Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Brian De Palma: On Ideas, Writing and Suspense

Blow Out (Directed by Brian De Palma)
Film director Brian De Palma discusses the screenwriting process, his cinematic influences and the art of building suspense.

You’ve made a lot of films during your career, and you’ve also written a lot of your films. Do you prefer to work fast when you write?


The problem with writing a movie is you’ve got to have a great idea. I loved the idea for Femme Fatale and it came very quickly. Dressed to Kill was another great idea, and Blow Out was a very good idea. Those scripts came very quickly. But when you don’t have a good idea, it can take years. These ideas rattle around in my head forever. The idea of somebody fleeing, then they run into their double and take their life, I’ve been thinking about that for ten, fifteen years, and I never found a way to put it into anything. So it’s very much circling in your brain, and then you get to a certain place, you have a certain experience, and it all kind of jells. Then it’s easy to write. You’re in a terrible situation where you have to turn the pages in when you don’t really have a good idea. And of course, I guess 95% of what we see is like that.

When you see a stunning idea like Memento or Boogie Nights, or something by the Coen Brothers, when someone comes up with a tremendously interesting idea, you take your hats off to them, because you know what a difficult process that is. I’ve had a couple of pretty good ones throughout my career, and if you read as much as I do what everyone else is doing and what kind of trouble they’re having, and if you’re a student of the history of cinema, you realize there aren’t that many good ideas out there. That’s why there’s some extraordinary movies, and some that are sort of okay. You have to be in the right place at the right time with the right actors and the right economics. Something like On the Waterfront, Kazan was in the right place at the right time. Orson Welles was in the right place at the right time with the right contract with Citizen Kane. That’s why those movies are so extraordinary.

Femme Fatale (Directed by Brian De Palma)
You use split screens in ‘Femme Fatale’ like you have in a number of your films. How do you decide when to use it in a scene?


Split screen is just another storytelling technique. You just have to find a place where it’s appropriate and it can be effective. I use it where, like everything in my movies, whether it’s a crane shot, or a steady-cam shot, or a point-of-view shot, I try to find exactly the right word or the visual grammar for the place in the movie. I’m very much interested in visual storytelling. I think it’s kind of a dead form; you don’t see very many directors working in it. I try to find story ideas that are driven with visual ideas, unlike the traditional sort of storytelling with character development, dramatic development of your characters where the antagonist and the protagonist come up against each other, and you have a three-act structure in your movie. I find these story forms are almost exhausted by television, which is almost completely driven by dialogue and close ups of people talking to each other. Contemporary filmmaking has beaten them to death, so there’s very little to do with that kind of storytelling. Not to say that it isn’t effective if it’s used well, but to me I’m practicing a visual storytelling that not many people are interested in. I like the unexpected. I like being surprised.

When you started making films, was there more of an emphasis on utilizing the language of cinema?


Well yeah, because we were looking at directors, a lot of them had started making movies in the silent film era where there was no dialog, so they had to learn these techniques. Whether it was Hitchcock, Ford, or Fritz Lang, you had to learn these techniques and not try to solve all of your problems in dialogue.

Dressed To Kill (Directed by Brian De Palma)
When you’re planning a camera move or a cinematic technique, do you plan those during the writing process or does the visual planning come later?


When you write a script, or when you direct somebody else’s script, as you read it, if it’s somebody else’s script, you start getting ideas of how to tell the story visually. When you write the script, and when I do scripts of my own, they’re usually driven by a visual idea. Not a character idea, not even a story idea; it’s usually a visual idea, because this is what I think cinema is all about. That’s why the images are so compelling because you’re dealing with pure, visual storytelling. That happens when I’m putting the ideas together for the story. The trick of Femme Fatale was getting in and out of the dream without the audience groaning, because it’s a very old idea, somebody waking up and everything you saw wasn’t real. But I think I came up with such a stunning image of her underneath the water, that you can surprise the audience because it’s such a strong visual image, to get past that transition. And then I had this other visual idea of Antonio Banderas being a collage artist, and I literally created that collage with my brother Bart, who’s a painter. We literally created that huge panel of pictures over a period of like four months. The movie is very much like the picture. The completed image is the last piece in the puzzle. And again, it’s a purely visual idea.

Christopher McQuarrie has said he works closely with the composers of the films he’s writing, and he’s found they can make valuable changes to the screenplay before the film starts shooting. You had worked closely with Bernard Herrmann on ‘Obsession’, and he also made contributions to the story. Do you usually work closely with the composers in this regard? 

Not much in the beginning. I’ve worked with many fine composers, and in this day, you can literally listen to the score on a computer before you record it, which is quite unlike how I started out, and you can really adjust the score at that stage so that by the time you get to recording it, more or less all the problems are solved. This movie I very much had the Ravel Bolero idea at the beginning of the heist, and then I abandoned it because I wanted to use a lot of eclectic music. The first pass at it, [Ryuichi] Sakamoto wrote a very Mission: Impossible-type score, and it was quite good, but I went back to my Bolero idea. I said, “This isn’t Mission: Impossible, this is a seduction, and there’s no more seductive music than Ravel’s Bolero.” He did a version of Bolero that fit in with what we had done with the picture.

Blow Out (Directed by Brian De Palma)
One film journalist has written that a theme you deal with in many of your films is the “moral consequences of the failure to act, or acting too late.” We’ve seen this in ‘Carrie’, ‘Obsession’, and ‘Blow Out’, and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos says in ‘Femme Fatale’, “No good deed ever goes unpunished.” Why do your films often return to this theme? 

I think things like that are buried deep in your subconscious. I’ve thought about why I have doubles in my movies. It’s the kind of stuff I don’t quite understand, and you see it in your movies over and over again, and you’re intrigued by these ideas. Sort of like a painter who likes to paint the same cathedral or the same bowl of fruit, you’re drawn to certain images over and over again for kind of inexplicable reasons. It’s an insight into what’s going on in your subconscious. This movie is so much driven by a subconscious idea that... it just feels right. I guess that’s the best way I can say it, and I don’t quite understand where it all comes from. I was always fascinated by that phrase “no good deed goes unpunished.” I find it’s something that happened in my own life many times! I wondered where it came from, I finally looked it up, and it was Claire Booth Luce talking about politics. I guess in politics no good deed goes unpunished. It seemed like such a strange idea, but in many ways very true.

Carrie (Directed by Brian De Palma)
What are the keys to building a suspenseful scene? 

Withholding information. Just keep withholding information. And not quite showing everything. Slowing things down is always very effective.

Hitchcock had famously said that suspense is two people sitting at a table, then the camera shows us that under the table is a bomb, and we have no idea when it’s going to go off. That makes me think of the scene in ‘Carrie’ with the bucket of blood, where we have no idea when it’s going to get dumped on her. Were you trying to follow that rule of suspense when you were constructing that scene? 

Well, Hitchcock laid down all the classic ways to use suspense. He’s done it so many times in so many movies, it’s all there. You see what works and what doesn’t work. I’ve taken some of those ideas, and taken them a little farther. I try to make it even more uncomfortable for the audience by shooting it in slow motion. I really make it just the worst kind of thing when you know it’s going to happen. The bomb starts ticking extremely slowly. And I have many balls in the air at the same time, so that you can drive this thing so slowly. I’ve used that technique, whether it’s in The Fury or the Odessa Steps in The Untouchables, where you just slow everything down. You need all this parallel action going on, because slow motion, if it’s not really cut very well, can be very boring. So you have to find a way to drive it with all kinds of counter action. And you need a great score, because you’re completely relying on the music to get you through.

What were the most important things you learned from watching Hitchcock’s films? 

Well, it’s like when you see things the same way [as someone else], you find a writer who writes how you think. You say, “This guy is speaking to me.” Hitchcock always spoke to me right from the beginning, and I took many of his techniques. Like the use of the point-of-view shot, which is seen in Rear Window in the umpteenth degree, where you convey information directly to the audience. The character sees something, the audience sees something; there’s no other form in which the character and the audience sees the same information but the movies. It’s an essential building block that is completely unique to cinema. That’s what I’m constantly striving to find in making movies—these things that are purely cinematic. That’s what makes great cinema great to me.

Obsession (Directed by Brian De Palma)
When you started your film career, you tried to work within the system and stay true to yourself at the same time. Now that you have a lot of films under your belt, do you still have to fight to make the movies you want to make?


Oh sure. It’s always a fight if you have some kind of personal vision. You’re always struggling to convince people to put up money for it, and since I make movies that have very elaborate sets and very expensive film toys, they can’t be done for a million or half a million dollars in a couple of bedrooms in Brooklyn. I’ve made movies like that, and then I evolved out of that. So it’s always a struggle, and every once in a while, you have to go out and make a big hit so you can continue to make movies. You have to go back and forth.

I have a particular visual style that I can apply to genre movies; so I can go in and out of the system. If you’re completely independent of the system, so much time can be spent just raising money. You can certainly make movies like that, but like John Sayles, you’re constantly struggling to get money to make your particular movie, and having to do other jobs to pay for them, much like Orson Welles did. I’m a big student of Welles, I knew him very well because he was in Get to Know Your Rabbit, and I had studied his career, which seemed to me to be the classic example of what not to do with the system, and how cruel the system can be to a great artist. I think there’s many good things about the system, and there are many things that aren’t so good about it. But I’m an American, and I’m working in the American movie system. To try and say that Hollywood doesn’t know what they’re doing is absurd. Hollywood’s made some of the greatest movies in the world, and you can make that system work for you.

– Full article first appeared in Creative Screenwriting volume 9, #1, available here

Monday, 26 June 2017

Michael Mann: On the Edge – An Interview

Heat (Directed by Michael Mann)
Thieves, assassins, mad men, whistle-blowers, and gamblers have all populated the extreme adventures of Michael Mann’s films. For more than 30 years, with style and precision, he has examined the richness of human experience. The following extract is from an interview with the DGA from 2012.

Q: Your earliest films were documentaries. Is that what formed your commitment to authenticity?

A: My ambition was always to make dramatic films. I had a strong sense of the value of drama growing up in Chicago, which has long had a thriving theater scene. I’d also found, working a lot of odd jobs as a kid—as a short-order cook, on construction, or as a cab driver—that there was tremendous richness in real-life experience, and contact with people and circumstances that were sometimes extreme. I was drawn to this instinctively. You find out things when you’re with a real-life thief, things you could never make up just sitting in a room. The converse is also true: Just because you discover something interesting, you don’t have to use it; there’s no obligation. Yet life itself is the proper resource. I’ve never really changed that habit of wanting to bring preparation into the real world of the picture, with a character that actors are going to portray.

Q: Is that why you develop biographies for every character, not just for your use but for your actors as well?

A: I like to know everything about a character. Major characters, minor characters, even if a picture’s got nothing to do with what their childhood is, I want to know what their childhood was like. What were their parents like? Where did they grow up? What do they like, what do they not like? What kinds of women are attracted to them? Why are these women attracted to them? If the character is a woman, who is she? How is she relating to the situation of her life?

Heat (Directed by Michael Mann)
Q: Do you like to rehearse your actors before and during shooting?

A: Yes, but never for too long. There’s an art to rehearsal. Never rehearse to the point where you wish you’d shot it. I always want to stop just before the moment becomes so actual that I wish I had a camera. I don’t want that to happen until take 3 or 4 of the day we’re shooting it. You always want to back off, you always want to leave potential. There’s a tremendous thrill for me in finding the spontaneous moment. Sometimes that happens when you’re smart enough not to rehearse too much—when you know where to stop, because otherwise you’ll get too programmed. Other times, that spontaneity comes with a liberation you get at the end of tremendous preparation—where everybody is confident and the players know exactly what they’re going to do.

Q: How did you apply that to the famous coffee shop scene between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in ‘Heat’ (1995) when the two adversaries meet head-to-head for the first and only time?

A: We did two things: We discussed the scene. Then we did some rehearsals, but I was wary because the entire movie is a dialectic that works backward from its last moment, which is the death of the thief Neil McCauley [De Niro], while the detective Vincent Hanna [Pacino], who’s just taken McCauley’s life, stands with him as he passes. The ‘marriage’ of the two of them in this contrapuntal story is the coffee shop scene.

Now Pacino and De Niro are two of the greatest actors on the planet, so I knew they would be completely alive to each other—each one reacting off the other’s slightest gesture, the slightest shift of weight. If De Niro’s right foot sitting in that chair slid backward by so much as an inch, or his right shoulder dropped by just a little bit, I knew Al would be reading that. They’d be scanning each other, like an MRI. Both men recognize that their next encounter will mean certain death for one of them. Gaining an edge is why they’ve chosen to meet. So we read the scene a number of times before shooting—not a lot—just looking at it on the page. I didn’t want it memorized. My goal was to get them past the unfamiliarity of it. But of course these two already knew it impeccably.

Heat (Directed by Michael Mann)
Q: You made an interesting choice directorially in the finished film. The whole scene takes place in over-the-shoulder close-ups—each man’s point of view on the other.

A: We shot that scene with three cameras, two over-the-shoulders and one profile shot, but I found when editing that every time we cut to the profile, the scene lost its one-on-one intensity. I’ll often work with multiple cameras, if they’re needed. In this case, I knew ahead of time that Pacino and De Niro were so highly attuned to each other that each take would have its own organic unity. Whatever one said, and the specific way he’d say it, would spark a specific reaction in the other. I needed to shoot in such a way that I could use the same take from both angles. What’s in the finished film is almost all of take 11—because that has an entirely different integrity and tonality from takes 10, or 9, or 8. All of this begins and ends with scene analysis. It doesn’t matter if it’s two people in a room or two opposing forces taking over a street. Action comes from drama, and drama is conflict: What’s the conflict?

Q: At the opposite end of the scale from that intimate two-man scene in the coffee shop is the huge street-battle in ‘Heat’. How did you prepare a sequence that massive?

A: That scene arose out of choreography, and was absolutely no different than staging a dance. We rehearsed in detail by taking over three target ranges belonging to the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. We built a true-scale mock-up of the actual location we were using along 5th Street in downtown L.A., with flats and barriers standing in for where every parked car was going to be, every mailbox, every spot where De Niro, Tom Sizemore, and Val Kilmer were going to seek cover as they moved from station to station. Every player was trained with weapons the way somebody in the military would be brought up, across many days, with very rigid rules of safety, to the point where the safe and prodigious handling of those weapons became reflexive. Then, as a culmination, we blocked out the action with the actors shooting live rounds at fixed targets as they moved along in these rehearsals. The confidence that grew out of such intensive preparations—all proceeding from a very basic dramatic point—meant that when we were finally filming on 5th Street, firing blanks, each man was as fully and as exactly skilled as the character he represented.

Heat (Directed by Michael Mann)
Q: What was the ‘conflict’ your choreography was proceeding from?

A: McCauley’s unit wants to get out, while the police want something else, and are sending in their assets. Judged strictly in terms of scene analysis and character motivation, the police are used to entering a situation with overwhelming power on their side. When they’re assaulted by people who know what they’re doing, they don’t do well. McCauley’s guys are simply more motivated, and have skills that easily overwhelm the police. Choreography has to tell a story; there’s no such thing as a stand-alone shootout. Who your characters are as characters determines your outcome.

Q: ‘Collateral’ (2004) is largely a two-character drama, which must have created its own demands. How did you prep your players for that film?

A: Prepping Jamie Foxx for his role in Collateral was a matter of getting him to understand the neighborhood this man came from, and the death-by-repetition involved in being a cab driver. Having been a cab driver myself, I knew what a grind that is. For Tom Cruise, who plays a hit man, the preparation involved all kinds of crazy stuff in preproduction—acquiring the skill sets he would need to be this man. We had him stalking various members of the crew for weeks, in secret, learning their habits, and then picking the moment. This person would be coming out of a gym at 7 a.m. and feel somebody slap something on his back—and it would be Tom, who had just put a Post-it on their back. In our virtual world, that was a confirmed kill.

Collateral (Directed by Michael Mann)
Q: Each of your films seems to set out in a different direction from the one that preceded it. What attracts you to a project?

A: Usually I think I know what I’m going to look for next, and usually that turns out to be wrong. How I chose to do Collateral is a prime example. I had just come off of doing Ali (2001), a picture about a huge real-life figure. I had developed The Aviator, about Howard Hughes. But as brilliant as John Logan’s screenplay was, and as much as I wanted to work with Leonardo [DiCaprio], I felt I would be doing a rerun of what I’d just done. What attracted me to Collateral was the opportunity to do the exact opposite: a microcosm; 12 hours; one night; no wardrobe changes; two people; small lives; inside a cab; a small time frame viewed large. I very much admired the hard, gem-like construction of Stuart Beattie’s screenplay. There were a lot of modifications as we prepared to shoot, but the structure was there from the start—and it was tremendously appealing. That made my decision. I asked Marty [Scorsese] if he wanted to do The Aviator.

The idea for The Last of the Mohicans came to me because I’d seen the film written by Philip Dunne when I was 3. I realized 40 years later that it had been rattling around in my brain ever since, that it was a part of me, a very important part. I just hadn’t been consciously aware of it up to that point. I also thought: There hasn’t really been an exciting epic, period film in a long, long time. Joe Roth and Roger Birnbaum were running 20th Century Fox at the time. They got the excitement of it immediately.

The Last of the Mohicans (Directed by Michael Mann)
Q: Even though you’re always trying to do something new, there seems to be continuity in your work.

A: As far as the continuities you’re noticing in my work, those are arrived at film by film, and are not planned as such. The film directors I admire most don’t consciously have a form that is their form. Marty Scorsese doesn’t say to himself: ‘I will make a certain decision this way because it either does or doesn’t conform to my form.’ No, what he chooses to do flows from him organically. I think that’s the case for every filmmaker. The more diverse one film is from the other, the more exciting it is. What you want is to find yourself on a frontier. For the working director, there is no conscious form from film to film. We all know what our ambitions are, but in a very healthy way we are all unconscious of ‘signature.’

– For the full interview go here 

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Paul Schrader: On Screenwriting

Taxi Driver (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
In the following extract Paul Schrader discusses the screenwriting process in relation to his work on the seminal films Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ – each directed by Martin Scorsese. 

You wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver in about ten days, and I know you’re of the school of thought that the faster you write a screenplay, the better.


You have to understand that the gestation period could be months, or even years, and the idea of writing fast is to keep from writing as long as possible, so that it just endures time and obstacles. By the time it comes out, it comes out almost fully formed. Then you write in approximately a time frame that’s like viewing a movie. You can sort of feel the experience as you’re living it, it doesn’t get attenuated, it doesn’t get threshed out. But I’m also of the school of I’m not going to write unless I know what I’m going to write. I pretty much know what’s going to happen on page seventy-five before I sit down and write.

So you have to have the whole thing in your head before you write it? 

Yeah, and outlined. It moves and shapes itself as you go along, but it is pretty well worked out, and it has endured numerous tests before it is written. By tests, I mean the oral tradition, telling people. You sit down and you tell people the story. You say, ‘Look, I wanna tell you a story. Man walks into a bank. There’s a robbery going on....’ There you are, you’re off and running, and you can watch people. It doesn’t really matter what they say, it’s what they do with their eyes and how they sit. You can see whether or not this story has a resonance, and as you tell it, sometimes you have to make changes. Because like a stand-up comedian, you realize you’re losing your audience, you gotta do something drastic. I think it was Chandler who once said, ‘If you ever get in trouble, introduce a character with a gun. Your reader will be so glad he’s there, he won’t ask where he came from.’ The same thing with telling a story; you realize you’re losing your listener, then you say, ‘All of a sudden, a red car pulls up, and these two guys in black coats come out.’ Boom! You got your listener back. Of course, you’ve also got a red car and two guys in black coats, but that’s one of the things you do when you work the oral tradition. By the time you write that script, you’re pretty confident that it’s worth writing because you have seen it work. If you can tell a story for forty-five minutes and keep people interested, you have a movie.

Taxi Driver (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
Who would you use as a sounding board? 

Anybody. The more ordinary someone is, the better, because they’re not going to give you arcane points, you’re just going to see if they’re interested. It’s like telling a joke – you know when it works. Obviously, certain material is very sophisticated, and it’s not going to work that way. I’m not going to sit and tell Mishima to somebody at the 7-11! But in general, if you’re dealing with a kind of a narrative, you want to get that kind of feedback. Also, another good thing about it is it stops you from writing a lot of scripts, because you see them die, and you see yourself getting stuck. It is very discouraging to write scripts that don’t get sold or made. If you can stop yourself from writing those scripts, you can prolong your career. Because all you have to do is write five or six of those scripts, and you’re about beat up. So if you have a bad idea, you can catch it in time. You haven’t lost a script, you’ve saved yourself four months. I lecture from time to time on screenwriting, and when I lecture, it’s a five-point program. It goes from theme, to metaphor, to plot, to oral tradition, to outline. That’s the progress of an idea. It all begins with a theme, and another word for a theme is a personal problem. In Taxi Driver it was loneliness, the metaphor was a taxicab. Bing-Bang-Boom, it starts to move.

When you sit down to write an original screenplay, where do you begin?

At any given time in your life, there are a number of problems running around. Problems that have a lot to do with where you are in your life cycle, whether it’s a mid-life crisis, problems with parents or children. You’re always looking for metaphors that will somehow address that problem. And once you find that metaphor, particularly if you’ve written as much as I have, it’s like a factory is standing there, fully manned, ready to go. All it needs is the raw material. The metaphor is the raw material. Once they get that, they can go to work.

The Last Temptation of Christ (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
But your last few projects have been adaptations? 

About four years ago, I ran into a little dry period. Like so many others I turned to books. I did some adaptations where I originated the projects: Touch and Affliction. For about a year now I sort of fell back into the groove and have been doing a lot of writing again. That feeling of not having anything original to say has sort of gone away. I think I’ll be good for a couple more years.

It goes through cycles. 

Yeah. I don’t think anybody has something fresh to say every year. You just don’t have an original script every year.

You adapted ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’, which was not an easy novel to turn into a film. How did you approach that adaptation?


I do the same process in terms of problem/metaphor. You look at the book, and you say, ‘Where’s the problem?’ And it’s not necessarily the problem in the book, it’s your problem that you find in the book. ‘What part of me exists in this book that I can address?’ You have to personalize it, and therefore in a book like Last Temptation, there were probably five or six different scripts that could have been written from that. You have a 600-page philosophical novel, and it’s going to become a 110-page script. What I did in that case was I listed every single thing that happened in the book – there were probably 400 or 500 things that happened in the book – then I did columns. Did they address my problem? Were they important for expositional needs? Did they address any of the sub-themes? I went through all the scenes and put checks behind them to the degree that they were useful to me. And then I just took the top fifty scenes, because only between forty to fifty-five things happen in a movie anyway, and said, ‘Okay, what do I have to add?’ Or, ‘How do I make this meld all together?’ That way I was able to take three- quarters of the book, and just wipe it off the table in one grand stroke and reduce the size of the book. Then I went back and picked up from those pages I had swiped off, whatever little bits and pieces I might need.

Raging Bull (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
You did a rewrite on the film ‘Raging Bull’, and Martin Scorsese said that your version of the script was the breakthrough that helped get the film made. What exactly did you bring to the script for ‘Raging Bull’?


Well there was no Joey La Motta. Jake La Motta had written a book called Raging Bull with Pete Savage, and he cut his brother out of his book because he didn’t like his brother! So I started doing research, and I started hearing about the fighting La Motta brothers and that they were boxers together. I interviewed Vickie [Jake’s ex-wife] and Joey, and I realized you had a sibling story. The movie was about these two brothers who had this contract. Basically the contract was, they were both boxers, but one of them had the gift of gab, and the other one didn’t. So Joey basically said to Jake, ‘Here’s the deal. You get the beatings, you get the fame, I get the girls, we set up the bookies, and we split the money.’ Well that contract is fraught with dangers [laughs]! That was the implicit contract between these two men. Jake would be the headliner and take the beatings, and Joey would be the pretty boy who got the girls and they would split the money. You know that there’s going to come a day that someone doesn’t agree with that contract! So without Joey, you didn’t have a movie...

From – Paul Schrader Interviewed by Jim Mercurio and David Konow: Creative Screenwriting, vol 6, #1 (Jan/Feb 1999) and vol 9, #5 (Sept/Oct 2002).

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

From Pen to Screen: Charlie Kaufman

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Directed by Michel Gondry)
The acclaimed writer-director Charlie Kaufman discusses his early days growing up in New York, his transition from acting to screenwriting, and his unique creative process.


Were you an avid filmgoer in your early years and, if so, which films were particularly meaningful to you?

I wouldn’t say I was obsessed with watching movies. I liked movies and I went often, but I’m not like Quentin Tarantino, I’m not that person. I gravitated more toward theater and acting, and film was kind of an offshoot of that, as it had acting and theater in it. I also made a lot of movies when I was a little kid. I had a Super 8 camera, and it was a real passion of mine. I made films with stories, little dramatic things, and I’d write scripts for a monster or vampire movie. We’d shoot in graveyards, and I did some animation. I’d direct the films, and my friends and I would act in them.

You started out as an actor in high school and performed in several plays. What made you decide to make the transition to screenwriting?

Since third grade, I wanted to be an actor. I went to school for it in my freshman year of college, and then I switched to film in my sophomore year. I think I became self-conscious. I was very shy, and I became kind of embarrassed about it. I struggled for a long time because I really loved it. It was the one thing in my life that gave me some sort of joy. Then I thought, did I make a mistake by leaving it, because I don’t feel the same way about anything else? I always thought about going back and I never did, but I don’t feel that way about it anymore. I don’t think I could do it anymore.


What are the main differences between writing a screenplay for someone else to direct and directing your own screenplay yourself?

With the exception of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), I haven’t written specifically for any director. Spike was not initially engaged to be part of Adaptation (2002); that was for Jonathan Demme, and then he decided not to do it. Being John Malkovich (1999) was written before I knew Spike.

I think the difference is that, once I began directing, I started thinking, how am I going to do this? Practically, how am I going to make this happen on film, which is something I had never thought about. When I worked with Spike, if I had been doing a rewrite and I had an idea, he would say, “Well, don’t worry about what it costs. We’ll figure it out.” So I was kind of given carte blanche. But when I’m on my own, there is this feeling of, well, am I going to know how to shoot this scene? Am I going to be able to afford to shoot this scene? That’s the difference.


I’m interested in how you build and structure your screenplays. Do you follow a similar pattern every time?

It depends on the piece. When I’m on my own and I'm doing something for myself, I don’t do an outline. I build it, little by little, as I’m working on it. I think about it for like six months, and I’ll think, “Oh, that’s interesting here!” It’s going in a cool direction, but I don’t know in advance how it’s going to end. I like to have the freedom to see where it goes. I don’t like to cement myself into something.

Sometimes it can take me a few years; it’s not an efficient way to work. I do like the idea that sometimes I come to a new thing, six months into writing it, and that changes everything. Adaptation is an example of that. It was a struggle for me in the first six months, until I came up with the idea of putting myself in, and then suddenly I knew how to write it. If I had forced myself to write any more, it wouldn’t have been the same, and I don’t think it would have been as good.


You mentioned loving the theater earlier. Who are some of your favorite dramatists?

I like Pinter, I like Beckett, Ionesco. When I was in high school, I was actually in a production of Six Characters in Search of an Author, by Pirandello. I was really struck by that, and it was very influential on me. Interestingly, I think Woody Allen has a play in one of his books, where the characters on stage talk to the audience. I like stuff like that. I liked Lanford Wilson when I was a kid, and I like John Guare.

I also loved musicals when I was a kid. I mean, when you’re in school theater you do a lot of musicals!

Finally: you’re on a desert island and are allowed to take one film with you. Which film would it be and why?

A movie I really love is Barton Fink. I don’t know if that’s the movie I’d take to a desert island, but I feel like there’s so much in there, you could watch it again and again. That’s important to me, especially if that was the only movie I’d have with me for the rest of my life.

– Excerpted from ‘From Pen to Screen: An Interview with Charlie Kaufman’ by Neil McGlone (article here).

Monday, 27 February 2017

Antonioni on ‘Blow-Up’

Blow-Up (Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni)
In 1966, Michelangelo Antonioni transplanted his existentialist ennui to the streets of swinging London for the Italian filmmaker’s first English-language feature. Blow-Up takes the form of a psychological mystery, starring David Hemmings as a fashion photographer who unknowingly captures a death on film after following two lovers in a park.

In the following extract Antonioni discusses the making of Blow-Up, the creative process and its inspirations.

My problem with Blow-Up was to recreate reality in an abstract form. I wanted to question ‘the reality of our experience.’ This is an essential point in the visual aspect of the film, considering that one of its main themes is to see or not to see the correct value of things.

Blow-Up is a performance without an epilogue, comparable to those stories from the twenties where F. Scott Fitzgerald showed his disgust with life. While I was filming, I was hoping that no one in seeing the finished film would say: ‘Blow-Up is a typically British film.’ At the same time, I was hoping that no one would define it exclusively as an Italian fIlm. Originally, Blow-Up’s story was to be set in Italy, but I real­ized from the very beginning that it would be impossible to do so. A character like Thomas doesn’t really exist in our country. At the time of the film’s narrative, the place where the famous photographers worked was London. Thomas, furthermore, finds himself at the center of a series of events which are more easily associated with life in London, rather than life in Rome or Milan. He has chosen the new mentality that took over in Great Britain with the 1960s’ revolution in lifestyle, behavior, and morality, above all among the young artists, publicists, stylists, or musicians that were part of the pop movement. Thomas leads a life as regulated as a ceremonial, and it is not by accident that he claims not to know any law other than that of anarchy.


Before the production of the film, I had lived in London for some weeks during the shooting of Modesty Blaise, a film by Joseph Losey star­ ring Monica Vitti. In that period I realized that London would be the ideal setting for a story like the one I already planned to do. But I never had the idea of making a film about London.

The same story could certainly have been set in New York or in Paris. I knew, nevertheless, that I wanted a gray sky for my script, rather than a pas­tel-blue horizon. I was looking for realistic colors and I had already given up, for this film, on certain effects I had captured in Red Desert. At that time, I had worked hard to ensure flattened perspectives with the telephoto lens, to compress characters and things and to place them in juxtaposition with one another. In Blow-Up, I instead opened up the perspective, I tried to put air and space between people and things. The only time I made use of the telephoto lens in the film was when I had to – for example in the sequence when Thomas is caught in the middle of the crowd.

The greatest difficulty I encountered was in reproducing the violence of reality. Enhanced and ultra-soft colors often seem to be the hardest and most aggressive. In Blow-Up, eroticism occupies a very important place, although the focus is often placed on a cold, calculated sensuality. Exhibitionistic and voyeuristic trends are particularly underlined. The young woman in the park undresses and offers her body to the photogra­pher in exchange for the negatives she wants so much to retrieve. Thomas witnesses a sexual encounter between Patrizia and her husband, and his presence as spectator seems to increase the young woman’s excitement.


The risque aspect of the film would have made filming in Italy almost impossible. Italian censorship would never have tolerated some of those images. Let’s not forget that, even though censorship has become more tolerant in many countries in the world, Italy remains the country of the Holy See.

In the film, for example, there is a scene in the photographer’s studio where two twenty-year-old women behave in a very provocative way.

Both are completely naked, although this scene is neither erotic nor vul­gar. It is fresh, light, and, I dare hope, funny. Certainly I cannot prevent viewers from finding it risque. I needed those images in the context of the film, and I did not want to give them up only because they might not meet with the taste and morality of the audience.

As I have written other times in reference to my films, my narratives are documents built not on a suite of coherent ideas, but rather on flashes, ideas that come forth every other moment. I refuse, therefore, to speak about the intentions I place in the film that, at one moment, occupies all my time and attention. It is impossible for me to analyze any of my works before the work is completed. I am a creator of films, a man who has certain ideas and who hopes to express them with sincerity and clarity. I am always telling a story. As far as knowing whether it is a story with any correlation to the world we live in, I am always unable to decide before telling it.


When I began to think about this film, I often stayed awake at night, thinking and taking notes. Soon this story, with its thousands of possibil­ities, fascinated me, and I attempted to understand where its thousands of implications would take me. But at a certain point, I told myself: let’s start making the film – that is to say, let’s try, for better or for worse, to tell the story and, then.... Today I still find myself at this stage, even if I am near­ly finished filming Blow-Up. To be frank, I am still not completely sure of what I am doing, because I am still in the ‘secret’ of the film.

I believe my work depends on both thought and intuition. For example, just a few minutes ago, I was all by myself, thinking about the next scene, and I tried to put myself in the shoes of the main character at the time when he finds the body. I stopped in the shade of the English lawn; I paused in the park, in the mysterious clarity of the London neon bill­ boards. I approached this imaginary corpse and I totally identified with the photographer. I strongly felt his excitement, his emotion, the thousands of sensations that were released in my ‘hero’ by the corpse’s discov­ery. And then I experienced his way of coming back to his senses, of thinking, and reacting. All of which lasted only a few minutes, one or two. Then the rest of the cast joined me and my inspiration, my sensations, vanished.


–  ‘E nato a Londra ma non e un film inglese’, from Corriere della Sera, 12 February 1982. Translated by Allison Cooper.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Akira Kurosowa: How Rashomon Was Made

Rashomon (Directed by Akira Kurosawa)
A woman is raped in a forest by a bandit, and her samurai husband murdered. In court, the victim and her attacker give contradictory accounts of what happened, while the dead man, communicating through a medium, offers another differing interpretation. Finally, a fourth account is given by a woodcutter who claims to have witnessed the attack. But whose version can be believed? Rashomon, which won the Grand Prix at Venice as well as the Oscar for best foreign language film, is an example not only of the great Kurosawa at the height of his powers – working with his regular collaborator, the imposing Toshiro Mifune – but of cinematic storytelling at its most daring. With its multiple contradictory flashbacks conspiring to present truth as an amorphous entity, Rashomon has been hugely influential on film structure and vocabulary in the 60 years since it was made (Ryan Gilbey).

In the following extract from his autobiography, Akira Kurosawa discusses the making of Rashomon.


When I had finished Scandal for the Shochiku studios, Daiei asked if I wouldn’t direct one more film for them. As I cast about for what to film, I suddenly remembered a script based on the short story ‘Yabu no naka’ (‘In a Grove’) by Akutagawa Ryunosuke. It had been written by Hashimoto Shinobu, who had been studying under director Itami Mansaku. It was a very well-written piece, but not long enough to make into a feature film. This Hashimoto had visited my home, and I talked with him for hours. He seemed to have substance, and I took a liking to him. He later wrote the screenplays for Ikiru (1952) and Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954) with me. The script I remembered was his Akutagawa adaptation called ‘Male-Female.’

Probably my subconscious told me it was not right to have put that script aside; probably I was—without being aware of it – wondering all the while if I couldn’t do something with it. At that moment the memory of it jumped out of one of those creases in my brain and told me to give it a chance. At the same time I recalled that ‘In a Grove’ is made up of three stories, and realized that if I added one more, the whole would be just the right length for a feature film. Then I remembered the Akutagawa story ‘Rashomon.’ Like ‘In a Grove,’ it was set in the Heian period (794-1184). The film Rashomon took shape in my mind.


Since the advent of the talkies in the 1930’s, I felt, we had mis­placed and forgotten what was so wonderful about the old silent movies. I was aware of the esthetic loss as a constant irritation. I sensed a need to go back to the origins of the motion picture to find this peculiar beauty again; I had to go back into the past.

In particular, I believed that there was something to be learned from the spirit of the French avant-garde films of the 1920s. Yet in Japan at this time we had no film library. I had to forage for old films, and try to remember the structure of those I had seen as a boy, rumi­nating over the esthetics that had made them special.

Rashomon would be my testing ground, the place where I could apply the ideas and wishes growing out of my silent-film research. To provide the symbolic background atmosphere, I decided to use the Akutagawa ‘In a Grove’ story, which goes into the depths of the human heart as if with a surgeon’s scalpel, laying bare its dark com­plexities and bizarre twists. These strange impulses of the human heart would be expressed through the use of an elaborately fashioned play of light and shadow. In the film, people going astray in the thicket of their hearts would wander into a wider wilderness, so I moved the setting to a large forest. I selected the virgin forest of the mountains surrounding Nara, and the forest belonging to the Komyoji temple outside Kyoto.


There were only eight characters, but the story was both complex and deep. The script was done as straightforwardly and briefly as possible, so I felt I should be able to create a rich and expansive visual image in turning it into a film. Fortunately, I had as cinematographer a man I had long wanted to work with, Miyagawa Kazuo; I had Hayasaka to compose the music and Matsuyama as art director. The cast was Mifune Toshiro, Mori Masayuki, Kyo Machiko, Shimura Takashi, Chiaki Minoru, Ueda Kichijiro, Kato Daisuke and Honma Fumiko; all were actors whose temperaments I knew, and I could not have wished for a better line-up. Moreover, the story was supposed to take place in summer, and we had, ready to hand, the scintillating midsummer heat of Kyoto and Nara. With all these conditions so neatly met, I could ask nothing more. All that was left was to begin the film.

However, one day just before the shooting was to start, the three assistant directors came to see me at the inn where I was staying. I wondered what the problem could be. It turned out that they found the script baffling and wanted me to explain it to them. ‘Please read it again more carefully,’ I told them. ‘If you read it diligently, you should be able to understand it because it was written with the intention of being comprehensible.’ But they wouldn’t leave. ‘We believe we have read it carefully, and we still don’t understand it at all; that’s why we want you to explain it to us.’ For their persis­tence I gave them this simple explanation:


Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings – the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are. It even shows this sinful need for flattering falsehood going be­yond the grave – even the character who dies cannot give up his lies when he speaks to the living through a medium. Egoism is a sin the human being carries with him from birth; it is the most difficult to redeem. This film is like a strange picture scroll that is unrolled and displayed by the ego. You say that you can’t understand this script at all, but that is because the human heart itself is impossible to understand. If you focus on the impossibility of truly understanding human psychology and read the script one more time, I think you will grasp the point of it.

After I finished, two of the three assistant directors nodded and said they would try reading the script again. They got up to leave, but the third, who was the chief, remained unconvinced. He left with an angry look on his face. (As it turned out, this chief assistant director and I never did get along. I still regret that in the end I had to ask for his resignation. But, aside from this, the work went well)…


There is no end to my recollections of Rashomon. If I tried to write about all of them, I’d never finish, so I’d like to end with one incident that left an indelible impression on me. It has to do with the music.

As I was writing the script, I heard the rhythms of a bolero in my head over the episode of the woman’s side of the story. I asked Hayasaka to write a bolero kind of music for the scene. When we came to the dubbing of that scene, Hayasaka sat down next to me and said, ‘I’ll try it with the music.’ In his face I saw uneasiness and anticipa­tion. My own nervousness and expectancy gave me a painful sensation in my chest. The screen lit up with the beginning of the scene, and the strains of the bolero music softly counted out the rhythm. As the scene progressed, the music rose, but the image and the sound failed to coincide and seemed to be at odds with each other. ‘Damn it,’ I thought. The multiplication of sound and image that I had calculated in my head had failed, it seemed. It was enough to make me break out in a cold sweat.

We kept going. The bolero music rose yet again, and suddenly picture and sound fell into perfect unison. The mood created was positively eerie. I felt an icy chill run down my spine, and unwittingly I turned to Hayasaka. He was looking at me. His face was pale, and I saw that he was shuddering with the same eerie emotion I felt. From that point on, sound and image proceeded with incredible speed to surpass even the calculations I had made in my head. The effect was strange and overwhelming.

And that is how Rashomon was made.

– Excerpted from Something Like an Autobiography, trans., Audie E. Bock. Translation Copyright ©1982 by Vintage Books.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Terry Southern on Easy Rider

Easy Rider (Directed by Dennis Hopper)
Terry Southern was an influential American short story writer, novelist and screenwriter noted for his distinctive satirical style. Southern collaborated on screenplays for several popular movies of the 1960s, including Dr. Strangelove (1964), The Loved One (1965), The Cincinnati Kid (1966), Barbarella (1968), Easy Rider (1968), and End of the Road (1969). The success of these films helped define the 1960s youth counterculture.

In the following excerpt from an interview conducted with Southern that appeared in the Paris Review in 1996 Terry Southern discusses making Easy Rider with Dennis Hopper.

What was the real story of Easy Rider? There are so many versions of how, and who created it.

If Den Hopper improvises a dozen lines and six of them survive the cutting-room floor, he’ll put in for screenplay credit. That’s the name of the game for Den Hopper. Now it would be almost impossible to exaggerate his contribution to the film – but, by George, he manages to do it every time. The precise way it came down was that Dennis and Peter (Fonda) came to me with an idea. Peter was under contract to A.I.P. for several motorcycle movies, and he still owed them one. Dennis persuaded him to let him (Denis) direct the next one, and, under the guise of making an ordinary A.I.P. potboiler they would make something interesting and worthwhile – which I would write. So they came to my place on Thirty-sixth Street in New York, with an idea for a story – a sort of hippy dope-caper. Peter was to be the actor-producer. Dennis the actor-director, and a certain yours truly, the writer.


I was able to put them up there – in a room, incidentally, later immortalized by the sojourn of Dr. W.S. Benway (Burroughs). So we began smoking dope in earnest and having a nonstop story conference. The initial idea had to do with a couple of young guys who are fed up with the system, want to make one big score and split. Use the money to buy a boat in Key West and sail into the sunset was the general notion, and indeed already salted to be the film’s final poetic sequence. We would occasionally dictate to an elderly woman typist who firmly believed in the arrival, and presence everywhere of the inhabitants of Venus; so she would talk about this. Finally I started taping her and then had her rap about it, how they were everywhere – Jack Nicholson’s thing with Easy Rider was based on that.


So you can see that during these conferences the hippy dope-caper premise went through quite a few changes. The first notion was that they not be bikers but a duo of daredevil car drivers barnstorming around the U.S. being exploited by a series of unscrupulous promoters until they were finally disgusted enough to quit. Then one day the dope smoke cleared long enough to remember that Peter’s commitment was for a motorcycle flick, and we switched over pronto. It wasn’t until the end that it took on a genuinely artistic dimension. . . when it suddenly evolved into an indictment of the American redneck, and his hatred for anything that is remotely different from himself… and then somewhat to the surprise of Den Hopper (imitates Hopper in Apocalypse Now): ‘You mean kill ‘em both? Hey, man, are you outta your gourd?!’ I think for a minute he was still hoping they would somehow beat the system. Sail into the sunset with a lot of loot and freedom. But of course, he was hip enough to realize, a minute later, that it (their death) was more or less mandatory.

Are you saying that there was no improvisation in the film?

No, no, I’m, saying that the improvisation was always within the framework of the obligations of the scene – a scene which already existed.


Then how did Dennis and Peter get included in the screenplay credits?

After they had seen a couple of screenings of it on the coast, I got a call from Peter. He said that he and Dennis liked the film so much they wanted to be in on the screenplay credits. Well, one of them was the producer and the other was the director so there was no way the Writers Guild was going to allow them to take a screenplay credit unless I insisted. Even then they said there was supposed to be a “compulsory arbitration” because too often producers and directors will muscle themselves into a screenplay credit through some under-the-table deal with the writer. They (the WGA) said I would be crazy to allow it and wanted to be assured that I wasn’t being coerced or bribed in any way, because they hate the idea of these “hyphenates” – you know, writer-producer, director-producer… because of that history of muscle. Anyway, we were great friends at the time, so I went along with it without much thought. I actually did it out of a sense of camaraderie. Recently, in Interview, Dennis pretty much claimed credit for the whole script.

Writers appear to be treated like the lowest of the breed in the film biz.

Yes. Except we still have persuasion.


Thursday, 27 October 2016

Violence and Realism: An Interview with Arthur Penn

Bonnie and Clyde (Directed by Arthur Penn)
‘Bonnie and Clyde’ is a milestone in the history of American movies, a work of truth and brilliance. It is also pitilessly cruel, filled with sympathy, nauseating, funny, heartbreaking, and astonishingly beautiful. If it does not seem that those words should be strung together, perhaps that is because movies do not very often reflect the full range of human life. (Roger Ebert, September 25, 1967).
In the following interview with Cineaste magazine Arthur Penn discusses the making of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the social and mythical background to the film, and the famous final sequence.

Cineaste: ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ was an enormously popular film but also an enormously controversial film. How do you account for the absolutely vociferous critical response, at least from some critics, which condemned the film? Were you disappointed that your artistic intentions were so misunderstood?

Penn: No, I was delighted because they were misunderstood by people who should have misunderstood, like Bosley Crowther, an old wave New York Times critic who at that time was on a crusade against violence in films in general. When he saw Bonnie and Clyde at the Montreal Film Festival, where it was first shown, he is alleged to have said to somebody that he was going to blow that film out of the water. Which he did, in his review, but it was the best advertising we could have had because people wrote scores of letters to The New York Times, which published them. Then Crowther wrote another attack, a Sunday piece, and more letters poured in, and Crowther responded again, and the more he frothed at the mouth, the more it enlisted support for the film.

It was not a film about violence, it was a metaphorical film. Violence had so little to do with it that it didn’t even occur to me, particularly, that it was a violent film. Not given the times in which we were living, because every night on the news we saw kids in Vietnam being airlifted out in body bags, with blood all over the place. Why, suddenly, the cinema had to be immaculate, I’ll never know. Crowther had philosophically painted himself into a corner by arguing that art, and particularly the cinema, has a social responsibility for setting certain mores and standards of behavior, which is a terrible argument, it just collapses in ten seconds. He was in that corner and couldn’t get out of it and it cost him his job...


Cineaste: How do you account for the film’s enormous popularity, especially with young people?

Penn: I think it caught the spirit of the times and the true radical nature of the kids. It plugged into them, it just touched all the nerves, because here were these two who, instead of knuckling under to the system, resisted it. Yes, they killed some people, but they got killed in the end, so they were heroic and martyred in that respect. I must say, in our defense, we knew a little bit of what we were doing, because the studio asked us if we wanted to do it in black and white, and Warren and I said, ‘Absolutely not. It’s gotta be a film about now. This is not a re‑creation of Bonnie and Clyde, they were a couple of thugs. We’re talking about two kind of paradigmatic figures for our times.’

Cineaste: So historical accuracy was never really a concern of yours?

Penn: Never tried, never came near. Of course, they weren’t like that. We were flagrantly inaccurate and said, right off the bat, this is metaphoric.

Cineaste: So when critics wrote that the film romanticized ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, that’s exactly what you were trying to do.

Penn: Exactly. Far from trying to do anything accurate.


Cineaste: And yet the film is not without social commentary on the period. The screenwriters, Robert Benton and David Newman, who have readily acknowledged you as the true auteur of the film, commented that they were more concerned with the mythology and that you were more concerned with social context and commentary.

Penn: What caught my fancy about the script was what I remembered as a child from the Depression, which was people in New York neighborhoods being kicked out of their homes. When I was doing research by reading newspapers from the period, what struck me was the enormity of the banks’ naiveté in holding these mortgages and then foreclosing on farm after farm after farm. It was stupidity of a monumental, punitive nature. They created a nation of displaced people who essentially began heading to California.

These kind of bucolic figures like John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde were called bank robbers by the FBI in order to aggrandize the agency when they tried to capture them. But they were really just bumpkins, who said, ‘The banks are foreclosing on the farms, so let’s go knock off the banks.’ It’s a very simple, retaliatory response, and on a small scale.

Cineaste: So the sequence with the dispossessed farmer was your contribution.

Penn: Yeah, that was a scene I built.


Cineaste: Robert Towne received a credit as ‘Special Consultant’. What was that for?

Penn: He wrote certain little scenes in the film as well as some additional dialog, but very telling dialog. In the family reunion scene, for example, when they go back to visit Bonnie’s mother, that scene was in the original script, but it didn’t include Clyde’s explanation to Bonnie’s mother about how as soon as everything blew over he and Bonnie were going to settle down and live right down the road from her. And she says, ‘You do that and you won’t live long.’ That’s Towne. He made some very salient contributions.

Cineaste: There is much made in the film of the media blowing the Barrow Gang’s exploits out of all proportion. Hoover was in office then...

Penn: Yes, but the FBI had not really been granted a national status, they were not able to go beyond state lines, and very few crimes were called national crimes. I think the Lindbergh kidnapping was one of them, so they began to call almost anything kidnapping and that gave them jurisdiction. It was an effort on Hoover’s part to build a national police force. But in this case, it was the local sheriff, Sheriff Hamer, who eventually did track them down to Louisiana – that part of it is accurate – and did blow them away. They fired something in excess of a thousand rounds of ammunition at them. It’s amazing, the pent up rage must have been enormous.


Cineaste: It’s a remarkable scene in the film, and even in film history. How was it conceived?

Penn: I had a kind of epiphany on this film where I saw the ending, literally frame by frame, before I even came near shooting it. In the earliest days, when Benton and Newman and I got together to discuss the script, I suddenly saw how that scene should look. I thought we had to launch into legend, we had to end the film with a kind of pole vault, you know, some kind of great leap into the future, as if to say, ‘They’re not Bonnie and Clyde, they’re two people who had a response to a social condition that was intolerable.’ So I thought, gee, the best way to do that is to be somewhat balletic, and, having seen enough Kurosawa by that point, I knew how to do it.

What I did do, which I think had not yet been done, was to vary the speeds of the slow motion so that I could get both the spastic and the balletic qualities at the same time. Technically, it was an enormous problem because we had to gang four cameras together, shooting simultaneously from the same vantage point. The cameras were literally joined side by side on a stand. The problem, because of the very fast speeds needed for the slowest slow motion, was that we were using up gigantic magazines and we didn’t even have time to say ‘action’ because the film would go through the camera so fast. So we said, ‘OK, when Warren squeezes the pear, that’s our cue, and everything goes.’


Cineaste: How were the bullet hits applied?

Penn: There were bundles of wires going up their legs and a special effects guy would trip them by making electrical contact with nails sticking up in a row connected to a battery. Meanwhile, as the bullets are going, someone else was pulling an invisible nylon line that took off a piece of Warren’s head, they were both going through contortions with their bodies, and all of this filmed in various slow motion speeds in four cameras.

Cineaste: How long did that scene take to shoot?

Penn: It took three or four days. We would get one take in the morning and one take in the afternoon, because it took that long to prepare. It was one of those insane moments where, as a director, you’re saying to yourself, ‘I see it this way, I see it no other way, so I’m not going to economize,’ and, meanwhile, you can see people whispering on the set, ‘This guy is nuts. What the fuck is he doing?’

I just had this vision. I knew what it would look like and, when I got into the editing room, it turned out to be a true one. Dede Allen edited the film but Jerry Greenberg, one of her assistants, edited that scene, and he was just shaking his head. I came in and I said, ‘Here’s how it goes – this shot, to this shot, then to that shot.’ It was as if I was reading it out of some other perception. I knew exactly what it would look like.


Cineaste: The various scenes of violence in the film escalate progressively in a very clear dramatic purpose. How would you describe your esthetic strategy?

Penn: The best example I can give, quoting from the film itself, is the sequence where Bonnie and Clyde, with C. W. Moss driving the car for the first time, go to rob a bank. They say ‘Wait here,’ and go into the bank, and C. W. proceeds to park the car. Now, everybody in the audience is titillated by that, and is meant to be. Then the bank alarm goes off, and out come Bonnie and Clyde who are asking, ‘Where’s the car?’ It’s wedged in between two cars, of course, because C. W. has parked it beautifully. So, into the car they go and scream, ‘Get out of here!,’ and this enormous comic tension is built up. We’ve got you laughing and laughing, and C. W. finally gets the car moving and, at that point, the guy comes out of the bank and jumps on the running board. Clyde, in a paroxysm of fear, turns and fires, and that first killing is the one that knocks you right out of the chair, because it’s a guy getting it right in the face. The intention was to disarm the audience to that point where, bam!, the shooting occurs, and then comes the scene in the movie theater where Clyde is hitting C. W. and saying, ‘You dummy,’ because he’s expressing his own remorse and panic about having killed somebody.

Cineaste: In that scene Bonnie seems relatively unaffected.

Penn: She doesn’t mind. In our choice of what we were doing, Bonnie had a more romantic view of danger. Once she’d made the determination, from the very first scene, that she was going to go downstairs and join up with this guy, she was on the qui vive.


Cineaste: Is that why you begin the film with her point of view?

Penn: Yes, it begins with a big close‑up of her lips, her hungry lips. I’m sorry it sounds so corny, but that’s what it is – a hunger for something more than her present existence.

Cineaste: Was the film’s visual style influenced by the work of Walker Evans?

Penn: Yeah, we used a lot of his photographs in the titles. The man who did them, Wayne Fitzgerald, kept saying, ‘God, there’s something not right here. I’m going to take the credits home tonight and I’ll bring them back tomorrow.’ What he put in was the sound of that box camera click and suddenly it evoked the memory we all had from our childhoods of that clicking noise of the Kodak camera shutter, and it just made the titles come alive.

– ‘The Importance of a Singular, Guiding Vision: An Interview with Arthur Penn by Gary Crowdus and Richard Porton’. First published in Cineaste, Vol. XX, No. 2/December 1993.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Terry Southern on Stanley Kubrick

Dr. Strangelove (Directed by Stanley Kubrick)
Writer Terry Southern was hired by Stanley Kubrick to make a satire out of a screenplay originally based on the novel Red Alert by Peter George. Released as Dr. Strangelove (1964), the movie takes us into the war room of a certain President Merkin Muffley, to reveal a military culture gone berserk, as its leaders cheerfully prepare for the imminent end of the world.

The following extract is taken from an interview with Terry Southern by Lee Hill in which Southern discusses his experience of working with Stanley Kubrick.

What was the status of the ‘Dr. Strangelove’ script before Stanley Kubrick decided to hire you in the fall of 1962?

When Kubrick and Peter George first began to do the script, they were trying to stick to the melodrama in George’s book, Red Alert [published under the pseudonym ‘Peter Bryant’... There was an outline. They didn’t go into a treatment but went straight into a script. They had a few pages and in fact had started shooting, but in a very tentative way. Kubrick realized that it was not going to work. You can’t do the end of the world in a conventionally dramatic way or boy–meets–girl way. You have to do it in some way that reflects your awareness that it is important and serious. It has to be a totally different treatment, and black humor is the way to go. That was Kubrick’s decision.

When you first got together with Kubrick, did you start changing the tone of the script right away?

Yeah, after the first day, at our first meeting, he told me what the situation was. All those things that I’ve told you were his very words. ‘It’s too important to be treated in the conventional way. It’s unique! The end of the world is surely a unique thing, so forget about the ordinary treatment of subject and go for something like a horror film.’ He decided to use humor. The flavor that attracted him in my novel The Magic Christian could be effective in this new approach. He would talk about the mechanics of making it totally credible and convincing in terms of the fail-safe aspect and then how to make that funny. And the way you make it funny, because the situation is absurd, is by dealing with it in terms of the dialogue and characters.


I’m curious about the day-to-day working relationship with Kubrick as you wrote the film from the preproduction period through the actual shooting.

Well, after my first day in London when he told me what he had in mind, I got settled into a hotel room not far from where he lived in Kensington. That night, I wrote the first scene, and then he picked me up at four-thirty the next morning in a limo. The limo was a big Rolls or Bentley. We rode in the backseat with the light on. There was this desk that folded down. It was very much like a train compartment. It was totally dark outside. If it got light, we would pull the shades down. He would read the script pages; then we would rewrite them and prepare them for shooting when we got to the studio, which was about an hour to an hour–and–a–half drive depending on the fog.

Kubrick is notorious for his organizational mania.

Yes, he loved nothing so much than to go into stationery stores and buy gadgets and organizational aids.

You hear all these fantastic stories about how Kubrick lives. Did you visit his home much when you were in London?

Yes, several times. He has a castlelike structure, a grand old mansion, which has this two–projector screening room. It has electric fences and security devices. It has everything except a moat. He’s super private because he lives for his children. He lives in comfort and luxury in almost total isolation.


Peter Sellers was going to play all four parts originally, including the Texan bombardier. I understand you coached Sellers on his accent.

The financing of the film was based almost 100 percent on the notion that Sellers would play multiple roles. About a week before shooting, he sent us a telegram saying he could not play a Texan, because he said it was one accent he was never able to do. Kubrick asked me to make a tape of a typical Texan accent. When Sellers arrived on the set, he plugged into this Swiss tape recorder with huge, monster earphones, and listened to the tape I made. He looked ridiculous, but he mastered the accent in about ten minutes. Then Sellers sprained his ankle and couldn’t make the moves going up and down the ladder in the bomb bay. So he was out of that part. The doctor told him he couldn’t do it. Then it was a question of replacing him. Stanley had set such store by Sellers’s acting that he felt he couldn’t replace him with just another actor. He wanted an authentic John Wayne. The part had been written with Wayne as the model.
       
Did Kubrick ever try to get Wayne to play the role?

Wayne was approached, and dismissed it immediately. Stanley hadn’t been in the States for some time, so he didn’t know anything about television programs. He wanted to know if I knew of any suitable actors on TV. I said there was this very authentic, big guy who played on Bonanza, named Dan Blocker. Big Hoss. Without seeing him, Kubrick sent off a script to his agent. Kubrick got an immediate reply: ‘It is too pinko for Mr. Blocker.’ Stanley then remembered Slim Pickens from One-Eyed Jacks [1961], which he [had] almost directed for Marlon Brando, until Brando acted in such a weird way that he forced Stanley out.


When Pickens was hired and came to London, wasn’t that the first time he had ever been out of the States?
Yes, in fact it was the first time he had ever been anywhere outside the rodeo circuit as a clown or the backlots of Hollywood. Stanley was very concerned about Slim being in London for the first time and asked me to greet him. I got some Wild Turkey from the production office and went down to the soundstage. It was only ten in the morning, so I asked Slim if it was too early for a drink. He said, ‘It’s never too early for a drink.’ So I poured out some Wild Turkey in a glass and asked him if he had gotten settled in his room. ‘Hell, it doesn’t take much to make me happy. Just a pair of loose shoes, a tight pussy, and a warm place to shit.’ One of Kubrick’s assistants, a very public-school type, couldn’t believe his ears, but went ‘Ho, ho, ho’ anyway.

Finally, I took Slim over to the actual set where we were shooting. I left him alone for a few minutes to talk to Stanley. While we were standing there talking, Stanley went, ‘Look there’s James Earl Jones on a collision course with Slim. Better go over and introduce them.’ James Earl Jones knew that Pickens had just worked with Brando. Jones was impressed and asked Pickens about the experience of working with Brando. ‘Well, I worked with Marlon Brando for six months, and in that time, I never saw him do one thing that wasn’t all man and all white.’ Slim didn’t even realize what he was saying. I glanced at James Earl Jones, and he didn’t crack [a smile]. Slim replacing Sellers worked out well because, unbeknownst to me at the time, the actor that was playing the co-pilot [Jack Creley] was taller and stockier than Sellers. Whereas Slim was about the same size [as the co-pilot] and more convincingly fulfilled the intention of this larger-than-life Texan.


To what extent did Peter Sellers’ improvisation depart from the shooting script?

It was minimal. It wasn’t like Lolita, where he improvised a great deal. His improvisational bits in Strangelove were very specific. One scene that comes to mind is when [Sterling] Hayden goes into the bathroom to kill himself, Peter’s lines are: ‘Oh, go into the bathroom and have a brushup . . . good idea.’ Sellers changed that to: ‘Splash a bit of cold water on the back of the neck . . .,’ which is more of a British thing. That was good.

What was Columbia’s reaction to this subversive black comedy that the studio had helped to finance?

Columbia was embarrassed by the picture and tried to get people to see Carl Foreman’s The Victors instead. At the time we thought we were going to be totally wiped out. People would call up the box office and be told there were no seats for Strangelove and asked if they would like to see The Victors instead. Gradually, the buzz along the rialto built word of mouth in our favor.

Wasn’t there some falling-out between Kubrick and yourself over screen credit following the film’s release?

Stanley’s obsession with the auteur syndrome – that his films are by Stanley Kubrick – overrides any other credit at all. Not just writing but anything. He’s like Chaplin in that regard. That’s the reason why he rarely uses original music in his films. [Since I had] written this great best-seller, Candy, which was number one on the New York Times best-seller list for something like twenty-one weeks, my reputation eclipsed Stanley’s; so I got total credit for all the Strangelove success in Life, the New York Times, and other publications. The credit I was getting was just so overwhelming and one sided that naturally Stanley was freaking out. He took out an ad in Variety saying I was only one of the three writers on the film, the other two being Peter George, and himself. He just lashed out. But it was like an overnight thing. I wrote a letter to the New York Times explaining that there was no mystery involved, and that I was brought in to just help with the screenplay.