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Interview with John Schlesinger

The kinds of films he likes to make are just the ones the studios are most wary about, John Schlesinger was complaining. And so he spends too much time turning down nice, tidy commercial subjects and trying to get, his latest dreams off the ground. He's made three movies in the last six years, and each one has borne the stamp of his temperament and successfully dealt with unlikely subject matter. "Midnight Cowboy" was about a friendship between a male hustler and a Times Square drifter. "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" involved a tangle of relationships among an older man and woman and the young man they were both in love with. And now comes "Day of the Locust"- opening Friday at the Playboy theater and six others in the suburbs - in which 1930s Hollywood becomes a stage for the apocalypse and what passes for civilization collapses in bloody riots in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater.

"If most of my films have anything in common," Schlesinger said during a recent visit here, "it's an interest in human relationships, particularly the more extraordinary and difficult kinds. I find the struggle of characters against the odds terribly interesting. I don't think I could possibly do a film about some sort of brave hero, some Errol Flynn winning the Battle of the Bulge . . . I'd rather do films about smaller people, outcasts. I directed some real generals once for a television series and they were always boasting about how they could have gotten out of Burma and all that rot, as if it weren't their armies who had to fight and die. They're probably beastly to their wives."

Two of Schlesinger's outcasts were the Tom Courtney character in "Billy Liar" and Julie Christie as a young woman adrift in "Darling." In "Midnight Cowboy," Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman made the characters Joe Buck and Ratso into emblems of alienation five years ago. Now, in "Day of the Locust" Schlesinger has one of his most cut-off characters of all: An aloof, painfully shy young man whose doom is to fall in love with a would-be starlet whose personality has been so completely shaped by the movies that without them she'd be a void.

The movie is based on a novel by Nathanael West, the 1930s writer whose best-known work is "Miss Lonelyhearts," about an advice to the lovelorn columnist who is driven to despair by the letters he receives. "Day of the Locust" tells of a small group of characters - the shy bachelor, the gum-popping actress, an earnest young man from the East who finds work in a studio art department and various oddly assorted denizens of the San Bernardino Arms, a collapsing stucco apartment house - and leads their stories up to a final cataclysm that suggests the coming of war in Europe.

The novel was under option to several different directors and at most of the studios; it's a Hollywood story that a lot of people believed ought to be filmed, but it presented such problems that deal after deal fell through. Schlesinger himself had been trying to make it since 1966, when the then-owner of its option sent it to him. "The deal felt through then," he said. "The years went past, I made the other two pictures, there were attempts by another company to finance the project, but then that one dropped it. I took it to Paramount and spent several months working on the script with Waldo Salt, who also wrote 'Midnight Cowboy.' We had no guarantee at all that the deal would work this time. But, somehow, I think our very presence there on the lot for so long became a kind of embarrassment to Paramount. Maybe they finally made the picture to get us off their back.

"We had a group of Canadian backers and then the Canadian tax laws changed and they pulled out. The movie was finally made because Jack(?) Yabians, the studio head, made a decision to just put up the money and go ahead. It was our tenacity, I think." "Day of the Locust" is a big very expensive period picture that recreates a Hollywood of unapproachable stars on the one hand and present and future has-beens on the other. The young studio artist, played by William Atherton (whose first lead role was in "Sugarland Express"), has ambitions to become a great painter some day, and labors on an epic, Goyaesque work populated with the faces of a frenzied crowd. He's in love with the aspiring actress (Karen Black). But she's a flighty type who has several bizarre romantic misadventures before settling down with the bachelor (Donald Sutherland), who has overcome almost paralyzing shyness just working up the strength to adore her.

"I've never known how one gets performances out of an actor," Schlesinger said. "If they're good actors - and in this film they all are - you just sort of find something welling up from inside them. Your job is to see it, to film it, to help them work.

"With Karen Black, I took her to see movies with Joan Crawford, Garbo, Zasu Pitts . . . I wanted her to see that sort of untouchable glamour, that style her character was hopelessly striving for. In the novel her character's 17, but you don't realize that. Until Waldo pointed it out to me, I thought she was 25 or 26. We tested some young girls but they didn't have the sophistication. Karen Black's such a good actress, so subtle . . . in the movie's final scene, she half smiles, and half cries and it's wonderful."

Just before that scene, there's the riot in front of the Chinese Theater, which Schlesinger built as a huge set on the back lot at Paramount. As many as 1,000 extras were used in some shots, and the weeks of nighttime shooting became a sort of picnic, apart from the work involved. "We'd get visitors like Mae West, Gloria Swanson. The lights would be blazing all night. We'd already employed so many extras we got permission to use some non-professionals, and they enjoyed it so much. And then in all those terrible riot scenes, believe it or not, we didn't have a single actor hurt."

Movie sets themselves have always fascinated Schlesinger. "I was invited onto the set when Fellini was doing the whorehouse scenes in 'Fellini's Roma,' and it was incredible how open he was, how he had time for everybody and never seemed rushed and still orchestrated everything. I love his movies. I rather like excess in general, in fact. I like Mel Brooks' 'Blazing Saddles' because it was outrageous. And Fellini's films are so packed with life.

"I admire Bergman, too, but at a distance. There's something about a lot of his films that makes me become a real vulgarian. During 'Scenes from a Marriage' which was really a very good film, I found myself thinking, 'Oh for God's sake, defecate or something - dont just stand there talking." "But I've never been on a set that didn't excite me. People don't understand how much boredom is involved, and yet . . . there's the time(?) standing around, the brooding people waiting for something to happen, and then all of a sudden the shot begins and you're creating a fantasy. There's nothing else like it."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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