Robert Wise Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Wise Touch; Conversation with filmmaker Robert Wise, by Harry Kreisler, 2/28/98

Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 4 of 10

Becoming a Director

Another person you worked with and under was Val Lewton, who really gave you some early directing breaks, right?

He's the one who gave me my opportunity to start directing. I was editing a small film for him called Curse of the Cat People. It was the director's first feature (he'd done a fine documentary film but this was his first feature), and they weren't unhappy with his work but he was very slow. These were 18-day schedule films, $200,000 budget. And they couldn't seem to make him understand that he had to shoot more every day and go faster. By the time he'd used his whole schedule up he'd only shot half the script. And I'd been asking for a chance to direct one of these small, "B" pictures, so I got a call from the executive producer, Sid Rogell, who asked me to meet them at a restaurant across the street from RKO. And they said, "Listen, we can't seem to make Gunther" -- that was the man's name -- "understand that he's got to shoot faster, and you've been wanting a chance to direct. We're going to take him off, Wise with Frank Capra and George Seaton we want you to take over on Monday morning." That's how it happened. I was sort of thrown in the pool and told to sink or swim. They gave me ten days to finish film. I did it in ten days and then they signed me to a seven-year contract.

One of you first movies was The Body Snatcher, with Boris Karloff. And in that movie, especially the ending scene, there is just an extraordinary sequence with the main protagonist, Dr. MacFarlane, who is caught in a dilemma of how much bad you do in order to do good. He needs a supply of dead bodies to teach in a medical school, and he has a psychological relationship with Boris Karloff, who plays a cab driver. Did the brilliance of that final scene owe a lot to your experience as an editor?

I don't think so. I don't think that had anything to do with editing; it's just how to make it real and believable and accomplish what we needed to do. Part of the difficulty was we had to shoot day for night, which is always a difficult thing -- to use filters and all to try to make a day shot look like night, and then getting the rain all in there and everything was very difficult. But it worked. It's certainly a scary sequence but it paid off.

It's scary but doesn't the scene also make a moral point about the relationship between the apparent good man and the apparent evil man, who both have a little of good and evil?

Exactly.

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