This page contains a short section from a longer interview Ray Carney gave to filmmaker Jim McKay, which was excerpted in Filmmaker magazine. In the selection below, Ray Carney discusses the real-world work of getting a book proposal accepted by a publisher. The complete interview covers many other topics. For more information about Ray Carney's writing on independent film, including information about obtaining the complete text of a series of interviews in which he gives his views on criticism, film, teaching, and the life of a writer, click here.

To read two more discussions of the realities of publishing, click here and here.

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Jim McKay
In Print

Jim McKay talks with Ray Carney about writing about John Cassavetes
Filmmaker Magazine
(Fall 2001)

I have a confession to make. About seven or eight years ago, I came upon a very early, bootleg copy of a book of interviews and commentary called Cassavetes on Cassavetes. It was about 100 pages long and was a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox, but in its pages I found some of the most inspiring thoughts about film, art and life that I'd ever read. It quickly became the most important book on my shelf.

Confession number two is that the book meant so much to me that I Xeroxed the Xerox and gave it out to fellow believers a number of times. I didn't know if the book would ever find a publisher, and, in the meantime, how could I keep this crucial information (both practical and spiritual) from others?

In the end, I think it'll work out fine. The book has finally been published and, at over 500 pages, is so much more jam-packed with material I'm certain that everyone who got the bootleg from me will run out and buy the official version.

Over the course of shooting two features (Girls Town and Our Song) and producing half a dozen others, Ray Carney's Cassavetes on Cassavetes (Faber and Faber, Inc., $25, paperback, 544 pages) sat by my bedside like a bible. Late at night, while obsessing over some concern about tomorrow's shoot, or the next day's credit-card bill, or an upcoming meeting with a distributor, I'd open up the book to a random page and read. Just a passage or a page, it never took much. In those pages, I found the strength, support and spirit to go on. Sound a bit over-dramatic? Well, if you're a filmmaker or a film fan interested in cinema outside the Hollywood system, pick up the book for yourself and start reading. You'll see.

Over a period of a few weeks, I engaged in an e-mail conversation with Carney, a professor of film at Boston University who maintains a web site devoted to independent film at We talked about independent film and the influence of John Cassavetes's work.

Jim McKay: You have three new books out this month. Describe them, the viewing guide and the Shadows book very briefly, and Cassavetes on Cassavetes more at length.

Ray Carney: One of the reasons there are so few film really good books about real indies (as opposed to media-promoted figures like Stone and Spielberg) is because the film book business is not that different from the movie business. Book proposals are judged in terms of their “box-office potential.” An indie writer has to overcome obstacles, adapt to circumstances, take chances, and pay the price – in emotions and dollars – just like an indie filmmaker. The only difference is that there is a heck of a lot less money at stake in the book biz! You might think academic presses would be less commercially driven than the trade houses, but they are even worse – since every book has to be approved by a committee of film professors, who are always the last to know anything new about film and are complete fashion slaves to media-created trends and fads. In a nutshell, getting anything into print about Cassavetes is a struggle.

Believe it or not, the Shadows book was originally going to be about Faces! I have tons of material on the making of Faces – drafts of the stage play the film was based on that Cassavetes gave me, hours of tape-recorded behind-the-scenes stories by cast and crew members, and access to prints of the film with entirely different scenes from the release version. I proposed a book on it to the British Film Institute for their “Film Classics” series, but the editor turned me down, saying it wasn't on their list of masterworks.

He counterproposed a book on Shadows (which was on the list largely because it plugged into the currently fashionable interest in jazz orchestration and African-American characters). Fortunately, I had devoted years to studying the film, and had just as much material about it, dating back to a “Rosebud” conversation with Cassavetes shortly before his death, where he told me that most of the important scenes in his so-called “masterpiece of improvisation” were actually written by a Hollywood screenwriter. You should have heard him laugh when he said it. He had fooled the critics all those years! I had already interviewed everyone involved in the production, so I used that material to tell the real story of the making of one of the early masterworks of the American independent movement.

The second book, John Cassavetes: The Adventure of Insecurity, came out of the fact that I had always wanted to do a short, concise overview of Cassavetes' life and work for general filmgoers – a skinny paperback you could stuff in your pocket and take with you to a festival that would give basic information and suggest things to watch and notice. For more than ten years I had been writing program notes about Cassavetes' work for film festivals and handing them out as well as giving lectures and conducting question and answer sessions following the screenings, and it just seemed like common sense that I should gather some of that material together and make it more conveniently available to viewers. (I was getting tired of running around the country attending all those screenings. And getting even more tired of running up to Kinko's between screenings and paying my own money to make more copies of the essays when the ones I had ran out and the festivals invariably told me their copy machine was broken! I'll never forget one particularly frantic, rainy night before a big screening at Anthology Film Archives!) But when I approached various publishers, they all told me the same thing – first, that they weren't sure that they would sell enough copies; and second, that they only published books of a certain minimum length and price. No dice on a viewer's guide. It was a moment of truth for me. For years, I had been writing all these essays praising indie filmmakers for putting their money where their mouths were, and I was faced with the question of whether I was brave enough to do the same thing. So a close friend and I pooled our savings, got together ten thousand dollars, and published the book on our own. That's why, at least as of right now, the only way to get it is through Amazon or my web site. I'm living the indie dream and nightmare. You self-finance it, you have to self-distribute it! The copies are sitting in boxes in my office. (Click here to read another statement about the financial realities of serious, scholarly research and publication.)

The third book, Cassavetes on Cassavetes, marks an era in my life, something like ten or fifteen years of work. The origin was a series of conversations I had with Cassavetes in the final decade of his life. He said so many wonderful things that I thought it would have been a shame to keep them to myself and not share them with the world. The book is his own personal account of how he made his movies – from the scripting, fund-raising, and planning, to assembling the crew, struggling to get them into theaters, and interacting with the press. I thought it was unbelievably great stuff, but it too was a hard sell. I spent years trying to persuade a publisher to print it. Oxford turned me down. Pantheon. Cambridge. And a zillion others. Even Faber, who eventually published the book, turned me down the first time I queried them – around 1992 or 1993. Most of them didn't even ask to see the manuscript before they turned me down. In the early and mid-1990s Cassavetes was just not a big enough name. I remember one editor saying, “Well, if it were only Woody Allen or Oliver Stone, it would be different.” At least she was honest. Meanwhile, years went by. I was almost at the point of self-publishing it, when the same editor at Faber who had turned me down the first time phoned me and asked if the text was still available. Cassavetes had become more marketable in the interim. Isn't it awful that that's what made the difference? Fashion.

That was the Cassavetes story in the United States. During his lifetime and for ten years after his death, he simply didn't exist as a filmmaker – not for critics, not for viewers, not for reviewers. I am not exaggerating. My American Dreaming: The Films of John Cassavetes and the American Experience was published in 1984. It was the first book in any language on his films and would remain the only book in English until I published my second one with Cambridge: The Films of John Cassavetes: Pragmatism, Modernism, and the Movies. It was a very accessible, non-scholarly, and reasonably priced work. And you know how many copies it sold before it was put out of print and shredded to make recycled paper? Eight hundred – six hundred to libraries who have standing orders to buy every book published by the University of California Press, which issued it, and two hundred as regular bookstore or phone orders. Two hundred in ten years. That was how many professors, film students, and ordinary people in America were interested in reading about Cassavetes' life and work. I felt sorry for the press. They really took a bath on that one.

Of course, things were different in other countries. The French had to tell the Americans that jazz was an art before America appreciated Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, and that comedy could be serious, before they could take Keaton and Chaplin seriously, and film is no exception. An editor for a film book series in Paris simply heard about a very early draft of my Cassavetes on Cassavetes manuscript and issued an edition of a shortened version of it years ago, under the title Autoportraits. But of course that's just another form of fashion. In some countries he's popular, in others he's not.

It was frustrating, but now I realize that the delay was actually a great thing, because every time the manuscript had been rejected, I had re-written it. The longer I carried it around, the longer and better it got. So Faber ended up publishing a much better book than I would have given them ten years earlier. Even after they committed to the manuscript, I couldn't resist rewriting it four or five more times. By that point it had become much more than the personal story of Cassavetes' life. It was an obsession. In the end it became an account of the predicament of every independent artist trying to do something different, something a little out of the mainstream. I realize now that it became a veiled account of my own frustrations with the commercial constraints expression.

* * *

McKay: Why are Cassavetes' thoughts and principles important to both new and experienced filmmakers in today's world of independent film?

Carney: Cassavetes pioneered a new conception of what film can be and do. It was an exploration of the meaning of his life and the lives of the people around him. It was not about telling a hyped-up dramatic story or taking the viewer on a rollercoaster ride, but of asking deep, probing questions about the meaning of his experience, and asking viewers to explore along with him. He made his movies the way poets write or painters paint. Given everything Hollywood stands for, it's not surprising that the films met with so much resistance from studio heads, producers, distributors, reviewers, and audiences fighting to hold onto their notion of movies as “story-telling” or “entertainment.” Pauline Kael's response was typical. She jeered at his work in her early reviews, then simply stopped reviewing it. As far as she was concerned, it wasn't worth discussing.

I had the curator of a major film archive tell me that the next Cassavetes would never be critically neglected the way Cassavetes had been. “It could not happen again.... Critics and reviewers are so much smarter and more perceptive now than they were in the sixties and seventies.... Blah. Blah. Blah.” What a lot of hogwash. Nothing has changed. The next Cassavetes, the young artist trying to do challenging things today, is in exactly the same situation he was.

The point is that Cassavetes still has a lot to teach us. He was engaged in a battle for the soul of American film, but it is not over. I wrote these three books for every young independent writer, director, and actor to show that he or she is not alone and that self-expression is worth every ounce of the struggle to celebrate and understand what we are.

This page contains a short section from a longer interview Ray Carney gave to filmmaker Jim McKay, which was excerpted in Filmmaker magazine. In the selection above, Ray Carney discusses the real-world work of getting a book proposal accepted by a publisher. The complete interview covers many other topics. For more information about Ray Carney's writing on independent film, including information about obtaining the complete text of a series of interviews in which he gives his views on criticism, film, teaching, and the life of a writer, click here.

To read two more discussions of the realities of publishing, click here and here.

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© Text Copyright 2003 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.