Saturday, July 7, 2007

Nilsson Schmilsson: Part Three

1968's Aerial Ballet

We have two things in common: You're a virgin and I've never had one.
-- Harry Nilsson to the soon-to-be Una Nilsson

A Chat With John Scheinfeld: The Art of the Interview (click here for part two)


You've already kind of addressed this, but I was wondering-not just in this film,
but in others, as well-is it difficult for you, both personally and professionally,
when an interview subject starts to cry? How do you handle that?

That's a really good question.

Like Jimmy Webb, at a certain point, says something like,
'I can't say more right now...'

Yes, that was after Harry lost his voice-he blew his voice out.

Webb makes it clear that that particular portion of the
interview is over. He's either gonna cry...or something.

Songwriter Jimmy Webb
I used to get into these conversations with my colleague, David Leaf.
Some of these [interviews] we do together and some we do separately.
I don't know if you saw Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of 'SMiLE'.
I did, and I really liked it.
I was the producer, but it's David's film, really, and he did a great job. Harry's really my film, and he was one of the producers. We used to get into this discussion years ago, and he would say, 'You get guys like Jimmy Webb, or you get really good interviews-anybody can do this job,' and I would say, 'No, anybody can't do this job.' Now he's come around to my way of thinking, because this is my idea about that: It's a gift to be able to talk to people, and to make them feel comfortable enough that they open up to you. I don't need to [get them to] say something bad or ugly that they shouldn't be saying, but so that you get the full range of their emotions and
the full range of their recollections. I did an interview with Candice Bergen about Murphy Brown, and she said, 'I don't know what I can say that I haven't said a thousand times, but go ahead-and can we do this in 15 minutes?' Well, 45 minutes later, she said, 'That was fun.' Both David and I, though our styles are different, we have that ability to put people at ease... I think they sense that we have some integrity, so they just open up. We found this with Yoko in the current film [The
US vs. John Lennon
]. So, that's part of it. I think if they didn't feel comfortable,
they probably wouldn't cry in front of us, so that's getting back to your question.
And it's a lot of men in the film.
Yes, Van Dyke [Parks] got very emotional.
Arranger Van Dyke Parks
More of the men get emotional than the women, because Una's very clear-eyed. She obviously saw him [Harry] at his worst, and she doesn't break down at all.
I suspect you must be of Irish descent, so maybe your family is the same way.
Yeah. [laughs]
She's very Irish in that she does not show her emotions to strangers.
She smiles a lot, but it isn't always necessarily a happy smile.
That's right. You know, it's the first interview she'd ever done in her life,
but she felt comfortable enough with me to do it.
She's certainly gotten offers then. I can't imagine that she hasn't.
She was really great in that regard. And yeah, she's been asked a lot of times,
but she would never do it. As much as [it's about] asking a good question, it's the ability to listen. If your subjects feel you're listening to them, they're going to open up even more-'Okay, this person really cares.' As opposed to... I've seen people
do interviews, where they're like, 'When did you do this? Uh-huh. And how about this? Uh-huh' and they're not even listening, they're just on to the next question.
So, I think we create that environment, and when they do get emotional, it's great. It's honest, and it's something I want as part of my storytelling. My attitude is: Shut up. Let them do what they're gonna do. Don't ask another question. Don't interrupt. Don't try to say, 'Are you okay?' Don't do anything. Just let the reaction play out to whatever point it will. So, in Jimmy's case, it was, 'I can't talk about it, I can't talk about it.' He just kept doing this, so we fade out on that. Then he sort of collected himself, and said, 'What's next?' And we went on to the next question.
Parks at Nilsson's gravesite
That works. You get the point.
And then sometimes, like with Van Dyke, where it's towards the end, and he
talks about how Harry's heart went out on him...there was nothing more to be
asked. He was a very honorable man, and he was going to cry, so I just let him
sit there for a second. He sat there like he was in his own little world, and then
he came back. And that's my attitude towards that. You let whatever the very
real response is-whether it's crying, whether it's anger, whether it's, 'Don't ask
me that,' or whether they fight you a little bit-let them do it, and then you come back with your follow-up question, and that's okay. Does that answer your question?
Yes, it does-it definitely does. They [the subjects] are very articulate people,
too. It feels very non-exploitative in that the emotion is in there, but there aren't
a bunch of breakdowns. Everybody has their own approach. The Werner Herzog approach is that, when he sees somebody getting emotional, he does what you
do, but he takes it farther into a very, in that he just leaves the camera on. He doesn't cut like other directors, so you see somebody about to
break down, and then they get confused, and you see them thinking, 'Wait, I'm
still being filmed,' and there's this long pause, and then they start to talk again,
and he'll leave that in there. Sometimes it makes for exciting moments, and sometimes you feel, 'Okay, he's gone too far. I feel really uncomfortable,' because he's showing somebody thinking and wondering what to do's very weird.

[There's a scene like this in White Diamond.]
I think he wants that.
Then there's the Barbara Walters approach, where
she's trying to get subjects to cry, and then they do.

That's right.
People go into her interviews knowing she's going to try to make them cry.
We don't do that. We also try to protect our subjects from themselves. I felt comfortable leaving that in with Jimmy. Or if you remember Rick Jarrard's look.
He says what he says, and then his face drops. I felt comfortable leaving that
in, because it told us, without words, how he was feeling. There was more, but I wanted to protect him. I didn't want him to look stupid or uncomfortable. It's knowing when to stop. People look at our films, and they know they'll be well treated. If you go after somebody big, they want to see something before they commit, so if they see that we treat people with respect... Also, sometimes people say things they shouldn't. Some directors find that great-if it's some big revelation-and they'll
keep it in. Out of respect-if I don't think they meant to say something-I won't do it. Other times, it's that they got something wrong, and it would be interesting to have that in there, but if it doesn't protect them as a person, I won't do it.
Next: Pussy Cats
Images from Uncut, the All Music Guide, and Van Dyke Parks.


  1. I really enjoyed this section. Scheinfeld's comments on interview technique are interesting and very helpful. I'd like to add that his partner, David Leaf, wrote the liner notes for many of the Beach Boys reissues in the 90's as well as 'The Beach Boys and The California Myth' which, to this day, is considered to be one of the definitive books on them.

  2. That's a great addition. I wrote to Scheinfeld to see where he's at with the film, and he says they're still sifting through offers. He adds:
    In the meantime, as you noted, we will have our only Hollywood screening on Saturday, July 14th, at The Egyptian Theatre as part of the MODS AND ROCKERS film festival. It's a great venue and I'll be introducing the film and doing a Q&A after with some of Harry's friends. Details and a link to buy tickets at
    Wish I could make it!