Norman Jewison’s forty year career has produced twenty-three feature films (earning 45 Academy Award nominations between them) and spanned just about every genre from comedy to drama to science fiction to spy thriller.
The Hurricane, the tragic story of boxer Rubin Carter wrongly convicted of a triple homicide, completes a sort of trilogy for Jewison. This is his third feature to focus on African-Americans, racism and justice, following up A Soldier’s Story and In The Heat Of The Night.
Jewison joined me for a discussion about The Hurricane, the current state of filmmaking, and the gullibility of the press.
Good afternoon. My name is Norman Jewison. I’m a director and we are here to talk about Mr. Ripley …oh, right The Hurricane.
Are you nervous that The Hurricane is opening against The Talented Mr. Ripley and the other quality films out now?
Well, we had so much sh*t for the rest of the year that it’s about time. Wasn’t it kind of nice to see a group of good, intelligent pictures, finally? I think it’s a terrific year now. It was a disaster before that, wasn’t it?
This disastrous year in film is being touted by some as the introduction of a new class of “edgy” films.
I don’t know what’s “edgy.” What’s edgy to you may not be edgy to me. I think we live in a time right now of total hype and glory. I think that’s what it’s all about. It’s all about the hype. I think false things are hyped to be true and people buy into it. I think we’re in the danger of living in a corporate society where we’re told what to think, what to hear, what to eat, what to wear and what to like. So, it’s hard for me. I’m a filmmaker. I tell stories. All I’m interested in is telling a story--a good story--and putting it up on the screen. I have a couple of hours to do it and it takes me a year-and-a-half to two years, so what I do is very important to me.
Well, “edgy” or not, what do you think of the new, young directors?
I don’t think it has anything to do with age. You’re talking about new directors. There’s always new directors. Old directors die and move on. New directors come along. I started out in this business sitting at the feet of William Wyler. I was mentored by George Stevens and Freddy Zinneman and Billy Wilder and John Sturges and people like that. When I had a question, they answered it. When I asked if I could sit in their editing room, they all let me.
They’re all dead. They’re all gone or retired or whatever… worn out. And then a new bunch comes along, you know? Myself, John Frankenheimer, Franklin Schaffner, Sidney Lumet, all of us. We all came from live television, from New York. We didn’t come up through the film schools. There were no film schools. The next generation came from film schools, the Coppolas, the Lucases, the Spielbergs. They go to school and they study film. And so, the next generation comes along and the next…
This doesn’t mean that they’re better. This doesn’t that mean that they’re edgier. This means that they’re coming along now in the ‘90s. It doesn’t mean that somebody older like myself is any less capable or talented. As a matter of fact, directors usually get better as they get older. Conductors of orchestras usually get better as they get older. Painters usually get better. Even writers usually get better as they get older because they know more.
How about the press?
Journalists always get better as they get older and they get more cynical, thank god. And hopefully less gullible. But the way the press got behind that piece of sh*t… remember that film earlier this year off the Internet?
The Blair Witch Project?
Puh-lease. Puh-lease. That’s not a movie. Christ, you wanna talk about artistic talent? But the way the press crowed about it, “Oh, it’s so wonderful! My god, it’s so real! Oh my god, look at that! Geez, the guy went out with a camcorder and a stick! You could do that in your backyard! Don’t you think this is brilliant? This is deep. This is really something here! Did you know that someone died when they were making that picture?” All bullsh*t!
Do you think…?
How can you embrace this? How can you believe in this? That puts movies out of business and redundant. If you say that’s a brilliant piece of filmmaking, you have now made the entire experience of going to films totally redundant.
But how do…?
Because there is no artistry there. There is no use of light. There is no art here! There is no great writing! There is no great acting! There is no great direction! There is a brilliant piece of marketing! A fantastic hype. Oh my god, they sucked everybody in. It’s just wonderful.
And now they’re gonna make Blair Witch 2. They’re gonna do it again! Oh, it’s unbelievable. And we’re here to talk about Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and his story? We’re here to talk about justice and freedom and belief in someone and commitment? That’s what the film’s about. That’s what we should be talking about.
Well, let’s talk about the film, then. How did you become involved in The Hurricane?
About eight or ten years ago, a man by the name of David Picker came to my office in Toronto and said, “Do you know the Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter story? Here’s the Sports Illustrated.” And I read it and I was blown away. And that’s when I read The Sixteenth Round. David Picker could not get the money to make the film. Nobody wanted to make it. About eight years later, a young Canadian producer, John Ketchum, who had never made a movie, acquired the rights and came down to Los Angeles. Beacon Pictures and Army Bernstein were the only people who wanted to do it.
Army wrote the first draft. Then I brought in Chris Cleveland, and we did another screenplay. What else was the Writer’s Guild credit?
It was Dan Gordon who brought a lot of structure to Army’s first draft. Army’s first draft was big and sprawling. I kept paring down. Gordon and Bernstein really carried the ball as far as they could. The structure was intact. So, I didn’t have the big problem of changing the structure of the piece. I could just work on reducing it and reducing it and reducing it, which is what I had to do because the film would have been five hours long. As it was my first cut was three-hours-and-ten-minutes, so I had a lot of cutting to get it down to manageable proportions. So that the audience, first of all, wouldn’t get bored, and also, so they could follow, because you’re jumping out of time--constantly. This was a very difficult structure.
I fought like hell to get this film down to its present length and it still feels long to me. I’m one of those people. If you look at my films, they very rarely exceed two hours. Except for Fiddler On The Roof, which had an intermission. In those days, they used to do big films with an intermission. Every film is probably too long except a Woody Allen picture.
I had to take out a lot of things that I wanted in the film. I was taking them out as I was shooting because, remember, this film was made for less money. When you make an African-American film, you don’t get as much money as when you make a totally white commercial film.
Why do you think that is?
Oh, all sorts of racist, racial kinds of ideas that I think Madison Avenue perpetuates and the studios buy into and demographics play up. “If you put an African-American on the cover of Time Magazine, it won’t sell.” They have these things in their minds that are just absolute holdovers from a more racially intolerant period. And I’m not saying we’re out of it yet, because we are not. This country talks a lot about the individual freedoms for its citizens that are totally preserved in a piece of paper called the Constitution, yet it’s also a country based on racism. How do you figure that out? Why is that? Are we not gonna talk about it?
Do you think this film is branded an “African-American film” because Denzel is the lead?
I think it’s the subject matter. I think this is an African-American story.
Because it isn’t an all-black cast and you are white, there are those who wouldn’t consider this an African-American film?
They wouldn’t? Really? What do they consider Rubin Carter?
This is your third film addressing the experience of African-Americans. What attracts you to these stories and in particular The Hurricane?
Well, we have to keep making movies that address the truth. I don’t see a lot of movies like this. I believe people are interested in a good story--well-told. And I think if it’s human, it touches them and they can identify with someone, I think they’ll respond to it. With this film, the audience seems to be totally emotionally involved with it.
This is the third film I’ve done that deals with injustice and racism and how it affects people’s behavior and decision-making. And how it certainly affected justice. Because I believe there’s a law for the rich and a law for the poor, I believe there’s a law for white and a law for black. I believe that. I believe that there is injustice in the country. And that’s part of what attracted me. But what really attracted me was the man--was Rubin Carter. His story--that’s what really attracted me.
Are you a fan of boxing?
No, not really. I only related to boxing through Monday Night Fight Night. Remember in the ‘60s? …no, you wouldn’t remember the ‘60s. Boxing was very big, and there used to be fights every Monday night and they were in black-and-white and they were always from some city: Lansing, Michigan; Madison Square Gardens; Reading, Pennsylvania. I wanted to re-create that feel, and that’s why I did them in black-and-white.
What do you think of Denzel, not only as an actor but as a boxer?
I’ve never seen a guy so committed. I mean he literally, literally trained for six months. Fought and boxed two hours every day. Every day! He lost 44 pounds. And it was all because I looked at him and said, “Look, I can’t help you. I can’t help you. You’re gonna be in that ring all alone with a pair of shorts on, and you’re forty-years-old.”
How does it feel to have The Thomas Crown Affair and now Rollerball being remade?
Well, I feel very old when they’re starting to remake pictures that I did.
Is there any genre you’d like to tackle?
Well, I’d like to go back and do another musical. That’s what I’d like to do. Yeah, why can’t we do musicals?