RETURN OF AN OLDER, WISER BOB RAFELSON
“I felt almost systematically rebellious for many years,” admits director Bob Rafelson, who was catapulted to the front ranks of Hollywood in the late ‘60s when his second film, “Five Easy Pieces,” struck a sympathetic chord with a nation swinging to the left. Rafelson’s pal Jack Nicholson played the overeducated drifter unable to find his place in the world, in a film that could be a parable for the iconoclastic director’s stormy relationship with the film industry.
Currently at work on “Black Widow,” his first film in five years, Rafelson, now 53, is a prodigal son who returns to the fold considerably wiser about the manic ways of Hollywood. In fact, “Black Widow,” which stars Theresa Russell as a woman suspected of marrying and murdering wealthy husbands and Debra Winger as the fed trying to bring her to justice, finds Rafelson working for the very studio that tossed him out on his ear five years ago, 20th Century Fox. His ensuing sabbatical came as little surprise to insiders. Rafelson had earned quite a reputation by that point, but even those who found him impossible to work with never denied his talent.
By the early ‘70s, Rafelson had produced “Easy Rider” and “The Last Picture Show” and directed two highly original films, “The King of Marvin Gardens” and “Stay Hungry.” But as the liberal mood of the country (and the film industry) waned, Rafelson’s relationship with the Hollywood Establishment headed for the rocks. In 1981, he did a decidedly dark remake of the classic “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” The film received mixed reviews, many people feeling that he was trampling on sacred ground.
His career derailed the next year when he was hired to direct Robert Redford in “Brubaker.” His employment came to a tempestuous end when he slugged a studio executive in the jaw. (The exec, now with another studio, was contacted the other day but didn’t want to talk about the incident.)
“The ‘Brubaker’ episode was the most painful experience of my life,” reflects Rafelson during an interview conducted en route to LAX to shoot a scene on a jet rented for the evening. “But apparently the Hollywood power structure has turned over enough times that my past misdeeds have been forgotten. That must be the case, because I’m making a film within the industry and four other studios have asked me to make films for them. And one must remember that even though I have a reputation for being difficult, my pictures have all made money.”
Hollywood is, of course, invariably fast to forgive a proven box-office winner, but Rafelson is faster to point out that that’s not the only reason he’s working again.
“ ‘Black Widow’ is the first time I’ve managed to complete a film with a major studio and I attribute that to my change in attitude. I’ve had a few painful experiences in my life and at a certain point I decided to receive them as lessons rather than thinking of them as obstacles.
“Not that I’ve given up being cantankerous,” he adds. “That’s an understatement if I ever heard one, but I’ve learned that it’s not worth it to get upset over minor things. For instance, the first day I arrived on the Fox lot, a security guard stopped me because I didn’t have a particular pass suspended from the mirror of my car.
“I went into my office and asked the secretary, ‘What the hell is this pass business?’ She said, ‘That’s studio policy.’ So I asked her if Barry Diller (chairman of the board) had a pass suspended from his mirror, and she said, ‘I rather doubt it.’ I replied, ‘So why the hell should I?’
“Then I said to myself, ‘Now wait a minute. Who cares where the hell the pass hangs from?’ Absurd things like that used to drive me into a frenzy and I’d turn them into personal crusades, but I’ve learned they’re simply not worth the energy. And believe me, I’m glad to be rid of that baggage.”
Rafelson grew up in Manhattan, where he saw an average of four movies a day. He cites “Mrs. Miniver” as the first movie he remembers making an impression on him, and was an avid film fan from the time he was a small child.
“I always loved movies,” he recalls, “but for many years I repressed my ambition to be a director because I had this notion that you had to be a genius to direct movies. In order to overcome my fear of directing, it was necessary for me to learn quite a bit.”
Which he did. Rafelson’s unorthodox education began at age 14 when he left home to attend theology school. That somehow led to a job breaking horses in rodeos, which in turn led to a stint when he was 17 performing in a band in Mexico. He worked off his draft obligation working for a U.S. radio station in Japan and, while overseas, translated Japanese movies into English. At this point, he began thinking about making his own movies. Returning to New York, he landed a job as story editor for David Susskind, and went on to do extensive work writing, producing and editing for TV.
His directorial debut came in 1968 with the cult classic “Head,” a psychedelic free-for-all that starred ‘60s pop sensations the Monkees and was co-written by Rafelson and Nicholson. “There’s nothing on MTV that the Monkees didn’t do years ago,” Rafelson boasts. In 1970, the stakes in his career went up considerably with the success of “Five Easy Pieces.”
“When I started making films in the late ‘60s, I had the good fortune that despite the fact that my films broke with popular taste, they were synchronous enough with an attitude of the time to be successful. We’re now going through a period that reminds me of the 1950s, in that there’s very little defection from popular taste. We don’t seem to hear the voice of the minority very loudly these days whereas, when I started out, that voice was a bit more clear.”
Ideally, “Black Widow” will allow this somewhat-reformed anarchist to connect with the current movie-going public. The first script by a moonlighting lawyer named Ron Bass, “Black Widow” intrigued Rafelson “primarily because it’s a story about women. It has a noirish quality about it, but I didn’t look at any noir films to prepare for making it, nor am I a huge fan of that genre. I don’t think I’ve ever made a movie that could be defined as a specific type of film. Character is the thing that interests me, and if my films have anything in common it’s that they tend to focus on characters who are struggling to overcome the burden of tradition in their lives.”
Commencing shooting in Hawaii (where they managed to work an erupting volcano into a scene), “Black Widow” continued filming here on the Fox lot and at LAX, then on to New York and Washington. The film wrapped July 15 in Dallas where, appropriately enough, they shot a funeral scene. Budgeted at $10.5 million, the picture’s slated for release early next year.
It was on the Fox lot that Rafelson completed the film’s opening sequence--a critically important element of the picture in his opinion. “The first shot is to grab the audience and the last shot is to redeem yourself,” he declares.
Though Rafelson prepared for the opening shot by filming it 30 times with a video camera, it still proves to be a tricky piece of business. A complex optical effect that takes place in an airplane (a mock-up of a jet was built at Fox) and pivots around a magnification in the glasses of a woman applying makeup, the shot reveals the endlessly patient Theresa Russell to be a real pro.
Portraying a scheming chameleon who contrives four complete transformations of identity during the course of the film, she is virtually always on screen. (Winger was absent from the set for this day of shooting, but had she been present it’s unlikely she would’ve met with the press--she invariably refuses.)
During a break between takes, Russell ruminated on Rafelson’s methods.
“Bob likes a good deal of preparation before we shoot a scene, but once the scene is under way he pretty much lets you alone to struggle with it yourself. He’s very open to any ideas the actors might have and is a joy to work with in that respect. Bob and I were pretty much in agreement as to how the character I portray should be played and generally this has been a very pleasant movie to make.
“Bob is, however, a bit of a renegade, and anybody who doesn’t buy into the system suffers the consequences--as he has. Hollywood is a very hard system to deal with and I sometimes think it doesn’t encourage the kind of standards Bob has tried to bring to his work. But it takes two to tango. If you know the rules and you don’t like them, then why play the game?”
Rafelson agrees that “much of my past behavior has been regrettable. I remember going into La Scala shortly after the ‘Brubaker’ incident and everyone there stood up and applauded when I walked in, but I felt nothing but shame. I had lost considerable credibility within the industry, but even more painful was the fact that I’d lost a movie that I so wanted to make.
“The movie was completed by another director, but I’ve never seen it. Do we have to talk about this?
“I don’t want to give the impression that I feel like I’ve been in exile for the past five years--the opposite is true,” he continues, “because there are many things I enjoy doing besides making movies. I studied anthropology in college and never abandoned my interest in it, and a part of my life is given to traveling to remote places.
“I spent much of the past five years traveling. I’ve been to the Amazon and walked across East Africa by way of doing research on Richard Burton, a 19th-Century explorer who went in search of the Nile. I wrote a script called ‘Mountains of the Moon’ based on his life and hope it will be the next picture I make. There’s a good chance it will be as a number of studios have expressed interest in it.
“So, in the long run, I feel that the past five years have been well spent and I feel quite contented and informed by the experience.
“If nothing else, I’ve learned that in order to survive, a director must always remember that the film industry is fickle and is in a state of constant ignorance, that his fate is being dictated by guesswork and that nobody endures forever. You will be subject to the whims of the public at all times--and so will the people who hire you.”