Words & interview

Ben Nicholson


Anthony Marra: ‘For every Billy Wilder there is someone like Bertolt Brecht’

In his first novel since being named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists in 2017, Anthony Marra turns his attention to old Hollywood.

Mercury Pictures Presents is a sweeping historical novel rich in the details and textures of a Los Angeles that played host to a bounty of European émigrés. Despite their own precarious status, these aliens were – especially in the world of the movie business – tasked with creating the narrative around the US involvement in WWII and, ultimately, in defining the American mythologies of the age. Here Anthony Marra discusses what attracted him to this period and the challenges and contradictions of being an émigré filmmaker in Hollywood at this time.

LWLies: What was it that drew you to this particular period and the unique émigré experiences you depict in the novel?

Anthony Marra: I came to this book originally in 2014. My first two books were set in the former Soviet Union and after doing those, I was ready to come in from the cold. I used to live in LA, my wife grew up there, and there was this period in Los Angeles history when you saw this incredible cultural transfusion that was the result of tens of thousands of émigrés fleeing Europe and landing in LA.

You had Thomas Mann in the Pacific Palisades writing Doctor Faustus, you had Billy Wilder and Fritz Lang on the backlots of Paramount and RKO blending German Expressionist cinematography and American pulp to create Film Noir. The idea of these individuals who have been cast out of Europe finding some form of sanctuary in Los Angeles and then, particularly through the movies, being expected to immediately begin – and this is a term that I believe was used by Wilder, though I may be misquoting – “explaining America to itself.” It seemed like such a fascinating intellectual conundrum.

And that is exacerbated by the onset of war.

Exactly. These individuals doubted themselves even more during the war years when they became instrumental in the American propaganda apparatus. From the point in the book where Pearl Harbour happens, about halfway through, it deals largely with the experience of these filmmakers working in the sort of building propaganda business, but specifically the moral contradictions of doing so as an ‘enemy alien.’

One of the paradoxes that I found myself drawn to was the fact that these filmmakers were, in some ways, really responsible for so much of the morale-building patriotic imagery. It really galvanised public support for the war, particularly in the early years, when it wasn’t going so well for the Allies – and yet due to their status as ‘enemy aliens,’ they were denied the very freedoms and rights that their movies vociferously championed. The moral contradiction of that was what really became the crux of the novel.

There’s a moment early in the novel where one of your characters, Maria, is reflecting that her gift of bypassing Hollywood censorship may stem from her personal history with censorship in Italy and there are often narratives about how systems of oppression beget upwellings of rebellious creativity. Do you think there are specific reasons that these people coming from these backgrounds ended up being the particular ones to define America at this time?

Yeah, I think it’s a very interesting and knotty question. Just in terms of pure practicality, I think one of the reasons it tends to be émigré directors whose legacy, specifically from the war years, has lasted the longest is in part because if they weren’t citizens, they weren’t eligible for the draft.

It meant they were able to continue working in Hollywood and they became some of the most employable people because studios knew that they weren’t going to risk losing them to the army. So, I think those purely financial incentives played a role, but I also think that, regardless of where people are coming from, oftentimes outsiders are just able recognise things about a particular culture that the locals may overlook.

You spent several years researching this novel, including, a lot of rummaging through the BFI archives, I believe. To your mind, was this a common experience for filmmakers arriving from Europe?

No, I think it’s important to keep this in mind. Even if there are, you know, some of these individuals who we see as really defining that era that there were many more who just floundered. For every Billy Wilder who came to America and really had a much better go of it here than he did in Europe, in terms of his career, there is someone like Bertolt Brecht who came and ended up writing Hangmen Also Die! but that was kind of it. He spent his entire time in LA just miserable and unable to get any of his work produced. I think that story is much more common. I think it’s easy to look at the brightest stars in the firmament and sort of seeing that as being the most obvious path when, in fact, I think far more of these exiles and émigrés came here and just sort of burned out.

You’ve mentioned Wilder and Brecht there and the likes of Mann and Lang previously. How much did you use real people – and events – as direct inspiration for what we read in the novel?

Several characters and incidents are based on actual historical events and persons. I imagined Mercury Pictures itself to be kind of like a Columbia with a front office that was run like a downmarket Warner Brothers. Their trajectory is based on Jack and Harry Warner, in terms of both the movies that they argue about and try to produce and it sort of heads, at the end of the book, the same way that Warner Brothers did. In terms of specific movies and directors: towards the very end of the book, there is this documentary being filmed that’s based on John Houston’s San Pietro.

I’m really sort of fascinated by the way that San Pietro is still regarded as one of the great documentaries, despite the fact that it’s almost entirely staged. There’s another one of the preceding chapters based on an actual army programme that was set up in 1943 where a group of émigré architects and Hollywood set designers created a series of meticulous Berlin tenement blocks in the middle of the desert. Why would they do this? Well, it was because the US Army was trying to figure out how to start a firestorm there.

I found it so disturbing and so moving that so many of the émigrés who worked on this project were deeply homesick. The only way that they could walk those streets and enter buildings that reminded them of their childhood homes was to participate in a project that would leave the real Berlin in ruins. The idea of watching this destruction over and over, I just found incredibly unsettling and very powerful – I had to include it.

Mercury Pictures Presents is released by John Murray Press and available to buy now.

Published 12 Oct 2022

Tags: Anthony Marra

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