The DGA Independent Directors Committee's (IDC) ongoing "Under the Influence" series, pairing an independent director with an influential filmmaker in a post-film discussion designed to celebrate the creative antecedents to today's filmmaking process, could not have presented a more surprising selection than The Nutty Professor (1963); nor a more unexpected pairing than directors Miguel Arteta and Jerry Lewis.
Arteta, best known for crafting the penetratingly dark contemporary comedies Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl, acknowledged that Lewis (in general) and The Nutty Professor (in particular) were the seminal influences on his artistic sensibility; and that Lewis' classic treatise on directing, The Total Filmmaker, is the book he reads "every time I go out and shoot."
"Jerry Lewis was the first performer that my father hated and I loved," noted director Mary Lambert, Vice Chair of the IDC, West in her introduction to the evening. "I remember loving him and his movies, and my father hating him, and me wondering, 'what's going on, here? What's he doing that's right?' "
Some of the answers to those questions can be found in an analysis of Lewis' extraordinary career that includes $800 million in overall box-office receipts and a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. But in the course of the evening's post-film discussion with Arteta, Lewis explained that the impetus for his creation of Professor Julius Kelp, his beloved Nutty Professor protagonist, was the more humbling side of himself.
"I've always felt like Kelp," Lewis said, "and in writing him, I was thinking (about) my tripping and falling, and my mistakes, and how silly I looked when I tried desperately to look like I was really a bon vivant. Bon vivant? My fly was open, for chrissakes! I (also) had a love affair with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I had seen the three movie versions, and I was inspired by the marvelous idea of good and bad, good and evil. I had originally written the idea for The Nutty Professor as a notion in 1953."
It was during the late 1940s and early 1950s, the period when Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were the toast of the entertainment business, starred in 16 hit movies, performed in countless nightclubs, and made their now-classic television appearances, that Lewis first got the itch to move behind the camera.
"I was so enamored of the picture business," Lewis explains, "that I would go to my home, and I would have all of my friends come over, and we would write screenplays, and shoot home movies on Sundays. We did films like Fairfax Avenue, which was a send-up of Sunset Boulevard. We opened the picture with a guy flat on his ass in the water. We satirized it all. My ensemble was Dean (Martin), Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Jeff Chandler, John Barrymore, Jr., Shelley Winters, Mona Freeman, Betty Grable and Harry James."
Lewis' professional debut as a director was The Bellboy in 1960, which he wrote, produced, directed and starred in; the same four hats he wore when he made The Nutty Professor three years later.
"Bill Richmond, who was my collaborator, a brilliant, brilliant writer, we put together every idea that we had (for The Nutty Professor)," Lewis explained. "But by 1963, we ended up shooting the very first screenplay. What you saw tonight was the original writing from 1953. And I also knew that I wanted to make a Tiffany package (when I made the film). I knew that if I was taking Robert Louis Stevenson's work, of Jekyll and Hyde, and wanted to take it to another level, another dimension, I had to dress it as handsomely as possible, because the original three Jekyll and Hyde (movies) were very sparse, they were done on a very low-lit level, and I wanted this to be spectacular looking."
With this in mind, Lewis prepared for the making of The Nutty Professor with typical meticulousness. Known for pioneering the groundbreaking use of the video assist system; "which is just amazing," Arteta said; "it was my financial pleasure," Lewis replied, to audience guffaws and applause; Lewis also took pains to craft The Nutty Professor screenplay to allow for improvisational, off-the-cuff contingencies.
"You see, in order for me to be extemporaneous, and really crazy, on the set, I have to have it in script form," Lewis said. "Then, when I get in trouble, I run right to the book. My preparation the night before, the week before, the month before, is in granite. That gives me the freedom to run crazy and do anything I want to do, because I do have that protection. You can't be irresponsible while being spontaneous."
Spontaneity was a technical concern as well. "I never made a movie without two cameras," Lewis explained. "A and B (cameras) all the time, from day one. Two cameras are magic. What you must do, is keep them as close together as you can physically get them. If you're on a crab (dolly) with A (camera), and you're on sticks with B (camera), get rid of the sticks on B and get a monopod, so you can get that much closer to A; and play everything in a head-to-toe, and a minimal choker, and you can shoot take one and you've got it all. If you separate the cameras, you destroy the eye-line, you destroy the perspective. You can't do that. You've got to put them absolutely, snugly together, as close as you can get the lenses. Otherwise you're going to get in the editing room, and you're going, 'Jesus, what did he do to me, here! And I can't get him to repeat it in take two, so (luckily) I got it in A and B.' That saved my ass many times."
Arteta mentioned that his friends often refer to him as "Rupert"; a reference to Rupert Pupkin, the would-be comedian in Martin Scorsese's King of Comedy, forever bugging Jerry Lewis' character, Jerry Langford, for a chance to appear on his show; and that Arteta first met Lewis many years ago, in Las Vegas.
"I hung out behind a casino where (Lewis) had performed," Arteta told the audience. "And I showed him that I had his book, and he took the time to really, really talk to me and address my concerns when the only thing I had directed was the snot running down my nose."
Arteta noted, too, that one of the admissions Lewis makes in The Total Filmmaker, culled from 700 hours of lectures Lewis delivered, at USC, in 1971, is that, late at night, in the editing room, Lewis would occasionally lean forward to literally lick the emulsion. "And this has become a standard (litmus test) among my friends," Arteta chuckled. "When we need to know that it's time to really connect with why we're making movies, we always say, 'let's remember what Jerry said; it might be time to lick the emulsion!' "
Asked about anything he'd change in connection with his classic work, Lewis said, "the day you're satisfied, you're done. Never, ever, can you be satisfied if you want to continue. That's the best advice I've given any of my classes over the years or any young people that want to know. I think it's vital information. It sounds simple, but Emerson said, 'simplicity is difficult, because it requires nothing less than absolutely everything.'
"You also can't let the child in you die," Lewis continued. "You have to know you've got the 9 year old in you, and you've got to keep him alive, and let him come out and stimulate you, and inspire you, because the child is innocent. It cares about things. It's honest. It hasn't been told to lie. It's a wonderful dimension of our lives that a lot of people don't ever take advantage of. Take advantage of it. That child is there, in each and every single one of you. Have a good time. Cut somebody's tie. Let the air out of their tires. A little mischief and fun, it's just incredible."