|Director Richard LaGravenese (left) with actor/interviewee
John Voight in A Decade Under the Influence.
Chat with any moviemaker long enough, and the subject
of the “New Hollywood” films of the 1970s is likely to arise as
a topic. It was this decade, in fact, that helped to forge the relationship
between moviemakers Richard LaGravenese and Ted Demme. Friends since
1994’s The Ref (which LaGravenese wrote and produced and
Demme directed), over the years the two spent much time discussing
the films of this decade—the films that made them want to become
moviemakers in the first place. “We’d even show each other clips,”
states LaGravenese. “It would be like ‘I’ve gotta see this scene
now’ or ‘I’ve gotta show you this, it’s amazing.’” When faced with
the possibility of a writer’s strike, the two decided to move this
interest in the New Hollywood films to a full-on exploration, and A Decade Under the Influence was born.
Though the two-year production experienced a serious
loss with the untimely passing of co-director Demme, LaGravenese
continued working as team: “It still feels like we’re partners and
that we’ve worked all year together. I’m sure some of it was just
denial, but I don’t care. I miss his something terrible. The documentary
has kept us a team. He’s still around.” Here, LaGravenese talks
about the process of making a documentary and the films that he
grew up with.
Jennifer Wood (MM): Had you always conceived
of the project as being more like a series of ‘conversations about
film’ rather than the traditional ‘talking head’ documentary? The
film has an intimacy to it that is actually quite reminiscent of
the films you’re chronicling. Was this an intention you had, or
something you were made conscious of while watching the footage?
Richard LaGravenese (RL): Neither Teddy nor
I had done this kind of thing before. What made sense, to us, was
to have these conversations the same way we’d talk to each other.
The way we’d get excited talking about movies carried us through
MM: How did you prepare for the interviews?
RL: We put together about 10 questions: describe
the period, what were the differences in making films, studio involvement,
specific film work, who were their influences. One big question
for me was how was it possible to make these smart, intense films
that broke the rules within the studio system?
Sydney Pollack says that the attraction to movies
was changed by the time. The previous dictum was that one’s pleasure
at the movies was in relation to how distant that movie was from
their own life—escapism.
In the late ’60s and ’70s, audiences wanted movies
that reflected their lives and their experiences. They didn’t want
glamour or Hollywood fantasy. Once again, the youth steered the
culture. But the youth were angry and rebellious.
MM: What was your method of co-directing
with Ted Demme? Were you each responsible for specific aspects of
the project, or was the entire job a shared one?
RL: Once Ted and I constructed the idea, Teddy
took us to Alison Bourke at the Independent Film Channel. He had
been working with her on a show called Escape from Hollywood. Alison, Caroline Kaplan and Jonathan Sehring from IFC have been
They wanted to make it as a theatrical release and
as a re-edited television series. Teddy brought on producers Gini
Reticker and Jerry Kupfer to head the production team. I put together
the data on movies from the period and the ideas we wanted to cover.
We both created our list of interview subjects and possibly interviewers
we wanted to share the load with us.
MM: What was your process for recruiting
those filmmakers who took over some of the interviewing duties?
I imagine that you had a number of volunteers for this; was there
anyone you had to turn away? What about in choosing your interview
subjects—were there any moviemakers whom you weren’t able to speak
with but had desperately wanted to include?
RL: People were excited about the idea of interviewing
and would come up with their five top preferences. Getting the subjects
was about making connections and calling in favors. Everybody was
so gracious and helpful. It was incredible. The most difficult thing
There were some people we couldn’t get, like Polanski,
who was interested, but was in Paris. Spielberg, Lucas, De Palma
and Rafelson were unavailable. And Warren Beatty got very close
to doing it, but it just never happened. I’m sorry about that one
the most. I think he’s an incredibly important filmmaker and, as
far as I know, no one has ever just sat down with the guy and asked
him about the work.
With some, we never got past the agents, who told
us their clients weren’t interested. Whether or not their clients
ever knew about the project, I don’t know.
MM: Can you talk a bit about the production
of this movie: how long the entire film took, from conception to
completion? How much research went into the project? How did you
shoot it? At what point did IFC get involved?
RL: We started the research phase about four
months before we began the interviews. Our research team, John Miller-Monzon
and Tania McKeown, did extensive research, not only on the filmmakers
and films of the ’70s, but also on what was going on in the world
at that time. This gave us a sense of the context the filmmakers
were working in.
The interviews took exactly one year. There were 29
in all; we use 23 in the film. The first interview was Altman on
the first Monday of December, 2001. The last was Scorsese, also
on the first Monday of December, in 2002. Editor Meg Reticker started
assembling in May and we just locked last week.
We made some changes since Sundance (archival, clips).
Locations were decided as we scheduled. It was “fly by the seat
of your pants” a lot of the time. We had crews on both coasts—with
cinematographer Clyde Smith in LA and Anthony Jannelli in New York.
Everyone was fantastic because every one was so into the project.
MM: Who did you envision as the primary
audience for this film? Did you see it as a primer for younger movie
fans and moviemakers, but also a reminiscence for the New Hollywood
moviemakers still working today?
RL: Yeah. For today’s audiences, I conceived
of it as a primer to get them interested in discovering some of
these films and filmmakers. But either way, it’s certainly not by
any means a definitive portrait of ’70s movies.