Conversation with Paul Morrissey (Part I)

From Oui (March 1975). I no longer recall whether or not the editors changed the wording of some of my questions; I suspect that in many cases they did. Because of the length of this interview, I’m posting it in two parts. -– J.R.

Excerpted from the Introduction [obviously not by me]:

“Jonathan Rosenbaum interviewed Morrissey in Paris, shortly after the director had completed his latest films [Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula aka Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein and Andy Warhol’s Dracula (sic, sic), only the second of which I’ve ever seen, then or since. -– J.R.] He described being greeted at the door by Nico, of the original and most durable Factory regulars:

“Nico entertained me with comparisons of Paris and Los Angeles, while Morrissey served me orange soda from his refrigerator,” he said. “Morrissey enjoys talking –- the interview was nearly a monologue –- and he speaks in a slightly nasal tone, a cross between Brando and the Bronx.”

OUI: There’s a noticeable difference between your early movies, such as Trash, and your latest ones, Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein and Andy Warhol’s Dracula. Is it true, as some critics contend, that you’ve gone from the underground to the surface?

MORRISSEY: Each time I make another film, I want to change, but I don’t want to change that much. It’s mostly a question of adapting. I never optioned scripts to agents to show to actors, which is the conventional film-making system in the U. S. I’ve always made independent films in an independent way, and I know it would be nice to preserve some of that: casting them myself, writing the stories myself, having a say in as many things as possible. But I’ve come to the conclusion that by doing things that way, you become isolated from a lot of things — certainly from the rest of the film business. Critics, especially the New York critics, treat this independence with contempt. They prefer to deal with known quantities like scripts they can evaluate, directors they can find an easy way of talking about.

OUI:But it’s because you are not a known quantity that your films have been distinctive. Wouldn’t you say being so independent has been an advantage?

MORRISSEY: Certainly. I think the films I’ve made have been different. Their strong point is that they are very rich in characterization, even though they’re not commercial. I still enjoy all the films that I made with Andy Warhol. What Andy hit upon was that characters were vanishing from films, characterization was disappearing and was being upstaged by a lot of cinematic claptrap. Andy completely eliminated the claptrap. He just turned on the camera and left the room.

OUI: What were your and Warhol’s respective roles in your early films together, such as My Hustler and The Chelsea Girls?

MORRISSEY: I just understood what Andy was doing and helped him do it. Andy usually operated the camera. I always did the lights, organized the film, got the actors together, told them what to do. We never ever told actors just to be themselves. That’s a lot of crap. The people who’ve tried to copy Warhol have always gotten it completely wrong, except for Norman Mailer. He understood that you take people and put them into acting situations, trying to make them lose a consciousness of acting. By eliminating written dialogue and camera changes, you lose the artificiality of a commercial movie. You get something different.

OUI: You said that Warhol turned on the camera and left the room, but that certainly isn’t what you’re now doing in your films. Isn’t there a lot less improvisation and accident in your new films than in your early ones?

MORRISSEY: No, there’s just as much, but it’s edited down, so you don’t see the gaps where nothing’s happening. Those gaps are interesting in and of themselves, but they make the films much less accessible. My films are a blend, more or less, of what Andy hit upon and of more conventional film making.

OUI: But so many of Warhol’s early films, particularly Sleep and Empire, have no characterization. They are directors’ films at best and inside jokes at worst.

MORRISSEY: Nobody looks at Empire, the 24-hour Empire State Building film. Even Andy’s never looked at it. I assume it was done to provoke journalists. But consider The Chelsea Girls and Bike Boy; there you have performances and characterization.

OUI: So your definition of a good film is one with strong characterization. You must have liked Last Tango in Paris.

MORRISSEY: No. I think it’s a very poor film. It has a self-indulgent performance by Marlon Brando — full of his bargain-basement psychoanalyzing and notions of life and death. For a number of years, he was the best actor alive, and then he didn’t want to be that anymore. He wanted to become intellectual. He kept looking for films that had something important to say. Bertolucci is still one of the most talented directors in Europe, but I say that because of The Conformist, which is a really superb film. Pauline Kael and many others went into ecstasy over Tango. They found it the definitive statement of contemporary sexuality. I just don’t think that young girls get emotionally overwrought by older men, at least not so much so that they have to shoot them. That’s excessive. It’s melodramatic and soap-operatic.

OUI: Mailer criticized the film for having simulated sex. Do you think that makes any difference?

MORRISSEY: No. Having real sex in a movie is silly, like really killing animals. What’s the point? The purpose of a film is to tell stories. The whole purpose of the camera is to lie.

OUI: But a lot of people feel that your film Heat is a much more accurate and truthful portrayal of Hollywood than what one ordinarily expects.

MORRISSEY:Well, realism and naturalism are always to be sought after. Any kind of theatrical fabrication is a valid thing. But people have always had this crazy idea that we were interested in making “real” films. Andy, in all his film making, never tried to presume that anything he was doing was real — it was always a film, and the format and stylistic devices always called attention to this. The theatrical part of it was prominent, but by eliminating written dialogue and camera changes, you lose the artificiality of a regular movie. The result is something different.

OUI: Well, you and Warhol started making films in an environment that was certainly out of the ordinary. Because of the campy nature of the Factory, your films had an aura about them that led the audience to believe that they were seeing a very special and bizarre slice of life. What’s happened to the Factory scene now?

MORRISSEY: The Factory isn’t what it was, but then again, what was it to begin with? Basically, it was a figment of journalists’ imaginations. Andy did a lot of painting in a big loft, and the phone would ring and someone would answer, and instead of saying “Andy Warhol’s loft,” he’d say “Factory.” Journalists imagined there was a lot of hippie-commune filth sitting up there taking drugs and getting in front of movie cameras. It was always a fictionalized thing. Andy still has a loft where he does his paintings. And whereas years ago the phone would be answered by the people who were hanging around, now Andy employs people to do that. Otherwise, there isn’t much difference. Andy doesn’t make films anymore, but he makes a lot of video tapes, and he tape-records people and photographs them. But that’s always been a hobby with Andy. He hasn’t changed a bit.

OUI: The Factory scene was a kind of miniature Hollywood, with stars like Joe Dallesandro, Holly Woodlawn, Viva Superstar and Ondine. If the Hollywood studio system were still operating, would you want to work in it?

MORRISSEY: Oh, yes. I always like to quote Bette Davis, who said, “I don’t think there will ever be a better system for making films.” The studio system wasn’t some idiotic director’s or producer’s or critic’s idea of how a good movie should be made. It evolved naturally out of the growth of the film industry, as an integral part of why films are made and why people go to see them. Audiences go to see people they like. Great stars are the true artists of film because they’ve understood who they are and have managed to render themselves truly. For example, what John Wayne has done is not to analyze a character — the piece of paper, the script that he’s got — but rather he has taken his own personality and kept it exactly the same for each film, in the same way a great artist keeps his personality in all the paintings he does. This is frowned upon by critics, because they believe it’s not acting. Actually, it’s the best kind of acting.

You read a good book because you meet characters you like, not because of plots or philosophical notions. The novel no longer exists because authors don’t introduce good characters. As the writing of critics became more important, it influenced the people who wrote novels. Basically, the novel thrived only when it was an individual thing between the writer and the reader. In the film world, the critics became very important, and suddenly directors were being influenced by what the critics were saying. Making a film for an audience was considered second-rate, pandering. When you lose characterization, you get directors’ films or writers’ films. Then you lose your audience. People stay home and watch TV, because there they can see characters.Nowadays, there’s no longer a film industry in America. We have a very fickle public that’s told in advance what it’s supposed to see: Love Story, The Godfather, The Exorcist. Whether the film is good or bad is immaterial; people have the notion that if the film was a best-selling novel, everybody’s read it and therefore everyone should see it and talk about it the next night at the pizza parlor.

But for me, it all comes back to character. I think the films that stand up are the ones you remember because you like the people, like Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams, Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind, Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront.

OUI: Would you ever consider taking well-known stars such as these and using them in improvisational situations? Robert Altman has done this. Do you think he’s been successful?

MORRISSEY: No; it’s hard for name actors to improvise. I tend to be critical because I’ve directed so much of that kind of work. Commercial films can’t do that. They don’t have the time. When it’s done in a commercial film, it involves only a very short scene. Needless to say, you can’t really improvise under those conditions. You need a situation that’s loose, that doesn’t demand too much plot, and then, in the editing of the film, you take out all the gaps. Another problem with improvising is that professional actors are too self-conscious to improvise –- you can see their brains working.

There were actors who improvised brilliantly on TV, such as Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, or Jackie Gleason and his cast on The Honeymooners. They had written scripts, but they didn’t memorize them. They went in on Saturday afternoon, ran through them once or twice, and then went in front of the cameras. The Johnny Carson Show is totally improvised, and very often is much more interesting than an old movie.

OUI: Do you ever create situations with which to surprise actors while they’re improvising?

MORRISSEY: Never.In our early experiments, we found that surprises would sometimes happen automatically. For example, when Ondine lost his temper in The Chelsea Girls, it was really interesting and we kept it. The best subjects to improvise on are the most innocuous subjects. When Marlon Brando improvises on the meaning of life and death, it just becomes his little thing, it doesn’t relate to anything. But to hear somebody talk about what he cooked for dinner the night before, and how the oil spilled or something –- to me, that becomes universal and meaningful and worth listening to.

To come back to your question about name actors improvising, I think a lot of people can improvise, but I’d never ask, say, Clint Eastwood to do it, because I already like what he does, and why should I take the risk? If you work with famous actors, you should work with a script. People often tell me they like my movies and then they say, “But could you work with a script?” As though that were harder! I always like to ask in reply: “Could you work without a script?”

OUI: Since you work without a script, why do the credits of your films read, “Written and directed by Paul Morrissey?”

MORRISSEY:Well, I don’t type the script out, I write it in the sense that I create the story and accept or reject lines given to me by the actors. I think the merit of my films, if there is any, is that the films are basically literary, even though the dialogue isn’t written.

(To be continued; Part II is mainly about politics)

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