Bob Rafelson: in memoriam

The New Hollywood of the 1970s had many behind-the-camera stars in the 1st row:
Coppola, Bogdanovich, Scorsese, Ashby, Allen, Friedkin, Spielberg, Cimino, de Palma etc.. Peeking out from the 2nd tier was Bob Rafelson, who made a prolific string of films with Jack Nicholson. Before that, he invented the mockumentary series with “The Monkees”, then gave Schwarzenegger his first dramatic film role, and discovered Sally Field, among others. Rafelson always sought his own way and set ambitious goals, which is why he never became mainstream until the end of his career. He died on 23 July 2022, age 89.

More than a quarter of a century ago – still as a young film journalist – I was allowed to meet him on the occasion of the black-humoured thriller “Blood and Wine” at the Hyde Park Hotel in London: one of my best interviews, which at the time was not printed by my employer (self-proclaimed “Europe’s biggest film magazine”) because “nobody knows him”. True cineastes …
Rafelson was lively, funny, infectious with his passion for film and stories.

He enjoyed our conversation so much that he literally begged for more questions. He also told me his secret how to be remembered as a good pianist at parties while having merely moderate diligence and skill; a life hack I use to this day. Thanks, Bob!

PS: This was the same day that I was stood up by Jennifer Lopez, who preferred going shopping to chatting with some still-green-behind-the-ears film critics who flew by. My loss, not hers…

NvU: Why did you make a trilogy about a dysfunctional Family?

Bob Rafelson: Why not? Do you want me to make a picture about a family that functions very nicely with one another, a Disney Trilogy? Why am I attracted to this? There are different degrees. “Five easy Pieces“ isn’t about a dysfunctional but basically irrational family. “King of Marvin Gardens“, the story of the two brothers… I think I’m attracted to the family because it allows me to explore all the intense emotions. It has the obligatory relationship, the obliged relationship. You and I have none, unless we become athletes on a team. But the family has obligations and a kind of formal structure to it, and even an inherited mythic quality. Because people has been talking about family in theatre since the Greeks, since Shakespeare, since Eugene O’Neill, Strindberg, Tennessee Williams. Who am I to say “No?“

NvU: In “Blood & Wine“ it’s a special dysfunctional family. Everybody is beating up anybody.
Who was the best fighter of all?

Rafelson: Jack Nicholson has an extraordinary grace and power and knows how to do this thing very very well. He has also had more experience. Stephen Dorff actually, when he rehearses you have to warn him, especially the person he is fighting with, even a stuntman: “Be careful, because he’s gonna act and gonna lose control, and he’ll punch you!“ He would come running into rooms, doors would go flying. Once he knocked the door off the hinges – the scene where he search for his father with a knife in his hand. And I was rehearsing with him and ,Gabriella‘ and he knocked the door down. So I would say there are two different types there. But both very good screen fighters.

NvU: You don’t use handguns. You use pole arms, like golf bats…

Rafelson: I use what I feel should be used by the characters, instead of movies that have enormous violent action scenes in them, where it’s quite logical that anything can be used as a weapon. Schwarzenegger has normally six weapons, all these powerful guns on him, or Stallone destroys hundreds of people a time. And eyeballs get shot out and roll on the floor and become jewels and then morph into human beings. That’s all fantasy, the violence isn’t very real. Whereas here by using something which is specifically appropriate to the fighter… A woman comes home, gets into a physical fight with her husband. She’s afraid of him, she wants to strike back and uses her cane. It has a bit of irony to it also. Jason only knows about fishing. He would use the means of killing a shark or the boat. He doesn’t know about guns. Nobody carries a gun in this movie. It was easy to put one on them. In fact they contemplated it. Should Nicholson have a gun in the movie? But I don’t think he’s the kind of character who would carry a gun. So I prefer Nicholson to use a pillow. A sublication someone who’s suffering from anthemia seems right to make.

NvU: Michael Caine plays a character who might have a gun. More vicious than the others…

Rafelson: In fact, jewel thieves do not carry guns, period. And I’ll tell you why: If they have a gun on them, and they enter a house it’s armed robbery. It’s different from grand theft. You don’t get only ten to fifteen but fifty years. Secondly there is no purpose. What is he gonna do with it?
All he wants to do is to steal a necklace.

NvU: It’s the seventh time you did a film with Jack Nicholson since the sixties. How did you two meet?

Rafelson: I was attending screenings at a film society in Los Angeles. And when I like a movie I have the tendency to stand up and cheer: (loud) Yeah, great, great! Be noisy and physical about it. (stomps) And there was somebody in the theatre who did this consistently when I did it. And finally, I wondered: Who was the other guy who seems to yell. And I went over and introduced myself. And that’s how we met. I’m always interested in people who react. The other night it happened again. I was at the screening of my own film at the British film institute. Before that there was an honor run on Ken Loach, an extraordinary English director. There was a guy behind me, who was cheering the way I was cheering: (shouts) Yeah, yeah, yeah! Not this blight English cheer. Later on, the night I was introduced to the guy. He was laughing very hard. And it turned out to be Terry Gilliam. He’s a guy I probably can relate to. Anyway.

Go on! Ask Questions!

NvU: You make independent movies for thirty years. How did it change?

Rafelson: It hasn’t gotten easier. First of all, the expensive moviemaking has going up considerably. What used in Hollywood a low budget movie when I was making independent films would be in the area of a million to three million dollars. Now it’s ten to twenty million dollars, that’s a low budget movie! A medium budget movie is twenty to fifty million dollars, and an expensive movie is fifty to A HUNDRED MILLION dollars. These are numbers I can’t even comprehend. I cannot understand it. So when you try to make an independent film today, people assume it’s going to cost a few million dollars. A cheap independent movie. That’s a big investment. And so people now want to insure that investment. On the independent market as well, by putting either in movie stars or soundtracks, they can sell pop song. So, if you’re seeking to make an independent film that is like independent films of the seventies… I put the pop songs in where they belong. Don‘t tell me to put pop songs in!  

NvU: You usually pick talented but quite unknown actors in your films. You discovered Schwarzenegger, Jessica Lange, Sally Field for the movies. How do you find them?

Rafelson: (pauses) – I think I have an instinct. It’s been seasoned. In the beginning I felt I was lucky, but then it happened too many times. First of all, I have patience. I’ve seen over 150 actors for the part of Stephen Dorff.

NvU: Do we know some of them?

Rafelson: You probably know all of them, but I didn’t know them. For the women the same amount. For Jessica Lange’s part in “The Postman Always Rings Twice“: 175, for “Stay Hungry“: 150 women, and the picture went to Sally Field. She had never been in a movie before.
You have to have patience. But a lot of people don’t want to spend their lives sitting in a room, meeting boring actors.

NvU: Is this the same patience you use on difficult actors, Ellen Barkin said that she’d been stoned half of the way through “Man Trouble“. Or Debra Winger…

Rafelson: (flabberghasted) She was stoned?!

NvU: She said on Jay Leno that she smoked pot. And Nicholson helped her through the scenes. Debra Winger as well is supposed to be difficult in handling.

Rafelson: They were not difficult when I worked with them.

NvU: What is it you do with them?

Rafelson: Because I have a reputation for being difficult. I don’t think it’s earned. It’s more because of this incident that took place that became mythologized, that I punched out a studio head. But I am the director of the film. And I don’t want people running amok on the Set. So I usually say to the actor who comes in and is supposed to be difficult: “No matter how difficult you are, I’m more difficult. And this could become a very difficult set. So why don’t we make an agreement? Let’s be difficult, but let’s not be difficult on the set. Let’s be difficult a quarter of a mile off the set. So if you have a problem now or a tension, if you’re gonna freak out, signal me. And I’ll walk with you, and we can fight it out away from here.“ Because when you begin to have this kinds of thing on the set or “I won’t come out of my dressing room“, you begin to have all kind of crew members taking sides. It becomes silly, absurd.

NvU: With whom did you walk off the set?

Rafelson: Debra.

NvU: After how many minutes?

Rafelson: No, Debra and I agreed that we would not fight on the set. And if, we’re going to fight off the set. We made a handshake on it. Before the picture began, She’s very smart. And also: fights. Who gives a shit about fights? It’s very hard working with people. Sometimes the people who make movies are not very bright. They’re very emotional. Directors, actors, we’re not all intellectuals. And because of that, we are childish, because our emotions are pretty much on the surface. And further to that we are asked to have our emotions at the surface. That’s what acting is all about: revealing emotions. So we are PAID to be children. Think about this: Judy Davis is one of the most professional actresses I’ve ever met in my life. When I worked with her she was totally concentrated. But if you asked Judy Davis that she liked being in this movie, she says:
“I hate every movie I’ve ever been in! I never liked any movie or anybody on the movie.“ And I said: “Surely you must have liked David Lean!“ – “I hate David Lean!“ – “How about Gillian Armstrong?“ – “I hate Gillian Armstrong! And I hate that movie!“ And I’d say: “Maybe I’ll be the one that will be different“. She said: “You’re wonderful, you’re fine, but I HATE working on this movie!“ You have to understand that this is an actor who has to be this, in order to be able to act. If you’re fucking stupid and you take it seriously, you get egotistical and you say: “What do you mean you hate working on this movie??? You’re lucky to be in this movie!“, what are you gonna get from that? These fights are really because people don’t feel what’s behind them.

NvU: What was it like to work with Michael Caine?

Rafelson: In all years I’ve been making movies I’ve never had a more delightful experience.
He’s an absolutely gracious human being. He is actually one of the few actors I actually liked to dine with, such as last night. He’s a wonderfully generous human being. A great storyteller, very, very bright man. I really like him. Comes to work in the morning: “Yes, sir“ – he calls me Sir – Shit, I love anybody calling me Sir – and worked with him in a very professional way. “Am I done now? Do you need me for anything for tomorrow?“, and off he goes. No temperament at all. At one point Michael had to do what I think is the best and most difficult scene in the whole movie. It’s near the end where Michael is sitting in a hotel room, and he says to Jack: “This is not a suite in Marbella, did you notice? There are no Swiss chocolates on my pillow. My masseuse is not knocking at the door.“ And then he says: “I’m fucking dying, Alex“. And meanwhile he is smoking and before that coughing blood in the sink, and inhaling. During the shot Michael passed out. And I said: “OK, let’s do another take.“ And he passed out again.

(Stephen Dorff enters the hotel room):

Rafelson: Where are you going now?

Stephen Dorff: MTV, I think. It’s gonna be on live, so if you wanna watch it…

Rafelson: Live?

Dorff: Yeah. I’m gonna sing a song.

Rafelson: Let’s watch it. Are you going now down to the studio. What time is it on?

Dorff: I dunno. Quarter to five or so. It’s like hanging out with a bunch of cute girls. See you later.

Rafelson: (turns back to me) Where were we?

NvU: Michael Caine.

Rafelson: Yeah. He passed out and then he would say: “Oh, I lost it, I’m sorry. I oxygenated.“
I felt so sorry and I said: “Well, let’s take it easy.“ – “No, I do it again“, and he would lose it again. And he kept oxygenating. We were in this funky motel. And he kept walking from room to room to room. There were few people living in this motel, occupying the rooms. And he would knock on the doors and he said “I’m sorry I oxygenated.“ He was completely gone. And so sweet, so utterly and so apologetic about it. Embarrassed that he had held me up. It gives me the chills to talk about him. He is such a kind and good man.

NvU: Would you want to work with him again.

Rafelson: Absolutely. No question about that.

NvU: There were three writers involved in the script. Tell us about it.

Rafelson: Basically there were two writers. Let me answer by saying to you, that neither of them had ever written a screenplay. I didn’t have the money to pay fully-fledged screen writers. And when you work with people who are new to the form, it requires a lot more time. And sometimes they cannot write more than a whole year without some income. So, I would encourage them to take a job and go off and write for somebody else. And sometimes they’re burned out also, and say: “I can’t write anymore“.

NvU: How many scenes were directly written for Nicholson?

Rafelson: None.

NvU: There are great lines he says, like “Do me a favor, don’t love me!“

Rafelson: I wrote this, and I didn’t know Jack Nicholson was gonna be in the movie at that time.
I distinctly remember writing this scene. Why, does that sound very Nicholsonian?

NvU: Yeah, it does. Or “I don’t fly economy.“ is another line.

Rafelson: No, those are just good lines. And you like the way Jack says them. It’s no Nicholson line at all.

NvU: You use to visit remote places, do adventure trips. Where did you go last?

Rafelson: It was an easy trip, compared to others. I was in Turkey, walking.

NvU: 15 Years ago you went to the Amazonas Indians and you were going to do a movie about them, before John Boorman or Kevin Costner even thought about doing movies about Native Americans. Is this project still back in your head?

Rafelson: It was absorbed somewhat when I finally made “Mountains of the Moon“. I did everything I wanted to do with this particular subject. I would like to do that kind of subject again, mind you. But not particularly Indians or Africans. Just an anthropological nature to it.

NvU: Are we going to see another adventure movie of yours?

Rafelson: I don’t know if you would call that an adventure movie, mind you. But certainly,
I wouldn’t mind to do that. I happened to love making “Mountains of the Moon“. It was a picture that took nine years. So, given an opportunity, I would gladly do that kind of film again.

NvU: You are a jazz musician. Do you find time to play?

Rafelson: I play the piano very, very badly. I can only play two or three songs. But only to impress my female guests, I sit down and I play that one song that I played at least ten thousand times. And I play it fairly well. And then I suddenly get a headache or feel fatigue. I sit there with a whole body of songs that I could play. But somehow, I’m too exhausted… (smirks)

NvU: Do you have a next project?

Rafelson: No, I don’t have even a clue. I don’t expect get busy working on a movie for another six months or more.

NvU: You invented The Monkees back in 1966. And now all those Boy Groups are out. Are we going to have another TV experience like that of yours?

Rafelson: Somebody last week asked me if I would be interested in adapting Kieslowsky’s “Dekalog“ for American TV. I can’t imagine anybody wanting to adapt it in the serious sense. But if somebody asked me to do my “Dekalog“, inspired by Kieslowsky, I would say yes. But I don’t think it’s gonna happen.

NvU: Why?

Rafelson: I must say it’s very satisfying for me sometimes to sit with European correspondents, because you have this incredibly inflated notion of who I am. You think that all Bob has to do is say he wants to do it. In fact, it is quite the contrary. It took years to get this picture made. And numerous times it looked that it would not gonna be made. Each and every movie since “The King of Marvin Gardens“ was an enormous struggle. And I can’t tell you how much pain and anguish goes into that struggle! Because you have to beg for money. You think you got it, then it goes away. Then it comes back, with other conditions. Then you have to compromise, or say you won’t compromise, and then the money goes away again. And it takes years of waiting. When it finally does come in, it comes in in such a fashion that you now must start shooting the picture immediately. “But wait a minute, I’ve been waiting for three years. And now I have to pick the locations“ –  “You have 19 days.“ – “But I need three months!“ –  “We don’t give a shit, if you wanna make the movie, you’ll make it.“ And now have everybody racing like idiots you can’t think. You got to make the movie. You can imagine the conditions under which I made this one. Just for an example: Which means that if you’re shooting six days a week, you’re looking for the locations on the seventh day. You’re shooting nighttimes very often. So you don’t sleep, often for days and days and days at a time. And you’re physically exhausted, and emotionally exhausted.
And people carry you to the set.

NvU: How do you recover?

Rafelson: You recover by not making a movie again for a very long time. And I stopped smoking the day I finished the picture. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t desire one right now.

NvU: Why did you quit?

Rafelson: I feel better when I don’t. I climb mountains.

NvU: Are you going to do something with Jack again?

Rafelson: I don’t want to make another picture with Jack Nicholson and Jack Nicholson doesn’t want it. He doesn’t sit back there at nighttimes and say: “God I can’t wait to work with Bob again.“ And I don’t sit there and think about him.

NvU: With which of the actors you discovered would you like to work again?

Rafelson: Just about anyone from the past.

NvU: If Schwarzenegger called you…

Rafelson: I would find that interesting. I would like to see what would happen if Arnold Schwarzenegger was required to act like he did in “Stay Hungry“. Now there are no weapons and not that cute acting, he played a pretty serious part in my movie. Somebody once said to me: “You discovered Arnold Schwarzenegger. You know what your fate is? You’re gonna have to do a second picture with him.“ while thinking “He hated him!“ I don’t hate Arnold, I like him. Very occasionally we pass each other in the street or bump into each other. We don’t call each other.

Interview: Nikolaus von Uthmann, 27 November 1996