Delightfully rambling and unexpectedly moving, Daniel Raim’s fly-on-the-wall portrait of legendary production designer Robert Boyle and his illustrious friends stands as a bittersweet love letter to some of old Hollywood’s least-heralded artisans. “Something’s Gonna Live” is neither history lesson nor traditional biography, and Raim makes little effort to dictate the flow of conversations, which often spin around in circles and repeat themselves, but this docu will surely be treasured by cinephiles and should do fine specialty business on DVD.
A former student of Boyle’s at the American Film Institute (where, amazingly, he continues to teach at age 100), Raim has been filming his mentor since he made him the subject of his Oscar-nominated short “The Man on Lincoln’s Nose” in 2001. Here he captures him in wide-ranging chats with fellow production designers Henry Bumstead and Albert Nozaki, as well as cinematographers Conrad Hall and Haskell Wexler (who shot some of the docu) and storyboard illustrator Harold Michelson. Of the six, only Wexler and Boyle are still alive, and the overtones of a great generation edging into extinction give the film a melancholy air.
Though they were largely seen — and largely saw themselves — as simple craftsmen at the time, these men helped create some of Hollywood’s most indelible imagery, and it’s incredible to hear such accomplished veterans discuss their work without the pomposity or self-regard one would expect of directors or actors of similar renown. They all seem to simply consider themselves lucky to have been able to work in film (though Nozaki was dealt a number of bad hands, imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp during WWII and later forced into early retirement due to failing eyesight) and seem to genuinely delight in one another’s company.
Film primarily centers around Boyle, Bumstead and Nozaki, who met as undergrads at USC before going on to work for Paramount. In footage shot in 2003, the three men take a minivan to the studio lot to revisit their old haunts. Later, Boyle and the endearingly acerbic Michelson take a trip up to Bodega Bay and reminisce about their work there on “The Birds.” (Here we see Boyle explain how he incorporated memories of his own first trip to a cinema as a child — to see D.W. Griffith’s “Rescued From an Eagle’s Nest,” which terrified him — as well as Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” to create the film’s aesthetic. One does wish there were more of this sort of insight in the docu.)
These guys are strictly old-school, but they aren’t necessarily traditionalists. At a coffee shop overlooking the bay, Boyle argues that Hitchcock would have loved to have been able to use CGI effects for “The Birds,” to which Michelson responds that the imperfections in the film are what make it so timeless — a one-two punch, puncturing both tech fetishism and knee-jerk nostalgia. This perspicacious view of the past pervades the film: As Wexler notes later on, the good old days of Hollywood “actually weren’t that great. What was great was us trying to make it great.”
The docu’s technical quality is occasionally a bit rough (which is ironic, considering the subject), though never to a distracting degree. Substantial archival footage and photos are incorporated well.