Into the void goes Bernard Rose, whose films ask Big Questions most people try not to think about. "I fight the tyranny that film has to only be judged based on its entertainment value," said the London-born LA transplant who these days tells it like it is, as I discovered when I met him, imperious-looking but actually pretty jovial, for lunch at Musso and Frank in Hollywood, where we cackled over things like "mortality and our insignificance," "pure existential terror" and "staring into the black hole."
These are the themes of his movies, now packaged in an American Cinematheque retrospective this weekend in Los Angeles, titled Beauty and Thorns.
"When I make films, I’m making them from an impulse other than trying to make a successful movie," said Rose, whose Hollywood career more or less ended when Warner Bros. hijacked his 1997 version of "Anna Karenina," allegedly banning the director, whose cult 1992 urban mythology "Candyman" led him to direct his first studio movie "Immortal Beloved" two years later, from the editing room.
So he followed his own rogue star, emerging as one of the earliest indie digital pioneers when he shot "ivansxtc" (2000), a dark-night-of-the-soul picture starring Danny Huston as a charismatic Tinseltown agent terrorized by cocaine addiction, on HD in the summer of 1999, when directors were only just beginning to experiment with the medium.
But Rose landed in hot water when CAA hosted the film’s premiere, because one of the agency’s former hotshots, Jay Moloney, a drug addict and also Rose’s onetime agent, had just hanged himself.
"The film was always fictional, and always an adaptation of a Tolstoy short
story," Rose said. "It was never a documentary about CAA. This very tragic suicide of Jay Moloney was unconnected
with the movie, but because he
had been my agent in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the character was
somewhat based on his personality."
Rose insisted that the film was not about Moloney when CAA asked him to re-cut it. "Jay had also long been fired from CAA before he killed himself. The
heads of CAA were offended by the idea that somehow, the morning
after Ivan’s death in the film, the agents just don’t care and they turn their backs on
him. I think they felt like that was pointing the finger. But he wasn’t
dead when I shot the film. He was alive. In fact, I was looking forward
to showing it to him."
Regardless, the film became a minor arthouse event, at Cannes as a special exhibition for "being the first digital film," and when it came and went, a tiny dewdrop, in theaters despite a four-star review from Roger Ebert in 2002.
Looking back, "It has all shifted because of digital, and CAA was right that my
business plan to make this film was very flawed," Rose said. "In fact, it was
suicidal. The idea of just getting the camera and going out and doing the film was
the radical idea and now, of course, it’s very common. People ask me, ‘What would your advice be if you were going to go out and do it?’ My
advice is always ‘Don’t do it.’ Unless you want to bankrupt yourself."
This weekend’s "ivansxtc" screening might be your only chance to see this rare, beautifully morose Hollywood nightmare that almost foreshadows David Lynch’s digital HD "Inland Empire" — and on 35mm. "Ivansxtc" opens a trilogy of Tolstoy adaptations that will be presented together, including "The Kreutzer Sonata," about violent sexual possession, and "Boxing Day" about a middle-aged man circling the drain.
"Yeah, it’s four hours," he said of the trilogy, "but if you can sit through four hours of ‘Lord of the
Rings’ of a guy trying to throw his jewelry away, you can see four hours of Tolstoy."
Each film recasts Danny Huston, whose career Rose sparked, as a Tolstoy character bottoming out in Los Angeles. "When I did ‘ivansxtc,’ I had an office at Universal, and I was making a
fortune. And ever since I’ve been broke. But Danny? It did him a lot of
Huston reunites with Rose, who will be on-hand this weekend for
Q&As, in the director’s newest film "Frankenstein," re-imagined in Los Angeles and told from the point-of-view of the
monster as a kind of romantic poet. The film also screens this weekend, along with "Immortal
Beloved," "Mr. Nice," "Paperhouse" and "Candyman," plus the Tolstoy films.
Rose gives a brilliant interview, with too many juicy bits on a wide berth of topics to ignore. We break down his best points, below:
On making movies after the failure of "ivansxtc":
I’ve made a lot of movies since then, so the short answer is no, not really. I’ve been represented by major agencies since then, in different places and different times so, no. When I make films, I’m making them from an impulse other than trying to make a successful movie. That’s why those films do carry a message that’s not commercial and very powerful, which is Tolstoy’s message, and that was the fundamental objective for my making them, rather than trying to make money.
On why his films are so hard to see, and "the terror of staring into the black hole":
I was surprised how little they were seen and distributed but in retrospect, when you look at the kinds of films they are, that’s just not what people want to sell. One of the problems now with the internet and the ascendancy of television or things that we call television, because they’re all advertising-based, in terms of their revenue stream, is that subject matter like Tolstoy, which is asking the really unpleasant, profound questions, is always going to be rejected in favor of things that are ultimately, even if they’re so-called "dark," comforting.
Ultimately, Tolstoy is discomforting because, in the trilogy of films, "ivansxtc" poses the problem which is, given the knowledge of our mortality and our insignificance once we’re gone, what’s the fucking point? The terror that Ivan plunges himself into is pure existential terror, which is at the heart of most drug addictions, the desire to anesthetize yourself with sex, drugs, fame, success, whatever the fuck, because the terror of staring into the black hole is too frightening.
Why making movies is "a terrible waste of your life":
People have to ask why you’re making movies: "Are you making movies because you want to make money?" That’s very foolish, because you probably won’t. "Are you making movies because you want to get laid?" Well again, that’s foolish because there are easier ways to do that. Or are you making movies because you want to do it, and have something to say? It seems like a really obvious thing to say, but I’m astonished when you analyze people’s motives, how they just like the idea of being a director. A director is often an actor playing the part of a director. They like the job description. They like the idea of sitting around in a canvas chair and saying, "You there, bring me a latte!"
You can’t make a good movie unless that’s what your objective is. Most people think it’s an interesting career path. It’s not. It’s a terrible waste of your life, making movies. Your life will be sucked into an awful black hole of nothing but unpleasant things going on. "How should I go about making my first movie?" If you have to ask me, don’t do it.
Why studios are afraid of horror movies:
I have a secret liking for horror because it’s a commercial genre that studios can’t get involved in. When a studio develops a horror film, it becomes an action movie. They can’t get their heads around the unpleasantness involved in making a really frightening and disturbing film. They will always, in their development process, squeeze the life out of it, and it will end up being an action film. A perfect example, and I’m not criticizing it, of when a studio takes a horror title and it becomes an action film? "The Mummy." It’s a horror title originally but they developed it as a big action adventure. The point of a horror film is not a big budget. The point of a horror film is transgression and fear, and there’s something very powerful if you can frighten people, particularly at a certain age in their life, in their early teenage years, they’ll never forget it. They’ll carry that with them.
The horror audience is very loyal, and they’re educated and picky horror and hungry for something different. At any given moment, the definition of the genre is always very narrow because whatever has been the last hit is what people want to copy. But actually, horror can be anything, like Pasolini’s "Salo."
On Roger Ebert, his longtime champion, who "remembered everything in great detail":
I met Roger several times over the years, first at the Toronto Film Festival, when I first screened "Paperhouse" in 1988. It was a funny situation because, as is for some reason always the case with me, the distributor Vestron just loathed the film. They thought it was the worst piece of shit. The print was practically wet when I hand-carried it to Toronto. But the audience loved it. I’m standing by the door and out comes Roger. Now, I didn’t grow up in America so I didn’t watch American TV shows, and had no idea who he was. He came out and he gave me the "thumbs up." The distributors were going berserk. "Roger just gave you the thumbs!" And I’m going, "So what? What do I care?"
Years later he ran "Paperhouse" at Ebertfest, where basically he would run whatever film he felt like seeing in this big theater. He gave this 20-minute lecture about "Paperhouse" before it started, and he interviewed me onstage after. After he’d done that, I said to him, "Roger it’s really impressive. When did you last see the film?" And he said he hadn’t seen it since Toronto. That was the thing. He just remembered everything, in great detail, before the screening. The purpose of those screenings was that he wanted to see those films again. He didn’t want to see them on television. He wanted to see them in a theater, with an audience, on 35 millimeter. And because he was him, he could make that happen.
The trouble with 35mm, and the impossibilities of indie filmmaking:
There are things that were great about 35mm but it was true that you couldn’t make a 35mm film without it being properly financed. You couldn’t have a message that was against whatever the prevailing formula for making a deal was. What’s happened is that because digital has removed that, there came to be this new superstructure within the business that very violently puts down independently made digital films.
Now it’s impossible to get them into the marketplace because of so-called "quality control" and various legal requirements that have essentially managed to maintain and strangle 90-percent of independently produced films, unless they’re made with at least a knowledge of how the system works, and of how you can deliver them to a distributor. If you make a film without those kinds of legal and QC kind of things involved, your film will never see the light of day.
It’s The New Bullshit.
On filmmaking as an affront to social order:
The films that are truly independent, studios make damn sure you never see them. Especially if their message or their spirit is anything even slightly against what they believe in. Pasolini’s "Salo" is an extreme example of a film so extreme that basically the Italian government had Pasolini murdered as a result. We can pretend they didn’t, but they did. Pasolini points out what the Italians never want to hear, which is that they ran concentration camps in the same manner, but maybe worse, than the Germans. The idea that the Italian fascists could do things as bad as anything that went on in Auschwitz… except with better carpets! And that’s "Salo"!
What’s shocking about it is it’s not just explicit or shocking: it’s such an affront to the power structure of the people who it was depicting and the people who made it. Things like that don’t happen anymore. It was a complete affront.
On how "Apocalypse Now" changed the business of American movie-making:
I fell in love with cinema in the era of Pasolini, even American filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola. When he made "Apocalypse Now," this was a huge-budget movie — not a little movie — a gigantic epic movie that basically said that the US government lost the Vietnam War, and after that film no one was left with any doubt that they lost the Vietnam War.
When America saw that, they realized the whole propaganda tool that was cinema was being taken away from them. Within five years, we had "Top Gun." What happened between "Apocalypse Now" and "Top Gun" was not that the directors were so excessive that they had to be reigned in. It was that someone in Washington said, "You’ve got to stop this. We can’t have these guys telling the truth about the wars we fight." Their real objection to "Apocalypse Now" was not its excess financially, but its message.
You come out of "Apocalypse Now" and you go, "The US lost the Vietnam War," no question. And you don’t understand it intellectually — you understand it viscerally! You come out of "Heaven’s Gate" and you go, "The US government does not have my best interests at heart." And within a few years, the top western is "Unforgiven," a nice entertaining film but it’s just the same vigilante shit that Clint Eastwood has been shoving down our throats since "Dirty Harry." "Get your big gun out!" "Show us what a man you are!" I just don’t find that interesting.