You may not be familiar with his name, but there’s no doubt that you’ve seen his work. Chuck Workman has created trailers and promos for films such as “Star Wars,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and American Graffiti” and for over ten years now, he’s put together the montages for the Academy Awards ceremonies. His own films include documentaries “The Source” and “Superstar.”
Recently, we caught up with Chuck Workman at the Denver International Film Festival where he was premiering his latest film, “The Actor’s Life.”
Tell us about your film. ^ I have two films here this year. This is the fourth time I’ve been here with films. They’re running a feature-length documentary I have called “The Actor’s Life,” which is sort of about actors that you don’t see on E Channel or even on Starz. And then there is a 10-minute film I did on Chaplin, that’s just called “A Tribute To Charlie Chaplin” that Warner Bros. commissioned last year that ran at Cannes. And it’s got interviews with Mike Myers and Roberto Begnini and lots of little clips from Chaplin. It’s a nice little 10-minute tribute. So those are running together and this will be the premiere of “The Actor’s Life,” tonight.
Before we talk about “The Actor’s Life,” if I can ask you a few basic questions. Let’s talk about filmmakers and critics. Without films, critics would be out of jobs. Filmmakers, though, benefit from critics who champion their movies. Do you read your own reviews? ^ You have a tendency to believe the reviews that are good and trash the reviews that are bad. Everyone does that. Having said that, though, the critics have a tough job, the daily critics, or the ones that do it all the time, because they have to review some trashy movie and then they have to review some very good movie, the same week. And I think that’s an awesome responsibility that they have. But I have a tendency not to want to read them. There are certain ones, Variety, for instance, I never read. Variety, I don’t know where they’re coming from half the time.
Actually, when it comes to Variety reviews, it all has to do with the business and it always sort of concludes with how well it will do at the box office, which seems like that’s the only thing they care about. ^ But this is gonna hurt you, especially if you’re in a film festival world. Somebody put all their credit cards together to make a film to get to a film festival. Somebody at Variety is reviewing it as if it were a possible commercial venture. And it wasn’t meant to be that. It was meant to be almost an artistic venture and they’re tough on it. And I think that’s wrong, and I wish they would stop that, but they won’t. But I find that the daily reviewers of the film festivals are okay. They understand they’re at a film festival. They are actually delighted to see these kind of movies. ‘Cause they don’t really see them in other places.
What’s your take on ratings systems such as thumbs-up/thumbs-down, four stars, A-B-C-D-E? ^ I think it’s very convenient for the viewer, especially the stars. Thumbs-up/thumbs-down is ridiculous. I think that Roger Ebert, who is a great critic, has lost credibility on account of that.
I’m really excited to ask you this next question because you’ve become a legend for the montages you’ve put together for the Academy Awards and I’d like to ask you what images do you associate with Fellini? ^ What a very good question. I love the scene in “8 1/2” where Mastroianni is kind of floating over a train and his arms are outstretched and he’s all in black – that’s a wonderful thing. Fellini imagery is so rich.
So if I did a montage of foreign or Italian films, I would be guaranteed to find many, many shots of Fellini, because they’re always very carefully done. I think Fellini was probably the most important filmmaker of the 20th century. And I think there are great filmmakers that will be in the 21st century that will owe their debt to Fellini.
Let’s talk about “The Actor’s Life.” Where did the concept for this film come from? ^ I had directed a dramatic film called “House On A Hill,” which is opening this year. And I got very interested in directing dramatic films. I did mostly documentaries and montages. I’d done one or two dramatic films and I directed theater at one time and I was trying to get back to it. So I was hanging out at an actor’s class run by a guy named Milton Caselus, who is probably the leading acting teacher in Los Angeles, if not the country. He’s one of the major guys here. And he was a great director at one time, too. So I’m sitting there and I’m watching him give critique to the students and the students are sitting on a stage and he’s sitting in his chair, and I’m saying, you know, with two cameras, I could shoot something really interesting, ’cause all these wonderful fireworks happen. So I talked to Milton and I talked to Gary Grossman, who was his partner and our executive producer on this, and they said, “let’s do it.” And then I told them that I was gonna focus on the actors, not on Milton. He deserves his own film, the teacher. This film is really about the actors and what they go through is absolutely amazing in terms of stretching themselves and jumping up and down and singing and crying and trying and being berated that they’re not doing everything – that’s their world. And it’s a huge world outside of the stars. What most people know about actors is what they see on the entertainment channels or EPKs, these promotional packages that the studios send out when a movie’s being made. And they’re always telling everybody how great everybody else was. “Oh, this director is just my favorite,” when they really hated that director. But what about the working actor who’s just like the working plumber in a way, the working craftsman? Renoir said that everyone’s an artist, a baker is an artist, someone making cookies is an artist. And it’s true.
The point is that these actors go through all this horrible stuff and training and they have no money and they end up having their cars break down and they’re never late, because they’re taught very early never to be late, or usually never late. They love being actors, they love the idea that they can be someone else, that they can be artists and use their whole body and use their mind and, and use their experience in being an artist. And it’s worth it to them. So we were trying to find a way to kind of show that within this documentary.
I’m told that among the actor community, unemployment is around 95 percent. ^ Actors have this wonderful optimism. They get a callback, which is after they do an audition. They get an audition, forget the callback. They’re happy to go, and they get their pictures and they’re busy and, you know, it sounds like they’re children. But they’re not. They’re just adults trying to make it and this is the job that they’ve chosen. And if they make it, of course, the rewards are wonderful.
How would you describe your style as a documentarian? ^ What I try and do, in any film I make, whether it’s a documentary or a montage, is really make it dense. I like to give the audience something to look at. The best review I ever got read, “You can’t take your eyes off the screen.” That was an Andy Warhol film I did. I loved that because that means they’re really watching. They’re afraid they’re gonna miss something. I remember an early Mel Brooks comedy and people would go back because of the laughter of the audience, they wanted to make sure they heard what he said. You wanna command attention and give people a lot to think about. Not necessarily something controversial or something that’s different.
That’s where you try and get to the subtext of what’s underneath the truth of something. And that’s in any art form, whether it’s a painting, or a film, or whatever, you’re trying to get at a certain amount of truth through this stylized way, and so that’s what I try and do.