Sophisticated Naturalism

Interview with Blake Edwards by Jean-Francois Hauduroy

This interview with Blake Edwards was first published in English in Cahiers du cinéma in English, Number 3, 1966.


Every effort has been made to contact the copyright holder of the following interview conducted by Jean-Francois Hauduroy reproduced in this Tribute to Blake Edwards. As these efforts were unsuccessful, the copyright holder is asked to contact Screening The Past directly.

I don’t remember ever having any great desire to follow in my family’s footsteps. It was never part of my life but I didn’t know anything else so it was either that or be a thief. I took the most convenient. I began as an actor and again, convenience, because it was simple. I could get odd jobs and make considerable money for a young man of that age. But I didn’t care for it much. As I got involved, I became more interested and fascinated.

Were you, at least, a movie fan?

I don’t really think so, at least, no more than the average person would be, maybe less because I was raised with it. I was on the sets as a youngster. I just took it as a matter of course really.

You began your career as an actor.

I didn’t do any important roles. I did a second lead in a small movie, in fact, the first film that Richard Quine directed. I did various odd small parts of no real consequence and I was happy to get the work.

You acted in a film of [Otto] Preminger’s, In the Meantime, Darling in 1944.

Yes, it’s rather an interesting story. Whenever I see Mr. Preminger now, I think about a time when, on the set, Mr. Preminger really went after me. He really chewed me out, as we say. I remember calling him some rather bad names and it’s just as well that I didn’t go on in the acting profession after that.

Actors say that it’s very pleasant working with you. Isn’t this due in part to your own experience as an actor?

I’m sure that it did influence me a great deal. Having been an actor and having been interviewed for all of those endless successions of parts you don’t get—it’s a tough, tough life. Having been chewed out on the set and having worked for some very difficult directors—tough, sarcastic, miserable people—I probably said to myself, rather than get a performance out of somebody that way, I’d look in another direction because I know how I felt about them. I don’t think that I’d want anybody feeling that way about me.

In 1948, you co-authored, produced and acted in a western called Panhandle. You acted a role inspired by the character of Billy the Kid.

Yes, a young gunman of the West. I’ve always loved the West and that part of our culture. I think it particularly inspires the younger mind in terms of dramatics, etc … It just happens at that point, that I decided we’d write a western. We were reasonably young at that time and impressionable and the West had great magic for us. The next year, with the same boy, we made Stampede. We made it partly because we’d had a certain success with the first one and the studio that put up the money decided that we should do the same thing again. I didn’t have too much difficulty in starting as a producer as I was fortunate enough to have a father in the business who helped us get the script around. I had a partner who had a little money and we did, in all honesty, have a pretty good script. We were able to persuade a few minor personalities to do the thing. It was more difficult to write it than to produce it.

After these two films, you began to work in the radio as author and director?

After these two films, my partnership with this other boy came to an end and I found myself a producer looking for a film to produce. I was just kind of sitting back expecting somebody to hire this bright young fellow who’d produced a couple of minor films. Because I’d become rather stimulated in the area of writing and enjoyed it, I began to write in my spare time. I knew someone who was working in radio, and I took one of their scripts and decided for fun to write a radio show. I followed the form and made up a story to fit in it. I gave it to this party who took it to a producer in radio who read it and called me. I was suddenly in radio. I stayed in radio for many years. I wrote many radio shows and originated a couple of rather popular radio shows here—“Richard Diamond that Dick Powell did—and others. I wrote many mystery and adventure shows. About the time that I was having a great success in radio, Dick Quine began to direct again and called me up and asked me if I’d like to write a script with him. I was suddenly back in the motion picture business.

From then on you worked with Richard Quine as a screen writer for quite a number of years.

We did seven films together either writing together or my writing and his directing. It’s difficult to say who does what when you’re collaborating on a screenplay. I would say that probably I contributed more in the dialogue area than he did but not in the beginning.

With Quine you wrote four films for Mickey Rooney.

Yes, they were especially written for him. It interested me to exploit the different possibilities of Mickey particularly toward the end when I knew that we only had one more picture to do. We did a thing called Drive a Crooked Road—an involved character study of an ugly little man. Knowing Mickey as well as I did, I was able to draw on certain facets of his character and then exploit them through Mickey.

Did Mickey Rooney collaborate at all in the making of the film other than as an actor?

Very little. Mickey, under the best of conditions, is a very impatient individual. You might tell him what the idea is and he gets enthused for a moment but then he’s either off playing golf or writing a song, etc …

In this series of films you made with Quine, do you attach a particular importance to My Sister Eileen?

That’s one film I don’t particularly care for. It had been done so often and in so many different versions. Richard Quine had played in the original stage and movie versions of it. There wasn’t much invention in terms of screenwriting on my part.

To finish with your period of scriptwriter with Quine you wrote The Notorious Landlady.

That had a rather strange story because I had actually written the script to that some four years prior to the film being made. It just laid around Columbia Studios. It tried to get it actually, tried to buy it on several occasions. Suddenly, Richard resurrected it and they bought in another writer and they rewrote it in order to accommodate Miss Novak. It was never the woman’s role; it couldn’t be the woman’s role. Suddenly, I found out that my name was on the script with the other writer. I don’t really take much credit for that script. There are certainly some similarities, and the characters were basically mine which entitled me to screenplay credit, but there is a great discrepancy between my script and the final one. The original conception was of a film in the Hitchcock manner with great tongue-in-cheek too. It was the man’s role in the original—the Jack Lemmon role—throughout; it was all from his point of view. The emphasis was completely changed in the film.

When in 1955 you directed your first film Bring You Smile Along, did you feel that you were arriving at a decisive stage in your career?

I did have the desire to direct at that point. As a matter of fact, I had begun directing in TV through Dick Powell, and wangled assignments in the early days of “Four Star Playhouse”, where I used my ability to write to say, “If you want this script, then I get to direct it.” So, I had really done several TV shows prior to switching to the motion picture field. I had definitely made up my mind that that was going to be part of my life.

Mr. Corey was the film that brought you to the attention of the French cinéphiles.

It was the third film I directed but the first film of any consequence. It was a step up. It was with Tony Curtis, it had a fairly good budget, it was I colour and it had a reasonably good schedule. I’m pleased that it had some acceptance.

You directed The Perfect Furlough which is one of your favourite films.

Well, in a way. It was kind of a milestone for me; I got the feeling of comedy. Everything seemed to work. It didn’t have any great screenplay, we shot it in thirty days, and I look at it now and I say, “How could I have done some of those things?” But, all in all, in its own strange way, it is one of my favourite films because it was one of the most satisfying things I did. I was happy on it; I felt that things happened and I was stimulated by it. The audience reaction was exceptional here. I did work on the scenario, Stanley Shapiro did it.

After that, you did Operation Petticoat?

That was, from the standpoint of making money, the most successful film that I’ve made. It was one of the biggest grossing films that Universal has ever made. It had some moments in it that I thought were very good and as a picture, I thought it was a pleasant, fairly good film. I’m not that proud of it; I don’t think that it was any great effort. I had some bad experiences on it but I learned a great deal—about personalities and politics and how far I felt I should go in standing up for something I believe in. Right in the beginning there were many things I didn’t like about it, that I thought were wrong. I began improvising, ordering up planes and a lot of things I got in trouble for. I locked horns with Mr. Grant immediately. I was there by virtue of the fact that Cary Grant had agreed to give this newcomer a break. I was really in great jeopardy of being put off the film before I got started and I had to, at one point, sit down and really examine myself and say, “Alright, how much diplomacy do I employ here and how much do I really stand up for what I believe in?” I don’t mean to sound sanctimonious or anything like that. I juts decided that I could play his game and not know what I’m doing and I’m liable to make a picture that’s no good. What difference does it make if I’m fired or not? The end result is the same. I was determined that I was going to do it my way as much as possible without too many compromises. I learned that I was right in one respect to do what I believed in; I also learned that you can be diplomatic with some people and not necessarily give away the store. I learned something about myself—that I didn’t have to go quite that hard to prove my point. Although I’m still very determined, I’m more objective about it now.

We haven’t seen High Time in France.

Well, it’s just as well. It was a very unfortunate occurrence. I felt that I wanted to get out of it half way through. Out of a certain loyalty to Bing [Crosby] and to myself, I stuck it out. I’m not really proud of it. I’m proud of what went on behind the scenes; what I was able to bring out of what it originally was. The end result is nothing that I’m particularly proud of.

Up to this point in your career, how do you consider the subjects that you worked on?

Those were the jobs that I was fortunate enough to get. That was the turning point in my career. At that time, suddenly I became “hot”—everybody was trying to get me but not necessarily for very big films but for semi-important movies. I was active in a particular area and not much time to sit back and say, “No, I won’t do this, I won’t do that.” I needed experience and each picture seemed to be a bit better. I turned down many things but I did these and enjoyed them.

You were approaching what you really wanted to do?

Yes, but I wasn’t quite sure.

How did it come about that you did Breakfast at Tiffany’s?

I really don’t know but I think that it was as simple as this—Audrey Hepburn’s agent recommended me to Audrey because Audrey could not get one of the few directors that she would be willing to work with—Billy Wilder, William Wyler … I don’t know, maybe there was one other. But the few directors that Audrey would have done that picture with weren’t available. So, now, somebody said, “Who do we get?” Her agent said, “There is this fellow that I would go with”, based on Petticoat and the other pictures that you’ve named. I don’t really know too much of the behind-the-scenes because I’ve heard a lot of people take credit for getting me that job and maybe they are right; it may have been an accumulation of a lot of efforts. I do know the producer was very much in my corner and very strong for me based on my job on Petticoat. But I think the thing that really did it was Audrey and the recommendation of her agent.

Did the subject particularly appeal to you?

Yes. I had a good time with it. Again it was one of those things, in retrospect if I had to do all over again, I would do it a lot closer to the original [Truman] Capote story. But today, you could do it a lot closer. In those days, it frightened many people. It was too cynical; you touched on subjects that I believe people would be afraid to dramatize—the homosexual influence of the leading man, the sexual relationships of Holly that were so amoral—she lived with lesbians because they’re good housekeepers—and things like that that have great wonderful sardonic humour to them. You couldn’t say things like that on the screen but you could take greater liberties today than you could then. I was in no position even to suggest that Audrey Hepburn play Holly Golightly. It would have been wrong casting, I believe. I think that she came as close to Holly as Audrey could. I think that the characterization for Audrey was perfect.

Did you collaborate with [George] Axelrod on the scenario?

No. When I was chosen for the film, I read the next to final screenplay. The thing I do take credit for was the party. He didn’t write that, I did that. It was indicated in the screenplay; there were certain things written down such as a couple of speeches. But the general party was only indicated and I had to improvise it on the set and I had a good time doing it. I asked the casting office to hire only actors—no extras. I said that there must be a lot of unemployed actors around—not important names, not the usual background faces that you see in films. I wanted real actors because I didn’t know who I was going to give things to and I wanted to be sure that they could handle it. I wanted people who could really act for me even though they’re only in the background and it isn’t just that usual thing you see in films. The studio said that I was out of my mind—very expensive. It was an expensive party but I think that it was well worth it.

In Breakfast at Tiffany’s you reached an equilibrium between what was sophisticated and what was natural. Was that your aim?

It’s difficult to answer but I think that I can. I think that Axelrod brought the sophistication into it. I think that I felt the need to bring the naturalism to itand still keep the top level of sophistication. To answer your question more precisely, I think that based on some of the things that I had done, I had a knack for that. If you ask me how I arrived at it, I’m not quite sure. I enjoy that area tremendously. That applies more to comedy. I prefer to express whatever I’m intending to express through comedy in that way. In drama, I wouldn’t say so necessarily. I think that comedy is more comfortable in that area at least for me because I’m dealing so much with a kind of basic slapstick. To think that slapstick and sophistication are insoluble is not true at all. I think that there’s a wonderful kind of thing that happens with the two. It takes slapstick a step up and it takes sophistication a step down and they kind of meet. There’s a great element of humour that takes place. It isn’t the basic destructiveness of humour but all of these things are prevalent. When presented in a sophisticated way the sort of onus is taken off. But the more I try to describe what I do, the more inarticulate I become.

After the experience of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Experiment in Terror was, above all, the desire to something completely different?

Very definitely. The experiment was exactly that. It was not an area with which I was unfamiliar because my career for a long time was based on exactly that kind of thing. In radio, that’s the thing I wrote. In television, that also the kind of things I wrote. It’s the kind of thing I enjoyed. I felt that at that I wanted to try something much more experimental and was away from that things that I was suddenly finding myself involved with. I just did it. I’m a person is who a very impulsive-compulsive person and I got a hold of this things and I thought, well, I’ll do something like this because it’s a very mechanical, technical movie that doesn’t get that involved with real emotions. There are certain character motivations but it’s a trick that I’m going to do now. I’m going to use my camera and I’m going to have fun experimenting with that.

It was your ninth film and your first in black-and-white.

Yes. The photography was all pre-planned, all pre-designed. The way I was going to project it dramatically to my audience was all thought out mostly before I started shooting.

Days of Wine and Roses unfortunately has not been shown in France.

Evidently, there seems to be some restriction in France against showing the movie because of the subject matter … alcoholism. Maybe the American problem is not indigenous to France; it’s maybe not the same sort of thing. Yet I know that there is a considerable problem in France. It may not be approached in the same way.

You attach a great deal of importance to this film?

Yes, because there again everybody was sitting back and saying “Blake Edwards, the comedy director” and suddenly we came out with the sort of “drama of the year”—the really deep character study of the people about as involved as they could be. The characters interested me more than the other films because they were obsessive-compulsive types. I think we’re all interested by people who seemingly can’t control certain areas. In the case of these people it was “why do I keep literally destroying me and everybody around me by the inability to cope with a very serious problem in the world today?” It’s amazing the perspective it’s given me in my life now, the view that I have of other people and their problems in terms of alcohol. I learned so much by that film; I became involved with the script and with the people and deeply involved with the problem. I went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and down to the local hospital. I watched them and I listened to them and I felt beyond that. I’m a kind of obsessive-compulsive type myself. I’ve seen people almost sick after seeing the picture—not because they necessarily have an alcoholic problem, but because they relate so sharply to that obsessive-compulsive type. One or two alcoholics I know went to see it and immediately were belting them down afterwards. It was like a reprieve; we took our people into the pit of hell, about as much degradation as you could experience on the screen and so these alcoholics could unconsciously say “that isn’t me so I’m safe.”

Was it a subject that you chose?

No. I was chosen by Jack Lemmon. Jack felt that I was the likely director for it because it as a subject that was deeply heavy and so ponderous and involved. He felt that I could bring to it a naturalness and humour along with that terrible side of it. He felt that was what was important in the picture. Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick gave great performances. If I could work with Lee Remick, Jack Lemmon and Audrey Hepburn for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t care if I worked with anybody else.

The Pink Panther was also an experiment for you?

Yes it was. For the same reason I wanted to do Experiment in Terror. Again I was trying something. I didn’t feel it was the definitive anything except that it encouraged me. I felt that I wanted to do a comedy. I felt that I wanted to do something wild and insane without too much guts to it. I wanted to lose myself in that sophisticated frivolity and yet I wanted to bring something to it that I’d only touched on before and I wanted to try a little more of—that was the element of slapstick, of the basic humour of Inspector Clouseau.

A Shot In the Dark was taken from the American adaptation of Marcel Achard’s play?

It’s nothing like Archard’s play, that’s for a start. I was asked to save the situation. The Mirisch Co. had quite a bit of money involved in this project. Peter Sellers was threatening to pull out because he didn’t like the screenplay. He said that the only way he would continue with the project would be if I took it over. I said that the only way I could possibly take it over, under such emergency conditions, would be that I would not be obliged to do anything like Archard’s play because a) I didn’t like it, b) I thought it was not a motion picture and c) I wasn’t ready to make a movie at that point. So they asked me what I wanted to do because the picture had to start in something like four weeks. I said that if they wanted me to save them, I’d have to take something with which I was familiar to begin with. I was familiar with the character of Clouseau. I needed a detective, somebody to solve a murder. I couldn’t throw the whole thing out. I had to use the idea that the maid was accused of killing the chaffeur and this had to be solved. So I thought that Peter Sellers was just the natural thing and that now I was going to try to be as broad with the character as I could be. “How far can I go now in terms of Inspector Clouseau?” I wrote the screenplay and was on the stage in four weeks with it. Fortunately, it turned out to be a reasonably funny movie. It proved something for me—that if a gag is well-designed you can pull it off.

Do you consider The Great Race a new experience in the field of comedy?

It’s an extension of the other comedies; yet you won’t find that there is much to compare. It’s true that there is slapstick humour inherent in it but there’s a style that I haven’t heretofore touched on. The style is a consequence of the period—1900. There’s a kind of traditional humour that we know in this country—the mustachioed villain who is out to get the hero. The hero is a definitive hero. He wears white, hs hair is always combed and he can’t do anything wrong. He’s a real bore. He smiles and his teeth flash, he’s terribly elegant. The villain is the definitive villain. He wears black and he’s so obsessed with villainy that on his obsessiveness, in his villainous inventions, the energy is always turned around on himself and it blows up in his face. It’s always a consequence of his own misdeeds.

This is a kind cartoon I’ve presented with real live people. There is a humour in this now that was somewhat inherent in Pink Panther and certainly in Shot in the Dark but there is almost an unbelievable humour in that you allow things to happen to people that they could not survive in a million years for the sake of a laugh. You never explain it. You simply go back and they’re alright and you start it again.

It’s very stylized and yet that’s the difficulty of it—to keep that wild style and still maintain enough believability so that you become involved. I’ve never done anything on this scale. I found myself standing under the Eiffel Tower with 1500 extras dressed in costume. It’s like Baron Frankenstein—I’ve made this monster and I hope that they’ve put the right brain in it.

What are your future projects?

I’m not doing Planet of the Apes. The studio where we were going to do it is not prepared to spend that much money. If they turned it down contractually, I’m obliged to move elsewhere. I’m going to make a film for the Mirisch Co. It is called What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? Because of my background in the war, which is a pretty hysterical one actually, I’m looking forward to the day when my son, who is only 5 now, is eventually going to say “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” I thought that this was an area that needed exploiting and I sat down with Maurice Richlin and dreamed up a story. The epoch is World War II. It will be a wild farce, we hope. It will not be a new experience but a continuation of the comic area in which I’ve been working.

After that, I’m going to do two pictures, one with Jack Lemmon, The Toy Soldier, that will be about as great a departure from comedy as I’ve taken, certainly as much as Wine and Roses. It’s about a man and his little boy and the little boy is going to die. The little boy doesn’t know it and the father takes him on a summer vacation. It’s the relationship between a father and son. The little boy begins to realise that he’s going to die and he poses some very difficult questions to the father that the father feels obliged to answer. It has a morbid side to it but also a strange beauty. It is life and these do happen. There’s a great joy in the picture and great love.

Jack and I are going to do the picture together without the benefit of studios. That’s the plan now. Then I going to do a picture called Gettysburg which is the three days of the battle as seen from the town’s point of view—how it affected the town. We’re going to rebuild the town. I’m very much interested in that period of our history. It won’t be a film with a “message”. I don’t like films with a “message” and I think that “entertainment” is the necessary element. You can get across a message and entertain the public at the same time and that’s what is really important.