Tag Archives: The Conversation

I Knew It Was You: The Sixth John Cazale Film

A few months ago, when Richard Shepard’s documentary I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale aired on HBO, I wrote a post about it, going on and on (and on). Well, today the DVD of that doc hits the stores. (Inexplicably, it’s not yet available via Netflix, but if you add it to your queue, they’ll get the idea!)

The DVD’s bonus features include 40 minutes of outtakes from the interviews with Al Pacino and playwright Israel Horovitz; all of “The American Way,” a 1962 short film featuring Cazale (only clips are shown in the doc); and an audio commentary by Shepard. I’m a fan of Richard’s other commentaries (i.e. The Matador) as they are funny and informative, real How To’s for independent filmmaking.

OK, I’m biased. I’ve known Richard for a dozen years. I’ve worked for him, played poker with him, and, hell, he even recorded one of his commentaries in my living room. One of our favorite pastimes was hanging out with Adam Lichtenstein (the documentary’s editor) and talking endlessly about 70s cinema.

Recently, Richard gave me some time to talk about the film and its effect on him as a filmmaker…
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Richard Shepard: I am really happy the doc is even getting out on DVD. Y’know, for a forty minute short to come out on DVD is not an every day occurrence.

Stephen Altobello: A forty minute doc barely has a market in the first place, much less on DVD. It was awesome that BAM did a Cazale festival last year [screening all five of his films] and screened your doc a couple of times with it. I can imagine for a revival house that a Cazale festival is a license to print money.

Richard: That is so true. You would think they would do this all the time. There was just a screening of Dog Day Afternoon up in San Francisco where they showed the documentary, and I can imagine going forward in my life showing this movie in various film revival places, whenever they show those movies. Because it is a perfect companion to them. I kept joking that I was interested to see the Netflix demands for these movies after its aired on HBO. I think any Film Lover who sees one second of so many of those movies gets that Film Lover Erection.

Stephen: Sure. I’m picturing people having double feature nights, where they show your film and, say, The Godfather. It would be also awesome if it lives, like you said, in a revival house capacity. That it becomes known as the sixth Cazale film.

Richard: That would be insane if that was the case.

Stephen: Have actors and directors come up to you after seeing the film?

Richard: Well, it’s an unintended positive consequence of this documentary in that it is so actor packed that if you’re sending out a script, trying to get an actor attached to it, sending this documentary with it, it’s like people see this and they suddenly believe, truthfully or not–and I would like to believe its truthfully–that I love actors and the craft of acting and understand its importance. So in some strange way, it’s like this incredible catnip for actors for me getting them into other projects. Which is not what I intended, obviously, but I certainly don’t mind that consequence, and certainly every actor that has seen it has been extraordinarily moved and positive about it. It’s not like I’m getting phone calls from Brad Pitt, but it is strange how many meetings I go to and parties and whatever, and people are like, “Oh my God, you made that movie, I loved it!”

Stephen: I guess the big question is, since you’ve immersed yourself for so long in this project, do you feel you have been directing actors differently, better, more intuitively? How has it paid off for you in that sense?

Richard: Well, yesterday we were auditioning actors and this actress was really good, but she just wasn’t listening at all, and it was this weird moment where I am like, “She really can say her lines great, but she is not really listening to the other lines and not really reacting in any organic away.” And while everyone in the room was like, “She was great,” I’m like, “She was great, but let’s watch the tape of her because you’re going to see she is not acting because she’s not reacting, and thus we’re going to die moving forward because there is no real heartbeat there.” And that realization came from what I learned from Cazale, and I was like, “Wow.” I think I have a different eye than I might have even had a year ago, and I would like to see how that extends to actual work, as opposed to an audition process.

Stephen: Right. I suppose if you were an asshole, you might have a stack of those DVDs at your auditions and that would be your way of saying they didn’t get the role: “Here, take a copy on your way out.”

Richard: Or pay for one and maybe you’ll get a role! [laughs]

Stephen: About your interviewing process for the film, I heard you explain you’re not an interviewer but just very, very curious, which is a real difference. I hadn’t seen that many interviews with Pacino, but I was surprised at how generous and sincere he seemed. Were you similarly surprised during the interview?

Richard: Yes. I felt that when that interview was done that we didn’t need to do any other interviews and we would still have a documentary. He really came into that room wanting to talk. It was almost as if when we finished, he was upset that we were leaving. Which, by the way, is a great place to be if you’re doing a documentary, because it’s like, he was just ready…he came very thoughtful and passionate and emotional. I think that Pacino appreciates that we were coming at it from a place of love, and he didn’t think we were being disingenuous. He really came in there and said, “I’m giving you myself. This is all I’m doing today. I’m going to do this. I’m going to eat a dinner and have a glass of wine, and that’s my day.“

Stephen: I was so amazed. Everything you just said, by the way, reads in the film. What vibe you got while doing the interview, is on the screen. Sometimes a great interview doesn’t necessarily mean it will be great in the doc. And you lucked out there. I had a similar lucky experience interviewing Scorsese about The Last Waltz. Nobody would ever talk to him about that film more than what it would take to get from Taxi Driver to Raging Bull. It would get, like, a paragraph. And he gave me ninety minutes on The Last Waltz when his assistant assured me I wouldn’t get even an hour with him.

Richard: And he was probably thrilled about it, because, a) he doesn’t talk about it a lot and b) he is sitting next to someone who loves the movie and is smart about it. There is nothing better than giving an interview to someone who knows what they’re talking about. When I was promoting The Matador…my God, there was one day at the Toronto Film Festival when we did a three straight press junket and it came right after three straight days in France doing the same thing. It was six straight days, every fifteen minutes a different interviewer. And it was mind numbing on a level that you can’t even imagine. I was, like, this is the hardest work I have ever done! Trying to make these answers seem fresh. Trying to remain enthusiastic. Trying not to punch someone in the face. And so I know there’s nothing better than talking to someone who is passionate about your film and doesn’t feel like, “I am just a piece of the process as well,” or, “I have to do twelve interviews today,” but instead is like, ”I want to sit down with you and talk about your movie in a real way.” Those are the best interviews because you’re like, “Oh, I am totally connected to this person.”

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So, this holiday season, what could be a better gift for the Film Lover in your life than a DVD of one of Cazale’s films, coupled with I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale?

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When Not to Edit, Pt 4: Coppola’s Eavesdropping Camera

Time for another post discussing an instance when a director chose a sustained shot as opposed to a more conventional, edit-filled approach. Today is all about Francis Ford Coppola’s use of the camera in one scene in The Conversation.

My prior examples in this series (Laurel & Hardy’s The Finishing Touch; Ozu’s Tokyo Chorus; and Frank Oz’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) were static shots, with all the movement occurring via the blocking of the actors. Today’s example broadens the scope a little, since the camera does move, yet it’s the way it moves that makes it note-worthy. Coppola does something I call character-driven filmmaking, which is when a character’s emotions dictate the mechanics of the film, such as the editing, the lighting, and, in this case of this entry, the shooting. (I wrote about this before in my post about the editing in Silkwood.)

The Conversation (1974) is about surveillance expert Harry Caul. It’s a 70s character study disguised as paranoid thriller: Harry eavesdrops for a living but, not surprisingly, lives in fear of being watched or even noticed, preferring solitude.

In this scene, which happens early in the film, Harry enters his apartment at the end of the day. He checks his mail, calls his landlady, and takes off his pants. Such a straightforward scene could be shot and cut several different ways, all expanding our understanding of Harry. These possibilities include:

• a handful of medium shots where Harry’s décor is visible in the background, each with Harry in the frame as he walks from room to room
• a dolly shot either in front of him (camera dollying backwards) or behind him, showing only his back; in both cases his décor would be visible on the sides of the frames
• a slightly more esoteric approach: static medium shots or close-ups of parts of his apartment, without Harry in frame

So how does Coppola shoot it? Well, I think when a filmmaker is crafting a scene, he or she needs to constantly ask, “What information does the audience need to know right now?” Here’s how Coppola answers that question…

I love this shit. Coppola’s tableau is wide and sparse. Harry lives simply, so the director foregoes showing us his apartment in detail and instead lets the camera behave as an extension of Harry’s state-of-mind, which is one of surveillance. In fact, the first time he leaves the frame, he appears to be consciously trying to get away from the camera.

Gratefully, Francis Ford Coppola did an audio commentary for this film, so I can let him speak for himself. Here’s a minute-long clip of his explanation of this shot and its style:

Couldn’t be much clearer than that, could he? It’s nice to hear him say that, but, truthfully, when I first saw this film in the 80s, it was crystal clear to me.

(For what it’s worth, I think the lone CU in the scene—a generic birthday card from his bank—is so sad it only reinforces our understanding of Harry’s isolation. Instead of showing us one of Harry’s personal belongings, Coppola shows us the exact opposite: what could be more impersonal than a form birthday card?)

Obviously, such a self-conscious shot could be perceived as gimmicky, but if you haven’t seen the film, believe me: Coppola successfully uses this style for maximum effect, abetted enormously by Gene Hackman’s performance.

I could go on and on about this film—I freakin’ love it—but I’ll leave it at that. However, if you’re interested in a great essay about The Conversation, I recommend this post at Precious Bodily Fluids.

Next in the When Not to Edit series: Director Tod Browning thinks freaks work best without too many edits.
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By the way, the DVD for The Conversation is unique: It not only has a full-length commentary by the director, it has one by the editor. Why? you ask.

Those familiar with the history of this film are aware of the uncomfortable relationship between Coppola and editor Walter Murch. The director had to leave the project prematurely (to begin pre-production onThe Godfather, Part 2) and left a good deal of The Conversation in the hands of the editor. Murch’s changes to the structure of the film were radical enough for some to claim he saved the picture, and it seems it’s been a sore spot for both men ever since. Case in point: for the aforementioned DVD, they each say surprisingly little about the other’s input on the film.

Anyway, I had planned the second half of this post to dissect that seemingly rocky relationship, but, alas, that will have to wait for another post.

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What’s That a Poster For?!

Tonight I discovered one of the two topics for which blogs were created: Polish posters.1   I cooked up a quiz, did the heavy lifting in Photoshop, and wrote most of this post before a Google search showed me that I’m the last one to arrive at this party.

The good news is that this daring artwork is getting a lot of attention all over. For example, last year there was an exhibit at MoMA devoted to Polish poster design from 1945 through 1989, and there’s this documentary, Freedom on the Fence, which looks fascinating:


If you want history, as I said, just Google “polish film posters blog” and go nuts. (I found this blog post to be particularly interesting.) Those folks are much more educated about this stuff than I am. On the other hand, I can provide you with a little personal history and a little fun.

My fascination and love with Polish posters began ten years ago with Film Posters of the 70s, by Graham Marsh and Tony Nourmand. This is a helluva great coffee table book, with an average of a poster to a page, from several countries. Repeatedly, as I flipped through the book, the posters designed in Poland were the most shocking, unique, beautiful. Sometimes they were so out there I wondered if the artists had seen the films before making the posters. A fine example of their blend of the grotesque and esoteric is the one for Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974). If you’ve never seen the film, take my word for it: this creepy poster is definitely onto something. In its own way, (I think) it captures the darker nuances of that film.

The poster that really caught my eye, however, was for Cabaret (look above), by Wiktor Gorka; it was the only Cabaret poster worldwide that had the nerve to include a swastika as part of its design (it does more than include it!). Since finding an original poster was cost prohibitive–they go for around $500–I simply ripped the page out of the 10”x12” book and framed it. (A few years later, I got a Jewish girlfriend who became my Jewish fiancé. Naturally, when she moved in, I thought, well, time to take down the swastika poster. Strangely, she suggested we hang it in the bathroom.)

But I digress.

Suffice to say that the posters are dazzling and these small scans do not do them justice. (I’ve seen many at galleries and the impact of these bold images several feet wide is like being punched by a cultural revolution.)

And here’s the quiz. Below are 3 posters, with the identifying info (title, filmmaker, actors, etc.) blurred out. All the films are from the last 40 years and are American. Can you guess what they are? (I’ll post the unadulterated versions in a couple of days.)


(Actually, as of April 20, I’ve posted the un-blurred originals here.)
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BACK TO POST 1 The other is Frank Sinatra’s doomed 1970 concept LP Watertown. I’m reminded of what Brian Eno said about the Velvet Underground’s first LP: “It only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.” Well, not many people listen to Watertown, but whoever does ends up blogging about it.

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