Podcast Episodes

Tova: Hi and welcome to the backlot. I’m Tova Laiter, moderator and director of the New York Film Academy guest lecture series. In this episode, we will take an in-depth look at one of my great guests and hear about his experience in the entertainment industry. And now, Eric Conner, will take you through the highlights of this Q&A.

Eric: Hi, I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you the first Jack Ryan, the man who defended his home from Beetlejuice, who told Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross to put his coffee down. He’s played Liz Lemon’s boss on 30 Rock. Ethan Hunt’s boss in Mission Impossible. And a Boss Baby. Yes, I’m talking about The Alec Baldwin. Like many Emmy winning Oscar-nominated actors, Alec Baldwin got his start in college as a poly sci major.

Alec Baldwin: I had gone and taken an acting class in college when I was at George Washington University and I was taking political science and I wanted to go to law school. And the idea of spending my academic years studying acting sounded ridiculous. You know, so I was gonna go get a real degree and get a real job. And I took an acting class at GW, which was like a gut class take just to complete my semester. And we did a scene study class. And then I went to visit a friend of mine. Then I didn’t do that badly. I mean, you can tell right away, you know, you’re there. And the teacher will say, try this, try that. There’s a little directorial exchange there that if you can take direction and change and see and be open to how you can improve then I think you have a potential aptitude for that. So I went to visit a friend of mine who was at NYU. She had transferred from GW to NYU and her roommate was in the drama program and she said, oh, you should audition and you should audition and you should audition. And you you’d be so wonderful on the program. I think you’d be great. And I thought that was just the dumbest idea. Cause I thought I don’t want to spend all that money to go to NYU, especially to get a degree in acting. And I went in there and I auditioned and I got a scholarship they gave me a full scholarship to come to school. And I went there. And so it actually cost me less money, even though NYU’s more expensive, this is critical because my family had no money. My dad and my mom were apoplectic that I was going to leave GW to go study acting, but my dad got it. My dad especially said to me, you’ll never be young enough to do this again. So I went to NYU. I went to Strausberg, threw them for a year. Jeffrey Horn was my teacher. And Marcia Haufrect was my teacher and Elaine Aikin was my teacher. And I had one more semester to go because they wanted me to do three semesters to transfer my credits. And then I just got a job. I just kept getting jobs. I got on a soap opera. I moved to L.A. I did nighttime TV and slowly over the course of like six or seven years. Did a lot of TV and pilots and some theater in New York. And then I got into the movie business and made movies that, you know, back then a few of them were successful and made some money. And once you star in a film, make some money, things become a bit easier in the business, at least for that lease for a period of time.

Eric: Before things got easier, before the blockbusters, the Emmys, the Tony and Oscar nominations. Alec Baldwin was a working actor who didn’t look down on any role he was fortunate enough to land.

Alec Baldwin: I think for me, it would just do what’s in front of me. Just do it’s put in front of me. I did a soap and I was on that show for almost two and a half years. And of course, the material on daytime TV and there were so many more soaps back than there are now. There were quite a few and a half hour and one hour. And, you know, that’s its own animal. You’re there and you have to try to make this material, you have to fight the urge. You have to resist the urge to comment on it and to send it up and to make fun of it. And because, you know, writing a fresh script every day for five days a week is a terrible task for those people. I grew to be very sympathetic toward the writers, and the task is to try your best to make it work. And eventually I learned that I watched the other people around me who they tried to find something to play and they could make it work. And then when I got in to nighttime TV, I think that you reach a point where everyone on the set has made more movies than you have. Everyone on the set knows more than you do. Everybody has more experience than you do. And slowly that changes. And in the beginning, you have a kind of a boyish gratitude. You’re like, oh, I’m so I’m so happy to be here. I’m so thankful that you hired me. Can I get you some fresh coffee? You know, you’re very much of a guest in someone else’s house, so to speak. And then slowly that changes where the next thing you know, you’re on the set of a film and someone says something to you and you go. No, I think it’s this. And they go, Huh? Okay, let’s try that. You know, we eventually you built up a bundle of experiences, practical experiences, where you’re beginning to understand what’s going to make the scene work. And I think I got to that point. You know, at some point I got there where I really kind of knew what I wanted to do when I didn’t want to do, you know, but it’s a process. And for me, it was drama. You know, I did I did the movie Miami Blues. That was funny, but very violent. I did the movie Beetlejuice, which was funny, but kind of weird. And I’m certainly not the thing that’s funny in that movie. And all his little films, I did them. I did the movie Hunt for Red October, which was really kind of a, you know, a military drama, if you will, an action film, if you will. But slowly, you know, right after that, like you get toward the early 90s and see, I was making movies for about five years. Then I began to be much more clear on what I thought was necessary. You know, I developed develop some experience.

Eric: Part of becoming a bigger star meant well, he got more interesting roles, but maybe just as importantly, it put him in the position to know what parts he didn’t want.

Alec Baldwin: I try to look at the whole piece. I trying to read the movie, and the first thing I try to decide is, is this a movie I think is a good movie, you know, because why would you want to be the tree falling in the woods and there’s nobody there? Why do you want to give a performance that no one’s going to see, even if there’s a great scenes for you and good writing for you the movie doesn’t work. So I try to ascertain, does the movie itself work? And then I asked myself, is it a movie that I want to make or a movie I want to see? So if you say that my character is a psychopathic killer who walks on to a kindergarden bus with a flamethrower in the opening scenes of the movie, I might not want to do that movie. I might not want to be that guy. I mean, I have been offered parts where I said, well, I don’t necessarily want to be that guy, somebody who’s, like, really just a complete monster or a complete jerk or whatever. I don’t mind doing those things if it’s in the service of a good movie. And then the thing I asked myself is the last thing I ask myself was my character. And I played parts in films where my character wasn’t the biggest role. It wasn’t the most well served in terms of the page count. It wasn’t the lead role, let’s say. But there was an opportunity for me in terms of that character. I thought that character could have an impact on the film and be if it was well-written. It made a difference. There’s movies I’ve been offered where you kind of think you can get anybody to play that part. There wasn’t anything special, too. There wasn’t anything I could bring that was really unique. So I look at the film in terms of the quality of the writing in the film and the story. I look at the film in terms of do I want to put myself through that? You know, there’s a you do put yourself through something in some films you do. And then the third thing is, this is my role in the film, just superfluous. Some people will always ask you to come do a film and do something that you did another film. You’ll come to their film and they’ll say, well, that thing you did in that film do that in my film, and you’ll think, well, maybe not. I don’t make a lot of movies anymore because of my kids. And I got remarried and my wife and I have a lot of children that we have a lot of little kids. And so going off and shooting films is always a difficult proposition. But I always say the same corny line. I say acting is like sex. When I was young, I would do it with anybody. I mean, and now I’m a lot more particular about what acting I do and why and with who.

Eric: One hallmark of Mr. Baldwin’s career that showed his. I’m afraid to call it experimentation was his ability to jump from one medium to another. Take 1990 in the same year he’s starring in The Hunt for Red October, produced by the founder of New York Film Academy, Jerry Sherlock. But you could also see him in the off Broadway premiere of Craig Lucas’s Prelude to a Kiss. He can go from playing Stanley Kowalski in streetcar to battling the Bear and the Edge. And on the small screen, he’s battling Steve Martin by hosting Saturday Night Live. For a record 17 times, he makes it all look rather easy. Even if the needs for performing for film, TV and stage are exceedingly different beasts.

Alec Baldwin: Movies, typically, and this is just my interpretation. Movies, typically, they exist inside that one framework and there’s a frame to the painting. The movie is 100 minutes long and the story starts and ends. And your task is all inside of that construct. And you have to really, really movie making us a lot of pressure. Movie making is very intense if it’s a drama because you want to make sure you’ve exposed every aspect and you’ve turned over every stone in terms of what the possibilities are and also narrowed it down to what’s worthwhile, what works. You can have all kinds of crazy ideas, but they don’t really work for the story. Like, how do you get down to what works? TV is different because it’s week after week after week. Even if you did a limited series of twelve episode, there’s more time you can spread your arc of your character and the things that they want to say. What the characters purposes in the storytelling can be spread out over more times. You have to look at it with more. I don’t want to say patience, but more complexity because there’s things you might you might have a very quiet episode. You might have an episode where you’re not featured unless you are the lead in the show. You are part of a cast of people. And your relevance and your significance in the story may go like this through episode after episode. So some episodes will be strong for you and some episodes will not be strong for you. And so you have to kind of parse that and really, really factor that in in a movie. You’ve got to give it everything you got. You know, you’ve got to really focus and lock down and get those takes really the best you can. Because, I mean, unless it’s some movie, which is a huge budget, you’re not going to go back and shoot it again. When you’re in front of that camera and they say the action. That’s the time for you to get in on. And you’ve got to be ready to do it. Then you turn to them and go, oh, I have a headache, I don’t feel good. Can we do this tomorrow? It’s unlikely. You know, movies are just so much more intense. The shooting of movies and TV is a little bit more of a stroll through the character.

Eric: Mr Baldwin claims that his most legendary role is serving Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock was more of a stroll than most, thanks to the brilliant mind of Tina Fey and her superb writing staff.

Clips: I can get you into a restaurant where you watch your child play with a bunny. Then you eat the bunny.

Clips: As I was taught at Six Sigma, analyze, strategize, succeed. A. S. S.

Clips: I wasn’t really going to fire you. I just wanted to remind you that I could.

Clips: Why are you wearing a tux?

Clips: It’s after six. What am I, a farmer?

Alec Baldwin: Well, I think 30 Rock is probably one of the ultimate examples of maybe the beneficiary of very good writing. You know, if it’s not funny on the page, it’s unlikely you can make it funny. The writing was the best I’ve ever seen in terms of comedy, was very fast paced. It was very weird and quirky and clever and topical or not. It had the right amount of heart into the story some times. And some of my favorite scenes were with Elaine Stritch, who played my mother.

Clips: If you were my kid, I’d mail you back to the stork.

Clips: She’s not kidding. When I was eight, she took me to the post office because I spilled juice on a couch reserved for the pope, which is still never been used.

Clips: But I am sorry. I tried to mail you.

Alec Baldwin: The whole idea is it’s a character that’s given to you where the character is, you know, one way on the outside, there’s a membrane in between how he is in public and private. In public. He tries to be very commanding and very together. And sometimes he is genuinely expert at something. I said it’s not going to work if he’s completely full of baloney and he doesn’t really know anything and he’s just a FOP. It’s not going to work. He needs to be somebody who is very good at business. And the thing is, is that he’s a, you know, kind of widget executive who’s come to the creative world. So it’s a it’s a horrible match. And as I try to widgetize the TV comedy business, there’s a lot of funny and horrible things that result from that. But I think that when I did the show, you just had to I hate to say this. You just had to just say the words couldn’t get out of the way. Don’t put a lot on it because it was so well-written that it was really pretty effortless. I think the only thing that was hard was to remember the words, because sometimes they gave me that really long speeches and I had to drink like ten cups of coffee in the morning to get myself ready to go. You know, it was a very, very it was a lot of words to memorize.

Eric: Even more so than caffeine. The right attitude and approach from a director can make all the difference for how Alec Baldwin tackles a role.

Alec Baldwin: What I’ve learned to do over time is to try to get more of a clearer sense of what the director wants. And if I don’t see eye to eye with them, I don’t do the film or if they’re incapable of articulating to me what they want. I don’t do the film. And before I wanted to work so I couldn’t get too picky about directors. I mean, there are some actors who at a very early age worked with phenomenal directors. You know, Sean Penn did Falcon and the Snow Man with what’s his name who did Midnight Cowboy? Schlesinger. You know, I mean, there’s some actors who are very early on. They work with great directors and they’re very, very fortunate. You know, Leo DiCaprio with Scorsese and so forth. For me, I think my experience is more ordinary where I want very much to be directed. I want very much for you to tell me what you want me to do in your movie, because it’s your movie, you know, you and you have to take ultimate responsibility for the fact that it’s your movie. I can’t make the movie. I’ll come in and I’ll fight sometimes or I’ll be very vivid about what I want for the character sometimes. But in the end, I want I don’t want to tip the whole canoe over just in terms of getting what I want. I want us to go on this journey together. And I want you to get what you want to go into the cutting room. So directors need to be in charge. They need to be very clear. If you can’t describe the film to an actor in under three minutes, then it’s a failure. Should be able to say this is a story about a guy who goes on a whaling ship and he meets this crazy captain Ahab. And Ahab had his leg bitten off by the white whale. Whatever go. This is a story about Atticus Finch. He he’s a lawyer in the south. And this black guy, Tom Robinson, boom. You just this is a story about Terry Malloy, and he’s a longshoreman during the corrupt days of the unions. Boom. You lay it out there. If you can’t do that, then I think most sensible actors don’t want to work with you. You have to be able to say, this is the movie I’m making. This is it. And everyone will join you in trying to because a filmmaker sometimes doesn’t accept the fact that they’re like a conductor in the symphony. You wanna make sure we’re all playing the same piece in the same time. Actors tend to kind of off road and go do this. And they want to do this. They want to draw attention to themselves. They want to draw attention to their performances. They’re not necessarily doing the film. The director has to make sure everybody we’re all doing the same movie. Let’s all do the same movie together. And the director has to be responsible for that. I’ve done movies where I literally walked to the director and I said, you’re going to let him do that like that. There will be somebody doing something just horrible, just abysmal. You know, I mean, thankfully, it wasn’t often, but there would be some that would do that. You could see there were directors who they didn’t want to confront the actors. They didn’t want to instruct the actors. And you have to you have to you have to know what your film is and stick to that mission and stick to that path. So is that helpful?

Eric: That is helpful. Thank you, Mr. Baldwin also stressed out students how important preparation can be before you even step foot on set in his case. There is one key element of a character. He needs to understand to do the part justice.

Alec Baldwin: I think the first thing I think about I’ve always said this many times, and some people find this helpful. Some people don’t necessarily find that helpful. And that is the disposition of the character. The nature of the character is very important to me. Is the person someone who is confident in the world? Do they lack confidence? Are they someone who is strong in the world or the weak in the world? Are they someone who is very verbally fascile? And the words come flowing off their tongue and they speak very eloquently. They’re good speakers or they’re not. They’re always reaching for a word. They’re fabricating what they say. There’s pauses in there. They’re not as articulate are they people who are very sensitive and in the now and very responsive to people with their in their own world. You know, I always use that example of Robert Duvall played Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. And he doesn’t have one line. He doesn’t have one line. And he plays this very tender, very damaged guy. He looks so damaged. But he becomes the hero of the film or one of the heroes of the film. And I think Duvall is on screen minimally, but he just rips your heart out, you know, because he’s so true to that character, that weak, damaged, kind of just terrified, like an animal, like a terrified animal, you know? And I think it’s just one of the most beautiful performances ever. And the movie is Duvall and To Kill a Mockingbird. But all those things like Pacino, when you watch The Godfather Part two and see how much Pacino lays back. Don’t act. Don’t act. Don’t push. Don’t push. Just say the words. Here’s my offer to you, Senator. Nothing. Here’s my offer to you, Senator, and don’t sit up and scream, you know, think about how other actors might have played those scenes and Pacino just stayed very dry, very dry just said the words. The words had the power. What made it even more chilling was the less emotional he was. He goes the other way. He’s not yelling. He’s not screaming. You have to ask yourself about that. About the sound of the character, the voice of the character. The movements of the character is a character, somebody that sits in a chair and is a very kind of sedentary person. Is he a guy on the the balls of his feet? You know, very animated. There’s a whole list of things you can do. But if it’s good writing, the writing will tell you what to do. The writing tells you what to do.

Eric: When asked about the importance of stretching and taking risks, Mr. Baldwin was exceedingly candid about one of his performances that he felt didn’t quite reached the level of the writing.

Alec Baldwin: I certainly have had periods in my life where I wanted to try different things, and I did Macbeth at the Public Theater in 1998 and I did a Shakespeare play in New York. When I look back on that, I think to myself. I got half of it right. The other half I didn’t get right. There’s some scenes I didn’t quite get what I imagined in my head. I always find this work is more easy to gauge in the theater business because, you know, you. I’ve done new plays, but I’ve done a lot of revivals. And you sit there and say, well, the material works. We know the material works. If you do a streetcar or I did 20th century or other plays, all my sons, Equus, things I’ve done like that where the play is worthy. The question is, can we come up to the right level? I have tried. You know, when they ask did you Trump? I thought, oh God, I do. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to do that. But I gave it a whirl.

Clips: Thank you very much, everybody. I’m here to declare a very urgent, important national emergency. It’s the big ones who I don’t wanna waste any time. That’s my first. I’d like to blow my own horn a little bit. OK. I just had a great health exam. I’m still standing.

Alec Baldwin: But I think there are people who they find something that works for them. That tends to be more the universe of movie stars. You like big movie stars who they’re being paid to do the same thing over and over again. There’s a kind of a tone they have in their acting and they’re asked to replicate that again and again. I think you should try everything.

Eric: If ever an actor has managed to try everything. Alec Baldwin, be his name. He was even the narrator for Thomas the Tank Engine. An important piece of advice he gave our students was that studying acting provides a strong set of skills. But it’s only one piece of the puzzle.

Alec Baldwin: I think it’s great for people to take a year and join a rep company because it’s one thing to be in a classroom. Classrooms are important, but eventually you move beyond the classroom. You don’t want to become a classroom actor. And there is such a thing I think as a classroom. You want to study and give it everything you can. And the point is, make your mistakes outside of the white hot spotlight of the business, grow out of that spotlight. It’s very difficult to grow. Once you find somebody that works in the business, people want you to stick with that and your growth may end. And I think that you should do like a, you know, a season of rap. You know, go to Louis, though, La Hoya. Seattle. I mean, obviously, this is a post-COVID notion, but the Guthrie find a place, Williamstown go somewhere where it’s just about you and a bunch of people immersing yourself in this work cause it’s sad for me sometimes, although it’s understandable that I talked to a bunch of young people sometimes and they say, how do I get an agent? How do I make it in the business? There’s a part of me that thinks, you know, that is written. You’re going to make it or you’re not. It helps to be talented, but you don’t have to be. But I think it’s great when you’re really young. 22, 23, 24. Before you’re 25 years old. Just really, really do as many shows as you can. Do as many plays as you can. Play roles. You do as many roles. And I know that there’s a limitation on the roles for young people that are worthwhile. Good roles are tough in every age group, except, you know, when you’re usually in your 30s and 40s, but do as much theater rep theater and kind of off the beaten path. Theater work as you can.

Eric: In other words, if you want to act, go act, which is also good advice for writers, directors and all artists. We want to thank Alec Baldwin for his decades of amazing performances and for not only talking with our students, but really teaching them as well. And thanks to all of you for listening. This episode was based on the Q&A, moderated and curated by Tova Laiter. To watch the full interview or to check out our other Q&As go to our YouTube channel at YouTube dot com slash New York Film Academy. This episode was written by me. Eric Conner edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Our creative director is David Andrew Nelson, who also produced this episode with Kristian Heydon and myself, executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler. Special thanks to our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.

Tova Laiter: Hi and welcome to the backlot. I’m Tova Laiter, moderator and director of the New York Film Academy guest lecture series. In this episode, we will take an in-depth look at one of my great guests and hear about his experience in the entertainment industry. And now, Eric Conner, will take you through the highlights of this Q&A.

Eric Conner: Hi, I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you the man who showed us what a real house party and pajama jammy jam were like.

The man who helped turn Eddie Murphy into a romantic lead, a writer, director, producer who’s worked in TV film award shows, documentaries, comic books, and produced the Oscar nominated Django Unchained. Yes, it’s Reginald Hudlin. Mr. Evans film education began at Harvard despite the fact that the elite Ivy League institution wasn’t particularly interested in having their students create mainstream films.

Reginald Hudlin: Harvard is kind of embarrassed to have any arts programs at all. So they have the thing called visual and environmental studies. And it’s like honors only you have to have a certain GPA, even be in the program.

And it’s multidisciplinary. So you study film, photography, graphic arts, architecture – it’s actually a really good program. Right. But they really just did documentary film. Like Ross McElwee was like, my favorite professor, and he makes really interesting documentaries that you should see. And I said, I want to make a fiction film.

And they were all, no no no. In my whole our whole year, we were kind of rebels. Like, my same year with Johnathan Mostow who did Breakdown and U-571, you know, it was a bunch of us. We all eventually kind of made our way to Hollywood. And I think they changed the rules and make sure that would never happen again.

That was that was a bad batch of Hollywood hacks instead of suffering for their art. What was that about?

So but, yeah, I did a short film of House Party and like a 20 minute thesis. I mean, I get the idea.

I mean, make a Shrek movie that I can see.

And I look I can tell a story of why his classmate, Jonathan Mostow went on to direct you U-571, Terminator 3, and the terrific Kurt Russell thriller Breakdown.

Eric Conner: Reginald Hudlin clearly had the talent to also succeed in this industry. He just needed to be in the room where it happened.

Reginald Hudlin: I wrote a script that I worked in advertising, I taught. Whatever kind of job you give me access to equipment so I could just keep making little things. And then She’s Gotta Have It came out. And certainly there was a window of opportunity. And I went to a party at Nelson George’s house. So everyone was there, like Russell Simmons was there. He was getting ready to make Tup at 11. I was like, oh, please, let me direct Tup at 11. Was like some kid from Harvard. Beat it. What do you know about hip hop? And then. And then Spike was there. And then I got this script for the Otis Redding story. I don’t want to do it, but I told em they should call you. Yes, I called them on Sunday. I had no idea what I was doing. So they called me back and said, we don’t wanna do the Otis Redding story. But we did double the Janet Jackson and The Time except The Time they had big hit records. And you’re both like, well, who are either of them? And that was my first professional job, like writing that script, which went nowhere. But I made enough money from writing that script to buy a computer. And on that computer, I wrote the spec script for House Party as a feature, and I was prepared to make it independently. And then an exec at new line called and said, I saw your little short. And do you have a movie? Yes, I do.

Yeah. I mean, opportunity is a cubic millimeter that does this (gestures), right?

So when that happens, do you feel you’re ready to jump through or I’ve got to put my sneakers on? Window open.

Oh, I’m in my drawers? Window closed. I sleep with your clothes on – there’s the window!

Eric Conner: This successive house party led to Boomerang starring Eddie Murphy, Ladies Man, countless TV projects and becoming president of entertainment for BET. And then a few years ago, Quentin Tarantino made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Reginald Hudlin: I’ve been friends for a long time and I mean over 15 years. And when you’re friends with Quentin, you’re talking about movies. Big surprise.

And one night he was at the Oscar Party. We got on the topic of slave films, and I expressed how I hate it, pretty much all of it.

And they were all movies about being victims. And for me, there was only one great movie about slavery.

It was called Spartacus.

Clip: Spartacus. I’m Spartacus.

Reginald Hudlin: And until there was a movie like that about the American experience, I just wasn’t interested.

And we kind of kept going back forth, back and forth. And I said, look, I get it.

And those movies you’re mentioning, they were made with the best intentions in the world, but from my personal satisfaction, I rather see Fred Williamson and The Legend of Nigger Charlie. And that’s not a movie anyone in this room has seen. I said, you know the truth, that I can’t remember frame of the The Legend of Nigger Charlie. They could try. So when I was a kid. So when it came out in the theater. But I remember how it made me feel. Made me feel great. And I just thought, well, why can’t I feel like that? So that was just a conversation. You know, we have them all the time.

And, you know, again, one of the nice things about being a friend of Quentin is you get invited to the editing room to see the movie when it’s still ninety nine but not a hundred percent finished or get to read his new script. So he calls me last April and says, hey, it’s a publication day party, you know, having a bunch of friends over come by, get the new script. Great.

So come over and I see friends and he hands me the script and goes, you plant the seed.

This is the tree.

So I then went home, read the script and kept calling, calling, you read it, you read it, . Yeah. What do you think. I really love it. Really. I really love it. You have notes. Yeah, I have notes. So we like talked with all my notes. Yes. All those are good notes. Thank you. Glad to help. Can’t wait to see the movie. Oh no, no, no, no. This one we’re we’re you know, we’re doing this one together really at this point.

I was like Yeah, right. I know.

I talked to Stacy Sher. Everyone thinks a great idea for you to be on board. So three days later, we’re meeting with studios and a week after that, we were in Louisiana scouting locations of that.

Eric Conner: Quentin apparently, has the fastest green lights in all of Hollywood. When Mr. Tarantino decides he’s going to do a movie, it happens. Though he collaborates really well, his writing remains a solo journey.

Reginald Hudlin: Quentin just writes alone, and the only person who is aware of the screenplay being developed was Pilar Savone of all of the three producers, because she you know, she works with Quentin all the time. Stacey And I did not know we were going to be involved until the night of that party. But, you know, so we read it and we loved it. And then, you know, we would just talk about it. We would talk about the content of the script endlessly. You know, he and I had long conversations talking with the actors and, you know, you know, Quentin says, you know, he writes a novel and then he adapts as a novel every day. You know that you deal with the reality of the location. And like, you know, do you get a new idea? Is that impractical or shall we merge it? And he also shoots in what he calls the emotional order, which is not quite continuity order, but who he likes to shoot key scenes in a certain way. So he can decide where he needs more or less as he makes those nips and tucks every day. Absolutely. He’s the maestro on the set. You know, he’s the boss, but he’s very sensitive and listens to his actors and to everyone on the set.

He’s he’s taking input from everyone and processing it, you know, in his own way.

Eric Conner: Even though Reginald Hudlin has known him for years and collaborated closely with him on Django, he still is not quite sure how his friend comes up with his remarkable ideas.

Reginald Hudlin: He’s a genius, and the genius is never more evident than his writing. We don’t talk. This is still a lot about the technical side of his writing. Other than, you know, he’s a self educated guy. All right. I mean, he dropped out. I don’t know at what point. But there’s certainly no college degree going on. But he’s smarter than almost anyone I know.

And he has read so much and seen so much and written so much. He has written books of film criticism on his favorite authors that just sit there.

They are not published. He just writes them as an exercise. So he understands craft thoroughly. He knows it so well. He knows when to abide by the rules and he knows when to break the rules.

And it’s all done with full knowledge of the one thing I do know is that he doesn’t work from an outline. He comes up with themes and ideas and characters like he wrote the opening scene of this film. You know, where Schultze rides up and, you know, and encounters the chain gang.

Clip: My good man. Did you simply get carried away with you? Dramatic gesture or you point to your weapon at me with lethal intention.

Last chance, fancy pants, very well.

Reginald Hudlin: And when he wrote that first scene, he knew he had to write the rest of the movie to find out what happened next. And that’s what’s amazing about him, is that he is master filmmaker and audience at the same time. Of all the magic tricks of Quentin Tarantino. To me, that is one of the greatest, that he’d never loses sight of that, because sometimes as we get caught up in whatever our technical craft tricks, we lose sight of the end goal, which is to rock the house. And he never does it. And, you know, he’s ruthless about never taking the easy way out. And that’s one of the reasons why the shoot out happened, because originally, you know, he was gonna get swarmed and knocked out and wake up. Hanging upside down. And he just thought, that’s kind of cheesy.

And when he was rehearsing the scene, Jamie said he has a well, what would you do?

Oh, you know, my man just died. I would go to him. Oh, you wouldn’t go to your wife cause, you know. You know, Jamie’s really big on protecting the love story aspect of the film, which is the heart of the film, is it? No, not in this moment. In this moment.

It’s about me and my best friend. And he said, really?

And that was really like the [snaps fingers]. Now I have to rethink everything. And, you know, and rethink everything means like, well, what would you do then? You would take his guy and you would do this. And you would. And but, you know, could you really get out? No, you couldn’t really get. I mean, you know, so he just played it through and he was not scared of throwing everything up in the air.

He’s always willing to surrender himself to the organic moment.

Eric Conner: In order to find these organic moments. Quentin Tarantino works tirelessly with his performers, all of whom are willing to give sweat, tears in blood for their performances in the case of Leonardo DiCaprio that last part turned out to be literal.

Reginald Hudlin: I wasn’t literally on the set when it happened, but it absolutely did happen. He had done the scene a hundred million times and that time the glass was a little off and his hand slam was a little more and it went down and it disintegrated the glass. I mean, he literally was like a magic trick. Like, poof. And all the teeny shards just went into his hand.

Clip: Now lay your palms flat on the table top! If you lift those palms off that turtle shell table top, Mr. Butch is gonna let loose with both barrels of that sawed off!

Reginald Hudlin: And I talked to him after it. I was like, So what were you thinking? And he was like, oh, I messed up. And then he was like, well, I just going to keep going to it. And then it was like, am I bleeding? Yeah, I’m bleeding.

I mean, he’s still doing the scene. He’s killing it. He’s got it. And then he goes, well, do I play it because I’m a ham? And he’s like. And then he started playing the blood.

And then he finished the take and the actors were just like in awe, you know, kind of like this split feeling of we want to applaud and we want to get you to a hospital.

And you can see when you look at the take later.

The actors are like, oh, right. And we took him to the hospital and came back. And because the blood was a pretty extreme thing, Quentin wasn’t sure if he wanted to play the blood or not. So from that point on, he shot everything both ways.

Eric Conner: With bloody hand, without bloody bloody hand, only deepened DiCaprio’s performance. It was a thrilling, dramatic moment for the audience. But when you’re trying to produce these blood soaked, organic moments of inspiration, it’s not so easy. But when making movies. Sometimes it’s necessary.

Reginald Hudlin: You know, it’s challenging because when he comes in and goes, you know, this scene is wrong.

I’m going to shut down for a day and let’s think about it. OK?

And then the next day comes back. You know what I need? I think we need to I think I need every stuntman, every, every stuntman. OK. Let’s get every stuntman man here. And that became the big shoot out scene that you saw that was not in that script.

Fortunately, at this point, my career, I’ve been at every point in the circle. I’ve been a writer and a director and a producer and an executive. I ran a network for several years. So a big part of it is literally understanding the other person’s problems, you know, because if you’re a jerk and you’re like, hey, man, we’re just doing our thing, you just got to deal with it.

Oh, you’re being a jerk.

So you have to say this is why this is going to work, how and how we’re going to manage it financially.

You know, you had to provide sanity in in a fundamentally insane business, you have to say there is sanity and reason going on here. We are not unreasonable people and everything we’re doing. I’ll be an unconventional is towards success. And we we want you to buy into our reasoning. And that’s today. I mean, look, a couple of times in my career, I’ve had eight hundred pound gorillas. I mean, when I directed the movie with Eddie Murphy, where it’s just like you said, you can’t have a helicopter. All right. OK.

So I was talking with Eddie when describing the scene, I didn’t have a helicopter. But it’s OK. We have this new idea. And I know you said you want a helicopter. Yeah, Eddie but it’s fine. I got a whole new ideas better. And he goes. Get him on the phone, OK. So the helicopter. And then what happens? Just because he’s just like, no, you you see if that’s what you originally wanted. You should have it. And, you know, Quentin is a guy with final cut. Quentin, a guy with one of the best track records in Hollywood. He’s just made nothing but hits. And he is ruthless in protecting his vision because he knows his artistic vision is what made all that other stuff happen. At the same time, he’s very aware of being a partner. And, you know, like he can’t just leave his partner’s high and dry. They are writing very large checks to make this happen. So our job is to facilitate that relationship and send those messages.

The fact is, when you’re a jerk – like in life, right, – when you are a jerk and you have all the leverage, then there’s those who were waiting for the window of opportunity.

Hey, you’re no longer in so high. You are close enough to stab.

Eric Conner: One collaborator who is close enough for the director to stab her to be a shoulder to cry on is the editor. And ever since his first movie, Quentin Tarantino had relied on the wonderful Sally Menke to his movies, to life. Unfortunately, she passed away before Django, forcing him to find another editor he would trust with his newest baby.

Reginald Hudlin: Well, I was the you know, losing Sally was a huge blow for us on every level. I mean, she was a wonderful human being. And, you know, you just look forward to being with her.

She was an extraordinary person, an extraordinary editor, deeply respected throughout the industry and a key key key part of his team.

So, you know, there was a lot of concern about, oh, hey, well, now what? What does that mean? So when he chose Fred, you know, everyone felt great. But I especially felt great because Fred was an assistant editor on Kill Bill. And that’s where we became friends because he’d be around. He seemed really cool. And then after, you know, a screening, kids pulled me aside and we’d have a comic book conversation. Again, you know, this is back when if you read comic books, you had to be in the closet about it. So, you know, you’re, you’re cool with Dennis? Yeah.

And so it’s like, oh, we share this secret important thing. So Fred and I were always really cool and I knew that Fred was ready for it. And, you know, Fred had gone on to become editor himself from one of the one of the two editors on the last Fast and Furious movie. And I had been building a great reputation. So there was a lot of, you know, concern because we had a very tight post-production schedule at to finish the movie in seven weeks. One hundred and thirty days worth of footage to be cut down in seven weeks.

And, you know, the challenge of now is getting a coherent story. But tone, tone, tone, tone. The biggest challenge in this film. Right. How to not shortchange the shocking nature of slavery. Right. To not undersell the horrors of the institution. At the same time, to make it a film that was watchable, even entertaining. Right. So it was a very short amount of time to do very delicate work. And Fred accomplished it. So, you know, an amazing, amazing piece of work.

Eric Conner: Fred Raskin’s accomplishments are all the more amazing considering the scope of this project, cutting even the lowest budget film in that timeframe is tough. But add the grandeur of Django and its many locations, and it is borderline miraculous.

Reginald Hudlin: Candyland we built interior and exterior what we went scouting and, you know, Don Johnson’s mansion we found. I think it may have been the first.

They had what’s called Plantation Road. They have all these preserved plantations and they’re all like a half hour from each other. So we went there and we just loved it right away. Like the double stairwell was just crazy. Ridiculous. This is perfect. Lincoln’s back yard.

So we’re just looking around and we’re trying to figure out how many different scenes from the movie could we shoot at one location without having to move. So we went to the back of the plantation, which was just huge sugar cane fields. And we were looking and looking around and I said, Quentin, look at that road, which is this big red dirt road that just went on, you know, into infinity. Isn’t that the road to Candyland?

And he said it is. And we said, well, let’s just build a mansion back here. Wow. And we knew we had to build it because we’re going to blow it up. Yeah.

Right? So you couldn’t use this real one. So we built the exterior there.

And then on soundstages in New Orleans, we built the interior. And we didn’t blow up the interiors. But by the last month, they were literally just drenched in blood. I was just like this huge – like working in a Jackson Pollock painting every day. I mean, there was no digital blood ever. All the blood you see is Tarantino red.

He has his own blood color. And you know, the same guys who do Walking Dead those are his effects guys. And almost all the effects are private so he just does blood just kept piling up, piling up. So you just were walking.

Eric Conner: When Django Unchained was released, the copious amounts of bloody carnage do not pose anywhere near as much controversy as the film’s language.

Reginald Hudlin: The language is strong, but for me, the linguistic violence is the least shocking, provocative things in the film. I mean, when the whole oh, my God, you we’ve kind of the number of times you say the word n*gger in the film, I’m like, did you see the movie?

Did you see the movie? That’s the first thing you want to talk about. You didn’t see a man get eaten by a dog.

Really? I don’t get that. That wouldn’t be the first thing I want to talk about.

But as I was saying earlier, the issue is you have to tell the truth about the subject.

You know, I mean, there are a lot of films about the Holocaust, which is good because I believe in what the Jewish community says, that we should never forget, that they should never forget this horror and they should draw strength from it and the world should never forget. So we can remember what we as human beings, what we’re all capable of doing. And slavery is a Holocaust. And shooting on a plantation is no different from shooting at Auschwitz. All right. So you have to be true to the horror of what you’re doing at the same time if you make this powerful statement that nobody wants to see if it’s a bad time at the movies – I mean, because at the end of the day, people work all week.

They work real jobs. So if you’re working at a car factory in Detroit – Okay – And you’ve got a day off and you’re going to spend thirty dollars on tickets plus popcorn, plus get a babysitter and all that stuff. Like you’re not paying to see the bad time you’re going to go see Taken 2.

I’m not knocking Taken 2 to a big on Takens.

So I’m saying at the end of the day, you have to make a movie that people want to see, especially if you’re trying to send a message. Right. So if those are your two goals, then everything else is execution

Eric Conner: For Reginald Hudlin, Django was one of the most special projects he ever worked on, even before its critical and box office success, thanks in no small part to how Quentin Tarantino would run his set.

Reginald Hudlin: He’s a big family guy. He loves shooting movies. His joy at what he does every day is radiant. And if you don’t feel that, say – I mean, you’ve got to be a Grinch not to have that kind of spirit. So you just, you know, every hundred reels, that’s a shot – you know, on the weekends, we convert one the soundstages to a screening room. He brings movies from his collection and we watch and we discuss. One of the best rules he has – and you guys can try this yourselves – it’s a it’s a bold move. There’s no electronics allowed on set. No phones, no laptops, no tablets, nothing.

Because his thing is like you don’t need to check your Facebook status in between takes.

We’re here to work. Let’s work. And it’s a withdrawal for a few days. And then you really have a great time because you’re focused on your job. And as one actress said in the film, I made friends on the set that never happened.

Talk to people.

So part of it. I mean, that keeps the spirit together. And the spirit is really key. You know, people need to feel that they’re doing something special and unique and different and that this is a unique experience.

And the other is to keep your eye on the ball. What is the movie? And a lot of times we would talk about that, you know, quit. And I would just go, really? Is is this the movie? Is this what’s important? You know, and we would talk about it sometimes. The answer is yes. Sometimes the answer is no. Cause he can go down any rabbit hole and make it really entertaining. Right. But you’ll never get done. So you have to do is keep going back to finding the heart of the story.

And also, like you said, that’s a conversation. We all need checks and balances and that’s where the team comes in.

One of the saddest things about this movie, almost being over is that I have to go back to the real world because Quentin Land is spectacular. It’s this purely creative environment. It’s literally playing in the sandbox at the highest level of craftsmanship. You know, you’re on the set there. No studio executives there. There’s nothing. And anything goes as long as it makes the movie better.

Eric Conner: Like Reginald Hudlin, Tarantino is very much his own man and definitely has his own voice, which Mr. Hudlin encouraged our students to strive for as well in order to launch. Our own careers.

Reginald Hudlin: Tell the story that you want to tell as opposed to, you know, this is what’s commercial and this is what’s hot and now that kind of thing or what my friends like. What is your story from deep in your soul? Because you know what? This could be the last thing you ever make. This is your first movie. Could be your last movie. So, like, this is it. You make this movie and then you’re driving a taxi for the rest of your life. So like this is your epitaph for the twenty third century. And the second thing is, and this may be slightly contradictory to the first statement, is make the movie that isn’t being made, meaning that, you know, there’s so many copycats and kind of audition reels for Hollywood. And, you know, I’ve always for better, for worse, tried to zig when others have zagged. Right. You know, like, you know, when I first started making movies, you know, I was like, you know, Spike was doing his thing and John was doing his thing. And I was say, wow, I don’t want to make that kind of movie. I want to make like I want to make risky business.

And, you know, and from that impulse came house party, you know, so there’s an audience for everything. Right. So question is, where do you fit into the universe of things and what makes the audience want to see your movie versus everything else? A. It’s got to be from your heart because I feel like that sincerity and that integrity resonates through the screen, even through whatever flaws you may have in your filmmaking. They’ll feel you and make a movie that no one else is making. So you’re different. By your very nature.

Eric Conner: And just as important in helping to launch a career, remember to be nice.

You know, people talk about how short life is. Life is not short. Life is long. Life is really, really long.

And here’s the thing about life. People don’t die fast enough.

Like those people you don’t like. They’re still around. I’ve been in this business 20 years. Those mean so many of those people are still here.

So you have to conduct yourself with that knowledge because so many people didn’t. And like, I see them paying the price. And like, I’m always thinking to my parents for home training. Right. Just be a decent, reasonable, well-behaved person. It will really, really save you in ways you cannot imagine.

Eric Conner: With House Party and Boomerang, Reginald Hudlin helped usher in modern black cinema that managed to be both representational and universal.

Reginald Hudlin: To this day, I can still quote both those movies to death. And with Django Unchained, he has only continued on this path. We want to thank Mr. Hudlin for speaking with our students in the middle of his Oscar campaign season.

Eric Conner: And thanks to all of you for listening. This episode was based on the Q&A, moderated and curated by Tova Laiter , c0-moderated by me Eric Conner. To watch the full interview or to see or other Q&As  check out our YouTube channel at YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by me. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Our creative director is David Andrew Nelson, who also produced this episode with Kristian Heydon and myself, executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler. A special thanks to all our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.

Eric Conner: Hi and welcome to the backlot. I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy. Today, we have noted film critic Peter Rainer. He is the critic for the Christian Science Monitor. He’s also written for The New Yorker, for L.A. Times and a lot of other publications. And he has been a finalist for a Pulitzer. And if that’s not enough for you, he is also the author of the book Rainer on Film 30 years of film writing in a turbulent and transformative era. It is available for sale on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and all the other booksellers online. So thank you so much for coming Peter Rainer.

Peter Rainer: Thanks, Eric.

Eric Conner: One thing you had talked with me about before is this idea of in essence we all think we know what a critic does because we read their stuff like, oh, they see a movie, they write a review. But obviously there’s more to it than that. So I was wondering if you could talk about maybe your typical day?

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Well, a day in the life, it does vary. But I would say on average, if we’re not talking holiday seasons or, you know, run up to awards, Oscars or festivals, I guess I see at least a movie a day more often than not in theaters. But sometimes, you know, in home viewing situations, the way I find out if a film is opening is you go on various sites to see what the schedule is of openings. You know, often out of date, almost immediately, the various movie companies and publicists will send invites to me and now almost exclusively online invites saying you and a guest are invited to so-and-so movie. And a lot of the smaller, independent foreign films, documentaries and so forth, they often screen them months in advance, sometimes key to when the so-called talent is in town. Studio pictures increasingly either aren’t ready until pretty close to opening date, which is generally on Friday, or they don’t want you to see them all that early for bad word of mouth.

Eric Conner: Right right right, the embargo until.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, the embargo thing is fairly recent development.

Eric Conner: One minute before it comes out, right?

Peter Rainer: Yeah. They say, you know, 12:01 a.m. the Wednesday before the Friday opening the embargo is lifted and so forth. My reviews generally come out day and date with the opening, so I’m not really looking to break embargoes anyway.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer: But the embargo extends even to blogs and just sort of online commentary of any kind. Although I notice it doesn’t seem to extend to the publicist contacting you the day after the screening to ask you what you think. That doesn’t seem to have been embargoed. And my response is always, you know, I think it’s somewhere between Creature from the Black Lagoon and Citizen Kane. But beyond that, I’m contractually unable to answer that question, which is sort of vaguely true. I mean, I don’t like to feel like I’m part of the PR system, but anyway, so then I show up at the screening and I usually take notes, with a pen and pad, which I can’t read afterwards, but it’s kind of useful.

Eric Conner: You don’t have like one those little light up pens.

Peter Rainer: No, I probably should get one that they use be more common than it is now. People going with their computers. The lighted pen thing. I always thought was kind of obnoxious, not to mention, you know, you’re sitting next to someone and the light keeps clicking on and you say to yourself well, what great insight that I miss, you know? I mean, the light came on.

Eric Conner: The man with the pen knows.

Peter Rainer: What did I. Right. Yeah. What are they seeing that I didn’t see?

Eric Conner: Well, though probably less obnoxious than a monitor. Like an actual computer screen.

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: Illuminating half the theater.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. You know, people say, gee, you’re so lucky. You’re a critic. You can go to these screenings. And there aren’t all these people who are like texting and talking around you. And I say, are you kidding? It’s worse in some ways. I mean, a lot of critics say if if they’re bored by a movie or they’re making deals or they’re doing whatever they’re doing during a screening, it’s just as bad. I mean, that personally kind of drives me up the wall.

Eric Conner: Yeah. When you’re at an advance screening too, not everyone in there is going to be a critic, right? I mean, it’s also sometimes like I don’t know, friends, family.

Peter Rainer: Yeah I don’t know who any of these people are.

Eric Conner: Like they tried to fill the seat sometimes like, yeah, you know, you’re in there with regular citizens.

Peter Rainer: You never know. Yeah, no. The dentist of the of the gaffer, you know, I mean, they just bring all these people in there, especially for the big ones, but. OK. So then I, so I take notes and then I, I generally don’t review a movie like right after I’ve seen it, unless for deadline purposes I have to do that. If I’m at a festival like Toronto where I’ll see maybe four movies a day sometimes or more. A lot of those movies don’t open for many months or a year or more later. So I’ll do sort of an overview of the festival, but I’m not going to get specific or write full take reviews on anything.

Eric Conner: So you don’t. Because I know sometimes like.

Peter Rainer: Well the trades do that.

Eric Conner: Yeah yeah the trades will do reviews when they’re at the festival. Right. But like Christian Science Monitor and NPR, like you don’t.

Peter Rainer: No, not really. And part of the reason for that, I think I mean, it’s it’s good that. I mean the trades are sort of, they’re the trades. So I guess the they have to be on record as saying something about the film at the time that it opens. But if I were to review a movie, a full length review of a movie that’s in the Toronto Festival that then opens in December. You can’t re-review it, so you’re reviewing a movie that won’t be released for several months, just from the filmmaker’s point of view. If you’re not going to run the review again in December, then they’ve lost whatever you said about the movie because it ran too early.

Eric Conner: Now is there a way you can – let’s say you saw something at Toronto and you think it’s great and maybe it’s like a sort of a smaller prestige pic. Is there something you could do to help build buzz for it.

Peter Rainer: Oh, sure. Yeah. I mean, when I do the overview, I single out in critical terms what I thought of many of the movies. It’s not like I just sort of say what’s there? And that’s it. you know, if if there’s a really great movie or if I discover something or whatever. Absolutely. That’s the main purpose of why I’m there, actually. But I’m not going to do a separate long review. So I’ll see a movie. I’ll write it up based on my notes and recollections and whatnot. And I try to keep the films in my mind strongly enough so I don’t have to see it again. I don’t really like seeing movies twice within a fairly short timeframe at least. I find that I don’t get that much out of it the second time because I’m already kind of bringing to it what I saw the first time. You know, on the other hand, there are almost by definition, a great movie or a difficult or innovative movie is not something you’re likely to pick up altogether on a first viewing. But, you know, I see 250 something movies a year.

Eric Conner: Yeah you don’t have much to.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. I mean, it’s very difficult for me to go back and look at something again, even if I want to watch, which on occasion I do. And eventually I will. But, you know, after the reviews out and all the big change for me as a critic is that when I first started out in the 70s, mid 70s, there were maybe six or seven movies maximum that opened in a given week. Now, not just because of streaming and whatnot, but also there are often 20 plus movies per week that play in theaters.

Eric Conner: Right and you have such a wide range beyond just like different platforms.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. I mean, sometimes films a lot of the the lower end movies that are part of that 20 are films that for contractual reasons.

Eric Conner: Right they have to.

Peter Rainer: They have to show it, you know, theatrically to get a better sale on the screening or whatever.

Eric Conner: But yeah, there’s so many movies where it’s like day and date where they’re on OnDemand or Netflix or whatever. Well more on demand, but they might be in a handful of theaters that same day.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. I mean a lot of VOD movies are before the theatrical opening. You know, and then there’s the whole issue with Netflix and whatnot.

Eric Conner: Actually what are your thoughts on that with. I know there’s been such a blowback against Netflix films playing the festivals.

Peter Rainer: Right. I sort of disagree. I think that Netflix movies should be in the mix. If they have a theatrical release, this argument that Spielberg and others have made that a TV movie is in the end a TV movie, you know, it doesn’t quite hold water because there are a lot of movies that aren’t particularly well designed for the big screen either. You know they’re just that’s the way they were made.

Eric Conner: Smaller scale.

Peter Rainer: And they could look, look just as at home on a TV screen as anywhere else. But I mean, it is a little sneaky to essentially make a TV movie that you play in the theaters to boost the Netflix viewership and get awards. But you know what else is new? I mean, there’s always a scam. Also, I think even if you agree that these films should not be part of the awards mix, I just think it’s a losing battle. You know, I don’t think that you can rule out so much product that is coming out. You know, a corollary argument was when the O. J. Made in American documentary, which was ESPN.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer: They showed it in theaters either just before or day and date with the initial TV airing. And I thought it was the best film of the year of that year. I thought it was an extraordinary film. Absolutely extraordinary. And it won the Oscar for Best Documentary, at which point the documentary committee said we’re not doing this anymore. The argument there was that on the part of other documentarians, you know, Ava DuVernay had a strong, socially conscious documentary that year. That was.

Eric Conner: Right the 13th, was that?

Peter Rainer: Yeah. So their argument was, you know, O.J. is a great film. Congratulations, you know. But if I’d had eight hours at my disposal to make my movie, it would have been significantly more powerful. You know, that argument says that longer is better by definition.

Eric Conner: Well, it’s funny. It’s it’s like the opposite of the argument. Remember when Emmys started really recognizing HBO shows like The Sopranos and, you know, and and the networks were like, well, if we only had to do twelve episodes a season, we would make ours better.

Peter Rainer: Right.

Eric Conner: And I don’t know how much water that holds that argument.

Peter Rainer: Yeah no.

Eric Conner: It’s like blaming like the fact you have more money, more time, more staff and like but we can’t create more good product.

Peter Rainer: Most writers will tell you, you know, journalists and critics that if you have like two months lead time to write a review, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to write a better review than than when you’re on a tight deadline. Sometimes that forces you to really be more creative and come up with stuff on the spot that, you know, the sloth would erase otherwise. So it’s complicated. You know, Netflix, when this movie Okja came out about the pig. So that was sort of their big push, at least for critics and for awards to position themselves as a movie studio, sort of an odd movie to be using as a test case.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer: You know, and the experiment didn’t quite work on that level. Some people liked the film more than others, but I think they’re just going to keep trying to do it. You know, a lot of TV shows going back, you know, a lot of Colombo’s and, you know, Spielberg’s Duel, they were all shown theatrically as feature films in Europe.

Eric Conner: But were on TV.

Peter Rainer: Here were on TV here. Yeah.

Eric Conner: Yeah Spielberg’s first real massive movie that kind of put him over.

Peter Rainer: Yeah Duel.

Eric Conner: You know, the top, Duel. Yeah. Yeah, it was. Yeah. That was a TV movie here.

Peter Rainer: Absolutely. It was a Universal TV movie.

Eric Conner: And I mean it aged pretty well in that as TV movies go, it looks like a heck of a cinematic TV movie, especially for that time.

Peter Rainer: Right. I mean, I would think that that probably works better. I’ve never seen it on a big screen but but I would think that it’s gonna come across better on a big screen.

Eric Conner: Right and if you haven’t seen Duel, it’s the movie that got him Jaws. And so, I mean, technically remarkable what he pulls off with what I imagine is a rather small budget.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. I mean, it was it was a pretty incredible film. It’s kind of like Jaws, only a giant truck instead of a shark.

Eric Conner: And I think that’s the thing, too. It’s like a lot of these stories won’t get out otherwise.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, it’s if it plays in a theater, I think it should qualify.

Eric Conner: Yeah.

Peter Rainer: However it got there. And I mean, you have to make some kind of rules. Otherwise, you know, you’re going to start, you know, Game of Thrones best picture of the year. You know, you have to make some distinctions.

Eric Conner: It might, they actually might pick up a lot of technical awards.

Peter Rainer: Yeah right.

Eric Conner: Well, you know, actually, before you mentioned some of the kind of unusual choices your critics group made, but the movie Brazil had kind of a legendary.

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: Troubled journey. And if I remember correctly, I think the L.A. critics had named it like the best picture of the year.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, there’s a very interesting story behind that.

Eric Conner: And were you part of that?

Peter Rainer: Yes.

Eric Conner: Oh, great. Do tell.

Peter Rainer: I mean, I like the movie a lot. I don’t think it was my best film of the year, but I wasn’t dissatisfied that it won. And particularly given the circumstances, I thought it was great. What happened was Terry Gilliam had made Brazil for Universal and Sid Sheinberg, who was the head of Universal, didn’t like the movie. And he just kind of sat on it for a long time. And Gilliam, who is not a shrinking violet, was doing everything he could to make this film happen. Took out a full page ad in the trades saying, you know, ‘Dear Sid Sheinberg, when are you going to release my movie Brazil?’ And then Scheinberg had people come in and do their own cut of the film. They really, by all accounts, messed it up. And that was what they were going to release. And contractually, I guess they had the right to do that. So Gilliam knew one of the critics who was at the L.A. Times at that point, Jack Matthews, they arranged a clandestine screening for the L.A. critics of Gilliam’s cut of Brazil, which technically was illegal. So the critics saw this movie, they said this is a great movie. So now we’re voting that day for the year end awards and Brazil wins best picture Gilliam’s cut of Brazil. So Sheinberg had no choice but to release Gilliam’s cut after that, it was activist criticism at its finest. You know, I mean, you never.

Eric Conner: It was a protest vote.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, I mean, that’s how that came about. And Gilliam was, you know, forever grateful. Because his, there’s a very good chance. That is certainly theatrically at that time, his film would never been released. And the Sergio Leone movie, Once Upon a Time in America is a classic example of a film that was released in a butchered version. I think 40 minutes were taken out of it.

Eric Conner: I think, I’m going to say even more than that. I think it might have been an hour and change might have. Cause like, yeah cause the full cut’s close to four hours.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, I mean, Leone’s cut that eventually was shown is a terrific movie and considerably longer and better and more complicated in terms of the editing and whatnot.

Eric Conner: Yeah and very poetic the way it transitions in and out of scenes.

Peter Rainer: But his movie was originally hacked up by some guy that cut trailers in New York. And that’s what was shown. And a lot of critics. They saw both versions. And I remember I think it was Kael or someone said, you know, I’ve never seen a worse butchering job than was done to this movie.

Eric Conner: I was wondering, you know, we were talking before about some of these movies we like that they don’t quite come together as much. And yet we still have this kind of a soft spot in our heart for them. Guilty pleasures. Even that term might be a bit of a misnomer, because if you like it, why should you be guilty?

Peter Rainer: Right.

Eric Conner: I was wondering if there were some films in your vast collection that maybe hold a special place for you but didn’t hold a special place for pretty much any critics.

Peter Rainer: Well, the most recent example is the movie Mother, Darren Aronofsky’s film which I normally don’t like his movies, and most people do. Mother, which I saw in Toronto, was loathed by my colleagues almost exclusive. Didn’t make a dime. People hated it. It was loathed. I thought it was a really fascinating movie. It goes off the rails completely the last 15 minutes or so. But, you know, I won’t bother to give my defense to the jury. But it was. And I don’t feel guilty about it. I just feel besieged when I say it to people. They say, ‘really? You like that film?’ and I say yes, and I didn’t like Black Swan. I didn’t like blah, blah, blah. I like smart dumb comedies a lot. I seem to be more tolerant, just like I like bad standup. Sometimes I enjoy watching too. But, you know, Dumb and Dumber when new line. They had a trailer for it, but they weren’t going to press screen it. And I thought, this looks really funny. What’s the problem? You know, bad reviews aren’t going to have any effect on this movie and good reviews will bring people in who would not normally see it. And it’s really funny. So they did press screen it. I just kept after them. I said what do you have to lose? So in that vein, I go every year to the Alex Theater in Glendale for the Three Stooges marathon that they have.

Eric Conner: And now I have to go.

Peter Rainer: Well, yeah. And your kids would. I mean, it’s kids love that stuff. It’s, you know, don’t try this at home. But I think, you know, the Three Stooges is sort of the essence of comedy. Right. You know, it’s just about poking and bashing. And I mean, you know, Curly is a comic genius.

Eric Conner: Jerome Horwitz, right?

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: The artist formerly known as Jermoe Horwitz.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, they were. The larger thing here is that I think that if you really like something, whether you’re a critic or, you know, just an audience member, you know, you should go with it. This idea that there’s something guilty about liking something, there may be a very good reason why you do like something. It’s more important to be ostentatiously wrong then self censoring yourself to the point where you, you know, you know I mean.

Eric Conner: Yeah well, I think Mark Twain said taste never should be defended. I’m paraphrasing him. And Sheryl Crow said, if it makes you happy, it can’t be so bad. And I agree with both.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, yeah. But I do think, you know, as a critic, there are some types of films that I might enjoy, even though I know they’re not good movies. And as long as I’m up front about that, you know, it’s OK to enjoy these movies but don’t enjoy them as something that they weren’t meant to be or aren’t.

Eric Conner: You’ll say that in your review, like upfront that. Yeah. Fair warning. I enjoy this kind of thing.

Peter Rainer: Well, I’ll say, you know, I, I enjoy this kind of stuff because it’s kind of kitsch, probably in ways that the filmmakers did not intend. Sometimes the films are good in ways that are intended to be good. There’s some parts of Towering Inferno as I recall, it’s been many years, that are first rate for what it’s trying to do.

Eric Conner: I was wondering then. So one thing that’s definitely happened is over the years, the phrase everybody’s a critic has taken on grand new proportions because, you know, on YouTube, that’s where a lot of people are getting their reviews. And sometimes, like, you know, they can go from crass to comical, you know, hilariously crude, but also really astute. Yet at the same time, some of these are just fifteen year old kids with Facebook Live. What are your thoughts on sort of that end of the critic sphere? You know, the idea of really, truly, because of the Internet, people are getting their sort of critical takes from those who really don’t even have a writing background.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, well, I mean, what you’re describing impinges on the professional life and careers of actual working critics because there’s less and less incentive for publications to go with critics when there’s this whole gabble of voices out there. I don’t know. I think there’s nothing wrong with being, quote, elitist and saying that not everyone is a critic in the sense that not everyone brings to the fore the kinds of ideas and whatnot. That is what criticism is all about. You know, I’m not putting down blogs. I myself am not really a social media person. But, you know, I’m past the point where I think that if you have a blog that you have nothing to say or you’re just blathering. You know, there are a lot of fine critics now who write exclusively on the Web for various publications. You know, my own publication is primarily online now. So I don’t think that by definition, if you’re a blogger, you’re not a, quote, critic. But I do think that the odds are highly stacked against you because people think that, you know, criticism is not just opinionating. That’s the thing. Everyone says, well, if I just. It’s just my opinion. It’s as good as your opinion. What makes you any better than me? Well, that’s one way to look at it. But the thing is, speaking as a writer, I think you have to be able to be a writer, a real writer to be a critic. I don’t think that just opinionating is what it’s all about, because in the end, everything that I say about a film could probably be reduced to a couple of sentences on a blog and convey essentially the same message. You know, I like the acting didn’t like the direction, the story was sucked, etc.. You know, it’s how you say it. And the arguments that you deliver in the course of the criticism to support what you’re saying that makes a criticism. Not to mention that movies are kind of the, I mean, they encompass so many different things, not only all of the other arts, but what’s going on in society, a reflection of society. I’m not saying that to be a critic, you have to have a comprehensive knowledge of the history of film and have seen all the great movies. It can’t hurt. But I don’t think that just, you know, if someone says, well, I’m a critic because I’ve seen 4,000 movies. No, some of the most interesting articles I’ve read on film have been by people who are not professional critics who are often in the English and American lit departments or sociology or philosophy, you know, people who bring a whole other thing to the table.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer: That is much more interesting in many ways than the, you know, the so-called professional critic who’s too often insulated. So, you know, for me, the great critics have been the ones who have covered the waterfront and broaden the spread, talked about films in much larger ways while never forgetting the fact that the critic is first and foremost a member of the audience.

Eric Conner: One thing you’re saying that I think is great is that, you know, the fact is it’s not so much about who’s giving their review. It’s like, are they informed or not? Can they shine some light on their review? Reading Roger Ebert’s longer reviews when I was young, I remember they didn’t always have stars or thumbs up, thumbs down and New York Times still doesn’t do that. You know, I think a lot of really reputable publications, they invite you to read the whole thing because it doesn’t sum it up for you.

Peter Rainer: Right. Well, I mean, it varies in my career. Like you know at the monitor in some of its iterations now, I do have grades, which, you know, if I had a choice, I probably wouldn’t go with. But, you know, nevertheless, it is a way for people to at least latch onto what your overall opinion is and maybe drive them to read the full review.

Eric Conner: Kind of puts in a frame at least.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Or not. You know, in in a sense, all reviews have implicit grades. You know, where it gets a little nutty is like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes where they they sometimes will contact you. You know, that that review read like a B minus. But you gave it a B plus. It’s like, well, please.

Eric Conner: Like like they’re grading your grading, basically.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Right. See, the thing is true criticism, I think is not about the value judgment in the end. In other words, you can read a critic and disagree with everything he or she is saying and still think that it’s it’s it’s an exhilarating read. You know, that that, you know, I disagree with everything you said, but I really enjoyed reading you. That’s to me a better compliment than someone that comes over you and says, I loved everything you said about that movie because I agree with everything. You know, it’s not the value judgment. It’s how you get to that judgment that I think makes for a critic.

Eric Conner: Well, has it changed your approach as a critic that initially when you started people you knew were reading the whole article or, you know, it was in.

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: A brick and mortar newspaper so to speack. And now most of your audience is clicking.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. I mean, it does it. I mean, there are all kinds of ramifications. It’s very easy on the Internet to just click around. And I mean, I myself have some difficulty in reading long articles still, you know, on an iPhone or a computer. But I know that for the next generation, that’s not going to be an issue at all. Whether that means that there’s gonna be less extensive criticism by virtue of people’s viewing habits on the Internet. I don’t know. I mean, that’s a good question. I hope not. But I think it all comes down to what do you want from film criticism? If you just want value judgments, if you want to know what movie I should see on a Saturday night. That’s a perfectly good rationale for reading a review and writing a review, because in the end, a lot of reviews. I mean, I don’t like reviews where they go on about everything and then you’re like, yeah, but what’d you think of the movie? You know? I mean, I think that’s part of it. And if you have no opinion or if you’re mixed, which is often the case, then that should be in there. That’s generally how it is with with most movies, you know, that I write about. And I don’t like this notion that criticism is something, you know, that sort of comes down from on high. I don’t see it so much anymore. It’s partly because of the Internet. But it used to be that a lot of publishers and editors would say, you know, well, don’t use the first person when you review, really. But, you know, for me, criticism is is very personal. And you’re writing out of your own experience. You’re writing out of who you are. And that that’s another thing you have to connect certainly with movies. It’s, you know, because movies have a way of really hitting you in places that you, you know, aren’t defensed for. And, you know, it’s it’s it’s a very powerful medium and it affects people in very powerful ways, which is why, you know, if you say you really hated a movie that someone loved, on the one hand you could say, well, that’s just the way it is. You like some films I don’t. But, you know, a lot of people take these personally. And I can understand that if you really love some movie and someone says ah it’s a terrible movie.

Eric Conner: Worst movie ever.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. I mean, there’s a way in which, you know, you’re going to take that personally because films are a very personal medium. It’s important to put all this in perspective and realize that that a critic is first and foremost a person, you know, who is reacting to what’s up on the screen and. It’s a very personal medium, and so writing about it, I think, should also be a personal thing. You know, not in the worst sense of of, you know, the extreme bloggers who just, you know, like I said, opinionate about everything without backing anything up.

Eric Conner: You know, one of the things I’ve always really enjoyed about film criticism and really, you know, criticism of the arts is it introduced me to movies I never would have seen otherwise. And so on that end one thing about your book is that you found sort of room for these lesser known things. We talked before about, you know, the sort of underseen gems.

Peter Rainer: Right.

Eric Conner: But even I I don’t think we talked about this before. But one documentary you brought up that I wish more people knew about was the stone reader.

Peter Rainer: Oh yeah.

Eric Conner: I’ve got a few of these, but a couple thoughts and stone reader and.

Peter Rainer: You’ve seen it?

Eric Conner: I have. And I saw it a long time ago. But yeah, if you can talk about this like kind of little lesser known documentary that sort of went under the radar of everyone.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, it was a terrific little film. You know, the director had read or started to read a book by a writer named Dow Mossman. I believe his name was the Stones of Summer. But he had written nothing since. So the whole movie is sort of trying to track down this guy. Yeah, it was a fascinating movie in general. I love to discover films for other people to see. I don’t know that he’s directed anything since. I mean, I worked on a lot of political documents.

Eric Conner: Yeah. I don’t know if he did. Because I don’t think he necessarily.

Peter Rainer: Was a filmmaker.

Eric Conner: Yeah he wasn’t a documentarian, but he just.

Peter Rainer: Right he’s not not primarily known as being a filmmaker that I have no problem with that either. I think there are a lot of people who discover film and maybe they only make one or two movies, but they bring something new.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer: To the mix. And it’s particularly true in documentaries. I always tell people when they go to a film festival and they want to know what to see. Of course, the program says everything’s a masterpiece. How do you decide? I would choose a documentary over a dramatic film, sight unseen, because documentaries are often made by people who who really care about the subject. They know they’re not going to make much money on this film. You know, there’s just more passion involved. And and if nothing else, you’ll probably learn something that you might not have learned from a dramatic film about a particular subject.

Eric Conner: It might be your only chance to see it too.

Peter Rainer: That too.

Eric Conner: Some of those don’t get distribution, then that’s it.

Peter Rainer: Right. You know, I have a whole section in my in my book, Rainer on film, on documentaries. For me, Fred Wiseman is the greatest living American director of any kind with a body of work that’s unequal. He’s made 40 something movies. He’s in the mid 80s, makes a movie a year, and his films are absolutely extraordinary. The early ones are more accessible because they’re not so long his films tend to be rather long. You know, it goes to what makes a film great. I think to to explore the film in the process of making it in many ways a luxury that not every filmmaker has of any stripe.

Eric Conner: You know, one of the filmmakers you mentioned in I think it was in your auteur section, Richard Linklater, I feel like he’s sometimes not given the credit he deserves, even though I think critics like him. But in terms of a general, maybe the general population, like, doesn’t gravitate to his films, like they might some others. And he is one that for me, and I don’t know, maybe it’s because I saw before sunrise my last night in Europe, I’ve always just found his stuff, even his misfires, so personal and so unique, you know, even boyhood, which got such a response. But he’s been doing this for.

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: He’s managed to do this.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. I’m not nuts about more recent, more conventional work that he’s done, but he really is an extraordinary filmmaker who is incredibly versatile. You know, Boyhood has a lot to recommend it. He did a film that hardly anyone saw called Me and Orson Welles.

Eric Conner: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

Peter Rainer: Which I that was one of the best sort of coming of age in the theater.

Eric Conner: Yeah Zac Effron.

Peter Rainer: You know a life in the theater. It’s a terrific, terrific movie. And then there’s, you know, School of Rock, which is a great, very funny commercial film.

Eric Conner: Yeah. And still somehow personal.

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: You know, that one. I felt like he managed to go big without losing anything that makes it Richard Linklater.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, he’s he’s an extraordinary filmmaker, you know, incredibly self prepossessing person. But I think that humility kind of works to his advantage as an artist because he’s not all over the place with you when he makes a movie. He he works rather subtly, which is maybe one reason why he doesn’t have a more widespread public acclaim, because he’s not one of these directors who assaults you and you know jumps all over you. Look at this. Look at this. Like Tarantino or somebody.

Eric Conner: In some ways he might be the exact opposite of Tarantino.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. I mean, I like some of what Tarantino does also.

Eric Conner: Me very much so yeah.

Peter Rainer: But I do think that that there’s room for yin and yang in that world. And Linklater, he works cheaply enough so that he can do these kinds of films on a regular basis. I think he took a page from Robert Altman in that regard.

Eric Conner: Which it’s funny I was about to say we got to talk about Robert Altman. I mean, one of the all time greats who somehow never won an Oscar as best director. I think he got an honorary Oscar.

Peter Rainer: Honorary Oscar, yeah.

Eric Conner: Do you count those?

Peter Rainer: Yes and no.

Eric Conner: It’s a little bit of a consolation prize.

Peter Rainer: I mean, it’s it’s a great consolation prize, but it’s outrageous that he never got any. Of course, that’s true of Cary Grant. That’s true of.

Eric Conner: Oh yeah the list is long.

Peter Rainer: Charlie Chaplin. Unless you count his Limelight Oscar for the music.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer: Hitchcock. All of these guys.

Eric Conner: Kubrick right? Kubrick didn’t win best director.

Peter Rainer: And I don’t think he ever got it. No.

Eric Conner: Yeah. So he he joins a healthy list of some of the.

Peter Rainer: Astaire.

Eric Conner: Some of the best filmmakers we ever had.

Peter Rainer: Yeah Keaton.

Eric Conner: And performers.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. No, I mean, it’s it’s almost a better you know, it’s a better club to be in than the one that.

Eric Conner: Though I’m sure winning an Oscar in a bad club either but.

Peter Rainer: No. No.

Eric Conner: Yeah. And he’s he’s so went to that. He spanned decades too. And it’s kind of amazing that in essence, like his style didn’t change.

Peter Rainer: Well, yes and no.

Eric Conner: Discuss that. So yeah. Let’s talk the yes and no of it.

Peter Rainer: I mean, there’s a long essay on him in my book, and I knew him somewhat over the years. I did probably his last interview for the DGA magazine when he was in New York cutting Prairie Home Companion. He used to have his own movie company in Westwood called Lions Gate, no relation to the current company. And he would invite people there sometimes to see rough cuts and stuff. It was a little awkward and, you know, stopped doing it after a while. But.

Eric Conner: Awkward just because, like, what if you don’t like it?

Peter Rainer: Well, it was awkward for me because I admired him so greatly. But I also didn’t want to see him, you know, I mean, it’s well known he would have a joint in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other, and he would as the evening went on. Finally, one of his people came over to me. He says I think if Bob were in better shape now, he probably wouldn’t want you to be seeing the rest. I said, I agree with you completely. I’m out of here. But that was during his low period where he did films like Quintet and Perfect Couple and Health. But he started out doing well, he Kansas City, and he did industrials and promos and all sorts of weird stuff. He came to Hollywood. He did a very low budget movie, completely off the radar that had Tom Loughlin of Billy Jack in it. He did a film called The James Dean story. Not terribly good movies, to put it mildly. Then he went back to Kansas City and did other stuff. But one of those films brought him to Hitchcock’s attention. So he did some Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV. So for about 10 years, he was doing episodic TV, you know, Whirlybirds and Sugarfoot, Bonanza. All this stuff, very traditional stuff.

Eric Conner: Yeah kind of straight down the middle.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. You know, and he was one of the great innovators in American cinema, and yet he had a good 10 or 12 years of doing this stuff. And by the time he started directing features, he was I think he directed MASH when he was in his early mid 40s. So even though he was part of that, you know, Spielberg, De Palma, Coppola, he was a good 15 years older than any of them. So, you know, That Cold Day in the Park was, well no, his first feature was for a studio was was a film called Countdown for Warners. It was an astronaut movie with James Caan and Robert Duvall. And he got fired by Jack Warner because he had the two of them speaking over each other in some scenes. And Warner was like, what is this? You know, they’re talking over each other.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer: And so that was when Altman first became a little bit of who Altman was, but he was.

Eric Conner: Right that became like his hallmark eventually yeah.

Peter Rainer: Right but you would never, ever know that he he he made masterpieces like McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Thieves Like Us or Nashville or Long Goodbye. Based on the first 20 years of his career, it’s one thing I think that distinguishes film from some of the other arts. You can look at the early writings of Virginia Woolf or Mailer or Austin, you know, and and you can see glimmers of the real artists in those writings. But in movies, for some reason, you know, can you draw a line between Dimentia 13 and The Godfather?

Eric Conner: Easily. No of course not.

Peter Rainer: Or, you know, I mean, there’s a million. So. So Altman.

Eric Conner: Well all those guys came out of the Roger Corman world like that.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. But I even, you know, went when Boxcar Bertha came out Scorsese’s film, I was in college, so I, I hadn’t seen any of his movies. Saw it in a Grindhouse on the second half of a double bill with 20 convicts and a woman on forty second street. And then I wrote about it for my college newspaper and I said, this is like the best directed terrible movie I’ve ever seen. It’s like incredibly well directed. You know a Corman knockoff of Bonnie and Clyde, but and everyone said, ‘oh, you’re just trying to make a name for yourself and discover someone you know’. And then when Mean Streets came out I said, you see. But Altman, you know, MASH is a terrific film, very funny, very hip, very loose. But even there, you couldn’t draw a line between that and because when McCabe and Mrs. Miller came out a couple years later in ’72, I just thought, my God. I mean, if you can really do something like this in Hollywood, then it’s not all corrupt. I mean, it was just unbelievable that he was able to pull that off.

Eric Conner: Although I do feel like even though like maybe he kind of genre jumped, I do feel like you could look at MASH and McCabe and Mrs. Miller and see the same director behind the camera.

Peter Rainer: Well yeah, there’s an iconoclasm.

Eric Conner: Even even like Gingerbread Man, which I enjoyed, actually. But yeah, I mean, to that end, like, he definitely had his stylistic devices and touches that would kind of tell you who was behind that camera.

Peter Rainer: Yeah and and, you know, the Nixon movie that he did a Secret Honor. It’s just a staged play reading. But it’s so cinematic. He didn’t really work from scripts in any traditional way. But at a certain point in his career, when he was at a low point, he became known for directing plays. And so he did films like, you know, streamers Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. There were about six or seven movies that he did that were based on plays. And you thought of of all the directors to be doing that, Altman would be the least likely, you would think.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer:Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is not a very good play, which somehow became an extraordinary movie. And I’m not quite sure how he pulled that off.

Eric Conner: I guess he was almost like a visionary, but also a bit of a Willy Wonka. He’s always like kind of testing things and seeing what.

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: What could he get away with?

Peter Rainer: Yeah, he was very iconoclastic. He didn’t. With very few exceptions. After MASH, he didn’t really like working in the studios. His big comeback, quote unquote, was The Player.

Eric Conner: The Player in ’92.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Yeah. Which was a terrific movie.

Eric Conner: Fabulous.

Peter Rainer: But it’s kind of like his love hate letter to Hollywood.

Eric Conner: Yeah.

Peter Rainer: Because the paradox of that movie is that it’s a great Hollywood movie about the inability to make a great movie in Hollywood. You know, I mean, he’s saying this is what the industry has become. And yet it’s a terrific movie.

Eric Conner: Amazingly, too. It’s a good thriller. You know, it’s great satire. It’s funny. It’s dark, but, there’s a thriller in there that really works.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, it’s a terrific film. But, you know, he he never liked to do the same thing twice. He. I think I’ve seen every one of his movies even. But actors loved him for obvious reasons, you know, because he’d just say, let me see what you’re thinking. You know, try anything you want. If I don’t like it, we won’t it won’t be in the movie. But he didn’t say, you know, hit your mark here, do this to that. He allowed them to be very much part of the creative process, which if you have creative actors and you’re a director who can really work that way, is is the best.

Eric Conner: And is it true, like actors didn’t always know if they’re being filmed or not?

Peter Rainer: Right. If he I mean, the way he used sound, he had so many different mics going that there’d be like, I think 14 different that he could pick up on. People always complain, well, I can’t hear what people are saying in his films. Occasionally, I think that was a valid criticism. But mostly he was trying to get at a kind of poetic naturalism or some way in which, you know, because it wasn’t just a lot of gabble. And that’s what, he was very selective in, what he made you hear and what he what you didn’t hear. Yeah. I mean, when you saw his movies, you always felt like you were in for something. You know, you aren’t just going to see another product. And, you know, I thought that it was it was heroic, the career that he had, basically, because it was such a difficult thing for him to do. And especially since, you know, like I said, he came out of episodic TV in the 60s. And to be able to have that and then do the kind of work that he did after that is some kind of heroic thing.

Eric Conner: That’s an artist at its most pure. Right. You know.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Yeah.

Eric Conner: Just wanted to tell the stories and he would keep telling them his way and he somehow managed to keep making them. And I remember when when he passed away, too. It’s like you feel sad, of course, because loss of life, he’s gone. And then you feel this weird, selfish sadness of like, I don’t get to see anymore new films from him. But, luckily for you people listening, beauty of a book like Rainer on Film, it reminds you all these movies are out there. And back in the day, some of these were like impossible to get. And one of the great things about the technology we have is like now a lot of these movies. You can get you know, you can find these things in the annals of the iTunes and Amazon libraries. And they’re out there. And the hope is with film criticism, it might bring you to things you otherwise wouldn’t have seen and might make you appreciate things you might not have otherwise thought about or noticed. And I think that’s a thing that that Peter Rainer has done with his career for decades now. Peter’s still doing this and still has new reviews available. What Web says should they go to to check out your material?

Peter Rainer: Well csmonitor.com is for the reviews, which can also be picked up on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes and on the radio KPCC.org. Podcast of the shows that I do for a film called Film Week. But the book I feel is, you know, it does collect I think much of what I really.

Eric Conner: Yeah there’s a breadth to this book. Well, a massive thank you to Peter Rainer for talking with us. And thanks to all of you guys for listening. Remember to check us out NYFA.edu to learn about our school. And also we have some of our Q&As a whole, actually a lot of Q&As on our YouTube channel. That’s YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Our creative director is David Andrew Nelson, who also produced this episode with Kristian Heydon and myself, executive produced by Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler with a special thanks going out to our staff and crew who made this possible. See you next time.

Tova Laiter: Hi and welcome to The Backlot. I’m Tova Laiter, moderator and director of the New York Film Academy guest lecture series. In this episode, we will take an in-depth look at one of my great guests and hear about his experience in the entertainment industry. And now, Eric Conner, will take you through the highlights of this Q&A.

Eric Conner: Hi, I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you a writer, producer, director and Oscar nominated actor Jonah Hill, a man who got his break as part of Judd Apatow’s comedy stable before showing his depth with dramatic turns in Moneyball, Cyrus, and The Wolf of Wall Street. Even though he’s now known for his work behind the camera, Jonah Hill might never have gotten into acting if his initial forays into directing went better.

Jonah Hill: I was into music and films and I wanted to be a writer director like I’m sure a lot of you guys do here and girls here want to do. And I started acting because I was really bad at giving directions to the actors. I had very poor tact and grace and when they didn’t do what I wanted them to do, it upset me. You know, I just was like, why aren’t you doing it the right way? And a friend of mine was like, you really shouldn’t give direction like that. There’s a real art to that. And so I took acting classes in order to hear how I would want to be spoken to by a director. And then when I started acting, I really fell in love with that as well as the other stuff, you know.

Eric Conner: Mr. Hill’s writing also got off to a rocky start, at least with his college administration. But thankfully, that obstacle wound up being a blessing in disguise and launched his career as a performer.

Jonah Hill: I would write these plays and a lot of them they wouldn’t put up because of the content, whether it be language or overtly – yeah, really sexual. No. Sexy dramas. They were just trying to be aggressive, I think, or trying to be controversial in some way. And so I think I liked that. I think I liked pissing people off and stuff like that and so they wouldn’t put them up. And so I was 18 and a friend of mine. There was this bar called Black and White. It’s still there in New York in East Village. And they had an open mic night where people would do poetry and weird stuff. And I would put up the plays at the bar. We would clear some tables out and do the plays Sunday nights at the bar. And so that was why I started performing. And then it actually kind of got a small following in New York City around that time. This was 11 years ago cause I’m f**king old and but it was eleven years ago. And people started coming in and they really encouraged me. And a couple of times I would be like at a party or something and someone would have heard about it, like without being a friend of mine. And then I was like, okay, that’s really cool. I’m going to keep doing this. I think my instincts were more comedic. At first, you know, like I think I’m completely a product of two things, The Simpsons and Goodfellas. But those are, like, where I get my taste from when I was growing up. I think those are the two things that completely shaped my sensibilities. So there was part of me that had this real passion and knowledge for comedy. And Simpsons is just the most brilliant. And if you guys are interested in working in comedy in any regard, you should study every single episode of The Simpsons cause it’s the best comedy writing of all time. And then Goodfellas and and Scorsese films were the movies that got me interested in the other side of things.

Eric Conner: Mr. Hill’s early work proved the old adage that there are no small roles. Even his brief turn as an eBay store customer in the 40 year old Virgin is really memorable.

Clip: So I guess I’ll just give you some money and you can give me these shoes. And.

You know, I know it seems so strange.

Yeah so I’d just rather buy them from you straight up.

Yeah, I know. I wish could be that easy.

I wish too but you’re making it extremely difficult for me. I’m just trying to get these shoes back to my house so I can wear them.

Eric Conner: No matter the role, no matter the size of the role Jonah Hill showed what he could do.

Jonah Hill: I think the most challenging part of being an actor comes from the days where something really bad is happening in your personal life. Like, let’s say, some death or breakup or friendship thing, whatever, some personal thing that’s going on outside of work. And you have to show up that day and give your performance like none of that is happening. So for me, that has been the thing that actors just have. That’s part of the gig. You know what I mean? So even if something really awful is happening. You have to be able to block that out and focus on your performance. It’s a weird part of the job for sure. Like, if you have a normal job, you can be quiet for the day or whatever, you know, or you can just focus on your computer or whatever it is. Like you have to be prepared that when you go there, you’re there to act and give your performance you know?

Eric Conner: Part of the preparation for Mr. Hill is knowing when to let his comedic side loose and when to stick to the script.

Jonah Hill: It’s honestly depending on what the director is cool with. You know what I mean? The director doesn’t want you to improvise, then you shouldn’t just be like f**k it I’m going to anyway. You know, you have to respect, you know, who’s running the set and everything like that. It’s interesting because Cyrus and Wolf of Wall Street, the comedy stuff is heavily improvised. You know, it’s so much of the fun of it is that you don’t know what’s going to happen. You know what I mean? But what’s interesting. I mean, Moneyball, we didn’t improvise a lot. Not very much at all. But, Wolf of Wall Street, we did so much improvisation, you know, because that’s what he likes, you know, and he supports that. So the comedy stuff for me, if I was running a comedy set, would always encourage people to improvise and come up with new jokes and new attitude as long as it’s about the character and not just trying to be funny, you know, but I think improvisation is great. The point is, is that it’s so cool that new stuff can happen that no one knew about ever and that makes the reactions real because the person is actually hearing it for the first time. So go for it.

Eric Conner: Mr. Hill’s ability to communicate so well with directors and other performers gave him a terrific network of collaborators, one that he has been fortunate enough to work with ever since.

Jonah Hill: The truth is, I’ve just been really lucky. All the guys I started making movies with, like Judd Apatow and Seth and Jason and Paul Rudd and all those guys, they just happened to be amazing people. And so it was not a challenge to maintain those relationships, because I think in all of this, I just gravitate towards the people that I, A, share the same taste with. And that breeds and when you’re in school, like especially in this environment, as I’m sure you guys are doing. But this is such a great way to be around all these people and meet the people and have the same taste as yourself and able to form those those friendships become based on wanting to do work that you all believe in, you know. And so whether it was starting out with Judd and those guys or moving on to Cyrus with the Duplass brothers or Moneyball with Bennett and Brad or Wolf of Wall Street with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, it was always people that were into something creative that was the same. And then those relationships and friendships build from there. And I’ve just been lucky that those people all happened to be great people as well as artists. You know, you find the people that you’re creatively in tune with, you just do. It naturally happens. It’s like finding a girlfriend or a boyfriend or a best friend. It just like you can’t force it and it will naturally happen as you go through the creative process.

Eric Conner: Just like dating the first time could be a nerve wracking experience, especially if the performers or directors or people you idolize. That’s enough to make even a talented, trained performer like Jonah Hill feel the pressure.

Jonah Hill: I guess the first time would have been John C. Reilly and Marisa Tomei in Cyrus, where I was really intimidated to work with actors that were so profound.

Clip: Who do you think she’s gonna believe? Her son who needs her now more than ever after his battle with panic and anxiety, or this new guy who clearly wants her kid out of the way?

You listen to me you little weirdo. If you want to mess with me, I’m going to mess with you right back.

Jonah Hill: But each time you do it, the first few rehearsals or the first few scenes. You’re incredibly nervous. And then there’s a point where it kicks in where you’re like, I have this job and if I want to keep this job, I better put all that stuff away and focus on just doing what I came here to do and giving the performance I came here to give.

Eric Conner:  Cyrus was a small indie film, but it turned out to be a massive turning point for Jonah Hill’s career and helped him get the role that showed all of Hollywood he could do a lot more than just comedy.

Jonah Hill: You know, I really wanted to make all different kinds of films. And even when you get some success making movies, they try and convince you to just keep making that same kind of movie, you know? And for me, it’s just important to always push yourself to do stuff that you haven’t done, even if it’s uncomfortable for other people, like people running the studios. But honestly, like I did this movie, Cyrus and Bennett Miller, who directed this film, he’s one of my best friends, saw that film and gave me the opportunity. And Catherine Keener actually helped me a lot because she was in Cyrus with me and is best friends with Bennett. And, you know, Brad Pitt and Bennett Miller were really supportive. And Amy Pascal, who runs Sony, who I made Superbad and Moneyball and 21 Jump Street, and This Is The End. So we have a really deep relationship. And she was really supportive of me getting this part. And it changed my life in a lot of really great ways.

Eric Conner:Though getting the biggest role of his career added its own share of pressure.

Jonah Hill: Same with Moneyball when we were rehearsing Bennett and Brad Pitt and Philip Seymour Hoffman, and it was the four of us in a room. I was incredibly intimidated. And eventually you have to be like they’re going to hire somebody else and fire me if I just act all nervous and don’t start acting well, you know, so there just has to be that thing. You like I said, if something bad happens in your life, you have to kick that stuff to the curb while you’re there doing your job. And I think Scorsese was a different thing all together because, yeah, we did a month of rehearsals and it would be me and him Leonardo DiCaprio in a room rehearsing. And I’d be like, what the f**k am I doing here. And I think I constantly in my life, whether it’s Moneyball or even the first movie set I was ever on or whatever it is, it’s a constant thing of what am I doing here? And I think that’s the best attitude to have, is to always feel like you are the person who doesn’t belong because it will drive you to do the best you can. Not like I belong here, but I want to make sure that I do the work that allows me to be with these great people.

Eric Conner: One of the ways Jonah Hill made his character in Moneyball so believable was basing it on a real person he knew extremely well his dad.

Jonah Hill: Like like how to make the decisions about how to play the character? For me, it’s usually just thinking, do I know a person like this in real life? Like for Peter Brand, the character in Moneyball. He’s based a lot on my dad, like my actual dad. But my dad is an accountant. He’s a wonderful, wonderful, amazing guy. We’re incredibly close. But we couldn’t be more different as people. But he sees the world a lot more numerically and logically than I do. And so I thought a lot about him. And then luckily, this film and the Scorsese film and a couple other films have done had been based on real people, too. So you have, you know, their actual life and you just try and figure out simply what kind of person they are. From a psychological standpoint, like what? What makes them happy? What motivates them to make the decisions they’re making? And if you read any books on psychology, those have helped me a lot to understand is why people make the decisions they’re making and kind of go from there.

Eric Conner: The aforementioned score says a film, Wolf of Wall Street, might be Jonah Hill’s finest performance to date, one that fully channeled the legendary director’s dramatic intensity and crackling energy.

Clip: I tell you what, you show me a pay stub for seventy two thousand dollars. I quit my job right now, and I work for you. Hey, Paulie, what’s up? No yeah, no everything’s fine. Hey, listen, I quit. Twenty two million dollars in three f**king hours. Can you believe it?

Jonah Hill: The thing about Mr. Scorsese who honestly, the fact that I got to make this movie with him is the crowning achievement of my entire life. I’m so lucky I even got to, like, ever be in the same room as him. And I think the reason why his movies are so important to me, especially Goodfellas. But every one of his movies is that they’re completely dangerous in that you do not know what’s going to happen in a scene from second to second. It shifts from being funny to very scary to very you just are very uncomfortable in a lot of ways. And I think that’s amazing. You know, and like like obviously the greatest scene in any movie ever, in my opinion, is in Goodfellas, which is very obvious, the famous scene where Joe Pesci’s like, you think I’m a clown. Do I amuse you? And because it’s so hilariously funny. And then in a millisecond later, it’s it’s the most tense, scary thing and then goes back to being funny and and back to being very tense. And if you can create that kind of spontaneity in any way, and capture it on film, that’s what we all should be striving for. To have people watching it going. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the next second. And that is so exciting, you know, so. Same with, you know, King of Comedy and Casino and Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, all of his films. They just have that thing where you are very uncertain of what’s going to happen moment to moment.

Eric Conner: Jonah Hill was destined to work with another famed storyteller, Quentin Tarantino. Even when it seemed like the fates were going to keep them apart.

Jonah Hill: Quinten Tarantino is so cool and obviously super, super genius. And he had called and asked to meet with me. And I was like, no, thanks. No I literally almost jumped through the phone and into his office. And there was a there was another part that they were interested in me for. And then I wasn’t able to do it because I was doing another movie and the schedules, conflicted. And the movie was like way s**ttier than a Tarantino movie. Oh, my God, I’m doing this movie and not able to do a Tarantino movie, not against the movie I was making, just like, oh my gosh, I’m not going to be able to work with one of my heroes because I’m not available. And so I was really upset, you know, sad because I miss this opportunity to work with Quentin, who’s one of my heroes. And so they were already almost done shooting the movie. And we were at Summer of Sony, which is this thing like where all the Sony movies, they go to Mexico and promote the films internationally. And Channing and I were there for 21 Jump Street and we got to the hotel and all the Django Unchained people were there and they were like, the other part is gone now, obviously, but we have another scene that still has not been shot yet and I want you to come do it. And I was like, this is the coolest thing ever in the world. And I wrote him a letter. I wrote him a really long, handwritten letter about why it was, like, heartbreaking that I didn’t get to work with him. And he said it was because of the letter that he kept me in mind. And I told him. Yeah. Write people letters. Honestly. Seriously, though, it’s so nice. It’s it’s like the nicest thing. Whenever someone’s written me a letter, I’ve always remembered them so positively in my mind. There you go, I guess write letters and, you know, people and go from your heart.

Eric Conner: Of the 60 plus roles, Mr. Hill has played one of the most rewarding roles was portraying Jonah Hill in Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s satirical This Is The End.

Jonah Hill: What was it like to make This Is The End? Well, it was great because Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who were the writer directors, are really old friends of mine. They wrote Superbad. And, you know, I was just so proud of my friends that they were directing their first film. And like all of you guys, you know, it’s like it’s like to see your friends progress and do new things and to take that responsibility on – I knew they would be great at it and was just excited that they were pushing themselves in that direction. And it was great. You know, like James Franco and Craig and everyone, Michael Cera, these guys I’ve known all these people for a long time. And like, it was really interesting to get to play a version of yourself, like to create that version that’s not me. It wasn’t like I actually am, but it was fun to make fun of that and play on that. So for me, it’s actually one of the performances I’m more proud of because it’s this super weird version of me. You know what I mean? But it’s not me that makes any sense. And Seth and I haven’t had originally written the character where everyone was really mean to each other, you know? And my only note was I think my character should be super duper nice and then turn out to be evil, like later on, you know, so it was a really fun experience. And those guys are the best comedic screenwriters working today Seth and Evan hands down. They are so brilliant. And they’ve worked on so many movies that you don’t even know about that their names are not on. And they just those guys are working at a very high level right now. And I have a lot of love and respect for them.

Eric Conner: Mr. Hill has worked with a wide variety of filmmakers, each with their own style. But they all still have one thing in common.

Jonah Hill: They’re all different. All the directors that have been wonderful that I’ve worked with have all been wildly different and not comparable to one another. That’s what’s so interesting. So the things I admire the most as an actor from a great director, it’s like personally like Scorsese is like separated from everybody else just because he’s like the master and like no one will ever come close to him, in my personal opinion, of anyone I’ve ever worked with, Judd and the Duplass brothers and Bennett Miller, they’re also different. But the one thing they share in common is they all care so much about what they’re making to the point where they will f**k up the rest of their life to make sure this movie is great. You know what I mean? Not any of them specifically. But you get the sense like that this is what is the most important thing to them is making this movie great. And so I think you just have to care so much.

Eric Conner: This approach helped Mr. Hill as his career expanded behind the scenes, including writing and producing the 21 Jump Street reboot and directing the indie film mid 90s. But the most important advice he got from his colleagues was not about vision.

Jonah Hill: Wear comfortable shoes. That’s what every director. No, I’m kidding. But every, if you ask any of the coolest directors I’ve worked with and you ask them about directing, they all say where comfortable shoes. It’s like a famous term I guess cause you’re standing all day. Let me think of the real answer to that question. John C. Riley and Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio and Judd and Seth and those guys, they’ve all imparted a lot of wisdom on me. And there’s not like a specific sentence or something I could really say. But the essence of what all of them do is kind of what I was talking about before is like shooting from the hip, like making decisions from your heart, you know, doing things that you care about for the right reasons. And I can’t stress that enough because all you guys are great and smart and you’re going to be so talented and successful. It’s just like don’t let anything penetrate what you feel. You know, your heart knows what’s up. And so don’t you know, don’t go against that you know, because it’s just, always think about when you were a little kid and you wanted to do this and like, what made you want to do that and keep that with you for the rest of your career in life. I wish I had, like, one cool sentence to say but none of those guys ever taught me s**t so it was like really hard. They were just focused on themselves the whole time. It was really hard to.

Eric Conner: He’s joking about the famous people he’s worked with, at least I think he is. But Jonah Hill seriously cautioned our students about getting into the industry for the wrong reasons.

Jonah Hill: I think the main thing I say to people that I meet who want to do this in any way is like take the word fame out of your vocabulary forever, because I definitely never did this to be famous. I do not even like being famous. I love making movies. And I love meeting people like you guys. You know what I mean? And so if your goal is to be famous that sucks because it’s like you should be here because all you can do is act or write or direct or whatever. I know that’s what you meant, but that’s a secondary thing that I think about a lot, because a lot of kids come up to me like I want to be famous and you’re like, oh, man, you have the wrong outlook on what this actually is. Because what this is, is like you get to make stuff with people you care about, that you’re passionate about. And as far as decisions, the only decisions I’ve ever regretted were ones I made for impure reasons, like to do a movie because I thought it’d be a big movie or it’d be popular or something instead of just really feeling like it was the right thing to do creatively. So I just think every decision you guys make should just be completely from your heart. You should only make stuff you would want to show the whole world forever and constantly just go from your heart and don’t have anything else cloud your judgment. I know it sounds really like straightforward and like cliche, but purity in your decisions just should come from what you feel all the time.

Eric Conner: Jonah Hill’s decisions have not only been pure, they’ve been smart, a mix of blockbusters and indie films, comedy and drama. Sometimes he’s in front of the camera and sometimes behind. Sometimes both at the same time. And that right there is his plan for the rest of his career.

Jonah Hill: What I’ve been doing the past couple of years and what I hope to continue to do is to do all different kinds of things. It’s no declarative thing like I’m done with comedy and I only want to do dramas like it’ll never be that way because there’s such a big part of me that loves to make people laugh. Loves to entertain people in that way. But there’s also a part of me that loves to tell all different kinds of stories and play all different kinds of people. And so the idea is just to do whatever you feel passionate about. Again I’ve said this about fifty thousand times, but if I feel connected to something emotionally, then that’s what I want to do, you know? And until they kick me out, that’s what I’m going to keep doing.

Eric Conner: My guess, Hollywood is not kicking out Jonah Hill anytime soon. We want to thank Jonah Hill for taking the time to talk with our students. And, of course, thanks to all of you for listening.

This episode was based on the Q&A curated and moderated by Tova Laiter. To watch the full interview or to see your other Q&As. Check out our YouTube channel at YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by me Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Our creative director is David Andrew Nelson, who also produced this episode with Kristian Heydon and myself. Executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock, and Dan Mackler. A special thanks to all of our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.

This episode is dedicated to the memory of Eileen Conner, my mom, the woman who introduced me to comedy by letting me stay up way too late when I was way too young so I could watch Saturday Night Live. Thanks, Mom.

 

Trailer: If you had never seen a Larry Cohen film, you’re going to be in for some really radically unique entertainment.

Trailer: Larry started as a writer, eventually became a director to protect Larry the writer.

Trailer: Pow, what was that?

Trailer: Larry Cohn is so much the invisible man. It’s entirely possible to have seen a lot of his work without knowing you were seeing his work.

Trailer: His movies have this energy and this attack.

Trailer: He’s a mad man but he makes these great little films.

Trailer: There’s a brilliance, there’s a childish naughtiness about him.

Trailer: He would do things that were dangerous. Larry would not only shoot in the streets of New York, he would drive cars up on the sidewalk on the streets of New York.

Trailer: This is New York City. They just get out of the way when you’re coming. Let’s face it, anybody would put up with anything if they think a movie is being shot.

Eric: Hello, everyone. Welcome to The Backlot. A very special episode we got today. I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy. A couple months ago, we were going to have one of Hollywood’s most legendary filmmakers Larry Cohen come to speak at our school. In promotion of the documentary about him, King Cohen, created by Steve Mitchell and Matt Verboys, Verboys.

Matt: That’s good. That works.

Eric: How do you pronounce it?

Matt: I say Verboys. But you could say Verboys or. I’m back and forth on it myself so.

Eric: OK, then I feel less bad.

Matt: Yeah don’t worry about it.

Eric: So as you can tell, at least Matt’s here. Steve is here too.

Steve: I am.

Eric: See now I’ve got proof both of them are here. Cat’s out of the bag.

Steve: We are.

Eric: We will be talking about their documentary about Larry Cohen, King Cohen, and really taking a look at Larry Cohen’s career. And so he was going to come here with them to talk about the documentary. And unfortunately, he passed away.

Matt: Yeah it was very quick.

Steve: Was yeah, I was very quick. Very quick.

Eric: And I mean, I was looking forward to meeting him. But also, one thing I’m always pushing my students to do is like get to know the films that came before the films, like when we were kids we had UHF. And you would catch like kung fu theater, horror movies, sci fi, all of this stuff that was from before my time, but was so much part of my time as a kid before really cable and video and everything else. And so I was so excited to bring Larry Cohen, who represented so many eras of Hollywood and was so sad to see that we had lost him. And you guys have created such a beautiful tribute to not only the work of Larry Cohen, but also to the work of a bygone era of Hollywood.

Steve: Yeah, that was it’s it’s interesting. We started out making a movie about Larry, but as we were cutting it, one of the byproducts of the cutting and and, of course, when Larry was working is that we’re sort of tipping our hat to a way movies used to be made. We were tipping our hat to the way, I guess, in some way movies were being exhibited in those days. I mean, Larry had said that if the movie got made and it was remotely coherent and commercial, it was going to get in a theater. And growing up in New York City, one of the things that was really interesting was old Times Square, not the current. Times Square was a place where major studio pictures would open. But when they stunk and they weren’t making money and they weren’t selling popcorn, these Larry Cohen type pictures could sneak in. And so Larry loved the idea that, you know, his movies were playing on Broadway because Larry was from New York like I am.

Eric: And but Larry wasn’t only from New York. He was New York. Or maybe New York was him. I don’t know.

Steve: Well, the DNA is, you know, it’s in there and it’s part of who he is. I mean, as Matt can agree, Larry could be very blunt, which is a New York trait, or at least people perceive it as a New York trait. But, you know, Larry was, you know, a New Yorker. Someone once asked me what is the sort of connecting tissue in his movies? Took me, I don’t know, a whole bunch of interviews to figure this out. But Larry was a critic. He was a social critic. And all New Yorkers are critics. And so that was part of what made a Larry Cohen movie a Larry Cohen movie. You know, you don’t have discussions about movies when you’re a New Yorker. You have arguments. He once told me, he says, if I wanted to know what you thought, I would tell you what to think. And and it wasn’t a shock to me because I that mindset was know part of my own DNA. So I get it.

Matt: Yeah sure, that’s a director’s, you know. What is it like when they would ask Hitchcock if something didn’t make sense? Well, why are you doing this? And he would be like, the audience is going there because I’m taking them there.

Steve: Right.

Matt: You know and that’s that was Larry. And yeah, he, his movies would certainly reflect whatever his thoughts on any given topic were. And I think that’s that’s how he would come into genre sideways from a different angle than most people would. He’d kind of attack genre, usually sort of straight on. He’s more like, well, you know, New York City politics are screwed up. So what if there was a giant, you know, lizard on the. You know, the way he would work these things in or, you know.

Steve: Larry wanted to have asses in the seats.

Eric: Yeah.

Steve: And Larry turned to genre after Bone, which is a great film. Had it been a success, we might have had a whole different Larry Cohen filmography. But it wasn’t. And Larry somehow realized that he can do the kind of work he wanted to do through the camouflage of genre, you know, his social criticism. You know, he can take on a subject that he wants to take on. I remember him saying to me or to us that he said sometimes a script would start with an idea for a scene and not like the opening teaser or something like that. It would be maybe a scene in the middle of the picture might be, you know, having a moral argument about something.

Matt: Right.

Steve: You know, a lawyer is arguing with a cop or whatever it is. And somehow he had the ability to just take a nugget and expand it into a tapestry that was a film script. I just don’t know how the hell he did it. But he did. And, you know, Landis, John Landis says in the movie that – or was it Dante who said that he was an idea machine?

Matt: Yeah Dante said it.

Steve: And and he was a machine. Landis said he was very fertile. That’s what Landis said. And both were correct. I think that’s what made him kind of a unique creative voice is just the way he thought about story.

Eric: Well, even like It’s Alive? I heard him say he saw one of his kids I guess in a crib. It’s like if the kid could get out of there, he’d kill us all. And he’s like, that’s my next film. You know, just by looking at his baby and out of that comes one of the great horror films of that decade.

Matt: It’s iconic. Iconic creature, iconic idea.

Steve: I always felt that the form followed the idea that he never tried to crowbar the idea to the form of filmmaking. He just he had the idea. He improvised all the time. And so.

Eric: Yeah did he ever do storyboards?

Steve: Oh no, no. Bite your tongue.

Matt: I don’t, I don’t know if in the doc, but you know, producer Paul Kurta, who made a number of movies with him and, you know, there’s probably some embellishment here, but not much. He doesn’t think there was like a call sheet on Larry Cohen movies. And Larry knew it, too, which is why he knew at a certain budget level he wouldn’t be directing. Because once you cross a certain budget level, the studio obviously is not going to put up with. We don’t know where we’re shooting today. That’s not how they operate.

Steve: He also he was the producer and he wrote the checks. And so he just controlled everything. And for Larry, you know, call sheet was meet me at Grant’s Tomb at seven o’clock at night.

Matt: Yeah. And that’s what we’re doing. I think the fact that he worked in the industry, in television for, you know, quite a good while before he even started directing the movies. It’s like a two headed beast. He knew the ones he produced and directed were completely under his control. They could be improv’ed. They can go the way his desire wanted them to go. And then at the same time, he can write, you know, guilty as sin for Michael Eisner and would go through the rigmarole of shaping the script. Because I would see this. We did a script reading that’s in the documentary where some people read one of his scripts and you could sort of tell within two pages, oh, this one is a really polished one, that he had rewrite, rewrite. But it also, though, wasn’t as bonkers as, you know, the Larco script, which was always just sort of a rough draft and they would just kind of use it as a springboard.

Steve: Well, one of the drafts was the shoot. And then the final draft, of course, was the edit. You know, when Larry was at his best, he had the outrageousness of the ideas, but he was always wired into who people are. I mean, Q the wing serpent is is as good as it is because of Moriarity and without Moriarty’s character. That movie isn’t that movie. So Larry had the ideas, but they were always grounded because Larry, you know, Larry liked actors and he liked performers and stuff.

Eric: And they liked him.

Matt: Yeah. They remember coming to play. I mean that that was kind of the main thing was, Man, those were fun days. You know, I really got to flex my, my muscles.

Eric: It’s like being at camp. It’s like being at camp or acting school.

Matt: Right yeah. Yeah, right. That’s exactly what Eric Roberts said.

Steve: Eric Roberts said that very thing, yeah, about being at camp.

Eric: Seems like actors who worked with Larry Cohen. There was like true love there. I mean, it it feels like this was so much about like a family that he created. A repertory of actors and performers.

Matt: Yeah he did and the movies he directed he really kind of worked with the same cinematographers, same editor, same, you know, close knit group.

Eric: And not afraid to work with actors who were a little, quote unquote, past their prime. And it’s like, well, they they say in the documentary have an Oscar, but the phone’s not ringing.

Steve: Well, they were maybe past their prime in terms of younger executives casting them in movies, but they were immortals in Larry’s mind because Larry was an enormous film fan. It was a chance to work with, you know, some of his heroes. It was a treat for Larry. But also, Larry was the producer and he knew that they were good. Somebody once told me who worked for Roger said that Roger is really a producer first and a director second. Roger, the producer, always hired Roger as director because he was the cheapest guy in town and the fastest he could control them. And, Larry, you know, all of these guys who work in low budget knew about speed and efficiency.

Matt: I was just having flashbacks of, you know, us taking 30 minutes to set up our, you know, shot for the interview. And he’s like, I could have done a movie by now. What are you doing? You know, and we loved.

Steve: What’s taking so long?

Matt: We loved every minute of it.

Eric: Oh I’m sure.

Steve: Part of why Larry always wanted to hire good actors is he knew that he probably could get them to do what they could do in one take and move. And then he also worked with creative actors who could give him more than he would put on the page. I mean, Moriarity. I mean, he worked with Moriarity five times. And Moriarty loved working Larry’s way. You know, having the ability to sort of flex his muscles and play.

Eric: Yeah. I mean, Michael Moriarty, like what he adds to those films is like he takes a role that on paper might be just the cop, but find something more something interesting. You know, and I love it. That section of the documentary about his hairpiece and the argument of whether or not Larry Cohen bought him hairpieces I think is one of the comedic highlights of a very funny documentary.

Steve: Well, you know, we we had that, Larry, Fred Williamson, he said he said thing. And then I noticed I had the material with Moriarity to do one of those. And then the back third of the movie, we had yet another one. So it was a motif that just kind of presented itself. You know, when you cut a documentary, you have, if you’re lucky, a ton of stuff to work with. And just with Larry alone, we had a ton. I don’t know, Matt, what did we have? Between 15 and 20 hours or so?

Matt: At least.

Eric: Just pure interviews of him?

Steve: Well, part of it was interviews than I had. And I did about three or four hours of b-roll at a convention where I just followed him around with a camera for the weekend.

Matt: But, you know, we went back after our first three days of full interviews. We were back at that house like five additional times, doing just more.

Steve: It was great to have a subject like Larry who would always say, Come on over to the house, you know, whatever you need.

Matt: You’re always going to get something too, because, you know, he’s he’s just such a encyclopedia of stories and film history. It’s like just when you think you’ve got him on as many subjects as you, you know, figure there is, there’s stuff that comes up in interview number eight. You’re like, wow. You know, why weren’t we talking about this originally, you know?

Steve: Yeah. I mean.

Matt: It’s that kind of thing.

Steve: For as many stories as we got. And then as many stories as we’ve heard, Larry took a bunch of stories with him to the great movie theater beyond, you know. But I think we were pretty good in getting a lot of it.

Matt: We miss him a lot. And it’s part of because he – I think it was Chicago. We were at a festival in Chicago and we were just at a coffee place. And Bobby Darin came over the – Mack the Knife was playing. And I was like, if I ask Larry Cohen about Bobby Darin just off the cuff, ninety nine percent, I’m gonna get an amazing story. So you give it a shot, you go, Hey Larry, Mack the Knife, you know, did you know Bobby Darin? Know him? We were friends, you know. And you go off on this wonderful. But it wasn’t it wasn’t an a showman. Like, he wasn’t bragging. He loves entertainment and he loves old movies and he loves people. And it’s it’s he greatly admired these performers, whether they were movie stars or singers. He was excited that he got to intersect with them in some way. He was a fan.

Eric: And I’m sure for them, you know, like he talked about how in the 80s, 90s, how the model of Hollywood changed and suddenly you had more guys with MBAs and JDs making creative decisions.

Matt: He made an interesting comment in a conversation. It wasn’t in the doc. It was just something he said. And it was about, you know, writing for television. And they were talking about the writers room. And he just sort of was like, I don’t. Like there was no writer’s room. I wrote Branded, you know, I wrote, you know, there was no. What are you talking about, writers room?

Steve: Well, and those were the shows he controlled. I mean when he did, he did a show called Blue Light, which was a World War II espionage show with Robert Goulet, of all people. And I think he wrote every single episode and he used to dictate the scripts. He dictated the scripts to the secretaries and wore them out. They had to be constantly replaced because he was just a, my nickname for him has always been the Energizer Bunny. You know, Larry, the Larry we met was not young, but still the energy was there. And I can only imagine what he was like when he was really young. The other thing was when he pitched shows that he wasn’t running, I’m sure Larry could just extemporaneously just throw a story together and they would say, yeah, okay, that sounds fine. And he would go write it. Now, yeah. What was it? He made some reference where he’s talking about, oh, you go into a room now and there are all these legal pads and they’re writing things down and and and he’s going, who are they? And why are they entitled to an opinion? He just didn’t want to deal with people. I mean, he always said he wanted to do it himself. He didn’t want anybody to tell him what to do. And Larry is, I’m surprised I didn’t think of this early, but Larry’s one of the very few people who dictated his own career for the better part of 40-some-odd years. His career was on his terms. And as Larry would often say to us, get paid. You know, he wrote a lot of scripts that weren’t produced and he got paid. And so he was able to sort of have it both ways. And he’s very fortunate because almost no one can say that they’ve had it both ways.

Matt: It’s like he’s got this unworldly combination of an independent producer’s mindset and ability married with the fact that he’s a really good screenwriter. That’s the thing is like, you know, hey, I can’t get a movie off the ground. I can always write. I can always pitch. I can always. And he had the ideas to back it up. His ideas were were sellable. They were commercial.

Eric: And he could write himself out of a corner.

Matt: Yep.

Eric: You know the section about Betty Davis, when she quit the picture, he was like OK, well.

Matt: Well I think he liked that. I think he was, I think on the set, certainly the movies he produced, right? He was constantly writing. He was always writing himself out of corners.

Steve: Oh sure.

Matt: Because stuff was just always happening.

Steve: Larry has this, I don’t know if this is a New York thing or not, but I’m going to I’m going to say that it is. Larry willed things to happen. You know, New Yorkers don’t accept what they don’t want to accept. OK, Betty Davis is leaving the picture? Fine. I’ll solve that problem. And he was also able to figure out a way to convince the money people that it was a way to solve the problem. Larry never was in a corner. You know, when he was running around New York City and, you know, without permits and stuff like that, he always figured out a way because he would not accept anything else. People don’t do that now. Even, you know, if you’re making a 200 thousand dollar movie today, God, it’s life and death and everybody worries about everything. And Larry’s whole attitude was, you know, screw it. I’m going to do what I want to do and I’m going to solve my problem because he figured that somehow he was going to make it work in the editing room. You know, as a young, I know everything about movie making fan. You know, I would say oh well his movies aren’t really terribly well made, you know, yet I always remembered them. And it’s sort of the imperfection of his pictures, made them edgy and made them Larry Cohen movies.

Matt: Yeah distinctly his pictures.

Eric: His thumbprint.

Steve: So now all these, all these years later, you know, I realize that it’s all part and parcel of what a Larry Cohen movie is. The first card at the end of all of his Larco movies it says A Larry Cohen film. And that credit is earned. It’s all through him. It’s all through his filters.

Matt: And we tried to take because that energy is unique and that kind of leaked into the doc, too. I remember the conversation, I don’t know if Steve does, but we had early conversations when we were doing this. As to, you know, traditionally traditional doc, you, even though you’re doing the interview over the course of months or maybe even years, you’re replicating your backgrounds and the clothing is the same. And we just kind of thought, well, if Larry was making a documentary would, because it kind of came up. We were moving locations and we’re like, well do we redress. And it was like, no, because he, the energy of it takes you through his pictures and.

Steve: There’s a natural unforced quality, everything. And it’s spontaneous. Listen, there is no crazier movie in his canon than Hell Up in Harlem.

Matt: Yeah.

Steve: Hell Up in Harlem was the, we got to have a sequel fast, and Larry would say no problem. And he literally rushed into it with. I don’t even know if he had anything close to a script. He knew stuff he needed to get and he was shooting it concurrently with It’s Alive. He was shooting It’s Alive. And by the way, he’s working seven days a week. So he’s doing It’s Alive Monday through Friday in California. And then he’s going to New York.

Matt: On the weekend.

Steve: And grabbing stuff for Hell Up in Harlem. What did he tell us? Like, the editor didn’t know what movie he was cutting.

Matt: Oh, yeah.

Steve: At some point he was like, what? Which movie? Which one is this?

Eric: Was that the one where they were in the airport?

Matt: Yeah.

Eric: They’re on the baggage claim and they’re fighting on that. There’s a gun. They go up into the belly of the beast, climbing up to where the bags get put on the conveyer belt. Like that isn’t, and the idea where he had no permits for that.

Steve: Not at all.

Eric: That is miraculous. How did no one ever get shot making his movies?

Steve: That’s that’s a really good question, actually.

Matt: He did say at one point, a lot of it is just the bravado of doing it. Like sometimes people back in the day wouldn’t question you because they figured, well, you had to have gotten permission. There’s no, like it must have already happened.

Steve: He said when he was shooting on the streets of New York and shooting in the 70s was very difficult. I don’t think they had the mayor’s office at that time. So it was a lot harder to get away with shooting in New York. And whenever he would see a cop drive by, what Larry would do is he would look at them, smile and wave. And the cops figure, I guess they must be kosher. So they would drive on and Larry would get his shot and then probably hop in a cab with his cast and crew and get out of there.

Eric: You know, obviously this is a film institution and so on one hand, it’s like the bravado and the chutzpah. It’s like, ah you got to love him. And on the other hand, for me, as an educator who works with these students. I’m like guys, this is the kind of stuff that can get you arrested. This is the kind of stuff that can create so much trouble and yet, Larry Cohen found a way.

Steve: Well, he also did it 40-some-odd years ago which helps. I mean, we live in, we live in a different world. But still, the lesson that you learn from Larry, I mean, speaking to filmmakers is, believe in what you’re doing. Make sure you get it. Be brave. Be bold. Don’t be crazy. But Larry was crazy. I mean some of the stuff that he did was just legitimately crazy.

Matt: And it was also like everything was how can it help me in the movie? So if waving to the cop didn’t work, then option B was, does the cop want to be in the movie?

Steve: That’s true.

Matt: They’d do that a lot. You know, hey, will you help us out? Would you like to be? Or you know, one of my stories that I love. I think it was on special effects. At the end of the day, they needed a police car to arrive at the location as part of the scene and they just didn’t have the budget for it or they didn’t have it set up. So I think it’s one of those instances, it’s got to be a first, where he called the police on his own production so that he could shoot the police arriving.

Steve: Larry was very clever, in fact, on that scene and special effects, one of the things we had to do was we had to tear a lot of scenes apart for the clips and using clips to illustrate moments in the picture. And I got the impression that once the cops showed up to answer the call and they said, oh, there’s no real problem or anything like that, I actually think a couple of the cops performed, in that scene.

Matt: Oh no he said he did. He said they did. Yeah.

Steve: So he actually.

Matt: So he did both.

Steve: He got the cops there on a, on a false pretense and then said, hey you know you’re here. Do you mind just sort of taking your guns out and pointing them? And you look at the cops and if you’re from New York, you go, those are real New York City cops.

Matt: Yeah.

Steve: You know, Larry was resourceful.

Matt: And he enjoyed it. That stimulated the writer in him, too. So he would arrive at a location even if it wasn’t the location he had originally planned, and he would just rewrite all the dialog for that scene. He was just open to any kind of possibility. If the actor turned out to be a musician, like Moriarty did, then it’s like, you know what, we’re not doing this office scene. It’s gonna be at a bar now and now the whole character’s changing. If it could be better or could be changed or it could work, he would he would do it.

Steve: Well it was still his choice.

Matt: Yeah, it was up to him. Sure.

Steve: Larry’s confidence was just innate. I mean, it was it was who he was. Probably never had an unconfident moment in his life, certainly on a set. And so he was able to improvise. And being able to do that is kind of a gift. But it’s also a learned craft, skill, whatever you want to call it. And if you want to be a filmmaker, you have to be able to say, you know, Larry could come up with a solution immediately, but you might have to take a couple of deep breaths and think about something for a couple minutes and say, OK, why don’t we do this? And Larry was always totally available. And that’s a gift. People don’t always think that good on their feet, especially if they’re surrounded by big crews. Now, when he made some of these movies, especially special effects and perfect strangers, those were Larry’s two New York underground movies.

Eric: So it was like a skeleton crew.

Steve: Yeah. I mean, if he had more like.

Matt: Or like non-union, really small.

Steve: Totally nonunion, if they had 10 people on that crew, that would be a lot. In fact, he wasn’t even using SAG actors at the time. It’s interesting, I think special effects, given the lack of resources that movie has. It’s actually in many ways, I think one of his best pictures. I mean, it’s actually more designed than his movies would tend to be.

Eric: Like you brought up after hours. And I feel like there’s kind of like a stylistic sort of connection between those two films.

Matt: There are definitely, Steve’s very right, like if Larry actually does have the time in his schedule and the location is solid or he has a little bit more money, which was not the case in special effects, and a great DP. Glickman really shot that picture.

Steve: And creativity doesn’t cost money. The use of red in that movie. There was a color scheme and temperature that we don’t usually see in Larry’s pictures.

Eric: More stylized.

Steve: And yet, I mean, that movie cost I mean, nothing even on the terms of the budgets of the day. And Larry, listen, Larry wrote, produced, and directed it so Larry got paid. Larry always wanted to be paid. Larry was a capitalist. He was as an artist, but he was a capitalist.

Matt: And that’s something, I think that his television work taught him that when he, instead of starting immediately as an independent filmmaker, he had a lot of industry experience before he started.

Eric: I think that’s key, yeah.

Matt: So he was like, oh, I’m getting myself. I’m paying. You know, if he got a budget from AIP or, whatever it was, Larry wasn’t skimping on his script fee and he wasn’t skimping on his director’s fee. He’d skimp on the movie as long as he provided what the producers or the people paying for the movie wanted.

Eric: He didn’t put his own money in?

Steve: It was one of those, it was one of those interesting situations where he was spending money like it was coming out of his own pocket. And in point of fact it was. Because the extra 50 dollars he might spend on something is fifty dollars that is not going to go to him. But Larry was also fortunate, you know that luck and timing thing is he made a good living pretty much out of the gate. After a somewhat short period of time in the 60s, he was able to sort of know that he wasn’t writing for money to survive, which is what a lot of writers have to go through. He was writing to make a living.

Eric: So in terms of talking about how this documentary even started, I was surprised that it sounds like you didn’t necessarily. You knew his work really well, but it sounds like you didn’t necessarily have a personal connection with him.

Steve: Not at all.

Eric: When you started this. That that surprised the heck out of me.

Steve: Well, I was looking at his IMDb page one day and I knew all his feature credits. I knew a lot of his television. But what surprised me was all the stuff I didn’t know that there was a much bigger Larry Cohen portfolio of credits, produced credits, than I even knew. And I was thinking about trying to do a feature. And I had worked for Roger. And Roger had his own documentary, Corman’s World. And I said, I don’t know, maybe there’s something here. But I didn’t know, Larry. And I had originally thought about doing it through crowdfunding. But you can’t start a crowdfunding type of thing unless you have a subject who says, yeah, okay, I knew somebody who I think knew Laurene Landen and Laurene gave this person that I knew Larry’s phone number so.

Eric: Oh you didn’t even go through his representation, just through personal connection?

Steve: What representation? You know, I don’t think, I don’t think at that point he had any representation and I had to sort of gird my loins and get up the courage. I mean, I’ve talked to a lot of celebrities. I’ve interviewed a lot of celebrities. But still, you’re calling a guy up and said, would you let me make a movie about you? And the phone rings twice and Larry answers. I mean, I knew Larry’s voice from commentary tracks and interviews. And I said, hi, I am who I am. I want to do what I want to do. He says, come on over to the house. And I went over to the famous house and had deja vu all over again.

Eric: You recognized it immediately?

Steve: Yeah. No, it was, it was, it was kind of weird actually.

Eric: It’s in Bone. It’s in Black Caesar.

Steve: It’s in everything.

Matt: It’s in everything.

Steve: So he answered the door. You know, he said, You want a cup of coffee? I said, yes. We talked about it. He said he’d be very flattered if you can get it financed. Great. And then. OK. So Larry was on board. And then, you know, my my Kickstarter thing was a huge flop. So I had met Matt socially at Comic-Con and our friend says, hey, Matt, this is my friend Steve Mitchell. And and Matt goes, Steve Mitchell? Are you the Steve Mitchell wrote Chopping Mall? And I said, yes. And then he goes. I’m a huge fan of Chopping Mall.

Eric: Match made in heaven right there.

Matt: You just got to say shopping mall and I’m there.

Steve [00:28:45] Yeah so that was very flattering. And and we became friends socially. And I found out very quickly that Matt and I had cut from similar cloth. We’re both movie junkies. I’m a big film music fan and his label La La Land has put out some great, great scores, beautifully produced. So for, I don’t know, it was months before I even had the idea of of calling Matt and and suggesting this as a project, because Matt had said to me months earlier that he was thinking about doing other stuff, you know, trying to expand the La La Land empire.

Matt: You know, and true to being pragmatic it was like, you know, because my business partner, M.V. Gerhard and I were like, well, we’ve been doing the soundtracks and we love doing that. We’re going to continue doing that. But it’ll be, maybe entertain some other ideas. And it was always like, well, we don’t really have any development money, though, so what can we really do? And so, you know, I always kind of had well, we want to do stuff, but, you know, I don’t know what we can do, kind of thing. So Steve had to do a little convincing.

Steve: Well, I didn’t have to do a lot, though. You know, you said.

Matt: No I’m happy to have lunch with him.

Steve: Yeah. Well, that’s exactly it, you know.

Eric: So much convincing.

Steve: He said I don’t, I don’t know if. I don’t know if now’s the time, but let’s have lunch. So you go have lunch and I literally finish what I’m eating. And I said, all right, here’s my idea. I want to do a documentary about Larry Cohe- before the N got finished he says, I’m already interested. And then we talked some more about it. And he said, I don’t know how we’re gonna do it, but we’re gonna do it. And we began this this piecemeal.

Matt: There were two things. Yeah.

Steve: You know, raising of the money.

Matt: There were two things that sort of galvanized it. One was just timing and luck. I’d been watching a lot of clip docs is what they call them, like Corman’s World where it’s, you know, interviews and movie clips. And I had noted that the production companies making these movies were not big companies with deep pockets by any stretch of the imagination. I said ope, something’s changed in documentary filmmaking that this is able to be done. So that opened up how fair use now is incorporated into E&O insurance and how there’s an actual procedure you can go through to get these things accomplished without, you know, having to pay millions of dollars to make your movie.

Steve: And let me just interject. I actually did some pricing on the cost of clips and everything like that. It was this incredibly Machiavellian process where you would buy domestic clips for a year or two or you would buy it for X amount of years and then in perpetuity and worldwide, and intergalactic and interdimensional.

Matt: So the good news is there and already about a decade’s worth of fair use documentaries. So we knew that there was a tried and true procedure. And you have to work with a very specific kind of legal team. We worked with Donelson and Caliph, who were sort of the the grandfathers, the top dog of this type of fair use.

Steve: And kind of at the vanguard of all of this stuff so, so we knew we were in good hands.

Eric: And that took your budget from an astronomical amount to amount that was something produceable.

Matt: Well something that was, that was manageable. And then the other, the other factor, was, was our producing partner, Dan McKeon. Dan and I worked as a team to raise the budget, and we did it a number of different ways. But a documentary was ideal because we could raise some and then shoot some and then raise some more and shoot some more. And we were blessed that people wanted to come out to talk about Larry Cohen. So the more that they did, every time we go back to either other investors or partners, you know, by the time we got to Martin Scorsese saying he would be in the picture. It became a lot easier to get the rest of what we needed to do.

Steve: You know, you have an idea. An idea is just an idea. But all of a sudden you’re starting to say, yeah, we have an hour with this guy, an hour with that guy. People are going, oh, this is real now. We had a big name cast. I mean.

Matt: We did.

Eric: Fabulous casting.

Steve: And that helps.

Eric: J.J. Abrams right up front, by the way, is such a smart.

Matt: Well, you know what, can I can I tell the truth on that?

Steve: Please, tell the truth.

Matt: Larry Cohen strikes again. We originally were going to put that as kind of like the Marvel movies do as the end credits start. And then they stop and surprise. It’s J.J. Abrams.

Steve: Larry was like, what are you talking about? That goes in front before anything else. He’s a big name. You don’t. People are leaving the theater. People are leaving the theater. They see your name at the end and they are going, as you know.

Matt: So Steve goes off and does his edit and comes back and we’re like son of a bitch. Yeah, he’s he’s completely right.

Steve: No, he was totally right.

Eric: And JJ Abrams holding up the doll from It’s Alive. I mean, it’s such a, you know, that opening speech is your movie and the heart of the movie in a can right there.

Steve: You know, and it’s interesting what you’re saying is by doing that, it was a tone setter.

Matt: Yeah.

Steve: Larry’s attitude was so famous. He’s, everybody knows who he is. Why are you saving him for the end? I mean, and and when I’m getting, like, out of control here, that was Larry. Larry wasn’t like, you know, you shouldn’t save him for the end. No he would get, you know, he was waving the arms and flailing and yelling at us with the implication that we’re complete idiots. But that was Larry and you know, dammit it was right, you know.

Eric: Well, and I think to one thing that’s interesting is oftentimes a documentary you have an antagonist or antagonistic forces. And there’s some in this in terms of, you know, he’s working against an establishment. But really, in the end of day, there’s not. This is the story of a guy who triumphed repeatedly. And yet it feels like a full story. Like it doesn’t have a traditional narrative on that end and yet I very much feel like I’m taken on the journey with him.

Matt: Steve really presented Larry as really Larry is. Larry, you know, has his grumpy moments or his temper moments like any creative force has. But by and large, Larry’s heart is really big. He was never mean. He can be difficult sometimes, but he’s got a big heart. He truly likes people. He’s interested in them. And he’s got that spirit of the stand up comedian that he always originally wanted to be. And Steve put that guy front and center and, you know, he’s had some tragedy in his life. He’s had dark periods in his life. But that’s not really what Larry Cohen’s about. Larry Cohen is about his work and he loves movies. That’s the guy.

Eric: He’s the kid who would try to stay in the theater all day.

Matt: That’s the guy.

Steve: And he was that kid, actually. He would stay in the theater all day. The thing about, Larry, it’s it’s very interesting is I think other than film and television and creativity, I think Larry only cares about one other thing, and that’s politics. I think, Larry, you know, Larry doesn’t play golf. Larry doesn’t have a lot of, you know, bizarre hobbies. He doesn’t go skydiving. He loves to travel that much. I know. But the thing. Larry is very focused on his work and creativity and always coming up with something new. Again, a form follows content. And it was pretty obvious to us right away. In the larger sense, where we would go with the material, it was how we got there, which was the process, and we were lucky we didn’t have a deadline. That’s the other thing that we had going for us. We had no deadline on this movie. And so the whole attitude was, let’s get it right. Let’s not get it done in a hurry. Let’s get it right, because we’re making a first impression.

Matt: Fast, cheap. Good. Pick two.

Eric: Yes. You only get two and three.

Steve: Yeah, exactly.

Eric: Well, as we’re about to wrap up here, I obviously want to make sure we talk about you guys and what you have in the pipeline now and what you’re going to be working on next now that you have conquered the travails of a documentary. Are more documentaries coming? Like what’s next for La La Land Records or is it La La Land Entertainment? Like do you have.

Matt: We have sort of a. It’s La La Land Entertainment is is sort of like the umbrella. But really it’s the the record company that’s the driving engine of the whole enterprise. And that’s M.V. Gerhard and myself. But it’s really M.V. who’s helped craft a 17 year flow of soundtrack releases that have kept the lights on. We’d love to continue with things like this. I’d love to produce another documentary with Steve. It’s a steep learning curve. The learning curve continues because great. You made a movie. Now what? You’ve got to sell the movie. Right. You know, and so that is an ongoing process. We’re happy that it’s widely available. Now, people can see it either VOD, through iTunes or Amazon, or if they’re on Shudder, they can watch it on Shudder or they can buy our Blu ray, which is from La La Land Records, or you can get it on Amazon as well. And Steve put together really great extras for the Blu ray. There’s almost like, you know,.

Steve: About an hour and twenty. There’s like an hour, 20 minutes. About 45 or 50 minutes with the king. And then a bunch of other stuff with his subjects. and and there were still plenty of things that I didn’t use. I mean, I was very fortunate. I had a lot of good stuff, you know. What’s next? Well, we’re starting all over again. I’ve got about five or six different ideas. I got one specifically that we’re kind of focusing on now. But there are a couple of others. They’re all going to be mostly film related because in addition to, you know, doing this stuff, I do a lot of commentary tracks on blu rays and stuff like that. So I’m like, you know, Larry and I are very kindred spirits. I mean, you know, I’m I’m totally into film and film history. And so any other documentaries I would do would be mostly on that. Not entirely, but mostly. Again, he’s always sort of in our in our minds and our hearts and our conversations, you know. And look, he’s one of those most unforgettable characters. And he was a character.

Eric: And I think King Cohen is this beautiful love letter to him and really everything he represented, everything he fought for and really also to all the people he fought for. He fought for his material. He fought for his art.

Matt: And the other thing, too, is like the canon just speaks for itself. So, our documentary aside, people are talking about Black Caesar and It’s Alive and The Stuff. And these movies are 40, going on 50 years old in some cases. That’s when you know there’s a legacy there because there’s plenty of wonderful A-list great movies or movies that come out at the time. And they’re really well-received and people are talking about them. But are people talking about them decades later? So there’s something there.

Steve: To augment that. I think Larry always wanted to be Hitchcock or Michael Curtiz. I think he wanted to be a mainstream old school Hollywood director. And I don’t know sometimes if he was as proud about what he had done as he might publicly say. But he said to me, he says, you know, I’m glad I did these genre movies because they’re still talking about them, you know, an A-list movie comes out one weekend and, you know, it’s forgotten about by Monday. So I think even Larry kind of came to terms with how he felt about his own career. Larry, you did okay. What an, what an incredible legacy you’ve left behind. What a creative force he was on the planet, the likes of which, of course, will never see again.

Eric: His footprint was large.

Steve: Oh, yeah, very much so. And I think if you’re looking for a primer to get into the world of him, start with King Cohen and work your way outward from there.

Matt: That’s the thing, too, is that that’s something the project, you know, really highlighted for me. Like, there’s people that love the invaders. There’s people that love branded, who never watched the horror stuff. But are fans of Larry, because of that.

Eric: You could mention Columbo.

Matt: Well, that’s the thing, too, is when Larry passed and we were kind of handling some of the tweets and the social media of that whole thing. You know, we were getting messages from, oh, it’s the Colombo fan club and we’re so sorry to hear. So it’s like at the one hand you got you know, I can’t believe the stuff is the greatest movie ever made. Then there’s the Colombo fan club or people that like branded or the invaders or. And then there were thriller fans. You know, there were people that just love, you know, phone booth.

Eric: And then there’s you guys who loved it all.

Matt: Yeah. I was like Steve was, I was surprised at the breadth and the width of. There’s very, very few of those guys left.

Eric: Well, and we lost a great one. So when we’re tired about doing a, you know, something in tribute to him, one thing I’ll say is as bittersweet as it is, as wistful it is, there’s so much joy still in his work, exploring his stories, you know, across the realm from the early days of TV to Joel Schumacher’s phone booth. You know, we were talking like, you really can’t get more diverse than that. And he was such a trailblazer. And I think you guys have really done that, that remarkable thing with your documentary of getting it all in there. And so hopefully this helps get you some more eyeballs, but really also gets Larry Cohen’s work, his legacy is all these things he did. And you only added to his legacy with King Cohen. So guys, thank you so much. And thank you for coming back, by the way.

Steve: Oh, our pleasure.

Matt: Any time.

Eric: Guys, thank you so much.

Matt: Oh my pleasure. This was fun.

Eric: And thanks to all of you for listening. You want to check out some of our other Q&As you can go to our YouTube channel. That’s YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Our creative director is David Andrew Nelson, who also produced this episode with Kristian Heydon and myself. Executive produced by Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler, with a special thanks going out to our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at NYFA.edu. You can subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you may listen. I’ll see you next time.

 

Tova Laiter: Hi and welcome to the backlot. I’m Tova Laiter, moderator and director of the New York Film Academy guest lecture series. In this episode, we will take an in-depth look at one of my great guests and hear about his experience in the entertainment industry. And now, Eric Conner, we’ll take you through the highlights of this Q&A.

Eric Conner: Hi, I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you a man who was one of Hollywood’s best known child actors before graduating to George Lucas’s American Graffiti and the sitcom Happy Days. But his acting is only a small portion of a career that’s included over 50 credits as a director and 100 as a producer. Yes, we’re talking about the Ron Howard. His directing credits alone reads like a one man Netflix. Need a comedy? Try parenthood or splash. Drama? How about A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon? Fantasy? Willow. There’s Backdraft and Rush for action and Cocoon if you want emotional sci fi mixed with breakdancing senior citizens. Which all makes a little more sense when you learn he had an eye on directing from the time he was a kid.

Ron Howard: Well, my dad never directed film, but he directed a lot of theater here in L.A. and he even used to run an improv group. And so as a little kid, my earliest memories are actually watching my dad direct summer stock. And then he also, you know, acted and continues to act. So I think I was always aware that there was this other job. But really on The Andy Griffith Show, so many of the directors that we had had been actors and they would start sort of saying to me, I bet you’re going to mind being a director someday. And I didn’t really take that to heart, but I did find it fascinating to understand what everybody else was doing. And I loved it all. You know, it was a The Andy Griffith Show on the culture around the show was very hardworking and yet playful. And there was this sort of energy which was very creative and also collaborative. So actors were allowed to participate. Even I was as a kid, you know, allowed to speak up in rehearsals and things like that. The writers were very present. So you could see what that process was all about. There were a lot of laughs, but there was also this feeling that, you know, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do every joke, every moment, every scene. And Andy was just leading by example. Made it matter for all. All of those eight seasons. And when it was over, I realized that I’d loved every aspect of what I was seeing and the people that I was kind of growing up with and that the director was the person who basically got to play with everybody. And the job started to look good to me, really, when I fell in love with movies. As a fan, which didn’t really happen until, oh, I don’t know, probably like The Graduate, Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. There was this tremendous couple of years there. In the heat of the night. Wild Bunch, Bonnie and Clyde. And it was just my early, early adolescence. And it just. The Professionals was a fantastic movie, Dirty Dozen, just just blew me away. And I began to really read about directors and understand that filmmaking could transport audiences. And I never really thought about it. I mean, I as a kid growing up, I don’t even really think about what it meant to be an audience member. You know, I mean, the only thing I watched other than The Andy Griffith Show was like Felix the Cat cartoons early in the morning.

Eric Conner: By the time American Graffiti rolled around, Ron Howard had already appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows. But that didn’t make getting the role of a lifetime any easier.

Ron Howard: The casting director was a guy named Fred Roos, who was Frances Copel is coproducer, a great guy, and he had been the casting director on, among other TV shows, The Andy Griffith Show. So I think he really lobbied for me, but it was a very arduous casting process. Over a period of time. There were like six callbacks. In fact, the first interview was just a quick meeting. And I remember going in and no one knew anything about it. No one had seen a script. And all my agent said was, you know, it’s a musical. And so I went in everybody, you know, sort of between the age of, I don’t know, you know, fifteen and 30 were they were all trying to go in and meet on this project. And I met George Lucas, who I knew a little bit about because I was still in high school, but I’d been accepted to USC Film School and THX 1138, was already lore. And so every people you know in my circle knew George, but I’d never met him. He’s very quiet. He talks a little bit more now than he did then. And I said, George, well, I didn’t say George. I said I said, I think I should disclose the fact that I really can’t sing. And I know I was in The Music Man, but I think they cast me because I couldn’t sing.

Clip [Gary Indiana]

Ron Howard: I don’t know if you need singing, I hear it’s musical. Can’t dance either. And he said, well, it is a musical, but there’s no singing. You don’t have to worry about singing. But the reason later when I asked him about it, was that he had written a screenplay and conceived of the whole thing based on music. And so each of those scenes was written with one of those songs in mind, and most of them were the songs that he was able to get the rights to. And the original title was Rock Radio is The American Graffiti. And so in his mind. It was a musical and the soundtrack was a key character.

Eric Conner: Once you’ve seen the non-singing musical American Graffiti, you simply cannot imagine it without its remarkable soundtrack.

Ron Howard: You know, it hadn’t been done before. I mean, there was a lot of music, a lot of Hank Williams and things like that in Last Picture Show and a few popular tunes in like Summer 42 nostalgic tunes. But the odd thing was that in making the movie in 72, to me this was ancient history. It was just a strange thing. And, you know, the last the postscript explaining how much we’d moved on and what we had moved on to, which was really, you know, a revolution and Vietnam and political upheaval and all those things had so changed the culture that 10 years later this was really beyond, you know, even my sense of really understanding these these tunes were ancient, ancient. And so the oldies radio was not what it is today. And in fact, it surprised everyone the way the soundtrack sold. And everybody just thought it was a movie that was going to play in the drive ins. I mean, it was really was made for $650,000. There were no stars. You know, Fred Roos lobbied for me. We went through this process of six different callbacks over a period of months, improvs, tests. He was very meticulous. He later told me that he cast the cars as meticulously as he cast the actors. Those details really mattered to him.

Eric Conner: As a director on only his second feature, the force was already strong with a young George Lucas and his low budget, do it yourself approach to making American Graffiti was unlike anything Ron Howard had previously experienced.

Ron Howard: It was revelatory to me to be around this movie because I had grown up really within the Hollywood system and it was very much a completely male dominated system. There were a couple of high profile female film editors. There were no executives at that time. Very few female producers and crew members, you know, the women were maybe this script supervisor, maybe wardrobe and hair, and that would really be about it. It was a male dominated, not here on American Graffiti. And there were hippies actually working on movies. And I still came from a world where all everybody looked like they were kind of a sailor or a cowboy or Madison Avenue. And that was the look. But it was his attention to detail. And he, because he didn’t talk to the actors very much. But later, when I got to know him better and we always did have a kinship. He knew I was going to USC, he knew I wanted to be a director. And I one time I was in fact, we were doing the scene sitting there in the booth there at the diner toward the end of the movie. And I said, well, how’s it going? You know, you’d only say much about the scenes except terrific. And he had a pattern. He would do three takes of every angle, and that was it. And he’d say terrific every time and then move on. So you really didn’t have any idea and he, he wasn’t giving any direction, particularly unless something was going horribly wrong. And he his only real rule, he was doing a kind of a documentary style, even known very little of it was hand-held, was that there were no marks. And the whole lighting approach that Haskell Wexler design was revelatory, the low light levels, it was nominated for best cinematography because it was an absolute cutting edge breakthrough approach. He used Super 16. He split the 35 millimeter frame in half, and he wanted the grainy look. He wanted the darkness, that naturalism. And there were no marks. So instead of stepping in and knowing that this was your shot, and now it’s your close up or over the shoulder or whatever, it was always two cameras shooting and you never really knew what lens was working and he wouldn’t tell you. And he just wanted you to do the scene and wherever you would move, one time, Dreyfuss walked over by some lights and the camera operator cut. And George, the only time I ever heard George get upset about anything, he said, you never cut. We’re not cutting. I don’t care. I won’t use that part. And he later told me, he said 28 days schedule. He cast the actors very meticulously. He felt like we owned our characters and he was going to make all of his directorial decisions in the editing room. And unlike a film today, he had a full year to edit the movie before it was released.

Eric Conner: Despite the immense talent behind the scenes and on the screen, the studio still thought they had a bomb on their hands. Fortunately, Lucas and the movie had their own Godfather as protection. Legendary director Francis Ford Coppola.

Ron Howard: Almost every director, I mean. Ninety seven percent of the directors have to leverage their way in. For me, it was acting. And George Lucas had kind of a godfather there in Francis Coppola, a big brother who helped him with THX 1138, helped him with American Graffiti. I mean, here’s how much he helped him. The studio hated this movie. It’s kind of a famous story that the head of the studio at the time really hated it and he went to a preview and he said, you know, you should be ashamed. This isn’t even professional filmmaking because again it was it was gritty. It was low light. It was no. No stars. An unusual narrative framework. And he said, I don’t even know what we’re going to do with this. And Francis, fresh off of The Godfather, is famous. And this is true. I wasn’t there. But I know it’s a true story. He took out his checkbook and he said, I will write you a check for seven hundred fifty thousand dollars right now for this movie. If you don’t believe in it, I’ll buy it because you’re wrong. And he meant it. And they backed away. And they wound up having it, you know, one of the most profitable movies, but more so than ever. You should be making your own stuff and just putting it out there. And the other thing is writing. It’s so important to write. It’s great to be able to go out and stage scenes and make a three minute short or get a funny joke that you can build into a cool little film. That’s all great. But the writing is so important, so valuable, even if you’re never your own screenwriter. And the other thing that I would say, and I say this to every class that I talk to and all my daughter’s friends who are making their way in right now is one spec script is, you know, just join the 189 million people around the planet who have one screenplay. The way you prove something to an agent or someone is, is if you have six screenplays, you know, if they think you’re a writer, then they’re not only interested in your screenplay, but they’re interested in you, your passion and what your voice and talent might be.

Eric Conner: For Ron Howard, American Graffiti was like going to film school before he went to film school. It was a fabulous and surreal experience, one that even he wasn’t quite so sure would turn out right.

Ron Howard: For me, it really was a kind of a coming of age story. I mean, I was suddenly I was in San Francisco, I just graduated from high school. Went up to San Francisco. Our job was to stay up all night, whether we were working or not. You had to stay awake and stay on that pattern. So, you know, you’d wander into San Francisco, you’d get kicked out of the strip clubs if they caught you. Or you’d wander by and watch whatever George was filming. There were no individual dressing rooms or chairs. There was one makeup and wardrobe trailer, and that’s where everybody hung out. It was extremely low budget, you know. I mean, it was like doing a Corman movie. Only we had this great script to work with that we all really believed in. And we believed it was something fresh and original still when it took off the way it did. It surprised everyone and it was astounding. So it was all upside for me, because seeing the way George didn’t pay attention to the actors and paid so much attention to the background, the frame, the texture, seeing how bold Haskell Wexler and everyone was with the look, seeing the way the music was used, seeing the different styles of acting come into play. It was mystifying to me. I didn’t know what they were really getting. I just was trusting the screenplay. But when we wrapped, we all saw like about 10 minutes of cut footage and it was clear that there was just something that really had not been done before. And now, look, you watch the movie and it’s nostalgic and it uses the music. And it’s like a lot of other TV shows and a lot of other movies, but it really was absolutely cutting edge.

Eric Conner: Audiences came to the film in droves, turning this pre-indie indie into one of the biggest box office hit to the year. Its success even gave a second life to a pilot that Mr Howard had assumed was already dead and buried.

Ron Howard: I mean, this was a huge thing for me. And although I had done a television series after The Andy Griffith Show and I’d done a lot of other movies and TV guest shots on TV shows and, you know, films for Disney and things like that, this American Graffiti was fantastic for me in that regard. And in fact, Happy Days didn’t come from American Graffiti. I had done the pilot for Happy Days before American Graffiti. It didn’t sell. But it was I think one of the things that George might have looked at also in thinking about casting me. And then when American Graffiti was such a big hit, then they dusted off this failed Happy Days pilot sort of rewrote it, reinvented it a little bit, invented the Fonzie character a little bit, trying to be like Big John. I mean, originally they were supposed to be more that kind of a character. And then those bastards made me audition again. But I, I got the part, you know, really pissed me off. I mean. But, you know, I never felt that I had a great deal of range as an actor. I mean, I thought I was a good, solid actor. But I really believed by the time I was in my teens that my future in this medium really was behind that camera. And there I could probably go further, take more risks. I somehow intuitively, I just I felt like I was limited.

Eric Conner: Only a few years after American Graffiti, Ron Howard got the chance to direct his own feature film for low budget maestro Roger Corman. Mr. Howard attempted to over-prepare for this big break and he quickly discovered that was actually a problem.

Ron Howard: You know, my first film was we started shooting the day after my twenty third birthday. And I was in it in order to get it made. It was for Roger Corman, Grand Theft Auto. But I was very insecure and the first few movies. I was very, not dictatorial in a nasty way, but the budgets were tight, schedules were tight, and I just sort of told everybody what to do. And I felt like my preparedness was my safety net. And and it was it was kind of my insurance policy against exposing myself to the crew or the actors. But I was not really happy with the performances that I was getting and the work that I was doing. And I just began to loosen up a little bit and listen a little bit more. And I began to develop this point of view that that I wanted to come with a plan. Yes. A well-prepared, well thought out plan. And that if nobody else had a better idea on that day, our plan would succeed. But I wanted to create an environment that would allow for inspiration and stimulate that. And my films improved immediately when I relaxed it. Now, the problem with it is that when you create that it’s still not a democracy, you still have to decide. People accept no a little more readily. If they know you’re ready to say yes, then it’s not a point of principle or ego. It’s just a process and it gets a little bit easier. But nonetheless, you do create a kind of a soundtrack of a lot of people with a lot of opinions, and it sometimes can be a little overwhelming. But if you’ve established that suddenly it’s not so hard to just turn around and say, everybody, shut up. We’re doing it this way. But you sort of don’t have to. It requires a little extra measure of patients, but it yields a great benefit to me. And I also love that creative energy, probably because I did sort of grow up around it. But for me, I mean, I like making movies about families and teens, mostly because I I understand those dynamics. And so the teen spirit means something to me. I enjoy exercising that.

Eric Conner: This former child actor really knows how to make his youthful exuberance for cinema appear on the screen, and that includes how he approaches working with his cast.

Ron Howard: I would say it’s the combination between creativity and maintaining enough of a relaxed state so that you can respond to input, whether that’s direction or whether it’s a change in the scene. You know, that’s coming from one of the other actors or it’s a new line of dialogue so that it’s a kind of a a real deep, interesting, creative understanding of the character. And then there’s sort of this ability to be free, be loose and be creative and be able to respond in a spontaneous way. It’s one of the reasons why I think that improvisational training, whether you think you ever want to be in a comedy ever. It’s so, so valuable. Vince Vaughn, brilliant improvisational actor, but he really is an actor. I mean, you know, we all know him as a big comedy star, but very interesting for me to see that he is alive in every single moment that the camera is rolling. And I don’t care whether it’s a more serious scene or whether it’s a comedic scene or whether he’s on script or improvising dialogue, because that same sort of sense of absolute connection to the moment in a spontaneous way and trusting that makes him alive. Whether he’s doing the script. And you know he often does the script verbatim. It’s not like he’s constantly only improvising, but that’s a remarkable talent and that’s something that I think that you can build the muscle for. I think it’s important to do it.

Eric Conner: Despite his years of experience as a performer, Ron Howard’s been mostly reticent about throwing his hat back into the acting ring. But that might be because of an agreement with his wife.

Ron Howard: Now that my children are all raised, my wife Cheryl is giving me the green light to take acting jobs if I want. Every once in a while, somebody would offer me something and she would say, Oh, really? Between your directing, you wanted to one movie after another. Imagine films. You know I love you, but I never expected the mini mogul thing. Do me two favors. Don’t dabble. If you have three weeks to be in somebodies movie, you know, would you mind hanging with the family? Maybe. And please don’t do MTV. Don’t do videos. Your future career doesn’t depend on you doing videos. And those were only two requests. I thought they were very fair. But a while back to all the kids raised and she said, yeah do whatever you want now. I don’t care. But now nobody cast me so.

Eric Conner: Considering he was an actor, it’s ironic to learn that Mr Howard finds the whole casting process really stressful.

Ron Howard: I love making films. I really do, I continue to. It’s as interesting as ever. Maybe more so in a lot of ways. But the two areas that I dread are the casting and then the promoting. I just find that is embarrassing and you’re being judged and it’s all very uncomfortable when you’re promoting. But the casting, I really lay awake nights agonizing over it and it really does help. I don’t always do it, but it really, really helps to video the auditions or even the meetings, because for me, I’m kind of falling in love with everybody who walks in. I’m rooting for everybody who’s there, you know, and I don’t really have a great perspective. I have a reaction and I don’t discount that. And I keep notes. But it is great to be able to step away from it and just review the tapes. And there are some people like Clint Eastwood. He won’t meet an actor. He only only looks at what their audition offers. And then he carefully builds his cast around that. And he trusts that if they were that good in their audition, they’re gonna be that much better when they’re filming. But I could live with that in our scene would work. And that’s a pretty good fundamental approach. I think you have to be methodical. You can’t just cast your friends. You know, you’ve got to build chemistries. And in meeting them, I think the only thing you want to look for are personalities so that if you think somebody is, you know, can’t listen, that’s why it’s nice to do auditions and actually gives some notes, see if there’s some flexibility there. You know, if you find that they have some personality trait that you think’s gonna be incompatible with other actors or with you, you have to take that pretty seriously. But it’s crucial to be methodical about the casting.

Ron Howard: Though once the tension of casting has passed, Mr Howard greatly appreciates collaborating with his actors. When it came time to rehearse the Oscar winning A Beautiful Mind, this veteran director even sought out advice from his friends in the biz.

Ron Howard: Right before A Beautiful Mind. I’d always done a lot of rehearsal, but I’d always thought about just solving the the logistical problems, the staging so that we wouldn’t get stalled when we were filming. So was creative. But a lot of it was pragmatic. But I started thinking about the complexity of beautiful mind and this rehearsal period that we were gonna have. And I actually I don’t do this all this often, but it was a great day for me. I called on the same day Marty Scorsese, Sidney Lumet and Mike Nichols separately. And I said, when you’re rehearsing, what do you look for? And it was very interesting. They all sort of had different points of view. Lumet was a little more pragmatic, but there was one common thread. Mike Nichols expressed it the most articulately, he said, if you can discuss the scenes and of course, discover any problems in the writing, any snags that the actors have. But there’s another thing that you should be doing, and that is by asking enough questions about the actors and the characters, you need to begin to understand the bridge between the actor and their character so they have their own subconscious connection. But if you can begin to understand it at some key moment, you might be able to say, oh, this is like when you were in the third grade and your dad, you know, thought you were lying and you weren’t, you know, and you can help bridge these moments, these key moments when the actors stall out or when they hit some kind of an emotional wall. And I thought that was incredibly helpful. But it’s it’s really all of them basically said help the actors trust that you understand their characters and their take on the characters. And you’ve been able to also influence that so that there’s clarity between you.

Eric Conner: Ron Howard’s more technically ambitious films require a tremendous amount of collaboration and trust to make them fly in directing Apollo 13. The director used a combination of new school wizardry and old school magic to recreate the awe, wonder, and tension of the almost doomed mission.

Ron Howard: Apollo 13. We used models. It’s one of the last films to use models and the digital technology was available. But it’s such a hardware movie that Rob Legato, the visual effects supervisor there at Digital Domain, really believed in using models and the only digital enhancement really are things like the ice in the launch and some particles around the explosion and and some things like that. And then we were able to shoot master shots inside an airplane called the KC 135 that did these parabolas, which is the way astronauts used to train and they still run certain scientific experiments. You can gain about 20 some seconds of weightlessness. And I found out that they used to bolt the Gemini capsules down and practice opening the hatch for EVA’s. That’s when they leave the capsule for the spacewalks. That’s the way the astronauts would practice opening the hatch and exiting. And when I realized that, yeah, of course, if you bolt set down, it will look solid and move with the aircraft and everything else is floating. And so we did the masters that way. And then we did the close ups in the coverage on a set with the actors on usually on teeter totters or just moving around, but after they’d been weightless. They really knew how to act it and recreate it and it was. So that was fun. When I’m preparing a movie, you know, it depends a little bit on the nature of the film. I didn’t have to invest a whole lot of energy planning the shots on Frost/Nixon. I certainly did. I shortlisted it. I had points of view about each of the interviews. You know, I had ideas about trying to shoot each one in a different way, sort of suggesting a different aspect of that interview, sometimes isolating the actors, the characters from the crew and the camera so that you’d sort of forget that it was a television show other times featuring the cameras. So you’d remember that it was all still showbiz, you know, depending on on each of the scenes. So the visuals are important and I’m always planning, but I it’s usually a gradual thing. I start taking notes in the margins of the script. I start talking to the cinematographer when were out scouting locations, and I create these building blocks. And then when I go to shot list, I then think editorially and I build around key compositions or visual ideas that I know we’re going to want. And then I sort of build whether we can link the two ideas with a single camera move or do we need the coverage? What kind of control am I going to want later in the editing room of the rhythms of the scene? That dictates how much coverage I need to do and those kind of things. But they’re gradual step by step. I divide my time usually between script and actors and logistics.

Eric Conner: Even though Ron Howard gets to work with some remarkable and expensive digital effects in films like Solo and in The Heart of the Sea, he cautions against letting the technology overpower the story.

Ron Howard: You know, look, it all boils down to a story and it always does. And Zemeckis said the smartest thing about five or six years ago is that a digital technology spectacular. He embraces it. He’s on the cutting edge of all of it. But he said now everybody can do everything. So spectacle in and of itself is not going to be commercial and it’s going to all the more put the pressure back on the writers, the actors, the storytellers to try to take people on a journey that’s borne out of character and narrative. What I really like about films, though, is that it’s broadening so much internationally, regionally, in terms of the subject matter that, you know, yes, the big formulaic movies are probably the only thing that the studios feel really safe about investing in. But that doesn’t mean that other movies, other tones aren’t succeeding in their own right and influencing the mainstream in ways that are are meaningful. And I think technology really is the filmmakers friend and is creating a more and more stimulating experience for audiences. But I also have reconciled myself to the fact that it’s not going to always be a big screen experience. You know, you’re going to tell your stories and people are going to find them in the way that’s most convenient, most interesting, most, you know, for them. I’m not a person who believes you should try to force people to not watch the movie on their iPhone. If they want to watch the movie on the iPhone. You know, at least they’re watching your movie and it’s your story. So I’ve reconciled myself to that.

Eric Conner: After two Emmys, two Oscars, 60 years in the biz, and enough credits to fill up most of Hulu. What advice does Ron Howard give to achieve a career with longevity?

Ron Howard: Keep writing and keep shooting. Really? I mean, Charlie Martin Smith, the guy who played Terry the Toad, is a very successful director. He did a movie that Sam Peckinpah directed, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. And Bob Dylan was in it acting in the movie. And Charlie said that Dylan was constantly writing. He told Charlie he tried to write a song every day and he thought of himself first and foremost as a writer. I don’t write every day. In fact, I’m just fooling around with trying to write a screenplay again. And it’s really scary. It’s really hard. But I do try to make notes. I try to keep just dealing with stories, dealing with characters and cause I’m involved in imagine films. So there’s always a lot to read there and a lot to respond to, but it really is just a matter of carrying on. And I do think that if you have a circle of friends and you can call people up and say, hey, read this, I’m stuck. And experiment. Don’t don’t be afraid to write a draft that you think you’re probably gonna throw away. And as far as the shooting goes, keep shooting and keep editing. It’s so important to really get a great sense of your own editorial style and the way you want to shoot for the editing room, because that’s where, as George would say correctly. That’s really where you make the films in the editing room.

Eric Conner: We’ll try to remember that advice when cutting this episode together. We went to think Ron Howard for his wonderful legacy of storytelling, for speaking with our students. And, of course, thanks to all of you for listening.

David Nelson: This episode was based on the Q&A, curated and moderated by Tova Laiter. To watch the full interview or to see our other Q&A’s. Check out our YouTube channel at YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Our creative director is me, David Andrew Nelson, who also produced this episode with Kristian Heydon and Eric Conner. Executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler. To learn more about our programs check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.

NYFA: The opinions expressed in this podcast are those of Peter Rainer and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the New York Film Academy staff, faculty or students.

Eric Conner: Hi and welcome to The Backlot. I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy. Today we actually have someone else in the studio with me, noted film critic Peter Rainer. He is the critic for the Christian Science Monitor. He’s also written for The New Yorker, for L.A. Times and a lot of other publications. He’s a finalist for the Pulitzer and also a teacher and fellow faculty member at New York Film Academy. He’s a native New Yorker and he’s the writer of Rainer On Film, 30 years of film writing in a turbulent and transformative era. This covers decades of his writing career. It’s a book that’s actually available on Amazon and is a terrific book. So, Peter, first off, thank you so much for coming and joining us in the studio.

Peter Rainer: Thanks, Eric.

Eric Conner: So I figure we might as well begin at the beginning. How you started with your love of cinema. If there’s movies when you were a kid that just immediately made you think like this is a career I want.

Peter Rainer: Right. Yeah. I grew up primarily in Westchester County, which is certainly close enough to New York City that I was able to go in all the time and see movies in the many revival houses that no longer exist in New York. But primarily, I saw movies on television growing up, which was an interesting way to get a film education.

Eric Conner: Sure.

Peter Rainer: You know, you didn’t get to see a lot of the so-called classics. At least not the non English ones. There was a show called Million Dollar Movie, which showed the same movie every night for five nights running. And so in that way, I kind of obsessively would rewatch all of these movies and unknowingly learned about acting and script and camera and all of this stuff just by seeing these films over and over again.

Eric Conner: Right. It gives you more of a critical eye.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, you’re sort of a critic.

Eric Conner: You become a bit of an expert.

Peter Rainer: Right. There were ton of newspapers in New York back then, something like 12 daily newspapers. And they all had critics, you know, many of whom are quite good. And so that sort of gave me the idea that, gee, I’m watching all these movies and I’m sort of thinking about them in ways that aren’t just as a fan. The big thing was when my dad gave me a copy of Agee on film, James Agee was a great writer who for a period of about seven years was a film critic. So I read this and I said, wow, this really demonstrates that you can write about movies and be a real writer. He’s not just, you know, the acting was good. This was bad, you know, a checklist and, you know, plot summary. And Pauline Kael had come out with with her first book called I Lost It at the Movies. And that was exciting in a different way because she was just coming onto the scene and writing about movies that were mostly current. So I would say between the two of them, that sort of got me thinking that maybe this is something that I sort of had an affinity for.

Eric Conner: And you went to, was it Brandeis?

Peter Rainer: Yeah, I was – I was at Northwestern for a year and I transferred to Brandeis. I was there from 70 to 73. I was for a time the editor of my college paper, which was really an excuse for me to control the length of my film reviews because I was the film critic.

Eric Conner: It was just a power grab. So you could.

Peter Rainer: Well.

Eric Conner: You could get as many columns.

Peter Rainer: Okay yeah right. I admit. No, I mean, you know, it’s the only time in my life I’ve ever had the opportunity to be my own boss in journalism. You know, and it was very fortunate because that was a time we’re talking, you know, ’70 to ’73 when movies were incredible.

Eric Conner: Yeah.

Peter Rainer: I mean, I’m not being some old fogy, particularly American movies just broke through. And week after week, I’d be reviewing, you know, The Godfather.

Eric Conner: Yeah Godfather came out in that time.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. The Godfather, Sounder, you know, Mean Streets, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Sorrow and the Pity. I mean, just, you name it, Last Picture Show. They were all coming out week after week and cabaret.

Eric Conner: I mean, the thing is about that time frame, and really to come of age as a critic in the 70s meant you were there for really the modern golden age of Hollywood.

Peter Rainer: Right.

Eric Conner: It’s kind of like where TV is now is where film was then. I mean, that is such I mean, to be able to go into a theater. I mean, I got to see Godfather years later. But my introduction to Godfather was a VHS copy on a not very big TV, but to be able to see those movies on the big screen for the first feeling too, I’m more than a little envious.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. No, it makes a big difference even now, of course. But I think that’s really what set me on the road, because not only were all these great movies coming out, but I’m writing about them for very literally captive audience, my fellow students and teachers. And I think that’s why so many critics of my generation are critics, because we all pass through the same ether.

Eric Conner: And by the time you finished college, I can’t even imagine how many reviews you’ve written, especially if you were the editor as well, like it’s like you get to enter the professional world, sort of tested, you know, like you’re not.

Peter Rainer: In a way yeah. I mean, what I did was, you know, when I graduated, I said, alright well, now what am I going to do with my life? So I gathered my best reviews together from college and I went to the library and I wrote out a list of about 100 publications and I got, I think, two responses.

Eric Conner: Two out of, I’m sorry. Two out of like 100, you said.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, yeah. One was from Mademoiselle magazine. Long story short, Mademoiselle gave me a shot at their monthly film review column. First time I ever reviewed professionally was Chinatown and it’s been all downhill ever since.

Eric Conner: I was about to say you’re starting with rarefied air right off the bat.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. I mean, that was pretty amazing. So so now I was in the in the bloodstream and it’s very, very exciting. And then The Herald Examiner, which is one of the two daily newspapers, opened up. And this was a chance to be, you know, the critic for a major metropolitan daily was what I always wanted. So that’s what I did. And I was with the Herald Examiner for 10 years from 79 till the day it folded in 1989.

Eric Conner: So then you had to find a new home.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, well, the L.A. Times knew before we did at the Herald that the paper was going to fold. So within an hour of the announcement, there was an editor who used to work at the Herald who was on the phone trying to bring me over. So that was all very nice.

Eric Conner: What is it like for you as a critic then? I’m sure you travel in these circles. I’m sure you’ve made friends with them over the years. But then part of your job is to give an honest assessment of your friend.

Peter Rainer: Right.

Eric Conner: And their work, which might not always be perfect.

Peter Rainer: First of all, you know, when you’re the film critic for a newspaper in L.A., it’s kind of like being the car critic for a newspaper in Detroit.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer: You know, I’m a human being. So if I see films by a particular writer, director or an actor that I really respond to, and then you have occasion to be in a social situation with them, you know, it’s very hard to just sort of wall yourself off and not say anything. The downside is that you do often get played even by people who you respect. If you stop giving good reviews to them, then often you find out who your real friends are, if they’re friends. But, you know, it’s it’s tough. I’ve had, you know, people say, have you ever been dissed by an actor or something? Yes.

Eric Conner: Well, especially with Twitter now, where you read a review by Peter Rainer and you disagree, you can go and all of a sudden with a few touches your fingers, suddenly your three, four million followers find out directly what your thought is of the review by Peter Rainer.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. I mean, I’m not crazy about all that, but, you know, there’s nothing you can do about it. But it comes with the territory. And usually people only write when they’re angry about something or they’ll retweet something and they’ll say you’re wrong.

Eric Conner: Although I definitely know some people who, when they get a great review, they feel the need to share that with the world as well so.

Peter Rainer: Well, good. I wish I got more of that.

Eric Conner: What they call the humble brag, you know.

Peter Rainer: Right. Right. Right.

Eric Conner: It’s funny, too, because being an artist, being a filmmaker actor means you’re perpetually getting reviewed. Yet obviously, some artists know incredibly thin skin despite the fact it’s it’s it’s like part of your job.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. No, I mean, I understand it. But if you if you think too much about how you know, you’re gonna be upsetting all these people, then you might as well be a carpenter.

Eric Conner: Although then you have to deal with people complain about your carpentry. And mind you, I haven’t read every review you’ve ever written, but they don’t come off as nasty even when you clearly don’t like a project.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, well, I try not to be gratuitously nasty because I don’t see the point of that. You know, people have this idea that all critics are like Addison Dewitt, George Sanders in All About Eve, you know, sharpening their knives and they’re only in it for the kill. And admittedly, if you really don’t like something or you’re really offended by something, you can get your rocks off by really flaying something in print. But that gets old awfully fast. And in the long run, it’s the films that that are really great that challenge you as a critic. Like when I came out of Blue Velvet, which I love, but it’s very confounding movie.

Eric Conner: Right. It’s not simple to review something that.

Peter Rainer: No, no you say, well, how on earth am I going to do justice to this experience? And, you know, in my book, there’s a section on masterpieces. And to me, the the mark of a critic is how good are they at really praising something? Because there are some critics who are really good at being nasty. But when they praising something, it’s like, you know, the cinematography was gorgeous and the acting was terrific. And, you know, it kind of doesn’t really sing. The thing is, you have to try to back up your negativity, which is not always easy if you don’t have the space to do it. You know, I’m talking in theoretical terms, but a lot of us, you know, space is is not what it used to be. And you can’t stretch out and really do justice sometimes to the full extent of how you want to support or tear down something. But, you know, there are all kinds of stories of, you know, John Simon who’s who’s still writing. He has a blog. At this point. He’s notorious for writing really defamatory personal attacks on how actors looked and everything like that. And he was at a function years ago and the actress goes over to the order table and picks up his big tray of food and goes over and dumps it on him. He says, I’m going to send you with a cleaning bill. But she got presents and kisses from all the Broadway and Hollywood contingent for years afterwards.

Eric Conner: She had the chutzpah to do what they all wanted to do.

Peter Rainer: I guess so yeah.

Eric Conner: Well, you bring up kind of this idea of space. For years these critics, these writers, they had the room, even Roger Ebert, weirdly enough, Siskel and Ebert sort of – I think maybe tilted reviews towards where it is now in that, you know, Roger Ebert’s written reviews of movies were fabulous. I mean, I think he won a Pulitzer.

Peter Rainer: He did yeah.

Eric Conner: Then they had a TV show called At the Movies, where it was Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, two critics from the Chicago scene. And they then turned cinema criticing into something that was a little bit like a greatest hits collection. Suddenly it was a thumbs up or thumbs down.

Clip: …think about it with Jaws, which had three marvelous characters hunting the shark. Jurassic Park only has Goldblum. The rest of the crew stands around and smiles or schemes. Still, thumbs up from me. The action scenes are really enjoyable.

I gave a thumbs up too and also for the action scenes and I feel that really this movie, though, was a missed opportunity…

Eric Conner: Now we have tomatoes with a aggregate score, Metacritic.

Peter Rainer: Right.

Eric Conner: So it was curious your take on, I guess, where a large chunk of this industry has now gone.

Peter Rainer: When I was first starting out as a critic or reading critics was, some might argue, the golden age of criticism in the sense there were some amazing critics back then. There’s many more good critics now than there were in the 70s. It’s just that there are fewer places to show that you’re good. But when the Siskel Ebert syndrome kicked in, they were originally a local show and then became national and then Disney bought it, et cetera. That created kind of the critic as celebrity. Before that the critics I’d mentioned earlier were celebrities.

Eric Conner: That’s right. I was about to say they had their own celebrity, too.

Peter Rainer: Right. But in a rarefied circle because they weren’t on TV. But Siskel and Ebert, people would tune in to see them who had never heard of Pauline Kael or Stanley Kaufman or anybody. They just want to see these two guys fight, frankly.

Clip:…well I hated this movie more than any other movie on this show. And I’m I’m really surprised at you. You should be ashamed of yourself. First of all.

What, for not agreeing with you? I’ve never been ashamed of that. I’ve been proud of that.

OK, well, in that case, here’s another star for your lapel. OK. This movie is not funny…

Peter Rainer: And then there were knockoffs of Siskel and Ebert. Various other people tried to do it. Look, I knew Roger and I respected him and he was a good guy and a terrific writer. The problem I had with that show was not that it was two guys talking about movies, because if you actually transcribed their words, it’s probably more more words devoted to a given movie than most newspaper critics had in print. But I just felt that, you know, you have thumbs up and you have thumbs down. But most movies are thumbs sideways.

Eric Conner: Sure.

Peter Rainer: Right. I mean, you don’t usually love or hate most movies is kind of somewhere in the middle.

Eric Conner: And there are elements you love elements that don’t work.

Peter Rainer: So I understood why they didn’t have thumbs sideways. But I thought it sort of adulterated the whole concept by pitching it yes or no. Thumbs up, thumbs down. And it became, you know, literally a trademark. Roger copyrighted the thumb. You know, so when people started to see that, hey, you know, you can get on TV and talk about criticism. So suddenly, you know, you would find in the film schools and just in general. I remember talking to this this film class of people who wanted to be critics, a criticism class. And I said, this is awfully photogenic class. Oh I know why that is.

Eric Conner: Right, because they they don’t think of the hunched over the keyboard writing.

Peter Rainer: Right they’re not really. Yeah or they say I want to be a critic and I say, well, what have you written? And they say well I haven’t, I like to talk about film. I like to. I said well that’s not quite it. You know, cause everyone says what a great job. All you do is go to movies all day. And I say, well, yes and no. First of all, most movies are lousy and I see about 250 a year. And second of all, that’s half the job. You know, the real job for me is to be a writer.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer: You know, a critic is first and foremost, or should be, a writer. And that’s really what the job is about for me. But the space that we have to do it in, you know, you mentioned is – there are still a number of outlets where you can stretch out. But to really stretch out is a luxury that is not only rarer than it used to be, but in some ways not expected, like what you were saying, the people just sort of want to look for the quick fix.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer: You know, is it is it fresh or rotten? Is it this or that? Now at the monitor, I am asked to provide a grade. At least it saves me the trouble of having, you know, rotten tomatoes. People call me up, as they used to say, you know, is this a B or a B minus. But, you know, as far as those sites go, I don’t, unlike a lot of critics, I don’t really have a problem with rotten tomatoes, but I think it cuts both ways. On the one hand, you know, none of the critics whose stuff is being linked on Rotten Tomatoes gets paid for that. However.

Eric Conner: You’re not getting any kind of bump for being featured.

Peter Rainer: Not really.

Eric Conner: Even featured as a top critic.

Peter Rainer: Right. Not that I know of. Also, it’s too easy for editors and, you know, publishers to say, well, we don’t need critics. We can just link to Rotten Tomatoes. You know, if everybody thought that way there’d be nothing to link to because everything that you’re aggregating would be gone. The people who are aggregated on Rotten Tomatoes are people who have individual bylines. But what I like about Rotten Tomatoes is that, you know, in the past, if I wanted to read a critic, say, in Boston or someplace, the only way I could read that critic is if I subscribe to, you know, The Boston Globe or the Phoenix or whatever.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer: Now, with the click of a key, you can read anybody. So in a sense, it’s the great leveler. You know, The New York Times and the Podunk Express critic are equally accessible, which is a good thing. It also means that if you’re good, but out there in the wilderness, you don’t feel quite as alone.

Eric Conner: Right no it’s true. Your review can reach so much more of a mass audience than ever. It’s not only limited to that town.

Peter Rainer: Yeah and that’s important. I myself don’t read a whole lot of criticism, you know, hardly any before I see a film, assuming reviews are even out there.

Eric Conner: Yeah I was about to say you also have the luxury of you get to see it early.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you know, the trades and some publications usually come out earlier than the rest of us, but but for the most part, particularly if I’m at a festival like Toronto, I’m seeing films that are opening two, three months in advance, sometimes a year in advance, sometimes they never open. And, you know, I don’t review a movie right after I see it. Most of the time unless I’m on some big deadline. But I try to take notes just so I have some sense of, you know, what I was thinking. So that when I do review it, if it’s months later, you know, because I do see a lot of movies, I do have the luxury at the monitor of not reviewing everything I see. Thank God, because that’s another.

Eric Conner: You can pick and choose basically.

Peter Rainer: For the most part, I mean, if if if I didn’t wanna review Black Panther for some reason, I would have had to review that just for obvious reasons. But I did want to see it, of course. Or let, let’s say, Transformers movies. I have sort of at this point saying, you know, I just can’t take it anymore. I’m sorry.

Eric Conner: Like you can as a critic then say I think I think my audience is good not to read my review.

Peter Rainer: To some extent. I mean, the reason I have to do some of that is because at least the online version of what I write does reach everybody, not just monitor subscribers, particularly if you’re going through rotten tomatoes and hits matter, clicks matter, all of that stuff. So I can’t just turn my back because, I mean, I wasn’t kidding. There are 20 movies that open in a given week.

Eric Conner: Sure.

Peter Rainer: And the radio show that I’m a part of, Film Week, they sort of like it if the two of us critics see the majority of what’s out there as a great public service to all these people who are listening who then don’t have to see all this crap that we’re talking about.

Eric Conner: I see Transformers so you do not.

Peter Rainer: Well, if Transformers opened on a week when I was on the show, I would have to see the thing. But that’s a classic example of a so-called critic proof movie.

Eric Conner: Yeah.

Peter Rainer: This idea that the studios are clamoring for critics to write about their movies is certainly not true. And there are some movies that criticism has zero effect. It’s not like, you know, I’m going to give a terrible review to Transformers 12 and Michael Bay is going to sit there and go, God now we just lost 12 million at the box office. You know, the only critic who apparently had even the slightest real effect on studio picture box office was Ebert. Where you have an effect as a critic is with the small indie films.

Eric Conner: Sure.

Peter Rainer: That’s the big difference. Studio pictures. Increasingly, you know, they’ll screen it maybe three or four days before it opens at best. Sometimes they don’t screen it at all. If you’re known for not rolling over like me, sometimes you get to see it last. And then there are critics, you know, blurb whores who who see things real early.

Eric Conner: Well, back in the day, Earl Dittman, his stuff was like, you know, you would have a movie that clearly critics did not favor. And then all of a sudden it would say, like, the greatest epic yet. You know, Earl Dittman, what was it like Wireless magazines?

Peter Rainer: Something like that. Yeah.

Eric Conner: Some thing that doesn’t even exist.

Peter Rainer: Right.

Eric Conner: Yeah. I mean, there were so many critics out there that in essence, they’re they’re not reviews, they’re just glorified fluff pieces to just get their line on the commercial.

Peter Rainer: Right. Well, back in the day, you had some critics who were like that. They could always be counted on to give a great review. Very rarely do I get quoted at this point, but for whatever reason, they tend to go to the same people all the time. And, you know, if you use the word Oscar like it’s only January, but this film is going to clean up at Oscar time or, you know, Driving Miss Daisy, “drive this film straight to the Oscars!”

Eric Conner: Straight to the Oscars.

Peter Rainer: Right. You know, and it’s just shameless, you know. And sometimes, I mean, there are certain critics who are quoted a lot who if you actually go back and look at the full review, they’re kind of mixed reviews. But you have these, quote lines stand out in Dayglo. You know, it says, I didn’t think. For some reason I used always it quoted on John Carpenter movies, even though I was very mixed on them, you know, like The Fog, you know, not a very good movie, but a couple of really scary moments. “Really scary!” I very rarely use exclamation points, but they always put them into these quotes. Sometimes rarely they’ll call me up and say, we want to use this quote, which isn’t quite what I wrote or it’s or it’s the headline which I never write for these reviews. you know, that sort of thing. Look, I like getting quoted. You know, my my mom loved it, and it makes you feel good. But if it’s in the service of something that you genuinely liked. But as I was saying, you know, critics do make a difference for foreign films, independent films, documentaries, those movies, because they don’t have any money to promote their frame.

Eric Conner: Right, right. You are there advertising.

Peter Rainer: Right, we are their advertising and they will build a screening room in your home to show you their movie. I’m not big on streaming. But, you know, there’s a lot of stuff now that’s streamed or DVDs, you know, whatever it takes. And with the traffic in L.A., I have to say, if the choice is me driving an hour and 45 minutes to see a movie that’s an hour and a half or seeing it in the comfort of my own home on a film that is going to lose much visually. That’s what we do now.

Eric Conner: Yeah, on that end I was going to actually ask you about. I was wondering if there were smaller films, independent films. You felt like over the course of your career you’re really able to help champion.

Peter Rainer: Right yeah. Oh, sure. I mean, I, I guess I have two success stories, if I’m may say. One was the movie Blue Sky. Jessica Lange, Tony Richardson directed it, Tommy Lee Jones. Yeah. Yeah. So that was that was made and wasn’t released for like a year and a half. Then it came out, it got a an okay review by the first rank critic at the L.A. Times. And I was at the Times at that point as well. And I thought, well, Jessica Lange’s performance is just unbelievably great.

Eric Conner: Yes, she’s terrific.

Peter Rainer: You know I showed it at a NYFA class to acting students.

Eric Conner: Oh, that’s right. I think I saw the poster film like. Oh, cool.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. No, I wanted to pick something that.

Eric Conner: That’s a bit of a gem.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Yeah. And I write about it in my book too. But the piece in the book is taken from the L.A. Times. So what happened was I wrote this big essay about her performance and the paper played it up, front page calendar, and that was just when the Academy was starting to send out VHS tapes of films. So Orion got behind the film to the extent that they sent out VHS tapes with a copy of my review to all the Academy members of this film that no one had seen. And then she won the Oscar and she, I’m told, you know, has credited me for making that happen. At least getting the film out there. It would have died. Another example was Alfonso Caron’s first English language movie, Little Princess was a Warner’s picture. That was a movie that, again, it got an okay review in the Times. But I thought this is just a transcendent family.

Eric Conner: Beautiful film.

Peter Rainer: Beautiful, beautiful film. So I wrote a long piece on it, particularly cause at the time everybody was saying, well, why aren’t there enough good movies for families, you know? I said, well, here’s one and you’re not going to see it. The Warners campaign for it initially was terrible. So, again, they took out big ads. My review was sent out. They rereleased it on the basis of the review. It still didn’t do the kind of business it should have. And the ad campaign had the little girl’s glowing cheeks in the dark, like I mean, like a Stephen King movie. But I know that Cuarón said, you know, I. I really owe you. So, I mean, that that makes you feel good because you really championing you know, I think I speak for a lot of critics that, you know, it’s not tearing things down that we get off on. It’s championing films that might not normally have a life of its own.

Eric Conner: Sure. Well, and actually gets us into part of your book. I really was say to talk with you about which was overrated or under seen. And we’ll start with the under seen and we’ll we’ll start positive before we work our way maybe to the back of the house there. A few of them that I just jotted down that I thought really deserved some mention that I’m really glad you did the book. Wild Bill with a terrific performance by Jeff Bridges. Joe Gould’s Secret. And I’m going to piggyback on that and I want to talk about Big Night, which I love also. Stanley Tucci directed. Then Babe Pig in the City.

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: Any of those you want to pontificate on?

Peter Rainer: Well, yeah. Wild Bill. I was the critic at Los Angeles magazine at that time, and I had a lot of space and I thought, you know, Walter Hill’s had a very uneven career, but at his best, he’s a great director. And at that time he was sort of not as highly regarded. And Jeff Bridges, I’ve always thought, was one of the very best actors around. And you know, and here here he is in a full scale starring role. Terrific script. I just thought it was.

Eric Conner: Ellen Barkin was in that too right?

Peter Rainer: Ellen Barkin. Yeah. I mean, it’s it’s an amazing movie that, you know, you and I and eight other people have probably seen.

Eric Conner: Yeah.

Peter Rainer: But it was a classic example of my trying to put into the spotlight a film that was terrific. And I knew needed some help. Babe Pig in the City is is one of the best sequels ever made. I mean, I love Babe. I think this is even better. It’s a turbo charged woop-de-do great. The script is really good. I mean, everything about it is just a terrific movie.

Eric Conner: And I think it like didn’t hit with family audiences the same way because there’s.

Peter Rainer: Dark.

Eric Conner: There’s a darkness about it, but it actually I mean the themes of it are beautiful and it died. Like, it like.

Peter Rainer: I know.

Eric Conner: And Babe was such a hit and such a hit on video too.

Peter Rainer: I think some people who loved Babe felt betrayed that this wasn’t, you know, the same tone. But I mean, if it had been, it wouldn’t have been as good. It was it was just a terrific movie.

Eric Conner: But you really could feel like the first one you like, George Miller worked on that? And then Babe Pig in the City, like ah yeah, there’s George Miller.

Peter Rainer: Right that’s the Road Warrior George Miller.

Eric Conner: Like there’s a scene that looks like it’s right out of Thunderdome towards the end of that film.

Peter Rainer: Yeah there’s some great chase scenes in it.

Eric Conner: And then Joe Gould’s Secret, which directed by Stanley Tucci.

Peter Rainer: Right.

Eric Conner: Inspired by a true story.

Peter Rainer: Yeah it was a New Yorker writer who sort of befriended this this homeless guy who claimed to be writing a million page history of the world. It was just a very touching movie. It was very well done. You know, it wasn’t a great work of cinematic art, but, you know, it didn’t have to be.

Eric Conner: And that’s what I feel about big night. I I’m curious your thoughts on Big Night. Because that’s one of those.

Peter Rainer: Yeah don’t see you when you’re hungry.

Eric Conner: Yeah. That film’s all about food, but but food not just as food. The food is a symbol of of art versus commerce. And two brothers Primo and Secondo.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Yeah.

Eric Conner: Stanley Tucci co-wrote it, co-directed it, starred in it with Tony Shalhoub.

Peter Rainer: And Tony Shalhoub. Yeah.

Eric Conner: And it’s this beautiful little gem of a film. I you know, I teach writing and I use that film every time I have a new group. If I’m talking dialog I go there. If I’m talking theme I go there. And Stanley Tucci, he’s only directed a little bit, but I feel like he really has a real auteur’s eye and auteur’s heart.

Peter Rainer: You know, Big Night, as I recall it ends with the two guys. They sort of make up, but they don’t say anything.

Eric Conner: It’s it’s a 10 minute scene of them cooking an omelet.

Peter Rainer: And they don’t say anything. Right. Sometimes the best dialogue is no dialogue.

Eric Conner: Oh, yeah, and that’s a lesson I teach.

Peter Rainer: That’s a classic example. You know, just just let it play out. You don’t need to say anything.

Eric Conner: No. No dialogue. No cuts.

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: So. Well, we talked positive and, you know, without being nasty.

Peter Rainer: Uh oh.

Eric Conner: Some interesting choices for movies that you felt were overrated. Again, not necessarily terrible, but just overrated. And I’ll just list a few. Feel free to riff on any of them. American Beauty, Good Will Hunting, which I do want to talk about. Shine, Fight Club, Zero Dark Thirty. And then you didn’t get into this in the book, but you alluded to Silver Linings Playbook, which I think you just called, and I’m quoting you, “a crock.”

Peter Rainer: I mean, Silver Linings Playbook is entertaining. I called it a crock because I think the way it wraps up, it’s like, you know, mental illness is something that you can literally dance away.

Eric Conner: It’s easy as long as you. Right, right. If you do well in the dance contest, you’re healed.

Peter Rainer: I mean, really.

Eric Conner: But, yeah, I was wondering if any of those particular for you were like American Beauty wins the Oscar for best picture.

Peter Rainer: Yeah that pissed me off. I forget what should have won that year. But that’s actually the first review in my book. I just thought I really wanted to, you know, to come out swinging, you know, with the film that that won all these awards. But I have found that, and a lot of people who’ve read it say, you know, yeah, I kind of agree with you. That was overrated. Sometimes these movies, it takes a while before people really come down from the hype and see these films more for what they really are. You know, Shine, I thought. And we can talk about this in connection with Good Will Hunting also. But, you know, there’s this kind of romance of madness, the genius of, that is very much old school Hollywood, but tricked up in these new ways, people buy it in a way that they might not if it was so nakedly obvious. In the old movies, you know, some great composer tearing his hair out and “I’ve got it,” you know, and aha. You know, there are ways to do that story that are sympathetic and powerful and empathetic without distorting who these guys really are.

Eric Conner: Are there films you can think of that are like the troubled genius? You know, I mean, even Beautiful Mind, which I’m not sure.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, I wasn’t crazy about that either.

Eric Conner: And that one I know got some criticism for leaving out pretty large chunks of who this guy was.

Peter Rainer: Right. You know, all the stuff that’s going to turn people off.

Eric Conner: Yeah, but is there one that you feel like really nailed it?

Peter Rainer: It’s very difficult. You know, the Picasso movie with Anthony Hopkins didn’t work.

Eric Conner: I guess Amadeus maybe to an extent, although it’s not the same category though, right?

Peter Rainer: No and I had a problem with Amadeus too. I’m sorry because the game plan there was that the real Mozart was this amazing genius. But he was this scatological twit in real life, you know, with all this cackling and all that. That’s what people remember, you know, and then somehow out of all of this comes this great music. Now, if you read anything about his life or in general, this notion that he was somehow visited by the gods, I think is a disservice to what genius entails, which isn’t all just, you know, you wake up and you’re a genius. Even geniuses have to work at it and have ups and downs. And there’s more of a psychology to their lives than is allowed for in these stupid movies.

Eric Conner: I think maybe Pollock, I thought might be one. That was good.

Peter Rainer: Pollock was. Yeah, Pollock was pretty strong. I’d have to think about that. You know, I mean, Geoffrey Rush, who was in Shine, was played Einstein in the TV series and he wasn’t bad. But that’s sort of an impossible role to do. It’s very hard to portray genius.

Eric Conner: Well, and I think it, right. And I think Pollock, it’s such a grounded film. You know, in essence, like he was so driven, and he would sort of put his work before all his relationships.

Peter Rainer: Right yeah. No it’s funny because it’s like the ones I think have been sort of successful that I can recall are mostly about painters. With writers, it’s a little more difficult. You know, you’re sitting down and all of a sudden you got. It’s not a very photo, you know, cinematic thing to do.

Eric Conner: A movie you brought up in your book. And this one’s not based on a true story. But Wonder Boys, which is, I think, a terrific movie about writing.

Peter Rainer: Underrated. Yeah.

Eric Conner: Yeah. That, right, that. Was that on your underrated list?

Peter Rainer: No that’s in another. That’s in the Curtis Hanson auteurs section.

Eric Conner: Oh right right. The auteurs section. I thought Wonder Boys if you haven’t seen it, it’s Michael Douglas and it’s that thing Paul Newman was so wonderful at. It’s like it didn’t feel like acting, and you realize how much work into making something look like you’re not doing any work.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, it’s really, I know for fact, that’s one of his very best performances. Yeah. It does capture the writing life in ways that most movies don’t.

Eric Conner: Right. Yeah he doesn’t have writer’s block. He writes too much, which is, that one detail feels so lived in where it has no center because he has no center.

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: Gosh I want to watch it like tonight again.

Peter Rainer: Yeah it’s a terrific, terrific movie.

Eric Conner: And who, was it like Dede Allen edited it? I’m trying to remember.

Peter Rainer: Oh Anne Coates?

Eric Conner: Yeah, it was one. It was either Dede. I think it was Dede Allen.

Peter Rainer: Might have been Dede Allen.

Eric Conner: But yeah the idea that Dede Allen and Anne Coates were still doing it, you know, and doing such a great. I mean, Out of Sight I think is one of the.

Peter Rainer: Terrific movie.

Eric Conner: One of the best sorta pulpy genre films.

Peter Rainer: I mean out of sight won the National Society of Film Critics award for Best Picture. And I remember, you know, because usually these awards are given to sort of Oscar bait or prestigious movies that fit all the categories, you know. And here was this terrific genre movie. And I was overjoyed that it won. But I got more calls because I was president of the group like The New York Times saying how is it that this film won? In other words, there was some conspiracy or what? What went on? And I explained to them what happened. And then they they published their own version of it anyway. You know, they they they refused to believe that that you could actually. Babe, the first babe, won best picture also from that group. And I remember there was a picture of a pig on the front page of Variety, you know, and people couldn’t believe that.

Eric Conner: I tell you, watch the last 10 minutes of that film. You know, Farmer Hoggett and Babe and his his big day at the at the sheep herding contest. It is like the most beautifully directed scene.

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: And it is such a, I love showing that movie to my kids. If anything, I wish they would want to watch it more times because some of their movies they want to watch a hundred times I’m like, really?

Peter Rainer: What’s an example of a movie that they want to see hundreds of times?

Eric Conner: I mean, listen. I love Star Wars, but those prequels, it’s it’s rough.

Peter Rainer: Really the prequels?

Eric Conner: Listen, they’re young. I try with them.

Peter Rainer: Empire Strikes Back is for me a great movie.

Eric Conner: Sure. I could watch that a hundred times. I probably have watched that a hundred times. You know, and you actually talked a bit about Irvin Kershner’s work on that and Irvin Kershner directed Empire. He passed away a couple of years back, right?

Peter Rainer: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Eric Conner: So I was wondering if you could talk even a little bit about him.

Peter Rainer:Yeah.

Eric Conner: Cause he’s kind of like him and I feel like Hal Ashby to an extent.

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: They’re these like great auteurs who were sort of overshadowed by other auteurs of those time periods.

Peter Rainer: Definitely. Yeah. I mean, Ashby directed a string of terrific movies.

Eric Conner: In the 70s he basically like Babe Ruth up there.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Yeah. I think even Harold and Maude, I think may have even been the 60s.

Eric Conner: What was that like 68 or 69?

Peter Rainer: Right but his first film I think as a director was, wasn’t it The Landlord? Beau Bridges, a terrific script by I think Bill Gunn. It was a really, really good movie, but he was a marvelous director. I gather he had some, you know, personal and drug issues that did him in early, but he’s not nearly as recognized as he should be now for those films. Kershner even more so. I mean, here’s a director who, you know, he started out he did a Corman movie. There’s a film called The Luck of Ginger Coffey with Robert Shaw and Mary Ure, which is a great newspaper movie. It’s about a newspaper man.

Eric Conner: And he was like George Lucas’s teacher at SC, I think.

Peter Rainer: I believe. Yeah. He he went to SC originally himself. And he was incredibly versatile. He did every you know, from creepy noir, supernatural, you know, Eyes of Laura Mars to Empire Strikes Back. He did a wonderful, very under seen Streisand movie, maybe her best performance, Up the Sandbox. Incredibly versatile and good. I’m missing some, you know.

Eric Conner: Well, one to miss, Never Say Never Again. I believe he directed that.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Yeah.

Eric Conner: Which was the remake of Thunderball with a slightly older Sean Connery.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Right. No. There were, you know, he did the sequel to Robocop. I wasn’t crazy about that.

Eric Conner: Oh my god. That’s right. With the. Just stop at Empire and call it a day because. Yeah and I mean, Empire has such – there’s so much more to that. You know, it elevated the whole genre, really. I mean it’s.

Peter Rainer: Still the best, I think, of them.

Eric Conner: And it’s beautiful. I mean, I’ve been able to see it on the big screen. I saw it when I was a little kid. But you see it now. And there is such artistry to that.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Kerschner had a great graphics sense, too. I mean, really.

Eric Conner: The use of color, the use of framing.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. He worked with Connery much earlier on than than that misbegotten Bond movie.

Eric Conner: Oh yeah, that’s right.

Peter Rainer: A Fine Madness.

Eric Conner:Yeah. Yeah.

Peter Rainer: It’s a terrific movie, which is apparently, you know, recut by the studio. But but Connery is wonderful in it. This is pre James Bond even before Dr. No, I believe. But the word on on Kersh as everybody called him. I only met him a few times briefly. But you know, he said one of the reasons he was more well-known or made more movies is that he said nobody can turn a go project into a development deal. You know better than Irvin Kershner. You know, so. Because he at one point he was going to do a movie with a ninja, and there were always these projects were announced.

Eric Conner: Yeah.

Peter Rainer: But a wonderful, wonderful director.

Eric Conner: And that’s the hope is like you, you know, your book and your reviews. It does. You know, as you’re saying, it shines a light on the ones that aren’t as seen. And that’s honestly for myself teaching at a film school. You know, I try to make a point of bringing in stuff that spans decades and trying to find that balance. And it is hard to sometimes get past the, you know, let’s call it the little bit of aging on top, but there’s these beautiful stories that you as a critic have been able to bring to people and vice versa, which I think is to me, I imagine, the most rewarding part of your job by far.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Yeah. Well, you know, and Night of the Hunter, I often show that in classes or talk about because it really is is such a difficult movie. In some ways it’s it’s comedy. It’s scary. It’s funny. It’s you know, you really have to sort of be on its wavelength.

Eric Conner: Mitchum is so good in that.

Peter Rainer: Mitchum is incredible in it. And you know, the script is by James Agee. Only film Charles Laughton ever directed. It was shot by the guy.

Eric Conner: Oh that’s right. Right, right.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. It was shot by Stanley Cortez, who did Magnificent Ambersons. You know, it’s it’s just an amazing movie on every level. And another director who’s even more well-known than Kershner but still, Paul Mazursky is a director who I feel is sort of falling out of the landscape, who did some wonderful, wonderful movies.

Eric Conner: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Peter Rainer: Real humanist. You know, Harry and Tonto, Enemies, A Love Story based on the Isaac Singer novel.

Eric Conner: Oh yeah terrific. Lena Olin and.

Peter Rainer: Great movie. Yeah. Angelica Houston.

Eric Conner: Ron Silver?

Peter Rainer: Ron Silver. It’s an amazing it’s his best work and his early films, too. You know, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice I saw again not that long ago.

Eric Conner: Oh you wrote about that. Yeah I know you love that film.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. And even Alice in Wonderland, as misbegotten as a lot of it is, has some classic Hollywood satire.

Eric Conner: Was he Down and Out in Beverly Hills, too?

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Downtown Beverly Hills.

Eric Conner: Which which is really good actually.

Peter Rainer: It’s a really funny movie.

Eric Conner: That one aged nicely. Like, some of those you were talking about this, I think with American Beauty, like some movies were great then, and then you watch a little later like.

Peter Rainer: Right. Right.

Eric Conner: That one I saw not that long back again. It was. It really aged beautifully.

Peter Rainer: Holds up, yeah.

Eric Conner: Well, listen, I really appreciate just sitting down and chatting with you. I’ve seen your screenings that you’ve hosted at our school. And I think what you do here for our students is look deeper. Right? Like there’s so much new stuff and there’s so much great television, but you just have to scratch a little bit and you find things like the Criterion Collection.

Peter Rainer: Oh, yeah.

Eric Conner: And I mean, pretty much anything you get in the Criterion Collection, you’re going to be happy that you watched it.

Peter Rainer: Right.

Eric Conner: You might not always get it. You might always like it. But it will expand your film vocabulary and your film knowledge and your film history, all of which if you’re looking to write, direct, produce, act, cinematography.

Peter Rainer:Absolutely yeah.

Eric Conner:You gotta learn from the giants in order to stand on their shoulders correctly, I suppose.

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: Well, Peter, thank you so much for kibitzing with me.

Peter Rainer: Thank you Eric. It was great. Went fast.

Eric Conner: And we will do this again. So thank you, Peter, for joining us. And thanks to all of you for listening. Again, his book, Rainer on Film is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and all other legitimate booksellers. It is more than worth it. If you want to check out some of our other Q&As you can go to our YouTube channel. That’s YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was edited and mixed by the wonderful Kristian Heydon. Our creative director is the also wonderful David Andrew Nelson, who also produced this episode with Kristian Heydon and myself. Our show is executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock, and Dan Mackler with a special thanks going out to our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at NYFA.edu. And you can subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you may listen. See you next time.

Tova Laiter: Hi and welcome to the backlot. I’m Tova Laiter moderator and director of the New York Film Academy Guest Lecture series. In this episode, we will take an in-depth look at one of my great guests and hear about his experience in the entertainment industry. And now, Eric Conner will take you through the highlights of this Q&A.

Eric Conner: Hi, I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you the creative mind behind at least one of your favorite movies. The director who, through no fault of his own, all other filmmakers get compared to. Yes, we’re talking about Spielberg. Steven Spielberg. I’m pretty sure you know his credits. Despite a schedule that one can only imagine is always filled, Mr. Spielberg took time to speak to our students at NYFA after a screening of one of his first films, Jaws, the movie that helped set the bar for all summer blockbusters and also set the bar for all the difficulties one could have on set.

Steven Spielberg: The madness came with the package, and the madness was really that we all went out and did something that we perhaps would have been wiser to have stayed at home. I didn’t know it was gonna be this tough. I really did know Jaws would be next to impossible to make. I just thought we would go out there like any movie and shoot on the water and we’d float around a bit and get some shots and go home and just so much. From the first day we got there, every single day was. I learned something new that I knew I would never. As Harrison Ford likes to say, every single day on Jaws was one more useless experience. And yet we were still able to get between one and three shots a day. And that’s all we got. I mean, I’m used to getting 30, 40 shots a day on my movies. We were getting on average day would be two shots. Really. And when you average that that means a shot in the morning, a shot in the afternoon, or sometimes two shots in the afternoon, nothing in the morning. And that’s also taking the average number of setups on land, because on land, it was an easy movie. It was a normal film on land. So you then have to do the math and figure out well if it was getting 20 shots a day on land. How did the average go down to one or two shots a day? The way the average goes to one or two shots a day is. There are some days you get no shots. But it was an eye opener for me and, you know, universal. Here we are. And I’m still here. And because they treated me well all those years and they let me make jaws. And then when the head of the studio tried to fire me twice, the boss of the head of the studio stopped him from firing me twice. And I got to complete the movie because we were so far behind schedule and so far over budget.

Eric Conner: If you wrote a movie about making a shark movie, you couldn’t dream of the problems they faced on Jaws, but from all these unexpected obstacles also came some equally surprising solutions.

Steven Spielberg: The biggest terror about shooting on the water is you cannot stand on it. If I could if I could, I would go back and make another movie on the water. But right now, the whole thing about the water is unless you’re a great swimmer or you’ve or you’re self-destructive, I don’t find any percentage in being on the water for longer than, you know. I don’t even go to the swimming pool today. I’m not afraid of sharks. It’s just I just don’t like water. Jaws taught me that. But in terms of sound, we had a lot of great recording, a lot of great production sound on Jaws. John Carter was the sound mixer for the whole nine months of shooting and he had so much spare time. All he did was have his Nagra on his lap and he was just getting all kinds of detailed water sounds. What it sounds like in six foot seas of water hitting the side of the orca, which sounds like a two foot seas with the little slapping sound of water on the orca. And we had a library that he compiled of sounds that made postproduction and all the sound designers made their jobs lot easier. But I remember there was a scene in Jaws where the boy goes out. Remember, the boy is chasing the girl and he’s drunk and the girl goes out, Chrissie Watkins. She gets eaten. Okay. She’s history. And then the boy is lying there and the water is kind of washing up and outlining him in the dusk light. You saw him silhouetted against the the tide coming in and out. And I never liked the sound of the hissing sound of the foam when it washes up on shore and the receding foam as it goes out. And I remember one of the sound effects designers in post-production. He was making eggs in the morning and he broke an egg and he listened to the sizzle of the egg in the skillet. And he ran and got his Nagra and ran back to the kitchen, broke another egg. And all the sound of all the foam in Jaws is John’s eggs being fried in the morning. And there’s a billion stories like that in this business of how people got these sounds.

Eric Conner: Despite the numerous complications, Jaws went on to launch Mr. Spielberg’s multi-billion dollar career and taught him how to prepare for the unpredictable.

Steven Spielberg: Well, practically, you know, I learned how not to bring a shoot shot list to work. I think the fourth day of shooting on the water, which was after about thirty five days of shooting on land, I went out to the water and I had like I had a list of 30 shots and I kept going like this, scratchy things off. What do I essentially need to make this sequence work? And eventually I got down to the reality that I would have to make the scenes work, all the suspense and all the interpersonal character action between the three principals on the boat in the last part of the movie, I would have to make all of that work with fewer than normal amount of shots. So the editor, Verna Fields, when we both got into the editing room, there was we had less options and there were far fewer options than I normally have on a movie. It was just too tough getting off shots. I’m not sure that anything I ever did. Again, I don’t think Jaws provided any kind of an object lesson for me, except, as you all probably know, I’ve never gone back to the water to make a movie. That was probably the only lesson. That’s why I also didn’t do Jaws two and three and five and six. I don’t know how many they’ve made. But I just wouldn’t go back and do two. And they tried to get me to do it. I just said life’s too short.

Eric Conner: Sounds like we shouldn’t expect Mr. Spielberg to direct a Jaws reboot anytime soon, though with modern computer technology, it would be a heck of a lot easier.

Steven Spielberg: Here’s the thing that I just don’t want to disillusion anybody here about. I was so desperate making this movie. You can’t imagine what all of this together as a community, as a company of actors and crew went through to make this. But if somebody came over to me on the one hundred and we shot one hundred and fifty five days and one hundred and ten of those were out at sea and if let’s say at day one hundred and somebody came over to me and came over to where I was living and said, I’m an inventor and I’ve just invented this new process. And I can create that shot and I can create that water. And you never have to go back in the ocean again. I could do it all on this computer. And I would, of course, say, what’s a computer? Back in 1974, even though my dad helped invent computers back in nineteen fifty forty nine, but had somebody come over to me like that. I was desperate enough to have said show me a sample of your work and if I saw a good shark shot, I don’t care. I would’ve thrown him with him back then. But in 1974 on Martha’s Vineyard it’s a vacation place. It’s a place people go to spend their summers. It’s a place where they have picnics and they take their families and they enjoy life. And they watch fireworks on the Fourth of July. And they go on these regattas they get these sailboats have sailboat races. Just imagine that we’re shooting a very serious, suspenseful movie about a great white shark. And we’re twelve miles out to sea. But there’s all these regattas going by. People having fun with their little sailboats and their big white sails. And of course, the further away the sails were from the camera, the longer it takes for the sale to go across the horizon and get out of my shot. So if there was a regatta 200 yards away, we we were rooting for the regatta. Yeah. Go. Go. Come on. And we were really excited for the regatta when they were six miles away. We’d have to wait close to an hour for the last sail to leave the shot. And just as the last sail would leave the shot. Freddy Zendar, who controlled all the boats and all the anchoring of all the boats, came over to me and said, we can’t get the shot with the shark because the tides, the current has dragged our anchors on the sandy bottom 40 feet below. And now all the boats and the shark barge are out of position. And where you think the shark is right there and you’ve been waiting. This is the shot. This is the last sail. The last sail. It goes away. I’m ready for my shot. But the shark is over there now. And when you had to re anchor and there were six to eight anchors per barge, when you had to re anchor that easily was an hour and a half for re-anchoring. Because you’re not just re-anchoring the shark. You’re re-anchoring the lighting barge, the electric generator, where the generator’s sitting. The picture boat had to be re-anchored a lot. And thank goodness ABBA had a song on the radio that was popular in 1974 and it reminded me of what I was going through it. And it also symbolized where I thought my career was heading. The song was called Waterloo. And I had these old cans in those days, they were AM/FM stereo that I don’t know what company made them, you put them on your head there were two kind of my favorite Martian two antenna that went straight up. And I would sit literally for hours listening to Top 40 music coming from Boston from a radio station there, and because Waterloo was a big hit by ABBA, they kept playing it over and over again. That became my theme song on that movie. It really did.

Eric Conner: I think we can agree Jaws was not Steven Spielberg’s Waterloo. And all these years later, the movie still holds up as a classic. It also shows the importance of being malleable when you’re making a film.

Steven Spielberg: Well, there’s so many significant challenges that happens on set. The one thing is you have to be prepared for any eventuality. You can never rely on a day going by where something doesn’t happen that you didn’t want to happen because it’s just like Murphy’s Law. It happens 20 times a day and you just have to be open to it and expected. You can’t plan for disaster. You’d have to be flexible enough to be able to bob and weave and then come back with a better idea or a better compromise, because it’s gonna happen every single day and you’re never gonna get your way. Even today, I don’t get my way. You know, just when I’ve got the best shot laid out. Weather moves in. And I’m gonna have to be a good producer and tell the director and me that I don’t have the money to spend two or three days like David Lean used to do, waiting for the right weather. And I’ve got to accommodate the conditions and I just got to shoot in new conditions. You’ve got to be flexible and you’ve got to be flexible also because you’re not a painter. You don’t sit there with a canvas. You’re not alone in the room with beautiful northern light, you know, with all of your oils and all of your brushes you’re working through creatively through a hundred other creative people, including all the actors and all the crew and sometimes 200 creative people. So you’ve got to understand that you’re not an auteur if you want to be an auteur. Yes. Take a video camera, go off and make a movie by yourself. That’s that’s being an auteur that’s as close to brush to canvas as you’ll ever get. But when you’re working with a lighting cameraman and a film editor and you’re working with a production designer and you’re working with actors and you’re working with you’ve got to be mindful, empathic and and have a great deal of tolerance for things not going exactly as you had hoped or you had planned when you were privately doing your storyboards and mapping out exactly the perfect way to make your movie. And then you find out that the storyboards no longer make any sense because everything has changed. So my advice would be just stay as open as you possibly can.

Eric Conner: Being open as a filmmaker means knowing how to collaborate while still staying true to your vision. For instance, the screenplay for Jaws went through a number of hands before it was just right. And even then, it took Quint himself, Robert Shaw, to help conquer that particular animal.

Steven Spielberg: The whole process of Jaws was the Peter Benchley book that I liked the last third of, but I didn’t love the sort of melodramatic soap opera affair that the ichthyologist has with Sheriff Brody’s wife. There was a whole sort of Peyton Place drama to Jaws, the things that happened on Amity Island, you know, that I didn’t want to have in the movie. And Peter, bless his heart, agreed. I mean, he said that was for the book. But I understand a movie can’t really have all of that. So Peter wrote the first draft with me. And the good news about that was that he was complicit in streamlining Jaws. But I wasn’t a hundred percent happy with that first draft that Peter wrote. I tried my own draft and I didn’t like my own writing on Jaws. I did an entire draft after Peter. So I then through Dick Zanuck and David Brown, the producers, hired a writer. His name was Howard Sackler. He’s uncredited on Jaws and he’s uncredited because Howard did it as a favor to Dick and David. They had produced his play, The Great White Hope. He was a wonderful playwright. And Howard didn’t really want to receive a credit. So he just took a job. He spent four weeks at the Bel-Air Hotel here in Beverly Hills. And he wrote the script that pretty much, I think is the movie in terms of the the sequences, the way he’d laid out the narrative. And he’s responsible for the structure of Jaws. But I wasn’t one hundred percent happy with many of the individual scenes. But you have to remember that he was the individual who suggested a motivation for why Quint was Quint. And he’s the one that said, I’d like to have Quint talk about the Indianapolis. What, Indianapolis? I mean, that’s where he came from? I thought this guy was a Welch fisherman, pretending to be somebody from Long Island, he said, no, this character was on a ship called the Indianapolis that was sunk after delivering the A-bomb parts. And the sharks took hundreds of sailors that were floating in the water for three or four days before the remainder were rescued.

Clip: Eleven hundred men went into water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes. Didn’t see the first shark for about half an hour. Tiger. Thirteen-footer. You know how you know that when you’re in the water chief? You tell by looking from the dorsal to the tail.

Steven Spielberg: I had no idea the story existed, but he put it in the script. And then I had another writer, John Milius, he wrote Apocalypse Now. He wrote the Dirty Harry series. He directed and wrote Dillinger The Wind, the Lion. I’m going to see him tonight, actually, after this. I’m going to see him. And John took a crack at it and wrote a 10 page monologue for Quint to say about the Indianapolis. Too long to go in the movie. But brilliant sections. Robert Shaw took the 10 pages and being a writer himself. He brought it down to five. And I shot the Robert Shaw abridged version of the John Milius monologue conceived by Howard Sackler. That’s sort of how that happened.

Eric Conner: Though Mr. Shaw was not the only performer who had a hand in shaping the script. Thanks to all those tech delays, the cast had plenty of time to try new ideas.

Steven Spielberg: Well, I think the script changed because we were so bored. I mean, I was sitting around with Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw. We’re sitting around with nothing to do for hours. And we made stuff up. I made up the scene where where, and we later was put in the script. We reverse engineered it. We would shoot a scene and then write the scene that we had just shot. So the script person, Charlsie Bryant, could have the continuity. Other times we just got bored and dreamed up scenes on the boat, took them home that night, gave the scenes that we had made up on the boat to Carl Gottlieb, who wrote the scenes into the script for the next day’s work. An example of that is the scene where Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw bored with each other and very hostile toward one another. Robert showing off to Richard drinks the can of beer and squishies the can in his hand, and Richard drinks the little Styrofoam cup of coffee and switches the Styrofoam. Those things were not originally in the script, has found their way in it somehow, just based on the fact that we kept exploring. We had so much downtime, we had nothing to do but to explore how to make these scenes better. I don’t encourage improvisation if I have a strong script, but sometimes things happen and the lines aren’t working and it just doesn’t seem authentic enough to me or to the actors who are struggling to bring the scene to life. And when we do that, sometimes we do improvise. And I don’t really like to improvise with the camera’s going. I’ve done it. I prefer to improvise without the cameras and take the best lines to come out of the improvisation, put those through the writing process and then take the improvisation and then recycle it into a structured narrative based on improvisation. Several scenes in Private Ryan. All my soldiers improvised scenes and we just took the best lines that they came up with and folded them into a sequence. But most of my movies, I have to confess, are not the result of improvisation.

Eric Conner: Though most of us think of him as a visionary craftsman, Steven Spielberg consistently credits much of his success to casting. His expectations for his cast are surprisingly basic, but they are crucial.

Steven Spielberg: The most important characteristic that I require is that they know all their dialogue. They know their lines. You’d be surprised how many actors come to the set unprepared because they’ve come to receive inspiration. They’ve come to figure it all out. They want to be able to improvise a bit. They want to be able to make their own contributions. So they just loosely know what they’re about to say, but they don’t really get it letter perfect. And all I ever ask anybody is well what the writer wrote you should make that second nature to you. And then we can riff from there and change from there. But know the basic foundation of the day’s work. And so that’s the first thing I ask for. The rest is easy, because if you’re not good in my movie, it’s not your fault. It’s my fault for casting you. So you have nothing to worry about except know your lines. Then we’ll collaborate and we’ll find a great way to tell that character’s story. But there’s not much more you have to worry about.

Eric Conner: Sure nothing to worry about, you know as long as you can outrun a T-Rex or the tripods in War of the Worlds. Steven Spielberg is just as careful when determining his crew. Especially since he tends to hold on to them for lots of projects.

Steven Spielberg: I pick my crew very carefully because I tend to work with the same crew. You know, I tend to stick with the people. Ron Judkins is made like eighteen movies with me. He’s my head sound mixer, my production sound guy. You know, I’ve had Gary Rydstrom doing doing and Ben Burtt doing sound effects for me for years consistently. I’ve used other people, too, but they’re the most consistent. You know Janusz Kaminski has shot my last eleven movies that I’ve directed, and before that Allen Daviau did three and Dean Cundey did about three or four. So I like working with the same crew. I like working with the same operator, camera operator, same focus puller, the same dolly grips because the strangers to the experience are pretty much the actors. And I love the actors walking into a community of friends and collaborators who know each other and our dialogue with each other as shorthand because we’ve known each other so long. We don’t have to get acquainted from film to film. We have to get acquainted with the material because we’re all chameleons. The movie requires crew to be like character actors where you have to fill different shoes, different kinds of parts. But I like the consistency of a crew and that’s why I’m very careful to pick my crew and I hang onto them as long as I can.

Eric Conner: So for those of you looking to find a crew for your own movie, choose wisely. Even if you’re a weekend warrior making a film while working other jobs or going to school, find the right team. That’s how Steven Spielberg got his start when he was barely even old enough to shave.

Steven Spielberg: The fortunate thing about wanting to be a director is that directors pretty much have a little more control at least in going out on a weekend with an 8 millimeter movie camera. You know, if you do odd jobs and in my day I could do odd jobs and my dad helped me and I made some money and my dad lent me some money, which I never paid back. Well I did pay it back. He’s living pretty good now. But I think that early on, a director at least has the control of putting together a little group to go out. Go see Super 8, because that’s exactly what JJ and I experienced, where we were 12 and 14 years old. Making movies like that with neighborhood friends but with actors it’s different. And I’ve got several actors in my family. I know how hard it is. And there’s not a single actor that could be sitting where I’m sitting right now who could deny the fact that they ever hit big bottomless pits of feeling that nobody wanted them and they would never have a chance to express themselves in the performing arts. Every actor I don’t know who it is. You’d name any name, and I’m sure all of them have a story about the lows they hit before some exciting piece of kismet occurred to them before them. And they got a chance to, you know, to show off how good they were. So it’s gonna happen. It can also happen after you’ve had a spate of roles. You can have a year in a TV series and it might be three years before you get hired again. That’s not because you weren’t very good in the TV series is because sometimes directors, casting directors, producers don’t quite know how to place or cast everybody. And actors have droughts. You’ve got, you know, high moments and low moments. Just my advice to everybody would be, if you believe in yourself and if you’ve got the wherewithal to keep you know, you know what they say, the gumshoe, you know, going from meeting to meeting, reading to reading, study, go to acting class, continue to take classes. I encourage actors that are working to go to class. When I was a young director here at Universal, all the actors that I knew that I was either directing in television episodes when I was in my early 20s or actors who I knew about, they were all going to acting class. They were being paid to be in TV shows and they were going to acting class when they weren’t professionally being paid to act. There’s something very commendable about that. So you’ve got to keep studying.

Eric Conner: A reason to keep working on your craft is so that you’re ready for your first professional gig, especially since you might not be able to pick your own collaborators, at least not right away.

Steven Spielberg: I think when you first get your professional break and you’re a director for the first time and somebody has hired you, it’s most likely going to be in television or it’s going to be maybe a video, a music video or a commercial. And in that case, you’re going to be handed your crew. You’re gonna be given the people to work with and you’re going to have to get to know them. You’ll be assigned a team. If it’s a commercial, if it’s if it’s a music video, maybe a little looser on music videos, you can maybe bring a DP along. It’s not until you get yourself firmly established that you’ll be able to start handpicking your own crew. At least that’s my experience. I think a lot of independent filmmakers that have to go raise the money. Yes. When you’re an independent filmmaker and you’re going to make your first feature for four hundred thousand dollars and you’ve raised all the funding, then you can pick your crew on your own. But when you come into a television show, let’s say the crew’s already, they all have contracts and they’re all long term. And just to pick people, you know, you see a lot of movies and find DPs you like, find a lighting style you think is terrific. Look at a lot of independent movies, watch a lot of YouTube videos. You find surprisingly a lot of good people lighting YouTube videos for young filmmakers. And YouTube, of course, is your exhibition hall. That’s your conduit to getting people to notice your work. When I was making eight millimeter films, I had to lug the 8 millimeter projector around with me and get people to give me enough time to at least set the screen up and open it up and thread the projector and bring the window shades down and show a six minute movie before I got kicked out, thrown on my ear. You know, now there is a forum for young filmmakers to show what they’ve got, which is great news for this generation.

Eric Conner: One of the great things about hearing Steven Spielberg discuss his various projects over the years is that well, we’ve basically seen all of them. And if you haven’t, you know, get to it, such as this one early draft of a book, he got Universal to option back in the 90s.

Steven Spielberg: Jurassic Park, I was lucky because I – Universal bought for me a book that was so brilliant and so constructed by Michael Crichton, and I knew Michael a little bit, Michael and I met when he sold his first book to Universal called The Andromeda Strain. And I had just I was 21 years old. I just signed a contract to be a TV director. And my first job was to show Michael Crichton this lot. So I gave him a tour of the lot and he was a great guy. I knew for years. And he gave me a look at the galleys for Jurassic Park and I had a chance to bid on it early. And I eventually got the book Universal paid for it. And the book provided an amazing structure. And Michael also worked on a draft of the script before David Koepp got involved that was able to bring the book down to a narrative that was closer to the way I saw his Jurassic Park. So I would say that my first real point of creative collaboration on Jurassic Park before we ever conceived of how to bring these dinosaurs to life was with the author of the book and then with the screenwriter David Koepp. And that’s where it all starts. I always say if it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage and you’ve got to have a story to tell. You can riff on it. You can make it up. You can improvise things. But you’ve got to always have a basic narrative. And that’s where I spend most of my time before I direct a picture is with the writer.

Eric Conner: It’s a good lesson there. All the groundbreaking effects in the world still require a workable script, just like how a movie needs breaks from nonstop action and effects. Filmmakers sometimes need a break too. Even the man with over 50 directing credits to his name.

Steven Spielberg: It took me three years to recover from Schindler’s List. So I didn’t direct anything for three years. I’ve only twice had a three year hiatus. Once was after Saving Private Ryan and once was after Schindler’s List. And I think my three year hiatus after Schindler’s List was just because it was a very impactful experience telling that particular series of stories. And I wanted a break and I couldn’t get inspired to do anything else after Schindler’s List. I felt that I had spent a lot of energy and passion. I sort of became, I guess – well, here’s the other thing happened. I formed the Shoah foundation, which was a very difficult but very inspirational project, where I was taking testimonies, not myself personally, but hundreds of videographers all over the world. And sixty five countries were sent out to find the survivors of the Holocaust who would talk to our cameras to tell us what happened to them. And that took a long time to set up. So most of my energy went into that, into the documentaries that I was starting to produce because of that. And I wasn’t really interested in telling fictitious stories for a while. But when I finally decided that I wanted to get back to work, I thought the safest bet would be to purge myself of the reality of Schindler’s List and go into very familiar territory and shoot the sequel to Jurassic Park. Which was fun for me. And a vacation to do Lost World. And after Schindler’s List, I needed a vacation. That was a vacation I took.

Eric Conner: Well deserved breaks notwithstanding, Mr. Spielberg feels that there’s always something around him that provides inspiration for his art.

Steven Spielberg: Right now, my inspiration pretty much comes from my kids, my coworkers, my friends who are writers, other directors. My inspiration comes from seeing a good movie when I see a bad movie. The problem about seeing a bad movie is I’m uninspired for weeks. So I just try to be very, very selective because I try to see as a lot of movies. But when I see a good picture, it just turned something on inside of me that is unquenchable. And I just start producing thoughts. Not all them become movies or television shows, but they exist to me. And it’s a gift that a good play, a good screenplay, a good movie gives me. And I think it’s the same way for all of us. You know how you feel when you see something that inspires you. You want to go to work tomorrow. You want to take what you were inspired by and share that with the rest of the world through your own personal idiosyncrasies. So that’s all I look for is good stuff.

Eric Conner: The good stuff sometimes might fly in the face of conventional wisdom about what projects Steven Spielberg should be directing next, but that doesn’t concern him. He prefers to just be open to possibilities.

Steven Spielberg: I don’t think a lot. I mean, I spend a lot of time reacting to things. I’ve kept myself open because to me, the reaction is more important than the thought process, meaning that my best career choice, I guess, would be just leaving myself open to be responsive to a script or an idea or a piece of material that comes down the pike. And if I really have a very intensely passionate, emotional reaction to it, I’m probably directed or at least try to direct it. So I just leave myself open to that. The projects that I wind up not doing in the projects I spent a year worrying to death, you know? Should I do it? Maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe it’s too similar to the last movie I made. If I used my brain to make all my choices. I would never have made E.T. because I had already made Close Encounters five years before. And I was into a whole thing about not wanting to repeat myself. And I had to beat that down with a stick, because if I didn’t repeat myself, there’s a lot of movies I never would’ve made. I wouldn’t have made Jaws because it would’ve been too similar to Duel. You know, I’m saying so sometimes you just have to stop thinking and just start reacting.

Eric Conner: If repeating one’s work is the reason we have E.T., then I think we should all consider doing it. So if the tales of his storied career weren’t enough, Steven Spielberg’s final words to our students demonstrated how he has inspired audiences for decades.

Steven Spielberg: You’re the gift. Everybody in this room is the gift because you are the future of this business. I mean, you’re all going to go into this business and you’re gonna do different things. You may not be doing the same things you’re training to do right now. You may surprise yourselves and do things that an actor may be a director, a writer may turn into a producer. You just don’t know. Somebody might be an editor. Someone might be a production designer. Someone might be in publicity and marketing. You just never know. But the fact of the matter is that I sit here and look at all of these bright young faces and I just see the future of this business and it looks really bright. Thanks to all of you. Really.

Eric Conner: To the man who gave us Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Private Ryan, Close Encounters and dozens of other classics. Well, I think he’s the one who deserves our thanks. As do all of you for listening.

This episode was based on the Q&A moderated by Tova Laiter. To watch the full interview or to see our other Q&As, check out our YouTube channel at YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by me, Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Our creative director is David Andrew Nelson, who also produced this episode with Kristian Heydon and myself. Executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler. A special thanks to all our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.

Tova: Hi and welcome to the backlot. I’m Tova Laiter moderator and director of the New York Film Academy Guest Lecture series. In this episode, we will take an in-depth look at one of my great guests and hear about her experience in the entertainment industry. And now Eric Conner will take you through the highlights of this Q&A.

Eric Conner: Hi, I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you producer Nicole Avant and her Netflix documentary, The Black Godfather. We recommend you watch it before listening. But you know, that’s up to you. So who is The Black Godfather a.k.a. Miss Avant’s dad, Clarence Avant? For one, he was a powerful music executive who helped usher in the careers of countless musicians, including the recently deceased Bill Withers.

[Bill Withers – Ain’t No Sunshine]

Eric Conner: But his career went beyond music. He was an influencer and a tastemaker. In the 1970s, he ensured that homerun king Hank Aaron would be the face of Coca-Cola. More recently, he was a major player in introducing the country to Barack Obama. And without him, the universe might never have gotten this memorable theme. At an early age, Nicole Avant got to see firsthand just how powerful her dad really was.

Nicole Avant: I think it was oh, I definitely know for sure it was with Hank Aaron, probably one of the first times that I noticed because we got special seats at Dodger Stadium. And even though Hank wasn’t from here, that’s the one way he was – wanted to do something for our family. But I remember Hank was very open. He’s really the one who gave me the inspiration to make the movie because Hank was the most open and honest about how my father’s actions changed his life and he made such a big deal out of it. And then because of that, I would ask, like I knew he broke Babe Ruth’s record, but that’s all I knew. Then he gave me the backstory of how hard it was personally, like he couldn’t enjoy it, like he said in the film, you couldn’t even enjoy it because of all the death threats and fearing for his children’s lives.

And so I think between that and then seeing my dad on Soul Train, which by the way, that clip that we found, my parents told me I was crazy, told me it didn’t exist. Everybody told me it didn’t exist. And my mom said, you must have dreamt that. He was never on Soul Train. Why would he be? My dad said I was never on Soul Train. I’m telling you, I remember. I was young and I was watching the TV. And I remember it was a big deal because he was on television. I didn’t know why my father was on television. So I was so happy that we found that footage because they kept fighting me on it. But I think those two things and then as I got older, it was getting into concerts and getting in backstage. There was like a Bobby Brown new addition, some Al B. Sure, something. They were all together. And I remember we couldn’t get backstage and we were, we didn’t have enough passes or we didn’t have the right passes or something. I said, oh, darn it. And I was walking away and someone said, Avant, come this way. And then some security guard walks up to me and goes, are you related to Clarence? And I said, maybe, yes, because I don’t know why he was asking. And all of a sudden he just opened. He’s like, come on, come. How many friends do you have? And I go, this is amazing. This is fantastic. So it kind of happened throughout. But I remember the first time was really Soul Train and then Hank Aaron and Andy Young telling me their stories.

Eric Conner: In case that story doesn’t make it clear, Clarence Avant is truly a larger than life figure who’s stories almost sound like myths. And who better to produce a documentary worthy of the man than his own daughter? And that’s thanks largely to the lessons he bestowed upon her at an early age.

Nicole Avant: My parents made me do every kind of job all my life. They had me started working like when I was 10 answering phones at this record company or working at a boutique. I sold shoes. I was a waitress. I did all that. And then one time my father said, I wanted to be in the record business. I want to follow my dad and that. And I ended up doing that. But I was in college and he said, I got you a job. I got you an internship at Warner Brothers Television. I don’t want to go to Warner Brothers television. I don’t even want to do that. He said, but you should learn the business. You should learn different types of business because all of entertainment is one business. So you should learn like all the facets. So I went there and I have to say I loved it. And I learned everything. You know, I copied scripts, you know, for one week and then I drove around and was a gopher the next week. And then I was in the legal department. I went to all the different departments and met different people. And it kind of helps you understand the business. I still didn’t really necessarily want to. I always want to make documentary films. I loved those films when I was growing up. I loved that it taught me everything. And then as I got older, I thought, well, maybe there’s some way you can make a film that’s, that’s a documentary, but a little more of the entertainment business in it to make it cooler and make people sit through it. Or they’d want to sit through it. And so I started there. My claim to fame during my internship, by the way, was meeting. I had, it was my last week. And there is a show called Head of the Class. And this is in the 80s. You guys were probably not even born. But they said to me the last week, you have a guest star. And I said, what do I do? And they said, you just go to the trailer, make sure he shows up on set on time, make sure he has a script. Blah, blah, blah. And I went and I walked up with my clipboard and I knocked on his trailer and I said, Hi, Brad. And he walked out. He said, yes. And I said, Brad Pitt. And he said, yes. And I said, Hi, I’m Nicole Avant. I’m your gopher. And he, and it’s so crazy that I’m watching him at the Oscars this week. And what I loved about him was that he was so excited to be an actor. He was so excited to be where he was in that moment. Like, can you believe we’re on this lot? Can you believe we’re here? Isn’t this so great? But I remember that. And that was a long – that was 1988 I think. So that’s how I, I kind of did every job but I fell into entertainment through that internship that I fought my dad on. Of just saying, I want to do what I want to do this summer. And he’s, of course, was like, well, you’re on my payroll, so you’re going to do what I say, which he’s right, because now I say the same thing to my kids.

Eric Conner: Working these jobs taught Miss Avant how to conduct herself in the entertainment industry.

Nicole Avant: I used to follow the head of legal department out of all things, but it was the way he behaved that I studied. I noticed that he spoke to everybody, no matter who it was, he spoke to everybody, meaning not just trying to start a conversation, but he was respectful to everybody. So if it was the janitor and we walked into the building. He knew the janitor’s name. He said, hello. How’s your family? Wherever. We go all the way up to the president’s office, he’d speak to that person the same way. And I noticed that he Taught me, basically, you need to live the golden rule in your life as much as you can. You’re gonna mess up. And we all do. We all don’t pay attention to things that we should. But what I loved about him is that through his actions, he spoke to me instead of sitting down and saying, here’s my advice for you to go through life. He showed me really how to go through life. And he really did practice that every day, even if he was in a bad mood or what have you. It was very important to him to show people that they are valuable by giving them respect. And what I learned from him was that respect is the highest form of love. So when people say just love everybody, I think really it’s respect everybody, because then everybody’s kind of, you know, as much as you can. But that’s what I learned from him. And I and I’ve tried to take it into every area of my life. And I notice when I don’t do it and how it makes me feel. So that’s what I would say was the best advice shown to me.

Eric Conner: Miss Avant grew up with an amazing role model and her father. So it’s not too surprising that she initially worked in the music industry. But like her dad, she wasn’t content staying in one lane for too long.

Nicole Avant: I thought I was going to stay in the record business all my life. I loved it and I loved the challenges and I loved the different facets of it. I love working in different departments. I had a great time. But then as different opportunities showed up, I just thought, you know, I’m so curious about things that I just kind of went that way. But I think it’s your personality and I think you need to do what you really, whatever you’re really good at is usually a sign of that’s what you should be doing. It doesn’t mean you can’t do other things, like if you do comedy all your life. I mean, if you wanted to do comedy, but you still love dancing, it doesn’t mean you can’t take a class, you know? It doesn’t mean that you have to be a professional at all these different things, but focus on really what you love and what you want to give your time to, I think is the most important thing. And usually you know what you love by what you’re really good at, whatever you’re really good at. That’s why it’s a gift. Like you just have it. But you have to, at some point in your life, you’re going to have to figure out what’s your hobby vs. what your talent is and where you want to go. And you’ll, you’ll figure that out. You’re young, you have time. But I would try everything for sure. But I wouldn’t stay in something if you just kind of like, I’m just going to stay in this and I’m not really sure and you just kind of hang out there without it being your passion. Because a lot of people say follow your passion. But I always say you need to follow what you’re really good at. You really do. I mean, if I followed my passion, I, you know. God knows. I don’t think I’d be sitting here. But I think it depends on your personality. But I think why not? When you’re young, this is the time to try as many things as possible, to see where you feel comfortable, where you feel that you could be as productive as you can.

Eric Conner: Her passion has taken her far and wide, from powerful music exec, to acting in Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog, to serving as U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas. And through all of this, she had her sights set on one important project.

Nicole Avant: This documentary happened because I was trying to figure out a way to tell my dad’s story, at least just document it like as a tribute reel, kind of just for my family and for, you know, just passing it along. And then I thought, no. And then we were gonna write a book. And then the more and more time I spent with my father, I thought, he’s such a character. He’s so crazy. I mean, who would even believe this in a book? No one’s gonna believe any of this. No one’s going to believe the stories. No one’s going to believe his personality. And then, I said something to my husband one day, I said, I wish there was something where I could tie in sports and movies and television and activism and civil rights and all these things. He said, you’ve lived with the guy for 18 years. He’s right under your roof. You don’t even see that the character, your main person is right there. And then that’s how it happened.

And I knew Reggie Hudlin for a very long time and we’d been really good friends and we’d always sit in a corner at a party and talk about African-American history and get frustrated that no one really understood our history. And no one had seen documentaries on us or knew enough. You know, there was always like African-Americans, all black people in America are, live this way and eat this food or only do these things. And it would just drive me nuts. And Reggie was the same. And I figured he’d be a great person to direct because my father would give him more because my dad’s not very, what’s the right word? He’s just not very open.

Eric Conner: Reggie is Reginald Hudlin, the Oscar nominated producer of Django Unchained and director of Eddie Murphy’s Boomerang. Despite her connections to the subject, it still took a lot of hands on deck behind the scenes to make The Black Godfather.

Nicole Avant: Kate had worked on a few other films, and since this is my first one, she knew how to get everybody in the room and set everything up. So it’s, you know, it’s like kind of the end of the movie. You see all the credits and everyone has a gift to bring to the film. And I think that’s true in every area of life. Like, everybody has a gift that they bring, that they have, that somebody else doesn’t have. And it doesn’t mean that it’s less or better than someone else. But people always say, oh my God, you did all these things. I really have like two things that I can do in life, you know. And I I just use those things all the time. But I’m not great at a lot of things. I’m really not. And some people and I want to find people who. Oh, my God. You’re fantastic at that. You’re great at this. You can make me look great. I mean, if without the editors. Jeez, I mean, what would you do without an editor. I cried so many times during this film. I would just take all the notes. Like could you make a film out of this? Possibly. Could you make any of this make sense? Because none of this is making sense. And as soon as you know, Will would work with me every other day, every week, and all of a sudden it started coming. You know, all of a sudden his gifts started allowing. And then once it started, then I would come up with more ideas.

Eric Conner: If one thing made this project complicated and trust me, there was more than one. It was the challenge of fitting all of Clarence Avant into one documentary and the lack of script might not have helped.

Nicole Avant: In hindsight, if I could do it over, the one thing I would do is have a script. I wish I would have had something written out, some kind of storyline that we could follow. I think a lot of my frustration was, where the hell are we going with this? What – are we start? – We had so many openings, so many, because we didn’t have a script. You got to know where you’re going. And I think that’s what scripts kind of, you can always change them, but it’s really nice to start somewhere and kind of know like you – I like – I like connecting the dots and everything. But it was basically most of the interviews. And then because we didn’t have a script, we didn’t know we had 20 different stories to tell. So it kind of finally fell in to him being the change in so many people’s lives and being the important change. And so then we started taking different interviews out. So we had to get very, very specific. So it took a little longer than we wanted. It was almost three years.

Eric Conner: When you watch the documentary, one ongoing theme is how Clarence Avant’s real push wasn’t just about inclusivity. It was about putting African-American entertainers in the driver’s seats of their own careers.

Nicole Avant: I think the biggest changes and the most important changes were putting people in a position of power that they can therefore make decisions and control their destiny and then open the door for other people to come in. I mean, there used to be you know, when I was growing up, it used to be like Billboard used to have the top 100 songs, you know, black artists. It was the black charts and then the world charts. And they used to separate them all. I mean, I’m not kidding. It wasn’t that long ago. I mean, it was still just the black chart. And it was really important for my dad to say, listen, why can’t black people be in charge and women be in charge of certain departments that are only run by, you know, one type of person? But it should be everybody. And by the way, not just for black, – like in the film – you know, my dad managed Lalo Schifrin. Well, Lalo Schifrin’s not black, obviously. And my dad, I loved his question and I love the answer he got back was, what am I going to do with a white composer? Well, the same thing you do with a black composer. Like it’s, you know. And that’s what my dad was fighting is, why aren’t there black executives working on R&B music as well as black executives working in rock n roll? Because everybody else is doing both. So I think that’s the most important thing, that things started to change in the record business. And you started to see more people of color in general, really having high level positions that they otherwise would have never had.

Eric Conner: It’s clear in the doc that Clarence Avant would not back down from what he believed in. And that might be what impresses Miss Avant most about her father. He’s brave.

Nicole Avant: He’s really brave. I think bravery, by the way, is just missing in general. I really do. I mean, just, you know, being courageous doesn’t mean that you’re never afraid. It’s just you do it afraid. That’s just it. I have to tell myself all the time. I’m still afraid. I’m afraid of lots of things. But then I just have to then convince myself. Nicole, you’re going to do it afraid. And I think my father was very lucky that he knew his purpose early on, which is a difference. You know, a lot of people don’t. But he got that lane right where he figured like it’s almost like he won like the golden ticket, you know, and he realize, oh, my God, no one else has this ticket. And with this ticket, I can open lots of doors for other people that otherwise would just be standing there. I like to say that he made it possible, you know how people always say, like, run your race, run your race. I think my dad’s gift was that he allowed people to get on their mark. Because you have to get on your mark before you could run your race. And I think a lot of people have been denied throughout history, white and black. And every religion and both genders, everybody has at some point been denied stepping up to their mark. And I think that’s what’s important right now to all men is show up and just get on your mark and then go. And you know what? And then sometimes you’re going to run or you’re going to fall and sometimes you’re gonna have to pick yourself up. And sometimes it’s not going to work out the way you thought. And sometimes you’re going to continuously do the right thing and the wrong thing is going to happen. But the beauty about life, I think, is that you get to start over every single day. And life really is an arena. And that’s the one thing I learned from my dad, because I used to get mad at him when I was younger, because I used to think that he’d never gave me a break. If I complained about anything or I was sad about something, he’s like, you got to get back in the arena. You’ve got to get back in the game, Nicole. You’ve got to get back in the game. And what I’ve taken from that is it’s true. But sometimes you have to pause. But you still have to get back. And so you have to be brave to get, because life is just tough. And it’s beautiful for sure. But it’s still tough. It’s tough and beautiful. And you have to make the most of it. I think without bravery, I think you’re kind of dead in the water.

Eric Conner: Though Miss Avant cautions that her dad’s personality might not exactly be the model for everyone to emulate.

Nicole Avant: I would be a little more polished than my father. He definitely rubbed people the wrong way for sure, because it’s a very big personality. It’s a lot. He’s just a lot. And it’s great in certain areas. That’s why it was perfect for what he did. It was perfect. But he couldn’t take that personality everywhere, you know. So even he was not like that. When he used to come to my parent teacher meetings, he was like a little fly on the wall, you know. He’d say, hi, are you all right? You know, like I’m Mr. Avant, but quite a different person. You’d be surprised at dinner parties. He doesn’t talk. He’s very awkward. He’s socially awkward. So this whole big persona is only in his lane. Outside of his lane, he’s quiet and shy and. But I I think that as an actor, I think you you study human behavior. And I think just read the room and you’ll know. And sometimes it’ll call for you to be like, oh, you know what? Screw it. I’m just going to walk up to this person and say something. And then other times you have to really know. No, I’m not going to I’m not going to do that. You know, I think a lot of acting teachers now tell people, just write to the producers home, send your headshots and send it to their house and be bold. Don’t do that. No, I really don’t. Because, you know what? Guess where it goes. Right in the trash. That’s just the truth. And the only because it gets like, there’s an office. Like there has to be some level of professionalism and some level of boundaries. Otherwise, people don’t take it seriously or they think of you in a different way where you definitely don’t want that, where you’re thinking, I’m going to be bold and different and cool. And then someone else is thinking, oh, my God, this person is not even respecting my boundaries. So when people go to work, they want to work. And when they come home, sometimes they don’t. It just never lands right. I’ve never seen it. I know everyone tells people that because I used to be in acting classes, these to say, oh, go do this. And I just thought, oh, I know better. No, no, no, I’m not gonna I’m not I’m not going to do this. So I think it just is, is whatever you feel in the moment. But especially because you are an actor and you could kind of read people in a different way. I think you’ll know. But I wouldn’t go, I wouldn’t go outside of who you are, you know, if it’s your personality. That’s one thing. But I wouldn’t, you seem to have a very nice open personality. You don’t have to do much. And you have a great smile. You should do that for sure. That just opened up. I mean that’s a big door opener right there. Walking in with a very positive attitude and a smile changes everything. It’s really a really great calling card for anything, by the way.

Eric Conner: His bravery and determination is what makes Clarence Avant such an inspirational character and why Nicole Avant was so excited about how far this documentary could reach.

Nicole Avant: I would’ve told the story if it was about any of your dads, by the way. It had nothing. I mean, he just happened to be my dad, but I just thought it was such a good story, I would’ve told it about anybody. And I really wanted to. I didn’t have a target audience. I definitely wanted African-Americans for sure to see the film so they could see because I hear all the time. I get letters all the time like, we’ve never seen ourselves on the screen all at once, like all black people working together or people doing things together for each other and supporting each other and not playing one role or being the bad person or being poor or this or that. But I wanted it to reach. I literally my prayer was like, I pray that this reaches everyone that it’s supposed to reach around the world. And if it can motivate and inspire and empower as many people as possible, that was my goal. And that’s what’s happened. Thank God. But it really has been wonderful to hear from people of all continents. Everybody writing in saying, oh, I didn’t know this or I’d never seen this before or I didn’t know this part about American history or the civil rights footage that we really wanted to put the film because I knew that out of everything that was going to be the most talked about that people forgot or that they don’t show in schools anymore. I grew up in schools where they used to show that all the time. They don’t do that anymore. And I think it’s important because you don’t necessarily have to say anything. You just show footage. And I think people understand from watching something, which I think is the beauty of what you guys want to do in life is the beauty of storytelling is showing something as opposed to beating it on the head all the time and trying to just suffocate someone to understand. Sometimes it’s just an image because the image is so powerful. So that’s what we wanted to do.

Eric Conner: Miss Avant envisioned The Black Godfather as an opportunity to share her father’s legacy. So a new generation could learn about how far he went to make things happen, both for himself and for others. Just as importantly, it also shows the power and importance of artistic expression.

Nicole Avant: I realized at a young age. I’ve watched everyone around me, and the beauty was that I realized that everyone, no matter how successful you’d see it on TV or in the newspapers, you read about them that they had a human experience like everybody else and the human experience is up and down and up and down and sad and happy and this and that. And humans have to become strong. We all have to be, develop a muscle within ourselves to get up again and run. And sometimes we have to pause longer than others. Sometimes the pause is really long and very hurtful and sometimes it’s not. But the trick is you have to know that you have to get up and run again. And it’s tiring. But I think it’s the ticket in life. I think it’s just that’s it. But music motivates me. Music and movies. Like without movies. Movies actually help me survive, really, because I would go into other people’s stories and other people’s worlds. And when you see trauma and sadness and pain through somebody else’s eyes and somebody else’s story, it kind of gives you, I think helps develop a strong muscle in you. And you kind of learn from other people. At least I did. I watched movies all the time. It’s honestly music and movies because it’s again, music is storytelling. So stories have gotten me through everything in life. And I’d always go back to different characters. And, you know, It’s A Wonderful Life was my favorite movie at a very young age because I thought the angel Clarence did what my father did. That’s why I thought, oh, my God, that’s what my dad does. Same. His name is Clarence. It’s the same thing. But but that movie made a very big impact on me of faith and people having faith in you and being a really good person and bad things happening to you or unfair things happening to you. So that’s what keeps me motivated, is other stories so that you don’t feel like it’s only you.

Eric Conner: Miss Avant’s love letter to her father’s life and career manages to do all of that and then some. We want to thank her for sharing her story with our students. And thanks to all of you for listening. By the way, she’s married to Ted Sarandos, the chief content officer of Netflix. We did an episode on him a little while back. So give it a listen.

This episode was based on the Q&A moderated by Tova Laiter to watch the full interview or to see our other Q&As, check out our YouTube channel at YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by me Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Our creative director is David Andrew Nelson, who also produced this episode with Kristian Heydon and myself. Executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler. To learn more about our programs. Check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.

Tova Laiter: Hi and welcome to the backlot. I’m Tova Laiter moderator and director of the New York Film Academy Guest Lecture series. In this episode, we will take an in-depth look at one of my great guests and hear about his experience in the entertainment industry. And now, Eric Conner, we’ll take you through the highlights of this Q&A.

Eric Conner: Hi, I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we bring you the man who gave John Wick some of the coolest dialog we’ve heard since classic Schwarzenegger. Screenwriter Derek Kolstad.

Clip: They call him Baba Yaga.

Clip: I once saw him kill three men in a bar. With a pencil.

Clip: I’m retired.

Clip: Not if you’re drinking here you’re not.

Clip: They know you’re coming.

Clip: Of course. But it won’t matter.

Eric Conner: There’s more to Derek Kolstad’s story than snappy dialog. In fact, Mr. Kolstad first discovered his deep love of cinema thanks to one very specific trait: his height.

Derek Kolstad: Like all you guys, I mean, I grew up loving movies and grew up in a Christian household. And I was a s****y liar. I still am. And I was this height at the age of 12. And so I never got carded going into R rated movies. And I excitedly came home. My mom said, what did you see? And I was like, Robocop. And that was a horrifying movie at the time. And I excitedly told her the entire plot of the movie and I laughed. And she looked to my dad and said, we should probably encourage him in this. So thanks, mom and dad. Madison, Wisconsin is a world away from L.A., especially pre-Internet. And even though I started writing screenplays at the age of 13 before Microsoft Word, we had word perfect. And I programed the template for a screenplay and just started writing for myself. So I’d write two, three, four or five screenplays a year and put them on the shelf or save them and that file’d get f**king corrupted and all that kind of stuff. But I didn’t know how to do this, so I watched movies. I love movies.

Eric Conner: Mr. Kolstad did more than just watch movies. He wrote a lot of them, too. So we got his shot later in life. He was ready.

Derek Kolstad: Honestly, it came down to, you know, we always talk about the 10,000 hour rule. You guys have heard that a thousand times, I’m sure. And I think for me, it’s the 10,000 page rule. But you get to a point where you begin to hear voices in your head from various editors and readers in your life without hearing them. And also you realize that more often than not, in the movies that I love and the movies I want to write the city’s a character, the building’s a character. So spend a line or two. You love your hero, you love your hero. You love your hero. And you want to stay with the hero. And then you realize that when you deviate from the hero, what the people are talking about and what they’re trying to say and do affects your hero. I mean, that’s that’s genre to me. That’s what I love about it. But when you think of the efficiency of it, our favorite scenes in movies don’t have anything to do with plot. You know, I always think of Ronan is one of my favorite movies I bring it up all the time. And if you want to write. Watch that watch that weekly until you sell something.

Tova Laiter: Which one?

Derek Kolstad: Frankenheimer’s Ronan because there’s so many just lines in there, throwaway lines, you realize, oh, that’s character, you know. But I think the other thing, too, is don’t be afraid to write out the dialog. Write out the narrative. Write the conversation. Read it and render it out three pages into a look, a nod. We were talking in the green room about, you know, the old westerns. And you can you can say what you will about some of them. You can have a monologue. You can have a certain guy tip his hat. And the tip of the hat speaks more so in regards to efficiency. The other thing, too, is go way back. Watch Harold Lloyd. Watch Buster Keaton, watch the old silent movies and just see how they tell a story without any kind of dialog. And that was a godsend

Eric Conner:As many people in the entertainment industry can attest. Sometimes love just ain’t enough. Derek Kolstad even started a different career but he couldn’t turn his back on his true passion.

Derek Kolstad: The age of 26, I was a consultant in Chicago. I worked for Dale Carnegie and I taught sales managers how to build and staff their sales teams. Exciting. And my little brother called and he asked me how he’s doing. I just start crying and I’m not an emotional guy. And I realized I had to fail at this. And so it was about 2000. I drove out to L.A. in a Golf TI that had been shipped over from Germany without a governor switch. It was a diesel little thing. Half my backseat was taken up by a 19 inch CRT monitor and people just glaze over at the tech.

But anyway, I knew one guy who worked at Azuza Pacific University that I went to kindergarten with and I crashed on his couch out in San Dimas. That’s where I started. And this was before I mean, it was with email and stuff, but I was spending two hundred and 300 bucks a week printing out scripts, putting in the Brads, buying straight edge razors to actually run along the sides so that when people opened up, it just felt good. And I got noticed right away because I wrote a screenplay called The Wayfarer. And it was just a cool title. It was a sci fi horror, which a couple of years after event horizon. So it was kind of in that mix. And I had two black leads. So at the time, everyone, of course, thought that Derek Kolstad was a black man and I’m not. But I had a lot of very interesting meetings of walking into Spike Lee’s company and they’re like who are you? But it was a great experience. And I got to know a lot of people.

The problem was, is I had the corporate thick skin. I didn’t have the industry thick skin like I came from Midwest corporate where handshakes were does your bond. Hollywood is very different, you hear yes all the time. And you get to a stage where you want to hear go f**k yourself because you’re like, oh, thank God, you know. And so I walked away for a little bit, but kept writing and kept watching. And I would still write three to five screenplays a year, put them on a shelf. And I wrote this one called Acolyte and Sonia, my wife, who we lovingly refer to as a script bitch, because she’s the first line defense. She is my editor. And she better at this than me. She makes me a better writer. And she read it and she’s like, you should try again. I got a manager I did to direct to DVD movies that were an ungodly challenging. You’re still kind of, you know, proud of them because of what you went through. And I was like, I’m done. You know, I’ve lived a happy life. I like writing. It makes me happy. And so I was going to walk away.

Eric Conner: John Wick also claimed he was gonna walk away. And we know how that played out. Fortunately, one of the producers on Mr. Kolstad’s previous films wasn’t gonna let his talents go to waste.

Derek Kolstad: The one producer on that project that I liked named Mike Callahan introduced me to Mike Goldberg and Josh Adler who were managers at the time. And they’re currently still my reps. They saved me. The first one we went out with was Acolyte, got optioned for eighteen hundred bucks, which a man, you know, that was three months of rent. And then I wrote Scorn and Scorn is what John Wick became. And I wrote it after watching Faster with Dwayne Johnson and Harry Browne, both of which movies, I was just like, they were, OK, you know. And my thing about John Wick is it’s an homage to the movies I grew up with and loved. You know, you mentioned in The Green Room in the 70s and I always love in even the old Bond movies. They refer to a character and you won’t see that character for two or three movies down. But you didn’t know who he was at the time. And so when you think that I wrote that initial screenplay in three days, the second draft in two weeks, I sold it in February and we went into production that November. Yeah.

So when you think of overnight success, I know I’m blessed. I worked hard to get to the point where I get to work hard, but that’s kind of, you know, a little bit of the journey. And the interesting thing is we initially went out with that script with directors, and all the directors that we met with were like, don’t get the dog. It’s not enough. Let’s give him a whole family to slaughter. And, you know, instantly our whole thing is it’s not the dog, it’s the dog. And that’s not the point. Like we’ve seen that. And it made sense to this character. And suddenly on Friday, eleven o’clock in the morning, and Basil, the producer called me and he’s like just got a weird call Keanu Reeves called to ask to read the script. You cool with that? I’m like f**k yeah, you know. And so they they couriered it over to Keanu and I got a call hour and a half later. And he’s like, what are you doing? Like, I’m waiting for your call. And he’s like, can you go over to his house and I’m like f**k yeah, you know. And so I live in Pasadena. He’s right above I mean. He’s in Hollywood, a star. You know, super, super land and, you know, went up.

It’s just him in this really nice house. But it’s not overly ostentatious for a guy with half a billion dollars walk down. And usually, as you guys well know, you meet someone famous and they tend to be smaller. And he’s my height and he’s very congenial and I can’t do a Keanu. And he’s just like Derek Kolstad like Keanu Reeves, you know? And the thing that hit me is, as I’m walking past his office, I s**t you not he had 300 scripts on his desk because he loves what he does. He reads all the time. And I’m not pandering when I say when you get his notes, they’re not just for his character, it’s for the story. He loves it. But I just kind of it kind of hit me that this is the one we’re meeting on. You know? And so he and I worked on the screenplay for four or five, six long weekends in a row. And during that time, I got I got I tell this story way too much, but I love it. There was a knock on his door, but he’s got like one of those little two ways and he’s like, hello? This woman says, hi, my name’s Christina. I’m on a road trip from Chicago with my family. We’re just really huge fans. Can you ask him some questions? He’s like, okay, we go out to his driveway. There’s a minivan with a family of five from Chicago. Christina’s a sophomore High School. And Keanu Reeves walks out there like, holy s**t. It worked. And then they talk for a little while and they ask him questions. And he was the sweetest thing in the world. And of course, then being Midwesterner, we’re like, oh, don’t bother you. And then we went back and we sat down. I was just like, we’ve made it. You know, this is pretty cool. But Chad and Dave came about because Chad was Keanu’s stunt double on The Matrix. And once you get to know Chad and you watch The Matrix, I love that movie but now it takes you out of it because you’re like, okay. That’s Chad. That’s Chad. You know, but they’ve known each other for years and they’ve always been you know, Keanu was a huge tech guy. So he at any given time is over with the DIT and the lenses. And he loves that kind of stuff. So they just geeked out on that. And he was the biggest fan of them and they were the biggest fan of him. So that’s where it came about.

Eric Conner: It was the perfect marriage of material star and director, despite already having credits and attention. Derek Kolstad realized he needed to fully embrace his love of film in order to unleash John Wick.

Derek Kolstad: When I wrote John Wick, I was writing a love letter to the movies I loved. And I think a lot of times when it clicks for people, they dive back into the stream. Unintimidated by the movies that they wanted to be swimming with. You know, before that, I was writing smaller movies. I was writing monster movies. I love horror. But horror is a different beast. So is comedy, you know. But I think with John Wick, I suddenly can have people talking like Howard Hawks movies. I can have a guy like Winston Overtalking.

Clip: You stab the devil in the back and forced him back into the life that he had just left. You incinerated the priest’s temple. Burned to the ground. Now he’s free of the marker. What do you think he’ll do?

Derek Kolstad:  No one talks like that. It’s like a stage play. I can refer and I can build out and I can peel back the onion and I don’t need to explain everything. And yet as the writer, be satisfied with it and want to do more. So, John Wick was me just kind of suddenly going, I’m going to stop trying to be who I’m not and just fully f**king embrace just what I love.

Eric Conner: At first glance, the seedy underworld of the continental might seem like something out of like a James Bond movie know with high tech gadgets. But he is unapologetically low tech. Heck, even the phones are analog.

Derek Kolstad: One of the things we’ve always joked about is if you throw a tech in a movie, it’s comical 18 months after the fact. And so we love the idea of throwing in like. Of course, they use 50s era equipment because in this world it just makes sense. It’s reliable. They own the lines. No one can tap them know that kind of thing. No one would think to tap them. And you know, when you think of the suicide girls and guys and the look and feel of the world, a lot of that has to do with all of our love of the warriors, you know, where you have these various gangs and I’m sure you’ve all seen the movie. And I was like, how do you bring that in? But more grounded. Right. And then the other thing, too, is I grew up with Alistair MacLean and Dashiell Hammett and Agatha Christie and all this mystery action thriller writers. And then the movies, the 70s you talk about I bring up Three Days the Condor all the time because I think one of the greatest characters ever made was Max von Sidow’s Joubert in that movie because he’s this really calm, kind killer who is also the oracle and is also the chorus and the choir.

Clip: It’s quite restful. It’s almost peaceful. No need to believe in either side or any side. There is no courage. There’s only yourself. The belief is in your own precision.

Derek Kolstad: And so that’s where it kind of came about. And, you know, when you go down the rabbit hole of seeing an actor you really like then going into their filmography, you stumble upon movies like the outfit, where you’re like, what is this? You know, and then you track down the writers of those books and then you track down Spencer and suddenly you just keep going closer and closer to what I grew up with, which James Cagney in White Heat and all those classic gangster movies.

Eric Conner: In creating John Wick, Derek Kolstad wrote a movie that he, as an action fanboy himself, could fully geek out about, provided the directors took the ball and ran with it.

Derek Kolstad: I like writing screenplays with prose so that, you know, a lot of times it’s for the actors we know full well the actions could be different by the time it goes to production. But like in the first one, when you have the classic Red Circle action sequence, there’s a scene where John shoots a guy’s foot. The guy leans forward, and he shoots his head, and I’m the guy in the audience going, because I wrote that, you know, and so I wrote all these action sequences. And then John grabs the guy’s head, puts it on the table. Shoots him three times. I was like, oh, I didn’t write that, you know, but that’s where we could geek out. Because Chad and Dave, you know, they’ve got what we always call it the back pocket black book of action sequences and kills and stunts they’ve always wanted to do. And they threw everything they could at it.

Eric Conner: What makes the action scenes all the more impressive is you can tell Keanu is doing a lot of the stunt work himself. In fact, in Derek Kolstad’s next film, Nobody, Bob Odenkirk – yes, that Bob Odenkirk from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul – is also going full Wick and getting in on the action.

Derek Kolstad: The think about Keanu is like, you know, and this one with Bob Odenkirk as well these guys train their asses off. They’re in the best shape of their lives at the end of day. And when you see them, you won’t recognize them just because it’s like you guys remember being in sports in high school even now, like your face droops and you know, you walk alongside some of them, you hear their knees, you hear their shoulders, but they’re just in heaven. And yet the only way you can get those long takes is if they train and train and train and train. And when Keanu and when Odenkirk train, it’s judo, it’s jujitsu. It’s getting your ass handed to you so that the number of times that they’re thrown through a plate glass window and it’s them or the way that, you know, Keanu describes is like he walks out the car, hits the stunt double, but it’s him that goes rolling to his feet. He’s like that’s still like, you know, you go do it Kolstad. I’m like, no, I don’t own a piece of this, you know?

Eric Conner: Credit must also be given to the maestros of John Wick, David Leach, who co-directed the first one with former backlot guest Chad Stahelski who went on to direct both sequels. One particularly vivid and violent scene from John with three features knives being thrown around like they’re bullets from a machine gun.

Derek Kolstad: That’s all, Chad – that scene. And it’s my favorite scene in the movie. We had talked about it. And one things I loved about it is when they first start throwing the knives, they don’t have the gage. Right. So they’re hitting klunk klunk. And at the end, it’s like sink sink sink and you’re just like oh s**t, you know, but a lot of times the way. I’ll write an action scene is just make sure that the first couple of hits moves. I don’t use technical terms because everyone will glaze over. But if you take out a knee if you say the leg folds at an unnatural angle, if you say that they give as good as they get, you’ll come up with these phrases and you just kind of feel yourself. The last thing I want to do is read three pages of a fight. Just focus on the first couple of hits and those moves. Make sure that the environment is a character. Everyone likes it when a guy seems to be taking a hit and in reality is shifting so that the other guy can lose balance and his face on the table introduced the table earlier as a character in the scene and just make sure that it’s a dance and have fun. If you yourself get bored with the scene, you’re doing it wrong. And what I’ll say is then just cut it in half and see if it works. But a lot of the times just play like you’re playing in high school where it’s like. And then I flip you over and then I throw you and just have fun. You know, if you’re not enjoying that aspect, I mean, come on. Like most of my rewrite work is dialog at certain point. But when people are like, OK, we need a car chase scene I’m like f**k yeah, you know.

Eric Conner: All of this action might have even made Keanu Reeves a little bit bloodthirsty.

Derek Kolstad: He’s also those guys that like more like I remember after the first table read, I think in the first draft there was 13 kills. And then by the time we got to shooting, there’s 88 or something. And we had this table read. And it’s so funny because they hire a voice actor to read the script and he’s like nine pages of action. Certain point where I was laughing at the end, someone said, man that’s really, really violent and Keanu goes but it could have been so much more. And he got two and three. So, you know.

Eric Conner: Keanu Reeves is no stranger to massive franchises. But unlike the CGI fest, that was The Matrix, the success of John Wick rest firmly on his athletic shoulders after 30 plus years in the entertainment industry. This might be his finest work to date. Well, besides Bill and Ted, though Derek Kolstad had a much different voice in his head when he first wrote it.

Derek Kolstad: I grew up in an age when Beta and VHS was just coming out and my mom knew I loved movies. So whenever she got groceries, she’d pick one out of the bin. It was 50 cents because they were all off trademark, you know, at the time. And so I got to know old actors, very young. So when I write with actors in mind, they’re long dead. So that that’s Paul Newman, dude. You know, that was that was my Paul Newman in my head. But when we got to casting, the funny thing is there were four or five offers on John Wick. And we took the smallest one because they wanted to make it now. And as a writer who wanted a career, that’s what you go for one of the offers was, you know, they wanted to make a 60, 70 million dollar with Bruce Willis. But the reality with that is you’d make one and be done. And I think when Keanu came up, he wasn’t going to break the bank. We all knew full well that if we made a movie that was critically and financially OK, we had a franchise, but it had to be encapsulated in a good standing. So when Keanu Reeves came up, it was literally like me going, huh. Oh, yeah. You know, and honestly, the only reason he has a beard in that movie is he showed up and he had the beard. And when we were thinking of shaving him Chad and Dave were like, let’s do the beard. And we got all this s**t from all the various online communities. And then we saw the first trailer you like. Can you imagine a clean shaven John Wick? That’s is disturbing.

Eric Conner: Even if he didn’t have a beard. John Wick would have connected with his audience because we actually cared about him.

Derek Kolstad: It’s one of the reasons that those Korean thrillers that I love so much, like I wrote the remake for Man from Nowhere, which is one of my favorites, is you spend some time with the character, you love the character, you want the hero, you want the hero’s journey, you want to follow him. And at the end of your movie, right before credits you like, that was worth my time. I’m glad he got there. I want to see more, but also it’s like just the reality of like I love the hero. And I think a lot of the action movies we see, they focus on the action when. You go back to the movies that I grew up with and and love like die hard’s a great example you watch it as a kid. You know, there’s a great action movie. And at the end, you hear John McClane scream out his wife’s name as he’s literally bleeding out. You realize oh, this is a love story. You know, it’s a man who still loves his wife or even like I get s**t for this but I’m gonna say it, I love the first Kingsman. I think it’s a fun f**kin movie, but the best scene in that entire movie is when Eggsy is across from Michael Caine. He says the line. I’d rather be with Harry and I get goose bumps every time. Because in that moment you realize it’s a father son movie. And I think that’s why a good movie, regardless of genre, is a good movie is it comes down to character and the relationships and you wanting to be a part of that character’s life.

Eric Conner: John Wick is a character that, like the legend of Baba Yaga, only gets bigger with time and sequels with the promise of a fourth movie and a TV show focused on the Continental. We are just beginning to see how far the Wick-verse will expand.

Derek Kolstad: You know, it’s funny because like with the television show, which, you know, that’s Lionsgate’s baby not our I.P. and the video games and stuff. I do what I can. But I think with John Wick especially is created it. Nurtured it. I laid the foundation. But when you come to the various other splinters, I’m encouraging certain things. But I’m also off kind of focusing on building out other franchises and foundations that in a perfect world come the fourth iteration of that, those worlds combine because I hate the word canon. I don’t think anything should be canonical. You know, I know I’m in the Star Wars, MCU of it all, but I don’t want to see prequels, you know. In fact, the original iteration of John Wick 2, was a surprise prequel. The original script was the last act was the impossible task. And you realize, oh s**t, he was doing this all to get out. Right. And then we realized we were just being too witty. It just wouldn’t work, you know. But in regards to that, that universe, that kingdom, when you got a like a cornerstone, like, you know, Winston and Lance Reddick is just a Joy and Keanu and all that kind of stuff. I’ll be a part of that in a certain respect. And I wish the best man, because the whole thing, too, is, you know, I played Han Solo and Chewbacca and the sandbox. I didn’t want George Lucas to show up and go you’re doing it wrong, you know. So, like, I just want people to play, you know.

Eric Conner: The expansion of John Wick is all the more impressive when you consider that first one was basically a lavish and bloody indie film.

Derek Kolstad: So John Wick one, we were all in the trenches together. It was an independent. It was financed out of 15 different pools. And yet on the last day of shooting, once we’d wrapped the movie was in the black. And then they sold it to Lionsgate and it did what it did. And it was really the home video side of things that wanted a second one. Second one is the hardest, most difficult thing I’ve ever done. And I would never do it again, ever. Part of the reason was at that point, you’re part of a success. And suddenly the studio was more invested and they were invested in a time when they needed it. And suddenly the people, the core group of people that I was dealing with in the notes were backed up by 15, 20 execs and people where it got to the point, like, I don’t know who this is, you know. And then the third one was really me recognizing oh this is the devil I know. You know, John went to a crawl in the bottle a bit and I crawled out. Sounds very afterschool special. But to be honest, at a certain point, it goes back to why I wrote John Wick in the first place. One of the things that saved me is in the middle of John Wick 2 and this is a weird thing to say is the trailer for Mad Max Fury Road came out, and every night I would stand in front of my TV with that. That’s the best trailer I’ve ever seen with that music. I just stand in front of the TV and I feel like that 11 year old who snuck into an R-rated movie just going oh. And honestly, it was my love of movies that got me into it and my love of movies got me out of it. But, you know, married well, friends, well, family. Well, and I think the other thing, too, is regardless of who you are, what you want to do every day. I write one new page, no matter like I think I have right now. I have 21 projects in various states of play. I still spend at least one page a night spec. Or if you’ve had a terrible day, just f**kin write fading. It’s the greatest feel in the world. You know?

Eric Conner: That feels like pitch-perfect advice for all you artists out there. We want to thank Derek Kolstad for bringing John Wick into the world and continuing to get a new depths with the character. And of course, thanks to all of you for listening. This episode was based on the Q&A moderated by Tova Laiter to watch the full interview or to see our other Q&A’s.

Check out our YouTube channel at YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by me, Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Our creative directors David Andrew Nelson who also produced this episode with Kristian Heydon and Myself. Executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler. To learn more about our programs. Check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.