An Interview With John Huston

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You have made outstanding pictures both under the artistic constraints and profit pressures of the old studio system and through independent-producer arrangements. Which produces a better product?

The old studio system offered security, economy, discipline. And they did a program of pictures. That is gone. Now each picture has to be an event. Yet I can’t think of a time when more good pictures were made than this past year.

Does that mean that the present system of independent production is better?

No. There might never have been more bad pictures than the year before. It is not the producing structure that makes the difference, it’s the talent and the material.

You’ve said that the styles of individual directors may vary, but there is a basic grammar to film making that must be obeyed. Can you give an example?

Grammar in its broadest application is the adherence to form, not changing the style. I’ve known directors who lay out a scene—here’s the camera, you stand here, and you stand there. Sometimes they even light the set in advance to save time. Then the actors step in and they shoot. Of course this is possible, but it’s highly limiting. As a rule, I bring people on, don’t tell them much, bring them into the camera lens, and let them say their lines to one another until I’ve found my way into the scene. Once you have found the right shot to introduce the scene—written your first declarative sentence—then the rest flows. You’ve found the key to the whole scene. That’s grammar. Also, the spatial relationships of the images on the screen should be what they are in life. If you are shooting people a few feet apart, then the upper part of the body should fill the screen. That’s what we would see looking at someone from that distance in life. If the characters are inches apart, you shoot a big head close-up. Again, that’s what the eye sees in life. And that is grammar.

The layman assumes that anyone who made a picture as critically and commercially successful as, say, The African Queen, must have made a great deal of money.

I took twenty-five thousand dollars out of The African Queen . That is all I have gotten to this day. I also got living expenses while it was being made. Once the film was released, I was supposed to share in the proceeds. They never came in. You know the business about gross and net earnings in pictures?

There never seem to be any net earnings?

That’s right. I see my pictures on TV all the time and I never get a penny from it. Fortunately, I usually commanded good salaries for my work.

If you had to stand or fall on just one of your films, which one would it be?

I can’t name just one. I realize that the honors falling on me now are for the cumulative weight of my work. But I especially like The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Man Who Would Be King, Reflections in a Golden Eye, Fat City, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison . And I like moments in all my work, whatever the reason I made the picture, including some that I don’t like on the whole. I always shot each scene as if it was the most important scene in the picture and shot every picture as though it was the most important one I ever made.

Who are your heroes in film making?

I’d pick Willy Wyler, beginning at the present and working backward, for his faithfulness and painstaking commitment to what he was doing. Vittorio De Sica was one of the finest directors: I rate Bicycle Thief among the five best pictures ever made. Then there’s James Crewes, who directed The Covered Wagon , a great sweeping statement about what America was, not what it now is. I particularly admire Fellini’s delight at the discovery of truth within the grotesque. I admire George Stevens and René Clair. And, of course, there is D. W. Griffith. Among actors, William S. Hart influenced my childhood. I too wanted to peer through steely, narrow eyes and fight wrongdoers.

Any villains?

The people heading up studios nowadays aren’t a particularly creative lot. They are businessmen, accountants, former agents, tax lawyers. Most of them don’t know a damned thing about making a picture. They can wheel and deal and come up with somebody else’s money. Not the sort you would want to spend much time with by choice.

You wrote in your autobiography, “The best men tend to think of themselves as failures.” Do you feel that way about yourself?

Sometimes when I look at the body of my work I’ll say, “Oh, shit!” But even Michelangelo on his deathbed thought he’d done nothing to ennoble art. He wanted to destroy his work—the Pieta! And this from the greatest artist who ever lived. Of course I am not comparing my work to Michelangelo’s. But this eternal dissatisfaction of the artist is what I was talking about.

In 1977 you underwent serious surgery for an aneurism, a condition almost identical to that which took your father’s life. Did this experience give you some sort of insight into life, into the meaning of existence?