With Penelope Gilliatt
On the Town
With two novels and a brood of short stories already behind her, Penelope Gilliatt has most recently written the movie, Sunday Bloody Sunday, which has won her extravagant praise. As she sipped a drink in the lounge of New York City's Hotel Algonguin, a watering-hole for literary notables in the city, from Harold Ross, Dorothy Parker and James Thurber on down, Gilliatt revealed her surprise at the movie's reception. "I am very touched that people respond to it as they do. I thought it wouldn't travel--that it was a movie made for about 2 and a half people."
The making of Sunday Bloody Sunday demanded 3 and one half years of preparation. "After mooching around for months, lost really for a place to work," Gilliatt completed the screenplay in about ten days in 1967. She recalls the pressure of writing it as enough to make her feel "about ready to flip." She describes her writing, whether of stories or scripts, as being drawn underwater on a steel hawzer, directed not by particular words, but by the force of the whole narrative line. In the black notebooks she constantly carries, which are filled with pages of reworked text, and dialogue overheard in buses. Gilliatt fashions her narrative into formal structure.
John Schlesinger, the film's director, worked closely with Miss Gilliatt on choosing the shooting locations, casting, directing and in adapting the rough draft of the script to the actors. She marvels at his attentiveness to her script: "He served it beautifully. He submerged himself to its character and contributed a lot of himself." As with any writer, however, the befleshing of her characters prompted some changes. From the page to the screen, she found "the inflection of the way one character bears on another alters," and she changed odd lines which were either not idiomatic enough or which modulated the relation of weak to strong characters. As radical as she and Schlesinger were about discarding awkward footage (deleting entirely one twelve minute sequence), the shooting nevertheless required careful planning; because reshooting was a sizeable expense, mistakes were corrected from the footage which already existed. Making a film, Gilliatt remarks, "works out to be like a piece of geometry in the end."
The film's actors pleased and impressed its author as complementary to her characters. She imagined Daniel, the middle-aged Jewish doctor, exactly as Peter Finch plays him. Of Glenda Jackson, in the part of Alex, the woman divorcee, Gilliatt says: "Glenda is a brilliant actress with much in common with Alex intellectually, but not much temperamentally. She's got that great horsepower as an actress." Murray Head, who plays the young sculptor whom both Daniel and Alex love, manages to catch, in the sweet vacancy of his expression on screen, the "ariel quality of some free agent." Bob is "a cool boy, for whom cool is an ethic. He's damned if he's going to say he misses anyone or is hurt by his girl sleeping with someone else." He is meant to be "morally neutral:" someone who has no wish to do evil, but who, "being a sort of mutant," does not recognize his own cruelty. This mutant character is further enhanced by his bi-nationality--American and English--as well as his bi-sexuality.
Gilliatt never intended Alex to be the neurotic some film critics have supposed. She sees her as:
"...sad and weak at the end of an intimacy...She's decided to clear the decks, to leave the job she has despised for so long...She's also saying no to Bob. She says. 'I've had all this fitting in and shutting up and making do, like my old Mum.' She knows something is dreadfully wrong with the way her parents live, and she doesn't want to live the life her mother had. She deliberately votes for nothing. She tells him when they are breaking up. "There has to be a time when nothing is better than anything.' Nothing is a positive, bare space to think. That's why she's not neurotic--she finally says. 'Up you' to Bob, and tries to manage on her own."
Gilliat has made a film which is not traditionally expository. She conveys the sense of people's behavior when they are alone or with another by entrusting the trio to the audience as their intimates. They speak the abbreviated language of lovers, and we are shown friendships formed months ago, situations interrupted, conversations already three quarters finished, and are expected with confidence to comprehend the ellipses. When asked why the film did not end on Daniel's and Alex's encounter rather than on Daniel's monologue. Gilliat had a strong conviction.
"Alex and Daniel have to meet, for they are like ships passing in the dark who have taken aboard the same pilot, Bob. In this sense they are alike. But the implication of concluding with their meeting would be that they were both happy or that they might become involved, which we know is impossible. Structurally and for every other reason, it would be a cheat... We have to see them coping on their own. Their love for Bob doesn't dissolve that easily. At the end Daniel says the opposite side of Alex's feelings, although it is their equivalent."
Because Sunday Bloody Sunday operates in a specific economic context (a newscast of a prevailing monetary crisis serves as the film's refrain). Gilliat feels her movie is "peculiarly political." The political import reads like an open letter to the English, who are familiar with its suggested terms, while an American needs to be told that the Jarrow hunger marches in 1906 are built deep into the nation's memory, and into the background of her characters. Class differentiation in the film as seen, to be gradually disintegrating. Bob represents a classless agent, although his implicit working-class origin has strong reverberations for the English. Somewhere, Gilliatt says, "Bob has a dad who didn't want him to go down into the mines, who wanted much more for his son than he had for himself."
Like Bob, Alex and Daniel are symbolic of the same revolt. They are solitaries, making radical same revolt. They are solitaries, making radical gestures. Alex, who had always believed her mother secure and entrenched, learns her mother left her husband over the issue of the General Strike in 1956. From this revelation, she gains the confidence not to live in a "money-wise" way, and to reject both competition and Bob. Daniel affirms his dissidence, (despite his stoicism and generosity), as a homosexual who has the courage to resist the charade of marriage.
For a while Schlesinger and Gilliatt puzzled over how to portray Bob and Daniel's affection. Rather than being recondite, they finally decided to film it as simply as possible. Just as two friends would shake hands upon meeting, so the two are shown greeting each other with a kiss. Gilliatt is aware of the aesthetic difficulty of filming sex. "Fucking is obviously what you feel not what you see, and nameless backs fucking and hands clenched when a person is coming" are techniques Gilliatt feels cheapen and confuse "a liberty the director has, which he might as well use properly."
Gilliatt astonishes with the number of projects she juggles. Viking press will publish in the summer of '72 her two new books--one on film and theater, and the other a collection of short stories. She edits and is part owner of an English journal of political opinion. This spring a London theater will run a series of short plays she has written. She will then return in four months to write the New Yorker magazine's film criticism. Somehow she has found the energy to consider writing another movie script, and admits she would love to try herself to direct a movie.
With her nerve and enormous vitality, it is hard to imagine Miss Gilliatt happy at Harvard, though the university has offered her a place teaching either fiction writing or literature. And she is considering the position for sometime after the spring of '73. As a candid and ardent artist, she is sure to have none of 'fitting in, shutting up and making do.'