“Pop Culture Becomes Part of Your Autobiography”: Legendary Director Peter Bogdanovich on His First Theatrical Release Since 2001

Interviewing Peter Bogdanovich is intimidating, and not just because he made some of the most memorable movies of one of Hollywood’s most memorable eras. He’s also a great interviewer himself — if you haven’t read his collections of interviews with the stars and directors of the movies’ golden age, get on that — having started out as a film journalist (and becoming a close friend and booster to many of his idols, including Orson Welles and Howard Hawks) before making the leap to feature filmmaking, initially under the tutelage of (who else but) Roger Corman. From there, he moved into what was rapidly becoming the mainstream, positioning himself as one of the key “Film Brats” of the New Hollywood movement, primarily via a trio of masterpieces (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, What’s Up Doc) that paid homage to the movies and genres Bogdanovich knew and loved, while taking advantage of the era’s new freedom in adult themes and content.

His latest movie, She’s Funny That Way (which he co-wrote with ex-wife Louise Stratten), isn’t quite up to the level of those classics, but it’s a lot of fun anyway — an old-school screwball comedy, filled with kooky characters, clockwork convergences, and improvised half-truths. He’s got an ace ensemble cast, including Owen Wilson, Imogen Poots, Will Forte, Jennifer Aniston, Ryhs Ifans, Richard Lewis, and the great Kathryn Hahn (who rattles off Bogdanovich’s rat-tat-tat admonishments in a style that legitimately recalls Hepburn). And there’s also a small but memorable role for his old partner and frequent star Cybill Shepard, marking the first time he’s directed her since 1990.

More than anything, it’s just a pleasure to see him back behind the wheel of a feature film; She’s Funny That Way is his first theatrical release since the wonderful, underrated The Cat’s Meow back in 2001. I asked him about what he’s been up to during that hiatus, as well as screwball comedy, becoming a mentor, and (of course) superhero movies, in a recent telephone interview.

The cast of "She's Funny That Way"

Flavorwire: One of the reasons I liked the new film is because it’s a screwball comedy, a style you’ve riffed on throughout your career. What you have learned about the genre through returning to it — what did you know going into this film that you didn’t on What’s Up Doc, or They All Laughed?

Peter Bogdanovich: Well, that’s a good question, but I don’t know quite how to answer it. You know, each film that you do has its own sort of thing, and I didn’t think that this was like What’s Up Doc or They All Laughed. I suppose it has certain resemblances to Noises Off because it was about a theater company. But really, we just sat down and said, Let’s write a comedy. We had a couple of ideas; one was the “squirrels to the nuts” reference, from Lubitsch’s film [Cluny Brown], and the other was the idea of somebody paying an escort to stop being an escort — which I had done to a couple of escorts in Singapore, when I was making Saint Jack. And then we just sort of wrote it, you know, and let it go and I like a lot of characters, so I thought, let’s have a detective following him, and that makes it all more complicated, and then we thought about the therapist… I can’t really recount how we wrote the damn thing! In fact, we didn’t write it, we recorded it on a tape recorder and then somebody typed it.

I don’t know that I can answer that question much better than that! Every script has its own thing, you know, every movie has its own beginning, middle, and end. We weren’t really thinking of other pictures when we did this one.

What films would you define as perfect screwball comedies?

Well, I think Twentieth Century, with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard, Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century. It Happened One Night, The Awful Truth, The Lady Eve. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. Bringing Up Baby.

And what are the qualities of those classic screwball comedies that you’re hoping to recapture in a film like this?

I just like the complications, you know. David Chase saw this movie in Venice, and he said to me, “How do you do that kind of complicated thing, how do you keep track of all those characters?” [Laughs.] And I said, “David, you did on your series [The Sopranos], for God’s sake.” He said, “But I didn’t have that kind of a complicated thing!” Anyway, I like that, I find that fun to do. The master of French farce, Georges Feydeau, had a sort of a maxim: the one person that must not come into the room, must come into the room. And we kept that alive, certainly.

Imogen Poots and Owen Wilson in "She's Funny That Way"

This is your first fiction film in a good long while — too long, for my money — and while it’s not as extreme, I can’t help but draw a line to the way that Orson Welles wasn’t directing as much as he deserved to, around this same age. Was there any particular advice or inspiration that he gave you, that’s helped you get through some of these drier spells, as a director?

He just kept going. He kept writing scripts, and trying to get ’em made. And I didn’t do that in the last ten years or so — I wasn’t trying to get anything done that I couldn’t get done. They came to me with a couple of scripts that I said I would do, and then those things fell apart because the producers weren’t very good. And I didn’t care that much whether we did it or not, because maybe I was gonna do it, it never became real.

But I was busy doing what I did: I did The Sopranos for six years, I directed one of those; I did a couple of specials for television; I did a big book about actors, a 600-page book about actors that came out in 2004; I was busy, you know. I did a four-hour documentary on Tom Petty that won a Grammy for me. And I loved that. That took two years, though. I redid a documentary on John Ford, which I had done back in the late ’60s, early ’70s, and I made it much better, I think. So I was very busy. And we really shot this picture two years ago now. It was a year in post, and then we showed it at Venice last year, in August, this same version. It just took a long time to get it out there, because the first distributor turned out to not have any money! [Laughs.] Which lost us about six months.

So that’s the story, and I’ve got a picture now that I’m gonna do shortly, I hope, and I think Brett Ratner’s gonna produce it. I think I’ll be more active in features for the next while, if everything goes according to plan.

Jennifer Aniston and Peter Bogdanovich on the set of "She's Funny That Way"

You mention Brett Ratner, who’s a younger filmmaker who admires your work and is championing you now — and to that end, two of the executive producers on She’s Funny That Way are Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. And that’s a testament to what an inspiration you’ve been for a lot of the young directors who’ve come after you, and have your same reverence for the artists who preceded them. How does it feel to be that kind of mentor or inspiration to them, the way artists like Orson Welles and John Ford were to you?

Well, it’s peculiar! Both Wes and Noah started calling me “Pop,” so I called them my sons, I have son Wes and son Noah. They’ve been complimentary, and also very helpful in getting this picture done. And Quentin [Tarantino] was a booster of mine, and it’s very nice. It is a little strange, but then I’m also getting used to the fact that I’m now close to the age that John Ford and Howard Hawks were when I met them! Which is a bit… off-putting, frankly. [Laughs] But what can you do?

For those of us who follow your work, one of the wonderful bonuses of this film is Cybill’s participation — the first time you’ve directed her in 25 years. How did that happen, and how was it working together again?

Well, she was in Texasville, which was, when was that, ’90, I guess? It has been a while. It was fine. I asked her if she would do a cameo, basically, and she said sure, and she did. It was very simple. We’ve stayed in touch, and we’ve been friends ever since we broke up. [Laughs] We haven’t lost touch; we did Texasville, and I speak to her every couple of weeks, and see her as often as I can when I’m in town. So she said she’d do it, she enjoyed it — it isn’t a very big part, but she was charming in it, I think.

Definitely. Mention is made in the film of Rhys Ifan’s character doing a superhero franchise; Imogen’s character mentions how the play they’re rehearsing closed quickly, because “they want dancing lions” and “singing Mormons” on Broadway. So it seems like you feel some frustration over what tends be popular among today’s entertainment. Is that accurate?

Well, yeah. I’m not too keen on superhero movies or cartoon movies, they don’t interest me at all. I think action movies are fun, but they’re sort of mindless lately. I don’t know, special effects don’t interest me very much either, because I figure once they’ve proven — which they have — that they can do anything, it seems to me that, OK, they can do anything, it’s fine, let them do it, I have no interest! [Laughs.] It also bores me, because I know how those pictures are made, and they’re grueling. The fun for me of making a picture is working with the actors, and if you have to do it all to a green screen because the dinosaurs are going be created, or the tiger is going to be created, or whatever it is, I wouldn’t enjoy doing that. So when I see it in the movie, I don’t enjoy the movie that much either, because it’s not real.

Imogen Poots, Kathryn Hahn, Owen Wilson, and Rhys Ifans in "She's Funny That Way"

But a lot of the old movies from the studio system, which I know you love (and I do too) were dismissed in some of the same ways when they were released. So how much distance does popular art require, to really be judged accurately?

Well, that’s a good question, I’m not sure I know how to answer it. Time is the only real judge of quality, and you know, you let time pass and certain pictures hold up. Popular culture’s difficult to pin down, because part of the allure of popular culture is that it reminds you of what was going on when you saw it. Some song comes back, and you say, “Oh, I remember, I was dating so-and-so and [that] song was playing,” and all that, or “I saw that movie with my mother and she died the week after.” Pop culture becomes part of your autobiography. So somebody who grew up with Gilligan’s Island is not gonna say it’s no good, even though it isn’t! [Laughs] That’s what they grew up with, so they like it.

I have no connection to a lot of things that the current generation is crazy about, because I have no pull toward it, autobiographically. So it’s difficult to make a judgment as to what will survive and what won’t. There are certain pictures that I like, that I don’t think will play with an audience today. And that’s unfortunate. You can see the picture, and you say, That’s not gonna work today, even though I may like it. I may like it a lot. Like Lubitsch’s Merry Widow — I don’t think it has a shot today. But it’s one of the great movies of all time, I love it. So I don’t know, I don’t know how to judge that.

Orson used to say, God how they’ll love me when I’m dead. And it isn’t quite true, because people forget. Gore Vidal used to refer to this as the United States of Amnesia, because we don’t remember what’s preceded us, and unfortunately, it’s a young country, and there’s no tradition of tradition. And that’s a problem. That’s why English actors are so good, because they have a tradition of quality in theaters dating back to before Shakespeare. We don’t have that in the United States. We don’t have as good of actors, either!

Did I answer your question, or did I just go around it?

She’s Funny That Way is out in limited release and on demand tomorrow.