The making of the film, beat by beat.
“Book the corner table, close to the pay phone,” he said. “Get there early and take the corner seat. Make sure the chair opposite – the one that has its back to the restaurant – is empty. That’s where I’ll sit.”
“OK, Bob.” He hangs up.
Getting Robert De Niro to say ‘yes’ to doing my movie wasn’t easy. Lanza’s, the Italian restaurant in New York’s Lower East Side where he had suggested we meet was the kind of cliché neighbourhood restaurant full of gentlemen in mohair suits making sure that they didn’t have their backs to the proceedings. But Mr. De Niro didn’t want to be stared at.
I had been courting him to play the Devil in Angel Heart for some months and we had met a few times — and he had continued to bombard me with questions examining every dot and comma of my script. I had walked him through the locations we had found, read through the screenplay sitting on the floor of a dank, disused church in Harlem and finally he said ‘yes’. To be honest, he said, “Alan, I am of a mind to do the movie.” Not overly gushing, it’s true, but De Niro doesn’t gush.
I was first introduced to William Hjortsberg’s novel Falling Angel soon after publication in 1978. As with Birdy, I was privy to it early on, only to see it gobbled up in the Hollywood machinery. Their original attraction, I should imagine, being much the same as my own – the fusion of two genres: the noir, Chandleresque detective novel and the supernatural. I might hazard a guess that any Faustian story would ring bells in Hollywood and not all of them cash registers.
Over the years, the rights moved to different people, among them, I understand, Robert Redford, but the book remained un-filmed. I was reintroduced to it many years later by Elliot Kastner, who dropped the book on my table one lunch time at Pinewood Studios early in 1985. Elliot was an irascible gadfly in the film industry, having been involved with more films than Technicolor and outlived fifty studio heads and as many lawsuits. Many was the time I’ve seen him ‘work’ the tables in the Pinewood Studios restaurant on the way to the men’s room. He usually stayed just long enough to blow his nose in your napkin, dispense some wickedly cynical aphorism about the movies and move on. There is an oft-told story that Marlon Brando finally said yes to doing Missouri Breaks because he couldn’t face the prospect of Elliott Kastner, on his knees, crying in front of him one more time. This day, apart from filling up my napkin, Elliot also left me the Hjortsberg book.
As with all traditional first-person detective tales, the fundamental problem is in the translation of literary exposition into filmic narrative. (Consequently, the over-use of voice-over in this genre.) This was something I wanted to avoid, although, unavoidably, a line or two did sneak into my final cut for sheer economy of story telling. The essential difference in my screenplay was to move the bulk of the story away from New York to New Orleans. So many of the threads of the story led to New Orleans and conversations with William Hjortsberg revealed that he had also once thought of doing this. My motives for the relocation were not entirely unselfish because I felt that. shooting yet another Manhattan-based detective story would be tricky in that overly filmed city. There have, of course, also been many films set in New Orleans —but looking for New Orleans is different to finding it, as I was soon to discover. I had visited New Orleans many times in the process of writing my screenplay and much of the script was handwritten sitting at corner tables in remote bars in the city’s shadowy back streets.
I also wanted to use Harlem, which had often been avoided by New York filmmakers, probably for unfounded reasons, as we consequently discovered. The Harlem Library was very helpful in my research. I was particularly interested in the bizarre religious movements of the 1930’s and 1940’s, born of economic isolation, and perhaps spiritual desperation. The book had alluded to the presence of ‘Louis Cyphre’ moving amongst these eccentric black religious groups and it was apparent that the real stories from the period deserved whole movies of their own. The character of Pastor John, who survives in the final film, was an amalgam of two or three of the real life characters of this period.
They say there’s just enough religion in the world to make men hate one another, but not enough to make them love.
The major script changes from the book were in the areas of character and dialogue. The enigmatic character of Louis Cyphre (Lucifer) was certainly larger than life, but my intention throughout was always to treat the gentleman and the whole story as totally real. After all, selling one’s soul seemed to me to be something that happens every day of the week (and in the film industry, perhaps a little more frequently).
The character of Harry Angel also had to be made sympathetic. In the tradition of the down-at-heel gumshoe, his phlegmatic surface disguised an intelligence capable of unraveling a complicated, larger-than-life story with a degree of belief and conciseness. Also he had to be attractive to audiences while enlightening them, little by little, along the way. I also changed the title, partly because there had been rather too many ‘Falling Angels’ and partly, for selfish reasons: to give the film an identity of its own, separate from it’s literary beginnings. I wrote most of the screenplay in New York and, once I’d broken the back of the story, scribbling in the corners of seedy bars in New Orleans, my ears pricked to every conversation.
By September the first draft was finished and we set about the always unenviable task of persuading someone to finance it. Looking for money for films is like water-skiing on treacle, and every two years for the last twelve I had regularly visited Hollywood with the hope of returning home with a few carrier bags filled with dollars with which to make our films. Consequently, we exposed the script in the usual ways to the financiers: “ the guys with the war chests,” as Elliott liked to call them.
The darker side of our story (not to mention the darker side of the director) didn’t exactly instantly endear the script to the moguls, firmly intent on marketing a different concept of the American hero. Ironically, the most enthusiasm came from Andy Vajna and Mario Kassar, who had cracked the studio system wide open with their Rambo and Terminator films.
Before these two entrepreneurs the term ‘Independent Film” meant a 16 mm film made for scale in Idaho. I had been introduced to Andy and Mario at Cannes after Birdy and they were intent on widening the product base of their company. For a while they had outmaneuvered the studio system with a combination of chutzpah and checkbook. Mario was the flamboyant gambler and Andy, the cautious thinker. Not ‘good cop’, ‘bad cop’ but more ‘crazy cop’ and ‘worrying cop’.
I was always intrigued by their backgrounds. In 1956 Andy, aged 12, had fled the Hungarian Uprising —sent away to stay with his Aunt who was a cook in L.A. It’s a great image — a chubby Hungarian kid running away from the Soviet tanks, cutting a hole in the fence and finding himself in Beverly hills. It’s just like a movie really. Mario was equally fascinating: a Lebanese Italian with a Dominican passport, he was fluent in six languages — very handy when dealing with forty foreign markets more used to American studios who were unable to converse in anything but ‘film business American.’. Basically Andy and Mario had found success by following the Dino (De Laurentiis) philosophy of putting their money where their mouth was and pre-selling for larger sums than anyone in the ‘independent’ sector had ever had the nerve to ask for before.
We duly met once again in Rome to discuss my script of Angel Heart and by the end of dinner, they had agreed to finance the film. It’s always easier doing business with people who actually sign the checks.
In January 1986 we began preparations in New York As always, I had my producer Alan Marshall with me. Alan and I have been working together since the beginning of both our film careers, starting in commercials. I have largely worked with the same group of people on my films and the identity of our work is as much because of them as me. On Angel Heart, I would have Michael Seresin as cinematographer, Gerry Hambling as editor and Brian Morris as production designer.
Casting and locations were my immediate priority. Like most directors in the heady ‘anything is possible’ early days of making a film, I had a short ‘wish list’ of four actors who could play Harry Angel and met with all of them.
In Los Angeles I went to see Jack Nicholson. In the living room of his house on Mullholland I did my pitch and he was most gracious, although, to be honest, he was quite distracted at the time because he’d just successfully bought a very important impressionist painting at Sotheby’s in New York. His problem was that he had bid over the phone and two pages of his catalog were stuck together resulting in Jack buying the wrong (and very costly) painting. As he tried to sell back the unwanted masterpiece to Sotheby’s, my movie and the possibility of him taking part seemed to slip from his immediate area of concentration and interest.
Mickey Rourke was also one of the four on my list, and we arranged to meet in New York. I picked Mickey up from his hotel looking, as he always does off-screen, like an unemployed gas station attendant. We had lunch and he told me quite emphatically that he was the only one to play Harry Angel and so I should “stop talking to the other guys.” We walked the streets talking about the film until it got dark.
Location hunting took me to the Lower East Side and to Harlem. The script called for 78 different locations and all had to be authentic to the year in which I had set the film, 1955. (The book is set in 1959 and I moved it to 1955 for a small but selfish reason. 1959 was on the way to the 1960’s with its changing attitudes as well as environments. 1955 for me still belonged to the 1940’s—and, because of the historical pause button of World War II, conceivably the 1930’s—so quite simply, setting it in this year allowed me to give an older look to the film.)
We took on Chinese and Spanish speaking production assistants to gain access to the Lower East Side tenements where whole families are non-English speaking. The walk-up I eventually used for Harry’s office was in the once Jewish quarter on Eldridge Street which now houses mostly Asian families in tiny apartments — the old tenement building itself, first stop in America for many ethnic groups over the last century. Just why my generation of filmmakers go through this masochistic process of filming in real places instead of the comfort of the studio is always a mystery. But, for myself, to be somewhere that smells right as well as looks right somehow helps to make the ‘make-believe’ believable.
January 18th, 1986. New York.
We held our “open casting call” at a rundown night-club called the Kamikaze. There’s probably not a seedier sight in all of civilization than a nightclub in the daytime, but we were oblivious to the surroundings as 1400 young hopefuls lined up outside, many sitting on the cold sidewalk, having been there since the early hours. I managed to read a short scene with 600 of them as they were filtered through to me. As always, there is always hope that amongst them would be someone new and brilliant that no one has ever seen — someone you can give a small part to. Liz Whitcraft, who plays Connie, was in line and for her, like the rest of them, it was a weekly ritual—a three hour wait for a two minute read and a ten second Polaroid. Contrary to Hollywood folklore, rarely do you find the magical unknown that you’ve plucked off the street. But, pragmatically, it’s always a great way to select and determine each and every face that will be used for background extras in the months ahead.
Our Harlem locations were, for me, the greatest revelation. This ‘other city’ that no one really ever sees, is as un-photographed as other parts of New York are over-used. The hostility that hardened New Yorkers advised me that we would encounter was not apparent. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Everyone was very helpful as we selfishly looked for movie locations amongst the considerable poverty and social devastation. Our research photographs of the 1940’s and early 1950’s showed a different Harlem, one that was still intact, one where a community was still allowed some pride in where they lived. Now, despite the gentrification that has nibbled at the edges, the bleak, rundown streets of nailed-up houses and crumbling masonry bear little resemblance to the robust, vibrant Harlem of our library pictures.
Jan 20th, New Orleans.
I had already visited most of the areas where we would be filming in the previous summer whilst writing the script. The Disneyland version of New Orleans had been grossly over-exposed and I tried to seek out a different city, but it seemed that we returned again and again to the tarted-up, freshly painted ironwork facades of the old French Quarter. By getting lost in the alleyways and pushing the doorbells of disused buildings, we stumbled on an old, boarded-up house behind Royal Street that hadn’t been touched, or seemingly even lived in, for 60 years. The crumbling, ochre walls and peeling paintwork were perfect for us and we’d be able to dress and build the slave quarters in the backyard as Harry’s hotel, as well as use the main house for Margaret Krusemark’s. In the old Irish section, the Irish Channel, at the back of the town we found Magazine Street, which, with enough work, would give us our major exteriors, thereby avoiding the cliché postcard, ironwork lace, ‘Sunday best’ appearance that this complex, elusive city slyly presents to the world. There are of course two New Orleans cities: the Disney version and the other more decadent version that would make old Walt choke on his Wheeties.
The Louisiana bayous and swamps that I had written into the script proved easier to find as we crisscrossed the shallow waterways and inlets, looking for the dark and mysterious Louisiana of the history books, rather than the glib version in the guide books.
We also had an open casting call in New Orleans, which we had sensibly jointly organized with the local unemployment office. As the local casting people got the hang of my eclectic taste in actors I found myself reading with everyone from club bouncers to cocktail waitresses and harmonica players. Some extraordinary characters walked in and it was hard to resist Polaroiding each and every one of them.
The conventional casting was also very fruitful as I’d asked for many of the local musicians to come in; characters with names like Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Boogie Bill Williams, Deacon John — each one playing and singing, but also having a shot at ‘reading’, which meant going through the script aloud with me. Reading wasn’t the strong point of many of those old-timers, many of whom had left school before fourth grade so I got to hear the same excuse,” Sorry, I’ve forgotten my glasses.” As always, we tried to cast the net as wide as possible. I’ve never only been interested in people who have acted before, quite the contrary – in fact I tend to ignore the familiar ‘acting’ faces.
January 29th, Los Angeles.
Casting again, but now with the professionals of Tinseltown. It seemed that even small time actors had their own copies of the script which, like most directors, I had vainly asked not to be copied. In Los Angeles, this is like asking Pinks to stop serving chili dogs with onions. Once a script is available in L.A., there’s suddenly 500 offspring, each immaculately bound in their own agency covers. It’s a funny feeling for a filmmaker, not unlike being mugged.
While in LA I had lunch with William Hjortsberg, the author of the original novel who had now read my script. I was naturally nervous about his reaction, because most novelists assume that ‘adaptation’ by film directors is something akin to the activities in an abattoir. Or as John Le Carré so succinctly put it, “Seeing your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen tuned into bouillion cubes.” In this case I think had been truthful to Hjortsberg’s original, but I had obviously changed an enormous amountin construction, character and dialogue. Miraculously he was most generous, and gave his enthusiastic approval.
In the middle of reading 60 actors a day, the doctor arrived for my film insurance medical. I sheepishly walked back through the crowded outer office carrying my urine sample.
In L.A. I also had the chance to meet up with Mickey at his local café. In the space of an hour and a half, I managed to talk him out of having black hair, a Cyrano de Bergerac nose, a limp and six suits which he personally had made up by his pal to a design and with fabrics which missed the period of our film by about twenty years. He graciously accepted my suggestion that he stick to the acting.
February 2nd, Long Island.
Back on the east coast I needed to finish of the last draft of my script and so I checked into a remote hotel in Montauk, Long Island, recommended by Bob De Niro. Out of my window I could see the snow settling on the beach. I’d written ‘snow’ for the opening sequences of the film and I hoped that it would hold. Once again I laid out my pencils and pens on the desk by the window as I’ve done a dozen times before—another hotel room—another script—another movie.
February 14th, Coney Island
My birthday and the birth date I’d given Harry Angel. (For no particular reason other than Valentine’s Day might be easy to remember in a labyrinthine script and the heart reference seemed to have some resonance). The location hunting seemed to be going on forever. On Staten Island we found Dr. Fowler’s house. The location was similar to ones that I’ve used many times before, in that the owner, in this case a 90 year old lady, had recently passed away. There was two inches of dust everywhere and each cup, saucer and piles of magazines had seemingly been left untouched for 30 years. The locations in Coney Island were the ones the Art Department seemed to be most interested in. Like myself, the Production Designer Brian Morris was a great fan of The Little Fugitive, and we had many Ruth Orkin photographs of Coney Island pinned to the wall.
Brian was determined to put the entire boardwalk back as it was in the 1930’s, and not just the part we would be filming.
Alan Marshall, as usual, reminded him of the narrow parameters of our budget, but it still took an army of painters and dressers to achieve the transformation. On film of course, it appears as if we found it just the way it looks.
The casting process also seemed endless as I seemingly ‘read’ with every veteran blues and jazz player from Bo Diddley to Dizzy Gillespie – a great thrill – even if they don’t end up in the film. It’s curious how musicians seem to age more graciously than actors.
MARCH 3rd, New York
I’d now set all the locations in the Lower East Side, Harlem, Coney Island, Staten Island and upstate in Albany. For perhaps the twentieth time I flicked through my narrowed down, casting tapes, this time with Alan Marshall, for a more objective view. It’s very easy to get punch-drunk while casting. Lisa Bonet had been my favourite Epiphany from the outset (she was only the second person to come in to read) but I’d now been through weeks of casting before deciding on her. Although she was very young, she had an innate intelligence beyond her years. Casting Margaret Krusemark was more difficult. Although it’s a small part in the film, the character is omnipresent in the dialogue and she had to have the right balance of class and eccentricity. I read many actresses for the part without much success. So I decided to phone Charlotte Rampling in France, who I’d never worked with but always admired, and she said yes. This pleased Mickey, who had originally suggested her.
It was time for me to meet the animal trainers and the stuntmen to discover the possibility of achieving on film some of the scenes that I’d written. It’s curious just how much complication and aggravation the simplest scribble of the pen can cause. I’ve always been averse to storyboards because each dramatic situation takes on an organic life of its own which has to be followed instinctively — not shackled to preordained camera positions worked out on a computer months before. With stunts and animals it’s quite different, as everything must be choreographed and pinned down beforehand. Corky Randall, the veteran Hollywood horse wrangler, put me through the hoop on the stable scene. He’d done it all before and wouldn’t tolerate any fuzzy-brained director messing up the shot or, more importantly, his horses. We’d made a model of the stables and every shot and move was worked out carefully.
We also finalized the costumes as I went through the dozens of permutations on a dozen characters with the costume designer, Aude Bronson-Howard and art director Kristi Zea. Mickey, congenitally scruffy, has the rare ability to make the most elegant suit look like a discarded potato sack, so it was easy to ‘dress him down’. Each costume, shirt and sock had to be washed a hundred times, to distress the fabrics so that they hung correctly, thereby being truthful to our period and to fit the de-saturated, monochromatic look that Michael Seresin, Brian Morris and I were after.
To get a head start on our shooting schedule we had decided to do some pre-filming in upstate New York prior to the main shoot as we were nervous about the snow which was melting fast in Albany. As Harry’s car travels to the Poughkeepsie clinic where Johnny Favorite had been a patient, the stark landscapes weren’t quite the white blanket of snow I’d written in the script, but it looked cold, bleak and, hopefully, effective, contrasting well with the muggy heat we would experience in Louisiana, as Harry tiptoes closer to the truth – and closer to the flames of hell.
From a hundred old records I had I finally decided on the tune for Johnny Favorite’s hit, Girl of My Dreams. I wanted a 1939 song that was familiar without being too well known, or too identifiable with any single artist. I’d also had a good gospel song written for me by Anthony Evans for the Harlem sequences. (Anthony first worked for me as a senior at the High School of Music and Art, where he arranged all the gospel singing for Fame.) This would serve as Pastor John’s anthem in Harlem.
We were now two weeks away from filming and I had, understandably, begun to get a lot of pressure from Andy and Mario to close the deal on De Niro who still hadn’t committed. I had originally approached him to play the main part of Harry Angel, but on our first meeting he told me that he preferred the Louis Cyphre role. I felt that if I pressured him, he’d probably say no — it had to be in his own time. I put my head on the block because if he said no, I had no ready alternative as, by now, I could only think of him for the role. I had tentatively inquired if Brando would like to work again, but had received a polite ‘maybe’, and eventually an even politer ‘no’.
I have a crumpled scrap of paper stapled into my shooting script. It says, ‘8:00 a.m.De Niro phoned to say he’s “of a mind to do the film.”’
In New York I was able to walk through all the locations with cinematographer Michael Seresin and my camera operator, Mike Roberts: off-loading to them each scene and shot I had been carying around in my head all these weeks. Also Alan Marshall’s shooting schedule had to be dissected and approved. On every film, whatever the schedule – three weeks, three months or six months filmmaking – somehow for a director, there’s never enough time. Makeup plaster casts had to be approved, slit throats deepened, cut hands bloodied, hairstyles and lipsticks chosen, gumbo faces boiled and nasty, sanguineous, human hearts poked, peered at, and decided upon.
Someone got to her and took their own Valentine. Slit her open and cut her heart out.
I began rehearsals with Mickey in a room at Carnegie Hall, surrounded by dusty photographs of long-forgotten 1950’s film stars who reproachfully looked down on us as we worked with each of the actors Mickey would encounter in the first half of the film. Mickey is an intuitive actor: doing each scene differently as he searched for some truth. He doesn’t care too much for the science of blocking a scene, rather trusting his own instincts, which is very different from working with trained, technically skilled British actors. Although this can be vexing at times, with the imprecision also comes danger and while the danger is there, so is the magic. Rehearsals are a luxury in filmmaking, normally actors are introduced on set, and after shaking hands the director says, “Action”. It’s nice to be able to familiarize yourself with the problems prior to the pressure of a film set where the producer will be looking at his watch and 60 people reaching for their overtime sheets.
In the first read-through Mickey undressed Liz Whitcraft, as he would in the actual filmed scene. It wasn’t necessary for the rehearsal, but it certainly broke the ice. After 20 times, it had none of the nervous, unhelpful, uptight atmosphere that this kind of scene can generate on set. When everyone is relaxed, all that matters is the acting. Mickey’s street instincts and lack of intellectual pretension are pleasantly refreshing and watching him work was always gratifying.
When filming, on the many, many takes that contemporary actors and directors now require to shoot a scene, his performance was always changing slightly, with subtle, naturalistic nuance: always surprising and constantly mesmerising. The papers said James Cagney died today. On the only occasion I ever met him, at a dinner with Milos Forman, I asked him how many takes he used to do on his films. “Just the one,” he answered, “Unless the camera boys fouled up.”
First day of filming, and I crawled out of bed at 5:30 a.m. I’m reminded of the Billy Wilder line: “Good films are much the same as bad films. You still have to get up at some ridiculous hour.” We started on Eldridge Street in the Lower East Side, which was to be Harry’s on-screen neighbourhood. We had the good fortune to find a 1955 street where every detail was correct for the period…well, that’s hopefully how it looks. In actual fact, Brian Morris and his set decorating army had spent two months re-dressing every sign, shop-front, street lamp and iron stoop railing. We even had our own period-correct portable, period subway entrance. We had also taken out all the primary colours from the street, something we continued to do throughout the film with the sets and the costumes following the same colour palette as we attempted to shoot a black and white film in colour. (These days this can be achieved by the tweaking of a button on the digital grading.)
By now we had sunny, spring weather and so were forced to dress the street with winter snow from an ice truck that crunched up great, four foot long blocks and spat out two tons of fluffy crushed ice like a barman in Swift’s Brobdingnag making a giant margharita.
For someone as superstitious as me, I should have taken note of the date as the scenes I shot on the street this day with two minor characters, a news vendor and a lady who lives in Harry’s building, eventually ended up on the cutting room floor. For me, the first few days of any shoot are always traumatic as I slowly get back into the rhythm of filming after the layoff between films. It’s like learning your craft all over again. You remember to say “Action” and “Cut,” but the rest comes back more slowly.
We shot the bar scenes in Alphabet city and moved locations to Harry’s apartment for the undressing scene that we had rehearsed many times. Like all sex scenes we had a minimal crew to put the actors at ease… a curious notion, I always think, considering the finished film will be seen 70 foot wide by millions of people from the New York Ziegfield to the Shinjuku Piccadilly. By the 20th take, of course, the sight of an actress’ breast becomes the same as the sight of a camera assistant’s elbow. Also, it always amazes me how extraordinarily disinterested and matter-of-fact experienced film technicians are when standing two feet away from copulating, naked bodies.
The music for the film covered a wide period: 1930’s, ‘40’s, ‘50’s, from the big band era of Johnny Favorite to the blues we would encounter in New Orleans. At times my room looked like someone had exploded a bomb in it with the debris of paper, video tapes and photographs scattered around. I think the maid gave up, as she began to just make the bed and leave everything else. I think the books on the occult, voodoo and black magic by my bedside had made her rather suspicious of me anyway. Before going to bed I always read a passage from Aleister Crowley’s satanic diaries, which didn’t exactly encourage a comfortable night’s sleep. Each of my pockets seemed stuffed with notes that I’d scribbled on some scrap of paper; a thousand things to remember and you’re fearful that half of them are doomed to be forgotten.
Up at 5:30 a.m. once again. The feeling of constant tiredness is my abiding memory of filming. I had based the Kingdom Mission procession in Harlem on an old photograph I’d found at the Harlem Library of a bullet-headed preacher held aloft by his ‘celestial maidens’. We had snow; wind machines; fire trucks wetting the roads; 250 period costumed extras; loud speakers belting out the gospel music on playback; stuntmen and stuntwomen doubles for the chase and the fracas and a giant crane on loan from another production company (promised to be returned by the afternoon.) We also had to control rubber-necking locals and contemporary vehicles sneaking into the shots from a mile away; starting in soft, overcast light, we had the sun, forever fickle, unhelpfully peeping out whenever the loud hailer blurted, “Action.” But the day went very well. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don’t. And now, miraculously, we were a day ahead on our schedule. A very rare, and very pleasant, feeling. It’s not uncommon to be a week behind after the first week.
At Coney Island, the whole area where we were filming had been re-dressed and changed back to the world of 1955. Even the big wheel had been repainted to fit in with the monochromatic look we were after. Rather sarcastically, Alan Marshall reminded us of the perversity of huge numbers of painters required to paint the colour out of the film. For in film art direction it does, of course, take six layers of paint to make something look unpainted. The scenes with Bo and Izzy went well, although it was bitterly cold and the actors found it hard — their lines stuttered through blue, trembling lips. The crew meanwhile, in fourteen layers of Antarctic clothing, wondered why the flimsily clad actors should possibly need a nurse standing by to combat hypothermia. Suddenly, the actress playing Bo was rather inelegantly knocked off her feet by an abnormally high Atlantic wave halfway through her first speech and promptly disappeared into the icy waters. The crew dashed into the ocean to fish her out and afterwards, as she lay there, no amount of British charm on my part, nor the kiss of life from the nurse and brandies from the prop man, could coax her back into the water for Take 2. I was forced to use the stand-in who, fortune smiling when the sun didn’t, ironically gave a much better performance than the original actress. The crew, as always, looked at their watches for meal penalties and wondered if the actors could recover consciousness before ‘Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs’ closed for the day.
The unexpected Atlantic weather ‘dip’ forced us into a late day, which was to our favour. We filmed the wide shots with Izzy on the beach very late, confirming Michael Seresin’s theory that the conventional view of cinematography:, that the most effective look is back-lit, can be reversed when the sun is extremely low in the sky, just before it dips below the horizon, thereby front lighting for more dramatic effect. This magic light of course only lasts for ten minutes or so. Luckily, the actors got their lines right as we dug the camera into the sand to avoid our own shadows and beat the impending darkness —and thespian pneumonia —by a whisker.
Back in Manhattan we shot the opening of the film in the dark alley where the old homeless lady is found with her throat slit.
There’s death everywhere these days, Johnny. But what gives human life its worth anyway? Because someone loves it? Hates it?
This straightforward scene took us into the early hours of the morning. A simple cut throat is all I asked for, but four make-up people laboured for hours in order for it to look right. “Just what is it that you want?” they asked, as I turned down the results for the sixth time. “Just to look truthful,” I answered. It’s the only answer I’ve ever had in nearly twenty years of being the dummy at the front everyone expects the right answers from. But it was more than just another scene—it was the opening scene, and hence would be presenting the credentials of the following movie. Our trained dog was an old pro and obligingly, and most unusually, performed on cue. Up on the fire escape, working with the cat was more problematic. We bit our nails, sipped our coffee, stamped our feet and tightened our mufflers as the cat and dog seemed to ignore my script and perform in a movie of nature’s own making.
Back at the hotel I switched on the TV. The bouffant haired newscaster said that Reagan was contemplating bombing Libya. The commercial said that the news was brought to us courtesy of Fred the Furrier. What a country.
In a Hospice on 138th Street in Harlem we shot Chuck Gordone, who plays ‘Spider Simpson’, Johnny Favorite’s old band leader. Chuck is not really an actor (he won the Pulitzer Prize for his play, No Place to Be Somebody) but the scene was a great pleasure to shoot. The extras in the scene were the actual residents of the hospice because they were too old for us to move out and so consequently just sat there and enjoyed a couple of days’ filming. In the final film the scene appears mainly as voice-over exposition, so I had to lose much of Chuck’s performance and some good moments.
Johnny Favorite? That guy couldn’t tell the truth without lying.
During lunch, Robert De Niro came down for a costume fitting—most of Louis Cyphre’s elegantly cut clothes had been brought over from Rome. Also we had twenty different silver-topped canes flown in from France from a store Bob had discovered on a visit to Paris. (I had spoken to him on the phone, fearful that he would buy the store’s entire stock.) Bob sat in the wardrobe room in costume, twiddling his cane, tightening his tie and feeling the length of his cuff. His now extremely long hair would be put in a bun until the final scene, when we would reveal all. We also decided to give Cyphre false nails, which would become imperceptibly longer as the story unfolded.
A large Russian lady who De Niro had found in Brighton Beach, filed and buffed away whilst talking incessantly of her brother in Chernobyl. Also we were experimenting with different kinds of contact lenses, the expert on which was based in London, and we dutifully flew him in. Bob put himself through great pain trying to get used to the lenses. At the end of the day, the costume department packed up his entire wardrobe for him so that he could rehearse, fully dressed, at home.
The whole unit moved to Staten Island for the filming of Dr. Fowler’s interiors and exteriors. By this time we had drifted to a weird shooting schedule because of the curious New York film union’s draconian ‘turnaround’ rules.
In the tight confines of the old house I was reminded how lucky I was to have Mike Roberts operating the camera. He is the best we have in Britain (The Killing Fields, Mona Lisa, The Mission, Birdy) and his dexterity and balletic sensitivity make choreographing all camera movements a pleasure. At the end of the first rehearsals, the American crew told me that Reagan had bombed Libya. I asked about the casualties. “We lost two planes,” was the answer.
We had towed a beautiful 1950’s train from a hundred miles away into a station in Hoboken, which we had dressed to look like New Orleans. The train had no working engine and so we nudged it into the shot using a modern locomotive. The New Jersey Teamsters noisily picketed the set (our crew was Manhattan-based and this was a long-standing feud, nothing to do with our movie). They chanted and whistled to ruin the sound takes — a pointless exercise on their part because it was a mute scene and I would be adding the sound later—but we didn’t want to spoil their fun.
April 28th and 29th, Harlem.
I had spent the weekend rehearsing with De Niro and Mickey and we were ready to film their first scene together in the ’Elks’ room of the Harlem Mission. Breaking with my normal shooting practice, I shot with two cameras simultaneously in opposite directions. This way, should the two of them begin to improvise or go off at a tangent, provoking in the other an action or reaction, a moment’s magic that one inspired in the other would be captured on film. As we began it was clear that this process was not about acting, it was akin to a couple of prize-fighters testing one another out as they slowly encircled one another: an ad-libbed jab here, a wisecrack left hook there. Bob was cool, meticulous, charming and generous, but had everything under control. Mickey was disarming and ingenuous, but at all times gave as good as he took. For me, as the referee-onlooker, it was electric to watch if at times somewhat mystifying as to what the heck they were talking about as they ran circles around my script.
Their second scene together was at Lanza’s Restaurant on the lower east side. Mickey was beginning to gain confidence working with Bob, and was more assured than the first meeting as he tells Cyphre, “I want out.” As always, Bob was controlled and immaculate: as he crunched the shell of the egg it seemed as if he was breaking every bone in Harry Angel’s body. It was here that I suggested that De Niro was a little ‘Long John Silver’ — a none too sly reference to Robert Newton’s infamous scenery-chewing performance in Treasure Island. Bob was obviously put out by the remark and called me to one side requesting that the sarcastic English jokes should cease. From then on, my remark, “Where’s your parrot, Bob?” – meaning he was over the top in Newtonian proportions – was banished from our working practise. Not that it was needed, anyway.
We killed Winesap, the lawyer.
Don’t worry. No one will mourn one less lawyer in the world.
MAY 3rd, LOUISIANA
The entire film circus moved to Louisiana and the town of Thibodaux, where we filmed the graveyard sequences with Epiphany (Lisa Bonet). We had the good fortune to find an entire plantation workers’ village almost intact and, with careful dressing, this became Epiphany’s world. The graveyard was a dressed set, but much of what we filmed was already there. Epiphany’s child would have preferred to be back home in Baton Rouge because whenever Mickey came within ten feet, the distressed infant screamed for his real mother. There was no use fighting this so I incorporated it into the scenes.
We had carved our racetrack out of an unfarmed Louisiana field as Harry meets with Ethan Krusemark for the first time. All the extras were local French-speaking Cajun people and the atmosphere was a little more pleasurable than working with standard film extras. Stocker Fontelieu, who plays Ethan, was cast locally in New Orleans. He arrived on set with a niftily coiffed, if somewhat ill-fitting, hairpiece which Michael Seresin thought more closely resembled a small Davey Crocket hat. I tactfully coaxed it off his head and back into its box, his own shiny, hairless pate being infinitely more preferable.
I had based the scene on an old photo of a real Cajun quarter-horse race, and wanted to try an unusual composition by playing the scene wide, with our actors in the extreme left of the frame while the horses in the distance thunder closer. The timing was very difficult and we turned over again and again. Corky Randall, the horse wrangler, looked on with mild amusement as we yanked the camera out of the way of the horses’ hooves on each take. What seemed incredibly dangerous to us, was just a day’s work for him – it helped that his father had done the chariot races in Ben Hur.
Out into the bayous for the baptism at the water’s edge and Harry’s confrontation with his Cajun pursuers. I had written the pit-bulls into the script because I happen to have a particular fear of them myself. To this end we had with us three “trained” pit-bulls on set. Trained isn’t quite the right word. The main dog, Henry, was very friendly and good at slobbering and running, but not a great deal else. Lucy, a tad more vicious was particularly adept at ripping the stuntman’s trousers apart, and the third dog, Bear, was described by the trainer as a certifiable psychopath, snarling extremely effectively from the back of the truck, where, thankfully, the trainer kept him secured by a thick chain.
We moved on to New Orleans where we began by filming Harry being chased through the stables. It was a difficult day’s filming, because of the many variables involved: shying horses; trained dogs; gunshots; 200 chickens; and a horse specially trained to fall on top of Harry. The falling horse was extremely dangerous as the stuntman had to take the full weight of the horse onto his legs. By Take 10 the tough, tobacco-chewing, uncomplaining cowboy looked noticeably paler and bandier than when he’d started. The horses’ hooves couldn’t of course hit the real dog and we went to bizarre lengths to concoct the illusion, including a stuffed dog hanging from the prop man’s fishing pole. It was a strange day’s filming.
On Magazine Street, we’d built our own 1950’s replication of New Orleans,: the flipside of the postcard cliché. As in New York, we had dressed and clad every single storefront as far as the eye could see in order to be authentic to the period, and drained everything of all primary colours for our monochromatic look. It’s a terrible responsibility for a director to justify the cost of any large set but hopefully all this hard work shows on the film — and there’s always a danger of ‘shooting the set’ instead of the action. All I know is, if you don’t do it all right, that brief moment on film that you end up with, flickering away on the screen 70 foot wide, is almost certain to contain a glaring error. Sitting high up on the Hollywood Chapman crane, I counted the rain-machines atop every building on both sides of the street— the 20 period cars lined up ready for the take and down below Brian Morris’ army of painters, carpenters, dressers and prop men fussing away right up to the moment that I shouted, “Action,” into the loudhailer. With all this effort I wondered why we didn’t build it on the back lot at Shepperton. But we were after a different view of New Orleans than had previously been captured on film and, hopefully, the work was justified. We were in the real place certainly, but New Orleans is a stubborn city and if you’re not careful, like an ageing movie star, it will always offer up the side of its face that it wants people to see.
We blocked off the centre of New Orleans, Jackson Square, for the penultimate scene where Harry runs out of Margaret Krusemark’s house. Mickey deemed it necessary to scream at the top of his lungs, off camera, to get his motivation before running into the wall of rain. This would give us a problem in the following days as, aided by the torrential water he, not surprisingly, lost his voice.
Louis Falco, who choreographed Fame for me, had been rehearsing the voodoo ceremony with Lisa Bonet and the various dancers we had brought in from Louisiana and New York. Louis, as always, had done a thorough job, basing it on tapes of an actual Haitian ceremony. Eerily, the slate number on the clapper-board said 666: the devil’s number. Lisa Bonet threw herself into the dance as the relentless drums and the ceremony engulfed us all. At 3:00 a.m. we had finished. Everyone was drained. Including the chickens.
It’s a free country.
Not for chickens it isn’t.
We shot Toots’ rooming-house and the ensuing fight between Toots and Harry in a delapidated corner of the French Quarter. The great blues singer, Brownie McGhee, played Toots and I’d cast him because he was the genuine article and not an actor. Like many blues musicians, he is a very gentle man and found the razor fight very difficult. I don’t think he has a mean or aggressive bone in his body and for a moment there, in the middle of the night, I wondered whether it would be easier to teach an actor to sing and play the guitar than to coax the affable Brownie McGee into slitting Harry’s throat with an open razor.
Meant to be a rest day, at least that’s what it said on the call sheet. On a film, of course, there is no such thing for the director – there’s always locations to see, additional casting or perhaps, music to be pre-recorded. I spent the day doing my final re-writes on Charlotte’s scene with Mickey.
It was a great thrill to film actually on the New Orlean’s’ trolleys. I avoided putting ‘Desire’ on the trolley’s destination sign, but it was tempting. We only had the trolley cars for a limited period each day as we took over the track on St. Charles Avenue. Charlotte was effortless to work with as she serenely walked through her scenes in the humid atmosphere, sweating uncomfortably under her 1950’s wig.
The long dialogue scene in Margaret Krusemark’s apartment, for the confrontation between Margaret and Harry, went very well. Mickey of course, threw curve balls at Charlotte (who is always word perfect) by wandering away from the lines — as he was prone to do, in his quest to find a fresh and spontaneous way to play the scene (and his efforts to try and remember the lines that I had written.) The drawback with this technique is that often the best way to play the scene gets left behind on Take 3. Also, for a more traditional and disciplined actress like Charlotte, too much improvisation can be very off-putting.
Mickey liked working with Charlotte, as did we all, and it was sad she couldn’t stay longer, however it was time to kill her. The scene where we find Margaret dead, her heart cut out of her and placed on a lace tablecloth at her side, was done with little ceremony and a rather detached air by all of us, as we dribbled blood over the heart, that our prop man had on loan from the local surgeons’ teaching hospital.
At the Red Rooster club, I had chosen one of Brownie McGhee’s old songs, Rainy Days, which we had recorded specially for playback. We had assembled some wonderful blues players as the backing band, including Pinetop Perkins on piano, Sugar Blue on harmonica and Deacon John on guitar. Also we had Lilian Boute, who sang the ‘Keyhole’ song while Harry endeavored, with little success, to engage Toots in conversation about Johnny Favorite. There’s nothing more enjoyable than filming music sequences, and the atmosphere generated by these veteran musicians was contagious. Mickey was hoarse from screaming in the rain but I continued filming because his strained voice had an animal quality that suited the scene. (Also, on our schedule, we didn’t have the luxury of delaying filming for an instant.)
However you sneak up on a mirror, your reflection always looks you straight in the eye.
In his previous films, Mickey had got away with doing most of his love scenes whilst still wearing his overcoat and consequently he found himself naked on a film set for the first time in his career. Love scenes are always difficult to shoot, for obvious reasons, but surprisingly, Lisa Bonet was a lot more relaxed than Mickey was. In fact, she was a lot more relaxed than all of us as she took it all very coolly in her stride (no pun intended). As always I kept the crew down to the absolute minimum: the cinematographer, operator, camera assistant, and myself. As the rain began to pour through the cracks in the specially rigged ceiling, the two of them make love and the reality becomes a nightmare as the rain turns to blood. The powerful moments on screen belie the actuality—the almost comic opera—of four filmmakers, changing lenses and magazines, completely drenched in blood, filming two actors shagging, fortified by the odd bottle of Japanese beer, seemingly, utterly oblivious to our presence. To defuse the tension of such scenes I always play the music that I will be using, very loudly in the room, which only adds to the absurdity of the situation. Every so often I would peep outside, onto the long, narrow veranda, to see 40 disbelieving crew members, wondering what the hell was going on inside the room. When, finally, we all re-appeared, four hours later —hair matted with fake blood, and clothes drenched crimson red – the crew applauded.
June, Friday 13th.
The date was apt because we were filming the murder of the young soldier. It was also day 59 of filming and Mickey’s first day off. That evening we would be shooting the Times Square scenes where the young soldier is picked up by Johnny Favorite. I had tried to keep the ritual murder scene as obtuse as possible, alluding to it often in the film—the horrific events are never actually seen, only described by Ethan Krusemark. Brian Morris and his crew had miraculously transformed a corner of New Orleans into an aspect of Times Square. We carried with us at all times: painters, plasterers, carpenters, special effects, lighting, props (and that’s missing out a dozen other departments) – in effect, a giant film studio on wheels. The 1940’s extras in the scene sang Auld Lang Syne until 2:00a.m., when we wrapped. New Orleans, of course, just starts wakeing up at that hour.
We had built the interior of the gumbo hut (where Harry confronts Krusemark,) in a disused bus depot; once again an instant studio. It was a very dangerous scene, verbally and physically, and suddenly Stocker Fontelieu, who played Ethan, had blood trickling down from his temples from the rusty, but still sharp, ice tongs which Mickey had clamped too tightly to the sides of his head. My first reaction was that it seemed most effective: a rather nice shot. My second reaction was that I didn’t ask the makeup people for blood. My third reaction was that it was real blood and that I was looking at Stocker who was really hurt, and so we abandoned the scene for the day. We would try again on Monday with Stocker duly patched up and with the ice tongs suitably blunted before they were entrusted to Mickey’s care.
We continued with De Niro and Mickey at the St. Alphonsus Church behind Magazine Street. This beautiful church was originally built by the German community, and together with the Irish church across the street, was once the centre of Catholic life in this part of New Orleans. Now the Irish Channel area is mainly black, working class projects with a great deal of poverty and resultant crime. Consequently, many of the churches are now disused and empty. We had had a hard time convincing a real priest to help us with the mass which was the background of the scene. (This wasn’t surprising, considering the satanic character that Mr. De Niro was portraying. )Eventually we relied on a defrocked priest, who was pleased to oblige. (As to why he was defrocked, I didn’t enquire.) He quickly reorganized the art department to get rid of the second altar we had dressed in the scene. (In 1955, prior to Vatican II, Catholic churches only had the high altar.) Once again, I shot with two cameras on the actors as Harry began to show his frustration and suspicion of Louis Cyphre.
We shot the final confrontation between Mickey and Bob at Margaret Krusemark’s apartment on Royal Street in the French Quarter, as Harry breaks open the vase revealing his identity. It was a pleasure to watch as De Niro, his real hair cascading over his shoulders, taunts and plays with Harry, who cannot accept the truth. It was also Mickey’s strongest scene, and one where, I think, he revealed more of Mickey the actor than we’d seen in his previous work.
Frankly, you were doomed from the moment you slit that poor boy in half. For twelve years you’ve been living on borrowed time and another man’s memories.
June 20th .
Harry finds Epiphany dead. The last day of filming.
You’re going to burn for this, Angel.
I know. In Hell.
We returned to Europe with 100 boxes containing 400,000 feet of film and 1,100 different shots. Four months later, we had our first cut of the film. The composed score of our soundtrack is by Trevor Jones and sax solos are by Courtney Pine, the young, English jazz saxophonist. One of the great advantages of working with contemporary recording techniques is that we can mix onto film in a recording studio with all of the various components and options of modern, multi-track recordings. I’ve always been very mistrustful of conventional scoring, whereby a hundred musicians sit in front of the projected film and the conductor strikes up the orchestra. The resultant sounds might be perfectly appropriate, but they might not —leaving little room for maneuver or experiment. As I write, we are completing our final music mix in a recording studio in Islington, North London, ironically the converted chapel I had attended as a tadpole in the Boys’ Brigade and a stone’s throw away from the street where I lived as a kid.
The finished cut and sound mix were finished by February 1987. Almost exactly two years after Elliott Kastner blew his nose and dropped William Hjortsberg’s book on my table one lunchtime at Pinewood Studios.Written as production notes to accompany the film.
When the film was completed, the MPAA imposed an ‘X’ rating which would severely limit its release. The US system of censorship is most slippery in that because of the Constitution’s First Amendment, protecting freedom of speech, censorship, officially, doesn’t exist. However, if you want your films shown in a regular non-pornographic theater, you have to abide by the MPAA rating system. When I asked why we were given an ‘X’ rating, a shifty series of chinese whispers informed us that that there was “something offensive lurking in reel three”. It turned out to be a few feet of Mickey Rourke’s backside pumping up and down during the bloody, lovemaking scene with Lisa Bonet. Once I had excised about eleven feet of the offending footage (about seven seconds) they adorned it with a more acceptable ‘R rating. Originally, I had fatuously appealed the ‘X’ rating and duly presented my case, standing up in front of the always disinterested, immovable and mysterious ‘independent’ panel: a wasteful, pointless and expensive exercise. I finally acquiesced removing the offending materials lurking in reel three. I figured that a few celluloid feet of Mickey’s ass was no great loss to the history cinema.
Angel Heart has gone on to being a cult film in many countries. When the film opened in France, I went with Mickey to Paris for the opening. Everywhere Mickey went he was mobbed like a rock star. He held court ensconced in the demi-monde, darkness of his hotel suite — reclining on his bed as he entertained the assembled Parisian low-lifes and wanna-bees who crowded the ante-rooms and corridors waiting for their two minute ‘audience’ with “Le Fameux Mickey”. He was at the height of his career. As Adrian Lyne once said, “If Mickey had died after Angel Heart, he would be have been bigger than James Dean.”
I loved working with Mickey. Every day brought a new revelation in how he played the part. One moment he would be as word perfect on his lines as a Broadway veteran. At other times he was dangerous and unpredictable, as he improvised — twisting and bending the lines until they bore little resemblance to what was written – and I had to drag him back to what was on the page. From moment to moment he was a tough street kid, a vain movie star and a sweet, vulnerable, dented child. And, in all of that, was a fabulous actor.
I was lucky to know Mickey before he decided he would quit acting to become a prizefighter. When I knew him, he was the most exciting young actor in America. There wasn’t a female member of the crew who wasn’t captivated by him — and, frankly, most of the male members were too. We all knew him in New York and New Orleans during the summer of 1986 — before his face was beaten to a pulp by second-rate fighters who delighted in the hubris of a movie star who thought that he could have been a contender — and before the vulturous surgeons sliced, poked and pushed his face into a Play-Doh version of his once handsome self. As an actor Mickey was unique, original, mesmeric and, absolutely, he could have been a contender, until the demons inside of him chose a one-way ticket to Mickey’s own particular Palookaville.
Angel Heart was also the last film that I did with my producer Alan Marshall. We had been together as a director/producer team since our early days in the sixties when we made commercials. We went on to make three short films, and seven feature films together.
Alan was an editor in a commercials company when I first met him and he was already legendary for his conscientious approach to the work and no-nonsense approach to the clients, who he most famously intimidated. He became a television producer at the advertising agency CDP, where we met.
Like myself, he was from a working class background in north London but he came from Tottenham and I came from Highbury, and anyone who knows anything about football will know that these two places, despite their geographic proximity, are not close.
However, we worked very well together and I most certainly would not be the director I am but for him. He had a gruff, no-nonsense personality that belied an instinctive and sophistacted understanding of film and I learned much from him. He was an outstanding producer— strong and unflappable— and resolutely supportive of every member of the crew.
When our working relationship ran its course he went on to make films with Paul Verhoeven, Renny Harlin, Adrian Lyne and Marek Kanievska.
Film studios loved him because he looked after their money so adroitly and filmmakers loved him because he made sure every cent was spent making a better film.
All text © Alan Parker. All photos © Carolco Pictures, Inc. Stills photography: George Contaxis, Terry O’Neill. Cinematographer: Michael Seresin