Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Michael Lehmann

Making Movies As Religious Experience

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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It's well-known movie lore that Orson Welles and his cinematographer Gregg Toland screened John Ford's Stagecoarch (1939) every day while filming Citizen Kane (1941). They used Ford's western as a kind of guide on how to put a film together well, from editing to camera angles.

Now I've heard another, similar story whose strangeness has piqued my interest. It seems local director Michael Lehmann, known for the cult movies Heathers (1989), Hudson Hawk (1991) and Airheads (1994), the enjoyable fluff The Truth About Cats and Dogs (1996), and the out-and-out bomb My Giant (1998) prepared for his newest film, 40 Days and 40 Nights (due out later this year) in a related way.

Lehmann and his crew screened a bizarre 1965 Luis Bunuel film called Simon of the Desert. It's a 45-minute long tale of Simon (Claudio Brook), a prophet who stands atop a pillar and searches for the word of God. At the same time, he's asked to perform miracles and is tempted by the devil. It's Bunuel's ultimate sneer at religion, plus a wildly entertaining comedy. This afternoon, Lehmann will introduce Bunuel's film at the San Francisco International Film Festival as part of the Indelible Images series, at 2:30 p.m. at the Castro Theatre.

"When you prep a film, it's pretty usual to sit down with the cameraman, and the crew," Lehmann said recently during a break from editing his new film, a comedy about a teen who gives up sex for Lent. "And I asked them, 'you know what movie is great and would relate to our movie on a thematic level?'"

And so they began screening Simon of the Desert, "not to copy but to look at a style or a theme. We never watched anything else. We've watched it two or three times. It was a great starting point of how to tell a story, how to get inside a guy's head, and religions and the dictates of the church and desire. Plus Bunuel has such a great sense of humor, and the comedy is so different from anything you could put in a Hollywood comedy."

Lehmann finds great inspiration in the fact that Bunuel was able to make his film at all. "I keep going back to the film while I'm cutting my own," Lehmann says. "It's so hard to make a movie in Hollywood while avoiding committees and demographics. Simon of the Desert is such a piece of individual filmmaking. I keep thinking about how great it is when a filmmaker can present [himself in a film]. I'm fighting desperately to keep all the absurdist stuff in my movie, and all they want to do is get a test audience to say it's perfect."

Born in San Francisco, Lehmann attended Lowell high school. After earning degrees from Columbia University and USC, where he made his notorious short film Beaver Gets a Boner as his thesis project, he started working at Zoetrope with Francis Ford Coppola as an administrator during the One from the Heart shoot in the early 80's. In 1989, Heathers established him as a full-fledged Hollywood director.

Lehmann looks forward to his afternoon at the Castro. "I think I want to talk about Bunuel a little bit and how important and distinctive he was as a filmmaker. And I want to tell what it was about looking at it in preparation for a contemporary comedy. But partly I just wanted to see it again. They told me they're getting a new print of it and I'm really excited to see it like that."

Lehmann says that no one working on his current movie, besides his cameraman Eliot Davis, had ever even heard of Bunuel, much less seen anything by him. "It was kind of shocking and a little disturbing," he says. Perhaps today's screening will right a few of those wrongs. Lehmann hopes that future filmmakers will see the movie as proof that "you can make movies with a vision and inspiration."

April 04, 2001

Movies Unlimtied