By Sven Mikulec
From time to time, a film that is received less enthusiastically at the box office and perhaps gets overlooked by critics goes on to become a cult classic. In fact, this actually happens far often than we realize. It’s not a fate reserved only for the works of lesser-known filmmakers, nor is it exclusive to films dealing with controversial topics or fringe interests. Sometimes the film’s artistic merit goes unnoticed for a while because the audience just happened to have rather different expectations. Such was the fate of Steven Soderbergh’s commercially underrated revenge thriller The Limey. The film debuted at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival and was also shown at the Toronto International Film Festival, Hong Kong International Film Festival, and the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema. Glancing at the timeline of Soderbergh’s directorial work, we can notice that The Limey was filmed between Out of Sight (1998) and Erin Brockovich (2000), both box office successes and, of even more interest, positively received by both audience and critics. However, that was not the case with The Limey, which, unfortunately for the director, became a legitimate box office flop. At the same time, however, it was very well-received by critics, who found the film’s merits both in its puzzle-like structure and ingenious editing techniques, as well as the performances by the legendary actors Terence Stamp as Wilson and Peter Fonda as Valentine. The film is centered around Wilson, a Cockney ex-con who comes to Los Angeles upon receiving the news of his daughter Jenny’s death. Starting from the opening shot (which also happens to be a flash forward to the final scene) consisting only of Wilson’s threatening “Tell me. Tell me. Tell me about Jenny” set to a black screen, we are following the protagonist’s contemplative process, his thoughts crisscrossing across time, as scenes from the past, present and future are woven together in a Proustian stream-of-consciousness narration. The Limey arguably relies on editing much more than a traditional crime film would, as the editing itself reveals much more about the characters, particularly the protagonist, than the story. The undeniable synchronicity between the protagonist and the antagonist, Wilson and Valentine, is seen throughout the movie. From the way that their backstories are introduced via flashbacks and montages, to the role they both played in Jenny’s life, it is clear that although Wilson’s whole mission is heavily fuelled by his hatred towards Valentine, Jenny’s tragic death is his own responsibility as much as it’s his enemy’s, a realization simultaneously distressing and sobering. Wilson’s backstory, shown to us through series of scenes featuring a young Terence Stamp and taken from Ken Loach’s 1967 drama Poor Cow, is intentionally vague. The past is only seen in certain recurring images and scenes, as the character has no real ties to anything anymore—after his daughter’s death, he is uprooted and almost depersonalized, which is very vividly depicted in the bizarre contrast between his Cockney rhyming slang and the backdrop of the sun-drenched LA streets.
As one of the most popular filmmakers of his generation, Soderbergh is known for taking on different roles during film production: director, producer, screenwriter, editor, cinematographer. Although this film (and indeed, almost any film) is a product of the collaboration between many talented individuals, it is Soderbergh’s penchant for disjointed storytelling that really comes through. What began as a fairly simplistic script for a B-movie about a lone gunman type, written by screenwriter Lem Dobbs, was eventually developed into a brilliantly introspective work that uses editing to tell a story that transcends even the film’s actual plot. The asynchronous use of sound and image, the labyrinthine storytelling and choppy editing, as complicated as they seem, actually serve a very simple and undeniably praiseworthy purpose: the intention, according to both Soderbergh and Dobbs, was to show the process of thinking on film. Nonetheless, Dobbs, who had previously collaborated with Soderbergh on Kafka (1991) and would later on work with him on Haywire (2011), apparently wasn’t very happy with the director’s decisions. Not unexpectedly, the commentary track for this film is therefore also somewhat unique and well worth listening to, as it shows the disagreements between the director and Dobbs, who does not shy away from vocally expressing his dissatisfaction. This proves how much of a complicated process filmmaking can be, but the ultimate result proves Soderbergh’s vision was the right path to choose.
A huge element of The Limey’s ingenuity is contained in Sarah Flack’s editing. Flack is a BAFTA-winning film editor who worked on Soderbergh’s Schizopolis and Full Frontal, Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and most notably, Lost in Translation. The film was shot by cinematographer Edward Lachman, with Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Cliff Martinez (Drive, Solaris, Traffic, Sex, Lies, and Videotape) delivering the score. At its core, this film is an incredibly organic representation of a man’s internal deliberations, exhibiting a very authentic approach to memory, or rather the stories that the mind combines to create memory. Through its meandering storytelling and creative editing, with the story fuelled by and channeled through highly accomplished actors, The Limey more than justifies its cult status, and presents a superb treat for any seasoned cinephile.
A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Lem Dobbs’ screenplay for The Limey [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. The Limey: 20th Anniversary exclusively digital 4K Ultra HD release Dec. 10 (no signs of a physical 4K Ultra HD disc coming from Lionsgate Home Entertainment).
Steven Soderbergh, Luis Guzmán, Lesley Ann Warren, editor Sarah Flack, and cinematographer Ed Lachman joined Film at Lincoln Center to discuss their radical, fragmentary take on the film noir. Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the team talked about the shooting and editing process for the movie, which endures as a seminal work of American film modernism and a love letter to the art cinema of the sixties. Moderated by Film Comment Editor-in-Chief Nicolas Rapold.
A 53,000 word masterpiece of an interview with the screenwriter Lem Dobbs. The following is an excerpt from that interview. Read the full interview at Dan Schneider’s Cosmoetica.
Thanks for agreeing to discuss your work, career, opinions, and views on life and especially film. For those readers to whom the name Lem Dobbs draws a blank stare, could you please provide a précis on who you are: what you do, what your aims in your career are, major achievements, and your general philosophy, etc.?
No one has ever equaled “My name is John Ford, I make Westerns.” I wish I could say the same—which gives you some idea of my aims and general philosophy—and how minor my major achievements have been. I suppose I became a screenwriter thinking I would write the kinds of movies that had always been made and join the great Hollywood machine that produced them, only to find my “career” coincident with the creative and economic decline of what we used to call the film industry. Now that the counter-whiners are on alert, primed to point out that there are exciting things happening in South Korea, and that the latest if not the last Manoel de Oliveira film is sublime, and any year that produces UP can’t be all bad… we may proceed. Although interviews by their nature are backward-looking. Roger Ebert once interviewed an aging Tony Curtis, who said when he first came out to Hollywood he stayed at the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard—a tradition I followed. Young Tony Curtis—or Bernie Schwartz as he must still then have felt—went down to the pool his first morning in the sun, jumped in, swam its length, climbed out the other side—and sat down to do the interview. “Life and money both behave like loose quicksilver in a nest of cracks. When they’re gone you can’t tell where, or what the devil you did with ‘em.” (Name the film!)
Before we get to the biographical stuff, let’s get basic. How do you define your job, as a screenwriter? Do you see your words as immanently more malleable than a poet’s or novelist’s, since film is a group artistic effort, and last minute edits will inevitably affect your words?
I’ve always thought of it as describing a movie on paper, that’s all. There are scripts I’ve read, or once did, by favorite writers, that have never been made into movies, but I feel like I’ve seen them. You should be able to “see” the movie when you read a script, even though there aren’t actors, there’s no music… but somehow it’s washed over you as if there were. But this also presupposes the right sort of reader, a dying breed, someone who might actually know what a movie is and be able to visualize it. The lack of knowledge and experience—of taste—of people in the film business has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The generally accepted page count has decreased significantly from what it used to be. As costs have increased. So scripts judged “a fast read” now—a man, his wife, his vampire mistress—on a plane—are often mistaken for good. North by Northwest or 2001: A Space Odyssey require a little more cognitive effort, from everybody.
Edits, last minute or otherwise, presumably affect the work of “real” writers, as well—Raymond Carver, to name but one famous example—but in other disciplines, at least, their words are supposed to be the final product. Because of the collective nature of filmmaking, a screenplay is naturally more malleable in one way or another—and often should be, but needn’t always be. Fealty to a good script doesn’t necessarily mean limiting a director’s or an actor’s expressiveness. You can have a “literary” movie, heavy with voiceover narration, where you feel the actors have been instructed to speak rich and allusive dialogue precisely as written. But we’re also thrilled by great films made in a seemingly more casual or improvisatory manner. The trouble from the screenwriter’s perspective is that a film can be sometimes faithful to the script as far as what’s written, but tonally all wrong, hopelessly miscast, with inappropriate music, clueless production design, crippled and compromised in countless ways large and small. You might go to great lengths, for instance, to evoke the light and landscape of the Hudson Valley—only to see them film it on the cheap in Romania with eastern-European extras as Native Americans. Which was par for the course in the former German Democratic Republic, but by no means the only place walls are forever being put up in the world of moviemaking.
Do screenwriters have ‘writing styles’? Do you? Outside of a Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman, Tonino Guerra, or Joseph Mankiewicz, there are few screenwriters whose words instantly are recognizable as having come only from them. Agree or not? Why?
Sure, screenwriters can have writing styles, but those screenwriters are few and far between and have little hope of equaling the power of others, mainly the director, over the final product. Most screenwriters throughout Hollywood history have been faceless hacks and untalented almost by definition, now more than ever, but despite my stated auteurist leanings, of course there are writers I revere, who mean the world to me. They’re mostly grouped in that era, the Seventies, to which we eternally return, when I happened to be coming of age. And screenwriters, too, came into their own as authors in their own right, never to such an extent before or since—with distinctive and personal voices, signatures, themes. They wrote original screenplays, like novelists, which some of them were. They changed my life and made me what I am and I’m under their influence to this day—Alan Sharp and John Milius and Walter Hill and Goldman, Towne, Schrader, Rudy Wurlitzer, Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais in England. It was a time of interesting artistic tension: is it Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid—by Alan Sharp—or the other way round? Yes, John Huston fucked up John Milius’ The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean—but in a very “Hustonian” way. And there are still flashes of Walter Hill to be discerned—I think—in Huston’s The MacKintosh Man. The Thief Who Came to Dinner, made by a director of little consequence, seems very much a Walter Hill script—a particular way he had of advancing a story through terse dialogue scenes between two characters at a time, the cat-and-mouse pursuit—repeated later with the same actor in The Driver. The Getaway would seem a more harmonious meeting of individualistic minds—Hill/McQueen/Peckinpah—despite the usual artistic battles and power plays. And when Hill explains what’s left of his contribution to The Drowning Pool, it’s pretty much what a Hill fan might have guessed. I even still like these screenwriting credits of his, maybe because I saw them in my formative years, more than many of the movies Hill himself has directed over the years. Which is why, although I can never fully embrace any of my own movies as wholly “mine,” I can understand why some people revere this one or that one, just as I revere Jeremiah Johnson and Apocalypse Now, even though Milius’s scripts were—does this sound familiar?—raked over the coals, rewritten, or bowlderized by their directors and stars and other hands.
It was really the one time, the 70s, when the auteur theory was seriously challenged. Paddy Chayevsky, never a great favorite of mine, was in his heyday—probably the most well-known exception to the rule that people usually come up with—along with Neil Simon. I could watch “Neil Simon’s” The Odd Couple—the movie—a thousand times and never tire of it—but what would it be like if a great filmmaker had made it? Is such a thing even imaginable? Would Billy Wilder’s The Odd Couple be very different or better or worse? These are games. I also love Bruce Jay Friedman/Neil Simon/Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid—one of the great authorship mash-ups in film history—and how much of it was Charles Grodin’s?—and like and enjoy very much “Herbert Ross’s” The Sunshine Boys and The Goodbye Girl. So go figure. There is no screenplay greater than “Robert Bolt’s” Lawrence of Arabia, written in close consultation/collaboration with one of the greatest directors of all time, and despite the competing claims of Hollywood screenwriter Michael Wilson and his advocates, Bolt’s “style” is readily identifiable and comparable to his two other famous movies, A Man for All Seasons and Doctor Zhivago. Whereas if there’s anything “Wilsonian” in Lawrence, I couldn’t tell you what that might be or detect anything similar in his most terrific other movies, A Place in the Sun, Friendly Persuasion, Planet of the Apes—except that those films were made by the Hollywood directors most like and liked by David Lean. I’d be hard-pressed to know who Michael Wilson is from his films—a generalized interest in “outsiders”?—what his lusts or demons might be, what his “style” is at all. He represents, perhaps, the “craft” of screenwriting as it’s more usually characterized, something that may have had as much to do with the “genius of the system” in Hollywood’s Golden Age and a generally more refined culture than the more individualistic world-cinema sensibility that came about in the 1960s—then petered out by the 1980s. They also wrote screenplays deliberately, the New Hollywood writers. They weren’t drafted, they enlisted. Didn’t look on screenwriting as a lesser art form, as earlier screenwriters tended to. And they weren’t like the gold rush claim-jumpers and hustlers who came after.
Other professional or occasional “scriptwriters” in my pantheon to one degree or another include Robert Ardrey, W.R. Burnett, William Rose, Rod Serling, Ray Galton & Alan Simpson. Keith Waterhouse just died. I never met him. Billy Liar! Why did I never write him a letter to tell him how much he meant to me! But beyond these personal favorites, just think how much higher the standards once were on a film by film basis. Cool Hand Luke and Dog Day Afternoon on Frank Pierson’s resumé. Julia and Paper Moon on Alvin Sargent’s The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape not on Walter Newman’s, though his draft of Seven is virtually the film and I’ve had it beside my desk since I was a kid. Buck Henry, David Rayfiel, Wendell Mayes, Waldo Salt, Richard Matheson, Benton & Newman, Lorenzo Semple, Jr., Reginald Rose, Horton Foote, James Poe, James Salter, James Goldman, Bo Goldman, Franco Solinas, Gavin Lambert, Bruce Jay Friedman, Jules Feiffer, James Toback, Terry Nation, Troy Kennedy Martin, Stirling Silliphant, Irving Ravetch & Harriet Frank, Jr., Jay Presson Allen (it was almost, but not quite, an all-boys club), Peter Stone—and the young Oliver Stone. There just aren’t people of that caliber, that intelligence, or sophistication today. No basis for comparison whatsoever. Different universe. There was that legendary telegram sent in the early days from Herman Mankiewicz in Hollywood to Ben Hecht in New York saying, c’mon out here, there’s millions to be made and your only competition is idiots. Well, if they only knew. You read the average screenplay in Hollywood today—that’s been bought, mind you, that they might even be making into a movie—and you wonder what transformation the world has undergone that someone this dumb would even get the idea to want to be a writer.
When I looked around as a teenager, the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood were the best screenwriters in Hollywood. Now the most successful screenwriters are simply the most successful screenwriters. Anti-screenwriters, really. They don’t seem to have any sense of cinema at all. No more great dialogue or memorable lines. No great stories or characters or sequences—or movies, in the end, that will mean much to film history. You can read all the interviews with all of them and almost never come across any references to films or writers of the past. Except maybe Star Wars. It’s really virtually a dead profession. And even mindless Hollywood seems to know it. There are ten Oscar nominations for screenwriting each year—ten!—and for the past decade or so nary a one for a screenwriter. I mean, a pure, professional, career screenwriter like the names I’ve just been mentioning. Playwrights, some novelists, lots of people who’ve directed the film they also wrote—it’s more or less become an extension of the directing category—and that ubiquitous figure of the modern movie business, the “first-time scribe,” which seems more often than not to mean “only-time,” rather than the next Jules Furthman. Having thus enumerated so many influences, it’s difficult to say if I have a style of my own. One fears not. Or it still remains to be seen. As Walter Newman liked to say—“Anything from a one-line joke to Oedipus Rex.”
What, to you, constitutes a good screenplay? And, I agree with John Huston, who I believe is the original source for this paraphrase: that, ‘all good films start with the script.’
Well, if they don’t start with the script, all good films at least end up with something approximating one, as I’ve suggested, even if it’s fascinating “trash” like Detour or Shock Corridor, or something. We have no idea what the “Academy Award winning” MASH script would have been without Robert Altman. More likely than not a cheap, forgotten comedy that never spawned a TV series. The debate will rage forever about who “wrote” Citizen Kane or The Night of the Hunter. All that matters in the end is that Hunter is a haunting masterpiece under the ultimate stewardship of its director, Charles Laughton—more poetic than the would-be poetic novel on which it is based.
Is its extraordinary cinematic beauty and power attributable in part to James Agee’s sometime occupation as film critic—or wholly the imaginative expressive/Expressionist genius of Laughton? Did Agee really write The African Queen, either? Or did John Huston just need a drinking buddy? And did John Collier get screwed again? You just don’t know with screenplays and the tortured journey they take to the screen. My money’s still on Agee’s two directors, one of whom was an actor who never directed another film (talk about one-offs!). (Marlon Brando’s sole directing credit is also lovely to look at.) I think Peter Bogdanovich asked John Ford the same question and Ford said, “Peter, there’s really no such thing as a good screenplay.” I know what he means. The Searchers directed by Ray Nazarro would be an obscurity. All we know is that once in a while someone writes Chinatown and it’s just what I said—it’s a movie ready-made (though I’ve never read whatever the first draft may have been). There it is. And it’s literate and intelligent and fresh and compelling and unusual and deeply-felt and personal and entertaining. The dialogue sings and sparkles, there are memorable lines. You’re stimulated and engaged and surprised and moved. And even if a great director makes it his own and changes the ending and this and that, it’s still essentially what it was meant to be from the mind and heart and soul and talent and experience—both creative and autobiographical—of its sole author, in the scripting sense, Robert Towne. It can’t hurt that one of the greatest and most exciting movie stars of all time is in his prime and ready to play the part and that the writer is a close friend of his and wrote the role to suit him, hearing his voice, his inflections, knowing his mannerisms and personality. A similar happy symbiosis occurred with Schrader/Scorsese/De Niro and Taxi Driver. But it’s a very rare and delicate soufflé. Most of all, with those two scripts, and every good script, the writer starts with himself, his own private obsessions and interests and agonies—and makes them public. I don’t know if Huston originated that phrase—seems rather late for Hollywood to have figured that out—but he did say something I always think about—which may be another way of stressing the importance of “theme” in a script—and the theme of his films is fairly consistent. He said that every movie should have a central idea that’s like a bell. And every scene in the movie should ring that bell.
You were friendly with filmmaker Billy Wilder. Did you meet him via your dad’s renown, or when you got into filmmaking? Any anecdotes of note?
Through my father initially. When we lived in Los Angeles in 1970/71, he, my dad, conceived of a big project that involved going round sketching many of the Old Masters of Hollywood’s golden age. It may have been just an excuse to meet them, and to have his movie-mad 6th-grader son meet them, because the only painting that later resulted from this was one called “John Ford on his Deathbed”—and the visit with Ford was certainly the highpoint (though Renoir wasn’t bad, either). But we went to see Mamoulian and Milestone and Mervyn LeRoy and Hathaway and Cukor—they were all memorable. Sometimes one would refer us to the next. I’ve never forgotten Rouben Mamoulian getting on the phone and dialing a number and saying in his still rich Hungarian accent, “Raoul!”—but we never got around to visiting Raoul Walsh because he lived further away on some ranch or somewhere or my father couldn’t arrange it or be bothered. I don’t know why we missed out on Hawks or Wellman. Anyway, Wilder must have been easy because he was a great art collector. He was also at that time the youngest of the bunch and still active—we visited him not at home but in his office at a studio.
At decade’s end I returned to Hollywood as a 19-year-old to seek my fortune and didn’t really know anybody except three extraordinary men who were close friends of my dad’s, as close as family, and looked out for me in those early days. One became the subject of my screenplay Edward Ford. The other two were friends with Billy Wilder. The first, David Hockney, was also a pal of Cukor’s, so I met him again, too; David took me to lunch and dinner with them. Cukor I was very intimidated by, probably due to the homosexual panic involved in going to dinner at his house as David Hockney’s date, but also because of the old world elegance and formalities—the servants hovering behind you to take away the soup bowl.
Billy was more fun, but of course I was shy in his presence too. After he first read a script of mine, a comedy, he summoned me to his office and said, “You were so scared of me, I didn’t know you had this in you!” which of course was a tremendous compliment. He kept an office in the wonderful old “Writers and Artists” building on Little Santa Monica Boulevard, still there, and still with his name on the directory at the entrance. Another long-time tenant was my father’s other friend, the screenwriter, novelist, and serious art collector (a very rare subspecies in Los Angeles) Michael Blankfort, who was like a grandfather to me. It was Mike who first passed my comedy script to Billy, as I never would have dared. It was also Mike who gave my early efforts to a young agent on the same floor, Ken Sherman, who happily signed me up. So I subsequently got in the habit of giving Billy my new scripts hot off the Xerox machine, and he got in the habit of saying, “You’re not making it easy on yourself!,” thinking them too arty or pretentious or something. I wish I had foisted myself upon him to a greater extent, but I remained hesitant. I wish I’d been bolder in encouraging him to write great scripts in a more serious vein again. I feel he dug himself a hole in a way and perhaps dated himself by becoming too much of a “comedy” director in the latter part of his career. But he was far from out of touch in person. I remember sitting with him in his office after we’d both just seen Apocalypse Now. It was not universally embraced when it was new, and still has its detractors, but we both loved it, thought it was a masterpiece—Billy talked about it with an excitement equal to my own. Of course, he had been shown it by Francis, while I had gone to see it at the Cinerama Dome as a paying customer. So I would continue to run into Billy in those years, in that building, and I’m sorry I grew up and lost touch. Once we were talking about my using a pseudonym and he said when he first came to Hollywood he was advised to change his name because Willie Wyler was already a prominent director. Billy’s response was, hey, it’s like painters: “Monet, Manet—who gives a shit!” Sometimes he’d have priceless works of art in the trunk of his car and you’d worry about them being stolen, but he’d say, oh, they don’t care about the signatures Picasso or Van Gogh, only Sony and Panasonic.
1998 and 1999 saw the back to back releases of, to me, your two best screenplays and films—Alex Proyas’s Dark City and Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey. Both films are impeccably written, both deal with memory, both had directors of quality, yet both films were not well handled by their studios, and financially flopped. Do you think their commonalities were a reason both films were mostly ignored by theatergoers, or was it a general lack of intelligence in filmgoers that doomed both films?
Other than their being relatively low-budget B-movies without well-known or current stars in them, as well as being vaguely thought of as “art” films, I don’t think of them as having that much in common. I don’t think potential ticket-buyers go, “Oh, shit, not another movie about memory.” And I don’t buy into the usual lamebrained movie business excuses that a film “failed to find an audience” or was mis-marketed—or even that they’re “flops.” What the hell would anyone have expected of films in 1998 and 1999 starring Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda and Rufus Sewell and William Hurt? Roger Ebert picking Dark City as the Best Film of the year strikes me as exceeding expectations by quite a wide margin. Winning a Bram Stoker award for Best Screenplay, and other prizes here and there—it may be pathetic by Forrest Gump standards, but what d’you want from a movie with Richard O’Brien as an alien?
To stick with the commonalities of both films, did your experience writing Dark City help you with any insights into The Limey, especially Terence Stamp’s character, Wilson? Also, the two films share an actress in common. Melissa George appears in both. In Dark City, she’s a gorgeous young prostitute that ends up murdered, and in The Limey she’s a more mousey character—the daughter of Wilson, who likewise ends up dead—be it murder or not is left up to the viewer. Was this just a coincidence, or did Soderbergh see Dark City, like her performance, and get her, or did you recommend her to him?
No, one had nothing to do with the other that I am aware of. Melissa George in those two small roles, I believe, was nothing more than happenstance. Certainly Steven had seen Dark City; whether that influenced him, I’ve no idea. I only realized later on that Melissa George was quite well known in her native Australia, and she has since gone on to bigger things here. If anything, Point Blank is probably the main link between the two films, Dark City perhaps even more so in my mind than The Limey. Soderbergh was thinking primarily of Point Blank. When I first wrote The Limey, it was not Point Blank in particular, but its authorial source, Richard Stark, and his whole series of “Parker” books of which Point Blank (originally The Hunter) was only the first. But in Alex Proyas’s original Dark City script the hero’s name was Walker, which I told him he had to change because of its pretentious use, most notably in Point Blank, but also in other films (Jean-Claude Van Damme in Peter Hyams’s Timecop). I don’t know if Alex was thinking of the Boorman film. But I always felt that the urban fantasia of Dark City was more Point Blankian than The Limey.
Let me now turn to The Limey, an even rarer film than Dark City, because it deals with many of the same issues, and more, but in the more ‘adult’ genre (not meaning porno) it also transcends— ‘the revenge thriller.’ First off, I have to ask about Terence Stamp. I first saw him, as a kid, in Modesty Blaise. This guy can act with his eyes alone—in this film it’s all regret and sorrow. I think he’s an easy ‘in’ for one of the ten greatest film actors of the first century of film, along with Marcello Mastroianni, Charlie Chaplin, and a number of others we could argue over. Do you agree with Stamp’s standing? Yet, despite that, he’s never been the megastar his talents deserve recognition for. Is this just random chance at play? And, I think this is one of a handful of films where an actor’s performance so dominates a film that any other actor in the role would have not only made the film different, but inferior. Comments?
I don’t know about inferior, but always different. It’s like wondering what children would be if one of their parents was someone else. Once in a while you catch a glimmer of an alternate reality—a photo of Albert Finney in costume for Lawrence of Arabia, or screen tests or footage of actors who were replaced in the final film, but it’s all such a mystery. A movie is a unique set of circumstances, lightning in a bottle. I just watched a Terence Stamp movie, funny you should ask, called Term of Trial. One that somehow slipped through the net all these years. It stars that other Laurence—Olivier—rumored to be the greatest actor of all time. And all the way through, my foremost thought was: he’s miscast. I just don’t buy him in this role at all—as the object of a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl’s affections, Sarah Miles, no less! Now, maybe, if the schoolgirl was also a dowdy, mousey type—instead of one of the most notorious sex kittens of Swinging London. And Olivier by this time had not aged like Cary Grant. He was a long way from Heathcliff. So it’s a matter of taste and intelligence and judgement on the part of the filmmakers, along with who’s available or able to attract money from moment to moment on the rickety merry-go-round of film financing. One of the dumbest things about moviemaking is that no one decides to make a movie and then casts it appropriately. The financing of almost all movies is cast-dependent. That’s how you end up with Nicole Kidman—or Jennifer Connelly—as cleaning ladies, Anthony Hopkins as an African-American, and Gary Sinise as Philip Roth (The Human Stain). You wonder, why bother even making the fucking thing? So any time you’re able to marry the right actor with the right role, you’re very lucky indeed.
Soderbergh considered Ryan O’Neal as Terence Stamp’s nemesis in The Limey. Would he have been a sadder or slimier antagonist? But with Peter Fonda you got that “two icons of the Sixties” thing—and Peter had just become “hot” again after Ulee’s Gold. It’s entirely possible that Ryan O’Neal was only The Limey away from being “hot” again. That’s what actors have to live with. What we all do. It’s roulette. Colin Firth’s agents called about Kafka—before Colin Firth was sexy—and before Jeremy Irons’s insecurities helped torpedo the movie. On The Score Brando was bonkers right from the start, and the producers said why don’t we save ourselves a lot of grief (and money) and just get Christopher Plummer instead. And everyone thought, but it’s Brando.
Terence is a wonderful fella, but your placing him in the pantheon is, um, idiosyncratic, I don’t think he’d mind me saying. It’s been pretty well documented that he embraced his era with perhaps more passion than his profession and became a famous 60s dropout, so to speak. Some people think life is more important than movies, God help them. One legend is that Jean Shrimpton broke his heart. Swinging London flashback: When we came back from our early 70s year in Hollywood, we stayed in David Hockney’s London flat for a couple of months while my father looked for a house to buy. My father’s friend Jean was over one evening when my little sister and I were already asleep in camp beds in Hockney’s studio. She hadn’t seen us since we were much younger. I hazily opened my eyes, in the dark studio beneath a Hockney canvas, with the light from the hallway streaming in, to see Jean Shrimpton’s face peering down at me. I know how Terence felt.
What are your thoughts on acting styles, like the Method, or those where an actor tries to create an imaginary backstory? Do you encourage it, discourage it, or take a whatever works approach?
Don’t care one way or another. You just hope they’re nice people. By now everyone knows the Method is something of a pain in the ass. The “Why don’t you just act, dear boy?” method seems to get the job done just as well. Let the director worry about corralling a variety of acting styles—and it can be a worry. David Lean on Zhivago struggling to get everyone on the same page—in the perfect take—with a Method actor like Rod Steiger, and classically-trained English theatre actors like Guinness and Richardson, and Angry Young Men like Tom Courtenay, and delicate newcomers Geraldine Chaplin and Julie Christie, and a leading man from a completely different tradition in Egyptian cinema—and Klaus Kinski just for laughs. Makes you glad to be a writer. But maybe not for David Lean—if you were to ask Robert Bolt. Acting is mysterious. More mysterious than writing or directing. And probably better left a mystery. That other Olivier story of a visitor finding him weeping in his dressing room after a particularly great performance, the friend saying, “You were marvellous,” and Olivier saying, “But I don’t know why.” It can require a quality of almost supernatural concentration, or self-hypnosis. Simenon would shut himself in his room and immerse himself so completely in a book, identify so totally with the psychological state of his protagonist, that the mental strain would become unbearable—that’s why he said the books were so short—he would emerge sweating and shaken. One day Michael Powell took me to visit the set of Mankiewicz’s Sleuth. We had to move because we were in Olivier’s eyeline. So I’ve seen Olivier in performance and Olivier in performance has seen me.
I start off my review of the DVD with this claim: ‘… in rewatching The Limey on DVD, after six or seven years, and then watching it with the two available audio commentary tracks, I’m amazed to have seen something in the film that no other critic apparently has, and that is the fact that the viewer is never sure whether or not any or all of the remembered scenes depicted are, indeed, real (within the fictive cosmos the film resides in).’ I stand by that claim. Do you agree? If not, why? If so, was this intentional, or one of those ‘happy accidents’ that occurs in the making of great art? Could the film just be a fantasy that Wilson is having? And why do you think no critics (in major magazines or newspapers, nor subsequent online reviews) have mentioned this?
Oh, I think lots of people have mentioned that. Maybe not so much in “mainstream” media—see earlier discussion of reviewers vs. genuine critics—but it’s clearly a facet of the film that’s entirely intentional, more on Steven’s part than mine. Isn’t he the one who characterizes it as Point Blank meets Alain Resnais? Point Blank is most easily read as a modern variant of Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. I normally hate that “it’s all a dream” crap. I much prefer things to be real. As Billy Wilder’s collaborator I.A.L. Diamond once said, “I want to know what happens next, not what happened Last Year at Marienbad.” But the viewer is free to read a film or a book or an artwork in whatever way gives the most pleasure.
Is the film a sequel to Ken Loach’s Poor Cow (a film I’ve not seen)? I don’t think it’s cut and dried, as I point out in my review. If so, however, it’s the most ingenious sequel ever made. To what extent did the earlier film affect this film, in terms of characterization? Your comments?
No, it’s not a sequel. It was Steven’s idea to interpolate footage of the actor, if possible, from an earlier film, simply because it hadn’t been done before and we thought it would be very moving, to show that passage of time—in reality—rather than resort to a younger actor made to look like our star. Which never works. And which we wouldn’t have done, in any case, because there was never any narrative need or desire for flashbacks in the usual sense. This was just for fun, for poetic effect. Something a bit deeper than, say, the opening of The Shootist showing John Wayne in his glory days before introducing the old guy in the present. In that sense, the theme of memory was something of a happy accident found more in the making than in the conception. I suggested Poor Cow, which I had a bootleg tape of, and which Steven wasn’t familiar with—which just happened to be perfect. Just what we needed—because Terence had played a petty thief in it, almost exactly a younger version of the type of man in The Limey—same type of man found in countless British crime films and TV shows. But this was our actor, Terence Stamp, in precisely the snippets of film we would want to have—stealing from a car, sitting around with his gang, being sentenced in court, appearing with a woman and child. It was too good to be true. I can’t think what we would have used had it been Caine or anybody else. And touch and go whether we would get the rights to use it. Legal rights aside, Steven had lunch with Loach to make sure it was morally permissible to borrow another director’s hard-won slices of life—to Loach poach. But use it we did—it didn’t use us. The only direct effect the actual narrative of Poor Cow had on me, I think, was to give my Wilson his Christian name. There are secret links, though, if you know the milieu—one of his cronies in Poor Cow is a real-life London gangster of The Limey school—see also Performance, Villian, He Who Rides a Tiger, Nowhere to Go, Sitting Target, et al. And if you recognize Poor Cow actress Carol White and know of her sad fall and sordid end, it adds extra poignancy to glimpses of her “character” in The Limey. Not a “happy” accident, exactly, but all too fitting.
I think the DVD’s commentary is one of the best ever recorded. You and Soderbergh make the film even more interesting with your bickering. You seemed to resent most of the film’s positive reviews being laid at Soderbergh’s feet, while the negative at yours. Yet, the critics were flat out wrong about the screenplay—it’s not underdeveloped at all, but sharp, incisive, and filled with little moments that speak well of the characters. In short, Lem, I think you wanted to gild a lily that was pitch-perfect. I don’t think you realize just how outstandingly you wrote the characters and scenes—such as the two hitmen. Leaving a bit of X factor in their relationship draws the viewer in to imbue the film, and participate in the act of co-creation, which invests them more in the film’s outcome, as well as wanting to rewatch the film to pick up more insights. However, this commentary is almost a decade old, so have you changed your mind or mellowed in some of your opinions re: the film?
No, I wanted Fonda’s character’s ex-wife to have a lengthy soliloquy on the Sixties zeitgeist—precisely because Valentine is incapable of such reflection. I reserve the right to believe the film would be a richer experience if the characters were more fully developed and situated in settings and relationships more akin to real life than simplistic movie “scenes.” There’s a difference between God being in the details and God being too lazy to give a shit about them. Simply for the sake of narrative, let alone character, these additional details would have made the story and the characters’ movements more comprehensible. I don’t mean in a spoon-fed to idiots way. I mean more interesting and enjoyable, more satisfying. As I said, I can’t ignore the fact that people like it—I just think they’d like it more. I think it could easily have been a better movie, and consequently a more successful one. What’s wrong with getting more good reviews and fewer bad ones? So no, I haven’t changed my mind about its faults and limitations as I perceive them, but I have mellowed as its strengths have become more apparent to me—partly through such terrific responses as yours—partly through learning not to give a shit myself so much anymore, and moving on.
Thanks for doing this interview, Lem Dobbs, and let me allow you a closing statement, on whatever you like.
Well, thank you for your keen interest. And to anyone who’s gotten this far. Despite all the ranting and raving (see Truffaut; provocation), it’s important to say that I’m still excited about writing screenplays, and I actually do like some recent movies, and even a few people in the movie business. It’s really people like you who are inspiring and encourage me to start fresh tomorrow. Interviews are a great resource and tradition. I always tell aspiring writers and students that. Better than film school or stupid screenwriting books by cretins. The best thing, I think, other than watching movies. When I was in high school, I carried around a long, in-depth interview with John Milius in Film Comment like the Bible. I knew it by heart. The Playboy interview with Sam Peckinpah was the equal of any favorite or influential book in my library. My copy of the one book that existed at the time of interviews with screenwriters fell apart from rereading until I had to keep it together with rubber bands. The Paris Review interviews are even better than breaking bread with all those writers. Bogdanovich’s FORD book. Nogueira’s MELVILLE. The Truffaut-Hitchcock interview is, I think, the most valuable movie book that exists. So there.
Soderbergh brings past, present together in The Limey by Elif Cercel (Directors World, November 15, 1999).
This is a departure from your recent films. Did you make a conscious effort as a filmmaker to try a different style?
Well, it’s conscious in that I tend to be a bit restless, and try to find things that will provide a different experience than the film I’ve just finished. I tend to keep looking for things that I haven’t done before. I’ve made three non-linear crime films in the past year. Each of them had different concerns. So I felt at least I wasn’t completely repeating myself.
How comfortable are you working in the thriller genre?
I’m very comfortable. But I don’t know why that’s the case because I didn’t grow up with an overriding interest in that genre. I liked it, but I wasn’t obsessed with it. I grew up in a suburban subdivision, so it wasn’t anything that touched me personally. But I guess I found that it’s a resilient genre, and it—almost more than any other genre—allows you to inject your own preoccupations onto it. It sort of meets you halfway. And you have all these very solid pillars to build something around. I guess that is its appeal for filmmakers.
Your decision to cast Stamp and then to use him as he was 30 years ago is a lovely touch. How did that decision come about, and were you aware of a precedent in filmmaking for such a device?
The only film I can think of is at the beginning of The Shootist, which starred John Wayne. There was a brief montage of him supposedly in character as a younger man. But as far as using an actual character from another film, and having it play a role in the plot, that I don’t know. The writer and I couldn’t come up with an analogy, but that’s not to say it hasn’t happened. It’s going to get more and more difficult to happen because these days, negotiating the rights to do something like that is very difficult. It took us a long time. I didn’t get the rights cleared until we were well into post-production, which was terrifying.
Was it up to Ken Loach at all?
No. It was strictly that the rights were held by two different companies, so it took a long time to figure out. But it came about because once Lem Dobbs, the writer, and I settled on Terence as the person we wanted to build the movie around, I said, “Well, gosh, it would be great if we could get some footage of him from the ’60s. And Lem said, “Well, there’s this Ken Loach film, Poor Cow, where he plays a young thief.” And I had never seen the film, because it’s not available here. But Lem had a sort of fifth-generation bootleg sent over, and I looked at it and thought, “It’s perfect.”
There is more than Stamp linking you to Loach—there are similarities in style and tone to his work. Did you draw inspiration from his film for the The Limey?
With the exception of Poor Cow, I was reasonably familiar with Loach’s work. I did go back and look at a lot of it again. I also looked at a lot of things even a third and fourth time for the film that we’re finishing now, Erin Brockovich, which is a ground-level biopic of sorts, but whose style I wanted to be very simple and not slick. And so I watched a lot of the Loach films again to determine how he was staging things and how he was shooting them to give them a feeling of having been captured instead of staged. It was very helpful. And I finally got to meet him, which was great.
In your pursuit of realism in The Limey did you travel to East London to learn about cockneys? Or did you simply trust Stamp to bring that kind of authenticity to the film?
A little of both. Luckily, I’ve spent some time in those areas of London. I’m certainly familiar with what has come out of that area culturally, whether it be films or television or music. All that is reasonably familiar to me. And then, Lem grew up there, not as an East Ender, but was very familiar with that territory. I had long talks with Terence about what it was like to grow up there, and the people that he knows, still knows, and knew, who had with those kinds of lives. He said if you grew up in that area, there’s a point at which you have to determine which side of the law you’re going up end up on. And he said, “I know a lot of guys who ended up on the wrong side and went to prison for long stretches of time.” We had a lot of talks about what that kind of person his character is like. It would have been different if I were shooting it there, it would have been a much more intensive research project. But since the whole idea was about a guy landing in Los Angeles, I think for my part, it was more about character than the location he came from.
How did Stamp react to the idea of playing against himself 30 years on?
He seemed to be very excited about it, which is unusual. I don’t know that I would be, or any of us would be. But he was intrigued by it. He said at the time, “I’m not sure anybody’s ever done it this way before, and I’m really excited by that, because I like doing things that are different.”
Given his characteristic personality and speech did you have any concerns about the language and how it might come across on film in the United States?
No, not really. I guess I felt that the context was pretty clear, and that a literal understanding of everything he said wasn’t really relevant and in fact might be part of the point of the film.
Was the monologue he delivers to the police detective scripted?
Yeah, that was scripted to the syllable. Those kinds of things have to be when you’re trying move as quickly as we’re moving, with actors who are as prepared as Terence. It’s a funny little speech.
You’ve edited a number of your own films. How hands-on were you in the editing room with Sarah Flack?
Editing is a very intensive and collaborative period. It’s where the film is finally being made, in a way. And in this case, there was a lot of experimentation. Some of our early versions went too far and resulted in something that was almost incoherent to people who had worked on the film. And we ended up backing off a little bit, and finding a better balance between the sort of abstract impressionistic side of the movie and the straightforward narrative side. That just required a bit of trial and error. That’s normal, but there was more in this film than a lot of other films I’ve made. But editing was really fun. One of the reasons I wanted to make the film in the first place was that there were some narrative ideas that had occurred to me during Out of Sight that I didn’t get to try. I was looking around for something that would allow me to explore some of these ideas because I didn’t feel I was finished with them yet. And this was a good opportunity.
Which particular sequences or moments in the film are you referring to?
There are a couple of what I call the interior-of-Wilson’s-head montages that would fall into that. It’s just about trying to come up with a different way of supplying information to the audience and seeing if they were open to that. We skip around and go into passages of stream-of-consciousness, which is something you can do very easily in writing but which people don’t do as often in films. I just felt there had to be a more interesting way to provide exposition than just laying it out in a sort of A-B-C fashion. It’s not appropriate to do that for everything. But I thought the spine of this film was so straight that I could afford to digress, because the audience would always be very clear on what the movie was about. They know it’s a guy who shows up trying to find out what happens to his daughter, and that’s all the movie is, so no matter how abstract I get, they always know it’s going to come back to that, because that’s what the movie is about. And if the premise had been as complicated as the style, it might have been impossible for people to put together. So I purposely chose something that I thought was very simple.
An interesting device you use is the way the natural sound cuts off in certain climactic moments and the music takes over.
Well, that stuff has all been done. When you’re dealing with a film that’s basically a memory piece and allows you to not always have to adhere to the literal interpretation of events, then you begin to think more along those lines. In one specific scene, where Terence and Lesley Ann Warren are about to be ambushed by two hit men, my supervising sound editor said, “You know, I don’t think the scene is having quite the effect that it should have, because it’s so literal,” the way it was. He put together a very quiet sonic wash to put over it that suggested that after the gunshot, we go into this little aural audio landscape and not come back until the following scene. When we looked at it, I thought, “Oh, well, that’s much better.” And that’s because all of us were thinking that way. You know, just as sometimes people on screen will be speaking and then we’ll cut to a tighter shot of them, and they’re not speaking right in the middle of a sentence. We had the license to abstract anything we wanted to. It’s always nice when you work with people who come up with those suggestions because they are not paying attention to what is going on.
Was the process of testing the film part of The Limey as well?
In this case, the only screenings I had were for friends. I had called Artisan and said that in my opinion, we would be throwing our money away to do formal previews on this movie, because it’s never going to score very well. It’s the type of film that will not benefit from having these screenings. What I preferred to do was screen it for the most intelligent group of friends I could put together, and get ideas that way. They agreed. So I did just three or four screenings where I invited a different group of friends each time. It was writers, directors, actors, some other friends who are not in the film business, people who are reasonably intelligent and have a relationship with me that allows them to speak very frankly. Sometimes it would be brand-new people, and sometimes it would be people who had seen it before, so I could get a balance of opinions from people who were watching the film change. I think in this case, that was a good thing to do.
Ann-Margret is given a credit but doesn’t appear in the final film. What is the story behind her involvement?
She had a scene as Peter Fonda’s ex-wife when he shows up at the house in Big Sur. It was a scene that culminated in a lengthy monologue that I really liked, that I had asked Lem to write. I remember one day, I told him I had recently seen Network. And I said, “Gosh, you know, people used to have monologues in movies. I don’t feel like they have monologues any more.” And Lem wrote this scene with Peter Fonda’s ex-wife doing a lengthy tirade about Peter and his lifestyle. And it all turned out very well. The problem is it had to be all or nothing. It was an eight-minute sequence. If it’s Ann-Margret, you can’t just have it be a minute. I decided, based on the rhythm of the movie and my sense that Peter’s character didn’t really need much more backstory than it had, that I just had to pull the whole thing out. That was a difficult call to make. But I felt that an eight-minute sequence right there really brought the film to a halt. And I decided to keep it going.
What is the project you are about to go into production for Fox 2000?
It’s loosely based on a miniseries from the United Kingdom that was on about 12 years ago, I think. It’s about drugs. It’s a top-to-bottom look at the current state of the alleged drug war, all the way from how policy’s made to how drugs get to a street corner in Kentucky. And there are three story lines that interlock, playing out simultaneously. I’m excited about it. The subject is interesting to me, and I’ve never had a narrative that allowed for this much cross-cutting, which I think is really fun, and can result in a really exciting movie. So I’m pretty jazzed about it.
Listen to one of the greatest commentary tracks ever: Soderbergh and screenwriter Lem Dobbs discuss their film The Limey. While discussing the film, Dobbs bluntly criticizes Soderbergh for perceived “flaws” in the film and Soderbergh is put on the defensive for much of the commentary.
An analysis on the technical directing side of Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey. Edited by Shaun Higgins.
Ed Lachman is one of the great modern-day masters of light and lens. He’s left a mark on the craft of cinematography, through a combination of talent, insight, and intuition and intelligence. He’s quite simply, fantastic. His use of color is innovative and experimental, his use of camera is sensitive and delicate. Ed never makes a shot because he’s “just shooting,” he always searches for the motivation behind the composition. His work speaks for itself; it is always gorgeous and elevating the material. —A Conversation with Ed Lachman, Through the Lens
“Point Blank is one of my favourite movies, so when Stephen told me, I’m gonna make a kind of Point Blank, I was in heaven. I figured what made Lee Marvin so ominous was that his lowest tension was his highest intensity. So I thought, that’s how Wilson has to be. He has to be totally relaxed and totally coiled all the time. When he explodes, when he kills the three guys, that’s the only time you see him boiling over. That’s the very frightening aspect. I really like the fact people are sympathetic to him. In his mind, the kind of politicians, the people who make genetically altered foods, are cowards, they’re criminals within the law. He’s the real thing. He’s not a corrupt policeman or a corrupt policeman. He dances to his own drum. And I think that’s very attractive because it’s how we’d all like to be. It’s just that life pushes us out of shape, takes us away from ourselves. So any guy who stays close to that, you can feel empathy for that. Because we’ve all had moments where that was true.” —Terry Stamp, mostly about one particular scene of the Limey
A rare 1988 interview with legendary actor Terence Stamp from the television show Parkinson One-to-One.
Here are some great photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey. Photographed by Bob Marshak © Artisan Entertainment, Gracenote. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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