with John Frankenheimer
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).
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.
Fuchs: The film begins with a striking series of shots, showing the dead
Santa Clauses. What was your idea behind that?
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.
Do you work closely with your writers?
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
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
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.
How do you feel that Reindeer Games doesn't advocate something
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.
How would you situate George Wallace into a moral scheme like
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.
How have you learned over the years to deal with industry constraints, the money
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.
Talk about the stylistic choices you make for your films.
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
You also work with some actors repeatedly, like Clarence Williams.
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.
Do you consciously choose scripts that deal with codes of masculinity?
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.
Do you watch films and TV today?
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
Cable TV aside, what do you make of current network programming, say, the
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.
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
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.
What do you make of what people see as excess violence in media?
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.