May 10, 2023
By Sven Mikulec
We did ‘The Killing of a Chinese Bookie’ just as an effort to get out of the distribution business. We started writing it two weeks before we started shooting. Years ago, Martin Scorsese and I were talking, and in one night made up this gangster story. Years later, when I didn’t know what to make, I thought we’ll do that story about this nightclub owner who owes a lot of money, and is talked into killing someone who isn’t really the person he thinks he’s going to be killing. But mainly it was about a conformist, about somebody who would have been a white-collar worker years ago, and who does all the right things and who is going to be killed for it. I think that’s mainly why the audience couldn’t identify with him. I remember very distinctly when we were shooting the scene in which he lost all the money, and then he went and shook the hands of the criminals. And Ben Gazzara did it with such skill and sincerity. I kept thinking, if we do this another twenty times, maybe Ben will reach the audience by enjoying it more. I thought the difference between success and failure, in terms of the audience response, would have been had he said, thank you very much! instead of thank you, thank you. I thought that little point would either make the audience go with him as a character or say I want to shy away from him, because he really is polite, he’s not putting anyone down, he’s not standing up for himself. I think it became a sad film for most people, because that point of reality was something they couldn’t swallow. I’d like to make that film about four or five more times, because it had interesting characters, interesting people. —John Cassavetes
Following his great artistic and financial triumph, A Woman Under the Influence, the iconic American independent filmmaker John Cassavetes finally had enough capital, both in the literal and metaphorical sense of the word, to do something different, experiment and get out of his comfort zone. A filmmaker devoted to exploring the psychological and emotional intimacy of complex characters often difficult to label or comprehend decided to delve into genre filmmaking and opted to shoot—a gangster film. “I think gangster films are important,” he confessed in an interview before the idea for The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was conceived. “I would like to make one, but I would have to make it sheer entertainment… That’s what expected from that specific genre, which is a specific American art form… My films to my way of thinking are also an art form. I don’t know whether I’m capable of making sheer entertainment.” Cassavetes, who often worked as an actor with great success in American mainstream pictures to finance his passion for a different kind of filmmaking, perhaps really started out working on his gangster film with the intention of creating sheer entertainment. Some kind of an easily digestible, straightforward movie limited by the boundaries of this unique genre and the usually simple expectations of the American mainstream audience. The final product, however, not only resists being put in the same drawer with a singular label on it, it exists on a whole other plain of filmmaking. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is Cassavetes making a Cassavetes film only slightly playing to the expectations of the viewers. Or, to be more precise, what Cassavetes perceived as the viewers’ expectations.
Cosmo Vitelli is a middle-aged manager of a seedy Los Angeles night club Crazy Horse West that puts on bizarre, cabaret-like shows led by a grotesque master of ceremonies called Mr. Sophistication surrounded by three to five half-naked girls dancing, singing and acting for the pleasure of a scarce audience. Cosmo’s whole life revolves around the club: it’s his baby, he chooses the girls, writes their acts, picks the songs. His life doesn’t simply revolve around the club—his life is the club. There’s a genius moment in the second half of the film, as Cosmo goes on the dangerous titular errand, but stops at a payphone to check up on the club. He’s disappointed and frustrated that his staff have no idea what number is being performed on stage. “You’ve been at the club for seven years!” he exclaims, shocked at his people’s lack of interest.
We meet him at the point when he finally pays off a seven-year-long debt to a shady loan shark. “I’ve got the golden life,” he states, with a satisfied grin on his face. “I’ve got the world by the balls. I am amazing.” But as soon as he pays off one debt, he lunges face-forward into another. One terrible night at the poker table, ironically intended as a celebration of his newly acquired financial freedom, and he ends up owing a substantial amount of money to the mob. This is where the film’s title starts to make sense. Since he’s unable to pay the debt, the mob make him an offer he can’t refuse: his slate will be wiped clean if he whacks a certain old bookie in the heart of Chinatown. As his actions had put him between a rock and a hard place, Cosmo agrees to the deal, although even the most naïve observer immediately deduces it’s a trick designed by the mobsters to make not one but two problems go away at once.
In Cassavetes’ unique vision of a film noir, the plot and action surrender the stage to characters. The handheld camera follows the protagonist around the club, at the bar, in his girlfriend’s house, in the limo. The story of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is the story of Cosmo’s inner struggle. This by no means suggests the struggle we’re aiming at is his dilemma on whether or not he should pull the trigger. “Be happy, be joyous,” Cosmo tells his girls in a passionate and emotional pep talk before the show. “We’ll make their lives a little happier. So they won’t have to face themselves. They can pretend to be somebody else.” Cosmo is the one pretending, walking around oily-haired in his neat suit, posing as a stylish artiste with class, ignoring the fact his shows get the audience’s applause only when one of the dancers pulls down her dress. “Look at me. I’m only happy when I’m angry, when I’m sad, when I can play the fool, when I can be what people want me to be rather than be myself.” Cosmo Vitelli is in no way an exceptional individual; he’s trying to live up to the self-imposed image of himself. “You have no class,” he tells the loan shark, and then goes back to the club to announce an eerily trashy performance that is supposed to take the viewers all the way to the City of Lights. But there’s no Paris on stage: just a crooked PARIS sign, a few really bad attempts at French accent and an overweight Mr. Sophistication with tasteless makeup trying to convey his art through the microphone, when all the guests of the club just came to see some tits and ass.
Even after a shallow analysis, it’s not at all farfetched to note the similarities between the character of Cosmo and the filmmaker himself, both trying to sell their respective tickets without sacrificing their artistic criteria. Just like mobsters kept Cosmo from being independent and freely creating his art, Cassavetes thought of film producers as mobsters who stand in the way of artistic freedom. He even cast his producer Al Ruban as one of the loan sharks. In the final performance, when Mr. Sophistication passionately recites I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, one of the girls tells him he’s hot and creates a small flame next to his face. The audience erupts in laughter, and Mr. Sophistication, embarrassed and misunderstood, leaves the stage and vanishes behind a black curtain, disillusioned and hurt by the fact that the viewers prefer such cheap gimmicks to his art. At this point it’s difficult not to think of Cassavetes and his struggle to find a place under the Hollywood sun.
The director’s frequent collaborator Ben Gazzara delivers a masterful performance that carries the film until the credits start rolling, a captivating effort that grounds the film in realism and enables us to emotionally connect to the unfolding story. Cassavetes, who acted as the director, screenwriter and even cameraman, gave him the space to develop and shape his character, and this electrifying director-actor dynamics slowly changed the whole tone and perspective of the film as it was shot, becoming increasingly subjective, private and metaphysical. Much more than elegantly going from one plot point to the next, Cassavetes is interested in the inner world of the regular man, and Gazzara was the perfect vessel for such an approach.
Under pressure by having set overly optimistic release dates, Cassavetes gave the public a 135-minute-long version that was greeted with mixed reviews and a depressingly harsh reception from the audience. Ben Gazzara was at the premiere and remembered what it felt like. “I sat there and I knew by the reactions of the audience that… we were dead. They didn’t like it. Broke my heart.” Just like in the scene where Cosmo consoles his right-hand man on a particularly slow night at the club (“It’s all right, Vince, it will pick up, we’ll have a big night.”), it was Cassavetes who reassured Gazzara that everything was fine. “It was his money, his time, his everything. And he was calming me down. Wonderful.” Producer Al Ruban recalled how awful the initial response was. “We played it and the audience was so angry at this film,” he remembers. “To this day I don’t understand it. They were coming out of the theater shouting at the people who were lined up to get in. Don’t see this film, this is terrible, save your money. I was completely shocked and we pulled the picture after six days, I think it was.”
Two years later, the filmmaker put out a tightened, reedited version of the film, cutting it down to 105 minutes and rearranging the sequences a bit so as to make it more appealing to mainstream viewers. It’s this version that kept circulating in the following decades and, as it’s often the case, the perception slowly shifted, Cassavetes’ talents enjoyed a reevaluation and in the minds of not only his dedicated followers, but the filmgoing public in general, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie started to get recognized as one the master’s greatest accomplishments. It’s a complicated, structurally unsettled, tonally perplexing film, but also deeply personal and moving. Cassavetes’ foray into mainstream genre filmmaking might have been conceived as an effort at sheer entertainment, but when you hire Manet to paint your kitchen, it’s reasonable to end up with more than you expected.
Infatuated with the world of film since the early days, when ‘The Three Amigos,’ ‘The Goonies’ and ‘Back to the Future’ rocked his world, Sven Mikulec majored in English with a special emphasis on American culture and started an unlikely career in organizing pub quizzes. Huge fan of Simon & Garfunkel, a mediocre table tennis player and passionate fridge magnet collector, he’s interested in fulfilling his long-term goal of interviewing Jack Nicholson while Paul Simon sings ‘April Come She Will’ quietly in the background. Read more »
Like listening to a piano player tickling a few last chords on the ivories in the wee hours of the morning, when the last patrons have left the nightclub and the waiters are stacking the chairs on the tables. —Jean-Luc Godard describing Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie
John Cassavetes in Los Angeles by Laurence Gavron. From Positif, April 1978.
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Do you prefer Los Angeles, or do you miss New York?
I miss New York a great deal, I like that city a lot. For many years, I thought I would go crazy here. But I spend 80 percent of my life working, and the rest of the time with my family. So I don’t notice the difference anymore.
Is it easy for you to work here?
Yes, it’s easier because there are no distractions, nothing I want to do here. It’s as if I was on a desert island. It’s better that way; in New York, the telephone is always ringing, I want to see friends, go out, etc. I want to have a life, you know? Making films is a substitute for that.
Do you mean therefore that you’re not really living, you’re only making films?
Yes, that’s it! But I like it that way.
When watching your films, the pleasure you take in making them is palpable. I get the feeling that you have a deep love for the actors, the camera, and the film itself.
It’s because we all work together. Everyone who works on the film has the same stature, there isn’t any hierarchy.
Tell us about the film you just finished, Opening Night.
The music is very important in that film. Since it’s a “female” film, it’s about a working woman (Gena Rowlands), an actress, and her dreams and fantasies which she confuses with reality. And suddenly, someone tries to put an end to these dreams after so many years, telling her: “You don’t like this play because you’re starting to grow old.” She doesn’t consider for a single second that this reasoning is legitimate, but she’s unable to disprove it. And throughout the film, she is going to struggle alone, saying “If I accept this, I’m screwed, it’s over; I can’t have any more joy, any more pleasure…” So she fights, and ultimately she wins.
Do you prefer to work as an actor or a director?
I don’t care. If one becomes a filmmaker, you start to think of yourself first and foremost as a filmmaker, to take yourself seriously. I don’t like these labels.
Do you want to say, for example, that certain people who make films want to “be filmmakers” for the social status, when I think you are motivated above all by the desire to make films?
I love to tell a story. When you know ahead of time what the story is going to be, it’s not fun anymore, it quickly becomes annoying. When I make a film, it’s worthwhile to take a difficult subject and deepen it, and see if, in making a film on this subject, you can find something in yourself, and if others can find something in themselves that they can develop in their personal lives. And that’s really great. For Opening Night I had a wonderful story that came to mind, the story of this woman, Myrtle Gordon. What’s unique about the woman in my film is that she is totally honest with herself, very persistent, and fundamentally alone. At times I think about her, I imagine her in the process of struggling, and I say to myself: “Oh, why can’t she just be happy being a woman? How come she can’t stop questioning herself so stubbornly, and always only seeing one side of things? If only she had a sense of humor!” I think: “Just be a woman, and that’s final! Enjoy life, have fun, find a man, spend the night together… Do something, for God’s sake!” But she clings to what makes her happy, despite all the hostility around her. And that’s also what makes her so unique—she sticks to it and ultimately she wins the case, even though there’s no real “case” in life. In fact, she doesn’t win anything at all, she only manages to obtain that which makes her happy. And for me, that’s what it’s all about.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, your previous film, hasn’t been shown in France yet, and has been rather poorly received here, by the public as well as critics. How do you explain this?
No one likes the film, other than two or three American critics; all the others trashed it. In one way, out of all my films, it’s the one I care about the most; when there’s a child that no one loves, the parents are going to love that kid all the more! The film came out this summer in Canada, after being shown at the Montreal Film Festival. It was very well-received. Before it was shown, no one wanted the film in Canada, afterwards, they all wanted it! Everyone who hated it now wants to see it again! The film was sold in France. It should be shown at the Paris Film Festival, and then be released after that; I don’t know exactly what happened.
For how long did you work on Opening Night?
I don’t remember exactly when I started to write the screenplay. It actually took several years to finish, a month here and a month there. It’s been about a year from when I finished the screenplay to today; the film should come out next month. [The film was released in Los Angeles on December 22, 1977.] When you feel that the film is almost done, that’s my favorite moment, it’s so exciting! The shooting really drags on; as for the editing, it’s suicide. You find yourself confronting so many disappointments—this doesn’t work like I thought it would, this actor isn’t happy… and you have to keep going, continue no matter what. And you think that the film will never get any better; you say to yourself “What is this thing I’m working on? It’s meaningless, it doesn’t work at all…” Then suddenly you do something you like, then another, and the film starts to improve. And then all at once the film starts to take shape and that’s when things start coming together quickly.
When you write a script, do you start with a story, characters, or feelings… or is it that you know in your head already what the film is about, and have specific ideas as far as the way you want the story to be filmed?
No. Usually I start from a premise, a basic idea. For example, Opening Night deals with how people react to growing old; how do you “succeed” when you’re not wanted or desired as much as before, when you don’t have as much confidence in yourself, in your potential, when you have less energy than before… and how do you become aware of it? That’s the primary subject of the film. The second is to show the life of an artist, a creator. I think I know what the life of someone who creates is like. But for an actor, it’s different.
But you’re both actor and creator at the same time.
Yes. And the actor is what interests me the most. Because actors don’t have anything else to offer other than themselves, and their way of communicating is so special and different, that if something intervenes, it’s impossible to express the shock to their spirit, their feelings, the way they are wounded by it. They can get a grip on themselves, but the wound is important, it impacts their personality, their way of life, their philosophy. All this interests me a lot. So I thought this would be a wonderful character—a woman without the usual weapons, the typical habits women have: tears, sentiment, gentleness, all the usual stuff. Instead, take a woman with a career, a profession. Of course, she’s not interested in children, nor men. However, she’s a character with feelings. But she has a job to do, a career to pursue, and that’s the most important thing for her. And in this case, her job is to be an actress. So from this beginning, different ideas took shape progressively, and I started to write the script. I made a first draft, then a second, and so on. Then, once the actors were chosen, they started to tell me “I don’t like this or that” and “I don’t want to just be functional, be merely a character.” But very quickly they realize that everything in their character is conventional, because they’re part of a story. People who want to succeed, want to be right, want to be understood—they’re all conventional. And actors are generally people who don’t care if they’re wrong or right. Because their only problem is communicating a specific thought in a way that’s clearly understood. And this is difficult work. Therefore, they want to know why your feelings are different from theirs. And if you don’t tell them, they attack you. And this woman can’t defend against these attacks that come not from enemies, but from friends. These assaults are much more dangerous because they can shatter her self-image, or what she is trying to accomplish, much more rapidly. It’s easy to say, “This idiot doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” but if it’s someone you know and respect, then it hurts to hear you’re wrong. And when Myrtle hears these attacks, she can’t work as she usually does because she’s no longer sure she’s right. Because her feelings are fragile, they don’t come from a magazine, or Women’s Lib, or from talking with her husband, or whatever. She thinks for herself; she’s brave to try out her own personal ideals.
In the film, did you draw from realistic elements, things known personally to you, Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, or others around you?
In a way. I didn’t consider Gena’s opinion, Ben’s opinion, or my own, as an actor. Because I’m more “romantic” as an actor than when I direct or when I write. When I act, I “romanticize” everything because I know it works. I know that the audience wants to laugh, they want everything to feel accurate, so my job as an actor is to make things clear for the audience. As far as the ideas that are in the film, yes, they came to me from all the people I know. Not their “opinions” but what I see is really in their character. And I’ve often seen my wife try to express a feeling, an idea, something, or also my children, or myself… For example, I’ve always seemed young. And suddenly, I’m going to be forty-eight; I look at myself in the mirror sometimes and I say, “What’s this stupid face all about? Who would want such a face?” So I understand these sorts of feelings. All the more because I’m not particularly vain. So imagine someone with this level of vanity, someone who was told by everyone that they were exactly what they seemed to be, were merely who they looked like, not who they really were. So no one really knows you, sees inside of you. And real communication from one soul to another is so rare, and only lasts a moment, even with those you’re closest to. Everything else is rather superficial, and that’s what makes up our lives. So it’s difficult to identify that, to dig into it and make a film out of it. Also, no one thought it would be easy. We thought everything might fail because it was an ambitious project. But this made things all the more exciting. When we started to feel a certain emotion, to understand a scene, to believe in it… then the film started to work. It comes from a certain “comfort” with the process, when you get used to the characters. I don’t think there is a director, a writer, or an actor alive who knows what uniquely makes a scene. What’s unique is difficult to recognize. It’s a secret within the heart, and none of us knows it. All one can do is work hard enough to succeed; if one fails, it’s hard! But it’s good to be able to say, “I did that. I didn’t try to take care of other people’s lives as much as I did my own.” That’s all. So, based on what I just said, to respond to your question after going off on a long tangent, yes, everyone contributes, but they do it in an ordinary way. Not by saying, “This woman is getting older, therefore that’s a problem for her, she’s an old woman…”; it’s completely the opposite. Our task is how to give other women the freedom to think they’re not old merely because someone tells them so. How do you ensure that they believe that, by the end of the film, and not simply by making a statement. And that’s exciting.
It’s interesting that within the film, there is the constant presence of the theater, the stage. Would you like to put on a play?
I’ve never really liked theater, at least not as much as some. I respect the theater and the people who are a part of it, and I think it’s wonderful for an actor. But it so happens I love film! I think of it as being something close to what I love. Theater is a fantastic intellectual exercise, which isn’t put to good use often enough. There aren’t many plays I like, and the plays I like are never emotional enough. They don’t express half as much as what I like to see expressed. So I’m not happy with them. While film, by its very nature, allows for more imagination. Because a movie isn’t life, it’s just a reel of film! That’s why a film always has to try very hard to be extremely “real,” in order for us to react in a vocal way, laugh or cry… we have to participate in it, involve ourselves, and we can’t notice any falsehoods. While in the theater an actor can really present himself grandly because it’s larger than life, there is a significant difference there. The audience wants to laugh much more, or cry… they’re usually ready to cry. When watching films, they’re more demanding, they want to be distracted. That’s why it’s a miracle if you manage to express something in a film. Because the public accepts practically everything that is easy, expected, and moves quickly! In fact it hates ideas. If you say a film is filled with ideas, no one will go see it!
What do you think of today’s young American filmmakers?
Among those I know personally, I think today’s young filmmakers are trying to be as good as their elders. They have the same potential, but I don’t think they have the same nerve. Without good writing, I don’t think they would be as successful. Because with respect to technique, we’ve seen everything there is, and after a while, they’re not so important any more. The same techniques have been more and more perfected—I mean, what more can you do with a camera? It’s not enough. You can scrutinize yourself, that’s been done. We’ve done everything we can to analyze everything mechanically. But then, what’s really difficult? What about responding to questions about life, our sense of belonging, our solitude, our love, our happiness, our joys?
Simple and authentic feelings?
Exactly. And I think young filmmakers are grasping this more and more, but some people aren’t going to grasp it at once. When you make your first film, it’s a labor of love, which gathers up all the emotions you’ve ever known. Then the second film isn’t as good, the third is a little better than that, and with the fourth, it’s become a job. By the fifth film you’re aware of all your mistakes. At a certain point, you start to understand that you can’t work only for success, for the reviews, or for “art,” but you have to do something substantial with your life, study life and develop your own style, a way to express yourself personally about what bothers you, what you like, or whatever… And I think that young filmmakers will have a greater potential in this regard in about ten years. Peckinpah was terrific, he had lots of talent, but he didn’t have the right atmosphere to work in. He was totally destitute because of all the lawyers, accountants, bankers, and businessmen… all these horrible people. At the same time, Peckinpah would be equally horrible in their eyes if he walked into their offices and tried to run their businesses. It’s because of this that people “die.” I don’t want to say that Peckinpah’s dead, but his talent suffered. Because he suffered from it. It’s the same thing with Altman. Although Altman still does good work, and Peckinpah also, they are constantly on the defensive with respect to those who supervise them. So of course they aren’t in a position to produce the best they have to offer. They’re not really free because they’re always on the defensive. A film “must” be a success, so suddenly they find themselves in competition with the major studios. I have the same problem. In one way or another, my film has to work, or else I won’t ever be able to make another one. But all the same, I accept that I am not in competition with the majors. Their film could be good, but it has nothing to do with mine. We have our world that belongs to us, and we believe in it, and we don’t want the whole world to join us. And neither do we want everyone against us. We simply just want the chance to make what we make. It’s important that young people at least know they have the choice. What difference does it make if they become “commercial” or “artistic”? Every time an artist becomes commercial, it restores balance. When an artist fails, of course it’s hard to accept, because there are so few artists. We get angry because they accomplished a “superhuman” task, and society tells them they’re wrong. And the public tells them they’re wrong. However, it’s difficult to tell them: “Keep going for a hundred years, until your death, until you’re an old stupid guy that no one likes, who everyone makes fun of.”
Opening Night, like Chinese Bookie and A Woman Under the Influence, were both made independently. Would you ever consider eventually making films again for a studio?
Yes, right away! I’m okay with it because for me, a studio just means money. I’d do it all: act, direct, write.
Wouldn’t that mean you would have to make concessions?
If that implied concessions, then I wouldn’t do it! I suffer like everyone else. I know that what I do makes me happy, but it’s hard. It’s hard to find money and the time I need, it’s hard when people think you’re rich when you’re not. It’s hard to need money from everyone, constantly… It’s hard for my family. I’m pretty sure I’ll never be rich because I’ve already spent more money than I’ll ever make! Sometimes I wonder what I’m making, I tell myself I could work for the studios, as an actor, scriptwriter, or director. I could listen to them, obey them, and take their money, like everyone else. Ultimately it’s not that I’m proud of my work. I really appreciate the experiences, when I remember them… not the films, the adventures. Working with people who share everything, the ups and downs, whether they want it or not, they’re pure, because they get nothing by way of compensation. And the film has to be good, or else they’re unhappy.
Your films are unique in a certain way, your style different from most other filmmakers. It’s difficult to make comparisons, to speak of influences.
Yes, and at the beginning, that annoyed me. I think that’s the reason most people don’t make original films, because it’s uncomfortable. Equally, a musician is bothered if his music isn’t compared to that of the great composers. In the same way, my films aren’t comparable to those of the great directors. And me, I’ve experienced all these anxieties. Audiences that walk out, leave the theater. And I think I don’t give a damn. If everyone is happy, the film is good, I know that we have something. It’s a strength, and it’s not superficial or fleeting. I know that this is what people really want, because it’s so powerful. What’s better in life than worthy drama? It’s something everyone understands, and the rest is foolishness. It’s how you say things that matters, not what they say. That’s the way to look at it, that’s how to approach it. And it’s through our relationships, our friendships, our arguments, our dis- cussions, all the “impersonal” feelings we have in relation to work, all that makes it exciting, because we all love this work enormously. And we know that no one’s lying, that everyone’s trying to get better, so everyone’s giving all they have to give, this is the type of relationship we have. For example, I don’t like editing, but I have to be there next to the editor, because if I wasn’t there, it would mean I didn’t care about the film. I know that. And I hate it, I’ve always hated editing, because it’s a manipulation that hurts people. Sometimes an actor has a great scene and I’m not paying enough attention to notice, or I see it but I’m thinking about my story. So I’m not afraid to make a decision, because I usually prioritize the actor over the story, but the editor doesn’t have the same outlook, he doesn’t have the same attachment that I have to the actors, so he can do a better job, he will have a better judgment. I’m still very involved. For example, there was this great shot of Gena before and after the credits, and I took it out. But I needed seven months to make up my mind to take it out. Because I thought it was superfluous, something that might confuse the audience. But I loved that shot so much! I loved that moment, for the actor.
Do you use a lot of film, in order to have more choices in editing?
Is it difficult then, since you have to leave out a certain number of scenes and shots that you would have perhaps liked to keep, vis-à-vis the actors, for example?
No, it’s not really hard for me since I’ve always worked that way, and I’m used to it. Having lots of different takes gives you lots of different ideas. And I really discuss these ideas with the actors. The actors are invited to all the showings, and there are loads of them, throughout which the film changes considerably. An actor will say, “I was terrible,” and I will listen to him, I will ask him why. “Because I think the film…” but I don’t want to hear about the film, I want to know what the actors think of themselves, what they didn’t like about their performance. Because, let’s be honest, that’s what matters for them and not the goddamn film! So I always consider their opinion, and depending on what they tell me, I’ll make changes in editing. Often, they’ll have specific ideas about their character. As I change the film, I try to give them what they were missing.
Do you only ask the actors’ opinions, or do you also ask the rest of the crew?
I never ask the crew’s advice. I don’t think they’re pure, purely interested in the emotions. For me, the actors are the fundamental creative force, because if their approach, their understanding of the issue is good, the film succeeds, and the work of the technical team is ultimately secondary. I admire and like people who work behind the camera, but they want to do a good job, nothing more. They wouldn’t be happy if their work was poor, but they completely don’t care about the story. Their main task is to execute their part of the job well. While for the actors the story is important since their character is reflected in the overall story. If Ben Gazzara doesn’t feel involved in the story, even if he’s great, he knows the audience won’t be interested, won’t pay attention… of course he wants the film to be a success.
It’s your third film, after Husbands and Minnie and Moskowitz, where you direct yourself.
Yes, and all three times were very different. I had a lot of fun with this film, Opening Night, because I didn’t have to learn anything, because I know how to be an actor. And my character is just an actor, neither good nor bad, simply an actor. Someone who’s trying to make a living. I liked that. Each time I came on set I had a great time with it. And I could let myself become this character totally without thinking of anyone else. With Husbands, I loved the two men I was with, Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk, who are the two best actors I know, and I loved all the other characters… And there was no director for that film, so I had to do the direction! So I was simultaneously inside and out; sometimes on the inside of the film, sometimes outside.
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Lead actor Ben Gazzara and producer-director of photography Al Ruban discuss the traumatic premiere of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and the audience’s devastating reactions.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, insert pg. 55, Ben Gazzara’s copy.
This beauty is coming soon.
Ben Gazzara talks about filming The Killing of a Chinese Bookie with director John Cassavetes. This clip is from the documentary Anything For John, included as a bonus on the BFI’s 3-Disc Collector’s Edition of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.
THE LOST INTERVIEW: JOHN CASSAVETES
Back in 1985, film critic Joe Leydon conducted a great interview with John Cassavetes, but as nobody was interested in buying the piece, he published the conversation much later at MovieMaker. It’s not only great writing; it’s great writing about one of cinema’s greats, and made even more powerful by the fact that the filmmaker was in obvious physical decline, meaning the artist’s mortality is featured both in the atmosphere of the piece and the text itself. It’s a 10-minute read well worth your time.
HIS NAME IS JOHN CASSAVETES. HE MAKES FILMS
Bright Wall/Dark Room published a brilliant and passionate analysis of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, highlighting the poignant connection between the filmmaker and the lead character of this tragic story.
“This is a one-of-a-kind film, a great 1970s L.A. time capsule.” Watch Larry Karaszewski short take on Cassavetes’ film and why it must find a place on your to-watch list.
That was more difficult. I didn’t really understand where John was going with it. I didn’t see right away that the film was a metaphor that meant a lot to him. That these gangsters (Timothy Carey, Seymour Cassel) represented everything that comes along that interferes with, disturbs creativity, the sensibility of an artist; that the film talks about the price to be paid for following your dreams to the end. When I understood this, I took great pleasure in acting in the film, which is less directly accessible than Husbands.. —Ben Gazzara on working with Cassavetes on this film
ONE OF CASSAVETES’ MOST FASCINATING ACHIEVEMENTS
One of the best texts on John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was, somewhat unsurprisingly, found at Criterion.
“In John Cassavetes’ personal cinema, the director was always trying to break away from the formulas of Hollywood narrative, in order to uncover some fugitive truth about the way people behave. At the same time, he took seriously his responsibilities as a form-giving artist, starting with a careful script (however improvised in appearance). Nowhere was the tension between Cassavetes’s linear and digressive, driven and entropic tendencies more sharply fought out than in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), one of his most fascinating achievements.” —The Killing of a Chinese Bookie: The Raw and the Cooked
“A smooth man on the ivories, hot on the trigger, and cool in a jam,” so the paperback tie-in for the 1959-60 television series Johnny Staccato describes its protagonist. “He’s the toughest private eye to hit America in a decade.” That might be one way to describe John Cassavetes.
Great stories from Peter Falk, back in 1993.
With the release of actor John Cassavetes’ box set, his wife Gena Rowlands joins actors Ben Gazzara and Peter Bogdanovich to remember the iconic actor.
A thoughtful analysis by essayist Colin Marshall of John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie as it relates to the city of Los Angeles itself.
Open your mind to this brilliant collection of Cassavetes’ interviews and dive deep into the heart of one of the greatest icons of independent cinema.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Photographed by Richard Upper, Sam Shaw © Faces Distribution. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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