Director Norman Jewison.

Alex Simon

Editor’s Note: The following article originally appeared in the December 1999/January 2000 issue of Venice Magazine.

Norman Jewison was born July 21, 1926 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The son of a shopkeeper, Jewison got his BA at Victoria College, University of Toronto, and after moving to London, where he wrote scripts and acted for the BBC, he returned to Toronto and directed live TV shows for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation(1952-1958), then musicals and variety in New York (including much-heralded specials for Harry Belafonte and Judy Garland), before embarking on a film career.

Jewison's initial offerings were harmless pieces of fluff like Forty Pounds of Trouble (1963), The Thrill of It All (1963), Send Me No Flowers (1964) and The Art of Love (1965). Suddenly in late 1965, the 39 year-old director decided to get serious, replacing the legendary Sam Peckinpah on the dynamite Steve McQueen vehicle The Cincinnati Kid, the story of an itinerant poker player in New Orleans. Jewison's work kept growing from there. He followed Kid with the political satire The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! in 1966, then made what some consider still to be his finest film.

In 1967 the United States was a very different place than it is today. No other film captured this quicksilver moment in time better than In the Heat of the Night, the story of a Philadelphia detective (Sidney Poitier) reluctantly recruited by a redneck southern sheriff (Rod Steiger, Oscar-winner) to aid him in a murder investigation. The film broke more racial and social taboos than can be listed here, and ushered in a new genre in American film, one where African-Americans took center stage, where black was beautiful. Although it helped give birth to the blaxploitation genre of the 70's (which many critics revere), In the Heat of the Night's influence can also be felt in the films of Spike Lee, and many other filmmakers who, over the past 30 years, have dealt with race, culture clash, and the socioeconomic realities which create an underclass in our society. It also spawned a highly-successful TV series, and won five Oscars, including Best Picture.

Jewison followed this landmark film with another classic, The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), again starring McQueen, this time with Faye Dunaway as his love interest. Gaily, Gaily (1969) was writer Ben Hecht's story of his apprenticeship on a Chicago newspaper. Jewison then brought two landmark Broadway musicals to the screen: Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), scoring big hits with both. These were followed by the science-fiction classic Rollerball (1975), starring James Caan, and the fictionalized Jimmy Hoffa biopic F.I.S.T. (1977), starring Sylvester Stallone and written by a first-time screenwriter named Joe Eszterhas. Jewison next helmed two scripts written by another young tyke named Barry Levinson (and his then-wife Valerie Curtin):...And Justice for All (1979) with Al Pacino, and Best Friends (1982) with Burt Reynolds and Goldie Hawn.

Jewison scored another breakthrough when he dealt with the race card once again, bringing Charles Fuller's A Soldier's Play to the screen as A Soldier's Story (1984). Starring Howard E. Rollins, Jr. (who also played the Poitier role in the TV series of In the Heat of the Night) as a black army officer investigating the murder of a sadistic sergeant at the tail end of WW II. It co-starred many new faces, including Robert Townsend, David Alan Grier, and this kid named Denzel Washington in a pivotal role. We'll come back to him later...

Jewison brought another play to the screen brilliantly with Agnes of God in 1985, followed by another triumph with the romantic comedy Moonstruck in 1987, an Oscar winner for Best Actress (Cher), supporting actress (Olympia Dukakis) and screenplay (John Patrick Shanley). Next came In Country (1989), a post-Vietnam drama starring Bruce Willis and Emily Lloyd, another play adaptation in 1991 with Other People's Money, starring Danny de Vito, the romantic comedy Only You (1994) with Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey, Jr., and the fantasy Bogus (1996) with Whoopi Goldberg and Gerard Depardieu.

1999 brings Jewison full circle, completing his film trilogy about race in America. The Hurricane stars that kid Washington we mentioned earlier, in the true story of former boxing champ Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, who was wrongly convicted on a trumped-up murder charge, and served more than 30 years in prison. The Hurricane marks a welcome return to the cinema of social consciousness that Jewison helped give birth to 33 years ago. The story is so fantastic, it's almost hard to believe that such a miscarriage of justice occurred not only in this country, but in this day and age. Denzel Washington delivers his finest performance to date as Rubin Carter.

Mr. Jewison, who possesses an energy, an appearance, and an enthusiasm that run counter to his 73 years, still makes his home in Canada, and has remained active in his homeland. In 1986, he established the Canadian Centre for Advanced Film Studies in Toronto, where he works with young Canadians learning the craft of filmmaking (much like our own AFI). Although he was only in the States a short time to promote The Hurricane, he gladly extended our allotted interview time so we could keep talking.

Along with The Hurricane, many of your films have a very strong social conscience. Where does this come from?
Norman Jewison: I think we're all products of our environments, where we grew up, what we read, what was inculcated into us. Also, I had the opportunity to be in the Canadian Navy at the end of WW II. When I was on leave, I hitchhiked across the United States. Canadians are always interpreting the United States for the rest of the world because we share the longest undefended border of any two countries in the world. I think it's a fascination, a love-hate relationship. It was my first experience with apartheid when I hitchhiked all through Mississippi, Louisiana, and Tennessee. I saw people who couldn't sit on the same bus, drink from the same fountain, go get a cup of coffee at Woolworth's, and yet they were being asked to give their lives for their country in defense of this society. And I didn't think that was fair. Also, I grew up with people calling me "Jewie" and "Jewboy" and found out I wasn't Jewish! (laughs) But I've been searching for my own Jewishness all my life, and wound up in Yeshivas in Israel, and interpreting Fiddler on the Roof and Jesus Christ Superstar, trying to explain to the rest of the world what it's like to be Jewish! (laughs) Like Topol said, I know more about Judaism than most Jews. We're all products of our own history, as people. When you're attacked, or you're pushed, you push back, and you start studying why, and how. I wanted to make The Hurricane 10 years ago, when I read about it in Sports Illustrated. I think that the reason that maybe this film can work now, is because I didn't think anyone was going to come see In the Heat of the Night, or A Soldier's Story. I didn't know how I was going to tell this story or how it would work. As Bobby Kennedy once told me, "Timing is everything" in life, in art, and in politics. This story says to me: "Hate got me in here. Love's gonna bust me out." Hate breeds prejudice, which breeds war, which breeds murder. Now there's nothing new about that. That's what God was saying, that's what Christ was saying, that's what Gandhi was saying, that's what Martin Luther King was saying, that's what Malcolm X was saying, that's what Krishna Murdhi was saying, and that's what Rubin Carter is saying! So maybe the time is right for us to analyze that again.

It was refreshing to see a socially conscious film again.
Well, we've moved away from that, unfortunately. The only reason this got made is because of Beacon Pictures. Universal released it, but it's an independently made film. Universal wasn't really that excited about it, otherwise they would've made it themselves. These sorts of films aren't easily made. Every studio in town passed on A Soldier's Story until I said I'd do it for nothing! We only made it for about $5 million, shot it in Arkansas. We also had the benefit of then-governor Bill Clinton who got me 600 African-American National Guard troops for the marching scenes. I never could have afforded that number of extras. He said "Don't worry about it. We'll call out the National Guard and send the white boys home." (laughs) So President Clinton helped me get that film made because he believed that it was important socially. So I'm politically motivated as a person, but I also did The Hurricane because I think it's a wonderfully dramatic, compelling story. I try to make my films as entertaining as possible. If I wanted to make messages, I'd do documentaries.

This is the second time you've worked with Denzel. Could you talk about what it's like collaborating with him?
It was wonderful working with him again, because I've always admired him as an artist. But he really wanted to do this picture and for a director, there isn't anything better than having an actor who is totally committed to film, not for his career, not for the money, not doing it for any other reason than he has to do it. He has to play that part! So the two of us really had a great time making this film, because we were both really committed to Rubin. It was amazing because, especially with the scenes in jail, Denzel even started to sound like Rubin, in addition to looking like him. He just became him! He even had Rubin's fighting style down. Denzel has a great gift. I think Denzel is at the peak of his talent in this picture, and it wasn't easy. We were reaching for some pretty difficult moments.

You mentioned Bobby Kennedy earlier. How well did you know him?
I met Bobby skiing in Sun Valley when I was young. I supported his campaign here and was supposed to meet with him at 10:30, the night he was assassinated. I had Melina Mercouri with me, whom he very much wanted to meet. So we were on our way down to meet him at John Frankenheimer's house when we heard. It was part of the reason I left America in 1970. I spent the next eight years working out of London, making films in Yugoslavia, Israel, and Germany. Then, in 1978 I moved back to Canada.

Let's talk about your background.
I was born and raised in Toronto. My dad ran a clothing store and post office. I had one older sister. I was always performing, poetry readings and things like that, from the time I was about six. I don't know why, either. I always loved dramatic storytelling.

Was there one film that really grabbed you as a kid, where you said "This is for me"?
Well, I started in the theater, as an actor, then got into live television with the BBC in London, so television was like a miracle to me. But when I was a kid, I used to go to the movies for 10 cents on Saturday, then I'd act out the whole movie for a penny! (laughs) I guess it was an obsession with storytelling. I remember Gunga Din as one of the great movies for me. And I also remember Rose-Marie, with Nelson Eddy playing a Mountie! I thought that was so romantic and wonderful! I guess we're all searching for those things that touch us. As you get older, you get a little more particular. I think directors are a little like orchestra conductors. We get better as we get older, as long as you still have all your marbles and are still committed. But I don't know if they believe that in Hollywood. (laughs)

Who are some of the other filmmakers that influenced you as you got older.
All the works of David Lean, John Huston. William Wyler was my great idol, because he could take a bad script and make a mediocre picture. He could take a mediocre script and make a good picture. He could take a good script and make a great picture! This guy could never miss. His ability to tell a story on film was unparalleled. Willy told me that there's no difference between genres. In a musical you're telling a story where you're being helped by the music, and if you can make it believable, that the person who's singing the song is really feeling those emotions, then all you've done is taken the musical form and added it to the story. But he didn't believe that there was any big difference between comedy and drama, except that comedy was more difficult because it required a greater discipline on the part of the actors and the director. Willy had a confidence that really impressed me. I think Howard Hawks had it, too, and I think Frank Capra had it, George Stevens had it, William Wellman had it, Billy Wilder had it, and Fred Zinnemann had it. I came in contact with all these people when I was very young, and learned from them. I sat at Willy Wyler's feet, because I was coming to film from the outside, coming from live television, so it was important for me to spend as much time as I could with the giants. A lot of this business is about passing down.

And collaboration.
Absolutely! As a director, you get a lot of help, like I did from (cinematographer) Roger Deakins on The Hurricane. I had to tell Roger how I saw this story in order for him to make that happen, because only he can make that happen. Directors stand back and watch the cameraman make it happen. I really believe that films are made by writers, directors, cameramen, and editors. Those are the key storytellers, because all of them are involved in telling the story. The closer those four people work, the more they become one. If you take hands and form a circle, you are now one. That's what the North American Indians said, because there's something about becoming one. The tribe, the family. Making a film requires the individual artists to take hands, and form this circle, and become one with the work, because the work is what's important, so the film is the result of this closeness. And the look, and image and vision of the film has to come from the director, but he's only a part of the circle.

How much actual direction do you give?
It depends on the actor. Certain actors know exactly what they want and what they're doing, certain actors don't. But again, it all comes down to believability. If they're believable, leave it alone. If they're not, then maybe youíd better take them aside, and whisper to them. And maybe you can help them, who knows? Maybe you spotted it. But there are no rules.

You got to work twice with Steve McQueen. Tell us about him.
He could string you out there. He was street smart. He was shrewd. He wasn't highly intellectual. He was Peck's Bad Boy. I used to call him "Spanky." (laughs) Steve was always looking for a father. I told him "I can't be your father, but I can be your older brother, who went to college. And I'll look out for you. And I want you to believe that I'll look out for you. So you continue to take apart the Volkswagen engine over there, and I'll look out for you." He looked at me and said "You're twistin' my melon, man!" (laughs) I never knew what he was saying, he was so hip! (laughs) I got him to the point where he never looked at the dailies and he trusted me. I think it was a relationship of trust. I didn't want him for Thomas Crown, you know. He convinced me that he was right for it, and as a result, brought a lot of interesting stuff to that part. He'd never worn a tie in a film, and here he was playing a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Dartmouth, a Boston Brahmin with beautifully tailored English suits and he'd never done that before. He was very easy to direct, too. The problem was, if he would see that you were insecure about something, he'd go in for the kill. He was always looking for weakness, so I made sure I was very secure around him.

Did you see the remake of Thomas Crown?
No, I couldn't bring myself to. But I like John McTiernan's work and I heard it was very good.

The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming! is a great film, both as a straight comedy and a very pointed political satire.
It's the only film I've made that's become part of the congressional record, as a plea for coexistence at a time in history when the word "détente" wasn't even being used. It's also the only film I've made where its first screening was for the Vice President of the United States, and this huge group of diplomats and dignitaries, and its second two weeks later, was screened at the Soviet Film Workers Union in Moscow, and I couldn't even get back into the country after I went to Russia! (laughs) I didn't know I wasn't supposed to be there. I got my visa in London because I was traveling under a Canadian passport. As a Canadian, I had made this film for Americans and for Russians. Again, as Canadians, we're always the observers, interpreting America for the rest of the world because we're the most like you.

Tell us about In the Heat of the Night. Did you know going into it what a groundbreaking film it was going to be?
No. I think it was an important film for its time. I think the timing was right, as Bobby Kennedy said. He told me, "This is a very important film." I didn't think anyone was going to come to see it. There were newspapers that wouldnít take the ad in certain cities. When you're making a film that has a social comment, I think itís important that it be at a time that people want to discuss it, and that you never really know. It's instinct. I was kind of surprised when people reacted to it in such a strong way. Then the nice thing that happened was The New York Film Critics gave it their Best Picture award, and when I accepted the award at Sardi's who was presenting it, but Senator Robert Kennedy, from New York. As he gave it to me, he whispered "See, I told you the timing was right, Norman." But I don't think anyone really knows what the reaction to a film is going to be. With The Hurricane, we showed it for the first time as a work in progress at the Toronto Film Festival. It was agreed that we'd show it there because it has such a strong Canadian connection, but because it was a rough cut, no critics were allowed to attend. So I didn't know how people were going to react. Would you believe we got a six-minute standing ovation?! I was in a total state of shock and panic! I thought maybe it was an aberration because it was a hometown crowd.

You actually shot most of In the Heat in Illinois, not the south.
Except for three sequences shot in Tennessee: the cotton-picking stuff and the scene in the big southern mansion. Sidney didn't want to go south of the Mason-Dixon line with the political climate being the way it was then. We shot most of it in a little town called Sparta, Illinois. It wasn't easy.

Tell us about Rollerball.
Rollerball was my first, and only, film about the future, the not too distant future. I tried not to get caught up in the technology too much. I wanted to isolate the areas in which I would work. I found the BMW building in Munich, which was perfect, as our main location. Its design was very ahead of its time. We were the first ones to use identity cards to get into places and all that sort of thing which is quite commonplace today. It was an interesting film to do from a political aspect, because it was a film about a world where political systems had failed and multinational corporations had taken over. It deals with violence used as entertainment for the masses, which goes back to the Circus Maximus. I think when you use violence for entertainment, you're getting pretty low on the human scale. (laughs) I think it turned out to be a pretty interesting film, very stylized, packed a wallop. In Europe it became a cult film, whereas in America a lot of the critics went after it as being exploitative, of just being about a violent game.

Legend has it when the cameras stopped rolling, James Caan and the other actors played rollerball for real.
(laughs) Yeah, they kind of got caught up in it. I was always terrified someone was going to get killed. We had a few accidents, so I was frightened all the time we were shooting.

F.I.S.T. was an interesting film.
It was Joe Eszterhas' first script. He spent about six years researching the Teamsters when he was at Rolling Stone. The problem is, there weren't that many people interested in the Labor Movement in 1977! (laughs) It was a hard film to sell because of that, but it was a pretty strong picture.

Tell us about Moonstruck.
I was kind of tracking a writer named John Patrick Shanley, who we used to call "the bard of the Bronx." He'd written a lot of great one act plays. All his stuff was familial, always Catholic, and very much New York. I don't think there's anyone who has an ear for dialogue like Shanley does. He'd written this script called The Bride and the Wolf, and by the time I got it, there were lots of coffee stains on it. It had been around. Lots of people felt it was too much like a play, which it was. So I asked him if he wanted to work on it, which he did. We worked about five or six weeks on it, changed the title, added a little more poetry to it, a little more cinema, and the rest is history. I gave it to Alan Ladd, Jr. at the Toronto Film Festival. Cher was my first choice for the lead. It's probably one of the best-cast films I've done. Every actor I wanted, I got. We shot most of it in Toronto, again. There's lovely use of opera in the film, which I love, of Puccini. In fact, the whole film is a bit like an opera. I love that film, itís full of energy and life. It's so Italian! (laughs)

You worked with Judy Garland early on in your career. What was she like?
Judy had more comebacks than anyone in show business, and I was there at the last one. It was just called Judy, and was after the Carnegie Hall album. She'd never done television before. I think it was one of my most exciting experiences in live television, because it was like capturing quicksilver. We had to deliver two other stars, or they wouldn't go ahead with the show. So we got Frank Sinatra. I called him, and I was just a kid, I was very nervous, and I called him in Palm Springs and asked him if he'd come to rehearsal. (laughs) So he says "Okay kid, I'll be there." I said, "You know she likes to work at night, so could you come at seven at night?" He laughed and said "I said I'd be there." I said "Bring Dean Martin, will you?" (laughs) And I hung up, and sure enough, they came in the limo, both of them, and they worked 'til midnight. It was a wonderful experience. She had her last big comeback, and out of that, they wanted to put her on every week, which was a disaster! (laughs) I came in the next year and produced ten of the shows, but it was just too much for her. That was the story of her life. People always pushed her, exploited her.

Any advice for first-time directors?
Always remember that it's a collaboration between yourself, your cinematographer, your editor, your writer, and your cast. Remember the idea of the circle and try to keep that circle together. Always make a film for the right reason, because you have to. Because you believe in it. Always believe in yourself and your own vision. Never let anyone else tell you that a film can't be done, or that you can't do it, because it can and you can.

Add a comment