The “Lost,” and the Last, Robert Wise Interview. A Medium.com Exclusive.
The credits say it all. Robert Wise edited Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons for Orson Welles. He directed The Sand Pebbles, The Haunting, Somebody Up There Likes Me, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Sound of Music, West Side Story, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He directed his last film, A Storm in Summer, in his mid-eighties.
He was a motion picture legend, and a sage.
From my out-of-print 2005 book, How to Survive a Day Job, the following was Mr. Wise’s final interview, as conducted by Mike Thomas.
I always worked in the film industry. I’m from Indiana, and I have two older brothers. One of them, David, came out here and was working at RKO in the accounting department.
I graduated high school in ’32 and managed to get one year of college at a small college in Indianapolis — Franklin College — on a scholarship. But I had no money to go back a second year. I was going to major in journalism, because I had worked for the high school newspaper. But fate decreed otherwise.
My brother came back the summer of ’33, the first trip home. My family decided since I couldn’t go back to college that I’d better come out to California with my brother Dave and get a job earning a living.
Dave worked at RKO in the accounting department, and he got me an appointment first with the property department. Fortunately for me, it turned out they couldn’t use anybody right then. The next week he got me an appointment with the head of the film editing department, who decided he could use a good, strong, eager kid to work in the film shipping room. I would carry the prints of films up to the projection room for the executives to look at and check to see if they were all right. And that was my break, getting in that department.
I was there for a few months, and I caught the eye of man named T.K. Wood, who was the head of the sound effects and music editing depart-ment, and he asked me to be put up with him. I was moved up with “Woody,” as we called him, and I worked for him, oh, I don’t know, maybe six or eight months or so, and so that was kind of a dead end. There was no place to go there, and I didn’t want to stop there. I wanted to go on, so I asked the boss to put me over on what we call the picture side, so I could become an assistant film editor and eventually become a film editor.
And he did. He put me with this marvelous old-time editor named Billy Hamilton. And I worked with Billy for, I don’t know, several pictures. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was one of them I remember, and some of the Astaire-Rogers stuff going on. Then he put me up to be a full-time editor myself.
So I was now an editor and working away, and there was a man that was directing a piece for a marvelous producer named Val Lewton — Gunther von Fritsch was his name. Gunther couldn’t seem to understand he had to shoot faster, couldn’t understand that he had to shoot more pages every day. These films were seventeen-, eighteen-day wonders, you know. And so this director couldn’t seem to understand that, and he used his whole schedule up and only shot half the script. Well this is not very satisfactory with the studio.
They called me and said on Saturday — we were working six days a week then — and they said, “Listen, we can’t seem to make Gunther understand that he has to shoot faster. He can’t seem to get that through his head, so we want you to take over on Monday.”
And I did. I was a little scared, but it was good for me. I knew all the crew members, and I knew the cast, because as an editor I had visited this set a lot; I wasn’t going into a cold situation. They gave me ten days to finish it. I did it in the ten days, and that was it. And I’ve been directing ever since.
I just finished shooting in Vancouver my fortieth film. It’s called A Storm in Summer, with Peter Falk playing the lead. Now I’m officially retired.
I didn’t want to become a director all along. I didn’t really think about it that way. You know, I just took it one step at a time. Once I got to be an editor, I learned the game, learned about filmmaking and directing, and I wanted to move on and become a director.
The difference is that as an editor you work with these figures on celluloid, on film. And as a director, you were up there with these live figures. Editing, it had been captured on film, and that’s it; so now I’m faced with having to deal with these live people and direct them. Help them with their performances.
I used to get up early. When I was starting, I’d get to the set very early in the morning, maybe at seven o’clock or something. They probably would have a nine o’clock call for people. I’d get there at seven, and I’d fool around with the set, with my finder, figuring different angles and that kind of thing. I had to get an idea of how I wanted to go, and eventually down the line I got to working with a sketch artist. We would try to sketch stuff out ahead of time so we’d have an idea, always leaving room to move away from the sketches, if what you thought just wouldn’t work with the actors.
Sometimes I’d have a read-through of the script with the actors, just to see if there was any bad dialog, any of the lines that didn’t play or some-thing like that. So a read-through was very important, and during that read-through the actors get a sense of what you, the director, wanted in terms of performance.
The foundation of every film is that script. That’s why I say scripts or screenwriters don’t get as much credit as they should, because without that script, that’s it. It’s all there pretty much in the script, and what you do as a director is help the actors interpret that script.
I don’t think there were any real challenges in becoming a director. Having edited for quite a while, you kind of get to know everything real well, because you visit the set a lot. I don’t think there were any particular surprises.
There are three stages in making a film: there’s pre-production, where you’re planning everything, and you’re getting your sets, you’re getting your script right, you’re getting your cast right, and you’re getting the crew set. I have a lot of respect for the crews.
Then it’s production, where you go in and you put it all on film. That could take anywhere from, in my earlier films, as little as eighteen or twenty days to six months with a Star Trek or The Sound of Music, one of those.
And then there’s post-production, where you’re there really for as much as three, four, five months on the editing, the re-recording, previews, and making changes after previews, and finally getting it ready to release.
When I do a seminar or go to a film school, I tell students, generally, that the most important thing on any film is that script. You’ve got to have it, because if it’s not on the page, it’s not going to get out there on the screen. So that’s number one. And so when you’ve got the script right, then you try to get the right cast. And then when that’s done, then you’re getting ready to get a schedule and get your crew and everything else and you’re ready to go.
My best suggestion to aspiring directors is what I call my three “Ps”: Passion, Patience, Perseverance. You have to have passion for the thing you’re going to do. You have to have patience, because it’s going to take some time, probably, and you have to have perseverance; you have to keep at it and keep at it and keep at it until you do it.
I’ve done a lot of films. I started with small ones, and I’ve done big ones. For me, editing was a great way to learn directing. But there are oth-er ways as well.
I don’t think you can ever have too much pre-production, although you get to a point where you really want to get going.
I did all my stuff for the major studios, so I didn’t worry about the funding. All I had to worry about was the script, the casting, the schedule, and the budget.
One major piece of advice that I’ll give people was said by an old-time director named Richard Wallace. I had cut a picture or two for Dick Wallace, and he heard I had gotten my break and I was going to get a chance to direct.
And he said, “Bobby, I got just one bit of advice to give you: if a scene seems a trifle slow on the set, it’ll be twice as slow in a projection room.”
And I never forgot that. Because sometimes you’ll think a scene is just right there — the pacing of it I’m talking about — but sometimes when it’s Reel Four or Five in the film, if anything, it’ll be slow. I’ve never for-gotten that advice. If it seems a trifle slow, if it feels a trifle slow on the set, it’ll be twice as slow in the projection room.
I carried a watch, or I’d have the script clerk have a watch. Say a given scene we’d be doing was two minutes and ten seconds. I’d try to get it at two minutes. Try to beat the clock, you know. I never wished I’d shot anything slower. I always wished I would have picked it up a little bit