Saturday, May 25, 2013

Commentary Tracks - All That Jazz

All That Jazz (1979) with actor Roy Scheider

Comments on the Film

On getting the part
I wasn't supposed to play this part. This part was originally cast with Richard Dreyfuss. When Mr Fosse went to Columbia Studios and showed them the script they were scared to death, because it's a very strange and unusual musical comedy, but they had Dreyfuss who had just won an Academy Award for The Goodbye Girl that year. Rick was a friend of mine, and he came by my apartment in New York to visit the family, and he said to me "I don't think I want to do this movie." I asked him why and he said "I don't like Fosse and Fosse doesn't like me, and I just don't feel mentally prepared to do this thing." I said to him "Rick, you'd better tell him because you've been in rehearsal for a week," so he did tell him and he left the picture, you know, the usual artistic disagreements. Then my agent who was also Fosse's agent called me up and asked if I would like to read this script, and it blew my mind. I told him to get me a meeting with Fosse right away, and then I went down to Fosse's office and told him all of the silly, wild, crazy, dopey, ridiculous parts that I had ever played in summer stock and other places that perhaps he never would have dreamed that I could play. I wanted to give him an idea that my theatre background – which was considerable, 14 years – had a lot of classical theatre but a lot of fun stuff too, and he liked what I was saying. He said "I tell you what. If you're willing to come to my apartment every night and read this script with me, I'll consider you for the part." I went on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday – and by the end of the week he said "Okay, you're the guy." He went to bat for me with the studio but they said no, the other agents said no, everyone said it was artistic suicide. "Roy Scheider? The guy from The French Connection? You've got to be kidding." But Fosse stuck with me and said this is the guy, and so we began.

On Jessica Lange's character
This was the second movie that Jessica Lange did after King Kong. Fosse had seen her, wooed her for a while, and told her that he had a wonderful part waiting for her in a picture called All That Jazz. The scenes with Jessica Lange were shot at the end of the shooting of the rest of the film, just in case Mr Fosse had something else that he wanted to talk about with the Angel of Death, or the Angel of Life, whatever you want to call it. He described this figure to me who would always be there, and that she was his idea of an idealised death. Of course she would be a beautiful woman. He talked a lot about the fact that she was the one character in the movie that he couldn't bullshit. She was the only character he could tell the truth to because she was hip and wise to his schemes and she could see through him, she knew all his lines. He keeps telling these things and he expects her to not like him because of it, but what does Death care? Death finds all of these addictions and normally harmful things very attractive, because Death is going to take him in the end anyway.

On Bob Fosse as a director
Bob Fosse was probably the best director that I've ever worked with anywhere, in the theatre or in movies, and I've been lucky enough to work with some of the best directors in the business. I say that he was the best because he was the only director I know of who was really conversant with actors in understanding how they develop character, how they do their homework, what their fears are, what their pluses and minuses are, when to leave an actor alone and how to ride him when he needs to be pushed. In other words, he was a director who went to scene study classes at the studio, who had read Stanislavski, who had been in acting classes, who was himself a performer, so you were working with someone who was very close to you as a creative performer. I thought he had a lot of pluses that no other director that I knew of had to offer, and there's also the fact that here is the man you're playing standing right in front of you. I don't do any of these things to excess like he did, so I would have to ask him how these things felt and how they affected him, and when I couldn't from my experience pull them up I'd have to find something else. This is all Stanislavski method stuff, you go back into your memory and think of something as close to that as possible. I'd tell him what he was using and if he thought it should be a different feeling he'd ask me "What else have you got?" in my own personal bag. When I came up with the thing he wanted he'd say "That's it. That's what I want you to feel."

On the Everything Old is New Again dance routine
While I was working on some other scene in the weeks that we were preparing the film, Anne and the daughter were off rehearsing this scene Everything Old is New Again. He pulled me out of the room I was in and took me to one of the dance studios, and he sat me down and said "Watch this," and they did the whole number, you know, in rehearsal clothes. I sat there and watched the whole thing and I just began to weep. It was so lovely, so sweet, so charming, and they were so giving, both of them, Anne and Erzsebet Foldi, they were just terrific. When they finished he asked if I wanted to see some more and I said "I don't want to see any more, I don't want to talk about it, I don't want to think about it until the day we shoot." I wanted to forget what that moment was like so I could try to recreate it when we did it again. I just think it's one of the best dance numbers I've ever seen.

On dancing
I had never done any dancing before – I mean, I had never done any dancing like that before. You know, I'm as good a ballroom dancer as the next guy, but I don't have those kind of muscles or that kind of training. So I started to work on all the scenes as an actor would attack scenes in a play. I worked with a dance master and dance mistress, and we worked for hours and hours for about two weeks. When it came to shoot, he announced to me that the first scene he wanted to shoot was the one with the daughter, where I'm dancing and talking with her. I said "You want me to dance and talk and act at the same time?" and he said "Yeah, sure. You've been rehearsing, you're ready for this." That was the first scene we did and I was frightened to death, but it worked out fine. He had confidence in me and the fact that he did made me feel so much better. I really had a great deal of respect for his attitude and discipline towards the work, which was almost intimidating, he wanted so much from everybody. But he was always there willing to give as much himself. If you watch the dancers they work so hard in this film, and I learned a lot about dancing. I learned they're like football players, no matter what show they're in there's always the first and second team because they get hurt all the time. They pull muscles, they break bones, they get fractures, and they're in a constant rotation. It's just like on the Friday before a big football game when they announce who's on the injured list. The dancers loved him, because even if he asked them to dance in unison out the window of a 10-storey building they would do it. They would die, but nobody would look better than they would look under his direction, and that's the way they felt about him.

On the budget concerns
When we had gone about 12 weeks and were about a million or two over budget, the head of Columbia Studios at that time sent Bobby a message and told him that he thought the Angel of Death, Jessica Lange's character, was not necessary to the movie, and perhaps we wouldn't shoot that. Well, I thought Bobby was going to have another heart attack, but we held on, and my agent and some other people went down to Florida to see Alan Ladd, Jr. who was then the head of 20th Century Fox. We showed him the dailies and asked if 20th could come in to lay off some of the cost, and luckily they did. My job was to stay in New York and call Jessica to tell her not to worry: "You're going to be in the movie, don't panic, don't leave town." I promised her that all of those scenes we had rehearsed and talked about would still be in the movie. Eventually we did get to do all of those scenes but it was a very troublesome three or four days.

On the film's impact
There have been many popular movies made after this that have exploited dance because Bobby opened up a new frontier with this picture. If think if the picture were made today it would be better received now than it was then. It was nominated for five or six Academy Awards, we won at the Cannes Film Festival, I was nominated, and it did very well, but the reviews were sort of mixed. The critics were a little upset with his self-absorption, but now the film is in everyone's home library, I mean look at what we're doing here now. This is a film that's going to last and be around a long time because it's beautifully shot, it's well-acted, it's beautifully directed, it's intelligently written, it's honest and it's also fantastically entertaining at the same time. It involves all of our fantasies about death, and you can substitute anything that you've dreamed with what he's dreamed. So I think the movie still has a lot to say to audiences.

On death
For Fosse this was very much a 'couch movie.' He was a man who had been in therapy before but this was an artistic chance to really examine himself, and he was pretty hard on himself. For example, in the last scene, the death finale scene – of course it's marvellous for a director to choreograph his own death – he has the character of Joe Gideon run up into the audience to say goodbye to his friends, wife, daughter, mistresses, producers; all those people that he loved or didn't love, and they either loved or didn't love him. He shakes hands and kisses and does all those things and then he runs back down to the stage. On the day we rehearsed that three or four times to get the timing right, and he said to me "That must be a pretty good feeling, to do that." I said to him "Why don't you do it, Bob. Try it." He said no but everyone started going "Come on, Bobby. Do it." So they started up the music and he raced up the stairs and he did all of the things you see me do in that scene, he said goodbye to all those people. When he came down he was puffing pretty hard and he said "Oh man, that was really great. And you know what? They all forgive me." That's the moment I remember the most from the film. I think he knew that his death was not going to be as wonderful as this, so that's why he spent so much time making it wonderful in the movie. As you know, he died on a park bench in Washington DC. He was walking along with Gwen Verdon  having just watched a rehearsal of Sweet Charity, which was opening that evening. He said "I don't feel well," he laid down on a bench, and he died.

Bits and Pieces

Alan Heim was the editor of this film and after two days of shooting the editing of this scene [the opening montage] was left pretty much intact by Bob Fosse, he was very happy with what Alan had done with it.

This is my first real contact with the professional dancers who were going to be in the entirety of the film, and I was just as much in awe of their dancing as they were of my acting. There was a mutual respect club here. For Broadway people this like The Bible, this movie, the dancers know that this is a genuine portrait of what it's like to work in a Broadway musical. I get a lot of respect from them for just having made the movie.

Leland Palmer, who plays my wife in this film, was a wonderful dancer and a wonderful actress who had a great career on Broadway, but after All That Jazz she left the United States, left the business, and went to Israel.

Well, you know, Cliff Gorman, who plays the lead character in the film that he's making, is really doing the film that Dustin Hoffman made with Bobby about Lenny Bruce. Cliff had done that part on Broadway and Cliff is brilliant in it. It's different from Dustin, but they're both equally wonderful, and I thought that added a big plus to the movie.

When the picture was made a lot of critics said "How dare this man. The audacity of him to make this film which is so egotistically examining his life, saying he's all this interesting." Well, I never thought of that as a performer. It was all knew to me so it was fine, and it was only Bob's closest friends who were offended by almost everything in it. I didn't see anything wrong with a director who wanted to film that was very heavily autobiographical; why not? I mean, people write books, why can't a director make a film? And to do it this entertainingly with this much great music and dance. I think it's a big plus, and who gives a damn if he paints himself blacker or whiter in certain scenes?

We talked a lot about the symptoms of heart attacks, how you get a tingling sensation in your fingers and your hands, and sometimes your arm feels number. We had talked about those things so I knew the places where I wanted to use them. And of course the hacking and coughing. One time he gave me a coughing lesson. He didn't like the tone of my coughing, he wanted it to be deeper and uglier, so we had to have a coughing rehearsal.

One of Bobby's mentors was Paddy Chayefsky, who Bobby showed everything to. The scene in the hospital where Joe Gideon is struggling to stay alive and telling Cliff Gordon all of his character facets, that was based on stuff where Paddy Chayefsky had come to see Bobby in hospital. Fosse was telling him all of the people in his will and wanted to get Paddy's opinion, and when he had finished listing the people in the will, Paddy asked if he was in the will. Fosse looked at him apologetically and said he wasn't, and then Paddy just said "Well die!" and left the room. It was a gag, but that was the kind of crazy stuff that was going on at the time.

He took the film out to California to show to some advertising and promotional people at the studio, and they had a screening one night. My friend Mr Spielberg, who I did Jaws with, called me up and said some very complimentary things, he liked the picture a lot. I thanked him and about an hour later I got a call from Fosse. He said "Your friend Spielberg was here" and I said "I know, he called me and was really complimentary," and then Fosse said "You know what he said to me? Bobby, you can't end a film where the protagonist gets zipped in a body bag!" Fosse said that's what the whole film was about, it's the story of a guy who destroys himself, but Spielberg said it was going to lose millions at the box office because people were not going to like that. Both guys have a point.

Most of the filming took place at Astor Studios in Queens, and I think the movie was budgeted for about $9-10 million, which was a pretty good price in those days. We closed down a few times, not because we were having problems, but because Mr Fosse wanted to take two or three days to rehearse the next dance number. The studio heads went absolutely crazy, we had all those people on salary, but that's what he needed to do and of course he took those days.

I remember being on the street in San Juan in Puerto Rico with my daughter, who was approximately the age of the girl in the film, and I was approach by a nun in a habit. She said "Aren't you the young man who was in that film?" I said I was and she said "I thought it was a very interesting movie, theologically. I never would have thought of death as a beautiful woman, but why not?"

The character has another heart attack after the first heart attack, and I had no idea how anything like that would feel. I asked Fosse what it was like to go through a triple bypass and then have another heart attack. He said it was like having an enormous weight, like an anvil, pressing down on your chest. So when it came time to do that scene I had the assistant director put his knee on my chest. You can't see it because the camera's only filming my face and my shoulder, but if the camera pulled back you see an assistant director kneeling on my chest and pressing harder and harder. I'm an actor who believes in anything that works, you know?

Final Thoughts

I've enjoyed the opportunity to talk about this film, not only because it's very close to me but because it is a tribute to one of the great creative artists of the 20th century. Mr Fosse, along with Balanchine and Robbins, is one of the great choreographers of our time. Choreography is not something that's written down like music or art, it's something that's passed on orally, and this movie passes on the man's work. I've always felt there was a part of Fosse that was very apologetic about being commercial, crass, cheap, burlesque or vaudeville. Yes, he was all those things, but he managed to combine them into something more than that, something so exhilarating and marvellous to look it, the way he made the human body move, it really gave you a thrill to watch it. I feel the movie is a great piece of entertainment, but it's also a great tribute to him.