James Ivory / Career retrospective

For over fifty years, James Ivory, Ismail Merchant, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala made films together under the Merchant Ivory brand, including such classics as Room with a View, Howards End, The Remains of the Day, and Shakespeare Wallah.  In celebration of the Cohen Media Group’s rerelease of Heat and Dust, Director Talk interviews James Ivory on his life in cinema and longtime collaboration. Availability: Heat and Dust and Autobiography of a Princess (US premiere) open September 1, Quad Cinema, New York City, and Laemmle Royal, L.A. To learn more about Merchant Ivory, click here. Thanks to Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: You and Ismail and Ruth made films together for fifty years. Can you talk about your collaborative process? How strictly were the roles defined as producer, director, writer?

JI:  They were strictly defined: Ruth wrote, I directed, and Ismail did everything a producer needs to do—raise the money, make sure the film is released properly and publicized and all that. Our roles were quite defined, though I sometimes collaborated with Ruth on the screenplay. She certainly never ventured into the areas of producing or directing.

DT: Did you edit together?

JI: In a way. What we used to do was sort of unheard of. After we had a fairly organized rough cut and we’d screened it for ourselves and for her, she would come into the editing room and help us pull it together better. She considered that as part of her writing job. She wasn’t actually editing, but she saw things that she had seen in her imagination that hadn’t gone well during the shoot. Actors we’d had high hopes for weren’t as good as we thought they would be, or the reverse was true also: Some actors we weren’t going to feature were absolutely wonderful and we thought we had to make room for them, they were so good. Or I made mistakes. Generally we would pull it all together, and she would be in the editing room for about a week doing that.

The editors, far from being dismayed by this, were really pleased that she was there. This was a way of working that’s absolutely unheard of in Hollywood. Probably in Europe, which is more auteur-driven, writers probably did make other appearances, but that’s the way we worked, and that’s what we liked to do. And sometimes—this was something Ismail would get into very much—when Ruth would come in and we’d work on the rough cut with her, it would encourage him that maybe we needed something else here and there; perhaps we should have a scene of such-and-such. In fact, we did this with practically every film. We would have a secret shoot…we never, ever told the financiers about this. And we never told them that’s how we always worked—Ismail put money aside and we’d get the actors and go off and do some more. There would be some places in the film that needed things, and we’d just do it.

And that’s how we worked. It was very collaborative, the three of us, but we did have quite distinct roles.

DT: How much did you discuss a project together before you started shooting?

JI: Quite a lot. Again, it depended on whether or not I was collaborating with Ruth on the screenplay. We talked about it a lot. We would talk wherever we happened to be—at a meal, in a taxicab, wherever, just as the thoughts came to us. It was never any sort of formal sit-down-discussion sort of thing. This just gradually came about. Of course Ismail weighed in a lot, because as a producer he had certain concerns about what we were thinking. There was a lot of talk. But then that’s true of any collaborative work of art. I mean, there’s lots and lots of talk about it.

 

DT: You’ve said that a director is wide and shallow, while an actor is narrow and deep. You’ve also talked about how you “watch the actor.” Can you talk about how both of those things apply to how you work with an actor?

JI: When I say that an actor is narrow but deep, I mean an actor is primarily concerned with bringing out his or her role. Creating a role through some process of their own, based on their own experiences, and things they’ve observed in life and their own thoughts, they manage to put together a character, and I think it goes very, very deep into their consciousness and subconscious. They are creating a person out of their own experience that really only exists in fiction, and it’s not like what a director does. The director has to have an interest in a million different things, but he can’t go deep into any of them, because he has so many different things to contend with—the photography, the weather, whether or not a set is OK or not OK, or maybe an actor who was going to play a role doesn’t play it and someone else comes, all the rest. A director is spread thin. This has to be; you couldn’t be as engaged in all of those things as an actor is engaged in creating his or her role, and that’s why I say a director is sort of shallow. I mean, a director can have certain strengths in various areas. Some directors are marvelously strong when it comes to producing the image and the photographic side of things, or they can be marvelously strong in editing, or whatever. We all have our strengths and we all have our weaknesses, and I’m speaking now as a director. It’s like that, really. Directors have a lot to think about, but an actor really only has his or her role to think about.

DT: So would you describe yourself as basically hands off when you work with an actor?

JI: At first, yes. I believe in allowing an actor to show me what it is he or she has created. They have to do that before anything else. They have to show me what it is they want to do. If they seem to be going astray in any area, I would get in there and steer them in the direction I wanted them to go. But on the whole, they’re artists, after all, and you have to respect what they’ve created. You want to see it and know what it is before you comment for better or for worse. That’s the way I work, and that’s the way I think you should work.

And it doesn’t just apply to acting. It applies to other areas in film. It applies to music, it applies certainly to set design and costumes and so on. They have to show you what it is they made and you have to respect that. They are artists also. Wait to see what that is, and hopefully you’ll like it; usually I did like it. But sometimes of course I didn’t, and in some cases I’d rather cautiously say, “I think maybe a little bit more of this and less of that” sort of thing.

DT: Would that take place while you were shooting, or did you rehearse in advance?

JI: It could certainly take place during shooting. Not so much where sets and costumes are concerned, those things are already there—even in photography, really, but certainly in the interpretation, in the acting. If you don’t like something, you have to speak up, but you have to wait to see how they wanted to do it. I believe you owe the actor that. It happens all the time, from the beginning to the end of shooting, you’re always in that situation. You’re never not facing that.

As far as rehearsals are concerned, we principally rehearsed every scene on the day we were going to shoot it. We didn’t go in for big rehearsals because very often we couldn’t get all the actors together. That’s the problem with movies—the actors are off doing another film or maybe they’re in a play, or whatever. They’re not all there at the same time, and you can’t really have a decent rehearsal unless everybody is there. The only film we really had the luck to have everybody present was Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. We had absolutely everybody there, including the two kids, so we could have two weeks of proper rehearsals like most people like to have, most directors are very happy to have, and the actors certainly want to have.

 

DT: Speaking of performances, you get particularly extraordinary performances from male actors, like Christopher Reeve in Bostonians and Julian Sands in Room with a View.

JI: They are very different actors. Christopher Reeve was a highly trained actor and also worked on the stage, and he believed in doing a lot of homework. Julian Sands had only just begun to act. It was pretty much off the cuff with him, but he was just right for the part and memorable. It depends on the actor. Some of them are very, very experienced and know how to do all kinds of research. Christopher Reeve got together with some ex-politician from Mississippi in order to get that accent. He worked on it for weeks and weeks.

DT: He was wonderful.

JI: He was, and very much underrated, I thought. People were so used to seeing him as Superman that they couldn’t accept him in a sort of Rhett Butler role, which is what he was playing, basically. They couldn’t accept that. The same thing happened with Paul Newman as Mr. Bridge. Everybody loved their version of Paul Newman—all of his movies were so popular—and the idea that he was this stern, rather unrelenting and somewhat puritanical father figure was hard for people to take.

 

DT: One thing that I love that you do—it’s so subtle but it’s so great—you have the camera focused on the main action, but you have other people moving on and off the screen, in front of the action, behind the action, on the side of the action. It’s almost as if you want the audience to never forget that there’s life going on outside the frame. I didn’t know if that was intentional or not.

JI: It’s hard to achieve that, let me tell you. If you look at my earlier films, you don’t always get that idea, but it really comes about if you have very, very experienced and very good first assistant directors. The assistant directors have to concentrate on all of the side action that’s happening, and some of them are very, very good and subtle and some are not at all. But I can’t think about that very much or worry about it. If I see something—say on the first take I see people doing something off on the side that I don’t like, or I think they could be better used in some other part of the shot—I say something. Sometimes I go right out on the floor and move people around myself. That has happened, but on the whole if you have very, very good assistant directors who are good at that kind of thing, it’s a relief. For me, anyway.

 

DT: You’ve said that your early influences were Satyajit Ray and Jean Renoir. What did you like about their films, and how did they influence your own directing?

JI: That’s a very big question. I liked Ray’s films so much because I discovered Ray at the time I discovered India, and he was the foremost, really the only, Indian director at that time that a Westerner could really enjoy and get something from. I loved his films, and then I came to know him, and I see his influence still, even after he’s been gone twenty years now. I see his influence in my work in little, little ways that most people probably wouldn’t see.

I was lucky that with our very first film, I had his entire crew. We made The Householder, our first feature, in India. Ray wasn’t making a film at that time, and I wanted to borrow his cameraman, Subrata Mitra, who was a great, great cameraman. We didn’t have a cameraman, and Ray said, “Yes, of course, take him.” Subrata wanted to do it, but then Ray said, “Nobody else is working for me right now,” so I got them all—his assistant director, soundman, cameraman, cameraman’s assistant. They all came to work for me, and it’s not surprising that there’s a look to the film, and one or two of the other Indian films, that reminds one somewhat of Ray. Not so much the content—the content was very different—just the way the scenes are put together and photographed and so on.

As for Renoir, well, Renoir is a very great European director whom I’ve always admired, as Ray did.

 

DT: Me too!  You fell in love with India, but you also fell in love with Venice, where you made your first film. Room with a View is one of the most romantic films I’ve ever seen. Do you think that your feeling for Italy affected that film in particular, and do you think that happens generally—that your feeling for the location somehow affects the way the film turns out?

JI: I think so, sure, otherwise why are you there? Why are you in that particular location? You like being there, and you want to have it as a backdrop to your story. Where Italy was concerned, Venice was the first Italian city I ever went to and spent any time in, and I was just bowled over by it. From there I went to Rome, and I had equally strong feelings about Rome. But strangely, for some reason, and this went on for several years, I never visited Florence. I don’t know why, maybe it just seemed like such a huge correctional thing to see and do that I just felt I would wait and put it off to some other day. So when I came to do the film in Florence, yes, I already had very, very strong feelings about Italy, but when I came to do Room with a View, Florence was all new to me, and I was seeing it with a fresh eye. I think that was useful, that I was discovering Florence myself when we made that film. I didn’t know it, and I had to learn the city in the same way that I learned Venice and Rome, and I think it certainly shows in the film itself.

 

DT: Are you participating in the Cohen Media Group’s restorations of Heat and Dust, Autobiography of a Princess, Howards End, Maurice, and Shakespeare Wallah?

JI: Oh yes. I have been, and I expect to go on doing that. My actual technical participation isn’t so great. The most I can do is sort of sit there with the cameraman and regrade the picture for color and darkness or lightness and so on and contrast. We do that together. That’s about as much as I can do, because I can’t get involved in the sound. On the whole I’m limited to being there with the cinematographer, and we make sure that the color is right and the contrast is right, it’s not too light or dark; that sort of thing. Beyond that, I get very much involved in the packaging of the films, and when they’re released, I do a lot of press. I get involved to the extent that they allow me to be involved in the advertising campaigns. They usually don’t want directors to get involved in that because perhaps we’ll suggest some uncommercial things.

DT: Do you choose which films are going to be restored?

JI: In some cases, yes. I suggested that if they were going to do Heat and Dust, they needed to restore Autobiography at the same time because both films are very related in subject matter. They’re also going to go in a DVD package, probably on two discs. But I think that everybody agreed that they would start out with Howards End. Next they moved to Maurice, and then they wanted to go back to one of our earliest films, considered a classic, which is Shakespeare Wallah. I go along with what they want to do, but I do make suggestions sometimes about the order of things. So far so good.

 

DT: And what’s going on with Richard II?

JI: I don’t know. I mean, I lack a very good producer, I lack a powerful producer. My regular producer, Ismail Merchant. I don’t have that. Had I had such a person, I think the film would have been made years ago. The pity is we didn’t make it while Ismail was still alive, which we might have done. I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s out there, and people are still sort of supposedly thinking about it, but I wonder, really, what will happen.

 

DT: I really hope it’s made. Are you continuing to donate your films to the George Eastman House?

JI: They have pretty much everything. They don’t have the studio films. They have prints and that kind of thing, but the studios almost always keep their negatives to themselves on the whole. I donated the films that Merchant Ivory actually owned, which was more than thirty, but as I say, the studios hold onto the films that they made, like Remains of the Day. They keep their things in their vaults, where I’m sure they’re properly cared for; the right temperature and all that. But we do have prints of all of our films, and we had a lot of secondary material that accumulated over the years, whether those are studio films or not, and whenever there was anything interesting, I put it at George Eastman.

 

DT: How involved did you get in casting your films?

JI: Very. I’m the one that says yes or no. It’s interesting, though, because sometimes Ismail would jump in there and surprise me and cast somebody himself if he was getting fed up with my not being sure about this person or that person. He did that several times, but who was to complain, because he came up with people like James Mason or Maggie Smith or Helena Bonham Carter. Who’s to complain?

DT: Wasn’t Emma Thompson in that category also?

JI: I found Emma.

DT: How did you find them? From other movies? Onstage?

JI: Not in Emma’s case. Emma was suggested to me by Simon Callow. He suggested that I find out more about her. When they were casting Howards End I might have seen one film that she’d made, it might even have been something for television. She came to me and she obviously wanted to do it. She’d read the script, but she didn’t have the script with her when she came to read for me, so she read straight out of the novel, and that was it. Some of the other actresses who had come that day were quite big names, but she got the part on the spot.

 

DT: Speaking of that, you said that when you’re doing an adaptation, your actors sometimes carry the novel around with them on the set.

JI: We discouraged that. We actually pulled the novel out of their hands. The last thing you want is to be in the middle of a scene and the actor says, “You’ve left some dialogue out. I just love this dialogue and I want to say it.” That’s the last thing you want on the set. I don’t mind if they read other novels on the set. That’s fine. I feel very lucky, because that’s how I discovered Remains of the Day. An actor was reading Remains of the Day while we were making Mr. and Mrs. Bridge. One day he came up to me and said, “I’m reading this book that I think is sort of boring, but I think you may like it.” He gave it to me to read, and I couldn’t put it down. It wasn’t the next film but the film after.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

The Women’s Balcony/Emil Ben-Shimon

A Jerusalem rabbi loses his mind when the women’s balcony in his synagogue collapses, sending his wife into a coma. His congregation, lacking a spiritual leader, is delighted when a charismatic ultra-Orthodox rabbi miraculously comes to their aid. Fashioning himself as their savior, he fascinates the men with his biblical tales, even as he puts more and more restrictions on the women. Lysistrata fashion, they rebel. Gently, sweetly, this comedy addresses one of the most potent problems of our time:  religious fundamentalism.  Availability: Opens May 26, New York City, Lincoln Plaza Cinema, Quad Cinema, with national rollout to follow. Click here for local listings and trailer.  Thanks to Isil Bagdadi-Sergio, CAVU Pictures, for arranging this e-mail interview. 

 

DT: The film depicts a very specific problem within a minority community in Israel, yet it’s doing very well all around the world. When you directed the film, did you intentionally focus on its more universal aspects? If so, how did you do that?

EBS: I did not think at all about how I would make the story universal. Generally, I believe that if you go deeper in a local depiction and keep it authentic, you have a better chance of having universal appeal. Sometimes I am more interested in the ways to tell a story than in the story itself. When I watch foreign films there are nuances that do not travel or get to me, but if the characters are full and human and the story is told in a fresh and interesting way, I’m happy with it.

 

DT: The film is also doing well in Israel, where there is a huge rift between the secular and ultra-Orthodox. Did you hit a nerve with this story?

EBS: Yes. The film was a huge success in Israel and sold more tickets than Titanic in its time. This is definitely a sign that it hit a nerve in Israeli society. The tension between Orthodox and secular or traditional often comes up on the surface, and it was important for me to transmit the message that no one has a monopoly on God. Many viewers asked me if I wasn’t scared to touch such a charged subject, and my answer is simple: making films is not for cowards.

 

DT: In Israeli film history, the Mizrahim [Jews from the Middle East] were often represented in boureka movies [silly comedies with stereotypical depictions]. Were you afraid of repeating that stereotype? Did you go out of your way to avoid it?

EBS: When you are doing a movie about simple Mizrahi characters, there is always a chance you will be tagged as a bourekas movie, and indeed there were a few reviewers that claimed wrongfully this is a bourekas film. That is why I was so glad to read the reviews from the US and Spain, where reviewers understood the film much better than the Israeli critics. For me the big challenge was to navigate between comedy and drama, to be comedic without turning ridiculous, and to be dramatic without being overly melodramatic, as it was done in bourekas films.

 

DT: Talk about the casting process. Many of your actors played against type; Orna Banai, whose character becomes very religious, is a famous comedian, while Aviv Alush, who plays the rabbi, is a teen heartthrob in Israel.

EBS: That is very true. Orna Banai is one of the greatest comedians in Israel. She appears every week in a satire show on TV and has a very clear agenda against the Orthodox. That is why I was very interested in taking her to play a part that is opposite her personal views and that is also very dramatic as opposed to her comedic persona. I think this stresses more the huge impact Rabbi David has on the community. I was amazed by the way she gave herself to the character and became her. I think the audience also loved seeing this opposite. Taking Aviv Alush to play a rabbi was also a great challenge, since he is indeed a teenage heartthrob. Also Yigal Naor who always plays hard characters (Sadam Hussein) had to get into the character of the mellow and good-hearted Zion. To cast against type can be dangerous, but when it works it pays off.

 

DT: Your composer, Ahuva Ozeri, is also very famous in Israel. Talk about her work on the film.

EBS: Ahuva Ozeri was a brilliant musician and a cultural hero to many in Israel. Together with Shaul Besser, her partner, we searched for music that will be minimalist but will lead the emotional core in the film. We worked for a very long time on the music because it was essential for me to find the punctuality and tenderness. It might also be that the work took so much time because I loved Ahuva and her personality. Very sadly Ahuva passed away as the film was released. I am positive that the film’s soundtrack will be played for many years forward and will be part of her tremendously important legacy.

 

 DT: Much of your cast had an extensive TV background, much like you.  Compared to American TV, Israeli TV is very sophisticated, but there’s still a transition from TV, even a TV film, to a film made for theatrical release.  Can you talk about transitioning from TV to film?

EBS: Starting at a young age I knew I wanted to make films for cinema, but circumstances led me to TV. For me reaching the big screen is a dream come true. In TV my creative freedom is very narrow, in cinema it’s different, you can create your vision in a more lucid way. So it was obvious to me that if this film will not succeed, I will be the first one to perform Harakiri! I think that subconsciously I wanted to cast actors who also would be transitioning for the first time from TV to film. Happily it was a successful passage for all of us.

 

DT: The role of women in religion is changing around the world. What do those changes mean in a country like Israel, and how are they reflected in your film?

EBS: A rabbi in a community has great powers and everyone is supposed to honor him. The fact that in this film we see women turning against the rabbi is not trivial at all. I think it created a discussion on where does the line between following a rabbi blindly and asking yourself questions go. One of the scenes I love most in the film is when the women gather to protest outside his yeshiva and his shock when he sees them.

 

DT: Is there anything you want to add?

EBS: The film has a good ending, which is almost euphoric, and I decided to go with it full ahead, out of my belief that it is a well-earned ending for this story, although I was afraid the audience will feel it is too sweet. Happily this didn’t happen, and it gave me an appetite to keep on telling stories for the big screen.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017

George Nierenberg/About Tap and No Maps on My Taps

In No Maps on My Taps, director George Nierenberg features tap dancers Bunny Briggs, Sandman Sims, and Chuck Green. In About Tap, introduced by Gregory Hines, Nierenberg features Chuck Green, Jimmy Slyde, and Steve Condos. Both films are must-sees for anybody even vaguely interested in the art of tap, jazz, or the intersection of music and dance. Availability: NYC, Quad Cinema, July 7-14, to coincide with American Tap Dance Foundation‘s annual Tap City Festival.  Also available from Milestone Films.

 

DT: While introducing About Tap, Gregory Hines speaks about personal style. What do Chuck Green, Jimmy Slyde, Steve Condos, Sandman Sims, Bunny Brigs say about the importance of personal style in tap?

GN: I would talk about it in a broader sense than just the specifics of your question, in terms of a bigger sense of what it means to be your own artist. I came to understand that what they do and what they brought to their art is demonstrative of any person who tries to find themselves and tries to express themselves individually as to who they are, so for me they became examples of people who did that. You can see their personalities in their art. You can’t separate one from the other. You can’t have Chuck Green doing Bunny Briggs. You can’t have Bunny Briggs doing Chuck Green. It doesn’t jive. What Sandman talks about is very philosophical in the sense that he uses himself as an example of how he came to understand that you can’t duplicate anybody and be your own artist. You have to find yourself in yourself, and that’s what makes anybody unique and special. There’s plenty of imitators out there, but there are only a few who are real individuals. In art. In anything. In life. I hoped that I told that story to a certain extent in No Maps on My Taps, because it’s a very engaging story. People understand the humanity of the art itself, and gravitate to that, so it was a very popular film and really galvanized the tap community; it was sort of the genesis of the resurgence of tap. And thereafter a lot happened. There were tap parades, we did a tour around the world.

DT:  With the film?

GN:  Yes. The film was the first part of the show, and then the tap dancers would come out and they’d get a standing ovation just for walking out. We did over sixty shows around the world. It was called “No Maps on My Taps and Company.” The dancers never experienced anything like that. Normally they’d get on the stage and they’d have to work the crowd. But the crowd was in the palm of their hand when they walked out on stage because the film made them bigger than life. When I met them, Bunny lived in a small apartment with a woman who was not very nice to him, Chuck Green, all of them, didn’t have any prominence. Tap dancing was dying from their point of view. After the film opened at the Telluride Film Festival, Sandman Sims became a big celebrity, they did Broadway, they were in a feature with Gregory. Their careers took off, and a whole generation of tap dancers came up from them. Tap became much more popular, in a bigger sense, around the world, and they became the masters. They became the ones who were really respected old men. They got what they deserved: they were valued in a way that they never could have anticipated.

The reason I made About Tap is that after I made No Maps on My Taps, I never felt that I had really paid tribute to the art of tap. I was very, very careful about who I selected for  both films,  because I could have picked any tap dancer. It could have been Honi Coles, it could have been Buster Brown. I wanted Jimmy Slyde to be in No Maps on My Taps, but he was in Europe. It could have been Lon Chaney. I chose those three dancers because I felt collectively they could tell the story. When it came to About Tap, I picked Chuck Green again because I felt he was such a galvanizing force for the other dancers—they respected him so much. He was institutionalized for many years, but when he came out, he was like a force…he brought all of them together because they respected him so much that I felt it was important to have him in the film. I wanted to capture Jimmy Slyde because I hadn’t in the earlier film, and I wanted to capture Steve Condos because his style was so unique, and they were all so distinctively different. I picked those three because I felt collectively they would show a spectrum of the dance. I felt they really could articulate what they did above and beyond the dance itself, that their way of expressing what they did was bigger than the dance: they put it in a context under which you could view it differently, so what they said enabled you to see inside of who they were and what they were doing.

 

DT:  Let’s go back to the issue of personality. You got to know them pretty well over the course of filming. Can you articulate what it was about their personalities that came out in their dance?

GN:  Bunny Briggs does a little pose where he puts his hands out and his fingernails are out front. He said to me, “You know why I do that? Cause I get my fingernails manicured, and I want people to know I take care of myself.” It’s a perfect thing. No other dancer would say that, but Bunny would. Sandman has his sand dance. It’s his whole identity. He said Bill Robinson was the one who told him he needed that to make a living. He’s able to make those moves, and he came up with the whole thing himself. He lived in California, and there’s a lot of sand there. It was a perfect mechanism for him. He created the board. He’s like any musician: his board was his instrument. Pouring in the sand, putting in the microphone, that was his instrument. He had to make the whole thing.

DT:  Bill Robinson did a sand dance in Stormy Weather.

GN:  He did a sand dance, but Sandman perfected it. He created a board you could stick a mic in,  it had a certain kind of surface. He got a certain amount of sand, he poured it on the board. Bill Robinson tapped up and down stairs. That was his thing. It’s not like nobody else has done a sand dance, but Sandman had the name Sandman, you know what I mean? With that board he’d come up on stage and dance in one little spot. Steve Condos would dance in one spot, too.

 

DT:  Let’s talk about Steve Condos. What was he like?

GN:  Intense. He was so committed to his dance. With all these people, once a tap dancer always a tap dancer. My mother was a tap dance star when she was a child. The height of her career was when she tap danced for the inmates at Sing Sing.

DT:  How old was she?

GN:  Ten.  She’s ninety-one years old now. She can still tap dace, but her knees aren’t very good. She wanted to put together a group of elderly ladies to tap dance on chairs. So once a tap dancer always a tap dancer. It’s part of your being. As far as personality is concerned, Chuck Green is very interesting at the end of About Tap. He has his hat, and he walks off in a certain style, the way only he does. He had this class. It’s really classy the way he walks off like that. Chuck is the only one who could do that. He had this incredibly unique face, which had such sweetness in it, but at the same time he had the capacity to be so angry, like he was at Sandman in No Maps on My Taps.

DT:  Did the challenge dancing usually get that competitive?

GN:  Chuck went in and out of…functionality, let’s say. On the day of that performance, we couldn’t find him. He had disappeared. I had a lot of money riding on that day—Lionel Hampton, his band, the crew, the place, and everything else. And literally Chuck could not be found. He hadn’t shown up at the home the night before. Nobody knew where he was, and now it’s three o’clock in the afternoon and we still haven’t found him.

DT:  When was the show supposed to go on?

GN:  Five o’clock. And we hadn’t found him. Finally he calls the office and they say to him, “Chuck, where are you?” He said, “I’m in a phone booth.” They said, “Look out the phone booth. Where you at?” He said, “I’m at the corner of walk and don’t walk.” Anyway, they found him and brought him up, but when he got there, he was in a certain state of mind that was a bit raw. Sandman could always get under his skin easily, but Sandman also respected Chuck so much, as he expressed so beautifully in No Maps on My Taps. So Sandman was trying to egg him on, it’s just Chuck was not in a state of mind that he could really take it. You could see at the end of the performance that Chuck is doubting himself about how well he did. Bunny is saying, “No, you did good, Chuck.” At the end, Chuck’s brow is being wiped off and he says, “Got no maps on my taps,” which basically means, ‘I can tap dance anywhere. There are no boundaries to my dancing.’ So that’s Chuck. He’s poetry.

 

DT:  Can you talk about the relationship between the dancer and the musicians?

GN: Jimmy Slyde talks about that a lot in About Tap. It’s an interaction, a give and take. Some dancers, like Gregory Hines, Savion Glover, there are a lot of dancers who like to dance without music. Sandman Sims—you notice how he stopped the band from playing—whereas to somebody like Chuck Green, it’s integral. Duke Ellington had Chuck, so that says a lot. When Chuck came out of that institution, he used to dance with knickers. When you asked him why, he said so people could see his feet. He wanted people to see his feet. He had enormous feet. For Jimmy Slyde it’s all about dancing with the music, to the music. When Sandman Sims does a sand dance he always cuts off the music. It starts when he comes out to introduce him, he cuts it off, and then it ends to get him out.

DT:  In that case, that makes sense.

GN: The same thing with Sandman when he dances without the sand. With Bunny, it’s integral to his dance. Everybody has a different approach. Gregory frequently danced without music.

DT:  What about Steve Condos?

GN: Steve Condos considers himself a musical instrument. He feels like he is all of them [the instruments]. He says Louis Armstrong is his inspiration, and Louis Armstrong didn’t play the drums. Steve hears himself, and it’s musical. So everybody was different in their relationship to music, but no matter what, music is an integral part. Whether people use music or not, it’s all musical. They’re just making music with their feet.

Remember, tap didn’t come up with music. It came up on the streets in its origin. So there wasn’t a musical accompaniment. When Chuck was a little kid, he would dance on the street with bottle caps and tar to put taps on his feet, but there wasn’t any music that went along with it. The notion of having actual musicians there wasn’t always possible. When big bands had a tap dancer, that was out of a certain respect. Peg Leg Bates would dance to music.

 

DT:  Do you think that part of the reverence for Chuck Green was his connection to John Bubbles? In tap there’s a lot of respect for the lineage of the teacher.

GN: Absolutely.  To this day. I just showed About Tap at Tony Waag’s place, the American Tap Dance Foundation, and the place was packed. For tap in particular the legacy is extremely important. It’s unusual.

I’m sure that part of the reverence for Chuck was that he was John Bubbles’s student. Sandman talks about lineage really beautifully in No Maps on My Taps. He talks about how Chuck learned from John Bubbles and who John Bubbles was; Bunny Briggs talks about how Bill Robinson wanted him as his protégé but his mother wouldn’t let him go. Had Bunny had that as part of his resume, it could have put him in a different class. That was a very big deal, being the kid act that followed John Bubbles. John Bubbles was extremely famous. He was the original Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess. He was also the first one to be kind of a hoofer. He used his heel as much as his toe. Bill Robinson would dance more with the toe in a lot of steps—he didn’t use his heel as much. John Bubbles came along and was a real hoofer. So Chuck learned a lot from John Bubbles. In the phone conversation between the two you can see how much respect Chuck has for John. He calls him “Mr. Bubbles.” Chuck becomes a child.

 

DT:  Are you going to make another tap film?

GN:  If somebody’s willing to fund it, I would make it in a heartbeat. Remember, I shot the dance footage on film, so the sound is a separate element. It’s not like video, where sound and image are tied together. To put them together is very complicated and expensive. All that stuff is housed at the Schoenberg Library, and all the negatives are housed at the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, so somebody would have to go up to the Schoenberg Library. When I gave it to them the intention was that they were going to put that stuff together, but they never did.

DT:  Who knows…maybe there’s someone out there who will read this interview and will either want to make the film or give you money to do it.

GN: I would do it in a heartbeat.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2017