|Nicholas Ray's Marco|
|Scritto da Claudio Mazzatenta|
NICHOLAS RAY’S MARCO.
MEMORY OF WORKING WITH NICK
It was a hot and humid New York morning in the small studio apartment at 47th and Broadway close to Times Square, and I was ready to jump out the bed and catch at Penn Station the train to Mineola where I worked. When the phone rang, I grabbed the receiver and Luca Barbareschi calling from Italy said: “You know the news? Nick is dead”. I didn’t cry since I was waiting for that. I had talked to Nick by phone about a week before and it was very painful hearing his voice so frail and tired, but I was sad because, no matter what we like to say about inner strength, the striking notion that death occurs forcing us to think ‘That’s it! It’s over” is always devastating. I was able to find only in the obituary section of the New York Times dated Monday June 18 a very small article starting:
Nicholas Ray, who directed the films Johnny Guitar, Rebel Without a Cause, a remake of King of Kings, Run for Cover and 55 days at Peking. Died Saturday of lung cancer after a 12-year battle with the disease.
Unable to complete Fifty Five Days at Peking, Nick was dead in 1963 for Hollywood establishment. In 1979 media did not provide the same attention given to the ‘Duke’ John Wayne, who died few days earlier on June 11 and ironically worked in Nick’s The Flying Leathernecks in 1951.
In 1976 I flew from Rome to New York to attend a full time program at The Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. At that time The Institute was the most prestigious acting school in New York and definitely one of the most coveted worldwide. Lee, already famous as Artistic Director of the Actor’s Studio, after working as actor in Coppola’s Godfather II became a beacon that couldn’t be ignored, and his Institute was indeed the place to study acting with an international flavor because students came from everywhere. There I met again Luca that I knew since 1974 when we both attended the Studio Fersen in Rome with other fellow students who also came to Lee’s school. Luca and I were in same classes and worked together in the school and also outside, but I was the one who also attended Nick’s classes.
It just happened: one day a big sign advertising the upcoming film classes directed by Nicholas Ray appeared at the front desk of the Institute. On the wall a major article REBEL Nicholas Ray was on display with the filmography of this director that I remembered for at least two movies that I saw in Italy: Johnny Guitar and Rebel Without a Cause. My original dream to study with Lee Strasberg did not prevent me to register for Nick’s classes. Few days later, following the school procedure, I had a formal interview with him. I entered the office and behind a desk there was a man sitting very calm who greeted me with a warm “hello” .The man had white hair and his blue eyes were looking straight ahead at me. He was very pale and his skin was too white: I thought he was sick, but I didn’t know he had a cancer. He asked were I was coming from and I said that I was born in Rome. He replied saying that he lived there some time ago and when he asked why I wanted to be an actor and take his TV-Film class’s movie actor. The conversation was brief and I liked the man; I had positive vibration and I left highly energized for the new experience to come.
The first lesson Nick provided the foundations of what he intended to do and what he expected from all the students who were very different from the crew of Rebel Without a Cause or We Can’t Go Home Again. Nick approached this new experience with different attitude: It was not about making his own movies, but about teaching and exploring new possibilities for students and for himself as director: The entire crew became a film laboratory workshop. Lessons were taped and later transcribed by Susan – Nick’s wife – in her book I was Interrupted, Nicholas Ray on Making Movies.
Nick expected that every student was committed to make the best of him/her and this was a major driving force for anything that was done later. Challenging was a necessity to make the jump to a higher level. I did my best to brake down all the barriers preventing to reach full openness and get in touch with my inner self. I found his comments at the end of every work, scene/monologue improvisation or else, done by the students very fascinating: he was able to see what the common eye couldn’t see. I enjoyed a lot listening Nick: he was never a boring person, on the contrary his ability to communicate was marvelous and he always had something interesting to say, like always happened to people who travel a lot and get in touch with different cultures. When I presented material from Pirandello, Camus, and Sartre nothing was new to him. I guess that he admired European culture.
I learned a lot of stories from the other fellow students about Nick and the shooting of We Can’t Go Home Again. In the first class in spring 1977 Danny Fisher who also appeared in WCGHA, was the official cameramen, and he later introduced me to Tom Farrell also featuring in WCGHA. When I met Nick, he was at his peak of experience and knowledge as filmmaker and generously transferred this treasure to his students. He enjoyed being among young students from different countries and background and he was able to generate self confidence that facilitated interrelationship for all of us who had a better chance to evolve artistically and culturally. Nick infused respect for art that translated into respect for each other: no prima donna was allowed. He pushed students to explore and go above the boundary of conventional behavior. Art became tool for self discovery. All the work done with him had this unique feature and as a consequence art faded into reality and vice versa. Life became a journey where contradictions became the essence of unpredictable harmony. This appeared when students were asked to explain sunrise to a person blind from birth, or to work on the forger exercise where nobody knew who the forger was: the contradiction was overwhelming. What was Nick looking for? I tried to answer at that time and I didn’t get any satisfactory reply, but the fact that I had to challenge my mind to another level of thinking was already a reward to my personal journey. Working with Nick gave me the confidence that I didn’t have before not only to explore inside myself, but to project my discovery to the others who were around me. Nick is well known as movie director and not as teacher and this is unfair because he had an uncanny ability to understand human psychology and he knew how to fire up students to get the best out of them. He was a seeker in art and in life and taught with love whatever he could give and he never spoke ‘ex cathedra’.
Nick taught at the Institute in spring 77 and again in the fall 77, after a summer break at NYU. Rumor was spread that he was teaching again at the Institute and more students were interested in taking this course: the original schedule of 8 hours a week (already double compared to the regular 4 hours a week of any other acting class at the Institute) was stretched to 16 hours. With support of Gerry Bamman Nick introduced technique borrowed from Jerry Grotowski and also asked students to develop a criminal character as a final presentation. More resources were available such as 16 mm camera with more lighting set up in addition to the video camera used in the spring class. I was more intrigued and fascinated by the entire ensemble and I constantly asked myself what I had to do to live in full this experience. I watched and listened and thought about everything that happened and I felt that I always wanted more. I was happy and scared at the same time because I was afraid of being unable to get where I wanted to go. Nick was again the skipper in this journey asking again students to cross the bridge leading to openness of our souls, and when he understood that his message did not get across he got personally involved like when he gave his monologue following narration of his own personal experiences. This openness with no wavering was very unusual for a teacher and it was very inspiring for my work to come. In fact it did help me for my monologue that was well received by Nick from whom I learned that everybody has to work with his/her own personal emotion and how to deal with that in any working situation.
By the end of the semester Nick one day came to me with a book in his hand and asked me to read the first three pages and tell him if I wanted to play the character, and he would be the director. I couldn’t believe myself of this offer: Nick had never made such a request to anybody in the class, he never directed students, but just discuss the material presented by them. So I was eager and intrigued about that. The book titled Marco, Nick explained, was a free copy received from a long time friend, Curtis Bill Pepper, who wrote a novel based on a real event who took place in Rome in the sixties. The father of a son with birth defect, caused by thalidomide drug taken by the mother during pregnancy, unable to deal with this tragedy, resolved to dump the newborn in the Tiber River and turned himself to the police. Would I play the character? I couldn’t ask anything better than this: a story I was familiar with, a strong character for my criminal assignment and directed personally by Nick: I flipped out; it was a dream coming true. I started working immediately devouring the entire book that Nick kindly gave to me.
Nick’s illness was no match with his resilience in fighting back. He was always energetic and committed to teaching till the end. Marco shooting was done in three days and definitely has his signature. Nick worked with me during preparation and during shooting to maximize my performance and I felt like guided into another reality. Also everybody gave the personal contribution and it was a pleasure to be part of this crew. Nick had created a new family will all his students
The memory of that experience is still alive after many years and in 3 days I learned what I never got in all I have done in acting before. But in addition I felt that it was not only an acting experience but a challenge to reach the inner part of myself to move further up in my journey of life and also discover the weaker and darker side of myself consisting of anger, resentment and rage. The shooting of the confession of infanticide became the process of personal healing where Nick was the master of ceremony. Bill Krohn, correspondent for Cahiers du Cinema, who was on the set that night, on his draft that gave to me, wrote that, after shooting twenty taxes, Nick ‘exhausted but jubilant said: ‘Print’em all’. Bill said that:
In spite of the rawness of the emotions evoked by the actor and the director, I have the impression that what I’ve been watching is the exercise of a technique which has been brought to such a peak of perfection that the technicians can dispense with the quasi religious aura which surrounded the Method when people first started using it in the Forties and Fifties.
When later Bill interviewing Nick about my performance:
It’s possible I was confusing what the character was experiencing with what the actor was experiencing. It looked like a hysterical break-down happening before my eyes…
But it wasn’t. If it had been he would have been out on control. As I see in some exercises, the way some teachers teach it, the actor is out of commission for six hours – that’ ll ruin a whole day’s shooting. You have to know what the hell you’re doing.
At the end of that night Nick said to me: ‘Go home, take a rest. You’ll feel better tomorrow’
Some twenty years later I happened to be in the Peruvian Amazon attending an ayahuasca ceremony. A young undergraduate student from the West Coast eager to carry out her research project, after drinking the powerful beverage, painfully flipped out, and the shaman (curandero) wisely guided her through this soul journey. Memory of Marco’s shooting came alive to me, and I found a striking connection between the two events and identified again Nick as the master of ceremony. The major difference was that I was always aware of what was going on by following Nick’s guidance, while the girl, the morning after, had a vague memory of her overwhelming experience.
I did not pursue my acting career like originally I meant and I often regret it. What is left is the real joy of being able to work with Nick and explore my capacity as actor and as seeker. Immediately after, I enrolled in Lee Strasberg’s classes but, even if Lee was an outstanding teacher, I didn’t have the opportunity to experience what I did before with Nick. A lot has been said about Nick’s life and I personally heard different opinions, but out of this contest, Nick will remain the ‘teacher’ who gave all his knowledge to the students so they could create their own art. What was his influence on my life? He was really a generous and honest teacher: I learnt the importance of commitment, the value of professionalism; I appreciated being bold and taking chances and seeking inside the remote part of psyche that is always masked by barriers. I asked myself if I were able to achieve this without him and the only answer is that I don’t know and it doesn’t matter, what it does, it that I did it. Nick lived on the edge, and sometimes I wish I had been more on the edge like he did. I learned from him that life is a journey worthy to be explored from every angle of view.
I tried to identify similarities with Nick and me, and I found that we certainly had one thing in common: we both became teacher in the later part of our life. I don’t know if Nick ever thought of becoming a teacher, but the lessons taped and transcribed in Susan’s book I Was Interrupted are remarkable. I always disliked teaching when I was young, but with my surprise I ended up teaching science first in tough High Schools in the Bronx and then in Brooklyn. Now I am Associate Professor of the Department of Biology at Bronx Community College, one of the 23 Colleges and Institutions of the City University of New York (CUNY). Being a teacher can be a great experience: I am constantly updated of what the young generation thinks about life. I think about Nick quite often, because I find myself on the same side of the fence where I met Nick: In front of an audience that wants to learn, and I hope to be successful and able to deliver what they need. So I think of Him Ginott’s work ‘Teacher and child’
I have come to a frightening conclusion: I am the decisive element in a classroom. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.
Nick was to me an instrument of inspiration and I am trying my best with hope that my students one day will say the same of me.
New York, December 30, 2009
1. Nicholas Ray, An American Journey by Bernard Eisenschitz, translated by Tom Milne, Faber and Faber, London -Boston, 1993 (originally published in 1990 as Roman Americain: Les vies de Nicholas Ray by Christian Bourgois Editeur et Longue Distance)
2. Cahiers Du Cinema/Petit Journal - Rencontre avec Nicholas Ray, Par Bill Krohn May 1978 #288
3. I was Interrupted, Nicholas Ray On Making Movies, Nicholas Ray Edited and Introduced by Susan Ray, University of California Press, Berkeley 94720, 1993