Interview with Helen van Dongen (2/2)

AMN: It must have been satisfying to reach that point.

HVD: It was very satisfying. And not only that, I had a crew of five soldiers, all of whom thought they were Hollywood big shots. They didn’t get paid very well as soldiers, but even worse would they have a boss that was a woman? In Hollywood? No way. So after about two weeks with them, I said, “Look here boys, I have to make a film. And you are going to do a lot of work. And if you want to go after six at night and watch miserable, flossy films you can do what you will. But next morning, by eight o’clock you’re going to work here.” They responded, “If you don’t like it, why not just go to the general?” And I said, “If you don’t like it, you go to the general. So let’s start.” It took another three weeks, and I had them all with me. From eight in the morning to five at night, doing what I needed and more. Whatever it took to make a good film. And they did, because then they got interested in the whole thing. And they started thinking that they weren’t working with a woman, but with someone who wanted to make a good film. And we did, and remained good friends long after that.

And because this was in the Hollywood circle, well the films were... and so on, of course. You know, once in a while I would say, “Well, how was your night?” Oh! Because they took over the facility, and they had a hold of the filthiest films anyone could possibly find and they would screen them at night. And that was supposedly the screen for me. But I said, “I have nothing to do with what you have to do after five. It’s none of my business.”

AMN: You know, I’ve done quite a bit of research in the National Archives, and read the memos and reports people were writing. I’m left with the impression that, despite the fact that there was a world war on, the filmmakers were having a lot of fun! Did you have a fun time during WWII?

HVD: That depends on what you call fun.

AMN: I see. Well, let’s go back to the 1930s for a moment. After Borinage you spent some time with Marcel L’Herbier at Joinville and Hans Richter in Paris. But then around 1934-36, you were in the Soviet Union. You went there to teach and study. This was a traumatic time for filmmakers in the Soviet Union, what with the legislation of Socialist Realism and the attack on montage. What was it like for you as an editor?

HVD: That was when Joris went there to make a film with Gustav von Wangenheim [Borzy (1936), a film about the Reichstag fire—AMN], a German and not a very pleasant person. Joris was there for three months, and then wrote to tell me I might as well come over there because there was a new film school and I could teach editing there and teach them sound because it had just arrived there. Joris and Wangenheim got involved in their film, but both wanted to be big shots, so Joris left and returned to America. And I stayed there because I could do an awful lot. I taught filmmaking and editing. I also made the Russian version of Borinage. And Spain in Flames (1936). It was quite a lively time, and I didn’t have enough time to get involved in politics. I’ve never been a much of a politician, so I stuck to the film.

AMN: After this, until 1939, you went and worked with Progressive Education Commission of the Rockefeller Foundation and you were reediting fiction films?

HVD: Well, it was very interesting, but interesting for me for only a year or so. What they wanted was to use film for education in colleges, and for abstract ideas more than teaching mechanics. They had teamed up with Sarah Lawrence College in New York, a rich girls’ college, and wanted to try using films to inspire discussions on social affairs, whether it was working or learning or cooking or family affairs. I had to look through a great deal of Hollywood films to see whether we could use parts of them.

AMN: So you converted Hollywood films into documentaries?

HVD: Well, in a sense, yes, but then it was still a play film. Of course, you put it upside down and it becomes something else. Because what you did was present them with a problem, and provide the foundation for a discussion. And on the university level. So it was interesting up to a point, but after a year it became the same old thing. But I got paid well! And not only that, I got my Green Card!

AMN: During the war, you worked on the Nelson Rockefeller/MoMA project on Latin American film.

HVD: Yes, with Luis Buñuel and Iris Barry. It was to teach the South Americans economic things, and that too was made with the help of Hollywood films. I did that for about a year, and then came the break with Buñuel that broke us up. Buñuel had been a friend, but unfortunately, he started to get notions that he was... you know my section was in 35mm film, and then the Film Department of MoMA also had a 16mm group that had nothing to do with me, but we worked in the same building. And of course, there was a kind of jealousy over the difference between the 16mm and 35mm groups. We were completely separate. I was in charge of mine. So I ran it. But there was a jealousy between 35mm and 16mm. I don’t know who did what, but one day Buñuel came flying in and said, “What the hell, this that and the other thing, what did you do with this, where were you all?” Somebody had said that my group was just taking it easy and going shopping or something. I said, “What are you talking about?” And he said, “From now on you’ll start punching the time clock.” I said, “Fine, go right ahead, but I won’t be here.”

AMN: He was very controlling.

HVD: Yes, and I told Iris Barry, “Look, this is not for me. I’m not going to fight with Luis exploding over something that has nothing to do with me.” No one was outside of the building when they shouldn’t be. If they were out, they were going to the lab or a screening. Unfortunately, Luis got furious and our friendship was over.

AMN: I want to ask you about The Spanish Earth , which has two versions. One has Hemingway on the soundtrack and the other Orson Welles. How did two versions come about?

HVD: Well, the text is basically the same, but when the film was ready to put the narration on, we were under time pressure. Orson was the big Voice of Time, and he had that voice, he spoke that way. So he read it, but I said to Joris, “Let’s make a recording, not with the film.” And I said, “It’s terrible. It just sounds like The March of Time (1935-1951). The whole film is ruined. You can’t do that!” But Joris said, “Ah, but he’s famous and an attraction,” but I asked him, “Are you selling out?” He didn’t say any more. But Hemingway and I were good friends so I asked him if he’d mind reading it, because he was in Spain with Joris, and Joris had already mentioned the possibility to him. So I asked him the same thing I told Flaherty: “Why don’t you just try reading it?” And so one day when Hemingway resisted again, I said, “Look, will you just read it for me. I’m not showing you the film. Just read it slowly, as if you were talking to a big group of people.” And he did. Afterwards, I told Joris that he better listen to it, but he equivocated. Money money money! So we eventually did both, but I don’t want to hear it with Orson Welles. It’s not my film.

AMN: So you did the same thing with Flaherty later, having him read it out almost against his will.

HVD: But you know, I put my foot down as much as I could. They differed so enormously, you know, because Welles would dramatically intone, [she does an exaggerated Welles imitation—AMN] “The Spanish earth is soft and hard...” you know, but Hemingway would do it quietly, very quiet. Because who is going to yell against the image of some Spanish man walking down the road with his donkey?

AMN: Yes, the contrast between the soundtrack and the image track is one of the things that makes that film so powerful.

HVD: But I don’t know if you saw a lot of The March of Time, but it just blares all the time. And the stuff that came in there, if you took the sound away, all you’ve got is a lot of little pictures that have absolutely no content.

AMN: I have a question for Japanese audiences, who are very curious about Paul Rotha. His book on documentary made a huge impact on Japanese documentary when it was translated by a famous woman filmmaker (Atsugi Taka) into Japanese in the late 1930s, and it’s highly respected to this very day. I was wondering what that book meant to you.

HVD: I was not aware of its existence.

AMN: That doesn’t surprise me that much. If you read the standard histories of documentary they really don’t talk about that book much.

HVD: I don’t know. I didn’t read... I know the one you’re talking about. He was writing tons of stuff, and Jay Leyda was writing about the same subjects. And there was a third one, and they all came in a clash. Each one of them wanted to direct me in their way, but I said maybe it was a good introduction but no thanks. I have no theory. I have the film. I look at the film over and over and over again, and from there ideas and possibilities emerge. It becomes a part of feeling, inside of me, and so if there’s any kind of difference, and like a love affair you notice one little thing that shouldn’t be there. And so you start arguing with yourself. Should I take it out or leave it in? And then when you have to courage to take it out, and see that it never belonged there in the first place and it doesn’t fit in, but it takes so much determination.

AMN: So there were no books or writings that you found inspirational or exciting.

HVD: No, I don’t even know if there were many at that time. The thing is that being constantly in contact with those who made films, I didn’t have to read much about it. Because I was working on the same basis that we had to start from the roots. If someone comes along and says you have to do it this way, that’s not right. Because every film is different, its content, rhythm, etc. etc. It’s just like painting. You can’t tell a painter what he can and can’t do or it becomes stale.

AMN: After the war, you started directing your own films, began preparations and quit the nascent Indonesian Film Commission, but you also started working with Flaherty.

HVD: After a year of preparing the way for this commission, I knew it wasn’t going to go anywhere, and I told the Netherlands, “Look here. This is office work and preparation. I’ve gone as far as I can.” And Flaherty had already come to me and said he had been dreaming of the next film he wanted to make. He brought me these stories, and they were all... Flaherty stories.

Anyway, he said he wanted me to work with him and brought me down to Louisiana. He had some kind of cockeyed thing and like usual it has a little boy. But as always, Flaherty started to film nature, so at the beginning there was an awful lot of the environment and the atmosphere. And then a boy and another boy and another boy. So there was a lot of shooting, and that came in handy later on.

So at first I had an awful lot of material to play with, but it didn’t have any particular purpose. Later on they said I had a good memory, because towards the very end I pulled out surprise shots. The funny thing is that for the first time, Flaherty realized I was putting stuff in they’d forgotten about. Because he lived by what he saw, and so as he went on he’d forget. And then all of a sudden, he’d go “Hey where is that shot?”
“Do you want it back in there?”
“Well, why do you take it out?”
“Because if you have two reels of, swampland or whatever, you get bored with it!”
Don’t say something like that to Flaherty! After that, he wouldn’t talk to me for a couple days. So that was another thing I had to count on. Usually, we weren’t fighting, but there were times when I was in the loophole and I’d tell him, “Look here. You don’t want to talk to me. That’s one thing. But if you keep brooding like this, I’m going home to New York.” He was so moody!

AMN: Well, Flaherty’s style, shooting so much footage over so much time, and massaging it into shape...

HVD: You know he was a man who could not write. Once he asked for my help in writing a piece for Readers’ Digest—you see he needed money. So I said, “Well, come on over and I’ll help you.” It was about something like “The nicest woman I’ve ever known,” that being the woman from his film Man of Aran (1934), and he was going to make a short story out of that. He came over and for about three or four weeks, it always started the same: he always came back and never with more than three sentences. I’d say, “Where’s the rest? Why don’t you write the rest and I’ll go to bed. Write the story first and then we can work through it.” So finally, I said, “Sorry Bob, how’s that film we were going to make?”

AMN: Could you tell me a little about the creation of the soundtrack for that film? Because there was some collaboration between you and Thompson, right?

HVD: Yeah, I didn’t tell him.

AMN: Huh? Flaherty?

HVD: Right. At the beginning I told him, “You know, this is for a silent film. And can we talk about the music and sound part of it?”
“All you need is a little music.”
“Well, we’ll talk about that later on.”
So he forgot it and we worked for a year and half. In the mean time, I was a little more, well, aggressive in the sense that I didn’t ask Bob’s advice because he kept on postponing making a decision. Because it only would have lengthened the thing. I wanted to have beautiful music, good music, not just records or a few players. And of course I had the composer in mind, Virgil Thompson. So I said to Virgil, “Look, give me an estimate of what you want because by now it’s going to be your music, so tell me how many musicians you think you need.”
“I want the whole orchestra.”
“You’re not going to get the Philadelphia Orchestra, but make something up for me, pleeeze.”
When we got the pure music we mixed it with other things I made up with sounds on the rig and the drilling, and put it in the film and brought it to Flaherty. He didn’t think we were that far, yet. And then if he didn’t like it then I’d have to convince him, because he couldn’t have the whole orchestra back. You know. He had to be satisfied with it, and eventually he was.

It was like the other things. If he didn’t see it twenty times first... And anything was always too loud. But you know you have to record in that way, anyone working with music knows that you start that way and later you can perhaps bring it down. But Flaherty didn’t have the patience. And he didn’t want you taking over. And there are certain times you have to take over, and eventually over the long run... After the first show, he said, “I couldn’t have done it without you.”

AMN: So Flaherty didn’t have much interest in the soundtrack or sound editing?

HVD: Well, he knew it’d have to be there. But he was always “sh shh shh shh.”

AMN: So what kind of collaboration did you have with the composer, Thompson?

HVD: Virgil was fascinated by the whole thing. He was a wonderful musician, but that doesn’t make him a good filmmaker. I sometimes had to ask him if there was a little piece he could put in. And if it couldn’t be done, I’d have to shift things around and show it to him later. I knew we were taking his music and we couldn’t just take a piece out. But in order to make things a little longer, I’d have to play around with it. In the beginning, all these single scenes were not inevitably in that spot; some of them you could shift. But sometimes there was a specific note in his music that belonged to a specific part of the film, so you can’t always change. Only a few pieces. To make something that was no longer than a couple feet might have taken two days. But we were both content in the end.

AMN: The music in The 400 Million is very interesting. It’s 12-tone music by Hans Eisler.

HVD: That was recorded music.

AMN: So you didn’t have the option of collaboration, as you did with Thompson.

HVD: Well, don’t take my word for it, but I think it was just off of records, something off of other films. That was a time when we were doing one thing after another, so no time for anything.

AMN: That must have been restrictive as an editor, not being able to control the music.

HVD: That is probably because Hans Eisler, whether he wrote it or simply chose it, just wanted it to say “music by Hans Eisler...” not “from a record.” It was probably written for something else, because he sure did have a trunk-full, and he’d just take them off the bottom after about ten years [laughs]!

AMN: I guess you can do that, no matter what your field is, at a certain point in your career.

HVD: At the time, they were all immigrants. So they had one trunk, and we’d make a joke, just go siphon the bottom, and then you’d put it back. Not to make him think. But Hans was a very nice man, but he was also very lazy!

AMN: How was your collaboration with directors?

HVD: How many directors did I have?

AMN: Many!

HVD: None! I worked for Joris. And as long as he could shoot, he’d go away and leave me alone. So that was no problem with him. I also learned more the more he stayed away! Going around shooting was important to him, but that was about all he’s sit still for.

Flaherty was also the man who did the shooting, and when he wasn’t shooting he just sat around all day running the small projection meeting. He could look at that film all day long. He would sit there and snort and sigh and talk to himself, “Oh, what can I do? What can I do?” And Flaherty, you cannot discuss anything with him. He feels it, and you don’t argue with him. So there were whole days in which we wouldn’t talk to each other. And if he started to get smoozy... He was a child!

AMN: So you had a lot of creative space.

HVD: From the very beginning I had a lot of creative space and responsibility. I took on a lot of responsibility and some of the time I was scared to death because at the beginning I wasn’t necessarily competent. But as I went along, I learned quickly what could be done. No one learns anything overnight.

I noticed you really have to take your own time to really look at the film, absorb what is in these things. If you see it often enough, like a painting, you find something new and beautiful, things that aren’t necessarily sticking out at you. I also have to look at that damn film over and over and over and over again, and if there’s something that’s not quite right in there it tells you after a while. And the worse things get, you have to ask if the other things go together. Is something too bright or dark or distracting?

These are tiny little things, and no use telling Flaherty this because he ends up thinking you’re changing his film from one thing to another. “Don’t touch it!” And I must say I lied quite a number of times when he asked, “Did you change anything?” I’d tell him, “No. Did you think I changed something?” But if it was obvious, I’d apologize and still ask him to look at it first and I’d put it back the way it was if he didn’t like it. Other times, I’d somehow forget to say something and I would leave it.

AMN: Now that’s a special kind of collaboration!

HVD: It’s one trick, you know? But I never pulled anything over on him, because he wouldn’t have let me.

AMN: I wanted to ask you about how, in your early work you didn’t have a moviola. You were doing it by feel, by looking at still images. How did your editing and art change once you were able to run it through a moviola.

HVD: I don’t know if the editing changed, because we had nothing at the beginning. But when you could put it through a mechanism instead of your fingers, there really wasn’t much difference.

AMN: And that technological advance didn’t affect your art?

HVD: No, that’s a slow technological advance. It just sneaks in. But nevertheless, I never gave up looking. Not everything, but with particular things that needed very precise observations. That is what makes a film beautiful. Like a dancer that can’t put her toes up quite all the way; if she can put her toes up all the way, that is beautiful. Otherwise, it’s just so so.

AMN: Now the technological advance in editing is non-linear methods using computers. Are you curious about seeing what that’s like?

HVD: It’s there already, and I don’t understand how they do it. Actually, I’m against computers. I threw one out. I bought one at the very beginning and that thing dominated me. It told me precisely how to do things, and I couldn’t do it.

AMN: During the prewar period it might have been different, but after the war many editors were women...

HVD: Well, that’s all that they were allowed to do. That’s all they could get. They would start out by licking the film as an assistant to splice two shots together. The men wouldn’t want to do that. All these things...

AMN: The dirty work!

HVD: The dirty work! Scraping, cementing, that’s what women did. That’s what I did, except that my real job was being the correspondent, but I fell by the wayside and reemerged as a filmmaker!


Abé Mark Nornes

Associate professor in the Program for Film and Video Studies and the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. As a coordinator at YIDFF, he co-programmed “Japan-America Media Wars” (1991), “The First Nations Film and Video Festival” (1993) and “7 Transfigurations in Electric Shadows.” His history of Japanese documentary film is forthcoming from University of Minnesota Press, and he is currently writing a book on Ogawa Productions.