You can't talk about the history of independent film without talking about John Cassavetes. The New York-born writer/director/actor was successfully making and distributing his own films decades before the indie boom of the 1990s, nearly always to critical acclaim, and sometimes even for financial gain. The most prominent was 1974's A Woman Under the Influence, one of eight movies he directed that starred his wife, Gena Rowlands, and the only one for which they were both Oscar-nominated.
Though they didn't win, Rowlands's performance as a housewife having a nervous breakdown is still regarded as a master class in acting, and Cassavetes's sensitive, naturalistic style influenced everyone from Jim Jarmusch to Martin Scorsese. Here's a peek behind the scenes of one of the 1970s' most celebrated dramas.
1. IT WAS GOING TO BE A PLAY, BUT IT PROVED TOO INTENSE.
John Cassavetes first wrote A Woman Under the Influence as a stage play intended for Rowlands, who'd said she wanted to do a play about the difficulties faced by modern women. Rowlands loved what her husband wrote but realized it was too intensely emotional for her to perform it night after night without having a nervous breakdown herself. Cassavetes retooled it into a screenplay, sparing Rowlands's sanity.
2. JOHN CASSAVETES DIDN'T APPROACH IT AS A STORY ABOUT A CRAZY PERSON.
Asked if he did any research into mental illness or nervous breakdowns when he wrote the film in an interview included on the Criterion Blu-ray, Cassavetes said, "No, because I don't think it's about that. I'm half crazy myself, and I think almost everyone is verging on some kind of insanity. I believe very strongly that all women who are married for any length of time—and if they love their husbands—they don't have any place to put their emotions, and that can drive them crazy ... This particular woman, I don't think she's crazy ... I think she's just frustrated beyond belief. More than being crazy, I think she's just socially inept."
3. NOBODY WANTED TO FINANCE THE MOVIE.
You'll probably file this in the "I didn't know that but it doesn't surprise me" category: Though Hollywood studios were taking risks in the 1970s, giving directors more free rein than they'd had previously, nobody wanted to spend money on a film about (in Cassavetes's words) "a crazy, middle-aged dame." Instead, Cassavetes mortgaged his house and took up a collection among actor friends to finance the film.
4. PETER FALK PUT UP $500,000 OF HIS OWN MONEY.
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Half of the film's final budget came from Cassavetes's longtime friend Peter Falk, who was then starring in TV's Columbo. (Cassavetes had guest-starred a couple years earlier.) Falk was so taken with the screenplay for A Woman Under the Influence that he not only co-starred in it, he turned down another movie (The Day of the Dolphin) and ponied up half a million of his own Columbo dollars to get it made. (Perhaps that’s why he gets top billing over Rowlands.)
5. IT REQUIRED SOME STOLEN ELECTRICITY.
Making an independent, low-budget film means being resourceful. For one outdoor scene, Cassavetes powered his equipment by hijacking a municipal power line.
6. IT ALSO REQUIRED SOME UNPAID LABOR.
Cassavetes was then serving as the first filmmaker-in-residence at the American Film Institute's Center for Advanced Film Studies, in Los Angeles. That gave him access to eager young people who wanted all the practical moviemaking experience they could get. Most of his crew consisted of these students, working for free or for deferred salaries, some of whom quit before it was over (hey, you get what you pay for).
7. IT WAS ONE OF THE FIRST MOVIES TO BE SUCCESSFULLY INDEPENDENTLY DISTRIBUTED.
Not only did none of the studios want to finance the film, they weren't interested in distributing it when it was finished, either. Ever the do-it-yourselfer, Cassavetes personally called theater owners to get them to book it, relying on his good reputation in the art-house community (A Woman Under the Influence was his seventh film, his fourth as an independent producer). He also booked screenings on college campuses, where he and Falk would appear to do Q&As. It wound up making $6.1 million (as of 1976, according to Variety), all of which went back to Cassavetes, his investors, and the cast and crew, none to any studio.
8. MARTIN SCORSESE ENGAGED IN A BIT OF BLACKMAIL TO GET IT SEEN.
A Woman Under the Influence's big break came when it was screened to great acclaim at the 1974 New York Film Festival, some 18 months after Cassavetes finished it. But even that almost didn't happen: the festival rejected it. In desperation, Cassavetes called his friend Martin Scorsese (there was a lot of mutual admiration between the two), whose documentary Italian-American was already on the festival's roster. Scorsese threatened to withdraw his film unless the festival organizers gave Cassavetes's film a chance. (Note: In some tellings of this anecdote, it was Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, also playing at the 1974 NYFF, that he threatened to withdraw. The most reliable firsthand or almost firsthand account we could find, however, says it was Italian-American.)
9. GOOD THING SCORSESE'S GAMBLE WORKED, OR CASSAVETES MIGHT NEVER HAVE MADE ANOTHER FILM.
Cassavetes gave a long interview to journalist Judith McNally at the New York Film Festival, after he'd spent 18 months trying to find a distributor. He was also burned out on making four movies in a row without studio help. "I can't like making films anymore if they're this tough," he said. "The pressures are too unnatural. I'm not crying, because I enjoy it. But I am saddened by the fact that I have physical limitations."
Yet working with profit-minded studios was hard, too, since Cassavetes refused to bend on his artistic principles. "If that means I'll never make [a] film again, then I'll never make another film again," he said. McNally followed up. "You don't have any plans at all for another film?" He replied: "Right now all I can hope is that [A Woman Under the Influence] is extremely successful. And if it isn't, I won't make another one—that's all. Which in itself is no great tragedy." He did, in fact, go on to make five more films before his death in 1989.
10. IT FEELS IMPROVISED, BUT IT WASN'T.
Rowlands and Falk give very naturalistic performances, often seeming like they're having unscripted conversations. When an interviewer asked Cassavetes about that, he gave a succinct, unambiguous answer: "No, the entire script was written and there were no improvisations whatsoever."
11. RICHARD DREYFUSS HELPED PROMOTE IT.
During an appearance on The Mike Douglas Show that Falk was co-hosting, Richard Dreyfuss was asked if he had seen the movie Falk was there to promote. Dreyfuss replied enthusiastically: "It was the most incredible, disturbing, scary, brilliant, dark, sad, depressing movie. I went crazy. I went home and vomited." (Falk piped up, "It's also funny! It's a funny movie!") During the commercial, Falk telephoned Cassavetes in a panic—"He's telling everyone how terribly dark and scary the movie is!"—but the director laughed and said, "He can say what he wants."
Interviews and commentary on the Criterion Blu-ray. Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented American Independent Film, by Marshall Fine