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Gena Rowlands on Cassavetes: Precisely engineered spontaneity

John Cassavetes would have hated smartphones. The late actor/writer/director may be regarded as the father of American independent filmmaking, and his work may be celebrated (or reviled) for its raw, cinema vérité feel. But most of his films were thoroughly scripted, and shot with his own money. So, as his lifelong collaborator and wife of 35 years, Gena Rowlands, explained, Cassavetes had an inviolable rule.

"You had to pay attention to what was going on," Rowlands told me in a phone interview on Wednesday. "You never saw anybody reading the trades or anything. They were there to make the movie." There would have been no heads-down tap-tap-tapping allowed.

Spontaneity doesn't happen by accident – not Cassavetes's kind, anyway. From 1959 until his death in 1989, he directed a dozen films, most of which he also wrote, including Faces (1968), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Opening Night (1977) and Gloria (1980). Eleven of them, plus three of Cassavetes's best-known performances as an actor, will be shown July 14-31 at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox, with Rowlands on hand for two days to introduce two films and do an onstage chat.

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All of Cassavetes' films employ his unmistakable style: incredibly long scenes. Tight close-ups. A fly-on-the-wall shooting style, which meant that if the actors ended up standing behind a lamp, they'd shoot the whole scene through it. ("We didn't use marks on the floor," Rowlands said. "How the cameramen did that I'll never know. But I didn't think about it; that was their worry.")

And unadorned dialogue, full of the non-sequiturs, stutters, interruptions and speaking errors of real conversation. "John wrote language people actually speak," Rowlands said. "It was very free, and gave his work such a sense of reality."

His characters were ordinary, flawed people beating back some misery of daily life, and as such were subject to denial, anger, forced laughter and mood swings (often alcohol-fuelled) that made the scenes career wildly from flirting to fist fights to crying. His actors burrowed deep, into darker, sillier or more naked places than most movies dared to go.

"I became very attached to the characters, very fond of them," Rowlands said. "They stayed with me, all of my life, actually. It was painful, thrilling, all those things when you enter another persona. Yes, you carry some of it with you into your real life. But it was down there on paper. John's attitude to all actors, if we asked any questions about our characters, was, 'Hey, I wrote it, but I gave it to you. By this time you should know more about her than I do.' It belonged to you. It was wonderful."

Watching them, you feel you're spying on real people, with all the attendant thrills, guilt and unease. At any moment, you can be choked with anxiety or bored out of your mind. It was a thoroughgoing vision, which inspired new generations of filmmakers to adopt – or at least adapt – it, including Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese (both early Cassavetes protégés), Alexander Payne and Sean Penn.

Rowlands, now 81 and still working, starred in 10 of Cassavetes's films, earning Oscar nominations for two. They met in New York, as students at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. It was love at first sight. "I was determined when I came to New York [fresh out of the University of Wisconsin] that I would not marry or have children," Rowlands said. "I just wanted to be on stage. Then I happened to see John, and he happened to see me in a play." She chuckled. "God laughs as we make plans."

For a decade, the couple worked on stage and in television. "Television was extremely exciting in New York in the fifties" Rowlands said. "They were doing adaptations of wonderful authors, Faulker, Hemingway, Chayefsky. All live." Cassavetes taught an informal TV acting class to some friends, which led to regular improvisation sessions and eventually, to his deciding to shoot a film.

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"John borrowed a camera, they shot on the streets," Rowlands said. "It was entirely improvised." The result was Shadows (1959), and Cassavetes was hooked. The couple moved to Los Angeles, and he began writing and directing full time. "Except when we'd run out of money," Rowlands said. "Then John would take an acting job to earn some. Because we were paying for [our films], the studios certainly weren't. When we were back up, he would say, 'Time to go to work,' and we'd make something."

I asked her how much the films cost. "I don't have any idea," she replied, laughing. "We never even discussed it. That wasn't the part that interested us." Instead, they gathered a repertoire group of family (including Rowlands' mother, Lady) and friends (Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara) and shot in their houses, with Rowlands whipping up spaghetti dinners to feed everyone.

"Each picture took about three months," she said, "and they were unbelievably fun and exciting. We didn't think about whether it was going to be a success or a flop. We'd go on to the next one. It was detached from other filmmaking. But we were doing what we wanted to do, and happy to be doing it."

It wasn't that they disliked studio films, Rowlands insisted: "We liked some. Casablanca is one of my favourite movies." But financing their work themselves "gave us such perfect control," she said. "Nobody came in and told us who to cast or how long our picture was or what the ending was. We had an enormous freedom, and God knows we enjoyed it." They felt "some animosity" from the studios, who "didn't particularly enjoy independent filmmakers cutting into their territory." But not enough to be a problem.

Taking direction from her husband wasn't an issue, either. "We didn't think or talk about anything else when we were making something," Rowlands said. "It was obsessive, and we both loved it. I think people having something that they're both crazy about keeps marriage exciting."

Along the way, Cassavetes and Rowlands did have children – Nick, Alexandra and Zoe, all of whom are now filmmakers themselves. Nick directed his mother in The Notebook, Unhook the Stars and the just-completed Yellow. "Everybody asks me, 'Do you boss him around?' No! I wasn't brought up to boss directors around," Rowlands said, laughing. "He's very similar to John in the way that he adores actors. Anybody could do anything wrong in the world, but not actors, and that's how Nick is, too."

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Cassavetes had one other rule: His actors weren't allowed to discuss their roles with one another. "We never said what we might do, or what might happen, or what did they think," Rowlands said. "It seems like nothing, but it's very different from the way most people work. John's theory was, Let it happen. Whatever happens. If someone does something that surprises you, react how you would in life. He said, 'Don't grind it to death talking about it.' "

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