AMY GREENFIELD: Yes. When I read it in college, of
all the Greek tragedies, it was the one that most interested me. And
when I got into film, I thought, when I do a long film eventually, it
will be Antigone. But originally the play didn't feel personal
for me. I just thought, "I know how to do that. Something in me knows
how to make that into a film." And those were the feelings, again, when
I said, I think it's time.
The idea was a little more frightening than I thought, though. Not Antigone so much as a long feature film. But I wanted to make such a film and I felt that I could play Antigone. I had different projects going at the time. That was the time when I tried more practical things like proposing something for cable television with postmodern dance--something I didn't want to really do, even. Those fell through, but an administrator at Ballet Theater at the time said, "If you can bring something new to Antigone, do that, don't think of doing a ballet for television."
Other people encouraged me, too: a wonderful professor of Classics at the University of Southern Illinois, Joan O'Brien, wrote an essay on Antigone and androgyny, which turned out to be one way into the character and a take on the text I'd never been taught, and which led to looking at the sexuality going on in it. She'd been a nun but "quit" (if that's the right word) because of the Pope's attitudes toward women. She loved my wild pagan female nude film dances. She felt Antigone/Rites of Passion should be that physical.
But it was when I started to do video rehearsals with Bertram Ross, taking his body and face as material for script, that the film really started. So the way into visualizing the words started with the physical. The opposite process from mainstream dramatic filmmaking.
Then it became clear that I had to find a dramatic structure for the film. I luckily ran into a weekend screenwriting workshop with Frank Daniel, then head of Columbia's Film Department. That workshop enabled me to begin and go on and on to reconstruct the texts from my own point of view as cinema.
Now, I remember the thing that got me to drop everything else--well, almost everything else--and concentrate on this film was asking myself the question: "if I had only one year to live, what would I do?" The answer was to make this film--and it took five years to make.
TP: So, clearly, your reasons must have been very compelling.
AG: Yes, but I didn't even think of the reasons.
TP: It strikes me from viewing the film that your reasons were far more personal, as opposed, let's say, to primarily polemical. Over the last thirty or forty years, people who have revived and produced Antigone seem to approach it almost exclusively as a polemical piece with a special message for our times. One finds it in college anthologies, for example, along with essays by Thoreau and Gandhi on Civil Disobedience. Your film does not strike me as being driven by motives or interests of this kind.
AG: No, I was not driven by those motives at all. I
don't understand them if you're going to do the drama, not talk about
it. The play is taught in most high schools and colleges and made so
boring because of such textbooks. My drive was to bring its really very
passionate life to the screen, and let the ideas come through that
passion. I think my motives were close to why an artist like Cocteau
would translate a certain myth or tale into drama, ballet, cinema,
because he felt it corresponding to something very essential in himself
and transformation of self into a larger sphere. He actually did a
version of Antigone which got to his feelings about Charlotte
Also, I think I was motivated by terror. At the time
when I started to conceive of and make the film, I used to wake up every
morning experiencing terror. I couldn't control it. It seemed to have
everything and nothing to do with my life. It was real but not attached
to something specific. Making the film brought me through it. Greek
Tragedy, like a horror film or thriller on a popular level, ultimately
brings the audience through terror via the fullness, the seduction of
But when as an actress I had to face the character Antigone's terrifying circumstances very concretely--going into the cave to living death--I found I could only make it real for myself--and so for the camera, by a personal subtext. It was too enormous to be real--like the Holocaust. So I had to find a small thing. Every year I applied to NYSCA and was rejected, just before we'd shoot in early September (the film took three summers to shoot, but that's another story). Anyway, the horror of going out there and being told by grant panels, "You are incapable of making this film," well that was just what I needed to arouse--in a very immediate sense, the way an actor wants, moment by moment raw--all of Antigone's outrage, fury, power, cursing, at the moment of her rejection by all the living. The chorus, which I internalized at that point, is a committee of wealthy citizens, and they absolutely infuriate her in their stupidity, their misunderstanding of her. And that drives her to her greatest power, in the film, the power to dance at the edge of the terror of death. It may sound relatively unimportant, but it felt like death going out there with not enough money and to needing not only to do the above, but give belief in the project to everyone else. I had to rise from my own personal bitterness to Antigone's power to curse, and the text gave me that ability to transform the personal.
So it was always finding layers of the personal and objectifying it. And "personal" can mean another woman's inspiration, too. There are great women everyday who defy the law. But that's the job of everyone working on a classic where the leap of imagination to internalize text and character has to be great. Now that I'm finished with the film and know what I had to go through to make it, I think what drew me to Antigone herself is something her sister, Ismene, said about her: "You are in love with the impossible."
I think you feel the personal right away, especially because you teach the play. I don't start with the play. I start the film back with the journey of Antigone and her father, Oedipus, outside society and the political structure. Highly intimate, and from Oedipus at Colonus, which was very personal to Sophocles. So there's an emphasis on the family curse, family law, before it expands to political law and spiritual law.
Anyway, the journey of Antigone was very much part of 19th century popular visual art lore--there's a picture I love of Antigone with one breast bared and Oedipus resting his head on her lap. So there was lots of material there to dig into and find my own personal scenario as daughter in relation to father. Leading the father who has a disability is a daughter's myth of both power and bondage, at the same time freeing and crippling. It's interesting that Freud called his daughter, Anna, his "Antigone" when she tended him in illness before his death. Anna was the inheritor of his legacy, but was also crippled in her adult personal life.
The father/daughter theme becomes part of a political context through Creon. One subtext of mine was that Antigone's been disinherited from her legacy because power went through the male line. Creon wasn't even a blood relative of Oedipus. Antigone was, but she was a woman. So Creon usurped the power of the father. And on one level, though one level only, Creon can be seen as another aspect of the father (in the film Bertram Ross plays both Oedipus and Creon). And on one level, my Antigone, anyway, saw their scene together as a person-to-person power struggle between two rulers, one empowered, the other disinherited, within the context of the State. But for the first fifteen to twenty minutes of the film, we see, on-screen, just entwined family relationships, the family romance of the prime dysfunctional family of Western culture, not only father/daughter, but other daughter/father, sister/sister, sister/brother.
TP: My feeling about the choice of beginning the film with the scene between Oedipus and the two daughters is that it does, as you've indicated, deemphasize the straightforward political aspects of the play. Beginnings--and endings, of course--are so important. But it also clarifies the situation for an audience unfamiliar with the story of the trilogy, especially concerning the curse on the family. There is this strong psychological bond with the father and because of the curse on the family, Antigone has no choice but to pursue the path that she does. It is all clearly laid out for her, but not just in cultural and political terms. I was wondering what you thought about how this relates to the political dimension of the play and how the question--which is really a question posed by all of Greek tragedy--of determination and free will fits into this.
AG: Well, I have trouble with such all-encompassing
phrases that have been around for centuries. If I'd approached the film
from that point of view, it certainly never would have gotten made, and
if it had somehow, no one would have wanted to look at it. I was
involved with the practical agonizing day to day decisions of getting
onto the screen the agonizing choices of the characters in a story
that's so great that part of its greatness is that it makes into truth
what in a literal way is really unbelievable at almost every turn.
But let me think. This interview is making me become conscious of stuff that was in there. You're right. The film starts with the voice of Antigone over a black screen saying, "The story of Antigone began before she was born." Before she goes into the cave, she says, "My birth imprisons me." The beginning narration ends with "Antigone chose to go with him (i.e., Oedipus), to lead him in the wilderness." So there are two extremes for her. A path circumscribed horribly by her birth and gigantic choices no one else would make, and once they're made, they lead her to a narrower and narrower sphere within which choice can be made.
It's interesting--the imprisoned birth--Antigone is a character who never changes. Instead, her choices keep her more and more on the track of her own character, and change everyone around her more and more. Then, when she seems to have no choice left, "Antigone takes her death into her own hands." Creon, so he won't get blamed for actively executing her, puts her in a cave to starve. Instead of dying passively and slowly, she chooses fast suicide, and it is that suicide which topples Creon.
In cinematic terms, when there seems to be no choice left for her, when she's locked in the cave, the camera becomes her in an extended point of view shot, and we see only the rock walls, as if there were no space left for her in the world. Therefore, we as audience, are her as she travels through the seemingly endless and claustrophobic and amorphous cave. Then, the camera comes to a dead end wall. We see her feet--she is climbing the wall. A choice. There's no way out, but she's found a way up. Then the camera goes wild and out of that frenzied camera movement we see her, like an African death mask, dead, but in a way alive still through the camera's motion, and her voice: "Antigone takes her death in her own hands." I actually was holding the rope up myself with one hand, though in the film it looks like she's actually hanging. I designed the "death" shot. I was totally active. It was an active choice. Her will had to be at the strongest point in her life to do that. It's a metaphor for taking control of one's own death, really terrifying to me, but very much an issue in our society now. Her final act of will makes for a release of energy, an explosion of events--Haimon's suicide, Creon's madness, and finally Ismene's heroism as witness. Creon, unlike Antigone, comes in at the point of most choice for himself as new ruler, and he chooses wrongly. Under a misguided kind of patriotism, he chooses to unbury the dead and execute for the necessary act of mourning. Like Antigone, he won't give in, but her force of will is greater than his. A shot where he seems to have most power--when he pronounces Antigone's death in a cave, is done as a mug shot--he's a criminal right up against the wall looking into the camera. The camera humiliates and imprisons him just when it seems like he imprisons Antigone. That's a twist in the free will vs. determinism game. And unlike a tragic hero, when he relents, it's forced upon him. And while finally he is vulnerable and cries out, he has seen his mistake much, much too late. His change of heart in burying the dead and unburying the living and his realization of his passion and tenderness as father for his son, both come too late. He is mad, unfit to rule even himself, taken over, unable to choose what he now wants--death. Bertram Ross' incredible reversal in the way he uses his body, from hard and straight to collapsing in on himself and soft, the seductiveness with which he plays Creon, makes the character fascinating, dimensional, very modern.
But it is only Ismene who, through Antigone's death, becomes free of that curse. Her choice to stay alive in the play was seen as a cop-out. Ostensibly it is a choice for personal survival, but it's also choosing to be powerless before unjust law. The film gives her a second chance by developing her character after Antigone's death. With her choice to wrest power and complete the vow, this time she emerges with dignity and a spiritual balance and calm which give the sense that no matter what happens to her, she's free of the family curse, though everyone she loves is dead. Her breathing is the ultimate necessity of life, and it's life which enables choice.
TP: We're talking about complex ideas that come through, yet there are so few words in the film. The ideas come through a brew of pictures and sounds.
AG: There is something fundamental that we haven't yet talked about, not only about my own filmmaking, which is very physical and visual, but about cinema in general which stresses these qualities. The text on the page is uncinematic. It had to be taken apart and resynthesized as cinema. The solution was to find some action-through line, for Antigone and Oedipus, then Creon, and branching out to the other characters--taking that as the core. It became clearer and clearer that that had to be the core; you had to move forward all the time through action. I couldn't have a chorus, not only because of money, but it would have made the film even more artificial. Instead, I used dance, motion, as an in-between area between real action, acting, and metaphor. Once I do that, of course, I'm going to show the two brothers fighting, and once I do that, they are characters who appear and who have weight, and so forth. Then it's a matter of generosity to the characters--as well as to the actors--I say, "Wait a minute, I just can't see Polyneices getting knocked off?" and then "Why is she [i.e., Antigone] so passionate about this act?" and so it leads to showing their passion together, when she makes the vow to bury him after Oedipus has cursed him to die, and that brings us back to the family and the curse. In the book, Antigones, by George Steiner, he keeps coming back to this inextricable bond within Sophocles' language, and to the eros connected with that family.
TP: To put it mildly.
AG: Yes, so there's always a movement, an impulse, an impulse behind the words. It's wonderful to deal with that and once you get behind the text and you say, oh, look what's there--that's pretty wild. Antigone says of Polyneices' body, "If I die, I'll lie with him," and you think, "Let's try that desire while she's alive." Then, of course, the action takes the film out of the area of abstract ideas and into this primal area. If you take out all of the other material with messengers and so forth, and concentrate on these primal scenes, you discover the strong action of the drama, which is laden with significance.
TP: This does partly explain the fascination of your film, in which we are not distracted by all of the connective tissue experienced through choruses and messengers, and all we are left with are these core scenes. There is no commentary, and no thread but the one woven by the drive to get the primal across.
AG: Which is connected with death. You said that in one sense the film is about the process of mourning, and the counter movement of that is the eros which infuses the drama.
AG: It's built into the action, the choreography. When the brothers fight in violent arm to arm combat, they die, two twins, in an embrace. And we see Antigone attempting to carry out her words, "When I die, I'll lie with him," when she kneels over Polyneices' body and kisses his lips, collapses on him from the attempt to carry him, and turns this action into rolling his body, then lying under him. Then, toward the end of the film, when Haimon falls on Antigone as he dies, that's real kinky romantic, and Creon over Haimon's body, gathering him up--here Haimon and Creon are both barechested, so it's flesh to flesh, both dirty and wet. The tragedy is that the contact should have been in life. I'm not saying "Eros equals death" at all!
TP: Even in these actions, though, there is the political level. Let's get into that aspect a little. On a low budget, and with the style of the film, how did you get the feeling of the State? I think you do, but it must not have been easy.
AG: Well, the political implications are all offscreen in the Oedipus at Colonus section. Only the voices-off evoke the City and the political power struggles. But once Oedipus leaves, that's when Antigone makes the decision, or is driven, to go back to the city because that's where her brothers' fated battle is going to take place, and she has made her vow to her brother. This places the drama within the city structure and, you are right, to deal with the concept of the state was very difficult. Now, I would be able to deal with scenes of masses or extras. But when I made it, luckily it was inconceivable because I didn't have the money--I mean it gets down to being so tight that even to have one more person there ... it gets so difficult. So the sense of "State" came through the location--the actual State buildings of New York in Albany, plus costume, acting, music, well-chosen words ...
TP: But I think the film gains from that forced economy. At least for me it does. There is something pristine about it in the way Greek tragedy is pristine. All the excesses are kept at bay and you get down to the absolute gut feelings and confrontations.
AG: Good, that's what I wanted.
TP: Just that image of Creon walking forward through the architecture of that building--dressed in black and walking so rigidly against the rigid contours of the building--captures enough of the whole idea of the State.
AG: Well, thank God we found that location, the Empire State Plaza--I must give my lawyer credit for that. I was just searching and he suggested this location when he heard what I wanted. And once I started shooting, it just became obvious how right it was. There we were right outside where all the State Senators meet--that's where those shots of Creon are, and they are the "futurist" buildings which Nelson Rockefeller wanted as a monument in the way Rockefeller Center is. There it was, the center of New York's political power, and Bertram Ross [as Creon] is absolutely marvelous.
TP: Yes he is. But one is also struck by the use of camera angles in that scene and how they contribute to the impression we get of the building--actually not of the building, but of blocks of stone against blocks of stone and this also works to convey Creon's personality and hardened position.
AG: Well, you feel those blocks of stone because of the light, too--the shadow falling diagonally, defining them in relief. The camera angles the action on a deep diagonal with an "invisible" camera zoom on his walking which increases its force. It's all what in "History of Art" we called "architectonic." So, you get that sense of Ruler and State just with one camera angle, one camera move, the architecture molded by light and shadow just so, but then centrally through the acting, Bertram's exact walk, how he pervades the costume, possesses the architecture in his thoughts. And the music--a kind of avant-garde military march.
TP: So, sometimes the sparest means force you to make the most of every hard decision, as opposed to when you have all the options.
AG: Right. It's interesting that you mention angles because once we got into the city, that was the prime camera problem--what angle could be and should be used in each scene. You think of straight line angles in geometry and sharp focus and outlines as "male" and soft curves in nature as "female," but it was only by getting in a female DP, Judy Irola, whose style is perfect for doing sharp focused tripod angles, that I could do the architecture scenes. And it was Hilary Harris (a man) who did the nature scenes and whose work is softened and rounded and was so perfect for those scenes. The dichotomies set up in terms of professional work are bullshit. The only thing that was male/female driven I'd say is that Judy was great in filming Sean McElroy as Haimon, and Hilary's camera on me was particularly fortuitous. Janet and Bertram fare well under anyone's camera!
TP: In that scene with Creon walking along the blocks, how did you script the words?
AG: I had to rescript Creon's scene, "the ship of State." How do you say the "ship of State" these days? I became sensitive that the term had been used in World War II by Churchill and now it has become almost disparaging--we are at such a different political point. And I rescripted that scene--that speech--to the Iran/Contra television hearings. These terms have all become cliches now.
TP: When you say you rescripted it according to the Iran/Contra hearings, what do you mean? What exactly did you do?
AG: Well, the speech was laden with empty cliches about power: We're at peace, peace at last, we are totally indestructible. It's the modern illusion that we can come to peace through war, or honesty through deceit. Or that there are clean victories. All war is bloody. Also, you notice that I put Polyneices in the desert, and always thought, oh, that scene takes place in the desert, but then I realized, wait a minute, that wasn't necessarily desert at all. These impressions derive from my own background--Jewish, thus Middle Eastern--but also from the current explosiveness of power, war, and the desert now. These things keep bringing me into contact with something very ancient in myself and I feel the links--somehow I think I've gotten the text together with something very Middle Eastern, like the idea of the city being in the desert--modern and ancient smack together. And, for me, as the person who made this film and dealt with the text, this is the way now to bring the personal and the political and the sacred together. I agree with Bernard Knox's view in his book The Heroic Temper. He felt that what Antigone was talking about in reference to these eternal rules within us had in themselves a political connotation.
TP: In other words, that the very assumption of eternal verities is political.
AG: Exactly. So Antigone's politics were out there in the desert. And to show what she had to go through, you know, to choreograph something like that involved all my physical strength--I hurt my back in that scene. It became very literal. What is it to lay my body on the line for this action which was life-or-death for the character?
TP: It certainly looked excruciating--that scene where you have to drag the body around and lift it. I'm reminded of productions of Antigone where the burial scene consisted of just throwing a handful of dust on the body, just the gesture--and here you are struggling with this body of dead weight.
AG: But that's what I love to do. A wonderful
book by Oliver Taplin, called Greek Tragedy in Action,
starts with a quote from T.S. Eliot to the effect that behind the poetry
of the text lies a concrete visual actuality and emotional reality, that
the poetry, as beautiful as it is, stands for an even greater beauty.
That became my obsession to fulfill, my law. And I would add a dynamic
physical world as well. The Living Theater production leads the way in
that direction, but cinema demands a far greater level of action in the
world. Also, I was inspired by all the pictures we have, from the
Civil War to Desert Storm, of the wounded and dead being carried off of
the battlefield. And that picture which has become an icon of the
Sixties--the student over the body of her slain schoolmate in the Kent
State protest killing. Antigone asks Ismene to "lift the body with me
and lower it." Those words and then the pictures came together to make a
pieta-like choreography. And the action of extreme backbreaking effort
served to show a development of Antigone's character from sad with
strength underneath, to anger with strength right up front--then she
could face arrest and interrogation by Creon. Again, it's making a full
dramatic scene out of the implications of offstage action. Also, in this
way, I reoriented the focus of the play, and the action in the desert
becomes political. I didn't know what my character's wild outrageous
kissing of the corpse, lying with it, screaming, ranting, carrying on as
precursor to sharp verbal knock-'em dead savvy in the next scene,
signified in terms of the actual history of law in relation to women
until it was stated beautifully for me by music critic Gail
Holst-Warhaft. I just knew that, for me as a woman, that's where the
text led. Holst-Warhaft wrote after the film was completed: "In the
6th Century, B.C., laws were passed in Athens and a number of Greek City
States to restrain the behavior at funerals and festivals. ... Solon's
law regulated women's behavior in public ... and put an end to wild and
Women's sphere of power was associated with wild calls to vengeance at funerals, what we might call hysteria. This display of female strength, which could, of course, be mobilized politically, was frightening for the power structure. Greek tragedy both gave voice to the power of women and restrained it. Hopefully, my film unrestrains it. Holst-Warhaft says that in the passionate movements of Antigone and Ismene in the film and Diamanda Galas' voice, which comes directly from those ancient laments of protest to make a modern protest against political imprisonment in some music, against the treatment of AIDS victims in another, that the film, "makes you understand why women's behavior ... could pose a threat to the order of society of the first modern state, a state that is still thought of as an ideal model for our own." So the threat of women's authority comes through that wild and disorderly behavior. Some reviewers, male and female, have found that female thrashing about disturbing. Yet, they find the wild and disorderly behavior of the sons of Oedipus in battle exciting. Interesting. Also, in the city Antigone becomes as rod-straight as Creon is. And Creon eventually becomes bent by Ismene in struggle, curved over the body of his son, falling on rocks under his own weight.
TP: I have another thought on Creon before we
move on. In the light of what we both just said about Creon's rigidity
and position, I wanted to mention something about his character that I
think is often dismissed or overlooked in productions or readings of the
play. I think Creon is actually more honorable than most political
readings of the play allow. In Oedipus Rex, when Oedipus
falsely accuses him of treason, he responds by asserting that he enjoys
every privilege without the headaches of a king and so has no reason to
betray Oedipus. Treason is the one thing he cannot bear to be accused
of. So the stubbornness and unreasonableness he manifests in
when he is the king and now has the responsibilities and headaches that
go with it, are part of what Aristotle would have called his tragic
flaw. But there is no real tragedy unless the character is of some
nobility and stature to begin with. As fate would have it, Antigone's
tragedy, like her father's, is not only to be the victim of a curse, but
to possess the same character traits--stubbornness and
unreasonableness--manifested not only by her father, but also by Creon.
In other words one can see the tragedy of the play as purely the result
of this collision of inflexible wills.
In psychoanalytic terms, it is tempting to see Creon's adamant stand with Antigone as a projection of his own stubbornness and willfulness, against which he must defend himself since these qualities only lead to personal and unlawful acts and anarchy, things that would threaten the state, which he is sworn to defend. What she arouses in him, therefore, is this test of his own authority and the integrity of his beliefs. It is not an overweaning ambition or greed for power that is pitted against her; he genuinely believes in the need for order--to a fault. This may all seem rather obvious, but I think to see Creon exclusively as a rigid model of patriarchy is to miss the great point of Sophoclean tragedy.
AG: Well, it's interesting also to consider how Creon stood on the sidelines for so many years. He was not in the direct line of power through blood, through the house of Laius. As I said, Antigone was really next in the line of power. But the ruler had to be a man. So, again the personal and the political come into this--as a woman (it comes up in a very wonderful, posthumous essay of Lacan's called "Antigone: Between Two Deaths") is usurping inappropriate power and finally, in leaving the dead unburied and burying the living, as usurping God's power. So, for me, while Creon starts out with an integrity of beliefs, his wrongness in what his sphere of power is becomes something of horror. But I know that some people see Creon as the tragic hero of the play. Sophocles' greatness is that no one has the same interpretation of him. What is astonishing for me as a filmmaker dealing with Sophocles is that to bring the language alive one is dealing with multiple layers. What I found from a transliteration by Joan O'Brien is that the language used is actually like that. For example, in Steiner's book [i.e. Antigones], a labyrinthine book which he meant as such, he talks about the very first words of Sophocles' Antigone:--which occur about twenty minutes into my film--and some of these words are not translatable into English. For example, the passage is "O, my very own sister's shared head of Ismene." For Antigone, Ismene's head is like her own--they are like Siamese twins joined at the forehead. You can't translate that into English, but in terms of cinema choreography, how I dealt with that was to create what we call the two-headed beast, clutching the heads--and being skilled dancers, we had to figure out how to move that way, clutched together like Siamese twins. Then, I realized that the first time the two sisters would have been alone to embrace in this way would have been after Oedipus died because he was always between them. So they embrace as allies. When they start going back to the city, it's a two-in-one journey. The two sisters moving as one body and head become more strongly orchestrated when Antigone asks her sister to bury their brother. You understand the totality of Ismene's refusal for Antigone. And it all comes from that phrase. And then there is the music, which brings out the hysteria behind the action and the words. So the task was to find cinematic layers which could give that density even though it's so displaced. And the hope was that since cinema is our language, our twentieth century language, that some of this would reach people.
TP: I think a good deal of it does. And I assume that from the very beginning, you knew you were going to find some solution to the problems of transliteration that you mention without using naturalistic dialogue. You knew this was exactly what had to be dealt with?
AG: Yes. Sure. Originally, I felt the only way to do it was to do it as an opera film, more specifically through using the Carl Orff opera. It was going to be in German and we were going to have subtitles. But then, luckily, I couldn't get the rights because it would have been dreadful.
TP: It certainly would have been very different. AG: I have to thank the music critic John Rockwell for steering me away from that. So the model was opera, but I knew we weren't going to use words so it became a real dilemma. I thought, "My God, what am I going to do? I have to start with the actors and the location and I can't use the words." So I called up my script consultant, Tom Cole, who worked with American Playhouse and on Laura Dern's first film--Smooth Talk. He wrote the screenplay for that. And I told him what the problem was and he said not to worry, to try to get great visuals, to try to overcome the words, to overcome that text. It's got to live on the screen, that was the big problem. Dealing with the off-stage action was easy--like the scenes in the desert and the cave. I mean if Sophocles had cinema, he wouldn't have had to describe those things. But when I got to the scenes where it was actually the script, the play, which was like this legal confrontation, this courtroom conflict, I didn't know how I was going to do it. So there was a point when I felt that the film is going to go into synchronous sound. And I told my cast, and Janet Eilber, the woman who plays Ismene--and who has a varied background, in modern dance, Broadway musicals, and Hollywood--said, "Amy, you're going to sacrifice everything we've accomplished and renege on your own originality." Coming from her, the most mainstream person in the cast, this really meant something.
TP: She knew you were doing something different and wanted you to pursue it. You seem to have had a great deal of moral support on this project.
AG: Oh, that's putting it mildly. In part, that's feature filmmaking, really. You can't make a film unless you have that. Even Chaplin asked everyone what they thought.
TP: So, when you were thinking it would be an opera, did you already have in mind to use the variety of music that is now in the film?
AG: No, only the Orff opera and Glenn Branca's Symphony no. 3, for the Oedipus section--which is where it's mainly used in the final film. It wasn't until the rights to use the Orff weren't obtainable that I followed the advice of John Rockwell to think of using all New American music. The operatic dimension grew again, in the editing, using more and more of these composers, until in the finished film there's music from beginning to end, by five composers.
TP: What made music so important for you?
AG: The play, the inherited text--and the insufficiency of English to communicate it. It was never meant to be a straight spoken play, anyway. The essence of Greek tragedy is operatic. The music was the link between my visual imagination and the words. It allowed the film to take off and yet stay on track.
TP: And what about the words themselves, and how one goes about using this language in a film. In your film they are all off screen, sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third. And each character has a voice-off of his or her own. How did you arrive at this decision on how to use the words?
AG: By a process of elimination until I found
what worked. For me, anyway, the words of the play were absolutely
impossible. Ridiculous, when actually spoken in a cinematic context. The
old adage seems to apply--you know, the greater the work of literature,
the worse for cinema. So, eventually the visual content as
edited was the screenplay and its realization. If this were another
culture, say traditional India which had a language of hand gestures in
dance that everyone could "read" stories from, words would not be needed
at all. But in our culture--and world--only the cast, crew and people
who know the text in their sleep--preferably in Greek--would know what
the film meant. But I found that with music, only very few words were
needed to make the story not only comprehensible, but felt by just about
anyone who had come to see an "art film," whether they knew the story or
not. After an initial narrative needed to lead into the story, the
narration becomes sound bits, punctuation, spoken lyrics to get people
into the screen and keep them there. It's an idiosyncratic solution, but
there's also a kind of truth to it since in Greek tragedy words were
disembodied because the actors wore masks.
On the other hand, to know just how the actors should speak the words was quite a directorial job. And then deciding just what words or even a single word should be used exactly where was quite an editing job, one not only affecting meaning but also rhythm. The hardest part was Haimon's death because of the way it was shot. People couldn't tell if Haimon died and they thought he'd killed Creon. Nothing worked until I edited in a rehearsal recording of Ross' voice that I had forgotten about.
When my mother-in-law came for a visit and saw the film on the flatbed, I stopped it right after Haimon's suicide and asked her what happened. When she answered, "He died of a broken heart," I knew I had it. Audiences don't seem to have trouble with such an unconventional use of words. They just want to know what's happening, to participate, to see vividly, to feel deeply. Anyway, that was only one of the many problems that had to be solved. And you get the feeling that once you deal with Sophocles, you can do anything.
TP: Well, perhaps because you start off with a text that presents many problems of how to do it at all, how to do it in the modern world, how to do it in the idiom of film, and so forth. So there is a certain set of problems there even before you start actually making the film.
AG: Exactly. Like not getting the Orff music
rights. This brings me back to what Rockwell said about the music. He
said, "Ok, the Orff is a cult work in Munich; if you absolutely want to
go in that direction, I have a friend there and I'll call him and see
what I can do about the rights. But you're living in the United States
now. Why use German? Why not use all contemporary composers? Rockwell
steered me toward Elliott Sharp and New Music Distribution Company, who
steered me toward Paul Lemos. Henry Montes, who plays Polyneices,
steered me toward Diamanda Galas, and when I listened to her records I
was wiped out. I knew her music was so powerfully in a similar place as
the film's later sections. So, then, I didn't know how to coordinate all
this--to talk to composers, bring it all together. My cinematographer,
Judy Irola, said I needed Roma Baran, who produces records, especially
with Laurie Anderson and music for film soundtracks. Roma's terrific.
She said that David Van Tieghem would be perfect for the original music
needed to complete the concept of the track, which he was. Roma was also
essential to the process of recording the words, because they were
recorded in direct relation to the music. She was the musical
I also had an incredible sound editor, Bernie Hajdenberg, who has his own post production sound studio. When he looked at the film and said, "What an interesting relationship between dream world and real world," I knew I'd found the right person. I'd been looking for a long time for a sound editor. And Bernie's very, very experienced; he worked a lot with Robert Altman in the Eighties. I found that the less I knew about an area, the more I'd have to use people very experienced in the industry. They know the rules and know exactly how I am both using and breaking them. Bernie was a joy to work with.
But instead of having a situation as in commercial filmmaking where you have everyone together and you designate roles, and they are organized by a formula for arts/craftsmen who know exactly how to make it work, this was quite different. I was the one who had to figure out the rules. So, I would say ok, we'll do the visual. I can't deal with the words yet; then here come the words, but I'm also thinking of the music; then here is the music to deal with--and so on. But it all had to come through me and through the flatbed--the editing machine. It was like composing the music on the flatbed, using it as a piano almost. In terms of sound, Bernie Hajdenberg brought the separate elements together. It is his sound that gives the real sense of unity to all of the composers' works.
TP: It is certainly apparent, as one listens to the film, that a very talented person was responsible for making all of this very diverse music work into a very unified concept without sacrificing the differences.
AG: Exactly so. The sound editing, and then sound mixing is what does that. Bernie's brilliant idea was to use wind. There is wind almost from the beginning to the end in this film.
TP: You mean actual wind on the soundtrack?
AG: Yes, wind on the soundtrack. Many different kinds--at least four tracks. The task was finding--in terms of sheer film sound--again finding that "fate" or whatever we want to call it, that slow sense of inevitability.
TP: As another thread that goes through it all, in other words.
AG: Yes. All the threads define meaning.
Different areas of cinema able to communicate different levels of
meaning in the text. Human relationships are communicated by movement
themes that are both daily moves, such as sitting, and have centuries of
meanings attached to them. There are many, many variations throughout
the film. The close-up moving camera picks up the variations, and also
what's meant by them. I've talked a little about the pieta-like
choreography scenes which really define the relation of the living to
the dead. One of the ways relationships between the living are defined
is through supplication. The characters are always asking life or death
questions of other characters. In the "old days" and still in certain
cultures, and the Mafia, touching another person in a certain way and
asking them to do something, bound that person to help or else. In the
Hebrew culture a man would grab another man's penis. Pretty strong way
of asking for help. I'd hate to think of the consequences of not
Anyway, in Antigone/Rites of Passion, life or death supplication is all over the place and expresses the force of relationship which impels the characters and moves key moments of the story forward. When Polyneices says, "Father! Save me!" he lunges straight belly-down, barechested onto hard ground and grabs Oedipus' ankles. But Oedipus rips him away. When Polyneices asks Antigone to promise to bury him, he grabs her head and pulls it to him passionately. When Antigone asks Ismene to bury him with her, she does the same while clutching and running madly with her. But Ismene turns away. When Ismene asks Antigone to take her back, to allow her to die with her, she slides her body down Antigone's body over and over. Finally, when Haimon asks Creon to save Antigone, he puts his forehead between Creon's thighs. When nothing helps, Haimon finally does a football tackle into Creon's groin, saying, "Save her." But Creon simply goes at his son's throat. Then comes the death sentence on Antigone. In all instances, except Antigone's promise to Polyneices, the life or death supplications are not only rejected but met with greater and greater antagonisms, leading to more and more drastic results. And each time the camera is used differently--different angles, moves, distances--the locations, light, specific emotions, cutting rhythms, music and, of course, the words, are different, all things which contribute to "reading" meanings very specifically in cinema. You get a sense of how a story can be told in this way.
TP: Can you give a specific example of how camera angle varies this movement structure?
AG: More and more, in the Empire State Plaza,
camera angle is used to build up complex point of view shifts, so that
the viewer feels the conflicts in the characters and a "right vs. wrong"
simplicity is broken down. And each angle is wedded visually to a
geometric use of the architecture. In fact, the demands of the
architecture, which were exacting--one slip of the framing and you saw
electric plugs, Nelson Rockefeller's sculpture collection, the
governor's mansion--largely dictated the choice of angles. Wedding
story, movement, architecture, camera angle, and light took a long time,
and eventually was quite exactly storyboarded to communicate the drama.
Within these angles, the camera (I'm oversimplifying somewhat) comes in
closer and closer, more and more active as the movements of exhortation
become stronger, more violent, and the consequences more dire.
All that passionate body contact and shifts of point of view communicates another level of the text: sexual identity. Oppositions are set up and progressively break down, and are set up in another way. Joan O'Brien's essay led me to see this. We can't say Sophocles was "patriarchal" in any simple way. He was bisexual, although that was typical of Greek men. Anyway, the tensions and ambiguities in sexuality are linked, through the words of the story, to the incest theme. I didn't think people would believe we were a family. You don't know we are unless you hear the words. Our specific identity as characters comes completely through the words. I was surprised to find out everyone believed we were a family, and that the body interactions give a sense that the film is "shot through and through with intimations of incest" as one reviewer put it. I don't mind that that aspect of the film seems shocking, although I didn't mean it that way. I have a feeling the contact of bodies wouldn't be so shocking in other cultures.
TP: How about the way you approached camera angles in the wide open spaces of the film. In other words, when you were dealing with that civic building in Albany, you had certain boundaries and interesting pre-set angles to work with. But what was it like in those open scenes? There are many moments, for example, where your camera seems to be very close up against bodies. Was this partly to solve the problem of how to compose an unruly space?
AG: The space wasn't unruly visually. The
"desert" is actually a gravel and concrete mining company on Long
Island. The natural terrain, dug out for very specific industrial
reasons afforded a lot of specific and imaginative ways of staging the
action. We even found an "oasis" for washing Polyneices and a "pyre" of
half burned mythical-looking wood there. But the terrain itself,
especially the jagged rocks in the cave location, was certainly unruly,
both for dancers and for the camera in terms of setting up specific
angles for specific narrative meanings and predicting how you would
accomplish complicated movement structures. So these sections weren't
shot as tightly, and there is a lot of handheld camera. The
unpredictable nature of moving had to be built-in, but if you didn't go
too wide and let the picturesqueness take over--well, you had to find
ways for the drama to be seen. Yes, that's what the buttressing is
about. Especially before Antigone goes into the cave and after Creon
comes out. Placing them at edges, with the jagged rocks in the middle of
the frame not only gave visual tension, but somehow you could see the
action more powerfully, and the idea of imprisonment was orchestrated by
the framing--imprisoned by the frame itself.
In the Oedipus section, the camera frames the groupings--Antigone leading Oedipus, Polyneices and Antigone, etc., pretty equally. But the camera's kind of continual sensing, moving through the action, slightly before or after it, shifts the frame around a lot and gives a sense of unsettling ambiguity, a continual suspense in journey until the camera comes completely to rest and heralds Oedipus' apotheosis as an end to that journey. I just thought of something--it's like the camera in that section, feeling things out, is like Oedipus groping but also Antigone's need to shift her eyes in continual watchfulness.
The brothers' battle, which comes after, moves from distant and calm to close-up and violent very quickly. The brothers are first small figures against desert. They clash on a hill, roll down, then the handheld camera moves in violently so that only flesh, limbs, blood fill the frame. This framing annihilates the differences in the brothers' identities and so sets up the morally doubtful and at first inexplicable nature of Creon's leaving one in the desert, while covering and carrying the other off. That scene really came to life in the desert, though at first it was so hard to get to figure out how to work in the desert that the day was almost over, and we shot so quickly and intuitively that to edit it into a form was hell. But there was such a raw physical life there that the hell was exhilarating.
TP: Right, well that's actually what I mean--the organization and coherence of movement in terms of the narrative requirements of this film, and how each "set up" had to accord with this. So this aspect of it was hard, then?
AG: Yes, very much so. And I hadn't thought of that until you asked about this. I certainly knew what I wanted. Getting it was another thing. Often my idea of how to get from one place to another narratively didn't work out the way I'd expected in the natural locations, especially when I was in front of the camera. But because we "lived" the movement in a way, the narrative was always there. But often it took a lot of editing to pare down, find those pivotal shots, the visual power needed to communicate the dramatic meanings. I think that some of the most emotionally involving footage is in the cave, yet that is the most narratively ambiguous part.
TP: Actually, now that you bring it up, I found the cave scenes in the end of a very different quality from the rest. There was almost an abstruse quality to them, as if you weren't as interested in making the action all that clear, or that you yourself were not sure what the action should be.
AG: That's absolutely true. There were several reasons for this. First of all, it brings up the issue of what the poetry accomplishes there. If you make it too literal, all of that darkness, all of what Nietzsche called the hovering, undefinable quality of Greek tragedy, would be lost. How can I say ... meanings just become so ...
AG: Yes. And they are just so deep, the place in us where there's no clarity, no seeing until it's all over. So what if you have Haimon stabbing himself. ... Of course, I don't pretend to do what the words do, or to reach that far into the invisible, but the film does become an undefinable cave world, going into the cave is like going inside, not just death, but the womb also; so there were those thoughts, which came out in the images captured by the cinematography. Hilary felt very personal things there. I knew that he had delivered his own son, and when I saw the rushes of Creon holding Haimon--he was caked with mud and spattered and so forth, the way he shot it--I felt I did have something to do with Hilary's experience of delivering his son. But Hilary poopooed it until he saw the rushes.
TP: What struck me about this whole last scene at the end is that Antigone's story is essentially over--she recedes somewhat into the background, and you have all of that belabored movement of the father carrying his son outside of the cave space onto the rocks, back to the setting where the film had begun. And so we have another father and another family tragedy. I felt there was, in the way you treated it, a kind of torch-passing there.
AG: Almost literally, in fact, when Ismene takes up Antigone's torch.
TP: Yes, but I meant that the focus of the narrative at that point seemed almost to dwell more passionately on Creon and the son coming out of the cave. Antigone's story is over, she has done what she had to do, and Creon is left to suffer the consequences of his actions. It's true that that is in the text, but you didn't have to have this action so physically stressed in the way the father carries the son out of the cave.
AG: But it's in the Orff opera so clearly. There are two important musical laments, Antigone's and Creon's, that are really high points of the opera. Some of the best music is there and Creon's is phenomenal, with connotations of a Yiddish lament. And, while I listened to that music over and over, I saw that movement. When Oliver Taplin first saw the film, he said that the most uncharacteristic, unSophoclean moment in it was when Creon puts his son down on the rock and leaves. Oliver said that the text seems to indicate that the play ends with Creon holding the body of the son and carrying him off with the connotation that they're both going back to the city. But what I saw when I heard the music was Creon putting his son down and going into his own insanity, his own emotion, being so crazed and going off--as Haimon had predicted that he would be: the ruler of a desert, of nothing.
TP: That sounds more right to me, somehow--to go into the madness alone. That's what is so terrifying about Greek tragedy. The other, holding the body, sounds more Shakespearean--you think of Lear and Cordelia, for example.
AG: Well, that's what the students said at Columbia. How can he say, "Take me death, take me," when he's holding his son? And it's also characteristic of Creon to the end--that while we sympathize with him in his despair, nevertheless he's left these two bodies out there on the rocks.
TP: And, of course, in the play his wife has also killed herself.
AG: Yes. I left that out because I couldn't bring in another character and I just didn't want another dead female body. In feminist terms, I wanted to equalize things. And then, I end the film with a scene which is more redemptive than the Greeks would ever be, with Ismene over Antigone, a feeling of both the end and beginning of the world. It's much more modern, it's looking back, it's the end of the world looking forward, it's a surviving witness heroism, which is what Ismene becomes.
TP: To get back to that question about camera placements and angles. How carefully did you have to plan the evolution of movements in order to work with this narrative agenda?
AG: I discovered what worked while tearing my hair out over what didn't work, until it did.
TP:And it's not as if you had the luxury of a Hollywood studio, or that you were William Wyler and could afford 75 takes for a shot.
AG: Thanks. Actually, it varied a lot. From
telling the actors and cinematographer for the first time on location
what the action would be--keeping it real, raw but unformed, as in the
death of Haimon; to exact storyboarding that was replicating rehearsals,
as in the visuals for Antigone's "Unwritten Laws" section, to everything
in between. But in general the natural locations were less exactly
planned, as I said. It was a process over time because working with
actor/dancers and camera was the screenwriting process.
Well, one part. The other part was the editing. How can I forget? I had an eight plate Steenbeck in the middle of our livingroom for two years. I knew all those pieces of film hanging in the bin and on the cores so intimately. Of course, now I know what I'm doing and to do another Greek tragedy ... well, I know a lot now!
TP: Editing is the last aspect I wanted to ask you about. You don't rely a great deal on match cuts or conventional cutting although there is a strong sense of continuity. You seem to overlap the action instead. There's a kind of disjuncture of angles and overlapping in time all at once.
AG: You're right about most of the cutting, in
the natural locations anyway. There are match cuts in the "City" scenes,
and there are intercutting conventions--kind of. I say "kind of" because
the action within the frame is so unconventional that even when there
are editing conventions, they are not read as such. But in the end what
matters is that the story moves from beginning to end visually. And that
was all done in the picture editing. Like dance, this editing is all
transition. The editing creates the story continuity, while it violates
what we think of as narrative editing a good deal of the time. Yet,
there are other rules operating. Musical ones. Rules of rhythm and
dynamics in relation to storytelling. Music videos and TV commercials
are put together visually and musically. But Antigone/Rites of
Passion is a long form story film and, of course, not made to
sell pop culture. Some of the editing rules at play are based on a
flow-through of a thematic movement, like the wielding of the torch in
the torch scenes. Some of it is based on rhythms building and breaking,
wave upon wave. I think that's the principle scene rhythm. And as you
say there's a combination of foreground action overlapping while the
angle jumps, this giving an intense tension between the character held
back and propelled ahead. Or the opposite: all but the most extreme
moments edited out, so that, for example in the battle of the sons of
Oedipus, they are face to face, then back to back, but you don't read
"impossible"--you read "violence." Sometimes, the way a scene was shot,
I only had one angle to work from! So, I'd find some "rule" for editing
from a single angle. And sometimes, a character will appear as if from
nowhere. At other times a shot holds after a character exits in order to
pick him/her up at a later time, but in the same location, without
people noticing the incongruity. But none of these things are done for
their own sake. They were done to make thought and emotion and plot
visible, feelable, involving.
I just remembered something in connection with the brothers' battle scene, which ends with Creon appearing over them, as if out of nowhere. Well, my sister and I would repeat a certain nonsense rhyme over and over when we were children. It just came into my head in relation to that scene, or group of scenes. The rhyme goes: "Early in the morning in the middle of the night, two dead boys got up to fight. Back to back they faced each other, drew their swords and shot each other. A dead policeman heard the noise and came to kill the two dead boys." Well, that's pretty exactly the way the scene ended up after it was edited. I passed this "revelation" by my husband, Robert Haller, who was also my associate producer and who went through two years with bangs and screams of the soundtrack coming out of the living room. He'd never heard of the rhyme, but agreed that it sounded like the way the scene is put together visually. The policeman is Creon, of course. And the next main scene shows the wild hysteria of the sisters together in the City and Antigone asking Ismene to bury their brother with her. Edited this way, I think the scenes (like the rhyme) are "about" unseen male violence. And the Law, which victimizes victims. Finding such meanings overcomes the conventions.
Just one last thought. In doing this interview, I came to realize that what we call Greek Tragedy has a bad name. The words summon up plays with people standing around expounding in togas. Obviously, that's not what we mean by the words. What I mean is--a dramatic form which invests the most inexplicable areas of existence with significance and invests the reality of death with the life-giving powers of light and action, and, may I add, the camera.
Printed in MFJ No. 26 (Fall 1992):Archaeologies