Essays by Richard Leacock
In addition to his film work, Leacock is a superb essayist who, eschewing the stuffiness often found in theoretical writing for the cinema, presents opinions that are readable, enjoyable, and of tremendous importance for the filmmaker/auteur of today wishing to create in a seemingly very expensive world. We have chosen four essays which, we feel, represent "the essential Leacock". All bear his copyright. They are:
The Art of Home Movies or "To Hell With The Professionalism of Television and Cinema Producers" (1993), an iconoclastic look at how technology is changing the world of independent filmmaking. Length: approximately 5 typewritten pages.
A Search for the Feeling of Being There (1997), an autobiographical history of the development of his philosophy. Length: approximately 10 typewritten pages.
On Working with Robert and Frances Flaherty (1990), a rebuttal to Flaherty's detractors. Length: approximately 4 typewritten pages.
A Conversation with Louise Brooks (1973), the text of the film which became "Lulu in Berlin", an interview with the silent screen star (G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box) filmed shortly before her death. The interview is hilarious, historical, and poignant; Leacock's additional commentary provides an interesting look at the events that led up to, and beyond the interview. Length: approximately 26 typewritten pages.
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The Art of Home Movies or "To Hell With The Professionalism of Television and Cinema Producers"
Draft Article by Richard Leacock November 30, 1993
Robert Flaherty, who made NANOOK OF THE NORTH in 1921 and then, with his wife Francis, MOANA in 1925, is quoted as having said that films would eventually be made by "amateurs". What did he mean by that? Surely not what the contemporary use of the word would imply: "incompetence". But the opposite word has changed in meaning also, "professional" now means someone who has been certified by an institution as an "expert". Our "industry" (documentary film making) is dominated by such persons, who handle complicated professional equipment with assured competence; soldiers marching off to war. I think Flaherty meant that films would be made by people who loved the art, the act of filming; who loved creating sequences that did justice to their subjects, that conveyed an exquisite sense of seeing and hearing, of being there.
I spent years of my professional life working as a Cameraman, as an Editor and then as a Director--Cameraman--Editor, with cumbersome 35 mm film equipment. In despair at the clumsiness of this system, I helped in developing portable 16mm synchronous sound and film cameras. This change resulted in what came to be known as "direct cinema", a change not only in the manner of filming but also in editing. Then, trying to bring the. cost of filming down I tried (not very successfully) to professionalize 8 mm film equipment. Finally, with the introduction of the CCD and its refinement in Video-8, I am working exclusively with Video H-8. Not because I can’t got jobs working in the other formats but because I want to work this way. I must work this way.
For me,, the act of filming or, as we are working in video, let’s invent a new verb, the act of Videoing is a delight, a pleasure, like singing or sketching with pencil on paper, capturing the essence of places, people, situations, tragedies, comedies... life as we see and hear it around us. Then to go home, not to a studio; home, and edit, creating a bridge to one’s friends and yes, people you don't even know who might be interested in this evocation of what was experienced.
Like singing, or sketching, or playing the violin, this habit, this addiction, is demanding. I must practice all the time. If I put down my tiny Sony Camcorder for a week or two I will need time to practice to get back into a harmonious relationship with it. Years ago I studied the violin; seven years; I could not make the sound I wanted; I gave up. In 1959 I was making a film of Leonard Bernstein on a conducting tour in Israel. I awoke one morning and heard the faintest sound from the room next to mine. It was Isaac Stern playing the Mendelssohn Concerto at half speed with a mute on. I thought to-myself... s...t! after all these years he has to do that. You can buy a violin for less than a Camcorder but don't rent a hall for several years... and so with these cameras, it is easy to make a bad picture but, a good one? ... practice, look, experiment, they are very sophisticated little beasts!
A great deal of attention has been paid to the technological changes in camera equipment for documentary filming. Very little has been said about the act of making the movie.
Flaherty didn't need a Cameraman. His best work was done by himself, looking through the camera, searching, finding images that delighted him; not standing beside the hired hand asking "did you get that? See that little boy over there.? Did you get a close shot..." similarly with editing. He had an editor to do all the clumsy work that goes with using film, splicing, hanging up trims etc., but he was there in the editing room constantly working on the new material, not after the filming was finished but right there wherever he was working. He learned as he shot and often showed the results to his subjects so that they knew what they were involved in.
It is now five years since I started using Video 8. I work and live with Valerie Lalonde. I carry with me the hang-ups of a life spent filming the other way, she has no such baggage to deal with. We come home, we edit at home, we edit as we go along, shooting, editing, building and shifting in our approach. These are personal acts of artistic judgment which are not to be delegated. In most instances we don't even know what it is that we are after. We are searching for something, one has a rough idea but only that. If you delegate this search to another, there is no sense to it, the essence will probably be lost.
A case in point. I have been associated with many productions of plays and operas in various capacities. As a result I have wanted to search out some core of interest in the process of rehearsal. At a party in London a friend told us that rehearsals of John Webster's THE DUCHESS OF MALFI were to start in a couple of days. We got permission to video from the Cherub Company. We started as they arrived for the first rehearsal, we observed; we never asked anyone to do anything for us; we never told anyone to repeat an action, a phrase. We never interviewed. We got to know the cast. We helped where we could. We went away, we came again. On and off for the six weeks up till the last rehearsal. We had no idea what it was that we had captured. We doubted that we had a story; perhaps it was all a big mistake. We had accumulated twenty hours of material. We looked. We got very bored; it looked histrionic and false. What worked on the stage didn't seem to work on. the screen. Finally we found a thread; the rape and murder, on stage, of the Duchess' maid Cariola. The first time they tried this scene it was ludicrous and left the cast and director laughing, it got better; they
worked and worked on the technical details. Better but not much better. Then the dress rehearsal, it worked! I was videoing front stage. It was horrible! It was believable! They dragged the body off stage and Valerie picked up there; the actress was in shock; shaking her head to get out of it. The two young actors who had just killed her were now comforting her. This was the essence of theater when it works. You know it isn't real but you believe it, you feel it.
I am delighted with the resulting. - forty minute film, REHEARSAL: THE KILLINGS OF CARIOLA. We were able to make it because we both had cameras and we have VHS editing equipment at home which suffices for off-line edits. The out of pocket costs, travel, tape etc. were around $2000, that is, up to the point where you get serious and go On-Line. A friend in Canada made a film of rehearsals of a play using 16mm and a conventional crew, they too, shot 20 hours of film which made a 40 minute film. The below the line costs were $100,000.
Before I went to Video I would get funding for a film at about five year intervals. Now we are making two, three or four movies a year. We can afford the unheard of luxury of starting a project and aborting it! In the heyday of LIFE magazine they would shoot about three stories and publish two. Film is too expensive for such frivolity, every single story must be completed. If it isn't there, put it there! Make it work! Distort it, do what you must but make it work! That is the code of television today, everywhere,
The assumptions of professional film making are bizarre. You must have a "subject". Well in a sense, yes. When Piazzetta sketched his wife, his daughter... one day in the late 18th century, he had a subject, but would it have persuaded the producer of a major TV network that it would grab the undivided attention of a portion of his 15,000,000 potential viewers? And besides, this producer only deals in one hour slots. (Like the psychiatrist’s hour it is actually less, say four 13 minute segments).
So, OK, you have a "subject". You film, or video; slowly it dawns on you that it is the wrong subject; that something else that's going on there is far more interesting, or often, there is something aside from the main subject that is fascinating but not relevant... what do you do?
Recently I have been the subject of some TV specials. It is ludicrous! We live in a small space. Suddenly we are invaded, the crew have arrived, four large men with their equipment. Lights are set up for no reason that I can tell except that otherwise one of the crew would be out of a job. Tripods, microphone boom, a microphone enclosed in a great furry capsule to protect it from hurricane winds, furniture is moved, sit here, sit there, turn this way turn that way, now talk. This is madness but it goes on the air and I suppose millions of people see it and forget it. I have no idea what happens when people see these shows and I don't think the people that make them know.
Artistic prostitution is OK by me... sometimes, that is. If you know what you are up to and have another agenda. But not all the time. These problems that I am complaining about are not new. Flaherty had his problems raising money from Revillon Freres for NANOOK and Paramount was not pleased with MOANA. It was years before he got another commission. Today we can do pretty much what we want, when we want and where we want. However we will pay a price for our freedom. They (TV) probably won't show what we make. For the time being that is a problem., I think that our films, all sorts of odd lengths on all kinds of "subjects" should be available like books, to be played not by millions but by a modest audience of hundreds, maybe thousands and very occasionally, hundreds of thousands. Again I recall Flaherty saying "we should be able to see what we want. to, where we want to, when we want to; at a reasonable price."
Technologically we are close to able to achieve this goal and make a reasonable living out of supplying what we want to show-
During the last five years, working in video, we have made:
LES OEUFS A LA COQUE DE RICHARD LEACOCK $4 min & 58 min.
REHEARSAL: THE KILLING Of CORIALA 30 min
"GOTT SEI DANK" A VISIT WITH HELGA FEDDERSEN 30 min
LES VACANCES DE MONSIEUR LEACOCK 23 min
KREN - PARKING 3 min a portrait of an art work
FELIX ET JOSEPHINE 33 min a fiction based in reality.
HOORAY! WE'RE FIFTY! 1943-199a. 30 min My Harvard 50th reunion.
A CELEBRATION OF ST. SILAS 34 min Preparation for and celebration of an Anglican Mass
As far as actual shooting and editing goes, I adore this new way. I would never go back to film, The camera is a gem; with a really good microphone attached (it will cost about as much as the camera) you can obtain superb sound, far better than the dreadful optical tracks on 16 mm prints. The new image stabilizing device in the camera is astoundingly effective. (The Steady Cam, used in the industry, is a 19th-century solution; the image stabilizer is a 21st century solution). Editing on, film is an absurdity, every time you change something you destroy what you had! On ‘Oeufs à la Coque’ we made 16 different edits before we settled on one. We can make new as time demands.
This can be fun! And, there is nothing that limits what I have been saying to the documentary. You can make any kind of film you like this way. The tools are here. The road is open, just go out and make it!
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Richard Leacock May 20, 1997
When I was eleven years old and a pupil at an English boarding school something extraordinary was done; we were shown a film, a silent 35mm full length film from the Soviet Union, TURK-SIB, about the building of the trans-Siberian Railway. I was riveted, astounded; here was what I had been looking for and it was simple, all I needed was a movie camera and I could do it myself.
I had been raised on my father's plantation in the Canary Islands. We grew Bananas, Tomatoes, we made cement pipes and pumped irrigation water. Of the more than 200 men and women that worked there I think about three could read and write. They worked with oxen and camels. There were no schools where we lived so I had a wonderful time until it was decided that I should go to school --- in England --- cold, dark, little boys in short pants with chapped knees and chilblains.... eventually I got used to it and in a perverse kind of way, enjoyed it. But how to explain to my schoolmates, where I came from and what life in my Garden of Eden was like?
Turk-Sib was the answer. So three years later with the help of school friends Polly Church and Noel Florence, armed with our detailed scenario which included drawings of each shot, a 16mm Victor camera and an elegant Thailhamer Tripod we made a 14 min. black & white, silent film; CANARY BANANAS, a film I am proud of, that can still tell you all you need to know about growing Bananas but it fell far short of giving you the feeling of being there. It informed you but it didn't involve you.
In 1938 at the ripe old age of 17, 1 went as photographer-film-maker to the Galapagos Islands as a member of David Lack's expedition to learn more about Darwin's finches. We lived on a "desert island", isolated, not even a radio. I spent most of my time with the Angermeyer brothers who had listened to Hitler and fled; it was a bit like Robinson Crusoe, l loved it. I did what I was supposed to do and filmed the birds and just about everything else that moved but the result gave you no feeling whatever of "being there".
By 1941 we were shooting synch sound. Features had been "talkies" for a decade but it was easier for them, they created their own controlled world in the safe confines of vast studios and here we were making a Documentary on American folk music in the hills of Virginia and Tennessee. Madness! No electricity there. So a truck-load of lead storage batteries and a motor converter from 110 volts DC to 110 volts 60 cycle AC, powering a 35mm optical film recorder and a 35mm film camera. you turned them on and adjusted the DC to get the frequency of the AC up to 60 cycles and when the sound camera and the picture camera stopped hunting you yelled "speed" and then the clap-sticks and the director, Geza Karpathy, murmured "relax" to the petrified musicians. And it was a good two weeks before you got to hear the play-back! It worked but not much spontaneity with that rigmarole to contend with.
This was professional film making, the leading edge. Documentary couldn't go on avoiding the issue by laying music and narration on silent pictures. We were going into the "real world" and systematically destroying the very thing that we were looking for. Why not make our films in studios like the big boys do? Don't be silly! It wasn't just the technology, it was the attitude of a professionalized industry aping the world of the fiction film -- it still is.
Today, when we have available, superb portable sensitive mini-digital cameras and sound equipment the impact of filming or videoing is just as ridiculous and even more so because it is utterly uncalled for. I have been filmed by various Television crews and invariably the routine is just as disruptive as ever. Four or five large men come busting into our tiny apartment with tripods, camera, microphones, booms, light-stands... it is politely suggested that you sit "there, no a bit to the left, now turn your head, do you mind if we move the painting on the wall, it's distracting and we can see a reflection of the sound man..." "can you give us a level? just say anything"... and you start to say what you are to say and the sound-man says "cut! I'm picking up the refrigerator, can some one unplug it... thanks , now just take it from the head again..." and perhaps they want a shot of you talking on the street so you are expected to walk "casual like" with cameraman soundman and assistant walking backward in front of you. At last it is over!
In the early sixties I thought we had solved these problems by a set of working rules designed to make it possible for us to get as near as we could to observing our subjects with minimal impact. No lights, no tripod, no microphone boom or pole, never wear headphones (they make you look silly, and or, remote) never more than two people, never ask anyone to do anything and most especially never ask anyone to repeat an action or a line. Allow lots of time, don't shoot all the time, if you miss something, forget it in the hope that something like it will happen again. Get to know your subject if possible in order to generate some kind of mutual respect, if not friendship.
OK these are rules, not laws, and rules can be broken:
This means no interviews, fine I'm sick of interviews but when I filmed Louis Brooks in her very private apartment in Rochester N.Y. it was an interview and that was that!
Why not ask some one to repeat an action that you missed? It is not a question of morality but just try it. I was filming the editor of the Aberdeen S.Dakota newspaper; while I was reloading my camera, his secretary ran in and told him that Senator McGovern was calling from Washington... It was wonderful so I loaded up and asked her to do it again. Weeks later I was screening rushes in New York and Joyce Chopra and I and some friends saw it! Horrors! It was ridiculous, like some third rate TV soap!
In general, when you are making a film you are in a situation where something you find significant is going on. Usually the people you are filming want to help you get what they think you want to get; often as a way of getting rid of you. And this can be fatal because they are then second-guessing you and can end up destroying the possibility of achieving your aim. I remember Bob Drew and I coming into the lawyer's office when we were making THE CHAIR. He asked what he could do for us, we said, "nothing", put our equipment in a corner and went out for coffee. A little later we came back in and he was back at work doing what had to be done, having decided that we were nuts. We kept our distance and started filming as he picked up his phone...
What am I looking for? I hope to be able to create sequences, that when run together will present aspects of my perception of what took place in the presence of my camera. To capture spontaneity it must exist and everything you do is liable to destroy-it... beware!
Filming is searching for and capturing the ingredients with which to make sequences. You are not going to get "the whole thing", you are lucky to get fragments but they must be captured in such a way that you can edit. If there is dialogue you know that editing is more restricted and you must find ways to deal with this problem without recourse to that dreadful concept: the "cut away". If music is involved the problems are even more complex.
The making of sequences is, for me, at the heart of film making. I had always assumed that you just got the bits of an action and put it together and Bingo! you have a sequence. But there are all kinds of things that you may want to convey with a sequence and it was not until I worked as cameraman on Robert Flaherty's LOUISIANA STORY that I started to learn from him, the complexity of this process. We were a tiny crew, most unprofessional. We shot, day after day, for 14 months more often than not, just the three of us, Mr. & Mrs. Flaherty, she with a Leica, he and I often with two Arriflex 35mm cameras, recently liberated from Hitler's Wehrmacht, and sometimes an assistant. We shot and shot. If something appealed to us, never mind that it wasn't in the script, film it. A beautiful cloud, swallows wheeling through the sky preparing to migrate, a water-lily pad with a drop of water on it in perfect light, a spider completing the building of its web. Often the camera in motion or panning and tilting, no rules except look, look through the camera lens, search.
The first time I ever met Mr. Flaherty was in 1936 just after I had completed the Banana film. He was visiting his daughters, Franny and Monica at our school and he had a 16mm camera on a tripod and he was filming blond Brenda McDermot brushing her hair to dry it in the sunlight. Fine, but he went on and on and on... I decided he must be mad. What on earth could be so complicated about a young woman brushing her hair? In Louisiana I began to learn. Only began. After that job I went back to work with "professionals!" and learned that I had better behave myself or look for another job!
After long days of filming, often starting as early as six in the morning and on, with a long break to avoid the midday light, till twilight, then cleaning cameras, developing test strips, shipping film to the lab... to a well earned well watered drink before bed, Flaherty would sometimes talk about making sequences. Mostly he talked about the making of Moana, how every sequence is a new and different problem. The use of different focal length lenses, the function of the close-up, not so much to reveal detail as to withhold information from the viewer, of the surround or, as he put it "the camera is like a horse with blinders, it can only see what is in front of its nose" and thus increase the visual tension that requires the viewer to search for the resolution of what they are experiencing. Moana, since this experience, has become his masterpiece for me and the version that his daughter Monica has made, with sound is superb. The next step in my de-professionalization, was when Roger Tilton invited me to shoot, JAZZ DANCE in 1954. Now he, was clearly crazy! Bear in mind that the only synch- sound film equipment of acceptable quality was massive. Magnetic recording tape was available; the Reeves 35mm recorder weighed about 70 lbs. and was said to be "portable" because it had handles on it. The handiest camera was a Mitchell NC, OK in a noisy situation but still, massive. Tilton wanted to make a short film to be shown in theaters (35mm) of an evening at a place on the lower East-side in New York where young people were dancing to live Jazz music. Everyone had told him that it had to be done with the standard equipment described above. Set ups, rehearsals, clap sticks, take one, take two... take 23.... So we got two hand held spring driven 35mm Eymos (The same as we used in combat in WW II) 100 ft. loads which run just over one minute each and on these cameras the longest you can shoot without rewinding is about 15 seconds. My friend Hugh Bell constantly reloading while I shot and Bob Campbell shot with another camera and a rudimentary synch system close to the musicians.
Me? I was all over the place having the time of my life, jumping, dancing shooting right in the midst of everything. What a fabulous night. We shot slow music, fast music and medium, just like buying T-shirts - large - medium - small! I had nothing to do with the editing, but what a job. They used a slow medium and fast selection and they matched the action to the beat. Fantastic! This was more like it. Now, on a big screen in a theater, WOW! you were there, right in the midst of it and it looked like it was in synch... it was in synch! But, you couldn't film a conversation this way. It gave us a taste, a goal. Tilton tells me that he was invited out to Hollywood by the biggies but when he told them that they couldn't do it with their clumsy equipment they told him to get lost and didn't even pay his fare back!
Right after this wonderful experience I got a commission to film a traveling tent theater show in the Midwest, a Toby Show. It was the first film I had made where I had control since Bananas. I wrote, directed, filmed and edited. We used the conventional equipment plus a hand held camera for wild shooting. I had a small and wonderful crew. We worked like dogs and the result may look a bit stilted by today's standards but it achieved a feeling of being there rather than that of a conducted tour.
More and more frustration. All we were asking for was to be free to move and to record image and sound of quality and not be dragging an anchor behind us. It wasn't just me. Morris Engel was making headway in shooting WEDDINGS AND BABIES with Viveca Lindfors, a clumsy rig but it worked. The Canadian National Film Board had experiments going on. Look at the documentaries they made of the pianist Glen Gould. Remarkable. In New York Leo Hurwitz was shooting with heavy equipment in a hospital emergency room, a bit like trying to light a cigarette with a stick of dynamite but whatever, headway was being made.
My final film before the breakthrough was a report on my friend from college days, Lenny Bernstein on a conducting tour in Israel. Lenny, Felicia, a young friend of theirs, Jean Stein and I left for Israel on the day after WEST SIDE STORY opened on Broadway. I knew I couldn't take the standard truck full of junk so I switched to something the industry looked down on, 16mm, a camera that was quiet (we knew we had to film concerts) that recorded sound on the film optically, therefore low quality, but in synch. We also took the latest 1/4 inch tape deck, about the size of an overnight suitcase, but not synchronous. Well, I still think it a nice film that shows Lenny at his best but we missed absolutely everything that I wanted to have in it. The night when Lenny and Felicia performed practically the whole of West Side Story for their friends, including Teddy Kolleck, in their hotel room. The Camera was in a truck, and so it went, but it cleared my head. Now I knew exactly what we needed and the standards that must be met.
Many disasters later, it was with Bob Drew, an editor on Life Magazine who, after a year at Harvard as a Niemen Fellow, was determined to rescue Television Journalism from the boondocks of the perpetual Interview, the hallmark cigarette of Edward R. Morrow that dominated the medium. Drew had seen The Toby film and followed it up with a brief visit and a drink with me in New York. He saw other works and from firsthand experience as a LIFE reporter, knew what could happen with a good still photographer working with their relatively minute equipment. He was determined and we were with him. We got equipment made to our specifications. We were part of the development. I contributed the idea of synchronizing with a new Bulova watch that was controlled by a tiny tuning-fork (the transistor was already there but the crystal chips were still a long way off). Morris Engel had already used a bigger tuning-fork but ours was a neater solution. D. A. Pennebaker was with us and radically modified the Auricon Camera that we were using (it was quiet!) Mitch Bogdonovitch engineered it all but like so many geniuses he could never do the same thing twice, always the step forward and then again, sometimes the two steps backward.
With Bob Drew, we formed a nucleus gang, Al Maysles, McCartney-Filgate, then Shuker and Lipscomb making films that in general adhered to the list of rules above. With the appearance of PRIMARY, YANKI NO!, ON THE POLE, CRISIS, PETEY & JOHNNIE, MOONEY vs. FOWLE, and the rest. We, at least 1, thought that we had solved the problems of Documentary film making. But the Industry didn't give a damn. The French intellectual film buffs did for a while but then came Jean Luc Godard and other obscurantists with heavy Marxist hangovers.
It is now thirty years later and the TV industry and the Film Industry haven't really changed. The new equipment has made news gathering more facile and just as dumb. The big boys of Hollywood are happy with the Steady-Cam and, in my view, both are heading for a numbing form of number-crunching disaster called ENTERTAINING THE BILLIONS.
How to get away from the Industries and their demands? Is this a problem that can be solved in part by changing the technology? We, the film makers, depend upon the Industry to be shown, TV or Theaters. In rare instances we have cracked the theater walls. Pennebaker's DON'T LOOK BACK and MONTEREY POP did this and it was wonderful fun and most satisfying. My little short film CHIEFS rode in on Monterey's back. But these were propelled by star attractions and performance. Not something that I want to depend on. Television is relatively easy to satisfy but they want to own what they show, if they give you money for production they want control. Monterey Pop was made for ABC TV and we thought we had a winner. When it was completed we invited the newly appointed president of ABC Barry Diller, to screen it. He came and he sat through it, there was a ponderous silence till he turned and said "This film does not meet industry standards" to which I responded "I didn't know you had any" End of conference. It was the best thing that ever happened to us.
HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY was rejected by its sponsor Curtis Publications, so be it. Others went on the air and that is the biggest bummer of them all. You have worked and worked and made your masterpiece, it goes on the air and, as Kenneth Burke once said "it's like dropping a feather into the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo!" and that is it, that is the end of your masterpieces life!
Having gone broke with Pennebaker I went to teach at MIT helping to create a new Documentary film school with Ed Pincus. Research! Let's make a cheaper system that will enable us to make films without having to go begging from the Industry. I was naive. We modified cheap Super-8 film cameras and built a rather sophisticated video system around it which sort-of worked if you had infinite patience. As Jerry Wiesner, President of MIT, said to me "Leacock, you have managed to replicate all the problems of 16mm in 8mm!" He was right.
Finally in the 80's, the CCD was invented and a new chapter began for Video with vastly improved quality and by last year the Mini-Digital camera and editing system was available. I am retired. I live mostly in France where I fell in love with a French lady, Valerie Lalonde who never had anything to do with film or video. We live and work together. I find that my shooting is still inhibited by my professional background.
Valerie's is not. This makes for a wonderful mix. She tends to play the obligato and I the continuo which can produce great harmony. During the last ten years together we worked successfully in High-8 making our final edits on Beta-Digital which was a very expensive final move. We made a video for French TV-, a story without a subject, LES OEUFS A LA COQUE DE RICHARD LEACOCK, which I think conveys a feeling of love for what is shown. Some of our films get shown on TV and others don't. Today we shoot and then edit at home on the new Mini-Digital equipment which can go any number of generations without loss. We also have a non-linear digital system, Radius, which takes DV directly through the "fire-wire" and is affordable. We have two cameras, two edit decks and ancillary equipment for about the price of a car in the $20K bracket. You design your movie to go on a DVD with up to about two hours of quality video and distribute like books to a relatively small, discerning audience of like minded people who are waiting to escape the nightmare of TV, Cable systems and the massive garbage heap of the Web. But as usual some one will find a way to screw it up and Valerie and I will go on making movies for the sheer fun of it and the love of each other's company.
Last night I completed a wonderful sequence. It all started over a year ago when Sarah Caldwell called me from Siberia to say that she was rehearsing a symphonic drama composed by Prokofiev, based on Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin" that had been banned by "the authorities" in 1937. She asked if I could "do something about it" so, armed with the latest mini-digital cameras and aided by my daughter Victoria, Natalia Tsarkova (a graduate student from MIT brought up in Russia) and my long time friend and associate Vincent Blanchet and his superb sound equipment, we went!
We did all the things we were supposed to do and it may work out in the end but is a sticky mess... but, what I completed last night was something that had nothing to do with all the above, we arrived at the symphony hall where the performance was to take place, early. It was barely lit, cleaning ladies with buckets and mops were at work, a lady was playing the huge organ, Bach! I videoed the organ and organist; Victoria videoed one of the cleaning ladies who always had her young son with her; Natalia videoed the other with her mop and pail. Last night I finally got it right! Two minutes and thirty-six seconds of music and visual bliss, concocted from three separate perceptions of an event that had nothing to do with what we were there for.
THAT, is what makes it all worthwhile!
And if only this book, that you are reading, came with a DVD, you could see and hear all the things that this book is trying to convey. Combine text and movies, with no artificial limits on how long or how short a work should be.
Are good books ever written to be read in one sitting? Must they be geared to an audience of millions... absurd!
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By Richard Leacock April 26 1990
When Robert Flaherty invited me to go with him to Louisiana, it was not exactly clear that I was to be the cameraman for Louisiana Story. He had seen a twelve minute film I had made at age 14, of my father’s banana plantation in the Canary Islands, but that was already ten years ago. It was 1946, World War 11 had ended and I had been discharged, along with literally millions of other young men, from the US Army. Three years as a combat cameraman, partly in the soggy wilds of Burma. Flaherty did not ask to see my work, lucky for me because I hadn't seen much either; in the army you "shoot" and send your film in and that is usually the last you hear about it unless there is something wrong. He took me on and what was to be a fourteen month filming saga, began. Filming, day after day, often seven days a week, in the swamps, marshes and Bayous of Southern Louisiana. A radical transition, yet the hazards, both natural and combative, of the towering forests of Burma were certainly a better preparation for life with the Flahertys than working with what I regarded as a "normal" documentary film crew.
We were a tiny group, Mr. and Mrs. Flaherty, Helen Van Dongen, our editor, myself and part of the time an assistant, Sydney Smith, who had recently graduated from the Putney School in Vermont. We lived as a family. At first Mr. Flaherty worked endlessly on the script. There have been many statements that he did not work from a script and , true to the nature of ambiguity and complexity, they are true! He did not "work from a script" but he wrote one and worked on it long and hard. He wrote, with lengthy discussions with Frances, the closest he could come to his vision of the finished film. I was to learn later, as we got into the filming, that your preconceptions are only valid as long as they retain their validity in the real world. That when you encounter something different from your preconceived ideas you latch onto this new vision and frequently abandon your preconceptions. The script that he wrote exists today and is, I think, remarkably close to the finished film. It is ironic that a major sequence in that script that is not in the film is a visual fantasy of the giant oil refinery at Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where we spent many weeks during the winter, filming what we liked best about this huge, non-human, incomprehensible and perhaps magical monster. Pipes, weirdly shaped retorts, flames flickering in the lowering sky, hardly a human figure to be seen. A magnificently beautiful sequence that, when shown to our sponsors from Standard Oil, sent them into shock! It seemed that we had given our loving attention to just about every detail that was and is illegal in a refinery... and, when told not to use it Flaherty stormed out muttering to me "...they want it to look like a well appointed gentlemen's lavatory!...... Us? We had filmed in good faith and loved the sequence that we had created and to this day I think that it was the best oil refinery sequence I have ever seen; it explains nothing!
With script in mind, but not in hand, a typical days filming might start with Mr. Flaherty dropping a book outside my room at about 4.30 AM. Our equipment had been readied late the night before. Two Arriflex 35mm Cameras (recently liberated from Hitler's Wehrmacht) two Akeley Gyro tripods etc. Mr. Flaherty usually prepared breakfast while we were getting up. Fried beans, bacon, sausage, eggs, toast and lots of tea... by about six, as the sun rose, we were filming, maybe floating on trestied pontoons on the lake at Avery Island (the home of Tabasco Sauce). We were filming alligators. Alligators do not respond to direction. Patience! Infinite patience. May the good Lord preserve me from ever again making a film that depends upon the good will of animals!
Both cameras were set up. I would shoot with one and either Mr. Flaherty or sometimes Sydney shooting with the other. We filmed the alligators; when they moved we filmed, when they stopped, we stopped. We filmed birds. We filmed snakes. We filmed spider-webs and clouds and flocks of migrant swallows on the wing. When the glory of the dawn light gave way to the harsh shadows of high-noon we made preparations for "acted" scenes of J.C., our Cajun boy going through his comings and goings., then more filming into the dusk and home to our house to develop tests, ship film to our Lab in New York, screen rushes that had been returned, clean cameras... till late at night and a well earned well watered drink and then to sleep.
I was upset at what I considered a lack of decisiveness, a vagueness. I had been accustomed to Directors who knew exactly what they wanted..."put the camera here! Get that tree limb in the top right corner of the frame ... a shaft of light here...the camera should be lower...", but Mr. Flaherty seemed not to know, would try this, then that and then, when we looked at the rushes, suffer with grunts and groans and then mutter; "that's better, that's good..." and we would go back to shooting with more confidence in what we were doing. I have never worked like this before or, until very recently, since. It upset me. The uncertainty was infectious. But slowly I began to understand that what we, or Mr. Flaherty, had done before was not important. That every single sequence was a new problem and had to be filmed in a new way and that the moment you started applying yesterdays lessons to today's problems, you were on the verge of becoming a bore. This was partly why Mr. Flaherty said that "our films are made with film and time, I need lots of both... "
When I look at Nanook of the North or Moana today, especially the version of Moana to which Monica Flaherty has added sound without changing a single frame of the original film, I am amazed at how modern both the filming and the editing appear. I now find it curious that in the literature of film, far more attention is lavished on the "new" and "advanced" theories of filming and editing exemplified by the Soviet School of Eisenstein, Pudovkin et al. Flaherty was usually described as a kindly "romantic" with an "instinctive" approach, certainly not as a theoretician. More recently, with the publication of Paul Rotha's "Robert Flaherty; A Biography" he has come under attack not only in this book but in reviews such as Brian Winston's, in the British magazine Sight and Sound where Flaherty is described as a slovenly, incoherent, profligate, and ultimately,as an apologist for 19th century imperialism. I suspect that it is these "critics" who are out of step with our times.
Flaherty taught me to concentrate on finding images. You can only do that if you use the camera as an extension of your own eye. You look, you search. Yes, you pan and tilt. You learn to look for light and position yourself to take advantage of its beauty. You learn to sense the movement of the camera in space. You think of the image not merely as a way of showing something but also as a way of withholding information, of creating tension in the viewer. Of not revealing too much. Of seeing things with different perspectives by using different focal-length lenses. Collecting images that are not obviously connected, to create a space of your own making. And so it goes, with the caveat that nothing counts until you see it on the screen. You look and you look until you know it's right.
These films are of particular interest to those of us that see film making as an art of revelation, perhaps closer to drawing and painting than to Broadway. With this in mind take a careful look at the way in which Flaherty created the sense of height in the sequence where the boy is perched on a cliff in Man of Aran, I still marvel at the way the waves are captured in the final storm sequence in that film, unique! The sequence in Moana where Pea climbs a coconut tree; the height is achieved, not by geometry as in a conventional approach, but by using long lenses and making the time of climbing the scaling device. Some sequences were made, I think, purely for their entertainment value. The ubiquitous tug of war scenes of Nanook, Man of Aran and Louisiana Story, but remember that the Flahertys had only one outlet for their work, the local Cinema where they had to compete with the great studio productions. There were no alternate markets, no TV, no film schools, no festivals.
For me, the most important aspect of these films is their humanness. The details in Nanook of the family, of play; of play and work. Likewise in Moana, I had not realized until Monica Flaherty and I went to the village where the film was made, but some 50 years later, set up a projector and showed it to the entire population with Pea, now a man of 60 speaking...they laughed, not derisive laughter but a laughter of joy at seeing the same human frailties that are still part of their lives today. When filming people of his own culture, whether they be roughnecks on an oil rig in Louisiana or skilled craftsmen in industrial Britain, his prime concern was their involvement and skill in doing what they did so well, it was his token of respect.
It is time to turn our backs on the ill informed and often spiteful writings of the second rate who want to build themselves by sniping at the great. No one was ever hurt on a Flaherty film. No one was exploited because no one ever got rich from these films. Sabu the Elephant Boy became a Star and a Hollywood real estate tycoon who could easily have bought and sold the Flahertys. And finally, Robert Flaherty never claimed to be an Anthropologist and was, quite rightly, suspicious of ideologues. He was a superb film maker who worked intimately with his wife Frances. They both paid dearly the price of being blessed with integrity.
___ . ___
With Louise Brooks, during filming of Lulu in Berlin (1984) During the Pabst era
A Conversation with Louise Brooks
By Richard Leacock
Spring 1967, I was in New Orleans with my friend Noel E. Parmentel Jr. attempting to get permission, from the courts, from the prosecutor, from the defendant and his council and ultimately from the Supreme Court of Louisiana, to film the preparations for, and the trial of, a distinguished citizen, accused of involvement in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It was my belief that a film of these proceedings properly made with the stipulation that the entire footage become part of the public record, might show what human, moral and financial damage can be wrought by an ambitious public official bent on using the power of office to gain notoriety. We succeeded in obtaining the permissions but had just been informed by our friends at the Public Broadcasting Service that they were no longer interested in backing our project "...because Jim Garrison doesn't have a case..."!
At this moment the phone rang and I found myself talking to Miss Sarah Caldwell, artistic director of the reconstituted National Opera Company. Miss Caldwell told me that she was preparing a production of Alban Berg's opera "Lulu" and that she had found outlines of brief films that Berg had intended to create and project as part of the opera... would I be interested in creating such film to be incorporated in her production ... ? I answered to the effect that I would love to but was afraid that tomorrow someone would tell her that she had asked the wrong person... but Sarah! He makes documentaries!". As I recall it she asked if I was a little bit crazy and if so then perhaps I could come up to New Hampshire where she was working and we could talk.
A vacated boarding school, a stream of people arriving, important people, singers, conductors, designers... public relations people, journalists... all waiting to talk to Sarah Caldwell. I ran into a friend from Harvard, we had worked together on a theater piece as undergraduates, he too was waiting for Sarah; we chatted. We chatted a lot. It seemed hopeless. Chaos, I looked at my watch and decided that I had better things to do in life and asked about a flight to Boston. Miss. Caldwell suddenly introduced herself and asked if I could wait till late that night and we would meet and talk ... midnight! I waited and we met on the school stage. A boy of about 13 was with us, he was to sing the part of the schoolboy that smokes cigars and wouldn't interrupt.
There was a long table covered with green baize, a PTA type coffee urn at one end, a case of Pepsi at the other and a bottle of Courvoisier in the center. Miss Caldwell and Dennis Crowly drank the Pepsis, I drank the coffee and we never touched the brandy.
Sarah Caldwell and I talked for three hours with no interruptions. Have, since then, worked on many projects with Miss. Caldwell. I have never known her to dismiss an idea out of hand. She never says "..oh that's corny...... You take every idea and you try it out ... and you go on to another, until something begins to build. Curiously I have very rarely encountered people with this open, playful and productive bent of mind. We had a wonderful time. The project was on; my first encounter with the spirit of Lulu.
After much trial and error my collaborator, Roger Murphy, and I came up with some interesting film projections. A central problem was to get rid of the "realistic" look of film and the give away format of the rectangular "screen". We wanted images in motion to "appear" rather than a "movie". Roger found a magic piece of Mylar in a shop on Canal Street, mirrored plastic that we used to distort images. We distorted in projection as well as in recording. We projected on many surfaces... but basic to our success was Lulu. We might have used the lady that sang the part but she was too busy to spend time in our foolish endeavors. I had been reading Wedenkind and Nietzsche in search of the Lulu myth... a young woman of exceptional beauty, fascinating to men and to women, a hedonist perhaps but certainly not a trollop; innocent, impetuous, and ultimately dogged by a train of disastrous relationships... Edie Sedgwick was living down the hallway at the Chelsea Hotel. Edie was our Lulu. She wore the same costumes and wigs and makeup.
A tragically accurate choice.
A touring opera company is a man made disaster, especially in the lesser cities of the United States. One night stands in ancient former movie Palaces with stages sometimes no more than 17 ft. deep! Every performance presented new problems for our projections. Chicago was the one great exception. There was time for a rehearsal, the union provided a young and willing crew and the Chicago Opera House has one of the largest stages in the world. There our efforts paid off and made it all worthwhile.
I had come to know "Lulu" the hard way.
In 1971 1 received a call from Hans Brecht of the North German Television network. He had decided to program G.W.Pabst's film "Pandoras Box" which starred the American actress Louise Brooks. Would I please go and film a short interview (about 15 minutes) with her and discuss the making of the film in 1928. He said that Miss Brooks now lived in seclusion in Rochester, New York. No, she did not have a listed number.
I wrote to Miss. Brooks to tell her that I intended to visit her with the intention of filming her. Louise called my office at MIT to tell me not to come. I was out to lunch and she panicked, she made her first mistake, she left her number. I returned her call and we had a wonderful fight, the first of many, ending up laughing at our bad manners and her saying "OK, you can come for a chat but be sure now! No tape recorder and no camera!". I went to Rochester and we had a wonderful time together playing intellectual ping-pong! What a serve! What a backhand! Eventually, in consideration of the "princely" sum of three hundred dollars which she insisted, be delivered to her before filming, as a certified bank check.
The subject of the interview was to be Louise's work with G.W.Pabst and more specifically, her work on "Pandoras Box", Berlin 1928.
It should be born in mind that, to those of us that grew-up in the 1930's, Pabst was considered to be among the most experimental and liberal of film makers. He had made Westfront 1918, an antiwar film, his first major sound film was to be "Kamaradschaft" which was not only an argument for peace, stemming from the international class solidarity of the miners, but used sound in ways that were both imaginative and effective. The dialogue had French speaking French and Germans speaking German, still a novelty today. Pabst had directed a German Language theater on 14th street, in New York, before World War 1. He was in Paris, on his way to Vienna when the war broke out and was interned for the duration. When World War 11 broke out, he was not so lucky and remained in his native Austria. He directed Paraceisus during the war years.
Louise Brooks and I remained admirers of Pabst.
I went to Miss. Brooks apartment with a 16mm camera and a tape recorder. Sandy D'Annunzio, a talented student from MIT accompanied me. Louise admitted us to her neat apartment. She asked that we remove our shoes. I suggested that she go about her normal daily routine and let me film her. "NO! We sit down at this table and you do what you have come to do!"
She was dressed in a house coat over her nightie, her feet were bare. She had a lot of powder on her face... I did not dare to ask that she change anything, her mind was obviously made up... Sandy filmed us with no more ado. It took about and hour and when we were done she asked that Sandy leave with the equipment. He did. When we were alone she remarked that she hadn't had a drink in five days in order to be in good shape for this, so she would cook an omelet while I went out and came back with a quart of Gin. "... I don't give a damn what brand but don't come back with a fifth! I want a quart, 'cos you and I are going to get drunk!".
I did as I was told.
A Conversation with Louise Brooks
Richard Leacock, Rochester, New York. 1973
RL ... as I understand it, when you decided to go, Pabst had never seen you, you'd never seen him, and I doubt if you even knew who he was.
LB Well, let me tell you about it. In September 1928 1 had been three years at Paramount in Hollywood, and I was terribly in love with George Marshall, he was a very rich young laundry man, had made a fortune in Washington with his laundries. He later became the owner of the famous Redskin Football team. He called me one day and said, "you know, in September, you know tomorrow your option comes up". He called me from Washington. I said "really" He said "your friend Monty Bell from MGM called me and told me all about it". And he said "now look, when you go in to see Mr. Schulberg he's going to tell you that he will keep you on at $750 a week but he wont give you a raise on your option" and he said "I also know that some guy in Berlin called Pabst wants you for a very famous picture I hear. And he'll give you a thousand dollars a week.. So you let Schulberg talk and when he's finished you say, thank you Mr. Schulberg but I'll quit and go to Germany". And that is what I did, much to Mr. Schulberg's surprise. And of course later he put out the story that I left because my voice was bad and didn't record well. So George wanted to go to Europe, and Pabst had never seen me, he'd seen one picture called "A Girl In Every Port" (directed) by Howard Hawks... And of course I'd never heard of him, but we met on the platform of the station Am Zoo... I don't know, it was just as if we had known each other for ever and it was marvelous... and it was the most curious experience I've ever had in my life, he understood me absolutely perfectly ... because that really was his genius.
RL Now, he spoke English, but you didn't speak German, right?
LB I never learned to speak any language...
RL Did he speak good English?
LB Oh he spoke excellent English, he spoke rather slowly and precisely and I've heard him speak German, French, Czech, English and he speaks them all exactly the same, as if he is attaching his words to your brain....
(At this point a fuse blew and our lights went out ... delay!)
RL From what I understood you were given an English version of the script but from what I remember you started shooting immediately..
LB Yes, and although we'd never met and never seen each other and knew nothing about each other, I say there was this marvelous affinity between us; and the second thing was this terrible shock when he saw George Marshall, tall, handsome guy with a...
RL Oh! He came with you?
LB Of course! That's why we went, because George didn't care about the film, he wanted to go to Europe for fun. And Pabst looked around and of course George was a huge, big, handsome, black-haired man with a drunken English valet. And don't forget, George was from West Virginia and he talked rather like that (spoken with a heavy southern drawl). And his valet staggering around with huge amounts of luggage and Pabst said ... and George explained who he was and immediately took charge of everything and Pabst was perfectly furious... and of course that was only the beginning, because every time we met I always had a guy, and a different guy and it was a long series, over the years, of his getting madder and madder; but at any rate we started the picture.
RL So OK, I'm thinking of two things at once; how long did George last?
LB Well, he drove Pabst absolutely insane because we started the picture. You see, they'd been waiting me for a long time, he'd been looking all over Europe for a girl to play this part, and he was going to give it to ... to ... er Marlene Dietrich, she was too old and the girl...
RL And this is the early, the early Dietrich.
LB- Yes, she was five years older than 1, I was 20, she was 25, but don't forget, she'd been around for years in Berlin where it was really rough...
RL I remember the early Dietrich, it was the pre...
LB The European when she was ... the "Blue Angel".
LB But you know, she was very knowing and suave, and as he said, onelook and Lulu would be dead. But at any rate, it was very hard to find a truly beautiful woman in Europe. Did you know that in Europe they weren't beautiful all over. And she came the closest and he said, "the very day I got the cable from you saying that you would come, she was sitting in my office and I was going to sign her."
RL But what I'm trying to get at is something that I think you quote from... um I think in your article which says Lulu is not a real character but...
RL But a compilation of primitive sexuality who inspired evil, unaware, she plays a purely passive role.
RL Now you weren't aware of this, right?
RL You didn't even know who Lulu was!?
LB I'd never heard of Wedekind, I'd never heard of Pabst I didn't know anything, I never did.
RL So he gave you a script.
LB Oh yes, you want to know about the script. That was amusing. He had all these German Jewish assistants, that's one reason I could never understand the Jews turning on him, because most of the ones who did turn on him, had worked for him, he had given them their first jobs, and they were very grand and they ordered me about..."Fraulein Brooks komen Sie hier!" and so on. He had to stop that, by the way, because I jumped, it was like they beat on my door "Fraulein Brooks ... !" and he said "Now Falkenberg, you mustn't do that, she gets very nervous." But at any rate, they brought it to me with a great, how do you call it, manner. I was sitting on the set with Josephine and my bottle of Vermouth and they brought me a huge script, I say it was this thick. He always had a huge script, he never used it, because he knew every instant what he was going to do, weeks before! He never touched the script.
RL But he knew it cold?
LB Yes. This was the script that they carried around; very important! In their white coats!
RL So he wasn't improvising the script?
LB He created all the time, he knew exactly. He had fun writing the script with the writer. They brought me this huge script, they put it on my lap and I looked at it. I had never read a script in my life! and I haven't yet! I opened it and read a few pages. I thought, oh my God! And it was very expensive, it was all translated! So I put it down by my chair and went on without it. When I came back it was gone. Zorn, Falkenberg ... Lothar Wolff I liked, he was Pabst's assistant, he was a very nice man, adored Pabst... but one of them picked it up furiously! Josephine said "you should have kept that!" Gee! I wish I had. It would be valuable now!
RL So actuary, when you got around to reading... to discovering what Lulu was about...
LB When I started writing here about ten years ago. I hadn't the vaguest idea...
RL Twenty years after the film was made...
LB Thirty! Let me finish about George Marshall because this is very funny. Pabst and George and Pabst's wife Trudi; she was quite young and had a little boy, I think he was about two, Peter who came to a tragic end. So Pabst and Trudi and Marshall and ... Marshall would take us... Marshall had a gift for finding... we'd go to Horsch's marvelous restaurant and always in tails. I don't think Pabst liked to get dressed up in tails and I don't think Trudi had many evening dresses. We had this wild week. I had to be on the set every morning, hot or cold, whether he used me or not, at nine o'clock, and George would have me up all night... and Pabst was furious. We'd all go out to dinner and Trudi would glare at me and refuse to speak English and Pabst was furious with George and George didn't give a damn! He spent a week there, he had my manager-, he had appointed my manager whom I gave a hundred dollars a week to, he told me how to pay each person and... took him to all the most expensive bordellos... oh he had an absolutely marvelous time. He was taking me to the theatre every night and I'd come on the set with klieg eyes... and so Pabst was furious; he didn't ask when he was leaving but suddenly one morning; I remember, we were shooting the murder scene and...
RL Where you murdered Doctor Schoen?
LB Yes, and Kortner was wandering around testing chocolate syrup to see whether it was sweet enough, you know, he had a sponge...... and George came on the set and he said to Pabst, "you'll be very happy" he said "I'm leaving tomorrow!" And Pabst said "I'm very happy..." (Laughter) So after that Pabst would not let me... every night someone would say to me, Louise does not go out to night! She goes to bed! So I would go to bed.
The funny thing about Lulu was this; he knew instinctively that I was Lulu and that was fine in the picture. Making the movie was perfect, he just turned me loose and I'd be all right, but off the set, he wanted me to be an intelligent woman, a well disciplined actress, and I wasn't! He kept taking drinks out of my hand; seeing that I was kept in my room and ... and he was furious because he approached people intellectually and you couldn't approach me intellectually because there was nothing to approach! So he was always a little bit mad at me.
RL But at the same time he was aware that you were a Lulu.
LB Oh! Absolutely! But he didn't like it! You see, he was mad at George, he was mad at all the succession of men.
RL (precis)Since you did not know the story, I've seen directors who take the actors and describe the whole motivation of the picture...
LB I knew nothing about the film! Never did until ten years ago.
RL I've seen the American film Love Them and Leave Them which is very
different from Pandoras Box so I was wondering how he discussed the motivation; how did he work?
LB- That's what I'm getting at. That is why, as I say, he was a great psychologist. He treated every one in a completely different manner. Most directors, most great directors, for instance Lubitsch, used the same technique with everyone. Lubitsch acted out every scene and acted it marvelously! I don't know whether I could have worked with him.
RL Showing the actor how to do it.
LB Every move! Every move! Eddie Goulding, the same way. He even showed Garbo how to cross the library, I mean the hotel lobby in Grand Hotel and he was right! Because they were extraordinary... but most directors are terrible ... but Pabst never acted out anything and he treated everybody completely differently. For instance, he sat one day with me and we were chewing on some old sauerkraut or something and he said "Louise! This afternoon you must cry!" and that's all he told me about the scene and I went into the scene and I cried. He would mostly give me a floor plan, he was more a choreographer with me, and I was a dancer, than anything else........ you come in slowly and you do this ... and this is the situation..." and that was the end.
RL Did he know that you were a dancer?
LB Yes, I say we knew each other. He found out during the picture. In the very first sequence I do a dance, old Shigoisch is playing the violin or something and Pabst said "...just make up some silly little dance..." and so of course, I went into an old Denis Shawn routine and when the scene was finished he grabbed me and said "Ah! But you are a dancer!", Not a very good one! but, but what I'm getting at is, that he treated everyone completely different. Now Kortner, the great actor from the theater! He would take him aside and he'd rehearse very carefully, they would talk over everything, but that didn't really mean anything because Pabst never wanted a set performance! He wanted it to be new and... so he would fool Kortner, for instance in the murder scene, to go back to that. I told you, Kortner had it all worked out and Pabst agreed, yes, so we started, mostly in a two shot, the gun going off, so Pabst kept changing the set up. Or he would take the gun out of Kortner's hand at a different time, so that in the end you see, Kortner wasn't giving a set performance at all. Of course any director can keep an actor fresh but he always treated Kortner as if he was going to do exactly the way that they had talked about. Kortner began to bellyache about his back, this marvelous back being humped over so many scenes, and he said "but you're only showing Miss Brooks..." and this started the thing that he was spoiling me ... This was a difficult picture because we were all difficult, the old man, was difficult, he was always getting drunk...
RL Shigolsch, but he should be..
LB He was a marvelous actor.
RL But he was right!
LB Yes he...
RL ... a dirty old man, maybe your father! And maybe your lover!
LB He was marvelous, he was perfect. He stunk! But the one he had real trouble with was Alice Roberts, her husband had put some money into the picture, she was a Belgium, is it Belgium? Yes?
RL Belgian, yes.
LB Belgium ... Alice Robear (phonetically)
RL I always thought it was Roberts (as in English)
LB You're just a lousy American!
RL That's right!
LB But she spoke just enough English to insult me! She was very tall and precise...
RL But did she have any idea that she was to play a lesbian?
LB No! That's the joke!
RL She was the Countess Geschwitz
LB Yes, and the scene she played, this was the very first scene she played in this picture, the wedding night when Kortner finds me dancing the tango with her, we are having a love affair on the side, .... I've forgotten her name, the Countess something, you just said it...
RL- The Countess Geschwitz
LB Well I'll call her Alice Roberts... she rehearsed the scene (singing) Adios muchachos... and she absolutely froze! and walked off the set , and Pabst, he was always very calm, and I thought, gee this is pretty funny because I'd known lesbians all my life...
RL I think you said that your best friend was a lesbian...
LB I was just reliving Lulu but I thought; now, what the hell is he going to do? Well, pretty soon he went off and I saw them talking, she in her black satin dress, and he was talking to her in French... and pretty soon they came back and she was smiling, and this is what he did. He let her look like as cross as possible in a two-shot because it was marvelous, she looked like a very repressed lesbian who was hiding...that glare! ... Then when he did close-ups with her, he would stand off and play the scene with her so that she could do a true love scene with him! (laughs) And she turned out to be marvelous. He was a director like... almost every director follows a pattern, pretty much treats everyone the same, but he didn't.
RL This scene had repercussions later on didn't it? One of the scenes, if I remember rightly, was completely cut out in England; in America it survived.
LB Oh no, they showed it in the States. What really killed the picture for us was the talkies (which) came in just at that time. I remember it ran on 55th street and they asked me to kind of make a personal appearance. I'd never seen it. I never saw it until I came-here in '56 and Jimmy Carr showed it to me. And I wouldn't go.
RL You mean you'd never seen it?
RL There is another question I want to ask in relation to Pabst. During the making of the film did you see the rushes?
LB No! He ... That's where he was very good, I said I didn't care to see the rushes any more than I care to hear this (interview). but when we made DIARY one day he said "you did that scene very well, come on in..." well, where ever he ran the rushes, "come into the studio" and I went in and I was just horrified and I heard him say to Faulkenberg "great mistake! Never do that again, never!" and that was it, he never did that again so I never knew at all, and never want to.
RL What horrified you about it?
LB About it?
RL I mean, because you looked gorgeous...
LB Well you know... don’t you see, that's why I was never an actress. I never was in love with myself. I would go to a party and I'd see Dolores Del Rio and Constance Talmedge and Constance Bennett... all these beautiful women and I'd say, you're the ugliest one here, you're black and furry, you've got freckles, your dress is not as attractive... in the end ... so, unless ... you can't be a great actress unless you think you're beautiful and you... it's of the essence.
RL I'm wondering in what sense you mean a great actress, because you're a contradiction of this...
LB No! To be a great actress you must know what you are doing. When I write my little pieces I know exactly what I am doing. When I acted I hadn't the slightest idea of what I was doing; I was simply playing myself, which is the hardest thing in the world to do. You can give most actors any part in the world and they can play it but you say "be yourself" and they get terribly self-conscious. This is why I never learned to act. I never had any trouble playing myself.
RL Was Pabst involved in choosing your costumes, in your taste and-the way you used your body?
LB He went to every fitting with me, he chose all my costumes. And for instance the wedding dress, we got into a fight about that because I said "why have you got my train tied all around my waist for God's sake? It looks silly!" He said "you've got the train tied on because when you get in a fight in the bedroom scene you mustn't have that train and you've got to sit down and untie it ... and will you shut up!" Everything, the material ... the costume in the nightclub was just two strips over my bosom; he would test all these things out. But what was I getting at? Something about Pabst and clothes. Oh! then, I'll never forget, he went to my trunk in the hotel Eden and he said "now look, lets go through your clothes, you have to pick out something for the last scene when you are down and out in London and whoring." And he went through everything ... dozens and Josephine pulled out all these things and finally he picked out my favorite suit, it was blue... that's what makes it work... In America, the United States, most directors have no idea what a girl should wear in a picture. The dress designer would come down on the set with a lot of designs, the director would look at them, okay them and that was all, he was not connected in any way really, with the picture except in the direction. The same about the set, Pabst himself, some days, would go around if he wanted shadows for instance going up into the attic in London where they lived. These marvelous stairs and Pabst himself would supervise the spraying of what you make it smoky with. Everything was integrated with him. So back to the suit, I said "well that’s my favorite suit and it's damned expensive!" and he said "no no, that's all right..." So he took it away and the morning came to shoot the scene and Josephine disappeared and came back with my suit...
RL It was your own suit? Right?
LB He often used my clothes.. half the clothes would be mine because he changed the
scene and I.. he'd say "bring me a dressing gown..." bring anything and so on.. so she came back with my costume and I looked at it. My God! The skirt had been torn and ripped and dipped in oil, the lovely blouse was a mess, the coat he threw away.. I only wore the blouse and I began to weep.. I said, but that's my suit.. oh, it's the way he did things that was so amusing, because anybody else would have gotten some rag tag.. bought something to do that.. but he wanted something that was mine, that I loved, so that I would feel terrible in it and I did.. you know.. my beautiful suit and it was ruined so it made me feel like this.. and that's how I was in the end of the picture..
RL This, compounded with the fact that the man who played Jack the Ripper was someone that you found enormously attractive..
LB Yes.. he was very clever about knowing whom I found attractive, that's why I couldn't go out with this one or that one you see, "but you can go out with him!". He knew that I detested Franz Lederer, who later became Francis Lederer here in America, he... he felt that I was important since Pabst was so fond of me that he should pretend to be in love with me, that's a great actor's trick, so he would bring me his photograph and give it to Josephine; he didn't speak English, so he would bring a bouquet of flowers and of course I would be very annoyed. Alva loved this because he's a very weak man in the film as Dr. Schon's son and I don't really like him in the picture, when I kissed him and made love to him I was just doing it to pass the time. But the moment that Diesel came on the set for something or other, I don't think he (Pabst) had given him the part yet, they were very close friends, Diesel worked in practically every picture that Pabst made until he (Diesel) died.. and he (Pabst) saw that we just adored each other and I think that was the happiest scene of the whole picture, the final scene which he did.. he (Pabst) shot as much as possible in sequence, he could do that because it was almost all interior, in the studio and he had all the sets built and ready to go when we started. And this was very intimate, there was only Diesel ...and I and the cameraman and they didn't have a huge staff the way they have now, and we had a lovely time between scenes. Here he is with a knife which he's going to stick up into my interior, thrown on the table and we'd be singing and I'd be doing the Charleston, you know most actors and directors, between scenes in a tragic thing like this... they're all getting into the mood of the nude, as we say in Kansas, and concentrating perhaps on the dialogue... Pabst said I needed music because it was the fashion in America ... he had an old piano player ... I really didn't want it... and it was very useful between scenes. So as I said, we had a wonderful time, Diesel and I and Pabst, laughing and talking we'd do this whole tragic ending, you would never know, you'd think we were ... it was a Christmas party!
RL I'm tempted to ... I was very impressed reading last night in your article on this whole thing ... to me it’s... it sort of gave me goosepimples, can you read it without glasses?
RL because I can..
LB No, you read it..
RL I'm not sure that I can... I’m getting old.. "it is in the worn and filthy garments of the street walker that she feels passion for the first time; comes to life so that she may die; when she picks up Jack the Ripper on the foggy London street, he tells her he has no money to pay her, she says 'never mind, I like you'. It is Christmas Eve and she is about to receive the gift that has been her dream since childhood, death by a sexual maniac." I think you wrote that... not Wedekind...
LB (indifferently) Yes.. Yes..
RL To me it is very moving... Now, what haven't we talked about?
LB Well, let me go on chronologically ... oh you want to talk about Lulu?
RL I'd sort of like to ... What intrigues me is the Lulu in real life. To what extent... having made the film not knowing really what Lulu was about... to what extent has your life been, in a sense, a life of Lulu...and I'm wondering about other people...
LB Well, let me go on with the story and I'll get to that. We finished the picture at the end of November and I returned to New York and George Marshall met me. Now mind you, he loved beautiful women and he loved famous women and my being a famous actress was part of his affection for me. So I got back to New York and he said now, we've opened up a new company, RKO-1 Joseph Kennedy has formed the company and they want you to sign a contract. And I said no, I said I hate California and I'm not going back! Now George was a man who never said anything, he never complained to me about anything, he always went into action ... So I went over and they said "we'll give you five hundred a week to do.." I think they wanted to do a well known book called "Bad Girl", I think they finally did it at Universal. And I said "Well... No" I said flatly "I don't want to do it". So George didn't say anything ... We went back to the Lombardy, he had a couple of drinks and he gave me one shove and knocked me against the bed and I split my head wide open ... I'd been wearing my hair up ... so I put my bangs back. Then he said well... what do you want to do and I said I don't know ... so he went back to Washington and left me there in a huge suite at the Lombardy and as usual I was running out of money; although I made an awful lot of money it seemed to disappear all the time and of course he would spend a lot of money on me too and he didn't like that a terrible lot and so...we got into a fight and I ... disappeared ... with another man ... and, about that time, in April, I got a cable from Mr. Pabst and he said that Rene Clair was making a picture "Prix De Beauté" in Paris and he wants you to play the part ... so come at once! He always gave me orders, so I.. although I wouldn't go to Hollywood, I would go to Mr. Pabst. So I got on a boat and I got there in May and I went to get photographed, still, publicity pictures made with Rene Claire, who spoke very little English. He was a very small, demure, rather fragile man...
RL I never met him, I've always admired him enormously.
LB and he took me back to the hotel in a cab afterwards. We finished the photographs and were riding down the Champs Elysée and he said "Look, you know I'm not going to make this picture" he said "Dr. Pinet says they haven't any money even to start the picture, it'll be months before they get it together ... I'm backing out and if you're wise you will too" I said "Well, I have a contract and it's all signed and sealed in New York and George Marshall made it so that I can't get out of it, I'll have to do it. Well, exit Rene Clair. So there I was, holed up in the Royal Monceaux with nothing to do. I didn't know anybody and all of a sudden Mr. Pabst appeared. He was on his way to London and he asked me out, and this is a rather strange happening. I went with him and Dr. Pinez and somebody else and they said "where do you want to go?" and I said Chez Laurent, it was a place with a colored band, I went there every night. So we went there and we sat down and Pabst wasn't pleased with me, I was drinking. His idea of a drink for me was a fruit salad in a pitcher surrounded by a little Champagne, a Kaiser Cup or some such thing, but I was drinking a brandy or something ... and over across the way I saw Townsend Martin, he was one of the aristocrats in New York who'd gone into movies and wrote the script, incidentally, for "Love 'Em and Leave 'Em" but he quit then, he didn't care, he was rich; and there he was, sitting with this great English lady, the Honorable Mrs. Daisy Fellows, did you ever hear of her?...
LB ... well she had a yacht and Townsend loved money, like all rich people. So I was very bored with the people I was with... and sent the waiter over to tell Mr Martin to come to my table.. he was in love with me, we'd come over on the llle De France together. He didn't come.. and Mr. Pabst, in the usual German fashion, had given me a bouquet of roses, a cluster of roses.. well, finally Townsend came over, and he was a tall blond man and he bent over to me and he said "I'm terribly sorry Louise but I couldn't leave Daisy alone.." Whereupon I took this bouquet and sliced him across the face, leaving a trickle from the thorns..
RL Of blood?!
LB Of blood of course..
RL Oh marvelous..
LB And he was a gentleman and he laughed.. but Mr. Pabst.. I thought he was going to kill me right there, and all the men sitting at the table.. and Mr. Pabst said "Oh! I'm terribly sorry.." He knew Carlton.. Carlton said "that's all right.." he said, so Mr. Pabst grabbed me and took me back to the Royal Monceaux. The next morning he said he had to go on to London, so we said good-bye and I thought nothing more about it. So I went down to Cannes, my rich friends had paid my fare, I was getting a thousand a week but they paid my fare to Cannes and set me up in a hotel... no, we went to Antibes and I stayed there for a week and came back and they still didn't have a director for "Prix De-Beauté". Then the phone rang one morning and said "Louise? Mr. Pabst!" I said yes he said "I'm going to make a picture with you in it and you're to come to Berlin." I said "all right" and he said "Now of course it's my company and I can't pay you a thousand a week, I'll give you $500 and you get on the train and come" So I got on the train and I went and that is how we came to make "Diary" but then again, this time I had in tow the Eskimo. He was half Swedish and half English, a darling boy! They had sent him to Lon... to Paris to work in a bank there but he would turn up in the morning in tails so he got fired! He was living on a small allowance and I met him at a party and he came to live with me and so naturally when I went to... they called him the Eskimo because his hair was perfectly blonde so it looked like a fur cap, so he was called the Eskimo. So when I got off the train and I had a... my finger was broken because I had shut the door and I had to be taken at once to have my fingernail taken off, and there was the Eskimo and he (Mr. Pabst) said " and who is this?", and I said "the Eskimo! The Baron Biek!" he was really a Baron but that didn't impress Pabst... so all the time we made Diary I had Eskie in tow...
RL Wait... you had Eskie, who else was in your entourage, who sort of traveled with you?
LB That's all..
RL Just the two of you... huh? I'm beginning to have visions of your maid..
LB No, no! Oh the maid, only the maid..
RL Only your maid..
LB Yes, so... er... but Mr. Pabst was very firm about the Eskimo. The Eskimo would come to the studio every day, he would get up at about eleven, he'd go to the Eden bar and bring out a lot of cold meats and Mr. Pabst and he and I would have lunch. When we went to do the location shots at the end of the picture, Mr Pabst took me aside and said "you are not to bring that boy with you, do you understand?" and so I did not bring him along.. and an amusing thing about how clever Mr. Pabst was with me; our cameraman on that picture was Seff Algier(?), he's the one that made six pictures with Leni Riefenstahl including Pitzpaloo with Pabst and he also shot "Triumph of the Will" for Leni.. do you know, she had 18 cameramen on that picture and forty-four on Olympia! Can you imagine? Oh, so I liked Seff very much, he was the only cameraman I was always really attracted to. He was a beautiful Austrian blonde, marvelous muscles, a champion skier, and one day he even came on the set in his shorts, and Mr. Pabst said "what are you doing coming out here? Well he's showing his muscles ... go out and put your pants on,". One night in a hotel there was practically no one there except us, every one had gone to bed except Seff and I and we were sitting at the bar. He was drinking beer and I was having something, we were having a lovely time, the whole place to ourselves when suddenly the bar door opened and Pabst stuck his head in and said "Louise! Go to bed!".. how he knew we were there I don't know, and he gave Seff a dirty look and so we disappeared. What else do you want to know about "Diary"?
RL You did mention that you were drinking...
LB Oh, I didn't drink much then, no, no.
LB Well, drinking was part of life, I grew up in that prohibition and everyone drank.
RL There is something I'd like to know more about. As a boy, I must have been thirteen, someone in London took me to a dance recital. I'd never been to a dance recital, I'd been to the Ballet but this was modern dance and the name (of the dancer) stuck indelibly in my head, I don't know a blessed thing about dance; it was Valeska Gert, I remember it vividly because she had a very loose costume on, and her breasts kept flapping out, and I was terribly impressed. So then I saw the credits on "The Diary of a Lost Girl" and there was that name and then, to make another huge jump, the name appeared again on Fellini's "Eight and a Half"... so you knew her and worked with her.
LB She asked me out too because I adore going to lesbian and pansy places and those were among the things I wasn't allowed, so Pabst very cleverly told her that I didn't like... he didn't say I didn't like her but he said that in our scenes she'd been rather rough, if you remember she was the head of the reformatory and I was one of the inmates and that is when she does the wonderful scene of the orgasm which was cut in most places ... It's marvelous... oh she was great, Pabst's reaction to actresses is very interesting, he adored Valeska Gert and he used her in three picture, he used her in Diary, Joyless Street... she played the marvelous scene with the butcher where instead of...
RL I haven't seen that..
LB Oh it's wonderful, it's all set up, the man who set it up was the big fat butcher, to have an affair with Garbo, and he's sitting there with pail, languid (Garbo), and suddenly over the screen which is dark at the top, you know those French screens, through the screen he sees this leering face with a slight black moustache. In fact she was the Madame, so he says to hell with this milkless, bloodless thing and goes to bed with Gert... oh it was a wonderful scene ... Pabst adored Gert...
He (Pabst) would be on the set at seven in the morning, with the cameraman and by nine o'clock he and the cameraman ... he was behind the camera almost as much as the cameraman, everything was so easy, there was no strain about it ever...
I was fascinated with Pabst and his women, how he felt about them. Garbo, when I met Pabst in '28, he said you've met Garbo, I said yes. Do you know her pretty well? I said pretty well, one's always very careful of this; oh he raved about her and one day we had tea in his apartment, Heinrich Mann and other people, a very intellectual tea and very boring, but he took me to a big cupboard and he had just hundreds of stills of Garbo. Oh he thought she was marvelous, and he showed me all these stills and talked about her and talked about her and then he talked about Lilli Damita. Damita was the one who went to America and married Errol Flynn. She was a Portuguese girl who grew up in France and had the most beautiful body I ever saw; not the face... not so good, and she never was a success... but she had the temper of an absolute devil. I got in a fight with her once and she damn near killed me. So one night, after the bouquet incident, back in a night club in Berlin, Pabst said... you know I haven't forgotten that... you make me think of Lilli Damita, he said, she's the only girl... Lilli incidentally was a lesbian, he said "We were sitting in this very restaurant with Lilli Damita and she got mad at someone across the room and she picked up one of those big iron ashtrays we used to have and threw it across the room and missed this man by just that and broke the mirror..." and somehow I could tell he had forgiven me but he never forgave Lita and I'm talking about people who worked with him, Lita... that's a person he hated and he usually didn't talk about her...
RL In your article you describe Pabst, in relation to Pandora's Box where in a sense you felt that Pabst was also acting the role of Dr. Schoen in relation to you, and I think you say that he was not aroused by sexual love, which he dismissed as an enervating myth...
LB ... sexual love...
RL... it was sexual hate which engrossed his whole being with flaming reality...
LB Yes, he didn't believe in any kind of ... he was not a sentimental man which was the one thing that made him great because that didn't bother him. But I want to finish this. The other woman who had such an influence on his life and connected him so closely to Nazism was that Leni Riefenstahl. He had made Pitzpaloo with her before he made Diary. I'd heard a lot about all the dangers of Pitzpaloo and I knew she was a good friend of Seff Alger's.. but suddenly she started coming on the set every day.. and she was a strange looking girl, front face she had a rather oval face, mildly pretty, and the profile was sharp, intelligent, a hook nose, a strong strong face ... but she came on the set to make love to Mr. Pabst and that made me mad because I was the star of the picture. She had beautiful legs and that annoyed me too, and she would always be grabbing him and taking him off to corners, and I watched all the time to see how he reacted to her and although now she talks as if she could just twist him around her fingers but she worked out on him and of course she learned from him... oh, she was very intelligent, she learned an enormous amount about directing from him ... but I knew she was trying to wheedle him into using her in a picture, and I would watch him and he was so clever, and so nice but he always pushed her away.
You know Leni Riefenstahl did an hour's TV show on Camera Three telling about how abused she'd been and what not. She told some terrible lies... she said she didn't know in 1939 until she went to New York, and the reporters asked her if she'd heard about the persecution of the Jews and she said no, she hadn't heard a thing about it, she thought it was just an ugly rumor, propaganda ... so she's been all these years trying to put Pabst into the Nazis...
I want to get back to Pabst and his feel for materials and clothes. When we did the scene in Diary, Fritz Raft, as you know, plays the role of the chemist... er... chemist's assistant, who seduces me first, and come the time when we were to do the scene where he has made me promise that I would get out of bed at eleven at night and come down and meet him in the pharmacy so that he... Pabst went through a lot of nightgowns, felt them and finally he picked out a nightgown and now, he said, you've got a lot of Japanese robes of silk like this but softer... he said let’s go and look in your trunk, so we went and looked in my trunk and he picked out a soft blue and white one and he said, that's it, so I wake up in bed and I get up and I come down, and the scene begins where we talk and then Ralph holds me and then we turn and... he was a very big man which helped, and I liked him very much of course ... and then I faint and fall down and just... in one marvelously graceful swoop, he picks me up... just like a beautiful piece of silk ... and that's all! Really, sex is so different now, isn't it? But you got more sex out of that scene ... just the way he picked me up and moved out through the curtains... They cut the scene where he takes me up to bed and the wine is spilt across the bed. This was all a scene of touch... almost no words ... it was really a ballet!
RL At Eastman House, Jim Card showed me a print of "Love 'Em and Leave 'Em" and almost every other scene seems to be a title. You see somebody talking and then there is a title, you see somebody talking and there's another title, title, title title... and then you look at a Pabst picture and my memory of that is very few titles. There are titles but dialogue titles are very few.
LB Is that right?
RL It seems sought of magic, so much of it is done visually, to act from dialogue to dialogue..
LB You know I think you are right, contrary to the opinions of peoples jokes, that you could say anything and be vulgar and talk about other things while you were playing a scene.. it wasn't true... because all the dialogue I ever spoke, and usually I spoke it in German ... for instance when...
RL You were given German lines to read?
LB Well, he usually directed in German, but I remember when I looked down I said "Der Blut" that was one of my best German lines... Oh I must tell you about that, German... Pabst directed almost entirely in German because he had this thing, and he hadn't much to say to me and I learned a few words... so we did a scene where I run out of the apothecary to find the housekeeper who was played by Ludmila Schmidt, she jumped out of the window and I find her... so I rushed out the door and stopped, he said "Duer! Louise, Duer! Damn it! can't you speak English?" So I stopped dead, then I looked around and realized that if I didn't shut the door it wasn't lighted er... it wasn't lighted to leave the door open. He would get so confused... that's why I think he directed mostly in German... after that I learned what it means to close the door...
RL I'm wondering about your life today, I know you're writing a lot...
LB I just live very quietly here. I don't live any differently than I've always lived. I remember in New York, sometimes the maid or some one would be sent to knock on my door, I wouldn't go out for a week. It's always been my habit to live very much alone but once in a while I miss very much knowing brilliant and intelligent people from whom I've learned everything. I've even forgotten... I was rereading that marvelous book, South Wind by Norman Douglas.. I hadn't read it since I was young and I was astonished, I couldn't remember the meaning of the words and couldn't pronounce half of them, my vocabulary has decreased to nothing because I don't meet any brilliant people anymore, I'm just left with myself and my writing...
Though I admire Pabst's Pandoras Box I think that Wedekind would have been very upset by it. In the original play you start with the characters introduced as animals in a traveling menagerie. The plot then develops with absurdity piled upon absurdity to an apex where Lulu is "involved" with; Dr. Schoen, to whom she is then married; with Dr. Schoen's son (as close to incest as you could get away with in 1896); with Rodrigo, a traveling circus performer; with a twelve year old schoolboy who smokes cigars; with Schigolch, a drunken old man who may be her father (incest again); with the Countess Geschwitz (a lesbian relationship); all in the same house at the same time! Pabst took out enough to make it "plausible". I doubt that Wedekind would have countenanced that.
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