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Interview: Mark Harris Talks Five Came Back

Journalist Mark Harris discusses Five Came Back and Hollywood’s past and present.

Interview: Mark Harris Talks Five Came Back
Photo: Netflix

Journalist Mark Harris has a talent for identifying and dramatizing the clash that exists between the personal and political dimensions of pop culture, from its production to public consumption. Harris’s 2014 nonfiction bestseller Five Came Back revels in this preoccupation with the friction between the micro and macro of society, telling the respective stories of five legendary filmmakers—John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens, and John Huston—as they helped to shape America’s perception of World War II, reinventing media’s representation of war in the process. I chatted with Harris earlier this week to discuss Five Came Back and its forthcoming Netflix film adaptation, Hollywood past and present, and the cyclic nature of trends in politics and entertainment. Our conversation ran the gauntlet from John Ford to Oliver Stone to Takashi Miike to the parallel existing between contemporary television and 1940s-era filmmaking. Throughout, Harris was erudite, passionate, friendly, and encouragingly optimistic about the state of the contemporary American film industry.

When you’re working on a big project, like Pictures at a Revolution or Five Came Back, do you do all the research first to find the narrative? Or are you writing and researching simultaneously?

No, it’s much more the first thing. I can never pull this off 100 percent, but I want to have tried to have done all the research and outlined it and thought about it as extensively as possible before I start to write. Because, once I’ve started to write, I hate to be interrupted by feeling that I have to kind of chase something down. And you know I always do, anyway. You can never nail everything, but I really like to research first.

Is there ever that moment where you fill in an initial draft with further research?

Sure. Although, again, I like to have all the facts at my fingertips before I start to write. I went into both of those books with certain ideas about what they might be, but I also tried to not get into a trap where anything I might find out would thwart my narrative. I don’t want to come up with a thesis that’s demolish-able by actual information. I want my idea to be open enough so that anything I find out can feed it, and I don’t find myself trapped in a place of saying “Oh, well that’s very interesting, but unfortunately it contradicts the arc that I’ve created so I can’t use it.” I think that’s a dangerous approach, and so I always want to be open to revising what I think my narrative is, if the facts demand it.

Were there any narrative bombshells for you while researching Five Came Back?

I wasn’t completely, deeply versed in this history when I started, so a lot of things were revelatory to me. I had read an academic paper that suggested that most of The Battle of San Pietro was staged. But going to the National Archives in Maryland and actually watching, the, I guess you’d call them outtakes, from the filming of San Pietro, the stuff that John Huston discarded because it looked too stagey or too fake was really revelatory for me in terms of understanding his process and in terms of understanding that he was actually not trying to put something over on people so much as he was, in his way, striving after a particular kind of visual realism, whether it was staged or not. The bombshells were when I opened a box or a file in somebody’s archives and it’s full of letters to someone’s wife or their kids. It was much harder for me to find out who these men were than it was for me to find out what they did. And so the revelations for me were whenever I could find out something really personal.

In the book, I find John Ford’s letters very moving.

Yeah, it’s thrilling to write about a time in film history when people wrote letters, because that was the way they had to communicate. For Ford, I think in particular, his letters to his wife, Mary, are so personal they’re almost like diary entries. [Ford’s letters] are much more sort of gentle and courtly than his public statements are. So it was really great to have that side of him.

The paradox of Ford is so fascinating. As presented in both your book and the film, he wants so badly to fit into Hollywood and the military…as an iconoclast.

It’s really kind of a losing game, isn’t it? [laughs] So much of what Ford did is reactive in a way, you know. He goes into the War Department and he can’t stand the indifference of people who don’t think there’s going to be a war. He drifts toward the hard anticommunist ideology because he hates communists, but then he fights Cecil B. DeMille in 1950 on the anticommunist DGA loyalty oath because he hates bullies. And, yet, sometimes he’s bully. He’s really a fascinating mass of contradictions to me.

A bombshell for me, as a reader of Five Came Back and as a viewer of the documentary, was the intense pathos of Frank Capra’s story.

He was the director of the five I would say I had the hardest…it took me the longest time to understand him. Because Capra doesn’t track easy in terms of his politics and in terms of his passions, he’s so…he can whip himself into a frenzy over nothing or over something false. But I think pathos is a good word, because it’s quite heartbreaking. Capra really was the most celebrated of any of those five filmmakers after the war. William Wyler, when the war ended, said he thought that the Why We Fight films would outlast anything released during the war, fictional or nonfictional. That didn’t happen, but that was the esteem in which Capra was held. And then [for him] to have this, really, I think, an exciting impulse—[insisting] that this was the time for directors to declare their independence from studios and strike out on their own, founding this company, and then to have it crash on the rocks of It’s a Wonderful Life flopping. That destroyed his confidence and his career, and then he lived long enough to see it become his most celebrated and beloved film. It’s an extraordinary story.

I love Guillermo del Toro’s advocacy for Capra in the documentary.

It was such an exciting and surprising thing to me, that that particular kinship turned out to be present. Laurent Bouzereau, our director, felt that, as [both men are] immigrants, del Toro would have an affinity for Capra on one level, but those interviews were gambles. And to hear the passionate and affecting idiosyncracy with which del Toro talks about Capra was a huge joy for me.

A similar surprise for me: If you’d told me that Steven Spielberg was going to be in this film, and I hadn’t seen the film, I would’ve assumed that he would be speaking about Ford, as I see so much of Ford in Spielberg’s work.

You know, Spielberg has immense affinity for William Wyler. To me, I thought “maybe he’ll go for Wyler, maybe he’ll go for Ford, or maybe he’ll even go for Stevens.” But, for Steven, there was no question in his mind from the beginning that Wyler was the director that he wanted to talk about. And since, almost 50 years after Andrew Sarris’s book [The American Cinema], Wyler is still given short shrift by a lot of auteurist critics, it really made me happy that Steven wanted to talk about Wyler, because I think he’s a great director.

I re-watched The Little Foxes the other day, and it’s a great piece of work.

Oh yeah. Not just Wyler’s incredible hand with actors, which I think is really evident in that movie, but, especially when he’s working with the right cinematographer, he has this impeccable since of camera placement and framing. People used to call him “tasteful,” and that’s such a dismissive word, but good taste is really hard to have, and he had really good taste.

And The Little Foxes, even to contemporary eyes, is a nasty, vital movie.

Yeah, it’s funny to see it in the hands of a sensitive man. It was an infamously miserable production. It was the third of the Wyler/Bette Davis collaborations, and it’s the one where their relationship really ran aground. There’s this great New York Times story where a reporter visits the set and describes them as treating each other with “monstrous politeness.” So I gather it wasn’t an easy movie to make, but I still love watching it. I think Wyler’s a very sensitive director about human nature and it’s fun to see him go in that dark, dark place.

I re-read Five Came Back recently and am presently going through Pictures at a Revolution. Do you see any parallels with where Hollywood’s going now, and with where it went in the 1940s of your second book and the 1960s of your first book? I think of the “hesitancy” that many reporters observed in the Oscar telecast this year, which appeared to be struggling with how to discuss this country’s new political regime.

Well, it’s hard, because one thing that was already starting not to be true in the 1960s but that was definitely true in the 1940s was that movies could be made with incredible speed. The difference between the era that I write about in Five Came Back and now is that you could go from conception to writing to shooting to editing to testing to re-cutting to release in six months, as opposed to two or three years now. That’s the difference between movies being able to be instantly responsive to the times and movies kind of giving up that possibility except in a more indirect way. And in the time I was writing about in Pictures at a Revolution, television had come in, but television then was something that no one expected any real political resonance from. Politics was just not a part of TV’s creative portfolio, so movies still had a kind of primacy in that regard.

Today, people get their cultural information from so many more places that it’s a tall order for movies to say something meaningful about the moment we live in. Probably the worst thing a filmmaker could do right now is to say, “I will make a movie about the Trump era.” Because however you define that era, it will not be the same when the movie comes out, even if you start work on the movie tomorrow. And yet a movie like Moonlight absolutely feels of this moment, and not of a moment even two years ago. It demonstrates that movies can still have a social, cultural, political currency.

I feel like we’ve reached a saturation point in media, where it’s almost more subversive to not talk about Trump but with a kind of political pointedness. I’m not sure what the balance is.

Right. There’s also a dozen ways to make movies about what’s happening right now that aren’t wrapped around a single personality. I think it’s possible that the thing that’s standing in the way of making clear, thoughtful art about the Trump era is Trump. We have to understand that, whatever era we’re in, it began before his presidency and we don’t know where it’s going and it’s not primarily about him. That’s probably the first step toward figuring out how to handle this moment in art or pop culture.

Sort of a sideways observation, but when you were talking about how you can’t tether political movements to a singular personality, I wondered if maybe it’s that tendency that has limited some of Oliver Stone’s recent films, as if he’s chasing a ghost that’s already left the room. I’m thinking particularly of W. and Snowden.

I completely understand the impulse to make a Snowden movie, but it almost feels like, on a political level, the problem that James Cameron is having with the Avatar sequels: New technology will always outrace your desire to have the newest technology. If what you really want is to make a movie about this moment, this moment is over the second you say that. So, instead, suddenly you’re making a movie about that moment. I get the impulse, I really do, but it’s a hard task to set for yourself.

It seems the answer to that problem, or the closest answer, is Jean-Luc Godard’s way in the 1960s, where you’re churning out films like two months after conceiving of them.

Right, and there’s no model for that now, is there? I guess you have to be a director like James Franco and say, “I’m doing this for three weeks and then I’m moving on to the next thing.” Maybe the model is shoestring indies, not studio films, in terms of production, but even there it’s not like shoestring indies are coming out that quickly either, because sometimes those take two years just to get financing. TV, there’s no question, can respond more quickly. I know that movie people hate to cede any cultural currency to television [laughs], but in terms of timing and factory-line production, you could argue that the moviemaking of the 1940s, when each studio was releasing like 60 or 75 movies a year, was closer in spirit to TV production today than it is to movie production today.

Another modern-day parallel might be some of the Asian film industries. I think of guys like Takashi Miike or Johnnie To, who’re making several movies a year sometimes.

Yeah, exactly. We don’t have directors that do that now, and, if we did, they’d have to endure Twitter screaming at them to stop. [Both laugh.] We’re in a good cultural place to punish anybody for anything.

Revisiting Pictures at a Revolution, especially the Doctor Dolittle passages, I thought of contemporary parallels. Do you think we’ve returned to the time of the über-production, when we have the new Beauty and the Beast making $500 million in two weeks globally, or whatever it’s made? Has Disney mastered this kind of production and achieved a kind of permanent solvency? Or do you think these trends will keep cycling?

[laughs] I always felt when working on Pictures at a Revolution that Doctor Dolittle was, hands down, the most like the movies that are being made today, in terms of method, in terms of picking a release date first, of letting the marketing plan drag the movie forward, throwing good money after bad money. That said, I think this first quarter has been astonishing at the box office. I mean, if you look at Split and Get Out and Beauty and the Beast and Logan and Skull Island, and, I’m even forgetting a couple, Fifty Shades Darker, we’re getting close to…we may have finally arrived at what studios have been striving after for the last couple of decades, which is a 12-month summer.

On one level, I find that really upsetting, and on another level I’m really happy to see that a movie like Get Out, made for something like five million dollars, can play the blockbuster game as hard as a King Kong movie can. Because Get Out isn’t a franchise, it’s not an existing piece of intellectual property, it’s absolutely politically resonant about our moment in ways that only happen if you’re a filmmaker who has that stuff on his mind already. So I’m not entirely discouraged by what’s going on. The fact that something like Get Out can make a lot of money, to me, is heartening.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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