[I conducted this phone interview with George Romero on October 5, 2005, in anticipation of the DVD release of Land of the Dead. This is an abbreviated version of a piece that was originally published on GreenCine on October 18, 2005.]
Dawn of the Dead was a sly and very funny satire of consumer culture. Land of the Dead is an even more scathing political satire of class conflict. Do you think there something inherent in horror films that is effective as a frame for political and social commentary?
Don’t you think that fantasy has always been that? Or should be that? The biggest disappointment to me is that people don’t use it that way. I’m sure the first tales that we told each other, when we first learned how to make fire, were scary tales: “What do think that sky is? What do you think that thing is up there, that comet screeching across the sky?” I just think that it’s really right for using it as parables. The biggest disappointment to me is that people don’t do it, you know? It’s always a guy in hockey mask with a knife. It’s just about trying to make you jump out of your seat. I think fantasy has always been and should be a canvas for, if not satirizing or commenting or criticizing, at least a snapshot of what’s going on.
Do you think the physical portrayal of extreme or transgressive violence on screen tends to lower audiences defenses to the subtext?
It might. When we made Night of the Living Dead, everyone said “You’re really pushing the envelope.” There was no MPAA in those days, and what we had in mind was “Why does everyone cut away right when the guy is being torn apart?” I grew up on EC comic books where people were being torn apart. They ripped a guy’s heart out and used it for home base in a baseball game. That stuff just made me giggle, so I don’t flinch at that. Maybe this is a justification, maybe it’s unwarranted, but I remember Robert Altman’s theatrical version of M*A*S*H. You laughed your ass off for 90 minutes and then all of a sudden you’re in the operating room and there’s blood all over the walls. It’s sort of a slap in the face. So, first of all, I don’t object to it and I don’t think it causes imitative behavior on the street, particularly when it’s in a fantasy context. And people expect that from me so I try to deliver it.
A mysterious stranger stalks a lovely young woman as the camera creeps in like a voyeuristic partner in crime. Black gloved hands reach for the lovely neck of a young maiden. The faceless killer strangles, stabs, slashes, or otherwise horribly murders her in front of our eyes, the camera lovingly recording every perverse detail. This description of the giallo, a distinctly Italian twist on stalk and kill horror genre, could fit the hundreds of slasher films but the true giallo combines a poetic, haunting beauty with grand guignol gore and a bent of sexual perversity.
Italian horror did not begin and end with giallo, but it certainly put the genre on the map and influenced the direction of Italian horror (as well as, among others, Spanish and French horror) for decades. Mario Bava and Dario Argento are the king and crown prince (respectively) of the genre that was born in the sixties and bloomed in the seventies and beginning in the late nineties, as scores of gialli rolled out on videotape and, later, DVD, in restored and uncut versions, I devoured these releases. But like so many other fans, I also discovered that the genre continued to grind through the decades. As the rest of the world took the lead, the Italian film industry – apart from inspired exceptions –continued cranking out imitations of its own creation. The excitement waned as the pool of classics was quickly drained and I worked my way through lesser and lesser horrors just waiting for a moment of inspiration. In recent years, Japan and Spain have, in turn, taken the lead in carving out their own territory in the horror genre, and I’ve left the giallo spelunking for hardier souls than I. But I still treasure those discoveries and revel in the lush, visually stunning cinematic spectacle of the giallo at its best, a waking nightmare with the poetic grace of a musical: Italy’s dance of death. Let the ball begin.
Barbara Steele, her eyes glaring hate even as her face registers terror, spits curses with hellfire as a spiked mask is slowly placed over her face. Suddenly a massive mallet pounds the iron mask and the credits explode in fire. Even in his directorial debut, Mario Bava knew how grab an audience’s attention, and he doesn’t let it go. It’s not really a giallo, but it is the first great Italian horror and the feature debut of the man who would define the giallo over the next decade. Steele only starred a couple of Italian horror films, but her distinctive, unusual beauty seemed to capture something primal in the mix of sex and sadism, innocence and corruption, victim and victimizer. She is terrifyingly lovely in a double role as the vengeful witch burned at the stake and her guileless descendant who unwittingly resurrects her with a drop of blood, and she’s both innocent and devilishly wicked with equal fervor. The moody, macabre, hauntingly beautiful cult classic of cruelty marked the beginning of great talent and the first great work of Italian horror.
A painter and cinematographer turned director, a craftsman turned celluloid dreamer, an industry veteran who created, almost single-handedly, the uniquely Italian genre of baroque horror known as “giallo,” he directed the most graceful and deliriously mad horror films of the 1960s and early 1970s. Always better at imagery than explanation, at set piece than story, Bava’s films are at their best dream worlds and nightmare visions. Check your logic at the door.
Bava was born into the movies in 1914. Italy was at the height of its epic historical spectacles and his father, Eugenio Bava, was one of Italy’s top cameramen; he shot, among others film, the lavish blockbuster Quo Vadis. Mario trained as a painter but soon followed in his father’s footsteps and became one of Italy’s most in-demand cameramen (Bava disdained the term “cinematographer”) and special effects artists, often working uncredited. He’s said to have made unsigned directorial contributions to such productions as Mario Camerini’s Ulysses (1955) with Kirk Douglas, Jacques Tourneur’s The Giant of Marathon (1959) with Steve Reeves, and Raoul Walsh’s Estherand the King (1960) with Joan Collins.
Legend has it that Italian genre veteran Riccardo Freda “pushed” his friend Bava into the director’s chair by abandoning not one but two projects for his frequent cinematographer to finish (it’s hard to verify the real reason that Freda left the projects, but it makes for a good enough story to justify printing the legend). Based on his uncredited direction completing Freda’s I Vampiri and Caltiki, the Immortal Monster, plus his imaginative work as cinematographer, special effects artist, and assistant director on Pietro Francisci’s genre-defining muscleman movies Hercules and Hercules Unchained, Bava was offered a shot a directing a project of his choosing. He chose Nikolai Gogol’s short story “Viy” and made his official directoral debut, at age 46, on The Mask of Satan, renamed Black Sunday for the U.S. release.
Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Marriedmay look like your basic Sundance/Slamdance indie feature, with its wandering handheld camerawork and ensemble riffing through the collisions and confrontations of a dysfunctional family reunion, but in his hands the familiar conflicts and clashes are invigorated by an authenticity and, dare I say it, a sense of rediscovery. The one-time underdog auteur who traded his small termite art movies of American eccentrics and their distinctive communities (Melvin and Howard and Something Wild) for the Hollywood respectability of films like Philadelphia and Beloved is back doing what he does best. Demme brings an inclusiveness and a sense of community to the film. He gives characters we may only meet once a lived-in quality and makes music a defining part of the community with a soundtrack played live by the wedding guests (a roster that includes Robyn Hitchcock and Sister Carol East, among others). Rachel Getting Married is both warmly generous and uncomfortably honest and it’s one of the best American movies of the year.
My phone interview with Jonathan Demme started almost 45 minutes late. Once we started talking, it became obvious how such a thing could happen. I was supposed to have a 15-minute interview, but the time flew so easily that when the publicist broke in to pull him away for the next interview, we’d been talking for over half an hour. Demme speaks with an excitement and passion that I rarely hear in people discussing their work; reading his words doesn’t begin to capture the enthusiasm or expressiveness of the interview. He doesn’t just say the words “reluctantly,” he transforms it into an expression of the epic struggle within himself the way he pronounces it: “relllll-UC-tantly.” And his love of film and filmmaking is matched by his respect for collaborators and his excitement over the magic that arises out of collaboration.
How did this project come your way?
Sidney Lumet called me up on the telephone and said, ‘My daughter, Jenny, has written a wonderful screenplay and Jonathan, you should direct it.’
“(Universal) told me that although they didn’t know who was going to direct (Touch of Evil), Orson Welles was going to play the heavy. ‘You know, Orson Welles is a pretty good director,’ I said. ‘Did it ever occur to you to have him direct it?’ At the time Orson had not directed a picture in America since Macbeth. They were a bit nonplused, but they got back to me in a couple of days and said ‘Yeah, well that’s a very good idea, a startling idea.’” – Charlton Heston, 1971 interview.
Others have taken credit for bringing Orson Welles to the project that would be his last tango with Hollywood and his final American production. Albert Zugsmith, who produced Man in the Shadow with Welles as the heavy, once claimed that Welles offered to direct the worst script in his possession and Zugsmith handed him Badge of Evil ( the original title of novel and Paul Monash’s adaptation). But history has accepted (as has Welles himself) the Heston version. It was a mid-budget, modest crime thriller and Welles took on directing and rewriting duties with no increase in salary, as if Universal was doing Welles the favor. Perhaps they thought they were, as Welles the director had a reputation in Hollywood for being difficult, profligate and uncommercial. Welles himself saw it less a job than an opportunity, a chance to prove himself to the industry with a commercial film at a bargain price.
As on The Lady From Shanghai, Welles was in the position of making a studio picture out of a pulp thriller, a project not of his choosing but one that he remade in his own image.The resulting picture is a mad, gloriously sleazy and grandiosely bravura B movie opera, a study in corruption and racism in the bordertown netherworld straddling the boundary between Mexico and the good old US of A. Welles’ cherubic face becomes the bloated bulldog mask of bullying police detective Hank Quinlan, perhaps his most grotesque figure in a career of power mad manipulators. [See Robert C. Cumbow’s essay for a marvelous reading of the film]. And once again the film was yanked from his hands, re-edited in his absence and released (as part of a double bill) in a truncated version that made a hash of the story and reinforced the old cliché about Welles: his films didn’t make sense and didn’t make money.
In 1998, while researching the revision of Touch of Evil, I pursued an interview with Walter Murch, then and now arguably the dean of American film sound and image editors. I had only an E-mail address. He responded with this very gracious message:
I received your email about Touch of Evil, and here is Rick Schmidlin’s phone number. [Sorry, I’m not making that part of the public record — SAx]. He is the producer of the restoration, and it would be best to get the details from him since I am in Rome now working on another film. I will include an interview I did earlier in the year when I was working on Touch of Evil – hopefully this will give you some information.
What followed was, by all appearances, a promotional interview with an unidentified interviewer leading Murch through general questions on his work on the revision. I reprint the interview, conducted sometime in mid-1998, below.
What does Touch of Evil mean to you as a filmmaker?
It had a large indirect influence on me because the filmmakers who influenced me directly were the French New Wave – Godard, Resnais, Truffaut and Rohmer. But it turns out that as young men they were all heavily influenced by Orson Welles and particularly by Touch of Evil, which came out in 1958, just as they started making their own film, and was much more warmly received in Europe than it was in the United States.
In addition, when I went to film school in 1965, Touch of Evil was only seven years old and was studied directly by all of us because of Welles’ use of composition, camera angles, sound, and staging. It’s a tremendous piece of filmmaking.
How did you get involved in the re-editing of Touch of Evil?
Rick Schmidlin, the producer of the restoration, called me because he had heard a lecture that I had given in Los Angeles over the summer at the CountyMuseum on film and film sound, specifically on The Conversation and Apocalypse Now, for which I had done the sound design and the sound mix as well as the picture editing. He thought I would be the right person for “Touch of Evil” since Welles’s notes are almost equally divided between picture and sound, and Welles himself was a master of both.
My research into the unprecendented work done on Touch of Evil in 1998 began here, with a lengthy phone interview with Rick Schmidlin in August of 1998, a month before I’d even had a chance to see the new cut. The man who proposed the radical idea of creating a new version of the film by following the instructions that Welles sent Universal executives in the famous 58-page memo (which had been discovered a few years earlier) began in the music business. He developed from a lighting director for live concerts rock shows to a producer of music videos and long-form music projects, as well as expanding into other areas of documentary filmmaking as both producer and director. But his revision of Touch of Evil became the buzz event of 1998 long before its unveiling at Telluride and Toronto. (It was set to debut at Cannes but the screening was cancelled in deference to the protest lodged by Beatrice Welles-Smith, who claimed that her “moral rights” were being violated by the revision of her father’s work – ironic given the dedication of the creative team to honoring Welles’ direct requests – and that controversy only gave the film more attention). Schmidlin was passionate about this project but insistent that it not me mistaken for a director’s cut, as no such cut ever existed in life. In his own words, “It’s an academic example utilizing two of the finest people in their field – one as a scholar of the critical medium, one as an educated scholar of commercial editorial and sound medium – and taking Welles‘ documentation and translating them to the screen.” The bulk of the interview was conducted over the phone on August 4, 1998, with a follow-up conversation on August 24.
Since his work on Touch of Evil, Schmidlin helped produce the restoration of Thomas Edison’s first sound film experiment (again working with Walter Murch) and a reconstruction of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, utilizing stills and explanatory cards to fill in for the hours is excised and missing footage.
When did the Touch of Evil project begin? With the discovery of the memo?
Basically what I originally wanted to do was a laserdisc and just document on the laserdisc for Universal the project so I could get the most amount of living beings involved and be able to get the most documents put together so there was a good documentation of this film and explore what elements may exist within the vaults. But over the years the laserdisc kept on getting passed and I talked to a friend of mine, Louis Feola, who was then the president of Universal Home Video, and Louis eventually approached Chris McGurk, who at that point was vice president and COO, and he brought it over to Jim Waters and they sparked an interest in it. So they let me investigate it with Bob O‘Neil and basically what we did was I was able to investigate what film elements existed in the can relating to the film. At that same time I did more research within the libraries and eventually Jim Waters asked Lou Wasserman, though research I had found through Jonathan Rosenbaum, which I will get into in a second, and basically Jim Waters asked Wasserman if a memo existed and Wasserman produced it through his contact, the 58-page memo. The reason I knew about the memo was that Allen Daviau had alerted me while I was involved in thelaserdisc project that there was an excerpted memo that appeared in Film Quarterly in 1992 from Orson Welles from the book This Is Orson Welles that was not published. And basically he told me that there was a memo that Welles had written. Detailed editorial notes. That‘s how I became aware of the memo itself. It was basically based on all this that we wound up with a green light to recut the film theatrically the way Welles had requested that the final cut be done.
So this project actually began long before you found the memo.
In thought. It was developed as wanted to do a laserdisc and basically it was a film that needed to be more seriously addressed than previously had been done with it.
Bob O’Neil was the head offilm preservation and restoration at Universal in 1988. His job was to evaluate to all the materials Universal held in its film library and oversee the repair and restoration of elements for new prints and home video releases, everything from Hitchcock classics to Abbot and Costello movies to film noir classics to B-movie rediscoveries. He was the point man on finding, repairing and restoring the surviving elements of Touch of Evil for the unprecedented revision undertaken by project producer Rick Schmidlin and editor Walter Murch. This interview gets into the technical and physical details of true film preservation and restoration, working with original film materials on a celluloid and photo-chemical levelrather than the digital work of to create the best possible master elements for theatrical prints and home video, as well as digital repair and restoration in the early days of the technology.
Mr. O’Neil spoke by phone for over an hour back in August of 1998, answering questions about Touch of Evil in particular and film preservation and restoration in general and the discussion ranged all over the Universal catalogue and various projects was involved in, both present and past. This interview has been edited to focus specifically on Touch of Evil and related topics. Again, the interview was conducted before I had a chance to see the new cut, which had yet to have its public World Premiere at Telluride in the first week of September, 1998.
One final note: Note the way he refers to the film as “the show” – that’s old school, baby.
There were effectively two different versions of Touch of Evil on film and then a third composite version prepared for home video.
What’s the history of the film versions? The 92-minute version is the one that was theatrically released. Did you still have the original negative for that?
Yes. To go back to the beginning, what happened was that, after the studio got through cutting the show, they had that preview version, the long version. When they previewed it, there was a print struck for that screening. I don’t know if there was one or two of them, all I know is that in the long run, for us today, we are fortunate in that one long version print survived and that long version print is basically what you have probably seen if you’ve gone to, for instance, the Library of Congress with their film registry tour, they were showing the long version there. There’s been various festivals, over the years, where they have shown the long version. All of those prints that you’re looking at came from dupe negatives that were struck from that long version print, so that long version print was the only element in existence that we could use for material that was going to come from that version. Now the other source material that we had was from the short version, which was the original negative, we had the original dub masters, on the dubbing stage when they did their final mix, we have all that material, and we also had extra fine grains and dupe negatives that we could have used if we needed to. So what happened, technically, was that we were fortunate that we started out with the original negative for the body of the show. We took that original negative, went back and repaired it as well as we could, because there were still spots on there where, from printing on it over the years, the negative had been damaged here and there. So we were able to go back and take original negative, answer print the original negative, then make a brand new composite fine grain from it, and then our dupe negative that we were going to use for the show. Now that, the trick them came into, that’s on the short version. Now all the long version material that was going to be used could only come from that one single source black and white print. Now a black and white print looks totally different than what the material looks like coming from the original negative. There’s issues as far as quality goes and as far as contrast goes. What ends up happening is that we’re going to end up intercutting between the two versions, pieces of the dupe negative from the long version and pieces from the short version. So the pieces from the long version had to be tested and found proper printing methods to create as seamless an internegative as we could that would cut in with the dupe negative from the original. And then after it was all cut together, the next step was to step back and say, ‘Okay, now that we’ve donethis, what do we need to do digitally to fix the damagedelements that ended up in the show, in the final cut?’ That was the final piece of it that we just finished up, actually we just finished up this week [August 14, 2008] on it.
In 1998, as Universal was preparing the theatrical release of the revised Touch of Evil, I was offered the opportunity to talk with star Janet Leigh about the film in a phone interview. I had yet to see the new version, so my questions were formed around my research and my familiarity with the previous versions of the film. The interview was never published. What follows is an edited version of the transcript focused specifically on her experiences during the original production of Touch of Evil and her thoughts on Welles, on the original film and on the revision, which she generously supported and promoted in interviews and personal appearances.
I wanted to talk to you about what it was like to work with Orson Welles on the shooting of the film.
Right. This new reediting is not a new shooting, it’s just the proper assemblage of what we shot, which hadn’t been done the way he [Welles] had hoped. Well, you know the story. But I don’t want to give the impression that it’s like another picture or something. I mean I don’t think we’d match if we shot scenes today (laughs), so it’s really just what we shot then, as you know.
Were you involved in any way with this revision?
With this revision? No, only in, now that it’s coming out, in telling people about it. But I didn’t have anything to do with the revision.
I understand it doesn‘t make a lot of narrative changes but it does make a lot of stylistic changes.
Exactly. Plus the pacing. At that time in Hollywood the level of our movies were sort of, everything had to be kind of tied up with a little pretty ribbon, each scene rounded off, and Touch of Evil was never meant to be that kind of picture. It was way ahead of its time, as Orson was. It was meant to be a rough, jagged, jarring, shaking-you-up kind of movie, and the studio just didn’t understand that. They couldn’t understand the rough edges. When I saw it this way it was so exciting because you went back to the way it had felt on the set. In mean this was the kind of picture we made and now that’s what we’re seeing on the screen. I mean, the editing has pace to it and suspense and much more of the mounting kind of horror and the mounting kind of “My god, when is he going to look for his wife?” It just mounts to a frenzy.
In 1998 I had the rare pleasure of interviewing Charlton Heston for the release of the Walter Murch-supervised “restoration” of Touch of Evil (1958). It was supposed to be the center of a essay on the film, but the article was canceled and the interview unpublished until earlier this year on my website. I republish it here as part of a collection of interviews on Touch of Evil and the 1998 revision of the film.
I‘ve been doing some research and I‘ve read your journals and autobiography where you go into magnificent detail on the making of Touch of Evil.
Well thank you.
So I wanted to talk about some other things that I haven‘t heard you talk about in interviews or read about in your books. One thing that struck me as I read your piece was that it seems like you had quite a rapport with Orson Welles.
Yes, that’s true. I had never known him before but of course I had see Citizen Kane and for that matter I’d seen Othello. And his reputation then as a filmmaker then was remarkable. I was amazed that the studio, when I suggested he direct the picture, they acted as though I’d suggested directing the picture but his work on the film was extraordinary, I thought.
When did you actually meet Orson Welles for the first time?
Oh, we didn’t meet until I came back from Michigan, where I’d discussed on the phone using him as a director, and that may prove to be one of my significant contributions to motion pictures, that I bullied Universal Studios into giving Orson Welles the last picture he made as a director in America. And then I came back to Los Angeles and he had by then rewritten the script entirely and we discussed it and discussed various elements in the story and then of course went on to shoot it.
When I got on the phone with Tim Robbins, who was doing a day of interviews to publicize his new film, The Lucky Ones, he began with all the energy of a guy doing just another job, giving out answers that had the feeling of a familiar response practiced over numerous interviews. I have to take some of that blame myself â€“ you ask the same questions, you’ll get the same answers â€“ but it also felt like the outspoken Robbins was holding his own political view in check so as not to distract from the film, in which he plays an Iraq veteran trying to get home after his tour of duty and ending up on a road trip with a pair of younger soldiers on 30-day leave. I was supposed to get ten minutes and was hoping to get at least a couple of interesting comments from the Oscar-winning actor (for MysticRiver) and Oscar-nominated director (for Dead Man Walking). And sure enough, once we got beyond The Lucky Ones and into other areas, such as his work in the theater, he seemed to come alive. Strangely enough, I never got around to talking about either MysticRiver or Dead Man Walking, or his talent for playing closely-guarded characters, but we get started on Cradle Will Rock, his last film as a director, before he was called off for another interview. Some of the interview ended up in the short “A Moment With Tim Robbins” mini-feature for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The rest of it is here.
The character Colee, played by Rachel McAdams, calls your group “The Lucky Ones” because you survived battle. How lucky can they be if their definition of luck is simply survival?
I don’t know if that’s what the title means. It could be that they’ve found each other. One of the things that I responded to immediately with the script was that this story was very human feel to it and had compassion for the struggle and the challenge for returning home to the country after serving overseas. That’s a story that I think is important to tell, it’s a story that involves opening a door to something that not a lot of us have to think about. My main concern with it was, I wanted to make a film that veterans could see and appreciate.
What kind of research did you do for the role?
I’ve been talking to veterans and people in the armed services and family members of people in the armed services for a long time, since I did Top Gun, so I’ve come to know quite a few people in the military, everyone from gung-ho Republicans to people that were Republicans and are now against the war to Democrats to liberals to activists. There’s a wide spectrum of people in the military, they don’t all think the same way, and I have a deep respect who make that kind of sacrifice. I think it’s import that we understand that part of support for the troops is advocacy when they return, not only when also they’re there but when they return, and there’s an awful lot of challenges facing people coming home and this comes from my conversations with veterans and family members. I would hope the film perhaps makes people more sensitive to some of the needs of our veterans.
The Earrings of Madame de… has been called one of the perfect pictures of cinema. And it is amazing, a piece that is not just directed, not just choreographed, but sculpted in time and space, with actors and décor as the raw materials and the camera carving out the story. Charles Boyer gives what I believe is the most delicate and nuanced performance of his career as the General, the very picture of a cultured gentleman at ease with social convention and manners, the confident, smiling high society habitué. Vittorio De Sica, as the Italian diplomat, Baron Donati, is suave and serious, hiding a romantic passion, where the General is easy and joshing to hide a lack of feeling. When he falls for the Countess (Danielle Darrieux), the Madame de… of the title married to the General, the scene is played out at a dance that Andrew Sarris describes so much better than I could: “In a series of Strauss waltz sequences, the most dazzling courtship in film history is conducted before the probing eyes of the Parisian Belle Epoque aristocracy.” Her whole social life has been a series of flirtations and romantic play, but this scene is unabashedly romantic, a fairy tale of love at first sight. But it’s a fleeting moment, and for all the dreamy romance of the scenes, it’s hard to feel the heat between them because the passion simply doesn’t break through their carefully cultivated facades.
Like other of Ophuls’ films, there is a circularity to the story carried along by the journey of heart-shaped earrings of the title as they are sold, bought, given away as love tokens and farewell gifts, and ultimately make their way back to the Countess. The jewels are never more than tokens, and the heart-shaped diamonds are a cold, impersonal stand-in for affection, but by the time they come back to the Countess as a gift from Donati, she has invested them with a meaning far greater than they ever had when they were merely a present from her husband.
Darrieux, who here somewhat resembles Arletty (only more poised and less easygoing), plays the Countess as an actress who stages her own personal dramas for effect, fainting to force the sale of the earrings, or stop a confrontation at a dance. The camera’s relationship to the Countess is like a respectful dancer in an elaborately choreographed routine, one of those elaborate 19th Century group dances where you spend more time moving away from and dancing around your partner than you do actually touching them, always maintaining a respectful distance. Ophuls is sympathetic, but never really intimate, and treats the Countess like an actress who is always on stage, playing the part of the perfect socialite, until she sinks into depression at the end of the affair, her once buoyant charm now listless, her face tired and old before its time.
Battle in Seattle, the directorial debut of Irish actor Stuart Townsend, is a well-meaning history lesson that looks at the 1999 WTO protests in Settle through a series of exceedingly conventional fictional stories. The film, which premiered a year ago at the Toronto International Film Festival and later became the most apropos opening night film in the history of the Seattle International Film Festival, is finally getting its release, to fairly tepid and critical reviews. And while I can understand the criticisms — the sloganeering, the mundane fictional stories, the inevitable simplifications, not to mention too many embarrassing performances and a script that substitutes symbolic gestures for action and debate — I’m also impressed with what he got in there, namely the sense of organization and planning that turned this loose confederation of activists and protest groups into the most effective organized protest in recent history. He makes a serious effort to explain what the WTO is and the criticisms of the organization that would rouse tens of thousands of protesters to gather in Seattle, and he celebrates the success for what it is. I’m not quite sure what to make of the irony of Townsend shooting largely in Vancouver, Canada, a necessity given the Canadian financing (he couldn’t find American support – what does that say about our film culture that Canada is more willing to make a film about American political protest than Hollywood is?) but an irony in a film that tackles issues of globalization and then outsources an American story to Canada. (I wrote about the film in my SIFF coverage for GreenCine and review it this week for the Seattle P-I.)
I had the opportunity to talk with Townsend in a phone interview for a feature story for the Seattle P-I. What was scheduled as a twenty minutes interview continued for almost twice that long and we covered a lot of territory that I couldn’t fit into the P-I piece, so here is the balance of the interview.
You’ve said that you didn’t interview anyone involved in the WTO protests. How did you research the film?
It was one of the first major events that was really covered by the Internet, so there was a lot of research there. There were a lot of books, a lot of documentaries made, a lot of news footage to see. I would have loved to have talked to activists and authorities but I just didn’t really know how to go about doing it. And actually, in retrospect, I think it was good because I didn’t have any interference from any other political viewpoint or anything like that, I just came out from a very non-partisan place.
I researched it for a year and a half and I was reading globalization books, like pro-free trade book by people like Thomas Friedman and other books that were critical of free trade, and trying to balance the arguments and find out where I stood on this and what I wanted to say, and then I wrote the script and went shopping and people seemed to gravitate toward the idea but no one jumped at the script, so then I went back and I spent a year and a half doing some pretty substantial rewrites. And I took the three documentaries made about the event and I made my own 15-minute film, cut to music, as a visual to the script, and I think that’s really what helped: people could suddenly see what this film might look like, visually, and how intense it got. That’s when I got financed.
I had the opportunity to talk to Alan Ball about Towelhead, his first feature-film script after American Beauty and his feature directing debut, when he presented the film at the Seattle International Film Festival in June, 2008. Now that the film is getting a limited release in New York and L.A. (with a wider release to follow), I share our talk about Towelhead, Six Feet Under and the differences in writing for TV and film.
Be warned: we discuss key scenes of the film and there are spoilers here.
Why did you choose this novel, Towelhead, about a thirteen-year-old Arab-American girl dealing with adolescence in a culture inundated with Desert Storm, as your next feature project and your directorial debut?
You know, it’s interesting. I actually had a spec screenplay that I was ready to go out with, it’s a screwball comedy set in the thirties and I was just putting the finishing touches on that when my agent called me and said, ‘I have this manuscript that I just got and I think you might respond to it,’ so he sent it over and I read it and I couldn’t put it down. There was something about the story and the characters and the tone of it that just really spoke to me and I could see the movie totally in my head when I was reading it. And I loved the story. I loved the fact that it was a not hysterical take on what is a very common experience for a lot of young women, and young men, for that matter, and also that when I got to the end of it, the character of Jasira had not been destroyed by what she went through. I found that really sort of refreshing, because usually any story that’s told about a young girl who has some sort of improper sexual interaction with an older man, the feeling at the end of that story is, ‘That’s the worst thing that could possibly happen to her,’ and she’s destroyed. Not the case when it’s about a young boy and an older woman, then it’s like, ‘Oh-ho, score!’ And so I found that there was something really interesting about that aspect of the story and that this traumatic experience she goes through kind of makes her a stronger, deeper person and also allows her to take control over her own life and her own body in a way that she wouldn’t have been able to had this not happened to her and I found that really kind of refreshing and I don’t want to use a word like revolutionary, but it did make me realize that I’d never really seen a story of this nature told in that way that didn’t fetishize the victim status of the girl and also was kind of sex positive and also presented a young female character who was curious and sexually assertive without punishing her for it or making it seem like she was “asking for it.” I just really responded to it so I called my agent on Monday and said, ‘I would love to option this book. I want to do it myself, I don’t want to take it to studio because I can only imagine what trying to develop this in a studio would lead to.’
What was it about the book, â€œFive Roundabouts to Heaven,â€ that made you say: â€œThis is my next project.â€?
Iâ€™ve always been interested in psychological stories and character-driven stories. Right before I started working on this, Iâ€™d seen a lot of Joan Crawford movies and Bette Davis movies and Barbara Stanwyck movies and Fred MacMurray movies, a kind of old-fashioned storytelling that was usually over-the-top and larger-than-life in terms of the plot, but something about them really resonated for me personally. So I decided thatâ€™s what I wanted to do, I wanted to make one of those kinds of films without being a retro film. I just liked the way those stories were told. I spent a summer reading old pulp mysteries. People often say that you can make a movie out of a pulp fiction better than a movie out of a classic and I think there is some reason for that because thereâ€™s something more you can play with. And what I liked about this book particularly was that in the course of the story, when you learn more about each of the characters, you realize that, at its heart, itâ€™s a really humanist story about relationships. Even though itâ€™s a genre film, itâ€™s also a humanist film. What I thought was quite true about the emotional stakes of these people within their marriages, even again if itâ€™s over the top in its structure, it resonated for me personally within my own relationships.