Sight and Sound
volume 45 number 4
John Russell Taylor
An interview with Bob Rafelson
When Five Easy Pieces opened in 1970, at least part of its considerable impact came from the element of sheer surprise. It apparently came out of nowhere (who was Bob Rafelson anyway?), and it seemed like an extraordinary sport in the American cinema, exciting at once some very unlikely comparisons for a Hollywood film: Rohmer, Ozu, Olmi . . . By the time Rafelson's next film, The King of Marvin Gardens, came out in 1973 we had a little light thrown on Rafelson's origins. He was, it appeared, partner with Bert Schneider in BBS Productions, the company that had given us Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show and Drive, He Said, among others. And he had made one feature before Five Easy Pieces which had hardly been shown in America and not at all outside: it was called Head and it starred the Monkees, a pseudo-Beatles group spawned by television, which sounded odd for a start. More to the point, The King of Marvin Gardens confirmed that the comparisons provoked by Five Easy Pieces were by no means arbitrary flights of critical pretentiousness; they all held good for this new film too, and what had seemed a welcome but isolated oddity began to look like the individual style and approach of an artist.
|'Stay Hungry': off balance in the gym|
Another three years went by before we could see another Bob Rafelson film. Stay Hungry is unlike the director's previous films in that it is based on a pre-existing novel, and quite a successful one at that, by Charles Gaines. But in almost every other way it is remarkably consistent in theme and style with the two preceding films. All three of them, for instance, deal with men in retreat, in one way or another, from a highly civilised, perhaps even a debilitatingly over-cultivated background. The redneck hero of Five Easy Pieces is a pianist who has deliberately blotted out of his life the whole of his intellectual family origins and training. The brothers in Marvin Gardens find different-seeming ways of escape which are finally one and the same, the timid intellectual disc jockey living in a world of fantasy no less completely than his ebullient speculative brother, who has chosen to live in action rather than thought. The hero of Stay Hungry has features in common with both the Jack Nicholson character in Five Easy Pieces and the Bruce Dern character in The King of Marvin Gardens. The sudden death of his parents has left him apparently well off and in possession of a stately Southern home; but he chooses to blot this out, camping out in his own house and spending his time first with a group of very unappetising property sharks and then with the simple, basic denizens of a run-down gym he is supposed to take over for his associates at a knockdown price. To make the pattern complete, in the end he closes down the mansion and goes off to the mindless, tasteless life of a Winnebago mobile home and the wonderful world of Polyester.
Another thing that the hero of Stay Hungry has in common with earlier Rafelson characters is that he consorts only with girls a lot dumber and less classy than he is. The childlike country-and-western freak played by Karen Black in obviously offers to her man the same kind of understanding comfort tinged with exasperation that Ellen Burstyn and Julia Anne Robinson do to Bruce Dern in Marvin Gardens and that Sally Field does to Jeff Bridges in Stay Hungry. Whether this pattern of relationships witnesses some sort of qualified misogeny, or doubts about the possibility of real communication among human beings at all, or a romantic dream of the action coming together on the most basic animal level, it would be difficult to say. And not for that matter very important: the fact is that in Rafelson's films, whether from original screenplays or adaptations, the theme is clearly there.
Stylistically there are, as one would expect, some developments from film to film. In particular, Stay Hungry is shot in a noticeably looser and more mobile fashion than Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens, which have an almost Ozu-like economy of camera movement, particularly on exteriors, and the new film's range of mood and gesture is obviously wider. But even here it does not strike one as a radical departure, and indeed the sobriety of the last three films is the most surprising thing about them in relation to Rafelson's starting-point with Head. For Head is the absolute opposite, a film built upon lightning changes of mood and tone, articulated through a very flashy editing technique with a great deal of whirling, wayward hand-held camera movement. Bearing in mind Rafelson's immediately preceding experience and the presumed exploitability of the Monkees, one might of course guess that Head was a solitary aberration, a way of getting into theatrical film-making and nearer to the sort of film he really wanted to make. But this, it turns out, is far from the truth.
To understand how and why, and how Rafelson's films fit together, it is probably necessary to back-track a little and look at his beginnings and early career, which he described to me in Hollywood when just back from the gruelling tour of campus previews for Stay Hungry. His background, like that of many film men of his generation, is in television. But even here it is rather unusual. His earliest connection with show business was writing a play which won a prize and was staged with modest success while he was still at university. Immediately after this he found himself in Japan working at a military radio station as a disc jockey, very much like the Jack Nicholson character in Marvin Gardens, talking more or less at random far into the night. At the same time he was working on the side as a translator of Japanese films and adviser to Shochiku on what films they should and should not export to America. In this latter capacity he stamped, he says, on the chances of several Ozu films, which he loved himself but which he could not see finding an audience in America at that time, years before the revelation of Tokyo Story.
|Above: Jack Nicholson in 'Five Easy Pieces'; below: 'Head'|
Released at last from the military, Rafelson toyed with the idea of doing his master's degree in philosophy and Benares University, but decided instead to go back to New York and capitalise on his experience in radio, which he did, for CBS. At the age of 23, brushing aside a lucrative job in advertising for Columbia Pictures, he became instead reader and story-editor for David Susskind's television Play of the Week, two-and-a-half hour adaptations of important plays, classic and contemporary, which went out on tape and were produced on a back-breaking schedule of twelve days' rehearsal and two days' shooting each. It would seem to have been, at least, an educative experience: he recalls reading more than a thousand plays in the first year, and writing additional dialogue for Shakespeare, Anouilh, Giraudoux and whoever else seemed to require it, all triumphantly undetected by critics who praised the series for the rigorous purity of its texts.
Rafelson's flirtations with the movies - or, more correctly, the movies' flirtations with him - began around this time. For five consecutive years he was shipped out to Hollywood, shown around, and failed to bite. Finally he went to Universal as an associate producer, but did not last very long; he ended up being escorted from the lot after an outburst in which he overturned Lew Wasserman's desk in defence of a script which he felt was being violated. When he went back to pick up his things, Mr Wasserman himself walked him to the gate and gave him a fatherly talking-to. 'I don't care,' he said, 'if you're Bunuel, if you're Kurasawa, if you're Fellini, John Ford' (thereby ingeniously encapsulating Rafelson's pantheon at the time), 'you'll find some day that film is a very collaborative process. When you learn this lesson, you'll come back and ask me for a job.' Rafelson did learn his lesson, in a way ('I have a double standard about this: while I think it applies to me that I should be left alone, I don't think it necessarily applies to those who work with me'), but he never went back asking for a job. Instead, he had his hands full with the Monkees.
RAFELSON: 'I put the Monkees together. There was a lot of music in my background - I'd played with a band in Mexico and other things - and I had this idea before I went to Universal. But it wasn't until the Beatles became popular that anyone would agree to let a series like this go on the air. It became an enormously popular show, and the Monkees sold millions of records. And these were boys who had had little acting experience, if any, so the whole show was created in effect in the editing room. The tempo was of paramount importance - the programmes were very fast-moving with a lot of musical numbers, and I had to direct one or two of the shows for television to set the pattern of how these things should be made. The average number of set-ups for a television show would be 20 to 25 a day. I brought the production crew together and said, 'Look, we will not travel the customary teamster vans and all the equipment - we'll do this on the run.' The first day that I shot I made 125 set-ups. I said, 'Don't light the background, nobody will see it on the tube anyway.' Most cameramen were used to seeing their dailies in a screening room, as for a movie, but obviously the only way you could properly evaluate the work was by how it would be seen on a television screen. So we just didn't light anything, and once that was established as a concept we could travel much faster.
This was the first joint effort of Bert Schneider and myself, when we formed this company that subsequently got into Easy Rider and Head and The Last Picture Show. And of the first thirty-two shows, twenty-nine were directed by people who had never directed before - including me. So the idea of using new directors not perhaps too encumbered by traditional ways of thinking was initiated on that series, and just continued in the movies we made later. Head might seem like a natural offshoot of the television series, but it wasn't really. It was natural in the sense that after the success of the Monkees one could imagine making capital of that. But Head was never thought of by me or my partner as a picture that would make money. What I felt was that we were entitled, since we had made for Columbia an enormous amount of money in their record division and in television sales, to make a picture that would in a sense expose the process.
Head was assumed to be an exploitation film, but in fact it was not that at all. It opened metaphorically with the Monkees committing suicide, it was a complete exposure of my relationship to the Monkees. It made no money, coming out some time after the Monkees' popularity had begun to decline; hardly anyone saw it, and those who did were mostly mystified by it. Since then it has become something of a cult film on campus and in France. Henri Langlois sent me a piece in which he said it was one of his favourite American movies. Now possibly this was because I had given him a carpet sweeper for the Cinematheque, but he is not the only French critic who has come out with extraordinary analysis.
Of course, Head is an utterly and totally fragmented film. Among other reasons for making it was that I thought I would never get to make another movie, so I might as well make fifty to start out with and put them all in the same feature. In that I was in a sense emulating or satirising the styles of various American pictures. There's a Golden Boy episode, a desert episode, a harem dance number; the French immediately picked up on the scene where Davy Jones dances in white on a black set and in black on a white set, and I intercut the two, as being a tribute to Vincente Minnelli. They've traced every one of these things, sometimes incorrectly and certainly without being aided and abetted by my original purposes at all. But none the less there was this kind of history of the American movies in there as well. One of the curious things is that the Beatles and the Stones and other rock groups regard Head as being a minor triumph, because it's the story of their lives as well - of the manipulation of rock stars. After all, the Monkees wind up playing dandruff in Victor Mature's hair, which was my way of suggesting that this was all one giant hype - which the Monkees in fact were - and of revealing it to the public. And they all recognise this as their own story.
Head was my first collaboration with Jack Nicholson. Jack had abandoned his career as an actor at this point - I didn't even know him as an actor - and we wrote and produced this picture together. When we were writing it Jack would act out all the parts, as would I, and my eyes were just glued to the expressions on his face and the intensity he brought to the performance in a script conference. I told him that the next time I made a picture he had to be in it. Meanwhile I persuaded Dennis Hopper that Jack might be right for the role in Easy Rider, and then the idea of Five Easy Pieces came up. No film that I have directed, with the exception of Stay Hungry, started with material outside myself. Before Five Easy Pieces I had written three versions of a film, partial scripts you might say, taking place in totally different locations but always dealing with the same problems of much the same central character, who ultimitely became the Nicholson character in Five Easy Pieces. When I felt that I couldn't go any further with the screenplays, I took all this work to Carol Eastman - Adrien Joyce - and said, 'Look, I'm really in trouble. I don't know how I feel about the central character, I know the sort of attitude I want to convey, but I don't think I've succeeding with these screenplays. Would you read them and talk with me ?'
|Ellen Burstyn, Bruce Dern, Jack Nicholson in 'The King of Marvin gardens'|
She did, she knew Jack as well, we met, we had two or three discussions. I was also able to infiltrate into the discussion various interests I had, in music for instance, until we shaped a story together. Four or five days after that I started to cast, and we literally shot that movie ten weeks after the initial story conversation. While she was writing I was picking locations, including spending three weeks working in the oilfields myself, so you can imagine the tremendous energy released, after a year and a half I had spent only on working on screenplays for Jack and not getting anywhere. The only scene of mine that Carol really used in its entirety was the scene with Jack at the luncheon counter - 'no substitutions' - and there she added the ultimate flourish of Jack wiping the table clean. What I was really drawn to obviously was studying that character; but for every character in a movie, I like to think of how that character would behave in another movie, or in his own movie. My interest is not totally involved in the principals, but in every small character as well.
Other people have thought it strange, but I don't find it strange at all, that the style of Five Easy Pieces is as different from that of Head. I really think the camerawork, like every other aspect of the technology available to the director, must be dictated by the ambience of the movie, and that you don't legislate these things ahead of time. You have a feeling for what the movie is, and then that dictates how you use sound, how you use the camera. I find I compose right to the hairline in every movie I make. In Five Easy Pieces and the King of Marvin Gardens the style was such that in the exteriors the camera was, with maybe one or two exceptions, totally static the whole time, much the way that Ozu is totally static in many of his films. When I first set up this pattern of non-movement on exteriors, it was for a very specific reason, though such reasons tend to dissipate as you look backwards and it comes to seem just like a stylistic flourish.
I had a concept about rearranging geography. In these two films I am talking about exteriors only, because I did move the camera on the interiors. To give you a specific example, in Five Easy Pieces there is a scene between Nicholson and Billy Green Bush in which Billy Green argues with him about whether it's right for him to get Rhea pregnant. The scene takes place in the oilfields. I would make the shot of Nicholson, and in the background there were thirty or forty wells, to suggest the clutter of his mind, the confusion of it. I don't mean to be heavy-handed about these things but it was just a way of framing the shot to put a lot of machinery there. And when I came to do Billy Green Bush I went two miles away, and used just one piece of machinery, and kept a complete blank field behind him, which reflected the character's temperament, and the simplicity of what he had to say. I did this sort of thing constantly throughout the picture, and a cameraman is not supposed to do this - especially Laszlo Kovacs. This was his first union picture, he was used to doing a lot of pyrotechnics with the camera and was very mistrustful: was this going to be a boring movie? Of course, by the time I got to Marvin Gardens the point had been proven that I was doing this specifically and knew how I planned on editing the shots together, but here there was a certain amount of my having to restrain him from camera movement.
On Marvin Gardens we were constantly making one shot out towards the ocean, and another towards the facades of the buildings, and rearranging the geography of the beach and making it more suitable for the frame as opposed to the natural landscape. I did much less of this in Stay Hungry; as a matter of fact I had consciously to break myself of the habit, which I had come to think of as a conceit, and be much more flexible with my camera movements outdoors, since there was going to be much more action in the film. Now the difference between doing a pan shot where the camera is moving and doing it in cuts is that the camera embraces all the geography in between the two opposing cuts, so that limits you much more to the given characteristics of the locale. Which may or may not be a good thing. In those two movies it was a stylistic gesture of which I have since broken myself. Though I do still try to restrain myself from moving the camera unless it is absolutely necessary and unless the camera action is at least subliminally motivated by the actions of the characters.
The King of Marvin Gardens came about in much the same way as Five Easy Pieces. I do have a brother, and I felt that one of the relationships I was not able to explore at all in Five Easy Pieces was the one between the two brothers, and I wanted to. I started with the notion of doing a film about two brothers. I also had been a disc jockey in Japan, and had been in the habit of doing long free-form stories on the air, very much like the fishbone story with which Nicholson starts Marvin Gardens. And I felt that Five Easy Pieces had been very explicitly naturalistic, and I wanted to move in a sense one step back towards Head. I envisioned the film as a sort of comical nightmare. It is much more fragmented in style than Five Easy Pieces. In Head scenes were constantly controverted or interposed differently in the light of the scene that follows. The same is true to an extent of Five Easy Pieces but a great deal more of Marvin Gardens. Nicholson tells a story about how he conspired to kill his grandfather; after the credits, after a six-minute indulgence of this story, all in a head close-up, we meet the grandfather, find that he is very much alive and disapproves of the story he has just heard on the air that his grandson has told. There was this constant kind of labyrinthine approach.
Now the style of the film, the attitude of the film, were things I was feeling at the time and trying to come to grips with in my life. The world was very despairing. Everybody I knew was being assassinated or killed, and there was a general sense of instability all around me. Whether this was true, or simply true of my perception, I don't know, but it was the way I felt, and I wanted to put this up on the screen. I made contact with Jake Brockman, a critic who had not written a screenplay before, and initially we just started to talk about some of these things floating around in my mind. Ultimitely, having written the story together, we emerged with his screenplay.
|R.G. Armstrong, owner of the gym in 'Stay Hungry'|
I must say that I can see some lines of continuity between the subjects of Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens and Stay Hungry by hindsight, and they have been pointed out to me often enough. But I have been absolutely unaware of them as I awkwardly fumbled towards the work. Shortly after Marvin Gardens I hitch-hiked through the South. I hadn't been there since I was much, much younger - Peace Marches and that kind of thing - and I was very enamoured of this, to me, very exotic aspect of our culture. I had an initial craving at that time to do something in the South. Meantime I had done an enormous amount of research for a film about the slave trade: I had spent a year in British libraries and American universities. I'd travelled five thousand miles through West Africa, in fact living the life of many of the characters that I'd read about. At one point I had found myself in Ghana, in a slave port, and I literally collapsed: I felt that the subject was too emotionally oppressive for me at that time. There was been tragedy in my own family, and I felt I wanted to turn to something more cheerful, to project a more exhilarating aspect of myself. I had just begun to think in those terms when a friend suggested I read this book by Charles Gaines, Stay Hungry.
I do have some intentions, incidentally, of coming back to the slavery subject. One of the pictures I wrote for Five Easy Pieces took place entirely on a train; the central character was a returning soldier from Vietnam, who was essentially the same as the Nicholson character in the finished film. I abandoned that project - it was one of the scripts I gave Carol Eastman - but the initial sequence of that script was the loading of a coffin on to a train. The sequence at the end of Marvin Gardens where Nicholson leads the coffin of his dead brother was an image which I had also talked about with Brockman, so that I never totally abandon images or motifs or ideas, they just infiltrate other movies. That whole picture became condensed in one shot. Just by the way, the work I had done on that picture was recently made by Harry Jaglom. Starring Dennis Hopper, called Tracho - I haven't seen it yet. That was because Jaglom and I travelled thousands of miles on trains talking about the script.
With Stay Hungry, I wasn't in the least interested in making this book into a movie, but I was interested in the writer. So I met Gaines in Birmingham, Alabama, and it was only at the end of a very long conversation that I said to him that the conclusions of his novel were not unlike the conclusions I had come to in both Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens. The novel ends on a very exasperated tone with the girl being killed and the character of the hero, Craig Blake, wandering nomadically, unaffected by the experiences he has gone through. Gaines wanted me to direct this movie even while I was suggesting substantially altering his book. There were a number of people competing for the movie rights, but it emerged that Gaines had really admired Marvin Gardens and said he wanted to work with me. He thought the experience might be more interesting than his attachments to the novel. I told him that it was also going to be more dangerous, since he would find his own temperament being somewhat violated, and if he did have these attachments and was unable to trancend them he was going to find himself affected by this picture.
We none the less agreed that there were other ways of dealing with the material: I would say that about one-third of the characters in the film are not in the book, and we created a whole subplot, including the uncle, including the family retainer William and so on, who were newly invented characters. I felt that rather than being redundant and trying to recapture the energies he had put into the novel, Gaines might be able to bring new life to a new creative experience based on the same basic body of material. If you can break the logic of the original piece of thinking and open it some, the quality of the writing becomes more energised. Otherwise you're merely trying to figure out, how can I translate the novel experience into the film experience? At any rate, I did not relent in my feelings about wanting to make a more optimistic film and express that aspect of myself. I only agreed to do Stay Hungry after I had spent six weeks travelling with body-builders, because I wasn't sure I was in the least intrigued by their profession. The day after the Mr. Olympia contest in New York was the day I had set my deadline for notifying Gaines as to whether or not I would persue the thing - and there was enough there, obviously, to make me decide I wanted to do it.
I guess it's a little odd that the downbeat ending of the novel, in whch I saw the closest resemblance to my previous films, was the element I was most determined to change. But other unlikely confrontations take place. I suppose that in more conventional narrative structures the enemy in the film would have been the cartel members and the fight would then have taken place openly between them and the hero, Craig Blake. Instead, they simply subvert the gym owner, and the big confrontation comes between those two. I don't do this kind of thing intentionally; it's more that I find the intentions of simple, straightforward narrative so compellingly and embarrassingly predictable in most instances that I tend to search out other possibilities. I don't mind looking at movies that are made in this way, but I find it very difficult myself to make movies where I know right from the beginning what the end is going to be.
There's nothing the matter with that. For example, in a classical form like the Western you usually know that the bad man and the good guy are going to have a stand-off at some point in the film, and indeed would be vastly disappointed if this were not the case. If I were making a genre film, I would not perhaps betray the genre in the way that I have circumnavigated these conventions in the films I have made. In fact I would like to try it some time, and trust that I would bring something unique just in the direction of the film, without thinking that I had to have a unique screenplay - and by unique I mean emanating solely from myself. I think I've been more unnecessarily terrified about such a prospect than I should be, and thinking about what I should do next I don't know that I'll take three years between films as I have done with the last two. I feel that I'd probably like to work faster and direct something that is totally outside myself. I rather look forward to the challenge of being ordinary.
But in the movies I have made so far, the greatest reward has been that they have yielded to me privileges of experimentation and exploration. I don't like to know what my movies are about, and I don't like to know how they are going to end; it's a constant puzzlement and a challenge, In face, in Marvin Gardens, Five Easy Pieces and Stay Hungry I did not know how the movies were going to end until the day before I ended them - a process which is quite exasperating for my collaborators, particularly in the production department, who are constantly receiving new pages at the last moment, sometimes to be shot in locales thousands of miles away from where they are. In Five Easy Pieces the ending of the picture was scripted entirely differently; on Marvin Gardens the same thing was true. I shoot in continuity, and I pay very close attention to what the characters in the movie are telling me, rather than being myself this directorial force telling the characters how they should respond.
I place a great deal of faith in the collaboration of the entire company, and in the atmosphere in which I am shooting. I try to remain susceptiple to what the characters are telling me, what the weather is telling me, what the sounds around me are telling me . . . While I do enormous amounts of preparation, I go through a strange emptying process before I go to the stage, and try to evaporate all the preconceived notions I have about how the day's work is going to be. I try to stay vulnerable. This also accounts, I think, for a certain amount of coonfusion on the part of the audiences that see my movies; they find them disorientating, problematic and difficult to follow, illogical if you will. My films seem totally logical to me, but I am pursuing a psycho-logical as opposed to a kind of narrative, dramaturgical logic which has been passed on from one generation to another, has been the rules by which we should be structuring our art.
People come into a theatre, and there's a black screen, and suddenly a head swivels into it, embarks on a very long story with no revelation as to where we are, whome Nicholson is speaking to, what the physical geography is; there's no movement, just the long, long story prior to the credits - that's already opposing the conventions of how a film begins, and makes people restless. Well, the subject of Marvin Gardens basically was instability, a clue to be derived from the name of the brothers, which is Stable (Stabler), and I tried to find a way of rendering instability in the form of the movie, so that things were happening in unexpected terms, and in controversion of expectations, because that movie was about unstable lives, unpredictable lives. And I suspect that most people's lives are lived in that fashion, but that when thet turn to their fictional enjoyments they want to feel that neatness and predictability exist somewhere, especially if not in their own lives.
Stay Hungry, again, does begin on an incredibly solumn note: a boy riding through the forest and sitting alone, a letter voiceover introducing ius to the problems of his life, the despair of his life. And immediately, snap, we're dealing with the wild flourishes of middle-class Birmingham businessmen talking on CB units, and when he goes on the first visit to the gym we're into a weirdly comical atmosphere. The film constantly, almost manically, shifts from one mood to the next. It does take on totally unexpected confrontations, there's a sudden explosion of comic energy when the body-builders go racing through the streets of Birmingham, but these things are I hope anticipated, so that they don't just happen arbitrarily or as radical stylistic departures.
There's a character who invents his own language, who takes us to the edge of farce and becomes the communicator of the bedlam that's going on between the gym and the auditorium; there is that kind of challenge to see what would happen if the Martians landed, so to speak. This is not unlike, I suspect, the way people's lives are lived all the time; we are despairing and ecstatic in various degrees from moment to moment and day to day. So I tried to put that kind of energy into the movie. But this all makes my work somewhat abrasive to a movie audience, and it's one of the consequences that I have to suffer if I'm going to continue to work in this form, which I don't necessarily anticipate doing for the rest of my life.'
Meanwhile, however, Rafelson seems to be as obsessed with the need to continue as anyone in Hollywood, and to be committed in spite of himself to the slow, painful exploration of his own psyche in terms of film subjects which are at least viable by commercial standards. The four films he has made to date demonstrate a remarkably consistend vision and angle of approach. Stay Hungry, as much as any of the others, comes out finally as an unmistakable Rafelson film, beautifully shaped and astonishingly well acted (Sally Field, hitherto known mainly as the Flying Nun, is stunning as the hero's girl friend, and real-life muscle man Arnold Schwarzenegger is quite charming as the gentle, dedicated body-builder), a compelling product of that highly literate, tradition-based culture that Rafelson's heroes all determinedly reject. There is a paradox here, but out of the apparent contradictiions - contradictions in Rafelson's own mind presumably as much as in his principal characters' - come some of the most personal, assured films of the last eight years, films which are specifically American for all the European parallels they have evoked.