The eight directors spraying their fire and hiding in dark corners on these pages did not give these interviews to further film scholarship or to enlighten future biographers, or even to contribute to this book. They gave them to promote their then-current films in a popular national magazine. But sometimes the right thing happens for the wrong reason; and I took the opportunity to explore with them broader and deeper issues related to their lives and work, which in only a tertiary mode might be thought of as having a “publicity” value. Accordingly, I must thank them for not having excused themselves from the room as soon as they knew I had enough material to suit their purposes. The ground rules for the discussions were simple: four hours, two sessions, bare minimum. (The Clint Eastwood interview was conducted too late for inclusion in the first edition of this book.)
But why these men and not others? And why all men? First of all, the brief was to interview directors who work within—and perhaps push against—the bounds of commercial narrative cinema, and who each have produced a substantial body of distinct work: directors who might be thought of as auteurs within the system loosely conceived as “Hollywood.” Secondly, the scheduling of interviews was pegged to upcoming releases, and such other commercial and non-commercial trivia as: Was there space in the magazine? Was the film in question anticipated as “major” as opposed to “minor?” Could the director sit still and sincerely participate in a protracted interview? Did the director demand the cover of the magazine? Given that this was hardly a science, we didn’t end up with a bad bunch. Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen, to name the two directors most conspicuous by their absence, may very well have been included if these interviews had been conducted over a slightly different period. Indeed, by the end of the series, Hollywood publicists were calling, explaining why their director clients should be included. They were not. But there are other directors who might naturally attain pride of place in a parallel or future collection: The Coen Brothers, Jane Campion, Quentin Tarantino, to name just three who have become more prominent since these interviews were conducted.
As to the question of sex: there’s no gender bias implicit in the selection of these eight men other than that which already exists in the world of commercial cinema. The simple and quite complicated fact is that Hollywood is still a Boys Club, and that there was not at the time (still isn’t) a female director with a distinctive and deep enough body of work to meet the demands of inclusion. Peggy Marshall, Barbra Streisand, Kathryn Bigelow, and Nora Ephron have done and continue to do mainstream Hollywood films with varying degrees of success, but none of them can be thought of as auteurs—with the possible exception of Streisand, and then, only comically. That there is no female director in Hollywood (or New York) occupying a position equivalent to that which Lina Wertmuller occupied in European cinema in the 1970s is sad but true. With more women now sitting in positions of power in Hollywood—executives at studios, female stars with production companies—one can hope that this will soon change. (Among young directors, Jodie Foster and Jane Campion certainly show signs of arrival.) Given this situation, and given the fraternal nature of the entire system—beginning with the semiotic certainty of the “male gaze” and ending with the cashed check for work done—I thought it only fair to inquire of these eight men as to their filmic relationship to women: their sexual politics of female representation.
Since these interviews were completed, each of the directors has gone on to do other work. The results—how could they be otherwise?—are decidedly mixed. Coppola followed the sumptuous bacchanalia of Bram Stoker’s Dracula with the sophomoric jumble of Jack. David Lynch barely survived the abject failure (both commercial and aesthetic) of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, only to surface five years later with the even creepier, more postmodern Lost Highway, a movie which consistently denies and defeats expectations of narrative coherence, and does so under the umbrella of the most beautiful lighting, framing, editing, art directing, and music imaginable. (The movie feels like a war wound in a silk dress.) Meanwhile, Oliver Stone, as is his wont, has been marking territory: he makes movies the way lions patrol the Serengeti. The cause célèbre conspiracy conflation of JFK gave way to his final nail in the Vietnam coffin, Heaven & Earth, which gave way to the speedfreak over-the-top “satire” of Natural Born Killers, which gave way to the impeachably heavy-handed Nixon, in which he nonetheless and true-to-form coaxed compelling performances from all his major players. Spike Lee retreated from the grand designs and very real achievement of Malcolm X into a kind of stylistically calcified marginalia: Crooklyn, Clockers, Girl 6, Get on the Bus.
David Cronenberg went terribly wrong with M. Butterfly—a film about sexual identity that figured to be right up his warped alley—but which he somehow managed to make simultaneously dull and icky. Crash, to the disapproval of distributor Ted Turner and moral guardians everywhere, marked a ferocious return to form and content. Robert Altman followed the bubbly success of The Player with the relentlessly superficial Ready to Wear (making a superficial film about fashion displays the imitative fallacy in all its glory), and then mucked up jazz in Kansas City. Tim Burton, veering further towards the shoulder of the road and the eroding cliff (out where he likes it), made the wonderfully sly Ed Wood, in living black-and-white, and then cooked up his own Ed Wood movie on a filet mignon budget, Mars Attacks!, the darkest (and most self-destructive?) spoof to come down the superhighway of Hollywood filmmaking in years. (If you “read” the Martians as studio executives, the picture is much funnier than otherwise.) Lastly, Clint Eastwood has churned out three pieces since his Oscar-winning landmark, Unforgiven: the quietly downbeat A Perfect World, the absolutely forgettable Absolute Power, and the gooey romance of The Bridges of Madison County, where he attempts to take the best-selling novel equivalent of a corny pop song and redeem it—as do the jazz artists he loves so much—simply through sophistication of performance and depth of interpretation. He almost succeeds. Unfortunately, as fellow pianist Joe Zawinul once said, “You can’t polish a turd.”
In any event, interviews can be read backward with a biographical bias, and they can be read forward as promises or predictors of future triumph and failure. Either way, as compendiums of character, as vehicles for revelation and disguise, they provide a historical record: something more than publicity and propaganda in an age which valorizes both, and something resembling the plain but not-so-simple truths of how these artists view themselves and their work, the world and their odd place in it.