Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Chat with Douglass K. Daniel, Author of New Richard Brooks Biography


Earlier this month, I posted a review of the Richard Brooks’ film “The Happy Ending.” Much to my surprise and delight, I had a comment from Douglass K. Daniel, author of the new book “Tough as Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks.”

This is Douglass’ third book, following a comprehensive look at the TV series “Lou Grant” and a biography of Harry Reasoner.

After a few e-mail exchanges, Douglass agreed to answer a few questions for me regarding Richard Brooks (above). Below is our conversation.

CFB: What first interested you in Richard Brooks?

DD: When I hit on the idea of a Richard Brooks biography, I revisited his filmography. I knew about “In Cold Blood,” of course, and “Elmer Gantry.” And I remember seeing “Bite the Bullet” in the theater. What surprised me were his connections to other movies I have liked: “Key Largo,” “Blackboard Jungle,” “Deadline-U.S.A.,” “The Professionals,” and “Lord Jim.” I was also intrigued with the movies I’d never heard of, such as “Crisis” and “The Last Hunt.”

Writing a book means living with the subject of it for two or three years. Based on those movies and the little bit I’d read about Richard Brooks as a person, I thought he would make a compelling subject to explore and to tell about to others. And I was right, I think.

From your point of view, what about Brooks and his work do you think attracts people all these years later?

CFB: The strong material. He didn’t shy away from hard-hitting themes, yet he found a way to present them intelligently and cinematically. The fact that he was able to successfully translate material from another medium to film demonstrates his ability to understand the main themes and character traits of material and how to preserve them yet tell a good story at the same time on film.

How would you rank Brooks among Hollywood's great writers/directors?

DD: To my mind, Richard Brooks is indeed in the top tier of the writer-directors. I think his best work rivals that of contemporaries like Billy Wilder, Joseph L. Mankiewicz and John Huston, filmmakers who were writers first and directors second. Brooks worked alone and thus was not as prolific as many directors and some writer-directors, yet he built a significant body of work while writing scripts and directing movies about subjects he cared about and ideas he wanted to share with audiences.

He had some real misfires, to be sure. “Wrong Is Right” is off-key, and “Fever Pitch” is almost unwatchable. He is an imperfect artist. But aren’t they all? There are several movies by those named above that are just lousy. Some have a better “batting average” than others. I think that Brooks operated at a pretty high level.

Tell me, how do you assess his body of work in relation to that of his peers?

CFB: I agree with you. I’ve always admired writer-directors, because in my mind a good movie starts with strong material. The best writers-directors understand this and realized that their directing skills are to enhance the story, not take precedence over it. Brooks definitely falls into this category.

What's one thing people will be surprised to know about Brooks?

DD: I think people may be surprised at his passion for his work. I know I was.

Not all filmmakers are that driven. I’ve never had the impression that John Huston was all that devoted to filmmaking; he enjoyed life in all its glory and, to me, saw filmmaking as a means to an end as well as a way to express himself. (And he made some great movies.) Brooks shared that sense of obsession that appears to have driven Kubrick, if to a lower degree.

Brooks loved the movies, loved working, and believed film was just the right medium for expressing himself. And he had tried other media – short stories and novels, for example, even a few plays. He put writing and directing above everything else in his life. Work is what he enjoyed, what drove him to begin the day. And, in the end, when his creative life was over, because of age an infirmity, I think he may have found it hard to go on, perhaps even pointless.

I’m curious to know your opinion – do you think biography is an effective way to look at a director’s work, or do you prefer the “films of” approach that bypasses narrative to focus on the movies rather than the moviemaker?

CFB: Honestly, I like the mixture of both. It’s important to learn where a person came from, because that influences his or her work. The “backstory,” so to speak, is important to me. But then I want to know about the films themselves – why that material was selected, what challenges were being faced, etc. Often you can see what formed the filmmaker show up in his work and decisions, which enriches the in-depth narratives of the movies themselves.


Which of Brooks' films do you like the most and why?

DD: I think his three best movies – those that offer compelling narratives, good dialogue, strong performances, and an interesting visual style – are “In Cold Blood,” “Elmer Gantry” and “The Professionals.” To me, his efforts in all those areas – editing, too – really clicked. (And that’s also because he had fine collaborators.) These movies form a high point in his career, kind of the top of the bell curve.

Three others that are strong entries in the Brooks filmography are “Blackboard Jungle,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “Sweet Bird of Youth.”


I don’t know if you’ve seen all of his movies, but I’d be interested to know what you think is a Brooks film that could have been great but fell short. Not woefully short, but just didn’t seem to work as well as it should have.

CFB: Honestly, it’s the movie that first brought you to my blog – “The Happy Ending.” I didn’t think it worked, but I saw numerous great moments, and I think he hit upon a general idea of this disillusioned housewife with some incredible insight at a time leading up to the women’s movement, plus he was trying to help his wife, Jean Simmons. But he couldn’t convey the problem or the symptoms properly. The movie stuck with me -- not for what it did but what it could have done (although Simmons was heartbreakingly terrific).

DD: Here’s my “if only” movie: “Lord Jim.” It has so much going for it, not least of all Peter O’Toole and a grand cast as well as Freddie Young’s beautiful cinematography. It’s Brooks’s shot at delivering a David Lean film. But there is something that doesn’t quite connect, that makes this a wannabe epic and not a fully realized one. I enjoy watching it, but I always feel a little empty at the end.

CFB: If you could meet Brooks, what would you ask him about first?

DD: The biographer in me would want to ask him about his parents; I suspect their influence is something I can’t really appreciate without his help. I’d also ask about his wives; he was married at least four times, but I know nothing about Wife No. 1, and little about Wife No. 3.

But, to the point of film rather than personal history, I think I’d ask Brooks whether, looking back, he wished he’d spent less time developing scripts and more time directing good scripts by other writers. He could have done at least a half-dozen more films than he did after “In Cold Blood” had he not insisted on writing everything himself. I’d say the same thing about Kubrick and the way he worked so methodically – don’t take 10 years to do a movie, Stanley, we want to see your genius more often.

I know, I know -- that’s what makes their movies their movies. But, still … I’m a selfish movie-lover in this respect: I want more – like gangster Johnny Rocco says in “Key Largo”: “That's it! More. That's right, I want more!”

And, like Johnny Rocco, I guess I’ll never get enough.

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I’d like to thank Douglass for initially stopping by my blog and then in joining me for this conversation. Brooks has been on my mind this week in regards to the passing of Elizabeth Taylor, who was superb in the equally superb “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

Feel free to check out “Tough as Nails” on Amazon. If any of you have a question for Douglass, feel free to leave it in the comments. I’m sure he’d be happy to respond!

22 comments:

  1. I would love to ‘chat’ with Classicfilmboy readers.

    By the way, I was looking at my notes from an interview I had with William A. Fraker, the wonderful cinematographer (“Bullitt,” “Rosemary’s Baby”) and a friend of Richard’s as well as his camera operator on “The Professionals” and later the dp on two of his films. I didn’t have room for these observations in the book, but I’d like to relate them here, for the first time, in case anyone’s interested. They support the points about Brooks as a storyteller and that Jekyll-Hyde aspect of Richard Brooks’s personality.

    Bill Fraker recalled how he and his wife would have parties at their house and Richard, who didn’t go out much, would come over. People were drawn to Richard – among them one night was Steven Spielberg – as he recounted incidents from his life, going back to the Depression when he hopped aboard freight trains and rode around the country.

    “He was fascinating to talk to,” Fraker said, “because of his experiences and what he had to say, and so he always gathered a group of people wherever he sat. He was marvelous, he was a marvelous entertainer.”

    After his creative life ended, when Richard stopped making movies, “he was sort of invisible after that,” Fraker said. “Socially, he was marvelous to be with. He was a lot of fun, completely different than when he was working on a picture. God, when he was working on a picture he was a tyrant. Because he was really 110 percent into what he was doing. He lived that, and when it stopped happening, he kind of became reclusive.”

    But let’s end on a positive note. “Richard had a very strong, strong feeling about how to tell a story, because he was a writer, too,” Fraker said. “And he did a marvelous job. He was a good storyteller, and he put the emphasis on the right person in the movie. He put the strength of the story on the right person in all his films.”

    Richard Brooks and Bill Fraker – God bless ‘em! – Doug Daniel

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  2. Thank you, Doug, for the extra insights! Those comments alone say much about Richard Brooks.

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  3. Brian,
    Thanks so much for sharing the time you had to ask questions with the rest of us.

    I remember seeing "In Cold Blood" during a night when it re-aired on cable (I was about 14 at the time)and it really did scare me so badly. To this day I'm not a big fan of scary films but a few years ago I wanted to re-watch it after seeing "Capote" with Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

    It still disturbed me even though it wasn't your average gore fest. It was just the way the film was made that was so genius, the build up to the murders. Then the way Brooks showed the absolute terror of the Clutter family. It rates right up there for me as one of my Top Ten crime dramas of all time. Oh, and the fact that it was based on a true story then filmed in black and white makes it even more appealing.)

    "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is my favorite Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman film as we discussed previously. Just that family dynamic and how painful it was to watch them unraveling then exposing ever so subtly all of their flaws. I wanted to hug Big Papa, pinch those annoying kids and slap Brick silly for allowing Maggie to live a life so tormented.

    It says a lot about Richard Brooks that he would dare touch both Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote's work then turn both into cinematic masterpieces.

    You asked some great questions so instead of bombarding Mr. Daniel with more I'll just run over to Amazon and order the book.
    Page

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  5. Hi Page: Thank you! It's interesting that your reaction to the film "In Cold Blood" was my reaction to the book when I first read it in college. I devoured it in three days and was so shaken by it. When I saw the movie, I realized how brilliant of a job Brooks did with translating the material to the screen. I love "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Considering the material had to be watered down due to the Production Code, I think Brooks still managed to stay true to the intent of the material without it losing any power, and you can still read into it Tennessee Williams' original meaning.

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  6. Hi Page,

    Doug Daniel here. Thanks for your interest in the book and the chat on CFB.

    Because I lived in Garden City in the 1970's -- the town where the killers were tried -- "In Cold Blood" was a subject of conversation now and then. I read the book in high school but didn't really appreciate it as literature until I re-read it in college for a class on 'new journalism' i.e. literary nonfiction. I'd say I didn't appreciate the movie, either, until later.

    Richard Brooks believed B&W was 'scarier' than color, hence his determination to make it with that stock in spite of the studio. I think movies that lean toward realism are much, much more unsettling than the horror movies that give the shock of a rollercoaster ride but don't stay with you like ICB does.

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  7. That was a great interview, and the book sounds well worth reading. My favorite Richard Brooks film is "The Professionals" - I think its one of the most entertaining movies ever made, one I never get tired of watching.

    "The Last Hunt" is also one of the great westerns of the 1950s, in a decade that saw many great westerns. It's so underrated, even today. Robert Taylor is amazing in that; in fact, I think he was never better. I wonder how much Richard Brooks had in getting that performance out of him.

    Another great one is "Deadline U.S.A." Doug, did Brooks have a newspaper background that he drew from? I used to work for a publishing company that published a daily newspaper and some of the older editors there were movie fans. To a man, they all said "Deadline U.S.A" was one of the top three newspaper movies ever made.

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  8. CFB and Daniel,

    I was too bogged down in Psychology, Sociology and Anatomy book in college to enjoy crime dramas. (Yes, thats a bit of jealousy showing through)

    I'm always on the hunt for old Hollywood biographies these days for blog research but I did come across ICB a couple of years ago so I had to get it for my collection. I'm a huge fan of true crime and especially James Elroy, Joe McGinnis and to a lesser extent Ann Rule. So, you two have made me determined to sit down and read ICB finally but first I'll need to dig out a night light because I know it's going to have me a bit freaked out.

    A newer film that gives me the same vibe of ICB is "Flesh and Bone". A good film about a murdered family in rural America.

    Daniel, now living in Oklahoma I run across one of those old abandoned farm houses on occasion that gives me that ICB creepiness.

    I'm looking forward to getting your book on Brooks and open to suggestions on any other's you two want to recommend.
    Please excuse me while I go make sure my alarm is on.
    Page

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  9. Hi Kevin,

    Doug Daniel here. I too like "The Professionals," perhaps the most flat-out entertaining movie Richard Brooks ever made. And one of the best-looking westerns you'll ever see. If you can, watch it on Blu-ray; it's wonderful to see Conrad Hall's cinematography that way.

    To answer your question: Yes, indeed, Richard Brooks had a journalism background. He studied at Temple University but dropped out (it was the Depression). While riding the rails for a time, he wrote stories for some newspapers about life on the road.

    He found work writing sports by the column inch in Philadelphia, then got a staff job in Atlantic City. He was supposed to work for a NYC newspaper but instead took a slightly higher-paying gig at WNEW, where he was a reporter-commentator.

    Brooks carried the experience of a decade in journalism in more ways than one. It indeed informed his script for "Deadline-U.S.A." But it also gave him a mania for research. He went at movies like "Elmer Gantry" and "The Last Hunt" and "Bite the Bullet" like a reporter, trying to find out what really happened to give a bedrock of truth to his fictional narrative. He did that too with "In Cold Blood."

    Often, in his movies, the reporter is the voice of skepticism, if not reason. I think it's Richard Brooks we are hearing.

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  10. Great conversation, everyone! Kevin, excellent questions. I really need to see Deadline-U.S.A., since my background is journalism. Too many movies, too little time. Doug, thanks for the info on Brooks' writing background. It certainly makes sense when you watch his films. Like a reporter, he wanted the details to be right. Page, I have so many books to recommend on film -- e-mail me and I'll provide some suggestions.

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  11. CFB, I'm late in my commenting, and have probably missed Doug Daniels' participation, but your interview was fascinating, and really well-done. You have a knack for it!

    I think Elmer Gantry is one of the greatest movies ever made. For a director to get an almost perfect performance out of Burt Lancaster like that cannot have been easy. Lancaster is a fabulous actor, but even so all actors need the "editing" of their natural personalities that director's give, and Lancaster was a formidable personality. I'm reminded of some great actors who were allowed to give some terrible performances, and I've always thought it was the director's fault that they got on screen that way -- Marlon Brando in "The Island of Dr. Moreau" is a good example. And much as I love "The Shining", even Jack Nicholson got too crazy with the "Here's Johnny" bit, intruding himself into the story, and should have been reined in a little.

    I think "In Cold Blood" was masterfully done, and the B&W was inspired. You can't get the same atmospherical suspense, shadows and light, surrealistic feeling, when you film in color. I can't remember what year "In Cold Blood" was released. I seem to remember the actual incident in the newspapers, although it might be because I've heard and read so much about it. But I do remember a similar incident here in Indianapolis in the mid-60's. A teenage girl named Sylvia Likens was kept in the basement of a house not far from where I live, tortured and killed by a woman and her family. I think that, like "In Cold Blood", such things did not happen that often in those days, and were thus much more horrifying. I know that was true here in Indy. The world has certainly changed in that respect.

    How was Brooks involved in my other favorite, "Key Largo"? I rank that in my top 10 of great gangster films to date. Edward G. at his best, Bogart so subtle, Claire Trevor so heartbreaking -- Bacall and Lionel Barrymore -- perfect casting, great performances.

    What a treat to have this glimpse into Brooks' work with Daniels' insights. I am definitely going to check out "Tough As Nails." Thanks, CFB, for offering this real-time interview with a very interesting man. If his writing is like his style of speaking, I'm sure the book is good.

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  12. Hi ClassicBecky,

    Doug Daniel here ... glad you joined in with your thoughts about memorable Richard Brooks movies.

    I always liked "Key Largo," in large part because of the excellent cast you cite. To me, it's one of the best postwar gangster films. It seems a bit more modern but still has the energy of those thirties movies. Coming the same year as "Treasure of the Sierra Madre," it was a neat one-two by John Huston.

    You asked about Brooks's involvement. In a nutshell, he had worked with John Huston when they both were writing for producer Mark Hellinger. Huston wanted a writing partner for adapting the Anderson play upon which "Key Largo" is based. The writing of the script took place in, naturally, the Florida Keys.

    Brooks did the heavy lifting but learned a lot about writing from Huston. He learned even more about directing. Huston was the first director who let Brooks on the set during filming. Huston knew Brooks wanted to direct, so he kept him close at hand. Bacall says Brooks learned just about everything from Huston. I too think Huston was a huge infludence on Brooks as a filmmaker.

    BTW, "In Cold Blood" came out in 1967, just a year after the release of Capote's book. The murders took place in 1959; the killers were executed in 1965.

    Lastly, I'm with you about "Elmer Gantry" -- a great movie anchored by an excellent performance by Lancaster (and Jean Simmons was good, too, bringing that innocence to Sister Sharon that's so important to her character).

    I'm not sure about Lancaster's depth as an actor -- he seemed to have a "cool" setting ("Sweet Smell of Success" and "Birdman of Alcatraz" and "Atlantic City") and a "hot" setting ("Elmer Gantry" and lots of other films). But, whatever the setting, he was a presence on the screen and one of my favorites.

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  13. I'm glad you were still around, Doug. Your take on Lancaster is one I had not considered before. He IS cool and hot! He's actually more frightening when he's cool, as in Sweet Smell of Success.

    Huston's influence on Brooks gives a very interesting insight into Brooks' work. Huston's films are so passionate, and one of my favorites is Moulin Rouge. Ferrer's performance was wonderful, but it was Huston and cinematographers that made that movie into a moving piece of art.

    I am a bit of a purist when it comes to classic literature, and Huston made some big changes to Moby Dick, along with Ray Bradbury. But it was SO good and it actually made the novel's story better, so I didn't mind. You can definitely see Bradbury's influence in that movie.

    Well, I got off Brooks as a subject, didn't I? That happens a lot with classic movie junkies. I look forward to reading your book.

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  14. Wow ... this discussion has been terrific. I'm not going to post for another few days (maybe a week more) to see if anyone else stops by with a question for Doug.

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  15. CFB, You did amazing job in your interview with Doug. Also, Thank you so much for stopping by Doug, I have really enjoyed reading your interview and learning more about Richard Brooks. I'm really looking forward to reading your book, Tough as Nails.

    My favorite Richard Brooks films are: Cat on the Hot Tin Roof, The last Time I Saw paris, Key Largo, and I just recently discovered the film, The Killers. Nothing about this movie would really give away that it's almost 60 years old. I thought the plot was amazing with its many twists and turns along the way. I just loved the ending.

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  16. Hi Dawn, Glad you enjoyed the interview as much as I did. I really need to see "The Killers" again. It's been ages but I remember how great it was.

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  17. Hi Dawn,

    Doug Daniel here ... Thanks for joining the conversation. And for noting that you like a movie 60 years old. It can be hard to persuade some people that many, many films going back that far actually hold up pretty well today.

    (My brother tells of lending "Casablanca" to a young guy he works with. When he put it in the DVD player that night his wife said, "Oh, is this in black and white?" After about a half-hour she said, "You know, this is pretty good!" They were hooked.)

    Dawn, you might find it interesting to read the Hemingway story "The Killers," if you haven't already. (I found it online a while back.) It is indeed short, which posed a challenge to Richard Brooks. How do you take 15 minutes of story and stretch it into 90 minutes of movie? Brooks did a good job of fleshing out the story. Even Hemingway liked it, and he was almost always dismissive of Hollywood versions of his movies (just not the check).

    But neither Brooks nor John Huston, who did the actual screenplay, got credit, for contractual reasons and to avoid stepping on the Hemingway brand.

    May I recommend to you, if you haven't seen it, "Brute Force"? It has edgy noir quality as well as solid performances from Burt Lancaster and from Hume Cronyn in an unusually menacing role. The Criterion disk is beautiful and has some nice extras.

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  18. Thank you Doug, I was wondering why Richard Brooks, did not not receive any credit in the film.

    I'am very interested in reading the Hemingway story "The Killers,". I will look it up. It would be fun to compare the book to the movie.

    Also.. Thank you, for the recommendation of the film, Brute Force", with Burt Lancaster. I have always loved everything I have seen him perform in.

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  19. Dawn, I hope you come back and see this -- Hemingway's The Killers is a great story, and I agree it took a lot to create a film that was longer than 15 minutes -- Brooks did a fabulous job. As Doug said, Brute Force is definitely worth finding and watching. I've always liked that one.

    CFB, this has to be one of the best interviews I've seen, it certainly has engendered a lot of interest! For this year's CMBA awards, you should definitely nominate it from your blog for that category!

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  20. Thank you, Becky. I'm just glad everyone has enjoyed it as much as I have.

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  21. I'm late in commenting on this marvelous interview, too. Richard Brooks is one of my favorite filmmakers, principally because he truly was a "filmmaker"--both writing and directing his movies. BITE THE BULLET, THE PROFESSIONALS, and CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF all rang among my favorite films. I think critics sometimes dismiss CAT as a filmed version of a Tennessee Williams play. But Brooks did more than "open" the play up. He transformed it completely into a powerful adaptation. Again, it was a treat to read this interview.

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  22. Hi Rick29,

    Doug Daniel here. Glad you enjoyed the back-and-forth and took a moment to add to it.

    "Bite the Bullet" seems to be a favorite among fans of westerns. It's got a great cast, of course, and an interesting premise. Too bad the most available DVD offers only a full-screen presentation; the wide-screen version is rare but worth seeing for the great photography.

    Consider the powerful adaptation that didn't happen: Brooks was the first filmmaker to take a crack at bringing Rambo the the screen. He got the rights to the David Morrell novel "First Blood" and spent a year trying to get a script out of it. He gave up and moved on to "Bite the Bullet," and it took several years and several other shots by different directors before Rambo reached the screen.

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