Friday, March 27, 2015

Something In The Air: A Conversation with Director Stuart Hagmann about his 1970 film THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT

stuart hagmann interview

 "Everything in my career has been a homage to Truffaut and the 400 BLOWS. I owe much to that film. Truffaut was one of the reasons why I wanted to make THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT in the first place because Irwin Winkler had approached Truffaut to direct it before me..."
Director Stuart Hagmann talks with TV STORE ONLINE about his 1970 MGM film THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT.  The film is currently available on DVD via Warner Archive.
the strawberry statement interviews
TV STORE ONLINE: I hope I'm not too forward when I suggest to you that THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT (1970) is a utter masterpiece. A piece that maximizes the medium to it's greatest potential....

HAGMANN: Well, that's what I was trying to do with it, but boy, a lot of people didn't feel that way about the film. The film had a wonderful reception internationally, and still, to this day I get emails and calls from people from all over Europe that have seen the film and love it. I'm happy that the film has finally come to DVD via Warner Archives.

TV STORE ONLINE: Right, and what's the deal with the "European Version" of the film that was included in last year's DVD release?

HAGMANN: You know, I'm not exactly sure. I did watch a bit of it recently and from what I gathered it was really just more of my workprint version of the film.

TV STORE ONLINE: So I see the film as a counter-culture version of CASABLANCA (1942). There are some fun parallels you can make between the two films. An Example? Bogie--as "Rick Blaine" and Bruce Davison--as "Simon" both join the "movement" of their respective times for the sake of a woman...

HAGMANN: Well, sure. You know, James Kunen [author The Strawberry Statement: Notes of a College Revolutionary] and I had a plan set out to make another film after THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT but it fell through. It was a wild idea. Just like THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT, with it's structure and concept, it would have been equally ahead of it's time. It wasn't a linear idea, and it certainly wouldn't have been a linear film either. It was about a kid who was hitch-hiking across the United States and on his journey--everyone he meets--he is taken through time to different places and eras in their life because of their personalities. He goes back to the '50s. He travels through time to Alaska and into the Deep South. It was going to be called TRANS-AMERICAN EXPRESS, and if it had been made, it would've shown you just how wonderful a collage of ideas can be when you're steeped in the creation of film.

james simon kunen's the strawberry statement movie
If you've done your research, you'll know that the first public screening of THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT was at the Cannes Film Festival. Bruce [Davison] wasn't there, but Kim [Darby] was. Bruce arrived after the film was screened. Afterward we had to leave Cannes because when they decide which film gets the prize--you hope that they'll remember you when they're making their decision. You end up coming back a couple days later for the awards. Kim and Bruce had gone to England and I went with [Producer] Irwin Winkler to Paris. And the day after the screening at Cannes--the riots/shootings at Kent State University occurred. I fell apart when that happened for a lot of reasons. Partially, because it was exactly what we were predicting that would happen with the film. The day of the screening of the film at Cannes--the press were crazy in their attempts to get interviews with us, but after Kent State--they were absolutely hysterical about the film.

MGM didn't really want THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT to go to Cannes. They had another film in mind that year. Someone from the festival came to MGM to see a rough cut of Michelangelo Antonioni's ZABRISKIE POINT (1970), but didn't like it. There was a buzz on the lot about THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT, in particular, when we were cutting the film together, so that's how it ended up going to Cannes for its premiere.

TV STORE ONLINE: How did the project come to you? Had you read James Simon Kunen's book before it was out? I know Irwin Winkler had the rights to the book either before or shortly after it was released...

kim darby the strawberry statement
HAGMANN: Right, but portions of the book had first appeared in installments in New York Magazine around that time. I was living in Los Angeles at that time, but I was spending a lot of time up in San Francisco. I, myself, was involved in the Berkeley movement of the student revolutions. The whole idea was just so appealing and overpowering. It was popular too, which is why a major studio like MGM went for the idea to turn the book into the film. They didn't think that they'd be making any kind of comment on the times.

TV STORE ONLINE: It was was marketed as "The film of now!"

HAGMANN: Right, and in a way it was. It was the combination of young filmmakers making a film about a subject that was of the moment. You know, after that first screening at Cannes, I had people throwing things and spitting at me when I'd get out of a elevator. It was tough and unusual. And, keep in mind, this was before Kent State happened. After Kent, everyone's attitude changed. Before, they were calling me a fascist and a communist asshole, a pig. It was wild.

I didn't know it at the time of the Cannes screening, but over in Marseilles there was a film school. And after the Cannes screening--in the big theater where everyone gets dressed up to come and watch your film--they had a smaller screening the following morning. There had been students from the film school that came over to see it and afterward some of them found me and starting following me around town! They started asking me all of these questions about how we made the film. The students didn't think it was a strong enough statement against authority. The people that disliked the film thought it was communist. I felt personally responsible for all of that because I, myself, as the filmmaker hadn't really taken a stance on either side. I don't how I missed that when I was making the film. In retrospect, both of those ways of approaching the film would have been wrong.

stuart hagmann interview the strawberry statement
For me, the film was about a kid who was coming-of-age. And coming-of-age as every child does when there is a lot going on in the world. Without going into that psychology, I wanted the film to be about the kids and their surroundings. That was what James Simon Kunen's book was about. His book was a wonderful day-by-day diary that he transposed into a story that really had no beginning, middle, or end. It only had the development of a young man's personality on the page right in front of your eyes. It had no character arc that you could turn into a major motion picture. The book was very lucid and so inclusive. It had all of this input from his surroundings. The pop songs he would hear on the radio! The news they would watch on television each night. The book was perfect, and Kunen, at the same time was separated from the world in which he was participating in. He managed to stand by and capture all it in his little diary, while at the same time participate in it. There seemed to me, that there had to be a way to translate that viewpoint onto film.

TV STORE ONLINE: So when you got the call to direct the film....You had only directed a few episodes of Mission Impossible up until that point...

Actor Bud Cort with Producers Winkler and Chartoff
HAGMANN: Well, I had done those, but also, I had directed a play in Los Angeles by that time. I think Winkler saw that play. Maybe it was [Producer] Robert Chartoff. I don't remember now. I had done a commercial for Kodak as well by then. Winkler had seen that, and he saw one particular episode of Mission Impossible that I had directed--one that I had not thought much of either--but he thought it was flashy, and show-y, and everyone liked it. I had only read a couple of the installments of Kunen's book when I was approached to direct the film by Irwin Winkler.

TV STORE ONLINE: This was your first feature film. Where were you at as a director? The film feels like you, as a director, are going for broke. You pull out all of the stops. As if, you thought that this might be your only chance to make an impression on the world..

HAGMANN: That was hardly the case...

TV STORE ONLINE: It's quite ambitious visually...

HAGMANN: Well, I had a great cinematographer in Ralph Woolsey and a brilliant camera operator in Mike Margulies. Mike would've laid down on a tarmac and had a airplane roll over him if I would've told him that I wanted that particular shot.

the strawberry statement (1970) cannes
TV STORE ONLINE: Was any element of the film story-boarded?

HAGMANN: No. But I do storyboard in my screenplays. I don't show them to anyone except, maybe, to the art director. I really don't like storyboards. I like to put the cameras where the actors can work freely and it can capture them in that moment.

TV STORE ONLINE: What piqued your interest in both Bruce Davison and Kim Darby for your leads for the film?

HAGMANN: I just thought that Bruce's performance in LAST SUMMER (1969) was the performance of that film. I thought that he and Catherine Burns were incredible. Those two made that picture. I had to argue a great deal to convince everyone to get behind the idea of casting Bruce. Kim, was a different story. I had no problems getting everyone on board when it came to Kim. The only reservation anyone had was a worry about Kim not being able to lose herself in the character. When I had everyone look at LAST SUMMER, they all liked Richard Thomas for the Simon character. I said, "No, there is no way. Bruce is a Dustin Hoffman. He's a gentile. He's got that quality." We knew that Simon was Jewish in the book, because Kunen is Jewish. We hadn't seen anyone for the part that would work. I said, "Bruce has everything that this role needs." He did some wonderful work in THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT. I'm only sorry that the film didn't do better.

truffaut the strawberry statement
TV STORE ONLINE: The opening of the film....I see the opening shot as a metaphoric microcosm and it's as if we're peering down into a petri dish to see all these people, or atoms, swirling around in a moment of our time...

HAGMANN: It was my attempt at having a pattern which you don't understand at the start, but come to realize exactly what it is by the end of the film. It was going to become the so-called "lights" of the University as these kids were being dragged around at the end. In many of the years that have passed since the film was released--I've had to defend the shooting of the final sequence of the film and how I chose to stage it. I had been lucky enough to see the actual independently-shot film footage from the Columbia University uprising of '68. It wasn't released footage by the time the film came out, at least, it hadn't been shown on the nightly television news, but I wanted to give that final sequence an aura of reality.

When the film opened in New YorkCity, I was living there. I used to enjoy standing outside of the theaters that were exhibiting the picture. I used to enjoy seeing the people who would be standing outside afterward crying. I enjoyed the fact that so many were crying--I don't know why I wanted people to cry after the seeing the film, but I gauged the success of the film on how many young people were standing outside sobbing after it was over.

bruce davison kim darby the strawberry statement
TV STORE ONLINE: I love the clever little of-the-time jokes that run throughout the film..... Your homage to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) with the use of 'Thus Spake Zarathustra"....That scene after Bruce and Kim meet and decide to leave the protest in the building. Bruce says, "Boy, this is a little like Mission Impossible..."

HAGMANN: And my homage to THE GRADUATE (1967)...

TV STORE ONLINE: Right, with the woman who seduces Simon in the Xerox room...

HAGMANN: Right, you know I re-cut the film after Kent State before it was released in the United States. We had a couple months after Cannes before it was scheduled to open. I wanted to avoid some of the dramatic reaction that we had seen at Cannes. And the studio was spooked over Kent State. The film has no answers as to why things like Kent State happened in that time. There was no reasoning behind it. The people at Kent State couldn't explain it. As we were re-cutting the film--I was just full of anxiety. I just keep saying to myself, "I'm never gonna make a film like this again..." As a result of the re-editing I became physically ill and eventually I ended up in the hospital for a short time.

the strawberry statement cannes film festival 1970
TV STORE ONLINE: But this film is everything. It's so ambitious. You've mentioned your great camera team--but I have to wonder if you're referencing films that you admire? I mean, the shots in the film are insane. You're doing 360 shots, extreme zooming, the hand-held verite style, the camera turning upside down, your shooting across every line of rule...

HAGMANN: Some of that stuff I had developed doing television commercials and on Mission Impossible. The thing is, too, being as young as I was when I made the film--I remember how many ideas I had. I had so many ideas and I was loaded with visual approach when it came to directing. I spent my days in college drawing sketches that showed what I wanted to try to do with a film camera some day. When it came time to shoot THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT I tried to put myself back in that time when I was in college. I wanted the film to be a collage. The screenplay wasn't conventional by any means either, and as I said, the novel wasn't traditional either. I was influenced by the film MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969). I wanted to make a Hollywood film that implemented experimental techniques just as that film had done.

TV STORE ONLINE: One of the aspects of the film that I'm quite fascinated with is the possibility that Kim Darby's character may only be a figment of Simon's imagination...There are a couple interesting shots in the film....There's some jump cuts where she disappears from the film, and in the visual introduction to her character via Bruce's point-of-view in the film in the beginning--Bruce's character shoots her with his film camera through those building gates and then she disappears--

kim darby the strawberry statement
HAGMANN: Jesus, you caught that? I've never talked about this aspect of the film ever...Yes, in the first place, she represents what he most wants. He wants to walk towards something that is exciting and to walk toward Kim's character--to see that girl, that gives him a look, that appreciates him...It's in Kim's eyes...There is something about Kim's eyes... She looks at you and you melt. I still remember that quality in her all of these years later. We even talked about her eyes when we were casting her in the film.

About a year after THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT was released...Irwin Winkler pulled me aside and said, "We need to have a serious talk." I truly thought he was going to ask me about exactly what you yourself have noticed in the film about Kim's character. He said, "I've just spoken with someone who has just watched THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT and...They think that Bruce was actually masturbating at the beginning of the film in the shower scene ... The way you've cut the film--Bruce is in the shower and you've overlapped the sound of the rowing team yelling 'Pull! Pull! Pull!' " (Laughing) I never intended that, but it's one valid interpretation...

TV STORE ONLINE: I'll confess I've never considered that idea in support of the film...

HAGMANN: And you shouldn't really, nor should you place too much importance on the notion that Kim's character is a figment of Simon's imagination. My thought on it at the time I was making the film was that Bruce's character Simon did actually see Kim's character "Linda" but he may not have ever approached her, or met her, or formed a relationship with her. That may have been in his imagination. I also feel that his running around the campus and witnessing everything--he was imagining himself as more of a part of the student uprising than he actually was until he gets into the gymnasium.

TV STORE ONLINE: Right, and effectively, you've left us with a major ambiguity in the film as he may have died in the end...

HAGMANN: Yes, or does he? Does he die, or as I wanted as the alternate idea-- Does he come out of it as a revolutionary? Is this beating his death, or is it his birth? I don't know. I was operating the camera when we shot that scene of Bruce jumping off the steps and into the air. He came down and he hit me. I was smacked in the eye and I started to bleed. But before, while we getting ready to shoot that--I was crying during. It was very emotional to me. I was a wreck during the entire shooting of that sequence in the gymnasium because of how awful it must have been to subject every actor to that violence experience, regardless of whether it was real or not.

TV STORE ONLINE: When Bruce's character Simon jumps--you stop the film, freeze the frame, and zoom in...Was that in tribute to Truffaut's 400 BLOWS (1959)?

HAGMANN: Everything in my career has been a homage to Truffaut and the 400 BLOWS (1959). I owe much to that film. Truffaut was one of the reasons why I wanted to make THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT in the first place because Irwin Winkler had approached Truffaut to direct it before me. He was interested in directing it because of the Paris student uprisings that had occurred the year before.

TV STORE ONLINE: Going back to Kim Darby's character Linda...The energy in the film, the psychic energy between Bruce and Kim, her energy  specifically---it radiates off the screen. It's what made me fall in love with the film...

HAGMANN: The chemistry between them was deep and significant. I just knew that it would transfer onto the screen. But, I also knew that any guy would've been able to get that with Kim Darby. Kim was a cross between Bambi's mother and Brigitte Bardot. She had those big eyes and a big attitude. A open heart. She was that as a person to work with and very sensitive too. She was perfect for Linda, because, and whether her character was actually there or a figment of Simon's imagination, she was looking for love.

TV STORE ONLINE: My favorite scene in THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT is the sequence with the two of them together on that amusement park ride...

HAGMANN: That scene was a direct homage to Truffaut and 400 BLOWS. That amusement park had to be in the film, because when I was spending time up in San Francisco and I had taken part in the riots at Berkeley--my friends and I used to go to that amusement park, all the way across the city, to let our hair down and have fun there.

TV STORE ONLINE: I love the follow-up to that scene too with Bruce and Kim in the park...You shoot her face forward in point-of-view....And with the final sequence, again, in the gymnasium which succeeds the park sequence....I still don't know how you accomplished some of the things you did there with the camera... Did you actually have someone with a camera swinging around the gym on a rope?

HAGMANN: We did. We didn't have the kind of cameras that they have now. Today, you could put a camera on a drone over a sporting event and do the same thing. In those days, we actually had to put a guy on a rope and swing him around the gymnasium.

TV STORE ONLINE: Did you use a crane for the Busby Berkeley-esque shot from the top of the gymnasium that peers down into that "petri dish" that we discussed early which comes at the beginning of the film?

HAGMANN: No, there was just a balcony that was at the top of the building. We lit the shot with lights that were below the camera and out of the frame and a wide-angle lens. It gave it a very interesting visual effect.

TV STORE ONLINE: And when the smoke is introduced into the gymnasium...

HAGMANN: It becomes a nightmare...

TV STORE ONLINE: Right. A Dream. THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT is, at times, about point-of-view too. I love those point-of-view shots that you managed to put in the film from the inside of the police gas masks for example...

HAGMANN: Yes! They all thought I was crazy for trying to get those.

TV STORE ONLINE: How about the American Flag in the gymnasium? Was that something that was already part of the gymnasium or was that intentionally hung for irony?

HAGMANN: The Art Director...I said to him,"See if you can find a big American Flag that we can hang up across the stage..." He could only find old flags that were large enough. The flag in the film only has 48 stars on it. I thought about it, and I remembered how when I was a kid in school myself we had a flag with only 48 stars hanging up. So I decided to put it in the film. My rationale, too, was that students at the school had broken into a closet in the gymnasium and hung it up with plans to destroy it.

TV STORE ONLINE: I'm particularly fond of the moments with Bruce and Kim up in San Francisco's Coit Tower in the film...

HAGMANN: Me too.

TV STORE ONLINE: The sequence with Kim and Bruce in the record store as well...

HAGMANN: I liked that song and I thought it would be an important scene because of how their little fantasy affair---they could go someplace where it was just them and they could take time out to experience each other. After the film was finished--I wished that I could've gone back to explain the "why" of it all. But, in order to do that I would have had to somehow turn the unseen person who was leading the assault forces to remove them from the building into a character.

TV STORE ONLINE: Let's talk some more about the editing of the film...

HAGMANN: Well, I had three editors working on the film with me. I lived in the studio during the editing of the film. Because we worked around the clock to edit the film. It was wild. When they weren't there I would go off and work with the sound editors. Of course, the editors knew what I was up too regarding the idea that Kim's character may be a figment of Simon's character...

TV STORE ONLINE: Did the actors "get" what you were trying to achieve with the film with all the ambitious cinematography?

HAGMANN: Bruce didn't. Kim did. Bud Cort got it.

TV STORE ONLINE: There are some incredibly intense montages in the film...

HAGMANN: The montages for the film were cut together by [editor] Roger Roth. It was [editor] Marge Fowler, who did, unaided--the entire ending of the film. She cut the riot together. She made it clear, she was the number one editor on the film and she wanted specifically to work on that part of the film. 

TV STORE ONLINE: They pre-date the music video concept by so many years...

HAGMANN: That's what people have said to me...

TV STORE ONLINE: In particular, the montage set to Neil Young's "Down By The River" strikes of an early variation on the later music video...

HAGMANN: Yes, certainly, but film editing was moving in that direction in EASY RIDER (1969), for example. There had been some of that idea in MIDNIGHT COWBOY as well. But, what I tried to do differently, which was a separate idea, was that I tried to externalize the idea. I wanted the montages to be created out of the thoughts of Bruce's character. I wanted shots included that weren't part of the film directly. Whereas, in the other films--the montages are often assembled from scenes that we've seen previously in the narrative.

TV STORE ONLINE: Yes, but radically, too, you've done something interesting in the montage with Bruce using the song by Thunderclap Newman "Something In The Air." The montage starts with the music, but then the montage stops, the music cuts, and then five-minutes later you return to it with that same Thunderclap Newman song!

HAGMANN: Right, and it ends with the kids getting out of the "paddy wagon" at the police station. And don't think for a minute that I wasn't thinking about another 400 BLOWS reference there...(Laughing)

TV STORE ONLINE: Did you run into any snags in clearing the many pop songs used in the film?

HAGMANN: No, we didn't. We really just asked everyone. I had a couple meetings with Neil Young while we were shooting and he really wanted to do the incidental music for the film. But when we met I realized that he hadn't moved past his basic idea about how he wanted to approach it. His idea, wouldn't have worked in the film, which is why, in the end, I decided to go with a couple of his songs, the Crosby, Stills, & Nash songs, and Thunderclap Newman. Incidentally, THE STRAWBERRY STATEMENT was one of the first films to be made by MGM to use a new sound technique that they were experimenting with. Basically, it allowed for several sounds to be at a specific volume at any given time. When the film was finished, MGM screened it for David Lean, who, at the time was in the middle of work on RYAN'S DAUGHTER (1970). He had wanted the storm in his picture to be, as he put it, "the loudest thing ever put on the screen." I was thrilled that David Lean watched the film...(laughing)
Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung