Making Montgomery Clift, a documentary that hits Digital, On Demand, and DVD on October 15, is not a blow by blow account of Clift’s life or film work. Directed by Robert Clift (Monty’s nephew) and Hillary Demmon, the project takes a refreshingly unique and personal look at one of cinema’s most talented actors.
Taking over 5 years to make, Making Montgomery Clift was a labor of love for Robert Clift and Hillary Demmon (the filmmakers are married). With access to a seemingly endless archive of footage from Brooks Clift (Robert’s late father) and Monty, the documentary offers up an entirely different look at the four time Oscar nominated actor.
Was Montgomery Clift a tortured soul who hid his sexuality and was forever traumatized by a car accident? Tabloids and even respected authors (including Patricia Bosworth, who is among the interviewees in the documentary), viewed Clift as a gone too soon actor who was ultimately undone by hard living. Making Montgomery Clift gives viewers an intimate look at Clift as a passionate and uncompromising artist who aimed to do the best work possible. It’s an exhaustively researched and well told documentary, and as a Clift enthusiast, I appreciate him even more after checking out Making Montgomery Clift.
Your documentary puts a whole new perspective on Montgomery Clift. Was that the primary motivation behind making the documentary?
Robert Clift: I think that was the primary objective in a lot of ways. Growing up, I always had this sense that there was this great dissatisfaction with how Monty was represented in various biographies and television shows and what people felt about his public image. I didn’t necessarily know why and it wasn’t until we were working on this film that I had a chance to really explore all the archives and the details of it.
What was unmistakable was people were unable to see Monty’s labor as an actor because of these narratives that circulated about him.
Hillary Demmon: One of the biggest goals for us was to remove obstacles that people may have had in the way or in their minds or how they looked at Monty so they could look at him and his work in a new way.
Monty was one of those rare actors who wasn’t a studio player, and that’s something I didn’t know before watching your film.
Hillary Demmon: Who knows how one gets that kind of discernment and self assuredness? He had integrity and he was going to work on the projects he wanted to work on. He did have the talent and star power to say ‘I will sign one contract at a time, but I’m not going to enter into one of these seven picture deals where I don’t get to make my own choices.’ He was ready to take his own risks and that risk tolerance really mattered a great deal. If you’re going to turn down the kind of security that comes with those long studio contracts, you’ve really got to be really risk tolerant.
Robert Clift: I think Monty said it best as he does in many cases – he was willing to gamble on himself. That was a willingness that went beyond what the family understandably did not agree with. I enjoyed thinking about the “what ifs” that people don’t often imagine. So like what if Monty had signed a studio contract at the age of 13 and his first role was Tom Sawyer? What happens to that actor?
What if Monty had decided to go with certain deals that were characteristic of the studio system of that time? He didn’t because he was, as far as I’m able to tell, fairly determined to make up his mind and gamble on himself. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Robert was this documentary, in some way, a way of completing the work of your own father in regards to showing people the real Montgomery Clift?
Robert Clift: For me, the impetus to make the film not just for my father, but for Lorenzo James and Jack Larsen and others that speak in the film. The sense of the kind of loss and misrecognition they had when they thought about how Monty’s image had been presented in the public sphere.
I like to think of my father and also Monty because the recordings that he made as well. I like to think of both of them as historians of the future. They were essentially creating documents that might last. Of course they couldn’t see many years later that Hillary and I would have an opportunity to revisit those documents but we were able to.
Hillary Demmon: I don’t think we were really setting out to do something comprehensive about Monty. I think we both can recognize that we were never going to know everything about Monty. We weren’t going to be able to have this comprehensive (and) definitive idea. I think in some ways it’s maybe more respectful of his legacy and of him as a human being to let some of the questions about him stay open. And to let him be read in many ways.
His two favorite performances were Judgment at Nuremberg and The Young Lions. What were some of your favorite films of Clift?
Hillary Demmon: We certainly got to do what I hope people who watch our film will do which is watch through his whole library of films. We watched through them many times in the course of making this. I think the favorites shifted as we went along.
For me, the first film I saw of his was The Heiress which I was definitely a big fan of. It was a complicated characterization and it was interesting because it was a period piece but he struck me as so modern. I became really partial to the post accident films because you could see that he was making risky choices again but with these different characterizations that evolved as he did. So I don’t know, I like saying Judgment at Nuremberg. I also like saying Freud. I’ll leave it there.
Robert Clift: It certainly shifted quite a bit and the most beautiful thing for me was to be able to watch some of these so called post accident films where I could appreciate the performances for how strong they were. Watching him in films has always had a weird documentary quality because of the family connection.
Whenever I see him, various stories and anecdotes come to mind. It’s sometimes hard for me to separate the fictional film performances from the documentary performances in the sense that I also got to appreciate and love his conversations with my grandmother, Eli Wallach (Eli and Monty worked together on The Misfits), his agent, and with my father. Really his sense of humor. That was something my father would always insist upon – it’s his sense of humor that mattered.
They would tell me that but I really wouldn’t get it until I heard it myself. The archival material allowed me to do that. Those are the performances that I really love.
What are you going to do with all of that archival material that isn’t shown in the documentary? Also can you talk about if this movie will be also out on DVD?
Hillary Demmon: It’s a goal of ours to have some of this archival stuff be available for study. We don’t have a specific plan on how that’s going to happen yet but it is a goal.
(As for the release) It’s going to Digital and On Demand platforms on October 15 and DVD. The full physical and streaming media will be possible for this film. I know the DVD release is important for a lot of our classic movie fans to complete their Monty collection so we’re happy about that.
What was the biggest challenge in making a film with so much archival material? It must have taken both of you more than a couple of years to make this documentary.
Robert Clift: At the very beginning we asked ourselves how could we make a film that only we could make. That meant putting myself in the film. I wanted to do that in a way where it wasn’t going to be a film about me. So walking that balance where I become a character in the film as a way to get to some of these broader questions and issues about Monty without unduly focusing attention too much away from Monty was probably one of the hardest things to pull off. Thank God I have an amazing filmmaker that I am working with.
Hillary Demmon: This film took five years to get done so it’s definitely more than one or two (years). Another big challenge with this film was that it was a kind of simultaneous archival project. We got all of these materials from family members, friends and loved ones that were scattered across the country.
We traveled and gathered all of that stuff and it did have a rhyme or reason to it yet. It was not an organized archive so we had to do that organization ourselves and do all of the digitizing and curation of the whole thing. As you saw in the film, Brooks recorded hundreds if not thousands of audio tapes. Those had to be gone through to (figure out) if they were or not Monty’s stuff. That was a big challenge. And then just figuring out how you create experiences for the audience inside of the world of the film that actually brings all that archival material to life.
What made Monty Clift such a unique actor from both of your perspectives?
Robert Clift: I’m sure there are a lot of artists who are misunderstood in the history of Hollywood. He certainly is one who is misunderstood. For me, one of the things that made him so unique as a performer was his desire to bring ambiguity to his parts. To create performances that just basically didn’t telegraph everything for the audience. Certainly there was a degree of naturalistic hues that he would use to indicate possible interpretations for audience members but he never jammed it down your throat like a lot of actors used to do. That, for me, is why he was such a game changer.
Hillary Demmon: I think the other thing now having studied his script notes and annotations is getting a sense of – he does have this spontaneity and ambiguity in his performances but you can see in his notes how meticulously crafted and planned it is. You don’t get the kind of access to that work for many actors. This is one of the things that our film is contributing i to learning about Monty’s legacy as an actor in the history of cinema. Getting to see that work is a very different experience than just having that performance just stick with you.
You get to see how that performance comes together as well.
*****Making Montgomery Clift hits On Demand, Digital, and DVD on October 15. For more info, check out Making Montgomery Clift’s Facebook page.