July 8, 2009

The Bonnie and Clyde that wasn't

I'm enjoying Mark Harris's Scenes from a Revolution, a lively journalistic account of "the birth of the new Hollywood", tracked through the preproduction, making of and reception of 1967's Best Picture nominees: Bonnie and Clyde; The Graduate; In the Heat of the Night; Guess Who's Coming to Dinner; and Doctor Dolittle. Some have been taking it as a prequel to Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, but you could see it as the underpinning of parts of J Hoberman's The Dream Life, a book which used commercial American cinema -- and Bonnie and Clyde was a key exhibit -- to show how the '50s became the '60s. Which was about more than turning over pages of a calendar.

Long before Arthur Penn was attached to Bonnie and Clyde, Truffaut was interested. Then Godard. Here is the scene in New York in September 1964 as Harris describes it. Bob Benton and David Newman are the Esquire staffers who wrote the script. Norton Wright was a producer.
"Everybody remembers that meeting differently," says Benton. But it began to go wrong almost from the start, when Godard, with little preamble, announced that he wanted to begin preproduction on Bonnie and Clyde in December -- just three months away -- and that he intended to shoot the movie in New Jersey in January, on a four-week shooting schedule. He also said he wanted to give the script to Columbia right away, information that took everyone by surprise.
Nobody in the living room had very much to say as Godard talked, but after a few minutes, Norton Wright's reservations boiled over into panic. "I said to him, you know, that's really not the way to do it. This is a period piece, it's an expensive piece, we should shoot it on location in the places where Bob and David had done the research [east Texas]. The spring would be good, or maybe the fall -- but it's snowy and cold and wet in New Jersey."
Whatever Wright's exact words were -- he had apparently referred to meteorological reports -- they caused the temperature in the room to plunge dramatically. According to Benton, Godard stood up, said, "I'm taking cinema and you're talking meteorology", and walked out of the apartment ... Nobody disputes the astonishing swiftness with which the meeting and Godard's involvement in Bonnie and Clyde were terminated.
This is David Newman's version, relayed to the LA Times in 1997. The peripheral details might change but no one could forget Godard's superb closing line:
Everyone in Hollywood turned the script down. Truffaut was too busy to do the film himself, but he'd given the script to Godard, who came to New York, where we had a catastrophic meeting. He had this reputation as a wild man, so when he said, "Let's start next week, I'm ready," our producers panicked. They said, "It's the wrong time of year to shoot in Texas". Norton Wright actually called and got a long-range weather report, saying it would be stormy and cold for the next three months. And Godard just walked out. His last words were: "I'm talking cinema and you're talking meteorology."
And another account, based on the memories of Newman and Benton, in Chris Darke's book on Alphaville:
He said, that day, two things which are forever writ upon our memories: "If it happens in life, it can happen in a movie." This to the producer's objection that the key elements might not be perfectly pulled together in three weeks' time. And, "We can make this film anywhere; we can make it in Tokyo". This in response to the producer's objection that weather conditions were not right for shooting in Texas at this time of year. A call to the weather bureau in Dallas was made. Strong possibilities of precipitation were predicted. "You see?" said the producer. "I am speaking cinema and you are speaking meteorology," said Godard.