Ted Kotcheff is best known as the director of FIRST BLOOD (1982), the first (and best) film to feature Sylvester Stallone as Rambo; comedy drama THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ (1974), based on the Moredecai Richler novel and providing Richard Dreyfuss with his breakout role; comedy hit WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S (1989); and the recently re-discovered masterpiece WAKE IN FRIGHT (1971), a drama-thriller set in the Australian Outback. Kotcheff is also a veteran of sixty years of television, theatre and film work, and his films have traversed many different genres, whilst remaining true to his preoccupations and the themes that attract him. His other work includes the comedy FUN WITH DICK AND JANE (1977) with George Segal and Jane Fonda; the thought-provoking football comedy drama NORTH DALLAS FORTY (1979) with Nick Nolte; Vietnam thriller UNCOMMON VALOR (1983) with Gene Hackman, and twelve years as a producer on the acclaimed TV series Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (1999-2011). Kotcheff recently published his memoir Director's Cut: My Life in Film, which also details his incredible life and career outside of his films. In the first part of a two-part interview, I spoke to Kotcheff about his love for cinema; how he got into the film industry; his friendship with Sidney J. Furie; status as an 'under-appreciated' filmmaker; the themes and qualities of his work; his acting work; and his films FIRST BLOOD, WAKE IN FRIGHT, NORTH DALLAS FORTY, SPLIT IMAGE (1982), JOSHUA THEN AND NOW (1985), WINTER PEOPLE (1989), LIFE AT THE TOP (1965) and EDNA THE INEBRIATE WOMAN (1971).
Growing up, what were some of the most memorable films for you?
CITIZEN KANE (1941) had a big effect on me. I loved Hitchcock. I loved the THIN MAN movies with Myrna Loy and William Powell, and Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart. They were my heroes. Later on I worked with Ingrid Bergman on the film I made for TV, THE HUMAN VOICE (1966). The Nouvelle Vague and the Italian films also had a big effect on me. I think I got my love and passion for movies from my father. When he first came over from Bulgaria to Edmonton in Canada, he worked as a theater usher, and because he was there every night watching the movies, he fell in love with cinema. He used to take me to see double features two or three times a week. I think I've seen every film that was made in Hollywood from 1935 to 1950.
When did you decide you wanted to be a director?
Well, I wanted to be a poet originally. To make money I ended up working at the CBC Television Service as a stagehand on the dramas that were being made. I would stand to the side and watch other guys directing and think ''They're not doing it right. I could do better. ''
|Furie biographer Daniel Kremer, Furie himself, and Kotcheff|
Do you ever regret that you never became a poet?
I had many interests. I was brought up on the violin. I started when I was 5 and I won a Gold Medal when I was 8. I was kind of a child prodigy. I studied English Literature at university, but I had wanted to study Music. They wouldn't take me because you needed a Grade 12 in Piano, and I had a Grade 12 in Violin. My life might have been different if I had been accepted. I wrote poetry in the South of Spain for a while, but I just didn't feel like I was a genius poet. I was okay at it, but I wanted to do something I was brilliant at. So finally I fixed myself on directing television.
Your life and career has parallels to Sidney J. Furie's – you're both from Canada, and you both had your first big successes in England before having success in Hollywood. How much have you crossed paths over the years?
When I first started in television in Canada I worked in the script department and Sidney was a would-be writer. We would spend a lot of time together. He would come to my office and we would chat and discuss the shows that had just been on the air and what was wrong with the scripts. We have had a very close relationship for a long time, Sidney and I.
You were described by The Washington Post as ''under-appreciated''. Why do you think this might be the case?
It might be because I didn't focus on one genre. I went from dramas to comedies to action movies. My films were very well-reviewed by distinguished critics like Pauline Kael, who was the doyen of American film critics. They usually did pretty well at the box-office. Why I was slightly under-appreciated, I don't know. It doesn't really bother me. For me, the whole thing about filmmaking is the process of making a film. Like I say in the book, my idea of perfect day is I get up in the morning, I go to the set, there is the crew and the camera crew and the actors, and I say to the actor ''Now, you stand over there'' and I start to give directions. That's the joy of filmmaking – the staging, and dealing with human behavior. I'm hoping to say something about human nature and the human condition. That's the essence of what I do.
I actually believe that the reason FIRST BLOOD affected so many viewers was not only the action, but the way you presented the character of John Rambo, and the deep sadness within him.
To me, what epitomised that picture was how badly the Vietnam veterans were treated when they came back home. The right-wingers thought they were a bunch of losers, and the left-wingers thought they were a bunch of baby-killers. I remember hearing horrible stories from the veterans about how they were treated when they returned. People would throw shit or dead rabbits at them. They didn't ask to go to Vietnam. They risked their lives over there and they came back and they were absolutely rejected and vilified. That's what Rambo's story was, and that's why I think the film was so moving. He's the winner of a Congressional Medal of Honor and he's treated like crap. The little town in the movie was a microcosm of how America treated its veterans.
I also love the way you don't present Brian Dennehy's Sheriff Teasle as the bad guy. He's multi'-faceted, and like Gene Hackman's character in UNFORGIVEN, he'd be surprised to hear he is the villain. It's also there in WAKE IN FRIGHT. Donald Pleasence's character is quite unhinged but one can still identify with him and even like him. Is that always a conscious decision in your films to not present characters in a black and white fashion?
I rarely see things in black and white. Donald Pleasence's character would see himself as a rational person. People very rarely see themselves as how they are. In the Sheriff's eyes, Rambo was a vagrant, a hippie, and he wanted to keep his town clean. He wasn't an evil man, but like all cops, he was pretty mean. It helped having Brian Dennehy in the role. As an actor, he's strong and doesn't need to push. He's just there. He's very controlled. I love Brian as an actor and as a friend. I also cast him in SPLIT IMAGE.
In LIFE AT THE TOP, for example, one can see that every character had a viewpoint that was valid, which made the film even more interesting.
It's the way I see the world. I don't see it as two-dimensional. It's very complicated. Speaking of LIFE AT THE TOP, Michelangelo Antonioni loved that film. He wanted me to suggest ways to reduce the running time of BLOW-UP (1966). I suggested about 18 minutes of cuts and he used almost all of them. It amazed me because he was like a God to me. I had dinner once with him and he gave me some great advice ''Remember Ted, words are for the theater. Films are pictures. And you tell stories with pictures. '' I had never thought about it in such vivid terms, but from then on in on every film I made I tried to tell the story pictorially.
Going back to FIRST BLOOD, there is no wasted dialogue in that film. Often the eyes tell us what we need to know.
I got the quickest response from any actor about a project from Sylvester Stallone. He read the script overnight and said 'Yes' the next day. He said ''I'll do the film but I understand you're going to rewrite the script and I'd love to work on it with you. '' I told him ''I'd love that. You're a terrific writer. ROCKY was beautifully written. '' One day he walked into the office and he said ''I've got a crazy idea, Ted. Rambo never says a word in the picture. '' As a director I love extreme ideas and I said ''I love it! He never speaks. He bottles it all up and then lets it all out at the end. '' We worked on it for three days but eventually I said ''Sylvester, I think he would speak here and here. It's too forced and unnatural if we don't make him speak. '' Sylvester said ''You're right, Ted. '' But it had a very salutary effect on the script in that the whole thing became very laconic. The dialogue that was there was very concentrated – ''They drew first blood, not me. '' Only six words, but very strong. The laconic nature of the script made the ending more effective too with Rambo's volcanic outburst of dialogue and feeling.
I think one of the distinctive qualities of your films is your specialty for perfect opening and closing shots. With opening shots, I'm thinking particularly of WAKE IN FRIGHT and the slow pan across the Outback desert that sets the place, the tone and the mood so powerfully.
The opening and closing shots are the most important of course. The first shot sets the world that the film is going to inhabit and the last shot leaves you with what the experience of the film has been all about. Speaking of closing shots, there's a script teacher here in Hollywood named Robert McKee who uses the ending of NORTH DALLAS FORTY as a model of one of the great endings. But I tell you, I sweated that ending. I didn't know how to finish the film. I kept worrying about it and trying this and trying that, and it got to be a week before we were going to shoot it and I still hadn't come up with anything. Even the night before, I had nothing. It was 2 o'clock in the morning and I finally got it. When Mac Davis throws the ball to Nick Nolte to catch, Nick just lets it bounce off his chest. It was wonderful, the perfect summation of where the character found himself.
The opening shot of the movie is also remarkable. Nick Nolte waking up in bed, with a bloody nose and a bruised body, with pills and booze on the dresser. It tells you so much.
Pauline Kael loved the opening and asked me which director had inspired it. I told her ''I made it all up myself. '' It was important to establish the pain these guys endure.
Is EDNA THE INEBRIATE WOMAN, your film about the life of a homeless woman, one of the films you're most proudest of?
I screened it about two or three months ago, and I was absolutely taken aback by how good it was. I made it for the BBC, and it won a BAFTA for Best Film, Best Screenplay, Patricia Hayes won for Best Actress and I won for Best Director. It also got voted one of the top 100 television shows of the 20th century in a poll. I was very affected by the people who I used in the film – the homeless and the mentally ill. It was an extraordinary experience.
WAKE IN FRIGHT must have been an extraordinary experience too.
It certainly was an experience, I've got to say that! The Outback is the most inhospitable place on the planet for human beings. I was influenced by a German philosopher named Leibniz who wrote about 'small aperceptions', and I wanted you to feel the heat, the dust and the flies, but without thrusting it in your face. I imported flies and I sprayed dust in the air and over everything so that you would register it all subliminally and feel the atmosphere of the oppressive heat and the impossible nature of living out there. I'd say 'Cut!' and then swallow a fly! I would swallow about ten flies a day. I'm very proud of the film. As a director, you're always aiming for 100%. Sometimes you get 70 or 80. On that film I got almost 95% of what I set out to do. I was very pleased when a friend said ''After your film, Ted, I went home and had a nice hot shower. ''
How did SPLIT IMAGE come about?
There was this whole phenomenon of Moonies and cults. It interested me why all these young Americans were joining them. I did a lot of research and spoke to a lot of people who had been in cults. Most of them felt that society had become too materialistic and too crass. They wanted something beyond that and more spiritual. I like that film a lot.
Is part of the attraction with making films a chance to understand a topic more deeply?
Yes, I think so. I also love research and talking to people.
After DUDDY KRAVITZ, JOSHUA THEN AND NOW was your second adpatation of a Mordecai Richler novel. How was that experience?
To get the film made, I had to agree to make it as both a TV mini-series and also a shorter theatrical version. I never should have done it that way because you can't shoot two films at once, and a mini-series is different from a film. Because of that, I have always been dubious about the quality of the movie.
Did you enjoy making WINTER PEOPLE with Kurt Russell and Kelly McGillis?
Well, that film died at the box-office. One takes against a film that dies totally! As a director I can't anticipate the audience but I hope that what I find funny or interesting or moving, the audience finds funny or interesting or moving too. With WINTER PEOPLE, I misjudged the audience and the film just didn't make it.
You've acted in SHATTERED GLASS (2003) and BARNEY'S VERSION (2010), and in your own WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S. How did those acting jobs come about?
I don't go looking for them! They really have to impress me in order for me to do them. SHATTERED GLASS was quite a big role. I played the newspaper editor. Billy Ray, the film's director, asked me to do it. He was a very talented young writer who had worked on a film of mine in the Czech Republic, THE SHOOTER (1995). BARNEY'S VERSION was based on a book by my good friend Mordecai Richler. Robert Lantos, who also produced JOSHUA THEN AND NOW, asked me to play a sarcastic train conductor in it.
In WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S, I played Jonathan Silverman's father. What happened was that I mis-directed a scene originally. I played it for farce and I screwed it up. I had forced an actor do the scene in a way he couldn't do well. So I asked the producer, Victor Drai, if we could reshoot it with a different actor and he said ''Yes, you should do it. '' Victor said ''You'd be great in the role. You even look like Jonathan Silverman's father. '' I think every director should be forced to act once in his lifetime. I remember standing in the hallway, waiting to walk into the living room where my son was with his girlfriend and thinking ''Ted, how does one speak? Oh yes, you open your mouth and the words come out. And how do you walk? You put one leg in front of the other. '' Talk about stage fright.
Part two of the interview.
Director's Cut: My Life in Film can be ordered in the US from the publisher and from Amazon.
Part two of the interview.
Director's Cut: My Life in Film can be ordered in the US from the publisher and from Amazon.