November 9, 2007
Norman Jewison is 81 years old. Sure, he has gray hair. But so does George Clooney. If it weren’t for the historic moments that surround Jewison’s stories, there would be no other indication of his age. He’s vibrant, witty, and he still throws his head back with whole-hearted laughter. He even puts on a faux New England accent when recalling his conversations with Robert Kennedy.
As part of the 30th Starz Denver Film Festival, Jewison was presented with the 2007 Mayor’s Achievement Award. “This means a lot to me,” he said, “when it comes from a film festival that’s been going for 30 years and has established a reputation around the world.”
The presentation followed a sterling print of In the Heat of the Night, the Best Picture Oscar winner that is currently celebrating its 40th anniversary. Scott Wilson attended the festival last year; Rod Steiger and Lee Grant appeared in years past. Now, as Ron Henderson pointed out, the festival still needs to bring in Sidney Poitier and they will keep trying.
Jewison’s post-war interests in journalism and in the human condition ultimately took him into filmmaking, where his own career has seen many, many high points. His filmography of course includes the evening’s presentation of In the Heat of the Night. But there’s also Fiddler on the Roof, Moonstruck, A Soldier’s Story, and, perhaps a movie that seems out of whack from the others, Rollerball.
Joe Leydon, the film critic for Variety, prefaced the evening’s hour-long Q&A session by noting that In the Heat of the Night was released during a rough time on the American home front. In 1963, four African-American girls were killed in a church explosion in Birmingham, Ala. In 1964, three civil rights workers were found buried in an earthen dam.
Joe Leydon: Given the context of what was going on in America at that time, this was a pretty ballsy movie to make in 1967. How did you get away with it?
I think first of all the people that ran United Artists were in New York. Arthur Krim was the president of the company and he was a very liberal man. I don’t think people at Mirish or at UA really thought it was going to be a big movie. I think it was kind of one of those things that caught people off guard. We were in the middle of a civil rights revolution in this country; I think timing is everything and in life, in a way. I think the timing was right for this film.
I remember being in Sun Valley, Idaho, and I met Bobby Kennedy the year before I made this film. It was at Christmastime. His kid broke his leg in a ski race and my kid broke his leg in the same ski race, so we ended up at the hospital and we were sitting there talking, we didn’t have anything else to do, waiting for them to put the cast on the kids’ legs, you know.
He looked at me and he says, ‘And what do you do?’
I said, ‘I’m a film director, I’m a filmmaker.’
‘What kind of films do you make?’
I said, ‘Well I’m working on a film now.’ And I told him, ‘cause my mind was full of this story and I told him in three minutes the idea of In the Heat of the Night. You know, black detective in a small Mississippi town, comes to town, bah bah bah...A murder takes place. And I told him about the film.
He sat there and he looked at me. And he said, ‘You know, this could be a very important film.’ He says, ‘Timing is everything, in politics and in art and in life itself.’
I said, ‘Yeah, I guess you’re right.’
And then he invited me to his New Year’s Eve party that he was having there, he and Ethel and the family were there. I got to know him and he sent me some research and he stayed in touch. It was very strange.
Anyway, to make a long story short, I went, made the film, whatever. I thought it was going to be a victim of white backlash. I never thought the film was going to work, in a way. We had our first sneak preview in San Francisco on a rainy Saturday night. You know, in the old days, where they used to throw it in with another picture. ‘Would you mind staying? We’re going to show another film. It stars Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger.’ Some people stayed and they watched the film and I was shocked at this reaction.
So... It won the film critics award in New York. I flew to New York and they give out the award at Sardi’s restaurant. And who was giving out the award but the Senator from New York, Robert Kennedy. And he said, ‘For the best dramatic film of the year, In the Heat of the Night.’ And I went up to get the award and he says, ‘See, I told you that timing was everything!’
So, you know, it was a film that came along at the right time in America. I think Russians are Coming was at the right time also. I think there are certain times when you make a film that the audience somehow embraces it because of the story, because of what it’s about. And of course the people in it; it’s got to work, it’s got to be a well-made film. But there are so many well-made films, and there are sometimes brilliant films that I see that don’t capture the imagination of the audience.
JL: I’m curious now. Here’s this fellow from Canada, who’s coming down here and has the audacity to be making these films that are commenting on race relations in America. I’m curious. What gave you the background, what gave you the insight to make these movies?
I think a lot of it goes back when I finished World War II in the ’40s. I was in the navy for a year and a half and I hitchhiked my last leave and I was in uniform. It was so easy to get anywhere and the Americans were so great at picking up servicemen, I mean everybody, it was 1946, end of the war.
So I hitchhiked down through Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana. I went all the way down to New Orleans and for the first time in my life, and I was, you know, a kid, I was 18 years old, I experienced segregation. I experienced apartheid. And I couldn’t understand it because I hadn’t been brought up and I hadn’t been inculcated, like most Americans are aware, they’re inculcated. I mean you had a civil war. I was just a kid, I didn’t understand it. But I did talk to people. And what I couldn’t understand was why the country would ask an African-American serviceman to go and fight a war and give his life for a country and when he came back he couldn’t get a cup of coffee at Woolworth’s. Or he couldn’t sit in the front of the bus. I couldn’t understand that and I got upset about it and it ate at me.
I got on this bus in Memphis. It was a hot, hot day and (I had) this sea bag with me and I was in this terrible blue uniform and I was hot and I was sweating and I saw the windows open at the back of the bus so I went to the back of the bus and I sat beside an open window. And the bus moved about a hundred yards and stopped. The bus driver looked at me through the mirror and says, ‘You trying to be funny, sailor?’ I looked around. ‘You talkin’ to me?’ I said, ‘Excuse me?’ He says, ‘You trying to be funny?’ I said ‘What are you talking about?’ He says ‘Can’t you read the sign?’
And I looked up and here was this sign that was hanging from two wires in the middle of the bus and it was hand-painted on a white piece of tin, so I knew it wasn’t an official sign. It was hand-painted and it said ‘Colored people to the rear of the bus’ or something like that. I looked around and there were four or five African-American people sitting around me and I looked up and there were three or four white people sitting in the front of the bus. And this guy said he wasn’t going to move the bus. But I was just a kid, I didn’t know. I didn’t know what to do.
So I got off the bus and I was left standing there in the dust as the bus pulled away.
I think that was the time when I probably came to the conclusion that maybe this was a subject matter that I would like to deal with later in my life when I had the opportunity to make films.
On Steiger and Gum
I kinda patterned the film after Bull Conner. He was in the news, he was always on the television news, he was this redneck sheriff somewhere in Alabama. He was always turning hoses on people, he’s always got a cigar stuck in his mouth.
I said to Rod, ‘You don’t want to smoke. How about chewing tobacco?’
‘I don’t want to chew tobacco!’
‘How about gum? Chew gum?’ And you know something, he took the gum and he started to chew it so fast that I didn’t know what he was doing. I gave him three or four sticks of gum.
He put it in his mouth, first scene. He was looking at me funny. He started chewing so fast that I thought jeez, it’s comical. And then he stopped. And when he stopped chewing, I realized he had a thought. When he was chewing, he was worried about something. But when he stopped chewing, he had come to a conclusion. So he started to use the gum in a very creative way for an actor. And I must say he hated the idea — and look what happened. And then he blames me for it. But he won the Academy Award, thank God. I never would’ve heard the end of it.
On Final Cut and the New Studio System
Every film I’ve made since Russians are Coming has been my cut. And that’s in my contract, so they can’t change it. Now, this means I’ve had to turn down a lot of pictures. I can’t make a picture for Harvey Weinstein because I’ve got final cut. And I won’t give it up. I wanted to do Chicago in the worst way!
I was lucky to hit that period of the ’60s and ’70s, which were kind of a renaissance when we look back on it in American filmmaking, where the directors were essentially in control of their work and the studios were willing to give William Wyler, Billy Wilder, Freddie Zinneman, luckily John Frankenheimer, and so on, Sidney Lumet, were willing to give us freedom to creatively bring the picture to the studio rather than sitting with a group of suits and discussing the script, which there’s a lot of that today. It’s a little embarrassing to sit with a 24-year-old kid from university who’s never made a film and sit and discuss the ‘character curve.’
So things have changed. In the 1990s, the studios became part of the corporate structure of America. So they ceased to be film studios and they became part of the leisure time group of enormous multi-national, multi-global companies which now control your life. They supply your wants and they create your desires.
I believe that independent films today are still being made and the directors and the creative force of the writer, director, editor, actor, the creative people, are still in control of their films. So that’s why, I think, in the past five, six years, four out of five films that have been nominated for best picture have all been independent films; they haven’t been studio films. So it shows that the audience has some taste. You’re intelligent people, you’re going to respond to a picture that moves you, either emotionally, with your heart, or cerebrally, it’s going to entice you and interest you. You’re not children, you don’t have to be fed some sort of dumb, stupid action film where there’s going to be an explosion every 20 seconds. ‘Oh, hey, we’ve got to pour four or five hundred gallons of gas here! We’re gonna let it go! You’ve got all the cameras ready?’ And then blow it up. And everybody goes ‘oooh.’ That’s bullshit! It’s stupid. Don’t get me started!
(A producer wanted to obtain the rights to Rollerball in order to make a TV show a la American Gladiator.)
I made a film about the insanity of violence for the entertainment of the masses. Now that’s really an obscene thought, isn’t it? This goes back to the Roman gladiators, ‘Let’s all get together and watch somebody get snuffed! Let’s all get together and we’ll see the supreme sacrifice here, we’ll watch a lion eat somebody. Let’s all get together Saturday afternoon.’
And so I made Rollerball, this kind of violent, strange kind of film about the future. And it was about a world where all political systems had failed and we were in the hands of corporate entities, the corporations controlled the world. In Europe, it became a kind of a cult film, very political film, and one of my most popular films. In America, everybody was talking about the game. And some nut called me up and said, ‘Can I get the franchise for Rollerball because I think it would be a great, great game.’
I couldn’t believe it. And I said, ‘You schmuck. It’s about the insanity of violence!’