Although born in Los Angeles and raised in a neighborhood of prominent people in Brentwood California, filmmaker Stephen Mitchell left his hometown - with the movie capital of the world, Hollywood - for Paris and his love for French cinema. Since then he has produced, written and directed twelve movies, created more than a thousand televised one-act plays, judged Best Directing in a Comedy Series for the Cable ACE awards and received a first-look deal with Tri-Star Pictures, Inc. for his TV-series “(Interview)”.
Simone Kussatz: As an artist it is the dream of many to live in Paris. Could we begin by talking about the two years (1979-1980) you spent there?
Stephen Mitchell: I intended to go for two weeks and stayed for two years. I wrote, produced and directed my first project “Montmartre” (in French) and a pilot starring Philippe Léotard while I was there. It was an extraordinary time and in the process I was privileged to meet Lino Ventura, Françoise Fabian and André Dussollier among other mainstays of French cinema of the time. I felt as though I'd come home.
Simone Kussatz: Which French films and directors struck your attention most prior to your career as a filmmaker?
Stephen Mitchell: Claude Lelouch frst got my attention with “Un homme et une femme” (1966) and later with “L'aventure, c'est l'aventure” (1972). Jean-Luc Godard's “ À bout de souffle ”(1960) and Jean-Pierre Melville's “Le Samouraï”(1967) were very influential. I still look at these films today and find something new in them every time.
Simone Kussatz: Having worked in France and the United States, what do you think is the biggest difference in American and French filmmaking?
Stephen Mitchell: It may be an unfair observation that is entirely too subjective, but I find that filmmaking in America is an expression of business and marketing and that filmmaking in France is an expression of enthusiasm for the cinema - at least in the circles I traveled.
Simone Kussatz: Aside from French films, you have an appreciation of the old Italian and British films. What is it that makes them aesthetically appealing to you?
Stephen Mitchell: No doubt there is an element of nostalgia involved seeing the cars and scenery of the era but I find myself being entertained by the likes of Alec Guinness, Robert Morley and Alastair Sim with a subtlety and finesse that I don't find with contemporary actors. Marcello Mastroianni had no equal anywhere and America wasn't producing films like Dino Risi’s “Il sorpasso” (1962). I discovered a literary and cinematic richness in these films. Even actors like Broderick Crawford, Anthony Quinn and Richard Basehart seemed different when they appeared in Italian films.
Simone Kussatz: Between 1985-2001 you shot a 500-and-half-hour episode of the TV –series “(Interview)” and lately with French actors and actresses. What was the idea behind it and how were they perceived here in the United States?
Stephen Mitchell: The “(Interview)” series developed a cult following that included the top actors, writers and directors in Hollywood resulting in the sale of many of my original stories to major A-list filmmakers. The people who had been inspiring me with their work were suddenly becoming my fans and seeking me out. It was an amazing experience and brought about a situation where Tri-Star Pictures was paying to see the shows before they aired on local cable. More recently, I began producing the show in French.
Simone Kussatz: At one point you received a phone call from Marlon Brando commenting in French on one of your shows. What is it that he said?
Stephen Mitchell: I did not pick up the phone when it rang letting the answering machine take the call - it was almost midnight. After awhile, I noticed that the machine was still recording the incoming message. So, curious, I turned up the volume to hear what was being said. A man was speaking in fluent French but with an abominable American accent about how many Mexicans were living in Los Angeles. I turned the volume off and ignored the call. When the incoming call continued for several more minutes - the machine was voice - actuated and would continue as long as the caller was speaking, I picked up the phone and began speaking to him in French. "Je suis Marlon Brando et j'ai vu votre interview à la télévision." (I am Marlon Brando and I saw your interview on the television). After we talked for a while, he asked to have a copy of the show.
Simone Kussatz: Can you tell us a bit more about the making of them? You said they were aired at Adelphia studios, but you shot them in another studio?
Stephen Mitchell: Initially I shot the program in Adelphia's Public Access studio but a number of technical and policy limitations pushed me to establish a relationship with a studio in North Hollywood that became a home base not only for “(Interview)” but for all the programming that emanated from the repertory company for film and television that I had founded. We were taping one show or another almost every day of the week for all those years.
Simone Kussatz: You mentioned that you don’t approve of American TV and didn’t understand the popularity of the TV-series “Friends”. Why?
Stephen Mitchell: I watch very little television these days though I am a big fan of “House”. I followed Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry in “Jeeves and Wooster” and I think the writing and acting on the “House” series are inspired. When a new actor would come into the rep company, I would ask which one was their favorite TV show. The answer was invariably “Friends”. Why, I would ask. Because it's funny, they would answer. I'll bet you that it isn't funny, I would tell them. Next time you watch it, laugh every time you hear a laugh on the soundtrack, then come back and tell me if you still think it's funny. They tried it and, without exception, they returned with a verdict of "not funny". The reason for this is that the laugh track serves as a post-hypnotic suggestion that the program was "funny". The instruction to laugh along with the soundtrack as they watched the show impeded the hypnotic effect - they couldn't zone out and receive the implant, because they were remaining alert to the content.
Simone Kussatz: Are your feelings towards American feature films similar to American TV since your correspondence with American filmmaker John Huston gradually ended when you moved to Paris?
Stephen Mitchell: My correspondence with him began as a spur-of -the-moment impulse. He was - and still is - a favorite of mine. I wrote to him addressing the envelope to "John Huston, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico" and was stunned when he replied. Previously, I had written to Mervyn LeRoy after seeing him on the “Tom Snyder Show" one evening. A few days later, I received a phone call from him. One has to remind oneself that these towering figures are, at their core, enthusiasts and share our love of film and filmmaking.
Simone Kussatz: You owned a film school and developed a new acting technique, in which an actor has to break up a sentence into phrases and inject different emotions into the text. Why do you think that this makes acting more effective?
Stephen Mitchell: The film school and acting technique came about as a way to ensure a quality expansion of the repertory company which was modeled on the old Hollywood studio system. To answer your question, emotions are contagious where words alone are not. The goal of a scene or a film is to provoke an emotional response, whether joy, anger or sadness. For each actor who appeared in one of our films or shows, the goal was to increase his or her following or fan base and that was a function of branding and marketing. Rather than concentrate on the demographics of male/female, education & income, I categorized the constituent audience groups into happy, angry, fearful and sad people. These were the wavelengths that needed to be resonated by each actor's performance and, thus, the technique I authored addressed these issues.
Simone Kussatz: In 2001 your book “How to start a Hollywood Career without having to go there” was published. Why did you think actors would profit from a book like this?
Stephen Mitchell: It was my observation that most of the actors in Hollywood originated from other parts of the world. They arrived in Los Angeles without friends or an infrastructure of any kind to support themselves. The book was intended to show those wanting a career in Hollywood how to begin their promotion and marketing while still in the comfort of their home surroundings. It was also intended to steer them clear of some major pitfalls to which newcomers often fall prey.
Simone Kussatz: Aside from a documentary about the tobacco industry, which you co-produced with Charlie Evans Jr, you are doing documentaries about cars, including a documentary about the Ferrari GTO and the Carrera Panamericana. Both subjects involve some kind of danger. Are these documentaries at all linked to a near-fatal car accident that you experienced?
Stephen Mitchell: I don't know if I have the full answer to this question other than to say that my interest in fast cars in general and Ferraris in particular developed when I was in the hospital recovering from the accident which was a head-on collision on the Ventura Freeway in Los Angeles. Two people who had been drinking heavily found themselves on the wrong side of the road and ran straight into us. I read a lot of copies of “Road & Track” magazine while I was recovering and became passionate about Formula 1 and European road racing in the process.
Simone Kussatz: You’re a contributor to “Sports Car Digest” and “Prancing Horse" magazine. What is your fascination about cars and what was the latest article you’ve written for them?
Stephen Mitchell: I was first attracted to cars by the aesthetics of their design - I was too young to drive them at the time. Later, I was excited by the dynamics of their performance and the sounds of their engines. The articles that have appeared in the publications you mention centered around my experiences with my Ferrari GTO and my encounters with people in the Ferrari world including Enzo Ferrari himself.
Simone Kussatz: Thank you so much for your time…
Stephen Mitchell: Thank you, Simone!
Copyright © Simone Kussatz
Photo: Courtesy of the artist