Discoveries

Tessa Louise-Salomé on The Wild One and the world of Jack Garfein

by Anne-Katrin Titze

The Wild One director Tessa Louise-Salomé on Octavia Peissel connecting her to Jack Garfein: “I have been introduced to him by the co-producer of Wes Anderson.”
The Wild One director Tessa Louise-Salomé on Octavia Peissel connecting her to Jack Garfein: “I have been introduced to him by the co-producer of Wes Anderson.” Photo: Petite Maison Production

Tessa Louise-Salomé’s The Wild One, co-written with Sarah Terquem, narrated by Willem Dafoe, and filmed by Boris Lévy (Tribeca Film Festival Best Cinematography in a Documentary Feature winner) intertwines strings of past and present to give us a specific look into the extraordinary world of Jack Garfein who is credited with discovering James Dean, Steve McQueen, George Peppard, and Ben Gazzara, co-founding The Actors Studio West with Paul Newman (among others), and directing Calder Willingham’s play End as a Man in 1947 - which Peter Bogdanovitch calls one of the best productions he ever saw. Samuel Beckett and Arthur Miller made Garfein feel connected and he had an unfulfilled wish to direct Henry Miller’s Tropic Of Cancer. Marlon Brando says “We act to save our lives every day.”

Tessa Louise-Salomé with Anne-Katrin Titze on filming Leos Carax: “He’s like mute, he doesn’t speak, even on the set he’s like a breeze. And Jack Garfein is the total opposite.”
Tessa Louise-Salomé with Anne-Katrin Titze on filming Leos Carax: “He’s like mute, he doesn’t speak, even on the set he’s like a breeze. And Jack Garfein is the total opposite.”

The death march in 1945, images of a forest. The cattle cars, surviving seven concentration camps. Dangerous power games of a little boy. Josef Mengele at Auschwitz and the haunting maternal act that saved his life. “Act sick and the Kapos leave you alone.” Jack Garfein learned want he needed to do for survival at an early age.

He arrived in New York in 1946 and went to The New School to study with the great innovator Erwin Piscator. Encountering Carroll Baker and the fall from grace in Hollywood. Private photos of Marilyn Monroe, half forgotten are unearthed in The Wild One. The cruelty of men exposed in The Strange One, Baker in Baby Doll and a rape scene in Something Wild. A woman closing in on herself, cutting up her clothes. No other American movie went there, not even close.

“Comedies at sunrise and tragedies at sunset” - Jack Garfein had plenty of both.

From Paris, Tessa Louise-Salomé joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on The Wild One, another highlight of the 21st edition of the Tribeca Film Festival.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Tessa, nice to meet you!

Tessa Louise-Salomé: Hi, nice to meet you!

AKT: What a great discovery your film is! Not many people know Jack Garfein, how did you first encounter him and his work?

TLS: To respond to what you have said, that’s the interest of the film - we don’t know Jack Garfein. I think it’s very interesting to know this man and make a discovery of him. I have been introduced to him by the co-producer of Wes Anderson. I’ve met him [Garfein] in Paris because he was working between New York and Paris; he had a lot of students in New York and Paris.

Tessa Louise-Salomé: “Jack Garfein is many people, he has many stories and layers.”
Tessa Louise-Salomé: “Jack Garfein is many people, he has many stories and layers.” Photo: Petite Maison Production

AKT: What is the name of the Wes Anderson producer?

TLS: It was Octavia Peissel. I was doing this film about Leos Carax that was taking up all my time. I was completely drawn into my subject and I discovered this man and he completely pulled me out of my last feature and I decided we’re going to start a relationship to see if we can imagine a film. And it worked out, he opened the door.

AKT: Are there similarities between Leos Carax and Jack Garfein?

TLS: First of all there was absolutely no connection. Leos Carax is someone that doesn’t speak at all. He’s like mute, he doesn’t speak, even on the set he’s like a breeze.

AKT: That’s a great description.

TLS: When you do a film, I like things that are very difficult, I guess. And Jack Garfein is the total opposite.

AKT: He comes across as the ultimate storyteller.

Tessa Louise-Salomé on Willem Dafoe, The Wild One narrator: “I had seen a film by Loris Gréaud [Sculpt] … he was also doing some kind of very haunted and weird voiceover. I was completely obsessed …”
Tessa Louise-Salomé on Willem Dafoe, The Wild One narrator: “I had seen a film by Loris Gréaud [Sculpt] … he was also doing some kind of very haunted and weird voiceover. I was completely obsessed …”

TLS: Yes, he is speaking all the time, he’s like a light, he is bright, he is everywhere. He’s fun, he is playing with you, he’s telling you all these stories that I had no idea about when we met. I’m not a specialist on Broadway or Hollywood. He would start a story about Hollywood and would finish to tell about the Holocaust. In almost the same sentence! He was completely surprising.

AKT: I just got chills realizing for the first time that both start with the same first three letters H-o-l. Hollywood and Holocaust.

TLS: Oh yes.

AKT: Your way of storytelling is like knitting strands together in a way. There’s nothing linear about your film.

TLS: I think there is nothing linear about Jack Garfein. It was very difficult to imagine a story about Jack Garfein because there were too many threads. There were threads everywhere, in cinema, in theater, of course in the big history, the Holocaust, parents story, Jews story, American story, American dream. So many threads that it took me a while to decide, of course acting, of course discovery.

He gave his first role to James Dean. He discovered Steve McQueen and Ben Gazzara. Nobody knows about that. I’m interested in mystery, in very complicated persons, and secrets. I think maybe this is the link between the two [Carax and Garfein]. And also in consciousness. I am also obsessed by the creative process. To respond to your previous question.

Tessa Louise-Salomé on Foster Hirsch and Jack Garfein’s work: “We discussed extensively together and on camera what is Garfein’s oeuvre.”
Tessa Louise-Salomé on Foster Hirsch and Jack Garfein’s work: “We discussed extensively together and on camera what is Garfein’s oeuvre.” Photo: Petite Maison Production

AKT: We are not being linear here either.

TLS: Great.

AKT: So there is Garfein, the great storyteller, and you decided to add Willem Dafoe, who is a wonderful narrator. Both of them are guiding us.

TLS: Jack Garfein is many people, he has many stories and layers. He has flaws also. He cannot tell in only one way, in one person. Also I couldn’t figure out how to tell everything through him. So I had to have his alter ego.

AKT: A narrative double!

TLS: Yes his double, he is like inner thought. Things he cannot say or things that are more about his story [or history]. It was also to tell a story through the life of a child. Him, Jack Garfein, as a young boy. Willem Dafoe is an exceptional actor, of course. At one point I had seen a film by Loris Gréaud, who is a French artist who has done a film that features art, a weird film [Sculpt, also featuring Abel Ferrara, Michael Lonsdale, and Charlotte Rampling], and Willem Dafoe was one of the first characters and he was also doing some kind of very haunted and weird voiceover. I was completely obsessed, like it was in my mind all the time since I’ve seen this film. At some point it imposed itself on me that I would propose to him to do the film. Voilà!

Tessa Louise-Salomé on Mr. X, a Vision of Leos Carax: “I was doing this film about Leos Carax that was taking up all my time.”
Tessa Louise-Salomé on Mr. X, a Vision of Leos Carax: “I was doing this film about Leos Carax that was taking up all my time.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Two things came to my mind in regards to your film’s title. First, it is a combination of the two big films Garfein made, The Strange One and Something Wild. And then there is the Marlon Brando movie with the same title from 1953. Marlon Brando speaks in this wonderful archival clip and says a line that so much connects to Garfein. He says “We act to save our lives every day.” That’s what went into the title?

TLS: Yes, absolutely! I cannot add much, you have guessed everything. So it’s a merger of these two beautiful and incredible and dark and avant-garde films he has done. And his story is very wild and I think a good representation who Jack Garfein is.

AKT: I just come off a Zoom with Simon Baker, you may know him from the TV show The Mentalist. He is in a film in Tribeca called Blaze, by an Australian artist. Right after I had watched Blaze, I watched The Wild One and was struck by a parallel depiction of an assault scene, the one in Central Park in Garfein’s Something Wild. Both of them were so powerful and you don’t see a depiction like that very often to this day. Were you amazed by rewatching his films and some of what you saw?

TLS: Yes, of course, his films are very sentient and they weren’t understood actually very well by the American audience. People were telling him that if his films came from Europe, with subtitles, and came to America, it would be much more appreciated. They missed the point of his films. It was too much. They couldn’t understand the rape scene, they couldn’t understand that she’d fall in love with the guy who’s going to save her. That’s Ralph Meeker in the film. And she has a kind of Stockholm syndrome.

AKT: Totally. It’s La Belle et la Bête, the intensity!

Ralph Meeker and Carroll Baker in Jack Garfein’s Something Wild
Ralph Meeker and Carroll Baker in Jack Garfein’s Something Wild

TLS: For me this film was a shock. I’ve met this wonderful writer, Foster Hirsch, that is kind of a specialist of his work. And we discussed extensively together and on camera what is Garfein’s oeuvre.

AKT: I was surprised to see Irène Jacob in your film. She stars in a Kieslowski film I love, The Double Life of Véronique, and [Three Colours:] Red, also for that matter. And she had worked with Garfein!

TLS: After his divorce with Carroll Baker there were complications and he started to move and came to Europe. There was a lot of stuff going on for him here in France. And he started to have a lot of great French actors and actresses that started to take courses and mentorships and training with Garfein. I think Irène Jacob is absolutely incredible in Kieslowski’s film and she won the Palme for this film.

AKT: Everything that happened to Garfein in the early Forties! He was in seven different concentration camps it says in the film. It must have been very difficult, to find the visuals to tell these stories!

Tessa Louise-Salomé: “I’m interested in mystery, in very complicated persons, and secrets.”
Tessa Louise-Salomé: “I’m interested in mystery, in very complicated persons, and secrets.” Photo: Petite Maison Production

TLS: Absolutely.

AKT: His meeting with Mengele! I am grateful and I can see of course that you would never ever go in the direction of any reenactment. Can you talk a bit about how you found the imagery that accompanies this narration?

TLS: Of course there were many many films done about the Holocaust, which is a very tricky difficult thing to do. I was not interested in making a film about the Holocaust, I was interested in his experience and what he went through. It’s Garfein as a young boy crossing all these crazy, terrifying, and dark moments. I was more interested in the feeling of absence. I was trying to find footage that would have nothing on screen, just the camps.

You could feel everyone everywhere but you don’t see them. You just feel them. You imagine them. I think it goes very well with Garfein’s films, the way he works. The way he himself is treating the Holocaust in his films, in particular in Something Wild, but with subtext. Exactly what we are talking about, not directly, not frontally.

We also searched for years for footage of Bardejov [Czechoslovakia], his hometown, which was very tricky to find. And when he fled to Hungary, It was a lot of work to find exactly this past, which we have done with Rich Remsberg, who is the head of archival in the US. The Holocaust - what has been shot, there are not many things. All the time the same images are coming back in films.

The Wild One poster
The Wild One poster

AKT: Yes, it’s the same footage over and over again. The family links, when Garfein is talking about his mother and his father lead to an interview with his daughter Blanche.

TLS: I was not able to keep his son Herschel, who is a fabulous composer, in the film. Sometimes you don’t want to cut, but you have to cut a part. I was very interested in the transmission of the trauma. You see it very well with Blanche. And it was the same for Herschel. She would say it, so you could understand very well why she was traumatized and how. He would not say it but you could still see it, which was really even more interesting for me.

AKT: It is so interesting how trauma passes through generations. One last question about the great Peter Bogdanovich. This must have been one of his last interviews, no?

TLS: I don’t know if there was any after that. With Peter Bogdanovich we tried to meet so many times when he was in France, then he had an accident, he broke his leg the day before so we couldn’t shoot, we postponed, we postponed and we were able to finally meet in Los Angeles and do this very interesting interview. We were really happy to have him on camera and discuss Jack.

AKT: Great to have him there! Thank you!

TLS: Merci, merci beaucoup for the interview!

The remaining screening of The Wild One is on Sunday, June 19 at 12:45pm - Village East by Angelika: Theater 6.

The Tribeca Film Festival runs through June 19.

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