This page contains an excerpt from an interview with Ray Carney. In the selection below, he discusses the use of photos in film books. The complete interview is available in a new packet titled What's Wrong with Film Teaching, Criticism, and Reviewing – And How to Do It Right, which covers many other topics. For more information about Ray Carney's writing on independent film, including information about how to obtain the complete text of this interview and two other packets of interviews in which he gives his views on film, criticism, teaching, the life of a writer, and the path of the artist, click here.

Picture Books are for Children

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Interviewer: Can I ask you a question about your books?

Carney: [Interrupting:] I have a book question for you! Why do film books have pictures? I can't tell you how many arguments I've had with editors about that. Whenever I've had a length problem in a film book, my first response is always: “Well, let's not run any photos.” If you read a book about Henry James' late style, there won't be any pictures of him in it.

What is this need to have pictures in film books? It's like we're all in some kind of voodoo cult, where everyone has this magic notion that a photograph lets us touch an actor's or director's soul. I have news to report. This just in. Mike Leigh's soul is in his work, not his face. They knew that back in Shakespeare's day. What's Ben Jonson's inscription to the First Folio? “Look not on his picture – but in his book.” I had to cut a lot of stuff out of my Leigh book to bring it in under 300 pages. I say take the damn photos out and let me put some more writing in!

Interviewer: Yet I remember how upset you were when you had to cut illustrative material from the Cassavetes on Cassavetes and Shadows books.

Carney: That's true. My Cambridge University Press Cassavetes book started out with more than a hundred photos. Cambridge only allowed me to put something like fifty in it for reasons of space. I wanted to run two hundred in the Cassavetes on Cassavetes book. I was really upset both times. I have this enormous collection of behind-the-scenes Cassavetes photos that have never been seen. Hundreds and hundreds of photos that have never appeared in a book before. John gave me some of them; Sam and Larry Shaw gave me others; and people who were on the shoots gave me others.

But these photos are different from what is in the usual film book. They are not stupid glamour shots or posed production stills. They reveal secrets about how scenes were staged and shot. You can study Cassavetes' lighting and miking techniques in them. You can read the numbers on slates to see how many takes he did of a particular scene. You can watch him blocking scenes and showing the actors how to play the parts – like a choreographer working with a dancer. You can study the expressions on actors' faces between takes and watch how they prepare their roles. Look at the photo I put on the back of the John Cassavetes:The Adventure of Insecurity viewers' guide. It's incredible. Or the ones I put in the A Woman Under the Influence chapter of my Cambridge Press book where Cassavetes is running around showing Gena how to go crazy on camera. One of them is on the cover. Or the ones in the chapters on A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Opening Night in my Cassavetes on Cassavetes book. You could write a whole book about what those photos reveal. Even with the photos in my Leigh book, I tried to redeem the situation by putting in really deep, suggestive captions.

What I'm talking about is what's in other film books. Hollywood Squares filler. Movie star glamour shots. Posed production shots. Grainy frame enlargements. Why waste space that way? Why include them at all? As the story about the captions I had to cut from the Shadows book illustrates, [told in another section of this interview] I put a lot of thought into the photos and captions in my books, precisely because I don't want them to be like the eye candy in every other film book. I want to make them count. I look at hundreds of film books every year and almost never come across a single photo or caption that makes me want to pause and think about it.

Interviewer: I know what you mean about how you could write a book about the photos since I heard you give a whole lecture on the subject a few years ago. If I recall correctly, you spent fifteen minutes talking about the photo on the back of the Adventure of Insecurity viewers' guide – because it revealed so much about Falk and Rowlands and how Cassavetes directed them. But you realize that most people don't look at photos in your books or anyone else's that carefully. They just want to see a picture of a movie star or a director, glance at it, turn the page, and forget it.

Carney: You know what people like the most? Those fake behind-the-scenes shots – where Spielberg is shown talking to the stunt man who drives the truck in the chase scene. People fall for them no matter how staged they are. It's like that stupid television convention where they show you the control room the show is coming from. Or when Letterman or Leno take you backstage. Wow. The illusion is that something is being revealed. People eat it up no matter how unrevealing it actually is. The photos I run really reveal something new.

I don't put celebrity glamour photos in. And I don't really care if people don't get what is in the photos and captions. I refuse to dumb my writing down to grab the Saturday Night Live crowd. I'm not writing for those kinds of people. That's Hollywood logic – you try to reach the stupidest person in the audience.

This page contains an excerpt from an interview with Ray Carney. In the selection above, he discusses the use of photos in film books. The complete interview is available in a new packet titled "What's Wrong with Film Teaching, Criticism, and Reviewing – And How to Do It Right," which covers many other topics. For more information about Ray Carney's writing on independent film, including information about how to obtain the complete text of this interview and two other packets of interviews in which he gives his views on film, criticism, teaching, the life of a writer, and the path of the artist, click here..

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