"If I think about the future of cinema as art, I shiver" (Y. Ozu, 1959)

FUTURE OF CINEMA IF YOU WANT TO KNOW - Interview with Amir Naderi

Sunday, 22 March 2015 17:00

Lorenzo Esposito

Conversation on a Conversation (by Amir Naderi’s with Arthur Penn)

 Perhaps the only capable of rendering the anger and elegance of a filmmaker too soon forgotten like Arthur Penn is Iranian-born director Amir Naderi. Throughout his career Penn was able, at the same time, to preserve the lesson of the classics and to make a decisive break in Hollywood’s working system. This resonates with Naderi’s belief that images continuously change in something else, sometimes becoming their opposite.

Mise en scène with Arthur Penn (a Conversation) is a conversation of almost four hours (the rough footage consists of six hours, though) whose structure opposes the traditional idea of an “interview”. We find ourselves in Penn’s place inside a room where two filmmakers are talking about life and cinema. Apparently there is just a subject (Arthur Penn, of course); not a script. Actually, one of the two (Amir Naderi, of course) carries a camera, and has got a subject, or maybe different subjects at the same time, i.e. talking about Arthur Penn's private life; talking about the history of American cinema; talking about his own cinema; and, finally, talking about his own private life. So he puts the camera on, finds the right focus, fixes the zoom lens, gives a try with the close up, and finally frames the frame: five or maybe more minutes of silence, where we can only hear the sound of the camera and see Mr Penn staring at Naderi, surprised and probably amused, too. Then Naderi begins literally a “siege” which lasts two hundred and ten minutes. They talk and talk. Sometimes the frame becomes empty, as Mr. Penn has to answer the phone or to go to the toilet; sometimes Naderi jumps in the middle of the sequence trying to destroy the set (and here Mr. Penn is definitely amazed).

As usual, Naderi tries to go as fast as his ideas do; as usual, Penn is a quiet man as only Sean Thornton/John Wayne could be. Everything is on fire in this sequence: voices, thoughts, memories. They talk about movies and filmmakers, yet this is not only a journey throughout the history of American cinema (Hawks, Sidney, Ford, Welles, Mankiewicz, Donen, Minnelli, Fuller…). The two men seem to consider the possibility that these “ghosts” ' lives can correspond to their own lives. 

PennMaybe this is why Mr. Penn, consciously caught in the spider’s web, decides to go deeper and deeper into his first love, his memories about war, the rivalry with his brother, his loneliness. That’s probably why Naderi is so much in love with Arthur Penn; as he was the only one who captured the image so that the image itself – the way it is thought and made possible– has always ended up being the real character of his stories...


Why Arthur Penn?

Arthur Penn for me is one of the most influencial filmmaker in America. He comes from a generation of filmmakers with whom I grew up, and his films were always in my mind. I was not able to talk with him because he was a very shy and quiet man, but one day I got friend with Jonathan Demme and I asked him to introduce me, and then we got close and became friends and we started talking a lot about life and cinema… One day I told him that so far I made interviews with other directors like Dennis Hopper, Nick Castle, Otto Preminger, Samuel Fuller, Ivan Passer… You know, my obsession is to talk very privately with other filmmakers and learn from them… Actually not only learn from them, but at least ask them how did you do this, how did you do that… It’s not like a traditional interview, it’s just curiosity. Today people seem eager to know and I immediately understood that with Mr. Penn I would have to behave differently. He slowly trusted me, I demanded him a lot of time for this conversation and finally he told me ok, but we should be just the two of us. I said yes, sure. So we started between the end of 2004 and the beginning of 2005;  in five months I had six hours recorded. At the beginning I told myself, I don’t want anyone to see this. Ever. I gave all the material to one of my closest friend asking her to please keep it. You know, I always travel around, different countries and different situations, I don’t want to loose it. After five years she called me and told me, Amir I’m gonna get married, what  am I supposed to do with this stuff, and I begged her again, please keep it for me. Well, after three years more she called me again… So I gave the conversation to Enrico Ghezzi, who is a great fan of Arthur Penn, he wrote about him, he did an interview too… After watching it, he insisted that I should  make a film out of it. Finally, I edited the three hours and half version that you have watched here in Venice.


Tell me something more about that kind of inspiration you've got from other directors.


My education is very wild. I always get obsessed by someone or something. In different periods I've become obsessed by a filmmaker and wanted to understand how he or she did or catch something… But some of them have stayed with me throughout my life, like Arthur Penn.


Well, let’s talk about the inspiration coming from Penn. Actually there’s something in his cinema – something in his anger, something in his way of editing…


Something in his mise en scéne…


…that seems to have a strong connection with yours, you've got it.


I don’t know how you got it, but you’re right. First thing in Penn’s films is: you cannot see the camera at all. He’s very sensitive with the story and the mise en scéne, but he never gets sentimental, on the contrary he’s very funny and at the same time he always knows how to come back to the drama. Take The Miracle Worker, or Michey One, or even The Chase: he’s so good in mixing over and over again comedy with drama, comedy with drama, comedy with drama, and he makes it in a very modern way. Also he’s pretty unique when he directs women… I knew that he came from theatre, but I told him, Arthur I would have loved to see more films of yours, films stay… You can’t imagine, I told him how much his cinema had inspired me! I mean, look at his first three films until The Runner, I was a very angry person, looking for the wavelength, my mise en scéne was very harsh, black and white, handhold camera movements, violence… I learnt everything from him… For example, violence: maybe with violence he wanted to define and, at the same time, to loose himself, but his way to show it is so original in the context of American cinema. Never show the violence, and if you need to show it do it in a very poetic way, like in the end of Bonnie and Clyde, most of his violent scenes happen in the silence… I don’t know if I bring in my cinema what I learnt from him but in his films I 've found out what filmmaking is, and how to discover myself and put my personality in my films.


When you started the conversation with Penn were you already filming Sound Barrier?


Yes. I showed him some sequences, we had lots of discussions. He was very impressed by the video and sound editing, and I don’t remember exactly why but we began to talk about Kurosawa, George Stevens… Actually I've always thought of him, even when filming Marathon, or ABC Manhattan, or Manhattan by Numbers… Especially during the shooting of ABC Manhattan, because I was trying to work with three women. I remember at that time I watched Four Friends again, there is one of the most original female characters ever in that movie…


I agree! I’m still in love with her, Jodi Thelen…


Of course!


She disappeared.


Yes, another girl who was in The Missouri Breaks disappeared too, and also the little girl of The Miracle Worker


Maybe he destroyed his actresses…


I don’t know, women loved him.


He was so gentle but at the same time so tough.


He pretended to be tough, as he tells in the conversation, but women really loved him, I've talked to Faye Dunaway, to Melanie Griffith who made her debut in Night Moves, I've also talked to Anne Bancroft and she loved him, too! People loved him. They've got experience, values, honour from him. He was also a very handsome man, I talked to Warren Beatty and he told me, I loved women but women loved Arthur.


You discussed a lot with him about something very important in filmaking and, in general,  for both of you: to be in control.


Yeah. Actually I never know how to keep control, I’m very fickle, but I’ve never known that this man was like that, too. He really knew how to be in control. Let me tell you something: it is not easy to work with Marlon Brando, or Jack Nicholson, or Warren Beatty!


Do you think he gained control during the actual filming or during the editing process?


During the editing, definitely. But during the filming he would… Look, I come from a different country, a different culture, and I know people don’t believe me, come on, they don’t trust a foreigner! But if you have experience, if you know how to get things… I know one thing about actors and crews: if they know what you are doing, if they know that you want to take them to another level, to show them another side of the work they do, then they want it, they will wait for it! Arthur Penn was great about that, he slowly showed people what he was doing and what he wanted to do, so people would trust him. He was very much in control, he talked a lot with the actors, but not like a father with his son, he gave them something from inside his heart, he knew that when you talk to actors there’s a way to do that, a way to speak, a way to breathe, and that is what actors need to know, that is what they look for. He knew exactly how to get something real out of them.


Maybe I’m wrong but I feel that your process is a little bit different, sometimes I feel that you gain control when you loose control.


Maybe at the beginning of my career. Now is different, now I have experience. Let me tell you something, in my filmmaking experience I have nothing except that when I work with people, people trust me. Exactly the way I worked with Arthur Penn. At first he was a little bit suspicious, it took time to make his heart open to me, at some point he believed me and finally he laughed, cried, and danced. You know, Arthur Penn did it for me! And he told me, I never knew I could do things like that! Everything comes from trust. I’m very much in control of that.


Yet sometimes you seem to fight against being control, for example during the conversation you choose the frame, find the focus and that’s it, no more camera movements, the act of talking becomes the movement itself. Then you suddenly jump in the middle of the frame, you go back to him and you begin to remove the picture that is hanging on the wall, and then you remove the lamp on his right side, and Penn’s face is priceless, he’s totally amazed, because it seems you’re building and destroying the set (I mean, his house!) at the same time…


(laughing) In this case it was not planned, we were in a private room, you know, he trusted me, I trusted him, we were eating and talking and drinking, and suddenly I felt I had to change something. During the shooting of a film everything is different. Because of the recording of the sound, I needed this to be very precise, and if I want something different I stop the filming and I show the actors exactly what I’m looking for, I write it for them. Some directors do what they need in a very quiet way, I can’t. In the first two weeks of the filming everybody loves me, definitely; the third week they start to talk about me, a little bit of gossip; after one month people become my enemy, nobody talk to me because I push everybody beyond their limits; when we finish and the film is coming out they get best friends in my life, they want to work with me again, and that happens always because I push not only the limits of the crew and actors but also my own limits, I fight against myself, against the subject, against the situation, I fight against everything. Even with Arthur Penn I did it! I talked to him, he gave me an answer... I go this way, then suddenly I take another way, and then another, and another, and I push, and push, then I come back, I turn around and finally we do it!


A chase.


Yes! Normally nobody does this. Just imagine: ok Mr. Penn what about theatre, what about cinema… I can’t do like this! I don’t try to make people crazy about me, I try to  have them  experience something, a journey. That’s also why I try to get not so close to the people, so they can see me only on location, only while filming, nobody can see me sleeping or even when arriving to the location, everything is there already. It is not easy to live with a crew for two or three months, you know, a lot of pressure… Arthur Penn… Look, I talk with Dustin Hoffman about Little Big Man. It was not an easy film, so many characters, so many stories, just Arthur Penn could make this, and the editing, the sound… my god, he’s a master, you can’t imagine how many people have learnt something from that film! His framing is also so good, he never uses the close up, he puts the close up exactly in the right moment when he really needs it. We talked about that in the conversation, he learnt this from Howard Hawks, from Billy Wilder…


By the way, there’s a second generation of American filmmakers who started their career in television: Arthur Penn indeed, but also Frankenheimer, Lumet, Pakula, Altman, Mulligan… Of course, since they were obliged to create everything from zero in TV making, then when they went to Hollywood they have created a modern style. But I think that the most interesting thing is that they have never forgotten the lesson from the classics. Especially Penn, and sometimes Altman, their so called modern way of filming is actually a great mix between classic cinema and something completely new as television was…


Penn for example got inspiration not only from very well known masters, but also from filmmakers like Joseph H. Lewis, Bonnie and Clyde comes from that tradition… But let me tell you something, the ‘stage’ where Penn had learnt more than ever in his life was the famous debate Nixon vs. Kennedy which he had directed for television! We talked a lot about this. There he had several cameras and he had to decide how many close-ups to do, he had to get that Nixon close-ups were a little bit different from Kennedys’, Nixon was so uncomfortable and Kennedy so handsome… Penn understood how much a close-up can be dangerous, when you use it too many times you lose the sensibility. In my opinion in the American cinema the master of close-ups is Samuel Fuller, you can learn everything from Shock Corridor; then of course you have the other master of close-ups, Ingmar Bergman… Penn told me that in Bonnie and Clyde the bullet close-up after the bank robbery, with the policeman killed by Clyde, that close-up was inspired by Ejzenštein. Anyway, actually the amazing thing of Bonnie and Clyde is that Penn combines his experience in acting coming from theatre with the wildness he experienced in television.


Did you ever watch some of his pièces?


Many times. I remember Fox with George C. Scott… I also saw how he worked in the rehearsals, which is great. And he knew the difference between theatre and cinema… Mickey One was supposed to be played, but it's is only cinema! Unbelievable. Also he was an amazing writer for cinema, so modern…


Let’s talk a bit more about that kind of modernity. Do you think that it came from television?


 Well, let’s say that in the middle of the ‘60s things change, we are after the American dream, in New York you have pop art, a new generation of writers is coming out, also in San Francisco, and they bring to life not only new stories but new subjects, and things get changed and changed, Jack Kerouac, Duke Ellington, John Cage, and of course television, and popular music. People begin to build their own political vision of the world, I’m sure Arthur Penn too, he was one of them, as he told in the conversation he studied in a private school with amazing people, Cage was there with him. So, what happens is that people in the middle get lost, even Hawks gets lost, even Ford, just Hitchcock keeps going, it’s like they loose perspective, the new generation is in the streets and fighting. Take a great film like Red Line 7000 by Hawks, characters are young people but young people from the 50s! On the contrary, people like Penn, Cassavetes, Mulligan, Polanski, they naturally go to the streets, it comes from their curiosity and from a different way to learn about things.


Was there also something new coming from the medium itself? For example Penn tells you that he got the idea of using different cameras from television.


Of course, but it’s not enough if you don’t study and if you don’t feel that something is changing in writing, in filming. Penn studied a lot, and also he was lucky to work with some of the best young writers of that time, people like Leslie Stevens, David Newman, Robert Benton… But it’s still not enough, he fought during his entire life to be what he was, he came from a very poor family, he went to Europe with the army and of course the war changed him, he had this hard relationship with his brother Irving, the successful photographer…


It’s unbelievable how you manage, during the conversation, to go deeper and deeper into his life and intimacy.


That’s the reason why I tried to never publish this, it’s very private. He knew what we were doing… Now after ten years he’s gone and I thought the new generation should know about him, you can learn everything here, he was amazing with the whole filming process… Look for example what he did with characters, I mean not only with the main characters, but the second, third, fourth character are perfect and very detailed, look at the sisters in Little Big Man, great, great…


Did he ask you something about yourself?


Yes, and he found a lot of similarities in our childhood and in our way to become obsessed by cinema, he was surprised that different people from different generations could have the same experience.


Actually there are strong analogies in your lives, for example both of you left the family…


The connection is that we lost and we saw so many things at the beginning of our lives. When this happens the rest of your life is a journey to catch something different, because we learnt very early how to loose and how to gain, how to loose and how to gain, and never give up. This became my theme, every film I do is about that, all my characters loose something to gain something, or try to get it, and they do, actually.


Has cinema saved you both? And after three, four, five films, what did filmmaking  become for you?


Let me put it in this way. Mr. Penn discovered cinema very late (like Antonioni for example). He directed his first film  when he was thirty-six… Before giving you an answer, I will tell you something. I remember now a book on Arthur Penn written by the english critic Robin Wood. In this book he tells that people like Bergman, Antonioni, or Orson Welles loved Penn’s cinema, and that they considered him the best American women's director and one of the best metteur en scene, but he went to the theatre… If you come from the streets like me you go to the cinema, I went to the cinema everyday and every night, I grew up in movie theatres, everyday of my life I wanted to be a filmmaker, I was interested in everything, I worked for a long time with editors, I covered all different sides of filmmaking… At that time all my mind, my body, my heart, my feeling, my breath were open to any experience and influence, I was young you know, but one person came always to my mind: Artur Penn. He catched me. I definitely loved Godard, I loved Marcel Carné, Cassavetes definitely, Altman, which is great, Alan J. Pakula, one or two films by Bob Mulligan, not really Frankenheimer, too involved in political stuff for me…  The most political film of the sixties I like was only The Chase by Arthur Penn, not more than that… As you know I’m also a photographer and my hero was Henri Cartier-Bresson… And japanese cinema, japanese cinema brought me like ok now I know what I wanna do, Mizoguchi, Ozu…


Do you get inspiration from contemporary American or Japanese cinema?


Look, I learnt editing from Kurosawa, camera, sound and silence from Ozu, modernity from Antonioni and French filmmakers, everything from Welles, I’m still so obsessed by Orson Welles. If you watch Sound Barrier everything, the camera movement, the editing, everything is  related to The Trial... Penn stays with me, Ford stays with me, Fritz Lang stays with me to build the structure… Contemporary cinema… Well, I’m barely surprised from something, I saw too much in my life, too many films.


Do you think that cinema is still alive?


Yes, even in Cut I talk about that. I can tell you what I look for, I look for originality now. Even if 5% of a film is wrong, I’m out very fast. I saw last Inarritu, Birdman: I could recognize everything, every scene, every idea comes from other films and other filmmakers, no originality at all! You know what, sometimes Paul Thomas Anderson surprises me, I don’t understand why after one hour he always gets lost, but still he’s one of the few who have surprised me. Anyway, in the past ten years I tried to get something from inside of me, because I know too well the technique, where to put the camera, what to do with actors, with sound, with editing, I looked for originality in myself. Originality is everything, the rest is bullshit today. Everyone can be good today, everyone has access to images, they’re smart, too smart. For example Quentin Tarantino, I remember when I saw Pulp Fiction, there’s this long long dialogue, I don’t remember the actors, they talk and talk and talk, and suddenly I got something, my god I said, this is His Girl Friday! This is Ben Hecht! Ok, he knows very well the classics, but he did it in his own way, that is the only important thing, the rest is a copy, or a collage at the least.


What’s your favourite Arthur Penn?


Definitely Night Moves. The structure ia amazing, he’s able to tell a story, leave this story for another one and then  come back without loosing anything, it's just perfect.  I also like a lot The Missouri Breaks, so modern, and of course Bonnie and Clyde and The Miracle Worker. Penn brings a new idea of editing and sound in cinema, no doubt. So many people tell a story with dialogues, so many people use old structures, but people like Penn, or Fuller, the early Aldrich, they bring the making of cinema inside the story, this is new, they tell a story and at the same time they tell the history of cinema, how to write a dialogue, how to edit two scenes... Another one like them is Nick Ray, he really brings something new in cinema making which is to force actors and images to go higher, to find a different level of their energy. Look at Bogart in A Lonely Place or Bob Ryan in On Dangerous Ground, oh my god! And look at Arthur Penn! So nice and gentle and suddenly he can shoot you!


La conversazione si è tenuta in inglese nel settembre 2014 durante la Mostra del Cinema di Venezia.


Una versione tradotta in italiano è stata pubblicata su Filmcritica 649, novembre 2014.



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