Tuesday, June 26, 2007

TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES: SPIELBERG ON SPIELBERGThe Evening Class Interview With Richard Schickel

It has become a common practice among movie directors today to provide audio commentary for DVD releases of their films. One notable exception, however, is Steven Spielberg, who has never created such a commentary and according to reports has no plans to do so in the future. Thus, Richard Schickel's documentary Spielberg on Spielberg, scheduled to be broadcast on Turner Classic Movies ("TCM") Monday, July 9, 2007 at 8:00PM ET / 5:00PM PT with an encore at Midnight ET / 9:00PM PT provides an opportunity to hear Spielberg speak candidly about his films. "Some stories," as TCM publicizes, "need to be told in the first person. His movies speak for themselves. Now he speaks for himself."

My interest was in having producer / writer/ director Richard Schickel speak for himself. Schickel is a documentary filmmaker, movie historian and film critic who has published more than 30 books and produced, written and directed more than 30 films for television. Among the most recent are Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin, Woody Allen: A Life in Film, Scorsese on Scorsese and Watch the Skies!, a history of 1950s science fiction. Earlier this year TCM broadcast Bienvenue á Cannes, Schickel's portrait of the film festival. Spielberg on Spielberg marks the 19th in a series of portraits of American film directors he has made over the course of his television career.

Among his other television titles are Eastwood on Eastwood, The Harryhausen Chronicles and the legendary PBS series The Men Who Made the Movies, which represented the first-ever TV portraits of movie directors, including such seminal figures as Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Frank Capra. A second such series The Moviemakers, profiled Elia Kazan, Stanley Donan and Arthur Penn, among others. He is currently working on a five-hour history of Warner Bros., which will premiere in 2008. His reconstruction of Sam Fuller's classic war film The Big Red One, restoring more than 45 minutes cut from the original release print, has been an international success, listed as one of the year's 10 best movies by The New York Times and winning awards from The National Society of Film Critics, the Los Angeles and Seattle Film Critics Associations and Anthology Film Archives.

The latest among Schickel's many books are Elia Kazan: A Biography, which was named a New York Times notable book, and The Essential Chaplin, an anthology of critical writings about the great comedian. Among his other titles are The Disney Version, a study of the life, times and art of Walt Disney; His Picture in the Papers, a pioneering work about the modern beginnings of the celebrity system; D.W. Griffith: An American Life; Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity; Brando: A Life In Our Times; Clint Eastwood: A Biography; Matinee Idylls and Schickel on Film, both collections of his longer essays on film; and Good Morning Mr. Zip Zip Zip, a memoir of his formative movie going years.

Schickel began his career as a critic at Life in 1965 and has reviewed for Time since 1972. He also writes a monthly column reviewing current books about movies for the Los Angeles Times Book Review. He holds an honorary doctorate from the American Film Institute, has held a Guggenheim Fellowship and was awarded the British Film Institute Book Prize, the Maurice Bessy prize for film criticism and the National Board of Review's William K. Everson Award for his contribution to film history.

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Michael Guillén: Congratulations on Spielberg on Spielberg; it's a fascinating piece of work.

Richard Schickel: Thank you.

Guillén: Your prolific output, Richard, is thrillingly intimidating. You've published more than 30 books and directed more than 30 films for television. I became familiar with your work through your columns for Time magazine and then through TCM's broadcasts of your documentaries. What can you say about being one of the world's prime voices on film for—how many years now?—40?

Schickel: Well, I guess I wrote my first reviews for Life in 1965, I think it was. So I've been reviewing for a long time. I started doing television in 1968. I wrote some shows for Channel 13 in New York and then it sort of developed out of that. I found I enjoyed [writing for television] so I started doing that. I've been writing books—sort of minor books—before 1965. So it's been a long career; there's no question about that. [Laughs.]

Guillén: Clearly, writing about film is one of your passions, maybe even an obsession with you?

Schickel: I don't really feel that it's obsessive. I do have another life other than writing endlessly about movies; but, it's something that—I don't know—I didn't have any conscious desire when I started out to become a movie bozo. [Chuckles.] It just sort of happened. There's not as much intentionality in it—at least at the beginning—as it would seem, I think.

Guillén: I relate to that. When I decided to use film as a fulcrum for my writing, I had no idea it would suck me in as it has.

Schickel: Yeah, well you know what happens. Bob Mitchum once said to me, "You don't get to do better; you get to do more." [Laughs.] Speaking of a guy with a long career. So, yeah, you do something and that attracts someone's attention and they ask you to do something else and then opportunities in your own mind occur. You say, "Oh, that would be an interesting topic. Maybe I could write something about that." And that can be as accidental as seeing an old movie or something like that, or seeing a new movie. It just kind of happens, y'know. It's not a big deal in a way.

Guillén: Although your sensibility informs Spielberg on Spielberg in every frame, your structural absence in the documentary is striking and—as someone who loves the interview format—inspiring.

Schickel: I never am in any of them. All of the interviews are conducted in an anonymous way. If I say so myself, they're well-prepared. Whenever I'm doing one of those director profiles, I always go back and look at all the films in a short span of time—two or three weeks—before I conduct the interview and take a certain amount of notes about what I see. I think maybe the advantage I sometimes have over other shows about movie people is that I'm experienced. I've seen a lot of movies. I make a point of seeing them again. I bring to it all those years of historical knowledge and information. I think I have an edge over some interviewers in that respect. There are other people obviously who could do it; they just don't happen to do it. But, sure, I bring something to the party.

Guillén: I enjoy your style of structuring interviews.

Schickel: I've done 19 of these director profiles over the years, starting back in the '70s. I think I'm done with them in the sense that there are only a couple of directors I'd still like to do. They have to have substantial careers. You can't do one of these on some young director who's done two or three movies. You have to wait a while and see how the career develops and have a substantial body of work to deal with.

Guillén: You've pretty much covered the bases. You've interviewed all the greats, I think.

Schickel: There's at least one—I don't want to talk about because I've never approached him on it—but there's at least one more I'd like to do. I don't know if I'll get to do it.

Guillén: Could you talk a little bit about how you got this documentary on Spielberg going? Was it a project you and he have been wanting to do together?

Schickel: Kind of. I've known Steven for some years. We actually did a film together; he was executive producer and I produced, a picture called Shooting War about a camera man during WWII. I found him to be a wonderful executive producer. He's very hands off but—when he did engage with the picture—he had excellent suggestions. He's a great filmmaker. If you show him a rough cut of something, you're getting a good, solid opinion from him. You're not getting vague comments that you sometimes get from people who are network people in charge of something. He's really terrific in terms of collaboration that way. It was always on the boards that I would someday do one of these on him. The time became ripe. In part because—after he finished Munich—he wasn't directing. He's taken almost two years off from doing pictures so he had the time to do it, really. It was easy. I just said, "Do you want to do it?" and he said, "Yes" and we did it. [Laughs.]

Guillén: It's a valuable contribution because my understanding is Spielberg provides no commentary on his DVD releases.

Schickel: I've heard that too. I wasn't actually aware of that when I did it. I do a certain amount of commentaries myself on DVDs but I never listen to them and I've never listened to any commentaries on a DVD. You're not the first person to mention that to me that he's never done that and I don't know why he's never done it. He just doesn't.

Guillén: Indulging auteur theory through your series The Men Who Made The Movies and The Moviemakers, you've applied film history to profiling the personalities who are behind making films. That's a unique approach.

Schickel: Yeah, I think I kind of invented that actually back in the '70s. I don't think—before I did that first series The Men Who Made The Movies—I don't think anybody had done this kind of an approach to directors. All of them are the same in the sense that they do not have anybody else except the director. It's his perspective on his own work. I like the format. I've never felt the slightest need to change it because there's an intimacy in it. He's talking directly about what he's up to, talking as best he can about the development of his career, the development of his themes, that sort of thing. That's good. I'm not real interested in hearing from his collaborators or his relatives or any of that stuff. That's for a different sort of documentary and there's room for that kind of thing but it's not my way of doing them.

Guillén: I appreciate your keen angle into their creative process.

Schickel: Yeah, and it's especially true with Steven. If I say so myself, I think his is one of the best I've done because—first of all—he's very articulate; he talks in paragraphs. He's got a pretty good sense of film history, a very good sense of his own history, and [on what] has impinged on his own consciousness and has helped form the way he's done his movies. So it's a particularly good one. Not all directors are as articulate as Steven.

Guillén: Can you remember who was your first interview?

Schickel: Oh yeah, sure, it was with Alfred Hitchcock. That was about—oh I forget—'71 or something like that. As a writer and a co-producer I had done a couple of films, again for Channel 13 in New York, about the history of Hollywood, Hollywood in the 30's, Hollywood in the 40's, and in the course of that I had met a number of directors—Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, Bill Wellman, Frank Capra—and I found them to be very interesting men. So I almost instantly said, "Y'know, we should do a series of films on these guys." They were all getting on in years so I said, "I think we ought to get them before they can't be got." Somehow we were able to do that. It was a fairly successful series so stuff followed on from that. I've done other kinds of documentaries and there are documentaries where—contra the way I do these—you get lots and lots of people talking, you get 25, 35, 40 people talking about a topic. So I'm not wedded to this technique except when we're talking about author-directors.

Guillén: Had you trained in filmmaking at all?

Schickel: No.

Guillén: How did you negotiate the shift from writing about film to making documentaries?

Schickel: When I was a kid in college—at least where I went to college at the University of Wisconsin—there were no film courses there or anything like that. A few of us started a campus film society at the time, which was interesting. I'd always loved movies. I went to movies more than the average person in those days did; but, it was never my intention to start making documentary films about them, or even to write particularly about them. I was going to be a writer of some kind I thought when I left college but I didn't have a particular field that I wanted to write in at that time. I would have and did write about anything that came along actually.

Guillén: I've had some good conversations with Phillip Lopate and David Thomson—who basically have said the same thing you just said—that they never knew they were going to become film writers; they kind of created the profession for themselves as they went along.

Schickel: Well Phil does a lot of other stuff. He reviews novels, writes essays, and stuff like that. He's perhaps a little bit more broad-gauged than I am.

Guillén: As someone who has seen the industry morph over the decades, what are your thoughts on the current somewhat awkward shift from print journalism to online journalism?

Schickel: I guess there has been. I haven't particularly done that except mostly I write nowadays for Time.com instead of Time magazine itself. I guess that reflects mega-changes in journalism. For reasons of their own the magazine doesn't seem to particularly want many movie reviews anymore but the online Time.com likes them and has success with them. I just made that transition; but, I can't imagine myself ever becoming a blogger per se or anything like that. I'm busy writing books if I'm not doing television shows. I write for such magazines as ask me to write for them so it hasn't really affected my professional life all that much so far.

Guillén: I've long hoped that somehow there would be some kind of primer or manual that would apply the professional standards of print journalism to online journalism.

Schickel: I think that would be a good thing. Again, I don't really see a great deal of film blogging. I just don't have time to read it all. But I'll be honest with you, I'm not a big reader of film reviewing. I see the movies. I have my own opinion. There's some reviewers who automatically fall before me. I see the people in the L.A. Times, the New York Times, The New Yorker—publications that I regularly receive—but I'm not going out of my way to read a lot of opinion about current movies. I'm sort of the worst person to ask in a way about the state of contemporary film criticism because I don't really see that much of it.

Guillén: In your Wired For Books interview with Don Swaim you made me laugh describing how you prefer to watch movies with the great unwashed rather than with your "twit" colleagues.

Schickel: That's not completely true. If I go to a screening and I see Manohla Dargis or Kenny Turan or one of those guys, we tend to sit together. We know each other. We like to chat with one another. I like sometimes just to go to the movies on a Saturday evening or a Sunday evening and see something I've missed or see an old film that I'd like to see again or something like that. Screening room auditoriums are less than the best place to see a movie. It's better to see them, I think, as they're intended to be seen in just an ordinary audience.

Guillén: If you do watch them with your colleagues, do you ever talk about them afterwards?

Schickel: Sure.

Guillén: You don't rush away to keep your own thoughts virginal and intact?

Schickel: No, but that's not a deep conversation, you know what I'm saying? [Laughs.] It's not so different from going with any of your other friends. You come out, you may say a thing or two about the movie, but you're likely to pass on talking about something that has nothing to do with movies.

Guillén: You've filmed several documentaries; have you ever filmed a feature?

Schickel: No. Features aren't my bag. For me doing a documentary is an extension of journalism. It's just a different form of journalism. I've never thought I've had any particular talent for fictional forms. It's not the way my mind works. I've certainly never wanted to write movies or be a screenwriter. That was never much of a temptation for me.

Guillén: That was actually something I was going to ask you: can you differentiate between writing about film and writing for a film like a documentary? Is there much difference for you?

Schickel: For me, writing narration for a documentary is not actually a favorite form of mine. It's very constrictive. You have a certain amount of space—17 seconds to get something in—so it's writing that is kind of constrained and frustrating because you haven't got quite the space you'd like to have to make the point you want to make. It's not like writing a review or an essay where you can digress and have a little more room on the space-time continuum. It's not a form of writing that I particularly enjoy or look forward to doing.

I like putting the films together. That's pleasurable. Because in a way structurally that's where you're doing the most important writing. You're saying, "This clip. Not that clip. This clip following that clip or this clip preceding that clip." That's where you're really structuring the film. You'll notice that in the case of [Spielberg on Spielberg] or in the Scorsese film or the Woody Allen film, there is no narration. They just tell their story. I think that's the best possible way to do it. If you're dealing with the film I did on Charlie Chaplin, well obviously Charlie Chaplin's not around to speak for himself so you really have to do a narration; but, I think if you can avoid narration in a documentary, that's good.

Guillén: I'm impressed with that aesthetic. Actually in Spielberg on Spielberg, I think there's only one chuckle from you and that's it.

Schickel: That's too bad that you hear that. It just happened. Sometimes you can cut those out. You don't necessarily have to have the question or the questioner's response to the answer in there.

Guillén: Just to gain a glimpse on your methodology, about how many hours of footage did you get on Spielberg?

Schickel: In the case of Steven, it was about four or five hours.

Guillén: And did you go over with him the questions you were intending to ask?

Schickel: No.

Guillén: So his responses were impromptu and unrehearsed?

Schickel: Yeah. When I'm being interviewed, I don't like to know questions in advance. I think it's a constraining thing. And then it's an interview. In other words, you have to pick up on something you weren't expecting the interviewee to say and follow up on it because it may be productive and something you haven't thought about. In that sense it's like any kind of interview. You have to be alert to what's on the guy's mind and what he wants to say and odd things that come up. For example, in the Spielberg [interview], I wasn't expecting him to be quite as frank as he was about 1941 but he was very funny on the subject and very self-revealing on it. So there's more of that in there than I would have anticipated going into the interview.

Guillén: And I respected him for his humility. It was good to hear him express his own learning curve.

Schickel: Oh yeah, sure. It's true of a lot of stuff. He talks about his early days at Universal and the troubles he had with his crews there who were really hoping the kid would fail. Again, I'm not sure that I expected to get that from him; but, it was good stuff and valuable stuff and I liked it. You have to—if you're doing anything like this—you can't let the interview get entirely out of control; but, you've got to let the guy have his say. Whether it's what you expected or completely unexpected.

Guillén: In your perspective as film historian, and in the way that you create these profiles of these directors—which A.O. Scott has expertly described, "Mr. Schickel knows how to use his prodigious knowledge of cinematic history to create portraits of film artists that illuminate their individual talents while at the same time situating them within a social and aesthetic context"—what are you hoping for? What impression are you trying to make on your audiences?

Schickel: [Laughs.] I don't know.

Guillén: You're just working off your own interests?

Schickel: What I want, I guess, is to give the viewer a feeling of how that guy's mind works, what he's aiming for, what surprises him, just a portrait of how his mind is working, that's about it.

Guillén: Do you have any gauge of how people are becoming more literate about film?

Schickel: Are they?

Guillén: I'd like to think they are. For example, I deeply respect how TCM educates and informs viewers with their programming.

Schickel: Turner Classics is a unique channel; but, it is the only channel that has a passionate interest in film history and stuff like that. I don't know if we're more literate. I can't gauge that. If I go to a typical Summer American movie, I'm not feeling like I'm in a room full of cineastes. There are people there who just want to be entertained. So I'm a little unclear as to whether film . . . to use a fancy word, I'm not sure there's an American film culture that is comparable, let's say, to French film culture. France is just full of people who are very knowledgeable about movies and much more attentive to movie history than the American audiences. There's a real historical amnesia in the United States about movies, about a lot of things about literary history, all kinds of things. We are in danger in general—politically, socially, culturally—we're in danger of losing a good part of our past and it's a bad thing.

Guillén: I like Gore Vidal's comment that we live in the United States of Amnesia.

Schickel: I think that's a fairly good characterization. This has a little bit to do with the Internet. It's very oriented to today's sensation, today's news—whatever it is—and that's a dangerous place to be in because we don't accidentally arrive wherever we're at. If you were just to take the Iraq War, there's a lot of history there that a majority of Americans are unaware of and that's important knowledge, especially if you try to get out of it; you have to know how you got into it.

Guillén: Finally, and I'll let you go here, do you have any advice to aspiring film critics/reviewers/commentarians?

Schickel: [Laughs.] In today's world?

Guillén: Exactly.

Schickel: I think film criticism and film reviewing is an endangered species. There are notable exceptions, but, one by one publications that once did movie reviewing are either folding up or deciding they don't want to have movie reviewing at the moment. People don't actually like movie criticism. People in general. They're happy to read it and get a sort of vague idea of how they might spend some discretionary dollars over the weekend but I don't think they're interested in serious analytical writing about movies. Again, that's bad. You need to have a dialog going on between the audience, the critic, and the filmmakers. We might not get better films out of that, but we will get a better understanding of films out of that. That dialog is presently endangered and I don't see a lot of hope for a big change in that trend. I think there's going to be less and less and less critical dialog about movies. That's not a good thing. It's not a good thing in literature either. There's been a lot of talk in the press recently about the truncating or disappearance of book review media and it's also applicable to movies. Look at classical music. Almost no publications in America have fulltime music critics anymore. That did not used to be the case. Dialog in the cultural arena is dwindling.

Guillén: Well, without question, Richard, you have enrichened that dialog.

Schickel: Thank you. It's moreorless been my pleasure. I like doing it and I like being part of the dialog. As I say, the films I make are another contribution of mine to that dialog. It goes with the books and it goes with the reviewing and it goes with doing DVD commentaries. [Chuckles.] Whatever it takes. Whatever keeps the conversation going is, I guess, what's important to me.

Guillén: It's been a great honor to have a brief conversation with you this morning, Richard, and congratulations on Spielberg on Spielberg.

Schickel: Thanks much.

Cross-published at Twitch.