The World Is Outside The Window (March 1975)
First of all, we would like to talk about your work on the set, about what it means to live a film-that is, to live a certain period of time, to go over that kind of work that the film itself, in its final state, tends to cancel out.
For me, making a film is always a way of experiencing life. Generally, one thinks that when a director makes a fIlm, it is just a “parenthesis” in his or her life, while waiting for the next film and the next parenthesis. In my case, at least, this is not the way things are: I go through a continuous maturation process that involves observations, experiences, reflections, which are occasionally of political and moral character. This process goes on when I am not working, but also when I am shooting. I have previously said that my way of being autobiographical does not involve representing my own personal stories, but rather having my daily state of mind reemerge within the film. In this way, for example, when I go to work in the morning, the people I meet, the things I think about, and even the light of that day can all impress themselves upon me and can influence the way I resolve, sometimes even technically, a certain sequence. It seems to me that even this is a way of being autobiographical.
But in cinema things take time. Between the initial plan and its completion, between the idea of an image and its final actualization, months can pass, even years, often not very productive.
Yes, but for me the process is different. I never try to produce images that I have thought of I have found that if I did this I would end up with a rough imitation of my thoughts and images. Instead, when I arrive on the set, I like to feel in a state of total “virginity” toward the scene that I have to film. Sometimes, obviously this is not always possible, I prefer not to even know what I have to film. I do not want to have the time to think too much about the scene. The first idea for me is the best.
In general, what relationship is there between a take, the retakes, and the out takes?
I never film a lot: only three or four takes per scene. I rehearse even less. I am convinced that this is better for the actors. This way they are more natural. To achieve simplicity through exhaustive preparation requires a certain amount of experience and technique. I prefer instead to have the actors in a more “unrehearsed” state when they first encounter the scene. Many times the first take is the best. But sometimes I like to shoot beyond that scene. Once the actors have done all they had to do and said all they had to say, they still keep on going, by force of inertia, until they hit what I call “dead moments.” At these moments actors often commit “errors,” which in some way are also part of the scene. I think that these are very sincere moments.
You create a space in which unexpected reactions can occur.
Yes, they are always different. I leave a lot to chance.
You often pressure your actors into a crisis in order to bring them to a state of “simplicity. ”
This also happened with Jack Nicholson, who is an expert actor, gifted with extraordinary technique.
I noticed how, during the film, Nicholson changed his way of performing, his posture. For example, in the beginning, when he nervously tried to shovel the sand from underneath the tire of the LandRover, he seemed to not yet be under your influence, as he later would be.
I would say the opposite. It is true that in that scene he is not under my influence, but the opposite is also true. Let me explain. In that scene I was trying to pressure him into a crisis. Now, maybe I am mistaken, but I am not the type of director who explains much to the actors. I obviously explain what I think of the film and of the character, but I try to avoid letting the actor feel that he is in charge of the scene, that he becomes his own director. The actor, I will never grow tired of repeating it, is only one of the elements of the complete image, frequently not even the most important element, and it is through all of a shot’s elements that I give it meaning. The actor ignores the meaning, and how I choose to express this meaning is up to me. I am the one who has to see the film in its unity. Now, to return to the scene with the Land Rover in the sand, I tried to make our relationship a bit tense so that Nicholson would enter into a state of crisis. He did not even realize it. It was a very difficult moment in the desert. With all of the wind and the sand, it was horrible being there completely uncovered, unlike the Arabs or other members of the company. When we filmed, the crisis came naturally. The weeping was natural. It was real.
This seems to happen throughout the film. It seems that Nicholson does not “play” his part, as he did in Chinatown; the character is integrated within the actor, and he directly projects the image of a typical middle American.
In fact I tried to control him in such a way as to produce this type. This character is not exceptionally gifted. For someone who’s supposed to be an intellectual he is not very well-educated; he does not even know who [Anton] Gaudi is. He is a strong man; say, like those reporters who are used to seeing it all and do not react with much emotion to the events they encounter. I lived in the United States long enough to know that there is no better way to get to know a country than to work there. My reporter has immigrated to America from England, and therefore he has had to accept changes, including some in the language. For this reason, the English edition of The Passenger has many nuances that have been lost in the Italian version. This reporter speaks in, let’s say, a post-1968 way. That is, he is one of those young people who assimilated the language of the student protests and then ignored it when it became part of the system. And his wife, Rachel, speaks with a slightly snobbish intonation in English, so you can understand why he was so fascinated by her and why he married this type of neurotic woman, quite different from the women that he was familiar with.
And did you explain any of this to the actors?
No. One time Nicholson brought to my attention precisely this, that Rachel had this snobbish intonation. So we discussed it and came to the conclusion that it was better this way.
What about the different lengths of the several versions of the film?
This is a curious matter. I don’t mean the matter in itself is curious, but that what happened was curious. The first edited version was very long, more than four hours. But this is common.
Do you edit while you film?
No, I have never done it that way. For me, editing is a creative phase of the film, and so I prefer to finish filming before starting to edit. Now, I found myself in front of all of this material, and the problem was where to cut. One of the reasons there was so much material was that I prepared the film very quickly, in not much more than a month and a half, script, writing and location-scouting included. It was the first time I made a film from a subject that wasn’t mine. Mark Peploe, who’s a friend of mine, had talked to me about the story from the time when it was only three pages long. Then, little by little, he developed it. We worked together on the script, correcting it and changing it always with an eye to the fact that he was supposed to make this film. When I got the project instead, I realized that the material I had in my hands had to be modified. Mark and I had to do this work in a hurry because Nicholson had given me the dates when he was available and I couldn’t change them. This forced me to continue working on the script while I was shooting. And in order to solve problems for which I had not come up with a solution yet, I had to shoot much more than I needed to. I tell you all of this because I had never before ended up with four and a half hours of material.
I had the impression that you were trying to perform something of a trimming operation around a thriller or adventure story, in order to bring out its quintessence.
I wouldn’t be able to say what I was trying to change.
Yes, but precisely the trimming of an ideal thriller, rather than a specific script, that is, a thriller with car chases.
There were odd scenes, dialogues that had no other purpose than to create a special relationship between the two characters of Nicholson and the girl. For me this relationship meant something different, and so it had to take up an amount of different space in the length of the film. Then I arrived at an almost normal length, two hours and twenty minutes, which seemed to me to be the perfect length for the film I wanted to make from that script. However, the producers insisted that the film be shorter, since in the United States they are very strict about this. Either the film lasts three and a half hours, like Bertolucci’s film , or it must have a normal length. To reduce its length, I had to practically redo the whole editing, shifting certain sequences. It was a grueling experience. After finishing with the editing I realized that the previous version was wrong and that this one, which was two hours and four minutes long, was the right version. I asked myself what would happen to a film if one kept on working on it for twenty years, like D’Arrigo did with his book. (Italian writer and journalist Stefano D’Arrigo (1919-1987) enjoyed huge popularity, and divided criticism, in 1975 with the publication of his epic novel Horcynus Orca, on which he had been working for more than twenty years.)
In the film there are several filmed sequences, documentaries, television clips; I think all ofthese are introduced with a critical purpose, that is, to understand David’s character through them. But I think that instead, one loses him right then. Is the critical attitude on your part toward these television techniques, or even to recording in general?
I would not say so. I didn’t think about it, nor did I take such a critical stance intentionally, even if I might have given this impression. It is hard to tell what emerges from what we do. There are several different ways to interpret anything, depending on one’s personal articulation of the material one has at one’s disposal. I included those sequences, on the one hand, to give an idea of how the character was trying to find a sense in life, even politically, through his own work. On the other hand, to capture a certain aspect of reality, even a spectacular one. It is possible that in that particular visual material you find a certain ambivalence, even a certain ambiguity, as in the execution scene, which, precisely because of what I have just said, can be interpreted in as many ways as possible. It seems to me that the effect is always the same: spine-chilling. And because of what it is, the sequence raises a political problem. To return to your question, I admit that it is plausible to think of a critical stance toward the TV images, but it was not intentional.
Critical, at least, of the illusion of being able to reproduce the “real.”
Of course, it is always an illusion to believe that you can reproduce objectively the “real.” Especially for a filmmaker who is interested in current events, like a reporter. I have never believed in the cinema veriti, because I do not see what truth it can provide. As soon as we focus our camera on something, we must make a choice, even if we film in uninterrupted sequences, or without changing the pivot of the camera, which would seem the way to represent an event at its most realistic
I would go further. Even if we do not ‘make a choice” ‘we sense that it is not the same thing
It is not. Not to mention editing, where even one cut can destroy every illusion.
Have you seen much of the underground in America?
Yes, I have seen enough of it. I think that it has accomplished one thing, and that is to influence commercial, high-budget cinema. A generation of directors has been created that is different from the Hollywood ones. This is because their working spaces and tools are different. I saw the places where these people work. They are incredible, small workshops with small cameras. They make films with very low budgets, shooting in the streets, or in houses, or in their little studios. But they have extraordinary poetic intuitions. I saw many beautiful things. After all, even Easy Rider has shown the underground influence on the cinema, especially with the use of those quick flashes that anticipate the following sequence.
Did you like Easy Rider?
I thought it was a sincere film. I know Dennis Hopper well. He was shooting his film not too far from me, in the desert, when I filmed Zabriskie Point. They lived in tents and came to see me every once in a while. Behind this story there is a real America. I find it to be a skillful but genuine film. I do not know if you have the same impression.
No. For example, it used many patterns used in commercials.
That is true, but it is also true that these patterns are part of their linguistic background, and so, after assimilating and reworking them, these films are sincere in reexpressing them. America is an odd country, which offers a lot of material. You find yourself in the middle of it and you can’t help but show it in your films. I think that Sugar/and Express is much more artificial. It is a film that has a Hollywood-type gloss, and this bothers me. Much more than in Duel in the Sun, which is a more original idea developed with great enthusiasm, except that in the end it is far too melodramatic.
Have you also seen films that are outside of traditional commercial circles?
Yes, of course. America is an extraordinary country that offers everyone the chance to make films. It is also a ruthless country. On the West Coast, they say, they say this as a joke, but nonetheless they still say it that those who do not succeed in New York or in Los Angeles end up in San Francisco, where very often they end up killing themselves. In fact, the highest rate of suicide is in San Francisco. In Los Angeles there are directing schools for children from five to ten years of age. I saw films directed by six, or seven-year-old children that included scenes of missiles launching into the stratosphere, roughly done, but brilliant.
Do they use much videotape?
They probably do, I do not know. I have not been to America for sometime. Well, I was in Los Angeles three months ago, but just for a month, and I did not come into contact with the underground world because I had other things to do for this film.
We heard that you did screen tests on videotape and laser disc. Do you think that you will make a complete film with either of these?
I did screen tests on videotape, not on laser disc. I have, however, seen them done on laser disc. I completed a script that was based on The Night Driver, a short story by Calvina. The film was called The Spiral, and I wanted to make it with a video camera so that I could have better control of the color. In development and print laboratories the possibilities are limited. With Red Desert I had to modify the natural colors which, besides being costly, is also rather limiting, especially when shooting outside. But it is not easy even for the interiors. For instance, those images that Giuliana sees on the ceiling, I would have liked to film them while they were in motion, but I had to limit myself to fixed images. With video cameras it is possible to change the color electronically. This is like painting the film. I saw a couple of films done this way, one of them by Frank Zappa. Zappa tried to achieve certain effects by carrying further those same effects that are to be found in all pop-music films, where images are a little out of focus because of the type of lights used, or rough-grained as if exposed to too much light. Nothing new. I am convinced that these methods could be used in a less coarse, more poetic way. In terms of saving money, it is wrong to think that this is possible because the tape is easy to erase. The price of the tape is low in comparison to what the necessary technicians, fifteen to twenty people, can cost. This is very expensive, at least about one hundred thousand dollars. At any rate, I think that the future of cinema can be seen only in this direction. For me, the classic camera is a very limiting tool. What we use today is not much different from the forty-year-old Debris, except for a few small modifications and better lenses.
What changes have occurred in terms of fruition and distribution?
It is very likely that we will be able to distribute by cable. Some time ago, an American company, who was working with the Japanese, tried to create this type of circuit. They consulted about ten directors, including myself and Fellini. They calculated that with a four to fIve-day programming they would be able to cover the production costs of a two million dollar film. Always by cable.
How clear are these images once they are projected on a big screen in color?
Once, in a theater in London, I saw a telecast of a boxing match. It was obviously a bit blurred, but we cannot judge by what we see today. Incredible experiments are being done in the lab, and when a way to distribute these images is ready, their quality will be all right. The use of the laser disc is still at an experimental stage, but what has already been done is extraordinary. I saw images of people, realistically represented, losing their physical form and turning into mere luminous shapes. Who knows what they will be able to do in the future. Anyway, all of this will not only change the technical ways of making a film or of how images are represented, but also the material of the stories that are filmed. Narrative technique will change.
In theory, one could reach a higher level of abstraction.
Of course. Because there must be something beneath what the naked eye sees, something that could give us a higher consciousness of our existence. At least, this is what I believe.
Speaking of technique, would you be able to clarify how the final sequence of The Passenger was filmed?
I cannot really tell you, because I promised the publisher of the book an exclusive on the pictures. I can only tell you that it involves a special type of camera, a Canadian patent, mounted on a series of gyroscopes so that it is not subject to any movement in its support. It is a machine that was being used for commercials, in 16mm, and it was difficult to convince the technicians to mount on it a 35mm. It changed the weight and it needed to be recalibrated. They wanted to give me a reel of only 120 meters, but that was not enough for me, since I wanted a six-hundred meter reel. In the end, I was able to get three hundred meters. With six hundred, I would have been able to start the shot much earlier. It took eleven days to film the final sequence, also because of the wind that kept disturbing the camera.
So, there was no trolley?
No. It is a different system, of which I can’t speak. In a certain sense, the camera was in the air. The whole village was there watching, a crowd that, as time went by, became involved with the event.
And the voices? were they post-sync?
There was no other way. I was inside a van, in front of a monitor, supervising everything, including the zoom, by remote control. My assistant was outside and we communicated through a microphone; he then repeated my orders at the top of his voice. There was a certain rhythm and synchronicity to obtain, a terribly hard toil. We repeated it for eleven days, mostly because of the balance of light required between the indoors and the outdoors. We could only shoot between 3:30 and 4:30 in the afternoon, that is, only three or four takes a day. Only the last day it went well. This is the advantage of the monitor, to be able to control everything, even things that enter into the field by chance. I will refuse to make my next film if I am bound to find surprises during the projection. It seems absurd to me not to be able to know what the cameraman is doing, whether he is betraying what I want.
Did you use the monitor only in this long take?
Yes, only there. Buñuel always uses it.
Everyone interpreted The Passenger in different ways but always in connection with the same idea 0f the imaginary, of the body, of the identity, of the projection etc. Some see the character of the girl as the imaginary “other”; some see her instead as the projection of the two male characters, who could also be looked at in this way. This could go on forever, until a sort of mirage effect is achieved that belongs to the logic of a generalized exchange.
These interpretations are very interesting to me. The whole film is ambiguous, but I think that it appropriates such ambiguity as its own concreteness.
Here there are none of those mystical impulses that, for instance, we see at the end of the tennis match in Blow-Up. Instead, The Passenger seems to be a concrete expansion of that scene, a scene that has become the whole film, one in which the explicit relationships and boundaries between the real and the imaginary are eliminated. Moreover, the rendezvous with Daisy belongs to an awareness of death, of the end; David relaxes and waits.
Being, says Heidegger, is being-in-the-world. When David senses the end (although probably not even he himself is sure of it), he is no longer in the world. The world is outside the window.
What makes the final scene so interesting is that we feel as if David truly remains behind the camera, truly identifies himself with his profession. He waits for death, almost looking out from behind the camera at what will happen in front of him.
Yes, a reportage of his own death.
An African “aura” is present in many of your films.
I know Africa very well. I was there as a reporter, even when World War II broke out. I went back later and visited the country extensively for long periods. More than the desert in and of itself, I always felt the need to live in a different historical context, in a nonhistorical world, or in a historical context that is not conscious of its own historicity. This is shown in the film Tecnicamente dolce, which I was supposed to make before this one and which should have begun in Italy and ended in the Amazonian jungle.
Would you like to say a few things about Italian cinema?
We can say that today, Italian cinema does not exist. There are directors who make good films. It is always by chance that a good film is made there or that every so often a brilliant director turns out. But there is no specific school or trend, it is all disconnected. Today, as in the past, it is very difficult for the young to assert themselves, also because, I must add, many of them were failures. Few have been able to survive.
“Il mondo e fuori dalla finestra,” from Filmcritica 252, March 1975.