The Sight & Sound interview: William Klein

Alongside his acclaimed photography work, William Klein has spent the last 50 years making probing documentaries and irreverent features. In our January 2013 issue, he looks back over his long career in cinema.

Brian Dillon
Updated:

From our January 2013 issue

William Klein photographed in 1978 by Ferdinando Scianna.

William Klein photographed in 1978 by Ferdinando Scianna.
Credit: © Magnum Photos

By the time William Klein made his first film Broadway by Light in 1958, he had already revolutionised one medium with his first photographic book, Life Is Good & Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels, published two years earlier. Klein’s overprinted, grainy and frequently blurred photographs of his native city drew on comic-books and tabloid rags such as the New York Sun for their graphic blare, and on the energy of cinema for their wide-angle compositions and startling montage. Broadway by Light was an early departure from an already improvised and happenstance style: a film about the neon palimpsest of Times Square that Orson Welles described as the first film he’d seen where colour was essential.

Klein grew up in Brooklyn and served in the US Army in Europe after World War II before studying painting in Paris. He went back to New York to take photographs for Vogue, returned to Paris – where his New York book was championed by a young Chris Marker – and went on to make a series of satirical films, beginning in 1966 with Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?, a scurrilous farewell to the fashion industry. In 1968 he directed Mister Freedom, an antic and comic-book-styled attack on the cultural and military hubris of his home country. Documentaries followed, on Muhammad Ali (whom he had first filmed in 1964), Eldridge Cleaver and Little Richard. Klein returned to photography in the 1980s and has continued to make films: his “very profane” take on Handel’s Messiah was completed in 1999 and he is planning to shoot his next film in Paris in 2013.

In early November, on the day of the US presidential election, I met Klein at his apartment on the Left Bank, where he spoke about his films of the past 50 years, breaking off now and then to fret about the possibility of a Romney/Ryan win (“I hate all this shit about Jesus and God”) or talk to his elderly cat, Nanou. Klein is 84 and nowadays he sounds slightly more like a New Yorker than the adoptive Parisian who so memorably voiced the English-language version of Chris Marker’s La Jetée in 1962.

Broadway by Light (1958)

Broadway by Light (1958)

Brian Dillon: Your friend and collaborator Chris Marker once wrote of your films that every frame is a perfect William Klein photograph. And you said of your first book that only the sequencing counted, “like a movie”. Were you already thinking of film and photography alongside one another earlier in the 1950s?

William Klein: Well, I didn’t know how to do a book. I was just discovering photography and once I had all these pictures, I showed them to editors in New York and nobody thought it was worthwhile to do a book with these photographs. They said, “What is this shit?” I came back to Paris and discovered there was a series of travel books called Petite Planète. I called them up and got an appointment and I went to this office which looked like NASA. Chris Marker was there with a laser gun in his belt, and he saw the photographs and said, “We’ll do a book!” In fact he said, “We’ll do a book or I quit!” He was like the wunderkind of this publishing house, Editions du Seuil, and he threatened to quit every month, so they gave him what he wanted.

The sequencing of the New York book, and even the composition of individual images, also seems to owe something to comic-books. Was that a taste you shared with Marker?

Him and Alain Resnais. Chris introduced me to Resnais. They were two buddies – they were both tall and athletic, and they met in the army and hung around together. Chris was the first guy who made movies that I’d ever met.

When you made Broadway by Light, they were both credited: Marker wrote the introductory voiceover and Resnais provided ‘technical advice’. How much were they actually involved in making the film?

It was Resnais who said to me, “Now you’ve done a book, you must do films.” There were people in my family who were very hot lawyers and United Artists was their client; they were smart enough to take over United Artists. I did this first film and I wanted my cousin at UA to run it as a short before the feature, and they said, “If we show it, people will leave and they won’t see the feature!” The film was very far from the book, but it was the same subject, more or less. I rented a camera and just filmed what I saw. The idea was to use these commercials in Times Square as readymades, like Marcel Duchamp.

With Marker and Resnais, what happened was they had introduced me to this producer Anatole Dauman [of Argos Films], who had done films with both of them, and I showed him the rushes and he said, “I’ll pay for the post-production, the editing and the music.” Dauman made his films with the help of the [French] government and he had to have French technicians, and so on my film he had Chris Marker and Alain Resnais. But Alain never saw the rushes; he saw the rough cut. Still, he became ‘technical adviser’! Chris wrote those few lines, which were typical French intellectual bullshit, you know?

But beautiful….

Yes, beautiful bullshit!

Your exhibition at Tate Modern includes a quotation from Orson Welles about Broadway by Light: “the first film I’ve seen in which colour was absolutely necessary”. When and where did he say this? Did you meet him?

I was coming back from New York and on the quay I saw this big figure: Orson Welles, with a cigar and an attaché case – no luggage. And I said, “Listen, I did a film. You’re going to take the boat – can I show it to you?” And he said, “Sure.” I showed it to him in the cinema on the boat and he said that: this film couldn’t have been made without colour. Which was true!

Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966)

Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966)

Broadway by Light is visually ravishing but it’s also, as you have put it, a film about “brainwashing”. I suppose one could say the same about your next film, Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? – it seems as though it’s the product of an ambivalence about the fashion industry rather than a total rejection or critique.

It’s about fashion and television and media – it’s about brainwashing too. I decided I wanted to do a fiction film and a film about things I knew – which was the fashion world, television, filmmaking and so on. I’d been discovered by Alexander Liberman, who was the art director at Condé Nast; he saw an exhibition of my abstract photographs and called me up. I went to see him and he said, “How would you like to work for Vogue?” And I said, “Doing what?” And he said, “I don’t know. I work for Vogue – I’m a painter and sculptor, but during the week I put on a suit and I go down to the office, and on the weekend I paint and I sculpt. You could do something similar. What do you think?” And I said, “Fine.” I’d never made much money; I’d sold a few paintings, but it wasn’t enough to live on. When I made Polly Maggoo it was more or less the end of this collaboration with Vogue because I made a caricature of the editor-in-chief and the fashion people, so they didn’t really adore me.

In that sense Polly Maggoo is the start of a much more explicitly political phase in your work. But the look of the film, its humour, its absurdism – all of these are quite far from what your friends and colleagues on the Left might have wanted from a radical cinema. That disparity must have only increased with your next film, Mister Freedom, which takes a very stylised, comic-book approach to satirising American imperialism.

Mister Freedom was also more or less prompted by Chris Marker because in 1966 he was contacted by militant students who were organising agitprop meetings against the war in Vietnam. They said to Marker, “We have these meetings and we want to attract students with a film, but most of the political films that are being made are really shitty, grainy and badly done. Would you do a film for us?” And Marker said, “No, I won’t do a film, but I’ll get some friends to work on a film, a group effort.” And so he contacted Godard, Resnais, Agnès Varda, Claude Lelouch, Joris Ivens and me – and it became Loin du Viêt-nam [Far from Vietnam, 1967].

But I was frustrated by the film because there was a lot of press and excitement about this collective work, but not many people came to see it. And I wondered how I would make a political film which would be attractive. I thought: do a comic-strip film. In those days, it was a put-down to say a film looked like a comic-strip; nowadays it’s a guarantee of authenticity and invention.

I wanted the film to be seen, to be popular. I would have liked Marlon Brando to play Mister Freedom, or someone like that – Lee Marvin, maybe. [Instead, he was played by the little-known John Abbey.] And for the girl I wanted a pop singer. But Delphine Seyrig was sitting right there where you are and she saw the scenario and said, “What’s this?” I explained and she said, “I can do it!” I said, “What do you mean? You’re going to be like a bimbo? You don’t care?” “No, I can do it!”

She was kind of American – she spent the war in New York and she was really as American as a French girl could be. So she dug the whole idea and she was great and very funny and sexy and everything. She was like my sister; I loved her.

Mr Freedom (1969)

Mr Freedom (1969)

The release of Mister Freedom was delayed.

Because there were some scenes in the street – demonstrations – in the film, so the French censor thought it was a film about May ’68 and revolution in France. So it was censored for nine months, then finally came out.

You were filming in Paris in May ’68. Was it clear at the time that a discrete film project should come of that?

What happened was I was doing the editing of Mister Freedom and in May ’68 the movie industry went on strike; all the film people said, “We will not work on films. We’ll invent a revolutionary cinema.” And so they had what they called the “États généraux du cinéma”, in the suburbs at Suresnes. Everybody gathered to discuss, day and night, how to invent a revolutionary cinema in France.

I went out there, and it was decided that we would do a film – a collective film once again – on May ’68. There were filmmakers who were Trotskyites, Maoists and anarchists, and each group had film and cameras allotted to them. Producers were scared to death of this movement because they thought there was really going to be a revolution in France, and they’d be hanging from the lampposts. So they said, “You want filmstock? Here, we’ll give you filmstock. We’ll give you tapes for sound and we’ll lend you Nagras” and so on.

We were pretty well equipped to make this collective film. However, once May ’68 was over, each group had these reels of film under their arms and they said: “Well, let’s make our own film, and fuck everybody else!” And so this collective operation never really happened.

Eldridge Cleaver (1970)

Eldridge Cleaver (1970)

Your work in the 1970s continued to be satirical: you made The Model Couple (Le Couple témoin), which was rather prescient given the advent of reality TV, but you had also begun a series of films about prominent black Americans: Muhammad Ali, Eldridge Cleaver, Little Richard. How did you come to make the film Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther in Algeria in 1969?

Loin du Viêt-nam caught the eye of Algerian film producers, and they invited me to make a collective film. In Algiers they had money and they had a film board and they invited representatives from around 15 African countries so we had people from Kenya, from Guinea-Bissau, from all over. The idea of having film directors from different countries working together like Loin du Viêt-nam was a pipe dream because the Algerians didn’t know they were on the blacklist of many countries’ film boards. The Algerian filmmakers were not liked by African filmmakers or by the Cubans: they had lots of money but no lab. So the Cubans said, “Well, fuck you.” The film didn’t work out so I decided to make a mega-documentary on this festival.

I was there in Algeria, filming the Pan-African Cultural Festival, and Cleaver was there. The Algerians’ idea was to have representatives from different countries – the independence movements and revolutionary movements of several countries still under colonial rule – represented in Algiers. They invited the Black Panthers as official representatives of revolution in the US. Cleaver was working with a little group of revolutionary filmmakers, but these guys were tripping over their cables and generally fucking up the film and Cleaver saw us working with our set-up of different directors from all over. He was impressed. He sent someone to contact me and said, “I’d like to do a film to explain why I skipped bail and why I’m here running away from the police in America.” He had this bloated idea of doing a film with him in the middle, delivering his ‘State of the Union’ address.

Muhammad Ali: The Greatest (1975)

Muhammad Ali: The Greatest (1975)

We decided once we’d finished filming the festival we’d do a film with Cleaver – a portrait of Cleaver. I was fascinated by the Black Panthers because I’d been in contact with the Nation of Islam, thanks to Muhammad Ali, and their way of talking was that the whites were the devil and they’d get rid of them once they took over.

I was making a film on Muhammad Ali in 1964 and I went to Miami to film everything around the fight for the world championship with Sonny Liston. I had the good luck of flying down to Miami and there was one empty seat and the guy sitting next to this empty seat was Malcolm X. Nobody wanted to sit next to him because he was on the cover of Life magazine and he was the bogeyman. I spoke to the guy; he was interested to meet a Jewish filmmaker from New York, living in Paris and coming to film the future champion and Black Muslim leader. I spent two-and-a-half hours talking to Malcolm X and he spread the word with Ali’s camp that I was OK, and when I got there I had complete access. We became more or less friends – as much as you become friends with a guy like Ali.

Little Richard with William Klein.

Little Richard with William Klein.

You revisited and expanded the Ali film in 1974 and you made The Little Richard Story in 1980. Did you have a sense that it was the third ‘portrait’?

No, it came about by accident – but all these things were accidents. I was contacted by a German producer who had a deal with German television to make a series of films about America and he asked if I was interested. I said yes, because I’m always frustrated by the fact that I don’t see enough of America. I thought there was a great opportunity to do some filming in America. The first film he wanted me to do was on Dolly Parton. I went to Nashville and for some reason she backed out.

I was there in Nashville with a producer and a crew and enough material to make a film but no film to make. It was a crazy place and I ran into a guy who was out of it completely and this was Little Richard. He’d been contacted by these two mafia types who were making bibles; instead of giving flowers to families who had lost someone, you would give this big beautiful bible – the Black Heritage Bible – and they wanted someone to pimp for this bible. They found out Little Richard was out of work and no longer a star. Richard jumped at the opportunity because he was very frustrated not to have crowds screaming for him. He went along with these bible people and I became interested in him – we had filmed some stuff in Nashville.

The film looks to me as if you are discovering America for the first time.

I was! In America, kids would go to college and get out and buy a second-hand car and go across the country and discover America. I never did that; I went from New York to Paris, and New York was my America.

You’ve just had a retrospective exhibition of your photographs at Tate Modern and it begins with Broadway by Light. Are you working on a film at the moment?

I’m preparing a film. You know how all the concierges in Paris are Portuguese? I dreamed up a scenario where the Portuguese concierge of a house has an accident outside of work time so she’s not covered by health insurance. She’s afraid of losing her job so she calls up her sister, who’s a film star in Portugal, and the film star comes to Paris to be a concierge in a typical French house. Except it’s not so typical because the building is full of everything that’s happening in Paris: music, art and so on. Each apartment is a different world. It’ll be good!

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