Last Thursday night there was a special screening at the Walter Reade Theatre in New York commemorating the 25th anniversary of “Desperately Seeking Susan.” This film has always been dear to my heart, because it was the first film I ever did publicity on from before it started shooting all the way through release. Being on the set every day and going to dailies, was exciting, fun, and ultimately, life-changing. I liked the experience so much that shortly afterwards, I closed my first PR company, Reid Rosefelt Publicity, and became a unit publicist, working on movie sets around the world for the next seven years. But like any first love, “Desperately Seeking Susan” was always special. I’ll write about working on the film someday, but this post is about another film.
During the Q&A that followed the screening, screenwriter Leora Barish spoke about how she was inspired to write it by seeing Jacques Rivette’s 1974 film “Celine and Julie Go Boating.” This was news to me, because before that night I had never spoken or laid eyes on Leora Barish. At that point, after ten years of doing publicity, I had never interviewed a writer who wasn’t also the director. And as she never visited the set while I was there, I was focused on all the wonderful things that were happening in front of me. So many people got their film careers launched on “Desperately Seeking Susan”: in addition to Seidelman, who fought to bring in Madonna and gave the film an incredible sense of style and dynamism, there were producers Midge Sanford, Sarah Pillsbury and Michael Peyser, cinematographer Ed Lachman, casting directors Billy Hopkins and Risa Bramon (and Todd Thaler), composer Thomas Newman, and not incidentally, Madonna, Aidan Quinn, Laurie Metcalf, and John Turturro. The film was also driven by the veteran talents of Rosanna Arquette and production designer/costume designer Santo Loquasto, and Bramon and Hopkins found many talented actors like Mark Blum (who would later appear in one of my short films), Anna Levine Thomson, Robert Joy, Will Patton, and Peter Maloney, and gave cameos to an unbelievable list of downtown types, cult actors and up-and-comers, including: John Lurie, Richard Edson, Steven Wright, Richard Hell, Shirley Stoler, Ann Magnuson, Anne Carlisle, Rockets Redglare, Annie Golden, Airto Lindsay, Carol Leifer, Michael Badalucco, Giancarlo Esposito, and Adele Bertei and Tom DiCillo. And what I didn’t know then is that the New York City of 1984 was going to disappear and this film would both helped invent the fantasy of that moment plus serve as a time capsule.
Anyway, soon after Barish mentioned “Celine and Julie Go Boating,” I was struck by something. It was very possible that Leora Barish wouldn’t have seen “Celine and Julie” if it weren’t for me. And therefore… no me, maybe no “Desperately Seeking Susan,” and maybe no movie, no launching point for a lot of these careers. Of course, many, if not all, of these people were on their way with or without the film, but still… the fact was that I played a crucial role in bringing “Celine and Julie Go Boating” to the US, where it inspired her script.
Jacques Rivette’s “Celine and Julie Go Boating” had its US premiere at the New York Film Festival in 1974, while I was still a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, so of course I didn’t see it. But when I got to New York a few years later, I got a job at Dan Talbot’s New Yorker Films. In those days there weren’t many distributors that brought out foreign films, and even fewer handled the kind of films with extremely limited commercial potential that New Yorker did. This gave Talbot enormous power, because if he didn’t like something, it probably wouldn’t get seen in this country. But his taste was exquisite, and he was an engine behind the US careers of such talents as Bertolucci, Fassbinder, Godard,Herzog, Alain Tanner, Claude Lanzman, and… Jacques Rivette. But “Celine and Julie” played the New York Film Festival and Dan didn’t buy it.
New Yorker Films was a very small company and I wore a lot of hats there: I was the publicist for all the smaller films; I designed and laid out the catalogs and all the mailing pieces; I sent materials to the theatres; and I watched movies that Dan was considering acquiring. Dan was a father figure to me. Not only was he teaching me the film business, he was giving me a crash course in world cinema. For the first years I kept my mouth shut and watched, but after a while I started to speak up about marketing issues and what films he should buy. As in, speak up very loudly. As in shouting matches. As I said, he was a father figure, and this kind of thing commonly goes on in families. Some people there thought I was way off base, but Dan never fired me, and crazy as I was, we are friends to this day. During all my tenure at New Yorker films I never got angrier with Dan than about “Celine and Julie Go Boating.” I flat out demanded he buy it. He refused again and again. Finally I screeched, “If you don’t buy this film, then you should shut this company down today.” He knew I wouldn’t stop, so he gave in. Still, he released the movie in New York with no time for advance screenings and it was pulled from the theatre before the rave review in the Village Voice appeared. That was a crushing disappointment, but the important thing for me was that “Celine and Julie Go Boating” was now in the catalog, where it would get a limited 35mm theatrical release and could be rented in 16mm for countless non-theatrical showings in years to come.
So it’s possible that Leora Barish caught the film at a film festival in 1974, but it’s more likely she did at one of the hundreds of US showings that came between the time New Yorker Films bought the film in 1978 and when she wrote “Desperately Seeking Susan” in the early 1980s
Of course a film as great as “Celine and Julie” would have come out one way or another in the US. A company like Rialto would have bought it at some point and it would have made its way to video. But at that point in time there was only one door, which was shut tight until I kicked it open.
I often wonder why I write this blog, but this week I believe that I’m telling an instructive story, regardless of when or how Leora Barish saw “Celine and Julie.” If you work in the film business and you are facing a situation where you can fight for what you think is right—or choose not to fight—let me guarantee that you will end up more successful and wealthy if you don’t fight. If you are seen as uncompromising, you will be judged “difficult” and a pain in the ass, and you will pay a heavy price. On the other hand, you will never find out what the impact might have been if you did stand up.