Monday, November 12, 2012

Interview: LACMA

Listen to the full interview at KCRW.

Transcription by Megan Leddy.

ELVIS MITCHELL: So talk to me about the first time you saw Let There Be Light.

PTA:  Well like I said, it was on YouTube. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, I guess for first film which I think I watched at the same time, taking nothing away from it because it’s a great film but you see explosions off in the distance and I was familiar with that stuff and already been desensitized to it in a certain terrible way. But this has close-ups with these fellas and hearing them talk, and long takes, it’s not battle footage it was – obviously the acting after that. At the time it was right when The Master – you know you can only go so far when you’re trying to get in the head of another time, and you are sort of hungry for more films of that period that will do it, but seeing a documentary of that period and something that is laid so bare – I watched it again and again and again and again. It was at a time when I was writing where I was feeling pretty good about what I had but something – I just felt like something was missing – and suddenly you get lucky enough to discover something and it kind of opens up for you the story that you are working on and that’s what that did for me.

ELVIS MITCHELL: Isn’t it sad to you that inevitably – even like Under The Volcano – that we might be completely lost in our bodies?

PTA: Perfectly said, yeah. It’s funny to see this kind of happy ending put on it, which you could feel – I don’t know, I know that he had a sense of humor I don’t know if he was applying it in this film but you could feel maybe he was saying “I’ll just put a little swell of music and say that everything is okay and maybe I can get away with it.” There’s no swell of music big enough to make it okay. The fella was talking about his wife and that letter it just doesn’t get any more harrowing – seeing somebody like that so vulnerable and so naked – you just never saw that, fellows from that era that came back – you just never saw that – baring their souls. I had never seen anything like that.

ELVIS MITCHELL: The thing that I feel from Let There Be Light and The Master, is that your movies before The Master, death was always kind of a specter in the background, but this movie you start off the ground recovering from being stung by death. And it seems to influence how The Master starts today.

PTA: In a practical way you need to ask yourself “Are you going to shoot some more footage?” And that’s a real big investment not only in time, effort and energy and money but are you going to be able to do something that hasn’t been shown before, do you need to do that? For that film one look at Joaquin Phoenix like when you look at these guys, look at these faces, and you don’t need anything else. That’s the sort of thought that just occurred to me there. I think that the Battle of San Pedro – to me the best part of that film – yes you have this harrowing war stuff but getting to the end and to see these faces and there’s just this kind of relief – not relief, but it’s faces. It’s not landscapes and explosions – as haunting as that is – the second you see the faces everything comes rapidly into focus. And Let There Be Light is exclusively faces, there’s no war footage at all.

ELVIS MITCHELL: And yet in those faces there’s all that collateral damage from the battle – those starved kids with those lines under their eyes and those worry lines in their foreheads – I Let There Be Light just that pain in their faces.

PTA: Yeah, pain in their faces but also too how they do talk about it. It was a generation that wouldn’t talk, wouldn’t talk badly, kept it all to themselves – and I guess that’s true. But here these guys are really pouring their hearts out – just the interesting thing as we are watching these guys try and mess around with all these different methods about how they may help them or cure them:  sodium pentothal, hypnosis and Rorschach tests and all that kind of stuff which I don’t know – did it make it worse? Or help?

ELVIS MITCHELL: It didn’t seem to help, but the funny thing was there was so much confidence in each of these treatments that didn’t really seem to do anything. And in watching The Master…

PTA: Oh the doctor - that kind of real nuts and bolts doctor? He’s like slapping him around – the unsavory character the doctor with the cigarette hanging out of his mouth.

ELVIS MITCHELL: He doesn’t say “Snap out of it.”

PTA: Yes – he stopped just short of saying “Snap out of it.” But for The Master there was – obviously it helped feed into ideas that eventually got into how to work with mental illness, how to work with the mind. He did spend time in the Naval Hospital so he was obviously around all this kind of stuff. So whatever he knew – this entire made up thing – he was around this stuff and funneling it into what he was working on.

ELVIS MITCHELL: When Philip is questioning Joaquin it’s almost that same kind of… we’ve been trying to probe this soft spot because he understands that there’s trauma. There’s that admission of trauma basically in the conversation and it’s really like watching the interrogations in this.

PTA: A lot of those things had been formed in the script for The Master before I saw this, but it’s that kind of lucky thing that helps verifies something you made up, you found somewhere else - it just helps you feel that you are on the right path by seeing this stuff. Those kind of hard-hitting questions are meant to break you down, get you to open up. Nothing entirely new, there’s psychology, psychosis, yeah…

ELVIS MITCHELL: The cutting of that section reminds me of John Huston’s cutting, as I was saying before, well he said basically “An edit came from a natural [?] plank”. And that kind of cast iron cutting: this is the cut, this is the cut, really isn’t a sequence.

PTA: I have never heard that he said that before. That’s great. It makes sense to me. I think I respond to his films just how nuts and bolts they are. They really are kind of lean mean fighting machines. And whatever it is floats my boat about them. I really like about his films. Love it actually… There Will Be Blood that was kind of the beginning of a real hard-core obsession with his stuff and feeling like – just so muscular. And in addition, not just muscular, John Ford was muscular too, and a sentimental side – I think John Huston was a great writer too. And I respond to his writing as well.

ELVIS MITCHELL: What he does that I always think about with your stuff, is that he poses these kinds of questions about masculinity. Except in his movies those questions are always answered – and in your movies those questions aren’t.

PTA: Well he was more of a man that I’ll ever be.

ELVIS MITCHELL: I didn’t know we were going to be talking about the steak and tequila diet while you were cutting There Will Be Blood – that’s very John Huston to me.

PTA: That was steak and vodka – yeah… I do live in the same neighborhood though. He built a house out where I live – it’s still there actually. Great house – he built it and they ended up shooting Red Badge of Courage along the backyard where I live. It’s not populated with a lot of houses…

ELVIS MITCHELL: Did you read Picture the Lillian Ross book on…

PTA: I did. I did.

ELVIS MITCHELL: Isn’t that great? It’s just one of those rare looks into how entirely decisive he was. If you read that and White Hunter Black Heart you get the sense that he always knew what he was going to do no matter what the costs.

PTA: Yeah – and probably many times against what was better for him - which translates to his films. Better or worse, really nuts and bolts, attack and just kind of a streamlined vision. I don’t think there was a poetic thinking… but he was also – I don’t want to say it was just nuts and bolts with him – he was a painter and he was probably a romantic at heart. And you could feel those kind of things coming through in his films, but just because you make films that’s as cut and dry as Let There Be Light… it would be wrong to assume that he’s this cold person. If anything it’s the opposite – he was nuts and bolts in his filmmaking to allow what was happening in front of him to do the talking. It wasn’t filmmaking getting in the way. He was such a humanist that this idea on making a cut was “Let them tell the truth. I’m not going to tell the truth or make my own truth by cutting it up a bunch of different ways. I’m going to let the things that happen speak for itself.”

ELVIS MITCHELL: Did you know that the editing of that question and answer sequence felt so new to me for you? That kind of let’s get on with it kind of thing.

PTA: Well I have to admit that’s probably just a function of being able to shoot with two cameras at the same time so literally on a computer these days you can just press when you feel it. In the old days you would get two cameras in a big long scene you would get everything matching, get ribbons right and everything else – I don’t know how they did it. They must’ve had two cameras. That’s just a lazy thing – it’s terrible.

ELVIS MITCHELL: And you just exposed your laziness to this audience…

PTA: I know. It’s more of a feeling though, we can’t get any more let’s go somewhere else…

ELVIS MITCHELL: And it felt like to me –watching The Maltese Falcon again, which really has that – there’s this incredible momentum and there’s a real kind of narrow momentum in that particular scene – if it was building toward something in that particular sequence…

PTA: You’re talking about when they are asking questions back and forth – is it inherent thing in that is that it is a cliff hanger and that’s just the luck of the draw that they can get a scene like that, actually work as a suspense scene and work this dynamic interplay. But at the same time you were learning something about this person, this character. These kinds of ideas of screenwriting – the plot, the momentum, the character – usually the worst things you have to go do in a movie are the ones that will move the story forward. You have to stop for a second and somebody has to say some really horrible dialogue: “Well the reactor it will blow up.” But they’re necessary – you just scratch your head when you shoot those “How can we get this off without seeming like we are completely ridiculous?” A scene like the one you are talking about, you get lucky that everything is happening at once. You’re learning new information and you are on the edge of your seat and you want to find out more… well I won’t get another one like that for a long time – it just worked out in my favor.

ELVIS MITCHELL: Yeah – but it’s so unique for a movie of yours to do something like that because the information is generally something we’ve learned over the course of the movie.

PTA: Right – usually if you want to find out the story of someone’s mother or father, that’s the whole thing , sit down for a Q&A… fire questions…

ELVIS MITCHELL: I’ll keep that in mind for this. Since Boogie Nights, Baraka has always come up in terms of influence. Just kind of the beginning where there’s these long cuts in The Master and in some of your other movies and I mentioned this to you when I say Boogie Nights and you said “Yeah, Baraka means a lot to me.” Talk about the first time you saw Baraka. 

PTA: I don’t remember the first time I saw it. It must have been on DVD and I just loved it. I love [?]. I like in general movies that are just pictures or music or something like that. And Barraca just kind of really did it for me. And I saw it in the theater – that’s a whole other experience. It’s always stuck with me. Anytime I get the chance to drag someone to it I do it, or I just go on about it and bore people.  Joaquin and I were talking about apes and animals and things like that for this character and I showed him the first shot of Baraka and the first shot is of a monkey falling asleep and it’s like two minutes. Just stare at this monkey slowly falling asleep and it’s absolutely hypnotizing. One of the best things I have ever seen – and I showed it to him one day and he just loved it too and said “Let’s try to do that.”

ELVIS MITCHELL: When I talked to him he said that by the end of the movie you were calling him your pet monkey.

PTA: Bubbles – Michael Jackson’s monkey. Yeah, it felt like that. It felt like having a trained monkey. That was one of the ideas in the film whether we really talk about it or not was what happens, like Siegfried and Roy, what happens if you have a tiger?  And there were discussions about that kind of thing – having an animal, having a monkey and putting diapers on it and what’s eventually going to happen. It’s not going to like a little hat – it’s going to bite you. No matter how much it flips over and does – it’s not exactly like that frog in that cartoon that sings… like Bubbles who went fucking crazy. Come on – you can’t put diapers on a monkey.

ELVIS MITCHELL: I didn’t know that was the lesson of The Master until just now… it’s weird because the way he moves physically, even when he’s wearing a suit, like the sequence when he’s working as a photographer in the store, he’s completely wrong for it. Being in that environment – he seemed to be looking around prowling for prey basically.

PTA: If you can imagine the sequel to this film – like what happens when this is over and now you’re set loose and you have to go get a job – questions arise like “What the fuck are you supposed to do with your life? How are supposed to get on with it? How are you supposed to live a day-to-day existence?” One thing I talked about with Joaquin was that not only was there trauma these guys had come back with but having the sense of a master or commander that you respect and that you like who you can look up to, a sense of schedule in real life. Suddenly the rug is pulled out from underneath you and you were expected to make your way without that. And that alone is difficult. Not to discount all that’s floating around in your head. But that kind of structure that can be so helpful in people’s lives is missing.

ELVIS MITCHELL: ? and Blake Edwards, one of the things those guys have in common, as I’m watching The Master too I felt a little bit of Days of Wine and Roses, just that sense of wanting to be told what to do with your life…

PTA: I don’t know that film that well.

ELVIS MITCHELL: It’s the most dramatic of his films… playing on all these traumas, the sense of being lost. I noticed that in The Master… people trying to figure out what to do with aloneness is somewhat of a recurrent theme in your work. And I wonder how you made that connect in The Master so much, because it’s really a big part – Freddy is completely lonely.

PTA: I guess he is somebody who will probably move the rest of his life alone and sort of learn to survive alone.  But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t completely hunger or desire to be around people or to be part of something. But the second he feels too much good will in the room is probably the moment he’s going to slip. That much love and attention is probably worth bailing on for somebody like him. It doesn’t make any sense – but it does.  For anybody that knows that feeling.

ELVIS MITCHELL: In the last section of the movie was Freddie kind of going crazy and the way that loneliness kind of warps people. The idea of the way you make your peace with loneliness or you can’t deal with it runs through a lot of your work.

PTA: If you’ve ever taken a vacation away from your family, the first fifteen minutes you’re thrilled and seventeen minutes later you’re lonely again. I think people like to be with other people don’t they? Mostly, don’t they?  But then again you let it slip.

ELVIS MITCHELL: It’s that kind of hunger often to be around people when you think about Mark in Boogie Nights he’s really desperate to sort of not be alone… and I can sort of see this arc from him to Adam in Punch Drunk Love now Joaquin in this – these are guys who haven’t figured out how to deal with this. These other guys – Adam and Mark – can be social, but Joaquin in this movie – I kind of feel the way I felt about the way that Paul Schrader’s Travis Bickle – this guy who’s alone, come back from the war, who’s had this regimented life who was probably his happiest when he was told where to be every hour of the day, told how to socialize. All these things are now gone…

PTA: I got a really nice email the other day… she sent me this really nice note and she said “I was so happy that your movie had a happy ending - a happy ending where Freddie ended up where he belonged – naked and being an animal fucking someone else.” I don’t know what will happen with him or how it will go for him but it’s nice to see him in his element completely naked and fucking.

ELVIS MITCHELL: There’s a piece of literature, this book, that he uses as the canonical foundation – is there something like that for The Master?

PTA: Just lots of Dianetics stuff… there’s a great book called Pacific War Diary. You weren’t supposed to write on ships – and his name is James Fahey – he had the most detailed diary that he kept and stowed away and published 20 or so years ago. And it was the best way to try understand what it might be like on the ships day in and day out. That was really helpful – couldn’t get enough of that stuff.  That’s kind of the main stuff in terms of the Freddie character. A lot of stuff from John Steinbeck’s biography – a lot of stuff from that – it’s not that Steinbeck was a lonely guy but I think he had periods in life – like college – that were kind of aimless and he kind of wanted to be Jack London but that didn’t really work out exactly right. And he worked on various farms and he worked at a department store… so that stuff was really helpful.

ELVIS MITCHELL: The movie has this interesting… the past and the present… where in the past you were supposed to know what to do with you with your life, and everybody Freddie has grown up with is kind of an adult – in some ways I wonder if he’s kind of imagining that they are more adult than they actually are because it is all from his point of view?

PTA: That’s good, yeah. That’s always true isn’t it? We always imagine that someone is more adult than you are.  Somebody’s got it all figured out and you don’t. And they don’t. Yeah. I never thought of it that way, but yeah. Absolutely.

ELVIS MITCHELL: As soon as you see them not from his point of view, you can see that Phil basically doesn’t know what to do with himself. And his wife… is basically saying “This is who you are. This is what you are going to do God damnit.” It’s really amazing to see those people not from Freddie’s point of view to see that they aren’t who he thinks he is.

PTA: Right. No, you said it better than I can. It’s not something I thought of but there it is and I think that’s true. You always sort of peer around the corner and wonder if someone may have it all figured out. And maybe they do – I don’t know. I’ll always be thinking that somebody’s got it more figured out than I do, for sure. Then you go over to their house and it smells kind of like cat piss… “I knew they were weird!”

ELVIS MITCHELL: When he was in that race sequence – when all those women were naked – that’s one of the greatest things you have ever done – just to get in his head that way. And if you were to look at him that would be last thing you would have thought was on his mind.

PTA: What I like most about that night was I thought here is a person who can seemingly drink anybody under the table – drink anything and still be standing – and here he is crumpled into the corner. This is somebody who has absolutely met his match – at a point that he’s sinking and passed out – this guy’s just getting started. That’s my favorite part about that. It’s not the women and all that – it’s he’s still going and he can out-party Freddie.

ELVIS MITCHELL: … That biography of Steinbeck

PTA: Yeah, but it’s also kind of a John Ford thing to have someone to stop and start singing and dancing in a movie – it was like every John Ford movie. I can’t remember what director it was – it might have been Frank Capra or someone saying something about Ford – and he said “Oh… Ford. When he doesn’t know what to do he just casts really shadows and has people start singing and dancing.” And now that I said this to you you’re never going to see a John Ford movie without thinking “There’s the shadows and the singing”

ELVIS MITCHELL: And there’s a fight.

PTA: Preferably all at the same time – with long shadows.

ELVIS MITCHELL: … It’s like an Irish Wake, those sequences. They sing and they dance and they fight and they pass out and they apologize.

PTA:  Yeah – The Master singing and dancing stuff comes from having a character who is the life of the party. Somebody who is not going to be happy unless everything is just jam-packed and full – you know, people like that.


ELVIS MITCHELL: So I was talking backstage when I had Bill Hader on my show and he was talking about seeing a different version that had scenes in different order… when was that? I guess March or April you showed it to him. And what incarnation was that?

PTA: I don’t even remember honestly. I have no idea except that there were lots of different playing around with what’s it gonna be…

ELVIS MITCHELL: Was there more of the kind of dream stuff?

PTA: No, no. If anything there was a lot of talk of what doesn’t need to be in the movie – that was always the discussion. Having screenings where we were just eliminating stuff and seeing if we could do without it. Trying it without the naked girls dancing – trying it without Amy jerking him off.  The comfort of an editing room should be about seeing what film you’re making. And seeing what you can do without. It’s not any fun to go in there knowing what your meant – and go do it. That would be dull. It’s kind of fun to mess around with the film and see what you want to do. Whatever he saw was probably just some incarnation along the path of making the film.

ELVIS MITCHELL: Tell me about shooting in 70 – to go from… that box, that one three three of documentaries to that size frame.

PTA: Well we tried to keep the frame smaller than normal on 70 mil which is meant to be two to one, so we boxed it in so we made it 1.85 which is a little bit more headroom and less width. And that idea was this kind of stuff – Let There Be Light and films of that period – somehow it felt a little more intimate. And I knew we were making a movie that was not a lot of wide open spaces but closed rooms... and it seemed to fit. More than any real justification, it works, that seems right, let’s do it that way. And that goes for shooting in 70mm too. I had half-baked ideas on how to make the film and what format to shoot it in and they were all just that – half-baked ideas. We started shooting in Panavision and we would see something that’s not right – and we would see something and be like “That’s good. That’s what we should do.” And with those cameras that’s what it turned out to be.

ELVIS MITCHELL: Do you like 70? Because there is just a power in the frame you just don’t get…

PTA: It’s true. I love it – it was great. Hopefully people will use it more often, and hopefully more theaters will continue to bring back or at least save their projectors. Yeah, it would be great to have them around. It doesn’t seem to me – I know these bigger projectors the size of them – you don’t have to throw a movie projector away in the garbage to make room for a digital projector, you can keep them both. It’s like making room for a lawn chair – there’s enough room up there for everything.

ELVIS MITCHELL: LACMA’s definitely not going to throw out our projectors… but what I like about this is I was expecting a classic 70mm frame and it wasn’t that. It’s kind of like you reconceived it, that’s kind of what you’re saying. It’s kind of one degree but it’s not - it’s a lot taller.

PTA: Yeah we thought we were real clever “Oh my God we’re the first people to ever do this.” And then we realized that Jacques Tati had done it, a film I saw. So anytime you think…

ELVIS MITCHELL: He did it to get those long boulevards; you did it for a very different thing…

PTA: Yeah but that’s the same reason – because we needed to do it and it seemed right. That’s the same reason.

ELVIS MITCHELL: For some reason 70mm seems to be the perfect frame size to film some wrong…

PTA: Is that a compliment? It’s true. You know what, that should be like a poster. They would have done that in the old days.

ELVIS MITCHELL: Actors will service… sort of the size of the… in terms of what they throw off… you needed a kind of frame like that…

PTA: It’s so funny I was just, I tried to walk around the movie… beforehand and there’s a great still of Charles Laughton in Spartacus… Phil doesn’t really know Charles Laughton’s stuff very well – he just doesn’t – but they remind me of each other. And they are kind of – not only in their haminess which can be so great – but don’t think that’s just what they do, they can do everything. That kind of skill in a movie, as an actor, as everything – and just absolutely watchable.  And talking about needing 70mm to film this… I think Charles Laughton… feel that way. Some actors are like that. I think some actors just – you wouldn’t think Phil Hoffman would be a great person to fill a movie screen, but to me he is.

ELVIS MITCHELL: This is exactly it. I think I saw the movie a month after I saw him doing Death of a Salesman – and I thought “Yeah, that’s what this is.” There’s that size and it was also about the way he uses his voice – and again the character he’s playing is someone who is completely confident in his voice and you often casts people… lowest speak… I think of Tom Cruise… even, to some extent Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights, these guys know exactly what to do with their voice every time they speak. You really love guys like that, don’t you?

PTA: Yeah, for sure, they’re easy to write. Once you get them to talk like that you have to stop yourself from writing that kind of stuff. The way that Phil talks in this movie is so aristocratic, and I don’t know what it is…

ELVIS MITCHELL: Well it’s a fake aristocrat… he gets pleasure from… like Freddie who doesn’t know the difference I mean you might as well talk like the King of England… it’s really wonderful watching that exchange. The way these guys… they measure their power by the way people react to the way they speak…

PTA: Well, my dad used to talk like that. My dad had a great voice – he would just talk like a normal guy and the minute you fucked up his register would completely change and everything. Everything would get a little bit fucking deeper…

ELVIS MITCHELL: Just like his stage voice basically…

PTA:  Yeah, he had a deep voice to begin with, but no. He would go to bed he didn’t say “Two eggs hashbrowns and toast.”

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