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 youthe 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 helpsstill (laughs)and carries a long
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
RB: It would be confusing to say one was
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 inventionand
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. Butliterary 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 universitiesto 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 filmsomehas 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
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?
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
DT: For independent films it's the natural
way to go. Yeah.
RB: No longer requiring theatrical release
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 yearsI'm not the only one to say it
by any meansit'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
RB: How many large screens are left in San
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
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 earlyyou
might not get init 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
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.
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 itis 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. Thewhat used to be called the mid list
bookthe 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 reasonit's not the only reason, I can't blame
it entirely on thisI 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?
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
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 seein the days that I was really pounding on this
book in the first edition and when I was teachingI 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…
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.
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 dutieshe 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.
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 friendsat 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?
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
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
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
RB: There's no one left? Kurt Cobain?
DT: Maybe there are people left, I don't
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
DT: Yeah, it is but in the end…we'll
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
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
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,
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