Monday, January 06, 2014

[Film] Stewart Stern on The Ugly American

The University of California Press recently released a number of e-books free to the public.  One that's caught my attention this week was the 1997 book Backstory 2: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s. Edited by Pat McGilligan, the point of interest for Lao American movie makers and others is the interview with Stewart Stern.

In Backstory 2, Stern briefly discusses his film The Ugly American, based on a 1958 novel of the same name by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer set in the fictional Southeast Asian country of Sarkhan. I think there are some interesting things to consider in terms of technique and navigating politics, even in a democracy.

A common thread in your films is that they could be extremely candid. Take, for example, the final scene of The Ugly American: While Marlon Brando as Ambassador MacWhite attempts, in an impassioned televised speech, to right all the damage he has done, you have an apathetic viewer switch off the television set while he is mid-sentence. That scene displays a cynicism that must have been extremely rare in American films of that time . 
For that scene, I had written a very long narration for Marlon that went on and on and on. To our amazement, he actually memorized it. I mean, we were thunderstruck. He hates to memorize things. He writes things on the inside of his hand, on the back of couches, has fake earphones so the dialogue can be pumped into his ear. It's partly, he feels that he wants to protect his own spontaneity. Like, in The Ugly American, he wore wax earplugs, and I didn't know why he wouldn't answer me when I would talk to him on the set. He wouldn't even see that it was me asking. One day he told me that he had plugged his ears with wax because the ambassador had to listen in a certain way; he had to listen as if through a wall . . . because he needed the information so badly. So Marlon will resort to anything. 
About that [television] scene, I remember thinking, "We are sending this movie out and it will be perceived as a Marlon Brando movie, and nobody is going to give a shit about anything we're really trying to say, and say through him! [Begins to shout .] How could I tell the people of America that [Americans] don't give a shit . . . and that that is what is wrong?" That's how I got the idea of them not giving a shit and showing them to them . Maybe, in some indirect way, they would get the importance of what we were saying. Get it to step out of being a movie and get it to become their experience. That's how it occurred to me. 
I remember going in to see Mel Tucker, who was the executive in charge of that film, and explaining to him what I wanted him to do. I thought it was amazingly courageous for the studio that was investing all this money in an uncertain project to put that ending on it. I never thought they'd buy it. I love that ending. 
What was the official reaction from the U.S. government?  
George Englund and I were denounced by Senator Fulbright, who stated in the Congressional Record, before he even read the script, that we were taking a very sensitive area of the world and turning it into an Elizabeth Taylor movie. She was never even considered for it. 
There was a lot of animosity [towards the movie]. Also, the world hadn't caught up with what we knew. We were Cassandras then. No one from Hollywood knew that Laos was going to happen, that Vietnam was going to happen. We knew from our trip to Southeast Asia in connection with "Tiger on a Kite" that it was inevitable and that it would be worse. That it would go on and on and on until people finally got the message. Which Nicaragua proves perfectly that we haven't gotten. We will continue to mix around in other people's business because they're not like us . . . forever! Until finally we're taught a lesson.

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