INT: My name is Robert Markowitz, today is May 5th, 2010, and I'm conducting an interview with Harold Becker for the Directors Guild of America Visual History Program. We are in the DGA in Los Angeles, California.
HB: My name is Harold Becker. My birthdate is 9-25-28. I was born in New York City, USA.
INT: So, why don't we begin with a little bit about your backstory, in regard to where you were born and where you grew up, and I'll ask you a little bit about your growing up years to find out how they may have shaped you as a filmmaker.
HB: Well, I was born in the Bronx [New York City, New York], grew up in the Bronx. And came from I guess what you can describe as a little middle-class family, grew up during the latter part of the Depression [referring to the Great Depression], and I guess, I mean that shaped my outlook in many ways, because there was always a struggle in terms of the economics, but of course I grew up in a community where everyone was in the same boat, so to speak. Loads of kids in the street, played ball, I was always interested in books though, and so I guess that was sort of like the growing-up period. From a very early age, I had wanted to be an artist. I was very good at drawing, and I can remember even when I was three, four, or five years old, drawing horses was sort of the beginning of it. And by the time I got into high school I majored in art, and went to an art school afterwards. I went to Pratt [Pratt Institute, New York]. Am I going too fast? [INT: No, and I'll stop you along the way, go ahead.] So, I went to Pratt Institute, which was in Brooklyn. And I was at that time, what 16, 17, and my--I took the Fine Arts Program. I was interested at that time being a painter. And of course I had the pressure of earning a living, so when I got out of school I started working as a designer, doing book jackets--designer slash illustrator, doing everything from book jackets, editorial art, etcetera, and somehow that segued--I won't go into a long story so I won't go into it.
INT: Well, but--let's go back a little bit now, because this was 19--we're talking about the early-30s [1930s] and--[HB: No, no, we're not talking about the early-30s now.] No, no, I'm going back. You were born in '28 . [HB: Yeah.] You said--I'm going back to when you were--[HB: In the 30s. I see, I see.] Yes. Yeah, right, and you said that you loved books but you were going to be an artist. I mean, wasn't that at a time when people were scrounging just to make a--to be able to survive? Wasn’t--I mean, how big a family were you in? Were you--how--
HB: I had two sisters. [INT: Older or younger?] Older and younger. [INT: So, you were the middle child.] I’m in the middle. [INT: And what did your parents do? I mean--] My father was a tailor. [INT: He have his own shop or he worked for someone?] Sometimes he had his own shop, sometimes he worked for others. [INT: Uh-huh, and your mom what--] It was a struggle. [INT: Right, and so your mom was just home?] Home, basically. [INT: Uh-huh. So, and your older sister what happened to her? Before--how--what was her trajectory? Did she go to--] She was important in my life. She's five years older than me, and she had polio [poliomyelitis], when she was like six months old. I think that cast something--the irony was that she was the happiest person in the family. So, there's your--and still is, an enormous spirit. I think she took after my father that way, very outgoing. [INT: So, was she a cripple for most--] She is. [INT: And did she go to school?] Sure. [INT: So, did you all go to college?] My older sister didn't go to college. I went to college, my younger sister went to college. [INT: And were your parents born in the United States?] No, they were born in, actually the Ukraine, you know, Russia. [INT: And how old was your father when he--] How old was my father? [INT: When he came in, when they migrated?] My father came here, he was 14 years old. Came here by himself, all the way from Russia. Amazing, huh? [INT: Yeah. And did he--] When you think of 14 year olds today. And my mother came here when she was five. My father was in World War I, in the cavalry. Maybe, I don't know, he got his citizenship at that time. I don't remember. [INT: And did they encourage--] When I say I don't remember, I… [INT: No, did they encourage your art?] Well of course, always a part of being an artist or a kid, is an artist is you're always the center of attention when you go to school. And there's always a class artist that you get out of schoolwork by doing the school murals and all of those things. But I don't think anyone visualized or envisioned that I would try to make a living being an artist. When I chose to go to art school, then it was of concern. okay? And I even had to promise them some--that I would get a degree and that meant a Fine Art's Degree, so if I could--that I could fall back on, go into teaching. Of course, I was not interested in teaching, so I never went into it. And…
INT: And what kind of artists were influencing you at that time? I mean, who were you looking at and…?
HB: I was… By the time I was going to art school, I had a relatively sophisticated taste in art. Remember, New York wasn't just going to art school, it was the galleries, which at that time were on 57th Street, and MoMA [New York Museum Of Modern Art] was in its glory days, because it was all breaking open, we had--this was--we're talking now the '45 , '46 , '47 , and you had really an enormous outburst in terms of Picasso [Pablo Picasso], Matisse [Henri Matisse], it was all coming to the fore. [INT: Were your friends artists?] Yeah. Yeah, of course, you go to art school, you know how--and, of course, when I was young, I had friends who I played stickball with, so to speak. [INT: Right. Right. But I mean were--did they--] But I was formed as an artist. You know, forming as an artist. I had at that point, I was not interested--I mean, of course we all went to the movies. I can remember seeing OPEN CITY [ROME, OPEN CITY], having a profound effect on me. When I was young, I remember going to see the Russian films that came into New York. And people like Eisenstein [Sergei Eisenstein], Dovzhenko [Alexander Dovzhenko], they had those films up there. Eisenstein was already gone by that time, but they had masterful films coming in. I can only look back--I didn't say at that time, I was studying to be a filmmaker. Far from. But these were all the influences of anyone who was interested in the arts. [INT: Well, one could see the influence of OPEN CITY in your work.] Oh, that was a powerful influence. I remember probably--I guess I can even remember the girl I went with, she was, I think a year or two older than me.
INT: Okay, so then you had your education and then you became a--you were a design--
HB: I working free--I was freelance. [INT: And you were designing book jackets?] I started off, I worked in, you know, getting jobs that I could. I remember getting a job at a place called--they did point of purchase displays. I probably could remember the guy's name if I wanted to. And I went in to work there. You're interested in anecdotes, as well? [INT: Anecdotes, sure.] Yeah, I'll amuse you. [INT: Yeah, go ahead.] There’s probably no value in this thing. [INT: Yeah.] And I went in and I was working then, and I was designing--I remember, I was designing for these expandable watchbands. This is--they were gonna have them. These are point of purchase means these are--you design posters that would sit on counters. Point of purchase, when you bought something, there was the poster there, maybe you needed a watchband, okay? And I was busy, I was painting, I was doing this poster there, and I came home and my hands were covered with this purple--they literally had turned purple. I couldn't wash it off. I went in the next day, my hands are purple. What had happened was, someone was stealing watchbands, okay? So, what they did is they sprayed powder in the cabaret, where the art supplies were. And it had gotten on my hands. Fortunately, I'd only been there a day, so I couldn't have--and I quit. Okay? It's one of the last jobs I held, because I had a certain… I didn't like authority. I didn't like working for other people. So, I can say, I can count on the fingers on one hand of the number of salary jobs I had. [INT: How old were you when you quit that one?] I was 20, 21. [INT: And you weren't married at that time?] No, no. And I started doing freelance work. That's when I started doing book jackets, etcetera, etcetera. I had a partner at the time, who I--we both had gone through art school together. We were close friends, we worked together. We had a loft on 22nd Street. That's before lofts became fashionable. But what I remember is the smell of the rats that they poisoned between the floors. But it was cheap, and you would live in it and the rest, b… an amusing perspective on where--what happened to lofts. [INT: Right, that was in Manhattan or in the Bronx?] Yeah, 22nd Street, between 5th and 6th Avenue. Sorry, between 6th and 7th Avenue. [INT: So, you were an outsider from the beginning? In other words, you didn't--] I was an outside, yeah, I had lived--I was not alone, we were like people who-- [INT: But you were not following the conve--] I was not a nine to five guy. [INT: Right, you weren't following a conventional life?] No. No. [INT: So--] And then you probably want to know, I segued into film, into--not film, into photography. [INT: Yes, well, that was my next question.] And the way I segued in is that I started doing collages. They were three-dimensional. They had to be photographed in order to--for the--and I was working already--I move very quickly, people recognized… forgive the immodesty, they recognized my talent in this work. And… but they had to be photographed in order for them to be turned into a book jacket, or a magazine cover. And I used to--there was a guy, his name was Otto Mayer. I'm sure he's long gone. He was a sweet man. And he would--and he did still lifes, and he would photograph them for us. And of course, the next step naturally would be to go in photograph them myselves. And then I got a call, I was doing work for Seventeen Magazine [INT: Photographing?] Photographing. Not photographing, I was doing these collages and things. [INT: Oh, I see.] And, I did--
INT: So, let me just stop you there. So, at that point in your life, the substance of what you were doing were the collages, the photographs were just a means--
HB: Exactly. [INT: Okay.] As a means--it was like a me--as though a--you could do something as simple as put the collage in front of the engraver's camera, but then it would lose its dimension. You wouldn’t be un—be under a engraver's camera would light it evenly. [INT: Right.] Boy, if we keep going this way, we'll be here for two days. [INT: Right.] Okay. [INT: No, don't worry about that. Go ahead.] It's a pecu--it's such an individual course. I always say to the young people, when they say, "Well, how did?" I say, "There's so many roads to Rome." [INT: Right.] You know, "How do you become a Director?" [INT: Right, right.] A million ways, you know? [INT: Right.] We have to remember at the time there weren't film schools even if I was interested in film. [INT: Right.] Right? [INT: So that's correct.] Anyway, there was a Photographer, he was an Art Director at the time, but he went on to become a very well-known Photographer himself, a man named Art Kane. He was the Art Director of Seventeen Magazine. He called me one day, and he said, "There's a Photographer out there, Jerry Plucer [Jerry Plucer-Sarna]." a famous fashion Photographer at the time who was looking to bring young people in to the studio, not as assistants, as sort of, I don't know what you--as young Photographers. He had a big studio on 35th Street near 2nd Avenue. And I went over there, and I started working in Jerry Plucer's studio, doing my own work. [INT: This is what year, approximately?] Maybe I'm 24. [INT: Okay.] I started doing these still lifes. It was a fascinating experience, because he gave me, supplied me with an assistant, a very, very knowledgeable assistant, because I knew very little about photography. Even though when I went to Pratt [Pratt Institute, New York], I did take a course in photography, you had to. I was not interested in it, I wasn't interested in the dark room. I like going out, and then they would, excuse me, they'd give you a Rolleiflex, and you could go out and take pictures. And I was very influenced by Moholy-Nagy [Laszlo Moholy-Nagy] the Bauhaus [referring to the Bauhaus school in Germany from 1919 to 1933], these are probably--I don't know if these names mean anything to you. [INT: Yes, I do.] But, this was the whole German school. And also Rodchenko [Alexander Rodchenko], the great Russian Photographer. And you were doing all these pictures at angles, design-y kind of things. And I went into that studio, and very quickly, I established very quickly. I literally went from eating rice to having a credit card. Okay? I moved quickly. And so I'll go very fast and say before long I had my own studio. It took me years though to become a real Photographer, in my mind. I thought I was a Photographer when I started, but there's a difference. [INT: What were you shooting with?] At that time, I'm gonna say, well, eight-ten [8x10], and two and a quarter [2 ¼], but a lot of eight-ten. I did a whole series with Andy Warhol, were I photographed shoes for--I think it was for--Glamour [Glamour Magazine] or Mademoiselle [Mademoiselle Magazine], and he did the drawings. You know, it was an interesting life. It was a--[INT: And you thought was gonna be your life?] No. [INT: You didn't?] No, I didn't know. I wasn't thinking in those terms, I was... it's very important to be successful at it. It was a very difficult world, you know? A lot tried, very few succeed. I remember when I went to art school, being told by Dean Boudreau [James Boudreau], he was the head of the school, that only three percent of the people sitting here, there's a big assembly, will ever work the field of art. Do you think anyone in that room think they were gonna be one of the there percent? [INT: Right, right, right.] Okay. Same as going into film.
INT: But, but two patterns in your life were already formed that seemed to influence--even as I look at your films, and that is that, one you were independent, in the sense again, you were not following a conventional path, you were always setting out on your own. And then visually you had a very strong influence, you were influenced by the German school…
HB: Not specifically, I don't want to generalize, it's too early. I don't want to generalize and say, "I was very influenced by Bauhaus, of course. [INT: Right, right.] I wasn't alone, there was a whole thing going on then. [INT: Yeah, but that sort of, wouldn't you say that--] Yeah, I had a very strong designs sense--[INT: Right.]--that was developing. And it was very important in the work I was doing as a Photographer. [INT: Right, but the later showed up--] And remember I started to work, when I say "successful," I started doing basically editorial and advertising photography. Okay? And that included everything from still lifes, fashion, beauty, more beauty than fashion, and illustration.
INT: And when you--during that time do you remember did you--were you still going to the movies?
HB: Of course. Oh, yeah. We're talking now, we're going up into the late-50s [1950s], early-60s [1960s]. Oh, I can't, I can't overstate how powerful the influence of movies was on us at that time, on young people. We were out going to movies whether it was going to see the Italian Neorealists [referring to the film movement Italian Neorealism], going to see the French films, the Rene, the all--it just went on, they were just pouring into New York. You had all the independent cinema opening up. The Cinema I, Cinema II, Rugoff [Donald Rugoff], Walter Reade, these were chains of theaters that they were able to fill these theaters all over New York. They had 10, 12 independent theaters, all showing films, pouring in from Europe. [INT: Do you know how often during the week you went?] No, I can't say, no. I mean, we might go to movies a couple times a week. And we would be up all night talking about them. [INT: And were there...?] Excuse me, we'd go to see a picture like LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD and in four in the morning we were still arguing over it. [INT: And were there particular filmmakers that you made sure you wanted to see?] Well, it started of course, I can just pretty much say the most--the initial--I won't go into the Russian ones, because I was too uninformed, I couldn't refer to them, but specifically it started with, and you said OPEN CITY with the Neorealists, the Italian filmmakers, okay? And that started with Visconti [Luchino Visconti], with Antonioni [Michelangelo Antonioni], Antonioni was already later, he had a powerful influence on me. I can--[INT: How?] I remember seeing L'AVVENTURA. I think that L'AVVENTURA is the first time I thought about maybe I would want to make movies myself. Now that didn't mean that I didn't already play around with movies, when I was 17 or something like that I made a--I was still going to art school, I made a 16mm film, okay? With a little Bell & Howell camera, a little editing, we you cemented the 16, yeah. But I wasn't thinking of it as a career, as a film Director. I was too removed, too out of reach to think in those terms, all right? I wouldn't even know how to go about it. In fact, to jump ahead, let me just say generally I had a very successful career as a film, as a Photographer, and I was making a lot of money, okay? Because I quickly reached the top level. By that I mean, where agencies were paying me a great deal of money, relative to the times, to take pictures.
INT: Okay, before you make the jump, one last question then, and that is, let's just go back and you said Antonioni [Michelangelo Antonioni] had a big influence.
HB: I gave you a lot of other influences, but that--[INT: Well, go ahead.] I gave you the one film. [INT: No, well, go ahead, in what way do you think they influenced you?] Oh, I know how it influenced me. [INT: Okay.] And in fact, you know when something influences you enough, it's like you remember when you heard that Kennedy [John F. Kennedy] was shot. Well, I remember when, exactly where I was when I saw that L'AVVENTURA. Okay. And then I can tell you exactly who I was with. That's the kind of thing that imprints. And--[INT: But what was it in the film that--] It was that I first--I saw how the camera can speak. I had been brought up on film that was somewhat literal. The story was told through dialogue. And that was very much the American tradition in film. And here was Antonioni, who was, whose visual images had a power that I had not recognized as clearly. It was a breakthrough in my mind, what he was doing in film. Even though I was enormously influenced, at that time, there was Antonioni on one side of it, there was Fellini [Federico Fellini] on the other. This unbelievable genius. But from Fellini I didn't get that other sense of filmmaking that I got from Antonioni. [INT: Could you be a little more specific about that difference?] Yeah, Antonioni used the camera as a form of handwriting, he told a story through the visual images. There's almost a minimum of dialogue in his films. He had the-- While Fellini was in his own world, and it's a world that you could absolutely love, but that was his world, okay? Antonioni sort of set the stage. I met him later, in fact, he did a drawing of me once that I have, someplace, yeah. Anyway, to continue. [INT: You didn't finish that sentence, so you were saying about Antonioni, about the difference be--] Antonioni was more of a visual... my it gets ridiculous to say, Fellini was amazingly visual, but there was something about Antonioni, his whole sense of I don't know how to put it, [INT: Non-literal.] What? [INT: That he wasn't literal.] Yeah, it wasn't literal storytelling. In fact, you could say it was a cinema of ideas and those ideas, he found a visual equation for them. The landscape might be just as important as the characters in the landscape, where they were. And it was an enormous sense of composition that I liked in his work. I saw all of his films. And of course, I went on and there was great, other great filmmakers, Renoir [Jean Renoir] has a big influence on me, from a naturalistic point of view, and because his work was moving in a different sense. But there was something profound I felt about Antonioni's work, about how he brought out the existential quality, you know? [INT: So between Antonioni...] Something, something that can't be described in literal terms. [INT: So between Antonioni and Renoir, you had--] Well, I can go on, there are many more. [INT: But it's interesting, because I'm thinking about your films.] Yeah. [INT: And that combination is very easy to see in your films, because Renoir had all that humanity in there.] Yeah. [INT: There were great scenes of humanity in some of your films,] Right. [INT: And at the same time there was--] Yeah, I was touched by Renoir's humanity. [INT: So, did Hitchcock--] Renoir had a--he said one thing that I'll never forget, I think it was in, was it in A DAY IN THE COUNTRY, I forget the film. Anyways he said, "Everyone has their reasons." It's a wonderful thing to remember. [INT: Yeah.] You know? [INT: That's a great line.] Yeah. [INT: So, did Hitchcock [Alfred Hitchcock] later have an influence on you?] Oh, yeah. I loved Hitchcock's filmmaking. And that's a--and when I've done some suspense films, and there's something about Hitchcock, it's like building a clock. Every part has to fit and work. And in his great work, that is the underlying machine, its just brilliant. And Brilliant filmmaker.
INT: Okay, so now we're ready to find out how you started to make the transition.
HB: Oh, okay. While I was doing commercial work and that was paying the way, very handsomely, I didn't like what I was doing. I didn't like advertising per say, okay? It didn't satisfy something in me. And I didn't like selling certain things, so for example, I remember I used to sell cigarettes. That's what you were doing, you can disguise it any way you want, you're selling people cigarettes. And then just as for my conscience, I did public service commercials. This is already doing commercials. And I did, so those things you volunteer to do. Remember at the time I had a studio already, I had people working for me, etcetera. And I did a series of commercials for the American Cancer Society. I did one very famous one where two little kids are dressing up in their parents' clothes, right? Then, of course, the idea is "what you do your children will do." And of course, after that, how could I do more cigarettes commercial? On and on, like that. But more, more important, I began--and I was also doing my own photography at that time. [INT: What kind?] Oh, basically more of a reportage type of photography. I would go to Europe and take pictures, then walk around the streets taking pictures. [INT: With Leica?] Yeah, that all 35mm, yeah. And then I started to--I got involved in commercials. Now, I don't think I got involved in commercials first, I think I got involved in short films. I started making a short film. Actually, the first shot film I made was with an animation stand. There was a great, great French Photographer, Eugene Atget, who had taken pictures of Paris [Paris, France] at the turn of the century. I won't go through a convoluted way I met a woman, Bernie Abbott [Berenice Abbott], a wonderful Photographer. [INT: Oh, I know who it is.] Who handled, who had his collection of his work. She had a loft on Bank Street with something like 4,000 glass plates that was slowly disintegrating. Finally, she sold them to the Museum of Modern Art [MoMA] for $60,000 for the 40,000--for the 4,000 plates. I think the same year they bought an Andy Warhol for $60,000. Just as an aside, nothing to do with film. [INT: Yeah, no, that's…] The ironies. [INT: Yeah.] But it did save the collection. Anyway, I wanted to a film on her, and I did, I did a 10-12 minute short, using Erik Satie’s Trois [French word for three] Gymnopedies as the music tracks. [INT: For the French, on about the French--] Oh, were they, some were stills. [INT: Of the French Photographer?] Yeah. The French Photographer, over his stills, and I made a very nice 12 minute short. And that was, then I started making shorts with live-action so to speak. [INT: And this was still in New York?] Oh, yeah, I had a studio. [INT: Right.] And a had a small crew, I did a film on a folks singer, Blind Gary Davis [Reverend Gary Davis]. This is amusing for people in film, we went out, we all, we thought it was a joke, because I remember, I had a studio on 5th Avenue, I remember they were shooting a big, big movie on 5th Avenue. And you know they set up during the day for a night shoot. And I was standing there watching them putting up these arcs, trucks of equipment, and laughing, thinking, "This is ridiculous." Okay. "We can do all this,” you know, we used to go out and shoot, and the most we could fill was a station wagon. And we go to do this film on, Blind Gary Davis, was a great street singer. And we go up to--he had a apartment, a hovel it was. It was in the East Bronx, you had to go through the alleyway of a tenement to the back to get into his place. I'm only going through the physical part. And we rent two Rack-Over Mitchells [35mm Mitchell Rack-Over]. We know nothing, all we've done is we've bought ourselves a Cinematographer's handbook. But of course, remember we have a background, I have a background, I'm a Photographer. And photography and cinematography are close cousins. And the night before I'm there with my couple of assistants, and we're learning how to thread the camera, all right? And rack over. And there was, I think we had four of us schlepped two big Mitchells into this little tiny--the problem is, because I knew I needed two cameras, of course I wanted to do a performance, and how am I gonna cut if I don't have two cameras? And I think just about Blind Gary Davis, Gary Davis and the four of us fit into the room with the cameras. That’s about filled the room. What do you think? Just an amusing aside. [INT: Well, okay, but so... what, how?] You see, the thing is that I wanted to point out, the wonderful thing is you can do anything. All you have to do is have a sort of think you can do it.
INT: How did you--you were financing these films yourself? [HB: Yeah.] And what were you doing? How were you distributing them?
HB: Oh, there was a... oh, that was another part. There was a film company, Leo Dratfield, I hope he's still around. His name, he was Contemporary Films. They, remember there was also Film Society, 16mm. [INT: Right.] I forget the name of it now. And I was a member of it. I saw wonderful films there that were films like--surrealist films like DREAMS THAT MONEY CAN BUY, Hans Richter, and people like that. And they would--you'd go to those things, it was a very Bohemian crowd. I was young, but I was still in art school when I used to go to that one. [INT: Were they down in the Village, those screenings?] Down in the Village, yeah. [INT: Right.] And, oh god--[INT: So, at that point...] Anyways, so we started, I fell in love with film. I bought a Moviola, we edited our own films. I did a couple of documentaries. I was, went south with SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, I did a film called Ivanhoe Donaldson, which was an hour-length film, and we followed these two black kids from SNCC all the way from Virginia to Selma, Alabama, Mississippi in 1963, during the height of the Civil Rights thing. It was a frightening time and everything. And I'd say it was scary in a lot of ways, because it's hard to imagine what the world there was at that time. And, but I did that film, I did another film called INTERVIEW WITH BRUCE GORDON [AN INTERVIEW WITH BRUCE GORDON]. Amazing piece of work, and amazing only because of who were the kid in the film was. And we were sitting--we were in Selma, Alabama, right across from the police station. In these Southern cities, the police station was primarily the biggest single building in the town, maybe outside the courthouse, okay? Gave you an idea of the repressive environment. And right across the street from the police station was an undertaker parlor. And one of these SNCC kids, they had such balls, it was unbelievable, they rented the floor above, the second floor of the undertaker parlor. You'd walk in the cof--you know, the coffins were--the empty coffins were laying there on the outside, you go upstairs, this is the kind of courage these kids had. And I filmed him upstairs, and the heat of the moment created the film. Okay, it's nothing more than an interview, like we're doing.
INT: And you did these films, so of speak, on spec, I mean, you didn't--you--
HB: Well, it was no spec, I mean, I just did them for myself. [INT: Right, for yourself.] But getting to back to Leo Dratfield, I showed him the films. At that time, I told you about Rugoff [Donald Rugoff], Walter Reade, etcetera, they used to run films, short films, with the feature. Okay? And I'll never forget, the Bleecker Street, you're from New York, so know--[INT: Yeah. Yeah, I know where everything you're talking about.] The Bleecker Street Cinema, which right there, one weekend I look up and there is Harold Becker's EUGENE ATGET, okay? And, what was his name, Carne’s [Marcel Carne] CHILDREN OF PARADISE, on the same marque. Okay, mine was only a 10-12 minute film, of course. But they would put the films up. You didn't get paid anything, really. It was just the fun of it. And then I would send films off to film festivals, and they would send you diplomas, I have a lot of beautiful diplomas. I won, once, I did win money a couple of times. I won the Geld Prize from Mannheim [International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg, Germany]. That was like, that time, I don't know 2,000 marks, I don't know, whatever. But there was no money in it, let's put it that way.
INT: Okay, so wait a minute, so you were financing these films yourself? [HB: Yeah.] INT: Okay, and they were being distributed but you weren't getting any money. So how were you living?
HB: How was I living? [INT: Yeah.] I was working. I was still doing, I was doing commercials already and everything. [INT: Oh, oh, okay. Now you didn't say that.] I did--I--this was not full-time. [INT: Oh, okay, I was under the impression that it was.] No, no, no, this was not full-time. [INT: Okay.] I had a bifurcated career at this point, my own work, and--[INT: And the one--] And the commercial then. [INT: Right.] And then so I was seguing into commercials, now… oh, this is so long-winded. When I was in commercials, you understand this is the '60s [1960s]. They, advertising agencies, who used people like me, I'm talking about the quality end, the Art Directors who were my contemporaries, I went this way and became a Photographer, they went that way and became an Art Director at an agency. Okay, so who did they seek out when they wanted something done at their level? People like me. So, that was a very--it was a certain synergy that made for a very comfortable relationships. Now, they were being called on to do commercials, so they--I remember the one done for Johnson & Johnson, I'm gonna use as an example. And I guess it was probably their soap or something like that. And they had a baby in a crib. Oh, they hired, who are they gonna hire to do film? They hired what they called industrial filmmakers, people who did industrial films. Of course those people didn't have the aesthetics, okay? They had, they'd have a cameraman, who did it like he did in an industrial film. So, they would call people like me and hire us because of it was all union there, to be a lighting consultant, okay? I remember going in the--and I light this, because that's what I did, I lit it and I composed it. But I couldn't take the Cinematographer--I wasn't the Cinematographer. I wasn't the Cinematographer, and they were very jealous of their--protective of their interest. And I lit it. And he came over to take a reading, I had took a reading, and I was, "Fine, let's go.” He says, “Can't be done." He says, "We can't go past the four-to-one ratio. And I looked at him as though he was crazy, all right. I don't care whether it's 35mm film or whatever, shooting in a still camera, same principles apply. I'm just giving you an example of what [INT: Right.] we were breaking through into. And gradually they were able to move it over where we became, and not only, around the corner from me was Howard Zieff doing similar things. And a lot of other people and who were moving into commercials. And so I was, became a very, very--actually what happened is that I segued really from stills into commercials. Of course, I liked making this little films. They were 60 second at the time, and then we used them as an excuse to make a good little movie, you understand? [INT: Yeah, right, yes, yeah.] And there was a certain freedom in advertising at that time that allowed us, even in the good agencies.
HB: And I started thinking I want to make a feature. There was no future in doing these little shorts, okay? I had a lot of these beautiful, they called them, these awards, they were beautifully--I still have a bunch of them. And I had started working in Europe as well as here, maybe out of boredom. I loved going to London, it was the swinging '60s [1960s], single at the time. It was a good time, okay? And in being in New York, it's just a hop and skip, unlike being out here. You don't think twice. You go over there and spend a few days and come back. So, I was taking assignments in England and oh, I met people there. Of course, I was a little ahead of them. I remember Ridley Scott. I remember--he and Tony wasn't even around yet. Just breaking in at the time. It was a very exciting time in terms of the commercial world. Right? None of us were thinking yet, "How are we gonna get into film?" And then I started to think about wanting to make a film, something that I can hold in my hands. I wanted to make films in Europe, because I was so influenced by European filmmakers. It's not that I didn't already... I have a sense--I was a great fan of John Ford's work, okay? He fit into my idea of filmmaking. [INT: How so?] His visual sense was overwhelming. I loved the way, of course, I'm beginning to understand certain things. He knew where to put the camera. Maybe the most important single thing I can say, knowing where to put the camera. Either, and I hate to put it this way, either you have an instinct for it or you don't, all right? And he had an unerring sense of that, where to put the camera. And also the life that he brought into the thing. And it wasn't just him, there was George Stevens, who you brought up before. Well, George Stevens, well, I wasn't surprised to find that he had been a Cinematographer before he became a Director. But I don't want to go off into that.
HB: My major influence, I wanted to make films in Europe, because it seemed to me no studio systems, nothing like that, these people seemed to be working independently. And I liked, I was very influenced by at that time because there were all those waves of films coming in. They had the Italian, the French, and here we were with the English coming in, LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER [THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER], all of these pictures, Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson, really filmmakers. Carol Reed, you know, you had terrific films being done. I found a story by Alan Sillitoe, called THE RAGMAN'S DAUGHTER. I don't know if you saw it. [INT: No, I couldn't get a copy of it.] You should've asked me. [INT: Oh.] Netflix has it. [INT: Oh, it does, okay.] Yeah. Anyway, it became my first film. I'd read this novella and it was about two outsiders, two kids. It's a love story. It had Victoria Tennant, it was her first film. She was 18, 19. And a boy named Simon Rouse. I got Sillitoe to write the thing for me. And don't ask me, I just had balls. I just went and--I didn't have a problem. I never felt restricted. Okay? And I think that's because my art background. I never felt restricted in that way, "How you gonna get it done?" Whatever. Remember, I still had money, I could make money doing these other things. And I hired Sillitoe, all very modest. I optioned the material, this is all new stuff to me. And I asked him to write a screenplay for it. Just for the viewers, understand Alan Sillitoe had written a few movies, that came from his books, one was LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER [THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER], another one was SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING. So he was this significant Writer in terms of the what they used to call the Kitchen Sink Dramas [referring to Kitchen Sink Realism] of the '60s [1960s], okay? And I raised money. I got somebody to put up some money, I put up some money. I made the film for $400,000, $450,000. I'm moving quickly. [INT: No, take your time.] But I did it in England. And believe it or not I was gonna stay in England. I loved the whole film scene in England, and I felt very comfortable with it. I was a stranger to the film industry here. I had never even come near it. The only thing I knew about film here were these little shorts I was doing for Leo Dratfield. Oh, by the way, an aside, I one day overheard them talking about these shorts. You know what they referred to them as? Seat changers. Okay? You didn't want to hear that, but that's what they were, they were there so that--[INT: Oh, seat changers.] Seat changers. [INT: Oh, I thought you said C-changers.] No, seat changers, sorry. It was, you understand a film might run an hour and 50 minutes. Now you do have to get up. I don't care if it's two and a half hours, people have to get up, leave the theater, and new people come in. New audience comes in. Well, they put on a short, now, then when the popcorn became an important part of the equation, they didn't put the short on anymore. But I was out of it by then, okay, because it was better to just leave a silent screen up there so people could fidget around and go buy themselves some popcorn. [INT: Right.] Right? [INT: Right.] And maybe I'm giving you material for another novel.
INT: No, but I'll tell you. I mean, what is now obvious is that all of your films are biographical.
HB: Oh, well, I think everything's biographical in a way. [INT: But I mean in a very specific way. I mean, I'm sure you see the connection between all of the characters, I can't think of any, that's the only movie I didn't see.] Yeah it will fall then. [INT: But all the characters are always as you were, outside the system or chaf--or inside] I am outside, I'm still outside the system. [INT: Or inside the system and chafing against it or pushing--] Because I'll tell you something, being outside the system, it has its minuses. And that is people who are inside the system are not comfortable with you. I'll give you an example. I was out--I've been out here now, off and on, because I've spent my time from--until almost recently going and back and forth to New York. I had an apartment in New York for the longest time. People out here thought I lived in New York, even when I was living out here, I was a New Yorker. That was another way of saying I was an outsider, all right? There were other New Yorkers who came out and just melded into it, because this place is full of New Yorkers. But I do think it made people feel a little uncomfortable. Also, when I look back on it now and I can say, you are who you are, you can't help it. But it's not--it doesn't make you the easiest fit. The thing that--and maybe it is good for people who are gonna watch this, the thing that concerns people most about Directors is, “can they trust them?” The rest of the sentence is, "Can they trust them with their money?" Because it's a “pig in a poke.” It's an unknown, right? Okay, you can sit on top of that script, you can, I'm talking about as the studio, with the Producer. You can dot all the I's, cross all the T's, but now you have to hand it over. Well, you want to feel sure that whoever you hand it over to isn't gonna run away with it, so to speak. Otherwise no one is--so if you're something of an outsider, they're uneasy about everybody. Frankly, the more creative the Director, the more worried they are on it. They do understand that there's an exchange, because the safest people are the dullest to some degrees, and a lot of them, they want that. And there are a lot of films that need that. I'm going off. [INT: No, this is--you're not going off. I'll tell you when you're going off, you're not going off.] Okay, anyway, getting to where was I?
INT: Well, we were talking--that's fine. This works very well. About A RAGMAN’S DAUGHTER [THE RAGMAN’S DAUGHTER].] [HB: Oh right, RAGMAN’S DAUGHTER, so I meant--] Let me, I just want to make a marker here, 'cause it's gonna come--and that is in RAGMAN’S DAUGHTER, you were totally on your own, right? [HB: Oh, yeah.] Okay, so you were, no one was there, and you didn't have a distributor before you made the film?
HB: No, I didn't have anything. [INT: Okay.] In fact, I would say, I was really dumb, because one of the investors and I had to put in that money, because one of the investors pulled out just before. The usual thing. Pulled out before starting shooting. But I didn't mind spending my own money. I never went into anything. And when I was making money, I wasn't thinking about how rich I could get, I was thinking about how I could use it to do what I wanted to do, which is still how I feel. [INT: Right. And so, so you were in total control of that film?] Absolutely. [INT: And the story was, why don't you just say was the story was, THE RAGMAN’S DAUGHTER.] Yeah, it was the story about a working-class boy was really an outlaw, and he meets this girl who comes from a middle-class but a déclassé background. You have to understand the English social system to understand that a ragman in England, which is the equivalent to here, to a junk dealer. Was a man who could become quite wealthy, but he was viewed not in terms of that wealth. In this country, wealth can determine your social status, in England it didn't. Okay? And so she was a girl caught between. So she was attracted, the two of them were very attracted to each other. They were in love with each other. And what they did in their rebellion against society is they went out and they stole. Okay? And that's the--[INT: And where in England did you film that?] In Nottingham, which was the home of Sillitoe [Alan Sillitoe], it's where LONELINESS [THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER] takes place, where SATURDAY NIGHT, SUNDAY MORNING, and that's where we made the film. [INT: Black and white or color?] Color. And I had as my Cinematographer, Michael Seresin, a wonderful Cinematographer whom I made four other films with. [INT: Right, yes.] And that was his first film. [INT: And he worked with Alan?] Alan Parker. [INT: Right.] Yeah. [INT: Right. He did THE COMMITMENTS with him, right?] Yeah. [INT: Yeah.] He did quite a few films with him. [INT: Right. So, okay. So, then did you bring that film to the States [United States] or what happened?] Yeah, well we--Again, I didn't have a distributor, and we were accepted at the Venice Film Festival, and we won the award for the--they had a--[INT: Best New Film?] A Giovanni Award, a first film award. We won that award. I'm gonna tell you, it was the high-point, because there you were, and I went out afterwards and they had this enormous party. And I remember saying, at that time I was already had gotten, either I got my, I had married--I hadn't gotten married but I was with the person who was gonna become my--I think she was already my wife, and my Producer. And I turned to them and I said, "What a great business." Okay, that's before I learned what it really was, all right? [INT: Right.] I mean, it was pure. [INT: Right.] Now getting the film distributed, we had what I'd call a success. There's a success esteem, but not a commercial success. The film opened here, Walter Reade opened it, it didn't do any business. And I was starting another film in England with Susannah York, I thought we were gonna make a movie. And it was based on a wonderful Jean Rhys story called AFTER LEAVING MR. MACKENZIE. Wonderful story. [INT: And what happened?] The bottom dropped out of the film market. This was the early '70s [1970s]. [INT: Right, in England.] Every, all the Americans disappeared. There was a big American community of American-type movies there, American movies there. It just, there was a recession. And suddenly you realized, you're not gonna get any money to make movies here. And being American, you're gonna really be a fish out of water, right? And so I came back to the States [United States] in the early-70s [1970s], and I couldn't get another film. This was about '72 , '73 . I lived in England four, five years. Maybe '74 , I came back. [INT: Were you--did you write your own stuff at all? [HB: No.] Okay, and so you didn't think of yourself as a Writer?] No. [INT: Okay, but you were very much involved--] I would put it to you this way, I can write, [INT: Yeah.] But it's not up to my standard. [INT: Okay, so but obviously you're very strong on story. But in terms of--] Script is so important. [INT: Right, okay.]
INT: Okay, well we're gonna go from film to film and all that, but so all right, so then what happened?
HB: I came back and I started doing commercials again to sort of--see, when I had left I had--[INT: In New York?] In New York, I had a studio when I left. I put it all behind me and thought I'd never have to see it again, okay? And when I left I had some like 17 people working for me. Of course, I handled it with a vertical production at the time. You did everything from pre-production through to release prints, okay? I'm talking about for these 30-second commercials. And I couldn't stand getting up in the morning and having to feed 17 people, if you know what I mean? Having the responsibility of that, I wanted to be rid of it because it really imprisoned you. So, when I came back I just did freelance work, because I wanted the freedom. Of course, I wasn't giving up on making movies. Movies seemed to be giving up on me. My film, because--[INT: You were in your mid--] THE RAGMAN'S DAUGHTER was not a commercial success here, it was, you might as well not have made the film. All right, you're invisible, except I think it was in '78 , '79 , I started to come out here. I used to come out here anyway to do commercials, and I got an Agent, actually Howard Zieff, who was a friend. His girlfriend at the time, Ronda Gomez, she was an Agent. And she said to me, "I'll represent you." I said, "I don't want an Agent." I was, to me the idea of Hollywood, Agents, all the rest, that's not the way I wanted to go. And she said, "Well, you're not getting anywhere this way, you're sitting in some hotel." I said, "Okay." She brought me into this agency, Adams, Ray & Rosenberg, it was a literary agency that also handled some Directors. And I'll just cut to the-- I'll segue right into it, about four or five months later, I get a call from Lee Rosenberg, he's one of the heads of the agency. He used to smoke a pipe, had a Phi Beta Kappa key, and he called me up and he says, "I'm gonna send you a script and a book." And he sends me THE ONION FIELD and accompanied by a 200-page script. And THE ONION FIELD, I read it, now I didn't--I knew who Joe Wambaugh [Joseph Wambaugh] was, right? But from my world, he was foreign to my world in New York, right? He's truly West Coast, LAPD [Los Angeles Police Department]. I wasn't ever connected with cops to begin with. And I read the book, I realized the book was a masterpiece. I didn't have to be from L.A. to know that. And then I read the screenplay, and it was 200-pages, and I was supposed to meet with Joe. And what had happened is Joe had come up for another Director, who had done--a Director who had done television work mostly, but movies of the week. Remember that was a time there was movies of the week. I'm talking about '78 , let's say. And he was busy, just my luck the guy was busy. Just his bad luck. And I arranged to meet Joe at a place called Tail O' The Cock, it's a little--a big bar down in on the other side of Laurel Canyon. [INT: In the Valley, in Studio City.] In the Valley. The reason I'm meeting him there is he's coming from Pasadena, I'm coming from Hollywood, we just arranged to meet there, okay? And I mean, at this point, there's no studio involved, nothing. And the day before the meeting, I called Lee and I say, "I don't think I can go to this meeting. It doesn't make any sense." He said, "Why?" I said, "Lee, there's two movies here. There's a--the first half's a crime melodrama, then builds to the killing and their getting caught, and the second half's a courtroom drama." I said, "It can't be done." I said, 'It's better not to waste anybody's time." And he says something, that's the only reason for the story, he says something, he says, "Harold, have you got something better to do?" All right? And so I went to the meeting. I went to the meeting, and Joe said something at the meeting. He says, you don't know how you get into things. Of course, you have to understand my mindset going into the meeting. Joe said, "If I was born to do one thing in my life it was to write THE ONION FIELD." Well, you don't stand in the way of that kind of passion. You get on board. And I did, and we then worked together. I still didn't think the film would get made. Remember, there's no studio, I've already been done the road a half a dozen times on these projects whether it was AFTER LEAVING MR. MACKENZIE, no money. Where's the money gonna come from? Work on a project and then there's no money. Independent filmmaking, right? And we worked and we shaved it down to 120-page [screenplay].