by Sean Axmaker
It's hard to believe that Robert Benton has only directed eleven features since his debut in 1972, as his films have been so much a part of the cinematic culture. With his writing partner David Newman, he wrote what is arguably the seminal American film of the 1960s, Bonnie and Clyde, earning his first of five Oscar nominations for screenwriting. He later won Academy Awards for directing and scripting Kramer vs. Kramer and for his original screenplay for Places From the Heart. Such neglected films as The Late Show and Bad Company, his first foray into directing, have a humanity and a character as vivid now as they were more than thirty years ago.
Benton is now 75 years old, with snow white hair and a tremor in his hand, but his mind is lively. When he talks about film - both his own and others - he's an avid, hungry cinephile overflowing with opinions and insights. I talked to him during his press tour in support of his new film, Feast of Love, an adaptation of the novel by Charles Baxter. "It was Richard Russo who told me about Charles Baxter's novel," offered Benton when I brought up my affection for Nobody's Fool, which he adapted from Russo's novel. "I read it and loved it and tried to get the rights to it and it had been optioned by someone. They were in the midst of getting it set up with a director, so I backed away." Two years later, with no production looming he checked in again. "They had a director, so again I backed away. And then he called me about four or five weeks later and said the director had a scheduling problem and was I interested. And I said yes."
Always the professional, he managed to steer a questions back to his Feast of Love while I plugged away with questions that reached all the way back through his career to Bonnie and Clyde. We managed to meet in the middle for a lively and all too brief conversation.
You began as a screenwriter and you wrote most of your films. Do you find it more constricting to direct from someone else's screenplay? What kind of involvement do you have when you get a script?
I think I have no more involvement than a director customarily has. Certainly a director usually sits with a writer and walks through the script with the writer and talks about, "Can this scene be shorter, can you do this, can you help shape this to his vision?" I think in this picture, perhaps what I tried to do the most was make sure we restored, whenever possible, Baxter's voice to the picture. Because I felt like Baxter, like Richard Russo, has a very distinctive and beautiful voice, and I was very concerned with trying my best to get that done.
If I may go back to your earlier films...
Your first scripts and your first two films as a director are, for lack of a better term, "revisionist" genre pictures. Bonnie and Clyde redefined the gangster picture and became a cultural touchstone. What's Up, Doc? is a classic screwball comedy in the modern world. Bad Company is a deglamorized western and The Late Show softboils the hardboiled private eye genre. Even your stage musical, It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superman, is a deconstruction of the comic book superhero. When you look back it looks like you were on a deconstructionist journey through classic genres. Was there a method to this? What was the inspiration for revisiting these old genres?
I think that early on, I was very influenced by the French and European filmmakers. And as you get older, you shift, and I think the influence of Howard Hawks grew on me as I got older, and I think what I began to find myself doing were less genre films than films that had a kind of thematic connection, which was really about families, fractured families, or by extension, communities which fell apart and put themselves back together. Kramer vs. Kramer is a picture about a family that falls apart and in some way reconstitutes itself, never getting back together in the conventional sense but learning to live and find some resolution. I think Places in the Heart is a story about a family that ends and then reconstitutes itself. I think that Nobody's Fool is about a man who, while he thought that he couldn't have a family, found that he had a community and that he finally discovers his son.
I think, as I've gotten older, and perhaps since I've married and have a child, now a man, a son, my interests have shifted away from film and more toward life, and that what interests me are those things that I don't understand. Love is one of those things and I think what I loved about Charles Baxter's book, and what I hope is in the movie, is that it is complicated, that it involves all kinds of love - tragic love, comic love, old love, young love, fractured love, endless love, destructive love - and that interested me a lot.
I think one of the pictures that shaped me was Robert Altman's Nashville. I could not have done Places in the Heart without seeing Nashville. I could not have done Nobody's Fool without seeing Nashville. I could not have done Feast of Love without seeing Short Cuts or Grand Canyon. Movies are both an interaction with life and with other movies. You have a conversation with other filmmakers. They say something, you answer them back. They may not even know they are part of this conversation, but part of what you do is you talk to other filmmakers through your films and you try to address life in what your films are about.
Robert Altman also produced your second feature, The Late Show.
Robert Altman actually taught me how to direct. Before that, in Bad Company, I was a writer who tried to illustrate what I had written. Except for one scene in Bad Company. That was the only scene where I was a director, and that was a scene we improvised on the morning we shot it. It's the scene right after this young kid has been killed by the boys out on the prairie and two of the boys leave, stealing the horse, and they steal the guns, leaving the two protagonists behind. And they throw rocks at each other. Nobody thinks of using their guns on one another. At that moment, the innocence of the boys is what interested me and we figured out how to do it on the spot and it seemed to work well. But Altman taught me to respect actors, to trust actors, to listen to actors, and that was the biggest gift anyone in movies gave me.
It's interesting to compare The Late Show to Altman's The Long Goodbye because they are such different takes on the genre. You have such affection for the characters, even the bad guys. John Considine is so wonderful in it.
I know, I know, I love them all. I think Altman was great while we were shooting. He was so supportive and terrific - he remained a good friend, a very good friend, throughout the rest of his life - but in the process of doing the film, he fired me three times. I just have the ability to piss people off. I don't quite know what I do, but I have the ability to really piss them off. You can ask my wife about it. And then he would always rehire me. But I had at least three sleepless nights over that one. I think he felt I was too accommodating. I think he felt the work was sweeter and less testy than he would have wished it to be. But I can't do his voice. I'm no good at doing his voice. I wish I could, because his is a great voice, but I can't.
Speaking of voice, I love the dialogue of your screenplays, and I think back to your mention of Howard Hawks as an influence. As I watch your characters, hear them and see them interact, their character comes out of what they say and how they way it, and in the physical way they interact with each other. They are full, alive characters.
Thank you. I believe character determines action. There are two kinds of filmmakers: Hawks, who believes - I'm putting words in his mouth - who believes character determines action, and other directors like Preminger, in a movie like In Harm's Way, who believes narrative determines character, that you are what you've been through. Not that you've shaped it, but you just are a result of what you've been through. And I think it may be the European quality that Preminger had, but it's different and I can't do the other; I'm too middle of the road American to do that. But thank you for that, because I really do believe that character determines the narrative and a lot of that is through the dialogue and I think that, to the degree that we spent time working on the script [for Feast of Love], I think I did my best whenever it was possible or appropriate to make certain that we returned Baxter's voice to the picture as much as possible. I recommend that book; it's a brilliant book.
I want to follow up on this idea of American and European influence. You've said that your script for Bonnie and Clyde was very influenced by the French New Wave and Shoot the Piano Player. But looking back on it, it seems to me very American in the way it both adores and is scared of its anti-heroes, in the ambivalence it has for its outlaw folk heroes, and in the mix of humor with the violence. I think it was ahead of its time cinematically but in tune with the American cultural zeitgeist. I think you can draw a straight line from that to Quentin Tarantino.
That's a conversation that I'm aware of, the conversation between Tarantino and Penn. I think Tarantino took what movies were when Bonnie and Clyde was made and took them that much further. There was an interesting piece by A.O. Scott in the [New York] Times a few weeks ago on the 40th anniversary of Bonnie and Clyde. He finally came down on the side of Bowsley Crowther, and said that maybe the violence was not good. And he said Bonnie and Clyde was a seminal film; without it you wouldn't have had The Godfather II, you wouldn't have had Pulp Fiction, but you also wouldn't have had The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I think Scott's a smart critic. I don't always agree with him, but I think he's smart. It's an interesting question: Do you give up - and I probably like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre more than he does, or more than you do, even - but do you measure something by the worst that something inspires or by Quentin Tarantino? Because that was so brilliant, so inventive, and it just moved things along.
There was this thing about Picasso and Braque in the beginning of Cubism. They were like mountain climbers. One of them would get to a stage and the other would get further and they would keep passing each other. Movies are like that. They move in a direction you can't predict and you have no way of governing what's going to happen. And that's what I love about them.
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