Biosphere, Part II: Interviews About Writing Film Biographies, with Veteran Biographer Nat Segaloff

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 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 and Bear Manor Media, and as an audiobook (read by the author) from Bear Manor Media and Blackstone Audio.

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