Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Bergman: On Writing, Demons and Childhood Secrets


Fanny and Alexander (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
Jörn Donner was Managing Director of the Swedish Film Institute between 1978 and 1982 during which he produced Ingmar Bergman’s film Fanny and Alexander (1982). In 1984 the movie won a total of four Academy Awards including the award for best foreign language film. The following dialogue is taken from an interview Donner conducted with Bergman in Stockholm during three days in November, 1997. Aged 79 at the time, Bergman reflects on his writing method, his childhood and the ‘demon of suspicion’. 

Ingmar Bergman: When I am going to sleep at night, I can walk through my grandmother's apartment, room by room, and remember everything in the most minute detail, where different things were, what they looked like, what colour they were. I can also remember the light, winter light or summer light, through the windows, the pictures on the walls. The apartment was furnished before the turn of the century and contained a huge number of things. That was the bourgeois style of the day, not a millimetre was to remain uncovered; there had to be things everywhere. It's really strange. My grandmother died when I was twelve and I haven't been there since I was about perhaps ten or eleven. But I remember it in detail. The things there in the apartment, they still have a magical content and significance to me. I made a lot of use of that in Fanny and Alexander. If any conclusions are to be drawn from that, Jörn, then it may well be that in that way, the whole of my creativity is really tremendously childish, all based on my childhood. In less than a second, I can take myself back into my childhood. I think everything I've done in general, anything of any value, has its roots there. 

Or dialectically, it is a dialogue with childhood...

Jörn Donner: Quite often, you’ve been considerably more experimental in films than in the theatre.

Ingmar Bergman: Films demand their form, and staged plays theirs. I’ve never simply decided that now I shall experiment, but everything has just been given the form I’ve thought it ought to have. I’m not at all interested in whether I’m experimenting or not.

Fanny and Alexander (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
Jörn Donner: But is it some kind of intuition? Who the hell would be crazy enough to write a script such as Cries and Whispers?

Ingmar Bergman: [laughter] It’s like this: it was necessary to write it in that way, or Persona, or the one I’ve just written, Faithless. They’ve found their form simply because it was necessary to write them in that way – to do them in that way.

Jörn Donner: You didn’t think about the drama...

Ingmar Bergman: No, in general I wasn’t thinking about anything.

Jörn Donner: That’s not what I meant. But to go back in time, to Sawdust and Tinsel or Prison. Didn’t you think them out either?

Ingmar Bergman: No, I didn’t. Well, not Sawdust and Tinsel, but Prison – I suppose that was the first time I wrote my own script. I was quite crazy with delight and had to get everything that I had been walking around and thinking about into it. Without my really making any effort, it became... peculiar.

Jörn Donner: I suppose you don’t want to say you’re an intuitive writer.

Ingmar Bergman: But wasn’t it you who said that when you begin writing, you don’t know how it will turn out?

Jörn Donner: That’s right, of course, yes.

Cries and Whispers (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
Ingmar Bergman: It’s just intuition, and it’s the same when I start writing, I have a kind of basic scene, a beginning. I usually say that in Cries and Whispers I went on for very long, and had a scene with four women in white in a red room.

Jörn Donner: And that was all, generally speaking.

Ingmar Bergman: Yes, it was only that. And then I started thinking about why they were there and what they said to each other, that kind of thing. It was mysterious. It kept coming back again and again, and I couldn’t get that scene to come out right.

Jörn Donner: A kind of dream image.

Ingmar Bergman: Yes, you know what it’s like. Then you begin winding in a long thread that appears from somewhere or other, and the thread can suddenly snap. That’s the end of that, but then all of a sudden, it’s a whole ball.

Jörn Donner: Have threads often snapped for you?

Ingmar Bergman: Yes, lots of times.

Jörn Donner: But not the kind of threads you’ve spent weeks working on, or in manuscript form.

Ingmar Bergman: No, not once I’ve started writing. By then I’ve already done my working books. In them, I’ve written endless things, masses of stuff, but once I’ve started on the script, then I know what I’m doing.

Prison (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
Jörn Donner: What are your working books about?

Ingmar Bergman: Absolutely everything.

Jörn Donner: So the script grows out of the working book?

Ingmar Bergman: Exactly. Well, it’s unfinished, completely. Keeping working books is fun.

Jörn Donner: Have you always done that?

Ingmar Bergman: Yes, always. At first, I didn’t really have the time. But when I did have the time, yes. Often when I was younger and had to earn money for all my wives and children, then I had to begin on the script, so to speak, bang, directly, I mean. But now I can lie on the sofa and play about with my thoughts and have fun with them, looking at images, doing research and so on. All that’s great fun. My working books are also quite illegible to anyone else but me. But then the actual writing begins out of these notebooks.

Jörn Donner: And it goes quickly?

Ingmar Bergman: Relatively quickly because it’s so boring. It’s hellishly boring, just like when you do a theatre performance and sit there sketching out the scenes, how the actors are to move and stand, when they’re to say what, and all that – hellishly dreary. When I’m writing the script, I write a certain number of pages a day.

Sawdust and Tinsel (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
 Jörn Donner: Would you consider writing in any other way but by hand?

Ingmar Bergman: No, never.

Jörn Donner: Why not?

Ingmar Bergman: I can’t type. [laughter] I’ve tried.

Jörn Donner: Is it a physical thing?

Ingmar Bergman: Yes, it’s a physical thing, profoundly unsatisfactory. I use a sort of notepad to write on. They existed when I was employed as a slave scriptwriter at Svensk Filmindustri in 1942. You were given a kind of lined yellow notepad. Then you had to write by hand and with a broad-nibbed fountain pen. Since then, I’ve always written on that yellow paper and those notepads.

Jörn Donner: Where do you get them?

Ingmar Bergman: About twenty or so years ago it turned out that they weren’t making them anymore, so I had them make eight-hundred pads especially for me. And I’ve still got a few left. I think they’ll just about last me out.

Jörn Donner: I should damned well think so.

Sawdust and Tinsel (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
Ingmar Bergman: I write with a ballpoint pen nowadays, but not just any old damned pen. It has to be a very special ballpoint with a very fat tip. It’s the actual writing, although my handwriting is so difficult to read, that gives me pleasure. I like writing by hand. It is very satisfying. In that I always write on the same kind of pad, I know how much I’ve written, you see. And I never write for more than three hours. When the three hours are up, even if I’m in the middle of a scene or wherever the hell I am, I stop working. I stop for the day. Because it’s so boring. But the working book is fun. That’s the actual creative process. Writing the script is just the arranging process.

Jörn Donner: Do you think you have some sort of ritualistic superstition about these notepads and pens, where you work, and those three hours, or is it just a routine?

Ingmar Bergman: No, it’s a ritual. I have very precise rituals. Get up early and eat breakfast, go for a walk, don’t read the paper, don’t talk on the telephone with anyone. Sit down at the desk. My desk has to be tidy, nothing lying about in a mess on it. I am maniacally pedantic when it comes to what it has to look like if I’m to be able to sit working at it. Then when I’ve been writing for about three quarters of an hour, I take a break. I’ve usually got a backache by then, so I walk all through my house, or go and look at the sea, or something like that for a quarter of an hour. Writing scripts is a ‘compulsory exercise’.

Jörn Donner: A kind of battle? Against...

Ingmar Bergman: Against disorder, sloppiness, lack of discipline.

Jörn Donner: You never lacked that.

Ingmar Bergman: Well, no, I’ve never lacked discipline, but if I had, things would have really fallen apart, I assure you. Because I’m constantly battling against my lack of discipline. You just can’t be undisciplined in my profession, you just can’t. That’s why I’ve become so frightfully pedantic, so trying to so many people.

Sawdust and Tinsel (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
Jörn Donner: There’s a strange contrast between two things: in both your films and your autobiography you describe your demons with a capital D, while on the other hand in all the pictures of you at work in the theatre and on films, you always seem to be in a good mood.

Ingmar Bergman: I think it’s part of a director’s duty to be in a good mood at work. To create a kind of cheerful atmosphere around the actual exercising of the profession. In the workroom, too.

Jörn Donner: A sense of comfort?

Ingmar Bergman: Yes, and security. It’s terribly important. When I was young, I didn’t understand that at all, and took it all with me into my working life, my hangovers and troubles with women, all my shortcomings and stupidities. I dragged them with me into the studio or on stage and raced around like a demon creating hideously unpleasant and uncomfortable situations.
But there’s also something called the educational outburst, that you sometimes have to make use of. These are enormously premeditated attacks of rage. And they are a precision bombing, because that is what’s needed. Things mustn’t be lovely and cozy in a studio, or on stage. And the people we work with, they’re so often tremendously ambitious, so tremendously sensitive, that although we’re playing a game, although it looks like fun – we’re joking and telling funny stories and we relax and so on – they still feel it’s a matter of life and death. And when I say life and death, I actually mean just that.

Jörn Donner: Is it also a matter of keeping up a certain tempo?

Ingmar Bergman: Yes, to a tremendous degree. For instance, when you start in the film studio, at nine in the morning, then you start at nine in the morning. The first scene is to be shot at ten. Somehow you have to start punctually. A day shouldn’t start with endless discussion. To me, chatter is largely an abomination, because then there are one or two people, perhaps more involved, while a whole lot of others are standing around, even more in the theatre – should be outside of rehearsals and outside the studio.

Persona (Directed by Ingmar Bergman)
Jörn Donner: How have you managed to create a distance between what you yourself call your demons and a film studio or a theatre?

Ingmar Bergman: My demons... well, they’ve somehow got to be harnessed. They have to be there, because I suffer from, for instance – how shall I put it – the demon of suspicion. I am an immensely suspicious person.

Jörn Donner: And a hypochondriac, too, perhaps?

Ingmar Bergman: Let’s not keep on counting my demons, for Christ’s sake, but I think they ought to be present. They have to stand at attention, on parade, so that I can convey to the actors how suspicion functions and how hypochondria functions, in gestures, tone of voice or in movements. Obviously the demons have to be brought into it. It would be tremendously risky not to have them with you, but they have to be kept very much under control.

You see, as long as I’m inside the studio, or in the theatre, then that’s a universe controlled by me. Then the demons are also under control. Everything’s under control. But the moment all the lights go off and the camera stops, and I leave by the stage door, or the rehearsal is over, then I no longer have control over the demons. Then it is no longer my universe, so to speak, but the often unpredictable universe that I try to control, but which has constantly bedevilled my efforts...

- Extracted from ‘Jörn Donner: Demons And Childhood Secrets: An Interview’. Translated from the Swedish by Joan Tate. Originally published in Grand Street 17, no. 2 (Fall 1998).

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Kurosawa: Some Random Notes on Filmmaking


The following comments were originally made by Akira Kurosawa and published by Toho Company, Ltd., in 1975 as advice to young people considering a career in filmmaking. They were adapted by Audie E. Bock and published as an appendix to Kurosawa’s Something Like An Autobiography.

What is Cinema? The answer to this question is no easy matter. Long ago the Japanese novelist Shiga Naoya presented an essay written by his grandchild as one of the most remarkable prose pieces of his time. He had it published in a literary magazine. It was entitled ‘My Dog,’ and ran as follows: ‘My dog resembles a bear; he also resembles a badger; he also resembles a fox. . . .’ It proceeded to enumerate the dog’s special characteristics, comparing each one to yet another animal, developing into a full list of the animal kingdom. However, the essay closed with, ‘But since he’s a dog, he most resembles a dog.’ I remember bursting out laughing when I read this essay, but it makes a serious point. Cinema resembles so many other arts. If cinema has very literary characteristics, it also has theatrical qualities, a philosophical side, attributes of painting and sculpture and musical elements. But cinema is, in the final analysis, cinema.

There is something that might be called cinematic beauty. It can only be expressed in a film, and it must be present in a film for that film to be a moving work. When it is very well expressed, one experiences a particularly deep emotion while watching that film. I believe it is this quality that draws people to come and see a film, and that it is the hope of attaining this quality that inspires the filmmaker to make his film in the first place. In other words, I believe that the essence of the cinema lies in cinematic beauty. 

When I begin to consider a film project, I always have in mind a number of ideas that feel as if they would be the sort of thing I’d like to film. From among these one will suddenly germinate and begin to sprout; this will be the one I grasp and develop. I have never taken on a project offered to me by a producer or a production company. My films emerge from my own desire to say a particular thing at a particular time. The root of any film project for me is this inner need to express something. What nurtures this root and makes it grow into a tree is the script. What makes the tree bear flowers and fruit is the directing.


The role of director encompasses the coaching of the actors, the cinematography, the sound recording, the art direction, the music, the editing and the dubbing and sound-mixing. Although these can be thought of as separate occupations, I do not regard them as independent. I see them all melting together under the heading of direction.

A film director has to convince a great number of people to follow him and work with him. I often say, although I am certainly not a militarist, that if you compare the production unit to an army, the script is the battle flag and the director is the commander of the front line. From the moment production begins to the moment it ends, there is no telling what will happen. The director must be able to respond to any situation, and he must have the leadership ability to make the whole unit go along with his responses.

Although the continuity for a film is all worked out in advance, that sequence may not necessarily be the most interesting way to shoot the picture. Things can happen without warning that produce a startling effect. When these can be incorporated in the film without upsetting the balance, the whole becomes much more interesting. This process is similar to that of a pot being fired in a kiln. Ashes and other particles can fall onto the melted glaze during the firing and cause unpredictable but beautiful results. Similarly unplanned but interesting effects arise in the course of directing a movie, so I call them ‘kiln changes.’


With a good script a good director can produce a masterpiece; with the same script a mediocre director can make a passable film. But with a bad script even a good director can’t possibly make a good film. For truly cinematic expression, the camera and the microphone must be able to cross both fire and water. That is what makes a real movie. The script must be something that has the power to do this. 

A good structure for a screenplay is that of the symphony, with its three or four movements and differing tempos. Or one can use the Noh play with its three-part structure: jo (introduction), ha (destruction) and kya (haste). If you devote yourself fully to Noh and gain something good from this, it will emerge naturally in your films. The Noh is a truly unique art form that exists nowhere else in the world. I think the Kabuki, which imitates it, is a sterile flower. But in a screenplay, I think the symphonic structure is the easiest for people of today to understand.

In order to write scripts, you must first study the great novels and dramas of the world. You must consider why they are great. Where does the emotion come from that you feel as you read them? What degree of passion did the author have to have, what level of meticulousness did he have to command, in order to portray the characters and events as he did? You must read thoroughly, to the point where you can grasp all these things. You must also see the great films. You must read the great screenplays and study the film theories of the great directors. If your goal is to become a film director, you must master screenwriting.


I’ve forgotten who it was that said creation is memory. My own experiences and the various things I have read remain in my memory and become the basis upon which I create something new. I couldn’t do it out of nothing. For this reason, since the time I was a young man I have always kept a notebook handy when I read a book. I write down my reactions and what particularly moves me. I have stacks and stacks of these college notebooks, and when I go off to write a script, these are what I read. Somewhere they always provide me with a point of breakthrough. Even for single lines of dialogue I have taken hints from these notebooks. So what I want to say is, don’t read books while lying down in bed.

I began writing scripts with two other people around 1940. Up until then I wrote alone, and found that I had no difficulties. But in writing alone there is a danger that your interpretation of another human being will suffer from one-sidedness. If you write with two other people about that human being, you get at least three different viewpoints on him, and you can discuss the points on which you disagree. Also, the director has a natural tendency to nudge the hero and the plot along into a pattern that is the easiest one for him to direct. By writing with about two other people, you can avoid this danger also.

Something that you should take particular notice of is the fact that the best scripts have very few explanatory passages. Adding explanation to the descriptive passages of a screenplay is the most dangerous trap you can fall into. It’s easy to explain the psychological state of a character at a particular moment, but it’s very difficult to describe it through the delicate nuances of action and dialogue. Yet it is not impossible. A great deal about this can be learned from the study of the great plays, and I believe the ‘hard-boiled’ detective novels can also be very instructive.


I begin rehearsals in the actors’ dressing room. First I have them repeat their lines, and gradually proceed to the movements. But this is done with costumes and makeup on from the beginning; then we repeat everything on the set. The thoroughness of these rehearsals makes the actual shooting time very short. We don’t rehearse just the actors, but every part of every scene – the camera movements, the lighting, everything.

The worst thing an actor can do is show his awareness of the camera. Often when an actor hears the call ‘Roll ‘em’ he will tense up, alter his sight lines and present himself very unnaturally. This self-consciousness shows very clearly to the camera’s eye. I always say, ‘Just talk to the actor playing opposite. This isn’t like the stage, where you have to speak your lines to the audience. There’s no need to look at the camera.’ But when he knows where the camera is, the actor invariably, without knowing it, turns one-third to halfway in its direction. With multiple moving cameras, however, the actor has no time to figure out which one is shooting him.

During the shooting of a scene the director’s eye has to catch even the minutest detail. But this does not mean glaring concentratedly at the set. While the cameras are rolling, I rarely look directly at the actors, but focus my gaze somewhere else. By doing this I sense instantly when something isn’t right. Watching something does not mean fixing your gaze on it, but being aware of it in a natural way. I believe this is what the medieval Noh playwright and theorist Zeami meant by ‘watching with a detached gaze.’


Many people choose to follow the actors’ movements with a zoom lens. Although the most natural way to approach the actor with the camera is to move it at the same speed he moves, many people wait until he stops moving and then zoom in on him. I think this is very wrong. The camera should follow the actor as he moves; it should stop when he stops. If this rule is not followed, the audience will become conscious of the camera.

Much is often made of the fact that I use more than one camera to shoot a scene. This began when I was making Seven Samurai, because it was impossible to predict exactly what would happen in the scene where the bandits attack the peasants’ village in a heavy rain-storm. If I had filmed it in the traditional shot-by-shot method, there was no guarantee that any action could be repeated in exactly the same way twice. So I used three cameras rolling simultaneously. The result was extremely effective, so I decided to exploit this technique fully in less action-filled drama as well, and I next used it for Ikimono no kiroku (Record of a Living Being). By the time I made The Lower Depths I was using largely a one-shot-per-scene method.

Working with three cameras simultaneously is not so easy as it may sound. It is extremely difficult to determine how to move them. For example, if a scene has three actors in it, all three are talking and moving about freely and naturally. In order to show how the A, B and C cameras move to cover this action, even complete picture continuity is insufficient. Nor can the average camera operator understand a diagram of the camera movements. I think in Japan the only cinematographers who can are Nakai Asakazu and Saito Takao. The three camera positions are completely different for the beginning and end of each shot, and they go through several transformations in between. As a general system, I put the A camera in the most orthodox positions, use the B camera for quick, decisive shots and the C camera as a kind of guerilla unit.


The task of the lighting technicians is an extremely creative one. A really good lighting man has his own plan, though he of course still needs to discuss it with the cameraman and the director. But if he does not put forth his own concept, his job becomes nothing more than lighting up the whole frame. I think, for example, that the current method of lighting for color film is wrong. In order to bring out the colors, the entire frame is flooded with light. I always say the lighting should be treated as it is for black-and-white film, whether the colors are strong or not, so that the shadows come out right.

I am often accused of being too exacting with sets and properties, of having things made, just for the sake of authenticity, that will never appear on camera. Even if I don’t request this, my crew does it for me anyway. The first Japanese director to demand authentic sets and props was Mizoguchi Kenji, and the sets in his films are truly superb. I learned a great deal about filmmaking from him, and the making of sets is among the most important. The quality of the set influences the quality of the actors’ performances. If the plan of a house and the design of the rooms are done properly, the actors can move about in them naturally. If I have to tell an actor, ‘Don’t think about where this room is in relation to the rest of the house,’ that natural ease cannot be achieved. For this reason, I have the sets made exactly like the real thing. It restricts the shooting, but encourages that feeling of authenticity.

From the moment I begin directing a film, I am thinking about not only the music but the sound effects as well. Even before the camera rolls, along with all the other things I consider, I
decide what kind of sound I want. In some of my films, such as Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, I use different theme music for each main character or for different groups of characters.


I changed my thinking about musical accompaniment from the time Hayasaka Fumio began working with me as composer of my film scores. Up until that time film music was nothing more than accompaniment – for a sad scene there was always sad music. This is the way most people use music, and it is ineffective. But from Drunken Angel onward, I have used light music for some key sad scenes, and my way of using music has differed from the norm – I don’t put it in where most people do. Working with Hayasaka, I began to think in terms of the counterpoint of sound and image as opposed to the union of sound and image.

The most important requirement for editing is objectivity. No matter how much difficulty you had in obtaining a particular shot, the audience will never know. If it is not interesting, it simply isn’t interesting. You may have been full of enthusiasm during the filming of a particular shot, but if that enthusiasm doesn’t show on the screen, you must be objective enough to cut it.

Editing is truly interesting work. When the rushes come up, I rarely show them to my crew exactly as they are. Instead I go to the editing room when shooting is over that day and with the editor spend about three hours editing the rushes together. Only then do I show them to the crew. It is necessary to show them this edited footage for the sake of arousing their interest. Sometimes they don’t understand what it is they are filming, or why they had to spend ten days to get a particular shot. When they see the edited footage with the results of their labor, they become enthusiastic again. And by editing as I go along, I have only the fine cut to complete when the shooting is finished.

I am often asked why I don’t pass on to young people what I have accomplished over the years. Actually, I would like very much to do so. Ninety-nine percent of those who worked as my assistant directors have now become directors in their own right. But I don’t think any of them took the trouble to learn the most important things.


– From ‘Akira Kurosawa: Something Like an Autobiography’. Translated by Audie E. Bock. Vintage Books, 1983.


Tuesday, 9 October 2012

James Toback: Writing on the Edge


Fingers (Directed by James Toback)
Since Karel Reisz directed his screenplay of The Gambler in 1974, James Toback’s films have focused obsessively on their creators’ pet themes: sexuality, class, race, gambling, compulsion, music, sports and philosophy. After graduating from Harvard, Toback wrote a book about American football legend Jim Brown which reflected the intensely personal, autobiographical nature of much of his subsequent work. Brown went on to appear in Toback’s 1978 directorial debut Fingers, a moody drama about a tortured young man (Harvey Keitel) torn between working as an enforcer for his father and his dreams of becoming a concert pianist. A French remake The Beat That My Heart Skipped was released in 2005 to critical acclaim. 

In 1987 Toback made a tentative move towards the mainstream with The Pick-Up Artist, his first film with Robert Downey Jr., who later collaborated with Toback in 1997’s Two Girls And A Guy and 1999’s Black And White. The controversial, largely improvised Black And White also marked the beginning of Toback’s working relationship with Mike Tyson, who appears briefly in Toback’s quirky 2004 comedy-drama When Will I Be Loved and is the subject of Tyson, an intense first-person exploration of the boxer’s life and career. 

This is an extract from a 2009 interview with the AV Club when the writer, director and documentary-maker discussed his work: 

AVC: You’re known for the highly personal nature of your films. Have you ever made a movie that wasn’t on some level autobiographical?

JT: I’m not a woman, so I would say the movies Exposed and When Will I Be Loved, which were basically written for Nastassja Kinski and Neve Campbell, were only autobiographical in a very oblique sense. The themes are the same, definitely. I think, without sounding too high-minded about it, if you approach film as an artform that you’re expressing yourself through, there’s a limited number of themes that any artist has had. Look at any of the people I’ve admired—Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Oscar Wilde—all of them had certain themes that they’re dealing with over and over again. It isn’t that all of sudden Dostoyevsky’s gonna be writing about the world that Henry James wrote about. They’re just not in the same milieu. I’m pretty much where I am, I don’t want to go elsewhere. I like mining this terrain. I like the idea of switching contacts, but this is the world that I like to deal with.

Fingers (Directed by James Toback)
AVC: I remember hearing about The Beat That My Heart Skipped and thinking that sounds impossible. Some movies are so rooted in a time and place and sensibility that putting them in another country seems insane. How did you feel about the film?

JT: First of all, I was flattered ‘cause it’s the only French movie ever made remaking an American movie. No original American movie has ever been remade as a French film. And also the fact that it was done by a very good director, and a very good actor. I thought it was extremely well-done. I was glad that it called attention to Fingers. A lot of people revisited Fingers as a result, or discovered Fingers. I did not think it was a great idea to change the ending and have him get away with beating up the—and not killing him, he cries instead of killing him, and I didn’t believe that moment. And then the end, which has him happily there with his girlfriend at the concert, I really don’t believe, because that Russian gangster would not have let him live. You don’t beat up a guy like that and then he says, ‘Well I guess I lost the fight fair and square.’ It’s, ‘I’m gonna get that guy’, and since he’s very much available to be gotten I just didn’t believe that he wouldn’t get killed. So that kind of stuff actually always bothers me in any movie I see, but particularly since I knew the psychology behind the scenes I felt that was a mistake. But overall I thought it was a very impressive film and very well-done.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped (Directed by Jacques Audiard) 
AVC: Harvard Man was a project that had been floating around for decades. Are there other pet projects that you would like to someday get made?

JT: I wrote this movie about Victoria Woodhull for Faye Dunaway, which George Cukor was going to direct. I worked with Cukor on it for a year and it never got made. In Faye Dunaway’s autobiography the following sentence appears: ‘It is one of the great tragedies in the history of the movie business that James Toback’s Victoria Woodhull script has not yet been made.’ So I’ll take Faye’s word for it.

AVC: Do you think it was one of the great tragedies in the movie business?

JT: Might be a bit hyperbolic.

AVC: One of the great tragedies of western civilization?

JT: Yes, that would be better. I feel like Alain Delon, who once said, ‘It doesn’t matter that I’m not a star in America because I’m a huge star in France, I’m a legend in Spain, and I’m a god in Japan.’ So yeah, one of the true tragedies of western civilization. I think that would be—also, I’m writing a movie now called The Director which I’m very eager to make. Those are the two right now that I’d be really interested in doing.

AVC: What’s The Director about?

JT: It’s about a guy in middle age and making another movie, his 10th movie, and he’s going through some serious doubts about himself, his life, his career. He’s forced to confront his realities while making this movie and writes them into the movie. So the movie becomes a reflection of his life and his life is influenced by the movie he’s making. And you’re on the set of this drama throughout, that’s the substance of the movie. And it becomes criminal, and a lot of intriguing things happen.

The Gambler (Directed by Karel Reisz)
AVC: You had an interesting relationship with Barry Levinson on Bugsy. How was your relationship with the director when you made The Gambler?

JT: With Karel Reisz? He was my teacher. I never went to film school, never had a single hour of film study. And I wrote the script not even knowing what the script form was. I had to look up a script ‘cause I didn’t know what the proper form was. Karel spent a year with me in London going over everything in my life that resembled the film, the character, the context. We studied Las Vegas together. There was no one like Karel. He was a truly great human being. Then when it was finished, I was in the editing room, and that’s how he was my film course. So when I made Fingers I said I can make my own movie now, because I’ve been studying with Karel Reisz by having my own movie made. And I never felt I needed to go back.

Bugsy (Directed by Barry Levinson)
AVC: If you had directed Bugsy, how would it have been different from Barry Levinson’s version?

JT: I don’t know but I doubt it would have been as good, unless I directed it and the three of us [Levinson, himself and star Warren Beatty] were all together. It was a great collaboration and the three of us fed each other. If any one of us had directed it and the other two had not been there, the movie would have suffered. Did you see the new DVD? Did you see the three of us talking? You gotta see it, it’s hysterical. We had a great time. It was actually one of the best times I’ve ever had in my life and I’m sure the two of them feel the same way. It was very productive, very creative, but also the most fun I ever had on a movie. We had so long to do it, it seemed to be an unlimited amount of time.

AVC: How was your experience with The Pick-Up Artist?

JT: I felt there was a bit too much time with that particular movie. You wait around and sit in your trailer and that’s not necessarily a good thing for actors. Wasn’t good for Downey in that movie. There’s something to be said for shooting a movie on the run, being very fast. But Bugsy was an extreme form of, not only a movie about Hollywood, but a movie that was Hollywood and Las Vegas. We pulled out all the stops, and we weren’t rushed. We had time to let ideas percolate and talk about them, and each one would be open to what the others were saying. It was a once in a lifetime collaboration.

The Pick-Up Artist (Directed by James Toback)
AVC: On the one hand it has your intensity and pet themes, but it also has a bigness and gloss that isn’t in your other films.

JT: Exposed has it in a different way, it has a real size and scope. It’s also partly that it’s a period piece. It’s the era itself that was depicted, and if you’re gonna do it right you have to do it that way. It was palpable.

AVC: A lot of your recent films have been improvised or largely improvised. What led to this shift away from scripting?

JT: It’s a question of what’s the scene. Half of Black And White is improvised, half is strictly written. Half of When Will I Be Loved is strictly written, half is invented. For instance the scene with Dominic Chianese and Neve Campbell had to be very tightly scripted. It just never would have worked otherwise. The scene with her and me walking in a street in Columbia had to be improvised. It would’ve felt wrong any other way. I think you have to take it case by case.

When Will I Be Loved (Directed by James Toback)
AVC: Tyson seems to be one of your recent muses, and Jim Brown was one of your first sources of fascination. Do you think similar things attracted you to both men?

JT: What attracted me to Jim was moving into that world. It was a hedonistic era, pre-AIDS, with a lot of extremely impressive black athletes, of which Jim was by far the most gifted, dealing with life in a very bold way in a kind of wild, open-ended, free-spirited time. I just thought it’d be a great learning experience. I’d been married to the granddaughter of the Duke Of Marlborough just before that, and I thought this would be an interesting juxtaposition, in what I still considered to be a learning part of my life. Mike and Jim are quite different people. Jim is a really well controlled person. Jim is an organized character, a focused character; he knows what he’s saying, what he’s doing, what he wants to accomplish. And Mike is in a kind of parallel reality. The only thing they really have in common is that I think each is the best in the history of his sport. 

AVC: Do you see a lot of yourself in Mike Tyson?

JT: Well I certainly feel I have the personality of what he calls an extremist, somebody who is always pushing it to one extreme or another. He says nobody can understand the mind of an extremist who isn’t one. Similarly, no extremist can understand the mind of a moderate. When people are temperate in their behavior, in their lives, someone who is addictive or extreme or obsessive can’t understand how people can just go through their lives in the middle, and people who are rational and balanced can’t understand the opposite. I’m one who’s in the extreme camp in almost every area of my life and I always have been. I’ve observed that I’m in a minority, but I never understand people who are measured. And it may be one of the foundations of the odd relationship I’ve had with him over the years with him. We’ve had a lot of long interesting conversations in the middle of the night about all the fundamental aspects of life, which are in effect the fundamental aspects of this movie, namely identity, race, sex, love, madness, crime and death. And boxing.

Tyson (Directed by James Toback)
AVC: How did your relationship with Mike Tyson begin?

JT: I met him on the set of The Pick-Up Artist in 1985. He’d come to meet [Robert] Downey [Jr.]. We hit it off immediately. It was just a natural easy rapport, which is actually not difficult to start with him because it’s his way. He speaks in a kind of unadulterated, uncensored way, and gives you a sense that he is going to be direct and truthful with you and you feel obligated to be that way with him. We had a long walk through Central Park at about five in the morning in which it became very clear to me anyway that we had a lot to say to each other despite superficial differences and that it would be probably a rather interesting relationship.

AVC: How did Tyson go from being a friend to a subject of your movies?

JT: Well, he was in Black And White, and that struck me as a very impressive performance. He was great in the improvised scenes with Downey and Brooke Shields, and then in the next scene where he’s talking meditatively and self-reflexively about being incarcerated and being strip-searched, and wanting both to kill the guy who was about to betray him and to withhold murder because he was trying to maintain an image. He was very impressive and articulate. And I thought I could take this Mike Tyson and expand it into a movie easily. And I suggested it to him and he said whenever you’re ready, let’s do it.

Black And White (Directed by James Toback)
AVC: How much of a framework did you give Mike Tyson or Robert Downey Jr. or Brooke Shields when you were making Black And White?

JT: I told them what the intentions were. I said to Tyson, just stand by the window, Downey’s gonna come over and chat with you, and just respond. And to Downey I said hit on Mike relentlessly until he responds, and to Brooke I said shoot it with your minicam and respond any way you like. The initial effect was that Downey hit on Tyson so relentlessly that Tyson did respond. Oh, actually Downey said to me, ‘what if he kills me?’ I said well, it raises an interesting question. As of right now you’re headed for a likely death in a parking lot in Santa Monica or a motel in Culver City. What’s better, that death or dying by being killed live by Mike Tyson? And he cracked up and went ahead and hit on him. And he crawled away, and I almost called out to Brooke, ‘don’t pay any attention to Downey’, ‘cause I was afraid she was going to be solicitous of Downey, which would have blown the rest of the scenes. But fortunately she had very good instincts and hit on Mike and discombobulated him. That was played out to the end of the scene, and they came up with all that stuff...

- Extracted from Nathan Rabin: ‘Interview: James Toback’, April 2009. Full article here: http://www.avclub.com

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

John Cassavetes: On the Making of Husbands

Husbands (Directed by John Cassavetes)
Subtitled a ‘comedy about life, death and freedom’ John Cassavetes’ extraordinary drama Husbands tells the story of three suburban family men who react to a friend’s premature death by embarking on an extended binge, initially in New York and then London. Cassavetes conceived the film as a showcase for the acting talents of himself, Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara, basing the story around incidents from his own life and writing the dialogue after extended improvising with Gazzara and Falk. In the actors’ fully realized performances – replete with emotional outbursts and boisterous clowning – these long-suppressed characters’ identities break out in a provocative and uncompromising journey into the psyche of the American male. Cassavetes focuses on the complex emotions and relationships that constrain individual freedom, exposing the confusion and chaos that underlies the yearnings of the American dream. In the words of the film critic Geoff Andrew Husbands is ‘a marvellous example of [Cassavetes’] methods. With its ultra-naturalistic performances, its simple, meandering narrative and its long takes, it makes for a warts-and-all study of male pride, self-pity, frustration and friendship that is at once properly serious and sharply funny.’

To coincide with the nationwide UK re-release of Husbands, here is an edited extract from an interview John Cassavetes gave at the time of the film’s original release. The full version can be found in Raymond Carney’s Cassavetes on Cassavetes:

Before Husbands was a screenplay, I must have done about 400 pages of notes. I thought about it for several years. Then there was a screenplay. My first draft was abominable – all the pitfalls of that first-told tale – a slick farce predicated on men running away from their wives to the lure of the will. There are certain catchphrases that people are attracted to made famous by Time magazine, such as ‘Swinging London’ – and there‘s always someone standing around behind you who says, ‘That sounds funny,’ but when you look into the eyes of two artists who want the best for themselves and want to be associated with something that has some meaning that’s not good enough. The characters were empty. During the second half of 1968, Ben, Peter and I passed dozens of revisions of the script around everywhere we went. From Rome [where Cassavetes was acting in Machine Gun McCain] we had been to Las Vegas, New York, San Francisco [where the exteriors for Machine Gun McCain were filmed], Los Angeles and back to New York [where Gazzara lived and Cassavetes was supervising the release of Faces]. We had followed each other around using every spare moment we could find to assess the values of three men - three New Yorkers with jobs, who had passed the plateau of youth, who were married and happy and living in Port Washington, Long Island, the commuters’ paradise. That’s as far as we got in one year. Long conversations until five o’clock in the morning. Back and forth the story went.


Cassavetes’ method was to discover what a film was about in the process of writing, rehearsing and filming it and to follow those discoveries wherever they led.

The characters in Husbands are quite different from those in Faces. I mean Faces was about people who were just getting by. These guys don’t want to just get by in life. They want to live. I don’t really know what Husbands is about at this point. You could say it’s about three married guys who want something for themselves. They don’t know what they want, but they get scared when their best friend dies. Or you could say it is about three men that are in search of love and don’t know how to attain it. Or you could say it is about a person of sentiment. Every scene in the picture will be our opinions about sentiment. I try to talk to the actors and try to find out what I really think about sentiment. It may turn harsh or bitter; but I can allow anything as long as I know we are honest. We worked with no story, basically no story except what I mentioned, and worked for a year to try to solve it and to gain, to get something out of it.

When you make a film whose interest is to take an extremely difficult subject, deal with it in depth and see if you can find something in yourself, and if other people can find other things within themselves that they will be able to develop in their personal life, it’s great. After being an actor for a few years you really don’t care about money, fame or glory anymore; those things are good, but you need something more.


Cassavetes’ elusiveness about the subject of his film was neither modesty nor coyness. He believed that to lock himself into a predetermined story or a preconceived conception of his characters’ identities was too limiting. To play a ‘character’ in a ‘narrative’ was to reduce the sliding, shifting complexity of life to cartoon clichés.

Each moment was found as we went along – not off the cuff, not without reason – but without a preconceived notion that forbids people from behaving like people and tells a ‘story’ that is predictable – and untrue. I hate knowing my theme and my story before I really start. I like to discover it as I work. In Husbands the off-the-set relationship between Gazzara, Falk and myself determined a lot of the scenes we created as we went along. It was a process of discovering the story and the theme. When you know in advance what the story is going to be, it gets boring really fast. At one point we decided that we weren’t even going to shoot in London; Peter broke into laughter and so did I. What a terrific thrill to tell the truth – to not protect some stupid idea that doesn’t work. From then on, it didn’t matter if it was London, Paris, Hamburg – or Duluth!

I believe that if an actor creates a character out of his emotions and experiences, he should do with that character what he wants. If what he is doing comes out of that, then it has to be meaningful. If Peter and Ben and I have three characters, why should a director come in and impose a fourth will? If the feelings are true and the relationship is pure, the story will come out of that. If you don’t have a script, you don’t have a commitment to just saying lines. If you don’t have a script, then you take the essence of what you really feel and say that. You can behave more as yourself than you would ordinarily with someone else’s lines. Most directors make a big mystery of their work; they tell you about your character and your responsibility to the overall thing. Bullshit. With people like Ben and Peter you don’t give directions. You give freedom and ideas.


Cassavetes and his actors couldn’t say where they were going to come out in advance because the actors were on a voyage of exploration. Acting was not about pretending to be something but about discovering what you really were. The feelings in the film were not poses but states of real emotional exposure. You were really to listen, think and react.

An actor can’t suddenly deny or reject a part of himself under the pretext of playing a particular character, even if that’s what he would like to do. You can’t ask someone to forget themselves and become another person. If you were asked to play Napoleon in a picture, for example, you can’t really have his emotions and thoughts, only yours. You could never actually be Napoleon, only yourself playing him. I’ve never wanted to play a role. Honestly, I never have! That indicates to me that you want to step forward and show someone something, and that terrifies me, really. What you want to do is be invisible as that character, so that there’s no pressure on you worrying about the outside world.


Cassavetes was committed to exploring the truth about these men and their feelings, wherever it might lead.

Husbands depicts the American man without any camouflage. It’s very difficult for some people to feel, or to see themselves in a bad form. I think that people in films are expected to be heroes, even with the anti-hero situation going on for years and years in literature. People expect too much from themselves, they want to look great. You know what actors are? They’re ‘professional people.’ They get paid for being people. If you don’t have any weaknesses, you’d be a superhero! [I try to have] the actors try not to be better than they are. The strange thing is that in this way they reveal themselves as human beings.

The goal was to explore emotional realities, however ugly, embarrassing, or painful they might be:
The job that has to be done here is for three men to investigate themselves – honestly, without suppression. It’s very difficult for someone to reveal themselves. It’s very difficult to say what you really mean, because what you really mean is painful. I can’t help being like most everybody else sometimes, pushing down what I feel so far that even when I hear my own feelings described, it sounds alien, foreign, unconnected. The most terrifying thing for me is to face myself utterly and truthfully. While working on [Husbands], I was forced to ask myself questions I never asked myself before. Ben and Peter had to do the same thing. We had to open ourselves up and look at ourselves, and we all have hang-ups. Is it really better to be a man-child or to be a man? I don’t know. The minute you settle down and say, ‘That’s it. I’m closing shop. I know what I am,’ then you’re a man, no longer a man-child. And none of us are really all that open, and we’re a little defensive. So the three of us would sit down and talk and improvise and give ourselves a problem by putting ourselves in a real situation and trying to find out the honest answers. And I’d write the scene, and rewrite, and we’d improvise again. Every actor – every good actor – does this or tries to do this with every part he plays. What we have given to the film as actors has been what we are. Where we have failed is when we couldn’t reach ourselves and the essence of what we really feel, or we were too shy or inhibited to let it out.

The only thing that counts is that you’re all doing the same thing, you’re testing each other, testing yourself. In that situation each actor is thinking, ‘How far up can I reach?’ That’s selfish – and honest. I don’t think Peter and Benny were too concerned about how far I could go as a director; they were thinking about how far they could go as actors. And, in a realistic sense, Benny couldn’t go any place unless Peter was good and unless I was good. So we knew we had to work on that level, and in order to do that, we had to get tight with each other.


As it did in Faces, Cassavetes’ references to ‘improvisation’ in post-release interviews created misunderstandings about his working methods. It is clear that, for him, improvisation was a way of refining a script – not of doing without it:

I think you have to define what improvisation does – not what it is. Improvisation to me means that there is a characteristic spontaneity in the work which makes it appear not to have been planned. I write a very tight script, and from there on in I allow the actors to interpret it the way they wish. But once they choose their way, then I’m extremely disciplined – and they must also be extremely disciplined about their own interpretations. There’s a difference between ad-libbing and improvising, and there’s a difference between not knowing what to do and just saying something. [I believe in] improvising on the basis of the written work, and not on undisciplined creativity. When you have an important scene, you want it written; but there are still times when you want things just to happen.


Illustrations of how Cassavetes worked. Here he is planning and directing the scene involving Harry, his wife, and his mother-in-law:

I realized in making the picture, that it was more difficult dealing with three guys and what three guys wanted, than it was dealing with one guy and what he wanted. I was constantly aware of the structural problems. One of us had a turn, and then another, and then another. Somehow the picture had to start taking over so that nobody had any more turns. What is happening evolves out of the action, but there is no specific importance to individual incidents. This scene with Ben evolved because we knew that people would say, ‘Gee, you never saw one wife.’ That just kept ringing in my mind. I didn’t want people to approach me on the street and say, ‘Isn’t it wonderful? You never saw a wife in that.’ That’s kind of a nightmare. We decided to show the one wife. To do that we had to come up with some kind of relationship that would be meaningful for the other two guys. We wrote a very quick scene. We got the actors in, and got a stage. It was all very stagy. I knew that it would pay off once he choked the mother-in-law.


On the set:

Ben, you’ll go into the bathroom and start to shave. Your mother-in-law comes in. I don’t know what I’ll do with her, maybe I’ll have her sit on the edge of the tub and watch you. There are three things you have to keep in mind – one, she’s a mother, that’s what she is first of all; two, you like her and she likes you – she’s an intelligent woman and she knows that what’s wrong with the marriage is that you try too hard; three, she’s the enemy and don’t you forget it – because if the marriage breaks up, she’s not going with you.


The scene with the ‘Countess’ was inspired by an extra in the casino scene. Cassavetes’ comments illustrate his willingness to do anything necessary to get a good performance – even to the point of making the actor uncomfortable.

You see that woman sitting there and you’ve got to have her in the scene. So I took that lady and Peter and I wrote a scene [on the spot] and gave it to him. The secretary wrote it out and gave it to Peter and to the lady, and she looked at it. Peter was all right, but how could she catch up? She was just sitting there. She was out of place. She didn’t know what to expect. All the camera crew and everybody else was looking at this woman. What was going to happen? She had a few lines, and she had to, in a sense, be romantic. Sometimes it’s utter and total cruelty to elicit something pretty out of somebody. You have to be cruel to somebody sometimes, but it is only cruel in some kind of a social bullshit way. I mean, we’re all there to get something good. The woman was tight. She didn’t know what was expected of her, and it was too late for her to find out in the course of the filming. I would say terrible things to her, just awful things. She would fight them off like a lady. She reached a point where she could do everything by herself. She was grateful for that attitude of not giving a shit of what anybody else thought, because everything bad had already happened. From there on in, she just started to play. She was herself, which she had to be. Peter played the scene with her. It was very good, and she was very good. I would say things like, ‘Look at that face.’

It’s terrific for Peter to try to pick up that woman. It’s right that he would pick her up, because she is the safest woman in the place. It was very easy for him to talk to her. Peter was all right, because he was really comfortable. He was more comfortable in that scene than in a lot of other scenes, because it was right. The situation was right. He would go over and talk to that woman. She’s a terrific woman.

I’m a great believer in spontaneity, because I think planning is the most destructive thing in the world. Because it kills the human spirit. So does too much discipline, because then you can’t get caught up in the moment, and if you can’t get caught up in the moment, life has no magic. Without the magic, we might as well all give up and admit we’re going to be dead in a few years. We need magic in our lives to take us away from those realities. The hope is that people stay crazy. It’s really no fun to work with sane people, people who have a set way of doing things.


The use of a professional crew presented a host of problems.

The most boring thing in the world is to direct a film, set the camera here, mark the actors, get your focus and light it. The sound should be clear and the shot should be good – [but] professional accuracy seems to me to have nothing to do with content and since the only people in the film that are truly interested in what the film has to say are the actors, it seemed to me the best choice to make an alliance with them rather than the usual alliance with the crew. The director of a film has a tremendous advantage over the actors and there is no way that he won’t use that advantage. He is usually the friend of some 50 odd technicians on the floor and when there is a disagreement between actor and director, the actor is not arguing with one man, but with 51. In front of a crew, I’m always in the position of being in the right and it’s easy to blame the actor and to look hurt. But then I’m only destroying him, turning him into an enemy, destroying his dreams and ours too. If I defend myself I’m only destroying myself and I’ve never liked directors because this is the attitude they take. The problem for me, therefore, was the same problem that most actors face, they are outnumbered – they are pressed into conformity by the schedule, by accepted sociability, by heart-warming good mornings and pleasant good nights, platitudes that take up valuable time, being invited to dinner, cliques of crew that say I like him or I don’t like him; insipid arguments over the content when the scene is good and deathly silence when it’s bad; that feeling that one gets when someone is being shrewd with you and does not want to offend you enough to lose his next job; that getting-behind-you-for-the-moment dialogue revolts the person talking and the person listening at once. It’s amazing the hate I can feel to people who pretend they’re doing it and are not, that are lying, and know they are lying. They’re the ones who insist on behaving in a manner which says: ‘Please don’t reveal or expose me, because I have to live. I’m a person!’ Those are the ones I always feel like saying to: ‘Why don’t you live someplace else, because I don’t want you around!’ I hate people who become stagnant and just go through life and retreat from any kind of creating or loving. For them life is a vacuum and even when they get ideas they are afraid to do anything about it. I don’t really feel sorry for those people. I just hate them. For that reason, the choice of the crew becomes extremely important. They have to understand that what they’re doing – no matter how hard they’re working – is only to help what’s going on in front of the camera. Audiences are not watching the technical processes as hard as they’re watching the actors. If the actors are good, the picture looks good – I mean, the actual photography looks better when the actors are better.


– ‘On the making of Husbands’. Excerpted from Cassavetes on Cassavetes by Raymond Carney.