Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Graham Greene: ‘The Third Man’ as Story and Film

The Third Man (Directed by Carol Reed)
Sometime in 1947 the prolific producer Alexander Korda, a Hungarian émigré and head of London Films, had the idea to make a film set in Vienna, which at the time was divided into zones and occupied by American, British and French forces. It would make a good backdrop, but this wasn't the only reason for Korda’s interest.

London Films had certain reserves of currency in Austria and this was a time when currency exchange was difficult, requiring permission from government and central banks. Korda scouted out various writers but soon settled on Graham Greene, whom he greatly admired. Greene, Korda and director Carol Reed had collaborated on ‘The Fallen Idol’ (1948), adapted by Greene from his own short story (and at the time in the process of being shot), and Korda wanted to do it again.

He pestered Greene and the writer eventually presented him with a fledgling idea in the form of a single sentence:
I had paid my last farewell to Harry a week ago, when his coffin was lowered into the frozen February ground, so that it was with incredulity I saw him pass by, without a sign of recognition, among the host of strangers in the Strand.
Korda was hooked and ‘The Third Man’ was conceived. The writing didn’t come easily for Greene until the end of September 1947 when suddenly his ‘Risen-from-the-dead story’, as he called it, fell into place in his mind.

From Vienna Greene travelled via Prague to Rome, where he met his mistress and, with money he received for the commission, bought a villa in Anacapri, where he finished the short story, which he delivered to Korda.

At the end of April 1948 Korda, with Reed accompanying him, travelled to the United States to meet with the legendary producer David O. Selznick (who had been responsible for ‘Gone with the Wind’ (1939) with a view to bringing in American finance. By the middle of May a deal had been signed for four films. In return for the right to release Korda’s films in the US Selznick would provide finance and give Korda access to the stars Selznick had under contract. ‘The Third Man’ would be the film to inaugurate the deal... (Rob White: The Origins of The Third Man).

The following observations on story writing and film were written by Graham Greene as a preface to his novella, ‘The Third Man’, published by Viking Press.

The Third Man was never written to be read but only to be seen. Like many love affairs, it started at a dinner table and continued with many headaches in many places, Vienna, Venice, Ravello, London, Santa Monica.

Most novelists, I suppose, carry round in their heads or in their notebooks the first ideas for stories that have never come to be written. Sometimes one turns them over after many years and thinks regretfully that they would have been good once, in a time now dead. So twenty years back, on the flap of an envelope, I had written an opening paragraph:

I had paid my last farewell to Harry a week ago, when his coffin was lowered into the frozen February ground, so that it was with incredulity that I saw him pass by, without a sign of recognition, among the host of strangers in the Strand.

I, no more than my hero, had pursued Harry, so when Sir Alexander Korda asked me to write a film for Carol Reed to follow our Fallen Idol, I had nothing more to offer than this paragraph. Though Korda wanted a film about the four-power occupation of Vienna, he was prepared to let me pursue the tracks of Harry there.

To me it is almost impossible to write a film play without first writing a story. Even a film depends on more than plot, on a certain measure of characterization, on mood and atmosphere, and these it seems to me almost impossible to capture for the first time in the dull shorthand of a script. One can reproduce an effect caught in another medium but one cannot make the first act of creation in script form. One must have the sense of more material than one need to draw on. The Third Man, therefore, though never intended for publication, had to start as a story before it began those apparently interminable transformations from one treatment to another.

On these treatments Carol Reed and I worked closely together, covering so many feet of carpet a day, acting scenes at each other. No third ever joined our conferences: so much value lies in the clear cut-and-thrust of argument between two people. To the novelist, of course, his novel is the best he can do with a particular subject; he cannot help resenting many of the changes necessary for turning it into a film or a play. But The Third Man was never intended to be more than the raw material for a picture. The reader will notice many differences between the story and the film, and he should not imagine these changes were forced on an unwilling author: as likely as not they were suggested by the author. The film, in fact, is better than the story because it is in this case the finished state of the story.

Some of these changes have obvious superficial reasons. The choice of an American instead of an English star involved a number of alterations. For example, Mr. Joseph Cotten quite reasonably objects to the name Rollo. The name had to be an absurd one, and the name Holley occurred to me when I remembered that figure of literary film, the American poet Thomas Holley Chivers. An American, too, could hardly have been mistaken for the great English writer Dexter, whose literary character bore certain echoes of the gentle genius of Mr. E.M. Forster, so that the confusion of identities would have been impossible, even if Carol Reed had not rightly objected to a rather far-fetched situation involving a great deal of explanation that increased the length of a film already far too long.

Another minor point: in deference to American opinion, a Romanian was substituted for Cooler, since Mr. Orson Welles’ engagement had already supplied us with one American villain. (Incidentally, the popular line of dialogue concerning Swiss cuckoo clocks was written into the script by Mr. Welles himself).

One of the very few major disputes between Carol Reed and myself concerned the ending, and he has been proved triumphantly right. I held the view that an entertainment of this kind, which in England we call a thriller, was too light an affair to carry the weight of an unhappy ending. Reed on his side felt that my ending – indeterminate though it was with no words spoken – would strike the audience, who had just seen Harry die, as unpleasantly cynical. I admit I was only half-convinced: I was afraid few people would wait in their seats during the girl’s long walk from the graveside and that they would leave the cinema under the impression of an ending as conventional as mine and more drawn-out. I had not given enough consideration to the mastery of Reed’s direction, and, at that state, of course, we neither of us could have anticipated Reed’s brilliant discovery of Mr. Karas, the zither player.

The episode of the Russians kidnapping Anna (a perfectly possible incident in Vienna) was eliminated at a fairly late stage. It was not satisfactorily tied into the story, and it threatened to turn the film into a propagandist picture. We had no desire to move people’s political emotions: we wanted to entertain them, to frighten them a little, to make them laugh.

Reality, in fact, was only a background to a fairy tale; none the less, the story of the penicillin racket is based on a truth all the more grim because so many of the agents were more innocent than Joseph Harbin. The other day in London a surgeon took two friends to see the film. He was surprised to find them subdued and depressed by a picture he had himself enjoyed. They then told him that at the end of the war when they were with the Royal Air Force they had themselves sold penicillin in Vienna. The possible consequences of their act had never before occurred to them.

– Graham Greene: ‘The Third Man’ as a Story and a Film (Viking Press, 1950).


Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Theo Angelopoulos: Writing and History

Ulysses’ Gaze (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
The script is the raw material for cinema, as soon as it is written I forget all about it. A script becomes something else when it is transferred to film… For example, the script for ‘Voyage To Cythera’ and the actual movie have a distant relationship. Scripts remain much closer to the original idea behind a movie. Nevertheless, their role, their meaning alters significantly as soon as filming begins or, to put it in a slightly different way, a script is the movie up until the moment when the first scene is shot. As soon as this happens, the script and the movie go their separate, often considerably different pathways.  – Theo Angelopoulos
The great Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos collaborated with Italian screenwriter Tonino Guerra and the Greek novelist Petros Markaris on several of his films. In the following extract from an interview with Dan Fainaru in 1999, Angelopoulos discusses his writing methods and the personal and political background to his work:

Q: This is a strange relationship, him [Tonino Guerra] being an Italian who does not speak Greek, while you do not speak Italian. And yet, it is with him you start writing your scripts.

A: It is true we do not need to speak the same language, but we are both men of the South. I believe that all the Mediterranean people have some­thing in common. Not only because there are ancient roots common to all of us, having been in contact with each other for thousands of years, but also because of the proximity of the sea and the similitude of the climate. I never feel abroad when I am in Italy.

With Tonino, it was an instant relationship. He was working at the time with Andrei Tarkovski in Rome on Nostalghia. Andrei and I shared the same flat for a couple of weeks, a flat owned by an assistant director who worked with me on Megalexandros and with Tarkovski on Nostalghia. All I knew about Tonino at the time was his work with people like Fellini and Antonioni, but Andrei seemed to be very happy with their collaboration. I asked my assistant, the owner of the flat, to introduce us, and he arranged for me to go over to Tonino’s place. I intended to meet him, get to know him, and then see whether there was a way for us to cooperate.

Five minutes after I stepped into his flat, we were already at work. We immediately realized we were speaking the same language – in film terms of course, because when we met I spoke French and he spoke Italian but we understood each other perfectly. We also discovered there are many things for which we share the same affection and love. What I like about Tonino is not only the fact that he is a poet, but also that earthly, peasant side, which for me, is very important.

The Travelling Players (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
Q: In practice, how do you proceed when you meet to work on a script?

A: I must first explain that while basically, I am the author of my own scripts, I always need another person who will play the devil’s advocate, the psychoanalyst or whatever, to give me a different perspective of the things I have in mind. He is to be the first person to hear my ideas in the raw, and his feedback helps me choose the right direction. In the case of Tonino, most of the time he acts the part of the psychoanalyst. I am not sure many people work together the way we do.

Once a film is finished and I feel I am ready to start the next one, I go to his village in the mountains. We sit down, talk about everything and any­thing, have a drink, and then go to lunch. Later, as we sit down and relax, he will ask me whether I have anything in mind I would like to work on. At this point I am still doubtful. I start talking, telling him different stories I had been reflecting upon, ideas that caught my fancy, images that stuck in my mind, nothing yet very organized one way or another. I am walking back and forth; he listens to me, sitting down. When there is something he con­siders to be of particular interest, he stops me and writes it down...

The Hunters (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
Later, we go through all the things he has noted, and we try to see whether there is a coherent idea in there. To do this, I take the notes, go to the room he has prepared for me, pore over them for a few hours, then come back to the sitting room, and suggest a way to proceed. We go out, have a coffee, talk about the direction I proposed. He would tell me whether he likes it or not and add a few other related ideas he had in the afternoon while I was working in my room. Out of it comes another version, an im­proved one, of the same idea, and we go on like this for three, four days, discussing various options for the script.

But we do not do it all the time, from morning till night. We eat, we go for long walks, we meet people in the village, and we also talk about the script. When I leave, I already have in mind a first draft. I call him and tell him about it, or I put it on paper and send him a copy. But he, too, prefers to hear me tell it, rather than read it. He gives me his opinion, and then I start working with a second person.

Tonino assists at the birth of the original idea. And sometimes he can be quite insistent on certain details. For instance, he once called me in Greece after we had already completed the script for Landscape in the Mist, and he told me: ‘Listen Theo, we absolutely have to have a hen in the movie.’ ‘Where do you want me to put it?’ I asked. ‘I don’t know where,’ he re­plied, ‘but I feel we have to put a hen, somewhere.’ He was right and one of the scenes in the film opens with a hen.

O Megalexandros (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
The second person I work with is my first reader. In the past it was Tha­nassis Valtinos; these days it is Petros Markaris. Through him I get a first reaction to my script. Markaris, by the way, has written a whole book in which he describes our cooperation on Eternity and a Day. He never told me, but he documented everything we did, all our phone conversations, our dis­cussions – he didn’t leave anything out.

Part of his job is to take the script I have written by hand and type it into a computer – I still can’t use a type­writer, let alone a computer. He sends me this draft, and I put in my own corrections and additional remarks, and send it back to him. This goes on for some time, we either meet or exchange faxes of the drafts as they progress from one stage to the next, until I reach the point when I feel the others have given me everything they can, and I put in the last touches on my own. But the final shooting script you will find only if you take it off the finished print of the film. If you compare that with the script I have when I start shooting, you will find there are huge discrepancies between them.

O Megalexandros (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
Q: You have often talked in the past about the possibility of your adapting a literary work but until now it has never happened. All your screenplays are based on original scripts.

A: I tried my hand at adaptations several times, but every single time, I gave up in the middle. It is difficult to adapt a book, certainly a book you love, without losing some of its original flavor and qualities. I can’t think of a successful adaptation of a great novel. I believe the best novels to turn into films are either thrillers or second-class literature.

Orson Welles, for instance, took a rather routine crime story and made a masterpiece out of it in Touch of Evil. There are many more examples of this kind, for instance several of Godard’s films. As for myself, right now I do not feel like doing a crime story, though I am still tempted by Malraux’s Human Condition. But I realize that there will be always something missing in the transition to the screen...

Voyage To Cythera (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
Q: Your parents are from the South, the Peloponnesus and Crete. And yet you seem to be obsessed with the North, with dark skies, cold winters, heavy rains.

A: It’s a question I am often asked. I have no explanation. I have often tried in the past to find one, but couldn’t really. Maybe one has to look far back; a psychoanalyst might unveil the real sources. What I can tell you is that when I set out to make my first feature film, Reconstruction, I remember one after­noon, in the small village where the story took place. The landscape was all shades of gray, the dark sky, the drab little houses, the stony hills. It was raining, just a drizzle; a thin fog was covering the mountain, and the village was practically deserted. Most people had gone to Germany like so many other Greeks in the fifties, in search of a better life. Only a few old women dressed in black, barely visible in the gloomy light, sneaked silently through the narrow streets.

Suddenly I heard an old, cracked voice, singing a very old song. It was an ancient old man, singing ‘Oh, little lemon tree . . . Oh, little lemon tree . . . ,’ the song I finally used in the film. It was a magic moment which marked me for life: the rain, the fog, the gray stones, the women in black looking like ghosts, and the old man singing. This deserted village, a forgotten corner in a land ruled by military dictatorship, was for me the image of a country drained out by the constant flow of departing emigrants, and the only thing left in it is an old love song.

This image has probably imprinted itself in my subconscious, the matrix for all the films to follow. This is the reason I believe the first film is the original seed. Everything that comes later is either a variation, a development, or an elaboration evolving from that first theme. For me, Reconstruction contains all the themes I later developed. I really think one always does the same film, over and over again. Lately I watched again a number of Bergman films, and this is true for him as well.

Landscape In The Mist (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
Q: Was it at home, from your parents, that you first acquired the love for culture?

A : Not really. My father was a shopkeeper, my mother was a simple house­wife mostly concerned with the well-being of her children. I don’t remember the origins, but I know I started writing for the first time during the civil war, in Athens, towards the end of 1944, a period we still call ‘The Red Decem­ber.’ The communists, who suspected him of being a liberal, arrested my father. As a matter of fact, the person who arrested him was my own cousin, because you have to know that my family – like the rest of the country – was divided in two, part liberal and part communist. During my father’s absence, for reasons that are still not very clear to me, I wrote my first poems. And since that time, I sincerely believe that poetry was the foremost influence in my life...

He was away for a few months, kept somewhere in the center of Greece, and once he was released, he had to walk all the way home, half the length of the country. I remember seeing him at the end of the street, at the time children were still playing in the street, walking slowly towards us. I rushed home and called my mother. We knew he was supposed to come home, but when I told her I’d seen him, she rushed into the street to greet him. Once back inside, we were in such a state, no one could utter a single word. We sat around the table, drank our soup looking at each other in silence. We all felt like crying but kept back our tears. This is, as you may remember, the opening scene of Reconstruction.

Ulysses’ Gaze (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
Q: Do you remember anything of the German occupation?

A: I have said it often enough – I am a war child. When I was born, Greece was ruled by a dictator, General Metaxas. In 1940, the Italians invaded Greece. The first sound I remember is that of the war sirens. And the first image is that of Germans entering Athens, just as I painted it in the opening sequence of Voyage to Cythera. It’s all there, including the episode of the young German soldier directing traffic, the child touching his shoulder, and then running away into a maze of narrow streets with the soldier chasing him. One way or another, I have the feeling that we always dip into our own reservoir of memories and relive certain episodes we have experienced in real life. My work is full of all those special moments of my childhood and adolescence, my emotions and dreams at that time. I believe the one source for everything we do is there.

Q: When did you first take on a distinct political stand?

A: As long as I was in Greece, I considered myself apolitical. Only when I got to Paris did I choose, consciously, to join the Left. Of course, in the fifties, I took part in all sorts of student demonstrations, for instance to support Cyprus, but there was no political conscience behind it. I stayed away when­ ever left-wing and right-wing students would fight on the campus.

At the same time, that is after I graduated high school, I was beginning to realize that my interest in cinema was gradually growing almost into an obsession. I was frequenting all-day cinemas showing detective stories of which I saw a lot. Naturally, the American classics of the genre – Huston, Polonski, Hawks, Walsh – figured at the top of the list. But the first film I ever saw was Michael Curtiz’s Angels with Dirty Faces. I still remember the scene where James Cag­ney is taken to the electric chair, the shadows on the wall, his scream: ‘I don’t want to die.’ I must have been nine or ten at the time. This may ex­plain my fascination to this day with detective stories, be they novels or films...

The Suspended Step Of The Stork (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
Q: History and  politics were once in the forefront of every film you made. Now, they are still there, very evident, but much more in the background. Not to mention the quote from ‘The Suspended Step of the Stork’ which says: ‘Politics is nothing more than a career.’ You said earlier you were a man of the left; you certainly still are, but not in the same way.

A: I think many things have changed around us through the years that have been making film. Already in Megalexandros I tried to portray a freedom fighter that turns into a tyrant. I felt that everything we believed in changes once it touches power. The film was a reflection on two themes, power and property. They corrupt all those who, to start with, may have been sincere idealistic socialists. I saw all around me the things that were happening under socialist regimes. I couldn’t help noticing the changes taking place in all those people who were behind May ‘68. All the ideals we once had were being twisted and fading away.

My first film to move history from the fore­front to the background was Voyage to Cythera. It deals with people who be­lieved once in historical perspective and political change, only to discover, thirty years after sacrificing practically everything they had for the revolu­tion, that they are rejected by one and all. It is a political odyssey that ends with the old man, the hero who once dreamed of changing the world, and his wife, the only one who remained at his side, drifting out into the sea...

The Suspended Step Of The Stork (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
Q: It has been often said that each one of your films is a sequel of the previous one. Do you agree?

A: It’s true. This is the reason you will never find the word ‘End’ at the end of any of my films. As far as I am concerned, these are chapters of one and the same film that goes on and will never be finished, for there is never a final word on anything. I believe we never manage to do more than a frac­tion of the things we’d like to do. My last film, Eternity and a Day, is attempt­ing to convey the idea that a few words, acquired here and there, are never enough to complete a whole poem.

Q: Your films seem to be very personal not only because your way of doing them is so different from all others, but also because they really talk about yourself, all through. One is often under the impression that your protagonist, even though an actor plays the part, is a reflection of yourself projected in a dramatic context quite close to certain aspects of your life. You even told me once that you seriously consid­ered playing one of the parts, yourself.

A: Yes, it is a bit like that. There are of course directors who play in their own films, like Orson Welles. Sometimes one cannot avoid the feeling, particularly when the film is very close to yourself, that no actor could do justice to the part. I felt like this in Eternity and a Day. In the early stages, I was uneasy with Bruno Ganz in the lead, but deep down it was my own identification with the part that generated my fear that no actor could fully satisfy my expectations.

This is the reason that, at a certain point, I stopped the shoot. I needed to put myself at a certain distance from the script, put it in perspective and see the character wearing the features of another person. One could say the same things when discussing Voyage to Cythera or Ulysses’ Gaze. The truth is that these characters are composite images. There is a smaller or greater part of yourself in each one of them, but there are also other persons you have known. It is never quite you but certainly some of you is always there. And the deeper you go into those characters, the closer they are to your intimate self.

Eternity And A Day (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
Q: Another constant concern in your films is the father-son relationship.

A: As I have told you before when we talked about my childhood, the father figure is very important in my own past. The absence of the father who has been taken away – and we had no idea whether he was still alive or not – has been a heavy load on all of us. Since my very first film, it was a crucially important point. Reconstruction opens with the return of the father. Later films deal with the search for the father figure, whether a real or a fictitious father, one who could be a point of reference for the entire film and its pro­tagonist.

Q: Another characteristic of your films – practically all of them are road movies.

A: Yes, but with a difference. Usually, in road movies, the characters roam from one place to another without a definite purpose. In my films, these journeys always have a goal. In Voyage to Cythera, for instance, it is the journey to the imaginary island of one’s dreams, the island of peace and happiness. In Landscape in the Mist the children are looking for their father. The reporter in The Suspended Step of the Stork is travelling around for a definite reason; he is trying to unveil the mystery of the politician who disappeared. In Ulysses’ Gaze the entire trip through the Balkans is determined by the wish to find some pieces of lost film.

Q: You said once that some films come from the heart, others from the mind. Is it true in your case?

A: Some films have at their origins an intellectual premise. In others, it is sentiment. For instance, The Hunters was almost entirely conceived intellec­tually. The same for Days of ‘36. The Beekeeper comes straight from the heart. Most of my films are in-between, a combination of both.

Eternity And A Day (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
Q: There are, in your films, whether they come from the heart or the mind, magi­cal moments that will stay with me forever. The party in ‘The Travelling Players’, the last shot of the old couple on the raft in ‘Voyage to Cythera’, the rape in ‘Land­scape in the Mist’, the wedding in ‘The Suspended Step of the Stork’, the New Year party and Lenin’s statue on the barge in ‘Ulysses’ Gaze’, the bus ride in ‘Eter­nity and a Day’. And these are only a very few examples. Every time they occur, one is left amazed again and again by their originality, their imagination and poetry. Is it something that just happens while you’re shooting the film or is it carefully prepared beforehand?

A: Both. The bus ride was not at all written this way. Originally, in this scene, there were just the writer and the boy. It was an almost realistic scene, which could, of course, be very moving. Two persons in an empty bus, cross­ing the city in the rain. But somehow, I had the feeling it was not enough. This is why it took so long to shoot this scene. As we were shooting, I was gradually changing it. Finally, I did the scene twice, once following the script, a second time throwing the script away. The second version is the one we used. The scene of the party in The Travelling Players, when two men are dancing the tango together, had originally a few lines of dialog. Once we started rehearsing it, I decided to change it.

The scene was taking place in 1946 – people were still wearing at the time bowler hats, striped suits, and so on. At a certain moment, during a break in the rehearsal, I noticed two men, both wearing bowler hats, standing next to each other. The pianist was play­ing a few notes of a tango, one of them approached the other, and they started dancing together. That was completely unexpected. I had not written it in the script, not even thought of it, but that is how I rounded up this scene, and I believe it was the right way to do it. Sometimes, it’s this kind of improvisation on the spot; sometimes you know what you’re going to do a few days early. For the rape scene in Landscape in the Mist, it was like that. It was not in the script, but I had it already in mind several days before we shot it.

Eternity And A Day (Directed by Theo Angelopolous)
As for the marriage scene in The Suspended Step of the Stork with the bride on one side of the river, the bridegroom on the other – when I wrote the script, the scene was different, but I felt something was missing there. Then, one day, I was in New York on a bus going to Bronx through Harlem. At a stop, I saw a small black boy improvising some dance steps on one side of the street, and on the other side, there was another small black boy, who was answering him with his own dance steps. Nothing out of the ordinary, maybe, but I immediately saw the river in the middle.

And there is some­thing else, something I read in 1958 about an island near Crete, a very small one, completely isolated in the winter. During those long months, the shep­herds who live there use a sign language to communicate with a Cretan priest, who would watch for them at certain hours. They would inform him if someone was dead on their side, he would say mass in Crete for the de­ceased person, and they would bury the corpse on the small island. The combination of these two sources of inspiration resulted in the marriage as you see it in The Suspended Step of the Stork. The New Year party in Ulysses’ Gaze was written more or less the way it is played. I knew it was all going to be in one shot, but I felt, when writing it, there was something missing, and as we were rehearsing, I added light touches here and there.

As for the barge with Lenin’s statue on it, this marks for me the end of an era. I had prepared the sequence beforehand, but the idea of having the peasants watching it float down the Danube and crossing themselves as it went by originated with something I saw in Constanza, a Romanian port on the Black Sea. A crane was moving a huge head of Lenin from a ship to a barge, when a fishing boat just happened by. The couple on it, a man and a woman, stood up, shocked, as if Lenin had just come back to life. The woman covered the man’s eyes and instinctively made the sign of the cross.

But I have to say that strangely enough there are scenes you believe are crucial when you write the script, but do not seem at all like this once you have shot them. While other scenes, which you may not have been very keen on, turn out to be key moments in the film.

– Extracted from ‘Dan Fainaru: And About All The Rest’ in Theo Angelopoulos: Interviews (Ed. Dan Fainaru, University Press of Mississippi, 2001)

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Jean Cocteau: The Art of Film

Orphée (Directed by Jean Cocteau)
A poet and novelist who became a film-maker in his forties, Jean Cocteau proceeded to write and direct films on fantastic themes, marked by great visual beauty, full of haunting images and distinctly dreamy, almost mystical performances from a trusted company of actors that included Jean Marais. Cocteau once remarked that ‘when I make a film, it is a sleep in which I am dreaming’.

Jean Cocteau was born in 1889 to faintly artistic, middle-class parents. Accounts of his early life suggest only a passing interest in film. Instead it was theatre, under his mother’s influence, which dominated his upbringing. Through her, he developed the ‘fever of crimson and gold’ that would shape his artistic life. Cocteau would go on to make use of all the media available to him to create an intricate personal mythology. Novelist, poet, painter, playwright, designer –  all of those disciplines are reflected in his films. His three celebrated films of the fantastic – ‘Blood of the Poet’, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Orphée’ – are central to his visual legacy, yet Cocteau always maintained that as a filmmaker he was only an amateur.

In the following extract Jean Cocteau discusses his creative process. It’s taken from an interview he gave a few months before his death in the Autumn of 1963:

Jean Cocteau: I feel myself inhabited by a force or being – very little known to me. It gives the orders; I follow. The conception of my novel Les Enfants Terribles came to me from a friend, from what he told me of a circle: a family closed from societal life. I commenced to write: exactly seventeen pages per day. It went well. I was pleased with it. Very. There was in the original life story some connection with America, and I had something I wanted to say about America ... The being in me did not want to write that! Dead halt. A month of stupid staring at paper unable to say anything. One day it commenced again in its own way.

Interviewer: Do you mean the unconscious creates?  

I long said art is a marriage of the conscious and the unconscious. Latterly, I have begun to think: Is genius an at-present undiscovered form of the memory? 

Do you keep a sort of abstract potential reader or viewer in mind when you work?

You are always concentrated on the inner thing. The moment one becomes aware of the crowd, performs for the crowd, it is spectacle.
Can you say something about inspiration?
It is not inspiration; it is expiration.

 Beauty and the Beast (Directed by Jean Cocteau)
Are there any artificial helps—stimulants or drugs? You resorted to opium after the death of [your friend] Radiguet, wrote your book about it, ‘Opium’, and were, I believe, in a period of disintoxication from it when you wrote ‘Les Enfants Terribles’.
It is very useful to have some depressant, perhaps. Extreme fatigue can serve. Filming Beauty and the Beast on the Loire in 1945 immediately at the end of the war, I was very ill. Everything went wrong. Electricity failures nearly every day; planes passing over just at the moment of a scene. Jean Marais’s horses made difficulties, and he persisted in vaulting onto them himself out of second-floor windows, refusing a double, and risking his bones. And the sunlight changes every minute on the Loire. All these things contributed to the virtue of the film. And in The Blood of a Poet Man Ray’s wife played a role; she had never acted. Her exhaustion and fear paralyzed her and she passed before the cameras so stunned she remembered nothing afterward. In the rushes we saw she was splendid; with the outer part suppressed, she had been let perform…
[The director] Rossellini, in Rome, told me that if he were to put down in a script all his imagination casts up for the scene he would have to write a novel; but in fiction we must put it down, or it is lost.
And the public is lazy! You ask them to enter into habits of thinking other than their own, and they don’t want to. And then . . . what you have written in autograph changes in typewriting, and again in print. Painting is more satisfying because it is more direct; you work directly on the surface.
What do you think of the French new-novelists who are beginning to abandon subject [in their work]?
... I read detective fiction, espionage, science fiction.
Do you recommend, then, to writers they read nothing serious at all?
[shrugs] I myself do not.

Les Enfants Terribles (Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville)
You wrote one of your novels in three weeks; one of your theatre pieces in a single night. What does this tell us about the act of composition?
If the force functions, it goes well. If not, you are helpless.
Is there no way to get it started, crank it up?
In painting, yes. By application to all the mechanical details one commences to begin. For writing, ‘one receives an order…’
Françoise Sagan describes how writing begins to flow with the use of the pen. I thought this was a rather general experience.
If the ideas come, one must hurry to set them down out of fear of forgetting them. They come once; once only. On the other hand, if I am obliged to do some little task – such as writing a preface or notice – the labor to give the appearance of easiness to the few lines is excruciating. I have no facility whatever. Yes, in one respect what you say is true. I had written a novel, then fallen silent. And the editors at the publishing house seeing this, said, ‘You have too great a fear of not writing a masterpiece. Write something, anything. Merely to begin’. So I did—and wrote the first lines of Les Enfants Terribles. But that is only for beginnings — in fiction. I have never written unless deeply moved about something. The one exception is my play La Machine à Écrire. I had written the play Les Parents Terribles and it was very successful, and something was wanted to follow. La Machine à Écríre exists in several versions, which is very telling, and was an enormous amount of work. It is no good at all. Of course, it is one of the most popular of my works. If you make fifty designs and one or two please you least, these will nearly surely be the ones most liked. No doubt because they resemble something. People love to recognize, not venture. The former is so much more comfortable and self-flattering. It seems to me nearly the whole of your work can be read as indirect spiritual autobiography.

The Blood of a Poet (Directed by Jean Cocteau)
The wound in the hand of the poet in your film ‘The Blood of a Poet’ — the wound in the man’s hand out of which the poetry speaks – certainly this reproduces the ‘wound’ of your experience in poetry around 1912-1914?

The work of every creator is autobiography, even if he does not know it or wish it, even if his work is ‘abstract’. It is why you cannot redo your work.

Not rewrite? Is that absolutely precluded?

Very superficially. Simply the syntax and orthography. And even there… I leave repetitions, mistakes, words badly placed quite unchanged, and there is no punctuation. It would be artificial to impose punctuation on a black river of ink.

– Jean Cocteau, The Art of Fiction No. 34. Interviewed by William Fifield. The Paris Review 

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Ingmar Bergman: Dialogue on Film

Cries and Whispers (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)

The great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman held a seminar with the Fellows of the Center for Advanced Film Studies on October 31, 1975 in which he openly discussed his approach to writing, his preparations for shooting and his relations with his company of actors while filming. He had recently completed the masterly ‘Cries and Whispers’ – set in a manor house at the turn of the century where a spinster (Harriet Andersson) is dying, attended by her two sisters and devoted servant. Superbly photographed by Sven Nykvist in an elemental style with scarlet backgrounds which give a tremendous force to the anguish of the characters. Bergman was later to comment that ‘all my films can be thought in black and white, except for Cries and Whispers. In the screenplay, I say that I have thought of the colour red as the interior of the soul. When I was a child, I saw the soul as a shadowy dragon, blue as smoke, hovering like an enormous winged creature, half-bird, half-fish. But inside the dragon everything was red.’ The film is lustrous and hypnotic with the power of a dream. Light breaks in occasionally from beyond illuminating the characters and their dark lives until the final breakthrough into the exhilarating openness of the world outside.

Please tell us how you work with actors.

BERGMAN: It can be a very complicated question, and it can be a very simple question. If you want to know exactly how I work together with my actors I can tell you in one minute: I just use my intuition. My only instrument in my profession is my intuition. When I work at the theatre or in the studio with my actors I just feel; I don’t know how to handle the situation, how to collaborate with the artists, with the actors. One thing is very important to me: that an actor is always a creative human being, and what your intuition has to find out is how to make free – do you understand what I mean? – to make free the power, the creative power in the actor or the actress.

I can’t explain how it works. It has nothing to do with magic; it has a lot to do with experience. But I think when I work together with the actors I try to be like a radar – I try to be wide open – because we have to create something together. I give them some stimulations and suggestions and they give me a lot of stimulations and suggestions, and if this fantastic wave of giving and taking is cut off for any reason I have to feel it and I have to look for the reason – good heavens, what has happened? – and I know if we try to work with those waves cut off it is terrifying; it is the hardest, toughest job that exists, both for me and the actors. Some directors work under aggression: the director is aggressive and the actors are aggressive, and they get marvelous results. But to me it is impossible. I have to be in contact, in touch with my actors the whole time. Because what we first of all create when we start a work together is an atmosphere of security around us. And it’s not only me who creates that atmosphere; we are together to create it.

But you know, all those situations, all those decisions, all those very difficult decisions, you have to make hundreds of them every day – I never think. It’s never an intellectual process, it’s just intuition. Afterward you can think it over – What was this? What was that? You can think over every step you have made.

Do you write in the same way?

BERGMAN: Yes, yes, yes. The best time in the writing, I think, is the time when I have no ideas about how to do it. I can lie down on the sofa and I can look into the fire and I can go to the seaside and I can just sit down and do nothing. I just play the game, you know, and it’s wonderful and I make some notes and I can go on for a year. Then, when I have made the plan, the difficult job starts: I have to sit down on my ass every morning at ten o’clock and write the screenplay. And then something very, very strange happens: often the personalities in my scripts don’t want the same thing I want. If I try to force them to do what I want them to do, it will always be an artistic catastrophe. But if I let them free to do what they want and what they tell me, it’s OK.

So I think that is the only way to handle it, because all intellectual decisions must come afterward. You have seen Cries and Whispers, yes? For half a year, I went around and I just had a picture inside about three women walking around in a red room in white clothes and I didn’t know why. I couldn’t understand these damned women – I tried to throw it away, I tried to write it down, I tried to find out what they said to each other, because they whispered. And suddenly it came out that they were watching another woman who was dying in the next room, and then it started. But it took about a year. It always starts with a picture with some kind of tension in it, and then slowly it comes up.

In your films you often confuse reality and dreams, and I wonder if you feel that they are of equal importance.

BERGMAN: You know, you can’t find in any other art, and you can’t create a situation that is so close to dreaming as cinematography when it is at its best. Think only of the time gap: you can make things as long as you want, exactly as in a dream; you can make things as short as you want, exactly as in a dream. As a director, a creator of the picture, you are like a dreamer: you can make what you want, you can construct everything. I think that is one of the most fascinating things that exists.

I think also the reception for the audience of a picture is very, very hypnotic. You sit there in a completely dark room, anonymous, and you look at a lightened spot in front of you and you don’t move. You sit and you don’t move and your eyes are concentrated on that white spot on the wall. That is some sort of magic. I think it’s also magic that two times every frame comes and stands still for twenty-four parts of a second and then it darkens two times; a half part of the time when you see a picture you sit in complete darkness. Isn’t that fascinating? That is magic. It’s quite different when you watch the television: you sit at home, you have light around you, you have people you know around you, the telephone is ringing, you can go out and have a cup of coffee, the children are making noise, I don’t know what – but it is absolutely another situation.

We are in the position to work with the most fascinating medium that exists in the world because like music we go straight to the feeling – not over the intellect – we go straight to the feeling, as in music. Afterward we can start to work with our intellect. If the picture is good, if the suggestions from the creator of the picture are strong enough, they’ll give you thoughts afterward; you’ll start to think; they are intellectually stimulating.

After you have written a script, do you continue to develop the characters during the shooting?

BERGMAN: No. You know, I have always worked with trained actors; I have never worked with amateurs. An amateur can be himself always and you can put him in situations that give the situation a third dimension, as Vittorio De Sica did inThe Bicycle Thief [a 1947 classic of Italian “neorealism"], but if you work with trained actors you must know exactly what you are going to do with the parts. We make all the discussions before and then we work in the studio, giving each other suggestions. But the whole time we must have in mind what we meant. And it’s very dangerous to go away and suddenly start to improvise. You can improvise, of course, in the studio, but if you improvise you have to be very prepared, because to improvise on an improvisation is always shit. If you are very prepared and know how to do it, you can go back if your improvisation suddenly one day fades away, which it does. Of course it does. Inspiration, enthusiasm, everything like that is beautiful, but I don’t like it. When we are in the studio we have to be very strict.

What is your relation to the camera? Do you feel you have to overcome the technical limitations of the camera?

BERGMAN: If intuition is our mental instrument, the camera is our physical instrument. I think the camera is erotic. It is the most exciting little machine that exists. To me, just to work together with my cameraman, Sven Nykvist, to see a human face with the camera and with a zoom to come closer, to see the scene, to see the face changing, it’s the most fascinating thing that exists. The choreography of the actors in relation to the camera is very important. If the actor feels that he is in a good position, in a logical position, he can be with his back to the camera; it doesn’t matter. The camera has to be the best friend of the actors, and the actors have to be secure with our handling of the camera. They must feel that we are taking care of them.

Are there many young directors here? Very good. We who are directors must never forget that we are behind the camera and the actor is in front of the camera; he is nude, his soul is nude. If he has confidence in us, we have enormous responsibility. We have something fantastic: we have somebody in our hands and we can destroy him or we can help him in his creative job. To be behind the camera is never difficult, but to be in front of the camera is always a challenge, a difficulty, to be there with your face and your body and all the limitations you have in your soul and all the limitations you feel of your face and your movements, I don’t know what. What is strange is that we must not lie to the actors; we have to be absolutely true to them. Better actors like the truth more.

When is the moment you stage the movement or position of camera? When I read the screenplays you write, they always say only what the actors are saying, a bit like a play. When is the moment you state, “The camera will be here"?

BERGMAN: The evening before. When I come home in the evening I just sit down with the script and I read the next day’s schedule very carefully. Then I make up my mind about it and I just note the choreography of the actors and the camera. And then in the early morning when I meet Sven – you know, we have worked so many years together – we just very shortly, in five minutes, go through the scene, and I tell him about my ideas for different positions of the camera and the different positions of the actors and the atmosphere of the whole scene. Then we can go on the whole day; it is not necessary to have any discussions. He is a marvelous man. He is very silent and very shy. He is nice. And suddenly everything is there – without any complications – and I can look in the camera and everything I wanted is there.

Do you rehearse with the actors on the set before you plan your shots?

BERGMAN: No, never. That is a very good question. Because if you rehearse with trained actors they go from the mood of intuition to what they are trained to, to stage acting every evening. It’s very difficult. If you go on rehearsing with the actors too much, more than just to learn their lessons, and if you rehearse with them several days, some new process in the actors’ minds starts. An intellectual process, I think, and that process can be very good, but it’s very dangerous for filming because you have something in his eyes suddenly, some sort of “Now I do that“ and "I do that" and “I do that." He’s conscious of what he’s doing. He has to do it intuitively.

Just before you start filming, when you get to the set, you said you know as little about the film as the actors do.

BERGMAN: But remember, I have written the script. I have lived with this script perhaps for one or two years. The preparation for the next day, in details, I wait with it as long as possible. Of course, when I made The Magic Flute [his film of Mozart’s opera] we had to prepare everything before.

You use women as your main characters quite a lot, and I was wondering how you relate to them, how you identify with them? Your male characters aren’t very much in the foreground.

BERGMAN: I like more to work with women. I have many good friends who are actors and I like tremendously to work together with them, but in filmmaking it’s a job for good nerves and I think the women have much better nerves than men have. It’s so. I think the problems very often are the common problems. They are not, on the first hand, women; they are human beings. And God forgive me, but I have the feeling that the prima donnas always are male. I think it has to do with our whole social life and the male part and the female part that they have to play, and it’s very difficult to be an actor; it’s not so difficult to be an actress in our society.

Would you just talk a little more about what you say to an actor? Do you do exercises with them?

BERGMAN: No, no, no, no. Good heavens, no. I say nothing. I promise.

Do you tell them the message of the film?

BERGMAN: No, good heavens, no. No, no, no, no. I don’t know anything about messages or symbols or things like that. Sometimes when I have the message everything goes wrong. So we don’t talk about those things. We just talk professionally: “Be careful. Be slower. Don’t be in a hurry. Listen." You know, the most important of all is the ear – the ear for the director and the ear for the actors. Listen to each other. Very often when I see a scene I just close my eyes and listen, because if it sounds right it also looks right. It’s very strange.

Now we have only a minute to conclude this, to me, wonderful meeting, but I wanted just to add something. Perhaps it sounds like an old uncle, but I am, so it doesn’t matter. May I give you an advice?

Yes, please.

BERGMAN: It is a relief to me to know that if I have an intention, if I have a passion and an obsession, if I want to tell somebody something and if I want to touch somebody, the film helps me. But if I have nothing to say and I just want to make a film, I don’t make the film. It’s so stimulating, the craftsmanship of filmmaking is so terribly stimulating, dangerous, and obsessing, so you can be very tempted...but if you have nothing to come with, try to be honest with yourself and don’t make the picture. If you have something to come with, if you have emotion and passion, a picture in your head, a tension – even if you aren’t very technical – the strange thing is that having worked on the script and having worked with the camera for days and days, suddenly when you have cut it together, the thing you wanted to tell is there.

I have a very good example, Antonioni’s L’Avventura (Italy, 1960). The picture is a mess – he had no idea where to put the camera; he had no money; the actors went away; I think he had enormous problems the whole time – but he wanted to tell us something about the loneliness of the human being, and I can see this picture time after time and I don’t know what touches me most: how he succeeds without knowing how to do it or what he wants to say. That is very important; that is the most important of all. You have to have something to come with, to give other people.
Picturemaking is some sort of responsibility, that is what I think.

– Originally published in American Film, January-February 1976