Elvis Mitchell currently serves as host of The Treatment for National Public Radio's flagship Los Angeles affiliate KCRW 89.9 FM, which has been broadcast nationally since 1996. He is also entertainment critic for NPR's Weekend Edition with Scott Simon, a position he has held since that show's debut in 1985, and hosts Independent Focus for the Independent Film Channel.
Mitchell was film critic for the New York Times for four years, beginning in January 2000, where he wrote numerous reviews and articles. Prior to that, he served as film critic for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram for two years, where he won the 1999 American Association of Sunday and Feature Editor's Excellence in Feature Writing Award for criticism. Other positions as film critic include the Detroit Free Press, LA Weekly and California magazine. He has also served as editor-at-large for Spin magazine and has written for Interview, Esquire and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. In 1993, he was nominated for a Writer's Guild of America Award for his contributions to The AFI Achievement Award Tribute to Sidney Poitier.
A graduate of Wayne State University with a degree in English literature, Mitchell is a visiting lecturer on African and African-American studies and visual and environmental studies at Harvard University. In October 2002, at the invitation of Dr. Henry Louis Gates, he gave Alain Leroy Locke lectures for the African-American studies department at Harvard University.
My thanks to Sarah Schmitz at TCM for inviting me to speak with Elvis Mitchell.
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Michael Guillén: Elvis, how fun to interview the Interview Meister!!
Elvis Mitchell: [Chuckles.]
Guillén: I'm hoping today to talk specifically, of course, about your upcoming TCM series Under the Influence; but, to also speak more generally about the art and technique of interviewing. I figure while I have your attention, I'll try to pick up a few tips?
Guillén: The upcoming series first. David Mills—when he interviewed you for Undercover Blackman [parts one and two]—made a point of stating that you have had "a lot of cool jobs." This gig with TCM is no less cool than any other. At a time when so many film reviewers are anxious about keeping their jobs, it's nice to know someone juggles opportunities with maverick flair, creating sustained employment in film commentary. Can you talk about how this TCM series came into being? Did you pitch the idea at TCM or did the indefatigable Charlie Tabesh approach you?
Mitchell: Exactly, it was pitched to me. I had met the TCM folk at Telluride a couple of years ago. They had been fans of my public radio show The Treatment and said that they wanted to try to find a place for me at TCM. It ended up working out.
Guillén: Excellent. The TCM series Under the Influence launches on Monday, July 7, with your interview with Sidney Pollack, which bears the sad distinction of being—if I understand correctly—the last interview he granted before his recent death? Was this your first time to interview Sidney? I couldn't find any record of your having talked to him before.
Mitchell: No, I had not interviewed him before so it was my first time. One of the reasons I wanted him for this show was because of his great connection to TCM. He had been the original host of The Essentials. I liked his compact, passionate film history from a man who made movies. He didn't give esoteric recommendations on what a movie was, what it should be or what it should do. He was just a man who made movies and was excited by the idea of movies and I thought he would be a great interview subject for this series.
Guillén: Do you have any feelings now that the interview's been done and Sidney has passed?
Mitchell: It's just heartbreaking. He was so full of energy and charisma. When you watch him, you think, "Wow. Why wasn't this guy a movie star?" I think part of that was because he came to understand himself by making movies. He developed a confidence as a person that he might not have had as a young amateur. That's why he became such a success later in his life because he's just brimming with enthusiasm and affection for the work, and for actors. That's what made him such a great actor too, was his love of actors.
Guillén: Clearly most people recognize him as a director, but I really loved Sidney Pollack as an actor. That's where he first impressed upon my consciousness, even before I learned about what he had done as a director.
Mitchell: What did you see him in that really impressed you?
Guillén: I first really noticed him in Tootsie (1982). He was outstanding in Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives (1992) and, recently, I really appreciated his work in Michael Clayton (2007). He always struck me as so natural as an actor. His directing seemed almost incidental.
Mitchell: I'm not sure many people would agree with you on that.
Guillén: I'm being flip. His directing was unquestionably masterful. The series then continues in July with conversations with Bill Murray (July 14); Laurence Fishburne (July 21); and Quentin Tarantino (July 28) and returns in November with Joan Allen, Edward Norton, John Leguizamo and Richard Gere as your scheduled guests. I know you've talked to Tarantino before on your KCRW program The Treatment; but, have you spoken with any of these other guests? What interested you to invite them?
Mitchell: I interviewed Fishburne on my radio show before too. And I interviewed Bill Murray for a show I did that ran on IFC a few years ago. For me the key to the show having any success would be to get people who knew and loved movies and could talk about them in an informed way. So many people can only offer a bland enthusiasm about film; but, I wanted to get people who had a point of view about movies as history and cultural influences upon them as performers. These are all people who seem more than capable with doing that.
Guillén: I'm looking forward to hearing what they have to say. Having interviewed Laurence Fishburne previously, as you said, as well as Bill Murray, and Quentin Tarantino—and being that I am someone who has only been interviewing folks for a few years and am only now starting to cycle back towards follow-up interviews—can you speak to the value of the follow-up interview?
Mitchell: Well, when an interview goes really well, you can feel there's so much stuff you wanted to talk about that you weren't able to get to. It's always a matter of schedules too. As we [were scheduling our guests], the writers' strike was going on. We had to get people's schedules to coordinate while we were filming the shows. But when an interview goes really well, you find you want a chance to encounter that person again and continue that conversation. I was happy for the opportunity to do this on camera with Tarantino, with Fishburne, and with Bill Murray again.
Guillén: Speaking of on camera, in terms of interview technique, how does conversing in front of the camera differ from doing a spot on the radio or writing a piece for a newspaper or magazine? Does your approach to the individuals differ in any substantial way?
Mitchell: You have to shave and comb your hair, that's a big part of being in front of the camera. Or—in my case—not comb your hair, as the case may be. [Laughs.] For me, it's still the same thing. I want these "interviews" to feel as much like conversations as possible. I want them to feel informal. That's really what these are all about. I want to do what Dick Cavett used to do where—after a while—everybody's guard was dropped and people weren't just paying attention to what they were saying, but they were listening to the question. You've done enough of these to know that at a certain point you're going to get canned responses. You want to try to get past that. One of the luxuries I have with people I've talked with before—like Murray, Fishburne or Tarantino—is that we're already in relationship and don't have to break the ice. We're at a comfort level that helps us get into things. These are people who come to play, they're conversationalists, and they're fascinating to listen to. They're the kind of people who—in an ideal world—you want to see being interviewed on television and we're lucky. I think, too, that people do love TCM and it may surprise people what a fan and aficionado of movies Bill Murray is.
Guillén: I absolutely agree about TCM; it's a spectacular forum for film. I like how you describe your time with your guests as "conversations" rather than "interviews"; that's how I think of them lately myself. At what point does interviewing others become—not what you do—but who you are?
Mitchell: How do you mean?
Guillén: You've qualified in the press notes that you're wanting to talk to people when they're not promoting a film. You've sidestepped the commerce of the press junket and the demands of publicity to focus instead on in-depth topics of your own choosing. I never had any true intention to write about film or to interview film personalities; but, it just became my life. It just became who I am. I wake up in the morning and I think, "Who do I want to talk to today?" Was there a time for you in your own experience where talking to people about film became not so much a job but more just something you enjoyed experiencing?
Mitchell: I've looked at my entire career as being things I've enjoyed doing that I've been fortunate enough to make a living at, y'know? We both probably recognize that—in the world at large—what a rarity it is to get to do something you want to do and love to do for a living. I think of myself as being extremely fortunate to have that.
Guillén: Your career is an inspirational model for others! It's been filled with opportunity and rich changes. I admire your life very much.
Mitchell: Thank you.
Guillén: The thematic thrust of the series—if I'm understanding it right—is that you want to explore the influence classic movies have had on film personalities. The term "under the influence" is quintessentially Dionysian to me; it implies a certain intoxication, if not a downright substance abuse problem. [Mitchell laughs.] Can you speak to the value of movies as intoxicants and stimulants? What precisely is addictive about movies?
Mitchell: There's definitely a chemical reaction. Your body chemistry changes when you're in a dark room and lights are flickering around you. It's like we're hypnotized, if we're lucky. Sometimes we're compulsive enough that we don't want to get out of the way to go get popcorn or change the station or anything like that. That's definitely a part of what the title "under the influence" tacitly acknowledges. Part of that influence makes these subjects want to go out and maybe offer a similar influence to others. They want to go and invoke that in their own careers, extend that history, extend that world and offer it up to other people too. They want to seek that out and see if there's a way to make it a part of their own pursuits and then offer it up to others. It's that thing that Pauline Kael says in the introduction to her book When The Lights Go Down: there's no moment more exciting than when we were all sitting in the theater and it goes dark and our expectations are raised, our hopes are raised.
Guillén: I like how you're stressing this organic continuum of cinema, that films are not separate and distinct units in and of themselves; they're building blocks that further the medium. It's like the onion architecture of the Maya, where you find a pyramid inside of a pyramid inside of a pyramid. Your approach to movies has that intertextual style of placing movies within movies within movies.
Mitchell: You have to. People don't watch movies in a vacuum. Most people don't watch one kind of movie. They're all related in that continuum that you mention. People also watch movies with other people. Basically, they go to theaters with audiences to talk about those movies afterwards with other people in the audience and that all leads to this big conversation. Maybe we've gotten away from that a little bit? One of the things that TCM does is it incites that conversation and there's no better place for a show like this, as far as I'm concerned, than TCM.
Guillén: Another riff on that term "under the influence" is to visualize standing beneath the stars and—as in astrological parlance—having the stars influence our lives. Specifically, in this case, the radiance of movie stars. Dr. John Beebe has stated that the reason we call them "stars" is because they exert a certain radiance. Do you have any thoughts on the nature of that radiance? What makes up a star? Why we should be interested in how they learned to shine?
Mitchell: These stars don't come out of a vacuum either. All these actors and directors, they all have grown out of what they've seen that did something to them, that touched them in some way, that provoked them in some way. Maybe those movies they saw were catalysts that made them what they are? Undoubtedly that's a big part of it. To me, that's what these people are all about: how they were impacted by the films they saw. How they wanted to emulate those or how those films inspired us to see other films by the same director, or made us seek out actors and their work. That's part of the great thing of the conversation. Sidney Pollack was the epitome of that person. He viewed each experience he had with actors and movie stars as something he could learn from. He even made a joke about it. I know intellectuals don't think much of this; but, Pollack knew that thing you're talking about. He could take something from each experience with movie stars and go off and make other movies with that. Their radiance was something he carried along with him.
Guillén: Their radiance becomes a shared radiance that the audience wants?
Mitchell: Completely, yeah! We all want to bathe in that light, don't we?
Guillén: I do!! [Laughter.] Anyways, I'm intrigued by your comment that the series is offering a different perspective on actors and filmmakers when they're not promoting a new film. It makes me consider the timing of interviews. When is the right time to talk to someone? Do you factor that in when you're selecting your interviewees?
Mitchell: First of all, we're lucky to get the people we have! It's also a matter of the time they have to offer too. But the people who have worked at it, who have achieved some success at it, who have created a body of work, there is no wrong time to talk to them. The great thing about having all these interview subjects come on at a time where they're not trying to sell something is that it relieves a lot of tension. The questions you don't have to ask. The questions they don't have to answer. You wonder if they bite their lower lip or chew the inside of their mouth going over for the 9,000th time what the movie is about. Because they don't have to cover that, I think you create a tablet for real relaxation.
Guillén: I agree. That's precisely why I've stopped accepting press junket interviews. I don't like the tone of the conversations. I'm soliciting interviews through indirect channels.
Mitchell: It's got to be more satisfying for you, isn't it?
Guillén: Oh, yes. I'm enjoying it much more. Speaking of influences: you're tracing influences in the people you're talking to; but, can you speak to the influence Pauline Kael had on your becoming a film critic?
Mitchell: I grew up reading her stuff. I was lucky enough to meet her when I was in college. She was a great person to have as a friend. There was a motto that she lived by: If you don't want to know what I think, don't ask me. She could be merciless. I remember in college I sent her something to read and called her up to see what she thought about it. As she was going into the second hour of what was wrong with it, I was thinking, "I'm paying money for this conversation?"
She had what we've been talking about: that fervor, that passion about your work, about doing something you love. That was something she wanted to share with people, which is—again—a big part of this show: I want these subjects to come on and talk about what tuned them to this in the first place and then to get that out so that people have an understanding of it. That's what I got from Pauline. You owe it to yourself to be as honest as you can in terms of the feeling about your work and, hopefully, that's just a starting point. That's the unfortunate thing now about the way we do film criticism; it's looked upon as being a consumer function. Should you go see a movie or not? As expensive as movies are nowadays, maybe that's appropriate? But the best criticism works as something that you use after you've seen a movie. It doesn't tell you what to think. It should help you understand what the movie is trying to do and maybe give you some insight into the critic as well, with any luck. That's what I took away from her.
Guillén: What a great influence! Naturally, that's something I chafe against: this definition of the film writer as a consumer advocate.
Mitchell: It's tough, isn't it? It means that people don't understand what you're doing. I don't think it's my job to tell someone what he or she should see or not see. I mean, it's really not. I understand that it's become a big deal for people to go to the movies now, especially in this economy, but criticism as consumer advocacy is just not right. With access to movies being democratized by DVD and Video On Demand, you can get recommendations from other people at the video store or from your Netflix queue. That's one of the things that's great about all this. The unfortunate thing is that people can't see these little odd movies in theaters with other people anymore; but, even at a place like Netflix there's still this ongoing conversation we've been talking about.
Guillén: Exactly. I've actually been saying to people lately that one of my favorite thing about the online discourse on cinema is that it harkens back to the old-fashioned word-of-mouth model that built up interest in movies.
Mitchell: Absolutely. Yes, right.
Guillén: I know you've been watching films for a long time.
Mitchell: Oh yeah….
Guillén: Is there any recent film you feel has influenced you? Having seen so many movies, does it get harder for films to influence you?
Mitchell: Gee, one of the things I love about my life is that I get to go to film festivals. The thing about going to film festivals is that I get to see a film I know nothing about. One of the great things about online conversation is—you're right—it has made itself one big national audience; but, the other unfortunate thing it's done is that now there's too much information about anything now. You think back, when you look at Sidney Pollack, you remember how surprised you were with Tootsie because you didn't know what he looked like when you went into the movie. It's hard to imagine an environment where that kind of thing can happen anymore. I'm excited every time I go to a film festival because someone might mention a movie to me or you might overhear about a movie on the shuttles at festivals, what people are excited about, and you think, "Oh, I might want to go see this." That's one of the great things about a film festival and the really fun ones create real fervor for films in those communities. Like, I was at the AFI Film Festival in Dallas. It's a movie-hungry town and it's great to see that. I worked in the Dallas-Fort Worth area for two years and people tend to look down on it. Where I grew up in Detroit, it was a movie lovers city. It's great to go to a film festival in cities such as Dallas or Austin, I was in Toronto a few weeks ago, and to see the pleasure that local people take in going to see the movies in a room full of other people still exists. I'm definitely surprised by that.
Guillén: Film festival culture is precisely what got me back into movies after I'd given up on the megaplexes. The audiences, seeing movies you know nothing about, and the chance of interacting with attending talent is all wonderful. Can you remember your first interview?
Mitchell: Sure I can remember. I was writing for a paper in suburban Detroit, Pontiac, and I interviewed Chuck Norris. He couldn't have been more polite. It was a great conversation and I shocked him. At that point he was being compared to Fred Astaire, but I compared him to Gene Kelly. He said, "Really?! Gene Kelly?" I couldn't believe I got an interview with Chuck Norris; I believe the movie was Silent Rage. After the interview, I actually got a note from him, he wrote me a letter! I thought all my interviews were going to be like that.
Guillén: That's a sweet story. As someone who has interviewed nearly everybody, is there anybody you would like to interview?
Mitchell: Oh, I haven't interviewed almost everybody; but, thank you. There are lots of people I would love to interview. I'd love to get Sidney Poitier at some point. Talk about a big influence from the '60s. You always hear about Brando or Paul Newman or Cary Grant or Sean Connery, but I think Sidney Poitier was an elegant, charismatic and talented figure who doesn't get nearly the kind of cultural recognition he should. There was a book just recently that spotlighted that called Pictures Of A Revolution, which was a look at 1967. Of the five Oscar nominations, two of them starred Sidney Poitier who was at that point the biggest box office star in the world. How lovely it would be to have the chance to talk with him. I'd love to talk to Harry Belafonte. I'd love to sit down and talk with Meryl Streep. I'd love to talk to Shirley McClaine who's been through more incarnations than anyone could ever imagine. There's lots of people I'd like to talk to.
Guillén: It's interesting you single out Sidney Poitier because he is one of my favorite actors and definitely when I was a young kid, just becoming a young man, his performances affected my sensibility so much. The other night when TCM had their tribute to Sidney Pollack, I didn't realize that Pollack had directed Poitier in The Slender Thread, which is a favorite film of mine that struck me as very mature and realistic when I was younger.
Mitchell: Sidney hated that movie. You could tell he had just gone from doing TV to doing film. He's crazy with the camera. It's flying all over the place.
Guillén: Clearly, the value of an interview with Elvis Mitchell is Elvis Mitchell. Thus, I'm intrigued that in your recent piece The Black List (which, admittedly, I've not yet seen; but, which I've read a lot about), you elected to be something of a non-presence, to be structurally absent; a style Richard Schickel told me he prefers as well. What motivated that shift?
Mitchell: I felt these weren't my stories. I felt these subjects should become their own source without cutting to an interviewer and a nodding face of approval. That's something that happens a lot in documentary films and I felt it was more important that each of these people were so incredibly eloquent with potent camera presences looking directly into the camera. There's nothing better than that. We often hear the term "talking heads" derided; but, here, they were shot so beautifully by the director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders that it was nearly portraiture and there was no need for me to be in the way.
Guillén: Well, Elvis, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. I'm really looking forward to the TCM series Under the Influence.
Mitchell: Thank you for your time!
Cross-published on Twitch.