English-American writer David Thomson was born in London and attended film school. He taught film studies at Dartmouth College, and he has served on the film selection committee of the New York Film Festival. Thomson has published seventeen books, which include biographies of David O Selznick and Orson Welles; three novels: Suspects, Silver Light and Warren Beatty and Desert Eye; and books of essays mostly about Hollywood; and In Nevada: The Land, The People, God and Chance, a not easily categorizable book. He published the first Biographical Dictionary of Film in 1975 and has recently published its fourth edition. David Thomson has also been the editor of the short-lived Journal Of Gastronomy and contributes film commentary and criticism to the New York Times, Film Criticism, The New Republic, Salon and the Independent (of London). He lives in San Francisco with his family. He is at work on a number of projects, some of which he discusses in what follows.
Robert Birnbaum: Would it be fair to say that being British in America today is the same as being from Indiana, Montana or Arkansas?
David Thomson: Oh, I don’t think so, no. (long pause) Most Americans are much kinder to you if you are British than if you are from Indiana (both laugh). But no, I don’t quite see it that way. A great many Americans are kind to British people, to what they sense is the load of British culture that you may or may not bring with you—the traditions. I have operated within the worlds of academia, within publishing, and writing in general, and obviously command of the language, command of the English language helps—still (laughs)—and carries a long way.
RB: Two great cultures separated by one language…
DT: Right. In honesty, Americans are very touched by and are sympathetic with people who use the language with a little more precision than young people in America do today. I think I have been very well-treated. To give you an example, I got the job of doing the biography of David Selznick. One reason I got that job was that I was English. Irene Selznick, David Selznick’s first wife, told me once that she thought and David thought that English people understood things. What that meant, I don’t know, but it definitely had a bearing on my getting that job.
RB: You’ve been here since ’75. In terms of your sensibility, are you irrevocably British?
DT: I don’t think so. Occasionally, people in both countries ask, "Are you English or American?" I use the word ‘English’ now, not ‘British’ because ‘British’ has come to mean something a bit different.
RB: Yes, there is Scotland, there is Wales.
DT: Right, right. I would say, “Can’t I be both?”
RB: It would be confusing to say one was “English-American.”
DT: We are allowed to do it with African-American and so many other things, so I don’t know. I’m an American citizen. I have paid my taxes in this country since ’76. I have children who could be President of the United States, though I can’t be. One of them definitely wouldn’t mind the job. I have children who are English, and I think that I will definitely spend the rest of my days as a resident of the USA. If I were to move to another country it wouldn’t be England. It might be another European country. I feel a lot of Englishness in me still, but I have had a wonderful time learning about America. One of the things you do when you write books is you learn a lot about the country. I feel perfectly free to criticize this country, but I felt perfectly free to criticize England when I was there. It does not seem to me to be unpatriotic if you sometimes you criticize your country, and I think America was country founded upon that principle. I know it was, in fact.
RB: I wonder if the really great film criticism hasn’t come from and doesn’t continue to come from England?
DT: And France. A great deal of really important film criticism came out of France and you can even say that before that a lot came out of Russia in the ‘20s. It’s a fascinating question, and it gets to a point that I think is easily forgotten. Which is, if you regard the movies as an American invention—and if technologically it was not entirely an American invention, in terms of entertainment and show business, it was. There was an undoubtedly something in the movies that was refreshingly free from this notion that in a literary culture only a very few are given the power both to write and to stand the best. You take a literary master at the beginning of the dawn of film, Henry James. It’s given to few of us to read Henry James easily. But—literary culture clearly acknowledges James as a master. What is refreshing about film is that particularly in the first great age, people like Griffith and Chaplin (just to take the American example), they really seemed to be making something for everyone. Literally, everyone in the world. And Chaplin clearly for a time was the best-known person in the world. There is a wonderful, democratic egalitarian quality in that. Which carries with it an end to all this fussing over textual criticism. “What does this James sentence mean?” Let’s just be moved, all of us together. Let’s have a great experience that unifies us. Early films did that. At the beginning of the age of film particularly and for some time there after and even now occasionally, you can have a film that just hits everybody in a way that the greatest novel never ever will be able to do. And it recognizes that way in which we have become a mass culture. It addresses the sheer size of us in a very impressive way. Although I hate it as a basic kind, the fundamental American response to a movie, “I liked it,” or “I didn’t like it,” is almost what Hollywood wants. It’s thumbs up or thumbs down. It’s not, "Let’s write a book about this movie." Basically the impulse to write books about movies began outside. If you look at the history of literature and film, Americans did not contribute a great deal early on. That’s changed and film is taught in American universities—to excess.
DT: So you get people writing books for tenure and everything happens. As Pauline Kael said, “If there is one thing that will kill the movies, is if it passes in to academic control.” She may have a point. It’s an interesting point that some of the most interesting work on film—some—has been done by people outside this country. But then you’ve got Kael. You’ve got Agee. Warshow and plenty of good people writing today. But historically, I think there is something in what you said.
RB: Let me flip the question… there are good people writing today, but what are they writing about? What is the quality of film that is the content of their writing?
DT: The truth of the matter is that it would be very depressing today to be a regular film critic, a regular film reviewer because it would mean that you would have to see all the junk. We live in a very strange culture where the New York Times and most of our papers take it as their duty, their obligation, to review every film that opens. Do they review every book that is published? Of course not. Do they review every concert? No. Do they review every art show? No. Does anyone think they should? No, of course not. There’s a great fallacy there. A paper that showed the courage to say, “A lot of the movies that are opening do not merit our review space.” That would be a refreshing attitude. But you have to bear in mind that the newspapers are horribly dependent on the advertising from the movies and that’s where the commercialization of it has become terribly overpowering. Generally, the quality of movies today is horribly low and depressing for anyone who loves the medium and depressing for anyone who might want to work in it. Or has real hopes of where it will go. For some time now the tendency has been downward and just not in interesting directions.
RB: Did so-called independent movie-making offer a glimmer of hope?
DT: Yeah. There is something to be said for them, and I think there is room now for a very good book on the history of American independent films because we have had time to see it over a run of ground. There have been some real achievements and in principle there is something tremendously important in the idea of movies that defy the commercial regulations of the industry. But equally you would have to say that many of the people who have made their debut in independent film have been co-opted by the industry. And maybe they wanted in, all along. The pressure of the money is amazing. One of the things I want to do in my next book is talk about that. It’s a very difficult subject because it’s the last subject people will really come clean on. You can find Hollywood people who will tell you about their sex lives, whether you want to hear it or not. But how much they actually were paid and how much that determined what happened, they get very shy of that. They are not supposed to admit to that. But I think it’s very pressing. The other thing is that once you have been paid a lot of money, you get awfully used to it and the habit of slipping into a more modest form is very difficult. It affects actors as well as directors. We are much better off having independent film and we have independent film because enough people said, "I just can’t tolerate that way of working." And there are people who have led honorable careers in it and there are people who have lead both honorable careers and very distinguished, talented careers.
RB: The person that comes to mind is John Sayles.
DT: Sayles is the truest to the cause. He is the one who has stood by his principles most defiantly and valiantly. I admire him for that more than I admire the films, to tell you the truth. But there are good films that come out of this.
RB: Were you going to mention some names?
DT: I regard David Lynch as an independent film-maker. He’s made films for big studios, but I still think of him as an independent. He is not to be controlled. It’s been a way for minorities to make films. It’s been easier for women to make films. Of course, they all need the outlet. The question of where people see their films and how they decide to go to see them, that’s still difficult. Maybe we’re on the verge of a big change in that respect.
RB: Because of the possibilities of Internet distribution?
DT: For independent films it’s the natural way to go. Yeah.
RB: No longer requiring theatrical release first?
DT: A lot of them don’t get theatrical release. You still want to see them if you can.
RB: I am regularly surprised at the video store, “When was that released?”
DT: That’s right. It wasn’t. Equally, to look at it the other way around, there is stuff on television that is better than what we are getting in the theaters. What HBO has been doing the last few years—I’m not the only one to say it by any means—it’s just more grown-up entertainment than a lot of stuff you see at the movies. It is also material that it is hard to believe a movie would do. The term ‘movie’ often now means what’s on TV. It often means what you might buy in a little box. It might come to mean something you download. There might even be other things.
RB: How many large screens are left in San Francisco?
DT: Tell me what you mean by large screen? You mean a thousand seats plus?
DT: (long pause)
RB: How ‘bout 600 or 700?
DT: 600, 700 in San Francisco, we’ve probably got no more than five. Maybe three or four and one of those is under serious threat.
RB: I have forgotten what it’s like to be in a large theater with an excited audience. Sometimes I see a movie where in the movie people are watching a movie with a large audience and it seems very strange…
DT: I know. It’s very difficult to convey to people, kids particularly nowadays, that feeling that I grew up with and I am sure you did that you really had to get there early—you might not get in—it would be packed. You would be in the middle of a row of strangers and for me those things are still vital. If I am teaching a subject, in film, you can’t teach now a days without using video, but if you wanted to say to people, “Look, this is a film where the sensory experience, the possibility for beauty should be there from the outset, in your mind, you’ve got to make them go and sit in front of a big screen." They may be alone…this film, Far From Heaven, that is playing now. It’s made like a big-screen film. It’s as big as an oil tanker, if you know what I mean. It’s got these wonderful camera movements and color composition, all of which look a little overwrought on a small screen. See ‘em on a big screen and they look more natural. They are natural in terms of the big screen. It’s like big, epic painting. You can do things in big painting that you wouldn’t think of in a little water color landscape. But the young generation clearly thinks that the TV screen is the primary screen in their existence.
RB: You wrote a piece for The Guardian (“You Must Remember This,” August 10, 2002) that alluded to the generational gap and one anecdote you referred to was that you were quoting lines from Casablanca and the young person didn’t get them. It reminded me that I talked with someone who teaches at NYU and he claimed that many of his undergraduate students didn’t know who Kurt Cobain was. What is the shelf life of any cultural entity?
DT: I know. We do not seem to have the same respect for remembering. I have young children going through school now and they don’t seem to be put under the same disciplines of saying, “You’ve got to learn this stuff. I know it’s boring, learning, reciting it and listening but you gotta know that. You can’t get anywhere unless you know that stuff. So get on with it. Learn it. By Monday.” (laughs) We don’t do it. Politically, we have a culture where if enough people feel okay in the three months before an election the past, even three years ago, seems to be easily given away. “I’m okay now. I feel okay now.” Politics has very much to do with memory, because it’s to do with history and you and I were raised in a tradition that said, "It’s not just a question of what he did, it’s what his father did and then we go back." I still believe that way. I don’t think the world has changed. I think that our present president is very much the way he is because he is the son of the other president. There just doesn’t seem to be the culture out there that is happy to refer these things back. Many things have contributed to it, not the least education. Education gives this up as early as anyone. But yeah, it’s very bizarre. You have to explain more and more people in a newspaper story nowadays. You can’t mention so and so and you can’t just mention surnames. You have to identify them. In the end you read a piece and all these people are identified and you read ten pieces like that, you get the point. No one knows anything. Or wants to. I used to lecture. I took it for granted that if I was speaking about something and I mentioned a couple of names that a student didn’t get, they would go an look them up. If they hadn’t got the spelling, come and see me. Fine. What are you there for? To learn. I just dropped a couple of names you didn’t know. File them a way and the next time you are in the library, look them up. But you see, they don’t teach library skills in the schools anymore.
RB: I was looking through Publisher’s Weekly and there was a Q&A with an author who works in Hollywood. Here’s the question posed to him, “How would you describe the book and the film industries today?” His answer, “Unfortunately I think one is becoming more an more like the other. There was a time when the book industry and the film industry were totally separate entities. Not only in terms of their end products but in terms of their behavior. More and more you see the book industry mimicking the business practices of the film industry in terms of how the material is produced and how it’s put out there for the audience. In terms of what a viable product is and what it is not. There was a time when if you could write a good book, your chances of getting it published were pretty good, and I think that is less and less true because again the book industry emulated the film industry, and it’s looking more and more for a specific type of book as opposed to one that has literary merit.” What a gloomy picture.
DT: Yeah. I wish I could argue against it. There is a whole lot of truth in it. One measure of it and it’s breathtaking and you can’t believe it until you really get in there and see it—is that fewer and fewer people in publishing read the books. They are very often publishing a concept. Just in the way a studio is making a concept movie. Some one comes along and says look “Tom Cruise is a secret agent. Goes all over the world. Beautiful exotic locations. Lot of very high-tech machinery. Four or five beautiful women. Two or three major supporting actors as villains. Do you like it?” Now, I’m afraid movies get made like that. And there are books that get done like that too. A book is still something you have to pick up and read and reading is still different from going to the movies. But the manners and the ideology of the businesses are getting more alike. Very often they are owned by the same conglomerate, don’t forget that. They are looking to feed off each other. The—what used to be called the mid list book—the critical success novel, that never sold a lot, that’s a disappearing breed.
RB: Do you still write fiction?
DT: I’ve not written a work of fiction for ten years. One reason—it’s not the only reason, I can’t blame it entirely on this—I write for a living and I can get sure bigger money doing non fiction. I have never been able to write the kind of novel that sold big quantities. I’d like to. But I have never been able to. The novels I wrote sold modestly. They got nicely reviewed and everything. I would really determine to sit down and write a novel and also be able to do it reasonably quickly so that it was not too big a drag on my time and make the overall economics of it very dangerous, if you know what I mean.
RB: The first edition of the Biographical Dictionary came out in 1975? The last edition came out in 1994. Will you continue to update them?
DT: The first edition and the second edition were only six years apart. The second edition was not a big update. It didn’t introduce a lot of new entries. There was then a gap from 1981 to 1994.
RB: You were writing novels.
DT: I was doing other things. I was doing the book on Selznick and I was involved in a lot of other things. Certainly the novels were part of it. The decision to do the third edition was really the turning point because I suppose that’s when Knopf came on board. They said let’s bring this book back and let’s update it. Let’s enlarge it a bit. Let’s really say we have a classic here. We have a book that’s going to last. And let’s approach it in that way. Bob Gottleib came on board as the editor, which was a tremendous asset because it’s a book where this author needs someone he can turn to regularly for support and humor and one thing and another as well as wisdom in the publishing business an d great knowledge of film. He was a tremendous person. When we did the third edition there was definitely the notion we would do a fourth edition. Now I’m 61, Bob is 70, and we both had a conversation as we put this one to bed and said, "Are we going to do this one again?" He said, “Well you’ll be 70, I’ll be 80.” So it begins to get a bit questionable. We can’t just go with our determination. Fate may intervene in odd ways. So, I don’t know. At the moment I feel fairly good about the book because it has had nice reviews and it’s selling well.
RB: Nice reviews? They’ve been love songs. You must go into restaurants and people stand and applaud you.
DT: (both laugh) No, no. It’s been very well-reviewed and it’s selling better than it’s ever sold. All of which is nice. But you are aware of people you have left out so you are easily in a mood set that says, "I’d love to do the fifth edition.” Knowing damned well you don’t want to do it for years. When you get to do the work, it’s hard work. And as you get older…I don’t know. There might be one more edition.
RB: From edition three to edition four you added 300 new entries bring the total to about thirteen hundred. Any rhyme or reason for the 300 new entries?
DT: Well, we said at the outset, Bob and I, obviously there are lots of new people and lots of old people we wanted to bring in. So we went to the costing department at the publisher and said, "If we wanted to do this book as a hardback for $35, how big can we go?" They said approximately 1000 pages. And we calculated and that was approximately three hundred new entries. We probably had 400 on our short list. So there were people we hacked out. I’m not sure how much bigger the book can get without becoming a dangerous thing to carry around.
RB: I was looking through the book to see where I could pick a fight with you and I thought I found it when I felt a distinct lack of attention for top film composers and then sadly for my contentious impulse, I found your entry for Bernard Herrmann, where you make your explanation…
DT: Yes, but you are right. You’ve got a fight there and it’s a good one. I feel more and more remiss about that. One of the things that has happened to me in recent years is to become much more open to and more interested in the role of music in film. If I live to do a fifth edition there will be a goodly chunk of composers in there. I agree with you, it’s a fair criticism.
RB: Of course, these days there is the formulaic idea of a soundtrack as a collection of a bunch of pop songs, some of which you can barely hear in the movie.
DT: A lot of the composers I would put in are people who are dead now. People who have done their work. There is some good music being written for films but not as good as was done in the past. One of the things that has happened to me in the years since the last edition is that I probably go to the movies a little less and I go to concerts rather more. Pretty stupid of me to have left it for this late.
RB: Any sense of how many movies you have seen in your life?
DT: I’ve never worked it out like that. I used to see—in the days that I was really pounding on this book in the first edition and when I was teaching—I kept records then, I would see about 500 films a year. It’s dropped a bit. If you allow that that was the high point and I’m sixty, I’ve probably seen about 15,000 or 20,000 movies. I don’t mean 20,000 distinct movies. For me seeing certain movies many times has been vital. An obvious example is when I did a book on Orson Welles. By that time I had seen Citizen Kane many, many times. I taught it a lot. I still see it a lot. I’m obsessed with it.
RB: No saturation point?
DT: Yes. I taught it for ten years up until ’81. And I really needed a break from it and probably didn’t see it for another 10 years. And then I did the book. And I went back to it and I found that I loved it even more. You can overdose on a film. But repeated viewings of films, for me, generally pays off well. I love to see old favorites and I get more out of them.
RB: You’ve published 17 books ranging from essays to personal memoirs to biographies, some novels…
DT: A book about Nevada.
RB: What do you call that one?
DT: I guess I would call it a travelogue. With history. It’s about the place of that state in our culture. For me, Nevada is the place where America experiments.
RB: Las Vegas, the Atom bomb.
DT: Yeah, but also divorce and gambling. Things that the country is not quite sure how to handle.
RB: I take it you drove around Nevada?
DT: Oh yeah.
RB: How long did you take?
DT: I’ve been most places in Nevada. Most places that have a name, I’ve been there. I was on that book for two and a half years. I did a lot of driving in the state. Which was a big attraction, for me, to doing the book. I wanted to just explore. Near the end when I knew what I was writing about my wife would come and take pictures of many of the places. She actually did a show in San Francisco of those photographs. It was a big success.
RB: What are the great Nevada movies? Leaving Las Vegas, Bugsy…
DT: The Misfits, Hard 8…
RB: Desert Rose?
DT: Yeah. There is a nice little collection.
RB: I just watched Bugsy recently and I liked it more than at other viewings.
DT: I did too. I thought it held up very, very well. I was very interested in Nevada and I still am. It was a big experience for me going to live on the West Coast. I really discovered the American West with great fondness. My wife and I spend a lot of time touring and driving.
RB: Did I get it correct that you had been an editor of the Journal of Gastronomy?
DT: You are quite right, I was.
RB: You are smiling…
DT: Well, because it was such a chancy thing. A dear friend of mine was appointed president of the American Institute of Wine and Food, which is headquartered in San Francisco and one of his duties—he was charged with founding a magazine. And he asked around in publishing and in the magazine world in San Francisco who might be a good person to have on it and my name came up twice. So we met and got on famously and so he said, “Would you be interested in doing it?” And it was at a time when I was pretty hard up. And I made it clear to him that I did not know anymore about food than most of us know and less about wine. So I did it and it was quite successful. The Institute folded but the magazine was quite lively. I’m quite proud of it. There were about 8 issues. I had a lot of fun and met some wonderful people from MFK Fisher to Julia Child. Both of whom are great ladies. I look back on it with pleasure. When people assume I have credentials in gastronomy, I blush a bit. (both laugh)
RB: I confess to reading the press materials. You are working on a screenplay on Louis Armstrong?
DT: Yes. I’ve just delivered the draft to the second screenplay and the people involved like it quite a bit.
RB: You are doing this fully aware of the status of the writer in the food chain of the movie business?
DT: Yes, yes, yes. Yes, yes, yes. I’m doing it for friends. People who are friends—at the moment. That could change, as we all know. (both laugh) I am walking into it with my eyes open and my hand open too. It really came out of a few dinner parties. We just felt we wanted to do something and this subject came up. We’ll see. It’s very difficult to get any movie done and this will have many problems along its way. Many, many problems. We’ll see, I’m hopeful.
RB: But all your eggs are not going into that basket? Are you writing on friendship?
DT: No. But it’s a subject that interests me. We all have friends and friendship is so natural that you often don’t think about it too deeply. You take it for granted. I’m interested in the varieties of friendship and sometimes how friendships will last people much better than family ties. And friendship is sort of the decision we make about our lives. I don’t know how I’d do it or anything like that.
RB: Is there a big project or book that you would like to do but you are waiting for the right time?
DT: Well…yeah…all right. I’ll tell you. And you can tell me whether it’s insane or what. I would love to write a book, it would be called American Weather. It would be several things. It would be about the extreme varieties of weather you get in America. And about how the weather affects life locally and how within the American character and culture you can see weather types. And it would be about the way weather is a subject that is one of the universal small talk subjects. You meet a stranger you can talk about the weather before anything else. Why is that? And is weather natural, our responsibility? Are we damning our own weather by things we are doing? Is weather religious in the end? So, it’s a topic that just fills me with interest and wonder. It would allow me to travel across America.
RB: Sounds good to me. So what do you do when you have an idea that you really like?
DT: What I will have to do if I am serious about it is mention it to my publisher and see whether they go to sleep or jump up and down. And if they go to sleep, then I have to decide whether to do it anyway.
RB: You wouldn’t know if they were just sleepy that day.
DT: That’s it. And I don’t swear by their judgement. It’s hard to tell sometimes. I don’t want to do another biography. I’ve done two big ones and a couple of smaller things and I don’t know that you can do too many of those. Some people do. But I don’t and there is no one out there that excites me and makes it feel as would be worth the tremendous time that’s involved in that.
RB: There’s no one left? Kurt Cobain?
DT: Maybe there are people left, I don’t know.
RB: Is it a function of your admiration or
the value of their contribution to human history?
DT: I couldn’t do a biography on someone I disliked. I couldn’t sustain the stamina. Liking them doesn’t mean you worship them. One of the things I find painful, and this ties in with the earlier quote about the movie business and publishing. I hate pitching. I hate that super-enthusiastic pitch. I always feel so full of doubts about a project.(laughs) Selling it to someone, I hate it.
RB: You know this, isn’t that what agents are for?
DT: Yeah, it is but in the end…we’ll see.
RB: You’d rather go face to face with your publisher rather than delegate to your agent?
DT: I’d rather that we had a common sense of what the book was. Yeah, I really would.
RB: That seems to be the old-fashioned approach to publishing.
DT: Well, it is. But I think there is still a bit of it left.
RB: What do you make of the poll determining the greatest Briton? A number of significant figures were behind Princess Di…
DT: Well, it’s fascinating because it shows you what people know and what they believe is important. It’s a silly game although they are often revealing.
RB: It does raise the issue of the infestation of our culture with beauty contests…”The Best, The Greatest, The Hottest…”
DT: It’s stupid and in the end it’s all part of a dumbing down. It’s a way of saying, "Let’s turn history into People magazine. I’m having a conversation with a taxi driver somewhere, last week and we both agreed on something. It was the anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination. The taxi driver said, “You know, All this stuff that comes out about him. I’m sure it’s right. I don’t doubt it. But it doesn’t alter a thing. When that man died it was an absolute tragedy.” And that’s how it was. Now we didn’t know as much about him as we might have and what’s been revealed has changed. But that doesn’t change the feeling of the absolute devastation of political hope.
Copyright 2003 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing