Friday, 29 December 2017

Charlie Kaufman II: On Adaptation


Adaptation (Directed by Spike Jonze) 
Adaptation tells the story of a misunderstood and socially inept screenwriter called Charlie Kaufman struggling to adapt Susan Orlean’s dense book The Orchid Thief about John Laroche, a colorful character who was arrested in Florida for stealing rare orchids from a state-protected preserve. Facing severe writer’s block, Nicolas Cage (playing Charlie Kaufman) early on states his fateful goal of: ‘I just don’t want to ruin it by making it a ‘Hollywood’ thing. It’s like I don’t want to cram in sex, or guns, or car chases or characters overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end.’ While the film deliberately meanders through the first two acts, the appearance of screenwriting guru and seminar leader Robert McKee sends the third act into motion when he tells Kaufman, ‘You can have an uninvolving, tedious movie, but wow them at the end, and you’ve got a hit.’ The initial draft of Adaptation took this advice and the third act sent Kaufman and his brother, Donald, into the drug lair of Orlean and Laroche, who’ve kidnapped Charlie and plan to kill him in a Florida swamp. Donald bites the dust while trying to save Charlie, but just as the gun is turned on Charlie, an act-two throwaway joke about a mystic Swamp Ape manifests itself into the scene and saves Kaufman. The finished film ended up taking a different course, however...

The following extract is taken from an interview with Creative Screenwriting in which Charlie Kaufman discusses how he came to write the script of Adaptation and why the Swamp Ape never made it into the final cut of the film:

CS: When you began adapting The Orchid Thief were you given free rein to do what ever you wanted?

CK: They approached me with the book, and I liked it a lot. I was getting other kinds of offers, but this one just seemed more substantial to me. It seemed to be about something other than the usual stuff I get offered. So I took it. I kind of thought I would figure it out, and I guess this is how I figured it out. Or not. They certainly left me alone. I don’t think they imagined... I didn’t tell them what I had in mind because I wasn’t sure what I’d do when I took the job. And when I decided I wanted to take the material in this direction, I felt like I needed to write it before showing it to them. Because if I pitched it, I thought I’d be, you know, dismissed! I don’t think they expected this kind of script; they expected something a little more faithful.

CS: You essentially blew your assignment and handed in a script about yourself. Most writers would either be fired or sued for doing this – why weren’t you?


CK: I wasn’t fired when I turned it in for two reasons. First, my work was done. I guess they could’ve fired me and hired another writer to do it at that point, but I think the other reason is that they liked it. I didn’t know that they were going to like it, but I lucked out, and they liked it.

CS: What did your agent think?

CK: I don’t think my agent saw it until [Jonathan] Demme’s company saw it. I don’t remember the chronology exactly, but by the time my agent saw it, I think it was a good thing, not a bad thing. I didn’t tell anybody what I was doing, because by the time I came up with this idea to do it this way, I was pretty much out of ideas. I thought I’d better do it rather than pitch it because if I did, they would say no and I had no other ideas. I wanted to try it even though I thought it was going to be a disaster.


CS: Were you ever worried about the repercussions?

CK: Yeah, I thought I wasn’t going to work anymore. I thought it was gonna be like, ya know, like you said, they paid good money for this thing, they hired me, I took a very long time to write it, and this is what I finally gave them after they’d been waiting all this time. But at the same time, I’d been talking about the movie/script to people, and I got the sense that people thought it was a funny idea, so I had a little bit of confidence that it might not be so terrible.

CS: Do you have any sort of support group, close friends, etc., that reads your material before you go out with it?

CK: No. No one reads anything I write until I turn it in. I thought the mentions in the film of the Casablanca screenplay were a hilarious insider writer’s joke. Most in the industry know that Casablanca was rewritten continually on set, as opposed to being a screenplay that was simply written and then filmed. I’m actually just quoting verbatim Robert McKee. That’s all McKee always talks about, so I was doing a Robert McKee thing.

CS: Interesting. I assume you went to a McKee seminar?

CK: Yes, I didn’t go to it for the reason that Kaufman goes in the movie. I went for research on this film.

CS: Were there ever any plans to have the real McKee in Adaptation?

CK: We talked about it, but we weren’t putting anyone else real in there, so we thought it’d be weird.

CS: What’d he think about being a character in your film?

CK: Ultimately, he really liked the movie. He came to a screening recently and was very pleased.

CS: I was sad to see McKee’s one-page speech about how you can’t do a one-page speech in a movie go. Why was it cut?

CK: 
I think it was filmed but cut because the movie was so long... a lot of that stuff was filmed, and the assembly of the movie was so dense, so much stuff happened. Even as it is now it’s a little bit overwhelming. So, we’re trying to get the movie moving at that point, and that was obviously, intentionally a complete stop in everything, so I think that’s why it’s gone. I think we’re going to publish the script as we went into production with it, so that will be in there.


CS: Do you think the film remained true to the tone of the screenplay?

CK: Adaptation is an interesting thing because it’s an extremely modular structure. The order is completely open. It isn’t arbitrary. I mean it’s all intention al on my part, but at the same time when you’re cutting any movie, you’re moving stuff around because you have to, or because you’ve cut out scenes and you need to make things work again. Inevitably, you do move things, and with a more linear story there are certain constrictions; it leaves you options but not as many. There are infinite number of options to Adaptation. It’s sort of a godsend, but it’s also daunting because you never really know how to ultimately structure it. You say to yourself, ‘Oh, you could do this.’ Or, ‘Wait, we could do this. Move this here.’ And it goes on and on. So it’s been tricky. We’re probably about two-thirds of the way through at this point, and we still have to shoot. So we’ll see what kind of shape it takes...

CS: Do you ever take rewrite assignments?

CK: No. I’ve thought about taking rewrite work or production polish stuff, but I haven’t yet. I’ve been busy with my own stuff; it’s what I prefer to do. But I guess at some point maybe I will.

CS: Do you plan to direct?

CK: I’ve been writing something now. I’ve cleaned my plate a bit; I’ve been dealing with stuff that I had to do for a long time now. I finished a draft of another script which Michel [Gondry] is going to direct, and that was something that’s been haunting me for quite a while. So there’s a draft in, and there’s more work to do, but it frees me up to start a new spec. My intention is to direct it.


CS: Tell me about your new project, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s set to star Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey, right?


CK: Yes. What initially happened was Michel Gondry had a friend in France who had an idea – he’s kind of a conceptual artist – and the thought was, ‘What if you got a card in the mail one day that said you’d been erased from someone’s memory?’ So, Michel came to me with that idea, and we kind of worked it into a bit of story. And we pitched it –

CS: Don’t say ‘pitched’; that’s what Donald Kaufman would say.


CK: [Laughs] Yep, Kaufman’s dialogue in Adaptation. I hated when Donald would say that. Anyway, it was my one sort of pitching experience, and I went around to a bunch of different studios with Michel and ended up selling it. I started writing it probably in 1998, and because there was all this other stuff happening with Adaptation and Human Nature, it kind of took a while. It was also very complicated for me to write. The conceit is sort of tricky, because not only is it going backward, but the memory is being erased while the character is going through it, and there are a lot of technical problems there.

CS: I really liked the screenplay. I heard you cut out the sci-fi beginning and ending from your first draft in order to keep things more rooted in reality?

CK: 
Yeah, I like starting it this way because it doesn’t tell the audience anything about what they’re going to see. I like the idea of taking the audience in one direction and then jerking them in another direction and having them have to catch up to figure out what’s going on, and I think this does that.


CS: Okay, now for the question I’ve been waiting to ask. I loved the Swamp Ape from the first draft of Adaptation and was sad to see it go –

CK: Oh, no...

CS: I’m curious about the decision to leave that and a lot of the other surrealistic scenes from the first draft behind.

CK: It’s a discussion and an argument that Spike [Jonze] and I had for a long time. I think that was Spike’s decision or insistence. The difference in the last part of the movie that we shot and the last part of the movie as I originally wrote it is that it’s less broad. Spike felt it was important that there be no demarcation between the first part of the movie and the last part of the movie – that they blend together so that you could watch the whole thing and be emotionally engaged and then afterward think about it and go, ‘Oh, wait a minute, isn’t that what he said he wasn’t going to do?’ So, that’s the reasoning why it’s not there, and I think ultimately I agree with it, especially in the form that the movie has taken – even though I had an affection for the Swamp Ape too. But I think looking at the movie the way it is, it would have been very out of place.

CS: Were you worried about changing an ending that so many of your various executives and producers loved?

CK: Even Malkovich got changed. Malkovich was a lot sillier than it ended up being as a movie. The last third of Malkovich is completely changed from my original draft. It was very much more comedic, less angst-ridden...

– Extracted From: ‘Charlie Kaufman Interviewed By David F. Goldsmith & Jeff Goldsmith. Creative Screenwriting, Volume 9, #2 (March/April 2002) & Volume 9, #6 (November/December 2002)’.

 

Friday, 22 December 2017

Charlie Kaufman I : On Screenwriting

Being John Malkovich (Directed by Spike Jonze)
One of modern cinema’s most celebrated screenwriters, Charlie Kaufman’s work includes surreal fantasy Being John Malkovich, cerebral sci-fi Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and comedy dramas Human Nature and Adaptation. The following extract is taken from an interview with Creative Screenwriting in 2001 in which Kaufman discusses his work with David and Jeff Goldsmith (the second part of the interview, devoted to Kaufman’s script Adaptation, to follow next week).

CS: When you write, do you take into consideration commercial potential or how an audience might respond to the writing?


CK: I think it’s my responsibility to write about the things that interest me. I feel that I’d be doing a disservice to anybody and everybody to not do what I thought was good. Because other than that, you should be in advertising or something.

CS: Unfortunately, too many screenwriters approach the job like they were in advertising.

CK: I think that’s what you’re trained to do. I think that’s what the studios do to a certain extent. But I think you have to ask yourself, ‘Is this interesting to me?’ ‘Is this funny to me?’ ‘Is this something I’d want to see?’ That’s something I always ask myself: ‘Is this a movie that I would go to see?’ And if the answer is yes, then it’s something to pursue. Otherwise you’re being cynical.

CS: It seems to me that your stories resonate with audiences because they’re as honest as they are imaginative.


CK: I’m fortunate to be able to do that. I guess at some point I may not be able to write that way, and I’ll have to make a living. Then I’ll have to write what other people want me to write. But right now I’m going to grab the bull by the horns and do what I want.

CS: How do you go about deciding on subject matter?

CK: I don’t conceive of things from a very conscious place. I just write about things that interest me – that I find moving – and then I trust it. I don’t think it serves me to do it any other way because that’s where I get the most passion and intimacy in my work. So I don’t know the answer; I like an idea, and then I tend to have three or four ideas that I might combine – which I did in Human Nature. Then I try to force myself to figure out how these things might fit together. I did the same thing in [Being John] Malkovich, and with Adaptation. It’s taking disparate ideas and then working out how and why they should fit together. How the story should be told.


CS: You began in TV and years ago wrote some TV pilots that remain produced. One was called Ramblin’ Pants, the other Depressed Roomies. Are there any plans to get these off the ground?


CK: I actually wrote four or five and nothing happened with them. They already made the rounds years ago.

CS: But you’re a different person now, those could be greenlit overnight.

CK: I am, but I think that I’d rather come up with something new than just go back to those.

CS: There are some fairly successful screenwriters who view their work as a grind. I get the feeling you’re someone who really loves writing.


CK: It’s important to me to do the best I can; I don’t think I’d want to approach it in any kind of weary way. I’d be ashamed to do that. Human Nature was a spec script. I wasn’t even working as a screenwriter professionally when I wrote it; I was working as a television writer. The same with  Malkovich. They were written during my television years; I just did them during hiatus.

CS: That was a while ago. How did Human Nature come to be made now?


CK: Both of those scripts had been kicking around for several years. I think I wrote them in the mid-nineties. Malkovich got made and it got positive attention; then people were interested in this one. Michel Gondry wanted to direct it. There had been others interested in directing it – at one point I was going to direct it – but Michel wanted to do it. I figured that would be good, so I came on as a producer, along with Good Machine and Spike Jonze.

CS: What was your involvement as a producer?

CK: I was involved throughout the production in every stage: pre-production, production, casting, and post. I was very involved in the editing along with Michel and Russell Icke, the editor; and the other producers, Anthony Bregman, Ted Hope, and Spike.


CS: Was that a new situation for you?


CK: This is my second film as producer. The first one was Malkovich, which I was involved in unofficially because I had a relationship with Spike, and he respects my opinion...

My involvement as producer is creative; I’m obviously not scheduling and doing that sort of stuff. It’s important for me to be there because it’s a way of having my voice heard and protecting my intentions... I’m engaged and involved because the people who direct these movies realize, correctly I think, that it’s important to have the person who wrote the material there to talk to. It doesn’t happen a lot, but I think it’s stupid, very stupid, not to utilize your resources, and the person who invented something is a very valuable resource. We’re doing post-production rewrites as things get moved around. There’s a lot of stuff to finesse or fix.

CS: Do you mean moving scenes around? Or rewriting and re-shooting?


CK: We didn’t do any re-shooting for Human Nature. We did some for Malkovich and we’re going to do some for Adaptation. But when you’re cutting a movie down and moving scenes around there’s stuff that doesn’t work anymore. You have to cheat in dialogue, to smooth it, so there’s that kind of writing to do.

CS: Being involved in the editing process must give you a new perspective on screenwriting.

CK: It really does. I think editing is most akin to writing the movie, more than any other aspect of production. It really is writing, you know? You’re doing a lot more than I would have imagined: finding connections that weren’t intended, but that work in this new form. It’s very interesting, and it requires you to really let go of what you’ve gone in with. You’re not really in service of the script anymore. Now it’s, ‘This is what you have,’ and, ‘This is what it is; now how do you make this work?’ As opposed to keep going back and saying, ‘Well this isn’t what I wrote.’ Or, ‘this isn’t how I wrote it.’ I’m fortunate because all writers should be in this situation. But it’s good for me that I’m a partner in this because I know a lot of stuff gets taken away from writers and it doesn’t resemble what their intentions were anymore.

Human Nature (Directed by Michel Gondry) 
CS: Has producing changed the way you write?

CK: One of the things I’ve realized is that in all three of the movies I’ve been involved in is if we see a softness or a problem in the script, it should be corrected at that point. The idea of ‘you’ll fix it later’ or ‘nobody will notice’ is insane. Maybe nobody does notice, but we notice and it becomes a major issue in post, like, ‘How do we solve this problem,’ etc. And then it’s glaring, and we have to do all this extra work to fix it. It happened again and again, and the thing that struck me in all cases, without going into detail, is that in almost every case we saw [the problem] before and didn’t think it would be as big a deal as it ended up being for us. So, I think motivation, character intention to the most miniscule degree, needs to be attended to.

CS: Thanks, Mr. McKee. [screenwriting guru Robert McKee]

CK: [Laughs] Right, I guess he would say something like that, but he’d be right.

CS: What’s it like for you to enter the editing room as both a writer and producer and be creatively involved with those important decisions?


CK: It’s hard, but it’s great. I definitely wouldn’t trade it in. It’s exhausting, and it’s frustrating, and it’s an enormously long process. You lose track gradually over all the different versions of the movie. You lose perspective; you don’t know what you’re watching anymore, and that’s where test screenings become very, very important.

CS: You actually like test screenings?

CK: Yes, for that reason. I don’t mean the test screenings with the numbers or whatever those things, the official ones, are. For us, I mean you can cut out a whole scene in a movie that you’ve been working on for three years, and your brain makes the connection between this moment and that moment because you have the information from the previous draft. But you can’t really know if an audience will make that same connection. So you get people saying, ‘I don’t understand the ending. I don’t understand what happened here,’ and to me that’s the most valuable thing about screenings. ‘Do we like this character?’ or ‘Is the character redeeming?’– that kind of shit I don’t care about, but I do care about if the movie makes the sense that we wanted it to make. What’s most interesting is when someone interprets something differently than you had expected them to, like the reason a character does this is because of something you wouldn’t have even considered, but it makes sense now and you understand where they’re coming from.

– Extracted From: ‘Charlie Kaufman Interviewed By David F. Goldsmith & Jeff Goldsmith. Creative Screenwriting, Volume 9, #2 (March/April 2002) & Volume 9, #6 (November/December 2002)’.

 

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Akira Kurosawa on ‘Stray Dog’

Stray Dog (Directed by Akira Kurosawa)
A bad day gets worse for young detective Murakami when a pickpocket steals his gun on a hot, crowded bus. Desperate to right the wrong, he goes undercover, scavenging Tokyo’s sweltering streets for the stray dog whose desperation has led him to a life of crime. With each step, cop and criminal’s lives become more intertwined and the investigation becomes an examination of Murakami’s own dark side. Starring Toshiro Mifune, as the rookie cop, and Takashi Shimura, as the seasoned detective who keeps him on the right side of the law, Stray Dog (Nora Inu) goes beyond a crime thriller, probing the squalid world of postwar Japan and the nature of the criminal mind. – (via Criterion)

The following is a brief excerpt from Kurosawa’s autobiography, Something Like an Autobiography, in which he discusses the writing and production of Stray Dog.




Maupassant instructed aspiring writers to extend their vision into realms where no one else could see, and to keep it up until the hitherto invisible became visible to everyone. 

I first wrote the screenplay of Stray Dog in the form of a novel. I am fond of the work of Georges Simenon, so I adopted his style of writing novels about social crime. This process took me a little less than six weeks, so I figured that I’d be able to rewrite it as a screenplay in ten days or so. Far from it. It proved to be a far more difficult task than writing a scenario from scratch, and it took me close to two months.

But, as I reflect on it, it’s perfectly understandable that this should have happened. A novel and a screenplay are, after all, entirely different things. The freedom for psychological description one has in writing a novel is particularly difficult to adapt to a screenplay with­out using narration. But, thanks to the unexpected travail of adapting the descriptions of the novel form to a screenplay, I attained a new awareness of what screenplays and films consist of. At the same time, I was able to incorporate many peculiarly novelistic modes of expres­sion into the script.


For example, I understood that in novel-writing certain structural techniques can be employed to strengthen the impression of an event and narrow the focus upon it. What I learned was that in the editing process a film can gain similar strength through the use of comparable structural techniques. The story of Stray Dog begins with a young police detective on his way home from marksmanship practice at the headquarters’ range. He gets on a crowded bus, and in the unusually intense summer heat and crush of bodies his pistol is stolen. When I filmed this sequence and edited it according to the passage of chrono­logical time, the effect was terrible. As an introduction to a drama it was slow, the focus was vague and it failed to grip the viewer.

Troubled, I went back to look at the way I had begun the novel. I had written as follows: ‘It was the hottest day of that entire summer.’ Immediately I thought, ‘That’s it.’ I used a shot of a dog with its tongue hanging out, panting. Then the narration begins, ‘It was unbearably hot that day.’ After a sign on a door indicating ‘Police Head­quarters, First Division,’ I proceeded to the interior. The chief of the First Detective Division glares up from his desk. ‘What? Your pistol was stolen?’ Before him stands the contrite young detective who is the hero of the story. This new way of editing the opening sequence gave me a very short piece of film, but it was extremely effective in drawing the viewer suddenly into the heart of the drama.


Stray Dog is made up of many short scenes in many different settings, so the little sound stage we used was cleared and redecorated with lightning speed. On fast days we shot five or six different scenes on it. As soon as the set was ready, we’d shoot and be done again, so the art department had no choice but to build and decorate sets while we slept.

At any rate, the filming of Stray Dog went remarkably well, and we finished ahead of schedule. The excellent pace of the shooting and the good feeling of the crew working together can be sensed in the completed film.

I remember how it was on Saturday nights when we boarded a bus to go home for a day off after a full week’s hard work. Everyone was happy. At the time I was living in Komae, far out of the city near the Tamagawa River, so toward the end of the ride I was always left alone. The solitary last rider on the cavernous empty bus, I always felt more loneliness at being separated from my crew than I did joy at being reunited with my family.

Now the pleasure in the work we experienced on Stray Dog seems like a distant dream. The films an audience really enjoys are the ones that were enjoyable in the making. Yet pleasure in the work can't be achieved unless you know you have put all of your strength into it and have done your best to make it come alive. A film made in this spirit reveals the hearts of the crew.


– Excerpt from ‘Akira Kurosawa: Something Like an Autobiography’ (Vintage Books, 1983)

Friday, 15 December 2017

The Discreet Charm of Luis Buñuel

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Directed by Luis Buñuel)
In Luis Buñuel’s satiric comedy, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, a group of middle-class diners sit down to dinner but never manage to start their meal, their attempts continually frustrated by a surreal sequence of events both real and imagined. The film remains one of Buñuel’s more popular and identifiable works. Buñuel's memorable set-pieces propel a hallucinatory narrative that moves with relentless comic drive. In some ways the film is a companion piece to The Exterminating Angel, Bunuel’s complex and dark 1962 masterpiece about bourgeois diners who can’t leave a dinner party after they’ve finished their meal.

Soon after the release of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie in 1972 the Mexican novelist and essayist Carlos Fuentes wrote the following celebrated article on Buñuel, who was a close friend. The piece was originally published in The New York Times:

SEEING: In his sixties, Buñuel finally achieved the choice of subject matter, the means, the creative freedom so long denied him. But Buñuel has always proved hardier than the minimal or optimal conditions of production offered him; he constantly remarks that, given a $5-million budget, he would still film a $500,000 movie. An obsessive artist, Buñuel cares about what he wants to say; or rather, what he wants to see. A really important director makes only one film; his work is a sum, a totality of perfectly related parts that illuminate each other. In Buñuel’s films, from Un Chien Andalou to The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the essential unifying factor is sight. His first image is that of a woman’s eye slit by a razor and throughout the body of his work there is this pervading sense of sight menaced, sight lost as virginity is lost; sight as a wound that will not heal, wounded sight as an interstice through which dreams and desires can flow. Catherine Deneuve’s absent regard in Belle de jour is calculated. She is constantly looking outside the confines of the screen, enlarging the space of the screen, looking at something beyond that isn’t there, that probably connects the two halves of her life.


But Buñuel’s violent aggressions against sight actually force us back to his particular way of seeing. His world is seen first as a grey, hazy, distant jumble of undetermined things; no other director shoots a scene from quite that neutral, passive distance. Then the eye of the camera suddenly picks out an object that has been there all the time, or a revealing gesture, zooms into them, makes them come violently alive before again retiring to the indifferent point of view.

This particular way of seeing, of making the opaque backdrop shine instantly by selecting an object or gesture, assures the freedom and fluid elegance of a Buñuel film. Sight determines montage; what is seen flows into what is unseen. The camera fixes on a woman’s ankle or the buzzing box a Korean takes to a brothel; the woman’s shoes lead to desire or the Korean’s stare to mystery, mystery and desire to dream, dream to a dream within it and the following cut back to everyday normality has already compounded reality with the fabulous; the meanest, most violent or weakest character has achieved a plurality of dimensions that straight realism would never reveal. The brutal gang leader in Los Olvidados is redeemed by his dream of fright and solitude: A black dog silently races down a rainy street at night. And you cannot altogether hate the stupid, avaricious people in The Discreet Charm; their dreams are too funny; they are endowed with a reluctantly charming dimension; they are doomed, yet they survive.

Cruel and destructive: Such were the adjectives reserved for his early films; now they are elegant and comical. Has the dynamite-flinging miner of Asturias, as Henry Miller called him, mellowed so much? On the contrary: I believe his technique has simply become more finely honed, his sense of inclusiveness through sight wider. More things are seen, understood, laughed at and perhaps forgiven. Besides, the author is debating himself. Is that a Buñuel stand-in who drones in The Milky Way: ‘My hatred towards science and technology will surely drive me back to the despicable belief in God?’


Sight connects. Buñuel has filmed the story of the first capitalist hero, Robinson Crusoe, and Crusoe is saved from loneliness by his slave, but the price he must pay is fraternity, seeing Friday as a human being. He has also filmed the story of Robinson’s descendants in The Discreet Charm, and these greedy, deceptive people can only flee their overpopulated, polluted, promiscuous island into the comic loneliness of their dreams. Sight and survival, desires and dreams, seeing others in order to see oneself. This parabola of sight is essential to Buñuel’s art. Nazarin will not see God unless he sees his fellow men; Viridiana will not see herself unless she sees outside herself and accepts the world. The characters in The Discreet Charm can never see themselves or others. They may be funny, but they are already in hell. Elegant humor only cloaks despair.

So in Buñuel sight determines content or, rather, content is a way of looking, content is sight at all possible levels. And this multitude of levels—social, political, psychological, historical, esthetic, philosophic, is not predetermined, but flows from vision. His constant tension is between obsessive opposites: pilgrimage and confinement, solitude and fraternity, sight and blindness, social rules and personal cravings, rational conduct and oneiric behavior. His intimate legacies, often conflicting, are always there: Spain, Catholicism, surrealism, left anarchism. But, above all, what is always present is the liberating thrust that could only come from such a blend of heritages. Certainly no other filmmaker could have so gracefully and violently humanized and brought into the fold of freedom, rebellion and understanding so many figures, so many passions, so many desires that the conventional code judges as monstrous, criminal and worthy of persecution and, even, extermination. The poor are not forcibly good and the rich are not forcibly evil; Buñuel incriminates all social orders while liberating our awareness of the outcast, the deformed, the maimed, the necrophiles, the lesbians, the homosexuals, the fetishists, the incestuous, the whorish, the cruel children, the madmen, the poets, the forbidden dreamers. He never exploits this marginality, because he makes it central to his vision. He has set the highest standards for true cinematic freedom.

The Exterminating Angel (Directed by Luis Buñuel)
And finally, this respect for freedom of his characters is translated into respect for the freedom of his audience. As they end, his films remain open, the spectator remains free. A flock of sheep enters the church of The Exterminating Angel as civil strife explodes in the streets. An empty carriage rolls down a wooded lane while the horses’ bells jingle in Belle de jour. Nazarin accepts a gift of a pineapple from a humble woman as the drums of Calanda start pounding and the whole structure of the priest’s mind turns and opens toward the future. Viridiana sits down and plays cards with her cousin and the cook as they listen to rock recordings. A bell with the face of her victim and victimizer telescopes Tristana back to the very beginning of her story. The mad husband in El zigzags his way down a monastery garden where he thinks he has achieved peace of mind. The six listless characters in The Discreet Charm, driven by an irrational urge, trudge down an unending highway.

If the end in a Buñuel film can mean exactly the contrary, the beginnings of his films can be terrifying. L’Age d’Or starts with a scorpion and that scorpion, encircled by fire, is committing suicide with its own poisonous tail. It is the center of a flaming eye. Buñuel has written: ‘The camera is the eye of the marvelous. When the eye of the cinema really sees, the whole world goes up in flames.’


DYING: We walk in silence down a wintry Parisian boulevard. Buñuel is a friend, a warm, humorous, magnificent friend, and one can be with him without having to say anything.

We reach his hotel and go up to his room. He always reserves the same one; the windows open on the black and grey tombstones, the naked trees of the Montparnasse cemetery. It has rained all day, but at this hour of the afternoon a very pure, diaphanous light seems to drip from the fast moving clouds. Buñuel starts packing for the flight back to Mexico City.

Every now and then, he gazes at the trees and murmurs: ‘I’m not afraid of death. I’m afraid of dying alone in a hotel room, with my bags open and a shooting script on the night table. I must know whose fingers will close my eyes.’

– Excerpted from ‘The Discreet Charm of Luis Buñuel’, originally published in The New York Times Magazine, March 11, 1973. ©1973 by The New York Times Company.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Jim Jarmusch: The Limits of Control

The Limits of Control (Directed by Jim Jarmusch)
The Limits of Control is in many ways a companion piece to Jim Jarmusch’s previous film Broken Flowers as it is structurally similar and spends a lot of time focusing on the ‘dead time’ in life that is occupied by waiting for something to happen or being in transit. However, The Limits of Control has even less narrative drive than Broken Flowers making it a more meditative experience. The repetition of dialogue, actions and motifs plays a big part in The Limits of Control giving it a Zen like quality that is akin to dreaming.

The following extract is from an interview with Jim Jarmusch for Film Comment Magazine on the writing and making of the film.

You’ve often said that your approach to writing is that you accumulate material and ideas in notebooks, and find the story through the development of characters. Is that applicable here?

JIM JARMUSCH: Yeah, maybe even more so to this. I mean, this came out of frustration because I had another project that took a long time to write, which means four months. I had written it for specific actors, as I always do, and it was a story for two people and one of them loved it and the other one didn’t really want to do the film, and that threw me for a loop. So then – I don’t know if I want to say I wasted time, but it was a somewhat bigger film for me, maybe $10-15 million, but the people who were interested in financing it started pulling this kind of traditional thing where they were giving me lists of actors that would replace the actor I had written for that would make it possible for them, and they were not actors that I wanted to work with, or that I had imagined. I’m not a studio filmmaker, so it just seemed like, Wow, I’m entering this kind of structure. So I basically got frustrated and put that script away in a drawer.


I had a lot of little elements for this film in my head. First of all, Isaach De Bankolé – wanting to write a character for him that was very quiet, possibly criminal, on some kind of mission. Then I had the idea of shooting in Spain for disparate reasons: one was the incredible architecture of Torres Blancas, this building in Madrid from the late Sixties that has almost no right angles in it and it’s very strange. I first encountered it maybe 20 years ago, an old friend of mine, Chema Prado, the head of the cinematheque in Spain now, has had an apartment there for years. And Joe Strummer’s widow, Lucinda, gave me a photograph of this house in the south of Spain, outside of Almería, and said that Joe always said, ‘We gotta show Jim this house, he’s gonna want to film it.’ So I had those elements. Then Paz De La Huerta, who I’d known since she was a teenager – somebody told me, you know, Isaach and Paz are in four films together, some of them student films. And I said, Man, I’m going to use them in a film together then! So that was another element. So that’s always my procedure – having these initial ideas. And I was listening to a lot of music by these bands Boris, Sunn O))), Earth, Sleep – it’s a certain genre of noise-oriented rock with some allusions to metal, but Sunn, for example – if you listen to some of their stuff without knowing what genre it is, you might think you were listening to some avant-garde classical music or electronic-generated feedback.


But anyway, that stuff was floating around in me, so it’s my normal process to have these things and then start drawing details and eventually a plot. But this one I kept very minimal because I wanted it to expand while we were shooting. I wrote the story in Italy over a period of a week or so, and I wrote a 25-page story, and there wasn’t really dialogue in it at all. So I used that and I took that to Focus and said, I want to make a film based on this story, I’m going to expand it as I go; I wanna cast these people. And they were like, Wow, yeah, great… I felt they’d say, Go write a script and come back, but instead they said, No, if that’s how you wanna do it, we’re interested in that. So they financed the film. And Chris Doyle and I had wanted to work together for a long time; we’d made one music video together, but we’d known each other a long time; he was actually going to shoot the other film that fell through, and he even put off certain films for that one, and gave up some things, and then he did the same for this as well because our schedule got moved. So he was very supportive in that way, waiting to work together. And we talked a lot about my little 25-page story; in New York, whenever he’d come through town, we’d spend a week or so just talking, listening to the music, getting general ideas for the images. Then we went to Spain and started getting locations.


So your approach to writing is very free-associative.

I don’t know how other people do it, and I don’t like scripts as a form. I don’t read other people’s scripts because I had a lawsuit against me some few years ago, and I hadn’t read the guy’s script, so scripts are always returned unread. So I don’t read scripts; I only read if a friend of mine asks because they’re going to make a film out of it, they’re not offering it to me. But I hate the form; I just don’t like it. Unless I know the director and their style, and the places they’re gonna shoot, I have a really big problem visualizing scripts. So for me, a script is only a map; it’s a roadmap that is created beforehand that has to grow as we work. So I kind of just emphasized that with this film. I took that further and had less to start with…

Than ever before, it seems to me.

I knew the film wanted from the beginning, because I wanted to let it find itself, and also while working be very aware that anything can change and new ideas will come. So they have to be sifted through or received, and thought about. The problem with this film strategically following that was that our shooting schedule was too short. And that became really exhausting because I have these great actors coming in only for a few days, and I have to get their wardrobe, and rehearse, and write their stuff. And also while having shot a 16-hour day. I wanted to have a longer shoot, but we got backed up against the Easter holiday, which in Spain is a whole week. And so keeping our crew and everything would have gone way over our budget so we worked our asses off to shoot it fast, but also to keep ideas coming. So I just put myself in a kind of suspended state of, Okay, you’re not going to get any sleep for six weeks, you’re gonna have to prepare yourself and work this way. So I spent weekends writing dialogue and stuff, trying to prepare for the next scenes with the actors coming in. Luckily, Chris Doyle is extremely fast and focused while he’s working. So without him, I don’t know how I ever would have shot the film in six and a half weeks or whatever it was; it ended up being about seven, I guess. And you’re moving all around Spain too; it was hard, shooting in train stations and stuff.


The movie has the minimal structure and trappings of a thriller, but it requires a different kind of engagement from the viewer; there’s a different kind of contract being made with the viewer in this movie than in the traditional genre movie. You could compare it to certain Rivette films like ‘Pont du Nord’ or ‘Paris Belongs to Us’.

Out 1 especially. Part of me wanted to make an action film with no action in it, whatever the hell that means. For me the plot, the resolution of the film, the action toward the end is not really of that much interest. It’s only metaphorical somehow.

It’s not cathartic.

No, and it’s not traditional in that it even says, ‘Revenge is useless,’ so it’s not a revenge plot. This sounds very simplistic but to me it’s more about the trip and the kind of trance of the trip for the character than the ending being a kind of…

Payoff.

Yeah. It’s there as a kind of convention, you know? But it’s definitely metaphorical. It’s an accumulative approach in terms of the contract with the audience. It requires them to allow things to accumulate, and in a way, just be passive receptors of the trip he takes.


And the film is also a celebration of cinema in a way that the artifice of cinema is definitely referred to as a positive thing, as something I love. This is not a neo-neo-realism style of film; it’s fantastic in a certain way. I didn’t want to make a film that people had to analyze particularly while watching it. I really wanted to make a film that was kind of like a hallucinogenic in the way that, when you left after having seen it, I hope the audience will look at mundane details in a slightly different way. Maybe it’s only temporary, maybe for only 15 minutes, but I wanted to do something to… I don’t know, just trigger an appreciation for one’s subjective consciousness. I was just thinking the other night that in a way, for me, the poet Neruda is a huge inspiration. All those beautiful odes to mundane objects. I kind of wanted to just build that kind of sense of perception of things through this character and how he sees the world. But he’s on a mission, and that’s another element – I’ve always liked this kind of game structure in things. The title comes from an essay by William Burroughs. And Burroughs, his use of cut-ups, and re-arranging found things, was very interesting to me in the same way that Burroughs was very interested in the I-Ching as a motivator. Or Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategy cards. Or the French poets… Queneau made this book, Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, that has little strips you can move around. All of these things were inspiring, I didn’t realize until we were editing the film that I was using Oblique Strategies all along the way. I was weaving things, in a way...


I have the sense that in this film you’ve gone further in the direction of working from and being led by your unconscious – by setting up a situation where you didn’t have the usual comfort zones to rely on. Working fast with no script in a country where you don’t speak the language, working with a cameraman you don’t have an established routine with.

I wanted very badly to sort of break something – maybe it’s like breaking the idea of a frame I’m always looking through, that the frame could now be rubber, conceptually. I’d think of how I want to translate a scene from my imagination to the screen, and thought maybe I’m too rigid. I’ve always believed that limitations are a strength in a way. Which is why I maybe fell back on the hard-cuts, thinking, Let’s impose something that will make us stronger somehow. And for this film I needed to not have, first of all, a fully fleshed out script.

But you’re absolutely right, that the whole thing was wanting to break something in myself to tap into this intuition, which I’ve been trying to use all along. I’ve always been non-analytical in my films. I’ve always put things in the film without analyzing why. Or what do they mean? Or what am I trying to say? They drew me or pulled me towards them. So this time I wanted to do that even more. And so the structure of making a film and a production based on only 25 pages, ensured that there’s no other way to make it. You’re going to have to follow your instincts. And once you’ve got the cast, the money, the crew, and the locations: the train has left the station. And I had a really good feeling when the train had left the station, though I didn’t have a map of where it was going really. Or a map with only line drawing, sketched outlines. It was a very liberating thing. I can’t analyze if we’re successful but we felt like we were successful in following that instinctual strategy. We were happy to be on the boat that had left the shore and we were gone, you know. 

– Excerpt from Jim Jarmusch Interviewed by Gavin Smith. From Film Comment, May/June 2009 issue.

Full article here

Friday, 8 December 2017

Kurosawa, Tarkovsky and Solaris

Solaris (Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky)
‘I was on very intimate terms with Tarkovsky. I always felt like he was my younger brother. Drinking together, we sang the theme of Seven Samurai. His expression of the element of water! It was unique, indeed. Watching this film [Solaris] always makes me want to return to Earth.’ 
- Kurosawa on Tarkovsky

Akira Kurosawa first met Andrei Tarkovsky in Moscow on his first visit to Russia in July 1971 when Kurosawa attended the Moscow Film Festival. Dodeskaden was screened and won the Special Prize. Tarkovsky then went to Japan to re-pay the visit that same fall and the two directors remained friends until Tarkovsky’s untimely death in 1986. Tarkovsky told Kurosawa that he always viewed Seven Samurai before shooting a new film. Kurosawa replied that he would always see Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev before shooting...

Originally written by Akira Kurosawa and published in May 1977 the following article titled ‘Tarkovsky and Solaris’ recalls the early relationship between the two great directors. It was translated for Nostalghia.com by Sato Kimitoshi and was subsequently adapted by Criterion for use in the insert booklet of their Solaris DVD.

I met Tarkovsky for the first time when I attended my welcome luncheon at Mosfilm during my first visit to Soviet Russia. He was small, thin, looked a little frail, and at the same time exceptionally intelligent, and unusually shrewd and sensitive. I thought he somehow resembled Toru Takemitsu, but I don’t know why. Then he excused himself saying, ‘I still have work to do,’ and disappeared, and after a while I heard such a big explosion as to make all the glass windows of the dining hall tremble hard. Seeing me taken aback, the boss of Mosfilm said with a meaningful smile: ‘You know another World War hasn’t broken out. Tarkovsky just launched a rocket. This work with Tarkovsky, however, has proved a Great War for me.’ That was the way I knew Tarkovsky was shooting Solaris.

After the luncheon party, I visited his set for Solaris. There it was. I saw a burnt down rocket at the corner of the space station set. I am sorry I forgot to ask him as to how he had shot the launching of the rocket on the set. The set of the satellite base was beautifully made at a huge cost, for it was all made up of thick duralumin.


It glittered in its cold metallic silver light, and I found light rays of red, or blue or green delicately winking or waving from electric light bulbs buried in the gagues on the equipment lined up in there. And above on the ceiling of the corridor ran two duralumin rails from which hung a small wheel of a camera which could move around freely inside the satellite base.

Tarkovsky guided me around the set, explaining to me as cheerfully as a young boy who is given a golden opportunity to show someone his favorite toybox. [The director] Bondarchuk, who came with me, asked him about the cost of the set, and left his eyes wide open when Tarkovsky answered it. The cost was so huge: about six hundred million yen as to make Bondarchuk, who directed that grand spectacle of a movie War and Peace, gaze in wonder.

Now I came to fully realize why the boss of the Mosfilm said it was ‘a Great War for me.’ But it takes a huge talent and effort to spend such a huge cost. Thinking ‘this is a tremendous task’ I closely gazed at his back when he was leading me around the set in enthusiasm.


Concerning Solaris I find many people complaining that it is too long, but I do not think so. They especially find too lengthy the description of nature in the introductory scenes, but these layers of memory of farewell to this earthly nature submerge themselves deep below the bottom of the story after the main character has been sent in a rocket into the satellite station base in the universe, and they almost torture the soul of the viewer like a kind of irresistible nostalgia toward mother earth and nature, which resembles homesickness. Without the presence of beautiful nature sequences on earth as a long introduction, you could not make the audience directly conceive the sense of having no-way-out harboured by the people ‘jailed’ inside the satellite base.

I saw this film late at night in a preview room in Moscow for the first time, and soon I felt my heart aching in agony with a longing to returning to the earth as quickly as possible. We have enjoyed marvellous progress in science, but where will it lead humanity after all? This film succeeds in conjuring up sheer fearful emotion in our soul. Without it, a science-fiction movie would be nothing more than a petty fancy.

These thoughts came and went while I was gazing at the screen.


Tarkovsky was together with me then. He was at the corner of the studio. When the film was over, he stood up, looking at me as if he felt timid. I said to him, ‘Very good. It makes me feel real fear.’ Tarkovsky smiled shyly, but happily. And we toasted vodka at the restaurant in the Film Institute. Tarkovsky, who didn’t drink usually, drank a lot of vodka, and went so far as to turn off the speaker from which music had floated into the restaurant, and began to sing the theme of the samurai from Seven Samurai at the top of his voice. As if to rival him, I joined in.

For I was at that moment very happy to find myself living on Earth.

Solaris makes a viewer feel this, and even this single fact shows us that Solaris is no ordinary science-fiction film. It truly somehow provokes pure horror in our soul. And it is under the total grip of the deep insights of Tarkovsky.

There must be many, many things still unknown to humanity in this world: the abyss of the cosmos which a man had to look into, strange visitors in the satellite base, time running in reverse, from death to life, strangely moving sense of levitation, his home which is in the mind of the main character in the satellite station is wet and soaked with water. It seems to me to be sweat and tears that in his heartbreaking agony he sqeezed out of his whole being. And what makes us shudder is the shot of the location of Akasakamitsuke, Tokyo, Japan. By a skillful use of mirrors, he turned flows of head lights and tail lamps of cars, multiplied and amplified, into a vintage image of the future city. Every shot of Solaris bears witness to the almost dazzling talents inherent in Tarkovsky.

Mirror (Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky)
Many people grumble that Tarkovsky's films are difficult, but I don't think so. His films just show how extraordinarily sensitive Tarkovsky is. He made a film titled Mirror after Solaris. Mirror deals with his cherished memories in his childhood, and many people say again it is disturbingly difficult. Yes, at a glance, it seems to have no rational development in its storytelling. But we have to remember: it is impossible that in our soul our childhood memories should arrange themselves in a static, logical sequence.

A strange train of fragments of early memory images shattered and broken can bring about the poetry in our infancy. Once you are convinced of its truthfulness, you may find Mirror the easiest film to understand. But Tarkovsky remains silent, without saying things like that at all. His very attitude makes me believe that he has wonderful potential in his future.

There can be no bright future for those who are ready to explain everything about their own film.

– ‘Akira Kurosawa: Tarkovsky and Solaris’


Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Rene Clement: On Adapting Patricia Highsmith

Purple Noon (Directed by Rene Clement)
Plein Soleil (Purple Noon) is Rene Clement’s 1960 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s first Ripley novel,  The Talented Mr Ripley, starring a young Alain Delon as Tom Ripley. The following is excerpted from an interview with Rene Clement that originally appeared in the February 1, 1981, issue of L’avant-scène: Cinéma. It was conducted by Olivier Eyquem and Jean-Claude Missiaen and translated for the Criterion release of the film by Nicholas Elliott.

How did you first encounter Patricia Highsmith’s novel?

[Actor] France Roche had told me about it first, but I hadn’t had the time to take a serious look at it. Then [producer] Robert Hakim brought me the book and asked me if I was interested in adapting it. That’s where everything started. I was immediately attracted to the novel’s ambiguity and feeling of uneasiness, which are constants in Highsmith’s work. Those who try to cultivate ambiguity in the thriller genre don’t always succeed, but Highsmith achieves something quite deep and genuinely successful. I thought I would work with [Jean] Aurenche and [Pierre] Bost, my usual collaborators, but Hakim dragged his feet. He had just produced À double tour, adapted by Paul Gégauff, and, possibly wanting to coast on the New Wave’s popularity, he suggested I work with him.

Gégauff was a good choice, especially for the first part of the film.

At first, I worked with two scriptwriters who didn’t provide very fruitful results. In the meantime, I found the film’s denouement by myself. Gégauff is a very sharp man, whom I greatly appreciated. We pulled off all sorts of acrobatics to make the action unfold more believably. We were a little rushed toward the end, but Hakim, who is an intelligent, efficient man with an admirable knowledge of his trade, proved very understanding. He said some extremely sensible and positive things about the work we had accomplished.

We started shooting, but I was missing certain scenes. So there was a certain amount of improvisation during the shoot, notably for the episode of Greenleaf’s death, which came out of circumstances I tried to make the most of, and for the seduction of Marge, which I wrote on set during the lunch break, because I could ‘feel’ [Alain] Delon and [Marie] Laforêt and knew what they were each capable of. Cocteau used to tell me: ‘You always have to be ready for the unexpected.’ You shouldn’t refuse to shoot because it hasn’t been set down in writing; you have to move forward. Paper and writing are very cut-and-dried. A script is like a score that is missing any indication of tempo. You have to breathe life into it. It demands an element of improvisation.


Patricia Highsmith appears indifferent to material plausibility and the actual details of Ripley’s scheme. Ripley practicing Greenleaf’s signature takes up about twenty shots in the film, while it is disposed of in a single sentence in Highsmith’s novel.

In that regard, the novel was completely indefensible. It was very difficult to adapt, and we were only able to find satisfactory solutions by taking liberties. In my opinion, a director must always prove what he puts forward. A writer can allow himself to say that a woman is incredibly beautiful, that she has delicate features and that her eyes are uniquely gentle. But as a director, I have to show her and ask myself who will play her. I can’t just dream anything up. If a sequence has two or three elements that crucially determine the action but are simply unbelievable, I can’t say, ‘Did you see that? It’s unbelievable!’ The script has to make them plausible. If you look closely at the adaptation of Purple Noon, you will see our efforts in that direction.

Carrying over the ambiguity of the character of Ripley meant giving him a physical reality, in such a way that the sensations he experienced – his fear, his sweat – were constantly on-screen.

That is a game played in collaboration with the actor. After Alain killed the fat American, Freddy, I told him, ‘You shouldn’t have killed him. Figure it out – it’s your business now . . . Oh, if you had been more intelligent, you would have kept Freddy at bay, you would have seized another opportunity. But you didn’t premeditate anything, you’re not a real criminal, and you’re stuck. Forget the rest of the script – it’s up to you now. Get him down the stairs or you’ll go to jail.’ But a corpse is heavy, and you don’t dispose of it as easily as in a novel; Delon had a hell of a time. As for me, I was there to film Ripley’s suffering. That was the game we were playing together, and that’s the attitude you should have when you really love what you’re doing and you respect the people with whom you’re working.

The signatures scene in the hotel seems to have been extraordinarily minutely prepared. Had you written everything, down to the smallest gesture?

No, you can’t get all those details down in a script; that’s part of the creation. There are ten thousand ways of approaching a script. For instance, imagine illustrating the following action: ‘The man is at the window. He turns around, sits down. A woman enters.’ Some filmmakers – note that I say ‘filmmakers,’ not ‘directors’ – stick to the syntactic basics. But a director knows that when the man sits down, the cushion he rests on will rise up in a certain manner, and that through the crack we will discover something strange, etc. But he can’t put all that down in writing. He would wind up with a three-hundred-page novel. Would it make any sense to describe it? Would there be any hope of recapturing it on set? We ridicule directors who maniacally try to realize the images they carry in their minds, who stamp their feet and make a scene if the car passing in the background isn’t the right color. But maybe that color really does have its importance. How do you make a crew search your fantasies to find the exact reasons to reproduce what you more or less clearly imagined?


Should the director keep things a little mysterious for his crew?

Absolutely not. On the contrary! Your crew should know as much as possible about what you are trying to achieve. It must be with you. It would be illogical to leave your collaborators in the dark. Enthusiasm is born of shared work. The important thing is to know what you want. And to remain flexible so you can bring to life that entire part of the mise-en-scène that cannot be set down in writing, bring back to life the memories you carry. For instance, Ripley devouring a peach immediately after Greenleaf’s death, or eating a chicken after murdering Freddy – those incidents come from my memories of police reports I had read years earlier. I remembered that many policemen observed a type of bulimia among murderers after their crimes. A little like the banquets that follow funerals: life’s revenge over death. These memories reemerged, and I made Delon eat like a feline in the apartment scene; he shelters himself from the camera, he hides. That seemed very interesting to me.

We never really learn about Ripley’s past. The shot of the children dancing in a circle is one of the few moments where we can guess at it. It is like a rush of innocence rising up in a very nostalgic manner.

By having Ripley watch the children turning on the sidewalk, I mostly wanted to show that life went on while this horrible thing took place. It’s like the spider we see before the railroader’s execution in La bataille du rail. It is more important than this man sentenced to the firing squad, who is already nothing. And he isn’t even dead yet, while the spider ambles about freely, accountable to no one. And here, see these children enjoying themselves, dancing in a circle, far from this tragic event, safe in their own world . . . But it’s true, we don’t know Ripley’s past. In fact, it is very ambiguous; when Marge tries to find out about him, Greenleaf pretends not to know him. I don’t believe Greenleaf, but what I like is that neither he nor Ripley told me everything. I like that. Julien Green once told me, ‘I started one of my novels with a really important character who was supposed to be the main thread, but at a certain point, he played a dirty trick on me: he took off, leaving me there with a young woman and a rather elderly gentleman whom I did not know.’ ‘Well?’ I asked him. ‘Well, what do you want? I kept talking with them.’ I like the attitude of being somewhat led by your characters, because it seems to me to provide a guarantee of authenticity. And in this case, when Greenleaf says, ‘I’ve never seen him in my life,’ I ask myself, Hmm, why isn’t he telling me the truth? It would seem so simple to make up another story. But Marge is referring to his own childhood, which is probably what bothers him.


There is a fascinating aspect of Ripley’s character that we also find in Highsmith’s novel. What I would call his ‘sponge’ side. Ripley moves in a certain social context upon which he models himself, and absorbs everything about it. He has to make those he encounters love him.

The secret is Dostoyevsky. That’s where I went looking when I was adapting Purple Noon, particularly in The Insulted and Humiliated. Purple Noon is the story of a dreadful character who has killed two people, tried to steal, and attempted to seduce a young woman to squeeze money out of her. He is a horrible guy, but you don’t make films with despicable people – that doesn’t work. People want to relate, they want to identify. I’m stating the obvious. So how will I make Ripley likable? By humiliating him. At the beginning of the film, Ripley is nothing. Freddy doesn’t even look at him; he calls him ‘chum,’ which is openly disdainful. O’Brien acts high and mighty around him. Riccordi can’t remember his name. He is treated feudally, which puts everyone on his side. Many viewers even think it’s too bad he gets caught at the end. After everything he did!

So there is this entire social contrast between money and poverty, the outcast and the rich. From the start, Ripley’s approach is determined by the offer Greenleaf’s father makes to him. And Philippe has no desire to go home; all he wants to do is happily squander his fortune! Humiliation is always lurking in the background symbolically. It is what gives Ripley heft.

Couldn’t you have spared him the punishment? Highsmith lets him get away . . .

No, no, there’s no way around it; you cannot transgress. But let me tell you the ending I dreamed of: Ripley has taken revenge; he too is, for he has been able to want something through to its conclusion. Here he is on the restaurant terrace, with that boat in the background raising its black sail. Everything has come to a stop, even the wind. But no, the boat sails on. What will happen? Ripley is rich; he continues traveling. He goes to Athens – why not? He disembarks at the harbor, and all at once we see two policemen apparently waiting for him at the end of the footbridge. We assume he’s done for. But no: the rule there is for two policemen to be posted at every boat’s arrival. Ripley makes it through without any trouble. Everything is fine. He winds up at the Parthenon, sitting on the steps . . . asking himself if he should turn himself in to be someone, to find a place back in the society that had stuck him in a hole. Everything he did becomes meaningful in the face of a well-structured, specific society, but not in the void.

That was the ending I dreamed of shooting, but who would have understood it and how would I have expressed it? It was very difficult. Hakim talked me out of it, and he was certainly right. So I came back to the epilogue I had thought of from the beginning and which we used in the film. Somehow it reassures people. It is immanent justice.


Ripley does not premeditate. He gambles everything on Marge’s love.

I think that Ripley’s use of revenge was a noble art, which filled him with the kind of creative joy experienced by certain artists. He played with fire. The letter to Marge was a close call; it nearly gave him away. The signature was very well imitated, but Greenleaf never signed that way when he wrote to Marge. A serious mistake! We know how many schemes have collapsed due to insignificant details.

And he stays in Italy, where all of Greenleaf’s friends live.

He has no choice; he is penniless. He constantly gets stuck in impossible situations. In real life, you might risk one, two, maybe three brazen acts, but never four; you’d be too scared. But Ripley keeps going, and that is what makes him remarkable. He is also very intelligent. ‘You know, I look like this. But my imagination . . .’

Revenge is only a part of Ripley’s plan.

That’s very clear, especially in the mirror scene; he is already seeking to usurp Greenleaf’s identity.

How do we interpret the Marge-Greenleaf-Ripley triangle? Is seducing Marge a means for Ripley to complete his identification with Greenleaf or is it simply a way to get the money?

It’s a complex matter. Disguising himself, imitating Greenleaf’s voice, the letter – which in and of itself is taking possession of Greenleaf – the villa to which Ripley returns to possess Marge . . . It seems like mimicry, but it is mostly anthropophagy. Which reminds us of one of the most obscure and distant aspects of our nature. To consume the bread and the wine – ‘This is my body, this is my blood’ – isn’t that also anthropophagy? What about the mother who tells her child, ‘Oh, I could eat you up!’ And what is physical love, in a way, other than anthropophagy? We are neck-deep in this context, whether we like it or not.

And here we have a total absorption of Greenleaf by Ripley. What else would Ripley be doing when he orders Marge, ‘Play, play for me’? [. . .]


Was it a problem for you to have American characters played by Delon and Ronet opposite actors Frank Latimore and Bill Kearns?

That wasn’t important to me. Take a Japanese man, a Brit, and an American: as soon as you get past folklore, you’ll find the same man. When you read Dostoyevsky, you’re dealing with profoundly Slavic reactions. Why would that interest you if you weren’t experiencing them too? Let’s expose the action, strip it bare, like Gaston Baty did when he placed his actors in front of a curtain. Giving Delon or Ronet an American accent would have been a useless addition.

And we all know perfectly bilingual people who have made a life in France or Europe and don’t want to leave, because they don’t like America. Greenleaf feels good where he is. He wants to go to Taormina, not to Los Angeles.

Wasn’t Alain Delon initially considered to play Greenleaf?

We have to reestablish the correct chronology. Delon was never considered to play Greenleaf, but we did consider another actor, whose name I won’t mention. I didn’t agree with the Hakim brothers about this, though this other actor would have provided better marquee value at the time. Delon wasn’t a star yet and had not done anything to tempt a producer. When this vacuum for the part of Greenleaf occurred, Delon’s agent, Georges Beaume, contacted me [it’s unclear why Clément names Beaume, as Olga Horstig was Delon’s agent at the time; Beaume would not fill that role until later]. I went to see Michel Boisrond’s Faibles femmes. Delon did not really shine in it; he did not stand out. Nonetheless, there was something that interested me in certain ways. Georges Beaume came to see me with Alain. We talked, and Georges came up with the idea of switching Ronet’s and Delon’s parts, adjusting them based on the two actors. It became obvious to us that Ronet would be better in the part of Greenleaf, and Delon in that of Ripley.

And Alain became Ripley more and more, following everything that was said to him to the letter. He had an exceptional ability to concentrate, a surprisingly fine ear. A receptive actor of this quality is rare and very pleasant for a director. How many actors only understand what they already know? It was thanks to this acuity that I was able to play the game I was telling you about. Faced with the truth I was seeking, I always had Delon, ready to take on every impossibility of the action, for it is impossibility that makes the drama move forward, of course.


‘Purple Noon’ was also the first film you made with Henri Decaë, who later worked with you on ‘Le jour et l’heure’, ‘Che gioia vivere’, and ‘Les félins’.

I wanted a certain style of photography and for Decaë to capture the light of the Gulf of Naples. The Naples sky is like no other. I observed it when I was traveling around the bay, spending entire days on a boat. When the sun rises in the morning, around five thirty or six, a marvel on the order of grace occurs. The air is light, a little sulfury; and the sulfur slowly becomes white, pastel, blue; and the gentle rocking makes one think of Bellini’s music. That’s where we come back to Ripley: why wouldn’t he also let himself be rocked to Taormina? With Marge, who inherited all that money? Notice that these sequences are punctuated by the Naples-Ischia crossing, with the small boat that crosses the bay and goes back down to Mongibello, toward that water-surrounded territory that is a little like Cythera.

Film shoots at sea are among the most challenging.

If you film the sea from two different angles, it won’t be the same color. Everything depends on the reflection of the sky. If the incidences aren’t the same, the color will change from one shot to the next, and it will be impossible to match them. You can’t put two shots on open water next to each other. The first one will be blue, the next green. It’s terrifying. You have to shoot cutaways to get from one color to the other by playing against the sky’s coloring.

When you’re at sea, you’re constantly confronted with the unexpected. Everyone knows the legend that the Flying Dutchman appears when a death has occurred on a boat. In Purple Noon, a white ship appears in the background right after Greenleaf’s murder. Isn’t it amazing that our Flying Dutchman arrived right as we were shooting this scene? It wasn’t called for, obviously; how could I put that in a script? Do you think a lot of ships with square lights go by in the Mediterranean?

We were quietly eating our spaghetti when it came along. It was an extraordinary sailboat belonging to the king of Denmark. We rushed to our boat. I asked Alain to jump at the same time, so I could get a first shot of him. We were being offered the Flying Dutchman!

Similarly, when I was preparing to shoot Greenleaf’s murder, the sea got whipped up and the wind suddenly got colder. In one morning, we filmed what would normally have taken a week’s work. Camera in hand, Decaë did everything I asked with tremendous courage. I know sailing – it’s my favorite sport – otherwise I wouldn’t have taken the risk. There were twenty people locked inside the Marge. We came down from the sailboat as quickly as we could to board a big launch, leaving Alain to get by alone, following the instructions I gave him by walkie-talkie. Alain was seasick; he couldn’t feel the deck move beneath him without feeling ill. It took great courage on his part to do it. Decaë was astride the launch’s stem as it leapt six feet over the waves, trying to frame this boat coming straight at us, and we were all wondering if Alain would be able to prevent the boat’s inertia from making it go adrift.

I knew a few tricks, like pointing the ship toward the wind, which gives a real cannon blast, but ran the risk of tearing the cotton sails, which were quite worn. I was in my own reality, and Alain, carried away by everything that was happening, gave us the scene you’ve watched.

In this case, we found ourselves in direct continuity with what I instinctively try to produce – which is to create when the opportunity arises to do so.


Had you planned for the storm?

It could have not happened, but we always had to be ready, just in case . . . Now if it hadn’t happened, I don’t know if we could have waited for it to happen . . .

How did you shoot the interiors of the boat?

The producers found us an abandoned movie theater close to the port. Paul Bertrand thought of building the boat set in there. I had a crane installed on risers three feet off the ground, with a track all along the set. The boat was on springs. A small part of the deck was removable, and I could use my crane to make the camera go down wherever I wanted – do a tracking shot, a pan, jump from one side to the other. The end of the crane was narrow enough to allow all these maneuvers. It was my ‘secret’: the narrower the place, the more I used my crane. I had already tried all this out on Gervaise, where much of the banquet was filmed like this. The crane is a way of moving the camera, and not simply a device to make it go up and down, as some believe. It is as if you took a weightless camera between your thumb and index finger, as if you put it on the tip of a weasel’s nose to look in every nook and cranny.

The rest of the film was shot on location. Apart from the Marge interiors, we only spent one day on a soundstage: for the scene in Ripley’s apartment, which was shot in Joinville.

How did you work with Rota?

He was a marvelous, multitalented character, with an admirable understanding of images. When he asked me what kind of music I wanted for Purple Noon, I still didn’t ‘hear’ any, but I had quite a specific intuition. ‘What do we see in this film?’ I asked him. ‘The Bay of Naples. And for me, Naples is Bellini. I can easily see Norma. That’s Ripley. It’s ‘Casta Diva.’’ We started thinking about it, and we got a melody line from Bellini. What was I looking for? I wanted to understand what Greenleaf, Marge, and maybe Ripley liked about the Bay of Naples. I saw a ship dancing on the waves, going toward that island – and anytime you go toward an island, all sorts of legends come alive – leaving again . . . You have to admit, it is quite pleasant to let yourself be rocked by that beautiful light, with those bluish mountains dominating the dark blue horizon, that calm, that mildness, those jasmine and orange-tree scents crossing the entire bay . . .


The credits start with this theme, but we don’t reach the end of it. And we nibble at it bit by bit, measure by measure, painstakingly moving forward . . . And Ripley has to work hard to make a living.

To start a theme and leave it hanging is to create a tension; the viewer is waiting for the chord. If you listen to the soundtrack, you’ll see how the first measures are hard and rapped out. It’s difficult to get to the first twist, which provides an answer after Ripley has had his first successes. But we’re not sure yet that we’ll get to the end, and completion is only attained over the very last shots. ‘Phew! He saved the best for last.’

Speaking of the soundtrack, it should be added that the film was entirely dubbed and that nothing remains of the original sound. The Italian sound engineer, who was used to the local method of post-synchronizing every film, had made a recording just good enough for the edit. There was interference, background noise, people talking. Everything had to be redone here. So I hired a boom operator. In order to re-create the real audio perspectives, I had him run after the actors as they went off in every direction. I remember Delon and Ronet chasing each other around the auditorium, jumping over a piano to get the right breathing, the inflections I was asking for. So Purple Noon is not truly a dubbed film; you can’t tell.

For the sound of the sea, we tried and failed to get sound from Hollywood. I decided to make it myself. I imitated the sound of the sea, the wind, and the waves at the microphone. I would record them on a tape recorder at home, then mix them in the studio. Purple Noon is the kind of film you make passionately, where every detail counts. We all believed in it.

I always tried to move forward, to evolve, rather than to repeat myself. People like to classify you. After Forbidden Games, it would have been great to say, ‘Clément equals childhood specialist.’ But what does that mean? I have always been humble in the way I situate myself vis-à-vis the fantastic means of expression in cinema, of which so much remains to be explored. I always wanted to make studies of various situations and places. It’s a workshop spirit: ‘We’ve studied that; now we’re going to study this.’ Each time, I try to take advantage of what I’ve learned, to make one plus two lead to three, and for the latest film to be the sum of all those that came before. I tried to move forward one step at a time; I go up the stairs step by step toward . . . I don’t know what floor. My life and destiny will decide that . . . People have had the impression I was searching for my way; in fact, I was always trying to go further. But perfectionism is a kind of vise that can close in on you. You have to avoid falling prey to it, and to always have more tools to tell stories.

– ‘The Kind of Film You Make Passionately’: René Clément on Purple Noon. Interview by Olivier Eyquem and Jean-Claude Missiaen. In L’avant-scène: Cinéma. February 1, 1981. Translated by Nicholas Elliott. Courtesy of www.criterion.com