By Jonathan Marlow
On the occasion of the U.S. Premiere of Les Blank’s latest documentary, All in this Tea, at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Jonathan Marlow spoke with the remarkably accomplished filmmaker about his legendary career. What follows is the first of two parts.
I guess that there is no better place to start than the beginning. What was the influence of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal on your student film, Running Around Like a Chicken with its Head Cut Off?
Bergman’s Seventh Seal was the film that finally ignited my desire to be a filmmaker. Before that, I liked films but I’d never imagined there was a possibility that I would go into filmmaking. When I saw his film and experienced what I experienced emotionally, I figured that this was it. I had to head in this direction. I didn’t know what steps to take but I would work that out later. The scene where the knight taps the figure on the shoulder, he turns around and it turns out that it’s a corpse -- it made a big impression on me. That’s what I was getting at when I have a similar situation in my film.
Did you first see The Seventh Seal when you were in college or when you were living in Florida?
I’d gone to college in New Orleans for four years and got a degree in English. Then I came to Berkeley to go to graduate school in English, thinking that I would keep struggling to be a writer even though, at that point, everything I submitted got rejected. If I failed at that, I thought that I could always teach English. But I was having trouble with my emotions. My first marriage had broken up, I couldn’t concentrate and I dropped out. I just bummed around trying to get work but no one would hire me. After I saw that film, I went to visit the theater department professor who I enjoyed when I was in my last year of school there. He told me that there was a new program in the theater department that offered a Master of Fine Arts in playwriting. All you had to do was write a play instead of a thesis and I saw this as a stepping-stone into film because I would be able to write stage plays and work with actors. It seemed more interesting than flying planes and going to war. It was between the Korean and Vietnam war. So I did that and, after two years there, I got recommended to go to the USC film school. I got a graduate fellowship there for two years.
Was your original intention to make narrative films?
Yes. I was going to try to follow in the lines of writer/directors like Bunuel, Bergman and de Sica.
Your second film was on Dizzy Gillespie. Had you seen Dizzy perform while you were going to school in New Orleans?
I like New Orleans jazz. I like traditional jazz. Modern jazz, I could take it or leave it. I wasn’t a total fan of it. When someone asked me if I wanted to work on a film on Dizzy Gillespe, I said, “Who’s he?”
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