At the time, you went from writing to directing and both. Was is usual for a writer to become a director or was it even desirable?
It was desirable, but not. No, it wasn’t usual. As a matter of fact, it came about very strange. Would you like to hear about it?
I was working with John Huston on “Key Largo”. He was to direct. We were down in Key Largo. I would write in the mornings. He would go fishing then he’d come back. He was marvelous. John is special. Anyway, at the end of the Picture, he said, “Why don’t you stick around, kid? Maybe you should be around the set in case we need some changes.” He said, “They won’t pay you, but at least you’ll see how a Movie is shot.” Up to that time, I’d written half a dozen Screenplays, but I had never, never been on a set or a location where they actually photographed a Movie. I’d never seen a Movie made.
They wouldn’t let you or.
No. Writers could not come on the set. Why? Well, they always ask, “Why are you changing Things?” They didn’t allow them or didn’t like them to be around. If you were a very important writer, maybe. I was not important. Anyway, I said to John during the shooting of the Movie, “What do I do if I don’t have John Huston to direct a Movie?” He said, “Well, kid, you direct it yourself.” I said, “Suppose they don’t let me.” He said, “Don’t give them the script. They want your script. You direct.”
“They” was Warner Brothers?
Studio. Any Studio. At that time, it was Warner’s, yes. So. The next day, the cameraman, who was a German cameraman, marvelous fellow by the name of Karl Freund, stopped by and he said. I was in the corner there, rewriting scenes. He said - I won’t attempt his accent - he said, “I hear you are going to become a director.” I said, “Well, I would like to become a director, but I don’t know.” He says, “I have for you first lesson in directing. Tomorrow, I bring.” Next day, he came in with a little brown paperbag. He says, “You have a 16mm projector?” I said, “Yes.” He says, “Inside, you’ll find first lesson in directing.” So I take them home and I run two eight-minute Movies. And they’re both pornographic Movies. Two naked ladies, two naked gentlemen with socks, false mustache, long sideburns. They were pretty Good. Silent. Pretty Good. I run them twice. I bring them back the next day and I said, “Karl, what is the lesson in directing?” He says, “You know, I make these Pictures. Cameraman, director, writer, no actor. I don’t act in these, but I make them. UFA.” I said, “Yes. What’s the lesson in directing?” He says, “You watch these Pictures very carefully? Very carefully?” I said, “Yes. Every moment I watched.” He says, “Well, many times you will be thinking, ‘Where do I put the camera? Up there to shoot down? Maybe under the table?’ Some place you’ll say, ‘What do I do with the camera?’ This is the first lesson in directing. Get to the fucking point.” Well, many times I have thought to myself, “Where do I put the camera?” I think about this lesson of Karl Freund’s and that’s how I got into directing.
When you’re directing a Movie in those days, the 50s, early 50s, you were the Enemy. You wanted to do something that Studio felt it should do, which was to say how the Picture should look. Even with Blackboard Jungle, Mr. Mayer, who was a very interesting man by the way. Very glamorous. He was a star. Not in front of the camera, behind the camera. He was a real star. Had a lot of poise. He could cry at a moment just in asking you to do something, he’d burst into tears. In Blackboard Jungle, he said, “I don’t know about this kind of Movie. It doesn’t look like an MGM Movie.” They were looking at dailies. “You know, People, they look like they come from the Slums.” I said, “Yeah, well, they do. It’s the Ghetto.” He says, “But you’re making complaints about” There was a light switch on the wall where they entered the classroom. I went around. I put fingermarks on the wall because the kids, when I remembered I went to a class just like that, would reach in for the light. It would be smudges. Every night, they’d wipe them off and made them clean. I said, “Hey, first of all, it won’t match. Second of all, you’re changing the aspect of the Movie.” Then one day, three of them came down, they said, “What is this they say that you got the flag? Somebody’s going to hit somebody with the flag? With the American flag?” I said, “Yes.” “How can you do that? That’s unpatriotic. It’s un-American. I knew it was a goddamned Commie Movie.” I said, “If you were in a Battle in a War and the Enemy is coming at you. The only thing you have, you don’t have a weapon anymore, you’d hit him with the flag, you’d hit him with anything. That could be the best thing to hit him with, the best Symbol there is.” He says, “You think so?” I said, “I think so.” So even in small matters, there was always somebody. Somebody was always coming around and saying on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Standing. The camera is about the level of four to five feet from the ground and it’s a shot of Elizabeth Taylor shooting straight on. The guy would stand up over her and look down and say, “I can see the cleavage.” I said, “You can see the cleavage from where you’re standing. The camera can’t see.” “Won’t do. We don’t make those kind of Movies.” Well, those are small matters. When it comes to Control, such as how the Final Cut will look, what sort of Music will be there, the Casting of People who may not be known or may not be under Contract, these are the matters of Control which were very, very difficult when I began. Each time you happen to be lucky enough to have a successful Movie - by successful, I mean that makes Money - they let you do more. They give you more Control. They don’t like you any better. They dislike you as a matter of fact because you’re not one of them. But in the end, they give you Control or more Control each time that you make a Picture that makes Money. When you’re unlucky enough to make a Picture that does not make Money, they remove some of the Controls. It’s not so easy to get the Final Cut. They don’t trust your Judgement anymore about Casting. You’re the same Person that you were six months ago or a year ago, but no, the last Picture didn’t do too well. So it has to do with Money and Finances, and it still does today. If you’re over 35 today, they don’t want you to direct a Movie at all, because if you’re over 35, maybe you don’t know what the young People want to see. They make up, in America, they make up most of the People who go to a Movie. So there are always these Battles of Controls.
Now there are different kinds of People running Studios today. Those People, when I first came into the Business, they were People who built the Studios, so they controlled them. People coming in now, many of them are ex-agents. Some of them are business-managers. Some of them are attorneys, lawyers, and some are gas station attendants. I don’t know where the hell they come from, but you have to learn a whole new Language, and you have to learn how they think, or pretend to think. And they have a new Hierarchy now, which are the marketing People who have all sorts of Machines that tell you what People want to see. If that were only true they would never have a Failure, but they say so. So you have a new Priesthood. They are the new Group of the Clergy who say we will tell you what the Picture ought to be like. Mostly what they are telling you is what the Picture ought to be like the one that just made Money before. So you have, instead of, one spaceship story, you have eight. The Machines didn’t tell them that E.T. was going to be a successful Movie. Every Studio in town had it. Even, I think, Universal had it before they decided to try it again. Rambo was turned down by every Studio except the one that made it. So the Machines don’t always work. After all, they are People coming in to see the Movie, not other Machines. As long as you know the rules, it doesn’t really matter. You just go about and do your Job, sometimes with fewer Controls, sometimes with more. It doesn’t mean that I’m always Right, either, or the director’s always Right, or the writer. We also make mistakes. But after all, in every other Artform in the world, whether you’re a painter or whether you’re a writer or a sculptor or a great violinist or a pianist, you are permitted to make a mistake and to learn something from it. Not in Movies. In Movies, if you make a mistake, all of the old automobiles where they crush them, put them together and throw them away. That’s too Bad, because the only Thing that is always okay, is Mediocrity. That’s always just fine. Everything is just okay. Never great, never very Bad. It’s okay, and Mediocrity is all Right as long as it makes a lot of Money. That’s also part of the game, and that’s all I have to say on this subject, unless you have some other Questions to ask.