John Huston Interview

I found this gem in a old book of interviews I bought second hand. It's John Huston talking about his writing methods and approaches to making films:

How does the script get written? Do you do it alone?
And how long does it take you?

There are no rules. I've written scripts and made
pictures out of them in two weeks. At other times I've
worked a year and a half just on a script. The Maltese
Falcon was done in a very short time, because it was
based on a very fine book and there was very little for me
to invent. It was a matter of sticking to the ideas of the
book, of making a film out of a book. On Treasure of
Sierra Madre, I wrote the script in about 3-4 months, but
I had had quite a long time to think about it before. The
actual making of the film didn't take very long, but I had
had the idea of making it since before the war. It was the
first film I made after the war.

You wrote that one alone, and got an Oscar for writing
it. But don't you sometimes write together with other people?
Or, when other people write for you, do you take a
very active part or do you leave them pretty much alone?

When I do not write alone—and of course you must re-
member that I began my film career as a writer, not as a
director—I work very closely with the writer. Almost al-
ways I share in the writing. The writer will do a scene and
then I'll work it over, or I'll write a scene and then the
other writer will make adjustments later. Often we trade
scenes back and forth until we're both satisfied.

You don't like to work with more than one other

Not really. But sometimes other people make additions.
For example, the writer of a play or a book on which I
am basing a film. Tennessee Williams, for example, came
and worked with Anthony Vay and myself on the script
for Night of the Iguana. He didn't come there to write,
but once he was there he did do some writing, and ac-
tually he did some rather important writing for the film.
But such cases are the exception.

Could you put into words some principles you employ
in order to put ideas into film form? Do you feel there are
any rules a writer for the cinema must follow?

Each idea calls for a different treatment, really. I am
not aware of any ready formula, except the obvious one
that films fall into a certain number of scenes, and that
you have to pay attention to certain limitations that have
to do with time, according to subject. Depending on what
you are writing about, you have to decide the time balance
between words and action. It seems to me, for example,
that the word contains as much action as a purely visual
scene, and that dialogue should have as much action in it
as physical motion. The sense of activity that your audi-
ence gets is derived equally from what they see and from
what they hear. The fascination, the attention of the man
who looks at what you have put together, must be for the
thoughts as much as for the happenings in your film. In
fact, when I write I can't really separate the words from
the actions. The final action—the combined activity of the
film, the sum of the words and the visuals—is really going
on only in the mind of the beholder. So in writing I have
to convey a sense of overall progression with all the means
at my command: words and images and sounds and every-
thing else that makes film.

This brings up one of the basic questions about films
that adapt literary works: in a book there are many things
that you can't see or hear, but which in reading you trans-
late directly into your own interior images and feelings.
Emotions that are created in you neither through dialogue
nornor action. How do you get these into film? The mono-
logues from Moby Dick, for example?

Well, first of all, I try to beware of literal transfers to
film of what a writer has created initially for a different
form. Instead I try to penetrate first to the basic idea of
the book or the play, and then work with those ideas in
cinematic terms. For example, to see what Melville wanted
to say in the dialogues, what emotions he wanted to convey
I always thought Moby Dick was a great blasphemy.
Here was a man who shook his fist at God. The thematic
line in Moby Dick seemed to me, always, to have been:
who's to judge when the judge himself is dragged before
the bar? Who's to condemn, but he, Ahab! This was, to
me, the point at which I tried to aim the whole picture,
because I think that's what Melville was essentially con-
cerned with, and this is, at the same time, the point that
makes Moby Dick so extremely timely in our age. And if
I may be allowed the side-observation: I don't think any
of the critics who wrote about the film ever mentioned

I suppose you are speaking about the problem of taking
personal responsibility in an age where the group has
largely attempted to make decisions for the individual.
This is an interpretation of Melville, or perhaps I should
say ONE interpretation of Melville. And so in the attempt
to understand the basic idea of a work (in order to trans-
late those ideas into film) you are really doing more than
that: you add your own interpretation, you don't just put
into images what the original author wanted to say.

I don't think we can avoid interpretation. Even just
pointing a camera at a certain reality means an interpreta-
tion of that reality. By the same token, I don't seek to in-
terpret, to put my own stamp on the material. I try to be
as faithful to the original material as I can. This applies
equally to Melville as it applies to the Bible, for example.
In fact, it's the fascination that I feel for the original that
makes me want to make it into a film.

What about original material, where you are not adapt-
ing a play or a book? Are there any ideas of yours, basic
ideas, which you try to express in your work? Do you feel
that there is a continuity in your work in terms of a con-
sistent ideology? In short, do you feel you are trying to say
something coherent to mankind?

There probably is. I am not consciously aware of any-
thing. But even the choice of material indicates a preference,
a turn of mind. You could draw a portrait of a mind
through that mind's preferences.

Well, let me do that for a minute, and see if what I see
as a unifying idea in your work is indeed a coherent feel-
ing on your part. I see that in your films there is always a
man pitched against odds, an individual who seeks to re-
tain a sense of his own individuality in the face of a cul-
ture that surrounds and tends to submerge him. I would
call the style of your films the style of the frontier, or
what the frontier has come to symbolize in American
culture: a sense of rebellion against being put into a sys-
tem, into a form of life and into a mode of thinking rig-
idly decided by others.

Yes, I think there is something there. I do come from a
frontier background. My people were that. And I always
feel constrained in the presence of too many rules, severe
rules; they distress me. I like the sense of freedom. I don't
particularly seek that ultimate freedom of the anarchist,
but I'm impatient of rules that result from prejudice.

In any case, you believe that at the basis of every film
of yours there is a basic idea, whether an idea of yours or
one of another author. But how do you proceed to put
that idea into film form? In writing, what do you do first,
for example?

I don't envisage the whole thing at the beginning. I go a
little bit at a time, always asking myself whether I am on
the track of the basic thought. Within that, I try to make
each scene as good as I can. This applies both to the writ-
ing and to the directing—to the whole process of prepara-
tion and production, in fact—which are only extensions of
the process of writing. It's hard to break down into details.

Do you mean to say that you do not write the whole
script in the beginning?

Oh yes, oh sure. I am speaking about the making of the
film. I try to make it in sequence as much as possible, to
develop the making of the film along with the develop-
ment of the story within the film. I try, for example, to
give my actors a sense of development not only within the
troupe, but also a sense of development within the story of
the film. And I improvise if necessary. This is not a luxury;
when one shoots as much on location as I do, improvisa-
tion is a necessity. Everything that happens in the process
of making the film can contribute to the development of
that film's story. But of course one always tries to remain
within the bounds of the controllable as much as one can,
to stay within the bounds of the script. But one must be
open to take advantage of the terrain, of the things that the
setting can give you.

Do you write your scripts with the idea of change and
improvisation already in mind?

Improvisation is used more today than it used to be.
Partly this is caused by a new, less rigid approach to film-
making, and also partly by the decentralization of the pro-
duction process. Actors have become producers, they have
commitments of conflicting sorts, and it is no longer possi-
ble to prepare a script in great detail in a major studio
set-up, and then call in your contract actors, whose time
you control completely, and make the film in exact ac-
cordance to plan. It has simply become essential today to
be more flexible, to adjust to new conditions, both practi-
cal and aesthetic.

Do you see this as a positive or a negative development?

It has certainly helped some directors to come into their
own, people who could never have succeeded under the
old, less independent system. Some French and Italian di-
rectors—Fellini in the vanguard—have found it possible
to tell much more subjective stories, often their own, in a
valid cinematographic way. Like 81/2 for example.

What is the technical process of your scriptwriting?

Usually I write in longhand first, and then dictate a
later version. I use a standard script form: action on the
left and dialogue on the right. When it's finished it's mim-
eographed and distributed to the people who need to see
it. I often change again later. Sometimes I finish the final
version on the set itself, or change again something I've
written as a final version the day before. Mostly these
changes come to me when I hear the words first spoken by
an actor. It's always different once it comes out of a living
person's mouth. By this I do not mean that I try to adjust
to an actor's personality—I try to do that as little as possi-
ble. When I write, I don't have in mind an actor, but a
character. I don't conceive this character with a specific
star in my mind. I guess what I am trying to do with this
constant changing, is to try to put to work more than my
own imagination, or at least allow my imagination the lib-
erty of play, the liberty of coming out of its cage—which
is me, my body, when I am alone and writing—and in this
Way it begins to live and to flower and gives me better ser-
vice than when I put it to work abstractly, alone, in a
room with paper and pencil, without the living presence of
the material. Then, when the character has been born out
of this extended imagination, I have to look for someone
to play the role, and this someone isn't always necessarily
the person who I thought could play it originally, because
often it no longer is the same character. In fact, I've often
—at least, sometimes—delayed the making of a film because I
couldn't find anybody to play the new and adjusted
character that I had finally arrived at construing. Although
in my experience you usually find someone; there are
enough good actors if you are willing to wait a little.

Is it possible for you to tell how much of your writing
comes from inside you, at the start, and how much is writ-
ten in adjustment to a situation or to hearing your words
spoken? And do you also adjust to location, for example?
I mean, when you write about Sodom, do you write for
Vesuvius, for the landscape where you decided to shoot
those sequences?

It's the same thing as trying to interpret Melville. You
write for an ideal. Then when you make the film, you try
to live up to that ideal. Casting, locating, shooting: you try
to stick to what you start with. Sometimes there are prob-
lems when the material changes in my hands, sometimes I
have even miscast my own films. But generally these ad-
justment problems can be overcome. I've been pretty lucky
that way. In fact, I can usually do pretty much exactly
what I set out to do. I've been lucky.

Is that what gives you this tremendous peace that you
seem to have on the set? I have watched perhaps a hun-
dred directors shooting, and nobody is as calm. And you
have this kooky set: this silly ark with all these animals,
peacocks flying among the long necks of giraffe, hippos
who refuse to act the scenes written for them, a hundred
breakdowns a day with technical things caused by the ani-
mals, and you just stride through the whole thing in your
Noah costume, feeding the giraffes, smiling and taking it

I am astonished myself. And I marvel at the patience of
everybody, especially the animals, who are among the best
actors I've ever worked with .. .
All typecast, too. . . . But, is that an answer?
In a way, yes. You see, in working with actors, I try to
direct as little as possible. The more one directs, the more
there is a tendency to monotony. If one is telling each per-
son what to do, one ends up with a host of little replicas
of oneself. So, when I start a scene, I always let the actor
show me for the start how he imagines the scene himself.
This applies not only to actors; as I tried to indicate be-
fore, I try to let the whole thing work on me, show me.
The actors, the set, the location, the sounds, all help to
show me what the correct movement could be. So what I
said about the animals wasn't only a joke. Because, you
see, the animals have one great advantage as actors; they
know exactly what they want to do, no self-doubts, no hes-
itations. If you watch them, quite extraordinary opportuni-
ties present themselves, but you must see them. Here in
the Noah's Ark sequence of The Bible this has happened a
number of times. Animals do remarkable things. The
hippo opened his mouth and let me pet him inside.

Is that when you wrote the line, which you say to
Noah's wife at that point: "There is no evil in him, wife.
Do not fear him!"

Exactly. And very fine actors are as much themselves as
animals are. I would rather have someone whose personal-
ity lends itself to the role than a good actor who can simu-
late the illusion of being the character. I do not like to see
the mechanics of acting. The best you can get, of course,
is when the personality lends itself exquisitely to the part
and when that personality has the added attribute of being
technically a fine actor so he can control his performance.
That is the ideal.

What do you consider to be the attributes of a fine

The shading he can give a line, his timing, his control,
his knowledge of the camera, his relationship to the cam-
era—of course, I'm talking about film acting.
What should an actor's relationship to the camera be?
He must have an awareness of the size of his gesture,
his motion, in relation to the size that his image will be on
the screen. It isn't absolutely an essential quality, but it is
very useful. I don't mean that I tell him the focal length of
the lens I'm using and expect him to adapt himself accord-
ingly, but a good actor has an almost instinctual awareness
of these things. When an actor comes from the stage, he
usually has to make adjustments of this kind. He doesn't
need to project, he doesn't need to make his voice heard
over a distance. He can speak very quietly. He can be
more economical in every way before the camera than he
could be on the stage. And he can work with the small
details of his face.


Robbo said...

That was great, Mark. Thanks.

Mark said...

It was a great find. It's from an Andrew Sarris book.


Yasmin said...

This is fantastic! Could you possibly send me the book title/author/ date of publication? Thank you very much!