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 6 of 10

Wise Films: I Want to Live!

I want to talk about some of your films now -- obviously we can't talk about all 39 in the brief time we have!

A few of them I wouldn't particularly like to talk about.

Hopefully I won't pick one of those. But one that I had a chance to look at again was I Want to Live! Susan Hayward won the Academy Award for that. We should tell our audience that it's the story of Barbara Graham, a woman who was caught up in the underworld, then was accused and convicted of a murder which she may or may not have committed, was sentenced to death row. It's based on the reporting of a San Francisco Examiner reporter who had covered her story and originally thought she was guilty but then turned around. And you said, "I think many of my films have an importance to them in what they say about man and his condition in the world around him, how he faces it and overcomes it. I always want my films to have a comment to make; however, the comment should be made by the story itself, the development of the plot and the interplay of the characters without having the actors just say it in so many words." Did you realize that goal in I Want to Live!?

Yes. The executive producer was Joseph Mankiewicz, who was a fine filmmaker in his own right. The actual producer was Walter Wanger; he came to me with the story and whatnot. Mankiewicz, whose parent company was the one that produced it for United Artists, came out first before we shot to read the script, and he said, "Gee, that's fine." He scored a few little changes here and there. But when we finished up the film he said, "You know, [in the scene where] the newspaperman and the lawyer meet outside the prison after she has been executed, you've got to make some comment. You have to discuss this matter of capital punishment, your feelings about it." And I said, "Well, Joe, if the picture hasn't made that point in spades we've failed completely." But he insisted. So Nelson Gidding, who was the screenwriter, dutifully wrote an exchange, a few lines there with the lawyer and the newspaperman. And I dutifully shot them even though I didn't think they were necessary. And we never used them because the picture and the whole last sequence, the last act, made the point so strongly that it was just superfluous to talk about it.

In your career, you're known for listening to the people who are part of the team, the actors, the person in charge of music, the sound person and so on, to get their input. And in that film there is a scene where you have to encapsulate her future in a marriage that isn't going to work. And you got the idea for a picture of an associate of the heroine building a house of cards. Tell us a little about that.

That's right. Well, I wanted to try to move the story along. She had this relationship with some guys, Coolidge and others, and the scene with them, one of the scenes very early on, at their place, Phil was building a house of cards. And she was going off, she was going to get married as I recall (it's been awhile since I've seen the film). Building a house of cards, and Johnny Mandel was the man who was going to do our music score. At the end of the scene, after Susan's left and all, Phil pushes on it and the house of cards falls down on the table there. I said to Johnny, "Now look, at the end of the scene he knocks these cards down. If I move in on this house of cards all on the table and I hold on it, and I hold on it, and I hold on it, way beyond what anybody would, can you musically advance the story and build into it the dissolution of a marriage so I can come out of that and it's down the way and they're breaking up?" I didn't want to go through the stages of a marriage that goes sour, I wanted to get right to the end of it where they're breaking up, get on with the story. And that's what happened. I just held on the cards, held on the fallen cards, and Johnny Mandel did marvelous things going from sweetness and light into something that just got all snarled up. And then we come out of it in the scene where they're parting and breaking up.

And this is what you mean when you speak of taking a story and translating it into cinematic terms?

Yes. Use everything you can to tell your story. This is one case where, by doing this, it helped me eliminate a couple of what would normally have been obligatory scenes of the marriage going sour and finally breaking up.

You said further about that movie, "I probably got more emotionally involved in that film than any other because of the nature of the story and the fact that I did talk to so many people about Barbara," the heroine. Let's talk a little about the last scene. I mean, the problem in front of you is that this is really a movie about capital punishment and the people who are dealt that card by society, and you've also said you don't want to sermonize. Tell us how you got the idea, and then how you actually filmed that last sequence of her going to the gas chamber?

Well, I knew that was the last act of the story because she had been in the women's prison down in Corona and then she had to be taken up to San Quentin, where they had the gas chamber. So I knew about that and about her last night in her death cell before the execution, the whole night she spent with the nurse there. Of course I went up and saw the whole thing and had my production designer photograph it and measure everything so we could reproduce it exactly back in the studio. (I didn't shoot anything in the actual gas chamber except we got some soundtrack, some doors closing and things like that.) And I found out where the nurse was that had been there with her that night. I spent an evening with her. And she gave me a lot of the sense of what the night was, not the literal scenes that we wrote, but just the tenor of the evening and what the atmosphere was, how Barbara was, what her attitude was, and everything. I took all kinds of notes on that and gave it to my screenwriter to do the actual scenes. That's part of what one does, you know.

But didn't you also shoot the sequence showing the preparation of the chamber for the execution?

I'll tell you, this is how things happen. I had been over to the prison and seen the cell and the gas chamber, met the guards there and everything. And that was it. And the priest who had been there had left the prison. He was a parish priest in the small town of San Rafael, right by the prison. So Montgomery arranged an interview for me with him and I went over and talked to him about it. During the course of the conversation with him, number one I was going to try to see if he could tell me what Barbara whispered to him as she went in but I couldn't get it out of him, but I said, "How does it happen you've left the prison, Father So-and-So?" And he said, "I don't suppose you have any idea of the terrible pall that falls on the whole prison population the night before the day of an execution." He said, "There's a terrible atmosphere, terrible pall. It was awful." And he said, "I couldn't stand it." And he started talking about the preparations being made, I thought, my gosh I didn't think about that. A light bulb went on and I went right back over to the guards at the prison and said, "I want you to show me everything you do, from the beginning all the way through the end, to prepare to take this human life." Including the call to the governor's office and keeping the telephone line clear and everything. And I just wrote this sequence and put all those things in that I hadn't been bright enough to think about at the time that we were preparing the first draft script.

Next page: Wise Films: The Day the Earth Stood Still

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