Millions of Words
Let's talk briefly about your Hollywood credits after the 1950s . The Unforgiven ?
After all, that was [producer Harold] Hecht, too. Hecht-Hill-Lancaster by then. In spite of the fact that I had been almost forgotten, Hecht had not forgotten.
Did Huston work on that script at all?
No, the script was pretty well done before he came on. There were some changes, but Huston was not very fond of the project.[*] There are other projects he did which I can't imagine he could do anything but hate. I mean, what was he doing on Annie , for chrissake? He was trying to pay his debts, I suppose.
Huston is a fascinating personality, not an ordinary person. Very complicated, with contradictory parts of his personality. I had a strange insight into that when I was working with him on The Unforgiven .
We were in Ireland. I lived in a hotel and he had his estate. I'd drive out there every morning. He was separated from his wife, who had a boyfriend, a French boyfriend. So she lived in a really tiny house [on the estate], the interior of which was, according to my memory of it, covered with ivy wall-
paper. There was a courtyard of stones and then there were all these very old stone stables. Huston lived upstairs in the stables, along with all of his possessions. Mountainous things, you know. Marble horse's head, huge bolts of silk brocades that he got in Thailand—things of this kind. He lived like a Renaissance prince.
One evening, after we had been working most of the day, he asked me to have dinner with him. Then he said, "Well, let's ask my wife, too . . ." I walked across the courtyard with him and we knocked at the door, and she opened it, and he said, "Come on, have dinner with us." She said, "God, John, you must be terribly lonely . . . ," and she wouldn't come.
So the two of us went into town to dinner. When we came back, we went into her house, which was empty then for the evening, and he made a small fire. He got out a Bible and read aloud to me all of Ecclesiastes, pointing out to me that the last two verses were probably appended by the church authorities.
It was the action of a ham, but it was a ham who was revealing something. I think that Huston truly believed that vanity, vanity, all is vanity. But he practiced the vanities. It was very fascinating to see that gulf open up.
How about Two Loves ?
I thought I did a pretty good script, but the director [Charles Walters] on that was terrible, as was the director [Fred M. Wilcox] on Shadow in the Sky . They were guys with very little talent. So I'd have to disagree with you that if you do a splendid screenplay, you're going to get a great film. It can be ruined.
And The Way West ?
That was another piece of junk on which there is a joint [writing] credit [with Mitch Lindeman]. So was The Secret of Santa Vittoria , which I did with [director] Stanley Kramer. Oh God, that was terrible. (Laughs .) The script had already been written and [co-screenwriter] William Rose did not want to bother making any changes, so I was just along for the ride.
How about The Chairman ?
The Chairman was a better script. There was another film with Curt Jurgens about a pianist who is reincarnated—The Mephisto Waltz —which has gotten quite a reputation as a sort of cult film. I think those two films had better screenplays.
Being a leftist, did you have any particular feeling for The Chairman?
Just a job. It was just a melodrama, which they tried to make concurrent with the politics at the time. I didn't know anything about Mao, to tell the truth. Nobody else did really, either. (Laughs .) Although I had done a documentary [China Strikes Back, 1937] about China back in Frontier Films days.
Nowadays you are retired from screenwriting, and after documentaries, poetry, and Hollywood films, you have an entirely new career as a photographic biographer and essayist .
A guy called me up from New York whom I had never known before. He
heard that I had done an outline for a film on Edward Weston and asked if I would be interested in doing a profile on Edward Weston, the photographer. Without any financial arrangement or contract, I said yes. It turned out to be one of the most fascinating things I've ever done in my life, and I did far more than they had expected me to, because I came across this wealth of material that nobody had ever looked at before and became intrigued by his life.
The biography [Edward Weston: Fifty Years: The Definitive Volume of His Photographic Work ] turned out quite good, so I remained in the field. Don't forget, I had known all of these photographers. I had palled around with Cartier-Bresson when he was in New York, both before and after World War II. So I knew a great deal about them. It was very natural for me [to write books about them]. Right after the Weston book, I did this big fat book Faces [subtitled A Narrative History of the Portrait in Photography from 1820 to the Present ], then several more.
Now, in the last two years, I've gone back to writing novels, which I always wanted to do. At this point in my life I find it tremendously enjoyable.
Do you feel that screenwriting has been the least of your accomplishments?
Not the least. It's very important, obviously. Because just think of the million words that I must have written—a lot of words, considering the scripts that are not made. It's characteristic out here that of the number of projects you have in your mind, one out of ten is likely to get anywhere. Of the screenplays that you write, there are at least three or four to every one that is produced. That adds to the frustration.
Did working in Hollywood sidetrack you at all?
No. I only did films because, one, I was tremendously interested in film, and, two, it earned me a living so I could take off time to do my own work. I notice that most of the guys who were in the same position I was, writers with ambition, never got around to doing their own work. They would accept one assignment after another. Or they would spend three or four months between assignments doing nothing or getting drunk.
In the long run, has living in Hollywood suited you?
People say they hate it, I know. But it has suited me. Or I have become accustomed to it.
Don't forget, here your spiritual life is inward. It's enclosed in your house and grounds. It's in your books and records. And we'd always go out to all the plays and concerts, which was very unusual in our circle. In a way, that's a New York habit.
I found it interesting to live out here. At first I thought I didn't really belong here. But it's nice to have a large house, where you paid the mortgage years ago, instead of a small apartment [as in] New York. We have a vacant lot where I grow oranges and peaches, which is also part of my background as a farm kid. And, of course, the weather is marvelous.