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A Director's Method Amid the Madness : Movies: John Schlesinger won an Oscar for 'Midnight Cowboy.' So what's he got to complain about?

December 31, 1994|DAVID GRITTEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LONDON — For a man who has spent half his life in the pursuit of making movies, John Schlesinger is surprisingly gloomy about the process. "I don't think, by and large, I have had too many enjoyable films," he sighs. "Not many were without problems."

It seems an odd admission. He is known for fluid, visually interesting movies, often packed with intriguing background detail; if anyone makes directing look effortless, it's Schlesinger. Consider his trio of 1960s British films ("Billy Liar," "Darling," "Far From the Madding Crowd") that made Julie Christie a star and Schlesinger a name to reckon with; the recently revived "Midnight Cowboy," which won him a 1969 Oscar; or "Sunday Bloody Sunday," his stylish essay about a bisexual who has affairs with a man and his female partner. Now fast forward to his pair of dramas written by playwright Alan Bennett for BBC television: "An Englishman Abroad" and "A Question of Attribution," widely deemed some of the best film work ever done for TV. If all this was tough going, Schlesinger hasn't let it show.

"Oh, yes," he insists in rich, fruity tones. "Midnight Cowboy" was miserable to make. The actors were lovely, but the New York camera crew were bolshie and union-minded. They actually confiscated a Polaroid my assistant was using to take pictures of possible extras from the crowds watching the shooting." His jovial mood turns; his face clouds. "They were hostile; I hated them. And none of them will ever be employed by me again."

Schlesinger, 68, lives in a flat in the south Kensington district--light, airy, beautifully restored, and six floors up in a Victorian redbrick building--to talk about his new film, "The Innocent," which will be released by Miramax early next year. This is no hardship; he is an engaging, enthusiastic talker, possessed of thoughtful opinions and a sly wit. He is also not above off-the-record gossip about the likes of Gore Vidal, imparted while he rocks back and forth on his sofa, beaming cordially.

But, true to form, "The Innocent," based on Ian McEwan's novel, has had a rocky path to the screen. It was shot in East Berlin two summers ago, but its release has been delayed for reasons related to legal problems. "There's a lot I could say, but can't at the moment," Schlesinger says, guarded for the first and last time. "Just know that one day I shall come out and say it." Nor did he enjoy making the film: "I found Germany depressing, not a place I feel comfortable in. Too many ghosts. Every time I walked out of my house I was reminded of the situation, and because I'm Jewish it's inescapable."

"The Innocent" tells of Leonard, a young, naive British telecommunications expert sent to Berlin at the height of the Cold War in the mid-1950s to install phone taps in a tunnel secretly dug by the Allies beneath the city's Russian sector. He falls in love with Maria, a young German woman, and is befriended by Bob Glass, an American working at the installation; but no one is quite who they seem, loyalties are unclear--and Leonard soon becomes party to a grisly murder and the macabre disposal of a body.

It's a complex story, and Schlesinger has added a twist by casting the three major roles against nationality. The Englishman Leonard is played by American actor Campbell Scott; Welshman Anthony Hopkins plays the American Bob Glass; the role of the Berliner Maria went to Swedish-Italian Isabella Rossellini.

"We did it deliberately," says Schlesinger a little gleefully. "It complicates the thing. Since it's a film about who is trustworthy, with characters shrouded in a strange ambiguity, it seemed to fit."

This ambiguity may harm the commercial prospects for "The Innocent" in the United States; high-grossing films tend to be simplistic, with a premise you can sum up in a sentence.

"I can see it might not be an easy film to market," Schlesinger muses. "If so, tough. The story flip-flops all over the place. But that's what I liked about it. It's not just a thriller, not just a romance, not just a spy story, not just a black farce, but all of those things."

The film has opened in various European territories and performed disappointingly, especially in Germany and Britain. "It fared better in Italy," Schlesinger says. "The Germans didn't like the footage of the Berlin Wall in the film. They're terribly sensitive, you know. The (German) producers wanted me to cut those scenes. Don't talk to me about Germans!"

"The Innocent" seems likely to keep Schlesinger firmly in the no-man's land he has chosen to work. He is emphatically not a Hollywood director, although he did participate in a panel discussion held for the 25th anniversary of "Midnight Cowboy" earlier this year at the Directors Guild; and he takes pains to distance himself from the British film industry.

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