Filmmakers on Film: Bruce Cohen

In order for us as humans to advance, we need to look to the past. This is something that we as a people have had trouble with, and it is astonishing how few film students have any knowledge of what came before, despite having a limitless amount of films at their fingertips. Thus, I reached out to notable industry members and asked them to recommend one film to film students and young filmmakers and explain their choice.

Bruce Cohen is an Oscar-winning producer best known for his work on AMERICAN BEAUTY, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, and MILK (the former earned him a Best Picture Oscar, and the latter films brought him two more nominations). He has also produced the Oscars telecast which earned him an Emmy nomination.

The following is an interview with Bruce Cohen about his recommendation:

Joshua Handler: What film would you recommend to young filmmakers and film students?

Bruce Cohen: I am recommending HIS GIRL FRIDAY, directed by Howard Hawks, from 1940, starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. I had seen it I believe when I was in college, and I'd always said and thought that it was one of my favorite films of all time and have kept it on that list, but I hadn't watched it again since. One of the great pleasures in life is getting to revisit cinematic masterpieces and your favorite films, so that was a nice silver lining, using that pun purposefully because we'll bring up SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK a little later in the discussion.

A silver lining from this assignment from you is I went back and watched HIS GIRL FRIDAY last night, and it certainly stays on my list. It's one of the great screwball comedies, and it's very shocking and refreshing to see a movie from 80 years ago that’s this alive, this entertaining. The dialogue and the performances are just phenomenal, and it's really a joy and a pleasure to watch. And I think my favorite part about the film is Rosalind Russell's performance because she is just such a strong, powerful, hilarious woman, and there's been times throughout film history where those roles are in short supply. Hopefully we're in a time now and continue to be in times where there are phenomenal leading roles for women, but boy were they writing them back then, and boy did they write one for her.

JH: I haven't seen the movie in years, but what did strike me was how strong-willed she is and how she does hold her own against Cary Grant. You are right in that roles like that disappeared from cinema for a very long time. 

BC: Yes, absolutely, and these two stars going up against each other head-to-head, you can tell how much fun they're having working together, and it's really three performances - hers, his, and the combined performance of the two of them because with dialogue that fast and so much constant interaction and so much simultaneous talking, you can't fake that. The chemistry has got be there, the incredible degree of difficulty is there, and the two of them together just hit it out of the park. 

JH: I don't know if you heard the same thing as I've heard, but I had heard that Hawks would time the scenes, have the actors perform, then tell them to try to do the scene in half the time.

BC: I have not heard that, but I had the great pleasure of working with Barry Sonnenfeld on PUSHING DAISIES, and PUSHING DAISIES aspired to that screwball comedy-ness. We talked a lot about “fast and funny.” There's not much funnier than incredibly complex, intricate, long speeches of dialogue performed really, really fast, and we talked about that on PUSHING DAISIES. It's a great passion of Barry's in all of his work, that style, and pretty much the one and only direction that he gives actors on projects like that is "faster, funnier." And after each take, he'd say, "Faster, funnier." But they're actually connected because nine times out of ten, faster actually is funnier. You don't actually need to work at the funnier part, you just need to work at the faster part. And Cary and Rosalind in HIS GIRL FRIDAY are the platinum standard of how funny talking fast can be, and along those lines, I mentioned SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK earlier, I feel like Julia Roberts and Jennifer Lawrence are direct descendants of Rosalind Russell. They're the masters of the "faster, funnier" and of being in the moment and of having incredible chemistry with their co-stars, and they also at varying times were/are the biggest female stars in the world, so I feel like the star turns that they've given in their movies owe a lot to Rosalind Russell and probably even specifically to HIS GIRL FRIDAY.

JH: For a long while the screwball comedy died out, but then it seems like there's been a resurgence in recent years, both with SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK and Noah Baumbach's MISTRESS AMERICA. I think that's one of the great screwball comedies of the modern era that never gets its due. There's even a scene in which editor Jennifer Lame cuts rapidly back and forth between two characters as a direct homage to classic screwball comedies. Why do you think the screwball comedy has made a comeback in this day and age?

BC: It's interesting you mentioned the cutting though because in most cases in HIS GIRL FRIDAY, Howard is not cutting back and forth between the two of them. The way that the chemistry is working and the way that the speed of the comedy is working is they have to be in two-shots because you have to see them both at the same time, and then of course, when you're in the two-shot, that frees them up to talk over each other as much as they want, whereas if your plan is for the scene to be cutting back and forth, you have to worry about overlaps in the dialogue all the time, so I do think that was a staple of the original screwballs – so much of the comedy is playing with all the characters – all the characters talking are all in one shot – and part of that also harkens back to live theatre. You're watching everyone in the scene the whole time, and you sort of can decide as a viewer how and where you want to look, so I think that was very much in their minds at the time when they set out to make these comedies. They were thinking theatre, and they were thinking in order to have comedic timing, you need to see both parts of the equation.

JH: If you're directly addressing an aspiring filmmaker or film student, from what context do you recommend they view HIS GIRL FRIDAY?

BC: I'd go broader than that. I'd recommend in general that you watch any and every great film that you feel might be an influence or precursor of the type of movie you want to make. Whatever movie you're setting out to do, put together a film list and consult lots of friends and experts of the 10 or 20 movies you want to watch that have something to do with or the movies on whose shoulders you hope to stand when you make yours. What makes a movie really fresh and audiences really respond in due is when you put all that in a hopper and then create something totally new that hasn't been done before. Quentin Tarantino comes to mind. The premise of all of his work is that he's pulling all of these very direct and specific references from all of these great movies that he loves, and yet he's creating something completely new, a new style that you've never seen before which he sort of does film after film after film, so I would definitely recommend those film festivals. I was blessed and honored to grow up in the business as an assistant director for Spielberg, and that's something that Steven does before every movie that he's about to direct: he puts together a film festival of the great movies that are in that genre or that he feels like might inspire that film, and he watches them all before he starts shooting, usually with collaborators like the DP, the production designer, the ADs, and if nothing else, it's a really inspiring connection to film history to get you inspired and revved up before you go try and make a new movie of your own. 

JH: How did you settle specifically on HIS GIRL FRIDAY?

BC: It's a favorite film of mine. It's probably the only movie that I reference. HIS GIRL FRIDAY and LAWRENCE OF ARABIA are really the only two films on my top four or five list that aren't modern-day movies, so anytime anyone's ever asking me to think of my favorite film, HIS GIRL FRIDAY is always at the top of my list, and so when you asked me specifically to talk to up-and-coming young filmmakers, that just immediately gave me the idea to go back as far as possible and to pick a movie that probably a lot of people hadn't seen, and a film that was made 80 years ago, or that will have its 80th anniversary in 2020, which is insane to think about.

JH: It's crazy to think that it's turning 80.

BC: It freaks me out too. As I was doing the math, I was like, "Holy shit! Is 1940 now 80 years ago? That's crazy," but it's going to be.

JH: You were talking about how Spielberg does a film festival for himself before directing a film, and he's considered one of the greats. You also have a deep knowledge of film and are widely respected in the industry. It seems like there's a trend where those that are very successful at what they do in the industry have a very deep knowledge of film. Why do you think that is?

BC: I think it's a prerequisite really. It's an art form, and it takes a tremendous amount of creativity, knowledge, and work and it's also a job at the core of it. Anyone who shows up to any job unprepared, under-researched, hasn't done their homework, doesn't understand the world they're in is going to be at a severe disadvantage compared to the person sitting next to them who has lived it, eaten it, and breathed it, so if you're embarking into filmmaking, if you're going to be a director, I think that the same goes. How are you going to have any sense of even where to start if you haven't studied film, if you don't have a full knowledge of film, but if you're out there wanting to direct and feel like, "Oh shit, I might get a C or a D in that area."

I'd say start with the film festival for the movie you're going to make, it's a good place to start, and as I was saying earlier, it just occurred to me too, that it probably couldn't hurt to watch a couple of really bad movies that are also in that genre that didn't work at all because in some sense, you can learn as much from what's gone wrong in the past as you can learn from what's gone right in the past. I also have heard and have done it on occasion, watching a sound film without the sound on is a really great exercise because you can really see the editing and you really get a sense of how the film is put together when you're just watching the visuals without the sound. There's nothing really to distract you from seeing the actual editing and how it's cut.