Q-and-A with moviemakers a feast for film junkies

DOUGLASS K. DANIEL Associated Press Published:

"Conversations at the American Film Institute With The Great Moviemakers: The Next Generation, From the 1950s to Hollywood Today" (Knopf), by George Stevens Jr.: For serious film junkies, those who want to take a movie apart to see what makes it tick, this collection of Q-and-A sessions with film students and filmmakers is like a textbook made of cotton candy, an intellectual treat.

The American Film Institute's founding director, George Stevens Jr., follows up a previous volume of such conversations by focusing on actors, directors and others active from the 1950s and beyond. Presented alphabetically from Robert Altman and Darren Aronofsky to Robert Towne and Francois Truffaut, the 32 people in "Conversations at the American Film Institute With The Great Moviemakers: The Next Generation, From the 1950s to Hollywood Today" are an eclectic bunch -- there's even a critic -- who share a devotion to film.

Such dialogues are only as revealing as the guests, of course, and they stand or fall according to how deeply they are willing to go in discussing their work. Some guests are better at that than others -- there is very little gossip -- but all offer a sense of how they see themselves as artists in action. For example:

-- Gregory Peck on giving up on acting as a young man: "I thought about it all the time. When it wasn't on my mind, my father was writing to me reminding me that I was off on a fool's errand and that I should go to medical school or law school. ... But to me it was an exciting adventure."

-- "Bonnie and Clyde" director Arthur Penn on resisting the norm: "Trying to break the rules in Hollywood is an important goal. Your mission should be to put your personal stamp on the film."

-- "Chinatown" screenwriter Robert Towne on original screenplays and adaptations: "It's more frightening to do an original because it's easier to face somebody else's mediocre material than your own mediocre material. ... I think it takes more courage, more stupidity, whatever you want to call it, to deal with original material."

Two long sections, more than 40 pages each, go to Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, not exactly overlooked figures. But amid such hardy perennials Stevens gives voice to lesser-known but significant people like film editor Anne Coats ("Lawrence of Arabia," ''Erin Brockovich") and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski ("Schindler's List," ''War Horse").

Many of these sessions are two or more decades in the past, refreshed with more recent interactions at the AFI. Matters of technology and business can seem as removed from today as the silent era. Yet issues of creativity remain relevant in spite of the years that have passed.

"I come to every project thinking I don't know anything," actress Meryl Streep says. "It serves me to begin blank and to try to forget the 900 other movies, and my reputation, and the training, or whatever horrible obstruction there is to creating a new character. I put myself in a state of anxiety -- to become blank and to start by starting."

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Douglass K. Daniel is the author of "Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks" (University of Wisconsin Press).