The American Film Institute has tapped into the considerable knowledge of Hollywood's finest practitioners from the start, inviting directors, producers and scribes to conduct seminars for eager acolytes. AFI founder George Stevens Jr. culled through years of these sessions to present informative, witty and occasionally cranky takes on filmmaking from the masters.

The American Film Institute has tapped into the considerable knowledge of Hollywood’s finest practitioners from the start, inviting directors, producers and scribes to conduct seminars for eager acolytes. AFI founder George Stevens Jr. culled through years of these sessions to present informative, witty and occasionally cranky takes on filmmaking from the masters. Among the notables included in this hefty tome: bon vivant director Raoul Walsh, who stole the body of John Barrymore to greet Errol Flynn when he returned from a night on the town, Billy Wilder, “Sweet Smell of Success” scribe Ernest Lehmann, John Huston and “High Noon” helmer Fred Zinnemann. Excerpts from the chapters follow below:

Raoul Walsh (Feb. 16, 1972)

How many films did you work on without actually being credited as director?

Some 20 or 30, probably. You know, the director gets sick, or he’d leave or do something else — have a fight with the star. Or if he’s had too much of the laughing water. Of course, there was a lot of laughing water around in those days.

The last one I remember was with Bette Davis. John Huston was directing her in a picture, and they had a fight about how the picture was going to end just before the end of the shoot. She wanted it to end one way and he wanted it to end another way, so he took a walk. Warner called me up and said, “Raoul, this is one tough dame and I think you can handle her.” That was the way he approached it. He said, “Will you go over to Pasadena and make this ending so we can get this thing done and get this dame out of the studio.” Nice girl, but really tough. She’d demand this, that and the other thing. So I got into a car with Bette. On the way to Pasadena we stopped for dinner. While we were having a drink there, the unit manager came in and handed me the script with the new ending. I said, “Bette, this will probably interest you,” and passed it over. She read it and you never heard such a volley of oaths in your life. The ceiling went off from her screaming and yelling. People started to get up, but I finally talked her into it after a couple of shots of laughing water.

Fritz Lang (June 13, 1973)

How do you like your coffee, Mr. Lang?”

Black … as my soul.

Frank Capra (April 5, 1977)

What about your years at Columbia?

You’ve got to believe in yourself and make the other fellow believe that you believe in yourself. And this, of course, I picked up from Harry Cohn. To deal with Harry Cohn you had to have a lot of brass, otherwise you couldn’t get through the door. If he could bully you, out you went, no matter how creative you were. He trusted people who could stand up to his bullying; then he would sleep better at night knowing you were spending his money. If he thought you had enough guts, then you might also have enough talent. And by the crude measure of guts he raised that rinky-dink joint he had down on poverty row into a major studio. An awful lot of fine, creative people left his studio simply because they couldn’t take his bullying.

Cohn was all kinds of a bastard, but he was also a terrific man to work for because he challenged you every day.

Howard Hawks (April 23, 1976)

You’re one of those American directors lauded by the French critics. How do you feel about that?

You know, I don’t go in for analysis. Every time I go to France, I meet with 30 French directors who know most of the dialogue of my pictures and ask me questions. They are very interested in how you make pictures. They go into it and analyze it and read things into it that I had no idea of when I was making the movie. In Europe my name is three times as big as John Wayne’s in the posters. I make sure those posters are where everybody can see them.

William Wyler (Dec. 17, 1975)

By and large (working with producer Sam Goldwyn) was a very harmonious and fruitful relationship, wasn’t it?

Fruitful, yes. Harmonious, not always. For instance, he wanted me to do a number of pictures which I refused to do. I didn’t have complete freedom of choice in my contract, but if he wanted me to do a film I didn’t want to do, I would simply leave town and go to Europe. I had a three-year contract run on for five years because I would be suspended and extended. He’d say, “Here, make a picture called ‘Woman Chases Man.’ Make a thing called ‘The Cowboy and the Lady.’ Make a picture called ‘Marco Polo.’ ” I would say, “No, I won’t make them. They’re terrible. I don’t like the stories. And we’d have fights over that. But when he agreed with me, when he bought stories like “Dodsworth,” “Dead End” or “The Little Foxes,” or when I got him to buy the script of “Wuthering Heights,” I said, “Great,” and we went ahead and worked in relative harmony.”

Ernest Lehman (March 31, 1976)

You’ve said that you insisted on black-and-white for “Virginia Woolf.” Why?

We felt that the dialogue would read differently in color, that the characters themselves would read differently emotionally in color. We had a chance to see how right we were, because at the time, ABC was shooting a documentary special on Mike Nichols, which was never released. They were shooting it in color while we were shooting in black-and-white. I got a chance to see Elizabeth Taylor, as Martha, in color, and everything changed completely. We knew that all our efforts with wig and makeup to make her look older than she was — she was 33 and we wanted her to look about 48 — would go right down the drain in color. Inasmuch as the movie played totally at night, black-and-white seemed right for the emotional tone.

John Huston (Oct. 23, 1969)

Do you allow your actors the opportunity to deviate from the script at all?

I give a lot of room to the actors, but I don’t look to them to make a creative contribution to the dialogue. I think in a sense you’re deceiving yourself if you think you can wing it on the set. It has happened, and there are certain directors who have done it with a degree of success, but not me.

How do you tell the actors that you don’t want them to be creative with the lines?

Say, “Shut up.” I never ran into this trouble, though I’m told it occurs.

Billy Wilder (Dec. 13, 1978)

“Sunset Boulevard” has a real deep cynicism about Hollywood. I wonder what your feelings are about Hollywood at this point in your career.

Totally different, of course, because in those days there were designated, well-known and advertised enemies or fortresses to take: Warner Bros., Paramount, MGM, Harry Cohn, Louis B. Mayer, Darryl Zanuck. That’s all kind of washed out. Now you’d never know which studio is still going to be there next Monday, who is going to be head of what studio, whose ass you have to lick. It’s a whole different game today. How can you wage a war against such corporations?

Fred Zinnemann (Feb. 22, 1984)

What’s your opinion of the kind of pictures studios are turning out now?

The studios by and large are run by people who don’t know anything about show business because they’re primarily moneymen, whereas in the old days the studio heads were people who had enormous practical experience and were showmen. That is what’s missing to a large extent today in the upper echelons. But more important and more dangerous, I think, is the uniformity of stuff that’s coming out. Our only defense is to remember the standards of our forefathers and the kinds of pictures they made.

David Lean (Dec. 12, 1984)

Is there a theme that runs through your movies?

No. The critics are always doing this. They’re always saying, “This is a continuation of that.” But it isn’t. You fall in love with one, and then with another. Noel Coward gave me good advice. He used to say, “Always come out of a different hole.”

Alfred Hitchcock (Feb. 3, 1970)

If you previsualize all of your films, what kind of joy do you get out of directing?

I don’t, I’d just as soon not do it. The moment the script is finished and the film is visualized, that is the end of the creative part as far as I’m concerned. I’d just as soon not shoot the picture.”

Why don’t you let someone else shoot the picture after you’ve got that joy out of it?

They might screw it up.

Conversations With the Great Moviemakers Of Hollywood's Golden Age At The American Film Institute (Excerpt)

Random House; 710 Pages; $35


By George Stevens Jr.
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