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 9 of 10

Musicals: The Sound of Music; West Side Story

One can't interview you without talking about the two musicals that you won Academy Awards for. I'm intrigued by the fact that both are embedded in a social milieu that raises important political or social issues, even though the movies are musicals. The Sound of Music, for example, is a family story but it occurs at a time when the Nazis are rising to power. Were you selective in that sense, or was it just chance that you were able to work with that particular movie and that particular theme?

I inherited that movie. I reported to Fox Studios, I guess it was after we finished The Haunting in London, to start to prepare The Sand Pebbles. And then, in those days, Americans couldn't even go to mainland China so I had to find out how I was going to shoot it in Taiwan.

This is for The Sand Pebbles.

Right. And there was only a little bit of river there so I had to go to Hong Kong and all around there. So it became apparent that it was going to take a long time to get this all set, to find out how and where we were going to shoot it, and I didn't want to be vamping for so long, so I let the studio know I was interested in doing another picture while waiting to work out the problems of Sand Pebbles. And they said, "Take a look at The Sound of Music, it's just become available." Willy Wyler, who was going to do it, had left it. He had an argument with the studio. So they sent the script over to me and that was it.

Were you surprised by how well it did? For quite a while there it was the top money maker.

Not really. We thought when we were making it we had a chance for a very successful picture. Then when we took it out for some sneak previews in the Midwest, I think it was in Minneapolis and Tulsa, and got the audience reaction in the preview cards; we were pretty sure that we were going to have quite a successful film. But we had no idea that it was going to go through the roof like it did, no idea at all.

And you dubbed the songs in different foreign languages?

We sent my associate, Saul Chaplin, abroad to do that. Usually in musicals they don't bother to do the lyrics, sometimes they even cut the musical numbers out. But we felt these were too important to the story and so we sent Saul over, Wise with a poster from West Side Story who was my associate producer on it, to Spain, France, Germany and Italy, to work with the people there and to dub the songs into those four languages.

What was the biggest challenge with regard to West Side Story as a filmaker?

To make it acceptable for kids to be dancing in the streets. That's not a normal activity and, as a matter of fact, I was the one who insisted that we open in New York. I said that all the daytime stuff has to be done in New York. I can't fake that out here on a stage. Once you get past the daytime stuff, you're either into sunset, which you can do stage lighting for, or night and then a city street is a city street at night. Wise and Rita Moreno at USC, with the university presidentSo they finally agreed. I knew I had to deliver New York some way and I didn't want to do that same old thing across the river, the bridge, the skyline. And I started to wonder what the city would look like from a helicopter just straight down. That's how we got the opening. It was New York, and a real New York, it was a New York that even New Yorkers hadn't seen from that angle. And I think, because it was kind of an abstract, I think it put the audience in the frame of mind to accept the kids dancing in the street just a few minutes later, a few beats later after we get out of the playground.

The movie has a kind of gritty realism, even though it has that kind of magical musical quality. How did you achieve that?

Well, I think part of it was going back to New York to shoot the opening and the rest of it was just the nature of the sets that we had and the casting of the people we put into it.

Next page: Conclusion

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