Monday, 28 January 2013

Nicolas Roeg: On Truffaut, Words and Images

Fahrenheit 451 (Directed by Francois Truffaut)
There are things that Truffaut did in those early movies that left a lasting impression: the opening expository section of ‘Jules and Jim’, where time and space is abolished and the images flow like music across the screen; the series of shots from ‘Fahrenheit 451’ (another underrated picture) where the camera moves in close-closer-closest on a character in imminent danger, which I admit I've duplicated many times in my own films. And the character played by Charles Aznavour in ‘Shoot the Piano Player’ who keeps almost acting but never does until it’s too late, had a profound effect on me, and on many other filmmakers – Martin Scorsese.

Francois Truffaut’s underrated adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1966), was regarded by the director as his ‘saddest and most difficult’ filmmaking experience, mainly due to tension in the relationship between Truffaut and leading man Oskar Werner. 

Truffaut wrote the English-language script in collaboration with Jean-Louis Richard. Critics have assumed that Truffaut’s limited grasp of English accounts for the film’s awkwardness – its dialogue is often clumsy and its performances weirdly stilted. It’s a curious film, lively and surreal in tone, filmed in a pointedly modernist style that only underlines how uncomfortable the viewing experience is. Despite its flaws it’s a strangely compelling film that vividly engages with Bradbury’s themes of knowledge, control and the media.

The film’s cinematographer was Nicolas Roeg who went on to become a distinguished director in his own right. Roeg had previously worked on Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and later Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968) before moving into direction in 1968 in collaboration with the painter and writer Donald Cammell on Performance.

The glacial, futuristic surface of Fahrenheit 451 later re-emerges in Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) which starred David Bowie, with its harsh, alien vision of the barrenness of modern life.

Shortly after Francois Truffaut died in 1984, Nicolas Roeg spoke to Richard Combs about working with Truffaut on Fahrenheit 451, for an article published in Sight & Sound magazine:

I’ve always felt that, although Truffaut was greatly revered and admired, at the same time, in terms of film and how much he loved film, he was underestimated. Because he was known to be a literary man, someone who was enormously fond of literature, he was adopted by a very literary set. But in fact his love of literature was separate from his love of film. I think that’s why, many times, he has been underestimated as an essentially visual person. I enjoyed working with him tremendously on Fahrenheit 451, which was a film very much to be ‘read’ in terms of images. I suppose he was the first director, the first film person, with whom I’d enjoyed having a conversation about film, or the hope of film. There weren’t many about in those days.

I remember there was a lot of criticism of Fahrenheit to do with François’ knowledge of English. The critics complained that it was so stilted. But that had all been quite deliberate. He hadn’t even wanted to place it as an English film, or to suggest that the language was necessarily English. The script was written first in French, deliberately, so that it could be translated into English, then translated back into French, because he wanted to lose the English idiom completely, then finally translated back into English. He wanted it set - and I thought this was a marvellously futuristic idea – in a time when people had lost the use of language. After all, the whole premise of the film was to do with losing a literary background. And that was completely missed by the critics.


There was even one little clue which Truffaut put inside the film, because he didn’t want this to be mistaken. There was a scene where Montag and Clarisse are sitting talking; they can see the fire station, and a man comes up and puts a note through the letter box. Montag explains why that is, people reporting on each other. Clarisse says, oh, he’s just a common informer; and Montag says, informant. Stilted things, stilted phrases: that was absolutely putting the dot on the ‘i’. We’ve even seen that sort of thing come to pass. Language is flattened slightly. You see it in films: in the 1930s and 40s in America they used words in films that they wouldn’t put in a script today. I don’t know whether it’s an apocryphal story, but apparently when George Cukor did a remake of Old Acquaintance as Rich and Famous, they did research into the title, and hardly anyone in America knew what an acquaintance was.

François was aware of that, and he realised that images were things to be read. Like the scene where Montag is sitting in bed with comics. Those comics were very carefully designed; they were a form of shorthand, so that the news could be read in pictures. The beauty of the language wasn’t what was important. It was like a rather intimate film where language means a lot, but we no longer have the language. So you virtually have to read the pictures. It implies there will come a time when people will still have all those emotions, but you have to read through other indications, other signs. It was a sign language once, and maybe we’ll go back to that.


François thought the stranglehold of the written word was going to be equalled, if not superseded, by the idea of images. I guess it takes a long time; he thought it was coming quicker. But in some ways one forgets how quickly things have changed. For instance, he wanted no written signs, and in the fire station there was nothing written. It was very difficult to work those signs out. But think about how road signs have changed. Once when you drove down the road you’d have to read dozens of things – road bears to the left, school ahead – but now they’re just children with a stripe through them, so we can drive anywhere in Europe. At the same time that was a very filmic thought: the essence of film. I’m sure that was why he was attracted to the story.

I’d hate it to be forgotten just how much of that kind of a filmmaker he was. Not just charming stories and enchanting acting. For instance, he wanted to make a film with small children, babies, just to get their expression at the point when words aren’t quite understandable. We had a scene in Fahrenheit with a baby lying in his pram in the park, and the fire chief turns him over and finds a book underneath. Another aspect of that is the scene at the end with the book people – who are all wrong. The veneration of literature – which he loved – is all wrong. The boy who is reciting from Stevenson, reciting after the old man, has got it wrong. And there are twins who announce themselves as Pride and Prejudice, Part One and Part Two, but of course there isn’t a Part One and Part Two in Pride and Prejudice. All these things were missed by the very people who had revered him as a literary filmmaker.


It’s the same thing with acting. Oskar Werner – who tragically also died a few weeks ago – was at the time, as I remember, just starting to enter a successful, commercial stage of his life. And he was rather concerned about his image. It appeared to be, or I surmise, that Oskar thought this was a film he was doing for François, because he owed him something or he liked him. But at that stage of his career he just wanted to get it over with. To play the part of Montag, you have to be completely dedicated to the thing. So he didn’t enter fully into the film. But François won in the end; he had to, again by the use of film, by juxtaposing one thing with another. Whatever meaning you tell me you are putting into that performance, I shall change it by making you look at a rubber duck. If you look seriously at this man when I want you to be smiling, because I want you not to understand what is happening, I shall use that serious look. I shall make you be looking at a rubber duck while he is talking. So that you will look seriously as if you don’t understand.

Every single piece in the construction of the film was visual. I remember when the art department brought a beautifully made model of a fire engine into the office of Cyril Cusack, who played the fire chief. It was like the model that a ship’s captain would traditionally have had in his cabin. But François said, no, no, go to a toy shop and get me a toy. Because that sort of skill is already gone from the world. It was a toy world in which all the skills had been lost. When we discussed the look of the film, he said, I don’t want it to have a reality, I want it as a Doris Day film, with little shining colours. We had great trouble, because at that time people were going for a tremendous realism. I was ordering huge brutes, to make it high key, glossy, like Technicolor.


He also wanted a certain sense of awkwardness in behaviour patterns. After all, things change subtly. I’ve always noticed that films set in any sort of future very rarely draw on the present. But just imagine someone a hundred years ago trying to predict the present. I live in a house that’s a hundred years old. Its internal functions are different, the carriages outside are different – but it’s a mixture. Things don’t all go away. That’s why we began Fahrenheit with those aerials and things on top of suburban houses, although inside the houses are sliding doors – which don’t work… Changes are so subtle: relationships, manners, our behaviour. I thought it was quite a frightening film in that respect. But it’s very difficult to read that. It’s easier to see something you can be totally in awe of. Something which is part of your life and has taken on another aspect is much more difficult to believe in.

François was rather sanguine about the failure of Fahrenheit, critically and commercially. One time when we were having dinner he said, it must have been a bad film. I asked why? He said, nobody went to see it. In terms of his filmmaking, I don’t think he pulled back after that at all. But Fahrenheit might have been a stretch which he was not given the chance to do again. And he wasn’t a man to explain himself. He’d rather go on: a futuristic present-day person. He was wonderful about the past. He told me how he hated costume pictures where they tell you these were the clothes they wore from 1490 to 1498, and then these clothes were worn from 1498 to 1502. He said, I like to have a lot of clothes, sort of turn of the century, and just put them in a basket and have the artists try some of them on. After all, the jacket I am wearing is 15 years old. I am not always in fashion.


– ‘Looking at the rubber duck: Nic Roeg on Truffaut and the making of Fahrenheit 451’ (Sight & Sound, Winter 1984/85). For original article go here


Monday, 21 January 2013

Sam Peckinpah: Screening Violence

The Wild Bunch (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
Sam Peckinpah died of heart failure at the age of 59 on December 28th, 1984, following years of hard living. The following day a brief obituary was published in The New York Times. It claimed that Peckinpah, ‘best known for his westerns and graphic use of violence attained notoriety for such films as The Wild Bunch, a brutal picture that was by several thousand red gallons the most graphically violent Western ever made and one of the most violent movies of all time.’ 

Following the release of The Wild Bunch in 1969, Peckinpah became known as ‘Bloody Sam’. In 1971, Peckinpah released Straw Dogs – a brutal tale of rape and revenge set in Cornwall, thus sealing his claim to notoriety as a director of violent films. 

Sam Peckinpah became a bankable, yet controversial director. Much in demand, he sought to justify his work in a series of interviews to a variety of newspapers and magazines while also writing missives to newspaper editors defending his films and rebutting his critics.

Some feminist writers criticised his films for their representation of women and their allegedly unbridled use of violence. The critical consensus coalesced around the idea of Peckinpah as a violent director and the debate that ensued centred not only around the apparently ‘violent films’ but also affected the response to his more meditative works. 

Prior to The Wild Bunch Peckinpah’s work was not particularly noted for its excessively violent themes or style. In his early career Peckinpah had been involved in the production of a number of television serials as well as three feature films including Ride the High Country (1962) and Major Dundee (1965) which were marked by an intelligent and original take on the Western genre. 

Following The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah made the elegaic The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) – ‘the story of two guys, a gal and a stretch of desert’. Following the controversial Straw Dogs, Peckinpah directed Junior Bonner (1972) starring Steve McQueen as an ageing rodeo rider. Made in between his forays into violent cinema both The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Junior Bonner are lyrical depictions of individuals in changing times – a theme found in much of Peckinpah’s work including his late masterpiece Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973).

In the following extract from John Cutts’ 1969 interview, Sam Peckinpah discusses his career up to that point and his hopes for the success of The Wild Bunch:

The Wild Bunch (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
‘The following took place at Sam Peckinpah’s Malibu beach house. A charming, if somewhat crowded, hideaway on that particular Saturday afternoon. For in addition to Peckinpah and myself, there were at least eight children, nine adults, and a wandering python. It was a warm spring day and I felt even warmer due to a touch of flu. Ever the considerate host, Mr. Peckinpah insisted on mixing several personally guaranteed flu cures – all of them containing large amounts of whisky and gin. At the end of the afternoon Mr. Peckinpah presented me with a signed photo bearing the message ‘I wouldn’t have it any other way’ (a line taken directly from ‘The Wild Bunch’). A sentiment, Sam lad, that fits my viewpoint just as well. My thanks again for everything – good talk, the considerable pleasure of your company, the potency of your flu cures, and most important – for introducing me to that damn snake of yours before the gin and whisky began to take effect.’

Let’s begin with some background details. There’s a rumour that you’re part Indian – is that true?

Well, I had a great aunt Jane who was a full-blooded Paiute. Other than that, I’m a Californian, born and raised here – as were my parents and grandparents. My grandfather, Charles Peckinpah, started a sawmill up in Madera County outside Fresno in 1873. There’s a mountain there, the Peckinpah Mountain, where my father was born. My other grandfather, Denver Church ran cattle out of Crane Valley about ten miles away. Old Denver went broke thirteen times, not that it worried him any; cattleman, superior court judge, district attorney, congressman, he had quite a life. Lincoln Peckinpah, Rice Peckinpah, Mortimer Peckinpah – aren’t those great sounding names? It’s a very colourful family.

The Wild Bunch (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
With your family roots so firm in the soil, how come you were attracted to the theatrical life?

I have no idea. I always wanted to raise cattle – though by temperament I’m completely unsuited, my ranch now is a disaster area. As a kid I used to read a lot (even when working on my grandfather’s pack station up in the high country), used to see as many movies as I could. Maybe the only thing I knew for certain was that I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I took a directing class at Fresno State after leaving the Marines, and that led to enrolling at USC for a master’s degree in drama. After this I sorta drifted: I became producer/director for the Huntingdon Park Theatre, then I went to Alburquerque (wife and baby in tow) to do summer stock as an actor, then I came back to LA to work in TV as a stagehand. KLAC was the station and I stayed there two and a half years until I was fired as a floorsweep on The Liberace Show because I refused to wear a suit. It was at KLAC that I put together some experimental films making them on my own time and money (I started at twenty-five dollars a week, and graduated to eighty-seven fifty). Not that they were any good. More like homework, you might say.

Didn’t you get a job with Allied Artists about this time?

Right. A friend got me in to see Walter Wanger, who got me a job as fourth assistant casting director. A gopher really; you know, go for this, go for that. Then I got upped to dialogue director – with Don Siegel on Riot in Cell Block Eleven in fact.

Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (Directed by Don Siegel)
Aren’t you supposed to have acted as well during this period? There’s a story that you can be seen in Siegel’s ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’.  

I played four different parts in Body Snatchers. Peckinpah, man of a thousand faces. I was also stunt man on the picture. Let me think, I was a meter reader, a pod man, and a member of the posse. In addition, Don also had me on it as a writer for two weeks. My best performance, though, is in Wichita (directed by Jacques Tourneur). There’s this great scene I have with Joel McCrea. He comes into the bank and I’m behind the counter. He looks at me. I look at him, and then I say ‘Forty dollars.’ Great stuff. I’m also in The Annapolis Story as a helicopter pilot if you look close enough.

What came next?

I sorta drifted into television writing. While at Allied I met Charles Marquis Warren, and when he became producer of Gunsmoke he asked me to do a script for him. As I remember, it took me five months of day and night writing to get the first one finished. But once the first one was behind me, I breezed ahead writing, I think, at least a dozen Gunsmokes. From this I turned full-time writer, working on The 20th Century Fox Hour, then I created two series of my own in The Rifleman and The Westerner. The first time I was allowed to direct anything was on the Broken Arrow series. I’d written about four segments, so as a gift they let me direct the final show before it came off the air. It really went to my head. There was one scene I must have photographed from at least eighteen different angles. I was never so frightened in my life. Don’t let anyone kid you, it’s bloody murder learning how to direct.

Wichita (Directed by Jacques Tourneur)
How did you make the switch from TV to movies?

Well, I’d developed such a marvellous relationship with Brian Keith on The Westerner series that he kinda took me along with him on The Deadly Companions. Anyway, the producer of the picture, Charlie Fitzsimmonds – Maureen O’Hara’s brother – took me on as a hired hand director. It wasn’t the best deal in the world for either of us. He wanted someone he could push about. I wanted to make a picture as best I could. I offered my services as scriptwriter, which he promptly refused. Every time I’d volunteer for anything. he’d tell me to go back in the corner.

Brian had sense enough to know we were in trouble with the script, so between us we tried to give the thing some dramatic sense. Consequently, all of his scenes have a certain strength. while those with Miss O’Hara (with whom I was forbidden to talk) come off not at all well. At the end of the picture, Mr. Fitzsimmonds took over the editing, scrapping my original cut. He then got into such a mess that he had to return to my original pattern – although I defy anyone to make sense of the ending. If it hadn’t been for Brian and old Bill Clothier, the cameraman, it would have been unbearable.

Ride the High Country (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
Was it because of ‘The Deadly Companions’ that you were invited to do ‘Ride The High Country’?

I think it helped. Though I think The Westerner series helped more. By the time I came to the pictures, they had a story by N.B. Stone, and Bill Roberts was working on a screenplay. They also had two agreements from Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea to play the leads (though not to play the parts they eventually played: one lunch-time they switehed roles – Scott going from good guy to bad guy, McCrea from bad guy to good guy).

It was a small picture by MGM standards at least, but there was a great excitement about it. We had a good crew – Lucien Ballard as cameraman, Leroy Coleman as art director (he was marvellous: at one point he stole the sails used on the Bounty to make the tents in the mining camp scene), and Frank Santillo as chief cutter. The shooting schedule was tight – we had twenty-four days. I think I went over by two days owing to being snowed out of two locations.

It’s funny to remember, but during the shooting Sol Siegel, the then-head of MGM production, called me and said ‘Stop shooting like John Ford. Learn to behave.’ Well, not knowing what the hell he meant, I kept shooting the way I had from the start. Later, on putting together a first assembly, he called me up again and said ‘You gambled with that funny style of yours - and you’ve won. I like it. Go ahead and make the final cut.’ All of which cheered me enormously.

Ride the High Country (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
But then MGM underwent a management change – Sol Siegel being replaced by Joe Vogel. Well, the new management took a look at the picture and they hated it – no if’s or but’s. They loathed it. I think it was the wedding scene in the miner’s camp that did it. All those raddled whores. Anyway, Vogel told me that it was the worst film ever made and that he would not release it – unless he was forced to. I was then kicked off the lot, not being allowed to work on the dubbing or the scoring. Though the version that came out was mostly mine – except for twenty-eight feet cut from the brothel scene.

Then, when MGM had to release the picture owing to some overseas booking commitments, a miracle happened – it began to find its audience. The critics were kind – especially in Europe and pretty soon the film began to get the playdates it deserved all along. It was a delayed victory for all of us.

What had you been doing while waiting for ‘High Country’ to come out? 

What I always do in moments of despair – I head back to TV and write westerns. While waiting for High Country to emerge, I did two hour-long features that Dick Powell produced: Pericles on 34th Street and The Losers. The first was a drama, the second a rowdy comedy with Lee Marvin and Keenan Wynn as a couple of conmen on the run. Keenan and Lee had a ball, and the whole thing was a joy to do. I had a good time.

Major Dundee (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
What came next – ‘Major Dundee’?

Yes. Columbia wanted a picture to be made under three million dollars to fulfil a commitment they had with Chuck Heston. They had a script of sorts – something that Chuck and I both saw potential in providing I could do some re-writing. The producer assigned to the picture, Jerry Bressler, gave his blessing to what we wanted to do – though when it came time to shoot, he double-crossed us by ordering fifteen days cut from the schedule.

Was this when you were actually shooting the picture? 

No, two days prior to starting. I said what he was asking was impossible, that I would rather leave the picture there and then. To which he replied: ‘Look, I’m acting under instructions from New York. Leave it to me, I’ll take care of it.’ But he never did. When I saw the final release print, which is to say Columbia’s final release print, not mine, I was sick to my stomach. I tried to have my name taken off it, but by this time the machinery was too far along. What I had worked so hard to achieve – all of Dundee’s motivation (what it was that made him the man he was) – was gone. This was material I’d both written and shot and cared very much about, but which Bressler or Columbia had thought unnecessary to the total effect of the film.

It’s hard to say who the villain was – maybe Jerry, though he was under tremendous pressure from the studio at that time because he was involved in another picture that wasn’t turning out well... something with Lana Turner, Love Has Many Faces. Major Dundee. It gives me the shivers thinking back on the arguments I had with Bressler and the studio. Maybe I should have argued more strongly going in, telling them in no uncertain terms as to what sort of film I was after rather than taking it for granted that they would let me have my own way once I’d shot the material.

Major Dundee (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
It’s an odd picture. Marvellous in parts, plain bewildering in others. But from the moment Heston gets involved with Miss Berger it never plays as a whole. That whole Durango episode; Dundee finding degradation in the arms of a whore and that fly-by-night escape, just baffles the hell out of me. 

Well, Berger was wrong, totally wrong. She’s a nice lady, but I should have fought her casting from the start. She was wrong and it hurt the picture. As for Dundee’s degradation, that’s all mine. But where it fails, where it refuses to make sense, lies in the fact that all of Dundee’s motivation, the why behind it all, is all gone. I shot a series of progressive incidents in which Dundee kept failing in what he was doing – punching up the difference between what he set out to achieve and what he achieved. I looked at him very closely, zeroing right in on his locked-in approach to his own ego. All of which was cut and junked. I figure I must have shot about forty-five minutes of Dundee under the microscope. The picture ran beautifully at two hours and forty-one minutes by my cut. Heston was superb. The release print was chopped to two hours and fourteen minutes.

In order to gain some extra shooting time, didn’t Heston offer to return his salary to the studio?

Yes, he made the offer, and they accepted it – they took back their money. It was a very gallant gesture. And you know something, Columbia never had the grace to even have a public preview on the picture. There was a showing for some exhibitors, and that was it, all the final cuts came from that.
Major Dundee (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
What came next, ‘The Cincinnati Kid’? 

Yes, I prepared the production, spending about four months on it. None of it pleasant, I might add. Marty Ransohoff was the producer, and to put it politely, we did not see eye-to-eye. There was a time when it no longer made sense even to meet with him on story conferences. Steve McQueen too. Steve and I used to meet, talk, then we’d type up a memo for Marty. It was a very strange relationship. I only started to shoot with the agreement that Marty wouldn’t come on the set. Anyway, I started it, shot for four days, then got bounced. Then they hired a new director and made the picture they wanted to make all along.

Rumour hath it that you set out to provoke Ransohoff by shooting take after take of Ann-Margret in the nude.

Untrue. I did a damn good riot scene, then another long scene between Rip Torn and a Negro prostitute in bed, and that was it. Oh, I was also shooting in black and white. They had wanted colour, but I didn’t.

Coming so close on ‘Dundee’, it was obviously a bad time to get fired. 

God protect me from you English – the world’s greatest understaters! But you’re right, I couldn’t get a job anywhere, couldn’t even get into a studio. It was a long, hard period. Then some TV things came along – including the opportunity to write and direct a version of Noon Wine.

Major Dundee (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
What about the script to ‘The Glory Guys’? 

That had come earlier, about five years previous. Did you ever see it? How about that casting! The same people who made it did another favourite movie of mine – Geronimo, with Chuck Connors in the title role. One of the funniest movies ever made. A positive riot.

What about ‘Villa Rides’? 

Well, the success of Noon Wine sorta took the curse off me. Villa Rides was a straight writing job with little chance of me directing it. I was flown to London to meet Yul Brynner, but he hated the script so much I came home by the next plane. Bob Towne was later hired to do a rewrite on it.

Wasn’t there a time, probably before all this, when there seemed a possibility of you and Disney getting together? 

He called me over to write a Shane-type picture called Little Britches. And I finally came up with the best script I’ve ever written. Walt read it and said ‘too much violence and not enough dogs.’ Well, the violence I plead guilty to, but as for not enough dogs... End of project, though like most things I work on it’ll turn up someday. Did you know I wrote the first script on Brando’s One Eyed Jacks? I worked with Brando for about a month. Very strange man, Marlon. Always doing a number about his screen image, about how audiences would not accept him as a thief, how audiences would only accept him as a fallen sinner – someone they could love. As it was released, I think I’ve only one scene left in the film – the one where Marlon knocks the shit out of Timothy Carey. The rest is all Marlon’s.

The Ballad of Cable Hogue (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
Let’s come smack up to date. You’ve now made two films back-to-back for Warners-Seven Arts. How did this come about? 

Through the courage and wisdom of one man – Kenny Hyman. When he took over as production chief of Warners-Seven Arts, one of the first people he sent for was me. Kenny had seen Guns and loved it. He’s that sort of person; if he digs you, the studio is yours. Now, Kenny had a project of his own called The Diamond Story he wanted me to do, but when that fell through because of some casting problems, he agreed to let me go ahead on The Wild Bunch.

It’s a western about the betrayal of friendship. An all-guy western with Bill Holden, Bob Ryan, Ernie Borgnine, Eddie O’Brien, Albert Dekker, Ben Johnson, L.Q. Jones and Warren Oates. It’s about a gang of American bandits who steal a US ammunition train and attempt to sell it to some Mexican revolutionaries. It’s about a convict (Robert Ryan) on parole who is ordered to track down all his former friends and gangmates. And it’s very, very violent. During the first preview, thirty-two people walked out during the first ten minutes.

This was during the bank hold-up scene? 

Yeah, the picture begins with a bank hold-up that goes wrong, that ends in slaughter. Wild Bunch is not a pretty picture. It’s the story of violent people in violent times. Violence to the people in the movie is not just a means to an end, it’s the end itself. I make that point very clear. The preview cards were wild: at least thirty per cent said ‘Outstanding. The best picture I’ve ever seen’; and the rest said ‘Disgusting. The most violent picture ever made’; then they’d say ‘Highpoints: the battle scenes, the best ever seen.’ I think a lot of people are going to be shocked – least I hope so. I hate an audience that just sits there.

The Ballad of Cable Hogue (Directed by Sam Peckinpah)
Tell me about the picture that followed ‘The Wild Bunch’. 

It’s a comedy of sorts called The Ballad of Cable Hogue. The story of two guys, a gal and a stretch of desert. Jason Robards and David Warner are the guys, Stella Stevens plays the gal. At the moment we’re still editing, still trying to sort out what we have. I’m trying to figure out a way to use a split-screen technique in it. Not fussy like in Thomas Crown. More like it was done in The Boston Strangler.

A couple of quick, final questions. You’re supposed to be a tough man to work with. 

I work very hard, if that’s what you mean. Or maybe you heard how I fired two dozen people off Cable Hogue? Well, did you see that trade ad the cast and crew took out for me? There’s a difference between the things heard here in Hollywood and the way things happen on location you know.

How fast do you work? Do you overshoot? 

I shoot about 22 to 1, and I cover very well. I have a low take ratio – about two to one. I like to use more than one camera – sometimes as many as three or four.

Any ambition you want to fulfil? 

An awful lot is going to rest on how The Wild Bunch makes out. The studio seem to share my enthusiasm. Whether it’s too violent or not, I simply don’t know. I tried to make it as tough as I know how. As tough, and as honest as I know how. And as far as I’m concerned, the two are quite compatible.

– John Cutts: ‘Shoot! Sam Peckinpah talks to John Cutts’, Films and Filmmaking. 16:1, October 1969, pp. 4-9. Reprinted in ‘Sam Peckinpah: Interviews edited by Kevin J. Hayes, University of Mississippi Press (2008).

Monday, 7 January 2013

Peter Jackson: On Adapting Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings (Directed by Peter Jackson)
‘I wasn’t one of those total The Lord of the Rings aficionados,’ Peter Jackson once said. ‘I read it when I was eighteen, and I didn’t read it again until the whole idea of doing the film came up seventeen years later.’ 

In 1997, Jackson acquired the rights to J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings books and began developing them into workable screenplays. Initially, the project was intended to be financed by Miramax on condition that it be packaged into two films. However, during pre-production, Miramax withdrew leaving Jackson looking for a new studio to back him. New Line stepped in to support the project and offered to make a trilogy, allowing Jackson to remain faithful to the structure of the source material.

Jackson and his partner Frances Walsh began adapting The Lord of the Rings in April 1997. They started with a 90-page outline of the three books. Jackson and Walsh repeatedly rewrote the outline seeking the essence of Tolkien’s epic fantasy. Commenting on that arduous process, Jackson said at the time ‘the books themselves are not structured to easily equate to a screenplay. Most of the first book is a gentle stretch of journey and masses of exposition... For the movies, we will have to make motivations a little tighter and more urgent. We have to focus on The Ring, Sauron, and the threat to Middle Earth.’ Jackson went on to elaborate: ‘the way that we often write is to provide different layers over subsequent drafts, that is, write the villain in one draft, get that working, then go back over the scenes and humanize him in the next draft.’

They recruited long-time collaborator Stephen Sinclair (who was uncredited) and New Zealand writer Philippa Boyens to help refine the writing. Between them, the writers crafted two 150-page scripts for Miramax. After the project was taken over by New Line, those 300 pages were then broken down into three 110-page scripts, each adapting the narrative in roughly one of Tolkien’s books. Work continued on the scripts for over a year with final revisions made during filming as the writers sought to tighten the narrative further.

Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy of films went on to become some of the most commercially successful films of all time, elevating Jackson to the top rung of Hollywood directors.

In the following extract Peter Jackson discusses adapting The Lord of the Rings trilogy with Erik Bauer of Creative Screenwriting Magazine for an article first published in 2002:


Where did your spark for making ‘Lord of the Rings’ come from?


A lot of people somehow think I’ve had a long-standing ambition to make The Lord of the Rings, which is not actually true. What I have had is a long-standing ambition to make a fantasy film. My desire to become a filmmaker began when I was eight years old and I saw the 1933 King Kong on TV. It’s still my favorite film, and I love it because it’s a wonderful piece of fantastic cinema that does everything a fantasy film should do: transports me out of the real world, shows me things, amazing and exciting things, that I know I’m never going to experience in real life, and locations that I’m never going to go to. I’ve always had a desire to make a film like that. When Fran Walsh and I were making The Frighteners in 1995 we were thinking of what to do in the future. I’d wanted to get away from horror and do a fantasy film like the Jason and the Argonauts/Sinbad type of films, but do them with computer effects so that the technology advances. For a little while we thought about doing an original fantasy film. You know, you sort of think of a Lord of the Rings-type of film, because Lord of the Rings was automatically the benchmark that you compare all fantasy stories to. But then Lord of the Rings was on our minds and we started to wonder, why hasn’t anybody made a live action Lord of the Rings?

Once you were interested, how did you pursue the rights?

We made a phone call to our agent Ken Kamins at ICM, and asked him if he would do some research for us to find out, you know, who had the rights, which ultimately were with Saul Zaentz. Saul Zaentz had had The Lord of the Rings rights for about twenty-five years and Ken said that Saul had been approached by different filmmakers at different times but had never really embraced the idea of doing a live-action film, that he didn’t think it was really possible.


How did you convince him?

Well, we didn’t have any direct contact with Saul ourselves, surprisingly enough, at that time. We’ve obviously met him since, but what we had in 1995 was a Miramax first-look deal. So we called Harvey Weinstein at Miramax because the nature of our first-look deal was that any project or any property that we wanted to acquire the rights to, we had to give Harvey the first option. As it turned out, Harvey got really excited about the idea, and he got even more excited when he found out that Saul Zaentz had the rights because Saul Zaentz was the producer of The English Patient and Harvey had just taken the film over from Twentieth Century Fox, who’d put it into turnaround just before it was due to start shooting. So Harvey and Saul had this thing going with The English Patient right at the exact moment that we made that phone call, which was extraordinary luck, really.

How do these books speak to our day and time?

Well, I just think the books are universal in the sense that they are about good versus evil, about heroism, about innocent people who have to display courage and be brave in a way that they never thought they could. They talk about great friendship, about friendship under adverse conditions, friendship without strings attached. I mean, they talk about things which I suspect are relevant at any point in history.

Ralph Bakshi [director of the 1979 animated adaptation of ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ and ‘The Two Towers’] has said that he feels it’s impossible to do Tolkien. That it’s impossible to get the brilliance of what Tolkien wrote about. And in a recent interview, he made what would seem to be a direct challenge to you in saying, ‘You know, as far as everything in the book, I can’t do it, and the next guy’s not going to do it, even in a million movies.’ Do you agree with that?

I agree with it to some extent. There is a particular style in the way that Tolkien writes, there’s a style in the way that he describes things that make the books incredibly enchanting to read. Now that’s not going to be in the film because, you know, Tolkien can spend a page describing the weather as the Fellowship have their breakfast and pack up their bedding and get back on the road again. What we’ve tried to accomplish is to take the story and the characters and to try to honor as many of Tolkien’s themes as we can and to also incorporate things that we felt were important to him. But you know, the film version of The Lord of the Rings is only our interpretation of a wonderful book.


Is that just to cover yourself from diehard Tolkien fans, or do you really feel you’ve brought your own personality and perspective to this material, and made it your own? 

That’s a good question. I guess what I’ve done is to try to be the final arbiter for a lot of good ideas from a group of people. I’m a filter towards achieving a goal and I try to encourage everybody to suggest ideas. Now whether it’s Philippa Boyens and Frances, whom I wrote the script with, and then later those people who are designing the film, it’s all to create a movie that I’d love to see. That’s my ultimate goal. I’m just trying to sort of filter the great ideas down to making a film that I would really like, because that’s the most honest thing I can do. I can’t make the film for millions of other fans. I can only really make it for me. You know, that’s the ultimate agenda there.

It seems one of the things you’ve brought to it is an increased role for comedy.

A little bit, a little bit. Not too much, but a bit, yeah.

Your films have a certain love of campiness and caricature. Is there a place for that in ‘Lord of the Rings’?


Not really, no. I don’t think there’s anything campy in The Lord of the Rings. Caricature – only to the point of view that characters like the Hobbits have certain, you know, traits and certain humorous qualities in their like for food and, you know, the love of six meals a day, and their dislike of adventure and of discomfort. And then, you know, these elements that Tolkien writes that are naturally quite funny that can be exploited, in a general way, but certainly the humor that we have is fairly gentle, and there is a degree of humor in the characters that Tolkien wrote himself. There was more humor in The Hobbit than there actually is in The Lord of the Rings, but certainly, you know, that humor is transferable.

I have sort of an inherent dislike of things that take themselves too seriously and I just think there’s a sort of a pompousness that I’m always trying to avoid and sometimes I really try to avoid it big time. In The Lord of the Rings I didn’t want to make a self-important sort of pompous fantasy adventure. I wanted to make something that was gentle and sweet and in part, obviously, scary and exciting and adventurous, and humor’s an important part of making that. I also think that humor helps make the world feel real. Humor is part of the way that all people survive. No matter what the circumstances, there’s usually room in most peoples’ lives for a good laugh and some humor, and I think that this helps make these people feel as real as you or I, rather than being clichéd characters.


What freedom did you feel you had to shape Tolkien’s story in crafting your screen narrative?

It was interesting because as the screenplays went through various drafts, they got closer and closer to the books. We did an exercise at the very beginning, draft one if you like, where we said there’s stuff in the books that doesn’t work, the plots are cluttered, and there is stuff that characters do that we don’t like, so let’s try and improve the flaws of the book and make it much more of a film, make it much more like what you’d want the film to be. Not that we necessarily did anything horrific, but we certainly made changes in areas that we felt we needed to make changes. But by the time we wrote another four or five drafts, each time we’d read the book a lot more, we’d immersed ourselves much more in the world, and each draft got closer and closer to the books, to the point that now we really haven’t made any substantial changes to the books. What we have done is we’ve shortened things and we’ve tightened things up and we’ve lost some characters. But we ended up with a story where what happens within sequences and within acts of the film is fairly close to the books.

What control did Miramax and New Line exercise over the development of the scripts?

Well, fortunately with both Miramax and New Line we’ve been given a lot of freedom. I mean, I think that because The Lord of the Rings is so complex and so dense, it’s a project which the studio has a very difficult time asserting any sort of authority over us as screenwriters, because you would have to have some sort of expertise in The Lord of the Rings to do so. Mark Ordesky, the New Line creative executive, is certainly a big Lord of the Rings fan and so from that point of view we’re lucky, because Mark loves the books as much as we do. The biggest difference with the Miramax version is they didn’t embrace the idea of doing three movies, so we decided to split the trilogy of books into two movies and that led to certain structural changes that had to be made. For instance, the first movie of the two was going to climax with the Battle of Helm’s Deep, which is in the middle of The Two Towers, the second book. So we manipulated the structure a lot, pushed and shoved the story around in order to make it work as two screenplays. Then it was Bob Shaye at New Line who wanted us to return to three films and to stick with the structure of the books, so that was fantastic. I mean, that was a key moment which enabled us to shift to being much more faithful to the books in the way the story unfolds.


You’ve said that your most daunting challenge was shaping an ending for ‘Fellowship’. How exactly did you approach that?


Well, the ending of the films, and in particular The Fellowship of the Ring, are obviously a challenge. The first thing you do is you make a fundamental decision about what sort of ending you want for the first movie. Because we do have quite a unique position in which we’re making three movies back to back, and that there’s going to be a year between each film, we asked ourselves do we end the first movie with a complete cliffhanger, someone in jeopardy, with a feeling of the story being up in the air, or do we try to wrap things up in a much more tight way? I think the answer lies somewhere in between. We didn’t feel we wanted to end with a cliffhanger because I didn’t want people walking out of the cinema with a feeling of anxiety. That wouldn’t have been a satisfying experience. If you were releasing your second movie three or four months after the first, you could probably get away with that, but a year we thought was too long to leave people in that position. But also we had the problem, or fact, really, that the story of The Lord of the Rings is about Hobbits who travel to Mount Doom to destroy a ring inside a volcano, and we know that they’re not going to get to Mount Doom at the end of this film; they’re not going to get there until the end of the third film. So that’s the basic problem as well. Whatever you do, you’re telling a larger story that has no conclusion at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, so before we had written a word of the script we constructed a new ending built around the character of Frodo that will hopefully be emotionally satisfying.

The breaking of the Fellowship was clearly the climax of the book and the film, and that had to have an emotional resonance for Frodo. That’s really what we based the plan around when we devised how to end the film. Frodo needs to decide that he doesn’t need the others or, more than that, that the others pose a danger to him, because the ring is starting to exert power with the people around him. That’s really the climactic moment in the film, and we thought it was very important that when Frodo makes a decision and goes on alone [with Sam trailing behind] at the very end, that you feel good for him, you feel he’s courageous, and that there’s some real hope now.


From a structural perspective, did you also work at building up the final confrontation to give it more impact? Specifically, creating an antagonist to be defeated? 

The interesting thing with The Fellowship of the Ring is that you’ve got internal conflicts and you’ve got external conflicts. The external conflict is the fact that there are other forces in this world that also want the ring. The Orcs and Uruk Hai from Isengard.... Saruman sends them to capture the Fellowship. So we definitely built that up, and we created a character of one of the Orc-like creatures, a character called Lurtz, who’s not in the books. It’s the only time in the movies that we’ve created a character that Tolkien didn’t actually write about. Because we thought we needed to personalize the leader of this band of Orcs. It’s Saruman who is the villain, but he doesn’t leave Isengard, he dispatches his guys to go get the ring, so we wanted to actually create a character of the leader of this group who goes after the Fellowship. That helps us beef up these external forces of opposition that lead toward the climax, which is this battle on the slopes of the River Anduin just before the Fellowship breaks. The other strong force at work is the internal conflict where the ring has this incredibly seductive attraction to other people and particularly men, Aragorn and Boromir feeling it stronger than the Hobbits. That is providing just as much jeopardy to Frodo as the Orcs that are pursuing them. We definitely used those two external/internal forces concurrently to crank the climax up into something that’s pretty powerful.

It seems to me that your project is unique, in that you’re telling a single story over three films. What gives you the conviction that audiences will respond to this kind of installment approach to storytelling?

I don’t know. I have no idea how I’d respond if it was me. I’d think it was kind of neat that somebody was making three Lord of the Rings films and I could see them one year apart. I think that’s fine. I think it’s brave, courageous, and it’s a great way to tell the story. I think that’s the reason why, in fifty years, The Lord of the Rings has never been made into a live-action film because people have been trying to squeeze it into one single film and it’s impossible. So I think in a way it’s the reason why it’s been made now, because somebody’s had the courage to actually do that...

– Extracted from: ‘Peter Jackson Interviewed By Erik Bauer’. Creative Screenwriting, 
Vol. 9, #1 (Jan/Feb, 2002)