Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Commentary Tracks - The Manchurian Candidate

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) with director John Frankenheimer

On the opening scene
This scene that we're looking at here was shot day for night in Franklin Canyon, Los Angeles, and this was supposed to be Korea. The reason we shot it day for night was that we wanted to do the titles over this. Now in one of the previews we actually tried to do the titles over this scene and the subsequent scene, which is about to come up, and the audience was terribly confused, they just didn't have the faintest idea what happened. So the next night we brought the workprint up to San Francisco, which is where we were, and we previewed it with no titles over all this, and it suddenly became very clear to the audience what was happening. With titles over all this scene here, you didn't really know that the patrol was being captured, and if you didn't know that the patrol was being captured and was subsequently being taken to Manchuria, you had no idea what this movie was about.

On casting Frank Sinatra
George [Axelrod] had heard that Frank Sinatra wanted to do this picture. The next day George called Sinatra and he did have a tremendous interest in it. We went down to see Sinatra in Florida where he was singing at the Fontainebleau Hotel, and on the way down George had said to me, “Look, the one thing he must not do is get into any kind of prolonged discussion, anything that would make him think that he didn't want to do this movie.” I said, “Don't worry about it.” So we arrived and knocked on Sinatra's door. He opened it and there was this great smile on his face, and he said, “God, I just can't wait to do your movie.” So we knew that anything we said from then on would hurt us, and we said nothing practically, except how thrilled we were to be there, and we went back the next day and said, “We've got Frank.” And that got the whole project together.

On the nightmare/brainwashing sequence
Now this dream sequence, that's coming up here, presented many, many problems, because it's through this dream and the James Edwards character's dream that you learn what happened to these men. What I had to do here was really show the brainwashing. The idea for this came right out of Richard Condon's book, which stated that the men thought they were at a garden club party in a hotel in New Jersey. The idea was to go 360 degrees around here, and the way we did that, to get this feeling that they're in the Manchurian amphitheatre, was that this part of the stage was on a railroad track with the front of the hotel lobby, which was on the same railroad track. As the camera panned off the hotel lobby and was going around the room, the stagehands just pushed the other set right into place and the actors ran around from one set and jumped into the other. Then this was a completely different set here, the Manchurian amphitheatre. We filmed this scene with about six different combinations. We filmed it with the soldiers on the New Jersey stage with the woman and with the Chinese psychiatrist; we filmed it in the Manchurian amphitheatre with the Chinese psychiatrist and with the woman; with the woman with the dignitaries, and the woman with the women; with the Chinese psychiatrist with the dignitaries and the Chinese psychiatrist with the women. So the combinations were endless and we put it all together in the editing room, although we had no idea how we were going to edit it when we shot it. That we being I, really.

On the karate fight
Now this next scene, this karate fight, was a scene that Frank Sinatra looked forward to doing from the moment that he read the script. He practised for it, he got himself an artificial hand, and we staged it and shot it really fairly quickly. It was the first big karate fight ever done on film, to the best of my knowledge. The problem is that Henry Silva, the actor whom we had playing Chunjin, was actually left-handed and we couldn't stage the fight with him being left-handed, so we had to make him do everything from the opposite side, which was a bit of a problem. It's one of the first times, as I say, that this had been done, and it got criticised at the time for being very brutal. Looking at it today, it's hardly anything compared to what you'd see even in a family movie.

On watching the film abroad
About three years after I made this movie I was in Europe, filming The Train, and I had some time off from that picture and I was asked to go and do publicity for another movie I'd made called Seven Days in May. One of the stops was Athens, and I had never been to Greece before. Anyway, I got to the hotel and the United Artists representative said to me, “You must come and see your movie The Manchurian Candidate. It's playing at this huge amphitheatre right in the middle of Athens, way up on a hill. You get up there and you see all of Athens below you, there are five thousand people that come to every showing of the movie, and you will just be overwhelmed by it. So indeed I went to the movie, I went into this amphitheatre, and it was huge, it was all the things that the guy said it was. I was sitting way down at the bottom and I could see the whole screen, and up at the top – way, way up – was the projection booth, separated from where I was by about 200 steps. I was also a very heavy smoker at the time, which has something to do with this story. As the film was playing there came a time when the reels changed, and this movie was on what we call 'double reels'. It came time for this section of the movie to come up, and this I believe it reel four. Suddenly, instead of this whole section of the movie, on comes reel five! In other words, this section that you're looking at now – he skipped! Well, I was hysterical. I ran out of my seat, I grabbed the Greek interpreter with me, and we ran up 200 steps to the projection booth, wildly out of breath but so obsessed and driven by this. I said, “Tell him that he skipped reel four!” The man is saying this in Greek and the projectionists starts to laugh. He says something back, and I said, “What's he laughing about? What did he say?” He said, “He always skips reel four. He feels that the picture plays much better without reel four, that reel four doesn't really make any sense, and this way he gets another showing.” Well, I don't know what to tell you. I was just so shocked! And that's what they did every night!

On Raymond walking into the lake
Now in the scene you're about to see, where he goes outside and walks into Central Park, it was probably the coldest day that New York had had in thirty years. We had to film this shot of Laurence Harvey going into the lake and the ice on the lake was about a foot thick. Starting at five o'clock in the morning we had bulldozers and shovels trying to cut holes in that ice, and he went in on take one. It was absolutely amazing, he just kept going. It was so cold we had one of these cameras freeze up, but he kept going, he went into the water. He was staying at the Plaza Hotel, so he went back, soaking wet, covered with towels and so forth, and people were looking at him going into his room; “Oh my God, that poor man has had an accident.” Twenty minutes later he came out of his room dressed as a priest for another scene in this movie, it was unbelievable, people couldn't understand what this man was doing in this hotel. But this was unbelievably cold, as you're about to see, but he went in there. This was the shot, we had three cameras on this thing, and there it is. You have no idea how cold that it, just look how thick that ice is.

On the murder of Senator Jordan and his daughter
This scene presented a tremendous challenge to me. In other words, I've got so many bodies in this movie, it became a tremendous challenge to figure out how to get rid of them all, how to kill them. I didn't want to see blood all over the place, so I thought, this is the perfect guy, this is the good man, the pure man, and I thought I'd go over-the-top and shoot him through the milk and see how that all worked, see if I could get away with it. Again, it's a low angle on Raymond, showing the American eagle, the whole thing. If you take it shot by shot it's a little bit over the top. And this [killing Jocelyn] had to be quick. This next thing had to be quick and, not disgusting, but terribly final. Again, that's an 18mm lens with those bodies big in the foreground.

On Sinatra's first take
It's important to know that Frank Sinatra was a man who really was better on the first take. It wasn't a question of the fact that he would only do one take, as rumour has it sometimes, he was just better on the first take. This scene coming up is his most dramatic scene in the picture, and he had great anxiety about doing it. On his close-up, which you'll see, he did it magnificently on take one. When we looked at the daily rushes the next day, Frank Sinatra was out of focus and his Major Leaves were in focus. I was devastated, it's the longest walk I have ever taken, from the projection room to Frank Sinatra's dressing room, to tell him this. He was in tears because he knew how good he'd been in the scene. He said, “What do you want to do?” I said, “Well, we're going to have to re-shoot.” The first time we went to re-shoot it Frank got laryngitis, he was so nervous about having to re-do it. We couldn't shoot. We scheduled a re-shoot again, we did it, it wasn't good. We shot it again, we did like ten takes, it was never good. This is the shot right here. And I didn't know what to do. I was alone in the cutting room putting this movie together, I tried all of the other stuff and finally I said, to hell with it, put the out-of-focus shot in. A lot of people including the editor argued vociferously not to do it, but I said, “His performance is much better in this shot. Put it in.” Well, I can't tell you the great reviews I got as being a genius to use the brainwashed man's point of view of this out-of-focus man. Everybody thought it was Larry Harvey's point of view, everybody thought that this was on purpose, and in reality it was the assistant cameraman's fault.
Bits and Pieces

I think the important thing to remember about this movie is that it was turned down by every studio in Hollywood.

David Amram, who does the music for this movie, had done some television for me, and had done another movie for me called The Young Savages. The only other movie to the best of my knowledge that he did was Kazan's movie Splendour in the Grass. He's basically a classical composer.

As you watch this movie just be aware of the fact that a lot of the scenes were shot with wide-angle lenses in real locations. It's a style that I had developed in live television and had used to a greater or lesser degree in The Young Savages, The Birdman of Alcatraz and All Fall Down, the movies I had done before this. But really, in this film I did it almost continually. 

Incidentally, this whole business of hydrangeas, I said to George Axelrod, “Look George, we have to have a whole speech here that's going to enable me to get this camera to go 360 degrees around this room, and I need a lot of words.” He asked what I wanted the speech to be about and I said, “Well, she's talking about hydrangeas so obviously the speech has to be about hydrangeas.” He said, “Dear boy, I know nothing about hydrangeas. However, you shall have your speech!” So what he did was he got a seed catalogue and he copied the seed catalogue word-for-word, and that's what we have here. 

Here's an interesting fact about this actor here, Joe Adams. This was one of the first instances where a black actor or an African-American actor was cast in a part that specifically didn't say that the character was black. We weren't trying to win any great causes, it's just that we decided we wanted to do that.

You know, a lot of things have been said about this movie, but the thing that I really care about is that it was the first movie to take on Senator McCarthy. Don't forget this movie was made very soon after McCarthy, and the whole blacklist was still a factor in making movies and still a factor in everybody's life in showbusiness.

Now this is the black guy's version of the same dream, his dream of the same event. Now the idea was to have the whole audience be black women, because that's the way he would dream it, we thought. If you look carefully in the background there's a white bellboy – see it? Nobody ever picked that up, incidentally. It was my own private joke, I guess you'd say. Throwing the blood on Stalin was just an idea I had while we were shooting the scene.

Angela Lansbury, in my previous picture All Fall Down, had played Warren Beatty and Brandon deWilde's mother, and I wanted her very badly for this movie. Frank Sinatra had wanted Lucille Ball and we had a discussion about it, and I must say Sinatra was very gracious. He didn't have to, but he put a lot of faith in me and let me cast whoever I wanted, and when I showed him All Fall Down it was just a cinch that Angela should play the mother. The funny thing about it is, when she did this she was only two years older than Laurence Harvey.

Now the trick here was, how does Sinatra find Laurence Harvey? We couldn't come up with it. Finally one day I said to George Axelrod, “Foreign Correspondent,” and we both knew exactly what was meant by that. In Foreign Correspondent, Joel McCrea finds where the Nazis are in this mass of windmills because all the windmills are going in one direction, except for the one where the spy's radio is, which is going in the other direction because it's electrically powered. Today they call such a thing an homage, but in those days I'd call it a rip-off. I have to admit to the fact that I ripped off Hitchcock here because all the lights dim, except for one, Raymond Shaw's light does not dim and that's how Sinatra finds out where he is.

Final Thoughts
Like most scenes in this picture, Frank shot that one in one take. We shot the whole picture in 41 days, and it was probably one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

God's Own Country

The first time we see Johnny Saxby (Josh O'Connor) in God's Own Country, he's hunched over the toilet bowl, throwing up the previous night's booze. This, we soon learn, is not an unusual occurrence. Ever since his father (Ian Hart) suffered a debilitating stroke, Johnny has been running the family’s farm almost single-handed, and his few hours of freedom are spent drinking himself into oblivion and picking up men for fleeting sexual encounters. When one of them suggests meeting up for a drink some time and furthering their relationship, Johnny scoffs and drives away. There’s no emotional connection in these meetings for him. They’re simply a form of release.

Johnny is clearly a young man in need of a release. His body is coiled and hunched, and he trudges through the fields scowling, with his head down. Josh O'Connor's withdrawn but wonderfully physical performance expresses all of his resentment, frustration and repression through the way he moves, and one of the joys of watching God's Own Country is seeing him unfurl and grow over the course of the movie, until he appears to be an entirely different person, yet recognisably the same.

The catalyst for this transformation is Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a migrant worker hired for a week to help lighten Johnny's burden. Johnny reacts to this outsider with suspicion – dismissing the Romanian as a “gypsy” - but when they spend a few nights together alone on the mountain, where they have been sent to mend a fence and birth the lambs, the relationship between them gradually shifts into a quiet tolerance, an easy companionship, and then a sudden explosion of passion.

Comparisons between God's Own Country and Brokeback Mountain are as prevalent as they are reductive, and I don't wish to belabour the point, but as I watched Francis Lee's film I was put in mind of that story – not the 2005 adaptation, as such, but the original short story by Annie Proulx. “The room stank of semen and smoke and sweat and whiskey,” she writes, “of old carpet and sour hay, saddle leather, shit and cheap soap.” As admirable as it was, Ang Lee's production could never come close to capturing such an evocative sense of post-coital intimacy, but Francis Lee invests his film with a wonderful tactility and earthiness. Johnny and Gheorghe's first coupling, as they grapple in the mud, feels raw and urgent, but it's the more tender touches that fix themselves in the memory. Johnny's first instinct is to reach for Gheorghe's cock, but Gheorghe repeatedly stops him and instead brings up his hand to caress his cheek, encouraging him to let down his guard and give in to his emotions. The moment works beautifully because Lee has already allowed us to see  Gheorghe's nurturing instinct as we watched him at work, whether he's tending to a newborn lamb or offering Johnny his gloves as they build a stone wall. Lee uses work as an expression of character.

The two leads are wonderful together, but it's a perfect ensemble. Ian Hart is stoic and moving as the gruff patriarch whose power has been diminished by a series of strokes, while Gemma Jones gives a brilliantly subtle display as the grandmother who sees and understands more than she lets on. Both actors have a moment in which they reveal hitherto concealed emotions, and both of these moments are underplayed to heart-wrenching effect. This is Francis Lee's feature debut but he handles it with unerring confidence and skill. He began his career in front of the camera and he clearly knows how to work wonders with actors, just as he clearly understands this land and the lives that are lived upon it. God's Own Country may follow some conventions of the romantic drama, but every scene is invested with a sense of authenticity and passion that ensured I spent much of the final third yearning for a Hollywood ending to emerge in the midst of the Yorkshire Dales, having been drawn so completely into the lives of these people.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Detroit

The riots that exploded in Detroit in July 1967 left 43 people dead, thousands injured and incarcerated, and with large chunks of the city reduced to smouldering ruins. When approaching events this vast and complex, which story do you choose to tell? Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal begin their new film Detroit by taking a macro view. The film opens with a montage based on Jacob Lawrence's Migration series of paintings, explaining the movement of black people from the south to the north in search of work, and how racial tensions subsequently developed in cities such as this.

It's a surprisingly lyrical opening for a film distinguished by the blunt force of its violence and for its escalating tension, which is achieved through the sharp editing of William Goldenberg and Harry Yoon, and Barry Ackroyd's nervy, responsive cinematography; but Bigelow isn't completely averse to finding grace notes amid the violence. When Larry Reed (Algee Smith), the lead singer of up-and-coming R&B group The Dramatics, learns that the concert they were set to perform in has been cancelled on police advice, just before they go on stage, he walks out onto the stage anyway. Picking up the microphone, he sings a solo number, his voice echoing around the now-empty auditorium, and then the camera catches the mixture of emotions on his face as he imagines doing that in front of an audience that is now running home through the battle-scarred streets. He savours the moment, and so should we, because such tender interludes are in short supply as the film progresses.

Bigelow does a good job of showing us how the riot was sparked by a police raid on an unlicensed club while simultaneously introducing us to the key players. As Larry and his bandmates run to the sanctuary of the Algiers Motel, we meet Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), a quiet, conscientious security guard who we see drinking coffee with the National Guard when shots are heard from the direction from Algiers. Among the first responders to the scene are three policemen – Krauss (Will Poulter), Demens (Jack Reynor) and Flynn (Ben O’Toole) – who had been introduced earlier in the film through Kraus shooting a fleeing looter in the back, the groceries under his arms spilling onto the street as he ran for his life. That man ended up dying a couple of blocks away under a car. Krauss was informed that he'd face a murder charge, and then he walked out of the police station and headed for the Algiers.

Although the title Detroit suggests an overview of the riots that engulfed the city, the filmmakers are primarily interested in what happened at the Algiers. For the whole middle section of the film we rarely venture outside this building. The police and the National Guard move in, pull the residents out into the hallway (five black men and two young white women who had been partying with them) and subject them to a long night of brutal physical and psychological abuse aimed at revealing the whereabouts of a sniper rifle that we already know doesn't exist. Led by Krauss, the police strike the men with their fists, boots and the butts of their rifles, baiting them into a response – at one point, Flynn offers one of them his knife, encouraging him to defend himself. The torture escalates until they begin taking individuals into separate rooms and firing shots to make the others believe that they are going to execute suspects in cold blood if one of them doesn't give up the information they want.

It's hard to fault Bigelow's staging of this sequence. She gets in tight to the characters, allowing us to feel their overwhelming fear and confusion, making us see the impact of every blow administered by the leering cops. The sequence is claustrophobic, repulsive and agonising; it must last for something like an hour of screen time but it feels twice that. Her depiction is entirely convincing but ultimately that's all it feels like – a depiction. There's little to be gleaned from watching this aside from how appalling it all is, and Boal's screenplay fails to give us any insight into the characters' actions or, in some cases, their inaction. The figures who seemed to be set up as the ostensible leads are only given a single note to play. Krauss is very much the villain of the piece, and while Poulter relishes his scene-stealing opportunity, his work has little shading (I was much more intrigued by the casual, understated sadism of O'Toole's Flynn), while Boyega can't do much with such a passive character.

We see Boyega two more times after the motel ordeal is finally over; once when Dismukis is brought in and interrogated as a suspect, and later at the trial when the officers are cleared of all charges. We are told in the closing text that he faced death threats following his involvement in the Algiers incident, but the trial eats up so much of the film's muddled final third he, like many of the characters, feels thrown away. The only one whose story we continue to follow is Larry Reed, who finds he can no longer make music for white audiences to enjoy and gravitates towards the church, where he can sing with his own people. It's the closest thing the film has to a satisfying character arc, but it doesn't feel like enough. Bigelow and Boal have chosen to focus on exploring one incident in excruciatingly close detail, but in doing so it feels like they have lost sight of the bigger picture.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Commentary Tracks - Deliverance

Deliverance (1972) with director John Boorman

On casting
Originally, the studio said, “Look, we'll do this picture if you can find two stars.” So I went out and found two stars. Then the studio said, “Well, it's going to cost too much with these two stars so you'd better go and make it really cheaply with unknown actors.” So I went all over America looking for actors in theatres, and I found two, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox. Neither of them had ever made a film or done television or anything. But I couldn't really find unknowns to fill the two main roles and so I got onto [Jon] Voight, and Voight resisted the picture. He had just made a film called The All-American Boy and it was a mess, he was trying to salvage it. He was thinking about giving up acting. I eventually persuaded him to do the role and he said I saved his life, and then spent three months trying to kill him. Then I went to Burt [Reynolds] and fortunately I didn't know, coming from the outside, that Burt had done three TV series that were unsuccessful. I didn't know anything about that so I put him in the picture.

On the music
You'll see in the first sequence of the film, the two cars with the canoes come up to a little filling station, and there they encounter this boy who seems to be retarded. He plays a banjo and Ronny Cox, with his guitar, they play this Duelling Banjos, which is a traditional piece, and that was always written into the script. But the studio demanded that I still cut more out of the budget. I'd intended to use Duelling Banjos as a theme through the film, so I decided to dump the composer and the orchestra and use Duelling Banjos as the entire score. I spent two hours in a recording studio with a banjo picker and a guitarist and we recorded the whole thing. When the picture opened I tried to persuade Warner Records to bring a record out and the head of the Warner Records gave me this lecture. He said, “Let me tell you something about the music business. This is not rock and roll. If radio stations don't play it, it won't be successful. It's not rock and roll, it's not middle of the road and it's not country music, so nobody's going to play it.” I persuaded them to bring it out in a small test area and it turned out that every radio station played it, and it became a number one record. It's become famous, of course. Whenever anybody finds themselves in a dark wood or a savage river, they hum that tune.

On James Dickey
We did a lot of rehearsal and a lot of training, because they had to learn to canoe, and archery and so forth. During that period of training James Dickey, who wrote the novel, a wonderful poet and an intimidating man, I invited him to come up to the rehearsals in Clayton, Georgia. He drank a lot and he really spooked the actors because he insisted on calling them by the characters they were playing. When I first went to meet Dickey he took me to one side and said, “I'm gonna tell you something I've never told a living soul. Everything in that boat happened – to me.” Well, I was so shocked, you know, and I had my production manager with me. Since I'd been sworn not to tell a living soul, of course I couldn't wait to tell someone. I told my production manager and he said, “Yes, he told me the same thing.” When we were up there he took each of these actors aside and told them the same story. When I got in a canoe with James Dickey and he capsized it, I realised that absolutely nothing in this book had happened to him, and I'm much more impressed with a man who could invent this story than a man who lived it.

On shooting the river
This scene where they finally see this river is very powerful. Behind it is this notion that the river is going to disappear, is going to be flooded, and the beauty of it is going to be lost. It's a metaphor, really. A dam is going to produce electricity for the air conditioners in Atlanta, and to do so the river is killed. I searched and searched for a river to shoot this picture on. I wanted it to be as wild and savage as possible, and wherever I looked and took photos of them, you know, the film stock we use makes everything look pretty. I found this river, which has these jagged rocks and canyons and rapids, and it's one of the most dangerous rivers in America for canoeing, and it still looked pretty. So what I did was, all the scenes on the river were desaturated, so we took some of that colour away. You see now how the green is muted. I wanted to dispense with that prettiness.

On costume design
I was speaking earlier about how, in a film, the casting and the behaviour of the characters tells you about them and you don't need tedious scenes showing them with their wives and families, and so the costuming becomes very important. You see Burt there with his sawn-off rubber jacket exposing his biceps, and you see the blandness of Ed with his grey sweater there, and Ned with his pork pie hat and football jersey. Selecting their clothes is a way of building the characters and the costume sessions with actors are always very interesting. I made a couple of films with Lee Marvin and he was always very meticulous about his costumes and his props. Good film actors recognise that they can say a lot with what they wear.

On the rape scene
My intention with these mountain men, the underlayer psychologically, was that they were the malevolent spirits of the forest, of nature, and that this was nature's revenge on these men who represented the people of Atlanta who were killing the river. The famous expression “squeal like a pig” came about in a very interesting way, because when I was shooting the picture the studio demanded that I shot alternative scenes for television, including language. Nobody liked doing these TV alternatives, it was a drag, but I think it was Rospo Pallenberg who came up with “squeal like a pig” which was to take the place of a more powerful kind of language, but it was so good I decided to keep it in the main version. Ned was marvellous in the way he acted this scene out, and he and Bill McKinney spent a lot of time together before we shot it, because everyone was nervous of it. I didn't know how to shoot it until, as is often the way with me, until I found a setting. This setting, with these brown leaves and these laurels, with these acid green leaves and the tangled wood, as soon as I found this setting I knew how to shoot it. You'll notice that it's all really done from the point of view of Voight, we're seeing what he saw, from that distance. Ned, you know, all his life he's had to endure this; every time someone sees him on the street they say “squeal like a pig,” and he wrote a very interesting piece in The New York Times many years ago, when they were doing a whole feature about rape, and he felt like a rape victim. The censor wanted to cut some of this this, as you might expect, and I resisted it, but I suppose this hadn't been seen in cinema before. I met somebody just the other day and he said to me, “I saw that film of yours, Deliverance. I walked out halfway through, and I've never been to the cinema since.”

On the rapids crash sequence
This we shot on another piece of river where there was a dam, and we were able to stop the water higher up and then release it. We were able to build underwater rails for that canoe to go on when it collapses, and it was all triggered. Then we rehearsed it and the water came down in a kind of dribble, so I said, “Okay, open another sluice gate,” and they did and we got rather more river than we really intended. This is the one shot that has the double for Jon Voight, but Burt comes down this himself. The canoe comes clattering down, the wooden one is completely lost at this point, and I had a lot of angry actors at this point because I really let too much water down and it was raging. Here's Burt doing that shot himself and he injured his back. We had a net just below that as there's another vast, deep fall, and I'm screaming here on the radio mic, “Stop the water!” Every time I look at those shots of the water coming down I feel terrible guilt that put these men into more danger than I should have.

On shooting and editing
The film editor is called Tom Priestley, the son of J.B. Priestley, and I'd done a film with Tom before. He had great concentration, but I shoot very little film and very few takes – of course with stuff like this I couldn't shoot many takes. There are some passages, particularly the discussion after the death of the mountain man, that I shot it in one shot, but then I got nervous and decided to cover it from other angles, and that was tremendously well cut by Tom Priestley. But for the most part, my method of shooting is to shoot very little, I mean, when I made Point Blank at MGM I had the lowest ratio of film of any director for the last 20 years. I prefer to spend a lot of time rehearsing and getting things right, and I try to get everybody realising on the film that every time the camera is rolling it's going to be in the movie. If you shoot from loads of different angles and lenses the feeling gets to the actors that this shot is probably not going to be in the film, and I try to raise the tension by making the actors know that if my cameras are running then it's going to be in the movie.

On acting styles
Voight is such a tremendous actor. He was very much an actor in the Brando tradition of reality, and everything was a struggle for Jon at that time in his life, he questioned everything. Burt was completely different, Burt just wanted to get it done and he would always find a way of getting through a scene. Jon would challenge it all the time, challenge everything, “Why am I doing it this way? What am I doing?” So he was a good influence on Burt because he pushed Burt to be more thoughtful, and Burt pushed him to be more spontaneous. Voight is a method actor, I suppose you'd have to say, so if we're doing a scene where he's out of breath Jon would say to me, “Okay, I need three minutes warning before the shot so I can get out of breath.” He would then run, sprint for three minutes to get himself sweating and out of breath. Burt would say to me, “I need 20 seconds warning before the shot,” so Jon would come running back, puffing, and Burt would squirt some spritzer onto his face for sweat and [imitates panting] breathe. That was indicative of their two methods of acting.
Bits and Pieces

The fascinating thing about the inbreeding which is so notorious in these communities, the thing I discovered up there, is that these were the descendants of white people who married Indians, and then they were ostracised by both the Indians and the whites. So they turned in on themselves and this strange, hostile, inwards-looking community grew up around that history.

Look at this character now, this woman. Look, the way they live there. That was just completely how it was, that was not set up in any way. It was just us peering through the window with a camera.

When the film opened in Atlanta, at the premiere, Burt was standing next to Dickey and a radio reporter came with a microphone and said, “Mr. Reynolds, I understand that you had problems with Mr. Dickey?” Burt said, “Yes, I did say that, but I also believe Mr. Dickey is one of America's greatest poets. What do you say to that, Mr. Dickey?” Jim Dickey said, “Well, I don't know how many of America's great poets Mr. Reynolds has read.”

Somebody called me who was writing his official biography after he died, and I was telling him how Dickey had this air of the tough frontiersman. I said, “He didn't have anything to prove. After all, he was a fighter pilot in the Korean war.” And the biographer said that was also a lie. I prefer to call it invention, imagination.

After the film came out a lot of people wanted to canoe this river, and several were drowned. I was asked how I felt about that and if I felt responsible, and I was able to reply by saying that I made the river look as dangerous and life-threatening as possible, so anyone who canoed it must have know what to expect.

The worst thing that happened was that they had a wipeout and Ned was in the water and he disappeared, and he didn't come up for just over a minute. I had a diver with me always and he went in to find him, and we searched and searched and it was just dreadful. Eventually he popped up and we got him out, and I said, “Ned, what did you think when you were on the point of drowning?” He said, “I thought, how is John going to finish the film without me?” And then his second thought was, “He'll find some way to finish it without me, I know he will,” and that's when he got determined to live and he got to the surface.

Vilmos Zsigmond was the cameraman. He's Hungarian, you know. He got out of Hungary in 1956 when the Russians moved into Budapest, and he shot the footage we saw of the Russian tanks and the students throwing Molotov cocktails. I thought, a man who has done that, being fired on by Russians, is the kind of man I need for a film like this.

See when he looks back there? I said to Voight, “Just look back at that point.” He said, “Why would I look back like that?” I said, “Well, because it improves the composition.” He said, “I can't do that because there's no reason.” I said, “Okay, you hear a noise,” and he said, “Oh, fine, okay.” That's how I got him to look back and got this marvellous composition.

Herbert 'Cowboy' Coward, the man with the missing teeth, Burt Reynolds found him. Burt used to work in a dude ranch with Cowboy Coward and he suggested him for the part. We were staying at this motel, and Cowboy's idea of a nice evening was to get two dozen bottles of beer in a bathtub, with a lot of ice, and he'd sit on the toilet seat and work his way through them.

Final Thoughts

It's the first time I've seen this film for...it must be ten years at least. When I watch one of my films, I think most directors would agree with this, shortly after having made it, all you can see and remember is the pain you suffered in doing it and all the things you could have done better. After a period of time – in this case 20 years since I made it, 10 years since I looked at it – the wounds have healed and the pain has diminished, and I can see its quality. It has a great power to it. What I do remember with pleasure is the comradeship, the actors, the crew, Vilmos Zsigmond, Rospo Pallenberg, everyone who helped me do it. This film was an adventure and the people who shared it have a bond which has lasted ever since. Those actors are all my friends and we see each other, and it's like meeting someone you fought in a war with. You look at each other's eyes and you say, “Well, we did it.”

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Work

When was the last time you cried? For many of the men we see in The Work, tears are something they can't afford; they're a sign of weakness, of vulnerability, of shame. These men have spent years building up walls around themselves and burying their emotions, which makes the moments in which those emotions break through to the surface so extraordinary to witness. Twice a year, The Inside Circle Foundation brings together inmates at the Folsom maximum-security prison for four days of group therapy, aimed at addressing their most deep-rooted issues and creating a safe space for them to open up. Any gang affiliations or prior beefs are left outside. As Rick, a former member of the Aryan brotherhood, says near the start of the film, “For four days, let’s be what we could be.”

The most intriguing aspect of this programme is that the prison also invites members of the public to join the prisoners in these sessions. The Work opens by introducing us to some of the civilians who have signed up for this project, and while it’s easy to see how the inmates could benefit from these rehabilitative exercises, the outsiders’ motivations for signing up are initially a little more vague. Some talk of wanting to find a sense of purpose in their lives, others are determined to confront their own fears, but all of them reveal more pain, anger and sorrow than they could have anticipated. Whether they are inmates at Folsom or free men, everyone we see in The Work appears to be imprisoned in the same way.

The Work’s co-directors Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous take a straightforward approach to the film. They focus on one working group in particular, with a few particularly string characters coming to the fore. Chief among them is Vegas, a tall black man with a calm demeanour and piercing eyes, who we see working with Kiki, a fellow inmate, when he admits he hasn’t cried in so many years he no longer knows how. Through gentle but persistent cajoling he pushes Kiki to locate those buried emotions and bring them to the surface, to the point where he collapses to the floor, wracked by sobs. Other participants fight against their emotions and have to be restrained as they scream and rage. One civilian in particular, a teacher’s assistant named Brian, emerges as a fascinating figure. He sits in detached judgement of the other men, testing their patience, until one of them calls him out on his behaviour and he reveals his own feelings of inadequacy rooted in his fixed ideas of what he should be as a man. The Work is a powerful portrait of the damage toxic masculinity can do.

Some of the men respond to comforting words, others need to be prodded more aggressively, and some require roleplaying sessions to let down their guard, with one man having an inmate play the role of his father so he can finally tell him things he has kept bottled up since childhood. The filmmakers get close to the men with their cameras, following the ebb and flow of each emotional journey, creating a real sense of intimacy, and the moments of connection and release that they capture have a visceral, shattering impact. As we focus on one group, we occasionally hear the sounds emanating from the other gatherings – laughter, tears, anger – but sometimes it's the quieter moments that really land. When Vegas tightly hugs a suicidal young inmate named Dante, having possibly just dissuaded him from taking his own life, a microphone picks up the rhythm of their beating hearts.

Towards the end of the film I couldn't help wondering, how do the lessons learned in these sessions figure in the inmates' day-to-day lives at Folsom? When they go back into the yard, doesn't the emotional armour go straight back up? The filmmakers don't give us any insight to the world outside of the chapel, aside from a closing statement informing us that of the forty men who have been released from jail having gone through this programme, none have yet returned, a fact that I found deeply heartening. The Work presents us with a group of angry, damaged men and allows us to watch as they open their hearts and souls, as they courageously strive to be better people. I found the film exhausting, heartbreaking and ultimately inspiring, and I hope each of these men walked out of that chapel after four days into a future that looked much brighter than their past.