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Henry Jaglom, The Independent’s Independent

Henry Jaglom, The Independent’s Independent

Articles - Directing

Tim Rhys, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Thanks again for inviting us to the preview. One thing that jumped outas we watched Last Summer in the Hamptons (due for release in September) was your use of a straight narrative structure. This has a different feel from your other films.

Henry Jaglom (HJ): Victoria and I wrote it together. We structured it. I started a new career in life when I got married and I didn’t know it at the time. But I not only got a wife and the mother of my two children to be, but I also married a collaborator who is both an actor in my last two movies and a co-writer. What that’s done is force me into more structure, because the world likes structure, my wife likes structure.

Victoria Foyt (VF): The truth is, Henry was very inspired in the writing process of this movie. He was so gung-ho and so enthused throughout the writing process.

HJ: But the truth is, Lee Grant just told me (at the screening) there’s no question this is my best picture. I got very annoyed and said, “No, what you don’t understand is this movie requires a narrative structure.” It is, according to Max Schell, this contemporary Chekhovian movie about a family and the unfolding of certain events and it needs structure. When I do thematic movies on a subject like Baby Fever and Eating, I like a less formalist structure. I believe in a structure more flexible, less what people would consider “well made,” more serving of a kind of looseness that you would feel if you were in a documentary.

Tom Allen (TA): Your film Tracks certainly has that looseness, only it’s live action.

HJ: Tracks has a very strong structure if you look at it. So, structure is not new with me. But it’s a narrative of two or three people. This (Hamptons) is a narrative of six or seven people. You can’t do that without structure, because then you have chaos. But also, I’m using much of Chekhov—The SeagullThe Cherry Orchard and others–as metaphor here structurally as well as informationally. There are many references and so on. I’m not apologizing for the structure. I’m just saying that some movies require structure and others don’t and they are not better if they have structure, they are just easier for a bigger audience to accept. My favorite movie, and the movie that I think has the most structure of any movie I’ve made is Venice / Venice, because it couldn’t be made without structure. But its structure is elliptical, it’s non- narrative, it’s the opposite of narrative. It’s a structure which feeds back upon itself because it’s about time and illusion.

VF: But it’s not a structure that people are used to.

HJ: That’s what I’m saying. No, on the contrary. It’s like the structure of our minds. Somebody called it a Mobius structure, a mirrored structure where you kind of bend the thing into this infinite eight. There is no beginning and end because there isn’t black and white in feelings and emotions and dreams and reality. The same thing with my very first movie, which probably seems the least structured to you. There’s an incredible structure in A Safe Place but it’s the structure of the mind of a young woman, Tuesday Weld, and the structure follows her emotional sequence rather than an external event sequence. This movie (Hamptons) is easier for a bigger audience because it follows an external events sequence, and that’s what we’re used to in conventional entertainment or conventional film or conventional theater, even.

TA: Do you find creating this other type of structure, this elliptical type, more difficult or challenging than creating a more traditional structure in three acts?

HJ: Not more difficult. It’s actually more difficult to create a narrative structure. But more challenging, more exciting. Narrative is more difficult because you cannot vary the rules. You can’t say, “Wow, that really worked, that’s poetically great. You go from here to there and it’s a dream, it feels right and emotionally I trust it.” You can’t do that. You know, this is a gray pair of pants, and if I walk through the door, I have to have a gray pair of pants on when I come out the other side, unless it’s later in the day or another day. Now Baby Fever has a very solid structure. But A Safe Place, Time Magazine said it looked like I threw the pieces of file film into the air and they landed in the mix master and I arbitrarily (glued them together). In fact, it’s incredibly structured, structured to evoke helical time rather than narrative time: interior experience rather than exterior. It takes place in the mind and feelings of a young woman rather than in the exterior space that we all share where events seem to be happening and unfolding. But in fact, the action of our dreams, the action of our inner life, is for me a much richer and more fascinating world. And that’s why I try to explore it. You see quite a bit of that in Tracks.

VF: I think Henry has a way of working to create an emotional structure which is specific and unique to his work. For him, that’s enough of a structure to build a story around.

MM: Why is that more challenging for viewers? Given that everybody has an emotional life and a mind, it would seem like that would be a natural way for people to take in a story.

HJ: To me this is the most exciting thing we could possibly talk about. I’m surprised and happy you want to talk about it

VF: Because we’re taught from early childhood watching movies and TV shows to receive issues/14/images in a very structured form. If you grew up on the new wave of French cinema in the period of Truffant and all of those, you might have a different response. In our culture, there’s no tradition of people telling stories from an emotional base, so it’s not something you’re conditioned to accept.

HJ: Anais Nin, in a piece about A Safe Place, wrote that ‘the dream has at last been captured,’ because the dream, our dreams, are the one place where we experience emotional structure, not narrative structure. Dream issues/14/images jump freely from place to place and time to time. For example, in A Safe Place Tuesday Weld listens to a song and something comes into her mind, and in a sense the whole movie takes place during this listening to a song. Everything triggers everything else. And it’s associative-very structured-but associative, based upon feelings and emotions, just like if you daydream. The daydream has structure, but it’s hard to follow because it’s not the structure of an external event. It doesn’t have hard edges.

VF: Henry’s much more interested in exploring the emotional side of life anyway. He’s more interested in what’s happening with you on the inside rather than where you’ve been or where you’re going. He’s interested in who you are.

MM: Where does that come from?

HJ: A close relationship with my mother and her women friends when I was little. Their world made more sense to me because it was about feelings. The men’s world was all about things and events, external. The women’s was what they were feeling, what they were yearning for, what they were dreaming about. So yes, when I started making movies I thought, oh great, I can do
this. I want to put up the world of feelings. And nobody wanted to see it. So, I said, okay, fuck ’em. They want beginning, middle and end? I’ll give ’em this stupid, dumb road picture (Sitting Ducks). Within that I did some subversion to entertain people and make them pay attention. And sure enough it worked and everybody loved it.

TA: So, you would say that this type of film structure is more realistic than what American audiences have come to know as realism.

HJ: Very well put, yeah. I think the reality of our lives is we walk through them focused on the external. We have jobs, we have other things going on. But we also have an internal life which is just as real, even more real.

VF: You tend to mark things in your life not by events of where you were and what you did, but rather how you felt in that period. It’s also because of your training with Lee Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio.

HJ: I think probably a huge amount of it has to do with Lee. What the Studio is about with method acting-and I’m a method director more than any director I know-is about moment to moment reality, trusting the moment, finding the truth in the moment-the emotional truth-and getting to it through an emotional and not an external way.

MM: I read something recently where some critic said that a hundred years from now if someone wanted to go back and get a sense of what it was like to live at the end of the 20th century–

HJ: Yeah, John Richardson, who now works for Premiere magazine. That was my favorite thing ever written. He said that future generations could do no better to know what it was like to live at the end of the 20th century than to see my films. And, he said “he wants nothing more or nothing less than to put up there the reality of our lives, and he succeeds.”

MM: Do you consciously go after a documentary style?

HJ: It’s very conscious and it’s harder to get so it’s not something that just turns out. It’s. easier to get it written thing. You know, when I see a movie and I think, boy that’s great writing, God that’s beautiful direction, wow, what a great piece of acting, I’m out of the movie. All I know is I don’t believe it. I’m experiencing an intellectual response. I’m having a good time. I might even be crying. But there’s a distance, an edge, between me and the screen, and what I want to do is blur that edge for an audience. People who love my movies and hate my movies tell me they feel like they’re eavesdropping, like they’re almost falling in, like they want to be at that party. They feel like they’re there somehow. Sometimes they love it, and with some people it makes them feel very uncomfortable. But the truth of the matter is it makes them lose that intellectual process of separating themselves from it for two hours, and to me that’s what’s exciting. That’s why I get these letters from all over the world now-incredible-hundreds of letters every month, thousands of letters in a year, of people saying stuff like: before such and such movie, I thought I was the only one who was experiencing this. And now I feel less alone, less crazy.

MM: I’m intrigued by your signature style which marries documentary form with method direction. You’re so successful at working with your actors. Their emotions are real; they’re being stripped right in front of us. But it’s the combination that’s so unique.

HJ: Yeah, Orson was fascinated by that. He said: “Oh, you’re inventing a whole new kind of cinema, you know.” And I said: “no, I don’t know.” He said, “nobody else does this.” Well I didn’t do it deliberately. I just did what seemed to excite me, because it created on film a truthful representation of the way I was experiencing life.

MM: Can you give us some of the tricks you use in directing actors? We’ve read some pretty colorful things.

HJ: Well Michael Emil, my brother, happens to have a major aversion to nude males too close to him. Suspiciously so, I’ve always thought.

TA: He says so explicitly in Someone to Love.

HJ: Well in Sitting Ducks he has a scene in the bathtub and I wanted something from him, and I didn’t tell him. Zack (Norman) was going to come in and sit in the tub naked and start soaping him. (Laughter) I knew it would drive him crazy, so I said: “Michael, in the next scene, the young woman who you’ve been trying to persuade to go to bed with you is going to come in and sit on the edge of the tub, and you’re inside the tub doing hand exercises. just two things: you cannot under any circumstances hit the other actor and two, no matter what you feel about the scene, you cannot leave the tub, you cannot leave the scene.” He said: “Of course not, send her in.” Then I said to Zack: “Zack, you know Michael. just get naked, get in there, grab him, kiss him, tell him he’s the greatest guy in the world, try to hug him.” And he did that and my brother was so furious at me. He was being shown naked in a bathtub with another man and didn’t know what to do. It’s one of the funniest scenes in movie history

MM: We thought the scene in Tracks where Dennis Hopper is running naked through the train is the funniest scene.

HJ: Yeah, that’s good, but that’s not a trick because Dennis is willing, Dennis is an actor. You don’t have to do tricks with actors. With Victoria, I don’t have to do that. We can work together because we can plan it.

VF: But you also trick me.

TA: Ah, now the truth is coming out.

VF: The scene in Baby Fever where I’m crying and saying that I’m never going to have a baby, that scene was supposed to happen three days after we actually shot it, but I was really upset about something on -the set and mad at him and was sobbing hysterically in the bathroom, and he said: “This is great. Let’s shoot the scene where you’re talking to Dinah about not having a baby. We’re going to shoot that right now.” And I looked at him like, ‘Oh shit, I’m not ready to do that scene now.’ And we did it and then later he told me that he got me upset on purpose because he really wanted to do that scene then and wanted to throw me off.

HJ: In that instance, I knew that certain things would upset her, but only just enough to make her really rich and ready to do a scene that she thought she was scared of doing. And we do it in one take. And it’s a powerful scene.

MM: Last night we were talking about how brilliant you are at getting the moment with an actor. Tell us how you go about that.

HJ: Relaxation is the greatest tool an actor has. I learned at the Actor’s Studio something that was so vital to me that I never lost it, which is the moment is all there is and the moment has to be true. Now that doesn’t mean it’s going to be interesting. I know actors who can do something very truthful, and it’s boring. Victoria happens to be so interesting to look at on the screen that if she’s truthful, you want to watch her. I can’t give her that. That’s what we call “star” or whatever that is. It’s not enough that Brando or DeNiro is a great actor. There’s something compelling to watch about them. Certain actors are great technically but who are not truthful and there’s always something a little bit off. Like Olivier or somebody like that. You watch them and you think yes, that’s very good. That’s great acting. But you’re not inside of it. So, my job is always to try to bring those things together, and it’s the most exciting process in the world, because it’s real.

VF: Henry has a great bullshit detector. He knows when somebody is being false. When I met Henry, if I tried to hide anything he would immediately step on it as if it were a germ about to infiltrate our life. So, I began living at this honest, intense level all the time, and at first it was exhausting. But it was a relief because there are no hidden areas between us.

HJ: Many people hated me because of this for years

MM: There’s a moment in Someone to Love where you describe an aspect of your personality I find most interesting. You say: “And me, I’m always looking at what I’m doing. I’ve got a camera outside of me watching me doing what I’m doing while I’m doing it. There’s always a movie camera somewhere. Even in the middle of an emotional scene in a real moment in life, when I’m totally connected and totally there, I have a sense that I’m playing a little bit for the camera… “

HJ: Everybody who’s conscious knows that about themselves, even non-actors.

TA: Really? I think many people are asleep on these levels.

HJ: Maybe. I remember my first emotional scene with a young woman when I was a teenager and it was big and we were breaking up and it was a terribly sad thing and she was crying on her steps behind the kitchen of her apartment. Brenda this was, my first girlfriend. And it was real and I was sad, I was feeling it, she was crying, and I kept thinking wow, look at this, this is so interesting. How do I look? I think I look kind of interesting. Look how interesting life is!

TA: Do you think this “condition,” this way of being, is a prerequisite for an artist? How highly honed is this sensibility?

HJ: Yes, definitely. But what I’m saying is, I think non-artists have it too, but they don’t identify it. They don’t express it, and they don’t identify it. They just feel discomfort. They feel inauthentic in some way. What I try to do in my filmmaking is bring truthful behavior, which includes all the denial, all the hidden behavior that people do on the screen. I think this is what has driven me, if you really want to know the truth, as an actor and as a director: the need to get to reality and get to honesty. In Always I say to my first wife, with whom I made the movie, about the end of our marriage, I say to her: “Do you remember on our first date when I said to you that I need to be able to know in life if I go out with somebody to the fanciest restaurant, and I have to get up on the table and take a shit, that person will say ‘Okay, you took your shit, now come down’ and won’t be horrified and run away. Only then, if I know I can take that shit, do I not have to take that shit. I need that kind of unconditional acceptance and love. Which is what I found here, (in Victoria) by the way. It’s like to say that I can’t stand living in a world where these movies are false. It’s not our life. These movies are destructive because they lead us to expect this unreal behavior, and then we’re modeling our life on this illusion of romance in the movies, this illusion of an organized, structured, narrative unfolding, beginning, middle and end, which is not what life has. It’s a big emotional middle and it’s full of moments. So, there’s a tremendous drive toward truth, which I think came from a neurotic early childhood need for attention, honesty, fear of not being loved the right way, all those things. Everybody desperately wants to tell the truth. And something hurts, it translates into physical hurt, and emotional hurt, when we are lying. And yet we are conditioned by social mores constantly to lie from our earliest days. That struggle between those two is the tension that I think is the most extremely interesting dynamic in human behavior?

MM: Do you have a written script?

HJ: We have guidelines. We know what our scenes are going to be about, but I never give actors a written script. Never. This started because of my first movie, A Safe Place. I wrote a brilliantly structured script. I’m really a very good writer. I wrote a great scene for Tuesday Weld and Jack Nicholson, two very good friends of mine, and they did the scene beautifully, and I looked at it and thought, what’s wrong with this? Why am I unhappy? So, I did it two or three times and finally I realized that Jack is more interesting than what he was doing there, Tuesday is more interesting-why am I imposing my language on them? So, I told them to continue the scene and just keep it up in their own language, and when I got back to my editing room, I threw out everything I had written-and I had written a damn fucking good scene. The same happened with Tracks in the last scene with Dennis Hopper. He tears up my speech to show me he’s angry and doesn’t care and jumps in there with his inarticulate rage, which is a thousand times better than anything I wrote because that soldier would not be articulate. He’d say what Dennis said.

MM: It’s risky, though., because you can burn a lot of film waiting for something to happen, waiting for the moment.

HJ: No, you create that moment.

MM: Noyou create the situation and get ready for the moment.

HJ: I create it. I knew when Dennis was getting angry.

VF: That’s where Henry’s really brilliant on the set because he watches everybody off-screen at lunch break and at dinner break and he knows where they’re at. He’s like a puppeteer seeing what’s going on with everybody, and then he’ll drive the crew and the producer and everybody insane because he switches around the order of things on the schedule to accommodate the actor rather than the production.

MM: Woody Allen gets this question a lot from what I’ve heard. His scenes look like they’re improvised, but they’re actually written.

HJ: I’m the opposite of Woody. But I want to make something clear. It’s not that these movies aren’t written. They are written after they are shot, but they are really written. I spent a year writing Last Summer in the Hamptons, but instead of doing it with words on a word processor before the fact, I did it with the bits of film that the actors had given me afterwards. I write by changing the juxtaposition of who says what

MM: You’re making choices.

HJ: Choices, but much more than choices. Constructions of things that nobody ever said. Taking words from other parts of the movie and putting them in the months of people. It’s a different
kind of writing. While we’re shooting what’s important is that the actors never know the same thing. That creates dynamic tension and immediacy, the possibility of something funny and scary at the same time. If you surprise yourself and you surprise the other actor and you therefore surprise me, the director, while it’s happening, you’re going to surprise the audience. It’s going to be fresh and exciting.

VF: It would be so much easier, as an actor, to have the dialogue written. I mean, my God, to go in there and not have the dialogue is so frightening! To be able to do it from a character’s viewpoint, to be able to respond in character to what’s going on given the time pressure that we’re dealing with, I mean-when you consider how much we shoot in a day and how intense
it is on the set, not having the dialogue really makes you stay on top of things and forces me to prepare so much more.

MM: What’s your rehearsal process like?

VF: There is no rehearsal process

HJ: The best things that happen are the first time. Can you imagine doing a rehearsal and it’s great and you say: “Okay, do it again?” It’s never as good as the first one.

MM: You give the actors homework?

HJ: Yes. A lot of homework.

TA: The basics of the character.

HJ: The character, the situation, the relationships, where they are coming from, where they’re going to, what they need, what they want, and dialogue but that’s the least important.

MM: We’ve been talking a lot about the full stuff, the creative side. Tell us a little bit more about the logistical, technical process of aHenry Jaglom film.

HJ: I do everything I can to not let the technical get in the way. That’s my job. I hate the technical. It’s just a bore.

MM: Do you plan your shooting schedule based on a strict budget?

HJ: You have to. You can’t make a movie any other way.

VF: We have a production board and everything.

HJ: But these are small budgets. I keep the economics down so that I can have complete freedom, so nobody is looking over my shoulder. We write a story in one location if we possibly can, and we map it out. And you get better at it after a certain number of movies. You acquire a sense of what it will take and then become a mad person on the set. I don’t make it very pleasant for them because I have to do things in a comparatively short time, with comparatively little money.

MM: Would you know what to do with a $30 million budget? I mean, have you ever lusted after that secretly? (Laughter)

HJ: No, no, no, no. The best answer to that is right over my editing machine. If you go in there with me you’ll see a picture of Orson and under it it says something he said to me at lunch one day, which is: “the enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” If you don’t have any limitations you become Spielberg, you become Lucas, you make great special effects movies and big things because you can throw money at every problem. If you have no money to throw and no time to throw, you’re have to find a creative solution.

MM: So, if a major studio comes along—

HJ: They do, they do, they do.

MM: Do you just hang up on them?

HJ: Big stars want to work with me and the studios say “oh shit” and then approach me very warily and I say I’ll only do it on one condition, and you won’t say yes to this condition, and that is final cut. Orson Welles never had final cut after Citizen Kane. I’m never going to do anything without final cut. A head of a studio a couple of years back put his arm around my shoulder and said: “You know, my wife makes me see all your movies. I really like them, too. Tell me when you want to make a real movie.” And I said “What is a real movie?” At this point he said: “20-25 million dollars.” So, I said: “Look, give me your $20 million, go away, and I’ll make six movies and give them to you in three years.” He said: “That’s not a deal. You can’t put a million dollars in your pocket as a commission.” If that’s what they want, I’m not interested in making deals. I want to make movies.

TA: The look of this whole film, Last Summer in the Hamptons, is really beautiful. We think it might be a commercial breakthrough for you.

HJ: Well I told my cinematographer (Hanania Baer) that I wanted this to look much different from my other movies. He suggested a different film stock (Fuji). I asked what it would do, he told me. I kept saying I wanted a golden look, I wanted it to look like an impressionist painting, because that house is the house that my parents lived in. Every summer I visited there. We visited there the last years of my father’s life. It was their summer house.

MM: So, that brings us to the question, your movies have always been very autobiographical—

HJ: What is autobiographical? I mean, sure, sure. If you make movies about what you know, they’re autobiographical. But, I mean, Baby Fever is about women who desire to have a baby, Eating is about women and their relationship to food. I’m not a woman, I’ve got no relationship to food and I can’t have a baby.

TA: You seem to fall in fairly easily from behind the camera to in front of the camera. Is it a difficult adjustment?

VF: Henry is such a born actor.

HJ: It just seems very natural to me. I was an actor. I starred in stupid TV shows like Gidget and The Flying Nun, Iwas paid $500 a week here by Columbia Pictures, Jack Nicholson directed me in Drive, He Said, Orson directed me in a film that hasn’t been released called The Other Side of the Wind,I was in Peru with Dennis Hopper in The Last Movie, Iam the one that “psyches out” in a film called Psych Out, which is the ultimate ’60s movie with Jack Nicholson. I’ve done some silly things.

MM: You’re known right now sort of as “The Independent’s Independent” filmmaker. You do everything on your own. What advice would you give to other independent filmmakers out there?

HJ: Just not to listen to anybody, especially when they tell you what you can’t do. To realize that you can do anything. Victoria says I’m the greatest cheerleader in the world. Candace Bergen said in a recent interview which I really liked: “If Henry had been my husband or my father, I could have taken Poland.” (Laughter) Is that a great comment? So what I would want to tell those people is you can take Poland. You can have the power that you want to have. You must not allow yourself to give in to the idea that you can’t do it, because people will tell you constantly what you cannot do. And they’re wrong, you can do it. This is a great time to be an independent filmmaker. There are more venues than ever before, there’s a bigger, ever-growing audience, there’s an ever-growing economic system to support it now that videos exist, so it doesn’t have to be one shot in a movie theater, there are endless distribution opportunities. It is the best time to be a truly independent filmmaker. But the other thing is to be true to yourself, not to sell out the first second you have a chance. Because when you become part of the system, your movies suffer.

TA: Orson called it relinquishing your tools.

HJ: And some of the best talents around are making garbage instead of the great films they could be making because they have relinquished their tools and traded them in for a bungalow, you know? For all the garbage. When I was starting out, everybody wanted to be Fellini or Godard or Ingmar Bergman. It became depressing when they started wanting to be Lucas or Spielberg because at that point they wanted to become powerful Hollywood icons rather than filmmakers. So, the only people I’m interested in are those who want to be filmmakers, and for them I would just say that it’s the best time in the world. It is really possible, it’s incredibly doable. It doesn’t take money even, because with the existence of video anybody can go out and make a movie. So
just do it. And don’t let anybody stop you. MM

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