Chicago Underground Film Festival Interviews: Paul Morrissey

PAUL MORRISSEY INTERVIEW   |  BACK TO INTERVIEW INDEX


Paul Morrissey has been hailed as one of the first independent filmmakers of his generation. Though there were people making films independent of the studio system long before the first frame of TRASH was even shot, Morrissey’s film influence comes not so much from the projected image, as explored by the Scorseses and Coppolas of the world, but from television. And that’s the way many of this festival’s crop of young filmmakers have seen most of the classic films, and how they received their film education. Though a seasoned veteran who was part of the front line of filmmaking, Morrissey is a lot more like today’s indie filmmakers than you would think.

CUFF  First off, let me say that I would like to talk about you and your work and not about Andy Warhol.

PAUL MORRISSEY  It’s about time!

CUFF  Do you feel that your relationship with Warhol hurt or hindered your career?

PM  It’s more of an albatross. I always found it a little curious. I have been an independent filmmaker longer than most and more consistently totally independent.  However, they never mention me when they talk about people who make independent films.  It’s as if I didn’t exist. They imagine that these films were made by Warhol when he actually did, physically, nothing put present the films that I made.  I made all of the experimentals, all the films that I wrote and directed. All I did get was a credit in the titles. Andy was a celebrity, a brand name and they want to use it.

CUFF  I was curious about two of your better known films, FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN and BLOOD FOR DRACULA. Were you always into horror films? Was this something that influenced you?

PM  No.

CUFF  What brought these about?

PM  Roman Polanski was going to make a film in 3-D that was a sex comedy. He loved the 3-D process. So he thought I should make a film in 3 D about Frankenstein, don’t ask me why, he just thought somebody should. So he sent his partner and they asked if I would like to make the Frankenstein film.  I was sort of surprised. I had just finished with FLESH and TRASH and HEAT and was truly an  independent. However, my films were going into big theaters all over Europe. When I was approached I thought at first that I’d hold out for a better offer. Then when he said 3-D I realized that there was something absurd about 3-D and felt that it was unusual and I thought I’d try it to see what I could do with it.  I asked the producer if I could do it without a script and they said “Sure!” so I did it.

CUFF  What were your influences? What did you watch growing up?

PM  When I was growing up in New York I watched movies on television. At the time, Hollywood had not sold its films to television and they didn’t until about 1960.  Therefore, the films that hit television where films by United Artists or Allied Artists but mostly the great English film library. The English were glad to get their films into America so these were the films that dominated and were the best films you could see on television. I remember being most impressed by these. My favorite films came out in the fifties in about a three or four year period, ON THE WATERFRONT being one of them with EAST OF EDEN right afterward. Anyway,  the English film THE MAN BETWEEN with James Mason and Claire Bloom I regard as a masterpiece. Certainly on a par with THE THIRD MAN, the acknowledged masterpiece which they also show on television. I also remember the other great English films THE FALLEN IDOL, ODD MAN OUT and OUTCAST OF THE ISLANDS. Now, all of these films were owned by Alexander Korda, the great English producer, and directed by Carol Reed.

These films where just dumped onto the American television market. In fact, I love Carol Reed films. I’ve seen many of them forty or fifty times and they’re just as fresh to me now as they where when I first saw them. These were the best films to come out of Europe and still are. Not like that drivel THE ENGLISH PATIENT. A garbage book and a garbage movie. However, no one talks about these great movies and the fact that they get overlooked is not surprising.

CUFF  What’s your take on the AFI’s Top 100 List?

PM  Garbage. It’s a kind of People magazine mentality. Second rate journalism.

CUFF  At least ON THE WATERFRONT was acknowledged.

PM  Yes. That film did make an impression on me. Oh, the other film that I saw about twenty or thirty times in the theatre was RICHARD III with Olivier. It’s, in my opinion, the best play Shakespeare ever wrote, the best character anyway. It’s  the best performance by the best actor with an extraordinary supporting cast and it was totally thrown away as if it didn’t exist. No one talks about it.

CUFF  Did the Method acting style in ON THE WATERFRONT have any influence on the improvised nature of the dialog in your films?

PM  It must have because it impressed me so much.  If you look at the characters that Joe Dalessandro plays it’s almost a version of the character Brando played, only fifteen years later when the world is going down the toilet with sex, drugs and rock and roll and people were all just empty, with vestiges of what Brando’s character had.

CUFF  Your films are known for their improvisational dialog. Do you feel that it sounds more real or natural on film?

PM  In my case, yes. When I see it in other films I want to vomit. It’s usually undirected people screaming the same shit back and forth. Like “What do you mean!!??” ?What do you mean what do I mean??!!” Garbage! I’ve always been aware of it in films. Woody Allen uses it constantly and it is not good. Now, the great improvised stuff appeared in the thirties and was done by Leo McCarey like THE AWFUL TRUTH. The worst improvised dialog always has that repetition because the actors can’t  think of anything to say. Plus most actors when performing improvisation feel the need to say things that they feel are sincere or strong like “I’m going to kill you !!!” or “I’m going to beat the hell out of you!!!” or something like that. This is their idea of going into improvisation. I think that it should be light, humorous, trivial and inconsequential. This is a concept totally unknown to some of these terrible actors.

CUFF  How much of your film SPIKE OF BENSONHURST was improvised?

PM  Not one word. After I did DRACULA I realized that on a studio set-up of 45 people getting up early and working all day long, the stress was too much on the actors to have to come up with something. After that I scripted and took the pressure off the actors. I found that if the actor is on a set in front of forty-five people that it was tough for them to improvise. Even really good actors would freeze up so I never did it again.

CUFF  FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN was improvised, correct?

PM  The first day we tried it. The second day I brought a secretary in and dictated the scenes to her. She would take the notes and I would edit them and change things around and give them to the actors to memorize. That’s how both FRANKENTSTEIN and DRACULA were shot. So all the dialog and characters for the film were coming right out of my head without any second thoughts so in a way I was the one who had to improvise.  I had arrived at a kind of sense of what sounds right.

CUFF  You have a tremendous sense of humor in your dialog, especially in films like SPIKE OF BENSONHURST.

PM  It’s my favorite of all my films. That’s because it’s more good natured than the others and doesn’t have a depressing ending. Not that the others are all depressing but you don’t feel that the characters in my other films have a future. Here I finally made a film where I said “I see a future in the Italian-American community.” The community that is usually despised and ridiculed by other filmmakers with Mafia films. So I had a kind of odd idea and I think the film says what I wanted to say.

CUFF  Where did you get the idea for MIXED BLOOD?

PM  I had read a newspaper story that had said there were people selling drugs out of windows in old abandoned apartment buildings and that the police just looked the other way.  So a French producer asked me if I had a story and I said I would like to do a film on the Lower East Side where people are selling these drugs and cast Hispanics and Puerto Ricans as much as possible because no one was using them in films. So I made this sort of light comedy about the drug dealing business.

CUFF  I have heard from several people that you’re a rather conservative person when it comes to politics.

PM  Very conservative.

CUFF  What brought this about? Was it spending so much time in the Warhol scene that did it?

PM  That would certainly do it.

CUFF  What is your opinion on the National Endowment for the Arts?

PM  There should be a large endowment from the government that goes only to arts that are not modern. Opera, symphonies, exhibits of the old masters. Nothing that is currently being made. This way people can gather an appreciation for art and then explore other things.

CUFF  How can we create something new if we don’t understand the past?

PM  Exactly. That’s why people aren’t creating anything new.

CUFF  Even looking at the AFI list, there are some films on the list that I don’t believe belong in the Greatest Movies Of All Times list. PULP FICTION, for instance. Why is this on the list?

PM  I thought it was crap. Instead of getting people who knew how to improvise he typed up his own improvised dialogue and just threw it on the screen. Now, I was amazed at how good a movie JACKIE BROWN was. I think it’s one of the best movies of the last twenty-five years. But because it was politically incorrect it was treated as if it didn’t exist. There are always surprises out there. I think that most of the critics’ tastes are abominable and when something really good comes along they don’t even notice it.

CUFF  Do you believe in shock value?

PM  Yes, I think so. Especially in this day and age where the audience is numb. You have to stir them up a little. It’s something that you have to resort to because it’s  part of the tone of voice of the film.

CUFF  Which actors do you like now?

PM  There was a film that received no attention a few years ago called MARVIN’S ROOM. It was a delightful film that could have been made in any period, the ’30s, ’40s or ’50s. Leonardo DiCaprio just gave a fantastic performance. In THIS BOY’S LIFE and GILBERT GRAPE were fine performances as well and it’s been all downhill for him since then. TITANIC was like a third- rate after-school special on a trillion-dollar budget. It didn’t even possess a story or a plot. Did you ever notice that all the really good American actors are from television? Not any New York acting class. DiCaprio has been acting on television since he was five years old, Stephen Dorff is a big TV star, Rosanne Barr who I think is one of the best actresses in America, not much competition, but she has never even been in a good movie: a few pieces of shit where they didn’t know what to do with her.  Tom Hanks comes from TV. These are good actors who know how to play light comedy and aren’t emotionally overwrought. Bill Murray, Steve Martin, Jim Carrey, all from TV, sketch comedy and sitcoms and they are some of the best actors around yet we keep hearing about these great phoney English actors like Daniel Day Lewis and Ralph Fiennes, these people are dreadful and they’re called great actors.

CUFF  If someone admired your work and wanted to capture the same sensibilities in their films as you do in yours, how would you explain your perception of your own work and what makes a “Paul Morrissey” fiim?

PM  As long as I have full control over my films something happens that works for me. Don’t ask me how, I don’t think it works for everybody. After that I would say having a sense of humor is very much a part of filmmaking. Also having a good person in front of the camera. Unless you have someone in front of the camera who the audience likes it will be a disaster.  Lastly, do it cheaply. That way you can do any dopey, whimsical thing you want and keep control.

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