Voluptuous Immobility: Death and Legacy in Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard and Martin Brest’s Meet Joe Black
To Martin Brest, who "left us" much too early, despite laying a very large egg.
-Prince Don Fabrizio Salina (Burt Lancaster) in Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) (1963)
I watched maybe about an hour before I just couldn’t bear it anymore. It is rare for me to not finish a picture once I start it. In all candor, it stands right, left and bloody center as a towering monument to bad taste; I frankly found myself dumbstruck by its singular, near indescribable awfulness. I also felt stupid looking back at my earlier hope and confidence. So alas, it was indeed good reason that dictated critics being sent into paroxysms of rage and indignation, and their pens being sent blazing into the art of the insult with gleeful abandon. Unfortunately, it also sent Brest into Salinger-esque retreat and early retirement. An excellent December 2014 Playboy article by Matt Patches attempts unsuccessfully (but no less intriguingly) to trace Brest after his disappearing act. The apoplectic response to his movie was perhaps too much to handle, though it was also reported that Brest had the movie taken away from him and re-edited. As much as I’d like giving him the benefit of the doubt, I find it hard to imagine that anyone or anything could improve upon the woeful material on display in the release version. (Sorry, Marty, wherever you are.)
Just as much a reinterpretation and extrapolation of Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) as it is a remake and re-envisioning of Mitchell Leisen’s Death Takes a Holiday (1934), its purported source, the three-hour Meet Joe Black was of course accused of prolixity across the board -- mostly because it more than doubled the length of Leisen’s "original," adding a number of subplots, thematic threads, unexpected narrative detours, and skillfully protracted dramatic moments and movements.
The math works out just fine however, as Meet Joe Black is just one-half Death Takes a Holiday, no more and no less. Needless to say, romantic director Mitchell Leisen's story, a genteel high-concept farce, is much more streamlined.
With its $90 million pricetag and the expected starpower that comes with all those zeroes -- boasting Brad Pitt at his most "beefcake" in the lead role -- it has become habit and de rigueur to overlook Meet Joe Black as a piece of filmmaking and to simply accept it as just another Big Bad Studio Film, and a flop at that. At this juncture, it is apropos to note vis a vis that the film did go into profit, thanks to the predictably discerning European audience. Stateside, it made back about half its negative cost, whereas it made double that across the pond. To me, one of the reasons for this is clear.
The film's relative intimacy suggests a perceived imbalance in the expected reciprocity between a movie's length and its flair for spectacle. On the latter front, Brest finds spectacle in Academy Award winner Dante Ferretti's exquisite design, and the “saffron glow” of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's rendering of that design. The European audience has never been discomfited by epics of pure intimacy, as Americans have. On the contrary, they have lauded them. I can name many such titles whose lengths belie their intimate scale: Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore (1973), Werner Schroeter’s Palermo oder Wolfsburg (1980), Philippe Garrel's Regular Lovers (2005), Cristi Puiu’s Aurora (2011), most anything by Jacques Rivette. Key to understand here is that these films, along with Meet Joe Black, protract the drama rather than distend it. Distension implies strain, whereas protraction implies premeditation -- and in this case, careful premeditation. American studios and American audiences traditionally reject such alternative, daresay subversive, treatment of cinematic duration.
The dress ball is symbolic of the end of an era, the last gasp of decadence, the viking funeral given a newly irrelevant man’s dignity. The prince is a “leopard,” the member of a mournful dying breed who can neither take comfort or refuge in denial, nor bargain his way out of the new, bitter reality.
At an earlier point in the movie, Hopkins’s wordly, dyspeptic William Parrish angrily laments, “I don’t want anybody buying up my life’s work, turning it into something it wasn’t meant to be. A man wants to leave something behind, and he wants it left behind the way he made it, with a sense of honor, of dedication, of truth. Okay?” One can certainly see how The Leopard’s Prince of Salina could relate to Parrish’s dilemma. And beyond that, the Joe Black/Angel of Death character is the prince’s death dream (and death wish) manifest. About midway through The Leopard, the prince launches into a soliloquy about death: “Sleep, my dear Chevalley, eternal sleep…that is what Sicilians want. And they will always resent anyone who tries to awaken them, even to bring them the most wonderful of gifts. And, between ourselves, I doubt very strongly whether this new Kingdom has very many gifts for us in its luggage.”
The prince speaks of the desire for “voluptuous immobility,” in other words, the luxury of a dirt nap. As an aristocrat who knows only the best of everything, the Prince understands and can perceive the ultimate “luxury” left unspoken and unconsidered. “All Sicilian expression, even the most violent, is really a wish for death. Our sensuality, a wish for oblivion. Our knifings and shootings, a hankering after extinction. Our laziness, our spiced and drugged sherbets, a desire for voluptuous immobility, that is…for death again.”
"Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen." ("Now and in the hour of our death. Amen.")
-the opening of Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa's novel The Leopard
"Then all found peace in a heap of livid dust."
-the closing of the novel The Leopard
(translation: Archibald Colquhoun)
Many Visconti scholars have argued the emotional and psychological proximity that the filmmaker shared with his protagonist in The Leopard. He knew what the prince's calamitous loss meant in a very direct sense, despite his own loss being self-imposed. Born an aristocrat himself, and a descendant of Milan's ruling dynasty, Visconti renounced these roots to align himself with the Italian Communist Party. Indeed, his breakthrough film La Terra Trema (1948) is a neorealist documentary-drama anthem to the residents of a poor fishing village in rural Sicily. Though remained a cultivated, urbane individual, renowned and even notorious for directing lavishly designed operas (and discovering legendary opera diva Maria Callas), he remained politically committed, and this is appreciable in his films up to and including his classic Rocco and His Brothers (1960), likewise an epic of supreme intimacy. With The Leopard, he makes a leap towards the more formally epic, and all an epic entails, with visual extravagance in surplus. At the time of release and its subsequent winning of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, this leap was perceived as a curious but glorious left turn. The Damned (Il Caduta Degli Dei) (1969), the saga of a German industrial dynasty during the rise of Nazism, and Ludwig (1973), a biopic of Bavaria's mad king and builder of extravagant dream castles, both saw him continue down the path of directing films that indicted decadence while simultaneously putting it on unfettered display.
Beyond The Leopard's various narrative parallels to Meet Joe Black, there exist clear stylistic and visual ones as well. Shallow focus, diaphanous lighting, and sure, steady camera movement, all especially present in the climactic set pieces, speak to a refined sense of decoupage in both films. I would even venture to guess that Brest consciously takes cues from Visconti in his own film. Admittedly, Brest appropriates Visconti tropes for an unmistakably Hollywood-engineered and financed film produced for mass consumption, but his aesthetic approach is scrupulously tasteful in ways that few other pieces of Hollywood product are.
How many Martin Brests do we really have left in today’s mainstream Hollywood machine? Most of the auteurs working today succeed in spite of the system, but seldom within it. Within only lies the safety of anonymity. This is why I cannot countenance any digs made against Meet Joe Black, clearly one of the most personal and profoundly cinema-literate big budget efforts of its time or any time. I love it as much as I love the arguably more sophisticated The Leopard. Gigli or no Gigli, Martin Brest unabashedly gets my support, for his individuality and his precision. The problem is that when he had to go, he didn’t go in style, and as evidenced in his work, that’s not like him.
After publishing the previous discussion with biographer Justin Bozung, in Biosphere Part I, I decided to make Biosphere a ConFluence-Film Blog "mini-series" of discussions with film biographers. My guests and I will talk about what it means to delve into other peoples' lives as writers. It is an interesting phenomenon for someone in the position of having to do it, and there's really nothing on record about it. If you're "biographing" for the first time, where do you go for advice and resources? I could have used such a series of interviews when I was getting going on my first book. Instead, I had to track down authors and bug them for personal meetings. Now, all their trade secrets will be available on the ConFluence-Film Blog.
Before I signed the publishing contract with University Press of Kentucky for my book Sidney J. Furie: Life and Films, I scoured the other books in their Screen Classics Series. Name by name, I was honored to have Sidney deservedly included among the likes of Raoul Walsh, Victor Fleming, Hal Ashby, Preston Sturges, Josef Von Sternberg, and Arthur Penn, among a slew of others. My editor, legendary biographer Patrick McGilligan (who recently published a substantial volume entitled Young Orson), enthusiastically recommended that I check out the book on Penn, written by seasoned author Nat Segaloff. As Pat saw it, the circumstances under which that book was written mirrored my own situation: an author working with a still-living director on the first authorized biography of that director's life. When I received it, I became aware that the same author, Mr. Segaloff, had penned a book on William Friedkin that I'd grown fond of. (I was disappointed that Friedkin, in his own memoirs, excluded even a mention of the films of his that tanked, but I was pleased to discover that Segaloff covered pictures like 1983's Deal of the Century in detail.)
In this chat, as a counter to Justin's discussion on the process of working on the biography of a deceased artist, Nat and I discuss working with living artists, the ramifications of that, and what all of that entails. Nat, personally, will only pursue writing biographies if he has had, or can have, one-on-one time with his subject.
So here is the biography of the biographer: Nat Segaloff is a writer-producer-journalist. He covered the film industry for The Boston Herald, but has also variously been a studio publicist (Fox, UA, Columbia), college teacher (Boston University, Boston College), and broadcaster (Group W, CBS, Storer). He is the author of twelve books including Hurricane Billy: The Stormy Life and Films of William Friedkin, Arthur Penn: American Director, and Final Cuts: The Last Films of 50 Great Directors in addition to career monographs on Stirling Silliphant, Walon Green, Paul Mazursky and John Milius. His writing has appeared in such varied periodicals as Film Comment, Written By, International Documentary, Animation Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, Time Out (US), MacWorld, and American Movie Classics Magazine. He was also senior reviewer for AudiobookCafe.com and contributing writer to Moving Pictures magazine. As a TV writer-producer, Segaloff helped perfect the format and create episodes for A&E's flagship "Biography" series. His distinctive productions include episodes on John Belushi, Stan Lee, Larry King, Shari Lewis & Lamb Chop, and Darryl F. Zanuck. His The Everything Etiquette Book and The Everything Trivia Book and The Everything Tall Tales, Legends & Outrageous Lies Book are in multiple printings for Adams Media Corp. His latest book is Mr. Huston/Mr. North: Life, Death, and the Making of John Huston’s Last Film (from BearManor Media), and rumor has it that he has also written his memoirs. Photo by Joseph Benjamin Lahmani
ConFluence-Film: Other than just having personal interest in the subjects you choose for books, what else goes into selecting a subject for you? Do other factors play into you moving forward with a given project?
Nat Segaloff: Until now I have wanted to write about filmmakers whose work inspires me and challenges me, but there’s something else: I am fascinated by the creative process, and that’s why I choose to write about living people. This doesn’t mean that I am not judgmental; this being Hollywood, I like to get additional voices who can expand and correct, if not contradict, what my subjects remember about their lives. If I don’t have access, though, I’m not interested.
CF: Yes, access is important, though there are a number of directors I’d like to cover who are no longer with us, Tony Richardson and Franklin J. Schaffner among them. But, of course, I’d much prefer to cover the ones who are still with us and have things to say one-on-one. A funny question, granted, but how would you describe your taste in films and directors?
NS: A film must touch me personally in some way, and I don’t care how strangely. This is because I appreciate directors who know how to use the medium to do more than tell stories. F’r’instance, I cry at the end of William Wellman’s Beau Geste, though Wellman would probably puke while spinning in his grave knowing that. I applaud John Milius’s Big Wednesday, even though I don’t surf, because it’s one of the few films that expresses my feelings about friendship and honor. I love one of Michael Powell’s and Emeric Pressburger’s least stylized films, I Know Where I’m Going, because it shows how love can be believably mysterious rather than just ordinarily mysterious. Go figure. And I defend to the death James Bridges’ Perfect because it gets under the skin of the press just as well as All the President’s Men while denying the viewer that sense of smugness. All of these accomplishments are highly personal, if not idiosyncratic.
CF: Interesting that you’re a defender of Perfect. In terms of later James Bridges, I’m loyal to his final film Bright Lights, Big City (1988), and have defended it on a few occasions. Maybe I need to see Perfect again.
Personally, Sidney Furie was the first director from whom I learned purely visual storytelling, at a very young, tender age. Discovering his oeuvre was revelatory for my young self, and I kept on discovering him as I aged. With Joan Micklin Silver, it is much more personal: As an Orthodox rabbinical school dropout -- we're a bit more rough around the edges than beauty school dropouts, har har -- she came the closest anyone has ever come in a recognized feature film to rendering scrupulous accuracy to Jewish tradition and belief constructs, in Hester Street. And beyond that, I think her Chilly Scenes of Winter is absolutely brilliant, as well as many other works. I'm also a hardcore auteurist, so connecting threads of a thematic, ideological or visual nature really get my wheels turning. I feel like I need to have a central idea driving my analyses of the films, because it excites me to watch the artist and his/her threads evolve over the decades.
Now for a potentially unpleasant question: Has anything traumatic or especially dramatic happened while researching a book or article you write? To make a long question short, any horror stories? What is the best way of dealing with such bumps in the road?
NS: In the course of writing Arthur Penn: American Director – which took five years -- not because I couldn’t finish it but because we couldn’t find a publisher -- I lost no fewer than nine people I’d interviewed for it, including Dede Allen, David Brown, Hillard Elkins, Horton Foote, Larry Gelbart, William Gibson, Don Hewitt, Tad Mosel, and, before the book came out, Arthur himself. Fortunately, Arthur and I had gone over the final manuscript together and sent it to the publisher three days before he died.
One other trauma during the Penn book was learning that another biographer, whom I won’t name, was circulating word that Arthur had authorized him to write a biography, and it took my agent and myself several months to put out that fire. This was especially disturbing because that biographer is a superb writer and it irked me to learn, firsthand, that he was a shit.
Any other horror stories I have had are likely the same as every biographer faces: people who refuse to be interviewed, people who agree to be interviewed and then never make themselves available, people who lie, rights-holders who think their materials are worth a fortune but aren’t, and the lack of historical record to confirm single-source information. I’ve never been faced with the kind of lawsuits that haunt some high-profile biographers. This is because I don’t embark on a book without the cooperation of the subject. Perhaps this allows people to question my objectivity, but with one exception I have never been asked to hide anything about someone, and that was on an A&E “Biography” I wrote and produced on Larry King. It wasn’t Larry himself who asked me to bury something, it was one of his lawyers, who happened to be a friend of mine. I’m sure Larry knew nothing about the request. In as much as the revelation would have hurt somebody else and its absence would not have harmed the biography, I used it as leverage to put juicier stuff out on the record. Interestingly, I found the information by connecting dots in the public record, so I’m surprised that nobody else has found it.
CF: Yes, my worst story is having to contend with a real nudnick who wanted quote approval on all the interview lines he gave me. This guy had a handler, a publicist, who really hounded me. He wanted absolute control on how the quotes were used. I wanted his participation, so I sent them both the portions I’d written that featured the quotes. They got back to me asking for a couple minor word changes, even though I’d quoted verbatim. I told them I revised everything to their wishes and thanked them. Once again, they asked to see the same passages with these minor changes implemented. This understandably was getting on my nerves, so I contacted the great Pat McGilligan for advice. He told me something like, “You shouldn’t give quote approval even once, let alone multiple times, for multiple drafts.” So, I then declined their second request, which caused something of a stink. I was also worried because the guy had a background in law, and had a reputation for litigiousness. Worse than that, some of his claims flew in the face of what others had told me about the same topics, even though I would have presented him respectfully as an alternate perspective.
NS: That sounds awful.
CF: Yeah, it was the roughest patch writing the book. Otherwise, I had a ball. The Arthur Penn book seemed like a longtime dream project for you. You once told me that we're "joined at the auteur" because you saw Bonnie and Clyde paired on a double bill with The Naked Runner. Did Penn grant you immediate access, or was there some convincing to do?
NS: This is going to take a while to answer but I’ve never told the whole story before and your readers might find interest in how subtle these things can be. I said that you and I are “joined at the auteur” because I caught Penn's Bonnie and Clyde on the bottom half of a double bill with Furie’s The Naked Runner. I had come to see the Furie, which is a superb film, but was totally blown away by the Penn. This was before Warren Beatty persuaded Warner Bros. to get behind it, and it took off.
The idea for the Penn book came when I was shuffling through lists of directors and realized that, aside from the monograph that Robin Wood had written in 1969, there were no full-length books on Arthur Penn. Not just no biographies, but nothing (although a compilation of interviews was in the works). This was beyond astonishing. Here was a director who had changed the face of cinema and nobody had written about him.
What happened next is an example of what kind of man Arthur was. I had his address from an old Academy Award mailing list that I had had the foresight to copy when I worked for one of the studio publicity departments, so I sent him a letter at his New York address asking if I could write his biography. He e-mailed me back to say yes, but there was a catch. It seems that the motion picture Academy had asked if they could honor him in November of 2005 with a showing of Night Moves, and he was on the fence about agreeing. He would, however, tell the Academy yes if I would fly east from Los Angeles to emcee it. At this point, Arthur and I had neither met nor spoken. I agreed, he agreed, and the Academy agreed. I prevailed on my then-current employer, Weller-Grossman Productions, to donate editing time for a tribute compilation video of Arthur’s films. This not only gave Arthur and me control over its content, it relieved the Academy of the expense of contracting for it themselves. Arthur leaned on the Academy to spring for my plane tickets and hotel, and I crossed the country not knowing why he was showing so much faith in me. On arrival, I finally met Arthur and his wife, Peggy. We talked for a few hours, did some interviews, and then parted to prepare for the screening.
The event drew a full house of east coast Academy members and a number of the Penns’ family, friends, and co-workers. In addition to our video, there were tribute videos from Melanie Griffith (Night Moves), who was in tears thanking Arthur for giving her a career, and Dustin Hoffman (Little Big Man), whom I had asked to tape a few words. As emcee, I did quick interviews with Estelle Parsons (Bonnie and Clyde) producer Julian Schlossberg (Sly Fox), Academy host Arthur Manson (whom I’d known when I worked in exhibition), and offered a critical appraisal of Penn’s work. That’s when it clicked. As I watched Arthur watching me talking about him, it struck me that this was his elaborate way of auditioning me for the role of biographer. His trust in me – we worked on nothing more than a handshake, and I had full control of all content – was what kept me focused and motivated. It still does.
CF: That was the same with me and Sidney. He told me it was up to me to write what I wanted to write, based on what he and the others interviewed told me. There was such enormous trust, basically carte blanche, which I probably didn't deserve, as it was my first book. Would I have trusted me in his position? Hard to say...but probably not. Being a fellow filmmaker was most important to him when it came to me, and that can't be underestimated. "You know exactly what directors go through when they make a movie," he told me numerous times. When it was ready, I showed Sidney the full manuscript. He actually stopped reading it after Chapter 5 and said, "It's just great, but I can't read any more about myself. When you've actually lived it, and when you're as old as I am, it's surreal seeing your life condensed into book form." And it always made him sad that many of the people in the book are no longer with us. To this day, he hasn't read the whole thing, but keeps on saying, "I hear good things about it."
So, what about with Friedkin?
NS: Billy Friedkin is a force of nature, which is why I called my book about him Hurricane Billy. We met in the spring of 1974 when I was living in Boston and running the publicity department of the Boston theater chain that was showing The Exorcist, which had just opened the previous December. We had, however, spoken once before under unusual circumstances. It was after I, along with my bosses at the theater chain, had been indicted by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for “blasphemy, obscenity, and corrupting the morals of a minor” after a local religious nut demanded that we be charged under archaic state law.
Purely out of naiveté, I phoned Friedkin’s office at Warner Bros. in Burbank and left word that I was proud to be charged for such a great film. To my astonishment – and, better, to the astonishment of my bosses at the theatre chain – a day or two later the receptionist, Jackie, announced over the public address system in our main office, “Nat, there’s call for you from William Friedkin.” I skidded down the hall to my office. Billy was friendly and resolute: “Nat, you have to fight these people wherever they turn up.” He then said that he was coming east in a few weeks on a lecture tour that had been booked before anybody knew how successful The Exorcist would be, and let’s get together then.
When I proudly told this to my contacts at Warner Bros., they were horrified. They insisted I intercept Friedkin at his lecture venue and tell him not to speak about the case lest he be subpoenaed back to the Bay State to repeat his words in court. Telling Billy to do or not to do something is as useless as King Canute commanding the tide to retreat. But we did connect – at, of all places, Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts – and began a friendship that continues. We kept in touch over the next fifteen years as I became a journalist and could always count on him to give me good quotes and share his insights. When he shot The Brink’s Job in Boston in the summer of 1978, my video crew was the only one he didn’t kick off the set. I was in the production offices when some local hoods held up the editors and made off with what they thought was camera negative, intending to hold it for ransom. (It was, of course, workprint, and, when they called with a ransom demand, Billy got on the phone and told them exactly what they could do with it. The FBI was not pleased and the culprits remain free to this day).
By 1988, I was getting bored with being a film critic and having no success selling scripts, so Gregory Mcdonald, a close friend and a successful author (Fletch), told me flat-out to start writing books. “They make 250 movies a year and publish 100,000 books,” he said. “Go with the odds.” It seemed natural to write a book about Billy -- keep in mind, by then I had fifteen years of archived interviews. I checked with film scholar friends and determined that there was no book on him, and called to ask if he would take a chance on a first-time author. He immediately said yes, I wrote a proposal, and, on the strength of his being the director of The French Connection and The Exorcist, I found an agent and an almost-immediate book deal, back in the day as when publishers actually paid for books. Again, we had a handshake and he gave me full control. Long story, I’m afraid, but it shows that nothing comes out of the blue.
CF: Making the approach for my first book was very willy-nilly. I had no agent at the time, though I do have one now, and the deal came it as the result of a chain of people that connected me with Pat McGilligan. I was a first-time book author, an unproven risk, approaching a highly respected and established biographer to do a book on a rather more esoteric director. Heaven knows what made him put such faith in me, but I owe a great deal to him!
You wrote a book about screenwriter Stirling Silliphant. Other than Dalton Trumbo's recent bio, are there many other books about screenwriters? I can't think of many. Other than the obvious differences, how does writing about a screenwriter differ from writing about a director?
NS: There are a few bios of screenwriters such as Nunnally Johnson, Herman Mankiewicz, and Rod Serling, as well as the highly commendable Backstory series that Pat McGilligan edits -- but most of the writing about writers is autobiographical. Indeed, the Silliphant bio grew out of the monograph I wrote on him for Backstory 3, which I then expanded into a full book (Stirling Silliphant: The Fingers of God, 2013) with the encouragement of his widow, Tiana. Tiana said that it was Stirling’s deathbed wish that she and I write the story of their love. By the time I finally landed a deal with Bear Manor Media to publish a book, Tiana was off making a documentary and I wrote it alone. Stirling died in 1996, so it only took me seventeen years to sell it. (That’s nothing; my latest book -- on John Huston’s last movie -- took twenty-eight years. Never say die.) I had met Stirling and Tiana in 1974 when I was still a press agent working for Fox and I booked him on press tour for The Towering Inferno, which he had written. Once again, contacts can pay off. We stayed in touch up to his death, and I remain friends with his widow and their son. Writing about screenwriters provides great horror stories but tough narrative. Writing is so internalized that it’s hard to describe the process. And let’s face it, the directors and actors get all the attention, even though none of them would have a job if the writer hadn’t done his job first.
CF: When working with living subjects, is it important for you that you establish a stance on the work independent of the subject's views? Do you ever feel in any way beholden to them?
NS: Perhaps because I have had pre-existing relationships with the people about whom I have written major works, as opposed to knocking out a newspaper or magazine interview, there is an element of trust -- or at least familiarity -- that prevails. The people I interview have all been interviewed a zillion times and they know how the press works. As to whether I feel beholden, of course I do, but, then, they’re beholden to me too, because I am giving them a frigging book. On a more specific level, I will accept meals but not travel or expenses, and definitely no gifts, though none to date has ever been offered.
CF: How do you feel when handling material about a subject's life that must be handled delicately? Or are you more apt to "let it all hang out" and convince the subject that this is the best way to go?
NS: I hold nothing back unless, as with Larry King, it may harm a third party. I also ask the subjects if they want a transcript, and I tell them that they can make “corrections” (a purposely vague term). I do this not only as a courtesy because transcribed speech never reads as well as it sounded when it was spoken, but also because it’s hard for someone to scream that he was misquoted when he saw his words in advance. I also do my best to fact-check (dates, locations, etc.) and offer subjects the chance to correct themselves.
As far as letting everything hang out, frankly, if my subjects had more hanging out, I might have sold more books. CF: How do one best avoid hagiography? Do you find objectivity difficult sometimes? NS: The very act of writing a biography is, to some extent, hagiographic. I have been accused of writing “friendly” biographies and this is a fair charge, but I mitigate it with three answers. First, I wouldn’t be writing the book if I wasn’t interested in the subject. Second, my writing style is somewhat heroic, so hagiography in inherent. Second, I have been making my transcripts available to scholars in my papers at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy Foundation and at the UCLA Library Performing Arts Collections. In this way, others who have not had the advantage of sitting at Arthur Penn’s feet to ask about Bonnie and Clyde or hanging around with Stan Lee to ask why mothers throw away comic books can go look it up.
CF: When I was sprinkling the initial draft of my book proposal with unchecked, neon-lettered hyperbole, which I was convinced would make the package look irresistible or whatever, Pat McGilligan told me something very wise: "The very act of writing a book on a particular subject is making a statement." It was from there, with piece of advice, that I turned in a workable proposal. Again, don't know what made him keep the faith.
Any advice you can give biographers or aspiring biographers about getting your book circulated? I spoke to Justin Bozung about this in the previous installment. We're in a kind of nether realm of book publication, but there are certainly things we can do to get our work more read by a readership that would most appreciate it, right?
NS: Book publishing is in the same frantic state now that the record industry was in when the mp3 player was invented, that the video industry was in when streaming took over from hard copies, and that the movies have been in practically since Edison: aggressive stupidity. First they ignore trends in technology, then they try to control and/or suppress them, and finally they embrace them when it’s nearly too late. At the moment, publishers are run by the same mentality that runs movie companies, namely, “if everybody doesn’t want it, nobody can have it.”
When mega-publishers like HarperCollins, Hachette, and Bertlesmann bought up all the small publishers their idea was to reduce competition by being able to serve all markets, large, medium, and small. This was a smart business decision but a poor financial one because, as the major Hollywood studios discovered when they absorbed the specialty film companies, the small imprints survived because they knew their markets, served them, and made a livable profit. Now that every book that’s released has to contribute to the income of the massive conglomerate, the small ones have no place. Big publishers seldom can afford to introduce new authors, and small publishers can seldom get their new authors seen and heard on the mass media. The books I write will never sell more than 5,000 copies or, by wild luck, 10,000. That doesn’t even pay for the binding at a large publishing concern. I resist e-books because they’re so easy to pirate, but a sale is a sale. This is why I’m happy with Bear Manor, which is a print-on-demand publishing house that serves a niche audience of pop culture customers. They have my latest three titles. I feel that P-O-D is the way to go for niche books; there are no returns, no hold-backs, and no remainders. But the trade-off is that there is no publicity (their authors have to do it themselves) and no bookstore presence. Perhaps a curated book club is the way to go. I dunno. We’re on the threshold of market fragmentation.
CF: Any other special stories you've had on the biography-writing trail? Any special challenges you conquered?
NS: Among the pleasures of writing biographies is being able to reconnect estranged family members in the course of tracking them down for interviews. This happened with both my Silliphant and Penn books. In researching Silliphant, I brought his son by his first marriage together with his son from his last marriage; they had simply drifted apart over the decades. With the Penns, I wrote about a woman named Nonnie who was the first wife of Arthur’s brother, Irving Penn, the brilliant photographer. Irving, who famously married his star model Lisa Fonssagrives, had apparently never discussed this first wife with anyone, but Nonnie’s daughter contacted me through my publisher and I put her in touch with Arthur’s children. If I ever get to do a revised edition of the Penn bio, I’ll add that.
CF: I didn't have the occasion to reintroduce any estranged family members, at least yet, because Sidney has none really, but I have connected him with many old, cherished collaborators, some of whom he had not heard from in nearly sixty years. For instance, the composer of his first two independent Canadian features is a jazz artist named Phil Nimmons, who is now in his nineties, still living in Toronto, and amazingly, still blowing his horn. "He's only 81? Tell Sid he's a young punk," Phil joked with me. I also relayed information back to Sidney that Nic Roeg, whom I interviewed, had married Harriet Harper, the daughter of British producer Ken Harper, who gave him one of his big breaks. Nic was camera operator on two cheap genre films he directed when first arriving in England in 1960. News of their marriage startled and especially delighted Sidney.
More bios for you on the horizon? I know you once told me that you don't discuss such projects before they're official, but spill whatever beans you so wish...or none at all, if you so please.
NS: I’m finishing the biography of a world-famous speculative fiction writer. This has been another hard sell because, again, writers are not seen as commercial, even though what they write often is. This author writes a lot of what has been called science fiction, and the wisdom that has been handed to me over the long journey has been that science fiction fans love to read science fiction, but they do not like to read about science fiction. We’ll see. I am also – God help me – finishing my memoirs. I’m not famous enough for anybody to be interested in me, but, as a publicist, then an interviewer, and finally as a writer-producer, I can drop names that other people can’t even lift. It’s called Screen Saver. If that doesn’t work, I guess I’ll have to bite the bullet and write a cat book.
Nat Segaloff’s latest book is Mr. Huston/Mr. North: Life, Death, and Making John Huston’s Last Movie. It’s available in print and e-book from Amazon.com and Bear Manor Media, and as an audiobook (read by the author) from Bear Manor Media and Blackstone Audio.
Biosphere, Part I: Interviews About Writing Film Biographies, with Author Justin Bozung on Director Frank Perry
I became a biographer by accident. You might say I sort of fell into it, despite having been a film writer before embarking on my book Sidney J. Furie: Life and Films. I spent years voraciously binging on show-business biographies, through which my “stomach” for anecdotes swelled. As I got gordo on such trivia, I eagerly regurgitated this steady diet of behind-the-scenes stories at will, for whomever seemed even marginally interested, sometimes even in the presence of perfect strangers. (I could have said that my mental “library” for stories grew so overstocked that it had to outsource, but I found the dietary metaphor funnier and more apropos.)
Galvanized by the fact that I myself would need to spring into action if I wanted a book to exist on one of my filmmaking heroes – a slightly more esoteric name than the type of directors who traditionally get such coverage – I underwent a kind of baptism by fire. The book became an addiction, a passion, a quest, a crusade. I’m deliberately using very dramatic words, but they are very real to me, as is the project very near and dear to me.
I had written many articles and casual pieces about film, but had never undertaken such an epic endeavor as writing a book about film. The icing on the “cake” was, bar none, getting to know my subject as a human being and, ultimately, as a friend. By the time I delivered my full manuscript to my publisher in the summer of 2014, a strong sense of post-partum depression swept over me. Even though at that point I had lots of rigorous editing to anticipate, I wanted to do it all over again, to start again from scratch, like a child who shouts “Again!” after whirling down a water slide. I wanted to re-experience the eureka moments of finding the research materials that magically dissolved question marks – make no mistake, for any scholar or researcher, this is a drug. I wanted to re-interview Sidney’s stars and collaborators. I wanted to take those long, recorded walks with Sidney all over again. My overall involvement with the project taught my endorphins how to dance.
Deciding to just dive headfirst and right into it, I contacted filmmaker friend Henry Jaglom, asking him to put me in touch with the Perry collaborators I knew that he knew. This indeed proved fortuitous, although it certainly did not seem so at first. His response: “Sorry, Dan, I know someone working on a Frank Perry book.” Considering that Perry had rather fallen into obscurity, especially in the years since his premature death to prostate cancer (Perry's 1992 documentary On the Bridge follows him in treatment battling the cancer), I was flabbergasted. “How could that be?” I asked myself. Maybe Henry misheard or confused Perry for someone else, I first told myself. “No,” I said, “Henry’s definitely not the type to confuse directors.” When I chanced to meet Joan Micklin Silver, a filmmaker I’ve admired since childhood (I saw her masterpiece Chilly Scenes of Winter at a very young age), it seemed to be in the stars. After convincing her to work with me on a book, I sped forth on that project.
It wasn’t until this past summer that I discovered the name of my fellow Perry admirer. Enter Justin Bozung, a freelance film writer, blogger, researcher and part-time archivist, who has been working on his Perry book for the last two years, while also working on a book about the films of Norman Mailer. A bittersweet sigh: “Good,” I said to myself. “While he’s covering this never-before-covered filmmaker, I can do another filmmaker of that stripe. We’re both working for a common cause: redirecting the spotlight towards lesser known directors who deserve it.” I’m always drawn to covering directors who haven’t been given proper coverage thus far, and breaking with the scholarship monopoly that benefits a certain untouchable pantheon of artists, so I'm thrilled that Justin is doing the same with Perry.
Gam zu l’tovah, so goes the old Jewish saying. In English, we’d know it as “everything for the best.” In Jewish culture, though, the deeper meaning is “everything for a reason.” Considering the fortuitous turn of events here, that has a wisdom. The fact that I contacted Henry first, before anyone else, and then to have Henry tell me about another author covering Perry, saved me wasted time and energy. Imagine had I worked for months only to meet Justin further down the pike! Oops. So, I thought I’d present an interview I conducted with Justin, discussing his process as a biographer, as well as challenges we as biographers face when taking on new subjects – and in our case, subjects that prove to be much harder sells than doing the 127th book on Hitchcock or Welles.
Justin Bozung is a freelance film writer, blogger, researcher and part-time archivist. He has researched and contributed to two books about Stanley Kubrick and has written for such print publications as: Shock Cinema, Videoscope, Bijou, Whoa, HorrorHound, Fangoria, and Paracinema magazines. He is on the board of the Norman Mailer Society, curates the Norman Mailer Podcast Project over at ProjectMailer.net, and works with the Norman Mailer Estate as a video/audio archivist. He is the official biographer of film-maker Frank Perry. His next book Film is Like Death: The Films of Norman Mailer will be published in mid-2016.
ConFluence-Film: So, we’re both drawn to Frank Perry’s work, but for you personally, what was it about Frank Perry that called for such a work-intensive showcase as a full book?
Justin Bozung: There are many reasons why I chose to start work on a biography on Frank Perry. I guess, originally, my motive was simply to just research and write a book about Frank because, as the fan of his work that I am, I was so disturbed at the lack of information out there about him and his films. There's been nothing written about Frank to date. Originally, I had envisioned this project as a dual biography, really. I wanted to write a biography about Frank, but also his first wife, Eleanor Perry. I wanted to write it as if it were a giant X, and I'd have them intersect in the middle and then continue on down their respective paths after their divorce in the film world.
CF: Yes, Eleanor was vital in the early part of Frank’s film career, and an interesting figure herself. In researching my Joan Micklin Silver book, Joan told me that she worked with Eleanor on a number of unproduced scripts in the late seventies, some time after she divorced Frank. Digging into Eleanor a bit, I discovered that she had done things like painting over the Cannes ad billboard for Fellini’s Roma because she thought the graphic was sexist and offensive.
JB: Neither Frank nor Eleanor would've had a career or made any movies if it had not been for the other's talents. It’s important to consider that. They really complimented each other when it came to the film business, although Eleanor, in the forties, while she was still living in Cleveland, had written a series of true crime novels with her husband, who was a prominent area lawyer. They wrote these books under the pen name, Oliver Weld Bayer. In 1945, a producer bought the rights to one of their novels, and made it into a film, Dangerous Partners, with Eleanor being tasked to write the screenplay. While Eleanor had this experience under her belt, by the time she had met Frank in New York in the late fifties, she had been hyper-focused on writing for the theater, which is where Frank and Eleanor met, though Frank, by that time, had no film experience. With Frank, though, as I've researched him, and talked to some of his family and friends, I've just made many personal connections in his life with which I have identified…things that I really don't want to go into here. Frank was very passionate about working with actors; in fact, he was one of the first non-actors to be granted membership into the Actors Studio in New York to study. He was passionate about actors, and he had a knack for working with them. And he had an incredible eye for discovering talent. He discovered Cathy Burns, and he more-or-less discovered Bruce Davison. He discovered Janet Margolin to the extent that she had been known as a theater actress and not a film actress before David and Lisa (1962). Frank brought many actors to the front, who still credit him for giving them their first big break.
JB: Right! Another aspect of Frank's career that drew me in was that almost all of his work was with great novelists. He also had this incredible knack for convincing writers to allow him to adapt their works. In that way, he was a hustler. What's not to admire about that? He worked with some of the greatest literary minds of the twentieth century: Joan Didion, John Cheever, Truman Capote, etc...the list goes on and on. And that doesn't include the writers he was working with on films that he couldn't get off the ground, with amazing writers like Patricia Nell Warren and Walker Percy, for example. He had a knack for a great story, and not just a great story, but one that was really ahead of its time in terms of subject matter and point-of-view. He was very literary-minded, and I really like that about his work. Also, it really bugs me how Frank isn't quite as well-known as he should be today. Things are slowly coming around, but his legacy should be farther along than it is by now, in my opinion. So I'd like to help his family achieve that too. There's this idea, as well, that Frank's films post-divorce from Eleanor aren't as "good" as those that he made with her, and I would disagree with that notion. So, my job, really, is to sort of debunk a lot of things out there concerning his life and his films. I care about his work and his legacy, that's probably because, as I've gotten deeper into researching him, I have discovered these aspects of his life that we share between us. How we were both raised, traumas, etc.
CF: Was it easy getting the okay from the Perry estate, and were you granted immediate access to Perry's papers and archives?
JB: It was pretty easy. The challenge, of course, came in finding out who was in charge of the Perry Estate and who controlled what aspects, and all that. Frank was married three times, so there is some red tape there concerning who owns what and who is charge of what. Frank's archive with his papers sits at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. But they are currently private holdings there; which means that not just anyone can go into them to research Frank. You have to get permission from Frank's estate directly to enter, and to date, I've been the only person allowed into Frank's papers outside of any Wesleyan students who are in the film program there. Frank's papers will likely be made open to the public, but probably not until after my book is complete.
CF: Establishing trust with your subject -and/or- his/her family is crucial. I've spoken with a few other biographers about this, including Foster Hirsch, in relation to his Otto Preminger book. And Nick Dawson too, with his Hal Ashby book. Sidney Furie didn't want to know hide nor hair about any book, because he distrusts journalists...and hates walking down memory lane even more. It wasn’t until he discovered I made films myself that he finally agreed, because he loves talking shop with fellow makers – and eventually, we became best buds. It’s one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever gotten. Joan Micklin Silver, ditto. How was that for you, and what tips would you personally give other authors in going about doing this?
JB: Well, as I mentioned, originally I wanted to do a dual biography about Frank and Eleanor Perry. That went by the wayside when I exchanged a couple emails with Eleanor's son, who today, is a pretty well-known writer. He was really cold on the idea of a book about Frank and Eleanor, in fact, he even suggested that their work wasn't even important to film history.
CF: That's just so absurd to me.
JB: Yeah. So, with no support from Eleanor's family, that left me to focus on Frank, which is disappointing to me, as I had wanted Eleanor to have a major role in the book, now she's barely there on the page. It isn't right, because she did have a major role in those early films. I mean, she wrote them! Frank and Eleanor's divorced in 1971, even though they sort of stayed friendly, made her slightly bitter over how it all turned out.
Frank went on to make more films, and Eleanor was alienated as a female screenwriter in Hollywood. She was profilic with projects that went into purgatory or turn around in Hollywood. She wanted to direct. She was slated to direct a western: The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973), but in the end she was screwed over on that, and the script was re-hashed by another writer after she was fired over conflicts with the producer of the film. In the end she was bitter about how Hollywood treated her, and so much so that she wrote a book about her relationship with Frank at the end of the seventies which also took big stabs at Hollywood and the treatment of the screenwriter, in particular, the female screenwriter. And the book really hurt Frank's feelings to boot! So I think her son's lack of interest in wanting a book written about his mom really has more to do with his concern about not wanting old wounds opened up.
With Frank's estate, they were sort of on the fence at first, but not because they didn't feel the same way about Frank's legacy as I did – only because they didn't know who I was, or where I came from. So it took a few phone calls and some discussions about Frank and his work with his longtime personal assistant turned producer, his ex-wife and her son – who are both executors of his estate. We talked about Frank and his films and why I felt compelled to write the book in the first place. Who would publish it? When would it be done? What would my focus be? Would I dish any dirt? They asked to see previous work that I had done too. I sent them magazine articles and interviews that I had written and done prior. I sent them a manuscript for a book about Kubrick's The Shining that I had just finished working on at the time. Once we had talked a few times, and they had read my previous work, they felt comfortable in giving me permission to access his papers and they decided to help on the project in any way that I asked them to.
CF: What are the most valuable resource you've had at your disposal so far?
JB: Never trust a writer who doesn't use the library.
CF: Absolutely! I must have spent weeks at AMPAS's Margaret Herrick Library alone, not to mention the pertinent university and institutional libraries!
JB: And writers shouldn't forget to access the obvious too! Look on websites like eBay for materials or on iOffer. It doesn't happen every day, but on some days, you'll be lucky and find a weird, obscure magazine that was only published for a handful of years that may feature an interview with your subject that you didn't even now about prior in your research. Cross-check bibliographies at your library, and then hunt down missing magazine articles on sites like Abebooks or Alibris. I've found actual scripts to Frank's films online for sale---scripts that aren't even available in Frank's archives at Wesleyan. When hunting for scripts use Scriptfly or Scriptcity in Los Angeles. If you find a script that you need for your project, one that will aid you in your research, you can buy it, and in 24-hours they'll email you it in PDF or they'll ship you hard copy. Use the Internet, but at the same time don't limit your research to the internet exclusively. If you do, you will fail. There is a wealth of information out there online, but it needs to be cross-checked and verified.
CF: Yes, I’ve encountered a great deal of apocryphal information about Sidney and Joan in researching my own books. The most hysterical one, one that sent Sidney up in stitches, was that Charles Eastman wound up directing the rest of Little Fauss and Big Halsy after Sidney left the production. In the first place, Sidney never left the production, nor was the shooting ever at any point tumultuous, let alone to the extent that anyone would have walked off. In the second place, Sidney only met Eastman once, in producer Al Ruddy’s office, with two bull mastiff dogs. He was a hands-off writer and, once turning in his script, never was heard from again on that production. So, nonsense in print, for sure. Then there was one I read that Michael Caine visited the set of The Appaloosa, where Brando told him that Sidney couldn’t even direct traffic. From Michael Caine’s lips: “That’s a load of rubbish. I was never on that set even for a second.” But of course this gets printed in a book and it has a deleterious affect on public perception, and then make way for the nonsense stories getting reprinted. Part of our job is often to debunk myths that are comprised of sexy, "juicy" but fundamentally untrue stories.
JB: Yes, that happens more than people know. Frank's archive at Wesleyan has certainly gifted me with a lot of information I need for my book on him, but there are huge gaps in his chronology as well. So, it has been very important to me to get out there and talk to as many people as I can concerning Frank and his work. I've done over 150 hours of interviews in relationship to the book project to date, and I anticipate to double that time before its all said and done. I don't think one can write a book in under three years, at least, a book that I'd ever take seriously. So the interviews are extremely important, if not, even more important than my access to Frank's archive. There is just too much to be explored, and as with everything I try to do, personally, I want my work to represent something of a definitive nature regarding the topic. I find that setting out to "leave no stone unturned" will only leave stones unturned. When I'm researching something--when I feel as if I've cracked the "case," I stop and take a break for a couple weeks. I start looking at something else, because, at a point, your mind tires and you need to re-set, it becomes difficult to see everything. It never fails me. Once you've taken the break and then return to your subject, you will always find things that you missed the first time around.
CF: Yes, on the Furie book, I had the privilege of jumping between writing the book and also prepping, shooting and then editing my feature film Raise Your Kids on Seltzer, which likewise took years to reach completion. I've accounted to many people how that rhythm helped clear my head, on not just the one project, but both projects. It's a routine I hope to maintain: balancing the writing of a book with the making of a film.
JB: And, plus, it's always interesting to see how things you experience in that break alter your perception of your subject later on as you're following up on them in the second round of research or study.
CF: Absolutely! Now, you and I both agree that Perry isn't nearly as well-known or admired as he should be by cineastes, scholars, and cinephiles. Like my own subjects Furie and Silver, Perry is either ignored or forgotten, despite his strides as a relatively powerful, prodigious independent producer-director. What specifically has challenged you in the writing and research process so far, with this in mind?
There are no such things as bad filmmakers or bad films. Of course, I have the same post-modernist programming that most of us have. There are times when I watch a film, and I may not always enjoy it, but it’s in those moments that I realize that it's not important what I thought about the film, its my job only to find something in the film that is great, as a film lover. In those moments, you'll always discover something of merit that will re-set your mind and allow you see things in a completely different light pertaining to that particular work of art, or in this case, the work of a filmmaker.
CF: I wish I could be like that, but alas, I can be fairly tempestuous when it comes to my "problem" films and filmmakers, but that's actually just the filmmaker in me coming out...always the "backseat driver" thing. It's a curse that a few of my filmmaker friends have as well.
JB: With Frank, I'm still working on the project. I'm only still working on the book because I took twelve months off because of a legal problem concerning my use of materials from the archive in my book. I decided that if I couldn't use anything from his archive, then I wasn't going to do the book on him in the first place. But that's been cleared up now, and it took all this time to straighten it out really. In that time away, I took an opportunity to work on another book project, a book about Norman Mailer's films that will be out next year through a major publisher. With Frank, there are, as I said, huge gaps in his story that I haven't even been able to put those together just yet. The parts of the book that are done or about done, thus far, are sections where I've got a wealth information pertaining to certain films in his oeuvre. I mean, I've got huge gaps pertaining to Ladybug, Ladybug (1963) because many of the actors from the film are either dead, were one-time child actors and not current in the business, or are not interested in talking about the film because it was such a flop for United Artists and/or are writing memoirs that talk about the making of the film, like actor William Daniels. I still have lots of gaps pertaining to his teen years, his time in the military, his time at college, and a couple other films as well.
CF: I quite like Ladybug Ladybug. I saw it for the first time last year and couldn’t understand why critics shot it down. It's a lovely piece of work, beautifully made and, in my opinion, one of the best nuclear scare films of the era. What are you favorite Perry films?
JB: I'm partial to Last Summer and Play It As it Lays (1972).
CF: I’m a really big fan of Play It As It Lays! I always thought it would make a brilliant, ideal double feature with Jerry Schatzberg’s masterpiece Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970).
JB: And I love David and Lisa. David and Lisa doesn't get the respect it should. It was one of the first independently-made films to be nominated for an Academy Award, and it deserves respect and awe for where it fits into the historical landscape of American independent film. I mean its right up there as far as earlier indies go with Shadows (1959). I love Compromising Positions (1985). I love all of his work though. I'm even wowed by his epic three-hour TV pilot Skag (1980), which starred Karl Malden and Piper Laurie.
CF: Yes, we discussed Compromising Positions one-on-one some time back. I admire that one greatly, and feel it is criminally underrated and unjustly forgotten. It's a perfect and quite apt companion to the earlier Diary of a Mad Housewife, complete with the odious Edward Herrmann character, the officially "out to lunch" husband. Are there any Perry films you champion that might have bombed with critics and audiences on initial release, but deserve a second look?
JB: Again, I like them all. I don't think there is a "bad" film in the lot. Certainly, certain Perry films have their detractors. Certainly, Compromising Positions is one that not a lot of people like, even though when it was released, it did well with the critics, and was used to suggest that Frank was sort of "returning to form" or back on his "game" after coming off of a couple TV movies. I think its a bit ahead of its time. It's certainly a revisionist take on the detective genre, even though it apes classic film noir visually in certain moments. Also it has a pre-Desperate Housewives kind of thing going on in it. It tackles the second-wave of Women's Lib that came in late seventies and early eighties. I do like Hello Again (1987) as well. If there is one Frank Perry film that everyone seems to think is a stinker it would be that one. I think it's really quirky and funny. At its core, it really is a Bride of Frankenstein meets the screwball comedy from the '30s. Can't you just image someone like Katharine Hepburn in that Shelley Long role? Or a Lucille Ball? Frank even references Bride of Frankenstein in the visuals of Hello Again. Watch for that great shot of Shelley Long after her sister "Zelda" has brought her back from the grave in the cemetery. She's dressed in that long, all-white dress and white elbow gloves. She's framed identically as to how James Whale framed Elsa Lanchester as The Bride after she's just been created and unveiled for the first time on screen. It really is a goofy screwball comedy.
It's almost something out of the Theater of the Absurd, which of course, was designed to produce comedies of manners that not just explore the human condition but the state of human relationships in contemporary sociological terms. Had Hello Again been released in black-and-white people would likely look upon the film differently. Again, it goes back to what Arneheim said about perspective. But there are many films like that.
CF: Yes, I never thought that Hello Again was nearly as “bad” as critics made it out to be, though it's certainly not a favorite Perry film for me. And your observation about Hepburn and Ball is really on-point. I’m a big fan of Rancho Deluxe. I find it one of the great unheralded films of the seventies.
JB: Yeah, with Hello Again, Disney/Touchstone really put their foot down on Frank during the shooting. It wasn't a good experience for him. Shelley certainly wasn't Frank's first choice for the film, but because she had ties at Disney, because she had made them money with Outrageous Fortune (1987), they insisted that Frank cast her in the lead role. In the end, Disney had too much input into the film itself, and into Susan Isaac's script, and Susan sort of gave in to their demands regarding the changes they were requesting. Susan's original script for Hello Again is hilarious. The film as it stands now, is also really hacked up from a editorial perspective as well. But, still, in its current state, it's a funny screwball comedy in the spirit of those classic Hollywood films of the '30s and '40s.
CF: Mommie Dearest? I would have been conflicted covering that film, if I had been the one to do the Frank Perry book. Would I or could I indulge the “so bad it’s good” crowd, who love it for its camp value, or would I forge my own path?
JB: Mommie Dearest is another of Frank's films that I feel really has been run under the bus. While, it's become this campy cult classic, I really don't see the film through that lens. I don't see Faye's performance as being over-the-top either.
CF: You’re not going to believe this, but I totally agree. From everything I’ve been led to understand about the real Joan Crawford, I can’t help but think that Faye Dunaway’s performance is pretty on-target, though I can still nonetheless totally understand why the camp crowd has a blast with it. But I think the acting and direction are pretty courageous and audacious in that film. I don't even call the scene with the wire hangers "the wire hanger scene." I refer to it in my own head as the Kabuki theater scene, considering Dunaway's face-cream makeup.
JB: Again, I think, it's a film that would've been better suited for black-and-white. There's something about color film that conflicts with American film audiences, whereas in a way, it portrays an attempt at reality, and when that reality is segmented or skewed, it really inflicts harm on how we understand that relationship to reality itself, as if a film in color is actually a version of reality. We remember films as if the stories happened to us personally in a way. And there are critics who argue that the film isn't faithful to the book by Christina Crawford as well. Truth be told, Frank Perry and Frank Yablans based their screenplay on not just the Crawford book, but on other sources as well. One book that they were big on was Conversations with Joan Crawford. That was a huge influence on their screenplay. I don't see what Faye Dunway did in that film as being anything different that what Joan Crawford was in something like Strait-Jacket (1964) for example. She was an actress with a Capital "A." Faye's performance is really amazing in the film. I think it's a brilliant film that has a ingenious structure from a narrative perspective, great performances, a lush, old Hollywood-sounding Henry Mancini score, and brilliant direction. Faye and Frank had a good relationship with each other too, certainly they have worked with each other before on 'Doc' (1971), another brilliant Perry film.
CF: Has anything truly interesting, noteworthy or unpredictable happened amid your investigation into Perry's life?
JB: I mean, isn't it all interesting? Certainly it's all noteworthy, and as in all life, rarely predictable. There are aspects to Frank's story that are shocking. Certainly, he earned no points during the Frank and Eleanor Perry divorce, certainly he had a history of not looking back, leaving people important to his life and the sucess of his films in the dust after he didn't need them anymore. His story is tragic on a few levels, awe-inspiring on others, because he was a go-getter. He was self-created. He was independent in the sense that he worked out of New York and that prevented studio interference on much of his work. But make no mistake, his pictures were financed by the studios. They are studio films, and in a weird way, made independently. His childhood was painful, his final years were painful and sad too. He left us too early certainly. One can revel in his guts and audacity as a filmmaker, and also one hopefully will feel a great empathy toward him after his story is completed by me. He was a big personality. That's something that no one really knows about him. Those that knew him well always remember, all these year later, after he's been gone, now for 20 years, as a big personality.
CF: Do you have ideas about how to promote the book considering the slightly more esoteric nature of the subject? I've had to contend a great deal myself with this.
JB: Not sure what to say about this. I suppose it's foolish of me to not care about this stuff. But I really don't. I know that doesn't answer your question. I guess it is a cliché for me to suggest that, but its how I feel. I don't work on my projects because I want to be famous or well-known. I don't work on my projects because I want to do anything except explore the subject as it satisfies my own desires for learning and knowledge. The book is almost secondary, really. In the end, I guess I'm really asking a question: What does it matter how you promote your book? What is the means or the goal in doing such? In this day and age, there are no publishing advances for writers. Unless you're a celebrity who is writing a tell-all, forget about it.
CF: Yes, I wrote my book on Sidney purely out of love. When it was released, the onus of promotion was thrust upon me, and my publisher encouraged that I get my hands dirty, which I gladly obliged. I definitely want people to read it, though, and desperately want audiences, new and old, to see the films covered in the book again, so I guess it’s a necessary evil. I’m pushing pushing pushing for people to pick it up, and hoping Sidney gets some mileage out of it. I’m 101% doing it for him more than anything. Sidney himself and his films are very important to me.
JB: Yes, my interest is in film, so be interested in film. If your work is any good, then it will find an audience. If not, who cares? It's not like you're going to retire a successful film book writer, right? Do you think Jonathan Rosenbaum is living in a lavish pad in Chicago counting his royalties from his film books? No, but he's one of the great film minds of the twentieth century. That's what Rosenbaum will be remembered for when he's gone some day. Write the book for you. Leave the marketing up to your publisher. If you're worried about marketing yourself, then you're probably working toward the wrong thing in the first place. Rudolph Arneheim probably wasn't concerned with being famous or selling books, so I don't think anyone else should be. At least, if you're a serious film person, that is.
CF: Thanks for taking the time to talk with ConFluence-Film Blog, Justin! I personally look forward to your Frank Perry book with great anticipation.
Justin also took time discuss the “art” of the interview:
“I've studied, quite a bit, the work of filmmaker/journalist/photographer Lawrence Schiller, who is probably the greatest interviewer in the history of the world. If you want to learn how to interview anyone, study his interview tactics and his overall body of work. He's a genius. I'm lucky enough to know him, as he and I are both involved in the Estate of Norman Mailer, and I've had the opportunity to interview him about interviewing people. When Larry Schiller tells you you're a good interviewer, you know you're on the right track!
“Interviewing someone, though – the key is to do your research. Don't wait to talk, don't be stuck in your questions. I've gone into interviews with no questions, and I've gone in with one hundred questions. The key is listening. Also, I try to establish some sort of personal connection with my interview subject prior to firing questions at them. I try to make them comfortable. I try to keep it conversational. I want it to be like two old friends talking together. Try to get a good idea of that person's mood in the first couple minutes of talking with them and adjust your approach based around that. Do the research, don't ask questions they've been asked a zillion times prior. Avoid clichéd questions. Read previous interviews with them, see where the previous interviewer faltered, and cover his tracks on your own. Also ask follow-ups to the questions that they were asked in previous interviews. I don't mind open-ended questions, but you need to be careful with them because often times you won't walk away with the answer you need or are looking for, so if you do choose to go in with open-ended questions, be prepared to ask specific follow-ups within their response. Don't be afraid to go after what you're trying to find out. Respect your subject, and don't waste your subjects time either. Keep it fun and respect their art. Know your topic too! Don't interview a first assistant director if you don't know what a first A.D. does on a film set! Respect their craft. Go after what you want, otherwise you won't get it. Don't ask questions you already know the answers too either. It's just a waste of time for all involved. Don't hog their time, be grateful that they agreed to talk with you in the first place, and never believe that you're entitled to their time either because you're sitting down with them, or have them on the phone.”