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Yes, there was a script but it was just, it was more descriptive than dialogue. It really read like a story. Michel [Hazanavicius, writer/director] really did a beautiful job -- it was bound and on each side of the page there were photographs of Berenice [Bejo] and Jean [Dujardin] in period costume, and period locations. It was very picturesque. It was definitely unusual, so I did get this almost hesitant call from my agent saying, "They're making this black and white silent film and it's set in the 20s." That perked me up because I love the 20s, and I asked, "Well, who is in it?" He said, "The two leads are French and the director is French," and I'd never heard of them nor could I pronounce their names [laughs]. And I thought that this was getting more interesting by the minute.
Miller told the Orange County Register's Richard Chang a bit more details about that initial phone call, and her first meeting with Hazanavicius:
Q: How did you get cast for this picture?
A: My agent, who has a relationship with the casting director, called me. I was interested in at least reading it. There were actors who weren't interested. They're probably kicking themselves right now. There are those of us who are willing to take that leap of risk, who had faith. Obviously, it was a very far-fetched notion. In "Chaplin," you could hear the dialogue. With this, this is like a full-blown silent film.
But I love the '20s. I'm an old movie buff. I'm very nostalgic about old Hollywood. I sort of welcomed the opportunity and thought this could be kind of fun. It definitely could be a real hit or a real miss. If it was a miss, oh well, I can move on.
Q: What was it like to work with director Michel Hazanavicius? He isn't that well-known in the U.S.
A: When I met him, I discovered he'd really done his homework. He had a really strong vision. I told him we both shared the passion for the old movies. He knew how he wanted to film it, what he was doing. He really hired the top of the line to work with him. The cinematographer was the guy he's always worked with. The hair and makeup worked with some real big stars. People on the technical side loved the artistic side of the film. How many opportunities do you get to make a movie like this? It wasn't going to be a huge, long schedule. I took it for the art of it.
HAVANAVICIUS ON SIX SILENT FILMS THAT INSPIRED 'THE ARTIST'
When Havanavicius accepted the best picture award at tonight's Oscar ceremony, he thanked Billy Wilder, Billy Wilder, and Billy Wilder. But back in November, Hazanavicius shared with Indiewire's Eric Kohn notes on six silent films that inspired The Artist. The first of the six listed is Josef von Sternberg's Underworld. Released in 1927, the screenplay for Underworld was written by Ben Hecht, who was awarded the first-ever Academy Award for Best Screenplay for the film. Hecht went on to write the screenplay for Howard Hawks's Scarface, and De Palma's remake of that film is dedicated to Hawks and Hecht. Havanavicius states, "All of Scarface, and even Brian De Palma's The Untouchables, comes from Underworld. The way that director Josef von Sternberg shot women was incredible. It's super-sensual, and really amazing to see a gangster movie as good as anything by Tarantino from this period."
The other five silent films noted by Havanavicius are Tod Browning's The Unknown, F.W. Murnau's Sunrise and City Girl, King Vidor's The Crowd, and Charlie Chaplin's City Lights.
When De Palma yelled cut, “Smitty” grabbed Kevin by the arm and raced towards me. We were introduced and Kevin had a firm handshake, and a great sincere smile. “Smitty” like many others, of course, told the Errol Flynn Story and yet another actor, (Costner) was a fan of Errol’s. De Palma saw a group forming and didn’t realize I was on the set. When he came over, he bear hugged me and told his crew, take an hour, we are going to lunch. Off Kevin, “Smitty”, Brian and I went in his limo to eat.
For the next hour, Kevin sat there listening to stories that “Smitty”, Brian and I, shared, all the time, asking great questions and soaking in any and all acting advice we could give. He was very humble, and even offered to pick up the tab, but of course, De Palma wouldn’t allow that. At the end of our lunch, Kevin and I had bonded, exchanging numbers.
For many years after our first meeting, Kevin and I have stayed in touch with him still being that humble person I met some 26 years ago. So when the rest of the world praised his eulogy at Whitney Houston’s funeral last week, I just smiled because the class act that I have known Kevin to be way away from the glaring lights of a movie set, shined through.
Specifically, Dean's star struck moments of meeting the leader of The Untouchables was pure awesome. It was very cool to see an iconic hero like Eliot Ness gain that Supernatural edge by making him a hunter, and it made perfect sense. It was also great that he was able to reference the fantastic Brian De Palma film, The Untouchables, with lines like "because that is the Chicago way" and punching out the witness because that's what he watched Eliot Ness do in the movie. At the same time, attempting to imitate the film fell flat for Dean, making it even more humorous for his character as he tried to fit in and seem as cool as his counterpart.
That’s when they went and shot the Odessa Steps sequence in the train station, with a load of raw film stock that De Palma had stored up. That wasn’t even in the script. We were supposed to shoot at the race track and a lot of other stuff, and he said ‘We can’t shoot any of that stuff, so everybody pack up, but in the meantime I’m going to shoot my version of the Battleship Potemkin scene with all this film I’ve stolen’…
The first scene we shot was where the little kid gets blown up. So I’m outside waiting on the street where they’re lighting, and some older woman comes up with a little boy and asks for a picture, so I put my arm around the little boy and all that. And the next day in the newspaper I found that the picture was there! And the little boy was like Nitti’s great great grandson.
The guy who was my stand-in was the great grandson of a guy who’d had a Nitti contract out on him! And his grandfather had hidden out in the middle of Illinois until Nitti had died, and survived the hit. But even after that, he got ill and he was in the hospital, and the nurses complained about him because he was sleeping with a pistol under his pillow, because he was convinced he was still gonna get whacked!
I got to know the Nitti family. They still live in the Chicago area and they have grocery stores and businesses: regular businesses; they’re not mob connected anymore! They called the hotel where I was staying, which was the actual hotel that had been owned by Capone and Nitti during that period (in fact the very phone booth where Machine Gun Jack McGill was killed was right outside my door). I was down in the lobby and the concierge came over to say that the Nitti family would be by to pick me up at 8 o’clock. Nobody asked if I actually wanted to go… It was an offer I couldn’t refuse! But it would have been too interesting an adventure to turn down anyway. So at eight o’clock I’m down in the lobby and a limousine pulls up and a guy gets out and introduces himself as someone who works for the Nitti family, and we drove around every blues club in Chicago, and at every one it was like royalty had arrived. ‘The Nitti family is here!’ It was great fun but they were making me a little nervous because they gradually started treating me like I really was Frank Nitti. They made sure my back was to the wall so I could see everybody, and all the young Italian turks would come by to pay their respects, and they’d all say “Sooooo, playin’ Uncle Frank huh? Lookin’ good, lookin’ good…” It gave me a bit of an insight into what it would have been like and what had gone on…
They didn’t mind Frank being portrayed as such a villain; the legend is so big. They had to move Nitty’s grave several times because people kept digging it up to make sure he really was dead; they were so scared of him. Only the family knew where his grave was for a while. I wore a white suit in the movie because we thought of him as the angel of death. I talked to a very elderly gentleman once who’d been a policeman undercover, and he said that Nitti had found him out, and tied him up in a basement and put a gun in his mouth and waited to see if he would sweat. Nitti had a very famous saying: ‘I never killed a man who wasn’t afraid to die’. So if he’d sweated he would’ve been killed, but he didn’t so Nitti said ‘oh okay, he’s not afraid’ so he let him go.
My mother never quite forgave me for killing Sean Connery. Mom, I had to! They paid me!
Brian is a great director. Nobody can interpret things visually like he does: telling a story through a lens. Take the scene in The Untouchables where Charles Martin Smith is shot in the elevator. Look at that steadycam shot; he's not just moving the camera to show you that we can go longer because we have the steadycam. Francis used to tell me, "Marty, we can start a shot and go up to the Empire State Building and come back down. Anybody can do it. You have to know how to move a camera a little bit, that's all." A lot of people use the steadycam and don't know what they're doing. What Brian does with it is tell the story, progressing the story within the shot. That's just one example. Then in Carlito's Way there's a scene entering a night-club and the camera tracks up. It's extraordinary, his visual interpretation. He deals with stories that enable him to do that sort of thing. So when you get a real De Palma picture like Raising Cain or Body Double, you're getting something really unique. He's provocative. He goes, "I'm going to do this again. Hitchcock did it - so what? Who cares? I'm doing it this way." Brian knows. We always talk about that together.
Larry McConkey (Steadicam operator): The impression I had when Marty walked us through the Copacabana shot was that this is going to be the most boring, worst thing I've ever done. We're walking across the street, down the stairs, down a hallway, in the kitchen.... What is this shot about?
Douglas: They didn't know that the Copacabana tracking shot was going to be such a big deal. It wasn't like, "Okay, we're going to do the greatest Steadicam shot in history."
Joseph Reidy (first assistant director): It's probably the hardest orchestrated single shot I've ever been involved in. McConkey: There were 400 or more absolutely precise timing moments. It was totally impossible, mathematically.
Kristi Zea (production designer): This was the mating dance. Henry's arrival into the Copa, the way he came in, and how the whole thing was designed to impress the hell out of Karen. You wanted the audience to be part of her being impressed.
Johnny "Cha Cha" Ciarcia (Batts's crew number one): Marty Scorsese was in trouble for extras, so one of the casting directors called me. I live on Mulberry Street. I know the whole world. I went and I made a deal for $10 a person. We had five busloads of people on Fifth Avenue for the Copa. I set it all up.
Zea: He wanted a long preamble before they get into the space. The Copa didn't have a long enough walk before they actually get into the nightclub. So we had to build a hallway, and we literally took the walls away while the camera was in motion, so that they were gone by the time Ray and Lorraine showed up in the main room. The delivery of the camera into that big space had to be done like a ballet. Henry is saying hi to everyone, everyone knew who he was. And then the table flies across the camera and lands smack dab in front of Henny Youngman, and suddenly there's champagne coming over courtesy of these other guys.
McConkey: Marty watches the first rehearsal, and the only thing he said was, "No, no! When the table comes in, it's got to fly in! I came here as a kid and I saw this!" They'd flip on a tablecloth, the lamp goes on top of it, somebody plugs it in, they put down the plates... It was like a magic act.
Douglas: I believe they only did like seven takes. I've been involved in Steadicam work where you literally work all day to achieve what Marty achieved in that shot.
Liotta: One take was because at the end of it, Henny Youngman forgot his joke.
Zea: "Take my wife..."
Ballhaus: He forgot his line that he had said about 2,000 times!
Douglas: Brian De Palma had just done this incredibly long Steadicam shot in The Untouchables, and Marty said it would be funny to try to do it one minute longer than De Palma's. The world perceives this as "Oh, the Copacabana scene!" But what it really is, is directors behind the scenes having fun fucking with each other.