Thursday 24 September 2020

John Cassavetes: On the Making of Husbands

Husbands (Directed by John Cassavetes)
Subtitled a ‘comedy about life, death and freedom’ John Cassavetes’ extraordinary drama Husbands tells the story of three suburban family men who react to a friend’s premature death by embarking on an extended binge, initially in New York and then London. Cassavetes conceived the film as a showcase for the acting talents of himself, Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara, basing the story around incidents from his own life and writing the dialogue after extended improvising with Gazzara and Falk. In the actors’ fully realized performances – replete with emotional outbursts and boisterous clowning – these long-suppressed characters’ identities break out in a provocative and uncompromising journey into the psyche of the American male. Cassavetes focuses on the complex emotions and relationships that constrain individual freedom, exposing the confusion and chaos that underlies the yearnings of the American dream. In the words of the film critic Geoff Andrew Husbands is ‘a marvellous example of [Cassavetes’] methods. With its ultra-naturalistic performances, its simple, meandering narrative and its long takes, it makes for a warts-and-all study of male pride, self-pity, frustration and friendship that is at once properly serious and sharply funny.’

Here is an edited extract from an interview John Cassavetes gave at the time of the film’s original release. The full version can be found in Raymond Carney’s Cassavetes on Cassavetes:

Before Husbands was a screenplay, I must have done about 400 pages of notes. I thought about it for several years. Then there was a screenplay. My first draft was abominable – all the pitfalls of that first-told tale – a slick farce predicated on men running away from their wives to the lure of the will. There are certain catchphrases that people are attracted to made famous by Time magazine, such as ‘Swinging London’ – and there‘s always someone standing around behind you who says, ‘That sounds funny,’ but when you look into the eyes of two artists who want the best for themselves and want to be associated with something that has some meaning that’s not good enough. The characters were empty. During the second half of 1968, Ben, Peter and I passed dozens of revisions of the script around everywhere we went. From Rome [where Cassavetes was acting in Machine Gun McCain] we had been to Las Vegas, New York, San Francisco [where the exteriors for Machine Gun McCain were filmed], Los Angeles and back to New York [where Gazzara lived and Cassavetes was supervising the release of Faces]. We had followed each other around using every spare moment we could find to assess the values of three men - three New Yorkers with jobs, who had passed the plateau of youth, who were married and happy and living in Port Washington, Long Island, the commuters’ paradise. That’s as far as we got in one year. Long conversations until five o’clock in the morning. Back and forth the story went.

Cassavetes’ method was to discover what a film was about in the process of writing, rehearsing and filming it and to follow those discoveries wherever they led.

The characters in Husbands are quite different from those in Faces. I mean Faces was about people who were just getting by. These guys don’t want to just get by in life. They want to live. I don’t really know what Husbands is about at this point. You could say it’s about three married guys who want something for themselves. They don’t know what they want, but they get scared when their best friend dies. Or you could say it is about three men that are in search of love and don’t know how to attain it. Or you could say it is about a person of sentiment. Every scene in the picture will be our opinions about sentiment. I try to talk to the actors and try to find out what I really think about sentiment. It may turn harsh or bitter; but I can allow anything as long as I know we are honest. We worked with no story, basically no story except what I mentioned, and worked for a year to try to solve it and to gain, to get something out of it.

When you make a film whose interest is to take an extremely difficult subject, deal with it in depth and see if you can find something in yourself, and if other people can find other things within themselves that they will be able to develop in their personal life, it’s great. After being an actor for a few years you really don’t care about money, fame or glory anymore; those things are good, but you need something more.

Cassavetes’ elusiveness about the subject of his film was neither modesty nor coyness. He believed that to lock himself into a predetermined story or a preconceived conception of his characters’ identities was too limiting. To play a ‘character’ in a ‘narrative’ was to reduce the sliding, shifting complexity of life to cartoon clichés.

Each moment was found as we went along – not off the cuff, not without reason – but without a preconceived notion that forbids people from behaving like people and tells a ‘story’ that is predictable – and untrue. I hate knowing my theme and my story before I really start. I like to discover it as I work. In Husbands the off-the-set relationship between Gazzara, Falk and myself determined a lot of the scenes we created as we went along. It was a process of discovering the story and the theme. When you know in advance what the story is going to be, it gets boring really fast. At one point we decided that we weren’t even going to shoot in London; Peter broke into laughter and so did I. What a terrific thrill to tell the truth – to not protect some stupid idea that doesn’t work. From then on, it didn’t matter if it was London, Paris, Hamburg – or Duluth!

I believe that if an actor creates a character out of his emotions and experiences, he should do with that character what he wants. If what he is doing comes out of that, then it has to be meaningful. If Peter and Ben and I have three characters, why should a director come in and impose a fourth will? If the feelings are true and the relationship is pure, the story will come out of that. If you don’t have a script, you don’t have a commitment to just saying lines. If you don’t have a script, then you take the essence of what you really feel and say that. You can behave more as yourself than you would ordinarily with someone else’s lines. Most directors make a big mystery of their work; they tell you about your character and your responsibility to the overall thing. Bullshit. With people like Ben and Peter you don’t give directions. You give freedom and ideas.

Cassavetes and his actors couldn’t say where they were going to come out in advance because the actors were on a voyage of exploration. Acting was not about pretending to be something but about discovering what you really were. The feelings in the film were not poses but states of real emotional exposure. You were really to listen, think and react.

An actor can’t suddenly deny or reject a part of himself under the pretext of playing a particular character, even if that’s what he would like to do. You can’t ask someone to forget themselves and become another person. If you were asked to play Napoleon in a picture, for example, you can’t really have his emotions and thoughts, only yours. You could never actually be Napoleon, only yourself playing him. I’ve never wanted to play a role. Honestly, I never have! That indicates to me that you want to step forward and show someone something, and that terrifies me, really. What you want to do is be invisible as that character, so that there’s no pressure on you worrying about the outside world.

Cassavetes was committed to exploring the truth about these men and their feelings, wherever it might lead.

Husbands depicts the American man without any camouflage. It’s very difficult for some people to feel, or to see themselves in a bad form. I think that people in films are expected to be heroes, even with the anti-hero situation going on for years and years in literature. People expect too much from themselves, they want to look great. You know what actors are? They’re ‘professional people.’ They get paid for being people. If you don’t have any weaknesses, you’d be a superhero! [I try to have] the actors try not to be better than they are. The strange thing is that in this way they reveal themselves as human beings.

The goal was to explore emotional realities, however ugly, embarrassing, or painful they might be:
The job that has to be done here is for three men to investigate themselves – honestly, without suppression. It’s very difficult for someone to reveal themselves. It’s very difficult to say what you really mean, because what you really mean is painful. I can’t help being like most everybody else sometimes, pushing down what I feel so far that even when I hear my own feelings described, it sounds alien, foreign, unconnected. The most terrifying thing for me is to face myself utterly and truthfully. While working on [Husbands], I was forced to ask myself questions I never asked myself before. Ben and Peter had to do the same thing. We had to open ourselves up and look at ourselves, and we all have hang-ups. Is it really better to be a man-child or to be a man? I don’t know. The minute you settle down and say, ‘That’s it. I’m closing shop. I know what I am,’ then you’re a man, no longer a man-child. And none of us are really all that open, and we’re a little defensive. So the three of us would sit down and talk and improvise and give ourselves a problem by putting ourselves in a real situation and trying to find out the honest answers. And I’d write the scene, and rewrite, and we’d improvise again. Every actor – every good actor – does this or tries to do this with every part he plays. What we have given to the film as actors has been what we are. Where we have failed is when we couldn’t reach ourselves and the essence of what we really feel, or we were too shy or inhibited to let it out.

The only thing that counts is that you’re all doing the same thing, you’re testing each other, testing yourself. In that situation each actor is thinking, ‘How far up can I reach?’ That’s selfish – and honest. I don’t think Peter and Benny were too concerned about how far I could go as a director; they were thinking about how far they could go as actors. And, in a realistic sense, Benny couldn’t go any place unless Peter was good and unless I was good. So we knew we had to work on that level, and in order to do that, we had to get tight with each other.

As it did in Faces, Cassavetes’ references to ‘improvisation’ in post-release interviews created misunderstandings about his working methods. It is clear that, for him, improvisation was a way of refining a script – not of doing without it:

I think you have to define what improvisation does – not what it is. Improvisation to me means that there is a characteristic spontaneity in the work which makes it appear not to have been planned. I write a very tight script, and from there on in I allow the actors to interpret it the way they wish. But once they choose their way, then I’m extremely disciplined – and they must also be extremely disciplined about their own interpretations. There’s a difference between ad-libbing and improvising, and there’s a difference between not knowing what to do and just saying something. [I believe in] improvising on the basis of the written work, and not on undisciplined creativity. When you have an important scene, you want it written; but there are still times when you want things just to happen.

Illustrations of how Cassavetes worked. Here he is planning and directing the scene involving Harry, his wife, and his mother-in-law:

I realized in making the picture, that it was more difficult dealing with three guys and what three guys wanted, than it was dealing with one guy and what he wanted. I was constantly aware of the structural problems. One of us had a turn, and then another, and then another. Somehow the picture had to start taking over so that nobody had any more turns. What is happening evolves out of the action, but there is no specific importance to individual incidents. This scene with Ben evolved because we knew that people would say, ‘Gee, you never saw one wife.’ That just kept ringing in my mind. I didn’t want people to approach me on the street and say, ‘Isn’t it wonderful? You never saw a wife in that.’ That’s kind of a nightmare. We decided to show the one wife. To do that we had to come up with some kind of relationship that would be meaningful for the other two guys. We wrote a very quick scene. We got the actors in, and got a stage. It was all very stagy. I knew that it would pay off once he choked the mother-in-law.

On the set:

Ben, you’ll go into the bathroom and start to shave. Your mother-in-law comes in. I don’t know what I’ll do with her, maybe I’ll have her sit on the edge of the tub and watch you. There are three things you have to keep in mind – one, she’s a mother, that’s what she is first of all; two, you like her and she likes you – she’s an intelligent woman and she knows that what’s wrong with the marriage is that you try too hard; three, she’s the enemy and don’t you forget it – because if the marriage breaks up, she’s not going with you.

The scene with the ‘Countess’ was inspired by an extra in the casino scene. Cassavetes’ comments illustrate his willingness to do anything necessary to get a good performance – even to the point of making the actor uncomfortable.

You see that woman sitting there and you’ve got to have her in the scene. So I took that lady and Peter and I wrote a scene [on the spot] and gave it to him. The secretary wrote it out and gave it to Peter and to the lady, and she looked at it. Peter was all right, but how could she catch up? She was just sitting there. She was out of place. She didn’t know what to expect. All the camera crew and everybody else was looking at this woman. What was going to happen? She had a few lines, and she had to, in a sense, be romantic. Sometimes it’s utter and total cruelty to elicit something pretty out of somebody. You have to be cruel to somebody sometimes, but it is only cruel in some kind of a social bullshit way. I mean, we’re all there to get something good. The woman was tight. She didn’t know what was expected of her, and it was too late for her to find out in the course of the filming. I would say terrible things to her, just awful things. She would fight them off like a lady. She reached a point where she could do everything by herself. She was grateful for that attitude of not giving a shit of what anybody else thought, because everything bad had already happened. From there on in, she just started to play. She was herself, which she had to be. Peter played the scene with her. It was very good, and she was very good. I would say things like, ‘Look at that face.’

It’s terrific for Peter to try to pick up that woman. It’s right that he would pick her up, because she is the safest woman in the place. It was very easy for him to talk to her. Peter was all right, because he was really comfortable. He was more comfortable in that scene than in a lot of other scenes, because it was right. The situation was right. He would go over and talk to that woman. She’s a terrific woman.

I’m a great believer in spontaneity, because I think planning is the most destructive thing in the world. Because it kills the human spirit. So does too much discipline, because then you can’t get caught up in the moment, and if you can’t get caught up in the moment, life has no magic. Without the magic, we might as well all give up and admit we’re going to be dead in a few years. We need magic in our lives to take us away from those realities. The hope is that people stay crazy. It’s really no fun to work with sane people, people who have a set way of doing things.

The use of a professional crew presented a host of problems.

The most boring thing in the world is to direct a film, set the camera here, mark the actors, get your focus and light it. The sound should be clear and the shot should be good – [but] professional accuracy seems to me to have nothing to do with content and since the only people in the film that are truly interested in what the film has to say are the actors, it seemed to me the best choice to make an alliance with them rather than the usual alliance with the crew. The director of a film has a tremendous advantage over the actors and there is no way that he won’t use that advantage. He is usually the friend of some 50 odd technicians on the floor and when there is a disagreement between actor and director, the actor is not arguing with one man, but with 51. In front of a crew, I’m always in the position of being in the right and it’s easy to blame the actor and to look hurt. But then I’m only destroying him, turning him into an enemy, destroying his dreams and ours too. If I defend myself I’m only destroying myself and I’ve never liked directors because this is the attitude they take. The problem for me, therefore, was the same problem that most actors face, they are outnumbered – they are pressed into conformity by the schedule, by accepted sociability, by heart-warming good mornings and pleasant good nights, platitudes that take up valuable time, being invited to dinner, cliques of crew that say I like him or I don’t like him; insipid arguments over the content when the scene is good and deathly silence when it’s bad; that feeling that one gets when someone is being shrewd with you and does not want to offend you enough to lose his next job; that getting-behind-you-for-the-moment dialogue revolts the person talking and the person listening at once. It’s amazing the hate I can feel to people who pretend they’re doing it and are not, that are lying, and know they are lying. They’re the ones who insist on behaving in a manner which says: ‘Please don’t reveal or expose me, because I have to live. I’m a person!’ Those are the ones I always feel like saying to: ‘Why don’t you live someplace else, because I don’t want you around!’ I hate people who become stagnant and just go through life and retreat from any kind of creating or loving. For them life is a vacuum and even when they get ideas they are afraid to do anything about it. I don’t really feel sorry for those people. I just hate them. For that reason, the choice of the crew becomes extremely important. They have to understand that what they’re doing – no matter how hard they’re working – is only to help what’s going on in front of the camera. Audiences are not watching the technical processes as hard as they’re watching the actors. If the actors are good, the picture looks good – I mean, the actual photography looks better when the actors are better.

– ‘On the making of Husbands’. Excerpted from Cassavetes on Cassavetes by Raymond Carney.

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