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Interview: John Walter on “Theater of War”

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01052008_theaterofwar1.jpgBy Stephen Saito

At the end of our interview at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, John Walter joked that I should link to Balzac’s short story “The Unknown Masterpiece” when writing about his documentary, not because he felt the title was a direct reference to its quality, but rather because he had finished the film only 20 minutes before he had to hand it over to the festival. Pondering some last minute tinkering, Walter conjured up the image of Balzac’s protagonist, the eternally disappointed artist Frenhofer who works on a single painting for years, until he remembered a film editor friend that passed along George Lucas’ advice, “A movie’s never finished, it’s only abandoned.”

All this talk about an artist’s process is no surprise coming from Walter, who has followed up his unconventional biopic of “chop artist” Ray Johnson, “How to Draw a Bunny,” with the equally intriguing “Theater of War,” a free-flowing examination of the Public Theater’s 2006 staging of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children,” a production that would deserve a closer look if for no other reason than to pull back the curtain slightly on the talent involved, including Tony Kushner, director George C. Wolfe and star Meryl Streep. Yet Walter delves into the theatrical legacy and ongoing political implications of Brecht’s 1949 epic about the perils of war through the eyes of a war profiteer, and treats the play as though it lives and breathes, even when it isn’t being produced. During our chat, Walter discussed how he got interested in the play himself and where you can find Brecht as an impulse buy.

How did this “Theater of War” come about?

Sort of as a hobby, I’d been reading a lot about Bertolt Brecht because I was interested in his poetry and his plays. I started thinking about making a film about Brecht, and [that] a good way to approach it would be to pick a single play and focus on that. When I heard that Meryl Streep was going to play Mother Courage in Central Park with a new translation by Tony Kushner, that seemed like something I wanted to watch. We had to just put it together pretty quickly — [I heard about the production] because I just was googling Meryl Streep one day. That’s what I do with my free time. [laughs]

Meryl Streep, among others in this production, isn’t known for talking about her process. In one memorable scene, she compares filming rehearsals to showing off the plumbing when trying to sell a house. Was that access hard to get and was it because you were making something larger in scope than the usual backstage documentary?

01052008_theaterofwar3.jpgI think my film was an extension of Meryl’s project. The funny thing about theater is that it’s so ephemeral. I think she welcomed me into her process as a way to preserve some of what she was doing and to find a larger audience for it. I was interested in seeing if I could capture these ephemeral moments — in the case of the 2006 production, capturing a little bit of the massive amount of work that went into putting on this show and using that to tell the story of the play, and also to go back to the ’40s and that original production that Brecht did in the ruins of Berlin, [which was possible] because he’d documented all the rehearsals with this amazing series of photographs, and I found a recording of the Berliner ensemble doing it. It was like little pieces of a puzzle, trying to reconstruct this decades-old theater production.

Though the film has chapters, this is not a linear documentary, by any means. How did the structure of the film come to you?

The way I think about it is it’s always a journey and by default, it’s always the filmmaker’s journey, really. I’m going backstage. I’m going to Berlin. I’m going back in time through my research, and so the chronology is my chronology of my own voyage of discovery — that’s what informs the structure of the piece. And it’s also old-fashioned storytelling. You throw a little curveball here, you get a little laugh here. The material is so heavy. It’s like 95 minutes of life and death. I thought it was important to keep a light touch, so it doesn’t become this relentless suicide-inducing dirge. You know, it’s a play. It’s entertaining. That’s why I love that line that [novelist] Jay Cantor has [in the film] about Coca Cola [and the addition of bubbles]. Whatever else you do, you have to add entertainment.

I imagine that was one of the biggest challenges of the film was making it accessible when you’re dealing with Bertolt Brecht as a main subject.

I think people in the theater world are generally pretty hip to Brecht, but it’s not like Tennessee Williams or something. He’s not as well known in this country as he is in Germany. It’s so funny being really interested in Brecht and living in the States — I’m going on the Internet, I’m trying to find as much as I can about the guy, I’m buying books and collecting over the course of years. Then you go to Berlin and in the record store, there’re Brecht CDs as impulse purchases, 40 versions of “Mack the Knife” and big Brecht cutouts in the bookstore.

01052008_theaterofwar2.jpgI thought it’d be interesting to present Brecht in a post-Cold War way, because the work obviously has survived its historic period and has been produced by future generations, to introduce him to a new audience, hopefully, in the way that I would’ve liked to have been introduced to him when I was asking about him. “Do you know anything about Bertolt Brecht?” And getting sort of blank stares. [laughs]

The film is certainly cogent about being stuck in a dialogue about the Iraq war and in fact when you ask Tony Kushner whether the “Mother Courage” production is a response to the ongoing war, he responds by saying “it is and it isn’t.” Do you feel similarly about the film since you’re documenting the production?

It’s a film about a production of an anti-war play that’s being staged in America while America is at war. And that’s the story I’m telling. And it was written during another war about yet another war, and so there are all these parallels. The theme is about how our lives are shaped by war and why this keeps happening over and over again. It doesn’t provide any answers, but it articulates those questions and then throws it back to the audience: Is this okay with you? Or do you think maybe we should try to change this?

I remember seeing a great documentary about theater that was done in 1962 by D.A. Pennebaker, “Jane,” this backstage documentary about young Jane Fonda appearing on Broadway for the first time. During a Q & A, Pennebaker, who’s one of my idols, was talking about the production. He said, “Did you notice that? There’s one scene where a character is holding a newspaper, did you see what was in the newspaper?” And nobody did. I hadn’t noticed because the filmmaker wasn’t trying to draw my attention to it, but the headline was the Cuban Missile Crisis. And I thought that’s interesting that the filmmakers just cut the Cuban Missile Crisis out of the story, which would’ve really changed the film if you had left it in. Is Jane worried about opening night or is she worried there’s not going to be an opening night? I thought that I’m not going to cut the Cuban Missile Crisis out of my film. I’m going to point my camera on what’s going onstage and also what’s going on offstage, which is why I showed the protest marches, which were happening just blocks away from the theater. Because what was going on onstage was happening because of what’s going on offstage and they’re mirrors pointing at each other. So the problem with that is when you start pointing mirrors at each other, it gets very complicated.

[Photos: “Theater of War,” White Buffalo Entertainment, 2008]

“Theater of War” is now open in New York.

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