DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.
Film, stage and television director Arthur Penn died Tuesday night in New York. He was 88. He directed the films "The Miracle Worker," "Alice's Restaurant," "Little Big Man," "Night Moves" and "Missouri Breaks." And he advised John Kennedy in his 1960 TV debates with Richard Nixon.
But Penn is best remembered for the 1967 film "Bonnie and Clyde," whose explicit violence, sex and sympathetic portrayal of two criminals affected American filmmaking for years to come.
Here's a scene from "Bonnie and Clyde," a story of two young criminals robbing small-town banks during the Depression. The couple, played by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, are taking leave of Bonnie's mother before they hit the road.
(Soundbite of film, "Bonnie and Clyde")
Ms. MABEL CAVITT (Actor): (As Bonnie's Mother) You know, Clyde, I read about you all in the papers, and I just get scared.
Mr. WARREN BEATTY (Actor): (As Clyde Barrow) Now, Ms. Parker, don't you believe what you read in all them newspapers. That's the law talking there. They want us to look big so they can look big when they catch us, and they ain't gonna catch us because I'm ever better at running than I am at robbing banks. Shoot, if we'd done half that stuff they say we done in them papers, we'd be millionaires by now, wouldn't we?
Ms. CAVITT: (As Bonnie's Mother) Yeah.
Mr. BEATTY: (As Clyde) Look, I ain't gonna risk my little girl here just to make money, uncertain as times are. Why, I know of a job, you remember, (unintelligible), we could've done $2,000 just as easy as pie, and I pulled up outside there and I saw them laws, and I said to myself, I said: Bonnie could get hurt here. So we just drove right on and I let that money lay.
Ms. CAVITT: (As Bonnie's Mother) Maybe you know the way with her then. I'm just an old woman and I don't know nothing.
Mr. BEATTY: (As Clyde) Ms. Parker. But Ms. Parker, this here is the way we know best how to make money. But we going to be quitting all this as soon as the hard time's over. I can tell you that.
DAVIES: That's a scene from Bonnie and Clyde, directed by Arthur Penn. He spoke to Terry in 1989.
The film's final scene, in which lawmen find and gun down Bonnie and Clyde, is one of the most memorable in American cinema.
(Soundbite of film, "Bonnie and Clyde")]
(Soundbite of car engine idling)
(Soundbite of gunfire)
TERRY GROSS, host:
I want to go back to 1967, when you made "Bonnie and Clyde," which is really a landmark film, in part because of how you handled the violence in it, particularly the scene at the end, where Bonnie and Clyde each take dozens of bullets, and their bodies twitch with the impact long after they're dead.
This film led Pauline Kael to say: Penn has a gift for violence. Despite all the violence in movies, a gift for violence is rare. Did you think of yourself that way, as having that gift?
Mr. ARTHUR PENN (Director): No, I wouldn't have defined it that way. But I guess you have to understand that we were operating, of course, in a totally different social context in those days. It was in the midst of the Vietnamese War, and the daily news, the news that we saw on television was - had body counts and numbers of soldiers wounded and dead.
And it was a time where it seemed to me that if we were going to depict violence, that we would be obliged, really, to depict it accurately, with the kind of terrible, frightening volume that one sees when one genuinely is confronted by violence. And that's what we did in "Bonnie and Clyde."
Also, we were doing it at the same time with a kind of at the end of the film, with an attempt to raise these two characters to a kind of faintly mythic proportion. So it was done in an extraordinarily complicated, technical way, but the end result was to sort of propel them upward into myth. And that was the attempt, at least. And to some degree, I think we succeeded. We also succeeded in upsetting an awful lot of people.
GROSS: Yeah. Can I ask you how you choreographed and shot that last sequence, where Bonnie and Clyde are murdered with dozens of bullets?
Mr. PENN: Yes, but I'm afraid it'll be hopelessly technically difficult. But let me try and give you a short-volume answer, okay?
GROSS: Oh, please, yeah.
Mr. PENN: All right. One of the things I attempted to do was to have it in different speeds. And the way you achieve slow motion in film is by actually running the film faster so that many more frames are exposed, and that's what produces slow motion.
So the intention there was to get this kind of spastic motion of genuine violence, at the same time, the attenuation of time that one experiences when you see something like a terrible automobile accident or, in my case, certain occurrences in the war.
It was this extraordinary stretch of time while these events were taking place. And so what I did was I ganged four cameras together, all running at different speeds, some at very, very, very high speed and some at just double normal speed, some at four times normal speed. It was to get this kind of spastic balletic violence. That was really the attempt, to really join time and space. And that's how we did it, in layman's terms, without getting into the technical aspects of it too deeply.
GROSS: Now, I was just running back that scene last night on my VCR, and I think the part where you really see the slowed-down action is just when Warren Beatty takes the first bullet and falls to the ground.
Mr. PENN: You were aware of it there, but it runs all the way through the scene. It's all done in different time motions, all the way through to the very end of the scene, including Faye falling in the car and her hand slowly bouncing, bouncing and then stopping. All of that was done by these four cameras in different speeds.
GROSS: Correct me if I'm wrong: The sound of the bullets sounds like it's real time.
Mr. PENN: Exactly, exactly. We kept that we decided to do it I decided to do it at a visual expansion of time and an auditory continuum of time in normal - apparently normal extension of time.
GROSS: Why, for disorientation?
Mr. PENN: No, actually for orientation. I thought if we disoriented the sound as well as we disoriented the film that we would then be clearly engaged in the movie aspect of it, and I didn't want you particularly to be aware of the medium at that point. I was hoping that you would be caught totally by the nature of the action on the screen.
GROSS: Was there a code in existence at the time that you made "Bonnie and Clyde"?
Mr. PENN: Oh, yes.
GROSS: What did the code say about violence, and did you have any problem getting the film through, because for its time, it was extreme?
Mr. PENN: Now, may I try to correct a couple of things?
GROSS: Yeah, please, yeah.
Mr. PENN: Yeah, first of all, it was not extreme. What it was was that it became a cause c�l�bre because the critic at the time of the New York Times had decided to engage in a campaign against what he perceived as violence in films. And he was really objecting to many other kinds of films. When this came along, however, it provided him with the perfect launching pad for a real diatribe against our film and violence in film. And somehow we remained tainted with that.
Now, he's talking about one kind of violence. Pauline Kael is talking about another. And it's Pauline Kael's kind of violence that I'm really responding to with - as feeling it accuracy and complimentary, because there's gratuitous, mindless violence, and then there is the depiction of how it really is. And I think that we depicted that by not doing it in an ordinary reportorial style.
God knows, we've been imitated thousands and thousands of times now by television shows. Every time you see kind of somebody attempting violence, they go into that basic slow motion. Well, in American films, at least, we did it first.
GROSS: You're talking about Kael here. Let me quote her again. She says that you put the sting back in death.
Mr. PENN: Well, in as I say, in a context of the times, where we seeing it on the 6 o'clock news all over the country: bodies, helicopters crashing, people being killed, young men being rushed to the ambulances. There was a kind of a desensitization in the nation to violence. And it seems to us, to me, that it was important to depict it as it really is.
GROSS: You fought in World War II.
Mr. PENN: Yes.
GROSS: Were there images that stayed with you that influenced the way you've handled violence in your films?
Mr. PENN: Yes.
GROSS: Can you talk about that a little?
Mr. PENN: Well, they just simply were images. They were images mostly during the Battle of the Bulge. And they I saw them. And they were terrifying.
GROSS: Were you injured yourself?
Mr. PENN: No, no. I was very fortunate. I wasn't really engaged in much action at all. But what little bit of action I saw was more action than I ever want to see again.
DAVIES: Director Arthur Penn, speaking with Terry Gross in 1989. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's 1989 interview with director Arthur Penn, who died Tuesday at the age of 88.
GROSS: Can we go back to 1958, to your first film, "The Left Handed Gun," which starred Paul Newman?
Mr. PENN: Please.
GROSS: And this was a psychological interpretation of the Billy the Kid story. How did you feel about making your movie debut in a Western that was going to be a new type of take on the genre?
Mr. PENN: Well, I felt rather exalted. First of all, the opportunity to make a film was a pretty heady opportunity. And then, of course, to be together with old friends - Fred Coe was the producer of it, Paul Newman, with whom I'd worked previously in television and to be able to do a nice, modest little Western that had a quite different slant to it than conventional Westerns had had up to that point.
GROSS: Did you feel that you and Newman took risks with his performance?
Mr. PENN: Oh, I hope so.
GROSS: Yeah, what kind of risks? What were you...
Mr. PENN: Well, we went from the sort of basic, tight-jawed, laconic Western hero who said yup and nope, to somebody who was engaged in other kinds of interpersonal relationships. And they were visible in that film. And I think that that was what sort of rather startled the American critics, although it, quite fortunately for me, delighted the European critics, most particularly Andre Bazin.
GROSS: There's a shot I have to ask you about. There's a scene where Paul Newman and a woman who's married to one of his friends kiss. And that scene kind of dissolves or cuts into a flame, a fire.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PENN: A fire.
GROSS: And I was wondering, you know, whenever you see scenes like that in the movie, you wonder if it's, like, a literal interpretation of yes, and then they had sex, and we're not going to show it, here's the heat of the flame. Do you know what I mean?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PENN: I'm afraid that you're quite accurate about that. You know, this was early filmmaking.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PENN: And every once in a while, I got a little too romantic and too poetic, and it was more than a little embarrassing.
GROSS: You feel embarrassed about that shot now?
Mr. PENN: Well, it's evidence of somebody who was just finding out what the medium could do. I was very intoxicated by the medium of film, having come out of live TV, where we didn't have the opportunity to edit and prepare scenes and so forth, and then to be able to make a film.
GROSS: All right, well, sure, you worked on "Philco Playhouse" and "Playhouse 90."
Mr. PENN: That's right. That's right.
GROSS: Had you studied the method?
Mr. PENN: Sure. You mean the acting method.
GROSS: Right, exactly.
Mr. PENN: Stanislavski, oh, yes. Yes, I've been associated with the Actors Studio for 25 years.
GROSS: Could you put into words how you've applied that as a director? I realize that might be too hard or too broad.
Mr. PENN: Well, and in the shortest possible answer, I think it was an attempt to break stereotypes. And that's really what it was, to get into some of the interior life of the characters. And that's what really we attempted to do in "Left Handed Gun" was to take a Western and strip it of its kind of prototypical behavior and begin to get it down to direct, recognizable interpersonal behavior.
GROSS: Well, you directed both the stage and screen version of "The Miracle Worker." Did you have to rethink your presentation when you moved it from stage to screen?
Mr. PENN: Yes, I did, but I wish I'd done it more so. I wish I'd done more of understanding how the cinema could do certain things for us that instead we sort of articulated in language, and that wasn't necessary.
GROSS: What, for instance, would you have done differently now?
Mr. PENN: Well, there are certain things in "The Miracle Worker" on the stage where we needed to have a voice of sort of opposition in order to have an obstacle, which is really what makes for a certain kind of conflict. And in that case, it was Captain Keller, Helen Keller's father, who was resigned to her terrible fate as a child who had no hearing and no sight, and Annie Sullivan, who of course insisted that the child could be in some way reached or hoped that she could.
Well, on stage, it was necessary to give all that language and to have scenes that did it. When we put it on film, however, I wish I had been aware that the camera could very well have provided us with a much more eloquent version of the enormity of Annie's problem and we wouldn't have had to quite articulate it so melodramatically as we did in the play. But that was because it was only my second film, and I didn't know what I was doing quite.
GROSS: I watched that film about a year ago and was really surprised at how moody and atmospheric it looked. I had forgotten that.
Mr. PENN: Yes, well, we all have a nostalgia for black and white films, and they're really remarkable in terms of being able to evoke mood. I wish we all were doing many more of them.
GROSS: You'd like to work more in black and white?
Mr. PENN: I'm always attracted by that, yes, as a medium, yeah. Sometimes, I go and I feel as if the screens are just so brilliantly colored you could practically get blood sugar from it.
GROSS: Do you have actors improvise much on the set?
Mr. PENN: No, not really. Not really. Yeah, this is such an elaborate subject, but improvisation, as it's practiced on a lot of movie sets, is not really improvisation. It's actors writing lines on the spur of the moment. And that doesn't thrill me.
Now, there are certain people who can do it, and every once in a while, they come up with some wonderful stuff. Brando does it and does it wonderfully. But for the most part, I prefer not to really improvise. On the other hand, I don't really start addressing the language of the script right off the bat, either. It's just a way of sort of arriving at a scene in a much less formal manner until we're really ready to shoot. And at that point, I pretty much insist upon having the language of the script.
GROSS: My guest is film director Arthur Penn, and his new film is "Penn & Teller Get Killed."
Your brother Irving was an acclaimed fashion photographer whose work was shown in many museums.
Mr. PENN: Is, is.
GROSS: Is shown in many museums, yes. And I'm wondering if there was something in your background when you were growing up together that you think led you both to such visual directions.
Mr. PENN: Well, I would like to be able to point my finger directly at it, but it doesn't really exist. We didn't spend an awful lot of time together when we were growing up. We were just two children in a family where there was divorce at an early age, and I went off in another direction, living with other people during my childhood, until I was returned to Philadelphia at the time of the last year of junior high school. And that's when I sort of rejoined my brother, and we spent several years together at that point.
GROSS: Do you remember the first movie you ever saw?
Mr. PENN: No, I don't because it traumatized me. I went to see a horror film with my brother, and I ended up crouching down under the seat. I remember that. It was in some theater on the East Side of New York. And I didn't then go back to films for years.
GROSS: Because you were so afraid from this movie?
Mr. PENN: Yes.
GROSS: Does your brother remember what the movie was?
Mr. PENN: No, we no, we were both very young. I must have been five, and he was probably 10 at that point.
GROSS: So when was the next time you went back?
Mr. PENN: Well, it wasn't until I was an adolescent in Philadelphia. And I began to then be able to go to films with some pleasure. And then finally when I saw "Citizen Kane," that was really the turning point in terms of gratification from film.
GROSS: Well, looking back now as an adult and as a film director, what does it say to you that this movie, whatever the movie was, had such an impact on you that you were terrified and wouldn't even go back into the theater? And what does it say about the power of movies to you, and...
Mr. PENN: Well, there's no doubt about the power of movies. It's what in certain circles they call a counterphobic reaction, I guess, which is you get frightened by something, and finally you decide instead of staying frightened by it, you join it. And that seems to have been what turned out to be the case in my life.
But I had never anticipated it. I never anticipated being in film. I always was drawn toward the theater as an adolescent.
GROSS: Would you like to scare children with your movies?
Mr. PENN: I certainly wouldn't.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PENN: No, I think the films that we're seeing nowadays are much too scary. I think they're terrible, actually. I think the degree of violence in them and the basic simplemindedness of the plotting seems to me to be appalling.
Most every practically every other film is about some renegade cops who have to go out and get these big bad guys. But it's sort of simpleminded. I could wish at least for the Western to come back. It was a nice morality tale, you know. These are not even moral films as far as I'm concerned.
GROSS: So really, it's the artfulness and morality of the violence that...
Mr. PENN: Attracts me, yeah. I mean, I think there's something eloquent to be said about that and not necessarily always involving violence. I have a nostalgia for films like "The Miracle Worker," you know. I would like once, sometime in the foreseeable future, to go to the theater, the film theater, and see something which was genuinely enlightening, even a very good love story. There are far too few of those.
We've got all those macho executives out there doing macho films, and I think maybe we need some more feminine touches in choices of material.
DAVIES: Director Arthur Penn, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 1989. Penn died Tuesday in New York. He was 88. Here's music from Arthur Penn's film "Mickey One," featuring Stan Getz on saxophone. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.