“I think mistakes are divine”
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.
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?
It took me a long time to understand the beauty of the mistake. Arthur Miller wrote, “In America, mistakes are immediately condemned as failure.”
Hal Hartley (16:04):
I remember Lucille Ball, who said: “Situation comedy is about embarrassment.” That seriously fired my early writing of scenes.
Andreas Ströhl (16:04):
And do you really like to make them? I mean, yourself?
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.
Hal Hartley (16:04):
Oh yeah. I make plenty. And I’ve gotten fairly good at putting a positive spin on them afterwards.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Andreas Ströhl (16:08):
Do your own mistakes hurt more than other people’s?
Tom DiCillo (16:08):
Mein Gott, what a question! I must call my psychotherapist to help.
Andreas Ströhl (16:08):
That would be a mistake.
Hal Hartley (16:08):
My own are much worse than those of others.
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 (16:10):
Do you count on mistakes happening?
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.
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 (16:12):
In some art forms, you calculate with chance, you bet on coincidence. Can you do that in film?
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...
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 (16:14):
No. What was it they disliked?
Tom DiCillo (16:15):
They hated his method of going for the unexpected, the spontaneous. They wanted it all written down.
Andreas Ströhl (16:15):
Do you actually hope for mistakes sometimes?
Tom DiCillo (16:16):
Yes, especially from a bad actor.
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 (16:18):
That means you think of every possible mistake before it can happen?
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 (16:20):
When you watch films by other directors, what are the most frequent mistakes? Acting? Continuity? Lighting?
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.
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 (16:22):
Tom, do you agree? You did some more or less industry stuff like episodes for series...
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 (16:24):
And that was no mistake!
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 (16:26):
But Tom: can you really enjoy that balancing act? When so much depends on it?
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.
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...
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.”
Seconded from NYC.
Andreas Ströhl (16:30):
But in more general terms, and maybe apart from filmmaking: are there mistakes you actually enjoy or look forward to?
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 (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?
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 (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.
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.
Hal Hartley (16:34):
Funny: my new movie has a bit of dialogue where that distinction is insisted upon – are mistakes necessarily failures?
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 (16:36):
Sometimes failure is no success at all...
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.
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!