Who: Norman Jewison is a filmmaker whose movie career spanned 41 years and 24 features. Born in Canada, Jewison gained early experience working for CBC Television during the 1950′s, earning notice for directing/producing variety shows. In 1958, he was lured to CBS in New York City to revamp a live weekly music program, and for the next four years he focused on musical specials for television, before moving to Hollywood and directing 1962′s 40 Pounds of Trouble. The film was the first of four lighthearted comedies Jewison directed for Universal Pictures, before jumping over to MGM to replace Sam Peckinpah as director of The Cincinnati Kid, starring Steve McQueen. The following year, Jewison returned to comedy, but with a decidedly more political theme, when he both directed and produced The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming for United Artists. This would be the first of several films he made through the studio, which also gave him complete artistic control over his work. During his UA period, until the end of his career with 2003′s The Statement, Jewison tackled multiple genres while shooting in a variety of locations. In recognition of his work, The Film Society of Lincoln Center screened 15 of Jewison’s films over six days at the end of May in a star-studded retrospective titled, Relentless Renegade: The Films of Norman Jewison. The special program featured several Q&A appearances by Jewison alongside his past collaborators and friends at the Walter Reade Theater. Camera In The Sun attended four of these sessions: In The Heat Of The Night with actress Lee Grant and casting director Lynn Stalmaster; Agnes of God with actress Meg Tilly; Fiddler On The Roof with lyricist Sheldon Harnick; and Rollerball with Sony Pictures Co-President Michael Barker, who interviewed Jewison about United Artists. These days, Jewison is Chair Emeritus of The Canadian Film Centre, which he founded in 1988.
[Publisher's Note: Special thanks to the staff at The Film Society of Lincoln Center]
Michael Barker on why United Artists appreciated Norman Jewison
Barker: Arthur Krim, he and Bob Benjamin bought United Artists from Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks in 1951. And they decided they wouldn’t really have a studio the way the other Hollywood Studios would have it. They decided to give autonomy and faith in the director and the independent producer. And they gave them final cut. And the kind of pride and joy Arthur Krim had — his creative genius was in choosing someone like Norman and banking on him for eight movies in a row, and several others. And he prided himself in talking about these movies and these filmmakers, and also backing them. And the thing that he was so admiring of Norman [for], was that Norman was both politically engaged, and he was not only a great filmmaker, but a great producer. He surrounded himself with the best craftsmen. You had Hal Ashby as the editor, and you decided you’d promote him as a director. You had Haskell Wexler as a cinematographer. You had Russell Metty as a cinematographer, who was already a big deal. I mean, it just kind of boggles the mind. And so what you see with Norman’s movies in the ’60′s and ’70′s — a period when we talk about the great foreign-language arthouse directors — you see a mainstream Hollywood director in Norman Jewison that is the ultimate in quality.
Norman Jewison on the development and production of The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming
Barker: I remember Arthur in his later years, he would say to me, “I can’t remember a picture I was more proud of, because America, you know, they were against the Russians. They were against the Russians in a major way.” And here was Norman Jewison, and he made a comedy about the Russians, and he made the Russians human. And by doing that, what he’s done is kind of a subversive thing, but it is a very important thing to American culture. And a lot of people can’t remember that period, but as I recall, the government wouldn’t let you use a Russian submarine. You had to build your own Russian submarine, because they wouldn’t allow it.
Jewison: I can remember people talking about, “Well, the Russians are going to drop an atomic bomb.” And I remember kids hiding under their desks in schools, and people were crazy with fear. Khruschev was banging his shoe at the United Nations. And it was craziness, and I thought, “Well, if a Russian submarine ran aground tomorrow on Cape Cod, and couldn’t get off — it was on a sand bar — and the sun came up, and they were stuck there, how would they feel?” Well, they would be terrified. “Jesus, the Americans are going to come in and blow us out of the water.” I mean, the Russians are gonna be terrified. They’re gonna be frightened, because they’re vulnerable and they’re not under the water anymore. So I think that if you could do a film about that problem, and if we could make it funny and entertaining… And I remember pitching that to Arthur Krim at a meeting in New York. And I said, “You know, this could be a very important film.” And he said, “Well, how are you gonna get the submarine?” And I said, “Well, maybe I could get a Canadian submarine, a World War II submarine that looks a little bit like a Russian nuclear submarine. Maybe we could build a conning tower on it.” We ended up building a submarine. Now, you can imagine a production designer, poor Robert Boyle, we built this submarine, and we got a conning tower from 20th Century Fox that was used in Morituri, I think. And we couldn’t find a Russian gun to go on the bow of the submarine. It had to be a Colt .5, or whatever. And we found an arms dealer in San Diego, and he had the gun, and so we went down and looked at it. So we bought this gun from him, or rented it from him, and we built this submarine out of fiberglass. And we put two 90 horsepower outboard engines in the back. And I said, “Well, is it gonna float?” [And they said] “Oh yeah, it’s gonna float. Don’t worry about it.” And we started across the harbor. Well, when it came to a wave, it bent in the middle, because it was of fiberglass. And I said, “Well, Jesus, this submarine is bending. I mean, it doesn’t look real.” But the silhouette was beautiful, so I said, “Well, I’m gonna shoot it in silhouette. I’m never gonna shoot this submarine when it’s moving too fast.” And that’s how the submarine was solved, because the U.S. Navy said I couldn’t bring a Canadian submarine within ten miles of the American coastline.
I’ll never forget, when Russians Are Coming was finished and we didn’t know what to do with it, Arnold Picker said, “Well, I think we should go to Washington.” And I think it was Krim who said, “Well, let’s get the Vice President of the United States as our guest of honor and run it in Washington for all the Congressmen.” And so that’s what we did. And so the first screening of The Russians Are Coming was in Washington. The second screening, three weeks later, was in Moscow. And that was thrilling for me to see both audiences watching this film and having the same enjoyment of it. I think the Russians were caught off guard. They expected a kind of an anti-Russian film, which a lot of them were being made at that time out of Hollywood. And they were surprised, and they started to realize that Alan Arkin, “He’s Georgian,” they said. “He’s Georgian.” And I said, “He’s Georgian?” And they said, “Oh yes, he’s speaking Russian with a Georgian accent.” And I remember Alan Arkin, when we were making the film, I had him study Russian because he had a few words here and there in Russian. I had him study with a United Nations interpreter, and the United Nations interpreter came from Tbilisi, and he came from Georgia. So I didn’t know this, but Alan Arkin was speaking Russian with a southern accent, according to the Russians. But it was an interesting evening at the Soviet Film Workers Union when we ran that film.
On the development and production of In The Heat Of The Night — despite studio doubts
I think this picture, the timing of it was right, and I think that’s why it won the Academy Award. I think people responded to it in a very strong way. It received a lot of flak from certain elements in our society, but that was political. I think the timing was right, and I think it became perhaps my most important picture. Russians Are Coming is also an important picture, and I think the timing for that was right, at the height of the cold war. I had done The Cincinnati Kid, and I had done a lot of comedies, and I think they felt that this was maybe the kind of a film that I couldn’t handle, or wouldn’t be interested in. It was adapted from a book about a black detective coming [from] Pasadena in Los Angeles. And of course Sterling Silliphant did the screenplay, and I just loved the screenplay because I felt it worked better in Mississippi than it would have [further north]. So I tried to convince them that I wanted to do this picture, because I felt it was important for America to make a film like this, because this was the first film I think where a black man slapped a white man back. And that’s instinctive. If you’re standing there in a $2500 suit, and you’re a detective from Philadelphia, and someone slaps you, you slap ‘em back. It’s instinctive. But I realized that this would be an important moment in the film, and maybe it would be a slap that would be heard around the world. Because America at that time in 1966, when I was making this film, was going through I think a revolution. Cities were burning. Not that any of us felt that we were making an important film, but we knew the film had something to say, that it had a strong raison d’etre.
I think there’s so much struggle in making a film, and making it work just in the effort every day of going out and shooting, and hoping somehow that this film is gonna be pulled together, and it would look like we were shooting in Mississippi when we weren’t. We were shooting in Sparta, Illinois because Sidney Poitier said, “I’m not going south of the Mason-Dixon line.” And that was a big blow to me. So we shot it Sparta, Illinois, which is in the southern part of Illinois. It felt like the south to me. Sparta was a town that was right down near the Mississippi River near the Missouri border, and I had to talk Sidney into going to Dyersburg, Tennessee so I could get the cotton fields. And we did go south of the Mason-Dixon line. We went down to Dyersburg, Tennessee for four or five days. That’s all. And we had a little trouble, but we got through it, and that’s where we did the scene with he and Rod in the cotton fields. But he was right. I mean, I’m glad I didn’t shoot the whole film there.
On casting Scott Wilson over Robert Blake for the role of Harvey Oberst
Stalmaster: I look back on this cast, and I think today Lee confirmed it again, as maybe the most outstanding ensemble that I was ever part of in collaborating with Norman. You never compromise. You always think maybe there’s something a little more authentic. And we were about to set — and he was a wonderful actor, and I knew him quite well — Robert Blake to play the boy in jail. He had given a great reading, and Norman says, “Go ahead, make a firm offer.” I get back to my office and the phone rings, and it’s an agent named Jack Fields who I had an enormous respect for. Very good taste. And Jack says, “Lynn, have you set the boy in the jail with Sidney Poitier.” And I said, “Well, I’m about to.” And he says, “Please…” and now I listened to Jack. There were certain agents who had a special feel for talented actors. And I said, “Alright, send him right over.” And over comes a young guy I’d never met before named Scott Wilson. Jack had seen him in a play out in the Valley or in Orange County. Well, I gave him time to prepare. I never let an actor read cold. That’s cruel. And he read for me — and this has happened to me a number of times in my life — where magic occurs. It’s the most exciting part of what we do.
And we go over, and he reads for Norman. Norman says, “Set him.” Now, here’s an ironic thing, Norman, and I imagine you remember this. Richard Brooks called and said, “Norman, I understand you have a very exciting young guy. I’m doing In Cold Blood. Can I see a little film?” And here’s the real irony, and the craziness of our business. Who starred in the picture? Scott Wilson and Robert Blake, In Cold Blood, and they were brilliant. But it shows that you have to keep digging. There reaches a point where, “Hey Norman, I know it’s gonna shoot next week. We’ve gotta get him into wardrobe, and he’s gotta learn his lines.” But we would do that in every role. We took as much care with one line as we did with major roles.
On the different acting styles of (the previously-blacklisted) Lee Grant and Sidney Poitier
Well, Sidney is a minimalist, and I liked that. He is probably one of the most intelligent actors I’ve worked with. He had great intelligence that he got himself. He was kind of self-taught, came from the Bahamas. He was an extraordinary man. But he wasn’t trained like Lee was trained or like Rod was trained. That’s why I never asked Lee to read, because I knew she could act. I’ve seen her, not only on the stage, but in many television shows and films. So I just wanted to meet her, because I wanted to see her up close, and I wanted to imagine her in this scene with Sidney, which was a really important scene in the film. And I felt that she represented something for me. I think she’s a very courageous woman, and I think she has great principles, and I liked that. And that’s why she came into the office. I just liked her as an actress and as a person.
On grooming Heat Of The Night editor Hal Ashby to be a director
Hal was the editor on the film, but I included Hal in all my meetings because — he didn’t know this — my plan was to make Hal a director from the very beginning. Simply because an editor is a storyteller, and I always regretted that I wasn’t an editor like Robert Wise was an editor. There are many editors that became directors, and I think they make the best directors. I came from live television like John Frankenheimer and Sidney Lumet, all of my contemporaries. We all came from New York from live television. We were editing as we sat in the control room. The camera was picking up our next shot, so we could see where we were going cinemagraphically. So in that way we were extremely well trained in choosing the next shot. But outside of that, I was always just enthralled with editing in film, and I always believed that Hal could direct actors, because he had great taste. And he turned out to make The Landlord, and of course we turned to Lee again.
Grant: No, I had to convince you. I turned myself inside out to get that part. It’s the only part I ever really fought for. I came in with a blond wig. I said, “Look at me under the lights. I can play this.” You had Jessica Tandy set for that film. I talked you out of that. But just one point I wanted to make about Hal and Norman — the feeling that you don’t get from many directors, that I think Hal got from Norman, was Norman’s sense of enthrall-dom. Of his saying to his actors, “Surprise me. I want you to do something that will just be something I haven’t seen before.” And that’s what happened in that scene between Sidney and me. I didn’t know what I was gonna do, and we like danced through that. It was a dance that was not on the paper. And wherever we went, Norman was there saying, “Go there. Go there.”
On Rod Steiger’s approach to portraying Chief Gillespie
I think Rod brought to this film such honesty as a character, because Steiger was totally unafraid. And I was worried, and Sidney was very worried, that Rod was gonna be over the top. Because when Rod gets mad, look out. He was an actor who could be so subtle if you let him, and he listened to me. So when he got out of the car and slammed the door, he slammed it so hard that the car moved. I swear it moved a half an inch. The whole car moved, and Sidney was sitting in the car, and Sidney said, “Jesus, he’s really up there, isn’t he?” And I said, “Don’t worry about it.” I said, “I’ll handle Rod.” So, all I did was bring him another piece of pecan pie. I put a lot of weight on him, because I wanted him to have a big gut. Because I was looking at television, I was looking at some of these sheriffs, and there was a guy called “Red” something in South Carolina. And there was a demonstration, and he was there, and I said, “Now, that’s what Rod should look like.” So I was always trying to feed Rod all the way through the film. And I wanted him to chew a cigar, because the guy on television had a cigar in his mouth. And I said, “How about a cigar? Would you like one? What does he do? What does this character do? You could chew a cigar. You could chew tobacco.” And he says, “Oh God, I don’t want to chew tobacco. I could chew gum.” And I said, “OK, well let’s try some gum.” And it was at the very beginning of the picture, so Rod took a couple of sticks of Wrigley’s and he put it in his mouth, and he started working with it, and he started thinking about it. And then he came up with the idea that when he was really thinking, he would chew very fast, and then when he came to a conclusion and had an idea, he’d stop. And then you’d know something important had happened inside his head.
On Steiger’s response to the recipient of the “slap heard around the world”
Grant: He says, “What are you gonna do about it?” And [Steiger] says, “I don’t know.”
Jewison: It’s such a comedy reading, because we discussed this. He says, “What am I gonna say?” And I said, “I don’t know.” And he said, “That’s it! I don’t know what I’m gonna say.” And I said, “Well, why don’t you just say it?” So, it was just perfect. I mean, those kind of things are delicious when they work. And sometimes they don’t, but that worked. And that’s what I mean about Rod. He was very open to trying things. He would try anything.
On an important scene between Steiger and Poitier
Barker: Rod Steiger has Sidney Poitier come to his house, and they’re waiting for some important piece of evidence, and they’re just lying down in the house on the couch waiting, and it’s a very quiet passive scene. But that scene between those two men, intimately, is the whole drama of the civil rights movement played out. And everything that happens afterward, which is all the action and the thriller and so forth, is just a wrapping up. The drama is in that scene between those two characters that are so different. It’s just magic, and to me that’s what you talk about that’s so important.
Jewison: Yes, I think you put your finger on it. I think In The Heat Of The Night is about tolerance. It’s about respect for one another, regardless of the color, because it’s about two cops. One from Philadelphia, and one from Mississippi. One smart, and one not too smart. It was raining that night, and we couldn’t shoot in that room in Rod’s house, because the rain was so loud on the roof, the sound men didn’t want to shoot. So we sat in the car, and we started to read the lines between them, and we literally improvised the scene between them. And Meta Rebner was my script supervisor, and she was Faulkner’s mistress. And she was called “Miss Reba,” and she wore a hat, and Rod Steiger used to help her down. And she said, “Mister Steiger, we pronounce our ‘T”s. It’s ‘GaTe,’ not ‘gaaate.’ Now, just remember that.” And Steiger was really upset, and he says, “Jesus, script supervisor is now giving readings?!” And I said, “Miss Rebner is from Mississippi.” And I said, “She knows how people sound, and if your accent doesn’t make it, she’s the first one that’s gonna pick up on it.” And he pouted a little bit. And then I noticed he was all of a sudden, Miss Reba, he was helping her get out of her chair, and he started to treat her like a queen. The whole crew did, because she was so elegant. Meta Rebner, I often wonder what ever happened to her.
On directing Steve McQueen in The Cincinnati Kid and The Thomas Crown Affair
We screened Cincinnati Kid earlier today, and I must say when you see Steve at the peak of his power, he was very special. He was very cool. He was the first cool character I ever met. He was so cool, I didn’t understand what he was saying half the time. “You’re twisting my melon, man.” You know, I never understood quite what he was saying. He was a loner — a total loner — and I swear he was a warlock, because he would behave differently depending on the waxing and waning of the moon. If there was a full moon, forget about it. I mean, Steve would get on his bike and disappear, and he’d go out into the desert. What he did there, I don’t know, but I know that he would disappear for two or three days. I told this to my first assistant when we started the picture, and I said, “Gotta be very careful about the moon. We’ve gotta work around the moon. If we’re coming close to a full moon, let’s not work with Steve. Let’s shoot something else.” And there was something about him on camera that was so believable. When you put an actor on camera, like a famous stage actor let’s say, an Olivier or a Burton, they start to walk like they believe the character would walk. They start to talk like they believe the character would talk. They are going into the character from the outside-in. Steve McQueen was not that kind of actor.
Barker: But he was well-trained, but not necessarily for theater.
Jewison: Yeah, but he wasn’t a stage actor. He wasn’t the kind of an actor who could mesmerize you on stage with his voice. But the moment you rolled the camera, he became very real, and he wasn’t acting. It was him. He projected himself into the character, and it was something very real was happening, and I admired that about him. He was a real film star. There was a certain enigma about him, you know, that was very exciting.
On the use of split-screen shots in The Thomas Crown Affair
I think it was the World’s Fair in Montreal. And that’s where I saw [To Be Alive!]. I saw 60 minutes of film on the screen in 17 minutes. And I realized the eye was the only selective organ in our body. We can’t screen out sound, but our eye selects what we want to look at, and it can zoom in and become very focused. And I realized you could look at five different images on the screen at the same time, and you would remember maybe two of them. So I started to play with that idea. And Chris Chapman made a film called A Place To Stand that just blew me away at the Montreal Film Festival, so I took Haskell Wexler and Hal Ashby up to Montreal to see this film. And that’s the way it all started. I said, “It’s perfect for us. We have a robbery where five people have been hired, and none of them know each other, and they’re just going to do what they’ve been told to do by Steve McQueen, playing Thomas Crown.” And I said, “These five people, you’ve got five stories. How can we tell these five stories in the shortest amount of screen time?” So the robbery became a multiple-screen technique, and it worked beautifully for that particular screenplay.
On the choice to have Thomas Crown get away with his crimes
Barker: He got away with all the crimes, and in Hollywood you don’t get way with all that. You get killed, like Bonnie and Clyde, and Butch Cassidy. But you let him get away.
Jewison: They didn’t like Cincinnati Kid, the studio. The fact that he lost really upset MGM. The head of MGM foreign distribution said, “You’ve just killed the foreign distribution of this film, because he loses. How can you have the hero lose in the final five minutes of the picture?” I said, “Well, I’m not changing it.” And I’ll never forget, they wrote an ending. The foreign department of MGM wrote an ending that they asked me to shoot, that after he loses, he walks outside and Tuesday Weld is there. So he makes this long walk to her, and the music builds as he and Tuesday Weld walk off together to be happy for the rest of their lives. And in that way, he lost the game but he won the girl. I said, “That is the worst ending I have ever heard.” And I said, “I refuse to shoot this.”
Barker: Arthur Krim would have never asked you to do that.
Jewison: No, I mean this is what I loved about United Artists, whether it was Billy Wilder, William Wilder, [John] Sturges, [Stanley] Kubrick — they were always on the side of the filmmaker. They were always on the side of the director.
On his hiring as Director/Producer for, and the development of Fiddler On The Roof
When I was asked to do this film by Arthur Krim at United Artists, it was Arthur Krim, Bob Benjamin, Bill Bernstein and Arnold Picker. And it was a kind of a secret meeting. I think it was Arthur who called me, and I got this strange phone call to come to New York for a meeting with the heads of UA, and I wasn’t to tell my agent or my lawyer what it was about. And they wouldn’t tell me what it was about. So I had this secret meeting, and I came into New York, and walked up into Arthur Krim’s office. And I looked at them — and there was Arthur, and Bob Benjamin, and Bernstein and Picker, and here were all of the guys looking at me. And there was a chair, and I was brought in and I sat down. And then Arthur said, “The reason we brought you here is to ask you what you would think if we asked you to produce and direct the film version of Fiddler On The Roof.” And my heart came up into my throat, and I thought, “Oh my God, they think I’m Jewish.”
Barker: (Laughs) From that point forward everyone thinks Norman is Jewish.
Jewison: Jew-i-son. Son of a Jew. Here I am sitting here. What am I gonna say? So I walked to the window, and I looked down onto Seventh Avenue there, and it seemed like forever. It was probably at least two minutes. And I came back, and I sat down and said, “What about Jerry Robbins? Why can’t he direct the film?” [And they said,] “No, No, gee, we had such a terrible experience on the other film. He’s not a film director. He’s a theater director. We had to replace him with Robert Wise on West Side Story. He can’t make up his mind about shots and performances.” Because you can do it again, and he started to do it again, I guess. And he did it so many times that people said, “This is madness.” So I was sitting there, sitting there and I said, “What would you say if I told you I’m a goy?” And I looked at all their faces, and they all went like this [a look of shock], and that’s when I realized how smart Arthur Krim was. He covered beautifully, and he said, “Why do you think we would ask you to direct this film? We don’t want a Seventh Avenue Yiddish production.” And he very carefully made it clear that he wasn’t going back on his word.
I must say, I was totally inspired by the lyrics and by the work that was done on this play. And trying to translate it to the screen, there was a lot of pressure I felt, because I didn’t want to screw it up. And everything was going great as I was sitting watching the end of the film, because I just watched the last five minutes, until he said goodbye to the horse. And when he said goodbye to Shmul, I burst into tears, because we saved that horse. He was going to be put down. I got him from a glue factory in Yugoslavia, and we called him Shmul, and he worked all through that film. And Topol, Chaim really related and bonded with this horse. And it was there every day on the set in the barn which we had built. And when he came to say goodbye to it, I lost it totally, because I was overwhelmed with the memory of it. And we retired Shmul in the care of a Yugoslav farmer. And I remember every month, we sent a small amount of money to keep Shmul fed and happy for the rest of his life. This film, it’s not just about people. It’s about a culture.
On finding the location to shoot the film
You know, we couldn’t find where to shoot it. They wanted me to shoot it in Kansas. And then they wanted me to shoot it in Saskatchewan, because it looked like Russia. It looked like the steppes. And I said, “I can’t do that. This is a translation of Shalom Aleichem. This should be shot in Russia.” Well, of course it was impossible, because the Russian government — even though I’d made Russians Are Coming, and I was kind of wired in in Russia — it just was impossible, because we couldn’t get the insurance from LLoyd’s of London to insure the film. So I went to Romania and I found a little village on the border of Russia. And I thought, “This is it. I’ve found it.” And I was with Robert Boyle, my art director — this Irishman who lived to be a hundred years old, and just died last year. He’s a brilliant, brilliant man, and we had been to Israel and we’d gone to Russian yeshivas and met with many Russian immigrants to Israel. We’d done a lot of research. And we went to Dubrovnik in Yugoslavia, and I remember on the “Street of Jews” we found the oldest synagogue in Eastern Europe. That’s where we took the photographs, and that’s the synagogue you see in this picture. And it was the only synagogue that had writing and paintings on the wall that I’ve ever seen — and I’ve been in a lot of synagogues — and I couldn’t understand it, and it dated back to something like the Middle Ages. And so we photographed everything, and then we built this synagogue in Yugoslavia, because I couldn’t shoot in Romania, because the insurance people again said they wouldn’t insure the picture. So I ended up in Yugoslavia, because Tito had the largest standing army in Europe at that time, and somehow the Russians or anybody didn’t wanna deal with him. And it’s strange, because he loved movies. And so we went and ended up in what is now called Croatia in a little village called Lekenik, which is near the city of Zagreb.
On casting the unknown Chaim Topol over the well-known Zero Mostel for the role of Tevye
Harnick: We were always curious — we thought sure that you’d want to use Zero Mostel, who’d been so successful in the musical. And we were kind of surprised that you said, “No.” Why was that?
Jewison: I saw Zero many times in the show, and I always felt that he was very American. I felt that he was too New York. I felt that he was too big, that he gave a performance much larger than was necessary, and I didn’t like his take on the character of Tevye. He didn’t move me like I wanted to be moved, and I felt there was something that wasn’t real. And I feel in films, if you’re not believable the audience tunes out, and they pick up on it immediately. And I was really torn, because I admired him for his theatrics and his performance, but Zero was always in “one.” He was always downstage here in “one.” And I think he thought the show was about him, and I don’t think he gave it the kind of respect and dedication that it needed in his performance. I’m being very honest with you. I’ve never talked about this publicly before.
Harnick: But it’s true that that’s the way Zero felt. He felt the success of the show was do to him. It turned out, I don’t know whether you know this, but Zero sometime before the show was done, Zero had been run over by a bus on a February day. He was taken to the hospital. He was conscious when he heard the doctor say, “We have to amputate one of your legs,” and he begged the doctor to save his leg. So they did. I saw the leg in his dressing room one day, and really it didn’t look like a human leg. They had rebuilt it. Anyway, after about eight months in the show, our producer Harold Prince got a letter from Zero’s doctor. And it said, Mr. Mostel cannot do eight shows a week. What we’re asking is that he be out of the show three months, and in the show three months. And Hal said, “We can’t sell tickets that way. Everybody’s gonna wait for him to come back to the show.” And consequently, he left the show. Eventually he went on the road with the show, which was fine, because he could do split weeks and he didn’t have to perform eight times a week. But the night that he left the show, I was feeling very sentimental, and I went up to him and said, “Zero, I’m sorry to see you leave.” And he said, “No, you’re not. You’re sorry to see the grosses fall.” And they never fell, and he was heartbroken.
Jewison: Yeah, he had an enormous ego. But I flew to London, and I saw Chaim Topol perform in this show. And he had done it at the Habima in Jerusalem, where he had done it in Hebrew. So I went backstage to see him, and I realized that his English, he had studied the part and was literally translating it from Hebrew into English. And he had, of course, an English accent. And he said, “My Daughtuhs.” And I said, “Your Daughters? Why are you speaking with an English accent?” And he says, “Because it’s Pwapuh.” And so I had, all the way through the picture, I was trying to soften his English inflections. Because like most people in Europe, when they learn English, they learn English through an English teacher and not an American teacher. And because I didn’t want his accent to be that different from everybody else in the film. And then, of course, I hired a lot of English character actors to surround him, and so it worked out. But Topol, Chaim was made for this part. Not only is he a fine actor, and not only does he have a beautiful voice in my opinion, but there was a strength and a dignity to him. And it was the Israeli in him. It was the pride, the pride of being Jewish that really struck me. And the difference in his performance from Zero Mostel’s in New York, in that theater in London that night, was totally different. I saw a different play in a way. “Get off my land. This is my land. This is still my land.” When he said that line, you could see him stiffen up and stand up as tall as he could. And there was some kind of strength there that epitomized the hope that these people, as they left their home and were forced out of Russia, would somehow create a country of their own.
On what the original Broadway show was really about
Harnick: When we first got Jerry Robbins to direct, about six months before we went into rehearsal, we started to have meetings. And he always started with the same question: “What is this show about?” And either Joe Stein, or Jerry Boch or I would say, “Well, it’s about this milkman with his five daughters.” And Robbins would say, “No!” He’d say, “That’s not what gives these stories their power. If that’s what this show is, then it’s ‘The Previous Adventures of the Goldberg Family.’” And so we met, and finally at one of those meetings he said, “What is this show about?” And one of us, I can’t remember who, said, “You know what this show is about? It’s about the changing way of life. It’s about the changing of traditions as the Enlightenment ideas came in from Western Europe to these isolated shtetl villages, and life began to change for these people.” And Jerry Robbins’ eyes lit up, and he said, “In that case, we have to re-investigate the entire show, because every scene should either reflect a changing tradition, or a tradition that’s being preserved. And he also said something, it was fascinating to me just now, he said, “I know how to begin and end this show.” He said, “I will begin this show with the oldest folk form, the circle, and that’ll be the beginning of the show. And at the end, I will bring back the people, I will create that circle, and then the circle will fragment.” And I noticed in the film, you did that, and I was fascinated. It’s just a little circle that formed, and then it broke up.
Jewison: That’s right. Well, I was a big Jerry Robbins fan. And as a matter of fact, I got two of his lead dancers as choreographers on the film, so we preserved all of Jerry’s staging and choreography in the musical numbers.
On the development and production of 1975′s Rollerball
This was my only film about the future. It was my only film about what I saw society becoming. And it all started I think with a hockey game in Chicago. Hockey is a very violent sport. It’s played at terrific speed, and it requires great skill on the part of the players. You not only have to skate well, you have to stick-handle well, and all of that. But it’s a punishing game in that it allows physical contact like football, but they don’t have the pads, and they’re traveling at much higher rates of speed. So when body contact happens, there can be injuries. And I was in Chicago, and the NHL had just expanded into America. And we now had the New York Rangers, and we had the Chicago Blackhawks and we had all these American teams. And in Canada, we’ve been accustomed to maybe five or six teams. And the moment it hit television, the sport of hockey seemed to change, and violence became the name of the game.
Something disturbed me about it. And there was this game in Chicago that I was at. I don’t know what I was doing there, can’t remember, but all of a sudden there was blood on the ice. Somebody got hit, and either blood spurted from their nose or something, and the white ice with the red blood seemed to ignite the crowd into a tremendous frenzy. And I noticed that the ushers in the stadium all went to the bottom, and the police came up and stood at the bottom of each aisle. And I realized that violence was being sold and commercialized on American television, and it frightened me. And then I read a short story in Esquire Magazine called the “Roller Ball Murder,” by William Harrison, and it was about the future. And it said, “In the not-too-distant future there will be no wars. There will be no famines. There will be no catastrophes of any kind, or revolutions, because we’ll be living in a corporate world controlled by multinational corporations. And there will be Roller Ball on Saturday night, and it will be the escape valve for violence in the world.” And I thought it was a fascinating idea, so out of that short story came this film.
I’ll never forget trying to sell this idea of this film to United Artists. And I was living in London, and had been living there for some years. I went over there to do Fiddler On The Roof. So I was living in London, and I came back to New York to have a meeting with Arthur Krim, and Arnold Picker, and Bob Benjamin to sell this story, this film, to try to get them to finance it. “Well, what kind of a life is there?” And I said, “Well, everybody’s got a card.” And they said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, it’s like a credit card. You put it in a machine.” But there were no credit cards in those days, and I said, “But everybody would have a card, and that card would give them access to certain buildings and certain places, but it wouldn’t give them access to others. Everything would be controlled. It would be a corporate society.” And they started to question me on that. “How do you think that’s gonna happen?” And I said, “Well, political systems fail. Communism failed. Democracy failed. But the corporations got stronger.” I had statistics that the average gross national product of the American Food Company was larger than the gross national product of Belgium. “Did you know how powerful companies have become internationally?” And so I went on and spouted off on my theory of where the world was heading. And it was rather dark. And everybody at the meeting said, “Well, how do you play the game? What is Rollerball? How do you play it?” And I didn’t know, because it was a rough description in the short story, but I really didn’t know how it was played. So I said, “Well, everybody’s on skates, and they’re traveling around an arena, and there’s motorbikes. And you can grab onto a motorbike and be pulled, and then you can take off, and that will give you momentum.” And I didn’t know what I was talking about. And I was spinning this ridiculous kind of imaginary game that was being played that was very violent. And the players all had gloves with studs on them. I guess that was because, at that time, there was a lot of that kind of thing going on in the country. And I remember trying to sell this ridiculous picture, and the only person that was interested in it was Arthur Krim, who kept going back to the political ramifications behind the film. So I said, “Well, you know it’s all controlled by a board of governors that sit in Geneva, because there’s a giant computer, and this is the center of all knowledge, because there are no libraries anymore. There are no books. So the center of knowledge, the control of information is at the center.” So this is the way I remember selling this film. And I gotta hand it to Arthur Krim, because many times in my career Arthur Krim as President of United Artists was the savior. He was the only one who seemed to support the artist. And whether it was Russians Are Coming, or whether it was Fiddler, or whatever I was desperately trying to make, Arthur always was open. He was always questioning and looking for answers.
On the stunts in Rollerball, and how the film’s action overshadowed its political message
The dedication and commitment of these stuntmen and these actors, to go out there — I mean, there was no special effects in this film. We didn’t have any special effects in those days. This is all real. And when I think the only thing that happened was we broke one stuntman’s leg.
Barker: And you know what’s interesting about that? When that movie came out, there were all these rumors that someone was killed on the set of the movie. And no one was killed on the set of that movie. But if you look at the final credits, there is the name of all of the stuntmen in the final credits. And the reason that’s important is that this was the first film that acknowledged the names of the stuntmen in movies. And it was Norman that insisted on that, and that is why stuntmen continue to adore him. And since this movie, stuntmen have always been acknowledged in the credits.
Jewison: It was received in Europe I remember as a kind of a political metaphor, and it received very good reviews. When it was reviewed in America, it was reviewed as a violent game. It was all about the game. It wasn’t about what the film was about. It was about the action. And it’s always disturbed me that when people see this film, they’re not seeing what I wanted them to see: the glimpse into the future, and my fear of the company store, my fear of corporate control. I think Eisenhower said it when he said, “My biggest fear is the military industrial complex.” And I think that’s true. I really believe that there are times when we get on the wrong course politically.
On the development and production of Agnes of God
It was a play by John Pielmeier, who’s a Broadway writer. I knew his literary agent quite well, so she had invited me to come and see the play in New York. And it was was with Elizabeth Ashley and Gerry Paige, and Amanda Plummer was doing the lead. And I watched the play, and I was curiously moved. I mean, I’m a spiritual person, but I’m not a deeply religious person, I don’t think. And I didn’t know that much about the Catholic Church, about nuns and about a cloistered convent. But there was something deeply moving about it. I saw it as a struggle between Catholic faith and Freudian logic, and I thought Jane Fonda represents Freudian logic. She’s got both on the ground. She’s always pointing her finger. She’s always telling you something. That’s the kind of a person she is, and I thought she was perfect for the roll. I was lost with the other role, because I admired Gerry Paige so much as an actress. And I was worried about it, because there was something there that bothered me, and I can’t put my finger on it. But I was sitting in my office in California, and I got this call from Mel Brooks. And I picked up the phone, and it wasn’t Mel Brooks, it was Annie Bancroft his wife. And she said, “I used Mel’s name to get through to you.” And I said, “How are you? What are you doing?” She said, “I’m calling you about Agnes of God, about the part of the Mother Superior.” And I said, “Annie Bancroft is calling me about that part? You’ll always be Mrs. Robinson to me. You’re far too sexy to play a Mother Superior.” And she said, “Where are you?” I said, “I’m at at Goldwyn studios.” She says, “I’ll be right there.” And she got in a car, and she came over, and it was maybe twenty minutes and she was at the door. And she burst into my office, and she sat down in front of me, and she said, “You see this?” And she pointed to her face. She said, “You see those bags under my eyes? Do you see this Italian woman? Is this Mrs. Robinson to you?” And she had no makeup on, and I looked at her, and I could see she was full of passion for this play. I had a wimple that the nuns wear that covers up everything on their face, and it only frames just the center of their face. So I said, “Come into the bathroom. ” So we went into the bathroom, and I said, “Put on the wimple.” And she put it on, and all you could see was just her eyes, and her nose and her mouth. And she looked at me, and she says, “Is this Mrs. Robinson?” And she had no makeup on, and I looked at her and I thought, “She could play this role.” It was that simple. It was that moment when I cast Annie Bancroft, who gives a wonderful performance in this film. And Jane Fonda was a given, because she was I think perfectly cast. But I took a chance with Annie Bancroft, because I always did think she was very sexy, and I teased her through the whole film when she would get her full regalia on. And she took great care. I took her to a cloistered convent in Los Angeles where you had to knock on the door, you could only talk to the mother superior, you couldn’t see anybody inside — and she had a long interview with the mother superior of this convent. And then we went to Quebec, where there’s lots of convents. Because as you know, Quebec is a French-speaking province of Canada, and it is totally or 80%, I guess, Catholic. And it is the only place where there’s a crucifix hanging in the courtroom, which is strange, because I always thought there was a great separation between church and state. I guess not in Quebec. But in any event, then we come to Meg. And I hate to say this, but I saw in you such a purity, such a innocence. And there were a lot of actresses that wanted the role that were very established. And I looked at you, and you always had the purity that I was looking for. And that’s the way it was, honestly. I just felt that you were born to play this role from our very first reading.
On creating an immersive filmmaking experience for the actors to inhabit
Tilly: Norman created this space, this kind of sacred space where we could all create. And actually, when I saw it when I was young, I was so devastated because I thought, “I’ve put so much into it, and it’s just my big stupid face up there.” I felt so much. I felt like her, and I thought Agnes was going to be totally different from me. But now at 51 it’s like, “Aww, honey.” So, it was nice to enjoy it and not be like, “Oh my God. Oh no.” It was a real gift. I was so happy. I thought I was coming to honor you, and I received a gift myself by seeing what you did, without the embarrassment. So, thank you.
Jewison: Well, as usual, the lamb of God here, pure innocence, is underestimating her power as an actress. I was just thinking of that last scene when Sven Nykvist, the famous Swedish cinematographer who had done so many films — Cries and Whispers, and so many films that I admired — and I was kind of in awe of Sven Nykvist throughout the whole film as a cinematographer. And the two of us were wedged in this balcony in one of those lifts, and it was very small. And the two of us were wedged in there, and we hadn’t gone to the bathroom for I don’t know how many hours. And Meg Tilly came up into that balcony where we were photographing her, and there wasn’t enough room for the camera or anything. So we were outside and we were shooting it, and I said, “Look at her. She doesn’t have any long underwear on, she’s not dressed properly, and her face is so red, and she’s so cold. And he said, “Don’t worry about it. She’s suffering.” And all the way through the film, Meg refused to give into the elements, and she kind of enjoyed her suffering. I think you believed you were kind of a saint. Anyway, I remember the doves landing on the side of the balcony. And I said, “Just keep the camera running, see what she does.” And you turned, and you reached for the dove, and it didn’t fly away. And then when you picked it up, I thought, “Oh my God, it’s a miracle.” The dove didn’t fly away, and you held it for a moment, and then you released it. And we were able to follow it with the camera. And I thought it was all kind of magical, because the chances of that happening on film is very rare. Animals really don’t sit there and wait to be picked up. These weren’t trained at all. They were just wild pigeons. There’s little things that I was thinking of as I was watching your performance, and I think your performance in the courtroom was just splendid. I stayed with it every second.
Tilly: See, Norman’s like, “Oh, and you were splendid.” But really, the fact is he made the entire crew — they weren’t allowed to swear around me. They had to call me “Sister Agnes”, and Norman created this safe space for me where he would talk to me in whispers. I never felt so loved in my life as on that crew. And so you’re saying I was suffering. I was having the time of my life, because first of all, everybody loved Agnes. Second of all, she didn’t remember the bad stuff. And everybody was so kind, and it was such a joy. It sounds weird, because I guess was stuff going on, but it was such a joyful shoot for me. It was one of my favorite experiences that I’ve ever had.
Jewison: The artistic work behind it was quite glorious, and Ken Adam was always polishing tables and waxing things. Everything had to be kind of shiny. And I think he kind of missed the fact that it wasn’t a Bond picture, and he didn’t have 30 people working for him, and he couldn’t build anything, because we shot in a boys school Guelph, Ontario. So it was a chance to work in my home country, and it was my first film in Canada, so I enjoyed that. I enjoyed everything but the weather. God, it was cold. And the nuns were incredible. The actors who played the nuns, we brought a lot of people in from Quebec and from Montreal and so on. But they were all very carefully chosen, and each one had a little thing about them, who they were and where they came from. And the skating scene, and all of these things that we put together, and we put in the film. But you’re right, the atmosphere on the set was very respectful. We turned that school literally into a cloistered convent, and the crew respected that, and we had a lot of fun there.
Tilly: Watching it, I just felt all serene again. And all of the Gregorian chants we learned, and all of the singing. It’s just like, it fills your heart. There’s the other stuff too, but that part, it was so nice.
Jewison: Yeah, I made them learn all the chants.
Tilly: Yeah, and all the Latin. We did all the singing. Everybody did. So that was amazing, and then I’m listening and I’m like, “Holy crap, I could sing that?” And I knew what it meant.
Jewison: Yeah, we had a bunch of Jesuit fathers working on the set constantly to keep us straight. And I think it’s pretty legitimate. It’s pretty detailed in its research and behavior patterns and so on, because I spent some time at some various convents, and you learn a lot about people’s behavior. I think everybody kind of got into it.
Tilly: I know. There I was, I had a new baby, who is grown now and in the back. And I was thinking, “Wow, if I didn’t have a baby…” I wasn’t raised Catholic, but just being there, it seemed like you just prayed to make the world a better place and people come to you with their sorrows. And you’re on the other side of the gate, and they tell you, and you say, “I’ll pray for your sister who has cancer.” You know, it just felt like, yeah I could see myself doing that. Thank goodness I had my daughter, otherwise who knows? I might have dropped the film. But it seemed like a good life to just be putting prayer out in the world. It took a while after the film was over to stop praying quite to the intensity. You know, somebody cuts you off, and you think a bad thought… I was embarrassed. I didn’t want my husband to know, so I’d go in the walk-in closet and lay prostrate on the floor, say a few. And then gradually over the course of a little bit, then less and less. But my children were raised with a lot of Gregorian chant singing, just because they’re nice lullabies. It’s very soothing.
On the identity of who impregnated Agnes
Tilly: The first day of rehearsal, you asked us, and I remember Anne Bancroft said, “It was God. It know was God.” And Jane Fonda said, “Pff, it was a farmhand, or someone like that.” And I said, “I don’t know what it was.” And I was struggling with it, and then I realized that’s not my decision to make. All I need to know is what Agnes believes, and Agnes believes it was God. So then I remember at the end of the film, you said again, “So what do you think?” And Anne Bancroft said, “As much as it pains me to say this, it was probably a farmhand or someone like that.” And Jane Fonda said, “It was God.” And I said, I don’t know what I think, but I know that Agnes believes it was God.” And Jane, actually she went back to the church. Remember, after the movie?
Jewison: Yeah, I think Anne Bancroft beat Jane up pretty good. You know, people are deeply affected by religion. And I think the story of Agnes is very compelling, because John Pielmeier told me that it was based on a real story that he read in the newspaper. That there was a convent in, I think it was northern New York, where a young nun became pregnant, and she insisted that she had been visited by an archangel. And it was a curious article in the paper. And he showed it to me, and he said, “That’s the genesis of the idea, and I took that, and I built a play around it.” And I really think that Pielmeier wrote a very interesting play. It was very controversial at the time, I remember, on Broadway. And the film, we came under certain attacks from the Catholic Church, and from other people, but I think essentially it was the story of Agnes.
I think Jane’s character of the psychiatrist was a complicated one, and she had tremendous conflicts. I think she wanted believe, and she couldn’t, so she was struggling — struggling perhaps with her own faith. And that’s why at the end, she said to you, she believes that it’s God. And I think that’s true of Jane as a person. As we worked through the film, I could see she was longing — longing to believe. It was very curious.
On Jewison’s approach to resolving actor self-doubt
Tilly: I know there was one time where, for personal reasons, there was the scene in the barn where something had happened on a personal level, and I was scared to go into her. But then Norman just talked to me. I said, “I don’t want to be famous.” He said, “Who’s gonna see a movie about a bunch of nuns? We’re just doing this because we want to.” You know, he just made me feel so safe. And I think that’s the only time where there was really a block. It was the most safe I had ever felt on a movie.
Jewison: I try to keep actors cool. I try to always keep actors open, because I believe that true acting becomes magnificent for that moment when the actor truly believes what they’re saying and doing is real for them. So you have to give space for that to happen, and hopefully capture it on camera. And that’s why you gotta be careful when you say cut, because you never know what the actor’s gong to do. And I think actors need that kind of freedom. The good ones do anyway.
[Publisher's Note: To hear more from Norman Jewison about his film career, pick up his autobiography, This Terrible Business Has Been Good To Me]