Saturday, September 08, 2012

Commentary Tracks - The Conversation

The Conversation (1974) with director/writer Francis Ford Coppola

Comments on the Film

On his concept for the film
In those days as a young man, maybe still now, I was always interested in knowing what the film would tackle, what would be the theme or technique I wanted to explore. One area of film I thought was very fascinating and could be used to great advantage was the concept of repetition, that repetition itself could be both hypnotic and could make points or clarify ideas in very subtle ways. The idea was that film, which is so elastic in a sense of time, was capable of exploring repetition just as those painters we all admired explored multiple perspectives, and I wanted to write a story that made use of repetition as a point of investigation.

On camera techniques
I also had an idea while making the movie that the camera would be an eavesdropper. In most modern movies, if you watch the lower corner or upper corner of any movie you'll see that it's constantly adjusting, that the cameraman is constantly trying to make a good picture. In The Conversation I wanted the camera just to be dead, just to be there as if it was an eavesdropping device. If an actor walked out of the frame and something important happened outside the field of view, it would not show it unless it stayed off long enough and the camera realised it wasn't really getting the scene, so it would quite mechanically pan over to the left later as if it was an automated eavesdropping device.

On John Cazale
We knew that Harry would have required one associate or assistant to help him with such elaborate technical work, and of course I had just made the first Godfather film and had a wonderful friendship and association with John Cazale, who played Fredo. He was a wonderful actor, a gentle soul and a good friend, and I was happy that he could come and play the part of the assistant. Johnny Cazale passed away a few years after this, a terrible loss to those who knew him personally as he was really a nice person. Certainly, when you think of the roles he could have played and how he was enlarging possibilities with leading roles in theatre as well as film. He was also in Dog Day Afternoon very effectively. He was a wonderful, wonderful person, Johnny Cazale.

On naming his main character
An interesting note about the name Harry Caul. I dictated much of this script into a tape recorder and a young woman who I didn't really know at all typed it for me. Part of the fun of dictating it was that I would send the tapes to her – it was a very Conversation-type relationship – and she was very beautiful, I remember she looked like Dominique Sanda in those days. So when I was dictating I was trying to make as good an impression as I could and in an odd way impress her with the story I was dictating. I was intending to call him Harry Call – C-A-L-L – but in the course of typing she typed it as C-A-U-L. Of course, knowing a little bit about the meaning of a caul, this structure on the head almost blinding or enveloping its bearer, I decided to keep it with that spelling, but it was really a typo.

On Harry's female companion
This is an interesting scene to me because throughout my life – as I speak to you now I'm 61 years old and when I wrote this I was probably 26 or 27 – I've had this recurring dream of going to some house or some apartment somewhere, usually of a run-down nature or very low-class, inexpensive. No one realised that I actually owned this place, almost as though they were personal parts of myself that no one knew about. In those days, I used to dream that there was a girl in the apartment who waited for me and was always there when I went there, but there was something sad about her, something heartbreaking. Obviously she was sad with good reason, because this was a secret. No one knew that this woman or this place existed, and in fact I was not there very often. Having once had this dream in a very vivid and touching way, I wrote a scene in The Conversation that was almost verbatim how the dream had been, and it was interesting that after I made the film and had photographed that scene I never dreamed of a girl being in that place ever again. Now when I go to these places I own that no one knows about, there is no woman waiting for me.

On Walter Murch
Of course, the most profound collaboration on this picture was with Walter Murch, who not only edited the picture but created the complicated and interesting sound design and mixed the sound and music, ultimately finishing this picture in the form that it is now. The interesting thing about working with Walter in those days, San Francisco in the early 70s, was that many of the young people who came with me from Los Angeles to set up American Zoetrope were not in the union.  When we said these people were the ones making the films, one of the requests was that Walter could have a credit but he couldn't have the word 'editor' attached to it. So we tossed that around and Walter said, "Well, what I really do is sound design" so that's what we gave Walter as a credit on The Rain People and this film. Interestingly enough, along with lots of things we did in the early days of Zoetrope, this became a legitimate title that's used to this day.

On Gene Hackman
Gene Hackman was a very interesting actor to work with. He so turned into Harry Caul it really started to bug him, I think. At that time he was a nice-looking guy and here he is having to get into a suit, cut his hair, wear these glasses and be what would later come to be known as a nerd or geek, and this really wasn't his nature. He had come to work in stylish, casual clothes, and I think the transformation, both the way he looked in this film and being this uptight guy, started to play with his head and it would make him very grumpy and impatient with what we were doing. He really liked working on the movie, he liked the character, and I've heard subsequently that he thinks it was really good work on his part, which I certainly agree with. But during that time I think this anal personality felt very uncomfortable on his shoulders and was not pleasant. I've seen that happen with actors, where playing a certain role is not fun, and having to look that way or inhabit that kind of personality can get to you.

Bits and Pieces

I wanted Harry to be a would-be jazz musician, an amateur who liked to play a great record and jam along with it. I think of the saxophone as a beautiful solo instrument that approximates the human voice and almost wails, which kind of gives us a little glimpse into the lonely soul. A soul that, although he chooses to live in solitude, there is a certain ache or angst about the state he has condemned himself to.

This young assistant, played by Harrison Ford, was so much his own invention. It was written as just a normal assistant, but Harrison chose the wardrobe, he chose the Christmas cookies he made, and really through his own imagination he created a much more interesting character than it was written as.

The film was begun with Haskell Wexler as the director of photography, but after the completion of the opening sequence, which involved the elaborate multi-camera setup in Union Square and the long lens shooting of the conversation, we had a difference of opinion and the two of us decided that we saw it very differently. I saw it in the style it eventually became and Haskell saw it in a romantic style more like, in his words, The Thomas Crown Affair. I saw it more as Medium Cool.

I was very influenced as a young writer by novels, and especially in this case by the novel Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse. I thought I wanted to make a film somewhat in that genre, which was focused on an intriguing solitary character, and to try and use that style and perspective. Just as I was inspired by Blow Up as something to try and imitate, I also had Steppenwolf rolling around in my head, and even the character is named Harry.

By now you may notice that the building across Harry's street that had the wrecking ball on it is already partially wrecked, so you can see right into the walls, which is another level of surveillance.

One of the questions I'm most frequently asked is if it's a different reading of "He'd kill us if he had the chance" and of course the answer is yes, they are two slightly different readings. Although, I can tell you that I almost wish I hadn't used two different readings, because I think the implication would be there with one reading. When you're making a film that hasn't come out yet and you don't know if people are going to like it, you tend to not want to take any chances, but now I think back and wonder if the audience would provide that slight inflection change.

One of the very interesting things about The Conversation is that just while we were shooting the film, the newspapers were suddenly covered with front page headlines about the Watergate scandal. I remember reading it with the actors and it was chillingly so much like the movie we were shooting, obviously without knowing any of that was going on at that high level of government. I might have surmised that this was going on from doing a little research about eavesdropping, but to see it of front page importance was a very strange effect for us.

The old fantasy of the toilet bowl you flush and it just doesn't stop coming, and will it go onto the floor? This one's worse, of course, because it's blood.

Final Thoughts

However romantic it may seem to make films, filmmaking is an extremely tedious and difficult process, one that requires a lot of physical endurance and tremendous personal sacrifice. You wake up very early in the morning and go to bed very late at night, and pretty much work seven days a week one way or the other. I think filmmaking is something that is wonderful when you're looking forward to making a dream picture or when you're looking back at something, but I have to be honest that even my own personal favourite films – and The Conversation is no.1 on that list, or Rumble Fish – if I look back at the process of making them, I was not often too happy or enjoying what you think would be a great opportunity to make a personal film. I think the films I was the most happy working on were films like Tucker, or even The Rainmaker recently. I don't know if it's because I'm older or because I start to think of it as time spent working with people I like, my friends and collaborators, laughing and thinking we were doing something beautiful. But the films that I think are my best – The Conversation, and I guess The Godfather and Apocalypse Now – they were not at all pleasant day-to-day experiences for me.