Interview: Karel Reisz

Interviewed in 1978 - on Nick Nolte, bad box-office and good intentions.

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UNCUT: Dog Soldiers has been called a study in betrayal. How would you define it?
REISZ: Heroism in a bad cause.

Debra Winger, who knew Nick Nolte from way back, said that you had to have a few beers just to be on the same planet with him. At some point in the read throughs he got the same insight. Hey – my character drinks.
That wasn’t my experience. I saw Nolte as a Mid-Western farm boy, the sort of fellow who was never happier than when he was fixing things. You could see him getting under a tractor engine with baling wire. For the film, he took a great pride in being able to strip down an automatic weapon and then reassemble it, and he worked on it until he could do it without looking. He’s a practical actor. And I will only speak off the record about Debra Winger who was with Nick in Everybody Wins.

Would you like to film any other Stone novels? A Flag for Sunrise, for example?
I’m afraid not. You couldn’t get the money. Dog Soldiers was a commercial disaster. Minority views expressed in films simply don’t sell tickets. A Flag for Sunrise is an intensely pessimistic novel about US involvement in Central America, and film audiences do not want to know about that. I’m now beginning to feel that the pessimistic vision is not for the movies. I made two films running, The Gambler and Dog Soldiers, both of which had a pessimistic view of life. You end up making films the audience regards as downers, and they don’t go. So, finally, to whom are you doing a favour? If you’re expressing sentiments that find very little echo in the audience, maybe you should be writing novels or doing theatre where the scale of the audience is commensurate with your views.

Of the film-makers like Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson who spearheaded British Free Cinema in the Fifties, you’re the one who lasted. You’ve been criticized both for your early ideological approach, and then for your subsequent move to American subjects.
So often the critics assume that one is the lackey of a corrupt system, but in fact a big element of what they regard as one’s conformity is simply a desire to have an audience. It’s a difficult thing to balance out. I like The Gambler and Dog Soldiers very much, but, to be honest, it gets very disheartening to see them open to empty houses. Your heart sinks.

By Brian Case

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