Sunday, August 30, 2009
Peter Bogdanovich interview, 1993
“The Thing Called Love” is one of a thousand curious marketing stories in the history of the film business. It was directed by Peter Bogdanovich, who had a string of big hits and critical favorites in the 1970s – “The Last Picture Show,” “What’s Up, Doc?” and “Paper Moon,” and then again in the ’80s hit with “Mask.” (Bogdanovich is also known as a film historian who conducted extensive interviews – and had friendships – with legendary directors like Orson Welles and John Ford. And as the lover of the tragic Dorothy Stratten.) In August 1993, there was a press screening for “The Thing Called Love,” a showbiz-insider movie about wanna-be country music singer-songwriters pursuing their dreams in Nashville. The music genre was exploding in popularity around the country at the time. It starred the long-established River Phoenix, who would sadly be dead of a drug overdose in a couple of months, and up-and-comers Samantha Mathis (“Broken Arrow”), Dermot Mulroney (“My Best Friend’s Wedding”) and Sandra Bullock. All the Salt Lake-area critics assumed the film would be opening wide. I was a bit surprised when I was offered a phone interview with Bogdanovich – granted, he hadn’t had a hit in a while, but still … Anyway, he called and I’ve pasted in the transcript from the interview below. The Standard-Examiner, Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News published interview stories the day the film opened in local theaters. But it turned out the film was being test-marketed in Utah only – it didn’t open wide until a month or so later, if memory serves. The studio had decided to test-market it in a region friendly to country-western music to see how it would play. I don’t think it made much money here, and it bombed nationally later on, even with the curiosity surrounding the tragedy of River Phoenix’s O.D. (Incidentally, Phoenix overdosed in Los Angeles during a break from filming a movie, “Dark Blood,” in Utah – a movie that was never finished or released.) Here now is the interview with Peter Bogdanovich, who was a lot of fun to speak with.
Don Porter: I SAW THE FILM LAST WEEK AND THIS SEEMS TO BE ONE OF THOSE RIGHT-FILM-AT-THE-RIGHT-TIME SORTS OF MOVIES.
Peter Bogdanovich: “Boy, I hope so, Don.”
SEEMS MAYBE IT'S SORT OF RIDING THE WAVE OF COUNTRY MUSIC POPULARITY. HOW MUCH DID THAT PLAY IN YOUR DECISION TO BECOME INVOLVED WITH THE FILM?
“I like country music; I always have. I mean, always – ever since 1970, when I went to Nashville -- when I was preparing ‘Last Picture Show’ I went to Nashville to meet with some country-western singers to get to know more about country music because I wanted to use it in the movie. And I sort of fell in love with it then, and have used it in five or six pictures since then.
“So when this offer came from Paramount, that was one of the things that did appeal to me quite a bit -- the fact that this was a songwriter, these were songwriters, and the songs they were writing were basically country songs. I thought that was interesting, it was an area I didn't know anything about in terms of what that was like, really, and because it was about young people, you know, you could take more license with it – because young people’s experiences tend to be more unusual, whereas when you get older they tend to be more the same.”
NOW, THERE’RE SOMETHING LIKE 50 SONGS IN THE MOVIE ...
“There are an awful lot of songs; I don't know if anyone has counted them up yet. I thought there was over 50. But that includes some songs that are older songs that we include on the track. We should count them up. I should do that sometime.”
IN DOING SOME BACKGROUND ON THIS, YOU WERE QUOTED AS SAYING THAT YOU SORT OF LIKE TO USE MUSIC TO PLAY AGAINST A SCENE. BUT DID YOU REALLY USE THAT APPROACH WITH THIS ONE?
“It varies. I don't like to do anything constantly, or people start to see what you're doing if you just follow one particular pattern. And with this, since there's so much music, and since we made a decision early on ...” [puts me on hold to take a call]
WE WERE TALKING ABOUT THE MUSIC AND HOW YOU USED IT IN THE FILM.
“So we decided at some point not to have a score, per se. And I said, ‘Let's just use songs that are new songs that we’re going to use in the picture, and then let's use some old songs on the track. Let's just do it like that.’ I don't know how it evolved, but as we kept going into it I decided to be a little less -- oh, what's the word? -- we got more free with it. I had the idea at some point, as a matter of fact, early on that is source-y -- playing like a score.
“I'm sorry, I'll start again. This gets complicated. I decided at some point that I wanted to have something playing as source -- the best example is when the jukebox is playing in the diner: She comes in, sits down and there's something playing on the jukebox and you hear it change to something else, it plays for a little while and at some point it just springs forward and becomes score for a little while -- then you go into that montage when you see her looking for work. That kind of idea, and then going from that back into a source cue. It's something we did back and forth all through the movie, and kind of were very loose with it. I thought, since this is a picture about songwriters, why not be real loose about the songs? They go in and they go out and they're all over the place. And since people are so used to music in pictures now -- I mean, SONGS in pictures -- and everybody watches MTV now, they're used to seeing songs dramatized. So I thought why not be very free with it? I think an audience will have no problem going in and out of songs and so on, and they'll understand what we're doing and it'll be all right.
“There are sometimes when we use music as a counterpoint, when the song really has nothing to do with what she's feeling. Like ‘She's in Love with the Boy,’ for example: When she sings ‘She's in Love with the Boy,’ when Trisha [Yearwood] sings her song, and you see her looking for work -- that really has nothing to do with that song. She's not in love with anybody. But it was a popular song and we used it as a kind of counterpoint.
“Then again, at the end when we use another Trisha Yearwood song called ‘Walk-Away Joe,’ it isn't really about what she's feeling at that moment, either, but it seems to give a different mood; I don't know what it is, it just works. And so we didn't try to say, ‘OK, we can't use the song if it doesn't mean what we're saying at this point.’ We just kind of left it open. Sometimes we do and sometimes we don't. There's a certain amount of irony in a couple of choices, for example when you hear River [Phoenix] singing ‘Standing on a Rock’ -- which is a song about being happy and in a good place, and you see their relationship is really not in a good place -- that becomes kind of ironic, for me, in a way. And later, when he's singing this love song about how much he's never been in love before until now, he's sung it before but now he seems to mean it -- whereas the first time you hear him sing it he doesn't really seem to mean it.
“So we used that as much as we could. We tried to play with it going in and …”
ANOTHER THING I THOUGHT WAS PRETTY INTERESTING WAS THE CASTING OF K.T. OSLIN AS LUCY. I THOUGHT SHE DID A GREAT JOB.
“Isn't she good?”
YEAH. SEE, I DIDN'T KNOW WHAT K.T. OSLIN LOOKED LIKE, SO I THOUGHT YOU HAD AN ACTRESS -- I MEAN, I THOUGHT SHE WAS SOMEONE WHO DID THIS FOR A LIVING. I WAS QUITE SURPRISED WHEN I FOUND OUT THIS WAS K.T. OSLIN.
“She’s really good. The studio, actually, suggested we think about using some country singers and performers in various roles. And I thought that was a good idea, since that was why I had originally gone to Nashville back in ’70, because I had the thought to use some country people for acting in the picture -- not to play a leading role, but to play the part that Ben Johnson [who won a supporting actor Oscar for his work] played -- but I didn't find anybody who I thought was right, then I thought of Ben and that was that.”
“We did actually use a couple of people from Nashville in ‘Last Picture Show’ in acting roles. So I went down to Nashville this time and interviewed five or six country singers and K.T., there was no contest because K.T. was so right for it, it seemed to me. Plus, what I didn't know was that she had a lot of experience as an actress and she'd been on the Broadway stage before she even was a country singer -- which nobody knows, and I didn't know until she told me. And that kind of cinched it.”
NOW, I WONDERED IF YOU'D TELL ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT HOW THE REST OF THE CAST FELL INTO PLACE. I NOTICED IN THE PRESS NOTES THAT RIVER PHOENIX ACTUALLY DID SOME WRITING, WROTE SOME MATERIAL ...
“He wrote two songs, and one of them we couldn't use because we just didn't have a place for it, but it was a really good song. The other one was the one he sings to her outside the hospital and later in the Bluebird, ‘Lone Star State of Mind.’ ”
NOW, WAS HE PART OF THE PICTURE EARLY ON?
“No, he became involved after I did. We were trying to cast it and -- this has never actually happened to me before -- but we didn't offer it to him. We heard he was not available and he wasn't even discussed because we weren't thinking of a star in that part. A couple of people said they didn't think a star would do it because the girl's part was so much better, bigger.
“Well, it turned out River's agent had read the script and sent it to River and said, ‘Read this, it's being directed by Bogdanovich.’ He read it and called her, and said, ‘It needs a lot of work, don't you think?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, but you always wanted to sing and do you know this director's work?’ And he said, ‘No.’ She said, ‘Go rent “The Last Picture Show” ...’
HE DIDN'T KNOW YOUR FILMS?
THAT'S JUST KIND OF SURPRISING.
“He’d heard of me, but he hadn’t seen any of them. He rented it and called her back and said, ‘I wanna work with the guy.’ So then she called the studio and said River Phoenix is very interested in doing this movie. At which point the studio called me -- I was in New York -- and said, ‘What do you think about River Phoenix?’ And I said, ‘Jesus, he’d be great. He’s a wonderful actor; he can do anything.’ So they were thrilled, and they made a deal with River. At which point Samantha [Mathis], who was interested in doing it but hadn't decided whether she felt the script was there or not, jumped in. So then we had the two leads, and there were two people up for the Kyle role, and River had worked with Dermot [Mulroney] before and recommended him very highly for the part.”
ARE THOSE HIS (RIVER'S) VOCALS IN THE PICTURE?
OH, THEY ARE? WELL, HE HAS A VOICE, TOO.
“They all did their own vocals. ... It thrilled all of us, because we said from the beginning it didn't matter if these people were brilliant singers as long as they were brilliant actors, because we figured these are songwriters and not every songwriter has to be a great singer -- he can be good enough to do a demo but he doesn't have to be great.”
BOB DYLAN AND NEIL YOUNG, THERE YOU GO.
“Yeah. ... We got lucky because River and Dermot are both musicians, and Sandra comes from a completely musical family -- her mother and father are both opera singers and teachers – and Sam liked to sing, even though she never had.”
ARE THE PEOPLE IN NASHVILLE REALLY ENAMORED OF THE MUSIC BUSINESS LIKE THE FILM MAKES IT OUT? I LOVED THAT SCENE WHERE KYLE HEARS HIS SONG ON THE RADIO FOR THE FIRST TIME, AND EVERYBODY KIND OF FORGETS ABOUT THE ACCIDENT WHEN THEY FIND OUT IT'S HIS SONG PLAYING ON THE RADIO.
“I think maybe it's a slight exaggeration, but it's certainly possible -- very possible. Because, you know, music is what it's about: Music City. Everybody's into that, just like Hollywood is the movies.
“The people of Nashville were very dubious about the movie, of exactly what we had in mind: Was this just another way of cashing in on country music and not putting anything back and, so to speak, just exploiting it and at the same time trying to show them like jerks. They don't want to be portrayed as hicks, and, you know, VENAL hillbillies. We avoided that, tried to avoid that and be as honest about it as possible.”
ANOTHER THING I REALLY LIKED ABOUT IT WAS THAT IT DOESN'T HAVE WHAT I WOULD CALL -- AND ESPECIALLY COMPARED TO MOST OTHER FILMS NOW – A CONVENTIONALLY HAPPY ENDING. IT'S VERY AMBIGUOUS AS TO WHAT HAPPENS TO THESE PEOPLE. YOU TAKE AWAY FROM THIS FILM – IF YOU'RE REALLY INTO THESE UPBEAT ENDINGS -- YOU CAN TAKE AWAY THAT, WELL, THEY ALL LIVE HAPPILY EVER AFTER AND GO ON TO HAVE GREAT CAREERS. OR IF YOU'RE INTO MORE PESSIMISTIC ENDINGS YOU CAN SAY, WELL, YOU KNOW, LIFE PROBABLY CONTINUED FOR THEM LIKE IT HAD TO THAT POINT: A VERY ROCKY, ROLLERCOASTER-TYPE EXISTENCE. I'M ALWAYS HAPPY WHEN FILMMAKERS PULL A FAST ONE LIKE THAT. IS THAT WHAT YOU WERE AIMING FOR?
“Yeah, that's correct. I mean, we wanted it -- the actors and I all felt that to have River and Samantha, or Miranda and James, just come back and end up together, or that she would drop him and end up with Kyle, both of those solutions seemed to us to be glib and too easy in terms of we knew we had to end the picture shortly after she sings the song, you can't keep going with it; that's the thing she was trying to do, and she wrote a song and Lucy liked it and said it was a good song and that was it. That was really the climax.
“Now we had to wrap up the personal story, which was extremely important. But it had to be wrapped up in not too long. So we couldn't go on and see another two weeks and what really happened, we really had to end it that night, it seemed to me. It was that way in the original script and I felt she should end up with both of them, and it should be open-ended as to how it was going to resolve itself -- maybe she wound end up with James, maybe she wouldn't, maybe it would switch and it would be her and Kyle.
“So we all kind of agreed that's the way it should be, although we weren't sure how and audience would react. And you have to always remember you’re making a picture spending about $20 million -- which is what it ended up costing, a little under, about nineteen-something -- nevertheless it’s not a huge, it’s not gigantic by the standards of most pictures nowadays, but nevertheless it's still a good deal of money. And so you have to bear in mind this is not a small, $3 million movie that's going to open at art houses. It's a major Hollywood movie. So with all that in mind, you don't want to make a real down ending and say it’s going to turn out like this, because you don't know what’s going to happen. In life, I’ve seen people end up happy and not happily -- or happy for 10 years and then they break up. As we all know, show business isn't easy in any branch, and neither are relations between men and women -- as we show in the movie. But I felt the audience, if all went well, would like these three people individually even though they may disapprove of some of what River does, or whatever, that they would essentially forgive them and like them at the end. And so it felt like that what was important, finally, was that the three of them were friends, and that that was as far as it might be -- it MIGHT go somewhere else, but at least that was a positive finish, that they could end up as friends after having gone through the jealousy and the breakup. And so that was what we aimed for.”
WELL, I THINK YOU HIT IT. I'M ALWAYS HAPPY WHEN THAT HAPPENS. I LIKE THAT, I DON'T LIKE THINGS TO BE SO NEATLY RESOLVED. I THOUGHT THIS SHOULD PRETTY MUCH SATISFY EVERYONE, FROM THE CYNICS TO THE ROMANTICS.
“Well, I hope so. I think it leaves it open for a lot of different interpretations. But what is not open for interpretation is that she has the upper hand. And that's what I like, because that’s unusual for a woman to succeed without being punished. Usually in movies, women, if they succeed, are punished either by losing the men -- because the men walk out saying, ‘You’re too interested in your career.’ And so the woman is all by herself. Or they don’t make it. Or it takes a guy for them to make it. Or whatever it is. We tried, all of us, were keen on making an ending where the woman succeeded on her own, and DESPITE the problems with the men, rather than through the love of a good man she found her way -- we didn't want that either. We wanted: She found her own way because she was strong and did it. That was the message we were hoping to send out, and hoped to encourage young women to be independent, as opposed to being dependent.”
NOW, YOU'RE DIFFERENT THAN MOST FILMMAKERS IN THAT YOU'RE PRETTY WELL KNOWN AS A FILM JOURNALIST AND HISTORIAN, AS WELL. AND I WONDER FROM YOUR PERSPECTIVE, AND I KNOW YOU'VE DONE THIS YOURSELF, THERE SEEMS TO BE A LOT OF, A PROLIFERATION, OF DIRECTOR’S CUTS AND RESTORED FILMS, ALL OF A SUDDEN FLOODING THE MARKET. I WONDERED IF YOU COULD TELL ME WHAT WAS BEHIND YOUR DECISION TO DO THAT WITH “LAST PICTURE SHOW” AND, HAVE YOU DONE IT WITH “TEXASVILLE”?
“Yeah, it just came out.”
WHAT WAS BEHIND THE DECISION TO GO BACK AND TOY WITH A FILM SO MANY PEOPLE CONSIDER A MASTERPIECE?
“I always felt that it was not quite right. When we finished it, I thought some scenes had been cut out that we shouldn't have cut out. Then it got very good reactions. But then six months after the picture opened, I got the producers to let me put back a minute and a half we’d cut out.”
I DIDN'T KNOW THAT.
“Nobody did, because we didn’t make an issue out of it. We just went back and did it. So all subsequent prints of the movie were actually a minute and a half longer than the release version. Maybe it was a year after it opened, maybe less, I can’t remember. ... It was my second picture, and my first studio picture, and we didn't have big arguments about it, but at some point when it was about two hours and eight or 10 minutes I thought were getting in danger of making it too short. And everybody wanted it to be under two hours because they didn't know what was going to happen, it was an oddball movie, no stars, it was kind of a down movie and so on. So we compromised; there were some cuts made that I just wasn't that happy with and there were some transitions I thought were abrupt. But abrupt transitions were kind of in the vogue at that time, and so nobody was bothered by it. What bothered me, looking at it over the years, was that some of those transitions weren't really me, they were just fashionable, because in the late ’60s and early ’70s it was kind of fashionable to do some jump-cutting, al a the New Wave, and I never really liked that, actually, because I thought it would date the picture, and it did.
“So when I had the opportunity of making ‘Texasville,’ the original plan was to re-cut ‘Last Picture Show’ and add whatever I thought we needed to add and put it out into theaters before ‘Texasville’ opened. Unfortunately, the best laid plans of mice and men go awry, and that one did for a variety of reasons too long to go into. But it didn’t work out that way, although I did get to re-cut the picture, it was not shown until I don't know when the re-cut version came out on laserdisc. Criterion has it on laserdisc, and we added about seven minutes to the picture overall. And I just think it's a much better version; it's smoother, you can tell less easily it was made in 1971 and I think it makes clearer the characters' motivations and actions. It’s just a better movie.
“And the same thing with ‘Texasville.’ As a result of not being able to familiarize audiences with ‘Last Picture Show’ before ‘Texasville’ opened, we had to remove quite a bit of ‘Texasville.’ Otherwise, the references would be boring – people wouldn’t know what it was. So we took about 25 minutes out that I thought maybe we should have had in. Admittedly, it is an unusual sequel, and that was one of the problems with it: It wasn’t what people perceived it was going to be, and what they hoped it would be.”
BUT THAT'S THE POINT, RIGHT?
“That was sort of the point, because life isn’t what you expect it to be. And middle-aged problems are intrinsically funnier than -- at least when you present them. Old age and youth are tragic, but middle age is usually funny. It isn’t funny when you're going through it, believe me, but you don’t want to bore the people having to watch these boring middle-aged people suffering, so it’s better to play it for comedy. And that’s what we did.”
AS I SAID, YOU CONTINUE TO DO SOME CRITICISM, AND I HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO TALK WITH PAUL SCHRADER LAST YEAR AND HE WAS SAYING -- I WAS ASKING HIM ABOUT THE CRITICISM HE USED TO DO -- AND ASKED HIM IF HE WOULD ENJOY DOING ANY MORE OF IT. HE SAID HE WOULD, BUT FELT THAT HE COULDN’T BECAUSE HE WAS MAKING HIS OWN FILMS NOW. THAT REALLY HASN’T SLOWED YOU DOWN, OR STOPPED YOU FROM DOING IT ALTOGETHER.
“Well, I don’t really write about stuff that’s current. I don’t want to get into that. So the stuff that I've done is mainly about the older directors that I knew, or older actors that I knew. I did a show for CBS, for a while -- for two years, actually -- but that was all about old movies; I said to them, ‘I’m not going to go beyond 1962.’ ”
SINCE YOU HAVE HAD ASSOCIATION WITH SOME OF THE GREAT DIRECTORS OVER THE YEARS AND THE COURSE OF YOUR CAREER, WHAT’S THE STATE OF AMERICAN FILMS NOW? DO YOU THINK THEY’RE GETTING BETTER OR WORSE? ARE PEOPLE TREATED TO GOOD FILMS NOWADAYS? ARE THEY AS GOOD AS THEY WERE 10, 20 OR 30 YEARS AGO?
“Technically, sound is better, and color has gotten better ...”