Before the Scene with Peter Bogdanovich

by AJ Buckley on December 19, 2011

Before the Scene is where we all start. In a small town with our families. In front of a mirror with our friends. The days spent sleeping on a couch. The nights working at a bar. Living with the unknown and surrounded by uncertainty. It’s about the times that define us. It’s about the darkness just before the limelight.

Peter Bogdanovich is an Academy Award-nominated director, writer and actor. His most acclaimed films include The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon and They All Laughed. He is also the author of This is Orson Welles, the authoritative biographical work on the legendary director of Citizen Kane. His next project as an actor is The Tell-Tale Heart.

What made you want to become a filmmaker?
Oh, I don’t know. I thought I was going to be an actor. And I wanted to be a movie star. For a while when I was a child, I decided to be an actor and I started in the theatre first. I started living in New York and at some point, I decided I wanted to direct and not act. I think the first time I became aware of a movie director was seeing Citizen Kane when I was about sixteen. I suppose it was because Orson was up there acting, and I figured out he was also directing. That interested me. That’s sort of how I got in to thinking about it.

What was your biggest fear?
That I wouldn’t get to make pictures. Or at least, the pictures I wanted to make.

What was your lowest point?
That’s a complicated question because I had success in the theatre first. Then, I had a big flop in the theatre, which was a low point. Then we moved to California, mainly because I had a big flop in New York. I realized that I did most of the writing about Hollywood subjects. I really wanted to make movies not plays. I didn’t want to direct plays; I wanted to direct movies. Then, it was sort of an upward climb to make Targets and, eventually, The Last Picture Show. I don’t think there was a real terrible downer, like the play flopping. That was terrible.

What kept you from walking away?
It never occurred to me. Well, I thought I’d be discovered by Hollywood directing plays. Like Mike Nichols did. It didn’t happen that way. Roger Corman gave me my first break in movies. He didn’t know that I’d directed in the theatre. He had read my stuff in Esquire and he thought of me as a writer. And when I told him I had directed in the theatre, that was an added plus. I moved to California in ’64, middle of ’64, met Roger a year later. And it was pretty consistent work from then on. There was a long time between the time we finished Targets and sold it to Paramount. That was quite a delay. And I was a little low during that period and trying to sell it. But it didn’t take that long.

Who was your closest ally?
Probably my first wife, Polly Platt. We were quite close at that time.

What were you doing before the meeting that changed your life?
Complaining about writing articles for TV Guide! It was 600 dollars a pop, and I needed the money. I was broke. I didn’t like writing for magazines, particularly. I lost interest in it. I kept doing it for Esquire until ’66. I particularly didn’t like writing for TV Guide. Not the kind of magazine I like.

Roger’s a big thing because he offered me a job that wasn’t merely writing. He offered me a job working as an assistant and I worked on this other picture, The Wild Angels. Did a lot of work on it, 22 weeks. I did just about everything you could do on a picture.

What were the words that kept you going?
I looked at older films. I was inspired by them. Pictures by Ford or Hawkes or Welles or Hitchcock. The old masters.

How have you changed?
Oh, I’m a different person now. Changed a lot. I think when Dorothy Stratten was murdered, that was a big change in my life. I didn’t want to direct anymore for a long time. I didn’t think I’d make another picture. That’s after about twelve years…about fourteen years of making pictures. ’66 to ’80. When she was killed I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t do another picture for three or four years, in fact.

What words do you have to inspire others?
People ask me that all the time and I think the only thing I can say is, “Don’t give up.” Because the tendency to want to give up is strong. It’s a very difficult business, unless you get very lucky. I was lucky actually. I was quite lucky. I got Roger who was a big, big deal and he put me to work right away. I didn’t really stop working there from the time he hired me. I kept working on pictures. It was non-stop until I went around the world in ’77. I almost stopped making pictures then for two years — three years almost—  because I hadn’t liked what had happened to two of my pictures. I’d thought I’d f****** them up. Generally, success had f***** me up a bit. At Long Last Love and Nickelodeon were not where I wanted them to be and I was very discouraged so I went around the world twice with Cybill Shepherd – we were living together. That was pleasant. But then I decided to make a film absolutely without any compromise. And that was Saint Jack and then following that was They All Laughed, which was also made with no compromise of any kind. Then Dorothy was killed which destroyed the basic mood of the picture.