Warren Beatty’s ‘Reds’: ‘A Long, Long Movie About a Communist Who Died’

Warren Beatty on the set of Reds. “I can't trust anybody to direct this movie but me," he told an associate. "If Kubrick called me tomorrow I'd turn him down. But I hate the idea. To be a director, you have to be sick.” Photographed by David Appleby © Barclays Mercantile Industrial Finance, JRS Productions, Paramount Pictures

By Tim Pelan

After the success of 1979’s Heaven Can Wait (nine Oscar noms and co-directed by Warren Beatty alongside Buck Henry, Beatty picking up a nomination for his co-writing with Elaine May), it seemed all of Hollywood couldn’t wait to see what the powerful new breed of star would do next. Many a cigar probably dropped from a studio executive’s mouth, however, when Beatty announced his intention to make Reds, a lavish docudrama on the life and loves of John “Jack” Reed (Beatty) and Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), American socialist writers swept up in the left-wing politics of the early twentieth century, culminating in the Russian Revolution. All this at the height of the Cold War, with hawk Reagan in power, and the USSR sweeping into Afghanistan. Passion projects and rampant auteur egos were de rigueur at the time it seemed, but while Michael Cimino was lambasted for his seeming profligacy and indulgence on Heaven’s Gate, Warren Beatty (who won an Oscar as director) got a smoother ride on Reds. It was everyone else under his star wattage charm who suffered for his art, from extras in Spain, doubling for Baku (who went on strike for better food) to editors and actors. The stats were boggling–officially 700,000 feet of film was shot. Unofficially, it was more like 2.5 million, with about one million actually printed, far outstripping Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. The film took over a year to assemble in post-production alone, the shoot itself a saga, stretching from August 8, 1979, in London, crawling to the finish line in February 1980. Beatty would let the camera run instead of calling cut, burning out three camera motors in the process, from the smallest scene to the biggest set-piece. The crew took to calling him Masturbeatty because of such indulgence. Assistant editor Billy Scharf excused him though: “He had the resources, and he wanted to use them, because he knew he would never get another chance.” As Robert Evans quipped, “Warren could dictate what he wanted to make. Reds was his come shot.”

Why was the passion and politics of John Reed, the American socialist journalist who chased revolution across the globe, penning the famous account of the Bolshevik rising in Russia, Ten Days That Shook The World, so appealing to director and co-writer Beatty, a liberal but by no means radically inclined? Considering the length of time he devoted to it (he had already started years previously on the now much imitated talking heads “Witnesses” inserts with survivors of Reed’s era and social/intellectual circle recalling incidents fitfully in old age), he was reluctant to discuss and promote the film, even glibly pitching it to Gulf and Western chairman Charlie Bluhdorn as “A long, long movie about a communist who died.” Rolling Stone writer and Beatty biographer Peter Biskind liked to imagine Beatty elaborated on the planned film further, as “the movie David Lean would have made had Gillo Pontecorvo, director of The Battle of Algiers, put a knife to his throat.”

Beatty certainly aimed for that classical mode of Lean-like filmmaking, even going so far as to introduce elements that never happened, like a passionate snow bound cross-country pursuit in the name of love akin to something out of Doctor Zhivago. Apart from fitful interludes of action and scope, the film is otherwise long on dialogue and debate, often in cramped or crowded interiors, with little of the sweep of the maestro Lean’s eye. He surrounded himself with talent none the less, recognizing early on the genius of cinematographer Vittorio Storaro from his work on Apocalypse Now. Naturally, current amour Diane Keaton played off him as Louise Bryant, their stormy relationship hitting many a peak and trough during the tough schedule. Beatty, a master manipulator, coaxed magic from the stresses he placed on those under his spell. Keaton reluctantly felt the great number of takes helped her discover untapped resources to her craft. It’s certainly one of her strongest performances, truculent, intelligent, sparky and indomitable, coming off her Oscar for Annie Hall like a more cooly centered version of that character.

“At the time, I didn’t exactly feel like I knew what I was doing,” she recalled. “It was really Warren’s performance, not my performance. He was never satisfied, and he pushed me, and frankly, I felt kinda lost. And maybe that was his intention in some way, for me.” Case in point—one day editor and Warren groupie Dede Allen (who had edited Beatty previously in Bonnie and Clyde) congratulated the auteur on the script and performances (the script was co-written by Trevor Griffiths, in his master’s voice). “The dialogue, the cadences, sounds very contemporary, very modern.” Beatty drily replied, “Dede, this is not Warren Beatty as John Reed, this is John Reed as Warren Beatty. That’s what being a movie star is.” (Beatty said of the first draft that it “had serious problems. There was no tension between Bryant and Reed. What I needed to do was pit her feminism against his chauvinism, turn a woman who was in love with a man against that man.”) He ended up bringing in an uncredited Elaine May, with whom he collaborated on Heaven Can Wait. She focused mostly on the crackling tension between the wiseacre lovers, underscoring the sexual politics of the filmmaker’s present. But she knew nothing of history. She would say “Jack and Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton as another American firebrand) need to fight here. I don’t know what the fuck they would fight about,” and throw Jeremy Pikser, yet another uncredited writer a pad.

Beatty had originally wanted to film in Russia but he blew it with his big mouth, asking the guide of the Museum of the Revolution in Moscow why there were no photographs of Trotsky. He also blithely referred to “the Bolshevik takeover” instead of the “Glorious Revolution.” He refused to show his hosts the script in advance (such as it was at that stage). Perhaps the mischief maker in him always knew he’d never get his wish, and set out to bait his hosts. He wanted, grandly, to reclaim Reed for the world, not just Russia. Reed had traveled to Russia three times: during WWI in 1915; in 1917 covering the Russian Revolution (he witnessed the storming of the Winter Palace); and in 1920 to plead for Soviet accreditation of his newly formed Communist Labor Party. The Soviets forbade him to leave for America, so he attempted to cross the Finnish border, getting arrested. Released to the Soviets, he scratched a living in their propaganda ministry, writing and making speeches, before he died of typhus in 1920 just before his 33rd birthday. Louise Bryant sloughed off her bourgeois trappings as a dentist’s wife in Portland, Oregon, embarking on many affairs (like Reed, hers mainly condensed in the film to that with playwright Jack Nicholson’s Eugene O’Neill—poor Warren must be the hard done by one here), becoming a writer herself, also covering the revolution. Incidentally, Beatty tricked Nicholson into accepting the small role by asking his advice. “I told him I needed someone to play Eugene O’Neill, but it had to be someone who could convincingly take this woman away from me,” Beatty recalled. Nicholson took the bait. “There is only one actor who could do that—me!”

Bryant married Reed, and ultimately descended into alcoholism, drug addiction, and died in penury at the age of 50. Beatty himself had traveled to Russia on more than one occasion, previously in 1969 with then-girlfriend actress Julie Christie. He asked an old woman there (who had allegedly slept with Reed), “How do you feel about Stalin?” She said, “Only hate. But of course, the revolution is in its early stages.” “It was at that moment I thought, I have to make a movie about that kind of passion. I’m going to make it without the Russians. And just the way I want to make it.” Keaton grew to understand his passion and drive, whilst acknowledging the fault line in their relationship that it ruptured. “I don’t think we were much of a couple by the end of the movie. But we were never, ever to be taken seriously as one of the great romances. I adored him. I was mad for him. But this movie meant so much to him, it was really the passion of his professional life—It was the most important thing to Warren. Completely, absolutely. I understood that then, and I understand now, and I’m proud to have been part of it.”

Production designer Richard Sylbert explains his method for illustrating the change in the characters’ lives, from Portland, Oregon to the vastness of Russia and the maelstrom in which they find themselves caught up: “The first decision that I made was that everything in America would be small rooms with low ceilings so that the two people that we meet look very big in this little world. And that in all of the European stuff from France to Russia they look very tiny because they left their little world and went out into this big space they have no control over. And there are scenes in that picture where the ceilings are 6’2″ and Warren is 6’1″. And in Russia, the ceilings are thirty feet high, and when they walk into a room, you suddenly know something: that they’re lost.” When set decorator Michael Seirton was dressing John Reed’s desk, he looked for objects to suggest the writer’s preoccupation with his work and oblivious state to his surroundings. About seven years previously, Seirton had bought some flowers, left them on a bookcase, and forgotten about them. They’d petrified, acquiring cobwebs. He used these for Reed’s ink-stained desk, next to a half-eaten sandwich, never letting on about their origin.

Vittorio Storaro used a technique called silver retention, designed to affect and enhance the contrast, color saturation, grain, and level of black density in print images. The particular method used on Reds was named ENR for its inventor, Ernesto Novelli Rimo, a former control department operator at Technicolor Rome. He railed at times against Beatty for locking down the camera, himself used to much more freedom. Beatty told him he could dolly, as long as the audience didn’t notice. He likened anything that would distract from the theme or intent of a scene as “I’m here too-ism” on the part of a director, production or costume designer, who wanted to be present on the screen.

Storaro got to be more dynamic in a sequence towards the end of the film in which the, by now disillusioned, Soviet mouthpiece argues with politico Zinoviev over having his speeches to the peasants of Baku on the Caspian Sea rewritten. As he expresses his anger and passionately defends the intent of his words, the carriage explodes into splinters behind him as an ambush by White Russian counter-revolutionaries interrupts. “Thematically it’s the core of the movie,” says Beatty. “A man who was constantly caught between art and politics, between love and what he considers to be duty, and communism and capitalism. The scene (before the ambush) is very much about the conflict between art and politics. The point at this moment in the movie was to say that a person can be an artist and an individual. He says a revolution is a matter of dissent, and he was insistent on art above politics. And that’s why he becomes violently angry when he’s rewritten by political propagandists.”

On the explosion, Beatty recalled to DGA Quarterly, “This was all shot in one car, with the end of the car rigged to blow up. To get the sense of motion, it was being moved by crew members. We were armed for one explosion, which in those days would have been considered a big deal. It was going to be one take, because to get the thing ready before we lost light was very important. What was worse was we were losing permission to use the railroad the following day. Since we weren’t going to be able to shoot it the next day, we pulled ourselves together and got it just minutes from the sun going down. Maybe five minutes before we lost light. It was fraught, to say the least.”

Reed leaps out of the shattered window and espies a thundering cloud of a mounted attack on the horizon. The country outside Seville in Spain doubled for dusty Baku, Storaro shooting on a wide lens. Suddenly horsebacked Red troops thunder from the train, along with a machine gun mounted caisson. “John Reed wants to be in this war, he wants to do the right thing, what he feels is the right thing. So he chases the gun wagon that’s come out of the train. He’s chasing the revolution. A director needs to be in control, but he really shouldn’t be in complete control, because then things could be very boring, and he wouldn’t take advantage of unexpected developments and opportunities. There are people who storyboard everything. I don’t do that. I’ll storyboard some stuff, but mainly I’m ready for the unexpected. I think that’s important. You can’t plan too much. I always think of a quote from Napoleon when they asked him to explain the intricacies of his battle plan. He said, ‘Well here’s the plan. First we go there, and then we see what happens.’”

This was the originally planned ending, which makes sense as Reed chasing after the caisson is a thematic and visual echo of his chasing another wagon in similarly dusty revolutionary Mexico at the film’s opening. This time Reed doesn’t catch up. The revolution vanishes beyond his grasp—footage had been shot of him clambering on, but was discarded. Beatty wanted to convey the idea that revolution is an ideal never to be grasped. “For me, you will never catch it.” It could also be suggested he is fleeing Zinoviev and his comrades’ straitjacketing of history, embodying the dissent he suggests is crucial to revolution.

Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »

Screenwriter must-read: Warren Beatty & Trevor Griffiths’ script for Reds [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Warren Beatty’s Reds. Photographed by David Appleby & Clive Coote © Barclays Mercantile Industrial Finance, JRS Productions, Paramount Pictures. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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