A CONVERSATION WITH MAVERICK FILMMAKER JOSEPH STRICK

Many filmmakers can feign independence but few can lay claim to such a do what you like career as that of director Joseph Strick. With a filmography spanning forty-plus years (including an Oscar for best documentary and a nomination for Best Screenplay) and at the age of seventy seven, Strick continues to operate well outside the Hollywood system making films on his own terms, adapting the supposedly unadaptable and having a lot of fun doing it. Strick’s filmed adaptation of James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses” was banned in Ireland for some thirty-three years before finally passing the censors uncut last year.
Mr. Strick was interviewed via e-mail as he is in the midst of rehearsals for his next project in Manchester, England. Born in Braddock, Pennsylvania Strick now resides in France. The following interview is taken from our e-mail correspondence…
You have been doing a bit of hopping around. I guess it is a sign of the times that we are doing this interview by e-mail. First off, what initially brought you to filmmaking? ^ I always wanted to be a movie director. When I survived World War II (in very easy, non-heroic duty) I felt liberated … I had a life in which to do what I wanted and that was to make movies. I was, and am, ready to make them on any level, with a studio and a big budget or, if necessary, with my own two hands. It is how I started and I go back to it when it is all I can put together.
The tag of “independent” is thrown around rather freely amongst filmmakers these days, yet I think it really applies to you and your films. How does one go from being an ærial photographer with the US air force to becoming one of the truly independent minded filmmakers of his time? ^ As an ærial photographer I got my hands on a great range of still and movie equipment and in my spare time (I was on anti-submarine duty for 17 hours/day about three days a week) I would play with the cinema equipment, make little joke movies with my friends and so on. When liberated from the USAAF in 46 I bought a war surplus 35 mm movie camera – an Eyemo – and began shooting while working for the LA Times. I collected material of muscle men and acrobats on Venice Beach, found an editor-mentor and we finished MUSCLE BEACH. It got invited to Cannes and there was not one member of the jury present when the film was screened!
What were some of your favorite films in your youth and what, if any, influence do you feel that they have had on your work. ^ I’ve been most struck by Kurosawa and Bunuel. I’m not comparing myself, I’m just reacting to two great masters. I would like to think I’ve been influenced by them but that would just be self-serving and wouldn’t help making the next flick.
Your filmography could certainly be described as an eclectic group of films – describe if you can, the process by which you choose your projects each time out. ^ In choice of project, I don’t get to bid on the obviously prime opportunities, for they are taken by people who can afford the large acquisition costs. This is no complaint: I’ve been very lucky, through chance, to have had my share of extraordinary opportunities I just react to the material that comes up and try to get it and then go to work.
How did the “Interviews With Mai Lai Veterans” project come about and were you particularly pleased with the positive response to such a film and subsequent Academy Award for best documentary short? ^ I did three movies on the Vietnam war of which “INTERVIEWS” was the most successful and it was wonderful to see that it got an audience, though it has never been shown on US TV outside NYC. It was just too political at the time and perhaps still is. I thought that since the atrocity was so clear that talking to the kids-next-door who did it would be revelatory. I was also interested in understanding more of how the Germans could have gassed my relatives in Europe and I wondered how you could get Americans to do a similar monstrosity.
Your filmed adaptations of two of James Joyces’ novels, “Ulysses” and “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” have been both praised and maligned for various reasons. Many literary works, particularly those of Joyce, are considered unfilmable. As a filmmaker, what goes through your head when working on such a project, knowing that a certain amount of negative criticism is inevitable? ^ To those who say Joyce can’t be filmed I just say, “Don’t be ridiculous”! Perhaps someone else will do it better some day but if Joyce worked on film versions who are these bone-heads to say it can’t be done? I think I got some of it right. All my movies look full of mistakes to me but every now and then there are moments which I believe are worthy of attention and will be seen for a long time.
In an interview in The Irish Times you stated that when you finally got the rights to “Ulysses” you wanted to make an 18-and-three-quarter hours film which is “what you would have to do to take in the whole book.” You noted “Who’s going to rewrite Joyce? I know nobody that good.” How did the film go from this initial vision to the film as it exists today? ^ My plan for the full ULYssES was to just shoot the book. When there was no money for that I chose sections of the book and shot those.
Your filmed version of “Ulysses” met with a similar fate to the novel upon its release. In an interview on RTE television in Ireland you described the experience of having “Ulysses” banned in Ireland (and several other countries) as “humiliating”. Can you elaborate on the decision by Irish censors to ban the film and their recent decision after so may years to lift the ban? ^ I can’t penetrate the minds of censors but it must have been the language that put them off. When directing a play in Cork last year I saw that Ireland has undergone profound changes and decided to try again.
You have filmed several, what would be considered ‘serious’ literary adaptations. Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer”, Jean Genet’s “The Balcony”, the series of monologues you directed for RTé taken from stories by Jonathan Swift, Sean O Faoláin and Mary Lavin and of course the two Joyce films. What is your attraction to the adaptation process? ^ I do adaptations because I’m not a writer; I’m a director and I know I don’t write well enough to do original screenplays. It is a special talent and I respect it.
You have also shown an affinity for both documentary and subsequently cinema veritæ styles in your filmmaking. Particularly in your amazing film “The Savage Eye” which is very unique in that it incorporates documentary and veritæ styles in a loose narrative. Also, in several of your other films you seem to favor a harsher, reality feel. You strike me as a filmmaker whose style lends itself nicely to the Dogme 95 style of filmmaking. What do you think of this movement and would you ever consider doing such a project? ^ I like the reality tone of much that is being done but I think Dogma is trash. I liked LA HAINE a great deal and think that the forthcoming use of Hi-Res is going to free many kids to do films as well as change the whole way movies are recorded and projected.
How did your 1995 film “Criminals” come about? ^ I was moved to make CRIMINALS because my assistant’s mother had recently been killed by a serial murderer and he was in awful pain about it.
Many of your films were recently released on DVD by Image Entertainment. How did this release come about and do you think that this will introduce your films to a new audience? ^ I think the release by Image will get new audiences for the films and am very pleased about that.
To what do you attribute the longevity and eclectic nature of your career? ^ I love making movies; I don’t know why anybody does anything else. Longevity? Just enjoyment of the work and persistence.
What’s up next for you? ^ I’m doing a pilot on “RENAIssANCE FARCES” which I’ve translated and adapted and am rehearsing the actors in Manchester. With a lot of luck we’ll make a TV series on it. I think they are very funny.
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Posted on March 31, 2001 in Interviews by
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