Bob Rafelson: Confessions of a filmmaker
September 19, 2005
Film director Bob Rafelson has contributed his share of near-perfect creations to American cinema. “Five Easy Pieces,” his character piece starring Jack Nicholson as a misfit confronting his past and future, and “Mountains of the Moon,” about Sir Richard Burton’s search for the headwaters of the Nile, leap to mind.
Looking back on a nearly 40-year career, however, Rafelson can’t escape the idea that his filmography might have been even more illustrious. Among the projects he turned down are “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Deliverance” and “All the President’s Men.”
In the master class he is set to give at Aspen Filmfest, Rafelson will speak on the craft of filmmaking. Even his lesser works films are marked by standout performances, smart construction and, always, provocative themes. But it is a bigger picture that may be the most valuable thing the 72-year-old Aspenite has to impart ” not how a director looks through the camera lens, but how he looks at himself.
“There’s a place for commitment and dedication and discovering your voice,” says Rafelson in the office, filled with books, screenplays and DVDs, of his Castle Creek home. “But there’s a larger place for embracing things you are intolerant of in your ideology, and finding the challenge in that.”
Rafelson has been constrained by his own ideology, his own conception of his filmmaking niche. He passed on “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” because he didn’t think Ken Kesey’s brilliant novel was to be messed with. Or at least, he didn’t want to be the one doing the messing.
“I’d go up to his farm to talk about it,” says Rafelson, who does take some credit for suggesting Milos Forman, then a little-known Czech, to direct the film. “But I just didn’t want to touch such a masterpiece of our time, a bestseller. My role, I thought, was to do more original things, stories of my own.
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“We were in a slightly revolutionary moment in the movie world, and that was one of my tenets: Let somebody else f— up a great novel.”
At the time, Rafelson was proud of his stance. “There was a lopsided fervor to these turndowns: ‘Good books shouldn’t be made into movies,’ ” he says. Three more decades of wisdom, though, has taught him otherwise. “That’s ignoring hundreds of great movies that have been made from great books.”
He took a similarly narrow view about the prospects for “Mountains of the Moon.” The project involved his hero ” Sir Richard Burton, the 19th century explorer who battles nature and man to find the source of the Nile. But Rafelson was more focused on the obstacles to making the film than the opportunity.
“It was an English story, with English actors, on non-American turf,” he says. “I thought I was obliged to work in these American niches: Atlantic City in the off-season; Birmingham, Alabama; Bakersfield, California” ” the settings for “The King of Marvin Gardens,” “Stay Hungry” and “Five Easy Pieces” ” “these discreet corners of America.”
Eventually, he saw past his self-imposed limits and made “Mountains of the Moon,” his only epic. “It took me over a year to persuade myself that that was a dumb point of view,” says Rafelson, who wrote, produced and directed the film. “Look at the record of French, German directors who made great American movies. Why couldn’t an American make an English movie?
“It all boiled down to, I was too egotistical. Instead of following my instincts, I had intellectual precepts. And I regret those today.”
Even with films he has been eager to make, Rafelson has placed constraints on himself that now seem wrong-minded. After beginning his career as a writer and director of the TV series “The Monkees,” and debuting on the big screen with the pop music-oriented “Head” (featuring the Monkees, Frank Zappa and his frequent collaborator Nicholson), Rafelson thought he had relied too much on music. So for his next few films, he did without soundtracks.
“I didn’t want to dictate to the audience how they should feel about a given scene,” says Rafelson, simultaneously reconstructing and critiquing his thinking at the time. “Well, why not? It’s only been done since the beginning of filmmaking.”
Rafelson advises aspiring filmmakers to be as open-minded about cinematic history as about their own participation in it. Having taught filmmaking at most of the festivals he attends, including recent ones in Italy and Brazil, Rafelson encounters aspiring filmmakers who ignore the great filmmakers from before their time.
“Why should I look at movies from the ’30s or ’40s when I can look at a movie by Billy Friedkin or Martin Scorsese? They’ve studied these movies, I can just study theirs,” he says. “As if there were no joy in learning from masters of all periods.
“Picasso used to tell his students that he wouldn’t discuss the modernity of his art until they could make a simple line drawing.”
While he shakes his head over some of his past attitudes, Rafelson is more ambivalent about other choices he has made. While shooting “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” Rafelson spent five days driving on the beach near Santa Barbara, trying to determine which way the steering wheel should be turned to make a passenger tumble out the door. Rafelson was risking limb, and burning time, in preparation for the film’s final scene. “Now if you want to talk about a complete waste of energy …,” he says.
For the scene in “Five Easy Pieces” in which Nicholson’s Robert Dupea picks up two hitchhikers, Rafelson recorded 50 different ashtrays, to get just the right rattle.
“I thought the sound of the car should have its own distinct personality. So now, when you listen, you can hear the tinkle of the ashtray,” he says. “Can you imagine how many hours that took? I’d have been better off editing the sequence.”
But Rafelson isn’t so sure that aspiring filmmakers should be warned away from obsessing over such details. Rafelson divides directors into two categories: those making big-budget, cookie-cutter Hollywood fare, and those looking to make films stamped with individuality and intelligence.
“By the same token,” he says of his ashtray-recording and car-swerving adventures, “it speaks a little bit about the absurd level of commitment it takes, should you choose to be in the second category of directors. Each director will have to learn in which way he will waste his energy.”