Monday, 20 September 2021

Paul Schrader: Writing, Violence and Therapy

Affliction (Directed by Paul Schrader)
Paul Schrader’s powerful Affliction (1997), adapted from the novel by Russell Banks, charts the inexorable decline into violence of a small-town New Hampshire sheriff Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte), the brutal legacy of his relationship with an abusive, alcoholic father (James Coburn). 

The plot ostensibly centres on a hunting death on the edge of town which Wade comes to believe implicates a colleague. As Wade delves deeper into the incident, he becomes convinced there is a conspiracy at work involving the mafia or crooked property developers. As the investigation proceeds, his personal life spirals out of control.

Estranged from his ex-wife and young daughter, confronted with the death of his gentle mother and isolated from his neighbours who find him strange, Wade slowly begins to come apart. Events come to a head when Wade moves in to care for his ageing father, and the cycle of generational conflict resumes. Wade’s girlfriend, Margie (Sissy Spacek) tries to stop the destruction, but she is powerless to help and is eventually compelled to leave. 

Affliction is narrated by Rolfe (Willem Dafoe), Wade’s younger brother who has sought to escape his father’s fearsome legacy by retreating into life as a university lecturer. Rolfe informs us from the outset that this is a story about Wade’s descent into criminality, and yet he acknowledges that he is implicated in his brother’s descent, because when he comes to visit Wade after the death of their mother, he encourages Wade’s increasingly paranoid theories.

Paul Schrader’s considerable reputation as a screenwriter and director rests on his exploration of the damaged psyches of American males as they try to come to terms with the contradictions of masculine desires and social reality, most notably in his famous screenplays for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Affliction revisits this theme as Nolte gradually loses each of his roles: father, husband, public official, son, lover. The power of Nolte’s existential descent is reinforced by a mythical resonance as Schrader demonstrates that Wade’s ‘affliction’ is a legacy of male violence, a hereditary cultural malaise that is passed on from father to son.

The stark beauty of the snowy wintry setting and Schrader’s understated yet intimate cinematic style builds the underlying tensions until they shatter in powerful close-ups, revealing the rage and fear as it breaks through Wade’s fragile facade.

In the following interview Paul Schrader discusses the film with Josh Zeman in an article first published in Filmmaker magazine.

So what drew you to this Russell Banks’ novel and kept your interest in it over the years it took to get the film made?

I saw it in a book shop when it came out in trade paperback, and it just caught me. The first line of the novel is actually the first line of the film: ‘This is the story of my brother’s criminal behavior and his strange disappearance.’ I was just grabbed by it, so I bought it. Besides the language, the depth of theme and the depth of the characters, I think what I liked most about [the book] was the gimmick: half or two-thirds of the way through, it’s like, boom! You realize that this small-time cop who thinks he is going to redeem himself by solving a murder is really going crazy, because there is no murder. The real drama is about his father, not about this ‘hunting accident.’

You’ve used that structure before.

Yeah, it’s kind of hidden. You use a genre to disguise your real business.

Wasn’t that same idea in ‘Light Sleeper’ and ‘American Gigolo’? You’ve found a novel that finally exemplifies your structure and style.

I view the film as a collaboration between myself and Russell Banks. It’s not really one of my themes, it’s more Russell’s – this whole theme of generational violence, male violence that is passed on from father to son. One of the differences between things that I have written and Russell’s book is that I tend to end my pieces on a kind of grace note, and this one has none. I like some sense of moral grace. But Affliction is pretty bleak at the end. Another thing I like about the film and book – Russell said to me once, ‘You know who the main character of the novel is?’ It’s the narrator [Rolfe, played by Willem Dafoe]. You don’t see the narrator’s life, but he tells you right in the beginning, ‘In telling this story I tell my own story as well.’ And you have to figure out Rolfe’s story because it’s under the surface.

You say the murder mystery ends two-thirds into the film and that your subtext becomes the main text. Compared to ‘Light Sleeper’ and ‘American Gigolo’, that transformation happens much quicker in this film.

Yes, but you still need it to create audience identification. You need to get the audience behind the character when they may not be that willing. You can sort of root for Wade as long as [you think] he is going to solve this crime. And by the time you realize he isn’t going to solve any crime, you have already identified with him, and you’re caught.

So what do you think you as a director brought to the script if the themes were mostly Russell’s?

I sort of climbed on top of Russell’s theme: how do you kill the father? I had a very strong father and an older male sibling. My father was not abusive, he was not alcoholic, but there were enough similarities. I came from that part of the country with long cold winters, so I knew these people, and I knew their violence.

I was reading the press release, and it kept speaking of male violence. But I don’t think the film is really about violence. The violence in it seems more the result of cause and effect.

Yes, that is kind of an easy handle. You know movies need handles of various sorts, and there should be themes in films that are acceptable to everyone. And then there should be layered themes underneath. So when Rolfe at the end says, ‘This is the story of generations of boys who were beaten by their fathers,’ that’s kind of the obvious theme. That is put there so people who watch the movie can say, ‘Oh, that’s what it was about, and I didn’t waste my time.’ But there’s other things the film is about too.

What were your experiences working with Nick Nolte on this project?

Well, this took a long time to get made because I had optioned the book and written the script assuming Nick would want to do it. But Nick felt that he should get his full price, and that’s what took five years. I was not able to get it financed, and finally I gave up. When Nick realized that he would only get to play this role if he took substantially less money, then I was able to get it financed. What that also meant was that by the time he got into rehearsals, he knew this character cold. He had reams of notes. He had notes for every other actor. I remember once we were shooting and I was suggesting a different line reading. Nick said to me, ‘Oh, I don’t think he would say it that way,’ and I realized that his decision had been made months ago, maybe even years ago.

So it was fortuitous that you had to wait those five years?

Yes, and I wanted to stick it out with Nick. This character does some unpleasant things, and Nick has a very audience-friendly face and demeanor. He seems like a nice guy, a guy you would like to know. Other actors don’t invite you in easily, so you need an actor who seems friendly, like an ordinary Joe.

So you wanted that audience identification right off the bat?

I wanted the audience to root for him because you know from the first line that it’s not going to work out for him. So how do you still care for him? The actor has to get you to care for him. Willem wanted to play that role, and I just couldn’t offer it to him because he doesn’t have that kind of friendly physiognomy.

The father-son relationship between Nolte and James Coburn seemed very organic.

Well, I needed a big actor, a tall actor, someone bigger then Nick, because Nick’s a big guy, and I also wanted an iconic actor. Coburn and Nolte represent two generations of Hollywood leading men. James is very much of the ’50s, a swinging cat when men were men and girls were babes. Nick is a product of the ’60s, where men were partners with women. So even though they are only about 15 years apart, they represent two generations of Hollywood male sensibilities.

One of the most fascinating scenes in the film was Wade Whitehouse pulling out his own tooth.

Well, that was another one of those sort of gimmicks in the book. You think that the affliction is maybe somehow tied to this toothache. When he gets that tooth out, maybe he will be better.

Does the film have distribution?

We just got a offer in the last week or so that Largo finds acceptable. There have been some offers out there, but they have been so low that Largo hasn’t taken them. I think they got an offer, and it will be announced out of Sundance.

Why do you think it was hard to get a good distribution deal?

It’s a buyer’s market, and it’s a dark film. The company that made it was in financial trouble, and they had told their Japanese backers that they would get a certain amount for this film. They had overestimated what they would get, so they were in a very tricky position since they were asking more then the market would carry.

So you’re still defining your career, still learning about what choices to make?

Well, I think so. I wrote a script just recently that I think is one of the best I’ve ever written. It’s for Scorsese, and it’s called Bringing out the Dead, and Marty likes it a lot. This one is about a paramedic. Again, a kid who drives around Manhattan at night, only this time he is on the side of the angels, and he brings life instead of death. But he’s still going crazy.

Do you think, as an auteur making films, you can ever exorcise the themes that define you and reach some kind of catharsis? Or do those themes just become more important over time?

They can ‘exercise,’ but they can’t ‘exorcise.’ I got into film for the best of all possible reasons – as a kind of self therapy with Taxi Driver – and I still see it as self therapy. If you watch Deconstructing Harry, which is a very scathing film about Woody Allen, he’s not a likable character. I am sure he exercised a lot of those demons [with this film], but I am sure he hasn’t exorcised them.

So you never rid yourself of the demons?

No – all you do is learn more about them and pursue them into the next realm.

– ‘Sins of the Father: Josh Zeman talks to Paul Schrader about his new film Affliction’. Winter 1998 


Tuesday, 14 September 2021

Alfred Hitchcock: On Creating Suspense

Vertigo (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
Vertigo follows John "Scottie" Ferguson, a police officer who realises he has a fear of heights that presents as vertigo and is forced to resign after an unpleasant occurrence occurs as a result of his condition. He spends his time with his friend and ex-fiancĂ©e Marjorie "Midge" Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes), a brilliant and self-sufficient woman who clearly has affection for him. However, Scottie's daily routine becomes more interesting when an old college acquaintance Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) visits him and requests an unusual favour. Elster wishes to have his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak) watched, but not out of suspicion of infidelity, but out of concern for her mental health. Madeleine is apparently reenacting the latter days of her late great-grandmother's existence, and Scottie is interested by the strange blond young woman who appears to have no idea where she is or what she is doing. Our protagonist quickly becomes enamoured and unable to leave, urgently attempting to unravel the mystery around Madeleine while revelling in it, for it is precisely the unknown about this woman that fuels his infatuation turned obsession. 

Scottie's downward spiral begins with a plot twist that concludes with his obsession taking control of both his acts and his life. For it is here that we see the heartbreaking reality of a man in love with an impenetrable vision, a phantasm in his imagination that no woman—not even the one he claims to love—could ever live up to. For Madeleine is the epitome of the mysterious woman, so mysterious, evasive, and alluring that a person can project all of their deepest desires onto her, worshipping and feeling a miraculous pull towards the constructed image in their mind's eye, as long as real facts about her remain obscured and she herself remains just slightly out of reach. Scottie's inability to comprehend Madeleine drives him literally insane with desire and fuels a fruitless urge within him, since each attempt offers him only another difficult puzzle to solve. The more the truth eludes him, the more obsessed he becomes with unravelling Madeleine's mystery; however, this is a puzzle he subconsciously desires to remain unsolved, as it would imply the end of his attraction and, with it, his vertigo, which could be interpreted as a metaphor for the loss of control and sense of disorientation experienced when hopelessly in love.

Vertigo is a deft story about the factuality of the persistent male gaze that dominates and determines both our shared collective reality and the bulk of the narratives we as a species make and willingly consume, but it is also a deft deconstruction of it. By portraying a man who, at one point in the film, exerts control over what a woman should look like, how she should speak, walk, and behave in order to conform to his fantasy and satisfy his gaze, Hitchcock subtly reveals his own obsession with controlling his actresses and his attempt to transform them into the perfect "Hitchcock blond." As Kim Novak noted in a 1996 interview with Roger Ebert, "I could completely relate to (...) being pushed and pulled in many directions, being instructed what clothing to wear, how to walk, and how to behave. I believe there was a slight edge to my performance, as if I were implying that I would not allow myself to be pushed past a certain point—that I was present, that I was myself, and that I insisted on myself.” In other words, possessing a woman becomes an obsession unto itself—and when a man obsesses, he acts as if possessed. However, on another level, Vertigo's male voyeur is the one who finds himself on the receiving end of this patriarchal powerplay—for he does not control the narrative, she does. Scottie is made impotent by the idealised and romanticised fantasy in his head, unconscious of the true identity of the unknown woman and unaware of what is truly occurring. On the other side, she is perpetually one step ahead of him, relying on his attention, attraction, and impulses to bring both of them where they need to be in order for the plan they are a part of to play out as planned. Ultimately, the decision to stay or leave was hers alone—she willed it that way, intentionally and willfully, whatever the consequences. 

In 1963 Peter Bogdanovich prepared the first complete Alfred Hitchcock retrospective in America, ‘The Cinema of Alfred Hitchcock’ at The Museum of Modern Art. As part of the exhibition Bogdanovich conducted an extensive interview with Hitchcock about his career. In the following excerpt Hitchcock discusses the role of suspense in ‘Vertigo’ and ‘Psycho’:

Isn’t ‘Vertigo’ about the conflict between illusion and reality?

Oh, yes. I was interested by the basic situation, because it contained so much analogy to sex. Stewart’s efforts to recreate the woman were, cinematically, exactly the same as though he were trying to undress the woman, instead of dressing her. He couldn’t get the other woman out of his mind. Now, in the book, they didn’t reveal that she was one and the same woman until the end of the story. I shocked Sam Taylor, who worked on it, when I said, ‘When Stewart comes upon this brunette girl, Sam, this is the time for us to blow the whole truth.’ He said, ‘Good God, why?’ I told him, if we don’t what is the rest of our story until we do reveal the truth. A man has picked up a brunette and sees in her the possibilities of resemblance to the other woman. Let’s put ourselves in the minds of our audience here: “So you’ve got a brunette and you’re going to change her.” What story are we telling now? A man wants to make a girl over and then, at the very end, finds out it is the same woman. Maybe he kills her, or whatever. Here we are, back in our old situation: surprise or suspense.

Vertigo (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
And we come to our old analogy of the bomb: you and I sit talking and there’s a bomb in the room. We’re having a very innocuous conversation about nothing. Boring. Doesn’t mean a thing. Suddenly, boom! The bomb goes off and they’re shocked – for fifteen seconds. Now you change it. Play the same scene, insert the bomb, show that the bomb is placed there, establish that it’s going to go off at one o’clock – it’s now a quarter of one, ten of one – show a clock on the wall, back to the same scene. Now our conversation becomes very vital, by its sheer nonsense. ‘Look under the table! You fool!’ Now they’re working for ten minutes, instead of being surprised for fifteen seconds. Now let’s go back to Vertigo. If we don’t let them know, they will speculate. They will get a very blurred impression as to what is going on. ‘Now,’ I said, ‘one of the fatal things, Sam, in all suspense is to have a mind that is confused. Otherwise the audience won’t emote. Clarify, clarify, clarify. Don’t let them say, “I don’t know which woman that is, who’s that?” ‘So,’ I said, ‘we are going to take the bull by the horns and put it all in a flashback, bang! Right then and there – show it’s one and the same woman.’ Then, when Stewart comes to the hotel for her, the audience says, “Little does he know.”

Vertigo (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
Second, the girl’s resistance in the earlier part of the film had no reason. Now you have the reason – she doesn’t want to be uncovered. That’s why she doesn’t want the grey suit, doesn’t want to go blond – because the moment she does, she’s in for it. So now you’ve got extra values working for you. We play on his fetish in creating this dead woman, and he is so obsessed with the pride he has in making her over. Even when she comes back from the hairdresser, the blond hair is still down. And he says, ‘Put your hair up.’ She says, ‘No.’ He says, ‘Please.’ Now what is he saying to her? ‘You’ve taken everything off except your bra and your panties, please take those off.’ She says, ‘All right.’ She goes into the bathroom. He’s only waiting to see a nude woman come out, ready to get in bed with. That’s what the scene is. Now, as soon as she comes out, he sees a ghost – he sees the other woman. That’s why I played her in a green light.

You see, in the earlier part – which is purely in the mind of Stewart – when he is watching this girl go from place to place, when she is really faking, behaving like a woman of the past – in order to get this slightly subtle quality of a dreamlike nature although it was bright sunshine, I shot the film through a fog filter and I got a green effect – fog over bright sunshine. That’s why, when she comes out of the bathroom, I played her in the green light. That’s why I chose the Empire Hotel in Post Street – because it had a green neon sign outside the window. I wanted to establish that green light flashing all the time. So that when we need it, we’ve got it. I slid the soft, fog lens over, and as she came forward, for a moment he got the image of the past. Then as her face came up to him, I slipped the soft effect away, and he came back to reality. She had come back from the dead, and he felt it, and knew it, and probably was even bewildered – until he saw the locket – and then he knew he had been tricked.

Psycho (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
Do you really consider ‘Psycho’ an essentially humorous film?

Well, when I say humorous, I mean it’s my humor that enabled me to tackle the outrageousness of it. If I were telling the same story seriously, I’d tell a case history and never treat it in terms of mystery or suspense. It would simply be what the psychiatrist relates at the end.

In ‘Psycho’, aren’t you really directing the audience more than the actors?

Yes. It’s using pure cinema to cause the audience to emote. It was done by visual means designed in every possible way for an audience. That’s why the murder in the bathroom is so violent, because as the film proceeds, there is less violence. But that scene was in the minds of the audience so strongly that one didn’t have to do much more. I think that in Psycho there is no identification with the characters. There wasn’t time to develop them and there was no need to. The audience goes through the paroxysms in the film without consciousness of Vera Miles or John Gavin. They’re just characters that lead the audience through the final part of the picture. I wasn’t interested in them. And you know, nobody ever mentions that they were ever in the film. It’s rather sad for them.

Psycho (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
Can you imagine how the people in the front office would have cast the picture? They’d say, ‘Well, she gets killed off in the first reel, let’s put anybody in there, and give Janet Leigh the second part with the love interest.’ Of course, this is idiot thinking. The whole point is to kill off the star, that is what makes it so unexpected. This was the basic reason for making the audience see it from the beginning. If they came in half-way through the picture, they would say, ‘When’s Janet Leigh coming on?’ You can’t have blurred thinking in suspense.

Didn’t you experiment with TV techniques in ‘Psycho’?

It was made by a TV unit, but that was only a matter of economics really, speed and economy of shooting, achieved by minimizing the number of set-ups. We slowed up whenever it became really cinematic. The bathroom scene took seven days, whereas the psychiatrist’s scene at the end was all done in one day.

How much did Saul Bass contribute to the picture?

Only the main title, the credits. He asked me if he could do one sequence in Psycho and I said yes. So he did a sequence on paper, little drawings of the detective going up the stairs before he is killed. One day on the picture, I was sick, and I called up and told the assistant to make those shots as Bass had planned them. There were about twenty of them and when I saw them, I said, ‘You can’t use any of them.’ The sequence told his way would indicate that the detective is a menace. He’s not. He is an innocent man, therefore the shot should be innocent. We don’t have to work the audience up. We’ve done that. The mere fact that he’s going up the stairs is enough. Keep it simple. No complications. One shot.

Did you intend any moral implications in the picture?

I don’t think you can take any moral stand because you’re dealing with distorted people. You can’t apply morality to insane persons.

– Alfred Hitchcock: 1963 interview with Peter Bogdanovich at