The Director's Chair Interviews

Vision of Vincent
By Eric Sherman
MovieMaker, October 1996

Click here for Vincent Sherman films, books, and soundtracks

There are few directors left who lived through and worked during the "Golden Age" of the Hollywood studios -- the 1930s, '40s and '50s. Vincent Sherman is one of them. Ninety years old on July 16, 1996, he has just completed his autobiography, Studio Affairs -- My Life as a Film Director, published this month by the University Press of Kentucky.Whereas a few years ago he said, "I thought it was a good thing to live to a ripe old age -- but there's no one left to enjoy it with," he has just finished one of his most productive years ever. In addition to his book, he wrote a screenplay from a novel he had optioned in the early 1950s, began a script for a remake of one of his own pictures from the 1940s, is writing a play on George Washington which he may produce himself, was honored at the Telluride Film Festival, will be honored at the American Cinematheque, will be the subject of a retrospective at the Institut Lumiere in Lyon, France, was director of the month for Turner Classic Movies, and has appeared in numerous television programs commenting on the film industry and many of its personalities.

This interview was conducted by Sherman's son Eric in Hollywood, California, a week before his ninetieth birthday. 
ES: As you approach the beginning of your ninth decade, what is your viewpoint on some of the changes in the film industry?

VS: The great change is how film is perceived. When I was working in the industry, it was a business, and you talked not in terms of artistic qualities or the auteur elements, but you talked about making entertainment. Will it work, will it not work? Does it have suspense? Does it have enough laughs? Get to the chase. All those clichés. Of course there were artistic problems too, but we never talked about art. We just talked about would it work and would it entertain. Nobody thought of discussing cinema art. That developed later on. It's very important today. And yet there were people even then with distinct styles of directing, like Ford and Capra. The first great director was D.W. Griffith. I saw him once at a Directors Guild meeting, and he said, "If you gentlemen would only realize you have in your hands the means to change the world." He foresaw the power of the medium. When I came to Hollywood in 1937 to work at Warner's, my wife and I would see him walking alone on Hollywood Boulevard. I found out from someone at the studio that D.W. couldn't get a job and I felt so bad about it. Then years later at another Guild meeting, I was talking about D.W. and George Cukor said that's what Griffith had wanted--he wanted to be alone. He didn't want people around him. That was the kind of life he chose. I said, "Well, that's interesting to hear, but I feel he would've been grateful if somebody had come up and tried to talk to him about the films that he had made, technique and so on." He was obviously a great filmmaker and an innovator. So, the big change has been the perception of film as a cinema art as opposed to a mechanical process of making entertainment.

ES: You use the word perception, but has the art and craft actually changed or is it just the perception that has changed?

VS: I think the actual craft has changed. In recent years, since Lucas's Star Wars and Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I think that the entire business of special effects has improved enormously. One thousand percent. All the things we never thought about or even conceived the possibility of doing, now they can and are doing it. When I saw Toy Story, I realized the possibilities. Eraser, too, and other special effects films--there's been an expansion of what can be done. Where this will go, I don't know. At the moment, while I think the technology of filmmaking has improved and expanded enormously, I think that the basic questions of story and character have suffered. I would be happy to see the time come when problems are set up and solved in human terms so that an audience can walk out not only having been entertained but left with something that will improve them as human beings and will improve the world they live in.

ES: You raise an interesting point. If, when you were making pictures for the studios, you had had this capability, would that have changed your pictures, or do you think the audience interests have changed along with the technical capabilities of the medium?

VS: Both. There would've been excitement--in those days we used to say how can we do so and so? There were always ways to do things, just as there were back in the silent days. When Harold Lloyd did the business of hanging onto the clock, they had already figured out how to do process shots. As each technical achievement came along, it was good and it was exciting.

ES: The French critic who laid the groundwork for the auteur theory was a former literary critic named André Bazin. He said that most people think that artists follow the technology. In other words, he said people think there is a technical change and artists wonder how they can use it. But Bazin thinks the opposite--that artists say, "I want color," so Griffith, in Broken Blossoms, was hand-tinting the film before there was color film. Filmmakers, as you know, when they didn't have sound, would have orchestras sit in the pit. And so we have this debate in film history. Is it the artist who demands the changes, or is it they who respond to the changes?

VS: I think that it has a double edge to it. I think the artist says, "Gee, I wish I could do so and so," and the technician says, "Why can't we do this and this to give you what you want?"

ES: All right. Now that's the point I wanted to get to. If that's true what you just said, which I believe, too, why do you think that filmmakers of today are so interested in cars and guns and bodies flying apart? You and your colleagues were interested in stories about people and life and solving problems. Today, why are the problems more with machinery? Do you see what I mean? Are we talking about a social situation as well?

VS: That's a good question. I think, however, it is a very complex question, too. None of us lives in a vacuum, and certainly artists don't. I think it's a very peculiar time right now in which vast changes--political and economic--are taking place in the world. This leads to philosophical changes as well. Take, for example, the disappearance of the Soviet Union. Marxism had a great influence over the last twenty to thirty years, but it's been disappearing recently. It came about because of the Depression. I mean, it was there before, but its development accelerated after the formation of the Soviet Union and after World War I. New thinking was taking hold of the world. The possibility of a certain kind of materialistic study--that was based on Marx. But it's now been discredited to some extent, and there is a new attitude even toward capitalism--that capitalism has to be more than just a money-making process. It has to have social thinking within its structure, and certainly that's been going on in this country. We saw the beginning of it with the Roosevelt administration, which came out of the Depression. So they work hand in hand--the need dictates the search for something. And I think that also takes place in the motion picture business. I think there will be a saturation point with all of the spectacle-type pictures and with all of the special effects. Audiences will begin to demand more. . . better stories that go with the special effects. Also, I think, too, the economics of the thing will matter. I think spending sixty, seventy, one hundred million dollars on a picture, unless you feel that that will pay off, they're going to stop that. I think also they're going to stop paying these high salaries to people who are not, in my opinion, worth it. I don't want to mention the names right now, but I think there are a few men and women who are earning enormous sums of money, but if you don't give them the right picture, they won't draw flies into the theatre -- which has been proven. I think the studios themselves are going to begin to pull back and not spend so much.

ES: MovieMaker, the magazine we're doing this for, is balanced about fifty-fifty between studio and independent pictures. One of the viewpoints of independent filmmakers is that studios are going to become more and more distribution organizations and less and less production organizations because they just can't afford to keep making fifty million dollar pictures. An independent can make a decent picture for five hundred thousand, one million, two million and so on. So here's my question: when you were working for the studios, it was common to have the major artists and craftspeople under contract. Nowadays, that's uncommon. Everything is an entrepreneurial deal --one picture at a time--where the filmmaker is forced to be the business person also. Do you think there are advantages or disadvantages to both to the studio way and the entrepreneurial way? What do you think are the pluses and minuses of each?

VS: Let me go back a little bit and tell you that one of the things you have to understand about the studio way is that they not only had departments under contract, they also had stars under contract. So, they knew if they had Bette Davis, they wanted to have three or four vehicles ready for Bette Davis because they would do between two and three pictures a year with her, or with Flynn, or with Bogart. You knew when you were working on a project that it was being designed for a certain star so you didn't have to go looking for a star when you got through with a script. All along the way you were saying, "Well, this is good for Davis," or, "This is good for Crawford," or, "This is good for Flynn." And that was one advantage, of course. The other thing was that you had people doing special kinds of work, and there was typecasting in everything in the studio. If you had done a successful woman's picture, they'd say give him another woman's picture. If you had a certain kind of setting, you'd have a certain cameraman for it. Jimmy Howe (see MM # 20--ed.) became known for doing what I call low-key work--shadows and dark qualities-- whereas Ernie Haller would do a brighter kind of a picture. So casting took place all along the line. It's difficult to compare the old way-- there were advantages and disadvantages.

ES: What would you say were the disadvantages?

VS: The disadvantage was that you had to conform to what was considered a good piece of entertainment. That was the one thing--would it make money? They wouldn't want to make a picture that they said wouldn't make money. An example of that, I think I told you once that I talked to Harry Warner about the possibility of doing a picture about George Washington. I went to Warner and I said, "Mr. Warner, I know we've got 'combining good citizenship with filmmaking' as a motto at Warner Brothers. Let's do a picture about George Washington as a human being." Warner said to me, "Sherman, Washington is up there on a pedestal like God. I don't think you can reduce him to a human being and have the audience want to see that." I said that was what would make the audience come, because it'd be a revelation of him as a human being, and we don't know him as a human being. Warner said, "Besides, no company made any money doing a picture about those guys that wear three-corner hats and write with feathers." I remember when I wanted to do The Hasty Heart, Trilling (Warner's head of production) said to me, "Well, we don't want to do that because we have a feeling that nobody wants to see war pictures any more." So I said, "But it's not just a war picture, it's a picture about human beings. The war is just a background." Well, that was the feeling, and the only reason I got The Hasty Heart was because I agreed to do something called Backfire, which wasn't a good story in my opinion, but about which Warner said, "I've got eight actors sitting around drawing checks--do the picture for me. I'll do something for you sometime." I said that if he'd let me do The Hasty Heart, I'd do Backfire for him. He said, "You've got a deal, but you'll have to make it in London." I said that was fine with me. Of course it finally got to the point that Warner began to be frightened of the picture business. TV was coming up, and Warner was spending less and less money on stories and only occasionally would buy something. They would try to guess at what would make money; they were never completely sure. I remember when they made a picture about Charles Lindbergh, The Spirit of St. Louis--Billy Wilder directed it and Jimmy Stewart starred in it--it was at the height of Stewart's career. I wasn't at the preview, but I came in the next morning and saw Trilling and asked how it went last night. He said, "Oh, we got a little problem." I asked him what it was, and he said the people in the audience didn't know who Lindbergh was! Things like that are very disturbing. Recently I was talking to my retired doctor, and he said that he was concerned that young people have no sense of the past. He had talked to a half a dozen young people and they didn't know the first thing about the Depression. They said, "What was that?" Well, he and I came out of the Depression, so all of our thinking is related to that. I think, too, that at the moment with young people, there is certainly a lack of any sense of history. I think that's sad, that bothers me.

ES: Does this have to do with why you decided to write your autobiography?

VS: Well, for one thing, I don't like to sit around and rest and twiddle my thumbs. I told a few stories to my friend Joanne Yeck, and to you and to your sister, Hedwin. You all asked me to put it in a book. I didn't want to write a book just about the technical problems of making a picture. That might have appealed to students, but I didn't think to a general audience. So I started fooling around with it. I thought it might have some unusual qualities. For example, when people would find out my real name, Avraham Orovitz, they'd ask how it became Vincent Sherman. When they found out that I was a Jewish boy, born in a small town in the South, they'd want to know how did a Jewish boy happen to be born in a small town in the South at the turn of the century? And how did I get from there to Hollywood? So all of those things seemed to generate a curiosity. I thought maybe it's worth putting down, so I started. But I realized that people not only wanted to hear about my beginnings and the theater in New York, but also more about Hollywood and what it was like working with Davis and Crawford and Flynn and Bogart and all those stars. So as time went on, I reshaped it. There isn't a lot of technical stuff in it. That's another book, I think, if I ever get around to it. At the moment now, I'm working on a project that I started some time ago. I thought that nobody would ever make a picture about George Washington, but I wanted to let the public know something about him as a human being. When I read that Oliver Stone was going to do a project with Redford about Washington, I got in touch with Oliver and I got a very nice letter back from the president of his company. I offered my library, and what I knew about Washington, which I thought was a great deal. The last I heard from Oliver, he indicated to me that Redford was involved in something else right now and the Washington project was on hold. The thing is that I wanted to do something that I thought would have some appeal to a wide audience. I think it goes back to my conditioning when I was working for Warners. We never made a picture just for kids or just for one type of audience. We had to please a varied audience. I think that had some influence insofar as my book Studio Affairs is concerned. I wanted to do something that would satisfy people who are film students, people who are in the entertainment business, people who want to read about the stars and what it was like in the old days in the picture business--so I tried to make it a generalized thing that would be something a broad audience would find interesting.

ES: Now that leads to the inevitable question--one of the features of the book, and indeed the title of the book, describes your personal relationships with three of the most famous female stars that there ever were: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Rita Hayworth. You will probably get a lot of interest in that, and you will probably take some heat for it.

VS: Oh, I expect it.

ES: Will you tell a little bit about what made you decide to go into that?

VS: Well, in the preface of the book, I indicated that I know a lot of people say private matters should be kept private. But to eliminate these three episodes would be to eliminate some very vivid experiences of my life, and since this was covering my life, and my life in the picture business, I felt I should write about it. I hope it's not taken just as a prurient insert into the thing, but I wanted to tell a little bit about these three ladies who were fascinating and very exciting and wonderful women. They were dynamic, and they were certainly women that were way ahead of their time. They fought their way up in this business, which was a man's world, and they had strong personalities. I didn't want to make just a kiss-and-tell thing. I wanted to talk about them as human beings and as actresses. I think people are interested in finding out about them. I hope it's a part of the history of Hollywood.

ES: Now the question we ask all directors: are there pictures you wanted to make that you never did?

VS: Well, of course. Washington was one of them. And it would still be, because to me the story of Washington is about the development of a human being. The potential that is in every person, I think, for being a nobody and for being great. And I think that given certain conditions, many people have within them the possibility of greatness. At any rate, what I hope that I can show in the one-man show for Washington is that every human being has a potential far greater than you would suspect. It's just too bad that more isn't done in terms of the development of the human being. There are also a few great books I always wanted to do. I've always felt, for instance that Dostoyevsky's The Idiot would make a great film. I know there was a film based on it once in France. While it was interesting and good, I think a more complete one could be done. Years ago, I wanted to make a film based on a play called The Green Bay Tree. It was about a young man who got involved in a homosexual relationship, but he had been going with a woman. And the question is, I think, he was corrupted by luxury, and that was a different kind of story, but I thought it was a brave story and a bold story. I wanted to do it thirty to forty years ago. Now it wouldn't be that brave or that bold. But I think there are so many fields even today that we could examine and reveal so much about people. I have a script about Tahiti that I did a few years ago that I think would make a fascinating film.

ES: You go to a lot of festivals and screenings of your work. And a lot of young, hopeful filmmakers come to you. Do you have any words of advice you would give?

VS: Apart from technical considerations, which is something that you learn over a period of time and experience, I think the ability to tell a story is of vital importance. I think the guy who can sit in a room and tell a story to people, grab their interest and hold their interest--that's the first step. To know what makes a story hold, too. How to set up a problem, how to set up a situation, how to set up conflict, how to create interest in a character. I go back to when I was studying the business of playwriting. One of the fundamental books was by William Archer who talked about setting up a problem so that the audience gets interested in it and wants to see how the problem is solved. I think there are certain fundamentals that were good years ago and are still varied today. And those fundamentals are being able to present characters in a given situation at a given time with a problem that is recognizable and identifiable that generates sympathy and understanding and certainly interest in finding out how that problem will be solved, and the greater the complication, the greater the interest. The first thing one needs, in my opinion, is that ability to tell a story. Also, the ability to find the humor in a story. I'm at the point where everything I read about Washington is "he wasn't a man with a sense of humor," but it's not quite true. And I do ask him about it in the piece and he says he was not worldly enough to have a sense of humor. And when you're in the middle of a difficult situation, it's not that easy to have humor, especially when you're young. As you get older, you can look back on things from that perspective and have humor about what you went through. But when you're going through it, it's not easy to have humor about it.

ES: If you were a beginning filmmaker today, do you think you would want to work under the studio system where if you did get a project going, you would have money and stars and all that available to you, or do you think you would prefer the perhaps slightly greater artistic freedom with the independent approach where you find an investor and you go off somewhere and you do your picture and then you try to sell the picture?

VS: Well, obviously, there are advantages in both. If you feel strongly about the script that you have, and what you ought to say with it and do with it, and you feel convinced you have something the public will be interested in, I think you ought to be sure you can keep control of it. Obviously you would go the independent route. If, however, the studio liked your script and were willing to let you make it with your point of view, that could be attractive too, because having to worry about the money and all the other problems sometimes can interrupt your artistic sense. So you have to balance one against the other. I know that so far as I was concerned, I'm glad I didn't have to worry about money. Because I was able to concentrate on the story and the acting and the direction of the picture. If I also had to worry about the money, it may have affected the artistic outcome of the film.

ES: We've talked about what you'd like to see in pictures--story and human development--but in fact where do you see the industry going, or can you tell?

VS: It's very hard to predict. I do think that there has been a liberation of thinking in relations of men and women in sex, for instance and, by the way, I'm opposed to what I call the profane in sex. But I favor a more honest approach. And I don't think that I can think of an American film that has been honest in its relationship to sex. I think in the last five or ten years we've been kicking over the traces of Puritanism and the inhibitions about sex. So we've gone from one swing of the pendulum to another, but I've wished that we could, and maybe we can eventually, treat sex seriously. I think the cause of a lot of marriages breaking up is that there's not a serious consideration of it. It's certainly a human function and it should be addressed that way; it should be approached that way, realistically. And I want to redo a story that I did many years ago, but I want to be able to address the sexual end of it honestly, which I think could be very helpful. If you look at a lot of the magazines and stuff, you'll see that sex is still a very vital problem in the relationships between men and women. It's a vital problem. It's as important as making a living, for God's sake. Or it's as important as the foods you eat. It represents a hunger. And it should be treated realistically just as much as you've got to work to make bread. So I think that could be an expansion in that sense. And as we advance in terms of understanding human beings, so can motion pictures advance. Filmmakers need to challenge themselves. In working on the Washington piece, I learned that Washington was always testing himself. It's something I find myself doing, too, very often. I'll do something because I say, "well it's a challenge," and I'd like to prove to myself that I can do it or not do it.

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