Honk Tonk Freeway - Director: John Schlesinger  

Interview


DIRECTING HONKY TONK FREEWAY

an Interview with John Schlesinger
Film Comment Nov/Dec 1981


By Lynn Hoffman Keating

A scout troop sporting coonskin caps rimmed the edge of the white Mt. Dora beach, jammed with camera-toting spectators quietly watching the waters. Suddenly a noisy helicopter glided over the surf, cutting through the silence. A voice commanded through a megaphone, “All right, folks, keep your places. Remember to look at the action. When you see Bubbles in view, start cheering and waving. And keep waving until we call cut.”
    The quiet continued, broken only by dialogue echoing from the walkie-talkies riding the hips of the scattered crew.
    “Action!”
    Slowly around the curve of the water appeared an enormous elephant happily swinging his trunk as he skimmed the waves on giant pink water skis.
    The crowd roared and waved.
    “Keep on cheering…Wave at Bubbles…Keep on cheering…Cut!” called the voice from the megaphone. “We did it, we did it!…All right, folks, let's try it again.”
     One day later, as heat swelled through the streets, draping Mr. Dora in a dense humidity, throngs of spectators, orderly and respectfully silent, watched as the walls, bricks, windows, and moldings of Mt. Dora turned-Ticklaw were transformed into shocking pink.
    A stout gentleman with a white beard ringing his cherubic face walked authoritatively about, conferring, nodding, totally absorbed in what he was doing despite the beads of perspiration on his face. He directed 8 action calls until the final order – “Print!”- was heard
    Why did John Schlesinger, a man who has built a reputation directing such serious films as MIDNIGHT COWBOY (winner of three directing awards and an Oscar). DARLING (New York Film Critics’ Best Director Award), SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY (Italy’s Donatello Prize), and the acclaimed DAY OF THE LOCUST and YANKS choose to do a sprawling, frenzied comedy?

     “I’m not particularly interested in repeating myself,” replied the cautious craftsman who has only chosen to oversee 10 feature films. “After YANKS, a pretty serious film concerning feelings and emotions, I kept thinking, “What I’d give for a good comedy-something to make people laugh.”

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LYNN KEATING: What do you consider was your biggest challenge in making this comedy?

JOHN SCHLESINGER:

The logistics of the film were enormous. This was certainly the most complicated project I’ve ever attempted.

LK: Your reputation as a perfectionist certainly becomes apparent as one watches you direct scenes where you often require seven or eight takes.

JS:

I see HONKY TONK FREEWAY as a comedy about characters, so it needs extremely fine care and acting. This is what appealed to me, because I’m mainly intrigued with the people in my films rather than with the plot. This is a comedy about people living on the brink, and that’s the way most people actually live, I think. Many scenes often have something else happening in the same frame, so the timing becomes extremely important. If some incident is a bit off, the sequence just won’t work. You use less close-ups in a movie of this kind, so you need to stand back a little and see it all happening – how two people are relating to one another while some other action is going on. So often, with these things in consideration, more takes are required.

LK: So you think the comic sequences are the most difficult to do?

JS:

I don’t think we know what works until we get the whole film in front of an audience, and that’s hard. Scenes that seem funny to us now may not be so funny when they are cut into the whole picture. The Japanese couple who prepare to paint the town pink seem funny; they have an earnestness about them which I find rather charming.

LK: Have the large number of principal characters created complications?

JS:

That has been somewhat difficult. But the thing I like best about the film is that all the characters are rather likeable. I very much like the characters and what they are fighting for. There is a nice irony to the idea that they are raising money for a big parade as part of a town fair in order to bribe the governor. And it certainly gives a sharpness to the film. The story, of course, concerns what happens when they don’t get what they intended. It’s a story about bribery and corruption and going after a dream. The dream of success at whatever cost.


This can be taken literally or not. But we pushed it as far as I believe we can go.

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LK: Did you change or influence the script in any way?

JS:

We’ve gone through four or five drafts since I came into the picture. I changed a lot about the town and the thrust of the town: I also tried to give a film with this many characters as much development as I could. I think it is important to let a film live, so we are constantly changing the script. I love the creative process involved.

LK: Was it the writer Edward Clinton who handled most of these changes?


JS:

Yes, I wouldn’t have anyone else. Clinton is a very talented writer, but I think he has certainly had his eyes opened with this experience. However, some of the charm comes from Clinton’s naivete, which was one of my original attractions to the script. Clinton’s writing is fresh and completely original. He is highly imaginative. It is not a smug or knowing film at all. In fact, it’s very charming. It’s also quite intelligent.

LK: As a director, do you often alter scripts?

JS:

I constantly alter scripts. And this maddens writers. Often I will write or phone them, but I don’t feel writers on the set are particularly desirable. I’ll sometimes have them around while I’m shooting because they know why things change and that the written word is not sacrosanct: dialogue can often be done visually, and it is sometimes possible to get rid of the verbal almost entirely. On occasion during this filming Clinton has been here while we’ve shot scenes. Afterwards, I’ve looked to him and asked if it was funny. He always answers with “It was funny when I wrote it, John.” And he is right. If I know what I’m doing as a director and the comedy is there in the script it should be there on the screen. That’s my job.

LK: Was it the writer Edward Clinton who handled most of these changes?

JS:

Yes, I wouldn’t have anyone else. Clinton is a very talented writer, but I think he has certainly had his eyes opened with this experience. However, some of the charm comes from Clinton’s naivete, which was one of my original attractions to the script. Clinton’s writing is fresh and completely original. He is highly imaginative. It is not a smug or knowing film at all. In fact, it’s very charming. It’s also quite intelligent.

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LK: Your films have essentially been dramatic productions, and you certainly have achieved a reputation for maintaining a certain integrity in your films. How have you worked to develop that kind of quality in a massive comedy such as HONKY TONK FREEWAY?

JS:

Since this film is basically a comedy of characters, that hasn’t been any problem, even the elephant that water skis is a kind of fantasy held by people desperate to attract tourists to their small town of Ticlaw. This is a charming, naďve idea, a homemade Disneyland in this tiny little town. As you know, the real Disneyworld is not far from this town in Florida. The idea that these small town people would try to compete with the big boys, well it’s not only charming, it is quite courageous of them, isn’t it? These people have guts! And that is what it takes to get your dream in America, guts.

LK: Yet I’ve watched you calling for repeated takes, never once just “getting through” a scene.

JS:

Sometimes I think the actors are pushing a bit too hard. I can’t stand the kind of comedy where everyone is mugging so much you actually stop laughing. I can’t see the point of those kinds of gags. They simply are not funny because they’re forced. Comedy takes time and requires work. I do a lot of takes because I’m never quite sure. I’ve never directed a comedy before and so I feel by doing a lot of takes, l then have a few to choose from when it comes time to edit the film together. The editing process is where the comedy really needs to be paid attention to. If the timing is off even slightly, then the comedy can get lost. It is a very tricky business, comedy.

LK: What about some of the highly publicized stunts, like the overpass explosion and the great car crash?

JS:

Oh please don’t talk to me about the stunts. I’m not really a stunt director. They comprise one or two areas of the film, but they are not part of the film finally. At best the stunts will account for 30 or 40 seconds. And the publicity is way out of proportion. The film is about a lot of people, and incidentally it has some stunts that are quite spectacular.

LK: After you finished production of YANKS you said, “What I would really love to do is dig into a grand comedy.” Now that you are realizing that ambition, is the process as exciting as you had anticipated?

JS:

I suppose I’m excited. It is difficult to be excited day by day once you are into the daily work. One must always judge a film by what motivates us in the first place. That, is still there. It hasn’t disappeared despite the weeks of shooting, the weather, the exhaustion, and the fact that we’ve all been together for a long time. You would think we would no longer be speaking to each other, but we are. But I must enjoy filming or I wouldn’t really do it. It is a big challenge to do a comedy when you’ve never done comedy before. I’m not a comedy director. If this film turns out the way we want it to then I will have done my job as a director. If it doesn’t, we’ll just blame it all on the writer, of course. That’s what we do in Hollywood. It’s a tradition. So I can’t really lose. But sadly, the writer can. I make the big bucks and if I fail, it gets blamed on the writer. Even though we’ve started out with a very, very funny script, everyone in Hollywood has agreed on that. Once the director takes over there are so many millions of decisions to make and the ball can be dropped anywhere along the line right up to the very last minute during the distribution process. If it’s not advertised properly. If it’s release date is wrong or it goes up against some big block buster. There are so many things, things that go on behind the scenes in the offices of executives. Things that are impossible to control or even articulate. These things can’t be predicted. The chips will fall where they may. If we’re not careful in the editing, no one knows how really, really difficult editing comedy is. But we will see. Like I said we’ll blame it on the writer even though he won’t deserve it, and with Edward Clinton, I know what he will say, He’ll say, “It was funny when I wrote it, John.”

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Night For Day   - by Edward Clinton




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