A Director's Method Amid the Madness : Movies: John Schlesinger won an Oscar for 'Midnight Cowboy.' So what's he got to complain about?


For a man who has spent half his life in the pursuit of making movies, John Schlesinger is surprisingly gloomy about the process. "I don't think, by and large, I have had too many enjoyable films," he sighs. "Not many were without problems."

It seems an odd admission. He is known for fluid, visually interesting movies, often packed with intriguing background detail; if anyone makes directing look effortless, it's Schlesinger. Consider his trio of 1960s British films ("Billy Liar," "Darling," "Far From the Madding Crowd") that made Julie Christie a star and Schlesinger a name to reckon with; the recently revived "Midnight Cowboy," which won him a 1969 Oscar; or "Sunday Bloody Sunday," his stylish essay about a bisexual who has affairs with a man and his female partner. Now fast forward to his pair of dramas written by playwright Alan Bennett for BBC television: "An Englishman Abroad" and "A Question of Attribution," widely deemed some of the best film work ever done for TV. If all this was tough going, Schlesinger hasn't let it show.

"Oh, yes," he insists in rich, fruity tones. "Midnight Cowboy" was miserable to make. The actors were lovely, but the New York camera crew were bolshie and union-minded. They actually confiscated a Polaroid my assistant was using to take pictures of possible extras from the crowds watching the shooting." His jovial mood turns; his face clouds. "They were hostile; I hated them. And none of them will ever be employed by me again."

Schlesinger, 68, lives in a flat in the south Kensington district--light, airy, beautifully restored, and six floors up in a Victorian redbrick building--to talk about his new film, "The Innocent," which will be released by Miramax early next year. This is no hardship; he is an engaging, enthusiastic talker, possessed of thoughtful opinions and a sly wit. He is also not above off-the-record gossip about the likes of Gore Vidal, imparted while he rocks back and forth on his sofa, beaming cordially.

But, true to form, "The Innocent," based on Ian McEwan's novel, has had a rocky path to the screen. It was shot in East Berlin two summers ago, but its release has been delayed for reasons related to legal problems. "There's a lot I could say, but can't at the moment," Schlesinger says, guarded for the first and last time. "Just know that one day I shall come out and say it." Nor did he enjoy making the film: "I found Germany depressing, not a place I feel comfortable in. Too many ghosts. Every time I walked out of my house I was reminded of the situation, and because I'm Jewish it's inescapable."

"The Innocent" tells of Leonard, a young, naive British telecommunications expert sent to Berlin at the height of the Cold War in the mid-1950s to install phone taps in a tunnel secretly dug by the Allies beneath the city's Russian sector. He falls in love with Maria, a young German woman, and is befriended by Bob Glass, an American working at the installation; but no one is quite who they seem, loyalties are unclear--and Leonard soon becomes party to a grisly murder and the macabre disposal of a body.

It's a complex story, and Schlesinger has added a twist by casting the three major roles against nationality. The Englishman Leonard is played by American actor Campbell Scott; Welshman Anthony Hopkins plays the American Bob Glass; the role of the Berliner Maria went to Swedish-Italian Isabella Rossellini.

"We did it deliberately," says Schlesinger a little gleefully. "It complicates the thing. Since it's a film about who is trustworthy, with characters shrouded in a strange ambiguity, it seemed to fit."

This ambiguity may harm the commercial prospects for "The Innocent" in the United States; high-grossing films tend to be simplistic, with a premise you can sum up in a sentence.

"I can see it might not be an easy film to market," Schlesinger muses. "If so, tough. The story flip-flops all over the place. But that's what I liked about it. It's not just a thriller, not just a romance, not just a spy story, not just a black farce, but all of those things."

The film has opened in various European territories and performed disappointingly, especially in Germany and Britain. "It fared better in Italy," Schlesinger says. "The Germans didn't like the footage of the Berlin Wall in the film. They're terribly sensitive, you know. The (German) producers wanted me to cut those scenes. Don't talk to me about Germans!"

"The Innocent" seems likely to keep Schlesinger firmly in the no-man's land he has chosen to work. He is emphatically not a Hollywood director, although he did participate in a panel discussion held for the 25th anniversary of "Midnight Cowboy" earlier this year at the Directors Guild; and he takes pains to distance himself from the British film industry.

"I'm not a studio fella," he says. "I worked for Hollywood in happier times, but I prefer not to have umpteen studio executives breathing down your neck, and script conferences with everyone putting their (contribution) in."

Working for the BBC, of course, is a good antidote to Hollywood interventionism; but it merely gives Schlesinger a different set of reasons to complain. "The people there have to be goosed sometimes. It's all, 'Don't worry, don't get excited,' that terrible British attitude. But they're nice, not Machiavellian, and at least they don't keep saying: 'Yeah, but how's this gonna play in Poughkeepsie?' "

Americans, he says, "know how to enthuse, know how to sell a film, know how to run with the ball." Yet he's suffered snubs from the big studios; after "Sunday, Bloody Sunday," not the easiest of films, Schlesinger couldn't get arrested in Hollywood for four years and even directed a sequence for a Munich Olympics documentary to fill in time. After "Day of the Locust" and then "Marathon Man" with Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman he seemed back in favor. But, after the critical savaging and box-office death of "Honky Tonk Freeway" (1981), an absurdist vision of America's automobile culture, he was a pariah for four more years.

He might have lived well as a gun-for-hire director, based in Los Angeles. Yet he prefers Britain; he finds Americans obsessed by political correctness and oppressively puritanical--laissez-faire about violence, yet "embarrassed and self-righteous about sex."

He was born in London, the son of a pediatrician. In World War II, he entertained troops with a magic act, then went to Oxford and acted in student plays; he was a professional actor for eight years after graduating, then trained with the BBC, making documentaries. "Acting has helped me know how it feels, plunging into an emotional or sexual scene on set at 8:30 in the morning," he says. "Being an actor isn't easy." He works well with them--Julie Christie, Alan Bates and Jon Voight flourished with him. Hopkins says admiringly: "He's determined in his vision, yet he accommodates your ideas."

At his age one might reasonably expect him to be winding down. Not so: He recently shot "Cold Comfort Farm," based on the British 1930s comic novel, for the BBC, with Joanna Lumley of "Absolutely Fabulous" and Ian McKellen.

"It's getting very difficult to do subjects which aren't mainstream or to get films off the ground without a major star," he grumbles. "Everyone you approach immediately says, 'Oh, who's in it?' And they have to make it in the first week of release, or there are problems. They're not platformed as often as they used to be.

"Recently I had a film all set up with Jon Voight and Sally Field, but we couldn't sell foreign rights. Voight's a wonderful actor, but apparently he was a no-no. So it fell through."

He currently has two original scripts in development that deal with AIDS. "They're about the prejudice against AIDS, and they emphasize living with it, not dying from it. This is a cause close to my heart, a cause I believe in working for. I'm glad 'Philadelphia' got made and found an audience, but I don't think it went deep enough."

Yet given that filmmaking is beset with problems for him, what keeps him at it? "I'm happiest when I'm creating something," he shrugs. "That's what gives me true pleasure. I'm keen to go on as long as I can."

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