You have talked about the uphill battle that film books have to
fight to get published. In the interview you did with Jim McKay
in Filmmaker magazine, you talked about your struggle to
get appreciations of serious films into print. [Excerpts from the
Mc Kay Filmmaker interview are available in the Cassavetes
on Cassavetes section of the site. Click
here to go there.] You described how the Cassavetes on Cassavetes
manuscript was rejected by every American publisher you submitted
it to. You mentioned how you self-published your The Adventure
of Insecurity pocket viewing guide, since publishers didn't
think a book about Cassavetes' films would sell well enough to justify
publishing it. And you described how you originally proposed a book
on Cassavetes' Faces to the British Film Institute publishing
house, but they turned it down and asked you to write about Shadows,
because Shadows was more socially relevant than Faces
May I correct that? I don't think I explained it clearly in
other interview. It's true that my initial proposal to the BFI
was for a book about Faces. I have an enormous amount
of information about Faces – things Cassavetes
gave me like the text of the initial play and three or four
drafts of the film script,
as well as things I found on my own, like the lost long print.
My intention was to use Faces to explore Cassavetes'
creative process. It's also true that the BFI turned down the
counterproposed Shadows, since Faces wasn't on their
master list and Shadows was.
But I want to emphasize
that the BFI didn't say that Shadows was, as you put
it, a more socially relevant film than Faces.
That was the conclusion I drew. What I was trying to
understand was how a chamber piece like Shadows – let's
be honest, it's an interesting but a fairly minor film in Cassavetes' oeuvre – would
make the BFI's Film Classics list while a towering masterwork
Faces – certainly one of the greatest works in all
of American cinema – didn't. The only explanation I could
come up with was that Shadows was accorded special importance
because it dealt with issues like racism, interracial sex, and passing – as
well as jazz music and the Beat life – hot-button social
a film like Faces didn't. But that was my conclusion.
No one at the BFI actually told me that that was the reason Shadows
was on the list (though I have to say that my intuition was confirmed
by a recent conversation with one of the men who put the list
who told me that he personally had voted for the inclusion of Shadows
for precisely those reasons).
Interviewer: Why would
Shadows' racial subject matter so much in terms of being
voted onto a list of film classics?
Carney: Oh this sort
of thing happens all the time. It's a symptom of the flat-mindedness
of most film appreciation – the fallacy of treating films
as if they were equivalent to their subject matter. People who
really understand art are always doing that. Charlie Rose and the
N.Y. Times do the same thing when they regard Spielberg
as a serious filmmaker just because he makes movies about the
or World War II. As if a movie were a historical document, and
its importance was equivalent to the historical importance of
matter. It's probably why Husbands and A Woman Under
the Influence and Love Streams didn't make the BFI
list either. And The Manchurian Candidate did! It's the
reason Spike Lee's work seems to be more important than Charles
Burnett's – the
opposite of the correct valuation.
Interviewer: I see
your point. But to return to my question, can you describe some
of the behind-the-scenes events connected with getting your books
Carney: Sure. There
is plenty to tell. Most people have no idea of the hurdles a
has to clear in order to get published, or how many commercial
constraints there are on what gets into print. The basic thing
a beginning writer
has to realize is that the book business is a business. It's devoted
to making a profit. You have to accept that fact and deal with
That means not giving up or getting discouraged when you are doing
something different from what the market wants and appreciates.
In terms of my writing on indie film, I've always felt like I invested
in a stock that will be worth thousands of dollars a hundred
from now, but that when I was buying and selling it, starting back
in the seventies and eighties, seemed worthless. It's good to
ahead of the market – in stocks and ideas, but if you too
far ahead, you'll lose your shirt.
Interviewer: Can you
talk about the publishing history of the three books in a little
Carney: All three illustrate
the business side of publishing in different ways. I'll start
the Shadows book. I had these excruciating tussles with
the editor over the length. The manuscript I submitted was, as
go, very short – something like 35 or 40,000 words. As a
comparison, the book I wrote on Mike Leigh for Cambridge is around
almost three times that length. What I submitted would have printed
up at around 96 pages in the BFI format – the same as a
lot of their other volumes – on Bonnie and Clyde, High
Lolita, and The Wings of the Dove, for example – and
shorter than some of them – like the one on Titanic.
But the editor, a guy named Rob White, went ballistic when he saw how long it was.
He pointed out that
my contract had called for 21,000 words, which would print up
60 pages. I hadn't paid much attention to the length clause in
the contact since I had no idea it would be strictly enforced.
publishers don't mind if you give them ten or twenty thousand words
over the limit. I tend to write long so I always do that. I
of it as giving them more than their money's worth – like
you give someone fourteen donuts even if they are only paying
dozen. [Laughing] And on top of that, I had the typical author's
delusion that the brilliance of my text would dazzle him so he
want to cut a word of it.
Was I in for a shock.
He saw things differently. He had budgeted the book as a maximum
of 64-printed pages and that was that. He told me to cut it down
to the contracted length.
Interviewer: Why was
he so strict about the length?
Carney: It's the business
thing we're talking about. Titanic is a big box-office smash.
Bonnie and Clyde is a cult favorite. Books about those films
are calculated to sell five or ten times the number of copies of
a book about an old, obscure movie like Shadows. The BFI
is willing to spend a lot more on them, and let them be longer.
a place like the British Film Institute operates that way when they
publish books? The page count of a book is supposed to be proportional
to the box office appeal of a film?
Carney: That's right.
They apportion things that way, and everyone else does too. That's
my point. The editor told to me to get it down to the contracted
length or he would kill it.
means not publish it at all?
Carney: That's what it
means. And he wasn't bluffing.
The math is not too hard
to do. To bring it in at 21,000 words I would have had to remove
approximately half of what I had written. Before I had turned in
the manuscript, I had already made a lot of cuts. There was a lot
more to say than I had had space for. I thought it was already too
short. The cuts would have destroyed the book. I'll give you an
example. The editor was particularly adamant about the Appendix
where I compare the two versions of the film. He said it wasn't
really necessary and would definitely have to go. That was just
to get me started. There was another ten or fifteen thousand words
to cut on top of that.
I can be pretty pig-headed
at times. So I refused. I knew he wasn't kidding, and I also knew
no other publisher would ever be interested in printing such a small,
specialized text; but I decided I just couldn't do it. I'd rather
the book was never published than it be gutted like that. I told
him that. Things got pretty tense.
Fortunately, at the last
minute, his boss intervened and told me that he would allow a printed
length of 80-pages, which subsequently became 88-pages, after some
more negotiation, if I would pay for the so-called 24-page overrun
out of my own pocket. Even that meant cutting about five or six
thousand words and some illustrative material. That's why the book
has no bibliography and the footnotes are so abridged; but I agreed.
Paying to get my manuscript published didn't strike me as the best
terms I had ever been offered by a publisher, but it was that or
Interviewer: I'm shocked
that you had to pay for the publication of part of your own book.
Carney: I wasn't shocked.
I was disappointed and my pride was hurt a little – but
I'm used to that! [Laughing] You can't be doing this sort of
thing for the
money. You'd kill yourself if you were in it for the money. I lose
money on everything I write. Sometimes a heck of lot more than
did in this case! I'm used to spending my own money. I wasn't going
to be making anything on the book even before that. I forget
the exact advance was, but I think it was around six or seven hundred
dollars. Maybe a little more or less than that. But whatever
was it wouldn't even pay for a single research trip to a film archive
in another city.
If we're talking about
lessons for young authors, I guess that's another thing a beginning
writer should realize. Writing doesn't pay the rent. Don't quit
your day job! I don't think anyone writing anything serious about
film in America can make a profit, unless your name is Roger Ebert - if you count what he does as serious writing. (Click here to read another statement about the financial realities of serious, scholarly research and publication.)
more insight into the way film book publishing really works, read
Ray Carney's answer to an interviewer's question about whether there
will be a new edition of his BFI/University of California book on
Shadows as a result of of his discovery of the long-lost
first version of the film:
wrote to the editor of my previous book, Rob White at the British
Film Institute, and offered to revise the old book or write a completely
new one in the light of the discovery. He told me he was not interested.
No book will be published. The BFI would rather put their money
into books on blockbusters - better known movies like Titanic
or The Exorcist or Taxi Driver. They sell better.
They do revised editions of them, not of a book like mine about
don't think that they are picking on Shadows. Or
that the BFI is any different from other publishers. That's
just the way publishing is. I have eight or ten unpublished
books on my hard drive. That's the nature of publishing. Everybody
wants to make a buck and if a project won't bring in the moola,
no one is interested. If I were writing about physics or biology,
it might be different, but academic publishing in terms of
film books is about making money first and foremost. It's
another effect of Hollywood. Its focus on money has polluted
our imaginations in the publishing realm too."
Interviewer: How about
the Cassavetes on Cassavetes and the John Cassavetes:
Adventure of Insecurity books? Can you talk about publishing
Carney: In the interview
with Jim McKay I told the story of how I self-published the Adventure
of Insecurity book. It cost me about ten thousand dollars.
Of which I've made back four or five hundred! [Laughing] How's
for a return on your investment? I could have done worse. I could
have bought Enron.
The lesson of self-publishing for a writer is a little like the
lesson of self-distribution for a filmmaker. Writing and printing
a book is the easy part. You write it, and you work with a designer
to lay it out and make it look good, and you call up a printer and
make arrangements to have it printed and bound on nice paper. No
problem. The hard part is selling it. Getting it into bookstores.
I haven't figured that one out.
also taught me a few lessons about human nature. I get requests
from people running film festivals to send them fifty or a hundred
copies to sell, and repeatedly get stiffed. A girl who ran a big
festival in Los Angeles in the fall of 2001 just did it to me again.
Interviewer: Did what?
Carney: Well, wrote me
this emotional letter about how she believed in Cassavetes and how
she was organizing these screenings at a Los Angeles movie theater
and could I mention the screenings on my website and send her promotional
material and boxes of books and other stuff for her events. So that
she could do the whole thing up right. Of course I fell for it,
just like I always do. So then she writes me a few months later
after it's all over saying she has sold everything but can't pay
me because she lost the money or something. She's in California.
What I am going to do? Fly out there and find out where she lives?
The only consolation is that Cassavetes told me a similar story
about self-distributing his films. One involved the Yale University
film program stiffing him for rentals. Yale! So I'm in good company.
I don't take it personally. But it is another lesson for a starving
author! Get the money in advance!
As I told Jim McKay,
the Cassavetes on Cassavetes book saga extended over more
than a decade. I could talk for a couple hours about it. So I'll
pass over how I spent years unsuccessfully shopping the book to
American publishers and repeatedly getting turned down. No one was
interested. I'll skip to the point when a British publisher, Faber,
contracted for the book. This is around the summer of 1997. They
wanted the final manuscript by the spring of 1998 so that the book
could be out by the tenth anniversary of Cassavetes' death in February
1999. But it wasn't done at that point and I missed the deadline.
Interviewer: I don't
understand why you missed the deadline, since according to what
you told McKay, you had been working on the manuscript for seven
or eight years and had sent finished drafts to American publishers
several years before. Why wasn't it ready in time?
Carney: Well, it's a
complicated emotional thing. The manuscript was complete. The manuscript
had been complete a number of times, but now that it was really
going to be published I didn't want to let it go until I felt it
was really right.
was wrong with it?
Carney: It's just that
the longer I worked on it, the less sure I became about everything.
I had begun with all this clarity and certainty, but the more people
I talked to and the deeper I got into Cassavetes' life, the fuzzier
the picture got. My goals also changed. When I began I simply wanted
to narrate the facts and events in his life, interspersed with his
own words. It was a picture from the outside. But as I kept working
on it, it got deeper. I wanted to get into his heart and soul, and
that was a lot harder to do. And it wasn't merely a writing problem
that could be solved by putting more time and effort into it. It
was a conceptual problem. I felt that I didn't understand him. The
more I knew, the less I understood.
So I kept researching,
talking to people who knew him, recasting and rewriting, chewing
through one manuscript after another, changing things, and in the
process pushing back the submission date with Faber. I don't know
if the manuscript would ever have been published if Faber hadn't given
me one of those drop-dead deadlines you sometimes need to finish
a project like this.
do you mean?
Carney: Doing something
like this becomes part of your life. It's like a love affair. You
define your existence in terms of it. You dream about it. You think
about it when you're biking or blading. There's a part of you that
never wants to let go. But the editor at Faber told me the manuscript
absolutely had to be done by August 2000 because they were determined
to publish it in time for a retrospective of Cassavetes' films being
mounted in the UK. The festival was scheduled to open at the National
Film Theater in March 2001 and the book had to be in bookstores
in time for the press hoopla.
Interviewer: Did you
make the deadline?
Carney: [Laughing] Barely!
I'll give you the blow by blow. I destroyed and created the manuscript
three or four more times, then turned in the final version on disk
and hard copy on the last possible day. Actually a few days after
the deadline. But the problem was that each time I had re-done it,
it had gotten longer. My contract had stipulated a book around 70
or 80 thousand words, but the version I turned in was approximately
four times that - something like 300,000, which would have printed
up at around 800 pages even in small type. The BFI curse struck
[Laughing] I know. I
know. Stupid. Self-destructive. Doomed. Crazy. But try to understand.
When you're writing, you live in a state of self-delusion. You
indulge in magical thinking. You have to. It's what keeps you
all the hard, slow parts. While I am working on something, one
part of my brain is in sheer terror that it will never be published
no one ever read it – because it's too long, too hard, too
extreme, or whatever – but the other part is totally convinced
that the whole world, including all the editors and copy-editors
will bow down and herald it as the greatest thing ever written.
I had convinced myself that even if what I submitted was as long
as Proust's Recherche, when the Faber editor saw how magnificent
it was, he would forget about the length. Of course editors inhabit
a less emotional, less fantasy-prone world.
Interviewer: Why can't
you just write the correct length?
Carney: You sound like
David Thomson. He once asked me what was my problem. Why couldn't
I just do what I was asked to do and write to a certain length?
I just can't work that way. The writing tells me how long it should
be. I don't tell it. Anything else is just doing a job as far as
I am concerned. I'm not making shoes or two-thumbs-up gloves. I'm
not working for someone else. I'm writing to explore something that
I don't know about. Things that don't fit into a mold. Things that
aren't mapped. So I can't know how long it will take to get there
or what shape they'll be in when they're done. That's what I'm trying
to find out.
Interviewer: So you're
saying you just disregarded the length clause in the contract. Did
you warn your editor how long the manuscript would be?
Carney: Authors and
editors do some sort of dance. Whether of courtship or death,
I don't know.
I had given him hints that it would be long, but I never had the
nerve to tell him the word count. I had lived in fear of this
for months. When I sent the final manuscript. I kept hoping either
he wouldn't notice or it wouldn't matter. I tried all the usual
stupid undergraduate tricks to camouflage the length – letting
out the margins, using a proportional font, line and a half spacing,
etc.. I thought that maybe with the NFT deadline encroaching, he
wouldn't have time to check the length and would just rush the
into print without looking at it. I know. Right now, as I look
back on it, I realize how crazy I was. As if a five-inch thick
of paper wouldn't stand out.
The Faber editor, Walter
Donohue is his name, is a very nice man. He was very gentle, very
sweet, very complimentary; but he told me I simply had to cut the
manuscript down to the stipulated length. In other words, cut out two-thirds of it or even more than that. And in a hurry! It was the response I had feared and dreaded
for months. The end of the yellow brick road. I felt like rolling
over and dying. I had spent ten years on the project at this point,
and Faber was the only publisher who had showed any interest in
it at all. And now I was faced with this.
did you do?
Carney: It was a real
crisis. There was a real question in my mind as to whether the book
would ever be published in any form. Ten years of work that might
not see the light of day. I didn't sleep for a couple of nights.
As with the BFI thing, I realized that I could cut the book
in half. But it wouldn't be the book I had written, the one I had
dreamed of all those months.
So I did the only thing
I could. I emailed Donohue and told him I formally withdrew the
manuscript, asked him to send it back, and apologized for wasting
his time. I decided I would rather not publish it at all than see
it hacked up that way. It was the only decision I felt I could live
with. He said he would return it.
I got on the phone and
made a series of frantic efforts to find an American publisher.
I tried to entice them by describing the upcoming NFT events and
the tie-in possibilities. I ran to Kinko's and had copies made
FedExed a few to editors I knew personally. A few days went by.
No one was interested. In desperation I called a printer to
what it would cost to lay out and self-publish an eight-hundred
page book with 200 illustrations and a sewn binding. The printer
laughed at me. It was way too much for me to afford. That was the
real end of the line.
A few days later, to
my complete surprise the Faber editor got back in touch with me
by email. He said he had discussed the situation with some of their
people and if I could hold the final printed text to 544 pages (which
was some sort of magic number in terms of size and cost), he would
move it into production. So I ditched about fifty or sixy thousand words of text (or something like that, I now forget),
30 pages of back matter – the footnotes and the space reserved
for the index – and about 100 photos I had planned to include.
I squeaked in under the limit. In fact, when the book was published
I discovered that I had apparently miscalculated and cut two pages
more than I had had to. I wish I had known. I would have included
another thousand words!
Interviewer: Did the
book appear in time for the National Film Theater events?
Carney: With minutes
to spare. No thanks to me of course! Even after the big block
I kept making dozens of little changes as the manuscript was being
laid out and proofread. The copy-editor was a saint – the
most patient and forbearing human being I have ever known.
I was the
sausage packer determined to squeeze two pounds of meat into a
one-pound casing. I would have him play with the size and placement
of a photo so I could try to squeeze in another sentence of
Or I would have him cut a sentence to try to fit in another photo.
Or I would have him restore something that I had already cut
I found white space on the final page of a chapter. I remember
emailing him six pages of final adjustments twelve hours before
was supposed to go to the printers! I know, I know. I'm impossible.
I admit it. But Faber pulled off a miracle. Forty days after
went to the printer, books were sitting in London bookstores.
Interviewer: Are those
the two worst publishing experiences you've ever had?
Carney: They aren't
the worst! The worst are the books in my file cabinets – the
ones I've written but never been able to publish. I have six
of those. Where did you get the idea these were bad experiences?
They are success stories! Look at the two books. They
are terrific! The system works. I am not complaining; I am
completely candid about what it takes to get something into print.
There's always some sort
of compromise. It's really been pretty much the same with everything
I've written. I had to cut more than 100 pages of discussions of
American painting from my American Vision book because the
editor couldn't understand what they had to do with film. Of course
the book was the answer to the question. I had to cut the chapters
on Husbands and Opening Night as well as most of the
discussions of American intellectual history from my Pragmatism,
Modernism, and the Movies book, since that editor, a different
one, thought that book was too long and didn't think discussions
of Emerson, Schiller, James, and Dewey belonged in a film book.
I had to gouge huge hunks out of my Leigh book for similar reasons.
The fact that the experiences
repeat with different editors proves that no particular editor is
at fault. It's my problem. I create it. The system resists anything
really ambitious or challenging or different. Publishers aren't
any different from film producers. They don't want something that
doesn't fit into a pre-existing category or pre-established length.
They want a book like the last book. I'm never able to give them
Interviewer: So you
are not mad at these editors?
Carney: No. They're just
doing their jobs. I can understand where they are coming from. Unless
it's by Pauline Kael or Roger Ebert or some other celebrity reviewer,
people don't want to read a film book that is more than about three
or four hundred pages. I have a 1300-page, two-volume edition of
my Cassavetes on Cassavetes, but I realize that's more than
most people want to know about him.
Interviewer: Run that
by me again. The part about the two-volume edition of Cassavetes
Carney: I forgot to
say before that I continued revising the Cassavetes on Cassavetes
manuscript after the final text went to the printer. I just
couldn't stop. I felt that I had rushed it in those final months
and that there was more that needed to be done. More to say. More
to ponder. I wasn't doing it for publication by that point, but
for myself. So I kept working on it. I spent thousands of hours.
I changed a lot of things around; I dug deeper; I ferreted out
material; I did some more interviews with people who had worked
with Cassavetes. I wanted to really finish the job. To go every
inch of the final mile, to see where it took me. I restored the
passages I had cut for Faber, and kept working on the manuscript
up until quite recently – about eighteen months of additional
work. On top of everything else, after the Faber volume was published
a lot of people I didn't know before came out of the woodwork.
They called me up or emailed me to tell me they had things to
add – new
stories or things that I hadn't heard about. So I added them. The
manuscript got so long that I organized it into two volumes. The
first goes from Beginnings through Husbands, and the second
from Minnie and Moskowitz through The Final Years. I have
it all put together as a 100,000-word addendum to the published
manuscript, a 400-page correction sheet that has all the changes
and new material in it, keyed to the exact places where it all
If I do say so myself, it's really wonderful. A much better, much
deeper, much stranger portrait of the artist. What an amazing
being Cassavetes was.
Interviewer: Any plans
to publish it?
Carney: Is that a joke?
Are you taunting me?
Interviewer: No. I'm
serious. I'm sure there are many people who would like to read it.
Carney: I just don't
know. I wasn't doing it for anyone but myself. And I'm not under
any illusions that the world is holding its breath for it. It would
be nice if it were published, of course, now or after my death;
but to do it I'd have to get permission from or pay a fee to Faber.
Or have them publish it as an expanded second edition. I don't know
if that will ever happen. Robert Caro can write four volumes and
4000 pages about Lyndon Johnson, but people who buy film books don't
have the same degree of interest, particularly in someone like Cassavetes.
That's sad to me. But true.
I also re-wrote the table
that is at the end of the Shadows book. Some of it had been
shortened for the BFI book so I restored the cut material, and I
also discovered some new things about the film that I wanted to
add to it. But they'll never agree to publish the complete table. (I sell a typescript of it on my web site, but no publisher will go near it.)
I do these things not for someone else, but for myself. I'd love
to see them published but I am doing them for other reasons. For
truth not for publication. They are more than most people want to
know. When it comes to film, people want less. They want glitz not
And they don't want writing
that makes demands on them. They want something about the level
of The New York Times or The New Yorker. Zippy. Peppy.
Punny. Witty. Clever. I've never been able to do that and I never
will. I'm resigned to that fact. I have no desire to write that
way. I hate cleverness!
Heck, let's face it,
most people, even smart ones, don't want critical interpretation
at all. They want celebrity biography – dished up with a
little seasoning of spicy gossip. Look at the best seller lists.
that aren't self-help or advice to the lovelorn are all biographies.
Our culture is biography-happy. If my critical writing takes it
on the chin, my Cassavetes on Cassavetes book has probably
benefited from that cultural craziness, even if it is a case of
do you mean?
Carney: I don't do biography – at
least not the kind people who read these books want. The Cassavetes
on Cassavetes book is a biography of Cassavetes' soul.
That's not what they want.
Interviewer: Why do
you think people are drawn to biographies?
Carney: Good reasons
and bad. There's nothing more fascinating and mysterious than
path we take through life. That's why even the most ordinary biography
is more gripping than the hyped-up drama in a Hollywood movie.
why I think documentaries are the great contemporary art form and
why I like them – when they are good. I don't mean the
ones on A&E or the ones Ken Burns does. But of course a
lot of the interest in contemporary biography is simple voyeurism.
celebrities. Look at the popularity of that show about the Osbornes.
It's the sad vicariousness of our culture.
But the artist is the
one person who can't be dealt with in a conventional biography.
The most important part of his life is inside him, not in his actions
but his consciousness. And that's written in his work far better
than it can ever be written by a biographer. The only reason people
read biographies of artists is because it's easier to understand
the trivial events in an artist's life than the deep ones in his
heart and mind. To get the soul you have to look at the work or
read really good, insightful criticism. But there's darn little
of that! And great criticism is too hard for most people to understand.
Facts and events are a lot easier to follow. But when you get down
to it, who has a life that is reducible to things like that?
To read two more discussions of the realities of publishing, click
here and here.
This page contains an excerpt from
an interview with Ray Carney. In the selection above,
he talks about
being a writer. The complete interview this is taken from 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
Ray Carney's writing on
independent film, including information about how to obtain the
complete text of this interview and two other packets
in which he gives his views on film, criticism, teaching, the life
of a writer, and the path of the artist, click