Elvis Mitchell is one of the preeminent film critics and interviewers of our generation. Since 1996 his NPR radio show, The Treatment, has been a stomping ground for popular culture’s most talented and important individuals, where they can speak freely about their craft without the pressure of feeling like they’re “promoting” their work. Mitchell’s cool and laid-back style seems to place all of his guests at ease, including his listeners. It’s not just his ability to conduct an interview but his vast knowledge of information that makes him such a pleasure to listen to. In addition to The Treatment, Mitchell is also the entertainment critic for NPR’s Weekend Edition With Scott Simon, a job he’s held since the show’s debut in 1985. His extensive list of credits includes hosting Independent Focus for the Independent Film Channel, guest-hosting for Charlie Rose on several occasions, and a four-year stint as film critic for the New York Times, beginning in 2000.
Tonight at 8 PM ET (with a repeat at 10:30), Turner Classic Movies premieres Elvis Mitchell: Under the Influence, the network’s first interview program. In the first installment, taped last year, Mitchell talks with the late Sydney Pollack, and in coming weeks he sits down with Bill Murray, Laurence Fishburne, and Quentin Tarantino, among others, to discuss the art of filmmaking and just to listen to these craftsmen share their stories. More than your typical interview show, Under the Influence has the feel of overhearing a wonderful conversation in a restaurant or at a party, and therefore is a natural extension of Mitchell’s radio show. Whether you’re familiar with Elvis Mitchell or just being introduced to him, Under the Influence is a treat for fans of movies and those of us who simply enjoy an intelligent discussion between two knowledgeable people. I had the opportunity to speak to Mitchell via telephone in early June; throughout our conversation I found myself intently listening to him but at times forgetting that I was the one doing the interview. He has that way with people. Although he professed to being as nervous as the interviewee, it never came across that way.
Is it strange to be on the other side of the interview?
I’m sweating like I’ve been shot in the leg. I don’t know how people do it.
Yeah. You want to try and make it feel natural, like a real conversation. The thing that’s important in any interview is knowing you’ve got your subject’s attention. And I’m not a machine. I’m not somebody who’s been on the other side for years. And there gets to be a kind of a practiced rhythm people have in being interviewed, almost like trying to find that pitch that would get by somebody’s rhythm and make you see them as the pitcher instead of swinging for the fences all the time knowing they can knock one out. I’m the sweaty pitcher up here now just trying to get one across the plate.
Well, you always seem like a cool cat when you’re giving an interview, so that’s surprising to hear from you.
Hey, you know, I wish I could lie about this kind of stuff, but I can’t.
How do you prep for an interview? It seems like when you conduct an interview you’ve got so much knowledge inside that head of yours. Do you do a great deal of research, do you just go into it and let the conversation flow, do you have a certain point you want to make as the interview takes place?
I think I’m lucky because I started out in print, where you had to do a lot of research.I’ve never been in a situation on my radio show or when I filled in for Charlie Rose where I’ve had a list of prepared questions given to me.I just can’t think that way.I’ve always found when you’re sitting in front of somebody and you’ve got a list [of questions], their eyes go to the list, they’re not looking at you, they’re trying to see what the questions are and trying to count the questions so they can get done with this and go meet somebody for a drink or go make their flight.
I’ve always felt that — and I said this — you want to get the subject’s attention. The way to do that is to try and make eye contact, just to let people know that you’re there seriously. You’re not there to be friends with them or to make them laugh. It’s funny watching short interviews and these junket things on TV — the interviewers are trying to get the star to laugh and seem like they’re friends. I’m there to do my job and be a professional, do all the research I can so that I have an idea of what they’ve said before, and just try to get somebody comfortable enough where we can move away from that a little bit. And then it starts to be that kind of thing where you ask them about something else while they’re in the middle of saying “you know, it was like a family making that movie,” because you know they’re going to say that. You ask a question in the middle of that, so you just make them … react. In some weird way it’s just communicating and just getting them maybe a little bit out of the comfort zone so they have to think about what to say. That’s when it gets to be the best. That’s when you feel like you’re really talking to somebody.
Exactly. It feels more like a conversation than a set number of questions. Especially, like you mentioned, press junkets where you feel like all of the interviewers are asking the same questions and the talent have their answers prepped.
Yeah, and that stuff is hard because you have a job to do at a junket. I’ve never had to do one, but I’ve certainly seen them. I know at some point you have to ask what the movie’s about, and then it’s like Terminator, and the actors start scrolling down the responses in their head. “Which one am I going to give this time? Beep beep beep beep– oh, here it is.” Anything I can do to not ask those questions, and I’m mostly in the position where I don’t have to. That’s one of the cool things about this show, is that they never come up.
And one of the things I enjoyed about Under the Influence, it being on Turner Classic Movies, is that it’s not like anyone is there to really promote anything.
Isn’t that great! Isn’t that cool?
But even on The Treatment it never really feels like people are there to promote something. It feels like — and you mentioned Charlie Rose — a conversation about popular culture, about movies, and in some cases comics or television. It seems so much more natural than your typical interview show. That’s what I really enjoyed about the advanced episodes of Under the Influence that I saw. How did you decide on Sydney Pollack as your first guest?
Well, Pollack was the first host of TCM’s The Essentials. I don’t know if you ever had a chance to see when he was hosting.
Oh yeah, he was great. Wonderful.
I would just get lost even when it was a movie I didn’t much care for, and there were a few of them, because everybody has disagreements, but I thought, “God, you don’t really get to see this very often.” That’s one of the cool things about TCM, is to hear a filmmaker talk about why he’s so in love with something. There’s this great clip that runs on TCM every once in a while, and I think it’s kind of emblematic of what the network is. It’s John Frankenheimer showing a clip from The Train and just showing how athletic Burt Lancaster was and how it’s essentially a piece of improvised ballet and circus acrobatics in the context of a movie. And that Lancaster insisted on doing all these stunts himself. So it’s a guy who expresses himself physically, and the director talking about how that was done and in a way that doesn’t make it esoteric, but is really about the kind of warmth and fervor and excitement that people who make movies have about what they do. That was a big part of the reason that I wanted Sydney to be my first guest and also because he’d become a well-known actor. One of the things he had said — and we were lucky enough to do the first show in front of an audience — he said, “I think most people here probably know me from Will & Grace.” And the audience burst into applause. Because, you know, he’s Will’s dad to them.
It’s funny that you say that, because for me, whenever I see him I think, “Oh, it’s Dustin Hoffman’s agent from Tootsie.”
I know, right?
That story he tells you in the interview is great. After I watched the screener my wife and I happened to be watching Tootsie, and when it gets to that scene where Pollack and Hoffman first get into it, all of a sudden I had to pause the movie and say, “I just have to tell you about how Pollack became the agent in this movie.” That’s such a great moment in the interview. What was he like? It seemed like you two knew each other before you sat down together for the interview.
I had sat down with him on a couple of occasions, and one of the reasons I wanted to get him again was because he had told a great story about Burt Lancaster, which led into him talking about having worked on The Leopard with Visconti, which is one of those moments when your jaw slaps into the concrete — “I’m sorry, you did what? You don’t mean Luchino Visconti?” And it was a strange circumstance, and I brought this up because [Pollack] had directed a great movie with Ossie Davis and Burt Lancaster called The Scalphunters. It’s great because Ossie Davis was stuck in that period when the only black movie star got to be Sidney Poitier. Davis was such a talented actor, and it was one of the few times he got to rise to his own height and spar with somebody who was just as powerful an actor and as unafraid of expressing that joy of life Davis had. So, that was a great moment and a great movie and I got to talk to Pollack about it and that just seemed to set him off. He’s one of these guys who had great stories about everything. The thing that really comes across and really struck me about him was his love of actors. You hear so many directors talking about “why I chose this shot” and “why I wanted this star.” But you rarely hear directors talk about a love of actors in the unbridled way that he did, and that’s why I thought he would be the perfect note to set this thing off. Also, he’s a guy who remained an A-list director until the end of his life.
Unfortunately, a few weeks after we completed his taping, he was diagnosed with cancer as he was preparing to go off to shoot [HBO’s] Recount. He was really excited about it. There were going to be hand-held cameras, he was telling me about all of the things he was looking forward to doing, how he was so thrilled about the cast. Just recently, Jay Roach [the film’s eventual director] was on The Treatment saying that he showed Sydney a cut of the film and Sydney was giving him the best notes he got on the movie, the best kind of ideas about what to change and how to keep the movie together. This was a guy who was on his deathbed and his love of craft still came through. I hope that people get that from watching this episode.
I think they will. That’s one of the great aspects about a show like this, when you get to listen to an artist talk about their passions — it’s just contagious. It makes you want to seek out their work, and it helps you appreciate even more what they loved — and what they loved about their craft. And on a network like TCM you have the opportunity to seek out other movies that they appreciated and actually watched or wanted to see.
Well, that’s one of the things that I think TCM does that makes you want to hear the artist’s point of view. That’s one of the things that is exciting about having the first interview show on the network. I know that this is a big leap of faith for them to make on my behalf and I’m really, really happy about that. It gives me an enormous amount of pleasure to know that they wanted me to do this. It’s a big deal for me because it’s a network that I watch. The great thing is you can turn TCM on any time of the day or night and catch something. I love those weird late-Sunday-night, Monday-morning, 4 AM movies of the silent era and you go “Whoa.”
Yeah. And you get sucked in, too.
The next thing you know, it’s 8 AM and you think, “Oh my God, I’m not going to go to sleep.”
And you’re like, “What was I thinking? I should have been to bed hours ago!”
I know. It’s like that weird college party — “I should’ve gone home. I know I should’ve gone home. Why did I stay?”
The rest of the day you’re regretting staying up, but you still have a great memory if it was a good movie.
[laughs] You know, one of the great things too about TCM, and I think one of the great things about trying to do this show, is we’re so rarely caught by surprise by anything in popular culture anymore. We’re told so many things and we get so much information, and that information is used to try and build a response in us. So by the time we get to see something, we basically know what we’re going to see. It’s been presold to us. And that’s the thing about seeing those movies that you don’t know anything about. It’s the dead of night and you feel that it’s a secret between you and TCM, and you go online and start e-mailing people and nobody else is awake and the people who are awake aren’t watching television. That kind of intimacy, it’s a real intimacy that I think you get from this exchange with something you love. And TCM is one of those things for me — and you too from the way we’re talking.
Oh yeah. What I really love about TCM is that they take the time to show you those silent movies, because unless you get a chance to watch them and tell people about them, people will have one impression of what they were. The uninformed think silent movies were slapstick comedies with a piano playing accompaniment, and they miss these beautiful movies. TCM does the same to expose classic foreign films. Where else are you going to see those except on that channel, because no one else is really showing them. That’s why I love the network, and most of my TiVo is filled with films from TCM.
Oh, God, I know. For a long time I had saved a movie that’s finally out on DVD just a few months ago, Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running —
That’s a great movie!
— which I have on laserdisc, but my laserdisc player is in storage, I’m sure rotting away with all of my laserdiscs.
I know that feeling, man.
Oh, man, it’s terrifying. You know, another reason I wanted to have Pollack on is that, I don’t know if you ever saw the Criterion edition of Tootsie?
I have that, yeah.
Man, you have to listen to his audio track — it’s like a master class.
There are certain directors that are just awesome to listen to talking about their movies. I’d put Martin Scorsese in that category.
Oh, have you seen the Scorsese Taxi Driver? You think, “Wow, this guy’s like this now, what was he like in the ’70s?”
No kidding. It’s like, “Slow down, slow down! I can’t follow you!” [both laugh] Anyway, that’s what I love about TCM — they give you the chance to hear artists speak and explain to viewers the craft of filmmaking. I mean, there is an aspect to filmmaking that is just for mass entertainment, but there’s also an art to it.
And that these movies don’t just exist in a vacuum. An image or a gesture or a performance, and [these artists] want to evoke for an audience what that moment did for them. And that’s one of the reasons [Under the Influence] exists, I think, to get to the heart of that.
Have there been times when you’ve sat down with someone and you’re intimidated by him or her, thinking, “Oh, shit, what am I going to say to this guy?” Or is there someone who you looked up to too much and you thought, “How am I going to handle this interview?” Or do you go back to your reporting days and prepare yourself by saying, “It’s just an assignment”?
Well, I mean, one of the reasons I do this is probably to mask my own shyness. So if I can get somebody else talking I feel better because then the spotlight isn’t on me. And I don’t know if that’s the case for you, but it’s certainly the case for a lot of people I know who do this job. But also … certainly [I get intimidated]. I mean, Bill Murray is someone who’s been a star now for over 30 years and is a professional who takes his work very, very seriously. And Sydney Pollack’s been doing it since before I’ve been alive. Or had been. Look at that — he was so full of life I still think of him as if he’s still around. He was just popping.
That was the amazing thing. When he passed away I was amazed that he was in his 70s. He acted and appeared to be ten years younger than that, or more.
He was so full of vitality I was afraid he was going to gesture and knock me out of my chair. It’s weird — he walked in and he was like the kind of guy who plays a director in a movie. You think, “This guy can’t be a director. He’s got too much charisma to be just behind the camera.” You end up wondering how he ended up finding that. I just wonder if he was always like that or if he just sort of came to it after a while just dealing with movie stars. He was kind of one of these old-school movie-star directors, that kind of school of lion tamers like [George] Cukor and Billy Wilder, people who knew how to deal with stars and how to get the best out of them while also reminding audiences that there’s a certain kind of glamour we go to the movies [to see] in the first place.
And with his passing, there aren’t that many directors left who actually make that kind of movie anymore. There is so much emphasis on stylistic approaches to the way things are shot and edited that we don’t have filmmakers taking the time to do nice long shots and wide shots like Pollack did and let actors act in the movie.
You’re absolutely right. I can’t think of any who do that, and you just end up missing that.
It’s a shame. And even when a director tries to emulate that kind of a movie these days, audiences walk out claiming “that was boring.” They’re so used to jagged cuts and television-commercial type of editing that there isn’t that appreciation. It’s hard to find a film that will actually take the time to let you take in everything. Like you said, I can’t think of any filmmakers who do that anymore.
There’s maybe a handful. Certainly Ed Zwick would be one of those guys that falls in that tradition of casting movie stars and understanding that movie stars bring something to a movie we want to see, but can also offer real performances.
Many in the press tend to make a big deal about an actor being a movie star, as if they’re not actors. It’s like, you can go to a movie and you see Denzel Washington, and people see him primarily as a “movie star” and they forget that he’s one of the finest actors of his generation.
Wrapping things up, you’ve completed the first season — who are guests you would love to get for a second season of Under the Influence?
It would be great to get Denzel. It would be great to get George Clooney. I’d love to get Charlize Theron, who is a movie star and an actress. Or Naomi Watts, who I think becomes a different person every time she’s in a movie. Think about how great she is in so much [of her work]. If I get a chance to do a second season, who wouldn’t I want to get for it?
Well, thanks so much, Elvis. I hope I made you feel a little comfortable giving the interview.
Oh, no, you did a good job — you made me talk too much. That’s the problem.
I’m just doing what you do, man, letting the interviewee do all the talking.