Interview with A. O. Scott: Part 1

Recently the Princeton Buffer editors sat down with A. O. Scott, co-chief film critic (along with Manohla Dargis) at The New York Times. We asked him what it’s like at the Times, what a film critic does for fun, and what the future holds for him. Along the way we also discovered why our favorite movie reviewer prefers Spock to Kirk and why he thinks the job of a film critic is to be wrong.

In Part One of our interview, Scott talks about why he left graduate school, why he became a film critic, and why a new generation of film reviewers has given the profession new life. In Part Two Scott shares his personal likes and dislikes, his appreciation of cinema as a window on the world, and his secret to Better Living Through Criticism—the title of his new book coming out in February 2016.

Buffer: We want to start out by asking you: Why movies? What attracts you to film?

A. O. Scott: I got into movie criticism not so much through film as through criticism. I was interested in criticism as a kind of writing and as an intellectual discipline, as a literary form. I had always, from a fairly young age, been a consumer of criticism. My interests in books and music and movies was always supplemented by or accompanied by an interest in finding out what other people had to say about these things and being involved in some kind of conversation or debate, either in real life or in print, about them. So, I started out as a book reviewer. I’d been an English major, I’d studied literature—it was an easy gateway into journalism.

I was doing freelance book reviewing. I had a job at the New York Review of Books, although it wasn’t a writing job; it was more answering the phone and getting the boss’s dry cleaning. But it was a good place to be and I learned a lot there. I had always been interested in writing about other things, too. Movies, in particular, because they seem to be the most inclusive art form, not only because they draw on so many different creative disciplines, but because they are uniquely immersive and powerful, and have a variety and a scope and a scale that allow you to write about anything. Every aspect of human experience is eventually filtered through that lens and through that medium, so if you’re interested in any of those things or want to write about those things, in all different registers, you can.

But I didn’t set out charting a path toward being a film critic. Like most careers in journalism, mine was just a series of accidents, and questionable decisions on the part of other people asking me to write about things that I didn’t know anything about, and me saying, “Sure!” But, right before I was at the Times, I had a freelance contract at New York Newsday to be the main Sunday book reviewer, and I was doing a lot of freelance stuff on the side for Slate. I was writing what we would now call “hot takes,” or “think pieces,” about various topics: little critical assessments not just of people in the arts but of whoever was in the news. The editors would say, ok, we want you to do one on Madeleine Albright. And so I would have 24 hours to come up with 1,500 words on Madeleine Albright. It was stressful, but it was good education. I got a chance there to write a few pieces that were more out of the literary domain and more in popular culture. The first thing I wrote about was the Simpsons and Matt Groening. And I’d done a particularly demanding piece about Edward Said that got me just tons of hate mail from everyone, as you can imagine. So afterwards the editor who I was writing for said, “Okay, do something that you want, you pick.” And I said, “Okay, I want to write about Martin Scorsese.” And so I wrote everything that I had wanted to write about Scorsese, but also about film and film criticism that I hadn’t gotten a chance to write and figured I might never get a chance again. And that was the piece that caught the eye of The New York Times editors, who, just at that moment, were looking for a new film critic. The short version of the story is: I got that job.

Buffer: Can you talk about when you first started writing film reviews—what was your education like? We know you didn’t take a specific class at Harvard that taught you about criticism. So how did you go about writing? Was it a process of trial and error? Did you emulate certain critics?

A. O. Scott: I think by the time I started reviewing movies I’d been writing enough that I had a sense of my voice. I had a sense of that personality. But I had not studied cinema. I had always read a lot, but it was a challenge. A few things were challenging. One was to figure out how to talk about all of the different things that films do, because they are extraordinarily complex. To find a non-specialized, non-technical vocabulary to talk about what happens onscreen, to talk about the story, the narrative, the visual aspects, the performances—there’s already quite a lot there. And (extremely difficult if not impossible in every case) to guess who’s doing what. What are you seeing? What are you responding to? Is it the performance? Is it the work of the screenwriter? Is it the director? Is it actually the musical score? Or is it the editing? If you’re seeing this movie and it’s making you feel a certain way or respond a certain way, what accounts for that?

You weren’t there when the movie was being made. It’s very different from writing about literature, about books, because in that case you could imagine how it was done. It’s the same thing that you’re doing—writing. And it’s not that you have the same ability as the writer you’re writing about, but you can get into the headspace of that person and imagine it. Filmmaking is something very different. You don’t have the same tools at your disposal. You have to figure out a way to describe what you saw, and support what you have to say about the creative work that you’re considering, in some kind of language that will make sense, not only to you, but to people who haven’t seen it. I think all criticism originates—should originate—with an attempt at accurate description. With film that is quite a challenge.

The other thing that I learned about criticism, that I needed to learn in a hurry if I was going to last, was that there’s an illusion of total mastery. It’s an idea that, sometimes, our schools are teaching: before you open your mouth to say anything, you have to have complete knowledge. But of course you never do. You’re always arriving late to the game, with very little information at your disposal. So what you have to do, what you have to learn how to do, is to credibly assert yourself on the basis of no qualifications whatsoever. There’s no film critic license that you can get. There are courses that you can take, but you don’t have to. I think you step out onto the wire and if you’re wrong, or if you’re just making an ass of yourself, or you’re speaking out of ignorance, you’ll find out, and everyone else will find out too. You won’t stay in that delusion for very long so you just have to summon your nerve, and it’s terrifying.

The first year on the job, every time I filed a review, it would go into Friday’s paper and I would spend the weekend thinking, what did I do? What is the career-ending mistake, the misjudgment or just idiocy that I committed in front of the million readers of The New York Times? One thing that happens fairly quickly is that you do make a mistake and you run a correction in the next day’s paper, and the sky doesn’t fall and you’re okay. It doesn’t feel good, and you do what you can to avoid it, but it is what it is.

I would go to the video store or I would go on Amazon and I would just buy. I would literally wake up in the morning thinking I don’t know anything about Japanese cinema. But at the same time it’s like, no, I have to watch these fifteen Czech New Wave films or I have to watch all of these classic Westerns. I was trying to complete this education that I never had, in between everything else. I figured out a slightly less frantic way to do it, to use whatever movie I was reviewing as an occasion to fill in those gaps. Some of the gaps when I started out were really recent—it’s not like I’d been going to see ten movies a week. I had two little children at the time. So (and this may be a scoop for the Buffer) in the entire year before I was hired, 1999, I had been to see one movie in the theater.

Buffer: Which movie?

A. O. Scott: Grosse Pointe Blank. If you had one movie in a year to see, that might not be the one. But because I had small children in the house I couldn’t get out. So I watched a lot at home. Or fell asleep with the VCR running. But I had to because as soon as I got the job—I started in January—reporters from Variety were calling, “So what’s going to win the Oscars?” I’d say “Remind me again: what are the movies that came out?” So yes, I am a complete fraud. And it’s too late for anyone to do anything about it.

Buffer: You went to Harvard for undergrad, and then you were at one point in a PhD program at Johns Hopkins, but decided against completing it. That’s a really hard decision to make, for someone to dedicate so much time and then decide to change course. What was going through your mind at that point?

A. O. Scott: It’s a good question. I graduated from college and didn’t know what to do. I had always had kind of a fantasy of being a journalist or a writer or something non-academic and literary, but I didn’t really know how to do that. Both of my parents are academics, and academia—I think even more then than now—was a very closed, very insular environment. So it took me a while to figure this out. For most of my childhood I didn’t know any adult who did anything else. Obviously I knew that there were doctors and lawyers and lots of other people, but everyone who ever came to my parents’ house, whether it was a friend of theirs or someone who I simply got to know, was a professor of something. So I just couldn’t figure out what else to do after I finished college. I knew that I liked reading and I liked writing, and I also knew that I was good at school, good at being a student. Which I don’t say to brag—kind of the opposite. I was just good at pleasing my teachers. So I applied to graduate school as the obvious thing that I should do. I spent a year or so after college working at miserable jobs and discovering that maybe I would be happier back in school rather than sitting in an office or working in an after school program or waiting tables, all of that. I just didn’t see any other sort of path. I thought okay, this’ll be fine, and for a while it was.

I don’t regret having gone to grad school because I definitely learned some skills, research skills in particular, that I hadn’t learned as an undergraduate, skills that were and still are extremely useful. I also read a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t have read, and got a pretty systematic grounding in English and American literature, which for some reason I still have the ability to quote.

But then it just kind of wore out its charm. I struggled over a period of some years. When it came time to specialize, to write a dissertation, to commit myself to one thing for some indeterminate period of years, that was really hard to do. I’m just naturally kind of a dilettante. I get interested in something and I work on it for a while and then I get interested in something else. I was really good at doing everything but the thing I was supposed to be doing. I just had no attention span for the project in front of me and infinite attention for everything else. So it was a slow, hard decision because, as you say, I was very reluctant not to finish something I’d started. It was very hard to confront that—that possibility of failure.

I started reviewing books as a hobby, as something on the side, as a way of using some of the things I’d learned but without the same kind of pressure. And I found that I liked that a lot better. This was a piece of writing that I could finish, that three or four people would read, and that I could get paid for. Not even that much—like seventy-five dollars. But still, getting a check for something that I’d written was a pretty exciting thing. But it was still a few more years of doing that before I had to disengage.

What actually forced the issue was having a kid. I thought: I need health insurance; I need to be able to feed this mouth; either finish and get out of here or figure out how to do this other thing in a way to make a living. And that’s when I ended up going to work for the New York Review of Books. When I accepted the job it wasn’t a hard decision, but it also wasn’t an easy one because there was a sense of walking away from something that I’d invested a lot in. But in the end I was very relieved to have given up. It was just better for me and for everybody who knows me.

Buffer: Is it still possible to make a living writing reviews?

A. O. Scott: It’s never been the kind of thing that a guidance counselor would suggest. “Oh yes, film criticism? That’s a good career.” But it is possible. I think things have gotten a little better, or have stabilized a little bit. It’s always a matter of how much money is circulating through the media world and what that money is being spent on. The bottom certainly fell out of print, and a lot of jobs went away that are never coming back. The media sector as a whole shed more than 100,000 jobs between 2002 and 2008. Those are gone forever. But I don’t know; I see a lot of young people in media who are doing it, who are making it, who are scratching out a living and sometimes a decent one. There are more places now that pay a little better than there were even five years ago.

In the last five years or so the idea that there will be jobs out there waiting for you was not something that was real, so people had to start their own thing. The generations that I’ve seen come up since I’ve been doing this, well I’ve been impressed by their broadened skill sets. You guys at the Buffer had to make this blog and put it up. You’re not just writing, or you’re not just editing. I think that’s a very good thing. And that is what has kept the profession alive and has given it some new life. You can get together and invent something that might not be this legacy institution ushering you in the door and giving you an entry-level job that you maybe work up from. If you have some confidence and some friends and some skills, you can try to make your own thing.

Buffer: Let’s talk about changes in the film industry. There are some directors—most

notably Quentin Tarantino, whom some might call “nostalgic” and others might call “xenophobic”—who have this obsession with the exact medium of film versus digital. You just reviewed a movie, Beasts of No Nation, a film that went directly to Netflix. Where do you see that trend going?

A. O. Scott: It’s been fascinating. I think it’s one of the most interesting things about having this job for ten years or so is to watch this enormous change that we’re still, in some ways, in the early stages of. It’s a change that affects every level of the art form, especially distribution. Netflix put Beasts of No Nation in some theaters because they can’t get any proper consideration otherwise—it wouldn’t be reviewed in The New York Times if it didn’t open in theaters—but their primary distribution model was streaming. There’s more and more of that, and in some ways, it’s a very good thing because it makes more films available to more viewers. If you have a good Internet connection or a cable subscription and you live in a small town that doesn’t have an art house theater, or it doesn’t have a museum that’s showing repertoires, or if it does but it’s only going to show these interesting movies from other countries or small art films for a couple of days, then you can now watch those and see those. There are also more movie paths available to more people than ever before. You can get the Criterion Collection films on Hulu now—the stuff that I’m old enough to remember when you’d have to wait for it to come around.

Also, digital technology has, with good and bad consequences, lowered the barriers to entry for actually making movies. You don’t necessarily need to raise a million dollars before you shoot any of your movies. There was a movie released this summer, a pretty good movie called Tangerine. It was all shot on a cell phone and edited on a laptop. It’s beautiful. The cinematography, the texture of the iPhone images is really impressive, and so I think that digital technology has opened things up in that way.

Digital technology has also made things a lot more chaotic. There’s just more (and always exponentially more) product out there—more stuff and more pictures competing for attention. What’s interesting to me is how some very traditional, and it-had-been-assumed permanent, boundaries have collapsed, like between movies and television. There’s a migration of talent between those, and there’s a formal bleeding-over-the-boundaries that happens. There are more and more filmmakers working in television.

I think there will also be more and more hybrid forms. When you think of a feature film, why is a feature film, on average, a hundred minutes long? It has to do with the booking schedules of theaters and how many tickets they can sell and how much money they can make, how many shows they can have in a day. The same thing with the half-an-hour and hour-long television shows. That has to do with commercials and time slots and traditional broadcasting. But if everything is streaming or is on demand, then those shapes and forms and formats start to erode, or it starts to be possible to do other things. Even things that, when they first happened, seemed really radical, have already, in a very short time, come to seem routine, like streaming a whole season of a series at once. I think House of Cards was the first one to do that. Now there are a dozen things that do that. All of this challenges critics to rethink some of our assumptions and to pay attention to what’s happening in a way that is very healthy, though it can also be bewildering.

So, to go back to Tarantino and the question of film and digital, this huge revolutionary change that happened, almost without being much noticed or reported on, is that in every movie theater that you go to now, you will not be seeing what is, strictly speaking, “film.” You’ll be seeing a digital copy, “a digital element” they call it, projected onto the screen. And for some people who might be called “nostalgic” or “sentimentalist,” this is a terrible loss and an aesthetic disaster. For other people, Steven Soderbergh for example, it’s an aesthetic opportunity. He loves digital. He couldn’t have shot Che or Magic Mike or any of those without digital. It’s cheaper, it’s portable, it’s lighter weight, and you can do all kinds of things with the color and the light.

I’m agnostic about it. To watch a film projected through a beautiful 35mm print is something extraordinary, something special that I don’t think even the highest level state-of-the-art digital can match. But at the same time, there’s aesthetic potential in digital that is only starting to be exploited. I tend not to be a big fan of nostalgia. I think that the arts, in particular film, are constantly moving forward. There are no two consecutive decades in cinema where it’s the same thing. From the beginning, when it started out as nickelodeon machines that you could watch at an amusement park, to these movie palaces that were all silent with a live orchestra—that was the movie-going experience in 1923 or 1924. Then sound came along, and then the lighter cameras and different lenses that made location shooting possible. And then color. And then wide-screen. And then television. It never has for one minute stood still. So to try to freeze it in the past is, I think, a mistake. On the other hand, I am very encouraged when there are young filmmakers who shoot in 16mm, who are still kind of messing around with the old techniques and not forgetting them.

Buffer: Can you elaborate on how critics need to change their roles to deal with recent developments in filmmaking?

A. O. Scott: I think there are a lot of ways that they are going to have to. The biggest one is not just for critics but also for newspapers, because we’ve always had some people who are the TV critics and some people who are the film critics. But now it’s harder and harder to decide in some cases what’s what.

A couple years ago there was Behind the Candelabra with Michael Douglas and Matt Damon. It was 110 minutes long. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. It had movie stars. It was directed by Steven Soderbergh. But it was made for and broadcast on HBO. So was that a movie? Was that a TV show? Every year there are more cases like that. There are also now more documentaries that are produced by Netflix, CNN, HBO, or PBS. And on the other end are web videos and web series on YouTube and stand-up comedians producing specials. It’s all gotten a lot bigger. I think what critics have to figure out is how to navigate everything because it’s too much for anyone. (And those who say they have seen it all or know it all have to be lying to you because there are just too many hours of it coming into existence.)

There was a time, not that long ago, when if you were someone like Roger Ebert, you could feel like you had seen most of the movies that came out in a given year. Back then you could have seen all 400 movies that came out, but now you can’t see the 10,000 movies and movie-like works that come out in the span of a year. So all of a sudden, the sense of your own authority starts to crumble. Even if your job as a critic is partly to help your readers sort through what they want to see, how do you do that sorting for yourself first?

The short answer to your question is: it just makes us more anxious and more sleep-deprived.

Buffer: How do the Times critics distribute the movies among yourselves?

A. O. Scott: We used to review every movie that opened for at least a week on a New York screen. In the last year that became untenable, just in terms of space and personnel, because of the numbers—there were almost 1,000 such movies in 2014. But we still try to review as many films as we can, and we try to make sure that the ones that we skip are the ones that deserve to be skipped—that are just sort of bad naturally or that take advantage of the screen glut in New York right now.

I have a co-chief critic, Manohla Dargis, and we get a list of films, usually about three or four weeks ahead of the releases, that are coming up in a given week. We pick ours and we take turns picking first. We try to alternate as much as we can with respect to major directors and franchises so that the stuff is distributed between us more or less evenly over the course of a year or a season. And that works very well. We manage our own assignments, and it’s very important to us as critics to be in charge of that part. We assign to ourselves and then we assign to the other critics—we have a fairly steady roster of freelancers.

We want the assignments themselves to reflect what we think are the important movies. Sometimes we’ll argue with editors—sometimes we lose those arguments, sometimes we win them. But we always have control over what we review and how much space we can give it.

Ideally every week we are producing a composite picture of the week, not only saying that these movies are worth your time, but also showing what is important to be thinking about. We try over the course of time to have our critical report reflect, as well as we can, the state of the art at all levels. We make sure that we pay attention to small films and documentaries and pay the right kind of attention to big blockbusters, which can also be very wonderful movies or interesting occasions for criticism. We try for that kind of balance and that kind of comprehensiveness.

Buffer: What’s the working environment like at The New York Times?

A. O. Scott: It has changed over the last 15 years. Now we’re a digital media company that happens to produce this paper product and sell ads. We can deliver to your door if you want it that way, but we also deliver to your phone or tablet.

The environment when I started working felt like a newsroom, like when you see movies about newspapers. You could still smell the leftover smoke from the old days, and there were a lot of old timers who could tell you about covering the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. The Times is enormously complicated and in fact a fairly chaotic thing that produces every day, and now every hour, an account of what the world is at the moment.

When I came in I hadn’t worked at a newspaper before, and it was a little overwhelming. But I’ve grown to like that. I also like the fact that the daily newspaper is still going to give the greatest possible amount of information to the largest possible number of people. In terms of the kind of writing you can do, you can’t be specialized. You can’t be an insider. You can’t appeal only to people who are in the know. And that can be a challenge when writing about films that are, in their nature, more specialized and esoteric. You have to give an account that isn’t just for the elite. A high school kid in the Midwest, or somebody in China, or anyone in the world can log on and get something out of it. That’s the hope, and that’s the standard that you’re held to.

It’s sometimes annoying when copy editors say you have to explain something, like “popular English pop band, the Beatles.” I’m exaggerating a little bit, but not that much. You can’t assume, and I really like that. That’s very important to me and I think very rare, given how specialized a lot of media has become.

Buffer: We are curious about what your working relationship is with your editor, given that you’ve been working at The New York Times so long.

A. O. Scott: It seems like it’s a thrilling, glamorous world. But sometimes it’s rather mundane. If someone is 43 years old, are they in their early 40s or mid 40s? I said “early” and my editor said “mid,” but I didn’t feel like fighting him. There are some weird copy things, of which my favorite is this comma rule. If you say, “his brother Dave,” all the copyeditors will say, “Is that his only brother?” Sometimes it’s a character in a movie and I just don’t know. Because if you have more than one brother then there’s no comma — “his brother Dave.” If Dave is his only brother, it’s “his brother, Dave.” And I always wondered if there are readers—and I’m sure there are—who would see a comma there and say, “Oh, that must be his only brother,” or no comma and say, “Well, how many other brothers did he have?”

Buffer: So what is the role of your editor? Are you able to self-edit?

A. O. Scott: It varies because there are different sections of the newspaper that have slightly different editorial rhythms. For Daily sections, even though what I write aren’t news stories (they’re “News sections”), the editing is very quick and not very collaborative in the sense that the editors to whom I’m sending my work will not have seen the movie. For the daily sections it’s all about moving an enormous volume of copy as quickly and efficiently and accurately as possible. It will almost never happen that any substantive question will be raised, so you have to self-edit.

When it comes to the reviews that I write, I’m on my own. The editors will look for word repetitions and other stuff, and do some fact checking on top of that, too. There’s very little change and very little discussion from the draft that I send in to what’s in the paper. So at that level, the editing is just very technical. And also in terms of the assignments, there’s not a lot of brainstorming and pitching. It’s more like, “There’s a movie opening on Friday, review it.”

For Sunday pieces, for essays and features, it’s very different. There are editors with whom I work more closely when it comes to conceptualizing those pieces and, after they’re written, editing them. But I tend to write at a fairly high level of finish, so my drafts tend to be very close to the final product. I have trouble sending in rough drafts. Also, I can’t really write out of order. I have to write in sequence, from top to bottom.

It’s been closer to 20 years now, and I’ve seen a lot of editors come and go, and it seemed like all the editors when I started were all the grown-ups, and now a lot of them seem like kids. It’s a funny sort of inversion. It happens that way.

But it’s a different situation at the Sunday Magazine. I do some things for the Magazine, and that has its own editorial structure, which is more like a magazine with respect to the editors, the fact checking, etc.

Buffer: Can you talk a little bit about your process of approaching a review? How many times do you watch the movie? What type of research do you do? Do you take notes when you watch the movie?

A. O. Scott: I usually only see the movie once. Although I guess there are enough exceptions that I can’t say almost always. Films I see at a festival; when they come out for review some months later I’ll definitely see them again.

Sometimes I’ve found seeing a movie again can get in the way. You can overthink a little bit, you maybe pick apart a movie more than it needs to be picked apart, and you distance yourself from the experience of seeing it, which is the important source to draw from.

As far as the outside research, it’s whatever seems necessary or fruitful. If it’s something based on real life, a real character, or a real historical event, I’ll want to know something about that and go into it. I don’t like the kind of reviewing that measures the facts against the movie and points out discrepancies and makes a big deal out of that. Sometimes the liberties that a movie takes with the record are interesting and give you something to talk about if you try to think about what changes were made and why they would make the change this way. If a movie is based on a book, most of the time I’ll read the book—again, not to measure one against the other, but to find out what information is there. Sometimes there are other movies that I maybe need to see to fill in the gaps. Maybe there is an actor in this movie and they were in something else that I didn’t see that I need to catch up on or watch again.

One thing I try not to do is to read any other reviews of the movie. I also try not to read any of the features or the interviews with the director because I find that a lot of that stuff is determined by the agendas of publicists.

Also, I can’t always control how much time there is between when I see a movie and when I have to write about it. Sometimes I have a week, or even two weeks, between seeing it and when I have to write. And sometimes I have 24 hours or less.

Interview conducted at Princeton University on October 27, 2015. This interview has been edited and condensed.

 Our conversation continues in Interview with A. O. Scott: Part 2.