In the December issue of Vérité film magazine you can read an abridged extract of my interview with Alan Rudolph which covers his career from the early days up to Choose Me (1984).
Below is the unedited version of my Alan Rudolph interview:
Alan Rudolph: Early Beginnings to Choose Me (1984)
I first met Alan Rudolph a year ago in a small one-street town 120km north of the Arctic Circle at the Midnight Sun Film Festival, where he was being honoured, and I’m pleased to say that we have remained in touch ever since.
When I approached Alan a couple of months ago with a view to doing an interview with him, it was with the full intention of covering his entire career. However, as I started watching all his films in chronological order in preparation and the questions started developing, it was obvious that this was going to be a very in-depth piece and much too large to include here in it’s entirety. So I took the decision to cover the beginning of Alan’s career up to his universally acclaimed eighth film, Choose Me. Along the way I’ll trace Alan’s work with his film director father, his work as an assistant director in the late 1960’s, his first two movies which were zero-budget horror films, the fateful meeting with Robert Altman and all the films that he directed along the way.
Alan’s career spans some 21 films as a director; numerous collaborations with Robert Altman which include some of his greatest films; The Long Goodbye (1973), California Split (1974), Nashville (1975) and Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976) as well as being a co-writer on the film of Alice Cooper’s concept album Welcome to My Nightmare (1975).
He firmly established his filmmaking style with Welcome to LA (1976) with it’s ensemble performances and emphasis on the importance of music to storytelling, which would be a mainstay feature of the majority of his films that were to follow. He would go on to make many films utilising the same actors and key creative personnel that would culminate in such great movies as Trouble in Mind (1985), The Moderns (1988), Equinox (1992), Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994) and Afterglow (1997).
Alan currently lives in Washington State with his wife of more than 40 years, Joyce.
Your father (Oscar Rudolph) was clearly a big influence on you becoming a film-maker and I wonder if you could speak a bit about those early days growing up, hanging around film & TV sets with him and your work as a young actor on The Rocket Man (1954)?
Movies were always in my life growing up in Los Angeles in the late Forties and Fifties, not only watching them like everyone else, but also at the dinner table.
My father joined the film industry as a boy in the Twenties when he got an acting job with Mary Pickford. In the late Thirties, Cecil B DeMille, no less, deemed him ready for an assistant director position. He made a successful leap to directing when episodic television started around 1950.
My favourite part was visiting sound stages in classic Hollywood before that era fully passed. Instead of removing mystique, gazing from inside the genie bottle mesmerized me even more.
When I was about ten, my older brother and I became child actors for a single day in a children’s film my father was directing, The Rocket Man. Lenny Bruce, of all people, wrote the screenplay. My moment came after I tripped in the road and a special ray gun stopped a speeding vehicle inches from my head. How it all was filmed remains indelible. The stunt driver started the car at my body then sped away backwards, reversed later in the lab. My sense of reality as fiction and fiction as reality accelerated with that car, I never recovered.
Did you always have aspirations to become a filmmaker?
I had few, if any, early thoughts of being in the movie business maybe because it was so ubiquitous or that when I was an impressionable teenager, mostly crap came out of Hollywood. Fortunately, my father took us to foreign films and they vigorously reworked my thinking.
My momentous change came around ’61 or so when my older brother was a Navy pilot. He brought home a motorcycle and brand-new (now ancient) super-8 film camera. I taught myself to make and edit small films and screened them to music by starting the projector and tape recorder simultaneously, hoping for synch.
Film schools were just arriving when I graduated but I likely wouldn’t have applied anyway. College educated me to one fact: I was a self-taught loner and all I wanted was to get on my motorcycle and find something to film. I even ghost-shot assignments for film students in exchange for raw stock – Cyrano De Filmiac.
From your experience working as an assistant director on two films and in television, did this prepare you for making that next step to directing your first feature?
Riot (1969) was my first movie as a trainee, shot entirely in a maximum-security prison in Florence, Arizona – it was quite an experience. The top instructions were to never go anywhere inside the walls without a guard and absolutely no running whatsoever. Real sharpshooters were in the towers and real killers on the ground. By the third week the director and star weren’t speaking. So there I was, low man on the production pole, sprinting unaccompanied across the yard and to retrieve our star from his trailer, where he went after each take just to piss off the director – only in the movies!
The Big Bounce (1969) was my second location shoot. I sensed the picture was awful while we were making it. It bothered me that no one else seemed concerned. I wondered how I would make a feature film, how I could.
A few years later I met the lead singer of a ragged local band and quickly fashioned a horror screenplay around his group, Premonition (1972). I raised about twenty-five thousand dollars from strangers, family, friends and myself. The challenge of translating this small amount into a finished movie overwhelmed my interests in the story; I think the whole shoot was just ten days. My father’s long-time friend and great director Robert Aldrich allowed us to film a few sequences in his studio without charge.
The film is fairly ambiguous in tone, particularly the ending of the film.
My guess is that it wasn’t ambiguous enough. I believe the last time I saw Premonition was after it was done and I drove the only print to Arizona where it was second-billed at a drive-in for one weekend only. I remember watching it from my car being intrigued by the ending and cringing at everything else.
I was hooked and humbled by the whole experience; encouraged that I knew enough to make a film and depressed I didn’t know what to put in it. Soon I began rejecting AD offers to write a script involving forged paintings in Paris 1926. I titled it The Moderns.
How did Nightmare Circus (1974) come about?
A few years later (I forget exactly when), I got a call from an acquaintance working on a cheap horror fiasco. Did I want to reshoot the entire movie in a week? Seems after creating unusable footage, the director quit with crew and mostly amateur cast prepaid for five more days. I never read the script or saw the results, but it was another useful learning experience and I’m sure a dreadful piece of work (released under various titles I’m told).
But then things changed for the better.
One day while toiling at the typewriter, I received a call from Robert Altman’s office and I had been recommended for an assistant director position and Altman wanted to see me. I explained I no longer worked as one but the caller persisted and a good thing, too. After meeting Altman nothing in my life would be the same.
All my filmmaking dreams would barely budge the needle compared to what I encountered in Altman’s world. That phone call began a four-decade collaboration with one of America’s great film artists. Bob would ultimately produce five films of mine and Welcome to LA (1976) was the first.
I was offered The Long Goodbye (1973) as an assistant director after meeting Altman in his office. That same night I saw McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971) then that weekend I saw it four more times. I knew this was a rare opportunity to work with a master and I jumped at it.
A few years later on the set of Nashville (1975), Bob dropped the hint he might someday produce other filmmakers and said I should think of something to make. I’d been talking with Richard Baskin about fashioning a script around a suite of his songs. Bob knew that, but never brought it up and my only instructions from him were, ‘Don’t make a chase movie.’
And this was how Welcome to LA was born?
Bob asked me to write the screenplay for Buffalo Bill and The Indians (1976) and it became his next film and starred Paul Newman. That was enough to set up Welcome to LA and we promised the financers to deliver a name cast for a budget below a million dollars.
Actors swirled around Altman’s world on a daily basis and filling roles was more through osmosis than formal casting. The process for me became one of deciding on a first choice and going after that person exclusively. If all the roles in all my films were surveyed, my guess is that ninety percent have involved meeting only one actor per character.
I had already worked with Keith, Geraldine, Harvey Keitel, John Considine and Denver Pyle, a grizzled western character actor. He was excited to be offered a serious role.
Sally Kellerman was around Bob’s office quite often and Lauren Hutton took some photos on the set of Buffalo Bill. Keith knew Sissy Spacek, who was just emerging and the Swedish actress Viveca Lindfors was Bob’s idea.
Scorsese, Spielberg, Coppola and Lucas appeared on the scene around the same time yet they were making very different films to your own.
Filmmakers are all different, just like real life some look in and some look out. Some break new ground while others revise and revisit. Some pursue violence and others entertainment, some violence as entertainment. Many go for the money and a few for the mysteries.
My work seems to lack the success gene and popularity chromosome. It mostly avoids pop culture references, which never helps, and is considered off-kilter. The films are cracked romances, quixotic dreams and cosmic jokes, true love in fake places. They appeal to individuals, not masses, there’s no word to spread.
The structure of the story for Welcome to LA is very musical. It’s a series of encounters, sexual and otherwise, that keep circling back to the main characters as if the music was commenting on the action.
Welcome to LA is a street opera like Choose Me (1984) with songs as stories. Personally, the film celebrates Altman’s great influence on me. I was proud of that influence and I wanted it known, I wasn’t hiding it. Being in the shadow of a great director was a privilege, not insecurity. My voice and fingerprints were my own, perhaps too much for many people while some strongly approved of the film, some strongly didn’t. T’was ever thus.
Welcome to LA had one large and barely acknowledged effect on the state of movies, aside from displaying a different sensibility, Welcome was one of the first true American independent films of the current era. It defined today’s movement, what the so-called independent label implies. Bob formed a company exclusively for Welcome’s release. It made us a one-stop enterprise. Here was an American dramatic film with known actors playing in art houses and competing for national space with studio pictures. That wasn’t done then, not out of Hollywood. Mike Kaplan crafted the release and the picture earned back its costs, Mikey also released Remember My Name (1978).
Whilst watching your films again for this interview, I saw for the first time Remember My Name, which I have to admit has been a revelation for me, as I had not seen it before.
Remember My Name was a definite leap for me as a filmmaker. I was proud of it then and feel the same now. I thought people might pay attention to a different kind of American film in an era of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), silly me.
Most New York critics were dismissive but the picture wound up doing well in Los Angeles, Chicago and a few other major cities. It left a positive mark in Europe and was a hit in Paris, but overall, with no DVD and few cable appearances, Remember My Name was, and remains, a predominately invisible film. Does that make me the Claude Rains of American directors?
Geraldine Chaplin and Anthony Perkins deliver superb performances.
Geraldine Chaplin is a genius. The most original performer, she climbed inside Emily and opened up something singular and beautiful. Tony Perkins was equally wonderful and complex, like Geraldine, he knew where humour was hiding.
At times Chaplin almost seems paired with the songs of Alberta Hunter as if they were performing an audio-visual “duet” together.
From the beginning I wanted blues, raw and electric. Then when I was nearly through editing, Altman suggested we go to a Manhattan nightclub to see Alberta Hunter, an eighty-plus year old blues singer who’d been rediscovered after working for decades as a nurse.
The idea of a single voice for the soundtrack completely rearranged the film’s possibilities in my mind. Celebrated producer John Hammond recorded an album of Alberta’s songs. With each new one, I experimented to find the most appropriate scene and the songs quickly became Emily’s emotional diary, eliminating the need for certain dialogue.
Is it true that Joyce (Rudolph’s wife) saw Perkins in a theatre performance of Equus and suggested him to you? Perkins suggested his own wife for the role in the film?
Casting the character of Neil was complicated as it was Emily’s film and she’s in every scene. Big name males usually don’t take those parts and Neil’s key is that he’s hiding a major secret. His wife doesn’t know anything about it, but for him it’s always there. Joyce saw Tony in Equus and suggested casting him. It was such a surprising choice that it was brilliant.
To play Neil’s wife I wanted someone in stark contrast to Geraldine. Tony asked me to consider his real-life wife Berry Berenson, Marisa’s sister. Berry was eager to act but hadn’t made the leap. It turned into one of our best casting decisions, both for the film and Tony. Berry was fresh and real and a sweet person, it was another gratifying example of meeting one actor per role.
But I understand he felt somewhat uncomfortable with his own performance and threatened to quit during filming?
Tony told me Remember My Name was one of his favourite experiences and performances. But we almost didn’t get there. Learning from Altman showing dailies to me is the highlight of any shoot, the reward. Tony had never gone to rushes in his career, not with Hitchcock or Welles. He didn’t work the first day of shooting so I insisted he come and watch on film what Geraldine, Alfre Woodard and Jeff Goldblum were doing. But mostly to cheer on Berry, whose work I knew was good from the set.
Tony arrived in great spirits but when the lights came up he was unsettled and worried his style was too Hollywood, that he would harm the film alongside such refreshing performances, including his wife’s. He’d pay any overages, but he had to quit right then, the night before he was scheduled to start. I was tired and stoned and said if he quit I would too. Altman came over and made it unanimous. Tony was one of the best and most helpful actors with whom I ever worked and he attended dailies every night.
Roadie (1980) is one of those movies that feels like it should be a “cult classic” and have more of an underground following.
After the resounding non-success of Remember My Name, I was depressed and broke. I quickly agreed to direct Roadie and Endangered Species (1982) for new producers, as I had to see if I could work in Hollywood.
This film marked a series of “firsts” for you; first film as a hired director, first film with Zalman King and first with who was to be your long time producer, Carolyn Pfeiffer.
Carolyn Pfeiffer was a partner in a music management company that wanted to produce films and I’d written a television special for them. Zalman King was an actor-turned-producer with a sly eye for projects. I liked them both very much. Two studio deals were put together in a hurry and many good lessons came out of these experiences, they always do, despite the pain.
Meatloaf filmed this during a lull in his own career after the success of “Bat Out of Hell” and the troubled follow up “Dead Ringer”, a period where he struggled with substance abuse as well as losing his voice – what was your experience of working with him?
Carolyn’s partner was legendary music manager Shep Gordon, Alice Cooper’s creator. He suggested Meat Loaf for the lead role of Redfish; I thought he was talking about lunch!
Meat was fine, a high-energy sense of humour but where the energy came from I never asked. I didn’t know his music at all and I still don’t. He was the character of Travis to me, albeit less Zen.
I understand Endangered Species was not a particularly pleasant filming experience for you and that at one stage you were locked out of the editing room? Are you able to expand on this and say what happened during the filming?
The second part of Carolyn and Zalman’s deal was Endangered Species with MGM. It might have been a completely different experience if the Writers Guild of America strike hadn’t halted all studio production just before we were to shoot, but I doubt it.
When the strike was over a year later, MGM was in deep shit. Their theatrical releases during the strike mostly bombed. The top executive became harsh and abusive. The second week of filming he shut us down altogether, hating my naturalistic look and they fired the cameraman and lighting crew. I tried to quit but my contract forbade it. The experience lost its essential spirit and never recovered. I tried my professional best, mainly for the actors but it became an out-of-body event, I was already out of my mind.
The original tampering studio boss was fired just before we finished our edit and the new tampering boss demanded more cuts, eliminating my final scene, which had put a twist into everything. The new tampering boss was eventually fired and the movie remains what it is forever.
What was the origin of the story?
These mutilations had been going on for decades and were factually documented. FBI, NASA, CIA, cops, cults, kooks looked into it with no conclusions.
The film almost feels like an early pre-cursor to The X-Files (1993-2002) with the male and female investigators, the science-fiction element, government conspiracy etc. – would you care to comment on how you feel about that now?
I’ve never seen The X-Files; these events were true and happening. While filming in Wyoming, we came across carcasses that appeared overnight in a snowy field, organs removed with surgical precision but here was no blood or tracks, NASA thought it was aliens.
The film also plays up the issue of the arms race between the US and Russia which was a big issue at the time – were you particularly interested in politics, world issues at the time and that was what drew you to making this film?
I’ve always wanted to do political satire. Return Engagement (1983) was the closest I’ve come. An early script of mine was about a hapless Vice-President having an affair with the domineering First Lady.
Is it true that by making this film, it helped you gain finance for Choose Me?
There are many life reasons I wanted Remember My Name to succeed and near the top was being able to continue with creative independence. Raising money for anything is difficult but for movies, extremely so. For my films? It’s
Herculean! But that was the price and I told Carolyn if we ever made another film together, complete independence was mandatory.
Months later, Chris Blackwell partnered with Shep Gordon and Carolyn Pfeiffer to form Island Alive. Their immediate purpose was to make an inexpensive test film with me and that became the documentary Return Engagement. Once it was completed and released by Island Alive, Shep suggested we next do a music video for his client Teddy Pendergrass. I said for a few thousand more I’d make an entire feature film highlighting the song. How many thousand more? I drew up a budget on the cocktail napkin and they looked it over and agreed. That napkin became Choose Me.
Return Engagement was a strangely satisfying experience. It took a few days to film and a long time to edit and nothing was written other than necessary information. The interviewers asked their own questions. My conversations with Timothy Leary and Gordon Liddy were perfunctory, never about content, or performance. Jan Kiesser had worked in some camera capacity on each of my films and agreed to handle cinematography on this, and ultimately several of my films.
Ironically both Liddy and Leary seem to have quite a lot in common at certain points in the documentary, despite their ostensible ideological and temperamental differences – is this something that you noticed too while filming?
In the film, writer Jon Bradshaw calls them an old married couple. They were two worn and sworn cultural adversaries of a certain age, paying the rent with a dog-and-pony debate. They were very different, beyond ideology; Leary had erratic but considerable substance and not just the controlled kind. The other guy is what you think he is.
An Austin bookstore owner brought them together for a debate and it proved successful so they took their show on the road – when did you first hear about this and how did you become involved?
LA was on their tour schedule, Carolyn knew Leary and suggested the event as subject for a documentary. I said maybe, if we included other situations. Leary and Liddy had to agree first so I made a list of possibilities and those not rejected were filmed. At the ‘breakfast with spouses’ segment, Mrs. Liddy showed up with a fresh black eye under her sunglasses.
While Liddy was a District Attorney he arrested Leary for illegal possession of narcotics and I understand this was where the title of the film came from?
That arrest is what made the whole enterprise authentic to me in the human crossroad kind of way. Our title might also imply second-rate theatricality on all our parts.
Did they need much convincing to make this into a documentary and what was it that interested you in making this?
They leapt at it, already very much into life imitating showbiz. My role was one of creative observer and my objective was to supply Island Alive with something upon which to build.
I don’t know if Return Engagement qualifies as a true documentary, I haven’t read the manual but to me it’s a candid impression of two quasi-players, one supporting and one bit part, in the tragicomedy that passes as modern American history.
You said in an interview regarding Choose Me that “it was somehow the most graceful film for me, the most pure filmmaking. There were no obligations other than to just make this film.” – Can you expand on what you meant by this?
This was the Eighties and many Hollywoodians were beginning to make shitloads of money with the major studios still in control. For me to survive as a filmmaker moving forward meant stepping back which meant going small, like Welcome to LA and Remember My Name, Choose Me was a limited production. Like those films, it took advantage of its limitations and limitations tend to disappear that way.
I wanted the screenplay to come bursting out once I was fully programmed and that meant writing would be the last element of planning. First-time producer David Blocker had to make the budget and schedule without a script. He kept asking what the scenes were about and I said people in inexpensive places talking. The total price was the same as that napkin budget I made.
When I finally did write, I knew we had four weeks to shoot on a budget less than my Altman films. Inside those boundaries I could do anything I wanted and they say money isn’t creative!
My basic premise was a pathological liar who only told the truth and the women who love him. Around the third day of writing, I had to drive somewhere and while searching for a baseball game on radio, I encountered a comforting female voice dispensing intimate advise to a caller on one of the first shows of its kind, Dr. Tony Grant. I’d never heard anything like it and thought it hilarious, I quickly returned home to mix in a new character with Mickey and Eve, that character became Dr. Nancy Love.
The ending of the film was different to what you had originally intended?
In the scripted ending, Pearl opened her apartment door to Nancy, who was answering a roommate-wanted ad. That brief full-circle scene was scheduled on the final day of Pearl’s location, a place we could never get back.
Something unforeseen happened that afternoon and we couldn’t shoot the scene, ever. The bus with Mickey and Eve on their honeymoon became our new ending and it probably would have anyway.
There is a feeling of ensemble playing with Carradine, Warren, Bujold, Chong, Bachau and even Pendergrass who’s not seen but whose songs play throughout.
Altman often said casting is the majority of a director’s work. Actors to me are the real artists in the process, they bring truth to fiction and Choose Me is all fiction, our unreal feel is front and centre. This unique cast took unique characters and made them believable as well as unique. Teddy’s seductive songs are about only one thing, they define the romantic world that allows our story to occur. The screenplay had a few nice twists, and the look was enticing but it was the actors that made it true.
Every object, advertising hoarding, item of clothing and character tic is weighed with multifaceted significance in the film –was this consciously done by you in pre-production and rehearsals?
Virtually everyone on the production was working at short money to move up in position. The actors just wanted to do good work, you can’t buy that kind of incentive or spirit, in fact, we couldn’t buy much of anything!
Our physical world had to validate a fable of romantic yearning. I started with a visual language, moods, colours and touches. Choose Me’s stylized language and design held up from the outset, which made it easier to communicate. When production designer Steve Legler and costumer Tracy Tynan reteamed with me on Trouble In Mind (1985), our vocabulary was already in place.
The Choose Me script was spare but fully written. Lesley Ann, Genevieve and Keith developed characters to their liking. I rarely rehearse a scene until it reaches the set, but we’re always discussing character, embellishing and sharing insights.
The schedule was so short that no sooner had we started we were finishing up, like an experience with no middle to it. People were sorry for the exhilaration to end, as the film was the only reason we were together. It was why the production company was in business. When it ultimately succeeded, a significant experience became that much better and everyone involved felt it.
During editing, I wanted to use some old Teddy songs that unfortunately weren’t under Shep Gordon’s control. This would cost money we didn’t have so to pay for it, I agreed to take a directing job (Songwriter 1984) that everyone was turning down, the kind of situation Kristofferson might say was ‘enough to kill a normal man.’
© Alan Rudolph 2013