The words “nervous” and “anxious” do not do justice to what I was experiencing as I sat in what is probably the swankiest private screening room in Toronto (located in Yorkville’s Hazelton Hotel) waiting to interview the fantastic Mr. Bogdanovich. Since our camera fell through at the last minute, we were armed only with a Fostex FR-2 sound recorder, a microphone bigger than most modern cameras, and a hope that he’d appreciate the old-school nature of the apparatus.
Fast forward to half an hour later, I’m speaking with Ben Mankiewicz, the Turner Classic Movie host presenting Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as well as leading the accompanying Q & A for the TCM Road to Hollywood film tour’s only Canadian stop. I’m still high from my chat with the famed writer/ director and am surprised when Ben tells me “I’ve never met him, you now know Peter Bogdanovich better than I do.” Mankiewicz has interviewed the likes of George Clooney, Eva Saint Marie and George Lucas to name just a few (whereas the biggest name I can drop is Jake Lloyd’s, but I don’t), yet he admits “I’m a little intimidated about interviewing Peter because he’s so knowledgeable”
For those less familiar with his work, Peter Bogdanovich is not only a renowned filmmaker but also an extremely learned film historian and critic in the tradition of the French New Wave directors. As Mankiewicz puts it, “this is a guy who in three minutes can mention John Ford, Howard Hawks, Otto Preminger, Roger Corman, Orson Welles, Frank Capra and have talked to all of them, and not in a name dropping way, more like a ‘here’s what I learned from Hawks, here’s what I learned from Ford, here’s what Welles told me.’”
Donning his trademark ascot, Bogdanovich looks exactly as he has in every interview he’s done in the last two decades. It appears as though time has been kind to Mr. Bogdanovich, but the care with which he takes his steps betrays his 72-year-old age. He politely collected the names of everyone in the room including myself, our sound man and a PR intern, then he informed us that he had to finish his “stupid apple” before we could proceed. We made small talk while he finished his snack, mostly about the quality of the screening room, when I asked if he had checked out the facilities exhibiting his film the following night he replied “It’s a nice house. Okay Noah, shoot…”
Dork Shelf: We’re going to get right down to the hard hitting questions: what’s a Peanut Patty and are they still available?
Peter Bogdanovich: (laughs) Peanut Patty is almost all sugar. It’s just pink sugar, very hard pink sugar with little peanuts splattered through it, it’s terrible for you. I fell in love with them when we were shooting Picture Show. There’s a close-up of one briefly, Tim takes it in the first scene in the picture. I haven’t had one since we made the picture.
DS: So you’re not sure if they’re still around?
PB: I’m sure they’re around, how could they ever discontinue Peanut Patties?
DS: Those were new to you because you’re not from Texas.
PB: No, I’m not from Texas, so that was new to me and a lot of things were new to me.
DS: Since you were shooting on location with a lot of locals in the movie, were they ever concerned about how they were going to be depicted, was there any resistance or hesitance to let you in there?
PB: Well, not really, I mean there was a big problem trying to get into the school. We needed to get into the school for a couple of scenes and we almost lost but they had a vote and we won by one vote.
DS: Was that because they were concerned with how you would portray the school system?
PB: Well the book wasn’t liked much because I think Larry (McMurtry) dedicated it “with love and hate to my hometown” or something like that and a lot of the town didn’t like the book so we were guilty by association. But it worked out and after the movie was successful they were very happy about it. We had this one very funny incident because we had a shot where Sonny, Tim Bottoms, is inside the school looking out a window because he’s not paying attention in class and he sees a couple of dogs in heat, fooling around. The shot had to be through the window because it was his point of view so the camera was actually inside the building, the dogs are on the lawn. In order to light the dogs they put these huge arch lights so people driving by would see these two huge arch lights focused on two dogs going at it. It didn’t go over well with the town (laughs) they just didn’t know what we were doing.
DS: You’re blogging for Indiewire these days, have you been liking that? How does it compare to writing for something like Esquire?
PB: Well it’s not the same thing, Esquire was the top magazine in the country at that point. But doing a blog is like doing a column, I had a column at Esquire for years and I had a column in the New York Observer for a few years. It’s a little bit exhausting because you’ve got to come up with something every week, but I like doing it, it’s fun. You get nice feedback.
DS: On that blog you often refer to the “Golden Age of the Sound Era” being from 1929-1962. Is there one last film you feel fits into that era?
PB: Yeah, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance was the last film of the Golden Age the way I see it. If I was making a movie about the Golden Age of sound I would end it with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the train going off and that’s the end of it all. It was also the year that Bugs Bunny was discontinued, so if Warner kills Bugs Bunny what hope is there?
DS: Are there any films from the last 10 or 15 years that you feel capture what was lost after The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance?
PB: Well I think there’s been some good films made, there’s no question about that. You know during the Golden Age there was a lot of crap made too, so since the Golden Age there’s been some good movies. I like Wes Anderson’s work, I think he’s made some very good films, I like The Royal Tenenbaums and I like The Darjeeling Limited. And Noah Baumbach, I liked The Squid and The Whale and I think he’s a good director. Tarantino’s made some good pictures. Of course Spielberg and Scorsese know what they’re doing, they make some good pictures. There’s good pictures being made but the atmosphere around making pictures isn’t conducive to good pictures because every picture’s on its own, every picture’s starting over. You have nobody under contract, you gotta get everybody together, you gotta find the money, you gotta find the actors, it’s just torture. It used to be a factory system which had its bad points but it also had its good points.
DS: You’ve mentioned that these days you feel television is almost better than films…
PB: Not almost, it is better. When The Sopranos was on I don’t think there was a better movie made in that period and now I’ve been watching Mad Men – superb – and Breaking Bad blew my mind, it’s amazing. I haven’t caught up with all of it, but I saw the first season and a half, it’s amazing stuff. You don’t see a movie that well written.
DS: If you could direct an episode of one of those shows, is there one that sticks out that you’d like to try your hand at?
PB: Directing episodics is not that rewarding for the director. I directed an episode of The Sopranos and luckily I knew everybody because I was in it and so it was not like most directors on an episodic. They come in, nobody knows them, they’re there for 8 or 9 days, whatever it is, and then they’re gone but the cast is there all the time. It isn’t the same as directing for a feature or theatre. You feel like a guest. A director shouldn’t feel like a guest, so I don’t have a tremendous amount of interest in directing for episodics. But if I were going to, which was your question, Breaking Bad would be very interesting.
DS: And now your daughter has taken to directing as well, she just finished her first short film.
PB: Yes my oldest daughter, Antonia. She had been working on some scripts with her writing partner and they were quite good. One in particular I like very much that she and her partner wrote and out of the blue she just wrote a short and found the money and made it and it’s very good. It’s very violent, I said to her “it’s savage” and she’s gotten into a lot of film festivals and looking through some papers of mine she found a script that had my name on it along with my first wife Polly Platt. It was something we wrote in the late 60’s called The Criminals and she fell in love with the script and she wants to direct it. I said “go ahead.”
DS: That’s the Second World War one about Polish prisoners, right?
PB: That’s right, based on a true event. I hope she does it. I feel like I already made the picture that’s why I don’t want to direct it, I figure she’d probably get a fresher look at it.
DS: If you had your own rep cinema or you were a programmer for one and it was being shut down what would be the last picture show at that cinema?
PB: Red River (laughs). I don’t know, that was what it was in Picture Show because it was Texas, but if I was doing it probably the last picture show would be something by Lubitsch because he’s one of my favourite directors. He as the ability to be funny and sad at the same time which I like a lot.
DS: My final question is something we ask everyone we interview, the site’s called Dork Shelf which refers to your shelf of collectibles. Do you collect anything?
PB: I have a lot of DVDs that I’ve amassed, but I wouldn’t say it’s a collection I’m particularly proud of or anything. I did for a long time collect Robert Graves books and I still have a considerable collection of Robert Graves’ books. He’s an author I fell in love with in the early 80’s and I collected everything he ever wrote and I still have quite a few of those. I don’t really collect films.
To hear these words as spoken by the captivating voice of the man himself, listen to the embedded audio below or download it here: **
After my time with Bogdanovich, Mankiewicz gave me some insight into his own interview tactics: “You wanna knock these guys off their game a little bit, but you don’t want to knock them to a place where they’re not comfortable. You wanna knock them outta the chair but when they get to the floor they’re like ‘oh, it’s okay here on the floor.’” I’m not sure if my Peanut Patty query really knocked the man to the floor, but Mankiewicz did at one point during our conversation take a graceful topple over the back of the screening room couch he was sitting on. That may have been due more to a headrest we didn’t realize wasn’t secure and not my hard hitting questions. I asked him the same last two questions that I asked Bogdanovich, Mankiewicz agreed that Red River was not a bad choice for the closing night of a cinema but believes The Last Picture Show would actually be the most appropriate. Regarding his Dork Shelf, he collects baseball cards and recently realized that he also unintentionally collects stuffed bears.
**sound recording courtesy of Martin Baena