Bob Rafelson and His Odd American Places
by Peter Tonguette
Peter Tonguette was Staff Critic for The Film Journal from 2002 to 2005. His writing has also appeared in Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal, Contracampo, and 24fps Magazine.
Near the conclusion of his fascinating short film, Modesty (1981), Bob Rafelson—appearing in the film as himself—is heard on the soundtrack. He says, “If it happens that people respond to your work in your lifetime, well, you’re very lucky. In some way it gives you permission to go on making movies. But if you don’t get the applause, well, there are other things. I mean, after all, there’s your life to live.” Towards the end of this monologue, Rafelson is seen on board a train which is about to depart. It’s a visual metaphor for Rafelson’s own subsequent departure from moviemaking for much of the ‘80s. Other than a Lionel Richie music video he made during this time, All Night Long (1985), his work was absent from the screen for a full six years, whereupon he resurfaced with the brilliant Black Widow (1987). Living life is more important than winning praise and even more important, alas, than making movies.
This bold, refreshing attitude permeates through nearly every frame of every one of Rafelson’s films. It’s also one which came through to me several times during the course of the two phone conversations I had with the director which make up this interview. Rafelson is, as he put it to me at one point, “something of a born traveler.” The journalist and novelist Tom Wolfe once invoked Sinclair Lewis’s plea for U.S.-born writers “to give America a literature worthy of her vastness.” I think that Rafelson has given America a cinema worthy of her vastness, for his travels as a filmmaker don’t usually take him around the world (though they do in one of his greatest films, Mountains of the Moon ), but rather to “odd American places” (a phrase Rafelson used to me.)
In The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson) says to David (Jack Nicholson), “I wish you didn’t really think I was a part of all this.” Jessica is ostensibly referring to the conniving ways of the band of thieves and outlaws she’s fallen in with (namely, David’s brother [Bruce Dern] and Jessica’s stepmother, Sally [Ellen Burstyn].) But her words have a broader meaning, too, since the film is an examination of what it means to be an American. David retorts, “Aren’t you?” Before Jessica has a chance to reply, Rafelson cuts from a two-shot of them standing on a beach in Atlantic City to an over-the-shoulder shot of Jessica, a visual move which gives her next line an added punch. She says, laughing a little, “Of course I am. We all are.” Jessica then exits, leaving David—a morose man—all by himself in the frame. But even taciturn David manages a half-hearted grin when faced with Jessica’s charmingly American optimism. At that moment, he concedes that he is “a part of all this” too.
In his seminal essay on Rafelson in Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Pierre Sauvage’s “American Directors, Volume II” (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1983), Mark LeFanu characterizes Rafelson’s next film, the magnificent Stay Hungry (1976), as “essentially a happy film.” And that it is. A great moment in modern American pictures occurs when Craig (Jeff Bridges), a young, relatively upstanding Southern aristocrat, lets his guard down and dances to the music of a group of rural fiddlers. Rafelson’s camera, which is customarily stoic, goes in for an uncharacteristic zoom to Craig’s face as he lets loose, the film’s mise-en-scene reflecting Craig’s blissfulness. It would be i ncorrect to characterize Rafelson as an “essentially happy” filmmaker, but his films contain moments of great happiness from time to time, as we see during another one of Stay Hungry’s finer scenes. Craig impulsively bursts into an office building and steals a painting of some sunflowers for his girl (Sally Field), only to give it away moments later to a random stranger on the street (played, incidentally, by the director.) “I’ve been careful all my life,” Craig says right before his fiddle dance. But by the end of the film, he is no longer. In Five Easy Pieces (1970), Bobby (Jack Nicholson), a talented musician who has given up the life to work on an oil rig, also tends to act on whims. During a traffic jam on the way to work, Bobby gets out of his car, jumps into the back of a nearby pickup truck hauling a standup piano, and begins to play. The deafening sounds of beeping horns practically drown him out.
Though the incontrovertibly great Five Easy Pieces is still his most famous work, each of Rafelson’s subsequent films are as fine or better than it. Reflection on Rafelson’s work as a whole, from the beautifully perceptive portraits of “odd American places” to his later so-called film noirs (a genre the director continues to masterfully manipulate to his own ends), demonstrate that he improved, not declined, and that his films are of a piece. One can readily understand why King Vidor, writing in his fine book, “King Vidor on Film Making”(New York: David McKay Company, 1972), chose Five Easy Pieces as one of ten films (among them works by Fellini, Antonioni, and Stevens) which came to his mind as films with “x-factors” which, in Vidor’s words, “exhibited some facet of the film maker’s character.” But as I think this interview shows— as do the films themselves each time one re-watches them—every Rafelson film exhibits that same quality.
Indeed, what inspired me to write this article, and what first brought me in touch with Bob Rafelson, was not Five Easy Pieces or one of the director’s more renowned movies. No, it was his most recent film, the almost-unseen (in America) No Good Deed (2002). I knew to see the film when it opened in a local theatre in September 2003 only because I was a follower of Rafelson’s movies and knew the title to be that of his latest project; there were no reviews of it in the local press and I didn’t see any advertising (print or television) either. For a variety of complicated, disheartening reasons which Rafelson declined to discuss, the film was barely released in this country. And yet it is a stunning picture, efficiently utilizing film noir symbolism; beautiful in its carefully colored images; effective and moving as a portrait of a romance; and brilliantly acted by Samuel L. Jackson, Milla Jovovich, and an excellent supporting cast.
Even though Rafelson and I eventually decided to discuss all of his features, I feel it’s important to stress that this piece came to be because of that picture.
EARLY YEARS: FROM HEAD TO STAY HUNGRY
The young Rafelson lived life with a propensity for adventure. As LeFanu points out in his essay, he “wrangled in rodeos, served on an ocean liner, and played jazz in Mexico.” The latter served as an inspiration for the television series he created, The Monkees, and, later, Head (1968), and, as he told me, also reminded him of the events portrayed in Walter Salles’s recent film The Motorcycle Diaries (2003).
Bob Rafelson: In any event, it sort of reminded me of the trip that I had taken pretty much at the same time. (1) And the misadventures. And this stayed in my mind and when many years later I was in a position to create a television show, I based it on that particular time. Itinerant musicians more interested in having fun, particularly at that time, than in earning a living, and the laughter and the absurdity that befell us. So this eventually became The Monkees. And in that sense, it was based on an aspect of my life which was only later to be legitimatized as a television show because The Beatles came along. I had conceived the show before The Beatles existed. (2)
It was sort of like a folk rock group, if you will, that I had put down on paper. And then The Beatles came along and I couldn’t sell the show until The Beatles made this kind of an acceptable phenomenon—although it was not easy to sell the show, I can assure you, at that time anyway. And that became The Monkees. And Head, the movie, was quite different from the series because the series was--although directed by 29 new directors who had not directed before, 29 episodes directed by directors who had not directed before out of the 32, my first directing job—and a radical kind of—seemingly at the time—radically different way of cutting and doing a half hour comedy because there were interviews that were interspersed, there was documentary footage, and so on and so forth.
When it got around to making Head, while the television show was more playful, Nicholson—Jack Nicholson—and I decided that we would write something indeed that was more reflective of how I truly felt about The Monkees and, secondly, how The Monkees felt about their success. So it was a sort of an examination of my relationship to the music business and their relationship to being the pawns of television producers. And it was done in a comic, almost acidic—acidic in the sense of acid—style. But nonetheless, one of the things that I recall about the picture is that I thought that I would never get to make another picture. And therefore there’s a Western and a Boxing Movie and a Romance and a Desert Movie and an Adventure Flick. I went for every conceivable genre both as parody but also as a sort of surrendering to the possibility that this may be the only movie that I ever make, and therefore I was going to make every possible movie.
In that and in its politics and in its radical movie style—I don’t think the two-frame cut had been invented yet, certainly not exploited—and so many other things stylistically about the movie—for example, the kind of thing that you might see on MTV today, that had not been done on 35mm film. I got two kids from UCLA to help me figure out how to do it. In a kind of blind, bold search for ways to expand the technology, that too was quite personal on my part, because it was an adventure and it was trying something new and feeling your oats. The way the picture opened, which was only in one theatre, the way the picture was promoted, the people who did that were working at Fordham University under Marshall McLuhan. And today that man, John Brockman, is an editor and publisher of philosophical and scientific books. At that time he was a 23 year old associate teacher at Fordham under McLuhan.
In any event, the whole thing was a bit of an experiment and everybody warned me not to make the movie. Even my co-producer, Bert Schneider, my partner, said, “You know, if you’re going to make a movie, why bother to make one on The Monkees? Why don’t you move on to something else?” I said, “Well, there’s something left to be said.” And Jack and I proceeded to figure out what that would be, stoned out of our minds, as we were.
Peter Tonguette: So when did you realize that you might have a second shot at directing and then why did you get involved in Five Easy Pieces?
BR: Well, at the same time that I was writing Head, two other things were going on. One was the possibility of producing a picture called Easy Rider. And two was the collaboration that was now beginning, first as a co-author, co-producer, with Nicholson. And then, because of the way we collaborated, which meant that we would kind of rap to one another the incidents of the script, I was fascinated with Nicholson’s ability to mimic almost any sound or any voice, quite apart from his rather extraordinary intelligence and free-form kind of association that the picture self-indulged. So there I was in Harry Dean Stanton’s basement, looking at Jack, saying, “You know, I don’t understand why you aren’t a successful actor. The next picture I make, I’m going to star you in it.” At the time, we even fantasized that that would be ten pictures and that I would make no pictures without him and that there would a kind of new form picture about every three years or so, there would be a Rafelson-Nicholson collaboration about the same character as he kind of advanced, if you will, through life.
PT: Really? That’s fascinating.
BR: Well, it turned out to be damned near true, didn’t it? We sure made a lot together. And during this period of time, we decided to make Easy Rider (1969). My partners and I thought that Jack would be good for that movie. I was a little bit jealous that somebody else was going to be resuscitating his career, as a director, but as a producer I had the obligation to lend a hand and suggest Jack as being the best actor available for the part. Dennis Hopper did not disagree. Jack wound up with the part and, meanwhile, I started to write Five Easy Pieces. And I wrote two versions of that and could not make them cohere as a script and turned to Carole Eastman, and she performed a miracle. And that’s how Five Easy Pieces came about.
PT: I think it’s personal in a different sense than Head. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that aspect of it.
BR: Well, it’s personal, I suppose… you know, it’s a word I don’t particularly like in the lexicon of movie description: “Personal.” Because I don’t know what “personal” is not. Is a picture that is a Western personal because John Ford made it? And, if so, is it also personal for Budd Boetticher? And is it personal for William Wellman? Is it personal for every director who made one or is it not personal, it’s just genre and you’re assigned to it? Well, I have a feeling that certain directors put their personality into the picture and it would be very hard to exclude it as a film director. I mean, there are people who are somewhat removed from the tasks of moviemaking whilst being charged with fulfilling those tasks. But there are others who, for want of a better word, are more personal or more connected.
PT: But what about Five Easy Pieces?
BR: That character is a character—Bobby Dupea—who is somewhat disassociated from his own background and his own family and is, in a sense, escaping from it. In that sense, I had been trying to escape from my background since I was 14 years old. It was very funny—yesterday, I was just cleaning up my drawers and the black sweater that Jack wore during that picture was a sweater that I loaned him for the picture, or insisted that he wear during the picture. I suspect that if there ever was one area where Nicholson and I continuously argue, it’s in the area of wardrobe selection. In any event, he complied in this instance and wore it. And that was a sweater that I bought when I was 16 years old and I still have it. There’s a picture of me in my high school yearbook wearing that sweater when nobody in the class is in anything less than a tie and a blazer and a white shirt. So there was this sort of existential hero, dressed in black sweaters, with a little stubble of a beard, longish hair, that I had been and wanted to make a movie about. This character was somebody that I felt that I had met many, many times in my life and that I ought try to portray.
PT: Could you talk a little bit about the genesis of The King of Marvin Gardens?
BR: Once again, I was about to do another movie with Jack Nicholson, although at the time I wasn’t sure that I wanted to. In fact, I went to New York City to talk to an unknown actor—he’d been in one movie—about doing this picture. And we took a walk in Central Park and I told him that I was going to do a picture that involved a character who told long narratives in the middle of the night on FM radio and who had a dire and very, very competitive relationship with his brother. That’s about all I knew at the time. And that actor was Al Pacino. He wavered, he wasn’t sure, because there was this other young director who was asking him if he would like to be in a picture where he would also have brothers and that he was interested in this subject, but this was a criminal thing and it was called The Godfather (1972). And what a mistake he made! [Laughter]
Meanwhile Nicholson had searched around outside my place and had found the key and stolen the script from the house, the first draft of the script, and said how come I hadn’t asked him to be in this movie. And I said because I wasn’t sure that he could play the part of the younger brother. The older brother, all smiles and charm and filled with con, was a part that I had seen Jack demonstrably play already, but I didn’t know that he was able to detach so entirely from his persona as to play a character who, for example, wouldn’t smile at all in the movie.
PT: Nevertheless, you did end up with Nicholson in the role of the younger brother—and it was, and remains, a most provocative departure for him.
BR: Now whether I went to New York to see Pacino simply so that I could leave the key a couple of feet away from my apartment so that Jack could find it and sneak into the house and to tantalize him, I can’t honestly answer. In other words, did I really want Jack to be in the movie or was I trying to cast it with no preconceptions? Chances are, it was meant for me to make the picture with Jack.
And I had been a disc jockey, so there was that overlap. I had an older brother, so there was that overlap. And there were a number of other things. Many of the stories that I wrote, such as the opening one with Nicholson telling the story of how as a young man he witnesses his grandfather choking to death on a fishbone, was a true story from my own life. But that doesn’t qualify as being, in my view, a personal picture, because there are lots of people who can use autobiographical incidents from their lives but who are so disconnected from themselves that there’s nothing personal about their work at all.
PT: I’ve always felt that you use locations so well in your films. I can think of many examples: Atlantic City in Marvin Gardens; Birmingham in Stay Hungry; Hawaii in the last section of Black Widow; and on and on. I wonder if you could talk about this and why location is so important in your work?
BR: Well, first of all, let me simply confess that the so-called “film critical response” is this need to explore the backwaters of the universe and make pictures about these people. But the fact of the matter is that it’s much more silly than that. It’s that I haven’t been there. So it’s kind of a personal pleasure of discovering these places. To me, you’re not likely in a lifetime as a Northeasterner or somebody coming from the West coast to spend as much time as I did in Birmingham, Alabama and what a great pleasure it was to discover the character and the virtue, scenically and otherwise, of such a place. Then, of course, it’s introducing parts of America to the rest of the world and there’s some thrill, egotistical as it might be, in being the person who shot there in Bakersfield, California in Five Easy Pieces—it’s actually in Taft, which is just a few miles away—or in Birmingham, Alabama. There’s a deeper reason than both of those. Because when I start to think about where a picture should be shot, it feels to me like the character has to be from that place. I can’t simply relocate him. The character is as much a part of the landscape as the landscape is a part of the picture. And that I’m going to have to find a way to connect the character to the landscape, apart from just simply photographing it.
PT: Could you give me an example of that?
BR: I made a picture called Stay Hungry and that’s set in Birmingham. Well, first of all, I started after—I think that picture came after The King of Marvin Gardens in the early 70s—and I decided that there was one part of America that I really didn’t know very much about. And so I hitchhiked through the South about four times on one trip, just going back and forth, usually ending in Texas and starting in some place like North Carolina, and hitchhiking through each state, taking a different road. Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee. And coming back with some longing that I would like to make a picture in the South, but I had no idea what it would be, and just by coincidence a couple of months after I returned, Charles Gaines sent me his novel. I didn’t know him. He thought it would be good for a movie. And he had set the book in Birmingham. I told him that I would not make that movie unless I had a lot of time to think about it and that if he wanted to quickly dispose of an option on the book to somebody else, he should do so, but otherwise I needed six months—six months to learn about bodybuilders and six months to learn about Birmingham.
But by the time I got around to writing the script, I could feel, in any event, that I had the same fidelity to the place that Charles Gaines had when he wrote the book there, because he was born there. Well, I had to get that close to it and to the people that he was writing about. Now whether this is important or not, I rather doubt. It’s just my way and the most important thing about this location subject is how much fun I had doing all of that research. If there is anything that I would miss if I were not to make a movie, it would be the choosing of the location. I’m a kind of born traveler and I’ve spent much of my life traveling in very remote places. But every place is remote and different and, therefore, to a certain degree exotic if I haven’t been there before, including Newark, New Jersey.
As a long-time viewer of Rafelson’s work, I was pleased to hear this from the director firsthand. I mentioned to him that I felt that one could glean that he was “a born traveler” from watching his films and that it clearly manifests itself in his work.
BR: Yeah, I think to a degree it does. I was interested in leaving places when I was quite young. I’m not so sure how interested I was in going places. But it became something that I would return to time and again, more with an emphasis on going places rather than leaving places. And so I’ve gone to a lot of places and I’ve gone usually with some haste. I used to belong when I was in school to a thing called The 60 Second Club where three guys—the same three who eventually wound up in the band in Mexico—would leave where we were living in New Hampshire and had to be in a car 60 seconds from the time that any one of the members of The 60 Second Club proposed the destination. So somebody would say, “New Orleans,” we’d have to be in the car and drive there, within sixty seconds we had to be prepared to leave. Now that’s the absurd level of it.
But, oh I don’t know, not too terribly long ago I jumped in a plane not knowing where I was going or why I was going, but I had a ticket and I went to Istanbul and I spent months and months crisscrossing Turkey and Kurdistan (Northern Iraq), just because I hadn’t been there and I wanted to learn something about those countries. That’s the key thing. Hundreds of miles of trekking in Africa, alone sometimes and alone sometimes in the Amazon, and having to communicate and stay alive by pantomime and that there is a kind of pantomimic language that has a great deal to do with acting. I had to act out who I was and what I was any number of times to a people who didn’t understand my language and who seemed to grasp it a lot better than the language of the person I might be traveling with at the time, who would wind up being killed despite the fact that he spoke the same language as the people that we were passing by. And that language isn’t always the best way of communication, nor is it in acting.
PT: You did a wonderful commentary track on the DVD of Stay Hungry. You discussed the genesis of that project and many of its particular challenges. I won’t ask you to repeat what you said there, but I was interested if you could perhaps expand on something you mentioned. You spoke of not being sure what movie you wanted to make after The King of Marvin Gardens. I get the sense from that remark that you prefer, ideally, to take your time to figure out what you want to do as opposed to accepting a “for hire” job. Would I be correct in that assumption?
BR: Not quite, but close. First, let me just tell you that I’ve only done one commentary and that was for Stay Hungry and there’s a lot of reasons for that if you want to get into that. But more importantly, it’s not always out of choice that I take such a long time and the flattering thought that I am deliberating. If the truth be told, I don’t like making movies that much. I don’t think it’s the greatest profession on the planet and I don’t think I’m that good at it. So, for me, when I decide to make a movie I’m committing myself to a year or two (or sometimes more) of total chaos and nightmare and unending anxiety. It’s just plain hard work. And I have the attitude about making movies that they are hard work. I rarely understand when somebody says to me what a good time they had making a movie.
Sometimes I’m looking for the film in the sense that, oh, waiting for a moment of clarity and inspiration. But that’s an exaggerated, romantic version of the truth. The fact is that nobody asks me to make a movie or I might do that. Very rarely am I asked to make a movie, certainly not by a studio. And, secondly, I just find that there are other things that I want to do with my life besides make movies. And one of them has been to travel, which we spoke of earlier. But the main reason for that travel is that I feel like I’m sort of an amateur anthropologist. When you make a movie, you can have upwards of a hundred people who are directly responding to your ideas and your orders. You know what I mean? As a director, you have to make decisions about everything and people, you don’t even know who they are, are executing them and you’re just shouting them out like some military commander. And when I travel, I get to ask the questions instead of answer them. And I learn a great deal, or at least I think I am learning a great deal from the people that I interact with. And because it’s usually in a fringe area, it’s often at a time of danger. And because of that, the wisdom and the clarity and the sufficiency of the people that you’re interacting with are all that more important and you’re at the mercy of it, of help and understanding. You’re at the mercy of health and you’re at the mercy of understanding. And if you don’t understand, it’s your fault. It’s not their fault. They’ve gotten along very nicely without you.
PT: How would you contrast this to the experience of directing a picture?
BR: It’s a whole shifting of priorities and responsibilities and it’s something that I like very much, especially since it’s different from movie directing, where it’s the exact opposite and where your ego is inflated beyond belief and you become the commander and the knower of all answers. No one gives a shit whether they’re right or wrong, you just like the position you’re in of giving them. Well, it’s not a position I particularly like. I might like it momentarily, like a drug fix, but I don’t like what I become when I make a movie, completely detached from all other realities, such as family, such as enjoyment of the pleasures of your life, whether that be climbing a mountain or taking a stroll or having some relationship to your friends—everything gets cut off and the movie is the only thing that counts. And that’s the way it is with me, it may not be that way with other people. The movie is the only thing that counts because I don’t know how to make a movie. Therefore, all of this business of discovering what the movie is, and what it’s about and how to make it, is way beyond my grasp and I feel inadequate. The only thing that transcends that, as a dilemma, is the fact that every day you have to make that decision so it is made and therefore you have a degree of competency.
PT: I think that the times when you do come out and make a film, however unhappy the experience may be, all of these other experiences you have in life certainly enrich the films which you do make. I think that one of the problems with Hollywood filmmaking today is that the directors live in Hollywood. They don’t live anywhere else, they don’t see anybody else, the business is all they think about, even during the times when they’re not making a film.
BR: I had an experience not too long ago with a young director who, when I asked had he seen such-and-such a film and such-and-such a film and he said, No, the films that he had watched—I think his answer might have been something like, he watched Brian De Palma’s films but nothing before that because why should he bother if Brian De Palma had seen all those other films, then he was the consummate translator of the history of film. I was really just bowled over by this point. I said, “But how about the fact that you might enjoy to see some of these films!” [Laughter] There isn’t work involved! He said, “No, I’m only interested in the work.”
Yeah, but, you know, I don’t know that this is such a new phenomenon. I think the same thing has been pretty much true since I started making movies. And I’m not sure that their way isn’t a whole lot better than my way or that there’s an important difference. I know directors who have made movies who have absolutely no curiosity about the place that they’re making them, but they make pretty damn good movies.
TWO DAYS PLANTING TULIPS: VISUAL STRATEGIES
When critic Dave Kehr said in an interview with Steve Erickson that “all notions of craft seemed to go out the window” in some ‘70s films, I hope that he wasn’t thinking of Rafelson. (3) His films from that era, and from subsequent periods as well, are immaculately realized from a formal standpoint. The mise-en-scene is usually breathtaking, as during an extended, slow dolly-in in Marvin Gardens which has Jason talking to David about dreams and disillusionments. David’s back is to Jason and to the camera as the shot begins in a medium shot of the two. But by the time the camera has moved in to a close-up, the two embrace in a hug.
Rafelson prefers order in his images, something apparent both in specific shots as well as overall visual style. There’s often symmetry in his shots, such as the one in Marvin Gardens which places David and Jason on two opposite sides of a hotel room. They are separated literally by Jessica (she is sitting on a couch in the foreground of the shot, the back of her head to the camera) and separated metaphorically by their profoundly different characters and attitudes. Two of his films begin and end with identical images, suggesting the thoughtfulness with which Rafelson approaches the total design of his movies: Stay Hungry with wide shots of Craig’s gigantic, deteriorating Southern mansion; and No Good Deed with shots from behind of detective Jack Friar (Samuel L. Jackson) playing the cello in his apartment.
In Five Easy Pieces, we learn more about Bobby from a single panning shot than from any dialogue exchange. The pan in question moves from a profile close-up of Bobby at the piano (he's been asked to play a piece by his brother's fiancé, Catherine [Susan Anspach]), to close-ups of the keys, of Catherine's face, of a pot of flowers resting on the piano, and, finally, of a seemingly endless row of family photographs on the wall. The visual grace on display here is truly awe-inspiring. Rafelson has a knack for such economy. 32 years later in No Good Deed, Rafelson introduces Jack by showing us who he is and what he does in a manner somewhat similar to Hitchcock’s presentation of Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window (1954). As Peter Bogdanovich has noted in discussing that film, in one lone shot Hitchcock tells us Stewart is in a cast, is a news photographer, and recently was involved in an accident. Similarly, in the opening scene of No Good Deed, we see Jack practicing the cello. Moments later, he opens a drawer, in which we see his handcuffs and gun, as well as his diabetic testing kit (for his diabetes plays a role in the picture later on). The strains of Brahams is all we hear on the soundtrack.
Given all of this, I was surprised to learn that Rafelson does not storyboard. As he explained to me, his process of determining a film’s visual style is far less obvious.
BR: I don’t have that drawing ability, but also in some curious way I am obsessed from the first time I start thinking about a story, I start thinking about the frame at the same time. I’m just unable to execute it on paper. Therefore, the search for a location, the actual choice of a location, is one of the most inspirational parts of moviemaking for me, because that frame begins to get filled with its details, with the furniture, with the clothing, with the skyline, with the architecture.
And I once had a conversation with Eric Rohmer who… I can’t remember which picture it was, it might have been Claire’s Knee (1970), where he visited the set a year before he shot the picture and spent two days planting tulips in a garden bed around the house because he wanted a certain color to work its way into the frame.
PT: That’s extraordinary.
BR: Just by the way, at the time he and I had met he was sort of running out of Lincoln Center and I was sitting somewhat forlorn on the steps while a picture of mine was screening and a picture of his was screening. And I think I might have met him before, but I didn’t recognize him, and he just looked nervous and he bummed a cigarette from me. He was very shy and I said, “Are you Eric Rohmer?” And he sort of gave me a half-assed answer, like he could be or maybe he isn’t or who was I. I said, “I’m Bob Rafelson.” He said, “Oh, Five Easy Pieces?” “Yes,” I said. And I said, “Would you like to see my neighborhood? I was born just a few minutes from here.” And he said, “Yes.” So we got into a taxi and started to drive around and very slowly he removed an artificial moustache he was wearing and folded it into his wallet. [Laughter] And under that was the real Eric Rohmer. And we spent the whole night walking through my neighborhood and talking about our life stories and then—I think this was during the screening of Marvin Gardens—he wound up spending several years with the sister of my co-author. So that was the relationship. And we talked a little bit about framing and color and precision.
PT: Now I understand you spent some time in Asia in the ‘50s. Was Ozu an influence on your work?
BR: In the early ‘50s, I guess, I was in the Army, not quite in the Army, I was a disc jockey for the Army in Japan. And to make some extra money, I became a film critic for The Mainichi Times and also an advisor to a company called Shochiku, which was making Ozu’s movies. So I was supposedly to translate Ozu’s movies into English. Now, I didn’t speak Japanese that well, but they would do a very rough translation and then I would try to improve it. And so I’d have to watch an Ozu movie over and over again—say, Tokyo Story (1953)—and I was hypnotized by the stillness of his frames, his sureness of composition. So I suppose my own aesthetic evolved from looking at certain kinds of pictures—Bergman and Ozu and John Ford, if you will. In any event, that a sense of a powerful but unmoving frame was more satisfying to me than the flamboyance of a camera racing to its subject.
(The contrast between frames is what I depend on for energy. Color, composition, etc. Often I have shot one close-up miles from the opposing close-up. It's a lot to explain now. And to the actors nearly impossible to explain. Cameramen are puzzled.)
At the end of Five Easy Pieces, Bobby and his girlfriend, Rayette (Karen Black), pull into a gas station. Rayette goes to get some coffee. Bobby goes to the men's room. As he enters, an 18 wheeler is seen pulling up. While inside, he looks at himself in the mirror, hears the truck outside, and decides what to do. Bobby exits the men's room. This is seen in an unmoving wide shot which encompasses the building to the left of frame, the truck in the center, and the road off in the distance to the right. Bobby motions to the driver. They talk for a moment and they hop into the truck. Rafelson cuts to the two, Bobby and the driver, exchanging a few words inside the cab before cutting to the film's final shot. In a variation on the earlier wide shot, the truck is to the left of frame, the road to the right. The truck pulls out and vanishes into the distance. But the shot doesn't end with Bobby's leaving. We see the figure of Rayette in the distance. She wanders around the parking lot in front of the gas station looking for Bobby, who, we know, is again moving around. (Earlier, the wandering Bobby has said to his father, "I move around a lot. Not because I'm looking for anything, really, but because I'm getting away from things that get bad if I stay.") All throughout this, the camera quivers a little here and there in order to keep the truck in frame, but for all intents and purposes remains stationary.
BR: There’s one shot in The King of Marvin Gardens—I know this because Laszlo Kovaks, the cameraman, came up to Colorado, where I live, a couple of years ago and gave me a photograph of himself while I was describing to him how we were going to do one shot in The King of Marvin Gardens in a square 20 foot room, not even, that shot all four corners of the room and therefore there was no place to hang a light, at least from his point-of-view. And he’s looking extremely puzzled and wasted by my demands. And, of course, we’re laughing about it at this point so many years later. But he said, “You know, that shot, Bob, lasted nine minutes and had 32 dolly stops and not one person who was a student of his was able to see one out of any of those 32 stops.” The camera only moves an inch or two inches at a time, and that was considerably more in that picture than in Five Easy Pieces, where the camera never moved on an exterior shot, not throughout the entire movie, but did move on the interior shots. Now all of these things were probably conceits on my part. I was very conscious about all of this.
PT: I think you can tell in watching the films that you are very conscious because they’re not films that look thrown together in any way.
BR: No, they’re not only conscious but they’re almost theoretical. I once told Laszlo that if I caught him moving the camera outside that I’d cut off one of his fingers, which, by the way, didn’t help matters in terms of communication between me and the cameraman. [Laughter]
PT: When do you make these visual choices? On the set?
BR: As I say, I sometimes make them a year, somewhat like Rohmer’s tulips, a year ahead of time. For example, in a picture like Black Widow, I had the opening image of the film in my mind before working on the script. When I introduced the character, I was introducing my ambivalent attitudes about her and my sense of mystery about her. I think it’s a shot of an eyeball being touched up in a mirror, I can’t recall precisely what it was. When I told it to Conrad Hall, while he liked the idea, he also said it was impossible to shoot. And so we refined it and worked on it, but there’s an example where you just get an idea of what the image is going to be. Sometimes that image, or an image, sustains your vision of all the images in the picture. It becomes sort of like a symbol.
For example, in a picture that I made called Blood and Wine (1996), the image in that picture was: a stepson and his wife have been pursued and forced into a crash and the car skids on the highway upside down and then tumbles just off the road and when Nicholson enters the car, he enters an upside down car. So I had a car on my desk for, oh God, at least a year before I started to actually shoot the movie, thinking about the disorientation of searching, in this case, for a diamond in his wife’s dress while her body is upside down and her son is hanging in a safety belt upside down. And that was a sense of, I guess, the disoriented morality of the movie because he is searching somebody's shattered body for jewels and begging her to stay alive at the same time.
PT: If I’m not mistaken, you’ve never made a film wider, in terms of aspect ratio, than 1.85? Is that correct? You’ve never done a CinemaScope film?
BR: No, I haven’t, but I’ve never shot a film in 1.85 either. They look like that, but I shoot all my pictures in 1.66, which makes it impossible to be shown but is now the ratio closest to the 4.3 on a television set. It just gives you a little bit more top and bottom and I have not made a widescreen, you’re right, but I don’t like to use the 1.85 matte, I prefer to use 1.66.
THE FILM NOIRS
So it’s the 1980s and character-based films are no longer in vogue. What do you do? Bob Rafelson became known as a master of the film noir. Beginning with The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), he has directed five films which ostensibly belong to the genre: Black Widow, Blood and Wine, Poodle Springs (1998), and No Good Deed. As Rafelson explained to me, the appeal of the form for him is the fact that “they come with plots,” leaving him to focus on the behavior of his characters, which has always been his constant interest.
I mentioned to him that I had re-watched Marvin Gardens the previous evening in preparation for the interview (“You shouldn’t do that. It’s a picture that can disrupt sleep,” Rafelson commented. “Hunter Thompson once said, after he saw the picture, he said to me that’s the best excuse for a cocaine habit he could possibly encounter.”) One of the things I had written down in my notes was that the film, while highly plotted, ultimately was much more focused on presenting the characters’ relationships and evoking a mood. I asked whether this was something the director was conscious of or intended.
BR: Almost in every movie I make. I’m not very good at understanding plot in either its mechanics or its necessity in movies. I wish that I was better at it and I wish that it came more easily to me, but all plots seem very familiar to me. The only thing that isn’t familiar is who’s plotting and who’s suffering the consequences of the story and how it affects them. So I think I’m just not very good at it and I think one of the reasons why I have made some noir films, so-called noir films, is because they come with plots. The characters are much less interesting to me in those writings than the stories, but the characters are left to me to flesh out and to invent.
PT: So it kind of gives you a blank slate to start from?
PT: Do you think of your noirs as noirs?
BR: I try not to, actually. Earlier I told you that what is inheritable from crime fiction is the plot. But let’s pick one. Postman Always Rings Twice.
BR: Now the novel by James M. Cain is a classic so-called noir. He was pleased by that, although he was not pleased to think that he was simply a genre writer. It’s like a black athlete not wanting to be called a black athlete, but an athlete. Cain wanted to be thought of as a writer, not as a noir writer or a crime writer, crime fiction writer.
The genesis of the thing is also a very weird story because I didn’t want to make it in the first place. I didn’t like the ‘40s version very much. But I had been through a rough time of not making a picture for a number of years because I had presumably beaten up the head of a studio and gone through a lawsuit. And Nicholson called me at one point and said, “Why don’t we do this picture you’ve always wanted to make?” And I said, “No, I wasn’t truly interested in making that picture, Jack. You misunderstood. I told you at one point early on I thought your career would resemble John Garfield’s and that you had something in common with him in that you could play peripheral characters who lived on the margins of society as opposed to a central leading man.”
In any event, life led me to having to look at the movie again and I said, “Well, they didn’t get any of the sex in this picture. They couldn’t. It was against the law during the ‘40s to have explicit sex, much less sordid sex.” And here was this backwoods kind of girl working in a diner, played by Lana Turner, and her introduction is in a white dress with a white turban, hardly the kind of garb that a girl working in a diner would be wearing. So I re-read the novel. And what emerged in my mind in the making of this movie was that I felt that it was a great love story. And, yeah, it had all these criminal things in it—murder, double murder—but, for example, in other versions of the movie—there have been five, by the way—in other versions of the movie The Postman Always Rings Twice, the ironic title, there’s always a trial that Frank undergoes for having killed his wife at the end of the book. And he’s tried for something that in fact he may not have done, and convicted, but it gets even for the crimes that he has committed.
Well, I thought at the time, and I still think, that in fact the greatest punishment for anybody for anything that he does in his life is to lose the person you love the most. And, therefore, my whole feeling about this was that it was a dark, subversive, but romantic story and that’s the way I shot it. I asked Sven Nykvist not to use noir images. Don’t even think of it that way. I chose him because I thought he was a romantic cameraman and the loving way he used light in Bergman’s movies to photograph faces, particularly women. In the design of the picture, everything about it, the setting of the picture, had a kind of sense of the light and the piercing shadows of life as filtered through a romantic vision. I don’t know if that makes a lot of sense to you.
PT: So the romantic nature of the material is what you decided to foreground in your adaptation?
BR: At the very end of the movie, he and his lady, Jessica Lange, have just gone on a picnic. He has become the normal, average man and she the normal, average woman. Both of these people who have plotted mercilessly to kill and to almost kill each other and who are filled with loathing and hate for other characters and have now fallen completely in love and completely in love with the middle class sense of responsibility of having a baby and having a place where they can work. And they talk about it and they get in the car after the picnic and she’s pregnant and starts to kiss him and then, of course, with the kissing she distracts him and he runs into a telephone pole, and kills her. And the picture ends with his sitting on the side of a highway crying. It doesn’t end with the police coming and him going on trial. It’s a totally romantic idea and, I hoped, a totally moving idea.
People misunderstood this. David Mamet got it immediately. This was David’s first screenplay. He understood what I was trying to do. The critics in America--at least when it first came out, now they have switched--didn’t like it very much, but in France and in Germany and in Russia and in places that I have traveled since the making of this movie, this seems to have emerged as one of the movies that they like most of mine because of its unlikely romantic nature.
This, of course, prompted the question of what aspect in Rafelson’s next film, Black Widow, appealed to him—I now felt certain that it certainly wasn’t the film’s superficial noir components. I first asked if I was correct in guessing that he had nothing to do with originating the material.
BR: No. I was asked by the studio to direct a big special effects movie… the first time anybody from a studio asked me to make anything. Or the first time I agreed to go to the studio to talk about it, anyway. And it was a big, big special effects silly epic and I couldn’t understand why they wanted me to do this. And I kept asking about a script that I had heard about that was in their basement called Black Widow and that was written by somebody who was then a lawyer, but that it was a rather intricate script and that I had read a few pages of it and they finally allowed me to read it. It was written by a writer named Ron Bass, who subsequently—this was his first script—suddenly became Hollywood’s most employed writer and a very talented man, he was and is.
But it was very, very long, 300 some odd pages, and I argued them out of my doing the special effects movie and could I do a movie about two women? Now it’s an old theme in men’s movies of the hunter and the hunted—it’s like Victor Hugo—adversaries being enamored of one another. Or Dostoevsky, for that matter. The criminal’s pursued by the investigator who is completely overtaken, obsessed with the person, but overtaken by his almost empathy for the person. But I hadn’t seen it too much in literature about women nor serial killer stories about women. So I decided that there was something to be done with this material and I tried to make it a kind of love story between two women. And had I made the picture for a French company, that would have been probably more evident, but it nonetheless came across sufficiently to Americans… much to my surprise, people liked that movie, lots of people. And one of the things they seem to like about it is that it was exploring this kind of feminine romance between two very, very strong willed characters who oppose each other but who have an enormous affection… if not lesbianic, very close.
PT: It is a very popular film. It airs on TV quite frequently. Was it your most successful film commercially?
BR: I don’t think so. I don’t know what is. It certainly was a commercial success, but I think Postman was probably my biggest success, albeit all of its income from Europe. And certainly Five Easy Pieces was quite big.
My pictures seem to have this strange afterlife, almost all of them. While they may not succeed either critically or at the box office when they first come out, they hang in there years later and people order them up on video cassette and DVDs. And in Europe. I can’t tell you how many examples of that, but Blood and Wine, which was the next to last movie I made, is another example of just that. Sometimes when the picture comes out, they’ve never heard of anybody in it. It was Jennifer Lopez’s first starring role, I think, and certainly her biggest role to date and playing opposite Nicholson, but nobody knew who Jennifer Lopez was until five years later.
OF ADVENTURE AND PERSONAL HEROES: MOUNTAINS OF THE MOON
But in between this remarkable run of noirs, which we’ll return to in a moment, came a most beautiful break from them: Mountains of the Moon. Though Rafelson is wary of the term “personal” to describe his work, it seems to me that the resonances the story of Richard Burton have to Rafelson’s own life are too numerous for it to be anything but personal.
BR: I was sitting up here in Colorado by the fireplace one night. And I had, over a number of years, encountered the attributes of Richard Burton. First as a translator, because he translated a number of books that were seemingly pornographic—he was actually tried for pornography late in his life—books like “The Kama Sutra” and “The Perfumed Garden,” which I read rather eagerly and surreptitiously as a boy. And always they were translated by this guy Richard Burton and often there were pictures drawn by Richard Burton. So I knew him sort of that way. And then I knew him as an anthropologist because I was studying anthropology, and then as an explorer. So here was the same person who kept coming back into my life who was so impressive and probably he became the person that you could easily, when asked who your hero was, could easily respond with one person, and I would respond with Richard Burton. My personal hero.
So I was sitting reading this biography by a fire one night and I said, “God Almighty, his life is so overwhelming, so complicated, and so breathtakingly adventurous. Why don’t you make a movie out of this?” And then I argued with myself. And the argument was that I didn’t know anything about the English culture, that I had a responsibility to make American movies in odd American places, such as we discussed before—Birmingham, Taft, Atlantic City—and then I said to myself, “Is it because you’re not interested or is it because you’re afraid?” And the answer was because I was afraid. And that became all the more reason for me to ultimately say, “Well, that’s a good reason for doing it. You approach everything in your life fearfully, why not approach this next movie thinking it’s impossible for you to make this, you don’t understand the culture?”
I had, however, already walked nearly 800 miles in Africa. And that was largely because of Burton, because of the books that I had read about Burton’s explorations in Africa, although I was walking in West Africa and he was going in Eastern and Central Africa. So I decided that I would go to Africa, get the rights to the book, and I asked for $11,000 to pay for the trip, I got it, and for me to come back with notes and a story and so on and so forth, which I did. Then I got money to write a script. And all the while, I was wildly impassioned about this project, about the relationship of Burton to Speke, about the relationship of adventure to colonialism—after all, these people were the most popular heroes of their own time, they were like television correspondents, I suppose. They sent back episodes that the world thrilled to, in newspapers. They were sort of household names. Speke even went on a kind of theatrical stage circuit, reenacting his adventures in Africa.
I don’t know what I can say to you about “why” except that the idea of making a picture in a place that I felt much more comfortable in than I did almost anywhere else on the planet that I had been to. It was where I had already spent some time and I had done a lot of research. I had tried to walk the walk that Burton and Speke took from coastal Africa to Uganda. What a joy that was for me to actually have my expenses paid to take a walk. It was a phenomenal adventure in and of itself. I went to prison twice. It’s a long story, but it was exciting for me.
PT: Can you talk about the process of actually getting the movie made?
BR: It laid on a shelf and nobody was interested in making it. And I think it was 10 years or more—12 years, maybe—since the time I had written it. For example, I had been to India and I was involved in an accident, a riot in a train station in which I broke both my wrists and both my arms. And I wound up in huge casts on both limbs. And so I had to suffer some of the—and I was hiking in the mountains—I had to suffer some of the things that Burton and Speke suffered of being damaged goods in the wilderness, and how one had to struggle on anyway.
And everything that I did I felt like, “If I could only do this movie.” It’s the only movie that I ever talked about before making it. I always thought it was bad luck to talk about the movie. But here I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll change my luck and the circumference of chance will widen and somebody will tell somebody else, ‘You know, Rafelson, the guy over there with the cast on? He wants to make a movie.’ And a rich man, a maharajah, will step up to me and say [Rafelson says the following with an accent], ‘I’ll be like to give you 20 million dollars to build that idea!’” [Laughter] So what happened was a strike took place any number of years later in Hollywood, a writers strike. And I was supposed to do a picture at Carolco that I was writing and I said, “I can’t write it anymore. I’m a member of the Writers Guild and there’s a strike.” They said, “Well, isn’t there some other movie?” I said, “Yes, there is another movie, in fact.” And at lunch I told these two guys, who made pictures like The Terminator (1984), what that other script was about. And they said, “Well, that’s just our kind of movie, an adventure movie.” And I left for London the next day because I knew for sure that they couldn’t possibly really want to make it, they just needed product and they might change their minds if one turned to the other and said, “Who is this guy, Burton? And where does it take place? I thought Richard Burton was an actor!”
I was very lucky to make that movie. And I can tell you, if there was ever a movie that I enjoyed making, it was that one.
PT: You can almost tell, in a way. Of course, I never have spoken to you before, but watching it and knowing a little bit about your life and your love for travel and adventure, it seems like a very personal—again, to use that word—project. It seems like a passion project for you.
BR: That level, but also here was a man who spoke 26 languages, here was a man who was a great artist, a pornographer, a great adventurer, the author of a book on the use of the sabre, a great swordsman, a compellingly handsome man, a man who suffered betrayal, and a man who had to suffer the betrayal not simply at the hands of Speke, but at the hands of the Royal Geographic Society, so he was a rebel against the society that governed his life. In that sense, I suppose, if you make independent movies, you’re always standing in some confrontation to the studio system. So he meant a great deal to me and all of those things entered the movie. And the movie lasted about a week or two and was shut out. Nobody saw it. And now, it’s the strangest thing, it’s very rewarding for me to see that the audience is getting larger for the picture and that it’s not disappeared.
PT: You were mentioning the other day that you often have an image in mind before you direct a film, an image comes to you while you’re writing the script or thinking about the film. I was curious if there was a particular image you saw for Mountains of the Moon early on?
BR: Yeah, let me try to recall which it was. It was an image that I was never able to get entirely on film. And, just by the way, these images sometimes are more than a single image. It’s a series of images, ala a movie image. It can be a moving image, for example, which is more than one frame.
There is a scene in that picture where Burton and Speke, after almost a year, along with all of their bearers, think they have discovered the source of the Nile. And the image of them--which I think ultimately became the poster, but I’m not sure, it certainly did in one country—where they run down to the water and throw themselves into a lake believed to be the beginnings of the river. And I wanted to imagine the excitement, the exaltation, and how to get on film a celebration of all the effort that you have put in, physical, intellectual, spiritual, to get from one end of Africa to the center of Africa, walking, with every possible disability and hurdle, and for it to be a true exultancy. And that was the image.
When we finally got there, we could barely see the water so it was a very strange thing that happened. We had to wait for the sun to hit a certain position and I tried to, almost like a football coach, run up and down the line of bearers--Burton was being held aloft because his legs were devastated with sickness--preparing them to celebrate and to feel triumphant and to show it to me. And part of that was keeping them waiting for hours and hours on the line, running up and down the line—we’re talking about a line of a hundred people—until the sun was exactly in the right position and then basically giving them areas to run to because they all were thirsty, as any walker would have been after a thousand miles, and they were all tired and hot. And that was the image: the thrill of discovery and how to put it on film.
PT: Now I know that you don’t like to look back on your work and that the process of making a film is not particularly pleasant for you, but I wonder if there is a film of yours that you’re proudest of. Maybe a better way to phrase it would be to ask if there is a film which best reflects your intentions going in? Is there any one film which stands out for you in that sense?
BR: No, not in that sense, no. I can tell you that the picture that was least un-enjoyable, or to be more positive, the picture that I most enthusiastically responded to the making of, that even included days and days of joy, was Mountains of the Moon.
INTO THE ‘90S AND BEYOND: FROM MAN TROUBLE TO POODLE SPRINGS
Rafelson’s output in the ‘90s was diverse. Following Mountains of the Moon, Rafelson made the unexpected Man Trouble (1992). I write “unexpected” because the film, a comedy, is really like nothing else in Rafelson’s body of work, despite the presence of Jack Nicholson in the leading role and Carole Eastman as the author of the screenplay. I asked what the origins of his involvement in the picture were.
BR: Strangely—I’ll be brief about this—Meryl Streep called me on the phone, an actress that I have admired and continue to admire as one of our finest, although I declined her services in The Postman Always Rings Twice for a lesser known, but equally brilliant Jessica Lange. Nonetheless, she called and said would I be interested in directing a movie with her and Al Pacino and Carole Eastman writing the script. Well, I thought Carole Eastman was a genius and so we began. I read the script, I thought it needed considerable work, Carole is a very autonomous writer, she doesn’t like to compromise, which is one reason why she wrote so few scripts. She passed away this year.
In any event, the turmoil of that particular movie was that Meryl wound up being pregnant and couldn’t do the picture, Al Pacino dropped out of the movie, other actors came in at the last minute—Nicholson and [Ellen] Barkin—and it wasn’t a very happy occasion.
PT: Are you happy with the final film?
BR: I’ve never seen it.
PT: You’ve never seen it? Not even once?
BR: I finished the cut of the picture in the editing room, I dubbed the film reel by reel, and when it came to then looking at the movie from beginning to end, I couldn’t sit through it.
By the way, I do see the film that way, with professional co-workers, but I also see it in front of an audience probably only once and sometimes twice if it’s a European screening and it follows the American opening. I will go to a theatre and see the picture with an audience. I’m not now talking about previews, but with an audience. And that sort of ends the movie for me and then, thank God, I never have to see it again. In this case, I bypassed all the screenings that might have been public or professionally public, like preview.
Blood and Wine marked Rafelson’s return to the genre he had so well utilized in The Postman Always Rings Twice and Black Widow: the film noir. Unlike the earlier films, however, he is credited with co-writing the story, lending this project a particular interest for Rafelson aficionados.
BR: I don’t know if I can describe the process or the genesis of a movie without sounding completely pompous and self-serious. Basically, one of the reasons why I have written as many, or worked with writers on the writing of many, is that it’s really hard for me to read scripts. Like I say, I’m lazy, for one; and for two, it takes me an extremely long time because I begin to shoot them. So it can take me 15 days to read a script. In my mind, as I’m reading them, I’m shooting them. I can’t just pick it up and read it and say, “Oh, well that sort of vaguely interests me!”
So what do you do then? So you start with writing. Well, that’s really hard work, but at least you don’t have to read. And in this case, I wanted to contend with things that I felt were going on in my own system and that had to do with anger; it had to do with a long standing desire to make a film about a father-son relationship, having done Marvin Gardens with brothers and Five Easy Pieces mostly a relationship with his brother and sister or with his father. I wanted to do a picture where a father contended with his son and the father was the star of the movie.
And so we began to write and that took a year. And I was working once again with an unknown writer, in this instance he was born in England, and we would meet and we would talk and finally it would emerge as to what some of the story ingredients were and then who the characters were and so on and so forth. And it just flowed from some terrible sense of despair that I didn’t have a movie that came trippingly off the tongue and, in fact, have never had one. They’ve all been some kind of ugly process of coughing up a movie.
PT: How did Nicholson become involved in the project? I think it’s one of his best recent performances.
BR: That’s kind of interesting. The picture was to be made, once again, with a low budget cast. I had had some difficulties directing Jack in Man Trouble and so I had a list of about five or six different actors that I wanted to work with. Dennis Quaid would be the level of star that I was dealing with. Or Gary Oldman or somebody like that. And I didn’t know who to choose to play the young father in this film with a 20 year old boy. I asked Jack on the telephone, “Which of these actors represented the certain qualities that I was looking for?” And he said, “Well, why don’t you send me the script?” He lived in the immediate neighborhood, I dropped it off in his mailbox, and, strangely, he read it that day. And he called me back and we went through the list and we discussed the qualities. And then at the end of this, he said, “Just by the way, how come you haven’t asked me?” I said, “Well, I thought you were busy and, frankly, we didn’t have the best of times making our last movie together.” So he said, “Well, still, why haven’t you asked me?” I said, “Well, hold on, Jack.” And I walked over to his house. And we sat down and we worked out whatever my grievances were and his grievances were about the past and he said he definitely wanted to be in this movie. And I then said, “Well, Jack, it’s a low budget movie and it can’t afford you and you don’t like to cut your price, so I rather doubt that you’ll wind up in the movie, but I’ll certainly tell the producers.” Well, he did cut his price—although not by as much as you might think—and that’s how he wound up in the picture.
Rafelson closed out his work in the ‘90s—his most prolific decade yet when one also takes into account two short films, Wet (1995) and “Armed Response”(made for Showtime’s Picture Windows series, also in 1995)—with another noir, this time a literary adaptation to rest along side The Postman Always Rings Twice. Poodle Springs was also Rafelson’s first feature film made for television.
BR: That one came about because they called me and said they had a script by Tom Stoppard based on Raymond Chandler’s last story, a book that he never finished, and I said, “Of course I’ll read it. I know Stoppard’s work.” And I thrilled at the possibility of collaborating with such a brilliant writer. And the first question I asked was, “Is he still on the project? And will he be?” And they said, “Well, we’re not sure.” And I said, “Well, let me get him on the telephone and make sure because that would be the main reason for my doing the film”—which flattered the shit out of him, and his response flattered me. That’s how it came about. It was Raymond Chandler. I can recall meeting with the studio and they asking me who would I want to be in this film. And I said, “I would like Jimmy Caan.” They said, “Jimmy Caan doesn’t do television.” I said, “Well, neither do I. Why don’t we ask?” And I met with him at a coffee shop and we agreed instantly to do it.
An incomplete catalogue of the major actors who played key early roles in Rafelson films: Julia Anne Robinson (her only role, in The King of Marvin Gardens); Arnold Schwarzenegger (in Stay Hungry), Sally Field (Stay Hungry), Jessica Lange (The Postman Always Rings Twice), Jennifer Lopez (Blood and Wine), and Milla Jovovich (No Good Deed).
PT: How was Jennifer Lopez cast in Blood and Wine?
BR: Jennifer I had in mind for that role in that picture when she had just finished being one of those dancing girls on that Fox television show.
PT: In Living Color?
BR: Yeah, and there were The Something Girls, Rosie Perez and whatnot. And she came in in a ludicrous Chinese dress. She had no taste or sense of herself at the time, but dark ambition. And I read her and again read her. And a year-and-a-half later, she got the part.
PT: Now what took the year-and-a-half? Just to get the film together?
BR: To get the script completely done and to get far enough along to complete the financing and that entails casting. I mean, casting for financing, although people will tell you there will be no restraints—“That’s why we’re hiring you, Bob Rafelson, to make the movie, because you always bring us Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jennifer Lopez or Jack Nicholson himself or Sally Field’s first role in Stay Hungry and on and on and on. Why should we tell you who to put in the movie?”—but then, of course, they do because they can’t get the money out of Germany unless there’s a TV star in it. And so this becomes a long, circuitous, “If it was up to us you could cast a yak in the part, we wouldn’t care. But it’s not up to us, it’s up to Japan.” Or it’s up to Yugoslavia or it’s up to Lichtenstein. And so you have to go fight for the people that you want. And in some instances, if you’re going to do the movie with a lesser known male lead actor, then somebody wants a slightly better known female actress, or you will have a reduced budget. And you argue about this for a long, long time, despite how you might feel about your own credentials in casting.
PT: What’s it like directing a newcomer?
BR: The only difficult part of it is that if it happens to be a picture with somebody like Jack Nicholson and they’re new to the game, they don’t understand how it is that Jack and I can communicate with a movement of the hand, a flick of the finger, an eyebrow raise, and we’ve been at it for such a long time that we can communicate fairly quickly, but they don’t know that that’s in fact resuscitating years and years of argument and experience that we’ve had. And the new actor envies that situation, at least superficially.
Otherwise, I believe that in directing actors, it’s up to you to alter your way of doing things or your wanting of things, to suit the actor. Because eventually what you want is the best performance possible and it’s in the actor’s hands to give it to you. And some are studio trained, some like to have line readings, others don’t want you in the line of vision, some hate you and hate you because you’re the director and love you because you’re Bob, some are completely crazy no matter who they work with, some hate to act almost as much as you hate to direct, and so forth. And so you have to change.
“CUTTING IN THE CAMERA”
Of all of the formal attributes present in any given Rafelson picture—mise-en-scene, production design, sound design, music (or lack thereof), and so on—editing is, I think, the one which many may ignore or leave un-appreciated. This is because his editing has become, since the days of The Monkees and Head, exceedingly subtle. And yet for students of his work, it’s obvious that just as much care is lavished on the editing as any other element. There are distinctive montage sequences in several of his films. In the opening sequence of Five Easy Pieces, Rafelson shows us the oil rig Bobby works on: we see bulldozers dumping, men climbing ladders, pulleys being operated, equipment being hauled on the shoulders of workers, and silhouetted figures standing against the fading sun. I was curious how closely Rafelson worked with the editor and whether that relationship had changed over the course of his career.
BR: Exceedingly close. In the beginning, I wouldn’t start editing until the last image of the picture was in the camera. I didn’t want to see anybody else’s version of the movie. And that changed because I learned it would be smart to have a sense of the length of the movie, did the movie’s storytelling make sense, what were going to be the biggest difficulties, and so on and so forth. And then I usually start with frame one and we cut the whole picture.
And it is in this small, dark space where you discover how little you knew. Editors don’t care in the end what your intention was; they may have to create your intention or, if it’s not on the film, dispense with it. And sometimes there are extraordinary battles: giving up things or discovering things they figured out you had little if anything to do with it. I can’t say enough about editors. I used to try and sleep in the editing room after they would leave… and solve it myself. One editor found me slumped over a Moviola removed me and put a new lock on the door. It's like sitting in a confessional. They are the priests of film.
Technically, I think I was the first, years later, to cut a feature film on a flatbed, or a Steenbeck, in the United States. I know I was the first to buy one. And I was the first to cut a fiction film using an Avid and a computer. I’m not very good at the mechanics of any of these, but I’m usually aware that something is on the horizon that can be a useful tool or that you think can be a useful tool. It’s not always true. Steven Spielberg, for example, I believe still rejects working on computer editing. If anybody knows anything about computers in the world of movies, it’s likely to be him. But he rejects it, for the same reason that I rejected it at one point early on in my life, which is that he likes to feel the texture of the film in his hand. It’s something almost physiological. And to actually make the splice, as opposed to having a machine that automatically splices it with considerable distance between you and the materials.
PT: Peter Bogdanovich does a lot of TV work these days. I know from him that the shoots on the movies are much quicker than on theatrical films. I think he’s said sometimes he’s only had around 20 days.
BR: Well, Peter Bogdanovich can make any movie in 20 days just about. He knows how to do that and I know movies that he’s made in 20-some odd days. The picture that he did recently that takes place on a boat?
PT: The Cat’s Meow (2001).
BR: Yes, The Cat’s Meow. One of his slightly ill-chosen titles, but I thought the picture was wonderful and I think he shot that in about 25 days. He knows how to edit in the camera and he’s very certain of the angle he wants for the moment. And so he’s a master at editing pictures in his head.
PT: When I interviewed him and asked him how he put certain scenes together, I was astonished to learn that literally no coverage was shot on these films.
BR: I do the exact same thing.
PT: You do?
BR: Yes. Otherwise, I couldn’t have shot, for example, Poodle Springs in 32 days and No Good Deed in 33 days. And I believe—I can’t recall—Mountains of the Moon in something like 46 days and that’s in two continents. That picture cost $16 million. Nobody can believe that.
The editing techniques that I learned and practice were more or less evolved and developed during The Monkees television show and during Head. To put it simply, because we on the television show of the 32 episodes, 29 were directed by guys who hadn’t directed before, I wound up spending all my time in the editing room and it was a very freeform, should you care to check, you would see a very freeform edited show. There’s a lot written in editing journals about the editing of that show.
And eventually at BBS, we tried to evolve a way of cutting in the camera because we were undertaking to shoot low budget films and did not want to shoot reams and reams and reams. It costs a lot of money to edit, it costs a lot of money to shoot, and film stock is expensive. So the idea was to kind of, hopefully, know what you wanted as the result of what you were doing before you improvise and waste a lot of film. Easy Rider—to show you just how far astray a production company could go—the first cut of the film was over 4 ½ hours long. Of course, that was a road movie and most of it was motorcycle footage. But by the time I came down to shooting Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens, after having somewhat exploited the two-frame cut in Head, I wanted a static camera, a more naturalistic kind of movie, obviously, than Head, and everything was somewhat prefigured in my head. In fact—I don’t recall the exact amount—but there were very, very few cuts in The King of Marvin Gardens.
By the way, these things feel very self-congratulatory, these theoretical decisions about not moving the camera and not editing, but I do believe that as you pick your movies, discover your movies, that your style should be as free to change as the stock you use, as the camera you use, and that style should always be something that is of less importance than the content of the movie. Therefore, the cameramen--whether it be Sven Nykvist, Laszlo Kovaks, Roger Deakins, most of whom were people that I was using early on in their American careers—or whether it was in the editing room—John Bloom, Thom Noble, Donn Cambern, Steve Cohen—I learned from each and every one of these people and this was an active collaboration. And remember, I was a producer of Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971), so I saw his minimalistic dailies. So I don’t want to sound dogmatic about the way I cut in the camera, it’s just it was an inexpensive way and a knowing way, an experienced way, of trying to reduce the costs of making a movie. And I haven’t made expensive movies.
NO GOOD DEED
PT: So this is something you still do? You still cut in the camera?
BR: Oh yes. Completely. I did it on No Good Deed—particularly on that one.
PT: Because that was so tight?
BR: Yes, it was an incredibly difficult movie to shoot in terms of schedule.
PT: I haven’t read the short story that the film is based upon, but I imagine that it must have been considerably expanded for the screen.
BR: It was.
PT: How did you become involved in the project?
BR: Somebody sent me a script and told me that Samuel Jackson wanted to do the movie, was committed to doing the movie. I liked Samuel Jackson as an actor and I found the movie to have some interesting character dialectics and some interesting settings, interesting largely not because of how open they were or how beautiful they were, but quite the opposite: how limited they were. Most of the picture is shot in a house, or a good deal of it.
Indeed, one of the most impressive qualities of the wonderful No Good Deed is the way in which Rafelson uses the house which Jack is held in by his kidnappers. By happenstance and pure bad luck, Jack is taken prisoner by the bizarre gang of thugs who reside there (and who serve as Rafelson’s comic foils more than anything else.) Even when Rafelson cuts to scenes set outside the house, his settings are usually precisely chosen interiors: banks, cars in transit, and so on. Among other things, No Good Deed proves that Rafelson’s studious attention to place will manifest itself even if he is mostly limited in what he can film, due to the fact that the leading character is tied to a wheelchair.
No Good Deed also arguably breaks away from Rafelson’s stated preference for immobility in his shots. As the director explained to me earlier, his first films were almost “theoretical” in some of their aesthetics, most notably his insistence on a bare minimum of camera movement. But in No Good Deed, Rafelson and his cinematographer, Juan Ruiz Anchia, have chosen to move the camera; there is zooming all throughout this picture, from big dramatic zooms (such as the one at the film’s climax) and slow, careful zooms which accentuate little details in a scene.
BR: We searched for a house to shoot in and then because of the fact that we suddenly had to shoot the picture in Canada, there was no time—just in case this actors strike occurred, everybody was imagining that it would—we had to quickly build a house on a set. And it became the place to return to until we could find all of the other locations. It was a “safe house,” if you will. We shot the picture in Montreal.
I read the script and there were only a few weeks to go, because of the possibility of an actors strike, to prepare and shoot the movie. I brought in another writer and we sat down and re-did the script as best we could. It was a very hard movie to make. All of the other casting in the picture was mine. I do believe Milla Jovovich is quite a brilliant actress. She wanted to do the movie. She flew in from London and I met her in New York City. She’s a very interesting woman. She switched hotels three times after her arrival, which meant I switched three times, and we finally wound up in a little boutique hotel. She’s a model, so she knows things like hotels. And she insisted upon reading the entire script, actually auditioning the entire script. I said, “Well, it’s very hard for me to read and keep my eyes on you because I have to read all the other characters and I can’t really evaluate you. Why don’t we just read a scene or two?” She said, “No, I want to do the whole script.” I said, “Well, I haven’t got time to go hire an actor.” But we did this for about 11 hours. And at the end of which, I thought, potentially, she was as good an actress as I had ever worked with, and as beautiful. And I still think so, albeit I don’t think she has made great choices in her parts.
PT: Was the Samuel L. Jackson character a musician in the script? Was that something you brought to it or was that already there?
BR: The business of the romance being articulated through music by the conjoining of cello and piano, that was, I think, my contribution.
The scene Rafelson is referring to has Jack, a cello player in his off hours, and one of his kidnappers, Erin (Jovovich), essentially playing out a romance between them through the music. Erin unties Jack from his chair and asks him to play cello as she—a former child musical prodigy—plays the piano. Though Rafelson initially separates them visually in this scene—cutting between tight close-ups of the two at different ends of the room—eventually the music brings them together in some strange way. As Roger Ebert noted in his review of the film, Jack and Erin “relate to each other on three levels: as prisoner and captor, as man and woman, and as musicians.” Like The Postman Always Rings Twice and its ruined lovers and like Black Widow and its undertones of lesbianism, No Good Deed is another Rafelson film which uses the noir genre as a springboard for romance.
Though Rafelson is wide-ranging in his allowance for various acting styles—from the menace of Stellan Skarsgard to the off-kilter, frequently comical insanity of Grace Zabriskie and Joss Akland—Jackson and Jovovich ground the film. Jackson has not been as fine in literally years; and in Jovovich’s performance there is much potential—if she would again choose a role with as much complexity as that of Erin.
PT: Tell me about the music in the picture.
BR: I have been involved with music ever since being a child, whether the music was pop music or jazz or classical. And the choice of composer, or the choice of background music, whether to have it or not have it—and in some instances, for example, there is hardly any score for Five Easy Pieces and none for The King of Marvin Gardens, just source music. For a man who loves music as much as I do, I don’t know why I made that choice then. I mean, that choice is as intrinsic to the movie as the script. Maybe I felt that, at the time in the early ‘70s, that people were embellishing too much and had not enough faith in the movie they were making and they were going to redeem it with the score. I changed my mind. Stay Hungry had very little scoring, but after that I began to get much more involved in rather large orchestral music and my collaborations with composers starts with the day I decide to do the script. The next copy goes to the composer. My favorite has been Michael Small.
PT: Perhaps this would be a good time to ask you about other collaborators who have been especially important to your films.
BR: Bert Schneider was my partner until the mid-70s. The smartest man I ever met. Whatever I did in the BBS years, I did with him, and would not have done without him. He completed my faltering sentences. Nicholson, too, has been indispensable. He was actor, writer, producer, director at BBS, an un-credited true Partner. There’s also Toby Rafelson, my first wife and production designer, head nurse, teacher, brujo.
PT: In doing research for this interview, I gathered that No Good Deed was a troubled production, in financial trouble from the outset, with the producers suing each other and members of the cast not being paid, and as a result of this it was barely released in the United States. I believe it only opened in around 400 theatres and was not shown to the press prior to release. I wonder if you could talk at all about this?
BR: I could say that it was difficult, but I don’t really want to comment on it except to say that this was the most difficult, in that regard, of any movie I’ve made.
ON REVISITING PAST WORK
As I mentioned previously, on the recently released DVD of Stay Hungry, Rafelson, along with Jeff Bridges and Sally Field, contributes a marvelously illuminating, entertaining, and even eloquent commentary track. But when I spoke to Rafelson, he expressed a disinclination to record tracks for his other films. When I asked him about this, I learned it was tied to a deeper aversion he has to reflecting upon his films after they’re finished.
BR: Well, it’s a bit more than simply doing commentary. I’ve had a—I’m trying to overcome this and I may have to overcome this—but for years whenever a film of mine was being transcribed to an as yet un-invented format, such as laserdisc or VHS or DVD, I didn’t want to do the formatting or the resuscitation of the color or whatever the demands of the medium were because it meant looking at the movie again, obviously. And I have a terrible aversion to looking at my own work. And that’s the main reason.
So, for example, when I did do the one for Stay Hungry. It was the first time I’d seen the picture since 1976 and it was also the first time that Jeff Bridges or Sally Field had seen the picture. So we all sat in a room together and it was a lovely reunion and, in fact, I had a really good time. But the reason I did it in that instance is that a great many people had never heard of this particular picture, even though it was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first movie, before Pumping Iron (1977). And the studio had forgotten that it was in their library and Arnold wanted it done and I wanted a new print in existence, say for festivals. And so I made a deal that if Arnold supported this, and in part paid for the restoration, I would make an appearance with a commentary.
PT: If you had to choose another film where you might be interested in doing a track or looking at it again…
BR: Well, I wasn’t interested in doing this one. I was sort of making a deal to do it for the survival of the film. I can’t answer you. There’s no movie that I’ve made that I want to go back and look at. Sometimes you wind up doing it whether you like it or not. You’re trapped in a theatre at a festival that is honoring you and you have to come to the stage at the moment the picture finishes, which means you’re there for the last reel. Once I was sitting on the stage and therefore you have to watch, say, 20 minutes of it and if the timing is off you may watch 30 minutes of it. And you may want to watch the first five minutes of it because you want to see that it’s properly displayed. And you don’t want to walk out either because everybody says, “Hey, that’s Bob Rafelson there, the guy who made the picture, and God, he really hates it! Look at him! Walking out of his own screening!”
Once, to be completely absurd, I was in London and giving a talk about my work as a whole and somebody decided that they would project a film sort of behind me while I was talking, but it had to go through me, which meant that it was right in my eyeballs. I was looking at the projector and I could see it on my clothes, the images, and I can tell you, I was really distressed and uncomfortable. It was sort of like I was getting the worst of the third degree, as if a movie police force was prying my eyelids open and forcing me to answer the truth to my own images. [Laughter]
PT: Are you reluctant to see them again because they bring back the memories of the shooting or that you want to change things in them? Or is it just a general reluctance to look at them again?
BR: No, it’s somewhat specific. I don’t think of movies—I think I may have mentioned this to you—as being a joy to make, although I do think of it as being a privilege. But it’s like a privilege to serve your country as well and then to return with no arms or legs. It’s a privilege, but it’s devastating. And I’ve given you the reasons why that is so for me, so I think in general to look at a movie is to recall the incredible hard work and sacrifice, and not just mine, everybody’s; what people went through in order to get a particular scene on film. Jack Nicholson breaking down in front of his father in Five Easy Pieces, the days of preparation and argument that took place prior to the shooting of the scene. That might be interesting to the audience, but it’s quite difficult emotionally for me to go through and so therefore I just haven’t… that and, of course, the main reason is I’m lazy. Send somebody else to do that.
PT: You’ve mentioned several times that you’re lazy. But I read that when you’re shooting a film, you only sleep two hours a night. And your attention to detail is legendary, down to reviewing how many stubs are in an abandoned ashtray!
BR: Once, I recorded 65 different ashtrays in moving cars until I was satisfied with the appropriate rattle. I learned the sleeping routine from Churchill's war years autobiography, napping ten minutes on the hour.
PT: Why do you call yourself lazy then?
BR: Concerning yourself with ashtray rattles that obsessively--that's an excuse for avoiding the true work on a movie. Churchill was defending his country from nightly bombardment and directing the advance of his armies and navy.
PT: And I understand that you repeatedly threw yourself out of a swerving car in order to figure out which way a body would be flung out.
BR: That was for Postman. Try persuading Jessica Lang to rehearse all the possibilities. I also investigated this on a beach at night with my girlfriend driving. And remember the Cain relationship is bedrock S&M. So my girlfriend was greatly aroused by this frivolous research.
While Rafelson’s previously stated “rule” about not discussing films he is planning to make was fresh in my head, I nevertheless had to ask if he had any films in pre-production or development at the moment. His answer again reveals Rafelson’s ambiguous attitude towards making movies. Yet, for his many admirers around the world, I want to take his final remark as a hopeful one. I certainly hope that there will be more--many more--Bob Rafelson pictures to come.
BR: There are movies that you contemplate, but with me they have to kind of fester for quite some time before I really could call it a “want” or an “urge” to do. There are movies that I either have wanted to do in the past and that sit there unmade for whatever reason. And there are movies that I have rejected stupidly over the years because of one conceit or another on my part, that I’d wished that I’d have made, like Deliverance (1972), like [One Flew Over the]Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). (Fans of those movies should be grateful for my reticence.)
But part of me just doesn’t want to make a movie and that has been true over the years. I have to find the energy and the commitment, and that takes either going away from it, and from the movie world, for a long time until one day you’re just fatigued with not making movies and you better return to doing something which is the only thing you seem to know how to do, the only thing that gets you off the gangplank.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to Jolene Wolff for arranging this interview, providing invaluable assistance along the way, and for allowing me to see some of Rafelson’s short films.
2002: No Good Deed
2002: Porn.com (short) (& screenplay)
1998: Poodle Springs (TV)
1996: Blood and Wine (& co-story)
1995: “Armed Response” (episode of TV series Picture Windows)
1995: Wet (short) (& screenplay)
1992: Man Trouble
1990: Mountains of the Moon (& co-screenplay)
1987: Black Widow
1985: All Night Long (music video)
1981: Modesty (short) (& screenplay)
1981: The Postman Always Rings Twice
1976: Stay Hungry (& co-screenplay)
1972: The King of Marvin Gardens (& co-story, co-screenplay)
1970: Five Easy Pieces (& co-story)
1968: Head (& co-screenplay)
1966-68: Various episodes of TV series The Monkees
2002: Porn.com (as Matty Bonkers)
1995: Leaving Las Vegas(as Man At Mall)
1985: Always (as David’s neighbor)
1982: Mora (as Gangster)
1981: Modesty (as himself)
1976: Stay Hungry (cameo role)
- All quotes by Bob Rafelson are from interviews with the author, October 2004.
- In 1967, The Monkees was awarded Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy for the episode “Royal Flush,” directed by James Frawley.
- See “Dave Kehr—An Interview,” by Steve Erickson, Senses of Cinema, http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/01/15/kehr.html
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