Angela Ismailos Converses with ‘Great Directors’
by Matt Fagerholm
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Here’s a thrilling summer movie for anyone fatigued by the endless zombified conga-line of retreads, remakes and reheated leftovers currently parading through cinemas. As America’s mainstream film industry continues to become more and more of a business, it’s especially refreshing to see a documentary like Great Directors, which celebrates cinema as an art form capable of much more than producing record box office grosses. In the film, director Angela Ismailos interviews ten extraordinary filmmakers about their evolution as artists, their own inspirations, their struggles to create meaningful art within a money-driven business, and the intriguing role of politics in their work. For true cinema lovers, Great Directors is a must-see movie event. And best of all, it’s not in 3D!
We get to hear Bernardo Bertolucci describe the experience of making his first film. Stephen Frears and Ken Loach discuss how they were able to be at the center of public discourse while working the BBC. Todd Haynes gushes over Rainer Werner Fassbinder, while Catherine Breillat says she’s wouldn’t have become a filmmaker if she hadn’t seen Ingmar Bergman’s The Naked Night at age 12. Richard Linklater talks about growing up poor in East Texas, John Sayles rants against the phoniness of American blockbusters, David Lynch calls Eraserhead his “most spiritual film,” and Liliana Cavani admits that she was somewhat offended by the success of her daring Holocaust-era drama, The Night Porter. And then there’s Agnes Varda, the grandmother of the New Wave, whose exuberance for creating art is as fresh as it was when she began directing in the mid-50s.
Director Ismailos recently spoke with Film Monthly about the experience of meeting with her cinematic heroes, and the challenge of juxtaposing their unique stories. The interview is followed by Netflix recommendations for moviegoers eager to explore the worlds of these essential cinematic artists. Many of the selected titles are available for viewing on the Netflix website, and provide a welcome alternative to paying twelve bucks for a forgettable seasonal blockbuster.
FILM MONTHLY (FM): What first attracted you to the cinema?
ANGELA ISMAILOS (AI): From a very young age, I had my father to guide me. He was a very big cinephile, and he introduced me to all sorts of different filmmakers, from Renoir to Eisenstein, from Rossellini to Godard and Ingmar Bergman and on and on. So I had this background from a young age. My grandmother was an opera singer, so I did grow up in a very artistic environment. I went to law school and got my master’s degree in political science, but from a young age, my passion was writing. I produced little acts in theaters, and I came into becoming a filmmaker very naturally. I just want to capture everything through the lens; that’s how I live everyday.
FM: In your opinion, what makes a truly great director?
AI: Basically, it’s an uncompromising personality. A great artist will always create precisely what he wants without any consideration of commerce or what the audience likes or what the popular conception is of what cinema should be. They do exactly what they feel is right for them.
FM: How did you go about choosing this particular group of filmmakers?
AI: I wanted to have directors from different backgrounds; from Italy, France, England and the United States. I did have some Asian directors that I could not include in this volume because I had so much footage, so I wanted to create volume one and then eventually continue with volume two. I basically wanted to cover different ethnic backgrounds and different historical points of view.
FM: Are you planning to make a second Great Directors documentary?
AI: Yeah, I do have the footage, but I think I’m going to take a break because this project was really exhausting. On June 22nd, we’re going to have our U.S. premiere. It’s been four years in the making. So I want to take a break and come back to the next documentary in a year or two because I am exhausted. [laughs]
FM: How did you go about approaching your interviews with these formidable filmmakers? Was there a structure to your questions, or were they more spontaneous?
AI: Actually, I did not have a [structure]. I just wanted to meet the director and according to the situation, I was going to create my questions on the spot. So the first one who said yes was Bernardo Bertolucci. He had received a very long letter from me about my love for cinema and neorealism and how I grew up loving De Sica and Umberto D. and The Bicycle Thief. It was a ten page letter, and he was really touched. So he called me and asked me when I wanted to come to Rome. The second person who said yes was Robert Altman. Unfortunately, he had health problems and his office would keep postponing the filming. Then the inevitable happened. After that, the rest came in very easily, I have to say.
FM: Did you find yourself coming up with some of your best questions in the moment?
AI: Yes I did. One question that actually made it into the film occurred during my meeting with David Lynch at his house in the Hollywood Hills. I asked David, “If you were to be born by the same parents in a different country, do you think your films would have remained the same?” And he goes, moving his hand, “I think I would have always been fascinated by America.”
FM: Like many of these filmmakers, Lynch is famously guarded about discussing his art. How did you get them to open up?
AI: I think they accepted me as a filmmaker and didn’t perceive me as a journalist. We started by talking about other things before the camera started rolling. And the fact that I was sitting next to them and not behind the camera made them feel more comfortable in opening up. I started by talking about politics and societal issues and then went into their career.
FM: I think Lynch acutely described his cinema when he said, “You know the feelings a particular work of art expresses, but you can’t put them into words.”
AI: Yes, exactly. I also liked when he said, “When you don’t have final cut, you die the death, and die I did.” [laughs] I have been listening to these voices for four years so they have seeped into my subconscious. I also like the line where Ken Loach says, “The more money you have to make a film, the less freedom you have.”
FM: There’s a lot of fascinating sociopolitical discussions in the film about a variety of topics, such as the psychology behind Nazism and the unacknowledged class system in America. The political views of these filmmakers seemed to blend together through the editing.
AI: The editing was a very long process. It took me two years because there were so many film clips and historical events to incorporate. I used a lot of archival footage from the BBC. So it was a really hard choice to decide what to keep in and what to cut out. I remember before I met Bertolucci in Rome, I was reading the Communist Manifesto. He’s a communist, and most of my directors are Leftist. In the states, this term doesn’t exist, but in Europe, most artists are Leftist or have Leftist beliefs. It was fascinating when Bernardo told me, “I lost my identity after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. I didn’t know who I was anymore, so I had to go to the Far East.” Right after he says that in the film, I cut to Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There about Bob Dylan’s changing identities.
FM: That’s one of my favorite cuts in the movie. Was it a conscious decision on the part of editor Christina Burchard to juxtapose these filmmakers in a way that highlighted their similarities?
AI: Absolutely, I wanted to find a common thread between their personalities and their films and who they are, and I think I succeeded in that. But cinema is not only what I see, but what I fail to see. Every time I see the film, I wish I would’ve added something in or do another thing differently, but I had to let it go, because it never ends. With 340 hours of footage, I have to let it go.
FM: Were you closely involved in the editing process?
FM: Was there a creative team that you worked with?
AI: Yes, I had Sabine Hoffman as well as Xan Cassavetes. She’s a dear friend, and we’re both big cinephiles. We collaborated in the editing room for hours and had many conversations about everything Freud to globalization. It was an intellectual project for me, even though it may not appear that way in its 90 minute running time.
FM: I was going to ask you about your collaboration with Xan, since her father [John Cassavetes] is one of my personal filmmaking heroes.
AI: Her father is a constant forge. Have you watched [Charles Kiselyak’s] documentary about him, A Constant Forge?
FM: I’ve seen parts of it, but have been meaning to Netflix the whole film.
AI: You will be amazed. He was a genius and a very unique director. It’s an interesting coincidence that Xan and I befriended each other, since her father and my father came from the same city. When I told her where I was going to film my next movie, Xan couldn’t believe it. She said her father had always wanted to film there but never had the time. I believe that sometimes things happen in life for a reason. It’s all about timing and how you connect with people.
FM: Was there a particular interview that you found especially challenging?
AI: No. I thought at the beginning that it was going to be challenging, but throughout the two years of filming, everyone had something special to say or offer, from Agnes Varda’s Parisian courtyard to Catherine Breillat’s sexual cinema to Liliana Cavani’s Night Porter to Todd Haynes’s segment when we talk about Wim Wenders’s  documentary Room 666.
FM: That’s the documentary where various great directors discuss their vision for the future of their art form.
AI: You see all of these directors come humbly into the same room, sit in a chair and talk about the future of cinema. We hear from Antonioni, Godard, Fassbinder, and then Steven Spielberg comes in and brags about the box office grosses for Jaws. [laughs] So cinema has become all about the weekend blockbuster. It doesn’t seem right, but it is what it is. I think everywhere in the world, from Korea to England to Iran, everyone tries to do a film that’s not an industry product. But unfortunately, in the United States, we are the masters of marketing.
FM: I liked how John Sayles described his method for balancing commercial and personal projects.
AI: He uses screenwriting to make his money which he then invests in his own films. He’s very unique. Both John Sayles and Todd Haynes were with me in Venice when the film premiered and we all became good friends because we share the same values for cinema. Venice is a very special town because they truly love cinema there. It’s not like Cannes; it’s wonderful, but it’s much more commercial. When the movie stops, even before the end credits roll, the lights come up and the audience has to get up and turn around at the balcony where we’re sitting and applaud the film. I received a standing ovation that lasted for ten minutes, which I couldn’t believe. I started crying, I got so emotional.
FM: Was there a particular insight from these filmmakers that you found most surprising?
AI: Bernardo said, “Always keep a door open. You think that you have an idea set before you go into your location, but always keep a door open.” He told me about how he had first met Pasolini through his father. Pasolini asked him if he’d like be the assistant director on his directorial debut [1961’s Accattone], and Bernardo said, “I’ve never worked on a film before. I know nothing about being an assistant director.” And Pasolini answered, “I don’t either, I’m going to learn how to be a director on the set.” So Bernardo basically told me that you truly become a director on the set.
FM: Are there any deleted scenes that you particularly treasure that just couldn’t fit in the rhythm of the final cut?
AI: Oh, I have many. I had some huge segments on neorealism and Renoir and Godard. I think I will include them in the DVD extras. We have gotten a lot of proposals to make it into a series and bring into light the rest of the footage that I have. It’s hopefully going to broadcast for TV purposes.
FM: How did you go about deciding how you would include yourself in the film? There are shots in which you seem to be walking within the worlds of these filmmakers.
AI: We tried many approaches in the editing room until my collaborators told me that this film was my personal journey, and that it needed my narration. We couldn’t have done it another way because otherwise it would’ve become very ordinary. I simply did what I like cinematically. Being in locations such as the Vatican in Rome, I did everything I love in filmmaking and I did it with a Bolex, not a digital camera or 35 mm. I’m like the old school. I like this kind of style cinematically, and that’s what my next film is going to utilize. I just finished writing it. It’s a psychological, intellectual drama called The City of a Dead Woman. It takes place on an island in a monastery where this woman goes to find a refugee, and meets a priest and a bullfighter.
FM: I thought it was interesting how Great Directors doesn’t end with a monologue neatly tying everything together. It allowed viewers to take what they wanted from it.
AI: You thought there would be more and then it stopped. Because we don’t have the answers. Everyone who sees the film will find their own answers. I think the film not only celebrates cinema, but celebrates everyone in any field of the creative process. I received a wonderful letter from a Chinese student who said, “I was so inspired, I went back with hope to continue my career and find a unique path, rather than surrender to commercialism. That’s what your film did for me.”
FM: What did you personally take away from this experience?
AI: When you meet the people that stay humble and true to their beliefs, then you realize that you’re not the only one. It’s different meeting these filmmakers in person, rather than just knowing them from their work. I’m very honored that these directors gave me their time and really opened up to me. I think this documentary will benefit many film lovers and film students. You learn technical things in school, but you don’t learn how to become a director in film school. You do it on your own. Bertolucci said, “I always tell students to watch films, a hundred films, thousands of films, and then they will find what is unique and most appealing to them.” You really have to watch all kinds of films, just like how you have to go to a museum and see paintings. Everything is stimulating for an artist.
NETFLIX SUGGESTIONS: (I = Instant Viewing option available)
BERNARDO BERTOLUCCI: Last Tango in Paris, The Last Emperor (I)
CATHERINE BREILLAT: A Very Young Girl, Anatomy of Hell (I)
LILIANA CAVANI: The Night Porter, Ripley’s Game
STEPHEN FREARS: Dangerous Liaisons, High Fidelity
TODD HAYNES: Far From Heaven (I), I’m Not There
RICHARD LINKLATER: Waking Life, Tape (I)
KEN LOACH: Sweet Sixteen, The Wind That Shakes the Barley (I)
DAVID LYNCH: Eraserhead (I), Inland Empire (I)
JOHN SAYLES: Lianna (I), Lone Star
AGNES VARDA: Cleo from 5 to 7 (I), The Beaches of Agnes (I)
Room 666, directed by Wim Wenders
Matt Fagerholm Matt Fagerholm is a writer, film enthusiast and critic in Chicago.
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