Tuesday, 15 January 2019

On Cassavetes’ Style

Faces (Directed by John Cassavetes)
“John Cassavetes’ Faces is the sort of film that makes you want to grab people by the neck and drag them into the theater and shout: "Here!" It would be a triumphant shout. Year after year, we get a tide of bilge that passes for "the American way of life" in the movies.

“We know it isn’t like that. We don’t live that way and neither does anyone we know. What Cassavetes has done is astonishing. He has made a film that tenderly, honestly and uncompromisingly examines the way we really live.

“The central characters are middle-aged, middle-class and rather ordinary: a man and his wife. They have everything in the world they desire, except love and a sense of personal accomplishment. They’ve become consumers in the most cruel sense of that word: Their only identity is as economic beings who earn and spend money to sustain a meaningless existence. They don’t do anything, or make anything, or create anything. They use.

“This is not only a crisis but a trap, because society has left them stranded without any means of breaking out. During a long night when their marriage reaches the breaking point, they discover only two ways to kick loose: alcohol and adultery. One of the problems with this class of society is that it provides so few ways to boil over.”

– Roger Ebert.

“Cassavetes wiped away the old vocabulary of doing films. A lot of this came from his New York actors, the street-life sound, and from the ability the new lightweight equipment gave the filmmaker. When I saw Shadows, with the camera right in that house giving such a direct communication with the human experience, with conflict and love and all of this, it was as if there were no camera there at all, as if you were living with these people. Once we saw that, we all realized that you can’t sit around and talk about making a film, you gotta just go do it. He exemplifies independence: Don’t be taken in by them. Do what you feel, what you feel in your heart. Don’t be cut down. He was like an uncle in the way he talked to you about this.”

– Martin Scorsese.

In the following extract from his book ‘Cassavetes On Cassavetes’ the film critic and writer Raymond Carney discusses Faces interspersed with extracts from John Cassavetes discussing his attitude toward the film.

Raymond Carney: American viewers were divided in their opinion. Though many appreciated Faces, at least as many had major problems with it. One frequently voiced objection was that Cassavetes failed to explain his characters’ motives and the causes of their behavior. As early as Too Late Blues he had argued that he didn’t want to explain too much because the work the viewer had to do was an important part of the experience. Faces went even further in this direction – confounding viewers’ expectations, placing them in a problem-solving stance and forcing them to stay in the flow of experience.

John Cassavetes: The first part of the script was structured very carefully to set up a whole new pattern of thinking so that the audience could not get ahead of the film. Most people think, ‘Oh yes, this is what’s going to happen in the next moment.’ What happens with Faces, though, is that the first half of the film really bugs people because it doesn’t fit an easy pattern of behavior. Well, I don’t know anyone who has an easy pattern of behavior. I know people who are just sensational one minute and absolute bastards the next. Terribly funny one minute and morose the next. And these moods come from specific things that I can’t put my finger on because I don’t know their whole life. And we can’t put their whole life on the screen. So I’ve got to depend on the actor to identify with his role enough that he can express those things. And to get it on the screen is something miraculous.

It’s antagonism. With Faces you’re getting so many vibrations from people and you’re seeing people behave so honestly, when they stop you get irritated. You identify with a character and then he does something you don’t want him to do, it becomes personal. You can’t stand for it not to have the answers every moment. You don’t want to waste your time going through their self-exploration. You want them to get right down to it and give you the answers. Other movies make me bored. I want them to go faster, you know. Hurry up. I want it to go faster because I’m not interested in it. I like things that evolve.

Although at the end of the following statement Cassavetes confuses the 183-minute version of his film with the final edit, his point is still valid.

JC: People prefer that you condense; they find it quite natural for life to be condensed in films. And then you discover that people prefer that because they’ve already caught on to what you wanted to say and are ahead of you. So that there’s a sort of competition between them andyou, and you try to shake them up rather than please them: you show them that you know what they’re going to say so as to be more honest than they can imagine. For example, when Faces opens, the couple are lying in bed, laughing. The audience wants to join them but they’re not included yet. The characters dictate the terms to the audience.

Other viewers were frustrated by Cassavetes’ unwillingness to explain his characters’ problems in psychological terms – holding the viewer on the outside of opaque, impenetrable surfaces. Cassavetes felt that tracing behavior back to psychological causes was to simplify it.

JC: I’m a very literal man. I never look for anything underneath. I don’t know why people always want to understand, work out hidden meaning and motivations. Surely the only reason for trying to work out someone’s motivation is if you’re scared of them. Otherwise you just feel for people, don’t you? You love them or you hate them. This is a film about people’s surfaces, isn’t it?

Another issue for many viewers was what they felt to be Cassavetes’ toughness or cynicism, at least in part because of his avoidance of the stock-in-trade of Hollywood filmmaking: swoony, romantic relationships between characters and between the viewer and a character. Cassavetes readily acknowledged this aspect of his style.

JC: The movie hates ‘sensitivity’. Sensitivity is hypocrisy in the self-pitying way. True sensitivity should be truly honest. That’s what we strove for: brutal, unsentimental honesty.

A related issue was that Cassavetes’ characters almost never verbally expressed love or affection for one another. (Later in life, Cassavetes said he actually went through the scripts of both ‘A Woman Under the Influence’ and ‘Gloria’ and deleted lines of dialogue where a character used the word ‘love’.)

JC: I really resent being liked openly. I don’t find any challenge in being liked. It’s a form of agreement and very often agreement doesn’t really get anywhere. I always feel that when someone says ‘I love you’, they really mean ‘I hate you’. It seems to me something’s wrong when someone has to express that or wants to hear it. It expresses some fear or doubt.

In a parallel vein, the highest compliment Cassavetes could pay his characters was to say that they weren’t ‘sentimental’ – meaning that they didn’t feel sorry for themselves, or stop and bemoan their situation, but gamely ‘went on’, doing the best they could with the hand they were dealt. (He would later argue that that is what made the central character in ‘The Killing of a Chinese Bookie‘ admirable.)

JC: In Faces there’s this scene with Florence, the middle-aged lady, and the hippie. I get a lump in my throat every time I see it. Gets me every time. Here’s this beat-up broad out to seduce a young guy she picked up at a discotheque and she tries everything and doesn’t care how ridiculous or pathetic she looks. She wants this guy and she wants to get him in the sack. I think she might have succeeded if that younger chick hadn’t been there too, all cool and available. The point is the middle-aged lady tried. She fought; she struggled; she wouldn’t give up. Isn’t it better to fight to see your fantasies realized – fight and lose, rather than suffer and dream away in silence? What I love about all of the characters in Faces is that they don’t quit. They will make jackasses of themselves but they try to keep going. It doesn’t matter if you’re wrong if you try.

The excitement of watching Faces is to see a different point of view, not a romanticized point of view like a Hollywood movie would make it or a self-justifying point of view as some other filmmakers might make it, but to see totally unedited behavior, to look at a life experience without any point of view outside of the people themselves. I think that is some- thing different from other movies. It’s fascinating to me. And painful too. I sit there not as the maker of the film. I’m looking at the film as an outsider. Not as a film. I’m relating to certain characters in the thing that are part of me. Some of them behave as I behave. And some don’t. But I like or dislike them not on the basis of my writing, but on the basis of their acting, on the basis of what they mean to me. I don’t think thedirector creates anything. I liken it to a reporter’s function – if it happens, something’s going to come out, and if it’s dull, nothing in the world is going to save it.

Even at the peak of ‘Faces’ success, Cassavetes understood that popularity was a trap.

JC: My films are about personal things – marriages breaking up, love transformed by mutual treachery, the difficulty that two people have in communicating even though they live together. These are the problems which I have tackled and which concern me and concern others. Some- times people find this painful to accept or they think that my ideas are wrong or simply they’re not interested in the difficulties which exist in communicating with others. But I am very interested in this. With my actors I try to explore it and try and relate it to their daily lives. I can’t ask people who are comfortable with their lives, with no problems, to be spectacularly interested in my work. It’s not made to please people. Many press agents told me, ‘For God’s sake, don’t sell the movie on middle age.’ But I’m sure there are some middle-aged people around. I always feel left out of most other movies. They have nothing to do with me.

I don’t care if people like our films or not. As long as I can make these films and say what I want and work with people I love and who are not afraid to express themselves, whether it’s popular or not. If we want to give Faces away to universities, we will do that. If we want to bury the film and never let anyone see it, we can do that. In other words, it’s ours. So that if it plays in a festival, fine. If it doesn’t play in a festival, fine. If people love it, fine. If they don’t, OK too.

– Extract from Cassavetes on Cassavetes, by Raymond Carney.

Friday, 21 December 2018

Elia Kazan: From Theatre to Film

A Streetcar Named Desire (Directed by Elia Kazan)

In the following extract from an interview with Cahiers du Cinema in 1966, the great Greek-American director Elia Kazan discusses his transition from theatre to film, and how this influenced his conception of character and artistic realism.
CAHIERS: Shall we begin with the actors? It seems that, little by little, you have guided them from exteriorization toward a certain interiorization.

ELIA KAZAN: I believe that that is true. In the films that I was making twenty years ago, I had, I chose, more flamboyant actors. They were the engines of the film, and the film was the vehicle of their expression; it was always a question of expressing, of exteriorizing what there was ‘in’ them, and the free course that I left to this flamboyance made me tend sometimes almost toward opera. But, little by little, I lost interest in this expression as such, and in fact I almost turned against it. I began, too, to restrain my actors, in proportion as I saw things in a truer, calmer fashion.

At the same time, I became more and more interested in what happened to them, to the actors, human beings, characters—in the way in which they reflected or reinforced something, be it unconsciously, in the way in which they let something grow in them, come out from them. Now, ten or fifteen years afterward, I see the gap that separates me from the first manner, when my actors were moved by the most violent feeling of life, which they rendered directly and unconsciously. Now I no longer ‘feel’ people through an acting technique. Life is not like that. People ordinarily do not know or realize the why and the how of their beings, whence they originate and whither they lead them. In any case, very few people know exactly what they want, and there are fewer still who can go straight to what they want. That is why I direct my youngsters in a more supple, more complex way. I abandon myself more to imprecision, to the nebulous, and I accept more readily the ways of contradiction. I believe that that is the only way to approach the truth.

A Streetcar Named Desire (Directed by Elia Kazan)

CAHIERS: Your films themselves are made more and more on the complexity and contradictions of life.

ELIA KAZAN: At the start, my films were always written by scenarists, sometimes theatre men [Tennessee Williams, William Inge]. Even then I worked on them myself, but little by little I collaborated more and finally I began to write my stories myself. I was present at the birth of the film, instead of being, as before, the conductor of cadences and solos. In A Streetcar Named Desire, there are entire scenes that I would do differently today. I would have them happen much more calmly, unconsciously, and that would take much more time as well. I still think that dramaturgy is essential in theatre, but one must rethink the thing completely when one approaches the screen. That too is why, as I grew older, I felt more and more acutely the difference between theatre and film. and, little by little, I lost interest in the theatre.

CAHIERS: But the fact is that you originally acquired much from the theatre. Perhaps something of it still remains today in your films?

ELIA KAZAN: I agree absolutely. I took something from the theatre and that something is still there. But, regarding that, let me be more specific about some points. The essence of the Stanislavsky method, and the fundamental interest that it had for us, in the way in which we learned it as students and used it later, dwelt in the action. That is to say, when someone felt, experienced something, our feeling—and our theory—was that this emotion would never become ‘of’ the theatre, unless it were expressed as a need, a hunger. And it is of this need, of this hunger, that such-and-such a precise action sprang incarnated as expression of this hunger. The play became a series of progressions, each of which consisted of the fact that a person did a certain thing that responded to a certain want. We stressed the word ‘want’. and we did our best to emerge on the word ‘do’. In short: To do. To want. To do.

Wild River (Directed by Elia Kazan)
We sought to attain the infinitive: To conquer, to love ... infinitives emerging on ‘To want’ and ‘To do.’ The result was that our performances in the theatre, especially in the form in which I expressed myself at the start, were extremely violent, violent and amusing. But today, when I observe life, I see it takes much less direct paths, circuitous paths, subtle and subterranean. Moreover, when the actor is aware of his aim—because the director has pointed it out to him or he has analyzed it himself—he cannot but distance himself from life to the extent to which, in life, people are uncertain ultimately as to what they want. They oscillate, wander, drift, in relation to their aim—or they change their aim. In short, they want this, then that, but... but that is life, and it is there that the poetry of life dwells, in these contradictions, these sudden deflections, these aspirations that spring up and disconcert. In short, while I once had a unilinear approach to life, I now interest myself more and more in the complexity of things.

– Interview with Elia Kazan. By Michel Delahaye 1966. From Cahiers du Cinema in English. March 1967.

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Clint Eastwood: ‘Sometimes I don’t change a good script at all.’

Unforgiven (Directed by Clint Eastwood)
In the following excerpt from an interview with Clint Eastwood, the director and legendary actor discusses his approach to the screenplay and what draws him to projects. 

Sometimes I don’t change a good script at all. I bought the Unforgiven script in 1980 and put it in a drawer and said I’ll do this some day—it’s good material and I’ll rewrite it. And I took it from the drawer ten years later and called up the writer and said I had a couple of ideas and wanted to rewrite some of it, and he was fine with that. I told him I might call him because I wanted him to approve my changes. So I went to work and the more I tooled with it, the more I realized I was killing it with improvements. So I went back to him and said that I had been working on these ideas and I really felt I was wrecking it, so I was just going to go with it the way it was. So I did. Of course, you make improvements along the way, but generally when you start intellectualizing it, you can take the spirit out of it.

On other occasions, you get a script where the idea is terrific, but the execution isn’t quite right or doesn’t suit the actors that you’re hiring, so you adapt it and add things to it. I’ve made changes to everything I’ve done, but with some of them it’s a minor knick-knack here and there, and on others you rework it entirely from the start.

During shooting, I have certain objectives, but I am never locked into things. In other words, when I am going on a location, I don’t say it has to be this way because this is the way we looked at it two months ago so this is the way it has to be.

Unforgiven (Directed by Clint Eastwood)
I’m always flexible, I always improvise. If we looked at the location in the fall and the sun in the summer makes it a different place, I change it. If an actor is left-handed instead of right-handed, I ask them to come in whichever direction is more natural to them. I am using simplistic analysis here, but there is no rule that has to be stuck to rigidly.

Likewise, I am flexible with the script during production. Sometimes I get an idea in one scene that will stimulate something else. Or I’d like to see the actors do that, or maybe this character would do that.

I always like to feel I am doing something different on every picture. If I’m not, if I feel like I am doing something reminiscent of a lot of things I’ve done before, it would cause me anxiety that I was repeating myself. That’s why after Unforgiven, I thought that was a perfect time for me to stop doing the western. Not for anybody else, but I would hate to be doing the same genre continually. That’s why I left Italy, because after doing three movies with Sergio Leone I felt I had done as much as I could with that character and I thought it was time for me to go home and get other ideas.

Bird (Directed by Clint Eastwood)
When I did Bird, it was a surprise to some people, first because I wasn’t in it and second because most of the films I’d been doing were cop movies or westerns or adventure films, so to be doing one about Charlie Parker, who was a great influence on American music, was a great thrill for me. But whether it’s a drama or an action film, the story content is everything to me. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes not, and that is in the eye of the beholder. You definitely have to step up to the bat and try to hit the ball out of the park. If you don’t, you should at least try to be innovative, and hopefully the audience will respond to that.

I always think about the audience. When you are thinking about telling the story, you are thinking about how you want the story to be as interesting as it possibly can be for the audience—otherwise it will never take on the life it’s supposed to have out there with the audience.

It’s hard to be a judge of that. You can’t start thinking about it too much because a lot of wonderful movies haven’t done any business and a lot of not-so-wonderful movies have done tremendous business. All you can do is use yourself as the audience, ask yourself if you were going to the theatre how would you like to see this. What about this actor in that part? In every element of the film, there’s always that thing an audience is going to see and judge, like or dislike. Of course, once you have committed yourself to doing it on a film, that’s it. If the audience likes it, that’s great; if it doesn’t, go back to the drawingboard for the next feature.

Million Dollar Baby (Directed by Clint Eastwood)
I can work quite fast. If the next project is there and it’s good and it’s something that’s been brewing for a while, I can move onto it. If it’s not there, then I won’t. For example, when I was doing post-production and editing on Mystic River, I read Million Dollar Baby. I had read the book it came from some years earlier and liked the script and I thought “Well, I’ll do this.” And they asked when I wanted to do it and I said “well, right away.” We ended up getting Morgan Freeman and Hilary Swank, and we just went ahead and started doing it. One went right behind the other, but it doesn’t always happen like that. Sometimes you have to wait for a while for a very good script to come and I don’t make films just to be working. I might have done that when I was younger, but now it has to be something that I have a certain feeling for.

Excerpt from FilmCraft: Directing by Mike Goodridge on Indiewire

Friday, 14 December 2018

James Cameron: The Hero’s Journey

The Terminator (Directed by James Cameron)
Action is character; what a person does, not what he says, is what he is. Joseph Campbell declares, ‘A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself,’ like Oedipus and Hamlet. And ‘if a machine can learn the value of a human life,’ Sarah Connor (in ‘The Terminator 2’) states in the last line of the movie, ‘maybe we can, too.’ 

That line reverberated in my mind for days after I heard it. It’s a thoughtful, provocative way to end the film. If you think about it, it is the Terminator ‘character’ who embodies the classic values of Aristotelian tragedy and undertakes the hero’s journey. Was this intentional? I asked myself. Can this robot, this cyborg, played by an Austrian actor, be the prototype of the new American hero? 
                                                                                                                       – Syd Field

The well-known screenwriting teacher Syd Field interviewed writer-director James Cameron in 1992 shortly after the release of Terminator 2: Judgement Day the sequel to 1984’s The Terminator. The idea of being emotionally moved by the sacrifice of a machine or cyborg left a deep impression on Field. Approaching his response from a willingness to suspend his disbelief and ‘accept this robot as a real, living character’ whose ‘action transforms the future’ Field came to see the Terminator character (as played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) as an embodiment of the classic hero as described by Aristotle in his discussion of tragedy.

Impressed by Cameron’s innovative skills as a filmmaker and his mastery of suspense, Syd Field sought out Cameron for a book he was preparing on the art of the American screenplay. He praised Cameron, in particular, for his ability to create spectacular action sequences along with believable characters. The subsequent interview with James Cameron was reprinted in James Cameron: Interviews (edited by Brent Dunham) from which the following is an extract:

Jim Cameron grew up in Kapuskasing, a little town just outside Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada. When he was fifteen, he saw Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. ‘As soon as I saw that,’ he recalls, ‘I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker. It hit me on a lot of different levels. I just couldn’t figure out how he did all that stuff, and I just had to learn.’

‘So I borrowed my dad’s Super-8 camera and would try to shoot things with different frame rates just to see how it looked.’ This, of course, is much different from picking up a Super-8 in a high school in a large city like L.A. or New York. ‘If you pick up a Super-8 camera there, it’s because you’re going to film school,’ he said. ‘For me, it was completely innocent. I had a fascination with it, but I couldn’t see myself as a future film director. In fact, there was a definite feeling on my part that those people were somehow born into it, almost like a caste system. Little kids from a small town in Canada didn’t get to direct movies.’

When he was in his teens his family moved to Orange County in Southern California, and ‘from a pragmatic standpoint, I could have been in Montana. There is no film industry in Orange County, and since I didn’t have a driver’s license, it made Hollywood as far away as another state.

‘I liked science,’ he continued, ‘and thought I might want to be a marine biologist, or physicist. But I also liked to write, so I was pulled in a lot of different directions. I liked the idea of an ocean even though I’d never seen or been in one. But I had been certified as a scuba diver when I was sixteen in a swimming pool in Buffalo, and I dived in the local rivers and lakes.

‘I loved the idea of being in another world, and anything that could transport me to another world is what I was interested in. To me, scuba diving was a quick ticket to another land.’

He continued talking about his fascination with other worlds, and as he was speaking I could see the evolution of his films: The two TerminatorsAliensThe Abyss, all deal with other worlds.

‘I enrolled in junior college and studied physics,’ he continued, ‘along with all the math, calculus, chemistry, physics, astronomy, which I loved. And while I made good grades, I knew that’s not what I wanted to do with my life, so I switched to being an English major and studied literature for a while. Even so, I couldn’t make up my mind what I wanted to do, so I simply dropped out. I worked in a machine shop for a while, then as a truck driver, a school bus driver, and painted pictures and wrote stories at night.’

Gradually he began to see that the medium of film could accommodate his interests in both science and art, and with the help of a little book called Screenplay he ‘figured out how to write a screenplay, just like all the big guys, so a friend and I sat down and wrote a little ten-minute script. We raised the money to make it and shot it in 35mm; it was all effects and models and matte shots, all this wild kind of stuff.’

‘It was a bit like a doctor doing his first appendectomy after having only read about it. We spent the first half day of the shoot just trying to figure out how to get the camera running. We rented all this equipment – the lenses, the camera, the film stocks, everything – then took all the gear back to this little studio we had rented in Orange County.

‘Now, I knew in theory how the threading path worked, but we couldn’t get the camera to run to save our lives. There were three of us, and one of the guys was an engineer, so we simply took the camera apart, figured out how it worked, traced the circuitry, and then realized there was something in the camera that shut the camera off in case the film buckled. Later, when we returned the equipment, we were talking to the rental guys and they said something about ‘a buckle trip,’ and I said, yeah, yeah, I know about that, not telling them that we had disassembled their camera and spread it out on the table and figured it all out. It was like the Japanese doing reverse engineering.’

I asked him about his background in special effects and he told me he ‘was completely self-taught in special effects. I’d go down to the USC library and pull any theses that graduate students had written about optical printing, or front screen projection, or dye transfers, anything that related to film technology. That way I could sit down and read it, and if they’d let me photocopy it, I would. If not, I’d make notes. I literally put myself into a graduate course on film technology – for free. I didn’t have to enroll in school, it was all there in the library. I’d set it up to go in like I was on a tactical mission, find out what I needed to know, take it all back. I just had files and files stacked on my desk of how all this stuff was done.’

It is this kind of analytical approach to film projects that separates Jim Cameron from other filmmakers. ‘I’ve always felt that people seek out the information and knowledge they need,’ he said. ‘They seek it out and find it. It’s like a divining rod to water; nobody will give you the pathway. It’s something you have to find yourself.’

It’s so true. In seminar after seminar, workshop after workshop, people all over the world tell me that success in Hollywood is based on ‘who you know,’ not what you do. I tell them that’s not true at all.

‘People ask me how do you get to be a film director,’ Cameron continued, ‘and I tell them that no two people will ever do it the same way, and there is nothing I can say that will help you. Whatever your talents are, whatever your strengths and weaknesses, you have to find the path that’s going to work for you. The film industry is about saying ‘no’ to people, and inherently you cannot take ‘no’ for an answer.

‘If you have to ask somebody how to be a film director, you’ll probably never do it. I say, probably. If that pisses you off, and then you go out and say, ‘I’m going to show that Jim Cameron; I am going to be a director,’ that gives you the kind of true grit you need to have in order to go through with it. And if you do become a film director, then you should send me a bottle of champagne and thank me.’

There is no ‘one’ way to find your true path in Hollywood. Whether you’re a screenwriter, director, actor, producer, whatever, each person has to find his or her way. Success in Hollywood is not measured on talent alone. Persistence and determination are the keys to success; then comes talent.

Cameron got a job working for Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, building miniatures. He was the art director and special effects cameraman on Battle Beyond the Stars, and was production designer and second-unit director on Galaxy of Terror (1981).

Corman’s ‘frantic, frenzied,’ high-energy school of filmmaking was ‘like being air-dropped into a battle zone,’ Cameron recalls. ‘It was the best, fastest, strongest injection into filmmaking I could have gotten.’

He became special effects supervisor on John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981), then directed Piranha II: The Spawning, filmed in 1981, though not released until 1983.

After that he wrote and directed The Terminator. When I asked how it came into being, Cameron paused for a moment, looked at the pinball machine against the far wall, and smiled slightly. ‘If you want to know the truth, the evolution of The Terminator is somewhat dishonest. I had just directed my first movie, Piranha II, but the truth is that I’d actually gotten fired from the shoot after a couple of weeks. Officially my friends knew I was a film director, but that really wasn’t true within the industry because I couldn’t get my phone calls returned, even from the people at Warner Bros., and they were the ones who put up the negative costs of Piranha II. I couldn’t get a call back from anybody. I was absolutely dead in the water. I knew that if I was ever going to direct a movie again, I was going to have to create something for myself. So writing a screenplay became a means to an end, a way of visualizing what the movie would be.

‘I had to contour whatever I wanted to do into how I could sell myself,’ he continued. ‘I have a strong background in special effects. So my natural inclination would be to go toward science fiction. But realistically, I knew the most money I could probably raise to make a picture would be $3 million or $4 million. So I knew it would have to be contemporary, had to have a contemporary location, and I would have to shoot it non-union. So I started putting things together. I’ve got effects, I want it to be science fiction, but I want it to be a contemporary story. So how do I inject the fantastic element into a contemporary story? I didn’t want to ‘make a fantasy, like a magic mirror communicating with another dimension. I wanted it to be gritty realistic, kind of hardware-based, true science fiction, as opposed to fantasy science fiction.

‘I’d always liked robots, so essentially I came up with the idea of time travel and catching glimpses of the future. From a budget standpoint that would be controllable. But if I thrust myself entirely into that world, then I was suddenly talking about a $15 million, $20 million, or $30 million picture. If I kept it limited in terms of what I saw through flashbacks or dream sequences or whatever, and I injected one element from that world into our own, I felt it was controllable.

‘Then I hit on the idea of the future being determined by something that’s happening now, someone who’s unaware of the results of their actions finds out they have to answer for those actions – in the future. So what’s the most extreme example of that I can think of? If the world has been devastated by nuclear war, if global events are predicated on one person, who is the least likely person you can imagine? A nineteen-year-old waitress who works at Bob’s Big Boy (a fast-food restaurant in Southern California).

‘That was the premise, and it started to unfold from that. The easiest way to undo what she had done would just be to kill her, just erase her existence, which is not the most subtle approach to the story. It’s true that the future could come back and tell her what was going to happen, but being they were machines, they were thinking in a very binary mode.

‘So I started creating some juxtapositions that seemed interesting to me. This incredible nightmare would be glimpsed through little windows of contemporary reality.

‘The story evolved from that.’

What about The Terminator? I asked.

He paused a moment, reflecting. ‘I first started thinking about the film in two stages,’ he continued. ‘In the first stage the future sends back a mechanical guy, essentially what The Terminator became, and the good guys send back their warrior. In the end, the mechanical guy is destroyed; but up in the future, they say, well; wait a minute, that didn’t work, what do we have left? And the answer is something terrible, something even they’re afraid of. Something they’ve created that they keep locked up, hidden away in a box, something they’re terrified to unleash because even they don’t know what the consequences will be – they being the machines, or computers, whoever’s in charge.

‘And that thing in the box becomes a total wild card; it could go anywhere, do anything, a polymorphic metal robot that is nothing more than a kind of blob. I saw it as this mercury blob that could form into anything. Its powers were almost unlimited, and they couldn’t control it.

‘That scared me. Just sitting there writing the story scared me.

‘That’s what The Terminator was going to be about. But already I could see that it was starting to slop over the boundaries I had set for myself. And I thought, no, I’ll get killed. If I try this now it’ll be too ambitious; I’ll get creamed. I’ve got to scale back, got to go for something tighter, simpler. So I took out the liquid metal robot.

‘Besides, there was no way I could accomplish something like that. In all my effects experience, nobody had really come up with a way of doing it. Maybe in a future film context you could advance that technology and get it looking better, but at that time, in 1983, the answer was a definite no. So I decided against it.’

That was the first major creative choice Cameron had to make before he could move forward with his idea. The next key decision he had to confront was that ‘I didn’t want the robot to look like a man in a suit. If this robot was something that was supposed to fit inside a human form, we could not accomplish that visual by putting it outside a human form, then trying to imagine that it was also inside. It just wouldn’t work. Nobody had ever created a robot that wasn’t a suit. Star Wars [George Lucas] had been done a few years earlier, and since then there had been a whole history of film robots that were basically guy-in-suit robots. So for me, the special effects challenge was getting something believable that could have existed inside a human form. That was the real challenge.’

The Terminator was filmed and released and became ‘a sleeper hit.’ It literally made Arnold Schwarzenegger a superstar and paved the way for the sequel, which took seven years to come to the screen.

It was a hero’s journey.

– Syd Field: The Hero’s Journey. Originally published in Four Screenplays (New York: Dell Publishing, 1994), 79–89.


Friday, 7 December 2018

Fear and Horror: Interview with Roger Corman

The Fall of the House of Usher (Directed by Roger Corman)
In 2009, the legendary film producer and director Roger Corman received an honorary Oscar for his ‘rich engendering of films and filmmakers’. The Oscar citation summed up his career as follows:

‘Through ingenuity, boundless energy and a deep love of movies, Roger Corman has made more of them than just about anyone. His legendary ability to stretch a dollar allowed him to swiftly conceive and create period films and sci-fi epics on budgets that wouldn’t cover the food costs on a modern studio shoot. When he had more to work with, however, Corman made the most of it: The string of Edgar Allan Poe-inspired horror films he produced at American International Pictures (AIP) in the early 1960s featuring Vincent Price have been hailed as artistic gems.

‘A true collaborator by nature with a keen eye for talent, Corman mentored many of the film industry’s best-known talents. Among the graduates of what James Cameron (Battle beyond the Stars) called The Roger Corman Film School are Martin Scorsese (Boxcar Bertha), Francis Ford Coppola (Dementia 13), Ron Howard (Grand Theft Auto), Jack Nicholson (Little Shop of Horrors among others), Robert De Niro (Bloody Mama) and Jonathan Demme (Fighting Mad).

‘Born in Detroit with no ties to the film industry, Corman had to make his own way in Hollywood. Beginning as a messenger at 20th Century-Fox, he became a story analyst and later a screenwriter. He received a story credit for Highway Dragnet (1954), which he also co-produced, and got his first producer credit on The Fast and the Furious (1955). Over the next five decades, virtually every type of genre film arrived in theaters and drive-ins with the name Roger Corman attached as producer—and often director as well. His colorful titles, often set before a script was written, promised much to youthful audiences seeking chills, thrills and spills, and the films themselves delivered without pretention.

‘After many commercial successes, Corman was able to expand his operations as an independent distributor and his New World Pictures released significant films by Ingmar Bergman, François Truffaut, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa and others. Corman continued producing, however, and among the cult classics fondly remembered from this period are Death Race 2000 (1975), Piranha (1978) and Rock ’n’ Roll High School (1979). Filmmakers who received early opportunities on New World productions include, director Joe Dante (Piranha), composer James Horner (The Lady in Red), film editor Mark Goldblatt (Humanoids from the Deep), producers Jon Davison (Hollywood Boulevard) and Gale Anne Hurd (Smokey Bites the Dust), and writer John Sayles (The Lady in Red).

‘The Academy’s Board of Governors voted Corman the Honorary Oscar for his unparalleled ability to nurture aspiring filmmakers by providing an environment that no film school could match’. (Source: www.oscars.org)

The Fall of the House of Usher (Directed by Roger Corman)
In 1973, Roger Corman gave a rare interview to Patrick Schupp of Séquences Magazine who seized the opportunity of Corman’s visit to Montreal to preside over the Canadian Film Awards to ask a few questions of one of the masters of fantasy cinema.

PS: Mr. Corman, can you tell me how you started your series on Edgar Poe?

RC: I was working at the time for a studio that had us make groups of two films with a small budget – about $100,000 or $200,000 – in black and white. We sold them as a group.

PS: ‘Attack of the Crab Monsters’ and ‘Not of This Earth’?

RC: Exactly. But I was more inclined toward science fiction, and I didn’t want to mix genres. All the films, however, had a common theme: horror. And then, one day, I was fed up with working like that, with a small budget and in black and white. I had been asked for two other films to be made in ten days, as usual. So I suggested that I make one instead, in color, and with fifteen days of filming, which was a lot more ambitious. I suggested a story by Poe that I like a lot, The Fall of the House of Usher. My studio, however, American International, a small company that had never done more than fifteen days of filming or put up a $200,000 budget, got scared. Finally, after several discussions, my bosses agreed and I started filming.

The Fall of the House of Usher (Directed by Roger Corman)
PS: ‘Usher’s immediate success encouraged you to keep going, and probably the studio to keep paying. Poe was a goldmine, I believe. Based on his works, you directed ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’, ‘Premature Burial’, ‘Tales of Terror’, ‘The Raven’, ‘The Terror’, ‘The Haunted Palace’ (which borrowed as much from Lovecraft as from Poe, if memory serves!), ‘Masque of the Red Death’, and ‘Tomb of Ligeia’. What connection have you drawn between films and books? I imagine that, in order to adequately translate the atmosphere created by Poe’s language in cinematographic terms, you must have run into some difficulties?

RC: Indeed, that’s an excellent question. We ran into some difficulties. First, there’s the brevity of Poe’s stories, which rarely go beyond a few pages. That meant that we had to explore Poe’s psychology and recreate the atmosphere in which he worked as well as his themes. Then we went back to the story in order to check and to clarify. Do you want an example? In The Pit and the Pendulum, Poe describes only the torture chamber itself. So in a sense we invented a prologue, a first and a second act. The characters end up in the chamber, that is, in the third act. What counts is in the chamber and that’s where Poe’s story begins. That, in fact, is one of our techniques: using Poe’s story as the conclusion to a story whose premise we came up with.

The Pit and the Pendulum (Directed by Roger Corman)
The second point is that, in my view, Poe worked quite a bit in terms of the unconscious, in a middle world that Freud tried to explore in Austria in the nineteenth century. Poe in America, Dostoyevsky in Russia, Maupassant in France, even other artists, in literature, music, and painting, have followed the same path – the subjective exploration of the unconscious. You see, I firmly believe that the artistic and scientific fields are tightly interwoven, that numerous, apparently contradictory or opposing facets are in fact joined together, but in a context that is not always self-evident. And yet, since Poe’s works are situated directly in terms of the unconscious, I’ve tried to recreate a completely imaginary world by using technical studio equipment. At that time, however, I tended to work in a more realistic manner, in the outdoors, etc.... I have no trouble saying that Poe brought me back to more intellectualized studio work. There, I had perfect control over the film’s atmosphere with lighting, scenery, accessories, photos, etc.... And when we had to leave the studio for certain reasons...

The Tomb of Ligeia (Directed by Roger Corman)
PS: In the case of ‘Tomb of Ligeia’, I believe?

RC: Yes! Tomb of Ligeia was my last film about Poe, and in it I proved my theory! In fact, at the beginning, I wanted to maintain that imaginary world, except for some ocean shots. On that note, I have to talk to you about the ocean. There is a deep fascination in man with the sea, just like when you look at fire. There’s a sort of hypnotism. So once I shot the ocean, and another time there was a fire in the Hollywood hills. And I reworked my schedule in order to go all the way to the burned area, to film and in that way to preserve a few scenes of a landscape with a supernatural atmosphere.

PS: So those are your outdoor shots. Burned land. Is that what you used in the opening sequences of ‘Haunted Palace’?

RC: No, Usher. But for Haunted Palace, I remade a similar set, inspired by that fire. I admit that that was a few years ago and my memory may cause me to overlook some details. I know that, for Usher, I went to the burned area, and in Haunted Palace, I used the shots of the ground where I remade a similar set. But that had had enough of an impact on me to make me want to reuse that impression of otherworldliness, of absolute desolation that only fire can offer.

The Tomb of Ligeia (Directed by Roger Corman)
PS: That, in effect, is the impression I had gotten. But the resulting atmosphere was remarkably accurate in comparison with Lovecraft’s text, I mean in ‘Haunted Palace’. I am one of his great admirers, and I was wondering how the film would come out when I knew that it was in production with you.

RC: Me, too. I love Lovecraft, but I find Poe more interesting.

PS: Indeed, if only because of his themes...

RC: Lovecraft, however, is probably one of the best occult writers of the twentieth century. I worked only once on a script based on Lovecraft, in Haunted Palace. But my artistic director for the Poe films, Daniel Haller, directed The Dunwich Horror, which I financed.

PS: I really liked that film. Really well done. Especially the wave effect at the end.

RC: You see, there again we were using the idea of the sea!

PS: It was very effective, and magnificently offset the real by hinting at the invisibility of those unspeakable beings.

RC: In fact, we found ourselves in a world that was identical to Poe’s, but contemporary.

The Raven (Directed by Roger Corman)
PS: I wonder if Lovecraft is as popular with film directors as Edgar Poe! He’s somewhat of an international craze. By the way, have you seen Alexandre Astruc’s version of ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’? It was directed by the ORTF [Office de Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française] in 1968, I believe. 

RC: No, but I heard a lot about it.

PS: I think that I preferred yours, probably because of those ‘acts’ that precede Poe’s story that you spoke to us about. Astruc has a totally different vision – more withdrawn, and more clinical.

RC: !!!

PS: I would like you to talk to us now about Vincent Price, who has appeared in almost all of your films, and whom you cast in spectacular fashion into a genre in which he will henceforth reign as an undisputed master. The link that exists between an actor and a director, in general, reached an exceptional level between you two, I believe.

Masque of the Red Death (Directed by Roger Corman)
RC: Indeed, you could say that! I chose Vincent for House of Usher first and foremost because I found him smart and distinguished. It also seems to me that Poe described himself or used certain aspects of his own personality in his characters, at the very least those that had a leading role. He never wrote an autobiographical story as such, but often used the first person. And so he was describing himself, if only to a certain point, of course. That is why I wanted an actor who was as smart as he was cultured. And there aren’t too many, to tell the truth, who exhibit these two traits while at the same time looking the part. So it was totally natural for me to choose Vincent because, in addition to bringing a real dignity to his characters, not to mention a great talent for acting in keeping with a given time period, he conferred on them a raw and unaffected authenticity. Certain actors, as good as they may be, are used to acting ‘modern’, and they have trouble ‘passing off’ a character from the eighteenth or nineteenth century, which Vincent’s flawless theater training overcame.

Furthermore, over the course of several conversations, Vincent and I came to agree that horror comes from the unconscious. In fact, for years we have had this theory, developed little by little over the course of our working together, that horror and fear are two quite distinct things. Horror is in part the reconstruction of childhood fantasies, and in part the anxiety from the world that surrounds us. You always fear someone bigger and stronger than you, who could hurt you, even if it’s in your unconscious. Civilization advances, of course, and that fear is currently transforming into a fear/horror of a superior culture, one that is around us and watching over us, or that comes from a distant past that you can sense and that ordinary people don’t suspect... And each time Vincent admirably knew how to express that ancestral fear that spurs horror...

The Tomb of Ligeia (Directed by Roger Corman)
PS: Let’s turn now to one of your films, ‘Tomb of Ligeia’. The characters of Rowena and Ligeia are played by the same actress, Elizabeth Shepherd. Why?

RC: Well, I think that, in Poe’s mind, these are just two sides of the same personality: one good, one bad. And so the same actress could easily –  and logically – play both roles.

PS: An exciting job for Ms. Shepherd, especially since Rowena’s makeup, starting out very pale, turned white as the film went on and indicated the personality shift and the increasingly profound taking of possession. Your directing and your relationship with Elizabeth Shepherd must have been very interesting in terms of the study and execution of this personality change.

So now we come to ‘Wild Angels’, from 1966, which marks a total turning point in your work.

RC: A necessary decision! While making the Poe films, I didn’t think I was making a series! I made House of Usher. It worked out. I was asked to make others. Fine. And one of the reasons I chose Ligeia is because it gave me the chance to get out of the studio (we had filmed in an old abbey, near Norfolk, in England, which gave me the ‘gothic’ atmosphere I wanted, as well as that sense of infinite space, which is impossible to recreate in the studio) and to drive home my own theories.

Also, after Ligeia, despite the studio’s requests, I refused to keep going because it seemed to me that I had nothing left to say, that I was repeating myself. So I went off on a totally different path with Wild Angels, which had no historical references, period costumes, or spider webs. It was a tough and serious story bearing on an awfully contemporary problem, as a response, I suppose.

The Wild Angels (Directed by Roger Corman)
PS: Indeed. For that matter, ‘The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre’, in 1968, and ‘The Trip’, in ’69, are in the same vein, as is ‘Von Richthofen and Brown’ in 1970. In ‘The Trip’, did you also want to address a problem that was as current and serious as it was sensitive? Or did you want to show the deleterious effects of the drug, LSD, as they were?

RC: No, not in the very least. I myself had taken LSD, as had Jack Nicholson and the screenwriter, and Peter Fonda as well. In fact, everyone who was involved in the production on every level did. You see, we believed in the potential of LSD and, when I made the film, I approved of drug use. But since I’m trying to be honest, I wanted to show the dramatic effects of a ‘bad’ trip, even though my own experience may have been positive and pleasant. I owed it to myself to show both sides – the first part, euphoric, the second, agonizing – for the sake of fairness. In the end, the film was rather tough and seemed to me to go a bit too far. And since I left for Europe for another film as soon as filming for The Trip had ended, I didn’t see the film before flying off. The studio made a few cuts, changed the ending and certain elements in the editing in order to give the impression of an anti-drug film. But that absolutely wasn’t my idea at the start.

PS: I see. Editing determines a film’s impact in the end, and I could give you certain probative examples of tampering.

RC: I won’t make you! It happened again with one of my last films, Gas-s-s-s, not so long ago.

Masque of the Red Death (Directed by Roger Corman)
PS: I’ve seen almost all the films you’ve directed, even the minor works from your early period, over the last fifteen years, let’s say. Of all of them, I think that ‘Masque of the Red Death’, made in 1964, remains one of my favorites. I think that it also marks a turning point, or a significant stage in your understanding of the fantasy world. May I have your thoughts? 

RC: In Hollywood, I was given three weeks to film and a rather small budget. I made Masque in England (it was the first film I made outside the United States) in five weeks, and with a much more substantial budget. But since English crews are a bit slower, let’s say that it took four weeks to film with neither wasted time nor regrets.

The script, on the other hand, was heavily reworked. The first version was by Charles Beaumont. But I got the sense that, for the first time, he hadn’t understood what I wanted with respect to Poe’s works. So I reached out to Bob Campbell, who had never worked with Poe, and the two of us redid the whole script in two weeks. Because I had more money, I was able to build more complex sets, and because I had redone the script, I knew exactly where I was going with it, and I deliberately settled on that baroque vision, that look that is decadent in its opulence. So my perspective changed based on the circumstances, and that’s what gave the film a different feel...

– Extract from ‘Patrick Schupp: Meeting with Roger Corman’. In Séquences 78 (October 1974): 20–24. Translated by Gregory Laufer.

Friday, 30 November 2018

Joel and Ethan Coen: In Regard to Barton Fink

Barton Fink (Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)

Writers come and go. We always need Indians
– Producer Ben Geisler in Barton Fink
The Coen brothers’ Barton Fink (1991) is the story of a New York writer who aspires to create a new, living theater about the ‘common man’ and who sees it as his job ‘to make a difference.’ The year is 1941, and on the back of the success of his first play, Fink (John Turturro) is lured into a Faustian bargain to go to Hollywood and write for the movies. On arriving in Los Angeles, he forms a friendship with his next-door neighbor and common man Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), and another writer, W. P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), whom Fink considers to be the ‘finest novelist’ of their generation. Fink, however, finds himself unable to make progress on the wrestling picture he’s supposed to be writing. Events turn from bad to bizarre: Mayhew’s secretary and lover, Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis), is revealed to have authored the great writer’s books; in attempting to help Fink, Audrey seduces him only to be later discovered dead in his hotel room; Charlie helps Barton dispose of Audrey’s body; amiable common man Charlie turns out to be a homicidal maniac who possibly murdered Audrey; and Charlie entrusts Barton with a box that may well contain Audrey’s head. In the end, Fink overcomes his writer’s block and is able to finish his wrestling picture, which turns out to echo his New York play. As Fink’s descent into hell is complete, the hotel where he is staying catches fire, and Charlie shoots the detectives who are investigating Audrey’s murder. Barton escapes the blaze as Charlie disappears back into his burning room. In the closing scenes, Barton enters another form of purgatory as the head of the studio refuses to release him from his contract thus retaining the rights to Barton’s writing. Finally, Barton finds himself on a sunny beach and becomes a part of the painting that throughout the movie has hung on the wall of his hotel room. 

Described by critic Richard Schickel as ‘gnomic, claustrophobic, hallucinatory, just plain weird’, Barton Fink was the first film to accomplish the hat-trick at the Cannes festival (best picture, best director and best actor). The following interview with the Coen Brothers took place in Cannes during May 1991:

‘Barton Fink’ takes as its theme the writer’s block suffered by a screenwriter. How did you come to write this kind of film?

JOEL COEN: It did not begin to take shape until we were halfway through the writing of Miller’s Crossing. It’s not really the case that we were suffering from writer’s block, but our working speed had slowed, and we were eager to get a certain distance from Miller’s Crossing. In order to escape from the problems that we were experiencing with that project, we began to think about a project with a different theme. That was Barton Fink, which had two origins. In the first place, we were thinking about putting John Turturro to work – we had known him well for a long time – and so we wanted to invent a character he could play And then there was the idea of a huge abandoned hotel. This idea came even before our decision to set the story in Hollywood.

ETHAN COEN: We wrote the screenplay very quickly, in three weeks, before returning to the script of Miller’s Crossing in order to finish it. This is one of the reasons why these two films were released rather close to one another. When we had finished shooting Miller’s Crossing, we had a script all ready to film.

Why did you set the action in 1941, which was a key era for Hollywood writers? Fitzgerald and Nathanael West had just died, Preston Sturges and John Huston, who had been screenwriters, had just begun careers in directing.

JC: We didn’t know that. In retrospect, we were enthusiastic about the idea that the world outside the hotel was finding itself on the eve of the apocalypse since, for America, 1941 was the beginning of the Second World War. That seemed to us to suit the story. The other reason – which was never truly realized in the film – was that we were thinking of a hotel where the lodgers were old people, the insane, the physically handicapped, because all the others had left for the war. The further the script was developed, the more this theme got left behind, but it had led us, in the beginning, to settle on that period.

EC: Another reason was the main character: a serious dramatist, honest, politically engaged, and rather naive. It seemed natural that he comes from Group Theater and the decade of the thirties.

JC: The character had somewhat the same background, in terms of being a writer, as Clifford Odets; only the resemblance ends there. Both writers wrote the same kind of plays with proletarian heroes, but their personalities were quite different. Odets was much more of an extrovert; in fact he was quite sociable even in Hollywood, and this is not the case with Barton Fink! Odets the man was moreover quite different from Odets the writer. There was a great deal of passion and innocence in him.

Barton Fink (Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)
Have you read the journal Odets wrote during the year 1940?

EC: John Turturro was the one who really read it. But you have to take account of the difference between the character and the man.

JC: Turturro was also interested by the style of the Group Theater plays. At the opening of the film, the voice that you hear off camera is that of Turturro, and, at the end, when he taps out a scene from his screenplay on the typewriter, it is meant to be in the Odets style.

The character of W. P. Mayhew is, in turn, directly inspired by Faulkner.

EC: Yes, the southern writer, an alcoholic. Certainly we chose John Mahoney for this role because of his resemblance to Faulkner, but also because we are very eager to work with him. And yet, that was only somewhere to start, and the parallel between the two is pretty superficial. As far as the details of the character are concerned, Mayhew is very different from Faulkner, whose experiences in Hollywood were not the same at all.

JC: Certainly Faulkner showed the same disdain for Hollywood that Mayhew does, but his alcoholism did not incapacitate him, and he continued to be a productive writer.

Barton Fink (Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)
Did you get the inspiration for Jack Lipnick, the producer, from Louis B. Mayer?

JC: Michael Lerner looks a little like Mayer, but Lipnick is really an amalgamation of several figures. The incident with the uniform, for example, comes from the life of Jack Warner, who arranged that an army commission be given him and demanded that the studio costume department make him a uniform. Lipnick also has his vulgar side, rather like Harry Cohn.

EC: What’s ironic about it is that this colonel’s uniform, one of the most surrealist elements in the film, is at the same time one of the few that’s drawn from Hollywood history.

One of the most characteristic qualities of your films and of ‘Barton Fink’ in particular is the fact that their structures are completely unpredictable. Do you put together your screenplays with this in mind?

JC: In this case, we had the shape of the narrative in mind from the very beginning. The structure was freer than usual and we were aware that, toward the middle, the story would take a radical turn. We wanted the beginning of the film to have a certain rhythm and to involve the viewer in a kind of journey. When Fink wakes up and discovers the corpse beside him, we wanted this to be a surprise, and yet not clash with everything that comes before.

EC: We were aware that we would be walking a very thin line here. We needed to surprise the viewer without disconnecting him from the story. In the way we presented the hotel, we hint that Fink’s arrival in Hollywood was not completely ‘normal’. But it is certain that the film is less tied to the conventions of some film genre, as, for example, Miller’s Crossing is, belonging as it does completely to the tradition of the gangster film.

Barton Fink (Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)
At what stage did you start thinking of the picture of the woman on the beach that figures in the last sequence?

JC: That came to us pretty soon after we began to ask ourselves what there would be in Barton Fink’s room. Our intention was that the room would have very little decoration, that the walls would be bare and that the windows would offer no view of any particular interest. In fact, we wanted the only opening on the exterior world to be this picture. It seemed important to us to create a feeling of isolation. Our strategy was to establish from the very beginning that the main character was experiencing a sense of dislocation.

EC: The picture of the beach was to give a vision of the feeling of consolation. I do not know exactly why we became fixed on this detail, but it was no doubt a punctuation mark that, in effect, did further the sense of oppression in the room. With the sequence where Fink crushes the mosquito, the film moves from social comedy into the realm of the fantastic.

JC: Some people have suggested that the whole second part of the film is nothing but a nightmare. But it was never our intention to, in any literal sense, depict some bad dream, and yet it is true that we were aiming for a logic of the irrational. We wanted the film’s atmosphere to reflect the psychological state of the protagonist.

EC: It is correct to say that we wanted the spectator to share the interior life of Barton Fink as well as his point of view. But there was no need to go too far. For example, it would have been incongruous for Barton Fink to wake up at the end of the film and for us to suggest thereby that he actually inhabited a reality greater than what is depicted in the film. In any case, it is always artificial to talk about ‘reality’ in regard to a fictional character. It was not our intention to give the impression that he was more ‘real’ than the story itself.

JC: There is another element that comes into play with this scene. No one knows what has killed Audrey Taylor. We did not want to exclude the possibility that it was Barton himself, even though he proclaims his innocence several times. It is one of the conventions of the classic crime film to lay out false trails as long as possible for the viewer. That said, our intention was to keep the ambiguity right to the end of the film. What is suggested, however, is that the crime was committed by Charlie, his next-door neighbor.

Barton Fink (Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)
From this point of view, the choice of John Goodman to play Charlie Meadows was inspired because he has usually been given more appealing roles and because the viewer sympathizes with him during the first scenes of the film.

EC: This role too was written for the comedian, and we were quite obviously aware of the warm and friendly image that he projects for the viewer and with which he feels at ease. We played on this expectation by reversing it. Even so, from the moment he appears, there is something menacing, disquieting about this character.

The fact that ‘Barton Fink’ uses working-class characters in his plays obliges him to be friendly to Meadows because if not he would show himself full of prejudice.

JC: That’s true enough in part, but Charlie also wins him over completely by his friendly greeting in the beginning.

EC: Charlie is, of course, equally aware of the role that Barton Fink intends for him to play, if in a somewhat perverse way.

While shooting this film, you weren’t sure if you would go to Cannes, and even less sure that Roman Polanski would be the head of the jury. It is ironic that it was up to him to pass judgment on a film where ‘The Tenant’ and ‘Cul-de-Sac’ meet ‘Repulsion’.

JC: Obviously, we have been influenced by his films, but at this time we were very hesitant to speak to him about it because we did not want to give the impression we were sucking up. The three films you mention are ones we’ve been quite taken by. Barton Fink does not belong to any genre, but it does belong to a series, certainly one that Roman Polanski originated.

Barton Fink (Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)
One thinks also of ‘The Shining’ and of the imaginative world of Kafka, of the black humor and Jewish culture of Central Europe.

JC: All this is true enough, except that The Shining belongs in a more global sense to the horror film genre. Several other critics have mentioned Kafka, and that surprises me since to tell the truth I have not read him since college when I devoured works like The Metamorphosis. Others
have mentioned The Castle and The Penal Colony, but I’ve never read them.

EC: After the insistence of journalists who wanted us to be inspired by The Castle, I find myself very interested in looking into it.

How did you divide up work on the screenplay?

EC: We handle this in a very informal and simple way We discuss each scene together in detail without ever dividing up the writing on any. I’m the one who then does the typing. As we have said, Barton Fink progressed very quickly as far as the writing was concerned, while Miller’s Crossing was slower and took more time, nearly nine months.

JC: Ordinarily, we spend four months on the first draft, and then show it to our friends, and afterward we devote two further months to the finishing touches.

Barton Fink (Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)
What is your explanation for the rapid writing of ‘Barton Fink’?

EC: Perhaps it was because of the feeling of relief that we got from it in the midst of the difficulties posed by Miller’s Crossing. In any case, it was very easy.

JC: It’s a strange thing but certain films appear almost entirely completed in your head. You know how they will be, visually speaking, and, without knowing exactly how they will end, you have some intuition about the kind of emotion that will be evident at the conclusion. Other scenarios, in contrast, are a little like journeys that develop in stages without your ever truly knowing where they are heading. With this film, we knew as a practical matter where Barton Fink would be at the end.

Moreover, right at the beginning we wrote Charlie’s final speech, the one where he explains himself and says that Barton Fink is only a tourist in that city. It makes things much easier when you know in advance where you’re taking your characters.

EC: We have to say we felt we knew these characters pretty well, maybe because we are very close to the two comedians, which made writing their roles very easy.

Now ‘Miller’s Crossing’ is a film where there are many characters and locations and where several plot lines intersect.

JC: It is true that Barton Fink has a much narrower scope. The narrative of Miller’s Crossing is so complicated because while writing it we had the tendency ourselves to lose our way in the story.

EC: Barton Fink is more the development of a concept than an intertwined story like Miller’s Crossing.

Barton Fink (Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)
How did the title come to mind?

JC: We knew we came up with it at the very beginning of our work on the screenplay, but we found we couldn’t remember the source. It seems it wound up being what it was by complete chance.

There is a great deal of humor in the film, from the moment when the wallpaper starts peeling off the wall until the pair of policemen arrive on the scene. In fact the combination of drama with comedy is perhaps more evident in ‘Barton Fink’ than in the films that preceded it.

JC: That’s fair enough. The film is really neither a comedy nor a drama. Miller’s Crossing is much more of a drama, and Raising Arizona is much more of a comedy.

EC: It seems that we are pretty much incapable of writing a film that, in one way or another, is not contaminated by comic elements.

JC: That’s funny because at the start I was imagining Miller’s Crossing, while Barton Fink seems to me to be more of a dark comedy.

EC: As opposed to what takes place in regard to Miller’s Crossing, here we tormented the main character in order to create some comic effects.

Jon Polito plays a role similar to the one he plays in ‘Miller’s Crossing’. In both films, he winds up humiliated.

EC: Except that in Barton Fink the character is mistreated for twenty years. In the end, he gets used to it.

Barton Fink (Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)
The first image of Hollywood that appears is unconventional for this kind of film: a rock on the beach.

EC: It’s funny that you should mention that because we actually filmed other shots that would have made for a more conventional transition, but we decided in the end not to use them. All we needed was a rock on the beach that anticipated the film’s end.

This is the second production on which you have worked with your art director, Dennis Gassner.

JC: We shot for at least three weeks in the hotel where half the action of the film takes place. We wanted an art deco stylization and a place that was falling in ruin after having seen better days. It was also necessary that the hotel be organically linked to the film. Our intention, moreover, was that the hotel function as an exteriorization of the character played by John Goodman. The sweat drips off his forehead like the paper peels off the walls. At the end, when Goodman says that he is a prisoner of his own mental state, that this is like some kind of hell, it was necessary for the hotel to have already suggested something infernal.

EC: We used a lot of greens and yellows to suggest an aura of putrefaction.

JC: Ethan always talked about the hotel as a ghost ship floating adrift, where you notice signs of the presence of other passengers, without ever laying eyes on any. The only indication of them is the shoes in the corridor. You can imagine it peopled by failed commercial travelers, with pathetic sex lives, who cry alone in their rooms.

Barton Fink (Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)
You take a look at the Hollywood of fifty years ago, but in a different way you find yourselves confronted by the same problems. Do artists always meet up with Philistines like Lipnick?

JC: We would have to say yes, probably. But in fact Barton Fink is quite far from our own experience. Our professional life in Hollywood has been especially easy, and this is no doubt extraordinary and unfair. It is in no way a comment about us. We financed Blood Simple, our first film, ourselves, and Circle Films in Washington produced the three next ones. Each time, we made them the offer of a screenplay that they liked and then they agreed on the budget. We have no rejected screenplays in our desk drawers. There are plenty of projects that we started but then didn’t finish writing for one reason or another, either because there were artistic problems we couldn’t resolve or because the cost of producing them would have been prohibitive.

Were any of these aborted projects particularly dear to you?

JC: No, because right away you get drawn into another film, and it becomes your sole preoccupation. We would have liked to produce one or two short subjects that we wrote, but it is very difficult to get them made in America because there’s no market.

Why did you use Roger Deakins on this project?

JC: Our usual director of photography, Barry Sonnenfeld, wasn’t available, and since we had seen Deakins’s work and liked it, we asked him to work with us. He seemed right for the film.

EC: We especially like the night scenes and interior sequences in Stormy Monday. We also screened Sid and Nancy and Pascali’s Island.

Did you make storyboards, as you had for your other films?

EC: Yes, we did detailed ones, but of course there were a lot of changes once we got on the set. However, we went there with a detailed plan for each shot. This was a film much easier to shoot than Miller’s Crossing, and the budget ran about a third less, just like the shooting schedule: eight weeks instead of twelve.

Miller’s Crossing (Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)
Did you shoot any sequences you didn’t use in the final cut?

JC: In the case of Miller’s Crossing, there were whole sequences we shot that did not find a place in the film. This was not the case with Barton Fink; we used just about everything. I do remember, however, that we did some shots about life in Hollywood studios, but didn’t decide to keep them; they were too conventional.

Compared to your preceding films, which feature bravura sequences like the night-time shoot-out in ‘Miller’s Crossing’, ‘Barton Fink’ has a much more restrained style.

JC: We weren’t conscious of that. Probably Miller’s Crossing had so many dialogue scenes that at a certain stage we intended to give the spectator some interesting visual effects. The genre also encourages large-scale action scenes. But in the case of Barton Fink this kind of thing did not seem appropriate to us. Stylistic tours-de-force would have ruptured the film’s equilibrium.

The writer victimized by Hollywood is a part of the legend of the cinema.

EC: Right, it’s almost a cliche. Furthermore, we gave the two writers in the film the dignity that victims are accorded, something they maybe didn’t deserve because Barton Fink is probably not a great artist and Mayhew is no longer able to write.

Do you feel close to any of your contemporaries in the American film industry?

JC: There’s no lack of films that we like, but we don’t see connections between them and our work. The American film industry is doing quite well these days; a number of directors are succeeding in using the screen to express their ideas. In effect, two kinds of films are being produced these days in the United States: the products churned out by the large production companies, which are most often repetitive although there are exceptions, and the films that certain independent directors manage to make.

Miller’s Crossing (Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)
Your films contrast sharply with the greater part of the Hollywood films of today. For example, you begin all your films in the middle of a scene without any kind of establishing shot, as in ‘Miller’s Crossing’.

JC: At the beginning of Miller’s Crossing, we had two setups: the first was of a drinking glass with ice cubes, then a closeup of Polito. We did not intend to show right away who was holding the glass. You see someone walk off with the glass, you hear the tinkling of the ice cubes, but the character is not visible in the shot. Then you see Polito, you listen to his monologue, and the ice cubes are always part of the scene, but they escape view. Then you see Albert Finney, but you still do not know who is holding the glass, and finally, you get to Gabriel Byrne in the background. All that was set up and laid out in the storyboards.

EC: We intended to create an aura of mystery around the character who was going to become the hero in the film.

JC: Polito is important in this scene because he’s the one who provides the background information as he begins to tell the story.

EC: We held back Gabriel’s entrance into the conversation. He is the last one to talk, five minutes after the beginning of the film.

How do you explain the relative commercial failure of ‘Miller’s Crossing’ despite the good reception it got from critics worldwide?

EC: It is always difficult to speculate about this kind of problem. Perhaps the story is too difficult to follow.

JC: After all the whole plot of The Big Sleep was very difficult to understand! It’s very difficult to analyze failure at the box office, but in any event we were certainly surprised by it.

– ‘Interview with Joel and Ethan Coen’. (From Positif, September 1991). By Michel Ciment and  Hubert Niogret. Translation by R. Barton Palmer.