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Once Upon a Time in America

Once Upon a Time in America

Articles - Directing

"This was all about Teddy. Not just about
doing it for him, but about keeping him alive… at least
for me. It still feels like we’re partners and that we’ve
worked
all year together.”
—Richard LaGravenese

From the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s
americans looked on, a bit bewildered, as political heroes were murdered,
youth turned violent and national leaders lied. As the national foundation
seemed to fracture, so did the country’s spirit. The prevailing sentiment
became one of disillusionment and mistrust, and a general malaise
infected the American psyche.

Movie audiences, desensitized to violent imagery by
the graphic coverage of the Vietnam War and disgusted by the
blatant corruption of political leaders, grew intolerant of the
movie pablum of the past. They sought a fresh,
raw brand of truth from the silver screen, and young audiences,
especially, flocked to small, offbeat pictures that promised
something different, radical and real. From the
earliest works of the period, like Bonnie & Clyde and The
Graduate
, to the last, including Jaws and Star Wars, it was clear that this “New Holly­wood”
movement was a major departure for the American motion
picture industry. No longer would it only be the Hollywood
pro­ducers who called the shots. This was the beginning of the
reign of the “director as king.”

For moviemakers Kenneth Bowser, Richard LaGravenese
and Ted Demme, the ’70s represented more than just a decade of
great movies—it was a time of enormous creativity and risk-taking.
It was also a film school crash course and an era of free thinking
that today’s directors would be wise to learn from. For Boswer,
“these were the films that made me fall in love with movies.”
For LaGravenese, they’re part of his childhood memories. “My family
would get dressed up to go into the city and see Planet of
the Apes
… I remember standing with my dad, waiting to get
into The Godfather and Serpico. My high school is
in the background of The French Connection car chase.”

Now, two new documentaries—Bowser’s Easy Riders,
Raging Bulls
and Demme and LaGravenese’s A Decade Under
the Influence
—pay tribute to this explosion in American politics
and film.

As the centerpiece of the Trio channel’s “’70s Maverick
Filmmaking” month, Bowser’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is
a loose adaptation of Peter Biskind’s best-selling book of the
same name. A chronicle of the ’70s, Biskind’s book was despised
by Hollywood and loved by readers for its behind-the-scenes look
at this era of film, complete with all the scandals and rumors.

While the book’s legacy may have been helpful to
Bowser in getting the attention of potential investors, its infamy
proved a hindrance in enticing interviewees. “Last year at the
Berlin Film Festival I talked to Robert Altman, who had been in
my movie, Frank Capra’s American Dream,” recalls Bowser.
“I told him that I was doing a film on the ’60s and ’70s filmmakers
and that I would really like to interview him for it. ‘Oh yeah,
that would be great. I’m there,’ he told me. Then I said ‘Well,
I have to tell you, the film is called Easy Riders, Raging
Bulls
.’  I won’t tell you what he said! He was polite enough
to let me pitch… but he was not going there. Francis Coppola,
the same thing. William Friedkin said no. Spielberg and Lucas
wouldn’t even return the call.”

Though detaching the project from Biskind’s book
and its implications would have been one way to go, Bowser opted
instead to let his filmography precede him. “It’s always a double-edged
sword,” he says. “What worked for me was that the book was so
famous that it got me in doors and it made people willing to help
make the film. Had I just walked in and said ‘I want to make a
film about this period…’ I’m not Richard LaGravenese or Ted
Demme.  I don’t have that kind of clout or access.”

“It’s real hard to be free when
you’re bought and sold in the marketplace.”
—George Hanson (Jack Nicholson) in Easy Rider (1969).

Even hampered by the preconceived notions that the
project’s title invited, Bowser was able to assemble a group of
more than 40 subjects to appear before the camera—including directors
Arthur Penn and Paul Schrader and actors Dennis Hopper and Ellen
Burstyn. Like its literary predecessor, the film is packed with
information. “The book is so encyclopedic. When I went back and
I read it carefully to see if I could use it as a script, it’s so
dense. There are four stories on every page! Someone said to me
once, ‘It’s like driving around Paris and getting lost—you keep
running into the same landmarks, but you have no idea how you got
there.’ That was the experience of making the film.”

Like its namesake’s subtitle, “How the Sex, Drugs
and Rock ‘n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood,” the film is more
an exploration of the social scene rather than a hardcore moviemaking
chronicle. “One of the things I didn’t want to do was make a ‘making
of’ movie,” states Bowser. “Even though I touched lightly upon
the making of some of these films, there were so many ‘Making
of Jaws,’ ‘Making of M*A*S*H,’ ‘Making of The
Godfather
’ films. I knew wasn’t going to do that because there
was this great story of how it all happened, and that story involved
chaos.”

In aligning his film with the spirit of the book,
Bowser hoped his treatment of the subject would be different from
the approach Demme and LaGravenese were taking on A Decade
Under the Influence
, a project he learned about “not long
after we optioned the book. There was a little piece in Entertainment
Weekly
that said they were doing this film and that it was
going to be a ‘love letter to the ’70s.’ I can’t say that I was
pleased, but it tipped me to the way that they were going to approach
it… It didn’t sound like their project was going [to focus on]
the chaos.”

Perhaps as a nod to Biskind, Bowser’s film takes
a somewhat academic approach to the time, describing the various
financial, social, political and cultural contributors to the
New Hollywood movement, and tying it all together with news clips,
photos and narration by William H. Macy. Where the film particularly
succeeds is in the interviews with those moviemakers whose behind-the-scenes
positions afforded them a front row seat to the New Hollywood’s
antics. Though their names may not be as well known as Spielberg,
Lucas, Scorsese or Coppola, none of those moviemakers could have
achieved such success without the collaboration of cinematographers
Vilmos Zsigmond (The Deer Hunter) and Gordon Willis (The
Godfather
); editor Dede Allen (Bonnie & Clyde); writers
Carl Gottlieb (Jaws) and Joan Tewkesbury (Nashville) or
producers Jerome Hellman (Midnight Cowboy) and Albert S.
Ruddy (The Godfather).

Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde (1967), starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, is considered
to be the first “New Hollywood” film.

Hand any two—or three—directors the same camera and
central theme, and the stories they’ll tell are certain to be different.
While both films cover the same people and films—even using some
of the same clips—those similarities are about the only ones. As
a viewer, it doesn’t take long to catch onto the differences, as
each film starts out with a quote that is indicative of the film’s
temperament. For Bowser, that introduction serves to bring the New
Hollywood’s relevance to today’s film market: “As the new millennium
begins, the Hollywood movie has become, at $32 billion a year, America’s
most successful export to the world.” A Decade Under the Influence’s
approach is decidedly more existential, with a quote from François
Truffaut (a progenitor of the movement). “Cinematic success is not
necessarily the result of good brain work, but of a harmony of existing
elements in ourselves that we may not have even been conscious of—an
accidental coincidence of our own preoccupation at a certain moment
of life and of the public’s.”

For Demme and LaGravenese, A Decade Under the
Influence
began with two distinct emotions: excitement and
fear. Friends since 1994’s The Ref (which Demme directed and LaGravenese
wrote and produced), the two had spent many hours discussing “the
kind of movies we wanted to make and the kind of filmmakers we
wanted to be,” said LaGravenese.

“We’d even show each other clips… When we were
facing that writer’s strike that sent the business into a panic—rushing
movies into production or postponing them indefinitely—Teddy said
why not do this documentary. We thought it would be a blast, number
one. And at the same time it would be like going to film school
(which neither of us had done).” The strike never happened. But
by that point there was no stopping them: “Decade became something
we felt strongly about accomplishing—getting this collection of
artists on film.”

Based on Demme’s previous relationship with the
Independent Film Channel (he hosted Escape from Hollywood), they
took their idea to IFC’s Alison Bourke who, along with Caroline
Kaplan and Jonathan Sehring, served as executive producer. “Alison,
Caroline and Jonathan have been incredibly supportive,” states
LaGravenese. “IFC is great place to make movies.”

With a distributor in place, next came the research.
Unlike Easy Riders, there was no existing reference source
for Decade. “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.”

In addition to content, Demme and LaGravenese also
needed to make decisions about how they were going to shoot the
film, considering the need for two DPs (Clyde Smith in LA and
Anthony Janelli in NYC) and a limited budget. “Knowing that we
were going to eventually go to film, we decided to shoot in 24p
HD. We tested a series of different options, and Teddy really
loved the way the HD looked.”

The cast consists of more than two dozen interviewees,
including Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Julie Christie, Sidney
Lumet, Pam Grier, Robert Towne and Milos Forman. But equally impressive
is the assemblage of interviewers that Demme and LaGravenese put
together, including writer/directors Alexander Payne and Neil
LaBute. “People were excited about the idea of interviewing and
would come up with their five top preferences.”

Like the dialogue between LaGravenese and Demme
that sparked the idea for the film, the interviews that take place
in front of the camera on Decade are more like intimate conversations.
“Neither Teddy nor I had done this kind of thing before,” admits
LaGravenese. “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 the interviews.” It was
this same kind of personal moviemaking that marked the New Hollywood
movement itself.

The only X-rated film to win a Best Picture
Oscar, John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969),
starring Dustin Hoffman and John Voight, epitomized the radical
nature of the “New Hollywood” movement.

The interviewing process commenced in December of
2001. But an unexpected tragedy would change the course of the film
just one month later. “During the first week of December in 2001,
we had our first wave of interviews,” recalls LaGravenese. “I did
Robert Altman and Marshall Brickman in NYC; Teddy did William Friedkin,
Roger Corman and Bruce Dern in LA; and Scott Frank did Robert Towne
and Sydney Pollack in LA. A month later, Teddy passed away.” Though
an enormous loss, personally and professionally, abandoning the
project was never a consideration for LaGravenese. “For me, continuing
was never a question.

It was all about Teddy. Not just about doing it
for him, but about keeping him alive… at least for me. It still
feels like we’re partners and that we’ve worked all year together.”

After a year spent completing the interviews, for
LaGravenese, the road to completion would still be a long one. “The
pacing in the ’70s was very different. [Moviemakers] really took
their time to develop atmosphere and character. It was as if they
worked in longhand instead of sound bytes. When I got to the editing
phase, I wanted the documentary to take its time, as well.” More
than two years later—and after its Sundance premiere—it’s a process
that LaGravenese is just now completing. “Our editor, Meg Reticker,
started assembling in May, 2002 and we just locked last week.”

Originally conceived by Demme to be a 10-hour documentary
(“He was a man with big ideas”), the theatrical version of the film
will weigh in at just under two hours. Not making the final cut
are the many moviemaker tributes that Demme and LaGravenese planned
to include. “We wanted there to be a John Cazale tribute, an Ashby
tribute, a Pakula tribute and a veteran director tribute for films
like John Huston’s Fat City. We wanted to cover the foreign
films, which were amazing (Fassbinder, Wertmüller, Herzog). We also
wanted to cover Fosse, Peckinpah, The Taking of Pelham One, Two,
Three and the up-and-coming filmmakers (John Carpenter, Ridley Scott,
Jonathan Demme). But time and money wouldn’t allow it.”

When the film makes its small screen debut in August,
that version will hold some added features, including interviews
with Clint Eastwood, Monte Hellman and Sissy Spacek that didn’t
make it into the film—as well as the Ashby tribute.

While Bowser and LaGravenese see their films as
rather selfish pursuits—a chance to remind the world of this great
time in cinema history—what will inevitably emerge is a newfound
appreciation for the work of these ’70s movie mavericks.

“I screened an early cut of the film for a Columbia
film class and one student remarked, ‘I only know Nicholson old;
it’s great to see some of his earlier work.’ I realized how little
audiences today know about this period. For many of us, [the film]
will be a love letter to a period; an homage. For today’s audiences,
I wanted it to be a primer to get them interested in discovering
some of these films and filmmakers.”

Bowser’s pursuit is similar: “We screened the film
at NYU and the students loved it. The films that they didn’t know,
they wanted to know more about.” Bowser also hopes that remembering
the ’70s will help to establish the need for more originality
in today’s movie marketplace. “It’s an interesting time because,
once again, the most interesting films are coming out of Europe…
There’s something going on. I just hope that it’s 1958 in America
and we’re getting ready to break out.” MM

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