“I Never Made a Living Making Movies”: Michael Roemer on Nothing But a Man and The Plot Against Harry
This past spring, Michael Roemer’s 1984 family melodrama Vengeance Is Mine enjoyed a moment in the spotlight thanks to a revival run at Film Forum. But that was only the latest renaissance for the 94-year-old Roemer, who made a number of movies with a delayed reception of one kind or another. Nothing But a Man (1964), a Southern-set story centered on a black railroad worker and his family relationships, received a very limited initial release, and The Plot Against Harry (1969), a deadpan New York comedy about a small-time Jewish gangster, went from seeming a lost cause to playing in the New York Film Festival in 1989. Going even further back, Cortile Cascino (1962), a TV documentary about a mother living in brutal poverty in Palermo, Sicily, was pulled before broadcast but acquired a new life when incorporated into Andrew Young and Susan Todd’s 1993 update, Children of Fate.
Nothing But a Man and Children of Fate are screening as part of a tribute to the film lab DuArt at Metrograph. Roemer made Nothing But a Man and Cortile Cascino with Robert Young, the filmmaker (The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez) and brother of DuArt head Irwin Young (as well as father of Andrew Young). But I first spoke with Roemer around ten years ago for an unpublished interview focused on the making of Nothing But a Man and The Plot Against Harry. The diversity of Roemer’s filmmaking in the ’60s was breathtaking, and perhaps not everyone was ready for a roving brand of realism (I include the middle-class Bronx of The Plot Against Harry) that recalls Jonathan Rosenbaum’s apt diagnosis: “Roemer is ultimately more interested in life than in movies—a classic commercial liability.”
Filmmaker: You worked with Robert Young on Nothing But a Man (1964). How did that partnership come together?
Roemer: It came out of a film that Bob Young and I made in Sicily, Cortile Cascino. We were already in our thirties by then. Cortile Cascino was about poverty in Sicily, and it was an extraordinary adventure. That was certainly the first film that I felt very proud of. I had come out of fiction films—I had worked on films in the industry and had started my own films in the hope of making them. Bob had been making documentary films, and we knew each other from college. He invited me to come with him on this project. I had some very attractive offers, but wanted to learn more about the very thing Bob had spent the last 12 years of his life doing.
I probably wouldn’t have gone with anybody but him. We always liked each other but weren’t really close friends in college. We had very different backgrounds. I’m European, he’s American; he was in anthropology, and I was in literature and the arts in general. There was something about Bob’s concrete relationship to the world that seemed very important to me. Conversely, I think he saw that I could bring something from my experience and my point of view to his way of seeing things.
Cortile Cascino was never put on the air. Bob has a more conspiratorial view of it. Bob and I left NBC in anger—I think they didn’t want to put that much poverty in the American living room, so they basically destroyed the opportunity to see the film. We were determined never to have that happen again, that somebody could take the film from us.
When we were doing the film in Sicily, I said, “Why not make a fiction film?” I was the learning partner. I brought my own experience—the film wouldn’t have been what it was without my being there—but I learned a tremendous amount. I’m not going to say Bob didn’t learn a lot. It was almost like a tradeoff. I was the one the who had the experience on the fiction, and we found all these marvelous people and settings. But I’m very anxious about stuff, and Bob is very confident, which is not a bad mix.
Filmmaker: How did you choose the subject matter for Nothing But a Man?
Roemer: Bob had been involved in the sit-ins [against segregation in the South]. He had made a documentary about the sit-in movement in Tennessee and met the young people who staged the sit-in in Nashville. He said, “Mike, they’re terrific people, let’s see if we could make a story.” We had no money, just about nothing, and we each had families. So we just took an old car and drove around, sometimes trailed by a sheriff’s car. We spent six weeks always going on “the wrong side of the tracks.” We met a lot of people, and for me it was a completely new experience. I think there were maybe two African-Americans in our college class of 900. It was like being in another country for me.
I kept saying, “What’s the story? We don’t have a story.” There was no foreground—we had all these marvelous settings, all these stories from marvelous people. Bob said, “You’ll come up with something.” We were pretty far along. One day in Mississippi it struck me to use a story I had written about a couple who was recently married, and suddenly it came together. I was completely naive, but my background in fiction helped. Something Bob knew before we ever went was my own experience as a German Jew, and growing up in an anti-Semitic country in the 1930s—a pretty scary place—I made an identification with being an African American. I hope I don’t sound as if I was blowing my own trumpet. That identification was made by American Jews who were involved in civil rights, who—let’s put it in psychological terms—identified with being victimized.
Filmmaker: What was the story that you thought would work for the movie?
Roemer: It was about a man’s father who’s very destructive and self-destructive, and it was really rather like some of the stories we had run across talking to African American men. It seemed clear to me that that story could work. The African American father who didn’t acknowledge his son, or couldn’t raise his son. The model, or the lack of one, you might even say—without giving any blame to anyone. Suddenly, the whole thing came together. We wrote that thing in five to six weeks. We just transferred the family situation I had written into an African American setting, with all the limitations that attend on that. We then added one more generation, and the problem that men would have with having no way of being fathers and husbands—because their economic existence was destroyed, so they lit out. In that sense, that’s the very force of the film. I feel badly saying this, because in some ways it undermines the film and makes it sort of a universal story. I’m never a good promoter. I see the faults so quickly.
Filmmaker: What came after Nothing But a Man? Did you get any offers to make movies?
Roemer: After Nothing But a Man, we were so naive. We had agents come in and say, “You can make money!” I still remember that. But I never made a living making movies. Well, that’s not quite true. I stayed East and made a total of four feature films—not exactly a large number, and I couldn’t have lived on any of them. Three of them made money but so slowly that I couldn’t [live only from them]. And I’m useless as a hired gun. There was a time we had bought the rights to a novel, the second book by Elie Wiesel [Dawn]—a story that was connected to the camps. I had spent eight months reading and wanted to do something about that. But after eight months, I just said, “I can’t do it.” And we didn’t do it. I am grateful that I didn’t.
Filmmaker: Could you talk about The Plot Against Harry (1969)? It is so, so funny, and in a very particular way. How was it not properly released until 1989?
Roemer: It’s a very odd film—we were pretty crazy that we thought we could really do it. I must have shown that film to 20 different distributors. For an independent filmmaker, you make a film, and nobody likes it? I was pretty defeated. There was a lawyer who liked it, and he got it into Columbia Pictures to show it to his boss. And he showed it to someone who I actually knew, who I worked with on a feature. And he walked in, and he was delighted to see I made a movie. He watched and he said, “I guess I don’t have a Jewish sense of humor” and walked out. Nobody liked it.
The worst part of it was that the crew was one terrific crew. You can only make a film like that with people who are going to work far beyond any salary you could possibly pay them, just like the actors. We were all sort of filmmakers—it’s never one person. On Nothing but a Man, Bob [Young] shot it, and Bob Rubin, who was one of the three producers, did the sound. We had an editor who worked for nothing, who lined up the rushes. There was a guy in New Jersey—we couldn’t shoot it in the South—and he became the production manager. There was a very nice woman who did the costumes, just a woman we met. And there was one African American production assistant. Then we had a couple of people from a project we had worked on in Massachusetts, electricians whose boss invested their services and the lights in our film. And I was in the editors union. I knew quite a bit about sound.
Filmmaker: The Plot Against Harry is also a great New York movie.
Roemer: We shot all over New York: Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan. But we very much wanted to avoid New York as a location. We used it, but there’s no Empire State Building—we avoided landmarks. There’s lots of places in New York, and that was more what we were interested in.
I lived on the Lower East Side in 1949 when it was a Jewish immigrant quarter, the first inroads of other poor people who came into the community. I was on the Lower East Side for years before it became a haven for artists. I lived there in a flat for $16 a month. You couldn’t afford the Village.
Filmmaker: This was a busy era for filmmaking in New York, with so much important work going on. Who else did you know making movies at the time?
Roemer: It was a very small pot. I knew Fred Wiseman, who had made The Cool World (1963). Fred and I have been friends ever since. I knew the people who made David and Lisa (1962). It was a husband and wife, and the producer of that film was very nice to us. They had been down that road before, as had Shirley Clarke in The Cool World. People share information, as people do today. Then there was a fellow named Morris Engel [director of Little Fugitive (1953) and Weddings and Babies (1958)]. We knew him but he was doing something else. He was a one-man-band—there was no one else. Cassavetes had made Shadows, but I never met Cassavetes. He went west after that, and he was connected as an actor to other people. He had a very different, original way of making movies, very different from what I ended up doing. I’m much more scripted. Thank God we didn’t know we were doing. If we’d seen what we’d cope with…