The Museum of Modern Art just had a retrospective of your films, including your first film ‘Goldstein,' from 1964 about "a sculptor, his pregnant girlfriend, and a mysterious vagabond who guides the film along as he wanders the streets of Chicago." This film is shot in black and white and has an experimental style and you used actors from Chicago's Second City improv troupe. How has your filmmaking approach both changed and stayed the same over the years?
You learn and progress. I still love shooting in black and white because it has a different way of focusing the eye. Once you add colors, things spread out and your eye doesn't go quite where the filmmaker wants it to go. I loved that we were able to do a certain amount of black and white almost fifty years later in ‘Hemingway and Gellhorn.' I learned a lot on ‘Goldstein' about improvisation. We didn't really start with a complete script. I learned to be in awe of actors and what they can add to a scene. Actors are amazing and are often downgraded and ignored by some directors.
How important was using archival footage to your quest to find the truth in the film?
It was the key. At first we were faced with this huge rambling thing and I couldn't find my way in. When you're using archival footage, and you have people in the past, dressed as they were in the past, you have to get it right. People had a different physicality. Ruth Myers, with her costumes, was going to be judged if her costumes jumped out. (She ended up sourcing period costumes from Spain.)
Geoffrey Kirkland, had to make sure the sets matched and fit and were distressed and had the right feeling. And the faces - the Extras casting - I wouldn't let one face be there that didn't fit. The test comes when in the Hotel Florida, where Robert Capa is taking pictures and virtually any place we looked in the room with hundreds of people and froze the frames, that could have been a Robert Capa photo of the period.
Was it difficult to incorporate the archival footage into what you shot on green screen with the actors?
I knew how I wanted to do it. And we were going to slick special effects houses. But I felt like I needed a young guy I could talk to and communicate with. I had these instincts of what I wanted. And we finally went over to Tippett Studio. I've known Phil Tippett since the early days with George Lucas. Phil said he had the guy for me: Chris Morley - C-Mo. This young guy is a genius at this stuff and he came on and became part of this rag tag team. In pre-production, we did these tests where Patrick Ranahan, our locations manager, was playing Clive and a Basque woman named Garbo was playing Nicole and we're running with green screens with the wind blowing to make a proof of concept. He would take these tests and put them into the footage. It was like ‘Goldstein,' the empty lots at the end that they're running through. I just love discovery, I love artifacts, I love flea markets, I love old things. I love the feel of the past and the sense that people were here before us. I don't find that in Macy's.
And the proof of concept worked.
About 7 or 8 people from HBO came up to San Francisco and we met in the basement of my house. It was me, my son Peter [the executive producer], my cat Buddy and Rob Bonz, one of our editors. We put together scenes that I had shot in black and white: The opening of ‘The Red Dawn,' ‘The Right Stuff,' (people don't realize how much found stock footage we used in that, putting Kennedy together with Scott Glenn, Alan Shepard. We were the forerunners of that, before ‘Forrest Gump' and ‘Zelig.') The key scene we showed was from ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being.' We showed about a half hour demo reel and HBO said, "We're going to make this movie."
That created quite a task for your editor, Walter Murch.
We've been friends for forty years but now we're best friends from this movie. We discovered things about our process and color tones and going from the graininess of the archival footage to the pristine Alexa camera footage and finding our way in and out with kind of a poetry. And we had the composer Javier Navarete who came over. We had these old funky offices around an atrium. We had a little screening room we built by hand. We had our stock footage. We'd cut with temp music and Javier could come in and try something on his synthesizer. That's the way films should be made. Some films are cut by recipe but sometimes you have to taste the food. And we were really tasting it. I've never seen Walter Murch happier. There were points where he worked 72 hours without sleeping. It was the most complicated thing he's worked on and he's been on ‘Apocalypse Now'! Our hope was that this looks like a big $70-90 million movie. I think we've hit on processes and a way of working in this time of spiraling costs of making the film more authentic and playful. I loved the playfulness of our process.
People have asked Walter, how was it to make TV, and he says, "We just made a feature." I think with specialty art house theaters falling apart, the world is transforming. We shot this in digital. I never thought I'd shoot in digital. I think the world has to recognize that this is the new way of being. People have bigger screens at home. There's a new evolutionary world coming into being. I think we're cutting edge.
‘Goldstein ‘was made in 1964. What still excites you about filmmaking?
We shot during one of the harshest winters in San Francisco history and the scope was so huge. It was a difficult shoot but when you go into war like that with good people with you, there is exuberance. I like to start with family and friends and work outwards. I'd worked with most of the crew before. This film is about enthusiasm and the making of the film should be about that too. I've made a certain number of films...I would have loved to have made a lot more. But it's the joy of what I do that's important to me, and capturing that. That's what I love about Hemingway's and Gellhorn's writing. They are trying to capture those moments. In that last scene in ‘Goldstein,' when he's in the weeds with the wind blowing...I don't know if there's a Goldstein, if there's a God. But I know the wind blows through the trees. And men can be exhausted, and that the search goes on. [Pause.] And then there's sex!