Henry Jaglom Interview

I first became aware of the films of Henry Jaglom in the Summer of 1995.   It was a difficult period of my life.  I was forced to leave college because of my parents approaching divorce.  I was in a confusion of utter despair, depression and falling quickly into shambles.  I couldn’t understand how two people, after being married for 30 years, could just pack it up and leave each other.  They had loved one another, yet their marriage was over.  I felt as though it was the end of my own existence somehow.

It’s a scary thought.  It makes any ideal of a future with love and romance for oneself seem dark and lacking hope.  Then I discovered the Henry Jaglom films: ALWAYS (1985) and SOMEONE TO LOVE(1987).  I had never seen anything like these films before or since in my life.

ALWAYS (1985) details the disintegration of a marriage in its final moments.  Jaglom shot the film, starring in it with his soon-to-be- ex-wife. She [Patrice Townsend], had agreed to the project, while they were officially-separated.  Jaglom filmed ALWAYS in his own home, which they, [at the time] shared in real life.  Jaglom made the film as an attempt to reconcile the relationship.  What the audience sees in ALWAYS is an examination of modern marriage.  It was the most painful experience of Jaglom’s life, and it’s captured on celluloid.

Henry Jaglom’s films, for me, were like cinematic hugs.  Finally I had found someone who seemed to really understand what I was feeling. A good friend, that had experienced the same thing that I had. 

Henry Jaglom is a man searching for the truth.  His films search for it in life, love, romance and lust.  Somehow he manages to capture it with his camera.  These aren’t just movies. They’re truthful, albeit epic and profound explorations of the human condition. Jaglom’s films are true stories of someone searching for the answer to life’s tragic questions.

Feeling empathic, inspired, and cured by Jaglom’s work, I wrote him a simple fan letter in the Winter of ’97 to tell him just how much his films had meant to me, and saved me in a time when I had really needed saving.  I felt compelled to write Henry Jaglom because of how his films had helped me and inspired me in a major and difficult time.  He wrote me back two weeks later.

Jaglom is the quintessential actors’ director.  He’s the ultimate independent American film auteur. Extracting truths from his actors instead of imposing them. His work has been compared to that of filmmaker John Cassavetes, Andy Warhol, and of the early French New Wave. But, Jaglom’s work is much more significant.  Cassavetes, Warhol nor Godard never came close to achieving what Jaglom has done in his films.  He’s created work that should be in the Smithsonian.

Some don’t appreciate Henry’s films, and in the past he’s been accused of being a perfectionist. In fact,  he’s always been a self-admitted egomaniac to the hilt.   Yet, regardless of whether you like the films of Henry Jaglom or dislike them,  through that perfectionism and egotism exists one of the warmest and nicest guys you’ll ever encounter in your life.

Jaglom came to Hollywood from New York as a playwright and actor.  He became involved in Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio alongside: Jack Nicholson, Bruce Dern, Diane Ladd, and Peter Fonda.  As an actor, Jaglom was contracted at Columbia Studios and landed acting roles on television shows like: The Flying Nun and Gidget.  As the 70’s approached, Jaglom worked on several projects in front and behind the camera, including working as an editor on Dennis Hopper’s seminal culture blast EASY RIDER(1969), and acting in such films as Hopper’s THE LAST MOVIE (1970), and the Roger Corman-produced, PSYCH-OUT (1968).  In 1971, Jaglom made his first film, A SAFE PLACE, with Orson Welles.  They maintained a legendary friendship until Welles death in 1985.

Jaglom has made eighteen films to date. His film work has been critically lambasted as well as hailed as influential and classic.  He’s informed me that he’s aiming to complete at least twenty-six films before everything is all said and over with. One film for each letter in the alphabet. As of today, he yet needs to shoot just thirteen more films to achieve his alphabetic goal.  One has to wonder: What Jaglom will do for the letter Z?

I’ve interviewed hundreds of filmmakers, actors, and comedians over the last several years, and I’ve never felt any type of stress, anxiety or intimidation in preparation. But, when it came time to interview Henry Jaglom, I was a little apprehensive.  I wasn’t sure if I was smart enough to exist in Jaglom’s universe. I’d soon find out…

Here’s why I consider him to be one of the greatest filmmaker of our time…

BOZUNG:  You were born in London, England?

HENRY JAGLOM:  I was born in London.  But I don’t remember being there.  It was by chance that I was born there.  My dad at the time was working in London. It was during World War II.   My dad decided to bring us to America.  I was 1 year old at the time.  So, we crossed on the Empresses Of Britain.   It’s my understanding that while we were crossing, German U-boats were torpedoing several boats crossing the Atlantic at the same time.  And this included our sister ship, which the German’s did destroy.   It was sunk, and everyone aboard was lost.   So my first crossing was somewhat lucky and dramatic.  It hasn’t been as dramatic ever since…

BOZUNG: You landed in New York City?

HENRY JAGLOM:  Yeah, I was brought up in New York City.  Even though I’ve lived the second half of my life in Los Angeles, I still feel very much a New Yorker at heart.

BOZUNG:  Do you remember you’re first movie-going experience?

HENRY JAGLOM:  I remember the first play I saw.  It featured a actress by the name of Bea Lillie.  It was called Inside U.S.A.  My mother took me to the play.   Every time an actor or actress would go off stage, I would begin trying to figure out what was going on backstage.  So that was my very first hint, that I’d be taking an interest in what was going on behind-the-scenes.    I became really obsessed with this idea, and I was only around five years old at the time. I guess I just really wanted to figure out all the mechanics of the back-stage.

Then I started seeing a series of great Broadway musicals.  I saw productions of The King & I and Guys & Dolls. You know all the great musicals of that period. I fell in love with show business. I became fascinated with show business even.  Meanwhile, at night, my parents were not allowing me to watch television, because they considered it uncultured.   So I was always listening to the radio instead.  And to this day, I’m still mad with them, because I really missed out on the golden age of comedy on television.

I had the radio, and by this time I had also discovered comic books.   And I think those two outlets really influenced and educated me in what I do today.   I loved the stories of the superheros and of the Archie and Veronica books.   With the radio, I started to create, visually, in my head what I was being deprived of while listening–images of emotion. There was a movie in my head that was always running.  There was a program that I loved called: The Lux Radio Theater on the Air.  One night, they presented a  play called: Lux Presents Hollywood.  So, in listening–laying on my bed–I decided that I was going to go to the movies. There was something magical about what I was hearing on the radio, and it was putting images of the stories in  my head.  I started telling my mother that I was going to go out to Hollywood and make movies.  I was telling her this when I was around seven or eight years old.   My mom would look at me and say, “What are you talking about?  Eat your soup…”

BOZUNG:  As a seven or eight year old kid what type of films were you watching?

HENRY JAGLOM:  I was obsessed with the Bob Hope and Bing Cosby movies and the Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin movies.  My goal was to go to Paramount because that was where Bob Hope and Bing Crosby made those movies. I decided that I’d smoke Chesterfield cigarettes too, because that was the brand that they advertised.  I had it all worked out.

BOZUNG:  So what did you do when you finally got to Hollywood?

HENRY JAGLOM:  I did  end up going to college first.  I went for four years to the University of  Pennsylvania.  There was no film department there.  I was bidding my  time there only.  I went because my dad had wanted me to have a back up.  However,  the whole time that I was there, I did nothing but write, direct, and act in  plays–just waiting for my time that I could leave for Hollywood.  When I  finished school, I went back to New York for a short time and got  involved in the Actor’s Studio.  It wasn’t too long after–I  left for Hollywood.  When I got here, with my background and experience that I had earned as an actor/writer/director by then in college, I was put under contract at Columbia Pictures. Not long after arriving, I began getting acting roles in stuff like Gidget and The Flying Nun. But that wasn’t really what I had in mind, career wise…

BOZUNG:  How did you come to come with Roger Corman in his LSD morality tale PSYCH OUT?

HENRY JAGLOM:  Jack Nicholson got me that part.  I met Jack at the Actor’s Studio.  I was glad when I got that part, because I was the guy who psyched out.   I was the moral of the film, which was:  if you take bad LSD–you get your hand cut off...laughing

BOZUNG:  I love that scene.  It’s great because the special effects are so bad. It has always looked like, at least to me, that you had an chicken leg taped to your hand upside down.   Were the side burns real?

HENRY JAGLOM:  laughing…  It was really the worst make up job in the history of the movies.  No, the burns were not real.  They were awful.  During shooting, Jack Nicholson was calling me “Scrooge McDuck.”   And to this day–thirty-plus years down the road–Nicholson, every time I see him, asks me:  “Where are your Scrooge McDucks?”   It was fun doing that movie though–I had a good time.

BOZUNG: You and Nicholson did a few other things together early on, didn’t you?

HENRY JAGLOM:  Yes.  I acted in a film he directed calledL DRIVE, HE SAID [1970].  We made a deal together prior:  that we’d act in each others’ first movies.   By the time I got the opportunity to direct my first movie,  A SAFE PLACE, Jack was the biggest star in the country.  He was getting a million dollars a movie by this time.  So I couldn’t afford him really, but we had a deal.  So he did my first movie for a color television that he really liked.

BOZUNG:  Didn’t you do something similar with Dennis Hopper?

HENRY JAGLOM:  Yes.  Dennis and I had the same kind of deal.  I acted in his film: THE LAST MOVIE [1970].  I got sick during the filming though.  I couldn’t take Peru and couldn’t take that altitude.   Dennis, of course, did my film: TRACKS.   Which I still think is one of his greatest performances. It shows, the real trauma of being Dennis Hopper. It’s also the first movie to examine the after-effects of Vietnam.

BOZUNG:  Isn’t your first film A SAFE PLACE (1971) getting a Criterion DVD release soon?

HENRY JAGLOM:  Yeah, and it’s a very rewarding notion to me.  To see A SAFE PLACE getting this DVD release proves all the critics wrong who trashed it when it first came out.   I mean, it got attacked.  I can remember how The New York Times and Time Magazine said how the film looked like it had been tossed in the air and landed in a Mix Master. They said that the film made no sense.  When really, I had a very clear and precise vision for that film. I was trying to play with conventional film structure.  I was playing with daydream and fact, illusion and reality, and the emotions of past, present, and future.  I didn’t wanna give it any type of conventional line, meaning: why follow the tradition of where something begins and ends?  The film was a failure and people stayed away from it.  It did get a great notice from Anais Nin however.   

Jack Nicholson told me that A SAFE PLACE would be a failure in America.  He said that I should dub everyone in French and change my name from Henry Jaglom to Henri Jaglum and release it that way.  He suggested that the film would be lauded as the greatest film since the work of Godard and Fellini. He was joking of course.  But here, forty years later, with this Criterion release, the irony is very present, however belated, and it feels great.

BOZUNG:  What do you think of the 1997 documentary WHO IS HENRY JAGLOM (1997) all of these years later now that you’ve had time to reflect on it?

HENRY JAGLOM:  Well, I understood the filmmakers.  It was made by a couple young guys that were hungry filmmakers.  They were looking for something shocking and controversial about me.  And there just isn’t anything about my life in that vane.  The only person I trust in that movie is Candice Bergen.   I thought the film was gonna be more about my work and not about my personality or a exaggerated character.  However, I do find it somewhat charming, and I still send it out to people because it is on DVD.

Look at my brother in the movie, Michael, for example.   He’s screaming on the subway in the film.  When I saw that I said to him: “Michael, what are you doing?  People are gonna think you hate me.”   He said, ” Henry, the only way people are gonna pay intention is if you give them what they want. What am I gonna tell them?  There’s really not much to tell them...”

It’s not a bad documentary.  I think it’s kind of funny.  Especially that lady standing at the top of the stadium during the football game shouting:  “Henry Jaglom hates women.”

BOZUNG:  How did your film ALWAYS(1985) come about?

HENRY JAGLOM:  Because she was gonna leave me.  I loved her and I didn’t wanna let her go.   She was a few years younger than I was, and she had came to me from her parent’s house.  She thought there was more out in the world for her.  I told her there was nothing out there, and it would take her a few years to realize it. She didn’t have enough life experience, and I didn’t want her to break my heart.  So I thought that by making the film, it would make her realize how wonderful we had been together.  I thought we’d get back together, but it just didn’t work out that way.

It was like a sad party.  Our house was filled with people. There was food there. We were shooting this movie together, doing all this romantic stuff together for the camera, and at the end of the day, when everyone left, I’d ask her if she’d stay over with me and she always said:  “No, I think I’d better go home.”

It was a incredibly painful process for me.   But I tried to get the truth out on the film. The truth about two people that loved each other. This whole concept is a terrible dilemma of my generation. Before, people had left each other because they didn’t like each other. But that’s changed, and this type of situation was more complicated.  ALWAYS was a story that had not been told before on film.

BOZUNG:  How much of something like ALWAYS (1985) was scripted?

HENRY JAGLOM:  Well, it was a solid script in terms of action.  But the dialogue was created by the people in the film, because we knew each other and how we fit into each others lives.  In ALWAYS, I am not a very good cook.  So when I tried to cook–I burnt that fish.   It made her sick, so she couldn’t leave the house.  It was a dramatic device, but it wasn’t real.  But what we’re saying in the film–that emotion was real. What we’re saying–dialogue wise–is very real.   It takes a lot of practice to tell the truth.  The stuff we’re saying to each other, and about each other, is very real.   I didn’t wanna lose her.

BOZUNG:  Is ALWAYS a film that you can watch today?

HENRY JAGLOM:  For years I couldn’t watch the film.  It was just too emotional.  It wasn’t easy to make.  I wasn’t trying to be an artist or a hero.  I was just trying to win the girl back.  I wanted to get back to the essence of our relationship.  I knew she loved me, but I couldn’t win her back.  It was tough.  But I’m okay to watch it now.

BOZUNG:  Given your style of film-making, and the way you create a script…  How cooperative was Orson Welles to your style, in doing SOMEONE TO LOVE(1987) with him?

HENRY JAGLOM:  Completely.  Let me tell you this about Orson on that film: I had some problems shooting that film.  I was having trouble with the crew.  I’d select a certain camera set up, and the crew would argue with me saying that if we shot the film this or that way it wouldn’t cut.  So I told Orson this and he simply told me: “Tell them it’s a dream sequence…”   So I did that and the crew starts to fall over themselves to help me.   I haven’t shot a film since were I haven’t had an issue with a crew member in regards to shooting.  And every time something like that happens–I tell them it’s a dream sequence.  And it works. Orson was right.  He understood how people worked.  He told me to tell them it was a dream sequence because he understood that people are very used to working in method and structure.  So by telling them it was to be a dream sequence he understood that it would free that person up to be creative, because they associate dreams with something unreal– where everything is possible.

BOZUNG: Was Welles’s dialogue scripted?

HENRY JAGLOM:   Yes.  It was written.  But I encourage actors where there is written dialogue to make it their own. So I may do a first take with the dialogue as written, but on the second or fourth take, the actor takes it and makes it their own to achieve something more truthful that we can capture on film.

BOZUNG:  What was the greatest thing you learned from Orson Welles?

HENRY JAGLOM:  Orson sat me down at lunch one day.  I was upset because I was running out of time and money on a film. He looked at me and said: “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.”  Which means: if you have all the time and money in the world, you’re gonna create something that’s limited.  But if you’re forced to create while looking for solutions you’ll break through those limitations.  And from that day on, that ideal, has been my mantra.

BOZUNG: On that same note, what do you think you taught Orson Welles?

HENRY JAGLOM:  A willingness to just go ahead and do something without necessary having all the tools to do it.   He was always asking me, “how do you know you can get away with doing that?”  I would tell him: ” I don’t know, but why can’t I just try it?”   I think that impressed him.

BOZUNG:  What’s your favorite Orson Welles film?

HENRY JAGLOM:  MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942).  I love F FOR FAKE (1972) as well.  Orson always said that F FOR FAKE was his greatest film. And of course, he couldn’t ever get it released.  It never got seen. It never got reviewed here in the USA. It was a sad experience for him.  But F FOR FAKE is a masterpiece.

BOZUNG: If you had to choose just one Jaglom film to recommend to someone, what film would you say is the essence of Henry Jaglom?

HENRY JAGLOM:  Well, how about if you rephrased that?  It’s two questions, really.  I can’t pick just one film.  So how about: what’s one film that defines the essence of how Henry Jaglom sees life?   I’d pick VENICE/VENICE (1992).  That’s what it’s really like to be me.  It’s how life feels to  me.   Then DEJA VU (1997).  That film represents to me the romantic dream of life that I have always lived with somehow.

BOZUNG: Silly question…  Are you still wearing the patented Jaglom hat these days?

HENRY JAGLOM:  Well, I’m always wearing a hat.  I have a rack at home and I have seventy-two hats.  I autograph pictures of myself where I’m two years old wearing a hat.

BOZUNG: How did IRENE IN TIME(2009) come about?

HENRY JAGLOM:  I’ve always been obsessed with films were love defeats death. Usually it’s a romantic love, for example, films like: A GUY NAMED JOE (1943) with Spencer Tracy, and A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (1946) with David Niven. Where life and love beat death.  These films always had a profound effect on me, so I wanted to make my own version on the theme.

BOZUNG: Where did you discover your lead actress Tanna Frederick for IRENE IN TIME?

HENRY JAGLOM:  She wrote me a letter actually.  She was friends with an actor I had used previously in one of my films.   So she asked him: “How do I get in one of Jaglom’s films?”  He told her: “Jaglom is a sucker.  Write him a letter telling him how much you like one of his movies and he’ll bring you in for an audition.”   So she wrote me a three page letter about how much she loved DEJU VU.  It was such a convincing letter that I brought her in.   It took her four years to admit that she’d never actually seen the film.

BOZUNG:  So Tanna Frederick is on contract with you at Rainbow Films?  What was the inspiration behind the decision to put her under contract with you?

HENRY JAGLOM:  Well, I think she’s the most exciting new talent out in Hollywood today.  And I don’t want to let her get away, and I don’t want her to be picked up just to do junky things.  She’s being offered all kinds of stuff—she’s very versatile.  I think she’s great, and I want her career to zoom, so I think putting her under contract is a good, smart business decision.  I’m doing my version of  David O. Selznick.

BOZUNG: One of my very favorite scenes in IRENE IN TIME is the conversion in the restaurant between Tanna Frederick and that girl with her dad.   Hasn’t she been in some of your other films?

HENRY JAGLOM:  That little girl is my daughter [Sabrina Jaglom] actually.  She’s been acting for a while.  She’s done a few of my movies.  She wants to be a director too.  She’s in her freshman year at film school right now actually.

BOZUNG: You’re a film purist that’s still shooting on film. You refuse to go digital or to high-definition?

HENRY JAGLOM:  Right.  I’ve done seventeen or eighteen films now, and they’ve all be done on film.  There is  nothing like film.   Editing on a computer is fine. It’s faster.  But once we’re done, we print back out to film and the movie gets released  on film.  Film is a big part of the process for me.  I may be the only one left in Hollywood using film. I just love it.

BOZUNG:  What’s the last truly great film you saw recently?

HENRY JAGLOM:  I  can’t think of one.  I go back to my favorites of all time.  Stuff like  Fellini’s 8 1/2 and the Bergman films.  Films that have influenced me  and changed my life are what I am still watching today.   The Bob Hope  and Bing Crosby films–I still watch those.  I love the 50’s British comedies like: THE LADYKILLERS (1955).  It all goes back to childhood, what you see then, that influences you.   Orson Welles’s F FOR FAKE.  Jean Renoir’s  RULES OF THE GAME (1939).

BOZUNG:  How do you feel about getting older?

HENRY JAGLOM:  I like it.  Getting older–you get the depth of things more. You waste your time a lot less, and you appreciate things more.  There is just more meaning.  You no longer care about just yourself.  The canvas has become so much more rich.  I’ve been thinking about doing a film about this subject that I was gonna call: AGING.

This interview was first published in late 2009.  It is re-printed with permission of Mondo Film, LLC.  All rights reserved.