John Ford stages a fight between James Stewart and John Wayne for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
John Ford gave me a very good piece of advice. He said, “Never rehearse action.” I said, “Why not?” He said, “Somebody could get hurt.” It’s a cryptic remark, as all of Ford’s remarks were, but it makes sense. What you do is discuss everything that can possibly happen and what you want and what you’ll take if you don’t get that, and then you do it. Usually you get elaborate pieces of action on the first take because nobody wants to do it again, and they all work like hell to get it right.
You had the great fortune of knowing Fritz Lang and John Ford. Do you think those relationships helped you with your own filmmaking?
There’s a fine line between being influenced by these guys and stealing outright from them. All directors steal from each other. I was talking to Howard Hawks about the shot in Red River when the cloud comes in and covers the funeral. I said, “That’s a hell of a shot.” He said, “Well, you know, sometimes you get lucky and get one of those great Ford shots.” I said, “Do you mean you thought of it as a Ford shot then?” He said, “Oh, sure. We all said, ‘Let’s get that Ford shot.’” I asked him if Ford had influenced his westerns and he said, “Well, Jesus Christ, Peter—I don’t see how you can make a western and not be influenced by John Ford!”
Ford said that he thinks the best things in pictures happen by accident. Orson Welles said to me, “A director is essentially a man who presides over accidents.” What you’re really trying to do when you direct a picture is create an atmosphere in which accidents will happen. Things will go a little bit wrong and you’ll say, “That’s great. That’s the one.” Who knows why it’s the one? Something was going through the actor’s mind, or a cloud moved in at a certain point. Henry Fonda told me this story about Ford directing Mister Roberts. He said, “We were shooting a scene with William Powell. He was kind of shaky and nervous. It was a long scene, about four or five pages, and Ford set up the camera, and we started to roll—it was outside on a ship—and Jesus, Bill was just terrible. His hands were shaking and he could barely remember his lines. I was thinking, ‘When is he going to cut?’ But I went on playing the scene and we went on and on, and the scene was over and Ford said, ‘Cut! Print! Did you see that cloud move in there? Jesus, wasn’t that a hell of a thing? What a hell of a shot that was!’” —Peter Bogdanovich, Conversations at the American Film Institute with the Great Moviemakers: The Next Generation
John Ford interview from Peter Bogdanovich’s Directed by John Ford.
Recommended reading, viewing, and listening:
- John Ford as featured director in an episode of Cineastes de notre temps
- The Last Picture Show, 1970 Revised Final Draft by Larry McMurtry and Peter Bogdanovich
- The Last Picture Show (1971) LaserDisc commentary with director Peter Bogdanovich