By Robert Abele
A tale of love, labor, and loss, Warren Beatty's 1981 epic Reds has to count as one of the greatest achievements in willed filmmaking: an expensive, studio-produced period saga about early 20th century journalist John Reed—an American sympathizer with and chronicler of the Bolshevik Revolution—and the various factional wars among left-minded activists of the time. Though it took more than 10 years of his life to get this passion project made, eventually netting him the DGA Award and the Oscar for best director, Beatty wryly notes, "I did have some sense that to do a three-and-a-half-hour movie about a Communist who died was not the most inviting financial prospect for an American corporation."
Reed's journey from anti-interventionist journalist to disillusioned Soviet mouthpiece is given an explosive transition in the climactic third-act scene below, which takes place on a train returning to Moscow from a Communist rally in Baku on the Caspian Sea. Expressing his anger toward Soviet politico Zinoviev (Jerzy Kosinski) over having his speeches rewritten, Reed's argument is cut short by a counterrevolutionary attack as a bomb rips apart the train car behind him. "Thematically it's the core of the movie," says Beatty. "A man who was constantly caught between art and politics, between love and what he considers to be duty, and communism and capitalism."
Shot by legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro with a dusty heat that mirrored both a physically weary, typhus-afflicted Reed and the passions that never left him, the scene's battle backdrop was also prescient about Russia's foreign excursions in the 1980s. "It certainly predicted
the coming disaster between the Soviets and the Afghans," says Beatty.
Jerzy Kosinski is playing [the Russian revolutionary] Zinoviev and he had never acted before. We did this scene at the end of the movie, and the night before we shot I remember Kosinski saying I should relax and have dinner in the hotel restaurant, which I was reluctant to do because I thought I had to do a lot of preparation. So I went down to the restaurant and became more and more anxiety-ridden. I found that for some reason my feet were sweating profusely. At a certain point I reached down and realized Kosinski was hiding under the table pouring hot tea into my shoes very gradually. Everybody in the restaurant doubled up howling. He was a huge practical joker.
The dialogue in this shot has to do with the fact that certain things Reed wrote and said were translated by the Russian Communists in a way that he objected to. The scene is very much about the conflict between art and politics. The point at this moment in the movie was to say that a person can be an artist and an individual. He says a revolution is a matter of dissent, and he was insistent on art above politics. And that's why he becomes violently angry when he's rewritten by political propagandists.
When you have a dialogue scene that comes to a climax with an explosion that blows the set away, and you have no other sets for a substitute, you stop before you get to the verbal cue so you can do retakes. And, you shoot with more than one camera. You do one wide, one close, and then you pray. We were all well rehearsed, because we'd shot in the other direction first, on the other actors. But we knew that when that thing blew up, that was going to be the end of the day. The next thing after that would be dinner.
This was all shot in one car, with the end of the car rigged to blow up. To get the sense of motion, it was being moved by crew members. We were armed for one explosion, which in those days would have been considered a big deal. It was going to be one take, because to get the thing ready before we lost light was very important. What was worse was we were losing permission to use the railroad the following day. Since we weren't going to be able to shoot it the next day, we pulled ourselves together and got it just minutes from the sun going down. Maybe five minutes before we lost light. It was fraught, to say the least.
Here, John Reed is compelled to go up against the counterrevolutionaries that were attacking the train. This wasn't much of a stunt. You try to measure up the safety concerns [of the shot] with the adrenaline concerns, the narcissism concerns, and the ambition concerns, and hope you don't make a mistake. Usually I'd wear some kind of pad if I was going to fall.
In this whole scene, Reed is tired; he's coming down with typhus. I probably used a 75 mm lens here, or something like that. It could have been 100. When I'm doing a sequence like this, I will shoot two cameras. It's safer. You do it until you get it right. The terrain had to be right. It might have taken three days, as I remember. We were shooting outside of Seville and got a lot done.
We couldn't get permission to shoot in the Soviet Union. I can remember the moment sitting in Moscow where I said something that I realized, as the words came out of my mouth, that I would not get permission. It was when I referred to the Bolshevik takeover. And, you know, that was a common phrase. I didn't mean it to be disparaging, but there I was, an American, and the Cold War was not yet over. So it was not possible to shoot in the Soviet Union. We filmed a lot in Spain. There were things in Madrid that worked for Moscow and Leningrad. And in this scene there were things in Spain that worked for Baku, which looks Middle Eastern with warmer colors.
When you're shooting people coming at the camera, and there are going to be explosions you shoot it with a long lens and try not to let anybody get hurt. I used video playback, so when the counterrevolutionaries are coming over with the horses, I would stop the tape before we got into any rough stuff. We were very careful with the horses. We used 30 or 40 men for this, all from Spain. It would have been very difficult for me to work with the horses without Craig Baxley, who I've worked with a number of times. He's a terrific second unit director.
All I can really say about this is that it's a beautiful shot. It's a horse jumping out of a train, and horses are nothing to sneeze at. But the lower the camera, I would say, the less likelihood that you sneeze. Especially when you have a horse jumping over your head. Vittorio Storaro, our cinematographer, was terrific. There's no greater cinematographer. We were in total agreement and continual conversation.
That's the interpreter who told Reed he's not being translated properly. We found this old train in Spain. It was a real train, one that, let us say, was not seeing a lot of action. It needed to be from around 1915 to 1920. It's worth mentioning that the train was filled with agitprop revolutionary paintings that were quite prominent. We had a number of terrific painters, supervised by our great production designer, Dick Sylbert, and art director Simon Holland.
We built the gun wagon. That's old weaponry you're not going to find just walking around Madrid. You'll have an idea six months before you shoot a scene, and then you'll have an idea six minutes before you shoot a scene, and then you'll have another idea after you've shot it. You've got to be willing to write with film, and you're constantly rewriting. You rewrite when you cast something, it's a rewrite when you shoot it, it's a rewrite when you edit it. You don't know, until you put it together, exactly how you're going to do it. I don't like to talk about Reds without mentioning Dede Allen and Craig McKay, who were terrific editors on the picture.
John Reed wants to be in this war, he wants to do the right thing, what he feels is the right thing. So he chases the gun wagon that's come out of the train. He's chasing the revolution. I really do pay attention to actors. I don't say a lot to actors, but I sometimes say, should we do it faster, or do you want to do another one, or do whatever you want to do and see what happens. It's much more fun to not have to direct yourself. But when you are directing yourself, at least you have one actor who sort of agrees with you.
A director needs to be in control, but he really shouldn't be in complete control, because then things could be very boring, and he wouldn't take advantage of unexpected developments and opportunities. There are people who storyboard everything. I don't do that. I'll storyboard some stuff, but mainly I'm ready for the unexpected. I think that's important. You can't plan too much. I always think of a quote from Napoleon when they asked him to explain the intricacies of his battle plan. He said, 'Well here's the plan. First we go there, and then we see what happens.'
Here, I just ran the way I would run. You have faith in good operators that they'll keep you in the frame. But when adrenaline comes into play, you do more than you thought you were going to do. It's best not to act and direct at the same time. When I direct myself, I do more takes than if I'm being directed by someone else. Rather than stop and look at it, I just do it again. And I like to have my fellow actors feel that they're directing it at the same time. I try to lead them into thinking it's sort of a fake democracy, when it's actually, ultimately, kind of a fascist dictatorship, one would have to admit.