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Interview: Robbie Robertson

After ‘The Last Waltz,’ the Band guitarist takes a chance on ‘Carny’

Robbie RobertsonRobbie Robertson

Robbie Robertson (center) with the other members of The Band in 1978.

Ed Caraeff/Getty Images

On the night of July 2nd, 1979, Robbie Robertson and Gary Busey stopped off at a bar and grill in lower Manhattan for a drink. They wanted to make a toast: to Carny, which they’d finished filming only the day before.

Several revelers at the next table were harassing them and started to jump Busey on his way out of the men’s room. They froze at the sound of Robertson’s glass breaking against the edge of the table. He pointed the jagged weapon at Busey’s opponents, and he and Busey backed out of the place.

They were laughing, but the laughter was a little shaky.

“Hey, we’re still in character,” Busey told Robertson.

“How do you get out?” Robertson asked.

In Carny, Busey plays the Bozo, a carnival sideshow attraction whose weapon is his mouth: he sits on a stool over a tank of water and antagonizes the “marks” (i.e., you or me) into buying baseballs to throw at a target that, if hit, will dump him into the tank. Robertson (besides producing the film) plays Patch, the Mr. Fix-it of the carnival. What Patch can’t take care of with a handful of money he settles by pulling out his straight razor.

So, I asked, had they become Bozo and Patch?

“Hey!” Robertson said, “I don’t think like that! I’m a sophisticated person — of some sort.”

“Ya gotta watch out what happens to you in the movies,” Busey said,” ’cause it can jump into your real life.”

Exactly a month earlier, on a steamy night at the Empire Coastal Fairgrounds in Savannah, Georgia (where Carny was filmed), Busey was shooting a scene in 100-degree-plus heat inside a canvas tent. He was dancing with the carnival’s half-man, half-woman, twirling him-her around till his partner’s legs were flying straight out. It ended with him falling heavily into a row of wooden folding chairs. He then lurched out of the tent and made straight for his trailer.

“I’m gonna go throw up,” Busey said as he ran by. Moments later, as he was toweling off sweat, he held up his hand for me to inspect: it was trembling. “God,” he said, “the adrenalin’s still there. This film will either be terrific or a real dog. Robbie has amazed me, ’cause this is my fifteenth film now and this is really his first, and he’s great. You can’t teach acting and you can’t think it. You just do it.”

Faces loomed out of the carnival’s splotchy lighting as we left the trailer: Johann, the eight-foot-tall giant; George, the 600-pound-plus fat man; the Alligator Man and his wife, the Monkey Woman. Jimie Rapp, the sword-swallower and fire-eater, showed off his chain-link belt: “It’s handy in a brick fight if you ain’t got a brick.”

“They’re all real,” said Robertson later as we drank champagne at the white porticoed antebellum mansion that he and Busey were renting while working on Carny. “Real carnies, real freaks, real gaffers. You can’t fool those carnies. They live it.”

My attention was drawn to an adjoining bedroom, which had been converted into a circus tent: nothing but a bed and billows of striped canvas. Robertson, noticing my interest, explained: “You wake up in the morning in a tent! You get right into the carnival setting.”

Robertson put on a video-cassette of John Ford’s The Searchers and we settled back. I asked the obvious question: Why was he—a “hot property”— producing and starring in a movie that Hollywood had already deemed noncommercial?

Carny is a long shot,” Robertson said softly, “but I had to do it because I believe in it. I don’t care what people think. I worked in a carny as a kid. I worked in a swinger joint: there’s a ball on a chain and you swing it to knock down a bowling pin. Except you miss. I learned a lot of tricks, tricks I still use. I’d also see the ‘patch man’ come around collecting money from everybody. He was scary, spooky; he’d lie or con or do whatever he had to do. So smooth. I’d ask other people about him and they’d say, ‘Don’t ask, don’t fuck around.’ He was a higher force.”

Carny was one of many scripts Robertson found waiting for him after 1978’s The Last Waltz (which he also produced). Unexpectedly, he emerged a movie star as a result of that film, and his next moves were carefully monitored by show-business powers. One of the submissions came from documentary filmmaker Robert Kaylor, who’d enlisted novelist Thomas Baum to write a script; Robertson read it and decided to make the movie with them. “This was such a fresh thing and so original,” Robertson said. “I had to go with my heart, so I went with Kaylor [Carny‘s director]. He had spent years with carny people. Gary Busey — I couldn’t think of anyone else who could be the Bozo. And I tried.”

But why, I wondered, was Robertson so drawn to the notion of a movie about carnivals?

“It’s real Americana. It’s part of our tradition and pretty soon it won’t be around no more. The carny is like a little city, you know. The rides are like the skyscrapers, and there are all those little stores on the midway. It has its Forty-second Street and its big, expensive rides and things for the little kids and things for the big kids and it moves. It’s sparkling and glittering. Lights fly through the skies and people are laughing and all of a sudden — whoosh! — it’s gone.”

He got up to fetch a fresh pack of cigarettes. The former leader of the Band has lost none of his onstage cool and svelte, heavy-lidded presence. Indeed, even at risk of lung cancer, his fans might encourage him to keep smoking just for his great cigarette moves.

He answered a bit testily when I asked him about the move from music into film. “It’s not a matter of me shifting from rock & roll into movies. It’s a natural course, a gradual thing. It’s all storytelling, if it’s music or movies or books. I never wanted to “be in movies.’ I love being able to take an idea and make it into a story. I think this movie will show stuff that’s never been seen. Aside from the carny stuff, there’s a kind of male-to-male relationship that’s never been shown: two guys who totally depend on each other and who aren’t whole without the other, and even a woman doesn’t change that.”

Basically, that is the plot of Carny. Bozo and Patch are the stars of a traveling carny family, and they’re best buddies. Jodie Foster plays a runaway teenager who joins the carny and threatens to split up their friendship. The subplot, a hustle by local hoodlums, grows more and more implausible, and as a result, the notion of carny as family suffers. Although fascinating, it ends up being an unrealized picture window opening onto the backstage carny.

The audiences were violently divided,” I tell Robertson. It’s now late May 1980, and word has flashed throughout the movie industry, after the first screenings, that Carny will not be a monster hit. In fact, it’s become an immediate leper: even my taxi driver in Hollywood slagged it.

“I feel an anxiety attack coming on,” laughs Robertson. We’re sitting in his elegant white-and-gold office in the Star Suites building on the MGM lot in L.A. Lighting a Marlboro, he waits to hear more.

“People said you missed what you were after,” I offer.

“What was that?” Robertson laughs again.

“A movie about the carny.”

He answers seriously: “Could be. The carny was the backdrop, the world to work against with the story of these two buddies. I feel more of an achievement in that part of it. I was after the relationship. You share something there that you don’t share with anybody else. It’s a unique thing to men. It’s like two guys in the army or two guys in a rock & roll band.”

I also mention that at the last screening I’d been to, there had been a lot of criticism of the music: it sounded like a movie soundtrack, when people expected a new Robbie Robertson album.

Robertson nods knowingly. “Weeellll. I got a new album for ’em. It’s just that it was not noticeable in the movie. The album is half Alex North and half me. Working with North has been one of the great musical experiences of my life. I like the soundtrack, but it’s a very strange record.”

“Well,” I say, “They’re expecting ‘Life Is a Carnival’ and what you did ten years ago.”

Robertson chuckles without much merriment. “Yeah. You got it. I tell you, if I had done that…. I mean, how can you comply with that? You just do what you do, and that’s all I could think of at the time. Where do you go to learn this stuff? I don’t know. Where can you learn how to transcribe interior emotions into music? Other people’s emotions? The combination of North’s stuff and the sleazy stuff I did — kootch music, the burlesque tradition — that’s a real counterpoint. Whether or not this is what people were expecting — well, that’s not my job.”

“But what do you think about your movie?” I ask. “It was held up for quite a while with reshooting and editing and one thing or another.”

“Let me tell you something,” Robertson says flatly. “Under the circumstances — putting a bunch of real carnies, hustlers, ride-boys, freaks, actors, film crew and business people all together — it’s a wonder everybody didn’t murder one another, let alone actually get something on film. The biggest thing in all of this was rolling the dice, taking the chance. My God — if I’d had a clear head, I’d’ve taken a day job. So if it isn’t exactly what people expected it to be — well, it is what it is.

“I feel good about it. About the relationship and its rawness. Whether it’s right for somebody else; jeez, I don’t know. I know that I haven’t seen this movie before. I haven’t been backstage in that world before. This can’t flop for me. Take The Last Waltz. Was that a flop? I don’t know what a flop is.

“Like I told you a year ago: if I can’t take a chance, well then, fuck, I’d rather stay home.”

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