Sean Axmaker writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and writes and edits the companion website Stream On Demand at Home (www.streamondemandathome.com), is a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Fandor, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org). He was a film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for nine years and a longtime home video columnist for IMDb and MSN Movies, and his work has appeared in Indiewire, Today.com, The Stranger, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, Filmfax, Psychotronic Video, and "The Scarecrow Video Guide."
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 It was supposed to be the center of a essay on the film, but the article was canceled and the interview unpublished until earlier this year on my website.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.
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.
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.
Last year, in a piece I wrote for GreenCine, I dreamed up my fantasy list of box sets and special editions I wanted to see (heck, I wanted to OWN) in the coming years. Less than year later, two of those dream DVD sets have been announced. (I doubt my piece had much to do with them, but hey, it was a dream list and I can fantasize about its impact.)
Universal is celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil with a two-disc special edition featuring all three versions of the film (the 1958 release version, the longer preview cut discovered in the mid-seventies, and the 1998 Walter Murch reconstruction), plus commentary on each disc by different folks, the complete Welles memo, a couple of featurette, interviews and such. This will be the first time either of the those earlier two versions have actually been home video in their original state (the old VHS and laserdisc releases of the film were of a studio job that combined footage from both of those old versions into one hybrid version). The anniversary branding explains the delay in the release, something fans have been expecting ever since the Murch-helmed reconstruction. The release date October 7. See the press release for the complete details on the release.
A release sure to receive less publicity but one that is equally exciting to me, however, is Sony’s Budd Boetticher Box Set, a collection of the Columbia “Ranown” films directed by Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott. The release has been long in the coming as only a couple of the films had been released to VHS (and those on substandard Goodtimes videos). Paramount’s 2005 DVD release of Seven Men From Now, the first collaboration between Boetticher, Scott and screenwriter Burt Kennedy, only whetted my appetite for the rest of the films.
Seven Men From Now (1956) set the tone and lean style for series, as if it was carved it in the stone-like visage of Randolph Scott’s weatherbeaten face. Boetticher had just come off a two-year stint with Universal, where he cranked out journeyman assignments (including his first westerns) with a muscular sense of action and place, and the austere little crime thriller The Killer Is Loose when producer John handed him the terse script by Burt Kennedy. More than perfect fit with Boetticher, it brought the best in the director. Boetticher pares himself down to the rugged essentials and wrenches up the tension between the central characters, isolated in the empty desert, with remarkable economy. He makes Kennedyâ€™s dialogue sing like lyrics and turns Scott â€œlimitationsâ€ as an actor into an expressive element of character: inexpressive and inflexible, hard, his voice that masks his feelings and his lanky body is perfectly at ease setting a horse or handling a gun but less sure in moments of emotional intimacy.
Producer/star Scott realized that he had a winning combination and immediately signed Boetticher up to direct for his own company at Columbia Pictures, where he cranked out low budget westernsthat made enormous profits. The made five films together at Columbia â€“ The Tall T (1957), Decision at Sundown (1957), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), Ride Lonesome (1959), and Comanche Station (1960) â€“ three of them scripted by Kennedy. From The Tall T to Comanche Station, you can see Boetticher and Kennedy honing the style and structure established in 7 Men to a laconic austerity. That cycle stands next to the greatest works of Anthony Mann and John Ford: tight, taut, often savage little pictures that are both graceful and visceral, direct, and rich in character.
David Mamet’s Redbelt arrives on DVD this week. I take the occasion of reviewing the film to work through some of my thoughts on what I believe is the smartest, sharpest and most unashamedly pure melding of personal filmmaking and genre filmmaking since Walter Hill’s Undisputed, another magnificent fight film. I don’t know that the film was misunderstood and I haven’t sifted through the critical reception, but the film was a financial underachiever (it earned less than $3 million in ticket sales in he U.S.) with few champions. Here’s my shot at championing it.
Mamet’s stage reputation is built on male dramas of wit and wills and one-upmanship, battles fought almost exclusively through his glorious dialogue, pushed far beyond any sense of realism into a verbal symphony of intertwining solos built on staccato bursts of profane words elevated to terse poetry. As a filmmaker, however, his most interesting films are his genre picture â€“ heist films, murder mysteries, con movies, all generally male-centric narratives with a strong physical component (from subtle sleight-of-hand to bold showings of strength) that he reworks with his own brand of professional pride, machismo and male honor. It’s a man’s world and he revels in it.
In many ways, Redbelt is both a revival and a complete redefinition of the kind of film that Jean-Claude Van Damme cranked out in the eighties, the kind of thriller that pit fighters in matches in underground leagues and our honorable hero overcomes his disdain for such bloodsport to take revenge for the murder of a brother/friend in the ring. It’s a fight film, in Mamet’s own words, but in the distinctive martial arts world of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. And it’s a kind of samurai film, with Iraq vet and poor but proud Jiu-jitsu instructor Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor, all quiet dignity and modesty) as his honorable warrior in a dishonorable world.
Mamet, of course, latches on to the philosophical grounding of martial arts that is always given lip service in such films, and then either ignored or bent to fit the revenge plots. But he also embraces the machismo of the genre in his own distinctive way: the confidence of strength, the courage of modesty, and the professional grace of a fighter who uses the least amount of effort and movement to achieve his goal. Mamet is a devotee to Jiu-jitsu and he gives it all his respect.
It’s glorious pulp fiction elevated to genre art, full of both Mamet’s cynicism about the corruption of big business (just substitute Hollywood for the martial arts league) and his romantic ideals of men in military service and men dedicated to a higher purpose. Mamet never manages to capture the fiery fury of a great martial arts battle; he’s no action director and shoots the choreography largely from the perspective of a TV spectator, direct and functional. But the screenplay is pure Mamet: characters trading questions that never get answered, lines repeated like a mantra, conversations like twin monologues in parallel dimensions that always manage to wind up back in the same universe.
I first “discovered” Steve Coogan through his film roles, first in The Wind in the Willows(aka Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, directed by and starring Monty Python’s Terry Jones) and then taking the lead in Michael Winterbottom’s24 Hour Party People. It was only later that I finally saw the creation that made him famous in Britain: Alan Partridge, the unctuous, self-absorbed wannabe TV personality flailing in the brilliant parody of a talk-show train wreck Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge. (The title refers to the Abba song â€“ but of course â€“ and is pedantically worked into his every guest introduction. Ah-ha!). The series was one of the many he has created, written and starred in for the BBC but only recently finding their way to the U.S., thanks to BBC America and BBC DVD releases. (His latest show, Saxondale, is slated to run on BBC America in late 2008.)
I had the opportunity to interview Coogan when he came through Seattle to promote Hamlet 2 (opening August 22) for a small “A Moment With” piece for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a “What’s In Your DVD Player?” feature for MSN Entertainment. I wound up with a generous 45 minutes with Coogan, a man very serious when it comes to the business of comedy. That meant that, after carving out those little slices of interview, I still had more than half an hour of enlightening conversation with Coogan about Hamlet 2, his work with Michael Winterbottom and the business of creating shows for British TV. Here it is.
You made two films with Michael Winterbottom, 24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy.There had to be a lot of challenges on those two films, where there were so many levels of engagement with the character, and then stepping back and commenting on the portrayals.
With Michael Winterbottom, in those films, there’s a very simple thing I do that I don’t do in other films and other work I do. In other films I do, especially comic films, there’s a lot of control and craft involved in what I’m doing, whereas in those movies with Michael, I trust him enough to, if you like, let go of the controls and see what happens. And I’m never quite sure what I’m doing and that’s quite liberating because I can trust him. So I just sort of forget about almost everything and go with whichever way the wind blows and whichever way he pushes me and just dive in and don’t think about it too much. It’s just an organic, instinctive thing, there’s not much of an intellectual process going on for me in those movies. When I’m talking to the camera, I’m just talking to someone about what’s happening to me. I don’t over think it, I trust him. It’s a very different way of working.
In addition, you write and produce so many of your own projects for television. Do the Winterbottom projects give you a chance to stretch yourself in other ways?
It does. It allows me to because I don’t have the responsibility for what I’m doing, which is quite liberating, as long as you trust the person you’re working with and trusting them to be responsible. It enables me to do things I wouldn’t normally do because it’s a way not, even though I’m proud of working with Michael, it’s not my voice, it’s not my vision, it’s his and I’m just there to facilitate that and to help render that, which is nice, whereas when I’m doing my own stuff it is my point of view, it’s from me.