Synopsis : A half century after its release, Midnight Cowboy remains one of the most original and groundbreaking movies of the modern era. With beguiling performances from Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman as two loners who join forces out of desperation, blacklist survivor Waldo Salt’s brilliant screenplay, and John Schlesinger’s fearless direction, the 1969 film became the only X- rated film to ever win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Its vivid and compassionate depiction of a more realistic, unsanitized New York City and its inhabitants paved the way for a generation’s worth of gritty movies with complex characters and adult themes. But this is not a documentary about the making of Midnight Cowboy: it is about the deeply gifted and flawed people behind a dark and difficult masterpiece; New York City in a troubled time of cultural ferment; and the era that made a movie and the movie that made an era. Featuring extensive archival material and compelling new interviews, director Nancy Buirski illuminates how one film captured the essence of a time and a place, reflecting a rapidly changing society with striking clarity.
Original Language: English
Director: Nancy Buirski
Producer: Nancy Buirski, Simon Kilmurry, Susan Margolin
Writer: Nancy Buirski
Release Date (Theaters): Limited
Box Office (Gross USA): $11.5K
Distributor: Zeitgeist Films / Kino Lorber
Production Co: Augusta Films, Foothill Productions, Cineflix Productions
Exclusive Interview Director Nancy Buirski
Q: Midnight Cowboy is one of the most iconic films, not just 60s, probably old time and the movie won the Oscar, influenced a lot of indie filmmakers, but what’s your personal relation to this film? How did that influence that ended up making this documentary?
N.B: I didn’t see it when it first came out, but I saw it not long after. I remember feeling how radical this film was, that it was really unlike anything I’d seen. It was like a gut punch. It stuck with me. It never went away. I don’t think I saw it again until I came across — this is obviously many years later — Glenn Frankel’s book on “Shooting Midnight Cowboy,” which ultimately inspired this movie. I don’t think I would have been excited about making it based on his book, if I still hadn’t felt such a connection to that film so many years later and appreciated the fact that it wasn’t just me who felt that connection, but everybody I ever talked to about “Midnight Cowboy.”
It was a touchstone for them. One of the things that I’m interested in, and I’ve explored in other projects as well, is what makes art last? What makes art resonate when it first appears and what makes it resonate so many years later. This was a wonderful opportunity to explore those questions, to see if I could find an answer to those questions in our film. What was fascinating about this film is that it’s not just a documentary about “Midnight Cowboy,” but also about the culture surrounding that era and the influence of that. How did you come to that aspect to tackle those elements, not just with “Midnight Cowboy” itself. It’s such a grand scale of work that you have to go through [it].
Q: Talk about that actual challenge and how you ended up coming to the point where you can tackle this film?
N.B: Well, that was part of trying to answer the question of why did it resonate? You know, art is never made in a vacuum and if a film seems to somehow encapsulate what’s going on at the time — and it registers as [being] greater than just one artist’s expression. It’s somehow [does that] without actually dealing directly with those cultural issues yet it encompasses them while somehow reflecting and refracting them. It’s going to have more impact on people who see it because they’re going to see themselves in that movie.
Even if you don’t think you’re Ratso or Joe Buck, there’s something about the unusual and subversive nature of the film that people at the time responded to. They must have known that John Schlesinger was looking at the culture and understanding that things were changing. He was responding personally to that. That made his film relatable to people who saw it. They were also looking at the culture and responding to it, feeling that something was happening in the culture and this film reflected that it wasn’t [to be] ignored.
It’s the first time I’ve ever said this exactly, but I think too many other films — even if they had strong messages like “The Graduate” — still seemed to ignore what was going on around them. What was going on around them was gritty, hard and difficult. John Schlesinger was saying, “I see this and this is a world that we’re living in. We need to reflect that world.” I hope I answered your question. It’s the first time I’ve quite said it that way. I really feel strongly about it.
Q: Speaking of reflecting on that world, John Schlesinger used to work as a documentary filmmaker for the BBC. His film “Terminus” won the British Academy Award. He’s quite observational when it comes to the character, what they represent, how they express it and all that. Do you think that his documentary experience has a lot to do with the making of this particular film?
N.B: Totally. He was an observer. He was, in fact, a bit of a cinema verite documentarian. So he was looking at the world. This is his stock and trade. Even though he had made three films before this — “A Kind of Loving,” “Billy Liar,” “Darling” and “Far From the Madding Crowd.” This was really in his wheelhouse. I hate that expression. So don’t use it. But this was really where he lived and breathed, looking at the world and telling a story about the world that he saw, not that he imagined. If that makes any sense… Even though he’s been inspired by an incredible book by James Leo O’Herlihy. It was that book which said to Schlesinger, “Now you get to really look at the world and reflect on what you are seeing.”
I was also curious about the relationship between Schlesinger and the film’s script writer Waldo Salt. It’s the topic that they tackled, and, at the same time, also their trust in the relationship to tackle such subject matters. Waldo Salt probably never said a dishonest word in his life. He was so honest and saw the world in a certain way, and reflected on that world and was never dishonest about it. Even his daughter Jennifer who says in our movie that Waldo Salt always knew things would work out if you stayed true to yourself. This was a film that required these filmmakers to stay true to themselves and to the world that they were seeing. I think they connected deeply on that level.
Q: The soundtrack of “Midnight Cowboy” included “Everybody’s Talkin’,” a song that was written and released by Fred Neil, but in 1969, a version of it became a massive hit for Harry Nilsson, because he recorded the one included in the film. Talk about that soundtrack and the choice they made of that song.
N.B : Did you notice that we had Fred Neill’s version in our movie, and then also Harry Nilsson’s? The first time we hear “Everybody’s Talkin’” — aside from in the introduction to the film — later in the film, you hear it and see a lot of poverty. That’s the section where we see a lot of homeless people and all that. That’s Fred Neil singing. Then later, you hear Harry Nilsson. So you consciously can choose.
Q: Wow, that’s interesting.
N.B: Right. There was another song that had been written for this film, “Midnight Cowboy.” [Schlesinger] didn’t feel it was right. There were a number of people who suggested songs. I think Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. His “Lay Lady Lay” was originally suggested for this film. There were a number of other songs that were being considered, but when John heard the Fred Neill version, he knew that that was the version he needed. It was the studios that convinced him that they needed something a bit more upbeat than Neill’s version, so they hired Nilsson to do one. Now, Nielsen had also written a song for “Midnight Cowboy,” and they didn’t want to use that, so he was, at first, a bit reluctant to record somebody else’s song, But he eventually agreed, and that’s what you hear in your head all the time, the Nilsson version.
Q: Before the audition of Dustin Hoffman, he knew that after the all-American image he got from [doing] “The Graduate,” he could easily cost him his career by doing the character of Ratso. But he still went out to meet with the executive on the corner of Manhattan to do the audition, totally disguised as this character.
N.B: It fits into what I’m saying — It’s all about honesty. Dustin Hoffman wanted to prove to Schlesinger — and to the world — that he could be that character and play a character because he was an actor, a serious actor. He wasn’t a star. Hoffman might’ve become a star because of “The Graduate,” but that’s not what his metier was. It was acting and he wanted to show that he could do any kind of character. And he was attracted to that character partly because he was so real. It wasn’t just he was someone that you could really see on the street. So I think that’s why he was attracted to the project, and was attracted to the character.
Q: There’s the sense that was overtly homosexual when Jon fights in character, to try and hustle Bob Balaban’s character, but this film isn’t a homosexual story even with the tenderness between Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman’s characters. Though they’re not homosexual, their togetherness hints at that. Schlesinger was interested in their unusual relationship.
N.B: That’s what I took from the actual relationship, it’s sort of like what’s possible in this dark time. The question is: How do you take the relationship between John Voight’s character, Joe Buck, and Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso? It showed you possibilities and there are any number of them. The fact that it’s ambiguous is what makes it interesting. Schlesinger was interested in alternative relationships. He had one himself as a gay man. I think he was also saying that it could be any number of alternative relationships that helps us get through life.
He was talking about what helps us survive, and it’s the love of two people, men and women, men and men, whatever, that really helps us get through dark times. They don’t have to be characterized in one way or another. This is a tender relationship. It’s one where one person is helping the other to survive. And that’s, in a way, what we see by the end of the film. Both of these people are utterly saveable. Even if one of them doesn’t survive, both of them have been saved in a spiritual way.
Q: How Important was it for you to include the first kiss of a homosexual [in film] was “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” —another one made by Schlesinger?
N.B: We were trying to show that ”Midnight Cowboy” was one film on a continuum of films that began to deal with gay issues. Schlesinger does suggest some obviously gay behavior, by showing Voight and Balaban in the theater, and with his relationship with [Shirley, the character played by] Barnard Hughes, where he beats him up and all. There are definitely hints. There is gay life surrounding this story but he doesn’t really deal with it that overtly. That’s not the point of his movie.
He really does get into it in a more overt way in “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” which is something he wanted to do. This is a man who’s still in the closet at the time he made these movies, but clearly he was exploring it and exploring it in himself as well. We all try to make movies that we feel personally connected to, and there’s probably not been a more personal movie for John Schlesinger [to make] than “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
Q: Growing up in that era as a closeted homosexual, you never feel you can fit into any community because you can’t be open about it. Schlesinger even talked about it in the film, that, if you got caught having any kind of male sexual experience, it was illegal.
N.B: I was very fortunate to have that interview. That was a conversation he had with his nephew, [the noted writer] Ian Buruma, who also appears in the movie. Ian had written a book about it called “Conversations with John Schlesinger.” What was beautiful about that interview is that because it’s with his nephew, who he felt very close to, he opened up more, and it’s a more intimate Interview. How could I not use it? It was so beautiful. Schlesinger is always eloquent no matter what he’s discussing. But he’s discussing something very close to his heart.
Q: You worked with Jon Voight, on that interview in the beginning of the film. Did you ever approach Dustin Hoffman?
N.B: Yes, and he was not available. But we were very fortunate to have other interviews with Dustin Hoffman that we were able to use in the film. I’m hoping that the fact that we couldn’t interview him is not too much of a [problem]. I’m hoping that it holds up even without the interview with Dustin Hoffman.
Q: Talk about the interview with Voight because he was very passionate and this film holds a very special place for him.
N.B: This movie changed his life. It was his first important role and he did an amazing job. He developed so many different layers to that character. We love him in this film, and I think we love him in this interview because it’s so clear that he’s passionate about this movie, Schlesinger and he knows that it was a life changer for him. It comes through many times in our interview. He’s very poetic and passionate and I ended up finding that he almost became the spine of the film, which was not necessarily whatI intended. But he has so many powerful moments in our film. I was very grateful to him.
Q: What’s amazing about Voight’s character, Joe Buck, is that he played a doubly-layered cowboy, not real cowboy. That element that is so relatable to people who watch Westerns, but [also for] people who also live in the city. It’s a double layered cowboy in the way that it is represented.
N.B: Right. We spent some time dealing with the whole mythology of the cowboy. Some people may feel like we went off on a tangent, but I think it was worth doing because we all grew up with the concept of what cowboys were. I thought it was worth exploring that. Even the idea of a cowboy is complex, multi-layered and it’s changed so much. The idea of pretending to be a cowboy, of performing the cowboy thing was such a big part of Joe Buck’s image of himself.
It was really important for his own self-identity and self-esteem to feel like he looked like a cowboy. What’s really interesting is that, at the end of “Midnight Cowboy,” he goes to buy new clothes for Ratso, who’s obviously dying on the bus. Joe doesn’t realize that, but he goes to buy these clothes. He changes his clothes. He takes off the cowboy garb and puts on regular clothes. This is where you know he’s been saved. He’s finding himself in a way that he had never found himself before, by getting rid of that disguise.
Q: After you made this film, what are the most surprising elements or discoveries about it?
N.B: For instance, this conversation that we’re having, it takes me into slightly new areas, and I find myself talking about it differently with every conversation. All I can say is that I’m constantly discovering new things. I hope I’m not avoiding the question, but there isn’t one thing. I mean, that’s why the film is so full of different elements. It’s a big tapestry of themes that are threaded through all of it. There’s just so much in “Midnight Cowboy” to deal with. The film could have been another hour or two long. It was hard to pull it back. So, it’s a constant series of discoveries.
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Here’s the trailer of the film.