by Marjorie Rosen
In Hollywood circles the adage, “You’re as good as your last picture,” holds more truth than is comfortable or healthy. It could also be why interviewing a director as the reviews for his latest opus are rolling in may either resemble a wake or a euphoric victory celebration. The atmosphere and attitudes I encountered during recent visits with Francis Ford Coppola (April 8, 1974) and Jack Clayton (March 30, 1974) illustrate these chiaroscuric extremes.
Coppola, who was riding the crest of critical huzzahs for The Conversation, had just wound up New York City location-shooting on The Godfather II and was catching a plane to Sicily that night to finish filming. With two smash hits in a row and excellent prospects for The Godfather II, he was high-spirited and expansive about the conversation and, as always, impressively articulate; only one niggling irritation seemed to mar his current track record—Gatsby.
As official scenarist, Coppola was inextricably bound to this albatross. But what exactly were his contributions? Just how much critical blame was he willing to accept? When does a professional relinquish tactful silence and vindicate himself from a colleague’s (apparent) failure? When Coppola finally spoke about how his approach to The Great Gatsby differed from Clayton’s he clarified a great deal in terms of that film’s process of deterioration, and also revealed an interesting disparity between his own and Clayton’s sensibilities.
On the other hand, four days after partridges, white roses, and almost-universal critical vitriol had sent Gatsby off. Jack Clayton was nursing a bad cold and both emotional and physical exhaustion. Paramount had, in a burst of superstitious sentiment, set the opening brouhaha exactly two years to the day after The Godfather, but the wretched reviews suggested this would not be the same kind of bonanza. And in conversation it became apparent that the director’s ego was as bruised and fragile as his body.
Clayton, who has a great personal elegance, a charm and style which does not come across in transcript, continually walked the fine line between diplomacy and defensiveness. Afterwards, his stoic discretion, while admirable, seemed to me a measure of self-preservation as well (just as Coppola’s breach of same was). After all, if Gatsby‘s critical massacre translates (unfairly) into an estimate of Jack Clayton’s worth right now. Paramount’s good graces alone may determine his short-range directorial future.
MARJORIE ROSEN: How did you first become interested in the idea for The Conversation? I would think that it would take a certain amount of knowledge about surveillance equipment.
FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA: I’ve always been interested in technology of all kinds. About eight years ago I was having a conversation with Irvin Kershner, the director; we were talking about surveillance. He mentioned that the safest place for two people who w’anted to have a conversation in private would be outside in a crowd. Then he added that he had heard of microphones that had gun sights on them that were so powerful and selective that they could, if aimed at the mouths of these people in the crowd, pick up their conversation. I thought what an odd both device and notif for a film. This image of two people walking through a crowd with their conversation being interrupted every time someone steps in front of the gunsight. From just a little curiosity like that, I began to very informally put together a couple of thoughts about it, and came to the conclusion that the film would be about the eavesdropper rather than the people.
M.R.: Did you alter your script at all while Watergate was happening?
F.F.C.: Not really. The actual break-in, as you remember, was not considered a big deal at the time. It happened around the time we were shooting the warehouse scene, which is about two-thirds through the movie. We knew about it, but we never knew it was of such significance. Generally for the last few years, I had been aware of any stories that had to do with eavesdropping, looking for little details that might be good. The political references in the picture, which are very slight, are all in the old script. It’s just a matter of common sense that if people were using taps to bug business companies, they would be using it in political elections.
Watergate is a funny accident. I never meant it to be so relevant. I almost think that the picture would have been better received had Watergate not happened. Now, you can look at it, even if you know it was written before Watergate and say, “Oh, look at that. Of course, well, sure.”
M.R.: Cashing in?
F.F.C.: Not even cashing in. Of course, that’s a relevant and topical theme that we’ve been reading about in the paper all the time. But when I wrote it, no one was thinking about it. Same as with The Rain People. The Rain People, which is a totally ignored film—it never even played long enough to be seen —was about a woman leaving a husband she loved because of what her role in the marriage was. It came out four years before there was a really articulated women’s liberation movement as we know it in modern times. The same thing happened there. I was writing about something four years before it became relevant.
M.R.: Can’t you get The Rain People revived?
F.F.C.: Movies are like old girlfriends: Once you’ve done them and you’re finished with them, you don’t go back.
M.R.: That’s not true. At least with movies.
F.F.C.: That’s true from the filmmaker’s point of view. There’s a lot of the same reasons. There’s so much emotion that you’ve invested that you just don’t want to open it up again. I fought that battle. I already went through that disappointment of having nobody like it. People accused it of being an imitation of Easy Rider, of all things. That’s what people said at that time. It’s no more like Easy Rider than it’s like Mary Poppins. A lot of people have said it’s so relevant now, why don’t you bring it out again. The thought of even getting into it again ….
M.R.: You wrote the script of the conversation eight years ago?
F.F.C.: I started it around 967 and I finished around 1969. Then I rewrote it just before I made it.
M.R.: There seem to be a lot of little religious implications.
F.F.C.: It’s very tricky to deal with a man who is your main character who you’re watching for two hours or whatever the life of the film is, that doesn’t talk to anybody, who lives alone, and who doesn’t relate to anybody. I had given myself a very difficult assignment.
I gradually tried to deepen him and find ways to get inside of him. I had wanted to have, right from the beginning, a confession scene because I thought confession was one of the earliest forms of the invasion of privacy—earliest forms of surveillance—that I could think of. I wanted the film, in its own way, to touch on every method of surveillance that there was in a hard technological sense and in a human sense. Confession, at first, was something I thought related to the central theme. The fact that he went to confession made him a Catholic. In a character that’s so sparsely drawn, you look for any hint you can as to what he’s like.
M R.: It seemed very right. He’s kind of a repressed being.
F.F.C.: The whole Catholic sense of guilt is related also. But that just evolved. I didn’t do it so deliberately.
M R.: What do you think of the comparisons made between The Conversation and Blow-Up?
F.F.C.: I think The Conversation was very influenced by Blow-Up—in that one scene where David Hemmings is blowing up the photograph. It’s very similar to the scene in which Hackman goes through the tape. I knew that. It was definitely inspired by’ or influenced by blowup. That one scene. But the movies as a whole are not at all alike. The scenes of revelation through technology are very similar, but if you look at Blow-Up again, you realize that the best scene —that scene—is, in a sense, the movie. There really isn’t a hell of a lot more.
People are very funny about influences. They look at a movie, and they see something that’s obviously related to a previous film, and they say, “Aha! That’s from Blow-Up!” That’s been going on for thousands of years. They didn’t go reading Hermann Hesse and say, “Ah, that’s Thomas Mann! Look at the influences!” Of course, Antonioni influenced me. I like that film, and I like his other films even more. I should hope that I would steal from him. Stealing from people you admire—there’s a long tradition of that. It’s part of art, I think.
I was reading Steppenwolf at the time I wrote The Conversation, and I was very impressed with this kind of character, Harry Horner. Hence, my guy’s name is Harry. He lives alone in an apartment like the character in Steppenwolf. I was influenced by that too. I could name twenty things that the film’s influenced by.
M R.: Do you think The Conversation owes a debt to Hitchcock?
F.F.C.: Anyone who intends to make a film in the thriller genre is a student of Hitchcock. He invented it. I began to realize that the only way I could get the money to do this picture would be if it worked on some level other than just an inquiry into this man. I didn’t think that anybody would go see a movie that was just a mundane story of just a wiretapper. I felt, very early on, that it had to be a kind of horror film—a Hitchcockian horror film. I reviewed the Hitchcock films and tried to understand why they work so well.
Ultimately, I think I’m a lot different from Hitchcock in my approach. Hitchcock seems to be almost entirely interested in the design of his films. I’m much more interested in performances. I don’t care for most Hitchcock films because they’re terribly acted. My favorite Hitchcock films are the ones that are well acted, like the wrong man and strangers on a train. I identify much more with Clouzot, who works not only on a thriller level but has some other matter to his films. I remember, when I was in high school, Diabolique was showing. If anything, I would hope that the conversation would have that kind of effect.
M.R.: The use of sound in the film is incredible.
F.F.C.: Yes. That has a lot to do with the fellow who edited the film: Walter Murch, who is a contemporary of George Lucas. They went to the USC Film School. He’s been associated with George and myself for the last seven years. He had been a sound artist. He did the sound for The Rain People, THX 1138, American Graffiti, The Godfather. As I was writing this, I had it in mind that Walter would do the sound. So I wrote many scenes to be sound-oriented, like a murder occurring in another room that you don’t see but you hear. But then, since I was working on Godfather II, I asked Walter to edit the film. So, a lot of The Conversation is due to his ability.
M.R.: When I spoke to you two years ago, you were very interested in sound as a possibility for erotic films.
F.F.C.: Sound works on such a sneaky level. You can do things with sound that the audience doesn’t know you’re doing. With a picture in front of them, they’re very aware of it. I just think that sound is very effective.
I have certain prejudices about how-films are made. I feel, for example, that nowadays all movies are shot too close, and it’s getting worse. You go to the movies and you’re looking at people’s heads. I saw Jesus Christ Superstar, which was a musical, and most of the time I was looking at their noses or their chins. It’s a prejudice about what’s being done wrong. I really went out of my way in Godfather II—to cut most of the people at their knees.
M.R.: I understand you once directed a porno film.
F.F.C.: No, never a porno film. They were nudie films in those days. But I may do a porno film. It was about twelve years ago when I was starting, it was when they first had nudie films.
M.R.: What were the titles?
F.F.C.: The first one was a short called The Peeper. It was a cute little premise about a little man who discovers that they are shooting pin-ups near his house. The whole film dealt with his attempts to see what was going on. Every method he used would backfire. He would haul a gigantic telescope up to his room—twelve feet long—and he would focus it but all he would see would be bellybutton. Then he would do something else, and that would backfire.
That film was bought by a company that had made a nudie western about a cowboy who had been kicked in the head and saw all the cows as naked ladies. It was terrible. They hired me to combine my film with that film, and that was called the wide open spaces. Then I made another film. A company hired me for a few days to take a dumb German black-and-white film and add five three-minute color, 3-D nudie sketches to it. That was called The Belt Girls and the Playboy.
M.R.: Do you think there’s a market for short porno films?
F.F.C.: I don’t know. People always talk about it and no one’s done it. Maybe I’ll do it. They talk about high-quality, serious film that uses pornography as a real element. Last Tango in Paris was that, except it wasn’t pornographic.
M.R.: Do you see the films you make in separate categories? The Conversation being separated from Godfather II?
F.F.C.: I have always supported one kind of filmmaking with the money from another. Perhaps, at times, the two have bled together. Obviously, The Godfather was a book which people bought, which I was assigned to do. The Conversation was something I evolved from scratch. So The Conversation has a lot more in common with The Rain People than The Godfather. But you can’t make a film without putting whatever you’ve got of yourself that’s relevant into it. It’s true that I’m operating on two different levels, but they bleed through.
M.R.: Do you have a sense of doing something less than your scope say by doing The Godfather II rather than The Conversation?
F.F.C.: The Godfather II started . . . it was an interesting situation. I really had made so much money on The Godfather, it was irrelevant for me to do a film for any other reason than because I wanted to do it. I didn’t like what was then a script called Death of Michael Corleone. What they were essentially saying to me was that they’d let me do anything I wanted. I began to think of letting The Godfather format subsidize me in doing something more ambitious in the sequel than they wanted.
It was then I made my bargain with them to let me bring back all the original actors that were relevant to my story’ that I hadn’t figured out yet. If it could be a real continuation as though it were really part of the first film and be called The Godfather, and if I could have total control over it, I would do it. They said yes and therefore, Godfather II falls more in the category of a personal film, although it cost twelve million dollars, than the first one. I have to make it relevant or tie it into the first film, but it’s very ambitious on other levels.
M.R.: What do you regard yourself as mostly, a director or a writer?
F.F.C.: I feel that I’m basically a writer who directs. But I think I’m a good director. I felt that, especially, in this last picture, Godfather II. I think it’s really beautifully directed. Maybe I think that because I feel, “Jeez, I got all these nice performances and it’s really fantastic looking and it works—it goes together. Jeez, I hope the script is good because, in the end, that’s what really will determine it.” But I like to think of myself as a writer who directs.
M.R.: I’m surprised that you consider the work of the writer more important than that of the director.
F.F.C.: When people go to see a movie, eighty per cent of the effect it has on them was preconceived and precalculated by the writer, He’s the one who imagines opening with a shot of a man walking up the stairs, and cutting to another man walking down the stairs. Then you know there’s going to be some kind of tension. A good script has preimagined exactly what the movie is going to do on a story’ level, on an emotional level, on all these various levels. So, to me, that’s the primary’ act of creation. The writer’s the guy who started with nothing and dreamed this all up. Then the director and the actors and all the other interpretive artists take this preconception and bring it to life. They sometimes change it to make it work better, but ultimately the content was put in by the writer. So I have to think that he is the main guy.
M R.: Do most writers indicate cuts, and how long a specific scene should run?
F.F.C.: That’s all the specifics of putting it on the screen. But what it’s about and who the characters are. how it’s built and how it’s constructed—the writer did all that.
M R.: Do you think a very solid script and a very’ unimaginative director who is a craftsman of a mediocre order can get together and make a decent film?
F.F.C.: They can make a terrific film if—and here’s the rub—the director will follow the script. The politics of filmmaking is such that the writer doesn’t have any power. The director can totally disregard what the writer has done. If the director disregards what the writer has done or changes it, then the writer’s construction could be lost or it could be improved.
M.R.: How many directors can understand that a script is good and not tamper with it?
F.F.C.: Theoretically, a good director would know when something is good and just direct it. Directors sometimes get confused about who’s creative and who isn’t, and like to think of themselves as the prime creator. In some cases they are—when they come up with an idea and then guide a couple of writers through the actual writing of the script. In that case, I consider that director a writer as well. Usually in a film, there is a person who conceives and designs it, like a composer writes music. A conductor is a great interpretive artist but you wouldn’t compare the conductor to the composer. But if the conductor had the power to change the music at will and then the music is very bad, it’s not the writer’s fault anymore. This is the way most directors work, ironically, even the ones who’ve written their own scripts. Who’s the composer? The composer is obviously an amalgam of everybody. That’s what film is like.
M.R.: When you first studied film, did you want to direct or write?
F.F.C.: I always wanted to write. I got into directing a long time ago in 1956. I directed a little play. It was received very well and it was very good, so I decided since I couldn’t be a writer, I would be a director.
I don’t enjoy the directing process. Gatsby’s a good point because if you had asked me the question whether I was a writer or a director before Gatsby, I would have said I was a writer and I just direct sometimes. But I was so impressed with how badly Gatsby worked that I started to put more credit to what a director does. He changed that script all around and that’s one thing. Aside from that, there were scenes in there that, in my opinion, had the wrong objectives and they were, in my opinion, ruined. The same scene would have worked terrifically if another person had directed.
M R.: What scene?
F.F.C.: The scene with the father at the end of the film which is a really beautiful scene in the book. It doesn’t work at all in the movie. You ask yourself why the scene that sticks with you the most, and seems so touching and relevant in the book, seems like an unnecessary appendix on the movie. It has to do with the fact that when Nick opens the door and there’s this old man standing there—in the movie, this old man is crying—he says, “I’ve come from so-and-so to the funeral of my son.” It’s already ruined at that point, because the whole intention was: this man thought his son had become a great man. He came in awe with an almost positive sense of what this boy did, what a fantastic life he led.
M.R.: There was no grief?
F.F.C.: There was grief, of course, but the basic thrust was that the man was proud of his son. He could have saved this country and we know . . . That little decision . . .
M.R.: He was one of the few actors who really worked.
F.F.C.: Just because he was vaguely believable. So much of the acting in the film was not believable. I really think Jack Clayton is a nice man and has made beautiful films. It’s not my place to say how I would have done the film. But I still say that if you have a cast and a good script, you’ve got eighty percent of the film. In Gatsby, I disagreed with the casting and I don’t think the script ever got to see the light of day in the form that I think it should have.
The adaption of Gatsby to the screen is a delicate matter in any event. If two writers (first me, then Jack) do an adaptation of Gatsby and both try to be faithful to the book, the scripts are going to be similar by virtue of the fact that they’re going to have the same characters and they’re going to have many of the same scenes. So any change in the script is a big change. It’s true that, on one hand, I had to go off and do my own work. My feeling is that the script was right the way I felt it. Jack is so meticulous that he was constantly fidgeting with it. When the film was delayed, he had a whole year to fidget with it more. Had I been available. I’m sure he would have invited me to fidget with him.
As a writer, I took the premise that I was writing his movie and I would do anything he wanted. If he asked me to do something that I didn’t like, I would put up two seconds of protest, tell him what I felt. Then he would say, “I know, but I like it that way.” Then I would do it for him because it was his film.
He changed the beginning, the middle, and the end. When you’re taking a film that’s an adaptation of a book, one of the most important things you can do as an adapter is to start it, kind of get it going in the right way. My opening of Gatsby dealt with a number of details. My concept was, in a poetic way, to show you certain clues, through imagery: the yellow car in the garage, the house itself, Gatsby’s room, his shirts, his clothes, pictures of Daisy, the newspaper clippings, and then the little Hopalong Cassidy book in which you actually see in a child’s handwriting the little resolutions. A. Save Two dollars a day. B. Be good to your father. C. Don’t use profanity. Whatever those were. It was my premise that throughout the development of the film, each one of those little symbols would fit into place like parts of a puzzle. You would understand all but the Hopalong Cassidy book. The yellow car would be the accident car. The picture of Daisy would be the clippings that he saved. Etc.
As you know, the book of Gatsby has no real scene between Daisy and Gatsby. He has Daisy running out of the house once and Nick sees it. Since the two stars would be Daisy and Gatsby, it was going to be obligatory to have a scene with them. I thought long and hard on this and talked to Jack and we both agreed that we didn’t want to go back into time. We wanted to keep that period in the past as a memory rather than as a literal thing. I came up with a concept that I liked a lot and I wrote it that way. The whole tea party and the scene with the shirts are really beautiful scenes in the book. I felt, for example, that Gatsby should have very tenderly laid the shirts all out on the bed like they were the crown jewels. Jack obviously felt that he should throw them up in the air. That’s a directorial disagreement. I can understand where he got that idea and how that sounded right to him, but I just wouldn’t have done it that way.
Now, I wrote a scene between Daisy and Gatsby’ taking place in the bedroom with Gatsby sitting on a chair and Daisy sitting on the bed or something. They were far apart. It was my theory that they shouldn’t even touch a lot or kiss or any of that stuff. I wrote a scene about seven or eight pages long of pure dialogue. A kind of acting tour de force between two actors in a room, nothing else. Some of it was from Fitzgerald dialogue from other stories, which I tried to take so I would be faithful. Others were stuff that I wrote, trying to get myself into a Fitzgerald way of thinking. It was meant to be a set piece in the middle of the film. A very austere scene with people who had been lovers, not touching each other but just talking.
M.R.: Like Eric Rohmer?
F.F.C.: Yes, like that. Nothing else. At that point Jack liked it very’ much but felt that it was too dry. He wanted to have scenes of the two of them walking through a field, or seeing birds, or lounging together. I was always against that. I felt that was like a Salem commercial. I told him that. I asked him when I left, one promise. I put it in for him, but I just merely continued the dialogue of the scene over these images as he had wished. But I asked him to please shoot the scene as one scene, and then shoot those other pieces. So, if he didn’t like it, he could always make it be one scene again editorially.
One of the most, to me, cruel changes that he made—ultimately cruel to him because I think it fundamentally hurt the picture—was that he took that eight page scene and he chopped it into about five scenes and spread them throughout the last two-thirds of the movie. You know the scene where Daisy says, “Why do you always sit so far away from me?” That was part of that scene. He then took those five little pieces that he made out of this one scene and dressed them in different wardrobes so that they could never make it fit one scene. He spread them throughout the last two-thirds of the movie, which is one of the reasons the movie became so interminable. They kept coming back to this but there was never a really satisfying scene between the two of them. And there were all these loves scenes interrupting the rest of the movie. That to me was one of the killers. It threw the total construction off.
Then he changed the ending, My ending had been dealing with finishing everything. The last scene was the scene of the father. The father comes in and you realize that the father’s just this low-class guy. You really see Gatsby’s roots by seeing who his father is. He says my name is Gatz. As he’s up in his room packing his son’s things, he takes out this book. He says, “Look, this is a book he had when he was a kid. Even then he was going to make something out of himself.” He starts to read the little boyish dictates and it connects with the final image of the opening. When he finishes, he looks up and he sees the picture of Daisy, and he says, “Who’s this girl?” That was the end of the movie. So what I had set up at the beginning went all the way to the end.
These are three simple little points that I mention, but I felt those were the three most important things I gave to that script. And they were the three things that were not included in it, and that’s why 1 feel the script was changed.
M.R.: What struck me, in spite of the fact that it was a fairly faithful adaptation, was that the book is so fluid and the movie is so cluttered.
F.F.C.: Because they became interested in beautiful pictures. Clayton is really wonderful man. He’s a talented man. Gatsby isn’t one of his good films, that’s all. Next year, I hope he makes the best film ever made. Part of maturity is knowing when you’re right and when you’re wrong.
M.R.: Charles Michener said in Nexvs-uvek that the problem with the film was that it should have been seen through Nick’s eyes.
F.F.C.: No question. The problem was that Jack saw it through Jack’s eyes.
M.R.: Do you think in any of your films, like codfatfier i, you have been less than the prime mover, even though you wrote the script?
F.F.C.: I wrote the Godfather script. I did the adaptation. I credit Mario completely with creating the characters and the story. On the other hand, his book took in a lot more than what the film took in. I feel that 1 took the right parts. I also did a lot of things in that movie that people thought were in the book that weren’t. The art of adaptation is when you can lie or when you can do something that wasn’t in the original but is so much like the original that it should have been.
M.R.: How do you feel about the comparisons between The Godfather and Mean Streets, Mean Streets allegedly being the realistic film and The Godfather being the . . .
F.F.C.: Romanticized film. That’s quite right. Mean Streets is realistic and The Godfather is a romanticized account. They’re just different types of films. Mean Streets deals with characters in little Italy on a very low level and it’s very realistic about their level. The Godfather is a classic epic about the head guys. They both give a very honest indication of the textures of the life pattern.
M.R.: Were you disappointed when Brando couldn’t do Godfather II?
F.F.C.: Yes, at first I was, because I had really planned it that way. Then when I got into working with Bob DeNiro, obviously it meant that he could play the character much younger, which is what I had wanted. I think it worked out really well.
M.R.: How do you feel with a twelve million dollar budget? Don’t you feel nervous?
F.F.C.: You tend to adjust, and just go on blind faith that what you’re doing is right. It’s scan’. You know how many people have to go see that movie? Godfather II has to earn something like thirty or twenty-five million to break even. You know how many pictures in history have even grossed thirty million dollars? How many would you say? About twelve? I think Godfather II will—because people want to go and see those characters. You know. 1 took my kid to see a forty-five minute assembly of some of the stuff of the old Godfather, and I said what parts do you like better? He said, “I like when the guy got shot.” Everyone is like that. Even when you’re shooting the film. The second you’re going to do a throat cutting or something, everyone including the crew crowds around.
M.R.: Do you as a director ever feel intimidated? By actors or by the kind of movement you have to choreograph on the set?
F.F.C.: Oh sure. Less so, now. On this last film, I’ve been very relaxed and enjoyed more of the production aspect. Making films is such a logistical, a social problem, as well as artistic one. A lot of it has to do with the people you’re working with and dependent on—that you’ve made your peace with them and have a way of dealing with them. If it’s the first time you’re working with that photographer or those actors or that art director, half of the energy that you expend is just trying to jockey for what the relationship is going to be. It was such a pleasure on the Godfather II. Many of the key people were people I had worked with before. Some of them were now in new guises. Some actors, who on Godfather I were kids grateful for the chance, are now big movie stars. So there’s a rejockeying for position.
But still, on Godfather II, I had made my peace with most of those people and much more of the energy went into the film than into all of the ambient politics and sociology. Like the photographer. Buddy [Gordon] Willis—on Godfather I, I didn’t get along with him at all. Artistically I got along with him completely. We had the same concept. But socially, he’s such a cranky, grumpy guy and 1 always took it as criticism. Then I would get defensive.
When we did the second film, I realised that he’s just a cranky, grumpy guy and it had nothing to do with me. He can also be really a sweet guy. As a result, the relationship we had on Godfather II is the most pleasant I’ve ever had. He’s a guy who really sees things not only in the same way that I do but very often better. So when I say What about this?, he says What about something like this? It’s really what I meant. That happens with actors too. Brando does this all the time. You tell an actor you’d like this out of a moment. He says, “O.K., watch this.” He gives you what you want but better.
That is the joy of directing, when it happens. It can only happen between people who have really gotten comfortable with each other and have made their peace. The art director on Godfather II, who was also on the conversation, I don’t even talk to anymore because I trust him so much. I just say so-and-so like such-and-such and the guy comes up with exactly what I wanted but better.
M.R.: Was it any different working with Pacino this time?
F.F.C.: Yes, sure, sure. But basically Pacino is a very, very intelligent person. He’s sometimes a little bit of a kid and that can get in the way especially when he’s a kid with a lot of power. When Serpico came out and was a big success, it was a pleasure to work with him. He was so self-confident that all his emotional silliness was out of the way and it was just his intelligence and his talent that we were working with. Before Serpico came out, he was nervous about it. He was a pain in the neck.
M.R.: He has an incredible intensity on the screen.
F.F.C.: Oh yes. He’s very talented. He’s really a sweet person. All of the people on this film are very good people. Some are cynical and some are childish, what have you. All of them were caught in the whole godfather syndrome of knowing that they had been part of something that had made a lot of money and they didn’t get very much.
M.R.: But you yourself made money out of the film. Does that financial independence give you more options to make your own kind of films?
F.F.C.: Yes, fortunately, I made a lot of money on the godfather. But if I were a little hungrier after making the rain people and the conversation. I’d say screw this. It’s like Billy Friedkin said after the birthday party and boys in the band: “I know how to do it: how to, for an hour and a half, just constantly throw everything I have at an audience and give them a real thrill. That’s what they want. They don’t want to go into a theater and treat it like a book. They don’t even read books!”
M.R.: I think Friedkin has the ability to make good films.
F.F.C.: Hearn make terrific films. But he didn’t do well at it, he was getting washed up. He was broke and suddenly the french connection came along, and he said. “I’m going to blow their heads off. I’m going to give them an electric shock.” And he did. And he made a lot of money. Then he adopted it as his philosophy and said, “O.K.. if that’s what people want, that’s what they’re going to get .”
M R.: I think he made a mistake when
he . . .
F.F.C.: What mistake did he make? What mistake did he make?
M.R.: I think it’s very insulting when a director says, “There are three things that matter: laughter, tears, and fear.”
F.F.C.: But he’s right! That’s the point. What mistake did he make? The guy’s going to make five or six million dollars out of the exorcist. He didn’t make any mistake—maybe, with the conversation, maybe / made the mistake!
Understand one thing. Essentially, all movies coming out—whether it be the exorcist, Bergman, the godfather or pound or putney swope—all movies are basically done in the same way. If you were to take the most stylistically divergent films—an Elvis Presley film and cries and whispers—they represent a teenie, teenie bit of what can happen with movies. Movies are all made the same way and the reason they’re made the same way is because the audiences want them that way. The films cost so much that to really veer from that way of telling a story, you have to be independently wealthy and subsidize it.
I read a review of the conversation that describes the two characters, the boy and girl walking, as skimpily drawn. Well, here I am deliberately trying to not unveil their characters in a conventional way. I’m trying to give you an impression of their characters, the only film on those two characters is the same dumb conversation. It’s my attempt at trying to find another way to give character to an audience instead of just a classic playwright’s way of giving you a little background and unveil traits and show you the contradictions. I’m just showing you the same moment over and over. I’m using repetition instead of exposition. The second I do it, someone says it’s skimpy,
That force, that inertia that holds movies is partly responsible for movies being all the same. You can’t break out of it unless you are so rich, you start making films that are thirty minutes long and some films that are fifty-two-and-one-half minutes long and some films that are fifteen hours long. All the movies that come out are the same.
M.R.: Are you near the point where you can do what you w’ant?
F.F.C.: I’m not that rich, but I’m get-tin’. I have to go through a lot of agonizing decisions because I can always say why don’t I just go and make money. I could sit down and write the most commercial movie ever made. I feel I could pull it off. Just make a hundred million dollars and spend the rest of my life . . . I’m now thirty-five and that’s what I thought 1 was doing with the Godfather and then with Godfather II, I was making a film that would also appeal to an audience. At some time you’ve got to cut off and say,”O.K., I’ve made enough money.”
M.R.: What would you ideally do next?
F.F.C.: What I’m going to do next is nothing. I’m going to do some writing and some reading and get something into my brain. You’ve got to understand that all I’ve done for thirteen years is try to have a career. I went right from school to film school to a career and here I am without ever stopping.
M.R.: If you had your choice, which kind of film would you make?
F.F.C.: I’m finishing godfather in a couple of weeks, so I’m a free man in that I have no commitments, I have no job, I don’t need to work for money anymore. I intend to take a lot of time now to do some writing and thinking about exactly what it is 1 want to do. I may not make any more films or I may make a lot films.
I don’t know. Anything I do will be just what I think of.
I did the Godfather because I was broke and in debt. I even did the rain people and the conversation because I wanted more than anything to be a writer. I began working on a premise that I wondered if I could pull off. I finished and made those films more as a dare to myself to show myself that 1 could do it, that I could write original material. Anyone who’s written knows how you doubt that. Especially a person who’s known for adaptations. Now I’m. in a way, finished with all of that. I’m not going to write original stuff to prove to myself that I can do that. I’m not going to work for money. I’m not going to make a film to have a big hit because I’ve already had a big hit. I’m at a very mid-point.
M.R.: A very special point.
F.F.C.: It’s terrific if you can do it. I just hope that I make use of it. it
Marjorie Rosen, author of Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies and The American Dream, has published film criticism and articles about film culture in Ms., Saturday Review, New York, TV Guide, Jump Cut, etc.
Film Comment, Vol. 10, No. 4 (July-August 1974), pp. 43-49