Still remarkably prolific at 70, John Frankenheimer's storied career spans nearly five decades. After cutting his teeth shooting documentaries for the Air Force, Frankenheimer spent the mid- to late '50s as a highly regarded director of live television dramas such as Playhouse 90. His critical success continued once he began making features, with a run in the '60s that included Birdman Of Alcatraz, Seven Days In May, The Train, Seconds, and Grand Prix. But his best film of the period—and arguably his entire career—was 1962's The Manchurian Candidate, a quintessential Cold War thriller that demonstrated Frankenheimer's skill for fusing incendiary politics with taut suspense craftsmanship. His output was wildly uneven during the '70s and '80s, but he's come back strong with movies for cable television—where he won three straight Best Director Emmys for The Burning Season, Andersonville, and George Wallace—and with big-budget studio projects such as 1998's Ronin and his new Reindeer Games. Known as an exceptional actor's director, he's worked with such marquee names as Burt Lancaster, Frank Sinatra, Warren Beatty, Rock Hudson, Marlon Brando, Toshiro Mifune, Gene Hackman, Deborah Kerr, and Robert De Niro. Frankenheimer recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about a range of film and television work, with one notable exception.
The Onion: Between 1954 and 1960, you directed something like 152 live television shows. How did you manage that pace?
John Frankenheimer: Hard. It was very hard. A lot of them at the beginning were a half-hour, so you'd work for four days and [perform] it on the fifth. And sometimes I was rehearsing two at the same time, one in the morning and one at night. At Playhouse 90, there were a couple times when I literally was rehearsing 16 or 17 hours a day for two different shows. I don't know how or why I did this. It was seven days a week and I just did it.
O: Was the orchestration of it kept fairly simple?
JF: No. Very, very complicated camera shots. Every shot you've ever seen me do in a movie I did in live TV. That's where I got this whole style of working with wide-angle lenses and depth of focus and fluid cameras. We had some really complicated camera moves, much more complicated than anything I've even got time to go into.
O: In your film work, what defines the Frankenheimer hero? What do you look for?
JF: I don't know. I would have to answer that question more generally than specifically. But I would think it would be someone who is in jeopardy and has to reach into themselves and find what's really at their core. Someone who's on the edge. I think that's it.
O: One comment that was made about The Manchurian Candidate again and again when it was re-released was how it resonated as much or more in 1988 as in 1962 when it was originally released. Why do you think that is?
JF: I don't know. I don't think that's necessarily true. Certainly in 1962 or '63, the picture was something that attacked McCarthyism and was very effective then, because we lived with it. I think the only difference is that in 1988, the audience knew it was okay to laugh. But in 1962, everyone took McCarthy so goddamned seriously because they were right there to witness it. I think the other thing, too, is that it's easier to say great things about something that's in the past than to embrace something new. It's safe. [Critics] can say, "Oh, God, this picture's wonderful!" and so forth. It's harder to do that when it's new.
O: You've mentioned in the past that The Battle Of Algiers [Gillo Pontecorvo's 1966 newsreel-like film about terrorism and torture in the French-Algerian War] was a model for the type of filmmaking you want to do. What did you mean by that?
JF: Well, I think that's one of the 10 best pictures ever made. I think [Pontecorvo's] recreation of what are primarily documentary events is just so extraordinary. There isn't one foot of stock footage in that movie. Just from a choreography standpoint, it's so brilliant. What I try to do in my work—and what I admire terribly when I see another's—is to re-create reality into something that becomes almost hyper-reality. To re-create it realer than it was. And that's what Pontecorvo did. Every detail, every movement, there wasn't one false frame in that picture. Not one. And that's what I care about. Getting back to the movie I just did [Reindeer Games] in reference to The Battle Of Algiers, this cameraman [Alan Caso] has had to run Algiers so much he almost knows every frame of it, because he did George Wallace, too. The same goes for the actors. I want reality. I never want the audience to say, "I don't believe that." I never want them to say, "Ah, this couldn't happen." Now, in my lifetime, I'll probably never do as well as Pontecorvo did in The Battle Of Algiers, because I think that's almost a perfect movie. If you asked me, I couldn't tell you one thing that's wrong with that movie.
O: Is it possible, when you're working outside of historical events in a genre film—as you do with Reindeer Games and as you did with Ronin—to achieve that level of verisimilitude?
JF: No. I think if a picture's successful, it's because it's real. I tried to make [Reindeer Games] totally, totally, totally real. Plausible and logical and, from a performance standpoint, I told the actors again and again, "Real, real, real. I've got to believe it, I've got to believe everything. You can never wink at the audience. Never."
O: That sets your films apart from others being done in the [action] genre today, don't you think? For one, the colors in all your films are muted.
JF: Yeah, I always desaturate the colors. I do it in the lab and I do it in the choice of location. I do it in the choice of costume—all the costumes have to be black, white, gray, or [an] earth color. I do it in the choice of set dressing. There are going to be no bright colors. None. Everything is aimed to neutralize the colors.
O: And this also extends to the effects, right? You favor stunt over digital effects.
JF: Yeah, I like to do the real thing, and I believe that it's a hell of a lot better. I wouldn't know how to do most of the stuff I do digitally.
O: Unlike many directors, you don't carry the same actors with you from project to project, with Burt Lancaster being one of the few exceptions. Just to use two extreme examples, what did you have to do to accommodate someone like Frank Sinatra [in The Manchurian Candidate], who was famous for only doing one or two takes, and Marlon Brando [in 1996's The Island Of Dr. Moreau], who improvises quite a bit?
JF: I had a great relationship with Frank Sinatra. He said to me, "I'm a performer. I'm better in the first take. However, I'll do as many takes as you want." Which he did. But he was right: He was usually better on the first take. So what I'd do was rehearse longer with him, so the crew would technically know exactly what was happening. Then, by the time we shot a scene, he'd had the chance to run through it a bunch of times, and the crew did, too, so they wouldn't make a technical error and mess up the shot. By the time we did the first take with Frank, it would be the equivalent of take five or six for anybody else. With Brando… I always wanted to work with Brando, and I found it fascinating to do so. He has a method of working that's really unique. For that matter, Robert De Niro [the star of Ronin] has his unique way of working. And Ben Affleck has his way. What you do [as a director] is you give a little, you take a little. You make them work your way and you accommodate them.
O: I'd like to talk a little bit about Seconds, because it's a film that's gained a certain cult reputation over time. What do you make of that?
JF: Seconds is one I can laughingly refer to as the only movie I've made that's gone from failure to classic without ever being a success. [Laughs.] It never was a success and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that the studio, Paramount, totally screwed up the distribution for it. But I love the notoriety and the cult following that Seconds has, because I like the movie. I'm thrilled about it.
O: I think, to a certain extent, that [Seconds] breaks from your films slightly in that the photography, by James Wong Howe [whose credits include Hud, Sweet Smell Of Success, and Picnic], is much more distortive than that in the rest of your work.
JF: You've got to understand something. It's very important for you to understand this: that the choice of lens and the image has nothing to do with the cameraman in my movies. It's me. The only thing that has to do with the cameraman is the lighting. Now, having said that, Seconds was the big exception. James Wong Howe really did make a tremendous contribution to that movie, and he's the best cameraman I've ever worked with. That 9.7mm lens was his idea. [Laughs.] Having told you that it never happens, that was the one time it did.
O: It's funny how well Seconds plays today, because so many films are dealing with identity, with this notion of being in someone else's skin.
JF: Yeah, we really nailed it. I love that movie.
O: Did you feel that after Grand Prix, you had to keep from being pigeonholed in Hollywood as strictly an action specialist?
JF: I found that after The Train. The Train was my first really big action picture, and it was a huge hit. Yeah, I got offered all the action pictures that were being made. But I had a commitment to do Seconds, which I did, and I wanted to do Grand Prix because it was a really passionate project for me. Of course, after that, all I got offered was the action stuff, but I didn't want to do that. So I went ahead and did The Fixer, The Gypsy Moths, and so on.
O: Do you usually look for some sort of political or sociopolitical vein in your scripts?
O: What do you look for?
JF: A good story, really good characters, and serious subject matter.
O: Having said that, what interested you in Reindeer Games?
JF: First of all, the script. I was offered the script and I loved it. I couldn't see any of the twists coming. Couldn't see them at all. I loved the way [screenwriter Ehren Kruger] developed his characters. He really thought it out. The dialogue was sharp and I liked the humor. To tell you the truth, too, I also liked the ending. I like the moral tone the picture takes. [Ben Affleck's character] really learns from this experience. If he hadn't, I don't think I'd have agreed to make it.
O: I found it interesting that it was a casino on an Indian reservation that was being knocked off. Was that something you were trying to comment on?
JF: I didn't give a damn. To me, that was just a setpiece that made a lot of sense to me. I don't think it had any social significance to me whatsoever. It was just a setpiece, and that was what the characters had to rob. It seemed very believable to me that it was an Indian casino, given the location [northern Michigan].
O: What were you trying to draw out from that particular setting?
JF: Just the severity of it. The isolation. The kind of blue-collar life that these people have which causes them to act the way they do.
O: You're one of the few directors who alternate regularly between television and film work. What does television allow you to do that film forbids?
JF: A couple of things. One, it enables me to do a film like George Wallace, which I couldn't do any shorter than three hours and twenty minutes. That was the time it took me to tell that story. And Andersonville was also well over three hours. Again, it lets me work in a long form, which I like. The other thing is that there are wonderful subjects being covered on cable TV, very on-the-edge and not being done as feature films. I don't think any of the four films I've done for cable would be made into a feature.
O: I'm certain you're tired of talking about it, but I'd like to go briefly into The Island Of Dr. Moreau.
JF: I don't want to talk about The Island Of Dr. Moreau. I had a horrible experience doing the movie and let's just forget it. I'm just not going to talk about it.
O: You don't write your own scripts, but how much do you rewrite the ones you get?
JF: I work very closely with the writer. Montgomery Clift once said to me, "You work best on a dirty typewriter." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "When somebody else writes it, you're really good at telling them how to fix it and clean it up." And I do think I'm good at it. I think I'm good at bringing out something that's maybe not as clear as it should be. I think I'm good at clarifying things and defining character relationships and creating tension. I always like to work with the original writer until the original writer shows me that he or she can't do it. Then I'll bring in another writer. [Laughs.]