An extract from my interview with Philip Kaufman was published in the August edition of Vérité film magazine here: http://issuu.com/veritefilmmagazine/docs/verite_august_2013
Below is the full interview conducted in collaboration with Peter von Bagh:
What was the first film you saw in your life?
The first film I saw, it’s hard to remember exactly which was the first, but I remember being about six years old living in Chicago and there was a theatre across from the end of my street and it cost 12 cents to get into it and there was a film called “The Cat People” playing there and I asked my mother if I could see it and she thought it was a Walt Disney film. So i went and paid my 12 cents, maybe 6 cents as I was so small, and it scared the shit out of me, then I made Invasion of the Body Snatchers! We went to the movies all the time, double bills, always 2 features and when I made a couple of films that were longer, they were still not as long as the double bills. So I grew up just loving to sit in the movie theatre for hours and hours, we saw everything that we could see, not later when the European films started coming, but then it was pure American cinema, cowboy movies, King Solomon’s Mines, I loved the adventure movies, and we’d sit up in the balcony and it was partly about watching movies and partly about trying to get lucky with the girl that you were with. So it was a nice combination of cinema and eroticism that was going on at the same time, and popcorn!
My understanding is that only good films influence a filmmaker but the whole “diet” was important?
I’m of a generation before there were really refinements in film school, you’ll remember that even in those times Hitchcock was not that highly thought of, he was a guy that made scary movies and so forth, but I think it was with Truffaut’s book, that he began to get more access, at least in America, to people beginning to value those films a lot more. He was just part of the “diet” of films, it wasn’t necessarily that you went to see a Hitchcock movie but there was also the television series where his persona was there all the time. Thats the thing about going back in time to realise what the perceptions were of the American……, guys of my generation that grew up. I went to school, he was a couple of years older than me, with William Friedkin. We would talk about what we did and didn’t like, if we saw a film noir, we would say we would define them as films that had the word “crooked” in the title, like “Walk a Crooked Mile”. There was also something interesting about it. It was a peripatetic way of walking around and trying to digest what it was that interested us about film, but the main thing was to just let the films wash over you. See as many films as you can but with no idea that any of us would end up making films.
Tell us about your parents and your home
I grew up in Chicago, and it was at a time towards the end of World War 2, it was a time when everybody was lower to lower middle class and it was a time in America where people hadn’t begun to move up to the suburbs, so we lived in apartment buildings, three storey’s high as far as the eye could see, everybody lived that way. it was a little bit, when i did “The Wanderers” that was a little later time and was New York and stuff, but it was sort of like the life during the time I lived there. It was pre-Elvis Presley, it was post war and the guys who were tough guys in the neighbourhood were also, I mean there were some bad guys, but there was a thing about being a really tough guy but also being a good guy. There was this thing in America about whether is this guy a good guy, or is he a bad guy? “Hemingway” was dealing with that kind of thing and “The Right Stuff” but it was a concept that it doesn’t have the same meaning that it had, but it also came out of westerns we had seen, not necessarily John Wayne, but Gary Cooper and so forth. I was an only child, but my life was lived on the streets, just after school in the summer time we would go out onto the streets and there would be, everywhere you looked there were kids and everything was sort of playing, it was devising ways to play and it was a great urban landscape it was very exciting and when I went to school, even high school, my high school had almost 5000 students and i was so excited to go to high school as you had no idea what was going to happen and it would be fun. There would be guys who would be crazy, who would do wild things, i remember William Friedkin, who would run into classrooms with a bunch of guys with hoods on and a student would be up in front of the class talking seriously about something and they would just kidnap him to the horror of the teacher and drag him out screaming. It was devising a way, it was the theatre of improvisation and there was, we were not yet into that structured academic world. None of us really thought about going to college or anything like that, it was live life in the moment and have fun, but along the way we were more interested in reading and in films, there were a lot of smart kids, trying to be funny and that was one of the most important things.
What topics did you like at school?
I liked pretty much everything, i liked mathematics and for a while, later when we were in Europe I taught mathematics in Florence in Italy. We just read all the time. My father wanted to be a writer, we didn’t have money, so he went out and worked but there were books around the house. My mother’s brothers both played the violin. My grandfather had been a novelist, he was German, he came to America around the turn of the century and wrote novels in German. He was a sort of german poet-laureate of Chicago. his children didn’t really know what he was up to, he was writing and he was quite good, I have some of his novels that have been translated into english. So there was a kind of urban cultural atmosphere but at the same time there was a life lived in the street, we all thought we were tough guys but we weren’t criminal.
What were your favourite books at that time?
A series of books on history, on the American Civil War, my friends would read all of the books and talk about them, there were books about sports, quite good books actually. They were well written, and we’d sit around and talk about them. I remember in High School I was about 16 or so, a friend and I were reading Aldous Huxley and starting to think about things in a little more interesting way. Essentially what it was was we were not learning that much in school, but we were autodidacts. It was essentially why I ended up liking Henry Miller so much as a writer because he was somebody who loved literature of all kinds and an enthusiast for life. I think the word enthusiasm was a key thing. I see it in my grandson, he’s 13, he wakes up every day and he’s just so excited about whats going to happen today, and i recognise that feeling, i don’t see it that much with many young kids, maybe they’re studying too hard or worrying about their future, we had no future in a way, it was the present. The future was tomorrow, what will we do tomorrow and there was something good about that. I lived right in Chicago, near Lake Michigan, there were great big parks all around there, we would ride our bicycles and ride for miles, just going on adventures. We would just walk around, play baseball.
Did you sense the presence of the Cold War, McCarthy etc?
I grew up as a little kid during World War 2 and I remember after the war when everybody came back, there was this sense if not of euphoria but a sense that this was going to be the last war there would ever be and things would settle down. My Uncle had fought in Spain in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and then he went right into WW2 and fought there for about four years and then people came home and there was a kind of euphoria and what i’m talking about in a way, as we got a little older that there was a teenage culture that grew in America that pretty soon is evidenced by Elvis Presley. I remember when 18, driving with friends from Chicago to New Orleans, three guys, driving over the hills through the night and this new guy we were hearing on the radio, this new guy was playing on the radio. He was not known yet. Marlon Brando and James Dean, those were the guys like I went to school with, they had the body language and the way of expression. Burt Lancaster, he came to our neighbourhood community centre when he was just a young guy, starting in the film business and he looked like 10 of my friends. If my high school had been in Hollywood then they would have been movie stars instead of criminals.
At this stage you didn’t have the slightest idea that you would one day be involved with films?
No, i mean I had a projector where I would show things like Betty Boop and Felix the Cat. I had my friends over, but my story isn’t one of those like so many directors have of I always had my camera and I was going to make films, no. It was just a form of enjoyment, we liked films and liked sports, we like being together and walking the streets. It’s hard to convey the kind of feeling that America had at the time, you asked about McCarthy and stuff, that was happening while I was in High School and the war anxieties going on but in some ways he was just a pretty scary character. Then fairly soon he was brought down. My parents liked a guy called Adlai Stevenson who ran against Eisenhower, ran twice in fact. Stevenson was from Illinois, he was called an “egghead’ because he was an intellectual, he was very witty and everybody i knew was voting for him but Eisenhower won with a landslide because there was another America out there that we were yet to encounter. In the urban centres of Chicago and New York, Los Angeles wasn’t even what it became, I mean people were now starting to move west and move to LA and Las Vegas was not yet really functioning that well. There was an America in the world before what most people think of as America and it had some great values and in some ways the films that were trying to reflect those values, seem a little trite. I’m not talking about the beach blanket films and so forth, but the films of “coming of age” they seem a little unsophisticated but they were trying express and capture a feeling that was part of America.
Do you remember films that looked authentic to you about youth like “Blackboard Jungle” etc?
What was authentic was the actors that were coming out of the Actor’s Studio, actors like James Dean he felt like he was one of us, Marlon Brando too and Paul Newman eventually.
Kevin McCarthy, who you knew then and later, was one of them?
Yes he was and Edmund O’Brien and his brother Liam. Little by little, what changes your life, you see a movie, you talk to your friends. I saw Glenn Ford in “The Fastest Gun Alive” and we liked the way it ended. If you remember, the only way he can get out of being the fastest gun alive is to pretend to be dead. He was so good, but guys kept coming after him and the only escape was to pretend he was dead. We liked that twist and I remember talking about those things and pretty soon in my group, certain guys became writers and then we began to think about where we were going to go to school. I’d never really given it any thought. I started at the University of Illinois which was almost free but by then I was unsatisfied and getting intense about another world. Other worlds were opening up to me and I didn’t want to stay in that world, if you see “The Wanderers”, the main guy drifts back into that world and you feel he is doomed by the world of the wrong story, as I saw my friends who stayed in that world yeah they went into business and did things, but i in general did not want to be in that world. Then as I say i became particularly infatuated with Henry Miller and going to Europe. Right after College i transferred to University of Chicago and then to Harvard Law School, i didn’t know why. I got into all the law schools. Yale, Harvard – My mother said something about going to law school “it wouldn’t hurt” but “it hurt”! I knew i didn’t want to do that so I went back to the University of Chicago and studied history. By then i was married and had a little boy, my wife was 19 and i was 22 and we just wanted to live the life of adventurers. we didn’t have money, we just didn’t want to live in the world that a lot of our friends were living in, somewhere around that time we went up to California, i became a mailman and took any jobs I could to try to be a writer. Somewhere around this time we started seeing European New Wave films, particularly remember (this may even be before my son Peter was born), i always say my son Peter who I travelled around with for years and years as a baby who is now my producer. I get to say that I toilet-trained my producer! Which is the bees thing a director could have!. Truffaut’s 400 Blows in particular, i remember my wife saying she wanted children like those french kids. Somewhere in there too I spent two or three months backpacking around Europe, living in hostels and travelling around and we were being drawn to Europe and I got a job, living near a big hill in San Francisco called Mount Tamalpais. We lived up 97 steps and it was a little small cabin, there was no heating, one room with a little room underneath and I was doing some sculpting at the time. This was the pre-beatnik time, we were sort of bohemians in a way. Up above us on the hill there was a little cabin with Japanese writing on it and was empty and I would take care of my family by breaking some of the wood off this cabin to heat my cabin. About two years ago i met the guy who had lived there, it was a famous beatnik poet named Gary Schneider and I told him that his cabin had given me warmth, but he never probably knew what had happened to his cabin and i did admit some 40 years later that I had ripped his cabin apart!. Then we went to Europe. Henry Miller had written a novel called “Colossous of Maroussi” about his adventures in Greece just as WW2 was beginning and a fabulous character named Katsimbalis who was a little like Zorba the Greek. Reading Laurence Durrell and writers like that and we wanted to be part of this world and free, be in Paris and Italy and taste the european bread. Thats where we stated coming into contact, and we lived in Florence where I was teaching mathematics, and we saw Pasolini’s “Accatone” and i was stunned, the camera in the streets, the life and the look and then I knew that I wanted to make films. There was something about that that set me off so i became in America, some people think I’m more of a European filmmaker, i mean we’re talking about my background which is pure American cinema but the approach of the europeans was so anti-JHollywood and that was what American needed as it Hollywood had become stagnant and the great directors. Hitchcock was still working, John Ford all these people were all sort of a bygone era – technicolor was in and the acting was, aside from the Actors Studio, was a little bit bland but in Europe things were happening. Ingmar Bergman was happening, Italy and all the French New Wave was just so thrilling and I think all the directors of my age who were interesting were influenced by the europeans who in some ways were re-channeling what they saw, how they interpreted american films and certainly interesting the New Wave is going back and forth across the ocean.
All the elements of your films seem to be there, one detail is that you studied history and in your films this is clearly evident too.
I thought I was going to be a teacher with history, but I really didn’t like the way history was taught. You were given an overview of events and you were analysing things but you didn’t have the internal characters but how history was influenced by people that live it. Those stories weren’t available in school and when i did the Jesse James film “The Great Northfield Minesotta Raid” for me, even though i did a lot of historical research and the film was not a pure dry western, i tried to make it rollicking and funny in some ways, a little bit like the pulp novels of the time were. In some ways truer than history than the history that was being taught at school. Around the same time Altman was doing McCabe and Mrs Miller and there was this new re-evaluation of the western briefly in that period that was going on. I remember when it first came out, it was very cheaply done, Universal didn’t even realise they’d made it! it was done for a TV budget. Id been under contract and had made two independent films by then “Goldstein” and “Fearless Frank”. After being at Universal I got a contract in a Young Director’s Programme and made $175 a week, which was not much and I ended up writing, directing and producing the entire movie for $10,00 and spent a couple of years doing that. One of the guys who tried to get into that programme, who had a folded up script in his pocket, but was rejected and the script was called “Easy Rider”. They didn’t see that that was going to be a successful film. I made this movie in like 30 days with a young Robert Duvall and Cliff Robertson, and some other guys and it rained a lot, we had to stop shooting around 3:30 every afternoon. We shot it up in Oregon and we made it with a lot of energy. i mean everybody was into that and when you make a film before you preview it, you don’t often have a score so we put on some music which just happened to be Bob Dylan’s “National Skyline” just to play in the background to cut it and then two friends of mine, Don Siegel and John Sturges, saw the movie and they told Lew Wasserman that he had this movie which was really good. And he said well we’re going out to preview a movie in Phoenix with Paul Newman called “Sometimes a Great Notion” so lets take that movie along. Im in a limousine first time in my life with Lew Wasserman who was the head of Universal/MCA, the most powerful man in the business, heading to the movie theatre and we pass the Gold Water Department Store and if you know your american history this was the ultra conservative movement right in this area and here I’ve done this anti-western and it was definitely not filled with right wing values and i get this little funny feeling that as I’m going past this theatre and then the opening scenes are a little outrageous and a baby starts crying in the middle of a scene, and it gets worse than that with people booing at the screen and afterwards Wasserman says to me “Let’s get rid of that shitty music” and he just had no idea who Bob Dylan was and I had done an opening to the film in black and white not only in black and white, but i’d also had my cameraman Bruce Surtees go to a museum and get this hand cranked old camera that gave an authentic prologue to the film and staged in black and white to make it look like old western footage would have looked, not precisely at 24 frames per second. When they saw that they said to me “What the fuck did you do?” “Why did you shoot this in black and white?” – “You should have shot this in colour and then we could have had the option to have it printed in black and white.” I said “That’s why I shot it in black and white?” – They didn’t laugh. I had to spend about a half of a year, when you see the film, they said “if black and white appears on American television people will change the station.” So there are just these coloured backgrounds of maps just to give the semblance of colour in the background and it was my first Hollywood experience and I sort of got beaten down. Its always a battle. One of the themes in the film, is no matter how many times you get shot, you gotta keep getting up. Thats what Cliff Robertson’s character, at the end of the film he has 19 bullets in him, blood is coming out of him but he has to keep getting up. That’s Hollywood !
And now back to your first film, a fiercely independent film called “Goldstein”. Renoir praised it, Truffaut loved it.
This is after I’ve been in Europe, I’m back in America and a friend of mine with whom I corresponded not only about film but philosophies too and we were reading the philosophies of Martin Huber and some of the mystical things but we also wanted to do something, and this is the same for my first two films, a sense that I’m not necessarily interested in films that are important because they announce they are important. Im interested in important films that can survive, i like to see perspective, where you know the filmmaker and the filmmakers and the actors got the sense of the joke of life too. Renoir did that, Truffaut too. Theres always something in that. You look at the extreme like Buster Keaton or Chaplin and in some ways these are great serious films, but they are comedic and some of the Hollywood movies that were big and serious and lugubrious they made people go to the movies, but I was less interested in those so we decided to do a fable of this old man coming out of the sea. Somebody said it was a little like Renoir’s “Boudu Saved from Drowning”. I believe Polanski around this time had done “Three Men and A Wardrobe: which I hadn’t seen but the idea was that in every generation there is a bum, a hobo, a clochard who roams the streets who maybe is a wireman and we don’t know that. So I cast this actor, Lew Gilbert, who had been blacklisted but as a side-note Fellini saw the movie and cast him as the father in “Juliet of the Spirits” a year or so later. Its the story of a young man having some sense of this bum roaming the streets and ends up trying to find him and becomes himself transformed but in a lyrical way, theres lots of stuff that was going in european films of running through the streets, black and white, we shot out of the back of a Citroen 2CV which had great suspension and a lot of the actors were from a comedy group called Second City from Chicago. Its produced a lot of famous people like Mike Nicholls, Elaine May, Alan Arkin and a lot of the people came from that, a friend of mine Nelson Algren who wrote “The Man with the Golden Arm” and “Walk on the Wild Side” who won the first national book award and he plays a part in the film. So it was all in Chicago, all with friends, we didn’t really have a script, we had an outline of 15 pages and some very good improvisational actors and shooting. its not what I do now, but it was an valuable technique for learning how to do those things and in some ways going to high school and i still have that feeling whenever i show up on the set. Im not the kind of director who likes to only inspire the actors, i want them to inspire me, right from the beginning of the day, the whole thing should be exhilarating, whats important is finding the truth in the moment, and sometimes the truth is gotten at through humour. A lot of directors don’t seem to accept that.
You have mainly mentioned European influences but can you speak about independent New American Cinema?
When we were living in Florence I saw Cassavettes “Shadows” and then when just outside Amsterdam I saw Shirley Clarke’s “The Connection”. We didn’t have the money, we would have stayed in Amsterdam if we could have afforded it so we came back. I knew at that point that I definitely wanted to do what Pasolini, Cassavetes and Shirley Clarke and very few others were doing, there was no real independent cinema. When we started making films there were only about six guys doing that in America but now with Sundance there’s 16,000 films, everybody is making independent films. We went back lived with my parents for a while and I tried with my friend knocking on doors to try and get a couple of hundred bucks here and there. We ended up raising $40,000 and were able to make “Goldstein” which won a praise at Cannes.
Did you go to Cannes? Can you tell us what it was like back then, now it’s a crazy house?!?
Yeah, it was great, the first screening of the film was in california and Renoir saw it and said some great things about it. Then there was that first screening in Chicago and Truffaut saw it, he just happened to be in town visiting the set of Arthur Penn’s film “Mickey One” and was seeing Alexandra Stewart and he came to the little theatre and at one point he jumped up and started applauding in the middle of the film. We went off to Cannes, saw Truffaut, we waved but I didn’t really know him. We had the smallest film at Cannes, I mean now you can do a film for less because of digital but that was about shooting film, making prints and travelling to Cannes that was about as low budget as you could get in those days. Our whole promotion for the film was these little calling cards that just said “Goldstein” you know how people hand out cards and we put one in everybody’s mail box at Cannes. i used Ben Caruthers, he was an actor who had been in “Shadows” and i remember Ben Carruthers carrying Roman Polanski on his back along the beach. I walked around and met Anthony Mann who had the biggest film at the festival “The Fall of the Roman Empire” and I had the smallest one. He, in his heart, wanted to get back to making smaller movies, we spent a couple of days just wandering around and he said things like “Do you know what a scene in a movie is?” and you think it’s like two people yelling at each other, that’s a scene right? He said “Gary Cooper on a horse is a scene” and thats a nice piece of wisdom for me. All of you that make films will know that if you can find the quintessential image or find that moment that aren’t so important anymore, thats the art of editing and so forth, that was just so great about those great westerns that you were transported. You were in a scene without dialogue. Mann introduced me to Ingrid Thulin whose husband was the head of the Swedish Film Institute, Harry Schein, i found myself alone on the beach at Cannes with Ingrid Thulin who was one of Bergman’s actresses, she was topless and we were having this conversation. All of a sudden she sits up and says “My God, look at that” and theres Jayne Mansfield walking across and followed by all the paparazzi. She was so interested in Jayne Mansfield. I couldn’t have cared less about Jayne Mansfield, here i was with Ingrid Thulin. I mean that was what Cannes was like back then. My god its one of Bergman’s stars, she’s gorgeous and she’s bright and with Jayne Mansfield, it’s a case of there goes Hollywood!
So Cannes, was much smaller and I got to meet a few critics who became big backers of the film, like Robert Benouhin of Positif and Variety had a great critic called Gene Moskowitz. They were enthusiastic. Even if you don’t agree with a critic, you can learn something from their enthusiasm. I don’t read critics that much because theres not much I’m going to learn they’re just trying to sell a movie or please the publisher or some imaginary audience out there who doesn’t want to spend their money on a movie so they rely on the critic to tell them not to see it. Roger Ebert was one of the last critics who had a real enthusiasm for film, i know some others but a lot of them are out of work now.
What then happened to “Goldstein”
Some guy bought it and it went to some art houses in New York, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles and then it was gone. Then i wanted to make another film, i got a little bit more money. Another thing that interested me a lot when i was young was comic books, i just read all the comic books. I was interested in the mythology that was contained in comic books. Now when we see Batman and Superman and all the bif movies, those are not the comic books that I grew up on, they are much more heightened dramatically, there was more of an innocence to the comics of those times and we have let graphic novels take over. I made a film called “Frank’s Greatest Adventure” about a guy that sort of embodied some of these superhero things, i found a young actor who had never acted before called Jon Voigt. I used a lot of the same Second City people including Nelson Algren and we had a good time making it, it didn’t make money. Goldstein didn’t make money. I had to get out of Chicago if i was going to make movies and I went back to San Francisco, then down to Los Angeles and eventually got the job (contract with Universal on their Young Director’s Programme) for $175 per week. I started over and im always starting over, Im still starting over. I’m still looking for “whats the next thing” and how do i get it done and who do i convince to make it.
In 1966, you had made two films and were accepted onto Universal’s “Young Director’s Programme” and returned to San Francisco.
After I had made the two films in Chicago. I came down to Los Angeles in early 1967 and didn’t know anybody there except my old friend William Friedkin. Who i was waiting for in front of the Whiskey-a-Go-Go. There was nobody there except this big cadillac and he was sitting inside and he had already made this Sonny and Cher movie, he was rolling money in his fingers and then went raised his hand and opened the door. I got in and we both laughed at how ridiculous this all was. I came down to LA, I didn’t have much money. even though i had this contract which I was lucky to have, i was still only making $175 a week and early on wrote “Great Northfield Minnesota Raid” and that took four years to get made. Once I had made that i then got an agent, Mike Medavoy, who when Jennings Lang who was head of my department at Universal wanted to renegotiate my contract, Mike Medavoy said “no, i feel we need to get him out” and then Mike Medavoy was banned from the lot at Universal. He was a big name and went on to become head of Tri-Star. So then I made The White Dawn.
Do you think the presence of the Vietnam War came into your films at all?
“Frank’s Greatest Adventures” was about a superhero whose got many convolutions and so forth, but who believes doing good is fighting evil. The main character, Jon Voigt, sort of goes mad and becomes a destructive force and that was related in some to the Vietnam experience, that spirit of doing good by fighting evil, did not include being good. its about losing a soul in some way, but its rectified because there are other things that happen. Its hard to explain right now, but its a film of mine that maybe allegorically dealt with Vietnam. In “Bodysnatchers” is coming probably during that time. San Francisco is the city i love most in the world, its got so much of the energy and openness, a lot of things that I love about it and the task was how can we show people of good will being taken over by a soulless force. Thats not exactly a Vietnam thing, but right as this film was being released there was Jonestown where all the people drank the Kool Aid, lead by a religious cult leader who was out of San Francisco. Most of the people were there and this was kind of soporific mentality, sort of a liberal make nice kind of thing. Leonard Nimoy’s character was trying to explain away the anxieties, in fact we know that when we see “Bodysnatchers” there really are bad things going on, but the tendency to explain away those things was sort of at the core of that and how people would rather lose their own peace over vitality. Peace over the problems of life, they would rather have something, like drugs which were prevalent at that time. A sort of quest for a world free of anxiety. In some ways we want to live in that world but love is an anxiety, and thats what distinguishes our version from the earlier version in that it was more about identifiable people, a love affair and dealing more with what is of value that we have to protect rather than doing a pure horror movie where people who we sort of like because they looked good were being chased by bad things. So the characters in here had to prove themselves of being worthy of having the right kind of values that we did not want to see taken away.
Would you agree that you couldn’t have made this film anywhere else other than San Francisco?
We didn’t start out to do that, we still talked about doing a re-make of the earlier one. At first I didn’t want to re-make it, but then i got interested in the themes. I knew Don Siegel and Kevin McCarthy. I read the book by Jack Finney which was pure science fiction and I thought there was something there that i could update but then I started to see it more of a variation on the theme. Later, Milan Kundera when he did a stage version of “Jack the Fatalist”, he called it a variation on the traditional theme. With Hamlet some people do an updated version and try to find something in that. So we tried to do something similar. There;s been a couple of versions since then but Ive not seen them. its a good theme. It might well have been about the communist threat, about McCarthy, but for me it was about losing a soul. What is valuable? Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams in one of my favourite scenes, they are in his back yard and he is making dinner for her and there’s a kind of gentleness and humour. I asked her if she had a trick, she said she could roll her eyes opposite ways and we put that in the film. Donald Sutherland falls in love with her, but i fell in love with her, she just has this great smile and her eyes are rolling, i totally forgot about Betty Boop.
How did you decide what to include in the film and what to just hint at?
Every character had to be valid, the problem with the old version was that it was more of a radio show. It was black and white, it was a voiceover and likeable characters were acting it out, you could almost close your eyes and see the movie. Not only were we visually trying to update it by using noir techniques in colour which were not being used that much, you have to go back in time to where colour cinematography was at that point we were doing a lot of the shadowing and lighting in special ways and we were looking at that at old films in the Berkeley archive. At the same time all the actors had to validate their characters, we would sit around and try to treat this as if it were not a horror or a science fiction movie but something that was about real people and real relationships and the actors would have to defend their characters and argue their characters. That was fun, it was really like theatre. In the process of doing that you find valid emotions and create I felt a really good love story. There’s Jeff Goldblum’s character, whose one of those sort of quirky characters, almost like out of a 40’s movie, he’s sort of a mad poet with no friends living in San Francisco. I had a lot of friends like that. These were all like people I knew. We looked at all the old noir cinematographers like John Alton, how did they light it, Michael Chapman too. We did four films together and we’re great friends. He had been Gordon Willis operator on the first Godfather. I think it was one of the first uses of real black in colour films, that right at the beginning when you’re looking through the blinds and the screen is almost black and theres a little bit of light, Brando’s looking, if you sat in the theatre you could almost see the audience looking forward to adjust their eyes, their irises. But prior to that Hollywood, with Technicolor the idea was to light everything up, they’d forgot about film noir, they’d forgot about blacks and how did you find the true black in colour, so Chapman and I were trying to go back to that. We were also playing with it, we were finding the fun of film noir, there were lots of little things we joked around like the telephone cord sliding back into the wall. It was one of the artefacts of modern living that was weird and spooky. Eventually these things begin to add up. A photographer friend of mine remembered it from her childhood and remembered being really terrified of the scene with the people on the bus who all look haunted. It terrified her. At that point in the movie we were just out doing documentary verite shots of buses going by because we had done our work up to that point of filming every day people who just looked really terrified. That was for me “how do you alter the perception of the world you live in?”, its almost a combination in a way of what we had structured dramatically with the camera and the lighting, then when you are confronted with the world. You all have that feeling when you come out of a theatre and feeling the world is transformed, but what does it? Sometimes your exhilarated by the characters, by the drama but sometimes its just the power of the movie that alters your life for however long, maybe permanently but certainly for the period of time that you exit the theatre. After you see a good film, i really don’t like to talk about it for a while, when you go to festivals and everybody’s saying “What did you think of the movie?” and its either “I loved it’, “I hated it” – its like please, one of the greatest reviews ever written by James Agee of Chaplin’s “Monsieur Verdoux” where he said “I’ve just seen this film but I cant write about this week, Ill write about it next week.” It was in Time Magazine. he just wasn’t prepared to write about it at that time. We are too quick to judge and then we just throw it away like the wrapper of a candy bar, you didn’t like it, i didn’t like it so lets go and eat somewhere. its like how was sex for you? Now people still light up a cigarette, or even they get their computers out and say “How was it for me?”
I understand you were keen to restore Siegel’s original ending in the film?
Not quite, he just didn’t want it to end with that little tag they put on “We’ll call the FBI and everything will be ok”. He didn’t have the ending that we have. I thought that one up. I just thought that the horror that they got Donald Sutherland and that maybe the only survivor was Veronica Cartwright. And I didn’t tell the studio that ending and I only told Donald the night before we did it. The studio only saw it when the film was finished.
Now we come to “The White Dawn”, a film that is very difficult to see.
I’d just done “The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid” and I’d got two scripts at that point from a producer called Martin Ransahoff, one of which took place in Big Sur down the coast and the other took place in the Arctic. I chose the Big Sur script to read and my wife read “The White Dawn”. I didn’t like my script and I asked my wife what she thought of hers. She said “Don’t read it, because if you read it you’re going to go to the Arctic”. it wasn’t even that good of a script, but it just had enough in it, it was an adventure, a period film, based on a real story, took place in 1896 where three whalers survive. They were chasing whales, their boat crashed and they lived for a year with inuit. Not long after she said that we were living in Los Angeles, it was 75 or 80 degrees and then 24 hours later i was up 400 miles above the Arctic Circle in Canada where it was 50 degrees below zero. I realised as i was scouting that i was going to be living there for four months. We embarked on a real adventure, Flaherty had done that, but I don’t think there had been a film, Nick ray did Savage Innocence but the igloos were in a studio in Rome and now we were embarking on this really difficult adventure. Three actors came from America; Warren Oats, Timothy Bottoms, Louis Gosset Jr – everybody else I cast were the eskimos. it was an amazing experience and everybody loved the film and now there are no prints of it. There is a negative which cost like $20,000 to put back, which i guess it could be printed, there was a print made for a film festival a few years back and then somebody sold it. Hollywood had that habit, they would not give me a print, they would rather destroy it because if i had it and i showed it here it might ruin the commercial value of the movie that they’ll never show anyway! Thats their logical bullshit. Back when we used film, on the soundtrack we sometimes used filler from old movies. Somebody was looking at the sound and said “My god its The Right Stuff!”, its just been thrown away prints that they didn’t want to use or give to me, they’d rather just throw them away and have them used as filler and destroy the prints. We lived four months with the eskimos and went on adventures with them, it was an experience. It does exist and you can find it on a DVD. They wanted to show it at Lincoln Centre recently but they couldn’t get a print, but then at the Chicago Film Festival they did show a DVD of it. it breaks my heart, its a beautiful film.
Can you tell me about the Polar Bear incident on White Dawn
As you know polar bears eat people! They have that black nose and slide along under the water with their paws covering their noses to get to the seals and the seals don’t realise theres this blurry whiteness approaching. Because they’re dangerous we had this problem of how to film them. We flew a polar bear in from the Seattle zoo in a cage, he arrived on the same type of plane that we arrived on which was a cargo plane. I might have said to him that when the ramp came down the polar bear appeared in an Ascot singing zippidee do dah because he’d never seen snow before! Thats not quite true but the minute his cage came down and he saw the snow, we had a big area of electric wires, riflemen and fire extinguishers. The bear came out and he saw the snow and did this belly flop on the snow. We shot for two days trying to get the reaction when the eskimo stabs the bear which we used fake things for and we could never, however we coaxed the bear, get that. The we realised if we sort of reversed that shot of him, that first moment when we landed was the actual moment he actually looked like he was dying. Then we did the main scene where the old eskimo leader is supposed to approach the polar bear up to the distance of about 10ft and then we were going to do close ups and using a model of a bear, like in boxing. I had this dolly shot set up to track alongside the old eskimo with the point of his spear and just as im starting to shoot, the snow is melted behind us and the junk from the old eskimo things like old cars and stuff is now all exposed so i didn’t have time to move things around so i just had the eskimo lower the point of the spear right at that point the camera goes down and comes right back up to avoid the background and then he was supposed to stop, but he was a hunter so he went right up to the polar bear and started jabbing at the bear which made the scene work! The anti cruelty society said we had killed a bear, which of course we hadn’t, we got all kinds of bad publicity. The other thing was trying to get the bear back on the plane. We’re all pushing him in this cage, even me and we’re sliding him along and he’s pissed off and not cooperating. The snow is melting and a fissure appears in the cage so it gets caught and theres like this 25ft drop into this roaring river below and we’re all trying to right the cage and the bear inside is clawing at us all and we finally righted the thing and got him back on the fucking plane and sent him off!
What does the collaboration with your cinematographer mean to you
You have this dance together, thats absolutely crucial for me, i cant work with a cameraman whose just off doing his own thing. Chapman and I had this particularly good relationship, he’s salty, tough and a very bright guy. he could do the New York Times crossword puzzle in the morning while the lights were being set up and thats not an easy crossword puzzle! I’ve worked with Sven Nykvist, Philippe Rousselot, Caleb Deschanel – many great cinematographers and its absolutely critical that you’re seeing the same thing. Sven was amazing, he had the ability to light a whole scene and then he’d say and lets come around for a close-up here, where ordinarily that would mean you’d go back to the trailers and come back in about half an hour but with Sven would just walk up and he’d go “ready”, he knew where we would be going, he always thought three moves ahead. That enabled the actors to just keep going and keep in the moment. Chapman was fast and good.
After the debacle over “The Outlaw Josey Wales” you were also at this time (1976) developing a script for what would have been the first “Star Trek” film and working on developing a script for “Raiders of the Lost Ark”
I was writing “Raiders” at the time of “Josey Wales” which I also directed for a couple of weeks. Paramount didn’t know what they had, somebody said they had this TV show and wanted to do this feature for about $3m and wanted to do this schlocky thing. I knew “Star Trek” and just thought something good could be made out of it. I spent a lot of time, over a year trying to work that out and prepare it, we got to the point where we had George Lucas’ guy Ralph McCory was in England and Ken Adam was doing the sets and I was just finishing how this movie would be done. I set it around Leonard Nimoy, i wanted to use Toshiro Mifune as a Klingon and to do a real contest in outer space. Make tin a big feature film. Then one morning i got this crucial call, I’d been writing all night and could barely stand up, and the producer saying “bad news, there’s no future in science fiction” which to me is one of great lines. Then of course six weeks later “Star Wars” came out.
I guess with hindsight the early word on “Star Wars” was bad, so the studio were erring on the side of caution by pulling the plug.
Well yeah, the early word was bad but that was all the people in England, this terrible movie and they pulled the plug and George and his producer had to go separately and finish up. Of course it made everybody’s career but thats how George became a billionaire because they didn’t even care, they let him have the deal and of course that will never ever happen again. But he got ownership of it because they (FOX) thought it was a piece of shit, and they believed there was no future in science fiction too.
And with “Raiders”?
I was developing something with George, we had sort of the parameters of the story but then I went on and did some other things and other projects. Then four years later I get a call from George and he said I’m in Hawaii with Steven (Spielberg) and he’d told him our story. He said is it ok with you? I said yeah it’s great. I didn’t want to write the screenplay and they brought on board Lawrence Kasdan. I sat with Larry Kasdan and then we talked about and then I didn’t really have anything else to do with it after that.
When I was watching “Bodysnatchers” the other night here, it occurred to me that the casting of Leonard Nimoy most probably came from your developing of the “Star Trek” story?
Yes, exactly. We’d been working together on developing the “Star Trek” film and then this happened.
I believe you’ve said that “The Wanderers” was a kind of reflection of what it was like for you growing up on the north side of Chicago?
Yeah, i grew up a few years earlier but when my son, when he was 12 years old he read Richard Price’s book, he said to my wife that you guys should make a movie of this. It took a number of years to get done, nobody really wanted to do it. There was a long history and finally got an option on the book, we wrote a screenplay and were finally able to get it done. But it took years of struggling and people would say don’t do it, “American Grafitti” had been done but it was a different thing, when George Lucas saw “The Wanderers” he said “I didn’t know greasers played football!” that was a west coast thing but in Chicago, the tough guys were. it was a different type of thing and that I should be doing commercial movies and stuff.
The Wanderers has one of the great film soundtracks of all time.
it’s a great soundtrack. I chose the songs and Richard Price who wrote the book, he knew every song of that period, it was right of his time. He gave me stacks of things and I went through them and theres not really a score, I mean there’s Penderecki but I didn’t hire a composer. I like often not hiring a composer, often the temp track is better than the score.
How did you get involved with “The Right Stuff”?
Chartoff and Winkler, Hollywood producers who had just produced Raging Bull, they sent me William Goldman’s script and Tom Wolfe’s book. I read Wolfe’s book and I loved it and I read Goldman’s script and I didn’t love it. I said i don’t want to do this, its not about The Right Stuff that he wrote something else. I knew Goldman we had worked together on something else that had not been made but anyway we got into some conversations about it and I said you have left out The Right Stuff, you have left out Chuck Yeager’s character, the very core about what Tom Wolfe’s book is all about. One thing lead to another and he quit the movie, i was almost fired as he was the most important screenwriter in Hollywood. He;s a terrific writer, but he didn’t write the right script for that movie he tried to make little dramas, he tried to have John Glen going into a Mexican whorehouse to save the astronauts, stuff that I was interested in because here was the potential of doing a film that is about a quality that harkens back to what we were talking about earlier. Gary Cooper on a horse. That goes to the core, crux of Americana. in some ways The Right Stuff, the film we made, its certainly the longest film ever made without a plot. The plot in some ways is the evolution of a characteristic called The Right Stuff that nobody can ever talk about. Its a quality that in some ways comes out of Hemingway’s code of behaviour, comes out of the American West, comes out of laconic people who perform in a heroically modest way. The crux of that was seen in Tom Wolfe’s book in this character called Chuck Yeager who broke the sound barrier for no money and was unknown by history and yet his personality and his character informed the astronauts that followed the first men who were going to go up into space who had to fight the bureaucracy, fight the press, they had to fight all of the things that keep artists down that keep everybody down because of conformity and mediocrity. They had to fight the scientists to put windows in the capsules because they were pilots in the tradition of Chuck Yeager, they had to see what they were doing, they just weren’t going to be chimpanzees being put into capsules. Their wives were faced with this horrible thing right from the beginning virtually, a great number of the pilots who went up, died. At the beginning of the film it says “There was a demon who lived in the air and whoever challenged it would die”. That demon lived at like 720 miles on the meter and what was happening was that everybody who tried to break through the sound barrier, their planes crashed. This was right at the same time that they built the new airplane that could break through the sound barrier. We take it for granted now, but at the time nobody had ever done that and Yeager thought it could be done and he did it, but pretty much everybody died. it was a brutal life of quiet heroism way up in the high desert in california in a little town around Edwards Airforce Base that had cactus trees. it was an unknown project. The ad that i put on the film was “How the future began.” it was about how we got on the other side of the sound barrier and how do you retain a quality that is, in my mind, quintessentially american.
The film sort of binds together in the opening when the man on horseback sees the aeroplane like the Bronc, the horse that cant be broken. its taking Yeager’s cowboy in a way and he has to ride that thing, it’s perhaps not Liberty Vallance, but certainly Ford. Its the man with no name, like Sergio Leone. And Yeager was in a way nameless.
I felt good about being able to, simplify imagery and just find those things, like the actors, like Sam Shepherd. Levon Helm who does the narration, who just passed away, the great drummer from The Band. These were great friends of mine. using the documentary footage, really important to me and its something that I’ve tried to do in “Hemingway and Gelhorn”, was to really go into the archives. This film is sitting there and Hollywood would often just throw this stuff away. Right Stuff was not that much of an expensive film. They want to recreate that, but there’s great archival footage that you can hardly match. You’ll see in the archival footage at the beginning there is Sam Shepherd and Levon Helm like blended in with men of that period, but that becomes the challenge of, not only myself as a film maker, but wardrobe and set construction. Everybody on the film, the props etc, has to be validated by how close to reality what is found in the past. Too often period films that are created anew, the costumes look too clean, they cost $100m and they don’t have the flavour or sense of the authentic about them. I had tried with “Northfield Raid” to use black and white at the beginning, the same with White Dawn, my first film was black and white. I’ve been fascinated with black and white, why is the future always ahead of us, can we not bring with us some artefacts of what we know and invite them to join us in the future.
Your European films, do you see them as very separate to your other films?
There is a moment in “Unbearable Lightness of Being” where Juliette Binoche has been taking photographs and is developing her imagery and she pulls out a picture of people in the streets of Prague and that pictures is a photo of me, my wife and my son in San Francisco and it looks just like Prague, its my way of getting into the movie. It was meant to exemplify of what was going on everywhere.
Was 1968 one of the reasons for doing the film.
It was only because Milos Forman, he’d been asked to do it but he couldn’t because he had two children living in Prague and they would be in danger, at that time you all remember what Prague was like. Then somehow we got into discussions, Saul Zaentz the producer, I spent five years doing The Right Stuff and I spent four and a half doing The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I was just going round trying to cast it, trying to work with with jean-Claude Carriere, trying to work with Kundera, trying to do justice to this great book by Kundera but its a book in a way that is philosophical and it has its own music and each little chapter dealing with the eternal return. Jean-Claude was very instrumental in this, we extended the story and tried to breathe dramatic life into the material but at the same time be true to Kundera’s book. Whatever that means. True to him in our way and I hope that we were able to do that. it was complicated and it took a long time, we spent a long long time trying to get the right cast.
What is your opinion of using various European actors in the same film
The way I decided to it which was sort of a film thing, is that in an english film, Americans speaking english, if everyone had the same Czech accent, if they were Czechs speaking english. The Brits do that all the time where the upper class speaks with one accent, we brought a dialogue coach on board and Daniel Day Lewis, Juliette Binoche spoke almost no english at the time, Lena Olin from Sweden. But they all had the same inflections and the same voice, this being of course for an english speaking audience, it wouldn’t come through in the same way if you were watching it from afar. in order for them to act, they all not only acted Czech but hopefully a certain physicality, a body language that could go along with, every culture has a little different body language.
You’ve known a great number of well known writers. How is your relationship with them and your approach to adaptations.
Well they’re all different. Milan Kundera said to me, he had taught screen writing in prague, Milos had done some study with him. He said you must violate the material. When i was doing interviews for after the film was done, I said somewhere like Paris or something, I said that Milan Kundera had told me to violate the material, so I did. When I arrived in Italy there were big headlines in the newspapers saying I had violated Milan Kundera, it had been taken out of context. I’d never more in a strange way or a sexual way, the material must be approached with love directly and force. When Milan saw it, he said I like the film very very very much.
At the core of the film was the existing archival footage, i think the look went out from that. You’ll remember the sequence of course, which was originally much longer, we embedded Daniel Day lewis, Juliette Binoche and Lena Olin into the past and that was one of the clues to finding a look for the film, there were other approaches to the film, thinking of the Czech films of the 60’s like Forman, they had an element of that great Czech humour so we wanted to draw that out, and Kundera can be very funny, but I don’t know that the book had that but we tried right from the beginning to get that quality. A lot of people think that the title The Unbearable Lightness of Being in english means its terrible to be light but in France, Jean-Claude would say that its really the unsustainable lightness of being which we all want, we would like the essence of being to be light, but in the world in which we live thats almost an impossibility and that is the task that our characters are trying to do. Politics is the villain really and it takes away the love story, I’ve always claimed that it was a big story but it was an intimate epic and the key to the movie was not the size of the movie but the more the tighter and tighter i could get on the characters. you remember the scene of the two women photographing each other where the key to the erotic moment is in the eyes of Juliette Binoche as she looks at Lena Olin naked and lowers the camera and that makes the scene erotic, not the two women naked. I mean thats all potentially there, but how do you find how do find your way to the sexually intimacy of the moment in the midst of a world that is falling apart.
San Francisco, your hometown, has become almost like another character in your films as you’ve filmed there now many times. Can you tell me what it is that makes it so special for you to film there?
I find i’m comfortable in San Francisco, I love Chicago too but when I went back to try to live there was just an atmosphere in the city and i felt isolated or in the old town. My old friends were all going into business. San Francisco is still somewhat of a frontier place, its on the edge of the world, there are more artists, its a small city, there are cafes, theres all that ethnic mix; italian, chinese, gays, beatniks and all. i love it. All these things begin. A friend of ours says that whenever he lands in San Francisco he can feel that creative spirit. it was bohemian, it was beatnik and then there was the Castro and there was this whole new spirit that was coming out of that area. the food, and everything and now theres the digital world. theres no city i know that constantly, maybe the fog rolls in, i mean New York has much more energy in a way but its a different kind of energy, there are constantly new creative worlds coming out of San Francisco and I love that. its invigorating.
Your last two films have included a relatively low budget horror film and a made for TV mini-series. Is this indicative of where the work lies these days (in light of Soderbergh’s comments about the prominence of TV over Hollywood) and how does this shift inform the nature of the projects you take on?
I said what Soderbergh was saying many years ago! in fact I spent years developing a “Liberace” story with Robin Williams which we were trying to get made, but this goes back 10 years. The small theatres are closing, theres only the multiplexes and suddenly television seems more interesting. HBO and likeminded stations have no commercials, don’t do things that movie companies do. Since they did things like “The Sopranos”, “Homeland” and all of these things. Theres a vitality there, so Im interested in that. Ideally id like to make films for cinema, id like to see them on the big screen. The reason I stayed a little bit longer was because they just showed “Hemingway and Gellhorn” on the big screen.
What film would you take a desert island?
There are films that I can see over and over again. I’ve been thinking a lot about “Jules and Jim” lately, I love that.