New Book Offers Trove of Stories from Cinema’s Great Directors

July 11, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
It's summer movie season, the time of year when blockbusters dominate the box office. Jeffrey Brown sits down with producer and director George Stevens Jr. to discuss his new book, "The Great Moviemakers," a collection of in-depth interviews exploring how some of cinema's greatest directors approached their craft.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: It’s summer movie season, the time of the year when blockbusters dominate the box office.

Jeffrey Brown talks to George Stevens Jr. about his new book on how some of cinema’s greatest directors approached their craft.

JEFFREY BROWN: How did you become a director? How much rehearsal is enough? How do you work with your cameraman? You have been on the set as a screenwriter and as a director. What’s the difference?

These and many other questions from nuts and bolts to cosmic are asked of the likes of Spielberg, Lucas and Altman, Peck, Streep and Poitier and a host of others from all parts of the film industry in the book “The Great Moviemakers,” a collection of in-depth interviews conducted at the American Film Institute.

George Stevens Jr. is founder of the AFI, and himself a writer, director, and producer. And he joins me now.

Welcome to you.

GEORGE STEVENS JR., Founder, American Film Institute: Hello, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: These are very focused on craft, I guess, rather than what we usually think of stars, celebrity.


JEFFREY BROWN: So give us some background on these conversations.

GEORGE STEVENS JR.: Well, they started when we started the conservatory at the American Film Institute in 1969.

And the first night, Harold Lloyd, the great silent film comedian, came to talk to the fellows. There were just 17 of them at that time. And he brought his friend King Vidor, another great director. And in that audience were David Lynch and Terrence Malick and Paul Schrader and Caleb Deschanel.

JEFFREY BROWN: Young folks at the time?

GEORGE STEVENS JR.: Yes, who now have careers of their own.

And the idea was for the great filmmakers to come there and provide the knowledge, because there was no other source of it. And it was Picasso who said that when critics get together, they talk about aesthetics. He said, when artists get together, they talk about turpentine.



JEFFREY BROWN: The real nitty-gritty of how you make things.

GEORGE STEVENS JR.: How you do it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, one of the other themes that runs through these, it’s the how you do it, but also the constant mix of the art and the industry, right, the business.


All of the directors in this book — you mentioned several — and Arthur Penn and Alan Pakula, Bill Friedkin — it’s always this struggle between art and commerce. It’s kind of a shotgun marriage of money and art.

And Altman talks about it that it’s hard for him to talk to a studio person to explain a film, because he won’t understand it until he’s seen it.

JEFFREY BROWN: People here — I want to say they like talking about their craft. I’m not sure because you can’t quite tell from what — whether they wanted to sit down, but they certainly come off as interested in what they’re doing, or wanting to convey, especially to these younger people, how the craft works.


And Sidney Poitier called me, and he had read his interview the other morning from Los Angeles. And he said, it so excited me to read in words my theories about what I do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another one that jumped out at me was Steven Spielberg, who is talking about, A., thinking that he was going to spend his life making — working in television, and also the story with “Jaws” about how difficult it was to make.


He was a young director. He had made “Sugarland Express” and some television at Universal. And Dick Zanuck and David Brown engaged him to direct “Jaws.” And they went up to Martha’s Vineyard in April for six weeks.

And he was there through September. He talked about the first prima donna actor he ever met was this rubber shark that they had built, which was supposed to stand on its tail and smile if you wanted it to. And it never got to the surface. And so they were working around that, and…

JEFFREY BROWN: That helped him learn to work with actors later on.


And Steven, who thought he was going to have a great career, really there on Martha’s Vineyard thought it was going to come to an end, because his picture was going to be such a catastrophe. And, of course, it was the first $100 million dollar grossing summer blockbuster.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, this is of course for you all very personal, right? You grew up around this with your father, a very well-known, very famous director.

GEORGE STEVENS JR.: Yes. And I’m one of the rare ones. I had a father who was a great man.

JEFFREY BROWN: George Stevens, we should say, namesake.

GEORGE STEVENS JR.: Yes, and a great father.

So I really kind of — I guess that’s not the trifecta, but it’s two good things.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, having grown up around it and watched for many years, this is an industry that has changed dramatically. It comes through in these interviews, beginning with people who are part of the studio system to a totally changed world now.


I read the other day where a studio had the saying, I’m really in the business of making toys, these movies that can also become theme parks and video games. And the big investment in films is for pictures like “Men in Black 3” and the “Spider-Man” pictures.

And they are very well done. But those large budgets used to go to William Wyler and David Lean and Stanley Kubrick making pictures for the whole family or for adults. And this is a slightly different world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it — you sound almost like it’s to the detriment of where we are today.

GEORGE STEVENS JR.: Well, I think there’s — it’s harder to get what we might call serious — the pictures that would be on AFI’s list of the 100 great films. It’s harder to get…

JEFFREY BROWN: Harder because of the business?

GEORGE STEVENS JR.: For the — of the business, yes. Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: The other thing that of course has changed is the way films are watched.


JEFFREY BROWN: We watch them on different screens, which goes again to the kind of craft. What screen are they making the movies for is quite different now.


Warren Beatty was saying to me the other day, the frustration that you spend all this time making a film and with beautiful sets and costumes and drama and scale, and it’s really going to be in theaters for about eight weeks, and then it goes onto our other devices.

But, fortunately, our home televisions that viewers watch you on and watch the great movies, they’re getting bigger, and the sound is getting better. So that’s a good thing.


“The Great Moviemakers From the 1950s to Hollywood Today,” George Stevens Jr., thanks so much.


GWEN IFILL: Jeff also continues that conversation online, where you can learn more about what went into the making of Hollywood classics like “Shane.”