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Memories of John Cassavetes: A New Photography Exhibit Highlights The Director’s Ambitious Theater Project

Memories of John Cassavetes: A New Photography Exhibit Highlights The Director's Ambitious Theater Project

In many ways, Steve Reisch’s “The Cassavetes Project” is a product of the age-old industry adage: “Make your own luck.” As a young actor living in Los Angeles in 1981, Reisch approached John Cassavetes outside the rehearsal space of his project, “Three Plays of Love and Hate.” Unsure of how his proposal would be received, Reisch asked Cassavetes if he was looking for someone to document the making and shaping of the mammoth theatrical undertaking. To Reisch’s surprise, the legendary director took him up on the offer and told him to be ready to begin the following morning.  

As the title suggests, “Three Plays of Love and Hate” was a trio of Cassavetes-helmed plays (two of them adapted from original works by Canadian playwright Ted Allan) housed in a Hollywood theater that was being completely overhauled specifically for the production. At the center of the troika was a pair of notable Cassavetes collaborators: Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands. The co-stars of “A Woman Under the Influence,” along with Jon Voight, headed the bill, but the production required personnel numbering in the hundreds, Reisch included.

The fruits of the photographer’s efforts is now a record of the rehearsal process not seen since the plays’ original mounting, capturing candid glances and conversations between cinematic icons and the unseen crew that helped them take center stage. Captured and printed on Canon equipment, the exhibit is currently on display at the company’s Hollywood location.

“I’ve been making a living as a photographer for 40 years. I didn’t make a dime on this, but it was the highlight of my photography career,” Reisch explained.

We had a chance to talk with Reisch at the exhibit, where he relayed the stories behind some of his favorite shots and the lasting legacy of those he was able to feature.

Was there any tension being the person documenting all this?

Not from their perspective, but I was nervous about it. For one thing, we were in a reading room with all these people and I’d go *click* and it sounded like a bomb went off. Occasionally, I’d go *click click* because of the lighting situation, but I was definitely really conscious of not being noticed. I would have loved to have run around and taken 20,000 photos, but shooting this stuff was intense.

Were you buying all the film yourself?

Yes. Bought it all myself, did all the prints myself, everything. I didn’t ask them for a dime. I’d come in and I’d have a little book and I’d show [John]. The photos were taken in a very rough situation as far as lighting goes. I wasn’t on a tripod, had no sound processor on it. Most of the shots were taken at 1/30th of a second at 2.8 [aperture], which means it was wide open and a very slow shutter speed in a situation where I didn’t want to feel like a photographer. I just wanted to feel like a fly on the wall just capturing this stuff. I took 3,000 shots. I’d say 500 were out of focus, but I was able to capture a number of shots I really love. 

This is one of them. [shown above] The focus is incredible. All that energy and he’s not moving, you know. Totally absorbed. I think he was looking at the stage at the time, making some kind of decision. He’s so acutely focused in this, it’s sort of mind-boggling. He could be so into it and then the next second, he’s light and easy. All of it, from my point of view, was like sitting in a masterclass of acting, of life, of relationships, all the little intricacies of dealing with people.

What he was saying and how he was coming across, the truthfulness of it, the sound of it, that someone here is really saying something hits home. And it applied across all fronts: the acting, staging, the intricacies of relationships. It was amazing. And everybody felt the same way. I’ve talked to a lot of people since the show opened and this was a time in their life that they really put up there, not only because of the unique type of situation (three plays being put on at the same time, which is insane), but just the type of people that were involved. Especially John.

A lot of people that worked on the show found their way onstage, too.

Exactly. It was a really interesting experience because the way he directed, he didn’t really direct, but he wrote. Peter [Falk]’s painter was able to play the harmonica and the spoons. So he brought him in to do the painting on it, and John put him in the play. For me, he gave me a few lines on a part, and I improvised a little bit. I didn’t know if I should or I shouldn’t, but he just let me do what I did. The next day I came in and he said, “OK, I want you to do it again.” 

Every day he’d hand me a few lines and I realized it was a combination of the character I was doing and me. Talking to Gena and Jon Voight, from what I understand, he never directed. He might’ve elaborated on stuff and explained situations to say, “This part is you. It’s you. That’s all. Just understand that.” Which, from an actor’s point of view, is just great.
[Gena] was so relaxed. She’s definitely royalty as far as cinema goes. She was such a class act.  She had such power as an actress, she was the lead in two of the plays. Which was unbelievable.

And these were not short plays either. These were all behemoth undertakings.

Most of the critics hated them. I don’t think he could care less, he was that type of a character. Financially, he put all this money in and he charged $2 a seat, in this theater that he built himself with seats individually bolted into the ground. Leather cushions, movable, I don’t know where he got them from. He made one of the best theaters in LA. And even if you were an agent, you had to pay $2 for a ticket. Somewhere along the line, some independent producers with cable companies offered him, I was told, $2 million for each play to videotape it.

And he said, “It’s been done. I appreciate it, but…nah.” He wasn’t ready to show it. I think it was all about getting three scripts ready to make a movie. The only one he really did was “Love Streams.”

How did seeing “Love Streams” as a movie connect to your experience of being there at the start of it all?

It was completely different. Jon Voight did it in the theater, and John did it in the movie, so it had a completely different feel to it. I think Voight played it more boyishly and John was more manly. 

The most important thing to him is the relationship between the actors. During “Love Streams,” there’s a couple of shots where there are cables running in the street. And I said, “John, you really don’t give a shit, do you?” He didn’t have to do something for his audience, he had to do something for the actors and the story that he was telling.

From this collection, Cassavetes doesn’t seem like a man of extreme emotions. He’s occupying that middle ground. 

The thing about John is that he has this incredible energy, and it’s uniquely positive. I know that he got angry, but I’ve never seen him angry. He wasn’t outrageously crazy in his passion. The intelligence is what pushed his passion more than anything else. There was an undercurrent of understanding. It’s almost like he went out of his way to connect with everybody, if you were part of the process. And the feeling when he connected with you was that this guy knew who you were. He had that kind of overall worldliness and insightfulness that you felt whether you wanted him to connect with you or not.
One day, they invited me up there for whatever reason, and they sat me down. Gena was on my left and John was on my right, he puts the TV on and shows “Opening Night.” And I’m like, “Holy shit, what is this?” And then he puts on “A Woman Under the Influence.” So I sat there for three hours. It was just so raw and dynamic. And it was so revealing about relationships. 

It must have been helpful to have these central figures to give you focus. Otherwise, it seems like it would have been overwhelming.

Well, [John] was definitely the center. And Voight was very charming and very available. He had no problem making a connection. Just a very gracious, nice man. There’s not too many actors around that I think had his natural talent. In the rehearsal process, I used to see him do the same scene twenty times, and it was always different. So there was so much to learn from him, also. 

Would it have been a different production if he had done it in New York instead of out here in Los Angeles? 

This was maybe more laid back than New York, but New York’s a little sharper in certain ways. It did become a family, we bonded with everybody, no major flareups along the way. It was quite unique. The reason most of these photos is in the rehearsal process is that once we got into the theater and started doing the plays, there was nothing really going on except the plays.

For me, it was all the personal connections I was seeing and the relaxed atmosphere of the readings and the rehearsal process, rewriting all the plays. As a teacher, [John] wanted people to learn and develop knowledge and insight. That’s the feeling you got from him more than anything else, that he was a teacher. A loving teacher, what more could you want?

“The Cassavetes Project” is currently open at Canon Hollywood and will run through November 20th.

READ MORE: The 10 Most Common Reasons Why Scripts are Rejected

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