John Walter, Theater Of War
In the field of documentary, John Walter has emerged as the medium’s most eloquent and entertaining cultural historian. The Detroit-born director, who is also an unpublished poet, began his career in the film industry as a boom operator and worked in that capacity on Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II. In the mid 90s, he became an editor, beginning with Norman Reedus’ Messenger (1994), and in 1995 he directed Edison’s Miracle of Light, an episode of PBS’ television series The American Experience. In 2002, Walter made his documentary feature debut with How to Draw a Bunny, a portrait of the Pop Art collage artist and prankster Ray Johnson, which won the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and received an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Documentary. He has since directed the small screen doc The First Amendment Project: Some Assembly Required for Court TV and edited a number of projects, including Thom Powers’ Guns & Mothers (2003) and Amir Bar-Lev’s My Kid Could Paint That. He currently lives in New York City’s East Village with his wife, filmmaker Adriane Giebel.
For years, Walter had been looking for an opportunity to make a film about the iconic German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht, a literary figure he has been fascinated with for two decades. The opportunity came when he was given permission to film the rehearsal process of the Public Theater’s Central Park production of Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children, adapted by Tony Kushner and starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline. Theater of War fortunately does not dwell on the minutiae of the show’s preparation period or capture arguments between cast members, but instead uses the production as a conduit to discuss the play and its author, plus a number of other topics – Marxism, war, politics, art, parenthood – which logically arise in that discussion. Theater of War weaves together interviews with the theater principals (plus outside figures like novelist Jay Cantor and theater professor and Brecht acolyte Carl Weber) with archival materials depicting Brecht’s HUAC interrogation, the original staging of Courage, and contemporary footage of war protests near the Public Theater, creating a vibrant and compelling whole.
Filmmaker spoke to Walter about convincing Meryl Streep to let him film her, working in the tradition of Citizen Kane and Rashomon, and making a film version of Moby Dick with real whales.
Filmmaker: How far back does your interest in Brecht go?
Walter: I guess I would date it from the late 80s, when I started watching a lot of Godard films. The name kept coming up and I started asking around, but nobody seemed to know anything about the guy so I just started reading books. The first thing I did was read Brecht on Theater, but I didn’t really understand the context in these writings – it was like one side of a debate, and I didn’t know what the debate was. I started reading Brecht biographies, and they were always referring to the plays so I started reading the plays and then I read the poetry. I was really fascinated with the way that a lot of his ideas of theater could be applied to film.
Filmmaker: Brecht was your way into Theater of War, so how long had you been planning to make a film about him?
Walter: Thinking about Brecht’s approach to storytelling really helped me in my film about Ray Johnson, a collage artist, in making a collage form for the documentary. Brecht provided a lot of insight and he was a great jumping off point for me. I think by the time I finished How To Draw A Bunny, I was already thinking about the idea of doing a Brecht film. I was fascinated with his years in Hollywood and the romance of his unproduced projects, the movies that never were. He worked on all these film scripts and treatments and it’s humorous how disconnected he was from what Hollywood was looking for. But I think he was actually profoundly subversive and he knew what he was doing. Several of the treatments are in his collected works in German, and they’re fascinating.
Filmmaker: Had you ever considered trying to make some of these films?
Walter: With Brecht, there’s so much written about him and he’s such a complicated character, like Freud or someone like that. If you’re doing a 90-minute movie, how do you approach the big subjects? I was always looking for a way in, some ground that hadn’t been covered, a little way in that opened up, a tiny part of the big picture that gave a sense of the big picture without giving everything. So initially I wasn’t going to film those scripts, but explore the movies that were never made.
Filmmaker: But ultimately the way into a film about Brecht came through this production of Mother Courage.
Walter: The approach I settled on was to find a single production of a single play and follow the actors as they learned the play, so the audience for the movie could learn the play along with the actors, and we only ever saw the rehearsal, we never tried to film the play.
Filmmaker: That’s different from the usual format, which is to build tension during rehearsals towards the crescendo of the opening night.
Walter: Right. It becomes about that hackneyed storyline about “the tension mounts as we get closer to opening night and nerves are frayed, which leads to misunderstandings between the starlet and the director.” But I was not interested in backstage melodrama, I wanted to use a movie to explore theater and the drama of putting a play in particular moment in history that’s trying to be a dialogue with that moment.
Filmmaker: But the film is a lot more layered and complex than what you’ve just described, as it goes far beyond the parameters of the play. At what stage did you decide that you wanted to branch off in those different directions?
Walter: That was always the idea, I just wasn’t sure how I was going to do it. I was just gathering material, but I always knew that there was a lot of material that I wanted to get into the film. It’s like this idea of dialogue: I was trying to create a dialogue between the 21st century production and the 1949 production, between what’s going on inside the theater and outside the theater, between the ideas that influenced Brecht and Brecht influencing other artists, the balance between learning and entertaining. Also, for myself, I was wanting to explore what I could do as a filmmaker, how much could I fit into a movie.
Filmmaker: At first, the biggest obstacle seems to have been getting permission to film rehearsals, particularly as Meryl Streep was the star of the show. She’s very private and protective of her process as an actress, so how did you manage to convince her to give you this unprecedented access?
Walter: I just approached her with the idea and, in a way, I was freed from all anxiety: I just knew either she was going to say yes and I was going to do the film, or she was going to say no and I wasn’t going to be able to do the film. My intuition was that her motives for taking time off from her movie career and doing this play in Central Park were in an overlap with my motives for this film, and that my movie and her performance could be part of the same larger project. I didn’t feel like I had to convince her of anything, I just said, “This is what I want to do, do you want to do it?” and she said she wanted to do it, so that made the whole thing possible.
Filmmaker: How quickly did everything come together once she’d said yes?
Walter: It had to come together very quickly because I didn’t find out about the play until they’d publicly announced it, so it was shortly before they went into rehearsal that I got permission to do it, and then at that point we had to raise the money to put the whole project together. Jack Turner, the executive producer, was somebody I had known when he was an executive at United Artists and he was putting together financing for film projects. We had been talking about doing a film together so he was the first person I turned to and he was able to make it happen very quickly. I’m incredibly grateful to him. If he hadn’t been able to raise the money, we wouldn’t have been able to [make the film]. It was pretty amazing that he was able to put the budget together in a couple of weeks.
Filmmaker: Because of the necessary intimacy of the project, I assume you were only a two- or three-man crew.
Walter: It was a two-man crew, me and Felix Andrew. Felix does all the sound for Gus Van Sant’s movies but he also shoots a lot of The Making Of films, so Felix and I would switch off. My first job in film was as a boom operator, so Felix would do the sound and I would shoot, and other times Felix would shoot and I would be booming. The only other person was my wife, Adriane Giebel, and she was the production coordinator, line producer and production assistant. After we did the rehearsals, Adriene and I went to Berlin for about a month, doing editing and also doing research and shooting out there.
Filmmaker: How quickly were you able to blend in and go unnoticed while you were filming the rehearsal process?
Walter: Well, we were never very close. There were two phases of the rehearsals. First, it was during the day at the Public Theater, and for that we really just had to stay far from the action – once they’re in the thick of rehearsal, they’ve got bigger things to worry about. For the second phase of rehearsal, we were in Central Park after dark while they were lighting at night and rehearsing. At that point, they couldn’t even see us, we were just lurking in the shadows, so we were completely invisible.
Filmmaker: One of the things you do so well in the film is really synthesize all these different aspects. When you started shooting, did you have a preconceived idea of how everything would fit together or did it happen more organically?
Walter: It’s about 50-50. You sort of have an idea of what you want to do but then you really have to start to think with your hands, find the connections with the pictures and the sound in the editing room. For the actual process of making the film, it’s not like I spent one year digging myself into a whole and another year clawing myself out. I was shooting what I thought would have a place in the film but I wasn’t exactly sure how it would all fit together and I was trying to avoid thinking about how I would put the pieces together when I was shooting it because I didn’t want to censor myself or not get something because I was nervous or not ask a question because I didn’t have the answer to it.
Filmmaker: With the contemporary footage of anti-war protests, were you having to run off to shoot those scenes as soon as rehearsals were over?
Walter: Those protests were happening a couple of blocks away from the theater. We would shoot a rehearsal and then walk two or three blocks to Union Square, so they were happening on the street right outside the theater. I’d always imagined in the film that we’re watching what’s happening inside the theater and then we would go to the window and see what’s happening on the streets too. What’s happening on stage in dialogue with what’s happening off stage. They wouldn’t have been doing that play that summer if not for what was going on in the street.
Filmmaker: With How To Draw A Bunny and Theater of War, it seems like you’ve carved out a niche for yourself as the sociocultural historian within documentary film. Is that the kind of area that you want to occupy?
Walter: I’m never really sure. Both of the films are the result of blindly following my own enthusiasms, and there was also unoccupied territory in the sense that nobody had made a film about Ray Johnson and, as famous as Brecht is, there’s no film about him for an English-speaking audience, which I found surprising. I’m fascinated by episodic structure, with stories about fairly extraordinary, meaty aspects of everyday life and, for me, the movies that I’ve always loved were films like Citizen Kane and Rashomon, and I feel like that’s the tradition that I’m working. Not in that I’m making classic movies, but if you think about Kane and Rashomon, they’re both “chopped up” and the journey of the filmmaker becomes a ghost narrative. There’s always this ghostly figure of the storyteller and, in a way, that’s always the protagonist.
Filmmaker: When did you last do it for the money not the love?
Walter: I never do it for the money. I can’t bring myself to do it for the money – that’s why I’m making films about Bertolt Brecht. [laughs]
Filmmaker: If you had an unlimited budget and could cast whoever you wanted (alive or dead), what film would you make?
Walter: I would probably do Moby Dick with real whales. I guess somebody really terrifying, like Antonin Artaud, would be my Ahab.
Filmmaker: What matters more to you, that a film is successful or that are you happy with the finished product?
Walter: Well, it would have to be that I’m happy with the finished product. I feel like commercial success is such a random thing that I can’t even bring myself to spend time chasing that. I have no idea what other people like.
Filmmaker: Finally, what’s the biggest compliment you’ve ever received?
Walter: There have been a few. I don’t know if it was the biggest compliment, but one of the most gratifying moments in my film work was showing the film to Bertolt Brecht’s family. That was very nerve wracking. They were very supportive. Barbara Brecht said, “I liked it, and I didn’t know if I would.” [laughs] To me, that’s a huge compliment.