How to make a Cassavetes movie
(and how NOT to make one)

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Ray Carney recently received the email below from Sunflower Productions on behalf of Terrence Malick and Edward Pressman. His reply follows.

Dear Mr. Carney,

I work for Terrence Malick and producer Edward Pressman and we have a deal to make a number of small features for Sony Pictures Classics. We would like to approach these films the way many of the French New Wave films were made—with very small crews. We have spoken to Mr. Barbet Schroeder who told us on Breathless and 400 Blows, their crew size was 18-20—with no production designer and synch-sound was handled in post so that didn’t hold up their shoot. We would like to emulate this style of production again, and make our films with very small crews, which would give us the freedom to shoot for longer periods of time.

Could you perhaps tell me about how Mr. Cassavetes shot his films—precisely the number of people on his crew—if possible the length of the shoots—ballpark budgets. We would like to have specific numbers/information to arm ourselves with when we make our case to shoot in this fashion to financiers...

Any expertise and guidance you may be able to provide would be greatly appreciated. Thanks very much for your valuable time and consideration.

Erin O’Rourke

VP of Production

Sunflower Productions


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 enough.

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.

Ray Carney

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 of it.’"

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