Henry Bean has put himself in the hot seat. A successful
scribe for many years now, he moved into the director’s chair for
the first time on his new picture, The Believer. Now in theatrical
release, the film, shot on Super 16mm for $1.5 million, was seen
earlier this year on Showtime, and has already generated its own
blend of praise and controversy.
The Believer is a fascinating character study
of Danny Balint (Ryan Gosling), a young man living an impossible
contradiction: he is a Jew, devoted to Nazism. Certainly a great
premise in terms of its inherent possibilities for conflict (it
is inspired by real events), the film stands out in particular for
refusing to seek tidy explanations for all that its characters do
Bean wrote the script from a story devised by himself
and Mark Jacobson, and the film was nominated for Best Screenplay
and Best First Feature at the 2002 IFP/West Independent Spirit Awards.
Years as novelist and screenwriter, as a master of structure, are
put to good use by Bean the director. MM sat down with Bean
at the offices of Fireworks Pictures in Los Angeles to discuss the
picture, where he talked passionately about the creation of Danny
Balint, the film’s structure and what brought him into the story
business in the first place.
Phillip Williams (MM): I loved the fact
that you didn’t try to tidy up and explain away the contradictions
in these characters.
Henry Bean (HB): You know I think a lot of
that was just that I was so utterly sick of having to do that in
Hollywood films. And finally I had a chance, where I didn’t have
to write all the bullshit.
MM: It’s great that when Danny starts to
teach Carla, Summer Phoenix’s character, about Judaism, he’s at
the same time this Nazi punk, and it made total sense. It also helps
to set up the film’s ending. Was this an obvious direction for you?
HB: This movie came alive for me when the scene
in the synagogue happened. I had it in my head for many years, the
story of a Jewish Nazi, but then I came to the scene where he goes
into a synagogue one time and he’s shocked by what he feels: he
feels what he doesn’t know. After that, because he is a deeply honest
person, he cannot deny that he’s been moved and he’s got to go back
to his Judaism. But he cannot go back and be a good Jewish boy,
that’s disgusting to him, so he will remain a Nazi. The movie was
there for me: the movie is about someone who wants to be a Jew and
a Nazi at the same time. He wants to be a living contradiction.
Once I had that, it was the organizing principle of everything.
He wants to be pulled apart by opposing appetites.
MM: Pulled apart?
HB: We all have that. There’s a sort of heavy-handed
device in the film, the flashbacks, where he projects himself into
different roles: he’s the Nazi, he’s the father. I do think in some
way that that is what the movie is trying to express: that only all of the roles are enough for us. We want to be the oppressor,
we want to be the oppressed, we want to be the redeemer, we want
to be the victim, we want to be everything.
MM: There is an interesting scene, where,
before Danny and Carla make love, she asks him to hurt her. Why
does she say that?
HB: For the same reason that she says, "Maybe
the greatest pleasure is to submit to God." Because she is
a person whose ego, whose pride, is a problem. You know the gag
about S&M? Who comes to be humiliated and stepped on and made
fun of by the whores? The archbishop, the chief of police, etc.
It’s the people with power whose own power is the obstacle to release.
That’s how I understand Carla.
MM: When you are dealing with an ensemble,
as in the scene in The Believer when Danny goes to the Nazi
camp, how did you work out the choreography and the tone between
this group of actors?
HB: I tried to have those actors stay together
and hang out together. They did a lot of that on their own, to try
and develop stuff. And I talked to them about how I understood their
relationships to each other and who was the leader, etc. And they
amended that and elaborated on their own to some extent. I’m thinking
story; I’m always thinking story.
MM: Was there any rewriting during production?
HB: There’s a scene where Danny attends sensitivity
training with some Holocaust survivors and Susan Hoffman, who’s
one of the producers on the film, said to me, ‘This scene has to
end with the woman (a Holocaust survivor) winning, and the boy losing.
And she was right. I rewrote the scene so that it ended that way.
I think that not only does the scene become better, but I think
it means that that scene becomes the door that opens that allows
him to make the transition that comes later. It’s that shock that
comes when he realizes that he’s talking about this thing he doesn’t
really know about.
MM: Why did you start to write?
HB: Why did I become a writer? It seems as
if I was always a writer. When I was in eighth grade, Mrs. Kenworthy
assigned everybody to go home and write their autobiography; and
I went home and put it off. Then, Sunday night, I finally started
writing and I had the same experience that I later learned that
Lawrence Stern had when he wrote Christopher Shandy which
was, I could never manage to get to the beginning of my life. I
was just commenting on my life and commenting on parents and bullshitting
about my family. I had a kind of fun I had never had and it was
funny and I enjoyed writing it. It was just a pleasure.
MM: In terms of your work as a writer of
movies, what did you pick up technically about scriptwriting?
HB: I think that for me writing scripts, and
I think that most writers would agree, is a structural problem.
It’s a matter of organizing the giving out and the withholding of
information. I love writing dialogue, I love creating characters,
that’s the most fun, but I think that the work that’s essential
is outlining. I write outlines which are pages and pages and pages
long, which are full of dialogue and long discourses on the themes
of the film, which are never going to be in the script. But they
are a way of talking to myself about how the different parts of
this are composed, the way you might think of a painting being composed.
I think I struggle toward seeing the whole thing at once, as if
it were a composition.
MM: What kind of writer are you?
HB: I think I’m essentially a confessional
writer. I’ve become a writer who wants to tell inner secrets and
wants to reshape them around narratives because those narratives
protect me in a certain sense; they structure in a way that makes
the stuff feel safe.
MM: What are you writing now?
HB: My dream is to make a fanatics trilogy.
So I’ve written volume one about the religious fanatic, and I’m
now writing volume two, which is about the political fanatic. It’s
about a man who is being driven crazy by the noise in New York City;
a Don Quixote sort of figure. Volume three will be about the artistic
MM: What can you learn, and what can’t you learn, as a writer.
HB: A friend of mine said to me many years
ago, who was sort of a writer at the time, "A writer struggles
for a long time to find his voice and then it’s all a question of
how great a man he is." But I would add to that: the effort
to make myself into a great man prevented me for a long time from
finding my voice.
HB: Because instead of being what I was and
speaking what I could speak, I wanted to be Melville or Kafka or
somebody else. I think that what you can learn is to let
yourself be what you are and say what you have to say and that’s
the best you can do. And what you can’t learn is to be somebody
else; who you are not; who you might think is better than you are.
In a certain sense fate [plays a role]. By the time you ask yourself
‘What kind of writer am I?’ you already are that writer, or, you
already have the potential to be that kind of writer. And the best
you can do at that point is realize that potential. That means accepting
what it is and accepting what it isn’t.