You already told us how you saw for the first time some fragments of Napoléon. Why did it capture so much your imagination?
I told you how fascinated I became with military history, I think, through my father who was always talking about and later through Andrew Mollo. But this was before that, before I met Andrew, this was 1954 or 53, something like that. I thought it looked like an 18th century newsreel. It was so authentic. But the camera did things I have never seen it do before. For example there is an amazingly bold intercutting of a storm. Napoléon is escaping from Corsica, has taken a dinghy and got caught in a tempest and at the same time, in the Convention, the Jacobins are turning on the Girondins. And Gance had the idea of combining these two events and intercutting them. And it is astounding! Taking the phrase from Victor Hugo: to be a member of the Convention was to be a wave on the ocean. He puts the camera on a pendulum and swings it over the Convention which is in riot and then you intercut this waves crashing on top of Napoleon’s tiny boat. And then hand-held camera shots among the crowd fighting in the Convention, gives you a sort of sea-sick feeling. Anyway, it’s just astounding! Napoléon has more innovative ideas in it than any film ever made before or since. And quite of lot of them have never been followed up. And that’s one them. When it was shown first here in 1980, the director Alan Parker scrapped footage that he had been shooting for a film called Pink Floyd: The Wall and he put the camera on a pendulum. (laugh)
What was the status of Abel Gance among film lovers and critics at that time?
Nobody had heard of him. When I first started showing this film, I had never heard of him. And I just became a propagandist for him. I must say that film makers responded very strongly when they saw the footage or even a hint of the footage. But I have never known anything like the first night at the Empire Leicester Square when the whole thing was shown. I remember coming out of the Leceister Sq tube feeling absolutely terrified. Number one, how could the orchestra stay in synch for 4h and 50min? How could the audience sit there for all that time? It just wasn’t going to work. But the moment, it caught everybody was the end of the Brienne sequence, when Napoléon is on a cannon and the eagle returns. And Carl Davis’ magnificent Napoleon theme crashes out over the…The audience was staggered. And I remember Jeremy Isaacs saying if this isn’t shown on Channel 4, there won’t be a Channel 4. because he was going to be the head of it. I’ve never known an experience like that. Whenever it’s shown, people come up to me afterwards and say: “it’s changed my life”. That’s the most common phrase I’ve heard. It goes back to that feeling that I would much rather show a masterpiece by somebody else that I feel a 100% enthusiasm for than one of my own films that I can see all the faults in.
Can you tell us about your first meeting with Abel Gance?
I met a journalist called Francis Koval and he produced triptychs showing what the ending looked like. And he’d met Abel Gance and he lent me a photograph of him. I showed it to my friend Liam O’Leary who was the deputy curator at the NFT. And later on, he was looking through the door of his office at the BFI and he saw that man standing in the hall! He went out and in his execrable Irish accented French: “Etes-vous monsieur Gance?” He was amazed to be recognised because he’d flown over to see Cinerama at the Casino Theatre in London. He was walking down Shaftsbury Avenue and he saw a sign saying British Film Institute and he could understand that, so he walked in. He was amazed to be recognised. Liam rushed off to tell James Quinn who was the director who said: “Give him a reception!” And so I was telephoned by my mother at school and the only reason you ever telephone someone at school is if a relative had died. So I was allowed to answer the phone, I was taken out of an exam, mock school certificate in German. My mother said: “Come home at once!” So I rushed home and she told me that Liam had met Gance. Gance was in London. I was going to meet him that afternoon. It was unbelievable. So I grabbed the script –I had bought the script by then- which had been published in France and a couple of stills and rushed off to the NFT and met my hero who was, you can imagine, he looked magnificent, looked like a medieval saint I think…he was so exuberant, enthusiastic and amusing even though I didn’t speak French. We somehow understood each other and it was an amazing event. And that was the beginning of my obsession with Napoléon which still goes on. That was 1954; it was 54 years ago. My God!
Why are they so many different versions of Napoléon?
God! First of all, he made a film which was going to be shown over several days, now the film of episodes was reasonnably strong tradition. Les Trois Mousquetaires, Les Misérables, all these things were films of episodes which would be coming out over several weeks. But for some reasons, exhibitors objected to Napoléon being a film of episodes and tried to shorten it. And they started arbritarily taking out bits and I’ve noticed whenever Napoléon gets sent abroad, people get creative. (laugh) They want to fiddle around with it, to alter it. Bob Harris and Francis F. Coppola, when they showed it in America, it had to be cut down to fit a slot at the Radio City Music Hall. They then said they’d show the whole thing which they reneged upon. They never did. When Bambi Ballard did try to do the French Cinémathèque version, she decided it was going to have its triptych back in the middle, even though it didn’t exist. She got Jean Dréville, who said he remembered it from 1927, to recut it and thus I think lost the impact of one of the great sequences which is the double storm which in its single screen version is a masterpiece of editing. I’m sure it looked very impressive in triptych when it was shown in the short version but ended part one, act one. You can’t then go back to the single screen as happens now in the French version, because that’s tremendously anticlimactic and against the rules of showmanship. But you know it’s maddening…The most upsetting thing is the fact that the French score is so unfortunate.
What made you move from collecting fragments of Napoléon to actual restoration of the film?
I decided that Abel Gance was so little known in England that I ought to make film about him. So I made the documentary entitled The Charm of Dynamite for the BBC in 1968. When I was making that Gance told me that he had shot footage of the film being made. I already thought he was suffering from dementia because at that point, there wasn’t any footage of any film being made. You just didn’t see that sort of thing so I thought he was pretending he’d done something fantastic and he hadn’t done it at all. I mention this to Marie Epstein from the Cinémathèque and she went out to a vault and came back with a pile of rusty cans, put them down and went out for more. I couldn’t resist looking inside this can. The first can, there was a large roll and I took it out and looked at it. And I suddenly realised that this was the famous snowball fight that in that book by Bardèche & Brasillac, it talks about this great sequence which is a masterpiece of rapid cutting. So when she came back, she was a bit annoyed to see me looking at it, having taken it out of the can. She good-naturally put it on the viewing machine and I count that as one of the great moments of my life, to suddenly see this long lost sequence. So brilliantly done, I couldn’t believe it, I was absolutely sweating by the end of it. My eyes were on stalks. And then Gance said: “You found that! The snowball fight! Can you get it for me?” (laugh) I thought: “Oh My God! This is the man who made the picture!” He said: “I can’t get anything out of the Cinémathèque. You need one revolver for Henri Langlois and one for Mme Epstein.” (laugh) So, from London, I ordered two copies and sent one to Gance and used the other for the first step in the restoration. I thought this is the beginning. And that went into the film first. And the next thing that happened was George Dunning, who made The Yellow Submarine the animated film with The Beatles, put on a wide-screen festival in London. And he independently requested the triptychs from Napoléon and got them over without any trouble (I am sure they were the original prints), projected them at the Odeon Leceister Square with three projectors and when they had to go back, he did the sensible thing and he copied them and gave me the negative to look after. So I thought this is another sign from above, here I go step by step. I have now the triptych ending, the snowball fight and David Meeker who worked at the BFI told Jacques Ledoux who was then head of FIAF. And Ledoux took it upon himself to contact all the archives and said: “If you’ve got anything of Napoléon, send it to KB care of the BFI.” And the stuff flooded in. And it was in 1968 or something, and that’s when I started putting the film together.
How easy was it to work with the French Cinémathèque at the time?
Very tricky. I mean if the French Cinémathèque, at the time, had cooperated –they had all the footage- I didn’t need to get it from all the way around the world. They had it all. Except, Gance gave them the hostages at Toulon being executed which would have been one of the most majestic sequence ever. And they lost it or it was destoyed in the fire.
Let’s talk about a real problem with silent pictures: projection speed. How do you determine the proper projection speed between 16 fps and 24 fps for a silent picture?
This is a nightmare, an absolute nightmare! But there is a rule of thumb, in America, practically nothing went at 16 fps except newsreels and Griffith films. For some reason, Griffith liked to crank very slowly. We found recently doing the DeMille documentary, that The Squaw Man which started production in 1913 was shot at 21 fps. So they were much faster quite early. By the 20s, most American pictures were going at 20 fps and upwards. When it came to the mid-20s, MGM pictures were nearly all shot at 22 fps. They are all shot at 22 fps, then projected at 24 fps. All silent films are projected with the edge off which is why people found sound films to be in slow motion until they got used to them. To get that speed, the Vitaphone engineers went round the big Broadway theatres and got the average speed. They discovered that in 1925, the average speed of Broadway theatres was 22 to 26 fps. So they chose 24 fps. In the British Isles, we went much slower, so did you. The French by the 20s, were going at an average of 20 fps. But the British managed to stay at 16 and 18 for ages. You sometimes find them right up to the coming of sound being projected at ridiculously slow speeds. However projectionists raced both over there and here. They wanted to get home quicker. And they would just speed up! And there were an awful lot of objections to that. That is one reason why the Americans speeded up so quickly. But the secret of the universe if you are watching an American film –it doesn’t always work for continental ones- but if you watch an American picture, you see a title, you read it at normal speed twice almost and just as get to the last word, it should be snatched off. That means the picture is running at the right speed.
Can you recall your impressions when you first saw on a big screen at the Telluride Film Festival (in 1979) your reconstruction of Napoléon with the triptych?
Do you know? I have absolutely no memory of my being impressed by the triptych at Telluride! Probably because we were frozen to death. And I was so worried about the ghastly experience I had with Gance on the stage. I remember being terribly impressed with it in the Empire Leicester Square. That was the time when it knocked me out.
Can you tell us about your work with the composer and conductor Carl Davis? How did you meet him?
When I joined Thames Television to makes this programme, I was very nervous about who I was going to partnered with. Because they first introduce me to a producer who sais to: “You are interested in silent films, aren’t you?” “Yes, I am.” “I just want to let you know I can’t stand silent films.” Luckily he was off the project very quickly and I got David Gill who could not have been more enthusiastic. But who were we going to get to write the music? The music was the most essential thing because a 13h programme really…If you got the wrong man…Well, I had been very impressed by the title music particularly of The World at War (1974). And Jeremy Isaacs gave us that composer Carl Davis. He came from America, from NY. So he already was of that world. He went back and interviewed as many silent film musicians as he could find to get advice. And he really does seem to…it seems to get a natural response his reactions to the film. He could have been there himself I always thought. The first thing he did was Ben-Hur (1925, F. Niblo) for a promotion to try to sell the series in America and I remember being tremendously excited going along to a recording studio with a big orchestra playing the chariot race flat out. That I had never heard anything like that because on the film of the 1931 reissue of Ben-Hur which has the original score, the music has been taken off for the chariot race and put pounding hooves all the way through it which doesn’t help it at all. So we worked with Carl on practically every documentary and many of the Thames Silents. The last one he did is The Godless Girl (1929, C.B. DeMille).
How do you compare his score for Napoléon with that of Carmine Coppola?
I think that Carl’s score, it has tremendous emotion. And I miss that in the Coppola version which does include some marvellous pieces by composers like Mendelssohn. But it simply doesn’t have the emotional quality. And I remember when we saw it at Radio City Music Hall, it got laughs in the wrong places which it certainly doesn’t get in London. People have tears in their eyes when Dieudonné sees his mother. When you see the Coppola version, people giggle and that suggests he hasn’t got it right.
Through the years, there have been many legal problems which prevented your 5 ½ hours version of Napoléon (with the Carl Davis score) to be released on DVD. I understand that the French Cinémathèque has its own version with a Marius Constant score. Where are we now? Are the problems going to be resolved soon?
I think the fact that we are not collaborating is tragic. The desire to be rid of the English is understandable, but then they didn’t do it. They had how many decades to do it and they didn’t do it. Marie Epstein did her best at the time putting bits together but it was very far from what it ought to have been. And they’ve ended spending a fortune on this score which simply doesn’t work. I hasten to say that I haven’t heard it but everybody I meet who has, says it’s a tragedy. But because it costs so much money, the Cinémathèque relentlessly shows that version. The other thing is that the French version has been very ineptly graded and some of it is terribly dark and some of it is terribly light. It ruins the cinematography. And what does a silent film has but its images?
I think there is going to be some cooperation between the Americans and the BFI. And I hope it will lead to a DVD being produced. But the Americans are still convinced that their version is better and I don’t know when the full version will appear. But I am hoping that it won’t be long before both are on DVD. I still don’t know how we are going to cope with the triptych on the DVD. There is no technology that enables that to look right.
Two major Gance silents have been released in the US on DVD by Flicker Alley, La Roue and J’Accuse, though still not in France. Do you think these releases are going to create new interest in Gance’s silent work?
I thought that La roue would absolutely shake the academic establishment because here is rapid cutting before Eisenstein, a level of cinematography that nobody could have guessed was sitting between sprocket holes. (laugh) Now it’s available and I haven’t heard a squeak from the academic world. It just amazes me! I do think it will change people’s perception of silent pictures, both of them. I think they are tremendously important films and to think that we’ve been denied J’accuse for 90 years and suddenly that and La Roue and possibly Napoléon are all going to be available at the flick of a switch. And up till now, none of them had been. This is astonishing was this DVD revolution has achieved and what Flicker Alley had achieved.
samedi 13 novembre 2010
Kevin Brownlow Interview (Part III)
You already told us how you saw for the first time some fragments of Napoléon. Why did it capture so much your imagination?