I first saw all of John Cassavetes films 12 years ago. They are fresh and spontaneous and I feel like I am there with the characters, experiencing what they’re going through. It’s as though you’re watching his films for the first time with each viewing. I have watched his films many times and I always wondered exactly how John achieved this.
Since John’s death in 1989, there have been numerous books written about his work, along with documentaries, DVD and Blu-Ray releases, a John Cassavetes Award at The Film Independent Spirit Awards and many retrospectives of his work around the world. He has also been called the godfather of independent filmmaking.
Two years ago, I was reading Cassavetes Directs, by Michael Ventura, which is about the making of John’s second last feature, Love Streams. I discovered in the book that the actor who played the part of Joanie is Leslie Hope, from Halifax, Canada. Leslie has numerous acting credits, which include Talk Radio, 24 and most recently Lie Exposed, which she also produced. She has directed several episodes of television and will next direct The Swearing Jar, her first feature.
I got in touch with Leslie through a friend to chat about her experiences working with John.
Despite Cassavetes contributions, Leslie and I have found in both Toronto and L.A., film and television industry workers don’t know the legacy this legend has left behind.
Robert: Do you remember how you met John?
Leslie: I was going to boarding school in Victoria, British Columbia. A movie shot at my school, Ups and Downs by Paul Almond, and they cast kids from the school. So, I do that. The composer on that movie, Bo Harwood was also the composer for John and I fell crazy in love with Bo. We moved together to Montreal. And I’m out of high school, didn’t even graduate. At this point, I’m just a week past 17. We came down to L.A. for the American film market, for the movie I’d done in boarding school. I met John there and he was so kind to me. He asked me to read for him, but I had never auditioned before. I did this movie; there was improvisation, they picked kids from school.
Robert: On the spot, he asked you to audition?
Leslie: Yeah, he was like, “read for me.” So I opened the script and I read it like a book, like (reading) Love Streams By John Cassavetes, Scene 1, it’s dark, a car pulls into the driveway…..
Robert: (Laughing) Oh my god.
Leslie: Can you imagine? He just let me do it. He didn’t interrupt me; he didn’t say like, “No, no sweetheart, that’s not what I meant.” He took it super seriously and he let me read probably five pages of the script out loud. What do I know, right? I never even had auditioned for a school play. Then to make matters worse, in terms of my own humiliation, I think I should recommend myself to John as a valuable asset to his movie and I handwrite him a letter. This is mortifying when I think about it now. I talk about the English prize I won in school or how I can be an asset to any production. I don’t even know what I’m talking about. I’m proud to say he let me join his company. So, he wrote that part for me.
Robert: That’s amazing. How did you end up also working on the crew?
Leslie: I really worked up the courage to ask him to let me stay. Not only did he let me – he made it so welcoming for me. I just stayed on his crew. I was booming scenes. I was schlepping cables in the camera department.
Robert: How did you figure out how to do all that?
Leslie: The same way you figure out anything, which is, “What can I do? How can I help?”
Robert: Trial and error?
Leslie: Yeah, and because it was John, people were friendly and helpful. It was the culture of working on a show like that. No one was going to be snooty. No disrespect to unions of course, but it wasn’t a heavy union situation. We had days when things didn’t go well, and we stopped shooting and played basketball ‘til it felt better. It was that kind of world. Or it wasn’t going well, and John would turn to, like, the craft service guy and ask, “What do you think?” So, everybody was invested. There was no question that John was the director, but everybody’s opinion mattered, and it could come from a place you might not expect, and it wasn’t any less valuable to him. I think that’s one of the reasons people were so dedicated to working with him and would do anything for him. Wouldn’t you?
Robert: Of course. When you shot that scene you had with John, how did he direct you?
Leslie: He would say things like, “Don’t worry about the mark, we’ll find you.” Like, that’s the way it’s kind of supposed to be. I don’t mean actors should wander around aimlessly, but it’s not like it’s a precision science. Maybe you don’t walk that far this time if you’re truly moved by whatever you’re doing as an actor. Nowadays, so much work is determined by time and schedule. There’s no time not to hit your mark. What I remember then is he removed all those obligations… He was very protective of his crew and his cast. He made sure that everyone felt they were supposed to be there. Being seen, really came from John. That was a crucial thing for me on a personal level at that time. I think it’s one of the most valuable things to have as a director, is to offer that to the actors. In my opinion, it’s one of the surest ways to get a performance from somebody… You were so comfortable – he made it so comfortable for people, and familiar. You did feel that you were a part of this group effort and there was a certain ease at work that was hard to come by on other movies, certainly.
Robert: Was he always so kind though? I do know he would lose his temper at times.
Leslie: He was very much about the actor and protecting the actor and he had zero time where something was potentially at the expense of the performance. I really do care a lot about what stuff looks like; however, I recognize that if the acting is phony or inauthentic or mannered, it doesn’t matter how beautiful (the shot) is. I mean I can aesthetically like it and find it pleasing and want to hang it on my wall, but I don’t necessarily want to watch it.
Robert: What are the differences between watching his films and most other films?
Well, it’s not that John’s films were improvisation, they just felt like they were because they were so natural.
Leslie: Well, it’s not that John’s films were improvisation, they just felt like they were because they were so natural. It’s not that his movies are without design. They just feel like they’re without design. You don’t feel John’s design the same way you would on other films that we all know and love. Everything mattered to him, but it felt loose in a way.
Robert: How do you think he achieved that?
Leslie: I think he was always available for a surprise. He wasn’t ahead of the moment. He was in it all the time. He was ready to capture what was right in front of him, right then. Now that I am directing myself, I think the sort of happy accidents or surprises – you really have to be available to them, capture them, value them, for them to find their way into your movie. Otherwise, you’re chasing these ideas. I think that’s part of why his movies feel like that and others don’t, because it takes great bravery and courage to photograph what’s right in front of you. I would venture to guess that if he was doing anything, it might be to stir up things to make it unexpected for the actor too. So, you can’t come in perfectly planned. John was fascinated and interested and wanted to photograph what was real, and the effort or the directing was to guide, help, and escort you into reality, out of your head, out of your preconceived idea. I’ve worked with some great directors besides John, but he’s my favorite.
Robert: Is there a specific mood you need to be in before watching his films?
Leslie: You can’t watch one of his movies eating popcorn. Sit down, buckle up, and take the ride for however many hours. I think they’re amazing, but they’re not easy. They’re super subjective. They’re not formulaic; they live in the unconscious, in the unpredictable. They’re not going to tell you how to feel or what to do. They’re not going to give you the music cue to cry now. Or (that) this is the funny scene. You can take away whatever you want from them. If you really want to watch one, you have to actually watch one. You can’t check out. Whether you like it or not, whether it’s your taste or not, whether you would have made it that way or not, whatever. None of that matters.
Robert: What are the major differences between the men and the women in John’s films?
Leslie: I think he had huge respect for women without thinking they were the same as men. The men and women were just real people, authentic people. It wasn’t that they were unattractive or unlikable. In fact, quite the opposite, but there was just no artifice. It’s something about this idea that he sort of loved these people. I think through his lens the women are special and to be loved in a certain way and the men are goofy but forgiven. That’s the thing about his movies. You never feel contempt. None of his characters are worthy of contempt. Even the worst behavior – you love them anyway. He’s never making fun of anybody. He’s never deriding them for being stupid.
Robert: Did you think it was intentional for him to write leading roles for minorities and such complex, rich roles for women at a time when that never happened?
Leslie: Look, it’s a question that plagues me now as a director. John couldn’t have not seen that women and minorities were not being utilized in the same way, that, like, straight white dudes were. I also think he just saw the person. The fact that they were a female or young or old, black or Asian, whatever it was, I don’t think it stopped him.
Robert: Where did he get the guts to mortgage his house to make his films with three kids and a wife?
Leslie: I don’t know.
Robert: Is it that need that something has to be expressed or said that he had?
Leslie: I think so. It’s that need to make movies. If you want to make films, you have to put some skin in the game. By whatever means necessary. He also had that one-for-them, one-for-me attitude. So, the money he made from acting in a lot of films and TV shows he put into his own films.
Robert: Why do you think his work as a director and writer, with the exception of a few of his films, wasn’t embraced when he was alive and working?
Leslie: I don’t know. I think John was so important and so influential and so authentic and such a master, and because he didn’t work in the system, and said f- you to that system, which is a pretty powerful system. Like he’d give them a little kiss and act in Rosemary’s Baby or whatever but let his disdain for that be known.
Robert: A lot of people, at least who I’ve spoken to here in Canada, don’t know John’s films very well today. Why do you think that is?
Leslie: The American movie business is written by the studios basically, and John was not part of that system. He was a little bit, of course. People aren’t aspiring to be mortgaging their house in order to make movies. People are aspiring to, let’s say, be lauded for one, and to be rich, popular. Filmmakers should know him. It’s a part of cinema history. We owe him a debt. I think actors should be studying Gena Rowlands (John Cassavetes wife, who was in many of his films). She’s a clinic on how to be an actor, and she was a clinic on how to be a professional too. She was so dignified and pro. She really was like a queen. She was awesome. I think it’s significant we’re talking about John for hours. I just think he’s a true artist.
Robert: After this conversation, I feel like going out and making a film.
Leslie: You really should.
|Robert Bellissimo is an actor and acting teacher from Toronto, Canada. He has appeared in numerous plays, commercials, short films and feature films. Most recent credits include Robbery (Best Canadian Feature at The Toronto After Dark Film Festival, 2018), Mariner (Official Selection at TIFF, 2016), and Anna (Winner of The Award of Distinction at The Canada Shorts Film Festival, 2017). He has taught acting classes rooted in the teachings of Sanford Meisner at Fraser Studios, IYA Acting Studio and since 2017 has run his own classes at a studio space in Toronto.|