By Lael Loewenstein
Ask any Guild member what the name Robert Wise represents and you will get a variety of answers: his Oscar-winning work on The Sound of Music and West Side Story; well-regarded DGA presidencies; the library that bears his name. But one of Wise's most enduring legacies to the Guild was his work on Special Projects, the committee he oversaw for 24 years. The first industry intra-guild program of its kind, Special Projects has become an indispensable department at the DGA and has inspired like-minded versions in other guilds. Most important, to this day it remains vital and essential to Guild life.
Conceived by Elia Kazan, Special Projects was designed to fill a void by providing cultural and educational opportunities to the Guild's membership. Writing to the Western Directors Council in 1975, Kazan identified the Guild's need to "inspire its every member to better work…[to] pass on its traditions, to see that they do not die …[to ensure] that achievement builds on achievement." Though such efforts seem so much a part of the Guild today, at the time the program broke new ground.
Kazan's letter may have provided the cornerstone for Special Projects, but it was Wise who effectively built the program brick by brick. With Kazan on the East Coast, a West Coast leader was essential. Appointed in 1976 by then-president Robert Aldrich to chair an exploratory committee, Wise (the Guild's previous president) soon gathered enough traction to ensure that Kazan's dream became a reality. In fact, Wise was so dedicated to the mission of Special Projects he was said to have contributed some of the seed money to get it started. He remained actively involved until he stepped down in 2000 at the age of 86.
"Bob saw the Guild's role not simply as institutional," says current Special Projects Chairman Jeremy Kagan. "Wherever he could, he wanted to increase the opportunities for learning from other members." Like Kazan, Wise saw the Guild's responsibility to pass on information that would help perpetuate the experiences and lessons of the past.
Guiding Special Projects turned out to suit the veteran director perfectly. Early on, Wise envisioned the program's capacity to bridge generations and foster a sense of community, notes Kagan. That desire came from Wise's genuine interest in his peers. It was Wise, in fact, who originally approached the young Kagan, introducing himself at a film festival they were both attending. "His accessibility and openness, the fact that he extended himself to me—that was exceptional," Kagan recalls. "Usually with masters it's the other way around, but Bob was as interested in other filmmakers' work and as helpful as a newcomer might be. If any new filmmaker ever wanted to connect with him, he would always make time for them."
Along with a deep regard for his fellow Guild members, Wise's leadership skills and the respect he commanded help account for his extraordinary tenure at Special Projects. Larry Mirisch, a longtime friend of Wise and committee member in its early days, remembers Wise's mastery in the boardroom. "He knew when to listen and when to cut people off," Mirisch recalls. "He had a very clear vision and could skillfully manipulate and drive the conversation when he had to."
Committee member and former president Jack Shea, recalling Wise's unique method for running meetings, presented him with a crystal gavel at a ceremony celebrating Special Projects' 21st anniversary in 1997. "When Bob conducts meetings, and when we get a bit unruly at those meetings, which occasionally occurs, and he wants order," Shea said at the event, "he reaches around looking for something to call order. He generally picks up a Coke can or two and hits them together. We just thought it would be nice to give him a gavel."
As a former DGA president, Wise knew the proper channels to go through and could call on his experience and contacts when he needed to get something done. By all accounts, when he was passionate about a project, he would fight tirelessly for it. He was affectionately dubbed "The Big Dog," says Mirisch.
Through Special Projects, Wise implemented a series of activities that acknowledged the impact of the past while also encouraging directors to consider the possibilities of the future. Oral histories gave veteran Guild members a chance to document their careers and leave a record to inspire Guild members, students, and scholars. Several of the extended interviews were published in book form. By 2000, as technology changed, the oral histories gave way to visual histories allowing the participants to discuss their technique on camera (and in some cases, to analyze excerpts of their work). Many of those visual histories are now available for viewing on the Guild's recently revamped website, with plans to expand the roster.
From the start of Special Projects, Wise helped spearhead community-building events including weekend retreats with directors—Howard Hawks presided over the first one in Laguna Beach in 1977. Wise helped initiate educational workshops for film and video teachers, and launched the Director's Finders series with George Cukor and Akira Kurosawa, among others.
Thinking ahead, Special Projects began to offer programs that encouraged members to familiarize themselves with emerging technology, such as hands-on workshops on the Steadicam and Panaglide cameras in 1982. Those demonstrations and others that followed laid the groundwork for today's Digital Day, Special Projects' hugely popular technology forum that's open to Guild members and the industry. For the Guild's 75th anniversary, this year's Digital Day in July focuses on "Game Changers," a discussion of key technological advances in the past, present and future of film and TV.
If technology forums and later Digital Days emphasize the future of media, the oral (and later visual) history collections curated by Special Projects create an opportunity for members to share the experiences of the past. As stated in the 1976 DGA resolution that codified Special Projects, the program had a responsibility to "collect, preserve and share all aspects of the directorial experience."
Under Wise's tenure, Special Projects would evolve from a relatively undefined, untested concept for creative enrichment to a popular, multi-platform program. In a report to members on the first decade of Special Projects, Wise wrote, "We are proud that the Directors Guild sponsors these endeavors and we believe them extremely beneficial, not only to members directly involved, but to all members who gain from the Guild being known as an agency as much concerned with growth and development as with vigilance and enforcement."
When asked to name the Guild contribution he was most proud of, Wise didn't hesitate to cite Special Projects. Because of his service to the Guild, Wise was able to affect the way its members thought about their craft. He helped turn a notoriously lonely profession into a creative community that continues to benefit from his leadership. Before Special Projects, the DGA had no creative panels or conferences, no professional symposia, and few chances for colleagues to compare notes. These Guild mainstays are a direct result of Wise's dedication. Now, that's a game changer.