Dear Ms. O’Rourke:
You ask about Cassavetes’ methods.
How he worked. How he made his movies. You have come to the right source.
I am the world’s authority on his work (and knew the crazy, possessed
man himself and miss him deeply).
I am glad to give you, Mr.
Pressman, and Mr. Malick a crash course. Here are the principles you should
relay to Mr. Malick, Mr. Pressman, and your financial backers. These are
the real secrets of Cassavetes’ technique. The lost secrets of how to
make such courageous, original, iconoclastic, breakthrough works:
1) Cassavetes didn’t ask others
how they made their films; he asked himself what was the least he needed
and could get by with. And then got by with less than that because he
couldn’t ever afford what he really needed.
2) Cassavetes didn’t imitate
anyone else’s ideas or methods, no matter how much he admired their work.
Imitation is death. Copying is for children.
3) Cassavetes didn’t count
heads in a meeting, broker deals, and hedge his bets with investors. He
didn’t try to please anyone, least of all producers or financial backers.
The only person he tried to please was himself. We all know that’s hard
4) Cassavetes didn’t use financial
backers. He mortgaged his house, sold stock, or took money out of the
bank. He didn’t try to "sell" himself, his movie, or his methods
to businessmen. He made the films for God and eternity, not for points,
guaranteed returns, and tax write-offs. If you’re afraid to put up your
own money, if you need backers, you don’t really believe in what you are
doing. You are afraid. You want to hedge your bets.
5) Cassavetes risked everything.
Every time. He went for broke. Double or nothing. He took real chances.
Not fake, Hollywood protected chances. Real ones.
In sum, the question you have
asked me indicates a complete and utter misunderstanding of everything
Cassavetes stood for. You and Mr. Malick apparently want the Cassavetes
trademark, without the danger. The imprimatur without risking damnation.
The brand name as a selling point, as a knock-off of the real thing. In
short, the notion of anyone pitching their work as Cassavetean is so un-Cassavetean
that it would be comical if it were not disgusting.
I would sincerely appreciate
your relaying this reply verbatim to Mr. Pressman and Mr. Malick. It is
never too late to learn.
My Cassavetes on Cassavetes
published in August by Faber and Faber/Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
which is based on interviews with John during the final decade of his
life and tells the story of his life and work in detail, has a quote from
him in it that sums it all up. I shall end with it. You may find it on
page 509. John told me this about Sean Penn, but it is apparently as relevant
today as it was in 1989:
"Everybody says they want
to work the way I do; but they don’t really want to. They don’t want to
go all the way to work this way. They want to protect themselves. They
are afraid. They don’t really want to take a chance."
All warmest wishes.
Professor of Film and American
Studies, Boston University
Director of Film Studies
P.S. After showing the above
reply to Tom Noonan, writer-director of What Happened Was, The
Wife, and the forthcoming Wang Dang, he told me something Cassavetes
said to him on the subject. It is too good not to include. I’ll let Cassavetes
himself have the final word on the subject of movies and money:
"Once I asked John about
how he planned to finance and distribute his movies. He looked at me in
disbelief and said, If you’re worrying about how to finance and
distribute your movies than you shouldn’t bother making movies. I asked
him what he meant and he said, You make movies because you need to
make movies. Everything else is unimportant. If you wait to get
the money to make a movie then you shouldn’t make the movie. If you need
distribution in place before you have the courage to make a movie then
it’s not a movie worth making. There are many other ways to make money
than making movies. If you need to make money, please find some other
way to do it. You make movies to lose your money. That is the purpose
of making a movie—to put your life into something—not get something out