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Review: 'Conversations at the American Film Institute with the Great Moviemakers'

The anthology compiled by George Stevens Jr. is a time capsule of insights and anecdotes from Steven Spielberg, Robert Altman, Nora Ephron, Francois Truffaut and more.

May 05, 2012|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic

Filmmakers are natural raconteurs — they have to be — at least when talking about their films. There are the money men who must be convinced to invest, the studios they need to sign on for distribution, the actors they want to hire and the press and public they hope will see the finished film and like it.

The American Film Institute captures all that and more in "Conversations at the American Film Institute with the Great Moviemakers: The Next Generation From the 1950s to Hollywood Today."

The anthology, compiled by AFI founding director George Stevens Jr., features excerpts from the talks the institute hosts between filmmakers and its students — a master class, really — that has become a tradition. By the time the showmen and women show up, usually the receipts have long been counted, the grudges perhaps set aside, the critiques burned if not forgotten. The result is a chance to experience some of the greats at ease at the institute, which is considered a safe place, where candor is applauded and protected.

The book kicks off with a lively Robert Altman and closes with a reflective, and slightly tentative, Francois Truffaut. Its very full center includes Peter Bogdanovich, Nora Ephron, David Lynch, Arthur Penn, Roger Corman and Steven Spielberg among a rich roster that cuts across the spectrum of genres and artistic attitudes. For readers, the anthology proves a rare treat as old hands and newer ones ramble and rant about their films and their Hollywood experiences.

The group in this book is an eclectic one that, unlike Stevens' tight focus on directors in his previous anthology, "Hollywood's Golden Age," expands to include actors Morgan Freeman, Jack Lemmon and Meryl Streep; "Taxi Driver" screenwriter Paul Schrader; cinematographer Janusz Kaminski; frequent David Lean editor Anne V. Coates; a composer; a producer; and even a film critic, this paper's own venerable and, now retired, Charles Champlin.

But still its center and its centerpiece are the directors. There are details of the sort to satisfy serious film students, lots of juicy bits to entertain fans and a brief snapshot of their career to set things up. The conversations are ordered alphabetically — no doubt to ensure no bruised egos — but in a sense that becomes very freeing, almost encouraging the reader to go right to the names that intrigue them the most.

Even so, I found myself curious about Altman, the late director. Most of the selection comes from the director's December 2001 visit to the institute to discuss the about-to-be-released upstairs-downstairs comic mystery of "Gosford Park." The director was then 76 and the film would arguably stand as the best of his later work, earning seven Oscar nominations (Julian Fellowes won for his screenplay).

Altman explains he was looking to make "Gosford" the antithesis of the British period piece: "I just wanted to make it sloppy… I wanted to put the audience on notice, right off the bat, that they have to pay attention." Of his films, which include the black comedy of "MASH" and the biting commentary of "Nashville," Altman would say: "I'm always shocked when I finish a film and show it and they don't make me king of the world. But then recently when I saw who they did make king of the world I said, 'Thank God for that. I don't ever want to make that picture.'" Easy enough to guess who that jab is aimed at.

Some of the filmmakers prove equally candid in discussing their own shortfalls. Writer/director Ephron, probably still best known for "Sleepless in Seattle," on "Heartburn" and avocados. "I do have this thing about details.… [I]f you have guacamole on the table, it should be good guacamole, and of course I drove the prop guys crazy sending them out for Hass avocados. And of course it didn't make any difference — the movie didn't work."

Cinematographer Kaminski, celebrated for his highly saturated palette, with five Oscar nominations and two wins, including one for the remarkable vibrancy of the blacks, whites and grays of "Schindler's List," broken only by the barest splash of red of a child's winter coat: "It comes from a very clichéd approach: when people are sad you go blue, and when people are happy you go warm. It really does work like that."

Then there is Spielberg in May 1978, when AFI caught him really on the cusp — just a year past "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and before "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "E.T." and the rest of the substantial body of work that would come later. "This is a pressure cooker for a filmmaker, to be in front of the next generations, because I guess that's what some of you are going to become," Spielberg said.

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