American Film (1976) - Dialogue on Film: Ernest Lehman
- article: Dialogue on Film
- author(s): Ernest Lehman
- journal: American Film (01/Oct/1976)
- issue: volume 11, issue 1, page 33
- journal ISSN: 0361-4751
- publisher: Nielsen Business Media
- keywords: Academy Awards, Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant, Charles Champlin, Chicago, Illinois, Ernest Lehman, Family Plot (1976), Grace Kelly, Grand Central Station, New York City, New York, Harry Stradling, Sr., James Stewart, John Houseman, Mount Rushmore, South Dakota, New York City, New York, North by Northwest (1959), Paramount Pictures, Patricia Hitchcock, Paul Newman, Robert F. Boyle, Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, United Nations, New York City, New York, Universal Studios, Vertigo (1958), Warner Brothers
Screenwriter Ernest Lehman's name is often linked with Alfred Hitchcock's, as if together they had conspired on a trunkful of thrillers. In fact, the collaboration has produced only two films — the more recent Family Plot and the more stunning North by Northwest.
Actually, Lehman's screenwriting ranges far beyond thrillers. Lehman likes to recall that the same issue of Variety carried reviews of The King and I and Somebody Up There Likes Me. The King of Siam might not have much to say to Rocky Graziano, but Lehman, who wrote the two scripts, is on easy terms with both.
In a screenwriting career that spans twenty-five years, Lehman has been the adapter's adapter, the writer called in on the big projects, the valuable "properties." (North by Northwest is the exception — an original script based on nothing more than a witty imagination.) He has turned such successful stage musicals as West Side Story and The Sound of Music into even more successful film musicals — The Sound of Music, in fact, long ago ceased to be a film and became a sentimental institution. He has transformed Edward Albee's celebrated drama, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf ?, into a bold movie that launched a new director, Mike Nichols, and a new screen frankness. He has translated best-sellers like John O'Hara's From the Terrace into creditable screen dramas.
Lehman's projects, because they invariably involve highly publicized works, have not been free of controversy. Stage hits, particularly musicals, have ardent supporters who don't take kindly to screen versions. His revisions of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf ? had to face the predictable charge of tampering. One labor of love, a screen version of Philip Roth's quintessentially bawdy novel, Portnoy's Complaint, turned sour.
But throughout Lehman's screen work there has been a consistent attention to currently neglected virtues: the structured drama, the crafted scene, the polished phrase. By his own description, Lehman belongs to the Act I-Act II-Act III school of screenwriting. He can note with approval "the raw, unpolished power" of Taxi Driver, but his own commitment is to careful craftsmanship.
Lehman's allegiance to creative tidiness may owe its origins to his college days when his ambition was to be not a writer, but a chemical engineer. On the south shore of Long Island, where he grew up, that was a more respectable ambition. But while pursuing a science degree at the City College of New York, Lehman was lured to the unscientific pleasures of a narrative writing class. The class was taught by Theodore Goodman, something of a legend at City College. Soon, under his sway, Lehman threw over science and took up writing.
Success was almost immediate. Lehman's short stories and articles turned up in Esquire, Colliers, and Harper's, and one unpublished story was sold to Hollywood and made into the film The Inside Story. The sale further whetted Lehman's interest in screenwriting — "that had always been one of my ambitions." When his novella, The Co-median, appeared in Cosmopolitan in 1952, Paramount called with an invitation "to come out and write screenplays."
Within a month, Lehman and family set out for Hollywood. He started as a contract writer at Paramount, but was borrowed by MGM for his first film, Executive Suite, made in the capable company of John Houseman as producer and Robert Wise as director. If there were influences on Lehman's screenwriting, he is hard pressed to name them. "I think I have been influenced," he explains, "by a lifetime of going to the movies."
Lehman's career has been unusual because he has refused the safe haven of the writer's study; he has been what Hollywood calls a hyphenate. He was writer-producer for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Hello, Dolly!. He was writer-producer-director for Portnoy's Complaint.
If Hitchcock and Lehman are linked in the public mind, they seem linked in Lehman's mind, too. Hitchcock, also, has always had a low tolerance for films of "raw, unpolished power," and for him Lehman can deliver the well-crafted script, confident of a like-minded collaborator. When a critic recently spoke of the "elegant script" for Family Plot, Lehman was pleased. Hitchcock, Lehman points out, "doesn't like characters to be too inelegant, even if they're murderers."
Question: You've written screenplays for some highly regarded directors — Mike Nichols, Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Wise. They're also very demanding directors. How well have you survived these encounters?
Lehman: There is a long pause here before I answer this question. You've hit a sore spot in the life of any screenwriter, including this one. My most easy-going relationship was with Robert Wise, with whom I did four pictures, though even with him I had my moments here and there. The screenwriter winds up for the most part in an antagonistically cooperative or cooperatively antagonistic relationship with everyone he's working with — the producer, the director, even the actors, if they're intellectual types like Paul Newman or Burt Lancaster. Almost everyone unconsciously feels he knows as much about writing as a writer. It would be unthinkable for a writer to tell a director how to direct or a producer how to produce or an actor how to act or a cinematographer how to light a scene. But it is not at all unthinkable for anyone to tell a writer how to write. It comes with the territory.
Now that is bound to produce problems for you, unless you have a superlatively integrated psyche so that you can take anything and always remember that it's the picture that counts. But your ego, your sense of professionalism, come into play, and you often notice a glaze coming into the eyes of the director and the producer when the script is finished. You get the subtle feeling that they would not weep if you got hit by a truck. I am not exaggerating.
Somehow the mere fact that the director didn't write the picture — he is only directing it — is very difficult for him to take, and some of them have never learned to take it. It's equally difficult for the producer. I've been a writer-producer on three pictures. After you've struggled with the script, done some of the casting, and somehow it has been your picture, in comes the director. Once that picture starts shooting he's the captain of the 747, and it's pretty tough to move to the back of the plane and just sit there, particularly if you see things you don't like in the dailies. Sometimes it gets to be an antagonistic relationship, to put it mildly.
Question: Can a writer ever have the upper hand in these confrontations?
Lehman: The only way that a writer can have the upper hand is to write something that is so unfailingly, unarguably perfect that there's just no way that anybody can take any objection to it. The problem is, who the hell knows whether it's that good, including the writer? It's a very inexact science. Everybody has an opinion. My advice is to be smart enough or lucky enough in all these creative battles to lose the right battles. I have been very lucky: I have fought for things that would have been awful if I had won, and I have fought for things which other people didn't want and was lucky enough to win. But I don't know what the rules are.
I think you have to understand that people feel threatened by a writer. It's very curious. He knows something they don't know. He knows how to write, and that's a subtle, disturbing quality that he has. Some directors, without even knowing it, resent the writer in the same way that Bob Hope might resent the fact that he ain't funny without twelve guys writing the jokes. The director knows that the script he is carrying around on the set every day was written by someone, and that's just not something that all directors can digest too easily. This is not true of all directors, of course, but I've had a few experiences and so have other screenwriters.
Question: Let's take Mike Nichols as a specific example. You both must have had strong ideas about the adaptation of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? What contributions, say in dialogue, did he make?
Lehman: Mike Nichols did not have any ideas for dialogue. Wisely so, because I think the result on the screen is mighty powerful. The movie knocks me out every time I see it. Nichols managed to get me to give up not everything, but almost everything that I introduced into the screenplay that wasn't in the play.
Question: For example?
Lehman: Lines of dialogue or the moving about of scenes. At one time I even created other characters. There were many versions of this screenplay — I think I wrote six. I hate to tell you some of the awful ideas I had which I then thought were good. At one time I even wrote in the son as having actually existed and having committed suicide. His suicide was more than his mother could bear, and she had to create a fantasy that he was still alive. Now if Virginia Woolf had never been written as a play but were an original screenplay, I think it would have been a hell of a dramatic moment when George forces Martha to look into the closet where the boy hung himself. But that would have violated the spirit of a famous play. A screenwriter is caught in a kind of trap when he is working on something so famous that if he dares to tamper with it, he gets hung, and if he doesn't change it sufficiently, he gets hung.
Question: Most of your screenplays have been adaptations. North by Northwest, instead, was an original. What problems did that pose?
Lehman: It was extremely difficult. It was fun in a way but it was extremely difficult. I recall having tried to quit that picture at least a dozen times, unknown to Mr. Hitchcock, who was off shooting Vertigo while I was writing the first seventy-odd pages of the screenplay. I never knew what the hell I was going to write next. But that's the way things are written unless you're working on other people's material. Before I came to Hollywood I was a writer of short stories and novellas. I used to pace the streets of Manhattan wondering what he or she said next or what the next scene was. That's what writing is all about, which is not to say that it's easy to write a good screenplay based on someone else's work. That can be impossible too, but it is a different experience.
Question: North by Northwest is a field day in the variety of locations. Did you choose all the locations first?
Lehman: No. There was a lot of discussion between Hitch and myself, months and months of talk, and a vague idea as to where the story was moving, up to a certain point. At that point he went off to make Vertigo, and I went off on a research trip. In fact, I went through quite a few of the adventures that Cary Grant eventually went through. I hadn't written the screenplay yet, so I didn't know some of the locations.
I decided to go East. I went to the United Nations and spent five days there just getting the feel of the place and trying to figure out what would be a good place for a murder. I finally decided that the Delegates' Lounge, which I call the Public Lounge in the screenplay, was a great place for a murder. Then I went out to Glen Cove on Long Island because I knew the Russian delegation to the United Nations lived in a mansion there. I hung around Glen Cove, got introduced to a local judge, and said that I wanted him to put me through the whole routine of being picked up for drunken driving. He did it, and it was fun.
Then I hung around Grand Central Station a bit, got on the Twentieth Century Limited and went to Chicago. I also looked around the train and picked up ideas. In Chicago I checked in at the Ambassador East. From there I went to Rapid City, South Dakota, hired a forest ranger on his day off, and said, "I want to climb to the top of Mount Rushmore to see what's up there." I got halfway to the top. It's really perilous and steep. I looked down and I thought, what the hell am I doing here? I'm a writer. I told him, "I'm not going another step."
I bought the ranger a Polaroid camera, and he went up the next day and photographed the top. There is nothing up there, nothing. That was bad news. Eventually, we just constructed the top of Mount Rushmore at MGM. The U.S. Department of Parks kicked us out before we could begin shooting, so everything but one long shot of Mount Rushmore was built on a sound stage at MGM.
Question: Was the crop-dusting sequence your idea?
Lehman: Hitch and I acted out the entire crop-dusting sequence in his living room. Then I incorporated every move into the script, and that was the way he shot it.
Question: It's such a visual scene that it doesn't seem a scene a writer would choose.
Lehman: It seems visual, therefore, the writer has nothing to do with it. Is that what you're trying to say? That is utter nonsense. Let me tell you something, as long as I'm sitting up here on this high horse. Read the first page of the screenplay of The Sound of Music, which describes the opening of the film. It was the first time I used the first person singular in a screenplay. I just said, "Here's what I want to see on the screen. Here's the effect I want." And you know what? I got it.
Question: Hitchcock is famous for planning all his shots ahead of time, for preparing storyboards. In North by Northwest and in Family Plot, how much did you participate in this kind of detailed planning?
Lehman: Storyboarding is really an illustrator's work for the director. A motion picture illustrator puts pictures on paper and puts them on boards. In storyboarding a script for a Hitchcock film, the illustrator is told what pictures to put on the boards by the script, which has benefited from my conferences with the director. Of course, I participate in what is going to appear on that storyboard, because even without the storyboard the script describes exactly what is going to be on the screen. Hitch would have it no other way. The script even describes the size of the shot, whether it's a medium or a tight close-up, whether the camera pulls back and pans to the right as the character walks toward the door, whether it tilts slightly down and shoots through the open doorway getting the helicopter as the lights go on outside. That's why Hitch says it's a bore for him to get the picture on the screen, because it has all been done already in his office.
Question: In constructing characters, for Hitchcock or others, are you partly guided by what actors are available to play them?
Lehman: No — not usually, that is. But two things come to mind. North by Northwest was written more or less with Cary Grant in mind, and much more than less after I was halfway through. Jimmy Stewart thought he was going to play the role, and he kept calling up to ask, "How are you fellows coming?" But we really wanted Cary Grant. When we finally knew that we had Cary Grant, I was writing with him in mind.
The other thing that comes to mind is the new Hollywood. While I was writing the script of Black Sunday, Bob Evans, the producer, kept saying, "You'll have to do something with this role or we'll never get one of the superstars to play it." In other words, the role had to be juicy enough or have enough passion in it to appeal to certain stars, because Bob wanted big stars. He showed one of my drafts of the screenplay to Dustin Hoffman, knowing that Hoffman would not be available for the picture. Bob came to me and said, "Dusty thinks that you have to do so-and-so and so-and-so with that character." I said, "What the hell does Dusty have to say about what I do with that character?" He said, "Well, he's an actor, and he knows what will appeal to other actors, and we want an important actor." Now, Bob was being a good producer from his point of view. It irritated me a little bit, but I could see his point of view. It's hard to get a good actor if there isn't a good role. If you're looking for stars, if you're looking for Jack Nicholson, you'd better have a pretty powerful role, because everybody is looking for Nicholson.
Question: In Virginia Woolf, on which you were also producer, did you want Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and George Segal and Sandy Dennis in those roles or did you have others in mind originally?
Lehman: The only actress I ever approached for the role of Martha was Taylor, after I had finally come to the decision and went to Jack Warner for his approval. It took a lot of thinking, until I finally went through the same number all over again with Burton. I didn't immediately get them as a team. First Elizabeth. She approved a list of actors, so that I could have gone to quite a few others. But finally I was lucky enough to realize that Burton was perfect. He was just great in that role. I think it was the best non-Oscar-winning performance I've ever seen. Sandy Dennis was the first and only choice. Mike Nichols and I wanted Bob Redford for the role of Nick, but he turned it down.
Question: You've adapted a number of stage works, particularly musicals, like The Sound of Music, West Side Story. What difference do you find between what works on stage and what works on the screen?
Lehman: I would say that sometimes a play that is nondramatic, without conflict, without any narrative drive, can work in the theater because it will have other things going for it which somehow absorb the audience. Particularly musicals. They can be nothing but fluff, pure fluff, like Hello, Dolly!, and if they're dazzlingly directed and choreographed, they can be a great evening in the theater.
The film medium is a little more demanding. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? had certain sections on the stage that were marvelous because of the language and the ideas that were being expressed. But somehow or other, even as I saw the play and was knocked out by it, I felt this is irrelevant to what's going on here dramatically; or, this is a digression from the direction of the story line. I felt that on the screen these things were not permissible.
In the case of West Side Story, it was a highly dramatic story on the stage, and it lent itself admirably to film adaptation. But I rearranged it quite a bit to keep the dramatic line very clean, and I moved around musical numbers. If you study the stage version, you'll find there are some significant changes in the placement of the numbers. For example, "Cool" worked beautifully in the film, I think, because it took place after the rumble, when the Jets were distraught as a result of the death of Riff. In the play, "Cool" was done before they met with the Sharks to arrange the rumble, and "I Feel Pretty" was the first musical number after the rumble.
Question: Why did you make the change?
Lehman: To create and sustain a dramatic mood. I felt that "I Feel Pretty" was a happy number, something that would take the audience completely out of the mood of the film after two bodies are seen lying on the ground. I felt it was much more appropriate for that number to take place in the film when Maria was happy at the thought of meeting Tony that afternoon in the bridal shop.
Question: You were trying to keep a certain realism even within the confines of a musical?
Lehman: Right. When you're writing a musical for the screen, one of the big tricks is to find out, first of all, how to lead into the numbers in a way that catches an audience by surprise so that it doesn't suspect it's hearing a lead-in to a musical number. And second, the biggest feat of all, if you can get away with it, is to make it seem natural that there is dancing or singing in something as realistic or dramatic as, let's say. West Side Story. I'm sure you've heard about all the agonizing that Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins went through before finally deciding that the best way to approach the prologue was to shoot it out on the streets realistically. The gang gradually goes from just strolling along and finger snapping to slight dance movements and then to a full number. That set up a lot of belief on the part of the audience in all the musical elements that followed. But each musical has its own problems in being brought to the screen.
Question: Do you have a general pattern you follow in adapting a musical — for example, do you concentrate on the story and weave in the numbers?
Lehman: I don't think I go at it too formally. I've adapted The King and /, The Sound of Music, West Side Story, Hello, Dolly! Usually I see the show three or four or five times, and I begin to get ideas as I'm watching. I think, why the hell did they put that number there, I know it's working, and this is a famous Broadway musical, but I wonder if they ever realized that it would have been so much more effective there. For example, "Gee, Officer Krupke" in West Side Story. That's a hilarious number. But on the stage, "Gee, Officer Krupke" took place in the second act after the rumble had happened. To me that was totally out of dramatic context.
Now apparently it was perfectly all right for a Broadway audience to break into laughter at this funny number, even though the audience was supposed to be caught up in the terrible drama. But I don't think it would have worked in a movie at all. It may be immodest of me to say so, but I think "Gee, Officer Krupke" fit perfectly where it was placed in the movie. The Jets were quite nervous, they were going to meet the Sharks in the candy store, and all it took was a policeman coming along and telling them to get off the street to get them into a bitter, defiant, funny number.
Another example. The number "America" on the stage was purely about conditions in Puerto Rico, believe it or not. These were Puerto Ricans, transplanted to New York, singing about conditions in Puerto Rico. I thought it would be much more appropriate if the number "America" were about the conditions the Puerto Ricans encountered in America. So Saul Chaplin and I wrote a letter to Steve Sondheim. We sent him some dummy lyrics suggesting what we thought the song ought to be. The music remained the same, the dancing was pretty much the same, although it was filled out more by putting it up on a rooftop, but the lyrics now made a statement that was much more pertinent. In approaching a film musical you have certain guideposts, signposts, milestones. You know that you've got to somehow get to the well-known numbers, unless they happen to be something that you're going to throw out of the movie. In fact, we did throw a few things out of West Side Story.
In The Sound of Music, I did a lot of changing around of musical numbers. There again it seemed somehow inappropriate for the Mother Abbess to be singing "My Favorite Things." I felt how much more appropriate it was for Maria to try to pacify the children, who were frightened by the thunderstorm, and to tell them what she does when she gets upset. She thinks about some of her favorite things, and before you know it you're into the number. Much more appropriate. But musical numbers are what you must get to, and they shape your work in a way.
Question: Is it possible to say what qualities you look for in a novel when you go about making the decision whether or not to adapt it to the screen?
Lehman: The first thing I do is put on the hat of a studio head or the head of a distribution company and say to myself, is there something about this that might grab audiences? Motion pictures are an art form but also a business. Then the second thing that comes to mind is, is there something about this that appeals to me as a writer? The third thing I think of is, do I believe I have the ability to do this? Can I bring this one off? Do I have what it takes? You know, I can't do everything. Portnoy's Complaint is a perfect example of biting off more than I could chew. I had no idea how I intended to do it; all I knew was that I wanted to do it. I felt that it would be an enormous hit if it were done well. But I didn't know how to do it, as it turned out.
So I look for these things first of all, because there comes into my hands many projects from prominent producers or producer-directors or heads of studios. I read the material and think, what the hell do they want to make that for? It doesn't have a chance. Either it's unwritable and they don't know it because they're not writers — I mean it's non-dramatizable — or no one is going to see the movie. I don't tell them that. I just say that it doesn't seem to be right for me or something like that. But I'm always astonished at the decisions non-writers make. Some of them don't realize the projects they have fallen in love with are probably unlickable.
Question: What do you think people want to see in a film?
Lehman: There are so many different kinds of films. That's what's so great about movies: There are so many different kinds. But there aren't many movies that just sock you right in the diaphragm. Virginia Woolf moved me to tears. To me, that's the hardest thing to find in a movie theater, something that really hits you hard. If it can make you weep, I would say that that is a miracle. I weep every time I see Virginia Woolf on television now. I was in very bad shape when I saw the play.
Question: You mentioned Portnoy's Complaint. What mistake do you think you made in adapting Philip Roth's novel?
Lehman: I think the mistake was in thinking that I had the ability to find a screen drama in that novel, because a film does have to be essentially dramatic. Without being all that formal, it should have a first, second, and third act. I think the beauty of that novel is not in its dramatic potentialities. The whole thing was first person singular, somebody lying on a couch talking to his analyst throughout the entire novel. A lot of it was interior, some of the very best of it was interior. Some of it could be dramatized, some of it couldn't. I would say a novel which is very, very interior probably is not going to make it as a film. There may be exceptions.
Question: In other words, Portnoy's Complaint was an impossible job?
Lehman: Let's say it was impossible, apparently, for me to do. Charles Champlin wrote that, on further thought, he felt that nobody could have done it successfully. But I don't see how anybody could say that. Possibly there is someone alive who could have written a good screenplay. Everyone thought the screenplay was excellent. It read very well. There are those who think perhaps the film might have been better if someone else had directed it instead of me. We'll never know.
I would say that Portnoy's Complaint was the wrong kind of picture for me to have chosen to direct for the first time.
If I had chosen something which was more visual and less impossible, I might have, let's say, gotten by and been thought of as a potential director. In fact, it was a great personal experience until the picture opened, and I don't mean that as a joke. It really was a very heady experience. I don't seem to have any burning desire to go back to the problems of directing, because it's more than having a visual sense. Believe me, film directing is a hell of a lot more than it seems to be, including incredible physical endurance. Not all writers can be directors, not by a long shot.
Question: Did the problems in directing Portnoy's Complaint have to do with technical matters or with the actors?
Lehman: No, I had none of those problems, really. I shot the whole film on paper first. I took nine months and shot every master shot, every two-shot, every over-the-shoulder, every close-up, every tricky transition shot, everything, with a sketch artist. I had three sketch artists at one time, and I shot the whole film on paper. When we went out location hunting we would take the sketch books along and say, "Well, we've got to find a place that's like this. Oh, Nazareth, that would be great for that shot." Or when art director Robert Boyle was designing the sets he would look at how I was going to shoot the scene and say, "Let's see now. No, the door can't be over there. It's got to be over here. Ernie wants to come down in a dolly shot starting in her bedroom and taking her through a corridor and down the steps and over to the table, to have her lean down, open a cigarette box, and then walk left to right over to the bar. And he wants the camera to be able to dolly over to the bar and hold her and Dick Benjamin in a two-shot." They had to build a set that would permit that, so I never really had to do any homework at night because it was all done. I never had to walk out on a set and have people look at me and say, "Well, what do we do now?" I never had any technical problems, though I had some problems dealing with actors.
Question: Getting them to give the results you were after?
Lehman: Either that, or my trying to understand what was good and what wasn't. I had never worked with actors before except as a writer. I can tell a poorly directed scene on the screen when I see one, particularly if it's something I've written and I know what's supposed to be there and isn't there. I know that the director didn't get the point or he went past the point and missed it. But directing is really something else. I wonder why directors aren't satisfied to be directors, why they have to be the auteurs of the films, as though being a film director isn't a fantastic art in itself.
Question: How do you set about adapting a work — a novel or a play — to the screen?
Lehman: I read it a lot. I read it a lot and start getting feelings about it and then start making notes. I usually try to figure out where's the movie in this? Where's the screenplay? If the novel is 850 pages and you know a screenplay is anywhere from 115 to 160 pages, what aspect is dramatizable? What aspect of this novel will be the drama that's going to be up there on the screen? For example, for Port/toy's Complaint I made the decision that the drama is really Portnoy finally meeting the Monkey and what happens with the ill-fated love affair, with enough up front to show how Portnoy gets to be the way he is at thirty-three or thirty-four. But that was really not the way the novel was constructed.
Each particular film project is different. In From the Terrace, for example, the gargantuan task there was to decide which part of the protagonist's life to dramatize. The novel starts with his antecedents and covers them for a few hundred pages. Then he's born, he grows up, becomes successful, and he goes on to late middle age at the end of the novel. I made the decision to start with him coming home from the war as a young man and took him up through his leaving his wife. But there was much more up front and in the rear in the novel.
For The Prize, I just horsed around with the novel completely. I decided not to do a serious picture and wound up with a sort of road company, not-first-rate North by Northwest kind of film. My first picture, Executive Suite, was based on a multi-character novel. I combined some of the characters into one person. I threw out some of the characters, and I invented other characters.
Question: How do you start on paper?
Lehman: Usually I do some sort of outline for myself. Sometimes I write a long treatment before going into the screenplay. Quite often I take filing cards, and I write out a scene on each one. I tack them up on a wall and step back and sort of look at the movie. I may notice that I've got twenty-four cards in act one and six cards in act two and fifteen in act three, and I realize that something is a little out of balance. Sometimes I take a card and say, wait a minute, this scene would be better over here. I just move the cards around. It's a way of getting a visual look at a film when I don't even have a film. It has always helped me to use these cards.
Question: The cards must have come in handy for a diversified movie like North by Northwest.
Lehman: For part of it. But I only knew, after many story conferences with Hitch, where that movie was going up to a certain point. Beyond that it was simply making it up as I went along and not knowing how it was going to work out. I knew we wanted a chase across the faces of Mount Rushmore, knew that we wanted a lodge somewhere behind Mount Rushmore, and knew that would be the place where the heavies would be taking off for parts unknown. But a lot of the screenplay was just written from day to day, with shots in the story arm from Hitch. I ran into a total block at about page 125, while the crew was building sets and Hitch was storyboarding the movie with art director Robert Boyle. I hadn't the faintest idea what the last twenty minutes of the picture would be. That's a whole story in itself, two weeks without a word getting written and a starting date looming. And this was the first draft, mind you.
Question: So you didn't write a treatment first?
Lehman: No treatment. A partial outline, some cards now and then.
Question: Is your tendency in screenwriting to give a lot of camera directions?
Lehman: Most directors don't like anyone to tell them how to shoot a picture. Some writers, particularly writers who have written a lot of movies and maybe directed a few, can't help but put down certain things that come to mind because the ideas feel so right. It would be so great to suddenly shock-cut to a close-up of a knife, say, so they put it in. The director, of course, can ignore it, or he can say, "Hey, that's a hell of an idea. I'll use it." Robert Wise has shown considerable openness of mind toward suggestions written into the screenplay by this screenwriter.
What is not stressed often enough — in fact, I've never seen it stressed — is that a lot of people read a screenplay. It isn't something that just winds up on the screen eventually. A lot of people read it — agents, directors, actors, producers, financiers — and it should, if possible, read well. It should, if possible, give the flavor of what it's trying to do, without really becoming novelistic. It's not good to put in things that absolutely cannot be photographed — a lot of interior monologue of the character that can never be put on the screen. But bear in mind the reader.
Question: Could you talk about the transition from being a writer who dealt with producers and directors to being a writer-producer yourself, dealing with so many other people? How did it come about?
Lehman: I had been around moviemaking quite a few years — around the set a lot. I remember writing the last scene of Sabrina the day after it was shot. Billy Wilder, the director, said, "What the hell are you doing at the typewriter?" I said, "I want to put that scene in the script." We were writing at night and shooting the next day all through the movie. I was around on that picture all the way. On North by Northwest, I was still writing the script during shooting. I remember having terrible script fights with Cary Grant up in Bakersfield while the crop-dusting sequence was being shot. I was around during most of the shooting of that picture, too. I finally decided that I was sick and tired of having somebody else always taking over my baby. So I wound up producing Virginia Woolf, and Mike Nichols promptly took over my baby.
Becoming a producer is a false solution to a writer's ego problems. But I did have a lot to do with what I think were important decisions. If I hadn't been the producer of Virginia Woolf, I guarantee you that Mike Nichols would not have been the director. That's without a doubt. I guarantee you that Elizabeth Taylor would not have been in it, nor would Richard Burton have been in it. I guarantee you it would have been done in color. It might still have been a terrific picture and won twelve Oscars instead of five. Who knows? But because I was the producer, I was able to make certain decisions which had an effect on the picture. If you are only the screenwriter, you have no control over who directs it, who's in it, who rewrites it or who doesn't rewrite it. You don't have much control over anything. But I've been lucky with a lot of pictures that I didn't produce, let's face it. Most of the best pictures that you see in a list of my credits are pictures that I did not produce. But producing is a little bit of an ego trip, too.
Question: Speaking of Virginia Woolf, it's often forgotten today what a bold picture it was for its time. Everyone then felt that the play could never be made into a film because of the frankness of the language.
Lehman: That's true. Nobody apparently wanted to do it as a film. I had read it in manuscript form right after it was produced on Broadway, and, after having read it, resolved that I would never see it. I didn't want to be caught in a theater exposed to that play, for some reason which it would take a psychiatrist to unravel. I resisted seeing the play for a year and a half. My wife finally induced me to see it when it came out here to California, merely to see what we all knew was a great play. But no one in Hollywood would go near it. I saw it as a play and was knocked out by it, but I did not walk out of the theater saying, "I've got to do it as a movie." I didn't even think of it as a movie.
I was writing The Sound of Music at this time, and Abe Lastfogel, president of the William Morris Agency, kept calling me about Virginia Woolf. I told him not to bother me, that I loved it as a play but that I had not said I was interested in it as a movie. He said, "Well, for your information, I'm going to New York, and I'm going to talk to Edward Albee and see if he's willing to sell the play outright with no controls, no holds barred.'" I said, "You do whatever you want. It's your business, Abe, not mine."
A month later he came back from New York and said, "Well, Albee is willing to sell the play." I said, "That's very interesting." He said, "You know, there's only one person in this town who's ever wanted to do this as a picture." I said, "Who's that?" He said, "Jack Warner." I said, "You've got to be kidding." He said, "Nope. Jack Warner was knocked out by the play. He's never stopped talking about it. I'm going to him after getting a waiver from the Dramatists Guild and try to sell him the play outright. Now, do you want me to tell him that you're interested in writing it and producing it?" I said, "Nosir-ee. You sell that play to Jack Warner if you want. That's your business. If Jack Warner says that he's interested in having me write and produce it, then I'll be forced to answer these questions. But right now I'm not a part of this at all."
Question: Warner, of course, had been trying to get you over to Warner Bros, as a writer-producer.
Lehman: But there had never been any projects I was interested in doing at Warner Bros. Finally, Lastfogel sold it to Warner and immediately called me and said, "Jack Warner wants you to write and produce it." I had put off this moment for many, many months. I said, "Well, it looks like I'm going to have to make a decision." I went off and agonized for about five days, because I knew why nobody wanted to do it — there was no way to do it. How do you do that as a movie? But it was such a great play. How do you say no to the opportunity to bring that to the screen?
I said, "I'll do it on one condition." I met with Jack Warner and all his executives, and I said, "The only condition on which I'll do it is that I have the right to select the cast and the director and everyone else of importance." Jack agreed to that, provided that he had the right of approval of my selections. That's the way it worked.
But there were many, many battles. Jack wanted me to use George Cukor, who had just won an Oscar for My Fair Lady. Patricia Neal told her agent that she'd fire him if he didn't get her the role. Burt Lancaster called me at home and said he insisted on being on my list. Directors wrote to me. Everybody wanted to do Virginia Woolf. Meanwhile, I hadn't the faintest idea of how to do it as a movie. I started fooling around with it and gradually realized that one of the ways you do it as a movie is that you don't change it too much. Somehow it holds together. Of course, you can't do it all in one living room, as the play was done. But there is so much dramatic power to it that you don't try to bring in the cavalry and have musical numbers and mob scenes. You just do it.
One of the biggest battles that Mike Nichols and I had with the powers that be at Warner Bros, was over our insistence on doing it in black-and-white. They wanted it in color, of course. I don't know how we ever won that battle, but we did. Also, Mike was insistent on shooting no cover words for the so-called bad language. We didn't have a rating system at the time, and it's hard to believe that in 1966 the picture was sold with the proviso that the manager himself was responsible for not letting anybody under the age of eighteen into the theater. It was the only way we could get a Legion of Decency seal of approval for the picture. We know now how tame the picture is.
Question: Was it your idea to open up Virginia Woolf to include the outdoor scene and the madhouse scene?
Lehman: You know, it's really hard for me to recall. Gene Kelly once said that I have a very convenient memory, that I like to remember the good things and forget the bad things. I know damn well that when I decided to do Virginia Woolf as a motion picture, one of the things that had bothered me in the play was that Nick and Honey hung around there all night. Why don't they go home? What are they taking all this guff for? I was resolved that I would find some way to get Nick to make the decision, "Come on, Honey, let's get the hell out of here." That worked, that forced us to go. Yes, I'm sure that that was my idea — I think. But I think it was a good one. The roadhouse, the parking area was a good Fellini scene, with the lights hitting Pete Wexler's lenses. I didn't like the unnaturalness of the totally deserted roadhouse, but we tried it with some people around and it just didn't work.
We danced around many different versions, Mike and I, after he came on the picture. For a short while he wanted the whole thing to take place during some kind of bonfire celebration at the college. The students would be dancing around a bonfire, and it would be a crazy kind of night, you know, like a panty raid night. It took a lot of doing for me to talk him into the fact that this damn thing doesn't work unless it's happening while the world sleeps. Nobody's up. This is all happening during those terrible hours when most people are asleep. Somewhere I think he publicly, in print, thanked me for having talked him out of that. But there is a version of the script in which there are people all over the place. We went through all the motions of trying to open it up and make a so-called movie out of it.
Question: Were you concerned about some of the long monologues in the film? For example, Burton's lengthy recollection of the boy who shot his parents?
Lehman: I was nervous about the whole movie. I really was. I knew that it was a very risky venture from the outset, because it is very much talk and very little so-called cinema. Yet I remember how totally moving that monologue was on the stage. I think that was something I was not nervous about.
Question: It was probably appropriate, given the controversial nature of Virginia Woolf, that the set was closed off to the press and the public.
Lehman: It would have been a circus otherwise. You would have read stories about how much champagne the Burtons were or weren't drinking, or who hit whom, or who swore at whom. I felt that this had a chance to be a distinguished film, and I didn't want it to be a circus or a Liz-and-Dick-do-it-again type thing. Jack Warner and I and the head of publicity at Warner Bros, came to a decision that the set would be closed entirely and locations would also be closed entirely. Smith College agreed to let us use the campus with the proviso that no members of the press would be present. So I had some pretty tough tasks as the producer, like taking Tommy Thompson, the motion picture editor of Life magazine, and hustling him off that set, or taking a New York Times film writer and telling him that if he wasn't off the set in five minutes we would have to shut down. I was very embarrassed that I had to tell him this. I escorted him to a nearby cocktail lounge and tried to make him happy again.
Question: You've said that you insisted on black-and-white for Virginia Woolf. Why?
Lehman: We felt that the dialogue would read differently in color, that the characters themselves would read differently emotionally in color. We had a chance to see how right we were, because at the time ABC was shooting a documentary special on Mike Nichols, which was never released. They were shooting it in color while we were shooting in black-and-white. I got a chance to see Elizabeth Taylor, as Martha, in color, and everything changed completely. We knew that all our efforts with wig and makeup to make her look older than she was — she was thirty-three and we wanted her to look about forty-eight — would go right down the drain in color. Inasmuch as the movie played totally at night, black-and-white seemed right for the emotional tone.
Question: Was Haskell Wexler your first choice as cinematographer?
Lehman: There's a little story behind that. Wexler and Harry Stradling Sr., were strongly considered by Jack Warner and me before Mike came on the picture. Jack assured me that Harry Stradling was great with first-time directors. He had worked with Elia Kazan on his first picture, and I was becoming sold on Harry Stradling, which put Pete Wexler in the number two spot. When Mike arrived in town I said, "Mike, Jack Warner wants me to use Harry Stradling." He walked right past me to my desk, picked up the phone, called Sam Spiegel in New York, and said, "Sam, what do you think of Harry Stradling? He is? Right." He hung up the phone. "Get him. He's the best."
We got Harry Stradling, and Mike and Harry did not get along well. Mike had definite ideas as to how he wanted the film to look. He kept taking Harry to screenings of£V£, A Place in the Sun, this picture, and that picture. Harry was very nice about it, but he was irritated because he knew that Mike had never directed a picture, and he had just won an Academy Award. It came to the point where Mike came to me and said, "You've got to get together with Harry Stradling and see if you can't make him like me."
I had a meeting with Harry Stradling, and he said, "Look, I like you guys. Don't worry. I'm going to make this picture look so lousy you'll love it." Everything seemed all right until Harry did a camera test of the set. Pretty important, because we were going to be on that damn set for a long time. We went to a screening room, and we saw the set on the screen. It was overlit. Immediately Mike made a few very pertinent comments. I think I made a very few pertinent comments, too, but I will only swear to the fact that Mike did. In fact, I didn't have to make the pertinent comments, Mike made such telling ones. Harry Stradling just got to his feet and said, "I'm too rich and too old to have to put up with this kind of shit. Find yourself another cameraman." He walked out of the room.
Question: When did this happen?
Lehman: This was just a few days before shooting was to begin. I sat there in a panic, and then I called Jack Warner and told him what happened. He said, "It doesn't surprise me. I saw this coming all along. I knew it." I called Warner's associate, Walter MacEwan, and said, "Walter, we've got to have Pete Wexler." He said, "He's on location with Irv Kershner. They're just getting ready to start shooting A Fine Madness" I said, "We have to have him." He said, "Just go home. I've got your telephone number. Don't worry about a thing." I said, "What do you mean, don't worry about a thing? We start shooting on Monday." He said, "Go home." That night he called me and said, "I think it's OK. Pete wants to read the script."
Pete came to my office the next morning — I think he flew in from wherever they were going to shoot the other picture — and he went into the next office and read the script. He was in terrible turmoil, because he wanted to do both pictures. Anyway he wound up doing ours.
Question: And he wound up winning an Academy Award for his work.
Lehman: Ironically, one of the many problems we had on the picture was night-location shooting. Even as we had our troubles, Mike and I used to say to each other, "The ridiculous thing is that Pete's going to win an Oscar for this." What got on the screen was truly fine, and it did win an Oscar. But we had a lot of trouble, and Pete got into a very angry mood about directors after that film. He resolved he wasn't going through that any more, and he became a director himself.
I forgot to tell you. Long before Harry Stradling came on the scene, I went to Paris to see the Burtons, to get their approval of cinematographers. I presented Pete Wexler's name to them, and Burton flew into a rage. He said, "My face is pockmarked like the craters on the moon, and Wexler will have every one of them on the screen." He would not accept him. But months and months later, in our crisis, he had to accept him.
Question: You've talked elsewhere of the importance of the right environment for a writer. What do you mean?
Lehman: John Houseman, my first producer on Executive Suite, once told me that as far as he was concerned his sole function as the producer was to create a climate in which I would feel safe and encouraged and enthusiastic. That may be the last time I felt that way, and it was quite a few years ago. Now, what did he do? When he liked something he was very enthusiastic about it. A non-writing producer could be helpful by knowing how to be constructively critical without destroying your confidence, without threatening your sense of yourself as a writer. Very difficult, very difficult. In fact, it's one of the most difficult things in interpersonal relationships.
Creating a feeling that, come hell or high water, this picture is going to be made — that's another important thing to inject into the aura of a writer. You always have that feeling — this thing is never going to be made, it's never going to happen. I must say Hitchcock is great at creating the right climate. All during North by Northwest and Family Plot I had the constant feeling that we were just wasting our time, that we were playing a game, just talking, that there was never going to be a movie. I had the feeling constantly, and tried to quit quite often. But if there is someone you are working with who tolerates your anxiety and makes you feel that whatever you are doing is really for the screen and not for the shelves, that makes you work all the better and harder.
Question: Even in an ideal environment there should be room for criticism, of course.
Lehman: Of course. I don't mean to say that it's better to have someone around you who doesn't know what to criticize. But it's better to know what to criticize and know how to deliver that criticism in a way that won't undo the joint venture in some way or interfere with the writer's effectiveness. Enthusiasm is a great quality, and an environment that values what you value is important, too.
Question: Are you working on anything now?
Lehman: I'm on page 690 of a novel. It's a big, global, action, suspense type of thing that's very far removed from me personally. I constantly wonder why I want to express all this. I think one of the reasons we're getting so much of this type of subject matter on the best-seller list and on the screen and on television is not necessarily because readers and audiences want it, but because writers seem to be living out their fantasies in their writing more and more, dealing with essentially impersonal experiences. This all may simply be an expression of what's going on with those neurotic people known as writers.
Question: Or an expression of what's going on in today's world.
Lehman: That could be. I read synopses of all the novels that are submitted to the studios. It's just incredible how almost every single one of them has nothing to do with ordinary living. It is all action in high places, thrillers, CIA, assassinations, and has nothing to do with the day-to-day, interpersonal, human problems of life on earth. I can remember when writers wrote what concerned them personally, as fine novelists like Saul Bellow still do. They used to reflect their own private view of life. It must be very difficult for a novelist today to put a year or two of his life into writing something that is true to him but predictably non-commercial in the world of paperbacks, Hollywood, and the smaller screen. The pot of gold is so huge these days. Then, too, maybe writers are having trouble confronting their own lives and therefore look elsewhere into the fantasy world of high-level intrigue. Who's to say that readers and audiences aren't doing the very same thing?
The Films of Ernest Lehman
- Executive Suite—MGM—Robert Wise—1954
- Sabrina—Paramount—Billy Wilder—co-screenplay—1954
- The King and I—Twentieth Century-Fox—Walter Lang—1956
- Somebody Up There Likes Me—MGM—Robert Wise—1956
- Sweet Smell of Success—United Artists—Alexander Mackendrick—co-screenplay, based on a Lehman novella— 1957
- North by Northwest—MGM—Alfred Hitchcock—1959
- From the Terrace—Twentieth Century-Fox—Mark Robson— 1960
- West Side Story—United Artists—Robert Wise, Jerome Robbins—1961
- The Prize—MGM—Mark Robson—1963
- The Sound of Music—Twentieth Century-Fox—Robert Wise— 1965
- Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?†—Warner Bros.—Mike Nichols—1966
- Hello, Dolly!†— Twentieth Century-Fox—Gene Kelly—1969
- Portnoy's Complaint†—Warner Bros.—Ernest Lehman—1972
- Family Plot—Universal—Alfred Hitchcock—1976
- Black Sunday—Paramount—John Frankenheimer—co- screenplay—scheduled to be released in 1977
† Also producer