In my line of work I get to meet all sorts of starlets and hot at the moment filmmakers, but it's the rare opportunities to speak with legends that really excite me. Recently I was lucky enough to score ten minutes sitting down with Martin Landau, an actor whose big screen career has stretched from 1959 to today. Along the way he's worked with some of the greatest filmmakers of all time, from Alfred Hitchcock to Francis Ford Coppola, and he's made an impact on pop culture with turns in Space 1999, Mission: Impossible and even The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island.
Now, in the later years of his career, Landau has become a regular player for director Tim Burton. Frankenweenie, now in release, is their third official collaboration (Landau also provides a voice in 9, an animated film that Burton produced). He's also been one of the pre-eminent acting coaches, and so I knew I wanted to get his thoughts on the nitty gritty mechanics of acting, and how actors truly work with directors.
I want to start with the obvious question, about how you and Tim have created this working relationship.
Tim has created a playground and I like to play.
Is there a lot of freedom for you?
With a good director there’s always a lot of freedom. I haven’t been quote-unquote directed by anyone for 30 years. I come in with stuff and I figure if they don’t like it, they’ll tell me. If they don’t tell me, I do it. I think about it a lot before I make the choices. I like characters with an arc that start in one place and go to another. I try to inhabit it. Why did the writer write this character, and what do I need to fill in? I have never met two people who are alike in life, so I approach every character with thought to his predilections, his physiology, his environment. All of those things make a character different. I firmly all an audience wants to believe is that what’s going on up there is happening for the first time ever. I don’t want to see the rehearsals, I don’t want to see the slickness. The comic strips that we see ad nauseum today - fireballs and car chases and characters climbing up the sides - I prefer a character-driven movie. Magic! Create something unusual!
That’s a long answer, but Tim and I have a connection. I know what he wants, and I know when it’s not there. I understand his... texture. I can’t say it any other way. He doesn’t have to finish a lot of sentences with me. We’ll rehearse and he’ll come up and say ‘You know it wasn’t -’ and I’ll say, ‘Yeah,’ and we’ll do it again. Then he’ll come up to me and say ‘Exactly,’ and we’ll shoot it. If you listen to us, you’ll think we’re not talking to each other! It’s an almost kinaesthetic connection to what he wants.
Is that something that occurred right away, or is it something that built up over the years?
Right away. On Ed Wood. And Johnny [Depp] too. We had a rapport. We had never met before. When I first saw Beetlejuice, I said right after and I said ‘I want to work with that guy.’ I thought the chances were slim, then bingo there we were and my feelings were exactly correct. I like his imagination. I like his visions.
You talk about having this rapport with Tim and Johnny. You have taught acting -
I run the Actor’s Studio.
You’re one of the great acting coaches today. But as an outsider, as a non-actor, that connection seems like alchemy, like something you can’t teach. How do you teach students to deal with situations where there is no connection?
With great difficulty. [laughs] When I did press for Pinnochio I would say, jokingly, ‘I’ve worked with a lot of wooden actors in my time, but this is the best one.’ There are times when you meet an actress in the make-up department for the first time and that day you’re doing the meeting scene, the living together scene and the break-up scene. And you don’t even know the person, so you have to make very quick decisions. All of those scenes are shot on the same set, but they occur over the period of a year.
But they all get shot on the same day.
That day you have to go from getting to know you, knowing you too well and then getting out of trying to ever know you again. You wind up finding the actress less than... exemplary. You have to make the best of it. Sometimes the choices I make are to make the scene work. I would do something on the spot that I would not have done had she given me what I needed to get from her. I have to compensate for it by adding to my performance, adding what isn’t there, to get to that plateau. There’s work to be done.
Hypothetically, I’ll ask a director how he’s going to cover this. He’ll tell me he’s going to use a 25mm lens to establish the geography. It’s a scene where I’m getting good news and I want to do a dance. Then he continues to talk to me and says ‘I’m going to use a 200mm lens for the close-up because I don’t want any background in it.’ Whoops, there goes the dance. If I do this [moves forward] I’m out of focus and if I do this [moves back] I’m out of frame. I got to make a different choice for that moment.
Or I’ll say ‘Can you shoot that with a 50mm lens?’ That’s before I do anything. But I prefer not to discuss anything, I like to just do it and if they don’t like it they’ll tell me. But they don’t tell me, so it’s important that I know how the coverage is going to be.
It sounds like your advice for an actor would be to learn the technical aspects of filmmaking.
I think it’s essential. To know lens - when I first started in film there were no reflex cameras. The lens was here, the viewfinder was here, it was a Mitchell B, a big camera with a blimp, and so what the operator saw was not what the lens saw. They had to compensate. If the character needed to be center frame, they weren’t center frame. There was a parallax with the lens. They were never soft, those guys. They grew up with those cameras. The operators, they were clackers for a long time, they were focus pullers for a long time, by the time they got behind that camera they KNEW that camera. Today people come up very fast. I have to do scenes many more times because of soft focus today than I did back then. And today they see it! It’s not only the boom coming into the shot, it’s because they can’t hold you or focus.
Does the use of digital make them more willing to do more shots because they’re not burning film anymore?
I don’t know. They’d like to get it fast. If a guy’s working on a Steadicam he doesn’t want to walk backwards a hundred times at a fast rate, or go up a flight of stairs backwards. He has to carry that baby, too. They don’t want to do a lot of takes, just because it’s physically difficult.
So yes, film ratio isn’t a problem anymore. It used to be on low budget movies. But in the theater you do it once a night; the average scene you have to do it 15 times. If I have to laugh at a joke, it’s funny the first time, but [I have to keep laughing].
And I say 15 times because it’s a couple of takes on the establishing shot, then there’s a 50mm lens shot, then you do over the shoulders. My back’s to the camera but I still have to do it. I have to have the intensity the other way. Then a close-up. Then a tighter shot. Then a choker.
You have an amazing career. Your second movie was one of the greatest of all time, North by Northwest, with Hitchcock. Is that how he did it - a ton of coverage? I always have read that he had every shot planned out.
When I first met with [Hitchcock] at MGM, I didn’t even know I had the role yet. He saw me in a play at the Biltmore Theater. He personally took me around the office and showed me the entire movie in storyboards. When we got to the scene I would eventually be in, he said, “This, Martin, is where you enter the film.” And that’s how I knew I got the role! I’m in the back playing croquet and come in and eventually pour whiskey down Cary Grant’s throat. But I saw the film. The whole film!
He saw me in a play called Middle of the Night, Paddy Chayefsky’s first Broadway play, with Edward G. Robinson, which I toured with after the Broadway run. He was there opening night. I played a very macho guy, 180 degrees from Leonard, who I chose to play as a homosexual - very subtly. Because he wanted to get rid of Eva Marie Saint with such a vengeance. James Mason, to the day he died - he became a friend of mine - the most often asked question of James was whether Vandamm, his character, was bisexual. He said, “No he wasn’t, but Landau made a choice and there’s nothing I can do about it.” I actually caused him some grief!
Everyone told me not to do that because it was my first big movie and people would think I was gay. I’m an actor! I said it wasn’t going to be my last movie, and it certainly wasn’t. I’ve never played a character like that since. I also felt it was something people would know or not know. It was very subtle. I thought in Boise, Idaho they might not notice.
But again, I like to find a reason for being in a film. It was written as a henchman. Ernie Lehman added a line which was not in the script. “Call it my woman’s intuition” was not in the original script. It was a very daring line for the 50s. Men didn’t say things like that. Hitchcock loved what I did and left me alone.
I do spend time making choices, before I start the work.