INTERVIEW: John Frankenheimer Keeps Playing "Games"
by Anthony Kaufman
With director John Frankenheimer (right) are actors Ben Affleck and Charlize Theron
(indieWIRE/2.25.2000) — John Frankenheimer — if the name doesn’t elicit respect, it should. Just because his latest film is a star-driven, Miramaxed roller coaster ride filled with preposterous plot twists and silly characterizations, this is a man who broke major ground in the 60’s, tackling political issues and foreseeing social crises like no other. And all accomplished within the context of thrilling paranoid universes that puts the “X-Files” to shame: McCarthyism (“The Manchurian Candidate“), military domination and presidential assassination (“Seven Days in May“), conformity and capitalism (“Seconds“), and the cost of war (“The Train“) and terrorism (“Black Sunday“), just to name a few.
Though his career has had its ups and downs since then, Frankenheimer is a director with an unparalleled level of experience, with 152 live television shows, at least 10 television movies, and some 29 feature films under his belt. So it was with great anticipation that indieWIRE’s Anthony Kaufman spoke with the living legend about directing for over 40 years, the hyperrealism of wide angle lenses, deep focus and desaturated color, the method behind action scenes, and working with Dimension Films‘ Bob Weinstein.
indieWIRE: So you just had a retrospective of your work in New York and Los Angeles occurring just prior to the release of “Reindeer Games.” What is it like to look back at some of your great works in the context of a new film?
John Frankenheimer: It’s terrific what they’re doing for me. The more things change, the more things stay the same. The film really fits into that same genre of films, of “The Manchurian Candidate” and “52 Pick Up” and “Ronin.” It’s a character driven thriller, that’s what it is. I think 30 years from now if they do another retrospective I hope that this is going to be a part of it. Even more important, I hope I’m still around.
iW: You plan to continue to keep working, I’m sure.
Frankenheimer: I intend to. As long as Bob Weinstein will let me work, I’ll keep working.
iW: Do you see any difference working for Miramax, a supposedly independent studio, verses some of the bigger companies you’ve worked with in the past?
Frankenheimer: It’s one of the best relationships I’ve ever had, which is why we signed on to do four more movies together. You’re dealing with extremely intelligent people, and you have total access to the top man. If you have a problem, you pick up the phone and call Bob Weinstein and you get an answer. He’s a guy who is extremely sensitive about you, the filmmaker. And he understands a tremendous amount about movies; his knowledge is incredible. I think he knows more about movies than I do. He’s certainly seen more.
iW: Do you feel more free working with them?
Frankenheimer: I’ve never really had a problem with that. I’ve been pretty much left alone to make my movies. So it’s just a question of who do you make them with? You want to make them with people you get along with — and I get along with these guys. Contractually, I have freedom, too. There’s no way they can screw around with my movies.
iW: What about as far as time and budget?
Frankenheimer: No, you never have enough time and you never have enough money. Any director who’s ever told you he has enough time and enough money is not to be trusted.
“You never have enough time and you never have enough money. Any director who’s ever told you he has enough time and enough money is not to be trusted.”
iW: How is this film similar or different to your other films?
Frankenheimer: I think there’s a lot of humor in this picture, a lot like “The Manchurian Candidate.”
iW: You think “The Manchurian Candidate” is funny?
Frankenheimer: Well, you see, the thing is, when it was released in 1962, people didn’t know it was okay to laugh. But in 1989, they knew it was. And that’s a big difference. I always intended it to be funny. I was shocked they didn’t get it in 1962.
iW: It seems like there is a consistency in the way you film your characters, here and in some of your earlier films. There is a certain surrealism to it, do you agree?
Frankenheimer: You could call it surrealism or you could call it hyperrealism, which I prefer to call it. Because I think I take something and make it more real than it is. In other words, I keep everything totally in focus, which the human eye doesn’t. I distort things a little bit to make them adhere to my vision of it. As Henry Miller said, I think it could be a quote about me, “There’s nothing unique about my vision, only the angle from which I see it.” And the angle from which I see that vision is unique and that’s what I think you’re talking about. I use wide angle lenses, low angles, depth of focus and stuff like that.
iW: I’m remembering a fantastic shot in “Seconds” when you strapped the camera onto the protagonist (later copied by Martin Scorsese in “Mean Streets”). Was that the first time that was done? How did you conceive of it?
Frankenheimer: I have no idea if it was the first time it was done. I got the idea, because I just wanted that effect. We strapped it right onto him with a harness. We built a harness beforehand. We thought of it long before we did it.
iW: I hear you visualize many of your scenes beforehand. Can you talk about orchestrating and planning your scenes, especially the way you do action and suspense?
Frankenheimer: For a director to do a successful action scene, I think the first thing you must do is make the audience geographically aware where everybody is. In my action scenes, everything is always in focus, the background is always in focus. So that you know where you are. As opposed to a lot of these new movies where they shoot them with these long lenses where the background is totally out of focus. I find that all terribly disorienting. In my movies, you know where you are, who is coming from where, and who’s doing what to whom. And I think that’s very important. And all the locations are very, carefully chosen and once you choose the location, you have to make sure the action you have in mind will work there. We built the interior of the casino in “Reindeer Games.” That was all deliberately done. Anyone who says they improvise a movie Mike Leigh says he does that