Honk Tonk Freeway - Director: John Schlesinger  



An Interview with John Schlesinger

By John Study

John Schlesinger's films have been diverse — Billy Liar, Sunday Bloody Sunday, The Day of the Locust.

"Always when I'm nearly through a film I'm looking for the next one, and I usually want it to be something quite different," he says. So, Far from the Madding Crowd followed Darling, and Yanks (for which he received NBR's award for Best Director) followed Marathon Man.

"I do think it is up to filmmakers to resist every temptation to be stereotyped." Schlesinger said many years ago, and clearly he has lived by it since. "It's difficult enough to be freely creative in something that calls itself an industry."

His films are slightly peculiar; he doesn't deal in Hollywood 's sunny, simple veracities. Schlesinger's films cast a murky view, and their often unsettling subjects disregard Industry vogue — a precarious, uncommercial combination. But he notes, "If I had listened to what my then-agent had said, I wouldn't have made Midnight Cowboy."

Schlesinger's latest film, Honky Tonk Freeway, is a departure for him. But it is not just another in a career of departures; this one is his first venture into comedy. At first glance this excursion seems to be a business trip, pure and simple. The film has the shimmer and shape of mainline Hollywood commercial fare. This impression is persistent, as the film is the victim of an ad campaign that peddles it as another car-crash comedy romp. Schlesinger's intention for the film was not so simple, nor so simple-minded. "If we had really wanted to make it totally surefire commercial, we would have hired six gag writers and I wouldn't have directed it. It would have been a series of gags, which is what the public seems to be oriented to...) I wanted to do an affectionate comedy that had a dark side, and yet had moments when you could be absolutely serious."

Honky Tonk Freeway is the story, — actually a handful of stories of a score of characters on their way to Florida (following Joe and Ratso of Midnight Cowdoy to the land of sunshine and oranges). It is like a disaster movie in design. Carloads of strangers are finally brought together, their lives altered, each in their own way, by a single swoop of fate: an attempt by a small Florida town to secure its own freeway exit.

Most of the film, however, is just a leisurely drive; Schlesinger's concern- no departure here — is not for action, but for acting. He strove to give the performances a bit of "resonance and depth — if you like a word that somebody wouldn't ordinarily apply to comedy."

Originally an actor himself, he has always distinguished his films with the fine per formances he has wrought from his actors. He had his actors approach their roles for Honky Tonk as they would any serious role.

"The only way to make it work, as far as I was concerned, was to go for whatever truth you could find in it...to give whatever human thrust dramatically to each of those characters that I could." This is not to say that the film is devoid of laughs. "I think if you're playing comedy, you've got to be quite serious about it, although you may realize that they are being pushed to extremes, I hope none of them are actually caricatures." A lot of people — certainly in this country — like out-front comedy, a lot of mugging, a lot of nudging: "We're being funny!" is announced in slogans. I don't laugh at that a great deal."

He had the actors in Honky Tonk play the comedy straight. "That was the thing we really had to work at, if anybody started to think they were being funny, it immediately wasn't." The comedy is never silly, never thoughtless, though it is sometimes barely askew enough to be funny.

"The characters -- what goes on between human beings —still remains my central interest. I couldn't begin to make a Star Wars or a Raiders. I wouldn't know how to begin." One drawback to accepting new challenges has been that sometimes Schlesinger really has not known where to begin. He had never filmed a thriller before Marathon Man. "I had no idea how to stage a fight." He watched films to see how it might be done. Before doing Honky Tonk, "I'd never done a comedy, so I had to as much as teach myself. I looked at a few films — It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Mr. Deeds, and I looked, funnily enough, at Traffic.. .I just wanted to see techniques, what Tati did with cars." Schlesinger described the logistics involved in staging action with 200 cars on a highway, "an absolute nightmare. Especially going back and forth between subjects as they pass each other."

This interweaving of the individual stories unfolding separately in different cars is perhaps the film's finest accomplishment. Some characterizations are exceptional, but the tableau is so large that individual performances are either lost or crushed under its weight.

Indeed, when all do meet in Ticlaw, Florida , all focus departs from them, and their stories are left as a mass of loose and blunted ends. The camera's flowing from one car to the next while they speed along the highway unites all the characters in a way far more compelling than the plot ever manages to.

It ends that the film's only similarities with a car-crash comedy are that it has cars and a crash. There is no chase, no race; the cars are handled with a casual elegance. The crash, on the other hand is a massive, frightening intrusion, which doesn't happen until the film is over with the happy ending in place.

There is little comedy in the devastating, though strangely harmless, crash, it seems out of place, of an entirely different tone. It will undoubtedly be the cause of much speculation and accusation about Schlesinger's cynical foreigner's eye. I don't think any of us said, ‘Let's make a sort of thing with a heavy comment.' Obviously, there is comment in the film, but it is not really satirical as much as ironic.”

Says Schlesinger, simply, "I quite like the idea of wiping smiles off people's faces." Schlesinger hopes his next film will an adaptation of a novel. The Falcon and the Snowman, but he can't be too sure. "I'll tell you what does govern a certain choice at a certain moment in time is the struggle to get a particular subject off the ground." He has a history of difficulties in obtaining backing for his personal, often offbeat, projects. The Day of the Locust took six years and great anguish to get onto film.

"So, I suppose, when Marathon Man came through the door, and It was Bob Evans and Paramount saying it's a Go project, well, that made me say, 'Oh, thank Christ! I don't have to actually wait for six months, going around cap in hand, acting out sequences."

"I think the business is getting tougher, no question. It is an extraordinary fight to make something different. So it tends not so much to be films that you think are commercial, but films, that people seem to want to make. EMI said, “We love this script; it's very original. We want to make it." " Did Honky Took Freeway's commercial promise contribute to his decision to do the film?

I wouldn't be too sure ever about what's commercial."

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