Bob Rafelson is one of the seminal figures that ushered in the so-called New Hollywood era of the late 1960s and early ’70s. He had a decisive hand in creating the hugely successful television series, The Monkees (1966-1968), centred on a faux pop group of the same name, who would also appear in Rafelson’s dadaist début feature, Head (1968). BBS, the independent company he formed with partners Bert Schneider and Steve Blauner, produced Easy Rider (1969) for Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. The success of the film allowed BBS to finance some of the defining films of that era, including Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) and Rafelson’s own majestic duo, Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), two films that would shape the early screen persona of Jack Nicholson and make him the actor most associated with Rafelson’s cinema. They would team up again for his 1981 adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and, subsequently, Man Trouble (1992) and Blood and Wine (1996). In 1976, Rafelson directed the distinctive and underrated Stay Hungry, set in the world of gymnasiums and body building contests, starring Jeff Bridges and featuring a young Arnold Schwarzenegger. When dealing with genre material, Rafelson tends to skew the conventions of the mainstream cinema, as in Black Widow (1987), a nourish thriller with Debra Winger and Theresa Russell as characters locked in an obsessive game of pursuit. In 1990, he made a personal favourite, Mountains of the Moon, a cherished film on the legendary 19th century British writer-explorer, Richard Burton. While never prolific, Rafelson’s career speaks for a filmmaker who was never comfortable in the studio system and, from the very beginning, rubbed against the grain of the conventions and norms of Hollywood.
In 2006, Bob Rafelson was invited by the International Film School in Köln to hold an acting workshop on the use of monologue in film. Rainer Knepperges and Franz Müller attended the class and subsequently took the opportunity to speak to him on a range of topics. A German language translation of the interview was originally published in the film magazine Revolver (No. 16, 2007).
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In your acting workshop today, you talked a lot about the use of the monologue, but we believe fighting scenes are more important to your films.
Really? More important in what sense?
We think you are more interested in people fighting.
You are the first to say this to me … ever … and I’ve done a lot of interviews and spoken to a lot of film scholars over the years. [Pause]
The two hardest things to do on film, I think, are scenes of fucking and fighting. And I don’t use stunt men. I ask the actors to fight and choreograph it entirely myself. I also get very nervous before a fight scene because I don’t want anybody to get hurt.
One of the hardest things about a fight scene is to make it look authentic. Anybody can go boom and the head goes like that and then … There are movies where Sylvester Stallone comes out with a gun and he shoots a hundred guys and he runs out of bullets and he hits them like [snaps a finger]. The audience loves this, and there is not one moment of reality. The audience doesn’t want reality.
When I do a fight scene in a picture, usually I want to hurt the audience. I want them to feel the pain of the fight – or the comedy of the fight. So, I would say they are very important to me, but there are not that many of them across my films. It’s a bit much to say that I prefer them to monologues.
I made a movie called The King of Marvin Gardens about a man who is a monologist and in every movie I have made there features a monologue. It must not be by accident. They called me from the film school in Cologne and they asked, “Will you teach a workshop on something of your choice?” They wanted an answer right away. So, the next day I said, “Monologue.” Then I began to think, “How the fuck do you teach monologue?” I don’t know how to teach monologue. I don’t even know how to teach acting. I’ve never taught acting before.
So, two days before I arrived in Cologne, I went to the library and I got books by Stanislavski and Michael Tschechow and Stella Adler. I tried to read the books, but they don’t make any sense to me. So, I just taught it my own way. I’d rather teach monologue than teach fighting.
But you could teach how to film a fight scene just as well. The fight scene in Stay Hungry is the best that’s ever been staged.
Thank you for that, because nobody knows this movie.
The scene is so breathtaking to watch. It’s so long. It’s so amazing.
We used real weights. You know you can tell because, when the character throws them down the stairs, the stairs break. The producer or the assistant director came to the set and said, “Well, here are the stunt men. They can show you how to do it.” And immediately they showed me something like where you grab somebody by the hair and klack [Rafelson acts out some of the usual bad television stunt fighting, elbow check, knee kick …]. And I said, “Send them home. I want to do it myself.”
The actors trusted me. I know exactly how to cover it in a shot so that nobody can get hurt. When I threw the little weights that hit him in the leg, I used a piece of wood, you know. The only one I was worried about was when R. G. Armstrong threw those big weights. Jeff Bridges said, “Throw a real weight. I can get out of the way”. It missed him by about so much [shows an inch or two with his fingers]. [Laughter]
R. G. Armstrong is extraordinary in the movie.
He is a giant. I’ve always been a fan of his. He was from Birmingham, Alabama [the location of Stay Hungry], and worked in the steel mines there. When I interviewed him for the part [of Thor Erickson], he was just so perfect that I said, “Please be in the movie!” And he said, “Yes.”
He is crazy as a loon. You can see it when he is inhaling a capsule of amyl nitrate, because that was real amyl nitrates, you know. I was saying, “Now wait a minute, R. G. …!” [Laughter]
In this scene with Armstrong, there is the inference of rape or sexual threat, but it’s not directly shown, and because it’s not shown it’s more threatening.
Sally Field [Mary Tate Farnsworth] is also very good when Jeff Bridges [Craig Blake] comes up the stairs and he sees her and asks, “What’s wrong?” I can’t remember what she says in turn.
We think she says something about almost getting raped, though not in those words.
No, she says something strange like, “I’m okay.”
But you know that she is not okay. And that is very frightening. Perhaps she says something like, “Something very bad almost happened.” It’s weird.
No, she never says anything direct. I know for sure. I wouldn’t do it that way. But, then again, I was young and maybe I would have done that. [Laughter]
It’s funny, but when I am interviewed nobody talks about this picture very much. And Jeff Bridges is the most underrated, underappreciated actor in America. Every movie I see Jeff in, he is good, really good. He is a wonderful guy, too. And, by the way, I cast him in his first movie, The Last Picture Show, because I produced that movie.
In The Postman Always Rings Twice, there is violence and sex, and the two often cross over and merge with one another, as for example in the car-crash scene. The lovers – Frank Chambers (Jack Nicholson) and Cora Papadakis (Jessica Lange) – have to hit each other to create a fake crime scene and it turns into a sex scene, a love scene between them. This is something David Cronenberg did with Crash (1996) many years later.
But it’s not me. Of course I made the choice to make the film, but, if I recall correctly, that actually is in James Cain’s novel.
But other directors who’ve adapted his novel didn’t have …
I don’t give a fuck about the other directors. What do they know about making violent, dirty movies? This is why I made the movie because they didn’t do it. It’s a book about sado-masochism.
Very early on, there is a scene where Cora is bent over in the kitchen feeding a cat or something and [Frank] comes up behind her and punches her in the ass. I thought Jack was really gonna whack the shit out of her and I said, “No, no, Jack, just make it a fun thing.” Both of them understood the relationship.
My idea was that at the end of the film they would become very conventional people. Cora’s going to have a baby. I changed the ending of the book, because for me the most tragic thing that can happen to somebody is not to go to prison and be hanged, or be in gaol for the rest of your life, but to lose the person you love the most in the world. And so the whole movie is conceived as a love movie. I told my cameraman Sven Nykvist to shoot it in a loving way as opposed to film noir.
To me it’s a love story between two people who are not very attractive people and yet you come to understand them and come to feel their love for one another. So, when one dies at the end, hopefully you’re moved by it. That was the challenge of the film. And it was the challenge in writing the script, too, which I gave to a young man who had never written a movie before: David Mamet. I said to him, “No, we are not going to have the second trial of The Postman Always Rings Twice. That’s the way everybody does it.” We ended with a tragic love story.
When you asked David Mamet to write the screenplay, did you have Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange in mind by then?
Not Jessica. Jack, yes. It was complicated because she hadn’t become a star as yet. Eventually I persuaded everybody that she was not only sexier than other candidates for the role, but that she was also an extraordinary actress.
When you are writing a screenplay yourself, is it important for you to have the actors in mind that you want to use?
The opposite. To write a character, I have to see the character, not the actor. The great pleasure is to see it so clearly that you really have a character – not just dialogue, not just a story – that you can smell. You really know the person. And then the actor comes in and changes your mind, that’s what makes it exciting – the actor being better than your visualisation.
Take Karen Black [Rayette Dipesto] in the beginning of Five Easy Piece. When you first see her, she is sitting in the sink putting on lipstick, right? I was getting ready to shoot this scene where Jack Nicholson’s character [Robert Eroica Dupea] comes home from the oil fields and enters the house. This is how you get to meet his present lifestyle and the woman he is living with. But Karen is sitting in the sink putting on her make-up. Well, nobody sits in the sink to put on lipstick. I said, stay there and I’ll shoot it. And that’s Karen. That’s the way she comes into the movie.
Did Jack Nicholson come in later for the main part in Five Easy Pieces?
No. When we wrote my first movie Head together and produced it together, Jack had given up acting at the time. He and I would act out all the dialogue, and I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I said, “Why aren’t you acting anymore?” And he said, “I’m tired of it. I always get to play the shitty B-part, not the A-part, and it’s always in conventional movies.” Then I said, “Well, not the next one. The next one I want you to star in it.” That was Five Easy Pieces, but I produced Easy Rider in-between.
Rip Torn was to play the part [of George Hanson] and I was a little frightened to tell Dennis Hopper that Jack Nicholson should play the part, because I wanted the thrill of discovering him myself. I didn’t want anybody else to get him. That was pretty stupid. And, quite frankly, if Jack hadn’t been in Easy Rider, my film would not have been the success it was. He came in at just the right moment to give Five Easy Pieces an extraordinary buoyancy.
Black Widow has an unusual crime story and two very strong female leads in Debra Winger and Theresa Russell. At times, you forget that you are in a crime story.
If I had been making the film in France, those two women would have completely been in love with each other. As it is, we got as close as we could to what would be acceptable in an American movie.
It became interesting because it was the first time you had this criminal and justice pursuit, in the way that Victor Hugo did it, where there is an attraction between the hunter and the hunted … with women! So, the movie had some kind of value.
I like Theresa Russell. She is Nic Roeg’s wife … ah, was Nic Roeg’s wife, yes.
Russell’s Catherine Petersen is the sexy character, whereas Debra Winger’s Alexandra Barnes is so …
Well, Debra was supposed to play this frumpy figure who becomes sexy from what she learns from the other woman.
In your next film, Mountains of the Moon, there are also two people – Richard Burton (Patrick Bergin) and John Speke (Iain Glen) – and again there is again a kind of love story. The one kiss between these men is so …
I made that movie maybe fifteen or so years ago and I never saw that scene until one hour ago when I showed it to the class. For me, it’s a movie about brothers. That’s how I think of it. And a movie about loyalty and betrayal between two men who really love each other and hate each other. One loves one so much that he kills himself. Really! That’s why.
You know, it’s very curious because, in the course of my career over many years now, with the exception of Five Easy Pieces, which was somewhat accepted immediately, nothing ever was. King of Marvin Gardens was rejected. Stay Hungry was rejected. My first, Head, was rejected. In America, The Postman Always Rings Twice was completely rejected; it only played for seven days. Finished.
Then, all of a sudden, everybody loved Mountains of the Moon. It found its time. That movie was my favourite movie to make, because Richard Burton was my personal hero and I had a chance to live part of his life and to praise it. It was like being a boy, you know, and getting a chance to be your hero.
Second, I had spent much of my life walking in Africa. One trip was eight hundred miles, another – by myself – was four hundred miles. And that adventure idea was inspired by Richard Burton.
It was a kind of a privilege and I loved doing it because I was very comfortable in Africa. At the same time, I was very frightened: “How am I going to do this, a big movie?” Nobody ever asked me to do a big movie. Nobody ever asked me to do any movie. All my movies I had to fight to make. That one took nine years and got made by accident, not because people were passionate about it. There was a strike in America. They had no scripts, no product. And they people needed a movie. So, I said, “Yeah, I have one.”
When you started your independent company with Bert Schneider, was it important for you to know there were others in quite the same situation like you? People like Peter Bogdanovich and Henry Jaglom.
First of all, I had no choice but to be independent in my life because I wasn’t happy with my life. I wanted to change it. And that carried over into everything: how I lived my life, how I found my jobs or education. When I came to making movies, there was this streak in me of being counter, being against. Not for, but against something. And I was against Hollywood.
So, I turned to my partner, Bert Schneider, and said, “Look, the Italians did this in the 1940s with Neorealism. The French had the New Wave. Why can’t we have this? We have directors here. We have talent here. The problem is not that we don’t have talent, but that we don’t have people who can recognize talent and who can reward talent. So let’s form a company where we really can use these really talented people.” That was the dream and we were very lucky that we made pictures that somebody wanted to see. Really lucky! I never expected Easy Rider to be a big success, just to be a good movie. The same thing with The Last Picture Show. Such a fucking depressing movie! To me it’s the best movie we made. But it’s really a depressing movie. Who would think that people would go to see it?
But how close were you with the others?
All of us knew each other. All of us came to live under the same umbrella – my and Bert Schneider’s umbrella. That didn’t mean that you socialised with them every day and had dinner with them every day, but there was a respect … a bit like a co-operative. The English before us, that’s where the real model came from, with Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson. I said, “Look at them. They are making angry films, as well. Not films of protest, but films that are dissatisfied, where everything isn’t beautiful.” In America, we were making Darling Lili [Blake Edwards, 1970]. And it came in a time where there was beginning to be unrest in the country. So, we were just [snaps his finger] there at the right moment. Some of it was conscious on our part, part of it was luck.
The Studio system was in a deep crisis. Columbia Pictures was the distributor of Easy Rider.
Columbia did not finance Easy Rider.
But they distributed it.
They distributed all our films.
And this was very important?
Yeah, it was really important to them, too. The Monkees were a hit. Nobody had imagined that that their television series could be a success. A rock ’n’ roll group in America on television with all these violations of the format, interviews with the actors and everything thrown in. And then in its first year it won an Emmy Award and they said: “Oh well, maybe they know something.” And then we showed Columbia Easy Rider. I mortgaged my house and we raised enough money, 250,000 dollars or something like that, to make the movie. We went to New York to show the film to Columbia Pictures in a screening room little more than twice the size of this room. All the executives with ties and jackets were present and by the end of the screening only one guy was there. Everybody had left the fucking room. And they were saying, “What is this with the cocaine and marihuana? That’s not Columbia Pictures.” So we took it to Cannes and it created a big sensation and then Columbia decided it wanted the movie. And we said, “Okay you can have the movie and five others. But you cannot read our scripts, you cannot know who is going to be in the films, you’ll know nothing.” And that’s exactly what we did.
What were those five films?
Jaglom, Bogdanovich, Hopper and two from me. (1)
If one looks at Hollywood, there seems to be a similar crisis today. The studios don’t run well. They only produce sequels of sequels. They desperately search for ideas and people.
The crisis is there, but the solution is not. I hope there will be, but it will not be what we think it is. I think it will come from computers, the internet. The length of film, size of film, everything … something will change all of that. Maybe movies will be only one-minute long. You understand what I mean? It will be something very different.
Do you still watch a lot of films, such as American independent films?
Yes, yes, I do, but I live in a small town in Colorado. And, to be honest with you, I don’t see many good movies. I like Mexican movies now, like Y tu mama también (Alfonso Cuarón, 2001).
It is hard to make good movies right now. Most of the independent filmmakers are making movies so that they can join the system. Its like: “Here, this is my sample film, now let me go have a big budget. That’s what I really want.” And usually they are genre films. They are not like The Last Picture Show or Easy Rider or even Five Easy Pieces. They are genre films about guys who have to fight cops or something.
But with the structure of Rashômon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950), so they don’t recognise it is the same old story they’re telling. You don’t get much for being risky.
Convention is the rule of our time.
You said you were against Hollywood. But you never were against John Ford or Howard Hawks?
No. But strangely the one theatre that I attended regularly was a foreign film theatre called La Thalia. When I was ten or eleven years old, I spent more time looking at European films than at John Ford films. We’re talking the ’40s. So, in some weird way, I learnt as much from foreign films as I learned from American films. Maybe more. And then, of course, to be different, to separate yourself from the rest of your class mates, it’s much better to know about foreign film because the others don’t know fuck all about foreign film and you do. You are smarter than they are, you see? A stupid ego thing, but true nonetheless.
But your movies are more similar to the films of William Wellman than to those of Roberto Rosselini.
But, honest to God, I really don’t know them that well. Bogdanovich, yeah sure, he would give you a six-hour answer to your question. Most of the directors of my era – [Martin] Scorsese, [Francis Ford] Coppola – know film history. They all went to film school. I didn’t. I didn’t want to do that.
But your films have something …
They have something, but it’s by mistake.
… something of the best of American pictures.
Yeah, well I can tell you there was this famous critic for the New Republic, Stanley Kauffmann, and he came to interview me after The King of Marvin Gardens and he said to me, “I can see that the great influence on your films is Ingmar Bergman.” I said, “What?!” I knew Ingmar Bergman’s films, don’t misunderstand.
You have worked with Sven Nykvist.
Kauffmann said, “For example, in your confrontation between the people, the adversaries are very European. They’re very complicated. They don’t come in and shoot guns at each other”. And I say to the guy, “You don’t understand something about my movies: The frame of the picture is here, yes? [Drawing a frame in the air.] And they enter like this, yes? [Indicating two persons coming from left and right towards the frame.] But they just [before entering the frame] got off their horses here and here. And you don’t see the horses, but they came in on horses.” And that’s my answer. [Laughter]
Ah yes, they are American, but I am not an American student of movies where I know William Wellman’s style versus George Stevens’ style versus Delmer Daves’ style.
Thank you very much for your time.
Thank you. And please send me what you write. I like the thought that you like my fights. You are the first people who ever asked me about my fights. And Mountains of the Moon has the best ones.
By the way, when I was a boy, this is what I wanted to do: to be a fighter.
Reprinted with permission of the authors and Revolver.
- Editors: Rafelson most likely has in mind Jaglom’s A Safe Place (1971), Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, and his own Five Easy Pieces and King of Marvin Gardens. As to Hopper, BBS had initially considered producing his follow up to Easy Rider, The Last Movie (1971), but subsequently passed on it. Rafelson did, though, produce it. Jack Nicholson’s directing début, Drive, He Said (1971), should also form part of this grouping.