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Out of the Shadows: John Cassavetes

Highlights from Issue 34: Jazz

L-R: Val Avery (partial), Elizabeth Deering, John Cassavetes and Seymour Cassel

On the set of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie: Property of Faces Distribution Corporation

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Monday, March 10, 2008


The following piece appears in Issue 34: Jazz
For more on the Jazz issue
, click here

OUT OF THE SHADOWS

Al Ruban and Seymour Cassel on John Cassavetes

BY NICOLAS RAPOLD

The pioneering improvisation-based films of John Cassavetes (1929-1989) have long made the actor-director an idol to independent filmmakers and rising actors. His go-for-broke energy in getting pictures made is as legendary as his bracingly candid dramas, from his 1959 debut, Shadows, to Faces (1968) on through A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and Opening Night (1977). Shrewdly taking profitable starring gigs for TV (Johnny Staccato) and Hollywood (The Dirty Dozen, Rosemary’s Baby), he also benefited from a loyal squad of players and associates. Besides the riveting actress Gena Rowlands (to whom he was married), two frequent accomplices, both on and off camera, were producer Al Ruban and actor Seymour Cassel.

They fell in with the director early on: Cassel arrived three weeks late for an acting workshop of Cassavetes’ and ended up as associate producer on Shadows, while Ruban pitched in as assistant cameraman. The tireless Ruban, extraordinarily, both produced and shot for Cassavetes’ most famous movies (after an entertaining sojourn into Sixties sexploitation). Embodying the freewheeling warmth in the films, the rascally Cassel went on to star in Faces and Minnie and Moskowitz and now enjoys a new generation of fans in roles for Wes Anderson, among others.

“John in those days was always going someplace — never really stationary,” remembers Ruban. “And there were never any beginnings or endings in his movies. You just open the door and suddenly you’re there at what was happening at the time. He was a great humanist.” The two sat down with STOP SMILING to discuss jazz, Shadows, Faces and Cassavetes’ problem with Rosemary’s Baby.

Stop Smiling
: What was Charlie Mingus’ role in the soundtrack for Shadows?

Al Ruban
: Mingus worked on a score, but he was more organized than John wanted. And I don’t think that was apparent to John at the beginning. He did all this music, and John loved it, but he really wanted control. John needed to improvise some things because he couldn’t communicate what he wanted to get across.

Seymour Cassel
: Remember Charlie’s place? Three cats and all his sheet music and stuff. He was always writing. He played at the Five Spot, he played at Birdland.

SS
: So who did the saxophone work that’s in the film?

AR
: Shafi Hadi, who had recently been released from prison. John got him to do some saxophone solos. I remember how they recorded them. John would act out everything, and in the sound booth, Shafi tried to interpret on his saxophone what John was emotionally telling him to do. He behaved with Shafi in a very emotional way, didn’t explain anything, just acted it out. John would be on the floor, jumping around. And it worked very well, because you hear a lot of it in the film. Unfortunately, Shafi died at an early age, but he was a very, very good saxophonist.

SS
: How did each of you first meet Cassavetes?

SC: We’re all New Yorkers. John was a very visible actor at the time. I’d read in the paper that there were scholarships to the John Cassavetes workshop. I went over — three weeks late. John spent an hour talking to me. I told him my story, my mother did burlesque and all that. He said he was shooting a movie, and I said, “Can I watch?” I wound up being an associate producer.

AR: I met him playing ball. A friend of mine suggested I go and play with this group of actors that were playing baseball on 86th Street in Central Park. They were playing Puerto Rican teams all the time and losing. Seymour, John and Mo McEndree were all there.

SC
: We’d play them for beer, remember? A couple of cases of beer. If we won, they’d run. If we lost, they’d get the beer.

AR: As I remember, there was always beer after the game, whether we won or lost. John said he was doing a film and asked if I’d like to be part of the crew. I said I didn’t know anything about film. He said, “Neither do the rest of us, so we’re all starting at the same point.”

SC
: They borrowed the camera from Shirley Clarke [director of The Connection]. And John had a name of sorts so he could run up lab bills.

AR: He was a big-time live television actor, after a number of years of struggling. He had a hit movie out with him and Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee and Jack Warden. Martin Ritt’s first film, Edge of the City.

SS: What was the shooting process for Shadows like?

SC: Well, we had to watch out. We had no permits. There was a friend who drove a cab at night, and he’d lay back 30 feet from us. If he saw a cop coming, he’d pull up and we’d throw the camera in. The cop would say, “You shooting a movie?” “Nah, I was with these guys, I was talking to them.” Then we’d meet up somewhere else. Hit and run.

AR
: He’d say, “Seymour, go ask that lady in the apartment if we can plug in and run a cord in there for the lights.” We shot one scene in a garage I was working in at the time on 56th Street. We went upstairs late at night, the top floor, and faked a street scene. We did the taxicab scene there with little handheld inky lights, passing like moving cars.

SS: Were budget concerns a big factor?

AR: There was never any problem with money, because there wasn’t any.

SC: None of us had any money. It was John’s job to go out and get the money.

AR
: Even he didn’t have the money. John was not paying his milk delivery bill for a long time.

SS
: You all worked together next on Faces. What happened in between?

SC: John did two movies. Too Late Blues at Paramount with Bobby Darin and Stella Stevens. John originally wanted Monty Clift and Gena Rowlands. Paramount wouldn’t let him because Monty had his problems. Then Stanley Kramer hired John to do A Child Is Waiting.

SS: How did Faces come about?

AR: John told me he was going nowhere at 20th Century-Fox. He had written about 10 different ideas and scripts, and they weren’t doing any of them. So he wanted to do his own film.

SC: He was at Screen Gems, right across from Altman. He was writing and writing, and Altman was off in Chicago doing a pilot. Lynn Carlin, who played the lead in Faces, was Bob’s secretary. She typed what John had written, the whole film. She had done summer theater in La Jolla, where she was from. She was great, got nominated for Faces.

SS: Seymour, you played Chet, and Al, you produced and did camerawork, correct?

AR: And editing. There were thousands and thousands of feet of footage. When John [was occupied with the production of] Rosemary’s Baby I would put the picture together. But it worked out. He had a fantastic memory and could remember every frame. If I wanted to shorten the timing of the scene — a little off the incoming shot, little off the outgoing — he’d go, “Wait a minute, that’s not right. Put it back!”

SC
: John was a guy who never had his wallet, had warrants for forgetting his driver’s license all the time. But he remembered damn near everything he shot.

AR: It was a strange period for him, because he and Polanski didn’t get along.

SC: He didn’t like the idea that the wife got screwed by the devil. There was a morality to John.

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