Why did it take you so long to get to Hollywood?
That was pure accident. Everything in my life, actually, is an accident. Opportunities came up, or choices came up in which there was very little choice.
When I came back from South America, I was drafted. I just had enough time to finish the film before I went into the army. Because of my documentary background I was asked to join the Signal Corps. I went out to Long Island where there were writers sitting in boxes that had just been built for them. I had just come from a great adventure, and I was not going to sit in a
damn box and be a writer. I didn't feel I was a writer. Whatever else the army wanted to do with me, fine.
I was given a series of tests, and it was decided I'd make a great radio technician because my hearing was good and I could distinguish one tone from another. So I was shipped out to Los Angeles to radio school where there was a ten-week course in building radios. That is where I met a number of movie people because, as soldiers, we went to the Hollywood parties. One person I met turned out to be working for the Air Force motion picture unit. Well, the Air Force motion picture unit needed people badly, particularly people with experience on documentaries for their training films. I was asked to join.
That's how I got to Hollywood [the first time]. Most of the people in the Air Force motion picture unit were ex-Hollywood people. Ronnie Reagan was there. I used him as a narrator over and over again. He was very good at it. He could read things that couldn't have meant anything to him—you know, a B-29 electrical system—with the utmost conviction. Just take the script overnight and come back and read it with all the right phrases and emphasis. He was very good at it; he didn't understand what he was reading, and he wasn't expected to.
So during the war, ironically, you continued to make documentaries?
I must have done 200–250 documentaries. All in Los Angeles—except for trips that you had to take to do the shooting. I was writer and producer because I knew enough about the craft to supervise all parts of it.
Were you meeting Hollywood writers?
Actually, the only one who made any impression on me was Lester Koenig, who had worked with William Wyler as an assistant.[*] After the war, he wanted me to collaborate with him on a film about the OSS. He and I worked on the script, but it never got made. Meanwhile, my wife got an offer of a job through [choreographer-director] Michael Kidd to dance in Finian's Rainbow in New York, so I went back to New York with her and that was when I sat down and wrote a novel based on my social work experience, called 44 Gravel Street .
Now then, another accident occurred. Someone who had been a dancer, a terrible dancer and a general phoney, named Harold Hecht, called me up and asked would I collaborate on a film [with him]. Because he admired my poetry, he thought I was the right man for the subject. He would pay me what seemed like an enormous sum! Frieda was getting tired of her job, too; she'd been doing the same dance over and over again for almost seven months. (Laughs .)
So we returned to Hollywood. That film was made—a terrible film with a most ridiculous title. Kiss the Blood off My Hands  it was called.
Everything about it was bad. I didn't know what I was doing. [Screenwriter] Walter Bernstein worked on it with me. He had actually been in the OSS in Yugoslavia and had written a book [Keep Your Head Down, 1945] about his experiences.[*]
Did having been a documentarist help you at all, in the beginning, as a screenwriter?
In both cases, you have to feel your way. In a documentary, you are not dealing with the paramount importance of the character decision. In Hollywood I always had to struggle with formal structure because structure in a documentary is quite a different thing, whereas in a dramatic story you have the same titanic problem every time. You are struggling with how to make things come out right [in the balance], the pace and everything. How much time you give to certain things, how much importance . . . it's very complex.
I can say this without humility. My mind is very elaborate and full of rich associations, and I have to fight that in order to squeeze into a formal structure, a dramatic time sequence.
Was poetry any use in screenwriting?
It's not [of any use], except that it might allow you to strike off a phrase that is "right" because you are interested in words. You see, a poet is a specialist in words. He knows that there is the center, which is the main meaning; beyond that there is a kind of umbra of associated meaning; and beyond that there is an emotional thing, a much larger penumbra. Now, as a poet, you're fitting these things together and making one penumbra yield to another and so forth. It's a wonderfully complicated process.
It seems like quite a leap from Kiss the Blood off My Hands to Intruder in the Dust.
Another accident. A close friend of mine at the [army] post happened to be a writer. He and I struck up a friendship because of a poem that I had published in an issue of Symposium which also had an article on jazz. I'd never heard jazz before, and the article made me want to listen to it and buy records. I became a wild enthusiast, which is also, incidentally, part of the intellectual atmosphere in New York. Anyway, we formed a jazz club, and we'd go out and buy secondhand records and play them. His wife happened to be the head of the script department at Metro, and because I had gotten a very good reputation at the post, she knew about my work. She recommended me to [director] Clarence Brown, who had bought this Faulkner novel and didn't know what the hell to do with it.
It was a very poor and complicated novel, which Faulkner wrote because he thought a series with a lawyer as a detective would make him a lot of
money. There are some things I like about the novel, but you can't compare it with Light in August . After I did the screenplay, that screenplay became very famous at Metro and was shown around a lot. All my experience in documentaries, trying to put together and straighten out things out of a huge mass of chaotic material, paid off there. That was the beginning [of my Hollywood career].
Did you have a special feeling for Faulkner?
I was an enthusiast. I had read all of his novels, even the earliest ones. Clarence Brown couldn't think his way through the script, because in the original novel there are four disinterments, and you cannot have somebody dug up out of the grave four times. You had to simplify it to one disinterment at most, and then you had to straighten the plot out. Faulkner's plot is all told backward, which confused Brown. I had to explain the novel to him, though I think any bright person that was interested in the story could have worked it [the script] out.
Brown had a huge office, and he would sit at one end of it and I would sit in a chair facing him—it seemed like half a mile distant, although actually there was much more office behind me as well. He had a parakeet in a cage, and he would open the cage and this parakeet would fly around while Brown dozed off, which he often would do during long script conferences. The parakeet would land on Brown's head and sit there, and he and I would wait patiently until Brown woke up, and then the parakeet would fly around some more.
Why would Clarence Brown, a director best known for those highly romanticized Garbo pictures, want to make a movie of Intruder in the Dust?
When he was seventeen or eighteen and going to school in Atlanta, there was a full-blown race riot.[*] Brown had seen blacks pursued in the streets, killed and loaded on flat cars, and driven out of town to be dumped in the woods. He had never forgotten it, and he told me he wanted to make amends for this part of his own history that he could never forget. And somebody had recommended this book to him, which was about an unjustly accused black, although, as you know, the chief character [in the movie] is not played by a black person but by a Puerto Rican [Juano Hernandez].
Why is that?
That would have been going too far for Metro, at the time. This was block booking, remember. I was walking with Clarence Brown at Metro once when we passed Louis B. Mayer. We stopped and they shook hands and Mayer said, "By the way, Clarence, why do you want to make this picture about the South?" Brown said, "I just think it's a good story and I'd like to make it. . . ." And Mayer replied, "All right, Clarence, anything you want. . . ."
Because Brown had directed not only the Garbo pictures, but National Velvet  and many other films.
How did you feel about the finished product?
I thought it was very, very good. Most times when a writer does a script that he himself likes, when he sees the film there is nothing but terrible shock and dismay. Because the screenplay is a daydream in which you put down certain key points. In between, you only imagine what happens. It's implicit in your head. Okay. Now, somebody else takes the script and directs it, and what you see are the same words [of the script] but the in-between is not what you imagined at all. The movements, the bodies, the locations, even the faces, the makeup, everything—they're not what you imagined.
But in this case, they were, because Faulkner is so precise in detail. That is one of his tremendous merits. No matter how foolish some of his ideas are, he sticks to the truth of the location itself. So you have this material [in the novel] that is so rich. The very movements are described, how people walk, and so on. That is really a great thrill to see [on the screen].
The one thing I thought was silly, a hangover [from his own upbringing], was Clarence Brown's idea of making a joke by having blacks' eyeballs pop. It was [an idea] straight out of the twenties. The blacks who saw the film noticed it and resented it, naturally. But that's not in the screenplay. Obviously, it could not be.
Did Faulkner ever say anything to you about the film?
I never met him. He was in Oxford, Mississippi. The writers were not at that time ever paid to go to the location. You finished your job and that was the end of it.
For a while [producer] Val Lewton became a friend of mine. He was a very interesting man. He was one of the people who admired Intruder in the Dust and went around Metro talking about it. We met later on and he told me stories about Faulkner. Faulkner lived next door to him in Palos Verdes. Every Sunday morning Faulkner would come over and visit him. Lewton would serve him whiskey and ice. There was a parapet [on his porch] which Faulkner would step over carrying a shotgun. He'd put it on the table along with the whiskey, and he'd break the whole shotgun apart in pieces and then carefully wipe and oil it. This would take him about two hours, until it was finally together to his satisfaction. Then he'd say, "Good-bye," which was the second word he would say. Then he'd go back over the parapet.
On the verge of this great success, were you beginning at last to think of yourself as a writer?
But I didn't think of myself as a screenwriter . To me, that was a pleasurable way of earning a living. And a writer didn't mean just writing screen-plays. It meant doing other things. I had lots of plans and began writing short stories and so on.
Did you keep company with other Hollywood writers?
No, I never knew any writers. There was a writers' table [at MGM], which
I was appalled by, because they discussed nothing but agents and contracts. At the head of the table sat [screenwriter] Leonard Spigelgass, who was a fairly bright man, but who put on this rather silly demeanor. I got nothing out of that scene at all.
Do you mean the great writers' table at MGM is but another Hollywood myth?
Well, don't forget that I grew up where intellectuals got together and fiercely argued some great point, and there was nothing of that there. (Laughs .)
Albert Maltz, whom I knew from college, once told me that there were three secrets for success in Hollywood. One was talent, the second was luck, and the third and probably most important was social contacts. Well, I didn't believe any of this. I had a certain amount of ego, but I didn't think that they would hire me because I was such a great writer. I knew that it was all luck!
Did you have any cachet in Hollywood because of your involvement in the documentary movement? Was there any familiarity with Native Land?
Nobody ever heard of it. I never heard it mentioned. I was another name then, my name [at the time] was really David Wolff, so I was not known [to be the same person as Ben Maddow] for a long, long time.
Then Hollywood people were not aware of your poetry either?
That must have been an odd schizophrenia to maintain, especially as your poetry was so very special to you .
Yes, of course it was, but it was like a private thing—so what! No one in Hollywood had ever read poetry journals.
In any case, my wife and I never cultivated the producers and the important writers, which would have made a lot of difference and would also have changed our life-style. We've always lived very simply while the others lived on the west side with swimming pools and all that sort of thing. Our friends were all different kinds of people, mostly professionals of one kind—civil engineers, doctors, lawyers—and people in the lower professions as well. I never threw a party where I invited Hollywood people and where you could take somebody aside and discuss some project that you were interested in. None of that which is part of the texture of Hollywood. Everybody does it. Maybe I just didn't know how to do it.
You didn't feel at all left out?
No, I didn't feel in any way isolated. Don't forget, I had an intellectual life of my own.
After Intruder in the Dust, obviously your stature went up, and you became in demand. In quick succession you wrote two rather interesting genre films, Framed  and The Man from Colorado  .
Both of those films were produced by a guy I met at the [army] post [Jules Schermer]. That was practice. They were both melodramas, after all. I have been described as "Ben Maddow, screenwriter of mystery and adventure films," but that is just accident. I think Framed was a pretty good melodrama. I remember I felt thrilled that I had invented the opening, in which there was danger from the very first, because there is a truck which is out of control with no brakes. But I never thought these films were a vehicle for any kind of ideas. They paid well, far more than I had ever earned in my life. I couldn't believe it!
Critics have written that you have always managed to imbue your scripts with serious social ideas .
Well, it was certainly not intentional. Maybe the ideas were there in the original material. If you want to look at Intruder in the Dust as a depiction of a certain kind of class structure of the South in which the old gentry, the old landowning gentry, had moved around to where they were really on the Left and were [now] forming an alliance with the blacks, although that is not true, of course—okay. But that is in Faulkner's novel, too.
On the other hand, the social ideas that are in these films, you may not have pondered them intentionally, but they are part and parcel of your fiber .
Oh, of course.
For example, though the story line of The Asphalt Jungle  remained the same on the screen, the point of view of the script became more progressive than that of the novel .
I don't think that was done intentionally. I think it all came out of the novel, though [author] W. R. Burnett did not realize it. Burnett intended The Asphalt Jungle as a novel about the extraordinary difficulties that the police
have in an urban world that has become a jungle. As a matter of fact, the narrator in his book is the police superintendent, is he not?
The film takes the opposite point of view. That crime is simply normal endeavor, another form of business; therefore the concentration on the characters of the criminals makes you like them all and sympathize with them. Certainly you don't sympathize with the police at any point. In any case, I think many authors do not know what it is they are saying, and Burnett made those criminal characters so fascinating that as you read the novel you really didn't feel as though the police were the heroes.
Why would Huston want to invert the original emphasis of the story line if he liked the novel of The Asphalt Jungle so much?
I don't think any conscious decision was ever made, not that I can remember.
It just developed?
Yes. I don't think Huston thinks in those abstract terms. Don't forget that a lot of the power [of the movie] was due to the fact that these were New York actors who all knew one another and were trying to outdo one another—and who were stimulants to one another. There was nobody who had a name of any consequence.[*] It was a film for broad booking. Most of Huston's talent came in the choice of casting, which most directors will tell you anyway, in moments of frankness. It could have been quite a banal film if badly cast. Imagine Van Johnson or somebody else in the leading part! But it was not an important film, so it was easier to cast.
How did you get involved with Huston?
He accepted me on the recommendation of Clarence Brown. Huston and I must have worked on the script together, oh, close to six months, and really very little work was done. No pages were turned in. We were mostly talking. He always did very little at the typewriter anyway.
The day would proceed. You'd arrive at his beach house at 9:30 or 10 A.M. and Huston would just be getting up to have breakfast. He'd come down in this beautiful robe and play with the Weimaraner dog with blue eyes that he had just got. And if the dog had thrown up, which he often did, Huston would have to haul the carpets out onto the beach.
Then later, we'd have lunch, work a couple of hours, and it'd come time to have a drink and so on. I used to come rolling home and I'd lift my fingers to indicate whether I'd had one cocktail or two, so my wife would know what state I was in. (Laughs .)
I had rented a beach house just about a mile north, and one day Arthur Hornblow, who was the producer, called me up and asked me to come and
see him. He said, "Look, I can't pressure John. He just won't take it. But I have to tell you that this is going on too long. . . ." Though we were getting paid weekly, I was getting bored with this situation, too. And I really felt guilty about it.
I promised Hornblow that I would talk to John. John's reaction was very interesting. He said, "Ben, you're absolutely right! . . . But my father [actor Walter Huston] is coming over to dinner tonight with his girlfriend. Why don't you have dinner with us and we'll work after dinner?" I said, "No, I'll go home and then I'll come back after dinner. . . ."
So I did. I guess it was about eight o'clock when I got back, and they were still talking at the table. They were talking about John's feeling that he was able to direct because he hypnotized the actors. Remember, he had made a film [Let There Be Light, 1945] during the war in which hypnosis was used as an example of how powerful it was. And he offered to hypnotize his father's girlfriend, a much younger woman. She said, "No, you'll make me do something I don't want to do." He assured her that he couldn't do that, which is not true, by the way. Then he wanted to hypnotize his father, and his father refused.
Huston turned to me, and by this time a whole hour had passed, so I said, "Okay." He had me stand up and he took his wristwatch off and shone a light on it, dangling it [in front of my eyes], saying, "Your eyes are closing . . ." My eyes closed. "Your arms are rising from your sides . . ." They did. "I'm going to pinch you and you won't feel a thing . . ." He pinched me. "Do you feel it?" "No." This went on until he gave me a posthypnotic suggestion. He told me that when he woke me up, he would offer me a brandy. I would taste it and say, "This is the most divine thing I have ever tasted in my life."
So okay, I wake up, we go back to the table and sit down, and he says to me, "Would you like some brandy?" I say, "I wouldn't mind." He hands me the glass, pours the brandy, and all three of them watch me. He says to me, "Aren't you going to drink it?" I lift it up, taste it, put it down, and there's silence. He says, "How was it, Ben?" I say, "Fair." (Laughs .)
That was Huston's hypnosis—just nonsense. (Laughs .) We didn't work much that night, but things proceeded a little more smoothly after that. And we finally did get the script done.
After The Asphalt Jungle, you wrote two films which I haven't seen and which I know very little about —The Steps of Age  and Shadow in the Sky  —
Steps of Age was a documentary which I made on the question of old age for a company back East. I directed and wrote that film. Shadow in the Sky was a Hollywood picture, a very bad one, too. It's about a returned vet with a lot of psychological problems. Nancy [Davis] Reagan was in it.
Why would you follow two such prestigious projects as Intruder in the Dust
and The Asphalt Jungle, in Hollywood, with something like Shadow in the Sky?
I think I took it because it was offered to me. Perhaps it was offered to me because it was the story of a returned vet who has psychological problems—and because Intruder in the Dust and The Asphalt Jungle do have certain social implications. I was considered somebody whom one would pick if the story had these values.
I didn't have any idea of an arc of a career. People just asked if I was interested in the material or if I was getting broke. I did turn a lot of things down. I once turned something down at Columbia because I said I was working on a long poem. "I just don't have the time to do it," I said. Well, this went around town. . . . People thought it was the funniest thing they had ever heard. The guy must be out of his mind! (Laughs .)