On the Hunt: Marsha Hunt and Leah Dashe investigate a crime in Eddie Muller's "The Grand Inquisitor." (Photo courtesy SFFS)

SFIFF51: Eddie Muller's Muses

Jennifer Preissel April 26, 2008

A self-described "cultural archeologist," Alameda’s Eddie Muller is renowned as an expert on all things noir. As founder of the Noir City, the annual San Francisco Film Noir Festival—which packs crowds into the Castro Theater to watch rarities like Edge of Doom and The Velvet Touch and pay tribute to forgotten stars like Joan Leslie—Mueller has earned a reputation for breathing new life into lost classics. At this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, Muller showcases a new talent: film directing. His debut short film, The Grand Inquisitor, pays homage to the Dashiell Hammett-style detective story, but with a twist—the investigator is a dame.

SF360.org: Before we discuss your film, I know you wrote the program note for the restoration screening (through the Preservation Screening Program) of Leave Her to Heaven. What do you think is so great about that film?

Eddie Muller: It’s very dark—it’s a hardcore noir film masquerading as a women’s soap opera. And it has absolutely stunning Technicolor cinematography.

SF360.org: Do you have any anecdotal information about that film and why it was made?

Muller: It was made as a vehicle for Gene Tierney. Daryl F. Zanuck bought that property which was a popular best seller by Ben Ames Williams, specifically for Gene Tierney to star in. It’s interesting because it shows that in the mid-1940s that actors were trying to play dark and that Twentieth Century Fox was courageous in allowing that to happen. Not all of their big stars were portraying the greatest people in the world. This was a bit of a stretch for Gene Tierney. She had always played the good girl in her movies and here she plays a really psychologically disturbed character. I know it was a very trying time in her life when she made the movie. She ended up having mental problems of her own that would interfere with her career. It’s a magnificent film in the sense that it’s a real glossy Hollywood movie—a lot of people assume that such things are always light and nostalgic and optimistic and this is a very, very dark, brooding unpleasant film—and it just looks like 50 million bucks.

SF360.org: So where does your obsession with noir film come from?

Muller: How funny you ask that. I just did an hour long interview on the phone, where that was the first question I was asked. The film that started my obsession with noir films was a movie called Thieves’ Highway, which was set in San Francisco in 1949. There is the exact, definitive answer. Thieves’ Highway—also a Twentieth Century Fox movie.

SF360.org: Not to make you repeat yourself, but do you recall when you first saw it?

Muller: I saw it on ‘Dialing for Dollars’ when I was about 13 years old. KTVU’s ‘Dialing for Dollars,’ which used to be on at 1 o’clock in the afternoon on Channel 2, locally.

SF360.org: What so impressed you with that film?

Muller: It had a very dark world view, a very compelling melodrama that under the surface was presenting a very jaundiced philosophical view of how the world works. A world view that has stuck with me to this day.

SF360.org: And it’s notable that it’s set in San Francisco. Obviously there were so many noirs set here.

Muller: There were quite a few in fact. My whole noir obsession stems from the fact that my dad worked for the newspaper in San Francisco, The San Francisco Examiner for decades—it’s the only place he ever worked, in fact. From the time I was a little kid, I was looking at a kind of a noir world that he ran in. He was a boxing writer and that whole film noir thing coincided. It reaches into the reality of my family’s background. I had an up close and personal take on it.

SF360.org: Not to jump too far ahead, but does that have something to do with how you chose the subject of your short film?

Muller: Yes it does. At this point, I’m drawn to darker subjects. It’s weird when I talk about The Grand Inquisitor because, I wrote it as a short story, it’s been published in an anthology of noir fiction, and I guess it’s now commonly known that it has something to do with Zodiac, which I actually lived through in San Francisco when I was a kid. I have a very strong memory of that whole time. Absolutely, treating a factual subject through my noir sensibility is definitely what inspired me to write that story and then turn it into a film.

SF360.org: What did you think of the feature film Zodiac*? Do you think David Fincher’s film got the period/tone/story right?*

Muller: I think Zodiac is a great film, Fincher’s best by far. The attention to detail was phenomenal. I was heartened to see an American true crime film than was more humanistic than sensational. But disappointed that it was so undervalued. We’ve been brainwashed into thinking that murder on-screen must be thrilling.

SF360.org: Going back to your influences—I know we can figure out some of your favorite filmmakers from looking at the Noir City films that have shown over the years, but if you could talk about the people who you think influence your filmic sensibility or the subject that you chose to depict in your film?

Muller: I actually think I’m more influenced by writers than filmmakers. I very much, with this story, I very consciously made the film with a combination of traditional filmmaking style but with a somewhat transgressive approach to what you can do on the screen today. I don’t like films that are over-edited and over-directed. So, I would think that my influences are more traditional filmmakers. That doesn’t mean I want to tell a traditional story. I laugh—when I made the film, it was clear to me that ‘Oh, look—this is a Stanley Kubrick moment’ or ‘Oh, look—it’s a David Lynch thing.’ It’s odd being a guy who writes about film and has a certain degree of film scholarship. Then you make a film and you actually try to forget all of that because everything is in the service of the story. Quite honestly, my interest in doing this is in working with the actors and dealing with them more than the camera.

SF360.org: Who are some of the writers who have influenced your filmmaking and why?

Muller: Many, many writers have been an influence—novelists, reporters, screenwriters, playwrights. Story structure and character development are what interest me most. As a storyteller I’d like to be able to make people feel something, deeply, without hitting them over the head. I admire writers who are deep without being dense, like Paul Auster. To be strong and subtle simultaneously is an admirable goal.

SF360.org: Let’s talk a little bit about your actors. How did you decide to cast [blacklisted actress] Marsha Hunt. Had you met her before?

Muller: Yes.

SF360.org: Did she appear at Noir City?

Muller: Yes, she did. She was the guest of honor at Noir City V which was in January of 2007. And I had met Marsha many times over the course of the years at various events and things that I had done. I had found her to be a totally charming woman. It was just one of those amazing lightning-in-a-bottle type things. Frankly I don’t take credit for it. Marsha came here and totally captivated the audience at the Castro Theater.

Three months later, I had missed two deadlines on submitting my short story that I had been commissioned to write for this anthology. Finally the story came together very quickly. It had been knocking around in my head for several years, but it wasn’t until I finally saw the two characters as women—a young woman and an older woman—that the story kind of wrote itself. The original version had a young man and an older woman and I just couldn’t get the dynamic right—the story didn’t want to be written in that form. When I got the character of the younger woman in head, it just took care of itself.

Then my colleague Jonathan Marlow said, ‘Let’s shoot this as a film and you should send the script to Marsha.’ And of course at that time there was no script—it was just a short story. So, I sent it to Marsha way before it was published—she saw it in original manuscript form. I said, ‘Would you consider doing this?’ Quite honestly, I was nervous that she would find it too weird and not want to speak to me again. She turned out to be far more professional than that. She was eager to do it. She was excited at the prospect of acting again in something that she felt was strong and challenging.

And the young woman had been in a play that I had worked on here locally—an adaptation of an old French Grand Guignol play. I just saw her being able to play this young girl quite clearly. I just said, ‘I want her in the part,’ and I didn’t even look at anybody else. What was interesting, of course, was that Marsha was one of the charter members of the Screen Actor’s Guild. Marsha had a Hollywood contract when she was 17 years old in 1935, and Leah had actually never been in front of a camera before. It was a really interesting experience, making the film work, balancing the abilities and the sensibilities of these two women. That’s what I enjoyed the most about the project, just putting those two people on film, pitting them against each other.

SF360.org: Leah, with her angular black haircut, has a bit of a Louise Brooks look to her. It’s even mentioned in the film. Is that something that came out of shooting or had you written into the script?
Muller: It was something that I wrote into the script. Leah actually cut her hair for the film and still wears it that way to this day. It was very sweet of her—she was leaving to go on a trip to Europe with her boyfriend hat had been planned for months and months. We were going to shoot the film only two days after she got back from Europe, so we had to do wardrobe with her before she left. I said to her, ‘In the story, it’s referenced that you have a Louise Brooks haircut, and I haven’t seen that. I want to make sure it’s going to look right on you.’ So, just before she left for Europe, I saw her and she had cut it herself in this Louise Brooks-style. It was her way of showing total commitment to the project.

SF360.org: Where was the film shot?

Muller: On the street where I live.

SF360.org: Is it set in your building?

Muller: It is not. It is actually on the block where I live. From my office building, I can see the house where we shot the film. I see it every day, but when I wrote the story, I had never been in that house. It was a total work of imagination—I was basing it on no house that I had been in. The story had this natural progression where it moves from the front porch to the living room to the dining room to the pantry to the kitchen. It had to be this progression, this descent into the weirdness. I knew that was the way it had to be structured. When we decided to make the film I got Marsha, I got Leah, I had a crew and I said, ‘Where the hell am I going to find this house?’ It’s very specific, the way the house is designed. My wife said, ‘Kay who lives down the street is going away for the summer. Maybe you could shoot at her house.’ And I went into her house and it was exactly the house—it was eerie. It was like an episode of the Twilight Zone. It’s weird how much stuff is in the movie that I actually found in the house. A lot of the paintings and the clock on the mantle—that stuff was in the house, like it was waiting for us.

SF360.org: What about all the bottles of booze?

Muller: No, that we actually imported from local bars. I went to all the bars in Alameda and had them donate their empties.

SF360.org: Is that where your offices are, in Alameda?

Muller: Yes.

SF360.org: I was going to say, it doesn’t look like San Francisco.

Muller: It’s clear to anybody who knows their Zodiac history or knows the Bay Area, that that takes place somewhere in the East Bay. Specifically, it’s supposed to be Vallejo. Since I found the house on street where I live, I’m not going to drag the crew down to Vallejo every day. It’s not San Francisco. It’s weird how some reviewers say the film is in San Francisco, when it’s obviously not.

SF360.org: The end of the film is pretty gruesome. You do a nice job of starting out in what seems to be sort of a chamber room drama into something that is much darker in tone. Could you talk about how you worked out that progression?

Muller: It was entirely intentional. The idea behind the film was that I wanted a two-character piece. The idea always was, ‘What if Zodiac was married?’ The next thing that was really crucial was that the person who was investigating be a woman and not a man. And that really changed everything—that’s where it got really interesting. That’s why I think it’s really cool that the film is showing at the film festival in this program called ‘The Feminine Mystique.’ As a storyteller, I wanted it to be about these two women, but I wanted it to have this overbearing male presence that has affected the lives of these women. It isn’t there, but it’s tangible at all times. I consciously wanted the audience to feel like there’s something else is in the house. To be asking, what’s happened here? I wanted to progress from something relatively innocent to a dramatic conclusion. I knew I wanted it to play out in real time. That was a challenge as a storyteller—I had to give myself twenty minutes to go from [nothing] to the climax, which I obviously don’t want to reveal. I wanted the audience to be pulled back and forth the whole time, asking which one of these women has a problem. I wanted them to wonder if the young girl had something wrong with her—is she just a kook? Why is she torturing this older woman? Little by little, the audience would get drawn into this and the truth would be revealed at the end.

SF360.org: Are there any anecdotes you recall from the film shoot?

Muller: The funniest one of all is that Marsha had to smoke. Marsha had quit smoking eight years ago. She really did not want to smoke. Being the professional that she is, she agreed to do it. I got her herbal cigarettes so she wouldn’t get re-addicted to the nicotine. She had to smoke a lot. It’s comical because when people watch the movie who have heard this story, they say, ‘Well, that’s not that much. She only took a drag in four or five shots.’ You think we used everything we shot? Marsha smoked a carton and a half of Pall Malls in four days of shooting this film. That’s a lot! She tossed aside the herbal cigarettes to smoke the real thing, because as a true professional, she knew that the herbal cigarettes would burn fast and cause all kinds of trouble with continuity. She said, ‘You know what, I’ll just do you a favor—I’ll smoke the real things.’ And she did.

SF360.org: Thus far, the film has screened at Noir City and it’s screening at the International. Has it screened anywhere else?

Muller: It screened at the Philadelphia Film Festival and it screened recently at the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles as part of their annual noir festival. And Marsha came and appeared with the film there. She is so great. I can’t say enough about Marsha. She’s 90 years old. She made so many valuable contributions to the film, not just in terms of her performance, but in talking things through about the script itself and how information could be rearranged in the course of the story to better effect. She is a consummate professional and had absolutely no trace of the diva. She came to work and was a valuable collaborator. It’s every bit her film as much as my film.

SF360.org: Do you have any other upcoming projects—films or projects in other realms—that you are working on?

Muller: I’m working on a screenplay right now that is an adaptation of a noir novel. I’m not going to say the name of it at the moment. I am looking at the possibility of doing another short film locally. I’ll probably start work on that during the summer.

SF360.org: Do you have any previews for the upcoming Noir City Festival?

Muller: All I can say on that score is [programmer] Anita Monga and I recently went to Hollywood, had meetings with the studios and I can guarantee another full roster of rare films. We’ve got all sorts of great stuff lined up that has never been screened in the past 50 years.

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