Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Screenwriter/Playwright Israel Horovitz on the 1970 counter-culture film THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT



Obie-winning playwright Israel Horovitz talks with TV STORE ONLINE about his script for the 1970 counter-culture film THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT

A counter-culture CASABLANCA (1942) of the late '60s--THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT starring the young up-and-coming actors: Bruce Davison, Kim Darby, Bud Cort and Bob Balaban was based on a book written by Columbia University student James Simon Kunen.

The film, released by MGM in 1970--would not fair well with some film critics.   With it's pre-MTV extreme and flashy music video style--critic for the NY Times--Dotson Rader would attack the film after its initial release.

 Rader's piece in The Times would cause the film's screenwriter Israel Horovitz, who first lambasted the final film himself , to stand up to defend it.   THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT marks the first collaboration between screenwriter Horovitz, producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff and director Stuart Hagmann.  The accidental team would follow-up the film with a gritty tale of drug abuse in New York City with the 1971 film BELIEVE IN ME.   In 2013, after several years of being only available on VHS--Warner Archives, the print-on-demand label would release THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT for the first time onto DVD.   BELIEVE IN ME has not yet been released to date on any format of home video in the United States.

TV STORE ONLINE:   THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT marks your first foray into screenwriting...How did you come to get the opportunity to adapt James Kunen's book of the same name?

HOROVITZ: 
  Wow.  It was a long time ago.  Irwin Winkler was the producer of the film and he had saw a play that I had written at the Spoleto Festival in Italy which starred Al Pacino called The Indian Wants the Bronx.   The curtain-raiser was a play I also wrote with Marsha Mason and Jill Clayburgh called It’s Called the Sugar Plum.  Both of those plays were really successful and because of that I was a hot playwright--that's pretty much the way it went.   Winkler had asked me to read the book and if I was interested in writing the screenplay--he had asked me to come out to California and pitch the movie to a bunch of studio executives.

I had a pitch set for a movie that was very different than what the film is today.   I had thought that the film would be shot in New York at Columbia University.  At the time, there was a student group that had shot a lot of black and white documentary footage of the strikes at Columbia.  I wanted to intercut this documentary footage with the fiction that I planned to write.   I went through with the pitch at MGM and afterward there was a hush.   All of sudden, all of them started laughing and lighting up cigars.  Winkler was there and I said, "What happened?"  Winkler said:  "You've got yourself a movie kid."    So I wrote the film as I had pitched it and of course it wasn't what they wanted.    They took my script and changed the setting from Columbia to a college on the West Coast.   The director [Stuart Hagmann] was hired. He was a kid who had directed a few episodes of Mission Impossible [1966-73].

At that point I decided it would be best to meet with Kunen about the direction that the project was going.   Kunen had gone out to California and he was staying with Winkler.   Winkler said to me, "I just don't get him.  He puts on a bathing suit, gets in the pool on a raft, and sleeps all day."     After talking with Kunen for a few days  I asked myself: "Who is this movie for really?  What's the point of this?"   If it's to preach to the learned already--then it will have no worth."    While it wasn't a frame of reference at the time--in retrospect I took the approach that Michael Moore must take with his documentaries.    Moore doesn't talk to the people who are already in the know--he's talking to those who don't know.  So I started to head in that direction with the re-write of the script.

When I saw the finished film--I was really upset with it.  I thought it was too cute and Californian  and too pretty.    I really had no experience though.   When I was on the set--it was the day that they were shooting the opening sequence that takes place in the boy's shower room.   I didn't write that scene--and when I arrived on the set and saw all of these boys getting naked I said: "What the fuck is going on here?"   Stuart Hagmann told me that they were about to shoot the shower scene--I said, "What shower scene?  I didn't write any shower scene."   So they started to shoot the scene and in the middle of it I yelled "Cut!" (Laughing)

Stuart Hagmann turned around and said, "Who said that? Who did that?"   I said, "I did."   I had come from theater and I was the playwright and no-one made any changes your play.  That just wasn't done.   They shot the scene against my wishes.

When the film was finished we went to the Cannes Film Festival to screen it.   When I was asked about the film I would talk ill of it.   In fact, when they wanted to give the film an award at Cannes--the studio sent myself, my wife,  and Kunen off to Saint-Tropez to stay at a hotel while the voting at Cannes was occurring--so we could do no damage to it.   Once it won the Jury Prize at the festival they brought us back.   When it was announced that it won I ran up onto the stage with my long hair and put my fist up in the air and said: " La lutte continue..."   Everyone in the audience looked at me very oddly...(Laughing)

When the film opened... Dotson Rader, who might have been possibility a Columbia student at the time, but also, a up-and-coming journalist--wrote a piece for the New York Times that panned it.  In his piece about THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT  he claimed that it was counter-revolutionary and that it was doing the opposite of what it effectively should be doing.  That's when I clicked into gear, because I thought that everything he had written about the film was crazy.  So I wrote my own piece for the New York Times where I went on to say that the film wasn't for Dotson Rader or the Weathermen group.  The film was really for the fifteen-year-old girl who is living in Wakefield, Massachusetts and is frightened to really speak up against the war in Vietnam because she is living in such a right community--where she's in fear that she'll get a reputation as a Communist in that time for doing such.  

After that Dotson Rader piece came out--I really turned a corner and began to defend the film in a very clear way. 

A year or two after the film was released I began to just forget about it.   I didn't think about the film for several years in fact.   About ten years ago I was teaching a screenwriting workshop in France.    The film came up there and I decided to screen the film for the class.  In looking at it again for the first time with all of these kids all of those years later--the film seemed to me to be very naive.  No-one wrote the film off when I screened it or anything like that--but for me, it just seemed very silly with its fast camera work and the casting of the blond kid in the lead role.

With that being said, about 4-5 years ago I was in a partnership with a Italian company who was interested in producing a series of my plays.   When I went over to Italy--a guy approached me about speaking about the film at a screening that was being planned in Milan, Italy.   I asked him,"Why do you want to show that?"   He looked at me in amazement.  He said, "Are you kidding me?  The film is a cult film here in Italy."  He explained to me that in it's time of release--the film had a profound effect on the kids of Italy.  It had caused kids to put on demonstrations against the brutality of the police and the war in Vietnam.

I went to the screening and there was an audience of about 900 people there.  It was a mix of students and older people.  It was amazing how the film played.   Then, I was invited to Greece to screen the film and it really started to become mind-boggling to me--because we tend to live in our own mind and our own place and we forget about other people, other cultures and other places.    So I've come to accept THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT for what it is, what it was, and what it represented in the time in which it was made.   I'm glad I got to write it.

TV STORE ONLINE:  It sounds like your original script, even your re-write went through some changes versus what is in the finished film today...

HOROVITZ:  Well, not completely.  I can say though that none of my dialogue was re-written for the film.  If that would've happened--I would have killed someone.   Ultimately--the director had his own vision for the film.   The casting--although I like both Kim Darby and Bruce Davison as people--I don't think that I would have casted the film with them.  Was it a mistake to cast them in the film?  Probably not.  Would I have cast them?  Probably not.  Because they were faces that reached-out to that fifteen-year-old girl in Wakefield, Mass.   They had meaning in the time which the film was made.  

TV STORE ONLINE:  I feel a little foolish in my thoughts about the film after you've just told me all of that and your ideas centered around the writing of the film...I see the film as a CASABLANCA for the late '60s--this epic love story that occurs in that anti-war zeitgeist....For me, first and foremost that's what the film is...

HOROVITZ:  Well, clearly--I'm a different age.  I'm older than you.   I look at the film with the idea that I was there in New York at that time the Columbia strikes occurred and I was someone who experienced them.   You look at the film as if it were a fictional history.   There is a lot of baggage for me around this film.  I'm glad I wrote it and I'm glad that it has touched some people.  What more can you hope for?   The worst thing I can think of is when your work doesn't touch anyone or even carry a message to anyone.    The fact that the film got made, even in that time, is phenomenal.   It really wasn't the type of film that was being made at that time truly.  There are a couple films that we could probably argue about regarding that statement--but considering what the film is--it just wasn't being done then.   I mean, just the fact that Dotson Rader wrote that piece about the film and then The Times allowing me to respond and then printing it---that wouldn't happen today with any movie.

Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung
For more information on Israel Horovitz please check out his official website here.