Watch: 'Father of Independent Cinema' John Cassavetes Shares His Philosophy on Film

John Cassavetes started his career as an actor, most notably in Rosemary's Babybut ended up becoming one of the catalysts for independent filmmaking -- a director who had his finger on the pulse of artists who wanted to create something outside of the predictability of the studio system. His films didn't contain big funds, big stars, and big sets, but the absence of these things gave Cassavetes enough space to tell his beautiful stories about the raw human experience, making him a legend in not only independent film, but in all of cinema. Check out a portion of the French documentary Cineaste de notre temps that captures the acclaimed director behind the scenes, talking about working outside of the system.

Most known for his films Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, and The Killing of  a Chinese Bookie, Cassavetes' films consist of exposing the human condition as truthfully as possible. It wasn't all glitz and glamor, idealizing a scenario so that it'd be easier to digest for an audience. He shied away from themes like politics or religion, instead making films that dealt with love, isolation, and trust. Cassavetes once said:

Life is men and women. Life isn't, say, politics. Politicians are only bad actors grubbing around for power -- In my opinion, these people and these small feelings are the greatest political force there is.

His first film, Shadows, which he made in 1959, was financed by Cassavetes for $40,000, and because of its limited release, didn't find much of an audience. However, it did catch the eye of some critics, which helped him cash in on a Venice Film Festival Critics Prize for the film. Studios also began showing interest, and Cassavetes signed with Paramount to do Too Late Blues and A Child Is Waiting.

The documentary, an episode of a French documentary series called Cinéastes de notre temps (Filmmakers of Our Time,) which originally aired in 1969, reveals Cassavetes great passion for filmmaking, as well as artistic free expression. For him, it wasn't just about making films, it was about making films that allowed him to say what he wanted to say. He didn't need a big budget or known actors. In fact, he chose to work mostly with handheld cameras, and with his friends and people he knew, casting many of them in roles often times without compensation.

However, his desire wasn't to slight his cast and crew, but to allow them to get involved in a project they cared about and had a vested interest in. He also let his actors do quite a bit of improvisation in his films, although the claim that his films were largely unscripted has been exaggerated. Rather, they were scripted, but Cassavetes allowed the actors to interpret the scene and dialog for themselves.

He sums up his approach to filmmaking in the documentary when he says:

We decided we'd come up with a great idea, that we would buy all of our film equipment, but they wouldn't give us any credit. So, we started our film without any money, and we just used people that would help us to make the film only because of their idealistic attitudes toward filmmaking, which is, in America, a business not an art. So, we're saying [sound]  with your business, and we'll try to make it some kind of an art -- art meaning that we will enjoy ourselves and express ourselves freely.

John Cassavetes is one of those filmmakers that speaks to you on a level of humanity that is only reached when you're a teenager listening to music in your room. His films find the root of what being a human is all about, shines a light on it, and hits record. He's raw and honest, but is also enthusiastic and passionate. His philosophy on filmmaking is pure -- making films for the sheer love of film.

John Cassavetes handheld

Nobody expresses this sentiment more effectively than director Jim Jarmusch, who recently wrote in an open letter to Cassavetes:

The enlightenment I anticipated from you is being replaced by another. This one doesn’t invite analysis or dissection, only observation and intuition. Instead of insights into, say, the construction of a scene, I’m becoming enlightened by the sly nuances of human nature.

He goes on to say:

Yeah, you are a great filmmaker, one of my favorites. But what your films illuminate most poignantly is that celluloid is one thing and the beauty, strangeness and complexity of human experience is another.

What do you think of John Cassavetes' filmmaking style? What's your experience watching a Cassavete's film like? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


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Your Comment


You're just trying to work your way through all of my heroes right?
Someone who is now almost completely ignored in favor of the ones who came just after. I laugh at the comments on most of these camera blogs (including this one) where young people treat filmmaking as if they're going to be given a grade at the end of it, or as a quasi-formal process. That's not filmmaking - that's a job interview.

Just shoot. And don't stop until you've run out bullets.

August 22, 2013 at 5:05PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


"camera blog". Nailed it.

August 22, 2013 at 7:08PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Best comment on NFS in recent memory.

August 26, 2013 at 11:12PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Everything Cassavetes says still holds today. Maybe more so now than then. His understanding of what is important is inspiring. Way ahead of his time. Kickstarted before kickstarter or Spike. If there were only more like him today.

August 23, 2013 at 8:02AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

MIkey T

Minnie and Moskwitz is one of me favorite films -- loaded with pathos and humanity and most of all humor that illuminates the universality of love and the human condition. Cassavetes was a genius. and every aspiring filmmaker should know his body of work.

August 29, 2013 at 1:10PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

John B.

F*ckin’ amazing things here. I’m very glad to look your article. Thank you so much and i am taking a look ahead to contact you. Will you kindly drop me a mail?

September 25, 2013 at 1:42PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Ha! The moment where he casually lights his cigarette in the edit suite had my heart in my mouth. Or was the stuff less flammable by the mid-60s??

October 9, 2013 at 8:18AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Cassavetes philosophy was as unique as it was a revelation.The idea of going against the grainin the 60s would have been totally foreign to most artists and the fact Cassavetes succeeded is testiment to his integrity and his character in every sense a one of a kind.The two principle movies i saw him act in were the Killers 1964 and
the dirty dozen 1967. In both one got the impression Cassavetes was doing somethin friendsg in which he had only.minor input and although finely acted did not carry his brand in all proby just to pay the bills and a favour to friends

June 9, 2014 at 4:35PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM



July 12, 2014 at 12:44AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Good point about the camera blog approach. Obviously money has to come from somewhere, but articles about the ideas behind filmmaking, the why rather than a pr price about the latest camera bracket are ultimately more useful to the people that read nfs and likely will result in more people using it for a resource.

July 12, 2014 at 9:48AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Larry Vaughn

I wish the interview was more creative and not just only about: "were you find the money to buy your grocery's".

August 4, 2016 at 10:19AM

Lena Vassiliou
Documentary Filmmaker, Cinematographer, Editor