The director Woody Allen has his favourites. Photo: Getty
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Why do some directors repeatedly use the same actors in their films?

Looking behind the preferred casts of directors throughout the history of cinema who always use the same actors.

A painting discovered in a basement at Yale University a few years back caught the attention of curator John Marciari, who suspected it might be an unattributed work of Diego Velázquez and not, as was previously thought, one of his studio or of his Spanish contemporaries.

After a long process of authentication, Marciari affirmed that The Education of the Virgin (a variation on a theme also treated by Georges de la Tour and Delacroix, among many others) was indeed painted by Velázquez and the picture is currently touring the world.

Among the references used to verify its authenticity was the appearance of an elderly bearded gentleman, who had already appeared in several other Velázquez tableaux. Like many painters throughout the ages, the Sevillian master made regular use of the same models – perhaps most famously in Man with a Wine Glass and Democritus, where Pablo de Valladolid, a famous jester (and actor) at Philip IV’s court and subject of a third famous Velázquez painting, morphs from bon vivant in the former, earlier painting to a more pious embodiment of civic spirit in the latter.

His expression is largely the same in each, yet, in what amounts to a sort of forerunner of the Kuleshov Effect, the paintings tell us very different things. As well as the obvious mastery of his craft, Velázquez had an inimitable control of his subjects. The shared model of the two paintings make it easy for either to be identified as a Velázquez but so does the way in which they are each different

One might imagine a scenario several hundred years in the future, however improbable, where cinema, long fallen out of fashion and the various formats for viewing it obsolete, is a distant footnote of art history. Say most of the DVDs, mp4s, Betamaxes, VHS and film reels that existed have withered away to nothing in basements or landfill, unnoticed by all but a tiny handful of humanity.

Imagine Scorsese, Bergman, Kurosawa or Hitchcock being known only to a select few, who cherish the half-a-dozen or so extant films by each of those cineastes and who pine for the lost classics they know only by name, in much the same way as cinephiles today regret the lost films of Mizoguchi and Ozu.

And imagine one day a few minutes of film reel are discovered, shorn of opening credits or other contextual information, but which looks familiar to the trained eye.

From today’s vantage point, detecting the style of most of the great filmmakers of the 20th century might appear to be a simple matter for someone in the know, but the passing of time may have greatly complicated that facility for our descendants.

Maybe a Martin Scorsese film will be identifiable not by a long steadicam shot, a scattershot voiceover or the Rolling Stones on the soundtrack but by the presence of some vaguely recognisable face – Robert de Niro, Leonardo di Caprio, or maybe even Joe Pesci or Frank Vincent.

Joe Pesci and Frank Vincent in Raging Bull (1980)

The repetition of actors in films by certain directors is often noticeable but can also go unremarked even by more attentive viewers. They also, with every repeat appearance, add another layer of texture, of meaning, of biographical nuance to the film.

An actor throughout their career is a constantly updated palimpsest of his or herself; when reappearing in the films of the same director, they become part of the fabric, weft in the film’s tapestry, an echo of earlier work that binds the world of the film together. 

One needn’t wonder why directors use the same actors again and again – the comfort of working with people you know is evident. Most great directors have had their acteurs fétiches – Toshiro Mifune for Kurosawa, Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara for Ozu, Klaus Kinski for Herzog, Monica Vitti for Antonioni, De Niro and now DiCaprio for Scorsese.

Other directors have doggedly stood by one actor and filmed their evolution over time – Jean-Pierre Léaud in François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films, starting with The 400 Blows in 1959 and Lee Kang-Sheng in practically all of Tsai Ming-Liang’s films. A rarer privilege for filmmakers is getting to use a group of their favourite actors repeatedly, though some have managed it.

In the Hollywood studio era, actors did the bidding of the studio so troupes of this sort were rare enough – John Ford was one of the few to have a regular gaggle of actors to hand: John Wayne, Ward Bond and Victor McLaglen were almost ever-present in Ford films for a decade or more and formed a reactionary clique around the backlots (Bond once famously goaded a young Orson Welles in a restaurant and cut off his tie).

Elsewhere, troupes of actors associated with directors emerged from theatrical troupes, as with Ingmar Bergman, who established himself as a stage director in Sweden before gaining international renown. Numerous actors made ten or more films with him: Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, Max von Sydow, Erland Josephson, Ingrid Thulin, Harriet Andersson and Gunnar Björnstrand.

The tightness of the group gave an extra heft and tension to Bergman’s family dramas but there were also films that directly replicated the travelling troupe, such as The Virgin SpringThe Magician and Sawdust and Tinsel. It was as if Bergman was mining the offstage dynamics of his circle for fictional ends.

The Virgin Spring (1960)

Other directors whose work has straddled stage and screen have operated in a similar vein with their groups of actors. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s life and work blurred almost imperceptibly into one another, to such an extent that he directed an astounding 42 films (and numerous stage productions) in the 14 years before his death at the age of 37.

Fassbinder and his actors were often inseparable, plaguing international film festivals with their bad behaviour and making films on the fly, like the 1971 Western Whity, filmed in Spain in a week and financed using the producer’s credit card.

Fassbinder cast his Moroccan lover El Hedi ben Salem in several of his films, particularly Fear Eats the Soul (1974). Many of his associates went on to international fame, such as cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and actors Hanna Schygulla and Barbara Sukowa, but they have always appeared exiled in other people’s films, so indelibly linked to Fassbinder were they.

In Fox and his Friends (1975), the titular Fox, played by the director himself, is exploited and ultimately ruined by his circle of friends after he wins the lottery. The knowledge that those friends were played by people who were not only regulars in his films but people he hung out with in real life only sharpens the discomfort you feel watching the film.

Fox and his Friends (1975)

Mike Leigh has made regular use of the same group of actors, such as Timothy Spall, Phil Davis, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville, the late Katrin Cartlidge, Alison Steadman, Jim Broadbent and Sally Hawkins, not to mention a few lesser known names.

As a director who is famous for his intense and thorough workshopped rehearsals, it is not surprising he calls upon the same people time and time again. Like Bergman and Fassbinder, Leigh’s films are often ensemble dramas that call for a finely calibrated pitch and tone.

The actor’s familiarity with one another facilitates this in much the same way as a central midfielder might instinctively place a pass onto the right wing knowing his full-back will be there to charge forward with the ball.

Leigh has seldom covered theatre in his films, the notable exception being Topsy Turvy (1999), his biopic of Gilbert and Sullivan. The scenes in the film in which the cast members of The Mikado rehearse for the show’s opening night are a reflection of the long rehearsals Leigh puts his actors through, raising the intriguing question of how one rehearses actors to perform a rehearsal.

Topsy Turvy (1999)

For directors that use their preferred actors whenever they can (sometimes they are stymied by availability) the actors are as indelibly part of the directorial "brand" or look as they themselves are. A John Cassavetes film without any of Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara or Seymour Cassel would look incomplete. Arnaud Desplechin hardly ever makes a film without Mathieu Amalric or the Dardenne brothers without Olivier Gourmet and Fabrizio Rongione; almost every film by Jia Zhangke features his wife Zhao Tao.

There sometimes come breaks between actors and director: Alison Steadman disappeared from Mike Leigh’s films and Mia Farrow from Woody Allen’s after their respective relationships ended. Martin Scorsese has not used Robert de Niro for two decades, presumably because the cultural weight of their earlier collaborations would risk unbalancing a film. Werner Herzog’s films are very different since Klaus Kinski’s death (indeed he has almost entirely devoted himself to documentary since then).

One of the most moving instances of a collaboration cut short was the sudden death of Finnish actor Matti Pellonpää in 1995. Pellonpää had appeared in most of Aki Kaurismäki’s films until then (as well as those by Kaurismäki’s brother Mika). For his 1996 film Drifting Clouds, Kaurismäki ensured his old friend would be present, in the shape of a smiling childhood portrait, sitting on the dresser in the apartment belonging to unemployed couple Illona and Lauri. There is no reference to a child in the film but it is implied the couple, played by Kati Outinen and Kari Vänäänen (themselves regular Kaurismäki players) once had a son. It’s a subtle but fond farewell for a man whose absence from Kaurismäki’s films has been palpable.

Matti Pellonpää and Kati Outinen in Drifting Clouds (1996)

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser