Saturday, April 21, 2007

Steven Bach Visits

Steven Bach joined us last evening for a talkback after the screening of Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will”, her 1934 celebration of Hitler in one of the most skilled propaganda films ever made.

Among the things learned from Bach, author of a recent biography of Riefenstahl: Leni’s film breakthrough was that she placed the techniques of fiction film into a supposedly documentary frame (think for example of Hitler landing in a plane, heroically breaking through the clouds); that she had, since she was funded by the Nazi party, at least twenty cameramen, four of whom, said Bach, were literally the best cameramen in the world at the time. There were nine aerial photographers at least, and a number of the on-ground cameramen traveled on roller skates to get the tracking shot effect of the crowds. The film was, as most fiction films are, really created in the edit stage, and since all twenty cameramen shot unlimited footage there were massive numbers of shots to work with. What’s more, any non-German newsreel shooters (Fox Movietone, Paramount, etc.) had to sign off on a demand giving Leni access and usage rights to whatever footage they shot. That generated all told probably more footage than anyone in the history of film up until that time had shot.

Nearly 500 people turned up for the Institute screening, astonishing since the Institute felt the screening of an old Nazi propaganda film would be the last thing the public would want to see.

One of the things that got Steven Bach into writing about Riefensthal was his biography of Marlene Dietrich. Riefenstahl and Dietrich were born within eight months of each other in the same city, and the two could not have taken more different courses in their lives: Riefenstahl stayed in the fold while Dietrich renounced Nazism and became an American. So, the thing that tripped Bach’s attention to Dietrich was his access to Josef von Sternberg while Bach was a student at USC during the last year of von Sternberg’s life.

But part of the pleasure of hosting a learned and experienced cineaste like Steven Bach is the other stories he could tell. He was of course Senior VP and Head of Worldwide Production for United Artists during the time of the making of “Heaven’s Gate”, the film that Michael Cimino made after his astonishing “Deer Hunter”. Bach’s book on the subject bears a long but apt title, “Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of the film Heaven’s Gate, the Film that Sank United Artists,” and it was called by Pauline Kael the best book on American moviemaking in the conglomerate age. As Bach effectively explained in an afternoon session with us, once production began United Artists was in for a dime, in for a dollar. The enormous budget at the time, $12 million (perhaps the equivalent of $120 million today), was already irrevocably three-quarters committed once the camera started rolling. As it turned out UA would have been wise to shut down production but kept hoping against hope that something would magically change course. All other production had to be stopped in favor of this trainwreck-in-the-making.

The experience cost Bach his job in Hollywood, but he doesn’t seem to have been too troubled by that. He now teaches at Bennington and Columbia and basically says that television has left the Hollywood market competing for the attention of 18-25 year olds who producers usually underestimate by presenting explosions and car chases.

Yet regardless of failures there were magical times, among them the making of “Sleuth” a London stage play bought largely on Bach’s recommendation. It was Joseph Mankiewicz’s last film (Mankiewicz, one of Hollywood’s greats then in the twilight of his career, sued the studio because he wanted an actual intermission in the screening just as would occur on the stage, where the piece was originally performed). Olivier, just having suffered through prostate cancer, thought it would be his own last film. Bach said Olivier could never remember his lines, causing the production to do as many as 30 takes. But, he noted, as Olivier gradually got more solid with his lines, his counterpart, Michael Caine, just kept getting better and better. As it turns out Caine was meant to get first billing in the credits but graciously deferred to Oliver – a classy thing to do. A project in development involves a remake of “Sleuth” with Jude Law, and Caine in the Olivier role.

We spoke of another friend of the Institute’s, David Thomson, to whom Bach dedicated his Leni book. We decided to have Thomson and Bach on stage some time in the near future to debate some trumped-up issue about film. Steven Bach thought the idea good, save for the fact that he disagrees with Thomson over nothing save for Thomson’s love of Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”

Importantly, Bach spoke of another film with which he was involved, “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” from John Fowles’s novel and scripted by Harold Pinter. The book, a huge success, left producers with a casting problem not unlike that of casting Scarlett O’Hara in GWTW. The adaptation, bringing the story half into the present, and left half in Victorian times was, as Bach said, the kind of risk a studio could take then, but which it never could now.

As Steven Bach tells the tale the issue was less the casting of Meryl Streep than with casting Jeremy Irons. Irons had just completed the the first run of “Brideshead Revisited,”for British TV and which was not yet screened by PBS in the USA.. He was under contract to complete the Brideshead effort within a specific time frame but wagered everything to support the film project he believed in.

Much more to come about other times, like tales of the brilliant producer, Sol Zantz, and about Robert Wise, who gave up a great project because he misunderstood a phone call.

One thing that is irresistible to note: Zantz held rights to "Lord of the Rings" and early in the 70s was negotiating with the Beatles to star, with Ringo as Frodo. You can do the rest of the casting in your own head.

We salute Steven Bach’s visit and will welcome him upon his return.