There was a quiet look of satisfaction on Tony Palmer's face as he settled in his Century City hotel suite recently, ready to discuss "Wagner," his nine-hour filmed epic chronicling the life, loves and music of the revolutionary German composer, starring Richard Burton.
The good-natured English director seemed eager to talk at length about a new, slimmed-down version, reduced to a mere four hours.
His guest, however, chose to pass over for the moment the 1986 edition of the film, which will be shown as part of the "Great Performances" series on four consecutive weekend nights on PBS starting tonight (Channel 24 at 8, Channels 28 and 15 at 9 and, on Saturday, Channel 50 at 8 p.m.).
Instead, an innocent question was raised about an earlier, three-and-a-half hour version of "Wagner," assembled by Alan Landsburg Productions and shown locally three years ago for Academy Award consideration. The critics, to put it quite mildly, were unkind.
Reminded of that debacle, Palmer silently rose from his chair and stalked out of the room. A moment later he returned. Grinning.
Palmer has every right to smile. "Not many films get a second chance," he noted. "I've never seen the Landsburg version and I understand it has since been destroyed. I've heard it was a load of rubbish."
The Landsburg version, Palmer explained, was spawned by his backers' desire to package a more marketable--i.e. shorter--"Wagner." Released theatrically and as a European TV miniseries in 1983, the epic received scant exposure in America. Anxious for an audience here, Palmer had agreed to the pruning, although, as he noted, the full-length version and even a five-hour edition he had personally assembled had been received by the public enthusiastically both overseas and, in selected screenings, in this country.
(Landsburg admitted that he personally cut down the nine-hour film for showing to Academy members, "but only so they wouldn't walk out. Under the circumstances, all I could do was paste, not edit. I felt it was the best possible sample of what's in the film.")
Palmer relaxed noticeably as he turned to his movie marathon-turned-TV miniseries for PBS. Amazingly, this "second chance" for a film that cost $7.5 million and stretched seven years from first concept to final filming was once again entrusted entirely to another person--in this instance, "Great Performances" executive producer Jac Venza.
"Jac came to me and said, 'I want to show it (on TV). How about four hours?' His idea was to keep whole sections of the original, rather than chop it up. I decided to give Venza the benefit of the doubt."
Palmer has not seen the PBS edition, now heavily supported by newly added narration.
"I'm not washing my hands of it," he stressed. "PBS has always done me proud," a reference to the screening of a film he made on composer Benjamin Britten. "Anyway, the film's the film." He prefers to call the PBS version "Excerpts from 'Wagner.' "
Palmer said that his sprawling tale of political and sexual intrigue tries "to make sense of Wagner's life, concentrating on the second half. The film begins with the doomed Dresden revolution, which made Wagner a political fugitive. Everything reflects on that incident.
"I consider it a work of imagination rather than pure storytelling. Mainly, we covered the difficulties in getting his operas staged. I feel the audience will understand the man's struggles."
According to Palmer, the anguish in Burton's face reflecting those struggles went deeper than the script: The role turned out to be the actor's last major assignment; he died in August, 1984. "I worried whether (Burton) would be strong enough to work 30 weeks," the director said. "But he always gave his all."
The remainder of the cast includes Vanessa Redgrave as Cosima (Liszt's daughter and Wagner's adoring second wife) plus a trio of knights--Sirs Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier, in their only screen appearance together, playing stuffy ministers in the court of King Ludwig II. "Their scenes were written specifically for them, and balanced accordingly," Palmer said.
Great care was also taken to give Vittorio Storaro's luscious production an authentic look: Shooting took place in hundreds of locales, including several of Wagner's residences. Burton often appears in the composer's clothes, seated at his original piano.
Palmer even enticed Wagner's grandson Wolfgang to serve as an adviser. "One day he was puzzled reading over a particular scene," the director recalled. "So he phoned Liszt's granddaughter." Palmer mimics the scene, adopting a German accent. " 'Frau Liszt? Herr Wagner.'
"I tell you, it was damn eerie."