

What’s tricky when you look at those guys – any of those American masters of genre film – is understanding how they transcended all the hackwork going on around them. With Kurosawa or Bergman, the artistic quality of their pictures is obvious; with directors like Ford, Hawks, or Mann, you have to look harder. What usually distinguishes their work is their sensibility.

The Long Riders (Directed by Walter Hill)
Did you always aspire to continue in that tradition?

I came into the business at an interesting time… when it was still like running away to join the circus. But within five years, the whole sensibility changed. Young people coming in, the so-called next generation, were all very influenced by European and Japanese cinema. The people who were older than me – like John Huston – their attitude was, if you have artistic ambitions, you should be off writing novels or plays. The cultural primacy of film as an attitude came from my generation, and the one after…

We should probably get back to ‘The Warriors’ at some point. From your comments on the DVD, it sounds like you essentially discarded Sol Yurick’s novel, and went back to the original Greek history tale for inspiration.

The movie was thrown together very quickly, and for very little money. The producer, Larry Gordon, and I were going to do a Western, and the financing collapsed at the last minute. He was trying to do a deal at Paramount, and said maybe he could get The Warriors going. I read it, and loved it, but I said, ‘They’ll never let us make this. It’s too good an idea.’ Then – I’ll be a sonuvabitch – he got it going…

Then I had to figure out how to do it. The novel attempts a kind of social realism that I didn’t think worked very well. But there’s a scene in it where one of the gang members is reading a comic book about the march of Xenophon and the 10,000, and he says, ‘Hey, this is just like us!’ And I thought, that’s the way to do the movie –

Southern Comfort (Directed by Walter Hill)
I take it that also inspired the comic book framing device you’ve added to the new edition. Had you been a big reader of comic books?

I read a lot of the EC Comics back in the fifties. I never particularly liked superheroes. People think of comics as exclusively about superheroes, but back then you had horror comics, and humor, and romance, and westerns; there was a whole experience one could have outside of superheroes. I particularly liked the EC comics because they were darker.

I saw The Warriors as graphically driven, as situational; it was broad, easy to understand, but kind of self-mocking at the same time… those were the aspects that suggested a comic book flavor to me. The idea really came up because when Paramount made the movie – and Paramount was a very different place back then – they hated it. They couldn’t understand what the fuck it was, or what it was about. They wouldn’t show it to critics. So I was trying to explain it to them: ‘In some sense, it’s science fiction, or… imagine a comic book based on a story from Greek history…’ But it was like talking to the fucking wall.

To be fair, it’s pretty unique. The only movie I can think of that looks like it might have been an influence is ‘West Side Story’ (1961)… uh, was it?

I honestly had not seen the movie, but I certainly knew what it was, so to say you weren’t influenced by something so pervasive in the culture is probably naïve. I think we’re all influenced by everything.

When you and your designers began to conceptualize all the exaggerated costumes and make-up the various gangs would be wearing… were you ever afraid audiences were just going to laugh?

Yeah, I was.

Southern Comfort (Directed by Walter Hill)
The whole idea… when you really think about it, it’s just audacious.

I don’t think I could have done it as my first movie, but at that point I thought, ‘Well, they’re either going to buy it, or not.’ If I deserve credit for anything, it was for knowing I couldn’t go halfway. Halfway was death. And I just didn’t think it could be done realistically; the premise of the story was ridiculous. I think that was something Sol Yurick never understood about his own novel: he was trying to be socially accurate within this preposterous plot. Most people probably would have tried to make the movie more real; I said no, let’s make it more unreal.

I consider it a pretty good movie for the first… well, the first hour or so. We never really figured out what the hell to do at the end.

One of your tasks is deciding the characters’ fates. Who has transgressed, who should be punished, and to what degree. Movie scholars like to point out that Sam Peckinpah’s father was a conservative, Western-style judge; can you describe the influences in your upbringing you’d most credit with shaping your moral perspective?

My parents, and many of my extended family, were people who had a high sense of ethical responsibility, and some members of my family were definitely churchgoers. I went to church every Sunday until I was about fifteen or sixteen, before I could ‘escape,’ which is how I thought of it back then. I now perceive it – and the lessons I was taught – to be gold. One of the things I’ve found to be the most interesting about making Westerns is that it’s like walking around in the Old Testament; the stories are all about primary ethical concerns. Of course, most storytellers shrink from that whole idea of being a moralist, from taking that responsibility –

Southern Comfort (Directed by Walter Hill)
But somebody has to make those calls. In drama or comedy, characters’ fates can be much less decisive, but a story based on a collision between shades of good and evil – 

There are no set rules; it’s just a matter of your taste. But you’re right; storytelling in some specific way requires you to be judgmental about the characters. I think you can be forcefully judgmental and still be a great artist, or you can be more open-ended, which I think the greater artists tend to be.

Have the shifting moral standards driven you crazy over the years?

If you’re someone who thinks society is always supposed to be moving forward, that the story of history is the story of progress, and that we are all moving towards some idea of utopia, then I don’t fit it. I don’t have that worldview. While there are certainly discoveries made in science that materially alter the way we live, I think most of the ethical guidelines that determine personal human behavior have remained remarkably constant, for thousands of years. As we said, audiences change, especially when you’re dealing with popular entertainment… but ultimately they’ll always come around again for a good story.

What inspired ‘Southern Comfort’?

David Giler and I had a deal with Fox; we were supposed to acquire and develop interesting, commercial scripts that could be produced cheaply. Alien (1979) was one of them, and Southern Comfort was another. We wanted to do a survival story, and I’d already done a film in Louisiana.

Southern Comfort (Directed by Walter Hill)
I meant was there some actual incident where Cajuns had clashed with the Guard?

No, that was just our story. And we were very aware that people were going to see it as a metaphor for Vietnam. The day we had the cast read, before we went into the swamps, I told everybody, ‘People are going to say this is about Vietnam. They can say whatever they want, but I don’t want to hear another word about it.’

If you know about Vietnam, you can make those connections, but the story certainly stands on it’s own.

And Vietnam is hardly the oppressive presence today that it was in 1980. The story becomes much more universal.

I think the biggest parallel is visual: that swamp looks like Vietnam. You’d have to do some research to be able to discuss the parallels with Iraq. As a former Army officer, I think your depiction of military characters, dialogue, and attitude is dead-on; in ‘Southern Comfort’, and ‘Geronimo’ (1993) as well. Both depict soldiers during peacetime. Warriors without true wars, stuck doing shit work… you have a very intuitive understanding of that mentality.

I’m pleased to hear you say that, but I think it’s just my intuition about human nature. And what I’ve read. People I’ve known. I have an uncle who was a career military guy. Wonderful man. Now in his eighties.

Geronimo: An American Legend (Directed by Walter Hill)
In my few years in uniform, I certainly met versions of all your Army characters.

I was never happy about the title Geronimo. It’s not about Geronimo. It should have been called The Geronimo War.

Or ‘The Three White Guys Who Caught Geronimo’.

Right. It’s as much about the Army as it is Geronimo. That came out of my reading of historical accounts, and realizing that so much of what we think we know about the Indian campaigns is wrong. The Army is generally depicted as the enemy of the Apache, but in many cases, the people who were most sympathetic to their plight were those soldiers.

Because they were there. They saw what the deal was.

And tragically, it was these same soldiers who then had to go out and be the tip of the spear.

Yeah, the moral trap they eventually find themselves in is heartbreaking.

I thought the character of Gatewood, who was a real person, would be of great interest. But not a lot of people saw the film...

There’s a longer version that exists. They cut about twelve minutes for the theatrical release, and most of it was about Army life. I always thought they should do a DVD release of the full version. It was damn good.

Geronimo: An American Legend (Directed by Walter Hill)
It seems like half the shots in ‘Southern Comfort’ show those guys sloshing through swamp water up to their knees. How did the actors keep from getting trench foot?

That was a very tough movie. I don’t know how we ever…

I know you can’t keep guys in the water that long.

We did. We went out there every day, and just slugged it out. I was in the water too; it wasn’t like I was directing from some safe island.

Were you wearing waders?

Yeah, we had wetsuits on underneath. But it was just miserable. We were out there about fifty days. Six days a week, for nine weeks. And just to get out there took this enormous drive; we had to get up at four in the morning to be ready to shoot at the crack of dawn.

So nobody had to ‘act’ exhausted.

I’ll say this about that cast: they didn’t complain much. They knew what they were getting into, they were all in very good physical condition, and they went out there and just took it. It was very much a collective experience, and it’s certainly one of my favorite films. Sometimes pictures become favorites for reverse reasons: because it was hard to make, or because people didn’t much care for it. It didn’t do particularly well. It did better overseas; the foreign critical reception was very good.

What were the circumstances of the American release?

Well, it was a negative pick-up. The studios, especially in those days, tended to treat those like the stepchildren in 19th century novels. So they didn’t spend a great deal of money trying to get us launched. The movie didn’t cost too much, so it wasn’t like it was some huge financial disaster… but I think the subject matter is just not widely appealing.

48 Hrs. (Directed by Walter Hill)
How did you get involved in ‘48 Hrs.’?

Larry Gordon had an idea for a crime movie set in Louisiana where the governor’s daughter is kidnapped, and has dynamite taped to her head, and the bad guys are going to kill her in 48 hours. The family assigns a top cop to rescue her – one aspect of the story was the cop getting one of the kidnapper’s old cellmates out of jail to help him.

Roger Spottiswoode, my editor on Hard Times, wanted to be a director. I told him he should try writing, so Larry gave him a shot rewriting that kidnap story. Roger was living in my house at the time, so we discussed it a lot. His draft got the story out of Louisiana, got rid of the dynamite on the girl’s head, and made it a more realistic, big city cop thriller.

That was at Columbia. Then Larry’s deal switched over to Paramount, a few more drafts were written, and then they asked me to rewrite it for Clint Eastwood. Larry and I flew up to Carmel to see him and he liked the project, but felt he’d already done that kind of cop character enough, so he wanted to play the criminal. I began tailoring it to that end when Eastwood decided to do Don Siegel’s Escape From Alcatraz (1979), and since he played a prisoner in that one, that was really the end of his interest in our project. At which point I suggested we try to get Richard Pryor to play the criminal.

Was that your first notion that the piece had the potential to be funny as well?

Yeah, I’d say so. Again, the story was preposterous; why not make it kind of humorous?

48 Hrs. (Directed by Walter Hill)
Was that also when you decided the prisoner would be black?

Yeah. The part wasn’t written that way yet; it was just a verbal concept. But Paramount did not see the wisdom of that, so I went off and did The Long Riders and Southern Comfort, and then I got a call saying Nick Nolte wanted to do 48 Hrs., and was I interested in doing it with him and a black actor? I said, ‘Absolutely.’

The reason it finally got going was because Michael Eisner, who was running Paramount then, wanted a second movie for Christmas time – they had Airplane II (1982) as their big Christmas release, and he wanted a thriller for some non-Christmas-y counter-programming. But we couldn’t get Richard Pryor, who was a huge star by then, so we decided to go for Gregory Hines, but he wasn’t available either. Eddie Murphy’s agent had sent me a lot of tapes of him, and Paramount approved him, so we went with him.

We had one tough break in that Eddie couldn’t shake out of his TV show early. We’d already been shooting for two weeks before he joined us, so he came in absolutely cold. It was his first film, and he was a seasoned performer, but not a trained film actor, and we really could have used a good week of rehearsal. It’s one of the few times I’ve been sorry I didn’t rehearse. One old-time director told me once, ‘Don’t ever fuckin’ rehearse. All that happens is the actors don’t like the script.’ And there is some merit in that.

What’s your S.O.P. in that regard?

Well, action movies, with all their physicality, tend to be hard to rehearse.

Which of your films was most rehearsed?

Probably The Warriors… just because with more experienced actors, it’s easier to work things out on the set.

48 Hrs (Directed by Walter Hill)
When did you start to realize during ‘48 Hrs.’ that Eddie Murphy wasn’t just funny, he was really, really, really funny?

What I realized right away was that he was really good; that he was bringing something to it. There were always these stories that circulated about tension between the studio and me; that they were angry, and even talked about firing me, because they didn’t think Eddie was very funny… and it’s true they brought me in to talk about that.

Were they expecting a more traditional comedy?

That’s how I took it: that to them, a funny movie with a black guy meant the guy should act like Richard Pryor. And I was perfectly happy with the way things were going. I thought Eddie was doing a very good job.

Of the movies you admired, which ones most informed that tone?

Probably the most obvious example is Robert Aldrich’s work, particularly The Dirty Dozen (1967). As far as guys playing off each other like that, I think the great master was Howard Hawks.

I think both Murphy and Nolte’s characters understand that the antagonism between them is a game they’re playing. It’s a tough game, a dangerous game, a nasty game, but these guys are positioning each other. They’re also not so thin-skinned that some casual remark is going to alter their attitudes. I don’t think Nolte’s character is really a racist.

48 Hrs. (Directed by Walter Hill)
Were you amused when everyone in Hollywood then decided the ticket to success was to do a cop movie where one of the cops was played by a comedian? There were a slew of those for the rest of the decade.

What surprised me was how they didn’t quite understand what the motor of it was. It was always called a ‘buddy cop’ movie for instance, when in fact they’re not buddies. They don’t like each other. I think what the imitators always tried to do was copy the structural foundation of 48 Hrs., but fill it in with the more homogenized sensibility of Beverly Hills Cop.

Often when directors score such a massive hit, they’ll use their new clout to mount some kind of epic… be it an ‘El Cid’ or a ‘Heaven’s Gate’. I’m curious why you never did.

I don’t know. The closest I probably came to doing an epic was when Warren Beatty talked to me about doing Dick Tracy (1990). But it didn’t work out.

Lucky for you!

(chuckling) Well, I like Warren… but we certainly disagreed on the way it should go. I had in mind something much more like The Untouchables (1987).

I guess I’ve always just been interested in telling the kinds of stories that appeal to me. You can make films for three concerns: for the mass audience, for yourself, or for the critics. I’ve probably been guilty of making films more for myself, and hoping the audience will like them as well.

– Excerpted from Jon Zelazny: ‘Kicking Ass with Walter Hill’ (For the full interview go to: http://thehollywoodinterview.blogspot.co.uk, Dec. 8, 2012).

Tuesday, 7 April 2020

Eric Rohmer: Moral Tales

My Night At Maud’s (Directed by Eric Rohmer)
A former editor of the pioneering film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, Eric Rohmer (1910-2010) became one of the leading figures of the French New Wave. Working well into his eighties, his influential body of work is renowned for its originality, restrained visual style and witty and articulate dialogue. Rohmer’s reputation was established with his ambitious Moral Tales series of films, each based around a common theme of – in his description: ‘a man meeting a woman at the very moment when he is about to commit himself to someone else’. 

The following extract is taken from an interview with Eric Rohmer by Graham Petrie originally published in 1971.

You began your series of ‘Moral Tales’ with two films in 16mm?

‎‏Yes, the first two are in 16mm. This was because the Nouvelle Vague had established itself; those whose films had done well were setting out on a successful career, but those whose films hadn’t done so well, like myself with [feature debut] Le Signe du Lion (1962), were having problems with continuing. So I decided to go on filming, no matter what, and instead of looking for a subject that might be attractive to the public or a producer, I decided that I would find a subject that I liked and that a producer would refuse. So here you have someone doing exactly what he wants to. And as you can’t do this on 35mm, I made the films on 16mm. That way it didn’t cost very much, just the price of the film stock. I found people willing to work for me out of friendship, either as technicians or actors. The first was a very short film, [The Bakery Girl of Monceau, 1963] only 25 minutes long, the second a bit longer than that, [Suzanne’s Career, 1963] and then I decided to make the third, which was La Collectionneuse (1967) and I realized that, as long as you were economical with the amount of film you used, it wouldn’t really cost much more to do it on 35mm, especially if you used color. Fortunately I met a friend who could advance me enough to pay for film stock and we used 5,000 meters for a film that ended up 2,500 meters long – that means almost a 2:1 ratio. And that is how I made La Collectionneuse with no money.

The Bakery Girl Of Monceau (Directed by Eric Rohmer)
Can you tell me something about the subject-matter of these first two films?
In the first two Moral Tales I’m telling the story of a young man who meets up with a young girl or woman at a time when he’s looking for another woman. You find this idea very clearly in the first film, which is about a boy who sees a girl in the street and falls in love with her but doesn't know how to become acquainted with her. He tries to follow her to find out where she lives, but loses track of her. So he makes up his mind to make a systematic search for her, and as he usually eats in a restaurant frequented by students he decides to go without dinner and use the time to look for her in the district round about. And as he gets hungry he starts going into a baker’s shop every day and buys some cakes to eat while he’s exploring the area. He notices that the assistant in the shop is becoming interested in him, perhaps falling in love, and as he is getting a bit bored, he starts flirting with her. He gets caught up in the game he’s playing with her and finally makes a date with her, just to see what will happen. But just as he’s going to meet her, he comes across the first girl, the one he’d seen right at the beginning of the story, who lives just opposite the baker’s but had sprained her ankle and couldn’t go out, which is why he hadn’t seen her. She had seen him go in there every day, but. thinking that he knew where she lived, she assumed that he just went in there so that she would notice him. She doesn’t know anything about the girl in the bakery. It’s a very slight story, an anecdote really.

‎‏The second film is a little more complex because it lasts longer. It’s the story of a young boy who has a great admiration for one of his friends, a student; he’s younger than him and rather dominated by him. At the same time he holds it against the other that he sees him a lot with girls he doesn’t like very much. For example, the other one has a girl that he doesn’t like, she’s not even a student, she has a job in an office and he finds this a bit vulgar. The friend neglects her, he wants to get rid of her, and this girl, who is in love with his friend, attaches herself to him and begins to flirt with him just because of his friendship with the one she really likes, and he wants to get rid of her too and can’t. So it’s the story of this boy who spends all his time with this girl who’s trying to make advances to him, and at the same time his friend amuses himself by jeering at the girl and making fun of her, he even takes all her money from her because she’s ready to do anything to keep him. The boy is ashamed of all this and at the same time he daren’t do anything to antagonize the friend he admires so much. So that’s the situation: he’s ashamed of going along with the game his friend is playing, but he doesn’t dare to reproach him frankly and say ‘no.’ There’s a second woman here too, an attractive young girl, and the young boy the film is about is a little bit in love with her, but she looks on him as just a youngster and isn’t interested in him. There’s really nothing but failure in the film: the boy spends all his time with a girl he doesn’t like and the one he would like to go out with is inaccessible and each time he sees her he doesn’t know what to say and is aware anyway that she would refuse him. The characters are all very young: the boy is 18 and his friend is 21...

La Collectionneuse (Directed by Eric Rohmer)
Do you think this idea of the man who hesitates between two women is the connecting link between all the ‘Moral Tales’?

‎‏He doesn’t really hesitate, it just happens that at the very moment that he’s made his choice, made up his mind, another woman turns up. But there isn’t really any hesitation, all that happens is that this confirms his choice. In La Collectionneuse for example, he just spends a week with her and then leaves her. In My Night at Maud’s (1969) too it’s an adventure for him, but he doesn’t hesitate between one girl and the other; if he’d had an affair with Maud it would have lasted a week and then it would have been over. In my latest film the hero’s choice is already made, he’s going to get married, and if he has an adventure it's nothing more than that.

‎‏Did you start this series with very precise ideas about the subject-matter?

‎‏Yes, I had had the stories in my mind for a long time, and when I started the series I knew what the theme of each tale would be. But I hadn’t developed them, they were still very vague.

‏You’ve made some in color and some in black-and-white...

‎‏Three in black-and-white, two of them in 16mm and Maud in 35. La Collectionneuse and Claire’s Knee (1970) are in color and the final one, for which I haven’t decided on a title yet, will be too. I haven’t written the script for it yet. I’m still thinking about it.

La Collectionneuse (Directed by Eric Rohmer)
Why did you choose black-and-white for ‘Maud’?

‎‏Because it suited the nature of the subject-matter. Color wouldn’t have added anything positive to it; on the contrary, it would only have destroyed the atmosphere of the film and introduced distracting elements that had no useful purpose. It’s a film that I saw in black-and-white, I couldn’t see any color in it. There is nothing in it which brings colors to mind, and in fact there weren’t any colors in what I filmed – for example I filmed a town in which the houses were grey, certainly there were a few colored hoardings and road-signs, but I avoided these, you don’t see them because they weren’t interesting. There is a stone church and there are no colors in that church. Then there is snow – no color there either. The people are really dressed in black or in grey, they’re not wearing anything colored. The apartment too didn’t have any color in it, it was decorated in grey already. I was concerned above all with exploiting the contrast between black and white, between light and shadow. It’s a film in color in a way, except that the colors are black and white. There’s a sheet which is white, it’s not colorless, it’s white. In the same way the snow is white, white in a positive way, whereas if I had shot it in color, it wouldn’t have been white any more, it would have been smudged, and I wanted it really white.

So you don’t agree with directors like Antonioni who say it’s no longer possible to make films in black-and-white and that all films should be in color?

‎‏I would agree that nowadays the normal thing would be to make films in color, and it might seem a bit archaic to film in black-and-white. And yet 1 don’t agree really. I think that man has a very strong feeling for black-and-white; it doesn’t just exist in photography, it’s there in drawings and engravings too – painters created pictures in color, but they also worked in black-and-white for drawings and engravings, in order to create a certain effect. As a result I think that black-and-white is now accepted by the public, and so I think that people are wrong when they say that black-and-white is impossible nowadays. It’s a very curious phenomenon. I think that black-and-white will always exist, even if it’s true that it will be an exception and the use of color will be standard. However, it’s quite certain that at the moment film-makers aren’t particularly inspired by color; most films in color have the same banal look about them and might as well be in black-and-white. Color adds nothing to them. For me color has to contribute something to a film, if it doesn’t do this, I prefer black-and-white for, despite everything, it gives a kind of basis, a unity, which is more useful to a film than color badly used.

My Night At Maud’s (Directed by Eric Rohmer)
What would you say color contributes to ‘La Collectionneuse’ and ‘Claire’s Knee’?

‎‏I didn’t use color as a dramatic element, as some film-makers have done. For me it’s something inherent in the film as a whole. I think that in La Collectionneuse color above all heightens the sense of reality and increases the immediacy of the settings. In this film color acts in an indirect way; it’s not direct and there aren’t any color effects, as there are for example in Bergman’s most recent film, his second one in color, where the color is very deliberately worked out and he gets his effects mainly by the way he uses red. I’ve never tried for dramatic effects of this kind, but, for example, the sense of time – evening, morning, and so on – can be rendered in a much more precise way through color. Color can also give a stronger sense of warmth, of heat, for when the film is in black-and-white you get less of a feeling of the different moments of the day, and there is less of what you might call a tactile impression about it. In Claire’s Knee I think it works in the same way: the presence of the lake and the mountains is stronger in color than in black-and-white. It’s a film I couldn’t imagine in black-and-white. The color green seems to me essential in that film, I couldn’t imagine it without the green in it. And the blue too – the cold color as a whole. This film would have no value for me in black-and-white. It’s a very difficult thing to explain. It’s more a feeling I have that can’t be reasoned out logically.

What exactly do you mean by the word ‘moral’ in the title of this series of films?

‎‏In French there is a word moraliste that I don’t think has any equivalent in English. It doesn’t really have much connection with the word ‘moral’,  a moraliste is someone who is interested in the description of what goes on inside man. He’s concerned with states of mind and feelings. For example in the eighteenth century Pascal was a moraliste, and a moraliste is a particularly French kind of writer like La Bruyere or La Rochefoucauld, and you could also call Stendhal a moraliste because he describes what people feel and think. So Moral Tales doesn’t really mean that there’s a moral contained in them, even though there might be one and all the characters in these films act according to certain moral ideas that are fairly clearly worked out. In My Night With Maud these ideas are very precise; for all the characters in the other films they are rather more vague, and morality is a very personal matter. But they try to justify everything in their behavior and that fits the word ‘moral’ in its narrowest sense. But ‘moral’ can also mean that they are people who like to bring their motives, the reasons for their actions, into the open, they try to analyze, they are not people who act without thinking about what they are doing. What matters is what they think about their behavior, rather than their behavior itself. They aren’t films of action, they aren’t films in which physical action takes place, they aren’t films in which there is anything very dramatic, they are films in which a particular feeling is analyzed and where even the characters themselves analyze their feelings and are very introspective. That's what Moral Tale means.

My Night At Maud’s (Directed by Eric Rohmer)
In ‘Maud’ and ‘Claire’s Knee’ in particular you show us some people around 35-40 years old and also some who are very much younger. Do you think there is now a real disparity between these age groups, in the way that people often talk of the new generation having a completely different set of customs and moral values?

‎‏My films are pure works of fiction, I don’t claim to be a sociologist. I’m not making investigations or collecting statistics. I simply take particular cases that I have invented myself, they aren’t meant to be scientific, they are works of imagination. Personally, I’ve never believed very much in the idea of a difference between age groups, I don’t think it’s very strong and it’s certainly not an opposition between one group and another, and I don’t think it’s so very much stronger nowadays than it was before. And even it it is true, it doesn’t interest me very much. It’s not something I’m concerned with. The fact that the young generation today in 1971 might as a whole have a certain kind of mentality doesn’t interest me. What interests me is to show young people as they really are just now, but also as they might be if they were fifty years old or a hundred years old, and the events of the film could have taken place in Ancient Greece, for things haven’t changed all that much. For me what is interesting in mankind is what is permanent and eternal and doesn't change, rather than what changes, and that’s what I’m interested in showing.

‎‏I read in an interview that once you had finished this series you planned to do something completely different, perhaps a film with a historical setting?

‎‏No, I didn’t really mean that. Certainly once I've finished the Moral Tales I want to do something else, I want to have a change and I don’t want to go on with them. I’ll do six, that’s all, and I’ve still one to go. But I don’t know what I’ll do next...

What do you think about what is happening in films just now? Do you think a new kind of cinema is coming into being?
I’ve no idea. There may be people who are creating a ‘new’ kind of cinema, but you have to ask how new it really is, if it doesn’t just form part of the ‘eternal avant-garde’, which sometimes just rediscovers ideas that were avant-garde years ago. For me what is really new is those ideas that never date. But I don’t know very much about this new cinema, especially the young American cinema. I don’t want to judge it; I make films that are right for me, and other people have their own ways to follow. What I want is for everyone to be able to take his own way and find his own public. But I go very seldom to the cinema, I don’t write criticism any more, and I don’t have enough knowledge to reply properly to your question.

Claire’s Knee (Directed by Eric Rohmer)
Have you ever wanted to make a film in the United States?

‎‏No. First of all I don’t speak English and I couldn’t work in a country where I don’t know the language. And I want to show the reality of life in France, I don’t want to deal with a way of life I don’t understand. At a pinch I could make a documentary about life in a foreign country, but that’s a different matter. Also I have a very personal way of working and in France I have a great deal of freedom in this respect. I work with an extremely small crew; I have no assistant director, no script- girl, and I take care of the continuity myself. Perhaps I make mistakes and put an ashtray here when it should be there, but that’s just too bad. And as usually there are no special clothes for the actors and few objects of special importance, in the long run there are no problems with this way of working. I use very few technicians because there are very few camera movements, but those technicians that I have are excellent, even though there aren’t many of them. In other countries you have crews that are quite terrifying. I use five or six people and there you have sixty. That frightens me and I would be quite incapable of working in that way. I don’t like to be the big boss who dominates everyone else; I like to be close to everyone, and I don’t see how I could work under these conditions in the United States. I can show on the screen only those things I know about, and I think there’s still a lot to deal with in France. There’s the question of language too: I place a lot of importance on speech, on style, on voice quality and intonation, and it’s very important. The French language counts for a great deal in my films. I’m a writer too, I write my own scripts, and as a writer the French language is important to me.
‎‏What films or directors have most influenced your own, in style or themes?

‎‏Silent films above all, though I don’t know how direct the influence is. People say that there is a lot of talk in my films, that I express myself through speech rather than images, and yet in actual fact I learned about cinema by seeing the films of Griffith, Stroheim, and Murnau. and even the silent comedies. That’s how I learned about cinema. There are two directors after the silent period whom I like very much and these are Jean Renoir and Roberto Rossellini; they are the people who most influenced me. As for the others, I admire Americans like Hitchcock, but I don’t think I’ve been really influenced by them; if I have, it’s quite unconsciously. I can tell you whom I admire, but influence is a different matter, for sometimes you don’t even know yourself who has influenced you and I’m perhaps not the right person to talk about it.

Claire’s Knee (Directed by Eric Rohmer)
Do you prefer to work for a small audience that will appreciate what you are doing, rather than for a large public?

‎‏Yes, certainly. If it depended only on me, instead of attracting people to my films, I would try to drive them away. I would tell them the films are more difficult than they really are, because I don’t like to deceive people, I like to show my films to people who can appreciate them. I’m not interested in the number of spectators. Having said that, it’s true that a film is a commercial undertaking and ought to recover its costs. But as my films don’t cost much, I don’t think I need a very large audience, and I’ve always thought that they should be shown in theaters that aren’t too big. The intimate character of my films doesn’t suit a theater or an audience too large for them. And I don’t think they are suited to a mass reaction or a collective reaction. It’s better if the spectator feels he is experiencing a completely personal reaction to it. Each reaction should be unique, individual, different. I think the film is enjoyed better if the spectators aren’t sitting too near one another, if the theater isn’t too full, and they don’t know each other. Then each has a different reaction. That’s better than a theater where there’s a uniform reaction. I don’t like watching one of my films in public and it distresses me if everyone laughs in the same place, as my film wasn’t made with that in mind. I didn’t write something just to make everyone laugh at the same time. It’s all right if someone smiles, but it shouldn’t happen at exactly the same place in the film. Perhaps this is because my films are more like reading than like watching a spectacle, they are made more to be read like a book than seen like something on the stage. So it distresses me to see a collective reaction.

‎‏Would you agree that the endings of your films tend to be rather sad?

‎‏They are not what one is expecting to happen, they are to some extent against the person concerned. What happens is against the wishes of the character, it’s a kind of disillusionment, a conflict – not exactly a failure on his part but a disillusionment. The character has made a mistake, he realizes he has created an illusion for himself. He had created a kind of world for himself, with himself at the center, and it all seemed perfectly logical that he should be the ruler or the god of this world. Everything seemed very simple and all my characters are a bit obsessed with logic. They have a system and principles, and they build up a world that can be explained by this system. And then the conclusion of the film demolishes their system and their illusions collapse. It’s not exactly happy, but that’s what the films are all about.

‎‏– Extract from ‘Graham Petrie – Eric Rohmer: An Interview’. Film Quarterly 24, no. 4 (Summer 1971): 34-41.