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A High-Wire Act



+ The Cat’s Meow review


“A high-wire act”


Peter Bogdanovich comes packing several bottles of distilled water. He has a long day ahead of him, with a full schedule of interviews leading up to this evening, when his new movie, The Cat’s Meow, opens the Washington DC International Film Festival. For a man who’s spent so much of his early career in the spotlight, the 62-year-old Bogdanovich is pleasantly un-in-love with himself. This doesn’t mean he’s not elegant, or attentive to details of demeanor and language, or even that he’s not prideful. But he does appear to appreciate the simple (but also complex) fact of being alive. He has unexpected humility.


Once touted as a brilliant young artist, whose The Last Picture Show (1971) evidenced both a youthful sensibility and tender nostalgia, Bogdanovich counted among his friends Orson Welles and John Ford. He went on to make Paper Moon (1973) and Mask (1985), as well as some films that were less well received (At Long Last Love [1975] and Nickelodeon [1976]). And, of course, he would marry (and eventually divorce) his girlfriend Dorothy Stratten’s half-sister Louise, some years after Dorothy’s brutal murder by her ex-husband (recalled in his book, The Killing of the Unicorn).


More recently, Bogdanovich is probably best known as a director of cable movies (Rescuers: Two Women [1997]), the wise and respectful commentator for DVDs of films by directors like Welles or John Ford, and in his recurring role on The Sopranos, as Dr. Melfi’s shrink, Dr. Elliot Kupferberg.


The Cat’s Meow is a deft picture that examines Hollywood scandal from the inside. It’s based on a story that Bogdanovich first heard from Welles while interviewing him for a book, This Is Orson Welles; Steven Peros’ script came to him coincidentally. Framed as a flashback by writer Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley), the film takes places on the yacht of William Randolph Hearst (Edward Herrmann), in 1924, when the producer Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes) takes ill and a few days later, dies mysteriously. The film takes up the most persistent rumor about what happened during the cruise, namely, that Hearst shot Ince, believing him to be Charlie Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), who was romancing Hearst’s girlfriend, Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst).


We begin with a brief discussion of my own experience teaching Last Picture Show in an introduction to film class, which, I informed him, surprised students by its relevance to them.



Peter Bogdanovich:

(sighing, lightly) It’s amazing that there’s no film culture in America anymore. There used to be a lot of film culture. When I was interviewing Orson Welles, when The Last Picture Show came out, in 1971, we talked about Citizen Kane, which was then 30 years old. It seemed like a long time ago. Now, Picture Show is 30 years old, and it doesn’t seem like such a long time, on some level. Time, according to that old cliché, is deeply relative.



PopMatters:

Did Welles have a sense that films in the ‘70s were not living up to what films 30 years before had been?



PB:

Yeah. But so did I. what I thought we were all trying to do then was something different than what happens now. And it was different. It was a whole burst of youth at the end of the ‘60s and into the ‘70s. Orson felt that as the ‘70s wore on, that wee were debasing our audience, and that eventually we would all be stuck with what happened with the fall of the Roman empire, which was that the entertainment was sex and violence, murder and killing and sexual diversions. We aren’t too far from there.



PM:

Do you think that with the “market” so wide now, with room for films as well as product—in festivals, on cable, and even in theaters—that young filmmakers have opportunities?



PB:

Yes, I think Picture Show would have been an art picture today. It sort of was then; only a major studio picked it up for release, slowly. But then all films were released somewhat slowly in those days, except exploitation films. And that didn’t change until the mid-‘70s, with Godfather and Jaws. What happens now is you’ve got to open the picture on the first weekend and do big grosses; otherwise you’re gone. Lions Gate is handling this film on a platform, which is more old-fashioned. We opened Picture Show in New York and Los Angeles, it was in one theater only in each city, not even three, but one. It makes sense, because the less theaters you have, the more sure you are that you’re going to have a packed house. And a packed house is always a better audience than a half-empty one.



PM:

The “art houseness” of Cat’s Meow seems to me partly thematic. It’s a tough picture, character-wise: no one trusts anyone else, throughout.



PB:

It’s funny that you said that. I didn’t actually think of that consciously. I just took it as part of the general atmosphere of the show business, or that kind of show business. But it’s true, nobody trusts anyone. I did sort of take it like that was normal—it shows you how deeply enmeshed I am in it.



PM:

Talk a little about the flashback structure.



PB:

When I got the script, it began at the funeral [for Thomas Ince] and ended at the funeral, but before it went to the yacht, there was about forty pages introducing Chaplin in his studio, Marion in her studio, and Louella [Parsons, the Hearst gossip columnist, played in the film by Jennifer Tilly]. I didn’t think we needed all that. I thought the unity would be more interesting if we went from the funeral to the yacht, and back to the funeral at the end. I like the flashback idea, particularly when we figured out we would shoot the beginning and the end of the film in black and white. It was a practical solution to a problem we had. The fact that I artistically thought it would be dynamite for the picture, I didn’t really share that with everyone, because producers tend to like it better if it’s a practical solution to a problem, rather than an artistic one. I don’t know why [laughs]. However, I must say, on Mike Pasternak’s behalf—he was one of the producers—that I did share with him that I thought it would be as effective as hell, going from black and white to color, and going from the coffin to the yacht. It’s an obvious parallel, but I thought it would work. And the studio was worried about it because they had a deal for a 100% color movie, and this was going to be 97% color. But the problem was that we were shooting in Berlin, and there was no way to make Berlin in December look like L.A. in the summer. The light wouldn’t be right. We solved that [snaps! his fingers] easily with black and white.



PM:

The flashback is also tricky for narrative, in terms of giving viewers information Elinor might not know.



PB:

Well, yes, that’s a license you take. And we did it. I love the narration Steve wrote.



PM:

I was fascinated as well by the way the film looks at “scandal,” not as something titillating that happens to other people, but as a series of events that befall specific people, or characters, here.



PB:

Yes, “scandal” is something that people say about someone else. It isn’t how people feel when it’s happening to them. It’s something else, it’s their life. It seems very contemporary, doesn’t it? Scandal, cover-up, disgrace. Everybody is interested in all of that. People live very difficult lives, most people, and they’re on kind of a treadmill, and maybe the scandal that happens to the celebrated and famous, gives them some vicarious pleasure, and makes their own lives more interesting. I mean, I’ve had it myself, being in the spotlight, but I notice that when there’s some hot story going on, I read about it, and tend to think it enriches my life. It doesn’t, really: it depletes it on a certain level. But you think it gives you something to think about and talk about, beyond the routine of your own life.



PM:

Yes, it creates a community of some kind, when “everyone” can talk about the same thing.



PB:

Yes, like the weather.



PM:

The film is attentive to how the characters deal with these crises so moment to moment. I was struck in particular by the shots of Kirsten Dunst’s face when she has to choose, between Chaplin and Hearst.



PB:

Complicated, what goes on there with her. That was a difficult scene, and we didn’t get it right, in the writing or anything, until right before we made it. There were a number of scenes like that. There were many scenes that we didn’t touch, that we shot as Steve wrote them. But some we had to redo, and think out. I kept thinking that we ought to have a scene with the three of them, and there wasn’t one. There was a separate scene where Hearst threatens Chaplin, and another where he threatens her. And none of us—the actors and I—thought those scenes worked. The interesting thing was, when we got into that scene, we found that Marion had very little to say. And Kirsten was very smart. She said, “I don’t think she’d say anything. I think she’d just listen.” And she doesn’t, until Hearst leaves. But she has a lot of reactions—I think there’s more reaction time on her than the people talking. And to me, Marion’s he heart of the movie. I empathize with her more than anyone else. I thought she was the most intelligent, and most sensitive person in the film. She’s the only one who really takes the guilt on herself.



PM:

It sounds like you work closely with your actors.



PB:

They tell me that. They say I talk with them more than other directors. To me, that’s what it’s about. There’s where you put the camera. And there’s what do you do with your actors, which is the most important thing. By and large, movies are about the performances; that’s what people remember: faces, emotions. My job as a director is to get the best possible performances out of the actors. And that happens when you create an ensemble and they feel comfortable. On the set, you’re the only audience they’ve got. So it’s important that they trust you and they feel that you understand their problems. Having been an actor, and continuing to act. I usually say to the actors, “Look, I’m just an actor. I just don’t happen to have a role in this script. I’m here to help up.”


As far as where to put the camera, which is also something that I think is my job, my goal is always to be where I think the performance will be best shown and where the meaning and impact of the scene will come most clearly across. You can’t make that determination until you have the actors play for you. Every picture’s different. But on this picture, we brought the writer with us to Europe to work on the script. I insisted on it; I knew we be doing some rewriting, and he’s a nice guy and a good writer, and wanted to bring him into the democratic process. There was a lot of improvisation and we kept certain lines, about 50% was kept as it was. But I think that’s how a picture attains its freshness, if you’re not exactly sure of it until right before you shoot it.



PM:

That takes a bit of confidence.



PB:

Well, it does. The confidence is that you will get it. Experience helps. I’m not saying I wasn’t anxious during the making of the film. It was a nervous-making picture, but we got through it. That’s part of making pictures. I think that it should be a sense of a high-wire act.



PM:

I’ve heard you say in an interview that you think films should be difficult, to make.



PB:

Yes, I do think that. I think the challenge promotes creativity. How do we do this with no money and no time? How do we do it right? The challenge on this film was a very short shooting schedule [31 days], but we had good actors. And the key was to not shoot much, just to shoot what we needed, not coverage or luxury shots. And we didn’t shoot many takes. It’s always a miracle when a movie turns out well.



PM:

I don’t imagine that a lot of people set out to make bad films.



PB:

No, I don’t think they do, though some films are hackwork going in. But I think everybody tries to make a decent picture. In security will tend to make you shoot more and take more time, thinking that you’ll get something better. But actors usually, if they’re any good, give it to you early on.



PM:

So there’s a certain tension here, between knowing you’re only going to shoot a set amount of film, but wanting to have some flexibility with the actors.



PB:

Yeah, it’s not so much flexibility in cutting: I had none. But on the set, yes. I shoot pretty much the way I intend to cut. My first film, Targets [1968], was made in 23 days. And then Picture Show in 60 days. And after that I had longish schedules, 50 or 60 days. What’s Up Doc? was 72, because we needed four weeks to shoot the chase sequence. But I don’t like to shoot a lot of coverage. It’s the way I learned. All the directors I admired most were very confident with what they did and how they felt. John Ford used to put his hand over the lens to stop the camera. And Hitchcock cut in the camera.


My approach with actors is to get right in there with them. And if they’re not used to that, they kind of wonder what I’m doing, and I explain to them, I’m trying to help them give the best performance. Sometimes, when we’re in a hurry, and we don’t have any other way to do it, I’ll give them a line reading, as a way of indicating an emotion or a nuance I don’t really know how to get to otherwise. Some actors really like that, and others don’t.



PM:

And y apt to rewrite or work on scripts.



PB:

Yes, even if I don’t write the screenplay, I’ve always had a lot of input. I didn’t get any credit on Mask, but I worked through nine drafts on that. There’s a Writers’ Guild rule in the U.S., and it’s prejudiced against directors. Unless the director has written 50% or over of the script, he gets no credit. In Europe, there isn’t that sort of thing.



PM:

The studio system allowed for the idea of the auteur to emerge, if only as a reaction against that system. How do you think it works today, in terms of what directors can do or how they’re treated? There are some stars, of course, like Cameron or Spielberg, but the promotions system seems actor-driven, or better, FX-driven.



PB:

The politiques des auteurs, which started with Truffaut and the French New Wave, was a way of taking the product of the old studio system, and proving that while it seemed to be impersonal and factory-like, beneath the surface, it wasn’t. There were a number of directors and personalities who were vivid and apparent, despite who their collaborators were. It was a way of saying, “Look at Howard Hawks,” because people didn’t know his name, he was so versatile. That’s how I got into film appreciation on a higher level. So when people ask me “What’s your favorite movie?” I don’t really have one. I have favorite directors.


Today, there’s hardly any talk about the auteur theory, which is what they call it over here, and that’s not a correct translation, because it’s not a theory; it’s a political position. The French tend to be political about their artistic choices. Today, there are certain clear auteurs around—Spielberg and Scorsese. And it’s ironic, because everyone gets that ridiculous billing: “A So-and-So Film.” A kid who just came out of film school gets it.



PM:

How do you think about doing interviews as opposed to giving them?



PB:

It’s okay. I don’t have to prepare as much when I give one, as when I do one. My life is sort of my preparation. I have to be careful, though, as I have a tendency to be too candid. Doing an interview is fun, it really just comes from being curious about certain people, asking things that I find interesting.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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