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Remembering director Peter Bogdanovich, chronicler of Hollywood's golden age

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LAST PICTURE SHOW")

JEFF BRIDGES: (As Duane Jackson) Why don't we just take off and go some place? I'm sick and tired of this town. You're the only friend I've got here...

TIMOTHY BOTTOMS: (As Sonny Crawford) You mean go and stay gone?

BRIDGES: (As Duane Jackson) ...Except Jacy. No, I don't know. Hey, we could go to Mexico, be back some time Monday.

BOTTOMS: (As Sonny Crawford) You reckon the pick-up would make it?

BRIDGES: (As Duane Jackson) Yeah, it might. How much money you got?

BOTTOMS: (As Sonny Crawford) Oh, 30 bucks, about.

BRIDGES: (As Duane Jackson) Well, I got 40. We can make it on that. Come on.

BOTTOMS: (As Sonny Crawford) Okay.

BIANCULLI: That's Jeff Bridges and Timothy Bottoms in the 1971 film "The Last Picture Show," the acclaimed drama about coming of age in a small Texas town. It was one of the first films directed by Peter Bogdanovich, who died last week at the age of 82. We're going to listen back to Terry's 1983 interview with him.

As a teenager, Bogdanovich studied with the famous acting coach Stella Adler. Influenced by the golden age of Hollywood, he went on to direct the screwball comedy "What's Up, Doc?" starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal, and the Depression-era "Paper Moon," starring Ryan O'Neal and his daughter, Tatum. Bogdanovich also was a movie critic and a Hollywood historian, writing books compiling his conversations with such influential film directors as Orson Welles, John Ford, George Cooper, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock. More recently, Bogdanovich played the therapist advising Tony Soprano's therapist on "The Sopranos."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SOPRANOS")

PETER BOGDANOVICH: (As Elliot Kupferberg) Why do we love roller coasters, Jennifer? Scary movies?

LORRAINE BRACCO: (As Jennifer Melfi) To experience the thrill of being terrified without the consequences. That's very good, Elliot.

BOGDANOVICH: (As Elliot Kupferberg) Great film, but some terrifying moments.

BRACCO: (As Jennifer Melfi) That's very perceptive.

BOGDANOVICH: (As Elliot Kupferberg) I'm concerned that treating a mobster provides you some vicarious thrill.

BRACCO: (As Jennifer Melfi) It wasn't exactly vicarious. I had to go into hiding, remember?

BOGDANOVICH: (As Elliot Kupferberg) And wasn't that thrilling?

BRACCO: (As Jennifer Melfi) [Expletive] you. You think this is funny.

BIANCULLI: One of Bogdanovich's last completed film projects was a 2018 documentary, which he produced about silent film comedian Buster Keaton. When Terry Gross spoke with Peter Bogdanovich, he had just directed the film "They All Laughed," starring John Ritter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Since you had been a critic before starting to direct your own films, did you put certain pressures on yourself, since you had been used to evaluating the work of others and seeing it with a critical eye? And it's maybe a different kind of eye that you would use when you were actually immersed in your own work, when you maybe have to rely more on your own intuitions, as well as those film critical skills.

BOGDANOVICH: Well, I think really, to tell you the truth, I don't think I was ever that hot a critic. I think I was, as Shaw called himself, a popularizer. I liked a certain director for whatever instinctive or emotional feeling that I had. Most cases, I went out and sought out these men and talked with them and then wrote about them based on what they'd said and often used interviews. I mean, the book I did on Ford is essentially an interview book.

When I began to make pictures, yes, I think really, I've always functioned on a kind of an instinctual level, and when in those few times when my instincts were denied, when I wasn't able to do what I felt I should do and couldn't quite explain why - and I've experienced this often where I've said, I want to do something, somebody says why and I say, I don't know, and I just feel ought to do it this way. And then maybe a year or two later, when the film is completed, I can look at it and put on my objective critical hat and say, oh, well, this is why Bogdanovich did this and this and this and this, and I can understand it objectively then. But I couldn't while I was making the picture. Does that answer your question?

GROSS: You got your start in film with Roger Corman working, I guess, mostly on biker movies.

BOGDANOVICH: No, just one.

GROSS: Oh, just one biker film?

BOGDANOVICH: What happened was Corman had read some of my stuff in Esquire and asked me if I wanted to write for the movies. I said, sure, and I started to write - he asked me to write a script, started to write a script on something else. And then he was preparing a bike picture, the first bike picture since Marlon Brando's "The Wild One," which, by the way, was a flop. And this was now about 14 years later, and Roger was preparing a movie which ultimately was called "The Wild Angels." He asked me to work as his assistant on it.

And what started to be a six-week location scouting job turned into a 22-week job. And I ended up rewriting 80% of the script, directing three weeks of shooting with the principals and some of the action, much of the action, and then cutting the material and learning just about everything you can about making pictures by actually doing it. And the picture cost $300,000 and grossed 5 million in 1966, which was the biggest gross that Roger had ever had before or since. He recognized my contribution to it, which had been quite large. And not that I think the picture's that hot, but anyway - and then he gave me the opportunity to make my own picture, which turned out to be a little film called "Targets" with Boris Karloff, which was his last film and my first.

GROSS: Do you consider that experience working with Corman an important one in the development of your career?

BOGDANOVICH: It was very, very important in terms of understanding the actual job of - the job of work that was involved. I learned how to work economically and thrifty, to put it mildly.

GROSS: Is the job of making movies very different than what you had imagined as someone who watched a lot of movies?

BOGDANOVICH: I guess so. I think, you know, it's hard to imagine what you don't know about. Not knowing about it, I assumed the director did everything. And it turns out there's an awful lot the director doesn't have to do. I've always been bossy and pushy about it and sort of wanted to do the whole thing. And consequently, the best pictures I made were the ones where it was just, you know, what I wanted to do, at least I felt that they were the best and so did the public. The weakest ones are the ones where I was, you know, moved into doing something else.

But directing, as I said, we did a movie once called "Nickelodeon," which was unfortunately compromised in several different areas. But it had some good things in it. And there was a line in it where somebody is learning to be a movie director. And the cameraman says to him, he says, well, any jerk can direct. And everybody laughed when that line came out. But I meant it because it's true - any jerk can direct. It's not the most difficult job in the world. It's actually one of the easiest. A good con artist can get through years of making pictures without knowing the first thing about directing because there's somebody on the set that can do almost everything that a director is supposed to do. I mean, there's a cameramen who will do the camera setup. There's an editor who can tell you where to cut. There's a writer who can write it. There's actors who hopefully can play it. The sound technicians, everybody's there.

So what does a director do finally? Well, it's a good question. To me, what I do, you know, is I stick my hand in all those areas. But what I think is the main job a director does is create an atmosphere in which the players feel comfortable and feel that they can expose themselves without worrying about it because they trust me enough that I'll tell them if it's not right. I think that's one of the things that directors should do - create an atmosphere. I had asked John Ford about it once. He said, oh, most of the good things in pictures happen by accident. And then I repeated that remark to Orson Welles, who said, well, that's true. He says, a director is a man who presides over accidents.

GROSS: Do you feel that way about your own work?

BOGDANOVICH: I think the best things in it, you know, happen as a combination of accidents of personality working and working right.

GROSS: What's an example in one of your films of something that was not premeditated?

BOGDANOVICH: Well, I think, you know, the best things in the movies really are not premeditated in the sense because, well, for example - this is a big example. But - I mean, a glaring example. On a picture we did in Texas called "The Last Picture Show," there was a scene where Ben Johnson had to do a long monologue by a tank dam. He's talking to a couple of kids. And we got out there to shoot it. And Ben and I had rehearsed it briefly. And I said, well, let's try it. And it was a long piece of film without any cut. And we started to shoot. And it was kind of an overcast day. It looked like it was going to rain. And as we started to shoot this scene, suddenly the sun came out from behind the cloud, and it came out just at the time when, in the dialogue, it seemed like it would be nice if the sun came out. And it did. And I remember looking over at the cameraman, and I gestured to him like, you know, can - is this going to work? And he shrugged his shoulders. He didn't know.

And the scene - the sun went in, and the sun went out. And it just - it was as though it was working on cue. And when it was over, you know, I said, well, you know, there's no way that we can get anything like that again. Ben was wonderful. And he and the sun won the Oscar, you know, that year. The effect was subliminal on the audience. The audience didn't say, oh, look; there's the sun coming up. But the feeling that happened was accidental. You know, nobody can plan that. You don't go around saying, well, let's try it again; maybe the sun will do it again.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LAST PICTURE SHOW")

BEN JOHNSON: (As Sam the Lion) You wouldn't believe how this country's changed. First time I seen it, there wasn't a mesquite tree on it or a prickly pear, neither. I used to own this land, you know? First time I watered a horse at this tank was more than 40 years ago. I reckon the reason why I always drag you out here is probably I'm just as sentimental as the next fellow when it comes to old times. Old times. I brought a young lady swimming out here once - more than 20 years ago. It was after my wife had lost her mind, and my boys was dead. Me and this young lady was pretty wild, I guess, in pretty deep. We used to come out here on horseback and go swimming without no bathing suits. One day, she wanted to swim the horses across this tank, kind of a crazy thing to do, but we done it anyway. She bet me a silver dollar she could beat me across. She did. This old horse I was riding didn't want to take the water. But she was always looking for something to do like that, something wild. I bet she's still got that silver dollar.

BIANCULLI: That's Ben Johnson, who won an Oscar for that supporting role in "The Last Picture Show." The movie was directed by Peter Bogdanovich, who died last week at age 82. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION IN THE SKY AND DAVID WINGO'S "SEND OFF")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1983 interview with Peter Bogdanovich. The film director, author and movie critic died last week at age 82. When he spoke with Terry, he had just directed the film "They All Laughed."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: In "They All Laughed," there's a lot of physical comedy. For instance, John Ritter is sitting in a hotel, and he's supposed to be not noticeable, but he's actually very nervous 'cause he's watching someone who he's suddenly gotten this crush on, and he picks up a beverage, and the straw goes right into his nose, and he is in a roller-skating rink and falls at just the wrong moment. Do - that's planned out, isn't it?

BOGDANOVICH: Oh, sure, those are...

GROSS: Yeah.

BOGDANOVICH: Those are physical jokes.

GROSS: And how do you, as the director, go over that with someone? Do - how do you work it until it gets right?

BOGDANOVICH: Well, a joke like the swizzle stick going up the nose is something that - you know, it looks easy, but it isn't that easy to get it to go up the nose so that it doesn't look like it was planned. And, you know, when you have as good an actor as John Ritter is - and he's - there's nobody better at comedy than John, and the television stuff that he does is not an example of his best work. I put him in pictures, you know? "Nickelodeon" was his first picture. We worked the stuff together. You know, John is wonderful. He didn't even know how to roller skate, and I said, well, you have to learn to roller skate so you can fall down, you know? And he did. And he just is - moves brilliantly. So you work with him, and you tell him kind of what you want to do.

And he - I tell you, I always thought directing also was showing the actors what to do, showing them literally. In other words, if they - acting it out for them, say, look; try this, and you do this. I found that most directors don't do that. I asked Jimmy Cagney one time I met him - I said, who are the best directors you worked for? And he said, I've worked with about 80 directors, but of those 80 directors, I would say that there were only five that were directors. And I said, well, what do you say makes a director? He said, a director to me is a fellow who, if I don't know what the hell to do, he can get up and show me. So I've always gotten up and showed them, showed the actors, and generally speaking, it helps.

Lubitsch, I found out, who's probably my favorite director - certainly, one of my favorite directors directed everybody by getting up and showing him what to do. I mean, whether it was a chorus girl or a maid or a butler or a king, he'd act it out. I asked Jack Benny once, who did a picture with a Lubitsch. I said, what was it like working with Lubitsch? I mean, what did he do? He says, well, he says he'd act out the whole thing for you. I said, was he any good? He said, well, he was a little broad, but you got the idea.

GROSS: (Laughter) Do any actors dislike it when you do it for them, the way some actors really hate it if you give them a line reading?

BOGDANOVICH: Some actors do, but I've only had one actor that ever gave me any trouble about it, and it was one of the worst performances I've had, but he finally did what I asked him to. Because, to me, a movie has similarities not only to painting, but to music. And I've often said it's a little bit like visual music. And often, the way a line should sound is, you know, I hear it in my head. And then often it's a question of communicating to the actor how I hear it, because if he says it differently, it doesn't sound right. Now, sometimes they'll say it the way I didn't hear it, and that's one of those things I call an accident because it's better than what I had in mind. I don't try to force it on the actor. I like to let the actor feel like he's kind of doing it himself. I don't say - get up and say, do it just like this. I say something like this. This is the idea. But, you know, sometimes an intonation or the rhythm of the speech in a scene is what's funny. There are scenes in "What's Up, Doc?" for example, that aren't all that funny in the way - if you read it. But when you see it played and you hear it, it sounds funny. If you analyze it, it isn't that funny. It's the sound of it. The rhythm is funny. That's true in comedy.

GROSS: You were very successful at a pretty young age and had several successes, then some box office failures. And now you're kind of trying to have a more independent operation. A terrible tragedy struck your life. Have you redefined success for yourself?

BOGDANOVICH: It's a good question, but it gives me pause. It's like, somebody once said, I must have notice of that question.

GROSS: (Laughter) That's OK. You've got five seconds to think it over.

BOGDANOVICH: Yeah. Thank you. I think success is a very ambiguous word. You know, I don't know quite how to answer your question. Let me put it this way. Although they all laughed, has not been a success at the box office because - like "E.T.," for example, or "Star Wars," I think it's a success for me. It succeeded in what I wanted it to do as a movie. It failed to reach as big an audience as I would have liked. But the thing about a movie that's good, I think, is that it doesn't go away. It stays there. "Citizen Kane" was a flop when it came out, too, and now everybody says it's the best American movie ever made. So, you know, movies, if they're any good, have a certain life.

BIANCULLI: Peter Bogdanovich speaking to Terry Gross in 1983. In 2020, Bogdanovich was the subject of the inaugural "The Plot Thickens" podcast from Turner Classic Movies. It was titled "I'm Still Peter Bogdanovich." The film director, author and movie critic died last week at age 82. Coming up, I review a new CNN documentary series about Marilyn Monroe. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.