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Joan Tewkesbury: Do It Louder and Bigger

Joan Tewkesbury, who wrote Robert Altman’s “Thieves Like Us” and “Nashville,” discusses her 1979 directorial debut, “Old Boyfriends.”
Old Boyfriends
Old Boyfriends. Courtesy of Rialto Pictures.
Old Boyfriends, Joan Tewkesbury’s 1979 directorial debut, is ripe for rediscovery. Penned by Paul and Leonard Schrader, the film features a top-notch cast including Talia Shire as an inquisitive psychologist and John Belushi, Richard Jordan, and Keith Carradine as men from her past whom she seeks out in a journey of self-knowledge. The film is neither a broad comedy nor a melodrama, but rather an eccentric mélange. At the time of its release the film received mixed reviews, with many critics uncertain about its tonal digressions and the nuances of the Schrader brothers’ screenplay. Now decades removed from the auteurist boom of the New Hollywood era, Old Boyfriends feels fresh—pleasingly off-kilter and presented through the perspective of a female character who doesn’t fit into Hollywood cliché, the film seems more likely to be appreciated by a young audience primed to seek out titles directed by women and look for new cinematic narratives.
 A new 35mm print of Old Boyfriends was struck after the discovery that the one print in circulation was completely pink. The film now looks as good as new, and the restoration came about thanks in part to Maya Montañez Smukler’s book Liberating Hollywood: Women Directors and the Feminist Reform of 1970s American Cinema, and its attendant film series at UCLA. Old Boyfriends is now playing at New York’s Metrograph theater, and makes for a welcome addition to the ever-expanding canon of overlooked films directed by women. Tewkesbury’s career, which famously includes writing Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us and Nashville, has been fascinating, and I spoke with the director about her work in New Hollywood and beyond. 

NOTEBOOK: How did you become involved with Old Boyfriends?
JOAN TEWKESBURY: I had a film that I had written and Altman was going to try to produce and we couldn’t get it off the ground. Paul and I had the same agent, and Paul and his brother wrote this and changed it from Old Girlfriendsto Old Boyfriends. And then Ed Pressman was one of the few independent producers at that time that would take it on. And that’s how it came about. We knew that we wanted Talia. When she signed on, I did a bit of a rewrite for her. So it was much more internal for a woman's thinking about her point of view on things.
NOTEBOOK: What was it like going from writing to directing? Were there changes in your creative process?
TEWKESBURY: I was a dancer and choreographer, so I always wrote visually. Other people write really solid, good screenplays with lots of dialogue, but all of mine I wrote visually. So the transition into shooting what was visual seemed pretty okay for me. So much of directing is really about organization. Having been a dancer and a choreographer and having to boss people around, you realize that a lot of film is choreography, whether it’s choreographing what you’re going to shoot or choreographing the crew that’s behind you. It’s like this circular dance that you’re doing every day when you come to work. I found it really thrilling to be able to make that sort of translation. Film allows you to go to the internal with an actor so you could show not only the external action but also the internal emotion. I really liked that. When you watch a dance performance and feel how it impacts you in your body, that’s what I want a movie to do.
NOTEBOOK: Did you feel like there were challenges in getting Old Boyfriends made?
TEWKESBURY: There were challenges. I think the reason we got it made was because of Paul. At that moment in time Paul was on the rise and I’m quite sure that’s what we went to the bank on. That and Talia, since she had just done Rocky. The rest of the men in the cast were sort of the icing on the cake. It was hard. And there were people who said, “Why are you going to let her direct?” People come out of the woodwork in strange ways to attack your reputation. After that, in terms of trying to get my stuff done, it was impossible. And so I just thought, “Okay, fine, I’m moving into TV,” because Carol Burnett called and asked me if I’d be interested in adapting a book and directing, and I said yes. My agent at the time said, “If you get slaughtered in television, you’re never going to be able to go back to movies.” And I said, “So far that door hasn't been open quite so wide.”
NOTEBOOK: What was it like working with John Belushi? How did he impact the reception of the film?
TEWKESBURY: It still breaks my heart that he is not with us because I kept saying, “When you're about 40, I would really like to do a silent movie with you.” When the film was released, everybody was very angry because the last movie they’d seen John in was Animal House. So they were expecting comedy and a food fight. We did not give them any of that. They also didn’t know what to do with the woman’s character. The movie was dismissed as being angry, feminist—all these labels were put on it, when it’s none of those things. It was intended as a sort of mystery story that you unraveled as you went along.
NOTEBOOK: When it comes to your screenplays for Altman, how much was written and how much was improvised?
TEWKESBURY: Nashville was set in such a circular way—if you saw a character in the morning, you were bound to see them at least one more time during the day. So the construct was really written like a piece of choreography. Yes, there was dialogue, but the actors had room to tell the story if it was pertinent. As I would often say to the actors, basically, if you can just get into the scene from the beginning and get out of it in the way that it was sort of intended, it will connect to the rest of the movie. It keeps things alive in your film. As you see things happening with an actor, you can ask in the scene for more or to take it in this direction or that direction. And Bob would often do that. It would bring more juice into the vocabulary of the film. It was like having a playpen—you just stuck the children in it, but at least there were boundaries too.
NOTEBOOK: What are some of your cinematic influences?
TEWKESBURY: Altman, certainly. The biggest influence on me was Bertolucci. I like films where you keep looking under the rug to see what’s going on. What I loved about Altman was the sense of serendipity in his work. And because I came out of the world of dance that was so rigid I loved seeing that kind of joy. I love Michael Ritchie’s movies. In The Candidate everything’s exploding in twelve directions at once but he was very orderly about how he chose his chaos and his characters. Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show—I like that kind of sprawl where you’re examining what life is like in a particular situation. Everybody making movies at that time all had this sort of internal driving angst going on.
NOTEBOOK: It’s very easy to romanticize that '70s New Hollywood era. When you were working in that time, was there a sense that it was a really special thing?
TEWKESBURY: Yeah, there was. We were coming out of the rigidity of the studio system. Certainly the younger filmmakers had started to break the rules and they had broken into the Directors Guild, which up until then had been a bastion of older white men. And then Joan Micklin Silver was making movies and Joan Darling was coming out of television, and I just fell out of the turnip truck. It had just begun to loosen. So we were very aware of the fact that this was new. The films being made at that time were personal and special and not out of the studio system. And the movies were beautiful. You look at some of the mechanics of making movies at that time and then you look at today. Yeah, digital’s great because you can shoot fast but boy, you sure miss the texture.
NOTEBOOK: Do you have any advice that you'd give to aspiring filmmakers or writers?
TEWKESBURY: I feel incredibly fortunate because I work with the Sundance Institute, so there is the opportunity to hear new voices. The thing that I say to anybody is do not write what you think the formula wants you to write. The movies that truly excel are the ones that are the bravest and the ones where somebody has a big enough mouth and a loud enough voice to really push it. If the story is strong enough and if the filmmaker is brave enough, I just encourage people to do it louder and bigger.
Old Boyfriends runs August 2 - 8, 2019 at New York's Metrograph.

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