Chat Debate
“I think mistakes are divine”

Exterior view of a pink illuminated cinema. Foto (Detail): © Unsplash/ Myke Simon

Bad acting, plotholes, poor lighting: directors Tom DiCillo and Hal Hartley talk to Andreas Ströhl from the Goethe-Institut Washington about minor and major disasters in the film business. Every other week, our chat debate deals with innocent blunders and unforgivable faux pas in various areas of society.

Tom DiCillo, Hal Hartley, and Andreas Ströhl

Portrait of Andreas Ströhl © Bernhard Schmidt Andreas Ströhl (16:02):
So, let me ask the two of you a question about mistakes: you seem to love them – or at least your protagonists do. The Henry Fool Trilogy, the Book of Life, Living in Oblivion – all films about people who make one mistake after another. And we like them. Do you like mistakes, too?

Portrait of Tom DiCillo © Tom DiCillo Tom DiCillo (16:03):
It took me a long time to understand the beauty of the mistake. Arthur Miller wrote, “In America, mistakes are immediately condemned as failure.”

 

Portrait of Hal Hartley © Hal Hartley Hal Hartley (16:04):
I remember Lucille Ball, who said: “Situation comedy is about embarrassment.” That seriously fired my early writing of scenes.

Portrait of Andreas Ströhl © Bernhard Schmidt Andreas Ströhl (16:04):
And do you really like to make them? I mean, yourself?
 

Portrait of Tom DiCillo © Tom DiCillo Tom DiCillo (16:04):
I learned to love them in an acting class where the teacher said: fall on your face and enjoy the falling.
 

Portrait of Hal Hartley © Hal Hartley Hal Hartley (16:04): 
Oh yeah. I make plenty. And I’ve gotten fairly good at putting a positive spin on them afterwards.
 

Portrait of Tom DiCillo © Tom DiCillo Tom DiCillo (16:05): 
For me, it’s a constant struggle with my own sense of acceptance of making a mistake (especially in public) and the public’s judgment of that mistake. It’s sometimes very hard to align the two.

Portrait of Andreas Ströhl © Bernhard Schmidt Andreas Ströhl (16:05): 
But in a film shoot that can be costly and unnerving, it takes greatness to embrace your mistakes. If they really hurt.

Portrait of Hal Hartley © Hal Hartley Hal Hartley (16:06): 
I have miscast sometimes. Twice, actually. I had to let someone go and replace them. That is such a bad feeling, I promised never to let it happen again.
 

Portrait of Tom DiCillo © Tom DiCillo Tom DiCillo (16:07): 
The most painful mistakes for me on a shoot are ones that carry emotional repercussions, especially if you’re working with someone you love and respect.  For example, if I’m so set on getting something the way I see it and I miss a cue from an actor that I am trampling on their process.

Portrait of Andreas Ströhl © Bernhard Schmidt Andreas Ströhl (16:08): 
Do your own mistakes hurt more than other people’s?
 

Portrait of Tom DiCillo © Tom DiCillo Tom DiCillo (16:08):
Mein Gott, what a question! I must call my psychotherapist to help.

Andreas Ströhl © Bernhard Schmidt Andreas Ströhl (16:08): 
That would be a mistake.
 

Portrait of Hal Hartley © Hal Hartley Hal Hartley (16:08): 
My own are much worse than those of others.

 

Portrait of Tom DiCillo © Tom DiCillo Tom DiCillo (16:09): 
Mistakes from other people can quickly lead to anger or hurt feelings. It all depends on their intent. If they meant their mistake to be hurtful that is one thing. If it was well-intended but an accident, then I tend to just hit them once, lightly.

Andreas Ströhl © Bernhard Schmidt Andreas Ströhl (16:10): 
Do you count on mistakes happening?
 

Portrait of Hal Hartley © Hal Hartley Hal Hartley (16:11): 
In terms of filming? Yeah, the only reason they invented pre-production was so you’d have an idea about what to do when what you planned proved impossible. Something like that.
 

Portrait of Tom DiCillo © Tom DiCillo Tom DiCillo (16:11): 
I don’t think of them too much. It could paralyze you. You try to learn more and more how to adapt to the unexpected, as quickly as possible. I find it also depends on the group you’re working with. If there is a great sense of trust then mistakes or accidents come with delight, surprise, and laughter.

Andreas Ströhl © Bernhard Schmidt Andreas Ströhl (16:12):
In some art forms, you calculate with chance, you bet on coincidence. Can you do that in film?
 

Portrait of Hal Hartley © Hal Hartley Hal Hartley (16:12):
I think so. Misapprehension is an aspect of this too. I was inspired to make certain kinds of shots in my early films from watching wide screen movies that were cut down to fit a TV screen. But I didn’t know much about the use of “off screen performances”... I think it was Carnal Knowledge...
 

Portrait of Tom DiCillo © Tom DiCillo Tom DiCillo (16:12):
I think you can, but you have to reduce the level of responsibility, or accountability to others (producers, stars, financiers) to nothing. That way you can play and discover. But the financial concerns of filmmaking are rigid at times and discovery is seen as irresponsibility.
Did you know Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland tried very hard to get Robert Altman fired for the way he was directing Mash?

Andreas Ströhl © Bernhard Schmidt Andreas Ströhl (16:14): 
No. What was it they disliked?
 

Portrait of Tom DiCillo © Tom DiCillo Tom DiCillo (16:15): 
They hated his method of going for the unexpected, the spontaneous. They wanted it all written down.

Andreas Ströhl © Bernhard Schmidt Andreas Ströhl (16:15):
Do you actually hope for mistakes sometimes?
 

Portrait of Tom DiCillo © Tom DiCillo Tom DiCillo (16:16): 
Yes, especially from a bad actor.

 

Portrait of Hal Hartley © Hal Hartley Hal Hartley (16:17):
I would have to say: no. A day of no surprises after months of prep is kind of a lovely thing. But I prepare myself for crisis every day I go to set.

Andreas Ströhl © Bernhard Schmidt Andreas Ströhl (16:18):
That means you think of every possible mistake before it can happen?
 

Portrait of Hal Hartley © Hal Hartley Hal Hartley (16:19):
I try to know exactly what we need. If I know that well enough, I can find it in many ways and places.

Andreas Ströhl © Bernhard Schmidt Andreas Ströhl (16:20):
When you watch films by other directors, what are the most frequent mistakes? Acting? Continuity? Lighting?

Portrait of Tom DiCillo © Tom DiCillo Tom DiCillo (16:21):
Never continuity or lighting. Mainly for me, the script and the acting. And the use of the camera. And perhaps “mistakes” is not the right word here, perhaps “choices” is better. But I sometimes think that certain choices in films were directorial mistakes.
 

Portrait of Hal Hartley © Hal Hartley Hal Hartley (16:21):
Years ago, I used to feel casting mistakes the most. That was what I felt was off. Say, a fine actor who was just the wrong type. But I feel that less these days. For me now, it always seems to be a top-down mistake: corporate over-determined packaging of “message” and so on.

Andreas Ströhl © Bernhard Schmidt Andreas Ströhl (16:22):
Tom, do you agree? You did some more or less industry stuff like episodes for series...
 

Portrait of Tom DiCillo © Tom DiCillo Tom DiCillo (16:24):
When I was casting Johnny Suede, a very talented young actress came in and did an amazing audition for the part of Yvonne. Catherine Keener came in after her and did a very chaotic audition. I went with the first woman. In the middle of the night, I woke up and said, “Tom, what an idiot! Catherine is the one!” I had to get up in the morning, call the woman’s agent, apologize for 45 minutes and then call Catherine’s agent to tell her she had the part.

Andreas Ströhl © Bernhard Schmidt Andreas Ströhl (16:24):
And that was no mistake!
 

Portrait of Tom DiCillo © Tom DiCillo Tom DiCillo (16:25):
Yes, I think it’s crucial to begin a scene not knowing where it’s going to go. I enjoy that discovery very much. But again – it all depends on whom you’re working with. Steve Buscemi and Catherine were amazing trapeze artists to fly with, to jump into the unknown. Other actors, other crew members, were the exact opposite and I tried never to work with them again.

Andreas Ströhl © Bernhard Schmidt Andreas Ströhl (16:26):
But Tom: can you really enjoy that balancing act? When so much depends on it?
 

Portrait of Tom DiCillo © Tom DiCillo Tom DiCillo (16:27):
Yes, I’ve had some of the most rewarding experiences on the set when that occurs. You feel so high and alive. People are working together, and it makes it possible for ANYTHING to happen.
 

Portrait of Hal Hartley © Hal Hartley Hal Hartley (16:29):
Tom, did you ever hear that thing Zappa said: (I’m paraphrasing) “There’s no progress without deviation.” That’s always helpful for me to remember...
 

Portrait of Tom DiCillo © Tom DiCillo Tom DiCillo (16:29):
I loved that about Zappa. Isn’t that where he got the band name, “The Mothers of Invention”? The whole phrase is “Accident is the mother of invention.”
 

Portrait of Hal Hartley © Hal Hartley Hal Hartley (16:30):
Seconded from NYC.

 

Andreas Ströhl © Bernhard Schmidt Andreas Ströhl (16:30):
But in more general terms, and maybe apart from filmmaking: are there mistakes you actually enjoy or look forward to?

Portrait of Hal Hartley © Hal Hartley Hal Hartley (16:31):
My favorite mistake of my own involves bad language! (Cover your ears): a song by an English band had a line “You comfort me and say you care.” I heard it through the British accent as “You can’t fuck me and say you care.”

Andreas Ströhl © Bernhard Schmidt Andreas Ströhl (16:31):
Beautiful! Imagine what I thought I heard when listening to blues songs from the 1940s when I was a teenager and knew very little English...
Our little project on mistakes is our answer to a suggestion from our head office to deal with the question: “How does something new come into the world?” Our spontaneous answer: because people make mistakes. That is in the vein of Zappa, too. Can you both second that?

Portrait of Hal Hartley © Hal Hartley Hal Hartley (16:32):
I wonder sometimes if I’m philosophically conservative because I don’t spend much time worrying about the new except as a practical issue. My inner life is still in conversation with the ancient Babylonians and Greeks and whatnot. They didn’t have cellphones, but they had quarantines.

Andreas Ströhl © Bernhard Schmidt Andreas Ströhl (16:32):
The German word for “mistake” is “Fehler,” the etymological equivalence of “failure.” That sheds a slightly different light on the issue, doesn’t it? Especially, when everything seems to be there already, and the world is so full.

Portrait of Tom DiCillo © Tom DiCillo Tom DiCillo (16:33):
Today’s world is driven by fear. Fear is not a healthy place for mistakes. Mistakes are made by humans. Human beings and humanity need to be fully embraced and accepted in order for human accident and error to exist without condemnation.
 

Portrait of Hal Hartley © Hal Hartley Hal Hartley (16:34):
Funny: my new movie has a bit of dialogue where that distinction is insisted upon – are mistakes necessarily failures?
 

Portrait of Tom DiCillo © Tom DiCillo Tom DiCillo (16:35):
I think not. I think mistakes are divine. Again, we must distinguish between honest mistakes and really bad decisions that were made for one’s self-interest.

Andreas Ströhl © Bernhard Schmidt Andreas Ströhl (16:36):
Sometimes failure is no success at all...
 

Portrait of Tom DiCillo © Tom DiCillo Tom DiCillo (16:38):
I will go back to Arthur Miller for a moment. The American psyche seems to take great pleasure in pointing out someone’s mistake and bellowing it to the world. You failed! You failed!! It takes enormous inner strength to silence that air raid siren, especially when its pronouncement is projected so vehemently out into the world.

Portrait of Andreas Ströhl © Bernhard Schmidt Andreas Ströhl (16:40):
Ah, the Germans think that is a typically German behavior. I think we should continue this with a flawless beer on each coast, and make some beautiful mistakes. Let’s wrap this up. Thanks so much, Hal and Tom, for playing along!