I still remember the day I first discovered a Bernard Rose film. It was Ivans xts, I randomly picked up a DVD copy at the Birkbeck Library and not being familiar with the filmmaker I had no expectations of it. To my great surprise, five minutes into the movie I was completely hooked, totally absorbed. I hadn’t seen anything like it before, it felt so raw, so fiercely authentic, it almost made you wonder “Is this a film or is it all happening right this moment and someone is broadcasting it live as I watch”?!!
Four years later I got to meet the director BERNARD ROSE in person at the screening of his new film, TWO JACKS, which had its London premiere at RAINDANCE FILM FESTIVAL in September 2013. Starring Danny Huston, Jack Huston, Sienna Miller and Jacqueline Bisset, Two Jacks has the same authentic, hyper-real quality that I so admired in Ivans xts. Also, both films are based on Tolstoy stories and interestingly enough, both films are set in LA. Do they work, you might ask? Yes they do, and Bernard kindly explains how…
This interview was taken on October 1, 2013 at Apollo Cinema, Piccadilly Circus, London. Julia Verdin, the producer of the film, was also present and contributed some very interesting insights.
Dana: I was very fascinated with this film, as with your previous Tolstoy adaptations, and I was trying to deconstruct what the fascination consists of…What are your thoughts on that?
Bernard: It’s a bit of a difficult one because obviously if I didn’t think it was interesting, I wouldn’t have made it. I don’t know, for me what is interesting about all these films is that they have an unusual mixture, it’s something that is very intrinsically Russian, transplanted to a very American setting. All of my Tolstoy adaptations are set in California, even Boxing Day which ends up in Colorado. The films are all set in LA, but they are all based on stories that are set in Russia. So they all have this strange cultural disconnect in a way. Russian culture is fate- and death-obsessed I would say, and American culture is absolutely the opposite, it’s in total denial of death and disbelief that there is such a thing as fate. The American credo is that you can form your own future, you can visualise your future and everything will come to you. So in a sense they are polar opposites.
Dana: This makes the film a sort of cultural paradox then.
Bernard: It is a paradox yes. Because both positions are wrong in a sense, the Russian fatalism and the American optimism are both fantasy, they are both illusions, the truth is somewhere in between. So I think there’s an interesting thing that happens when you combine those two things, it makes the story seem different than if you did it in Russia or even in a German setting. And there is this element of improvisational looseness that is part of the story. One of the things I always liked about Tolstoy is that his style is very casual. Unlike say Dostoevsky who is meticulous, literary, intricate and with a very complicated style. Tolstoy is very simple, very direct and sometimes his literary style is almost a little bit slapdash, it’s not really great writing, even in the original, or so I’m told, I don’t read Russian. So this direct, unvarnished, unfussy style produces an odd texture…
Dana: In terms of content and form, you take a classic story and you shoot it in a cinéma vérité style…
Bernard: Right, and I think this is how Tolstoy viewed himself, as a realist. In many ways Tolstoy is a precursor for Hemingway who also had a simple, direct style. But what is brilliant about Tolstoy’s narrative tricks is that although his stories always seem simple, humanistic, he would always come up with a magic trick and land on a sort of grand spiritual plane almost effortlessly because he had that kind of mind as a storyteller. He was always looking at the bigger picture.
Dana: And I think this is what you managed to convey with the film, there is a sense of doom about it.
Bernard: Yes, there is a sense of doom and yet also a sense of something grander…
Dana: Yes, and maybe uplifting, I really loved the last scene…
Bernard: Which is not in the book by the way.
Dana: Why did you add it to the film?
Bernard: Because the end of the story is a little inconclusive, Tolstoy sort of rushes through it.The story ends with the son’s attempt to seduce the daughter and he kind of fails, he gets discovered and then there’s a sort of very fast epilogue which says basically what happened to him, that he fell out with his friend and they left town. Which didn’t seem like a very satisfying conclusion. So the third act is my invention and I got the father scene from the end of War and Peace.
Dana (cheekily): In one of your interviews you said you haven’t read this novel!
Bernard: (laughing) I’ve read parts of it, I haven’t read it all the way through. So at the end of War and Peace there is this little domestic scene with Andrey’s son, Andrey of course is long dead in the book and his son is there and this ghost just appears behind him and puts his hand on his shoulder.
Dana: A very nice “touch” for the final scene in Two Jacks…
Bernard: Yes but it’s actually the end of War and Peace. Which not many people realise […], people think the end of the book is when Pierre goes off with Natasha, which is the end of the story but not the end of the book.
Dana: And in your film this scene is perfect because it tells us a lot about the father-son relationship, the fact that their personalities are so alike.
Bernard: Yes the scene works.
Dana: Technically speaking, despite its deliberately amateurish style, I paradoxically find no fault with this film, do you?
Bernard: It’s very dangerous to analyse…Because one of the things with doing a film in this manner, and with all the films in the Tolstoy series, is that they are deliberately imperfect technically, not because I try to make them that way but just because these are the circumstances of how it happened. And I think that if something is perfect, it’s dead.
Dana: Something Godard believed as well, he used to kick things around on the set to make it look less perfect.
Bernard: You have to. On this note, Isabella Rossellini told me a story, when she was married to Scorsese, at the time he was making Raging Bull. She said that he was cutting a scene in Raging Bull and he was happy with it but he was very depressed, so she asked “What’s the problem, Martin?It’s a fantastic scene”, “Yeah, he says, it’s fantastic, but it’s perfect and that means it’s dead. But I don’t want to change anything, because I really like the way it is”. And he was confused as to what to do and eventually he arbitrarily snipped a frame out of the middle of it to make something imperfect about it.
Dana: There is something about imperfection that is so deeply human, I suppose, is that what it is?
Bernard: Yes. And when somebody tells you earnestly “I’m a perfectionist” what they are really saying is that they are an idiot (laughing). It means they are impossible to deal with, they are control freaks, they are horrible, get as far away from them as you possibly can! (laughing)
Dana: But in a sense Hollywood is all about perfection.
Bernard: Yes but in a sense the idea of perfection is an absurdity because perfection already clearly exists everywhere. So the idea that a piece of art can be perfect, is something that a tweaker would say. […] People have said Stanley Kubrick was a perfectionist. I don’t think he was a perfectionist, his work is full of really interesting mistakes. I think he knew very well that things couldn’t be perfect, he just tried to hedge his bets as much as possible. But he wasn’t a perfectionist, there are other people who fall under this category. But look at their work, it’s incredibly sterile, it’s not interesting at all.
Dana: And probably by doing take after take after take Kubrick was trying to capture something, rather than achieve perfection…
Bernard: In fact he kept them going until they were bad and he would use the bad take…So it was a form of insanity rather than perfectionism!
Dana: You have a long, winding, fascinating career behind you, what is the most important lesson you have learnt along the way?
Bernard: One of the most important lessons I learnt is that you can only make the films that you can make, you can’t make the films that people would prefer you to make. Because I simply wouldn’t know how to do them and if I tried to do them it usually ends in tears very quickly. Unless you’re doing something you feel really aligned with and very confident about, you can’t do a good job. For me, I can’t do it at all. Sometimes I found myself in this situation, trying to write a screenplay for people, and I start up thinking “Great, it’s a fabulous job, it will be fun to do”…
Dana: Are you writing screenplays for other people to shoot?
Bernard: Not necessarily for other people to shoot but studio projects or other people’s projects, or stuff that I’d thought I could get into…And when I actually got into it, I just didn’t know what to do with it, that happened to me, you can’t finish it. Or if you do finish it, it’s terrible. And then they are always really unhappy.
Dana: What’s life in Hollywood like?
Bernard: Well, it’s pretty much like in my movies…some of the time (laughing). Funnily enough I just gave up my apartment in Los Angeles, I’ve always liked LA just as a place, I think it’s an interesting place because it is very isolated, on one side there’s thousands of miles of water and on the other side there’s thousands of miles of desert, it’s really in the middle of nowhere. And yet it’s a huge metropolis and people there are very insular and inward-looking, and I think that’s an interesting combination. And I have a life there, a lot of people I know, like Julia (Julia Verdin, the producer of Two Jacks) for example, so I like being there. But I think increasingly I barely interact with the businesses there, and I don’t think anybody does, because it’s almost impossible to shoot a film in California now over a certain budget because it just doesn’t make any sense. Even a tiny film like this, you kind of need your head examined to do it there. If you do it here you get tax rebates and investors can get tax rebates, the financial incentives are enormous, and they exist in other places in America but I don’t want to live in Louisiana, not because it’s a horrible place, I just don’t want to live there […]. When I first went to LA, you’d get up in the morning, or get up early or shooting, you’d be on the freeway and there’d be wagons and trailers and grit trucks and you’d see them all, and trains going down on the freeway…Now it’s all gone, they don’t shoot anything there anymore, except TV shows, and not many of them either…
Dana: And you’re not interested in TV shows?
Bernard: I might be but all the dramatic TV show are shot in Vancouver or New York or other places. They are not shot there. The only things they shoot there are talk shows and reality stuff. There’s a real danger of the infrastructure of the place falling apart because the production there has gone down so much, it’s become almost financially impossible now to make a film there, unless it’s a really tiny film. And there’s a lot more opportunity in Europe. At the moment the ideas I have are more European-based, so I think I’m going to spend more time in London and I’m going to try and do some stuff here. There’s a bigger film I’m going to make next year, and there’s some little films I’d like to do as well. I made a film in Germany last year, which was fun, in Munich and Vienna.
Dana: Which one was this?
Bernard: It was called The Devil’s Violonist. It’s about Paganini, it premieres in Munich on the 24th of October (2013) and we have a premiere in Vienna on the 28th. Two Jacks is opening in LA soon.
Dana: You have so many films opening. And you have another one in the London Film Festival.
Bernard: Yes, SX_Tape, opening on the 12th. But see that at your peril!It’s scary, it’s disturbing, it’s a horror film. I like to make horror films every now and again. You might not like it, it’s very experimental, it’s done completely from the point of view of this guy filming his girlfriend, so you never see the lead guy until the final shot, there are no objective shots at all and there’s no cutting, whatsoever. I mean there is cutting but there is no intercutting, you never cut from one shot to their reaction and then back to the action. It’s just whatever he’s shooting, and then the next bit he’s shooting, and then the next bit he’s shooting. It’s like a sausage, all these shots follow one another and sometimes they leap forward, so whenever there is a cut it’s always one minute later. And sometimes it is an hour later. It was very experimental.
Dana: A very interesting concept. Did it originate with you?
Bernard: Actually it wasn’t my screenplay but I thought the concept was really interesting. Basically I improvised the film because it’s meant to be just what comes out of somebody’s canvas, I just improvised it really, it was fun to do.
Dana: When you give an interview, is there a question you wish you were asked but was never asked, an aspect of your work that critics always missed?
Bernard: Perhaps one of the things that nobody ever really spotted is that when I’m shooting a film I don’t rehearse it, I never say to the actors “Come in the door, you stand there and you stand there and I’ll shoot it”. I just say “Let’s do it”.
Dana: You just put the actors on the spot…
Bernard: I just say “Let’s go”. And if I don’t like it we’ll do it again. And then I just shoot them and I shoot something else, I don’t say this is a wide shot, this is a close-up, this is on you and this is on him.
Dana: So they don’t know…
Bernard: Well, I don’t know either.
Dana: Does it all happen while it is being filmed, without any preparation at all, total spontaneity?
Bernard: Exactly. No one knows what it is going to happen … And then obviously when you do it again, and I do do it again, I shoot with different cameras but I very rarely, in fact never shoot the same shot twice. So it’s a little bit different. But it doesn’t look like it when you see it cut together.
Dana: It just flows.
Bernard: It flows. And I shot the Paganini film the same way. It was unexpected and I don’t think you can tell when you see the film finished.
Dana: Somebody said that to really master technique is to be able to hide the technique entirely.
With Pasolini you feel like he never shot anybody doing a scene. You feel like he was always just filming whatever they were doing. And especially all his films set in various ancient worlds, whether it was Oedipus or Arabian Nights, or his Gospel films. He did that better than anybody else, there was this sort of almost documentary quality to it, even though of course what you were looking at was a full-scale biblical or Arabian reproduction, tons of art direction, costumes, but you never got that sense, it felt very very real, he somehow tricked you into really believing it. This is why people really loved his Gospel movies, because it felt almost like a documentary, he had a different way of looking at something that was incredibly clichéd. I really like the way his films were shot, with this disrespect for the machinery, which of course was also an incredibly intelligent style because Pasolini was also a hyper-intellectual and a poet. He used to divide cinema into two kinds: poetic cinema and prose cinema. And obviously he saw himself as a poet, and he was a poet. And he had that quality I really liked.
And Cassavetes has a similar style but he comes from a very different place. All he cares about is the actor. There are no performances in Pasolini’s films, they are all just figures, and he would loop them with somebody else probably. But with Cassavetes it’s all about the actors. My favourite Cassavetes film is Opening Night, it’s a really interesting movie because it’s really about how an actor develops a role, it really shows what she goes through, she’s just not satisfied, she’s willing to push everybody’s buttons, push them right near the edge, even to the edge of madness, but in the end she’s amazing. He really captured some of them, and he was part of it, he was an actor himself and he knew all that stuff. And the performances that are in the Cassavetes pictures are so much more free and powerful than the performances that you see even in really good films of the same period with really great actors. At the moment you have a situation where everyone is grinding through the same scene from three different masters and three different directions, and you have medium shots, and long shots, and tracking shots and close-ups, but by the time you get to the close-up all you have is a bunch of exhausted actors. And that’s how film ended up what it is. To me that’s a completely waste of time, I’ll start with the close-up and maybe at the end when I’m bored I’ll shoot a wide shot. And I never understood why people do it the other way around, it’s completely idiotic.[…]
Dana: Talking about trying to capture this sense of reality, some filmmakers choose to work with non-actors, would you ever consider that?
Bernard: Well I have worked with non-actors.Danny wasn’t an actor when he did Ivan XTS, he was a director. And some other people in that film weren’t actors, they were basically playing themselves. In 2 Jacks they were mostly actors but a lot of them were playing actors. The cops are real policemen.
Dana: But for the lead performances you’d rather work with actors probably?
Bernard: It depends. On The Devil’s Violonist I cast a real violinist because it’s so difficult what he has to do, to play Paganini for real. There was no way I could do that with just an actor. Depends on the part and what skills people need. When you have someone doing a professional job, it helps if they know what they’re doing.
Dana: What’s your take on the main character in Two Jacks? I find him utterly fascinating but I don’t feel I have a very good handle on him, he’s very mysterious, elusive…
Bernard: What I liked most about the book is that the older Jack is outrageous, he behaves badly, he does terrible things all the time. But he has a moral compass, he gets the guy’s money back, he leaves Diana’s bed in the middle of the night and he goes back in the morning but she doesn’t know, and he kisses her. So he’s not exactly moral but he has a code, whatever it is. And he’s dashing, like a 19th century cavalry officer. Whereas his son, he’s trying and he doesn’t get there, he’s just demanding, he’s just difficult. So in the film I contrast the two of them.
Dana: But the son is also very young, you don’t know what he’ll grow into.
Bernard: Yes he’s very young. But at the end you realise that that’s it, he got kicked…
Dana: There’s still a smile on his face though…
Bernard: That’s it, he realises that that’s the point!
Dana: And he’ll come back.
Bernard: He will come back. They are like those guys, they would come to town, they would do stuff and they would leave, like some sort of troubadours in that era. And they were considered very dashing, they were like old movie stars, in a small town, in provincial Russia, where the book is set. For me the important thing is that the old Jack is someone with panache.
Dana: There’s also the subtle allusions to John Huston, the famous Hollywood director and Danny’s father…
Bernard: This is very interesting as Danny was saying very insistently at the Q&A that the character isn’t at all like his father. And I think honestly that’s not true…
Dana: Do tell us!
Bernard: I think his mother gave him a hard time : “That’s not John, John would never be like that”! And probably Danny went “brrrrrr”!
Dana: But the old Jack is a very likeable character in a way, he’s very charismatic. And yes he is doing all those terrible things…
Julia Verdin: But he’s got the charisma to make you forgive him!
Bernard: One of the things that are interesting about characters in the movies, and Jack Nicholson’s career was built this way, is that audiences like characters that do things that they would never dare to do, they like characters to be outrageous, to get away with things that they would possibly balk at…
Julia Verdin: And the interesting thing about charisma is that it’s something you can’t buy or manufacture, you’ve either got charisma or you haven’t, and that’s why the younger Jack is struggling. His father had a charisma that made him who he was whereas the younger Jack is desperately trying to get the same charisma but he just can’t pull it off. He hasn’t kind of grown into himself yet, in a funny way.
Bernard: That’s right, and that happens with men a lot, they can come across as shrill and brash and when they are a little older, they can grow into it. To some degree, Danny was like that, I knew Danny when he was a lot younger, and he did sort of grow into himself, quite a lot.
Dana: I think Danny Huston is perfect for the role, he’s very charming and he totally steals the show. And I think Two Jacks is a very captivating film, congratulations.
Bernard: Thank you, it’s lovey to hear that you like it. Because I think it’s an unusual movie, it doesn’t have a great issue, it doesn’t force a great melodramatic climax on anybody. In some ways it would be easy to just pass it by. And I think that it really works as the final part of all these films, it kind of reflects and is a mirror to Ivans xts but in a very different way. Ivans xts is very harsh and real and it’s about the really dark side of Hollywood, whereas Two Jacks is much more about this other side, where there is glamour and appeal. […] In Hollywood there are two lies people tell you, I won’t tell you what the second one is but the first one is “I’ve got the money!”
Dana: Can I guess, the other one is “Your script is great!”
Bernard: No, no, I can’t tell you the other one!
Dana: I heard someone say that the feedback almost anyone gets in Hollywood is “Your script is great, I love your script”.
Bernard: That’s right, but the moment someone tells you “I’ve got the money”, put on your shoes and run, that just means they are trying to steal some money from you. People who have the money tend to say “I’d like somebody else to pay for it”, that’s what they tell you, they don’t want to tell you they have the money. […] And Hollywood is full of people like that. Someone said that LA is the only place in the world where you can die of hope!
Dana: And it’s probably what makes Hollywood fascinating. I can tell you’re equally fascinated with Tolstoy and with Hollywood, hence bringing the two together.
Bernard: That’s right. Hollywood is very fascinating, and we certainly think of it like a magical dream-like place where something incredible happens. And the truth is a lot of what we think of as Hollywood never happened there, it was just happening somewhere else. The first job I ever had, in 1980, was gofer to Jim Henson on the Muppet Show, and that was happening here. But that was more “Hollywood” than anything I have experienced since, in a real sense. One week we’d have Gene Kelly on the show, next week it would be Diana Ross, it was classic Hollywood, fantastical, glorious. It was just wonderful. But it was happening in Elstree in ATV’s Studio, it wasn’t happening in Los Angeles!
Dana: One last tricky question, why do you make films?
Bernard: Well, I’ve always done it my whole life, I’ve never done anything else, I don’t know how to do anything else, I don’t know how to stop if I could!I just can’t imagine doing anything else. And I certainly don’t do it for the money, as I’m often doing it without being paid, film is a bit like having a very bad drug habit, in fact it’s worse than a drug habit, it’s more expensive than heroine, and it will ruin your life just as badly!
Dana: So you wouldn’t encourage anyone to start a career in film…
Bernard: I think you should only do it if you can’t do anything else, otherwise don’t do it!
You might want to take Bernard’s heartfelt advice or not but DO listen to this amazing track from the sumptuous drama THE DEVIL’S VIOLINIST performed by DAVID GARRETT, the record-breaking German pop and crossover violinist and recording artist.