Peter Bogdanovich Says It Only Took ‘One Good Idea’ to Make His Buster Keaton Doc ‘The Great Buster’
Almost half a century after he made a documentary about director John Ford, Peter Bodganovich is back with his second look at a classic filmmaker. “The Great Buster: A Celebration,” in which the director of “The Last Picture Show” and “What’s Up, Doc?” follows the life and career of pioneering silent comic and peerless stuntman Buster Keaton, opens on Friday at the Nuart in Los Angeles.
Featuring abundant Keaton footage, from the classic boulder chase in “Seven Chances” to television commercials he made near the end of his life, “The Great Buster” also finds Bogdanovich talking about Keaton with a potpourri of fans that includes Quentin Tarantino, Mel Brooks, Werner Herzog and Johnny Knoxville.
The film is structured chronologically, with one big exception: When it gets to 1923, when Keaton began a string of 10 landmark features that included “The General” and “Steamboat Bill, Jr.,” it jumps forward six years and saves the best stuff for last.
Bogdanovich, who was also instrumental in Netflix’s recent completion of the early ’70s Orson Welles movie “The Other Side of Midnight,” spoke to TheWrap about Keaton, old movies and why he’s not worried about the demise of the video store.
You haven’t done a documentary on a filmmaker since “Directed by John Ford” in 1971, have you?
So why do one on Buster Keaton?
Did you pass up chances to meet them?
I definitely had a chance to meet Noel Coward, and it was sort of stupid of me. I was in Vevey in Switzerland, shooting “Daisy Miller,” and he was just up the mountain there. I thought, “Well, he’s not going to want to meet some young American director, why should I bother him?”
But he died about a year later, and about a year after that I met his executor, Graham Payn, because Audrey Hepburn and I were talking about doing “Private Lives” on Broadway. And Graham said, “You know, one of the last films that Noel saw was ‘Paper Moon,’ and he loved it.”
And I thought, “S—.” I would like to have heard him say that.
Do you remember your first exposure to Keaton?
I loved Keaton. In fact, when I made the chase sequence in “What’s Up, Doc,” I said, “This is a Buster Keaton chase.” There were only a couple of jokes we stole from Keaton, I think, but the idea was sort of Keaton-esque.
I assume you started the film with a pretty good idea of the story that you’re going to tell. Did it change much in the making?
Luckily, the Venice Film Festival had celebrated him a year before he died, so I could use that in the plot to bring the features back.
It’s tricky, though, when you’re going through the chronology and then you get to the great features and say, “We’ll come back to these later.”
You have to trust that the audience will say, “OK, you can skip the good stuff.”
We’ve all seen the classic Keaton sequences, and you can never watch that boulder chase from “Seven Chances” enough. But were you conscious of trying to create a mixture of stuff that Keaton fans would have seen with stuff they wouldn’t have seen?
But you also have things that aren’t familiar, like the TV commercials he did late in his life. Was there footage you found that surprised you?
So making this film sounds like a pretty smooth process.
We’re in an era now where if you want to see an old Buster Keaton movie, you can probably do it with a few clicks. With the rise of Netflix and Amazon and all, more old movies are available immediately than ever before. But if you can’t find it online, the video stores that would actually have stuff like that are…
Is that troubling to you?
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