What an experience – sitting and talking with Richard Rush and Elliott Gould. It’s a deep dive into movies, history, culture, politics and more. It’s smart and philosophical and sometimes touching. It’s also often fun and very funny. In their presence, you definitely know, these are the bold and brilliant artists who made such a powerful, darkly funny, anti-establishment picture like Getting Straight – the 1970 movie (directed by Rush and starring Gould) we’re here to discuss. I recently met with the two at Rush’s home in Los Angeles, and we talked extensively (this interview has been condensed and edited) covering a multitude of topics, not all of which, alas, I could fit into this piece. As we talked right before the 4th of July, it felt even more, 49 years later, that the power and relevance of the film – and the spirit of the men that made it – have not waned.
Kim Morgan: Richard, so many filmmakers love your films. [Obviously, audiences too] Like how there are comedian’s comedians, you’re like a director’s director.
Richard Rush: I like that.
KM: Francois Truffaut loved The Stunt Man, Stanley Kubrick loved Freebie and the Bean, Ingmar Bergman loved Getting Straight and Quentin Tarantino loves The Savage Seven [he also loves Getting Straight]…
RR: A great collection.
KM: You were in the first class of the UCLA Film School…
RR: It was the first semester of the UCLA Film School and there were bungalows and we didn’t have any equipment or plan really (laughs). But the theater arts department was a well-established department, they had some good teachers, and so I got a lot out of it, but not much out of film school …
KM: And you also …
RR: I had worked for a while in various related occupations like sound engineer, cinematographer too, but when I was drafted [to Korea], they put me in the unit making movies… Shall I be leisurely about it?
KM: Of course.
RR: I’ll give the pertinent background – I made my first movie in 1960. It was a black and white low budget wonder about abortion – teenage exploitation picture [Too Soon to Love]. I made it for 50,000 bucks and sold it to Universal for 250 thousand so the financiers were happy, 500 percent of their investment, before we showed the movie, and some of the critics were happy … it was the time of the nouvelle vague, the New Wave in France, and a couple of them called it the first of the American New Wave, which was very flattering. I made a few more movies, and got to be, what I thought of as a big fish in a tiny pond. The best of the two-dollar hookers… but these were all 12 or 13 day pictures. All under 100 thousand. And all directed at a particular demographic. And because they were so fast… I found that I could use topical material. We could use this material, and a few weeks later it was still relevant on screen because our schedules were so short. I had the presumption to believe that my pictures should be about something. I thought things were more interesting if they dealt with a problem that you yourself were experiencing and particularly if it was relevant in society.
RR: And in its time, that was marvelous. And if you had something original to say on the subject, it was miraculous. It was time to get a cake and have a party. I suppose I realized that I had a platform and thought that was a great blessing, and in order to have one, you have to keep your fingers on the pulse of the public, you have to be aware of what’s relevant, and I found it had become increasingly difficult … since they killed John Kennedy nobody had seemed to have gotten a grasp on anything. Then they knocked off Martin Luther King and Kennedy’s brother. Nixon was elected because he said he’d end the Vietnam War and, that year, we had the My Lai massacre and the Kent State massacre and … Watergate. Events were becoming dangerously close to our satirical view of them. Politics and satire had been interchangeable. And that took me way into the future when I made Getting Straight … I had learned in those little films – the idea of having a platform – and I could say something. So, when Columbia Pictures gave me the novel of Getting Straight, it was a thin but good little novel about a graduate student who had to pass his masters oral in order to get a teaching degree…and start a life…
Elliott Gould: What a great story. Thanks for letting me be here…
RR: It was a good story [Getting Straight]. But it wasn’t enough, so I went back to the studio and said, I would love to do the movie if you let me play it in the present day, and shoot it at a college where the students are rebelling against the Vietnam War. And they thought about it, and talked about it, and met in conference, and came back and said, “OK, you can write a screenplay that includes the elements you’re talking about” – the love story and the college campus story.”
KM: And how did you get involved, Elliott?
EG: He knows that. How did I get involved? I think Richard was looking for someone to play the part …
RR: When they greenlighted the picture, they said, “OK, you’re greenlit if you can get that new kid Elliott Gould to play the starring role…”
EG: (Laughs) Oh, great!
RR: So, I met with Elliott, loved him, and he liked the material.
EG: Yeah, Richard asked me, and we had breakfast…I think it was at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, and Richard asked me if I thought I could be angry – if I could get angry. I said, “Yeah, I can, you know…” I don’t know that I’d ever exhibited that because this was simply the fourth picture that I had been a part of. But it was a great experience for me. And also, very new for me to express things that I felt, and that I knew, but that I hadn’t experienced. We had met once before, when I was sort of going around trying to get pictures made. And we met at your office, and we both were interested, at the time, or we were aware of, Logan’s Run. Which is also, as a metaphor, unbelievable – how long we’re meant to live before the establishment or the system tells us that we’re finished. Somebody else made it – but the chemistry and the nature between us, I couldn’t see it, I only feel it. Richard gave me the opportunity to be able to express it. I was an expert in terms of the camera and how he and László Kovács were shooting with critical rack focus. And, I, having been a dancer, so I understand timing, I had no problem with that. And I believe that we did not have a discordant moment.
RR: Between us? Never.
EG: Not ever. Not ever.
KM: Interesting that you mention that about the filming Elliott, because I was going to ask you about the technical innovations in the film, Richard. Specially rack focus – you used it in earlier films… but you’re actually using it more in staging in Getting Straight – the actor within the composition and how difficult those kinds of shots are …
EG: Yeah, it’s orchestration
KM: Yes, it’s so beautifully done, but you’re saying you had no problems with it…
EG: No! I was a trained dancer so I could relate to having to be someplace, and feel the camera making the adjustments in relation to how Richard wanting it to be seen. That was great for me. It gave me an opportunity to really get into the mind of him… I remember, most, if not all, of this… and even a scene with Cecil Kellaway, where we’re doing a shot where we’re walking together outside. And Cecil, who was elderly at the time, and he was playing my advisor – he was my friend and elder teacher, and Cecil had to walk a line and we had to hit a mark, and I was fine to be able to let Cecil lean on me and give Cecil balance while I was playing the role.
EG: One of the earlier scenes, was with Jeff Corey … and I didn’t know Heidegger, I didn’t know these philosophers, I didn’t know these people who in a way, came after what I lived. What I lived even before this lifetime. I don’t really think that way, but I believe we’re the sum of everything… And also, Paul Lewis, was the production manager, and who had worked a lot with you [Richard Rush], I believe. Paul came to meet me at the airport in Eugene, Oregon. And he said to me, almost as if he was warning me – like I have an ego. And I don’t! I really don’t. (…) He [Paul Lewis] said, “Oh, no matter what you do, Candice Bergen’s always going to get all the credit.” And I thought, “I guess you don’t know me.” Candice is going to get credit for it – I’m not political at all.”
EG: Paul came to see me on a day prior to that, to talk with me. We were working at the Fox Ranch doing MASH. And I was having a critical time with Bob Altman, whom I adored. I not only grew to love him, I did so much work with him. And that day we broke for lunch and I knew that Paul Lewis was coming to the set to meet with me for whatever reason – What do I have to say? I mean, I have nothing to say other than, you know … the clothes I wear! It’s all natural. And, so, that day, Bob Altman, at that point, on that day, said to me, “Why can’t you be like someone else?” And he pointed to Corey Fisher who was one of the members of the improvisational group from San Francisco – The Committee – a successful improvisational group. And he said, “Why can’t you be more like him?” Which is the worst thing anyone could ever say to me because I had that, being told to conform.
EG: So, when Bob Altman said, “Why can’t you be more like him?” I had my lunch on the tray, and I threw it up (I may have told you this at another time), I didn’t ingest it, I threw it up. It was very profane. I said, “You know, I’m not gonna stick my neck out for you again. I’m not conscious, but I feel everything, and I know what I’m doing here, I know why I’m here. And I know what I’m supposed to do – you have to be able to communicate with me otherwise I’ll just instinctually do what I have to do … And, I’ll bring it back to Getting Straight in two heartbeats. And Bob said, “I think I made a mistake.” And I said, “I think so.” And he said, “I apologize.” And I said, “No problem – there’s nothing to forgive.” And at that moment, Paul Lewis from Getting Straight is in the car driving up…
RR: I never heard that story
KM: Were you showing some anger there?
EG: No! Passion. No, I’m not angry!
KM: But, I mean, this performance – there’s so many shades – it’s beautifully orchestrated in terms of how you [Richard] direct Elliott and then you, [Elliott] you’re funny, you’re vulnerable, you’re kind of a jerk sometimes, you’re kind of mean to your girlfriend…
EG: That was Robert Kaufman [the screenwriter] because there’s a lot of writing in this, and some of it is a little over-written, but that also was an opportunity for me to learn words.
KM: But you do it so naturally. This could seem to be almost over-written, but it doesn’t go over that edge. To me, it sounds like how people talk, when impassioned politically … and I think a lot of this is relevant now. In terms of how we’re talking politically, we’re talking a lot about politics right now in so many ways, because of Trump … and this kind of discourse gets very intense and heavy like this…
EG: Well, of course! Are you kidding? To be living here, to be conscious. And I think I told you before when we’ve talked that Ingmar, after studying how much work I had done before that, I mean, I was a chorus boy and I had done musicals. But he said, once he saw Getting Straight, there was one particular scene in it that he said that that’s when he decided to cast me to play the part in The Touch. He said, “You showed great restraint.” It was the scene where he’s visiting with the teacher – I have to sort of see – the guy who played the part in the picture was the guy who played Officer Krupke in West Side Story [William Bramley] … this is where I got into a lot of trouble, because I couldn’t, in my life and in my work, I couldn’t compromise. I didn’t know how to compromise, and I couldn’t compromise, and unless somebody explained it to me, I would have to find out what the consequences would be. I can’t work out of fear. I was conceived in fear. So, the scene … there’s some writing in it where Harry Bailey is sort of able to exhibit some degree of understanding which is nowhere near the problems that existed in that… The problems we’ve had to face before and after and right into now. Right into now. Yeah. There’s no now if we’re conscious.
KM: Richard, one thing I love in this film, and you do this so beautifully in The Stunt Man as well – you take the viewer and just throw them right in. It feels surreal and yet grounded in reality at the same time. You have to get your bearings, almost, and you sustain this. And it’s a tricky balance. The energy, with Elliott, with the filmmaking, it’s so kinetic and palpable immediately.
RR: Well, first let me give you my view of what you were just talking about with Elliott. There was a miracle with Elliott. I found out the secret after we worked together for a while: he can’t make a mistake because, first of all, he is willing to try anything which by definition is half of what makes a great actor – someone who is willing to take chances. The other half of the classic definition that a great actor is in the depth in which he works. Elliott goes down, no matter what the scene is. No matter what’s happening. He won’t open his mouth, until he’s coming from a place that’s real. He’ll try anything. If I’d say, “Elliott, can you try making him this way?” And I’d ask something outrageous, and he’d say, “Sure.” And he’d do it. And it would be perfect. He won’t do it, unless he’s got a way of making it real. You don’t have to choose the good takes with Elliott, you just have to choose the takes that are right for your storytelling, because they are all absolutely flawless in the sense that there’s no deception. And that’s quite a present, along with somebody who, incidentally, can handle any kind of mark or physical instruction…
EG: My first objective relationship in life was with the camera. I didn’t understand anything but then I realized the camera is my friend. It doesn’t lie to me. It doesn’t manipulate me. It only reports what I’m doing. And therefore, for me to work with a camera and the camera to be directed by an artist, a craftsman, someone who knows what he or she wants, I couldn’t ask for anything more.
RR: Obviously, it’s a one-person movie. Harry Bailey is the movie. So, the inspired burden – it went on Elliott’s back
RR: And we wrote damn good scenes, damn good dialogue, but – Elliott took it and blew life into it – and made that outrageous character, no matter what we did, he made it real. And that – that was the magic of it.
EG: Well, I mean, when I say thank you – and I told you this – what I mean is: there can’t be any ego in this. There can’t be any vanity in this – what there has to be is an understanding and a commitment. That we are honest with one another in relation to the story, in relation to what is the character is doing… what does he mean there, you know…
RR: We gave him such dangerous material…
KM: Elliott – you work really well with all of the actors of the film too, Candice Bergen is great… One of my favorite characters is played by Max Julien, who I love as an actor – he was part of your stock company for a while…
RR: Yeah, yeah…
KM: I love the first scene of you two guys, Elliott, you with Max Julien, where you are bantering back and forth.
EG: Oh, at the staircase…
KM: Yes, and it’s so naturalistic and human and it’s so lovely that scene. And then there’s some very touching moments… There’s the scene where you two are arguing and Max Julien says: “Don’t tell a black man what’s important and what’s not important, I mean, you walk around in a black skin before you do that!” There’s a back and forth that’s so real here… and your work with, well everybody, Candice Bergen, and, all the actors playing students and administrators, everybody. How was it working with all of these actors?
EG: I saw and felt – I could tell. And [speaking of Max Julien] it’s like, he was Max Julien way before I was consciously me. He knew what he was wearing and he was so stylish. And so, I had a real respect and, knowing that, I had to understand… I asked Bobby Kaufman: “What is the meaning of dichotomy?” What is that? Is it being separated? Or different parts? A dichotomy – what does that mean?
RR: You have two views…
EG: Oh, my God! Every view. If you are living in the Universe no matter on what form. A microorganism! You’re a Genius!
EG: If you’re alive, you are a genius. And therefore, to be working with people with such a story with so much meaning and purpose, you know? So, each one, and then, I mean, Bobby Lyons…
KM: So great.
EG: And of course, there was Harrison Ford in the movie… I thought we wanted to use Paul Simon’s “The Boxer.”
EG: And he wouldn’t let us use it. But, each actor and actress… Well, Jeff Corey was a very successful actor.
KM: Yes, he is great in it.
EG: I remember him in so many different pictures. And I knew his face. And then I am saying words and lines that I didn’t understand. I mean as far as the intellectual aspect of different philosophers… expressing politics. I didn’t understand me…
But I mean, I was able to act and that’s one of the reasons I had to go as deeply as I could go, because then I am dealing with feelings… I’m dealing with meaning that I hadn’t even experienced… Somebody had said to me – I think Bobby Kaufman may have – that if Harry Bailey hadn’t thrown the brick through the window, that we may have done better business. But I have to trust. I can’t work. I can’t do this if there’s no trust.
KM: What did he mean by that? Better business in terms of how the film did? Because if he threw the brick?
RR: It was a big problem for the studio.
KM: Really? They didn’t like that? They wanted something different?
RR: They didn’t want him to become a physical part.
EG: Not to be destructive…
KM: Did you choose that college – Lane Community College in Eugene…. That location. It was such a visually great location…
RR: Yeah. I was so grateful to find it. A place with glass walls where I could shoot rack focuses from the inside – from a student in the inside to a student on the outside in the same take, the same shot.
KM: How difficult was that – to achieve those types of inventive shots? They’re seamless but I imagine that they’d be difficult… how long are you setting up those shots?
RR: Those shots are tedious and difficult to set up but I can cover a lot of distance with a shot. I could take a half a page, a page, two pages in a shot, because it starts as a closeup and becomes an establishing shot …it carries me through a good part of the script. As long as you don’t make a mistake (laughs)
KM: And how often would that happen?
EG: I mean, we made no mistakes together. No mistakes. I’m committed to his mind, just committed to how does it have to be, and then it’s my job to fit in. And what an opportunity, to fit into a life that I’ve never lived. I hadn’t been in the army; I’d never been to college. I had not lived…
KM: But did you have discussions [with Richard] like that at the time, Elliott?
EG: Not intellectual. He asked me if I could be angry.
EG: I’ll tell you, one time, this was afterwards… in 1978 when I was working in Greece on the islands of Rotos, everybody came from my family. And my father and his second wife (whom he had tried to elope with before he met my mother) were there. And we were having a dinner, the three of us. And my father said, “Your mother was really talented but wait till you see how talented Sylvia is.” And I said to Sylvia, “Forgive me for this, it’s something I feel obliged to do.” And I almost took the roof, I was so fucking angry that he was so stupid to not understand what my mother and I are to one another. And so, I said, “You’ll never use my mother again. How dare you compare my mother to anyone.” And, boy was I mad.
EG: And I’ve been angry. Yeah. Barbra [Streisand – his first wife] asked me once in recent times, if I was ever angry at her… and I said, “Not really. I mean, you could upset me. But I don’t think I was so angry.” It’s so important to be honest, even when I exhibited a lack of judgement to not being prepared to accept my father’s relationship with this other woman, and then my father being so blind, you know? Because my father resented – he had told me this – he resented his father’s relationship with his mother, my grandparents… My father never understood how his father could love his mother so much. It’s what we are. It’s so great to be back here and talk about this…
RR: Yeah, it’s fun.
KM: It’s interesting though, because you’re talking about fathers, there’s all of these father figures in Getting Straight. Supposed father figures. Some terrible, some not so bad but they seem clueless…
EG: They’re idiots.
KM: I haven’t read the book – but much of this was your writing with Robert Kaufman, Richard, yes?
RR: Well, the book didn’t have a love story. And the one thing that I didn’t mention that was going on at the time, was a very strong women’s liberation movement, that was affecting all of the young men… People were genuinely confused. There was the general attitude towards women in American men, very much like that retro television show, Mad Men, where there was a chauvinistic, xenophobic disregard for her intellect. And so, it was very hard for women to get a fair break in the workplace or in the marriage because of this very strange view which Harry Bailey managed to demonstrate, [in terms of] love.
KM: He demonstrates that he’s confused by it or that he’s…?
RR: That he is a bigot, as far as women are concerned.
KM: So, he’s struggling with women’s equality …
RR: Oh yeah…. I wanted to examine the, not just the eternal war between men and women, but the interesting refinements of it that had come about in that recent decade. The sexual revolution and the women’s rights movement had developed a bewilderment…
KM: There’s also what Elliott’s [character] is struggling with within the movie – when your character is coming to the end – and being told what to think…
EG: Yes. Richard gave me so much … and we talked it all out.
KM: And, at the end, they’re TELLING you – what to think…
EG: Of course! You don’t know how to feel and you don’t know how to think! And we will tell you. And that was the story. We had even more stuff as to, what am I going to do? Have a career in this world? I’m going to be frightened? I’m going to be dominated by ignorance and fear and materialism? Unless you can explain it to me. And from your heart and soul, then I can do anything, but if you don’t, and you can’t, and you’re not in a position, I have to revolt! I have to go further. I went too far, you know, and we weren’t ready to work together again after, and I had to give up a lot of stuff.
EG: But I’m free. And like this guy, Krishnamurti – and I don’t study but I recognize and I feel – said, that freedom is a frame of mind, not from something. But that’s what we’re talking about… So… we went as far as I could go. And I think the integrity that we worked together, is great.
KM: Richard, how much did you know that world? You went to UCLA, you dealt with faculty and all of that – did you have a jaundiced view of it?
RR: I had a jaundiced view of everything.
EG: Oh, yeah, and that was tough for us because he knows so much…
RR: My grandson is 13. And, as I understand, has just started rebelling.
EG: At 13?
KM: That’s about right…
RR: That’s when I did it. I remember standing on the back porch, looking out at the back yard, and saying, “I must remember, when I grow up, at 13 you’re a real bastard.”
KM: That’s pretty insightful for a 13-year old to know that about themselves…
RR: I do remember that was my conclusion then. And apparently, I was right.
KM: A bastard in a good way?
RR: No. Nasty. I was being nasty to my mother.
EG: Oh my…
KM: But did you learn from that? You can learn a lot when you’re rebelling.
RR: I learned to trust my judgement. (laughs)
KM: Richard, all of your films’ characters, from The Savage Seven to Psych-Out to this film to Freebie and the Bean to The Stunt Man, and more, they have so many different sides to them. They have such complexity. The characters are not just good or bad… they are so well written.
RR: I sat down with a list of writers for Getting Straight… that they gave me from the Studio. And, I mean, it’s a great list. There were novelists who I had studied in school. I hired a guy who I thought [would work] … several weeks he came back with crap. Worthless. And, fleshed out nothing… a clever friend finally told me what to do. He said, you’re gonna have to sit down and write a short novel, you’re gonna have to make a long treatment… Everything you want to say is one story; everything you want to say about the protests is another story and then there’s, of course, the story of Harry Bailey. So, I wrote them, and I overlapped them … finally a beginning, middle and an end had played in three acts. And I called Robert Kaufman, whom I’d written with before, and I said, “OK, we’re gonna do a movie together.” And I hired him to collaborate with me. I should say first, Robert is a brilliant intellectual [but a] despicable, amoral, prejudiced monster. He’s one of the worst human beings …
EG: Oh my god…
RR: But he’s very clever and he can make me laugh.
EG: It’s so amazing to me that I get along with just about anyone and everyone and …there’s some that I couldn’t but then I wouldn’t commit, you know, but we got to be able to work together.
RR: Right. Well that was a fair description of Bobby and I’ve described him that way to his daughter and she agrees with me. And without prejudice. I said, “Bobby, if you’ll stick with me to this storyline in the treatment, I’ll let you have your salary and my salary in writing and I’ll take my name off the credits so you can have the sole credit.” And he said, “Great.” And we did it.
EG: I believe you but I mean, I don’t know if I could have done that, I mean… to have your credit… that’s an amazing thing…
RR: I wasn’t in it for writing credit. I wanted material I could shoot. That was everything to me.
KM: How much freedom did you get working at AIP?
RR: I was always away on location with them. And one of them, was a gruff old tough guy with a cigar who loved movies, and the other was kind of nasty – Arkoff and Nicholson. But they knew the secret. There were the only ones who knew the secret – of how to attract a teenage audience. The studios learned the secret afterwards. You simply cast it with leads of the same age as your target audience, and that audience will come to see themselves on film.
KM: And you had interesting actors in those films – you had Jack Nicholson, Adam Roarke, Bruce Dern, Susan Strasberg, Max Julien, Dean Stockwell… also you started with László Kovács at that time, correct?
RR: Yes. László had just escaped from Hungary with student films he’d taken of the Russian tanks invading. And that was his demo reel. He snuck out with his film. And I saw it, and gave him his first job. And from then on, he did every picture of mine until The Stunt Man.
KM: It seems like it kind of parlayed into Easy Rider too, because you were doing all those biker films…
RR: Yeah… they parlayed it in… they took my stock company and my crew and invited me to a screening of… my biker trilogy which they screened for the cast and crew just before they went on location, they invited me to and said: “We’re now gonna go make a Dick Rush film. And I said: “Good luck!” But it was the same cast and people.
KM: How much different was the film industry… from the late 1960s to the 1970s? It was famously changing…
RR: Well, we had a very singular personal view of it. It’s hard to know about the industry, you only have, you know, what it is to you. And to me, it was changing, because I had done 10 or 12 or 13 “B” pictures … And I wanted to get into a major studio where I could get a budget. The money buys time and the time buys quality… And I wanted to do something better, you know?
KM: But you must have learned a lot, working that quickly.
RR: I did.
KM: I mean, there’s some movies that were, like two or three released in one year. That’s a lot of work!
RR: I had my agent approach a major studio. And they approached Columbia, and I talked [about] the fact that I was fiscally responsible and they offered me Getting Straight – that was the first major studio picture and the first offer. So, I really wanted to do it, and I wanted to get it right.
KM: Were there any scenes that were the hardest to shoot?
RR: Sure. The climax. That was the scene that everything relied on. It had to be that great climax and it was difficult to shoot only in as much as — it had to work. And of course Elliott was working brilliantly all the way through it. He had to interact with those people appropriately. And I had made up those limericks that he was reciting (laughs).
KM: Oh, you did?
EG: What’s that?
KM: He had made up the limericks that you were reciting at the end…
EG: Oh, sure. Oh, that scene. Oh my god. That scene – I remember how we talked about it …
KM: How far did you tell him to take it? Because it goes very far, in a great way. It’s such a bravura performance …
EG: I was spilling water on the guy’s head… I kissed him too… Richard indicated to me, so long as you’re being honest and true, take it as far as you can.
RR: And he did. (laughs). It’s a wonderful scene.
EG: Yeah, that was great.
KM: Getting Straight was released the same week as Kent State…
RR: Yes, it was the week of Kent State.
KM: Did this affect how people wrote about it, in terms of critics?
KM: It’s a serious film but it was also considered a comedy – were people negative because …
RR: Some critics were negative. We were “being funny while these kids were dying.”
KM: When it came out…it did well …
RR: It was their top grossing picture that year. The reviews were half raves and a few serious pans. We got into a contest with one of the lead reviewers in New York, I think it was the New York Times reviewer…
EG: Vincent Canby, was that who it was?
RR: It might have been. [It was Dwight Macdonald.] But when he gave a haughty review – Bobby Kaufman immediately wanted a rebuttable. And so, he wrote a rebuttable and sent it to the newspaper and they printed it, and printed the reviewer’s review of the rebuttal next to it… I think the criticisms were strangely only at the level where the film wasn’t relevant to film criticism. It was a very outspoken, liberal thesis. It was an anti-war film.
EG: So, I had a week off before we were going to start shooting The Touch. And I had already been to meet with Ingmar [Bergman] and rehearse with the actors and everything. And there was a film festival in Sorrento. And Getting Straight was in competition and I went there with Jenny [Jennifer Bogart, Gould’s later second wife], and I sat there by myself because Jenny was outside walking through Sorrento which is what I wanted to do too. And there’s one seat next to me. And they’ve seated George Stevens next to me…
RR: No kidding?
EG: No kidding. And I’m in the middle of the picture… and I left my own picture. And it won the prize for Best Actor, it beat out Jon Voight in The All-American Boy which a friend of mine had directed [Charles K. Eastman]. But if I had just been able to sit and watch the whole picture, and then after the picture, look out at George Stevens and say, “You think there’s something we could do together?”
EG: “I mean, is there something you can employ me in?” I left… I wanted to be outside with Jenny.
KM: Speaking of George Stevens…did you learn from watching older pictures, now what we would consider classic pictures, when you were younger?
RR: That’s where I learned movies.
KM: Who were some of the key filmmakers?
RR: George Stevens. I learned about the close-up from A Place in the Sun.
EG: The More the Merrier is so fabulous. I mean, I hadn’t known he had done such great romantic comedy…
KM: Who else influenced you as a director?
RR: Well, until recently, it was David Lean. David Lean had been my favorite director for a long time. I just, last week, finished the book this thick on him. I think it’s 800 pages. And, he’s no longer my favorite director (laughs).
EG: Who is?
RR: I have to go back to George Stevens.
EG: Oh, I’m so happy to hear that. Isn’t that something. George Stevens.
KM: Another film we’re going to show at the New Beverly later is Thunder Alley… I had read you felt split on that film, but you liked working with the actors.
RR: Yes, I particularly liked working with the comedian… Jan Murray. He introduced me to the comedy world and who the gods are and so forth.
KM: And Fabian who is quite good in the film.
RR: That’s good. I’m glad you think that.
EG: Oh, Fabian. He’s beautiful.
KM: Why did you two [Elliott and Richard] not work together again? Did you plan on anything?
EG: I don’t know. I don’t think so.
RR: I always thought of Elliott every time I read something.
KM: Actors love working with you…
RR: They should. Because I love them. I try to make their world good… I think the only kind of director who can call himself a director is an actor’s director. It’s vastly more important than any other element that you’re doing.
EG: I consider myself to be part of the crew that works in front of the camera. And that’s what my tuning fork is – the whole crew is the team. Ingmar would talk about actors as being artists. Brando was quoted as saying he didn’t consider actors as being artists. I don’t necessarily agree, but Brando had his own point of view and I can’t question anyone else’s point of view since it’s all abstract…
KM: You directed plays, correct, Richard?
RR: I did in school. And I did, strangely, one significant series of Tennessee Williams One-Acts in an alley behind Melrose. And I was trying to finance my first picture at the time. And I had been working at it for a long time, trying to get the money… I had already developed the screenplay, and right after I directed that, those plays, I got the money for the picture and made the movie. And I had really grown to believe that I got the money and did it because directing the plays gave me confidence …
KM: And this was a little theater company?
RR: It was just an actor’s workshop. And I cast the two kids that I used in the Tennessee Williams plays as the leads in my first movie …
KM: Which play was it…?
RR: The one where the little girl is walking on the railroad tracks talking about her big sister, Alva…
KM: Oh, This Property Is Condemned?
RR: Yes. And after I made that [first] movie, I got an agent, and my agent being the low man on the totem pole, was sent to pick up Tennessee Williams at the airport when he arrived in town. And instead of driving him to his hotel, he drove him to me. And I met with him and told him that I had developed This Property Is Condemned into a three-act structure and wondered what he thought of it. He liked the idea. And he gave me the play. As a present.
RR: He was at the peak of his career. He had Streetcar on Broadway at the time. And I developed the movie, and the agency brought Kim Novak in to see my first and only picture, and she said she wanted to do it. So now I had the play, and the actress. And my lawyer wasn’t smart enough to keep me in the deal. There was another director running around with Natalie Wood under tow. And he got to do it.
KM: Sydney Pollack.
EG: Yeah, I remember that. With Robert Redford too.
RR: Yeah, and he [Sydney Pollack] became a friend, he had an office next door to me…
EG: Sydney Pollack. He was a friend to quite a few of us.
KM: What was Tennessee Williams like when you met him?
RR: (laughs) Electric. I mean, amazing. The only trouble was, I had quit smoking, and the first thing I did was take out a cigarette and light up. (laughs) There was no way of taking that meeting without a cigarette.
KM: I noticed this when I was watching Psych-Out… it seemed like you were already addressing darker elements settling into the late 1960s. You can feel this in the movie.
RR: Yeah. I was desperate to make that movie. I really wanted to make a movie about this new wonderful culture with the new male hero that was uncombative and said, make love not war. And AIP said I could make the movie if I were to do a sequel to Hell’s Angels, and they had a script which they considered to be the sequel to Hell’s Angels, which was Psych-Out. So, I said, OK. I didn’t want to make another motorcycle movie at the time, so I made the movie as the price for getting to do Psych-Out. Not realizing at the time, it was a good movie I was making. I developed a greater respect for it later…
KM: Psych-Out combines with Getting Straight … the darker part of the 60s leading into the 70s…
RR: With Psych-Out, I got to do the movie, but when I got to do it – was, what? It was six or nine months later. And it was end of the first year, and the movement was growing cold. The kids who had escaped had spent the summer under the sun, loving … and now it was getting cold. And it was hard getting food, it was hard to sustain life in Haight-Ashbury…and the dope culture had taken a heavy toll on the kids and I couldn’t tell the truly idyllic story I wanted; I had to include what was happening in the story in that it was turning dark…
KM: And that leads into Getting Straight…
RR: Yeah, that was a really dark problem. They were killing the kids.
KM: How do you feel about the end when you grab the brick? Richard or Elliott. It’s complicated.
RR: Yes, because the moral dilemma is complicated, but I think he had to throw that brick through the window.
EG: I felt myself, that it was the way it had to be… and therefore, I accepted… I did it to the best of my ability.
RR: No question in my mind, that Harry Bailey was always on the right side. He was for what the kids were for, he was against the war. He was a revolutionary. He just – he wasn’t participating until the last moment, when it seemed appropriate to throw the brick.
EG: Well that’s an expression, that’s interesting, because now I haven’t had the thought, here, right where we are for a very long time to make that expression. To break the glass. And I’ve seen the glass ceiling and stuff like that – just to let some air in, let some light in. That’s what it would have meant to me. Not as an act of violence, but as an act of liberation. To liberate air, to liberate light … it’s more an act of freedom…
KM: Getting back to technical aspects … What were the origins of the rack focus for you?
RR: A Beaulieu Super 8mm camera that somebody gave me for my birthday… And I was screwing around with it, around the pool and it had a 10-1 zoom lens and I suddenly realize that on the long end of the lens when you change focus you can go from one object to another. And one object “disappears” and the other object “appears.” And it seemed, to me, to have a poetically closer relationship between the objects than a kind of a dissolve or any of the tools at our discretion. There was something severe about it and if you can control it right you could do it between faces and objects and faces and faces and so on… It’s very limiting only in terms of the camera position has to be absolute, you cannot just at random pick any two objects. They have to be in a relationship.
RR: The distance with each other. But while I was messing around with that… I realized the blocking possibilities of using the zoom lens instead of the dolly. And to turn one shot into another… the mechanics involved… With the zoom lens you could completely cover up the fact that you’re zooming with a pan wherever sideways or up and down. So, if you learn to combine that you can hide most of your moves – camera moves. And I developed it as a whole way of blocking the camera and the actors at the same time, and to create a “look.”
KM: It does achieve a kind of immediacy and, well, everyone looks at the world differently. There is no one real way of looking at the world. When someone says that something is “unrealistic” I don’t know what they mean. For instance, I may look out at this view and search to see the ocean, someone else might be looking right at the trees, someone else might be looking up the hill and looking for flowers … and then how you actually see that or -interpret it — if it makes you feel good or bad or happy or sad — It feels like a very poetic way to shoot, but also, I’ll now use the word, “real” in terms of how people “see.” It has a lot of emotion.
RR: It allows you to do what we all do, instinctively. I glance at you, the image stays with me, as I look at you but, in the meantime, I am very much aware of what’s happening here — and of that damn bird out there. There are — our vision dances around and hits different things. And it loves you to play those games.
KM: Did you write thinking of that? Because it seems hard to match this with the actors the dialogue, etc. on the page?
RR: No. No, you have to direct; you are directing it. I am always writing for myself and, occasionally, if I find something that would be great to accomplish in a certain way, I‘ll give myself a hint of what I had in mind in the script so I think of it again when I read it later on…
KM: What about the energy of the film? Because it’s so…right away. (To Elliott) you are running a lot in this movie — you’re running up the stairs, you’re driving the car that is breaking down and smoke is getting everywhere… There’s a lot of stress but you, at the same time, you are trying to keep it all together. The film expresses that, thematically.
RR: I agree.
KM: And it just so magical when you watch it. How it’s directed so well.
RR: I have to be aware of what he is thinking [Bailey/Gould] no matter where he is moving in the scene or what he is saying in the scene. His close-up is my anchor that I have to go back to…You have a version of it when you shoot it but you really shoot it so that you can decide how to accomplish that in the cutting room. It happens as you cut the film. The film gets longer and shorter and changes its dynamic.
KM: Everything gets more and more heightened until the explosion at the end. But there is a humor — a dark sense of humor — it’s quite the balancing act to do that.
RR: I know, there seems to be a general perception that comedy is the enemy of drama and vice versa.
RR: And in a sense it’s true… but I think that my general view of the world is that everything is astonishing and funny at the same time. When you see it that way it’s easy to put it that way.
KM: Well, you see that in your other pictures too. Like in Freebie and the Bean, it’s very funny but there’s a lot of darkness and violence in that film. It’s funny one second and then the next second… Same with The Stuntman, where you love Peter O’Toole but then you wonder “What is this guy up to?” Where is this coming from within you? You seem to be poised against the big systems of control but you are almost saying that the only way to get out is – you have to laugh.
RR: Yeah, well…
KM: The Vietnam war was going on… And The Stuntman has a whole Vietnam element to it and he [Railsback] is a Vietnam vet…
RR: And he drags it right into the feature with him. But I had the chance there to do what was closest to my feelings about the world, because it was a developed from scratch that I could develop accordingly, and then shoot it and cut it and make it come out that way.
KM: There’s a speech I love from The Stunt Man, that Peter O’Toole’s Eli Cross says, and I’m going to read it: “Oh Burt, stop this worrying. You must have heard surely of movie magic. You should be a stunt man, who is an actor, who is a character in a movie, who is an enemy soldier. Who’ll look for you amongst all those? People like to believe in things, and policemen are just people. Or so I’m told. Frankly, our problem is so simple it’s almost beneath us. Now listen to me: that door is the looking glass, and inside it is Wonderland. Have faith Alice! Close your eyes and enjoy.” It’s so beautiful…
RR: Well, thank you!
KM: It’s one of my favorite moments…
RR: Really? That’s so nice.
KM: I love how it’s slightly frightening, surreal, and so beautiful all at once. And it’s like your films – this reality in the surreality – I feel like they are so very much YOU – no one else has made movies like yours.
RR: Well, that’s very nice of you to say that. Since the last time I saw Getting Straight, it has become my second favorite picture, after The Stunt Man.
KM: Have your views changed at all? Through time? Or are you still as rebellious? You seem like you are.
RR: As rebellious.
EG: You have to be!! We are all near the fucking deathbed! Human nature as we know it will settle for anything. You know? It’s comfort: to send for a piece of pie with meringue on it. When it comes to the spirit, when it comes to our minds. We have to continue to keep moving.
RR: Go boldly!
EG: What’s that?
RR: Go boldly!
EG: Yes, absolutely!