Dance of the Vampires Interview

Interview by Michel Delahaye and Jean Naroboni.
Translated by Helen R. Laine.

The exact date of this interview is not known for certain - perhaps May 1969. Most of this interview concerns “Dance of the Vampires” although Roman’s other films are discussed as well.

But the more fantastic you are, the more of a realist you have to be. That’s why Kafka is such a genius. He describes incredible things in such a realistic way that you get all caught up in it ....

Q: The Vampire Killers, which seems to us to be your most important film, is a film you had in mind for quite a while

A: I didn’t have any precise idea of the film other than that it would be a. comedy on vampires with a fairy-tale side to it, and would be made in the snow. And when I think of this idea today, I think of snow first of all. It was there from the beginning, and I spoke about it to friends as we were skiing: it would be great to have a sleigh going over the mountain and I also thought of all the things that you can slide over snow………………

Q: That corresponds quite well with the impression people probably get when they see one of your films. They emerge from a background, but at the same time, when the story is there, a background can be called for by an idea in the film. For example, it seems to us that the whole chase scene in The Vampire Killers (where the young assistant is chased by the pederast vampire) is built on a gag that goes back to primitive burlesque, and that the whole background. Was set up on the basis of this one gag.

A: That’s true. The idea came first and the whole set was built on this idea. It also determined the topography of the ground floor, the courtyard, and the whole thing. When I write a scenario, I always think of the layout of the place, but that time it was essential. A clear idea of the place had to be provided. Brach and I did our best, but despite everything we got a little lost, for there were lots of difficulties. It’s really hard to design sets. The set designer finally had to cheat in certain places.

Q: Many people have taken this film as a parody on vampire stories. We found the film very funny, but also very serious as to the “genre”

A: I didn’t have parody in mind. What I had in mind was a fairy tale, that is something that can scare you, but is also pleasant. And I also had adventure in mind. The two more or less go together, moreover, in children’s minds. They form part of the atmosphere I wanted to set up. You know, the way children want to be afraid without there being any danger, and to be able to laugh at their own fear. That aspect appealed to me very much. Sort of a trip to Disneyland, if you like.

Q: Was it the desire to make fun of your own objectified fear that made you play the leading role in a film for the first time?

A: It was mostly because it was very handy. It solved a lot of problems. I couldn’t think of any actor who could play the role as well as I could. I don’t mean to say that I’m a better actor than some others, but I didn’t have what people call a handicap. First of all, it didn’t matter at all to me that I was playing a ridiculous part, whereas it’s rather a delicate matter to ask an actor to do that. Young actors especially are very self-conscious, and there are few you can ask to jump in with both feet like that.
And it took quite a bit of skill or physical strength to pull certain gags, to fall, to slide, to carry the professor up onto the roof, and so forth, and I was afraid that would pose certain problems and waste quite a bit of time. Moreover, the character looked a lot like me. So why go to unnecessary trouble? This way took care of everything. But I must point out that I have no ambition to become an actor. It was simply a job to do, quite a hard one, quite an amusing one, and I did it.

Q: In your films, apart from you, there’s another interesting actor, Cassavetes in Rosemary’s Baby. He’s marvellous because he’s acting the part of somebody who’s ill at ease, and at the same time you feel he really was uncomfortable.

A: Yes, he really was ill at ease. But perhaps he’s a little bit too Actors’ Studio to play a character. What he knows how to play best is himself.

Q: He’s extraordinary, and there’s an enormous amount of invention in all his business.

A: Yes, but there’s too much. It so happens that people don’t make many gestures in real life. You can say something without putting your finger in your ear or scratching yourself.

Q: His gestures are both inventive and right, and all of them help to make the character disturbing.

A: I assure you that he scratches himself too much.

Q: But this might make the character he creates that way seem extraordinary and very complex: he’s someone who always seems happy, content, in love with his wife, and at the same time there’s a side to him that’s continually ill at ease, artificial, tense. That fits the character called for in the film, and everything he’ does corresponds with that somewhat false side in his nature.

A: What I find good about his role (and what I was trying to get) is that he’s not likable. If he had been a very appealing person, people would immediately have suspected him, because it’s a principle in mysteries for the most likable characters to be the moat suspect. This way he puts you off, and at the same time you say to yourself that he doesn’t have a thing to do with the whole affair. Because you say to yourself at first: the way he acts, he’s certainly got something to do with it, and then right away you say no, that would be too obvious, it’s plain to see that he has nothing do to with it.

Q: It’s the opposite of mysteries where you say to yourself that the first person who’s accused is definitely not the guilty party.

A: Exactly.

Q: But, when the baby’s about to be born, when he’s near her and tells her that everything’s coming along fine, you hope the spectator (even if he’is suspicious) will say to himself that she’s crazy, that she’s making a mistake.

A: Yes. Except that I don’t want the spectator to think this or that. I simply want him not to be sure about anything. That’s what’s most interesting—the uncertainty.

Q: A friend has said something about you’re film that seems quite true—that it’s perfect, but that there’s a dimension missing: the director’s belief in the fear that he’s creating, for Rosemary’s Baby is a film by somebody who doesn’t believe in what he’s showing, unlike Hitchcock, who’s really afraid of what he talks about in hi4s films.

A: That’s very possible, because I’m an atheist. So accepting what happens in Rosemary’s Baby would be to go against what I am and what I believe. As a consequence, I wasn’t afraid and I’m still not afraid. But I’d really like to find a sort of drug that would allow me to forget everything about this film and then go see it for the first time the way my friends saw it, to experience some of this fear people felt. Unfortunately, since (one) I made the film and (two) I don’t believe in God or even in the Devil—which makes my case worse—I am incapable of being afraid of my film, which annoys me very much.
I decided to make this film simply because I was so fond of the book. For a director like me, it’s a terribly attractive book. It’s like when you desire a woman even though you know that she’s a whore. That’s more or less what happened to me; I said to myself:
I have to make a film of this book, because I can’t not make one, and yet the premise of this book is rather foreign to me.

Q: Perhaps the advantage of The Vampire Killers was that you could both believe in the fear that you were showing, insofar as it was a childish amusement and a childish fear, and not believe in it, insofar as you kept your distance from this fear. Perhaps the problem of believing in it or not believing in it didn’t even come up.

A: In The Vampire Killers, the premise is that you didn’t believe in it. You’re afraid anyway, but you know that it’s so pleasant to have this sort of fear. It’s a principle of mine, my little philosophy, if you like, that when I tell you I don’t believe in God, I don’t believe in sorcerers or vampires, that means to my knowledge they don’t exist— but I’m never certain of anything. That is, the wiser I get, the more certain I am that you must never be certain of anything. Besides, the worst thing that can happen to people is to be certain. And that’s what’s most troublesome about people. For example, Hitler must have been very certain about his ideas; he must have been convinced he was right. Because I don’t believe he did anything without believing in it; he couldn’t have done it otherwise. And I think that Godard believes that he makes good films, but perhaps they aren’t that good anymore……….

Q: But at the end of Rosemary’s Baby, do you doubt the existence of the baby in the cradle?

A: How did Musset put it: “One must never swear to anything.”

Q: Did Cul-de-sac or Repulsion come from things you were really afraid of?

A: I’ve never been afraid when making films. I know that others are afraid, but it’s amusing for me to make them, and they’re only tricks. The razor in Repulsion, the slit throat, is one of the tricks of my trade.

Q: In your films there seems to be a desire to link fear and pleasure, and you use mainly feminine characters to do this. Whether it’s Deneuve, Dorléac, Sharon Tate, or Mia Farrow, one is aware in your films of a wish to show women who are at once gratified, tortured, and terrified.

A: Perhaps it’s simply easier to frighten a woman than a man. Fear may even be rather a feminine characteristic. It’s feminine for a woman to be afraid, and for a man to be afraid is also feminine, except that the man tends to hide his fear somewhat. But in any case everybody likes to be terrified. You can see this most clearly in children. Another very curious thing you will observe is that the reactions of the one who is doing the frightening and the one who is being frightened resemble each other; the terrified person makes the same outcry as the person doing the terrifying. I don’t know what causes this; it’s probably a question of very instinctive reactions. In short, people like to be afraid, and the proof is that they pay to get in.

Q: Yes, but one has the impression that the character played by Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby has no desire to be afraid. She has only one desire—to have her husband and her baby.

A: It’s not exactly fear; it’s anxiety. And she isn’t afraid for herself; she’s afraid for her baby. Now we’re in another domain; there’s another instinct that enters into play. I mean that people like to be afraid without there being any danger—and that’s the third time I’ve said that in this interview. And at this point (this is the case in The Vampire Killers too) you notice that fear is rather close to humour, which consists precisely of laughing at someone’s misadventures or at your own. And any fear that’s not accompanied by real danger ought to make you laugh once it’s over.

Q: In The Vampire Killers, the first time the vampire appears at the inn, to attack Sharon Tate, you begin to give a piercing scream. It’s as if you wanted the spectator’s anxiety, which was beginning to mount, to be broken off so that he can laugh a little and the two feelings can intermingle.

A: Exactly. Otherwise the film would go in the direction of drama, and I didn’t want that.

Q: But when one mixes fear and humour too completely one risks disconcerting the public, for example, Cul-de-sac, which in France at least was hardly a success.

A: That’s because people are used to specific genres and to the different conventions that define them. When you break these conventions, they’re not happy. You can break them, but it has to be done gently. It’s the same thing with fashion. At the beginning people found miniskirts shocking, and even repellent (especially in this country, where the French mind resisted this type of dress for a long, long time). Another example in films is Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player. Truffaut mixed categories, mixed conventions. For someone very sophisticated, it was a real pleasure (it’s a little like cooking: it’s pleasing to mix completely different tastes, but to a peasant it will always be a disgusting kind of cuisine), and that’s why Shoot the Piano Player, which is a marvellous film, didn’t do well in France.

Q: On the other hand, you’re the one who had big problems with The Vampire Killers. First, they refused you the “final cut” for the American version.

A: Before making the film, the producer told me that he would be the one who would do the final cutting for the United States, because he knew the American public very well and could help the film’s run a great deal by making little changes. Anyway, he knew that I wouldn’t agree to let him have the final cut for the whole world. That’s why he gave me that song and dance about the United States. So I made a sort of compromise a good lesson for me.

Q: What reasons did he give for changing the film for the United States?

A: In the end he didn’t give any reasons at all. It became a sort of revenge against somebody who’d opposed his views. He absolutely had to spoil the film. He cut twenty minutes out of it, and then he did wholesale dubbing. He dubbed my voice; he dubbed Jackie MacGowran’s voice. He also had a twenty minute cartoon prologue made to explain all the gags in advance, because the film, once twenty minutes had been cut out of it, had become absolutely incomprehensible. When I saw the film, I thought it was a joke; I said to myself that MGM would never be able to release the film in such a catastrophic state. But it was done in all seriousness! Then I thought I’d take my name off the screen credits, but I discovered that my contract didn’t even allow me to do that. The only thing I could do was warn reporters that I had disassociated myself completely from it. But it seems that I didn’t even have the right to do that.
But since they seemed to have certain reasons for what they were doing, I tried to get to them that way, and asked them to see the film in my version first. They didn’t even deign to see it! Not only that, they prevented the film’s release in London (where my version could be shown because I had obtained the famous final cut for Europe), because they said to themselves that if the film was something of a success there, their version would be sunk for sure. So the film never came out in England. In any case, they finally got their just deserts, because the producers got all the box-office figures and soon learned that the film in the original version was a big success everywhere in the world, whereas the receipts in the United States in the MGM version were lower than anywhere else.

Q: You have spoken of the technical tour de force that Repulsion represented, something that excited you and made you consider it a challenge. Did you work in this same frame of mind when you made Rosemary’s Baby?

A: I have less and less the feeling that I’m doing something new. Repulsion was my second film. After that, I may have become old and cagey. I arrived on the set the first day of shooting as if I had left the studio the night before. However, when I made The Vampire Killers, I hadn’t yet made a film in Hollywood.
But I did that the way you do a job you have to do. I no longer have the enthusiasm I used to have. I don’t mean that I’m blasé; it’s just not the same thing anymore. I don’t know why this is though. I tell myself sometimes that it’s perhaps too bad because I find less joy in what I do, but perhaps it’s simply that I am becoming more sure of what I do, that I’m no longer out to flabbergast people. And perhaps it’s this certainty that gives me a different attitude. But at the same time, since I’m looking for what may have changed my attitude, I can’t say that I’m really certain about what’s behind this attitude.

Q: Jacques Demy says that he admires enormously Hitchcock’s effectiveness, his clarity, that admirable personal signature you find in so few filmmakers, but he says that it is also a dangerous thing because it can become a form of senility, of sclerosis.

A: I don’t know if it’s senility, but there’s a phenomenon I observe in directors who are getting on in years that is very annoying; it’s sort of an obscenity. That happens to certain artists who discover that everything happening around them is becoming different, is getting away from them, and is growing younger. Then they acquire a certain scorn for all that and soon they tell themselves: so they think that I can’t do the same thing? Well, I’ll show them! And then they start kicking. up their heels and it becomes rather obscene. I think that Hitchcock is reaching that stage. Chaplin too, perhaps, though I don’t know anything about it really, but the fact remains that what happens to creative people who are advanced in years is strange. Aside from men like Picasso or Stravinsky, who remain young even now, most of them become so sure of themselves, and so capable of doing exactly what they want to, that they can’t stay young. And then all of a sudden (and this happens in the case of filmmakers especially) they do something that annoys you terribly.

Q: The detailed depiction of reality (that you paradoxically create in films whose premise is “unreal”) is doubtless both what stimulates you and what saves you from certain dangers, which lie in wait for filmmakers who are too sure of themselves. From this point of view, The Vampire Killers and Rosemary’s Baby are both quite minutely detailed. For example, in Rosemary’s Baby the two witch neighbours are as prosaic as they can be, sometimes to the point of being grotesque; at the same time they’re always up to something and very funny. Their voices have also been thoroughly “worked over.” The man’s voice sometimes seems to get into Mister Magoo’s register.

A: But Mister Magoo is a realistic character. He’s a cartoon version of a certain type of American who really exists, whom you can meet in the lobby of a Hilton or drowsing at an airport as he waits for his wife. Mr. Castevet is also a good representative of the type.

Q: At the same time, the Castevet couple plays somewhat the same role in the film as the old professor and his pupil in The Vampire Killers; they serve as a link with terror and at the same time distract you from the terror.

A: The difference is that in Rosemary’s Baby they themselves are what are terrifying. But for that very reason they had to be disguised as very ordinary characters. She’s the typical American Midwesterner, and the actress playing her has a Midwestern accent that’s hardly natural to her at all, but which I asked her to emphasize a bit for her role. The man was supposed to speak with a New York accent because he says he’s from New York, but unfortunately some of his Southern accent that he owes to his origins came back occasionally.

Q: This concern for voices, for accents, which confirms your liking for precision, is something that one unfortunately meets only too rarely.

A: I don’t think that there’s any particular merit in working over details like that. This ought to be done automatically. But not working over details when they need it that’s a defect.

Q: Well, far too many filmmakers have this defect. In The Vampire Killers, for example, I very much admired the way in which things that almost anybody would have found superfluous, especially in a “fantastic” film, were worked over the almost documentary aspect the film has concerning the Orthodox Jews of Central Europe.

A: It’s not at all a tough task to work things over that way, its even very pleasant, very amusing. Especially when you do that in a film where no one would have expected the slightest realism. So I do an interesting and amusing job and at the same time I give the public more than it asked for. That’s perfect, right? And honest.
But the more fantastic you are, the more of a realist you have to be. That’s why Kafka is such a genius. He describes incredible things in such a realistic way that you get all caught up in it and from time to time you begin turning back and rereading a little to verify what’s happening and saying to yourself: but is this possible or isn’t it? It all comes from the fact that Kafka keeps so close to reality that you can’t leave it. On the other hand, he makes you leave it all the time, so in the end you don’t know where you are. Even though Welles still remains my master, in The Trial it was a mistake for him to make the subject grandiose. For Kafka does exactly the opposite. We had a very interesting Welles but a mediocre Kafka.

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