Things I’ve Learned: Peter Bogdanovich

Think of essential American cinema, and Peter Bogdanovich comes immediately to mind.

Of a certain breed of moviemaker, he’s one of the originals: doggedly independent, sharply intelligent, a lifelong cinephile steeped in film lore and classical theory. His best films—chief amongst them the early ’70s triumvirate of The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc and Paper Moon—gave a generation of lost romantics something to feel about.

The 75-year-old director’s first narrative feature in 14 years opens this spring: She’s Funny That Way, a light-hearted comedy of manners starring Owen Wilson and Imogen Poots. Here, Bogdanovich, who’s worked with everyone from Roger Corman to Quentin Tarantino, shares his best advice for young moviemakers, straight from the mouths of his own cinematic heroes. – K.L.


 

1. The best film school is watching pictures from the 50-year Golden Age (1912-1962). The silent era is the foundation of the art of telling stories visually. Look at the work of silent masters, like King Vidor, D.W. Griffith, F.W. Murnau, and Ernst Lubitsch.

2. The integration of dialogue was most imaginatively done starting with 1929. The great directors of these years—John Ford, Howard Hawks, Lubitsch again, Alfred Hitchcock—did it all, in terms of technique. You don’t have to invent the wheel. It’s been invented long ago.

3. When shooting a sequence, have in mind where the cuts are, and only shoot what you need. It saves time and the actors’ energy. Leave yourself open to the possibility that the actors will bring something that will change your cutting pattern, but it is best to know what you want, because otherwise you don’t really know what the scene is. I always try to bear in mind that the scene should be told visually as well as with the dialogue. In other words: if you turned the sound off, could you still follow the scene from its visual import?

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Owen Wilson stars in Peter Bogdanovich’s She’s Funny That Way.

4. Never really rehearse an emotional scene. There is a great danger that the actor will give it all to you in rehearsal and not have anything left for the camera. You can discuss the scene, but don’t ask the actor to play it out for you fully. Save it. I remember, on The Last Picture Show, Cloris Leachman’s final emotional scene was something Cloris wanted to rehearse with me, intensely. I said, no, I didn’t want to see her do it until the camera was rolling. She was annoyed, but boy, it paid off. She won the Oscar for that scene. It’s what John Ford used to call “fresh.”

5. Plan your action sequences carefully, but don’t rehearse the action because someone might get hurt and then you haven’t got a scene for the camera. All stunts are dangerous, otherwise they wouldn’t be called stunts. And the reason we have stunt people is because we don’t want the principle actors to get hurt, so obviously there’s risk involved. It would be foolhardy, therefore, to ask a stunt man to rehearse a stunt.

6. Throughout the picture, leave yourself open to the possibility of a happy accident: something that comes from an actor, or from nature, that illuminates or transforms the scene in a way you hadn’t imagined. The most famous example is from John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. As he told it to me, “A big thunderstorm came up, and I said, ‘Let’s shoot it!’” The cinematographer, Winton Hoch, was concerned that it wouldn’t photograph because it was too dark. Ford just said, “Shoot it.” And it became an extraordinary sequence in the movie, and Hoch won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography.

7. Be sure to know, while you’re shooting a set-up, what the next set-up will be, so that you can say—once you have a print you’re happy with—exactly what the next shot is. Thus keeping the crew and the actors on their toes. Keep the momentum going, which is very important on a movie set. Because the lighting and the camerawork often take a long time to prepare, being on a movie set can often be very boring, but it’s up to the director to keep the energy level up and the excitement unabated.

8. When planning a sequence, be sure to know how the preceding sequence ends and how the sequence afterward begins, so that there is a clear visual demarcation going from one to the other. For example, if one sequence ends in a close-up, it is clearer to the audience that we’re in a new scene if you go to a wide shot. Similarly, if you end in a wide shot, it would be good to go to a closer angle as you open the next scene. Going to inanimate objects at the beginning of a scene is also a good way to let the audience know we’re somewhere else.

9. If you don’t show the audience the overall geography of a place, you can create your own geography however you wish. This is particularly helpful when shooting at various locations. On Paper Moon, we had a scene in a hotel room with Tatum and Ryan O’Neal, which we shot in Kansas. When they exited the room onto the street, they were in Missouri. Very liberating.

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Jennifer Aniston and Peter Bogdanovich on the set of She’s Funny That Way.

10. Otto Preminger once said, when I asked why he so often did long scenes without a cut, “Every cut is an interruption.” And Howard Hawks said to me, “Just cut on movement, and the audience won’t see the cut.” Those two comments given to me in my 20s have helped me through every picture. Ideally, every cut should have a reason, and it should not be simply a diversion—what we call “eye candy” (and we know candy isn’t good for us).

11. Another piece of advice that has sustained me over the years came from John Ford’s sometimes acerbic wife, Mary McBride Smith: “If you want to stay in the movie business, Peter, never believe anything you hear, and only half of what you see.” This has been particularly useful to me in the often confusing and difficult racket known as show business.

12. I always liked Alfred Hitchcock’s injunction to me: “Never use an establishing shot to establish.” He went on to explain that a wide shot has a tremendous impact, and should be saved for a more significant reason—perhaps an emotional one—than simply to establish a place. I had a scene in my first film, Targets, in which the sniper goes to the top of a group of huge gas tanks that overlook one of L.A.’s biggest freeways. I had a number of closer shots of him going up the stairs, but I didn’t show the full image of the gas tanks until he got to the top, and was walking over toward the freeway, where he was about to go on a rampage.

13. The pacing of scenes or sequences, and in fact, the overall pacing of the film, is extremely important. I mentioned to Frank Capra once that even his dramatic scenes had a faster pace to them, not dissimilar to the pace of the comedy scenes. He said, “You know, it’s a funny thing, Pete, but film slows things down. So, if you play something at normal speed, it’ll seem slow. If you play it a bit faster than normal speed, it’ll seem normal. Now, if you want it to go even faster, you really have to speed up.”

14. The brilliant British actress Joanna Lumley, who worked with me on The Cat’s Meow, was asked once in an interview how I had directed her. She said, “Pedro?” (She called me Pedro.) “Well, mainly, he would just say, ‘A little faster, darling.’” MM

She’s Funny That Way opens in theaters on August 14, 2015, courtesy of Lionsgate.


Additional note from Peter: My daughter, Antonia Bogdanovich, has her first feature opening on June 19, 2015. It’s called Phantom Halo and is quite an ambitious work, a tough family/crime drama that is very well acted and directed. Antonia has been privy to virtually everything on the list above, and she has made extremely good use of it all. I started showing her and her sister, Sashy, films from the Golden Age when they were still quite young, which, I think, is the best way to introduce kids to the glories of the past: while they’re still impressionable. It seems to have worked because Antonia has done a fine job with her first picture. I’m proud of her.

Phantom Halo will be in theaters, VOD, and iTunes on Friday, June 19, 2015.

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