A Conversation with John Frankenheimer
Reindeer Games 
feature by
Cynthia Fuchs , 25 February 2000

John Frankenheimer has been making movies for over thirty years, and yet he remains passionate about his work. He started his career in the 1950s, working an assistant director on You Are There (hosted by Walter Cronkite) and Edward R. Murrow's Person to Person. He then directed live tv dramas (The Last Tycoon with Jack Palance, The Turn of the Screw with Ingrid Bergman). Frankenheimer directed his first theatrical release film in 1956, The Young Stranger, and then made a name for himself with psychological thrillers and action pictures, including The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), Seven Days in May (1964), Seconds (1966), French Connection II (1975), and Ronin (1998). Recently, he has turned to cable television, directing Against the Wall (for which he won 1994's Best Director Emmy), The Burning Season (1995's Best Director Emmy), and George Wallace (1997's Best Director Emmy).

At present, he's talking up his new movie, Reindeer Games, starring Ben Affleck, Gary Sinise, Charlize Theron, and Clarence Williams III as contentious would-be casino robbers. Having been around the block a few times (not the least of his travails was a bout with depression and alcoholism following the assassination of his friend Bobby Kennedy's murder (famously, Frankenheimer dropped Kennedy off at the hotel where he was shot), the filmmaker appears to have a sense of what works and how to get what he wants. He's relaxed and enthusiastic, voluble and articulate.

Cynthia Fuchs: The film begins with a striking series of shots, showing the dead Santa Clauses. What was your idea behind that?

John Frankenheimer: I played around with it, did a version of the film without that opening, just to look at it, and ran it for some people. And they weren't at all prepared for what kind of movie they were going to see, and they resented it, really. The shots give a tension and another kind of "spin" to the opening. When I decided to use the dead Santa Clauses, which was in Ehren Kruger's original script, then I did everything around it, had the music written around it.

CF: Do you work closely with your writers?

JF: Kruger was with me throughout shooting. I do that all the time. I come out of live tv and work better with the writer around, with "dirty paper:" somebody else writes it, and I like to tweak it and shape it. We tweaked this script in rehearsal, because one of the things I really wanted out of this movie was reality. I never wanted anybody to say, "I don't believe this." I wanted the plot to be totally logical, with an explanation for everything that happened.

CF: A theme that seems to run through your work has to do with "small guys set against big systems." Do you choose projects based on a particular politics?

JF: Well, yes I do. I'm not going to do a picture that I don't believe in. I recently was offered a very good script, about this guy who didn't have money and his brother was suffering from a heart problem and he went in and took the emergency room hostage. I'll be goddamned if I'm going to do it. I'm not going to encourage that kind of behavior, where somebody hijacks an emergency room. There are a lot of things I'm not going to do, morally.

CF: How do you feel that Reindeer Games doesn't advocate something like that?

JF: I believe that the protagonist makes a very moral choice at the end of this movie. He's somebody who, through all his life, has done the wrong thing, has used his intelligence and charm, has always taken the easy money, all that has landed him in jail in the first place, being a car thief. And then, at the end he has a choice, and he makes the right choice. I like that choice.

CF: How would you situate George Wallace into a moral scheme like that?

JF: George Wallace I can honestly tell you, is one of the two or three best movies I've ever done. Its very subject matter has a tremendous redemptive quality, and yet it doesn't completely whitewash him either. The Clarence Williams character at the end of it is crucial, and when he's skeptical, the audience -- you -- are with Archie.

CF: How have you learned over the years to deal with industry constraints, the money people?

JF: One's career as a director is totally concerned with trouble with money people. They always want you to do it for less, to not do this or to do that. That goes with the territory, and it always comes at you as you never saw it coming before, you can never ever relax. The whole point is prepare yourself against being blindsided. At this time in my life, I can pretty much see it coming: that's the advantage of having done it for as long as I've done it. You can avoid a lot of it by setting a lot of ground rules before you take the job. The big advantage of this movie was that when there was a problem, you can get the head guy on the phone, Bob Weinstein. There weren't four or five sycophants you had to go through to get to him. He gave me everything I needed to make this film. I don't have any excuses here. 

CF: Talk about the stylistic choices you make for your films.

JF: The big stylistic choice in any movie is to be totally honest and realistic, never to do the arch eye wink, never act like, "We're not really serious with what we're doing here." In my opinion, you can't betray the audience, because if you do and if they catch you, you'll never get 'em back. So I think you have to be really upfront and totally dead-on honest. That goes without saying once you hire me to do a picture. One of the things I wanted to do with this movie was to get the humor of it, and one of reasons I chose Affleck was because he can do that. Then there are all the technical choices, which I do, like the depth of focus, the wide-angle lenses, and a lot of stuff going on in the shot. It's become a signature, but it didn't start out that way. I really saw it as the best way to tell the story and I liked the way the pictures looked. I use the same crew all the time, so they know how to compose for it.

CF: You also work with some actors repeatedly, like Clarence Williams.

JF: You just sit down Clarence and say, "Here's where we want to get to." and he says, "Got it, boss." And then you go on and worry about your next problem. I cast Clarence Williams in the picture, and I know I don't have a problem. I want to surround myself with people who make me look good, who are better at what they do than I am. It's a collaborative job. And I may be one of the only people you're ever going to meet who knows how to pronounce the word auteur, and thinks it's bullshit. It doesn't work that way. Just try to get one of these auteurs to work with a lousy prop man, and it doesn't work.

CF: Do you consciously choose scripts that deal with codes of masculinity?

JF: It's not a conscious choice. I think I came to be attracted to material where the protagonist is always at the edge, under extreme pressure. Honor is a word that has always meant a lot to me. I think that's one of the things I like about Reindeer Games, it's an honorable choice. Ronin is all about honor, as is The Burning Season, and the guards' decision in Against the Wall. And The Manchurian Candidate, it's about the Medal of Honor. I think that's the key term here, I've never really thought about it before but I won't forget about it after this interview. I set very high standards for myself and I guess I want that reflected in movies. 

CF: Do you watch films and TV today?

JF: I watch a lot of movies and TV.  I love movies. I wouldn't miss The Sopranos, all the HBO movies and Showtime, and most of the TNT movies. I think the best work today is being done on cable, because the quid pro quo for them is excellence. They want reviews, they want Emmys. They're not concerned with the opening weekend. They really want prestige, and they're encouraging their writers and directors and producers to reach for that. And the Emmy is totally based on quality, less on hype.

CF: Cable TV aside, what do you make of current network programming, say, the "reality" shows?

JF: There was always that stuff. I started out in live TV, The Garry Moore Show. Christ, the more things change, the more they stay the same. People are so assaulted by stuff today. Do you realize what it takes these days to run a goddamned newsstand? You're assaulted by television, and on top of that, e-mail, message machines on your telephone, cell phones. It's mind-boggling.

CF: It seems that this barrage conditions audiences to be able to read media more quickly, so that the pace of a Reindeer Games is not going to put anyone off.

JF: Let's get a reality check here. Today's audience may not be confused by how fast a film like Reindeer Games moves, but the intellectual level of the person watching this movie is not nearly what it was, for the person watching The Manchurian Candidate. You take this guy Spike Jonze, nominated for a Directors Guild Award for this movie he did, this John Malkovich thing. And this guy he was talking to quoted George Bernard Shaw. And [Jonze] says, I don't know his work, what movies did he write? And this is supposed to be one of our cultural leaders. Or, someone will mention Thomas Wolfe and someone else says, oh you mean Tom Wolfe? There is very little respect for any kind of knowledge or history: that's the difference. There's no respect for anybody of another generation today. When I was a director at twenty-four, believe me, I knew who William Wyler was, George Stevens or Carol Reed. I went down on my knees to those guys:  today, it's all disposable. The difference is, we didn't have tapes, we didn't have the internet. We had to go out and lead a life.

CF: What do you make of what people see as excess violence in media?

JF: My question to you is, how many violent movies did the Nazis see under Hitler? Not very many. Or the Huns under Genghis Khan? Violence has always been part of the human scheme. And to try to blame films for this excess of violence, I mean, it's ludicrous. We're here, in the most hypocritical city in the world, Washington DC. You have these politicians trying to blame us for this violence when they can't even pass a gun control law to stop someone from buying an Uzi in a store and going out and spraying the street. That's why I was thrilled to see McCain beat [Bush, in New Hampshire]. I just wish to hell Bradley had won, so that we could at least have to people running about whom you could say, "My God, they have a point of view."

At the same time, though, I do think that I have a responsibility to my audience. I would be horrified if anyone ever came out of one of my movies and committed a violent act. I want you to go home after Reindeer Games and think things are going to be okay for this guy. A cynical person might say, “Oh, screw that.”. But I am not cynical. You have to have a certain passion about it, a certain innate faith in the goodness of human beings. I'm a person for whom the glass is half full. It wasn't always that way. There've been ups and downs, but I've had a really long and wonderful career. I'm grateful. 

Click here to read Cynthia Fuch's review.



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