Some people live at the movies; some people live in the movies. Gene Stavis lives with the movies — literally thousands of them. His New York apartment is piled high with reel after reel of 16mm films, crowding any available flat surface (his collection numbers 2,000 feature films and 1,000 shorts). Films are more than his profession or his hobby, they’re his addiction — in a good way.
Currently a professor in the film department of the School of Visual Arts, Stavis has worked in film distribution, co-produced documentaries about film (“The Men Who Made the Movies”) and taught courses on topics ranging from film noir to classic comedy to the history of animation. Are you sensing a pattern? Gene Stavis is at home with film. Grin without a Cat’s Editor-in-Chief Adam Blair spoke to him about a few aspects of his favorite topic.
GRIN: In general, what are some attributes that you think are important for a film historian to have?
GENE STAVIS: A film historian has to have seen a lot of films. I mean it seems self-evident, but a lot of film historians don’t; they read books and they are theorists. But a film historian, first and foremost, has to be able to reference a whole world of films, and a very eclectic kind of film viewing: silent, sound, American, foreign, commercial, non-commercial — you have to know your subject.
Movies have been around since 1893 and they’ve been very popular, so there are lots of them to see. Lots of them are missing, because a lot of the silent era, 80% of it, is not known to exist today, so there’s a lot of archeology involved — searching out things that aren’t around anymore, or are not easily found.
It’s become a little easier now with DVDs, because a lot of people, when they find these things, are transferring them to DVD and remastering them, although there’s an awful lot of bullshit around about remastering. The studios do it in order to sell more copies — every time they come out with a new format, they want you to buy it again, so they put out special editions and two-disc versions and they say they’ve restored them, but restoration is a term that really ought to be used for something that is very special. Simply printing up a print from a negative is not restoration.
It’s like the Library of Congress with their National Film Registry, every year they choose 25 films to be protected. Well, nine times out of 10 the film that they’ve chosen is already protected — they don’t need any more protection. But it’s a public relation gimmick.
There are very few film historians who actually have seen a huge number of films. A lot of film historians, as I said, are people who are book historians.
GRIN: Is that in part because film is [only] about 110 years old — it’s a relatively new thing to be historical about?
STAVIS: Yes. When I was in college in the 1960s, there were very few real film historians, and it was not considered a legitimate field. There were hardly any film schools. The studios supported a couple of film schools in California, UCLA and USC, and there were small programs in places like Northwestern and NYU, but it was very rare for a school to have a film department. And if they did have a film department, it was primarily teaching people how to make little short films. Film historians are people who had to come to it themselves — there was no training course. Film historians are usually reformed film addicts.
GRIN: Are you a reformed film addict, or are you still an addict?
STAVIS: Still. Look around!
GRIN: How did you first get interested in film? How did the bug first bite you?
STAVIS: The first movie I ever saw when I was a kid. And I loved movies — everyone else loved movies, so I wasn’t unique. But I was interested in finding out more about them. I remember early on, my uncle said to my mother, ‘What’s this movie business he’s so crazy about? What did he want to be, a projectionist?’ It was a put-down, but I couldn’t think of anything nicer than being a projectionist.
GRIN: You get to watch movies for free.
STAVIS: Exactly. But eventually when I got to college, I started a film society — there was no such thing at Boston University — because there were a lot of films I wanted to see that I couldn’t see. I figured if I could get other people to see them, I could get paid for looking at them. So I started the first film society at Boston University. Then I discovered that there was a tiny little department in the school of Public Communication — in those days it was called the school of Public Relations and Communication. I was an English major. I said ‘You can major in film? What the hell am I doing here?’ So I changed, and in my last two years I majored in film. And because I was interested in film and because I had known something, a little bit, about it, I began to meet people and network with people around the country and around the world who were also interested in film, and I kept learning.
GRIN: Were there particular film genres that appealed to you at different times?
STAVIS: Everyone goes through a kind of progression. When I started out, what interested me were foreign films. That was the great era of foreign films, the 1960s and 70s, when every week there was a new Fellini, a new Antonioni, a new Satyajit Ray, a new Truffaut — there was an embarrassment of riches and so there were wonderful new films to see. And I was kind of a snob about American films. But eventually I began to discover American films, not unlike the French film critics who discovered American films, and I became much more eclectic. So that by the 70s I was really into every kind of film there was.
I think you have to go through stages — some people never outgrow those stages, some people remain snobs all their life, and some people remain kind of fans of trash all their life. It’s a big world, and you can study whatever you want.
I think that I’m unusual in that my tastes are broad and eclectic. A lot of people specialize, in Westerns, musicals, certain stars, certain eras. I sort of wanted to be a generalist, and I am a generalist.
GRIN: You’ve taught [courses] in a lot of different genres [at the School of Visual Arts].
STAVIS: Yes, I can teach any genre. They asked me this summer if I could teach a course in the history of animation. I said ‘Why not?’ And I did. I needed a little refresher every once in a while. But my collection is over 2,000 feature films, and probably another 1,000 shorts on 16mm, original prints, so I can really just go to the shelf and illustrate anything I want.
“It’s bigger than you are, it’s controlling you.”
GRIN: Is there something different about actually having the 16mm print itself?
STAVIS: Oh, yes there is. First of all, the experience of seeing films that were made prior to the 1990s was primarily a theater experience. So you had to go someplace other than your house; you had to pay to get in; you had to be there by a certain time. You were put into a dark room with a very big screen, surrounded by strangers. And you experienced a film under those conditions, which meant that the film was, first of all, unstoppable. It was like going to a symphony concert, you have no choice, you can’t rewind it, you can’t pause it. It’s there, it’s bigger than you are, it’s controlling you rather than you controlling it, which is what you do on video.
You’re also in a dark room with strangers, which is a slightly erotic sensation. It’s what bothered people at the turn of the century about movies, why movies were considered kind of risqué and salacious — not only because of the subject matter but because it was unseemly to be in this situation with temptation like that — where your emotions were being stirred up.
GRIN: And it’s a public place but you’re having a private experience.
STAVIS: Yes. Well, you’re having a semi-private experience. When you laugh there are people laughing with you, when you’re crying there are people sniffling around you, and presumably when you’re excited there are people being excited around you. It’s a potent experience, when you’re watching a film. When you’re watching a video it’s a little bit of a potted experience. That’s a wonderful British expression, when they take a wild plant and put it in a pot. It’s, you know, tamed. It’s under your control. It’s the same screen on which you see Ty-D-Bowl commercials and Bill O’Reilly. It’s disposable; it’s a disposable image.
Now I don’t hate video and I don’t hate DVD — I just think it’s like a Xerox of a great painting. It’s not the same experience.
GRIN: Do you find it difficult relating to your students, who probably grew up mostly with video and DVD?
STAVIS: I’m clearly different from those students, and they know that. I’m not only old enough to be their grandfather — and I explain this the first day. I explain the difference between the two, and I say ‘It’s not your fault you don’t know this, because you haven’t grown up with this.’ But the people who made these films expected them to be seen under those circumstances. People who make films today, in the back of their minds, they’re thinking that people are probably going to watch this on video. And that’s a different approach to making films.
“They were formulaic, but they were formulaic on a fairly high level.”
GRIN: Do you think that’s affected the style and actual content of films?
STAVIS: Without question. That’s why we have films that don’t have any slow parts. That’s why we have films that have explosions every 10 minutes. Because on a little tamed potted screen, you’ve got to keep people’s attention, all the time, in very crude ways. And you can’t be subtle. Or you can be subtle, but it’s the exceptional films that are subtle.
The main run of films is pretty unsubtle, and pretty, I don’t know, thin. There are really good filmmakers making films today, as there always have been, but the audiences are kind of spoiled, because they are used to being spoon-fed stuff — simple stuff, simply presented. Complexities are not encouraged in modern films. They were, in older films, and it was astonishing what they expected audiences to understand.
Not that audiences were any smarter back then, but they simply had more time to let it settle in, and they had a different experience. They weren’t smarter — people are better educated today — but they were treated like equals in a way by the filmmakers, whereas today filmmakers tend to talk down to the audience. ‘You can’t do this in a film because they won’t get it.’
GRIN: I agree with some of what you’re saying, but some of, for instance, old Hollywood films seem very formulaic.
STAVIS: They were formulaic, but they were formulaic on a fairly high level. If you look at comedies, for instance, from the 1930s and 40s — they expected audiences to understand a lot about European culture, about classical music, about pop music, about great literature — everyone knew, at least vaguely, what Gulliver’s Travels was about. I wouldn’t say that’s true today.
There’s a sense that, since everything is available online, and it’s so easily accessed through search engines, that you don’t really have to know anything. It’s all there if you need to know it. But of course what you’re overlooking is, the fact that knowledge exists somewhere and can be accessed is not the same as knowing it.
“A director who has directed many times before has a kind of arsenal of experience.”
GRIN: When you teach your classes, do you talk about the business of film, i.e. how the studio system might have affected it, distribution, foreign films — all those elements?
STAVIS: Sure. You can’t talk about film in a vacuum. Film was always a business, and it was always run by businessmen. Different kinds of businessmen than there are today. Businessmen in those days were showmen. They weren’t cultured, they were uncouth, they were barbarians in many cases — but they knew what they liked, and they were making enough films, in such volume, that they could afford to take the loss every once in a while on something they knew wouldn’t be very commercial. Today, every film is like a separate corporation. It costs tens of millions of dollars; you can’t afford to make flops; you can’t afford to take chances.
Because there was such a volume of films, there was a real school for people to learn on cheap films. Actors, directors, set designers — they could all sort of make their mistakes out of town as it were. People who got to direct films, in general, and got to be craftspeople in film, were people who really knew their stuff, because they had been through a lot of them. Today you get to direct a film by how good your agent is. If you have a good agent you can direct a film. Actors direct films, I mean…
GRIN: Sometimes well and sometimes not.
STAVIS: Well, how do you know? I mean, you know, I worked with Robert Redford very closely when he was just coming up as an actor, he had just made Butch Cassidy and he was about to make Downhill Racer, and he was beginning to take control of his films a little bit. And when he eventually did direct a film, Ordinary People, he won the Academy Award for that as Best Director. And I said, I have no idea of whether he can direct or not, and I don’t think anyone else does. Because you get a top cameraman, and a top editor and a top writer, and cast it carefully, and you know…
GRIN: But isn’t that what any director does? How do you draw the distinction?
STAVIS: A director who has directed many times before has a kind of arsenal of experience. An actor doesn’t; and particularly an actor who directs himself. But listen, there have been wonderful films directed by actors. Vittorio de Sica was an actor; Fellini was an actor; Sydney Pollack was an actor. These are all people who have been actors. However, I suspect that when actors get to direct films because they’re famous, that it’s more of a fluke when it works. I mean, Kevin Costner directs…
GRIN: What do you think are some of the things that go into being a good or even a great director? Is it the ability to have the whole picture in your head?
STAVIS: Yes, that’s very important. Because you are a kind of ringmaster. Truffaut made a lovely film about directing a movie called Day for Night, in which he said a director is a man who answers questions. Which alarm clock do you want in the scene, this one or that one? What color do you want the dress, this one or that one? Do you think this is good here, or here? A million questions a day he has to answer, and he has to have the experience and the knowledge and the talent to make the right answers. And of course he won’t always make the right answers. If he’s made the mistake before, he’ll be able to see it before he makes it again. So experience counts. Otherwise you’re reinventing the wheel every time you start. So I think there’s something to be said for a track record. It’s harder to get a track record today; it’s harder for actors to perform today than it used to be. Harder for everybody.
“Films were, to many people, much sexier in the 30s, when they had very strict limits.”
GRIN: Why do you say it’s harder for actors? I would think there’s more opportunity with television having expanded the way it has.
STAVIS: Television is not open to new things. They used to say when you went to a Broadway musical you walked out whistling the tunes. Today people like to walk in whistling the tunes. No surprises.
GRIN: That’s what some people like about it.
STAVIS: And that’s something that’s changed. That’s the reason we have Rocky I, II, III, IV, V, because…
GRIN: That’s why they invented Roman numerals.
STAVIS: Because that’s what they liked before, that’s what they’re going to like next time. The irony is that the reverse is usually true. Audiences think they want to see what they’ve seen before, but when they see something really new, they get much more excited. And then that something new gets turned into a cliché, it’s a whole progression that happens. But they’re really looking for something new, even though they’re scared to say it, they’re scared to look for it. They need something, novelty — they get it too often these days through mechanical means — special effects, and through explosions and through expanding the limits in sexuality and nudity and brutality and all these things that they do today.
Films were, to many people, much sexier in the 30s, when they had very strict limits. It’s interesting that the same era that had the strictest censorship in the history of movies is also known by another name: the Golden Age in American movies. There’s something to be said for limits that you can fight against.
GRIN: Coming up against them is sexier, it’s more interesting.
STAVIS: It’s like living in New York as opposed to living in Dubuque. You wake up in New York and you have to sort of fight your way through the day. And it makes people more creative and more alert and more interesting. When you have censors who say ‘You can’t do this,’ it’s much more interesting because your mind starts working on ways that I can do this. Instead of saying there’s no censorship, do whatever the fuck you want — and then what do you get? You get what you get today.
“I could watch a film 100 times as long as I have 100 different audiences.”
GRIN: I’m wondering if, with the ability to have things put on DVD, whether your students come in and know some more of the older films than they might have.
STAVIS: The reverse is true. Because it’s there, they take it for granted. And unless they get that adrenaline rush from the film, they don’t want to sit through it — unless they’re forced to sit through it. And that’s, for good or ill, what I do in class, is I make them watch it. And in order to do it — I’m different from most teachers, because most teachers have seen these films so often that they just put it on and leave the room. I watch it every time with them.
GRIN: Do you see new things in films?
STAVIS: Every minute. I just watched a film called The Bad and the Beautiful again, a Vincente Minnelli film, wonderful movie. I’ve probably seen it a hundred times. All of a sudden there’s a party scene, and the camera starts moving in, and there’s a girl singing on the piano bench. In the background, she’s not featured or anything. And all of a sudden I looked at her, and she’s made up to look like Judy Garland. So it’s clearly a kind of in-joke about how Judy Garland used to be forced to sing at parties. And it’s just a throwaway.
GRIN: Was Minnelli still married to [Garland] at the time?
STAVIS: Yes. You see things every time. And also I love to feel different audiences’ reactions. So I could watch a film 100 times as long as I have 100 different audiences.
GRIN: It sounds like you’re talking about films more in the way that theater people talk about their experience — they can be in a long run of a play, and some actors will say it’s different every night because the audience is different.
STAVIS: It’s a contradiction in a way, because movies are thought of as canned, whereas theater is thought of as live and spontaneous. But movies can be spontaneous too. It’s true they don’t change, but the audience changes the perception of the film. I’ve been to so many screenings that were ruined by someone laughing at the wrong time, and then everyone taking their cue and laughing with them. Inappropriate laughter is very infectious, it can make you feel popular or stronger if you can be with the majority, no matter what you’re feeling about the film. It’s a mob mentality.
GRIN: I wanted to ask you about a couple of films that have come out in this past year that have seemed to capture some sort of cultural, social or political viewpoint.
STAVIS: I tend to not see new films, but I lie about it and say that I’ve seen it, because I read about them so much that I feel like I’ve seen them.
GRIN: I do that too, it’s like ‘I haven’t seen it but I can tell you this, this and this about it.’
STAVIS: Yes, exactly — I talk about films that I haven’t seen much better than I talk about films that I have.
“Films have always been a terrific way to get a message across, in a way that is not didactic and is not painful, like spinach.”
GRIN: The two I’m thinking of — well, one is directed by an actor, The Passion of the Christ, which I have not seen but have read a ton about, and the other is Fahrenheit 9/11.
STAVIS: I haven’t seen either one of them. And I feel like I have seen both of them. And of course having seen tens of thousands of films, if you see a clip every once in a while you can almost re-create a film, unless it’s very surprising — and I don’t think either one of these films are very surprising.
So it’s interesting that in the same year these two films have come out and seem to balance each other, the right wing and the left wing both have films that the other hates and that they like.
GRIN: I’m wondering if you can remember, even if not in the same year, that there were films that almost seem expressly created as political documents?
STAVIS: Oh, since the beginning of the history of movies. Birth of a Nation is a political document. World War I was full of propaganda films — every big star did a propaganda film about WW I — Chaplin and Fairbanks and Mary Pickford and Sessue Hayakawa — they were all making propaganda films. And in fact Gore Vidal wrote a book called Hollywood, which illustrated how Hollywood and Washington first got together and fed off each other. It happened at the very beginning of movies.
GRIN: Is that in part because movies rapidly became a big business, that they kind of looked to the power structure of the country?
STAVIS: It came about because movies were, from the very beginning, very popular. Every totalitarian dictator who ever lived loves the movies, because they are a perfect means of getting the message across. Hitler loved the movies. Stalin loved the movies. Lenin said, ‘To us, the cinema is the most important of the arts.’ Because don’t forget when Lenin was around, in the 20s, movies were silent — you didn’t have to know any language, you didn’t have to know how to read much. The silent films were self-explanatory, by and large.
So films have always been a terrific way to get a message across, in a way that is not didactic and is not painful, like spinach. It’s, you know, a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. So movies were entertaining but they also got messages across. Propaganda has become a bad word, but it shouldn’t be, propaganda is exactly what we’re talking about. We’re talking about films that have either overt or underlying messages.
Of course a very famous comment was made by Sam Goldwyn about that. Someone said, Don’t you think a movie should have a message? And he said if you want to send a message call Western Union.
GRIN: That’s the two poles of it. I was thinking of Leni Riefenstahl. I mean, incredibly talented as a filmmaker…
STAVIS: I don’t think so.
GRIN: You don’t think so? I was going to ask about whether you can separate the talent from the politics — but why don’t you think she was talented?
STAVIS: She was talented. She was an actress, by the way, first of all, a dancer and an actress. She began to direct documentaries — actually she made a feature film which was a partial documentary called The Blue Light, in the early 30s. It was an early talking picture, mainly silent. But it was very very deeply influenced by films and filmmakers that she had worked with, like a fellow named Arnold Fanck, who made mountain-climbing films, and this was a mountain-climbing film. So it was very derivative of a lot of other people’s films. When she started to make documentaries, she hired the best cameramen, the best editors, and she was a kind of super-producer of these documentaries.
What happened was that for a whole set of different of political reasons over the years, she has been championed. Originally she was championed by right-wing people who wanted to promote the idea of National Socialism. Now I’m not talking about Germans and Italians here, I’m talking about Americans like Charles Lindbergh, Joseph Kennedy, people like that, and Walt Disney. They were all early champions of Leni Riefenstahl, because she represented what they felt was the most forward-looking political philosophy of the time, which was Fascism. A lot of Americans thought that this was the wave of the future. Mussolini was very widely praised in this country in the 20s and 30s. I’ve got an original program for Sunrise, which was released in 1927, and the original short that went with it was “Mussolini, Man of the Hour.” That’s surprising — that’s why having the knowledge in the library doesn’t count. You’ve got to know these things.
Leni Riefenstahl was championed first of all by the Germans themselves. They needed a star, because they had taken the cream of German filmmaking, which was largely Jewish, and if it wasn’t Jewish it was Communist, and they killed them or forced them out. So there was almost nobody left in Germany. They needed a star, and there she was — Leni Riefenstahl. The two films on which her reputation is based, Triumph of the Will and Olympia, were both made at the behest of the Nazi government in order to promote the Nazi cause. Olympia, which seems like a sports documentary, wasn’t. It was a record of the Olympics in Germany in 1936. It was a very important event for Germany, because it gave them the prestige of having an international event, and it was very much in their interest to promote it — and very much in their interest to promote it as if it were not a propaganda piece, but she made it a propaganda piece.
GRIN: So she became the face and voice of these films, but you’re saying she wasn’t the creative driver behind them?
STAVIS: I wasn’t there. But neither were the people who championed her. It seems to me that she was the organizer, and maybe she had a certain kind of vision. But it was not a vision that was devoid of politics; I think politics was at the heart of the vision. And frankly I find both films, Triumph and Olympia, rather mechanical. I mean, yes, technically, the edits are very rhythmic, but there’s not much there besides the mechanicals. There’s not an awful lot of passion there; it’s mathematical, to me.
Of course, during the war, she became a bad word in the Western countries. There were rumors that she was sleeping with Hitler, and other things that weren’t true. But the fact is that she was very comfortable being close to the heads of the government, and she was honored — she was the most honored filmmaker in the Axis.
After the war was over, she of course had the stench of the Nazis, and she kept maintaining — what? What? What war? Was there a war? I didn’t know.
GRIN: Those weren’t propaganda films I made!
STAVIS: Now in the 1960s, her reputation was reversed, by who? Feminists, who needed a great female filmmaker in history, and there she was. Still alive, still saying that she was innocent, and there were these films. And so she became the kind of heroine of the feminist movement, as a great filmmaker. I think that her reputation is entirely political, for one reason or another.
GRIN: She’s been grabbed by a bunch of people.
STAVIS: And she’s taken advantage of these [circumstances]. You can’t say that she instigated both of them, but she certainly knew how to take advantage of both of them. So yeah, I’m not crazy about Leni Riefenstahl.
“People ought to see films, all kinds of films, even and especially films that they don’t think they’re going to like.”
GRIN: What do you hope that your students take away from your courses?
STAVIS: I hope that they broaden their experience. And I hope that they learn to see lots of things. It seems to me that the only way you understand something is to know a lot about it, and certainly the only way you understand films is by seeing an enormous range of films. My hero in that sense is Henri Langlois, whose picture is right behind you. Henri was the apostle of that. He established a Cinemathèque that not only saved films and preserved them, but also showed them, which was an integral, and perhaps an even more important part of the mission than saving them. Because he believed that people ought to see films, all kinds of films, even and especially films that they don’t think they’re going to like. Because that’s how you learn, and that’s how you get surprised. So if you said ‘I hate musicals,’ he would show you nothing but musicals.
GRIN: Sounds like A Clockwork Orange — aversion therapy.
STAVIS: No, no, because what he knew was that once you get immersed in it, you’ll find things that you like in it. If it’s good work, it’ll work, and you have to overcome your own sort of internal prejudices and internal bigotry in order to see that. It’s true of literature and it’s true of painting — people who say ‘I don’t like modern art.’
GRIN: Pretty sweeping statement.
STAVIS: Well, that’s what a lot of people [say]. ‘I don’t like black-and-white movies.’ ‘I don’t like subtitled movies.’ ‘I don’t like musicals, I don’t like Westerns, I don’t like war films.’ You know, there can be good work in virtually any movie. And that’s what he, and what I, would like my students to do. If they’re going to be filmmakers it will make them better filmmakers. But at the very least it’ll make them better audiences. And what’s the good of a society full of good filmmakers if there are rotten audiences?
GRIN: And audiences that are spoiled and brought up on video are rude, they’re rude in the theaters.
STAVIS: But it’s not their fault, they’re used to watching movies at home. They’re used to saying, well, I’ll pause it. Oh this is boring, let’s speed it up until the next sequence. I’ve got something better to do, I’ll see it later.
Or if you take the case of someone like Quentin Tarantino, I don’t have to see all these movies, I just have to read the back of the video boxes, and I’ve seen them. And his movies show that. It’s a catalog of someone who doesn’t really understand what he’s cataloging, taking just the surface of it.
“It’s a rare Golden Age filmmaker that I haven’t met, one way or another.”
GRIN: I’m almost hesitant to ask if you have any — I wouldn’t say even favorite films, but favorite filmmakers.
STAVIS: Oh, there are lots of filmmakers I like. You know, I’m crazy about Billy Wilder, I’m nuts about Cocteau. I think Michael Powell is a good filmmaker. I love Lubitsch, I love Minnelli, I like…
GRIN: What do you like about Minnelli?
STAVIS: I like that he was a showman and was an entertainer. I knew Minnelli quite well, I knew an awful lot of these people, I was lucky enough to work with Langlois at the time when he was very famous, and got his Academy Award, and so I met everybody. It’s a rare Golden Age filmmaker that I haven’t met, one way or another.
GRIN: Does it affect the next time you might see a film they made — say they made a film you loved, and they turn out to not be so nice in person?
STAVIS: Oh, that often happens. In fact, I learned that lesson before I met anyone. I learned that lesson in film school, when there were the really smart, funny, bright, gregarious people who were the life of the party and wonderful people, and I wanted to be like them. And then there was that crazy lone guy that picked his nose and always sat in the back of the class, and he dressed funny — and at the end of the semester, you look at the film, and he had made the masterpiece. And the others had made crap.
I have to be careful now, because there’s no correlation between nerds and good stuff. But there’s very often a correlation between unexpected people and good stuff. Some of the most charming people in the world can’t direct their way out of a paper bag. And some really horrible people — Fritz Lang — I met him, and he seemed very nice to me, but all the reports are that he was sadistic. But I think that’s what you have to be to be a director. I think actors are masochists and directors are sadists, and I think the masochists want to be treated badly, and I think the sadists want to treat people badly.
GRIN: I remember reading Peter Bogdanovich’s interview with George Cukor, and he said something like ‘I see the director as a sympathetic audience, but one that can’t be fooled.’
STAVIS: It’s a very good thing. I knew Cukor.
GRIN: What was he like in person?
STAVIS: Very courtly.
GRIN: I get that impression.
STAVIS: Very verbal, and strangely [long pause] insecure. I went to his house with a couple of people, and at one point he invited me back to a little room he had. And in the room was, floor to ceiling, pictures of stars. And he took me around the room, and he said ‘That’s Greta Garbo. You know, I knew her.’ Knew her? You directed her!
GRIN: One of her best movies! [Camille].
STAVIS: He was trying to prove he was George Cukor. Because I guess a lot of people had forgotten him by that time. And I didn’t know how to react to that.
And then there were guys like Nick Ray, who was the opposite. I knew Nick Ray when he was at the end of his tether, and he was a hopeless addict to everything you could be an addict to, from cigarettes and coffee to heroin. Oh, he was a mess. He was working in the basement of the Bleecker Street Cinema, trying to put together a film. And he’s describing the film to me, and he said ‘All of a sudden, in this next scene, I, as I am today, walk out, and the audience will say ah, that’s the man who directed Rebel Without a Cause.’ I had nothing to say to that. He said, ‘Well, I did!’ I said, ‘You did, but nobody knows that, and especially nobody knows that the way you are today.’ So it was like two weird opposites — Nicholas Ray who thought that everyone knew who he was, and George Cukor who had to convince some schlub from New York that he was George Cukor.
GRIN: And that he knew Greta Garbo.
STAVIS: I mean, it was just nuts. So you can never tell what people are going to be like. Minnelli was another strange bird.
“So Minnelli, when there was no studio structure after the studios collapsed, he collapsed as a director.”
GRIN: I love some of his movies so much, and yet there are some times when I feel like he lets pieces of it get away from him. It’s like he seems more concerned with how the extras look and how the camera’s moving than how the story might be proceeding.
STAVIS: Well, but in the day when he was a director that wasn’t his department. It was a very compartmentalized business.
GRIN: Especially at MGM, or at the studios in general?
STAVIS: Especially at MGM, any studio. There was a director who did a certain thing; and there was an editor, he did a certain thing; and there was a writer, he did a certain thing. And they usually didn’t have much interaction. The guy above them was the producer or the unit manager, [Darryl] Zanuck or Lawrence Weingarten — they were the ones who had to know what was going on.
The director, when the film was shot, he was finished. In fact, the day after he finished shooting he probably began shooting something else. Same thing with the cameraman. And the editor had no knowledge of what went on on the set. He got the footage, and he had to conform it to the script, and there it was.
So Minnelli, when there was no studio structure after the studios collapsed, he collapsed as a director. I know that because I worked with him in the 70s. I did a benefit concert on the subject of the Gershwins at Carnegie Hall, called “By Ira…By George.” And I said, maybe we can get Minnelli to direct it. I called him and he said, sure, I’d love to. I said, Vincente Minnelli! This is going to be great. He came to New York, and he was awful. He walks into Carnegie Hall, which is notorious because it has no flyspace, there’s no wings, there’s nothing, it’s just a bare stage with an entrance on the left and no entrance on the right. There’s one door to get on the stage and get off. So he’s sitting in the audience, and he says ‘I see a stand of evergreen trees, and a waterfall.’ [I said] ‘This is a one-night show, Vincente, they can’t do a waterfall and evergreens.’ He was used to going on the set at MGM and saying ‘I see a stand of evergreens and a waterfall,’ and the next day they would be there. When he didn’t have that, he was at sea, completely lost. He had no idea how to deal with that.
GRIN: The directors who in a sense functioned as their own producers, like a Hitchcock maybe or a Howard Hawks — they tended to do a little bit better in different environments.
STAVIS: Yes, although Hitchcock never wanted to do anything except studio work. That’s all he was interested in. I knew him quite well. Actually Dick Schickel and I produced a series called “The Men Who Made the Movies.” We did eight directors who were at that time very old, and who are all dead now. We tried to interview them and talk to them, and that’s how I got to know a lot of these guys. We did Capra, Hawks, Hitchcock, Minnelli, Cukor, Wellman — did I say Walsh? And King Vidor. And they were very good documentaries — except for Minnelli. Minnelli was completely hidden, we couldn’t get an inch below the surface with Minnelli. He never would say anything about himself that was even remotely interesting. He was all surface. He had a lot to hide, too. [Laughs].
GRIN: I find Hitchcock’s films so fascinating, still.
STAVIS: Oh, he was the best.
GRIN: And I wonder what it was like to interview him, because what I’ve heard about him was that he had some very practiced stories that he trotted out.
STAVIS: Oh yeah. He was an actor — don’t forget for the last 20 years of his life, he was an actor [on his TV series.] But he was always an actor, he was always performing. He was a showman, like all those great directors, so he was very careful, but he knew what he was talking about, and he talked about important things. The documentary [we did] is still the best documentary about Hitchcock that there ever was, or ever will be, because he’s dead.
He was a very careful man; all the clichés are true: he was a man who had a set routine, and he never varied from it. He was in the process of writing Family Plot when I interviewed him. He spent the afternoon telling me the story of Family Plot, describing the film that was in his head. And it sounded like it would be his greatest film. It was just brilliant the way he described it. Of course, when he came to make it, it was lousy. He had either lost interest, or he had lost the power to transfer what happened in his head to the screen, or something was wrong — it was a terrible movie. And it was nothing like the story he told me, which was very exciting.
“He does it because he loves it, and because he’s obsessed to do it.”
GRIN: Are there filmmakers today that you think will have the staying power of a Hitchcock or a Hawks?
STAVIS: There already are. Woody Allen has had a longer career than almost any classic director.
GRIN: That’s a good point. And more productive in many ways.
STAVIS: Woody Allen’s been directing movies since the early 70s, late 60s. That’s 40 years, 45 years. The only people who can rival him are people like Chaplin or Hitchcock. Hitchcock started in 1925 and he wound up in the 70s — not a hell of a lot longer than Woody Allen, and Woody Allen is still making pictures. You lose track of that. Sydney Pollack’s been making films for a long time; Sidney Lumet has been making films since 1957. That’s 50 years, and still at it. No, guys like Lumet, guys like Woody Allen, those are journeymen directors who keep working. I have enormous respect for those guys, tremendous respect. Coppola, you know, keeps his hand in. Spielberg — The Terminal — what the fuck was that? But he’s got to keep working, which is good.
GRIN: Do you think with these people that it’s a compulsion? Do they have that many stories to tell?
STAVIS: Listen, any artist, any painter, is an artist because that’s all he can do. It’s not because…
GRIN: He wants money or…
STAVIS: Yeah, he does it because he loves it, and because he’s obsessed to do it. And if you’re not, you shouldn’t be in it, because it’s very hard and it’s very depressing, and you lose more often than you win. And you get disillusioned easily, a lot, and most of what you see in your head doesn’t get to be. So unless you have that kind of obsession, you have no business being in the business. I have a former student named Bryan Singer.
GRIN: Wonderful director.
STAVIS: Seems to be so far, it’s hard to tell. He seems to have fallen into a certain kind of groove now.
GRIN: The superhero groove.
STAVIS: Yeah, and is he doing Superman next?
GRIN: That’s what I’ve read, although I keep reading they can’t get this Superman thing off the ground.
STAVIS: You know, he started out doing The Usual Suspects.
GRIN: And Apt Pupil.
STAVIS: But who can blame him? He’s got to be one of the richest guys in the country. He produced X-Men 2, and he’s still just a kid.
GRIN: Is it good for someone to make that much money early on? For their art, for their abilities as a director — is it good for them to stay hungry maybe?
STAVIS: You know, it depends on the person. It didn’t seem to hurt Spielberg. He seemed to do just as interesting things after he was rich than when he was hungry. It seemed to have ruined people like Michael Cimino and the Richard Donners of the world. The journeymen-hacks.
You know Billy Wilder said the best thing ever — Billy Wilder was the Oscar Wilde of our time — he said ‘They should give an Academy Award to everyone who finishes a movie.’
GRIN: Really? That’s great.
STAVIS: That’s the other message of Day for Night, that’s what he says in the film. He says when I begin a movie, I think it’s going to be the greatest movie ever made, I have this wonderful vision. By the time I’m halfway through, I just say ‘Just let me finish it, I don’t give a shit what it looks like, just let me finish it.’ All directors do that.