Peter Bogdanovich is a director who has lived cinema to the fullest. At one time or another he’s been a critic, film historian, interviewer of stars and legendary directors, actor, editor, producer, screenwriter, and of course: director. (One could also add Hollywood raconteur to that list as he tells the tales of Hollywood’s past better than almost anyone else).
She’s Funny That Way, his first feature in over a decade, stars Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston, Imogen Poots, Rhys Ifans, Kathryn Hahn, and Will Forte. It’s a helter skelter-ing marriage of backstage Broadway antics, call girls, private detectives and ill-tempered therapists, which is now in limited theatrical release and available on VOD. I got the chance to speak with Bogdanovich via phone as part of his Los Angeles press day.
The Film Stage: So I’ve seen the film twice now, once in the UK and once in Paris.
Peter Bogdanovich: Oh, my goodness, how did it play in Paris?
It played well, and for as much as I adore Paris, when I left the theater I craved to be in Manhattan. It was quite a peculiar feeling, but something that attests to the film’s quality.
That’s interesting. Did you see it with an audience?
Yes, it seemed to go down well. The film was called Broadway Therapy over there, though.
Yeah, I know. That’s interesting because I haven’t received any feedback from Europe at all.
But it played well in Venice I gather?
We got a ten-minute standing ovation. It was amazing.
To me the picture plays more as a farce than screwball. It’s a comedy of looks and glances, I’m thinking in particular of Rhys Ifans and some of the looks he gives Owen Wilson when he discovers who Imogen Poots is.
Well, you’re right about the farce, but, for several reasons, the movie industry doesn’t use the word “farce.” I don’t know why, but the screwball comedy is sort of a movie term for a farce, and why they don’t use “farce” I’ll never know.
Maybe they’re fearful that audiences will reject it. Audiences generally seem not to like the word.
It’s not that they don’t like it — they’re just not used to it.
Owen Wilson is an actor I’m rather fond of, mainly because he’s one of the few contemporary film actors who performs in his own voice and personality, and I know this is something that you will agree with me on, but this is something that’s very much missing from contemporary cinema. You ask people who the best film actors are today and they’ll say Daniel Day-Lewis and Meryl Streep, and, although they’re both wonderful technical actors, they’re more stage than cinema. To me, Jimmy Stewart, or Cary Grant, or Woody Allen are far superior film actors because they bring with them their own feelings and personality. They don’t hide and cinema is about showing.
Well, that’s absolutely right; you could be quoting me. I totally agree you, and one of those things that attracted me most about Owen was exactly what you’re talking about — he has the personality of the old-time movie stars. He’s a real movie star in the old-fashioned sense.
We seem to be in a period of acting were brawn is more important than brains.
Well, I don’t know what the hell period we’re in. It’s very sad. There used to be a studio system that fostered talent, and now there’s no place for those type of actors. Most actors want to be versatile like Marlon. They don’t want to be a personality actor, mostly because they can’t because they don’t have any personality to give. So the first thing that appealed to me about Owen is that he was the type of actor that you’re talking about, an old-style movie star.
Film acting has never been about technique.
There seems to be a lot of so-called stars today that wouldn’t have a chance of making it in the studio days.
Absolutely. What was so appealing about the movie stars of the past was, not only were they attractive, but they had a peculiar way of talking. Jimmy Stewart didn’t talk like anyone else and neither did Jimmy Cagney, neither did John Wayne — they all sounded different. But as I’ve said recently, do me a Tom Hanks impersonation. Go ahead, I dare you. Do me a Tom Cruise. You can’t do it.
Do you think that if Jimmy Stewart was starting out today that he would make it?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. But his style of personality has all gone, gone with the wind.
The film makes references to Ernst Lubitsch’s Cluny Brown. Can you talk a little about Lubitsch? To me he’s a director than can charm your socks off without touching your shoes.
[Laughs] Well, I love Lubitsch. I have a personal connection to him because I suppose, like me, he has a European background. But I suppose what gave Lubitsch his humor was a kind of sly, sardonic undertone, not German at all, even though he started out as a German director. And not only was he very influential — he was very popular, and, today, nobody’s heard of him. In America, anyway.
You wrote a wonderful essay on Lubitsch for the Observer — “The Importance of Seeing Ernst” — and, on that European theme, The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon, to me are films that feel like they were shot by a foreigner. You managed to both sentimentalize and critique America at the same time, sort of like Lang or Hitchcock did.
Well, the fact that I was conceived in Europe — born in the United States but conceived in Europe — with a father that spoke Serbo-Croatian but not English, at least not very well, and a mother that spoke German, English, and Serbian — and my first language was Serbian-Croatian. I didn’t learn English until I first went to school. And, first of all, I have tremendous affection for all things American, as a first generation American normally does, yet I’ve always felt a little like I was on the outside, and it gave me a different perspective from someone that grew up in an all-American family. But you’re right: Texas was a foreign country to me. So was Missouri, where we shot Paper Moon.
But sometimes the best place for an artist to be is on the outside of the inside.
Yeah, because it gives you a different perspective from the rest.
Does making films give you the same joy as watching them?
[Laughs] Depends on which aspect of making films. My favorite part of making films is working with the actors on the set. That’s when I feel that I’m really making the movie. Aspects of post-production are necessary, but they’re not really when you’re making the film. I don’t particularly enjoy editing because it feels rather redundant, but obviously necessary. I enjoy making pictures — I enjoy seeing them, too, of course — but I think I enjoy making them more. I like the all-encompassing nature of making movies, but I obviously like watching movies.
But you can’t do one without doing the other.
Well, I could keep directing without seeing any more movies. I’ve seen enough movies in my life. If you asked me to decide between seeing movies and directing them, then I’d rather direct them.
Do you have any more updates to give us in relation to The Other Side of Wind?
Oh, I wish. The only update I can give you is that I’ve been told by the people who are handling it that we expect to able to start editing in September. I don’t know if that’s going to be true, but it’s just the latest report, and whether it will happen that way I really can’t say.
Well, I think every film fan in the world is hoping it’s true.
I’m hoping, too. It’s been too many years. Where are you calling from?
I’m in London at the moment.
Are you from Wales? I thought I could detect an accent.
Yes, I’m Welsh.
Rhys Ifans is Welsh, I believe.
Yes, that’s right. I’m actually from the same village as Ray Milland.
Oh, my God, really? That’s interesting.
He takes the name “Milland” after a local street which now happens to be a train station parking lot. So much for Hollywood romance.
[Laughs] Well, it was a pleasure talking to you.
The pleasure was all mine.
She’s Funny That Way is currently in limited release and available on VOD.