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Charlie Chaplin’s Philosophy Of Cinema

Above photo: 1936: British actor and director Charles Chaplin (1889 – 1977), wearing overalls and holding a wrench, sits on an enormous set of gears in a still from Chaplin’s film, ‘Modern Times’. Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Award-winning director Martin Brest returns for the second of a two-part interview on the life and legacy of Charlie Chaplin.

Charlie Chaplin’s cinematic innovations broke the conventional wisdom of filmmaking at the time. Blending slapstick comedy and biting social commentary, Chaplin’s oeuvre reflected a deeply politicized underlying philosophy of art and cinema that drove not only his artistic output but his life. Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and director Martin Brest returns to The Chris Hedges Report for the final installment of a two-part discussion on Chaplin’s life and legacy.


The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.

Chris Hedges: Welcome to part two of our discussion about Charlie Chaplin with film director, screen writer, and producer, Martin Brest. Few individuals did more to shake modern cinema than the actor, director and producer, Charlie Chaplin. One of the greatest of all comic mimes, he also pioneered cinematic techniques and story telling. His films were this iconic roles as the belligerent Little Tramp with baggy trousers, mustache, cane, and bowler hat were not only comic masterpieces, but unflinching looks at poverty, unemployment, capitalist exploitation, the callousness of authority, the search for meaning and dignity in a hostile world, and the yearning for love and acceptance.

He argued the drama should be derived from the close observation of life. He refused to follow conventions, including the penchant for exaggerated melodrama, perfecting his work with hundreds of takes, subtle acting, and nuanced facial expressions. He created full-length feature films with highly-crafted plots and characters. He strove, he said, to put across the philosophical doubt I feel about things and people. His films he said, were a metaphysical exercise. An attempt to unmask as absurd, antiquated, and unfair to humanity, the idea that there exists a cosmos where humans were held responsible for their actions or the results of their actions.

The French filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard, wrote of Chaplin that while remaining marginal to the rest of cinema, he ended up filling this margin with more things. What other word can one use? Ideas, gags, intelligence, honor, beauty, or movement that all directors together have put in a whole book. Chaplin, the most famous silent film star of his era, swiftly earned the enmity of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI who saw in his poignant portrayals of the marginalized and forgotten political subversion. The FBI, which began investigating Chaplin in 1922 and would amass an FBI file of 1900 pages on him for his alleged communist sympathies, finally drove him into exile. In 1952, while Chaplin was in London for the premiere of his film, Limelight, the US attorney general revoked Chaplin’s re-entry permit. This ended his Hollywood career. He would spend the rest of his life in Switzerland.

Joining me to discuss the importance and legacy of Charlie Chaplin in this second series on Chaplin, is the film director, screenwriter, and producer, Martin Brest. Martin has directed numerous films, some of which include Midnight Run with Robert De Niro, which was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture, and Scent of a Woman with Al Pacino, which won a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture as well as four Academy Award nominations, with Pacino winning for Best Actor, and the blockbuster Beverly Hills Cop, nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture and the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Last week we talked about Charlie Chaplin’s beginnings in the film industry. He very quickly becomes a phenomena, he is able to command higher and higher salaries, and he breaks away and forms his own production company. This allows his creative genius to flourish. Explain what happened.

Martin Brest: Well, there was a couple of starts and stops but eventually, he was able to get financing at a level and independence at a level where he could build his own studio, which —

Chris Hedges: We should be clear, this is big money; He was getting $10,000 a week in 1920.

Martin Brest: — Yeah. I don’t recall but when he signed with United Artists, which he formed with Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith and Mary Pickford, a company that still exists.

Chris Hedges: Well, let’s talk about why they formed it. They conspired to drive down the salaries. You can explain what happened.

Martin Brest: Yeah. For that reason, to have independence, and the —

Chris Hedges: Because they were going to form a monopoly among all the major studios, so they wouldn’t pay Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford and Chaplin the money that they were making. That’s why they formed United Artist.

Martin Brest: — Yeah. The idea of artists running their own company, it was phenomenally revolutionary. This was very early on in the history of the film business, everybody was inventing everything on the fly. But he got the financing and was able to build his own studio, which still exists. It’s virtually intact on La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles. It’s as he left it. In that studio he was able to make movies at his own pace. The way he made films at this point in his career were the way a novelist might make it: You sit down, you write, and you think about it for a while. A couple of days later you may say, no, I’m going to throw that out, and redo it. And then take that and try and come up with another thing. He did it in a very free and improvised way.

Chris Hedges: Well, he could also film for weeks, decide it’s no good and trash the whole thing.

Martin Brest: Yeah. He had everybody on staff full-time: cameramen, carpenters, and actors. He had his company of people. A lot of these movies, the more you see them, you can identify the same people in multiple roles. He had these people around and they could fill any slot that he came up with. In fact, there are production reports, something they still do, which is every day on a movie somebody has to fill out, we started at 8:45AM, and the first shot was at 9:21AM, and it was X long, but we shot 20 takes. These various actors were here and this actor wasn’t used until 1:00PM et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Little reports of the production every day, they’re filed with the studio.

I read the production logs of City Lights because it’s one of my favorite films of all time, if not the top favorite. I know it intimately. I read the logs of every day of the shooting, and there were hundreds of them. The movie shot for infinitely longer than any movie would shoot. They shut down for weeks and weeks while he thought, and everybody was on salary. It was spectacular.

Chris Hedges: What did you learn from the logs?

Martin Brest: Well, given how flawless it is, it was amazing to see how fracturous its creation was. Not fracturous in a negative way, but how the process was… I once read that Chaplin said that making a movie or writing a script it’s not sitting down and doing it. He likened it to a guy who sits in a forest working for the forest service with binoculars, looking for little smoke things. It’s just about looking for a little thing here and looking for a little thing there and looking for a little thing there and waiting to find another one, and then putting them all together later on as opposed to writing it, shooting it, and there it is. So to see the battles and the struggles of putting together various ideas that work seamlessly in the final movie was a revelation. It couldn’t even happen at that time anywhere else, let alone in the future, as filmmaking became more industrialized.

Chris Hedges: I want to read this passage from Robinson’s book. He said, “Chaplin’s comedy was created from within. What the audience saw in him was the expression of thoughts and feelings, and the comedy lay in the relation of those thoughts and feelings to the things that happened around him. The crucial point of Chaplin’s comedy was not the comic occurrence itself, but Chaplin’s relationship and attitude to it. In the Keystone style, it was enough to bump into a tree to be funny. When Chaplin bumped into a tree however, it was not the collision that was funny, but the fact that he raised his hat to the tree in a reflex gesture of apology. The essential difference between the Keystone style and Chaplin’s comedy is that one depends on exposition and the other on expression. While the expository style may rely upon such codes and recognizable conventions as the Keystone mime, the expressive style is instantly and universally understood; that was the essential factor in Chaplin’s almost instant and worldwide fame.”

Martin Brest: Yeah, that’s pretty sharp. The Keystone style and the Keystone Kops, you looked at the event, you watched it, and it was funny. It was interesting and it was thrilling. But Chaplin’s thing, as I said earlier, he bonds your spirit to his spirit. Once that bond occurs, the way his spirit regards any episode, particularly within a comedic situation, means so much more to you because you’re not just watching the event, you’re watching it through his soul. Your soul has been grafted onto his, which is magical. Whatever dilemma he’s going through, you’re going through with him. As he struggles, you’re struggling. As he makes little victories, you feel victorious. As he exercises a miraculous bit of grace and acrobatics, you feel elevated. That was magical. When you extrapolate that out over the course of a larger story, a story that has the potential to be very moving, the accumulation of your bonded experiences with the character reach great heights like the ending of City Lights where it’s —

Chris Hedges: We’ll talk about that. Certainly one of the great moments in film, without question.

Martin Brest: — Yeah. One of the greatest.

Chris Hedges: So you watch this as a director and a screenwriter. What did you take from it for your own work?

Martin Brest: Well, when I first saw his films in my early teens, they were only available in theaters that were doing revivals. I was fortunate enough to be taken to one at the age of 13 or 14 by my brother-in-law, which was the first set of Chaplin revivals in the early sixties or mid-sixties. I was thunderstruck. I was never interested in movies, I never thought about movies. I was a kid in the Bronx. Nobody was not a blue-collar worker. It was not —

Chris Hedges: Yiddish speaking family.

Martin Brest: — Yiddish speaking family. Yiddish speaking neighborhood. America was a strange concept far off. So my relationship to movies was non-existent. But the emotional impact of watching these films, which were beyond funny, what I watched was City Lights and Modern Times and The Gold Rush as a young —

Chris Hedges: Well, let’s be clear. He’ll break your heart too.

Martin Brest: — Yeah. And —

Chris Hedges: He’ll break your heart.

Martin Brest: — He broke my heart as a kid. I never had that experience in a film. Of course, the movies were brilliantly funny, but they made me cry in a way. I had never cried in a movie. I was a Bronx kid. They devastated me.

Chris Hedges: Well, there’s that scene in The Gold Rush, at the New Year’s Eve party, where no one shows up.

Martin Brest: Right. Yeah, devastating. That was amazing. To be made to feel that intensely was for me a revelation. I didn’t know what it was. It took me forever to figure it out, but it was whatever the opposite of a trauma is. It was something that branded my soul, but in the sweetest way. As I started to discover filmmaking in late high school and college, it wasn’t because of the Chaplin things but I felt that there were something there that I wanted to eventually be able to do. I wanted to create an emotion. Not to make people cry but I wanted to create that poignant moment which I may have done here and there. That means very rarely in some of the things I did, but it came from that experience. The other thing that —

Chris Hedges: Well, Scent of a Woman, you achieved it in that film.

Martin Brest: Maybe. Maybe. But it’s interesting because Pacino in general and in Scent of a Woman, he also has the ability to graft his emotional dilemma with the audience. Aside from being an insanely brilliant actor who’s capable of finding things in material that nobody else can find, he has a way of taking your soul and bonding it to his. So you’re not just looking at him, you’re somehow with him in some ineffable way. The other thing that I learned without even knowing it is, particularly in the silent movies or some of the silent movies have music that he put in, the manner in which he directs your attention, not your attention to story, but your emotional attention. He takes it and moves it here, and then he moves it here. Then waits a while, and then he moves it here. You find your emotional involvement dancing along with the story, created very specifically with his writing and performing. But that architecture of an audience’s emotional involvement, the architecture of how that plays out, I felt very strongly from his work. It influenced me in developing scripts and figuring out how to lay out a movie.

Chris Hedges: Let me ask you, as a writer, when you deal with intense emotion, you obviously have to write very carefully. But you also, in order to bring it to a crescendo — And I’m curious whether this is true in film — You step forward emotionally, and then you have to retreat a little bit. You step forward emotionally until you bring the crescendo. If you go too far, it becomes sentimental. I wrote a story for The New York Times about a soldier making his last call home to his wife before the first Gulf War, and they end up talking about if he’s killed, where he’ll be buried. But in order to essentially build to the end of the story, you had to pull back and describe the trucks in the street. Does that relate to when you write a script?

Martin Brest: Well, when I work on a project, there’s various processes in the project that would deal with what you’re talking about: the writing, the directing, the editing, the music, where there’s music, where there’s not music, what does the music do? There’s many passes through which you deal with architecting what you’re talking about. But ultimately, it’s intuitive in a way. Each process — The writing, the directing, the editing, the music — Allows you many chances to revise. There was a scene in Scent of a Woman where Al Pacino is at the end of his rope, and he blindly — No pun intended — Crosses Park Avenue with cars going all around them. It’s a powerful scene. We were laying out the music for it. I had done a temporary music track for the whole movie using existing music. So I knew what music I wanted, where themes should repeat, where things should be this, where themes should be, that kind of thing.

When I started to sit down with the composer I already had done a mock-up, in a way. So we knew what theme was going to be played during that scene. The composer, he would create it on a synthesizer. I forgot what it’s called. You could work with it. You could say, oh, it’s too fast, it’s too slow, or it should end a little earlier. What happens if we end it a little earlier? What part do you have to cut out? Or do you pick up the pace? You could sculpt it using all the components before you orchestrate it and sit down with the orchestra, which you got to do very quickly. You can’t fool around at that stage. So when we were laying that out, there was a string section, there was a brass section, a woodwind section, and this and that, and this and that. They were all on different tracks. I looked at it and it was this big grand piece of music.

I said, what happens if we cut out everything except for the strings? Which are an accompaniment. We clicked off all the tracks — And this was in the mock-up stage — It was just the strings, and it was great. That’s what we wound up doing. So the reason I bring that up is because the ability to architect the audience’s emotional engagement, there’s many different processes along the way where you could have a chance to mold that, revise it, change it from your original intention, et cetera, et cetera.

Chris Hedges: I want to talk about dignity because before we get into his major films, the world is a hostile place in most Chaplin films. The capitalist-class exploits and it’s ruthless. The upper-class, if you’re poor, you don’t exist. There’s that scene in City Lights, the blind flower girl is about to get evicted. It’s heartless. Of course, as the Tramp, he never has any money, he’s constantly being thrown out of places, he steals money for the blind flower girl, and ends up going to jail. But it is this —

Martin Brest: Actually, he doesn’t steal it. He’s given it.

Chris Hedges: — Yes, that’s true. But he’s accused of stealing it.

Martin Brest: Yes, that’s correct.

Chris Hedges: But it’s this avalanche of humiliation and abuse. But he clings to his dignity. I wonder to what extent that struggle to retain dignity in the face of a hostile world is an important element because we all live in a hostile world. So —

Martin Brest: It may be his life’s theme in a strange way. To come from what he came from which was heaped upon indignity, and then to be able to become the most successful performer in the history of humanity. His past was only eight years prior. It was still haunting him and it was how he had spent most of his life at that point in his life. Could not help but just haunt him constantly. It’s in his work all the time. There’s a tiny, tiny, tiny moment, it’s not even a moment it’s a subtle thing that’s always struck me, in Modern Times, he’s outside a factory, and there’s a little labor unrest. This cop is pushing him, so he moves. The cop pushes him again, and he moves. Then the cop pushes him again, and he does this thing to the cop like, okay, I got it. I’m going to move but I got it.

It was like in that little movement, he says everything about the powerless wanting to keep their dignity but not wanting to be abused again, but knowing they can’t do anything about it. It’s such a telling moment. It’s so tiny. It’s not integral to the thing but it has such a ring of truth. It’s burnt into my psyche.

Chris Hedges: So he builds his own studio, he has pretty much unlimited money, and he starts making these remarkable films. We talked about A Dog’s Life, which is wonderful. I didn’t like the ending but the rest of the film I loved. Well, it was too neat, but it’s incredible. The Kid, which is incredible. Let’s talk about the big films. Maybe you want to —

Martin Brest: The Kid, because I saw it last night again, I was thinking, oh, my goodness. This is about an unwed mother. That’s pretty wild.

Chris Hedges: — Yeah, that’s right.

Martin Brest: It says, her only sin in that time —

Chris Hedges: Her only sin is motherhood.

Martin Brest: — Yeah, that was wild.

Chris Hedges: Yeah. As she comes out of the foundling, she’s thrown out.

Martin Brest: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But I was watching it. I was in a puddle of tears.

Chris Hedges: Well, there’s that scene in The Immigrant where, it’s beautiful, these immigrants are coming on a boat and they’re all seasick. The boat’s rocking, and they get to the Statue of Liberty, and it says, Land of Liberty. And then the next scene they’re all being, by immigration officials, tied with a rope. There’s moments like that. He knew so intimately the powerlessness and also the hopes and dreams. They were always there together.

Martin Brest: Yeah, it was not a contrivance. It’s rare that you see a theme in an artist that’s that consistent, that’s that honestly earned. It really is the theme of his life.

Chris Hedges: Dickens had that.

Martin Brest: Yeah. Right.

Chris Hedges: And also sent to the workhouse as a boy with his father. Let’s talk about some of those last great films, The Gold Rush, The Circus, that scene when the cage has fallen down. Funny.

Martin Brest: I know. Insane.

Chris Hedges: Hilarious. It’s so funny.

Martin Brest: It’s insane.

Chris Hedges: But again, the circus master is a tyrant, a horrible abusive father to his daughter, and exploiting Chaplin. But maybe we’ll talk about those. The Gold Rush, The Circus.

Martin Brest: The Circus has another extraordinary meta scene in it which is he’s the janitor, and they want to use him in a —

Chris Hedges: He’s the props guy.

Martin Brest: — Yeah. They want to use him in a comedy act. They need somebody for this comedy act. It’s a really cornball thing and they’re teaching him how to do it. They’re trying to explain to him why it’s funny and he doesn’t understand. So here’s the greatest comedian the world has ever known being taught how this stupid thing is funny, and that his idea isn’t funny. It has to be this other way. It’s genius beyond genius.

Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about City Lights. And we both adore Modern Times, which is so prescient. It’s about reducing human beings to cogs within an industrial society. Constant vigilance. There’s this scene where he’s a worker, he has a nervous breakdown finally on the production line, but he goes into the bathroom to get a smoke. Suddenly, the boss’s face flashes on the screen in the bathroom and tells him to get back to work. Well, that’s precisely what Amazon does to its workers. He was so prescient about where technological and industrial society would go, how dehumanizing it was, and what it would do. This is of course why J. Edgar Hoover, who wasn’t even the head of the FBI in 1922, opened a file on him, and eventually hounded him out of the country. But let’s talk about those films because they’re artistically amazing. They’re incredibly funny but they’re also deadly serious.

Martin Brest: Yeah. They’re great works of art. He was capable of creating comedy, which is a dopey word at a level that was astounding. When people would laugh at something in a Chaplin movie, it wasn’t because it was funny; It was because it was astounding. They never saw anything like that. They never thought of that. They never saw anything like that before. So he could do that and he laboriously sculpted those occurrences but he was out for bigger fish. What he was able to do is marry the two in a way that was devastating. He was able to take big themes, simplify them enough so that they could be digestible and accessible without lowering the thought quality of them, and marry them to humor in a way that was extraordinary.

Chris Hedges: Although he clearly stood on the side of the poor, he never romanticized the poor. Those scenes are always filled with pickpockets, thugs, and women engaging in prostitution.

Martin Brest: He didn’t have to romanticize the poor because he had been poor.

Chris Hedges: Right.

Martin Brest: He earned —

Chris Hedges: But that’s part of the power of the… It has such poignant reality. It reminds me of Chekhov, his great story, The Peasants. Chekhov also grew up poor. Even though he was a famous writer, he was trained as a doctor. Until he died of tuberculosis, he treated the poor. So he was in their hovels and homes. He writes this devastating, one of the greatest, short stories ever written called The Peasants. Where Chaplin doesn’t flinch yet at the end, your heart breaks for them. Chaplin achieves that.

Martin Brest: — Yeah. There’s a level of perfection. I know the film so well. There’s certain moments in certain films, particularly the ones we’re talking about, where the comedic moments are so perfect that I don’t laugh, I cry. I don’t cry, I tear up at the sheer once-in-a-lifetime perfection of the concept. There’s one part after he meets the blind flower girl and he falls for her, he goes away and then he hides behind a pillar and he’s watching her. So it’s naughty that he’s watching her and he’s very close to her. She’s rinsing out her little flower pail. It’s so heartbreaking and heartbreaking. And then she dumps the water —

Chris Hedges: Throws it in his face.

Martin Brest: — Out of the pail right into his face. The genius of that slapstick comedic moment at the moment when your heart is breaking, and then you get hit with that other thing. It’s so exquisite that it brings tears to my eyes.

Chris Hedges: But it goes back to what I was talking about in that you achieve a moment of pathos, but you don’t go too far. And we should talk about the ending of the film, which is truly remarkable. Certainly one of the most powerful pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen. People should watch the film. But she’s blind, so she doesn’t know he’s a tramp. He eventually comes into money and he pays for her operation. She has dreams of her benefactor reappearing and right before she sees Chaplin — Who’s come out of prison. His coat’s frayed and he’s dirty — A very elegant man comes into the shop and she thinks that might be the benefactor. Well, let’s talk about the ending. That might be, for me, his most perfect film.

Martin Brest: Yeah, I would agree with that. It’s interesting, I saw it when I was a kid and once I saw it, it devastated me. The ending devastated me and I didn’t understand it. I was so overwhelmed as a kid, I didn’t understand what I was seeing. It took me many times as a teenager to track it down and re-see it. And then it’s obvious on a surface level what it means. But then I wondered, what does it really mean that she realizes that the person that gave her back her sight is this disheveled, impoverished, little, dirty man rather than some handsome captain of industry? What does it mean when she realizes that and she realizes this is the person that she owes everything to? And it means so many things. Could she ever be with him? I don’t know. Could that ever happen?

Chris Hedges: Well, that’s the… You don’t sense… She doesn’t run out the door after him.

Martin Brest: No. The last line, he says to her, so you can see now. And she says, I can see. So that line says every imaginable thing. Yes, she can see now. Her eyes are fixed, but she can see that the person that she was mocking, she was mocking him a little earlier in the scene —

Chris Hedges: Yes, that’s right.

Martin Brest: — So now she could see the —

Chris Hedges: And he’s mocked on the way in by the newspaper boys who are making fun of him.

Martin Brest: — Yeah. It’s a thing you could write endlessly about. It’s an ending that is hard to speak about without knowing if people really understand what the lead-in is. But it is, without a doubt, one of the highest points of movie-making.

Chris Hedges: That and Modern Times, they’re very different films. Modern Times is so prescient of where we’ve ended up, and he foresaw it all; the alienation, the cruelty of large industry. Let’s talk a little bit about Modern Times, and then I want to finish by talking about the inheritance; what directors and writers like yourself have taken from Chaplin.

Martin Brest: First of all, after making City Lights, which has one of my favorite… There’s a photograph of the premiere of City Lights of him and Albert Einstein, who was —

Chris Hedges: He took Mr. and Mrs. Einstein with him. That’s right.

Martin Brest: — Right. The idea of Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein together is —

Chris Hedges: Well, although he didn’t have much formal education, he read voraciously and serious Schopenhauer. Intellectually, he had deep depth. Yeah.

Martin Brest: — But Modern Times is an extraordinary movie for a million reasons. The comedic situations and the development of all of that.

Chris Hedges: And the opening. They’re unveiling a statue and he makes fun. Now, we’ve had Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer come out, silent movies are relegated to the trash heap and the eyes of the filmmaking industry, and he won’t relent. So there’s sound.

Martin Brest: There has been —

Chris Hedges: There’s —

Martin Brest: — Sound for almost nine years at that point. So the idea of making a silent movie —

Chris Hedges: — Well, it’s not silent.

Martin Brest: — No, no.

Chris Hedges: There is sound in it, but there’s no speaking. For instance, when —

Martin Brest: People talk and their mouths moving.

Chris Hedges: — It’s this —

Martin Brest: They don’t hear.

Chris Hedges: — Well, the beginning —

Martin Brest: Sometime. Yeah, yeah.

Chris Hedges: — The beginning, it’s like this tinny saxophone sound, and he’s making fun of talkies because the sound, his quality isn’t very good. And then they unveil this statue to peace and prosperity again. When they lift off the cover, there’s the Tramp who’s decided to sleep in the arms of the statue for the night.

Martin Brest: Yeah. It’s an exquisite film, very moving. Everybody that’s seen it remembers the scene of him going into the machine.

Chris Hedges: Yeah, he gets in —

Martin Brest: Which is an insane way —

Chris Hedges: — He sucked right into the machine.

Martin Brest: — Into the gears of the machine. When he comes out, he’s a little shattered by it. It’s such an exquisite metaphor, a hilariously comedic metaphor for what industrialization was doing to people at that time. When people were coming off the farms, living that life and going to the cities and working in dark factories, noisy, dirty factories. Exquisite metaphor. Again, it was a film without dialogue other than these sound effects, which nobody was able to do. Not one person was allowed. Not that he —

Chris Hedges: And it was a huge success.

Martin Brest: — Monstrous. But nobody could even pull it off. Nobody was allowed to do it. Nobody would be financed to do it at that point in time. Nobody had ever heard Charlie Chaplin’s voice.

Chris Hedges: Until The Great Dictator, right?

Martin Brest: No. He was the biggest star for 20 years on the planet and nobody had ever heard his voice.

Chris Hedges: But he felt —

Martin Brest: So in this film, finally, people were going to hear his voice. It comes towards the very, very end of the movie where he —

Chris Hedges: — He sings.

Martin Brest: — This movie where you see people talking and don’t hear any sound come out of their mouth, where he has to sing in order to earn his keep and not be homeless anymore. They build up all this expectation. Charlie Chaplin’s going to sing. We’re going to hear his voice.

Chris Hedges: Not even in English, it’s some invented language.

Martin Brest: A totally invented language. That is required because of various circumstances in the plot. This scene is spectacular on its own but when you view it through the filter of knowing that this is the first time that this is how he solved the problem of that character speaking after being the most famous character forever. He was always afraid if that character spoke, it would destroy the whole thing. There’s a lot of truth to that.

Chris Hedges: He didn’t trust the “talkies.” He didn’t like it. He thought it was destructive to his art.

Martin Brest: It was to his art. It was. In fact, The Great Dictator, which came after that —

Chris Hedges: Which he did speak. Was it in 1940?

Martin Brest: — Which is a proper talkie, is oddly awkward because Chaplin was such a master of a certain kind of filmmaking, and he invented it when it didn’t exist before, and he mastered it. Then in his mature years, he decided to work in this other realm of talkies. It’s off. It’s like he didn’t know how to do it or didn’t want to know how to do it, didn’t want to go with it completely. So it’s this hybrid thing, and it’s off.

Chris Hedges: Well, in the end, it ends with this speech to the audience.

Martin Brest: Yeah. The film is incredibly important for a million reasons.

Chris Hedges: Oh, and very courageous because he was going after Nazi fascism before the war started.

Martin Brest: Yeah. Everybody was trying to stop that film from going into production.

Chris Hedges: And the character was Jewish in a shtetl or a ghetto or something. Yeah.

Martin Brest: In a ghetto, yeah. There’s a million reasons that was an insanely brave movie. It has wonderful parts in it but it’s creaky in a way his other movies aren’t. But that’s okay.

Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about you, in the film industry. What have you taken from Chaplin?

Martin Brest: Well, first of all, it would be presumptuous to even assume I took anything from him because that would imply that I have a —

Chris Hedges: What do you mean? All writers are thieves, Marty. I’m sure it’s the same with film directors.

Martin Brest: Anybody of a certain age that’s at all involved in movies that are comedies — I love that word, comedy because it’s so restrictive — You couldn’t help but be influenced. Certainly the generation before mine was deeply influenced. The influences taper off as time goes on.

Chris Hedges: Wouldn’t you see Woody Allen pulling a lot from Chaplin?

Martin Brest: Actually, he comes from a different school, I would say, of the Marx Brothers school, which is a completely different. Yes, there’s some Chaplin, but more of the Marx Brothers school, which is a more verbal, absurdist tradition. Yeah, that’s maybe a bigger influence.

Chris Hedges: Can you think of certain Chaplin scenes or moments that inspired moments or scenes in your own films?

Martin Brest: Yes. Well, the one that comes to mind, which was the end of City Lights, the idea of essentially non-verbal scene where one character has a revelation about another character that’s devastating. I took a little drop of that and used it in the first scene towards the end of Meet Joe Black. I wouldn’t compare the two at all. But the inspiration clearly comes from the end of City Lights where one character realizes something that they weren’t told. At the end of City Lights, she has no reason to know that he’s the guy that saved her sight other than touching his hand.

Chris Hedges: Touches his hand. That’s how she —

Martin Brest: Which is a subtle bit of license, but it works. It implies that there’s this insanely powerful connection between these two people that the touch would let her know who he is.

Chris Hedges: — Of course, we should add that when she’s blind, she thinks he’s wealthy. She thinks he’s a gentleman.

Martin Brest: Right. Handsome.

Chris Hedges: She thinks he has a car. She has this —

Martin Brest: Right. That idea I’ve always found very potent. In fact, I constructed a whole part of the film in order to get to do that, where one character would have a revelation that they’re magically imbued with. They’re not really told it, but the circumstances are such that they see something, and it doesn’t work as electrically as Chaplin’s.

Chris Hedges: — So I once asked you about Orson Welles, why he kept editing. After he was pushed out of Hollywood, he would do these low-budget films and he would… You told me that you’re never happy. It’s always this striving for unattainable perfection.

Martin Brest: I’m not sure. I don’t remember the conversation exactly. But with editing, I’ve noticed that you edit, edit, edit, keep trying to make it better, make it better, make it better, make it better.

Chris Hedges: This is what Chaplin did.

Martin Brest: Yeah. And then you try something and it’s worse, so you put it back. Try another thing, it’s worse, you put it back, and you realize, okay, you’ve hit the wall. Now anything you do to try and fine-tune it —

Chris Hedges: That’s the same with writing, by the way. Especially when you get tired. You begin damaging your own work. But that doesn’t mean you think it’s perfect.

Martin Brest: — No, but it means you’ve hit the wall.

Chris Hedges: It means you can’t do anymore.

Martin Brest: Right, right.

Chris Hedges: And you also can’t go back and look at it again.

Martin Brest: Right. Yeah.

Chris Hedges: What about in terms of acting technique? Has that translated into films that you’ve done, things you’ve seen in Chaplin?

Martin Brest: Well, in a way. In a sense that Chaplin, Laurel, and Hardy —

Chris Hedges: We should be clear that Stan Laurel was also British. Also, on Vaudeville and was —

Martin Brest: Yeah. It was —

Chris Hedges: — Close to Chaplin.

Martin Brest: — They were in the same traveling troupe.

Chris Hedges: Yes.

Martin Brest: Stan Laurel was Chaplin’s understudy in certain shows. But the humor in Chaplin is how he’s regarding something; Something happens and what he thinks of it is the point. When he changes his mind, that’s the point. How he regards the various beats of the situation becomes the plot line in some strange way. So that dynamic affected how I would construct scenes both on the page and while directing. A lot of the humor in things that I’ve done has to do with how people regard each other and how that regarding changes.

Chris Hedges: Can you give me a concrete example of that?

Martin Brest: A simplistic example would be in Beverly Hills Cop, there’s Eddie Murphy, and then these two Beverly Hills cops; There’s John a Ashton, who’s grizzly guy and there’s Judge Reinhold, who’s the holy fool. It’s a Laurel and Hardy combination. If Judge Reinhold did something, the way John Ashton thought about him even if he didn’t say anything, was the humor. Like that; how they regarded each other. That technique, that device was reserved in the movie pretty much for them. But it’s something that I got from silent films, from Chaplin, Laurel, and Hardy. It’s a way of constructing a humorful moment.

Chris Hedges: So much of Chaplin’s humor was physical and I don’t know that we see that so much —

Martin Brest: No.

Chris Hedges: — In contemporary films.

Martin Brest: No, it’s not. It’s of a different era. It’s of a different era. I always thought it would be fun to do something like that. First of all, the tradition he comes from and the years and years and years of working in that tradition, coupled with his once-in-a-century genius, produced a facility that will never occur again. So it’s undoable to that extent. There were some comedies in the eighties and nineties that use that physicality, like how Jim Carrey would do it. It’s a different tradition. It’s always changing. But even though Chaplin was very physical, it was always in service of this involvement you had and how that’s affecting you. The physicality was a way to rope you in and keep you engaged. But what was really going on was this internal game, I believe.

Chris Hedges: Great. Thanks. That was film director, screenwriter, and producer Martin Brest. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, David Hebden, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at

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