Sellars’ First Reel : The Director Shoots a Silent Movie With Baryshnikov and Cusack. But Even Sellars Doesn’t Know How It Will End.


There’s a call for silence on the set, but it’s anything but quiet. As the camera rolls, the impish director with the short, spiked blond hair continuously shouts at the actors.

“OK, Peter,” he yells at Peter Gallagher. “Move to the doors. You’re banging on them as hard as possible. Slamming those doors. Now open the doors. Anna, open the doors and look him in the eye.”

Then the word goes out, “Cut,” and the director proceeds to taunt and jest with the actors: “You’ve been rehearsing. I know you’ve been rehearsing in secret.” The atmosphere is loose and everyone grins and giggles. But there is a purpose here: The director is trying for as much spontaneity as possible from the actors; he wants to capture on film their moment of discovery.


While the actors and the crew stand by, the director primes the actors for further action: “I want this scene to be a cross between tacky melodrama and deep inner acting.”

It’s the irrepressible Peter Sellars, who is normally associated with staging theater and opera, now busy at a mansion on a tranquil inlet of Long Island Sound shooting his first feature film, “The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez.”

For 5 1/2 weeks Gallagher, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Joan Cusack, Werner Klemperer and the avant-garde Wooster Theatre Group have been slinking around Wall Street, bedding down in funky Chelsea lofts and making mayhem at Upstate New York mansions filming “Ramirez.” There is even a cameo of Sellars’ and Baryshnikov’s pal and collaborator, choreographer Mark Morris, in one scene.

Joining the actors is a blue-chip crew that includes cinematographer David Watkin and operator Cary Fisher who, between them, have filmed “Out of Africa,” “Chariots of Fire,” “Ghosts,” “Memphis Belle” and “Moonstruck.” The producer is Rainer Mockert of Mediascope Co. out of Munich, who worked with Sellars on the Mozart operas presented on PBS beginning Friday.

Everyone seems to be enjoying himself. The budget is only $2.5 million--this is a silent film, albeit in color and with a John Adams score--and so the actors and crew are in it strictly for artistic reasons; some deliberately delayed other projects just to do this production and the union cut a deal with the line producer Charles Carroll to work below customary rates.

But for all the artistry, don’t ask for the film’s plot or resolution. This particular day they’re shooting three endings. Sellars says he will pick the ending he wants “once I figure out what the rest of the film means.”

So far, what is known about “The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez” is that it’s loosely inspired by “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” the silent 1919 Robert Wiene classic.

“Ramirez” started out with the usual Sellars’ update and a new mise en scene in New York City, the kind of things he usually does with his operas. But in the course of filming, almost no semblances to the original film was retained. “The film has taken on a life of its own,” Sellars says.

The new characters in Sellars’ farrago include a burned-out Wall Street yuppie, Matt (Gallagher), whose life is rapidly unwinding and out of control; his love interest (Cusack); a mysterious street person (Baryshnikov) and a Janus-face Dr. Ramirez (Ron Vawter). In some sequences Ramirez sports a scar across his mug and hangs out in a Chelsea flat; in other scenes he is the leader of a sort of New Age psychotherapy cult.

The only other certainty about this picture is that the story comes to a boil in the environs of Ramirez’s cult headquarters/sanitarium. And that’s it.

Asked about his character in the film, Baryshnikov smiles and shrugs. “Who knows?”

“Who knows?” is all he can say. The familiar blond, dashing dancer is virtually unrecognizable with his hair dyed brown, sporting a likewise dyed three-day growth on his face. Baryshnikov struggles to further explain his character but all that could be gleaned is that he portrays a mysterious homeless person who serves as Dr. Ramirez’s assistant.

Maybe not since the rambling ‘50s cult film “Beat the Devil,” in which Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre and Robert Morley romped across the Mediterranean, has a script written itself on a daily, sometimes hourly basis in front of the camera.

None of the actors seems to mind the ambiguity of it all. “Peter sometimes comes up in the morning with very fresh ideas, so (the script) is very much changing,” Baryshnikov says. “He knows what he’s done in the dailies and sort of builds up from there. (My character) is sort of the messenger and executioner of death; that’s a 19th-Century sort of romantic idea on the edge of a border between life and death.”

Baryshnikov adds: "(“Ramirez”) is such a different work, you know. It’s a silent film and the way it works is radically different from anything I’ve done before. When you’re working, it’s very fast. Peter knows exactly what he wants. If there’s something he doesn’t like he’s eliminating right away. You are very much with him all the time.”

Gallagher--who has worked with Mike Nichols and Robert Altman, among others, also likes the way Sellars works. “Its very, very exciting to be doing something unordinary. It is amazing how much effort is put in on this set--unlike other jobs--to keep it unordinary. It feels like an experiment that I’m happily a part of.”

Music, not surprisingly, is an integral element of “The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez.” During September’s Los Angeles Festival, the Los Angeles Philharmonic played Adams’ “Harmonielehre” at the Hollywood Bowl to accompany a showing of “Dr. Caligari.” For “Ramirez,” Adams’ “Harmonium” and “Harmonielehre” scores, portions of which will be out of sequence, will accompany “Ramirez” next summer at the Bowl when the Philharmonic will again perform the score.

The film wrapped principal production last weekend. A print, expected to run about two hours, will be available this spring, just in time for the Cannes Festival. At that time the producers, Mediascope Co., will look for a distributor, according to producer Mockert.

Sellars acknowledges that he is not so sure yet that the pacing of the screen action and that of the dreamy, pulsing Adams’ score will seamlessly match up. Sellars hopes that will happen with his edits and his use of vivid, intoxicating color.

Of course, the big question is how well Sellars, 34, can make the transition from the stage to the screen. There is no question in his mind that his theatrical instincts are on the mark.

“Late in the century,” says Sellars, “there are no more borders among art forms. Everything is now interdependent and multimedia and interactive. And I really do feel that classic American feature films have so much been under the yoke of the written word. And oddly, I think (“Ramirez”) is much more compatible with sister arts than music and movement. It seems very logical to emphasize this direction.

“I never rehearse. I hardly say anything to the actors. What I always do is set the scene very quickly and just shoot it. And usually I print the first take,” he says.

Sometimes Sellars will film a second take just to be sure. But, he says: “When we look at the dailies, the second take is nothing. Because by then the actors know what they’re doing. And what’s wonderful is to have the camera turning at the moment of discovery. What is caught on film is not somebody who has figured out how to react to something already, but the moment where the reaction is absolutely fresh and new, as occurring for the first time ever. And those moments of realization, those moments of encounter and confrontation are stunning, and one of the thrills of doing films.

“There is a difference between film and theater. When I’m working in opera or theater we have those moments for the first two weeks of rehearsal, when we’re encountering the material for the first time. And the task in theater is how to keep that fresh across months and years and somehow re-create that moment of discovery.

“What’s wonderful in film is there’s actually a camera there at the first moment of discovery. You don’t have to re-create it; you have it. So I try to get the camera rolling as quickly as possible and be a participant in the first rehearsal with the actors. And then you get something that’s unpremeditated and genuinely filled with life.”

Apart from the freshness and spontaneity of it all, another aspect of Sellars’ work is camera technique that’s deliberately sedentary. “There are only three times in the film that the camera moves out of 700 shots,” he says.

“In general, the still camera has power for me in an age of MTV. (With MTV) we begin to feel like tourists, just passing by. I love the idea that you’re not passing through; you are there and you are focused and really concentrated on something. The still camera provides greater intensity.”

* OPERA ON TELEVISION: PBS is broadcasting Peter Sellars’ modern stagings of Mozart. Martin Bernheimer reviews. F6.