How I Make Films: Interview with John Huston, Film Quarterly, Fall 1965. I must say that this is one of the best interviews with John Huston.
How does the script get written? Do you do it alone? And how long does it take you?
Again, there are no rules. I’ve written scripts and made pictures out of them in two weeks. At other times I’ve worked a year and a half just on a script. The Maltese Falcon was done in a very short time, because it was based on a very fine book and there was very little for me to invent. It was a matter of sticking to the ideas of the book, of making a film out of a book. On Treasure of Sierra Madre, I wrote the script in about 3-4 months, but I had had quite a long time to think about it before. The actual making of the film didn’t take very long, but I had had the idea of making it since before the war. It was the first film I made after the war.
What is the technical process of your scriptwriting?
Usually I write in longhand first, and then dictate a later version. I use a standard script form: action on the left and dialogue on the right. When it’s finished it’s mimeographed and distributed to the pople who need to see it. I often change again later. Sometimes I finish the final version on the set itself, or change again something I’ve written as a final version the day before. Mostly these changes come to me when I hear the words first spoken by an actor. It’s always different once it comes out of a living person’s mouth. By this I do not mean that I try to adjust to an actor’s personality—I try to do that as little as possible. When I write, I don’t have in mind an actor, but a character. I don’t conceive this character with a specific star in my mind. I guess what I am trying to do with this constant changing, is to try to put to work more than my own imagination, or at least allow my imagination the liberty of play, the liberty of coming out of its cage—which is me, my body, when I am alone and writing—and in this way it begins to live and to flower and gives me better service than when I put it to work abstractly, alone, in a room with paper and pencil, without the living presence of the material. Then, when the character has been born out of this extended imagination, I have to look for someone to play the role, and this someone isn’t always necessarily the person who I thought could play it originally, because often it no longer is the same character. In fact, I’ve often-at least, sometimes—delayed the making of a film because I couldn’t find anybody to play the new and adjusted character that I had finally arrived at construing. Although in my experience you usually find someone; there are enough good actors if you are willing to wait a little.
What should an actor’s relationship to the camera be?
He must have an awareness of the size of his gesture, his motion, in relation to the size that his image will be on the screen. It isn’t absolutely an essential quality, but it is very useful. I don’t mean that I tell him the focal length of the lens I’m using and expect him to adapt himself accordingly, but a good actor has an almost instinctual awareness of these things. When an actor comes from the stage, he usually has to make adjustments of this kind. He doesn’t need to project, he doesn’t need to make his voice heard over a distance. He can speak very quietly. He can be more economical in every way before the camera than he could be on stage. And he can work with the small details of his face.
Let’s see if we can follow your filmmaking method through logically and go on to a description of the process of turning the script into film.
Actually I don’t separate the elements of filmmaking in such an abstract manner. For example, the directing of a film, to me, is simply an extension of the process of writing. It’s the process of rendering the thing you have written. You’re still writing when you’re directing. Of course you’re not composing words, but a gesture, the way you make somebody raise his eyes or shake his head is also writing for films. Nor can I answer precisely what the relative importance, to me, of the various aspects of filmmaking is, I mean, whether I pay more attention to writing, directing, editing, or what—have—you. The most important element to me is always the idea that I’m trying to express, and everything technical is only a method to make the idea into clear form. I’m always working on the idea: whether I am writing, directing, choosing music or cutting. Everything must revert back to the idea; when it gets away from the idea it becomes a labyrinth of rococo.
Occasionally one tends to forget the idea, but I have always had reason to regret this whenever it happened. Sometimes you fall in love with a shot, for example. Maybe it is a tour de force as a shot. This is one of the great dangers of directing: to let the camera take over. Audiences very often do not understand this danger, and it is not unusual that camerawork is appreciated in cases where it really has no business in the film, simply because it is decorative or in itself exhibitionistic. I would say that there are maybe half a dozen directors who really know their camera—how to move their camera. It’s a pity that critics often do not appreciate this. On the other hand I think it’s OK that audiences should not be aware of this. In fact, when the camera is in motion, in the best-directed scenes, the audiences should not be aware of what the camera is doing. They should be following the action and the road of the idea so closely, that they shouldn’t be aware of what’s going on technically. —How I Make Films: Interview with John Huston, Film Quarterly, Fall 1965