David Thomson

David ThomsonEnglish-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


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?

What is refreshing about film is that particularly in the first great age, people like Griffith and Chaplin, they really seemed to be making something for everyone. Literally, everyone in the world.

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.

RB: (Laughs)

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


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?

david thomsonDT:

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 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


DT: Tell me what you mean by large screen?

You mean a thousand seats plus?

RB: Yeah.

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


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.

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?

david thomsonDT:

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…

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.

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?

david thomsonDT:

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


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


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

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