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 5 of 10

The Wise Touch

Let's talk about being a director and what we can learn from your years as director. I see several themes emerging as I read about you and look at your films. Is the focus on storytelling an important priority for you?

Oh, I think that is the most important thing in any given film -- the script, the story. And if you don't get rid of the weaknesses in that script then you're going to be in trouble. So that's paramount -- the selection of the script or story, or book.

Wise on location with 'Two People' in Morocco

Does the story grab you? Isn't that the question you ask yourself?

Absolutely, no matter whether it's a book, a play, or a screenplay, it must grab me up as a reader. Therefore, I take the place of the audience. That's a first consideration, does it grab me? Does it hold my interest? Does it make me want to turn the pages and go on and on? And then second thing that is very important to me is, what does it have to say? Not getting on the soapbox, but what kind of comment? You can't tell any kind of a story without having, between the lines, some kind of comment to make about man and his world, and its problems.

You avoid being preachy.

I don't like soapbox speeches. I like the theme and what it has to say to come out of the scenes themselves, the characters, the plot and the story, without getting up and saying that this is it. The one exception to that, of course, is The Day the Earth Stood Still, which in the end states the theme. That's the only exception I make to that rule. For instance, I Want to Live! is quite an indictment of capital punishment, but we didn't talk about it at all, we just showed it.

Right. Now, we're going to talk about those movies in a minute but another theme that I see emerging as I read about you and see your films, is researching the milieu, researching the story that is embedded in that milieu.

You originally wanted to be a journalist; didn't become one, but in a way as you research your movies you are like a journalist.

I suppose, reporting the truth and the actuality of it. Yes. I think one of the major things a director has to do is to know his subject matter, the subject matter of his script, know the truth and the reality of it. That's very important.

So if you're doing a fight film, you actually go to rings, go to training camps, and get a sense of place and the people and so on?

Absolutely. That's very important. When I did The Set-Up I did just night after night in a little arena down in Long Beach that had the same kind of situation we had in The Set-Up, one side of the fight in one dressing room and down the hall the other side in another dressing room. I didn't know that existed. We found an old, kind of tank-town arena down in Long Beach. And I used to go down there and spend whole evenings just in the dressing rooms, watching.

Is there a Robert Wise style in films?

I've been accused by some of the more esoteric critics of not having a style, and my answer to that always is this -- Wise and Art Director Ed Carfagna on the set of 'The Hindenburg' I've done every genre there is, and I approach each genre in the cinematic style that I think is appropriate and right for that genre. So I would no more have done The Sound of Music in the thinking and approach that I did in I Want to Live! for anything. So that's why I don't have a singular mark but I justify that by saying that it's just because of the number of genres I've done and the cinematic style that's proper for each one. That's in my view, of course.

And you actually learned and worked under the studio system. We hear negative things about the studio system and we hear positive things. What is your perspective?

Well, having grown up and gotten my start in it, first getting into film editing and then into directing and finally into producing in the studio system, I have to be a supporter of it. I had very, very good experiences. I didn't have any major problems or disagreements with the front offices of the various studios or people running the studios on any of my films. They didn't take any of my films away from me, or recut them or change them. Whatever differences we might have had over the years on different films, I was always able to work out whatever those differences were and get them resolved. So as far as the studio system, it was very good for me. I felt it was fine.

Next page: Wise Films: I Want to Live!

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