Friday, 30 March 2012

Kelly Masterson: On ‘Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead’


Kelly Masterson started as a playwright in the 1980s with limited success. He wrote the original screenplay for ‘Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead’ in 1999. A powerful and bleak crime drama that meticulously reconstructs how an apparently perfect crime goes spectacularly wrong. Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is an insolvent real estate agent. His younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) is falling behind on his alimony payments. To relieve their financial troubles they decide to rob their parents’ suburban jewellery store with tragic consequences. Their father’s (Albert Finney) relentless pursuit of the culprits brings everything spiralling towards a terrible climax. The script was optioned by a succession of producers until, after several false starts, the project was given the go-ahead with veteran director Sidney Lumet on board. A superb crime melodrama it was Lumet’s final and greatest achievement. The following is an extract from an interview in which Kelly Masterson speaks about his experience of writing the script: 

What was the inspiration for ‘Before the Devil Knows You're Dead’?

KELLY MASTERSON: I had read a novel I admired called Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwarz. I really liked the structure. It involved a terrible incident followed by an examination of the incident from the point of view of the various participants. I thought it would make an interesting structure for a movie.

I invented my terrible incident: the robbery and shooting of the mother. Then I took each character and followed them to and from the incident.

I also knew it was a tragedy and purposely gave each of the main characters a tragic ‘flaw’ – obsessive behavior they cannot break. For example, the father becomes obsessed with the notion of revenge and cannot stop himself even when he discovers it is his own son who must wreak revenge upon. Devil was the result of my structure and character choices.

Were you involved in any re-writing before or during the production?

KELLY MASTERSON: Fortunately, and unfortunately, no. The good news is I didn’t have to rewrite the script based on someone else’s vision or ideas. I wrote the script and tweaked it here and there over the years. Sidney did a rewrite to get his final shooting script but I was not involved nor consulted. I wish he would have come to me and asked me to make the changes he wanted. The end result, though, is terrific and I am very proud of the movie.

Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead (Directed by Sidney Lumet)
What surprised you most about the transition from script to screen?

KELLY MASTERSON: Lots of things surprised me and most of them pleasantly. I was surprised by the casting of Brian F. O’Byrne as Bobby, the punk accomplice. I had written the part as a 22 year old, stupid kid. I had see Brian on stage in Doubt and thought him remarkably gifted but not right for Bobby. His performance, however, is spectacular and casting a 35 year old made him more pathetic and frightening. It was a stroke of genius on Sidney’s part.

I was surprised by the remarkable restraint and outer calm Philip brought to Andy’s breakdown late in the film. I wrote a cliché scene in which Andy trashes his apartment. Sidney and Philip came up with an eerie, fascinating, slow meltdown that is so much better. Most of all, I was most surprised by the deep, rich, tense and painful relationship between Hank and Andy – Sidney’s rewrite and the performances of Philip and Ethan took this to a level that surprised and enthralled me.

What did you learn in the process of writing ‘Before the Devil Knows You're Dead’ that you’ll take with you to other projects?

KELLY MASTERSON: Raise the stakes. I don’t mean, put the hero in more jeopardy or add a ticking clock. I mean dig deeper – make it more personal and more emotionally significant. Get right into the guts of the characters. While I often try to pull my characters in two or more directions, I think Sidney’s contribution took my material into richer psychological territory. This gave the wonderful actors great stuff to work with in which the emotional stakes were very high. When I am working on projects now, I ask myself the question: how do I get further into this character and really rock him?

What advice would you give to screenwriters who are still struggling to get their work seen and (hopefully) produced?

KELLY MASTERSON: Don’t give up. I wrote for 20 years before Devil got made. And find your voice. I tried for many years to imitate others or to write in ‘commercial’ genres and did not have any success. I wrote Devil from some original place within myself and never dreamed it would get made, let alone succeed. Keep at it.

 - Interview with ‘Kelly Masterson on “Before the Devil Knows You're Dead”’. From Fast, Cheap Movie Thrills.

Monday, 26 March 2012

The Violent World of Fritz Lang

M (Directed by Fritz Lang)
Fritz Lang was born in fin-de-siècle Vienna in 1890, the son of a construction magnate. He abandoned art school to serve in the Austrian army during WWI, after which he joined the burgeoning German film industry. He thrived in silent film creating a sensation with ‘Dr Mabuse, the Gambler’ (Doktor Mabuse, Der Spieler) in 1922 – a pulpy gangster serial inspired by Al Capone and presaging the rise of Adolph Hitler. He went on to direct the dystopian ‘Metropolis’ in 1927 - a disastrous flop at the time which bankrupted Ufa, the nationally financed film studio of the Weimar Republic. Adjusting to the coming of sound, Lang created probably his finest work ‘M’ (1931) with Peter Lorre in the role of the hunted killer. Allegedly inspired by the tale of an actual child murderer, it explored the typical Langian theme of empathy for compulsive criminal behaviour.

His next film ‘The Last Will of Dr. Mabuse’ (Das Testament des Doktor Mabuse) (1933) was pulled from circulation by Joseph Goebbels due to parallels with the thuggish rise to power of the Nazis. His admiration for the director undiminished, Lang was called into the Reichsminister’s office and offered the position of studio head of the new production company the Nazis were planning to establish. Lang immediately resolved to leave Germany, in part because of his Jewish heritage.

Lang settled in America, where in the late 1930s, he made several films including ‘Fury’ (1936) and ‘You only Live Once’ (1937) dealing with outcasts scapegoated by society. In the 1940s Lang directed two significant film noirs with Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett in the leading roles: ‘Woman in the Window’ (1944) and ‘Scarlet Street’ (1945) in which Robinson played a respectable man driven to murder through desire for a femme fatale. His next notable achievements were a series of late film noir classics, ‘The Blue Gardenia’ (1953), ‘The Big Heat’ (1953) and ‘Human Desire’ (1954), marked by expressionist visuals and tortured protagonists.

Lauded by the French new wave for his versatility, thematic focus and technical mastery, Fritz Lang was a legend by the time he was interviewed about his life and work in a 1967 BBC interview with film critic Alexander Walker:

You Only Live Once (Directed by Fritz Lang)
Fritz Lang: The director, in my opinion, is the one who keeps everything together. Primarily, the basic element for the film in my opinion is the script, and the director has to be the servant to the script – he shouldn’t make too many detours. In the last years, the part of the producer has taken over certain things that I think a director should do. I think a producer could be a very good friend of a director if he keeps away from him things which hamper him in his tasks, but usually, as it is now in most studios, the producer tells him what he must do. In this case I call the director a ‘traffic cop’.

Alexander Walker: Is it correct that you took the story of M from the newspapers about the story of the Dusseldorf murders?

So many things have been written about M (1932), it has become so to speak the motion picture. I made it 37 years ago, and it plays constantly in Switzerland, France and even the States. If a film survives so long then there may be a right to call it a piece of art.

The story came out of the fact that I originally wanted to make a story about a very, very nasty crime. I was married in those days and my wife, Thea Von Harbou, was the writer. We talked about the most hideous crime and decided that it would be writing anonymous letters and then one day I had an idea and I came home and said ‘how would it be if I made a picture about a child murderer?’ and so we switched. At the same time in Dusseldorf a series of murders of young and old people happened, but as much as I remember the script was ready and finished before they caught that murderer.

I had Peter Lorre in mind when I was writing the script. He was an upcoming actor, and he had played in two or three things in the theatre in Berlin, but never before on the screen. I did not give him a screen test, I was just absolutely convinced that he was right for the part. It was very hard to know how to direct him; I think a good director is not the one who puts his personality on top of the personality of the actor, I think a good director is one who gets the best out of his actor.

So we talked it over very, very carefully with him and then we did it. It was my first sound film anyway, so we were experimenting a lot.

Metropolis (Directed by Fritz Lang)
How did you come to leave Germany at the height of your career and seek refuge outside the country?

I had made two Mabuse films and the theatre had asked me if I could make another one because they made so much money. So I made one which was called The Last Will of Dr Mabuse (1932).

I have to admit that up to two or three years before the Nazis came I was very apolitical; I was not very much interested and then I became very much interested. I think the London Times wrote about the fact that I used this film as a political weapon against the Nazis – I put Nazi slogans into the mouth of the criminal.

I remember very clearly one day, I was in the office and some SA men came in and talked very haughtily that they would confiscate the picture. I said if you think they could confiscate a picture of Fritz Lang in Germany then do it, and they did. I was ordered to go and see Goebbels, and they were not very sympathetic to me, but I had to go, maybe to get the picture freed, so I went.

I will never forget it – Goebbels was a very clever man, he was indescribably charming when I entered the room, he never spoke at the beginning of the picture. He told me a lot of things, among other things that the ‘Fuhrer’ had seen Metropolis (1927) and another film that I had made – Die Niebelungen (1924) – and the ‘Fuhrer’ had said ‘this is the man who will give us the Nazi film.’ I was perspiring very much at this moment, I could see a clock through the window and the hands were moving, and at the moment I heard that I was expected to make the Nazi movie I was wet all over and my only thought was ‘how do I get out of here!’ I had my money in the bank and I was immediately thinking ‘how do I get it out?’ But Goebbels talked and talked and finally it was too late for me to get my money out! I left and told him that I was very honoured and whatever you can say. I then went home and decided the same evening that I would leave Berlin that I loved very much.

Mirrors and their reflections are always ominous features of Lang's movies; the mirror image is his dramatic metaphor. In ‘M’ the criminal underworld is clearly a reverse image of bourgeois society. In his films the individual wages a fight on the side of goodness and order against the very act of forces of evil and chaos as embodied in the diabolical ‘Dr. Mabuse’ (1922), or the lynch mob in ‘Fury’ (1936) or the gangland boss in ‘The Big Heat’ (1953).

Scarlet Street (Directed by Fritz Lang) 
But the fight is psychological too: each Lang hero is a prey to forces inside himself that he cannot control. Forces that may drive him to murder in spite of himself, like Peter Lorre in ‘M’ (1931), or Edward G Robinson in ‘Woman In the Window’ (1944) and ‘Scarlet Street’ (1945). The fight is one that is fixed in advance by fate, the director looks literally down on his actors like an ironical Greek god, his characters are like rats in a maze driven along by his set ups, by his camera movements and by the relentless logic of his editing to a destiny which is pre-ordained and from which even Lang can’t save them.

The theme of theme of man and his destiny and of man trapped in an inimical kind of fate runs right through your work?

I am quite sure that this is correct. It would be very interesting if a psycho-analyst could tell me why I am so interested in these things.

I think from the beginning, one of my first films, the fight of man against his destiny or how he faces his destiny has interested me very much. I remember that I once said that it is not so much that he reaches a goal, or that he conquers this goal – what is important is his fight against it.

It must be very difficult to make films about destiny and God in that sense today, when people don’t believe in heaven or hell in the vast majority. Do you substitute violence or pain?

Naturally I don’t believe in God as the man with a white beard or such a thing, but I believe in something which you can call God in some kind of an eternal law or eternal mathematical conception of the universe. When they said in the States that God is dead, I considered it wrong. I said to them ‘God has only changed his address – he is not really dead.’ That seems for me to be the crux: naturally we cannot believe in certain things that have been told us over the centuries.

The Big Heat (Directed by Fritz Lang)
When you talk about violence, this has become in my opinion a definite point in the script, it has a dramatogical reason to be there. After the Second World War, the close structure of family started to crumble. It started naturally already with the first one. There is really very, very little in family life today. I don’t think people believe anymore in symbols of their country – for example, I remember the flag burning in the States. I definitely don’t think they believe in the devil with the horns and the forked tail and therefore they do not believe in punishment after they are dead. So, my question was: what are people feeling? And the answer is physical pain. Physical pain comes from violence and I think today that is the only fact that people really fear and it has become a definite part of life and naturally also of scripts.

– Fritz Lang interviewed by Alexander Walker, BBC Online.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Night and the City: In the Labyrinth

Night And The City (Directed by Jules Dassin)
‘Night and the City’ is Jules Dassin’s masterpiece and one of a string of superb film noirs Dassin made in the late 1940s and early 1950s which included ‘Brute Force’, ‘The Naked City’ and ‘Thieves Highway’. With his career in the United States over as a result of the McCarthy witchhunts, Dassin made his way to England and, with the backing of 20th Century Fox, began production on this dark uncompromising tale based on a novel by Gerald Kersh which tells the story of small-time hustler Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) looking for his one big break. Dassin’s vision of post-war London is of a bleak, scarred Dickensian Inferno. From the opening scenes at St. Paul’s Cathedral to the final scenes at Hammersmith Bridge where Fabian’s journey ends, London is portrayed as a dark maze-like city from which there is no escape. Dassin’s remarkable use of camera angles, with the assistance of cinematographer Mel Greene, traps Fabian in a net of his own making. At the end of the film there is no redemption for Harry Fabian, just the bleak realization that he took on the city and lost. As part of the Criterion Collection’s DVD edition of ‘Night and the City’ film critic Paul Arthur contributed a fine essay from which the following extract is taken:

Within film noir’s unparalleled roster of resonant titles – Kiss of Death, Out of the Past, Where Danger Lives, to name three – none is more emblematic or iconographically cogent than Night and the City. Juxtaposing two of noir’s essential, virtually ontological qualities, the title of Jules Dassin’s underrated elegy for a self-annihilating hustler reminds us not only that darkness is the visual corollary of almost all consequent action in noir—the idea of a ‘daylight’ noir being as perverse as a ‘nocturnal’ Western – but that nighttime functions throughout the series as a sort of Platonic entity, embracing a host of nonliteral meanings. Along with common associations of mystery and moral ambiguity, darkness takes on a specifically urban coloration. Indeed, film noir caps a long-standing cultural tradition in which cities are cast as a dominion of shadows and corruption. And perhaps no noir city is quite so hellish, so imbued with the stench of mortality, as the London depicted in Night and the City...

Working in and around London’s Soho district, rather than the familiar haunts of New York or Los Angeles, Dassin and company did not have to subtly evoke lingering effects of wartime bombing; they are clearly inscribed in blasted, nightmarish landscapes recruited for the film’s climactic scenes... Like The Third Man, made in Vienna the previous year, Night and the City maps the downward journey of an unabashedly American adventurer against a prime locus of European destruction, yielding the specter of the ‘secret’ city to which all film noir, regardless of actual setting, pays unspoken tribute. 




Dassin’s tour guide to this anxious, fearful milieu is Harry Fabian, a nightclub tout and would-be wrestling promoter whose overweening desire to ‘be somebody’ is curdled by a relentless exploitation of human vulnerabilities, his own included. Harry, famously referred to by a romantic rival as ‘an artist without an art,’ is a figure of palpable instability, always in the midst of a surefire shady venture, some criminalized shortcut to what he describes as ‘a life of ease and plenty.’ Unfortunately, every jittery step he takes brings him closer to immanent disaster and death (in addition to morbid visual cues, variants of the phrase ‘You’re a dead man’ are a key dialogue motif). Worse still, his precipitous actions drag down everyone around him – although, with the exception of his mistreated girlfriend, Mary Bristol, these underworld characters largely deserve their malign fates. Mary works at the same sleazy club to which Harry lures unsuspecting tourists. The grotesque owner, Phil Nosseross, barely tolerates Harry’s loan requests but fails to register the illicit connection between Harry and his wife, Helen, a liaison founded less on sexual passion than mutual greed. Harry’s current scheme involves tricking an aging Greco-Roman wrestling champion, Gregorius, into matching his young protégé against the Strangler, a vulgar but popular entertainer employed by Kristo, shady kingpin of professional wrestling and, not coincidently, Gregorius’s estranged son.



Given Harry’s history of entrepreneurial fiascos, it is only fitting that his dream of a wrestling empire seems doomed from the start. Narcissistic to a fault, Harry pays no heed to warnings about Kristo’s vicious power and is slow to intervene in a chain of calamitous miscalculations until it is too late. Once the tenuous leverage he held on Kristo’s hunger for revenge vanishes in a heap of dying flesh, Harry must flee for his life, unsuccessfully seeking refuge with former underworld colleagues for whom he is now the mere object of a lucrative bounty hunt. Closing a circle that began with the film’s opening shots, Harry becomes the archetypal man-on-the-run, an image he himself sadly admits, pursued this time not by a single angry creditor but by an entire rogues’ gallery. In contrast to the majority of noir heroes, Harry is not an inveterate loner cut off from potentially redemptive social connections. Until near the end of Night and the City, he navigates smoothly through London’s subterranean network, engaging in a flurry of illegal transactions. Thus the early demonstration of a secure, outlaw niche makes his ultimate isolation even more emotionally wrenching. If noir protagonists in general lose markers of a stable identity as they descend the social ladder, Harry’s loss is particularly extravagant. 




The frenetically disjunctive movements accompanying Harry’s flight might well have expressed personal anxieties specific to Dassin’s life. On the heels of several relatively successful Hollywood outings, including pioneering work on semi-documentary techniques in The Naked City, the director was, like many of his creative friends, caught up in the anticommunist hysteria of the late 1940s. Under imminent threat of being forced to testify before HUAC, and almost certain blacklisting, Dassin says he was told to ‘beat it’ to England to avoid persecution. The project that awaited him, a loose adaptation of Soho denizen Gerald Kersh’s 1938 novel, struck him as somewhat frivolous, and he would later downplay the film’s artistic merits. Nevertheless, it is not far-fetched to read Harry Fabian’s predicament in part as Dassin’s allegorical response to his own hasty emigration, and to the paranoid atmosphere of betrayal and cutthroat ambition he left behind in Cold War Hollywood. 



Stylistically, Night and the City represents the flipside of The Naked City, with overheated lighting patterns, bizarre angles, and claustrophobic compositions replacing the more methodical, unhurried organization of the earlier film. Further, the dire Dickensian—or perhaps Brechtian, given latent parallels with The Threepenny Opera – vision of London on display belies the kind of sober, social realist sketch of class divisions and antagonisms evident in The Naked City. 




At the heart of Night and the City is a master trope: the urban labyrinth. Cities in film noir are not simply dangerous, or bristling with iconographic menace—they are visualized as death traps, spaces from which there can be no escape. This common pattern finds summary expression in Dassin’s film. Nearly every setting is crammed with architectural grids, frames, culs-de-sac, narrow stairways, perspectives that choke off the mobility and freedom of human subjects. The wrestling ring is a venerable symbol of existential constriction; far more original, and more depressing, is Nosseross’ cage-like office and the vertiginous brick tower in which Harry takes brief refuge during his flight. In early scenes, Harry commands secret urban passageways, rooftop bridges, and back alleys that afford easy transit between private and public, legal and illicit sites of operation. Once he is branded an outcast among outcasts, his knowledge of the labyrinth can no longer save him from extinction. Instead, he is forced to abandon familiar routes as he plunges into the city’s forlorn margins: first, an eerie construction site whose minatory shapes resemble canvases by Bosch or maybe de Chirico, then the riverside shack of black-marketeer Annie, a last stop before his suicidal bid to complete one profitable con. By the end, Harry is a virtual zombie, his slimy ebullience reduced to morbid self-pity. Without engendering genuine sympathy, the exhausting gyrations of this character eventually produce a spark of recognition, albeit trailed by a black cloud of dread.

– Paul Arthur: ‘Night and the City: In the Labyrinth’. From the Criterion Collection DVD.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Jim Jarmusch: Open Letter to John Cassavetes

Night on Earth (Directed by Jim Jarmusch)
‘Life has no plot, why must films or fiction?’ - Jim Jarmusch 

Jim Jarmusch is a director interested in what occurs on the margins of existence. Like one of his favourite directors, John Cassavetes, he is keen to document the seemingly trivial events that people often fail to appreciate and show that they too are filled with compelling drama. Jarmusch’s films are peopled by characters without any sense of direction in life, drifters who accidentally fall into risky situations – much like life itself. It is the delicacy of the speaking and acting in Cassavetes’ films that impresses Jarmusch the most – and Jarmusch is very much a director who prioritises the actor. Jarmusch creates the characters first, often with a particular actor in mind, and then ‘the plot kind of suggests itself around the character’. Before filming starts the actors rehearse scenes that are never filmed, but are deemed necessary to establish a tone and identity for when the actual filming begins. This process results in convincing, realistic characters fleshed out with their own shades and subtleties. In September 2000, Jarmusch wrote an open letter to John Cassavetes in tribute to the great American film-maker. It was published in Tom Charity’s excellent ‘LifeWorks’.

OPEN LETTER TO JOHN CASSAVETES

There’s a particular feeling I get when I’m about to see one of your films – an anticipation. It doesn’t matter if I’ve seen the film before or not (by now I think I’ve seen them all at least several times) I still get that feeling. I’m expecting something I seem to crave, a kind of cinematic enlightenment. As a film fan or as a filmmaker (there isn’t really a clear dividing line for me anymore) I’m anticipating a blast of inspiration. I want formal enlightenment. I need the secret consequences of a jump-cut to be revealed to me. I want to know how the rawness of the camera angles or the grain of the film material figures into the emotional equation. I want to learn about acting from the performances, about atmosphere from the light and locations. I’m ready, fully prepared to absorb ‘truth at twenty-four-frames-per-second.’

But the thing is this: as soon as the film begins, introduces its world to me, I’m lost. The expectation of that particular enlightenment evaporates. It leaves me there in the dark, alone. Human beings now inhabit that world inside the screen. They also seem lost, alone. I watch them. I observe every detail of their movements, their expressions, their reactions. I listen carefully to what each one is saying, to the frayed edges of someone’s tone of voice, the concealed mischief in the rhythm of another’s speech. I’m no longer thinking about acting. I’m oblivious to ‘dialogue.’ I’ve forgotten the camera.

The enlightenment I anticipated from you is being replaced by another. This one doesn’t invite analysis or dissection, only observation and intuition. Instead of insights into, say, the construction of a scene, I’m becoming enlightened by the sly nuances of human nature.

Your films are about love, about trust and mistrust, about isolation, joy, sadness, ecstasy and stupidity. They’re about restlessness, drunkenness, resilience and lust, about humor, stubbornness, miscommunication and fear. But mostly they’re about love and they take one to a far deeper place than any study of ‘narrative form.’ Yeah, you are a great filmmaker, one of my favorites. But what your films illuminate most poignantly is that celluloid is one thing and the beauty, strangeness and complexity of human experience is another.

John Cassavetes, my hat is off to you. I’m holding it over my heart.

– Jim Jarmusch. From ‘John Cassavetes: Lifeworks’ by Tom Charity.


Monday, 12 March 2012

Kubrick’s Maze: An Interview on The Shining

The Shining (Directed by Stanley Kubrick)
The Shining is Stanley Kubrick’s epic gothic masterpiece – a stylish and eerie adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel. Frustrated writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) arrives with wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and psychic son Danny (Danny Lloyd) to take a job as the winter caretaker of the opulent and forbidding Overlook Hotel. Driven by his frustrations as a writer and his fondness for alcohol, his gradual descent into madness allows Kubrick to explore themes of evil, creativity, the supernatural and of movie-making itself. One of the texts Kubrick and his co-writer Diane Johnson, referred to when adapting King’s novel was Freud’s 1919 essay ‘The Uncanny’. The essay, which examines the disturbing effect of strange elements in life and supernatural literature, defines the uncanny as ‘that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar.’ In other words, the uncanny is ‘something which ought to have remained hidden but which is brought to light.’ The recent documentary ‘Room 237’ wittily recounts various theories about what lies buried beneath the technical and stylistic grandeur of The Shining. From the credible: that it is a fable about the genocide of the American Indians, to the bizarre: that The Shining is a veiled confession of Kubrick’s supposed involvement in faking the NASA moon landings. No doubt Kubrick purposely constructed ‘The Shining’ as a cinematic maze of hidden clues and visual incongruities waiting to be discovered. The following is an edited extract from an extensive interview Stanley Kubrick gave to the film critic Michel Ciment in 1982 about the making of The Shining:

Michel Ciment: In several of your previous films you seem to have had a prior interest in the facts and problems which surround the story - the nuclear threat, space travel, the relationship between violence and the state - which led you to Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange. In the case of The Shining, were you attracted first by the subject of ESP, or just by Stephen King’s novel?

Stanley Kubrick: I’ve always been interested in ESP and the paranormal. In addition to the scientific experiments which have been conducted suggesting that we are just short of conclusive proof of its existence, I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of opening a book at the exact page we’re looking for, or thinking of a friend a moment before they ring on the telephone. But The Shining didn’t originate from any particular desire to do a film about this. The manuscript of the novel was sent to me by John Calley, of Warner Bros. I thought it was one of the most ingenious and exciting stories of the genre I had read. It seemed to strike an extraordinary balance between the psychological and the supernatural in such a way as to lead you to think that the supernatural would eventually be explained by the psychological: ‘Jack must be imagining these things because he’s crazy’. This allowed you to suspend your doubt of the supernatural until you were so thoroughly into the story that you could accept it almost without noticing.

Do you think this was an important factor in the success of the novel?

Yes, I do. It’s what I found so particularly clever about the way the novel was written. As the supernatural events occurred you searched for an explanation, and the most likely one seemed to be that the strange things that were happening would finally be explained as the products of Jack’s imagination. It’s not until Grady, the ghost of the former caretaker who axed to death his family, slides open the bolt of the larder door, allowing Jack to escape, that you are left with no other explanation but the supernatural. The novel is by no means a serious literary work, but the plot is for the most part extremely well worked out, and for a film that is often all that really matters.

Don’t you think that today it is in this sort of popular literature that you find strong archetypes, symbolic images which have vanished somehow from the more highbrow literary works?

Yes, I do, and I think that it’s part of their often phenomenal success. There is no doubt that a good story has always mattered, and the great novelists have generally built their work around strong plots. But I’ve never been able to decide whether the plot is just a way of keeping people’s attention while you do everything else, or whether the plot is really more important than anything else, perhaps communicating with us on an unconscious level which affects us in the way that myths once did. I think, in some ways, the conventions of realistic fiction and drama may impose serious limitations on a story. For one thing, if you play by the rules and respect the preparation and pace required to establish realism, it takes a lot longer to make a point than it does, say, in fantasy. At the same time, it is possible that this very work that contributes to a story’s realism may weaken its grip on the unconscious. Realism is probably the best way to dramatize argument and ideas. Fantasy may deal best with themes which lie primarily in the unconscious. I think the unconscious appeal of a ghost story, for instance, lies in its promise of immortality. If you can be frightened by a ghost story, then you must accept the possibility that supernatural beings exist. If they do, then there is more than just oblivion waiting beyond the grave.


This kind of implication is present in much of the fantastic literature.

I believe fantasy stories at their best serve the same function for us that fairy tales and mythology formerly did. The current popularity of fantasy, particularly in films, suggests that popular culture, at least, isn’t getting what it wants from realism. The nineteenth century was the golden age of realistic fiction. The twentieth century may be the golden age of fantasy.

After Barry Lyndon did you begin work straight away on The Shining?

When I finished Barry Lyndon I spent most of my time reading. Months went by and I hadn’t found anything very exciting. It’s intimidating, especially at a time like this, to think of how many books you should read and never will. Because of this, I try to avoid any systematic approach to reading, pursuing instead a random method, one which depends as much on luck and accident as on design. I find this is also the only way to deal with the newspapers and magazines which proliferate in great piles around the house -- some of the most interesting articles turn up on the reverse side of pages I’ve torn out for something else.

Did you do research on ESP?

There really wasn’t any research that was necessary to do. The story didn’t require any and, since I have always been interested in the topic, I think I was as well informed as I needed to be. I hope that ESP and related psychic phenomena will eventually find general scientific proof of their existence. There are certainly a fair number of scientists who are sufficiently impressed with the evidence to spend their time working in the field. If conclusive proof is ever found it won’t be quite as exciting as, say, the discovery of alien intelligence in the universe, but it will definitely be a mind expander. In addition to the great variety of unexplainable psychic experiences we can all probably recount, I think I can see behaviour in animals which strongly suggests something like ESP. I have a long-haired cat, named Polly, who regularly gets knots in her coat which I have to comb or scissor out. She hates this, and on dozens of occasions while I have been stroking her and thinking that the knots have got bad enough to do something about them, she has suddenly dived under the bed before I have made the slightest move to get a comb or scissors. I have obviously considered the possibility that she can tell when I plan to use the comb because of some special way I feel the knots when I have decided to comb them, but I’m quite sure that isn’t how she does it. She almost always has knots, and I stroke her innumerable times every day, but it’s only when I have actually decided to do something about them that she ever runs away and hides. Ever since I have become aware of this possibility, I am particularly careful not to feel the knots any differently whether or not I think they need combing. But most of the time she still seems to know the difference.


Who is Diane Johnson who wrote the screenplay with you?

Diane is an American novelist who has published a number of extremely good novels which have received serious and important attention. I was interested in several of her books and in talking to her about them I was surprised to learn that she was giving a course at the University of California at Berkeley on the Gothic novel. When The Shining came up she seemed to be the ideal collaborator, which, indeed, she proved to be. I had already been working on the treatment of the book, prior to her starting, but I hadn’t actually begun the screenplay. With The Shining, the problem was to extract the essential plot and to re-invent the sections of the story that were weak. The characters needed to be developed a bit differently than they were in the novel. It is in the pruning down phase that the undoing of great novels usually occurs because so much of what is good about them has to do with the fineness of the writing, the insight of the author and often the density of the story. But The Shining was a different matter. Its virtues lay almost entirely in the plot, and it didn’t prove to be very much of a problem to adapt it into the screenplay form. Diane and I talked a lot about the book and then we made an outline of the scenes we thought should be included in the film. This list of scenes was shuffled and reshuffled until we thought it was right, and then we began to write. We did several drafts of the screenplay, which was subsequently revised at different stages before and during shooting.

It is strange that you emphasize the supernatural aspect since one could say that in the film you give a lot of weight to an apparently rational explanation of Jack’s behaviour: altitude, claustrophobia, solitude, lack of booze.

Stephen Crane wrote a story called The Blue Hotel. In it you quickly learn that the central character is a paranoid. He gets involved in a poker game, decides someone is cheating him, makes an accusation, starts a fight and gets killed. You think the point of the story is that his death was inevitable because a paranoid poker player would ultimately get involved in a fatal gunfight. But, in the end, you find out that the man he accused was actually cheating him. I think The Shining uses a similar kind of psychological misdirection to forestall the realization that the supernatural events are actually happening.

Why did you change the end and dispense with the destruction of the hotel?

To be honest, the end of the book seemed a bit hackneyed to me and not very interesting. I wanted an ending which the audience could not anticipate. In the film, they think Hallorann is going to save Wendy and Danny. When he is killed they fear the worst. Surely, they fear, there is no way now for Wendy and Danny to escape. The maze ending may have suggested itself from the animal topiary scenes in the novel. I don’t actually remember how the idea first came about.

Why did the room number switch from 217 in the novel to 237 in the film?

The exterior of the hotel was filmed at the Timberline Lodge, near Mount Hood, in Oregon. It had a room 217 but no room 237, so the hotel management asked me to change the room number because they were afraid their guests might not want to stay in room 217 after seeing the film. There is, however, a genuinely frightening thing about this hotel which nestles high up on the slopes of Mount Hood. Mount Hood, as it happens, is a dormant volcano, but it has quite recently experienced pre-eruption seismic rumbles similar to the ones that a few months earlier preceded the gigantic eruption of Mount St. Helens, less than sixty miles away. If Mount Hood should ever erupt like Mount St. Helens, then the Timberline Hotel may indeed share the fiery fate of the novel’s Overlook Hotel.

How did you conceive the hotel with your art director, Roy Walker?

The first step was for Roy to go around America photographing hotels which might be suitable for the story. Then we spent weeks going through his photographs making selections for the different rooms. Using the details in the photographs, our draughtsmen did proper working drawings. From these, small models of all the sets were built. We wanted the hotel to look authentic rather than like a traditionally spooky movie hotel. The hotel’s labyrinthine layout and huge rooms, I believed, would alone provide an eerie enough atmosphere. This realistic approach was also followed in the lighting, and in every aspect of the decor it seemed to me that the perfect guide for this approach could be found in Kafka’s writing style. His stories are fantastic and allegorical, but his writing is simple and straightforward, almost journalistic. On the other hand, all the films that have been made of his work seem to have ignored this completely, making everything look as weird and dreamlike as possible. The final details for the different rooms of the hotel came from a number of different hotels. The red men’s room, for example, where Jack meets Grady, the ghost of the former caretaker, was inspired by a Frank Lloyd Wright men’s room in an hotel in Arizona. The models of the different sets were lit, photographed, tinkered with and revised. This process continued, altering and adding elements to each room, until we were all happy with what we had.

There are similar movie cliches about apparitions.

From the more convincing accounts I have read of people who have reported seeing ghosts, they were invariably described as being as solid and as real as someone actually standing in the room. The movie convention of the see-through ghost, shrouded in white, seems to exist only in the province of art.


You have not included the scene from the novel which took place in the elevator, but have only used it for the recurring shot of blood coming out of the doors.

The length of a movie imposes considerable restrictions on how much story you can put into it, especially if the story is told in a conventional way.

Which conventions are you referring to?

The convention of telling the story primarily through a series of dialogue scenes. Most films are really little more than stage plays with more atmosphere and action. I think that the scope and flexibility of movie stories would be greatly enhanced by borrowing something from the structure of silent movies where points that didn’t require dialog could be presented by a shot and a title card. Something like: Title: Billy’s uncle. Picture: Uncle giving Billy ice cream. In a few seconds, you could introduce Billy’s uncle and say something about him without being burdened with a scene. This economy of statement gives silent movies a much greater narrative scope and flexibility than we have today. In my view, there are very few sound films, including those regarded as masterpieces, which could not be presented almost as effectively on the stage, assuming a good set, the same cast and quality of performances. You couldn’t do that with a great silent movie.

But surely you could not put 2001: A Space Odyssey on the stage?

True enough. I know I’ve tried to move in this direction in all of my films but never to an extent which has satisfied me. By the way, I should include the best TV commercials along with silent films, as another example of how you might better tell a film story. In thirty seconds, characters are introduced, and sometimes a surprisingly involved situation is set up and resolved.

When you shoot these scenes which you find theatrical, you do it in a way that emphasizes their ordinariness. The scenes with Ullman or the visit of the doctor in The Shining, like the conference with the astronauts in 2001, are characterized by their social conventions, their mechanical aspect.

Well, as I’ve said, in fantasy you want things to have the appearance of being as realistic as possible. People should behave in the mundane way they normally do. You have to be especially careful about this in the scenes which deal with the bizarre or fantastic details of the story.


You also decided to show few visions and make them very short.

If Danny had perfect ESP, there could be no story. He would anticipate everything, warn everybody and solve every problem. So his perception of the paranormal must be imperfect and fragmentary. This also happens to be consistent with most of the reports of telepathic experiences. The same applies to Hallorann. One of the ironies in the story is that you have people who can see the past and the future and have telepathic contact, but the telephone and the short-wave radio don’t work, and the snowbound mountain roads are impassable. Failure of communication is a theme which runs through a number of my films.

You use technology a lot but seem to be afraid of it.

I’m not afraid of technology. I am afraid of aeroplanes. I’ve been able to avoid flying for some time but, I suppose, if I had to I would. Perhaps it’s a case of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. At one time, I had a pilot’s license and 160 hours of solo time on single-engine light aircraft. Unfortunately, all that seemed to do was make me mistrust large airplanes.

Did you think right away of Jack Nicholson for the role?

Yes, I did. I believe that Jack is one of the best actors in Hollywood, perhaps on a par with the greatest stars of the past like Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Cagney. I should think that he is on almost everyone’s first-choice list for any role which suits him. His work is always interesting, clearly conceived and has the X-factor, magic. Jack is particularly suited for roles which require intelligence. He is an intelligent and literate man, and these are qualities almost impossible to act. In The Shining, you believe he’s a writer, failed or otherwise.

Did the scene where he fights with Shelley Duvall on the stairs require many rehearsals?

Yes, it did. It was only with the greatest difficulty that Shelley was able to create and sustain for the length of the scene an authentic sense of hysteria. It took her a long time to achieve this and when she did we didn’t shoot the scene too many times. I think there were five takes favouring Shelley, and only the last two were really good. When I have to shoot a very large number of takes it’s invariably because the actors don’t know their lines, or don’t know them well enough. An actor can only do one thing at a time, and when he has learned his lines only well enough to say them while he’s thinking about them, he will always have trouble as soon as he has to work on the emotions of the scene or find camera marks. In a strong emotional scene, it is always best to be able to shoot in complete takes to allow the actor a continuity of emotion, and it is rare for most actors to reach their peak more than once or twice. There are, occasionally, scenes which benefit from extra takes, but even then, I’m not sure that the early takes aren’t just glorified rehearsals with the added adrenalin of film running through the camera. In The Shining, the scene in the ballroom where Jack talks to Lloyd, the sinister apparition of a former bartender, belongs to this category. Jack’s performance here is incredibly intricate, with sudden changes of thought and mood – all grace notes. It’s a very difficult scene to do because the emotion flow is so mercurial. It demands knife-edged changes of direction and a tremendous concentration to keep things sharp and economical. In this particular scene Jack produced his best takes near the highest numbers.


He is just as good when he walks down the corridor making wild movements before meeting the barman.

I asked Jack to remember the rumpled characters you see lunging down the streets of New York, waving their arms about and hissing to themselves.

Did you choose Shelley Duvall after seeing her in Three Women?

I had seen all of her films and greatly admired her work. I think she brought an instantly believable characterization to her part. The novel pictures her as a much more self-reliant and attractive woman, but these qualities make you wonder why she has put up with Jack for so long. Shelley seemed to be exactly the kind of woman that would marry Jack and be stuck with him. The wonderful thing about Shelley is her eccentric quality – the way she talks, the way she moves, the way her nervous system is put together. I think that most interesting actors have physical eccentricities about them which make their performances more interesting and, if they don’t, they work hard to find them.

The Steadicam allowed you to do even more of those long-tracking shots you have done in all your films.

Most of the hotel set was built as a composite, so that you could go up a flight of stairs, turn down a corridor, travel its length and find your way to still another part of the hotel. It mirrored the kind of camera movements which took place in the maze. In order to fully exploit this layout it was necessary to have moving camera shots without cuts, and of course the Steadicam made that much easier to do.

In the normal scenes you used dissolves and many camera movements. On the other hand, the paranormal visions are static and the cuts abrupt.

I don’t particularly like dissolves and I try not to use them, but when one scene follows another in the same place, and you want to make it clear that time has passed, a dissolve is often the simplest way to convey this. On the other hand, the paranormal visions are momentary glimpses into the past and the future, and must be short, even abrupt. With respect to the camera movements, I’ve always liked moving the camera. It’s one of the basic elements of film grammar. When you have the means to do it and the set to do it in, it not only adds visual interest but it also permits the actors to work in longer, possibly complete, takes. This makes it easier for them to maintain their concentration and emotional level in the scene.

How do you see the character of Hallorann?

Hallorann is a simple, rustic type who talks about telepathy in a disarmingly unscientific way. His folksy character and naive attempts to explain telepathy to Danny make what he has to say dramatically more acceptable than a standard pseudo-scientific explanation. He and Danny make a good pair.

The child creates a double to protect himself, whereas his father conjures up beings from the past who are also anticipations of his death.

A story of the supernatural cannot be taken apart and analysed too closely. The ultimate test of its rationale is whether it is good enough to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. If you submit it to a completely logical and detailed analysis it will eventually appear absurd. In his essay on the uncanny, Das Unheimliche, Freud said that the uncanny is the only feeling which is more powerfully experienced in art than in life. If the genre required any justification, I should think this alone would serve as its credentials.

How do you see Danny’s evolution?

Danny has had a frightening and disturbing childhood. Brutalized by his father and haunted by his paranormal visions, he has had to find some psychological mechanism within himself to manage these powerful and dangerous forces. To do this, he creates his imaginary friend, Tony, through whom Danny can rationalize his visions and survive.


Some people criticized you a few years ago because you were making films that did not deal with the private problems of characters. With Barry Lyndon and now with The Shining, you seem to be dealing more with personal relationships.

If this is true it is certainly not as a result of any deliberate effort on my part. There is no useful way to explain how you decide what film to make. In addition to the initial problem of finding an exciting story which fulfills the elusively intangible requirements for a film, you have the added problem of its being sufficiently different from the films you have already done. Obviously the more films you make, the more this choice is narrowed down. If you read a story which someone else has written you have the irreplacable experience of reading it for the first time. This is something which you obviously cannot have if you write an original story. Reading someone else’s story for the first time allows you a more accurate judgement of the narrative and helps you to be more objective than you might otherwise be with an original story. Another important thing is that while you’re making a film, and you get deeper and deeper into it, you find that in a certain sense you know less and less about it. You get too close to it. When you reach that point, it’s essential to rely on your original feelings about the story. Of course, at the same time, because you know so much more about it, you can also make a great many other judgements far better than you could have after the first reading. But, not to put too fine a point on it, you can never again have that first, virginal experience with the plot.

It seems that you want to achieve a balance between rationality and irrationality, that for you man should acknowledge the presence of irrational forces in him rather than trying to repress them.

I think we tend to be a bit hypocritical about ourselves. We find it very easy not to see our own faults, and I don’t just mean minor faults. I suspect there have been very few people who have done serious wrong who have not rationalized away what they’ve done, shifting the blame to those they have injured. We are capable of the greatest good and the greatest evil, and the problem is that we often can’t distinguish between them when it suits our purpose.

Failing to understand this leads to some misunderstanding of A Clockwork Orange.

I have always found it difficult to understand how anyone could decide that the film presented violence sympathetically. I can only explain this as a view which arises from a prejudiced assessment of the film, ignoring everything else in the story but a few scenes. The distinguished film director Luis Bunuel suggested this in a way when he said in the New York Times: A Clockwork Orange is my current favourite. I was very predisposed against the film. After seeing it, I realized it is the only movie about what the modern world really means.’ A Clockwork Orange has been widely acclaimed throughout the world as an important work of art. I don’t believe that anyone really sympathizes with Alex, and there is absolutely no evidence that anyone does. Alex clashes with some authority figures in the story who seem as bad as he is, if not worse in a different way. But this doesn’t excuse him. The story is satirical, and it is in the nature of satire to state the opposite of the truth as if it were the truth. I suppose you could misinterpret the film on this count, if you were determined to do so.


How do you see the main character of Jack in The Shining?

Jack comes to the hotel psychologically prepared to do its murderous bidding. He doesn’t have very much further to go for his anger and frustration to become completely uncontrollable. He is bitter about his failure as a writer. He is married to a woman for whom he has only contempt. He hates his son. In the hotel, at the mercy of its powerful evil, he is quickly ready to fulfill his dark role.

So you don’t regard the apparitions as merely a projection of his mental state?

For the purposes of telling the story, my view is that the paranormal is genuine. Jack’s mental state serves only to prepare him for the murder, and to temporarily mislead the audience.

And when the film has finished? What then?

I hope the audience has had a good fright, has believed the film while they were watching it, and retains some sense of it. The ballroom photograph at the very end suggests the reincarnation of Jack.

You are a person who uses his rationality, who enjoys understanding things, but in 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining you demonstrate the limits of intellectual knowledge. Is this an acknowledgement of what William James called the unexplained residues of human experience?

Obviously, science-fiction and the supernatural bring you very quickly to the limits of knowledge and rational explanation. But from a dramatic point of view, you must ask yourself: ‘If all of this were unquestionably true, how would it really happen?’ You can’t go much further than that. I like the regions of fantasy where reason is used primarily to undermine incredulity. Reason can take you to the border of these areas, but from there on you can be guided only by your imagination. I think we strain at the limits of reason and enjoy the temporary sense of freedom which we gain by such exercises of our imagination.

Of course there is a danger that some audiences may misunderstand what you say and think that one can dispense altogether with reason, falling into the clouded mysticism which is currently so popular in America.

People can misinterpret almost anything so that it coincides with views they already hold. They take from art what they already believe, and I wonder how many people have ever had their views about anything important changed by a work of art?

Did you have a religious upbringing?

No, not at all.

You are a chess-player and I wonder if chess-playing and its logic have parallels with what you are saying?

First of all, even the greatest International Grandmasters, however deeply they analyse a position, can seldom see to the end of the game. So their decision about each move is partly based on intuition. I was a pretty good chess-player but, of course, not in that class. Before I had anything better to do (making movies) I played in chess tournaments at the Marshall and Manhattan Chess Clubs in New York, and for money in parks and elsewhere. Among a great many other things that chess teaches you is to control the initial excitement you feel when you see something that looks good. It trains you to think before grabbing, and to think just as objectively when you’re in trouble. When you’re making a film you have to make most of your decisions on the run, and there is a tendency to always shoot from the hip. It takes more discipline than you might imagine to think, even for thirty seconds, in the noisy, confusing, high-pressure atmosphere of a film set. But a few seconds’ thought can often prevent a serious mistake being made about something that looks good at first glance. With respect to films, chess is more useful preventing you from making mistakes than giving you ideas. Ideas come spontaneously and the discipline required to evaluate and put them to use tends to be the real work.


What kind of horror films did you like? Did you see Rosemary’s Baby?

It was one of the best of the genre. I liked The Exorcist too.

And John Boorman’s The Heretic?

I haven’t seen it, but I like his work. Deliverance is an extremely good film. One of the things that amazes me about some directors (not Boorman) who have had great financial successes, is that they seem eager to give up directing to become film moguls. If you care about films, I don’t see how you could want someone else to direct for you.

Perhaps they don’t like the actual shooting.

It’s true – shooting isn’t always fun. But if you care about the film it doesn’t matter. It’s a little like changing your baby’s diapers. It is true that while you’re filming you are almost always in conflict with someone. Woody Allen, talking about directing Interiors, said that no matter how pleasant and relaxed everything seemed on the surface he felt his actors always resented being told anything. There are actors, however, with whom communication and co-operation is so good that the work really becomes exciting and satisfying. I find writing and editing very enjoyable, and almost completely lacking in this kind of tension.

– Kubrick on The Shining. An interview with Michel Ciment in ‘Kubrick’.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Ingmar Bergman: Dialogue on Film

Cries and Whispers (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)

The great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman held a seminar with the Fellows of the Center for Advanced Film Studies on October 31, 1975 in which he openly discussed his approach to writing, his preparations for shooting and his relations with his company of actors while filming. He had recently completed the masterly ‘Cries and Whispers’ – set in a manor house at the turn of the century where a spinster (Harriet Andersson) is dying, attended by her two sisters and devoted servant. Superbly photographed by Sven Nykvist in an elemental style with scarlet backgrounds which give a tremendous force to the anguish of the characters. Bergman was later to comment that ‘all my films can be thought in black and white, except for Cries and Whispers. In the screenplay, I say that I have thought of the colour red as the interior of the soul. When I was a child, I saw the soul as a shadowy dragon, blue as smoke, hovering like an enormous winged creature, half-bird, half-fish. But inside the dragon everything was red.’ The film is lustrous and hypnotic with the power of a dream. Light breaks in occasionally from beyond illuminating the characters and their dark lives until the final breakthrough into the exhilarating openness of the world outside.

Please tell us how you work with actors.

BERGMAN: It can be a very complicated question, and it can be a very simple question. If you want to know exactly how I work together with my actors I can tell you in one minute: I just use my intuition. My only instrument in my profession is my intuition. When I work at the theatre or in the studio with my actors I just feel; I don’t know how to handle the situation, how to collaborate with the artists, with the actors. One thing is very important to me: that an actor is always a creative human being, and what your intuition has to find out is how to make free – do you understand what I mean? – to make free the power, the creative power in the actor or the actress.

I can’t explain how it works. It has nothing to do with magic; it has a lot to do with experience. But I think when I work together with the actors I try to be like a radar – I try to be wide open – because we have to create something together. I give them some stimulations and suggestions and they give me a lot of stimulations and suggestions, and if this fantastic wave of giving and taking is cut off for any reason I have to feel it and I have to look for the reason – good heavens, what has happened? – and I know if we try to work with those waves cut off it is terrifying; it is the hardest, toughest job that exists, both for me and the actors. Some directors work under aggression: the director is aggressive and the actors are aggressive, and they get marvelous results. But to me it is impossible. I have to be in contact, in touch with my actors the whole time. Because what we first of all create when we start a work together is an atmosphere of security around us. And it’s not only me who creates that atmosphere; we are together to create it.

But you know, all those situations, all those decisions, all those very difficult decisions, you have to make hundreds of them every day – I never think. It’s never an intellectual process, it’s just intuition. Afterward you can think it over – What was this? What was that? You can think over every step you have made.

Do you write in the same way?

BERGMAN: Yes, yes, yes. The best time in the writing, I think, is the time when I have no ideas about how to do it. I can lie down on the sofa and I can look into the fire and I can go to the seaside and I can just sit down and do nothing. I just play the game, you know, and it’s wonderful and I make some notes and I can go on for a year. Then, when I have made the plan, the difficult job starts: I have to sit down on my ass every morning at ten o’clock and write the screenplay. And then something very, very strange happens: often the personalities in my scripts don’t want the same thing I want. If I try to force them to do what I want them to do, it will always be an artistic catastrophe. But if I let them free to do what they want and what they tell me, it’s OK.


So I think that is the only way to handle it, because all intellectual decisions must come afterward. You have seen Cries and Whispers, yes? For half a year, I went around and I just had a picture inside about three women walking around in a red room in white clothes and I didn’t know why. I couldn’t understand these damned women – I tried to throw it away, I tried to write it down, I tried to find out what they said to each other, because they whispered. And suddenly it came out that they were watching another woman who was dying in the next room, and then it started. But it took about a year. It always starts with a picture with some kind of tension in it, and then slowly it comes up.

In your films you often confuse reality and dreams, and I wonder if you feel that they are of equal importance.

BERGMAN: You know, you can’t find in any other art, and you can’t create a situation that is so close to dreaming as cinematography when it is at its best. Think only of the time gap: you can make things as long as you want, exactly as in a dream; you can make things as short as you want, exactly as in a dream. As a director, a creator of the picture, you are like a dreamer: you can make what you want, you can construct everything. I think that is one of the most fascinating things that exists.

I think also the reception for the audience of a picture is very, very hypnotic. You sit there in a completely dark room, anonymous, and you look at a lightened spot in front of you and you don’t move. You sit and you don’t move and your eyes are concentrated on that white spot on the wall. That is some sort of magic. I think it’s also magic that two times every frame comes and stands still for twenty-four parts of a second and then it darkens two times; a half part of the time when you see a picture you sit in complete darkness. Isn’t that fascinating? That is magic. It’s quite different when you watch the television: you sit at home, you have light around you, you have people you know around you, the telephone is ringing, you can go out and have a cup of coffee, the children are making noise, I don’t know what – but it is absolutely another situation.

We are in the position to work with the most fascinating medium that exists in the world because like music we go straight to the feeling – not over the intellect – we go straight to the feeling, as in music. Afterward we can start to work with our intellect. If the picture is good, if the suggestions from the creator of the picture are strong enough, they’ll give you thoughts afterward; you’ll start to think; they are intellectually stimulating.

After you have written a script, do you continue to develop the characters during the shooting?

BERGMAN: No. You know, I have always worked with trained actors; I have never worked with amateurs. An amateur can be himself always and you can put him in situations that give the situation a third dimension, as Vittorio De Sica did inThe Bicycle Thief [a 1947 classic of Italian “neorealism"], but if you work with trained actors you must know exactly what you are going to do with the parts. We make all the discussions before and then we work in the studio, giving each other suggestions. But the whole time we must have in mind what we meant. And it’s very dangerous to go away and suddenly start to improvise. You can improvise, of course, in the studio, but if you improvise you have to be very prepared, because to improvise on an improvisation is always shit. If you are very prepared and know how to do it, you can go back if your improvisation suddenly one day fades away, which it does. Of course it does. Inspiration, enthusiasm, everything like that is beautiful, but I don’t like it. When we are in the studio we have to be very strict.


What is your relation to the camera? Do you feel you have to overcome the technical limitations of the camera?

BERGMAN: If intuition is our mental instrument, the camera is our physical instrument. I think the camera is erotic. It is the most exciting little machine that exists. To me, just to work together with my cameraman, Sven Nykvist, to see a human face with the camera and with a zoom to come closer, to see the scene, to see the face changing, it’s the most fascinating thing that exists. The choreography of the actors in relation to the camera is very important. If the actor feels that he is in a good position, in a logical position, he can be with his back to the camera; it doesn’t matter. The camera has to be the best friend of the actors, and the actors have to be secure with our handling of the camera. They must feel that we are taking care of them.

Are there many young directors here? Very good. We who are directors must never forget that we are behind the camera and the actor is in front of the camera; he is nude, his soul is nude. If he has confidence in us, we have enormous responsibility. We have something fantastic: we have somebody in our hands and we can destroy him or we can help him in his creative job. To be behind the camera is never difficult, but to be in front of the camera is always a challenge, a difficulty, to be there with your face and your body and all the limitations you have in your soul and all the limitations you feel of your face and your movements, I don’t know what. What is strange is that we must not lie to the actors; we have to be absolutely true to them. Better actors like the truth more.

When is the moment you stage the movement or position of camera? When I read the screenplays you write, they always say only what the actors are saying, a bit like a play. When is the moment you state, “The camera will be here"?

BERGMAN: The evening before. When I come home in the evening I just sit down with the script and I read the next day’s schedule very carefully. Then I make up my mind about it and I just note the choreography of the actors and the camera. And then in the early morning when I meet Sven – you know, we have worked so many years together – we just very shortly, in five minutes, go through the scene, and I tell him about my ideas for different positions of the camera and the different positions of the actors and the atmosphere of the whole scene. Then we can go on the whole day; it is not necessary to have any discussions. He is a marvelous man. He is very silent and very shy. He is nice. And suddenly everything is there – without any complications – and I can look in the camera and everything I wanted is there.

Do you rehearse with the actors on the set before you plan your shots?

BERGMAN: No, never. That is a very good question. Because if you rehearse with trained actors they go from the mood of intuition to what they are trained to, to stage acting every evening. It’s very difficult. If you go on rehearsing with the actors too much, more than just to learn their lessons, and if you rehearse with them several days, some new process in the actors’ minds starts. An intellectual process, I think, and that process can be very good, but it’s very dangerous for filming because you have something in his eyes suddenly, some sort of “Now I do that“ and "I do that" and “I do that." He’s conscious of what he’s doing. He has to do it intuitively.

Just before you start filming, when you get to the set, you said you know as little about the film as the actors do.

BERGMAN: But remember, I have written the script. I have lived with this script perhaps for one or two years. The preparation for the next day, in details, I wait with it as long as possible. Of course, when I made The Magic Flute [his film of Mozart’s opera] we had to prepare everything before.


You use women as your main characters quite a lot, and I was wondering how you relate to them, how you identify with them? Your male characters aren’t very much in the foreground.

BERGMAN: I like more to work with women. I have many good friends who are actors and I like tremendously to work together with them, but in filmmaking it’s a job for good nerves and I think the women have much better nerves than men have. It’s so. I think the problems very often are the common problems. They are not, on the first hand, women; they are human beings. And God forgive me, but I have the feeling that the prima donnas always are male. I think it has to do with our whole social life and the male part and the female part that they have to play, and it’s very difficult to be an actor; it’s not so difficult to be an actress in our society.

Would you just talk a little more about what you say to an actor? Do you do exercises with them?

BERGMAN: No, no, no, no. Good heavens, no. I say nothing. I promise.

Do you tell them the message of the film?

BERGMAN: No, good heavens, no. No, no, no, no. I don’t know anything about messages or symbols or things like that. Sometimes when I have the message everything goes wrong. So we don’t talk about those things. We just talk professionally: “Be careful. Be slower. Don’t be in a hurry. Listen." You know, the most important of all is the ear – the ear for the director and the ear for the actors. Listen to each other. Very often when I see a scene I just close my eyes and listen, because if it sounds right it also looks right. It’s very strange.

Now we have only a minute to conclude this, to me, wonderful meeting, but I wanted just to add something. Perhaps it sounds like an old uncle, but I am, so it doesn’t matter. May I give you an advice?

Yes, please.

BERGMAN: It is a relief to me to know that if I have an intention, if I have a passion and an obsession, if I want to tell somebody something and if I want to touch somebody, the film helps me. But if I have nothing to say and I just want to make a film, I don’t make the film. It’s so stimulating, the craftsmanship of filmmaking is so terribly stimulating, dangerous, and obsessing, so you can be very tempted...but if you have nothing to come with, try to be honest with yourself and don’t make the picture. If you have something to come with, if you have emotion and passion, a picture in your head, a tension – even if you aren’t very technical – the strange thing is that having worked on the script and having worked with the camera for days and days, suddenly when you have cut it together, the thing you wanted to tell is there.

I have a very good example, Antonioni’s L’Avventura (Italy, 1960). The picture is a mess – he had no idea where to put the camera; he had no money; the actors went away; I think he had enormous problems the whole time – but he wanted to tell us something about the loneliness of the human being, and I can see this picture time after time and I don’t know what touches me most: how he succeeds without knowing how to do it or what he wants to say. That is very important; that is the most important of all. You have to have something to come with, to give other people.
Picturemaking is some sort of responsibility, that is what I think.

– Originally published in American Film, January-February 1976