Terry Southern In Full
June 7, 2010 | by Thessaly La Force
After the jump is, as promised, the exchange in full, where Southern discusses making Easy Rider with Dennis Hopper, and the missing pie-fight scene from Dr. Strangelove:
We were barge “Captains,” as they called themselves—rather euphemistically since it was a job so lowly that it was ordinarily held by guys who had been kicked out of the Longshoreman’s Union—old winos and the like, being replaced now by this new breed, the dopehead writer. It was one of those classic writer’s jobs, like hotel clerk, night watchman, fire-tower guy, with practically no duties (“Just keep her tied up and pumped out”). Alex Trocchi found it by chance, wandering around the West Side docks after a few hours at the White Horse Tavern. The guy who did the hiring happened to be Scottish, a Scotsman called Scotty, in fact. So he took a fancy to Alex, Alex being a Ludgate Scholar from Glasgow, who had boss charm besides. (Scottish accent; “Have ye had any experience at sea, lad?” “Only with small craft, sir—punting on the Clyde and the like.” “Good enough, lad, I like the cut of yer jib.” So Alex was in. And about a half a dozen of us—of similar stamp and kidney—were quick to follow … under auspices of The Great Troc.
Weren’t they garbage scows?
The ones we were on carried rocks. They were hauling huge boulders up to the sea wall they were building, a great ocean-jetty a few miles offshore. Hauling these rocks down from a quarry at the top of the Hudson, about a three-day trip. And you could take people along. It got to be a social must, going upriver on the barge. Nelson Algren came a couple of times, David Solomon and Seymour Krim, Christopher Logue and Jimmy Baldwin. And, of course, Mason Hoffenberg would come along quite often. I remember once, after a great harsh rave-up, Jimmy Baldwin just sort of collapsed over the side, and Mason had to pull him back aboard. So life on the barge was not without interest.
What were the accommodations?
There was a cabin with a bed and coal stove, and, of course, a deck about the size of a football field. It could accommodate a lot of stowaways, even when it was loaded with these gigantic boulders. Sometimes we would be staked out in the middle of the river, several barges tied together. So we could party. Anyway, it was a good job for a writer in those days.
What was the scene in Paris like in the fifties?
Oh it was terrific because the cafés were such great places to hang out, they were so open, you could smoke hash at the tables, if you were fairly discreet. There was the expatriate crowd, which was more or less comprised of interesting people, creatively inclined. So we would fall out there at one of the cafés, about four in the afternoon, sip Pernod until dinner, then afterwards go to a jazz club. Bird and Diz, and Miles and Bud Powell, and Monk were all there, and if not, someone else. Lester Young and Don Byas. It was a period when the Village and St.-Germain-des-Pres were sort of interchangeable, just going back and forth. The thing to do was take a freighter—it was the cheapest way to go, a comfortable and interesting way to go because it was long, thirteen days. And the Scandinavian ones had pretty good food. There were only about eight passengers. We’d eat at the Captain’s table—and he was invariably some kind of great lush. So you’d get there—St. Germain, and the town was swinging. Once in a while you’d find yourself homesick, for one place or the other, but it was okay, because both were good places to arrive. Sometimes we would save up some money and just take off, On the Road-style. Sometimes we had a car, other times we took the train. It was always a gas.
Mason was ultrapersuasive. Boss persuasion. One he convinced me to join a kibbutz with him and go to Israel, despite my complete ignorance of anything Jewish. So we packed some books and clothes and checked into the Holland-American kibbutz freighter, into a dormitory-type situation, with about sixty other guys. The ship was still at the dock, we had a couple of days to wait until they got their full roster. So we were pt to work n the hole, cleaning the boilers—an unbelievably shitty job, plunging our arms up to the shoulder into these furnace pipes and bringing out mountains of wet soot. Gross City. Anyway on the first morning when we woke up, one guy is already awake, breaking out over the fact that thirty dollars is missing from his footlocker. Someone else says, “Okay, we’ve got to trust each other. Whoever took the money needed it.” This doesn’t go over too well with the guy who lost the thirty bucks. He’s still ranting. So immediately this tight-knit and brotherly group is divided into two bickering factions. Hardly the utopian camaraderie we had expected. So we split. Went to the White Horse and had a couple of tall ones.
Tell me about Blue Movie—the making of the movie from your novel.
Blue Movie was based on an idea that Stanley Kubrick had. Somebody came by one day with some porn footage. We looked at it, and he said, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if one day someone who was an artist would do that—using really beautiful actors and good equipment.” So that was the genesis. Of course I was hoping he would do it as a film. But he’s surprisingly puritanical and shy. When he read part of it, still in manuscript, he said, “Congratulations, you’ve written the definitive blow job.” There actually was a tremendous amount of interest in doing Blue Movie. It nearly happened a couple of times. Ringo Starr had the option for a couple of years. John Cally, who was a very hip producer at MGM—he produced The Loved One, which I worked on, and became the president of Warner Brothers for a brief time—this heavy decision-maker said, “Well now it’s time to do Blue Movie.” He was convinced that the first studio to come out with a quality full-length film showing erection and penetration, using stars, would go over the top. “It’ll be like Gone with the Wind,” he kept saying. Super enthusiastic about it. So he got Mike Nichols to direct. And since John was practically living with Julie Andrews at the time, he was able to get her of all people, as the girl. John’s diabolical genius envisioned Mary Poppins getting banged for the world. So Mike Nichols was ready to go. I couldn’t believe it. But the whole thing got bogged down in lawyers. The deal fell through, in a grotesque hangup between Nichols and Ringo’s lawyers. But if it had been done, with those kinds of credentials, between Nichols and Julie Andrews, it could hardly have been dismissed as shabby porn.
What was the real story of Easy Rider? There are so many versions of how, and who created it.
If Den Hopper improvises a dozen lines and six of them survive the cutting-room floor, he’ll put in for screenplay credit. That’s the name of the game for Den Hopper. Now it would be almost impossible to exaggerate his contribution to the film—but, by George, he manages to do it every time. The precise way it came down was that Dennis and Peter (Fonda) came to me with an idea. Peter was under contract to A.I.P. for several motorcycle movies, and he still owed them one. Dennis persuaded him to let him (Denis) direct the next one, and, under the guise of making an ordinary A.I.P. potboiler they would make something interesting and worthwhile—which I would write. So they came to my place on Thirty-sixth Street in New York, with an idea for a story—a sort of hippy dope-caper. Peter was to be the actor-producer. Dennis the actor-director, and a certain yours truly, the writer. I was able to put them up there—in a room, incidentally, later immortalized by the sojourn of Dr. W.S. Benway (Burroughs). So we began smoking dope in earnest and having a nonstop story conference. The initial idea had to do with a couple of young guys who are fed up with the system, want to make one big score and split. Use the money to buy a boat in Key West and sail into the sunset was the general notion, and indeed already salted to be the film’s final poetic sequence. We would occasionally dictate to an elderly woman typist who firmly believed in the arrival, and presence everywhere of the inhabitants of Venus; so she would talk about this. Finally I started taping her and then had her rap about it, how they were everywhere—Jack Nicholson’s thing with Easy Rider was based on that.
So you can see that during these conferences the hippy dope-caper premise went through quite a few changes. The first notion was that they not be bikers but a duo of daredevil car drivers barnstorming around the U.S. being exploited by a series of unscrupulous promoters until they were finally disgusted enough to quit. Then one day the dope smoke cleared long enough to remember that Peter’s commitment was for a motorcycle flick, and we switched over pronto. It wasn’t until the end that it took on a genuinely artistic dimension. . . when it suddenly evolved into an indictment of the American redneck, and his hatred for anything that is remotely different from himself…and then somewhat to the surprise of Den Hopper (imitates Hopper in Apocalypse Now): You mean kill ‘em both? Hey, man, are you outta your gourd?!?!” I think for a minute he was still hoping they would somehow beat the system. Sail into the sunset with a lot of loot and freedom. But of course, he was hip enough to realize, a minute later, that it (their death) was more or less mandatory.
Are you saying that there was no improvisation in the film?
No, no, I’m, saying that the improvisation was always within the framework of the obligations of the scene—a scene which already existed.
Then how did Dennis and Peter get included in the screenplay credits?
After they had seen a couple of screenings of it on the coast, I got a call from Peter. He said that he and Dennis liked the film so much they wanted to be in on the screenplay credits. Well, one of them was the producer and the other was the director so there was no way the Writers Guild was going to allow them to take a screenplay credit unless I insisted. Even then they said there was supposed to be a “compulsory arbitration” because too often producers and directors will muscle themselves into a screenplay credit through some under-the-table deal with the writer. They (the WGA) said I would be crazy to allow it and wanted to be assured that I wasn’t being coerced or bribed in any way, because they hate the idea of these “hyphenates”—you know, writer-producer, director-producer…because of that history of muscle. Anyway, we were great friends at the time, so I went along with it without much thought. I actually did it out of a sense of camaraderie. Recently, in Interview, Dennis pretty much claimed credit for the whole script.
Writers appear to be treated like the lowest of the breed in the film biz.
Yes. Except we still have persuasion.
What was it like working with Kubrick?
Working with Stanley was terrific, although the circumstances may seem peculiar—in the backseat of a big car. The film was being shot at Shepperton, outside of London, in the winter. So he would be pick me up at 4:30 in the morning and we would make this hour-long trip to the studio. It was a big Bentley or a Rolls, so the passenger part was something like a railway compartment, with folding-out writing desks and good lighting. It would be pitch-black outside and really cold, and we would be in this cozy-rosy compartment, in a creative groove, working on the scene to be shot that day.
Writing it? Or rewriting it?
Well, let’s say trying to improve it. Kubrick would say, “Now what’s the most outrageous thing this guy would say at this point?” and hopefully I could come up with something like, “If you try an perversion in there, I’ll blow your head off.
Keenan Wynn to Peter Sellers in the phone booth?
Yes. Col. “Bat” Guano (“If, indeed, that is your name”) to Group Captain Lionel Mandrake. The thing about Kubrick is that he’s not only extraordinarily creative, but he will encourage the other person to go all out, and not try to keep a “reasonable lid on it.” Stanley’s like a kind of chess-playing poet. One side is very scientific, the other poetic.
Over the years I heard talk of a “missing scene” or a sequence that was deleted from Strangelove. What’s the story on that?
Well that would be the fabulous so-called pie-fight episode. You may recall the scene near the end of the film, in the War Room, after the bomb has been dropped, when Strangelove suddenly stands up from his wheelchair, and says, “Mein Fuehrer, I can valk!” And he takes a step? Recall that?
I do indeed.
Well, in the missing sequence, after taking one step he falls flat on his face and starts trying to get back in his wheelchair, but each time it scoots out of his grasp. Meanwhile, parallel to this action, in another part of the War Room, the Russian Ambassador is caught again trying to take pictures of the “Big Board.” George C. Scott nails him, and again they’re fighting in the War Room. So Scott exposes about eighteen micro-mini spy cameras on the ambassador—in his wristwatch, cuff links, tiepin, on his ring finger, everywhere. But Scott says, “I think these are dummy cameras. I think he’s got the real McCoy concealed on his person.” And he turns to the detail of MPs who have come in. “I want you to search him very carefully, boys,” he says, “and don’t overlook any of the six bodily orifices.” And the Russian ambassador goes through this quick calculation, “vun…two…” and then when he reaches the last one, he freaks. “Vhy you Capitalist swine,” he says, and he reaches out of the frame, gets something and throws it at George C. Scott. I should mention that we have previously established a huge catering table that was wheeled in, laden with food, so they don’t have to leave the War Room during this crisis. The ambassador reaches out of the frame, grabs something from the table and throws it at Scott. We don’t see what it is immediately but Scott ducks, and this big custard pie hits the president in the face. The mere indignity of this is so monstrous that the president just faints dead away. Scott grabs him and keeps him from falling, and he’s holding him in his arms like a martyred hero. “Gentlemen,” he says to the others, “our President has been struck down in the prime of his life…by a custard pie. I say Massive Retaliation!” And he throws something at the ambassador. It misses and hits one of the other Joint Chiefs. So this immense pie fight begins—between Army, Navy, Air Force—a bit of interservice rivalry, if you grasp the innuendo. Now while this pie fight is going on, Strangelove is still trying to get back into this wheelchair, moving like a snake across the floor of the War Room, the chair continuing to scoot out of his grasp each time he reaches for it. Finally he gets to the end of the War Room, and the chair is against the wall—it looks like he’s got it this time. But it scoots away again. So Strangelove pulls himself up so that he’s sitting with his back against the wall. He’s watching the pie fight in the distance. Then his hand—his uncontrollable right hand—reaches inside his coat and comes out with a Luger pistol and points it at his head. He grabs his wrist with his other hand and grapples for the pistol, which goes off with a tremendous bang. Then cut to the long shot of all those generals in freeze-frame. Strangelove says, “Enough of these childish games. We have work to do.” So they all stand there staring at him in complete silence, until Scott recognizes this is the guy to get tight with, so he walks all the way across the War Room floor, and says, “Doctor, may I help you?” And he helps him into his wheelchair. He starts pushing him back across the floor, which by now is so deep in custard pie it resembles a beach—and sure enough we quickly pass the president and the Russian ambassador sitting there crosslegged like two children, doing sand castles, making mountains. And Strangelove says, “Ah, too bad. Apparently their minds have snapped under the strain. Perhaps they’ll have to be institutionalized.” And so Scott continues pushing him across to this group of officers and CIA types, who are so covered they look like ghosts. And he says, “Well, boys, I think the future of this great nation of ours is in the hands of people like Doc Strangelove, and I think we owe him a vote of thanks. Let’s hear it for the good Doctor.” And in a really eerie (whispering) voice, they go, “hip-hip hooray, hip-hip hooray.” Then he continues pushing him across the floor as they start singing, “For he’s a jolly good fellow, for he’s a jolly good fellow.” Now this counter camera pulls up so you’ve got this long shot of the ultimate allegiance between this mad scientist and this general from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Then they cut to the explosion and the song “We’ll Meet Again” comes in—and the credits rise.
That was cut?
Not without good reason. The problem was that Stanley, great genius director that he is, forgot to say to his actors, “Listen, what we’re representing here is interservice rivalry, which is one of the most evil things. Each time there’s an appropriation to one group, the other says, ‘Listen, we’ve got to have that too.’ And there’s no stopping the Pentagon on this level. It’s viscous.” He forgot to tell them it’s viscous. So what’s happening in the pie fight is that people are laughing, and they shouldn’t be laughing. It’s supposed to be deadly serious. But it was such a funny situation that people outside the periphery, including Stanley and myself, were tossing pies into the melee, you see. So it lost its edge. It was like a comedy scene when everything else in the film has been played straight, except once when the Coca-Cola machine spurted in Keenan Wynn’s face. That’s why he decided not to have it in. I saw it again recently and think it holds up well.
Me too. So does The Loved One. It recently came out for the first time on video, after all these years. Why did it take so long?
For some weird reason, they held it back—it’s an MGM film. Haskell Wexler, who was the coproducer and cinematographer, had a copy he sent me, and I got a duplicate made, but you couldn’t get it. The casting on that was great. Remember that sequence with Milton Berle and Margarite Leighton, when the dog dies, and she doesn’t want to let them bury it?
Yeah. That was played really strong. But Rod Steiger—Joyboy—and his mother were too outrageous to describe.
Every time I see Rod Steiger, rather, the few times I’ve seen him, he always talks about that. He was carried away by that role, he got into that role so much. He had his hair in rollers on the set. Running around on the set when he should have been resting. Dishing with the girls. It had such a great cast: John Gielgud, Lionel Stander, Robert Morley, Jonathan Winters, Robert Morse…
What happened to The Magic Christian?
Well, I had written a really good script of The Magic Christian for Peter Sellers. He and the director, Joe McGrath, were in London, supposedly setting up the film while I finished working on an adaptation of John Barth’s End of the Road—which, incidentally, was one of the most interesting films I’ve been involved with. But instead of waiting for me to get to London, Peter who was always ultrahyper and antsy about everything, gets Spike Milligan and a couple of his Goon Show cronies to rewrite a few scenes—without having ever read the book. Dig that for gross weird. All they knew was that it was about an eccentric billionaire who staged elaborate practical jokes. So they slipped into a bit of infantile self-indulgence, with some pointlessly destructive behavior by Guy Grand. Totally out of character. They had him cutting up Rembrandts for Christsake! So I’m afraid that the film has, in my view, some serious lapses. Peter Sellers bought a hundred copies of the book when it first came out in England. He would give them to friends at Christmas. In fact, he was the one who turned Stanley (Kubrick) on to … this unique brand of humor.
How did growing up in Texas shape you as a writer?
Well Texas is probably a good place for a boy to grow up, in a Huck Finn sort of way, like one big outdoor playground with a lot of hunting and fishing, Dad-and-Lad stuff going on. But, as Liz Taylor said, “It’s hell on horses and women.” Because it’s a cultural desert. Once, when I was seven or eight and sick in bed, my mother decided to read to me. The book she chose, for some reason, since her own leaning was more towards Louis Bromfield, was a volume of the great E.A. Poe—The Gold Bug, if memory serves. Well, for a Texas lout, E.A. Poe was heady brew. And it was a perfect turn-on to “Quality-lit,” of a weirdo bent. I was hooked on Poe. And Poe, of course, is the gateway to the greatest. If marijuana leads to cocaine, Poe most certainly leads to Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Joyce, Céline, Lautréamont, Huysmans, Nathaniel West, Faulkner, Sartre, etcetera, etcetera, ad glorium.