Alexandre Rockwell (In the Soup) Talks his Friendship with John Cassavetes

The acclaimed auteur looks back on the experience of being mentored by the godfather of American independent filmmaking, and what he learned from him.

I went to Europe when I was 18, studying acting, doing odd jobs and hitchhiking around Europe. I’d always known of John Cassavetes because of Rosemary’s Baby, but 40 years ago he wasn’t the icon he is now. He was just sort of a rogue actor in Los Angeles, doing his own little homespun movies. In America, it was a rarity to see his movies, even in art houses, but in Europe — and France, in particular — he was worshipped like a god.

When I saw A Woman Under the Influence, I was so affected. I’d never seen anything like it before. It felt so personal and so deep. It was dealing with things that weren’t glamorized, that weren’t polished or altered in some way to make them acceptable. It was just this blunt truth. I loved art films, but I’d never seen anything so raw and so straightforward and emotionally true. After seeing it, I walked all night in the rainy streets of Paris — it just rocked my world.

I was the dust of the earth, below a nobody, but I started tracking Cassavetes down. Somehow I found his address and I wrote him these 20-page chicken-scratch letters, manifestos and declarations of what I planned to do in my life. I had no expectation of ever getting a response but, to my surprise, he wrote me back. As I read the letter, I could clearly see his face, laughing, because it seemed he enjoyed my “reports from the insane asylum.” He wrote, “Call me when you’re in America sometime.”

As soon as I got back from France, I moved to New York and called his assistant. Cassavetes was editing a film but he got on the phone and started laughing and talking to me about films and what I was doing. I was bussing tables at the time and living on the Lower East Side. He just said, “The most important thing you could do is make a film, because if you don’t make a film, you’ll probably rob banks.” I was a very serious young guy, so these weren’t jokes to me. I mean, I was eating oatmeal and seriously contemplating robbing banks! So, at John’s encouragement, I made my first film, Lenz. I was too broke to drive across country and go meet him, so we kept up our correspondence.

I was so influenced by John that I wrote a film called Sons. It was sort of an answer to Husbands, about three sons who go to Europe to take their father, who they think is dying, on a last crazy trip. It was the first film Steve Buscemi and I did together. I sent the script to John. I wanted him to play the father, and he was interested.

Once or twice when I called him he couldn’t get on the phone, because this is when he was really ill. But I finally spoke to him, and he was just so great. Here I was complaining about how hard it was to make movies and he was dying, and he was the one making me feel better. He reminded me that I should stop complaining, and said, “I can’t be in the movie, unfortunately.” John said, “I want you to save a seat in the front row at the premiere for me.” Unfortunately, John passed away while I was shooting Sons in France. I’ll never forget that one empty chair in the front row that I saved for him at the premiere of the film.

I went out to L.A. and saw him when he was ill. He was the last guy to ever talk about having a distended stomach, but it was hard to ignore the fact that he was really limited in what he could do. Our personal thing was just sitting and talking and laughing and going over wild stories. He liked to get you to sing, a guy who loved to hear you embarrass yourself. I think he got a kick out of me because I was a very embarrassing guy. I wore my heart on my sleeve, and at that time in life I took myself a little too seriously.

He taught me how to laugh at myself. In The Soup, my movie, comes directly out of that. One time, all of a sudden, he said, “Hey, have you ever thought about just doing a love story?” And that’s what In the Soup really was, a love story between this young guy Steve Buscemi plays, and Seymour Cassel’s character, who’s based on Cassavetes. That was my ode to John, a love story for cinema, and between these two men.

Nowadays people don’t have access to artists anymore. When Seymour was working with me on In the Soup, he told me this great story about John. Seymour and he were walking home from playing a softball game while they were making Shadows. It was John’s first black-and-white film in New York City, and they had a softball game once a week with everyone working on the movie. It was a hard time in New York, there was a lot of street crime, and this guy in Central Park took out a gun and held up Seymour and John. In the middle of the stickup, John said, “So, why are you doing this?” And the guy said, “I don’t have a job. I need some money.” And John said, “Well, I’ll tell you what, show up on the film set tomorrow morning at eight, and I’ll give you a job.” The guy showed up and from then on was an electrician on John’s movies.

That was very much John Cassavetes. Ben Gazzara told me that after a take on Husbands, John would often sidle up to one of the technicians, a gaffer or a grip, and say, “So, what did you think of that? Did you believe that? Did you like what Peter Falk was doing?” The guy would give his opinion, and John would listen to it. It really made his crew very focused because at any given moment, John could turn to someone and ask him his opinion. And it wasn’t a put-on with John. He would sit down with a guy anywhere, and just answering some crazy, maniac 18-year-old kid’s letters shows you what kind of character he was. He was interested in passion and the nitty gritty of life, wherever he could find it. That was a great inspiration.

Another of my favorite Cassavetes stories was told to me by Ben Gazzara, with whom I became friends after John died. They were having their premiere screening of Husbands in a big theater in New York. The audience was loving the film, laughing and really getting into it. Back then, a movie like Husbands was from another planet in terms of how it was shot. So Ben went to find John to tell him, “Hey, we’re doing OK,” but he couldn’t find John. Ben went up to the projection booth, and there was John cutting pieces out of the reels that hadn’t been shown yet. Ben said to him, “What are you doing? They love it. They’re going crazy for the film.” John wasn’t laughing at all. He said, “Yeah, that’s just it. They’re going with it too much. It’s making them too comfortable.” With most directors, including myself, when an audience is laughing and going with your movie, it makes you happy that people like you and you’re doing OK and you’re not crazy. But John could care less about that. He wanted to make people a little uncomfortable, so he was cutting scenes out that were going to make people laugh too much. For him, it was this constant creative process right up to the very end.

When you’re young, you get very ambitious and you want to jump steps, but John would really pull you back to the very basic thing of what’s right in front of you. John would see the drama, the humanity, directly in front of him. He always had a great line: “The greatest location in the world is the human face.” So he wouldn’t look very far. John could see the beauty of humanity right in front of his eyes in a supermarket, in a bar, in a strip bar, anywhere. It’s amazing what he did.

Iconic independent film director Alexandre Rockwell rose to prominence with his 1992 film In the Soup, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. He is one of the original auteurs of the independent film movement. His other films include Somebody to Love, 13 Moons and Four Rooms, also directed by Quentin Tarantino, Allison Anders and Robert Rodriguez, and Little Feet. His newest film, Sweet Thing, a poetic, uplifting celebration of childhood starring his children Lana and Nico, is out now through Film Movement at IFC Center and other virtual cinemas.