Camp David, Columns


By • Oct 27th, 2016 •

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This interview has been in moth-balls for many years until I worked on a documentary on Cannon films by Mark Hartley known as ELECTRIC BOOGALOO. I realized that any film by Curtis Harrington is important and this was his last main stream motion picture, shot on location in Hungary. Curtis did his best to make this film work but he was challenged by the producers to make an actress out of his leading lady who he discovered to his regret could not act. MATA HARI is his swan song to a career that began in the Avant Garde with Kenneth Anger, and ended with USHER, his self-made ode to his idol, Edgar Allan Poe.

Curtis Harrington, director of the soon-to-be-released MATA HARI, returns to feature films after working for several years in television. This is surely cause for celebration for aficionados of bizarre and stylish filmmaking. A native of California, Harrington lived for many years, as he puts it, “in the shadow of the film industry. My earliest memory was asking my parents, ‘What’s behind that wall?’ As it turned out, it was the 20th Century-Fox film lot!” So not unnaturally, Harrington had a keen interest in filmmaking from an early age. During the Sixties, he raised the money to write and direct his own feature, the innovative NIGHT TIDE, starring Dennis Hopper. “It was low-budget, but received some good notices, and its release started my career as a director.” Based on the success of NIGHT TIDE, Universal Pictures offered him a three-year contract. At that studio he made GAMES, starring Simone Signoret, in 1968. Another film, WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN?, a very stylish thriller, was subsequently made by United Artists in 1971. At the request of Shelley Winters he traveled to Britain to direct WHO SLEW AUNTIE ROO? at Shepperton Studios. On completion he returned to California and worked on a television feature, KILLER BEES, starring Gloria Swanson. After more television features he stopped work for some time. I interviewed the director in his Hollywood Hills home decorated in the splendor of Art Nouveau. Mr. Harrington proved to be a witty conversationalist whose love of film is obvious and engaging.

DDV: There has been a seven-year hiatus between films for you, and a considerable change of pace in that you’ve just made a film that has no horrific overtones or macabre inclinations.

CH: Well, I have always wanted to make a romantic melodrama. As you know, my mentor was the late Josef Von Sternberg, and he’s also the American director whom I admired the most. This is the first opportunity I’ve had in my entire career to make a film that you might say, at least within its general parameters, is in closer tradition to the kind of stories that Sternberg always did with Marlene Dietrich. In point of fact, the basic story of MATA HARI was used by Sternberg. His film DISHONORED, which was totally fictionalized, was based nevertheless on the Mata Hari legend. It is probably just as well that, of all the Sternberg films, it is the one I’ve seen the least often. I’ve almost totally forgotten it, which is just as well. There will be no influences whatsoever from DISHONORED in this film.

DDV: Did you have any inclinations toward the Garbo version of Mata Hari? Have you seen that?

CH: Yes, I’ve seen that too, but also quite a long while ago. I have no admiration whatsoever for the work of George Fitzmaurice, so it is most unlikely that there would be even a shred of influence from that film in this version.

DDV: Had you done much research into the real Mata Hari?

CH: Yes. When I was approached about doing the project by Cannon Films, they had at least six or seven drafts of different MATA HARI screenplays by other writers, and none of them had turned out very satisfactorily, so one of the ideas apparently in hiring me was that I should supervise the development of an entirely new screenplay. They asked me to work with a writer named Joel Ziskin with whom they already had a contract. He had done a first draft screenplay based on a Mata Hari story, which was also unsatisfactory. Joel and I started from scratch, except for one sort of basic idea that he had used in his screenplay, which we kept. Other than that, he wrote an entirely new screenplay that came out of our very close collaboration in terms of the development of the plot and the outline and what the scenes should be, what the characters should be and so on.

DDV: Did it inhibit you that the content of the film had been decided before you arrived?

CH: It inhibits one in the sense that there are certain parameters that the producer has laid down, in this case they were that the subject would be Mata Hari, that the star would be Sylvia Kristel and that the erotic history of Mata Hari should be prominently featured. When I began to research the life of Mata Hari, I discovered happily that there was more erotic activity in her life than we could possibly portray on the screen. She was, in that sense, an extremely liberated woman for her time. When you read the various biographies that have been written about her, you discover that she pretty well seduced half of Europe!

DDV: So she used sex as a tool of the trade?

CH: But not necessarily for spying. What I was able to conclude from the things that I read about her was that there is to this very day still a great deal of ambiguity as to the degree to which she was actually a spy and actually, let us say, a traitor to France. She always maintained her innocence to the very end. The evidence is sparse. She seems to have been railroaded into something and made a scapegoat and that is essentially the story we tried to tell.

DDV: There seems to be a lot of literary similarities between Mata Hari’s tragic death and Camille. Did you find that true in putting together this story, that she falls in love for real and it’s too late to do anything about it?

CH: Well, it’s interesting that you brought that up, because I had never consciously thought of the analogy. I suppose there is one, but it was not in my mind when I was thinking about the story. They’re certainly both tragic heroines

DDV: Although this isn’t a film that you solicited to make the character of Mata Hari fits into your canon of films quite nicely because, as with your earlier film, WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN?, you tend to have a theme of a woman who is trying to hide her past, where her past, no matter what she tries to do, envelopes and ultimately destroys her. Did you feel that way when you started MATA HARI?

CH: I think that I am somewhat aware of that as a source, certainly. I’m very fascinated by that theme as it was gone into at great length by Mario Proz in his book ‘The Romantic Agony.’ Debbie Reynolds was the tragic heroine in WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? However, in developing the script and making the film MATA HARI I can truthfully say that I did not think in that perspective on any conscious level until this very moment.

DDV: Where did you film MATA HARI?

CH: We filmed entirely in Budapest and that was quite a different experience because I was working behind the Iron Curtain in a Communist-dominated country. The whole social situation is so different than in the West that, of course, it was an extraordinary and unique experience for me.

DDV: Did you feel that the local crews there did not really have adequate materials by American standards?

CH: Yes. I can’t speak of any of the other countries in the Eastern Bloc, but everyone keeps saying that Hungary is sort of the showcase country for the Eastern Bloc nations and certainly in terms of, let us say, the plentiful supply of food, it is. You hear that there are bread lines in Poland. Well, there certainly are no bread lines in Hungary. There is plenty of food and plenty of consumer goods, although I would say that they’re generally of a rather inferior quality from a Western point of view.

DDV: Was the majority of your crew Hungarian?

CH: All the minor elements and some key elements were Hungarian. For instance, the art director was Hungarian and the set construction supervisor was Hungarian. There were extra gaffers and electricians and all of that sort of thing. But all of our key people were brought in, although they weren’t all American. Since Cannon Films is essentially an Israeli company, we had an Israeli camera crew. We had a Spanish first assistant director, and we also had a Hungarian first assistant, who spoke English, so I had in fact two first assistant directors. Our script girl was Spanish. The set decorator was American and the uncredited costume designer was American. I think it’s interesting that probably, although again I’m not privy to any of this, the location was chosen primarily because of the lack of expense involved in shooting in Hungary as compared to other places in the world.

DDV: Well, Spain is supposedly an inexpensive place.

CH: I think Hungary is even cheaper than Spain now. It was an ideal location in many ways, because of the varied architecture in Budapest. We have sequences in the film that took place in Paris, Berlin and Madrid, and we were quite easily able to make certain areas of Budapest look like Berlin, while other areas and interiors looked like Paris and Spain.

DDV: What about your director of photography? What was his contribution?

CH: Well, David Gurfinkel is an Israeli cameraman, who is one of Menachem Golan’s protégées; he works on quite a great number of Cannon productions. He photographed Menachem Golan’s own directorial effort, the famous Isaac Singer story that he did with Shelley Winters, THE MAGICIAN OF LUBLIN.

DDV: A friend of mine in London had seen a bit of MATA HARI and said that it looked much more expensive on the screen than the budget would have indicated.

CH: I was never told what the budget was, so I would love to know where your friend acquired the information. Nobody at Cannon ever bothered to tell me.

DDV: I think it was under $5 million.

CH: I would imagine that it was made for under $5 million, but I was much too shy to ask.

DDV: What is your opinion of budgets in films now? You see films like THE COTTON CLUB exceeding $40 million. Thinking of your own career, if you were given $40 million what would you do?

CH: I would just sort of take off into the stratosphere and never be seen again! It would seem such an incredible extravagance. Of course, I do feel that is partly the effect of the exaggerated costs of making films in the United States – all the union requirements, and the vast salaries that American stars have come to expect.

DDV: Do you feel that a larger budget would have made it a more satisfactory film to you?

CH: Yes, of course. A larger budget would have given me more shooting time, which was the thing that was in the shortest supply and which curtailed some of the things that I wanted to do. In other words, I was often shooting a given scene in a day that I should have certainly had two days to shoot.

DDV What was the shooting schedule?

CH: It was finally about fifty-two days.

DDV: Which is relatively quick.

CH: Well, it simply wasn’t enough for a film of this scope and size.

DDV: Was this the largest cast you’ve ever had to work with on a film?

CH: Yes, in the sense of extras and crowd scenes. We had one sequence that takes place in the no-man’s-land of the battlefront, so we had troops and all that.

DDV: As far as working with Sylvia Kristel, since this is the first time you’ve worked with her although you know her socially, how would you rate her performance?

CH: I think that, although I’ve hardly seen all of Sylvia’s films, that she does very well in this film and it seems very possible to me that it will be her best performance. Also, I’ve been told that most, if not all, of her other films have been dubbed into English by somebody else. Apparently her own voice has not been heard in her other films. In this film, for the first time, she uses her own voice and she does all her own dialogue.

DDV: So you’re satisfied with what she’s done. Do you think she’s been kind of underestimated as an actress?

CH: I don’t think it’s a question of underestimating her. I just think that mainly she has been given very little opportunity to act, and she is, in point of fact, one of those people who came into films because of her looks, not because she was ambitious to be an actress. I think that, in that sense, she is not even to this day an actress in the sense of someone who’s had training and who is dedicated to acting per se.

DDV: Oliver Tobias is also in the film. You had previously wanted to cast him in AUNTIE ROO but were unable to. Why was that?

CH: Shelley Winters had met him and thought he was terrific. This was back in 1972. She had proposed him to American International Films, and I met him at that point. He had just recently done a film in Italy with Charlotte Rampling called ‘TIS PITY SHE’S A WHORE. He was, of course, very young then. I met with him and thought he was very promising indeed, and I would have cast him in the part – it was the part of the servant in AUNTIE ROO – but the actor who played the role was Michael Gothard, with whom American International had made some commitments. He had just appeared in SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN for American International, and so Michael Gothard was imposed on me. I would have cast Oliver.

DDV: Did Tobias remember you?

CH: Yes, even though we had had absolutely no contact with each other from that time until he came in to read for me on MATA HARI.

DDV: The other British actor in the cast who is also getting a lot of recognition now is Christopher Cazenove.

CH: Yes. I think they’re both very much up-and-coming among the young leading men.

DDV: Who did they play in the film?

CH: They play her two lovers. Oliver Tobias plays a Frenchman and Christopher Cazenove plays a German.

DDV: Are there any others in the cast who you were particularly pleased with?

CH: Well I think Gaye Brown does a splendid impersonation of the infamous Fraulein Doktor. She was the female spymaster. And, of course, at least one or more films have been made about her, there was one made with Dita Prand and Erich Von Stroheim in the thirties called MADEMOISELLE DOCTEUR. It was a French film.

DDV: With this film you’ve broken away from the image of being one of the horror masters, which is a title imposed on one if you make more than two horror movies, and you’ve certainly done more than that.

CH: Yes, even though I think of my films as being more suspense films than horror movies.

DDV: Do you feel now that this is going to be a change of pace for you on a larger level if the film is successful?

CH: Who knows? I’m only thinking at the moment of what I hope might be my next film, which is THE UNICORN, from the Iris Murdoch novel, and that is certainly not a horror film either. It is not in any way similar to MATA HARI, but it is what you might call a romantic melodrama.

DDV: Now aside from THE UNICORN, which is in development, you are off to Paris to do some negotiations for another film, so hopefully we will see more features from you in the future.

CH: I am hoping very much that this might, let us say, make enough money to get me back into seeming to be a more viable director in the eyes of those who control the purse-strings. Clearly, despite the commercial intent of films like GAMES and WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN?, they were not blockbuster successes. They were not films that were ignominious failures commercially either, but they didn’t make enough money to make anyone say “aha, he is a possessor of the magic formula,” as they say in the case of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. That is what all producers like to think that the director of a commercial hit is the possessor of. At least in the case of Lucas and Spielberg, the producers in question seem finally to have found such filmmakers.

DDV: Do you think the somewhat over-used expression in films of a ‘cult’ director can sometimes be a hindrance? In your years as a considered cult director do you feel it’s been a help or a hindrance?

CH: I certainly don’t think of it as being a hindrance. As a matter of fact, I am very proud of that because it’s something rather special to be, and so I’m very flattered.

DDV: I remember that the late Parker Tyler once said of you that, based on your work in NIGHT TIDE, the only problem you were going to have was not becoming another Orson Welles.

CH: How incredibly flattering. I never read that.

DDV: He was reputed to have said it, and considering where Mr. Welles has gone, you must be grateful.

CH: I only think at first of the absolute unmatched brilliance of his work and not of all the terrible problems he’s had. Being one of the great artists, he was cursed by Hollywood as Sternberg was, and as Von Stroheim and most of the great filmmakers have been, treated very badly indeed by the Hollywood film industry.

DDV: You appear to have made the transition from being artistic to being commercial.

CH: That’s right. I think I’ve managed to do this primarily because I don’t submit my work as a brilliant, artistic record. I decided that I would prefer to make a living this way than some other way, so I have been a bit schizophrenic about my work in the sense that what I try to do is bring my craft to the commercial work, always with the hope that the occasion will present itself in which I can do something more personal again.

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