Henry Jaglom is an absolutely unique voice in contemporary American cinema. In a cinematic landscape in which most films are interchangeable, and in which few films have a distinctive style or vision, his films are utterly his own and resemble no one else's. Consequently, he has tended to divide viewers - some people love his films and some people hate them. On the occasion of the DVD release of his film Eating, we asked autobiographical filmmaker Caveh Zahedi to interview the famously autobiographical Jaglom.
Preface - In which Caveh Zahedi has a few words he would like to say before the interview begins.
Caveh: I would like to warn the reader that this interview didn't start out too well. The truth is that I had very mixed feelings about Henry Jaglom's films - in some ways I loved them, and in some ways I hated them - which put me in a somewhat awkward position. I wanted to be honest, but I was afraid of offending him if I was too honest, so I decided to start out with fairly neutral questions and save the harder stuff for last. It turns out I miscalculated, and that he was much less offended by my "honest" questions than he was by my "neutral" ones.
Chapter 1 - In which I get started on the wrong foot.
Caveh: I was wondering how many of your films are out on DVD already?
Jaglom: All of them except for the three from Paramount. Last Summer in the Hamptons is out, Venice/Venice is out... I mean, I don't want to list all my movies. All of them are out except for Tracks, New Year's Day, and Someone To Love.
Caveh: And why is Eating just coming out now?
Jaglom: Because it was owned by another company. MGM and I let the contract run out and they wanted to buy it and release it but I found this company that I liked better so I made a deal with them.
Caveh: Which company is releasing it?
Jaglom: You know... Sorry, I don't have that info.
Caveh: That's okay, it's not important.
Jaglom: It is important! It's the name of the company releasing them...I didn't think you were going to ask me that question. I don't remember their name.
Caveh: It's on the back of the DVD, right?
Jaglom: New Video. I think it's just called New Video.
Caveh: So, why not release it through your own company?
Jaglom: We don't release video.
Caveh: But you release films theatrically, right?
Caveh: Are you in a bad mood, Henry?
Jaglom: Not at all. I just don't understand. I'm giving you answers. You ask why don't I release videos. Because I don't do that. I don't know that end of the business at all.
Caveh: But isn't it fairly inexpensive to release videos?
Jaglom: No. But I release them through Paramount or through bigger people who have distribution networks so that they'll play in Blockbuster and all of that. I can't do that myself. I have my hands full producing and directing. I release some of my movies theatrically, but not all. My last film, Festival in Cannes, was released through Paramount Classics.
Caveh: And have you done audio commentaries for all the DVDs?
Jaglom: All except for Festival in Cannes.
Caveh: How do you feel about DVD commentaries in general?
Jaglom: I love them. My friend Peter Bogdanovich recently did a commentary for The Lady Eve which I watched recently, and it's terrific that you can do that right after you see the movie.
Chapter 2 - In which I try to get things back on track.
Caveh: Who are your some of your favorite filmmakers?
Jaglom: Well, [Stanley] Kubrick was a gigantic pleasure to me. [Federico] Fellini was my inspiration, I mean 8 1/2 was the single most important film of my life. [John] Cassavetes both in his filmmaking and then in person became sort of a mentor to me and was an enormously important influence. The first movie that I was ever invited to a screening of was Shadows, which was shot on the streets of New York and improvised. And it blew me away. I was 18, in college, and my friend Seymour Cassell, who worked with Cassavetes on his films, invited me. And I sat there at a midnight screening, looking at a film that really was like our life, not like a Hollywood movie.
Caveh: So, you knew Cassavetes from the start?
Jaglom: I didn't know him. I saw the film. Then Seymour introduced me to Cassavetes and we slowly became friends. He encouraged me to make films my own way. But his filmmaking really encouraged me. I mean he was the first true independent filmmaker in America. So that was an enormous thing. But Fellini and the Europeans - Godard and Truffaut, and to some extent some of the English filmmakers of the sixties, and certainly Ingmar Bergman - all had a huge influence, and were the people that I was excited about. Bogdanovich and I used to fight all the time because he loved all the old Hollywood movies and I loved all the new European movies, the New Wave movies and so on. They influenced me more. I mean, I personally loved the old Hollywood movies, especially the romantic movies and all of that. That's what Hollywood Dreams is very much about, the obsession with the past and so on. But as a filmmaker, I was much more influenced by Olmi, and by Schlesinger, and by the filmmakers in Europe who were doing exciting new work. As far as Americans, every two years or three years, when a Kubrick film would come out, that would be a great event for me.
Chapter 3 - In which disagreement occurs over the definition of art.
Caveh: How do you feel that your films have changed or evolved since you've started making them?
Jaglom: That's an interesting question. I don't know that I know the answer to it but it's a terrific question. I edit my films myself and I am just much clearer now. It's less hit or miss for me. I know casting a little better, and editing a lot better. I think I've just become more skilled. But basically I am always trying to find the same emotional content and achieve the freedom that I first felt when I knew nothing about film. I do think my freest film - the film that is the least audience-affected and therefore the most totally honest film I've ever made - was my very first one. Because, knowing nothing about an audience then, I made a film that was totally impossible for an audience to hook into. A very small percentage of the audience was willing to go there, and I suspect that, without me consciously or deliberately doing it, with each film I've become a little more aware of what works for an audience. And that certainly affects me to some extent in how I pull the film together.
Caveh: And do you think that is a good thing, a bad thing, or both?
Jaglom: It's both. I think it is good because I make the films more accessible, and I get bigger audiences. And I think it's bad because I think whenever you give up any kind of freedom of intention, of creative intention, with the thought of an audience, you're compromising in some way. So, it's a hard balancing act to not be influenced at all by the audience, and yet to have more and more knowledge about that.
Caveh: But isn't there something also good in being in the interpersonal realm as opposed to just the personal realm?
Jaglom: I don't think so. I don't know what you mean by that because I think if you are in the personal realm and are telling the truth, the film will touch those people who are available to you emotionally. And that's the audience you should want. Unfortunately, as I have gotten bigger and bigger audiences, I, like everybody else, have sort of desired that. And there is a danger there. Fortunately, I think I still hold back to a large degree. I am still aiming at about ten percent of the audience that I think will be interested in my kind of work. I don't try to appeal to the other ninety percent but am more conscious of that ten percent now than I ever was before, and of not losing them.
Caveh: What I meant is that if you're in a relationship with a person, you have to sort of speak to them in a language that they can understand.
Jaglom: I don't feel that about film or any art form. And I don't think your job is to speak to people in the way they understand but to do your work as honestly and fully and truthfully as you can, and then hope you are not so isolated that there won't be people who will get what you're saying and respond to it. But not to try to do anything in order to communicate it. I really believe that, yet my point is I increasingly betray it as I've learned what works for audiences. If I can feel I'm doing that without compromising the integrity of what I'm doing, then I do it. But I'm still not completely comfortable with my knowledge or with my awareness that I am saying, "Oh, they need that. Put that in."
Caveh: I understand what you're saying but I guess I disagree with you.
Caveh: You can't just be yourself.
Jaglom: I know, you've said that you feel that. I don't agree.
Caveh: Can you just elaborate on why you think that art is not about communication?
Jaglom: I didn't say art wasn't about communication. I said that it's not about trying to communicate. It's trying to express yourself and then hoping that you communicate. I don't think somebody should do a painting in order to make it accessible to an audience. They should do what they want and what they feel and then hope that the audience will find them. And I don't think that a film should be any different from that. That's fundamentally the difference between the people who think that film is art and those who think of it as just popular entertainment. Now I always hope my films are entertaining. I've got one foot in each camp. And I happen to like comedy and I do that a lot, which is entertaining and which is easier for audiences. But at the same time, in form and structure, I frequently violate an audience's expectations because I just feel it's more exciting to find my own expression. I don't think my job is to just communicate. That's not what an artist is.
Caveh: Do you mind if I continue in this vein?
Jaglom: No, if you'd like to.
Caveh: I actually think that your films have gotten better and better.
Jaglom: I don't. I think that they just get more and more communicative. I think they get more and more accessible. And I hope they're not getting worse. But I don't think they're getting better. I just think I'm not making them quite as difficult. There was some psychological reason for me in the beginning -- insisting on making them as difficult as I did. I don't know, did you see A Safe Place, my first film?
Caveh: I did.
Jaglom: I think it's as good a film as I am ever going to make, but it touches a specific audience very immediately and it does a lot of arm pushing away to a large majority of the audience. It is a totally truthful rendering of an internal landscape for me of this young woman. And I am sort of happy I didn't know more about audiences when I made it. It made my life hard. It was another five years before I could get financing for my second film. Nonetheless, I feel more proud of that film than any film I am ever going to make because it's as pure as I can possibly be.
Caveh: You talk about this dichotomy between making art and making entertainment. But isn't it possible to look at art as having its own two-pronged dichotomy which is both self-expression and communication? Communication doesn't need to be entertainment.
Jaglom: There are people who think that. But no, communication can be just the basis of somebody receiving your work. Trying to get them to receive your work means you are trying to manipulate them in some way. It is something other than art, and is more in the area of entertainment.
Caveh: I see. So you feel it is manipulative if you are trying to communicate something?
Jaglom: Yes. Say I wanted to get a bigger audience now, say I wanted to get people who really like action and adventure films. Then I would be like Spielberg or somebody who does that very well. I just don't want to be that. I have never had an interest in it. So, it's like appreciating a certain kind of painter that maybe only five or ten percent of the people like. Or I might like a certain piece of music that isn't for everybody.
Eating is a perfect example because people suggested a lot of things I could do to make that film appealing to men. And I said that's not my job. I think those men who are artists or certain kind of men will understand and respond to it. But I know that it's going to alienate most men, and women. Men walked out of theatres all over the country. They got in fights with their girlfriends or wives over it. I heard reports from theaters that women insisted on staying, and then they came back with their girlfriends, or they came back with their mothers. Men just really rejected the film. So, you can say, well, I should have tried to do such and such to get more men in... I've got a film coming out this Spring called Going Shopping, which is a kind of sister film to Eating, and it's about women and shopping. And because I've learned what I've learned I've got men in there. I'm not sure that I've been as honest as I was in Eating, I hope I have been, but I've been more entertaining and I've made it more male-friendly. And I'm a little concerned about having done that, even though I don't think I've really done anything very dishonest. But still I have that issue going on with me all the time.
Caveh: Is that issue of wanting a bigger audience just a financial consideration?
Jaglom: No, because a person wants to communicate. They want their film to be seen. That's the split. You want to do the work as well as you can and at the same time you want to find as big an audience as will accept your film.
Caveh: What about people who make films that are so self-referential that there is nothing coming across to anybody else?
Jaglom: Then they're not successful artists. Good artists are artists whose work communicates to some extent. But to who? Do I want to communicate to the person who wants to see an explosion? Or who? What kind of a mentality do I want to communicate to?
Caveh: Well, obviously, to your ideal viewer.
Jaglom: My ideal viewer, for a film like Eating, was female. I thought whatever men are willing to go along with is just fine. But you learn how to get different segments of the audience interested. And you're affected by it, whether you want to be or not.
Caveh: Yeah, I understand. I love Eating. And I think you're absolutely right. You don't want to make that film for men anyway.
Jaglom: But most men don't love it.
Caveh: Yes, I understand that too.
Jaglom: And women really do. Almost every woman who sees that film really loves it.
Caveh: But you're communicating to the women.
Jaglom: Yeah, but these male segments who really respond to it, who are more open to it, are a minority.
Caveh: Of course.
Jaglom: So if I had to appeal to the majority then I would have to take away something from the film that makes it authentic for the women. And I'm not prepared to do that.
This is a very present issue for me right now because as I said I just finished Going Shopping, and am checking myself. I finish the editing within the next ten days, and then it goes to the negative cutter. There are a couple of things I've put in there that I am just fighting with myself about - should I leave them in or should I take them out? I know that they are very entertaining and I've seen how people respond. So it's just an issue that I'm dealing with. Sorry if I've been going on about it.
Caveh: No, no, no - I've been going on about it, too.
Chapter 4 - In which I propose my theory of the tripartite nature of Henry Jaglom's career.
Caveh: When I look at your films, I see them in three phases. In the first phase, the films are more experimental. Then there is this autobiographical section in the middle where you're often in them and you're the center of them, and those are very personal. And then more recently, they've been kind of spreading out again towards other people.
Jaglom: Yeah. That's accurate, I think except for probably Sitting Ducks, because I was so fed up with the fact that my first two films were so difficult for people that I decided, okay, what do they want? Beginning, middle and end. Fine. So I made a little comedy, and I had this big success with the film, and much to my amazement, it's the only film of mine that I am not happy with. It's the film of mine that made more money than all my films probably.
Jaglom: No, that's not true. Always did pretty well and so did Eating. But anyway, the general trajectory of what you're saying is true. I started with going from more poetic and difficult films to more personal films and then to larger subjects. One of my favorite films is in what you would call that personal area, and that's Venice/Venice, and I had the hardest time finding an audience for that film. For me, it renders the most accurately of anything I've ever done what my perception of life is. So for me it is one of the most successful films I think I could ever possibly make. And yet, probably along with A Safe Place, it was the hardest film to find an audience for. It's an interesting struggle.
Caveh: So there's no reason why you moved away from the more autobiographical style?
Jaglom: Because I already did it! I satisfied myself with expressing my own angst and various aspects of my struggle in relationships. I don't think those films were just autobiographical because a lot of people identified with a lot of aspects of them. But they fulfilled a need that I no longer have which is to be the center of the film myself.
Chapter 5 - In which I bring up the subject of money.
Caveh: I went to film school in L.A., and the word on the street about Henry Jaglom was that he's independently wealthy, he finances all of his films with his own money, and that's how is able to do what he does.
Jaglom: Oh. I didn't know that. I am independently wealthy, which is a very nice thing because I've never had to take a waiter's job. But I've never once financed a film on my own - and I'm fortunate because my films do very well in Europe. John Goldstone has been producing my films now for the past six films, through his company in London, which produced all the Monty Python films, and I distribute domestically in America.
Caveh: Through your own company?
Jaglom: Through Rainbow Releasing, yeah. Prior to that, Zack Norman raised money for four of my films. As I said, after A Safe Place I couldn't get anything made. A Safe Place was paid for by Columbia. My second, third and fourth films were financed by Norman, who raised the money from dozens of doctors and dentists through tax shelter scams and so on. And then my films began to be successful enough that Europeans gave me so much for Germany, so much for France. I have put it together myself, too. But I wouldn't use my own money in the film business, you've got to be crazy.
Caveh: Because it would disappear very fast?
Jaglom:I don't know, I just wouldn't do it. I'm too much a product of my upbringing. My father was a very intelligent and extraordinary business person so I would never think of doing that. In a way it's the opposite - because I came from a wealthy family my ego was about proving it wasn't about money. So people who come from poor families can more logically want to become a Spielberg or a Lucas and want to make big, huge things and spend tens of millions of dollars and all of that. For me it's very important to make a film for a million dollars or less, or two million at the most, and show that it can be done and that it's not about the money, probably because of some chip on my shoulder as a result of being wealthy. Louis Malle said he had the same issue, coming from a wealthy family. We didn't want people to think it was easier for us. I don't care about that now - I'm talking about twenty years ago. My point was I wouldn't take these offers for big budget movies. I would make a small budget movie when I could put the financing together and show them that it was not about money.
Caveh: So basically all your films pay for themselves?
Jaglom: Yeah. They're all in profit actually - no, that's not true. A Safe Place, Venice/Venice and Tracks are my three films that did not make money.
Caveh: You've said that you don't want to be constrained by entertaining and all that, but wouldn't you be freer if you just financed them yourself?
Jaglom: No. First of all people can imagine anything they can about people who have money, but you don't just spend millions of dollars financing stuff yourself, you know.
Caveh: I certainly would if I had the money.
Jaglom: Maybe I don't have enough money to do that, or maybe my money is invested and needs to stay where it is, but it just never would occur to me. And I am lucky enough not to need to - I can always put together the million dollars that I need because my films make money. The advantage of making films for comparatively low budgets and aiming at a specific audience is that you know for sure that it'll always make a few million dollars, and that's profit.