Union City - Film Notes - 2006
Union City DVD Booklet
Orson Welles was sitting in the corner on the top floor of Mr. Chow's, reading. It was late, well past a reasonable hour to be having lunch, or even lingering over one's coffee. I was sitting in the opposite corner, by the big window on Hyde Park, waiting for my estranged wife to arrive. The large white room, gradually turning a soft grey with the sun's retreat, was empty, the tables now freshly set for dinner.
"Aren't you going to eat anything?" asked Orson.
"No, I'm just drinking," I replied. "If you don't mind me asking, what're you reading?"
"Crime and Punishment," he said.
"I just made a film about a crime," I said, inadequately.
"Oh?" he murmured, then looked at me. "Why don't you sit over here?"
I shrugged and joined him, wishing I weren't quite such a figure of disenchantment.
"Waiting for someone?"
"My wife," I said. "I haven't seen her for a while, a month or two."
"Why don't you order something?"
"I'm not hungry, but I would like another drink. What're you having?"
I don't remember exactly what he said, but dimly imagine it was cognac.
"Sauvignon Blanc," I said to the waiter, "a large one, and another for Mr. Welles."
I wanted to talk about Union City, but, even more, I wanted to talk about Orson and Rita Hayworth. Their marriage had ended after only two years, although they were to remain friends. Sally and I had been married for nine years, and we were just friends now too, or sort of. Orson and Rita were married in 1943, Union City is set in 1953. What was ten years in the overall scheme of things? A life-time, I now know. In 1943, Orson still had the cherubic face he had so often used to disarm the studio executives. Rita, the emerging star, had recently had her hairline raised - the most beautiful, hairiest little Spanish girl in the world. I kept picturing the enormous man sitting beside me, with his insatiable intelligence and burdening sensuality, hugging her, yearning, to his broad chest. Only a few months before, I had been standing on the rooftop terrace of Deborah Harry's apartment building in New York discussing what urgency in life is relevant and what is not, and why we are given to impulses that we know are self-destructively futile. I had wanted to make some sense to her, but I couldn't make any sense of it to myself. I confessed this to Orson.
"I hope things work out," he said, when he left.
"You are very kind," I said, and he was.
Union City would never have been made if it hadn't been for Deborah's willingness to take a chance on me and Monty Montgomery. And, naturally, Chris Stein was guiding Deborah along the path they would take together. We first me in the lounge of the Algonquin Hotel where Monty, my producer and friend, and I had occasionally gone for a smart gin martini, indulging in the rarefied atmosphere of Dorothy Parker and William Faulkner (who had one night in the late 1930's slept with his drunken head
resting against a scorching radiator pipe in one of the bedrooms upstairs). Chris Stein had scanned the screenplay, picking out lines he found of some peculiar relevance and reading them aloud. He knew what he was looking at, and for: he is a superbly gifted intuitif. Needless to say, so is Deborah. When we embarked on the making of the film, Blondie was virtually unknown in the United States. Heart Of Glass hit number one about half-way through our shooting-schedule. From that moment on, my work became increasingly more difficult. Fortunately, the emerging star who made her way up four rickety flights every day to a cold-water flat - our primary set - was a humble soul dedicated to becoming an actress. My recollection is that the only egotist on the shoot was Mr. Cocaine.
In frame, as they say, fragility is prized, and Deborah was in gentle hands. Dennis Lipscomb, having come out of a hard touring Shakespeare company, and Everett McGill, having miraculously fallen from the heavenly gene-pool of 1950's cinema gods, were, at their young age, caring and consummate professionals. Dennis struggled compellingly within the confines of a very demanding role, and Ev brought comfort and confidence with the utterance of a single line. Both actors are now internationally known. Sam McMurray, whose leg was injured and who walked with a cane when we first met, assumed the psychology of a destitute veteran of the Korean War while subliminally communicating the nihilism of Viet Nam. He deftly conveyed war's malignant transformation of a man's sensibility, his tenderness turned to sneering disregard. But Union City was also about personal things, at least for me.
I had been ruminating on the nature of criminality for as long as I could remember and had come to the conclusion that it was just another ugly, albeit pathetic, everyday aspect of life - intriguing only in that it was so perversely banal. Subjugation, it seemed to me, more often than not led to violence. Sexual inadequacy too was a tricky conundrum. I recoiled at the thought that the entire world might be haunted by an atmosphere of stark humiliation. It therefore struck me as uncanny that Monty should present me with the Cornell Woolrich short story upon which I was to base the screenplay. Coincidentally, he telephoned me with news of his find at the Grand Hotel di Milano where I was visiting with my then modelling wife, next to whose room a friend of the booking agent was, in the wee hours of the morning, binding up two other blonde American photo modelas and subjecting them to various forms of sexual humiliation - their intermittent shrieks and prolonged fits of swearing gave the game away. Woolrich's short story was entitled The Corpse Next Door.
The Corpse Next Door was set in the 1930's and limited in its dramatic potential by a lack of psychological underpinning consistent with the simple hardship of The Depression era. For instance, the vagrant was merely a vagrant, not a man suffering the emotional destitution of war. I began to look around me, and found myself transported back in time. Minor horrors I had witnessed as a child revisited me. The glowing windows of apartment buildings hovering over the street on an airless New York night intimated obscenity and despair. Couples grappled in silence, locked in rooms reeking of anxiety. Their torments were bittersweet. America in the 1950's was secretly nurturing its culture of alienation. No one could have guessed what terrors it might rain down on a sunny afternoon, helicopter blades slashing an oriental sky. Communication of the healing sort was tacitly forbidden. All very cold and clinical, all deathly. This, I decided, was what the film should be about, couched in the absurdity of a sham upward mobility. Big stupid words and big pathetic emotions wrenched from the mouths of babies paddling along in the murky waters of the American dream.
I wrote the screenplay in eight days. I hadn't any money and was staying in a borrowed bed-sitter just off Fifth Avenue in the twenties. The most legendary YMCA in the world was a two minute walk away, and that's where I went to burn off all the nervous energy I somehow conjured up day and night. Monty would come by and sit on my bed on the floor and I would read what I'd written, often unable to suppress my inane giggling. But the writing was ridiculous only on one very superficial level, the underlying tone being one of disorientation and abject dread. When the picture was first shown - I can recall a rainy afternoon at the Toronto film festival -- hordes of viewers left the cinema disgusted, while those who stayed eventually ceased laughing and began worrying. Many of the critics could see what we were about, but there were a few, undoubtedly ignorant of the European absurdist tradition, who found the humour, such as it was, nauseating. Union City went over particularly well at Cannes, and later Columbia Tristar licensed the video rights. I'd never made a feature film before, and now longed to realise the project Monty and I had originally set out to do, a life of Antonin Artaud. But that, of course, is another story altogether.
For a picture that cost so little - less that $500,000 (Heaven's Gate was filming grossly over-budget at the time) - and whose locations encompassed the top floor of a building comprised of railroad flats, a couple of store fronts, and a bar two blocks away, Union City engendered an awful lot of publicity, especially in London and New York. This, I reckon, was due to two factors. Firstly, and obviously, Deborah Harry was having her way with the world and, secondly, what we had got in the camera looked so unbelievably good. Neither did it hurt that no one could work out what the picture was about. Was it a crime picture rendered in an unnerving palette of Technicolor insults, or was it just another nonsensical art film? No one seemed to know. Now, of course, we know that it was the first neo-noir, a genre worthy of the coffee-table publishing format!
Much of the press coverage in New York sought to reveal how I had organised the production and with whom. The Soho News seemed to think the picture was made by a weird clique of fashion designers and their art school protégés. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. I had been in New York for barely five years, and Monty had moved to the city in 1976 - we began filming in March 1979. My background was the coal regions of Pennsylvania and Monty's was the drawing-rooms and verandas of Atlanta, Georgia. We both prided ourselves on being young gentlemen, although I was by far the more unruly. Our very separate worlds began to mesh in places like the Mudd Club in Soho or, incongruously, Café des Artistes just off Central Park, restaurant to Hotel des Artistes where the high-flying poet Harry Crosby and his lover had shot themselves in 1929. We enjoyed good food and drink, and we were voyeurs.
I had a tip one night that there was a wild fairy-like creature belting out rock and roll in a club on the upper East Side and a few days later I was trying to line up a management deal for Pat Benatar. Another night, my heart hammered in my throat as I watched Tony Azito slither so very eloquently across the stage at Lincoln Centre in The Three Penny Opera. I later cast him as Alphonso Florescu, and Pat Benatar as his new bride. The only person no one ever asked about was the Countessa, Irina Maleeva, probably because they couldn't pronounce her name, but had they found the courage to ask they would have been told, at least by me, that she had put us in touch with the rest of our financing, and that while Fellini may have looked at her, perhaps even caressed her on the set Satyricon, I was obliged to actually direct her. Orson Welles had been obliged to do the same when making The Merchant of Venice in 1969. With Irina, you never knew what you were going to get, but it was always interesting. She was a diva without a piazza of her own, constantly on the move, like a gypsy princess. Networking was what New York was all about.
Our old friend the illustrator George Stavrinos naturally became my designer and set decorator, and brought with him everyone he needed from amongst his friends, including our make-up artist Richard Dean, who now exclusively perfects the on-screen face of Julia Roberts. Richard is the only one of George's friends who worked on Union City who survived the 1980's. Our co-producers are dead too. Monty got Ed Lachman's number from somebody, perhaps Kathy Bigelow, and the next thing I knew we were talking on the telephone every other day. Ed had operated camera for D.A. Pennebacker, and most recently run second unit for Vittorio Storaro on Bertolucci's La Luna. Ed liked the idea of shooting a period picture that would be expressionistic rather than purely authentic or fawningly imitative. There were extraordinary people working with us, many of them artists who would later manifest their gifts to considerable acclaim, like Kathryn Bigelow, our script supervisor, Stefan Czapsky, our gaffer, and Arne Svenson, who perfected and applied my colours and saw to it that so many essential deadlines were met. There wasn't a fashion designer among them - personal style always, never fashion!
In America in 1979, there was no protection for film directors. Now a director is entitled to his cut and if the producers are unhappy with it an audience is brought in and their response to the picture, as defined by a democratically contrived questionnaire, is taken into account. This way, if the director's vision happens to be more astute than that of his producers, his work at least has the chance to fail - largely - on its own terms. Sadly, many of the most difficult scenes in Union City have been lost: it was decided, much to my chagrin and Monty's, that we must achieve a PG rating. Unbeknownst to us, the scenes removed from my cut were left, both in work print and negative, in the vaults of Movielab in New York. The building was later sold to Ariflex. Notice was apparently given that everything must be removed from the vaults, and that after a given date all abandoned material would go into the skip. From my research, this is what transpired. In abeyance to some desperate thirst for immortality, no doubt, the people responsible for this desecration bequeathed their share of the first neo-noir to the Museum of Modern Art. Both the Museum and Monty Montgomery have been extremely generous in enabling us to keep this picture alive. Deborah Harry, forbidden by contract to sing on the soundtrack, wrote and recorded Union City Blue, her poetical account of realising the role of Lillian Harlan and a superb gift to the film. The footage I managed to keep I have made available to Tartan Video.