Boyle is celebrated with an honorary Oscar
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Robert Boyle remembers Dec. 7, 1941, as if it were yesterday.
Boyle, then a USC architecture graduate in his early 20s, had just landed a job in Universal's art department and had been summoned for his first proper meeting with one of the studio's leading directors. The director was none other than Alfred Hitchcock, who had admired Boyle's work in 1941's "The Wolf Man."
"I had met him on the lot, but just briefly. That was the first time I sat down to work with him," Boyle recalls. "We were in his office, and suddenly the door burst open, and this man came in. Hitchcock said, 'What are you doing here?' And he said, 'Haven't you heard? The Japs just bombed Pearl Harbor!'"
That auspicious moment proved as significant in Boyle's life as it did in the nation's, beginning one of the great collaborations in film history, as Boyle went on to work with Hitchcock -- at first as an art director and later as production designer -- on such films as "Saboteur" (1942), "Shadow of a Doubt" (1943), "North by Northwest" (1959), "The Birds" (1963) and "Marnie" (1964).
His accumulated body of work -- including not only the Hitchcock films but also almost 100 others, ranging from "It Came From Outer Space" (1953) to "Dragnet" (1987) -- has earned Boyle four Oscar nominations: for "North by Northwest," "Gaily, Gaily" (1969), "Fiddler on the Roof" (1971) and "The Shootist" (1976). Now, at the age of 98, the still-sharp Boyle is being feted with an honorary Oscar for his lifetime achievement.
All of which comes as something of a
surprise to Boyle himself.
"I think my life, as many people's lives, has been a series of accidents," he reflects. "When I graduated from USC, I was expecting to go into architecture, and I worked for three architects, but all of them went into bankruptcy. It was during the Depression, and I couldn't find work that lasted, but I got a job as an extra, and I was at RKO and saw these sets and thought, 'Someone must be drawing these.'"
That realization drove Boyle to track down one of the RKO executives, who, in turn, put him in touch with Hans Dreier, Paramount's supervising art director. Dreier hired Boyle as a draftsman. Soon, the
20-something neophyte was gaining experience on a host of different pictures, some better than others.
"But in the cheapest and most miserable ones," he notes, "I learned a lot, sometimes more than in the bigger ones."
Working on those movies, he came to love the trade and soon abandoned his initial passion for architecture.
"Since then, I've never regretted it," he says. "I've enjoyed and loved the business completely. And in a world that has not been that friendly, I found that movies were an extraordinary expression of an artistic endeavor. It was a business that seemed to be more interested in creation -- in a world that was very interested in destroying itself."
Boyle still considers "Saboteur," his first major movie with Hitchcock, to have been his greatest challenge.
"It was at the beginning of World War II, and there was a restriction on money and on the availability of locations, and the film had to travel from Los Angeles to New York," he recalls. "It was physically a very difficult film, and one that required a lot of a novice art director. But to have been able to do it was a big plus in my career and a great learning experience."
What Hitchcock taught him, above all else, he says, was "to be simpler. His approach was very simple." It was also quite realistic, he adds, noting that Hitchcock would tell him: "'If you have a man who comes into a kitchen and jumps on the table and pulls out a knife, it's shocking if it's an ordinary kitchen. But if the kitchen looks like "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1920), it isn't.' He liked to make the environment very realistic."
That realism added enormous power to what Hitchcock called his "fairy tales." But achieving it could be exasperating for the man assigned to make Hitchcock's vision palpable, not least because Hitchcock -- whom Boyle describes as "strange and wonderful" -- had previously worked as an art director himself.
On "North by Northwest," Boyle was given the task of reproducing Mount Rushmore for the film's celebrated climax, when Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint are pursued across the monument.
"Originally the movie was called 'The Man on Lincoln's Nose,' and the Department of the Interior thought Hitchcock might be making fun of the statues, so they refused to let us do any of the movie on the (monument)," Boyle recalls. "I said to Hitch, 'Well, maybe we should look for another high-up place.' And he said, 'Bob, that's the only reason I am making the movie!'"
As he studied the monument he would have to re-create, Boyle found himself scaling it on a chain that the original sculptor had used, photographing every 10 feet so that it could be accurately reproduced. Many of his fellow crew members just watched, afraid of heights, like Hitchcock himself. In the end, to pull it off, "we used rear projection and did it all on a soundstage at MGM," he recalls.
Boyle didn't have the luxury of a soundstage when he handled another celebrated sequence from the film, the one in which Grant is chased by a plane across a barren wasteland, with only a cornfield to hide in.
"We looked all over for a flat enough area," he says. "When we were in South Dakota, I thought we'd find it there, but most of the areas were rolling country. And then I remembered where I grew up in (California's) San Joaquin Valley, and I went there and found it almost immediately, just west of Bakersfield."
The location was perfect, except for one thing: There was no corn. "We had to make the cornfield," Boyle says, "but that wasn't a big problem."
A far bigger problem occurred when he worked on "The Birds" and Hitchcock wanted to create an aerial view of the city as the birds begin to swoop in.
"He wanted to be on top of the birds; Hitch said it was like God's point of view. We got that finally by going to an island off the coast here and shooting down from a cliff, and we threw fish out and these gulls would swoop down to catch the fish, and that was rotoscoped and printed in (with mattes)."
He adds: "Technically, it was a very difficult shot. Probably in today's world, with digital and computer-generated effects, it would be no problem. But in those days we didn't have access to that technology."
In some ways, Boyle says, he regrets the wealth of options technology now offers. "You can do anything -- and that's unfortunate because the artist needs restrictions."
But there is one thing a production designer cannot do with computers, he notes, and that is a production designer's most important task: to create character through design.
"Production designers are telling us the backstory, really," he reflects. "If you provide the environment of the film, you're saying, 'This is how a character has behaved to come to this point.' We fill in the area in which the story has developed. The script is telling you about what is happening now. But how did we get here? And sometimes, in very subtle ways, the environment indicates that."