Where do you begin to discuss the more than 40-year career of filmmaker and writer Peter Bogdanovich? That was the challenge faced by film critic–and Bogdanovich interviewer–David Edelstein, who’s associated both with New York magazine and NPR’s Fresh Air, on Sunday afternoon in the Court Cabaret Theatre.
Edelstein admitted after the first hour or so of the talk (the last in the Sarasota Film Festival’s Conversation Series) that he’d only gotten through the 1970s, but that was the decade many of Bogdanovich’s best-known movies (The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc?, Paper Moon, etc). took shape. The actor-director-writer has continued to work steadily since, though, recognizable to a later generation from his appearances on television’s The Sopranos. He was here in conjunction with his latest role in the movie Pasadena, directed by Will Slocombe.
Edelstein and Bogdanovich took the journey from the latter’s childhood in New York state, where his artistic parents frequently encouraged him to recite poetry before guests, to teen years spent training with famed acting coach Stella Adler (who became a second mother to him), to early directing stints, both onstage and in film. And one of the treats of the afternoon was hearing Bogdanovich do flawless imitations of many of the performers and directors he’s worked with or met over the years–everyone from Jack Benny to Alfred Hitchcock to Orson Welles.
One of the earliest of his movies was Targets, which Bogdanovich directed for B-movie king Roger Corman. “He told me he had paid for two more days of work from Boris Karloff,” said Bogdanovich, ”and I needed to shoot him, include some scenes from an earlier Corman movie [The Terror], shoot some other new stuff and put it all together.” “You can shoot 20 minutes with Karloff in two days,” Corman told Bogdanovich, who had already been handed second-unit directing duties on another Corman film, The Wild Angels. “Hell, I’ve shot whole movies in two days.” And, with director Samuel Fuller’s help guiding the script, the fledgling director was able to finish the movie, which gained him praise.
Over the years, Bogdanovich met everyone, it seems, from John Ford and John Wayne to Jimmy Stewart (another uncanny impersonation there) and Jean Renoir, whom Bogdanovich called the greatest director ever. “I asked him once,” Bogdanovich recalled, “if he knew what a picture was going to look like before he started. And he said [French accent here], ‘If I knew what the picture will look like, I have no reason to make the picture.’”
Of course, Bogdanovich did have some idea of what The Last Picture Show would look like ahead of time; for one thing, he knew it would be shot in black and white, and for another, he knew that writer Larry McMurtry’s home town in Texas was the perfect location for it. During shooting, he fell in love with then-starlet Cybill Shepherd, a relationship that broke up his marriage. “We went down [to shoot that movie] as one bunch of people, and we came back another bunch of people,” he said. “Everything changed.”
A few more anecdotes from the plethora told:
Barbra Streisand told him she had never been directed before, not even by veteran filmmaker William Wyler on Funny Girl. So, during friendly arguments while shooting What’s Up, Doc?, when giving her unsolicited suggestions for line readings, he would always say, “That’s directing, Barbra.”
On Paper Moon, which earned the very young Tatum O’Neal an Oscar: “She was only eight or nine, and in one scene she had a very complicated set of business to perform in a moving car. We did 25 takes one day, and 15 another before we got it. But she did it.”
On the never-filmed Streets of Laredo (which later became the miniseries Lonesome Dove): “We were going to shoot it with John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda. Fonda and Stewart agreed, but Wayne wouldn’t do it, because he said it was an ‘end of the Western’ movie, and he wasn’t ready to hang up his spurs yet. I found out later John Ford told him not to do it.”
On the initially poor response to movie musical At Long Last Love: “I found out about a year ago that there’s a recut version out I’d never seen, streaming on Netflix. I didn’t do it, but it’s good! And it’s coming out on DVD in June.”
On his next movie: “It’s called Squirrels to the Nuts, and it’s a screwball comedy. I wrote it years ago with my dearest friend [and ex-wife] Louise Stratten. [Directors] Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach are going to produce it for me. They both call me ‘Pop.’”
Read all our Sarasota Film Festival 2013 coverage here.