Thursday, May 6, 2010

William Greaves and Steven Soderbergh on "Symbiopsychotaxiplasm"

What was your background before becoming a filmmaker?

WILLIAM GREAVES: I taught acting for quite a while in Canada, from the Actors Studio in New York. I went up to Canada and worked on the National Film Board of Canada, on the production staff. I also, concurrently, opened up a studio that was modeled on the New York Actor's Studio, and taught acting.

One of my actors became very wealthy in the real estate business in Miami, Florida. He said, 'Listen, you're a very talented fellow and you have a lot of ideas. You're just as good a director as anyone coming out of Hollywood. Why don't you do a feature?'

And I said, 'These things cost money.' And he said, 'What does it cost?' And I told him and he said, 'Do it. I'll back it.'

So I asked him what sort of subject he wanted me to concentrate on -- a whodunit or a romance, or what?

And he said, 'Anything you like. Whatever you want to do, Bill, you do.'

So, with that blank check I reflected on a lot of things that that I had been thinking about over the years. One of them is the creative process, as it relates to the actor and the director. Having been a product of the Actor's Studio and Lee Strasberg, Kazan, Stanislavsky and those people, as well as having been involved in psycho drama, by way of J.L. Moreno, who was the pioneer of psycho drama, it came to me that it would be interesting to shoot a film that had some of these elements.

I thought it would be interesting to do several screen tests and to look at the creative process that actors undergo, in conjunction with the director, to show their talents at the highest level.

That's how it all got started, initially, but then other elements came into play. For example, the Heisenberg Principal of Uncertainty, for which the analog to the electron microscope is the motion picture camera, which is looking down into the psyche and soul of the actor while the actor is performing, and often times it tends to stiffen and destroy the spontaneity and truthful feelings of the actor as the character they're trying to portray. I thought that would be an interesting element to think about, artistically, creatively.

One of the hallmarks of the Stanislavsky system is to try to be as honest in what you're doing, in performance, as possible. One of the things that kept bothering me about a lot Hollywood movies was that the acting was very stiff and lacking in spontaneity. Having challenged myself as an actor to be more realistic in my acting, and having looked at the work of people like Marlon Brando and Julie Harris -- people at the Actor's Studio who's work was very spontaneous.

It came to me that this was a wonderful opportunity to test the limits of my credibility as a person in front of a camera, pursuing this particular screen test with these actors, but trying to not act for the camera.

The director in the film is definitely a character -- a character that, at times, drives the crew and the cast a little crazy. Was that intentional?

WILLIAM GREAVES: One of the elements of my characterization was my inscrutability. Try and try as much as they could, they couldn't decode my motives. That was calculated to elicit a degree of tension and angry and anxiety in the crew. They couldn't decode my motives, and I didn't want them to decode my motives, because I wanted to see if it would be possible to generate as much conflict in front of the camera as possible. Conflict being the hallmark of a really good drama.

I was hoping to have any conflict to what I was doing played out in front of the camera by the crew challenging me in what I was doing or criticize me or whatever. But this did not happen until the last scene in the movie, of the crew on the grass, screaming and shouting and shrieking at me because I was doing a lot of what they considered to be bizarre and unorthodox things that were not in lock step with traditional Hollywood feature filmmaking.

I didn't think that they were challenging me enough during the course of the shooting, but then they gave me the footage that they shot on their own. I didn't know that they had done this palace revolt, it was something that they surreptitiously stole away and did at the end of a day of shooting after I went home.

They had this closet revolt and it was terribly exciting to me, because I was afraid that the film was not going to work out well, because it didn't have enough conflict.

But when I saw this material I was just elated and I knew that we had a very good film on our hands -- something that would be very fresh and delight audiences, particularly those who were reasonably conversant with the filmmaking process.

I was surprised that in the midst of all this chaos, the crew had the presence of mind to get a release form from the man who wanders into the shoot.

WILLIAM GREAVES: That's very conventional behavior. It was obvious that this was a very risqué situation, but we had to have this man sign on to what we were doing. We didn't know how conscious he was, or how inebriated he was, but we weren't taking any chances. We knew we had to have him give us the clearance.

He says, 'What is this, a movie? Who's moving who?'

That's the way life is. Life is full of a lot of lucky moment, as well as tragic moments. And our mission was to capture as many lucky moments as possible.

Can you explain the genesis of the title?

WILLIAM GREAVES: The title is, for me, a very attractive title. I tend to be in love with scientific thinking of one kind or another, and I came across a book called Inquiry Into Inquiries;: Essays In Social Theory, which was written by a very knowledgeable social scientist named Arthur Bentley.

He conceived of the milieu that human beings find themselves as the symbiotaxiplasm. And this symbiotaxiplasm represents those events that transpire in the course of anyone's life that have an impact on the consciousness and the psyche of the average human being, and how that human being also controls or effects changes or has an impact on the environment.

So there's a dialectic or a dialogue that goes on between the action and behavior and thinking of human beings as they move through the events in their lives.

I had the arrogance, the temerity, to introduce the term 'psycho' in the middle of symbiotaxiplasm, making symbiopsychotaxiplasm.

Symbio represents the existence of similarities of one kind or another. Psycho is the mind. Taxi is how the mind reacts and responds to arrangement of reality. And Plasm being the human being. I'm over-simplifying it; you'll have to read the book yourself.

How did Steven Soderbergh get involved in the project?

WILLIAM GREAVES: Steve Soderbergh came out of the blue to find me, because he had heard about Take One, and he was very curious about it and finally caught up with me. We would never had done Take 2 1/2 if it weren't for him.

Where did you first hear about Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One?

STEVEN SODERBERGH: I first heard about it through my colleague, Larry Blake, who does post-production sound on all of my films. He went to Sundance in 1992, and when he came back he said he saw this really crazy movie. In the middle of the movie screening, in Park City, the projector broke and the director walked up the front of the theater and said, 'This may or may not be part of the film.' Larry said, 'You have to se this movie, it's really amazing.'

I didn't see it until four years later, finally. I managed to track down the tape. As you can imagine, I just thought it was one of the most amazing things I'd ever seen. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe how great it was and that it wasn't famous, I mean really famous. Even then, almost ten years ago, I felt maybe it's still, even now, too far ahead of its time.

It's the ultimate "reality" piece.

The difference being, in this case, that nobody was in on the joke. And that's what makes it so brilliant. When you do a reality show on TV today, you know you're part of a show and that they're going to start creating obstacles for you or trying to complicate the situation purposefully and consciously. Here, you're just watching a situation where people are absolutely convinced that Bill is out of control, doesn't know what he's doing, and you're a fly on the wall. And then the ultimate mutiny takes place. It's really incredible.

I think when he was presented with that material, he must have felt like the cinema gods were smiling on him.

It's unprecedented nature is even evident when you see the second film. I found the second film really interesting for completely different reasons. In cultural terms, it's a very melancholy film to me, because something's been lost. There's a spirit that I think is gone and it's not just because you can't go home again; I think it's bigger than that.

I think we live in a time now where people don't feel as free with themselves and their ideas, at least in the context of film shoot, but also in general. We live in a culture now where people who dissent vocally are attacked. And that wasn't the case then. That was a time where you were attacked for not speaking up. I think when you watch the two films back-to-back you can feel it, you can feel it. There's a freedom and a looseness in the first one, just in the way people are behaving, that's not at all present in the second one.

It's also amazing to see the same actors, 25 years later.

STEVEN SODERBERGH: It's because we look in the mirror every morning and so we don't notice the changes as much as we do when we see these two films. There's something incredibly compelling about it. It's an undiluted dose of mortality.

The genie's out of the bottle now. It's beyond the fourth wall, it just took it to another level.

Why did the first film take so long to come to light?

STEVEN SODERBERGH: I don't know if there's a good explanation for it, other than bad fortune. Or, perhaps, good fortune now that people are starting to see it. It's conceivable the film might never have been noticed or remembered. But certainly, during that period, I mean people were going to see El Topo at midnight, this is a more accessible movie than that. I don't understand it.

I'm stunned that I'd never heard of it before Larry mentioned it to me. I scoured magazines and quarterlies and was certainly paying attention to alternative cinema and the history of alternative and independent cinema, and I'd never heard of it.

It's one of the pluses of being in this situation, is that every once in a while you can lend a hand to somebody who just needs a little sugar.


Anonymous said...

This interview seems to be the basis for the Wikipedia article about the film, which I was in.

The Wiki article seems to have been written by some film critic (maybe even Mr. Soderbergh?). I'm not sure when Bill did it, but the date on the blog says May, 2010.

The Wikipedia article states:

"To make matters more interesting, Greaves takes the opportunity to play the fool, performing a part rather than "playing himself". Because Greaves's director character is sexist, unfocused, unprofessional, and seemingly inept, the film crews start to sow dissent amongst their ranks, all of which is caught on camera because of the constant filming on set. This footage, of course, ends up in the final cut of the film and only help to complexify the film."

Well, yes, BUT. The crucial thing, as I have tried to point out elsewhere, is that Bill had no way of knowing what we (the crew) would do, if anything. The article glibly slides over this crucial issue: "This footage, of course, ends up in the final cut of the film.."

What does the Wikipedia writer mean by "this" footage? THIS footage was NOT "because of the constant filming on the set." It was because of the filming WE did OFF the set, in the REAL world, behind Bill's back, without his knowledge.

What does he mean by "of course"? He means that ONCE we gave Bill the footage, Bill of course saw what we had done, and made the most of it. As I said to Bill when he stepped out of the elevator on the penthouse floor at Amram's and I handed him those 4 rolls: "Bill, you're going to need this." Meaning: "You won't have a film without this footage."

Now, in this Wiki article, Bill is presented like he was God, that he somehow knew all along that it was only a matter of time before one of us got this "bright idea" to take the film away from him, out of his control, and film behind his back.

Is it possible? Sure. Do I know for sure that Bill didn't have this plan in his mind BEFORE we did anything? No, BUT I am almost certain that he did NOT. How do I know? Because that is the way CREATION happens. ALL creation, even God does it that way.

It's called "evolution." There is no one directing it. No god-like auteur on the set "playing the fool" in order to get other people to complete His idea. I'm not saying Bill WAS a fool. I am just saying he wasn't a god. The "playing the fool" bit is Bill's retrospective revision (or the writer's revision), his attempt after the fact of creation to construct some fake narrative that restores the illusion that Bill knew what he was doing all the time.

I say that's simply not so. He didn't really know what he was doing at all. That's why Bill is a truly great man. A man of supreme courage. Because he didn't really know what he was doing, but went ahead anyway. And then Jonathan Gordon, another great guy, who had the courage to take his clothes off on stage at the Living Theater, had this thought, which completed Bill's initial thought. And the rest of us all went into a room and had our thoughts too, and added them to the pot, and we gave it to Bill, and Bill stirred it, and all of these thoughts in Our Mind stirred the film to life.

Bill may be The Emperor of the film. But if the film is great, it's only because the Emperor admits that he has no clothes. And that real life is all just Living Theater and we are all on stage together, naked, improvising it as we go along. The Play of God.

Best regards, Bob Rosen, who can be reached at if there's anything anyone else cares to say to me about any of this.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Bob Rosen, for your comment which cleared up important things for me for writing an essay about this film. It is a great film thanks to everone who participated in it and maybe without those sceneces of the "palace revolution" which you filmed behind closed doors, the movie would be a shallow direct cinema piece about filmmaking; as you said, the "genius" of Bill Greaves was to include those scenes in the movie. For me it's a perfect example how improvisation is a means to show how you can always step outside the structure to question and, in the long run, change it. long live improvisation, life is jazz!

Lexo said...

It's good to hear from another participant in this great and remarkable movie, and Bob Rosen is of course in a privileged position in that he was around when the film was being made and the rest of us weren't. (I wasn't even born then.) However, I think his memory may play him false; he remembers the footage shot without Bill Greaves as having been done 'without his knowledge' but in the scene that I just watched tonight, the crew are actually debating about the meaning of Greaves' awareness aware that they are shooting without him, and are wondering whether or not the footage will end up in the finished movie. This suggests that they knew, at the time, that Greaves had given them the use of a camera precisely so that they might film stuff that he didn't know about it and wasn't present for, whether or not they really believed he would use it. Greaves' own notes on the film, written before he made it, suggest that he wanted to incorporate a lot of different kinds of material into the film, and the film itself parodies the idea that the director is God; the crew's debate about whether or not Greaves really understands what he's doing is played under long shots of Greaves posing on rocky outcrops as if he were a misunderstood and lonely genius - I can't help seeing his sense of humour at work, here. I don't think Greaves knew exactly what was going to happen, but I do think that he knew that things would happen that he hadn't anticipated, and that the point of the film was to incorporate those things, so in a sense the film sets up a fascinating tension between (as Amy Taubin says in her essay in the film in the DVD boxed set) auteur and collective. In the end, like all films, it's a collective achievement but I do think Greaves must be given credit for having the idea in the first place. He is not, after all, the bumbling, unfocused character of 'Bill Greaves' that he played in the movie.

Bill Henderson said...

Another member of the crew checking in here. I'm not sure what Bob meant by "without his knowledge," but Bill was aware the crew was conspiring, and he knew he would eventually see the result and be able to use it. Was this his master plan? No, because going into any shoot, Bill's "plan" was only about the size of a grocery list.

This is a key point. Bill was a documentarian through and through. More to the point, he was a dyed-in-the-wool cinema verite (or direct cinema) documentarian. It was against his aesthetic to approach a shoot with a master plan. His way (and yes, his genius) was to shoot without the slightest knowledge of what would happen; be opportunistic about sensing the moment and running with it. The story would emerge later, in the cutting room.

I think most of us on the crew were aware our "insurrection" was part of Bill's general approach––to whip up some some disparate, even warring, elements, throw them together, and see what kind of chemical reaction would ensue

Bob is certainly right about the ultimate value of the crew sequences: without them Bill wouldn't have had much of a film. But in cinema verite, that can often be said of serendipitous footage that later turns out to be crucial. I'd like to add as well that if Bob Rosen and Jonathan Gordon had not signed on for the shoot, Bill would have had a lessor film by far.

One more thing. Bill did not "play" the fool. Bob is right when he says Bill didn't know what he was doing: it was true, in a literal sense. But as Bob also notes, "foolishness" of this sort is the mark of the best contemporary documentarians: of course you don't know what you're doing until you discover WHAT it IS.

Bill was exactly himself on that shoot. For most of a year I worked closely with him on a different film--we were in the same room on a daily basis, and I had ample opportunity to observe his working demeanor. Yes, it sometimes seemed like he was bumbling but it that was his personal style and it fit his persona well--it humanized him and gracefully masked his sharper and tougher qualities (yes, he had them). I always felt the "confusion" we sometimes experienced on location derived simply from Bill's documentary method: you wait for something to happen; you might even spur it a bit; but you don't CREATE the event.

One thing I never found out was whether or not Bill had intentionally written bad dialogue for his sets of actors to read. This view would fit with the view of Bill as stealth provocateur. Perhaps he just couldn't write top-notch dialogue. Or it's possibly he didn't care that much what they said. These were only scene fragments after all. But clearly no one was ever comfortable with the dialogues as written--which I think adds to the running tension in the film.