THE ACTOR WHO TAUGHT HOLLYWOOD HOW TO MAKE FILMS
The director of ‘Faces’ has brought a new dimension of reality to American films. Here’s what he’s like, how he works as he plays
You FEEL ALMOST embarrassed to be watching this, an intruder into someone else’s private anguish, because you’re looking into the toilet cubicle of the men’s room in some crummy New York bar and you overhear a middle-aged man who’s stumbled into this cubicle to be sick, babbling out his pain to a friend who squats in sympathy on the floor in front of him.
Is this what it comes to for everyone, this awful moment of self-confrontation? Here’s a man who’s been to college, loves his wife, earns maybe $20,000 a year, used to be a pretty fair athlete, used to do all right with the women. And now he’s sitting on the lid of the john in this hopeless bar, his tie torn off, drops of sweat on his stubbled face, listening to his body sending out terrifying messages: a nice, middle-class, middle-aged American named Archie who’s buried a friend this day and now, after too many bars and too many drinks and too much frantic talk, is grappling with the new-found knowledge of his own mortality. Archie has just discovered what everybody finds out sooner or later: that some day you’re going to die, mister, and what are you going to do about it? Listen to the poor bastard!
ing down from my eyes ... And my aching tendons, in both feet! ... And the gas! First it hurts here, and then there, and my eyes ... I have trouble with my sinus anyway . . . Feel my palms! I’m a wreck, like these people who haven’t any bones and just col-
lapse in melting heat and fever . . . My skin is ice cold . ..
He’s on the floor now, kneeling painfully on the dirty washroom tiles, his head only inches from the face of his friend:
What’s really bothering me . . . what it really is, it must . . . it’s not the sickness. I can live through that. It’s a tremendous need . . . an anxiety . . . you see, I forget what it is .. . It’s important . . . It’s what I’m supposed to feel . . .
Finally his silent friend speaks. He has a lean, brooding face, and you expect he’s going to say something gentle. Instead he yells:
“Wait a minute, wait a minute. WAIT A MINUTE! GODDAM IT, CUT!!! It’s unbelievable that people could be walking around a set clicking their heels!”
The 30-odd people standing around the set of John Cassavetes’ latest film, Husbands, stiffen almost visibly. The stagehands have been so terrified of offstage noise that they’ve been breathing furtively, inhaling and exhaling with infinite guile. During the scene you couldn’t even see their chests moving beneath their bowling shirts. But Cassavetes, who runs a very taut ship when he’s directing a film, has picked up something that even the soundman hadn’t caught: the faint
clicking of heels somewhere at the edge of his hearing.
“It’s upstairs, John,” says Ben Gazzara, the TV star who’s risking some of his own money to make this film with Cassavetes. The unit’s office is two floors above the set, and when the secretaries walk around up there, Cassavetes thinks he can hear them. Dialogue:
Is that our office? Take their shoes off. Take their shoes off! Tell them to take their shoes off.
Yeah, just tell the girls to take their shoes off!
Click - click - click - click - click -click - click - click . . . aw, let’s go. Take it again. Right away!
QUIET EVERYBODY! THREE
BELLS! QUIET ON THE SET!!!
And the scene is shot again for the fifth, the seventh, the 15th time — as long as it takes to get what Cassavetes wants. “What a way to work, eh?” says Ben Gazzara. puffing on a pencil-
thin cigar and beaming at the world.
FOR ANY ACTOR, it is indeed a beautiful way to work. Most directors see themselves as creative strawbosses. Their job is to impose their conception of a role on the actor through guile, awe, ego-massage or applied sensitivity. Cassavetes’ technique is catalytic; he tries to make actors and cameramen feel free enough to attempt the best that’s in them. As they experiment, the film assumes an independent direction of its own, and later scenes are altered to accommodate the changes that earlier experiments have yielded.
You can’t work this way unless you’re prepared to repeal all the economic laws that Hollywood lives by. On most films the sequence in which scenes are shot is dictated by accountants; if it’s cheaper to film the final clinch on Day Two of shooting, that’s the way it’s scheduled. Cassavetes, who builds his films the way a writer shapes a novel, can’t work this way. He starts by filming the opening scene, and ends with the final one. In between, his day-by-day experiments before the cameras may yield 10 times more footage than Hollywood deems necessary. But Cassavetes, who once spent nearly four years cutting a film, needs lots of raw material from which to shape his final product.
This idea of the director as auteur is old stuff in Europe where Godard, Fellini et al, for more than a decade have been using film to make intensely personal statements. It’s even becoming11 commonplace in Canada, where low budgets dictate that, since a film can’t be slick, it might as well be inventive and individual. Hollywood, of necessity, is a production line; it’s no more capable of producing personal films than General Motors is of massproducing Maseratis.
Cassavetes learned this early in his career. In 1961, after he’d produced and directed an improvisational film
called Shadows that enchanted the European critics with its cinéma vérité techniques, he got a contract from Paramount to direct a series of art films. “The fact that a major Hollywood studio thinks it can make money with an art film is a big step forward,” is what Cassavetes said at the time. But the first issue of that hopeful marriage between commerce and creativity was something called Too Late Blues, starring Bobby Darin and Stella Stevens, a film that was almost as crummy as it sounds. He also directed A Child Is Waiting, a film about retarded children that starred Judy Garland. It was a good movie but for Cassavetes it was an exercise in frustration. “The sales department still dictates studio policy,” he told reporters after he’d renounced Hollywood. “So-called creativity, high standards and truth don’t enter into it. The product can be phony as hell, but if it has a big name and it’ll fill a 3,000-seat theatre, who cares?”
Of course, almost everybody in Hollywood talks this way, from the stagehands to the directors to the espresso jockeys along Sunset Strip. But Cassavetes, almost uniquely, succeeded in doing something about it. He’d always regarded himself primarily as an actor, and since he emerged from New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1950, he had appeared in more than 100 TV dramas and achieved something close to star status in a series called Johnny Staccato. Now, fed up with directing Hollywood films, he returned to acting, with co-starring roles in Edge Of The City with Sidney Poitier, The Dirty Dozen, and, unforgettably, as the father in Rosemary’s Baby.
But acting was only a means to an end, for Cassavetes used his earnings to help finance what turned out to be the longest, most ambitious, most brilliant home movie ever made: Faces.
Faces started in 1965 as a four-page treatment that Cassavetes scrawled out
during an airplane flight. It grew, after countless group-think sessions with his actor friends, into a 256-page script. After nearly four years of intermittent shooting, mostly in his own and his mother-in-law’s houses in Los Angeles, it escalated into several miles of footage that represented a $150,000 debt. Everyone connected with the film — technicians, soundmen, stagehands, everybody — was an actor. Cassavetes spent nearly two years of off-hours supervising the editing of the footage in his own garage, staving off creditors with parapsychic skill: “At one point,” he recalls, “they threatened to take the film away when we couldn’t pay Pathé Labs $17,000 for processing. That night I literally dreamed ‘Bank of America, Vice-President, Beverly Hills Branch.’ I had nothing to hock, not the first collateral. We called him up the next morning, and the guy gave us the money! I still don’t believe it.”*
There’s no point in trying to describe Faces. A Cassavetes film is virtually plotless, and doesn’t “tell” very well. It concerns an affluent American businessman (John Marley) who walks out on his wife and spends the night with an equally affluent hooker. Meanwhile, his wife takes three of her middle-aged friends to a discothèque where they pick up a hip-talking surfin’ type and bring him home. Wife sleeps with hippie. Wife takes overdose of pills. Hippie revives her. Husband returns home. Hippie exits out window. Film ends with husband and wife sitting sadly apart on their broadloomed staircase, each trapped in personal isolation.
Obviously, this doesn’t convey the film’s impact, which is shattering. Audiences — in February, they were lining up for blocks in Toronto — walk from the theatre in numbed silence, as though they’d accidentally witnessed a collision between a train and a school bus. Faces is about the masks of modern marriage; the barriers of loneliness that husbands and wives erect against each other, and what happens when those defenses are stripped away. Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? attempted the same thing, but in that picture you somehow always knew that those men and women lacerating each other up there on the screen were actors. In Faces you're never sure. Somehow, Cassavetes has captured the texture of actual life on film, and when his people laugh and fight and talk and make love, it takes an effort of will to recall that you’re watching filmed fiction, not eavesdropping on a squabble in the next apartment. Faces may be the realest
dramatic movie ever produced; the only comparable experience available on film would be one of Allan King’s documentaries.
It’s a tribute to Cassavetes’ technique, and to the fantastic empathy of Faces' players, that most moviegoers assume it is the product of a dramatic improvisation. It isn’t. The script was written, rewritten and rewritten again; the actors never went before the camera without lines firmly fixed in their heads. “Improvisation came into Faces by permitting each actor to interpret his role,” says Cassavetes, “rather than me interpreting the role as a director. So in one sense, I would never know how an actor’s behavior was going to come out. Somehow, what was going on wasn’t just to do with the film. The action took off independently.”
So did the box-office receipts. Faces cost $250,000 to produce and so far has grossed nearly two million dollars. “It should do six, seven million before it’s done,” Cassavetes’ publicity man Joe Lustig told me, “and that’s going to mean a lot of bread for the actors and technicians who worked on that film for nothing but a percentage.” Hollywood may not know how to make auteur films, but it does know a hit when it sees one; and so, when Cassavetes and producer AÍ Ruben started looking for two million dollars for Husbands, they were in a position to pick and choose. But all offers of American backing came with strings attached, so Cassavetes chose Italian money, because these backers didn’t demand creative control.
Husbands may be one of the most co-operative efforts in the history of films. Cassavetes co-stars with Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk and also directs; all three actors are business partners in the production, and both Gazzara and Falk contributed to the development of Cassavetes’ script. “It took John about a year to put that script together,” says Gazzara. “We’d get together in Rome or Los Angeles or somewhere on weekends or between assignments, sit down in a room with a secretary, argue about what was going to happen and how the lines would go. Then John would go back and try another draft.”
Husbands, like Faces, is about middle age, a theme that Hollywood has practically never attempted to explore. It’s the story of three 40ish friends, fellow commuters for years on the Long Island line to and from Manhattan, and what happens after the death of one of their friends. The film opens with the funeral and Cassavetes’ camera follows the remaining three as they embark on a
monumental Manhattan pub crawl. They drink, they smash telephone booths, they vomit, they laugh hysterically and, somewhere along the way, they glimpse the fragility of their own lives.
“This picture isn’t supposed to be a put-down of the middle class or anybody else,” says Peter Falk. “It’s a sympathetic, compassionate film, and it’s about everybody.”
Falk’s scene in the washroom cubicle is one of Husbands' key moments. It was shot in a crowded, overheated New York studio full of cables and technicians and hangers-on and lights and camera equipment -— but everyone there, incredibly, got the feeling they were eavesdropping on a sad, private moment in someone else’s life. Falk’s dialogue, by this time based only loosely on the lines in the script, came out in stumbling, anti-grammatical blurts. You can overhear conversations like this all the time in Manhattan bars. But Falk, under Cassavetes’ gentle urging, was managing somehow to transfer onto film the fragile texture of the ordinary.
Between takes, Cassavetes remained on his haunches in front of Falk, whispering urgently: “Don’t rush,
Pete. Don’t rush! Don’t let it take you. You gotta control it. If you don’t control it, it becomes a jungle.” He turned and spoke gently to the cameraman too, issuing the kind of instruction you hardly ever hear from the lips of a Hollywood director: he
wanted the cameraman to loosen up, to shoot the scene his way, not Cassavetes’: “If you feel you’ve got enough, just go. Use your feeling. Forget about what’s being said.”
They shot the scene again and again, and the cumulative effect of all that recreated reality was eerie: when I walked off the set and down 45th Street to lunch with Cassavetes and his merry retinue, I got a weird flash: New York, the real New York outside the set, maybe even the whole world, is actually a John Cassavetes movie! Shakespeare, 1 understand, achieved a similar insight some time ago.
Cassavetes is never accompanied by fewer than a dozen people, all shouting and laughing at once. We all sit down at a T-shaped arrangement of tables in an Italian restaurant once frequented by Tyrone Power. Cassavetes is a smallish, coiled man whose face could belong either to a Greek shipowner or an aging motorcycle hood, either very mean or very tender. Today he’s brought along two promoters from a recording company who want to buy the rights to the Husbands sound track. Both of them are continued on page 61
CASSAVETES from page 56
parodies of New York song pluggers: one of them, a large man with thick lips and cold eyes, at one point actually says, “Shu-ah, baby, but will it sell?”
Cassavetes is hilarious. Everybody is hilarious, shouting at the waiters and ordering drinks. Jack Ackerman, a small bespectacled man who has composed some songs for Cassavetes’ films, keeps leaning toward people confidentially and crooning the words of his latest song:
ƒ found myself in Picadilly Three thousand miles from Philly. I am bewitched. This dialogue! Did Cassavetes script the whole thing? CASSAVETES
I’ll give you a release for the record. Send over the papers . . . Look, we made a deal, what, a month ago! We haven’t got the papers yet . . .
What’s the difference between working with John and any other director? (Long, thoughtful pause.) It’s the difference between dead and alive.
The understanding is there are no deferments, right? We start from Dollar One.
(Old Broadway character who used to know Damon Runyon and everybody else) So I buy this parrot for $15, which is a lot of cash in 1934 . ..
I’ll have a piece of melon to start. I saw some melon there.
Jimmy Durante! Think of that! Boy, that’s terrific!
The spaghetti is good, the sauce is bad.
Hey, let’s spend all our time on an invention. Our eyes become cameras! We don’t shoot films any more. We look a film!
That script! My wife fell out of bed four times reading it. And did you see that shooting this morning? It’s going to be one of the greatest movie scenes of all time or my name isn’t Ben Gazzara!
THE NEXT DAY, after seeing the rushes of the morning’s shooting, Cassavetes decided the great movie scene of all time was all wrong. He, Talk and Gazzara sat up until 3 a.m. rewriting and rehearsing a new version. Then they spent another day shooting the revised scene until they felt they’d got it right. This is the way novels used to be written. Is literature obsolete? □