Following a sold-out screening of her unfairly maligned 1987 comedy Ishtar, writer-director Elaine May took to the stage of New York’s Walter Reade Theater for an hour-long interview with her former collaborator and old friend Mike Nichols
Nichols: Clearly we were all sitting here thinking the same thing. How were you so prescient? Where did your Orwellian vision come from? Because you invented the perfect metaphor for the behavior of the Bush administration in Iraq.
May: Well, oddly enough when I made this movie, Ronald Reagan was president and there was Iran-Contra, we were supporting Iran and Iraq. We put in Saddam. We had taken out the Shah. Khomeini was there. I remember looking at Ronald Reagan and thinking—I’m qualifying this, this was just an idea, I didn’t really believe it—I thought, he’s from Hollywood, he’s a really nice man. It’s possible the only movie he’s ever seen about the Middle East are the road movies with Hope and Crosby, and I thought I would make that movie.
Well, it’s true. This is a road movie about the Middle East. [To the audience] How many people have never seen it before? Everybody?
If all of the people who hate Ishtar had seen it, I would be a rich woman today.
That leads me to the subtext of all this. We have to talk about studios and how we work with studios and what your experiences have been with studios. What is your feeling about a) the machine that has to be gotten together for a movie and b) the relationship to the studio?
Every movie I made except for The Heartbreak Kid, the studio changed regimes in the middle of the movie.
How funny, that’s happening to me. Not one but two studios. I’m working on two movies and two studios: the regimes are changing as we speak. One is happening actually over this weekend.
It’s not a great thing because whoever is coming in doesn’t like you a) because you have been chosen by someone else and they don’t really know whether they want to take responsibility for it. So it’s not a good thing to have happened. But I’ve never made a movie, except for Heartbreak Kid, in which it didn’t happen. With this movie, the guy who took over Columbia was David Putnam. Actually I prepared for tonight, because I knew about it three weeks ago—first the breast implants and then I actually looked up this stuff. When David Putnam came in, he was a guy who, when Warren Beatty did Reds, I think he did Chariots of Fire, and they were up against each other in the Academy Awards. And he wrote something that was published in the paper that said Warren should be spanked because he was profligate. But underneath the article it didn’t say in italics like it does after other letters, that he was a competitor for the Academy Awards, that he had an agenda. They just printed that article. And everybody adored him. In fact even today, one of my dearest friends said to me: “He was really rotten to you, but he’s a great guy.” So people do seem to like him. You like him.
Well, let me say that I think that both in our work and in our life function determines character. When you run a studio, you change. I think after David Putnam ran the studio he turned out to be a very nice guy. But he talked a lot when he ran the studio. And I think Ishtar is maybe the prime example that I know of in Hollywood of studio suicide. In that it had a great preview.
It had three great previews.
And then this really strange thing started to happen, which was that stories began to appear with studio sources about what a problem it was.
And many of the details were not true. This is a really embarrassing thing to say, but it’s just us, so I know it won’t go any farther, but I left almost immediately for Bali. The film was political and it was a satire but it was my secret. When these articles started coming out, I thought—only for five minutes—it’s the CIA. I didn’t dream that it would be the studio. For one moment it was sort of glorious to think that I was going to be taken down by the CIA, and then it turned out to be David Putnam. I think this man was unique in that way, in that he was going to redo Hollywood and make it a better place. He was going to work from the inside.
It doesn’t want to be a better place. It’s like Las Vegas. From the very beginning there’s been the problem between the executives and the people making the movies. And it’s a problem because the process of making movies is not something that can be apprehended from without. A guy that works in the studios, a very nice, often very intelligent executive, thinks that expressing an opinion in a meeting is a creative act because that’s all he gets to do. And that’s as high in the creative scale as he can ever hope to get. And the problem with it is that the opinions expressed often bear no relation to the work that’s being done. Would you say you agree so far?
Except… yes, I do agree.
I’ve convinced her. Here’s where it gets to be a problem. They say: “But it’s our money.” But here’s the funny part. It’s not, of course. It’s GE’s money, or it’s Sony’s money. Who is “us”?
It’s funny that you say that because Charles Grodin, the CIA agent in this movie, who is a very funny man and a great actor, defended it when it came out. It was attacked because they kept saying it’s so much money, it’s so much money. And it was actually not.
Well, if nowadays you say what it costs, I’d love to make a movie for this. It was like $33 million, right?
Thirty. And he said one day, as I recall, to the people who were saying it was so much, he said, what do you care? It’s not like you’re going to get the money. It’s not like if the movie were $20 million you’d get 10 of it. You’ll never see it. What do you care how much money it is? They’re not going to give it to schoolteachers.
God forgive me, it’s also interesting to look at their salaries. Their salaries stay the same no matter how the movies do.
That’s right, isn’t it? I’ve never thought of that.
Sometimes people get fired because their movies have done badly. But those people have gotten $12 million a year for the years they have chosen movies unwisely. It’s not a tragedy when one of them goes to another studio. Because they keep changing off and going to different studios.
This is really correct. a) You realize later in life that you’ve chosen the wrong job, and b) you think it’s about making money, but I believe it’s really about keeping your job. Whether the movie makes money or not is really way down on the list.
I agree. I also think that there’s a whole probably larger subject: which are movies that live on and why? It’s very mysterious, why The Lady Eve or The Palm Beach Story is completely alive now and why Ishtar is hilarious and alive and in some cases it seemed almost improvised tonight. Who knows what movies will live and what movies will die as time passes?
Well, yours will live.
Well, you’re very kind.
Yes, I am.
But I don’t think we know. I don’t think anybody knows. And the whole thing of a movie catching the wind and sailing off. And nobody understands the winds of fashion that strike movies. Although I begin to have a theory. It’s the Hollywood Foreign Press. Here’s my theory: the people in the Golden Globes are not exactly reporters—they send something in once every two weeks to the Bulgarian weekly. And they don’t have all that much to do. And they are masters of fashion.
So far this sounds right.
And in their deep understanding of what the coming fashion is, they will choose a movie, let’s say for instance Brokeback Mountain, which is a wonderful movie, but nevertheless, it’s a nice movie to vote for because it makes you feel so very, very human and understanding of all different kinds of people. And yet you could have a fugitive thought seeing that movie—they could move to California. They have sheep, they have cows. You would be fine in California. There are many like you, they would understand you. You could have friends. So I think we are all fashion-ridden. And because the Golden Globes are first and because they really have nothing to do but call the fashion, they tend not to confuse things, but crystallize them.
What about the Weinsteins? Do you think that they influence the Golden Globes?
Then what will the Golden Globes do now?
Do you think that Weinsteins will stop influencing the Golden Globes?
[May fiddles with a chain attached to her clothing] […] the fact that I was trying to keep this chain in place all day long and I’m just going to whip it off.
Will anything be revealed?
Just those implants.
Now tell us a little about the people who you made your movies with. People like our friend Anthea Sylbert, who was a great costume designer and an inspiring and remarkable person—how important is a person like that?
There’s about five of them. And when you meet them, they’re sort of like friends, you want to keep them. On Heartbreak Kid, I had no idea what these people would wear. Anthea said: “Well, cotton underwear is what the girl would wear, that’s what those blondes wear.” She was just perfect. She was just a true artist. And in A New Leaf, she said: “Have you thought about what’s in your purse?” Man, I hadn’t thought about my part. I had no idea. And every once in a while you get a fantastic art director, and Sylbert was wonderful. I do miss that. Those wonderful people who work with you on a movie, and who tell the story with you. That’s the best part of making movies, I think. It’s the only thing where you can work in a group where five or six people all tell the same story in their own specific voice. The music person has a voice. The makeup person makes you up to tell the story… And they all tell the same story. And I miss that because you can’t really do it on the stage.
I never thought of it that way. But there’s a moment in which many people are putting in something that no one else could contribute, and if you’re the leader, if you’re lucky you have found an idea that you can communicate to them because people love an idea. It should be a very simple idea. But whatever the idea, it should be something that everybody can say: “Yes, oh, I see what you mean. I get it.” And that’s the joy of it, of course: that you can inflame some remarkable people. I have a story about Anthea that I guess you know.
I may not.
I stopped making a movie once on the fifth day.
This is a great story, I do know it.
What happened was that we got five days into it, and I hadn’t really prepared, I hadn’t really been paying enough attention, and the script needed work. I said, “Could I see all the dailies of everything we’ve done so far?” And I was with the editor and the producer, and we looked at the dailies. And I said, “This is shit, this is no good.” Everybody said, “No, don’t be silly,” and the editor said, “I’ll put it together,” and the composer said, “You have to do music.” And I said, “Well, let me think about it,” and I went into my office. And Anthea came in and she said, “You’re right. It is shit.” And I said, “I thought so. What should I do?” She said, “Stop.” I said, “Stop? In the middle of making a movie? How can I do that? It’s already cost $3 million.” And she said, “Well, is it better to spend $6 million? If it’s no good, it’s no good.” And I went to the head of the studio, who luckily was my best friend [May laughs], and an exception to what we were saying earlier, and he said, “Well, it’s terrible, but I mean, if you really think it’s no good, we’ll stop.” And we actually did stop and years later that script had been worked on and was made into a very successful movie. And it should be possible to do strange things, because movies, like any art form, are strange. They’re strange all on their own. And we should be able to do odd things to fit in with them. But once time is gone, and time is now going, because everything is so expensive… People don’t have time to figure out, “Well, maybe this scene has to be redone, maybe this is a bad place for us to go, maybe, God forbid, we’ve got the wrong actor here.” These things… nothing can be reconsidered.
It seems to me that the thing that costs the most money in a movie, the thing that you can’t not spend money on, is publicizing it. Because even if you make a movie for $10 million, it costs $50 million to get somebody to come see it. And I always thought that what all artists who are pissed about this—and I know very little about business, so this is probably a really bad idea—but what I thought they should do is get together and buy a theater, one theater in key towns. And if they have a movie that they really think is good, but that nobody’s going to spend $60 million to publicize, they could show it. You’d always have people coming. Movies don’t cost that much anymore. There are digital movies. Because now when you make a movie, they come to you from the publicity department. And they say, “We just don’t know how to publicize this. We don’t know what to say about it.” And sometimes the movie gets turned down because of it. But I always thought that that would be the best to do, to suddenly just have one theater. They aren’t that expensive to run.
Well, there are wonderful things happening. People like Steven Soderbergh, who made a movie, I think, for $15,000 in Ohio with real people. He released it simultaneously in theaters, on DVD, pay-per-view, and some fourth way that’s been invented that I haven’t heard about yet [he and May laugh]. You have to break it up. He also operates his own movies. I mean, I give up, you know. I can’t do that. I can’t do a movie for $15,000 and also operate, so—
Oh, you could if you wanted to, but you—
I’d need 30, 35 [laughs]. But the fact that a) we have to remember how young they are, and b) there are remarkable people now.
But he’s not that young, Soderbergh. He’s made many movies, and he was young, but he’s not anymore [laughs].
Well, he’s young enough.
Younger than we are, but he’s really not that young.
Well, he’s 40, if he’s a day.
Well, that’s not—forgive me—young [laughs]. Yes, it’s a terrific thing that he does, but he’s done it after he’s had a lot of very successful movies. So it’s almost whimsical to do this. When people are starting out, and they have some movie, and they really want it to be seen, they aren’t that clever. They can’t say, “I can, you know, you can look at a DVD, I can push it into your mind and shove it up your ass,” or whatever, however you look at movies now, you really want it to be in a theater. I really don’t know why that hasn’t happened. You think I’m wrong?
No, I don’t think you’re wrong. There’s a dozen ways to see a movie now, including on your computer or in the backseat of your car.
But it’s not as good as a theater.
It’s not as good as a theater, but it’s another way. And there’s something very nice about everything disintegrating, and this is certainly a time when you might say that. More things are possible. You know, we’re thinking about doing a movie for, if not $15,000, for half a million dollars.
Yes, so close to it—
And it’s the one I look forward to most. Because I already know a lot of things I want to do. For instance, improvising and shooting 20 pages in one day, or half the movie in one day. And we also know that when you have a small group of people that you really trust and you understand and they understand you, and you know what you’re doing together, you can do remarkable things. And you don’t need the 125 people who come with the big trucks. We don’t necessarily need the big machine every time.
You also are somebody who, whatever movie you make, is going to find a way for it to be seen and shown. Because you’re very famous and very good. But people who are beginning and people who don’t have the clout that you have, they have no place to show their movie. And probably only one out of 30 of them is that good, but one out of 30 is not bad. There’s stuff you do, all of us do, that we really feel hopeless about. I once went on a cruise, and I said I would lecture one day. And everyone in the audience wanted to write a screenplay—
They all send them to me, I know [laughs].
And I said, “Write a three-page summary of this and give it to me, and I’ll read it.” And people said, “Are you crazy, are you insane, are you nuts?!” And not one came in, because no one wanted to take the time to type up three pages of their screenplay. So not a lot of people will do this, but there are some people who have a real dream and a real goal, and it’s so overwhelming to think, after you finished it, what do you do, and then where do you go? It’s such a big world now. It’s so hard to do anything. It’s so hard to get anyone on the phone. It’s so hard to return a piece of furniture [laughter]. It’s almost impossible.
Yes, it is.
So there has to be some way where you can have some kind of control, where everything is not such a terrible, terrible problem. And look how quickly we all get used to eating shit. Really, about seven years ago, if somebody had answered the phone saying, “We really value your call. Please hold on for the next hour and 25 minutes,” we’d have hung up. We get used to it very fast. We get used to skim milk very fast. Whole milk tastes like cream. We adapt very quickly to being treated very badly [laughter].
I do think that you put your finger on what is central about making movies, what makes it something that you—that I—never want to stop. Just as you never want to stop seeing them. There is something that happens among people and what it finally is, is a sort of melding of unconscious. When you do your best, you’re depending to a large extent on your unconscious, when you’ve done this for some length of time, because you’re waiting for the thing you can’t think of. You’re waiting for the surprise of shooting that day. And when a large group of people is waiting for today’s surprise, and they’re all in the same place, and you have the people that you do it with every time, and you love them and they love you, something begins to happen. Over the weekend I went to see Oprah do a thing she does in a theater, telling people how to be their best, live their best life. And she charges a lot for it, and the money goes to the charity of the town in which she’s done it. And she has this gift, she can hear 2,500 people sitting in the dark. She can connect with what they’re thinking.
Yes, she’s amazing.
And in hearing them, remarkable things happen. She says remarkable things, and funny things, and so forth. But, in a weird way, we need the unconscious and the souls of the people that are making the movie to make some kind of connection with the unconscious of what Gloria Swanson called “those wonderful people out there in the dark”—we are those wonderful people out there in the dark—and that that connection still lives even as everything says to us, “Your call is important to us.” Which is a lie. I mean, everything is a lie.
But the unspoken things are not all lies yet.
But don’t you feel—and you, too [to the audience]—don’t we all feel that we actually now can choose what to believe? I mean, if I see a really great commercial, I know this car isn’t going to change my life, or whatever it is, and still—I know it’s a lie—but I really think about buying it. And when this girl—Jessica Lynch, was it? That the young girl who was in the Iraq war? Was that her name?
There was a story about her that she was a hero, and they abused her in the hospital… And this girl finally said, “It’s not true. That’s not what happened.”
Well, she told the truth at every point.
She told the truth at every point. And she went on Diane’s show, and they made a television movie out of it, and it totally ignored what she said, and they made it about what was in the papers. I said, “Well, this is just bullshit, isn’t it?” And somebody said to me, “Well, it’s such a better story.” [laughter] And that was very scary.
Well, it’s so weird what you said. a) Yes, and b) I have that with cars, but I have it another way. [May laughs.] I had a Mercedes for a long time, and then I had a Mercedes, and it was always in the shop, and they no longer understood how to fix it. [laughter] Literally, you know, it was so complicated they didn’t know what to do, so they would put it out in the back where the cars gathered dirt. And then after about two or three weeks, they would say, “Come and get it,” and it would be just as busted. And then I switched to a BMW, because it was rented, everything is rented. The same thing happened with the BMW. So then I got a nice Lexus and everything is fine. But when I see the gorgeous commercials for the beautiful new Mercedes, the beautiful new BMWs, I sort of think it’s like a hooker with clap. [laughter] You know?
I know too much. They can’t get me with the pictures anymore, because I know they don’t work and there’s nobody to fix them.
Yes. But, still, this hooker-with-clap image, this beautiful hooker-with-clap image… [laughing]
Yes, thank you, thank you. I’m a poet, basically. [laughing]
I’ll always remember it now. [laughing]
Should we quickly take a few questions from the audience?
Audience Member: When you made The Heartbreak Kid and The Graduate and Carnal Knowledge, we had a society that was unfolding, and you helped to disinhibit it and put it on the right track. And somehow it hasn’t maintained itself, so there must have been a joy in discovering themes that you were going to be working on. What has happened now? Where do your themes come from? Is there a joy? Is there content you’re preoccupied with to tell?
I only made one of the pictures you named, but this is a very good question. I want to answer it with this odd thing. When psychoanalysis began, Freud used to take very repressed people and try to break them down, break their structure down so that it would all come out. It has now changed so that what psychoanalysts try to do is take very broken-apart people and repress them and put them together, really, and structure them, because people just come in and they don’t know what they’re talking about. [laughter] And it is a little like that with movies. You think, How can I shock? What can I say? What truth can I tell that’s as good as this lie they believe? Because the thing about what I choose to believe, the fact that we feel—maybe it’s this administration or the world or television—but the fact that we kind of feel that we can choose the truth. A friend of mine called today and said, “I read a story that when you made Ishtar, you got to the desert, and you said, ‘What are those hills?’ and they said, ‘Dunes,’ and you said, ‘Flatten them.’” And I said to him, “Well, do you believe that?” And there was a long pause, and he said, “Well, no, but it’s such a great story!” And it’s like that. It makes it hard to do a movie, because you think, What can I possibly choose, when people can so irresponsibly say anything, people will do anything, nobody is ashamed of anything—you’re just lucky to get it on television, whatever it is repression is? It is hard to find a theme. It’s really hard to find something and to say it in a way that will get people’s attention. So I have no idea, do you Mike?
I’m afraid I’m still so in love with the, for want of a better word, process, and the thing I love most about movies and that I love most about other people’s work is the small things. You think about your favorite thing in a movie or in a play or in a performance… it’s always something very small, it’s so small that you can barely tell other people about, but it just makes you gasp, because it’s like a little pebble of something true. And harvesting them—because, after all, the acting is done by other people—is still something that I think is so thrilling. I think the thing is just to keep doing it because with luck you can catch that wind, it can still be done.
Yes, I think the question really is, those tiny moments—the small things you remember—where do you choose to put them in? What do you choose to make this process about? Because you can make this process, I think, about almost anything. From any small thing you can make a million truths.
No question, and for me—because I teach once a week I had to sort of try to think of a couple of ideas, and one of them is that in working on something, and also in the thing itself, if it’s a movie, the question always is, “What is this really like?” Not what is the convention, not what do people always do in this case, not what happens in a ribald comedy or a tragedy-comedy or a film of lysergic unhappiness, you know, or whatever, “What is this really like?” And in the search for what it’s really like—something that you [points to May] do instinctively, every time you write—it answers the question “What is this really like?” Every line reminds you of a living person and the funny things we do and the silly things we do and, sometimes, the nice things we do. That’s the answer to the question “what is this really like?” It can be expanded a little bit to “where are we really at now? What is this like? What in the hell is happening?”
That’s a very good question.
Audience Member: The little things, are they part of a big picture? Or are you holding onto the little things for their preciousness?
I don’t know… There’s a little thing that I believe is the most horrifying thing that I’ve ever heard, and it’s like what you [points to Mike Nichols] said: “What is it really like?” How different life is from the movies… Is this a book that you [Nichols] gave me? This woman who worked in a Nazi concentration camp and was up for trial, and they said, “How could you do this? Knowing that these people were being sent to the gas chambers, how could you participate in this, with these beds?” And she said, “You don’t understand, we had such a limited amount of beds. They were filled so quickly. We had to keep them moving.” And she said it with absolute sincerity. She had narrowed her vision down. She was not evil. I mean, she was evil, but she wasn’t evil in the way we really think of evil. She just had a small German accent. [laughter] She had just narrowed her vision down to this, to filling the beds. And somebody, I think it was Warren, was telling me that when you have a lack of imagination and you do harm—I think this is from T.S. Eliot—that you don’t do harm to be mean, you do it to get the job done, and you are totally unaware and unaffected by the harm you do. And I always thought, How would you build a whole movie around that moment, a moment that would repel everyone in the audience. But when you speak about having moments that are really like life—“What is it really like when you lose someone? What is it really like when you’re happy?” There are very few moments like that in movies. They all pretend. When you see a real moment in a movie, it’s almost shocking, isn’t it?
It is shocking, but, as we know, it still happens. And we all revere it, and we see movie after movie, hoping for it, and sometimes finding it. It still happens in movies from here, movies from there. It still happens in plays. You just have to wait a long time. [May laughs] There’s almost nobody you can trust. I mean, people are forever sending me to plays, and I say, “Son of a bitch, they’ve done it again!” Somebody I thought I could trust sent me to this piece of shit! [laughter] I get really angry. Forget the papers, I’m not talking about reviews. It’s harder and harder to find somebody who sees theater the way you do. We’re flying apart, like the universe, in some way. But now and then, by hook or by crook, you see something on the stage that’s also alive and remarkable. And the whole question—here we are in the place we are in, that we all know, that your picture [Ishtar] predicted—surely we have to find hope, and we have to act on our hope. We have to wake up. And start to do stuff, and be citizens, and speak up.
Well, let me ask you something. I speak for the whole audience. Now, stop me if I’m wrong. What do we do?
[Shrugs shoulders] You’re asking me? [May laughs] I told you about the interview with Cher that I heard?
It was so wonderful. The interviewer said, “Hey, what do you think about this whole Middle East thing that’s happening?” And she said, “Listen, I’m Cher.” [laughter] “Please,” she said, “Ask me about showbiz.” You know, I love her. She always tells the truth, and I’m Cher, too.
But Cher has never said we have to have hope, as you just did. [laughing]
Well, we have to look for hope, of course we have to look for hope.
You’re not really Cher. [laughter]
Well, I mean, a very simple thing that we all know about: the congressional elections are coming up. Let’s get off our ass, let’s get something done, let’s make everybody get off their ass, let’s do something. And please not just by e-mail. I don’t want to get any more e-mails from groups. I want individuals to talk to each other and say, “Who are you voting for? And is this an okay Democrat? And who do we work on and what do we do?” That’s the next thing we have to do. Does anybody have a better idea? Please tell us now.
Audience member: Hi, I’m just responding to some of the comments that you made, Mike, about theater that seems to be flying away from you and about the fact that we choose the facts or truths that we believe. To me it seems to correlate to a dumbing down of our society. It seems to be more of an interest in just sheer comedy, less in drama, less in something that’s important; people don’t care, they don’t have the time or the intelligence to care. I am wondering a) if you agree, and b) if that’s the case, how is it be a creative person working in a world where the audience doesn’t really care to be elevated anymore? They want to be sort of dumbed down.
Well you have to remember most movies are made for 16-year-old boys. Maybe that’s changing, but 16-year-old boys have truly had a poor education. Really the point is that people want to make too much money. If you want to make a movie that’s going to make a $100 million, you need all those 16-year-old boys and their dates. You have to start saying, “How do you think smaller?”
Well, people are thinking smaller. That’s what’s great about this year. What could be smaller than Capote? I’m talking about money spent. It’s a modest movie that’s reaching a lot of people. The Squid and the Whale, Brokeback Mountain. These are small movies that to begin with are aiming to reach a small audience. I mean Weinsteins are Weinsteins, as we all know, but they also are the ones that started pushing smaller movies for awards, so that the small movies would make a medium amount of money. Everything is still possible. The fact that everyone does seem hypnotized in some way is unnerving and I have a boring theory that has to do with everyone on their iPods and their BlackBerrys and their trios and their backseat-of-the-car TV screens, and we are behaving like a person who is avoiding the truth, is voiding something. What’s the word?
We’re behaving like hypnotized people, but we’re somnambulant. I hope we can wake each other up. But please, one at a time. There’s so many things, “Your call is important to us”—how do you know who’s calling? It’s the goddamn generalities that make for those tapes on phones and annoying e-mails from a group. The individual—there’s not enough money in the individual. And we have to—person to person—fight for it a little bit.
Let me ask you something. To simply actually stop. I’m just taking this “Your call is important to us” thing as an example because, having visited a large corporation, some executive is getting a $100 million a year and saving money not giving some woman a job for $30,000 a year. And he says we don’t want to take the shareholders’ money. And you say, well, you pay it, deduct it. But there’s no way to enforce that. We all know that that’s true, we all know that that’s bad, and we all know that there’s something about the tiny things in life happening to you that devalues you, that lessens you, that makes you numb. You have to become more and more numb not to get offended. And pretty soon you get pretty sick. And it seems to me—because I’m really a much more negative person than you are, you’re the lightness, I’m the dark—
But it seems to me, at some point what you really want to say is I won’t deal with a company that doesn’t have a real operator. For one day, I’ll make them lose that much money. For one day, I won’t go to a bookstore where the guy says, “Huh, I don’t know.” For one day I won’t say, it’s so hard. I won’t run home to a rerun of Cheers, I can’t bother with it. For one day, you’ll take the trouble to make trouble for someone else, because it’s the only thing that keeps you from getting sick, from sort of retreating. I think that’s what dumbing-down kind of is. It’s too much trouble. And there is such a thing as too much trouble.
It’s hard to find the line because if you’re a snob like me, and somebody says, “What is this in regards to?” I’ll say it’s in regards to Broadway. If you want to know what this is in regard to, tell your boss I want to borrow a lot of money. Where do you start, where do you stop, when are you just a pain in the ass?
That’s a very good way to start. You’ve got to start tiny, as Giuliani said, “Don’t go after the big guys, get the pushers off the street.” I know he did a lot of bad things, but I remember when you couldn’t walk around New York after 5 o’clock, and now you can. So with all of that, you really do start with tiny crimes. I think they’re like crimes, they’re like little insults that you get all the time.
Audience member: Earlier in the day, I had the good fortune of seeing Mikey and Nicky for the first time. It’s every bit as breathtaking and astounding as I’d heard it was. And it occurred to me talking with my friends and wife afterwards, it’s a piece that is so at home in the period of the Seventies, where independent filmmaking seemed to come out of a studio system. The period of Altman and Scorsese and your film, Mr. Nichols, Carnal Knowledge. Having said that, what happened? The stories about its mishaps are almost as legendary as Ishtar. As recently as the Terrence Rafferty piece in The New York Times this weekend. About exposing as much film as was exposed for Gone with the Wind, and hiding the negative from the studio. I’d like to know how much of that is hyperbole and why it got such short shrift in terms of release.
Really, this is true. The studio changed heads. The guy who was in charge, Frank Yablans, and a new guy, Barry Diller, came in the middle, and he thought it was a comedy. But we screened it and it wasn’t. And they stopped it. They pulled. We were two-thirds done. I don’t even know how we finished. I once told John Cassavetes he’d have to actually shoot his own death scene, because he was so wonderful with the camera. We had no one. It was really a very difficult thing to do because it wasn’t that the studio heads involved really didn’t like each other. They were really not happy with this movie because it was not a comedy. Actually the first time it was previewed I said to the guy in charge—he was the vice president of something at Paramount—“Please don’t put my name on it because people will think it’s a comedy and they’ll hate it in the end.” And he tried not to, but they did. And they laughed all the way through, laughed. And in the end when the guy got shot, there was the most stunned silence. And then boos, loud boos. Somebody said, “Are they cheering?” “No,” I said, “They’re booing.” I should have just said this is a sad, dark movie that no one will enjoy, and do you want to do it. But no, we had names and it seemed to have a few jokes, and there was a lot of politics involved. And it could just be me because I’ve had trouble with every movie I’ve done. I had trouble with A New Leaf. They took a murder out of it. I wanted to do the first comedy in which somebody got away with murder. I had trouble with Mikey and Nicky. I didn’t have trouble with The Heartbreak Kid because I was hired for it. But with every movie that I have done, I may just be a pain in the ass.
I’ve thought about this a lot. If you recall the very first person who was a line producer for you, a friend of both of ours, there was the famous story of when you did process for the first time, bluescreen, I believe it was. And this person who you hired—he was a professional—got you a blue car. Bluescreen means everything that is blue disappears and what remains is what is not blue. So they shot all these scenes in a blue car and the people were all sitting in the air.
It wasn’t even that. We just couldn’t shoot, which cost an enormous amount of money. But the point is the studio wasn’t in back of it. It just had one screw-up after another. You know when I started the first movie I directed, I really didn’t want to direct [A New Leaf]. But they wouldn’t give me director approval. And the guy who represented me, Hilly Elkins, said they won’t give you a director approval but they will allow you to direct it. And I said, I know nothing. I actually remember calling you and I said, “Well, how should I say action? Firmly or…?” I began sort of on one foot and just continued that way.
I think the real secret of movies is putting a crew together. And it takes about 25 years to get it right. That’s not an exaggeration. And you have to do it steadily because you can’t ask anyone. Everybody will say about everyone you ask, “He’s a very good man.” Nobody will ever tell; you have to find out. And when you have that many people that can you depend on, everything changes. And some of them are here tonight. And we’re family, and we can depend on each other, but it took forever.
Yeah, it’s like friendship. Who’s left after the others burn out? Actually you started with Anthea and gave her to me. And she lasted…
It takes a whole bunch of Antheas. They save you even when you screw up. Let’s take one more question.
Audience member: A New Leaf was a great movie and your performance was Chaplinesque. I have this fantasy of winning the Mega Millions, and that I would give you the money to add the scenes that you wanted—you wanted to make it longer, didn’t you?
I had a murder in it.
But you shot it, it exists?
I shot the murder. It exists. It was a wonderful scene.
Audience member: Well, if I win the Mega Millions, it’s yours. But you could talk a little more about making A New Leaf? It’s a very under-appreciated movie.
I started out with a short story in an Alfred Hitchcock omnibus. I liked it because I realized the guy, the hero, was going to kill this woman. And he actually kills somebody else. And I thought he’s going to kill her and he’s not going to realize that he likes her. Reading the short story I thought, what an interesting thing to do in a movie. So I wrote it. I said I have to have director approval, and they said you can direct this. I couldn’t get it on without Walter Matthau, who started out as a regular person. And then they wanted to have Carol Channing play the woman, and I said, no it has to be someone who really disappears. It’s the guy’s movie. I said, “Can I pick the person?” And they said, “No, but you can play it. And all for the same money.” And on the first day, when we began, it was a very tough movie for me. I knew absolutely nothing, I barely knew what a camera looked like. Really, I struggled through. This story is almost unbelievable. I had written screenplays and I could write great-looking scenes, but I didn’t know there was such a thing as coverage. Does everyone know what I mean? Surely now everybody’s got a camera. I didn’t know that you have to shoot two people in order to cut.
Call it a master. Shoot a master first.
No, no. I didn’t know you had to shoot anything but one thing.
That’s the master.
Even if you shot one person…
Oh, I see. You thought just one thing per scene.
Yes, one thing per scene. I thought that you picture the scene and if it’s just one person you do that. Nobody told me because they didn’t want me on the movie and they wanted me fired. I was way ahead of schedule. In the first week I had jumped four weeks ahead of schedule with no coverage. And I was very proud. And they wanted me to go in and cut it. And I said, “Well, this is too long. Let’s take some time out.” And they said, “Well, we can’t.” This is how little I knew, I mean kids with a camera know more than that. And I learned that weekend that you had to cover. So I went back and immediately fell behind six months. And on this movie, the only thing I knew anything about was acting. And I had my cast in the movie. I had my actors. I had been an acting teacher. I directed. And I knew how I wanted it to look. And I would say things like I want them to be full-figure but not tiny. Because everyone said you don’t have to know about lenses, you know, little girl. And finally somebody took me aside and told me that there are long lenses and wide lenses. You’ve never seen a movie with that many mistakes in it. My editor was a really nice man who had a drug problem. And the first cut he did, he did flash forwards, so that I would watch the scene and there would be a piece of the next scene in it. He’d never edited. It was his first movie. And I said, “There’s a piece of the next scene in this,” and he said it’s a flash forward. I didn’t know what to do. And fortunately, well he didn’t OD, but he took too many drugs and left, and the apprentices and I sort of took out the flash forwards. But I did it because the story was so good, and because the cast that I had were my people, and because I had Anthea Silver and the crew was not very good. But I hired Dede Ryan. And I managed to learn on that movie, while shooting it I made so many mistakes that I actually learned a little bit about how to make a movie. I didn’t learn—I had such a good focus puller I didn’t know there was such a thing as focus until the next movie. There’s no way to know unless someone teaches you or you screw up. And when you start a movie by someone saying, “You can’t pick a director, but you can direct it,” you really start knowing nothing. And that was the story of that movie. Every day became about trying to remember just what it was about and not screwing up too badly. Because if anybody can screw up badly… I give you this blouse as an example. It was just a hair-raising experience, but I had such a strong story that it was hard to screw it up. And what you’re saying is right. If you have some story that you want to tell, it’s almost hard to make it not work, even me.
Let me tell you a quick story about why A New Leaf is so great. I was supposed to do American Beauty for DreamWorks. One day I was getting ready to fly to an island, and there’s a storm. And my little cell phone rings and it’s Steven Spielberg, and he says, “Where are you?” And I said, “Well, it’s funny, I’m on a plane waiting for a storm to clear up. We’re about to take off.” And he said, “Well, what kind of plane?” And I said, “A Citation Ultra.” And he said, “Well, your plane is too small.” And I said, “Thank you and you called because?” And he said, “Are you going to do American Beauty or not? Because if you’re not we have Sam Mendes.” And I think he’s trying to tell me something, so I said, “Sam Mendes is great, you should do it, do it with Sam. I have to wait for this other picture I have to make. Go ahead and take Sam.” So they did and so I saw the movie and it was great. And I said to my wife, you think I should have done it? She said, “No, the reason it’s great is Sam’s excitement about making his first movie.” And she was right, and she was right about you and A New Leaf because with all that you were still so excited about making your first movie. And we see it. It’s alive.
Yes, I think that is what experience does. It just teaches you what you shouldn’t do. But in the beginning you think you can do anything because you don’t have any experience and that really does give you a lot of energy.
Do you remember what you said to me about The Exorcist? I also turned down The Exorcist because I didn’t want to do that to a little girl for six months. And it was my best friend again, the head of the studio, and it opened and it was a gigantic hit. He took me to see the line. He said, “You personally lost $30 million by not making this movie.” And I said to Elaine, “I’m trying to feel bad because John said I lost $30 million by not doing The Exorcist.” And Elaine said, “Don’t worry darling, if you’d made it, it wouldn’t have made that kind of money.”
It wouldn’t have. You would have made it human and real.
We have time for one more question.
Audience member: There are maybe four, five, or six women making Hollywood films—whatever the number, it’s relatively few. Can you talk a bit about the difficulty being a woman director?
Part of the difficulty with A New Leaf was Walter, whom, incidentally, I came to love, would call me Mrs. Hitler among other things. I didn’t want to frighten anyone, and people would leave me saying, she’s a nice girl. What is this big thing about? She’s a nice girl, and the thing is, of course, I wasn’t a nice girl. And when they found this out, they hated me all the more. And I think that’s what really happens. It’s not that they’re women. It’s that as women they think I want to show that I’m a nice person. I’m no one to be feared. I’m not one of those women who are not nice women. And in the end, when it comes down to it, you’re just as rotten as any guy. You’ll fight just as hard to get your way. So I think the real trick is for women is they should start out tough. They don’t start out tough. They start by saying, “Don’t be afraid of me. I’m only a woman.” And they’re not only women, they’re just as tough as guys. In that way I think I did have trouble. But only because I seemed so pleasant.