An atmospheric tale of seduction and dread in Venice, The Comfort of Strangers (1990) came to Paul Schrader as a project in need of a director, with a completed screenplay by Harold Pinter, faithfully adapted from Ian McEwan’s acclaimed novel. While we were working on our edition of the film, just released this week, associate producer Linda Reisman sent us an archival interview with the director, included in the original press kit for the Skouras Pictures theatrical release in the U.S. In this excerpt from the conversation, presented here with minimal editing, Schrader talks with an uncredited interviewer about how he sought to merge his own sensibility with the distinctive literary qualities in McEwan and Pinter’s material.
Is there anything you want people to know when they see The Comfort of Strangers?
I want to get across the point that this is a character-driven story and not a plot-driven story. People expect it to be a thriller. And they expect the plot to make thriller sense. But it only makes character sense. It has long scenes which are seemingly supposed to go somewhere, but they don’t go anywhere, because they’re character scenes, and they’re Pinter scenes.
So, the two things I’ve stressed are that it’s character-driven, and that it’s equal parts the three sensibilities: Ian McEwan’s interest in the dark and the perverse, Pinter’s interest in language as a guise for emotion, and my own sensibility. To really understand, or to really enjoy the film, you have to see it as part of a whole sensibility. And one of the things that I’m most proud of is that both McEwan and Harold love the film and both feel that they were served by it. And that was one of the goals. You know, one of my students said to me, “Why didn’t you pace it up more, why weren’t there more bits of business?” And I said, “What you’re really saying is, why wasn’t it less Pinteresque? That’s like saying ‘Let’s do an un-Brechtian version of Brecht.’”
Well, if you don’t want to do Brecht, don’t do Brecht.
[Laughing.] You know, if you don’t want to do Pinter, don’t do Pinter. And what many people complain about is what the thing is. Most of the reviews in London were quite good, but one of the negative reviews actually had a line that said, “Harold Pinter obviously does not know how to write a movie script.” Well, what that person is saying is that Pinter doesn’t write the kind of scripts that other people write.
The film appears to be an extraordinarily faithful adaptation of the novel. What is in the movie comes from the book. Are you finding that people who accept the book also accept the movie?
Ian wrote me a letter, and the last line of the letter was, “If the reception of the book is any indication, the film will polarize people, because there are many people who are uncomfortable with the unruly unconscious.”
Can you talk about the tradition, both literary and cinematic, that Comfort of Strangers belongs to?
There’s that long tradition in literature that started with the British Romantics. The British and then the Germans and Scandinavians, all of whom go to tropical climates to find their souls. It’s E. M. Forster in India, it’s D. H. Lawrence in Mexico, it’s Malcolm Lowry in Mexico, it’s Byron and Shelley in Italy and Greece. These artists sort of set the mold for this genre. And the image of Venice was changed by these people, from a city of commerce to a city of death. This tradition is very old and deeply rooted in literature. There are some twists on it in Comfort, but basically it’s a tried and true format.
But in The Comfort of Strangers the characters don’t really find their souls. They are literally destroyed by the experience. They go to this “hot climate” . . .
. . . To look under the stone.
And they look under the stone, and they find snakes . . . and they’re not expanded by the experience . . .
Well, to some degree, they are. They come to realize that what seemed to them a game . . . was a deadly game. [. . . ] And in that way, it is like those people who go to Mexico to find sexual liberation. But then they also find the reverse side, which is that Mexico also has a death culture, you know. And so you get, in D. H. Lawrence and Malcolm Lowry, the mixture of those two things.
Well, that takes care of the literary tradition. What about the cinematic one?
Obviously there is a certain lush tradition in Italy, which has been handed down from Visconti to Bertolucci, that very much applies here. The Visconti I’m thinking of is the Visconti of Senso, which is set partly in Venice. And the Bertolucci of 1900. Also, I’m a big fan of Antonioni and La notte and L’avventura, and how they use architecture, and an Italianate sense of design—design determining character.
And of course there’s Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now.
I looked at Roeg’s film, and was very careful to get off the tracks. I mean, as Flannery O’Connor said about William Faulkner, “Nobody wants to be caught on the tracks when the Dixie Flyer comes through.” So, I intentionally used a different color scheme, a different editing scheme, so that it would have a different feeling. Nick’s film is primarily brown and white, and it has a very staccato rhythm. Comfort is amber and red and is very fluid.
And getting back to what you said earlier, Roeg’s film is also much more plot-oriented, it has a supernatural, psychic plot, and it’s much more of a conventional thriller. But in Comfort you have the same sense of a couple going to Venice and finding their destruction. It’s Venice as a city of death, as opposed to a nice tourist spot.
And whenever you have Pinter, you always have scenes of people sitting around talking about what’s not on their mind. And at a certain level you have to respect that. And McEwan, in some ways, is a disciple of Harold’s, which is what made the collaboration to felicitous, because Harold was basically rewriting someone rewriting him. So, it was completely in synch [sic]. I mean, there are scenes in the book The Comfort of Strangers that come right from Pinter’s work. In “The Homecoming,” there’s a scene where a son walks over and whacks his dad in the stomach, and then they sit down and continue talking. And when I read the Comfort script, in which there’s a similar scene, I said, “Oh, that must be Harold.” He’s doing it again. And then I read the book. [Chuckling.]
It’s in there?
It’s in the book too.
So, McEwan was obviously influenced by Pinter, and then it came back to Pinter.
Plus it’s a four-hander, and Harold is always doing that. Then in Betrayal the whole thing of Venice keeps coming back. And so there are many resonances. But Harold’s best work for the screen has always been that stuff that’s closest to his own sensibility, like The Servant and Accident and Betrayal. The ones that are really hooked into his sensibility are the ones that stick out most.
And yet they’re all very much about the same kind of thing. They have to do with power and with an insidious interrelationship between people that, on the surface, seems benign but turns out to be very destructive.
He’s also concerned with the violence underneath language. And that comes from Harold’s own personality, as a Jewish kid from London’s East Side, with a terrific intellect, who forces his way into high society, through his brain power. But on an emotional level he is still that tough Jewish kid who broke into the party. And that’s why he’s so feisty. Even at sixty years of age, he’s still the same feisty guy. When he gets an idea, it’s like an animal has grabbed you. And if you want to get rid of that idea, you have to literally pry the teeth off, one by one [chuckling]. He doesn’t give up. That really is his personality.
Harold Pinter believes that less is more: he says very little, and usually what he says has nothing to do with what he means. How do you as director deal with that?
Well, you fall back on this device that I used, which is to try to create a surface. Just like language can have a surface of politeness, I tried to create a beautiful surface, an apple that is so shiny and so delicious that you can’t help but bite into it.
All photos courtesy of Paul Schrader and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin.