I adore Powell and his writer-producer partner Emeric Pressburger’s output in the 40s and 50s, from the stunning color masterpieces “The Red Shoes,” “Black Narcissus,” and “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” to the black-and-white mystical storm-tossed Scottish romance “I Know Where I’m Going,” starring Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey, which influenced many films, from Bill Forsyth’s “Local Hero” to James Cameron’s “Titanic.” Scorsese and Schoonmaker keep asking producer Scott Rudin why he’s been sitting on the remake rights for years. “We don’t know why he’s never done it, frankly,” said Schoonmaker.
How did Powell and Pressburger work together?
People ask, “How could two people direct?” Michael was on set, but valued Emeric’s brilliance, so Michael agreed to share the director title. Emmeric wrote and produced, but only Michael directed. Marty went to the Edinburgh Film Festival to get an award for “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” and when they asked him who should give him the award, he said, “Michael Powell.” They said, “Who’s that?” After he had made such a beautiful film in Scotland! [“I Know Where I’m Going”]
Marty went to London, asking: “Does anybody know where Powell and Pressburger are?” He was looking blindly. Michael Kaplan who did publicity on “2001: A Space Odyssey” said, “I know where he is.” Thanks to him the meeting occurred. Marty was rattling off questions at Michael at lunch. Michael couldn’t believe this young “California” director knew all his works, he later told me: “The blood started to flow in my veins.”
Seventy, maybe. I met him in 1978 when he was 74. He and Marty fell in love with each other. Marty showed him “Mean Streets,” which Michael thought was a masterpiece. Marty brought Michael to the U.S., he gave him an award at Telluride, entered “Peeping Tom” in the New York Film Festival. Everyone was overcome by it, Steven Spielberg and Francis Coppola were there, and were stunned by the movie. We started working on “Raging Bull” —I wasn’t in the union for a while—finally in 1978 we were cutting it. Marty started educating me on Powell and Pressburger, sent me home with videos. He does that with actors and friends all the time.
At dinner I fell in love with him immediately. He was the most remarkable person I had ever met. He didn’t say much but when he said something it was startling. Such love of life suffused his face. I was stunned by him. This was in Marty’s apartment where we were editing “Raging Bull.” I went back to work and Michael came back into the room. Marty and Isabella Rossellini were married then. There were film racks in the bathroom, in the bathtub shower, which Michael thought was hysterical. He was then at Dartmouth, where David Thomson brought him as artist in residence. [Read Thomson’s entry on Powell in “The Biographical Dictionary of Film.”]
Michael would call Marty late at night, Marty was a night owl and would answer the phone. We went to Hollywood with “Raging Bull,” for the Oscars. [She won.] Francis Coppola had invited Michael to Zoetrope, and said to Marty, “Come to my experiment in indie filmmaking.” Michael and I were having lunch, and dinner, then we were together for ten blissful years. It was wonderful.
What was he like?
Marty loved having him round. Michael helped to get “Goodfellas” made. The studios asked Marty, “Does he have to take drugs?” He said, “I can’t take that out, that’s the story of the movie, he’s not supposed to get involved in drugs and he does.” He tried two or three times. Michael got upset, because his career had been ruined, so he was concerned about Marty’s artistic purity. “Read me the script.” (He could see OK, but couldn’t read, due to macular degeneration.) I read him the script when I was usually editing his book. “Get Marty on the phone! You have to make this, this is the best script I’ve read in 30 years!” So Marty went back in one more time and it got sold. Michael died before he saw the film. It saved my life.
Were you ever married before?
I was never married. I’d been in long relationships, but my work always destroyed them, my terrible hours. I was 45, he was 74. It was just bliss. Marty shut down editing to let me take him home. I didn’t want to live. But I knew if I didn’t go back to “Goodfellas,” Michael would kill me. What a circle! It got made. It saved my life. So it’s an extraordinary story, between the two of them I have great stories to tell.
It wasn’t this restoration; that one was made from the interpositive because the BFI could not afford to go back to the negative. With Technicolor restorations it’s about getting the color right. You can see details due to the way we were able to rejuvenate the film from the original camera negative. Marty’s Film Foundation also financed the restorations of “The Red Shoes” and “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp,” which were very expensive. There are three color strips instead of one, so the technological work goes on and on.
How much do they cost?
$250,000. It’s a lot of money. But Scorsese is the person who can raise that kind of money because it’s his passion.
Did you add anything new?
We found some original material we put in the restoration, six minutes in the third act. It makes it work in a way that it didn’t work before. The father is angry at the daughter, who is not supposed to sing because she has tuberculosis. She’ll die if she does. He is fearful she is going to, and gets angry. In the scene Massine makes the fatal mistake of allowing her lover to see her, and she dies. Losing the anger of the father undercuts the act. Michael was forced to cut it because Alexander Korda wanted to remove the entire third act—with the most beautiful music. He threatened him at Cannes: “If you don’t cut it, I will ruin you.” Korda contributed a great deal, when the chips were down on “Peeping Tom,” to Michael not being able to ever make another movie in England, except for a children’s film, because Michael refused to cut the third act.
How does the 4K restoration improve the film? Powell transports you into another realm far from reality.
It’s really a joy watching it over and over again and discovering new details in the rich design. Marty showed it to his 14-year-old daughter. She saw that Helpmann is wearing a scorpion pin at his neck, that’s how you know the rival of Hoffman is up to no good. Because Hoffman is telling the story of three loves he lost, you enter into his sad memories and feelings, why he loved these people. This gives you a chance to do anything, because it’s his memories. They took opera and really transformed it into film, using dancers for many of the parts. You hear voices over them dancing, Moira Shearer as the windup doll is mouthing the words, thus giving you strong visuals instead of a singer standing on the stage. The dancers are giving you this wonderful physical movement, they’re acting, they know how to come on stage dramatically, with extraordinary body movement. The movements of Massine and Helpmann, they bring the drama to it, they’re going all over the place. The camera is dancing.
They shot it like a silent film with the huge Technicolor cameras?
Yes. It gave them such freedom, to take away the size of what they called The Enchanted Cottage, it was so big, they took off the blimp, which was huge—6 feet by 4. Because they were shooting on a huge stage, which was not sound-proof, they were shooting to playback of the recorded Thomas Beecham score. They did not worry about sound at all. It freed up the camera completely so it could fly, which made a big difference. Michael could get back to the silent film era he loved, change speed five times within a shot. He could do all kinds of wonderful magic tricks.
How did this movie influence “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull”?
The duel had an influence on “Taxi Driver,” the eyes of Helpmann and Massine had a direct influence on De Niro in the taxi cab in “Taxi Driver.” The duel scene is beautifully edited, done silent, just the Hoffmann “Baccarole" playing over it. Scorsese said, “there are no sound effects here, no swords clashing.” That’s power, just music and image. All the Powell and Pressburger films are in Marty’s DNA, he’s constantly being influenced and fed by them, their power is churning through his blood, like the dramatic camera movement in the flights in “Raging Bull.”
How was "The Tales of Hoffmann" received when it opened?