A conversation about “The Conversation”

A couple of years ago I wrote about my seven favorite movies in this space. Number one on that list was “The Conversation.” It’s still number one. I’m having a hard time imagining it will ever not be number one.

It’s not a movie that, when you finish it, you say “ah, that was fun.” It’s not at all uplifting and there’s very little action in it. Many people find it boring. I understand that. I don’t blame those who don’t like it for “not getting it” or whatever. Slow burns and character sketches are not for everyone. Most people watch movies to enjoy themselves and be entertained. They should, too. That’s kind of the point of a movie, even if I like to torture myself with bleak, contemplative stuff like this on occasion.  

Its lack of action and lack of feel-good appeal notwithstanding, aesthetically it’s just a beautifully-shot and perfectly-acted movie. There isn’t an ounce of fat on it. Gene Hackman is, if not my favorite actor of all time, in my top three, and this is his greatest role. And, as you can tell by our shared taste in eyewear, I like Harry Caul’s personal style.   

More deeply, I identify with its themes.

I’ve spent a lot of time in my life trying to find the right balance between observing the world with objective detachment and actively participating in it. When I was a lawyer I’d often find myself keeping myself too far removed from my clients when I found them or their interests objectionable or getting too close to them, sometimes losing my objectivity, when I did not. Since I’ve become a writer — working at home, not interacting with many people in person on a daily basis — I’ve felt like more of a voyeur than a participant in the world on occasion, with a tendency to disengage. This tendency is far more pronounced when I’m under stress or when I’m unhappy.  It’s not a good quality, and it’s something I’ve worked hard to notice and head off when I slip into it, but I’ll likely always have to work on it. To not become a low-tech version of Harry Caul, letting life simply happen to him. Either not caring to participate in the business of living beyond watching others do it or not knowing how to participate in it until it’s too late.    

I write all of this today because a friend of mine just pointed out a great interview of Francis Ford Coppola — conducted by Brian DePalma of all people — about the making of “The Conversation.” It’s from 1974, just as the movie was being released in theaters, so there is none of that reverent, “talk about your classic movie” stuff. You can tell Coppola knew he had a good movie on his hands — it was nominated for Best Picture several months later, in a year that was stacked with amazing films — but he freely talks about its flaws too, in a way I bet he wouldn’t now if you asked him. It’s also interesting because (a) there’s an exchange in there in which I suspect DePalma got the seed for making the excellent “Blow Out” seven years later; and (b) based on stuff he says about his movie making style, you can see the hell Coppola would go through making “Apocalypse Now” a few years later coming straight down Market Street.  

There are a lot of great technical details in the interview too. How Coppola went about filming the opening segment in the park, the choice of lenses to give it that voyeuristic feel and all of that. I’ve read a lot about that stuff before, but there’s a new bit in there I hadn’t read about the sound editing which kind of blew my mind. There are a lot of jarring transitions from loud to quiet in the movie and I used to think it was just because it was poorly mixed like a lot of 1970s movies are, but Coppola talks about how that was intentional and explains, quite satisfyingly, why that is so. It’s one of those things that makes perfect sense and which I’m somewhat embarrassed I didn’t think about while watching it, oh, 10 times. 

It’s been a year or two since I last watched it. After reading this interview, I’m going to have to make it 11 soon. 

Craig Calcaterra

Craig is the author of the daily baseball (and other things) newsletter, Cup of Coffee. He writes about other things at Craigcalcaterra.com. He lives in New Albany, Ohio with his wife, two kids, and many cats.