The Fine Arts theater is backsliding once more, returning next week to a pornography policy, a fate almost worse than death, after a year and a fraction as a repertory house. Its swan song is delivered this Friday and Saturday in the form of an advance look at Joseph Strick's adaptation of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, shot last year in Ireland, in 16mm, with an Irish crew and cast, excepting John Gielgud, who was enlisted to do the 12-minutes hellfire sermon. This is Strick's second go at Joyce (Ulysses, 1967), and still another addition to his string of movie treatments of 20th Century literary landmarks. Genet's The Balcony, Miller's Tropic of Cancer, and Durrell's Justine (completed by, and credited to, George Cukor). His next project, if all goes well in his impending discussions with the author, is to be a treatment of Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. For Strick, the Portrait preview this weekend affords an opportunity to make final revisions, "based on the way the audience moves in their seats, or if they light cigarettes -- God forbid -- or look at their watches." He originally contacted the Fine Arts with the idea of using its facilities to inspect his Portrait print in private, and this grew into the idea of a test run in front of an audience. En route to Los Angeles from London, carrying the Portrait print with him, Strick suffered a "mild" coronary, and has since been staying temporarily in La Jolla with his French wife, a Paleobotanist doing work at Scripps, and their children, one of whom makes an appearance in Portrait as the three-year-old Stephen Dedalus.
Did the present political situation in Ireland affect your handling of Portrait of the Artist?
STRICK: Not at all in its content, but in the shooting, sure. We only got two threats, which is low, actually. The last three films that were attempted in Ireland had been driven out by terrorists. Kubrick had been driven out by phone calls threatening his family, and Jonathan Miller, and one other. They all had English crews. So, I decided we would have to have an entirely Irish crew, and almost entirely Irish cast, and we shot Gielgud only during the final week to avoid any troubles. He came over the week the British ambassador was slaughtered, almost got one of my assistants as well, who was riding a bicycle near the blast.
But you, with your Irish crew -- what was their excuse for threatening you?
Oh, it's so easy to put fourpence in a coinbox and be a bigshot, if you haven't gotten a part or if you're not working as a technician. Envy is one of the Irish diseases, it's really quite palpable. The people are very poor; the average factory wage is 40 quid, which is just over $65; and those are the ones who are well off. Ireland is the poorest country in the Common Market, poorer than Italy -- Joyce uses the word "squalid." So, it's inevitable that if you're hiring one, or two, or five hundred people in the course of a film that somebody who isn't hired is going to do something ridiculous. It wasn't the organized stuff at all.
What are the plans for distributing Portrait?
I don't know. Walter Reade was supposed to distribute it, but he died in a skiing accident. He went head first into a snow drift at St. Moritz. A liquid lunch and into a snow bank and never came out alive. He was always one for the flamboyant gesture. He wore a new carnation every day. A very sweet man and a great character.
He handled Ulysses, didn't he? I don't know if it was handled like this everywhere, but in New York it was originally released as a three-night run at $5.50 a ticket.
That was Walter's idea and I had no control over it. His manic plan was to have 150 cinemas at $5.50 and advertise that it would never be shown again because who knew what the censor was going to do to us. In three days, he would have had his entire costs back for the picture. Well, he lined up 150 houses and then he made the terrible mistake of playing them a bit of the soundtrack, and when he finished there were only 35 houses left, most of which were his own. Because of the language, you see. Anyway, when the film came out in the limited number of houses, it did very well and we had no problems from the censor. It's just proof of my mother's Romanian saying, "Never tell a fool half a story." You can't just play the soundtrack as a substitute for the finished work.
So, with Walter Reade out of the picture, where do you go with Portrait from here?
We'll see how it goes here first. I might distribute it myself or I might distribute it through someone else. In reaching the kind of audience I'm interested in there's really nobody doing it. When there have been experiments in it, they've done very well going directly to the literate audience, concentrating on college towns, and so forth. This isn't snobbism on my part. There's a real need for it. And you can't demand of yourself as a filmmaker that you make a big hit every time, if you do, you end up making junk.
Your movie prior to Portrait was Road Movie, which never reached San Diego. What kind of distribution did you try to get for it?
Well, I tried to get major distribution and didn't get it. And then rather than turn it over to the jungle cats, I released it through Grove Press. I happen to be a director of Grove, just because Barney Ross and I were both in school at UCLA in '41 and'42. They had had the luck to release I am Curious (Yellow), and made ten million dollars and promptly spent it. Now they work pretty quietly. They do about 50 books a year and very little film. But the films I make can't be sold like Jaws or Black Sunday. I get fired from pictures like that.
The one time you tried operating at that level was on Justine for Fox, in 1968. Would you mind re-telling what happened?
Well, we just didn't agree on anything. They didn't let me cast the film, and I should have quit right then. They made me promises about the script, but they wouldn't let me change it. When I came on the film, they already had a million and a half dollars in screenplays, so it had to be a so-called Big Picture. Joe Mankiewicz was the first writer, and he charged them $400,000 â€“ youâ€™re American enough to be interested in money, so you don't mind if I drop the number, do you? He was in the middle of a treatment when Cleopatra came up, and they were in desperate trouble on that; so, they allowed him out of the contract and paid him fully, after he'd only done a first draft which was hundreds and hundreds of pages long. Durrell never had a hand in it and was paid only 50,000 bucks, but he was very content because it enabled him to put his daughter through school. When I sent him the final (Lawrence Marcus) script, he said, "This is a disaster. Get out of it as fast as you can. It's not going to work." I had met him by then with Miller, a very nice man, and I agreed with him. When I got fired he wrote me a long letter saying, "This is the most fortunate thing that's ever happened to you, because it's got to end badly." And he was right.
How much of the filming did you finish?
I shot half of it, all the material in North Africa, Tunis. Cukor, who took over, kept about a third of it. Anouk (Aimee) refused to reshoot; she was very offended. That was part of the problem, but there was more. For the part of Melissa I first wanted Glenda Jackson, and Pandro (Berman) said, "She's ugly!" And I said, "This is a really great actress" -- this was before she had made any movies, and I had met her at Stratford. That's when I should have quit. I felt I'd been used and was using people, because I had offered her the part and she said yes. So then I offered it to Live Ullman, and they refused to sign her; they said, she couldn't speak English. Well, of course, she speaks magnificent English. And then I offered it to Genevieve Bujold, and they offered her a contract without options; she would have had to go into indentured servitude. By that time I was really worn down, and they got Anna Karina to do it. She's a sweetie, but .... I'd by then gotten the idea that the whole film was to be a kind of chorus line. They promised me I could change the script and when Anouk accepted the part of Justine she said, "You're going to fix it, of course. I'm never going to have to say those lines." And I said, "Of course not." Then when we got to Tunis, she said to me, "You promised I wouldn't have to say those lines." And I agreed. I said it was intolerable. So, we went to Berman, and he said, "Now that it's been approved, that's what you're going to do." So, I said to myself; you've been an outlaw all your life; isn't it about time you got along with someone in the conventional film world? And I really tried. I just couldn't. The crunch came when we were shooting in a magnificent palace there, and I had Alexander Girard design it. They didn't want him, because he'd never been in the movie business. But he's a great designer, and he designed this beautiful set of lights, and Berman said to me, "Joe, you've taken this beautiful palace and made it look like Coney Island." And I said, "Well, Shamrey (he's the cameraman) says it's the most beautiful shot he's ever made, and I think it's beautiful." Pandro said, "I'll cut it out," because he had the final cut. And I said, "Maybe the studio will see it my way." So I went ahead and we sent it off. And we got a wire from the studio saying it was magnificent, and that's when I was through, because Pandro couldn't tolerate anybody crossing him like that. He was about knee high, and he was afraid I would be pushy. It was his one hundred and fifth film, so he was not without his redeeming social importance.
Dirk Bogarde is pretty good in the movie. Like you, he was trying to make himself more commercially acceptable at that time.
He's nice, a very nice guy, and he can do a certain number of things very well. But he's quite, quite gay. I like him, but there was a bit of tension between us. After the first shot he took my hand and he said, "Put your hand on my heart." And I thought; what's going on? Is he copping a feel? And his heart was bursting through his ribcage, and he was so petrified, and he said, "It's like this all the time. I don't know why I do it anymore." I think he's a good actor. I don't think he's a great actor.
It's interesting -- the people you wanted for Justine before they hit it big internationally. The Balcony has an interesting cast when you consider what became of them afterwards -- Lee Grant, Peter Falk, Leonard Nimoy ....
Shelley's a big mistake though. Barbara Jefford was supposed to do it. But Shelley (Winters) was laying her own private campaign for the part. And one week before we began, Barbara's agent sent a telegram saying they had to have a completely new deal. By that time I had signed everybody on the basis that they'd get the Screen Actors Guild minimum, which was 350 bucks a week, and I cabled back saying no. I was quite surprised, because she had never been in a film. But her agent cabled again saying, okay, she's not coming. And the only person the distributor, Walter Reade, would accept at that point was Shelley. Too bad. The only star I ever started was Ellen Burstyn in Tropic of Cancer. The people in The Balcony -- it was their first time off the blacklist.
Is your position outside the Hollywood Establishment -- you called yourself an outlaw -- a disadvantage in getting done the movies you want to get done?
Well, you know, for a while I lived with my first wife right across the street from 20th Century-Fox, and at night I could see the arc light and I would say to myself; one day I'm going to direct in Hollywood. Well, I did direct in Hollywood -- for one day. No, I shot The Balcony in a Hollywood studio, but I only worked for a major studio on Justine. And of course I prepared and then never made The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. I cast it and crewed it and selected the locations. I got fired because I cut the script by 40 pages. The day before shooting began, the producer came to me and said I had to put the pages back. I told him I didn't know how to do that, he should get somebody else to do that. To my surprise, he did.
Working the way you do, don't you feel your energies are spent in some areas you would rather not have to worry about?
Well, it's a lot of work. It takes about three years to do a movie my way. But all of that stuff's not serious. Producing is not serious work. A producer signs a few checks. I don't even take credit as producer on Portrait because it's not serious work for a grown man. What is a producer? He's a representative of the bank. If you can keep your bank book balanced, you can be a producer.
At what stage is the relationship with Pirsig on the Zen project?
We have a contract, and we haven't signed it because I don't want him to sign unless he agrees with the way I'm going to do it. What I don't need in my life is an outraged author. I have hopes to do it in three screens. There's an idea density in it that interests me in the idea of using three screens simultaneously. There will obviously have to be management of the three images, so you're not trying to look three places at once. But what I would like to get across is the beauty and monotony of that kind of trip, a cross-country motorcycle trip, and at the same time what's going on inside his head. I'm interested in moving into different kinds of filmmaking processes. I happen to be a part-time physicist. I start companies in the science business, I organize companies, I help build them, and I sell them. I've been very lucky in that racket. The company I started most recently -- I usually have only one going at a time -- is in the holography business, and we now own all the patents on optical and acoustical holography. And I would like to make a hologram movie, but I've never been able to raise a dime on that idea. Portrait has been prepared -- we're not doing it here -- but it's been prepared for showing with headsets at every seat, with infrared transmission, wireless. It's marvelous.
How will we know we're getting the same movie as the person next to us?
Because you'll both laugh at the same time.
Does your science interests explain your attraction to Zen as a subject?
Sure. Zen says something that I like very much about the amiability of technology. But I'd really rather not think too much about it at this point. When you buy the rights to a book, it's just a hunting license. You may or may not make the film. You may or may not be happy with the script. So I'm keeping a purposely blank mind at least until I talk with Pirsig. The worst thing you can do is go through a whole lot of work and imagining before you get something. Then if you don't get it, it's just awful.
What notable disappointments have you had?
I wanted Cuckoo's Nest. I wanted All the President's Men. I wanted Day of the Locust. I had Locust for seven years in fact, and never had a screenplay that was worth shooting.
You used the expression, "outraged author" earlier. You're safe from Joyce, but did Miller give you any reaction to Tropic?
Oh, he loved it. He's a very nice man and very supportive. It was a very close relationship. No, I've never had an outraged author, not even Genet, who likes to be outraged at everybody. I got him at the time of male menopause and I was safe. He told me he wasn't going to write anymore after The Screens. I didn't believe him, but it's true. He hasn't done another play since. A strange guy.
The books you pick to film -- the Miller and the two Joyces in particular -- seem so deeply rooted in language, what makes you want to translate them into images?
It's just out of love of the books.
Couldn't that lead you astray in terms of movies?
I've been lead astray very often in my life. I've done originals and I've done adaptations, and I love doing both. I did Savage Eve, which was an original, and the picture cost all of 65,000 bucks. And I did Road Movie. I don't mean to evade the question of adaptations versus originals. I probably feel closer to originals. But I also live in a world of books.