Conversations at the American Film Institute with the Great Moviemakers: The Next Generation

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Release Date: 
April 2, 2012
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“Conversations at the American Film Institute with the Great Moviemakers: The Next Generation from the 1950s to Hollywood Today (quite the mouthful, that) is essential reading.”

In 1915 when President Woodrow Wilson saw the film The Birth of a Nation, he famously commented, “It is like writing history with lightning.”

George Stevens, Jr. quotes this line in his introduction to the collection Conversations at the American Film Institute with Great Moviemakers: The Next Generation from the 1950s to Hollywood Today. And the concept holds up today, as have the films themselves.

Few other organizations celebrate the art of filmmaking as well as the American Film Institute. It was created by President Lyndon Johnson, who dedicated it in September 1965 with the words, “We will create an American Film Institute that will bring together leading artists of the film industry, outstanding educators and young men and women who wish to pursue this twentieth-century art form as their life’s work.” The Institute has proven itself to be an invaluable film resource, as this book demonstrates.

A sequel to an earlier volume published in 2006 that presented transcripts of seminars with the greats of the golden age of Hollywood (Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, John Huston and George Stevens, Jr.’s own father among them), Conversations recreates interviews with more recent, if no less lauded, filmmakers.

The book’s nearly 800 pages feature seminars with directors Peter Bogdanovich, Alan Pakula, Arthur Penn, Sydney Pollack, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg; actors Jack Lemmon, Charlton Heston, and Meryl Streep; as well as screenwriters Neil Simon and Robert Towne; composer Leonard Rosenman; and avant-garde filmmaker Ed Emshwiller, among many, many others, making this more or less a sine qua non of film books, one that belongs on the shelf of every film student or serious fan.

Where else do you find such interplays?

Like this:

Moderator, to Ed Emshwiller: “I must say right away that my prejudices are for narrative films and that I find your kind of films uninteresting and uninformative in subject, and unimpressive and unpleasant in treatment. Please take it as an academic statement and not as a personal attack.”

Ed Emshwiller, in response: “. . . There should be cinematic poets. This is the area of filmmaking I am most concerned with. When seeing my films, the person who doesn’t care for poetry, who prefers prose, says, ‘What’s this poetry jazz all about? It’s nonlinear. It doesn’t add up in the same fashion that perhaps a novel does.’ For me, the meanings that come from poetry don’t lend themselves well to translation into words, so the kind of movies I’m involved with cannot be dealt with as easily as literary forms. It’s very difficult to translate music or a painting into words. Even poetry is very difficult to translate from one language to another.”

Or this:

Moderator, to director Roger Corman: “There’s a myth that you made The Little Shop of Horrors in a single weekend.”

Roger Corman: “I shot it in two days and then we had a night of pickups, shooting the exteriors. I really did it more as a gag than anything else. The picture was made because I was having lunch with the head of a small rental studio and he told me there was some sets still standing. I told him, ‘Don’t tear them down. Let me see what I can do for a couple of days.’ We worked out the whole storyline in one night and the script was written in ten days. We spent three days rehearsing on the set and then shot it. I remember the first day of shooting we started at seven in the morning, and less than an hour later the assistant director said, ‘Roger, we’re already hopelessly behind schedule.’”

Or these:

Peter Bogdanovich, on coming up with the title for his film Paper Moon: “I called up Orson Welles who was in Rome and said, ‘Hey, what do you think of this title?’ Because this is long distance to Rome and I wanted to make sure he understood, I said very loudly, ‘Paper Moon.’ There was a long pause, and he says, ‘That title is so good you shouldn’t even make the picture. Just release the title.’”


Moderator, to director Robert Altman: “What would you say are important films for us to watch?”

Robert Altman: “An important film is one that affects me at a certain time in my life. The first film I saw that suddenly made the difference to me between ‘movies’ and ‘film’ was David Lean’s Brief Encounter: I saw it and thought, ‘Wait a minute. What am I doing here, in love with a girl who wears sensible shoes?’”


Moderator, to actor Gregory Peck: “Do you find yourself affected by the roles you play?”

Gregory Peck: “I think you’re affected while you’re doing it, as I described in Mockingbird. The purpose is for the audience to feel those emotions. They’re the ones you want to cry, to laugh, to get a lump in the throat, to be in suspense about how this is all going to turn out. You and the director are serving it up to them. It’s good if you get your feelings involved so long as you’re in control. The head has to control the heart.”


Moderator, to producer David Puttnam: “Are you always on the sets of the films you produce?”

David Puttnam: “. . . The producer doesn’t really have anything to do during a shoot unless there’s a problem, so to a certain extent me not being there is a sign that everything’s going smoothly. If a producer shows up day after day on the set you just become too familiar a face and lose authority.”


Moderator, discussing The French Lieutenant’s Woman with Meryl Streep: “How did you deal with your character’s foreign accent?”

Meryl Streep: “. . . Are we going to go into the whole accents thing? I mean, it’s just that accents are what I’ve always called the auto mechanics of taking a trip. You can talk about the scenery and the way you felt when you came into this town, or you can talk about the carburetors and how they were firing. And to me talking about the accent is like talking about what’s going on under the hood—I’m not interested in it.”


Moderator, to director Sydney Pollack: “Do you like to preview your films to public audiences?”

Sydney Pollack: “I’m too stubborn to preview. If I preview a picture, I’m making their picture instead of mine. If they don’t like it, I cut it out. If they like it, I leave it in. Where’s the satisfaction in that? I just don’t believe in it.”


Moderator, to director John Sayles: “What about how to begin and end scenes?”

John Sayles: “William Burroughs wrote something about him not being a travel agent. He wasn’t interested in how people got into the room or how they get out. For him, if the audience doesn’t know exactly where they are, tough luck. It’s probably not that important anyway. I tend to try to start a scene after it’s already started. Maybe the audience is lost for thirty seconds, but from the context of what’s happening, and from what they bring to that scene from the movie thus far, most of them will understand what’s going on. I’ve always been willing to take that risk of having the audience do some of the work themselves.”


Moderator, to director Francois Truffault: “How important is the dialogue versus the image for you?”

Francois Truffault: “I don’t see any competition between image and dialogue in my films.”

Moderator: “And in other people’s films?”

Truffault: “I don’t know. Bergman’s films, for example, are very interesting visually and there is often a lot of dialogue. I don’t think that films are purer when the characters stop talking. One of my favorite Hitchcock films is Dial M for Murder, and people speak throughout it, while the mise-en-scene is also fantastic.”

Moderator: “But in general, dialogue does seem to be sacrificed to image.”

Trauffault: “Yes, especially in karate films. But that’s an extreme case.”


It is the reader’s great good fortune that the modern era contains the masterpieces of the ’70s, allowing the reader to read about the making of M.A.S.H., Chinatown, The Parallax View, The French Connection, Sorcerer, Shampoo, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and American Graffiti, to name a few, as well as more recent works as Out of Africa, Absence of Malice, Tootsie, and Silkwood.

The details of their creation shared by those whose hands have shaped the art of modern film makes Conversations the perfect primer for serious film students, and an entertaining in-depth look into the art, economics, and politics of filmmaking for those of us for whom film still has the impact of being struck by lightning.

Conversations at the American Film Institute with the Great Moviemakers: The Next Generation from the 1950s to Hollywood Today (quite the mouthful, that) is essential reading.