DVDTalk Interview -A Decade Under the Influence
by Jason Janis
Writer / director Richard LaGravenese's ascent to Hollywood's front rank of screenwriters was remarkably quick. His first solo screenplay for The Fisher King was nominated for an Academy Award, and he quickly followed up with equally successful, high profile projects, including: The Bridges of Madison County, The Mirror Has Two Faces, The Horse Whisperer and Beloved. He made his directorial debut in 1998 with Living Out Loud, produced by Jersey Films and based upon his own screenplay.
LaGravenese developed a friendship with the late Ted Demme after working with him on The Ref, an acerbically funny, regrettably underseen film starring Denis Leary, Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis. This continuing friendship and collaboration - and sheer love of the movies - resulted in A Decade Under the Influence, a three-part documentary produced by IFC that chronicles the remarkable period of American cinema in the 1970(s).
Released theatrically and aired on IFC this past August, A Decade Under the Influence includes interviews with pivotal figures from the era, including Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich, Julie Christie, Francis Ford Coppola, Roger Corman, Clint Eastwood, William Friedkin, Dennis Hopper, Sidney Lumet, Sydney Pollack, Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, Robert Towne, and many, many others. The interviews were conducted by LaGravenese, Demme, and a roster of current filmmakers: Alexander Payne, Neil LaBute, Scott Frank, James V. Hart, Nick Cassavetes and Steven Schiff.
LaGravenese graciously agreed to speak with DVDTalk's Jason Janis just as the A Decade Under the Influence DVD was about to be released.
I would like to start by expressing my condolences for the loss of your friend and colleague Ted Demme.
Was the Ref your first encounter with Ted?
Yes, that was the first time we worked together.
When did the two of you start discussing A Decade Under the Influence?
Well, really it just came out of years of just being really good friends and hanging out so much together. We shared our goals and passions together for film, and spent many late nights talking about the kind of movies we loved and the kind of movies we wanted to make. We would always get up and show each other scenes, from laserdics and DVD(s) and, "Oh, do you remember this?" So it naturally came out of that, and we were heading to the writer's strike a couple of years ago - the one that didn't happen but that kind of sent Hollywood into a frenzy for a while - and the studios were rushing things into production or stalling things indefinitely, so Teddy had this idea. It would be incredibly fun - we'd work together because we were always coming up with projects in between the Ref to work on, and television projects that we wanted to do, and this would be something we could do during the strike. Also we would get to meet these incredible filmmakers that really shaped us, because we both grew up in the seventies.
So you had the idea worked out - did you have a relationship with IFC at the time?
Teddy hosted the show Escape From Hollywood, and they would show a movie and he would interview a guest star. Because of that and his relationship with IFC we brought it there directly, and they wanted to do it on a three level basis: one of their first products that crossed a theatrical release, television and VOD (video on demand). That's why one was a truncated version, one was the full length, and the VOD.
How did you arrive at three hours? The subject matter is so rich that it could have just as easily been five hours or ten.
IFC gave us those restrictions.
One of the things that I liked about it was that even though you featured a lot of the larger titles, there were a lot of little gems in there as well: the Last Detail, the Conversation, Two Lane Blacktop. How did you go about selecting the films that were included?
I wanted to include a lot more, believe me, but because of costs and time and rights problems, I was not able to put in things like Diary of a Mad Housewife, The Taking of Pelham 123 - one of Teddy's favorites - The Friends of Eddie Coyle. I wanted to fill it with even more, but again it was a bigger problem than I thought, because once you get into this stuff you have to have The Godfather, The Exorcist, Jaws. Thank you for that - I wanted very much to try and assert some memory of films that I thought were great but are not really well known now. Especially to younger filmmakers, who I showed it to at Columbia during an edit process. I was so surprised. They said it was nice to see Jack Nicholson's early work, because they only knew him old. They had not known any of his early work. They did not know who Julie Christie was. They did not know who Michael Cimino was.
And these are the current film students...
I know. I know a lot of this is well known to those of us in my age group, and the reason for doing this became clear as I went along. It was like a primer for these kids. When I showed it in Denver and Dallas - both at film schools - the kids said that they did not know any of these movies, and that they were looking for their own voice and were going to go out and watch every one of them. They were just excited by the material they saw.
Well, they're going to be even more excited when they start to dig in and watch the complete films. Older films, you know, made before 1970 or 1980.
I know (laughs). Please - my kid considers a song that was released last year old. "Why are they playing this old song on the radio?"
Again, I am glad you got some of those films in there. Back to the rights issues - it was more problematic than you originally thought?
For instance, take Diary of a Mad Housewife. Four companies claimed to own that, and I would have had to pay four companies the exact same price for a thirty or sixty-second clip. In those instances, I just couldn't do it. There were so many people who said they owned certain properties, and the foreign films had the same issues as well.
Understood. How did you go about extending the invitations? You obviously got a good group of actors, directors, producers.
Teddy and I wrote up a form letter, and wrote up this huge list of who we wanted, and we started sending them out. We also contacted our friends and other filmmakers who we wanted to help us do the interviews, and they gave us their top five people. Pretty much it was always determined by scheduling, because that was the hardest thing. Everybody's working and trying to do stuff. So, it was partly about matching up people with time and scheduling. There were the people we couldn't get - Spielberg, Lucas, Sydney Poitier, Gordon Parks, Melvin Van Peebles. We came really close to Warren Beatty, and we were courting him for a while. It just didn't work out, although he was interested. There were people that we wanted and we just couldn't get.
Some of those names are interesting. You were able to get Pam Grier in there...
Yeah, we wanted to get some of the black filmmakers in there but we couldn't get them.
Still, there is clear love on the screen - are you happy with the final product?
Yes, everyone was terrific. We didn't have a hard time with anyone.
In terms of the shooting... how did it work logistically?
I did Denis Hopper and Julie Christie in one day. I would fly out on some other job I had. Alexander Payne did Coppola's ranch because they have a relationship. Neil LaBute did Paul Mazursky. Teddy did Bruce Dern and William Friedkin in one day. Then I did a lot of people in New York - I did not get Scorsese until December. That was the last interview I did.
What added some nice context to the film was that you can see very clearly that it was made by fans. I imagine this must have been very exciting.
(Laughs) It really was. Sidney Lumet was just the best to talk to, to hear stories from. Julie Christie was amazing.
Julie Christie spoke with great candor - she brought a real gravity to it.
And a female point of view.
Regarding some of the themes - I thought it was interesting how you started with some foreign films and the French New Wave. I was curious about the film school movement in the late sixties and the early seventies. A lot of the students became hugely influential directors in their own right.
It's funny - we call them the "film school generation," but when you talk to them they didn't really go to film school. Bogdanovich did not go to film school, Coppola was a theater major and then went into film, and even Scorsese talked very little about what they taught in film school. It was mostly about these guys who loved film and wanted to be filmmakers, and the foreign movies that were coming out at the time that influenced them. They did not really talk about films schools per se - there was not anything that organized yet in their generation, even though that is what they are called.
Not that it was necessarily for formal training, but just in terms of exposure. The documentary discusses the advent of the foreign film clubs on campus.
That was distribution, and there was much more exposure for everyone, including the foreign films of the late fifties and sixties.
The approaches were interesting: when Altman was discussing MASH, he talked about flying under the radar to get what he wanted, while others [Coppola, Schrader] talked about being bossy with the studios: "I know of this audience that you do not, and I can therefore make you money?"
Well, they are two different generations. Altman was already a working director, and there was the Frankenheimer, Altman, and Lumet generation, and then there were the young bloods like Bogdanovich, Coppola, Friedkin and Scorsese. They had two different ways of looking at it. All those guys who came in from Corman as underlings who finally had the power were younger in years and felt a stronger connection to the generation. But they both came to the same end.
I thought it was interesting: the guys who came out of television, Frankenheimer, Chayefsky, Altman - they were really ushering in a new era in American cinema, along with the new guys.
As the documentary moves on, economics really comes into focus. These guys were given free reign - on the cheap, say by Corman - and these films made money. Some who became really successful, like Scorsese or Coppola for example, almost had too much success. Bogdanovich speaks to this, like it was a snake eating its own tail.
That was a really interesting point to me when Bogdanovich says, "well, why did it fall apart?" You have to remember that they had not made that many movies and they got successful very quickly, so then everybody turned to them and said, "well then do what you want to do." They did not have the experience that all the filmmakers they loved - like the Fords, the Wylers, the Stevens - did. Their hit movies came at like movie number seventy-five. Those guys had done almost a hundred movies and these guys had two, and they were being given all the power and the control. So there was not any place for them to fail - they failed really big. They came and went. Scorsese says at one point that it's even worse now. You come out with a nice, strong film with a strong point of view and your sophomore effort...
There is no shelf life anymore?
The machine spits you out quicker than ever now.
You bring up an interesting point: the old studio system, even though it derided somewhat for being a "factory"… I mean, these guys could come in from the bottom and really learn their craft.
They really learned their craft. You're seeing the best John Ford movie, and that could be his seventy-fifth. Even Kurosawa - Rashomon was his fourteenth film.
Regarding Lucas and Spielberg: I thought it was interesting that Scorsese really seemed to be defending them, anticipating the criticism that might be lodged against them. That was a class act and very smart.
I was really glad he said that too, because I think he is absolutely right. He further said that they made the movies they wanted to make. E.T., for example, was a huge movie, but for Steven, it was a very personal, small film. These guys happen to have a talent that links up to the collective. That is what they do. It's not some malicious, evil plan to thwart art. They're incredibly talented people, and their desires and their dreams happen to fit in with the rest of the world on a big scale. It's the industry who then turned around and said that this is all we want to make now. When there is only a Spielberg and a Lucas, and there many other kind of great visionaries in film, they should be supported and should be put out there. No, they may not make as much money, but they deserve to be part of our cinema.
Absolutely. Scorsese said, "it's not the filmmakers' fault." Another great point.
Yeah, it made me happy that he said that.
There was always marketing, etc., but the tenor seems to have changed. It's like a fetish now.
The culture and industry ... you become hot and the culture and industry just sucks you up. Just as quickly, it spits you out. It's hard to maintain yourself in the midst of it, and marketing has become king. When the studios consider a script, they give it to the marketing department. If the marketing department can see it, can see the poster, how to sell it, then you have that much better a chance for the executives to say yes. That how it's working right now.
Do you think the "independent" market is being somewhat co-opted? I know there are some struggling mightily to give these young artists these voices...
I guess to a certain extent. There are still a lot of original movies being made, but it's always the cost. A lot of these films made in the seventies did not cost as much, the actors were not frontloaded as much. So, I still think if you make a really good film for less money, it will be marketed and it will prove itself once distributed. And there are a lot of places to do that now - especially with cable now. They need product.
I just read Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands both won Emmy Awards last night for Hysterical Blindness. This was a good little film, directed by Mira Nair, and it was done for cable (HBO). I don't know if a film like that would have had a chance at the box office.
I haven't seen it. It was directed by Mira Nair?
Yeah, you should check it out - it's great to see Rowlands and Gazzara again. Lastly, what do you think about some of these younger guys nodding to the seventies - for example, Joe Carnahan and Paul Thomas Anderson?
What I think it so great is that I am not so sure that it is a conscious nod. I just think that point of view is coming back again. I wonder if some of these younger filmmakers even know about it - I mean, I know Paul does. I think the others are artists and they are naturally echoing a previous period. It would be interesting to know how much they really knew about the period.
Friedkin showed up on the commentary for Narc and mentioned Anderson and that he knows his stuff.
Paul knows his stuff. I was his advisor when he was up there at Sundance with Sydney [Hard Eight].
Great film. More people need to see that.
It's terrific - a great screenplay.
Forgive me, but my final question is about personal favorites from the period. Terrence Malick and Brian DePalma - did you extend invitations?
Yes. Malick, he just wouldn't do it. He just does not like doing that sort of thing. DePalma was busy editing Femme Fatale.
Read our full review of A Decade Under the Influence.