A Third Face: Life (and Film) Lessons from Samuel Fuller


 
I love facts. I also love good stories. Movies based on facts, concocted with no small input of creativity, originality and imagination, are among those few things that give me the greatest joy. Samuel Fuller started out in the newspaper business, with no formal education in the field. He dropped out of high school because the journalism bug bit him early and knew right along that that’s what he wanted to do in life. After several formative years in New York City in the front line of reporting, he set out to see the rest of America, freelancing as a reporter during the Depression. He started to write novels, pulp fiction they were called, and get published. He finally arrived in Hollywood, where he wised up to a different kind of writing, writing scripts, first ghostwriting for more famous screenwriters who were in a creative rut but under contract with one big studio or the other, and then starting to write his own screen stories, yarns he called them.

Writing was his life, his life was his work. Be that as it may, when World War II hit, he put everything aside and enrolled in the army. He ended up in the infantry, the front line of war. He was offered the safer job of war reporter (his superiors having heard of his background) behind a desk. He refused. The only way he wanted to fight the war was to fight along with the other soldiers. The memories of war would haunt him for the rest of his life, and the only way to deal with the horrors of war was to talk about his experience in his stories, his scripts, his films. He hated to be called a director of war movies, but he knew he made them better than almost any other director, they came naturally to him, because he had battlefield experience.

His movies touched on much more diverse subjects, such as race, discrimination, social injustice, psychological thriller, western, with stories drawn from real lives, with characters human, many times deeply disturbed, flawed, ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. He didn’t judge nor favour his characters, that’s not a writer’s job, he observed, recounted, described. He hardly cast stars in his movies, he didn’t want simplistic, make-believe tales and mystifying false heroes and idols, he wanted reality depicted in his stories, gripping, hard-hitting, truthful stories with believable characters without sugar coating.

He made his first film, I Shot Jesse James (1949), a western without it being a western, not in the John Wayne-western kind of way anyhow. It is a portrait of guilt and psychological torment, with the real violence happening in the criminal’s mind. Every time you see Bob Ford (John Ireland) walk after he shots his friend in the back and is acquitted, you see a man descending into his own hell, you see the psychological load he is carrying on his shoulders. Park Row (1952), named after the street in Manhattan where all the important newspapers in New York City were located, was a film Fuller produced himself with his own money because no studio would back him up, it was his tribute to his newspaper years, to the lives of those early reporters and editors who were the backbone of New York newspapers and to the birth of free journalism. White Dog (1982) was an uncompromising film that conveys a racial tolerance message through events that unfold in the eyes of a dog that was destroyed by a crippeled, twisted society when he was a puppy, having been trained to attack black people. This may as well be the most original, shocking, truth-grabbing movie on American racism ever made. It was misunderstood and withheld from release in America when it was made.

Sam Fuller was an original. Facts were the bedrock of his stories. He was after the truth, nice or ugly, just as in journalism, and gave it to you straight. But he put just as much imagination into his characters and action. Here are a few words to take away from his extraordinary autobiography, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking.
 

”I Shot Jesse James”, 1949 | Lippert Pictures

 
 

Life

 
“I understood for the first time the quicksand nature of fame, a seductive mistress I’d never court.”

“I relearned the difference between joy and pleasure. Pleasure was transient. Writing, listening to music, sharing, and real friendship gave me joy.”

“Many soldiers did go nuts. If you retained any sanity, you never thought about time the same way again, you were grateful for every moment of existence you were granted, and you didn’t want to waste another split second on bullshit.”

“You young people sitting around watching the goddamned television! Get off your asses and go see the world! Throw yourselves into different cultures! You will always be wealthy if you count your riches, as I do, in adventures, full of life-changing experiences.”
 
 

Work

 
“I’d like to inspire others to be hopeful and daring, to follow their dreams, no matter the odds.”

“To this day, I don’t give a good goddamn where I sleep or what I’m wearing as long as I’m involved with a project I love.”

“In those days, memory was in a person’s mind, not in his computer’s electronic chip.”

“I never did get my high school diploma, not any other diploma for that matter. Over the years, I’ve had to educate myself, gulping down all the classics I got my hands on, hungry for great writers like Flaubert, Faulkner, Dickens, Twain, Hugo, Dostoyevsky, and Balzac. By reading them, I was in touch with great minds without the fluff of a classroom.”

 

”The Big Red One”, 1980 | Lorimar Productions, Lorac Productions

 
 

Filmmaking

 
“Show the action, for Chrissakes, don’t describe it! It’s a motion picture you’re making, not a god-damned radio show.”

“It took many years and a helluva lot of trial and error to learn how to create a movie from a blank piece of paper.”

“Ever since my journalism days, images of real people in real-life situations had always had an intense effect on me. One moment’s emotion, frozen in time, was very inspiring. I’ve tried to construct my movies around those kinds of simple compositions that bring up complicated feelings. They speak in a way that people everywhere understand.”

“When I write a book or a script or make a movie, I’m only interested in one thing: a good story. If the story has conflict, there’s action. If there’s action, there’s emotion. That’s what I call a movie. See, 95 percent of all movies are made because people have to earn a living, and that’s okay. Only 5 percent are made because one passionate man or woman had an idea and nothing could stop him or her from getting it up on the screen.”

“All artists are anarchists, okay? We want to shake up the audiences to question what’s acceptable, to set off earth-quakes in the brain. Otherwise, why not look for a secure, regular-paying job as a teller in a bank?”

“No associate producers, co-producers, executive producers or any producers admitted herein.” (The sign he hung on the stage door of The Steel Helmet)

“See, music is an essential part of every picture I make, maybe as important as the story. Before photographs and movies, people were listening to music and getting strong emotional messages. When I write, I visualize what I want to happen on the screen and imagine the accompanying music. I can actually ‘see’ the action and dialogue better by adding music early on in the script.”
 

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