There is a shot near the end of A Letter to Elia that captures in still frame what is arguably a unique moment in the history of American cinema. It is a photograph of Martin Scorsese and Elia Kazan. The occasion was the 1999 Academy Awards. Kazan, famed director of such landmark films as On the Waterfront (1954), East of Eden (1955), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and Gentlemen's Agreement (1947), had just been presented an honorary Oscar for his contribution to cinema.
Scorsese and Robert de Niro, who had played the title character in Kazan's The Last Tycoon (1976), had just given speeches in praise of the man and his work, which had helped to bring a new emotional authenticity to American and world cinema.
In the photo Kazan is smiling. Scorsese has one arm around Kazan, his head on his chest, like he's listening to his heart. Scorsese is close to tears. By this time Kazan was a pal to Scorsese. But behind this touching scene lay a complex web of controversy, to do with ideas about ethics and right and wrong, friendship, and honour. Kazan, even in 1999, was considered by many as unworthy – of respect, of any kind of award. This was because in 1952 he had appeared before the House Un-American Committee as a friendly witness; he betrayed men who were once friends.
“Watching the Oscars I was a little taken aback by all those people sitting on their hands,” says Kent Jones, Scorsese's friend, archivist and co-director of A Letter to Elia (pictured). “I felt that part of what they were saying was 'Well, if I had been around at that time I would have done things differently.' And I thought, well, really? I can't say that. I've never been under that kind of pressure in my life.”
Jones, whose career mixes distinguished criticism and filmmaking (he made the superb Val Lewton: Man in the Shadows in 2007), says that Letter took six years to complete. It started off as a conventional bio-pic about Kazan, but this strategy was tossed out over time, because it was “too boring”, and it didn't say what Scorsese and Jones wanted to say about film art and the special relationship fans can have with both artist and their art work.
Jones says that his collaboration with Scorsese was total, covering absolutely every aspect of the filmmaking process. The pair wrestled with Kazan's HUAC involvement and the pain it caused both himself and his friends, and the community as a whole. Jones credits editor Rachel Reichman with helping the directors to find a balance in the material that worked. The HUAC episode 'haunts' the film, which Jones concedes has a rather melancholy (though never solemn) tone for this kind of film, which is after all something of a celebration of a kind.
“I'm used to reading descriptions of Kazan that talk about how he was this great artist in his day and it's a shame his worth is sullied by the Un-American thing. But people can write about Robert Rossen without mentioning HUAC. Kazan is remembered because he wrote this letter to The New York Times to justify himself (which turned out to be a bad move) and because of On the Waterfront, which is about a guy who finks on his pals but in doing so, he's standing up for himself.”
Tender, unapologetically personal and gratifyingly complex, A Letter to Elia is just that; “a small, humble offering” Scorsese calls it, Jones says, a note from one filmmaker to another in the form of a documentary. Scorsese narrates how Kazan's emotional stories, often involving sibling rivalry and troubled emotional lives in working class settings, seem to have reached into his own private thoughts. Using clips, photos, and archival interviews with Kazan, who died in 2003, A Letter to Elia is also about the way film can create a special intimacy between fan and filmmaker. Scorsese and Jones return again and again in Letter to the theme of how movies can “speak” for an individual, which is why Scorsese's own family snapshots, memories and intimate details of home life are canvassed in Letter too. Still, for the uninitiated it functions as a detailed biographical essay portrait of the man and his work with all the essential points of Kazan's life canvassed; his Broadway success with Arthur Miller and the Group theatre, his leftist background – and his renunciation of Stalinist principals. And, of course, the movies and their striking and unique sensibility.
“Letter is about the meeting ground between the artist and the work that he inspires,” explains Jones. “It's about how you can perceive art at a certain moment in your life that [stays with you]. I've said that it's like this story a friend of mine tells about Bob Dylan; he told Dylan when he met him, 'your songs have changed my life' and Dylan said, 'What do you want from me?'” Jones reckons that this response, as confronting as it is, makes sense. “It's kind a like what Marty says in the movie – the work when it's great takes on a life of its own… It has its own strange aura.”
The film begins in Kazan's own words: “What does it take to be a director?,” and Scorsese declares that Kazan for him was the supreme role model as an artist. Scorsese, though, admits in the film that in life he could never explain to Kazan just what his movies had meant to him; it was too personal, too embarrassing (for both of them). He had to make a film.
Given the fact that Kazan remains a controversial figure, Jones says that both he and Scorsese are delighted and surprised by A Letter to Elia's success on the festival circuit and with critics, especially since it's neither a conventional film about films nor a typical bio. (Although in style it's not at all dissimilar to My Voyage to Italy, which Jones co-wrote and Scorsese directed.)
There's a generational difference between Jones, 50 and Scorsese, 68. But Jones says they share a temperament and a feeling about movies, where it's possible to feel like the film is “talking directly to you, about your life.”
Making the film with Scorsese was an “intimate experience” for Jones. It was their second co-directing effort. Their first was Lady by the Sea, in 2004, about the Statue of Liberty. But Letter to Elia was different in ways profound and personal. “It's his point of view and it's my point of view – but my point of view is not revealed to the audience.” Which is to say, explains Jones, that “the relationship Marty had to Kazan's movies was my relationship with Marty and his.”