An industry legend, Perri has set the tone of more than 400 TV and film projects over a 30 year career, with vaunted relationships with many directors. Not least Martin Scorsese. His credits include: Star Wars, Taxi Driver, The Warriors, Raging Bull, The Excorcist and Mallrats*.
Do you feel that there’s ever been a Golden Age of title design?
There were some interesting and unusual titles done in the 30s and 40s, primarily in a number of American films, but I think that it came to its fruition and its golden age, as you said, in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. It was a time when Saul Bass was doing title sequences on Alfred Hitchcock films and Otto Preminger’s films. They were very distinctive and unique and original and really pumped the films they were in front of. It could be observed as the Golden Age of title design was started by Saul in the mid 50s with Man with the Golden Arm.
Saul was my mentor and I studied with him, he encouraged me on and later we were in competition on various films. So, I was fortunate to be part of that. Not from the 50s but certainly the late 60s and also the 70s. I was a prominent force in the title design world along with two or three other gentlemen who I competed with. Between us we did a lot of good work.
Do you see any links between that period and work coming out of Hollywood today?
Doing a main title sequence up is coming back. It became common a few years ago that just the title of the movie would occur at the front, removing and all the actor and technician credits that had been at the beginning of the credits of a movie from the 20s on into the 90s. But that’s coming back now.
There’s recognition now from current filmmakers who are appreciating the title design of the past and they want it to be part of their films now. Actually, something interesting has been happening recently too. A group of graphics people, friends of mine who do a lot of title work, asked me to consult on a couple of projects of theirs. They’d been asked by directors and producers of films and television shows that they were working on to recreate some of the looks from the 70s and 80s. You probably get it in Ireland, Stranger Things?
We’ve come across that, alright.
The filmmakers specifically wanted a look from the 70s. They approached me because of my work they wanted to observe all the flaws and unique things about it, because titles from that period were produced on film. And there are limitations on what you could do with film in terms of duplicating, or dirt showing up, and chemicals and they wanted to capture all of that. It was part of the era along with, of course, the graphic style.
That’s happening more and more. I’ve just been hired to design the titles for A film about the American Gangster, John Gotti staring John Travolta and they’re looking for that classic feel. I’ve been speaking with another director who want’s a whole sequence at the start of his film as well. So there’s an acknowledgement and recognition of the old – well now it’s become old – traditional title sequence, which might have special footage, new photography or graphics. Current filmmakers are seeing the value in doing a sequence at the beginning that will accommodate the titles and launch the film at the same time, hints at the story telling style, the location, the era. All these things that can be revealed in a title sequence.
Do you think that so-called prestige TV has a role in titles coming back? So as titles went out of fashion in movies, they found a place on the small screen? I mean, of the title sequences that I remember from the early or mid 2000s most of them were on TV. I’m thinking the Wire, Sopranos, Carnival, if you remember that. All of them worked to set the emotional tone of the show. Is that feeding back into film?
Yes it is. I’m quite sure that it is. The producers of TV shows were always aware of the impatience of viewers and had to capture them before they changed the channel. TV titles usually lasted a minute, sometimes a minute and a half, and they would just flood the eye with images and music and so on in order to capture the viewer. There was an effort to entertain before the actual show began.
You mentioned the Sopranos. That was show that I watched every week for all the years it was on television. The title was only a sequence of live action cuts of the character and New Jersey. The titles just slipped in an out and it was a quite simple type style. The graphics of the show title had a gun made of the R, but other than that it was just a regular typestyle. Not even a designed typestyle, it was one available from type books. However, with the last shot and the strength of the logo it became a very iconic image. It gave me the sense that whole sequence had been graphically designed but it wasn’t. It was very well edited live action set to a good piece of music that was punctuated with titles that had some graphic elements to it.
I suppose it was like conceptually poor but emotionally rich?
Yeah, it really tapped into that. If you were asked you just saw, you’d remember it to be a lot more powerful and a lot from impactful than it actually was if you were to view it just for the content alone – because of the music and the power of the characters and the behaviour of the shots. It was good example of the sum being greater than it’s parts. I think of it like putting 10lbs of shit into a 5lbs bag. Just pack it with imagery, and cut it well to a good piece of music and it just feels a lot more than it is. And that’s success.
That’s accomplishing a goal that is necessary: impress the viewer and draw them in.
A lot of the work you’re known for isn’t like that though, it’s more conceptual or graphic. I’m thinking about Insomnia, After Hours, Marathon Man…
Yes. That’s my approach. But I always look at what the film or TV series needs. Then my interpretation comes from who I am. My graphics, my imagery, my vision of what things should look like comes from my background my training. I’ve been accused many times by people that you can’t tell that I did a film because my style changes from film to film. While many of my contemporaries did the same things over and over. You’d recognise something, and you might say I know who did that because I see titles were popping in and fading off. And that can be OK too.
There was one designer, that I was kidding with, that he always handled the titles the same way. There can be different emotion in even the way a title comes on the screen and leaves the screen. It still needs to be different every time because each project has a different emotional line a different story to tell and a different filmmaker to telling it. It’s got to be synchronised to that film.
Saul Bass did that on his titles. When I studied with him I learned that he used only a couple of different type styles that were very simple. They always just faded in and out or popped on an off. Because the type apparently was not as important to him as the images. And I learned from that.
Would you think that you’re almost the inverse of that? You started as a sign maker and have a long associate with typography. Did you always view the type as more important than image?
Well, maybe at times. But really it’s the two together and they are coordinated. Sometimes the titles had to be there for legal reasons but I wanted them to be as unimportant as possible so that the images come forward and tell the story – establishing a character or introducing a street or whatever it might be. Even though my stock and trade is type and type design and graphic I didn’t want the titles to be the things that you looked at because I wanted the backgrounds to be the most important thing. At the start it was against my very existence to say that but that’s what was often needed: to deemphasise the titles.
The titles are in competition by their nature with whatever is behind them.
If, when you’re introducing a character, and you put the actors name on the screen – so many times you see the titles right over their face or blocking part of their body, when it could very easily be placed in a corner, low so it doesn’t block them. Logic plays a role here too. But when a title has to be there because there are only so many seconds and minutes and they have to be there for a minimal amount of reading time titles are going to be on the screen almost all the time so you have to deal with that. Where a title falls over a close up you want to be prudent on where you place that so it doesn’t infringe on it so that the close up can do it’s job – whatever it might be. The titles have to be complementing the job of the sequence and acting in concert with it.
All of this is the subtlety of dealing with type and graphics as it relates to titles. I always went for what was best for the film and that moment.
How closely do you work with directors to get this right.
I primarily work in the feature world. I’ve done many fewer TV projects than feature projects. Working in the feature world you’re working with the director – in a few rare cases the producer has control of the movie but it’s a directors medium. They select the editor composer and when titles are designed on a film it’s the director who selects who he wants. I work directly with them: meet them, review the film with them, discuss it, work on ideas and come up with a solution. Then I go away and produce it. During the production phase, I’ll bring different tests and effects so they can see it before I put the whole thing together.
I remember working on New York New York with Martin Scorsese. The titles drew on footage from a 1949 film called The Man I Love and I generated images from that and created a whole colourful thing with special type. And when it was completed I would normally go to the lab, make sure that it was right and I would bring it to Marty. The film was still in the editing process so I would go to the editing room. And I would have gone many times during the development of the sequence and so I arrived at the cutting room that day and said to the editor “I’ve come to show Marty the titles”. And he said, “well he’s not here, he’s in the hospital”.
This is the second film I’d done with him, the first being Taxi Driver and I remember at the end of Taxi Driver that he worked himself so hard he would drove himself into the ground to get his film done that afterwards he put himself in the hospital to recover. So I figured this was at the end of New York New York, I guess that’s what he does. I asked how, is he going to see the sequence?
He was in the hospital, but he was was so passionate about the fishing the movie that he’d had them install a Moviola editing machine in his hospital room.
So yeah, I’d have a lot of interface with directors over the whole timeframe of me working on the film, which could be two weeks to a few months. It varies on every film. I worked on some films over a year going back and forth with an idea, then shooting a test and then doing it for real and then making changes that people want. It goes on, sometimes forever with certain film.
Well, one particular one that comes to mind is Days of Heaven with Terry Malick, a well known iconoclast. A very particular and sensitive film maker. He’s difficult to deal with he doesn’t do interviews. But he’s a very sweet guy. And I had lots of fun with him.
I shot the title sequence, which was a series of still photographs, old photographs from the turn of the century, 1910s and 20s that I had to acquire from various photo services. They were the work of famous still photographers of the era. The sequence was a series of camera moves on a still and then dissolving to the next still. There were maybe 15 or 16 still in the whole sequence and it was all one piece and there were no cuts in the shots. All the titles faded in and out and sometimes over lapped in fades. So we’d decide the sequence by laying all the photos on the floor and looking at them and then change them around, put one in place of the other, switch the order. Then I would go away and prepare those still photographs for camera and shoot it with the camera dissolves all built in.
I’d make a dupe, a film copy and impose the titles over it. You have to make what you call a textless background, a background with no text for international purposes so I had to create the background sequence for the stills and once that was done I’d but the titles over it for the English audience. then it would be sold to Italy or Germany or whatever and they would put the German version of the titles over it. Anyway, when I was finished I’d bring it back to Terry and he’d want to change the order of the photos. And every time we made a change, because there were dissolves throughout, the whole lot of it had to be reshot. I must have shot it thirty times. I’d hardly ever do something more than two or three times. But Terry just kept changing. It took a lot of money and it took a lot of time. But we finally got it done and got something that Terry was happy with.
The solutions for credits sequences were often really technical, and you just alluded to the time it would take to get something right. Like, in Star Wars, you had to rig the famous opening crawl to be shot on film.
At the time in 1977 when I was doing Star Wars there was no computer, we just had the cameras and different types of dollies and tripods to shoot things with. We had a lot of animation cameras that I shot most of my work on, in some form or another. The crawl, as it’s called it, was drawn from a 1939 film called Union Pacific about the rail road. The camera was looking down empty tracks and the titles rolled down the empty tracks and it moved away from the camera. When I saw that I imagined how it could be in outer space. And then I had to create that. There was no way of knowing how they did that in the 1939 movie so we just built a rig that would do it and we shot it so many times from different angles, different speeds, different sizes and that went on for weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks. And every time I shot a new version of it I’d bring it to George Lucas to where he was doing his visual effects which was a good 15 miles from where my office was. And I’d have to wait for him for hours and he never liked it, and he’d reject it and I have to go away and do it again. And finally I found a solution.
How do you feel about your association with that project now. It’s truly iconic, right?
I’ve come to realise that. The new movie came about about three weeks ago. I have not seen it. But I’m told its the first one in the series that doesn’t have the crawl. All previous seven films, including my original, had it. There are probably different words, but I understand that the crawl is the same – because I actually haven’t seen any of the episodes following the one I did.
You never saw any of the other Star Wars?
No, I never had any interest. I comes from my recollection of working on the movie. The experience was not a good one. I did not have a good time. It was a very tough job. And when I delivered the final product, and he accepted it and cut it in it was a big relief. I’ll talk about that on the stage.
Anyway, I think it was a mistake not to include the crawl. There is a huge audience that loves that and every time they see that it launches their emotions for that film. It ignites their passion. They literally go crazy. That’s millions and millions of people around the world.
One thing you mentioned earlier that I wanted to come back to was that you talked about Saul Bass being a mentor and then later a competitor.
Saul was a very gracious and intelligent man and only treated me kindly. I first learned of him in high school from by a woman who was an art director in New York on Madison Avenue. When her husband died she became an art teacher. She exposed me and the other students to all these high quality professional design manuals that were in publication at the time. And I learned all about the designers of the day, and what they were doing, and what agencies were doing on different accounts and products. I wanted to be an art director. But Saul was the one I admired the most. And at some point, just as a graduated high school my first year in art school, I learned that Saul was right here in Los Angeles. His offices were on Sunset Boulevard. So I began pursuing him trying to meet him and finally after several weeks, he agreed to see me. He saw my work and saw I had some promise and he started encourage me and mentoring me and wanted to see me every month or so to see what I was doing and that went on for two years.
Then I went to the Navy where I was a journalist and I did a lot of graphic design. And after I left the service I went to see him and he hired me.
You both had a relationship with Scorsese. You’re recognised for Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and a number of others from that late 70s period, where as Bass did some around the time Scorsese was going Goodfellas, Casino…
Yeah I think Saul did five. Marty learned about Saul from me when I was working with him. I would talk about Saul often. Then at some point, while I continued to live in Los Angeles, Marty moved back to New York so it becomes less convenient for me to travel to him and to have meetings with him. He was also rising through the ranks of filmmakers, working on bigger budgets, making more money. So he hired Saul. Even though Saul was here in Los Angeles as well – but Saul was cream of the crop, top of the line in the design world.
There was a prestige element to hiring him?
That’s right. Saul had done a picture with Jim Brooks called Broadcast News. So he was coming back in the fold of doing titles, because he never really did them very often. Most of his work was in the corporate world and in his whole career he only did 20 or 30 films. But they were iconic films, and his work was highly original then and special. And the combination of a big movie that was successful and doing a special title sequence is the best combination.
Many films that I’ve done that were big and important and successful, but I might have done something fairly simple on the film, because that’s what it needed. But other films weren’t very successful but I might have done something very elaborate special thing that really drover the film and made it better. But because the film is not known the work isn’t seen by many people.
Yeah, I enjoyed looking through your credit list and spotting deep cuts like Mallrats and Flesh Gordon – good few slasher movies.
Yeah, I’ve memories and experiences on both those films. I remember Kevin Smith and how we got along. And Flesh Gordon – which was a crazy film with stop motion – was a little piece of junk. These guys were struggling for years putting it together and they asked me to do the titles and I did them for almost nothing. They gave me a couple of points on the film which I never saw anything from. But that influenced me a lot because…
–– At this point Dan told me a story. And by the end of it I was holding my head in my hands saying “oh my god oh my god oh my god”. He asked me not put it in print. However he said he’d tell it at some point in Dublin. ––