By Jake Perlin
In honor of the late, great Peter Bogdanovich, we share this wide-roaming Q&A from the night he visited Metrograph in 2017 to present They All Laughed (1981).
It’s a little tough to watch, but I’m glad you liked it. Ask me something, quick.
You grew up in New York, but I think this is the first time you ever shot on the streets of New York, am I right?
Yeah. Why did we ever shoot on the streets of New York? We had no extras, you know— actually we had extras to hide the camera. And all that stuff we shot on Fifth Avenue, those were all real people.
I was wondering what it’s like to follow Audrey Hepburn up Fifth Avenue in the middle of the day.
Yeah, they didn’t notice her, because we kept everything on the down-low. We didn’t have any chairs; the trucks were 20 blocks away; Audrey waited in a store.
I once heard you talking about the film, and you were saying that the hand motions that are going on between the characters mimic the way you were making the film.
In a way, because we didn’t want to attract attention, and we wanted to get the shots. So I mean, there were some dolly shots and so on, but if anybody recognised me, which happened once in a while, I’d say, “Oh, we’re just shooting a commercial.” And Audrey waited in the beauty salon or a store across the way or whatever.
She’d come over to me say, “Oh, look, Peter, look at this lovely umbrella they gave me.” Then she came up another time, “Oh, look, Peter, they gave me this beautiful handkerchief.”
I said, “Okay, Audrey, look, we’re gonna go over there so you can work the other side of the street.”
She was wonderful, though, she didn’t complain. It was completely un-luxurious, this shooting. She had a hotel room at the Peninsula, she went there a couple of times. It was the only way we could do it. And with a lot of signals, a lot of that kind of stuff.
I was thinking while watching, it also seems completely unlike any other film that was depicting Manhattan at that time. It’s 1980, and it’s just seems to have this magic, the light is magic, everyone in it, the way everything comes together.
It’s about love, you know, and when you’re in love that’s sort of the way everything looks.
That’s what I was going to ask about because you wrote it as well. When did you begin writing?
I don’t know, I had the idea. I thought it would be funny to do a story about some detectives. That actually started out because Ben Gazzara and I got to be very friendly on Saint Jack, which we made in Singapore. And we talked a lot about his life, my life, particularly in the romantic area. And I just thought it’d be interesting to make a movie about that, about love and stuff, and at the end of the 70s, before AIDS and all that stuff. So I didn’t want to make it like a indie picture, you know, all about me and Ben. I wanted to cloak it as all the old time directors did in the genre. John Ford made very personal films but he do it as a Western or Howard Hawks would do it as a flying picture. So I said “Okay, we’ll do a detective picture,” but I didn’t really give a shit about the detective part of it. I didn’t even research it. I just figured there’s following. Anyway, that was the idea. And then Benny—he did Saint Jack and then he went and did a picture called Bloodline with Audrey, and they had an affair, and so he came back and he said, “Audrey, my Audrey, my Audrey, she’s a saint, Peter, she’s a Saint.” So I thought Audrey and Benny, that’s interesting.
Audrey waited in the beauty salon or a store across the way. She’d come over to me say, “Oh, look, Peter, look at this lovely umbrella they gave me.”
What about Blaine Novak?
Well, Blaine had never acted before, he was a kind of half-assed distributor, he helped John Cassavetes on distributing Woman Under the Influence. He’d never acted, but he had that hair. And actually, he encouraged me because I had a friend, a writer, and I had told him the idea about detectives who fall in love with the people they’re following. He wasn’t that interested but Blaine liked the idea, so that was why I wrote a part for him.
And your friend George.
George Morfogen, who plays Leon Leondopolous. He’s probably my oldest friend in the world, I’ve known him since I was 17.
The two of them are great, considering they’re not actors.
George is an actor, George is a very good actor. Blaine never acted before.
I just wanted to talk about Blaine a little, I like Blaine a lot.
Well Blaine’s very good, and that stuff about the pre-bop and the post-bop, that was the way Blaine talked. And that line, “You’ll feel like a cloud in pants,” that was his line. And the touch assist, that was something Colleen [Camp] did to me. Not quite as erotic but that’s where that idea came from. I think the touch assist, if anybody is in Scientology they do that in Scientology. But that whole scene, I don’t know if you noticed but that was without a cut. From the time she starts doing it, it’s all one shot.
They’re tremendous. Like the same when they’re coming out of the restaurant in Chinatown.
Yeah, that’s all one shot
The film is filled with stuff like that. Someone once told me they thought the film was shot as if the camera was on wings.
Well, when you’re in love, you feel like everything’s on wings, you know? In the original first draft of the picture, John Ritter’s character was sort of me having just ended my relationship with Cybill Shepherd. So there was going to be a picture of Cybill on his desk or something, and he was going to be mooning about Cybill for the whole picture. I thought that was kind of gloomy. And then I met Dorothy [Stratten] and fell in love with her. And so we took the part that was about Mrs. Martin, which was just a couple of scenes in the beginning, and made it that whole thing in order to kind of counterbalance the Gazarro story, which ends sadly, and the Ritter story, which ends happily.
She’s so great. You’re just following around for the first half hour before she even speaks, the same with Audrey Hepburn. You’re just following the women around. They don’t even have a line.
Well, the funny thing was I wanted to do a picture where you didn’t know what was happening for quite a while. And I like that, I hate to know what’s happening, I hate to know what kind of picture it is right away. So I thought, let’s just take a while to let them know what the hell’s going on. Let them stew about it. But then people read interviews and in fact, in the ads, we said ‘a detective story.’ But I like that kind of opening where you don’t know quite what’s happening and then you find out, I like that kind of picture.
Questions from the audience? What was it like working with John Ritter?
Well John Ritter was a dear friend of mine, we did three pictures together. I wish we’d done more. But he was just the best, and I said, “Do you want to play me in a movie?” He said, “What time? Where do I go?” He didn’t even want to read the script. That’s the kind of actor you want.
His physicality—he moves brilliantly, that was all his stuff. And we put as much as we could of that into the picture because John does it so well. The roller skating—he roller skates very well, but in order to roller skate badly, you have to know how to do it well, otherwise you’ll kill yourself. And Dorothy’s a very good skater, and she used to skate all the time. And so the Roxy, where we shot—I don’t think it’s there anymore, is it? No— that was very much of that moment in New York. Even the idea of the country music, there was a country music station in New York for about a minute, and that’s why we put it in. I thought it’d be funny. Originally Colleen Camp’s character sang jazz, she was a jazz singer, which I thought was kind of conventional. I thought it would be fun to have country music.
And you wrote some of the songs with a guy whose last name is Poole Ball?
Earl Poole Ball. The guy at the piano in the club is Earl. Actually I was listening to a Johnny Cash record, a song called “A song for the life”, and the whole first verse is just Johnny and a piano. I said “Who’s playing the piano? It’s a great, great pianist.” And they told me it was Earl Poole Ball. So we called him, we found him in Nashville, or Austin, somewhere down there. We asked him to come up to New York. I had an upright piano put into the Plaza Hotel where I was staying, and I said, “Earl, I want to write a couple of songs for the picture, will you work with me on them and be in the picture and so on?” “One Day Since Yesterday”, the song you hear at the end—she sings it in the club, too— was a song I wrote actually, inspired by an event I had with Dorothy. It was a very personal song. We wrote it and recorded it, just a rough recording, and when Dorothy came to New York, I played it for her and she loved it. In fact, there’s a very good documentary that a fella made which is on Netflix, if you want to see it. It’s called One Day Since Yesterday. It’s about the making of this film, and about my career at the beginning but it focuses on this film, and it’s quite well done. And there’s interviews with Benny and everybody who was around.
Well, the other music thing is the Sinatra songs—it’s become such a cliché now, but it wasn’t at the time. You mentioned in the film that that was very of the moment, that Sinatra had a new record.
Oh, yeah, what happened was, I knew Frank a little bit. He sent me as a present an album that he had just put out called Trilogy. It was three records: the past, the present, the future. He said, hope you enjoy this, signed Francis—he signed this stuff, Francis. And I loved the album, and “New York, New York,” which was a huge hit, right then when we were making the picture. You couldn’t go anywhere [without hearing it], it was playing everywhere.
And after Dorothy was killed, I had fixed all the music in the picture and I called Frank and I said, “We don’t have a lot of money, Frank, but I’d like to use four of your songs from the last album in the movie.”
“Which ones?” he said.
I said “Well, ‘New York, New York,’ ‘They all Laughed,’ the title song which you hear at Rockefeller Center, and ‘More Than You Know,’ and a song I liked very much called ‘You and Me.’”
He said, “Let me get back to you, kid.” About a week went by, and he called me: “Look I’ll give you all four songs for five grand, can you manage that?”
Five grand?! It would have cost $100,000… he gave me the publishing, the performance orchestra, everything, five grand. That was a gesture that I never forgot.
How long did it take to make the film?
I don’t remember, probably around 60 days
That seems like a long time.
I made pictures much quicker, but this was about 60 days.
Did the script change much during production, because of the people cast?
The script was pretty much the way we did it, but we did ad lib some stuff. For the final draft, I knew who was going to play all the parts. And it was very much Audrey’s story, actually. To be candid, she was married, it was not a happy marriage, and he did fool around. And like that line, “Some people figure whatever they’re doing, somebody else must be doing it too,” that was what that was all about. And all the clothes she wears in the picture, those were her clothes. I went to her place and I said, “Let me see what you got. I want to see your clothing.” Silk shirts, and what do you call those jackets? Pea jackets and slacks. That’s how she dressed.
It seems like because she’s the biggest star in the film that the film is going to be about her. But then it seems like it organically grows around all these characters as if you just fell in love with everyone you were working with, and wanted to give them more stuff.
Well, I like pictures with a lot of characters, I don’t know why. But I’ve always liked that, I guess. The first picture I made was Targets, and it was two stories—one about Boris Karloff and the other about a mass killer. I learned that if you have two stories going, if you get in trouble with one you can cut to the other. So I always liked a lot of characters because if I get in trouble, I can go to another guy, or another girl, you know? When I was close to finish with this picture, I called Frank Capra, whom I knew a little bit. He was living in Palm Desert, California, which is a couple hours out of LA. I said, “If I send a limo for you, Frank, and bring you down here, I’d like you to see this picture I made and tell me what you think of it.”
He said, “I’ll do it, I’ll do it. But I’m going to tell you the truth. Last person I did that, I told the truth and he wasn’t happy. Because I didn’t like the picture.”
“What picture was that?”
So he came over, and he saw the picture. He came out and he says, “Good picture, kid. Your first real is too fast.”
And I knew what he meant, I was cross-cutting between the stories too much. Howard Hawks once said to me that if you have a lot of characters and you cut to a lot of different people—because he made a movie like that once, it was a silent picture—that you have to be careful not to go away from the people too quick, because otherwise [the audience] feel like they’re pulled away, and they want to stay with these people. And then you cut to somebody else, they get annoyed. So Capra reminded me of that. And so I stayed with the characters a little longer before I cut away in the first reel particularly. That was interesting. “Your first real is too fast, kid.”
Were you in the habit of showing your films to some of the folks you knew, Welles or Ford?
Well, Ford never saw any picture I made. Even if he had, he wouldn’t tell me. I found out that Hitchcock had seen a couple of pictures of mine—he didn’t tell me though. But we were at a small screening of one of his films, a new film, about 100 people, and somebody in the audience asked him if he had seen any new films he liked. And Hitch said, “Well, I very much like The Last Picture Show. And What’s Up, Doc?” That was how he told me he’s seen them.
And Don Siegel saw The Last Picture Show and—what was it he said? It’s a goddamn something. He liked it.
Since you brought up the topic of Welles, I was curious, I heard that recently you were involved in work on The Other Side of the Wind. Could you talk a little bit about what that is?
Recently? I’d say 30 years!
Well, The Other Side of the Wind is a film that Orson Welles started shooting around 1970. And he shot for two or three years, off and on. I started out playing a small part as kind of a cineaste. Orson loved it if I did impressions. So Orson asked me to play this cineaste, but to talk like Jerry Lewis. So I had lines like, “Mr. Hannaford, do you think that this camera is a phallus?” Orson would roar at that. Then I had a couple of hit pictures, and I got moved up. I started playing pretty much the second lead, a young director who’d had a lot of success.
And John Huston plays an older director, who’s kind of on his last legs. John was brilliant, really a great performance. I remember we were waiting to shoot something and John turns to me: “How many pictures have you acted in Peter?”
I said, “One.”
“That’s not very many.”
And Orson’s behind the camera: “That’s not very many, haw haw haw.”
Huston had a marvellous thing he used to do; when an actor forgets a line he usually says something like “Line, please.” Or “I forgot that. I’m sorry.” But not Huston. If he forgot the line, he would say something, maybe it had nothing to do with the scene. For example, if the line was, “I’ll see you Tuesday.” He’d say, “I’ll see you in the kitchen,” and he’d walk out. And I’d be left on camera going what? And Orson would be laughing hysterically. It was fun.
But anyway, The Other Side of the Wind, yeah, we started shooting it a long time ago. And one time at lunch in the mid-70s, Orson turns to me out of the blue and says, “Look, if anything ever happens to me, I want you to promise me you’ll finish the picture.”
I said, “Why would you say something like that? Nothing’s going to happen.”
He goes, “I know, I know. But if it does, I want you to promise me you’ll finish the picture.”
I said, “Yeah, of course I will. Alright, now we can change the subject.”
Well, he died in 1985 in October, and I’ve been trying to finish it ever since. And I’ve had no access to the damn stuff, because it’s owned by a number of people who have been extremely exceedingly difficult. But I can report now that I just had a meeting with a couple of the guys who are working on producing it, trying to get it done, including Frank Marshall, who started out as my assistant and now owns Hollywood, Frank told me he thinks we’ll be able to start cutting the picture in March, knock wood.
Could you talk about your experience on The Sopranos?
Oh, The Sopranos was great. I loved doing that. I owe it to Orson in a funny way, because David Chase who created The Sopranos was a showrunner on a show called Northern Exposure—it was after Orson had died, but just around the time that my book with Orson came out, This is Orson Welles. He called me and he says, “We’re doing a special show, sort of a tribute to Orson Welles. Would you come to Seattle where they’re shooting the thing and play yourself?”
I said, “Sure.”
So I went up there, we did it. And after shooting for a day, he called me and he says, “Have you ever acted before?
And I said, “Yeah, why?”
“Well, you have to do more of it, you got a lot of presence.”
I said, “Thank you very much.”
Seven years later, he calls me again. He says, “I’m doing a second season of The Sopranos. Have you seen it?”
I said, “Yeah, I’ve seen a couple of shows. It’s great.”
He said “Well Lorraine Bracco, who’s playing the therapist, has so much trouble with Tony Soprano that she needs a therapist. Would you be interested in playing it?”
I said, “In a second.”
So I met with the writers for about 45 minutes and I got the part. That was really fun to do, I loved it. I also directed one episode in the fifth season. But you couldn’t change a word without checking with David, you couldn’t add anything. I had one moment with Edie Falco where she had to take off her sweater, and she didn’t anything on underneath, so we wanted to cut away at that point, so I needed a line. I called David and he gave me the line. Now on the last show, the very last episode—I had nothing to do except Lorraine is crying, and I give her a Kleenex. David is directing the last episode—he didn’t direct except the first and last—and he yells out to me, “Ask her a question.” Ask her a question, Jesus Christ! I didn’t know what to do, it took me completely by surprise. So I asked her some question.
David yells, “Ask her a better question.”
I said, “Fuck you David, you’re the writer, you give me the question.”
There was a question over there? One of the things I really like about They All Laughed is that it has a lot of strong female characters, and you don’t usually get that in a film with male protagonists. Was that intentional, to have a little more texture?
Well, you know, I have always been partial to strong female characters. I mean, The Last Picture Show is full of them, and Tatum O’Neal is the strongest character in Paper Moon, even though she’s eight. I didn’t notice what I had done until I finished it, and then I realised it was definitely a sisterhood movie. They all got the men by the balls, so to speak. I kinda like that.
How was the collaboration with the cameraman, Robbie Müller?
Yeah, Robbie is a Dutch cameraman, and he worked with me on Saint Jack, and I loved him, so I asked him to do this. And he was great, he gave it a texture, you know? I don’t know how to explain. But you have to really get along with your cameraman, it’s very important that you have a good relationship. I usually say where the camera goes, and I usually even call the lens. But then he has to do it, and light it, and make sure everything’s right about it. He’s great. Saint Jack, we shot on Fuji film, which had a certain texture, a depth of field, depth of colour that Technicolor doesn’t have; they wouldn’t allow us to shoot They All Laughed in Fuji so he did something with the filters and so on to make it look like Fuji. He’s one of the best.
Could you talk about your rehearsal process?
I don’t rehearse that much. I used to rehearse much more than I do now. I used to rehearse couple of weeks, now I do a few days. A lot of the time, it’s just to hear the script and see how it sounds. And we change things in the rehearsal process—change lines, add lines, whatever. You don’t want to get the actors to ever do it perfectly in rehearsal. In fact, if it’s an emotional scene, I don’t rehearse it at all. Cloris Leachman had a big emotional scene at the end of The Last Picture Show and she kept saying how she’d like to rehearse that scene, but I said, “I don’t want to see it.”
“What do you mean, you don’t want to see it?”
“I don’t want to see it till we shoot it. You could do it in front of the mirror if you want but I’m not going to look at it.”
So she came and we shot it, and she was brilliant. She was shaking because it was the first time she’d done it, she was trembling and it was just perfect. And I said, “Cut print, that’s it.”
She said, “I can do it better.”
I said, “No, you can’t.” Because as John Ford said, you want to get that first-time emotion. That’s what Ford referred to it as, and he’s right. Ford would be very unhappy if he didn’t get it on the first take. I have to say I’ve gone numerous takes sometimes, but I like to get it early on if possible.
What else can I tell you? You want to hear a Hitchcock story?
Okay, so Hitchcock came to New York, this was in 1963 or 1964, and he invited me up for a drink at the St. Regis where he was staying with his wife. And now I don’t drink, I never did. I’ll have a joint but I never drink. I came up to his suite, and he had a room service table full of frozen daquiris, and they had clearly had a few because they were pink in the face and feeling no pain. And Hitch said, “Have a frozen daquiri.” So we’re talking and talking. “You’re not drinking your drink.” More talk, talk, talk, and then, “You’re not drinking your drink.” So I drank the whole goddamn thing. I mean, it was Alfred Hitchcock. So I definitely felt a buzz. Now we had to leave, I was feeling dumb, I couldn’t think of a thing to say. We walk into the elevator and on the eighteenth floor, three people come in dressed for dinner, and Hitch turns to me out of the blue and he says, “Oh it was quite shocking, you know, there was blood all over the floor. There was blood on the wall.” I thought I was so buzzed that I had missed a paragraph somewhere. And then people come in on the fifteenth floor—now this is after Hitch had been doing his TV series for years, so everybody knew who he was—and on the fifteenth floor, he goes on, “It was quite shocking, you know, there was blood on the floor. There was blood coming out of his ear, and out of his mouth. I looked at him and I said, ‘Good God man, what’s happened to you?!’ And do you know what he said to me?” And just at that moment, the doors to the lobby open and everybody… [Laughs]. Nobody wanted to get out of the elevator! But they had to, so they clustered by the door, and he just walked right by then.
Now we’re crossing the lobby, and I’m so confused by this point, and I say, “So what did he say, Hitch?”
And he goes, “What? Oh, nothing, that’s just my elevator story.”
Peter, I want to thank you so much being here.
Is that it? I got one more story.
Maybe a Cary Grant story.
One more. So I was talking to Jimmy Stewart, I was doing a piece on him for Esquire, in 1966, we were in his living room, and… I could do a Cary Grant story, yeah, maybe got two more. So Jimmy, we were talking about what is it about movies that makes them so special. All of us here love movies, and I certainly approve on that point. So we were discussing what is it that makes them so wonderful, so special?
And Jimmy said, “Well, we were shooting a picture, a Western down in Colorado, and we broke for lunch, the usual box lunch, and this fella who had been watching us comes over and he says to me, ‘You Stewart?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ He said, ‘You said a poem once, that was good.’ ‘Oh thank you.’ That’s all he said, and he just walked away, but I knew just what he meant. I’d said a poem in a picture about 20 years before and he’d remembered it all those years. It couldn’t have been more than a minute, I said a poem in a bar. And I thought now that’s the wonderful thing about the movies. Because if you’re good and God helps you, and you’re lucky enough to have a personality that comes across, you’re giving people little, tiny pieces of time that they never forget.”
I never heard a better definition of movies than that, isn’t that great? Pieces of time.
Now you wanted a Cary Grant story. In the 70s, I was going with Cybill Shepherd, we were living together, which wasn’t done so much in those days, as much as it is now. Now they have five kids and nobody gets married. But in those days it wasn’t quite the thing to do, and we got a lot of shit. We were on the cover of People magazine when it got to a million copies and it said, “Living together is sexier than being married,” you can imagine how people loved that. And so you couldn’t open a newspaper without hearing some shit about Cybill and me. So Cary, whom I’d known for quite a few years, since 1961—this is now ‘73 or ’74—Cary calls me and he says, “Peter, will you for God’s sake stop telling people you’re happy. And stop telling them you’re in love.”
“Because they’re not happy and they’re not in love.”
“I thought all the world loves a lover?”
“No, don’t you believe it.”