Kazan - the Master Director Discusses His Films: Interviews with Elia Kazan

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First time in paperback—Selected by the Los Angeles Times as one of the Best Books of 1999, these never-before-published interviews conducted in the early 1970s prove to be "an invaluable addition to film scholarship, [which] allows aspiring filmmakers to study the working methods and wisdom of one of our greatest artists."—Martin Scorsese. Illustrated with 72 photos and 19 original movie posters, this fascinating book conveys the essence of Young's hundreds of hours of interviews with Kazan, featuring a summary ...

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First time in paperback—Selected by the Los Angeles Times as one of the Best Books of 1999, these never-before-published interviews conducted in the early 1970s prove to be "an invaluable addition to film scholarship, [which] allows aspiring filmmakers to study the working methods and wisdom of one of our greatest artists."—Martin Scorsese. Illustrated with 72 photos and 19 original movie posters, this fascinating book conveys the essence of Young's hundreds of hours of interviews with Kazan, featuring a summary of each film plot and a discussion of 18 of the director's films in his own words, concluding with Young's commentary on Kazan's final film, The Last Tycoon.

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Editorial Reviews

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Illustrated with 72 photographs and 19 original movie posters, Kazan: The Master Director And His Films is based on hundreds of hours of interview during the 1970s with Elia Kazan by Jeff Young who also drew upon his considerable experience and expertise as a writer, producer, and director, and former studio head for three Major film companies. This impressive professional biography and analysis features a summary of each of Kazan's film plots and a discussion of 18 of the director's films in his own words. Of special interest is Jeff Young's commentary on Kazan's final film "The Last Tycoon". Kazan: The Master Director And His Films is well commended and highly recommended reading for all students and fans of Elia Kazan films.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781557044464
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 9/28/2000
  • Series: Newmarket Insider Filmbooks Series
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Jeff Young is a writer, producer, and director, who served as studio head for three major film companies and was involved in the production of over forty films, including Blade Runner, Emerald Forest, and This is Spinal Tap. He lives in Los Angeles.

Elia Kazan directed A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; The Sea of Grass; Boomerang; Gentleman's Agreement; Pinky; Panic in the Streets; A Streetcar Named Desire; Viva Zapata!; Man on a Tightrope; On the Waterfront; East of Eden; Baby Doll; A Face in the Crowd; Wild River; Splendor in the Grass; America, America; The Arrangement; The Visitors; and The Last Tycoon.

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The Master Director Discusses His Films
By Jeff Young

Newmarket Press

Copyright © 2000 Jeff Young
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1557044465

Chapter One


* * *

Shortly after the turn of the century, the Nolan family struggles to survive in their Brooklyn tenement. Francie (Peggy Ann Garner), full of yearning to know everything, has a special love for her father, Johnny (James Dunn), a hopeless, charming, Irish drunk. Full of the blarney, he encourages her to fulfill her dream of becoming a writer, despite the crushing financial hardships they face. It is Francie's practical, puritanical mother, Kathy (Dorothy McGuire), who has to impose order and discipline, while Johnny feeds them the promise that someday it will all be different.

Finances go from bad to disastrous when Kathy discovers that she is pregnant again. They move to a smaller apartment. Francie and her brother, Neely (Ted Donaldson), work harder; Johnny goes on more and more benders. When told by Kathy that he must tell Francie that she is going to have to quit school and go to work to help pay for the new baby, and give up her aspirations, Johnny can't do it.

Instead he fights freezing weather and endless rejection and, finally, dies trying to get a better, steady job. Francie isinconsolable. The outpouring of love from neighbors reminds Kathy of how special her Johnny was. But life must go on.

In the end Kathy accepts the proposal of marriage from Detective McShane (Lloyd Nolan) and with the approval of her children, marries him. Life will be more secure now. When Francie remarks that the baby, Annie Laurie, named after a tune her father used to sing, will never have to face the hardships they've been through, Neely comments that she won't have all the fun they had, either. Francie smiles. For her too, all of the struggles and losses have become cherished memories, a legacy of love from her father.

* * *

You've been quoted as saying you don't look back at your earlier films with much affection. Is that true?

That's a generalization. I look at some of them kindly, particularly Boomerang. I had a great time on the first film too. I met a wonderful man, Louis Lighton, the producer. We used to have long talks. He told me about a lot of old-time directors. Vic Fleming, who had directed Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, had just died. He'd been a particularly good friend of his. We used to talk about our rushes and I learned a lot from our conversations. He did Test Pilot and Captain's Courageous. I really loved that old man. He was my first bond of affection toward films. So I had a good time. The only miserable experience I had was The Sea of Grass. I should never have made that film, or I should have quit.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has an artificial look. Was it all shot on a sound stage?

Absolutely. Even the outdoor stuff was shot on the backlot. The one thing I really liked about that film was the little girl. By far the most authentic thing about the film is Peggy Ann Garner's face. Nothing compares with it except maybe Jimmy Dunn's face. He was terrific. I did a smart thing or a good thing with Dunn, something I learned from Lighton. In the theater if you needed a guy to play a drunk, you got an actor who probably had some experience with drink, but more importantly someone who you knew was good at playing those kinds of scenes. In film you try and get the real thing itself. Jimmy had been run out of movies for drinking. He was largely unemployable and felt ill at ease at the studio. But he was an awfully sweet, nice man, a hell of a guy. When I met him I said, this is it, this is Johnny Nolan, himself. He's full of watery-eyed Irish affection. He's ebullient. He feels guilty. He slinks. He and the girl are authentic, so I stayed off the background as much as possible and got onto their faces.

The film looks like a photographed stage play except for one transitional scene which is pure film. As Francie starts home from the library, she walks out of frame. The next shot is a long crane that takes us round and round an interior tenement courtyard, finally landing on Francie high up on the fire escape.

That was one piece of scenery construction they did nicely. It reminded me of New York. I was separated from my wife and children at the time, and my own feelings of nostalgia helped me with the picture. That longing to be back with my family. All that was truthful and I had that going for me. When I put my early films down, it's because I think I did better, more independent and more hardboiled work after 1952.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a very romantic, sentimental picture.

Yes, but real sentiment is good.

How did you work with Peggy Ann Garner?

There wasn't anything that Peggy had to do as Francie that I couldn't somehow awaken because it was all going on inside of her. In terms of her parents all the psychological material was there. The parallels were strong and there was a lot of affected emotion that had been conditioned, trained, ready for me. As a director, I do one good thing right at the outset. Before I start with anybody in any important role, I talk to them for a long time. I make it seem casual. The conversations have to do with their lives and before you know it, they're telling you about their wives, their mothers, their children, their infidelities and anything else they feel guilty about. You're storing it away. You're getting your material. By the time you start with an actor, you know everything about him, where to go, what to reach for, what to summon up, what associations to make for him. You have to find a river bed, a channel in their lives that is like the central channel in the part. Without their knowing it you're edging them towards the part so that the part becomes them. The story of the part is the story of their lives or an incident in their lives. You're weaving these associations in all your conversations. The work you do before you start shooting is the most important work you do. Before you shoot any big sequence, you go to dinner' with them, you lay around with them, you go to lunch with them. I know all my actors very thoroughly before I start. You're in a position of trust, and the actors who trust you continue to tell you more. They work with you in an internal way. Peggy was that way with me. She made another father of me. We used to play together like kids. I loved her. She was a marvelous little girl--so filled with longing, with unfulfilled, unrequited, and unsatisfied love. Her father was in the air force and she was always scared to death that he was going to get killed. She loved her father more than her mother, so there was a constant worry about her. One day I played on that. I didn't come straight out and say that her father could get killed, but I talked to her about where her father was and how she missed him, and I got a very good scene from that.

The actors seemed to bring an emotional quality into each scene. The scenes would then take all sorts of turns but would always resonate off of those original emotions. For instance when Johnny comes home from a night of being a singing waiter. For a moment he looks utterly beat. But he quickly shifts gears and spins a long, celebratory description of his evening to his family. After the kids go to bed, the scene turns very quiet and sad. "Someday it's all going to happen," he says, and Kathy starts to cry and berates him for being nothing but a dreamer and a fake. You watch Johnny slowly give in to the quality of suppressed desperation he walked into the room with but which he had hidden in order to make his family feel that everything was just fine. How do you get the actors to go through all of those twists and turns?

You call attention to the turns within the scene. You tell him what he thinks before he goes on to the next "beat" as they call it in the Method. Without making it a technique, you mark the turns, the developments, the stages of the scene, and it is best if you mark them with some piece of business or something else they can hold on to. In this scene I made Johnny cross to the window and do something physical so that the physical act would be associated in his mind with the psychological movement. Later, when Kathy's mood turns dark, I had her walk away from him. That way you keep the actors, who have read and reread and rehearsed and rerehearsed the scene, from jumping ahead to the next "beat" before they have truly experienced the last one.

How specifically do you prepare a scene like that? How do you get them started on the right note?

That depends on the kind of training the actors have had. Part of the Stanislavsky Method as it was developed in this country has to do with "given circumstances." You not only talk about them, you create in the actor the given circumstances with which he comes into the scene. All good actors try to do something about where they are coming from. If they're in a hurry or have been having an argument or whatever. In the Stanislavsky Method you do more. You couldn't talk any "Method" to Jimmy Dunn. He was just a sweet Irishman. But what I would do is walk him around and talk to him about what had happened in his life. He'd tell me and before long I got him going. I'd do it informally, indirectly. Later in my career with actors like Brando or Malden, I'd very often improvise the scene that took place off camera just before the one we were about to shoot. That way, the actor comes into a scene having actually played the scene which theoretically occurred off camera. But with Jimmy Dunn I would just talk to him about it. He was very open. He'd hear me cuss somebody and before you knew it, he was in the right mood for the scene.

Would you talk to him about what the off-camera scene might have been like--his night as a singing waiter, for example--or would you go into a personalization taken from his own life?

You never do it directly. If he catches you dealing with his own life, it will create a block. You do it ostensibly on a purely made-up basis, you create a fantasy, but you tie in elements from the actor's life. You bring it as close as possible, so that the person's emotions are affected. It's very easy. It's part of play. With Jimmy all you had to do was mention a producer who fired him and you were away. You use very simple, naive techniques like that. It was the same with Peggy. They were both like children. Jimmy Dunn was a beautiful child. He was, I thought, a wonderful man. He felt deeply guilty. So did Spencer Tracy, except he controlled it. Tracy was another Irish drinker, but he was able to defend himself because of his position in the industry. Jimmy Dunn had no position. With Tracy I did none of this. Tracy worked by himself. He was very good with the activity within the scene without any of these techniques. Anyway, going back to Jimmy Dunn, I treated him and Peggy the same way. I also threw them together a lot. I would tell Jimmy about her father being away and how much she missed him. I got him concerned about her. And I would tell her she was important to Jimmy and got her to love Jimmy. I have often tried to create something behind the scenes, that was close to what has to be in the scenes. For instance, there is a scene later where Johnny and Kathy decide that he must tell Francie that she has to quit school and go to work. There is no other way to afford the baby that's coming. Johnny goes in determined, but before he can get to it, Francie tells him how much she wants to be a writer and his resolve melts. I didn't need to do a lot of schmoozing before we shot that scene, as important and emotional as it was. The values were obvious and by then Jimmy loved Peggy as if she were his own. How could any feelingful person not want Peggy Ann Garner to be anything she wanted?

Did you rehearse the film before you started shooting?

Yes, but like a play. It's very well staged in the sense that there's constant business which makes the scenes in the kitchen seem particularly real. It is also much more intricately staged than films I did later.

Did you improvise much during rehearsal?

Very little. I never improvise except with actors who are trained to a certain extent in the Method. During my career I changed my whole way of working several times. I did A Tree Grows in Brooklyn like a stage play. I always varied in one way from the so-called Method. I didn't work with every actor in the same way. It depended on their individual training. If you make someone feel like they are lacking, or out of it, all of a sudden their confidence is gone. You mustn't score off an actor--or anyone else--for your own favor. You've got to keep their confidence up. If their method is good, you respect the way they work. And you must be careful about the actors you pick. The more power I got in the business, the more I chose just the actors I wanted. For a while I was very lucky. In On the Waterfront every actor was someone I had known and worked with. The same with Splendor in the Grass and Wild River. There's one actor in Tree I always admired: Lloyd Nolan. There was nothing to do with him except let him roll. He played the Irish cop. He had a clear and definite role in the community and in the end courts Kathy, asking her children for their approval. I like the Irish a lot. My best friend in college was an Irishman. I love their dignity and respectability. The way Nolan sat in the parlor and talked to her was beautiful. So you see I like the film. It's just that I think later I did much more ambivalent work, which is more in keeping with the way I see life actually, without villains and heroes.

There aren't villains and heroes in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. They're all heroic--even Dorothy McGuire.

Kathy is the first of my puritan characters. There is a strain all through my pictures dealing with puritanism.

There's a puritan and an intellectual, and often they are the same person.

Dorothy McGuire was a puritan intellectual. Puritans often have problems with their own rigidity. They're touching to me because they're trying to make the world over and it's always a gallant but hopeless fight. My first wife was that way.

Were you involved with the editing?

Somewhat, but not really. The producer supervised it. I was always consulted, but it was being cut at the same time that I was shooting. The producer was boss in those days: he engaged the director who directed the scenes and the actors but he always functioned as an arm of the producer. The producer would then engage an editor who would take the director's rushes and cut them as he was told to by the producer.

Did that seem strange?

Strange! It's totally inorganic. Cutting is as much a part of directing as any other process. But to me as a young guy coming out to Hollywood from New York to do my first film, it seemed like a cooperative, decent way to work, and Louis Lighton was very square with me. The system seemed strange and outrageous only when I got to The Sea of Grass, which Pandro Berman produced. In those days the producer controlled everything. He prepared the script. He usually wrote it along with a writer, but he didn't put his name on it. Bud Lighton wrote A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I never met the guys who signed the screenplay.

If many directors were pretty much restricted to staging the scenes with the actors, the cameraman must have played an even bigger role then than they do now in the "look" of a picture.

Absolutely. When Louis Lighton engaged a cameraman, he chose one specifically who would help me--Leon Shamroy. Although I'd studied filmmaking a little, and made some documentaries in New York and Tennessee, I had no experience with this kind of feature film. Lighton kept everything well organized. We were a good team. There was a very warm, gentle harmony between us. We never had a harsh word, but the system itself was terrible.

It took a while to develop a visual style of your own.

I didn't do that until Panic in the Streets, my fifth film. I forced myself to do it on that one. The first time I used a visual style to speak thematically was Viva Zapata!

In Tree the photography was very simple, old-fashioned, and straightforward. The lighting was used as visual underscoring. If there was a tender, sentimental moment, there would always be a highlight in the eyes. There's one interior scene where it's raining outside. The light comes pouring in through the rairdrops on the windowpanes, casting a shadow on Francie's face as if a tear were running, down her cheek.

Every trick to try to make things sentimental, romantic and affectionate:

Did you participate in those choices?

I wasn't even really aware they were choices. I thought it was just camerawork. I was learning about making movies while I was making one. Only when I looked at it later did I think, "This is really mushy and not like me."

Speaking of mushy, let's talk about The Sea of Grass.


Excerpted from Kazan by Jeff Young Copyright © 2000 by Jeff Young. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

What the Catcher Said to the Pitcher: An Interview with Elia Kazan
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
The Sea of Grass
Gentleman's Agreement
Panic in the Streets
A Streetcar Named Desire
Viva Zapata!
Man on a Tightrope
On the Waterfront
East of Eden
Baby Doll
A Face in the Crowd
Wild River
Splendor in the Grass
America America
The Arrangement
The Visitors
The Last Tycoon
Afterword: Himself Undiminished
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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 1, 2007

    Kazan: Man with a Backbone filled with Compassion

    In the early 1970s author Jeff Young conducted in-depth interviews with the then high-flying director Elia Kazan. However due to contractual obligations Kazan had made with a previous biographer, Mr. Young's 358-paged hardback did not see publication until 1999. Kazan: The Master Director Discusses His Films is an outstanding book and packed with brutally honest, yet heart-felt observations by Kazan about some of America's greatest actors and movie technicians. Sadly, around page 155, into about the fortieth page of the seventy-eight page chapter covering 'On the Waterfront', most non-actor/director types will stop reading, because at that point, even for this actor, the book becomes a challenge to complete. I admit that my difficulties may have come from the fact that I had not seen any of writer-director-producer Kazan's movies. Inside Kazan are thirty-two pages of excellent glossy black and white photos accompanied with the exact text from the book, however, since the scenes are from many decades past, I would have like to have seen the name of every actor listed in every photo. Author Jeff Young also asks some startlingly blunt questions of Kazan and does not always agree with his subject, especially on the testimony of Kazan during the 1952 Army-McCarthy hearings. Sadly, Mr. Young fits the mold of Hollywood, as the hidden-coward-communist's of the nineteen fifties Burbank were held in higher esteem than director Kazan's fearless and patriotic exposure of them. However, as he states in the book, he did not reveal any communists who were not already known to congressional investigators. We read fifteen in-depth interviews with Kazan, from his 1945 A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to his 1972 release of The Visitors. Especially for actors, it is totally interesting to learn how Kazan 'who died in 2003' worked with not only the thespians, but with everyone involved with getting a movie made. I would be totally jazzed to work with a director displaying his level of people-savvy. Elia Kazan worked with many now major (and many now dead) actors in their first movie roles, a few being: James Dean, Marlon Brando, Andy Griffith and James Woods. All in all, Kazan is a must-read for all actors and directors and a great read, for the old-time movie aficionado.

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