6 Filmmaking Tips from John Cassavetes

By  · Published on August 13th, 2014

Paramount Pictures

The 1980s proved a difficult time for many notable American directors of the 1960s and 70s. Sure, filmmakers like Altman and Coppola came out on the other side of the decade with renewed vigor, and at least one – Scorsese – even managed to arguably realize some of the most interesting work of his career. But for others, the 1980s were a lost and endless horizon of work that was hard to come by compounded by life circumstances that were even harder to endure. Difficult men who lived hard and felt deeply now found themselves confronted with their most profound personal and professional limitations. After trying to reform himself in the wake of drug addiction and a damaged reputation, Hal Ashby died of pancreatic cancer in December 1988. Just over a month later, renowned independent filmmaker, theater director, writer, and actor John Cassavetes passed away of cirrhosis of the liver.

Cassavetes was supposed to die five years earlier, when he received a prognosis that he had only six months to live. Faced with almost certain death, Cassavetes composed a wrenching, beautiful and deeply personal swan song titled Love Streams about an aging alcoholic socialite reconnecting with his estranged sister, played by his wife Gena Rowlands. The dramatist would produce another film (Big Trouble, which he disowned) and stage a play after outlasting his doctor’s prediction, but Love Streams remains Cassavetes’ decisive magnum opus, both a thematic summation of his career in film and an indication of how his lifelong approach to filmmaking evolved through the years.

Upon Criterion’s release of the long-unavailable Love Streams, here is some free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from an independent spirit whose influence has endured well past his lifetime.

Improvisational Filmmaking is “Like Jazz”

“The script formed the skeleton around which the actors might change or ad lib lines according to their response to the situation at the moment, so that each performance was slightly different. A jazz musician works in this way, using a given musical skeleton and creating out of it, building a musical whole related to a particular moment by listening to and interacting with his fellow musicians. Jazz musicians working with actors could conceivably provide audiences with some of the most moving and alive theater they have ever experienced.” – Diane Dorr-Dorynek, a friend of Charles Mingus, discussing Cassavetes’ technique after observing Mingus’ work on Shadows, from the liner notes of “Mingus Ah Um”

Regarding improvisational acting as a practice not unlike jazz has become common wisdom, and like most common wisdom, the assumptions behind the comparison don’t really do it justice. Improvisation, whether in filmmaking or in music, is not simply a free flow of expression, but a rigorous and disciplined act of playing from a given structure at the core. There remains a misconception that, because Cassavaetes’ work wasn’t conventionally scripted, it was something of a free-for-all. The opposite is true: the aesthetic of spontaneity presented in Cassavetes’ work is the result of creative acts derived from deep structure.

That is how the work opens up to explore what else is possible.

Don’t Make Good Films, Make Free Films

Understand the Relationship Between Age and Self-Knowledge

Cassavetes’ films, as a whole, are about aging. Shadows is as much about the seemingly infinite experience of youth as Love Streams is about the certainty of mortality. While Cassavetes’ technique remained largely the same across the films that he took ownership of (the director rarely spoke of studio work like Too Late Blues and A Child is Waiting), his style and disposition evolved greatly – not because he decisively changed his filmmaking personality (he was always unapologetically himself), but because he aged and adapted his shifting perspective of life into his films.

“I Don’t Care If It’s a Success”

I recommend watching this rant Cassavetes delivered to an interviewer while promoting Opening Night until its end. It shows not only the director’s whose personal passion was inseparable from the depths of productive and destructive passion his characters explored onscreen, but also the principled stubbornness that allowed him to continue justifying his pursuit of non-commercial filmmaking. He is unremittingly sincere in the face of a culture of cinematic cynicism. Keep in mind that this interview took place during the onset of the blockbuster era.

Money Kills Creativity

For Cassavetes, the only honest cinema is anti-commercial cinema.

Filmmaking Resists Planning

In this documentary about Cassavetes’ work conducted on the set on Love Streams, the director discusses the wide gap between the film envisioned and the film made. The director’s advice here is certainly not against planning, but for approaching structure at the outset while embracing and exploring the changes and diversions from that structure that will inevitably arise. To think that the film will come out as envisioned is not only naïve to Cassavetes, but anti-humanist: it takes the unpredictable and collective interpersonal element out of filmmaking. To make your planning sacrosanct is to kill the living process of filmmaking.

What We’ve Learned

We have an image of John Cassavetes, the somewhat misnamed “father of American independent filmmaking,” as someone who made the films he wanted, the way he wanted them, beyond compromise and beholden ceaselessly to his principles of honest filmmaking. This was no doubt Cassavetes’ aim, but this part of the story potentially obscures his means.

Cassavetes acted in and even directed Hollywood films so that he could make the films he wanted with the people he wanted. And rather than an intrepid explorer of uninhibited filmmaking freedom, Cassavetes and his team of actors practiced an involved, exhaustive and rigorous process of improvisation in order to complete films, often resulting in seemingly endless shoots: he shot Shadows twice (once in 1957 and once more in 1959) and shot seemingly endless reels of film.

He was never a perfectionist in the Kubrickian sense, nor on the other end of the spectrum was he always an ideally democratic member of a radically cooperative approach to filmmaking. Cassavetes’ idealism was only realized through his pragmatism. That’s because the goal he sought was and still remains so rare in American cinema: a form of filmmaking interested principally in exploring people and what makes them human. How could his work not, then, also become a record of his life?

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