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The Making of John Cassavetes’ Husbands

One of these guys doesn’t make it past these opening credits…

For reasons unrelated to this blog I’m revisiting eight of the films made by John Cassavetes, as well as Mikey and Nicky, which was directed by the under-appreciated Elaine May and stars Cassavetes and his collaborative pal Peter Faulk. As many others seem to do, lump Mikey and Nicky into the Cassavetes oeuvre, mainly because it was obviously incredibly influenced by his approach to filmmaking. It also may be my personal favourite Cassavetes related film (although, I do love that zany De Palma flick Fury).

I also decided to read as much as I could about each film, mainly from interviews and Cassavetes’ own writings from the time period roughly corresponding with each film. I was curious about how he approached each film and how his style and relationship to constructing a film perhaps changed over time. I feel that far too much academic and critical writing about the ‘Cassavetes style’ views his work from an entirely static, bird’s eye view. In most of the writing about Cassavetes’ films, his methodology is seen as something that was crystallized from the onset and didn’t necessary change or grow from his stylistic departure from the mainstream with Shadows in 1959. My suspicion is that this inclination to brand the director as an American innovator of a certain style of ‘independent’ cinema is driven by a subset of critics that also have a deep affinity for the auteur theory. Ironically, a deeply improvised approach to making a film would dismantle that application to Cassavetes’ work at it’s very roots. Cassavetes may indeed be a prime candidate in defence of the auteure theory, but not for the reasons that many a critic have subscribed to in their diagnosis of his unique voice in cinema.

Life, death and freedom indeed…

Right now, I’m currently encircling his fifth major undertaking, and perhaps his most wildly improvised film. It’s commonly assumed that all of Cassavetes’ films were mostly improvised. The opposite appears to be true. Time and time again in interviews and writings, Cassavetes has said that seldom were any of his scenes improvised at all, and more often than not what is seen in the finished product was what was initially written on the page. Thus, Husbands may be the sole film were Cassavetes allowed for scene construction and character motivation to emerge whilst on set. 

This method is of course not advisable. I recall working on many a student film where the scenes would be ‘improvised’, only to realize that this most often merely meant, ‘no one has any idea what they are doing.’ 

About 18 too many shots of whiskey that night…

I stumbled upon this documentary that was produced by the BBC where they capture the process of making Husbands. The director and his actors seem to be workshopping out each scene from the ground up, deciding upon it’s purpose and just what happens as they shoot. It’s almost painful to watch as they fumble around in the darkness of meaning and motivation in order to build something from nothing. This highly risky approach to filmmaking bolsters the old saying: there’s a fine line between a genius and an idiot.

The documentary on the making of Husbands is thoroughly worth watching, and should come with the proviso “don’t try this at home, kids.”

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