Interview: James B. Harris
“[T]he sullen, impulsive films of James B. Harris have been consistently overlooked and underseen. Genuine B noirs in the purest non-reflexive sense of the word, Harris’s films are inglorious, pipe-dream-beleaguered gutterdives, with the cheap integrity of bygone pulp fiction.”
—Michael Atkinson, Sight & Sound, November 1993
James B. Harris uniquely kept the spirit of pulp alive at the dawn of Tarantino’s PoMo Pulp Fiction, in no small part because he knew the genuine article firsthand. His first gig as a producer was a 1956 adaptation of a crime novel by Lionel White, made with a fellow New Yorker who’d been trying to make his break into pictures, Stanley Kubrick.
The Kubrick-Harris productions resulted in three key, characteristic early works in the Kubrick canon—The Killing, Paths of Glory (57), and Lolita (62)—before the partners split, with Harris deciding to pursue a directing career of his own. In another respect, however, the friends would remain in artistic dialogue: Harris’s directorial debut, The Bedford Incident (65), is a dramatic treatment of the Cold War standoff that’s played for farce in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (64), while Harris’s Some Call It Loving (73), a hypnotic tale of erotic obsession, seems to have influenced Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (99).
Never a prolific director, Harris would go on to complete a trio of gritty crime stories that doubled as studies in compulsive personalities: Fast-Walking (82), Cop (88), and Boiling Point (93). These were brooding, disquieting works completely at odds with the emerging action extravaganzas of the Jerry Bruckheimer/Don Simpson school. And while Harris has remained a cult item in the U.S., he has been championed abroad, particularly in France, where Some Call It Loving recently enjoyed a successful commercial re-release, alongside a career retrospective at the Cinémathèque Française.
Shortly before his New York City homecoming for a similar career overview at BAMcinématek, Harris spoke to FILM COMMENT by phone about his work with Kubrick and his own films.
I don't know a great deal about your early years, other than the fact that you were born in New York City, so I wonder if you could fill in some of the details.
I was born in Manhattan in New York City, then my family moved down to the Jersey Shore where I was brought up until I was a junior in high school, when they moved back to New York City. I continued at a prep school in Manhattan called Columbia Grammar, which is the oldest prep school in New York, affiliated with Columbia University. At that point, after graduation, I tried my hand at becoming a musician. I attended Julliard School of Music as a percussion major.
I know you're a couple years younger, but would you have been at Juilliard at the same time that Miles Davis was there?
I don't remember. There was a female trombonist named Melba Liston, but I don't know… Juilliard was a little beyond my musical ability. Percussion was one thing, but it included playing actual musical instruments, like xylophone and timpanis, and you also had to have a minor in piano and courses like composition and music dictation… I realized quickly that I was in over my head. My dad put me to work in his insurance brokerage company as an office boy, and when he started making investments in other areas, I went along with those investments, and those put me in contact with film distribution companies. And that’s how I learned the business, working in distribution companies until I was drafted in the Army in 1950.
In the Army I met Alexander Singer when we were being trained as combat photographers. Alex had been a boyhood friend, and was still a friend, of Stanley Kubrick. He introduced me to Stanley at some point, and after I got out of the Army, I ran into him again. He invited me to a screening of his latest film at that time, which was Killer’s Kiss—he had previously done Fear and Desire, and I was quite impressed. Kubrick was interested in putting his films on TV and thought that maybe I could be the distributor. It was revealed that his film couldn't be cleared because the producer, Joe Burstyn, had died in a plane crash, and therefore the film was tied up in litigation. We decided that there was really nothing we could do in that regard, so we talked about maybe getting together: I'd become a producer and he'd become a director with me. That's what we decided on, and formed Harris-Kubrick Pictures, and the rest, as they say, is history.
How did you find the first property that you worked on, which became The Killing?
I found Clean Break at Scribner’s bookstore on 5th Avenue. It’s about the robbery of a racetrack, and I thought this would make a good film for us to do together. I gave it to Stanley to read the next day, and he was just as excited about this story as me—it was really well-written, it had a great structure which we followed in the final picture, the thing of following each participant in the robbery from the beginning to the robbery, which required flashing back, which was kind of unique in those days.
It's such an extraordinary cast in the movie, including a Brooklyn lug, Timothy Carey…
Tim had been in several pictures that Stanley and I had seen and we were impressed with him, so we didn't just find him in a casting call. One in particular where a girl had been kidnapped—
Yeah, that's what it was. Stanley was familiar with every picture that was ever made, and that's how that cast got put together, because Stanley knew all of the Joe Sawyers and the Elisha Cooks and the Ted de Corsias, people like that. And of course Stanley played chess with Kola Kwariani, the wrestler who starts the fight at the racetrack. It was Stanley's complete knowledge of all of these great character actors that resulted in us getting that cast.
Did you get a lot of pushback against using the unorthodox structure of the book?
Yes, yes we did. When we finished the film, we had a preview in Huntington Park or some suburb of LA, and we were told after the previews that we had ruined the picture. Sterling Hayden’s agent said we'd made a big mistake, and all our friends who'd seen the picture said we should edit it back into a straight-line story. Which we tried to do, actually. When we returned to New York with the finished film, we rented an editing room and tried to put the picture into a linear story. Midway through we looked at each other—the whole reason we acquired the book and made the picture was that we were so impressed with the structure. Why should we get off it? We had to do what we believed in, and it wasn't United Artists who had any complaints about it. So we abandoned the idea of straightening it out, returned it to its proper structure, and when we showed it to United Artists they thought it was terrific. You have to believe in your own feelings and opinions about things. If you're gonna fail, you might as well fail with your own idea. That's something that, if I were teaching, I would advise the students. If you feel strongly about something, first instincts are usually the way to go.
Paths of Glory
How did Paths of Glory come together?
Once Kirk Douglas agreed to do the film, he was very helpful in influencing United Artists to finance it. He was scheduled to do another film for UA called The Vikings, and I think he suggested that if they didn’t do Paths of Glory, he would take The Vikings elsewhere. Do you know the story about how I fired Tim Carey on the set of Paths of Glory?
Well, I got a call at six in the morning from the Munich police, saying Tim had been found abandoned on the highway, bound hand and foot, claiming he’d been kidnapped. They thought production was responsible, looking for publicity, that it was a staged act. I said I knew nothing about it, but we needed him to work—they were holding him down at the police station. I told them that Tim was making up this story because he wanted the publicity, not us. So they said they would accommodate us by bringing him to the film studio—they were gonna interview him there. But Tim wouldn’t agree to the statement he was supposed to sign, he kept changing things about it. So I went up to Tim and said: “We’re all waiting for you. Sign the paper and get to work.” And he wouldn’t sign the paper, so I fired him right there. You’ll notice in the battle scene, you never see the three men put on trial for cowardice. That’s because the battle was the last thing we filmed, and we couldn’t show the two other actors without showing Tim, too.
And the next project that came along was another difficult collaboration, with Brando on One-Eyed Jacks.
We had an arrangement with Marlon Brando after he had seen Paths of Glory and The Killing, he came to us and said he wanted to do films with us, but he said that first he had a commitment with Paramount to do a western, and he asked us if he could use Stanley to direct that for him. And so we agreed, and Stanley would move to Paramount with him to do the western and I would continue to look for future projects for Brando and Kubrick. But it turned out that Stanley was not the type of a director, the type of a person, that could go on with a star like Brando dictating every step of the way. All of his eccentricity and things drove Stanley crazy, so maybe I figured it’d be better to drop out of that deal.
In the meantime, I had found Lolita and I had acquired that. We’d no sooner got started on developing it when Kirk Douglas called and said he had been shooting a few days on Spartacus, and would we consider lending out Stanley to his company to direct Spartacus, because he wanted to replace the present director. We figured this was a good deal for us because it brought money to our company and it gave Stanley an opportunity to direct three icons who were also directors: Peter Ustinov, Laurence Olivier, and Charles Laughton. And Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis and John Gavin and so on. It turned out to be very beneficial to us, and gave Stanley something else in his filmography.
What was the actual process of developing the script? I know the final screenplay is credited to Nabokov alone, but I understand that this isn’t, perhaps, the whole story.
No. Well, what happened was, while Stanley was doing Spartacus, we had assigned it to Calder Willingham, and Calder did the first draft. Stanley was not pleased with it—I thought it was pretty good but Stanley wasn’t pleased with it—so we sort of dismissed Calder. We had originally tried to get Nabokov to write the screenplay, but he said he just wasn't up to it. He felt that he had done all that he could with Lolita. But then he got back to us and said that he had a dream about it. I don’t know if he dreamed about the money or he dreamed about the screenplay, but he decided that he wanted to do it, and so we brought him over to California while Stanley was doing Spartacus and we put him to work on doing the screenplay. But it was voluminous and really overwritten, unwieldy, and very difficult to perceive as being the screenplay that we could use.
So we had the book, we had a draft by Calder Willingham, and we had a complete screenplay by Nabokov. And once I was able to raise the money and get the picture funded, Stanley and I sat down and we actually did the final screenplay, where we used all the better parts of everything and put it all together. We decided that we had departed quite a bit from the book and that we would be subject to criticism if we put our names on the screenplay, and thought that the best way to protect ourselves from the criticism was by putting Nabokov down as the sole screenplay writer. And the irony was that he got nominated for an Academy Award for best screenplay adaptation.
I’ve read public statements by Nabokov where he’s said admiring things about the film. What was, if anything, his private communication about his response to the movie?
I spent so much time with him before the film, but after the film, I think his response to me was more in the form of congratulations, that he had wished he had incorporated some of the things we had invented in his book. I don’t know if he was just being kind and felt it was the appropriate kind of reaction. I thought it was sincere at the time, and he seemed quite satisfied, while understanding the differences between the film and the book. I don’t think you can do better than that when you are looking for a response from the author.
The Bedford Incident
Since you had had up to that point the opportunity to observe Kubrick more than any other single director, when you yourself were in the director's chair with The Bedford Incident, were there any particular pointers that you were attempting to take from him?
Needless to say, during the seven or eight years that I was close to Stanley he was constantly either intentionally giving me pointers or allowing me to observe the pointers myself, watching him direct. An important thing I learned was that casting is 80 to 85 percent of the film. If you cast the right people and they're disciplined, they know their lines, and they're the right actors, you're going to get a lot of help. If you cast the wrong people, they're undisciplined, they don't know what they're doing when they show up for work, then you have a nightmare. [Sidney] Poitier and [Richard] Widmark were top, top professionals, always prepared, and they understood exactly what the characters were about. Poitier was that year's Academy Award winner, and I had Jimmy McArthur, Wally Cox, Marty Balsam was terrific, too… Even Donald Sutherland was in the picture. If you hire great actors, all you have to do is have the taste to know whether the scene plays and to deal in dynamics—either a little bit more or a little bit less.
As far as the technical side, Stanley, when I first met him, he was a big fan of Max Ophuls, and did a lot of camera movement. Most filmmakers, in the beginning, overindulge, are too preoccupied with cinematic effects. They forget that the play is still the thing. You see a lot of pictures where the directors are really too interested in showing off, and it starts to become annoying. When Stanley started to do Spartacus, he told me that he was working with a Technorama camera, and it had a slight strobe to it when you started moving the camera around. And so he was forced, in a way, to abandon all these ideas of the moving camera, and concentrate more on the content of the scenes. He said to me that if you have a scene that's really interesting, two people coming at each other to have a fight with hammers in their hands, all you have to do is put the camera in a place where everybody can see it clearly, and the content of the scene is sufficient. You don't have to embellish it with camera moves. If you have a scene that's really flat, and needs some help, you have then the possibility of some camera movement to make it seem like there's more action in it. Maybe it even requires music, so you don't play the scene dry, and you can put some score behind it.
When I first met Stanley, he wanted to make sure we were on the same page all the time, so he asked me to read Stanislavsky Directs, and a basic introduction to psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud, where you start to learn about how people speak and they don't always say outright what's on their mind. I would advise any wannabe filmmakers to read those books because they give you insight into human behavior. So I think I was pretty much prepared. When I finished The Bedford Incident, maybe I wasn't ready to win the award for best director of the year, but I certainly felt that I was now capable of being very professional.
Even in The Bedford Incident, you’re doing something you’ll do through your career, approaching genre material—in this case a Cold War thriller—as an opportunity for character study.
What interests me mostly is obsessive behavior. I like to explore obsessive behavior. In Some Call It Loving, in Cop, with Jimmy Woods's over-the-top cop, and even in Fast-Walking, where Woods’s character has this obsession, wanting to live in Oregon and change his life, to live in Indian style. Boiling Point was an exploration of that fine line that runs between the criminal and the cop, that they live the same kind of life, that they have the same needs, meet the same women, the same prostitutes—there's not much difference between them. That picture, I think, was kind of mishandled by Warner Brothers, who insisted in editing a lot of the good things out, which broke my heart.
Some Call It Loving
The credited basis for Some Call It Loving is a short story by John Collier. When did you come to it, and how did it develop into the final film?
When I was doing Lolita, I had come across a book called Fancies and Goodnights, a collection of short stories by John Collier, and in that collection was a 16-page story called “Sleeping Beauty.” I didn't want to handle it the way Collier did, though. I wanted to make a point: if you have multiple relationships in your life, you keep moving on from one girl to another, as I had… Could there be something wrong with all the girls? It had to be something within myself that was causing these abortive relationships. In John Collier's story, the guy who finds the “Sleeping Beauty” figures he's going to have happiness for the rest of his life if he can wake her up, and when he wakes her up, it turns out she's terrible, awful, impossible to get along with, to the extent that he's so unhappy that he puts her back to sleep. I figure that's the wrong way to tell the story. It's too easy to blame somebody else, too easy to blame all the women. Look at yourself and find out if there's something in yourself that's causing the problem. I wanted him to wake the girl up and have her be perfect, have her be everything that he wanted. In his case, he wants to get back to normal relationships, really romantic, just like he's back in school. And when it doesn't work it's his fault, not the girl's fault.
In the film Zalman King’s character stage-manages this elaborate fantasy life. How did you land on King, who didn't have much experience as a lead behind him?
He had been a television actor on The Young Lawyers, and he'd impressed me. I didn't want the typical Hollywood male star, really hunky and everything. I wanted somebody who looked like a real person. As it turns out, he went on exploring some of the same kind of themes in Red Shoe Diaries. He loved the whole idea of it, and had a lot of good ideas. His wife is a sculptress, and he was coming from a whole element of the surreal and fantastic. That truck that we used was his truck. He was just the perfect person, and really helped make the movie what it was.
The other big name involved is Richard Pryor. When the entire film is moving at a sleepwalker’s pace, he's off on his own thing entirely.
Yeah. I wanted the main character to be a jazz musician, because jazz music is based on variations of themes: improvisation after the melody is stated using solos as variations of the melody. Being a jazz musician, he would be around a certain element of people, and I figured if he performs at a club, the kinds of friends that this character would have would be somebody like the character Pryor played. I wrote the character, Jeff, and gave the script to Zalman, and he suggested we get Richard Pryor, who he had known as a friend from New York. He said: “He fits the character perfectly.” Richard's part was practically all improvisation. He was not a major star at that time—in fact he had no money at all. I remember him calling me from Chicago and asking me to advance him some money to get to California to do the film because he didn't have enough money to get there. The only problem was that he was always on drugs, and it wasn't easy to work with, but I think we got what we were looking to get.
Some Call It Loving
The score, by Richard Hazard and Bob Harris, is such an integral part of the film. To what degree, if at all, was your background in music, in jazz, an influence on the filmmaking?
Bob Harris is my brother, who wrote the love theme for Lolita. We used Nelson Riddle for the rest… I can hear things in recordings, even if they're not from movies. For instance, Nelson Riddle had done the orchestrations and arrangements for Frank Sinatra's album In the Wee Small Hours. I could hear the voicing of the strings, even on the song “In the Wee Small Hours,” on the bridge of the song. It so impressed me that I thought: “Gee, I gotta get Nelson to do the score for Lolita.”
One thing about having a musical background: you don't have to buy credits. That's what most filmmakers and producers do. They don't really know anything about music or they don't have an ear for music, and so they feel safe by buying credits. Literally, they're gonna go for whoever's the top scorer at the time. I knew that Richard Hazard had done a lot of orchestration for the composer that I really loved and really respected but couldn't afford, Lalo Schifrin. So when you're getting Dick Hazard, you're getting a good part of Lalo Schifrin. It was a small independent film and I didn't have any big money to hire a major composer, but I know Richard Hazard is going to give me pretty much what a major composer would give me. I'd heard him do recording arrangements for Barbara Streisand, one that impressed me was a song written by Michel Legrand, the theme from Summer of ’42. I could hear the way he wrote for strings and knew that this was just the kind of a guy that I wanted. So having a musical background gave me a little edge in being able to find people who are very talented, but ordinarily wouldn't get hired because they haven't got a big name.
Some Call It Loving has a very similar theme to that which appears 15 years later in Cop—this idea of people applying a worldview very heavily shaped by a fairy tale view of romance to adult sexual relationships, which are much messier than that worldview allows for.
What you're talking about is the scene in Cop that I was really proud of, because it expressed how I feel about things. In Cop, the James Woods character is caught by his wife telling police stories to his little girl, and when he goes back into the bedroom, she says: “You call yourself a father telling that filth to a little girl?” And then he says: “What do you want me to tell her, about the Three Bears?”
My point, which I put into words for the Woods character, is that many women, I find, suffer from disillusionment. A lot of women are really unhappy later in life. It's usually caused by disillusionment—the expectations that they had never really developed. And that's because they're promised growing up that they're little princesses, and they're gonna find the man on the white horse, that Mr. Right's gonna come along… They're given all this bullshit that they expect to happen, then what happens is they either find the wrong guy, they wind up waiting tables while their husband is flipping burgers or pumping gas, they get pregnant at an early age and have that kind of a commitment, their life is kind of ruined, they're no longer single, all the romance is gone. All the romance that they were promised, that they dreamed about, didn't happen, or it happened so quickly and disappeared that all that's left is disillusionment. Look at the divorce rates. Hardly anybody can stay together after seven years, six years. People think they're going to live happily ever after, but life isn't like that.
When you talk about a similarity between Some Call It Loving and Cop… I think there's a bigger similarity between Some Call It Loving and Eyes Wide Shut, which Stanley eventually did. The funny part of that is in Zalman King's obituary: it had mentioned that Kubrick had been in touch with him for counseling—I guess because he did the Red Shoe Diaries, Zalman was thought of as an expert. In many ways, I think Eyes Wide Shut is a very expensive continuation or variation on the themes of Some Call It Loving, though a big production rather than my very small film.
For the full, unabridged version of the interview, click here.