Friday, 26 January 2018

Pedro Almodóvar: How To Make a Film

Volver (Directed by Pedro Almodóvar)
It’s very difficult to explain the origins of everything in a film because it’s very mysterious and many things happen by chance. You have to be writing all the time and in my case I make notes all the time. l am always working on four or five ideas and there comes a time when I decide to just write one.
You never ever really feel that you are going to be able to pull off the project that you are working on. You never have complete confidence. But of course there comes a time when you feel that you have learnt the trade and the craft of making films, so I feel now that I know the language and how to use it to get a particular emotion. But even if you know all the elements of the technique, you need something else. You need vision, a lot of honesty, strong imagination, and control of that imagination. Language is something quite easy to learn, but the most important thing in a film is your point of view, your vision, and how you look at the world around you.

You never feel absolutely sure about the final outcome because all the different components that make up the film are alive as you make it. One of those elements, of course, is the people. In a film you’ve got forty, fifty or sixty people working with you and the most difficult thing is controlling them, not because they are trying to rebel against you or not obeying you, but because the material you are using to make the film is alive and they are interacting with it as well. So sometimes the end result is not the one you are looking for. The stamp or style you put on your films is extremely personal and there really aren’t that many rules governing it, because what might work for Orson Welles or for David Lynch doesn’t necessarily work for me at all. So you have to seek out your own preferences, the way you would like to use language, and it’s something you just get over time, little by little. I still haven’t discovered it fully yet. I am still working on it.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Directed by Pedro Almodóvar)
I remember that all through the 1980s, I was developing my own filmmaking style with a very specific aesthetic stamp on it. So in the late eighties, from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, everything the people in the decor department brought me was over the top. It was almost too Almodovar-y which is exactly what I didn’t want. It was almost as if the Almodovar style had become a cliche.

I battle against cliche. If you give a dramatic role to an actor who is suffering in their personal life, it is very easy for that actor or actress to cry. But I don’t want those real tears. For me the movie is always a representation of reality in every sense, from the actors to the lighting. I want their tears to be artificial as well.

When you’re a director you have to have your own language, you have to be in possession of that language and the vision of the story you want to tell through the film you are making. On top of that you also have to have bags of common sense and be very strong because you are a boss in the best and worst sense, and you have to demonstrate this all the time. You have to make 100 decisions every moment.

When you’re shooting a film—and this is something Francois Truffaut said—it’s like a runaway train. The brakes have failed and the director’s job is to ensure that that train doesn’t go of the rails at all. Some directors, even though they’re extremely talented as filmmakers, just don’t have the resilience to be able to cope with that process. And I really think that there are too many directors around who have that authority to be able to cope with the filmmaking and too few really talented ones who haven’t been able to last. Because you have to deal with the human factor and that human factor can destroy you.

Dark Habits (Directed by Pedro Almodóvar)
I remember when I was making Dark Habits (1983). there was one actress who was playing her first leading role, and as the days of shooting went on, I realized she wasn’t up to what the role demanded of her. So what I did was pass a lot of the dialogue on to actresses who were playing the roles of the nuns. I stripped her of the things she was supposed to be doing and during production that all went into the community of nuns in the film. Their roles got richer and richer. When you are shooting you discover things like this that you cannot discover during rehearsals; because in rehearsals you don’t have the props or the action.

How do I control all these elements? I repeat myself to the crew over and over again. If I want a specific blue color on the wall I get them to paint the whole spectrum of blues from gray to blue and then I point out exactly which one I want. It’s almost like being a painter gathering materials. but this time in three dimensions.

If I want to set up the scene with a table and two chairs and an armchair, I already have an idea in my mind of the colors, the composition, and the form of it all, so what I do is give photos to the design team to go off and find it for me. They bring me examples of the different tables and I try them out. It’s all through trial and error, moving things around, changing their position and checking what works together.

This process makes my filmmaking more painstaking than it could otherwise be, but I must also work in this way with my actors. It takes an awful long time to get the hairstyles right or the way they will dress. I take a long time trying things out with the actors because they never feel they are in character until they know what the character looks like. Just simple decisions like the length of hair that an actress should have take ages to work out. I come along with lots of fashion and hair magazines, and photos of ideas that I have with exactly the length of the hair the actress should have, but everyone’s hair is different, so you still have to see if it works with their hair.

Volver (Directed by Pedro Almodóvar)
For instance, it took ages to get that very natural, unhairdo-like style that Penelope had in Volver. It was supposed to look like she had just put it up, but the amount of time it took you would think we had constructed some elaborate hairdo. But it worked and was incredible. What is important is not to give up on the small things.

Of course, Volver had a strong relation to Italian neorealism, and, unlike the women in Spanish neorealist films, the women are very attractive. So I saw in my mind that I wanted a very attractive look. Then you have to take into account the social class of the character and how women from that class would look and you have to add a touch of humor. I did lots of research going into the homes of that type of housewife from that social class and picking out the little, funny details that I could replicate in the film. There are all sorts of color schemes you see in these homes. but by that point I had already made up my mind of exactly the range of colors I would be working with. I always do that through intuition when I finish a script and just before I start shooting. I have already made up my mind about the spectrum of colors in the film that I will be making. Before all this I always have a very clear idea of the whole narrative process itself as the film goes on. For me writing and directing are symbiotic, complementary. While I am writing, I am working out the moments when you are giving information to the audiences, and the moments when you are withholding information. How that works is the narrative flow through the film, the way the characters are built up, and how they react or interact with each other. This is all very clear in my mind when I am writing the script. The script also includes the atmosphere I want to feature in each scene, and the songs that each have a dramatic function and are integral to the script.

The importance of arts in general in my films can’t be underestimated, When I am writing the script, l am always going out because everything you see, everything you hear, every movie you see, you watch it and it informs the sensibility of the story you are writing. So I was writing The Skin I Live In when I saw an exhibition of Louise Bourgeois at the Tate Modern, and Vera is looking at a book of her work in the film, It is a way for her to survive.

Volver (Directed by Pedro Almodóvar)
Songs also very important. Cucurrucucu Paloma is a very famous Mexican song and there have been thousands of versions, but when I heard the Caetano Veloso version I was amazed because the song became something completely different. It became a dark lullaby, very moving. Then in Talk to Her, I present the character of Marco as a man who cries at certain times, so I needed a song to play in the party scene that was moving enough to make him cry. This is very risky because there is no way for the production to declare that at 1 am we will have deep emotion. But I needed that emotion because otherwise the audience wouldn’t understand that this was a man who cried with emotion. Then I tried to think of things that really move me a lot and one of those things was Caetano’s song, so I called him and asked him to perform it in the film. I was right because he was amazing and the situation is intriguing.

Likewise, a song gives Volver its title. Volver is all about this great Spanish tradition of the dead coming back to settle unsettled accounts. So Volver is coming back from beyond.

Sometimes I have things in my mind that aren’t visible in the final film, but they are important for me because they give me a basis from which I can jumpstart the story. I had a whole back story in my mind for Penelope’s character in Volver—she was a beautiful young girl who her mother adored, and she wanted her to be a singer and a performer and taught her this song Volver so she could go and perform it in auditions for little girls—which is exactly the same story you see in Bellissima [the Visconti classic featuring Anna Magnani in the mother role]. There’s a part in the film in the kitchen where Carmen Maura says to Penelope, ‘Did you always have big boobs like that?’ and she says ‘Yes, mummy, ever since I was a little girl.’ So for the auditions, the mother puts makeup on her and puts her in amazing dresses. Her father sees all this and it must have been quite a vision for him, so much so that he couldn’t resist the temptation. There was always a lot of incest within the family in these households in La Mancha.

So when Penelope sings the song that her mother taught her in the film, she is remembering her mother very tenderly, even though she thought the mother didn’t do anything about the father raping her. And it is very moving for the mother, who is listening from the car on the street, because the song is talking about the passing of time. It is almost like the daughter is sending an unconscious message to her mother that she doesn’t really hate her, despite the passing of time. None of that is actually explained in the film at all, but my movies are all about secrets and the secret intentions I have that give me the reason to work. Of course they are not visible, but the audience can feel that strength.

— Extract from ‘Interview with Pedro Almodóvar’ in Filmcraft: Directing by Mike Goodridge.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Jim Jarmusch Talks The Vampiric Charms Of ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’

Only Lovers Left Alive (Directed by Jim Jarmusch)

‘Iconoclastic filmmaker Jim Jarmusch has been living outside of the mainstream for his entire career, so it’s perhaps only fitting that for his 11th feature-length film, Only Lovers Left Alive, the writer/director turns his attentions to the outsiders that live in shadows.’
The following excerpt is from an interview from Indiewire in 2014 with writer-director Jim Jarmusch prior to the release of his vampire-genre film Only Lovers Left Alive.

Vampires seems like an unlikely subject for you given their position in pop-culture right now. What drew you to them?

I just like genres, it’s one that I’ve always liked. I really like the whole history of vampire films that are more the kind of marginal, the less conventional ones. Starting with Vampyr by Carl Dreyer in the ‘30s, and many, many interesting films – Shadow of the Vampire with Willem Dafoe, then in the ‘80s The Hunger with David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve. I liked George Romero’s film Martin a lot, Katheryn Bigelow’s film Near Dark, Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction, Clair Denis’ Trouble Every Day, Polanski’s Fearless Vampire Killers. I loved Let The Right One In—that was from like five, six years ago, beautiful.


That’s a good list of films.

Yeah, I’ve always loved all of those films, that type of approach. Rather than the sort of more obvious one and I wanted to make a love story for quite a long time. It’s had different variances to it, but somehow it got merged maybe eight years ago into my vampire film. So, I wanted to make a love story that involved vampires. Why, I can’t really tell you… It interests me. And I like genres too sometimes because they imply a kind of metaphoric element. Just by the fact that they are a genre. So you can work within [that genre] and do something different inside of that frame. So, that always appeals to me, or not always, but in the case of the few films where I’ve referred to genres, there’s something attractive there for me too.

I imagine the ideas of immortality and all that they entail were an appeal as well?

The possibility of having a historical overview was really interesting to me, because there’s a point where [Mia Wasikowska’s character] calls them snobs, when they’re throwing her out of their house, which on a certain level they are. It’s important it’s in the film, in a way. But who wouldn’t be considered a snob if you’d been alive for a thousand yeas and had all of this knowledge and accumulated experience? That’s ten, twenty times as much as any normal person. The idea of seeing history in a timeline by having lived through it, but from the margins, from the shadows: observing it half in secret is very interesting to me. I’ve always been drawn to outsider type of characters, so what more perfect shadowy inhabitants of the margins are there, than vampires? Who are not undead monsters, by the way, they’re humans that have been transformed and now have the possibility of immortality, but are reliant, like junkies, on blood.


One of the themes that struck me, presented from Adam’s [Tom Hiddleston] perspective is the decay of civilization, and the decay of culture.

Adam is a kind of romantic character. He maybe is a bit flawed in a way, whereas [Tilda Swinton’s character] Eve is very happy to just have a consciousness and be in awe of all the things, phenomenal logical things in the world, or in the world of ideas.

Adam, I mean, I carefully layered in that he was a friend of the romantic poets or hung out with Byron and Shelley and Scott. I really think of him as a tortured romantic. Is he really going to kill himself? I don’t know, maybe he’s just a drama queen, I’m not sure. But just the fact that it would occur to him, that kind of dramatic action is very insightful somehow.

He’s hurt by things he sees people do that he doesn’t understand or why does the world acts the way it does—what I like to think of as an operating system. Out of all of the potential operating systems we could have, why is it this one? It’s a system based on greed and power, manipulation, subjugation and colonialism, which obviously isn’t good. I have a sort of closeness to Adam on that level of, “Wow, I find that very kind of sad,” and him it really bothers him. That’s part of his character, that he’s an emotional, complex creature that is affected by these things. Eve has certainly been affected by them too. I think she’s a bit more resilient and maybe she’s just more centered as a person. They’re a bit different. I don’t know if I’m answering your question.


Is it meant to have any commentary on males and females? Adam being flawed and insecure and Eve being a more divine figure?

That’s interesting that you say that because to me what was most inspiring for me to make this film was the last book by Mark Twain, The Diaries of Adam and Eve. That’s why I named them Adam and Eve, not the direct Biblical thing, but via Mark Twain. That book is very funny, beautiful and kind of slight. It’s just diary entries of Adam and Eve’s vastly different perceptions of the world, via the fact that she’s female and he’s male. It’s a hilarious book and it really inspired me to want to make a film with two characters named Adam and Eve that sort of represented on some level the sun and the moon, but certainly very different perceptions of things.

So that was a big inspiration. It’s not even referred to in the film, the book. But it’s very important for me as a background for this.

There’s a temptation to see Adam as a surrogate for you; because of your similar taste and the similar artistic heroes on his wall…

Certainly there is, but it’s a bit reductive because I think there are qualities Adam has that I don’t have. And qualities that Eve has that I hope I have, or would aspire to have: that sense of wonder of the world and everyday there’s something else you could learn that you didn’t know before. But it’s very hard for me to analyze that because it’s not a self portrait in any intentional conscious way and yet there’s a lot of personal things in there that I would agree with them. So it’s hard to know those things.

It’s funny my friend Claire Denis had a Q&A after her film, Bastards, at the New York Film Festival a few months ago and someone asked her why she killed this character and she said, “I didn’t kill them, the other character did. I didn’t do it.”


You operate that way then. The story takes the characters where they want to go.

Yeah, when you make these films they do walk on their own after a certain point. Often when I’m writing dialogue in a script, it’s always whatever’s on paper for me is a sketch until you film it. But often they’re just talking and I am just writing it down. It’s not like I’m making them say words. I feel like I’m just transcribing what they’re saying. So there’s a funny disconnect where I can’t analyze, but to me it’s not autobiographical in any way. Of course I placed a lot of things I believe in, or even the photos on the wall, some of them are even my friends.

Those portraits on the wall I had five or six times as many people originally. The art department said, “Look after a certain point you have to clear all these images, so after a certain point we’ll just stop, we have enough, don’t worry.” But I could have kept feeding them more and more and more. I could still be giving them names of people I admire from the history of humans.

– Rodrigo Perez Interviews Jim Jarmusch. Full article via Indiewire here



Thursday, 26 October 2017

‘Stronger Than Reason’: Interview with Alfred Hitchcock (part two)

Psycho (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
This is the second part of an interview with Alfred Hitchcock from 1963 prior to the release of The Birds in which the acclaimed director discusses his recent films, his use of special effects, working with writers, and tension in narrative. 

In ‘Psycho’ you presumably intended the audience to identify with Janet Leigh.

I wouldn’t say Psycho was necessarily the best example. Because I felt there that the characters in the second part were merely figures. I was concentrating much more on the effect of the murder and the menace and the background of the boy/mother situation, rather than the other people. But in the case of The Birds, I think three of the four characters do go through a process which ties them directly in to the bird attacks.

In ‘The Birds’ you have worked without stars—or without big stars. Why?

I felt that one should have anonymous people, not too familiar, because the subject matter itself is not quite so facetious as that of other films: although the Birds do attack, it is treated quite realistically. One of the most—to me—satisfying scenes in The Birds is where there are no birds seen at all. You have a room which is boarded up—it comes toward the end of the picture—there are four people in the room: a child, young man and woman, and a mother, mother of the young man, sitting there in silence just waiting for them. I just keep that silence going for quite a bit until the first sounds come, then you begin to hear the attack outside and you don’t see the mass of birds at all. And it’s that kind of thing which permitted one to have comparatively unknown people because the thing belonged as a whole. It wouldn’t have looked good to have had a familiar film star sitting there waiting, you know; it’s hard to describe why; but this is quite an interesting sequence; to me it’s really satisfying because there I threw everything to the audience to use their imagination; to help them along a little bit, I had one shutter blow open. The young man has to pull the shutter to and then you see just the close-up attack on his hand and the seagulls biting and drawing blood.

North by Northwest (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
The atmosphere sounds similar to that of the sequence in ‘North by Northwest’ where Cary Grant waits at the road-side for Kaplan.

That was, I would say, an amusing approach. This thing in The Birds is not. We’ve shown the audience sufficient samples—I had one sequence where 300 crows wait outside the schoolhouse for the children, and when the kids come out they are chased down the road: montage sequence of individual crows attacking each child on the back, pecking at them and so forth.

Little menacing bits of dialogue—do you write these yourself: ‘Crop-dusting where there ain’t no crops’ in ‘North by Northwest’?

Oh that’s my line, yes.

How much of your scripts do you in fact write yourself?

Oh, quite a bit. You see I used to be a writer myself years ago. The difficulty is that one is working in the visual so much—that’s why I so rarely use film writers—I always use novelists or playwrights, definitely, not people working in the mystery field. They’re no use to me at all. In The Birds, I opened the film with the shot of birds in their nicest—what we think are their nicest—surroundings: in their cages. They’re chirruping away, and they’re all beautifully set—all very happy, ostensibly, and there’s a little light-hearted sequence. I treat the film in the beginning as a light comedy and there’s some byplay with the girl and the young man where a canary gets out of a cage, and the girl is a rather rich society girl, and she is not aware that the young man knows her identity—when he gets the bird from under his hat he says, ‘Let’s put Melanie Daniels back into her gilded cage, shall we,’ and that’s his way of telling the girl he knows who she is. The pay-off on that one line comes much later in the story when the centre of the town is attacked by seagulls and the girl seeks refuge in a phone booth—it’s glass-walled and she can’t get out. I take high shots and you see birds beating all around: The gulls are the people now you see and she’s the bird. So I have to write these lines in myself because I know it’s going to help appreciably later on. There’s no comment made about it, but it’s very clear that she’s in a cage but it’s no longer gilded.

The Birds (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
You expect quite a lot of your audience.

For those who want it. I don’t think films should be looked at once. I think they go by too fast. But the critics sit in there at their 10:30 a.m. sitting, and they see a film through once and that seems to be sufficient. But I don’t really think it is. Most films should be seen through more than once.

Why is ‘The Trouble with Harry’ a comedy rather than a thriller?

I think it was a nice little pastorale, you know. A typically English piece of humour, though it was set in America. It was an English novel and we followed it pretty closely. I laid it in the autumnal setting to counterpoint the macabre of the body, but I even tried to photograph that in an amusing way.

How do you choose your subjects?

I don’t probe particularly deeply. If something appeals to me... I think instinctively one would go for a subject very often that would lend itself to one’s treatment. I’m not terribly keen on just taking a stage play. As far back as when I made Juno and the Paycock I felt very frustrated about it and kind of rather ashamed when it got terrific notices. It wasn’t anything to do with me. It belonged to Sean O’Casey. My job was just to put it on the screen. I think that’s the job of any craftsman, setting the camera up and photographing people acting. That’s what I call most films today: photographs of people talking. It’s no effort to me to make a film like Dial M for Murder because there’s nothing there to do. On the other hand, you say to me: why do you make a film like Dial M for Murder? Because I run for cover when the batteries are running dry: You know, I might be engaged in a subject which is abortive—I’ve done that many times, I’ve been half way through a subject and found it didn’t work out after all—so immediately, instead of waiting, to keep one’s hand in you go for something which is fairly routine while the batteries are recharging.

In ‘North by Northwest’, Grant seems to want Eva Marie Saint dead: he’s happier when she’s an enemy or in danger than when she seems to be an available wife or lover.

What’s that old Oscar Wilde thing? ‘Each man kills the thing he loves’. That I think is a very natural phenomenon, really.

You don’t find it somewhat perverted?

Well, everything’s perverted in a different way, isn’t it?

North by Northwest (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
Was the falling body at the end of ‘North by Northwest’ a superimposition?

Yes, that’s a double printing job. You photograph your background first and then you get a white backing and a large arm sticking out of the backing and you strap the middle of the torso to the arm and then with a side worm gear men can take that body and do that (twisting gesture) with it—Jimmy Stewart’s done it as well. Now you take the camera close and whip it back on rails and then also by making the movement slow you can undercrank it too, so that your whip back can be taken care of that way. Then it’s superimposed on the background. We’re working in The Birds on the sodium light system. We’re having to double-print a lot of birds over existing birds, where we have a small quantity of birds, trained ones, moving in and out, or whatever they’re doing, then you print over that scene a lot of other birds. And we’re using a sodium light process, which is a background which is lit by sodium—those yellow fog lights, you know—so that the camera picks up just the images, the background goes back, you get your colour image. And in the camera is a prism and that prism also makes the silhouette matte at the same time on a regular b/w film so that it doesn’t register colour. The filter in the prism turns the image black and the sodium background plain. So you make your travelling matte at the same time as you’re photographing: we use an old technicolour camera for that.

You must have been very thrilled with your ‘Vertigo’ effect.

I’ve been trying for fifteen, twenty years to get that effect. I first tried it in Rebecca. I wanted to get, in an inquest scene, Joan Fontaine to start to faint and see everything receding from her. I tried everything—I even thought of printing a photograph on rubber and stretching the middle.

Vertigo (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
You obtained the stretching of the perspective by simultaneously tracking in and zooming out, didn’t you?

Yes.

We have an argument about ‘Rear Window’. One of us says that a good deal of the suspense comes from one’s not being sure whether James Stewart is right, whether he’s making a fool of himself. The other says that you’re meant to be certain that he’s right and the suspense comes from whether he will prove it in time.

I would say that it’s the latter, because it’s frustration you see. The audience are with Stewart, the identification is direct and therefore they must feel superior to the other characters with him, but the frustration is there all the same. The interesting thing I think about Rear Window is that there’s more pure film there, even though it’s static, than in many films I’ve made. After all you get the famous examples that Pudovkin experimented with—where you get Stewart looking, what he sees, and his reaction to it. And there, after all, is the most powerful thing of film. You’ve got three pieces of film. Let’s assume, for example, Stewart looks, you see a mother and child; then you go back to Stewart and he smiles. Now you see he’s rather benevolent or benign, call it what you like. Take the middle piece away and put a nude girl in there and he’s a dirty old man.

Would you say that your films now are rather more thought out than instinctive, and were more instinctive in the thirties?

I would say so, yes. Well, I think you can have a bit of both really. But I think I got that (i.e. more intellectual) when I was aware of the global implications of audiences. That’s one thing that you do learn in America, because America is a polyglot country. I often tell people, there are no Americans, it’s full of foreigners. You become very audience-conscious because there are so many different types of people. Axiomatically you’re appealing to your Japanese audience and your Latin-American audience as well.

Rear Window (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
The idea of ‘Stage Fright’ intrigues us a great deal. Do you like it?

No. It wasn’t well done. You remember I said I liked to work with playwrights and novelists preferably. I went a bit overboard—I had James Bridie and he was too careless for me, structurally. He used to say, ‘Well, what does it matter?’

Whose was the basic idea of the flash-back that wasn’t true?

That was mine, but that was probably an error. That was going a bit too far because I suppose people are so accustomed to flash-backs being true that it was just confusing when it was untrue. It’s like the boy with the bomb in Sabotage. I should never have let that bomb go off. It was a cardinal error to let that bomb go off. If you work an audience up, it’s obligatory to relieve them, to release them from that.

Having built them up, the explosion didn’t release them?

No, of course not. It got them mad.

What next?

I’m going to do the Marnie picture next. The story of the compulsive thief that I was going to do with Grace Kelly.

Who’s taking the Grace Kelly part?

I’ve got a girl in mind, but we’re not letting on yet.

You’re going back to big stars?

Not necessarily. Sometimes I think big stars are useful but today they don’t help a picture any more. They help it if it’s good, but if it’s not good the public won’t go.

And ‘Psycho’ showed you could get along without them...

Yes.



The interview by Ian Cameron and V. F. Perkins with Alfred Hitchcock originally appeared in Movie, No. 6, January 1963.

Friday, 22 September 2017

‘Stronger Than Reason’: Interview with Alfred Hitchcock (part one)

The Birds (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
The following extract is from an interview with Alfred Hitchcock from 1963 prior to the release of The Birds in which the master of suspense discusses his recent films, his use of sound and the primacy of emotion over reason in the film-making process. 

Can you tell us something about ‘The Birds’?

It’s taken from a well-known short story by Daphne Du Maurier. It concerns the attack by domestic birds on a group of people living in a community; the film is laid in northern California, northern San Francisco. The series of attacks start very mildly and increase in seriousness as it goes on.

What would you say was the theme of the film?

If you like you can make it the theme of too much complacency in the world: that people are unaware that catastrophe surrounds us all.

The people are unwilling to believe that the birds are going to take over?

That’s true, yes.

What particularly attracted you to science fiction?

This isn’t science fiction at all, not at all. It’s treated quite naturally and quite straightforwardly. Many of the incidents in the film are based on actual fact. Birds have attacked and do attack, all the time. As a matter of fact, one of the incidents we have in the film was based on an actual incident which occurred at La Jolla, California; on April 30, 1960. A thousand swifts came down a chimney into the living room of some people. These are birds that nest in masonry rather than in trees, in roofs and chimneys and so forth. And the people were completely swamped with them for half an hour. Another incident occurred in the very place we were working, in Bodega Bay in northern San Francisco, where a farmer reported to the San Francisco Chronicle that he was losing a lot of lambs due to crows diving and pecking at their eyes and then killing them. So there are precedents for all these things. That’s what makes it more or less accurate, in terms of facts rather than science-fiction.

The Birds (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
There are also precedents. in your films for birds, aren’t there? Particularly in ‘Psycho’.

Oh yes.

Is this any particular fondness for birds?

Not particularly, no.

Do you find them threatening in some way?

No. No, not at all. I’m personally not interested in that side of content. I’m more interested in the technique of story telling by means of film rather than in what the film contains.

As far as telling this particular story goes, had you a lot of problems?

Oh, I wasn’t meaning technical problems. I was meaning the technique of story telling on film per se. Oh no, the technical problems are prodigious. I mean films like Ben Hur or Cleopatra are child’s play compared with this. After all we had to train birds for every shot practically.

You had some trouble with the American version of the R.S.P.C.A. . . .

Not really; that was a technicality. You’re allowed to catch so many birds. I think the bird trainer had about four over his quota, really.

The Birds (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
Did you restrict yourself in the bird kingdom, or did every sort of bird take over?

Oh no. No birds of prey at all. Purely domestic birds. Seagulls. Birds you see every day. Seagulls, crows, ravens, finches, and canaries and that sort of bird.

You’re not using music?

No music at all, no. We’re using electronic sound, all the way through. A simulated sound of actual things. For example the sound of birds’ wings and birds’ cries will be stylised to some extent. And that will occur all the way through the picture.

You have used music a lot in your previous films. This is going to fulfill exactly the role of music?

Oh, it should do, yes. After all, when you put music to film, it’s really sound, it isn’t music per se. I mean there’s an abstract approach. The music serves as either a counterpoint or a comment on whatever scene is being played. I mean we don’t have what you call ‘tunes’ in it at all.

The shrilling in ‘Psycho’ is rather of that sort.

Yes, you see you have the screaming violins. It was a motif that went through the murder scenes.

You will use your strange sounds as motifs in that way? 

Yes.

Psycho (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
I hear ‘Psycho’ made a lot of money.

Yes, that was a secondary consideration. Psycho is probably one of the most cinematic films I’ve made and there you get a clear example of the use of film to cause an audience to respond emotionally.

It was primarily an emotional response you were after from your audience?

Entirely. That’s the whole device. After all, the showing of a violent murder at the beginning was intended purely to instil into the minds of the audience a certain degree of fear of what is to come. Actually in the film, as it goes on, there’s less and less violence because it has been transferred to the minds of the audience.

The use of Janet Leigh to be killed early in the film is to upset one’s sense of security because the star is expected to survive to the end.

Oh, no question about it. The ordinary person would have said ‘Janet Leigh, she’s the leading lady, she must play the lead.’ But that was not the intention at all. The intention in that early part was to portray average people and in this particular case to deliberately divert the audience’s attention into a character in trouble, you see. And you follow the adventures of a girl deliberately detailed to keep you away from anything that’s going to turn up later on, you see.

Psycho (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
‘North by Northwest’. Near the beginning, in the mad car chase, one knows that Cary Grant can’t be killed this early. So why is one excited?

That again is purely the use of film in terms of the substitution of the language of the camera for words. That is the most important function of film. As a substitute for words. I wouldn’t say substitute. I don’t think that does film even sufficient justice. It’s the mode of expression. And the use of the size of the image. And the juxtaposition of different pieces of film to create emotion in a person. And you can make it strong enough even to make them forget reason. You see when you say that Cary Grant can’t possibly be killed so early in the film, that’s the application of reason. But you’re not permitted to reason. Because the film should be stronger than reason.

Above all of your films the one that seems stronger than reason is Vertigo.

There you get, in a sense, a remote fantasy. In Vertigo you have a feeling of remoteness from ordinary worldly things. You see the attitude of the man, the woman’s behaviour. Of course behind it lies some kind of plot, which I think is quite secondary. I don’t bother about plot, or all that kind of thing.

You got rid of it very early in the film.

Yes, that’s, what shall I call it? That’s a necessary evil. But that’s why I’m always surprised at people and even critics who place so much reliance on logic and all that sort of thing. I have a little phrase to myself. I always say logic is dull.

Psycho (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
You seem rather to distrust the psychiatrist’s explanation of Norman Bates in ‘Psycho’. It isn’t given all that much weight.

Possibly the details would have been too unpleasant. I think that there perhaps we’re skimming over... You have to remember that Psycho is a film made with quite a sense of amusement on my part. To me it’s a fun picture. The processes through which we take the audience, you see, it’s rather like taking them through the haunted house at the fairground or the roller-coaster, you know. After all it stands to reason that if one were seriously doing the Psycho story, it would be a case history. You would never present it in forms of mystery or the juxtaposition of characters, as they were placed in the film. They were all designed in a certain way to create this audience emotion. Probably the real Psycho story wouldn’t have been emotional at all; it would’ve been terribly clinical.

Psycho is, though, very honestly presented. There is a very striking shot of Norman Bates swinging his hips as he goes upstairs. When one sees the film for the second time, one realises one could have solved the mystery the first time.

Well, I’m a great believer in making sure that if people see the film a second time they don’t feel cheated. That is a must. You must be honest about it and not merely keep things away from an audience. I’d call that cheating. You should never do that.

Was this shot meant deliberately as a clue?

Well, you might as well say that the basic clue was in the feminine nature of the character altogether.

Psycho (Directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
The very complex montage of the murder of Janet Leigh was not just intended to avoid showing some things you couldn’t show . . .

Well, I did photograph a nude girl all the way through. In other words I covered in the shooting every aspect of the killing. Actually some of it was shot in slow motion. I had the camera slow and the, girl moving slowly so that I could measure out the movements and the covering of awkward parts of the body, the arm movement, gesture and so forth. I was actually seven days on that little thing; it’s only forty-five seconds really.

Is there a sexual reference in the compositions? It seemed that you were consciously cutting between soft round shapes and the hard, phallic shape of the knife to suggest copulation.

Well, I mean you would get that in any case, with any sense of intimate nudity those thoughts would emerge naturally. But the most obvious example of that is in North by Northwest, the last shot with the train going into the tunnel.

One feels of your later films that you have got much less interested in the mystery thriller element, much more interested in broadening things out.

Well, I think it’s a natural tendency to be less superficial, that’s Truffaut’s opinion—he’s been examining all these films. And he feels that the American period is much stronger than the English period. It’s a much stronger development. For example, I think it’s necessary to get a little deeper into these things as one goes along. For example The Birds—you see usually in these films, which I call an ‘event film’ you know, like On The Beach, or one of those things—I felt it was much more necessary to intensify the personal story so that you get, as a result, a greater identification with the people, and therefore the fire through which you put them is much stronger.

The interview by Ian Cameron and V. F. Perkins with Alfred Hitchcock originally appeared in Movie, No. 6, January 1963.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Brian De Palma: On Ideas, Writing and Suspense

Blow Out (Directed by Brian De Palma)
Film director Brian De Palma discusses the screenwriting process, his cinematic influences and the art of building suspense.

You’ve made a lot of films during your career, and you’ve also written a lot of your films. Do you prefer to work fast when you write?


The problem with writing a movie is you’ve got to have a great idea. I loved the idea for Femme Fatale and it came very quickly. Dressed to Kill was another great idea, and Blow Out was a very good idea. Those scripts came very quickly. But when you don’t have a good idea, it can take years. These ideas rattle around in my head forever. The idea of somebody fleeing, then they run into their double and take their life, I’ve been thinking about that for ten, fifteen years, and I never found a way to put it into anything. So it’s very much circling in your brain, and then you get to a certain place, you have a certain experience, and it all kind of jells. Then it’s easy to write. You’re in a terrible situation where you have to turn the pages in when you don’t really have a good idea. And of course, I guess 95% of what we see is like that.

When you see a stunning idea like Memento or Boogie Nights, or something by the Coen Brothers, when someone comes up with a tremendously interesting idea, you take your hats off to them, because you know what a difficult process that is. I’ve had a couple of pretty good ones throughout my career, and if you read as much as I do what everyone else is doing and what kind of trouble they’re having, and if you’re a student of the history of cinema, you realize there aren’t that many good ideas out there. That’s why there’s some extraordinary movies, and some that are sort of okay. You have to be in the right place at the right time with the right actors and the right economics. Something like On the Waterfront, Kazan was in the right place at the right time. Orson Welles was in the right place at the right time with the right contract with Citizen Kane. That’s why those movies are so extraordinary.

Femme Fatale (Directed by Brian De Palma)
You use split screens in ‘Femme Fatale’ like you have in a number of your films. How do you decide when to use it in a scene?


Split screen is just another storytelling technique. You just have to find a place where it’s appropriate and it can be effective. I use it where, like everything in my movies, whether it’s a crane shot, or a steady-cam shot, or a point-of-view shot, I try to find exactly the right word or the visual grammar for the place in the movie. I’m very much interested in visual storytelling. I think it’s kind of a dead form; you don’t see very many directors working in it. I try to find story ideas that are driven with visual ideas, unlike the traditional sort of storytelling with character development, dramatic development of your characters where the antagonist and the protagonist come up against each other, and you have a three-act structure in your movie. I find these story forms are almost exhausted by television, which is almost completely driven by dialogue and close ups of people talking to each other. Contemporary filmmaking has beaten them to death, so there’s very little to do with that kind of storytelling. Not to say that it isn’t effective if it’s used well, but to me I’m practicing a visual storytelling that not many people are interested in. I like the unexpected. I like being surprised.

When you started making films, was there more of an emphasis on utilizing the language of cinema?


Well yeah, because we were looking at directors, a lot of them had started making movies in the silent film era where there was no dialog, so they had to learn these techniques. Whether it was Hitchcock, Ford, or Fritz Lang, you had to learn these techniques and not try to solve all of your problems in dialogue.

Dressed To Kill (Directed by Brian De Palma)
When you’re planning a camera move or a cinematic technique, do you plan those during the writing process or does the visual planning come later?


When you write a script, or when you direct somebody else’s script, as you read it, if it’s somebody else’s script, you start getting ideas of how to tell the story visually. When you write the script, and when I do scripts of my own, they’re usually driven by a visual idea. Not a character idea, not even a story idea; it’s usually a visual idea, because this is what I think cinema is all about. That’s why the images are so compelling because you’re dealing with pure, visual storytelling. That happens when I’m putting the ideas together for the story. The trick of Femme Fatale was getting in and out of the dream without the audience groaning, because it’s a very old idea, somebody waking up and everything you saw wasn’t real. But I think I came up with such a stunning image of her underneath the water, that you can surprise the audience because it’s such a strong visual image, to get past that transition. And then I had this other visual idea of Antonio Banderas being a collage artist, and I literally created that collage with my brother Bart, who’s a painter. We literally created that huge panel of pictures over a period of like four months. The movie is very much like the picture. The completed image is the last piece in the puzzle. And again, it’s a purely visual idea.

Christopher McQuarrie has said he works closely with the composers of the films he’s writing, and he’s found they can make valuable changes to the screenplay before the film starts shooting. You had worked closely with Bernard Herrmann on ‘Obsession’, and he also made contributions to the story. Do you usually work closely with the composers in this regard? 

Not much in the beginning. I’ve worked with many fine composers, and in this day, you can literally listen to the score on a computer before you record it, which is quite unlike how I started out, and you can really adjust the score at that stage so that by the time you get to recording it, more or less all the problems are solved. This movie I very much had the Ravel Bolero idea at the beginning of the heist, and then I abandoned it because I wanted to use a lot of eclectic music. The first pass at it, [Ryuichi] Sakamoto wrote a very Mission: Impossible-type score, and it was quite good, but I went back to my Bolero idea. I said, “This isn’t Mission: Impossible, this is a seduction, and there’s no more seductive music than Ravel’s Bolero.” He did a version of Bolero that fit in with what we had done with the picture.

Blow Out (Directed by Brian De Palma)
One film journalist has written that a theme you deal with in many of your films is the “moral consequences of the failure to act, or acting too late.” We’ve seen this in ‘Carrie’, ‘Obsession’, and ‘Blow Out’, and Rebecca Romijn-Stamos says in ‘Femme Fatale’, “No good deed ever goes unpunished.” Why do your films often return to this theme? 

I think things like that are buried deep in your subconscious. I’ve thought about why I have doubles in my movies. It’s the kind of stuff I don’t quite understand, and you see it in your movies over and over again, and you’re intrigued by these ideas. Sort of like a painter who likes to paint the same cathedral or the same bowl of fruit, you’re drawn to certain images over and over again for kind of inexplicable reasons. It’s an insight into what’s going on in your subconscious. This movie is so much driven by a subconscious idea that... it just feels right. I guess that’s the best way I can say it, and I don’t quite understand where it all comes from. I was always fascinated by that phrase “no good deed goes unpunished.” I find it’s something that happened in my own life many times! I wondered where it came from, I finally looked it up, and it was Claire Booth Luce talking about politics. I guess in politics no good deed goes unpunished. It seemed like such a strange idea, but in many ways very true.

Carrie (Directed by Brian De Palma)
What are the keys to building a suspenseful scene? 

Withholding information. Just keep withholding information. And not quite showing everything. Slowing things down is always very effective.

Hitchcock had famously said that suspense is two people sitting at a table, then the camera shows us that under the table is a bomb, and we have no idea when it’s going to go off. That makes me think of the scene in ‘Carrie’ with the bucket of blood, where we have no idea when it’s going to get dumped on her. Were you trying to follow that rule of suspense when you were constructing that scene? 

Well, Hitchcock laid down all the classic ways to use suspense. He’s done it so many times in so many movies, it’s all there. You see what works and what doesn’t work. I’ve taken some of those ideas, and taken them a little farther. I try to make it even more uncomfortable for the audience by shooting it in slow motion. I really make it just the worst kind of thing when you know it’s going to happen. The bomb starts ticking extremely slowly. And I have many balls in the air at the same time, so that you can drive this thing so slowly. I’ve used that technique, whether it’s in The Fury or the Odessa Steps in The Untouchables, where you just slow everything down. You need all this parallel action going on, because slow motion, if it’s not really cut very well, can be very boring. So you have to find a way to drive it with all kinds of counter action. And you need a great score, because you’re completely relying on the music to get you through.

What were the most important things you learned from watching Hitchcock’s films? 

Well, it’s like when you see things the same way [as someone else], you find a writer who writes how you think. You say, “This guy is speaking to me.” Hitchcock always spoke to me right from the beginning, and I took many of his techniques. Like the use of the point-of-view shot, which is seen in Rear Window in the umpteenth degree, where you convey information directly to the audience. The character sees something, the audience sees something; there’s no other form in which the character and the audience sees the same information but the movies. It’s an essential building block that is completely unique to cinema. That’s what I’m constantly striving to find in making movies—these things that are purely cinematic. That’s what makes great cinema great to me.

Obsession (Directed by Brian De Palma)
When you started your film career, you tried to work within the system and stay true to yourself at the same time. Now that you have a lot of films under your belt, do you still have to fight to make the movies you want to make?


Oh sure. It’s always a fight if you have some kind of personal vision. You’re always struggling to convince people to put up money for it, and since I make movies that have very elaborate sets and very expensive film toys, they can’t be done for a million or half a million dollars in a couple of bedrooms in Brooklyn. I’ve made movies like that, and then I evolved out of that. So it’s always a struggle, and every once in a while, you have to go out and make a big hit so you can continue to make movies. You have to go back and forth.

I have a particular visual style that I can apply to genre movies; so I can go in and out of the system. If you’re completely independent of the system, so much time can be spent just raising money. You can certainly make movies like that, but like John Sayles, you’re constantly struggling to get money to make your particular movie, and having to do other jobs to pay for them, much like Orson Welles did. I’m a big student of Welles, I knew him very well because he was in Get to Know Your Rabbit, and I had studied his career, which seemed to me to be the classic example of what not to do with the system, and how cruel the system can be to a great artist. I think there’s many good things about the system, and there are many things that aren’t so good about it. But I’m an American, and I’m working in the American movie system. To try and say that Hollywood doesn’t know what they’re doing is absurd. Hollywood’s made some of the greatest movies in the world, and you can make that system work for you.

– Full article first appeared in Creative Screenwriting volume 9, #1, available here

Monday, 26 June 2017

Michael Mann: On the Edge – An Interview

Heat (Directed by Michael Mann)
Thieves, assassins, mad men, whistle-blowers, and gamblers have all populated the extreme adventures of Michael Mann’s films. For more than 30 years, with style and precision, he has examined the richness of human experience. The following extract is from an interview with the DGA from 2012.

Q: Your earliest films were documentaries. Is that what formed your commitment to authenticity?

A: My ambition was always to make dramatic films. I had a strong sense of the value of drama growing up in Chicago, which has long had a thriving theater scene. I’d also found, working a lot of odd jobs as a kid—as a short-order cook, on construction, or as a cab driver—that there was tremendous richness in real-life experience, and contact with people and circumstances that were sometimes extreme. I was drawn to this instinctively. You find out things when you’re with a real-life thief, things you could never make up just sitting in a room. The converse is also true: Just because you discover something interesting, you don’t have to use it; there’s no obligation. Yet life itself is the proper resource. I’ve never really changed that habit of wanting to bring preparation into the real world of the picture, with a character that actors are going to portray.

Q: Is that why you develop biographies for every character, not just for your use but for your actors as well?

A: I like to know everything about a character. Major characters, minor characters, even if a picture’s got nothing to do with what their childhood is, I want to know what their childhood was like. What were their parents like? Where did they grow up? What do they like, what do they not like? What kinds of women are attracted to them? Why are these women attracted to them? If the character is a woman, who is she? How is she relating to the situation of her life?

Heat (Directed by Michael Mann)
Q: Do you like to rehearse your actors before and during shooting?

A: Yes, but never for too long. There’s an art to rehearsal. Never rehearse to the point where you wish you’d shot it. I always want to stop just before the moment becomes so actual that I wish I had a camera. I don’t want that to happen until take 3 or 4 of the day we’re shooting it. You always want to back off, you always want to leave potential. There’s a tremendous thrill for me in finding the spontaneous moment. Sometimes that happens when you’re smart enough not to rehearse too much—when you know where to stop, because otherwise you’ll get too programmed. Other times, that spontaneity comes with a liberation you get at the end of tremendous preparation—where everybody is confident and the players know exactly what they’re going to do.

Q: How did you apply that to the famous coffee shop scene between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in ‘Heat’ (1995) when the two adversaries meet head-to-head for the first and only time?

A: We did two things: We discussed the scene. Then we did some rehearsals, but I was wary because the entire movie is a dialectic that works backward from its last moment, which is the death of the thief Neil McCauley [De Niro], while the detective Vincent Hanna [Pacino], who’s just taken McCauley’s life, stands with him as he passes. The ‘marriage’ of the two of them in this contrapuntal story is the coffee shop scene.

Now Pacino and De Niro are two of the greatest actors on the planet, so I knew they would be completely alive to each other—each one reacting off the other’s slightest gesture, the slightest shift of weight. If De Niro’s right foot sitting in that chair slid backward by so much as an inch, or his right shoulder dropped by just a little bit, I knew Al would be reading that. They’d be scanning each other, like an MRI. Both men recognize that their next encounter will mean certain death for one of them. Gaining an edge is why they’ve chosen to meet. So we read the scene a number of times before shooting—not a lot—just looking at it on the page. I didn’t want it memorized. My goal was to get them past the unfamiliarity of it. But of course these two already knew it impeccably.

Heat (Directed by Michael Mann)
Q: You made an interesting choice directorially in the finished film. The whole scene takes place in over-the-shoulder close-ups—each man’s point of view on the other.

A: We shot that scene with three cameras, two over-the-shoulders and one profile shot, but I found when editing that every time we cut to the profile, the scene lost its one-on-one intensity. I’ll often work with multiple cameras, if they’re needed. In this case, I knew ahead of time that Pacino and De Niro were so highly attuned to each other that each take would have its own organic unity. Whatever one said, and the specific way he’d say it, would spark a specific reaction in the other. I needed to shoot in such a way that I could use the same take from both angles. What’s in the finished film is almost all of take 11—because that has an entirely different integrity and tonality from takes 10, or 9, or 8. All of this begins and ends with scene analysis. It doesn’t matter if it’s two people in a room or two opposing forces taking over a street. Action comes from drama, and drama is conflict: What’s the conflict?

Q: At the opposite end of the scale from that intimate two-man scene in the coffee shop is the huge street-battle in ‘Heat’. How did you prepare a sequence that massive?

A: That scene arose out of choreography, and was absolutely no different than staging a dance. We rehearsed in detail by taking over three target ranges belonging to the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. We built a true-scale mock-up of the actual location we were using along 5th Street in downtown L.A., with flats and barriers standing in for where every parked car was going to be, every mailbox, every spot where De Niro, Tom Sizemore, and Val Kilmer were going to seek cover as they moved from station to station. Every player was trained with weapons the way somebody in the military would be brought up, across many days, with very rigid rules of safety, to the point where the safe and prodigious handling of those weapons became reflexive. Then, as a culmination, we blocked out the action with the actors shooting live rounds at fixed targets as they moved along in these rehearsals. The confidence that grew out of such intensive preparations—all proceeding from a very basic dramatic point—meant that when we were finally filming on 5th Street, firing blanks, each man was as fully and as exactly skilled as the character he represented.

Heat (Directed by Michael Mann)
Q: What was the ‘conflict’ your choreography was proceeding from?

A: McCauley’s unit wants to get out, while the police want something else, and are sending in their assets. Judged strictly in terms of scene analysis and character motivation, the police are used to entering a situation with overwhelming power on their side. When they’re assaulted by people who know what they’re doing, they don’t do well. McCauley’s guys are simply more motivated, and have skills that easily overwhelm the police. Choreography has to tell a story; there’s no such thing as a stand-alone shootout. Who your characters are as characters determines your outcome.

Q: ‘Collateral’ (2004) is largely a two-character drama, which must have created its own demands. How did you prep your players for that film?

A: Prepping Jamie Foxx for his role in Collateral was a matter of getting him to understand the neighborhood this man came from, and the death-by-repetition involved in being a cab driver. Having been a cab driver myself, I knew what a grind that is. For Tom Cruise, who plays a hit man, the preparation involved all kinds of crazy stuff in preproduction—acquiring the skill sets he would need to be this man. We had him stalking various members of the crew for weeks, in secret, learning their habits, and then picking the moment. This person would be coming out of a gym at 7 a.m. and feel somebody slap something on his back—and it would be Tom, who had just put a Post-it on their back. In our virtual world, that was a confirmed kill.

Collateral (Directed by Michael Mann)
Q: Each of your films seems to set out in a different direction from the one that preceded it. What attracts you to a project?

A: Usually I think I know what I’m going to look for next, and usually that turns out to be wrong. How I chose to do Collateral is a prime example. I had just come off of doing Ali (2001), a picture about a huge real-life figure. I had developed The Aviator, about Howard Hughes. But as brilliant as John Logan’s screenplay was, and as much as I wanted to work with Leonardo [DiCaprio], I felt I would be doing a rerun of what I’d just done. What attracted me to Collateral was the opportunity to do the exact opposite: a microcosm; 12 hours; one night; no wardrobe changes; two people; small lives; inside a cab; a small time frame viewed large. I very much admired the hard, gem-like construction of Stuart Beattie’s screenplay. There were a lot of modifications as we prepared to shoot, but the structure was there from the start—and it was tremendously appealing. That made my decision. I asked Marty [Scorsese] if he wanted to do The Aviator.

The idea for The Last of the Mohicans came to me because I’d seen the film written by Philip Dunne when I was 3. I realized 40 years later that it had been rattling around in my brain ever since, that it was a part of me, a very important part. I just hadn’t been consciously aware of it up to that point. I also thought: There hasn’t really been an exciting epic, period film in a long, long time. Joe Roth and Roger Birnbaum were running 20th Century Fox at the time. They got the excitement of it immediately.

The Last of the Mohicans (Directed by Michael Mann)
Q: Even though you’re always trying to do something new, there seems to be continuity in your work.

A: As far as the continuities you’re noticing in my work, those are arrived at film by film, and are not planned as such. The film directors I admire most don’t consciously have a form that is their form. Marty Scorsese doesn’t say to himself: ‘I will make a certain decision this way because it either does or doesn’t conform to my form.’ No, what he chooses to do flows from him organically. I think that’s the case for every filmmaker. The more diverse one film is from the other, the more exciting it is. What you want is to find yourself on a frontier. For the working director, there is no conscious form from film to film. We all know what our ambitions are, but in a very healthy way we are all unconscious of ‘signature.’

– For the full interview go here 

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Paul Schrader: On Screenwriting

Taxi Driver (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
In the following extract Paul Schrader discusses the screenwriting process in relation to his work on the seminal films Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ – each directed by Martin Scorsese. 

You wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver in about ten days, and I know you’re of the school of thought that the faster you write a screenplay, the better.


You have to understand that the gestation period could be months, or even years, and the idea of writing fast is to keep from writing as long as possible, so that it just endures time and obstacles. By the time it comes out, it comes out almost fully formed. Then you write in approximately a time frame that’s like viewing a movie. You can sort of feel the experience as you’re living it, it doesn’t get attenuated, it doesn’t get threshed out. But I’m also of the school of I’m not going to write unless I know what I’m going to write. I pretty much know what’s going to happen on page seventy-five before I sit down and write.

So you have to have the whole thing in your head before you write it? 

Yeah, and outlined. It moves and shapes itself as you go along, but it is pretty well worked out, and it has endured numerous tests before it is written. By tests, I mean the oral tradition, telling people. You sit down and you tell people the story. You say, ‘Look, I wanna tell you a story. Man walks into a bank. There’s a robbery going on....’ There you are, you’re off and running, and you can watch people. It doesn’t really matter what they say, it’s what they do with their eyes and how they sit. You can see whether or not this story has a resonance, and as you tell it, sometimes you have to make changes. Because like a stand-up comedian, you realize you’re losing your audience, you gotta do something drastic. I think it was Chandler who once said, ‘If you ever get in trouble, introduce a character with a gun. Your reader will be so glad he’s there, he won’t ask where he came from.’ The same thing with telling a story; you realize you’re losing your listener, then you say, ‘All of a sudden, a red car pulls up, and these two guys in black coats come out.’ Boom! You got your listener back. Of course, you’ve also got a red car and two guys in black coats, but that’s one of the things you do when you work the oral tradition. By the time you write that script, you’re pretty confident that it’s worth writing because you have seen it work. If you can tell a story for forty-five minutes and keep people interested, you have a movie.

Taxi Driver (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
Who would you use as a sounding board? 

Anybody. The more ordinary someone is, the better, because they’re not going to give you arcane points, you’re just going to see if they’re interested. It’s like telling a joke – you know when it works. Obviously, certain material is very sophisticated, and it’s not going to work that way. I’m not going to sit and tell Mishima to somebody at the 7-11! But in general, if you’re dealing with a kind of a narrative, you want to get that kind of feedback. Also, another good thing about it is it stops you from writing a lot of scripts, because you see them die, and you see yourself getting stuck. It is very discouraging to write scripts that don’t get sold or made. If you can stop yourself from writing those scripts, you can prolong your career. Because all you have to do is write five or six of those scripts, and you’re about beat up. So if you have a bad idea, you can catch it in time. You haven’t lost a script, you’ve saved yourself four months. I lecture from time to time on screenwriting, and when I lecture, it’s a five-point program. It goes from theme, to metaphor, to plot, to oral tradition, to outline. That’s the progress of an idea. It all begins with a theme, and another word for a theme is a personal problem. In Taxi Driver it was loneliness, the metaphor was a taxicab. Bing-Bang-Boom, it starts to move.

When you sit down to write an original screenplay, where do you begin?

At any given time in your life, there are a number of problems running around. Problems that have a lot to do with where you are in your life cycle, whether it’s a mid-life crisis, problems with parents or children. You’re always looking for metaphors that will somehow address that problem. And once you find that metaphor, particularly if you’ve written as much as I have, it’s like a factory is standing there, fully manned, ready to go. All it needs is the raw material. The metaphor is the raw material. Once they get that, they can go to work.

The Last Temptation of Christ (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
But your last few projects have been adaptations? 

About four years ago, I ran into a little dry period. Like so many others I turned to books. I did some adaptations where I originated the projects: Touch and Affliction. For about a year now I sort of fell back into the groove and have been doing a lot of writing again. That feeling of not having anything original to say has sort of gone away. I think I’ll be good for a couple more years.

It goes through cycles. 

Yeah. I don’t think anybody has something fresh to say every year. You just don’t have an original script every year.

You adapted ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’, which was not an easy novel to turn into a film. How did you approach that adaptation?


I do the same process in terms of problem/metaphor. You look at the book, and you say, ‘Where’s the problem?’ And it’s not necessarily the problem in the book, it’s your problem that you find in the book. ‘What part of me exists in this book that I can address?’ You have to personalize it, and therefore in a book like Last Temptation, there were probably five or six different scripts that could have been written from that. You have a 600-page philosophical novel, and it’s going to become a 110-page script. What I did in that case was I listed every single thing that happened in the book – there were probably 400 or 500 things that happened in the book – then I did columns. Did they address my problem? Were they important for expositional needs? Did they address any of the sub-themes? I went through all the scenes and put checks behind them to the degree that they were useful to me. And then I just took the top fifty scenes, because only between forty to fifty-five things happen in a movie anyway, and said, ‘Okay, what do I have to add?’ Or, ‘How do I make this meld all together?’ That way I was able to take three- quarters of the book, and just wipe it off the table in one grand stroke and reduce the size of the book. Then I went back and picked up from those pages I had swiped off, whatever little bits and pieces I might need.

Raging Bull (Directed by Martin Scorsese)
You did a rewrite on the film ‘Raging Bull’, and Martin Scorsese said that your version of the script was the breakthrough that helped get the film made. What exactly did you bring to the script for ‘Raging Bull’?


Well there was no Joey La Motta. Jake La Motta had written a book called Raging Bull with Pete Savage, and he cut his brother out of his book because he didn’t like his brother! So I started doing research, and I started hearing about the fighting La Motta brothers and that they were boxers together. I interviewed Vickie [Jake’s ex-wife] and Joey, and I realized you had a sibling story. The movie was about these two brothers who had this contract. Basically the contract was, they were both boxers, but one of them had the gift of gab, and the other one didn’t. So Joey basically said to Jake, ‘Here’s the deal. You get the beatings, you get the fame, I get the girls, we set up the bookies, and we split the money.’ Well that contract is fraught with dangers [laughs]! That was the implicit contract between these two men. Jake would be the headliner and take the beatings, and Joey would be the pretty boy who got the girls and they would split the money. You know that there’s going to come a day that someone doesn’t agree with that contract! So without Joey, you didn’t have a movie...

From – Paul Schrader Interviewed by Jim Mercurio and David Konow: Creative Screenwriting, vol 6, #1 (Jan/Feb 1999) and vol 9, #5 (Sept/Oct 2002).