This DSI is with a screenwriter who has participated in some of the best
films to be released in the last couple of decades, Lem Dobbs. Thanks for
agreeing to discuss your work, career, opinions, and views on life and
especially film. For those readers to whom the name Lem Dobbs draws a blank
stare, could you please provide a précis on who you are: what you do, what your
aims in your career are, major achievements, and your general philosophy, etc.?
LD: No one has ever equaled “My name is John Ford, I make Westerns.” I wish I could say the same -- which gives you some idea of my aims and general philosophy -- and how minor my major achievements have been.
I suppose I became a screenwriter thinking I would write the kinds of movies that had always been made and join the great Hollywood machine that produced them, only to find my “career” coincident with the creative and economic decline of what we used to call the film industry.
Now that the counter-whiners are on alert, primed to point out that there are exciting things happening in South Korea, and that the latest if not the last Manoel de Oliveira film is sublime, and any year that produces UP can’t be all bad ... we may proceed. Although interviews by their nature are backward-looking.
Roger Ebert once interviewed an aging Tony Curtis, who said when he first came out to Hollywood he stayed at the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard -- a tradition I followed. Young Tony Curtis -- or Bernie Schwartz as he must still then have felt -- went down to the pool his first morning in the sun, jumped in, swam its length, climbed out the other side -- and sat down to do the interview.
“Life and money both behave like loose quicksilver in a nest of cracks. When they’re gone you can’t tell where, or what the devil you did with ‘em.” (Name the film!)
Before we get to the biographical stuff, let’s get basic. How do you
define your job, as a screenwriter? Do you see your words as immanently more
malleable than a poet’s or novelist’s, since film is a group artistic
effort, and last minute edits will inevitably affect your words?
LD: I’ve always thought of it as describing a movie on paper, that’s all. There are scripts I’ve read, or once did, by favorite writers, that have never been made into movies, but I feel like I’ve seen them. You should be able to “see” the movie when you read a script, even though there aren’t actors, there’s no music … but somehow it’s washed over you as if there were. But this also presupposes the right sort of reader, a dying breed, someone who might actually know what a movie is and be able to visualize it. The lack of knowledge and experience -- of taste -- of people in the film business has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The generally accepted page count has decreased significantly from what it used to be. As costs have increased. So scripts judged “a fast read” now -- a man, his wife, his vampire mistress -- on a plane -- are often mistaken for good. NORTH BY NORTHWEST or 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY require a little more cognitive effort, from everybody.
Edits, last minute or otherwise, presumably affect the work of “real” writers, as well -- Raymond Carver, to name but one famous example -- but in other disciplines, at least, their words are supposed to be the final product. Because of the collective nature of filmmaking, a screenplay is naturally more malleable in one way or another -- and often should be, but needn’t always be. Fealty to a good script doesn’t necessarily mean limiting a director’s or an actor’s expressiveness. You can have a “literary” movie, heavy with voiceover narration, where you feel the actors have been instructed to speak rich and allusive dialogue precisely as written. But we’re also thrilled by great films made in a seemingly more casual or improvisatory manner. The trouble from the screenwriter’s perspective is that a film can be sometimes faithful to the script as far as what’s written, but tonally all wrong, hopelessly miscast, with inappropriate music, clueless production design, crippled and compromised in countless ways large and small. You might go to great lengths, for instance, to evoke the light and landscape of the Hudson Valley -- only to see them film it on the cheap in Romania with eastern-European extras as Native Americans. Which was par for the course in the former German Democratic Republic, but by no means the only place walls are forever being put up in the world of moviemaking.
Despite the group nature of film work, are there times when you have put
your foot down and insisted your words be performed as written? And, even if
spoken verbatim, a good (or bad) actor can twist a word’s meaning to mean
almost the exact opposite, no?
LD: Screenwriters can’t insist on lunch, let alone adherence to their precious script, and if they put their foot down will be sent to their room pretty swiftly. Speeches imagined in the writer’s head as being delivered breathlessly at breakneck speed (and, God forbid, even so indicated) might be slurred by an actor at a snail’s pace, and pregnant pauses where none were intended can render a scene lifeless.
(I may have dreamt it, but I’m pretty sure Michelle Pfeiffer once said “intellectu Al” in a movie -- and her co-star wasn’t Pacino.)
In KAFKA, the marvelous actor Ian Holm -- if he’s to blame -- changed one word which, in a climactic summing-up speech, changed the meaning of the entire movie, if you ask me. His character declares himself in favor of a mob because a mob is easy to control. It’s the purpose of the individual he finds, as written, “questionable.” But in the film what he says is that the purpose of the individual is always -- pregnant pause -- “in question.”
Since he’s playing a mad scientist, the original phrasing is more in keeping with his project -- the revelation of the film’s mystery, such as it is -- which is to lobotomize individualism. He’s saying, in effect, I know perfectly well what the individual human mind is all about, and I don’t like it, I find it suspicious, so I’m working to change the equation. But by saying “in question” instead, he neutralizes his own argument and legitimizes his quest for knowledge. He becomes an ordinary, inquisitive man of science trying to find out what makes the human brain tick. What’s lost is, of all things, the Kafkaesque (“questionable” also carrying a hint of the interrogation room).
Now, this may very well be nitpicking -- the director certainly thinks so -- it may even be a better choice for the character, if you want to look at it that way. But it wasn’t my choice and here’s the thing -- I bet you it was no one’s choice. It was probably just the way Ian Holm happened to say it while the camera was rolling on that day in that take at that moment -- and no one cared or even noticed. I could be wrong. I wasn’t there. It certainly wasn’t malicious; no one says, Let’s fuck up the script. Maybe there was discussion or debate about it, maybe Ian Holm said, “Would you mind if I said it this way, it feels more comfortable to me” … But I’d be surprised. The point is, it doesn’t cross anybody’s individual mind for a second that the writer might actually have selected the words he put down on paper with any thought or deliberation whatever -- with the luxury of time and contemplation to do so -- rather than in the midst of film set pressure and chaos. It goes to show you, it’s not only the massive or truly destructive changes routinely wrought on scripts. These relatively tiny details can drive you -- well, me -- crazy. Let go.
In Steven (Soderbergh)’s interview book with Richard Lester, there’s a story about working on a script with Pinter and how desperately at the last minute he needed to add a comma.
DS: I think that’s an excellent example, and I see what you mean, as the changed term does fundamentally alter the meaning of the moment, if not the prior film (one I’ve yet to see, however). In cinema there are noxious terms and ideas called film theory and auteur theory. The former is pretentious and the latter rather manifest, therefore redundant. What are your thoughts on the two terms, as applied to the actual task of filmmaking, and in their historical context?
Film theory has been a pretty dry well from the outset and since the days
of Eisenstein/Pudovkin, etc. would seem to have had little overlap with actual
filmmaking practice. Find a studio executive or a contemporary director who’s
heard of Noel Burch or Laura Mulvey and you will have found the Missing Link.
Well, you might find that at a movie studio, regardless.
(An anthropologist did once write a book about Hollywood.)
I’m not altogether disdainful -- though Noel Burch himself ultimately
realized how irrelevant he was. There
are pleasures of a kind to be had from reading about the Male Gaze, or YOUNG MR.
LINCOLN through a Marxist prism, or a Jungian analysis of VERTIGO, or
Orientalism and the Other in THE ADVENTURES OF HAJI BABA -- but then what?
What’s the next fad in film studies?
Whereas auteurism lasts forever. Theories
don’t make movies, men do (oh, all right, men and women).
They also make theories. Only
individuals matter, and a critical response is only as interesting as the
responder. In the hands of a Robin
Wood, auteurism, Marxism, feminism, sexual politics -- are less important as
critical apparatus than as personal autobiography. He doesn’t just dish up cold theory; it’s all filtered
through his voice. PERSONAL
VIEWS, the title of one of his books, could serve for all of them.
The view is what moves us, whether it’s the filmmaker’s or the
critic’s, whatever theories may have informed it. And you do want an informed view, one born of deep
knowledge and experience: a
complete view. That’s what an
auteur -- and auteurism -- provide.
It’s true of all theories of art, isn’t it?
Theories of acting … Plenty of anonymous people have studied “the
Method.” So what?
Where did it get them? Marlon
Brando would still be sui generis.
Steve McQueen may have trained at the Neighborhood Playhouse -- you can
see how much more mannered he is in early TV performances -- but later learned
not to worry about what his “character” would do, only what Steve McQueen
would do. Robin Wood could be writing about RED RIVER from a gay
perspective or a Freudian perspective -- we only care that it’s Robin Wood’s
perspective, committed as he always was to the Leavisian tradition, a criticism
of evaluation, of personal taste and judgment, not establishment pieties or
party dogmas -- “all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending
for our souls.”
You do have to keep an open mind and look at individual movies in their
totality -- but try telling Howard
Hawks his films are homoerotic, or that they’re products of “the studio
system,” try writing about his Westerns from the saddle of “genre
studies,” or separating out the contributions of Faulkner and Furthman and
Leigh Breckett and Raymond Chandler to a “shooting script” Hawks then
didn’t shoot. Who cares?
They’re Hawks films! Of
course he deserves the “possessive” credit, you Writers Guild buffoons!
The Auteur Theory is clearly the most practical and, as you say,
self-evident way of looking at or “reading” movies, and it’s mind-boggling
after all these years to still have to listen to screenwriters rail against it
without the least notion of what they’re talking about.
It’s so funny/sad their undying belief that only an Ingmar Bergman can
possibly be an auteur because he “writes and directs his own scripts.”
“No one ever made a good movie from a bad script” is their other
favorite cliché -- now and forever blind to the power and the glory of Sam
Fuller, Edgar Ulmer, Douglas Sirk, and countless sows’ ears made into silk
purses by distinctive, individualistic directors, including many movies that
have no script at all except -- in Writers Guild parlance -- “as represented
on the screen.”
My favorite movie, THE GREAT ESCAPE, good luck finding a physical copy of
a screenplay that resembles the finished film, cobbled together as it was with
spit and chewing gum -- by the director, working with various writers -- day by
day, moment to moment in the tumultuous making.
It never occurs to the anti-auteur knuckleheads that there’s a reason
Alfred Hitchcock’s THE 39 STEPS is far better, richer and stranger, and more
timelessly entertaining, than the multiple remakes directed by people you’ve
never heard of, and that this has rather more to do with who Alfred Hitchcock
was than whoever the respective and often numerous scriptwriters were, however
intelligent or skillful or helpful they may have been -- or even the author of
the original source novel.
One of the famously early outraged in this line was Gore Vidal,
scandalized upon seeing “Un Film De Franklin Schaffner” emblazoned all over
a work that he, Vidal, had originated. But
the fact is, the filmography of Franklin Schaffner has a thematic and stylistic
consistency -- and more good movies in it -- than Vidal’s typically haphazard
grab-bag of a screenwriting career. If
Paris was burning, which biopic would you snatch from the vaults of the
Cinemateque -- PATTON or CALIGULA? Which
planet would even the French be obliged to save for posterity -- the one with
the APES or Jerry Lewis? I’m
quite fond of Michael Cimino’s -- yes, you heard that right -- THE SICILIAN
(the Director’s Cut, naturally) and it’s too bad the Writers Guild denied
Vidal screenplay credit. I’d also
like to see “John Collier’s” THE WAR LORD -- before that fantastic and
interesting writer’s script -- which was perhaps fantastic and interesting --
was supposedly eviscerated to become a not uninteresting Franklin Schaffner
film. But this is the real world of
moviemaking, and that’s the way it goes.
I have elsewhere made the case for Charlton Heston -- i.e., the Movie
Star -- as occasional or quasi-auteur. It’s
a question of who has the power to shape the movie to his will.
And the camera. Because the
visual, the image, will always predominate.
The writer may indicate or suggest ways of seeing, but he is not the
final arbiter, even of his own credits. German
Expressionism, Soviet montage -- these “theories” may have helped make
Alfred Hitchcock, but it’s Alfred Hitchcock who makes his movies.
Auteurism, finally, is of value because it recognizes the primacy of
artists and personal expression over academic formulas and dogmas.
If screenwriting is imagining movies, it’s helpful and inspiring to
imagine what a particular story, subject, film, might be if it were “Robert
Aldrich’s” or “John Huston’s” or “Sam Peckinpah’s” or “Frank
Borzage’s,” “Fritz Lang’s,” “Blake Edwards’s,” “Anthony
Mann’s,” Wyler or Wilder’s. Or
a touch of one or another, mixed from a palette of influences.
These names conjure up cinematic worlds -- distinctive styles, attitudes,
avenues, and approaches. Screenwriters
simply do not have comparably extensive or cohesive bodies of work.
Having said that, wait till you get me going on the subject of my
DS: I agree about Edgar Ulmer, although even his B films have good screenplays. They may not be Bergmanian, but I think there is a basis for the quality in the screenplay. Ulmer’s Bluebeard, as example, has some well scripted scenes of a puppet theater that presages, as example, a similar scene in Bergman’s Hour Of The Wolf. And re: Heston, I agree, as well. He is maybe not a great actor, technically, but he is a powerhouse onscreen presence. You HAVE to watch the screen when he’s on. Anyway, I’ve interviewed philosophers, like Mark Rowlands and Daniel Dennett, before, and have found that oftentimes thinkers and artists are ideologically bound to an idea (religious, political, ethical, philosophic) above the ‘art’- i.e.- they are more concerned with ‘what’ is said than ‘how;’ the ‘noun’ rather than the ‘verb’ of art. Which sort of writer are you? Do you use your art to declaim from on high or to craft even a silly premise or scene into the best that it can be? In short, are you an artisan or a visionary?
LD: Oh, completely artisanal, emphasis on the “art,” and I don’t mean with a capital “A” -- I mean the medium. I have absolutely nothing to “say” when I write a screenplay. That’s the difference between the two terms you italicized in your previous question, isn’t it? And why the auteurists have always come down so hard on poor Stanley Kramer -- content in the absence of form. Ideological art is a contradiction in terms. The agony and the ecstasy. My first allegiance is always to the movie, or The Movies. Politics, religion, philosophy, these are just layers of interest to be applied, you might even say exploited, as desired, to color or add depth to the material. I love the “left-wing” spaghetti westerns written by communist Franco Solinas and I love the screenplays of “right-wing” John Milius. I see no contradiction in this. They’re movies. And they can explore all areas of life, thought, and behavior. How could I ever turn my back on Ken Loach’s beautiful film KES, so important in my childhood, so influential to so many of us -- no matter how much I despise the man’s loathsome brand of English leftism? I can even make use of his film POOR COW, to suit my own artistic purposes in THE LIMEY. Is this crass or cynical? Or is it interesting -- if it enriches character and narrative and meaning and subtext in a given film? Ken Loach films are famous for their form as well as their content. I put someone in a Ché T-shirt in THE LIMEY because I thought it said something about his character (and tied into a larger political thread, which was largely excised). I don’t like Ché, but I like Steven Soderbergh’s film CHÉ. I also own a copy of Richard Fleischer’s film CHE! Because cinephilia knows no bounds. And no matter what you think, movies are basically all the same -- unless you’d rather watch a 24-hour static shot of the Empire State Building.
Movies are pretend, as far as I’m concerned. An extension of childhood play. Writing is a way of not having a job and enjoying a life of total freedom. Hollywood/American filmmaking, in any case, does not support any real ideological freight beyond a generalized, shallow liberalism. Genuinely political, spiritual, philosophical, intellectual cinema -- that’s what people mean by “foreign.” Solinas was smart enough to realize that movies are so capitalistic by definition as to make a mockery of any attempts at Marxist messaging, directly or by stealth. As Billy Wilder said of the Hollywood -- originally the Unfriendly -- Ten, “Only one of them was talented, the rest were just unfriendly.”
DS: I agree on Stanley Kramer. It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World still makes me piss my pants. Heaven has a spot for him just for the couple hours of joy that film contains. On a tangent, since I mentioned philosophers, you have stated that Walter Benjamin was a big influence on you. Who was he, what was the influence, and was it personal or professional?
LD: I don’t think I’ve ever said he was a big influence. I spoke about him on the DARK CITY Director’s Cut DVD in connection with that film. He was a big influence on my father, who was a big influence on me, so there’s that.
In contrast to those theories and dictums which tend to fade as soon as they’re formulated, Benjamin’s seem to grow in force and insight. He was one of those early 20th Century thinkers, like Kafka and later Orwell, who somehow saw what was coming, particularly, with Benjamin, in relation to what had gone before -- the reverberations, the detritus of the recent past. His most famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” cited ad nauseum since the great wave of fashionable Benjamenta broke in the 1960s, is particularly apropos where the rise and fall of cinema is concerned. We do appear to have reached the logical end of late capitalism -- television repeats, video and LaserDisc and DV D, downloading and file-sharing -- this is technological reproduction with a vengeance compared with what Benjamin saw in his lifetime -- film prints in limited numbers prepared for brief theatrical release, after which most of them disintegrated, if they weren’t deliberately destroyed. What’s perhaps more alarming in our own era of, irony of irony, “content-providers,” is not the ever-faster technological reproduction (now instantaneous or on demand), but the reproduction of content itself. The endless recycling, rip-offs, remakes. The movie business has always been prone to this, naturally, but it used to be more generic, not psychotic. It was never the case that within five minutes of watching every movie you could name the prior movie it’s slavishly modeled on.
If you saw Stanley Donen’s CHARADE, you might think, “Aha -- Hitchcock.” Then if you saw Stanley Donen’s ARABESQUE, you might think, “Aha -- in the style of CHARADE.” But now you see a movie and you say, “Wow -- these numbskulls watched CHARADE.” And got it all wrong.
If popular commercial movies designed for mass consumption were always pretty similar, with their accepted clichés and conventions, still there was room for greater nuance and variation and originality, in different genres, than seems the case now. The paradox is that reproduction kills -- genre most of all. Too many B-Westerns, TV Westerns, Spaghetti Westerns -- and suddenly there are no Westerns.
DS: I think that art is generally superior to philosophy, for a number of reasons, but, to keep things simple, the major reason is that philosophy is merely ideas. Good or bad, they are simply nothing if not put into service. Art puts ideas into motion, into service for something. To what degree do you think the failure of cinema (especially from Hollywood) to live up to a higher purpose falls on the audience, the producers, directors, and, indeed, critics? I’m not suggesting there be no place for light crap, but I object when it’s 100% light crap.
Where do you begin? The world, society, culture, education, globalization?
Check all of the above. People
are just dumber than they used to be. Books
now with glowing review quotes all over them that would have been rejected
outright by every professional editor or literary agent when I was growing up.
At the most immediate level, I think it’s mostly a talent problem.
People look back at the glorious 70s and say, oh, you couldn’t make
FIVE EASY PIECES now or THE LAST PICTURE SHOW or McCABE AND MRS. MILLER, or
whatever. Why the hell not? What are they really saying? -- that they don’t, in
fact, think that much of the Coen Brothers or Danny Boyle or Atom Egoyan or Lars
von Trier or Richard Linklater or Todd Haynes and Todd Solondz?
That Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach might fall just a wee bit short in
the talent/wit/maturity department in comparison to Woody Allen or Mike Nichols
in their prime? That Jim Jarmusch is not quite Robert Altman?
There still seem to be people who are allowed to make “their” movies.
If anything, these contemporary names suggest Art and singular Vision
more readily than Alan J. Pakula, Sidney Lumet, William Friedkin, and Hal Ashby
ever did -- so why does the work of these newer “filmmakers” seem less
substantial by comparison? Or is
this going to seem like a Golden Age twenty years from now?
You can understand why financiers might have grown disenchanted with,
say, Arthur Penn, given his last five or six at-bats, even though with the right
script I would have liked to see someone like that given one more shot
-- but are great movies really being shut out of the system while moronic
executives greenlight the next Lasse Hallström or Ed Zwick project?
If LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is no longer possible because of cost, what’s
stopping them from making ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST?
I’m surprised they haven’t re-made it -- yet.
Because that’s their current economic ideal -- a single recognizable
actor in one location. But who
would it be now? John Cusack?
Let’s say someone -- clerking in a 7-Eleven store, you might dream --
was talented enough to write CHINATOWN now.
Who would star in it, direct it, compose that great score, design the
poster? If it could even get
through the present studio system which, agreed, it wouldn’t.
LAWRENCE OF ARABIA could not be made now not only because of
budgetary considerations, but because there’s nobody in any department
competent, skilled, or talented enough to make it -- and furthermore, no longer
the possibility of a wide audience intelligent enough to be receptive to it.
So it’s a talent problem and an everything else problem.
DS: Do screenwriters have ‘writing styles’? Do you? Outside of a Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman, Tonino Guerra, or Joseph Mankiewicz, there are few screenwriters whose words instantly are recognizable as having come only from them. Agree or not? Why?
Sure, screenwriters can have writing styles, but those screenwriters are
few and far between and have little hope of equaling the power of others, mainly
the director, over the final product. Most
screenwriters throughout Hollywood history have been faceless hacks and
untalented almost by definition, now more than ever, but despite my stated
auteurist leanings, of course there are writers I revere, who mean the world to
me. They’re mostly grouped in
that era, the Seventies, to which we eternally return, when I happened to be
coming of age. And screenwriters,
too, came into their own as authors in their own right, never to such an extent
before or since -- with distinctive and personal voices, signatures, themes.
They wrote original screenplays, like novelists, which some of them were.
They changed my life and made me what I am and I’m under their
influence to this day -- Alan Sharp and John Milius and Walter Hill and Goldman,
Towne, Schrader, Rudy Wurlitzer, Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais in England.
It was a time of interesting artistic tension:
is it Robert Aldrich’s ULZANA’S RAID -- by Alan Sharp -- or
the other way round? Yes, John
Huston fucked up John Milius’s THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JUDGE ROY BEAN -- but in
a very “Hustonian” way. And
there are still flashes of Walter Hill to be discerned -- I think -- in
Huston’s THE MACKINTOSH MAN. THE
THIEF WHO CAME TO DINNER, made by a director of little consequence, seems very
much a Walter Hill script -- a particular way he had of advancing a story
through terse dialogue scenes between two characters at a time, the
cat-and-mouse pursuit -- repeated later with the same actor in THE DRIVER.
THE GETAWAY would seem a more harmonious meeting of individualistic minds
-- Hill/McQueen/Peckinpah -- despite the usual artistic battles and power plays.
And when Hill explains what’s left of his contribution to THE DROWNING
POOL, it’s pretty much what a Hill fan might have guessed.
I even still like these screenwriting credits of his, maybe because I saw
them in my formative years, more than many of the movies Hill himself has
directed over the years. Which is
why, although I can never fully embrace any of my own movies as wholly
“mine,” I can understand why some people revere this one or that one, just
as I revere JEREMIAH JOHNSON and APOCALYPSE NOW, even though Milius’s scripts
were -- does this sound familiar? -- raked over the coals, rewritten, or
bowlderized by their directors and stars and other hands.
It was really the one time, the 70s, when the auteur theory was seriously
challenged. Paddy Chayevsky, never
a great favorite of mine, was in his heyday -- probably the most well-known
exception to the rule that people usually come up with -- along with Neil Simon.
I could watch “Neil Simon’s” THE ODD COUPLE -- the movie -- a
thousand times and never tire of it -- but what would it be like if a great
filmmaker had made it? Is such a
thing even imaginable? Would Billy
Wilder’s THE ODD COUPLE be very different or better or worse? These are games.
I also love Bruce Jay Friedman/Neil Simon/Elaine May’s THE HEARTBREAK
KID -- one of the great authorship mash-ups in film history -- and how much of
it was Charles Grodin’s? -- and like and enjoy very much “Herbert
Ross’s” THE SUNSHINE BOYS and THE GOODBYE GIRL.
So go figure. There is no screenplay greater than “Robert Bolt’s”
LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, written in close consultation/collaboration with one of the
greatest directors of all time, and despite the competing claims of Hollywood
screenwriter Michael Wilson and his advocates, Bolt’s “style” is readily
identifiable and comparable to his two other famous movies, A MAN FOR ALL
SEASONS and DR. ZHIVAGO. Whereas if
there’s anything “Wilsonian” in LAWRENCE, I couldn’t tell you
what that might be or detect anything similar in his most terrific other
movies, A PLACE IN THE SUN, FRIENDLY PERSUASION, PLANET OF THE APES -- except
that those films were made by the Hollywood directors most like and liked by
David Lean. I’d be hard-pressed
to know who Michael Wilson is from his films -- a generalized interest in
“outsiders”? -- what his lusts or demons might be, what his “style” is
at all. He represents, perhaps, the
“craft” of screenwriting as it’s more usually characterized, something
that may have had as much to do with the “genius of the system” in
Hollywood’s Golden Age and a generally more refined culture than the more
individualistic world-cinema sensibility that came about in the 1960s -- then
petered out by the 1980s.
They also wrote screenplays deliberately, the New Hollywood
writers. They weren’t drafted,
they enlisted. Didn’t look on
screenwriting as a lesser art form, as earlier screenwriters tended to.
And they weren’t like the gold rush claim-jumpers and hustlers who came
Other professional or occasional “scriptwriters” in my pantheon to
one degree or another include Robert Ardrey, W.R. Burnett, William Rose, Rod
Serling, Ray Galton & Alan Simpson. Keith
Waterhouse just died. I never met
him. BILLY LIAR! Why
did I never write him a letter to tell him how much he meant to me!
But beyond these personal favorites, just think how much higher the
standards once were on a film by film basis.
COOL HAND LUKE and DOG DAY AFTERNOON on Frank Pierson’s resumé.
JULIA and PAPER MOON on Alvin Sargent’s.
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and THE GREAT ESCAPE not on Walter
Newman’s, though his draft of SEVEN is virtually the film and I’ve had it
beside my desk since I was a kid. Buck
Henry, David Rayfiel, Wendell Mayes, Waldo Salt, Richard Matheson, Benton &
Newman, Lorenzo Semple, Jr., Reginald Rose, Horton Foote, James Poe, James
Salter, James Goldman, Bo Goldman, Franco Solinas, Gavin Lambert, Bruce Jay
Friedman, Jules Feiffer, James Toback, Terry Nation, Troy Kennedy Martin,
Stirling Silliphant, Irving Ravetch & Harriet Frank, Jr., Jay Presson Allen
(it was almost, but not quite, an all-boys club), Peter Stone -- and the young
Oliver Stone. There just aren’t
people of that caliber, that intelligence, or sophistication today.
No basis for comparison whatsoever.
There was that legendary telegram sent in the early days from Herman
Mankiewicz in Hollywood to Ben Hecht in New York saying, c’mon out here,
there’s millions to be made and your only competition is idiots.
Well, if they only knew. You
read the average screenplay in Hollywood today -- that’s been bought, mind
you, that they might even be making
into a movie -- and you wonder what transformation the world has undergone that
someone this dumb would even get the idea to want to be a writer.
When I looked around as a teenager, the most successful screenwriters in
Hollywood were the best screenwriters in Hollywood.
Now the most successful screenwriters are simply the most successful
really. They don’t seem to have
any sense of cinema at all. No more
great dialogue or memorable lines. No
great stories or characters or sequences -- or movies, in the end, that will
mean much to film history. You can
read all the interviews with all of them and almost never come across any
references to films or writers of the past.
Except maybe STAR WARS. It’s
really virtually a dead profession. And
even mindless Hollywood seems to know it. There
are ten Oscar nominations for screenwriting each year -- ten! -- and for the
past decade or so nary a one for a screenwriter.
I mean, a pure, professional, career screenwriter like the names I’ve
just been mentioning. Playwrights,
some novelists, lots of people who’ve directed the film they also wrote --
it’s more or less become an extension of the directing category -- and that
ubiquitous figure of the modern movie business, the “first-time scribe,”
which seems more often than not to mean “only-time,” rather than the next
Having thus enumerated so many influences, it’s difficult to say if I
have a style of my own. One fears not. Or
it still remains to be seen. As
Walter Newman liked to say -- “Anything from a one-line joke to OEDIPUS
So, how do you go about writing a screenplay? Or is yours more a
collaborative effort? Do you more often start a screenplay or come in later as a
I much more often start a screenplay -- it’s finishing them that’s
the problem. Writing my own
original screenplays is what I prefer to do, what I started off doing by
nature and necessity, what I always want to be doing and always intend
But in the meantime -- decades of meantime go by before you know it --
there are mouths to feed and mortgages and school fees to pay and the financial
and other temptations of work for hire, writing what others want written.
This is usually a dead end, seldom resulting in a movie, and more often
than not involves writing -- and endlessly rewriting -- hopeless crap for
imbeciles. It’s the Michael Caine
theory of employment, y’know -- when you feel the bank account needs topping
up, you take whatever’s available that week.
There’s also undeniable laziness involved in taking jobs as long as
they’re being offered. It takes
discipline to go your own way, though the rewards, it goes without saying, can
be greater. No one hired J.K.
Rowling to write about a boy wizard.
I’ve really only done the classic “script doctoring” once, early
on, and that was ROMANCING THE STONE. And
while I had an enjoyable time and it was exciting and I made good friends and
all that, I didn’t much like not getting credit for it, especially on a big,
influential success still referenced in every stupid screenwriting book that
comes out. Once was enough and sort of fun, I suppose, in a
putting-out-fires, cavalry-to-the-rescue kind of way, but a career doing
behind-the-scenes surgery would be tiresome and frustrating.
Better to do more extensive rewrites on something as hopelessly bad as
the script of THE SCORE, for example, so there’s a reasonable chance of
getting credit for one’s work if the film is made.
And how do you say no to the possibility of your name ending up on the
same movie poster as the name Marlon Brando?
But even that game is hardly worth the candle, so it’s a shame not to
go your own way if you possibly can, which I feel I should have been doing all
along. Because I’ve never really
liked being in the movie business. It’s
been a rather drawn-out process of getting back to where I started.
When someone says, “They’d never make that movie now” -- that’s
exactly the movie I immediately want to sit down and write.
Or try to. Let the cards
DS: Re: the actual writing, you’ve expressed being bored with grammatical rules. So did I, as a student. But, to be a good writer, I think you must learn all the rules until you’ve inculcated. Once that’s done, you have to seriously unlearn them to be truly creative. Creativity is one of those things that you either have or do not have. There’s no teaching it. Thoughts?
Well, I have tried teaching it and in exactly those terms.
Somerset Maugham said if you can write a play, it’s as easy as falling
off a log, and if you can’t, no one can teach you. I tell students right away that Picasso didn’t just
reinvent the human form right off the bat.
First he learned to draw better than anyone else alive.
Buñuel could be surreal because he could also be real.
Sometimes both in the same movie. My
father was among the last generation who went to art school when going to art
school meant learning how to draw. From
life. Day in, day out, sitting
looking at a model. Then the Sixties came along and Do Your Own Thing became the
norm. Let the students express
themselves, that’s what being “creative” is.
If they want to hang a toilet seat around their neck and chant while
splashing paint on a wall, let them. Who’s
to say what Art is? And that was
the beginning of the end. That’s
how we came to this pass -- one man’s heaven, another’s personal hell --
where “quirky” now equals quality and we have SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK and
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and JUNO instead of STAGECOACH and OUT OF THE PAST and
SERPICO. There was always an
insufferable subgenre of the kooky -- movies purporting to show that
“nonconformists” lead more authentic lives -- A THOUSAND CLOWNS and A FINE
MADNESS and anything with Liza Minnelli -- but it wasn’t the defining
barometer of critical taste.
It’s why every jackass in the world now writes screenplays -- that and
the money they started hearing about. Everyone
thinks movies are accessible to them, you see, everyone has spent their life
going to movies, watching movies on television, renting movies … They didn’t
grow up performing appendectomies. No
one seems to realize that the people at the very top, the ones everyone else
would like to be -- Spielberg, Scorsese, Tarantino -- they know more
about movies than you do, they’ve seen more.
Thousands more. Movies are
in their blood. It’s incredible
when you read the bad screenplays of amateurs and aspirants, not only do they
not resemble real life or human behavior, they don’t resemble movies. “Creativity” is promoted now like it’s a civil right.
But to mention the sordid subject of talent is unseemly and
elitist and muddies the playing field. After
all, America’s got talent.
The fools who write those unreadable HOW TO WRITE A SCREENPLAY books
don’t seem to have any knowledge of movies beyond a superficial understanding
of the same handful of classics or modern hits that everyone knows.
Some director recently announced his attachment to some project and said,
“I seem to be attracted to reluctant hero stories.”
Does he really not realize those are the only stories Hollywood has ever
made? You have to inculcate movies,
not “screenwriting.” There are
shapes and patterns and a certain commercial contract made with the audience at
the dawn of time. Then if you want
to break that contract and go off and make Cassavetes or Antonioni films, fine
-- or fine.
Cassavetes, at any rate, had to do one to subsidize the other.
DS: Great point about inculcating movies, not screenwriting. Let me ask you of something I see as deleterious to both the appreciation of film, and the purveying of good criticism about it, and that’s what I call ‘critical cribbing.’ It happens especially online, but started long before that, in print. This is when claims- pro or con- about something, or serious errors, are propounded again and again. If a Kenneth Turan or Roger Ebert said A, B, or C about Film X, then the same ideas, with the slightest variations, are propounded on hundreds of blogs and newspapers. I think about the misinformation in films, such as when I watched Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup; and the same nonsense about the characters having names cropped up, but there were none in the film. A similar thing re: the characters being called by letters occurred in Last Year In Marienbad; but that, too, was false. A similar thing occurs in reviews of The Limey, where claims are made that Wilson’s first name is Dave, because that’s the character’s name in Poor Cow, the film used in the flashback sequences. This tells me the review is a phone-in, and I’ve seen similar things occur in reviews of television, books, and poets. I posit that most critics, in whatever field, truly do not engage the art they review. They watch or read part of it, justify presuppositions and biases, and, once an artist or film gets a reputation, they never waver from it. If you troll about online, you will find very little variance in the ‘meme’ that gets attached to any art form, film, or director. The point of view- negative or positive, may be differing, but the take, often flawed, is always the same for each critic. Do you agree that this lack of attention to their own craft is formed by biases and the critical cribbing of others’ ideas (conscious or not)? If so, why are so many people in film so hooked into getting a good review or not (aside from any effect at the box office)? And, you seem to have fallen into that trap, if one listens to the commentaries on DVDs of Dark City and The Limey. Have you changed since those commentaries were recorded?
Yeah, obviously the Internet has made everything a lot sloppier.
And the near-complete intellectual/financial collapse of the publishing
business -- apparently no such thing anymore as editors, proofreaders,
fact-checkers. (And just as
mailbags were traditionally made by convicts, indexes are now seemingly prepared
by people in mental institutions.) Combine
this with the lynch mob mentality of most critics.
Sometimes you really can’t understand why they gang up on a particular
film -- is it really any worse than the rest of the garbage out there?
Or why they decide to collectively anoint some other piece of crap.
I mean, look at the historical dump on Stanley Kramer -- the terrific
movies he produced and directed. Not
everyone needs to be an artist. Better
a solid entertainer, skilled craftsman, whatever, than a bad artist.
I’d take JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG and INHERIT THE WIND and ON THE BEACH
over the shit Hollywood makes now, are you kidding? -- the “indie” shit most
of all -- and I bet Andrew Sarris would, too.
If they were stagy or overly didactic “message” movies -- y’know
what? -- maybe the message got across to a vast public and made some of them
But you’re right that whether it’s a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down
there’s very little understanding or analysis of the form beyond the mere
mundane content, which is why a Stanley Kramer was lauded in his day.
Critics -- or “reviewers” -- like most viewers now take each film as
it comes, like newborns, as if it’s the first movie they’ve ever seen,
bringing little or no context to bear on it.
No more history or tradition, no ability to compare or contrast or
recognize clichés. So movies that
would have been quite ordinary in 1974, even quite good ones that might have
gone generally unnoticed then, are now wildly overrated.
Maybe this is a natural mirroring of the people making the movies -- more
of whom are neophytes themselves rather than professionals at different stages
of long careers.
What was thrilling about the 1970s, here we go again, was that you could
go see a new movie by an old master -- Huston, Wilder, Cukor, Aldrich -- and
also be excited by DUEL / THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS and … what next?
You didn’t see MEAN STREETS and immediately think, oh, well, another
autobiographical, independently-financed one-off, we’ll probably never hear
from that guy again. It was a
smaller, tighter business, not quite such a free-for-all.
And there was inter-generational byplay.
Walter Hill didn’t write THE GETAWAY in a vacuum, he sent the script to
Raoul Walsh for his approval. Steve
McQueen in the film had his hair cut like Bogart in Walsh’s HIGH SIERRA, which
was written by Huston -- who played a part in Milius’s THE WIND AND THE LION
despite their differences on JUDGE ROY BEAN.
And Friedkin made THE FRENCH CONNECTION after Howard Hawks told him to
make a car chase. And Scorsese and
Coppola rescued Michael Powell from obscurity.
And Bogdanovich talked to everybody who ever lived.
THE LIMEY is linked to the guy in POOR COW because they are both named Dave.
But he’s not named Dave Wilson in POOR COW, which is the mistake
that’s been perpetuated in LIMEY reviews all over the place.
You can also go online and find numerous references to THE LIMEY 2,
supposedly to team Terence Stamp with Michael Keaton.
I don’t know if the world’s eagerly waiting for that, but it was
Michael Caine that Mrs. Soderbergh let slip in an interview as potential
If I’m bothered by miniscule word changes by actors, think of the
alternative. Let’s say you’re
talented or lucky enough to come up with dialogue so memorable that it enters
the lexicon. For the rest of
recorded time it will be misquoted! Like
“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” (which is not
what Peter Finch says in NETWORK). (Another
irony of the screenwriting life: so many famous lines are supposedly discovered “in the
moment” -- by actors! -- and are not necessarily in the script at all.
“I’m walkin’ here!” “You
talkin’ to me?” “I’ll have
what she’s having.”
One of the most famous and controversial lines of all, still passionately
argued about by cinephiles, is Gene Hackman’s line in NIGHT MOVES about Eric
Rohmer movies being “like watching paint dry.”
Well, in the script by Alan Sharp it was Claude Chabrol movies,
which makes perfect sense to me, if not to Arthur Penn!)
So it’s precisely those reviews that are in error that are
upsetting. I would always accept a
“bad” review if that was the writer’s honest opinion; I would probably
tend to agree with it. But when
“that motherfucker from Variety” (not
Todd McCarthy, Variety’s chief and
excellent, but not only, reviewer --
another mistaken leap to the wrong conclusion I’ve seen online) writes not
that the script is thin but that my script is thin and lacks
supporting characters -- when supporting characters and detail in the script
were removed by the director -- that’s when that critic goes on my shit list.
You’d think a staffer on Variety
above all would have some insight into how movies are made and might even be
interested in movies enough to occasionally scan Variety’s
famous production charts in which Steven Soderbergh’s new film THE LIMEY was
listed for weeks and weeks with an interesting cast, including Ann-Margret --
who’s not in the final movie. But,
of course, it’s even more embarrassing to have personal deficiencies pointed
out when they’re true.
DS: Do you read any ‘serious’ film journals, ala Cahiers Du Cinema or Sight And Sound. What do you think of Cahiers, especially of its New Wave heyday? I think Godard is way overrated and Truffaut a bore. Malle is probably the best of the French New Wavers I’ve seen.
I pretty much agree with you, although I like Malle even less.
Rohmer would be my favorite of the group. And certainly Melville, though he stands apart.
The Truffaut work I cherish above all others is his interview book with
Alfred Hitchcock. That’s not to
say I don’t have all of their movies, I just hesitate to rewatch them
very often for pleasure. It’s sickening, though, to have just glanced at The
Hollywood Reporter and read about a new Spike Lee/Robert De Niro project
about New York’s Alphabet City neighborhood -- entitled ALPHAVILLE!
I mean, where do they get the balls?
So Cahiers, too, has always
seemed a bit dull, though it’s only been translated into English briefly and
I’m still in the habit of buying Sight
and Sound and Film Comment, but you can usually yawn and flip through them and
file them away in a few minutes. Primarily,
I suppose, because the current scene is so desolate.
The obsessive coverage of film festivals bores me to tears, the change
from career interviews to a more narrow focus on whatever new release might be
needing still more publicity is excruciating.
The superfluous “reviews.” How
many is too many? The absolute
craven submission of film journalism to six months of
“awards” and Oscar overkill to the point where you never want to hear
the titles of those movies or see photos of them or their makers EVER AGAIN (and
luckily, you probably won’t) has become simply unbearable.
DS: In a 2002
interview film critic Ray Carney really ripped into film journals: ‘I don't
submit to film journals anymore. Because either (a) you're outright rejected, or
(b) to my shock and dismay, I was told by several film journals, "could you
please insert some footnotes; could you please refer to Derrida or Deleuze and
Lacan?" In fact, I had written one essay more or less out of my heart and
mind and soul, just what I thought, and the fellow read it, and he said,
"this is so deep, it must be indebted to Lacanian theory and Althusserian
cultural studies. Please put that in, because this is the most brilliant
restatement of their theory." Well, those are my thoughts. Academic film
criticism is in trouble. They are in a life raft rowing, and they want to push
me overboard because I don't write like them. In academic criticism what has
happened is that sociology and sociological ways of thinking have taken over and
replaced aesthetic or truth-telling modes. Whether it's feminist or political
thought, or sociological analysis in that multicult[ural] way, or whether it's
some other form of ideological dissection of the work, that is the only mode of
discourse that's approved.’ Pretentiousness
is the sin of film snobs- especially those Cahiers types. But, Hollywood goes
too far in the other direction, with absolutely no attempt made at even daring
to do more, nor probe deeper. In book publishing a similar ill holds sway-
wherein palpably bad writers like a Dave
Eggers or David Foster Wallace or PC covergirl of the month is lauded
even though they are generic products of the MFA writing mills. Even if one does
not ‘like’ the films you’ve contributed to, not pushing to do more is not
a sin that can be tossed your way. Comments?
LD: Yes, ideology trumps truth.
An iron curtain has descended on the universities and they’ve destroyed
more than just film studies. The
totalitarian PC sewer has permeated all aspects of art and society.
“No one sets out to make a bad movie” is another beloved Hollywood
homily -- when that’s what they do as a matter of course.
Getting a movie made, any movie, is the only goal, regardless of outcome,
because career momentum, viability, visibility, personal income, depends on it.
Everything else -- box-office success, critical acclaim -- is secondary
and, they think -- misconstruing that fucking William Goldman phrase again --
ultimately unknowable. I remember
saying while THE SCORE was being prepared, like John Belushi rallying the troops
in ANIMAL HOUSE and nobody following him, “Jesus Christ, guys, we’ve got De
Niro and Brando -- why don’t we try to make this great.”
And the response you always get is, whoa, steady on there, boy.
The thing’s been in development for years, the pieces are slowly coming
together, the script has gotten just barely competent and unchallenging enough
to film -- don’t rock the boat. Besides,
Brando’s not gonna say the lines anybody writes, anyway -- not for Frank Oz
he’s not. And they don’t call him Robert Dinero for nothing.
You go along to get along, we’re not makin’ MEAN STREETS anymore.
The nice thing about Steven Soderbergh, who’s a very generous spirit,
is that I can push him to do more and he does do more -- up to a point.
to you, constitutes a good screenplay? And, I agree with John Huston, who I
believe is the original source for this paraphrase: that, ‘all good
films start with the script.’
LD: Well, if they don’t start with the script, all good films at least end up with something approximating one, as I’ve suggested, even if it’s fascinating “trash” like DETOUR or SHOCK CORRIDOR, or something. We have no idea what the “Academy Award winning” M.A.S.H. script would have been without Robert Altman. More likely than not a cheap, forgotten comedy that never spawned a TV series. The debate will rage forever about who “wrote” CITIZEN KANE or THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. All that matters in the end is that HUNTER is a haunting masterpiece under the ultimate stewardship of its director, Charles Laughton -- more poetic than the would-be poetic novel on which it is based.
Is its extraordinary cinematic beauty and power attributable in part to James Agee’s sometime occupation as film critic -- or wholly the imaginative expressive/Expressionist genius of Laughton? Did Agee really write THE AFRICAN QUEEN, either? Or did John Huston just need a drinking buddy? And did John Collier get screwed again? You just don’t know with screenplays and the tortured journey they take to the screen. My money’s still on Agee’s two directors, one of whom was an actor who never directed another film (talk about one-offs!). (Marlon Brando’s sole directing credit is also lovely to look at.) I think Peter Bogdanovich asked John Ford the same question and Ford said, “Peter, there’s really no such thing as a good screenplay.” I know what he means. THE SEARCHERS directed by Ray Nazarro would be an obscurity. All we know is that once in a while someone writes CHINATOWN and it’s just what I said -- it’s a movie ready-made (though I’ve never read whatever the first draft may have been). There it is. And it’s literate and intelligent and fresh and compelling and unusual and deeply-felt and personal and entertaining. The dialogue sings and sparkles, there are memorable lines. You’re stimulated and engaged and surprised and moved. And even if a great director makes it his own and changes the ending and this and that, it’s still essentially what it was meant to be from the mind and heart and soul and talent and experience -- both creative and autobiographical -- of its sole author, in the scripting sense, Robert Towne. It can’t hurt that one of the greatest and most exciting movie stars of all time is in his prime and ready to play the part and that the writer is a close friend of his and wrote the role to suit him, hearing his voice, his inflections, knowing his mannerisms and personality. A similar happy symbiosis occurred with Schrader/Scorsese/De Niro and TAXI DRIVER. But it’s a very rare and delicate soufflé.
Most of all, with those two scripts, and every good script, the writer starts with himself, his own private obsessions and interests and agonies -- and makes them public. I don’t know if Huston originated that phrase -- seems rather late for Hollywood to have figured that out -- but he did say something I always think about -- which may be another way of stressing the importance of ”theme” in a script -- and the theme of his films is fairly consistent. He said that every movie should have a central idea that’s like a bell. And every scene in the movie should ring that bell.
DS: I believe that all stories that succeed, are good, excellent, great, etc., start with character development. Get good characters, and the narrative writes itself. Start with simply a plot, and no ability to construct character, and you have a shallow mess. Also, character is built not on melodramatic high points, but in the dales of the ‘little moment’- what a character observes or is influenced by. Thoughts?
LD: Every great movie is a character study. In anything good, the situation comes out of character, not the other way round. Which is why when someone says a movie is “sit-comy,” they’re not being kind. When TV executives made their poisonous inroads into the movie business at the end of the 1970s, they brought their business model of the “high concept” with them. The TV Guide one-sentence logline. Drama depends on a story being about the most important thing that ever happened to this person. If it isn’t, why are you wasting our time? Why aren’t we watching some other movie? Otherwise it’s television, where you know the character’s going to have an equally exciting adventure next week. That’s one reason television is hardly ever, if at all, art, no matter how much they defensively pretend it sometimes is. And why sequels suck. But the best television, the finest sit-coms, are the ones in which character is central. The people are who you care about in THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW or SEINFELD. Even M.A.S.H., which might have seemed just an edgy “situation” into which cardboard cut-outs could be dropped literally by helicopter, was made moving and memorable by those people in both the movie and the series. Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John and Hot Lips and Radar -- like Hamlet and Macbeth -- are bigger than the actors who play them. Quite an achievement, that. Although as the series wore on, they inevitably lost the distinctive character traits (and some of the original characters) that made them memorable in the first place.
Sure, character is fate, destiny, all that -- YOUNG MR. LINCOLN. The eternal question: What does the character want? I was just watching for the umpteenth time Don Siegel’s version of Hemingway’s THE KILLERS, a perfect illustration of what you’re saying, much more so than the good, but milder and more conventional Robert Siodmak version of the 1940s, though that’s often considered the more respectable of the two. The famous enigmatic story, of course, is about a man who, though forewarned and with a chance to escape, calmly accepts his own assassination. The movies, naturally, are forced to explain this -- in a melodramatic plot involving robbery and betrayal and the marked man left broken to such an extent by a cold-hearted femme fatale that he is essentially “dead” before the fact, his killing a mere formality. In the Siodmak version a comforting stand-in for the viewer is provided in the form of a straight-arrow insurance investigator employed to solve the mystery. But in Siegel’s version the protagonist becomes the killer played by Lee Marvin. The “little moment” you speak of comes after the startling opening sequence depicting the killing. The killers are now on a train, leaving the scene of their crime, and the older of the two, Marvin, is quietly brooding. Before he even speaks, we know what he’s thinking. Why did the victim greet his murderers like they were doing him a favor? And something more -- what became of the loot from the robbery gone wrong? The ending of the movie, like all good endings, is now inevitable, even though we are still at the beginning. Marvin’s desire and obsession, as a man growing older, will lead to his own premature demise. (Huston, who worked on the original version, always felt that fate turns the corner before the characters do.) In identifying with his victim, Marvin will both avenge and become his victim. He falls down dead at the end after aiming an imaginary gun with his empty hand, while the stolen money he has obtained at such a price spills out of its briefcase (see also THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, THE KILLING, etc.). “Lady, I don’t have the time,” are his last words. The character is the story. From the beginning, it was written.
DS: As example, I once wrote a tale after seeing a news bit about a horse stuck in a sinkhole. In my tale the horse eventually sinks to its death, but the main tale is about this Indian Reservation cop trying to impress the female owner of the horse. Yet, when I sent it around, not only did the ‘real’ story of the people get overlooked, but they didn’t even care of the sinking horse. The first question most agents and editors asked was why I didn’t give the coloration of the horse. As if that fuckin’ mattered! That tale was in one of my manuscripts, and then I wrote a manuscript where the same tales were told from a different character’s perspective, and described the horse’s color early on. But in neither tale did it matter. Yet, this is why so much creative writing and screenwriting is bad- publishers and studios don’t look more deeply, and only care of surface things; and good writing is thought of as being endless description, which is why so much MFA writing has descriptions of places and people and things- all exterior, and nothing interior; the very essence of character and good story telling. Yet, shit that lacks these qualities is published and lauded in the New Yorker, making the careers of even more bad writers. Ideas?
LD: Books are published now -- crime novels, for example, which is a field I still follow -- that are so horrible, it’s mind-boggling. Covered in laudatory review quotes and blurbs, listing all the awards they’ve won -- you can’t believe it. It’s quite often impossible to find a bad review of a book, that’s how much of a racket it’s become. You have to read customer reviews at Amazon to get a true reading -- whereas there are always lots of rotten reviews to be looked up of almost any movie. As they’ve all gotten so much dumber, the gatekeepers, in both film and, even more alarmingly, the more refined, one supposed, world of publishing, have become less literate and more literal. So much for Hemingway’s tip-of-the-iceberg theory of writing -- what’s under the surface unseen but nonetheless felt. In the movie business, they want to see it, all of it. In case people don’t understand.
Bresson: “Displaying everything condemns CINEMA to cliché, obliges it to display things as everyone is in the habit of seeing them.”
The artist/filmmaker is no longer respected or trusted (though this is hardly new), least of all by his employers -- emboldened by a staff of lackeys whose jobs never used to exist. This vast, poisonous network, like the NKVD or STASI, of “creative” executives. And they demand endless meetings -- or interrogation sessions -- which focus almost entirely on what happens. What are the “beats” of the story. The twists, the turns. Discussion of character or tone, ambience, atmosphere, matters of style or influence -- these are arcane and arid notions that are beside the point. (“The personal life is dead in Russia” -- DR. ZHIVAGO.)
Unless, of course, you write “unsympathetic” characters, then you’ll never hear the end of it. I was dumb enough to agree to write a script about the Guyana/Jonestown horror and tried to focus the first draft, for the sake of budget as well as dramatic unity, on just that jungle story. The response, predictably, was, “But we want to see what made Jim Jones crazy and evil -- and could he please not be quite so evil. In other words, they wanted a biopic, and what’s more, a false one -- the good man turned bad. Which I don’t believe for a minute.
Not that mindless interference didn’t regularly bedevil filmmakers in Hollywood’s rose-colored past -- it’s just so much more pervasive now. And y’know what? In the past it was quite often after the fact. Orson Welles or von Stroheim or Peckinpah or Nicholas Ray or whoever would make their film and then the barbarians would move in and maul, mangle, and mutilate it. But by now they’ve learned how to ruthlessly destroy something before it even starts filming.
DS: What of the
subjective axis of like and dislike of something versus the more
objective good and bad? After all, one cannot objectively discuss
likes, but one can debate the differences between a bad film and good film, tv
show, or book. Thoughts?
LD: Well, let’s
just go back to THE KILLERS. Leonard
Maltin gives the Siodmak version four stars, while the Siegel version only rates
two-and-a-half. And I suppose I
rather agree with him. With few
exceptions, Maltin, I think, is pretty fair and accurate in assessing the historical
ranking of movies. Siodmak’s THE
KILLERS is the more “classical” version.
More faithful, though it only comprises the film’s first act, to the
Hemingway story. It has
“better” production values. It’s
a quintessential noir. It
introduces a great star of the screen, Burt Lancaster, and he and co-star Ava
Gardner could hardly be more beautiful. If
an ordinary intelligent person who’s not especially a dedicated cinephile
asked me which version of THE KILLERS to watch, in good conscience I would
recommend the Siodmak version. Siegel’s
version is cheaper, trashier, even campier -- with Ronald Reagan, in his last
movie role, as the villainous Mr. Big. But
I like Siegel’s better. I
would choose it over the other as the one to take to my desert island.
Is it just a film buff’s choice -- because it’s cultier?
No, I don’t think so. I
can watch it more times with pleasure, and get more out of it.
It’s deeper, I think, more complex, and just stranger.
Maybe I find Lee Marvin’s white-haired ugliness more beautiful than
Burt Lancaster’s pretty boy youth, and Angie Dickinson even hotter than Ava
Gardner, and John Cassavetes a more compelling second lead than Edmond O’Brien
-- or “Johnny” Williams’ jazzy score more exciting than the great Miklos
Rozsa’s more traditional Golden Age music.
It may have a lot to do with my age; the Siegel version is more
“modern.” I was alive when it
was made so it seems more alive to me -- is this why most people prefer
“new” films? I recognize it and
myself in it.
DS: Let’s take a break from the existential, and get into the personal, for a while. Did you have any heroes in screenwriting (or any other form of writing) as you grew up? If so, who and why?
LD: My screenwriting heroes I think we’ve covered. The big three, really, were John Milius, Walter Hill, Alan Sharp. I suppose as an adolescent boy, those kinds of male, macho, tough-guy movies -- westerns and crime films and war and adventure stories just appealed to me the most, and that they were so informed by Hollywood’s glorious past. And, as I said, you began to notice the quality of the writing, the terse and memorable dialogue, great lines, the existential nature of the characters.
I’ve subsequently met them all, and it is a thrill. Milius said on the phone to me before I went to visit him, “Never meet your heroes. They’ll always disappoint you.” Walter Hill signed my poster of THE GETAWAY which I have here in my office. And Alan, whom I’ve gotten to know quite well, my NIGHT MOVES poster. It’s a big deal, I think, tradition, continuity, the passing of the mantle -- along with the anxiety of influence.
As far as writer writers? Probably not “heroes” in quite the same way -- since I have not yet written a book. But favorites, of course, probably too many to think of. Maybe Donald E. Westlake, under his Richard Stark byline, had a similar effect upon me as those screenwriters. The thought that I might, however imperfectly, imitate or emulate this. Maybe William Goldman, whose books I came to after taking an interest in screenwriting and, obviously, given his preeminence.
George Orwell, not so much for the big two of his, which aren’t especial favorites of mine, but for COMING UP FOR AIR, which is, and for his general writings, the famous essays -- his voice, his persona. Kafka, when I discovered him, as teenagers do. Somerset Maugham. Hammett, Chandler, Ross MacDonald. Philip José Farmer, though I’m not particularly “into” science fiction otherwise. Simenon when, as an older teenager, I found him. Simenon was, and remains, huge for me. You feel you’ve found yourself in a favorite writer.
DS: Did you ever want to act or direct? I’ve read you were a child actor but information on that is not very widespread. Are you a failed film student who abandoned the lens, or a writer from the get go?
Really a writer, constitutionally. I
think if you really want something, you pursue it, and I’ve never
seriously pursued anything else. Idle thoughts or daydreams are not the same
thing. Directing was, and is,
always vaguely in the air, but I’m obviously quite ambivalent about it. In fact, I loathe the very thought of it -- even under the
most ideal, fantasy circumstances of perfect
conditions and total control. Having
to argue and deal with people, the compromises and pressures and getting up
before dawn for weeks on end, the sheer boredom of the technical process and
editing and promotion afterwards. I
can’t stand the idea of relinquishing my daily personal freedom. So no, I’ve never looked back after walking out of high
school, free as a bird. Rejected
the idea of going to film school. A
writer can be himself by himself and just begin.
As for my career as a child actor -- or non-actor, to be more precise --
that came about because my father had just befriended Michael Powell who was at
that time something of a forgotten man, but about to make a final film -- a
little children’s film called THE BOY WHO TURNED YELLOW.
My father took me, film-crazy as I was, to dinner with the great man, and
Michael evidently thought I had an oddball look and voice and personality that
would do for the part of the young hero’s science-nerd best friend. (The other half of the once-glorious Powell & Pressburger
team -- a stern Emeric Pressburger -- was not so pleased, as I recall, meeting
him once during the making. The
screenwriter is never happy!) God
only knows what possessed me to go along with this.
Shortly after the film was finished, the same producing organization, the
anachronistic Children’s Film Foundation, had me do a day’s dubbing on
another of their fantasy films, THE SEA CHILDREN -- replacing the voice of the
King of the Sea Children, my kind of weird American/English accent or whatever
it was, thought to be more suitable or alien than that of the poor kid who
played the part -- who may have been surprised later on to see his lips moving,
but this bizarre vocal performance coming out.
The next thing that happened was I was summoned to the office of
legendary London casting agent Miriam Brickman, where I read for the role of a
young Donald Sutherland in a proposed Jan Troell film about a chess prodigy,
from Nabokov’s THE DEFENSE. But
the film, in that incarnation (a version was made decades later starring John
Turturro) never happened, and I happily fell off the map.
Which I’m getting pretty adept at.
DS: When and where were you born? Are you an American citizen? What were some of the major, or defining, issues during your youth, insofar as they affected your career path? Were you politically, socially, or artistically active when young? You are a Baby Boomer, so what films or television shows had an effect on you?
LD: I was born in Oxford, England when the 50s became the 60s and grew up mostly in London. I had a one-track mind. Movies were all I ever wanted. There were no other issues that affected my career path.
I was neither particularly social nor political, even if friends in high school, say, were. I was artistically active, despite art all around me, only when it occurred to me as a teenager that I could start writing screenplays, which I then did fervently.
The usual films and television shows affected me that affected everyone else -- with a significant difference and advantage, I think, compared to others. I grew up completely bi-cultural, American-English in England, and English-American in America -- or vice-versa -- absolutely fluent in two languages. It’s not quite the same, not as complete, no matter how long an American may have lived in England or how American-culture-saturated an English person may be who becomes an ex-pat in the States. My father was always an American in London. It’s really being both at once, a foot on both sides of the river, as it were. I’m an American citizen, but a dual-national. I’m more outwardly American, but Britain is the land of my birth. I’m increasingly more loyal to America, the more England has gone into terminal decline, the more the society and culture there has shockingly deteriorated, the more vile and hateful the English have become. London, which stood strong against Hitler, is now a willing host to evil. The blitzing of London universities, at any rate, can’t resume soon enough, but this time for the sake of human decency and the safety of civilization.
Brits don’t know what a ground rule double is and Americans don’t know who Tony Hancock is.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Who were your childhood heroes
(outside of film) and why? Where did you go to high school, and to what college?
Was youth in England a radical change from earlier times in your life? You’ve
not retained an English accent, or did you ever develop one? How did your time
abroad affect your views on life and art, if at all?
The earlier times in my life were in England.
Abroad was everywhere else. I
guess before things started to come into clearer focus just making movies or
being part of the movie business was always somehow the vague idea.
Although I was never driven to make my own in any kind of amateur way
beyond a couple of idiotic Super-8 things with school friends and firecrackers
planted to go off like gunshots, you know, like all kids make.
I was much more interested in buying and collecting and reading movie
books and magazines and seeing movies, real movies.
So I’m not sure I had any childhood heroes other than Steve McQueen.
There were these incredible emerging figures -- the Beatles, Muhammad Ali
-- or Cassius Clay, as he was first known to us.
No one of that time and place can ever forget the black and white images
-- and I’m speaking only of newsprint; I don’t remember, or wasn’t aware
of, any racial overtones at all -- of the very white English champion Henry
Cooper, a famous “bleeder,” with blood (black in the papers) pouring down
his face as this extraordinary black American fighter danced around him,
floating like a butterfly. My dad
was a big boxing fan. No one can
forget Ali’s appearances with England’s top television talk show -- or chat
show -- host, Michael Parkinson (I once went to see Orson Welles do the
“Parky” show live). And when
Ali came to London in the 70s to do a lecture show/appearance in a big sold-out
theatre, the excitement was electric. Later
still, in the 1980s, I encountered him at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas and got
his autograph. To my generation he
was a Caesar.
There are the received heroes you come to appreciate in greater depth
when you grow up, but as a kid you have Churchill chewing gum cards and the
Abraham Lincoln of Classics Illustrated and Disneyland and the movies.
Davy Crockett, Batman -- some things never change.
Scott of the Antarctic was the sort of “official” hero taught to
English school children. I remember
we were encouraged to give three cheers and shout “Hip Hip Hooray” for Sir
Francis Chichester when he circumnavigated the globe in a small boat.
This was the kind of thing -- the old fogey patriarchal Establishment --
that our comedy heroes like Peter Sellers and the goons, Peter Cook &
Dudley Moore, and later the Pythons openly mocked -- while we went around
imitating all their silly voices. Even
the American kids at the American School in London where I went from 7th
Grade through high school. Typical
American education, albeit for quite affluent and privileged kids -- many of
them oil and banking type families (a large contingent always coming and going
from the American School in Teheran), with a smattering of show-biz types.
Very Republican. All very concerned with where they were going to go to
college. Whereas I barely
considered it, such was my rush to get into the movie business.
After the year we lived in Hollywood, I never wanted to go back to the grimmer and stricter English schools I’d been to when I was younger, and the American School years were much different and happier and I became, as I said, more “American,” though still largely English on the inside. I’d been a proper English schoolboy when I was little, in school cap and blazer and sandals, at Dulwich College Prep School in London and later Christ Church Cathedral School in Oxford, which was founded by Cardinal Wolsey and where Lewis Carroll, aka the Rev. Chares Dodgson was a math -- or maths -- teacher (but not in my day). Both cultures made me. You do feel at home, yet a bit of an outsider, slightly wary in each. “To England and to other things …” says Peter O’Toole as Lawrence (T.E., though D.H. felt much the same way).
DS: What were
some of the cultural touchstones in your life, the things, events, or people who
graced your existence with those ‘I remember exactly where I was’
I remember the death of Churchill. The
black-and-white (again) funeral procession on television, that went on all day,
it seemed. Maybe that was the day
greatness died. (The people who
would make the last great movies, in the 1970s, were already alive.)
The day England died. Though
it was certainly the right time and place otherwise -- for a parallax view of
Muhammad Ali and American pop culture, or to buy the new “A Hard Day’s
Night” disc at the record store. It
wasn’t only in retrospect -- you knew something pretty exciting was happening
at the time there, in Swinging London. And
then Berkeley, of all places, in the annus horribilis of ‘67/68.
My mother crying in front of the TV when Bobby was shot.
Hippies getting tear-gassed on Telegraph Avenue (where I first started
scouring used bookstores for paperbacks and comic books and Mad
magazine). Cops in their cruisers
telling us to get off the front lawn and back into the house at dusk when curfew
began. Black kids at Emerson
School, where I attended 4th Grade, hunting a white kid who used the
“N” word on the day Martin Luther King was killed. And then Hollywood in ‘70/71, post-Manson, just in time for
the big quake, with so many Old Masters of the Silver Screen still alive.
(I saw GUNGA DIN -- and Gunga Din himself, Sam Jaffe, on La Cienega
To be lucky enough to have come of age as a maturing movie buff in London in the 1970s, when cinephilia was at its peak, when the greatest movies ever were coming out weekly -- and you could also go to the National Film Theatre every night and see every John Ford or Michael Powell film in existence.
DS: Are you
married? What does your wife do? And how did you meet? Is she a critic, writer,
LD: It’s more than movies or money you can get from writing screenplays. I had an agent named Dan Halsted. He had a big poster of THE GRADUATE in his office. Naturally, that being such a favorite film, he was on friendly terms with its producer, Lawrence Turman, who was still quite a prolific player in the business in the late 80s. Dan sent Larry a new script of mine and Larry liked it and wanted to meet the writer. This is the daily diary of Hollywood. It might lead to a script being bought, or the writer being hired to write something else, or more usually nothing. It doesn’t often result in a wife and children. But within ten minutes of the customary introductory chitchat -- where are you from, what’s your background, etc., Larry looked at me and said, “Are you married?” All I could think of was the story of Bob Hope vetting a prospective agent with the question, “Are you Jewish?” -- and I replied accordingly, “Not necessarily.” Anyway, some kind of light bulb had gone off -- he had heard of my father, which is quite rare, for anyone in the movie business to know anything about the art world -- and he asked if I might want to meet this girl, an art history major … Best deal he ever made. We’ve been married for twenty years.
Her father, Larry Turman’s best friend, was the publisher of Performing Arts magazine which was the West Coast equivalent of Playbill -- the theatre programme, for all the “legit,” as Variety would say, venues throughout California and so on. When I met her, my wife was the editor. She became the owner when he died, but sold the business, it no longer being much fun without him, not to mention too burdensome when our own kids were becoming more numerous and needy. She sold the company and signed the papers literally a day or so before 9/11, which marked the beginning of the end of the magazine publishing business, particularly high-end magazines reliant on airline and hotel ads, and the like.
The real punchline, though, is that the screenplay of mine Larry Turman read was a very violent, nihilistic script, obviously written by a disturbed loner isolated in his room for too long with too much Peckinpah on his hands. The producer of LETHAL WEAPON, Joel Silver, optioned it in the end. It was about Arab terrorists attempting to bring down a Manhattan skyscraper and a New York cop who catches and tortures one of them in order to prevent the unthinkable event from occurring. I wrote it in 1989.
What sort of child were you- a
loner or center of attention? Did you get good grades? Were you a mama’s boy
or a rebel?
No, as a child I was not particularly a loner, always had the usual mix
of good school and neighborhood friends to run around with, no matter where we
lived or moved to over the years. Was
no more of a mama’s boy or rebel than any other child and had no school
issues, though I didn’t especially enjoy it most of the time.
I was never happier than when I no longer had to go.
Walking away from the American School, to St. John’s Wood underground
station for the last time, standing on the platform, I felt like the guys
waiting for the train in THE GREAT ESCAPE.
Any siblings? What paths in life have
LD: I grew up with a sister. She was the rebel, and left home as a teenager as soon as she could to live a defiantly independent and bohemian existence. She became a well-known “Guardian Angel” patrolling the London and New York subways, before breaking with that, er, organization, and later joined the United States Navy, serving a number of years as a Seabee, as in the John Wayne movie, though thankfully without the direct experience of combat. She is retired from the Navy and living on a hilltop somewhere.
My father had a second son with his second wife and that brother of mine, who spent much of his growing up with my own kids, is also something of a loner at present, graduated from UC Santa Barbara, and doing the Hemingway’s adventures of a young man thing, as my father did before him.
Ah, yes Curtis Sliwa’s Guardian Angels- what a phony crock of an organization.
Any children? What paths have they followed in life? What are their interests?
LD: My three children at the moment have the interests of children at the moment -- soccer, video games, and the occasional offerings from Hollywood.
What of your parents? What were their professions? Did they encourage your
LD: My father was a painter (could paint a whole apartment in one afternoon – two coats!). My mother was his wife, though she had an interest in, and throughout her life pursued, a degree in Russian studies and literature. They did nothing but encourage and assist in my pursuits. I got taken to the movies and to bookstores to buy more movie books.
DS: Your father was the famed painter R.B. Kitaj (a fact I did not know till Googling biographical info on you). One of the things most notable in his work was the fact that his paintings were figurative and idea-laden, not just the mind-farts that dominated Abstract Expressionism and other Modernist –isms. Were you drawn to storytelling via or because of your father’s work, or was it something inborn- a family trait?
LD: He was/is the greatest influence on me. I never had the slightest interest in becoming an artist artist myself, was never very interested in art, the art world, painting -- perhaps a reaction against being dragged as a kid to museums and galleries. But my dad was a great movie buff and movies were hugely important to him and his art. He frequently used images from movies as the basis for his paintings, compositions, human figures. So I suppose it was the most natural thing in the world, for a small child -- these movie books or film magazines or torn-out images were lying open on the floor. One big famous early movie book in particular -- THE MOVIES -- a big book of pictures -- that was probably the start, along with just watching old movies on TV and talking about them with him, learning the actors’ names, later the directors -- the usual process of gradual and soon all-consuming obsession.
DS: You were friendly with filmmaker Billy Wilder. Did you meet him via your dad’s renown, or when you got into filmmaking? Any anecdotes of note?
LD: Through my father initially. When we lived in Los Angeles in 1970/71, he, my dad, conceived of a big project that involved going round sketching many of the Old Masters of Hollywood’s golden age. It may have been just an excuse to meet them, and to have his movie-mad 6th-grader son meet them, because the only painting that later resulted from this was one called “John Ford on his Deathbed” -- and the visit with Ford was certainly the highpoint (though Renoir wasn’t bad, either). But we went to see Mamoulian and Milestone and Mervyn LeRoy and Hathaway and Cukor -- they were all memorable. Sometimes one would refer us to the next. I’ve never forgotten Rouben Mamoulian getting on the phone and dialing a number and saying in his still rich Hungarian accent, “Raoul!” -- but we never got around to visiting Raoul Walsh because he lived further away on some ranch or somewhere or my father couldn’t arrange it or be bothered. I don’t know why we missed out on Hawks or Wellman. Anyway, Wilder must have been easy because he was a great art collector. He was also at that time the youngest of the bunch and still active -- we visited him not at home but in his office at a studio.
At decade’s end I returned to Hollywood as a 19-year-old to seek my fortune and didn’t really know anybody except three extraordinary men who were close friends of my dad’s, as close as family, and looked out for me in those early days. One became the subject of my screenplay EDWARD FORD. The other two were friends with Billy Wilder. The first, David Hockney, was also a pal of Cukor’s, so I met him again, too; David took me to lunch and dinner with them. Cukor I was very intimidated by, probably due to the homosexual panic involved in going to dinner at his house as David Hockney’s date, but also because of the old world elegance and formalities -- the servants hovering behind you to take away the soup bowl.
Billy was more fun, but of course I was shy in his presence too. After he first read a script of mine, a comedy, he summoned me to his office and said, “You were so scared of me, I didn’t know you had this in you!” which of course was a tremendous compliment. He kept an office in the wonderful old “Writers and Artists” building on Little Santa Monica Boulevard, still there, and still with his name on the directory at the entrance. Another long-time tenant was my father’s other friend, the screenwriter, novelist, and serious art collector (a very rare subspecies in Los Angeles) Michael Blankfort, who was like a grandfather to me. It was Mike who first passed my comedy script to Billy, as I never would have dared. It was also Mike who gave my early efforts to a young agent on the same floor, Ken Sherman, who happily signed me up. So I subsequently got in the habit of giving Billy my new scripts hot off the Xerox machine, and he got in the habit of saying, “You’re not making it easy on yourself!,” thinking them too arty or pretentious or something. I wish I had foisted myself upon him to a greater extent, but I remained hesitant. I wish I’d been bolder in encouraging him to write great scripts in a more serious vein again. I feel he dug himself a hole in a way and perhaps dated himself by becoming too much of a “comedy” director in the latter part of his career. But he was far from out of touch in person. I remember sitting with him in his office after we’d both just seen APOCALYPSE NOW. It was not universally embraced when it was new, and still has its detractors, but we both loved it, thought it was a masterpiece -- Billy talked about it with an excitement equal to my own. Of course, he had been shown it by Francis, while I had gone to see it at the Cinerama Dome as a paying customer. So I would continue to run into Billy in those years, in that building, and I’m sorry I grew up and lost touch. Once we were talking about my using a pseudonym and he said when he first came to Hollywood he was advised to change his name because Willie Wyler was already a prominent director. Billy’s response was, hey, it’s like painters: “Monet, Manet -- who gives a shit!” Sometimes he’d have priceless works of art in the trunk of his car and you’d worry about them being stolen, but he’d say, oh, they don’t care about the signatures Picasso or Van Gogh, only Sony and Panasonic.
DS: Great Monet/Manet quote. Why did you choose a pseudonym in your writerly life? And, are both Lem and Dobbs pseudonyms? Why did you choose either or both? What was your name at birth? Is Lem short for Lemuel?
LD: Lem is short for Lemuel, which is my middle name and the one I preferred from early childhood. Just as my father hated the name Ronald and so used initials, I didn’t care for my given name Anton (and neither did aged relatives of my dad’s upon hearing it, as it recalled Cossacks bearing down on them at full gallop). Dobbs is my phony show-biz name. My thinking was that Kitaj is difficult for people to read and pronounce -- a childhood of teachers pausing when they came to it at roll-call, also the shadow of a famous father, I suppose (the name often spelled out phonetically in parentheses in articles -- “Kit-eye”). You want them to be able to say, “Get me Dobbs!” Something about the simple Hemingwayesque/English-sounding terseness of it I liked. Of course, it comes from a perennially favorite film -- actually one of my earliest film memories -- THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE. But it’s also very much the book by the mysterious “B. Traven” -- the romance of a pseudonym. The idea of hiding behind a secret identity was something I found terribly attractive. It’s tied in with, almost the point of, being a writer. It now seems to me in retrospect as if every paperback I read as a teenager on the subway to school bore a pseudonym -- George Orwell, Mark Twain, Richard Stark, John Lange, John Le Carre, Lewis Carroll, Ed McBain, Ross MacDonald, Woody Allen – John Ford, Jean-Pierre Melville, Eric Rohmer! -- Stendhal, Corvo, Barbellion … I mean, look, if it was all right for Lenin and Stalin …
Your father’s surname was also not his name at birth. Is this pseudonymizing a
thing that runs in the family?
My father’s blood father split from my father’s mother when he was
born or even before. She then married a chemist from Vienna, a Dr. Kitaj, who
became the official father and so that became our name.
Was your father supportive of your literary and artistic pursuits?
Probably upwards of 95% of the students at the American School in London
went on to college. I wanted to bypass college and go straight to the movie
business. My father barely blinked
an eye at this, but I remember him saying he discussed it with his great friend,
the poet Robert Duncan -- along the lines of “Should I support him in this mad
pursuit, what if it’s sheer fantasy?”-- and Duncan responded “Yes, yes,
always, always support someone who wants to be an artist.”
You know -- who but a poet? I
don’t know if there was a time limit placed on that obligation. But, yes, my father the ex-Merchant Mariner was hardly an
example of the opposite view, and he knew this was not a whim or passing fancy
on my part, but an idée fixe I had followed and educated myself
in with single-minded devotion from the earliest possible age.
So I was very lucky to have an artistic parent who so readily supported
me and set me up in my first little Hollywood apartment with an allowance.
Seems kind of crazy now, but you’re not worried at the time -- at least
I don’t remember being -- just stupidly confident for some reason that things
will work out. And maybe after the
first year or two -- it didn’t take much longer than that -- just when he
might have started mentioning that I
might revisit the idea of film school or college or get a job in a bookstore or
something -- that’s when I first started to make my own money and succeed as a
screenwriter and, again, never looked back.
I suppose if it had become clear I had no ability for this, I would
probably have drifted into some more modest fringe film buff activity -- writing
or selling film books/posters, memorabilia, film reviewing or programming.
What was your youth like, both at home and in terms of socializing with other
LD: As I said, never without good and lasting friends, made easily. Infanthood in Oxford. Then we moved to Dulwich Village, a suburb of London. The exciting year in Berkeley, then back to Oxford for a couple of depressing years -- parents’ marriage gone bad -- another exciting year in California, Los Angeles -- London again, Chelsea, a great house to live in and return to for the next couple of decades. It’s sometimes hard to separate life lived at the time from a later look back with more understanding, but it only really occurred to me recently that the year my mother died -- the worst thing a child can imagine -- was one of the happiest years of my life. Lucky, again, in that my dad took my sister and me away with him to Los Angeles for that fun time in the sun in the aftermath of tragedy. Hooray for Hollywood.
DS: Your mother committed suicide in 1969, and your father’s 2007 death was likewise ruled a suicide. First, is there any doubt in your mind that your father committed suicide? Was he ill? In 2009 (as I type these words) my mother recently died, but was ill for a long time, bedridden for the last month of her life, and had to starve herself the last 17 days because of this nation’s insane ideas about sex, death, abortion, suicide, euthanasia, etc. Was your father in that sort of state, or was he psychologically depressed?
LD: My father without a doubt committed suicide, following the steps laid out in the well-known self-help book. But he had Parkinson’s disease, which rather mitigates the verdict -- one can say more or less in truth that he died of Parkinson’s. I might quibble about the timing -- it had not progressed to such an extreme degree, I would have thought -- but clearly it was the right time for him. Depression, they say, is a component of Parkinson’s disease, and he was not known to be a ray of sunshine at the best of times, especially not in the latter years following the lightning-strikes-twice death of his beloved second wife. You think, well, there are still other loved ones and books to read and movies to see and work -- but as we know, with artists, if the work is threatened, even though his handwriting, his brushstrokes hadn’t been impaired yet, that’s usually the bottom line.
DS: What were the circumstances of your mother’s suicide? And does suicide run in your family? Have you ever contemplated such? And, if so or not, how have such ideas (from the self or your parents) affected your characterizations onscreen, if at all?
LD: With my mother, on the other hand, it may be possible to surmise, if you wish, that it might have been accidental -- pills and liquor self-administered, though years before the guidebook became available. But on the whole I doubt it. I think there you have depression pure and simple, with a dollop of retribution. Does suicide run in my family beyond my immediate parentage? I’ve no idea, since I know almost nothing of family beyond them; no contact with my mother’s side after her death whatsoever. I have never been particularly depressed or contemplated suicide other than in sheerest fantasy when in the midst of a screenplay on assignment that I loathe and wish I’d never undertaken. I’m not aware of this family history having affected my work in any way. Someone once asked me (it was an actress, naturally) if I’d ever “written a letter” to my mother -- i.e., as I realized what was meant, after her death -- in order to ask her why she did what she did, how she could have deserted me, to exorcise my own anger, express my “feelings” about it, etc. None of this would ever have crossed my mind and strikes me as nonsensical, 12-step, psychoanalytical, therapeutic gibberish, and has no bearing on my feelings or interests or work in the slightest.
DS: In this obituary
of your father, it claims he was part of ‘a “School of London,” in
which he included Francis
Freud, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and himself as central figures.’ His
work, indeed, reminds me of Bacon and Freud, albeit more grounded in narrative.
Do you identify yourself with any school or –ism of screenwriting? And, are
there any such schools in the art of screenwriting?
Hockney once said, if only there was an artist named Eggs, then you could
have Freud Bacon and Eggs.
No, I’m not part of any screenwriting school or ism, because there isn’t.
Maybe you could make a case for the Algonquin Roundtable wits who ended
up soused in Babylon, or the somewhat close-knit “Movie Brats” of the
aforementioned 70s -- Schrader, Milius, Hill -- or all the great comedy writers
who came out of the Sid Caesar show -- but not really.
Maybe because of the dog-eat-dog nature of the movie business or the
artisanal nature of the craft or, more likely, the one-step remove from the
final work of art which is the lot of screenwriters.
The same obituary states your father was pals with poets like Robert Creeley,
Charles Olson, and Allen Ginsberg. While Ginsberg is the most noted outside of
the poetry world, in retrospect, I can see where your father’s work, and
Freud’s and Bacon’s, has connections to Olson’s. Even more so, in both
Dark City and The Limey- to me, the two best films in
your c.v., I can see the layering upon effect that was so prevalent in Olson’s
poetry. In Olson’s verse, individual poems or stanzas were not particularly
deep nor beautiful, but, when reading, say, The Maximus Poems, and
reading them one after the other, it is like layers of tissue paper with a
single mark on it, that, when layered on top of each other, connect up to form a
single portrait. Especially in The
Limey, this technique is used to paint portraits of the main
characters- Wilson, Valentine, and especially Wilson’s dead daughter Jenny,
who is never seen in real time. How strong an influence, personally or
literarily, were any of these poets?
LD: Just as I took for granted all the art and artists around me, so I remained pretty oblivious to poetry and poets -- except, as you say, personally, because of the presence of these enormously engaging people who were recurring characters in my world growing up. Duncan, and Creeley, and Jonathan Williams, primarily. Earlier in my childhood, lovely Michael Hamburger. I remember a visit to Hugh MacDiarmid in Scotland. We would see Christopher Isherwood in Hollywood. Stephen Spender at the dining table in London. Name-dropping like this, it’s a kind of cast list of the past. An all-star cast. Taken for granted as a child. My Spanish teacher in high school once beckoned me to her desk and slyly said she’d watched an interview with David Hockney on TV the night before. David had recounted the story of he and my father going to visit W.H. Auden -- who at the end of his life had a very lined and wrinkly face -- and my father said as they left, “If that’s what his face looks like, imagine what his balls look like.”
Ginsberg, Olson, Wieners … were probably around in the Berkeley period, but they were peripheral to my knowledge and memory. Of all my dad’s close friends I think I had the most feeling for Creeley, which is perhaps not a surprise. He seemed the most romantic outlaw figure -- though practically the only, and defiantly so, hetero of the bunch. Lots of fucking going on in the guest bedroom on the other side of the wall next to mine! Quite exciting for a teen, as you can imagine. Creeley was a really wonderful kind of American archetype. He had one eye, the other one a closed eyelid without a patch, from some old accident or misfortune. My father called him “Blind Pew.” Wonderful, soft-spoken -- a poet! When he stayed with us in London, sometimes the police would deliver him back to our address. Alcoholics are often unpleasant, but the few I knew growing up were such warm-hearted people. The infamous restauranteur Peter Langan was another I loved and miss.
So, again, no, I can’t say they influenced my work in any quantifiable way. They were just larger-than-life figures who were always around.
DS: My wife
writes in Matisse like strokes that add up to a greater heft, whereas my prose
is more detailed, like a Frederic Edwin Church painting. A film like The
Limey uses both sorts of touches- that Olson/Matisse sort of layering,
but also intense details like Church. Was that a conscious thing, or just
something that organically developed as the screenplay and shooting of the film
Probably more organic than conscious, I’d say, and came about in the
making and in working with Steven Soderbergh.
My original LIMEY screenplay, written many years before, was a very
simplistic, adolescent shoot-‘em-up, heavily influenced by Walter Hill films
and Richard Stark novels, with a mix of Brit noir -- GET CARTER and the
television mini-series OUT starring Tom Bell.
Steven was, for some reason, can’t think why, a great admirer of that
script, but it became something more -- yes, much more layered, when we came to
make it. Still not quite layered
enough, though, if you ask me.
DS: I maintain
that the creative arts are higher than the performing or interpretive arts,
because you are basically starting with less to work with. In short, an actor
interpreting Shakespeare or O’Neill has it much easier than the two
playwrights did in conjuring the drama. Similarly, I posit that writing and
poetry are the two highest general and specific art forms, for writing is wholly
abstract- black squiggles on white that merely represent and must be decoded,
whereas the visual arts are inbred, and one can instantly be moved by a great
photo or painting, while even the greatest haiku will take five or ten seconds
to read and digest. Poetry is the highest form of writing because, unlike
fiction, it needs no narrative spine to drape its art over- it can be a moment
captured, and wholly abstractly, unlike a photo. Do you agree with these views?
If so, why do you think this is so? I would bet that since language (at least
written) is only a six or so thousand year old phenomenon, while sight has been
around for 600 million years or more, that’s a hell of a head start the visual
arts have over writing. Comments?
LD: Well, I think the art of the photo -- especially when it is art or something more than a snapshot -- is precisely that it captures a moment in time that’s gone the moment the shutter clicks. Whereas cinema, as Stanley Kauffman just wrote, “glories in the delusion that it can really defeat mortality.” If all that remained of Humphrey Bogart was a photograph, he’d truly be dead. But he lives and breathes and walks and talks -- life eternal and immortal -- even if it’s a mirage.
But I suppose you’re right that poetry can also be abstract, as opposed to a photograph’s concretization of a moment in time. I don’t really care; I’m happy to wait the ten seconds or ten days, ten weeks, ten years, for a work of art in whatever medium to be digested. Movies and books matter to me more than paintings or plays or poems or operas or ballets. This is not true for everyone.
Where movies are concerned, I’ve also never subscribed to the Writers Guild shibboleth that In the Beginning Was the Word, that it all starts with a writer facing a blank page -- because usually it starts with an idiot facing a blank page. Two other Kitaj pals, Philip Roth and Lee Friedlander -- does one “see” the world better or deeper? One uses a pen, the other a camera. Both publish books -- you read one, you “look at” the other. To me, to the culture, they’re equally great, they’re American masters.
James Agee may be credited as the screenwriter-adapter of famous works by famous writers, but his finest hour, after all, may be having written the text for another FAMOUS book -- of photographs.
Roth said recently that hardly anyone will be reading fiction in 25 years -- that 25 years may be an optimistic reckoning. Maybe more people than currently read Latin poetry, but not that many more. The screens have won. I remember Isherwood -- on the Dick Cavett Show, I think -- saying something along the lines of: what if you’re a great writer or poet, but your language is Icelandic? Then the joke’s on you. But the visual, as we know, is universal. Not necessarily more meaningful -- now that “film grammar” has gone the way of conventional literacy. So mere language can be restrictive and limiting. Maybe someone should write a book about that. Oh, wait …
Cinema is close to poetry because of the power of suggestion. You think you see things. The shower scene in PSYCHO may be the most well-known instance. Montage forces you to interpret fragments. In the alchemy of edited images -- or words in a poem -- it’s what’s left out that’s as important. The gaps you fill in yourself, in your mind’s eye, the in-betweens -- which is the very essence of the invention of motion pictures, a trick of the eye (which digital technology is determined to alter). Movies make you feel. Maybe more so when they were always in the dark, without any guarantee you’d ever be able to repeat the experience. It’s as if filmmakers in the pre-TV, pre-video era knew they had to be more poetic and memorable. Had to have more painterly compositions and better dialogue and music. Because they were so transient. It was now or never. Can they ever be as dreamlike when we own them? There’s even something more mysterious in the eternal magic of a Bogart or John Wayne than in a fictional “Rick Blaine” or “Ethan Edwards” we’d otherwise have to imagine for ourselves.
That’s not true of Gatsby, though, or Jake Barnes -- which is why we
call Fitzgerald and Hemingway “poetic” in their prose. There’s an
elusiveness to all art worthy of the name.
DS: Why do so
many political films suck? Is it the same reason as any other political art,
because they are so shallow, and use noxious ideas like, ‘all art is
political,’ or ‘art is truth.’ These nostra are as
meaningful and meaningless as stating that ‘all art is about poodles,’
for anything can be parallaxed against any other single thing. If the art does
not explicitly reference poodles, as example, this manifests the artist’s
aversion to talking about poodliness. No?
LD: Didacticism just isn’t very dramatic, it’s boring. And as Solinas discovered, politics, especially left-wing politics, is fundamentally at odds with film as a popular, as opposed to populist, medium. Never forget the famous admonition: “If you want to send a message use Western Union.” Movies cost a lot of money. Even micro-budget films depend on a capital-intensive distribution system. If a tree falls in a forest …
Successful movies appeal to everyone, so how can they ever really be political? As Robert Ray has pointed out, when PATTON with his pearl-handled revolver walks out in front of that gigantic American flag, the counter-culture viewer can read it as “satirical” while the Nixon voter at the same time can think he’s died and gone to heaven. Patton is an establishment figure, but he’s portrayed as a rebel. And Francis Coppola was well aware of this when he was writing the screenplay. Cinema is an inherently bourgeois medium and everyone, aristocrat or revolutionary, must adapt themselves to it. Like I said about Loach, Godard asked how he could hate John Wayne’s politics and yet love him tenderly when he sweeps Natalie Wood into his arms in the last reel of THE SEARCHERS. And while we’re on the subject of John Ford again, look at something like THE LAST HURRAH -- that’s what “politics” in America means. Elsewhere in the world the word tends to refer to ideas, here it’s more about the machinations of vote-getting -- the corrupt and criminally wasteful campaigning that never ends, that the rest of the world finds so unbelievable. There’s something, well -- anti-intellectual about politics in America, so you get “political thrillers” which are actually devoid of any real political content or point of view -- and a film like JFK -- which I think is a great film -- is mistaken for left-wing -- by right-wingers -- because it’s made by a “typical” Hollywood liberal -- when it’s actually deeply traditional, even conservative, just a modern Frank Capra movie, a Western in disguise, a detective story, a courtroom drama, the usual Hollywood horseshit -- of the finest kind. But it’s not exactly Pontecorvo or CHINA IS NEAR.
Why aren’t there “niche” political films in that case? Well, why isn’t there anything? We’ve seen a diminishment of virtually all content -- no more rich casts of familiar supporting players, or big epics, or varied locations, or music you can hum, no more great stories, or vibrant genres, or beautiful movie posters, barely even movie stars anymore. Forget about framing and composition, mise en scene, expressive or poetic camerawork …
Despite the whole “indie” movement, which was always a sham, and consists almost entirely of immature drivel made by nonentities, there has never been any real intellectual cinema in this country. An American MY NIGHT AT MAUD’S or THE MOTHER AND THE WHORE or BEFORE THE REVOLUTION is nearly inconceivable. The American “college grad” keeps THE CATCHER IN THE RYE by his bedside and makes movies about high school and trailer trash and grunts in Iraq. Maybe they think that’s political. Orwell famously believed it was where he lacked a political purpose that he wrote lifeless books. But that’s him -- what he needed to be himself. It comes back to the individual artist and their intelligence and talent.
DS: Art speaking a truth is fundamentally different from its being a truth. Looking at the root of the word art, after all, shows it derives from the same place as artifice. Therefore, art can NEVER be truth, only an instrument that CAN get at a truth. But, it can also illumine aspects of existence utterly disconnected to truth, like emotions, bad ideas, politics, etc. Do you also find the ‘art is truth’ equation laughable and silly?
LD: Laughable and silly, I don’t know. Unhelpful, useless, meaningless -- yes.
DS: What are
your views on religion- you are ethnically Jewish, correct?
Your father seemed to, later in life, almost obsess over his Semitism? Why was
this? How did it affect his work, if at all? Has your Judaism played a similar
role in your life and art?
I’m half -- on my father’s side -- which doesn’t count, except to
Nazis. He did become somewhat
obsessed, never in a religious sense, but with the social, cultural,
intellectual, historical aspects. I
suppose in large measure it’s a fairly common response to Nazism, and
its constantly metastasizing forms in the modern world.
I remember Jonathan Miller on the Dick Cavett Show saying he was a Jew
only for the purpose of answering anti-Semites.
And Kitaj now seems sadly prescient getting out of England when he did.
I think in artistic terms he thought it was a great and rich subject that
no one had really explored or made their own in painting, that it would make for
a unique and distinctive and personal art, something old -- ancient -- made new
again. Naturally, this was not a
project likely to be widely or warmly embraced.
I’m afraid many people, friendly as well as hostile, thought that it
reduced rather than expanded his canvas, so to speak.
London memory: walking to lunch with my father and Philip Roth.
Roth (to me): What do you think of his (my dad’s) new Jewish obsession?
Me (to myself): If Philip Roth is questioning it, maybe there’s a problem!
“My” Judaism, other than being an undeniable part of my cultural
makeup, is of minor interest or importance to me in and of itself.
Like being English-American, it’s a bit of a schizophrenic feeling.
What of your views on politics? How, if in any way, do they affect your
screenplays? Are you politically active, and what are your thoughts on the world
today- the ongoing wars, the economic woes, etc. How often do you include such
references in screenplays- either concurrently, or historically? Do you fear
such things will put an expiration date on your opinions?
LD: Same as religion. I have an aversion to “parties” of all stripes, to mob-think. I only respect individuals who think for themselves. I like Orwell’s formulation: a Tory anarchist. Democratic institutions and traditions are good, but democracy is dumb -- the tyranny of the dumb. The world is a shitpile due to human stupidity, and seems to be getting worse -- again. Politicians have become dumber and more loathsome and fraudulent along with everyone else. I don’t want an imbecile, of either party, being the leader of the free world. If just once any more a single brilliant person appeared on the scene, I wouldn’t care if they were a Democrat, Republican, or a genuine socialist.
But that’s what the end of education has given us. It’s what the 1960s has given us. I dread the poison of “topicality” infecting any script. In my increasing solipsism, I’ve come to think that it’s not politics or contemporary society that’s affected my screenplays, but the other way round. I mentioned my 1980s Manhattan jihad script. Well, before Barack Obama rose to prominence I’d just recently written and deeply researched three hopeless projects on assignment. One was the Jim Jones Peoples Temple story -- which most people to this day don’t realize was a “Black Liberation Theology” movement. Another was about the thug Chicago Daley Machine, based on Mike Royko’s muckraking book BOSS. A third concerned the Weather Underground radicals of the 1960/70s. From these three cesspools -- to name but three -- emerged America’s candidate.
DS: Before we get on to more specific areas, have you any ideas on what is the cause of the aforementioned lack of introspection in modern American society- from Hollywood films, television shows, book publishers, etc.? Is American or Western culture simply as shallow as many of its detractors claim? In the arts, Political Correctness and Postmodernism have certainly aided in the ‘dumbing down’ of culture. What are your thoughts on those two ills- PC and PoMo?
LD: As I said, as many have said, it’s the 60s, the radical Left’s corruption of the universities, globalization …
It goes without saying that Political Correctness has gone beyond a lunatic farce and is now a mortal menace. Transitional periods are dangerous. It’s as if people have fallen into quicksand or a whirlpool; they can’t get back where they were, or climb out to the other side. There are fewer issues on which “reasonable people may disagree” -- because there seem to be fewer reasonable people. And such stunning ignorance. How do you deal with it, argue with it, make yourself understood? This is something relatively new in what we thought was the Modern or Postmodern World. That has come upon us with shocking speed and suddenness. Whether it’s a president who grew up in Hawaii referring to “the bomb that fell on Pearl Harbor” -- which for me is a dealbreaker right there -- or a book reviewer who thinks a piece of shit is great, whether it’s an uninformed voter, a misinforming teacher, a misapprehending script reader, the result is the same -- you’re fucked.
Political Correctness -- Postmodernism -- Structuralism -- lies begin with language. Isaiah Berlin says it’s a mistake to call Nazi Germany “mad.” That lets the bastards off the hook. Far from being irrational, evil is carefully thought through -- ordinary morons are taught to believe in monstrous untruths, by their leaders, their orators, their professors. PC is propaganda of the word which is the precursor to propaganda of the deed.
STORM OVER ASIA, THE CHILDHOOD OF MAXIM GORKI, and the Odessa Steps
notwithstanding, I think the great Soviet filmmakers on the whole would have
preferred fewer “notes” from the front office.
the late 1960s through the early 1980s, film directors had much more sway over
their art, and the decade of the 1970s was the true Golden Age of Hollywood. But
then the financial messes of Apocalypse Now and, especially,
Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, basically killed that era off-
as did the ascendance of the Spielberg-Lucas summer blockbuster formula. Do you
agree? If not, can you sum up why American film has gotten so bad since
the last heyday of the 1970s? What will change this?
Conventional wisdom blames JAWS and STAR WARS for the end of great or “personal”
cinema. But not only were those two
movies personal, they were masterpieces of pop culture made by filmmaking
geniuses who were movie-mad and influenced by Ford and Kurosawa, as well as by
Flash Gordon and Republic serials -- and by John Milius.
How can you fault them? Although
it’s true, as former United Artists executive David Picker has said, that
everything changed when investors stopped asking “How much can we lose?” and
instead started asking “How much can we make?”
But that doesn’t explain why anyone would finance thirty
audience-repelling losers about the Iraq conflict.
That’s where sheer stupidity comes in.
And shopping malls, home video, corporatization, a decline in literacy,
discrediting of the Western Canon, changing demographics, games, the internet --
you name it. It’s easy to talk
about how great American cinema was in the 70s.
It’s not so easy -- or politically correct -- to mention that there
were no D-Girls then. Or that
there’s a far less homogenous Hollywood, and general population now, of far
less educated people. Even those
who allegedly are. If you read a
review in Variety in the 60s, and it said:
“This movie will appeal to the college crowd,” you would
automatically assume it was something arty or elevated or foreign. Same exact words now and it means it’s moronic garbage for
beer-guzzling apes. What’s going
to reverse this? You’re never
going to turn back the clock. The
human brain is de-evolving. Where
there’s multi-culture, there’s no culture.
If only the Jews still controlled Hollywood.
In the late 60s/early 70s you could get a movie made starring Paul
Newman, Barbra Streisand, James Caan, Elliott Gould, George Segal, George Burns,
Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, Walter Matthau, Yul Brynner, Richard Benjamin,
Richard Dreyfuss, Dustin Hoffman, Mel Brooks, Barbara Hershey, Henry Winkler,
Tony Curtis, Kirk Douglas, Michael Douglas, Robby Benson, Alan Arkin, Dyan
Cannon, Barry Newman, Jerry Lewis, Peter Falk, Harvey Keitel, Laurence Harvey,
Charles Grodin, Gene Wilder, Elaine May, Jill Clayburgh, Ali MacGraw, Joan
Collins, Anthony Newley, Goldie Hawn, Marty Feldman -- and Topol.
Today? Adam Sandler, Ben
Stiller, Sasha Baron Cohen, Shia LaBeouf, Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman,
Jennifer Connelly, Sean Penn -- and at least three of them are the
progeny of older Hollywood. Notice the slight drop-off in quantity and quality?
Screenwriters and directors and composers and studio executives -- same
On a one-week visit to New York in the early 70s when my father had an
exhibition there, I went to see THE EXORCIST (Friedkin), SERPICO (Lumet),
PAPILLON (Schaffner), with Dustin Hoffman, MEAN STREETS, with Harvey Keitel, THE
GETAWAY, a Foster-Brower production, WESTWORLD, with Brynner and Benjamin, and
Woody Allen’s SLEEPER.
Wanna see what’s playing in New York this week?
Yeah, it’s a head-scratcher why movies aren’t as good as they always
used to be.
DS: Film critic Ray Carney once stated, in an interview, ‘I mean that the root of the problem is that every film reviewer I know defines his job incorrectly. Without realizing it, they have all internalized the Hollywood value system. They define reviewing completely cynically as a form of advertising....But criticism is not about recommending or not recommending something. Or that's only it's most trivial, unimportant function.’ I agree. This includes the addition of the MPAA ratings system. What are your thoughts on the film ratings system? What objections have you? Mine are basically that it’s an attempt at censorship used as a marketing tool, but one that is often wholly inapt to the product at hand. And, do you agree with Carney that most ‘criticism’ is merely advertising?
I don’t think I’ve ever given the U.S. film ratings system a
moment’s thought. It’s
something of a joke to anyone who grew up in England where censorship and
restrictions were far more stringent. It
was horrible waiting to grow taller to be able to sneak into “X-rated”
movies -- like THE GODFATHER and THE FRENCH CONNECTION.
Didn’t matter if you had a grownup with you -- I was refused entry to a
John Wayne movie! -- BIG JAKE -- which my dad took me to.
It was an “AA” film, which meant you had to be 14, and I guess I
wasn’t quite. He was so furious
with the officious little jobsworth (as in “It’s more than my job’s
worth”) who kicked me out. I’d
already seen BONNIE AND CLYDE in Berkeley, and THE WILD BUNCH in L.A.!
So the vagaries of the American ratings board by comparison have never
much excited my indignation.
It was bad enough that most movies opened in England way after
they’d been released in America. Often
I’d finally see A CLOCKWORK ORANGE or THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE or something
when they were screened at the National Film Theatre -- which was classified as
a private club, so you could get around the legalities.
Other than making my escape from school, the great life-changing turning
point was finally succeeding in purchasing a ticket to an X film, on my own,
without being challenged -- wearing a hat and cowboy boots for height.
It was like making it past checkpoint Charlie, with false papers and
guard dogs at one’s back. All
this anxiety for a double bill of SHAFT and SHAFT’S BIG SCORE at my local
theatre on the King’s Road, which was then to host THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW for
the remainder of the decade. From a
sex machine to all the chicks -- to Frank N. Furter and chicks with dicks.
The best and most useful criticism is retrospective.
The one type of film book I’ve never bought or ever wanted to read is
any collection of anybody’s contemporary reviews.
There is nothing deader in the annals of literature.
Film “reviewers,” generally speaking, are worthless even in the
immediate present and, yes, are just tools in every sense.
A critic, though, is someone whose voice you respect, even if you
don’t always agree – you want to know what they have to say.
And there are the odd, isolated, few-and-far-between interesting critics
still to be found squirreled away here and there.
They are, and can only be, serious and knowledgeable cinephiles.
Because criticism is context, a historical overview.
Laymen, no matter how intelligent or literary they might otherwise be,
are hardly ever worth reading. Everyone
thinks they’re a film buff. Well,
they’re not. You want experts in the field.
So many movies now are one-offs. Is
there anybody’s “new” or “next” film you really look forward to seeing
anymore? The critics, so-called,
who provide the hysterical blurbs for these films that exist only in the present
moment, destined to have no afterlife, are as bland and forgettable as their
It’s so hard for even the best critics to see what’s in front of
them. How many “reviewers” had
a clue what they were watching when confronted by the first Sergio Leone
westerns starring some TV actor named Clint?
Or even by the time of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST/AMERICA?
The studios that “made” those movies had even less idea.
The critic is the person who must say, hey, wait a minute, something’s
going on here. Think a second time.
I’m as saddened to read of the passing of a Tom Milne or a Robin Wood
as the filmmakers they wrote about. Buying
their books, reading their reviews or articles in Films
and Filming or Film Comment or the
Monthly Film Bulletin, or wherever,
were a part of the vibrant, exciting culture of cinephilia I grew up in -- that
they hugely helped to create.
DS: Art is communication, at its highest level, and poetry, as example, is the highest art because it does the most with the least. I think film, not prose, is the art form closest to poetry. Regardless, all art has to enlighten. Entertainment does not, and I say this as a lover of some schlock stuff- from bad poetry to Robot Monster to pro wrestling to soap operas to The Three Stooges. But, the problem with art (including film), as it is with eating, is not that there is junk food and it’s consumed, but that so many people eat ONLY junk food, and ONLY watch fluff. Their minds necessarily become as fat and ugly as their bodies because of this. There are simply times I desire depth. Whether or not the film or book is good or bad, I know that an Ozu or a Bergman film or a Twain book will give me some depth, even if, in the case of Bergman, I do not ‘like’ his films. I still realize their nutritional value for my mind. Do you think this buying into Hollywood ideals is unconscious, or are their artists in that town who willfully accept their roles as shills- even if not in a blatant payola sort of way?
Ever hear of Elvis? Or
Brando? Orson Welles?
Do you think people who were once handsome, even beautiful, consciously
become obese grotesques? Self-hatred
would seem to be part of the equation, which suggests some sort of consciousness
kicking in at some point, but usually too late.
Hollywood makes conformists out of everyone. It’s in the neutering business.
You either bend with the breeze or you break -- or both.
Junk food inevitably follows.
annoys me is that the idea of elitism, in life, arts, criticism, being somehow
bad. Yes, elitism based upon birth or wealth is not healthy, but based on
meritocracy- hell, that’s the whole ‘theory’, if one will, that America,
and the Jeffersonian ideal, were based on- no? When someone calls me an elitist,
I say, ‘Of course. Don’t you want
great artists, doctors, leaders, etc.?’ There is this whole
notion, expounded by PoMo and PC, that has led to the exaltation of mediocrities
(at best) like a Steven Spielberg or Oprah Winfrey, in pop culture, and the rise
of idiotocracy in politics that led to last year’s crowning of the incredibly
dumb and profoundly intellectually unqualified Alaskan governor Sarah Palin as
the Republican Vice Presidential nominee, not to mention the problems elitism by
birth caused with the selection of George Bush over Al Gore in the 2000
Presidential race (and I’m not a Gore fan, I voted for Nader!). Thoughts?
Call me an elitist. You bet.
Whenever you see the phrase “elite crimefighting unit,” does anybody
ever say, “Hold on, that’s not fair.
Let’s be more inclusive!” Like
I said, I don’t want the proles deciding anything that I’ll have to live
with the consequences of. Fuck
Benevolent dictatorship would be the best form of government.
Simón Bolivar said, “I am convinced to the marrow of my bones that
only an able despotism can rule in America.”
Abraham Lincoln was the closest we ever came.
Once the hoi-polloi have breached the walls and stormed the castle, the
world can change very quickly. You
can suddenly find yourself sitting opposite a woman dressed like Batman, wearing
a Hamas armband, staring at you with animal eyes through a slit in her chador --
at Finsbury Park tube station -- or some girl who’s never heard of CITIZEN
KANE giving script notes at 20th Century Fox … You can wonder all you want how
the fuck did this happen? But it’s never going to go back to the way things used to
Thoughts? They would seem to be on the way out. A blip on the radar, available to only a smattering of people in brief enlightened moments in human crappy history.
I earlier mentioned the different axes of like/dislike and good/bad.
Can you name three great films you simply don’t like? Also, can you name three
bad ones that you love?
LD: It’s much easier to think of bad ones that I love. I’m not sure there could be such a thing as a genuinely “great” film I don’t like. There’s a whole category of films -- most recent Oscar winners, say – that “ordinary” people think are good -- but most movie buffs find unwatchable. And many movies cinephiles revere that reasonable people would find insufferable.
You’d never seriously suggest to someone that PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID is Sam Peckinpah’s “masterpiece.” You’d be steering them wrong. By any reasonable yardstick it’s not as monumental or as perfect as THE WILD BUNCH -- or RIDE THE WILD COUNTRY. PAT GARRETT must be counted in many ways a “failure,” a catastrophe even. But I’m not alone in loving it. It may be my “favorite” Peckinpah, even though I know better. A masterpiece to me – and to other obsessives who refer to it as such in their critical essays, for whatever reasons that may be hard to fathom or argue. I suppose this is sometimes what we mean when we say “cult” film. Like GARRETT’s separated-at-birth companion piece, ONE-EYED JACKS. Certain films just haunt you, and reward multiple viewings. Quite often it is because they’re (artistic) failures. Curate’s eggs -- broken-backed, orphan films that reach for something and fall short. Eliot’s shadow works. But shadows are haunting, and full of secrets.
These movies can have a strange, hypnotic power. You sort of see through them to the ambition and ideas that shaped them -- even though they may be betrayed by insufficient or often ludicrous execution.
Huston’s MALTESE FALCON/SIERRA MADRE/AFRICAN QUEEN are canonical, and FAT CITY/MAN WHO WOULD BE KING/ASPHALT JUNGLE are great, and RED BADGE OF COURAGE/MOBY DICK/MOULIN ROUGE/BEAT THE DEVIL … My God. Film history would be remiss not to pass all of these movies on to future generations. I could happily watch any one of them for the fiftieth time tomorrow. But y’know what I’d kinda like to take another look at right now, if I had nice DVDs of them? -- THE KREMLIN LETTER and SINFUL DAVEY and A WALK WITH LOVE AND DEATH. Huston’s ”bad” period makes any working director today look like a joke.
Arthur Penn’s THE CHASE is another one, an endlessly fascinating disaster. Sometimes to the viewer it doesn’t matter how many scenes are missing or truncated or compromised. It’s only the writer or director who can’t look at the thing without weeping -- and maybe the viewer too, but all for different reasons.
Brando’s MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY has the reputation of being a travesty, but it’s a favorite of mine, and not for any kind of “camp” reasons (despite Mad magazine’s “Fletcher Limpwrist” parody). I think it’s a really good tough and exciting 60s epic movie. Like Siegel’s version of THE KILLERS, I prefer it to the more famous “classic” version -- as great as that version is, with Laughton’s unforgettable Captain Bligh. Still, I buy the much-derided Brando more than I do Clark Gable -- and the scope, the color, the South Seas, the grittier realism of Richard Harris in the 60s version. If only Lean/Bolt could have made theirs!
When we talk about how “great” the 60s and 70s were, if you forced me to discard or discount certain movies, it would probably be those ones that anticipated the kind of shit we get now -- those films that were prematurely quirky, that were then referred to as “offbeat” or “oddball.” I can’t say I’ve ever really warmed to even the best or most highly-regarded of them -- like HAROLD AND MAUDE (but I do like Altman’s BREWSTER McCLOUD, which seems a contradiction; Altman always jumped back and forth between the plus and minus columns. THREE WOMEN, yes, BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS, no). LITTLE MURDERS, WHERE’S POPPA?, LORD LOVE A DUCK, LEO THE LAST, QUACKSER FORTUNE … that whole category. THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS … STAY HUNGRY … Richard Lester and Clive Donner at their most “absurdist.” Paul Mazursky movies. All Alan Rudolph movies. The celebration of phony eccentricity. (You can guess how much I love theatre.)
NETWORK is now taken as the template, the Koran of screenwriting. It’s hard to write CHINATOWN -- with its seriously dysfunctional family -- but almost anyone, as has been proven in recent years, can write about a “wacky” dysfunctional family. If CHINATOWN was a novel now, they’d emphasize on the cover that it was “black-humored noir,” and as “darkly funny” as Polanski’s PIRATES or FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS.
There are exceptions in the satirical/surreal/shaggy dog vein. I’m very fond of O LUCKY MAN! And SMILE (1975). SLITHER (1973) is an all-time favorite.
I’ve just been re-watching Aldrich’s LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE. Absolute crap. And yet … (The whole subgenre of neurotic female movies seems to guarantee critical/commercial/camp calamity at the time of release, but then devoted cinephile followings later on: LOLA MONTES, EVE, THE NAKED KISS, LILITH, MARNIE, DUEL IN THE SUN, RUBY GENTRY, GONE TO EARTH -- Jennifer Jones is her own genre – BONJOUR TRISTESSE, ELENA AND HER MEN … (But not CANDY, even with John Huston in the cast).
It’s the auteur theory again. If you like the artist, individual works, even lesser ones, speak to you, for whatever reason. And this is not to discount PAT GARRETT’s original scriptwriter, Rudy Wurlitzer, whose corpus I like, too, but separately. I might yet, to paraphrase Peckinpah in his own film, bury all its variant versions in a box and then leave the territory.
DS: Let me now get specific and turn to your filmography, with queries on specific films of note. In looking online, I see that you’ve worked on eleven screenplays to date. Is that correct? What is your most recent project, and how is it progressing?
LD: No, of course that’s not correct. I’ve written dozens of scripts for hire, nearly all a total waste of time, and dozens more on my own account. Almost as soon as I started in this business I wanted to retire -- in order to write screenplays. I hope I never take another screenwriting job. I hope never to have a meeting again.
Meanwhile I’ve already broken this promise and been roped in by Steven Soderbergh for “one last job,” which is meant to round out our trilogy. But we’ll see how that goes. This is not another original script of mine he’s taken up, but an attempt at collaboration -- which has always been something of a misnomer in moviemaking. It’s a collective art, not really a collaborative one.
DS: Let me start at the beginning. A quarter century ago, you worked (uncredited) on the Michael Douglas film Romancing The Stone. It was one of those films made in the wake of Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones films. I saw it on a date, but forgot much of it (as I did the date), save that the dialogue was wittier than in the Indiana Jones films. Was that your contribution to that film? The lead screenwriter is listed as Diane Thomas. Did you come in to ‘punch up’ her script, or what?
LD: Yes, mostly dialogue. The banter, the jokes, the Danny De Vito role. As a script doctor during the filming of a movie -- a movie on location with difficult circumstances, weather, and sometimes contentious personalities -- you’re just sort of helping to solve logistical problems on a daily basis, making constant adjustments. Before filming, nobody’s happy with the existing script; they like the idea of it enough to proceed, they like it in its essentials, but feel it’s just not there yet -- and they still feel that way after filming, by the way, necessitating reshoots, in the case of ROMANCING and many others. But during filming, a lot of it is just grunt work. You’re always playing catch-up. Changing things to accommodate the practical locations, or what the stunt people have designed for the action scenes, working with the actors so they’re more comfortable with their lines, their motivation -- going over scenes one more time, one more time -- until they’re put on film forever. Just constantly trying to make sense of convoluted plot points and how the characters plausibly get from A to B and who’s in a car, who’s on foot, how much time would this or that actually take. And in the end, no one really cares about a lot of that detail. The Writers Guild credit arbitration committee doesn’t, that’s for sure. Michael Douglas is in this new Soderbergh movie I’m working on -- so I’ve come a long way!
DS: This was a typical, rather brainless action adventure film, but it was your first. Were you just happy to make any money, or did you view yourself as ‘selling out’? Would you have preferred to be working with a visionary director like Terrence Malick or Stanley Kubrick, rather than a studio director like Robert Zemeckis?
LD: I was under contract to Twentieth Century Fox. Producer Joe Wizan had been made head of the studio and it was his idea to try and recreate the old studio system, with a stable of talent under one roof. The outgoing president Sherry Lansing had given the go-ahead to my script about a haunted castle, which was my breakthrough, and luckily Joe liked it as well, and also liked and retained the two executives who had discovered the script and me, and I was signed to a two-year deal. I ended up outlasting all of them on the lot, forgotten in my corner office, because every movie they made except ROMANCING THE STONE turned into a disaster. My HAUNTED CASTLE was cancelled just prior to production because of the money-hemorrhaging chaos that quickly engulfed the studio. (I wandered into a soundstage one day, saw Sylvester Stallone and Dolly Parton filming RHINESTONE, and had that sinking feeling.) And ROMANCING was thought to be a turkey, as well. It was the first thing they assigned me to under my deal -- after Michael Douglas and Robert Zemeckis had read a couple of my scripts and met and approved me -- and I had a blast. It was a real baptism of fire. I was practically still a teenager. There was no one my age doing this or making this kind of money on a weekly basis. The Mexican crew called me “joven.” My friends were still in college. My new friends were all ten years older than me. The Fox lot was what it had been in Zanuck’s day. The HELLO DOLLY outdoor sets still standing. My first office there was a lovely old bungalow with the Western street out the window. I could put my feet up and rock back in my chair like Henry Fonda in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE. There was no thought or question of selling out. It was a dream come true.
DS: In our initial email exchange, you mentioned that, before this break into films, you had written and peddled about a screenplay some regard as one of the best unmade screenplays ever written (the sort of praise usually heaped on Orson Welles scripts). Its title is Edward Ford- and here is a link to the screenplay, but what was it, why has it never been made into a film, and, all these decades later, would you still want it to be produced, or is it one of those things you look at now and say, ‘Jeez, this needs a lot of work’?
EDWARD FORD is based on a dear family friend, a fellow who went to high
school with my dad. I met him when
I was a kid and we have remained close all my life.
He was, from the first, perhaps the strangest and most interesting person
I’ve ever met. For the longest
time I thought, I must figure out how to put this guy in a script.
Stick him in some murder mystery or something as a supporting character.
Then it dawned on me, no, he is the script.
I’ll just write down everything I know about him, all true, just change
the names. So that’s what I did.
The one time I ever followed to the letter the classic injunction Write
What You Know. Kind of pathetic,
really -- the one thing I didn’t make up, and it’s taken on a life of its
own. Something so personal and particular. God knows how many Xerox copies there must be.
The imagination’s just not equal to reality.
It couldn’t have done more for me if it had been made, and I
guess there’s a lesson in that, too. Scripts
get made or languish for a million random reasons of fate and chance.
Incredible to me that any of them persist in people’s memories, given
the deluge of new ones piling up year after year. EDWARD FORD is very difficult to cast correctly.
And it’s been cannibalized over the years by others.
I’m not vigorously out there pushing scripts; certainly not old ones.
I always want to move on to the next one. Frederic Raphael says screenplays don’t age like wine, they
age like fruit.
DS: Great quote.
In 1991, two films of yours came out. The first was a Michael J. Fox and James
Woods action comedy, The Hard Way. Never saw it, but in Googling
about, this seems almost a step down from Romancing The Stone.
Within the film, too, there seems to be a thread of a tv show that is Indiana
Jones-like. What was your contribution to this film, and was it just a
LD: Sometimes everything is rewritten except that which ought to be. THE HARD WAY is, apparently, about a self-serious action-adventure movie star of the Indiana Jones/DIE HARD type -- and yet the part is played by diminutive comic pipsqueak Michael J. Fox. The viewer’s immediate experience is completely at odds with what the script is describing. (Kevin Kline was originally cast in the role.) It was my first job after my Fox contract finally came to an end, and I was happy to get it. They’re all just paychecks if they’re not self-generated. It was old-time Hollywood scriptwriting with a marvelous veteran writer-producer named William Sackheim. Just me and him -- pacing -- in his office. No other jerks or intermediaries; Bill kept me totally protected from whoever they might have been, just the way I like it. He had developed an initial comedy called TECH ADVISOR, about a real cop on the set of a cop movie -- I suppose in the hope of emulating prior Sackheim success THE IN-LAWS. But he decided he wanted to take it in a different direction, so my contribution was to re-tool this “buddy” pairing as more of an action movie -- the actor in the cop’s world. My version got terribly convoluted and Bill very politely (usually they don’t even call) moved on to another writer, Dan Pyne. The movie was going to be made with Kline and Gene Hackman as the cop, with Arthur IN-LAWS Hiller directing. Then the studio decided they wanted it to be lighter, after all, and they thought they had two serious dramatic actors -- that Kevin Kline wasn’t funny. So it fell apart and Kevin Kline promptly won an Oscar for being funny in A FISH CALLED WANDA. Sackheim was subsequently able to resurrect it with John Badham as director -- and a team of comedy writers were brought on to improve it even more.
DS: The other
film was Steven Soderbergh’s previously mentioned Kafka, your
first film with Soderbergh. Again, I’ve not seen it, but in listening to some
offhanded remarks on the DVD commentary on The Limey, the later
Soderbergh film you worked on, you seemed to not have been pleased with the
results on Kafka. What were that film’s flaws, and since, on The
Limey, you often complained of Soderbergh’s editorial decisions- from
the way a shot was framed to its editing, were the problems in Kafka
mostly directorial decisions? Or were you simply not allowed as much elbow room
with the script as you would have wanted?
LD: They’re always directorial decisions, if the director is left alone to do whatever he wants. KAFKA is quite beautifully “directed” if you mistake direction for mere photography or production design. Many films go off the rails from day one; everything is just wrong. They’re made for the wrong reasons; nobody really cares about the script, just the perceived “heat” of the director or cast, there’s no command or control -- a multiplicity of producers, none with any authority. There are crippling casting mistakes, dimwitted actors who sense weakness and turn destructive. The script was no masterpiece, but there was a script -- it just wasn’t followed or respected. So the main flaw of the movie is, to intents and purposes, the script. It doesn’t make any sense at all -- the story, the plot, so far as anyone can tell, or even individual lines of dialogue, many of which are just awful if not laughable. Conceptually the script was changed completely; it was originally a supernatural horror film. Steven dropped the supernatural aspects, preferring to make a more supposedly rational mystery in the manner of THE THIRD MAN -- which makes the horror elements that remain seem even sillier. I went along with this to a certain extent because I was still too young and eager and not quite ready to retire from the movie business. It’s what screenwriters do, they go along, hope for the best. You’re so often in the hands of luck and fate. What if Polanski or Cronenberg or Terry Gilliam on a good day … and Steven feels he’s so much more capable now of making it what it might have been. Timing. Just once I’d love to be fired immediately, paid off handsomely, and rewritten by Tom Stoppard. Y’know, the flip side is that there have always been bad writers with their names on good movies, but somehow they never complain about how their scripts were changed!
DS: Good point.
Was Kafka more of a biopic, or something different? I ask because
most biopics fail because they try to cram too much into a film rather than
taking a key moment in someone’s life and expanding upon it. Patton,
as example, follows the man through a couple of years in World War Two. Who
really cares of Patton as a child? It seems such a logical way to approach
biopics, to find the key moment to core into, but so few do it. Why do you think
biopics are so formulaic? And, given that reality, name a few biopics that you
think transcend formula, and how and why they succeed.
LD: KAFKA wasn’t a biopic. The adolescent conceit was to make Kafka the protagonist of a somewhat Kafkaesque horror tale -- mixing in elements of his own stories, along with aspects of his life and personality. My initial impulse, really, was to write a horror movie like the early classics everyone knows with memorable monsters that have never been equaled -- Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman, the Invisible Man. I wondered, what could you possibly come up with that would be that good or unusual and memorable -- and I settled on “The Assistants” (from Kafka’s THE CASTLE). I told the actors playing them that the movie was about them, which of course is the one thing all actors long to hear. They were delighted, and I was delighted with both of them -- their scenes, their casting and performances, are the most faithful to my original script and vision -- so something of my interest and investment in those characters was strong enough to survive. But not everything -- there were crucial scenes involving them that were jettisoned at script stage, and the script ended with them jumping on a boat to go to “Amerika” -- a scene which WAS filmed, but then cut. Ironically, most of the biographical scenes were also lost from the get-go, which contributes to the overall shallowness of the film and its hero -- his famously difficult relationship with his father, problems with women … so it’s not just the mystery plot that’s shortchanged.
The Assistants were never the leading roles in the original script, but they were its raison d’etre, and lay at the heart of the mystery, which was essentially the “origin” story of the two Assistants -- designed to propel them hypothetically into a whole series of adventures which would never again need to have anything to do with Kafka himself. You see, like THE LIMEY, these were early, adolescent scripts of mine that were meant to be unpretentious genre films. A Michael Caine, 60s/70s action movie. A scary horror movie. Neither one functions on those levels or was even intended to when they were finally made, ten (KAFKA) and twenty (THE LIMEY) years after I first wrote them. The Assistants were meant to be supernatural beings, but as I said, like virtually every “idea” I’ve ever had in the movie business, it’s been identified as such, circled, and ruthlessly struck through with a red pen.
What do I know? At the present moment, if you go on the Turner Classic Movies website, the Most Requested movie in America not available on DVD, of all the movies ever made in the history of the world, is KAFKA, with 13,500+ votes, each requiring a separate e-mail address.
You’re absolutely right about PATTON. Other than LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, it’s the finest biographical screenplay, and movie, for precisely that reason. You portray the character at the moment of greatest crisis or challenge. Why this should be true of most movies, but ignored in the case of the average biopic, is beyond me. Why would you care about the backstory of a character in a biopic any more than you give a shit about the childhood or first forty years of Will Kane’s life in HIGH NOON or Captain Queeg’s in THE CAINE MUTINY?
Drama and conflict arise in a period of transition -- the classical unities of time and place are best respected. You could make an interesting movie about young Patton serving under Pershing and chasing Pancho Villa, or about Lawrence after Arabia -- and those stories have been dealt with, on television, as it happens. But you’ve gotta pick your spots.
YOUNG MR. LINCOLN is an extraordinary example. Past, Present, and Future coexist simultaneously. You’re following the character in the film’s present, while at the same time looking back with Fordian nostalgia and projecting ahead to the historical figure he will become. (ABE LINCON IN ILLINOIS ain’t bad, either -- there are characters great enough to sustain more than one defining moment.)
Having said that, I’ve never quite understood so many people’s antagonism towards GANDHI, which I think is a wonderful film. Not an artistic triumph, necessarily, but grand, sweeping, popular entertainment in a serious vein, with magnificent actors, and wholly engrossing. Attenborough’s YOUNG WINSTON and CHAPLIN, on the other hand, really are stiffs, the latter especially hopeless, a misguided, impossible subject to have attempted.
Robert Bolt’s other triumph -- A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS -- not really a biopic, per se. There are people who were once real who pass into popular myth -- BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID/VIVA ZAPATA/SALVATORE GIULIANO/JUDGE ROY BEAN/JEREMIAH JOHNSON/PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID. Wajda’s DANTON, there’s another good one. And REDS.
I always find myself re-watching Schaffner’s other bio-epic NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA, which also doesn’t get much love. But I have warm feelings towards all those great Hollywood classics that were childhood staples, no matter how corny or formulaic or ahistorical they may have been -- JUAREZ, LOUIS PASTEUR and EMILE ZOLA, REUTER and DR. EHRLICH, MADAME CURIE, EDISON, MARK TWAIN, JACK LONDON, and so on. MOULIN ROUGE (Huston) and LUST FOR LIFE are beautiful films about artists.
The trouble with writing them is the awful burden and straightjacket of “the truth” hanging over you -- even if you ignore it and create something entirely fanciful. It can have a crippling effect. Fiction, or genius, gives you greater leeway, to say the least. No rules apply to the biographical dramas of OLIVER TWIST or CITIZEN KANE or Don Vito Corleone.
DS: In the mid-1990s, it seems you were not active, in terms of screenplays being produced. What were you doing in those years? Were you in a writer’s slump, or just not getting offers? Were you working on a novel, or were you involved in promoting your father’s career? If none of the above, how did you sustain yourself financially, and how much does a primary screenwriter get per screenplay?
LD: I’m always in a writer’s slump, but have somehow remained in constant employment for more than a quarter of a century, although I hate leaving my room and generally do as little as possible to keep this act going. As I thought everyone knew by now, screenwriters option, sell, and are hired to write screenplays regardless of whether any of them ever get made into movies -- which is some kind of miracle each and every time it happens. If the movie turns out to be any good or successful, it’s a miracle on top of a miracle on top of a miracle. So there’s bad luck involved -- people with every intention of making this movie or that, which ultimately fall apart -- as well as bad choices when the years mount up between films. Actually, there’s nothing easier than getting a movie made. The right script lands on the right desk at the right time -- and someone makes the decision. The rest is a separate business -- entirely and completely separate -- known as the script development business. And this is a business of time-wasting, where money changes hands, large sums of money, and the appointment books of people with nothing better to do -- and no skill at doing it -- are filled, and wheels are spun.
Movies, to answer your basic question, would be far better if no one was ever paid to write anything -- but only for having written. Writers should write what they want to write, not what non-writers want them to. The scripts I like best by others, and by me, are written laisser-aller. If this was the way the world worked, you’d see a true meritocracy, and survival of the fittest. 90% of all “screenwriters” would vanish almost overnight, and only those capable of generating their own material and providing shootable screenplays would be left standing. (Alvin Sargent would still be allowed to adapt PAPER MOON and Lillian Hellman’s PENTIMENTO.)
For the past dozen years or more, as much as possible, I decided I was only going to take a job if it involved collaboration with an interesting director -- as opposed to writing to order for studio executives and development clowns. In this way I‘ve largely managed to avoid the deadly “studio notes” you hear about so often and which I had my fill of when I was younger and greener. But this is a double-edged sword. It’s much more satisfying and pleasant to work on an interesting project one-on-one with a director who has the clout to keep the wolves at bay, but he’ll almost never get around to making the fucking thing. Instead he’ll fritter away your time and his, then suddenly drop it and go off and make some crap that’s fallen into his lap out of the sky that’s ready to go with millions of dollars and stars attached. “We want you,” is what movie people -- egotists and narcissists -- really want to hear, not, “We want what you want.” So that’s the trade-off you make as a writer, if you’re in the job-market at all.
You might have to lower your (ever-fluctuating) “quote” in order to enjoy greater freedom and a more artistic working environment. You might, with a powerful director, even be getting studio money, without interference but also without enthusiasm. Your director is usually well-known and in-demand. They’re indulged, up to a point. They have other irons in the fire, and it’s human nature; people get bored with what’s in front of them, or start to over-think it. You get insecure if you’re out of action too long. Something new always seems better.
I’m always amazed when I hear a writer saying they have no ideas. I have nothing but five hundred different ideas I’m constantly adding notes to, but not actually doing the hard work of writing. That’s where the rubber hits the road.
It’s absolutely amazing that you can go buy a five-dollar pen and a five-dollar notebook (and those are kinda pricey), and a matter of months later someone might give you hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe even millions, for the ink that was in that pen that you scratched into that notebook. No wonder so many people have that dream. But that was never my dream. I swear, it never even crossed my mind. My dream, taking a leaf from Walker Percy’s THE MOVIEGOER, was Steve McQueen jumping a barbed-wire fence on a motorcycle and William Holden swimming across the River Kwai with a knife between his teeth.
So, yes, my father allowed my career to begin and now his legacy has given me a freedom which is mine to squander. You should see me in January -- a new year ahead! -- a script a month! Then by February I’m reorganizing my DVD collection -- and fantasizing about books, too, sure, while remaining too lazy to get going on those, either -- before that business also goes down the drain. (They now want you to have a website. Can you imagine?)
DS: 1998 and 1999 saw the back to back releases of, to me, your two best screenplays and films- Alex Proyas’s Dark City and Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey. Both films are impeccably written, both deal with memory, both had directors of quality, yet both films were not well handled by their studios, and financially flopped. Do you think their commonalities were a reason both films were mostly ignored by theatergoers, or was it a general lack of intelligence in filmgoers that doomed both films?
LD: Other than their being relatively low-budget B-movies without well-known or current stars in them, as well as being vaguely thought of as “art” films, I don’t think of them as having that much in common. I don’t think potential ticket-buyers go, “Oh, shit, not another movie about memory.” And I don’t buy into the usual lamebrained movie business excuses that a film “failed to find an audience” or was mis-marketed – or even that they’re “flops.” What the hell would anyone have expected of films in 1998 and 1999 starring Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda and Rufus Sewell and William Hurt? Roger Ebert picking DARK CITY as the Best Film of the year strikes me as exceeding expectations by quite a wide margin. Winning a Bram Stoker award for Best Screenplay, and other prizes here and there -- it may be pathetic by FORREST GUMP standards, but what d’you want from a movie with Richard O’Brien as an alien?
DS: To stick
with the commonalities of both films, did your experience writing Dark
City help you with any insights into The Limey, especially
Terence Stamp’s character, Wilson? Also, the two films share an actress in
common. Melissa George appears in both. In Dark City, she’s a
gorgeous young prostitute that ends up murdered, and in The Limey
she’s a more mousey character- the daughter of Wilson, who likewise ends up
dead- be it murder or not is left up to the viewer. Was this just a coincidence,
or did Soderbergh see Dark City, like her performance, and get
her, or did you recommend her to him?
LD: No, one had nothing to do with the other that I am aware of. Melissa George in those two small roles, I believe, was nothing more than happenstance. Certainly Steven had seen DARK CITY; whether that influenced him, I’ve no idea. I only realized later on that Melissa George was quite well known in her native Australia, and she has since gone on to bigger things here.
If anything, POINT BLANK is probably the main link between the two films, DARK CITY perhaps even more so in my mind than THE LIMEY. Soderbergh was thinking primarily of POINT BLANK. When I first wrote THE LIMEY, it was not POINT BLANK in particular, but its authorial source, Richard Stark, and his whole series of “Parker” books of which POINT BLANK (originally THE HUNTER) was only the first. But in Alex Proyas’s original DARK CITY script the hero’s name was Walker, which I told him he had to change because of its pretentious use, most notably in POINT BLANK, but also in other films (Jean-Claude Van Damme in Peter Hyams’s TIMECOP). I don’t know if Alex was thinking of the Boorman film. But I always felt that the urban fantasia of DARK CITY was more POINT BLANKIAN than THE LIMEY.
DS: Ok, let’s
talk about Dark City,
and I want to get into some points I mentioned when I reviewed the DVD release
of the Director’s Cut of the film. First, why do you think this film is always
linked to Blade
Runner? Dark City is a far superior film, in terms of
writing, acting, editing, and all but the special effects. Do you think that
this link, which basically casts the latter film as a rehash of the earlier
film, contributed to the critical and financial neglect your film suffered
theatrically? And, to what degree do you think its DVD release contributed to
its consideration, now, as one of the best sci fi films ever?
LD: It’s assumed now that DVDs have materially altered the fortunes of many movies, given them an afterlife, garnered them a following, but this always somehow happened with certain films -- it was the case with BLADE RUNNER, which was also a critical and financial flop on initial release. Leonard Maltin still only gives it one-and-a-half stars, despite its standing in the years since as a science-fiction landmark. DARK CITY, on the other hand, gets three stars. I don’t quite get this discrepancy, myself. I tend to believe my movies’ bad reviews more than the good ones. I do think DARK CITY is kind of in the shadow of BLADE RUNNER, just as THE LIMEY has POINT BLANK hovering over it (as well as GET CARTER). They say if you can’t be first be best, if you can’t be best be first -- but first and best still beats all. I appreciate everyone who truly likes DARK CTY and THE LIMEY and I wouldn’t want to discount their sincere interest and enthusiasm, but … Maybe it’s just impossible for a participant, the screenwriter above all, to feel the same excitement or be at all objective, but those earlier models seem to me somehow “heavier” and more meaningful. The anxiety of influence again. Even if BLADE RUNNER is a bit of a mess, with all its variant versions and everything, as a movie, and culturally, it’s more impactful. Bigger star, director, production design, more influential in every way. That’s a fact.
DS: I posit that the Strangers, in the film, get their ideas on humanity not from different periods of real human history, but from different periods of Hollywood film history. Is this so? And was it intended? And, this would explain their naïve-te as well as their perplexity over human reactions that are not cartoon-like.
LD: I knew that I was getting my ideas from different periods of Hollywood history -- or specifically the classic film noir period, but I’m perfectly willing to accept your interpretation that the Strangers formed their notions from the same source.
speak of the acting in the film. Kiefer Sutherland’s character never uses
contractions- was this your idea? I ask because it’s a subtle way of showing
his anal retentive qualities. What other little bonus tics did you toss into
some characterizations, to make them more real to the viewers?
LD: I really can’t remember if his dialogue was written that way in the script originally, but I’m sure it was just his -- Keifer’s -- choice to play it that way, with that halting Peter Lorre delivery, with Alex’s approval. I know Alex feels Keifer was unjustly maligned for acting in that way, and I agree, I think he’s interesting and unusual in the part. Seems even better to me now, now that we know he wasn’t, in fact, a Brat Pack has-been, but on the cusp of a big breakthrough as a tough guy leading man. Again, I’ll go with your reading of the role, though I don’t know if anyone at the time was conscious of that being a reason for him speaking that way. As for tics, I’ve no idea. It’s odd about actors -- sometimes it’s the tiniest little thing that attracts them to a role, that provides the “key” for them. I’ve found this quite often to be the case. The producer told me William Hurt wanted to play his part because of one line. It’s the scene where he draws a gun on Rufus Sewell, ordering him not to move -- and Rufus immediately runs away. Hurt says, in quiet exasperation, “Nobody ever listens to me.” A line I wrote from the heart! And from what I’ve heard about William Hurt, he does have a tendency to talk -- somewhat abstrusely at times -- and has probably had the experience of people responding with blank stares.
And to the extent that Robert De Niro can become animated and engaged in a script conference, this occurred in his hotel room when we discussed his character’s climactic line to his younger rival in THE SCORE: “When did you start thinking you were better than me?” That became the goal post for him.
DS: I mention
the obvious influence of UFO Contactee and Abduction mythos in this film. Did
you read any books on the history of claimed alien encounters when adding your
input to the screenplay? Or did you just graft things from classic sci fi films
of the 1950s? And what did co-screenwriter David Goyer contribute vis-à-vis
you, as he is more of a linear and comic book level writer in the action film
LD: No, I did no research for DARK CITY. I don’t think I ever thought of any sci-fi films of the 1950s. It was set up at Disney when I was hired, and I’ve always preferred fantasy to “science” fiction. I honestly was thinking, not just of crime films, but of MARY POPPINS and the PETER PAN London you fly over at Disneyland -- and MR. TOAD’S WILD RIDE -- and I think that fairy-tale, Sleepy Hollow, Magic Kingdom quality can be felt in the film -- the boat ride they take, the “floating birthday cake” scene, which would be one of mine, by the river’s edge. Some of the more Pythonesque or Ealing comedy or TWILIGHT ZONE aspects. HEAVEN CAN WAIT and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and THE WIZARD OF OZ.
William Hurt’s detective character, I thought, was a bit like the one in Melville’s LE DIEUXIEME SOUFFLE -- and the police station scene between Rufus Sewell and Jennifer Connelly another gloss on Bresson that Paul Schrader already ripped off in AMERICAN GIGOLO. Frankenheimer’s SECONDS -- the chance to remake yourself. These were some of the antecedents I had in mind. I wouldn’t say this is mere appropriation, which I find boring in art, but in the service, I hope, of making the present work and its characters “live” -- something of a DARK CITIAN paradox, perhaps.
I do think that after the project left Disney, and me, it became both more science-fictiony and conventional. I suppose my main suggestion at the outset and contribution was perhaps to emphasize the love story, the marriage, for one thing. And also, if I remember, I think the original script by Alex was more or less a crime film-science fiction hybrid set in an “alternate” world or universe. I believe one of the first things I said was, alternate to what? And from there we built the idea that these were real people snatched from earth to populate this alien simulacrum of a human city. I told you Rod Serling was a favorite.
DS: Yes, I
recall that old The Twilight Zone episode of the whole town
snatched up and studied on an alien world. The scene that ends the film, shows
Jennifer Connelly on the end of a long pier. This shot was almost totally
replicated in later films starring Connelly, Requiem For A Dream and
House Of Sand And Fog.
Is there something iconic or deeply atavistic about that shot? Why has it become
the most famous and copied shot in Dark City, a film laden with
far more evocative images?
LD: I haven’t made it through either of those subsequent Connelly films, maybe I should. I’ve always thought, and said, that DARK CITY owes a lot to Alex Proyas’s autobiography and country -- Australia -- and to a lesser extent, as his helper, to mine. Australia has its own frontier myth, distinct from America’s, and a culture that remained closer to that of England. The seaside, the Pier, these are very iconic images, or tropes, if you like. England being an island, as well as notoriously grey and rainy -- sunshine and holidays and beaches were long the stuff and symbols of dreams for ordinary people, for the working class, especially in the days before modern and widespread ease of transportation. And Alex is from Sydney -- he remembers the shabby funfair or amusement area that once existed, with its aquarium by the water. But I suppose the lure of the sea, the end of the frontier, is a pretty basic human longing. Gatsby’s green light. I don’t know if DARK CITY’s ending’s been ”copied” or not, or if it’s a copy itself. That’s an instance where I was thinking of a science-fiction film -- LOGAN’S RUN, with its couple escaping the artificial, domed city, making it out into the sunlight and natural world, with Jerry Goldsmith’s soaring music.
DS: Logan’s Run was a fun movie unfairly maligned in the wake of Star Wars. In the DVD commentary, you bitch about Connelly’s performance as not being up to par? Who did you see in the role? What specific weaknesses did Connelly reveal? And, were the flaws really Connelly’s or the character’s?
LD: I suspect I was slightly more circumspect than that, but, granted, we’re not talking about Dame Edith Evans, J.C.’s subsequent Academy Award for A BEAUTIFUL MIND notwithstanding. DARK CITY is one of those movies where you can pretend that deficiencies of script or performance are actually strengths -- hey, they’re meant to be cardboard cutouts! But I guess I felt that -- like so many actors now -- there’s a maturity gap. She still seems like the girl in LABYRINTH, rather than a genuine, smoky femme fatale. Lauren Bacall was very young in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, but to even make the comparison is manifestly absurd. Fashions change. They just don’t seem, in DARK CITY, like actual adults in an actual marriage that’s had its ups and downs. Yes, they’re just going through the motions -- because they’re being made to by outside forces. But if this is really supposed to be evocative of a noir universe -- did Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer seem like they were born yesterday? In a movie about people who were born yesterday, this might or might not be construed as a defect. But it’s also entirely possible that under-writing and under-directing are contributing factors. I think Alex would agree that being an “actor’s director” is not his primary focus of interest.
DS: In the
commentaries and extra features on the DVD, the general consensus of Proyas,
you, and Goyer, is that this version is superior to the theatrical release. To
me, though, it’s a wash. I wrote: ‘Other than the aforementioned
lengthening of the film, there is the loss of the opening voiceover by Kiefer
Sutherland. Proyas and the other members of the creative team all think this
improves the film, but since we learn of what is stated in the film’s
voiceover within the first twenty or so minutes, and it bears little on the
film’s ending, the voiceover is really a non-issue, dramatically. In Blade
Runner, for instance, the cheesy voiceover at film’s end, especially, adds
to the film by leavening many of the trite and mawkish scenes that are viewed
with an almost PoMo and unwitting self-deprecation. That’s not true, in this
instance. In short, its loss does not remove any of the pop from the film’s
‘mystery.’ In fact, one could argue that the opening voiceover actually does
more to make the film ambiguous than does the Director’s Cut. Why? Because
Sutherland’s voice actually notes that The Strangers took these people from
our small, blue world, meaning Earth. Thus, the surprise when Murdoch and
Bumstead bust through the brick wall into outer space is more of a shock,
because we have seemingly been told we are on earth. In the Director’s
Cut, sans that statement, there always seems to be something ‘off’ and
artificial about the city, so the notion that it is a large spaceship is not
quite as dramatic. Some opening scenes that show the city asleep during a tuning
are moved to later in the film, and, again, this is a non-issue, since the
tuning at film’s opening only makes sense if the voiceover is there. The
effects showing Murdoch’s ability to tune are not as glaring from early on in
the film any longer. This makes it seem as if Murdoch is learning his powers as
he goes along. A slight plus, possibly, but, since the early evidence of his
tuning ability comes in uncontrolled moments, wouldn’t a fierce burst be
evident? There are other minor effects enhancements, and more of an insistence
on featuring the spiral motif of the killer persona Murdoch was supposed to get.
Also, Bumstead seems more equivocal in the added scenes we see of him. Finally,
during the singing scenes, Jennifer Connelly’s real voice is used, not Anita
Kelsey’s. Finally, the changes seem more akin to those made in Francis Ford
Coppola’s Apocalypse Now/Apocalypse Now Redux recut- the film is
longer, but still of the same generally high quality. Had Proyas not held on to
his pet peeves, no one would have uttered a complaint about anything missing
from the original film.’ Comments?
LD: I think it’s probably a wash, too. I haven’t got round to watching the new version, except for bits and pieces, and I know I can barely tell the difference. On the whole, I’m not thrilled with Director’s Cuts. They’re interesting for film buffs to have and to hold, but they’re very often disappointing, if not actual acts of vandalism -- especially years after the fact when the director might have lost his marbles in the interim. Can you even obtain TOM JONES or THE LAST PICTURE SHOW anymore as they were first released and seen? I mean, these are movies that won Oscars. The historical record should count for something. At the moment there’s outrage over Friedkin’s tinkering with THE FRENCH CONNECTION. You’re right, things often end up getting less focused, more diffuse, or at any rate just not that different an experience overall.
DS: Of the film,
I also write: ‘….while Dark City has many influences, it
transcends them all, and becomes more the influencer than the influenced. In
this way, it is a work of art that is a ‘bottleneck.’ It takes all that came
before and reconfigures it so that it influences all that came later. Bottleneck
art and artists are almost always a sure sign of greatness. Walt Whitman did it
in poetry, Henrik Ibsen did it in drama, and films like The Birth Of A
Nation, Citizen Kane, and 2001: A Space Odyssey did it in film. It
also has, in over a decade, never had a film come close to it.’
Do you think that the film is a bottleneck film? If not, why not? Do you believe
in the idea of bottlenecks in art? That is to say that there come artworks and
artists that are the sum of all before them and which form the bases for all
subsequent art. Walt Whitman and all Modern poetry is the best example.
LD: I don’t know. You could sort of say that about any great writer, artist, composer, inventor, couldn’t you? The world, the art form, Before and After them. Shakespeare or Tolstoy or Dickens or Joyce -- or J.K. Rowling. There are trends and fads and fashions and movements -- it’s all a continuum of influence, if you ask me. Everyone takes from those who came before, from favorites, from wherever. Artists pick and choose from the whole history of art and make it their own. All art is one, was Michael Powell’s favorite saying. Alex Proyas was greatly influenced by science-fiction literature, and it’s true, it’s a shame there don’t seem to have been serious science-fiction films at anywhere near the level that readers have always enjoyed, with anything like the complexity or philosophy or ideas. If he had other films in mind, they would have been Tarkovsky’s, for the most part.
Hollywood is happier thinking of science-fiction as special-effects-driven, comic book, cartoon spectacles for numbskulls. But they think this across all genres now, to the extent that genres even exist anymore. Can’t they make a pirate movie without calling it PIRATES and making it a spoof? Do romantic comedies have to be utter crap? You won’t be seeing the likes of NINOTCHKA or THE APARTMENT or TOOTSIE again anytime soon, or ever.
Your image of a bottleneck would seem to me to apply more to negative or anti-art developments, suggesting as it does something constraining, some unpleasant blockage or obstacle to be gotten around -- like the ultimate victory of television and the wave of TV execs who become film execs, thus ending the cinema of the 70s, and ushering in the non-cinema of the 80s.
I know a lot of people like DARK CITY -- I do, too, and it was a wonderful working experience -- but other than an homage episode of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and some vaguely unreleasable movies whose titles I can’t even come up with, I don’t see that it’s materially altered the universe. And if you’ve read Fritz Leiber and Robert Heinlein, it makes sense that DARK CITY’s characters are wearing old hats.
DS: Then there
are films that may not be bottlenecks, but stand alone as great works of art
that are nonpareil. In film, three that stand out in my mind are Louis Malle’s
My Dinner With Andre. This is a simple conversation (granted, not a
‘simple’ conversation) wherein the power of words dominates. I can still
visually recall scenes described only in the dialogue, such as where Andre
describes being buried alive. Another film in this vein- one that is nonpareil,
is Chris Marker’s La
Jetee. All but a few seconds of this film are still photographic
images, yet, as with My Dinner With Andre, the mind recalls actual
motion in the scenes, where there really is none. The third film in this vein,
ones that play with memory’s functions, is Bela Tarr’s Satantango,
wherein a seven hour long film, told in excruciatingly long takes, compresses
like an accordion in recall. It ‘plays’ faster than many bad 80 or 90 minute
long films. All three play around with memory’s physical function in the
brain. So, since memory seems to be a key part to some of your work, have you
ever thought of doing a film that works on the levels of these three films?
LD: All those films kind of bore me, I have to say. I like MY DINNER WITH ANDRE, as far as it goes, but it’s what I mean when I say there’s no tradition of intellectual cinema in America. Even though it’s an American film, per se, albeit directed by a Frenchman, it’s what passes for intellectual discourse in American film. The talk is amusing and interesting and engaging, but it’s all at the level of earthy-crunchy, ethereal-spiritual, New Age, talking-to-animals, Tibetan, UFOs, hippie, New York theatre world, psycho-babble claptrap. The example you cite -- “buried alive” -- a case in point. It’s not like they’re discussing Augustan poetry, or textualizing the feminine in fin-de-siécle Paris, which, granted, might be even more boring. You’re not having dinner with Irving Howe or E.M. Cioran.
What saves the movie in the end is Wallace Shawn’s own bursting of this pseudo-intellectual bubble.
DS: I mentioned your rip on Jennifer Connelly, but in the DVD you rag on Tom Cruise even more, for the fact that he was once considered for the Rufus Sewell role. I agree, he’d’ve been horrible. There are certain actors- Cruise, DiCaprio, John Wayne, etc., who cannot act. Someone once uttered the lines that, ‘an actor becomes the character while a star makes the character become him.’ Was that at the root of your Cruise revulsion?
I really should force myself to listen to that commentary track -- while
humming and holding my ears. Surely
you have me confused with someone else. I
know I’m a bigmouth, but I feel no revulsion towards Tom Cruise. What I
suspect I said was simply that things were put on hold for a week or two while
Tom Cruise pondered the project. He
was evidently interested in finding a science -- or speculative -- fiction
piece, hence his later attachment to VANILLA SKY, MINORITY REPORT, WAR OF THE
WORLDS. But I know Alex Proyas was worried that this was a potential
good news/bad news situation -- the 300-pound gorilla of a Movie Star can change
the equation considerably, as regards power politics, studio scrutiny -- the
whole nature of the beast. Tom
Cruise would have changed DARK CITY’s fortunes at the box office, that’s for
sure, even if the script had remained the same in all other respects.
Robert Mitchum once said of Steve McQueen that he doesn’t bring much to
the party. Look who’s talking!
But movie stars do bring baggage with them, for better or for worse.
They do bring a persona. It
depends whether you think it’s a compelling or a bland one.
When William Friedkin failed to get Steve McQueen to star in SORCERER, he
went ahead with Roy Scheider and forever regretted he didn’t buckle to
McQueen’s demands. The characters
in SORCERER were meant to be existential Everymen.
As in a Walter Hill film, “when someone sticks a gun in your face,
character is how many times you blink.” Well,
Scheider, a good enough actor, doesn’t project a great deal of charisma or
sympathy, or inspire audience identification or fantasy or fascination. An absence of character in the script will be felt as
such by the viewer, unless the actor is powerful enough to compensate.
Similarly, the protagonist in DARK CITY is a cipher, an amnesiac.
How do you convey who he is when he doesn’t know himself?
It was Alex’s feeling that he is a tabula rasa, for the
viewer to project himself onto. Interesting
theory, in practice problematic. The ideal would be to cast an unknown in such a role and
through the force of their personality discover a new movie star.
Easier said than done.
DS: I think Sewell’s performance is excellent. Why is it that there seems to be no logical correlation between an actor’s abilities and his success? After all, Sewell is as good looking, if not better looking than Cruise, can act rings around Cruise, yet his is a peripheral name in film while Cruise owns his own studio. Comments?
The eternal mystery of who has “It” and who doesn’t.
The camera and the audience like who they like.
I think it was DARK CITY’s producer, Andrew Mason, who first noted
Rufus as a London stage actor with a rising reputation.
Like I said about the eternal delusions of screenwriters, when it comes
to taking a chance with a new leading man, everyone takes a deep breath and
hopes for the best. I was happy to
see Andrew’s talent-spotting abilities validated recently when Rufus appeared
to great acclaim -- and a Tony award -- in Tom Stoppard’s ROCK ‘N’ ROLL.
But plays, films, novels, they’re all very different.
Not everyone can bring their strengths from one to another.
DS: Dark City came out at the time of other lesser sci fi flicks with similar themes about the nature of reality and memory: Cube and The Thirteenth Floor, among them. The film Armageddon came out amidst other apocalypse films, and, a decade earlier, The Abyss saw the release of several underwater-based sci fi films. What is it about science fiction that generates these waves of films with similar themes?
It’s not just science fiction. At
the moment (“Awards” season, 2009) there are seven -- seven! --
“arthouse” type period-piece movies about the 1960s.
In the space of a year in the 1970s, there was a whole crop of rodeo
movies, all of them more or less the same and fairly watchable -- JUNIOR BONNER
the most notable, along with THE HONKERS, WHEN THE LEGENDS DIE, J.W. COOP …
KAFKA was made around the same time as ZENTROPA and SHADOWS AND FOG and other
mad author confections -- NAKED LUNCH, BARTON FINK … Are SF films more prone
to coincidence, do you think, or the cliché about the collective unconscious?
But I also wouldn’t discount the, uh, free flow of ideas in the
incestuous fish tank of the film business.
DS: In the film commentary, you claim (I paraphrase) that, ‘one’s soul is, and can only be, the sum of one’s lifetime memories; that home is always in your head.’ Alex Proyas disagreed. I am reminded of the ending to the great 1988 Woody Allen film with Gena Rowlands, Another Woman, which ends with the Rowlands character asking, ‘Is a memory a thing that you have, or a thing that you have lost?’ The answer is both, but why is it that so few films even ask such queries? Why is film so puerile and driven for the 18-24 year old demographic? Is it all just money? Because, if it is, it has not worked well, as the last decade has seen film slowly lose capital to the brainless video game industry. Comments?
People seem to assume that Hollywood is all about money -- and yet how
can it be? Just look at the shit
they make that doesn’t have a hope in hell of making a dime.
All you and I have to do is see the first photograph from many
upcoming films and it might as well be the universal skull & bones symbol
for poison. You think, why didn’t
they just go to the expense of taking that one photo, with those loser actors
wearing those stupid wigs in those ludicrous costumes, and quit while they were
ahead? Don’t they know people the
world over will cross the street to avoid any theatre showing that movie?
With that actor? Well,
no, they don’t. They’re peabrains.
The movie business historically was always in the hands of professionals.
It was in the hands of the people who invented it. They knew what the public -- a wide public -- wanted.
Jack Warner spanned the 20th Century from silent films to
BONNIE AND CLYDE (even if he hated it on first sight).
The business is now overwhelmingly in the hands of completely unqualified
incompetents and amateurs, across the board, lacking even the most basic
knowledge, or instinct for the business they’re in.
And the constant turnover of “new” people, condemned to make the same
mistakes over and over again, increases at an incredible rate of speed. No one seems to have any experience anymore.
For most of its existence, the movie industry was by and large a closed
shop, a professional secret, like any other business.
You had to actually be interested in it, get the idea to be in it, on
your own, and somehow make your own way here.
There weren’t film schools, or published screenplays (that was just
getting started when I was young), or ten million How To Write A Screenplay
books, or a billion film festivals, or box-office charts in anything but trade
publications. No one invited you.
There was no sense of entitlement. The
first film school generation wanted to write screenplays, not just sell
them for a million dollars. Hollywood
embraced the skilled and the talented. People
the world over dreamed of becoming stars, but not “filmmakers” -- and
certainly not development dickheads, agents’ assistants, and interns at Sony.
Memory is far and away something that, culturally and institutionally,
has been lost.
DS: Let me now turn to The Limey, an even rarer film than Dark City, because it deals with many of the same issues, and more, but in the more ‘adult’ genre (not meaning porno) it also transcends- ‘the revenge thriller.’ First off, I have to ask about Terence Stamp. I first saw him, as a kid, in Modesty Blaise. This guy can act with his eyes alone- in this film it’s all regret and sorrow. I think he’s an easy ‘in’ for one of the ten greatest film actors of the first century of film, along with Marcello Mastroianni, Charlie Chaplin, and a number of others we could argue over. Do you agree with Stamp’s standing? Yet, despite that, he’s never been the megastar his talents deserve recognition for. Is this just random chance at play? And, I think this is one of a handful of films where an actor’s performance so dominates a film that any other actor in the role would have not only made the film different, but inferior. Comments?
I don’t know about inferior, but always different.
It’s like wondering what children would be if one of their parents was
someone else. Once in a while you
catch a glimmer of an alternate reality -- a photo of Albert Finney in costume
for LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, or screen tests or footage of actors who were replaced
in the final film, but it’s all such a mystery.
A movie is a unique set of circumstances, lightning in a bottle.
I just watched a Terence Stamp movie, funny you should ask, called TERM
OF TRIAL. One that somehow slipped
through the net all these years. It
stars that other Laurence -- Olivier -- rumored to be the greatest actor of all
time. And all the way through, my
foremost thought was: he’s
miscast. I just don’t buy him in this role at all -- as the object
of a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl’s affections, Sarah Miles, no less!
Now, maybe, if the schoolgirl was also a dowdy, mousey type -- instead of
one of the most notorious sex kittens of Swinging London.
And Olivier by this time had not aged like Cary Grant.
He was a long way from Heathcliff. So
it’s a matter of taste and intelligence and judgement on the part of the
filmmakers, along with who’s available or able to attract money from moment to
moment on the rickety merry-go-round of film financing.
One of the dumbest things about moviemaking is that no one decides to
make a movie and then casts it appropriately.
The financing of almost all movies is cast-dependent.
That’s how you end up with Nicole Kidman
-- or Jennifer Connelly -- as cleaning ladies, Anthony Hopkins as an
African-American, and Gary Sinise as Philip Roth (THE HUMAN STAIN).
You wonder, why bother even making the fucking thing? So any time you’re able to marry the right actor with the
right role, you’re very lucky indeed.
Soderbergh considered Ryan O’Neal as Terence Stamp’s nemesis in THE
LIMEY. Would he have been a sadder
or slimier antagonist? But with
Peter Fonda you got that “two icons of the Sixties” thing -- and Peter had
just become “hot” again after ULEE’S GOLD.
It’s entirely possible that Ryan O’Neal was only THE LIMEY away from
being “hot” again. That’s
what actors have to live with. What
we all do. It’s roulette.
Colin Firth’s agents called about KAFKA -- before Colin Firth was sexy
-- and before Jeremy Irons’s insecurities helped torpedo the movie.
On THE SCORE Brando was bonkers right from the start, and the producers
said why don’t we save ourselves a lot of grief (and money) and just get
Christopher Plummer instead. And
everyone thought, but it’s Brando.
Terence is a wonderful fella, but your placing him in the pantheon is,
um, idiosyncratic, I don’t think he’d mind me saying.
It’s been pretty well documented that he embraced his era with
perhaps more passion than his profession and became a famous 60s dropout, so to
speak. Some people think life is
more important than movies, God help them.
One legend is that Jean Shrimpton broke his heart.
Swinging London flashback: When
we came back from our early 70s year in Hollywood, we stayed in David
Hockney’s London flat for a couple of months while my father looked for a
house to buy. My father’s friend
Jean was over one evening when my little sister and I were already asleep in
camp beds in Hockney’s studio. She hadn’t seen us since we were much younger.
I hazily opened my eyes, in the dark studio beneath a Hockney canvas,
with the light from the hallway streaming in, to see Jean Shrimpton’s face
peering down at me.
I know how Terence felt.
DS: What are your thoughts on acting styles, like the Method, or those where an actor tries to create an imaginary backstory? Do you encourage it, discourage it, or take a whatever works approach?
Don’t care one way or another. You
just hope they’re nice people. By now everyone knows the Method is something
of a pain in the ass. The “Why
don’t you just act, dear boy?” method seems to get the job done just as
well. Let the director worry about
corralling a variety of acting styles -- and it can be a worry.
David Lean on ZHIVAGO struggling to get everyone on the same page -- in
the perfect take -- with a Method actor like Rod Steiger, and
classically-trained English theatre actors like Guinness and Richardson, and
Angry Young Men like Tom Courtenay, and delicate newcomers Geraldine Chaplin and
Julie Christie, and a leading man from a completely different tradition in
Egyptian cinema -- and Klaus Kinski just for laughs.
Makes you glad to be a writer. But
maybe not for David Lean -- if you were to ask Robert Bolt.
Acting is mysterious. More
mysterious than writing or directing. And
probably better left a mystery. That
other Olivier story of a visitor finding him weeping in his dressing room after
a particularly great performance, the friend saying, “You were marvellous,”
and Olivier saying, “But I don’t know why.”
It can require a quality of almost supernatural concentration, or
self-hypnosis. Simenon would shut
himself in his room and immerse himself so completely in a book, identify so
totally with the psychological state of his protagonist, that the mental strain
would become unbearable -- that’s why he said the books were so short -- he
would emerge sweating and shaken.
One day Michael Powell took me to visit the set of Mankiewicz’s SLEUTH.
We had to move because we were in Olivier’s eyeline.
So I’ve seen Olivier in performance and Olivier in performance has seen
DS: I start off my review of the DVD with this claim: ‘....in rewatching The Limey on DVD, after six or seven years, and then watching it with the two available audio commentary tracks, I’m amazed to have seen something in the film that no other critic apparently has, and that is the fact that the viewer is never sure whether or not any or all of the remembered scenes depicted are, indeed, real (within the fictive cosmos the film resides in).’ I stand by that claim. Do you agree? If not, why? If so, was this intentional, or one of those ‘happy accidents’ that occurs in the making of great art? Could the film just be a fantasy that Wilson is having? And why do you think no critics (in major magazines or newspapers, nor subsequent online reviews) have mentioned this?
Oh, I think lots of people have mentioned that.
Maybe not so much in “mainstream” media -- see earlier discussion of
reviewers vs. genuine critics -- but it’s clearly a facet of the film that’s
entirely intentional, more on Steven’s part than mine.
Isn’t he the one who characterizes it as POINT BLANK meets Alain
Resnais? POINT BLANK is most easily read as a modern variant of
OCCURRENCE AT OWL CREEK BRIDGE. I
normally hate that “it’s all a dream” crap.
I much prefer things to be real. As
Billy Wilder’s collaborator I.A.L. Diamond once said, “I want to know what
happens next, not what happened LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD.” But the viewer is free to read a film or a book or an artwork
in whatever way gives the most pleasure.
DS: Is the film a sequel to Ken Loach’s Poor Cow (a film I’ve not seen)? I don’t think it’s cut and dried, as I point out in my review. If so, however, it’s the most ingenious sequel ever made. To what extent did the earlier film affect this film, in terms of characterization? Your comments?
LD: No, it’s not a sequel. It was Steven’s idea to interpolate footage of the actor, if possible, from an earlier film, simply because it hadn’t been done before and we thought it would be very moving, to show that passage of time -- in reality -- rather than resort to a younger actor made to look like our star. Which never works. And which we wouldn’t have done, in any case, because there was never any narrative need or desire for flashbacks in the usual sense. This was just for fun, for poetic effect. Something a bit deeper than, say, the opening of THE SHOOTIST showing John Wayne in his glory days before introducing the old guy in the present. In that sense, the theme of memory was something of a happy accident found more in the making than in the conception. I suggested POOR COW, which I had a bootleg tape of, and which Steven wasn’t familiar with -- which just happened to be perfect. Just what we needed -- because Terence had played a petty thief in it, almost exactly a younger version of the type of man in THE LIMEY -- same type of man found in countless British crime films and TV shows. But this was our actor, Terence Stamp, in precisely the snippets of film we would want to have -- stealing from a car, sitting around with his gang, being sentenced in court, appearing with a woman and child. It was too good to be true. I can’t think what we would have used had it been Caine or anybody else. And touch and go whether we would get the rights to use it. Legal rights aside, Steven had lunch with Loach to make sure it was morally permissible to borrow another director’s hard-won slices of life -- to Loach poach. But use it we did -- it didn’t use us. The only direct effect the actual narrative of POOR COW had on me, I think, was to give my Wilson his Christian name. There are secret links, though, if you know the milieu -- one of his cronies in POOR COW is a real-life London gangster of THE LIMEY school -- see also PERFORMANCE, VILLAIN, HE WHO RIDES A TIGER, NOWHERE TO GO, SITTING TARGET, et al. And if you recognize POOR COW actress Carol White and know of her sad fall and sordid end, it adds extra poignancy to glimpses of her “character” in THE LIMEY. Not a “happy” accident, exactly, but all too fitting.
DS: I point out another critical boner made about the film: ‘Some critics have carped about the fact that there are seeming plot holes, such as the fact that two of Jennifer’s friends, recruited by Wilson, seem to have no qualms about helping him in his revenge plot. First, if the film’s flashbacks are memories, and accurate, this is no problem because 1) Luis Guzman’s character, Eduardo Roel, is, like Wilson, an ex-con, and is no choirboy. Plus, he was Jenny’s friend (whom he met in an acting class), and, as the tale goes on it becomes clear that her ‘accidental’ death was likely not an accident. It’s certainly no stretch that he would go out of his way to help his friend’s father get justice (however rough), especially considering his own violent resentment toward rich people (throughout the film he wears t-shirts of murderous revolutionaries- Ayatollah Khomeini, Che Guevara, and Mao Zedong), and after he is shot at by Valentine’s head goon. 2) Then there is Lesley Ann Warren’s Elaine, an actress who taught Jenny and Eduardo in their acting class. Why would she become involved in the revenge plot? Well, as with Eduardo, she was Jenny’s friend, and, like Eduardo, she experiences violence (the foiled hit on Wilson), and therefore would be more disposed to helping Wilson ‘take down’ these bad men. Add in to the fact that both characters likely have their own guilt over not having done more to aid and counsel Jenny over her distressing lifestyle, and foreseeing its deadly turn, and there really is no implausibility. In fact, both characters’ actions easily pass that old bane of dramatic theory, T.S. Eliot’s objective correlative. But, even these reasons are no great stretch, in themselves, they are not any reasonable objection if one factors in Wilson’s mismemories or outright fantasies of convenience, to justify his crime spree in search of vengeance. Even if Eduardo wanted to stay on the straight and narrow, and even if Elaine wanted nothing to do with Wilson, there’s simply no reason to believe that Wilson might not, as an act of self-justification, alter the events we viewers see, so to make himself more ‘heroic,’ if only in his own eyes (as well as viewers he’d not know of). And this includes the last minute ‘conversion’ scene, wherein Wilson finally gets to Valentine, and finds out that his daughter’s death was due to her pretending she was going to turn Valentine in for drug dealing, and he either deliberately or accidentally killed her when they struggled over the telephone. Valentine’s goons then put her body in a car and made her seem as if she had died in an accident. This resonates with Wilson because we’ve seen his memories of Jenny, as a girl, threatening to turn her dad in if he didn’t mend his ways. Wilson now realizes there was no way Valentine could have known Jenny would not have finked on him, and that Valentine only did what Wilson would have, had Jenny not been his daughter. Thus, he cannot blame Valentine. I’m not asserting, with certitude, that this is the best and most correct way to view the action detailed in the film, just that it’s more than legitimate to do so, induces no narrative nor characterization problems, and-most shockingly- is totally uncommented upon by all the major critics’ reviews one can find online.’ Do you agree? And what are your views on Eliot’s objective correlative? I think it can be a useful critical tool, but when applied willy-nilly, in all facets of drama, it becomes useless.
Again, hard to miss, I would have thought.
How thick does the viewer have to be not to get what the climax of the
movie is all about? It’s not a
proposition from Wittgenstein -- to quote Basil Fawlty, a less forgiving limey.
And Jenny’s two close friends acquiescing in her father’s quest
doesn’t strike me as a very egregious break with movie conventions, if it’s
plot holes you’re on the lookout for. But
need I say with over-much emphasis that there was a lot of material relating to
character and motivation that was given the toss. And other stuff that was belabored (I wrote in the Ché
T-shirt, but not the other two -- which I’ve never noticed). As for Eliot -- who also said that between the idea and the
reality falls the shadow -- yeah, sure, it’s meaningless applied across the
board. Like different acting
methods, whatever gets you to the emotion will do.
There are times when you want to evoke feeling through the surf rippling
onto the shore or the sound of church bells or the way an actor holds a
cigarette -- but sometimes just having them come out and say, “ I love you”
works pretty well too.
DS: I think the DVD’s commentary is one of the best ever recorded. You and Soderbergh make the film even more interesting with your bickering. You seemed to resent most of the film’s positive reviews being laid at Soderbergh’s feet, while the negative at yours. Yet, the critics were flat out wrong about the screenplay- it’s not underdeveloped at all, but sharp, incisive, and filled with little moments that speak well of the characters. My review eviscerates several such claims against the screenplay, however, I do agree with Soderbergh re: much of the character development. I wrote: ‘As example, Dobbs wanted Fonda’s character to have a lengthy soliloquy on the 60s zeitgeist, but Soderbergh cut that, and he was right. Even Fonda, in the other commentary, pans the soliloquy as being too saccharine and out of character. One need not know everything about every character, and Valentine is a slippery, seedy son of a bitch. Knowing why he’s that way is always going to be an exercise in futility. Also, it’s likely that Valentine is incapable of such reflection. Dobbs also wanted Wilson to reflect upon and mention a criminal mentor, back in England, called Lambeth. But, we already get enough hints of his past from the Poor Cow scenes; some mystery has to be retained, lest viewers be subsumed in the petty. Another example comes in Dobbs’ desire to have the two hitmen, played by Katt and Dallesandro, explicitly shown as being related, with Katt’s character the nephew of the older, dumber man. But, this would have done nothing to aid the characters, nor viewer interest. Two scenes illustrate how well these very minor characters are developed. The first is when we first glimpse them, and we see Stacy provoking a fight at a pool table with a pair of other men. The guy he enrages steps toward Stacy, and the older hitman conks him in the head with the pool cue. Stacy then kicks the guy in the face and knocks him out. The way they work together shows much of their long term closeness. A bit later, we see the duo stalking Elaine and Wilson on the set of her television series, and Stacy starts making crude remarks about the people around the set, especially the homosexuals. That scene perfectly illustrates typical male relationships: a) the two men are not looking at each other eye to eye, but next to each other, as if at a ball game and envisioning something in the ether, and b) they are so comfortable with each other that we sense their relationship is more than just partners in crime- and clearly the older man is either slightly retarded or somehow mentally impaired. We simply do not need to know more- and, of course, we get a bit of their collective greed a bit later on, and it leads to their demise. Soderbergh got this right, whereas Dobbs’ elaborations would have weighted the film down in unnecessary detail, as well as some questionable psychology (think of the most outdated Hitchcockian villains). I recall the line from Woody Allen’s film Another Woman, where the lead character, played by Gena Rowlands, states something to the effect that just because some things (like feelings) are important to the writer does not mean it has import to the objective observer, who will see something as maudlin, overblown, and embarrassing.’ In short, Lem, I think you wanted to gild a lily that was pitch-perfect. I don’t think you realize just how outstandingly you wrote the characters and scenes- such as the two hitmen. Leaving a bit of X factor in their relationship draws the viewer in to imbue the film, and participate in the act of co-creation, which invests them more in the film’s outcome, as well as wanting to rewatch the film to pick up more insights. However, this commentary is almost a decade old, so have you changed your mind or mellowed in some of your opinions re: the film?
LD: No, I wanted Fonda’s character’s ex-wife to have a lengthy soliloquy on the Sixties zeitgeist -- precisely because Valentine is incapable of such reflection. I reserve the right to believe the film would be a richer experience if the characters were more fully developed and situated in settings and relationships more akin to real life than simplistic movie ”scenes.” There’s a difference between God being in the details and God being too lazy to give a shit about them. Simply for the sake of narrative, let alone character, these additional details would have made the story and the characters’ movements more comprehensible. I don’t mean in a spoon-fed to idiots way. I mean more interesting and enjoyable, more satisfying. As I said, I can’t ignore the fact that people like it -- I just think they’d like it more. I think it could easily have been a better movie, and consequently a more successful one. What’s wrong with getting more good reviews and fewer bad ones? So no, I haven’t changed my mind about its faults and limitations as I perceive them, but I have mellowed as its strengths have become more apparent to me -- partly through such terrific responses as yours -- partly through learning not to give a shit myself so much anymore, and moving on.
earlier mentioned the like/dislike axis in criticism, but one also has to recall
that a positive/negative criticism is apart from a good/bad criticism. A
positive criticism is so when positive on a good or bad film, and the same with
negative, but a good criticism can be positive or negative, depending on the
objective quality of the film, and same with a bad criticism. Praising Saving
Private Ryan is bad, but positive. Damning La
Notte is bad and negative. Comments?
LD: Like/dislike is the trouble with “reviews.” It tells you nothing. There is no Great Tradition in reviewing. Either the reviewer is just some contemporary fool who doesn’t realize that VERTIGO and THE SEARCHERS and PEEPING TOM are great and enduring works of art made by masters and instead lavishes praise on high-minded mediocrity that will soon be forgotten -- or the “consumer” reading the review is a clod who has no idea what the new film releases are and is just looking for some sort of guide to make up his mind for him what to go see. Like an article in the New York Times publicizing a “rare” screening of A HARD DAY’S NIGHT -- which will tell me (if I bother to read it, simply to see how many factual errors they make) who the Beatles were, and what the “British Invasion” was, and how Richard Lester “invented” the music video -- it’s all just filler to wrap fish in, which is why “news” papers are on the way out. Who is that article supposed to be for? A high school student? A recent arrival from Uzbekistan? Good criticism is by good writers who tend to like what they’re writing about and are able to convey their enthusiasm to the reader, who they assume is their well-informed, reasonably-educated cultural equal, and support it with illuminating detail and insight. I’m always reading historical, cineaste criticism for help and inspiration when I write scripts. I much prefer reading an intelligent “critical” biography of a director, say, or a good book just about his movies, than a straightforward account of his life or, God forbid, his own blathering autobiography, which is usually unpublishable but published anyway. Even if someone like Sarris is making “negative” pronouncements about some directors in his great compendium THE AMERICAN CINEMA, his overall project is one of obsessive love for cinema, backed by extraordinary and comprehensive knowledge, as well as superior intelligence and writing ability. If anything demands elitism, it’s criticism -- of Hollywood’s popular art no less than any other.
But “elite” isn’t synonymous with the “Establishment,” which is what it’s sort of come to mean lately. You do need a Roger Ebert to recognize the greatness of a WILD BUNCH when it’s new -- and say so, and tell people why, in the face of Old Guard scorn or indifference. George Ballanchine said to his dancers, about audiences: “They look but they do not see, so we must show them.” What’s true for great directors should be true of their -- sympathetic -- critics.
DS: By the way,
since I mentioned it a second time, have you ever seen Allen’s Another
Woman? What is your opinion of his screenwriting, films, career, and
would you ever want to work with him, as unlikely as that may be, since he
writes all his own scripts? Also, I pin Allen’s Golden Age as between 1977 and
1992, starting with Annie Hall, and ending with Husbands
And Wives. Even his lesser films, in that era, were very good. Since
then, he’s run out of ideas, and has reworked and stolen from himself. Do you
worry of ever falling into that trap of repetition?
LD: How much it is, after all, to have any talents to squander (Orwell again). There’s a difference between repetition, with its connotation of dullness and exhaustion -- and variations on a theme, which presumably can be endlessly enriching, if somewhat dependent on the rest of the oeuvre. I could happily have had a few more Moral Tales from Eric Rohmer, for instance. Hurry up and translate the rest of Simenon, please. What I wouldn’t give to fall into Woody Allen’s trap of repetition.
He was always one of those filmmakers whose new, whose next film you always wanted to rush to see, on opening day more often than not. Did something go out of him, or ourselves? Is “going to the movies” just not necessary anymore thanks to home viewing? I think you’re right, there’s a vigor that was once there that’s gone missing, and a certain laziness has set in. Even with the odd one that’s judged better than the ones preceding it, like MATCH POINT, or something, partly because of the novelty of the London location, or a darker, more dramatic storyline than people have come to expect from him. Or do most people, and reviewers, simply have no idea he’s “doing” A PLACE IN THE SUN, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, Patricia Highsmith …? There we go again.
It’s so easy to go wrong. Filmmakers make choices, yes, but also from what’s available or expedient. What if Peter Bogdanovich had discovered the young Meryl Streep for DAISY MILLER instead of casting his girlfriend? The film is not wholly awful in other respects. It might have been a classic. The latest Woody Allen, WHATEVER WORKS, he originally wrote in the 70s for Zero Mostel. And if you squint, you can see that movie, and Mostel inhabiting that character and how it might have been passably okay. Instead we have current television personality Larry David, who to his credit told Woody Allen he was not an actor. And it doesn’t work.
But what a tremendous body of work. Never less than interesting, each film as part of the complete tapestry. I mean, Jesus Christ, the energy, if not the vigor or rigor. The productivity. That in itself is a great and enviable talent. Like Chabrol, you know, to make movies faute de mieux. If you’re Picasso, y’know what? -- you can dash off a daily Picasso. The fertility of natural born genius.
I think vigor is something that’s gone out of “film” generally, and much of it is because of money. People literally can’t make movies anymore due to the expense. So movies seem small and cheap and in the absence of any aesthetic interest, scarcely worth making at all. ANNIE HALL and MANHATTAN -- and LOVE AND DEATH, inexpensive as it was in its day -- they’re like epics compared to what films feel like now. There were B-movies that used to have a big finish at Hoover Dam or Yellowstone National Park. There were Z-movies that sacked Carthage. Paul Schrader has expressed the opinion that movies may just have been a 20th Century art form. A hundred years. Quite a long time, really, for something to live and die. Technologies end up destroying the industries they help to create. Just ask anyone in the fishing industry.
I’ve seen ANOTHER WOMAN, but don’t remember it too well, which is part of the problem with such abundance. If he’d made only ten films, not only would they be more distinct, you’d have rewatched them all many more times.
One is tempted to have that fantasy that Woody Allen expressed -- in MANHATTAN? -- in reference to relationships, that you always think you can be the one who’s going to change the other. Or save them. Collaboration with Marshall Brickman did seem to be good for him -- those seem like the best “screenplays.” But as we know, so much of his “writing” is in the making, especially the editing, of his movies. By all means, though, if you happen to run into him, give him my number.
DS: In the commentary you speak of visualizing the screenplay, such as the scene in Valentine’s where Wilson steals his daughter’s photo. You complain that it was unrealistic that the Amelia Heinle (an actress who reminds me of Denise Richards with less plastic surgery) character would not notice it. Is such visualization unique to screenwriting vs. novel writing? Or is it unique to you, son of a visual artist of talent?
LD: No, shouldn’t have anything to do with being the son of a visual artist. Film is a visual medium, as hackneyed as that now sounds. What else should screenwriters do but visualize the movie, preferably with the director -- the way Jean-Claude Carriere ”wrote” six films with Buñuel, the way Hitchcock and Lean worked with their writers. But haven’t people always “seen” what they’re reading? Why else would a novelist describe anything? More than a few novels, you know, have been made into movies -- some by putting scene numbers in the book’s margins. “Visualizing a screenplay” is a redundancy. My complaint was about the filmmaker’s placing of that photo in the most glaringly noticeable location -- all by itself on a wall at the top of the stairs -- rather than a more realistic, subtle, and less obvious position -- in a hallway, surrounded by other photos -- where Wilson could more surprisingly and movingly notice it -- as explicitly indicated in the script. Nobody cares.
DS: I’ve not heard them, but have found out you also did DVD commentaries for films like The Sand Pebbles, Von Ryan’s Express, and Double Indemnity. How did you get involved in those projects? Was it your work as a film historian? And what exactly does such a title entail? Is it more film preservation or just cataloguing the things in films?
LD: I have a great friend, Nick Redman, who does a lot of DVD work, and he invited me to collaborate on a few titles he knew I had a particular feeling for. We just have fun sitting and chatting while watching the films; he prompts with good questions, eliciting movie buff thoughts and trivia and, in the case of DOUBLE INDEMNITY, personal memories of Billy Wilder. We try to make it entertaining and informative for the seven people who might ever listen to them, and not just restate the bleeding obvious. I’m happy if I can put across a couple of nuggets you might not find elsewhere.
After Dark City and The Limey, in 2001, you worked
on theaforementioned Robert De Niro and
Edward Norton film The Score. Were you a script doctor on that, as
well? This was another film that did modestly at the box office. Has the lack of
a financial blockbuster film on your resume been a hindrance in being able to
pitch ideas or be offered screenplays to work on?
LD: Nothing has been a hindrance to pitching ideas, since I would rather slit my wrists than “pitch” anything I ever wanted to write.
As it happens, THE SCORE did very well at the box office. It was a major studio production and release, not at all like the little films THE LIMEY and DARK CITY, and it’s one of the most successful Robert De Niro films ever made -- other than his MEET THE PARENTS comedies and ANALYZE THIS, and his voice work in the cartoon SHARK TALE. THE SCORE in its theatrical release made millions or tens of millions more than HEAT or GOODFELLAS or CASINO or RONIN or JACKIE BROWN or twenty other De Niro films in recent years. It’s the most successful Marlon Brando movie since APOCALYPSE NOW and SUPERMAN two decades earlier. The fourth highest-grossing Edward Norton film (go ahead and laugh) in his twenty-film career. Defensive much? I can look up box office charts like anyone else. Obviously a financial blockbuster, which is a different order of success entirely, on anyone’s resumé, makes Hollywood easier to navigate, but as I said, another dumb job has always come along if I ever wanted or needed one for the last thirty years. THE SCORE was one such, a god-awful script in all its various versions, so it was not a case of “script doctoring,” which implies relatively small or specific fixes, but a full-on rewrite. You won’t believe this, but in the draft I was first given to read, to subsequently revise, the climax comes when the De Niro character cleverly tricks the Norton character into opening the bag containing the loot, whereupon a boxing glove on a spring pops out and punches the Norton character in the nose. The loot in question was a pack of ancient tarot cards stolen from -- get this -- the “Library” -- “of Antiquities.” De Niro’s character also managed to evade FBI surveillance on his house by putting on a false moustache and a beret and leaving via the front door as if he was just another innocent “pavement artist” -- which is what the coda found him working as in a foreign country, evidently fulfilling his lifelong dream.
Judging, correctly, that Robert De Niro was not quite ideal casting for an Inspector Clouseau movie, the producers determined this draft to be in some ways deficient. Notice, though, that De Niro had nonetheless expressed interest -- along with Marlon Brando, Edward Norton, and Frank Oz. When people want to make a heist movie, by God, they make a heist movie.
I said, “Well, do they work -- the tarot cards? Do they actually predict the future? Do they open a window onto the soul? Are they magic?”
Sarcasm sometimes gets you the job.
DS: Well, so much for me relying on online movie box office websites for information! Let me switch gears and ask of your opinions of some other people’s work. First, I once claimed, in a review, that Ingmar Bergman could have been considered the greatest published writer of the 20th Century based upon his screenplays. Whether or not you think as highly of his writing as I do, the point is that screenplays are almost wholly ignored as works of art unto themselves. Why is this? And who, if not Bergman, would you rank as amongst the greatest screenwriters, as well as greatest published writers, period, of last century?
LD: Screenplays can’t be works of art unto themselves because they’re not unto themselves, they’re roadmaps to something else. If someone discovered an old box in Stratford-on-Avon and inside were a bunch of handwritten plays by a totally unknown Elizabethan named William Shakespeare, would they be works of art? I take your point. I suppose they might. The language would still be language the likes of which no one had ever seen. That’s why theatre is another medium, where the writer is more prominent. But screenwriting is not writing. Nobody reads Faulkner’s screenplays, produced or unproduced, as anything but scholarly ephemera. The published works of Ingmar Bergman are certainly “better” than the published works of John Grisham -- or Doris Lessing, if you ask me, but it’s just too different a form. I love the form. I’m very happy writing a screenplay, thinking in that way. I’d be happy being a screenwriting monk, working in silence and solitude in a cell and never showing them to anyone. That’s a very real fantasy. Almost Bergmanesque. But screenplays are always unfinished. They’re loadstones. Jacques Prevert needs Marcel Carné to be complete.
Philip Roth is the only living writer published in the “Library of America.” That seems about right. THE SUN ALSO RISES and THE GREAT GATSBY are still the best American novels of the last century, and have weathered the competition posed by Toni Morrison. The greatest published writers of the 20th Century are ones who were publishing in the 19th Century. Dead white males are awesome. Nobody else is.
DS: I’ve argued that film is really literature with pictures- i.e.- closer to literature than the other visual arts. It is, to neologize, cinemature. Do you agree or not?
LD: Yeah, said so. Most good movies are novelistic, most good novels are cinematic. Usually when they say a book is “unfilmable,” it’s also unreadable -- or it just hasn’t been filmed properly.
DS: I think that the reason so many film school idiots go wrong is that they fundamentally do not get the cinemature aspect of film. I find most film criticism- especially that based in film theory, however, wholly ignores screenplays, character development, themes, etc., while masturbating over editing, lighting, sound, and mise-en-scène. Yet, what do you think all those technical aspects- dolly shots, editing, scoring, effects- are for? To serve the story! After all, film is called ‘motion pictures,’ not ‘pictured motions’! While I could be generous, and state that these critics, historians, and theorists simply focus on what interests them, I know- from years in writing groups, that the real reason is simply that the technical aspects of film are far easier to understand than the abstract language-based aspects. How many times have you read that a critic says a film is well-written, but the conversations are a string of banalities? In Film Criticism Comes Of Age Phillip Lopate wrote, ‘Inevitably, this concentration on movies’ plots as sociological treasure troves provoked a formalist backlash. In emphasizing the movie’s script or “literary” values, argued the formalists, something was lost: proper attention to composition, lighting, camera movement, art direction, the actor’s costume and body language – in short, film’s visual allure. The old chicken-and-egg argument regarding form and content had reemerged. While it was of course impossible to separate form strictly from content, the dispute had its periodic uses, since each film critic did tend to allot different proportions of interest to a film’s dialogue or “message” and its cinematic technique.’ But, most people are not moved, even subliminally, by visual technique- such as the on the shoulder compositions in L’Avventura, much less can they understand them. This sort of criticism reminds me of the masturbatory sort that bad Academic poets blurb for each other over garbage that lacks style, music, and depth, but is claimed as poetry. Comments?
LD: I don’t quite understand myself how, why, or when technology and the technical aspects of filmmaking completely overran, overcame, overwhelmed the human, the emotional, the intellectual, the real. Was it when kids first started bringing pocket calculators to school with them? They would have been more or less the first film school generation. So there came to be filmmakers who were somehow excited by Kurosawa, but not by the Western Canon that excited him -- Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky -- and who thought Godard’s jump-cuts were sexy, but could no more discuss his interest in Nicholas Ray or the dialectics of Marxism than they could fly to Mars, filmmakers who can imitate Hitchcock’s technique, but are incapable of emulating his emotional or narrative complexity. Writers, directors, actors, even when relatively young, once seemed mature. Somewhere along the line, quite recently, that changed. Now, no matter what their age, they’re immature, and the films reflect that. The obsession with technology appears to have accelerated this process of infantilism and occluded all else. There are Hollywood half-wits now, maybe approaching a majority, who genuinely believe that a Batman movie, THE DARK KNIGHT, is worthy of an Academy Award for Best Picture, or that a children’s cartoon, in its writing, directing, cinematic artistry -- in its 3D -- is the contemporary equivalent of THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI.
So, actually, I think we’ve reached
the point where people are not just stimulated, but only moved by visual
DS: Since I mentioned it; what of mise-en-scene? Is it one of the great vapid ideas in art, one of those catch-all terms that really has no concrete definition? It’s as if any time a wannabe film critic wants to sound ‘deep’ he mentions the term, and uses it to bludgeon whatever film or director he simply does not like, because- unlike dialogue, character development or even a technical thing like camera movement, it is a nebulous thing. It seems that many film theorists try to remove film from the circle of arts by positing an exceptionalism that only a select few of them can understand. Yet, most of their writing is bad and self-indulgent. Which of that critical lot do you view as having done the most to damage, especially, foreign films’ appeal to the masses?
LD: Nothing wrong with the term mise-en-scene. It means a film’s or, usually, a director’s visual style. So I think it’s more often employed to celebrate those directors who possess a readily-identifiable or distinctive style and attitude rather than to castigate those who don’t.
No critic has done anything to damage foreign films’ appeal to the masses. The masses by definition are dolts. It’s the once-educated, but now no longer, segment of the public that supported foreign cinema to a greater extent. And they still go to the (fewer) remaining art house cinemas in the cities. It’s a two-way street -- the filmmakers used to exist to support and excite the audience. And if I need to catch up with the latest Eric Rohmer film, well, personally I love the advent of home ownership of motion pictures. It’s magic in my lifetime. I watch movies as they were meant to be seen -- on the portable DVD player on my desk.
DS: On a tangent; there is no such thing as non-narrative film or literature, nor is there any such thing as non-representational art- there are only different types of both. Films like those of a Stan Brakhage are narrative, their narratives are simply simplistic and not that deep. Paintings like those of the Abstract Expressionists are representational- an orange smear, or a dot, represents an orange smear or a dot. The fact is that most people see through the intellectual shallowness of such claims- even those who have little critical ability. Thoughts?
LD: It’s precisely people with little critical ability who see through the shallowness of such claims. Ordinary people, despite my apparent hostility toward them in other respects, have always and will always prefer traditional narrative and representational art. The human figure, form, and face. The human clay. The crooked timber of humanity.
What people mean by “the movies of the 70s” is movies that felt real -- more so than in the present feeble age of deliberate “reality” entertainment. In THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS, Jack Nicholson puts a cereal box on a kitchen counter and it falls off, and Bruce Dern at a bonfire reacts when an ember flies in his face. You don’t notice things like that anymore. Would they cut them out or reshoot them?
When Dickens wrote his early sketches, he made a point of calling them “Illustrative of Every-day Life and Every-day People.” This was the original artistic impulse -- daubed on the walls of caves. And it will outlast Stan Brakhage.
DS: On the other end, many claims of poor screenplays or writing are simply wrong. As example, 2001: A Space Odyssey, is not an example of a poor screenplay, but a great one that uses a different technique to get its tale out. And look at how it builds character. If this were not true, why do viewers react so viscerally to the scene where Keir Dullea’s Dave Bowman character basically lobotomizes HAL 9000?
LD: People -- whether they write them or comment on them -- do persist in thinking that screenplays, or “good” ones, are mostly a matter of subject matter or dialogue or “plot twists.” You’re not supposed to direct on the page. But of course you should -- not by explicitly specifying shots, but by describing what you see and what you hear, by indicating a point of view. Clearly if the director is also the writer there’s greater command and control of the process and the “writing” extends to the filming and editing of the picture. All the other arts are involved in filmmaking, so of course they should be on the mind of the screenwriter. It’s not just words or prose – it’s music and theater and photography and painting -- lighting and composition, mood, atmosphere, ambience, sights and sounds and silence. There are still idiots who think that “thinking visually” means pretty, pictorial landscapes or descriptions of scenery -- instead of expressive use of the camera or the power and magic of montage -- which doesn’t mean someone trying on different wacky outfits in front of a mirror in a clothing store. It means one image juxtaposed with another. It means shots or scenes flowing or intercut in a sequence.
SEQUENCE, SIGHT AND SOUND, MONTAGE, MISE-EN-SCENE, CLOSE-UP -- these are
names of traditional, serious-minded -- and, it would seem, outmoded -- movie
DS: Have you ever done ghostwriting? The best example of this was when the mediocre Good Will Hunting won Oscars for Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, yet they never even wrote the film- as proof, what have they written since?
LD: Ghostwriting, per se, doesn’t exist in films. I know there’s a rumor to that effect re GOOD WILL HUNTING, but the “ghostwriter” in question, William Goldman, has pretty well debunked it. Rewriting a script without credit, which is everyday common procedure in the movie business, is not the same thing as publishing’s accepted and deliberate practice of “ghostwriting.”
Many, if not most, movies bear little resemblance to the piece-of-shit so-called screenplays that spawned them -- if there even was one. Most “screenwriters” -- especially, as we’ve noted, Oscar nominees of recent years, are freaks and neophytes and lottery-winners who are seldom heard from again, very far removed from the career screenwriters of yesteryear.
Screenplay credits are infamously inaccurate. “Pierre Boulle,” who apparently spoke no English, winning the Oscar for THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. Or “Robert Rich” for THE BRAVE ONE. These were infamously due to the McCarthy blacklisting era. Other credits are routinely rendered ludicrous by the Writers Guild arbitration process – or sometimes for personal reasons. The classic Western RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY is credited to N.B. Stone, Jr. Why no more great films from the mysterious N.B.? Well, supposedly he was a fellow with an alcohol problem, down on his luck, recommended as a favor by another writer, William Roberts -- who then felt obliged to complete the script himself, anonymously. But William Roberts has sole credit on another classic Western, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN -- because its original writer, Walter Newman, had a tiff with the director and withdrew his name. I have Newman’s SEVEN script and it’s virtually the same as the movie -- Roberts was evidently the guy on location making the usual adjustments and additions as they went along. But what’s the most famous line in RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, that’s been endlessly quoted? It’s by the film’s director, Sam Peckinpah -- a line of his father’s -- “All I want is to enter my house justified.” There is no film directed by Sam Peckinpah that Sam Peckinpah didn’t “write” -- whether his name is credited with the screenplay or not. Your question about screenwriting “styles” unfortunately too often collides with your question about Hollywood’s basic instinct to reduce everyone’s styles to mush. VILLA RIDES -- screenplay by Sam Peckinpah and Robert Towne, or Sam Peckinpah/Alan Sharp’s THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND. It’s ”ghost” writing of a kind -- flashes in the dark of the men behind the names.
It’s just a game.
DS: Would you compare a screenplay to the final film as being akin to a poem and its translation into another language? If not, what metaphor would you use?
LD: That’s a vaguely interesting notion, I suppose -- but only if you presuppose a screenplay is “translated” at all. A screenplay is the language of film, so what is it being translated into? And as we know, its usual fate is to be changed and altered, often by other writers, as well as the director and the actors, chopped up, chopped down, maimed and mutilated -- or even improved. Anybody try this with Pushkin lately?
What you’re talking about is more akin to a composer’s music played and interpreted by different conductors or orchestras or instruments -- poorly or brilliantly, but still faithful to the original composition.
The age-old architect’s “blueprint” metaphor has never made much sense, either, because, as it’s always pointed out, contractors generally must follow a blueprint for fear of the house falling down. (In which case, producers and directors must be “fearless.”) Gropius and Mies van der Rohe may have had creative battles with financiers or carpenters, but I don’t think they routinely ended up with staircases that went nowhere. What then are we to make of the old screenwriter’s joke, driving past the residence of Otto Preminger: “Is that Otto Preminger’s house or a house by Otto Preminger?”
The nearest thing to a translation I can think of is the stand-alone experiment of Gus Van Sant replicating Hitchcock’s PSYCHO shot-by-shot.
The better analogy would be a prince turned into a frog or, for the fortunate few, a frog turned into a prince.
DS: In the above mentioned commentaries, and elsewhere, you seem to agree, as you have made the point that most of the narrative techniques that critics claim as ‘cinematic’ are really novelistic, therefore showing a line of descent from the novel. Could you expound upon this lineage and give a couple of examples of the techniques themselves, and analogues from novels and films to demonstrate the kinship?
LD: When Eva Marie Saint drops one of her gloves in ON THE WATERFRONT and Marlon Brando picks it up and plays with it and puts it on his own hand, that’s what the scene becomes about, instead of or in addition to the words they’re speaking. It may well have been a “happy accident,” as legend has it, that the instinctive genius of Marlon Brando literally “picked up on” -- but there’s also no reason it couldn’t be screenwriting, if the writer thought of it. When Apu sees a train for the first time in PATHER PANCHALI, Satyajit Ray does not show it from Apu’s point of view. Instead his camera is on the other side of the tracks, the train passing between us and the little boy. Apu has heard the sound of the train before, has dreamt about it, but has never ventured far enough from the confines of his village to see it with his own eyes -- and when he does, we’re deprived of his reaction. We don’t stand with him. There is no closeup on his face as he gazes with awe at this monster, this marvel. The perspective is that of a novelist. An adult viewing a child’s world, as if from memory. It’s an artistic choice, it’s a storytelling choice.
In a good movie, a glove is more than a glove, a train much more than a train. Marlon Brando is at once aggressively male and, by putting on Eva Marie Saint’s glove, extraordinarily delicate. It’s a connection between them, a foreshadowing, an anticipation. It’s funny and awkward and touching and tentative and teasing and erotic.
(For another tight fit where Eva’s concerned, see train going into tunnel after she and Cary Grant clinch in train berth at end of NORTH BY NORTHWEST.)
Apu’s train -- Ray’s train -- need I say represents the outside world, wider possibilities, the future -- the city encroaching on the countryside, modernity imposing itself on a way of life unchanged for centuries.
Whether it’s Montgomery Clift and John Ireland admiring each other’s “guns” in RED RIVER or the passion and potency of Hemingway’s bullfights, whether it’s the glasses in the pond in Towne/Polanski’s CHINATOWN or the glasses on the billboard in Fitzgerald’s GATSBY, the use of signs and symbols and other techniques are the same. Cinema comes from literature.
DS: Name the three or four best screenwriters of all time, and name the best currently working. Do most fall into the indy film scene? What are your thoughts on such screenwriters like Charlie Kaufman, Mike White, or even someone like Frank Whaley?
LD: Oh, I don’t know. Directors who also write or so closely supervise the writing as to make no odds, are more likely to be consistently the “best” in the ongoing debate about film authorship. Towne, I think, is or was the best, the most intelligent, screenwriter in America -- and he would name Renoir. Robert Bolt -- but not when he directed his own movie. On the DVD of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, Steven Spielberg says it’s the best screenplay ever written, and I could’ve kissed him. Yes! I hope there are people, students, who see him saying that and are sufficiently curious to wonder what he means and view the film in that light. KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS may be my personal favorite single screenplay of all time. You’re not likely to see wit or sophistication at the level of Billy Wilder or Preston Sturges again, and of course they became directors. There’s a reason William Goldman became William Goldman, but the light seems to have gone out of him a long time ago. Alvin Sargent, too, for someone who adapted the work of others, was very impressive -- in the pre-SPIDERMAN era. Alan Sharp at his best -- NIGHT MOVES, ULZANA’S RAID. Huston in top form.
There is no best currently working. They’re all hideous. (I’m talking about solely screenwriters, you understand, not people primarily thought of as directors – Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson, who have written some terrific screenplays for films they’ve made.) Screenwriters now are to screenwriters of the past what Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp are to Robert Mitchum and Lee Marvin and Steve McQueen. But even screenwriters of the Golden Age, that is prior to the cinema-savvy generation of the 60s/70s, often seem in interviews and memoirs hopelessly naïve about movies -- totally befuddled at Ford or Hitchcock getting all the glory -- in many cases none-too-bright altogether, like the jerks we have now.
I see the name “Frank Whaley” and my thought is: What the hell is he talking about? He can’t mean that minor actor from the 1980s. I had to Google Frank Whaley to find out he made some Sundance-type films that bring to mind the old joke, “What time does the show start?/What time can you get here?”
Similarly Mike White -- you mean that kind of bizarre comic actor-writer of ... Jack Black movies? Charlie Kaufman, at least, one can grudgingly admire as an actual writer of original screenplays of some distinction -- it’s just that I’d rather be tied to a horse and pulled forty miles by my tongue (THE HEARTBREAK KID) than endure much more of that originality.
DS: Great art reflects the percipient’s true self more so than the true self of the artist. Agree or not?
LD: Both. The true self of the artist more so, but when the work leaves his hands it becomes a commodity up for grabs. The real difference may be that the percipient is more likely to recognize himself -- or herself! (I’m not being politically correct, just noting that great art is human and universal) -- whereas the artist often does not. (As I mentioned before, autobiographies are seldom as useful or revealing as good critical biographies. I will constantly return to Chris Fujiwara’s book on Preminger -- but never need to pick up Preminger’s own book again.) A percipient critic like Robin Wood absolutely sees himself in the work of Hawks or Hitchcock, but rather depends on them not being aware of what they’re revealing. He’s placing them on a pedestal -- so he can look up their dress. Most artists feign ignorance or indifference when their thing is pointed out to them -- John Ford the most intransigent interview subject of them all. It may be instinctive self-preservation. Self-consciousness can be a killer, preceded by self-parody. Hemingway or Peckinpah -- this is what they think I am, fuck it, well, then this is what I’ll be.
DS: I’ve read that The Great Escape is your favorite all time film. Why? Name four of your other five favorite films of all time, and contrast them with your picks for five best films of all time. I.e.- let’s compare your heart’s and head’s choices. And why the schism, if there is any?
LD: There’s a world of difference between the films you know are great and the ones you think are great. You have a better shot at being able to explain the former -- intellectually and objectively -- than the latter, which tend to be more personal/autobiographical, emotional. THE GREAT ESCAPE is not GRAND ILLUSION, but seen in early childhood it was simply the one that became everything to me, that made Movies my God and my goal. Many of my generation -- I found later -- had the same visceral reaction to that film, and that actor in that role. Who knew Steve McQueen would become the iconic superstar of our time? And yet we did know. It was obvious. There he was in all his glory. It was more exciting than any movie I’d ever seen. And remains so -- the one I can watch over and over again with the same degree of pleasure. We were primed, of course, by THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, almost a prequel -- three of the seven reappearing in ESCAPE. Maybe it was that I was a half-American boy in England. Has there ever been a greater Anglo-American friendship movie?
Indeed it became a British institution, shown on television as a ritual every year at Christmastime in the pre-video era. Elmer Bernstein’s theme music is now an alternate national anthem -- for the England soccer team. Robert Zemeckis and I watched it -- he brought his Betamax tape with him -- in Mexico when we were making ROMANCING THE STONE. His theory is that it’s the best “rebel in school” movie ever made. See it when you’re a kid and you remain forever young in its company, in the company of its characters. There are people who feel this way about RIO BRAVO or ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS or HATARI -- the Hawksian isolated group, a family of friends cooperating in a difficult job or task, humor and tragedy in balance. Unlike classic Hawks, however, THE GREAT ESCAPE has no girls in it! Making it a sort of ultimate boys’ adventure story. Like THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, which has a brief boring girl scene or two, and ZULU. Others in the Top Five -- BILLY LIAR, which has arguably the best girl scene in the history of cinema -- and THE PROFESSIONALS, THE WILD BUNCH, COOL HAND LUKE, THE SAND PEBBLES, HOW THE WEST WAS WON, IF…, FAT CITY, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID, NIGHT MOVES, THE LONG GOODBYE, JUNIOR BONNER, SOME CAME RUNNING, DR. ZHIVAGO, SUNSET BOULEVARD, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, SLITHER (1973), JEREMIAH JOHNSON, APOCALYPSE NOW, FIVE EASY PIECES, THE CINCINNATI KID, THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY, THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, CHINATOWN, A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, 12 ANGRY MEN, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, BEFORE THE REVOLUTION, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE …
Favorites are films that are touchstones of childhood and youth, that are revealing of your own thoughts and fantasies. The best films you discover and appreciate with maturity. They’re more universal, if less universally popular, in revealing profound truths about the human condition, as complex -- or simple -- as mysterious and meaningful as the masterpieces of art in any medium.
The only ones in my favorites list that might arguably make it onto a Best list are AMBERSONS, LAWRENCE, WILD BUNCH, CHINATOWN, maybe SUNSET BOULEVARD, possibly APOCALYPSE NOW.
But, really, the best films of all time -- I go along with the generally agreed upon canonical titles: CITIZEN KANE, SEVEN SAMURAI (or IKIRU), THE SEVENTH SEAL (or WILD STRAWBERRIES or PERSONA), LA TERRA TREMA, THE BICYCLE THIEF, M (or METROPOLIS), BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, SUNRISE, CITY LIGHTS, THE SEARCHERS, VERTIGO, LA REGLE DU JEU, LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS, THE GODFATHER, L’AVVENTURA, L’ATALANTE, GREED, THE BIRTH OF A NATION, THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, TOKYO STORY, RAGING BULL, HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR, DR. STRANGELOVE, STAGECOACH (or YOUNG MR. LINCOLN), LA STRADA, UN CHIEN ANDALOU/L’AGE d’OR, PANDORA’S BOX, LA BELLE ET LA BÉTE, UGETSU MONOGATARI (or SANSHO THE BAILIFF), The APU Trilogy, THE LAST LAUGH, THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI …
These are films that define, sometimes by transforming, the art of cinema.
DS: What great film would you claim has the worst ending of all time, and why? I would pick Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, with that sunny ending and the baby. Just awful, and moves the film from the top of the Kurosawa rank down to fifth or sixth. Another great film with a horrid ending is Orson Welles’ The Trial. By contrast, what are the three or four greatest endings to a film, regardless of the rest of the film’s quality? I’d nominate 2001: A Space Odyssey, of course, but also Kurosawa’s High And Low- a devastating end, although The Bad Sleep Well’s ending is even more terrifying, if not as dramatic.
LD: THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS may be the best movie with the worst ending -- the most notorious example of sappy, syrupy, sunny -- demanded, as usual, by studio philistines and not even shot by Welles. Which goes to show how hard it is for Them to really ruin a great film. Welles, of course, the poster child for this phenomenon -- TOUCH OF EVIL, etc.
When you say devastating, I think of LA STRADA, BICYCLE THIEF … GREED’s Death Valley. All those late 60s and 70s movies that end with the same look of disillusionment/ultimate resignation on the protagonist’s face -- LAWRENCE, THE GRADUATE, MIDNIGHT COWBOY, SERPICO, DOG DAY AFTERNOON, THE GAMBLER, HARPER, NIGHT MOVES, ULZANA’S RAID … Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown. The hand falling silent in ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. Joel McCrea falling silent in RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY. SHANE. PATHS OF GLORY. Jean Gabin and Marcel Dalio making it across the border in the snow in GRAND ILLUSION (and James Coburn making it to the Pyrenees in that other GREAT ESCAPE). The V.C. Honour Roll in ZULU. “Madness … Madness.” KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS. SUNSET BOULEVARD. IKIRU’s playground. The graves of the four SAMURAI. A guilty pleasure finale: TOO LATE THE HERO. And Bronson’s smile in DEATH WISH. Muni disappearing into the dark in I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG. “Rosebud.” The climax of THE WILD BUNCH is still the greatest and most electrifying of all time, and its ending proves that one great movie can feed off another, Peckinpah “quoting” Huston (TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE). Just as the ending of THE THIRD MAN becomes the ending of THE LONG GOODBYE.
Print the legend …
DS: On a tangent, name some famous scenes or dialogue in films that, if you had a chance, you would rewrite. And, give the reason why you think the current scenes or dialogue fails.
LD: You want me to find fault with films I like, and I can barely come up with any. If I like them I accept them, flaws and all. They are what they are. Sure, it would be nice if THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS had its right ending and if ACROSS THE WIDE MISSOURI or WIND ACROSS THE EVERGLADES or A NEW LEAF weren’t cut and compromised, but it has never once occurred to me to rewrite any “famous” scenes or dialogue. I might want to restore more Milius to APOCALYPSE NOW -- or Conrad, for that matter. There’s an ending that does disappoint and an actor who moved us so much more when his dialogue was scripted rather than spoken in tongues. In THE GETAWAY, when Ali MacGraw challenges McQueen, saying he doesn’t trust anybody, Steve at his coolest says, “You wanna see what I trust? In God I trust” -- as he holds up some paper money -- and then totally ruins it by explaining the line for dimwits: “It’s the words on the back of every bill”! Studio blockheads? The script? McQueen? Who knows?
DS: Do you think foreign films are superior to Hollywood’s current dreck? What do you think of current filmmakers like Theo Angelopoulos, Bela Tarr, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Abbas Kiarostami, and Mohsen Makhmalbaf? It seems to me that they value the intellect of their audience.
Interesting, but boring. Of
course they’re superior in a more intellectual way than American filmmakers
are allowed to be or capable of. But
as you can probably tell, I’m afraid I’m still something of a cultural
isolationist. The great
“foreign” films of cinephilia’s heyday, with the possible exception of the
very Japanese Ozu, say, were not really all that foreign.
The newer international art cinema you’re referring to, apart from not
being as great, in my estimation, is more alien in other ways, as well as almost
perverse in its insistence on “distancing” techniques.
They’re a hard slog these movies, for too little reward, and I can’t
say I’m eager to delve too deeply or completely into those directors’
filmographies (and we might include Wong Kar-wai, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang,
Ousmane Sembene …). I can admire
them, on an occasional basis, without really embracing them.
I do feel a bit guilty about it. You’ve
inspired me to educate myself in this area.
I’ll order some DVDs, which is the next best thing to watching them.
But there are still all those Borzage films I haven’t seen …
DS: Jean-Luc Godard is one of the most overrated directors I’ve ever seen. I mean, I grew up watching Jimmy Cagney and John Garfield films with my dad, and Breathless is pure imitation, with much bad technique, a bad screenplay, and poorly technically made. It is not homage, but imitation- and a poor one. There’s simply no comparing Godard with Bergman, at least not in the Frenchman’s 1960s work, which I’ve seen. Comments?
Bergman is the greater and more enduring artist.
His talent never flagged. Godard
seems more of a passing fad, flighty and frivolous.
The tortoise and the hare. That’s
not to say Jean-Luc’s 60s output is merde.
I rate BREATHLESS higher than you do -- and CONTEMPT, WEEKEND, TWO OR
THREE THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER, ALPHAVILLE, PIERROT LE FOU, A WOMAN IS A WOMAN,
UNE FEMME MARIEÉ, MADE IN U.S.A. … We should all have it so good.
DS: Another digression, while we speak of foreign films. Perhaps it’s because I grew up sneaking into theaters in the late 1960s and early 1970s, to see the latest Godzilla release that hit stateside, but I cannot stand subtitling. Dubbing is so vastly superior, yet when I hear others complain about being distracted by unsynchronized lip motions, I ask, ‘Well, are you not distracted by having up to a third of the visual medium covered?’ With DVDs, luckily, when I watch a film again, to review a commentary, I often pick up on visuals covered by the words. I simply do not get how any rational being could prefer subtitles. To mention Bergman, I recall watching his Spider Trilogy of films, and the dubbing actually helped the film because the different actor voices for, say, Max Von Sydow, helped differentiate the different characters he played in Through A Glass, Darkly and Winter Light. Plus, as cartoons have shown, the easiest portion of acting to replicate, and to convey emotion, is the voice. The great actors are always separated from the mortals by their ability to act with their bodies, faces, or just a body part- and that’s all retained in dubbing. Which camp do you fall into, and why?
LD: Neither one is optimum. I sometimes find I like watching a film twice, if both versions are offered. And different subtitled versions where the translations vary. There’s nothing like the actual voices of the actors you’re watching in their original language -- subtitles are preferable. But I’ve never hated dubbing, if it’s adequate. A shame it went out of style, actually, as it encouraged and enabled a wider audience to enjoy many more foreign films, in a more innocent time.
DS: Yes, I always watch foreign films twice- and a good commentary helps, because then I can turn off the dubbing and watch what I’ve seen, but watch even more intently. To digress, I’ve always raged about how one can get the latest Hollywood schlockbuster film for far less than a quality foreign film from DVD companies like The Criterion Collection, Kino, or Anchor Bay. Do foreign film DVD distributors simply not want to get into this market? It seems like an artificial wall designed to keep those ‘Philistine American plebeians’ from accessing great art.
LD: I shouldn’t think it’s anything more than supply and demand. They’re servicing a shrinking niche market and can’t expect to sell that many copies. We can only hope one day, and it may be soon, we’ll be able to type any existing title onto a keyboard and the movie will appear on our TV for a nominal sum.
DS: In the DVD of his latest film, Three Monkeys, Nuri Bilge Ceylan is interviewed and says something really remarkable. He claims that too many filmmakers (and artists) in countries with oppressive governments use censorship as an excuse to not be creative, thus essentially ‘giving in’ and writing only moralistic political art rather than using the limits as a way to be more creative. Thus why so much writing in Latin America, as example, is so bad and laden with political screeding. Thoughts?
LD: Yeah, we covered this earlier. You can’t have authorship under authoritarianism. The state is the author. There can be one or two landmarks, but not a rich cultural landscape. MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT, for instance, is a marvelous movie, but that’s it, that’s Cuban cinema, right there, one movie. Give the man a cigar.
DS: I mentioned
indy films, and the lineage goes back to Orson
Welles and John
Cassavetes, and runs through John
Sayles till you get to a number of lesser known filmmakers today. Only Woody
Allen and Terrence
Malick seem to have enough respect to do what they want in major studios,
while someone with potential, like David
Gordon Green, is forced to make silly comedies like Pineapple Express.
Why is Hollywood so obsessed with teenaged level films when there is literally a
goldmine to be had with the forty and over crowd, as they make up, by far, the
largest and still growing demographic? Serious adult (not porno) films can
succeed. This is not just bad art but really bad business. Agree or not?
LD: Woody Allen doesn’t get to do shit for major studios. He’s been making his movies recently in England and Spain and France, with money from those countries. There is probably not a goldmine to be had with the forty and over crowd ever again, except in increasingly rare circumstances, given the expense of making movies now and transformational changes in technology and distribution patterns.
As America becomes more of a Third World conglomeration, with the attendant breakdown of schools and social institutions, standards lowered instead of raised, obviously popular entertainment will follow rather than lead, to accommodate the changing demographics and chase the bottom dollar. With vast undereducated, illiterate populations come Cantinflas and masked wrestler movies, Bollywood and kung fu and cannibal moves, animé, comic books, video games, Tyler Perry, and SAW IV. A movie like THE GREAT ESCAPE was once popular entertainment, made for adults, but children could enjoy it, too -- and learn something about World War II by default. Now movies are made for children and “adults” are expected to enjoy them, too, and have apparently been made to do so. The average thirty or forty-year-old now seems to be about as smart as we once assumed a college student might be; college students the equivalent of high-schoolers, high-schoolers no brighter than grade school kids in the 1950s and 60s.
“Dumbing down” may have seemed an appropriate coinage when the phenomenon was first noticed. Infantalization is what has actually occurred. Cultural stupidity is a consequence. The current Film Comment has THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX on its cover. Last issue they were extolling WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. On the one hand, what the fuck else are they going to comment on? On the other, these are present-day films and directors they like – a lot. Teenagers used to be a niche audience. Now everybody else is.
Maybe mature, sophisticated movies will make a comeback -- it’s not like they’ve entirely vanished, though they’re no longer as interesting or important -- but they will be increasingly marginalized, made smaller and cheaper, for a relatively miniscule audience, like books, plays, opera. Everything scaled way down.
I mean, look, these seven movies about the sixties I mentioned – that have all just been sent to Academy members in the hope of getting Oscar nominations -- A SERIOUS MAN, A SINGLE MAN, AN EDUCATION, NINE, TAKING WOODSTOCK, THE DAMNED UNITED, PIRATE RADIO ... These were not made for teenagers. But have Baby Boomers and 60s nostalgists rushed out to see them? Have you? Most of them had small budgets and smaller audiences, if any, and are largely indistinguishable from competently made telefilms. How many people can barely contain their excitement at the prospect of a new Ang Lee movie? The film by the Coen Bros. -- unsurprisingly -- is the one most likely to be interesting to cineastes in years to come, as part of their substantial oeuvre.
When you ask, when everyone asks, why are movies so terrible, and isn’t that a bad business model, you’re missing the point. Everybody thinks that Mel Brooks’s THE PRODUCERS is one of the greatest comedy ideas ever dreamt up -- but it’s also quite realistic. A few years ago the commercially-savvy Disney studio created a separate division called “Hollywood Pictures” -- and Hollywood Pictures proceeded to make a series of movies so ghastly, no one could believe their eyes. The joke around town soon became “If it’s the Sphinx, it stinks” -- because the logo of this company was a sphinx, which was itself a kind of sinister in-joke, I think, because the riddle of the sphinx isn’t hard to decipher if you’re familiar with the term “money-laundering.” What do you do when money pours in from THE LITTLE MERMAID and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and all the other cartoons -- money that’s pure profit, that you don’t have to share with talent or the guilds, that just rains from the sky forever? Do you just give most of it to the government in taxes? That would be stupid. Instead, you reinvest it and make a bunch of cheap movies that will almost certainly be write-offs -- that will open and close in a week. But -- and here’s the big movie business but -- at the end of the day you have a library. A list of titles on a piece of paper. And that’s a gold mine.
Yes, it would be nice if that list includes James Bond and Pink Panther and Rocky movies, but you can’t count on that. You can count on the fact that when someone needs to have ”content” for some new cable channel or pocket movie player, you’ll be able to “monetize” your library of movies. And now that movie studios are largely out of the business of making movies as we used to know them, and the “art-house” business has imploded, and the profession of “film critic” is going the way of wheelwrights and village blacksmiths, this is the economic model that virtually all remaining film finance companies operate on. It’s why the Vestrons, Cannons, Cinergis, and Carolcos come and go and always will. Remember, the great Hollywood studios of the past -- or the British Broadcasting Company which would routinely erase the tapes of shows they could have made millions from ever since -- they didn’t know they even had libraries, that there could ever be value in the vault. Individual titles from week to week were what they focused on. And that’s the answer to why there’s nothing you want to see from week to week anymore when you look at the movie listings in the paper -- while you can even still do that.
They don’t care.
DS: Let me use
John Cassavetes as an example. His greatest film, to me, is The
Killing Of A Chinese Bookie. Here you see realistic violence, and the
aftermath of that violence, which is more violence, blood, guilt, worry, and
uncertainty; and this is emphasized as the film ends with life going on.
Thoughts on Cassavetes, that film, or the realism it portrays?
LD: BOOKIE is the Cassavetes I like best, too, probably because it’s the nearest to a recognizable crime/noir/70s genre film. But “like” is too strong a word, since he’s another case of someone I recognize, admire, respect and all that without being able to say I really enjoy his output. Mainly, again, my thoughts about Cassavetes are personal. An editor friend worked on his final film and I visited one day and Cassavetes invited me to sit on the couch with him as he viewed a scene back and forth. You felt instantly the warmth of his personality, understood completely the guru-like devotion he inspired in his friends and followers. Just twenty minutes sitting chatting with him a little, he seemed a marvelous man. And not long for this world.
thing that films tend to do is overuse close-ups and musical scoring to
highlight particular moments or points they want to make. Yet, detachment and
silence has a power; think of the end of the original 1968 The
Planet Of The Apes. After the Charlton Heston character sees the
half-buried (or shattered) Statue of Liberty, he falls to his knees in the surf,
pounds the sand, and wails of the idiocy of mankind. But, there’s no musical
cue that says, ‘Aha, he was on earth all along!’ Just the
utter indifference of the cosmos to Heston’s character’s colossal loss, as
represented by the ongoing sound of ocean waves. Putting aside the great
psychosexual and political imagery, the ending is great because it just stands
naked. Thoughts on that ending, and why so many films refuse to let their merits
LD: It’s one of the great endings, absolutely. Great film composers knew when not to have music -- and were once allowed to collaborate with like-minded directors, as screenwriters were, in a much freer environment, before Hollywood became the planet of the apes.
Since you mention it, I’ve often thought my desire to drop out really seriously dates to when APES composer Jerry Goldsmith died, not so long ago, and THE GREAT ESCAPE’s Elmer Bernstein at virtually the same time. That seemed more an end to an era to me than almost anything. Seeing THE GREAT ESCAPE as a little boy and humming the unforgettable music then and forevermore. Who hums movie music anymore? Or could? What studio would allow so unusual a score as Goldsmith’s for PLANET OF THE APES? Wonderful music by these great talents was a central component of the joy of movies -- even bad movies, which were redeemed if you saw the name “Jerry Goldsmith” on the credits, or Alex North, John Barry, Maurice Jarre, Lalo Schifrin, Jerry Fielding, Jerome Moross, Alfred Newman, Max Steiner, Victor Young, Tiomkin, Mancini, Morricone, Herrmann, Kaper, Rozsa, so many others. Everybody knew the music from JAWS/STAR WARS/THE EXORCIST/THE STING/EXODUS/ LAWRENCE/ZHIVAGO/KWAI/A SUMMER PLACE/ BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S/THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN/THE BIG COUNTRY/THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY/ROCKY/A MAN AND A WOMAN/LOVE STORY/BUTCH AND SUNDANCE/THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR/BORN FREE/MIDNIGHT COWBOY/MODERN TIMES/SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER/CHARIOTS OF FIRE/James Bond …
It’s like movies have lost a limb. Think of what music once meant to the culture generally; popular music, rock music -- to more than just teenagers and morons. Are composers now totally talentless, as well? They will tell you that studios and even directors don’t want themes anymore. Do you believe that? There’s no way to get your head around it, unless madness is the new normal.
At least one can be grateful for a little space and cost savings. It’s hard enough keeping up with the avalanche of archival releases (but for how much longer) of these (mostly) dead guys’ soundtracks. Imagine if you felt it necessary to buy CDs of new movie music too -- there’d really be no room for cooking and sleeping accommodation.
filmmaker Werner Herzog
has famously claimed that film’s purpose is to bring new images to replace old
and hackneyed ones. While a bit hyperbolic, I know what he means, such as one
sees the same sorts of scenes in the same genres of films, or even on the
evening news, where every story about science shows stock footage of someone in
a lab coat pipetting one fluid from a test tube into another. Why do so few
films even desire to break a formula, the way the three films I earlier
mentioned (My Dinner With Andre, La Jetée, Satantango) do?
LD: How many different ways can I answer the same question? Morons, assholes, simpletons, idiots. The death of imagination. They’re incapable of recognizing clichés. Just when you think you’ve heard a character at the climax of a movie declare that they’re “not scared anymore” for the last time -- you haven’t. Or seen a car door open and a pair of shoes step out. Or that fucking crowd of extras who don’t know what the movie they’re in is even about but have nothing better to do than stop to clap and cheer, anyway. That may have been when movies ended -- when movies had to end that way, in the desperate and pitiful hope that the applauding audience onscreen would inspire the braindead audience in the theatre to similar heights of ecstasy. Every time I see those clapping extras I picture a gigantic Monty Python weight dropping onto the heads of everyone involved in the making of the film.
What does it mean when every single work of fiction without exception, no matter how grim, has to say it’s “funny” on the cover? Is it written down somewhere? Is it a law? Has no one noticed this? Does every protagonist of a book at some point have to describe a dream they’ve had? Does every children’s book, like every child, now get an award just for showing up? Has there ever been a novel about one generation in an Asian-American family? It’s no longer an option for the heroine of a rom-com, in the film’s trailer, to trip and fall -- it’s mandatory. It is not possible to make a movie with any kind of action in it if that action does not include or consist of a car exploding -- behind the protagonist as he or she or he and she dive towards the camera. Not possible to depict two armies clashing on a field of battle, whether they’re human or robots or aliens or animals, and despite the “advances” in computer technology, without it being the exact same long-shot angle showing the two opposing sides like cartoon ants rushing towards each other from left and right.
There have been ten thousand movies in the past twenty-five years -- and ninety-nine thousand more scripts -- and more than one pinhead is writing one right now -- with a hero named “Jack.” (“Jake” is the fall-back position.) Every actress who’s ever had an article written about her in any publication in the last quarter-century somehow possesses that one-of-a-kind, utterly unique quality of being able to convey “strength yet vulnerability.”
Who are these people who are capable of writing that in all seriousness one more time? Who plaster unreadable books with gushing blurbs? Are they outright liars? Beyond belief imbeciles? Or are they truly deranged? What people seem to be doing is just automatically reproducing nonsense phrases -- and images -- totally divorced from meaning -- not to mention taste, intelligence, or the most basic rational thought process.
Contrary to Ralph Ellison, when did it become codified, as if by unwritten fiat, that there must be a V.N. (Visible Negro) in not just every scene, but every shot where there are background extras, clapping or pre-clapping, in every movie, no matter how ludicrous or unlikely the context -- but no movies at all about mainstream, middle-class black life?
Pretense, political correctness, and cliché – “go hand in hand.”
wrote a book, still in manuscript form, called Five Film Masters:
Thoughts On Antonioni, Bergman, Fellini, Herzog, And Ozu Into The 21st
Century, and near its Introduction’s end I wrote:
Finally, I write this book especially for younger readers, who tend to
be more openminded, and willing to challenge dogma. Younger people tend to
embrace newer and better approaches to art, and life in general. They have not
festered into middle-aged bile, and closed down their minds, and taken to
repeating ad nauseum the empty apothegms older people spout without any
understanding of their meaning- such as speaking of ‘the language of
cinema,’ for even though they claim film as an ‘exceptional art,’ and seek
to distance themselves from literature, they still cannot even move beyond a
basic metaphor that reveals the visual medium’s utter dependence upon ‘that
I do find it ironic that, the same way the word ‘poetic’ is tossed
about as the ultimate artistic compliment- thus de facto
acknowledging that art as the highest form of art, that most film critics find
it almost impossible to speak of their vaunted exceptional
‘pure cinema’ without resorting to comparisons to
writing. Why do you think that is? Is it a failure of the critical
comprehension, or conveyance?
LD: Festered into middle-aged bile? What do you mean by that?
Look, here I am starting a sentence with the word “look.” Why do people say that? Do I really mean look? Don’t I really mean listen? -- which has become interchangeable in this context. I want you to “see” what I mean.
This is the self-conscious debate-slash-twaddle that semioticians -- of “Screen,” notably -- have bequeathed us. What other language have we got? We use the word “scene” to describe a segment of a novel, a film, a play -- or something depicted in a painting. Why should the word change if the medium does? Cinema is storytelling, it’s an extension of the literary tradition -- but also of photography and the visual arts. All art is one. It’s why a screenplay is nothing but a dependent entity.
It cuts both ways.
This very day I was reading an A.N. Wilson introduction to a Tolstoy story: “It has the quality of cinema verité … as in a good film, we take what is offered as a slice of reality itself … [Tolstoy] can move into a mountain pass at night, and, as it were, film it for us.”
And in a book review of a new biography of Booker T. Washington, the reviewer writes that Washington’s project was “to develop a new script” for race relations.
Literature, for better or for worse, has been irrevocably and overwhelmingly influenced by the invention of motion pictures. James Joyce opened a cinema in 1909. Kipling wrote a “modernist” masterpiece about cinema -- cinematically -- in 1904. Alexandre Astruc tried to conflate cinema and literature with his notion and neologism the “camera-stylo,” but it doesn’t enjoy much currency these days, as far as I can tell -- or see. It’s an interesting tool for auteurists, but unwieldly in practice.
DS: Have you
ever read Transcendental
Style In Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, by Paul Schrader? What do you
think of it? I thought it was poorly written and even more poorly thought out.
If so, why has it been such an influential work in cinema?
LD: No, it isn’t readable. It’s a student’s thesis that’s taken on retroactive interest because of who the author became -- as the back cover of the reprint is eager to proclaim. I think Schrader would be the first to dismiss it as juvenilia. It’s terribly dated, quite unscholarly, and hasn’t been particularly influential -- just referenced a lot thanks to him and his high-concept title. And I suppose his name as a filmmaker has steered a certain number of people to Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, which is all to the good -- but his essay on film noir has been much more far-reaching, I would say, as well as his early advocacy of Japanese gangster films.
DS: Let me talk
about the ‘business’ side of Hollywood. I have tried to get a few dozen
actors/directors/celebrity types (ranging from soap operas to B film stars to
overlooked actors from stage and indy film) for these interviews, and usually I
run into an entourage, their ‘people,’ or just some idiotic agent. Many of
them are utterly clueless as to the power of the Internet. Yes, doing a local
radio show or tv promo may help one in the few weeks surrounding a film’s
release, but as far as a lasting impact, it is worthless. I even had some agent
(a character straight out of Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose)
who represented an almost forgotten television personality from decades ago,
claim to me that his client was loved by people 18 to 88, booked up the wazoo,
and expected payment for the interview; even though this interview series has
been read by millions, and if you Google the television personality, you’ll
find no clips of his show online, a website that looks like it was made circa
1995, and an utter indifference to his work. Yet this Last Century Jones
(as I call such fossils) still believes it’s 1970, in terms of PR. You did not
have such an entourage. I simply contacted you though your union. First, why no
entourage? Second, do you think such proliferations of entourages is why so much
of Hollywood is so out of step with the rest of America? And, by that I don’t
mean Right or Left politics, but in even knowing what the average moviegoer
wants- the occasional thought-provoking steak rather than the vapid, puerile
fast food diet it’s usually fed?
LD: I thought the whole point of being a writer was so you could stay alone in your room and not have to “go in among ‘em.” I’ve never understood why screenwriters, of all people, would want to surround themselves with managers, publicists, etc. The hustler-sleaze-salesman screenwriter is a fairly recent phenomenon, and an ugly one -- entirely in keeping with the movies they write, and the five thousand self-congratulatory awards shows and circuit that never used to exist. People probably think I employ a publicist because I’ve enjoyed an unusual, you might say disproportionate, amount of attention for a screenwriter -- like this interview -- but I would be quite happy never to be asked again.
People in Hollywood live in a bubble, politically and every other way (see “awards shows,” proliferation of). The problem from the financiers’ point of view, even though they’ve done everything possible to kill the moviegoing habit, is that the masses used to just go to “the movies.” They would go to whatever the week’s new programme was at the local theatre. In England it was a maxim that a British film could make its money back from people sheltering from the rain. The operating assumption used to be that people wanted to see what Hollywood had to offer. The assumption now is that they don’t -- that you have to force them somehow. So people go now, and movies are hits, based on the promise of entertainment rather than the actual delivery or experience of it. It’s the difference between product and merchandise. A product is something people want or need. It’s made, not just sold, by someone who takes pride in it. Merchandise is just shit you move off the shelf -- by whatever means necessary -- the customers nothing but marks and suckers.
And you can’t have art without artists. In the history of art there aren’t Mona Lisas and Sistine Chapels by people you never heard of. But “Awards Season” in recent years has become largely a celebration not of the talented few, but the talented new. It’s a sign of the times that the Lifetime Achievement Oscars, which were the only reason to watch the show, have just been relegated to a private industry event so as to keep them off the telecast, the better to publicize the doubling of the Best Picture nominees, most of which are entirely devoid of aesthetic or authorial interest. Like “quality television,” they’re merely decorous or literate or of above-average intelligence compared to TRANSFORMERS and G.I. JOE. Serious, well-crafted, well-intentioned, even skillfully made, but nothing more. It’s why in the entire history of the world there’s no such thing as a great television director.
On a related score, I think the reason the book publishing industry is dying is
that the cronyism fostered by the MFA writing system has totally excluded real
world working writers (folks outside of Academia), people who have talent and
insight. Is there an analogue to the MFA writing mills with film schools? As
example, a filmmaker as great as Yasujiro
Ozu dismissed some of the film school ideology, such as eyelines needing to
meet when dialogue occurs, for a viewer doesn’t care less. Have film schools
created a closed society in Hollywood, where innovation and talent is killed and
LD: I wish it was much more closed -- like it was for the first seventy or eighty years. It’s not a closed society, it’s a closed mindset, and has nothing to do with film schools. You think most of the idiots making decisions which films to make went to film school? Anybody can be in the movie business now. Just say you want to. Just make a “film.” Is there anybody who hasn’t? Someone has yet to write the book on what’s become of the fifty million people who’ve gotten a degree in film -- or screened their film at Sundance. Film schools are largely a racket, but Hollywood is still not top-heavy with film school graduates, most of whom never get within spitting distance of a film career, and are even less likely to in the future.
It’s that people are stupid now.
There were always bad movies, bad books -- but they didn’t seem incompetent like they do now. Laughable ineptness -- Edward D. Wood, Jr. -- was unusual, not pervasive. It appeared sporadically on the margins, but not usually in mainstream major studio filmmaking, where it’s now commonplace. I was watching a movie the other day, a Fox release, and I swear, I started to think political correctness has reached such an extreme that they actually hired a genuine “mentally-challenged” person to direct a motion picture. And not for the first time, either. I looked up this director’s previous film in Maltin, and the brief capsule comment found room to say it was not only “nonsensical” but “brainless.” You wonder what the usual multitude of nitwit producers and studio executives were thinking, if anything, and will this poor director, who clearly took an ill-advised career path, have anywhere to go from here? The script, the acting, the casting -- just unspeakable -- every aspect. Now, this was just cheap garbage, but we’ve come to expect even the most expensive action movies these days to be visually incoherent.
Stupid people are obviously more comfortable with other stupid people. The clueless, who can be counted on not to make reference to anything unfamiliar or challenge the prevailing norms -- as those norms continue to sink. So what you get in place of professionalism and pragmatism is pretense. They now want to feel they’re working with someone who’s “passionate” about the project, but since they, the producers, have so often picked the project themselves -- a hopeless idea, a godawful book or “graphic novel,” a horrible existing script, a film that should never be remade -- you can’t go into a meeting and say this sucks, that you might be able to make it good, but …
Because what’s “good writing” anyway? It’s an abstraction, an irrelevance. They’d much rather hear what they think is a “cool take.” But not knowing what’s old, they have no idea what’s new. So the whole phony, broken system is an exercise in futility and another reason movies are much more uniform in their awfulness. There’s absolutely no patience for, or respect or appreciation for, ideas outside the airless dome of a very limited frame of reference. If you engage in a discussion of who the “villain” is, for instance, you’d better do it in an excited and animated way (this is why it’s helpful to have a writing partner who’s also wearing big ol’ baggy shorts and a Hawaiian shirt and a turned-round baseball cap and chortling) -- because to roll your eyes and sigh and question whether there even has to be a villain would be to challenge the whole current paradigm. And the “villain,” of course, once established, has to be motivated by nothing less than destroying the entire world -- and so on -- from cliché to cliché. If you’re unwilling to -- sincerely -- play this game, you might as well stay home.
It’s like the freak show of American politics. What kind of person even enters that arena anymore? Studio politics are no different. How many times can you sit in a room discussing whether the clues the killer taunts the cop with are derived from nursery rhymes or planets, and act like you care? Can you feign interest in yet another stultifying space station project? You have to be interested. Talent’s a nice thing to have, but what you really need is need. Conversely, imagine being a studio executive having to listen to ten thousand hacks in ten thousand meetings pitching ten thousand “hero’s journeys” about “redemption” without gagging on your own vomit.
As situation has replaced story, movies have come to feel static and stagnant from start to finish and even big, expensive movies seem to take place entirely on a soundstage -- only not like CASABLANCA. And every scene, every set, has the physical dimensions of a soundstage. The entryway to the house/mansion -- with that grand staircase with curving banister that someone will inevitably slide down -- the living room with that chandelier someone will inevitably swing on -- the underground tomb, which is simply the same entryway/living room with the stairs and chandelier removed and fake boulders and stone idols strategically placed instead -- until they turn it into the loft that everyone in New York lives in, no matter what their income level, because the filmmakers are too ignorant to know how to position or move a camera in an actual New York apartment, or anything like it.
Closed set, closed mindset.
Who was the “villain” in THE GREAT ESCAPE, or THE DIRTY DOZEN? Remade now -- and don’t think they’re not trying -- there would have to be an evil, evil, evil, evil Nazi in alternating scenes, constantly snarling, “I want them caught, I want them stopped, I want them dead!”
When movies were good, the filmmakers and their bosses were more or less creative, intellectual, cultural equals. Unfortunately the same is true now when movies are bad.
So aspirants in film school or elsewhere, take heart -- you’ve probably heard that Hollywood is crying out for new talent. Believe me -- or read a few screenplays in development -- they’re evidently eager to locate the untalented, as well.
DS: Let me now ask a few queries that I ask almost all my interviewees; because this is a series, and the parallax of replies is of interest to me and my readers. I started this interview series to combat the dumbing down of culture and discourse- what I call deliteracy, both in the media, and online, where blogs and websites refuse to post paragraphs with more than three sentences in it, or refuse to post anything over a thousand words long. Old tv show hosts like Phil Donahue, Dick Cavett, David Susskind, Tom Snyder, even Bill Buckley- love him or hate him, have gone the way of the dinosaur. Intellect has been killed by emotionalism, simply because the latter is far easier to claim without dialectic. Only Charlie Rose, as a big name interviewer, is left on PBS, but near midnight. Let me ask, what do you think has happened to real discussion in America- not only in public- political or elsewise, but just person to person?
The people you’ve just mentioned, first of all, they were people
-- individuals, characters -- like the old movie studio moguls.
Individualism was once prized. In
a more corporatized climate, as we know, as we knew in the fifties, or in a more
authoritarian environment, the opposite is true.
And they were allowed their idiosyncrasies and given room to grow and
become as known to us as their guests -- can you believe, Dick Cavett sitting
and talking to someone for ninety minutes -- on a network -- when people
were still awake? But
infantilization implies an undifferentiated, unruly, cacophonous rabble.
Infants haven’t matured into who they’re going to be yet.
No discussion is possible. They
haven’t the capability. And
they’re demanding. So we have
movies and books and music and culture on-demand.
This is a big change from the supply-system that once prevailed.
Something happened not so long ago.
Pick your own moment -- was it when you started seeing adults, in the
evening, lined up outside theatres showing Disney’s THE LITTLE MERMAID or
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST -- with the collusion of the mainstream press long before Film Comment’s paean to THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX?
That’s what the “discussion” started to be about:
whatever was most publicized. Or
when great reviews began hailing the superior thrillers of John Grisham -- only,
when you went to read THE FIRM or THE PELICAN BRIEF you thought … wait a
minute … this is shit. I
mean, truly terrible. And there,
too, the unmentioned influence, the near plagiarism, of specific famous movies.
Is “Pelican” really so removed from “Condor” that the reviewers
didn’t notice? As well as ALL THE
PRESIDENT’S MEN, THE STEPFORD WIVES … People thought Harold Robbins or
Jacqueline Susann or Mickey Spillane were “bad” writers.
What would their editors have done with the manuscript of THE DA VINCI
CODE, do you think?
It’s like an hourglass has been turned upside down.
The professionals have fallen out, and the business, the industry, the
profession -- film and publishing -- is now overrun by amateurs.
These people are so removed from what movies and books used to be, even
from what they are. It was
bad enough when movies, say, became just one cog in a bigger corporate machine.
Movies at that point became at least unimportant.
They were widgets. But when
the corporations and mergers went too far and got too big and then began to
collapse in the present recession/depression, suddenly it’s become a whole lot
worse -- now movies are important as engines.
So they have actually turned their Evil Eye onto movies and are almost
deliberately destroying them. It’s
like they’re taking away America’s pastime!
No more “stand-alone” movies was a recent studio directive. In other words, no movie that can’t also be a comic book, a
TV series, a Broadway musical, a video game, or lead to sequels and toy
merchandizing. The middle ground --
“dramas” as they now refer to most normal movies -- is no more.
And it’s not just movie music that’s been lost, or casts of character
actors -- or the art of screenwriting, editing, direction.
There’s no more regionalism. Movies
once had a sense of place. That’s
a great loss. For people.
The world over. Who once got
a feel for what New York was really like, what it really looked like and
felt like. Or the South.
Without the viewer ever having been there, or ever being likely in their
lives to have a chance to go except in the movies.
DS: I coined a neologism- deliterate. It’s a term I came up with in opposition to illiterate. By deliterate I mean the willful choice to not read great nor compelling writing. To avoid the classics in favor of reading blogs. To write in emailese rather than proper grammar. Basically, I claim that deliteracy is far more of a problem than illiteracy is. Do you agree?
You’re right, there’s a willfulness to their ignorance now, a strange
new pride in it -- which is why I maintain we’ve moved beyond stupid into some
sphere of mental illness. The insane decision to increase the number of films worthy of
an Oscar -- when none are. The
buffoons who remake classic films, who like to announce that they’ve never
seen the original, or that they’ve gone back to the book -- which is
meant to make us feel more confident of their artistic integrity.
Or else pretend that the original film was okay in its day, but
could do with an update because audiences are so much more sophisticated
now. Can’t you tell?
Who but the de-literate would even come up with the buzzwords reimagine
and reinvent for their incompetent remakes.
It’s only recently that studio executives have taken to calling their
movies “smart” -- in the face of all evidence to the contrary.
And screenwriters with far more finesse than me -- who apparently all got
the memo -- always say in interviews how smart those hardworking
executives are in turn. Studio
types even realized at some point that the term “high concept” was making
them look ridiculous, so now they say they want movies with “big ideas.”
This does not mean new hope for your script about Jürgen Habermas and
the Frankfurt School. They will no
longer make a movie that’s “execution dependent” -- which all movies once
were -- a frank admission that they can’t make good movies at all.
Virtually no one under the age of forty knows how to write “its” or
“it’s” anymore. [Or my pet peeve- the use of loathe for
loath- AHHHH!- DAN] Try
reading the writing of graduate students from every prestigious university you
can think of. Professional writers,
journalists, and presumably their editors, in articles in famous magazines, have
no idea what “disinterested” means. Barack
Obama is taken for “eloquent” on a daily basis when it’s plainly obvious
as his head bobs back and forth between teleprompters, or by any standards of
the past, that “ineloquent” is the only applicable word.
It may be that a tipping point has been reached.
The sum of human knowledge is just too great.
A good research library as recently as three or four decades ago could
make a reasonable claim to completeness. Now
they don’t have the money, don’t have the space -- will digitalization turn
out to be a savior or the final nail? The
years keep going by -- it’ll be harder and harder for film buffs in the future
to have seen “everything.” There’ll
be more specialists. I think there
are now -- people who’ve devoted their lives to spaghetti westerns and peblum
movies -- or the life and work of John Cassavetes.
That’s the good news about movies being less interesting now.
You don’t have to see them. They’ll
mean nothing to film history. Like
the disappearance of great soundtracks, it allows for some breathing room.
The gap between people now is more and more, I think, not what they
believe, which used to define difference, but what they know.
It’s a knowledge gap. And
that’s the greatest difference of all. The
true believer is someone to whom the truth, in fact, has not been
DS: I also
believe that artists are fundamentally different, intellectually, than
non-artists, and that the truly great artists are even more greatly different.
Let me quote from an essay I did on Harold
Bloom, the reactionary critic who champions the Western Canon against
human mind has 3 types of intellect. #1 is the Functionary- all of us have it-
it is the basic intelligence that IQ tests purport to measure, & it operates
on a fairly simple add & subtract basis. #2 is the Creationary- only about
1% of the population has it in any measurable quantity- artists, discoverers,
leaders & scientists have this. It is the ability to see beyond the
Functionary, & also to see more deeply- especially where pattern recognition
is concerned. And also to be able to lead observers with their art. Think of it
as Functionary2 . #3 is the Visionary- perhaps only 1% of the
Creationary have this in measurable amounts- or 1 in 10,000 people. These are
the GREAT artists, etc. It is the ability to see farther than the Creationary,
not only see patterns but to make good predictive & productive use of them,
to help with creative leaps of illogic (Keats’ Negative Capability), &
also not just lead an observer, but impose will on an observer with their art.
Think of it as Creationary2 , or Functionary3.’
What are your thoughts on this concept of mine? Have you discerned any
differences between non-artists and artists, or average artists and the greats?
And, if you are copacetic with such a system, where on the scale would you place
yourself? And do you think disciplines like teaching or criticism are 180° from
I think it’s probably a very bad idea to suggest that artists are
somehow “different.” People are
good or bad, happy or sad, whether they’re artists or great artists or
whoever. I always thought the cliché
of the mad artist was kind of strange because I lived with an artist who was
just “dad” -- even if he did pose nude with David Hockney on the cover of a
magazine. So perspective as well as
personality makes a difference, just as critics, contrary to many artists’
beliefs, are often better judges of the artist’s standing than the artist
himself (but not often contemporary critics).
Yes, there’s probably a level of narcissism or self-absorption common
to artists -- but can’t a plumber be a narcissist?
Can’t a plumber be creative?
It’s telling everyone they’re creative that’s the problem.
Delusional parents who believe that their children are “gifted,” and
think that’s a good thing. There’s
a school here in L.A., probably in many other cities, too, that actually calls
itself “for gifted children.” Could
there be a bigger come-on? Can you
imagine doing that to a child? Disappointment comes from expectations. The people who want you to read their screenplay, or someone
to listen to their demo, or who bother an artist to look at their slides, though
they have no talent, what they do often have in common is a sense of
entitlement. That’s what they
were actually gifted with -- usually by parents who told them how special
they were. Whereas many successful
artists -- and people -- as we know, got no encouragement.
They were simply obsessed, from a very young age.
They worked hard, with focus and dedication.
A gift is something passive. It’s
what you do with it that counts. Clint
Eastwood is always being asked about his extraordinary old-age career.
A child of the Depression, he always responds -- a father who said
nothing is given to you, you have to work for it.
Who else is still going to be directing movies at 80?
Like I’ve said, the culture now celebrates jackpot winners -- people
who walk into the casino and pull a handle -- which requires no creativity at
I always think about a line in A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS.
In the movie, John Hurt is an ambitious, conniving weasel who’s hoping
Paul Scofield can get him a position at court, in the King’s circle.
Instead Scofield mentions a job opening as a schoolteacher, suggesting
Hurt would make a fine one, perhaps even a great one.
Hurt is crushed: “And if I was, who would know it?”
Scofield replies: “You, your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public, that.”
Most people will always be mindless drones.
Having any kind of interest or passion to begin with, let alone the
ability to pursue it, is a gift in itself.
Think of all the people who go to jobs to make a living and have a
“hobby” they enjoy in their “spare time.”
And all the artists and writers who have also had to work in an insurance
office, or teach. You’re
incredibly lucky if you’re able to merge your life with your work -- your
real, your committed work, that’s more than just a means of earning a living.
I have no more idea where talent or degrees of talent come from than
anyone else -- though Bloom’s made a pretty good stab at defining it there. [That
was my definition- DAN] But why should a
great artist be any different in the final analysis than a great botanist?
Teaching and criticism are not creative on the face of it -- and that’s
not a criticism. They are
disciplines that illuminate, that comment on creativity, explore it and expose
it to people -- in the most exciting way possible if the teacher or critic is
any good. There’s obviously a lot
of evidence to support the assumption that many teachers and critics are
frustrated or failed creatives, but that doesn’t mean they’re also failed
teachers or critics. And as with so
much of what we’ve been discussing, there was a time … when there was
greater fluidity, much more overlap between critic-cinephile-writer-filmmaker.
The French New Wave most prominently, Bogdanovich and Schrader in the
U.S., in England a whole slew of interesting people -- Lindsay Anderson and
Gavin Lambert, Kevin Brownlow, Mark Shivas, Linda Myles, David McGillivray,
Chris Wicking, Dave Pirie, Paul Mayersberg, Chris Petit ...
DS: A few years
back I co-hosted an Internet radio show called Omniversica.
On one show we spoke with a poet named Fred Glaysher, who- in arguing with my
co-host Art Durkee, claimed that, in art, change does not come until some giant-
or great artist, comes along, and buries the rest of the wannabes. It’s akin
to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions. Agree
or not? And name some film giants you feel who’ve buried past tropes or styles
with their canon.
LD: Well, you’re talking to someone who in his impressionable years prayed at the altar of the author of BIG WEDNESDAY -- the day when a wave will come that’s so big, so great a force of nature, that it will wash away all that came before and nothing that comes after will ever be the same.
We’re back at your bottleneck theory -- and the difference between favorite movies and great movies. Just see my list of the latter -- those are the directors who reinvent the art form. But it’s not as dramatic as you’re suggesting. There are no Big Wednesdays in art. Any art that declares out with the old, in with the new isn’t art at all, it’s avant-garde crap. Truffaut admitted his notorious “burial” of an older generation of French filmmakers was mainly a shock effect to make a name for himself rather than something heartfelt.
Jed Perl this year in The New Republic: “No art worth considering can ever really be understood as post-this or post-that -- as a rejection of classicism or of modernism or, for that matter, of Dadaism … painters and sculptors have for centuries quoted from the work of earlier artists, which involved an emotional engagement with the inner life of a previous achievement … ‘logical next step’ is pure art-world Leninism, grounded in the idea that there is always a vanguard with a privileged knowledge of History.”
The old and the new go hand in hand. Orson Welles famously prepared for KANE by repeatedly screening STAGECOACH. The old masters, he said -- John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford. THIS SPORTING LIFE and IF … were British “New Wave” films and I’m sure critics responded with “revolutionary” blurbs about them, but Anderson was a passionate disciple of Ford. Bergman, Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray -- all devoteés of Ford. The most successful and influential filmmaker alive today, Steven Spielberg, has quoted Ford in movie after movie. (And naturally John Milius, another leading member of the now not so “New” Hollywood, cast Ford stock company player Hank Worden in BIG WEDNESDAY.)
I agree. I think Ford was The Best. (But try arguing with a Hawksian.) And what tradition was Ford building upon? -- D.W. Griffith? The greatest artists, you might also argue, aren’t influential at all and don’t, in fact, bury past tropes and styles -- because they’re inimitable. Aside from a few isolated copycats here and there, who else could be Buñuelian?
Visionaries do see farther -- beyond their own lifetimes. And allow us to see ourselves. They discover a new way of looking at the world.
Athletes, to connect this question to your last one, are skilled and talented, but not generally known for their intellectual brilliance. That part of their brain that controls their physicality is dominant. That’s why an Ali, who was both physically magnificent and unusually intelligent, was such an unbeatable aberration -- the nearest thing to an artist in the ring, and certainly someone who KO’d all the wannabes.
Genius has been defined as the ability to combine two things no one else ever thought of putting together. To bridge a gap no one’s ever jumped. It’s not like everyone else sees the gap and says, oh, no, we couldn’t possibly make it -- it’s a gap no one knows is even there until the genius jumps it. We know genius by its absence -- when someone can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.
In the newest New Republic there’s a mention of “the glass genius” of Toledo, Ohio, formerly a manufacturing hub of car windows and windshields. When the auto industry collapsed, he repurposed his energies into solar technology -- and brought the local economy back to life. “That is, the industry may fade, but expertise doesn’t.”
Unfortunately that has not been true of Hollywood.
T.S. Eliot also said that a great writer creates the taste by which he is appreciated.
DS: Have you ever watched Michael Apted’s The Up Series documentaries for the BBC? What are your thoughts on it as a longitudinal study of human development? How about sociologically? Do you agree with its epigraph, the Jesuit proverb, ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.’?
Absolutely among my favorite films of all time, and taken as a whole one
of the greatest. I’m with Roger Ebert on that.
Sociologically it’s especially meaningful to me because I’m more or
less of the same generation as the subjects, from the same country, so it’s
like a slice of my life, too, having little to do with class distinctions.
I think Apted has admitted that while it may have started out as a study
of class, that’s faded over time --
the longitudinal gaze -- the human, what a shock -- has come to predominate over
the ideological and excited universal interest.
I know he feels it’s his legacy, however many fictional films he’s
made. As I said about my own script EDWARD FORD -- what did I
really do? -- I portrayed a single, real human life over time, with as much
detail as I thought necessary and interesting.
“I am a camera” -- and look what the results and the response can be.
The best movies are character studies.
And anyone who has children is a Jesuit.
They are who they are. Nature/nurture/shmerture
… they are who they’re going to be. Even
if you don’t have children -- don’t you feel you are who you always were?
DS: A few less intense queries. That old chestnut- name a few folk from history you’d like to break bread with, and why?
Oh, Jesus Christ -- well, not him, or any other cult leader -- I don’t
know. This is MY DINNER WITH ANDRE
territory now. I don’t really
enjoy breaking bread with anyone. I
prefer a well-lit table in a corner with a magazine.
I mentioned Lincoln and Churchill earlier -- pretty standard choices, I
imagine. Churchill once asked to
meet Isaiah Berlin, he’d heard he was so brilliant.
A dinner was arranged and Churchill found himself breaking bread with
someone whose conversation he found less than scintillating. Turned out, an error had been made and it was Irving
Berlin who’d been invited.
My time-travel fantasies are more voyeuristic -- to be a fly-on-the-wall
and see and smell what it was really like on the HMS
Bounty, or invisibly follow Hitler around during his “missing years” in
squalor in Berlin. One would like
to stop by the insurance office and say to Kafka, hey, y’know, you’re really
DS: At this
point in your life, have you accomplished the things you wanted to do? If not,
what failures gnaw at you the most? Which of those failures do you think you can
Well, other than the whole underachievement thing … Being the 11,789th
most powerful person in show-business ain’t too shabby.
The elephant in the room is always the book(s) I haven’t written.
Uh, and all those other screenplays.
But I keep meaning to, you see. It’s
the future that gnaws at me the most, because overall I do think it’s quite
extraordinary that I’ve done what I set out to do from early childhood -- have
a successful life in the movie business. The fact that the movie business sucks worse than ever
before may be a shame, but quite beside the point. Where’d I just read someone saying midlife is when you
reach the top of the ladder (if even that, which would seem to be an
accomplishment) -- only to realize the ladder’s been leaning against the wrong
wall all along?
Let me close by asking what is in store, in the next year or two, in terms of
I’m still absolutely convinced I’m about to get cracking
seriously on the Top 100 most pressing projects I’ve been making notes on and
dabbling with for years. As you may
have deduced, it’s all too easy for me to while away the time watching movies
and reading books. (In fact, the
reason all those strange female pulpy melodramas have been on my mind is because
of my imminent third Soderbergh movie. But
that’s for future discussion.) Soderbergh’s
talking about retirement, too. It’s
a nice fantasy. I’ve always found
people who walk away very appealing -- Robert Ardrey, Alexander Mackendrick.
Don’t really think I can -- yet -- but I do always intend to
practice, like Joyce, silence, cunning, and exile.
So this interview is further proof of failure.
DS: Thanks for
doing this interview, Lem Dobbs, and let me allow you a closing statement, on
whatever you like.
LD: Well, thank you for your keen interest. And to anyone who’s gotten this far. Despite all the ranting and raving (see Truffaut; provocation), it’s important to say that I’m still excited about writing screenplays, and I actually do like some recent movies, and even a few people in the movie business. It’s really people like you who are inspiring and encourage me to start fresh tomorrow.
Interviews are a great resource and tradition. I always tell aspiring writers and students that. Better than film school or stupid screenwriting books by cretins. The best thing, I think, other than watching movies. When I was in high school, I carried around a long, in-depth interview with John Milius in Film Comment like the Bible. I knew it by heart. The Playboy interview with Sam Peckinpah was the equal of any favorite or influential book in my library. My copy of the one book that existed at the time of interviews with screenwriters fell apart from rereading until I had to keep it together with rubber bands. The Paris Review interviews are even better than breaking bread with all those writers. Bogdanovich’s FORD book. Nogueira’s MELVILLE. The Truffaut-Hitchcock interview is, I think, the most valuable movie book that exists.
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