Thursday, May 7, 2015

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.

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