celebrating twenty years…
It’s hard to imagine that the obsessive and frenetic Martin Scorsese ever endured blue periods in his career, but twenty years ago, he was going through one. On the eve of the premiere of his new movie, “GoodFellas”, he was still recovering from the protests, denunciations, and death threats that had accompanied The Last Temptation of Christ. But GoodFellas—based on “Wiseguy”, a nonfiction best seller by legendary crime reporter Nicholas Pileggi—would restore Scorsese’s place in American film, and then some. To mark the film’s anniversary, GQ interviewed nearly sixty members of the cast and crew, along with some noteworthy admirers of the picture, to revisit the making of one of the most endlessly rewatchable American movies ever made.
Michael Imperioli (Spider): I don’t know if I would have had the same career had I not done GoodFellas. Probably not. Would I have been cast on The Sopranos? Who knows if there would have been a Sopranos?
Frank Vincent (Billy Batts): Wherever I go, anytime I go anywhere, they tell me to go home and get my shine box.
Chuck Low (Morrie Kessler): Every fucking guy on the street yells to me, “Hey, Morrie, did you get Belle her Danish?”
Nicholas Pileggi (co-writer): Mob guys love it, because it’s the real thing, and they knew the people in it. They say, “It’s like a home movie.”
Barbara De Fina (executive producer): I don’t remember there being a lot of choices about who could play Henry Hill. There weren’t a lot of actors who could pull it off. He had to do terrible things, and yet you had to somehow care about him. But Ray wasn’t a big star.
Irwin Winkler (producer): Tom Cruise was discussed.
Martin Scorsese (director; co-writer): I’d seen Ray in Something Wild, Jonathan Demme’s film; I really liked him. And then I met him. I was walking across the lobby of the hotel on the Lido that houses the Venice Film Festival, and I was there with The Last Temptation of Christ. I had a lot of bodyguards around me. Ray approached me in the lobby and the bodyguards moved toward him, and he had an interesting way of reacting, which was he held his ground, but made them understand he was no threat. I liked his behavior at that moment, and I saw, Oh, he understands that kind of situation. That’s something you wouldn’t have to explain to him.
Liotta: I think I was the first person that Marty met, but it took maybe a year. It was a very, very long process, not knowing anything and really wanting to do this. I was new. I’d only done three movies at the time. All I heard was that the studio wanted somebody else—”What about this?” “What about Eddie Murphy?”
Winkler: Marty wanted Ray very badly. Frankly I thought we could do a lot better, and I kept putting him off saying, “Let’s keep looking.” And then me and my wife were having dinner one night in a restaurant down in Venice, California, and lo and behold, Ray Liotta came over to me. He was in the same restaurant, quite by coincidence, and he asked if he could come talk to me.
Liotta: I just went up and said that I really, really wanted to do the movie.
Winkler: We went outside, he said, “Look, I know you don’t want me for it but I…,” and he really sold me on the role right that evening. I called Marty the next morning and I said, “I see what you mean.”
Liotta: Eventually I got a phone call, and Marty said I had it. I think I broke down and cried. My mom was really sick at the time.
De Fina: Madonna seemed to be in the mix [for the role of Henry’s wife, Karen]. I remember that we went to see her in the play Speed-the-Plow. Marty said hello to her afterwards. There was definitely somebody somewhere wanting to cast her. Can you imagine? Tom Cruise and Madonna? But Marty can get a performance out of almost anyone.
Lorraine Bracco (Karen Hill): One of the things that worked for me with Marty was I was brought up in a Jewish neighborhood. So I could relate to Karen Hill as a young girl. Like, I got it: She lives in a Jewish home dominated by the mother—to me, it was all rebellion. Marty wanted to see what Ray and I looked like together.
Liotta: Lorraine is a mighty presence—how she feels, whether it’s good or bad, she’s very free with who she is. We met in Marty’s apartment on West 57th Street, right next to the Russian Tea Room. He was on the fiftieth floor, something high.
Bracco: I thought Ray was really good-looking and very sexy. We all had a drink and we talked about the script and the book and blah blah blah and that was that.
Liotta: Then we all went to Rao’s, this restaurant in Harlem. It’s so exclusive that people have set times and days when they go to eat there.
Pileggi: We’d put the word out [to the Mob guys]: “Anybody who wants to be in the movie, come.” He must have hired like half a dozen guys, maybe more, out of the joint.
Liotta: During dessert, it was like they started auditioning. “I knew a guy who beat somebody up.” “I knew a guy who stole this, who stole that.” They seemed to be talking about themselves, and they kept topping each other.
Ellen Lewis (casting director): We were told I could consider some of them for the film, but others were a little too hot to be considered: “That guy can’t be in front of a camera.” It was actually the least likely-looking guys.
Pileggi: Warner Bros. now had to put them on the payroll, and they wanted their Social Security numbers. The wiseguys said, “1,2,6, uh, 6,7,8, uh, 4,3,2,1,7,8—” “No, that’s more numbers than you need!” They just kept reciting numbers until they were over. Nobody ever figured out where that money went or who cashed the checks.
Lewis: There was a moment when we were concerned about the Jimmy Conway part. Marty had offered it to another actor, and that actor turned the role down.
Winkler: The studio made it clear that they were looking for a star for the role. John Malkovich was discussed.
John Malkovich (actor): It sort of came at a bad time in my life, when I wasn’t feeling well and didn’t want to think about working. It’s hard to explain why you end up in Eragon and not GoodFellas. But De Niro is fantastic.
Robert De Niro (Jimmy Conway): I was reading the book, and I called Marty. We always thought I was too old to play Ray’s part, but I said, “What about Jimmy the Gent?” Marty said, “Yeah, great!” Who else they were thinking of or whoever turned it down, I don’t know. I never knew about that.
“GOODFELLAS” 1990 directed by Martin Scorsese
The United Nations was set today to appoint an obscure Malaysian astrophysicist to act as Earths first contact for any aliens that may come visiting.
Mazlan Othman, the head of the UN’s little-known Office for Outer Space Affairs (Unoosa), is to describe her potential new role next week at a scientific conference at the Royal Society’s Kavli conference centre in Buckinghamshire.
She is scheduled to tell delegates that the recent discovery of hundreds of planets around other stars has made the detection of extraterrestrial life more likely than ever before – and that means the UN must be ready to coordinate humanity’s response to any “first contact”.
During a talk Othman gave recently to fellow scientists, she said: “The continued search for extraterrestrial communication, by several entities, sustains the hope that some day humankind will receive signals from extraterrestrials.
“When we do, we should have in place a coordinated response that takes into account all the sensitivities related to the subject. The UN is a ready-made mechanism for such coordination.”
Professor Richard Crowther, an expert in space law and governance at the UK Space Agency and who leads British delegations to the UN on such matters, said: “Othman is absolutely the nearest thing we have to a ‘take me to your leader’ person.”
However, he thinks humanity’s first encounter with any intelligent aliens is more likely to be via radio or light signals from a distant planet than by beings arriving on Earth. And, he suggests, even if we do encounter aliens in the flesh, they are more likely to be microbes than anything intelligent.
fruit of the Puffer…
In Haiti, zombification is a punishment for severe crimes. Coupe poudre is the powder used by a bokur (sorcerer) to induce zombification. The active ingredient of coupe poudre is tetradotoxin (TTX), produced in the liver and ovaries of some species of puffer fish (e.g. Fugu rubripes). TTX is a neurotoxin 500 times more potent than cyanide. It acts by blocking the sodium ion channels which enable nerve and heart cells to produce electrical impulses. In miniscule doses TTX causes a near-death state in which metabolic functions are depressed, so that breathing and pulse rate are undetectable. Total paralysis follows, although the brain and senses remain intact. The victim is thought to be dead and is buried alive.
Datura… the zombie cucmber
A few days after being buried, the ‘zombie’ is disinterred and given another powder containing atropine and scopolamine. These are toxic and hallucinogenic compounds from the plants Datura metel and Datura stramonium (both known as the ‘zombie cucumber’). This powder, when administered, puts the victim into a permanent state of delirium and disorientation in which they experience delusions and hallucinations. He or she can then be made to do menial work for those against which the crime was committed.
The puffer fish is a delicacy in Japan. Only small amounts of the fish are edible and preparation is extremely difficult. Only highly trained chefs can remove the organs which produce TTX. Trace amounts of the toxin cause a tingling sensation on the tongue and lips when puffer fish is eaten.
Every year a small number of people eat puffer fish which has not been properly prepared and die by cardiac arrest as a result. There are also cases of people who are buried alive after going into a state of deep suspended coma, hence the Japanese practice of leaving those thought to have been killed by eating puffer fish next to their grave for three days before burial.
However, there are no reported cases of zombification in Japan. The phenomenon of Vodun zombification can be ascribed to the socialization process, in which one acquires personal knowledge of the Vodum religion and the expected effects of the sorcerer’s powder.
inaugural recipient of the Horton Foote Prize for Promising New American Play for his new work “Middletown”…
Will Eno is a playwright from the imaginary land of Brooklyn. He is best known for his international sensation “Thom Pain (based on nothing)” and has furthermore written a number of other works that have earned him a very fine reputation.
John Bailey: Often people become writers in part because it’s something they can do on their own. They’re not relying on a whole team of other people to make it happen (unlike, say, filmmakers or stage directors or whatever). Does that work for you? Are you a solitary person in that sense, or are you the sort to sit down and bounce ideas off other people and see what sticks? There’s a very distinct aspect of existential solitude in Thom Pain (based on nothing), for instance, and I wonder if alone-ness (or maybe good old loneliness) is of great interest to you. Language is clearly one of the things that you think and talk and write about, which is good because it’s hard to do any of those things without language. But this makes it very easy to position you within the field of postmodern writers, and around these parts at least there’s a very solid theatregoing public who are worried that this means they won’t get a good story for their dollar? What’s your relationship with narrative? Have you ever written a straight-up nuts-and-bolts story?
Will Eno: I like the way you’ve phrased that. “Loneliness is of great interest to me.” I hear a T-shirt being printed. But, yes, I guess I tend to be more toward the solitary end of the spectrum. And, yes, I’d say I was concerned with language, a little pre-occupied with it, even, though this was never a post-modern gesture. I think I never really felt I existed when I was little. I somehow got the feeling that it was best to keep myself to myself and as that misunderstanding hardened into my personality, it got harder and harder for me to talk and I felt like I was starting to disappear. But I knew, somehow, that a person’s identity, and I guess, therefore, their existence, depended on and arose from what they said, out loud, to people. So, if you have this sense that all you are and ever will be is what comes out of your mouth, I guess you’d get pretty interested and even a little anxious about what to say and how to say it. And you might start wondering weird things like, “What if all the best and most right words for me to truly express myself are Dutch words, or Farsi? And here I am, stuck in English.” And from there, it’s only a small step to start thinking of English itself as a foreign contraption that you’re not exactly sure how best to use. As for the idea of narrative, I think it’s ancient and crucial, but I think we have to include in our sense of narrative, this: earliest Man and Woman are naked and standing under the stars, enjoying the Stone Age air, and suddenly, a large dark shape, just over there, moves, or they think it moves, and that’s it, that’s all. Somewhere therein is, to me, the best and simplest sense of narrative– something just happened, we’re not sure what it was, but probably it was what we thought it was, and it means that something else is going to happen, to us, and we are filled with real feelings, and we know that somehow our lives depend on what happens next, somehow our lives are what happens next, and we wonder what that will be. Most events, no matter how small, can be broken down into these general parts. Which comes first? is a pretty good question. Life, or the parts? There’s an American philosopher, John Dewey, who says that we only are able to recognize any experience in life because it conforms to certain aesthetic contours and standards. It would not be recognizable or memorable as an experience, if it wasn’t also aesthetically striking. All of this is to say, I’m not sure, but, no, I’ve probably never written a straight nuts-and-bolts story. Not for lack of trying and not because I don’t think it’d be a good thing to do. I just kind of can’t. But that’s all right. And it doesn’t mean I’ve never written a story that follows a followable emotional and semantic arc. But I have trouble doing it in a really linear way, and that trouble becomes an interesting part of the story to me. I think our weaknesses and blind spots are probably, in an art-making context, as well as in life, the more interesting part of us. James Urbaniak, who is the actor who played Thom Pain in Edinburgh and New York, always said he found the play pretty classically structured. A guy has a problem, he tries some solutions, they don’t work, you wonder if they ever will, then one maybe does, and maybe you’re involved somehow, his life is maybe changed, and the lights go down.
JB: Why all the humour? Are you an ironist or a satirist or an absurdist or do these words make you wince? What’s the dynamic between humour and misery in your writing?
WE: The words do make me wince, a little, because they all imply (or imply to me) a fixed stance with respect to experience, to actuality and the world. And, again in my sense of the words, there’s a kind of safety, and even a smugness, in that fixed stance. It’s as if a person is saying, “I understand the world, the world is like this, and now I’m going to satirize it.” So none of those words really hits home with me. What about Botanist? I don’t really calibrate a balance or relation between humour and misery– I just think there is one, a balance, that arises fairly naturally based on the nature of things. Both seem to involve a repression, somehow. It’s like this, maybe. Imagine a person at a lecture or in a quiet library suddenly thinking of something really funny and trying to stifle a laugh. And then imagine an actor trying to make himself or herself cry by thinking of sad things. There’s a tension and intensity in both states, and it could be that Truth and Important Things require or arise in this particular tension and intensity. So that humour and joy and misery and sadness are subcategories of the larger thing, Truth. Or maybe it’s like this. The closer you move to a true thing, no matter if it’s a funny thing or a sad thing, the closer you move to all true things. So that the funnier something gets, the closer it moves to a really gutting and total kind of sorrow. Don’t know. I’m not Bertrand Russell. I’m not even Nipsy Russell (You’ll have to look that one up, I imagine.) So, yeah, as for the crying/laughing mix, it’s not a really calculated effect. It’s more like, when you’re talking with a friend about something serious and painful, and at a certain point, your friend makes a little joke. If you have good friends, the timing and size and funniness of the joke will seem in right proportion to the situation, and it will keep the conversation moving in the right direction with the right kind of energy. It even will seem like a kind of love, their joke, because they’re essentially saying, I’m listening, I’m maintaining a certain perspective, I want you to keep in mind joy and laughing while you tell me this sad thing, to which I’m listening, I promise, and so on.
JB: Isherwood has called you “a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation.” What that makes me wonder is: what’s Samuel Beckett then? Do you see yourself as updating some kind of tradition or fitting into some kind of genealogy or are those questions not ones that keep you awake at night?
WE: I’m sure you’re right about that– Samuel Beckett must be the Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation. I think we were very lucky to get the one and we don’t need updates or revised versions. That was definitely the type of quote that follows you around a bit. That said, it’s a pretty nice one to be followed around by. I was just glad to be taken seriously. As for history and tradition, I like to think that when you really hit your stride and are really really writing, and this maybe has only happened for me a few times in a couple plays, then you can’t help but be making something that is completely original, but, at the same time, is also respectful or at least aware of capital-h History. I don’t think it’s something you can really shoot for, but I do think it’s something achievable, something that can be achieved by a sustained engagement with history and a sustained openness to the self. You know? You have your feelings and your Tuesday morning on one hand, and the works of William Shakespeare, on the other. And maybe at some strange right moment, the two intersect somehow, and maybe you just happen to be sitting there, at that moment, writing. I don’t mean to say that you then drop a line from Shakespeare into your play. I mean to say you come up with a new solution to a famous problem, or, you somehow write a moment that shares some mystical and thudding quality with the moment where Gloucester’s (was it Gloucester?) face hits the stage, after he thought he was jumping off a cliff.
JB: Here is the question: how about that drugged balloonist?
WE: How about him, indeed. I think I worked with that guy, at a textbook publishing firm. He had some very different ideas about acceptable foods to eat at his desk. Honestly, I don’t have much to say about the Russell excerpt other than that it’s great and thanks a ton for introducing me to it. It reminds me a bit of that Wittgenstein quote about how if you ask an elephant to draw a picture of God, he’ll end up drawing something that looks sort of like an elephant. The thing Russell says about how our picture of the Universe is largely and secretly based on our actual physical size is very familiar and even kind of comforting to me. There are massive and unknowable systems and horrifically random events in the world and the Universe, around which, in an effort to make life not completely insane, we put these little splintery hand-made wooden frames. Good for us. You know? Hooray for us, for doing that.
“MIDDLETOWN” 2010 written by Will Eno
the Vineyard Theatre, NYC opens its new season with MIDDLETOWN — showing 11.3 – 11.21.10…
before the graphic novel, there was the Media Control Machine…
Naked Lunch author and sci-fi visionary William S. Burroughs only wrote one graphic novel, but it quickly disappeared after bouncing around in the early ’70s. Now the long-lost book, Ah Pook Is Here, has been reborn with the help of indie comics standout Fantagraphics.
Fantagraphics will publish the resuscitated Ah Pook as a two-volume package next summer, no doubt to the delight of Beat-nuts and alt-lit loyalists worldwide.
Burroughs‘ collaboration with artist Malcolm McNeill on Ah Pook was ahead of its time in the late ’60s and early ’70s, back when the phrase “graphic novel” was merely a figment of some marketer’s imagination. Yet the story — about a filthy-rich newspaper tycoon who creates a Media Control Machine fueled by ancient Mayan images to achieve immortality in the midst of a plague-riddled apocalypse — reads like a monstrous offspring of Fox News.
Fantagraphics describes the tale like this:
John Stanley Hart is the “Ugly American” or “Instrument of Control” — a billionaire newspaper tycoon obsessed with discovering the means for achieving immortality. Based on the formulae contained in rediscovered Mayan books he attempts to create a Media Control Machine using the images of Fear and Death. By increasing Control, however, he devalues time and invokes an implacable enemy: Ah Pook, the Mayan Death God. Young mutant heroes using the same Mayan formulae travel through time bringing biologic plagues from the remote past to destroy Hart and his Judeo/Christian temporal reality.
The story originated in the ’70s as a monthly comic strip called The Unspeakable Mr. Hart in English magazine Cyclops. When the mag went belly up, Burroughs and McNeil attempted to develop Ah Pook into a unique book. It was originally designed to be a single painting featuring recombined images and text, packed in 120 serial pages that would unfurl as the narrative took shape. That arty ambition doomed it to a later millennium, where an evolved comics industry could handle the work’s innovation and experimentation.
Ah Pook Is Here was another distillation of the cut-up technique, popularized by Burroughs and Brion Gysin, that anticipated later massive media developments like sampling and mashups. Burroughs died in 1997.
Fantagraphics’ release includes accompanying book Observed While Falling, McNeill’s memoir about his seven-year collaboration with Burroughs, one of America’s most influential authors. Acquired by publisher and editor Gary Groth, Ah Pook Is Here is a feather in Fantagraphics’ already feather-stufffed comics-lit cap.
“Fantagraphics is honored to bring this major work into print and to publish what is quite possibly the last great work from one of America’s most original prose stylists,” Groth said in a press release Thursday. “Burroughs once said that, ‘The purpose of writing is to make it happen.’ We are proud to make Ah Pook Is Here finally happen.”
Kubrick’s self-produced, self-censored first feature he’s said to have likened to a child’s drawing on a fridge…
on set in Los Angeles 1953…
In 1953 Kubrick raised $13,000 from his relatives to finance his first feature length film “Fear and Desire”, which he shot in the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles with a crew of fewer than 10 people, including himself acting as director, producer, cinematographer, editor, sound man, wardrobe, hairdresser, prop man, unit chauffeur, administrator, etc. Other crew members included two friends and his first wife Toba Metz whom he married when he was 18. The script was written by Howard Sackler, a high school friend. The picture was filmed silently and the sound, including dialogue, was recorded later. This unexpectedly pushed the cost up another $20,000. The 68 minute film never earned back it’s investment (though Kubrick eventually repaid all the money), but independent distributor Joseph Burstyn was able to book the film on the art house circuit, including the Guild Theatre in New York.
Fear and Desire is the only one of Kubrick’s features not available on home video or for theatrical distribution, and Kubrick liked it that way. When the Film Forum, a New York City theatre, presented an errant print for a week’s showing in 1994, Kubrick had his studio send letters to all of New York’s critics and media outlets, castigating his own movie. In the note, Warner’s publicity VP Don Buckley writes: “Kubrick has asked me to let you know that if it had been up to him, the film would not be publicly shown.” He also gives Kubrick’s review of the movie: “nothing more than a bumbling amateur film exercise . . . a completely inept oddity, boring and pretentious.” Since that 1994 screening, Kubrick successfully prevented announced showings of Fear and Desire in Los Angeles, Ohio, and New York.
In the book “Stanley Kubrick Directs” Kubrick is quoted as saying “the ideas we wanted to put across were good, but we didn’t have the experience to embody them dramatically. It was little more than a thirty-five millimeter version of what a class of film students would do in sixteen millimeter.” However, on a positive note he added “particularly in those days, before the advent of film schools, Nagras and lightweight portable equipment, it was very important to have this experience and to see with what little facilities and personnel one could actually make a film. Today, I think that if someone stood around watching even a smallish film unit, he would get the impression of vast technical and logistical magnitude. He would probably be intimidated by this and assume that something close to this was necessary in order to achieve more or less professional results. This experience and the one that followed with Killer’s Kiss, which was on a slightly more cushy basis, freed me from any concern again about the technical or logistical aspects of filmmaking.”
“FEAR AND DESIRE” 1953 directed by Stanley Kubrick
seek and you will find, bootleg copies abound…
hitting Brussels with a big new show…
As Michel Butor recalls in Les mots dans la peinture: “..in bygone days it was said that poets painted with words”. And indeed David Kramer, after his training as painter and sculptor, cultivated a close interest in poetry. Words ended up inextricably integrating themselves within his graphic oeuvre, to the point of creating a sort of hybrid, mid-way between the plastic arts and literature. Narrative is in question here, when he incorporates typed text with his images, with disillusion and irony ever at the fore.
An extract: “You know, if I could just go back and have some of the money back that I blew on beer and cigarettes over the years, I’d probably be a millionaire. Man, I wish I hadn’t been so wasteful. But you know, if I could somehow get all of that money back, I’d just go and blow it all over again.” The full text is centered on money matters, and to illustrate this (or contrarily, is the text doing the illustrating), Kramer furnishes the simple portrait of a young couple, seemingly drawn from a 70’s cigarette ad (she’s smoking, he’s standing back). Another text, handwritten, frames the image: “If I could go back and change a few things, I would… But I am not sure if the things I aspire for ever really existed, anyway.” The rapport between the two texts is clear, while that between text and image is less so. Cigarettes? But what about the beers… Other works introduce a more direct relationship between word and picture: a lit cigarette burning in an ashtray, with the text proclaiming that all the cigarettes smoked by the artist, if put end-to-end, would cover the distance of a marathon.
In the description of his philosophy of life, David Kramer’s favorite conjunction is the word “but”: things could be better, but they are what they are; or, things might change, but does that mean for the better? Ironic, bittersweet, inhabited by a New York-Jewish sense of humor, the work of David Kramer uses text and image to bring us those little (self) reflections that flash through all our heads at one moment or other during the course of the day. His illustrations, harking back to stereotypes peddled by ad agencies during the golden 60’s and 70’s (less golden, but anyway..), make us consider to what point the notion of happiness, as soon as it’s used to sell a product, a concept or a style, becomes relative. And despite his assertion that “… In a perfect world, I would be one happy mother fucker,” he will forgive us if we continue to have our doubts.
now on view at Aeroplastics Contemporary, Brussels — through 10.30.10…