A Conversation with Seymour Cassel
by Michael Lee
Seymour Cassel worked closely with John Cassavetes, most memorably in
his role as Chet, the sensitive swinger in "Faces". Since Cassavetes’
death, Cassel could be considered a stalwart of American indies. Last
year he made an odd and unforgettable cameo as Uncle Al in "Trees Lounge",
Steve Buscemi’s directorial debut.
We met on July 13 for an hour at the Hotel International in Prague on
his way through after the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
Surely the dozens of press and many cars gathered in front weren’t
really for him — and then the men in blue suits and hearing aids
appeared to shoo me away from the elevators, moments before United States
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was rushed past faster than a limo could have
brought her, tucked safely into a lift, and the crowd dispersed. Calm
again settled, and then Seymour ambled up, pulling out a trademark cigar
from his four-slot leather holder and ordering a non-alcoholic beer
before settling in on the leather couch.
indieWIRE: There’s so many levels of "independent film" now, so many
definitions. How would you define it?
SEYMOUR CASSEL: Independent film is film that has thought in it. There’s
no independent thought in studio films. It’s collective thought. These
things you get from Hollywood are no more than computer games, where you
might as well have a little wired handset that you could blow up this
truck if you want instead of that one, that would at least allow
audience participation. With independent film, simply because they don’t
have the money to make a big budget film, they’re forced to make a story
that’s important to them, that they would like to see on film, a
personal story that people can relate to, about people, where you can
see the love of the characters. That’s true of the best films I’ve done,
certainly Cassavetes’s films.
iW: Which of Cassavetes’s films is your favorite?
Cassel: "Faces" and "Shadows". And they were John’s favorites too. "Shadows"
because it was our first. And "Faces" because it was a defining turning
point in the way we were going to make films. I knew it was, because I
worked on the crew. We had a crew of seven. I did it all. I shot, I
loaded magazines, moved lights, put screens in. We took turns competing
to shoot with the second camera. That way of making a film was so much
fun. No unions to deal with, no time schedule. We shot it in continuity,
which John did with every film after that. He did it for himself and he
did it for the actors.
For an actor it’s ideal, you build the character as he goes along, the
way it was written. Like with a play, the curtain goes up and you do the
first act, the second act, you just play the shit out of it. Most films
you do piecework. Why are we breaking this scene up, for Christ’s sake,
let’s just shoot. Well, because once we pull this wall — Jesus. Forget
the wall. It doesn’t matter how beautifully a film is photographed. The
acting tells your story. It’s what people relate to. If you don’t
believe the characters, it doesn’t work.
iW: One of my favorite shots from "Faces" is the one where Robert Morley
comes home, and you’re running out of the bedroom window.
Cassel: Over the roof. That was fun. John and Al Rubin, his cinematographer,
they were on the roof, and I come out the window, and I’m gonna jump
down the roof — it was John’s house, about a 13 foot drop to the ground
and then a hill, fairly steep. I ran all the way down, walked up, and
John says, We gotta do it again. So I did it about six times, thinking,
Jesus Christ, let’s get this right. And I hear them laughing. You see,
they were just gonna do it until I got tired. You see, it’s fun like
that we had with each other. John said I got it probably on the second
take, but it was so cool, running down the hill, it was fun.
iW: Do you still have the same kind of fun on independent films? That
Cassel: I always go in with the feeling that I’m gonna have a good time in
what I’m doing. I entertain myself when I perform. If I do that, then I
can see the other performers enjoying my character. I prefer to work in
independent film because there’s more freedom to contribute. It’s not
one or two stars, and all about kissing their ass through the film,
taking them from this scene to that scene then going to play golf or
whatever. The real challenge is to try to make something happen
dramatically in a scene with less money, and doing it with some truth. I
like the excitement of not having enough money, enough film, enough time
to do it, and still trying to make it work.
iW: Was it difficult getting Cassavetes films made, compared to
independent films now?
Cassel: "Shadows" wasn’t so difficult to get made. It was just, when John had
the time. He was a working actor, a television star. "Edge of the City"
had just come out, with him and Poitier and Jack Warden, so John would
work to make a living and also to put money into what he wanted to do.
We tried doing a couple films, one with Paramount, and one with Sammy
Kramer, and then he just decided, I’m going to borrow the money on my
house. He took a job at Universal and spent the money on the film.
People thought John was crazy, spending his own money. And yet they
admired him for it. Many people came out and said, ‘Boy I’d love to make
a film that way.’
Well, borrow some money, get some people together — you can get people
to work for nothing, just treat them right, treat them as human beings,
not stars, give them all an equal share, make them feel a part of what
they’re doing. There’s no big secret to it. But people just didn’t have
the guts. I met a lot of directors, friends of John’s, people I admired,
say Don Siegel. But Don had grown up in the studio system. He wasn’t
going to go over and move a chair, grab a camera, just get it into place
and shoot it, that wasn’t his style.
iW: You’re here in Prague having just come back from Karlovy Vary this
morning. Do you think festivals like that help indie films get made, or
is it just a way to show them?
Cassel: The whole idea of a festival to me is that filmmakers get to
interact. You see someone strolling, you get to meet them and tell them
you like their work, you admire their story. I’ve had people ask me to
come and work for them. I went to Vienna, and did three scenes in a
movie for a guy that I met at a retrospective of Cassavetes films. It’s
a great way to travel, to meet people, to see different countries and
cultures. (Thor) Friedrich Friedrikson, the Icelandic director, I’ve known him
for a few years, since his film was nominated for the Oscar. I would
have never gone to Iceland otherwise. It’s wild, like being on another
planet, and he’s crazy, those Icelanders drink! I worked last year in
Berlin, in a film for a German director, Peter Sayer, which opens next
month in Germany. And I did a film for Benoit Cohen, the French
director, the year before. I’ll go anywhere and work.
iW: At the KV press conference, you actually said you’d go anywhere to
do an independent film you liked for the price of a plane ticket.
Cassel: (laughs) You just have to watch what you say, because people take
you up on it. I wish I could stay here another week or so. The weather’s
great. But I start another independent film on Wednesday in LA, which
they’re doing for $300,000, they’re shooting in 18 days, called
"Starlight". It’s a good story, and I told these guys almost two years
ago, if you get it together, I’ll do it. And they did.
[Michael Lee is a writer and filmmaker based in Prague.]