‘Action!’ presents nineteen outstanding interviews with directors past and present, from around the world, working in a variety of genres, budgets and production environments from major studios to indie and DIY. The result is a vibrant group portrait of the filmmaking art, a kind of festival in words that explores everything from the enormous creative and personal satisfactions to the challenges and frustrations of the process.
About the Author
Gary Morris publishes and edits ‘Bright Lights Film Journal’ and is the author of the monograph ‘Roger Corman’ (1985) in the prestigious Twayne Theatrical Arts Series.
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Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran
By Gary Morris
Wimbledon Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2009 Gary Morris
All rights reserved.
Angel in Exile: Allan Dwan
by Howard Mandelbaum and Gary Morris
In conversation as in filmmaking, Allan Dwan (1886–1981) is a master storyteller. He savors details, builds suspense, sketches characters broadly yet deftly, and never allows the pace to flag. A genuine affection for people–tempered by a mischievous sense of humor–illuminates every yarn. In a career spanning five decades starting in 1911, Dwan's attitude toward morally ambiguous characters remained sympathetic. Gamblers, loose women, outlaws and outcasts are presented with understanding. We're encouraged to enjoy the extravagant nastiness of the villains and to view simple folk without condescension. Although Dwan retained the pictorialism and the melodramatic plot devices of the silent screen, his generous stance defies time. He continued to grow during the sound era, enjoying a large measure of creative freedom making color westerns, adventures, and melodramas for producer Benedict Bogeaus. Even the slightest of the series (Pearl of the South Pacific and Escape to Burma [both 1955]) are graced by ravishing images and smoothly flowing narratives. Cattle Queen of Montana (1954) has almost nonstop action against magnificent locations. Even better is Passion (1954), a moving story of romance and revenge. Silver Lode (1954), Tennessee's Partner (1955) and Slightly Scarlet (1956) are masterpieces; human stories handled with total formal control.
Prior to signing with Bogeaus, Dwan spent nine fruitful years at Republic Studios. His visual inventiveness and sense of tempo enlivened a variety of projects including small-town pieces (Rendezvous with Annie ; Driftwood ; The Inside Story ); delirious Vera Ralston-John Carroll romances (Surrender ; and Belle Le Grand ); lightweight musicals (Calendar Girl ; and I Dream of Jeanie ); semi-satiric westerns (Montana Belle ; and The Woman They Almost Lynched ); and tender war films (Sands of Iwo Jima ; Flight Nurse ; and The Wild Blue Yonder ). At the time we interviewed him (October and November, 1978), Dwan had just put the finishing touches on a script entitled A Bullet with Love. Not knowing what to expect, we wondered if at 94 Dwan was strong enough to discuss his career. We should not have worried. The vitality he injected into tepid screen material was bracingly present, and we left each encounter feeling entertained and enriched.
We were disappointed that, with the exception of Sands of Iwo Jima, Dwan expressed little pride in his Republic or Bogeaus productions. The 1910s and 1920s brought him wealth and fame and dominated his reminiscences. He seemed bemused by our preoccupation with his later output. As we led the interview toward John Payne and Rhonda Fleming, Dwan would slyly steer us toward Douglas Fairbanks and Gloria Swanson. But late, middle or early, Dwan's vast cinematic output remains a source of infinite delight.
The period we wanted to discuss with you is the late forties and fifties–at Republic and with Benedict Bogeaus at RKO.
Why do you want to dwell on that? Is that supposed to be something interesting?
We'd like to cover some territory Peter Bogdanovich [in his book, Allan Dwan: The Last Pioneer, 1971] didn't discuss in great detail. He's probably fonder of your silents and Fox periods. But there's a lot of vitality in your postwar work, especially the color movies of the fifties.
You know, that's suicidal. That's the way I feel about those old pictures. I hated every goddamn inch of every one of them.
Well, people don't agree with you.
Well, [Herbert] Yates wished that dame of his on me. And what can you do with Vera Hruba Ralston?
She seems to try hard. She's sincere.
We'll give her a "T" for trying. I wish we had a "T" for all the money we lost on her. Whenever I worked, or cared a damn about what I was doing, I was absolutely autonomous. There was nobody around. And if Yates came on my set, I'd tell him to get the hell off. I would. I'd say, "What do you want? See me in the office, then, not here. You're disturbing me." And he'd go away. And I did that with most of them. And most of them knew that. Most good producers would let you alone. Turn you loose and say, "Give me what you can." But some of them would just grab you by the ass and hold on all through the picture, and send you notes every three minutes. Well, I had notes stacked up, and I used to take a whole bunch of them and dump them in the toilet, especially their private ones, so they couldn't use them. Jack Warner was the worst note-writer I ever knew. He wrote them every minute. Anything that came to his mind, he wrote a note. Well, all the fellows hated that sort of thing, but when you've got a job where they said, "Make a picture out of this," you made the picture. And of course, there's always the budget. And the budget's guarded by eight sycophants that are ass-length above the manager, just a little lower, about the kissing height. And they'd come around and get in the habit of giving orders, and then they'd get a very bad time. But now, Ralston–she was a swell girl personally, tried to be. But under the circumstances, everybody was catering to her. In fact, they nearly broke her neck. Every time she'd fix a chair for herself, somebody'd come and readjust it and she'd hit the floor and get hurt. You'd think a girl like Vera moved smoothly, from your seats. It took 14 kicks in the ass to get her across the stage. She was terrified. I used to put skates on her and say, "Try it that way." And she'd take that seriously and thump through the scene with her skates on. And she'd say, "It doesn't feel good." And I'd say, "Take 'em off." On her feet, for some reason, she was nervous. She hadn't learned the basic things. Once they took one of the empty stages and built a skating rink, so the old man could learn to skate. And they'd go la-de-da-da-da [waltzing effect] up and down the damn rink and everybody in the studio would go look and applaud. And our picture would stand still until the skating lesson was over. We got rid of him once. We got him into St. Joseph's Hospital, to get his toe operated on or something, so we had peace over there for two weeks. He got out and everybody'd step on his toe and say, "Sorry," and lay him up for another day.
You tended to work with the same craftsmen over and over at Republic, like the cinematographer Reggie Lanning.
Well, I liked Reggie. He was a good cameraman. Excellent. And I always did that. If I found a fellow I liked at the studio, I kept asking for him. Because they're awfully important. I finally got a hold of John Alton at one of the studios. He was very pompous and aristocratic, but he turned out to be a great photographer. And that's what you want. You need that. It's half the game.
Was it difficult to get Alton?
No. Difficult to get rid of him. [Laughs]. Oh no. He came with the rent. That was at RKO. Well, I'm plugging myself. All the stuff I did at RKO, though Bogeaus' name was on it, he just did what you asked him to. Alton came to me with Bogeaus. I went there because J. R. Grainger, who was president at that time, for [Howard] Hughes, was also the sales manager. And they were scared to death of Bogeaus, because they thought he'd come in there and spend a lot of money and wouldn't get results. So I was hired by Grainger to come in and hold his budgets down, and keep him from blowing his wig, because he'd shoot half a script that you weren't going to use. In fact, I had to battle with him for script-cutting. He thought I was trying to ruin him. That was on Silver Lode. So we cut it down to what it ought to be, at the price we were supposed to spend.
The Bogeaus movies are very handsome, especially Slightly Scarlet and Escape to Burma.
Oh yes. Escape to Burma looked good. One of the things that occurred on Escape to Burma–again it's a matter of thievery–Dick Powell had come in there to RKO to make a picture with John Wayne, The Conqueror .All those magnificent sets were built for him and they were still trembling with heat when I walked in and changed them to Burma. I finished Burma before Powell finished his picture. He started weeks ahead of me. I was chasing him out of his own sets. He was going out of his mind. Those were magnificent sets. So we got them for nothing and got our picture that way.
We just saw Slightly Scarlet in New York. It was interesting especially because it was a color movie and you used such heavy shadow work. It was reminiscent of film noir, those very downbeat forties movies that use very few sources of light.
Well, again I was using Alton on that. And Alton would say to me, "What painter are we working with today?" And I'd say, "Definitely Rembrandt." And that was Rembrandt, you see, because he goes in for the heavy shadows and the highlight coming through them. If you were doing a light, happy one, you'd go for a light, happy painter.
You used the talents of the Lydecker brothers at Republic several times.
They were great. I think Sands of Iwo Jima had a lot of great stuff. Of course, we had the marines in there and they knew what to do and that made a difference. We used to say, "Give me 250 men walking, and they're coming back from battle–give 'em the attitude." And the officers would say, "All right, piss in your pants and get up on the hill and drag it, boys, drag it." And they'd drag it. And one guy had a musket on his shoulder, and the officer said, "Get that goddamn gun off your shoulder. You haven't got the strength to carry it. Drag it!" And they'd drag it. And the officer would have these orders going out, and he'd sit there and say, "Oh, isn't that a wonderful scene I'm making?" What a director he was! And all you'd have to do is say, "When do I holler 'cut'?" That was my first lesson in directing, and I never forgot it. They taught me three words. First, they told me to say, "Camera." And the next thing I'd say was, "Action." And the next thing, "Cut." That's the secret. You get those three words and remember them and you're a director.
How did you generally work with actors? Did you like to rehearse extensively or did you prefer improvisation?
It depends on the actor. You give actors scripts and they read them and you see two actors together–girl and boy–and you say to them, "Get together. Run over your lines." And they do. And so you say to them, "Have you got them? Do you remember them?" And the girl will say, "I hope I do," and say to the dresser, [falsetto] "Prompt me if I make a mistake." But in our racket it didn't work very well to have somebody yell lines at them. I'd tell them where to move and when to get up, when to get out. If they had difficulty with their lines or their expressions or their character, you impart that to them, and they give it back to you, like mirrors.
You often get much more sexual performances out of women than, say, Griffith. I'm thinking of people like Rhonda Fleming, Debra Paget, Arlene Dahl.
Oh, he wouldn't know what to do with those women. He'd stop them the first time they made a "gesture." Arlene Dahl was a very sexy woman, and anything you'd ask her to do, she'd do–within reason.
You seem to have sympathy for "bad women." Griffith tended to prefer madonnas.
All women are bad women until you tame them down.
Barbara Stanwyck's very athletic in the movies you made with her: Cattle Queen of Montana, Escape to Burma.
Yes, well, she's a fighter. She was a very determined girl. She had to know "why" about everything. You couldn't say to her, "As you approach that corner, there may be somebody lurking there. Go with ease." She'd look around and think awhile. And you didn't tell her to pick up a club, but I used to watch her and I'd see her pick up a brick and slip it in her pocketbook. She'd get ready to round that corner and she had a grip on the thing. If anybody had come around the corner, he'd have been brained. There was nobody there, of course. Just her attitude. But that was her. Another girl would say, "Oh yes, this looks just right. Going around the corner." And she'd get bopped in the nose–"How dare you!"
How about working with children? That must be more difficult.
They're easy. That's a cinch. You don't work with them. They do it all. When I worked with Shirley Temple [Heidi ; Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm ; Young People ], I'd tell her mother what I wanted her to do, and her mother would coach her and she'd do it just that way. If I wanted it done a little differently, I'd tell the mother. She was always in the background. She never stuck her nose in. But the little kid was precocious, and I had to use that energy, 'cause it was bouncing all over the place. And when you had 50 or 60 more kids around, they were all trying to imitate her.
How were you able to work so fast? Did you do a lot of pre-planning?
Well, secretly, yes, I guess so. I had a packet of notes around. Basically, it's all inside you. You're a machine, and you're going to make a motion picture–that's all. That's the whole answer. And when you pick up that bunch of marbles, you've got a lot on you because you've got all the departments to think about, all the things you want to do. You've got your lighting to think about, your place to go to, what kind of background you're going to have, how much money you're going to have. And there's the big stopper. 'Cause if somebody says, "There's no limit to your money," then you can say, "Ah, let's really go on this one. We can get a few scenes up in the Alps, a couple more down in the tropics, travel around a little, maybe buy a yacht." And I've said this to companies, "We'll buy a yacht and do that yacht stuff aboard the yacht." They'd say, "Buy a yacht?" They'd think you'd gone out of your mind. "Yes, you need a yacht. The company hasn't got one. Everybody's got a yacht but you." And they'd think, "That's right, we haven't got a yacht." And the old man's thinking, "Yeah, I could take the kids out there on the weekends."
We've seen lots of your movies with audiences who respond to the action–the fights, the stunts. The narrative pace really seems to reach people. How did you manage to tell the stories–sometimes really complicated stories–so smoothly and so swiftly?
Well, that's hard to say, except that that's all you've got in your mind. There isn't any interruption. When you're telling a story, generally you don't cut and say, "Oh, that reminds me of ..." and tell them something extraneous. You're there to tell the story and tell it right through. And you realize you can tire an audience out with a certain pace. You make them tense, but if they stay that way too long, they're going to get tired and fall apart and not like it. You plan your story so that it is relaxed, then you pick them up again. Because you're playing with human emotions. Your audience is supposedly emoting with these people–that's the intent. And if you keep that emotion too tight and too tense, they're going to let go and say, "Now I don't believe it anymore." You wear yourself out, like you do with any tension. You get to the point where you let go. Better to let go with them and go do something else. Then the other thing you do, of course, is cut it properly. And that's very important.
Excerpted from Action! by Gary Morris. Copyright © 2009 Gary Morris. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents
Foreword, by Jonathan Rosenbaum; Editor’s Preface, by Gary Morris; Introduction: The Art and Craft of Interviewing, by Bert Cardullo; I. Going Hollywood: Masters of Studio Style; II. Tickets to the Dark Side: Festival Favorites; III. Blows Against the Empire: Indie Godfathers; IV. Edgeplay: Avant-Garde Auteurs; V. Women in Revolt: Artist-Activists; VI. The Canon: Brilliance without Borders
What People are Saying About This
''Action!' is a treasure-trove: nineteen rare interviews with a wide variety of film directors, all conducted by writers who are truly savvy about their subjects. The book as a whole adds up to a practical PhD in what it takes to put personal vision up on the screen, both then and now.' —Jeanine Basinger, Chair, Film Studies Department, Wesleyan University
'Gary Morris and his distinguished collaborators are expert interviewers, deftly guiding conversations from tiny but illuminating details of practice to the highest and brightest flights of interpretation.' —Dave Kehr, film critic of the ‘New York Times’
'I dare anyone to squeeze between two covers a more varied, useful and flat out entertaining sampling of the personalities that make the seventh art the liveliest.' —David Hudson, IFC.com
'A 'must-own' for anyone seriously interested in developing a source-book library on film directing. These are the greats and the near-greats, many of whom have rarely been interviewed. The editor did a wonderful job!' —Eric Sherman, author of ‘Directing the Film’