By Nick Pinkerton
“[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 of the Bronx.
Kubrick-Harris productions were altogether responsible for three key, characteristic early works in the Kubrick canon—The Killing, Paths of Glory (1957), and Lolita (1962)—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 (1965), is a dramatic treatment of the Cold War standoff played for farce in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964), while Harris’s Some Call it Loving (1973), a hypnotic tale of erotic obsession, seems to undeniably have influenced Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999).
Never a prolific director, Harris would go on to complete a trio of gritty crime stories which doubled as studies in compulsive personalities: Fast-Walking (1982), Cop (1988), and Boiling Point (1993). 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 his own country, 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 by phone to FILM COMMENT on 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, and 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 Julliard 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… Julliard 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. I could've been a drummer, I suppose, as a profession later in life, but I didn't foresee that to be a lifestyle that I wanted, and so I ducked out of school and went to work.
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 actually, 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, and Alex Singer 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, and 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. I was quite impressed with what he had done. I was back in the distribution business, producing television. 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 it was tied up in litigation with the distributor that handled Fear and Desire. The producer, Joe Burstyn, had died in a plane crash, and therefore the film was tied up, and Stanley couldn't deliver it for me to distribute it on TV. 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 your find the first property that you worked on?
When Stanley came to my office to try to get Fear and Desire into TV distribution, before he realized it wasn't free, he had just sold Killer's Kiss at United Artists, and they had said that the door was always open there for future films. But when we decided that we would form a partnership, we really had nothing to do at that point.
After work, I went to a bookstore called Scribner's, on 5th Avenue, and I found a book called Clean Break, which was about the robbery of a race track, and I thought this would make a good film for us to do together. I purchased the book and gave it to Stanley to read the next day, and he confirmed my opinion; 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 idea 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.
Stanley had been a fan of Jim Thompson, who had written some great crime novels like The Killer Inside Me, and we got Jim Thompson to work with us on the screenplay. Once we'd developed that, we went back to United Artists and they said they would, on a limited basis, put up $200,000 to make the film. And then we learned that Sterling Hayden liked our script, and wanted to do the film, and so we put that deal together with UA. They warned us not to spend more than $200,000, and it wasn't really possible to make the film properly for that, so I had to come up with $130,000 on top of that to get the film made. It turned out to be well-reviewed, and really launched the careers of both Stanley and myself.
Was that the first significant time you'd spend on the West Coast?
Stanley and I were both New Yorkers, we were eight days apart—he was eight days older than me. He was a complete New Yorker, I was a combination of New York and New Jersey, but neither one of us had spent any significant time on the West Coast. Stanley had been out there to do Fear and Desire, but that was just for the shooting schedule. We came out to Hollywood to do The Killing as New Yorkers, and we were perceived as that by the locals, who—I would imagine were not too happy to see two young New Yorkers finding their way in Hollywood. Talk about fish out of water.
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. Y'know, 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 di Corsias, people like that. And of course Stanley played chess with Kola Kwariani, the wrestler used to start 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, 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. We had never shown it to UA; 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 UA 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.
Evidently you didn't fail, because in a very short space of time you go from a movie with a budget slightly over $300,000 to Paths of Glory and I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what the learning curve for you as a producer was jumping to such a high profile project from a fairly low-budget genre piece.
<p>Well, I don’t know how much of a leap that leapfrog was, because The Killing cost $330,000 and Paths of Glory cost about $900-and-something thousand, it was under a million. So yeah, it’s true, it was three times the budget, but what was really a big step was that we were working with a real major first class actor like Kirk Douglas who had years of experience, compared to the few films that Stanley had done and the one film that I had done. So it was a big step in that direction—the budget and the spending of was really routine. We figured out that the best place to shoot the film, in terms of cost, would be in Germany, and we had made a decision that we would have Americans play all of the French soldiers. That was our concept, Kirk Douglas was not going to speak with a French accent, he was going to speak just the way he speaks. Then we cast Ralph Meeker and Menjou and Macready and Wayne Morris and all of those people spoke just as they speak and it worked! Adrian Brody won the Academy Award for playing a Pole in The Pianist and he speaks in “Americanese” in the whole film, same with Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with the James Bond guy, and look at Doctor Zhivago, everybody is Russian and the cast is Omar Sharif, Julie Christie and Geraldine Chaplin, the concept we had was there way back then but even before, if you look at All Quiet on the Western Front, all are German characters yet they spoke English, you know, with Lew Ayres and Louis Wolheim and so forth.
As far as leapfrogging to a big major movie between The Killing to Paths of Glory, I think the only separation in terms of the leap was that we were working with a big major star. It’s quite different when you’re working with major stars as opposed to an ensemble cast of good character actors, you just have to cater to the star and their contribution is that the picture has a good chance of succeeding because the star power, you know, people ask not what the story is about but usually they ask who is in it and anytime I tell somebody I’m going to see a film, they say, “Who’s in it?”, not “What is it about?”
How did the film come together?
Once Douglas agreed to do the film, after reading the script, he was very helpful in influencing United Artists to finance it. He was scheduled to do another film for United Artists, which he did, called The Vikings. I think he put the pressure on United Artists that if they didn’t do Paths of Glory, he would take The Vikings elsewhere. So Kirk Douglas was responsible in a big way for putting this picture together. 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 trial 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 Jack’s.
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, and so our next step was to do Lolita. We’d no sooner got started on developing that when Kirk Douglas called and said he had been shooting for 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.
After Stanley finished Spartacus, we got back to Lolita. In the meantime we had engaged Nabokov himself to write the screenplay, and so we didn’t lose much time, because the screenplay was being developed on Lolita while Stanley was finishing his commitment to Spartacus, so after Spartacus we got serious about Lolita. The only thing we had to worry about was how to raise the money to do such an infamous piece of material.
What was the actual process of developing the script? I know the final screenplay is credited Nabokov alone but I understand that this isn’t perhaps, the whole story.
No. Well, what happened was that the first draft… 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, which he did. But it was voluminous and really overwritten and unwieldy and very difficult to perceive as being the screenplay that we could use. So what we had is 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 from having departed from the book was to put Nabokov down as the sole screenplay writer, which we did. And the irony was that he got nominated for an Academy Award for best screenplay adaptation.
Anyway, I think our strategy in not subjecting ourselves to criticism didn't work. When the picture was finally distributed by MGM, they came up with the tagline “How did they ever make a film of Lolita?” And Bosley Crowther, who was the dean of the New York critics at the New York Times, when he reviewed the film he said “How did they ever make a film of Lolita? They didn’t.” Which I suppose is true in a way. Our adaptation was somewhat of a departure, but the way we saw the film was that it was a bizarre love story, and as long as we could make that the main thrust of the film we didn’t have to get into all kinds of… I guess you'd call it the predilection for young girls. We never mentioned the fact that Humbert had any feelings about young girls from the very beginning; it's just coming in contact with this one, Lolita—who, we made sure when we cast her that she was a definite sex object, not something that could be interpreted as being perverted.
Other that the age of Sue Lyon’s Lolita character, the other major deviance is a structural one, the way the film moves around in the timeline in some ways, like The Killing does, where you begin at the end and move back to see how you got there.
I always felt—and when I told this to Stanley he immediately said I was right—is that since we were trying to make this film, basically, a bizarre love story, we felt that all of the best love stories revolve around the inability of the participants to get together. In the old days, like Romeo and Juliet, it was the class system, then there's the religious differences and racial differences… all of those had been explored and done before, but there haven’t been any conflict in terms of age, and so we wanted to make this a love story where the main conflict was the age difference and we wanted it to come off as a love story and we feel very sympathetic with Humbert, and so we felt that we couldn’t end the picture on what would be a comedic scene, which is the killing of Clare Quilty. And I said “Well, why don’t we do the comedic scene first and then flashback and then go through the whole film to see how we got there?” At least then we could end the film with his finding Lolita and begging her to come back with him and being heartbroken to find she's been married and has a kid on the way… You leave the audience really burning, and if you wanna sell that, you shouldn’t end the picture on a comedic scene, you wanna end it on a sad scene, and that's really why we did it the way we did.
I suppose the other thing that sort of strikes one about the film is whereas the book is so dependent on highways and motels, this particularly American scene, the film is shot in the UK.
Well, the decision really was based on economics. If you remember in those days they had in place an incentive for people to make films in England, there was a contribution made by the government towards a percentage of the ticket sales or something. We figured that we could actually qualify because we’re casting James Mason, who has an English passport, and we got Peter Sellers… You are allowed several exemptions, which could be the producer and director or Shelley Winters, and so it made sense to make the picture in London because it’s mostly interiors and when there are interiors you can imitate any place and it doesn’t really matter, it’s just the exteriors you have to be concerned about. So we did a certain amount of second unit in the US for some of the exteriors but principally the whole thing was done in England and I thought it worked out quite well.
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.
So, now to move on to The Bedford Incident, in the course of the three movies that you did as the Kubrick-Harris productions, from your late twenties to your mid thirties, you had a lot more experience in the film industry under your belt, at what point, if at all, did you start thinking about directing something yourself?
Well I had been thinking about it while we were doing Lolita. Y’know, you can’t help but, when spending all that time with Stanley, sitting next to him on the set and being in the editing room next to him… with his encouragement, you can’t help but to want to direct. He always told me that it was so much more rewarding to look at the screen and think you put it up there. So I bought that and started developing a desire to direct right after Lolita.
Once we acquired Red Alert, which was the book that Strangelove was based on, we developed the screenplay as a straight story—not a comedy, not a satire, but a straight suspense story. I'd started to line up the financing for that film, and once I had done that, and felt… I wanted to make sure that if I was going to depart from Stanley to pursue a directorial career, I wanted to make sure that Dr. Strangelove was going to come together. It wasn’t called Dr. Strangelove at the time, Edge of Doom… something like that. Once I'd arranged the financing for that, I opened an office in California and started to pursue a directing career. It wasn’t long after that Stanley called me and told me he had gotten together with a writer named Terry Southern and they felt that this picture could actually be a better presentation in the form of a satire, and make points even stronger. And I… I mean, I laugh at it now, but I remember at the time, when I hung up the phone with Stanley, I said to myself, “I leave him alone for ten minutes and he blows his whole career.” I really felt at that time, that it was too risky a thing, the comedic aspects of it, for two hours, might be too much of a reach. And the funny thing is, once I saw the picture, I thought it was Stanley’s best picture, and I still feel that way today. Of all the Kubrick films—and I love all of them very much—Strangelove is my favorite. And I actually thought that he was making a mistake by doing it a comedy, but it shows that his insight and his talent and his courage were so incredible.
So, now I had the problem of what am I going to do as a director. And once again I went to a bookstore and I found a book, this one called The Bedford Incident. It was on the best seller list, no one had acquired it, and I thought that it could make a terrific movie, making a statement that I firmly believe in: That if two nuclear powers have a confrontation, nobody wins. This story could make this point on a smaller scale, a destroyer and a submarine having nuclear capabilities, no one wins. And so I acquired the rights, and was amazed and pleasantly surprised to find out that Richard Widmark had wanted to acquire the book himself and really wanted to play the lead in it, so I had a major star already wanting to do the film before I even started. And then when we engaged James Poe to write the screenplay, which he did, he suggested that since he had recently written Lilies of the Field, which Sidney Poitier had starred in, “Why don’t we call Sidney and see if he wants to be in the picture? There’s no reason why he can’t play the part of the journalist.” And so, just by being in the right place in the right time, I inherited two major stars to agree to be in the picture and I had never directed a film before. So I guess you have to be in the right place at the right time and have a bit of luck as well.
Once we had Poitier and Widmark combined, we went to Columbia, where they had success with the same two in a picture called The Long Ships, and since they had success with that picture, they were willing to go along with The Bedford Incident. The only thing that they were concerned about was that since I had never directed a feature before, I had better be sure that I could do it for the price that they were willing to pay to make the film, which I had to go to London to investigate and do budgets and had to find a way to guarantee the picture.
And you shot at Shepperton Studios, presumably again for financial reasons?
Yes, absolutely because most of the picture is… all of the picture is on a ship and you can build that in a studio, it doesn’t matter, you can do the picture in Bulgaria and nobody would know the difference. I couldn’t get the American Navy's cooperation but we did get the British to cooperate, they let us use a destroyer. The picture was not expensive, we were able to do it for like a million and change, around the same price that we'd just done Lolita for. We had a terrific crew, we had all of the same crew that had just done the Beatles pictures, A Hard Day’s Night… We had Gil Taylor, the cameraman from Dr Strangelove who went on to do Star Wars and other films. We sort of discovered him. Ozzie Morris had done the cinematography on Lolita, but when we finished we wanted to do the title where Humbert is painting and we needed somebody to photograph it, and Stanley had remembered that Gil Taylor had shot a picture called The Dam Busters and was impressed with his camerawork, so he hired him to do the titles for Lolita, and then Stanley hired him to do Dr. Strangelove, and I did The Bedford Incident with him, and he became a #1 cameraman.
Since you had up to that point had the opportunity to observe Kubrick more than any other single director, when you yourself were in the director's chair, 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. The things that I learned and that I used… firstly that casting is, you might say, 80-85 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. Poitier and Widmark were top, top professionals, always prepared, 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. So I had very little to do in terms of getting performances. 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, they are too preoccupied with cinematic effects and forget that the play is still the thing. But when Stanley started to do Spartacus, he told me that he was now 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 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, really, 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, it maybe even requires music, so you don't play the scene dry, and you can put some score behind it. But it was in Spartacus that Stanley kind of calmed down, and concentrated more on the content of the scenes. This I learned from him, and so I didn't get myself bogged down with gratuitous and unnecessary camera movement. You see a lot of pictures where the directors are really too interested in showing off, and it starts to become annoying.
When I first met Stanley and he wanted to make sure we were on the same page all the time, he asked me to read Stanislavsky Directs, the book he had written, 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. Those two things I would advise any wannabe filmmakers to read, it gives 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 throughout 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 Bros., who insisted in editing a lot of the good things out, which broke my heart.
Speaking of Boiling Point, and thinking of Poitier in Bedford Incident, I've noticed you do something very rare then as today, which is to cast black actors in parts that aren't written as black parts.
The character's a human being, it doesn't matter what the color is. You're casting a good actor, race doesn't come into it.
Was The Bedford Incident considered a success, in box-office, or in how it was received?
It got terrific reviews, everybody liked the film. The only trouble was that there were no women in it, and a lot of young people weren’t that interested in the Cold War. I remember when it played in Los Angeles, in those days a large percentage of the theaters were drive-ins, and it rained the entire week, it was a real bad week in L.A., so naturally it came and went really fast. It was a critical success, but it was just another film as far as the economics were concerned.
And then there are a fair number of years until your next movie, which is a pattern in your career.
The gaps are there are my own fault. Number one, I preferred the kind of material and the kind of subjects that were not deemed or perceived as commercial, so it was almost impossible to raise money to do them. I was spoiled, I suppose, having worked on what I thought were very important films. When we were shooting The Bedford Incident, Poitier and I had read In the Heat of the Night, we had both read the book. And Sidney said to me, “That's our next picture. Let's acquire the rights and do that film.” And I was so pretentious at that time, because of the films that I'd done in the past, I said, “Sidney, that's just a crime story.” Funny, that's all I've done since. I said, “That's just a crime story. If the detective wasn't black you wouldn't think twice about it.” He says, “I know, but it's terrific, I definitely want to do it.” I said, “It's not for me.”
Well, that was a real wrong move on my part, I was being pretentious, and you know what happened with In the Heat of the Night. I passed on this, having a major star come to me and say “Let's do it together.” Only because I felt that I had to be dealing in significant stories, either about Civil Rights or about war or things like that, which was really, as I keep saying, pretentious and impossible to put together. I eventually went on to do three crime films in a row, stuff I thought was beneath me, which shows you how stupid I was.
The different screenplays that I did and books that I acquired, I couldn't put them together, because they didn't serve up as commercial subjects. I finally just had to do an independent picture of a subject that was dear to me, about an obsessive guy and his sex relations, and I got that financed through private money. It had no distribution, it had no company behind it. This was in the years of capital gains and tax write-offs, so people were willing to put up money, figuring if they lost it they could write it off.
The credited basis for Some Call it Loving is a short story by John Collier, which I haven't read—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 figured that was 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 was back in school. And when it doesn't work it's your fault, not the girl's fault.
The Zalman King character, he's a species of director, the way he stages and 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 as a good actor. I didn't want the typical Hollywood male star, really hunky and everything, I wanted somebody who looked like a real person. He, as it turns out, after he did Some Kind of Loving, went on to continue exploring some of the same kind of themes in Red Shoe Diaries. It turned out that he was 100 percent for the story, loved the whole idea of it, was the perfect guy to work with on this—he had a lot of good ideas. His wife is a sculptress, 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 sleepwalkers 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.
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 I had got to write the love theme for Lolita, if you remember that. 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, the arrangements, for Frank Sinatra's album called In the Wee Small Hours, which was a very popular album. And 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 knew Richard Hazard was 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, where most people, because they don't know anything about music, feel safe with big names.
Some Call it Loving has a very similar theme to that which appears fifteen 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 now, 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 six, seven 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 on… 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.
In some ways it's really an outlier in the movies that you've made. Every other film that you've made could be qualified as a genre movie, whereas Some Call it Loving is totally sui generis, so different. Were there any exterior reference points you had for it, in terms of films, books, and so on?
It came from two sources. The first, of course, being the basic material from John Collier. The second was everything that was in my mind, everything about… the behavior of a character who is disenchanted and disappointed in his own behavior. This idea of being sexually stimulated by watching his loved one being made love to by another woman. If you wanted to take it even further, to make it more disturbed, you might have made him a voyeur watching his loved one with another man, which I felt would be going too far. That's too… I wouldn't want to deal with that. But I felt that you could make the point enough, make it tolerable, so to speak, if he was watching his own betrayal in this way, and getting sexually turned on by it. And this was making him unhappy, and he wanted to get away from it, and he thought when he came across this Sleeping Beauty, the idea came to him that he could start over again. And this is all my thinking. I didn't get it from anywhere else, it just seemed like common sense. If a person is upset with the way they're behaving, in most cases they go to a psychiatrist, in this case, I wanted him to try to cure himself by starting over again, starting pure, from scratch. The only thing he didn't realize is that when they're selling kisses for a dollar and he's watching guys come up and kiss her, that probably stimulated him, subconsciously or unconsciously. He's getting back into the same problem all over again.
His true sexual arousal comes from a masochistic thing—he's stimulated by his own betrayal. You know the scene before the titles where they're playing a game, he's going to be role-playing at making love to a widow, who's just buried her husband? He likes to think of it as a betrayal, because betrayals excite him. I'm just exploring all of these things on my mind, that's where it comes from. There's no outside source, no books that I've read or movies that I've seen that inspired it. I was using the Sleeping Beauty thing just as the character is using it, as a vehicle to explore these things. And he made the mistake of bringing her back into the same atmosphere where all the trouble was—if you call it trouble. He actually was aroused by it all. Carol White understands this guy, she understands. When he says he's going to take her away, take his Sleeping Beauty away, she says, in so many words, “What if you can't get it up when you try to do it normally?” And it turns out that he's so diseased with playing games of this sort that it's all lost, he has to bring her home and put her back to sleep.
I've never discussed the film in such specific sexual terms. A lot of people love the film, but they don't quite know what it's about. It was screened in Los Angeles once, and I met a woman on the way out of the theater who said that she had acquired a videotape of it way back, and she runs the picture every night before she goes to bed. I'd imagine most people have their own idea of what it's about, and as long as they like the film, I don't like to dispel that. Kubrick always said you shouldn't talk about your films, you should say “If I could've said it any other way, I would've.” A lot of people read things into it that are even better than what I had in mind when I made the film. I don't know if it's a good idea to tell it to the public, they might say, “Oh, is that what it's about? Gee, I don't like it as much now, I thought it was about something else.” So you better keep your mouth shut.
Part of what makes it work is that it is so open, that people can read into it whatever they want to read into it, while at the same time it registers as a very personal piece of work. I recently read the New York Times review that ran when it came out, by the way, which is a real piece of hackwork. But I know you had your champions as well, particularly the unredoubtable Pierre Rissient in France, where Ronald Chammah's company Films du Camelia recently re-released the film.
When it was first run, it was run at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973 as the lead picture in Director's Fortnight, and it got incredibly good reviews. Jonathan Rosenbaum, who wrote for Time Out, eventually named it one of the ten best films of the year in the Village Voice. It opened in France some time later and unanimously received rave reviews; even Paris-Match, which is like Life Magazine, they gave it three stars, which… very few films get four stars. Three stars, you couldn't ask for more. And La Liberation, Le Figaro, rave reviews. So I was encouraged. I made a deal with an independent distributor in New York, showed him all those reviews, we figured we're gonna get the same reviews in New York. It was just the opposite. Every review in New York was an absolute disaster. The Daily News called it a chauvinist pig film. I was invited to the London Film Festival to run the film there and I was so glad to get out of New York because every critic hated it, even Judith Crist, who said it looked like a first-time director's rococo… whatever. I was so glad to get out. But on the plane I saw The New Yorker, picked it up, and read Pauline Kael. And poor Henry Jaglom, who had done A Safe Place… He didn't deserve to have it slammed again, but here she writes “Not since A Safe Place have I had so much trouble sitting through a film.” Unanimously bad reviews in New York, just the opposite in France. It's very hard to figure out who's right and who's wrong. Some people are going to adore the film and thinks it's great, most people who are used to fast pace and very commercial subject matters and fast-driving stories are going to think it's impossible to watch. This is not a film where an advertising campaign can turn the tables.
Ronnie Chammah has done such a terrific job with the re-release, it was reviewed again by a lot of people, all good reviews, and I assume it'll play on television there and people will be able to acquire it to home video. You try to put it in the hands of people who see it like you do, like Ronnie does, and hope for the best.
So the reviews mean you don't immediately move onto the next project, or rather when you do it's in a producer role again, on Don Siegel's movie Telefon.
I was developing a project at MGM called The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, from Franz Werfel's classic novel. And I was so anxious to do that film. But after developing the script with Ron Harwood, who's an incredibly good English writer, they changed heads of studio, and the new head of the studio at MGM… They usually abandon anything that the previous studio head had been developing. So Forty Days of Musa Dagh was abandoned, but the new studio head was really impressed with the way that I'd argued in favor of them doing it, so he asked if I'd consider helping them out on a new picture that they're doing with Charlie Bronson, as a producer. I figured the project I really wanted to do had been abandoned, I really had to work at this point, I figured “Why not?” Don Siegel has always been somebody I admired, it'd be fun working with him, and activity leads to activity. If you're working, it seems like things happen, and so I agreed to do it. I re-wrote some of the script, Siegel was so grateful and helpful, and finally he said I was the best producer he'd worked with since Walter Wanger, which was a great compliment. I was able to write scenes for him, I was able to rehearse his actors when he was busy doing something else, I actually did a couple of days of directing when he was sick… It was fun doing it, and it led to me being taken on by Warner Bros., where I made deals to develop several projects. Of course, the kind of stuff I wanted to do, being non-commercial… Those are the gaps that take place. You develop something, spend a year developing it, then the studio decides not to do it, you move on, find something else. They've never happened for lack of trying or lack of interest or wanting to do something else. I did play drums around town, engagements at the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica every weekend in a jazz group, but that doesn't have anything to do with the gaps.
Fast-Walking, it’s kind of a milieu that’s familiar to Siegel films, Riot in Cell Block 11 or Escape from Alcatraz. It’s your prison movie. I wonder if you could give me the rundown on how this came together. I know that it’s based on a book which I have not read called The Rap from 1975. But if you could lay down how this project got off the ground?
I had come across the book written by Ernest Brawley, whose father was a prison guard, and he became a prison guard, not because he wanted to be a prison guard, but because he wanted the experience so that he could—he wanted to be a writer. He felt if he spent the time as a prison guard he’d be qualified to write a novel about it, which he did. And I thought it was really worth doing as a film. So I acquired the rights to it, and started writing the screenplay, and I got halfway through the screenplay and realized there was something wrong.
I was following the book and making the main character in the book the main character in the film, and he wasn’t interesting, really. He was kind of a loser. And there was a character in the book called Fast-Walking, not the major character but he was much more interesting, so I wanted to tell his story. So I threw out half the script and started from the beginning, and made Fast-Walking the main character. And I remember how much Brawley loved the script. He really was so pleased with it, and it’s rare when the author of the book likes the screenplay, because they have to learn—and most of them don’t—that a movie is really different from a book. Not only just because it’s so long—400 pages or whatever it is, and you can’t possibly do it all, so you have to start cutting and reshaping to fit within the format of a theatrical film.
But anyway, when the script was finished I couldn’t do anything with it. I showed it around and nobody was really interested. Everybody kind of liked the script, but I guess they thought you couldn’t get a major star to play it, and without a major star, nobody’s gonna put up the money. And so I put it on the shelf and I did Telefon—I remember I showed the script to Don Siegel. Since I couldn’t do anything with it, I thought maybe if he wanted to direct it I could get it made. And having just done Telefon, he wasn’t in the mood for this kind of movie. I think it was all too bizarre for him. You say it was his kind of movie, prison and things like that, but it’s a little bit too bizarre, you know.
I had a theme in mind before I wrote the script. I wanted to tell a story about how I think men are more romantic than women. Because women’s idea of being romantic is romance. They think it’s dating and dancing and drama and all of that. And men have a different approach to being romantic: that is that your word is your bond, and you grow up with close friends that you play with, you fight with, you’re on teams together, and most women don’t go through that. Their friends become more competitive with each other than with guys. Guys can form bonds that are really strong, and I wanted to show that women interpret a lot of this romance as weakness, as demonstrated in the story when Fast-Walking makes a commitment to help the black prisoner, the Robert Hooks character, escape. He had a chance the night before to ignore that, take the money and the girl and run. And the girl, whose background is strictly criminal, can’t understand that, you know. She interprets that as being a loser: you have an opportunity—you don’t owe anybody anything—you have an opportunity to take off, but he stood by his guns. He said, “No, we can go after. My commitment is to help the guy escape.” And of course she shoots him. I don’t think that Siegel, when he read the script, cared, or he didn’t want to get into the esoteric stuff about who’s romantic and who isn’t, and what women interpret as weakness. It’s so personal as far as I’m concerned, and that’s what Fast-Walking to me was all about.
So anyway, I had it on the shelf, and Siegel didn’t want to do it, so, luckily, Lorimar had decided, since they had so much success in television—they had Dallas and other hit shows—that they wanted to get into feature films. And they had hired David Picker, who was head of production at United Artists for years, and a terrific guy, really a good guy to work with if you’re lucky enough to have that happen. Anyway, he became the head of production at Lorimar, and a friend of mine who had been my attorney for years was at Lorimar now as head counsel there, as an executive. And they actually—his name was Jack Schwartzman, and he came to me and said “Why don’t you come over to Lorimar and make pictures over here?” It was the first time that I had ever been invited by a studio, which—now I guess you’d call them a mini-studio. And I showed them the Fast-Walking sript and they loved it. So the picture got financed by Lorimar. They eventually sold the company to Warner Brothers. Warner Brothers had acquired Lorimar and all their films, so Fast-Walking wound up at Warner Brothers, actually. So that’s how the picture got made.
Picker and I both loved this actor called James Woods. We’d seen him on television, and he’d been in a few movies like The Onion Field, in a series about Nazis, Holocaust. Woods was in it, and we loved this guy. He had not really starred in a picture, he was just in the ensemble. This was his first chance. And he just loved the script, and recognized that this was his first chance to be the star of a movie, and so we at least agreed on who was going to star in the film. And that’s how Woods got into it. And Woods and I became really close friends, so we decided to do another film afterwards, which turned out to be Cop.
The location was the old Montana prison in Deer Lodge? How did you land that?
Well, through research, we had to find a prison that would cooperate. Luckily enough, in Deer Lodge, they were building a new prison several miles away, and this prison was being turned into a museum for classic cars or something like that. So I contacted the proper party, and they said if you want to come and shoot and pay a site rental, if we cleaned up the place, which hadn’t been occupied for awhile, we could use it. I went there to have a look at the place, and it was perfect for what we wanted to do. It had been built by the prisoners themselves back in the 1800s or something, so it was very primitive. It had no heat in it, and it had no air conditioning of course. We shot in summertime, but it was very easy to work there. And we cleaned up the yard and the shelter, and it worked out just fine. We’d contacted a lot of other prisons, but we'd have had to shoot at limited times during the day and only in certain sections, they had programs and schedules that you couldn’t disrupt. The only thing that really worked with complete freedom was to have a prison that was empty, and we found one.
What’s unique about Fast-Walking among prison movies is the idea it gives of the prison being part of this complete ecosystem—not only the prison itself but the town surrounding it. It’s almost like an industry town or a factory town, with the prison as the factory.
I think that’s the case. The town didn’t have much going for it, except the prison.
Here again you have an incredible cast, a murderer’s row of character actors. Susan Tyrrell, who’s so great in Fat City, and M. Emmet Walsh…
The one character who’s really important came from James Woods, and that’s Tim McIntire, who played the “heavy” in the piece. Woods played with McIntire in a Bob Aldrich picture about cops, I can’t think of the name. [The Choirboys] Woods recommended Tim McIntire for the character, and he was perfect for the role, so we hired him. M. Emmet Walsh was, to me, the perfect drill sergeant type, the perfect actor for sergeant of the guard. The Moke character, we started interviewing girls, and a lot of them just didn’t seem right. But we came to Kay Lenz, who had made some noise in a film called Breezy, with William Holden, and it seemed like she was going to have a big career. There were some other people that we interviewed who went on to become major actresses, but we didn’t think they were right. And Lenz was great to work with, totally cooperative. If you can imagine, she’s the female lead in the picture and she’s running for coffee for the guys. Hard to believe—usually they’re such prima donnas in their dressing rooms, but Kay was one of the gang. And then there was Tim Carey. Years after Paths of Glory, he comes to me and says, “Gimme another chance, I really need it and blah blah blah.” I think, “He’d be really good for rival dealer in the prison,” so I relented and hired him. It started right off with trouble again. In the first scene, he’s supposed to be lying dead, and instead he’s moving around. I said “Tim, dead people can’t move, you gotta lie still.” I told him “We’re not going to go through this again, we can replace you, no problem,” and after that he behaved. All the other characters we hired through interviews and agencies. We got a pretty good group together.
It’s very interesting thinking about the movie in light of what you said about Some Call it Loving. In the character of Fast-Walking you have a character who doesn’t fetishize betrayal in the same way, but who certainly leaves himself open to it, and again the case of the woman who knows the man much better than he knows his own self.