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Psychic Scars and Something Wild: A Conversation with Dramatist, Filmmaker, and Holocaust Survivor Jack Garfein

Written by Eli F. on March 20, 2017 

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By strange and fortuitous coincidence, my meeting with Jack Garfein fell upon the nexus of several intersecting moments in history. It was Friday, January 27th — International Holocaust Remembrance Day. One week earlier, Donald J. Trump was sworn to office as forty-fifth President of the United States; and in the ensuing weekend, allegations of Trump’s unpunished sexual misconduct, callous attitudes toward women and courting of radical right-wing supporters helped bring about the Women’s March on Washington, one of the largest mass protests in the nation’s history. All around, people are anxiously reading the past with tenuous hopes and fears for the future. History, so often a thing defined after the fact, is currently in violent and furious motion.

Jack Garfein is living history, and he’s not shy about telling it. Born to Ukrainian Jews in 1930, Mr. Garfein personally witnessed as a child the rise of Nazi Germany and the horrors of their regime, surviving no less than eleven concentration camps – including Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen – which took the lives of his parents and much of his family. As a teenager, orphaned and alone, he relocated to New York, where he channeled his wayward emotional energy and indomitable thirst for life into a prodigal career with the up-and-coming Actors Studio. Over the next half a century, he would act as pupil, mentor and friend to a veritable who’s-who of American screen legends, including (but by no means limited to) Elia Kazan, John Ford, James Dean, Sissy Spacek, Paul Schrader, Steve McQueen, and his former wife Carroll Baker.

Mr. Garfein is a born storyteller and instinctive dramatist: every person he speaks to is an audience, every conversation a stage. Gregarious, theatrical and undaunted by his advancing years, he drops names from his decades-long dossier of celebrity friends and admirers with aplomb and shares colorful stories of his past with equal vigor. His ice-blue eyes radiate with life, in spite of his past, in spite of his age, and to be in his presence is to feel as if he is a dear and eccentric old relation one has known all their life.

I was invited in January to speak with Mr. Garfein at the Criterion Collection’s offices near Union Square in NYC. The occasion was Criterion’s new release of his second and final foray into filmmaking, Something Wild (1961). Hailed as a lost classic of American independent cinema, the film stars Mr. Garfein’s theatrical colleague and then-wife Carroll Baker as a college student whose violent rape triggers a complex and emotional spiral into erratic behavior, in a stark vision of New York laden with repressed emotion and hidden violence. A domestic flop in its own time, the film spent decades languishing in obscurity before its critical rediscovery within the last decade. If the film’s premise sounds distinctly modern — at least compared to the more conventional Hollywood cinema of the era — there are more than a few viewers, then and now, who agree. The late Italian author Albert Moravia (whose work is best known to the English-speaking world for inspiring acclaimed adaptations by Jean-Luc Godard and Bernardo Bertolucci) is said by Mr. Garfein himself to have cited the film as an unmistakable product of the twenty-first century — back in 1961.

I came to see Mr. Garfein with questions about Something Wild, and we discussed the creative origins of the project, Mr. Garfein’s relationship with the Hollywood studio system, the inspiration for some of the film’s more idiosyncratic elements, and his interpretation of the controversial and ambiguous ending. In the process, however, our conversation took on a life of its own. Spanning wide across topics as diverse as trauma, spirituality, gender, history, violence and the media, our meeting ran over three times the scheduled sitdown period. (My apologies to the patient and supportive women and men at the Criterion office, who waited out our extended conversation to close up as late afternoon turned into evening.) Mr. Garfein is such an electrifying and intimate speaker, his voice so rich, humorous and distinct, that it seems an injustice to try and reduce his statements and near-endless reservoir of colorful anecdotes to a series of box quotes and soundbites. He is a lifelong storyteller, and in service to that I have sought to reproduce his story in much the same way as he tells it. What follows is edited for clarity, but otherwise a faithful recreation of our 90-minute conversation that Friday afternoon.

How did you become attached to Something Wild? What drew you to this project?

Well, what happened was Audrey Wood, who was Tennessee Williams’ agent, read the book. And she wasn’t my agent, but she knew me – but that’s sometimes how things happen, by intuition, you know? She called me and she said, “Jack, I read this book, and I think it could make a very good movie in your hands, and I think your wife [Carroll Baker at the time] would be right for the part.” So she sent me the book, and I read it. But again, you know, real creations are subconscious. You’re just impelled to do them, you don’t even know necessarily why, but something draws you; and so, when I read the book, I immediately thought after the first reading that I wanted to do this. But if you asked me at the time why, I just would tell you that I was taken by this story – I thought it was a story about a girl who was raped, and that was how I approached it on the first reading. So I called Audrey Wood and I said, “Alright, I want to do it, so I’d like to get the rights to it.” And my ex-wife also read it and liked it and liked the part. So that’s how it started.

The title of the novel was not Something Wild but Mary Anne. I was wondering how the change of title came about, and for those who haven’t read the book, what other changes (if any) were made from the source material.

Well, I would say that the title for the film came from me. It was more than just Mary Anne. I just knew – intuitively reacted – and felt that something happens in life that we’re not in control of, that happens to us and can change our lives. And, never even relating it to my own life, I just felt that this is what’s happened to this girl; that this element exists, a wild element, and by “wild” I mean something like… that you’re innocent, and you’ve done nothing to it, but it comes and finds you.

So you think that “Something Wild” is that violence that comes into her life?

Yes. The element that exists in life – a war, or anything that takes innocent people who have done nothing, and suddenly affects them in a certain way and changes their lives.

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Something Wild was your second and final time in the director’s chair, and since then your main focus has been on theater. What made you gravitate away from cinema? What are some things you’ve felt that you had the opportunity to do in the medium of theater that you would not have been able to do in cinema, and vice versa?

Well, first part of the question: it started with my first film [The Strange One (1957) starring Ben Gazzara, adapted from the theatrical production, End as a Man, also directed by Garfein]. The cast was all unknown actors I’d worked with in the Actor’s Studio and prepared them. When it opened on Broadway it got rave reviews for the acting, and Ben Gazzara, who was totally unknown, became a star. So did Pat Hingle, so did all of them – totally unknown before.

So when I found out that then a film was going to be done, I fought to try and keep as much of the story as I could. Well, there was no ending for the film. So one night I went down to Florida, where we were going to shoot, and I saw a train coming from the South – this was during the segregation era – and on the train I saw black people sitting with children, even on the floors of the train. In a way it touched something in me – [it reminded me of] the deportation trains in Europe. And suddenly I said, this is the train that they’re going to throw [main character] Jocko on to humiliate him in some way.

When I called the producer, Sam Spiegel, he said, “Well, great! What a great idea! Genius!” But then it got to Harry Cohen, who was head of Columbia: “What? Blacks in a movie? Black actors in a movie? No such thing! We’re not gonna get distribution in the South!” So he said, “Jack, it’s gonna be a milk train.”

And I said to the assistant director, “No, it’s not gonna be a milk train.” And the assistant director says to me, “Jack, do you think if I hide black actors – nobody can see them, and then you can have your shot. I’ll just put them in the car but without having a full car load of black people.” And I said, “Okay, fine.”

Well, Spiegel suspected something, so he advised the other assistant director to make sure there were no black actors on the stage. And then he shows up in a limousine the night that I’m shooting this scene. And [as] I’m shooting the scene, Pat Hingle came up with an idea: he spreads the word that there are snakes around, and Spiegel will never get out of his car. And we did exactly that. We spread the word that there were snakes around, and so the assistant director took two black actors, put them in the scene, and we shot the scene.

Spiegel then called me over and said, “Jack, I want you to reshoot that scene and take those black actors out.” I said, “Sam, you want an Auschwitz survivor like me to cut black actors out of a movie?” He said, “No no no, I want my Jewish director.” I said, “But your Jewish director is an Auschwitz survivor, so I can’t do it.” So then he went and talked to Ben Gazzara about getting another director to cut the scene and to reshoot it, and of course Ben Gazzara refused to do it. So my contract with Columbia, because of that, was cancelled. So then the only thing I could try to do was to do an independent film – and I had Mary Anne, or Something Wild.

So MGM was at first interested in it, but they said to me, “Jack,” – and they had two other writers there – “It’s a nice idea but you know, after the girl gets raped, she doesn’t talk to anybody. She moves out of the house. That’s not going to work. Our idea is that what happens is, she loves her uncle, and her uncle is coming for a big celebration in the house, they have a party, and that night she’s in bed and the uncle comes into the room and rapes her. And the reason she can’t talk about it is because it’s in the family, she’s afraid it’ll wreck everything, and that’s why she walks out. But not just a stranger, somebody reaching out and raping her. And then, Jack, what you should do is after a while she reaches out and talks to a priest, and the priest sets her straight, and then she goes back to college, and one of the boys that was interested in her before is interested in her again, and that’s the ending of the movie.”

They offered me quite a bit of money, and I refused. So then United Artists said, “Well, we want to do the movie, but Jack: you’re going to work for minimum, and do everything for minimum, [if] we will do it. Otherwise, we’re not gonna take any risks.” And I said okay, as long as I can do what I want to do, it’s fine, I’ll do it that way.

So what happened was I finished the film, they didn’t understand it. The critics here in America just killed it, except for The Saturday Evening Post, and great writers like Henry Miller – who I didn’t even know at the time – who would write to me about it. “Wow,” Henry Miller said to me, “that guy, Jack, that’s me in that movie.” And the famous Italian writer Alberto Moravia wrote a review, and he said: “You want to know what the 21st century will be like? Go to see this movie.” The British press compared me to Strindberg, and the Swedish press – of course – compared me to Bergman. But here, I was a dead duck, in a sense, because the movie made no money and the audience didn’t react in any kind of a positive way.

So what happened was, Aaron Copland, who wrote the music… on his 80th birthday, the mayor of New York invited him, and said, “The city of New York would like to give you a present. What would you like?” Expecting him to say an orchestra, or a choir. He said, “I want Garfein’s film shown.” So they set up a screening in the Metropolitan Museum – just for Aaron. And I think Stillman Rockefeller was looking at the ceiling, and Senator Leland was looking at the floor, because those were the days of the Doris Day movies, you know. And after the screening, Aaron saw that I was disappointed again, that things were not going to get any better. He took my arm and he said, “Now Jack, as far as this movie is concerned… just live long enough.” So I tried to do that.

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You took him up on it.

I took his word, I tried to do it. But what’s so fascinating is that he understood the movie better than I did. And if you see the film, you can see the way he uses the music – he realizes when the silences and things are important. He understood that film. When I was making the film, first I went to [Dmitri] Shostakovich, and the Soviet Union wouldn’t get me through to him. So then I went to Leonard Bernstein, and Leonard wouldn’t do it. So then I went to Aaron, and I said, “Aaron, I went to Shostakovich, I went to Leonard… what about you?” And he said, “Jack, I have to see a rough cut.” And of course United Artists got very upset, said, “What, you’re waiting to do the movie because of a composer?” I said yes, I’m going to wait.

So, [Copland] saw the film, I showed him a rough cut, and he said, “Okay Jack, I’ll do it.” And obviously he did. But as I said, sometimes the person who creates it doesn’t know [what it’s really about]. If it’s a work of art, it’s personal, and it comes from the subconscious. It’s only later, years later, that suddenly you say, “Oh, I see, so that’s it.” So for me, it happened [six] years ago. The [New York] Film Forum gave me a tribute, and they showed the film. And I was sitting next to the critic Kim Morgan, and suddenly as I’m watching the film, I say, “Oh my god – that [girl is] me.” It made me think of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. When he was asked about Madame Bovary, he said, “Madame Bovary? C’est moi. That’s me.” Part of my life is reflected there, and this is how I came to grips.  But I could get no jobs. Since then, I’ve written a couple of very important screenplays – I think they were ahead of their time. One of them, The Farm, is based on a book by the African American novelist Clarence Cooper which deals with the topic of heroin addiction.

While I was working on it with Clarence – who was still on drugs – I got a visit one day from Harold Clurman. Great director, teacher, writer. He walked in and he saw me working on one of the parts, miming a state of heroin addiction, and he said, “What the hell are you doing!? Crazy Actor’s Studio! You went and you actually used heroin! You’re out of your mind! This is madness!” And after I snapped out of it, he said: “Garfein, stop teaching acting or making films. Tell people how to do what you’re doing. Much more important. You’ll save more lives like that.”

So, what is it that I touched on, that was so convincing to him? The fact that everything first is a human condition. A human need in nature. The drugs and all that are simply a way to reach a certain level [of experience], which you only reach naturally on the rarest occasions. This is just another way, an extension of that. And everybody has experienced it on a certain level. I still don’t think [Hollywood has] touched on that like I did in the script.

I also wrote another screenplay about my experience during the war as a kid with my mother and my sister. It goes all the way to Auschwitz. And, you know, people who have read it, they’ve never seen the Holocaust like that, because most Holocaust movies don’t come anywhere close to touching what happens. You know, in most Hollywood movies, the train arrives in Auschwitz – “AAAAHHH!!!” – they all scream. You know what my mother did? She brushed my sister’s hair. She straightened out my sweater. She made sure that because we’re coming to a new place, we have to make a certain appearance.

The title of that screenplay is A Rose in the Field. Because what happened was, we were probably the last transport to Auschwitz. And the Hungarian Jews came in from East Europe. And my grandfather was a very wealthy, influential man, and he for some reason believed that we were going to be resettled in Hungary. And only when we looked out of the barbed-wire window of the cattle car, and saw we were in Poland, did he realize where we were heading and he had a complete breakdown. I remember even seeing it. And once we arrived in Auschwitz, I remember hearing him say, “Dear God, what have we done to deserve this?” I thought he referred to us as the rose in the field. That’s why it was called that.

So anyway, the scripts are there, I still haven’t been able to get the finances. I’m still now trying to see if I can get it done.

So yes, I went back to working in the theater – I worked with Arthur Miller, Samuel Beckett, Ionesco, it was wonderful. I learned more from working with them on their plays than I ever have before. That’s the great advantage of working with playwrights like that. And I recently, three years ago, did my own adaptation of Kafka’s Address to the Academy in Paris, with great reviews, and I’m now trying to see if I can get it done in London. Because here I was told you need either a television star or some big actor, otherwise they’re not going to back you.

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