AMERICAN FILM MAGAZINE: April 1983 continued

Hoffman and Susan George in STRAW DOGS. The director was Sam Peckinpah.
Tuchman: Which directors would at this point be your greatest fans? Which would say, "He's terrific," and which would say, "Don't mention his name in my office"?

Hoffman: I think Benton and I worked well together on KRAMER. Mike Nichols and I worked well together on THE GRADUATE.John Schlesinger and I had a great time together on MIDNIGHT COWBOY; we had a tougher time on MARATHON MAN, because I think the genre was more difficult for us. Franklin Schaffner and I had a good time together on PAPILLON. I think Bob Fosse and I had a tough time on LENNY, although Peter Yates and I got along very well on JOHN AND MARY. Sam Peckinpah and I got along fine on STRAW DOGS, and the same was true of Alan Pakula on ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN. Despite the problems on Agatha, Michael Apted and I got along well, and I had no problem with Arthur Penn on LITTLE BIG MAN. On the other hand, Ulu Grosbard would certainly not want my name mentioned in his office. We were best friends, and wound up working two times together, but the second film, STRAIGHT TIME, breached the friendship.

Tuchman: What are the specific reasons you fight with directors when you do?

Hoffman: I've done fifteen films now in fifteen years, and I'm learning what does work, what doesn't work. I'm learning about how much self-deception goes on amongst the creators themselves and how many critical errors are casually made--the lack of thought glossed over with glib, pat phrases--"Don't worry about that, it's not important, we don't need that shot." Those "little" mistakes cost the movie, collapse the movie. That's why I fight. I want to know why we don't need that shot. If you can convince me, OK, but don't give me unreasoned platitudes. Somebody told me Picasso said a painter walks around for months with a movie of images in his mind and he winds up with one image on canvas--imagine the tension, because he's got fifty million images he's rejecting. Every new stroke destroys the painting before. That's exactly the way a movie is, because we can work on a screenplay, we can work on a structure, we can work until we're blue in the face, then look at the first day of rushes and it's different. It's either worse or it's better, but it's not what it was on the page. You've got to be led by what's on the screen, and yet you work with people sometimes who are not led by that--it's like they're blind. It's not translating from the page, yet they want to stick with it anyway, and you go crazy because you see how little it takes to hurt a film. Another painter once said, "I'm so afraid when I'm painting, because the slightest little thing, the slightest little move, one stroke, collapses the tension ofthe canvas."

Tuchman: What is the appropriate division of labor between the actor, the director, and the producer?

On the set of KRAMER VS. KRAMER: Hoffman, Meryl Streep and Robert Benton.
Hoffman: I think that the best working relationship I've ever had on any film was KRAMER. The producer was Stanley Jaffe, the director-writer was Bob Benton. I had this part that was central to the story, andt he three of us worked on the script for months and we brought forth our own experiences. We argued, we talked, we fought--and out of it, I think, came a somewhat personal film, by the three of us. I thought it was ideal. We even fought during the filming of it. You can't not fight. I'm not saying what Pollack says--that I live to fight or need it emotionally. I don't. But when you think the film may succeed or fail depending on the decision you're fighting about, it's essential to fight, to question. That's how you get the best out of each other. Sometimes, I don't think film is set up to get the best work out of anybody. In a sense, it's set up for you to fail, by virtue of the fact that you're told what amount to create every day. And implicitly it's stated that you can't go home again--you're usually not going to get another chance to do retakes, which are very expensive. Woody Allen told me that he has written in his contract that he can come back during postproduction to shoot maybe twenty, thirty percent of the film, and in that way do what a writer or a sculptor does--you go back and you keep working on it till it's right. Most movies aren't that way. They always say, "Don't worry about the sets; they'll be there." And then they're not there. Studios are funny that way. They don't want you to go back again. Woody Allen told me, "I never shoot sets. That's why I shoot Rockefeller Center, because I know it's going to be there." That's why I think preparation plays such a major part. But you live in a kind of Looney Tunes atmosphere sometimes in this business. If you say that you spent two or three years on a screenplay, they think you're crazy; why, I don't know. A book can take ten years. But with a screenplay, there's something wrong if you're working on it more than a few months. Yet if you take your time and get it right before you start shooting, you'll save time and money and have a far better film.

Tuchman: We hear a lot about "collaborative filmmaking" these days. Is that a concept you approve of?

Hoffman: Yes, I like collaborative filmmaking. I like to go on a set and have everyone feel that they can be a part of that film. There is a caste system that exists in filmmaking that I think a few people are trying to break down. No one should just have a job. No one should be told that they're "just" the costumer, just do the costumes, or they're "just" the makeup man, just do the makeup. You're working with people who are really first-rate in their work, and who do many more films than the directors, the producers, or the stars. The crew members go from one film to another--their credits are triple or quadruple what ours are, and they get a smell of whether the work is fraudulent or real. Some of the best ideas I've ever seen that result in the finished film have come, when allowed, from somebody on the crew. Tommy Priestley, the camera operator on KRAMER--he was going through the same thing the character in the film was, and he would say, "Jesus, this is right out of my life." And I'd go up to him and I'd talk to him and I'd say, "Tell me. Tell me." And he did. And it's on the screen. I think it's a family, and I think it can be an emotional, spiritual experience. It still means you have a director--you have someone who has final say--but it doesn't mean that you have an atmosphere where people are afraid to open their mouths. There's no better feeling in the world than to hear a crew laugh at something on the set or to have them applaud or to have them come up and say, "Good take" or to have them involved in it. I don't think Dorothy Michaels would be on the screen as she is now without the crew's love for that character. They pulled for her. They wanted her to work. And a great deal of the credit for how well she works is theirs.

Tuchman: Given that this sort of familylike situation or noncaste situation is beneficial for filmmaking, you still have talked quite a bit about wanting control.

Hoffman: When you see the same mistakes being made year after year, you have to be an idiot not to speak up. Suddenly you're no longer a virgin; you know a couple of things. To have control means that you can set up an atmosphere. If I initiate a project, I would certainly want to control its destiny. But if a director comes to me with his baby, no, I don't expect to have control of it. At the same time, I've found that I work best when I work in a collaborative way. I'm not saying that you give a script out to everybody and say, "Tell me what you think." A few key people work on it, and then it begins to open up. The art director comes into it, the cinematographer comes into it, the costume-wardrobe people, the editor, etc.--those key people expand it, and all start to add input. You don't want to stifle that. I once read that Ingmar Bergman wrote a letter to his entire crew and cast before he started, saying, "Now that we're starting production, now that we have the script, please feel that this is a family--it is our film." Interestingly enough, what doesn't get any press is that TOOTSIE had a terrific crew and cast. Very close and very warm, and there was a lot of hard, first-rate work on the set every day, and a great spirit.