Friday, 26 May 2017

Ben Gazzara: Working with John Cassavetes

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (Directed by John Cassavetes)
The great actor Ben Gazzara passed away on 3rd February 2012. Ben Gazzara was born August 28, 1930 in New York City, the son of Sicilian immigrants. After studying at The Actor’s Studio, Gazzara established himself on Broadway in the original productions of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof and A Hatful of Rain in 1955. Otto Preminger’s film Anatomy of a Murder made him a star with his powerful portrayal of a murder suspect on trial.

Gazzara’s first collaboration with John Cassavetes was the 1970 drama Husbands in which he co-starred with Cassavetes and Peter Falk as friends who go on an extended binge following the death of a mutual friend. Gazzara followed this with his seminal role in Cassavetes' masterpiece The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, playing Cosmo Vitelli, an L.A. nightclub owner in debt to the mob. He then appeared in Cassavetes’ compelling Opening Night as stage director Manny Victor who struggles with the unstable star of his show played by Cassavetes’ wife Gena Rowlands. Ben Gazzara was interviewed by Alex Simon in 2004 on his work with Cassavetes:

When did you and John first meet? 

Ben Gazzara: We were young actors in New York together. We were friendly, would say ‘hi’ to each other, but we were also rivals, up for the same parts and things, so we never became friends at that point. I was doing this TV series here in LA years later called Run For Your Life, and he was doing a couple pilots over at Universal. I asked him ‘If they both sell, which show are you going to do?’ He said ‘Neither of them. I don’t worry about that stuff. I’m not doing it for the money. I’m doing it for the raw stock and a hand-held camera, because I’m going to shoot a picture up at my house.’ And of course, that was Faces. So, time goes on, and I’m finished with the series, and I saw very little of John, and I’m leaving the studio the day I finished shooting the 86th episode, the final show of my series, and John is driving off the lot. He says ‘Ben, did Marty (Baum, their agent) tell you?’ I said ‘No, tell me what?’ ‘We’re gonna do a picture together!?’ I said ‘Oh, okay.’ I thought, ‘bullshit!’ because you hear that all the time, as an actor. Sure enough, a week later, we go to the old Hamburger Hamlet on the strip, and he tells me I’m going to be the star of Husbands, more or less.

He said ‘I’m going to Europe to shoot this gangster picture (Machine Gun McCain, 1968). I think I can get the money from this Italian producer.’ So I said, ‘okay, sure,’ still not quite believing him. I had to go to Czechoslovakia to do a war picture with George Segal and Robert Vaughn (The Bridge at Remagen, 1969), then the day the Russians moved in, that day in August, I get a call from John: ‘Ben, don’t get killed! I got the money! I got the money to make the picture!’ So I went to London, and we started rehearsing Husbands. That was 1968. And for me, it was like getting out of jail. As a young actor, I was in on the creation of projects. My first plays in New York were written around improvisation, which is what I love. Being on the TV series, sure I was making a lot of money, but I was playing the same guy in the same fuckin’ predictable situations. But here, I was free, able to let it go.

Husbands (Directed by John Cassavetes)
Tell us more about the experience of doing Husbands.

Well, John and I became dear, dear friends. We did a couple films together after that and we would’ve done more.

What was the process like, working with John?

A lot of people had the misconception that John improvised his films, which wasn’t true. We rehearsed for two or three weeks before we shot. Occasionally a scene would be completely improvised, but only occasionally. The rehearsal was in order to give the impression of it happening for the first time, and also for the purpose of rewriting. John loved to rewrite on his feet. He’d just tear things apart, and try six, seven different ways of doing things. So by the time you got on the floor, with the camera present, you were pretty secure with where you were. John’s films were made through his actors. He loved being surprised during rehearsals and wanted you find things within yourself that would even surprise you. He wasn’t afraid of taking any trip you wanted to take. The only thing John hated was if you didn’t try, if you didn’t ‘put it up,’ as he used to say. ‘Put it up!’ So I felt right at home, because that way of working was my idea of joy: where everything is open and everything is possible and nobody can do wrong. There is no wrong. It might not be right, but it ain’t wrong.

Emotionally, John’s films can be very tough to watch. Did they take a toll on you as an actor? 

Only when they were drawing to an end. It was always very tough to say goodbye to the experience, especially on Husbands, because there was a lot going on there. It was about friendship. We became friends, and who knew if we were ever going to see each other again, because most films are ‘I’ll call ya, I’ll call ya, I’ll call ya,’ and nobody ever calls anybody. But John was the glue that really kept my friendship with Peter together. Since John died, Peter and I see each other very infrequently. But when John was alive, we all used to see each other constantly.

He also did that cameo in your film Capone (1975) playing the gangster Johnny Torrio.

Yeah, he did that as a favor, he was so sweet. He walked on the set, did the scene, went back to his office on the lot! For no money! He didn’t get paid for that.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (Directed by John Cassavetes)
There are many filmmakers now, particularly on the independent scene, who have been highly influenced by John’s work. He’s left a lasting legacy.

I know, isn’t that interesting? When he was making these films, he couldn’t get a dime to make them. And now, every kid in film school is talking about his work. That was the thing about John, a lot of guys could get beaten down by rejection, but ‘no’ didn’t exist for him.

‘That which does not kill you makes you stronger.’ 

That’s right! The major studios didn’t want to do it, fine. He put up his own money. ‘I’ll do it!’ The people at the studios just didn’t get it, didn’t get the stories, didn’t get the characters.

John wasn’t afraid to have characters that weren’t necessarily likeable. Your character in Husbands, for example, was a real son of a bitch on many levels, but you still cared about the guy! 

I know. Well, he was scared, and he was ignorant. John loved that. He used to say ‘I love ignorance.’ What he meant was, the ignorant are ingenuous, but they would vent with such a strong belief. John used to say, I don’t know if he was serious or not, that he was going to make Husbands II, and the opening would be on the Grand Canal in Venice. I would be with a new, young wife, he and Peter would pull up and we’d all meet on motor boats. Wouldn’t that have been a great opening?

Yeah. They probably would’ve been there for a dental convention, right?

(laughs) Yeah, that’s right!

Let’s talk about Cosmo Vitelli, a great character. 

In his heart, in his gut, although he’s an unsophisticated man, he’s really an artist. He lives in his art, his art being this cockamamie strip show he puts on at this seedy fuckin’ joint he owns. That’s his life. And when these gangsters come to take that away, it’s thing he cares about the most. To the point of, in one of my favorite scenes, when he’s on his way to do the hit and could possibly get killed doing it, he stops to call to see how the show is going! To me, that film was a metaphor for John’s life: the never-ending battle against those nuisances who try to keep you from doing your work. (pause) Do you think Cosmo died in the end?

Yeah, absolutely. I think he sat down in front of his club and bled to death, but like a good captain, he stayed with his ship, and in that sense, he won the battle. 

Yeah. And you know something, John and I never talked about that, about whether Cosmo died or not. I never asked him and he never asked me.

But it doesn’t really matter because ultimately, that’s not what the film is about. 


Opening Night (Directed by John Cassavetes)
Let’s talk about Opening Night.

Again, we have a film about the theater. John’s theater life was very limited. He was the stage manager for a play called The Fifth Season, but I don’t think he ever acted on Broadway. But, obviously his love of the theater and memories of the theater were present here, because it’s a remarkable film. Not only is it about the theater, but it’s about aging. It’s about doing good work and what you have to call on in order to do good work. The work was the thing that was most important to John.

Was it all downhill working with other directors after you had been directed by John? 

I wouldn’t say ‘downhill,’ but it was certainly different. It such a rare and unique experience being in on the creation of an event. It’s rare to find a director with the lack of ego to do that.

- Ben Gazzara from ‘Alex Simon: Remembering John Cassavetes’. Full article here.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Schrader and Bresson: Seeing and Showing

Pickpocket (Directed by Robert Bresson)
Paul Schrader interviewed renowned French director Robert Bresson in 1976 at Bresson’s apartment in Paris overlooking the Seine, while on the way to Cannes where Taxi Driver was to be shown. Schrader regarded Bresson as the ‘most important spiritual artist living - a spiritual artist who has forged a style so singular it resists imitation’. The article appeared in Film Comment a year after the interview. Bresson had initially objected to its publication after seeing an advance copy and thought it ‘flat and uninteresting’. His producer disagreed and Bresson eventually relented. This is an extract from the final section:

Paul Schrader: You say in your book (Notes on the Cinematographer): make rules, but don’t be afraid to break them.

Robert Bresson: Yes, yes. I don’t think much of tech­nique, or making technique a part of things. If you find a new way to catch life, nature, this could change details, but not the whole. I don’t think so much of what I do when I work, but I try to feel something, to see without explaining, to catch it as near as I can — that’s all. And that’s why I don’t move so much. It’s like approaching a wild animal. If you are too brusque about it, it will run away. I think you must think a lot in the intervals of working and writing, but when you work, you mustn’t think anymore. Thinking is a terrible enemy. You should try to work not with your intelligence, but with your senses and your heart. With your intuition.

I absolutely agree. Symptoms are univer­sal, causes are particular. Symptoms are more interesting because we all have the symptoms, but we have different causes. Movies should be about symptoms rather than about causes.

It is very difficult to see things. So many times you go walking in the street, you look at things, but you don’t see them. If you see the look in a man’s eyes and at the same time see the reason why he is looking as he is, you are not touched.

If movies provide the symptoms truly, the viewer will supply the causes. 

I want people to guess, to think. But it must be very clean and sharp, not fuzzy and confusing. Today movies make people want to know everything in advance, to be shown everything in a way I don’t understand.

What l love about movies is that if you and I are here talking and if you re-cut so that we are now talking in New York, the audience will assume that somehow we got from Paris to New York. You can do the very same thing in spiritual ways. If you show a situation and if you cut to another place, the audience will make the leap with you. The audience will jump across the ocean with you.

Yes, but if you don’t show a succession of things exactly as they are in life, people stop understanding. Pornography has brought that to the cinema, that you must see everything. So the public is now conditioned to films where you show everything. It is terrible, I can’ t work anymore. If I can’ t make people guess, if I am obliged to show everything, it doesn’t interest me to work.

I think that movies and pornography are different. I , personally, am not threatened by explicit movies. In Notes you say ‘the nude, if it is not beautiful, is obscene.’ Do you feel that the explicit is by its very nature wrong?

When it is explicit, it is not sexual. The same as mystery. If you don’t make people guess, there is nothing there.

I believe that sex is mysterious whether you see it or not.

Yes, but when you see too much, it is not mysterious anymore.

Even if you see it all, it is still mysterious.

Only what is lovely - sexual life is beautiful - but how they do it in pornographic films is ugly and dirty.

Light Sleeper (Directed by Paul Schrader)
But could you not show pornography show people fucking - and also be mysterious? It is no less mysterious than watching me drink from the glass.

Not by showing things, but by my sensation of things. Making people feel how I feel. The most important and the most real is my way of feeling - to make people have the same sensation that I have in front of things.

Would you not agree that you learn no more about sexual feeling from seeing pornography than you learn about what cognac tastes like by watching me drink this?

You are quite right. There is no art in only showing things as they are, in a filmed succession of things. An idiot could see what is in front of his eyes and that’s all. If you try to make people feel and think instead of hearing and seeing, then it is artistic.

Do you oppose pornography on moral grounds or on artistic grounds?

Not on moral grounds.

Artistic grounds?


If you could use the new eroticism, would you?

No. Pornography is false sexual life.

But all films are false.

Not to love. Not with a work of art. I tried to see a few pornographic films, but I left because they turned sexual life into something horrible which doesn’t exist. Perhaps for some people, but not for me.

It’s like violence; it has to be used in a certain way. There is a parody of violence in FOUR NIGHTS OF A DREAMER. The suicides are always non-violent; why?

Because I do not like violence. When you see violence in a movie, you know that it is false. It doesn’t touch me at all.

Suicide is a very violent act.

It’s very violent inside you, but it’s not very violent to watch.

For me, the notion of suicide is one of violence. It’s the idea of blasting things out of your head which are destroying you; you don’t really want to die, you want to destroy the way you are thinking. Suicide involves a lot of violence, a lot of blood, it’s an explosion inside your head. I see suicide much more violently than you do. I’m moved when Mouchette rolls, when Femme Douce leaps, when Balthazar falls. I’m moved when the cross comes up in COUNTRY PRIEST, but to me, giving oneself to death is a very violent act, and I would never kill myself in a nonviolent way.

I couldn’t show violence, the blood, and those terrible things, because it would have been faked for the movie. People would say, ‘How did they do that?’

I understand your objection.

Sometimes you see things well done of this sort, but it is not moving – because you know it is false, because it is forced. But what you can do is have the sensation of death. You can be moved by death if you don’t show it, if you suggest it. But if you show it, it’s finished. The same thing about love. You don’t feel love if you see two people making love.

Lancelot Du Lac (Directed by Robert Bresson)
I sense a progression in your films: from the exterior to the interior life, from Amore to Therese in LES DAMES DUBOIS BOULOUGNE, from the Countess to the Priest in COUNTRY PRIEST, finally to the object itself in BALTHAZAR, to purely the external like a graphic object. Ozu did the same thing: he turned to a vase. So many movies are based upon the two-dimensional image of the face – the icon of the face. One thing that bothered me about LANCELOT is that you don’t see the faces.

I don’t know what you mean.

This has to be a conscious decision, because many times in LANCELOT the frame line is just below the face. Then when you see the face, it is often covered by a helmet. When he comes to pray in front of the cross, you see him entirely, you see his face. 

I don’t see what you mean.

In your other films, one always remembers the faces, but in LANCELOT, one doesn’t.

Because the face is not special. It doesn’t work. His face was a very difficult face to take.

Are you saying that the reason the camera doesn’t focus on Lancelot’s face is because you weren’t happy with the actor.

No, I didn’t say that. I say that there are faces which are different from others.

I think it’s very clear that you are not as interested in Lancelot’s face as you were in Michel’s, or Fontaine’s, or even Joan of Arc’s.

I understand what you mean, but it is not proof for me. I don’t see how you can say that.

Are you less interested in faces?

On the contrary. I am more and more interested in faces. You say in LANCELOT you don’t see his face?

So often the mask is over it.

The way it was photographed, per­haps. Maybe the difference between black and white and color.

I also have a sense that in past films you did actions in three’s. In LANCELOT, everything was done in five’s.

I don’t understand what you mean.

You usually did things five times. If it was the jousting combat, you would see the lance five times. Or the horses’ feet: in past films you would see a shot of the feet three times, in LANCELOT, five times.

It was unconscious. I needed it five times. I don’t know why. Perhaps it was a hidden reason. I did not show it five times instead of three on purpose.

Do you love iconography?

I like to start with a flat expression, as flat as possible, so that the expression comes when all the shots are put together. The more flat it is when I am shooting, the more expressive it is edited.

Taxi Driver (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
When you come back from Cannes, are you going to pass by Paris?

No, unfortunately I have to get back. This is a strange trip for me because I was too busy, actually, to make it.

But you are pleased with your film, TAXI DRIVER?


Are you going to have the big prize at Cannes?

I think so.

You are pleased with it?

Yes. Although it is not directed the way I would direct it. I wrote an austere film and it was directed in an expressionistic way. I think that the two qualities work together. There is a tension in the film that is very interesting.

Why didn’t you shoot it yourself?

I hope to direct shortly. I am still very young and it takes a while. In TAXI DRIVER, I had great faith in the director and the actor, who are friends. I believed in what they would do.

So I will see it and write to you.

- Paul Schrader: ‘Robert Bresson, Probably’. From Film Comment, Sept/Oct 1977 (full interview at:

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Walter Hill: Last Man Standing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Welles was the first?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, I was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What inspired ‘Southern Comfort’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or ‘The Three White Guys Who Caught Geronimo’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Were you wearing waders?

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

So nobody had to ‘act’ exhausted.

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

What were the circumstances of the American release?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your S.O.P. in that regard?

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

Which of your films was most rehearsed?

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

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

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

Were they expecting a more traditional comedy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucky for you!

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

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

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

Friday, 12 May 2017

Theo Angelopoulos: Voyages, Partings, Wanderings

The Weeping Meadow (Directed by Theo Angelopoulos)
The great Greek director Theo Angelopoulos was tragically killed yesterday while filming in Athens. Widely regarded as a true master of modern cinema, Angelopoulos developed one of the most unique styles in the history of film-making, involving an innovative handling of time and space based on long, elaborate takes of great eloquence and beauty.

He established his international reputation with the epic The Travelling Players (1975) and went on to direct the remarkable O Megalexandros (1980) and Landscape in the Mist (1988). In his later films Angelopoulos used well-known actors to reach a wider audience - Marcello Mastroianni in The Beekeeper (1986), Harvey Keitel in Ulysses’ Gaze (1995), Bruno Ganz in Eternity and a Day (1998) and Willem Dafoe in The Dust of Time (2008).

The critic David Thomson wrote of Angelopoulos that: ‘By now, it has become clear that his style is deeply personal and poetic - and, of course, it has to be experienced, for the work is not just plastic but temporal. When Angelopoulos moves, he is sailing in time as well as space, and the shifts, the progress, the traveling make a metaphor for history and understanding.’

This is a transcript of a speech 
in which Angelopoulos reflects on cinema, his work and Greece. It was delivered at the University of Essex in 2001 when Angelopoulos was awarded an honorary degree from the Centre for Film Studies:

My relationship with Cinema began almost as a nightmare. It was in ‘46 or ‘47, I don’t quite recall. The post-war years, a time when a lot of people were going to the movies and we, the kids, sneaked in among the jostling adults standing in line at the box office, in order to disappear in the magic darkness of the balcony. I saw many movies then, but the first one was a Michael Curtiz film Angels With Dirty Faces.

There’s a scene in the film where the hero is led to the electric chair by two guards.  As they walk, their shadows grow larger and larger against the wall. Suddenly, a cry…‘I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die’. For a long time afterwards this cry haunted my nights. Cinema entered my life with a shadow that grew larger on a wall and a cry.

I began to write at a very early age, at the same time, overwhelmed by the tumult and the emotion that the turbulence of previous history had created in me. The sirens of war in 1940.

The Travelling Players (Directed by Theo Angelopoulos)
The German army of occupation entering a deserted Athens. First sounds, first images. Then the Civil War of ‘44. The slaughter. My father condemned to death. My mother’s hand trembling in mine as we searched for his body among dozens of others, in a field. A long time later a message from him, from afar. His return on a rainy day.The first stories. The first contact with words, words in search of an image  I didn’t know then. I understood quite some time later when I wrote the words in my first script.  The words were ‘it’s raining’.

In my days, Homer and the ancient tragic poets constituted part of the school curriculum. The ancient myths inhabit us and we inhabit them. We live in a land full of memories, ancient stones and broken statues. All contemporary Greek art bears the mark of this co-existence.

It would be impossible for the path I have followed, the course I have taken, for my thinking not to have been infused by all of this. As the poet says, ‘they emerged from the dream, as I entered the dream. So our lives were joined together and it will be very difficult to part them again.’

From very early on, my relationship with literature and poetry brought me close to all the investigations, whether language or aesthetics, of modernism. Later, in the beginning of the sixties, in Paris, in the days of political activism, Brecht’s epic theatre which refuted, up to a point, Aristotle’s definition of dramatic art, was becoming a point of reference.

It was years before I went back to Aristotle and his definition of tragedy: ‘Tragedy is an imitation of a worthy or illustrious and perfect action…’ It was years before I discovered that Molly’s monologue in the last chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses is nothing but a distant echo of the astonishing description of Achilles’ arms from Homer’s Iliad.

Reconstruction, my first film, was born in the period of dictatorship of the Colonels as an attempt to piece together the truth out of its fragments. Reconstruction not as a goal, but as a journey. The little stories as they are reflected but also determined by the greater History.

Ulysses’ Gaze (Directed by Theo Angelopoulos)
The father is symbol, presence and absence, as a metaphorical concept as well as a point of reference.  The journey, borders, exile. Human fate. The eternal return. Themes that pursued me and still pursue me.  All my obsessions enter and exit my films, as the instruments of an orchestra enter and exit, as they fall silent only to re-emerge later. We are condemned to function with our obsessions. We make but one film, we write but one book. Variations and fugues on the same theme.

Many of those who have done me the honour of concerning themselves with my work think that my manner of writing is the result of political choice. That’s not quite how it is. Of course, while I was shooting Days of ‘36, a film about dictatorship during a time of dictatorship, it was impossible to use direct references. I sought a secret language. The allusions of History. The ‘dead time’ of a conspiracy. Suppression.  Elliptical speech an aesthetic principle. A film in which all the important things appear to take place off camera. But my choice of long takes does not stem from this fact.

Working with long takes was not a logical decision. I have always thought it was a natural choice. A need to incorporate natural time and space, as unity of space and time. A need for the so-called ‘dead time’ between action and the expectation of action, which is usually eliminated by the editor’s scissors, to function musically, like pauses. A concept of the shot as a living cell which inhales, delivers the main word and exhales. A fascinating and dangerous choice which continues to the present day.

I have been working with the same team of collaborators since the time I began. They know me and I know them. With the years they have become my family. They often make me angry when we work, I miss them when I don’t see them. I feel uncertain when a new technician joins the team, as though everything depends on this new person. I talk to them about my plans and my uncertainties. So many years have gone by and still the same agitation, the same uncertainty, the same need for us to be close, holding our breath, and waiting for the end of the shot.

O Megalexandros/Alexander the Great (Directed by Theo Angelopoulos)
Voyages, partings, wanderings. A car, a photographer friend driving in silence and the road.

Very often I think that my only home, the only place where I feel a sense of equilibrium, a peace of mind, is sitting next to my friend who’s driving. The open window, the landscape flitting past.

Images are born during these journeys. I don’t have to keep notes. They are born with their silhouettes, with their colours, with their style, very often with their camera movements as well, with their aesthetic balances, with their light. The hundreds of photographs serve as memory. But nothing ends before the film is shot. During the shooting of the film everything is recreated on the basis of this new reality.  Actors, unforeseen events, fortunate or unfortunate, sudden ideas.

And yet the beginning has preceded it. Long before. From the time when out of nothing, the idea for the film is born. Almost thirty years have gone by since my first film. I could paraphrase TS Eliot and say:

‘So here I am, in the middle way.

My years largely wasted amid the rages of History,

still trying to learn to use images.

And my every attempt is a wholly new start and a kind of failure because we only learn when we no longer have to express ourselves.

And so each new venture is a new beginning in the general mess of imprecision of feeling. Undisciplined squads of emotion.

A raid on the inarticulate.

To recover what has been lost, and found, and lost again.

To recover…

In my end is my beginning.’

- Theo Angelopoulos (1935 - 2012)

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Takeshi Kitano: Flowers and Gunfire

Hana-Bi (Directed by Takeshi Kitano)
Takeshi Kitano began his career as a comedian and television presenter in the 1970s as part of the popular Japanese comedy duo ‘The Two Beats’ with Kaneko Kiyoshi. Kitano went on to establish himself as one of Japan’s most important film directors starting with the 1989 police thriller Violent Cop, when the inexperienced Kitano assumed the film’s reins when the original director left the project. Kitano spent the ’90s alternating between quiet, reflective works such as the surfing drama A Scene At The Sea (1991), the coming-of-age story Kids Return (1996), the road comedy Kikujiro (1999), and melancholy crime films like Boiling Point (1990), Sonatine (1993), and Hana-Bi (or Fireworks, 1997). Kitano’s reputation in the West rests largely on these latter two films, with their mix of dedpan comedy, graphic violence, austere visuals and pensive drama.

The story of a good cop with an explosive violent streak, Hana-Bi was Takeshi Kitano’s seventh film and transcends the structure of a crime thriller to explore questions of life and death. Set in Kitano’s familiar world of hard-boiled cops and ruthless yakuza, the film is a moving story of friendship, marriage and sacrifice. Detective Nishi (played by Kitano) is torn between his commitment to his job and his duty to his terminally ill wife. When Horibe, his partner, is gunned down while Nishi is visiting his wife in the hospital, he leaves the police force and embarks on a violent and tragicomic quest for justice and redemption. Throughout the film, beautiful, eerie paintings and drawings (also the work of this multi- talented filmmaker) mirror and foreshadow its powerful story. 

The Japanese word ‘hanabi’ translates into ‘fireworks’ in English. But Fireworks’ Japanese title is spelled with a hyphen: Hana-Bi, symbolizing the film’s themes. Hana (flower) is the symbol of life while Bi (fire) represents gunfire, and so death.

The following excerpts are from an interview with Takeshi Kitano by Makoto Shinozaki
 on the release of Hana-Bi and appeared in Studio Voice Magazine in November 1997:

Hana-Bi (Directed by Takeshi Kitano)
Shinozaki: Many critics are already calling ‘Fireworks (Hana-Bi)’ a culmination of your six earlier films, but ‘Fireworks’ is clearly different in certain ways from your older films and I think this is reflected in the way you shot the film too. What do you think?

Kitano: Making a film is a collaborative effort. It’s not just the story or the acting, but it’s also the performance of the crew around you. Like who is your assistant director, who does camera for you. Until now, my cameraman was Mr. Yanagijima, but this time he was studying in England, so I asked the assistant cameraman to shoot it. Of course, he was very excited and was all geared up. But when I thought about this cameraman, I realized it would be rude to ask him to shoot it exactly the way Yanagijima did. So I told him we were going to move the camera a lot this time. He was practicing in the back. In the scene where there’s all that shooting in the Mercedes in the snow, I told him to shoot it from above. He was on a crane shooting from all angles. Normally, I wouldn’t have the camera do such complicated movements. I was thinking that this way, by asking him to do something a little bit more challenging, he would really feel like he was being asked to do it his way and not his old boss’s. The film turned out great because of the dedication and the teamwork of the crew.

Hana-Bi (Directed by Takeshi Kitano)
In your previous films, it seems you shot the characters straight on and the mise-en-scene was also very bare with the least amount of distractions. In ‘Fireworks’, you use the vertical space very imaginatively, placing the actors in the back of the shot, moving the camera around a lot. For example, the scene when Nishi and Miyuki’s doctor are talking, they are set up in the back of the shot and in the front, you put the fuzzy head of the nurse.

I put the head of the nurse where it bothered the viewer the most. That shot was not going to hold your attention long enough for the conversation between Nishi and the doctor to end, even though the tree outside the window with the green leaves blowing in the wind was a nice touch. When I put the nurse in the front of the shot, she was really in the way. But when I shot her out of focus, it had a different effect. My staff had a fit. According to the rules of filmmaking, it’s the last thing you’re supposed to do. But when I did it, it kind of worked. Film theory is always evolving and the audience is evolving with it. I think we can afford to turn things around a little, and the audience will follow. That shot is weird, but I figured I could get away with it. That's something I realized while shooting Sonatine. There was a shot in the film where the camera was supposed to pan and follow a passing car. The cameraman panicked during the pan and lost the car from the shot, having to move the camera around to find it again. He was mortified, but I okayed the shot. He protested that when shots like that are used, it gives him a bad reputation, but I wanted to use it. When Sonatine was shown in England, they commented on that very shot, claiming that the shaking of the camera foreshadows what is to come in the film. They asked if I had instructed the camera to do that, so I lied and said I did. It made me laugh. I thought to myself, ‘Hey a mistake can be a good thing too.’ When things are too perfect, it’s no fun. There are parts that need to be shot precisely, but a certain looseness is nice too. I thought about those things while shooting Fireworks.

Hana-Bi (Directed by Takeshi Kitano)
You go back and forth in time a lot too in this film.

I re-edited the film 14 times, I think. I called in the editor so many times. I’d tell him ‘We’re going to change the whole thing.’ And he’d say ‘Again?’ So we’d do it all over and I would proclaim it done, only to have him tell me that this was exactly the same as the first cut. So we’d recut again. I really didn’t want to use a flashback, but if you don’t some people won't understand the story. So I did it in a way that was most informative without becoming tedious.

I felt that in ‘Fireworks’, you were actively inserting certain elements into each shot. So I think it’s unfair just to call this film a survey of all your other films. Those who say that are not watching the film carefully enough. I think the filmmaking style has a different air. Like in the shot where Nishi is visiting his wife at the hospital, you give the shot an edge by using the nurse's movement through the vertical space of the shot. Also when Nishi is walking away from the lakeside toward the camera, it cranes down slowly to reveal the backs of the two yakuzas in the foreground. These shots actively utilize the vertical space, which was not the case in your other films.

That sort of vertical movement started in A Scene at the Sea ... In this film I really thought about being creative in the way I shot things, especially in the action sequences. I experimented with a lot of styles. Sometimes it worked and other times I had to settle for shooting it in a conventional way. I thought of doing a whole shoot out with just the sound of the bullets. But seeing this Mercedes in the distance and hearing the gun shots is a boring way to end the film. And I’ve done that in Sonatine. The shot where I use a knife worked well, I think, using the shadow.

Hana-Bi (Directed by Takeshi Kitano)
In that shot with the knife, I felt the audience catch their breath. Hollywood films these days are so sloppy. You see the explosions coming a mile away. They’re so predictable. What I miss most in movies today are those moments that they catch you by surprise and shock you.

Hollywood films used to be able to shock you with the explosions themselves. Those were the times. The audience loved it back then. But then it became bigger and bigger, and we got used to the most amazing explosions. None of it shocks us anymore. It’s like a fireworks show. It gets old fast to be told that they’re going up and then seeing them explode. If you don’t expect it, a little firecracker can scare you. I think that’s the way to do it.

I think another thing that is different in this film is the way you capture landscapes. Until now, when you shot the beach, it was any old beach and your shots of the city were often run-down factories or places of exposed concrete – drab, dreary settings. But this time, you’ve got Mount Fuji, a cherry blossom in full bloom ... you seem to be seeking to capture a traditionally Japanese landscape.

How shall I put this ... If it were two men standing in front of Mount Fuji, there would be nothing more absurd. But in this film it’s a couple. I figured it was all right if it was a woman standing next to you. If it’s a couple going to a typical tourist spot, it works all right, especially if the characters are loaded with dark pasts. Like a terminal illness. That makes the scene suddenly very tragic. If I had a very happy healthy couple go to Mount Fuji it would be kind of lame, but since the guy is volatile and dangerous, I figure I could have him stand anywhere. So I might as well choose a picturesque place that I haven’t used before. I had not shot Mount Fuji before.

Hana-Bi (Directed by Takeshi Kitano)
The shot where Horibe, Nishi’s ex-partner, played by Ren Osugi, is sitting in his wheelchair underneath the cherry blossoms made a real impression on me.

People see that shot and ask me if I’m a fan of Seijun Suzuki. I figured I could get away with having Mr. Osugi under the cherry tree even if it’s a little cheesy because the character is a painter. Also, it’s not that he just went out to see the blossoms because he didn’t have anything else to do – he just attempted suicide, and finally decided to start painting. To have him under the cherry blossoms with all that history makes the scene much more significant.

I really liked the fact that we don’t get this very emotional close up of Mr. Osugi’s face looking up at the tree. Instead we have a long shot of this lone figure of a man in a wheelchair underneath this blossoming tree. Not to say that there is any influence or connection, but this scene for some odd reason reminded me of Nagisa Oshima’s ‘Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence’. That film is set entirely in the jungle with no landscapes resembling Japan and you certainly don’t see any cherry blossoms. There is one moment in the film, however, where the character played by Ryuichi Sakamoto tells Mr. Lawrence that if he could, he would like to invite every single prisoner to see a cherry tree in full bloom. Mr. Lawrence replies that what he remembers of Japan is the frozen tree in the midst of a landscape covered in snow. As a film, the two have nothing in common, but somehow after I saw the movie, I thought of Mr. Oshima.

Yes, it’s not an influence in the style of shooting or anything like that, but we share a certain mind set. There are other moments in the film where I feel we share a certain state of mind. So I guess I was influenced by him, or something of my experience with him stayed with me.

Hana-Bi (Directed by Takeshi Kitano)
I believe that a director is the greatest critic of his own films. I get the feeling that you are constantly rejecting your previous films with your new film ...

I think that’s right. For example, others consider their bad films failures. I pick up on the faults of the film and I criticize myself, but I would not call the film a failure. If there are three things about the film that are good, those are the three souvenirs the film left me and I don’t need anything else. Then in the next film I collect a couple more and they add up. I made Fireworks with all the good things that I’ve collected over the years from different films, and in that sense, it is a survey of the past. It’s a film born of all the good parts of all my past films. If they want to call it a survey of my past works, I guess it’s a survey ...

But even if it is a survey, it’s not that you just abbreviate and combine your past films, nor is it that you just refine your past films. The other thing that’s different about this film that I wanted to ask you about is the color. You seem to be actively involving all sorts of bright colors. One thing is, you have included your own paintings in this film which must have something to do with it. If ‘Sonatine’ was based on the color blue and it was your blue period, ‘Fireworks’ is ...

The critics at Venice still thought the film was ‘Kitano blue.’ I didn't get it, but they told me that the blue I use in my films is called Kitano blue. I thought that was nice. I do use blue as my base color, but I try to use it adventurously. I really can’t shoot the city, though. I hate shooting Chinatown at night or something. Too many colors. But I figure now is the time to practice so that one day I can shoot those kind of colors too. As part of the practice, I included all those bright paintings. A painting is not a landscape, so I thought I could deal with it. I could be bold with the paintings, but the city is still shot in very subdued colors because I don’t think I have the technique or the confidence to use bright color for that. So the landscapes are still blue. I made my splash of color with the paintings and the blossom tree, but my base is still blue.

Hana-Bi (Directed by Takeshi Kitano)
Even in the shot at the hospital, there is a bunch of brightly colored flowers by the door. Was that something you put there for the shoot?

No, it happened to be there. I told them, if you see flowers during the shoot, film them. When we went to the beach, these fish happened to be jumping so we shot it. There is no significance to those shots. You could have a man and a woman on a beach, and a third person and that person would mean nothing to the couple. Even if you share the same shot and space, there is no relationship. It’s like that in real life – things that are completely unrelated exist side by side. It’s the same with the flowers. You see flowers there and you don’t know why they’re there, but they just are. I’m not shooting the flowers with some heavy significance but I’m introducing them as bits of color. The red of a flower in the blue. It paves the way to all the primary colors in the paintings. The reason why I had the film start with my paintings is to familiarize the audience with my paintings. You have to introduce them slowly because otherwise, if they’re hit over the head with it, the film could potentially end before they get over it and understand the film.

Regarding color, when I interviewed you a while back, you told me that after the accident, you began to experience color much more vividly. Thinking about that, my very favorite scene in this film, the scene that moves me greatly and at the same time upsets me, is the scene where Horibe first encounters color at the florist. I imagine that this cop had lived completely indifferent to colors until that very moment and right then he realizes for the first time that he was surrounded by all this color. Did you have a moment after the accident when you experienced this?

It was flowers for me too. Until then, I was stepping on flowers, and I scoffed and mocked the idea of sending flowers to women. Then I had the bike accident and my head hit the pavement and I was destroyed ... I was walking around with my bandaged eye, because I had nothing better to do, and I came to a florist where I began staring at the flowers. Then I realized that they were each so different from the other and I was really struck by it. I thought maybe I should paint them. I bought the paint and the supplies. I looked at some stuff van Gogh did, and realized I could never paint like that. But I couldn’t shake the notion of painting the flowers. I wondered how I could do it, when the idea of arranging them into something else came to mind. Looking at a sunflower I thought it looked like a lion. This idea made me so happy. So I painted the lion with the sunflower head. I had that painting way before I started shooting the film. And then one looked like a deer, another leaf looked like a penguin. They would keep coming to me. It was really instantaneous. In this film, I wanted to show that this guy Horibe doesn’t know where he’s heading but is somehow drawn to the florist and ends up there. He suddenly wants to paint so badly and he is so happy to have discovered this new thing, he buys a bunch of flowers and the images keep coming to him ...

Hana-Bi (Directed by Takeshi Kitano)
I got the feeling that it wasn’t that he was trying to create images from the flowers, rather that the images kept seeping out of him.

Yeah, like there is this voice inside of him saying ‘Do it, do it.’ It’s as if the flowers are telling him who he is and what he should do while he himself is just sitting in front of the store consumed.

I like Mr. Osugi’s expression there because it’s very natural.

I told him to continue staring at the flowers. He couldn’t take it anymore and tears started running down his face. I continued rolling, and the minute I said cut, he apologized for crying. Before the next shot, he asked me if I wanted tears, and I told him it wasn’t necessary. I didn’t want him to be staring all teary eyed.

But when the woman comes out and asks him she can help him and we cut back to Horibe, he’s no longer crying. 

The make up person was bothered by that. They said I was just being lazy. It doesn’t take much to do this, just a few eye drops. But I just didn’t want it.

I thought that you probably didn’t want that scene to be sappy. Even the actual moment that Horibe begins to cry looking at the flowers is cut out. One of the paintings is inserted in that spot and when you come back his cheeks are already wet. Normally, that’s the part you want to keep in as a tearjerker. Instead the colors tell it all and that made it very moving.

I like that scene very much myself. I was really geared up to shoot that scene. The opening scene in the parking lot and this scene were the two that I knew I was going to have in the film while I was shooting.

Hana-Bi (Directed by Takeshi Kitano)
That opening is very cinematic even just reading the script. When I read it, the image just came to me. The way the parking lot would be shot, the shot where the blue sky is reflected on the hood of the car ...

Like the apartment by the sea where Horibe lives. The reason why I chose that place is because the roof of the crappy house behind it is blue. All blue. I set my heart on that house. ‘Well if we shoot here, where exactly does Horibe live?’ asked a crew member. I told him I didn’t know. I figure if we shoot him coming home this way, the audience will just assume he lives somewhere over there. The crew complained that they had to build a door. I told them it’s not the morning soap opera, I’m not going to have shots of him going in and out of his apartment. All I needed was the inside of the apartment. I liked the blue of the roof, I wanted to shoot there. If the roof was of a different color it wouldn’t be half as interesting. And it was by the sea ... I really was fanatically picky about the blue. That also meant that whenever any other color was introduced, I was doubly cautious as well.

That’s why the colors that you introduce in your paintings, like the yellow of the gingko leaf, are that much more vivid.

When you have a dark blue next to a light blue, it doesn’t stand out in any way. To make a color pop out you have to bring a completely opposite color next to it. That’s why I wanted the base color to be blue and then use other colors to punctuate the look of the film – give the film an edge.

The placement of color was important to you.

I really thought about Kayoko Kishimoto’s costume too. Not just in terms of color, but I didn’t want her to look too domestic. I wanted this couple to have many dynamics – like sometimes the wife could be the mother and the husband is the son or vice versa. I didn’t want them to have a very man/woman relationship. The reason why I didn’t have them talk too much to each other is because in my mind, a conversation between a man and a woman often leads to sex. I wanted to get rid of any sexual tension by doing away with the talking, and I thought I could show their relationship better by just portraying the moments they shared together. Just because his wife is ill, I was not going to have the guy ask her if she’s all right every place they went. I hate that.

Hana-Bi (Directed by Takeshi Kitano)
You don’t need that because you really get the feeling that he cares for her deeply without all those words. Now I’ve spent a lot of time talking to you about the technical aspects of filmmaking, but I really find the charm of your film to be more in the way your own life experiences are reflected in your films ... Of course, it doesn’t necessarily mean the character is the director. Filmmaking isn’t that simple ... But after watching this film, the thought crossed my mind was that perhaps in ‘Fireworks’, you consider the various possibilities of what might have happened to you after the accident and project them onto the two characters, Nishi and Horibe.

Well, I feel like I’m found out. It puts me in a slightly defensive position. Horibe is obviously definitely an image of myself after the accident. You know, I was the king of prime time. Then the motorbike accident happened and some people left me. It made me realize that some people obviously didn’t really care about me. So I thought ‘Maybe I’ll take up painting.’ On the other hand, there was also that incident where we raided the publishing company. I thought that was the end of me. But I did it for a woman, you know. I really thought I was done for in society. I was lucky to have been able to come back to television after that. I felt I did what I had to do to prove my love for her. I felt I had to go. That was reflected in Nishi. The friendship and strong bond between Nishi and Horibe is a reflection of my relationship with my troupe. I single-handedly pulled my whole crew into that raid and we could have all become convicts. One of my guys still recounts with tears in his eyes how I told them I would take care of them, even if that meant I had to be a construction worker. I asked them to forgive me. I guess little bits of my essence end up in the films and in the characters. So I don’t want to say it too loud, but I think it’s inevitable. That’s why I hate people who are only interested in film. I think people should be many things. It’s all right if you get into a fight. There will be a moment when that experience will come in handy. A director has to study the techniques of filmmaking, but more importantly, it’s about what you have of your own to put into the film. I think good things and bad things can be 50/50 in life. So I dislike it when something good happens. I mean this film was a good thing, right? The reason why I can keep going, is because I never let myself be as happy as others expect me to. I feel like I’m going to die if I’m too happy because they’ll just say, ‘Hey, you’ve had enough fun, you’re done’. I think that’s why I’ve succeeded in so many areas. It’s not to be pompous. It’s just that I feel if I let myself be completely satisfied, I couldn’t move onto the next thing.

Sonatine (Directed by Takeshi Kitano)
We talked about your crew, and though they’re not major characters in this movie, a number of them have smaller roles supporting you from afar. Like the doctor who gives Nishi a new shirt at the hospital, and the junkyard owner ...

How they support Nishi is important. Like the junkyard owner played by Tetsu Watanabe. When he first appears he is beating somebody up violently. How do you make a guy like that warm to you? Nishi goes to buy a scrapped police light from the junkyard and when he asks the owner about it, he takes off his sunglasses. It’s courtesy. If some punk came to him with his shades and said ‘Sell this to me,’ he would tell him to get lost. It’s a small thing, but it’s the way it works in certain neighborhoods. There is a feeling that what you give is what you get – whether it’s respect or it’s attitude. It’s the way some men bring each other’s guard down. I wanted him to play the character that way.

There is an instant bond between the two characters.

The chemistry between two guys is often decided instantaneously. It’s the same with communication between men and women too. But I feel it’s not all the things that are said between them, rather it’s all in the small things you do for each other.

It’s not that you decide whether you like the other person or not depending on what he does or says before, but rather that it’s decided instantaneously the moment you meet.

I really have a habit of doing that. Even if it’s a guy I’ve never met, I pretty much know the moment I see him. When friends introduce me to their friends I know instantly if it works or not.

Sonatine (Directed by Takeshi Kitano)
Now that you’ve made seven films, does the fact that you’ve succeeded in film give you more freedom?

Sonatine was a turning point for me. I could have gone towards making a sonata from there or gone pop. With Fireworks, I feel I went closer to a sonata. I don’t want to use any guns in my next film. If you make the same sort of film again, even if you make it more intense, it doesn’t really make an impression. If you make a film from a completely different perspective it will be more shocking. Everyone around me says since Fireworks was such a success, do another one, but that’s the same as Tora-san series. I don’t like that. Though with Getting Any? I failed by doing something different. That’s why this time, I want to do something different and succeed. I want my next film to be the kind of film where the audience starts dancing as the end credits start rolling. I think this comes from my background in live stand up comedy. The audience used to get into it so much they were still laughing at us through the next act. In the same token, if I could make a movie where the audience was dancing at the end, that would be a great service. I think films should be capable of doing that. Even at film festivals, the audience gives standing ovations while the director stands outside the theater. It’s the audience’s way of thanking the director and congratulating him. I think the director should get them going even more – not just clapping. We can make a film where people are hugging and crying throughout it. We should move the audience more.

Last question. I asked you this after you wrapped ‘Sonatine’ also, but now that you’ve completed seven films: what is film to you?

I thought at first that film was the pus created when Japan became infected by the disease called Westernization. But now I feel that pus has transformed itself into a good tissue. Inside of me that is. From a young age, I’ve experienced and absorbed many things. When I wondered which culture it came from, I realized it was the one that sneaked in – the American culture. I’m just an old timer infected by this culture creating a paper theater, but I’d like to keep creating better paper theater.

– Excerpts from an interview with Takeshi Kitano by Makoto Shinozaki
. ‘Studio Voice Magazine’, November 1997.