Shirley Knight Interview


Here’s the latest interview I did for my Film Connections story-event project.  It’s with actress Shirley Knight.  She starred in the 1969 Francis Ford Coppola film The Rain People.  She plays a discontened, pregnant, suburban housewife back East who feels trapped and suddenly flees her life to take a road trip across the country. She meets a couple men along the way and after a series of experiences she returns home to resume her life. The film’s final few weeks of shooting in 1968 happened in and around Ogallala, Neb.  In addition to writer-director Coppola and lead actress Knight the production brought to this dusty hamlet a young assistant and then-protege of Coppola’s by the name of George Lucas, who directed the documentary The Making of The Rain People, cinematographer Bill Butler, and co-stars James Caan and Robert Duvall.  The experience of The Rain People forged some important relationships that led to many collaborations by these artists. Coppola and Lucas formed American Zoetrope studio, Lucas cast Duvall as the lead in his feature directorial debut, THX-1138, which Coppola produced along with American Graffiti and Coppola cast both Duvall and Caan in The Godfather and went onto work with the actors on later films as well.  While making Rain People Caan and Duvall fell in with a ranch-rodeo family who became the subject of a documentary Duvall made about them, We’re Not the Jet Set.  My project examines these and more connections.  You can find on this blog my interviews with Duvall and Caan.  Soon I will be posting interviews I did with Coppola and Butler.   That just leaves Lucas for me to get to. If anyone can help with that, I’d appreciate it.

LAB: Francis Coppola told me that he met you at Cannes, where your starring vehicle Dutchman (1967) was playing, which he greatly admired, and he came upon one one day to find you crying, after a confrontation with a journalist, and he consoled you with, “Don’t cry, I’m going to write a film for you.” And that film of course became The Rain People and the protagonist Natalie Ravenna was written for you.

SK: “Well, crying…I  remember meeting him and talking with him. I don’t remember…I mean, it could be I had some sort of altercation with a journalist but I don’t remember. It’s so funny because a magazine told that story and the way they told it made it seem as if he was writing a film for me because I cried and I thought, ‘Well, that’s a very strange thing to say because I don’t think a Francis Ford Coppola would write a film for someone because they cried. I think they’d write a film for  someone because they admired their work.

“I of course was very proud of Dutchman because it’s a film I also produced and we won the Critics Prize at Cannes for this little, bitty film which has become kind of iconic. I was very, very proud of my work in that film and also just the fact that I managed to get an independent film made.”

LAB: As you know better than me, a woman producing a feature then was a rarity. That was quite an accomplishment.

SK: “People always say, ‘Why isn’t your name on Dutchman?’ I just had the producing credit at the end, calling it Kaitlin Productions, which was me. Later on I regretted not taking my full credit. I allowed my husband at the time (to take credit). I guess I felt, ‘Well, I’m starring in the film..’ But honestly I think I should have been more true to myself and not given that up and of course it was my idea to make the film.

“I had done the play and I said, ‘I’m going to make a film of this,’ and he (her then husband) thought I was insane, as did everyone. They said it’s too short, it’s too political, it’s too this, it’s too that, and I said. ‘I don’t care, I’m going to make this film.’ And then I got him on board and he really helped. He had produced the production of the play.”

LAB: You’re justifiably proud of that project.

SK: “Yes, well, it’s become a film that’s taught in all black studies courses across the country. In 2000 the film was recognized as the most important about civil rights by a museum in New York. I tell my students that I think it’s so important that if there’s   something you have to do because it’s close to your heart and you want to see it through to do it.”

LAB: You could count the number of women producers and directors then on one hand.

SK: “I remember years ago I did a television show that Ida Lupino directed and she was so cross with the editors that they wouldn’t edit the film exactly the way she wanted it. And what she would do is if she set up a close up that she knew she was not going to use in the editing room she would put her hand in front of my face, so that they had to cut to the other person. I was fascinated by her and her courage that she was going to have her film the way she wanted her film.

Geraldine Fitzgerald played my mom in it and it was about Aimee Semple McPherson. It probably does not exist. It was like a two hour television film. She’s the only woman director I worked with. I’ll never forget her courage and how admirable I thought that was.”

 

 

 

 

 

LAB: Dutchman was a controversial film in its time for its racial content.

SK: “We did it on the fly, shot it in one week. We stole shots in the subway with an Arriflex and a paper bag. At the time nobody, apart from Europe, was going to recognize independent film (the film was completely ignored by the Academy Awards). We were recognized at Cannes and also I won the Best Actress at Venice for Dutchman. We tried to promote it in the United States. I showed it to my agents at William Morris and some of them even walked out if you can imagine. I was disappointed that I wasn’t recognized for my work in Dutchman in the United States but we were very backward at that point in terms of independent films.

“I think that atmosphere kind of affected The Rain People as well.”

LAB: Let’s talk about your working on The Rain People.

SK: “We of course did a lot of work improvising and all of that when we were working on the film. We were trying to write about a woman being an independent creature and trying to find herself.

“Did Francis tell you we made it under one regime at Warners and then it was released by the next regime?”

LAB: No, this is the first I’ve heard of it, though it’s not hard to believe and a lot of films have been the victim of similar regime changes and going from favored project with the former regime to out of favor with the succeeding one.

SK: “Well, I believe that’s what happened, I don’t know exactly. I think what happened was they didn’t care, you know they didn’t make the film, so they didn’t do a very good release, which was strange. But at any rate, to start at the beginning…we did meet at Cannes and he had You’re a Big Boy Now there.”

LAB: Were you impressed by it?

SK: “Yes, I thought it was a very sweet film”

LAB: Did you have any trepidations about working with someone as young as Coppola or was the chance to work with someone with a new voice and a new set of eyes actually appealing?

SK: “Absolutely. I’ve always been a person who’s sort of went against the flow. I’ve done that a lot, particularly in the theater, causing riots with plays I did like Dutchman and Losing Time, where we literally almost were run out of town. I like cutting edge. In my opinion art is about…we only have two things in life that help us to become better people and help us understand the world, and that’s art and philosophy, and so I think as artists we need to be responsible in terms of the work we do. That’s why I’m terrified by all the degradation of society by the reality television shows. I find it very frightening in terms of whats happening to the world.”

LAB: So Coppola told you he’d write you a film and he did

SK: “And then I think it was a few months later – I was in London working and Francis phoned and came with the script. I was staying at a little cottage in Hampstead, north of London. It was so sweet because he asked me would I mind reading the script right then. I said, ‘No, that’s fine.’ I remember I fixed him something to eat and then I went in the other room and he played with my daughter Kaitlin, who was around 5 years old. I read it and came back out and said, ‘Yes, I’d love to do it.”

LAB: What did you respond to most strongly in the script?

SK: “I responded to the character and also to the idea that we were going to make a film where we weren’t restricted. I was under contract to Warners and I had done a lot of films that were basically either on the Warner Bros. ranch or backlot or lot, so I loved the idea we were going to make a film where we were at liberty to do what we wanted, that we were going to drive here and drive there. I loved that aspect of his creativity.

“We had a few indoor sets (but otherwise the film was all actual locations).

NOTE: She said other than Dutchman and The Rain People very few of the films she made early in her career utilized actual locations. Another exception was Sidney Lumet’s The Group.

SK: “Sidney Lumet was very good at using locations. When we made the film The Group we shot that in New York on location, in the streets and on the subway and in churches and so an and so forth. In the films Sidney did with Al Pacino he shot outside a lot.”

LAB: Let’s get back to the story of your accepting the part of Natalie in The Rain People and working with Coppola.

SK: “I was excited about that and about this new young filmmaker and we sat down and talked about who he wanted to put in the film with me. He mentioned Rip Torn whom he had worked with in You’re a Big Boy Now, and he wanted him to play the motorcycle policeman and I said, ‘Great,’ because I knew Rip – we did Sweet Bird of Youth and I was very close friends with his wife (Geraldine Page). And Francis mentioned James Caan (as Jimmy “Killer” Kilgannon), and I thought that was a very interesting choice for that role.”

LAB: Torn ended up being replaced by Robert Duvall.

SK: “What happened was, we were in New York and we did a lot of rehearsing with Rip and we added a bunch of improvs that Rip and I came up with and then we started making the film. That character (the cop) doesn’t come in until about half way into the film. We were out in Ogallala, Neb, and I don’t know the exact thing that happened, all I know is Francis came to me and said there was a difficulty with Rip, that we’ve lost Rip. The bought a motorcycle and it wasn’t a large budget and Rip lost it or he left it outside and somebody stole it.”

LAB: Yes, it was stolen, Coppola told me the whole story.

SK: “Knowing Rip, I wasn’t surprised. He had lost the role he was going to do in Easy Rider. He was supposed to play the role Jack (Nicholson) eventually played and it made Jack’s career. Well, he quarreled with Peter (Fonda) and Dennis (Hopper) and lost that and so I was upset for him that he was yet again spoiling a chance. If one thinks about what happened after it’s really sad because he might have been the person who did The Godfather films and Apocalypse Now.

“So we then had Robert Duvall play that role and that changed a lot of film history actually if you think about it because he started doing all that work (with Coppola). I remember mentioning to Francis Bobby Duvall. I had done a television show with him where we played husband and wife and I liked him, and he was thrown in the mix and eventually did the role, which was nice. He was lovely and that all worked out fine.”

LAB:: How did that small intimate ensemble of you, Duvall and Caan work out?

SK: “I think it was very good. I mean, you know, we had our ups and downs as one always does, especially in a long shoot, and there were times when we didn’t always agree, and that always happens. But the whole experience and the film that resulted from it was I thought very positive. And the only disappointment was it didn’t get the recognition and accolades I feel it should have.”

LAB: “What did you most identify with in the character of Natalie?

SK: “At the time I was leaving my first husband and I had met and was going to marry John Hopkins and I was actually pregnant with my daughter Sophie, so I was in an awkward point in my life because I was changing a lot of things. I was going to be moving to England, I was marrying an Englishman, and was about to have a child and we were doing this film about a woman who was in flux. Now when I first read the film that wasn’t the case but when I was doing the film it sort of was, not that I was her. I just think that sometimes life aligns with roles you play.”

LAB: What’s your take on why Natalie goes off on this adventure, having this series of experiences on the road with men, and then returns home to resume her life as a housewife and expectant mother?

SK: “It’s a road to discovery. I think what was happening with women at that time was that they were coming out of the ’50s as lovely housewives in their aprons into an era when women were becoming doctors and lawyers and entering politics and becoming independent. Natalie was caught up in that, she had married young and suddenly was feeling like she didn’t have control over her life and here she was pregnant and the responsibility of that and how that affected what her life was going to be.

“And I think the trip, the discovery for her was that in the course of the drive and meeting the two men she was able to determine that the life that she has was a good life. What she learned was that she could be her own person with another person. It didn’t require to reject this lovely man she loved in order for her to become independent.”

LAB: What was your experience in Ogallala like?

SN: “Well, it was kind of a relief to be in one place because wed’ been driving so much so that when we finally got to Ogallala it was rather nice. My daughter came out and played with Francis’ boys. One anecdote thats’ amusing, at the time it wasn’t amusing – his oldest boy and Kaitlin were playing and they thought it would be a good idea to strike some matches in one of the rooms at the motel and they started a little fire, as children will, but fortunately I had a nanny with my daughter and she saved the day.”

LAB: Having grown up in Kansas as you did being in the middle of Nebraska was not too unfamiliar to you then.

SK: “Not at all, the Midwest, and I always say Midwesterners make the best people. You know, Midwesterners are very open and nice. I’m still very close friends with my classmates from high school. I go to Kansas quite frequently because I started the William Inge Festival in Independence years ago.

“And I must tell you I made a horrible mistake when I was in Ogallala, Neb. I was offered the lead in a film called They Shoot Horses Don’t They? and I was so tired and pregnant and i said no to that amazing role, so I made a dreadful mistake, but one does that, so that happens.”

LAB: By the way, what did you make of the young George Lucas, who was an assistant on the project and also directed The Making of the Rain People?

SK: “I thought he was adorable. Francis said to me, ‘Do you mind if this kid comes along? I saw his student film and he wants to come along with us.’ And I said of course not, the more the merrier. And I tell that story when I teach because I could have been Miss Grand Dame and said, No, no. I always say to all my students, ‘Be nice to everybody. You don’t know, because that assistant could turn out to be George Lucas.'”

LAB: When The Rain People was made you were by far the biggest name among the films’ principal talents.

SK: “Well, I have a whole theory about fame. I always say, ‘It isn’t really something to aspire to in the sense that many many people who are very famous are ridiculous. I mean, look at the Kardashians. There are people walking around who don’t know who The Beatles were. So again something I tell my students, ‘If you think your food is you want to be famous you’re going to starve to death. Your food has to be you want to do good work and you want to become better at what you do. I quit movies and went to New York so I could become the best I could at my craft.

“The fame thing is absurd…ridiculous. It has nothing to do with what an artist does. And there’s a lot of young people now who don’t know who Francis is. They haven’t seen The Godfather. They know who Christopher Nolan is. So it’s all fleeting that whole thing. The people who really know who I am are people who are my age because they’ve grown up with me or they’re people who see me in those silly Adam Sandler films I do. I have a whole flock of young boys who stop me on the street and show me on their machines, which makes me laugh a lot.”

LAB: How do you regard The Rain People today

SK: “When people ask me my favorite films I always say Dutchman obviously because I think that’s my finest performance and a lot of that has to do with the fact that I did it in the theater. You don’t get better if all you do is film, you sort of stay the same. I think Rain People is certainly up there and then the other film I think is remarkable and I don’t have the lead in is Petulia. I think Richard Lester was one of the genius directors and I got to work with him twice and I think Petulia is an amazing film. If you said this is a film about the ’60s that would be the film because it is so much the ’60s. And I think As Good as it Gets is a wonderful film as well. Sweet Bird of Youth is a wonderful film. But I would say my top two would be Rain People and Dutchman.

“When they honored Jane Fonda and I at the Rome Film Festival they showed three of her films and three of mine, and the three of mine were Dutchman, The Rain People and Sweet Bird of Youth. It was very nice.”

LAB: Have you remained close to anyone from The Rain People over the years?

SK: “You know, not really. I’ve of course spoken to Francis and when he was honored at Lincoln Center I was one of the people who spoke. I’d love to work with him again. Francis and I were both at the Rome Film Festival when they honored Jane Fonda and I.

“But you know what it’s like, you just keep going on, its’ endless.  I just finished an independent film in Oregon that I have great hopes for. It’s lovely. And I’m just about to start a Stephen King film, something I’ve never done, so that’ll be interesting. Anyway. I keep going. I’m one of the few actors evidently that has never been out of work, so I’m quite fortunate.”

LAB: Coppola always intended to make small personal art films like The Rain People and then The Godfather happened and the trajectory of his career changed. It’s only in the last decade he’s gotten back to doing what he really wanted to do all along.

NOTE: Shirley’s a big fan of one of Coppola’s later works, Youth Without Youth.

SK:  “I thought that was amazing, fascinating. It was a very mystical film.”

 

 

 

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