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Filmmaker Norman Jewison Reflects On Prolific Career

July 25th, 2013 · 1 Comment · Miscellaneous

Norman Jewison: Maximum Green

MPAA, Washington, DC on July, 22nd

When I think about some of Canada’s best imports I think of things like maple syrup, The Barenaked Ladies and the card game euchre. Until Monday night, I never thought about famed director Norman Jewison, maybe because his films are so iconic and have so perfectly captured the American zeitgeist at various points, that I forget he’s actually from our neighbor to the north.  Jewison was at the Washington, DC, office of the Motion Picture Association of America on to discuss his prolific career. After hearing him speak, I understand now that his vantage point as a Canadian is precisely what has enabled him to make his films. That’s the thing about perspective – those that have it tend to be able to see you better than you can see yourself in a given moment. That is the magic of Jewison and it was on full display at Monday’s event.

The event started with introductions from MPAA Chairman and CEO Chris Dodd, followed by a funny and rousing send-up from Canadian Ambassador to the U.S. Gary Doer. Jewison then took the stage for an intimate conversation moderated by Alyssa Rosenberg, pop culture blogger for ThinkProgress.

Rosenberg launched right in with little pomp or circumstance and went straight to the news of the day – the Trayvon Martin shooting.  She connected it back to perhaps Jewison’s most famous film, In the Heat of the Night, where a Philadelphia cop played by Sidney Portier, is falsely charged with murder while passing through a small town in 1966 Mississippi. Rosenberg remarked that 50 years on it felt like not a lot had changed and asked Jewison to comment on the themes of race in the film.

“I think one of the most arresting scenes in that movie is when Warren Oates calls Sidney’s character “boy.” He’s never been called boy before and it’s shocking.” Jewison went to recall a run in with Robert Kennedy while making the film.  “My son was in a competitive skiing event and he came down the hill and fell and broke his leg. And then Robert’s son came down and broke his leg.

We were sitting next to each other in the hospital,” Jewison recalled.

As I recount the next part of Jewison’s story, you have to picture him doing his best comic New England accent impression of RFK (which I have to say, was surprisingly spot on).

“Kennedy said, “so what do you do?’, and I said ‘I’m a filmmaker’”

“He said, ‘what kind if films do you make?’”

Jewison told him the story of In the Heat of the Night, the black cop, the white cop the unsolved murder, all set against the racially charged south. RFK listened intently and then leaned over and said “this could be a very important story. Let me tell you something – timing is everything in politics and art and life itself.”

Months later after In the Heat of the Night was finished and released, Jewison went to New York to receive an award for the film and coincidentally RFK was the emcee. As he handed the award he to Jewison, RFK leaned over and said “See? I told you the time was right.”

Jewison then lamented the prevalence of seemingly senseless violence in movies today.  “There was no real violence in a film like In the Heat of the Night – just a slap,” Jewison observed referencing a scene from the film where Sidney Portier’s character Tibbs is slapped by wealthy plantation owner Eric Endicott. Tibbs slaps him back. The scene was seminal moment not just in the film but for American audiences watching the film against the backdrop against boiling racial tensions that gripped the nation at the time. Jewison called it “the slap heard ’round the world.”

He then recounted how the filmmakers wanted Ray Charles to sing the movie’s theme song. Charles said he needed to see film first. “My first thought was, ‘he’s blind!’” Jewison recalled, “So he comes to the theater and the lights go down and the movie starts.” Jewison then mimicked how he narrated the action of the film to Charles in a loud whisper. They arrive at the house. Tibbs gets out of the car.

Then came the sound effects of the first slap. Then the second.

“And suddenly Ray grabbed my arm and said ‘Did he slap him back? Did Sidney slap him back?’ And I said ‘yes’ and he said, ‘That’s maximum green man, maximum green,’” Jewison recalled, laughing, “He was so hip I never knew what he was saying, but I treasure that moment.”

Jewison recounted what it was like to grow up in the 1960’s, watching the civil rights movement unfold in America – the protests, the dogs, the water cannons.

“When I got out of navy at age 18, I decided to hitchhike across America,” Jewison recalled. “It was just after the war and in those days if you were wearing a uniform, you got picked up.” Jewison was wearing his navy uniform when he boarded a bus in Mississippi.  “It was hot. I got on and noticed there was a window open at back, so I went back there to cool down,” Jewison recalled, “

“The bus driver was this beefy guy and he said ‘you trying to be funny sailor?’ I was confused and embarrassed and I looked around and saw a group of whites at the front all turned and staring at me and then looked around and saw two or three black folks at back. I didn’t know what to do, so I got off the bus. And I was standing in dirt, watching the bus pull away and thinking about all of the newsreel footage of blacks fighting in the war and probably giving their lives and they get home and can’t sit at front of the bus, or get a cup of coffee at Woolworths or drink out of a water fountain, and that’s the first time I realized I was living in a segregated society.”

Rosenberg asked Jewison how this had affected his perspective as a filmmaker.

“I’m a curious person. I’m a curious person and I can’t understand racism, I can’t understand it. It’s the same with The Russians Are Coming, “ Jewison observed, referencing his 1966 film The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming, where a Soviet submarine without hostile intent runs aground near a small New England town and panic ensues a the residents believe they are under attack.

Much hysteria and so much pressure. The rhetoric made it sound like there were Communists behind every corner. The line was, Communists are evil, and all Russians are Communists and so all Russians are evil. It’s nonsense. The Russian government is Communist, not the people. We had a communist member of parliament [in Canada] for god’s sake. He was popularly elected! So I was fascinated with America’s paranoia about Communism.”

Jewison went on to explain how he made the film. “I was looking for a Russian sub, which in and of itself raised a few red flags. I finally found one, but then found out couldn’t bring a sub within twelve feet of the coastline so I was screwed on that, so I built a sub. If you look closely in The Russians Are Coming, you’ll see the sub bending, because it’s made of plywood.”

The film premiered in Washington, D.C. with Hubert Humphrey as the invite guest of honor.  “This is at the time that Krushchev was banging his shoe on the table. The timing was perfect!” Jewison said, an obvious twinkle in his eye.

He discussed the reaction of then Soviet Ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Dobrynin. “Dobrynin didn’t want to see it. He thought the Russians would be the heavy. But then someone said ‘No, it’s funny! The Russians are scared that they’re going to be blown out of the water! They save a boy!’”

Dobrynin asked to see a copy of the film and Jewison had the studio send one. The print disappeared. They found out later that Dobrynin loved it so much he sent it to the Russian embassy in London and to the Kremlin.

Dobrynin asked to see a copy of the film and Jewison had the studio send one. The print disappeared. They found out later that Dobrynin loved it so much he sent it to the Russian embassy in London and to the Kremlin.

“It screened ten times at the Kremlin,” Jewison recounted still clearly in awe of the whole way this transpired, “Next thing I know I have an invitation to come Moscow, so of course all of the people that thought I was commie pinko when I made the film were now convinced,” he said laughing, “I was trying to make a film about detente — about the absurdity of international conflict. I wasn’t trying to make a political statement.”

Jewison lamented that the movie industry is “getting away from things we care about.” He recounted hearing a talk that Steven Spielberg gave recently where he posited that films are reaching an “inversion point” – a move away from big explosions and shoot-‘em-up blockbusters back to films about families and feelings and real life.  Jewison’s reaction was poignant: “Maybe one or two of these [blockbuster action] films won’t make it and we’ll reach an inversion point.

I hope so. I feel redundant. I don’t know how to make those kind of films.”

Rosenberg then opened it up to the audience for questions. The first question built upon the point about the changing nature of the content of films – specifically, has the content of films changed organically or does the emphasis on action movies and slapstick comedies reflect the desires of a changing audience? Jewison was circumspect.

“Society is changing rapidly,” Jewison said, “remember when you used to answer the phone — and it had dials. We had one phone in the house. Kids now don’t talk on the phone, they text and now kids are texting WHILE they’re in the movie: ‘this movie is terrible don’t go see it.’ Critics and studios don’t know what to do — the message is out there before they even figure out what to say,” Jewison remarked.

Another audience member noted that Jewison was making films in the early days of the gay rights movement and asked if he ever covered that angle. “I didn’t but I would be happy to if you get me a good script,” he offered to raucous laughter from the audience.  “JFK once said ‘art is not propaganda. It’s truth.’ I think that’s why totalitarian regimes round up the artists first – they’re the troublemakers.”

Another audience member asked Jewison if he had any regrets. “I turned down – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, “Jewison confided, “I underestimated the writing and I’m sorry because I wish I had made that.”

The final question harkened back to the rise of action movies like White House Down and why Jewison thought they might be so popular.

“I don’t understand those movies,” he said, “I don’t understand the significance. They blow up the White House. You know it’s not real. You’re dealing with fantasy, with special effects. It’s all violence and chaos, and I think [audiences] are getting bored. If you keep doing the same thing over and over again, it gets old. I think we’re looking for something original, something that will excite us. I think Spielberg is right, if they lose enough money, maybe it will change.”

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1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Leslie Jae Wallace // Feb 10, 2014 at 12:30 pm

    Greetings Mr. Jewison,

    I am the youngest daughter of “Viola,” Jess’s wife, in the original movie, “In the Heat of the Night.”

    I’d like to think that you still remember my Mother, Jazan W. Wallace, and my oldest brother, Stuart–the child with the stick at the railroad station–when you were in Sparta, Illinois filming the movie.

    I am reaching out to you in hopes that we can connect in the near future, as I would like to discuss some things regarding the movie. Please contact me at the email address below, and hopefully, we can procced from there.

    I anxiously await your reply.

    Best,
    Leslie J. Wallace
    ellejbx@gmail.com

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