Richard Brooks (1912–1992)
Men of Texas (Ray Enright). Additional dialogue.
Sin Town (Ray Enright). Additional dialogue.
White Savage (Arthur Lubin). Script.
Don Winslow of the Coast Guard (Ray Taylor, Lewis D. Collins).
Serial, additional dialogue.
My Best Gal (Anthony Mann). Story.
Cobra Woman (Robert Siodmak). Co-script.
Swell Guy (Frank Tuttle). Script.
The Killers (Robert Siodmak). Uncredited contribution.
Brute Force (Jules Dassin). Script.
Crossfire (Edward Dmytryk). Adapted from his novel The Brick Foxhole .
To the Victor (Delmer Daves). Story, script.
Key Largo (John Huston). Co-script.
Any Number Can Play (Mervyn LeRoy). Script.
Crisis (Richard Brooks). Script, director.
Mystery Street (John Sturges). Co-script.
Storm Warning (Stuart Heisler). Co-story, co-script.
The Light Touch (Richard Brooks). Script, director.
Deadline U.S.A. (Richard Brooks). Story, script, director.
Battle Circus (Richard Brooks). Script, director.
Take the High Ground (Richard Brooks). Director only.
The Last Time I Saw Paris (Richard Brooks). Co-script, director.
The Flame and the Flesh (Richard Brooks). Director only.
The Blackboard Jungle (Richard Brooks). Script, director.
The Last Hunt (Richard Brooks). Script, director.
The Catered Affair (Richard Brooks). Director only.
Something of Value (Richard Brooks). Script, director.
The Brothers Karamazov (Richard Brooks). Script, director.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Richard Brooks). Co-script, director.
Elmer Gantry (Richard Brooks). Script, director.
Sweet Bird of Youth (Richard Brooks). Script, director.
Lord Jim (Richard Brooks). Script, director, producer.
The Professionals (Richard Brooks). Script, director, producer.
In Cold Blood (Richard Brooks). Script, director, producer.
The Happy Ending (Richard Brooks). Story, script, director, producer.
$/Dollars (Richard Brooks). Script, director.
Bite the Bullet (Richard Brooks). Script, director, producer.
Looking for Mr. Goodbar (Richard Brooks). Script, director.
Wrong Is Right (Richard Brooks). Script, director, producer.
Fever Pitch (Richard Brooks). Script, director, producer.
Novels include The Brick Foxhole, The Boiling Point, and The Producer .
Academy Awards include script nominations for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Professionals, and In Cold Blood; and Best Screenplay (Based on Material from Another Medium) for Elmer Gantry in 1960.
Writers Guild awards include nominations for Key Largo, The Blackboard Jungle, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Professionals, and In Cold Blood . Brooks' adaptation of Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry won Best-Written American Drama in 1960. Brooks was named the winner of the Laurel Award for Achievement in 1967.
You were many things in life before you became a screenwriter. At what point did you say to yourself, "I am a writer"?
Well, I am not sure about that. I couldn't get a job when I got out of Temple University and the School of Journalism. This was in Philadelphia during the Depression and [at the time] they were firing newspapermen from the Bulletin, the Inquirer, the Ledger . They were firing guys who had worked there for thirty years! When I went to job interviews, they asked, "What makes you think you're a newspaper man . . .?" and I answered, "I went to a School of Journalism . . ." so they threw me out! That was the worst thing I could have said.
I got on a freight train and left town. Went as far as Pittsburgh the first time. Sold a story in Pittsburgh for a dollar and a half or two dollars. A
newspaper story. There was interest in what was happening on the road and that is what I wrote about.[*]
The next stop was the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, I think. I got four dollars for that piece. They wanted to know who was traveling on the road, what were the conditions under which people were traveling, etc. And they were right to ask those questions, because at the time whole families were traveling by freight train, carrying a birdcage, a blanket, and a mattress.
I was asked to embellish by writing a few more paragraphs on the problem of getting off the trains. There were problems because as soon as you got off, you had to have a place to eat and sleep. Every town, every city, wanted you out . They had thought it was the other way around, that the problem was getting on the trains. They had heard stories about fellas with axe handles coming around and beating people if they found them on trains. But really, they just didn't want you to get off the train!
I arrived the second winter at a big railroad yard in Wheeling, West Virginia. I was hanging around there with some guys who had got off a coal car. I was talking to a fella who looked like an old man to me—he was probably thirty—who had a railroad watch in the watch pocket of his trousers. Every time a train would go by, he'd look at his watch. He seemed to know about trains. I was interested in finding out which ones were going south, because the weather was turning cold. The ones that started south weren't necessarily going south, as they might just be leaving the yard. But he knew which ones were going south and which ones were really just heading out of the yard to pick up a load somewhere.
Finally he said, "What do you do?" Meaning, what do you do when you could be hired to do it? I said, "I'm a writer." He said, "What do you write?" I told him I worked at some newspapers, lying a little bit about the extent to which I had worked on them. I also told him I was writing short stories. He said, "Ever get any published?" I said, "Not yet." In those days you could get twenty-five dollars if you wrote a short story for Liberty magazine, but it was not so easy to get published. He said, "What kind of reading do you do?" I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "Well, have you ever read Dostoevski?" I said, "I think I read part of one of his novels, yeah." He said, "Ever read Tolstoy? Whitman?," He rattled off a string of other names. "Well, kind of," I said.
Knowing that I hadn't read most of what he was talking about, he said, "As a matter of fact, you haven't read much of anything, have you?" I said, "I've read a lot of short stories, some novels, I've read some Upton Sinclair,
Willa Cather. . . ." He said, "Well, you ain't a writer yet. You gotta read 10,000 words for every one you write. Maybe then you'll become a writer."
I realized that my education was not over. It was just beginning. (Laughs .)
So when you say, When did I realize I was a writer . . . ? No matter how many newspapers I worked on, I guess it wasn't until I wrote my first novel and Edward Aswell at Harper told me he thought I ought to have another chapter written at the end of my book [The Brick Foxhole ]. I said, "Yeah, well, Mr. Aswell, are you gonna publish the book? Because every publisher has already turned it down . . ." None of the major publishers wanted to touch it. My agent had not sent it to Harper [initially] because it was too high-class a house.
I had gone to Chappaqua, New York, to see Mr. Aswell on a forty-eight-hour pass from Quantico [the Marine Corps center in Virginia]. "Fine, I'll write as many new chapters as you want," I told him, "but are you going to publish it?" He said, "Didn't they tell you? It's on our spring list." I don't remember what he said as he drove me to the railroad station, or the ride from Chappaqua to New York City, then overnight in the station in New York, then getting on another train in New York to take me down through Washington, D.C., and then south down to Quantico. I don't remember anything that happened except I arrived in Quantico and all I could think of was "They're going to publish the book!" When it came out, Mr. Lewis—this was Sinclair Lewis—wrote a complimentary review in Esquire magazine. Then I thought that maybe I had become a writer.
Your father was a factory worker?
My mother, too. They both worked in a factory.
But you had nurtured dreams, from an early age, of becoming a writer?
My father was a literate man in his native language. When he came to this country, he learned to read and write [English] from reading the newspapers. I rarely saw my parents because they worked 12–15 hours a day—they even worked half a day on Saturdays—but on Sundays he'd play Caruso records on the phonograph, and he would be reading all the time, trying to learn English. If it wasn't for my mother, I might not have gone to school every day. She wanted to make sure I was going to class—a very embarrassing situation for me. She'd show up in class to see if I was there!
I never thought I was going to become a writer, so to speak, but I thought if I could just work for a newspaper, that would be terrific. I did, as a matter of fact, work for a number of newspapers. But the extent of writing was a kind of dream. It was not something realistic in my mind.
You had more newspapers than books around the house .
Some books, mostly newspapers.
Where were your parents from?
The Crimea. When they came to this country—I was born about four or five years after they came here—they realized that without education every
lower-class person was doomed. They knew that money was power. They felt that [strongly]. So they hounded me all the time [about learning to read and write]. The first time I had a steady job on a paper, they thought I was set for life. They felt they didn't have to worry about me any more. They were both still alive when my first book was published. Greatest day in their lives, they said. They used to carry it with them when they went to work. They had read it nine times already, but they carried it under their arms as proof of something.
That's really lovely. Now, you say that you thought of yourself as a writer, finally, when your novel was published. But hadn't you already been in Hollywood for a couple of years and written several screenplays?
The stuff I wrote before the war, in the main, was pretty much junk. See, when I came out here to California, I knew there was going to be a war, and that we were going to be in it. I just wanted to see California. In all the time I'd been bumming around the country I'd never gotten to California. I had gone to wherever there was a job.
Why did you want to see California?
I don't know. It just seemed to me that it was the land of cowboys, movies, sunshine, exciting people. I began going to movies when I was six years old, when it cost six cents to go to a movie house on a Saturday afternoon—the movie and a short subject or a newsreel, and maybe another short subject—all for six cents! Some people I knew from New York were in Los Angeles on a radio station doing the news and they kept saying, "You have got to come out to L.A. Look me up!" I got out to California just about the time of the World Series [of 1940]. I stayed in a hotel across the street from the [Grauman's] Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. I made calls [to all the people I knew], but nobody ever called me back!
Were they screenwriters, these people?
No! They were actors. I had not met any screenwriters. Screenwriters didn't come to New York; or if they were that good, I didn't get to meet them. But I had worked for NBC in New York. One day I was driving down the street toward NBC in Hollywood, which used to be on the corner of Sunset and Vine. Waiting there for the light to change, I heard a voice yell out, "Hey, Brooks!" There was a guy standing on the pavement who used to be with an advertising agency by the name of Lennen and Mitchell. I even remember his name: Mann Holliner.
I pulled over. He said, "What are you doing here?" "Going home to New York any day now." He said, "Don't you like it here?" I said, "Yeah, terrific, but I don't know anybody well enough to get a job here." He said, "You worked for NBC in New York—they're all the same ship!" I said, "Well, do you know anybody here?" He said, "Sure."
They had two networks at that time: the Blue and the Red. We went in
together to see the news department. We talked to a man who said, "We've got more newsmen here than we know what the hell to do with. . . . Why don't you go see the creative-something department?" So we went up there and the editor said to me, "You think you can Write a short story a day?" I said, "Every day?" He said, "Every day." I said, "Why?" He said, "Well, we got a spot on the Blue Network, fifteen minutes, 4:15 in the afternoon here, 7:15 in New York. Short story every day." I said, "You mean an original short story?" He said, "It'll have to be original—or as close to it as you can get!" I said, "What will I do with the short story after I write it?" He said, "Then you'll read it. That's what you'll do. . . ." I said, "You won't even give me an announcer to read it?" He said, "We can't afford an announcer." I said, "What'll you pay?" He said, "Twenty-five dollars a day. That'll be $125 a week, five-day week." I said, "Short story every day . . . ? Well, I could try it for a while." So every day I wrote a short story.[*]
Was this your first foray into fiction?
I'd written some short stories before, but none was published. Anyway, every day, another short story. Everything became grist for a short story. It began to drive me crazy . . . a different plotline every day. My ambition: write one story a week instead of a different story every day. In about eleven months I wrote over 250 stories. I even devised a system whereby on Fridays I wouldn't have to write a short story. I called that day "Heels of History." I would take a fable and convert it. As a matter of fact, I used one afterwards in [a scene in] The Blackboard Jungle .
"Jack and the Beanstalk," for example. Jack: Now there's a hero for you. His father is bedridden, unable to work. No food in the house. Jack's mother is desperate. She decides to sacrifice their only cow to stave off starvation. She tells Jack to take the cow to market and sell it. With the money, she will be able to feed Jack's stricken father and perhaps buy medicine to alleviate his pain. Here's the "right stuff" all right. The stuff of which heroes are made.
On the way to market, Jack meets a con man. Jack trades the cow for a couple of magic beans. So our hero has already disobeyed and cheated his mother. He has also forsaken his father. His mother throws the beans out of the window. At once, the magic goes to work. Out of the beans a mighty beanstalk grows, taller, higher, finally into the clouds. Jack climbs the beanstalk. [From the giant and his wife who live at the top] he steals the goose that lays the golden eggs, and steals the harp that plays music by itself, so he's a thief also. When he climbs down the beanstalk, the giant chases after him—why? Because the giant is a bad guy? No, he's the victim of a thief! Why is he bad? Because he's taller than other people? He's a giant! As the
giant chases down the beanstalk after Jack, Jack chops down the beanstalk and commits murder! And Jack is supposed to be the good guy!
"The Heels of History." One day a week. When I had trouble writing a story, all I had to do was convert one of these fables.
Finally, I read somewhere that if you wrote a movie, you would be paid $1,000 a week. I set up a meeting with a producer at Universal, whose name was George Waggner with two g's. He said to me, "Yeah, yeah, as a matter of fact we need somebody right now to do a rewrite on a script. How are you at dialogue?" I said, "Great!" He said, "Well, all right. . . ." I said, "What'll you pay?" He said, "What are you asking?" I said, "$1,000 a week." He said, "I'll call you back." A week went by, he didn't call. So I called him. He said, "Are you crazy! I'm the producer of the goddam movie and I get $200 a week! What do you mean $1,000 a week?!" I said, "What will you pay?" He said, "$100 a week." I said, "I'll take it!"
That was my first job. The picture was a rewrite of White Savage, with Maria Montez, Jon Hall, and Sabu. I worked about eight days and the job was over! I got paid $100 plus a day or two prorated, and they put my name on [the screen] as "additional dialogue." I didn't quit the job at NBC because I didn't know how long this was going to last. A few months went by, and I got another job on a movie, Men of Texas . Then I worked on a serial, Don Winslow of the Coast Guard . They wouldn't even let me sit at the writers' table, because anybody who worked on serials wasn't a writer to begin with. (Laughs .) Anyhow, this went on for almost a year.
During which time I also worked for Orson Welles on his Mercury Theatre, the radio series. Welles was something!
Did you actually write with him in a room, collaborating on scripts?
No, no, no. He was acting at the time I was working for him. Most of the time he was doing a movie! He had an office at Fox and was acting in Jane Eyre .
What is it that you learned from him?
With Welles, everything began with the writing. And he was very good at it. He was a terrific guy. After I had done a few days' work, we'd go over the scenes. He had such a remarkable memory that if we'd get into a dispute about the way the story should or should not go, he'd say, "Well, let's see now in Lear . . . ," and then he would review the whole second act of King Lear, doing all the parts! Or he could quote from the New or Old Testament, by the yard. His wealth of information and background about story lines was inexhaustible. He was inventive. Fearless.
Most of the scripts I was working on in Hollywood at that time were somebody else's first or second or third draft. My name was on scripts with other writers, but I never met them or worked with them. With Welles, he began really with original work, so it was not a matter of doing somebody else's
story. And if you did do somebody else's story, it was a fine piece of work to begin with.
Were you working with a pool of other writers, with Howard Koch, for example?
Never saw any another writer. When I was with Welles, there was nobody else around. The only guy that came around once in a while was a man by the name of Mr. Solomon, who never paid me. (Laughs .) He always owed me money! It wasn't that he was trying to do me out of it, it was just that Orson had spent it all!
How did your screenwriting career progress, meanwhile?
It came to an end very shortly. I was called over to Universal one day. By then I had already worked on another screenplay of somebody else's called Cobra Woman, with Maria Montez, Jon Hall, and Sabu—and now they wanted an original for the same three people. The producer said to me, "This time the story has got to be about a desert, so name me a desert." I said, "What do you mean, name me a desert? What's the story?" He said, "I don't know the story yet. It's going to take place in the desert. We can't use the American desert because that's cowboys and Indians. Same good guys, same bad guys. So, name me a [new] desert." I said, "How about the African desert?" He said, "That's already been done a hundred times. The British do all that crap." I said, "How about the Australian desert?" He said, "Big desert?" I said, "Big as the United States." He said, "Really? Who are the bad guys?" I said, "Hey, I don't even know the story!" He said, "Well then, the natives, who are they?" I said, "The original natives are people they call bushwhackers and they're black." He said, "Black! I don't want to get into that whole black thing." I said, "Chinese desert?" He said, "No, they just did that in The Good Earth ." I said, "Indian?" He said, "British. All those helmets and all that crap. They got a license on it." I said, "Turkish desert!" He said, "They got a desert there?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "Look it up, write me a story about it."
So I got out some National Geographics and looked up Turkey in the period right after the First World War when the country was going through an interesting transformation. The women were beginning to put aside some of the veils, they were learning how to read and write, and this story was going to be about a girl played by Maria Montez who sat on the corner [of the marketplace] and wrote letters for people who didn't know how to write. I sent the story in, about twenty-one pages—not the screenplay, just the story. The producer calls me up and says to come over. He said, "You let me down, boy. Where are the Riffs [the Berbers]?" I said, "The what?" He said, "The Riffs!" I said, "There are no Riffs in Turkey. That's in North Africa." He said, "Well, shit."
He had seen movies with Riffs [and that's what he wanted]. Now he said,
"All right, so do the story in North Africa." Again I get out the National Geographics . I found a very interesting story. The story itself wasn't in the National Geographic, but there was an incident [described that] I thought could be turned into a movie. To prove there was a shorter route from India to London than around the Cape of Good Hope, the British and the French had devised a race. Two packet boats left from India, one going around the cape, and the other going to the port of Suez, from where the packet was taken across desert land to Alexandria, where it was put on another packet boat. And this boat beat the first packet boat to London by almost two weeks. My story was going to take place between Suez and Alexandria. Maria Montez, Jon Hall, and Sabu were carrying the mail to Alexandria. In that sense, it was like the Pony Express, delivering the mail, cowboys racing across the desert.
The producer said, "Damn! That sounds pretty good! And that's why they built the canal?" I wrote the story, about twenty-five to thirty pages, and sent it over to him. He called me up and said, "You let me down, boy. Where are the fucking Riffs?" I said, "What've the Riffs got to do with this? There are plenty of bad guys trying to stop them. . . ." He said, "You come with me. Forget the canal. I'm going to show you some Riffs. . . ."
He took me to the projection room and he ran a movie. I think it was with Tyrone Power and Annabella, called Suez . Sure enough, in the first reel six guys in white sheets ride in and blow up the canal. I waited, however, to see the other five reels to find out if they were Riffs, whatever they were. It turns out that they were not Riffs. They were the British trying to stop the French from building the canal!
The producer said, "Well, okay, I'll call the boss." He had some kind of executive producer whom he called on the phone. The other guy had such a loud voice, he didn't need a phone. The producer said, "We got a story here. . . ." The voice said, "Sounds terrific, Jack!" The producer said, "It's the Pony Express in Egypt!" The voice said, "Yeah, sure she can wear a veil. . . ." The producer said, ". . . And they'll ride like hell . . . blowing up things. . . . Yeah, the boy dies a heroic death." There is a pause. And the producer turns to me, "When does this story take place? He wants to know when this story takes place." I said, "I heard him. Well, it's about 1830–1832, somewhere in there." The voice yells back, "1830! When the fuck was that?"
So I got up, left the office, took a trolley downtown on Hollywood Boulevard, and joined the Marine Corps.
Was there an upside to this early period of screenwriting?
Yeah. I could pay my rent. Met a few people. . . . I never thought it was wasted effort. Anything that you work so damned hard on, it's not wasted, but I just felt that the movies were not the kind of movies I wanted to do.
How much did you work on Crossfire as a film?
Only verbally. [Screenwriter] John Paxton came around with [producer] Adrian Scott to talk about the story, because they were a little afraid of changing the book [The Brick Foxhole ] that drastically. Paxton couldn't do the story about a homosexual—because of the rules at that time. Scott asked me would I mind if they changed the character to a Jew. I said, "No. They got the same problems. Everybody does."[*]
There is anti-Semitism in the book .
Yes, but the major character who is killed is homosexual. Servicemen used to pick up homosexuals and take their money from them and beat the shit out of them on their way into Washington. Clifford Odets was going to do a play based on the book. And [Elia] Kazan was going to direct it. That's how I met Kazan. But Kazan got into some money problems, and he had no time to wait for a play to be written; and Clifford was having divorce problems or something. So they abandoned the idea. But it was at Odets' house that I met Adrian Scott, who wanted to do the book [as a film].
They were generous enough to ask me about casting. Of course, I knew Robert Ryan from the Marine Corps; I had met him in a library in Quantico. He said, "Are you the guy wrote that book?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "Well, I'm an actor." I said, "Good." He said, "One of these days they're gonna make that into a movie and I'm gonna play that character." I said, "Are you really?" He said, "Yeah. I know that son of a bitch. . . . No one knows him any better than I do." Three years later, coming out of the theater after the preview, there was Ryan and he said, "Well, what do you think?"
How did you get connected with Mark Hellinger after the war?
Bogie had read The Brick Foxhole, and Bogie was very friendly with Mark Hellinger. He gave Hellinger the book to read. Hellinger wasn't interested in making this kind of book into a movie. But he wrote me a letter, told me he liked the book, and told me if I ever got out alive, come out and see him, maybe we could work on a movie. I was determined to get out alive if I could. I did. I came to see him.
He gave me a play to read. A very good play, but I've forgotten what the name of it was [The Hero by Gilbert Emery]. He made it into a movie called Swell Guy . I wrote the screenplay for it. That's how I came back to work [in Hollywood].
The second or third night I was back, we went to a restaurant owned by Preston Sturges. The Players Club. A real expensive restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, right near the Chateau Marmont—and that's where I first met
Betty and Bogie. Bogie told me things were a little tough for him. He had worked for seven years for Warner Brothers, playing George Raft's brother-in-law, even after The Petrified Forest , before he became a star. High Sierra  and The Maltese Falcon  didn't make him a star. Casablanca  made him a star, after all those years. He was very funny [about it].
Anyway, that's where I first met Bogie and that's where I began with Mark. As a matter of fact, after Swell Guy I worked on another movie for Hellinger, called Brute Force , a prison picture, and I had been working on that a month or two when he said, "Hold it. I was just up to meet Hemingway and I bought a short story from him. You ever read The Killers?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "Good story?" I said, "Yeah, terrific." He said, "Well, it's five, seven pages long, something like that. Two guys come into a town, they go to a diner, they make some jokes, and then they go look for the Swede to kill him. So, what's the story?" I said, "I don't know." He said, "Well, write a story. If you'll write the story, John Huston, who is in the Aleutians just finishing up—he's gonna be discharged any day now—will write the screenplay."
So I stopped working on the prison picture to write a story. I went up to see Hemingway in Idaho just to find out if he knew something more about the story that was not in the story. I said, "Why do the two guys come in to kill the Swede?" "How the hell do I know?" he said. "That's all you got to say?" I said. "That's all I got to say," he said.
I went back to newspapers. I spent a week, I guess, looking up old newspapers and magazines until I came across a story about the holdup of an ice factory. A bunch of guys had robbed the joint of a payroll, and sped out of the factory in a car with the top down, heading the hell out of town, the police chasing them. The police caught the car with three, four guys in it, but there was no money. The guy who had the money was a former boxer who had run across the street and hid the money (in a suitcase) in a pushcart. That was the story in the paper.
Based on that, I wrote a story like in the old days at Universal, except that we invented a character who was an insurance inspector. The insurance company will have to pay back the money to the factory and they don't want to; what they want is to find whoever the hell did it! That was the Eddie O'Brien character.
When the killers do come to get the money, some of it is gone—because the Burt Lancaster character had become involved with a girl. That was [to be] Ava Gardner's first leading role. Up to that time she'd played a girl who sat around while the Marx Brothers made jokes! Or something like that.
I sent it off to Hellinger, he sent it off to John, and John wrote the screenplay. While we were shooting the movie, Mark said to me, "I'm not going to be able to put your name on the screen." I said, "Okay, that's all right."
He said, "I want you to know why. How's it gonna look, 'Story by Hemingway and Brooks'? Who the hell is Brooks? Nobody knows Brooks!" I said, "Hey, Mark, it's all right!"
He said, "Just so you don't feel too bad, I can't put John's name on it either." I said, "Why not?" He said, "Well, John's still under contract to Warner Brothers. You know how it is when you're under contract to a studio? You're on a seven-year contract, you go to war for three or four years, that don't count! You still owe them three years! So we can't put John's name on it."[*]
The screenplay [The Killers, 1946] was nominated as one of the best screenplays of the year, and the night of the awards we were sitting in Mark's house in his bar. I was sitting on the floor listening to the radio and drinking. Mark was pretty good with the bottle. I said to John, "Suppose the damned thing wins. Who picks up the award? . . . How is that gonna make you feel?" John thought about it for a moment or two and said, "Well, kid, let's pray it loses." (Laughs .) John was terrific. It lost. Saved us that embarrassment.
Do you feel you became a screenwriter under Hellinger?
Yeah. I think so. I was allowed to work on some pretty good material. And Hellinger worshipped writers. At that time, he himself was still writing, his column . . . a weekly page in the New York Mirror .
Was he a very creative producer, in terms of the writing, or more laissez-faire?
He was very creative. He couldn't write the way he wanted to write, but he loved writers and he loved storytelling and he loved movies.
At the end of the day, you'd gather in his office for a drink, sometimes separately, sometimes together. He liked nothing more than to sit with a writer and have a drink. Hellinger was a good man. Also devious. Somewhere in the bottom drawer of his desk, there was a phone that would ring—and that would be his girlfriend calling.
But no matter how much Mark loved writers, I never saw a movie made until I worked on Key Largo  with John [Huston]. John told me, "They won't pay you, but stick around for rewrites; at least you'll see how a movie is made." That was the first movie I ever saw being made from a screenplay that I had worked on. All [of Hellinger's] writers were barred from the sets. They were a pain in the ass! They always asked why their work was being changed, so nobody wanted them around.[**]
But Hellinger gave every writer of any value that worked with him a piece of the movie. So I had an interest in those movies, Brute Force, Swell Guy, and The Killers . Albert Maltz was, at the time when I was working for Hellinger, working on The Naked City , and I got a piece of that picture and the other pictures that I didn't work on too, and Maltz and the other writers got a piece of the pictures I worked on.[*]
That's very rare .
Oh, at that time nobody gave a writer anything! There was no written contract with Mark; it was always a handshake. To this day, I still get an annual check for $52 for Brute Force . When he died, his widow [Gladys Glad] married some guy in Canada, but she still went through with the agreement. They were both honorable. Mark was only forty-four when he died. I thought he was an old man!
You said you learned a lot working with Huston. The first time you really collaborated with him was on Key Largo. Can you specify what it was that you learned from him?
Discipline. And that nothing was ever good enough. Nothing.
John [Huston] didn't like the story of Key Largo . He couldn't stand the free verse that [Maxwell] Anderson wrote in mostly.
He was intimidating. We used to shoot pool at his house, and every time I'd bring an idea over, John would say, "Let's shoot some pool." Finally, when I got together about forty or fifty pages, an outline of what the picture would be, he said, "Well, let's give it a try." We decided to go together to Key Largo, if there was such a place.
It was off-season, September or October. Some Irishman owned a hotel called the Largo Hotel. This guy said he would open the place, have somebody clean the rooms, and do some cooking.
Anyway, at the time John was involved with the Committee for the First Amendment.[**]
The anti-HUAC committee .
The committee to defend the idea of the First Amendment. That was a tough time. Very scary time. I was on the committee. John organized the committee. [David O.] Selznick was a member of the committee. But Selznick insisted that something be added to the charter [of the committee]. That
those who signed on as members of the Committee for the First Amendment were not members of the Communist Party.
John had organized a planeload of people to go to Washington. I was to meet him in Key West about four or five days later. He went to Washington with a planeload of people—Bogie and Betty and Danny Kaye and the Gershwins and so on. They were met on the tarmac in Washington by a newspaperwoman who wrote for the Hearst press. She challenged them on the tarmac, before they even got into the terminal.
So John came to Key West in a foul mood. He met me in the bar—the bar that Tennessee [Williams] used to hang out at. He was angry. He said, "You heard what happened? I guess you read about it." I said, "Heard about it on the radio, read about it, yeah." He said, "Goddam, they're tough, boy. Don't think the battle against this shit is going to be easy!" I said, "I never did."
Most days John would go fishing off the end of the pier, and I would stay in the hotel and write. It was 110 degrees. John wore a turtleneck sweater and never sweated. I wore shorts and sat inside, sweated, and wrote! First in longhand, then on the typewriter. He would come in at lunchtime and say, "Well, let's see what you got!" We'd go over it and he'd say, "Well, this works . . . this doesn't work . . ." and so on.
One time he came in and said, "What have you got?" I had written a scene where Eddie Robinson says to Bogie, "Well, we've lost our skipper. You know how to run this boat. You're taking us to Cuba. . . ." And Bogie agrees to pilot the boat to Cuba. On the boat a fight breaks out and Bogie overcomes the bad guys.
John said, "Well, why does he do it?" I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "Why does Bogie do it? Throughout the movie, up to this point in the story, whatever Robinson wanted him to do, he did. Why does he resist them now?" I said, "I don't understand, John." John said, "Why does he say yes the whole picture and now he says no?! Why?" I said, "You mean why is he going to start a fight with these guys?" He said, "Yes, why? The danger is just as bad now. . . ." I said, "Well, John, it's coming to the end of the movie. . . . That's the way the movie's going to end." He said, "But that's no goddam reason!" I said, "You want motivation . . . ?" He said, "Yeah, that's right." I said, "The guy maybe has to fight for his life now, whereas he didn't before. . . ." He said, "That's not good enough."
Off he went fishing again. By that time the hotel owner had moved in a crap table and wheel, getting ready for their season. In the evening John would put on his jacket and we would gamble, just the two of us! The dealer went by the name of Ziggy, which we used in the movie. We gambled for three, four days, while I worked on the scene. I must have written five, six, seven different kinds of scenes.
One day he said to me, "Let's not talk about the story. Let's talk about us. You ever been in a condition like this? Suppose you were in a car with
your girlfriend and a guy stuck a gun in your nose and said, 'I'm gonna fuck your girl!' You knew if you fought him, you'd die. Would you fight him? He's got a gun and you haven't. Would you do it for money? Would you do it for religion? Would you do it for politics? What would you do it for? Where do you lay your life on the line? For what?"
I said, "What about you?" He said, "I don't know! I'm just thinking about it now. I'm not sure, but it ain't because it's the end of the movie coming up! I don't think you'd lay your life on the line for religion or politics or something else like that, and not for your girlfriend, and certainly not your wife, if you had one. Maybe if somebody tried to sodomize you, you might decide to fight, though I can't decide, but yeah, you might. Because you'd think it was so shameful you couldn't live with it. So think of something!"
I said, "Are you thinking too, John?" He said, "Yeah, I'm thinking all the time."
I must have written a lot of different sequences, things to do with decency and honor and how Bogart just couldn't stand any more of this dictatorial attitude, and none of it really was the truth. But early in the story I had set up a guy whose name was Toots, a young, good-looking gunman; a guy who went out and shot a couple of Indians on a porch. Boats made him sick. I
rewrote the ending a little bit so that the hurricane was just ending the night they had to leave. The waters would still be extremely turbulent. The waves would make rough sailing.
Now, Robinson and the other guys are down below when Toots is at the stern of the boat, really sick, barely able to hang on. Bogie at the helm realizes there is a chance. So he makes it even a little more difficult by hitting the waves head-on. The boat's even more violent. Finally, as the guy is leaning over the side trying to throw up, Bogie handles the wheel in such a way that Toots is over the side of the boat. Once he's gone, Bogie's got a gun. They don't know down below that their man is gone. Bogie lashes the wheel, gets up on top of the pilot house. Robinson comes up. Nobody is at the wheel . . . Toots is gone. Robinson realizes maybe Bogie's got the gun. That's when the final confrontation takes place.
John read that and he said, "Okay, that makes sense. At least he's got a technical reason for feeling that he can confront them. He's got more than something technical, he's got a gun. They've got to come out through that narrow passageway. So he's in command of the situation. All we have to do is make sure we establish early on that this guy hates boats because they make him seasick. . . ."
That's what I learned from John. That even though you may have all the best intellectual reasons, if it doesn't work from the point of view of the story, then it's not good enough. If you have to rewrite it, you rewrite it. If you have to rewrite it eight times, you rewrite it eight times! Until it's good enough. And maybe you'll find a way later on that's even better. You never stop rewriting.
You mentioned that you were a member of the Committee for the First Amendment. When did you yourself first hear of the investigation of Communists in the motion picture industry, and what was your attitude towards the blacklist?
The first I heard about that jazz was right after the war. One day I came into Hellinger's office to have a drink at the end of the day and there was a guy sitting there with a suit on. Mark said, "Meet Richard Hood. . . ."
The FBI section chief from Los Angeles .
That's right. How did you know that?
I'm interested in the history of the blacklist .
We shook hands. He said, "I'm with the FBI." I thought, "What's a guy from the FBI doing here? Am I gonna be investigated or something?"
Anyway, Mark said to me, "We've got a problem. When you wrote Brute Force, where'd you go [for your research]?" I said, "San Quentin. I stayed there for three weeks. Lived there for a couple of weeks so I could see what it was like living in a cell. And I think that whoever is going to direct the movie should visit a prison too, to see what it's really like."
Mark said, "Julie [Jules] Dassin is going to direct the movie, the first big movie he's done. Up to this time he's just done short subjects. But instead of going to San Quentin, he wants to spend a couple of hours every day at a federal holding prison outside of Los Angeles. But they won't let him in." I said, "Why?" He said, "That's what we're here to talk about. Tell him why, Mr. Hood." Mr. Hood said, "Because he can't get clearance. It's a federal prison and this guy is suspect." I said, "Suspect? Why suspect? What did he do? Who'd he kill?" Mr. Hood said, "He didn't kill anybody. We can't clear him because we've got information that he's probably connected with Communist organizations."[*]
I said, "Well, if that's the case, then we can't get him in any prison. . . ." Mr. Hood said, "That's right. You're going to have to build that prison right here on the lot." Most movie studios look like prisons anyway. High walls all around, all that jazz; all you have to do is build a guard tower and you'll have a prison. So we built the prison. That conversation occurred right in Mark's office.
A lot of the people associated with Crossfire were ultimately blacklisted. Was it difficult for someone like yourself, aware, and liberal, to be caught in the middle?
I was lucky. One night I was over at Ira Gershwin's house having some dinner and afterwards we were going to play penny poker. The doorbell rang and a man who worked in the house came and said somebody wanted to talk to me at the door. I go to the door and it was Adrian Scott's wife [the actress, Ann Shirley]. She was crying. They were moving to England and they were short of money. Could she borrow some? I said, "How'd you know I was here?" She said, "I called and they told me you were going to be over here for dinner. I don't want you to write a check because maybe they could hurt you." That broke my heart. I got her some money.
The point is, that's what it was like at that time. Christ, what did these people go through? I was never attacked that way. They said to me, "We got your license number. . . . You were at such and such a house where they had a meeting." I said, "Who had a meeting?" They had it all written down: we were raising money for Roosevelt or Wallace, or somebody, and they had taken the license numbers [of cars] outside the house. They questioned the politics of the guy whose house it was. I didn't know what his politics were, and I didn't care!
Two guys came to see me when I was working at Fox. They were investigators for the congressional committee. They asked, "Did I want to be a friendly or unfriendly witness?" I said, "What are you talking about?" They said, "Well, you know there are friendly and unfriendly witnesses. . . ." I
said, "That's what I read in the papers. . . ." They said, "Well, the congressman would like you to come . . ." I said, "Come where?" They said, "To Washington." I said, "To do what?" They said, "Names." I said, "You know all the names." They said, "Yes, but we'd like you to tell us the names, too." I said, "I don't know any names other than those names, and I don't even know if they're Communists."
They said, "Well, Mr. Kazan"—"Gadge" [Kazan's nickname] was working at the studio at the time—"he's coming . . ." I said, "That's fine with me." They said, "But you won't come?" I said, "No." They said, "Do you want us to send a subpoena?" I said, "You want to send, send!" They never sent any.
Was the blacklist an issue for Hollywood and for you, constantly, throughout the 1950s?
I don't know about constantly. One day I was called up by Marvin Schenck [nephew of Nicholas and Joseph Schenck, and a longtime MGM vice president] to the [MGM] office and asked to sign a loyalty oath. He said, "You owe it to the United States. You gotta sign, otherwise they'll picket the theaters. They got a guy with Red Channels here driving everybody crazy."[*] I said, "Hey, what do you think I was doing for three and a half years in the Marine Corps? I wasn't there because I was against the country!" He said, "So what's the big deal?" I said, "I don't want to sign. I don't think it's right for you to ask me to do that. . . ."
But Mr. [Louis B.] Mayer wanted to know why. I said, "Because it's an insult, Mr. Mayer. Some people say, if they sign a piece of paper it will prove they're American. That's insulting. Do you know it's not even against the law to be a Communist in this country?" He said, "It isn't?" I said, "No, it isn't. It so happens I'm not a Communist. I can't stand to belong to anything. I'd probably resign from the human race if I could! I don't belong to clubs, no country clubs, no tennis clubs. I only belong to a union because otherwise I couldn't work. . . ."
He said, "I understand. You know, they're making things difficult for us." I said, "That's something else. You sign a paper for me that says they're making it difficult for you. Sign a paper that says they're gonna hurt you unless everybody signs a loyalty oath, and I'll sign one right now." He said, "But, but, why would I do that?" I said, "That's exactly what I'm talking about."
It was frightening. That's what it was like at the time. I was lucky they didn't stop me from working.
I understand that you have been working on a screenplay about the blacklist era in Hollywood .
When David Puttnam came to Columbia Pictures as head of production, he asked me to make a movie about the fright-filled times of the McCarthy period and the Hollywood blacklist. The movie was also to deal with the attempt of C. B. De Mille and others to remove Joe Mankiewicz from office as president of the Directors Guild.
When Mr. Puttnam left Columbia Pictures, the project was abandoned by the new bosses. When the new "new bosses" come in, perhaps they will revive the project. However, I think it doubtful. They may be so very new, they may ask, "Who was this 'McCarthy'? What the hell is a blacklist? 1950? When the hell was that???"
I notice, during this middle period of your career, after Hellinger and Huston and principally at MGM, that you still have a lot of shared script credits. Were you collaborating a lot?
The only actual collaboration I ever had, with someone in the same room with me, was John Huston. As I say, I learned a lot about the craft from him. I never worked with other writers. Some of them I didn't meet until years later. John collaborated with somebody else because he didn't like to be alone. He functions best when he's with someone.
What about the Epsteins [Julius and Philip]? Didn't you collaborate with them twice, on both the Fitzgerald film and the Dostoevski one?
No. Those scripts were already written. They were terrific screenwriters, by the way.[*] The producer of the Fitzgerald picture was a relative of Mr. Mayer, a nephew, Jack Cummings. A very bright fellow who was married to the daughter of the composer who wrote "The Last Time I Saw Paris." That's why the title of that picture was changed to The Last Time I Saw Paris . It's a very sentimental movie. Pretty good, really.
Didn't you collaborate with Sidney Boehm?
In the case of Sidney Boehm and Mystery Street , I worked more with the director, John Sturges. I did a little more research on the crime [which forms the basis of the plot], and worked with Ricardo Montalban. I never worked with Sidney Boehm.
What about Delmer Daves and To the Victor  ?
He was a director when I worked for him. We talked a little about story, but that is all. A very fine fellow, a decent man, Delmer Daves.
Gore Vidal and Paddy Chayefsky on The Catered Affair?
No. I did a little rewriting on the soundstage, but that's all.
Poe had worked on the first script of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  before me, with [director] George Cukor, but you couldn't even mention the word homosexual in those days. George expected to do the third act exactly the way
it was written. When the studio said no, he withdrew from the project. The screenplay written by James Poe was very good; it was almost like the play. I began with a whole new third act, since we couldn't use that element. I never consulted with Tennessee [Williams], who was usually in a bar in Key West somewhere, but I did consult occasionally with Kazan, who had directed the play on Broadway.
Your credits during the fifties have an incredible range. I cannot understand how you were able to survive that decade, particularly at MGM, making such unusual projects. From such a graphic juvenile delinquency movie like The Blackboard Jungle to a social-consciousness picture like Something of Value, from the Gore Vidal-Paddy Chayefsky picture to directing and adapting such literateurs as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dostoevski, Sinclair Lewis, Tennessee Williams. You were certainly blessed with the best material .
Why did you become the point man at MGM? Was that partly because of the chaotic nature of the industry at that point, or because of loopholes in the marketplace as a result of the blacklist and television?
Actually, I never initiated any projects with MGM, with the exception of The Blackboard Jungle . They said, "This is what you've got to do. If you don't do it, you're off salary." Once I took the job I was the proprietor—until it was completed.
Were things like The Brothers Karamazov  and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof not considered the best projects on the lot?
No. They were not the best projects; they were the toughest projects. The best projects were the musicals.
Do you not feel that they are your pictures as much as MGM's, ultimately?
At MGM, yes, because I felt that once I said okay, they became part of me, and I of them. Except for a couple of pictures.
One of them was a picture [The Flame and the Flesh, 1954] with Lana Turner that originally had been a marvelous French movie, a comedy with Viviane Romance and a French actor by the name of [Michel] Simon, about a hooker and a guy who played the organ in a church. Very funny, marvelous comedy.
MGM bought it. [Joe] Pasternak was the producer. It was written by a lady [Helen Deutsch, based on the novel Naples au baiser de feu by Auguste Bailly] and became a tragedy. I said, "You people are crazy. Why are you doing it this way?" They said, "It's going to be terrific." I said, "But it doesn't work this way. It only works because there were some great actors in it who were funny . Are you making it into something that's supposed to mean something? What does it mean? That's one of those kind of movies . . ."
Yet some of your fifties movies do seem very personal and passionate. I assume that Fitzgerald and Dostoevski were literary idols of yours —
I'm a big fan of Fitzgerald's. Dostoevski, too.
And Tennessee Williams . . . ?
Yes, but I didn't choose the two Tennessee Williams plays. They asked me to do the first one [Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ]. That really came up because Cukor walked off the picture. It was in October and Elizabeth Taylor's contract ran out the end of February. They wanted to be shooting before the end of February. The second one [Sweet Bird of Youth, 1962] Paul Newman asked me to do.
Let's talk about The Blackboard Jungle for a moment. It set your career in high gear. It's almost more of a Warners picture. That must have been an uphill battle all the way, to convince MGM to let you direct such a hard-hitting picture .
Yes, but at MGM there was a split in their thinking. I did have a lot of trouble making The Blackboard Jungle . First of all, they hated the music. That was the first time rock music had been used in a movie, and they didn't understand it. Dore Schary hated it, and Mayer hated it even more than Schary. They couldn't stand to watch dailies because of the music. They shut the sound off during the dailies because they couldn't stand it! I said, "I can't help it, I need the music."
Another example: There was a light switch as you came through the door into the classroom. When we got ready to shoot for the first time, I had all the kids get some dust on their fingers from the floor and put their fingerprints around the light, because at any school I ever went to all the light switches were stained. When we came in to shoot the scene the next day, everything had been cleaned off. I said, "What did you do that for?" They said, "Well, it was dirty." I said, "It was supposed to be!" They said, "Not in an MGM movie!"
One time, I was doing a scene where [actor] Jamie Farr—his name was Jameel Farah in that movie—picks up the flag and the flagpole and runs at the kid holding a knife, using it as a ramming rod, to knock the knife out of his hand. Just as I was going to shoot, three heavyweights came down: Eddie Mannix, and Benny Thau, and the producer [Pandro Berman]. They said, "Are you going to use the flag to hit a guy? Are you crazy? Are you some kind of Communist?"
I said, "If you were the standard-bearer in the war, and you were carrying the flag, and the enemy was running at you, that's the first thing you'd hit him with. It's the most patriotic thing you can do! What else would you use the flag for?" They said, "You think it's patriotic to do this?" I said, "Yes!" They said, "All right, but cover yourself in case we have to take the scene out." Those are the kinds of things . . .
I can see that it wasn't only your choice of subject matter, or what the story was about, that worried MGM—but that it was also a question of the style of presentation .
I couldn't stop them from coming on the set. They would walk on and say, "We don't like Elizabeth Taylor to look like that. . . ." There was a woman [an MGM department head] who came on during Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and she looked down at Elizabeth Taylor sitting beside me and said, "We'll have to reshoot this. Look at the cleavage." I said, "Who the fuck asked you to come down on the set?" She said, "I was told about it, here I am, and they were right." I said, "Do you know where the camera is? Do you think the camera is where you are? Is it looking up or looking down? Why don't you ask those questions first?" She said, "Where's the camera?" I said, "None of your fucking business. Now, if in the dailies, if you see what you think you see, take it out of my salary. I'll reshoot." Those were the kinds of things . . .
I ran into Mr. Mayer [when I was making The Blackboard Jungle ] and he said to me about Sidney Poitier, one of the stars of the movie, "I hear he's very good. But I don't like those people, those smart-ass people, you know. You should see our movie, Stars in My Crown , where they all say, 'Good morning,' and they're not wise guys." What he meant was he didn't
like a black man looking for his rights, one who didn't cringe or cower. That was his point of view.
Finally it got to the point around the time I was making Something of Value, a movie which Mr. Mayer didn't like at all, when I had had enough.
I said, "Mr. Mayer, why are we fighting each other all the time? Maybe I don't belong here. Maybe you're right. Maybe I don't make your kind of MGM movies. Let me go. I'll go someplace else. It's no big deal." He said, "Nope. They tell me you're a bright fella. Maybe you make a different kind of movie. Maybe I don't understand them. But I think people who got talent should be here." There was that split in their thinking.
And the studio did allow you to make movies like Something of Value, very atypical of MGM, again with Poitier as the star. It is not revived much today, perhaps it is dated, but its view of white-black relations in Africa must have seemed a radical one in the 1950s .
The producer, Pandro Berman, had the courage to go through with it. It like very much the way Something of Value turned out, but I was helped with that story by the anthropologist Professor [Louis] Leakey, of all people.[*]
He was involved in the script?
He was involved in the making of the movie. When I was scouting locations in Kenya, a lawyer met me on the second floor of my hotel in Nairobi. This guy, black as purple, said to me, "The script is wrong, Mr. Brooks. I know you won't believe me. Would you believe Professor Leakey?" I said, "Where is Professor Leakey?" He said, "He lives fifteen miles from here on a farm. Would you believe him?" I said, "Let's go talk to him." I got in his car, and he took me to meet Professor Leakey.
"The story's all wrong," Professor Leakey said, "How do you even know what the story is?" He said, "Well, if it's like the book, it's wrong. the man who wrote the book used to drink in the bar here, all day long. He didn't know what was really going on. It's about the struggle for independence. We're in a Mau Mau war right now. Why don't you go meet the Mau Mau?" I said, "Yes. There are only two Europeans that speak Kikuyu, the language of the Mau Mau here in Kenya. I'm one of them. The other one is Captain Ian Henderson. Captain Henderson will take you."
Four or five days later Rock Hudson arrived, as did Sidney Poitier. I took them with me, four or five of us in a Land Rover. We drove up to Mount Kenya and stopped at an elevation of about 5,000 feet. Our aide looked at his watch and said, "Anybody here have any weapons?" I said, "Weapons?" He said, "A penknife?" I said, "Well, I have a penknife for my pipe." He
said, "Give it to me." I said, "Why are we stopping here?" He said, "They're looking us over. . . ."
Ten minutes later he looked at his watch and off we went again. We stopped a second time, same thing, about 11,000 feet high. Finally we arrived at the camp, a place where elephants were roaming around. There were about fifteen guys with their hair like Whoopi Goldberg. The women's heads were shaven, just like in the movie [Something of Value ]. They knew we were coming for a half hour or more before we arrived because they could smell us by the European soap.
Captain Henderson said, "They have a question they want me to ask you." I said, "What is that?" He said, "The question is this, Mr. Brooks. . . . Let me get this straight. . . ." He talked to the Mau Mau spokesman, then continued. "The question is this, 'And how are things in Little Rock, Arkansas? . . .' " Three months before, Governor Orval Faubus had stood in the doorway of the University of Arkansas saying, "No niggers are going to come to this university." I said, "How did they know about that? I don't see any radios here. How did they find out—tom-toms?" He said, "They know." I said, "You can tell them that things are not so good in Little Rock, Arkansas." That was their opening gambit.
They knew Sidney was not from Africa—how? Not by the clothes he wore, because he was wearing blue jeans. But they knew by the way he walked; no African walks like that . . . so free. The things we learned up there at that camp!
The author had written a romantic story, an adventure story about the farmers hiding in their houses at dark and how everybody was afraid—
From the white people's view . . . ?
Yes. Leakey got me in to see Jomo Kenyatta [a leader of the pan-African movement and later the first president of Kenya] in prison. What Leakey and Kenyatta said to me was that whites were called Europeans, Africans were black; it didn't matter if a white was born in Africa, he was not an African, he was a European. Leakey and Kenyatta said that unless the Europeans could get along with the Africans, the Europeans would have to get out of Africa. Leakey told me that might be difficult to believe, so he gave me a book written by Winston Churchill which said the same thing.
He was trying to show you the tide of history .
That's what he was doing. And I was so impressed by what Winston Churchill wrote that I decided to try and put it in the film. For months, I tried to get Winston Churchill on the phone. He was in the south of France, painting, at Somerset Maugham's house.
Finally he called back. First his secretary, then he was on the phone. "I want you to be in this movie," I said. He said, "What are you talking about?" I told him. "I don't talk about movies," he said. I said, "I don't want you to
talk about movies. I just want you to talk about your book." "Why? What's my book got to do with it?" he asked. I said, "Well, that's what the theme of the movie is." "Oh," he said. We talked some more and he said, "How long will I have to talk?" I said, "As long as you want to—thirty seconds, a minute, or an hour. It's up to you." He said, "How long will it take?" I said, "Depends on how long you want to talk." He said, "Come up to the house."
He lived on the Thames. We went up there with two cameras. He talked for forty seconds about the same thing Leakey had talked about. I put it on the front of the movie. Took the movie out to [a preview in] Encino in the [San Fernando] Valley and there was almost a riot at the theater. The next morning, in Mr. Mayer's conference room, all of the heavyweights gathered. One of them said, "Before we start talking about what we think is rotten about this movie, I want to tell you something right now. You have got to get rid of this fucking Englishman. . . ." I said, "What are you talking about? Who?" He said, "The guy at the beginning of the movie! That's who! Out! Out of the picture!" I said, "Are you talking about Sir Winston Churchill?" He said, "Whoever the fuck he is, I don't care!" I said, "He's the greatest statesman in the world." He said, "I don't care. Out of the movie!" I said, "What's the reason?" He said, "First of all, I didn't understand what he was talking about. Second of all, audiences won't go to see an Englishman. If they think there's an Englishman in the movie, they won't come." I couldn't believe I was hearing any of this. Around the table they went saying, "Yes, let's get him out of the movie. . . ."
That's the first thing that got torn out of the movie. He was only on for forty seconds. But it was terrific. Imagine starting the movie with Sir Winston Churchill talking about Africa! Picture was released, no Winston Churchill!
I went back twenty or thirty years later, to MGM to make a movie, and I said to Roger Mayer, who runs the lab, "Roger, you know when we made this movie, there was a piece of footage on Winston Churchill, about forty seconds. You think you might still have it in the lab?" He said, "Oh, I doubt that. But I'll find out." They had it. And he gave me a 35-mm print!
Did MGM change the movie in other ways?
Oh yes, sure.
Did they eviscerate it?
No, but you see, they hurt it. Sure, hey, it's not going to change your personality and everything if we just cut off one of your ears, or all of your teeth, but you would be different afterwards. The ritual of the blood oath, the dealing with both sides of the issue of who really belonged there—they changed it a little bit at a time. But you can't cut out that part of it which is what it is all about.
It was there, still enough of it left so that the film was banned around the world. Banned around the world! It's a true movie, to this day it's a true movie.
Let's talk about The Brothers Karamazov momentarily. Though MGM had a history of adaptations of "great literary classics," the Cold War climate of the 1950s must not have seemed like the best time to film a Russian masterpiece. How did you persuade the studio to go ahead with it?
Oh, I didn't [have to] convince them. They already had the script, by the Epsteins. Pandro Berman was going to produce it. Marilyn Monroe was going to play Grushenka, and Brando was going to play Dmitri. When Pandro asked me to do it, I read the script and thought it was a good script, and I liked the people who were going to play in it. I said sure. I started to work with the script. I felt I'd like to have the "[Legend of] the Grand Inquisitor" scene, which is a great chapter in the book, so I wrote a reel and a half on the "Grand Inquisitor."
By that time I got a call from New York, from Monroe, where she was going to classes in the Actors Studio. She said she couldn't play in the movie. She was afraid of losing her baby. She was married to Arthur Miller at the time. She had lost a baby before. Would I please forgive her? She didn't want to take the chance.
When she withdrew, Brando dropped out. It all had to be recast. Now, Yul Brynner became Dmitri. When he and I were down in Acapulco, where he was vacationing, I began to think, "Why don't we go to Russia to make the movie? How the hell can you make this movie in the studio? There are no people, no mosques, no temples. . . . It doesn't look like Russia."
The Russian cultural committee, in a letter, said, "Yes, come and make the movie. You can have all the mosques you want. You can shoot on the Russian steppes. Whatever you need, we'll give you! The period sleighs . . . we got warehouses filled with that stuff. We have only one request. When you do a scene with your cast, do a scene with our cast, so we have a picture with our own people. The same movie." I said, "It's okay with me." It sounded pretty good, yes?
A guy who was running the studio at that time out of New York (I can't remember his name, he was a theater man)[*] came out to California and said, "What is all this bullshit about going to Russia? What! Are you crazy? Is it going to be a Commie movie or something?" I said, "Hey! The book was written in 1880, sometime. There wasn't even a Communist Party at that time. It's got nothing to do with politics." "I don't care," he said, "you go to Russia, it becomes Communist." I said, "The picture will cost less, it'll be a better picture, an authentic picture." He said, "No. NO."
I went to Pandro and said, "So, where are we going to shoot the movie?" He said, "You'll find someplace." I said to Cedric Gibbons, head of the art
department, "Where are we going to make it?" He said, "Let me read the script again." He read the script, we had a talk, and he said, "Make it on the back lot." I said, "You are insane. You can't do it." He said, "You can do it. You'll have to rewrite it, but you can do it." So, with the exception of one scene of the horses and another at the railroad station, which we do with some fog, everything [takes place] at night! (Laughs .)
On Lot 3 they had the old railroad station from the Garbo picture with John Gilbert [Flesh and the Devil, 1927]. It was an old narrow-gauge railroad which had been used by everybody, mostly at night because you could see the oil wells in the background. That's the way the picture was done. The whole movie is a night movie!
What happened to the "Grand Inquisitor" scene?
Out. The studio said, "Let's not get involved with the Church!"
So MGM wanted to film the book—but only according to the MGM way .
I gather that you could not persuade MGM to make Elmer Gantry—no matter what .
I couldn't get anybody to make the movie. Nobody would make it. Finally I had to leave MGM. United Artists agreed to make it. As a matter of fact, we rented space from Columbia to do the movie, but Mr. De Mille and the guy who used to run Paramount [Y. Frank Freeman, vice president of Paramount since the mid-1930s] tried to stop the movie from being made. They thought it was antireligion. They thought it was un-American, not in the sense of Communism, but because it was the wrong image of America. They asked the United Artists people to tell me that they would reimburse me for whatever I paid for the book and the time it took me to write the screenplay. I still have that correspondence. That picture was very tough to make in this town.
That was not a studio assignment. That was a labor of love .
I'll tell you a story about Sinclair Lewis. When I read the review of my book [The Brick Foxhole ] in Esquire magazine, I wrote Mr. Lewis a letter and thanked him. He wrote back a letter on the back of my letter because he didn't waste a page. He said, "If you ever get to New York, give me a call, I'll buy you a drink. . . ." About two or three months later, I got a pass to New York and I phoned. He said, "I'll meet you at the Astor bar." He came. We went inside. He wanted to know what I did in the Marine Corps. I said, "I'm in the photographic section." He said, "Oh, well, at least that's not dangerous." I said, "We lose more people than the infantry because somebody has to be on the fucking beach when they come in. How do you think the pictures get taken?"
He said, "Do you make movies?" I said, "Well, of a kind. There's a book of yours I'd like to do one day." He said, "Which one is that?" I said, "Elmer Gantry ." He said, "You liked that book?" I said, "Yeah, it's an
interesting story about America today." He said, "Well, if you ever do it, make sure you read all the criticisms that have been printed. Some of them are very harsh, some are pretty good. The toughest of them all was [H. L.] Mencken. Mencken and I have been fighting for years. We disagree about everything, but he's good, and he was rough on the story. Read it, read them all. Maybe that'll help you."
He added, "There's only one real word of advice I have to give you. If you ever do make this into a movie, make a movie, don't make a book."
So with the money I got from The Brick Foxhole I took a first option on the book [Elmer Gantry ]. I kept taking options every year for eleven years. It was $2,000 an option. The book finally cost [me] $25,000 or thereabouts.
Did you know what Sinclair Lewis meant, initially, when he said, "Make a movie, don't make a book," or is that something you learned gradually over the course of years?
I learned. I didn't know what he was talking about. He meant, don't make a bookish movie, make a movie. So I didn't worry about what I had to change. I based that character on Billy Sunday to some degree—not just on Gantry and Mr. Lewis' book, but on the radio evangelists and all up and down the line to guys preaching out of prisons.
How much opposition to the film was therefrom religious organizations?
[After the filming,] I was called to New York to talk to the Catholic Legion of Decency, which made out the list of movies that Catholics were not supposed to see. I had to go to Madison Avenue, someplace around 51st, in Manhattan, where the cardinal lived, to talk to three Jesuits about the end of the movie.
They liked everything but the ending. Gantry turns down the job of running the new tabernacle by quoting from the Bible, "When I was a child I spake as a child and I thought as a child, but now that I'm a man I have put aside childish things." And Gantry walks away down the pier. . . .
The newspaper guy says, "See you around, brother!" Gantry stops, glances over his shoulder and says, with a smile and a wave, "See you in hell, brother." That was the end of the movie. They asked me, "Why does he say that? That's what we object to."
Three days [we talked]—they were good. These Jesuits were good! They could dance around on the head of a pin for hours! "Why did you write this? Why did you want to do this story to begin with?" They questioned all parts of it; they didn't want to take anything out, just those last two lines. Not even two, the last one. Lancaster was calling on the phone, saying, "What do they want?" I said, "They just want to take out the last two lines." He said, "Well, take them out for chrissakes!"
I was fascinated by them; I couldn't stay away from these three guys in this room who were like Talmudic teachers.
It got to this point, which shows you the humor and wit of the Jesuits.
Finally I said to the monsignor, "Well, sir, obviously you know a great deal more about religion and the formal teaching of religion than I do. I concede that you are probably right. I'll do what you want. We'll remove the line. I'll have to remove the line before it too, otherwise it doesn't make much sense. He'll just walk away on a pier and that's it." They said, "Now, wait a minute. We didn't tell you that you have to do anything. We're just telling you that we cannot approve the movie." I said, "However you want to put it, I'll take it out. I'm not knowledgeable enough to dispute it with you anymore." And the monsignor says, "Be careful, Mr. Brooks. Such humility has no humility." I'll never forget it. The very last word was still on the head of a pin!
But you had to compromise .
It wasn't that serious. What's worse, I recognize now, is the disclaimer someone put on the front of the film saying that the film is not dangerous.
Dorothy Thompson of the New York Herald-Tribune, a tough lady herself, was married to Lewis. She got into a lot of problems with the Nazis during the war. Anyway, she wrote me a letter after seeing the film, in which she said, "I saw the movie. I'm sure 'Red' [Lewis] would have loved it."
I find it surprising that such an important part of your career, most of the 1950s, a period in your career that a lot of people think very highly of, that it was accidental in a sense .
But that's life, isn't it? When I began to shoot my own subjects, I didn't always choose them wisely, either. At least I had a choice—and I would go to that material as a rule which meant something to me.
Because the studio system was collapsing, and the motion picture companies no longer owned as many properties, were you buying and developing your own properties, partly in self-defense?
Lord Jim, for example, was a book I wanted to make for years. I couldn't persuade MGM to make the movie, because nobody at the studio could finish the book!
I always liked Jim very much. It deals with subject material which is close to me. It has to do with someone who aspires to a certain code of ethics and, when put to the test under stress, fails, and is looking for a second chance. That's the story of mankind. That's the story of me and everybody else. But when you get that second chance, how does it work itself out?
Do you have any idea why, in your life, you became so interested in that theme?
I don't know. Maybe some kid beat the shit out of me when I was a kid and I wanted another shot at him. Maybe I was humiliated by some employer somewhere, at a garage or a factory or wherever the hell I was working, and though I knew what I should have said to him, I didn't say it. Maybe I failed
in times and places where nobody else knew about it at all except myself. That story was very close to me but it's a universal theme—of someone who is clean, but got himself dirty somehow, and now he is trying to wash it off.
In the case of In Cold Blood, I also felt very strongly about the material, but Capote chose me . That was the strange thing.
On the basis of what? The Tennessee Williams films?
Yes, all the material I had done, which he knew about. But that wasn't the main reason. The picture was finished and about to open in New York when I learned the real reason.
Truman and I went for a walk on the cold streets near the United Nations building. We stopped for a drink at a little diner on Second or Third Street. It was near where Monty Clift used to live. We were having a drink. I said, "Truman, why did you want me to do the picture?" He said, "You'll be surprised. I don't know if you'll remember it, even. It all began in London. I was working on the story with Bogie and Lollobrigida, Beat the Devil . John [Huston] was doing that picture and when the picture was finished, John threw a dinner at the White Elephant restaurant. Do you remember that night?"
I guess you can gather by now that I love John Huston, not only respect him, but love him. He can be a great, terrific, generous man, with everything he has—everything! He'll share anything with you except his women. Money, time, whatever, he'll share. But John can also be a hard man.
[That night] Peter Viertel was there and Ray Bradbury was there and the whole cast was there, Bogie and Betty and Lollobrigida and her husband, the doctor [Yugoslavian-born physician Drago Milko Skofic], and Capote. John was in a foul mood. I don't know why. He started in [on Ray Bradbury], saying, "Now there's Ray Bradbury."—Ray was working for him doing the screenplay on Moby Dick —"Now, Ray writes all these stories about Mars and interplanetary travel, but did you know I was going to take Ray over to Paris with me one weekend"—John had a girlfriend in Paris—" and Ray said—how did you put it, Ray?"—and Ray is beginning to cry—"Ray said to me, 'I don't fly, I don't even drive a car, Mr. Huston.' Isn't that right, Ray? The fella who writes all about missiles, going to Mars and Venus and all of these other planets, he doesn't drive!" By that time Bradbury is weeping. We took him outside—he was staying at the Dorchester Hotel, which was two blocks away from the White Elephant. Peter walked him to the hotel. I went back in the restaurant.
By this time John had gone after Lollobrigida. "And now we have Miss Lollobrigida . . ."—she's already beginning to cry before he says anything. He starts in on her husband. "What's your name, doctor? What kind of doctor are you, doctor? . . ." And he goes on like that, around the table. Bogie: "Can't wait to get back to your boat, can you, Bogie?" Betty said, "Hell, John, you know we all have our weaknesses." And John said: "Except some
of us have more than others! How about you, Betty? . . ." Now she was in tears, she got up and left the table. He had gone around the table by now and he started in on Capote. Capote was already crying for the other people, let alone for himself.
Finally he got to me. "Well now, here we have the heretic. Here we have the great maverick. This man never wore a suit, I mean a whole suit! Isn't that right? Now, he's got a foreign car, an MG, haven't you, Richard? Pretty soon you're going to have a swimming pool, I hear. A pool, right?" I said, "Well, that's what they say." He said, "All these columnists out in Hollywood that you think are phoney. Now you are being quoted by them, aren't you? . . ."
So it went, that evening. A dreadful, disastrous, tear-soaked evening.
Here I was listening to this story as Capote was rehashing it, and I said, "Yes, I remember that evening. What's that got to do with why you wanted me to do the picture?" He said, "You're the only guy in the room who didn't cry." I said, "That's why?" He said, "That's right. You didn't rage, you didn't hit him, you didn't cry. That's the man I wanted to do this film."
Good story .
Somehow it stuck in his mind. Somehow it mattered to him.
Heretic is a good label for you .
Maybe. (Laughs .)
You began to originate your own stories in the 1960s. Why did it take such a long time before you began originating your own films? After all, you were a novelist at the outset of your career .
Well, I was working at MGM, and before MGM, with Warners and Hellinger. They owned a story and you worked on it. Furthermore, how the hell do you convince the studio to put up the money [for an original story]? And not just the studio, but the bank?
Your generation could not really write and direct films autobiographically the way today's generation can. Are there films which are more autobiographical for you? I know some of the later ones are: The Happy Ending, Fever Pitch . . .
It [Fever Pitch ] was a much better picture before they took it away from me.
Which among the earlier ones? Deadline, U.S.A. , I would guess—because of the newspaper milieu .
The Catered Affair?—the picture with Gore Vidal's script of Paddy Chayefsky's teleplay. In many ways it is an inconsequential picture, atypical of MGM, but it has wonderful performances [from Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine], wit and charm and, and I feel it is a kind of valentine to your own
background and the hardscrabble life of your own parents. It's an extremely personal movie. The movie must be so resonant in part because you so strongly identified with the material .
I love it! I ran it for my daughter when she was getting married and she came out a changed lady! (Laughs .) That was a movie that made me feel warm and good.
The Professionals . . . ? We haven't talked about that movie much. Yet I have a feeling that the entire story was a kind of metaphor for your career .
Just being a professional .
That's right. I am fond of The Professionals because it's a lean job, and it has my code of honor in it without talking about it.
I thought Ralph Bellamy's character was a stand-in for a studio producer in that movie .
(Laughs .) He was. You know, [Lee] Marvin's last line in the movie was written the night before we shot it. I didn't have a finish. I didn't want any more talking. I wondered, isn't there something we can do? So I wrote this exchange where he says, "You bastard . . ." And Marvin says, "Yes sir, in
my case, an accident of birth, but you, sir, you're a self-made man." That's how I feel about those kind of people.
The Happy Ending was a rare picture, for you, with a woman at the center of the story .
The Happy Ending turned out to be a real story about women's rights. Before its time. That's a problem I have, doing stories that are a little before their time. I wanted to do a story about a woman with a marriage that was breaking up—and why.[*]
Which of the others do you feel closest to?
Pieces of the movies are part of me. There is a bit of all of us in the movies that we make. Lord Jim. Gantry is half me. That minute-and-a-half speech about what is evangelism—that's me. Bite the Bullet was my love poem to America. I love those people and the beauty of our country.
There are parts of me in most of the movies I worked on. Each of them reminds me of something close. I like the weak ones, the unsuccessful ones, sometimes as much as the others. Each one means a part of my life. Key Largo means as much to me as any movie I've ever seen or made! All the experiences I had on it. That's what made me a director—that movie.
Did it hamper you and the people of your generation not to be able to write autobiographically?
I don't know. We wrote it into the story one way or another. Where I come from, it's not cricket, it's not sportsmanlike, to write an autobiography. You don't tell stories about Mommy. You got some beef?—fight it out. But don't put it into print.
So your generation would not feel frustrated by not being able to write about yourselves?
You just had to do it another way, that's all.
That's the trick. And it is all the more satisfying if you manage to write something about yourself, even if in some veiled fashion .
Of course. That is a basic reference for any of us. And the thing is, it was like not being able to say "fuck" or "fuck you" on the screen. You had to find another way. So it was there but it wasn't there.
How helpful was your training as a reporter towards becoming a screenwriter?
An invaluable prelude. A good newspaper reporter quickly learns the basis of his craft. The "who, what, where, when, and why" of a story. How to write with clarity and brevity. How to "hear." How people really talk. Not the way a writer wants them to talk. Real speech patterns instead of bookish sameness. How to write without "fear or favor."
The search for fact is vital to screenwriting. Certainly, screenplays are often fiction. But fact is essential in research and in the comprehension of character and situation. I'd say my time as a reporter was excellent training, the perfect "boot camp" for survival in Hollywood or any other battlefield where movies are made.
How did you learn to write and think visually?
I think I always did [think and write visually], though not to the extent that you eventually develop this art. It seemed to come quite easily to me. I remember when I was in school, the only place we could get books was in the library. Nobody bought books, unless it was a Dick Merriwell, which only cost fifteen cents or so. One time I went to the library to get a Tarzan story; I saw a book which I thought from its title was a Tarzan book. I took it to the lady [at the checkout] holding the pencil with a rubber stamp on the end of it. She said, "You sure you want this book?" I said, "Yeah." She stamped the book and I took it home.
It was called The Hairy Ape [by Eugene O'Neill]. I opened the book. Why, there was a name in the center of the page and underneath the name was what [that person] said—it was a play! The Hairy Ape ! I was about eight years old and I'd never seen a play form before. I said to myself, "That's the way to write something. You leave out all those 'he saids,' 'she saids.' It's not telling you what they're thinking . It's telling you what they're saying and what they're doing. That's pretty good. How long has this been going on?"
Back I went to the library and I said, "You got any more of these things?" She said, "Like what?" I said, "Where they talk like that." She said, "Well, don't you know, that's a play! That's not a novel! Would you like to see more of those?" I said, "Yeah." And she introduced me to the play department.
That was the first time I ever realized there was another kind of writing. Matter of fact, when I came to MGM, doing my first work there, I wrote the screenplay in the form of a play. At that time the script form consisted of the page divided—the action on one side, the dialogue on the other. I said, "I can't read it." The importance was inverted. The most important thing was the action, and the dialogue went from side to side, the action was sort of in the center, but you couldn't figure out where the dialogue fitted! I was always looking in the center for the dialogue.
Mr. Mayer's office sent a man down who said to me, "What are you doing? You're not writing the screenplay the way it's supposed to be written. Nobody can read it up there!" I said, "But I can read it down here! I'm going to have to shoot it, so I've got to write it the way I see it." So from the beginning really, I wrote this way, based on seeing things in these books which are written with an eye to the image. . . .
In the old days, were you ever writing scripts with the words "cut" and "close-up"?
No. (Laughs .)
Just dialogue and action?
Tell the story. I may stop somewhere and give some information to the cameraman. I may stop and add a parenthetical remark that has to do with special effects. But most of the time, I don't even do that.
When screenwriters got together in Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s and had a drink, did they ever discuss screenwriting theory, or was it more . . . ?
Not so much theory. Screenwriters were always getting together someplace—in those days, 1,000 percent more than now. Nowadays, screenwriters never get together unless they accidentally fall over each other somewhere. But in those days there was a screenwriters' table at each studio. There was a directors' table, a producers' table, and as for actors, they ate everywhere. But screenwriters would have discussions mostly about the horrors they had run into from producers or studios.
However, the difference was, I could call Clifford Odets and say, "Gee, I got a problem with this story," and we could talk about it. And Odets felt the same way. At the time he was doing the play The Country Girl, I was on my way to Europe to look for locations for something, and he came to see me at my hotel. I read his play during the day and then we took a long walk, all the way to Harlem. "What do you think?" he asked me. I said, "Terrific play." He asked, "Any thoughts on it?" I said, "Only one, but I don't think it's important." He said, "What is it?" I said, "I don't know why the Wife is still trying to make him a successful actor. He's a drunk. She knows it. She's had a bad time with this bum for such a long time. Why does she stay with him? Why is she trying to make him a star? Why didn't she leave him a couple of years ago?" He said, "Because she loves him." I said, "Bullshit. I don't believe it." Now, I'm John Huston. (Laughs .)
"What don't you believe?" he asked. I said, "I don't believe that one partner stays with another out of love when either one is a drunk. I don't believe it." He'said, "Why do you think she should stay with him?" I said, "She stays with him because she wants him to become a star on Broadway again, so that she can leave him. She can't leave him when he needs her. She doesn't love him, but she can't leave him." He said, "That's not bad. Let's talk about it." So we walked back to Harlem. And he included that in the play.[*]
With some people you could talk theory, but it wasn't college film-class discussions about theory. More likely you would meet with a writer and say, "I have a problem. I can't make this thing work." You could talk with a writer or a group of writers without being afraid that someone was going to steal your idea and get it on TV before you were able to finish it. There was a different feeling among writers at that time.
One thing which is different is that people from that generation were humanists as part of their upbringing, the era of the Depression, and the general hopefulness of the Roosevelt presidency. I am thinking of directors like Capra and of stars like Cagney, but also of an entire ethic which seemed to infuse the motion picture industry. That's part of the credo of that generation, of the thirties and the forties, as opposed to the camera tricks and razzle-dazzle technology of today's film-school whiz kids. A more humanistic credo .
I think you're right. That's nothing to be ashamed of.
Humanism has gone out of movies .
Is it not interesting that Cagney would kill twenty-two guys in a movie and you could still love him? Why? That wasn't just his personality. There was something built into those stories. It had to do not only with the glamor and excitement of a gangster; it had to do also with what made him a gangster in the first place. It had to do with the psychological background [of the character], where and how he grew up.
Why do the blacks look with such hatred on somebody who walks through their neighborhood if he is white? They haven't approached the answer yet in [film] stories, or very rarely. The big, successful pictures with blacks in them have blacks in them who are not really black. They're really white guys. They don't have any danger in their eyes. But if you go into Harlem or downtown here [Los Angeles] on the south side, and you see those kids standing in the school yard around the basketball hoop, you have to ask yourself, "Do they stand there every day? How long do they stand there? Why are they there? Do they think that the world is really made of basketball?"
A lot of Caucasians would say, "Well, why don't they get a job?" But that's the problem: they can't get a job. If they had a job where they could earn money, maybe they wouldn't be doing what they're doing. Today, you have stories about black pimps—it seems that all blacks play pimps, with the exception of Sidney Poitier and [Bill] Cosby. But you don't have that kind of psychological background for those characters. They used to do that [sort of thing] in the early days at Warners. You don't do that with close-ups. You do that with story.
Humanism is not in the texture of movies anymore—it's not in the writing of the movies; it's not in the making of the movies; it's not in the playing.
World War II killed off a lot of that idealism, and what was left of it the blacklist helped to stifle in Hollywood .
I worked with Frank Capra's unit writing documentaries in the Why We Fight series during World War II. Capra was a prime exponent of the story of the little man. When he no longer believed that the public cared about the little man, Capra stopped making movies.
Meet John Doe —that's a heartbreaking, marvelous story. [Gary] Cooper, who was a very conservative man, [was of the generation that] could play those parts with such compassion and humanism, you couldn't believe it. I remember I appeared on "The David Susskind Show" once, and [director] Fred Zinnemann was there, [producer] Jerry Wald, [screenwriter] Daniel Taradash, and [director] George Cukor. The theme of the program was "Hollywood" actors and "real" actors, whatever the hell that meant. If I had known that was the subject, I wouldn't have shown up in the first place.
Anyway, Cukor was talking about how great an actress Garbo was, and she was. And Zinnemann was talking about the movies he'd made and the actors who were in them . . . and every once in a while, maybe it was just to provoke discussion, I really don't know, Susskind would say, "What about Marilyn Monroe? She can't act!" And nobody would say anything. Or, "What about Jimmy Stewart? He's such a shit-kicker!"—he didn't use that term, but that's what he meant.
Finally, he asked Zinnemann, a very quiet man, about Gary Cooper. "What in the hell?" Susskind said. "He makes a lot of faces on the screen but he doesn't act!" So finally I said to Mr. Susskind, "You don't know what you're talking about, do you?" Thinking now he's got a sucker, he says, "Well, what is your opinion of him?" And I said, "I think he's a great actor—not a stage actor, not a radio actor or a television actor, but he's a great movie actor." "Why?" he asked. I said, "Because you're looking at him, no matter who else is talking, because when he reaches for a gun, if he's playing in a Western, you believe he's touched that gun before. He works at it. He has your full attention. Not only that, but he can make you feel something, something visceral, something deep, something that matters. He is who he plays."
Mr. Susskind said, "Well, but he couldn't act in a play." I said, "Hey, I don't know whether he could act in a play and I don't care. It doesn't matter. There are various forms of painting; there are all kinds of music. I don't expect Fats Waller to play the second concerto, but nobody could play 'Honeysuckle Rose' any better!" I said I had to go to the toilet, I got up and left, and never came back.
A couple of months later I went to a dinner party at [Henry] Fonda's house where he was raising money for something. I had to leave early because I was shooting the next day. As I was leaving, this tall guy [Cooper] accompanied by a beautiful woman stopped me and he said, "My name is. . . ." How could you miss that face? He said, "We've never met before." I said, "No, sir, we haven't." He said, "I saw you on the television show about actors." I said,
"Yes?" He said, "I wanted to thank you. It meant a lot to me." I said, "That's the way I felt. Good night." That was that. Four months later somebody was accepting a special Oscar for him because Cooper was dying of cancer. And I thought to myself, what if I hadn't said what I said? What if I hadn't said what I believe? Why should I hold back? Life is too damn short!
That changed my life a lot. I didn't know Gary Cooper. All he'd done was provide entertainment for me. When I was shooting Lord Jim, we used to run movies at night on a white sheet. It was 110 degrees and everybody was going to quit! We ran different movies every night, sometimes the same movie for three nights. Most of them were Capra movies because they came from Columbia, and some of them were Gary Cooper pictures.
You can't believe what that does for you out there in the Cambodian jungle. A million and a half miles from anything that is familiar to you. The storytelling power of a movie. And those faces that are telling you the stories. It doesn't matter whether it was a happy ending or not, whether it is a comedy or a stern melodrama. As long as it has that element in it that you can recognize in yourself, as long as it has a pinch of the truth in it—terrific!
That's what I learned from guys like Capra and Zanuck and Cagney and Cooper—or Bill Wellman, for all the plates he was supposed to have in his head. Look at the kind of movies Wellman made—from Wings  to A Star Is Born , the one Wellman directed with a screenplay by Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell [and Robert Carson]. My God, what a movie that was!
Bogie used to run that every Christmas Eve. Christmas Day was Bogie's birthday, so you can imagine all the jokes about that. But every Christmas Eve he had a 16-mm print that he owned of A Star Is Born, the one with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. They'd decorate the tree, then they'd run this 16-mm film, and Bogie would cry all the way through it, every Christmas. Picture began; he was crying. "Why, Bogie?" people would ask, "What the hell are you crying about? You've seen the movie already!" "I don't know," he would say. "It just makes me cry." It was the March character that made him cry. He knew what was going to happen to himself.
In your films I detect that Capraesque humanism—only the vision is darker. From The Blackboard Jungle to In Cold Blood to Looking for Mr. Goodbar, for example, films which have in common an interest in crime and social justice, the perspective becomes grimmer as time goes on .
If my outlook seems darker as time goes on, it's because I reflect the human condition. Not that I'm less optimistic nowadays. I believe that "hope" is essential in life and drama. Without hope, we're blind animals clashing in a noisy melodrama, screaming, with automobile tires and gunfire, all to no purpose except to murder an hour or two. Without justice, we would return to the cave and the jungle.
But as I'm a creature of my environment, I see things as they "are," not as I'd want them to be.
Let's talk about your writing habits. When do you write?
Whenever I can. All the time. I write in toilets, on planes, when I'm walking, when I stop the car. I make notes.
If I am working at a studio, I work at the studio in the morning, then come home. I am really writing two days instead of one. After the studio, I have my second day [at home]. I write whenever I can.
Do you keep particular hours?
I only sleep two or three hours a day, so I'm writing all the time. I make notes wherever I can make them.
Do you work with pencil and paper?
Pencil and paper, then typewriter, then back to pencil and paper.
How do you approach a script?
Let me show you what I do with a good book—a book that there is a good possibility for making a movie out of—how I break the book down.
I write an outline of the book. It's like a dictionary of the book. What is its structure? Who does what when? Is there a flashback? If so, then I may make a note of two words in the margin, forty or fifty times throughout the book: "How Dram?" meaning, how do you dramatize this? For example, somebody's thinking about something, or the author is talking about something—how do you dramatize it?
Do you have a preference between originals and adaptation?
I have no special feeling about it. Whatever. But it's easier to adapt in the sense that it already has a structure; because a movie is structure. I can make a movie with half-assed camerawork, or with actors who are not quite up to par, or with composition that misses, and the picture may still work because of good structure. But if the structure is not right, you can have forty great scenes in a movie and still have no movie. Structure is the beginning and end of a movie.
Do you feel you have any weak points as a writer?
Sure! I'm not good enough! Writing is the hardest part of it all. There are some writers who are great. I'm not a great writer. At best, I'm a second- or third- or fourth-rater.
Do you see yourself as an artist or a craftsman?
Oh yes, both. I may not be a good artist, but I'm an artist, yes. (Laughs .)
Because I make pictures, or because I have something to say [when I make pictures] which has to do with hope. That is a very important adjunct in any of the work that I do. The difference between man (and I mean "man" for men and women both) and all the other animals in the world is that other animals can know hunger, fear, pain, but they know nothing about hope. Man
does. That's the big difference. That's what makes man a different kind of animal. He knows about hope.
That's what I try to put into a picture, even if it's a bleak picture. That there is something worthwhile [to aspire to]. Sex is a tremendous drive, and love, but that is not enough. People have to care about each other, too. Then the picture means something. People care when someone reaches a hand out to someone. Then you begin to care about the movie, whether you know it or not.
Where does the directing come in? Is it an extension of the writing for you?
Everything connected with movies is a form of writing. Directing and editing—and there is even another step after that, which is the music—are a form of writing. Writing a script is about people, not about the camera. The camera comes later! If I were to compare it with a painting, the writing of it is the idea: What are you going to put on the canvas? You make little pencil marks for composition, you think about color and subject material—that's the writing. When you pick up the brush, that's when you begin to direct. From that moment on, it's technique. Directing is an extension of writing.
The real hard part about the writing is when you're alone and you have to fill that page—and not just fill it. I hear all the sounds: the opening and closing of doors, the traffic, the music, the voices. I feel the pain [of the characters]. . . .
There's a big difference, in my opinion, between movies and the spoken and/or written word. It seems to me that when you read something—a book, newspaper, whatever—before you can understand it, the primary emotion has to be intellectual, because first of all it must go through the brain. You have to translate whatever has been written. Same with the stage—it's all one master shot. You do the editing with your eyes, but to hear the words and understand the words and translate the words, it first has to go through your mind. The first reaction is intellectual. The second may be emotional, if the words are put together skillfully.
With movies, it's my opinion that the opposite is the case, because movies are images, and you don't have to hear the words. I could ask you about your favorite movie right now, and unless it came from a stage play, I would doubt that you could remember any lines from it. You can remember that you saw the movie, you can remember moments . You can remember Bette Davis walking up the stairs to die in Dark Victory , but I doubt if you can remember what she says, if anything. The images come first, and with images, like music, the primary reaction is emotional. If the images are put together expertly, you may get an intellectual reaction after that. It helps to have good dialogue, too—it helps at the moment you are watching the movie—but the effect has to be orchestral.
Is writing the final draft and directing the polish?
That's right. Then, when you see it on the movieola, you wonder: Why don't I feel about it right now the same way I did as when I wrote it? What's wrong? What's happened?
Then you begin to re-edit and you begin to put it together in a different way until it has the same effect as when you wrote it. Editing is also writing and it is all part of the same process, except different elements are at work. It's what is called making a movie.