|The Searchers (Directed by John Ford)|
The following extract is from an interview with John Ford by Jean Mitry. It appeared originally in Cahiers du Cinema, No. 45, March 1955 and was translated by Andrew Sarris.
|The Informer (Directed by John Ford)|
The best directors can be defeated by this process of aesthetic attrition, and after enough setbacks they lose their ambition.
According to Ford’s calculations, directors who want to make only artistic films get a chance to do so about once every ten years. If the film is a commercial success, they get another chance, but otherwise they are through. ‘Only rarely,’ Ford added, ‘does the opportunity arise to make such films two or three times in a row.’
The secret, Ford said with the utmost seriousness, is to turn out films that please the public, but that also reveal the personality of the director. ‘That isn’t easy,’ he added.
I asked if he didn’t always do what he wanted.
‘What I want, yes, but what I would like to do, certainly not.’
|Stagecoach (Directed by John Ford)|
It depends, he explained, on the studio that employs him and on the kind of contract he signs. In rare exceptions Ford has what amounts to a choice – from among a dozen possible projects he may choose the one he likes best. In all his films, he said, he tries to maintain a certain feeling, a unity, and to retain in the script only that which contributes to this unity and sets forth his personality.
‘But that isn’t always possible,’ he exclaimed, ‘and I must make films whose success is assured in advance in order to have the right, and the opportunity, to make others that are commercial risks but more worthwhile. On their success hangs my freedom of action. In this way I have been able to make some films I wanted to make, and to make them according to my tastes and weaknesses. But I haven’t been able to make ten such films.
‘I waited four years to do The Informer and got the chance only after every sort of hesitation. Then I had a little more luck and was able to choose films which left me a certain leeway in which to express myself.’
‘But are you not also a producer?’
‘Yes, but like all producers, I am subject to the demands of the distributors. There’s not much freedom in being a producer. In fact, one takes on more worries – the financial ones. One is doubly responsible – for the film, and for the money. Like other producers, I hesitate to throw myself into an attractive but risky project.
|Fort Apache (Directed by John Ford)|
I then ventured, the opinion that he seemed in almost all his films to have this theme of a small group of people thrust by chance into dramatic or tragic circumstances.
‘On purpose?’ I asked.
‘It seems so to me,’ he replied. ‘It enables me to make individuals aware of each other by bringing them face to face with something bigger than themselves. The situation, the tragic moment, forces men to reveal themselves, and to become aware of what they truly are. The device allows me to find the exceptional in the commonplace. I also like to discover humor in the midst of tragedy, for tragedy is never wholly tragic. Sometimes tragedy is ridiculous. I should like to do a tragedy, the most serious in the world, that turned into the ridiculous.’
|She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (Directed by John Ford)|
‘Not at all!’ Ford said quickly. ‘That may be the result, but it certainly is not the end. Unity of time and place is solely a means of defining the drama and individuals, a way of getting there more directly and quickly. I look, before all else, for simplicity, for the naked truth in the midst of rapid, even brutal, action. To be as selective about time and place as one is about the action is to get rid of useless complications. When the circumstances are clearly comprehended, the force of the conflict is increased, since its effects are more completely understood. Time is important only when one follows individuals through all their lives.
‘I suppose everybody pursues one idea in many guises. In any event, everybody tends to emphasize those aspects of life he finds the most interesting. Movie directors certainly do. What interests me are the consequences of a tragic moment – how the individual acts before a crucial act, or in an exceptional circumstance. That is everything.
‘However, a situation must never limit a director. It must never be more than a point of departure.’
|My Darling Clementine (Directed by John Ford)|
‘The cutting! I do it myself. And I plan the film. When a subject interests me, I also take part in the scripting. If the subject doesn’t interest me, I am satisfied to do my job to everybody’s best interest. When I work with a scriptwriter, he outlines the situations, develops the continuity, writes the dialogue. The shooting arrangements, and the cutting, I do myself. We have numerous conferences with the cameraman, the set designer, and sometimes the actors. Each one knows what he has to do and understands the picture before starting to work it. A well-prepared film is shot quickly.’
I then remarked that some of my colleagues were surprised that American directors remain seated during the shooting of a scene. Ford was astonished.
‘What do you want them to do?’ he asked. ‘They observe, they control, they direct. Everything is arranged beforehand. There are assistants who rehearse the actors, who set the scene. It is quickly done. There is nothing more to do than to integrate it into a whole, to make it flexible. If everything goes well there’s no reason to be nervous.’
|The Long Voyage Home (Directed by John Ford)|
‘With the cameraman. It’s done in advance. A good cameraman knows how a shot should be framed. I have always had excellent cameramen. Sometimes, when the composition is very detailed, I may take over, but usually a few suggestions are enough.’
‘You never improvise?’
‘Oh certainly – but strictly within the predetermined framework. You can change cue, modify an incident, but the movement of the camera, like its position, is determined in advance. A director who changes his mind is a director who loses time. You should make your decisions before, not during the shooting.’
‘But if a movement of the camera proves impossible?’
‘The director doesn’t know his job. You should know in advance what is and isn’t possible. I sometimes make a film in three weeks – after six months of preparation.
‘What would you think of an architect who arrived at his building wondering where to put the staircase? You don’t ‘compose’ a film on the set; you put a predesigned composition on film. It is wrong to liken a director to an author. He is more like an architect, if he is creative. An architect conceives his plans from given premises – the purpose of the building, its size, the terrain. If he is clever, he can do something creative within these limitations. Architects do not only create monuments and palaces. They also build houses. How many houses are there in Paris for every monument? It’s the same with movies. When a director creates a little gem from time to time, an Arc de Triomphe, he certainly has the right to make some run-of-the-mill pictures.’
|The Searchers (Directed by John Ford)|
‘Stagecoach; The Long Voyage Home; The Informer; Prisoner of Shark Island. Also The Sun Shines Bright – it’s a very simple story, the kind I like.’
‘And My Darling Clementine?’
‘Yes, if you like. My children liked it a lot. But I – you know.’
I then asked Ford about Henry Fonda, but I gathered from his manner there had been a falling out, so I did not pursue the subject. Ford’s great favorite is John Wayne. I asked him about The Quiet Man. Did he like it?
‘Yes, most certainly, especially because of the Irish setting; I shot it on my native heath. The actors were old family friends – they worked on it as pals. That is how I like to work.’
‘I don’t know a thing about it. I haven’t even seen it. But why should I have deprived myself of a trip to Africa and the chance to make one more film? One does one’s job. The film of really personal interest is the exception.’
– Excerpt from Jean Mitry: Rencontre avec John Ford, Cahiers du Cinema 45 (March 1955). Translated by Andrew Sarris.