Metro Retro Movie Love In Conversation

The Interview: Joan Tewkesbury

July 23 2019

If Joan Tewkesbury had not begun writing, we would think very differently about Hollywood in the 70s. Her two major credited screenplays of the period, Thieves Like Us and Nashville, marked the height of director Robert Altman’s mainstream success and artistic virtuosity. But when Tewkesbury struck out on her own, she found herself facing an uphill battle. Her only theatrical feature, the enigmatic Old Boyfriends, has been much discussed but rarely seen since its release 40 years ago, when it was one of the only Hollywood films ever directed by a woman.

When you finally do see it, it becomes clear why Old Boyfriends never found the audience it deserved. There’s hardly anything to compare it to. The script, which Tewkesbury re-wrote with from a draft by Paul and Leonard Schrader, casually avoids convention and cliché, asking a mainstream audience to identify with a duplicitous woman with unclear motivations. Talia Shire, fresh off her Oscar nomination for Rocky, plays Dianne Cruise, a Los Angeles professional who drives across the country to reintroduce herself to her ex-boyfriends, played by Richard Jordan, John Belushi, and Keith Carradine. With wild, Altmanesque tonal shifts and an unsettling intimacy unmatched by Tewkesbury’s peers, Old Boyfriends is ripe for rediscovery and could change the way we think about the New Hollywood years. Metrograph will host the theatrical release of a brand new 35mm restoration from Rialto Pictures.

Austin Dale: I’d like to start at the beginning, when you were a little girl. This I did not know: You were a dancer growing up in Southern California, and you were in movies as a kid.

Joan Tewkesbury: In Southern California, everybody wanted to be in the movies. Most of all, my mother. She really wanted to be a dancer, and so, I was sent to dancing school. And I hated it, but I'm grateful that I had the training. At that time they were making musicals at MGM, and so, they came and looked at kids at various dancing schools, and I got a job in The Unfinished Dance with Margaret O'Brien. It was Danny Thomas' first movie and Cyd Charisse's first movie, and I was a dancer with 36 other little girls. What fascinated me more than dancing was watching the cranes and things: the way movies were made then, oh, it was pretty terrific.

My parents were divorced when I was about 11 or 12, and I continued to work. What I realized early on was that I could earn a living, because I had that job young. I got a job right after high school. They were developing Peter Pan for Mary Martin, and Jerome Robbins was the director and choreographer. I was hired to be an ostrich, but given that I was about her body type, I was also her flying understudy, that meant that they used me to rig all her flying scenes.

At that time, I gravitated less to performance and more to putting things together, and I decided I really wanted to be a choreographer, so I made up my high school grades, which were really crappy, and then I went to USC and started doing that. But then I got married when I was 24 and had kids, but I was not a nine to five wife. Could never be.

AD: Given that you were in LA, were you trying to break into Hollywood at that time?

JT: I'm very grateful that I worked in film as a child, because I took it seriously, but I never had to do this or die. And when I was married, I actually really withdrew from the business. I really tried to be what Ladies’ Home Journal told us you were supposed to be, you know? I got married in 1960 and all of us were trying to be those perfect, not quite Stepford Wives, but sort of.

I didn't reenter the business until a professor of mine from USC called and said that he was going to the Edinburgh Festival and he asked if I’d be interested in choreographing something. And things were not really right at home, so I said yes. I took the children and went to Scotland for three summers in a row. As I look back, it was a way of easing back into being in the theater: Rewriting things, directing things, and putting together that kind of life. And the children were there. I'm certainly not, probably, the greatest mother in the world, but we had our adventures, you know?

AD: Was this around the time you started to work with Robert Altman?

JT: I directed Michael Murphy in an original play that was done at a workshop called Theater East. He had just worked with Altman, and Altman came to see him, complimented his performance and I took that as a way that I could go meet Bob. So, I did, and I said, "I really would like to direct. Could I shadow you?" And he said, "No. Absolutely not. If you're going to be on the set, you have to have a job." He was about to go off and do McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and he said, "You could hold script, because I want the Canadian script girl to be in the movie.”

To me, the fascination was always about the process, and I always just wanted to do something that would move people. It was a different kind of ambition. And at the time, I was fairly shy about, you know, having a voice or saying what I really thought, and Bob was very much the opposite of that. But I spent the summer watching Lou Lombardo cut Brewster McCloud. And then I took my kids and went to Canada. I was the script supervisor for McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and I was terrible, but I learned a lot.

AD: You knew making movies was like from being on sets at MGM as a kid. The Altman process must’ve been a shock by comparison.

JT: Yeah, but it was fabulous. Working with Jerome Robbins, every eyelash move, practically, was choreographed, and you had to do it the same way every night. And here was Altman directing movies in the middle of traffic. There was a sense of freedom, a sense that film was fluid. As Bob said, "Once you're there, you might as well do as many takes as you need to do until you get it, because that's the cheapest part of the process.” It's not that he was cavalier, but he was very easy-going about how he put things and people together.

These worlds were created in a very fluid and simple way. If he needed a plumber, he'd cast a plumber. He would pull any person off the street if they knew how to do something and he'd put them in the movie, and that worked to his advantage. He was very generous with actors. It was an easy atmosphere for them to work in. And I think anybody that worked with Bob realized that, and we all did the same things when we started to direct our films. You had to provide an atmosphere that was comfortable for actors to be in. He wasn't a dictator, he wasn't a screamer. It was not like coming out of the world of dance where that's often what choreographers were. Somehow, it all made sense, and it also seemed like anything was possible.

AD: You were there for a real hot streak. Altman was making film after film at that time.

JT: After McCabe and Mrs. Miller, I wrote a screenplay, which was a dark comedy about my divorce. Bob said he was going to produce it so I could direct it, but we couldn't raise 10 cents. He said, "Well, do you mind not starting at the top?" And I said, "No." At the time he was going to the film the novel Thieves Like Us. And he said, "Have you ever done an adaptation?" So, I adapted that book. And then when we were there shooting it in Mississippi with Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall, he said, "Do you know anything about country western music?" And I said, "No." And he said, "Well, would you like to?" And I said, "Sure." And so I wrote Nashville. That’s really how it was.

AD: And after Nashville you got to direct Old Boyfriends.

JT: Well, after Nashville, we tried once again to get my film up and running. It was a point in time when women were not first on the list to direct much of anything. Polly Platt introduced me to her agent, who was Jeff Berg, and he was also Paul Schrader's agent. And Paul was incredibly hot at that moment. I think he was starting to do Hardcore. But he had written Old Boyfriends with his brother. I guess it originally had been Old Girlfriends, but they changed it. Jeff was able to package this thing, and I would be directing Paul's screenplay, and I rewrote it for Talia Shire.

AD: Coming from Altman’s world, it must’ve been very important for you to get the casting right.

JT: Yup. It was actually Paul who had the idea of casting Talia. She had just been Rocky's girlfriend. That was probably helpful in terms of actually getting it made. And then he knew John Belushi, and he already had him in mind. Richard Jordan came after that, but then I cast Keith Carradine, because I knew that Keith could handle that sort of strangeness without it being strange. The woman that played the psychiatrist was a friend of mine. And when Richard found out there was a part for a teenage girl, we cast his daughter.

AD: Casting causes a lot of stress in Hollywood. This sounds like the opposite.

JT: Yeah, we had fun shooting that movie. I hadn’t seen it since it first came out, and I saw it again in LA. It really holds up. And the story is really haunting.

AD: I read some of the original reviews, and it seems like a lot of people were just baffled by it.

JT: Yup.

AD: It would’ve stood out in the marketplace. The business was really changing. There’s a shot in the film of Richard Jordan looking down over Hollywood Boulevard, and you see Star Wars is playing at the Chinese. That told me a lot about the environment you made the film in.

JT: I did that deliberately. We all knew the business was changing the minute that Star Wars hit the street. In your heart of hearts, you knew that this lovely era, with all those films that were shot in the 70s, these kind of personal, dark, weird, funny stories... It was going to be harder to get those things financed if you didn’t have Star Wars under your belt. Jaws came out about the same time too. I mean, those were highly entertaining blockbuster movies. But that's not what I was doing, and it wasn't what Paul was doing, and it certainly wasn't what Altman was doing. So, yes. I got the gist.

AD: How do you think Altman responded to the changes in the business personally?

JT: He had enough of a reputation that he continued for quite some time putting films together. We made Nashville together, then he did Buffalo Bill, and we were supposed to do Ragtime.

AD: Oh, wow.

JT: But it was hard. And it got harder and harder to put those films together. But the great thing about Bob was that he would go in 12 different directions to get to do what he needed to do. So basically it taught me that if I couldn't direct a movie, I could write a play, or I could mount it on a ballet company. In other words, he used to say, "Your best revenge is lasting too long and never stopping." That was a great reinforcement to what I'd already been doing, but it's certainly borne out in my career. I just never stopped.

I had great help from agents. When I said I was going to do television, Jeff said, "Well, wait a minute. You'll never work in features again." And I said, "I may never work again if I don't get going doing something where I think I can put my energy." Some people really had this passion to be seen or heard, but mine is a little different.

I think maybe it was because I had kids, too. They softened the ambition in a way, because you're always concerned about what's going on with them. Or I guess when the kids were about 10 and 11, their father remarried and they went to live with him full time. I was the satellite parent, and everyone I knew said, "You're out of your mind and you're ruining your children's lives." So there was that aspect of it too. You know, I always sort of felt like a fallen woman for a while. It worked out okay though. They're all fine.

AD: How did it feel when you finally got to direct? Did you feel ready to do it?

JT: Yup. And I think it's because I had performed since I was a child. I had no hesitation when it came to directing actors. But it was hard sometimes. Ed had brought in Billy Fraker to shoot the film and Billy Reynolds to edit the film. And my biggest difficulties would’ve been with the two of them, making decisions about their ideas or my ideas. For example, the beginning of the film is very different than the cut I originally provided. But these were things that got sorted out. They were my biggest difficulties, but it wasn’t a big deal.

I think about having the example of Altman. If you talked something through long enough, and you weren't dictatorial or just an absolute and utter bitch, you'd collaborate. It would fall together. It would work out. I am not someone who likes confrontation. Some people do, you know? And it works well for them, but it certainly isn't something that I ever could do.

AD: How did your cut of the film begin?

JT: It began with pictures of women. You know, at that time how women got their ideas about how to dress, beauty, all of that stuff, from those women's magazines. So we just tore out all these photographs of interesting women, and put them around the room. And Talia walked around the room and then went and cut all of her hair off, because originally, she had very long hair in the beginning. And Billy Reynolds was concerned because he thought – this is how times have changed – he thought everybody would think she was a lesbian. And I said, "I don't think so. I think every woman will know what she's doing. She's trying to figure out who she is." But as it turned out the car chase where she eventually ends up wrecking the car became sort of an imprint of what was going on in this woman's mind. So it worked out fine because it sets up the journey. And probably a lot better. At the time I kind of liked that other beginning, but the car wreck gives the movie a real sense of urgency.

AD: Old Boyfriends has a lot of the hallmarks of Schrader's work: The diary and the voiceover. You get the sense he was putting on training wheels for some of the things that he was going to try later on. But right away, it’s clear that you rewrote it.

JT: It’s just a different tone, you know? The original Schrader script was more of a revenge movie. All the way through. Which it is. But I also wanted more depth for her, so that she takes this journey and learns that revenge is not the answer for her. She learns she has to be responsible for what she's done to other human beings. The other producer on this film was Michele Rappaport, and she and I both felt very strongly that we needed to know more about the woman and her journey, so that you understood what she was going through and why she was never going to do that again.

These were cut out, but we shot scenes where she would be in front of the mirror, and her younger self would talk to her in the mirror. And when we finished the film, those things weren't necessary because Talia carried you through as an actress, and it was better to have the urgency of watching Diane moving from one of these men to the next man and to the next man. It was better not to know why, because that’s the mystery. That is the hook that sort of pulls you through the whole movie, until she completely collapses at the end. You don't know what the fuck she's doing.

AD: You’re an educator now. What kind of experience do you want young writers to have when they come and learn from you?

JT: There are still two movies that I would really love to make at some point, but, you know, time may run out. I'm now 83, and so, you know, there's only so much time you have left. Someone asked me if I would teach a screenwriting class at UCLA, and I said, “I don't teach screenplay writing because I'm not a good screenplay writer. I write constructs and movement and situations, and yeah, dialogue, but in terms of a really rigorous screenplay form I'm the wrong person, but I could teach a class in all the obstacles that people run into as they are shooting, or when these scripts are getting changed all the time.”

So I made up this thing called Designed Obstacles, Spontaneous Response. And the first time I taught it was at UCLA, and then I was asked again to do this at ArtCenter. So I taught at ArtCenter, and I was directing episodic, and still trying to get some of my stuff off the ground. And at some point, I just… you really get tired of asking people for money, and I just thought, you know, this is really stupid.

I worked with Sundance for a long time with Michelle Satter, and then I introduced this class for filmmakers. So it is really a way to access your own imagination and we keep forgetting that all these great stories are in us. And people sometimes say, "Well, I don't want to write about myself." And I say, "Change your name, but the experiences that you’ve had are really relevant to something that you are writing now." Because the truth is this: We are every single thing that we write, whether we want to admit it or not.