Dialogue: Arthur Penn


A seminal director of the 1960s and '70s, Arthur Penn was one of the first of the 'new Hollywood' auteurs to embrace realism in filmmaking. In 1967, his prolonged crescendo of gunfire at the end of "Bonnie & Clyde" -- he used multiple speeds on several cameras -- was Tarantino-esque before there was a Tarantino, and has been imitated for four decades now. A cerebral filmmaker who became president of the Actor's Studio, Penn, now 84, will receive an homage and an honorary Golden Bear at Berlin this year. He spoke to Wolf Schneider for The Hollywood Reporter about his extraordinary career.

The Hollywood Reporter: What's the biggest difference in the film industry now from when you started out in the 1950s?
Arthur Penn: It was a more industrial kind of moviemaking then. They had editors on staff, cameramen on staff, composers. So you shot the picture, and they put it together.

THR: I imagine you didn't much like that.
Penn: Not one bit! So I said, "The hell with movies," and I went back to New York and I did five hits in a row on Broadway.

THR: Then you got seduced back.
Penn: I got seduced back for "The Miracle Worker."

THR: Which you had done as a play ...
Penn: Right. Working with Annie Bancroft and Patty Duke -- all of us were close friends. Both Patty and Annie won Oscars. The film was nominated, and I was nominated.

THR: It was 1962 and industry was becoming more entrepreneurial, right?
Penn: Much more entrepreneurial and less about the old buccaneers of the old studio system. And then, without being too modest ...

THR: Nah, don't be modest.
Penn: ... "Bonnie and Clyde" busted it open! It was a new kind of vigor and violence and a breaking of what was left of the code. It changed the nature of what they thought they were looking for. Then began a generation of good filmmakers making their own movies, (such as) Robert Altman (and) John Frankenheimer.

THR: So what was the absolute best time for moviemaking?
Penn: The late '60s. The studios were changing and in something of a quandary. We were hired to do original stories of a different nature from the big Hollywood movie.

THR: Did you have the most freedom then?
Penn: Yes.

THR: What about the '70s?
Penn: It was still good.

THR: You directed eight actors in Oscar-nominated performances in the '60s and '70s: Patty Duke, Anne Bancroft, Estelle Parsons, Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Michael J. Pollard and Chief Dan George. What was your secret?
Penn: To be there as a kind of conscience for them. But that's the extent of it.

THR: What's the film you're most proud of?
Penn: "Night Moves" with Gene Hackman. It reflected the emotional status of the times just after that string of assassinations.

THR: What was your hardest film?
Penn: "Little Big Man." Just physically, it was a huge film. It goes from summer to winter when it was 40 below in Calgary and Montana. It was a tough film.

THR: Many American Indian actors admire that film.
Penn: It broke the stereotypes. A couple of years ago, two girls just appeared at my house in the country and they were Chief Dan George's granddaughters. They had a carved stick with images of birds and so forth, and it was present from their family. They just appeared at my house in Massachusetts.

THR: Which is near Alice's Restaurant, right? The famed counter-culture watering hole that Arlo Guthrie sang about, then you two made a movie about?
Penn: Yes, I'm in the town itself! Stockbridge. We live there and New York.

THR: Was "Alice's Restaurant" your most enjoyable film?
Penn: Yeah, actually it was. I was able to stay home. The church was there, the restaurants. The police chief in the film was the police chief in Stockbridge. It was a portrait of the moment as the underground was losing it.

THR: Did you consider yourself part of the counter-culture?
Penn: I did. I was. I knew all these people. But I also could see their dream would not be fulfilled.

THR: The film you get asked about most is ...
Penn: "Bonnie and Clyde." They want to know how I did it, and if Faye (Dunaway) was really that beautiful, which she was. I couldn't believe it when I looked through the camera at a big close-up of her face. That was a brilliant cast, part of which was Warren Beatty's doing. Gene Hackman was Warren's choice. Estelle Parsons was mine.

THR: You once said, 'Lee Strasberg ruined an entire generation of actors with that sense-memory crap.' Do you still believe that?
Penn: Not about sense memory, but about affective memory. Meaning, emotional memory. He would have you go back to an emotional moment in your life.

THR: What's a better way?
Penn: The better way is to leave the actor to find it. I don't believe in all that active introspection. I direct differently.

THR: How so?
Penn: In the theater, I have the actors come in. We sit down and read the script. Then I say, "OK, get up and do the play." They don't know a word. What I'm looking for is for them to find the moments that are easiest for them, that are personal to them.

THR: It's improvisational?
Penn: It's totally on the level of improvisation. This is, "Do what you recall." Then the next day we do it again. With movies, we can't rehearse like that. But there was a little of that between Gene and Warren on "Bonnie and Clyde."

THR: What do you think of cinema today?
Penn: The British are making some good films. "The Queen." "Venus."

THR: What directors working today impress you?
Penn: Jim Jarmusch. Stephen Frears. Wes Anderson.

THR: Still available for hire as a director yourself?
Penn: Sure.