John Cassavetes – the Man and His Work

In 1983, during the production of John Cassavetes’s Love Streams, journalist Michael Ventura was hired by Cannon Films executive Menahem Golan to make a promotional documentary about the company’s first Cassavetes picture. The result was the sixty-minute I’m Almost Not Crazy: John Cassavetes-the Man and His Work, which affords the viewer a rare, intimate glimpse into the great filmmaker’s process. In this excerpt, courtesy of the Criterion Collection, Cassavetes directs a climactic scene set during a rainstorm, contends with the film’s menagerie of animal performers, and then talks about the importance on a movie set of never knowing what the next day will bring. Love Streams is available on Blu-ray and DVD through Criterion. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
Backed by Cannon Films, which also made Love Streams, Variety reported, this documentary “by no means stands as a promotional piece, emerging rather as an evocative glimpse of one of filmdom’s genuine mavericks.” Those who revere Cassavetes and his films will embrace I’m Almost Not Crazy… as a rare and invaluable chronicle of their hero doing and talking about what he loved best: filmmaking. Those who don’t should gain new respect for the man, his methods, his passion, and his absolute commitment to his own unique vision of the human comedy. —TV Guide

 
From the French TV series Cinéma cinémas, a 1983 feature on Cassavetes directing Love Streams (1984).

 
It’s a great privilege and pleasure to read John Cassavetes’ (rare and hard to get) screenplays for A Woman Under the Influence, Minnie and Moskowitz, and Gloria [PDF1, PDF2, PDF3]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). A special thanks to Nick Paul White. We also highly recommended the Criterion Collection’s John Cassavetes: Five Films Blu-ray box set.

John Cassavetes was inspired to write A Woman Under the Influence when wife Gena Rowlands expressed a desire to appear in a play about the difficulties faced by contemporary women. His completed script was so intense and emotional she knew she would be unable to perform it eight times a week, so he decided to adapt it for the screen. When he tried to raise funding for the project, he was told, “No one wants to see a crazy, middle-aged dame.” Lacking studio financing, Cassavetes mortgaged his house and borrowed from family and friends, one of whom was Peter Falk, who liked the screenplay so much he invested $500,000 in the project. The crew consisted of professionals and students from the American Film Institute, where Cassavetes was serving as the first “filmmaker in residence” at their Center for Advanced Film Studies. Working with a limited budget forced him to shoot scenes in a real house near Hollywood Boulevard, and Rowlands was responsible for her own hairstyling and makeup.

 
Upon completion of the film, Cassavetes was unable to find a distributor, so he personally called theater owners and asked them to run the film. According to college student Jeff Lipsky, who was hired to help distribute the film, “It was the first time in the history of motion pictures that an independent film was distributed without the use of a nationwide system of sub-distributors.” It was booked into art houses and shown on college campuses, where Cassavetes and Falk discussed it with the audience. It was shown at the San Sebastián Film Festival, where Rowlands was named Best Actress and Cassavetes won the Silver Shell Award for Best Director, and the New York Film Festival, where it captured the attention of film critics like Rex Reed. When Richard Dreyfuss appeared on The Mike Douglas Show with Peter Falk, he described the film as “the most incredible, disturbing, scary, brilliant, dark, sad, depressing movie” and added, “I went crazy. I went home and vomited,” which prompted curious audiences to seek out the film capable of making Dreyfuss ill.

 

A script is a series of words strung together. When I first start writing there’s a sense of discovery. In some way it’s not working, it’s finding some romance in the lives of people. You get fascinated with their lives. If they stay with you then you want to do something—make it into a movie, put it on in some way. It was that which propelled us to keep on working at it. Making a film is a mystery. If I knew anything about men and women to begin with, I wouldn’t make it, because it would bore me. I really feel that the script is written by what you can get out of it and how much it means to you, and if it means nothing to you, we start again and try to put ourselves up and communicate with you. The idea of taking a laborer and having him married to a wife who he can’t capture, is really exciting. I don’t know how you work on that. So I write – I’ll do it any way [I can]. I’ll hammer it out, I’ll kick it out, I’ll beat it to death, anyway you can get it. I don’t think there are any rules. The only rules are that you do the best you can. And when you’re not doing the best you can, then you don’t like yourself. And that’s very individual with everyone. —John Cassavetes, chapter on The Making of A Woman Under the Influence

 
Here’s terrific 90-minute John Cassavetes interview from the mid-seventies on filmmaking and his 1974 film A Woman Under the Influence. With Gena Rowlands, and some Q&A with the public. Brilliant stuff!

 

Minnie and Moskowitz isn’t much like anything Cassavetes has done before, except in its determination to go all the way with actors’ performances—even at the cost of the movie’s over-all form. Cassavetes, an actor himself, is one of the few American directors who is really sympathetic with actors. He lets them go, lets them try new things and take risks. This can lead to terribly indulgent performances, as it did in Husbands. But in Minnie and Moskowitz it gives us performances by Gena Rowlands and Seymour Cassel that are so beautiful you can hardly believe it. —Roger Ebert

So they sent [the script] to Columbia, and a couple of days later [my agent] called and said, ‘I have some good news and some bad news. One, they like the picture very much and want to buy it. And they want to have Gena in the picture.’ And I said what’s the bad news. ‘The bad news,’ he said, ‘is they want you to direct it.’ So that’s where we started. —John Cassavetes, chapter on The Making of Gloria (1979-1980)

 

I’m taking a gamble making the film. I don’t have any money. I just go to the bank and borrow it. And hope. But what isn’t risky about movies? It’s always risky when it’s original… It’s a very dangerous territory to be in where you can only make a film if your grosses reflect a large gross. I’ve been making films for twenty-five years and none of them has really made a lot of money. But there’s nobody in the world who can tell me we didn’t succeed. And that’s the greatest feeling that I’ve ever had in my life. The most difficult thing in the world is to reveal yourself, to express what you have to. As an artist, I feel that we must try many things—but above all we must dare to fail. You must be willing to risk everything to really express it all. —John Cassavetes

 
Enjoy these words from Martin Scorsese on “the Father of American Independent Cinema” and then spark your filmmaking passion with Filmmaking Wisdom from John Cassavetes, 5 tips of cinematic goodness presented by A-BitterSweet-Life.

 

CHARACTER IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN PLOT

The true journey of the film rests not in the mechanics of plot but in the journey of the character within the world presented by the film’s storytelling. For John Cassavetes, the most important thing of all was to present characters truthfully. It is this truthful presentation of character that then allows the audience to immerse itself with the film since the character is the vehicle for the viewer.

DON’T THINK FOR THE AUDIENCE

The filmmaker needs to respect the viewer and let him or her share in the progression of the film story. This allows for the essential quality of the film, which is the essential quality of all art: engaging the audience. The filmmaker should allow the audience to participate in the storytelling, to allow the viewer’s imagination and emotions take part in the film. The story should “evolve, so that people could understand it only gradually as it [goes] along.” Film at its highest offers an experience, and without engaging the viewer, there is no experience.

THE SCRIPT TAKES CARE OF ITSELF

The script is not the film. It is the blueprint for the film. Viewing the script in this manner opens for the filmmaker the door to further search and discover the storytelling in each stage of filmmaking. The actor as filmmaker is also given the chance to further explore his or her character. Cassavetes based performance on this: Work for the good of your character, do your character. Don’t worry, the script will take care of itself. The script is always there to be an anchor in the filmmaking process.

MAKING THE BEST OF IMPROVISATION

Do not fear the unknown, it is a promising opportunity. However, the most efficient way to make the most of the unknown is by preparing yourself to capture the best of what may come. Cassavetes notes, I write a very tight script, and from there on in I allow the actors to interpret it the way they wish. But once they choose their way, then I’m extremely disciplined—and they must also be extremely disciplined about their own interpretations…there’s a difference between not knowing what to do and just saying something. I believe in improvising on the basis of the written word, and not on undisciplined creativity. Furthermore, improvisation lends itself to all aspects of filmmaking, from the acting to the shooting and editing.

FILM IS ABOUT THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE

The power of cinema is the ability to draw the audience into an intimate relationship with a story that produces an emotional human experience, and this connection comes from the storytelling—the cinematic narration—and not through the technical aspects. John Cassavetes says it so well: People who are making films today are too concerned with mechanics—technical things instead of feeling. Execution is about eight percent to me. The technical quality of a film doesn’t have much to do with whether it’s a good film. I feel like vomiting when some director says to me, “I got the most gorgeous shot today.” That is not what’s important. We have to move beyond the current obsession with technique or angles. It’s a waste of time. A movie is a lot more than a series of shots. You’re doing a bad job if all you’re paying attention to is camera angles: “All right, how can we photograph it? We’ll get the lab to do some special effects there. Say, let’s use a hand-held camera for this shot.” You end up making a film that is all tricks, with no people in it, no knowledge of life. There is nothing left for the actor to bring to it since there is no sense, meaning, or understanding of people.

 
Photography by Brian Hamill & Sam Shaw. Courtesy of Shaw Family Archives.

 
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