New York — Bob Cohen he was asking for trouble. He wanted to make a romantic film, focusing on a three-way love affair, and set it in Boston during the 1960s -- a time of great revolution, and protest against the war in Vietnam.
According to Cohen, "The atitude people had was: How dare you make a romantic movie about that period? We'd rather be bored and agonized by that period."
And yet, Cohen continues, "Not everyone was obsessed with the war back then. Most of us were just as involved in falling n love and going to college. True, we thought about the war, but that was largely because we'd be fighting in it when we finished school. There was a lot of self-interest in the antiwar movement, as well as moral and ethical concern."
As Cohen sees it, "A Small Circle of Friends" is part of a coincidental "American quartet" of movies that "deal with every aspect of the war in Vietnam." Francis Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" saw the war as a "a rock'n'roll psychedelic experience and tried to become the war itself"; Michael Cimino's "The Deer Hunter" dealt with "the blue-collar involvement in the war, and treated the war metaphorically." Hal Ashby's "Coming Home" concerned itself with "the veterans, and what happened when they returned home."
As for "A Small Circle of Friends," it focuses on "the students who didn't want to go, and tried to bring the war to a halt. It's about the home fromt."
Cohen didn't expect his film to form part of a tetralogy, but now that he perceives the situation this way, he is fascinated by it. "Usually you think of literature as the medium that arises in response to a national trauma," he says, "In this case, however, it's film that has coped with the subject. All of these are original screenplays, written directly for the movies -- not scripts based on novels."
Audience and critical response to "A Small Circle of Friends" has been mixed. Some have found it too "cute." Some have been offended by its reference to sexual experimentation, and by its occasional trite handling of distasteful material. Yet some have responded strongly to its characters and respected the seriousness and scope of the film, which covers about three years in the lives of two young Harvard students and their friend at Radcliffe. Plotwise, it's a kind of "Jules and Jim Go to College." Thematically, it raises most of the important issues associated with the '60s in cities like Boston and New York.
The screenplay, written by Ezra Sacks with the collaboration of director Cohen, deals with students at ivy-covered colleges in the Northeast. At first, the filmmakers worried that their subject might be too "elitist" for a mass audience.
"That's why we made one character a kid from the streets," says Cohen, referring to Leo Da Vinci, one of the heroes. "And we are very careful to show another character working at a part-time job. Not all college kids come from posh backgrounds. I came from a small town, not from a fancy prep school, and I went to Harvard.
"As for audiences responding to the film, I have a strong belief that human emotion is universal," Cohen continues. "Joy is joy, whether you're rich or poor."
To prove his point, he "dared" United Artists -- the distributor of the film -- to "sneak preview" the movie in "the hardest area they could think of." The result was a shoeing in Albuquerque, N.M.
"I felt that if it worked there, it would work anywhere," Cohen says. "It was a real acid test. The audience didn't know anything about Harvard, or rich kinds, or even college. When they walked in, I wanted to run out and jump on a plane. I was afraid there would be nobody in the theater when the show ended.
"But on the contrary, everyone was fascinated. They laughed in the right places, and wept and applauded at the end. On the questionnaires we gave them, 98 percent said they would recommend the movie to their friends."
Cohen went to Harvard at about the time "A Small Circle of Friends" takes place. While there, he spent $100,000 of the university's money to make the official Harvard recruiting film. After graduating, he became a "reader" for a film and talent agency. One day he stumbled on a screenplay that he liked, and recommended it to his employers. It was called "The Sting." And it became one of the biggest hits of the '70s.
While still in his early 20s, he started producing TV movies at Twentieth Century-Fox. By age 30, he had produced six theatrical films, including "The Wiz." He made his directorial debut with "A Small Circle of Friends."
Cohen says: "I wanted to do a film on the '60s, because that's when I came of age. Originally, I was supposed to be the producer only, and someone else was going to direct it.But he wanted to make it less romantic and more intellectual, with lots of people sitting around and discussing politics. On the contrary, I wanted to show how people's live interacted. I wanted to show the intensity of relationships, not a bunch of kids going to SDS meetings. I believe that if Jean-Jacques Rousseau could pick another time to be born, it would be the '60s. It was a very romantic age. . . ."
Though many critics have reponded in a mixed or negative fashion to the movie , Cohen maintains that it's "the kind of film I've always wanted to make. It's like the old Frank Capra pictures. It tells you that life has its troubles, but people are essentially good at heart and want good things for each other."
The star of "A Small Circle of Friends" is Brad Davis, whose previous film was "Midnight Express." More recently, he has completed the starring role in "A Rumor of War," in which he plays a young man who joins the Marines and goes to fight in Vietnam. It will be a four-hour special on CBS.
Davis likes to do movies "that say something I'd like to be a part of." He works on instinct, in his acting style and in his selection of projects. When developing a character, he says, "I don't use Methods. I just let it come."
He is happy with the way "A Small Circle of Friends" turned out. "I start with a feeling," he says. "Then, much later, I see the first cut of the film. If I see that original feeling, I'M happy. And in this case, it turned out better than I'd ever expected."
As the director, Cohen encouraged maximum participation of all his actors in the development of the movie. In the end, he feels they helped him create a realistic, and optimistic, look at tha '60s and their aftermath.
In the view of the film, this was a time of radical experimentation. Yet, Cohen says, "When it was over, we were reabsorbed in the middle class. We became our parents, but not really. We had gone through a crucible -- albeit acomfortable crucible, with Dad paying the tuition -- and we were changed by it. . . ."