Stanley Donen Chapter 2


INT: I'm amazed at the idea that you watch ASTAIRE at nine, then direct him at 26. You’ve worked with CARY GRANT, what was your feeling about actors and how to approach them? Obviously you made them comfortable, were you intimidated?
SD: I don’t think I was intimidated because I was such an admirer. LINDSAY ANDERSON is a director I admire, he and I were good friends. I noticed that a lot of actors were good, I said to him tell me how is it when an actor works in a picture you direct they seem to me to be better. He said I go into the background of each character, I said don't give me that crap. Everybody can do that. Weeks went by. I thought a lot about what you asked me, I think it's because I really admire the ones I worked with. If you admire them they respond to your appreciation. You feel a bond. He said I think that's it. I really admire GRANT, ASTAIRE, KELLY, SINATRA. If you do you appreciate and understand, react to something that doesn't seem right for them. Your empathy is so sensitive. That is I think the answer. You can't fake it.


INT: It's interesting because ASTAIRE, I feel his performance in FUNNY FACE has a melancholy and worldliness to it, acting wise I appreciate him in that film?
SD: It is the role. He did understand it. He felt in a sense so much older and wiser than the character and even than AUDREY HEPBURN herself. That part of it.


INT: I do have to ask you about how he danced on the ceiling, I've heard it explained but I've never really understood the trick?
SD: I wish I had an ashtray, maybe the top of the bottle. We had the idea, I think I had the idea but I'm not certain, that he should dance around the walls during a song about being in love with a girl. The feeling of euphoria, gravity not existing. I had a great love of movies. It occurred to me that if I built a room inside a giant wheel. All the six sides of the room except the back wall where the camera was going to be. If we turned the room, he couldn't actually dance over there. We had to bring the wall under him slowly. The camera is locked to the floor so the camera doesn't see the room moving at all. His physical problem is when he is dancing in the valley, we had to time it until it got right. One of the problems of doing that, any soft material, draperies would move. There could be nothing soft, they had to all be glued to the wall. his jacket had to be sewed to the chair, lampshades couldn't fall. Lights had to move to avoid shadows. All the cables of the lights had to turn. That's the idea, doing it created a lot of problems. Shooting it was nothing. We had rehearsed it so much I had shot it as a test. [INT: Did you think it might not come off?] No I didn't want to see anything move or jiggle. It only took a couple of hours. Only two shots. No video assist or zoom lens. The two people who had to rehearse were FRED ASTAIRE doing it, and the man who was operating the camera. We sat him in a chair and strapped him as he was working the wheels. It was inverted. What happens changes. He had to rehearse a lot. Eventually we figured out the only way he could cope is he had to lie on the table strapped on his stomach. He had to rehearse a lot.


INT: Do you remember seeing the dailies when it came back?
SD: No I don’t, but we knew what to expect. [INT: Me and a friend of mine, we play a geeky game, if you could go back, what movie set would you like to visit. One is BOGART and BACALL, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, my favorite is I would love to see FRED ASTAIRE being turned around.] Unfortunately we didn't create a stir. Nobody realized it was really a fresh way of doing it. We should have had a camera off the set, seeing the lights go. [INT: Great piece of acting in his dancing] he has to pretend its not happening, that gravity is not doing anything to him. [INT: Concentration is incredible] that's the idea. That's the fun of musicals. The ones I work on, when the music plays, it liberates you to be beyond the reality of daily existence. Things that would be crazy would be understood. In a musical you can do it. I have to renew my comedy license. It gives you a chance to be different than what you're used to looking at.


INT: I sometimes wonder why the musical exists on stage in not too terribly a different form as it had in the past, and yet last year when they made CHICAGO there was so much talk about how hard it is to make a filmed musical now. What's the difference, why the fear?
SD: Just because they're not made. The reason began I think in great part because, this gets into the whole thing that happened to commercial films. Movies when we're talking about early talkies and the studios, films that were chosen and financed. The people who owned the studios was actually running the studio. Mom and pop grocery story. HARRY COHN was in charge at COLUMBIA. He made the decision. And so it was. Those pioneer filmmakers really wanted to show the community where they lived because they were thought of as not very admirable men. Immigrants who were not educated and poor. Wanted to say what we're doing has some value, artistic value. And they made money as well. They made the choices. They chose the best literary material, singers, actors, directors. Today that situation is long gone. The people who run studios don't own them. They're not looking to prove themselves in the community as a person of substance. They just want to make an important financial position. They want shares to go up because of movies. The movies aren't the side of the business that makes the most money. The loss leaders. The whole idea of making a movie today is not what it was back in those days.


SD: Back to musicals. In silent days you could make a picture and show it in every theater in the world. All you had to was change the titles. When sound happened everything changed. If you made a picture in English, sub texts took over. Discovered that audiences in large numbers don't go to subtitled pictures. In the early sound pictures there became an industry to remake the picture in another language. Re-filmed them in German UFA. By the time musicals wound down, late 50s, they discovered if you had JUDY GARLAND in a movie, they learned how to loop the dialogue but they couldn't make JUDY sing in French or German. The pictures didn't work so well. In foreign countries the musicals are difficult to sell. Action pictures could easily be translated [INT: Not much dialogue] that's right. In musicals you have the problem of the soundtrack. There are exceptions, one of them is THE GREAT CARUSO which was in Italian anyway, no one understands opera anyway. SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS worked all over, wasn't about singing it was about dancing. That's why musicals start to diminish. You lost the new crop of people who were going to make them. As time went by you didn't have a new ASTAIRE, GARLAND, KELLY because pictures weren't there for them. The whole thing became ill. CHICAGO came along, they didn't have those people to choose from. Made a musical with non-music people. That was a brilliant idea. Somebody did a show here a while ago and it was a success, and he said the character was so and so and wouldn't be able to sing and dance. I said if you take that as a rule of thumb then nobody would ever dance. MARY MARTIN in SOUTH PACIFIC was a nurse. EZIO PINZA too. That idea is contrary to the general idea of what you do with a musical. The two reasons are the main reasons it drifted away.


INT: I think its interesting you see it as a primarily economic motivated loss. For many years people blamed it on styles and changes. When they finally make CHICAGO in a 1920s period piece with Broadway style, everybody is fine with it?
SD: I think the seed of the reason are those two things. No new people because of no new films. No new films because it's not as safe a risk. The foreign language leaves more of a risk.


INT: I've always loved IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER, I think that was your last MGM musical. It's different from the others, dark and very human and peculiar story. How did you develop that?
SD: It came from the first film. The first film was about three guys in WWII together. FAIR WEATHER was about three guys in the army, ten years later after the war was over they make a vow they are going to meet after separating. They come back and each has disappointed his friends in what he has done with himself in those ten years. That's the story about living up to the ideals you want to have. That's all. It was based on the three guys being good buddies. The reality of the attrition of years has changed them. It became in one way dark, but they find themselves and show themselves to the other guys.


INT: I've loved DAN DAILEY?
SD: That was supposed to be GENE KELLY and SINATRA, not MICHAEL KIDD. For whatever reason SINATRA backed out. Maybe it's because we didn’t want to pay him. It was made on the cheap, studio really didn’t want to make it. It was ARTHUR pushing it through. We got MICHAEL and he was wonderful. [INT: Did they think it was going to be too down beat?] It was about musicals. They weren't the staple anymore. The MGM musicals had been one of their main selling points. That had gone away. I guess it is the last musical I made. I'm sure I made many movies after that. [INT: FUNNY FACE?] I think that was before. You might be right.


INT: For such an individualistic filmmaker, you co-directed five times with two different men, is such an anomaly, how do you feel about it?
SD: It's very difficult, it's not easy to do. Directing a movie, I was thinking about it, what you want from a director is a sort of loving dictator is what you really are. Art can't be a group effort, it can't be. It's got to come from a single point of view. The joke is what is a camel? A horse designed by a committee. Two people directing is hell. One of you is expendable if you have the same point of view, if you don't then you have to work it out. I didn't love doing it but the opportunity was there. In the case of ABBOTT it was somewhat different. I became a director because GENE and I were thought of as a unit. He was in it and I would photograph it. ABBOTT when we were doing PAJAMA GAME, in rehearsal, I would say to him because he directed the play on Broadway. I said tell me how you do it, I'll do it however I want. I went up and said let's co-direct, he came back the next day saying I'll do it if you become co-producer. In fact it was much different co-directing with ABBOTT than it was with KELLY. We only did the two movies GEORGE and I. They were things that had already been done. The things GENE and I did we had done from scratch. Though ON THE TOWN was on stage we still went from scratch.


INT: You know, its amazing to me that the films with KELLY don’t feel like two directors, they have such a unified and strong sense of themselves you know. I wonder what it was like?
SD: I don’t know why, it was not easy. I didn’t want to do anymore after IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER.


INT: Was SINGIN' IN THE RAIN surprising to you that it didn't win. Here we are on the morning of the OSCARS, the only thing you need to disqualify the ACADEMY is that it was ignored except for JEAN HAGAN'S great performance, does that surprise you?
SD: It didn’t surprise me, the picture wasn't received with great appreciation when it opened. The NEW YORK TIMES critic BOSLEY CROWTHER dismissed it as another musical. We got the music nominees, did JEAN win? [INT: Don't think so.] The picture that won Best Picture when SINGIN' IN THE RAIN wasn't nominated was THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH. [INT: And never to be revived as opposed to the most revived.] The people who applauded SINGIN' IN THE RAIN were the FRENCH NEW WAVE guys, TRUFFAUT, GODARD, CHABROL. They were the ones who said it was fresh and new. They liked the films we made, before SINGIN' IN THE RAIN as well. Otherwise it would have been just another movie.


INT: It's amazing to realize that because television was not running movies, once a movie had its first run it was effectively finished. To have made it and seen it disappear perhaps never to be revived, I'm trying to put myself in your head?
SD: What is, is. The way things work is the way things work. You can't change it or fight it. It's just how things are. You just see it as it is the best you can without seeing anxiety. Maybe you'll learn something from it. That's all.


INT: When you made FUNNY FACE, it still feels like such a different sort of movie musical than any other that’s been made. It still has a fresh, warm, eccentric feel. How did AVEDON and you work together?
SD: DICK and I were friends before FUNNY FACE. I came to New York, I knew him. FUNNY FACE was written as a play by LEONARD GERSHE. He knew DICK well. Wrote the play about the photographer and the model. Called WEDDING DAY. ROGER EDENS the producer wanted to make a film of it. There was no score. He decided in talks with me it would be good to get a GERSHWIN score. He said we could get a lot of the songs from FUNNY FACE, owned by PARAMOUNT or WARNER. In order to get the score I was loaned out to make a movie. They gave the score to MGM from FUNNY FACE to put those songs into this play without a score. MGM had the songs and the score. We wanted AUDREY HEPBURN, we went to her and she said she would love to be in it. MGM tried to borrow her to play the part, PARAMOUNT said are you crazy, she's our biggest star. FUNNY FACE was dead. Then ROGER EDENS said let's bring the mountain to Mohammed. Maybe they'll sell us and the movie to PARAMOUNT. Went to BENNY THAU and it happened.


INT: That would have been one of the last MGM musicals except they let it go?
SD: FAIR WEATHER was after that. [INT: I think it was before. The only other one was SILK STOCKINGS; ASTAIRE, CYD, MAMOULIAN in 1957. GIGI also came after that. But yea effectively they were no longer in the business.]


INT: Then you had it set up at PARAMOUNT, it sounds like this was the beginning of you being an independent producer for yourself?
SD: It was but the real beginning came with a movie we called INDISCREET because NORMAN KRASNA who was a playwright and a friend of mine had given me a script he had written, eventually made with MARILYN MONROE and YVES MONTAND, [INT: LET'S MAKE LOVE]. He said do you like this, I said no. He said I had a show that was a flop, a play called KIND SIR. I read it and said it would make a wonderful movie. He said every studio turned it down. He said it was his gift to me. I got it made, CARY GRANT, INGRID BERGMAN, from that point on it was not hard to get it made. In the beginning I produced DAMN YANKEES, PAJAMA GAME, I had a huge background in movies, all kinds of positions.


INT: You didn’t feel anything in leaving the kind of protective fold at MGM?
SD: They left me. [INT: A lot of directors needed that system but you were able to] I like digging the ditch. I like having to put it together. [INT: That’s the bane of so many filmmaker's existence.] Everybody complains about they did this and that to me. But if there is no they then they won't do that to you.