Silence Is Death: Revisiting Cassavetes In The Digital Age

For many young filmmakers, there’s a debate between waiting to secure financing for your film or going out and making a film on the cheap.

In a lengthy and brazen interview in 1977 to promote “Opening Night,” John Cassavetes proclaimed, “it [Los Angeles] is so go-along with everything that goes along. It’s corporate-owned; it’s a town owned by Hollywood. And it’s about time it grew up. It’s about time it took art and said, ‘C’mon, baby! Show me something!’” When he’s referring to ‘something’ he’s clearly not expecting nor desiring a large studio picture to be a disruptor and trailblazer in the arts.

In fact, Cassavetes likely saw those two things as mutually exclusive.  Many filmmakers, writers, and actors (myself included) put an enormous pressure on themselves to be acting, writing or directing larger scale and professional films, and it makes perfect sense. There’s money involved, it’s validating, and it builds your career. The downside is that much of that takes enormous amounts of time or never happens at all and, even when it does, it can sometimes evolve into a situation where you’re making six figures writing screenplays, but none of them ever get on screen.

Cassavetes is talking pure artistic expression and, fortunately, you don’t need the backing of a company or permission from a studio to do such a thing. He would know, as many of his films were made independently from studios which was far more difficult in the 60s and 70s than it is today due to film cost. In many ways, he’s even going a step further suggesting lack of money makes it more interesting. He’s essentially giving a green light to filmmakers to not give a crap about the “how” and “why” and more concerned about expressing yourself in the way you’re able to and what you’re able to do it with. With the lowering cost of filmmaking, it’s a piece of advice worth reminding filmmakers.

For many young filmmakers, there’s a debate between waiting to secure proper financing for your film or going out and making a film on the cheap. Cassavetes’ quote and the canvas of his whole career screams the latter. That’s not to say he didn’t care about people seeing his films. In fact, Cassavetes would walk with canisters of film in the streets of New York begging theaters to play his films, despite success on the international film festival circuit. That would change when Richard Dreyfuss went on the Tonight Show and told the audience he had just seen Cassavetes’ “A Woman Under the Influence” and that it was so harrowing it made him puke. This caused a bit of a buzz and helped the film get some commercial success. Until that time, Cassavetes would have to rely on his own financing (most of which he earned through acting), asking name cast for an investment, and various other independent financing methods. Even when he did get the studio to back his films, he eventually broke his contract to have more creative autonomy, proving that this wasn’t just a philosophy to make a movie, it was a philosophy to make his movie, regardless of what the industry would think of it. It was beyond just logistics and more about what sort of truths or self-actualization he wanted to get from his films with his fellow actors and collaborators and hope someone, somewhere out there in the dark theater audience will connect with them. That is the key. One needs to ask themselves, why do I want to make this movie?

Is there anything wrong with making movies for money or acclaim? No. Most of the time anyone criticizing an artist for that reason isn’t really getting anywhere besides speculation. But it should be conflated with the notion that one shouldn’t make a movie if there isn’t money or acclaim tied to the outcome. Movie making is a long, multi-year (or sometimes decade), grueling process no matter what the budget is. If you are not enjoying the process, connecting, or sharing some sort of interesting experience with your colleagues, then it dilutes the point of making the art to begin with. Once the fixation on outcome is secondary to the actual creation of the art, it opens up the Pandora’s box of low budget filmmaking.

Francis Ford Coppola in full-blown mental breakdown mode in the Philippines on the set of Apocalypse Now said, “Nothing is so terrible as a pretentious movie. I mean a movie that aspires for something really terrific and doesn’t pull it off is s—, it’s scum…and everyone will walk on it as such. And that’s why poor filmmakers in a way – that’s their greatest horror – is to be pretentious. So here you are on one hand trying to aspire to really do something, and on the other hand you’re not allowed to be pretentious. And finally, you say, ‘f— it.’ I don’t care if I’m pretentious or not pretentious or if I’ve done it or I haven’t done it. All I know is that I am going to see this movie. And that for me it has to have some answers.”

While this isn’t talking about budget and it’s more about the content of the art, it’s still worth noting because it stems from the same root of doubt and fear. After making arguably three of the best American films ever made in the same decade, Coppola felt he had missed out on making these smaller, more personal films because of his early success. To many, that may just sound trite and sentimental but that’s what he ended up doing in the 2010s; making low-budget films knowing very well that people would likely say “he lost his touch.” With all of the Oscars and the money in the world, he still wanted to make movies because of the process and not the outcome.

This school of thought was seeped into the minds of filmmakers like Coppola and Scorsese by Cassavetes himself. We may not have had the great films of Scorsese if Cassavetes hadn’t encouraged him in that way. After Scorsese made “Boxcar Bertha” for Roger Corman to try to appeal to a larger audience than his first film “Who’s That Knocking At My Door?”, he asked Cassavetes what he thought. Cassavetes tore the film apart and convinced him to make the film he actually wanted to make, despite seemingly not having the resources or distribution. The film ended up being “Mean Streets.” Scorsese would later show a print to Warner Brothers, and they bought it. The great irony is that, oftentimes when a filmmaker doubles down on their vision and doesn’t ask for permission, that ends up being the film that gets them “acclaim.”

In the early 1960s before Cassavetes was directing regularly was interviewed by a French journalist and was asked if he liked jazz. Cassavetes, driving his convertible through Los Angeles, responded by saying “I like all music. Makes you feel like living. Silence is death.” He certainly wasn’t silent in the decades to come with his bold, personal films he made with his troupe of colleagues and filmmakers should consider taking similar renegade tactics to their careers instead of waiting for the ‘break’ that Hollywood, as an industry, likes to sell to newcomers.

 Janek Ambros, Director of Mondo Hollywoodland, is now available on Amazon Prime

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