The A.V. Club

Bob Rafelson

by Noel Murray November 22, 2010

On Nov. 23, The Criterion Collection is releasing the Blu-ray box set America Lost And Found: The BBS Story, containing seven films made under the auspices of the production company founded by Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider, and Steve Blauner. (The DVD version of the set comes Dec. 14.)

Thanks to the popularity of The Monkees TV show, which Rafelson and Schneider co-created, and Columbia Pictures’ interest in distributingEasy Rider, which BBS produced independently, the three men were given a deal to produce five more movies that Columbia would handle. All five are on America Lost And Found: the Rafelson-directed dramas Five Easy Pieces and The King Of Marvin Gardens; Peter Bogdanovich’s adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show; Jack Nicholson’s directorial debut Drive, He Said; and Henry Jaglom’s freeform character sketch A Safe Place. (The set also contains Easy Rider and Rafelson’s bizarre Monkees movie Head, along with a wealth of bonus material.) Rafelson spoke with The A.V. Club about the short, stellar run of BBS.

The A.V. Club: Did you and your BBS partners think of yourselves as having an aesthetic? Is there a philosophy that unites all of these films?

Bob Rafelson: I’ll tell you by way of how the company started. Bert Schneider and I already knew one another. He had some dissatisfaction with what he was doing working in television, and I had some grandiose ideas. I said to Bert that I felt America had extraordinary talent, but that we lacked the talent to appreciate that talent. I felt that I could recognize people who were good, and I felt that Bert would be extraordinary at facilitating getting their work exposed. That was the philosophy, and that’s what’s responsible for these pictures.

AVC: What was the business environment like back in those days? Were studios seeking out people like yourselves, who were more attuned to what was going on in the culture outside Hollywood?

BR: No, it was virtually impossible to get an independent film made. You say “those days” as if it was a century ago. There’s always been some kind of antipathy between those who want to create outside the box and those who control the box. There just wasn’t a strong backhand from the independents at that point. There were occasional wonderful independent movies like the ones from John Cassavetes, like Bonnie And Clyde—although that was a studio film—but around the world there were revolutions going on against the film establishment, going back many years. I’m just going to mention a few: first with the Italians and the Neorealist cinema after the war; certainly in the early ’50s the French Nouvelle Vague, principally composed of filmmakers who had never made movies before, like Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer—all writers of film criticism; and then immediately preceding our work, I would say the work of the English directors like Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz, people like that, who were making really bold sociological statements contrary to what the traditional English movie was. So we had so many precedents to draw from, and so many inspirations. It was just simply that there was no collective in America of young and independent-thinking directors and moviemakers until BBS came along.

AVC: How difficult was it to get the business side of Hollywood to accept you without being accused by the counterculture of being sellouts?

BR: Well, for me, all I had done up to then was slam movie executives physically and wind up in jail, looking desperately to get out and find a haven for my own temperament. Which just meant creating one. But yes, eventually, no matter how independent you are, you’ve got to get your movie into a theater. Your work has to be seen, and that is controlled by and large by the same people who are producing the movie. They’re all in the same club, part of the firmament and the establishment of corporate moviemaking. It’s becoming even more so today. At least at that time most of the movie companies owned themselves. They were not subsidiaries of car companies or electronic companies or oil companies. Follow me?

AVC: Yeah.

BR: Thank God.

AVC: You said you ended up in jail?

BR: Oh, we don’t want to go into all that.

AVC: Really? Sounds like an interesting story.

BR: Well, if you really want to know, yeah, I got escorted off my first job in Hollywood by the police, for overturning Lew Wasserman’s desk. You’ll have to do your own search on movie history to learn about who he was.

AVC: This was at Universal?

BR: Yeah, he was the chairman of MCA, which then acquired Universal. I was a really young, minor-league associate producer on a television show, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to hire what I thought were exceptionally talented people, and I proceeded to do so, and that led to me being censured, and eventually to a meeting with Lew in which I lost it and turned everything over on his desk and said nothing in his office was real, nothing in his life was real, nothing he made was real, and I smashed everything in the office and the police came. It’s a long story. I’d rather talk about the BBS set.

AVC: Let’s move on to The Monkees then, and Head. I read somewhere that the rockers who were part of the Sunset Strip music scene, a lot of them looked down their nose at The Monkees and yet almost all of them tried out for the show at some point or another. Was that true?

BR: I wouldn’t say all of them tried to be on the show. No, no, no. There were some rock ’n’ roll guys who wanted to. The Lovin’ Spoonful, Three Dog Night… guys like that who wanted to be in The Monkees. Some of Buffalo Springfield. But what’s interesting to me is that whatever The Monkees were accused of being—in other words, an entity created by an authority other than themselves, like me for example, and Bert for example—this became the standard for almost 90 percent of the groups that followed, up until today. What’s that little midget kid’s name?

AVC: Justin Bieber?

BR: Yeah, he’s a fuckin’ Monkee.

AVC: When you made Head, was the perception of The Monkees in your mind at all, and were you trying to change it?

BR: Not to try to change it, no, no, no. To try to tell the truth about it. And end the saga gracefully. The whole purpose of Head—which, by the way any number of my friends and my associates tried to argue me out of doing, for my sake. “What the hell do you want to make a Monkees movie for? “You’ve done this already.” I said, “Yeah, but we never told the truth.” So let’s tell the truth of what it is like to be manipulated by the establishment. What does it mean to me? What does it mean for The Monkees? And do it in a very abstract, but very, I thought, audacious way. So audacious I suppose that nobody went to see the fucking thing.

AVC: People have said that Head and the final season of The Monkees killed the group off, but wasn’t it already sort of at its end by that point?

BR: No, no, not the final year. They were only on two years and were very successful in both. But their audience was beginning to decline, and we thought it was just better timing for us, and for everybody concerned, including The Monkees. Remember that by this time they were superheroes. They had outsold The Beatles, outsold the Stones. 53 million records or something… I can’t remember. Maybe 23 million in the first year. If you do the work and go on to the Internet, you’ll see that they had more No. 1 records than anybody over those two years.
But the point I’m trying to make is at the same time, The Monkees themselves began to think about how powerful they were. They weren’t very anxious to continue the series. Each and every one knew that they were super-celebrities. And in a way—and please put this in, not to make a comparison—when The Beatles broke up, that did not diminish Paul McCartney’s ambitions, or John Lennon’s ambitions, to want to go on with their careers independent of one another. And The Monkees had similar aspirations. Furthermore, I had wanted, like I told you to start with, to make movies, and I did not want to be consumed altogether with a television show, which takes an enormous amount of work. Three days a week shooting, two days rehearsing. When were they gonna write songs? When would they practice? When would they go on the road? Their time was very circumscribed and this provided an opportunity for them, even if they stayed as Monkees, to go on and do the things that a rock band really does. Which is not to make television shows.

AVC: The two other films you directed under the BBS aegis were Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens, two different films in terms of their subject matter and somewhat different in terms of the creative team, and yet similar in that they’re about the pressure of family ties. What drew you to that subject?

BR: I don’t really know. I think all of us, we are the offspring of our family, and whether we choose to stay attached or to defect, we are hugely influenced by our families. If you resent them and go off and rebel, that too is influenced by your family, because you are escaping from something. And if you choose to follow in the footsteps, that too is under the influence of family. I would say that I was a defector from a very early age.

AVC: When you made these films, there were a lot of new filmmakers coming out of Hollywood making movies that to some extent were “youth-oriented.” But Five Easy Pieces and King Of Marvin Gardens are more about grown-ups. Was that a challenge, in terms of marketing?

BR: But what is “youth-oriented?” Like The Monkees? I don’t think any film I’ve ever made was “oriented,” to be very honest with you. I’ve never even thought about it. I made a movie that was on my mind. I’ve always been very slow to decide what it is I wanted to do next. Once I decided, things tumbled rather quickly. The decision wasn’t motivated by, “Who do you want to hear what you have to say?” I didn’t think about my audience very much. I was hugely thankful to have one, whoever they were.

AVC: In some ways, Five Easy Pieces is more radical than a lot of the purportedly radical movies coming out at the same time, because it was made in a different style than both traditional Hollywood filmmaking and even the traditional independent American filmmaking of the time. You said you were just making the film that came into your head, but were you acting against anything as well?

BR: Five Easy Pieces took years to arrive at it, and it was about people that I knew. I had a very hard time trying to figure out how to put them in a dramatic framework as a movie, and had a lot of help doing that from the screenwriter, Adrien Joyce. As for the rest of that, I can’t really respond. People see your work, they like it, they regard it as an expression of youthful rebellion or as an overall family saga… I don’t know. Like I said, it was very organic for me to think about what I was thinking about, and then it became impossible not to make.

AVC: It’s become such a touchstone that when people make a small-scale independent film about family or an individual, they say, “This is like the good old days of the New Hollywood and Five Easy Pieces.” It’s become a primary example of how movies can be.

BR: How old are you?

AVC: I’m 40.

BR: You’re fucked. You’re right in between.

AVC: [Laughs.] Exactly.

BR: Well good, I’m glad. You know, I live up in the mountains and I don’t know what people say about my work. I don’t read very much about it.

AVC: What kind of creative input did you, Bert Schneider, and Steve Blauner have into the other BBS films?

BR: Let’s put it this way: The first thing was to say, “We have the right to make these pictures. Who should make them?” That’s a giant decision, because after deciding that, and knowing what films the guys wanted to make, our philosophy was basically to let them go make the movie. That’s why we created the company. We didn’t create the company so we could be a studio, and then tell everyone how they should make their movies. In fact, I think in some of the contracts it said I was not allowed to visit the set of any movie we made. And that the directors were not allowed to ask me, unless they were suffering from some major crisis and desperately needed some input. And I never did. And neither did Bert. We didn’t go to the sets. I never went to dailies. I’d go for the first couple of days just to make sure everyone knew what they were doing, and after that I didn’t want to see the picture in pieces. But I wanted to know who the director was rather badly. All that I could know about them, before I chose them. So if they had made short films in high school, I wanted to see them. If they had written essays, I wanted to read them. And then just instinctually say, “Okay, this is the right guy to be privileged to make a movie unencumbered by interference.”

AVC: Do you wish BBS had lasted longer?

BR: Oh God, no. We sat down one day and said, “That’s enough.” Bert went on to make one or two more movies, but his life was committed to politics. He was much more interested in politics of a very hard sort, but you can find all about that on your own. And I really just wanted to direct movies. It was an extremely amiable finish. Nobody protested it. We all agreed to quite while we were ahead.
Now I would like to say one thing to you. You haven’t asked, “How do you feel about a box set coming out?”

AVC: That’s a good question. How do you feel about a box set coming out?

BR: I’m really gratified. It was always a bit of a fantasy that someday the work we did at BBS would be available in a box set so people could have some sense of what we did as a collective, and what the prevalent spirit of BBS was in the movies we made. We were not ever written about, and we hardly have been, so this would be the testimony for what we did.
Why did I do this, truthfully? I have two young boys. We live kind of up in the mountains. The kids go to public school, and we have dinner with my younger wife, Gabrielle, every night, and one kid lights the candles and they all help make the meal. They love cooking. During the winter, we have a big fire, and we eat by the fire, and the only thing that we are forbidden to talk about is movies. Because they are not going to understand it, and I don’t really want them to think of me as an “ex-celebrity,” if you will. They haven’t got a clue what I did. They’ve never seen a movie I’ve made.
So I thought, “You know, I’ll do this just once.” And that was at the invite of Criterion. And then I’ll never have to tell them. All the movies I made in the beginning will be there for them to see. And there’s lots of interviews about me, and interviews with me, and little booklets. Now I rather doubt that any of it is the truth, mind you, but nonetheless it will be something they can put up on their shelf and say, “Oh, this is what the fucker did. I’ll be damned.”