Sidney J. Furie is one of the most versatile, prolific and accomplished filmmakers working today. At the age of 83, he shows no signs of stopping. His work, beginning in the late 50s, has encompassed early, vivid, personal films in his native Canada (at a time when there was no Canadian film industry to speak of) (A DANGEROUS AGE, A COOL SOUND FROM HELL); British films examining, with poignancy and authenticity, the lives of working class people (THE BOYS, THE LEATHER BOYS); the groundbreaking, influential THE IPCRESS FILE (1965); success in Hollywood directing pictures with Marlon Brando (THE APPALOOSA), Robert Redford (LITTLE FAUSS AND BIG HALSY),  Frank Sinatra (THE NAKED RUNNER), and Diana Ross (the Oscar-nominated Billie Holliday biopic LADY SINGS THE BLUES); the brilliant Vietnam War drama THE BOYS IN COMPANY C (1978), which Kubrick acknowledged as an influence on his FULL METAL JACKET (1987); the unforgettable possession drama THE ENTITY (1982), which is one of Scorsese's favorite horror movies; the ill-fated SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE (1987); and the hugely popular IRON EAGLE (1986) and two of its sequels. Not to mention under-rated films such as THE LAWYER (1970), HIT! (1973), SHEILA LEVINE IS DEAD AND LIVING IN NEW YORK (1975) and GOING BACK (2001). The subject of a superb new biography by Daniel Kremer (Sidney J. Furie: Life and Films), in the final part of a two-part interview, I spoke with Furie about some of the themes of his films and his approach to material. 

Part one of the interview. 

The attention to detail and authenticity in THE LEATHER BOYS is extraordinary. 
Gillian Freeman wrote the book and also wrote the screenplay, and I worked with her on it. We structured it together and she wrote the dialogue. When I got with the actors on the first day, I thought ''You know, I've got a feeling we can improvise better dialogue. '' So we did. We knew what we had to get out of each scene from the script, but the actors would make up dialogue in the rehearsals, and the dialogue they came up with was written down by the script girl. We would then shoot the scene later the same day and use the dialogue they had come up with. We rarely made anything up while the cameras were rolling. Dudley Sutton could make up anything at any time. Rita Tushingham was pretty good too, and everybody else got into the act. If they couldn't think of anything I would just ask them ''Well, what would you say in this situation?'' We would have a scene ready to shoot in an hour. We did the whole movie this way. THE LEATHER BOYS is one of my favorites for this reason. It had an authenticity – it looked real, it felt real. I remember when they were leaving the church after the wedding I said to the actors ''Get on the bus!'' The bus was just a bus that was coming around the corner. It was the loosey-goosey way we made the film.

I tried this kind of approach again on other films, but apart from LADY SINGS THE BLUES, where we also improvised on camera, it never worked. On that film, we would always have it by the third take. We did a lot of the scenes between Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams that way because those scenes weren't written down in a way we knew we could do them. I think you have to be young and reckless to work this way. I don't think they'd let you do it much today. It's too much pressure. Some independent filmmakers do it, but I do think it's important to have a script to work from, which isn't always the case. 

I am also a big fan of the camera angles you used, especially in the 60s films. 
That was a period I had. Everybody started criticising what I was doing. It was fun to see the the TV mini-series Red Riding (2009), the episode with Andrew Garfield in it. The director (Julian Jarrold) definitely studied THE IPCRESS FILE. There were scenes where you had someone's shoulder blocking the screen and you could only see three quarters of the screen, and other signature shots from THE IPCRESS FILE. It had that mood and a score something like ours too. It was a good series.

If you have a great story and you try to do all these different camera angles, you'll get away with it. But if you don't have a great story, they'll hit you hard. If you try to use the screen the way a painter uses a canvas, somehow it's not considered acceptable. The reason I did it for the first time on THE IPCRESS FILE was because we had a script and we hated it. What we did was we shot from the beginning and we rewrote as we went. All day there were two writers writing our scenes for the next day. We had meetings every night after shooting. We knew where we had to get to because Harry Saltzman, the producer, had ordered the set for the climax built, so we were stuck with it. It ended up being a creative way to work but it took a very long time. I remember that one day, in the morning, when the pages weren't there, I told the cameraman (Otto Heller) ''See that staircase there? Take an hour and a half to light it. '' Then the script arrived for the actors. Another thing I would do is sip Scotch in my coffee all day. I was never inebriated, but it would help me go with my gut. I wanted to make the film visual and to look like something I had never seen before. I was introduced to Vittorio Storaro, the Italian cameraman, on a set one day, and when I told him my name he said ''I know who you are. I have stolen from you. We studied THE IPCRESS FILE on THE CONFORMIST. '' When I see THE CONFORMIST (1970), I don't see THE IPCRESS FILE. But, like I said, what happens is that people get inspired and do their own art. I personally never saw an obscure film and said ''I'm going to do that. '' I am not that kind of person. If I was, I'd have a much better career! 

Are you happy with THE IPCRESS FILE and the style you directed it? 
Very much so. I love it. It was important to get that third act. I believe in a strong third act, which filmmakers today don't even know about. My next film concerns Holocaust survivors, and is character driven with a strong third act. It's the best thing I have ever done, I think. But in every film, including comedies, the leading character has to have a problem. The solving of that problem is what occurs. The character moves around for the first two acts, trying to solve the problem, but gets nowhere. In the third act, he solves it. That's what a movie is, and that's what a story is. Movies that don't have a third act don't solve any problem, so there's no great feeling at the end, no catharsis. The catharsis comes from being through an experience, sweating it out and then feeling like you've been through something. The brilliance of LA LA LAND, for example, is that you know the boy and girl aren't going to stay together. When the director shows you in the last ten minutes of the movie the fantasy of them staying together, you're satisfied, because each of the characters is satisfied in their lives. It's message is ''Be happy with what you have. '' Why would Ryan Gosling's character have wanted to have been married to a goddamn actress? He wouldn't have had much of a life! He was too independent. She would have been a lot of trouble. And audiences know that. 

Do you look back on working with Brando on THE APPALOOSA as an extraordinary experience? 
Yes. He was a tortured artist but with a good heart. 

Is truthful behavior important to you in your films? 
Truth is the name of the game. There are human truths and audiences know when something isn't truthful. It doesn't matter what genre it is. Audiences need to recognise the way characters behave. There isn't one person married who doesn't miss somebody, or sometimes think ''Well, what if I hadn't broken up with this person? What if I had met this or that person instead?'' So when they watch a drama like LA LA LAND, they can easily relate to it. This is something that financiers and producers don't get. They still think it's all about stars. One producer told me ''I don't read scripts. But if you get me Steve McQueen, I'll do it. '' Which is fucking stupid. They just go for the package, instead of responding to stories on a human level. This is why we have so many crappy movies. In the older days, financing didn't come from financing companies. It came from people at studios who loved movies and actually read scripts. They had contracts with stars, so there was none of this ''If he does it, I'll do it. '' Actors are just people, but now it's like they are gurus. And they are cost too much because the people on top don't even know how you make a movie. I mean Daniel Kremer and his friend are a crew of two shooting a movie every Sunday! On a bigger movie, a crew of 25 is more than enough, instead of everyone having an assistant. You see this when they shoot in Beverly Hills. The trailers are half a mile away, but by contract, the stars need trailers. They never go to the trailers! They start in the morning, dress, go to the set, and they never come back. It's all a joke. 

Are you especially interested in exploring male friendships? 
I think all movies have male friendships. You tell a story, and the lead character has to be able to open his heart to someone. The movie I am making now has a friendship between a father and a grown-up son, but I don't start a project thinking ''Here are the ingredients. '' Afterwards it can be analysed a certain way. 

Would you say you're attracted to strong female characters in your films? 
I love strong women, that is true. I have two strong female characters in my next film. I am married to a very strong woman. I think they are more interesting because they are more moral, and they expect men to be strong. My father taught me that men and women were equal, which sums up my approach to gender in storytelling. I also think strong women on the screen are always exciting. 

Which films are you the most proudest of? 

Has the opportunity given you by Daniel Kremer's book changed the way you look back on your career or specific films? 
It made me look at HIT! and see in it what he did. I am also now less judgmental on my career. 

What would constitute a perfect working day for you? 
Any day I can write or shoot is perfect. Other days are the price one pays to have perfect days. 

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2017. All rights reserved. 

Sidney J. Furie: Life and Films by Daniel Kremer can be ordered here

Kremer on Furie, parts one and two.

No comments: