Peter, a filmmaker
“So tell me, Peter, how was your experience with your first movie? Why did it come out after so long?”, asks the reporter, looking at him with respect and admiration, sitting in the television studio.
“Well, it was a bad experience, I should say,” responds the director, smiling, a slight discomfort emerging in his casual, easy-going tone: he has been here before many times, the host is his friend, a cinephile who loves his work and is always ready to promote it.
“Tell me more about it. How was it called? Captain Johnson?”
“Yeah, that’s the release name. But I did not choose it. I called it Vigo.”
“Weird. The movie's spectacular, but the audience only got to see it after the second, Disingenuous, released in 1997. How that happened?”
“Well, Charles, the studio who’d financed it did not want to give me the rights. I mean, I had them technically, but they would just refuse to give me the movie.
“What a shame. You must have felt terrible.”
“That's how Hollywood has met me. I was baptised in flames.” They both laugh for a while, but Peter’s smile is bittersweet because only he knows what he had been through, a reaction noted instantly by his chum.
“This is the most outrageous thing I’ve heard. What's the name of that studio?”
Peter thinks that he has been carried away, and perhaps does not deserve so much pity. He is no longer a restless young man, who watches a tremendous amount of films, for whom the world of cinema is a realm to be discovered and conquered, an oyster to play with like a magician’s hand with a camera, and if he has learned something during all these years, is that one must tame his tumultuous pride and try to forgive if forgetting is impossible. ”Well, they've given it to me in the end. But my music was removed and I had to put it back using the negatives.”
“How strange. I die to know more. And I am sure that our audience also. We always love to have you here.”
“Thanks a lot!”, he begins calmly, peering at the camera in front of him, from where they gather most of the footage and air it, the lilt of the voice full of resigned peace. “It was by the time when Pulp Fiction came out, in 1993, and a lot of studios had more confidence in new, young guys, because of Quentin’s success,” success which he did not have the intention to replicate, even if he was astonished by Tarantino’s witty dialogue and glamorous violence, in whom he instantly recognised a kindred spirit, but whom did not envy.
No, his esthetics were different, understanding even from the early days of adolescence that art, cinema particularly, had to rely on a personal approach, deciding staunchly not to become the director hired by studios to shoot films following scripts with each he did not have any intimate, sentimental connection, but to write by himself, according to the impulses that came both from daily existence and the overload of information to which he, as a child born in the seventies when names like Martin Scorsese, F.F.Coppola and others were in their prime, was exposed, and which had influenced him profoundly. Afterwards, he watched the work of the French New Wave, whose filmmakers had served as an inspiration for movies like Alice does not live here anymore or The taxidriver, but nothing had impressed him more vividly than Robert Altman, namely with Nashville, Short Cuts and The Player.
At that time, he lived with his father, who had a radio show, and who would often bring his two boys to visit his workplace, who were enthralled to be there. Peter could not help himself but fiddle with the microphones and inspect the area, amazed by the cameras and the arrangement of lights and by the people who had to perform in a more or less theatrical way, trying to catch the audience’s attention, deffinetly succeeding to impress him, on whom his elder brother had to keep an eye, although often not only failing to do so, but also participating in the misadventures as a faithful partner, like happened with that episode when they had tried to shoot a movie, one of Peter’s first directorial attempts with which, as he used to jest, he was contented, filmed alone at home, during a night when they would often watch adult pictures, a guilty pleasure whose noises, without the knowing of the two brothers, could be heard in the background of their new artistic product, and, even if every flick needed a theme and theirs incidentally had already one, it sood to reason that the world could not see it, let alone mom and dad, to whom, for a moment of excessive pride, they had had the intention to show, in hope to revel in admiration and approval.
By the time he turned 20, the family ended in a divorce. Peter did not know exactly why but thought to himself that his parents loved the idea of each over, not the actual persons. Attached to mom and dad with equal intensity, he decided to move to L.A. with his father, who possessed an apartment in L.A., from where he could go to his job easier, accompanied frequently by the son, whose now matured curiosity did not make him wander around aimlessly, but to explore in a tranquil, wise fashion, without bothering anyone, having totally understood that television was not his primary passion, but cinema, which invariably mitigated the adolescence angst, and, overall, provided a deeper worldview, not to mention the emotional relief and the opportunity to escape the pesky reality.
And, eventually, it got to a point when solely consuming other people’s creation wouldn’t bring satisfaction any longer: to write felt imperative. Would he be able to find a studio providing the money and make a feature? He could not tell, but the idea demanded to come down on paper, and so the script materialized as if having its own will and potential body, or skeleton, to clarify, the whole anatomy being the actual movie, edited, cut, the end titles executed. The concept was not too precise, but he trusted his guts, the general idea revolving around a television host, Vigo, father of two boys, one of whom gets kidnapped and the terrorists are asking for a peculiar ransom, meaning that he would have to say live a lot of disclosing material concerning Reagan and his outrageous power abuse, espionage and other felonies. Compelled to report to the police, Vigo finds it difficult to communicate the message, because later the government and the FBI get involved, and the material, menacing to compromise the president's career, cannot be by no means made known to the large public, the core and moral dilemma of the plot residing in the struggles which the father has to overcome in view of saving his son, constantly facing the reluctance of superiors, who are put under pressure by higher forces, unwilling to risk unhesitantly their jobs even for a noble cause. That’s not to say that the authorities do not do all in their power to find the kid, and they eventually succeed, although it is too late, because Vigo, threatened to have the second son taken away, does not support the pressure any more and satisfies the claims of the terrorists, aided by a friend who is a DJ and has access to the microphones, with whom they get fired afterwards when the affair is settled down and their desperate act is now superfluous and detrimental, although neither of them has any regrets or doubts, sure of having done the necessary action.
Doubtless, the prototype for Vigo was his father, whose charisma and gentleness he attributed, putting down the screenplay, to the character, refusing a lot of actors, terrific and poor, it did not matter, who did not manage to convey a similar kind of both tender and manly aura, suited for what he believed represented a modern tragic hero, who required to be a particular sort of badass and look good on the screen and exert a kind of visual magnetism, a prominent trait of film, until finally coming across someone who corresponded to these criteria, in whose soft, baritone voice he could recognise a little bit of his dad, saying to himself, “He is cool!”, and instantly knew that the search finished there. Then the shooting began, and it all went fine, even if Peter had abandoned the film school, under the impression that creativity was suppressed, and so relied only on intuition and powerful memory, when it got about choosing how the scenes should be executed, where to put the camera, the colours that should be used, the lightning, all tasks which he was afraid to fail in the beginning, but growing more and more confident as the hindrances, solved, miraculously evolved into tempting puzzles, providing a tremendous sense of self-accomplishment and validation, whereas the cinematographer, recognising his talent, made practical suggestions and contributed that his vision would materialize as faithfully as possible, avoiding to meddle excessively - the cause of so many boisterous, short-term collaborations. With the rest of the actors, things also went smoothly, having to insist now and then, yet usually avoiding to start a conflict, and when he failed to do so the tension was beneficial to the script, fueling them with genuine emotions fitted to portray the misadventures and the sufferings of a family put in such an unfortunate situation, an aspect around which gravitated the general storyline, portraying the dynamics between Vigo, his wife, and the people who had the power and prevented them to disclose confidential information, of which the terrorists got hold unexplainably.
“I always appreciate how your movie does not have any black and white tones and doesn't depict the characters as bad guys and good guys,” says the host appreciatively. Peter wants to open his mouth and say something. “I am sorry to interrupt you-“
“It is fine.”
“But I'd like you to tell me more about the long tracking scene when the FBI finds the terrorists' location, but they are in the building nearby, and the camera kind of just follows them a lot, and it is so interesting.”
“Yeah, I remember. That was cool. But it could have been even better, if...” He is dithering; there is a pause, his buddy peering at him amiably.
“C’mon, Peter, don’t hold back. I've heard some rumours about a missing frame, but I would like to know more.”
“Exactly. By the way, Charles, how come that I didn't already share this story with you?”
"I guess because I didn't ask?"
"Ha-ha! Right." He does not want to delve into too many details, because the memories still hurt a little bit, even after so many years, but he also has learned to be objective, grateful, and not to bitch about anything, which, unfortunately, isn’t always possible. Charles stares at him encouragingly, curiously, and his heart melts. “I do not know where to begin-“
“From where you wish. You know how they say, start from the beginning.”
“Ok. So I had to fight for the rights of my movie-“
“I used to wait outside the studio building,” approaching whoever he knew that had at least remotely something to do with Vigo, and repeat, “Give me my movie! Give me my movie! And they eventually got tired of this skinny young man and said, “We are going to give you your movie, but under one condition: the title should remain Soft Blow, as we released it.”
“I want my ownership rights! I wrote and directed the film! We had a contract. Why don’t you respect it?” he asked furiously the head of the studio, more scrawny from endless, torturing insomnia nights.
“Yes, we had a contract, but you did not respect it,” the other answered nonchalantly.
“What do you mean? I delivered what's on the script.”
“It is on the script, but not in the movie.”
“But I did not remove anything. I delivered you the product...”
“Not the product we wanted!” Perplexed, he could not find the strength to continue the conversation, having the dizzying sensation of hitting perpetually an invisible wall of stupidity, consumerism, malignancy, and perversity, as the boss, who had seemed so nice back when signing the contract, made a theatrical gesture of stern dismissal, too obvious for a fragile soul to cope with, and accepted the defeat, but only temporarily, for, during the days to come, Peter discovered that he cherished his movie, to which he habitually referred as “my baby”, more, desperately more than his ego, and realized the moral obligation of retrieving it at all costs and restoring the original version, since they’ve tampered with it and replaced the soundtrack, cutting a few scenes(How dared they! Bastards!), and, above all, shortening a long shot, the pinnacle of the visual side of the film, for the realisation of which they had to discuss a lot with the director of photography, making plans and drawings, not to mention the location scouting.
So it was now clear that he failed to fool them: the script, in a subtle way, contained the promise of a gorry story, but the execution was too personal and artistic. The FBI seeking for the kidnappers narrative line had to satisfy the audience’s proclivity for entertainment, visceral pleasure, and violence. However, his take on the few killing episodes was moderate, realistic, opting for showing the blood without exaggerating its proportions and without giving it too much screen presence, knowing that Vigo intended to reflect primarily the inner conflicts of the characters, although recognising that describing cruelty in a raw form had also its merits, as, for example, in Taxi Driver, which he admired tremendously, and which was not the type of movie that he desired to make. Conscious that this part of the flick did not have the maximum tension, the decision to introduce some wild, unusual elements imposed itself. Writing the script in 1991, the courage to get it financed came to him only in late 1992, and the shooting began in the spring of 1993 when he was 23, still a very young boy, who had seen, the recent year, Robert Altman’s The Player, from where, fascinated by the long tracking shot from the beginning, he had the inspiration to do a similar experiment, not after rewatching Orson Welles’s The touch of evil and Barry Lindon by Stanley Kubrick, who had done similar exploits.
To have the guts to film at least a 4 minutes segment without cuts meant a great deal of effort and concentration, for which, needless to say, the whole crew, especially the director, received well-deserved praise, and so the temptation of achieving it appeared irresistible, although his ambition did not reach such huge proportions to attempt to replicate the structure of Rope, which Hitchcock made to look like one long scene. The idea occupied his mind for a few weeks, constantly sharing his considerations with the director of photography, who was not scared by the ambition of the project, although there were moments when the force of their imagination seemed so fruitless that the only viable solution felt just to choose another technique, less complicated and more commonly employed, but a treason of his dreams nonetheless, a shame about which no one would know except himself, and he would prefer to fail in the eyes of the crowd if that would guarantee him to stay true to his idealistics esthetics, instead of succeeding without making the most out of it, and so the pain continued relentlessly, until, in an instant of revelation, he got out of the pickle by remembering the scene in Goodfellas when Ray Liotta's character enters the Copa Cabbana club with his girlfriend for the first time, and the camera moves without interruption, following all his steps from outside the building until taking his seat inside, intending to communicate to the viewer the sentiment of being present and performing the same action as the protagonists. Peter was pleased with what he came up with, although it was not enough: he had to push the limits a bit further. Concluding that the camera had to fly and provide a general point of view, he discussed the details with the cinematographer, who recognised that it was complicated to achieve that, but not unattainable.
“So our informer got the wrong intel, I assume. The kid is not here, God damn it!” shouted the exasperated FBI agent, finding the place empty, whereas the rest of the crew was still going up the stairs, arriving a few seconds later.
“Where the fuck are they, Captain Johnson?”
“They’ve left! Don’t you see?!”
“What do we do now?”
The answer did not come immediately, for the Captain spent a few minutes looking pensively around, scrutinizing the squalid room, where his eyes found a pair of opened cuffs, an empty mug and a plate containing the remains of a freshly eaten soup, to which he came closer, squatted, and discovered that it has not become cold, an obvious sign that the prisoner didn’t leave the place a long time ago, then he got up, his face, on which the camera was zooming to make a close-up, losing its pallid expression of despair, replaced by one of practical, temperated hope. “They must be nearby. C’mon guys, let’s have a look!” Suddenly, as if driven by a new surge of energy, the team started to walk to and fro around the room, seeking vainly for a clue, without taking relinquishment into consideration, spurred by Cpt. Johnson, and visited like a storm all areas of the building, where everything from carpet to lamp was turned up and down impetuously, at which point the remaining option was to visit the opposite construction, too big for a similar operation, yet a junkie from outside it, asked if he hasn’t seen anything strange, a boy particularly, luckily had an answer according to which a group of five adults and a kid had recently entered the edifice in a hurry. There was no time to hesitate, and so they followed the trail, which soon led to the actual location, when the terrorists, surprised, pissed-off and afraid of being caught, ran away, although not taking the boy with them, who sat in a corner of the room, whereas they kept scouting the zone, only one playing the role of the guardian, who got shot first, the others not having enough time to take the prisoner.
Now the next step was to catch the villains, who attempted to flee in a car a tire of which Captain Johnson managed to shoot, then another, so the fugitives had to flee by foot and seek shelter a few blocks away, where the crew waited patiently for reinforcements. When more agents showed up, the mutual fire intensified, so the possibility of surrender wasn’t taken into consideration at all, the pursuit recommencing with zealous cruelty from both sides, a terrorist receiving a bullet in the head. Seemingly, the victory was on the right side, but, as if out of nowhere, a van approached drifting from a corner nearby, for which the attackers, apparently, had been expecting and which provided a way out, because it sped up as soon as the terrorists got in, without leaving to the disconcerted FBI, whose vehicles were parked near the initial place, any chance of catching up, although they tried by foot, raging.
All these events were shot as one long, continuous scene, the camera following the characters from the start, moving like an observant, inquiring eye of a hawk, up to the final moments of the partial failure, and catching in its mechanical line of sight all sorts of human depravity and misery: ruffled drug addicts, whose wrists, covered with macabre bruises, did not have a free place for another injection, their fatigued features representing a reflection of an experience teeming with regrets, errors and traumas, which led to the inability of keeping the gaze straight and proud, also avoiding, safe one of them, to peer at the lenses, being instructed to do so, they for whose genuine portrayal Peter had opted to cast real persons, the so-called disgraces of society, to whom, compassionate, he was firmly convinced of making a favor by giving the money for the job, despite currently nurishing sporadic thoughts of remorse, feeling that, in some way, he took advantage of someone else’s misery; derelict prostitutes, their hair tousled, among whom there were a few of illegal age, on whose resigned face one could discern the brutal marks of an innocence lost too prematurly and who had a certain intrusive, harsh, devoid of tenderness manner of talking, a slightly ungraceful, jumpy lilt, as if walking on a field of snake nests, a broken Barby doll as single weapon, and a lifeless set of gestures similar to the one of a worn out puppet, moved by a sleazy, greedy, corrupted puppetier/pimp – that come with it; numb, listless groups of drunks, exempted of the energy to do something for their own good, but having enough to wobble in their hopeless addiction, without the desire to take a bath, a detail to which the overwhelming presence of flies, attracted by condensed debris of barf mixed with alcohol on the beards, shirt and collar, understanding, doubtless, that the victims lacked the strength to be productivly offensive, pointed conspicuously; and, finally, the most boisterous personages of the territory, with no trace of narcotic, nor booze consumption, dressed in shirts with Hawaii motifs and denim pants, were the two dealers, who whether ploded along in laced boots veifying if some of their marchandise was needed, whether stayed alert in one place, from where their line of sight could easily cover the surroundings and recognise any possible opportunity of making profit, impervious to the misery around, and to whom one of the agents decided to speak. “Do you know those people?” he said, taking cover against a destroyed car, panting.
“What people? The ones shooting? No,” came the nonchalant reply. “They ain’t from around here.” This dealer was a person of colour.
“Really?” The conversation was put abruptly to an end because the terrorists began to fire repeatedly, and the dealers ran away, whereas the FBI began to make their way from cover to cover, crouching, and, due to their slow movement, the camera had to follow in the same rhythm, which permitted to capture faithfully the ghastly human condition, for most of them were too stoned to care, only some girls and women realising the extraordinary danger of the situation, without doing so much as lay down, tears of fear covering abundantly their contorsioned, grimaced faces. It took 10 attempts to film the episode, due primarily to the fact that a drug addict would look exactly at the lenses, yet Peter, although exasperated, wouldn’t rage at him, aware of the risk taken by not casting an actor and mostly regretting the decision, thankful that one take was almost perfect, and the troublemaker turned his gaze almost in an imperceptible fashion, an aspect which would represent an easter-egg of the movie, the audience intended to question its existence and attribute particular interpretations to it.
As the events unfolded, the camera travelled from one group of people to another and the FBI were not always in its line of sight. They talked to themselves, desperate, or moaned, and sometimes engaged in conversations between which the viewer had to choose the most important and pay attention to it.
So the fact that the studio removed the whole part and other elements, the movie ending with the retrieval of the kid and having one hour less than planned, was difficult to cope with; besides, they had replaced the soundtrack. He refused to appear in the credits, opposed the short release of the movie, and got fired, until finally deciding to reach a compromise and behave less cockily and brashly, and even then the employees of the studio would rebuff him, who kept coming almost every day to have a word with someone, always mentioning that the possession of the film was of paramount importance, his person becoming a meme at which one would laugh and make jokes about, to whom they gave the nickname “the director who still wants his movie”, but the company grew bored of that distraction at some point, to the effect that, one day, the producer approached him.
“You really are persistent, aren’t you?”
“I worked hard for this film. I am the director. And the writer.”
“And I want it back.”
“Ha-ha! Listen, we are tired of this. You’ll have your movie but under one condition.”
“And what would that be?” asked Peter wearily, already debating if he would have to accept it or not, a multitude of terrible, oppressive thoughts buzzing in his mind, his palms beginning to sweat.
“We’re gonna give you the negatives and you should do what comes to your mind. But the title has to remain Captain Johnson. As we released it.”
“Ok,” he said, strangely relieved that it was somehow so little of a sacrifice: he also had had enough.
“And listen, kid, be careful with what you put in your movies. I am not so much an artist like you, but I’ve learned that not everything can be shown. Some things might seem offensive and risky. And that’s not a way to reach success, be sure of that.”
“I imagine how happy you were,” says the interviewer.
“Yes, kind of. I introduced again my music but was unable to restore properly the last scene because a frame was missing. It seems so little, like, it is not a big deal, but it ruins the flow. So I had to eliminate one minute and forty-five seconds.”
“It was still impressive, but I imagine how it could have been.”
“You are too kind. As always.”
Charles smiles amiably and affectionately. “Now, I’ve gathered some questions from our viewers, but I am afraid that we do not have enough time to go ever them. Could you visit us one of these days? Maybe next Monday?”
“Unfortunately, I couldn't do that. I’ll be at Cannes Festival next week.”
“What a shame! I mean, I am glad for you, of course, but...”
“I understand,” says Peter, sorry for letting down his friend, but also relieved that he does not have to satisfy the intrusive curiosity of the crowd, because he is exhausted already, the recollection of such unpleasant events having its toll on him, although the maturity, through a lot of more painstaking experiences, has taught him not to dramatize and, if possible, to stay detached. Besides, people could inquire about intimate stuff and write libellous comments, and not once has he been accused of being a racist, a misogynist, a pretentious artist whose movies promote even infantile sex and are not LGBTQ+ friendly. Surely, they wouldn’t discuss these controversial matters here, yet purely the thought of it made him sick, realizing that he had enough for today.
“Well, good luck with the promotion of your new movie and see you next time. Always a pleasure to meet you, Pete. Goodbye.” They shake hands. “We’ll keep in touch.”
“Of course. Goodbye. Perhaps I’ll come up with another story next time. What do you think about that?”
“I am sure that those who watch our show would be excited to hear more from you. And your new movie.”
“Maybe. But I can be boring and convoluted at times, you know me. And I doubt if they’ve made it ’till the end.”