June 18, 2022
‘After Hours’ was like an independent film. It was shorter and cheaper. I just wanted to see if I still had the energy to shoot quickly. There’s a certain passion that you have to have to make ‘Mean Streets’ or ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Raging Bull.’ I had to find that again.—Martin Scorsese
By Koraljka Suton
When you think Martin Scorsese, the movies that usually come to mind are critically-acclaimed and praised masterpieces such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull or Goodfellas, pictures that defined his career as a filmmaker and turned him into one of the most prestigious and significant directors in cinematic history. But what does not cross most people’s minds when they hear the accolade “a typical Scorsese movie” is the gem After Hours, the director’s 1985 underrated mix of screwball comedy and film noir for which he won Best Director at Cannes, that has since become a cult classic and has started to gain more and more recognition as time went on. However, even less common knowledge is the fact that the story behind the making of Scorsese’s black comedy actually mirrors the film’s prevailing Kafkaesque theme. Or is it the other way around? The story goes as follows. Devout Catholic and almost-priest Martin Scorsese had been wanting to make a movie about the trials and tribulations of Jesus Christ ever since film school. And at one point, he seemingly got that chance—production for The Last Temptation of Christ, based on Paul Schrader’s adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ controversial 1955 novel, was set for 1983 and the movie was to be shot in Israel with a $114 million budget. But the odds turned out not to be in Scorsese’s favor, for the project was canceled on Thanksgiving day of 1983 due to an increasing budget, as well as outrage from religious groups who sent five hundred letters a day to Paramount’s parent company Gulf+Western in an attempt to sabotage the movie’s production. It would be an understatement to say that the director was disappointed and that the setback he experienced made him question both himself and his future as a filmmaker. But instead of avoiding or filling the void that was left in the wake of his canceled passion-project, he, in the manner of a true artist, decided to do something completely different with the aforementioned void. He made a movie about it.
As Scorsese himself admitted in a 1988 interview by Harlan Jacobson From Film Comment: “After The Last Temptation was canceled in ’83, I had to get myself back in shape. Work out. And this was working out. First After Hours, on a small scale. The idea was that I should be able, if Last Temptation ever came along again, to make it like After Hours, because that’s all the money I’m gonna get for it. Then the question was: Are you going to survive as a Hollywood ﬁlmmaker? Because even though I live in New York, I’m a ‘Hollywood director.’ Then again, even when I try to make a Hollywood ﬁlm, there’s something in me that says, ‘Go the other way.’” His getting-back-in-shape film After Hours follows computer word processor Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) at the end of and after a regular and essentially boring day at work. In trying to escape the existential void that is his day-to-day life, Paul decides to call a woman he met after work and briefly conversed with while sitting alone in a café. Excited that he might finally take a break from his dull life and get physical with a person of the opposite sex, he orders a cab to take him to her place, which is all the way in SoHo. But as soon as he leaves his apartment, the night ahead of him starts to unravel in ways both absurd and completely unimaginable. Paul, quickly having realized that his outing had gone in a direction he neither anticipated nor desired, tries to head back home, only to find himself experiencing a series of bizarre situations and meeting people who make it literally impossible for him to do so. Every single person he encounters, many of which initially do have the best of intentions for our main character, ultimately turns out contributing to Paul’s night of total disorientation, misfortune and chaos.
New York itself becomes an enemy, a gigantic maze that exists with the sole purpose of making the protagonist’s night a living hell (and thanks to the fantastic work done by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, we feel the flames engulfing the character every step of the way, taking us along with him). Its inhabitants are people from various walks of life, odd and quirky, with backstories and/or personalities so outrageous and intriguing, they easily make the viewers feel as if they had stumbled straight into a confusing and rather unpleasant dream. It is, after all, nighttime. And as the night gets darker, so does Paul’s physical and emotional state. What is truly fascinating about his seemingly never-ending journey is the fact that he puts his trust in literally every person that crosses his way, no matter how many times that did not work out for him during the course of his night—so desperate is he in his attempt to get to the predictability and safety of his home. Meanwhile, we as the viewers quickly pick up on the notion that no one is coming to his rescue and that everything (and everyone) that happens to him will only contribute to his downfall. We hold on to hope at first, but that glimmer is extinguished soon enough, leaving in its wake a frustration that lingers like a mosquito bite—scratching it only makes things worse. And After Hours truly does scratch it repeatedly, making sure that we do not ease into feelings of satisfaction and relief whenever Paul seemingly finds shelter and salvation. As Scorsese explained in the After Hours DVD commentary: “And so this film (…) comes out of a feeling of being stuck in the underworld and never being able to get out, maybe never being able to get to make another big film in a sense or does one just continue. There’s no such thing as a big film, it’s just a film, whether it’s 20 million, 100 million, 5 million, 100 thousand. It’s still gotta sell emotions, gotta sell ideas. So, think about how you could sustain yourself creatively and where’s your stamina, too. I just turned 40, so my stamina had to be there from the 20, 15 or 20 years earlier. And so the film was designed completely while I was in my loft for about one week when I had a bad cough.”
This Kafkaesque notion of being stuck inside an absurd system without any means of getting out is indeed one that permeates the entirety of Scorsese’s wonderfully crafted movie, for Paul cannot escape SoHo no matter how hard he tries and the circumstances of his “captivity” keep getting more absurd by the minute. A dialogue between Paul and a doorman at a club he wants to enter, as well as a scene between the protagonist and a tollbooth operator in a subway, are directly inspired by Kafka’s work, reflecting Scorsese’s own process of waiting for the production of The Last Temptation of Christ and his frustration due to the ultimate futility of it all. But in After Hours, there are other influences as well. Paul’s aforementioned attempt to find a way back home mirrors that of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, which Scorsese’s movie even subtly references. When talking to Marcy, the woman he meets at the café (played by the amazing Rosanna Arquette), Paul finds out that the reason she is no longer with her husband is his obsession with The Wizard of Oz which prompted him to shout “Surrender Dorothy!” each time he came during sex. It is indeed an ingenious prolepsis regarding the remainder of After Hours, for it refers to a scene in which the Wicked Witch of the West commands the citizens of Emerald City to surrender the main character to her, or else.
Paul will soon enough step into Dorothy’s shoes himself, for he will spend the better half of the movie running away from violent crowds of people wanting him surrendered due to their misconception that he is the criminal robbing their neighborhood. But Paul is not only Dorothy—he is also Alice in Wonderland, having gone down the metaphorical rabbit hole in search of adventure, only to end up sinking deeper than he ever thought possible. In Paul’s case, nighttime itself becomes like a portal to a parallel reality that he enters after having followed the white rabbit in the form of Marcy, where all kinds of peculiar characters come out to play, all of them seemingly out to get him. In the end, his story turns out to be just as fantastical as Dorothy and Alice’s—when described out loud, it sounds too preposterous to be true and too bewildering to be believed. And yet, we have witnessed it all and have subsequently found ourselves in just as much of an emotional turmoil as the protagonist.
Although the following notion might seem outrageous at this point, it is important to emphasize that Scorsese managed to make After Hours, a movie that reflects his own feelings of being stuck within the film industry, genuinely funny. Needless to say, the laughter that inevitably ensues is one through tears—we laugh with nervous exasperation, for it remains the only possible coping mechanism our psyche can muster up when faced with such a number of absurdities, thereby providing us with even the slightest bit of relief amidst the witnessing of one man’s personal pandemonium. Laughing was, after all, the best thing Scorsese himself could do—both on and off set. As lead actor Griffin Dunne recalls in the Making Of feature on the After Hours DVD: “I’d just see [Scorsese’s] back, trying to hold back from laughing. He just found it hilarious what was happening to [Paul Hackett]. It always reminded me of that moment he was telling me his picture was canceled. What are you gonna do? Just laugh.” So not only is laughter a coping mechanism for the viewers, but the movie itself becomes a coping mechanism for its director, providing him with a creative outlet and us with a narrative and theme we can easily and gladly project our own misfortunes onto and feel, for lack of better phrasing, seen and understood. As film critic Roger Ebert put it: “It is, however, the tensest comedy I can remember, building its nightmare situation step by insidious step until our laughter is hollow, or defensive.”
After Hours was Scorsese’s first of many successful collaborations with German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who was more than familiar with filming low-budget movies on tight schedules, having been German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s DOP on a number of projects, like Martha (1974) or Satansbraten (1976). Scorsese’s movie was filmed in entirety during nighttime with some improvised camera movements, such as the point-of-view shot of keys being thrown to Paul from a balcony. Seeing as how the movie was made in the eighties, the shot could not be digitally fabricated, but had to be filmed by means of attaching the camera to a board which was then dropped towards the actor. Ropes were used to bring it to a halt at the last moment, but sadly, the end result was footage that was out of focus. Ballhaus had to get creative all over again and proposed an incredibly fast crane move, which ultimately did the trick.
Scorsese himself said that many of the shots he used in After Hours were reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock, for he used numerous close-ups, regardless of whether the thing or person in question were relevant or not. It was the director’s way of playing with us by deliberately emphasizing certain details, objects or emotional states so as to make the audience believe that everything shot in that way was of great importance. But it was not. Not only did such a deliberate use of a filmmaking technique manage to perfectly showcase the protagonist’s deteriorating state of mind and all-consuming paranoia which renders every detail ominous, but it also served as a brilliant tool of inciting the same sensations and feelings of unease and exasperation in the audience. Together with his aforementioned editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese cut down After Hours from two hours to ninety-seven minutes, resulting in a neurotic, fast-paced product that enabled the editing to serve as much of a narrative device as Ballhaus’ camerawork.
Scorsese’s film, initially titled A Night in Soho, was originally meant to be directed by Tim Burton. But after Burton found out that Scorsese was available to take on the job after the fiasco with The Last Temptation of Christ, he voluntarily walked away from the project. After Hours was based on a screenplay by Joseph Minion, who wrote it at age 26 as an assignment for Columbia’s Graduate Film Program. The script that Scorsese got was initially called Lies but its plot setup, as well as a great amount of dialogue, was, in fact, directly taken from a 1982 NPR Playhouse monologue by radio artist Joe Frank, who was never credited. After filing a lawsuit, Frank still did not get any official credit but was paid generously in a settlement. Scorsese made some final adjustments to the script and the movie got the title it bears today. The only remaining problem with the screenplay was its ending. Having no idea as to how After Hours should end, Scorsese showed a version of the movie to other directors, to friends, to anyone who could help him figure out what exactly should take place.
British director Michael Powell, who took part in the production process, was ultimately the one to point out the obvious and, as it turned out, only logical way to go about it. Although Scorsese did not like it at first and tried hard to come up with an alternative, he ultimately saw that Powell’s ending was the best one he had. And it still is. Having Paul dumped in front of his workplace right when he should be arriving at work anyway is a perfect way to end this contemporary Manhattan Odyssey not only because it brings our character full circle, but also because it stresses how a person can take part in a parallel reality without anyone noticing—life goes on and the people around you continue doing whatever they have been doing day in and day out. Paul comes back “home,” the place he wanted to escape from so badly and later on wanted to return to even more so, just to find it the same as ever. Nothing around him has changed, but he has. The protagonist now has to come to terms with the realization that the holy grail that was home is still the same prison cell, the keys to which he cannot seem to find. He may have escaped the harrowing surreality he had to face after hours, but his bad dream is not truly over, for he woke up just so that he could live yet another nightmare—the one he had been desperately trying to break free from in the first place. When all else fails, the only appropriate response is to laugh. Albeit through tears.
Koraljka Suton is a member of the Croatian Society of Film Critics and has a master’s degree in German and English. For her thesis, she did a comparative analysis of Spielberg’s ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific’. Koraljka trained at a Zagreb-based acting studio for six years and fell in love with Michael Chekhov and Lee Strasberg’s acting techniques. She is also a contemporary dancer and a Reiki master who believes in the transformative quality of art. Read more »
“It was an education. It was interesting to see what sort of stuff he liked in rewrites and what he didn’t. He really loves documentary. Even when he’s making fiction films, they seem very real. So even in this absurdist, loopy, black comic movie, I could see him pushing to make things as real as possible… I think it effected me. I think I learned. I think what this is all about is making films that have resonance. It was quite an eye-opener, to understand how certain films work.” —Joseph Minion
Screenwriter must-read: Joseph Minion’s screenplay for After Hours. It was originally titled Lies after the 1982 Joe Frank monologue that inspired the story [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
An excerpt from Scorsese by Ebert.
“Since that first day, Scorsese has never disappointed me. He has never made an unworthy film. He has made a few films that, he confided, he needed to do to get other films made, but those films were well made, and if it is true, for example, that After Hours was done simply to keep him busy and distracted after the heartbreak of the first cancellation of The Last Temptation of Christ, it is also true that After Hours is one of his best films. He has fashioned the career of an exemplary man of the cinema, not only directing important films, but also using his clout to “present” or co-produce films by such directors as Antoine Fuqua, Wim Wenders, Kenneth Lonergan, Stephen Frears, Allison Anders, Spike Lee, and John McNaughton. He has founded the Film Foundation, dedicated to film preservation. He has produced and hosted long documentaries about American and Italian films. He has been a leading citizen of Movie City.”
FILMING FOR YOUR LIFE: MAKING ‘AFTER HOURS’
Filming for Your Life: Making After Hours—star Griffin Dunne, producer Amy Robinson, editor Thelma Schoonmaker and director Martin Scorsese are interviewed in this 19-minute featurette that takes a look at the making of After Hours. We learn that originally Scorsese had to turn it down because he was filming The Last Temptation of Christ and the project was then offered to Tim Burton. However, after the Scorsese picture got shut down he jumped back on board. Dunne talks a lot about the way Scorsese directed him as well as giving us a pretty good idea of how he got into certain scenes. Dunne also talks about Scorsese having a shot list made up so that people knew exactly what they were going to do each day. Some of the best discussion comes about the ending and the various ways they thought about ending it including one crazy bit where Dunne would crawl up into a woman and she would later give birth to him!
‘AFTER HOURS’ SHOWS WHY SCORSESE BECAME AN INSPIRATION TO FILM STUDENTS
“In After Hours, Scorsese has fashioned a New York City of steaming roads and an endless network of dark streets, bars and clubs, overrun with all sorts of weirdos and loners. He successfully shows New York as an amorphous canvas that the distorted temperaments and contemporary fears of its inhabitants are all whizzed around in as if in a giant blender. Though later Scorsese movies have had far greater budgets and all-star casts, it is in After Hours that we see exactly how and why a filmmaker from New York might have become an inspiration to a generations of film students.”—Senses of Cinema
Martin Scorsese’s commentary for After Hours.
ORIGINS OF THE SCRIPT AND TIM BURTON’S WITHDRAWAL FROM THE PROJECT
“The origins of the script came about the very first year the Sundance labs were happening. There was a great Serbian director named Dušan Makavejev. He was teaching at Columbia, and he had an assistant at the time named Joe Minion, who wrote this script as a thesis. He gave it to producer Amy Robinson, and Amy said, ‘Oh boy, I read this amazing script by this student.’ She sent it to me, and we went to see a movie that had an incredibly inventive short by Tim Burton before it. He had yet to make a feature film. We went to Disney, where he was an animator, and met him. He had the short-sleeve shirt and the packet of pens in his pocket that were bleeding into the shirt. You can tell this guy was insanely gifted.
But before then, the first very person we gave it to was Marty. He was just starting Last Temptation of Christ. We hadn’t gotten too far with Tim, but Last Temptation was shut down. It was the one that was going to be with Aidan Quinn. On the flight back from Casablanca, After Hours was at the top of Marty’s reading pile for ‘What am I going to do next?’ And he said, ‘It’s really great. I’d love to do it.’ So we said to Tim, ‘Wow, a crazy thing happened.’ We didn’t even get very far into the conversation and he cut us off and said, ‘If Mr. Scorsese wants to do this movie, I’m not going to do anything to stand in the way. I gratefully withdraw.’”—Griffin Dunne Answers Every Question We Have About ‘After Hours’
“Watching After Hours today is like watching a master filmmaker rediscover what made him want to be a filmmaker in the first place. It has that over-stylized anything-goes spirit. It’s a hysterically frenzied and fizzy Kafka-esque cocktail of horrible bad luck, insane misunderstandings, screwball chaos, sweaty paranoia, and Plaster of Paris bagel-and-cream cheese paper weights. It’s also absolute perfection (even if Paul’s odyssey would be over in five minutes if the film was set just a decade later in the brave new world of ATMs, Metrocards, and cell phones).”—35 Years Ago, ‘After Hours’ Saved Martin Scorsese’s Career
SCORSESE: IT’S THE ANGER THAT PUSHES ME FORWARD
In 2003, Martin Scorsese went to Brown University to share his thoughts with film students. It’s a thoroughly entertaining 50-minute interview well worth your time. When asked from a member of the audience what drives him to finish a film despite obstacles and barriers in his way, Scorsese gave a brilliant answer.
“Hysteria, usually. Hysteria, obsession and anger. Mainly anger. I’m mad all the time. Angry, angry, angry. Pain in the neck. That’s why I use humor a lot because it helps me deflate myself. I don’t want to take it seriously. Because I really do! I would’ve been gone much sooner, 25 years ago, I wouldn’t have survived. But the anger is enormous. About everything. That also fuels me to make a picture.”
MICHAEL BALLHAUS, ASC
The great German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, ASC made a name for himself on both sides of the Atlantic, working closely with Rainer Werner Fassbinder before going to the States, where he enriched his career by collaborating with the likes of Martin Scorsese, Mike Nichols, Barry Levinson, Robert Redford and many others. After Hours was the first film he shot with Scorsese, but he would go on to create other Scorsese’s masterpieces like The Color of Money, The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, The Age of Innocence, Gangs of New York and The Departed.
“The directors were in fact of the opinion that my way of looking at things was different from that of my American colleagues. They meant it in a positive way. And I had the courage to work very fast and on a very low budget. My first film for Scorsese, After Hours, had a budget of only four million dollars and had to be shot in 40 nights. Scorsese had not worked under such conditions since his early days as a filmmaker. I said to him, ‘Marty, all we have to do is shoot 15 scenes a night. I can do that, I did it with Fassbinder!’”—My Film School Was the Cinema: an interview conducted by Jörn Hetebrügge
Michael Ballhaus, ASC had a great talk with Movie Geeks United! about the films he made in his illustrious career, specifically explaining why he was the perfect choice for Scorsese’s After Hours.
“It was very special, especially for one reason: the first project he wanted to shoot with me was The Last Temptation of Christ. It was a 20-million-dollar picture at Paramount. I met him at his birthday in LA and we talked a lot. It was wonderful, I was in heaven: I traveled to Israel and saw all these great sets. And I always said, oh my God, 20 million is a lot. The biggest budget I had in Germany was 5 million. I went back shortly before Christmas and two weeks later came the message that Paramount pulled the plug. I was falling from the sky into a deep, deep hole. But then it was luck after all. On After Hours I could show him something I was perfect in, because I was used to work fast and always worked under very extreme conditions. Like, little money and all that.”
On the set of After Hours. Photographed by Barry Wetcher © The Geffen Company, Double Play. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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