INT: Good morning. My name is Michael Pressman, and today’s date is September 19th, 2005. And I am interviewing Joan Micklin Silver for the Directors Guild of America’s Visual Oral History Program. And we are at the DGA in New York.
JMS: My name is Joan Micklin Silver, at birth I was Joan Micklin. [INT: And you were born where?] I was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1935. Grew up in Omaha. [INT: Wow. And how many years did you grow, how long did you stay in Omaha, you grew up through high school there?] Through high school, went to college, went to Sarah Lawrence College when I was 17. Got married three weeks after I graduated from Sarah Lawrence College to my husband, Ray Silver, and then lived in Cleveland for 11 years, and then moved to New York.
INT: I’m curious to understand and find out a little bit about how you emerged to become Writer, Director, etcetera. But, your parents were, did they, what did they do?
JMS: My parents were both immigrants from Russia, had come over to Omaha, to--my mother’s family to Kansas City, my father’s family to Omaha. They had both come as children; my mother really just very small. But my father had been 12 years old when he came, so he had many memories, which he shared. And, my father had a small business; my mother was a homemaker. [INT: And they met in America.] Yes, oh yes. They were both--they came as children here, so yes they met in America. [INT: And their fa--came with their families, so families were all in Omaha and…] And Kansas City. [INT: Wow, okay. I feel like it’s got a little bit of HESTER STREET in the whole background.] Well, of course, you know. In fact, this is jumping ahead probably, but when I made HESTER STREET, by that time, I came of age for film, at a time when the sexism was pretty strong. And although I could get work as a Writer, I couldn’t get work as a Director at all. And I had the experience of watching young men who had made shorts as I had, prize winning shorts, as I had, moving on to directing films and I couldn’t do it. And, and my husband, Ray [Ray Silver], was… became angry, and he said, “You know, maybe you can do it, maybe you can’t, but everybody should have a chance to try for the brass ring.” And he said that he would raise money if I could make a very cheap film. And he thought he could raise 300,000 dollars. He was in the real estate business and he was syndicated real estate projects, so he went to his investors, and raised that money. In fact, it cost 320,000 dollars so, yeah. [INT: Wow.] But at that time when I thought maybe I’d never get a chance to make another movie, and I thought I’m gonna make one that’ll count for my family. So I knew of this story by Abraham Cahan, “Yekl”, which I adapted to become HESTER STREET. So that was how it connected to my childhood. [INT: Never heard of Abraham Cahan. I mean I know Sholem Aleichem, but I don’t know…] Abraham Cahan was a very interesting figure in Jewish American history; he was the editor of the “Jewish Daily Forward”, Abe Cahan. And his famous novel is THE RISE OF DAVID LEVINSKY. But he also wrote some short stories, and a book of short stories that I happen to have, and one of them was “Yekl”, which of course I called HESTER STREET. And it was that that I used as the basis of my script for HESTER STREET.
INT: Your love of film, or the movies, and that happened when you were young, right?
JMS: Yes it did. And I’ve often wondered why I’m so addicted to movies, and I think Omaha [Omaha, Nebraska] is in the center of the country, and the coaxial cables came from New York and from California. And by the time it got to Omaha, I was already in high school. So my entire growing up years consisted of getting on the streetcar, which is what we had in Omaha, with my girlfriends, and for 35 cents, going down to the Paramount or the Orpheum or the Brandeis, and seeing a double feature, which often included a stage show, and started my love for music and theater too. And I saw many great films, which made a tremendous impression on me. And I have distinct memories, for example, SHADOW OF A DOUBT. SHADOW OF A DOUBT came out in 1943, and I would’ve been eight years old then. I have a feeling maybe it got to Omaha a little later, I don’t know, I think maybe I was about nine. But I can remember to this day how I felt, because the main character is this young girl, she’s supposed to be 18. And evil exists for her, not out there, but within the bosom of the family, and that was a very potent theme for me. And I can still remember to this day how I felt at the final scene where Joseph Cotten, who was the evil uncle, tries to push her, Teresa Wright, off the train. And I can, I can remember just how I felt inside, you know. It just made a terrific impact on me.
INT: And you seemed to have sort of writing skills, right? Was that something that you…
JMS: Actually, I thought that I would be a Writer; I mean that was what I was thinking about. And when I went to college, I think it was my introduction to, you know, all the great Writers, which I hadn’t met in Omaha Central High School. And I sort of felt, you know, maybe I better just appreciate these people, I don’t think that I’m a person who could do this kind of thing, and I kinda lost, you know, the sense that maybe I could write. But when I got married, I was 21 when I got married, and we lived in Cleveland, and there was one art theater that wasn’t far away; it was called the Heights Art Theater. And we went one night to see PATHER PANCHALI by Satyajit Ray, which is, oh, it’s such a great movie. And I said to myself, and I’m almost embarrassed to tell you this, I said to myself, “I can do this.” Now how I could even put myself in that class, I don’t know, but I felt, the way he told a story, what he wanted to tell his stories about, I just felt it in myself. It was something inside of myself that said, “I can do this.” We moved to New York in 1967, and I… [INT: That must have been a big decision. Was it?] Yes, it was, but it was one that suited my husband’s work experience, and certainly suited me, and you know, we had three kids, it was kind of a… [INT: Three, by that time three?] Yeah, we have three daughters, and you know, starting them all in a new place, the youngest one kept saying, “Let’s go to grandma’s house,” and I had to try to explain to her grandma lives across the country, but… [INT: They were how old when you moved to New York?] They were nine, seven, and four. But, it was fine, you know. Anyway, I had a list of people who I could sort of… First of all I had friends that I’d gone to college with, so there were people. I mean, and Ray [Ray Silver] had gone to college at Harvard and he had some friends here as well, and so, you know, we weren’t totally bereft of people to be in touch with and so on. And… [INT: You arrived and lived where, in New York?] Excuse me? [INT: Where did you live in New York?] We lived… The girls were going to a school, the two older ones were going to a school on… they were going to Brearley [The Brearley School], which is on the far east side, so we lived in a brownstone, we rented a brownstone that was very close to Brearley. It was on 84th and York, so they could walk over there. So, that was also kind of a shock to my system, because Ray and I were public school people, and we wanted the kids to go to public school, but it seemed that we couldn’t really afford to live in the districts which, at that time, in the late 1960s had good public schools. So we found we did better by sending them to a private school. But--and you know, it was a wonderful school, they had a terrific education. But, almost, I’d say about 10 days after we got here, Carl Stokes, who was an African American mayoral candidate from Cleveland, came to New York to raise money. And Ray knew him, so he invited, had us invited to the party to raise money, because he thought, I suppose, we could, you know, knowing him we’d say nice things about him to other people or something like that. At that party I met Joan Cooney [Joan Ganz Cooney], who had just conceived of the idea of SESAME STREET. And she put me in touch with the woman who worked for Encyclopedia Britannica Films, whose name was Linda Gottlieb. And Linda Gottlieb was the vice president of the company at that time, and she got me my first job, freelance-writing films for Encyclopedia Britannica.
INT: Now, so you were writing then, and you were also writing journalism, is that correct?
JMS: Yes, I wrote for the… When I first got to New York, I just wanted to write, and see my name on articles, and you know, kind of connect up, and I got a freelance job at The Village Voice, which was fun. [INT: Great, great. And your passion for film continued during that whole time, and your…] Oh, I wanted to get into film so much, that’s what I wanted to do. But I must say, working at The Village Voice made me think an awful lot about the alternative press, and of course my second film, BETWEEN THE LINES, was about the alternative press. But anyway, more of that later. Yes, I did want to. And I wrote a number of… scenarios for, at that time Linda [Linda Gottlieb] worked for Encyclopedia Britannica Films. Then she moved to another company, and I moved with her. I, just, you know, the continued, and we became very good friends. And she and I decided that she would produce, and I would write. So I wrote four screenplays, and the fourth actually got produced, and Linda produced it. And it was called LIMBO. It was based on research that I had done on the wives of prisoners of war and MIAs in Vietnam. And I had intended it anyway to be kind of gritty, you know, anti-war piece, so that was what it meant to me. And it was purchased by Universal [Universal Pictures]; Linda had a contact there. And Mark Robson, who had a pay-or-play deal was, picked it, and suddenly this movie was gonna get made. And he brought me out to California, and Linda too, and we talked, and he asked for certain changes, and I, naively, stood up for my point of view, and the things that I wanted to write, and you know, how I wanted my screenplay to be. And I went home, and a phone call came, which said, “You’re no longer working on this movie.” So, I guess I overlooked something that I know very well now, which is that the Director’s gonna make the movie the Director wants to make, and the Screenwriter has to at least consider and try to understand what the Director wants to do and adapt to it. But I didn’t understand that at that point, and I think that was a very painful moment for me. But Mark Robson, although he didn’t make a movie of LIMBO that I respected, to be honest, was a very generous Director. And he invited me down to Florida, which was where the movie was being made, and he let me do anything. He let me talk to any Actor, he let me look through the camera more than he was looking through the camera. He couldn’t have been nicer. And I thought back on that, I don’t know if I would want a disgruntled Screenwriter around. I mean, I was careful not to express my feelings to the Actors, you know, I knew enough not to do that, but on the other hand, you know, it’s, I thought that was pretty good of him. And certainly he had made some films in the past that I liked, and this just didn’t turn out to be one of them. But what I ...
JMS: I learned a lot by watching them [on the set of LIMBO], and what I learned a lot about was how we organize things. He [Mark Robson] had a very good relationship with his Producer, and it was a very well organized shoot. And I, you know, I had access to all their, all the budgets, and this and that, it was just tremendous. It was like film school--[INT: Film school, yeah.] Film school 101. [INT: What a great opportunity, yeah, absolutely.] So I went back to New York, and I said to Ray [Ray Silver], I said, “I wanna start directing.” And he said, “Go ahead. If you can’t do it now, you won’t be able to do it six years from now.” You know I’d always had this plan, I would write Screenplays, and be brought to life by the great Screenwriters, and at the perfect moment I’d… But this experience was so hard on me that I just thought I can’t go through this again. So Linda [Linda Gottlieb] went back to her boss, and said, “Joan wants to direct for us as well as write,” and he said, “Why, so she can make her mistakes on me?” This is Bill Deneen [William F. Deneen] at the Learning Corporation [Learning Corporation of America]. And Linda said, “Yes.” And he said, “All right.” So it was a real break, and I made for them, I wrote and directed three short films. This was a period when, pre-cable. But the government put money into video, videos for high schools, videos for schools, and--[INT: I remember that, yeah.] Remember that program? And these were part of that. And the first one, as I mentioned before, was THE IMMIGRANT EXPERIENCE: THE LONG LONG JOURNEY, it’s called. And they wanted something that would explain the immigrant experience to high school students. Bill Deneen did not want me to do Jews, he said he felt they were too atypical, but gave me a choice of several other groups. And I chose Poles, because I didn’t know anything about them, and I thought that’ll be interesting. And there was an interest, a very good advisor, a professor Shenton [James P. Shenton], James Shenton from Columbia [Columbia University]. And he recommended a book of letters that Polish immigrants had sent home. And I got everything from that. It just the feeling, the spirit, the connection. It was just a terrific book. And from that, I wrote a scenario of a family that comes over; the main character was a 12-year-old boy. And I went to… I decided to make it in Greenpoint [Brooklyn, New York], because at that point, the Polish American New Yorkers had a very large community there. And I went into a school, ‘cause I wanted to find a 12-year-old boy who could speak Polish, because he had to speak both Polish and a little bit of English. And I read boy after boy, and finally someone said to me, “You know, you ought to see this boy.” And I said, “Well he didn’t raise his hand, I don’t think he wants to do it.” He said, “Well maybe you should see him.” So of course he was just fabulous, you know, this wonderful kid. And I used, I think, a couple of Actors of Polish background, Polish American, but mostly Poles. And that was my first experience making a movie. [INT: Wow, wow.]
INT: So, let’s jump a little to HESTER STREET, and I’m gonna go through stages of it, ‘cause I think it’s so important in relation to being that first feature film. So, you got to that moment where you said, “I wanna make a feature film.” And you started to read material, think about things, did you try your own ideas, were you exploring?
JMS: Well, I knew about this story. [INT: So it always held you.] And because when I was making THE IMMIGRANT EXPERIENCE [THE IMMIGRANT EXPERIENCE: THE LONG LONG JOURNEY], the short film, I had naturally read everything, and every kind of immigrant experience that I could, and I just remember thinking that this was a good story. And when it came time, I just figured that would be the one that I would do. So I didn’t belong to the Directors Guild [DGA] yet, but I did belong to the Writers Guild [WGA]. And I, you know, was very happy to sit down and write my screenplay, and… [INT: Did it come easily?] Yeah. [INT: Was it a script that you felt, everything translated well, and it was sort of just something that…] I didn’t seem to have too much of a problem with it. You know, I wrote the script that I wanted to make. I mean I could see it in my head, and I, I was so full. You know, my mother’s family, and my father used to sit around and talk in Yiddish and tell stories of the old country, and who came, and who left, and who went crazy, and who went back, and who, you know, all these wonderful stories. And a lot of times they would tell them in English, but they’d get to the punch line, and that would be in Yiddish, and my mother would try to translate, and then she would say, “Well, it really doesn’t translate.” So naturally that gave me a feeling that I wanted to know what all these stories were. But I remember, what I remember is a tremendous amount of laughter and enjoyment around the table, as they talked about all these stories. So, for me, I think some people the immigrant experience--you know, there’s sort of, I’ve always felt there’s two kinds of immigrants. One, they’re a bit ashamed of it, and the experience was traumatic, and they wanna put it behind them. Well my family wasn’t like that. My family was the other kind, who enjoy talking about it, and remembering, and reveling, and you know, my father had the story of the banana that he didn’t know what it was, and the problems with language that he remembered. And he was, he wanted to share all that with us, and so did--my mother was too little, but my mother’s brothers and sisters did as well. And I was full of those stories, and I thought, this is just, why not? You know, it’s my family, why not? [INT: You know, what’s interesting is that at the same time there’s such angst and pain in that story of HESTER STREET, you know, because it’s got the conflicts of both sides. One, you know, the historical context, and also the young man so desperately wanting to be the American, you know.] Yeah. Well that’s in the story, it’s in the original story.
JMS: I had some real good luck with the casting [on HESTER STREET], you know. [INT: I was gonna ask you about that, yeah.] In the story, the wife, Gitl, is described as being dark, and a little plump. And I kind of imagined her that way, because that’s the way she was described so well in the story, and I loved the story so much. But I saw a movie, a Canadian movie called WEDDING IN WHITE, and Carol Kane starred in that movie. And I was just absolutely riveted by her, and said to the Casting Director, “I suppose she lives in Canada, and I don’t think we could ever afford to bring anybody over from Canada” He said, “She lives across the park,” and he gave me, you know, told me what building she lived in. So she came, and she was just a wonderful choice. And even today, if I look at the movie, I’m still, her close-ups still affect me a lot, you know, she had a tremendously powerful take on the character, and she never lost it. You know, I remember, we had a wonderful costumer, who was in charge of costume and hair. He wasn’t the hairdresser, but he supervised that department; his name was Bob Pusilo [Robert Pusilo]. And he, one of the nice things Bob did was he let the Actors wear his, jewelry from his collection of old jewelry, and of course that thrilled them and gave them a feeling that you couldn’t get otherwise. And he was, he was terrific. He had great taste. But Carol had to wear a wig. That was very much a part of the story. The sheitel is the wig of the Orthodox Jewish woman that she must wear, when she’s married. God forbid anybody would see her real hair. So Bob Pusilo came to me, and he said, “Carol Kane wants to take her sheitel home and practice in it.” I said, “Okay.” He said, “Well we can’t let her do it.” I said, “Why not?” He said, “Because it’s such a cheap jack production, you’ve only got one sheitel. And if something happens to that one, what are we gonna do?” And I said, “Bob, give her the sheitel. Believe me. If a fire comes, she will take it with her, she will protect it better than anything’s ever been.” And I mean I just knew her type of person. You know, she was so, so focused, and so careful, and so interested in what she was doing. Of course, that was the way it was. But they were all really excellent.
JMS: I had an interesting experience with the boarder, who was played by Mel Howard. There were four main characters, actually five. They were, the wife, the husband, the boarder, the husband’s girlfriend, and the neighbor, who was played by Doris Roberts, and wonderfully. I wanna talk about her too. But, I had a kind of nervous making experience. The person who had been hired to play the boarder dropped out, and he dropped out at a very crucial time, everybody had already had their week with the Yiddish coach, and had their tapes and so on. And I was determined that the movie had to have Yiddish because my father had made it so clear to me how much language was a problem for the immigrants, and how, the embarrassment of it… and how separated you felt because you couldn’t speak the language and so on. So Ken Van Sickle [Kenneth Van Sickle] was the cameraman, and he was in my office, and I said, “Ken, I’m just, I don’t know what I’m gonna do.” And he said, “Well, what about Mel Howard?” And I said, “Well Mel Howard came in for a job in a crew.” He was an Assistant Director. And he said, “Yes, but you said to me at the time, you’d like to find a boarder, a Mr. Bernstein, who had eyes like Mel Howard’s.” You know, he had a lot of white around the bottom of his eyes, very Levantine. And I said, “All right, bring him in.” Well, he grew up in a Lubavitcher household, so he spoke Yiddish, and he was marvelous. So it was just one of those happy, happy, lucky, lucky accidents. Steve Keats [Steven Keats], who played the husband, and it was really very nice, because Steve Keats was willing to play the husband, and the husband isn’t too likable of a character; he treats poor little Carol Kane’s character not too well. And I had interviewed and talked to several Actors who didn’t, who kept telling me they wished we could soften, they wish I could change this scene, they wish I could… And I didn’t really wanna do that. Well, Steve Keats was also in a movie that I had seen him in; a Peter Yates movie. And I thought he was interesting. And Jay [Jay Wolf], the Casting Agent brought him in, and I thought he was wonderful, and he didn’t have any trouble with the nature of the character at all. He thought that was the character and he wanted to play him. So that was my first taste of the fact that Actors will, you know, some Actors can’t deal with having anything about their character be anything less than pleasant, so those are the Actors to avoid of course, but… And then Dorrie Kavanaugh played the girlfriend, the Americanized girlfriend of Jake, whom he meets and falls in love with, and just as he’s losing interest in his wife. And she also was brought in by-- she was lovely--brought in by the Casting Director.
JMS: And then we had another interesting experience in that cast [of HESTER STREET], and that was the little boy. The little boy is very crucial to the story, and very interesting. And when Jake finally sends for his wife, he has come over to America first, and Americanized himself, and fallen in love with an Americanized, the character that Dorrie Kavanaugh played. And when he sends for his, finally sends for his wife, this little boy, he’s about five or six years old. So I had a friend who was a Casting Director, whose name is Joanna Dretzin [Joanna Merlin], and Joanna Dretzin said, “You know, I just went to pick up my kids at day camp, and I saw a little boy that looks just like Carol Kane.” Well, sure enough, this little boy comes in, and he was just perfect. You know, he was just--and he did look like Carol Kane. So, it was just one of those extremely happy… I wanna mention Doris Roberts. Doris came in, and she told me two lines that her grandfather used. And one was, you can’t pee at my back and make me think it’s rain, and one was, with one toches you can’t dance at two weddings. So she wanted to use both those. I said, “Doris, I’m writing them in as we speak.” You know, they were just wonderful lines, and of course she did do them. But it was one of those things where the people who participated in it were very much into it, and it meant something to them, and they…
INT: Was that [HESTER STREET] your first experience directing Actors in a theatrical situation, or had you been working with Actors before that?
JMS: Well, I had done three shorts, so I’d done a little bit on the shorts, but I think this is a much bigger… And as a matter of fact, I had… I had my first sort of big blow up on HESTER STREET. I did a, set up a scene, in which the camera would follow the husband and the boarder who had come home with their sewing machines on their shoulders because it’s slack season. And they’re depressed, because they aren’t gonna have any work for three months. And I wanted the husband to continue on into the building, and the boarder to stop outside and talk to the neighbor. Well, Doris [Doris Roberts] was experienced and she realized that she and the boarder would be talking, but we wouldn’t be on them, we would be watching the husband go into--‘cause a big scene happened when he got inside. And she got very angry, and she just blew up at me. And she said, “You may know how to write a good script, but you don’t know how to direct.” I mean, she was simply furious. So, I said, “Well, I’m sorry you feel that way, but that’s the way I wanna do it.” So, she was a professional, she did it, and that was what happened. Well, I dreaded coming to work the next day. I thought oh, she’s gonna be so difficult, she’s gonna be so angry with me, it’s gonna create such tension on the set. I walk in, she said, “Hi!” And later I worked with her again on FISH IN THE BATHTUB, and I reminded her of this, she didn’t even remember it, she didn’t have any--I mean, it meant nothing to her. It was such a… And I realized that part of what Actors do is they spill. And it doesn’t necessarily mean anything that’s gonna permanently affect what you’re doing, but they, their emotions are close to the surface, and that’s a part of the reason that we all, you know, are so excited about them. And that they do so. When we get to CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER, I’ll tell you another story like that. [INT: You know, the...
INT: The performances are so special in the movie [HESTER STREET], and in all of your movies. I was just wondering, had you done studying of acting, or is it just your own, as I used to say sometimes about this, there’s certain Directors who have great taste. I mean, was it about knowing when it felt right, or?
JMS: I don’t know. You know, part of it is just, of course, being lucky enough to get good Actors. And second of all, just knowing when to let them alone, and then also to realize that, you know, that was before the days of video. But I could see something happening, and my cameraman, who I was very, very much attached to, as I’ve been each time I’ve made a film; it’s an umbilical relationship I guess. And he was a wonderful guy, is a wonderful guy, Ken Van Sickle [Kenneth Van Sickle]. I remember going to the rushes [dailies] with him one night, and we got in the car to go back home--Ray [Ray Silver] was driving us all back from the rushes--and Ken said to me, “Well Joan, you’re making a pretty good film.” And I thought, what? You know, it was wonderful, it was like, here, you know, obviously, I had my own, all sorts of… hopes, and thoughts, and fears, and dreams, but that sort of gave me the feeling well, maybe it is gonna be all right. I remember a very…
JMS: The last scene [of HESTER STREET] takes place on Hester Street, which in our case was Morton Street, bounded by 7th Avenue South and Bleecker. And I needed to be up on high, because I wanted to do an overhead shot, which involved the two couples. This is the finale of the film, the two couples. One’s walking one way and talking. One’s walking the other way and talking, and so on. And therefore we found a young man who would let us use his apartment, and use his little balcony outside of his apartment, so that we could shoot from it. And it was cold while we were shooting, and he was sitting inside, and he had his jacket on. He was just shivering, and he was studying. And I said to him, “Look, you know, we don’t have a whole lot of money, but we sure have enough money to let you go down and have a cup of coffee, and do, you know, have some breakfast or something.” And he said, “Make your movie.” So it was just, you know, it was marvelous. That was an interesting thing too. We didn’t… We couldn’t afford to break off the film so that we would see the rushes [on HESTER STREET]. So, we had to wait ‘til the end of every reel. So I did four takes of that. And the reason I did four takes was it wasn’t until the fourth that I got what I wanted, but I printed them all because I was terrified. So, I went, looked at the first three takes one night at the rushes, and I didn’t, hadn’t gotten what I wanted, you know, couldn’t go back and redo the street, and we went home and I just burst into tears. We were sitting there trying to eat, and I said, “This is just too hard.” And Ray [Ray Silver] said, “Get a good night’s sleep. You’ll feel better in the morning.” Well that enraged me; it’s the last thing I wanted to hear, about how I was gonna feel better. But in fact, I got a good night’s sleep, I felt better in the morning, that night I saw the fourth take, it was the good one and it was fine, you know. But oh, directing’s a hard [LAUGHS], hard job of work, isn’t it? [INT: Absolutely. Was that closing sequence, was that something that you saw in your head before you got there that you wanted to be in these two separate high shots looking…] Yes, yes.
JMS: But let me go back to working with Ken Van Sickle [Kenneth Van Sickle], because he had also shot the short films that I had made. And before we started the first short film, which was THE IMMIGRANT EXPERIENCE [THE IMMIGRANT EXPERIENCE: THE LONG LONG JOURNEY], the Polish film, he brought me to his apartment, and he had a light box, and he had little stick figures, and he showed me what would happen if they came in from here, and the light was from here, and so on. I mean it was like this little--it was just fantastic. And in addition, not only did he teach me a lot, he had a very sweet and kind way of, I guess, pointing out the problems that I was having, or helping me with anything that I wasn’t quite getting. For instance, I remember once saying to him, this was on CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER, I said--no, it was on BETWEEN THE LINES, I said, “Now I wanna have a camera right here,” and he said, “Okay, we could do that, but you know what, we could also put the camera here.” Well, he--the minute he said it I could see that that was a much more interesting angle for the camera, but he just had a very, I don’t know, kind, kind way of teaching me and helping me, and became a very good friend. [INT: Right, right. Well I view the relationship with the cameraman very much in the same way, that that collaboration is so critical, and that it’s somehow two sets of eyes becoming one, and somehow it’s this marriage, has to occur as opposed to the dictatorial approach of, you know, “This is what it is, we move…” you know, and then he’s, you know, “Why?”] Well I think there are… you know, there’s a lot of ways to get to Rome, and I’ve read stories of Directors that are just impossible, and demand this, and demand that, and insist on this, and you know… And some of them make very good movies, so… [INT: So that closing sequence [in HESTER STREET] was, ‘cause I actually made a note to myself about it, was something that you guys had planned in pre-production, and had all been set up, and it was, was it in the script?] Of course. [INT: It was in the script, you had written it that way?] Oh, that it was gonna be shot that way? No, I think Ken and I had talked about it though, ahead of time. We’d gone through the whole script.
INT: You know, you have a tremendous connection to music in your films. And, a little more so than… it’s almost a, somewhat of a connection to your storytelling. I have a question. In the opening sequence of HESTER STREET, it’s all music, and you don’t hear the dialogue or whatever. Was that something you found in post-production, was it something you planned before?
JMS: I found it in post-production. After I did HESTER STREET, I had a couple of people whom I greatly respected look at the movie, and one was Elia Kazan. And the reason that I knew Elia Kazan, I didn’t really know him, was that I was friends with Barbara Loden. Barbara Loden was one of the women Directors who had somewhat preceded me. And she and Shirley Clarke were like my predecessors, and people whose work I admired so much. And so Barbara and I were friends, and I asked her if she would take a look at the film, and she said, ”Yes,” so we screened the film for them. And he said the film was fine, but you need to cut the top part. And I said, “Well I cut it already,” he said, “Cut it more.” That was his, you know, so I cut it more. Because you didn’t… The first part of the film was about the husband and his life. And the conflict really came when you saw the wife. That was when the story joined, and when it got to be important, so you learn from things like that. [INT: Right. So the decision to do that opening sequence, I thought that was, make it be a musical sequence, was something you found in post-production?] Absolutely. I wanna tell you about that Composer. I met with a number of Composers, and they seemed to want to do cello themes in A minor, if you know what I mean. I mean it was Jewish, and it was… And my feeling was, that’s already in the film. I want something, music that stands for what the immigrants might have heard passing a bandstand. I mean, the America that they were longing for, the America that they wanted to become part of. So I ran into Steve Keats [Steven Keats], the Actor, on the street one day. He said, “How’s it going?” I said, “Oh, I can’t find a Composer, I keep meeting all the…” So he said, “Well, what about Bill Bolcom [William Bolcom],” whom I didn’t know. And I said, “Well, what about him?” And he said, “Well he’s good. Why don’t you call him?” I think he knew him, and gave me his number. Well, Bill Bolcom is, has become, you know, a significant Composer. And I think, I’m sure at that time was, he’s a--writes operas, and all sorts of things. But he definitely wanted to do the film, and he was a friend of Jerry Schwarz [Gerard Schwarz]. Jerry Schwarz was the first trumpet at the New York Philharmonic at that moment. And one of my happy memories of HESTER STREET was that Bill Bolcom and Jerry Schwarz came over, and sat in my living room at the piano. Jerry had spread out all this newspaper, so that when he shook out his trumpet, it would be ready for him. And they read through the music of Herbert C. Clarke [Herbert L. Clarke], who was a bandmaster for Sousa [John Philip Sousa]. He was I think the first something for Sousa, and had written a number of compositions. And Bill Bolcom played them for me, and I said, “This is what I wanna hear, this is exactly what I wanna hear.” So they played through everything, and I told them what I liked, and then they recorded it. Jerry played the trumpet, and beautifully. And then I sat, and placed, and picked with my Editor. So it’s still to this day one of my favorite scores. [INT: Yeah.]
INT: Subtitles in the film [HESTER STREET], was that a choice later, or was it was a choice in the script?
JMS: No, no. Of course I knew I had to do subtitles, but… I wanted, as I told you, I wanted the feeling of language in the film. I didn’t wanna, you know all these films that are about immigrants, and they simply speak English with an accent, I don’t know, I wanted something more authentic than that. But the question of subtitles is interesting. The film was later invited to the Cannes Festival [Cannes Film Festival], and it played in one of the sidebars at Certain Regard [Un Certain Regard]. And the woman who invited us did the subtitles herself; she was an American living in Paris and working for the festival. And I could tell that her subtitles were wonderful, although my French is, you know, high school French, not too terrific. But people laughed at exactly the right places. Later, German subtitles were done when it played in Germany, and I could tell that they were not good, because people didn’t, you know, that there was… So there’s such an art to doing good subtitles; I have tremendous respect for it.