Henry Jaglom: Conversation with the independent filmmaker, director, writer

by Mary L. Tabor Mary L. Tabor worked most of her life so that one day she would be able to write full-time. She quit her corporate job when she was 50, put on a backpack and hiking boots to trudge across campus with folks more than half her age. She’s the author of the novel Who by Fire, the memoir (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story and the collection of connected short stories The Woman Who Never Cooked. She’s a born and bred liberal who writes lyric essays on the arts for one of the most conservative papers in the country and she hosts a show interviewing authors on Rare Bird Radio. 12.09.2013

Henry Jaglom—the innovative filmmaker, director, and screenwriter—has remained independent of the so-called Hollywood studio system by ensuring that all his films, on the advice of Orson Welles, “Never need Hollywood.” In 1971, Jaglom persuaded Welles to appear in A Safe Place, and the two began having lunch together weekly in 1978. Those conversations that Welles asked Jaglom in 1983 to begin recording can now be read in the book My Lunches With Orson that came out in 2013.

Jaglom, who has written and directed some twenty films, including soon-to-be-released The M-Word and Ovation starring his newest discovery Tanna Frederick. 

Yet, Jaglom is a filmmaker you may not know because of his decidedly indie status. He is surely one to seek out, his films to be watched and re-watched.

No doubt that is what many mainstream directors have, in fact, done, as you’ll notice when you experience one of his films. 

Jaglom invented the “interview” technique in the extraordinary film Someone to Love that manages to get Orson Welles front and center, talking to the camera about art and life. In this film and many others, Jaglom asks ordinary people and unscripted actors to talk directly and candidly to the camera about the human condition and their specific states of mind.

I am, as I told him in a live radio interview on Rare Bird Radio, an unabashed fan. 

Can She Bake a Cherry Pie? that stars his brother Michael Emil and the unforgettable Karen Black moves like a lyric poem to its beautiful ending with photos and home movies from Jaglom’s own family album. The film comes together the way a poem or short story that is told through modules turns. It is simply beautiful.

Venice, Venice is another beauty that dares to ask serious intellectual questions. 

One of my favorite romantic comedies is Déjà Vu: A Love Story. But, actually, rom-com, meaning girl-meets-boy, is a misnomer for this film even though love is the answer in this charmer. As a brief example of why I assert this, I ask you, How many love stories have you seen where Kierkegaard from Works of Love is quite affectingly quoted while the lovers lie in each other’s arms?

Jaglom writes from a risky place, and invention is the name of his game. He exposes and  satirizes game-playing while he seeks emotional truth. No easy task in popular culture.      

After watching every Jaglom film I could get my hands on, I asked Jaglom to talk with me live, and he graciously agreed.  Here is that edited interview on art and his creative process with, at it’s close, a link to the recorded, unedited show and a terrific new video that highlights Jaglom’s extraordinary body of work.

Tabor:            Henry, in the film Someone to Love, Orson Welles’ last film appearance made with you, you invent the interview technique, and I mean invent, the first time anything like this had ever been done in film. Talk about it. 

Jaglom: I’ve made several films in that format. With Orson in Someone to Love and in all my films, from the beginning, A Safe Place with Tuesday Weld, Jack Nicholson, and Orson Welles, what I try to look at is more of the internal lives of people rather than external stories. I try to examine issues that people are dealing with, often with substantial pain or difficulty. It’s the issues that Hollywood largely overlooks because Hollywood is still a male town with male producers, mostly male directors, male writers. They are aiming their movies at teenage boys in the Midwest who want to see space aliens or vampires, things that are going to satisfy them at that level. I aim my films at 10 or 15 percent, I hope, of the audience that wants to see grownup films about human relationships.

Tabor: In Eating, the interview technique is so affectingly done. I found it incredibly moving. 

Jaglom: In Eating, though I had a fictional outline of the story, the women within the story are talking about their own lives. In this film, the women were dealing with their own issues, with anorexia or bulimia or body issues. I gave them a setting, a story of a typical birthday party of someone who was turning 30, someone turning 40, someone turning 50. But that was the excuse to really explore this whole issue in women’s lives. I did a similar thing with Going Shopping, and I have since in other films explored various aspects of women’s lives that I feel are largely ignored by the Hollywood studios because they are run mostly by men who do not take these things very seriously or are irritated by them at best.

Tabor:            Talk more about Someone to Love which I’ve now watched five times. I love this movie so, so much. 

Jaglom: Isn’t it wonderful to see Orson saying goodbye like that?

Tabor:            It is so beautiful in the end, especially when he says, “Cut.”

Jaglom: What happened was that I was filming, and he was beginning to get uncomfortable because so much of the real him was getting revealed, his sweetness and his vulnerability, and not all of the gruff stuff that he used to protect himself with. So he finally said, “Okay, that’s enough,” and he turned to the camera man and said, “Cut.” 

Tabor:            He also says, “It’s getting too sweet.”

Jaglom: It’s getting too sweet, that’s right, and the camera man got intimidated because it was Orson Welles and he cut. I ran over to him and I said, “Are you crazy? You can't cut. I’m the director,” and I flipped the camera back on, but Orson didn’t know it was on, so he reached behind him for this lit cigar that he had hidden and started laughing enormously, a wonderful, all-embracing laugh. I thought if he had lived he would never have allowed me to use that because he had a stupid image that a fat man, as he called himself, shouldn’t laugh. He said it’s unattractive. But in fact it was nothing of the sort. It was the most embracing and it was his last laugh on all his problems and on his sixty years of making films. It’s a wonderful thing, I feel, to share with audiences.

Tabor:            It is beautiful, and I say to anyone who’s listening [or reading this], you need to pay attention during the credits. Don’t leave a Henry Jaglom film while the credits are rolling. 

Jaglom: That’s true.

Tabor: What do you think when someone, Rob Reiner, for example, takes your technique and puts it in the movie When Harry Meets Sally

Jaglom: I don’t mind. I think it’s fine if people adapt things or use things or find something to use from what I do. I have no problem with that. They’re usually using it for a different reason, for comedy or for an effect, but Warren Beatty used it extremely well in Reds. He used these old communists, many in their 80s and 90s even, who were actually there, as commentary on the film throughout the film. It’s a wonderful technique. It’s just that I was the first one, I think, to use it, and I feel it’s a way to get inside of people in a more direct way if you do it correctly, if you create a circumstance where it’s logical that, for instance, somebody at a baby shower is filming the baby shower [Baby Fever]. Then you’ve got permission to intercut.

Tabor:            Are you using the interview technique in the movie you’re working on right now?

Jaglom: Yes. It’s called The M-Word and it’s about menopause. Thirty-seven terrific women are in it. The narrative story, beyond the thread with Tanna Frederick and with Michael Imperioli and some wonderful actors, circles around and ultimately becomes an exploration of and a look at the complicated issue of menopause in women’s lives. Tanna Frederick, my wonderful leading lady, is the daughter of a woman who is going through menopause and realizes in her office how many women are, and decides to make a documentary about it. That allows me to make a film about the making of this documentary, which is not a documentary. 

Tabor:            Will Tanna's mother be in the film as she was in Irene in Time?

Jaglom: Oh, you're very sweet. No, her father is in this film, interestingly enough, talking about her.

Tabor: Henry, all your films are terrific on women’s issues. There’s a director’s love for women. 

Jaglom: Oh, I think that’s true. I felt Hollywood has always avoided the subjects, really, of women’s lives because they are men making films for male audiences mostly, and they are just expecting women to tag along. Or if they do what they call women’s films, it’s from a very false and sentimental view, usually, where the women play some sort of victim or a film that doesn’t really tell the story of women’s lives. So when I started out making movies I thought this was a great opening, a great opportunity. Orson Welles was actually one of the people I spoke to about this and who encouraged me. He said, “Nobody is doing it because it’s not commercially the main audience. People are aiming at young adult males. So do what interests you.” And he knew from our conversations that my whole life has been about my relationships with women.

Tabor:            What are we going to do with all of us baby-boomers? We’re alive and we want to go to movies, and not just sit in front of the computer. We want movies that you’re making. 

Jaglom: I’m trying to provide them. I hope you'll all go see The M-Word when that comes out.

Tabor: You’ve definitely got me. What about women, do you think, makes them, as a group, such a draw for you as subject matter, in addition to what you’ve already said? 

Jaglom: They are open about themselves. They are in touch with their own lives. They are not in denial the way men are about all the truest but most deeply felt aspects of themselves. They spend their lives dealing with themselves, dealing from themselves and their feelings and with one another, trying to figure it all out, trying to be okay, trying to explore their lives and make their lives as comfortable and happy as possible with the people that they are taking care of, the men and the children. So when you put women in front of the camera, they’re not hiding. They’re not lying the way men are. They’re not showing off or trying to give an image. They are really happy to have an opportunity to explore who they are, to really look at who they are and share that with an audience.

Tabor: A listener to this show wrote me and said, “I adore Henry Jaglom. I’ve loved his deep understanding of women in all his films, and I’d like to ask him if he feels that what he thought he knew about women in his earlier films is still applicable today?” Henry, has anything changed? 

Jaglom: No. I had a terrific mother. I think that’s the base for all this. I had a mother who shared life with me, who didn’t say, “You’re a boy and therefore you can't cross this line.” So I got to see women’s lives from a woman’s point of view very early on, and I got to share the emotional rollercoaster of it and the power of it and the vulnerability and the fragility of it in a man’s world, and the pitfalls, as well as the strengths and the humor and the bravery. It was my natural habitat. That’s what Orson Welles used to say to me, “Women are your natural habitat.” All my friends are women, really, mostly, and I spend my time having lunch with women. I mean, I don’t really have a lot to say to most men. Those men who come and see my movies who are open to it—perhaps 10 to 20 percent—are wonderful men because they’re allowing themselves to explore areas of themselves that society does not encourage them to explore. But the majority of women don’t have to go through that process of overcoming a resistant childhood. They are allowed from childhood to feel their feelings. For all the difficulties that they are given, at least that they have been given the freedom to feel who they are and really look at the issues of their lives.

Tabor:            If you’re correct that men represent a small percent of your audience, men need to go to see your movies if they want to understand the women they love. 

Jaglom: Yes, I’ve gotten quite a few letters and e-mails from men who’ve said, “My god, I had no idea.” So yes, I would love to broaden the base, but I don’t want to do that at the expense of the women because along with the difficulties of women’s lives, they are made to feel that there is something wrong with them for feeling the things they feel. My films are mainly concerned with making them realize there’s nothing wrong with them. It’s the world that’s wrong. It’s a male world that’s wrong for imposing on them these ideas of how they are supposed to be, and that they, themselves, are right because they are in touch with their feelings and they are allowing themselves to express who they are in their lives. They’re much freer.

Tabor:            I’m feeling better already. 

Jaglom: I really mean that. I don’t think they need to learn from the films anything. I think that it’s very good, though, to see themselves represented on screen. One of the most consistent themes in the letters and emails I get is, “I feel less alone. I feel less like I’m the only one going through this, and that’s a great gift.”

Tabor: Henry, in Someone to Love you refer to the idea of reality versus art. This is a quote from Danny, the character you’re playing, “I always have a camera in my head watching what I’m living,” and in this movie, among the many questions you address about happiness and aloneness, you also, I think—correct me if I’m wrong—are dealing with the question of reality versus art.

Jaglom: Oh, always. 

Tabor:            I think this question emerges again in Venice, Venice. We see it in Just 45 Minutes From Broadway. Talk to me about your thoughts on art and reality.

Jaglom: Just 45 Minutes From Broadway, which has just left theaters and is available for the first time on DVD, is entirely about that because it’s about a family of actors. In it Tanna Frederick’s character, at one point, says, “I don’t know if life is real or art is real, and I’m not sure I really want to know the difference.” On a stage we know that we’re acting and frequently in life we have a sense that we are acting, but we are supposed to be in the midst of something defined as reality. It’s a complicated issue, that fine line between what is really being felt and expressed and what is being felt and expressed for superficial reasons, to communicate with certain other people, what you allow yourself to show of yourself. I think actors, in a weird way, represent that more clearly than anyone else because they get up on the stage and they portray somebody else. But they are using themselves to portray someone else. Many actors feel at their most real, in some way, when they are acting another character.

Tabor:            In the film Venice, Venice, the gorgeous actress Nelly Allard, who plays the French journalist interviewing Dean, the character you play as the movie director in that film, talks about Schrödinger's cat, an experiment in quantum physics that raises the question of perception and suggests, to be a bit simplistic, that, once we observe anything, it gets changed.  Henry, what do you think your camera does to life while you're working with actors? 

Jaglom: Great question. Because of Schrödinger's cat, because of everything that I’m saying about reality versus the playing at reality, who knows what the existence of the camera does? Therefore, what I do as much as possible is have the actors acknowledge that the camera is there. Civilians, as we call non-actors, do not have the comfortable understanding that it’s okay that they find themselves occasionally acting. They think that that is lying or misleading or that it’s not being authentically themselves. We are all acting in this world since we’re little children and find out what we need to do to get the approval of the adults, to get to the candy we want, or whatever it is. That’s mixed in with a great need to be authentically who we are, and we struggle with that all our life.

Tabor: Essentially, what you're saying is that you’re exploring the nature of identity, the search for identity. 

Jaglom: Of course. Never more so than in Venice, Venice, by the way. Yes. I think in Venice, Venice, I face that head-on in a more direct way.

Tabor: About yourself, do you think? 

Jaglom: About myself and about life when I sit around that table at the Venice Festival and say to all the people, “What if we’re all just acting? What if this isn’t really us but there’s a camera out there, and I point toward an imaginary camera where, in fact, there is a camera, and all the others look in that direction and say, “What if we're all just characters in a movie being made somewhere?” That is a poetic way of looking at the complexity of the reality/unreality of our lives.

Tabor:            I adore that film. I think we can agree that all your films draw, in some way, on your own life as it has unfolded, lovers and wives, and the journey of the artist.

Jaglom: Of course. 

Tabor:            Henry, I have a take on your body of work. I believe you take the “and then and then” of life and search for order through your art. I’m not sure that you find order, but I think you’re in search of it. How would you describe your body of work, considerable as it is, at this point in time?

Jaglom: I can't think of a better description than what you just said. I’m actually rather open-mouthed and stunned if you saw me at this moment because, yes, I think, exactly. I think you’ve captured it. I think you’ve captured what it is that I'm trying. You have described really what I’m trying to do. It makes me feel very good because when you make films, you always hope that the audience will receive them with the intention that you put them out there. What you just described is exactly, exactly what I think. 

Tabor: I wish you could see me right now because there’s this big blush that just came up out of my chest.

Jaglom: It’s an earned blush, a really earned blush because it’s not often that I've had the films so clearly, really clearly and profoundly described, and simply described because it’s not more complicated than that. 

Tabor: Wow, thank you. Henry, in the director's cut of Déjà vu: A Love Story—and I want you to know I watched this movie twice before I listened to the director’s cut. In the director’s cut, Henry keeps saying, “Now, you’d better have watched this movie before you’re listening to this.” You assert in that movie how key rational thought is, and you say you’re not a romantic. I disagree.

Jaglom: I think all romantics think they’re not real romantics. I am, of course, a profound romantic. My entire life, my entire filmmaking career, even the choice to make films outside the system that pushes you and tries to seduce you constantly into making artificial films about artificial things, and my own insistence on trying to make real films about real people and real emotions: What could be more romantic? It is the plight, if you will, and I think the joy of the romantic, to be able to tell the truth, to search for and tell the truth. I’ve been given the great privilege of being able to do that.

Tabor:            Not only that, you’ve made early discovery of incredible actors including Melissa Leo, Francis Fisher, Martha Plimpton, David Duchovny, Andrea Marcovicci, whom I just adore. I know she had done other work before, but her work in Someone to Love is luminous. 

Jaglom: Yes, and she’s now gone on to be the foremost nightclub singer in America. She tells the truth. If you’re ever in a city where she is singing in a club, you will go there and see the musical equivalent of my films. She gets up and talks to the audience about the music, what it means to her, and she sings the songs not only beautifully but with an understanding of all the complexity of life that goes into them, mostly songs from the 30s and 40s, and she’s a joy.

Tabor:            And you’re clearly still friends. Melissa Leo has been appearing in your later movies after her considerable success. 

Jaglom: I discovered her in Always, the movie I made with my ex-wife about the end of our first marriage. The character who played my ex-wife, was really my ex-wife. In that film, my ex-wife and I make the film about the end of our relationship—

Tabor:            Which is quite remarkable in itself. 

Jaglom: In itself one of the craziest things I’ve ever done. Again, there was Orson Welles who said to me when I was crying and on the floor and I was desolate, “Look, if you were a songwriter, you'd be writing songs about this. If you were a poet, you'd be writing poems. You’re a filmmaker. Make a film about it.” I said, "How could I make a film about it? She left me.” He said, “Tell us the truth on film. Have her and you play her and you. Use other names, create an excuse for a gathering at a weekend like a 4th of July party,” which is what I came up with, “and then tell the truth!” and that’s what we do in that film. She is leaving me. I don’t want her to leave me, and she is telling the truth about why she feels the need to leave, and I am telling the truth about why I feel we love each other and should not be breaking up.

Tabor:            She gives a beautiful performance. Henry, you also get extraordinary performances from older women actors. I want to mention these women and have you talk about this because as women age in the movie industry, they often don’t get roles. 

Jaglom: That’s when they have the most to give.

Tabor:            There is Viveca Lindfors in Last Summer in the Hamptons, a totally luminous performance. In Déjà Vu: A Love Story, there is Aviva Marx, the beautiful Israeli actress, and in that same film, Rachael Kempson, Vanessa Redgrave's mother, and Vanessa—the only time I believe the two ever appeared together. 

Jaglom: Yes, the only time that Vanessa and her mother ever appeared together, yes.

Tabor: In Eating, Frances Bergen, Edgar Bergen’s wife and mother of Candace Bergen. You’ve briefly answered this, but elaborate, if you will. What drew you to these women at that late time in their lives and why is it, do you think, that their performances were so open and so full of light? 

Jaglom: Again, because I had a great mother who allowed me to spend time with her friends, with her world, and see what women were. They were already, to me, older women. They were then, actually, just middle-aged women and I was a kid, but I saw them go through the various aspects of life and I fell in love with them. What women go through is heroic and incredibly difficult, and frequently painful, but ultimately really heroic. So when I started making films, I always wanted to try to include an older woman, especially a famous older woman. You’ve not mentioned from Festival in Cannes Anouk Aimée, who was glorious. It’s 40 years after she stunned the world with A Man and A Woman, and she is no less beautiful and no less powerful. It was very important for me in that film to look at her and let us look at her, and let her tell us her story. I think women, especially older women, just don’t get to tell their stories. I see my job, if anything, as being a sort of conduit between them and an audience that I know, especially an audience of women that I know want to hear and see what is happening in the lives of these great women. And they’ve given me some of the greatest, most of the greatest performances I have.

Tabor: I must tell you something really personal. When you mentioned Anouk Aimée and the film A Man and a Woman and her beauty, I recalled that I saw that film with my father. Today is my father’s—I’m Jewish—and today is my father’s Yahrzeit, and the candle that lit to burn for 24 hours celebrating his life just went out. You touched my heart so much. 

Jaglom: Oh, I’m very glad, very, very glad. Do you know that Anouk Aimée is Jewish?

Tabor: I did not know that. 

Jaglom: Yes. During the occupation of France by the Nazis, she and her mother had Aryan papers, Christian papers, that they had to show on trains and wherever they went. She lived in fear of being discovered. She had that experience herself.

Tabor: Can I ask you one more question before I close?

Jaglom: You can ask me as many questions as you would like. 

Tabor: What role has your Jewish heritage played in the body of work? I know you were born in England and that you have Jewish parents, and there is a wonderful Passover scene in Just 45 Minutes From Broadway that you most generously sent me so I saw that movie before it was in theaters. You are an incredibly generous man.

Jaglom: Being Jewish is very central to my identity. I have no religion as such. I come from a family that is not religious in any way. My father was a Jew from Russia. My mother, a Jew from Germany. After the Russian Revolution my father left and went to Central Europe where he met my mother and they married, and then he moved to a place called Danzig, which was a free state in the Polish Corridor that was created by the League of Nations. He ended up running the economy, all the trade between Germany and Poland and all the economy from that small state of Danzig. When the Nazis came in, it was a very complicated situation because he was Jewish, and he said, “Okay, I’m giving this six months and then I’m going to England. This is not a good place to be.” They sent to Berlin and came back with an offer, if you can believe this, of honorary Aryanship. 

Tabor: You’re kidding!

Jaglom: To make him an honorary Aryan. And he said to my mother, “We’re not waiting the six months. We’re getting in a car now, driving across to Poland, and flying to England, and they’ll just keep sending us all the stuff.” He realized that when they want to make you an honorary what you’re not, it’s time to leave. He was very conscious of his Jewishness. He was a major contributor and the inspiration for the building of the Tel Aviv Museum, the great museum of Tel Aviv where, by the way, the paintings that he and my mother collected all their lives are in permanent exhibition in the Marie and Simon Jaglom Pavilion there. But we were not religious Jews. We were very identified and we are connected. We feel very strongly about the state of Israel. We are very connected to the fact of our Jewishness. But it has played, I think, practically no role in my movies until Just 45 Minutes From Broadway

Tabor: And it’s a great Passover scene.

Jaglom: That was the one event, the one Jewish event since we didn’t go to the synagogue much, at all, actually. My father went on Yom Kippur, but that was it. But we did have a Passover Seder every year to traditionally maintain our Jewish awareness. So I had my brother playing my father, and my son, Simon, who is named after my father, playing me, stealing the Afikomen [a piece of Matzoh hidden to be searched for at the end of the seder]. It was fun. My daughter is in that scene, too, the girl who decides she wants to be an actress and her mother and father get into a fight over it.

Tabor: She’s wonderful, marvelous, Sabrina Jaglom, a terrific talent. Henry, to close, I quote, first, Orson’s imperative in Someone to Love, “Tell me your story.” You do that, Henry Jaglom, in heartfelt manner, and now I quote Bernard Malamud who, in the intro to his collected short stories, said, “Some are born whole. Others must seek the blessed state in a struggle to achieve order. That is no loss to speak of. Ultimately such seeking becomes the subject matter of fiction. Observing, reading, thinking, one invents himself.” Henry Jaglom, thank you for connecting here with me and sharing your process of invention. 

Jaglom: Wow, that couldn’t be nicer, and I do think we invent ourselves. I think that’s very, very true. I wish everyone would just go and watch everyone else’s invention because we learn so much from seeing what everybody else does. That’s the key, being open and seeing what everyone else is doing.

Tabor:            I hope to see your next film as soon as it comes out, and I hope I get to talk to you again. 

Jaglom: I’ll be happy to, anytime you wish, and I will send you the next film as soon as it comes out. What a pleasure this has been. Thank you very, very much. One doesn’t expect this kind of communication, and it’s a real joy.

Tabor:            You  honor me. Thank you. It has been my pleasure indeed.


Listen to the live interview on Rare Bird Radio. Here is a video overview of Jaglom’s body of art.

Mary L. Tabor's web site address is:  http://www.maryltabor.com

For a review of Mary L. Tabor's book "Who by Fire", please click here.

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Nothing Too Personal: The Films of Henry Jaglom (A Tribute Reel in Two Movements) from Daniel Kremer on Vimeo.

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