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 8 of 10

Other Wise Films: Somebody Up There Likes Me; Executive Suite

Let's talk a little about Somebody Up There Likes Me, with Paul Newman as Rocky Graziano. Is it hard to tell the story of a man making his way to the top in the fighting ring?

It was a particularly hard story. It was from an actual book written about Rocky Graziano. It was a real character and he was a real middleweight champion at one time. And Paul and I had the advantage of spending a lot of time with Rocky. He was living in New York, and Paul was there. I'd go back and we'd spend time with him. He would take us down to the Lower East Side where he grew up and where he hung out, and introduce us to a lot of his friends from those days and the candy store they used to hang out in. And he even got us a lot of photographs for wardrobe things. Also, there had been a long story about him in Look magazine, a long two-part series, and the writer had taped the interviews. So we had a chance to listen to the tapes and hear Rocky's actual voice and his manner of speech. And Paul decided, and I decided with him, that whatever he could make real and natural, and honest for himself from the speech patterns and his way of talking he would do, and if something wasn't right he wouldn't do it. So he picked up certain things that I think helped his characterization tremendously. I think it was one of Paul's very best characterizations as an actor, because it's so far away from actual Paul Newman, who's Cleveland and Shaker Heights, certainly not the Lower East Side.

Right. He had a rhythm, which he got from Graziano?

Yes.

And you actually tried to pick up that rhythm in the way you shot the film?

In a way. Rocky was always kind of moving around, in little jerky movements, and I wanted the film to have a little of that same kind of feeling. So I shot it in short bits and pieces, little short sequences, and tried to get an essence of that in the structure and methodology of shooting the film as it was.

When Rocky fights the winning fight for the championship at the end, there's a series of sequences, shots of his family, the crowd scene, but also the streets of New York. There's one scene were everyone is listening to the radio and you made it absolutely silent, the city street. That was quite effective.

Yes. It really worked, I think.

Yes, it was quite powerful. So a lot of your movies deal with ideas and social issues. And one that is also in this period is Executive Suite, which is about the power struggle in a corporate boardroom after the death of the CEO, Avery Bullard. A striking piece of film making is the early sequence where he drops dead. Tell us about how you decided to shoot that opening sequence -- the camera is following him right at the moment of his death.

As I recall we don't even see him really, do we?

Right. That's correct. The camera is he.

The camera is he. He's in New York for some kind of very important meeting before he goes back to Pennsylvania, or some place (wasn't that where the company was?) -- a furniture company. I made the camera the point of view because when he left this meeting upstairs, he went out and he evidently had a heart attack and keeled over, went down to the sidewalk. And it seemed a very interesting way to open up the picture and kind of hook everything because from there we go to the company headquarters and they're all wondering where Avery Bullard is and what's happened to him.

Because he convened the meeting.

He convened the meeting and then he didn't show up for it. I thought that was a very good hook right at the beginning of the film, to catch our interest in seeing what the hell's going on? What's going to happen with this story? That's very important to me, is trying very early on to hook that audience. Get them involved and make them wonder where it's going and what's going to happen. It's a beautiful job in that story to catch you up.

And there's actually a message about business, about the quality of the product and the purpose of the organization, as opposed to just the making of money for money's sake.

The profit motive, yes. Those were the two contestants, Fredric March playing the controller who very much wanted to take the place of the president who had died, and for him it's the profit motive. And then Bill Holden, another one of the executives there, who is a believer in the quality of the furniture and if they're cutting down on what they're spending on it and this, that and the other, they're going to lessen the quality of the furniture and the company is going to go down. So it became a fight between the profit motive and the quality motive within the furniture company. And the whole end of it is of this big boardroom scene that went on for the last half of the picture, the last third of the picture.

That was quite a cast, everyone from June Allyson, William Holden, Fredric March.

Barbara Stanwyck, Dean Jaggar, Nina Foch, Paul Douglas.

So did you have to exercise the bullwhip with a group like that?

Interestingly enough, it was fine. They all knew each other, they had occasionally worked together in other films previously and whatnot. And they were very professional, very good. And maybe when we were relighting a shot or maybe between takes or reloading the camera, they would sit there and kid each other with, "remember this time, when we were there?" Just swapping yarns or whatever. But the minute the bell rang, they were right back into character and played their parts. It was a fine experience, fine cast.

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