In Conversations with Directors, Elsie Walker and David Johnson bring together a collection of 26 interviews with a wide range of directors from various periods, nationalities, and backgrounds. The interviews are selected from the archives of Literature/Film Quarterly, a journal that focuses on the intimate relationship between literature and film, and the process of adapting and transforming one medium into the other. The interviews cover a 35-year span from 1973 to 2007. Some earlier interviews are retrieved from issues which are either scarce or no longer in print. Conversations with Directors preserves these rarely found interviews and presents them for the interest of readers in one volume.
The list of interviews includes directors from classical Hollywood (Robert Wise and Frank Capra), from European art cinema (Eric Rohmer and Federico Fellini) and from contemporary independent cinema (Richard Linklater); from North America as well as France (Jean-Charles Tacchella, Louis Malle), Great Britain (John Schlesinger), Poland (Andrzej Wajda), Italy (Franco Zeffirelli), Australia (Baz Luhrmann) and Mexico (Marcela Fernández Violante), working in a variety of genres and budgets. The interviews are arranged chronologically, in terms of their date of publication. Most are presented with an introduction consisting of the editors’ commentary – in which they review the forthcoming interview, emphasising its central ideas and points of connection and contrast with the other interviews – followed by the interviewer’s notes detailing observations and descriptions of the time and place the interview was held, as well as the director’s attitude and deportment (sometimes with a critical stance). The interviews were conducted by various literature and film scholars; a considerable number of the earlier ones were conducted by John C. Tibbetts, a notable film scholar and critic from the University of Kansas, while some of the recent ones were conducted by the editors themselves.
The interviews are presented “as comparatively unmediated, uncensored encounters” (p. xxiv) with directors who respond to the questions with veracity and openness. The informality of the interviews makes them absorbing and fun to read. For example, there is one hilarious anecdote from Frank Capra, who expected to receive a Best Picture Academy Award for Lady for a Day (1933) and his consequent frustration when he mistakenly walked on stage thinking he had won the award. Capra says it was the most miserable thing that has ever happened to him. René Clair does not refrain from expressing how horrified he is by some of his films, and he admits that he does not keep any copies of his films, even though he is aware that most of them have either disappeared or been mutilated. The directors’ ingenious attitudes towards their films and filmmaking processes are revealed in these interviews, which often read like informal conversations.
Most of the interviews highlight issues regarding film adaptation. In her interview with Hiba Moussa, Canadian director Patricia Rozema suggests that adaptation is re-interpreting and re-fashioning the literary source; therefore every adaptation is an interpretation of its director. In keeping with her point, the reader can view each adaptation discussed in the book as the distinctive and personal vision of its respective director. Most of the directors explain that they make adaptations of literary texts because they can personally relate to their themes or characters. For example, Wayne Wang made a film version of Amy Tan’s 1989 novel The Joy Luck Club (1993), about two generations of Chinese-American women, because its story goes back to his roots and is a part of his history. Rozema brought her own interpretation to Jane Austen’s 1814 novel Mansfield Park (1999) because she could connect to the main female character, Fanny Price (Frances O’Connor), who came from an impoverished background, just as she did. In 2006, Richard Linklater adapted Philip K. Dick’s 1977 science fiction novel A Scanner Darkly because, as he states, “the view of the book is my view of the world” (p. 295). As these directors make clear, adaptation grows out of personal experience; therefore each adaptation can be viewed as the unique interpretation of its director, his or her way of transforming the written word into spoken word, or the verbal into the visual.
In addition, the directors talk about the problems they encounter and the solutions they come up with in the process of adaptation. Franco Zeffirelli and Baz Luhrmann discuss the difficulties of adapting William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1597) to the screen: cutting the original text, compiling it into two hours, reconfiguring the scenes, and choosing the cast. While mostly sharing the same concerns, the directors differed in their approach to the language of Shakespeare. Zeffirelli wanted no “classical barrier” between the actor and the audience (p. 265); therefore, in his 1968 film adaptation, he made the language accessible for as many people as possible to understand Shakespeare. Luhrmann, on the other hand, rearranged the scenes and made the necessary cuts while converting the play into a modern situation, but his 1996 adaptation persistently adhered to the language. Luhrmann also talks about the pre-production process in which he spent two years meticulously researching the Elizabethan stage. Likewise, Rozema dedicated a great deal of time to understanding the political and social context of the time Austen wrote Mansfield Park. This director-focused viewpoint is reinforced by the fact that each of the directors interviewed in this volume can be considered an auteur, leaving – as Robert Altman says – their “fingerprints” in all of their movies (p. 253).
Even though the interviews might present the director/auteur as sole creator, Conversations with Directors makes a conscious effort to demonstrate the complex interplay of forces involved in the creation of films and adaptations. It attempts to understand the role of individual directors without neglecting the participation of producers, screenwriters, cinematographers, editors and actors, as well as the role of socio-political circumstances. For example, when Wang was having difficulty translating the literary techniques (particularly the interlocking stories) in Tan’s Joy Luck Club into a screenplay, he resorted to the help of an experienced screenwriter, Ron Bass. Many other directors also discuss the contribution of their creative personnel – camera operators, screenwriters, and others – to the finished product. The interviews suggest that film style emerges not out of a single artistic vision but rather a collaborative and situational process. In this way, these interviews represent a key shift in the focus of adaptation studies: from a director-centred approach where the focus is on the director’s fidelity to – or betrayal of – the source material, to a more intertexual approach where cultural/historical circumstances, commercial imperatives, requirements of the film medium and other factors come into the foreground.
Conversations with Directors stimulates new and different considerations of both film adaptation and cinematic authorship. It portrays the filmmakers not in a romanticised fashion, but as fallible human beings who can make mistakes, who work hard to sell their ideas to the studios, and who take the role of a “cheerleader” or “tourist guide” to motivate the actors. The book illustrates the competing ways of looking at the term “director”.
Conversations with Directors will be very helpful for scholars interested in exploring aspects of authorship and adaptation, and also for casual fans and lovers of film who would like to take some lessons from classic and contemporary directors on filmmaking techniques.
Conversations with Directors: An Anthology of Interviews from Literature/Film Quarterly, edited by Elsie M. Walker and David T. Johnson, The Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland, 2008.