The Director's Chair Interviews
Interview with John
by Tim Rhys and Tom Allen
MovieMaker, September 1995
TR: I've read that your creative roots sprang from the Free Cinema movement of the late 50s. How influential was that period?
JS: It didn't influence my style. It opened the doors for those of us who wanted to make films in that period. I came from television, where I was making documentaries for the BBC. I mean, I think it gave us the freedom that we needed at that period. Every dog has its day, and Britain had a thriving cinema which was popular and hit a nerve and people actually went to the cinema then. They go now still, but more to the big blockbuster stuff. It's become so difficult to make films which attract an audience if they're not mainstream. Even though every now and again, thank God, we're reminded that you can't second guess the audience. Take for example Four Weddings and a Funeral, which I don't wish in any way to knock. It's a highly enjoyable, delightful film--but by no means the best British film ever made. But it's grossed more than any other British film, I would think. So you can't tell what appeals to an audience, which is the only safety valve any of us have.
TA: You make films that are very character-driven, and the complexity of personal relationships is something you're drawn to. Do you believe the pendulum will swing back toward a climate favorable to these intellectual, character-driven films, or have audiences become so "dumbed down" that the pendulum has stopped swinging?
JS: I would like to think it has not. I also have to say I hope audiences don't get stuck with films that are sold with the caption: "If at first you don't succeed, lower your standards," which was recently on some comedy show, I think Saturday Night Live. I saw that and my heart sank.
TR: Why has this "dumbing down" happened in the first place? Why the trend?
JS: Audiences seem to like stupidity. I mean, with Forrest Gump, they're celebrating that you can live a life successfully if you're a little bit off the mark. I don't think it's a new thing, really. There were very popular high school things years ago, but they're just not my kind of films. That doesn't mean to say they shouldn't be made, but one would like to think that something with a little more intelligence has some hope.
TR: Tom just mentioned a theme that runs through your films: the complexity of personal relationships, and also an individual's need to find security and happiness. What other themes would you say run through your films?
JS: People pushed onto an edge. People pushed into decisions. I guess that's the stuff of all drama, but the need to compromise; the fact that nothing is ideal; the need to recognize that compromise and change must be made--a change in one's attitude must occur--I guess that's the theme of a lot of my films.
TR: One thing we noticed screening your films was a kind of cynicism that runs through them, from Billy Liar to Darling to Midnight Cowboy, even parts of Cold Comfort Farm.
JS: Hmm. Cynicism.
TR: Is that something you consciously put into your work? Kind of a wry look--
JS: --A wry look in amusement is something that's not cynical, necessarily. I mean, probably I am cynical. I'm certainly cynical about the business we're in. I love it, but that doesn't prevent me seeing things kind of tongue-in-cheek. I like humor and I like wit, but I don't know that I'd call that cynical.
TR: Well certainly a film like Midnight Cowboy, where Jon Voight's character becomes cynical about his dreams and aspirations.
JS: But I don't think he does, you see. I don't think he's cynical by the end. I think he's realized what he'd set out to do--fuck rich women and get paid for it. The reality is the discovery of the need for a relationship, however peculiar and odd, and the strength of his emotional bond with that other down-and-out, Ratso Rizzo, as he helps him to realize his fantasy. The Dustin Hoffman character has a real need. Joe Buck gets him on a bus and rejects the opportunity to realize his own cockamamie fantasy. So I don't call that cynical.
TA: The whole fantasy thing is another thread through many of your films. And the notion of "the big idea gone awry." Certainly in Midnight Cowboy, but Billy Liar also is a great fantasizer about what he might be. And Falcon and the Snowman, with the notion of "I know I can help my country get back on the right course...if I just commit this little treason." What is it about the fantasy theme and your obvious view that you're doomed to fail if you have these big ideas?
JS: See, I don't believe it's failure. I don't think the Cowboy fails. I think he succeeds in bettering the possibilities of Ratso. I'm much more optimistic than you give me credit for. Now Billy Liar, admittedly, he doesn't have the courage to follow his dream, and therefore resorts to his own private fantasy. Falcon is a rather different animal. I think what appealed to me about Falcon, and perhaps it is cynical, was that it was a sort of black farce, partly, about much-touted American security, which can be easily circumvented. It dealt with a kind of misplaced idealism which I can understand, though I would never advocate taking revenge on your own country. Like the Oklahoma bombing, which may be a result of extreme frustration with federal institutions. I can't condone it but I understand why he might, in his cockamamie way, have thought that was the right thing for him to do. Fortunately the Falcon was shacked up with a partner who was a total fantasist, a drug addict, also a very interesting character, who ran rings around the whole establishment. I thought he was a wonderful farce, and I enjoyed that aspect of it, albeit with the tragic implications within it.
TA: So you're saying that even though your characters don't realize their dreams they grow from having tried and failed. It still seems like a bleek perspective.
JS: I believe in Thomas Hardy's vision, which is why I was so keen to do Far From the Madding Crowd, that man is a little creature constantly struck down by all sorts of things of his own making, or of natural disasters or whatever. Life consists of picking yourself up and trying to go forward. I believe that's a privilege. I'm not a sunny, optimistic person, though I do enjoy my life very much.
TR: You've worked with some amazing screenwriters and I understant you like to have them on the set with you. Is it difficult when you need to change the script as you go?
JS: Well it's difficult if they regard their words as absolutely sacrosanct. I do like writers around me. My happiest experience, apart from Alan Bennett, who's always on the set, was with Waldo Salt on Midnight Cowboy. We did strike patches of difficulty on that film and he and my assistant repeatedly bailed me out. It was my first American film. It was a complicated film to make. I love (writers) at rehearsals when they see what the actors are beginning to do with a scene, how one can shape a scene perhaps differently or melt it down. So much more can be said sometimes with a look than with a lot of words.
TR: Do you still use a tape recorder at rehearsals and have it transcribed?
TA: To what else besides your own acting on stage and TV in the 50s do you attribute your unusual ability to evoke great performances from your actors?
JS: Well, you see, I choose subjects which are character-driven, where the personal relationships within the film are very important to get right. And I've fortunately been blessed with some wonderful actors. It's very important to make actors feel comfortable and make them contribute, because I don't subscribe to the fact that they're stupid as other directors have said. They're not marionettes. Particularly if a film is character-driven, which mine are, one needs good acting. I don't know what the secret is. Give them space. Have sympathy. Be understanding. Be flexible. Because if you say "that's the word, stick to it," you know, that makes them tighten up. You want the actors free. The camera's very, very perceptive in catching anything that doesn't seem true or right. Sometimes you have to play games. I just cast very carefully.
TA: What about rehearsals? Is there a little bit or a lot of it in your films?
JS: Well I like two weeks minimum if I can get it, knowing that during that time they get to say lines, look at props and locations, do a make-up test--those have got to be fit in--and ask questions continuously.
TR: One thing I love about your films and your directing style is the constantly moving camera. Can you talk in general terms about how you approach a scene? I know it's a broad question, but what motivates your camera? What is your thought process as you attack a conversation between two people, let's say?
JS: Well there are certain moments that one would want to actually witness and move in with the camera when some thought process is developing. Some realization, fear or whatever. You have to determine the rhythm of the film as you look at the script and shoot it and are doing it wildly out of sequence. You have to refer all the time in your head to how you intend to cut it. In other words, what was the last shot in the present scene, and what is the next shot that's coming up? What's the next image? So you've got to have a kind of picture of the whole in the mind. And I don't know, I like moving cameras. I sometimes think I may overuse it. At four o'clock yesterday morning we were doing a scene (from his next film Eye for an Eye) with Kiefer Sutherland in a bus on his way very coolly to attack somebody--Sally Field, in fact. We discussed the camera and could either do cut-cut-cut, getting closer, or, as he suggested, track in, which we did. I don't know if it worked because it was jittering. It may not work. But just the sort of growing menace of this man... So sometimes it's used dramatically, sometimes you just want to establish something and get in as close as possible because you are watching what people are doing to one another. I cut quite a lot. I'm not a great one for holding back and seeing everything in long shot and letting a scene act out in front of me because I believe you want to see what's in someone's eyes. But I know there's a current trend to hold everything a while, though I'm not sufficiently skilled to choreograph everything brilliantly, like Fellini did.
TA: I think you're being very self-deprecating. The activity and detail of your backgrounds always seems so well integrated with your foregrounds and your moving camera. You're not giving yourself sufficient credit.
JS: Another thing that I go for is that I like to laminate something going on against the scene. For instance there is Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman having visited the father's grave, talking about whether there's an afterlife and whether you come back as a dog or as a president. While that rather simplistic little bit of philosophy is being discussed, a woman who's got her problems comes in and to anybody that will listen--and this is a very American thing, certainly New York--says (loudly, with accent) "I don't know, my husband parked the car, they've moved us on and I got in a lot of trouble, and I mean, what is this place coming to?" And all this is going on. So you laminate the two: there's a serious conversation, there's this woman complaining, and in come two weird looking people who take a photograph. They're all wonderful, totally disparate things happening and it's constantly interesting.
TR: That's all choreographed.
JS: If that's choreographed then what I mean by choreography of the camera is when it moves round and it comes in, starts on a close-up, moves away and comes round again, and the lines are off and everything else, and I think that's wonderful, and sometimes I've tried to do it, not always successfully. I do it better than I used to.
TA: Cold Comfort Farm contains great moments where just as the moving camera finally stops, the background characters hit their marks and lean into a perfectly composed picture.
JS: Well I don't know where that is but I bet that's true. It's part of one's grammar. What I am also very interested in is language. I like to use foreign languages, without explanation, without subtitles. I've done it a lot.
TR: Why is that?
JS: Because I think it gives you a wonderful sense of place and a sense of atmosphere and of people not being able to communicate. What you've got in (Eye for an Eye) are people on the phone speaking in Korean while in the background you've got Sally Field waiting for somebody to come out of the store, and then secretly following him in her car. It just gives you texture and interest and character. I walked around downtown L.A. and thought, extraordinary, there's a lot of music here, outstanding music, and there are stores with loud, blaring sounds and those lights that turn round and a bubble machine, and a man dancing in front of them for pennies, literally. I mean, it was really happening. Much more interesting to have her watching from behind a lot of lights, almost deafened by the music, spying on this man and being asked by an Armenian "what do you want, can I help you, what are you doing?" It's the unexpected which I think keeps the audience interested.
TR: It sounds like you're still making discoveries. Are you, in fact, still learning the process and the language of filmmaking?
JS: Sure. Sure. The most expensive three words in the business are: "Let's try this," but you can't stop using them. You mustn't. You know, I'm impatient with the business side of things. I'm impatient with Big Brother watching as you work for a big studio. And why does one need six accountants? It's ludicrous. Why are we paying for this when it's not on the screen? But you've got to fight the system as best you can.
TA: Are you finding it interesting working with Kiefer Sutherland as he's roughly the same age his father was in Day of the Locust?
JS: I don't think he is quite at the same age. He certainly doesn't give the feeling. He's still very young in feel. Donald wasn't, really, when we did Day of the Locust. I wonder. He may be the same age.
TA: It's a question of maturity. Would you agree that there's a general lack of maturity and sophistication among today's younger set of filmmakers? Tim made the point during the course of the festival that he's generally not enjoying the films made by the 30 year-olds and younger as much as those made by the 40 and overs. I found Cold Comfort Farm to be genuinely funny and possessed of a tastefulness and understatement which is absent from new cinema. Some of the new generation of filmmakers just don't seem to have that sensibility at all. And I'm wondering, as you veterans pass from the scene--I'm worried that this pendulum won't swing back.
JS: I am too, because I hate a cinema that's based entirely on effects and things like that. I mean, I'm not terribly interested in them. I'm curious, though. I thought The Fugitive last year was a really good thriller. The way it was done was terrific. It was very well made. I do see those kinds of films occasionally, but not as the only diet. I think wit is at a premium...I wonder why. Do you think wit comes out of a certain degree of leisure and class? I don't know.
TA: You said you're still learning and taking risks, but you're doing it from your exalted position as one of cinema's great directors. When you were breaking into feature filmmaking, were you uncertain as to your ability to handle visual storytelling? Certainly you're more confident now in taking risks than you were at the beginning of your career.
JS: Absolutely. I learned quite a bit very early on from television. I worked for two magazine programs for several years which allowed me to make one-minute films and three-minute films, little thumbnail sketches of things. Like a journalist, really. I would just experiment with ideas--do a little portrait of a seaside town, mostly in bad weather, and then a series of optimistic postcards at home saying "having a good time, it's terrific," and they're all sitting in shelters. Very obvious stuff, but it worked for a time. And then I became more ambitious and joined an arts magazine program and did all sorts of very interesting things from which I learned an awful lot. And on it goes. You do it. And you know, I've never been to a film school. I have nothing against them. I think to do something is the most important thing of all. That's how you learn, by your own mistakes.
These days it's very difficult to make mistakes. If you make a mistake with a film, you don't get a second chance very often. And independent filmmaking, some of which is wonderful and a lot of which is terrible, is taking hold. It's there and increasing. More distribution outlets, thank God. So I think the picture is, from the point of view of the possibilities, it's always going to be a struggle to make films against the mainstream, but I do think that the present state of things is encouraging. I think it's scandalous that in Los Angeles, for instance, which is supposedly a film center, that they don't have a theater running programs of, let's say, documentaries, like you have in here in Seattle. It seems to be a very go-ahead artistic community here. That's why I've always liked the atmosphere in this city. I think Los Angeles is plugged in only to money--what's done best in the box office is the best film, which is, of course, horseshit.
However, I think that it's a constant struggle. I've not had an easy passage, even though you say I'm, you know, in a good position. Yes, I am in a good position that someone will take my phone call, possibly, and listen to me if I have an idea. Maybe. But even that's not done. So you just have to continue fighting forever. You see, I'm lucky because I can come and work here and then go back to England and I can do a play or an opera or whatever else I do, and I do do other things, because I don't want to come out of the same beltholes. It gives me a more interesting artistic life. I don't want to go to the cinema very much. I'm not a film buff. I'm very rusty in the history of film. There are masses of great films I've never seen, mainly because when I'm working I don't particularly want to go to the cinema. If I have a day off I'd rather go to a concert or an opera to have another kind of experience. And that, perhaps, has given me an awareness of things that are going on visually and emotionally, and I like to use that a great deal.
TR: What would you have done with your life if you hadn't become a filmmaker? You must have given that some thought.
JS: Something musical . I think I'd like to have been a great conductor.
TR: Directing musicians.
JS: Yes, it would have been something like that. I would like to have been a great musician, or a great hotelier. I had a good musical upbringing. I'm not a musician anymore, but I am a good listener.
TR: I must say, "Everybody's Talking" was such a perfect choice.
JS: Total, total fluke. My assistant suggested it. I didn't know who Harry Nilsson was at the time but lyrically it's perfect as well as rhythmically. The studio didn't want to buy it, though, because it was already published and they didn't have the rights. But when we showed the film to UA for the first time, the head of music leapt up said "Where did you get that song from? That is a fabulous song!" So we told him he'd heard it six months earlier when we'd brought it by, and he said "Well, I don't remember. We gotta get it, we gotta get it!" (Laughter)
TR: We interviewed a director recently in Los Angeles who said that he looked forward to retiring because of how intense directing is. Do you see yourself ever stopping?
JS: I'm like a bear with a sore head when I haven't got a project. I would love to know, for instance, that I'll be working, let's say, next May. I'd be very happy to take some time off and travel and enjoy myself. But the unknown can be so daunting. I'd like to keep working because it keeps one on one's toes. I mean, I'll be 70 next year and I've only got 10 more years-- if I'm very lucky.
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