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New York Conversations:

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New York Conversation - David Newman at Hotel Chelsea
01 October 1998
by Mikael Colville-Andersen

[These interview transcripts are a part of conversations with various writers at the Hotel Chelsea in New York and at Vassar College. The interviews are published in the book 'New York Conversations', by Mikael Colville-Andersen]

Interviewer: This hotel reminds me of Bonnie & Clyde. It starts in a rundown hotel room. That was in '67.

DN: Well, we wrote it earlier. We wrote it in '64.

Interviewer: It was clearly a landmark film in American history. Everybody loved it...

DN: Even the critic of the New York Times, who was an old guy named Bosley Crowther, who was the most important movie critic in the States. He hated the film. He went to see it at the Montréal Film Festival, which was the first time it had ever been shown, in late July of 1967.

He came back and wrote this scathing denunciation of the film, saying that it was offensive and moronic and it glorified crime and what was this ridiculous banjo music doing in a movie about murderers. He got everything wrong. And his ear was so... he had what we call a tin ear. It thought it was still 1945 and it was the '60 s.

So what happened was this huge reaction started and people began writing letters to the paper saying, "this man is an old idiot, this is a great film, it s a new form, it s the first time the influence of the Nouvelle Vague has come to America and just because something is new doesn't mean it's not innovative and so on.

And they actually published in the Times... and the Times is not only the most important paper in America but it s a big-sized paper... they published two pages of letters, most of them attacking Bosley Crowther. Some didn't t like the film, but most did. So this huge thing started.

Warner Bros., who released the film, didn't t like it. Jack Warner was old Hollywood and he thought along those kind of lines. Warren Beatty had to really get down on his knees and plead for a proper opening. The film finally opened and it got some great reviews and it got some dreadful ones. Then two things with the critics happened, which were quite extraordinary. There was a man from Newsweek magazine, a guy named Joe Morgenstern. He gave Bonnie & Clyde a really bad review. I mean, really bad... it hurt. He said things like it was sub-moronic, ludicrous, vulgar. It was your worst nightmare. He hated it.

One week later, same critic, same magazine, came out in the movie column and said, "last week, I said that I saw Bonnie & Clyde and thought it was awful. Since then, a lot of people who I respect and know called me immediately and said that I was making a big mistake. It was a work of genius. So I went back and saw it again and I would like to say, in print, I was completely wrong last time. This is a great film."

He went on to say how great it was. It s like an umpire in a baseball game who changes his mind. Safe - out! You re not allowed to do that. No critic had ever done that before. So that was huge.

And then Pauline Kael, from New Yorker magazine, devoted 40 pages of the magazine to this huge article about Bonnie & Clyde. How it was this watershed film, this innovative film that Hollywood would never been the same again and American film had turned in a new direction. She just loved the movie and she specifically, I m very happy to say, spent a lot of time talking about the writing. Which put a lot of focus on myself and my partner, Robert Benton. We wrote this together and were partners for many years.

And Benton and I suddenly became hot. We were interviewed, there were articles, we won about 10 awards, were flown out to Hollywood and Warner signed us to a three picture deal and everything was wonderful. I was launched into the movie business. One thing that was sort of funny was that Bosley Crowther got fired. They said he was retiring because he was old, but everyone knew that he was out of touch with the new movie-going audience. He had had his decades on the job and it was time for the old boy to go.

One of the awards they give you in the States, besides the Oscars and so on, is the New York Film Critics Award. At that point, when there were many, many more newspapers and magazines in New York, there were more film critics than there are now. There s enough now, but there were more then. Every year they give out these awards like best actor, best movie, best director, best screenplay... just like the Oscars.

There s a big party at a restaurant here in town called Sari's. They always have very famous celebrities handing out the awards and you make your little speech. So Benton and I won for best screenplay. And who's at this party? Bosley Crowther, with his wife. I'll never forget this... somebody said, "oh, you have to meet Mr Crowther". Benton and I were standing with our wives and we said, "uh oh".

So he said, how do you do and nice to meet you and congratulations. We made small talk about the weather or the food or the room. His wife came over, a white-haired woman, and he said, "dear, these are the young men who wrote Bonnie & Clyde. You know something? They re not so terrible after all". It was the most back-handed compliment I ever got in my life. Like they were expecting us to have fangs and horns and a tail. They re not so terrible after all.

So anyway, Bonnie & Clyde then became a world-wide phenomenon. Because of a lot of things, one of which was the film. Mostly it was the film, but it had all these peripheral things. Like fashion. It changed fashion. Woman started wearing berets. They started wearing the long maxi-skirts, like Faye Dunaway in the movie. Men started wearing double-breasted suits, like Warren Beatty. The Bonnie & Clyde look.

We went to Paris for the opening and every girl you saw in the streets looked like Faye Dunaway. In the windows of all the shops the mannequins had those clothes and machine guns. Brigitte Bardot had done a song about it and it was playing everywhere on the radio. We went to the Crazy Horse Saloon, the famous strip joint, and they did a Bonnie & Clyde number - THAT was one of my favourite moments.

It really had an extraordinary life. It ultimately became a classic, apparently. This year, as you may have heard, they voted the 100 best American films of all time, which is a list that a lot of people have a lot of trouble with. Certain things are missing. No Buster Keaton, no Preston Sturgess. On the other hand it s got Dances with Wolves and Tootsie and movies like that. Citizen Kane, of course, is at number one, and so on. Bonnie & Clyde, I think we came in at number 25, so that was nice.

It s being taught... a book is coming out, that I wrote the introduction for, of essays by different film teachers, professors around the country. It s always playing on TV. Last year it was the 30th anniversary, which made me feel terribly old, and they restored it, digitally. And Arthur Penn, the director, and myself and some of the actors all went to see it at Radio City Music Hall and again at the Miami Film Festival. It looked better than it ever did. The colour was richer and the nuances and shading in the colour were incredible. The sound was better than we've ever heard. Arthur Penn said that he heard things he had never heard before - extras whispering and all of a sudden you could hear what they were saying. He hadn't heard it even when he was sitting there listening through headphones.

They put it out on laser disk, the new version, in letterbox format - which we here in the States are the last ones to finally get around to. Europe, as usual, is way ahead of us.

And that s what happened with Bonnie & Clyde.

Interviewer: What about going back to the 60 s and tell us about how you wrote it?

DN: Well, back in the 60 s, I was working at Esquire Magazine. I had just come out of college at the University of Michigan. I was working as a writer and an editor, I was mostly writing features, funny stuff, all kinds of things. I met a guy there named Robert Benton, who was the art director. He was tired of doing that. You know... this picture should go here, this picture should be smaller and move it over here, that kind of thing. He was becoming bored with it.

Benton and I immediately set up a kind of sympathetic friendship. We liked each other immediately. We also found out that we both loved movies. We talked about nothing but movies. We d just go the movies all the time.

At that point, in America.... I m going to digress a lot. I m not very structured when I do this kind of thing... one thing makes me think of another...

I was at the Nantucket Film Festival this year. There s so many film festivals these days. If your town has more than a hundred people, you have a film festival. Anyway, the Nantucket festival celebrates the indie film. This great new wave in American movies where any film student with ten bucks can get his movie made. It s great. I wish it was like that when I was young. Anyway, Nantucket is one of two festivals that focus on the screenplay. All the discussions are about the writing. It was very refreshing, for me.

I met a lot of bright, young filmmakers, which I m sure you all are - and again, this is may be particular to the States - with a few exceptions, they basically think that American movies began with Quentin Tarantino. Their knowledge of anything before that is like, "is it some old movie you can rent?" or that they once saw on television.

They have no sense of the continuum of history, of the heritage, of the legacy. If you talk to them about Hitchcock, they know about Psycho and maybe one other film. And if you talk to them about European films, their knowledge is VERY limited. Except maybe they've heard of Fellini or La Dolce Vita or something, or they maybe saw 8 1/2 or something. They don t know Godard, they know other American independent filmmakers. They go from festival to festival, carrying their little films under their arm.

They know what the other guy is doing. It s a very good time for them because there s a lot of these little movies that are busting out. They cost 5 bucks and they make 5 million bucks and everyone says, "wow". This is a new audience, they re talking to a younger group. They re marginalized in a certain way, because there will always be those Arnold Schwarzenegger movies and Titanic, but know there s another way for young people to make movies.

Now that s my digression. Back in the sixties, when we wrote Bonnie & Clyde, there was something going on about cinema - a word you never hear anymore in the States - that was almost like a religion. Not just for me but all my friends, everyone I knew. I grew up going to the movies every Saturday like a kid, you know... double-feature, six cartoons, newsreel.

Suddenly, there was the New Wave. One week there would be a Truffaut. The next week there would be a Godard or a Rivette or a Rohmer, or Agnes Varda... whatever, that group. Then there were the Italians and they was Fellini, there was Antonioni... and then there were the middle Europeans, and there were the early Zanussi films, and there was Milos Forman, and there was Ivan Passer, and THEN there was.... and THEN there was Ingmar Bergman... who was just like... a blow, it was so stunning to Americans. The first Scandinavian film we knew about was Bergman. And the Japanese. Kurasawa... suddenly there was Kurasawa and Mizoguchi and so on.

And then, at the same time, thanks partly to Cahiérs des Cinema and the politiques des auteurs that came out of France, and a few very important American critics, we began to rediscover our own movies. Suddenly we began to realise that there was Hitchcock. We had always taken Hitchcock for granted. Now, I think there s God and then there s Hitchcock. That s the way it is for me. Then John Ford, and Howard Hawks, and Anthony Mann. We discovered those auteur directors. And that s just five. Preston Sturgess... I mean you name the ones that you want, but there s five or six of them... Orson Welles, of course.

So every week, we d go to two new movies. One of them was, to our young, impressionable minds, a possible masterpiece. And then you d go somewhere and sit until three o clock in the morning and talk about every scene and go over and over it again and you d go and see Jules & Jim again a week later, or whatever the hell it was. It was just in the air. It was a wonderful time to get addicted. That s what it was... it became an addiction.

So that was going on. Three things happened that made Bonnie & Clyde. The first was that Benton and I had done a big magazine piece for Esquire and it was called "The New Sentimentality" - it came out in 1964 and it had a lot of pictures. What we were saying, by use of examples in music, in movies, in sex, in child raising, in books, in fashion, in politics - everything we could think of - was that the whole value system in America was changing. Undergoing a change. And that people didn't t know what it was yet, but you could point to what was old and what was new.

We did it in a very simple way. This is the old idea of a movie star - we had John Wayne. This is a new star - we had a guy named Timothy Carey. This is an old romantic couple - we had Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn. This is a new couple - we had Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg. And why - with explanations. We had certain figures who passed from the old to the new, like Marilyn Monroe. It was really good and it got a big reaction. A lot of other magazines around the world picked it up and a lot of other people have since ripped the idea off.

But we were onto something. Kennedy had just been shot the year before. Martin Luther King was shot the next year, the night of the Oscars, in fact. This country was going through this huge change. It is now what we call "The Sixties". But when you re living in the sixties, you don t know it s called "The Sixties". I didn't t know I was going to have an afro, which I did, and wear tie-dyes and be stoned a lot and go to Grateful Dead concerts and Woodstock. I didn't t know that then, because that was later in the sixties. And all the anti-war Vietnam... we breathed our tear gas and went on freedom marches and went down south and registered African-American - as it s now politically correct to say - voters. I want to know if in Canada they re called African-Canadians? I've never understood the phrase.

But something was going on in this country and we felt that this piece called "The New Sentimentality" was about that and the response to it was strong. That was one thing. The second thing was I happened to be fan of what we call "True Crime" books. Books about real criminals. A book came out about a very famous desperado named John Dillinger. There s been a lot of movies made about him in the 30 s. It was a very interesting book, I love that stuff. How the FBI pursued him and how the whole law in America changed and the automobile changed everything. It was the end of prohibition so it was the end of the Al Capone era. So now there was these desperadoes, these individuals. And the roads being built were better and the automobiles were better so you could rob a bank in Oklahoma and by that night you could be in Kansas.

But the law didn't t catch up with that technology. The cops would stop at the border and say, "they re in Kansas, it s not my problem anymore". We have a scene like that in Bonnie & Clyde. "I m not getting my ass shot off in Kansas". The depression had come so there was a great need for entrepreneurs in crime.

In the course of this book, which was mainly about John Dillinger and his gang, they mentioned some of the other contemporary gangsters. Ma Barker, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly - they all had these great names. Movies have been made about all of them by now. And Bonnie & Clyde.
Just a couple of paragraphs. But in the back there was an appendix, the footnotes, and it had a little bit more about Bonnie & Clyde. It had one of those poems that she wrote. The Ballad of Bonnie & Clyde - it s in the film.

And I thought, "Wow!. This chick wrote poetry and also robbed banks?" She sent them into the newspapers to get published and they were taking pictures of each other all the time - a woman with a cigar and all that - and sending them in.

I thought, "these people are talking to me. This has nothing to do with crime, this has to do with style". This has to do with, as the French say, "É°ater du Bourgeoisie" - shocking middle America, shocking the standards of America.

The offence of Bonnie & Clyde, the wonder of Bonnie & Clyde, to me, was the bravado, the flaunting of it, the chutzpah, whatever you want to call it. I mean, they were terrible crooks. It s in the movie. They go into one bank to rob it and there s no money. They rob another bank and they add it up and they haven t enough money to buy gas. They all have to live in one room half the size of this room.
They weren't t successful crooks, but they became legendary figures because they promoted their own celebrity. This was at a time in America when Andy Warhol and that whole thing was going on. What they used to call "the underground". And Benton and I used to say if Bonnie & Clyde were alive in the sixties, they wouldn't t be crooks. They would be hanging out with Andy Warhol and those people, downtown here.

I realised out of that, that a lot of the values and the icons and the things that begin in the underworld - which is what we call "gangsters" in America, criminals, the Godfather, Scorcese... that world - they ultimately move up into the underground, which is the artists, the Beats, Kerouac, jazz musicians, the bohemians. They take on some of the glamour.

Writers love gangsters. I know it. I've known some gangsters. There s a place called Elaine s, where a lot of writers hang out. There was a time in the 70 s when some pimps would hang out there. Writers love hanging around with criminals and pimps, so I know that world.

So the underworld and underground take from each other. That was the second thing - that book.
Incidentally, my partner, Benton, grew up in East Texas. He s six years older than I am. He remembered from his childhood, hearing about Bonnie & Clyde, who were kind of mythological characters in his neighbourhood. He heard stories about them. He remembered that on Halloween, kids would dress up like Bonnie & Clyde, so they had a resonance to him. So that was good.

Because when we went down to do research, Benton knew where to go. We met a woman who taught Clyde in school in third grade. She gave us a joke in the movie, which Gene Hackman says, about don t sell the cow by putting whisky in the milk. I got that right from that woman. I tape recorded it and put it in the movie.

We met people who remembered them as heroes and then we met people on the other side of town who remembered them as scum. "They got what they deserved". It s like everything else in this country.

The third thing was, at the Museum of Modern Art they have a kind of a cinématheque. They were showing, just by chance, a retrospective of Alfred Hitchcock. He was still alive at the time. By that time he had made 49 films, including the silent ones back in England.

Every single afternoon at lunch Benton and I would go to the museum, three blocks from the office, and watch a Hitchcock film. We d come back in the afternoon, we d close the door - we were supposed to be working for the magazine - and we d talk about Hitchcock and movies.

I've said it before, I still believe this, I don t care how many innovations have happened since then I still believe he is one of the gods, as I've said. You can learn more about the construction of film, the grammar of film, how you put a movie together from Hitchcock than from anyone. Because it s all there. You can teach Hitchcock - even I could teach Hitchcock if I ever had the chance. If there s a glass in the second scene and it s behind the book and the camera goes and picks the glass out, you think, "something s important about that glass". You may forget about it, but an hour later, someone s going to go over and say, "Hey, what s this glass?" And it'll be the poison or whatever the hell it is.

But it s all planted. It s all locked together. One piece leads to the next piece. Even the ones that don t fully succeed, you learn from.

There are other directors that I think are equally fantastic. Fellini comes to mind. I adore Fellini. But you can learn nothing from Fellini. The most you can do is make an imitation Fellini and you can t make it as well. Because it s a Fellini film. So there are some directors which are more useful in that sense.

So... Hitchcock every day. New Sentimentality. And this book called "The Dillinger Days". Those three things happened to make Bonnie & Clyde. And this desperate desire to get into the movies, because we loved movies so much.

Filmography for David Newman

© Mikael Colville-Andersen 2006-2011