Wednesday, June 25, 2014

For the Record: My talk with Roger Deakins

Here is my introduction: Roger Deakins is inarguably one of the greatest cinematographers of our time. He is also – according to the New York Times – the Susan Lucci of the Oscars (or perhaps – more fitting – the Annette Bening) having been nominated and lost eight times, with 2007’s a double whammy as Deakins was nominated for both No Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford only to lose to There Will Be Blood. True Grit is his ninth nomination, and this modern master was kind enough to grant me an audience for thirty minutes. The good thing about that was it was originally scheduled for fifteen minutes, but we had room to go long, and I’d like to think I probably went about this different than most of his interviews that day (at least I hope). I covered a lot of his career, though not much pre-Barton Fink, with special attention granted to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and The Man Who Wasn’t There. As the conversation ended, I asked about his favorites, and he surprised me by listing one of my favorite French filmmakers. I geeked out on him for an extra minute and I’m going to include that part sans too much editing.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy:

Damon Houx: I was thinking of a way to start… I may be a little nervous because I think you’re a genius.
Roger Deakins: Stop (laughs), oh well…
Damon: I was thinking about Francis Ford Coppola who – on the commentary for The Godfather – talked about fighting with Gordon Willis because in the sequence where Marlon Brando gets shot he wanted an overhead POV. Gordon Willis said “Whose point of view is this?” (Deakins laughs) and Coppola said “I don’t care.” (Deakins laughs) Have you ever had fights like that, do you ever get into the ideology of the POV, especially in a film like True Grit, which is taken from a first person perspective?
Yeah, it’s funny, there are a number of times I’ve started a film and had a conceptual plan… I mean when we started Fargo, Joel and Ethan and I thought the film was going to be more observational. We would shoot it more with a static camera – a little bit more like Ken Loach would approach it, and pan more often on a longer lens than anything else. It’s so funny, we discussed it for a long time, and I do think the film does have that quality to it to a degree – but I remember the first day the first thing we set up was a hundred and twenty foot tracking shot. You create these rules in your head, but they’re there to be broken. On True Grit it was important that it was very much Mattie’s story, and you wanted to keep her the central character as much as possible and from her perspective, but there are times you break the rule.
With this film you’ve been working with the Coens for twenty years now.
Yeah, long time.
Was there a point that you felt like you were a part of the family?
When they asked me back after Barton Fink… I mean I shot Barton Fink and we got on really well – but you never know if someone’s going to ask you back. And when they took the chance on me doing The Hudsucker Proxy, I thought then yeah, I’m part of the family.
It’s been a great partnership, and I love your work with them. When you look for work, are they always the first priority?
Yeah, it’s difficult though, because they don’t always know what they’re doing. I may call them up and say “I’ve been offered this or that” and I ask their advice, really, and I’ll do anything to keep myself available, though sometimes it’s not altogether practical. They’ve been through quite a few films lately, but sometimes it’s a longer break between.
They’ve been on a roll, a film a year now for a while; do you know what you’re doing next?
Yeah, they’re writing, I’m probably going to do a film in England, and I rang them up to ask “is this going to clash with your plans?” It’s tricky because they’re not really sure what they’re going to do.
With True Grit you had a lot of exterior sequences. Did you spend a lot of time waiting for God moments?
It’s funny you say that. If you look at the film, a huge amount of it is interior, quite a lot of it is on set, quite a lot of the night shots are interiors on stage and quite a lot of the exteriors are night exteriors. In terms of day exteriors, it’s not a huge part of the film. One of the big advantages on the way the Coens work is that when you’re restricted on the budget and the schedule they storyboard everything so you can take the day’s work and look at the location and figure out how the sun’s going to change during the day or how the sun’s going to change during the day, and you can schedule the shots around the light. The thing is when you’re on a schedule you can’t not shoot. You can’t wait more than ten minutes or fifteen minutes for the light to change if it’s a cloudy or sunny day. You can wait for the sun to come in or go out, whichever one you want to a degree, but you still have to make the day’s work. So there’s an incredible pressure just to shoot. I mean, I can’t stand there and say “I can’t shoot today because the light’s not right.” That’s not going to happen ever, which is because it’s the cinematographer’s responsibility to get the film shot. It’s as much a logistic and practical thing as it is an aesthetic one.
Do you then schedule certain shots because you’re hoping for certain weather?
As I said, you schedule the day, and sometimes you schedule the days so you can work later on one night to get an evening light or start early on another day to get a morning light. I work with the AD a lot in terms of the schedule and how that’s going to affect where we are and what light we’re going to get.
We’re also ten years on from O Brother, Where Art Thou? where you were using a lot of digital manipulation for the color scheme. How much are you relying on post these days?
You know, I’ve done a digital intermediate on every film but one since then, but that was a very specific look. It was a very specific thing, changing the color of those leaves and the grass and trying to create that sort of autumnal landscape. I’ve done that on the odd scene, but generally, the digital control I use is more for saturation – general saturation – and contrast. And then sometimes, if you’ve got a really hot sky you can bring it down digitally, but I don’t tend to use it a great deal. It’s little tweaks versus big things like it was on O Brother.
After having gone through that with O Brother, I was curious to know how that changed your work.
I still try and shoot the negative, or if it’s digital the file, as close as you can to the way you want it to be, because anything you do in post is changing the quality of the image.
Vittorio Storaro’s famous for having his ideology of colors; do you have anything like that?
No, not at all. (I Laugh), No, I mean, everyone has their own sort of approach, and their own color philosophy that guides their work, I guess it’s some sort of trick you use, but no I don’t have any sort of philosophy of color at all.
With the Coen Brothers, they are notorious for storyboarding; do you feel like you have freedom within those boards?
Oh yeah, I usually spend time with them going through the boards, but even on set or when we’re scouting location, we discuss the way it’s going to be shot, and things can change and we can talk about other possibilities. But they’ve always done it because they cut their own films. So they’re very aware of the cutting pattern and style and speed of the cutting they want. The storyboards are a reflection of that as much as anything. But also, they’re very aware they started with very small budgets, and in order to put all the money on the screen it’s very efficient to storyboard. On a film like Barton Fink I remember seeing the final film, and counting the number of shots that were done we never used. I think I didn’t get up to two hands. Which is extraordinary, really. Everything we shot was there, and everything was more or less in the same sequence as in the storyboards. Very efficient.
You obviously have a strong relationship with the Coens, how then do you transition to work with other people?
I have a strong relationship with other people as well, I just tend to prioritize working with Joel and Ethan. It’s loyalty, but also, they’re friends. We’ve been doing it a while now. It’s kind of refreshing in a way, to go on a film where one way is neither right nor wrong, where you don’t have any storyboards, and you’re shooting something off the cuff. It’s a different way, but it’s kind of nice. But I wouldn’t want one without the other.
You’re listed as the camera operator on True Grit, and on a number of your films, do you like operating?
I’ve always operated, I haven’t done a film that I haven’t operated. I came from documentaries and for me the framing and the way the camera moves is most important aspect of what I do. And I like that connection with the subject or the actors, or whatever, I just like that involvement, so I’ve always operated, yeah. Recently I’ve been allowed to have a credit for it.
It’s not reflected in your credits, so I didn’t know. When you were approaching True Grit… you know I absolutely adore The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I mean I’m sure you hear it all the time, but it’s something to savor. That said, having worked on a western before, did you approach this differently, not wanting to do certain things?
Not at all. I always count No Country as a western, a contemporary one, I think of the three films as connected in some way. Each of those three films has a different starting point, and a very different script, and a very different kind of mood that the script is creating. The Assassination of Jesse James is much more like a poem, a tone poem. The book that it’s based on that Andrew (Dominik) wrote the script from is the same, it’s lyrical. A mediation on this outlaw who realizes he’s getting old and how he can maintain who he thinks he is. And also, the change of the west; the way the west was getting civilized. It’s a very different film from True Grit, which is much more straight a narrative.
Recently Walter Murch wrote an article about how he hates 3-D.
(Laughs) Good for him.
You’ve helped on some animated films, but I don’t know if Now, which you’re shooting now.
I just finished on that, that’s not 3-D.
How do you feel about 3-D as a movement in cinema?
I think it’s giving the audience a different experience, and I think on How to Train Your Dragon, which we did in 3-D, it works really well because part of that film is the experience of flying, part of the film is like a ride. But doing a drama like True Grit or Now or something, it’s not. I think it’s more a window on the world; it’s like watching a picture come to life. You don’t want to… you don’t want to immerse them in it, it’s a different experience.
I was looking at Now, and you shot it digital. Do you have a preference? Do you prefer 35mm?
Well, it was the first film I shot digitally, and it was the first time I wanted to do it because there was a new camera that I thought had a lot of potential, and I feel for that film in particular it gave me some possibilities technically that I couldn’t have had with film, partly the speed, but also the dynamic range, but a number of other things. I was really impressed with the imagery, and the way the camera worked, actually, and I’m not sure if I’ll go back to film now.
Technology’s not really what it’s about for me, I’m not a technically minded person, all I care about is producing the best image I can get for whatever kind of look I’m after. I think the digital cameras coming on line now are really, really impressive. I do have an affection for film, and am slightly nostalgic for film, but if I had my way, everything would still be in black and white.
How great then was it to shoot The Man Who Wasn’t There?
That was great, that was wonderful, you don’t get that kind of chance to do a film that works that kind of look.
Have you tried to get other things – like True Grit – shot in black and white?
(Laughs) No. It would be nice to do something else in black and white, but the Coens do have something they’ve talked about doing in black and white. But, you know, it’s not something that’s very commercially viable now so if you do if you do a film in black and white like The Man Who Wasn’t There, which had a minuscule budget, on the one hand you get an opportunity to shoot something, and do that kind of lighting and that kind of look, but on the other hand you don’t have a lot of money to do it (laughs).
Well, like The Assassination of Jesse James, The Man Who Wasn’t There is one of the most gorgeous films of the last ten years… I can still say that, right? It’s still ten years (the film came out in 2001) Do you have a preference in working scope or flat?
I’ve never shot anamorphic, actually.
Really? Kundun was 2.35:1, but was that Super 35?
Yeah, all the films I’ve done wide are super 35. Or extraction, earlier they weren’t even Super 35. Like now is 2.35:1 but it’s an extraction from the 16 by 9 chip, yeah.
Do you want to shoot something with an anamorphic lens?
It’s a particular kind of look, and I guess I like – coming from documentaries – I like the immediacy of spherical lenses, cause I like being close to the subject. I like the feeling of the background staying more present and more sharp. And with anamorphic it tends to push the backgrounds away and put them out of focus. It’s not a look I particularly love. The Coen Brothers were going to do a film “To the White Sea,” which is one of the greatest regrets I have that the film never happened. It was a wonderful project. And that film we intended to shoot anamorphic, but it was interesting I wanted to create… the film was set in Japan during the Second World War – about this gunner from a bomber which was shot down in Japan, and it was about his escape across Japan. And we wanted to do it – I suppose – in a sort of painterly way, and we were thinking of using anamorphic just for the scope of it, but also to create flat images also. But the film never happened, so I never got to do it.
I would kill for that movie. In terms of aspect ratios, do you prefer 4 by 3?
It depends. It really depends on the project. I think most films I’ve done have been 2.35:1, Super 35.
When you’re shooting a modern western, like you were with True Grit, how much of what you’re doing is limited by location? Because you’re obviously dealing with a more modern world.
An enormous amount really.
There’s the famous quote from Sidney Lumet, when he asked Akira Kurosawa “why did you put the camera there?” and Kurosawa replied “because if I panned any more to the left you could see a supermarket, and if I moved it to the right, you could see a freeway.”
I really sympathize with that. We had that issue completely. I mean, in a way, we were restricted where we could go because of the budget, and it was the most economical place that gave us locations was based out of Santa Fe – we did half in New Mexico and half in Texas in Austin. But it wasn’t ideal, we didn’t want the feel of No Country, so we had to travel long distances, and there were little areas that looked right, and there was one scene where traffic was flowing in the background we couldn’t stop. But we knew that we could remove it digitally later on. Kurosawa, of course, didn’t have that possibility. He couldn’t shoot toward the supermarket, we could.
Did you face similar problems with Jesse James?
There’s no digital work on Jesse James like that, because we were shooting in Edmonton and Calgary and some in Winnipeg. We chose locations much further out that were fairly pristine. You think with the Canadian plains that there would be more opportunities, but it was still quite restrictive what we could shoot. It’s hard.
There’s been a story about No Country for Old Men that you guys were shooting at one point, and There Will Be Blood were testing their oil derrick explosions. Did that happen?
We were shooting, and I knew Steve Cremin, the effects guy, and we got him on his cell phone (laughs) “You’re blowing up your oil rig in the back of our shot!” It was funny, we were doing a pre-production week of shooting, and they were up there blowing up a derrick.
At least you figured it out quickly.
Yeah, I knew they were there, and I knew who was there, so… this town is quite small really.
Do you have a favorite anecdote from shooting True Grit? Do you have a favorite moment?
I don’t know about anecdote, the first day of shooting was the most memorable in a way, and it was a sign of the way the whole shoot would go, because we turned up on location and there was like two feet of snow, and all the trucks were snowed in. There was nothing we could do on that location because we didn’t want snow at that location. So we had to dig out a couple of snake beds, and put equipment on it, and drive – I think we drove about 140 miles – to this other location where we wanted snow on the ground. And managed to save the day by shooting this scene, but it was quite worrying that morning, standing at seven in the morning in this foot of snow as far as you could see. Two feet of it, and you’re thinking “what the hell are we going to do?”
Was it a tough shoot?
Yeah it was, we had some very tough days, and you know all that night work was tough. It was quite a physically demanding shoot. The locations were a long distance from our base, so there was a lot of driving at the beginning and end of day, and it was a tough shoot, actually. But even more satisfying in a way because if you achieve something you make the day.
Do you like night shooting normally?
That sort of night shooting is always hard. The hardest thing for a cinematographer is “how do you do light when there isn’t supposed to be a moon?” How do you light it, how do you work in it? It’s a big logistic and aesthetic challenge.
To tie it all back in, it strikes me one of those compromises, how do you make it work?
It’s a balance, a balance between the money you have, the rigging you have, the number of lights you can afford, how much of the action you need to show the audience, it’s a lot of things you have to think about. How many shots you have to do every night, you know, I tend to light in such a way that I can be quite flexible. Most of that night work, I created a big pseudo soft-light effect that basically allowed me to shot a number of different angles without changing the light source, just because we really didn’t have that much time to do it.
In a situation like that – we were talking about digital tinkering – do you go a little hotter, or a little brighter with the thought that you can grade down?
That’s the thing. On film you always think “well how far am I going?” I always give it a little more exposure than I want in the final image, but on the other hand you give it too much and you can’t bring it back to where you really want it to be, or change the contrast or anything else. So that’s tricky, you’re always taking a bit of a chance. It’s funny, I might have shot those sequences with a digital camera had a digital camera been available at the time. It’s a faster camera, so it would have given me more latitude.
So you think you’ll shoot your next Coen Brothers film digitally?
That’s interesting, because they’ve got a project they want to look like a 16mm Ricky Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker type of documentary, so we’re not sure. We talked about shooting it on film, but the other option is to shoot it digitally and make it look like old 16mm film afterwards. I don’t know.
You mentioned D.A. Pennebaker, do the Coens ever throw at you movies they feel it should feel like?
No, the only time was The Man Who Wasn’t There they mentioned the Hitchcock film Shadow of a Doubt, but that wasn’t because of the look of the film in terms of lighting or anything else or the camera movement, it was just the feel of that community. The small-town feel of that community. They liked the mood Hitchcock had created in Shadow of a Doubt is part of what they wanted to create in The Man Who Wasn’t There.
Have you ever had directors throw titles at you like that?
Well, you’re sitting, talking about the look of a film, and which way to go with a particular scene, and you might throw around film titles, and you might say “what about such and such?” I think it’s always a good way of referencing what you’re talking about but never, never, have thought about copying something in that sense. Just more about the sensibility of the film. And the overall feel of it.
Are there any films you go back to for inspiration?
Oh, millions. Most of them directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, I must say.
Really, you’re a huge Melville fan?
Oh my god, I swear by Melville.
Oh god, oh god yeah.
I think he’s one of the great filmmakers, but probably one of the most underrated, and unknown really.
I’ve tracked down the one where they go to New York (Two Men in Manhattan)… He’s absolutely one of my favorites… and seeing Army of Shadows on the big screen…
Yeah, it’s one of the great movies of all time.
And at the time, it was just treated like crap because it bothered to feature De Gaulle, it’s amazing.. Were you a big fan when you started, were you watching Second Breath?
I remembered seeing Army of Shadows when it first came out in England. I think I was at Art College, and there was a cinema in this small town in Wilshire that showed art films and European films, and I think that’s where I first saw it.
Le Samourai
Oh, Le Samourai, yeah.
(I start giggling, and yes, like a schoolgirl)
The Red Circle is one of my favorites. I was talking to someone about that the other night because it’s such a brilliant… I don’t know, but the tension he manages to build up. It’s just great stuff.
There’s a shot of the pool table in Le Cercle Rogue that is one of my favorite shots of all time. That’s great to hear that you’re a huge Melville fan, because he’s one of the greats.
He is.

And with that, I thanked Deakins repeatedly for his time.

For the Record: My Interview with Wong War-Wai

On the subject of a recut and remastered re-release, you would expect George Lucas to become something of a talking point, either for or against. That he made his way into my conversation with Wong Kar-Wai at the start was not surprising, but that Wong Kar-Wai talked favorably about one of his films at the end of the interview was nothing less than a bombshell. And yet the recut Star Wars was never a point of reference for our discussion of his Ashes of Time Redux. This, though, has more to do with my respect for WKW as an artist.

Instead, I approached this interview balancing my film lover side with my – what in polite society would be called – fanboyishness. For, you see, one of my favorite working directors is Wong Kar-Wai, and when I told Jeremy Smith about the interview he was nervous for the master’s health in my presence. I kept myself mostly in check, but what surprised me more than anything was that he was happy to have a conversation. He wanted some back and forth, and you’ll see at several points I can help but digress with him.

We were together to speak about the release of Ashes of Time Redux, his recut of the 1994 martial arts epic. The film was famous in Hong Kong for Wong having spent a year in post-production, so lost in it that in the middle he went and shot Chungking Express to re-energize himself. As I described it to Devin as we walked out of the screening, it’s as if Woody Allen, in 1982, made a science-fiction film with the help of ILM that was at once both a sci-fi film and a Woody Allen movie. It’s a strange marriage, and deserves to be seen on the big screen, and this version is now the only version as the Redux happened partly to save the film, which did not have its elements properly preserved. It opens on October 10 in New York and Los Angeles, and will likely play around after that.

I was trying to find out who said it first, I want to say it was Francis Ford Coppola, but I’ve also seen George Lucas credited, though I was thinking it might be Jean-Luc Godard, anyway someone said “Films aren’t released, they escape.” And with this film that seems to be the very definition of it. You edited for a year on this film which led to the 1994 version, and now you’ve got to go back with a butterfly net and spend more time with it

But in a way this film was never released in this part of the world, it just, it took a long birth, I should put it this way.

Most of the versions that came stateside, I have the Mei Ah DVD, were those approved and shipped over here from Hong Kong?

They always say Director Approved (laughs). They never have approval.

You did go back and tinker with it, it seems some of the transitions are different.

It’s more than that, I think. In a way it’s very savage, because we took quite a lot of things out of the film and replaced them with something else. It used to be five courses, but now it’s only four. It’s less dressing, but it’s the same thing. But the process is not as easy as you would think, the original version we cut in ‘94 is in a delicate balance. The story, the structure of the story is so complicated that you need a certain way to tell it, and everything is in a certain balance, but if there was a missing piece, the story collapses. So, it’s not just that we take out the part that have problems, we had to take out more, because it didn’t make sense, so we had to do a lot of work. It’s not only a few trims.

You’re known for spending a lot of time in the editing room, going back to this one, how was it? Could you get this one a little faster?

I couldn’t do too much on this film, because – actually – the restoration took two years. They had to scan all the footage and all the extra takes, and fix scratches, watermarks and sounds. So, I did what I could based on the material. There’s not a lot of options to do that. And I don’t want to change it completely, because otherwise, what’s the point? You’re better to just do another film.

In the production notes it mentioned that you were basically rescuing it.

We call this film “Saving Ashes of Time”

Was there a longer cut at some point, were there things that went missing? Do you feel that you got it all?

No. We were not able to retrieve 100% of the material, and in a way, it’s so strange, the reason why we had to look for extra material from Chinatown copies is that we noticed that the film has been released here and in different territories in different versions longer than the original, because I think at that point distributors wanted to have more action that the rest of the world, because the Chinatown audience just look for action. So we looked to see if we could get some extra material from there, but it’s not very rewarding.

Where Fallen Angles has some gangster/action elements, and 2046 has some science fiction, here you were working fully in genre. I mean, you’ve played with genre since, My Blueberry Nights was something of a road picture, but do like having that form to fall back on?  Do you ever want to do something like that again?

Of course, I think I’m quite good at action. The last few years we’ve been developing a project called The Grand Master. It’s a story about the teacher of Bruce Lee, it’s a film about the fight club in Hong Kong in the 50’s. So this is something we all feel excited to do, and maybe this time we might do the film next.

(at that moment, I think my eyes dilated a little) That’s very exciting.  One of great things about your movies is how you’re able to wed a piece of music, be it Cat Power or Astor Piazzolla to images. When you’re working with a period piece like Ashes of Time, was there ever a moment where you wanted to apply something you had in mind to this movie?

Do you know what the reference I gave to Frankie Chan in 94? Do you know?


I said, well, the music should be like Mark Knofpler, so it’s in a way it’s a very wild soundtrack at that point. It’s not a normal martial arts film. We had like Tangerine Dream versus Dire Straits. There was “Private Investigations.” Do you know the song “Private Investigations?”

Not off the top of my head.


If you’re recommending it, I’m going to go find it tonight.

I’m telling you, you can match the pictures, the scenes when there’s a big fight in the desert. The second one, the ambush. You can score it to “Private Investigations.”The introductions, the guitar lick. You should do that, the best, original.

Going back… It seems Criterion is about to put out Chungking Express, were you supervising that?

No. I just try and stay away from that as much as possible, because once a film is done, it’s done. It’s like if you take a picture when you’re fourteen and then you want to go back and photoshop it.

So then how involved were you with this Redux?

That’s different, because of what’s happening. The film was becoming incomplete, so I think it’s very rare and very lucky to have a chance to work on a film twice. It’s like you there’s a car, you built the car, and it’s broke so you have to dismantle the car to fix the car, by the time you put it back together you experience the same things twice. And then you have to realize why you have to build this car in this way years ago. It’s fascinating.

An interesting form of nostalgia.

Exactly. (pause) How can we do something digitally for this internet medium?

In terms of cinema?


I don’t know, we’ll get there. Everything right now seems to be bite sized pieces. I don’t know. (pause) With this as an act of restoration and preservation, what about your other films, As Tears Go By, Days of Being Wild, are they safe?

I wouldn’t say I’m saving it. My feeling after all this, this job, is that finally this film is in a fixed form. When you used to have to do the developing of film, you had to put it in certain chemicals, and you could see the image coming out, but you had to fix it, otherwise it would become overexposed or too dark. I think Ashes of Time as a film, needed the time to be in this fixed form. Now, this is the film, finally. In Chinese we call this the ultimate version, because maybe this is the best version to be seen by audiences.

But with your older films, are the negatives safe?

No, no. Because there won’t be – like – regional versions any more, because I won’t be able to restore them. They will only exist as the DVD or VHS that still exist today. But I’m sure that will be gone very soon. So what we have to do right now is the final look of this film. That will be the only existing format.

So you see your films as existing on DVD now more than ever screening theatrically? How do you feel about people watching stuff at home instead of theater?

It’s not the best condition. One of the reasons why we wanted to do this Redux was so the audience could be able to watch this film on the big screen. But you know, it’s not the habit of people today to spend a couple hours getting to the cinema to watch a film and go back home. It’s too time consuming. People now are more lazy. They have so much stuff to do, so there’s nothing you can do. I don’t understand. There’s the computer and at home on DVD or TV.

There’s a revival house here in Los Angeles, The New Beverly, I spend quite a bit of time there.


Obviously, as you well know, there’s something about the communal experience. That’s always…

Yes, it’s very different.

I don’t know, I think people will always want to go to the cinema, they’ll always want to go out. A lot of people are attracted to convenience, but there’s something to going to the theater that I don’t think will ever be replaced, that group thing. Or if it goes away I will be very very sad.

Right, but the thing is there are so many things you can watch today on the internet today, it’s not only film, there’s youtube, that occupy a lot of time.

Yeah, it’s very distracting, but – and I’m something of a cineaste as well – there are films I have been waiting years and years to see, Sam Fuller’s White Dog, films that were never released in America… Let me put it this way, there’s people who go see two foreign films a year, and say “okay, I’m good” and there’s other people who say “I’ve just seen Ashes of Time, so now I’ve got to see Fallen Angels, and Chungking Express” it’s just a small percentage of people who get excited.

And also the thing is, they don’t know what they are missing. With the big screen at home, they feel like “I’ve seen the movie” but that’s not the case. When you look at it in that format it’s something else. The best way is to go to the cinema to watch it, it’s what it’s supposed to be.

Yes. Exactly. A friend of mine was telling me about being at Cannes for 2046, and there was a huge drama if the print was going to show up on time, and there was like, a race from the airport, it seems a Cannes has been a deadline for you on a couple of occasions. Do you like working against that timeline, or would you rather have another couple of extra months?

No, every time I said “I don’t want to repeat that” but somehow it’s like your nature to work against it. So last time, after 2046, we decided to be the first film to be shown at the festival, and still we rushed for that.

Is editing your favorite part of the process?

No, it’s about letting go. It’s like, you just want to make sure that this is the best you can do before you let go, because once you let go you never look back. Because the film, once it’s in the theaters it’s not yours any more. There’s nothing you can do about it, so you just want to see your daughters to get married, that she looks as good as possible as she walks down that alley.

Do you like to go back, have you ever gone back?

I haven’t watched 2046 again, because I know the film very well, and I’ve watched it hundreds of times, to the point that I should stay away from it for a long time.

So then what is your favorite part of the filmmaking process?

I don’t think there’s a job like a director. We can travel in time. We can make a film about now, we can make a film about 500 years ago, and in normal life you can’t play around with time, you  can make one minute forever, you can make ten years just like a (snaps), right? That’s the best part of being in this business because you enjoy this, I can say “well, I’m in control of certain things which is beyond control in normal life.”

Creating fiction is as close as we come to being God.

Yes. But you won’t actually see these things, but when you are in this business you have make things make believe.

So, what artists do you draw from? Who would you say are your biggest influences?

I can’t single out one person, but if I have to say, I would say my mom, because she was the one who introduced me to this world of cinema.

Is there a film you go back to?

From time to time, yes, but now I enjoy watching films when I least expect it, I believe I’ve seen a lot of films, but somehow… You watch certain films because of recommendations, so you have certain expectations, but I enjoy watching films by accident. It’s great when you say “I wasn’t going to watch this film,” but now somehow, it works for you. It’s the most satisfying experience. It’s like, two days, I watched this black and white film on TCM, it was amazing I had never heard of it.

Do you remember the name of it?

It’s a film with Ginger Rogers, but not a very well known one.

Do you feel like you need to make time watch movies, to spend time with movies?


I think it’s nourishing. Every once in a while you get overwhelmed with mediocrity, but something will be in there that’s just…

Yes, that’s why I watch movies. But I still remember… A few years, I was in Los Angeles at this point, it was the opening of Star Wars. The first Star Wars from the new series. I went to the cinema with my friend who was a big fan. And I had never seen anything like this in the Chinese cinema. It’s like a bunch of people, the parents, you know are big fans of the first series, and then the kids. And when the music starts, and the Lucasfilm logo, it’s like a party. They scream and clap, and you can’t hear the film after the first ten minute, they just have to lose it, and it’s a party.

With that we were told to wrap it up, and I asked him to sign my poster of Happy Together. He obliged, and I told him that I had a French girlfriend who told me about this movie, and that I fell in love with her and the movie. He asked “Are you still together?” I said “Of course not.” And we both chuckled.

Ashes of Time Redux opens Friday.

For the Record: Sam Peckinpah's Batman

Fascism is a subject that seems to plague Clint Eastwood in his crime films. Or perhaps it’s the specter of Dirty Harry that hangs over his Bruce Wayne. It’s hard to say. But it’s also impossible to think Sam Peckinpah would have cast Eastwood if it weren’t for Callahan, and it’s impossible to think that Eastwood would be willing to work with the director of Straw Dogs if he didn’t understand that there were some kinky aspects to his most famous lawman.

Then again, calling Eastwood Bruce Wayne in Peckinpah’s version of Batman is almost unfair. Gone from this mid-70′s film are the euphoric bam’s and pow’s, the psychedelica of the television version (all the drugs seem to have been kept behind the camera), gone are Alfred, Robin, the bat-signal, and virtually everything that made the kid’s version (though this version is perversely cut to a PG) so much fun. Indeed, Eastwood makes his leather mask (mixed with his rough, leathery visage) into something akin to a fetish show. And I wouldn’t put it past Peckinpah to play up the S and the M of a character who deals out vigilante justice.

One wonders if Peckinpah, who loved his alcohol and was no stranger marijuana, spent a day or two running Two Lane Blacktop and Vanishing Point in a 48 hour marathon while on a peyote high. That’s really the only explanation for his fusion of his macho aesthetics with – what amounts to – a car movie. And that’s the amazing thing about the film, and what Peckinpah brought to the mythos: so much of Batman’s masculinity, so much of his (dare I say) drive is tied into his car.

The film starts with a scene in a pool hall. Three roughnecks (two seem to be stuntmen, with Jamie Sanchez playing the lead) harass a group of women when Batman shows up and we enter slo-mo city. They have knives, but this Batman (with no real tricks up his sleeve) is a born brawler. That doesn’t stop him from breaking a bottle over one of the stuntman’s head’s in a shot that is amazing for cutting from one angle of slow motion to another slow-mo overhead shot (running the same speed) as the bottle disintegrates. The cadence of action was never more heightens when Peckinpah was let loose, but – sadly – the early sections show more care, as Bloody Sam was removed from the editing of the final two reels. When Batman finally beats the crap out of the three guys, he looks at the women with a vacuous stare. One wonders if Peckinpah cribbed from the Anna Christie/Greta Garbo school of blankness/the Kuleshov effect. I wouldn’t doubt it. The credits then play over Batman listening to a cop radio mix with Quincy Jones’s score.

I should stop for a second. Peckinpah was fairly public about his disappointment that he was denied Jerry Fielding yet again, but there’s no complaining about Jones’s work here. Not to stretch too much here, or whatever, but the film is discordant in so many ways; this would be no one’s dream Batman project – even if such an amazing team as this was assembled – and you can see why they let Burton go lighter when they decided to rejigger the whole thing 13 years later. But the funky soundtrack (that out funkifies Lalo Shiffrin) adds to the outer-space disconnect of Eastwood’s Batman prowling. Only in the last moments of the film does Eastwood ever take off the costume (and then only to lie down and go to sleep at 7 am in his nice home), so calling this picture a dream-state fugue-piece is applicable, and when applied to the sensibilities of the violence (and the lack of much blood) helps the picture along, even if it may be overcompensation on my part.

It’s only after the extended (six minute) credit sequence that we are introduced to Bo Hopkins’s Joker. A street thug with an oddness that can not be denied, his performance here is mostly done sans dialog. Hopkins’s malice is mostly implied, and when he does talk (as the IMDb states, he only has sixteen lines of dialog), I – for one – get chills. There’s something about Bo that says “yeah, I’d rape your sister if only she was a little younger” and never has his just unpleasant demeanor been put to better use. And his laugh is perfect. It rings like a death rattle around his throat, gurgling and slurping to the surface. There is an implied sense of back-story, but the film is about constant motion. In his first scene Hopkins says one line “Get Him. Get the Bat… Man,” And it defuses whatever sense of arch or camp might be expected. Hopkins in this film lays claim to being the American Klaus Kinski, if Kinski only worked for Werner Herzog ever. Muted is the word for this film as Eastwood says even less. There is no jibber-jabber in this film. Only engines revving, stopping, tires squealing, and hits connecting.

From there on out (the 20 minute mark) – as some critics have suggested – the film resembles Eastwood’s later The Gauntlet, in that it is not much more (or less) than a cat and mouse game played between the Joker’s pawns and Batman. And Peckinpah is ingenious in ramping up the stakes with each encounter (must have been an influence on Walter Hill’s The Warriors). Peckinpah – perhaps concerned after his recent efforts that his violence would be trimmed without mercy – seems to have worked here specifically without gun violence for that very purpose. It may seem a bit absurd that Batman stops and gets out of his car on four different occasions to get into fist-fights/brawls, but the energy and tempo of each sequence is dynamic enough to give each fight a different an exciting pop. After the opening three against one, you’ve got the clever stand-off fight of the heavyweight boxer type against Bat-Man (who uses his clever Karate moves to his advantage, and also picks up a strange zen-like theme to Batman’s violence), the forty-against-one stand-off in the alleyway (which starts at the beginning of a dead end, goes up a fire escape, through four apartments, then goes to four different roofs, only to go back into an apartment – eat your heart out Chan-Wook Park,), the marksmen fight (which I think Peckinpah put into to acknowledge guns) with its constant zoom-ins, and then Batman’s raid on Joker’s palace. Had Peckinpah directed these last two sequences (and not – as has been credited – Eastwood with an assist from Hal Needham), it might be one of the greatest films Peckinpah ever directed. But where the first hour (of this 87 minute film) wastes no time with back-story or any of that nonsense, the final showdown is bogged down with flashbacks (which – to be fair – are at least done silently) that explains the two’s relationship. But already the film had created a sense of duality, something Eastwood came close to exploring with films like In the Line of Fire and A Perfect World (though never as successfully), but never dipped his toe in as well as he does here… at least until it all goes a little south.

At this point Walter Hill had worked with Peckinpah, and I wonder if they didn’t compare notes as Hill was working on The Driver around this time, and they both have that zone-out feel, though Peckinpah took Detroit as his playground, and Hill took Los Angeles.

I write this now, partly because I don’t think the film ever recovered from Pauline Kael’s evisceration (“Bats in the Belfry”), though I guess she and Sam were drinking buddies at one point, and this was something of a pissing match. I know she felt for him, but perhaps she never got over her distaste of Eastwood. Which is interesting as this film undercuts his mythos more than even Unforgiven does/did. Batman – as Peckinpah said in interviews – was a fucked up individual, and he saw the film in some ways as a sequel to Straw Dogs, but he also said he never told Eastwood that. Peckinpah’s career was already headed to the shitter, and he obviously got fired off the film (as the last reels show), so it’s hard to say if he wasn’t just squeezing some sour grapes. Still, when people ask me what’s my favorite superhero film, I usually point to this one. Or Ang Lee’s Hulk.