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Q&A: Norman Jewison

Norman Jewison - P 2011
Mark Von Holden/Getty Images

The veteran director talks about missing Ronni Chasen, his chance meeting with Bobby Kennedy and why timing is everything.

Ghent, BELGIUM -- Few directors can boast a career as diverse as Norman Jewison. The director, now 85, began his career in TV in New York in the 50s and quickly became one of Hollywood’s most versatile directors. From musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar to the prescient science fiction of Rollerball, Jewison has worked in virtually every genre, but it is the theme of social justice that links many of his films, such as the 1967 Oscar winner In the Heat of the Night, 1984’s A Soldier’s Story and The Hurricane from 1999. Jewison spoke to The Hollywood Reporter in Belgium where the 38th Ghent Film Festival is honoring him with the Joseph Plateau Honorary Award.

The Hollywood Reporter: How do you like Ghent?

Norman Jewison: It’s fantastic. They say that at one point in history Ghent was larger than London. Belgium and Holland must have been the beginning of civilization. The habitat here along the coast of the North Sea must have been ahead of the island of the U.K. My ancestors all came from England, so when I went to England the first time I thought ‘look at this architecture! Look at how advanced they were!’ Then I came over here and I saw what was going on hundreds of years before that. It’s amazing.

THR: The Ghent Film Festival will be honoring Ronni Chasen this year. How well did you know Ronni?

Jewison: I knew her very well. She represented me, and that’s why I’m here. What a tragic ending. I don’t think anything has ever happened in Hollywood quite like that. Ronni was a great force behind film music. No one else really was as powerful as she was in that whole area. I’ve had a long relationship with Michel Legrand and John Williams through my film work, so I’m a great believer in the marriage of film and music. That’s why you can watch a TV commercial and it can be just images and music without words and it can move you to tears.

THR: From sci-fi to musicals you seem to be comfortable in any genre. Why is that?

Jewison: Yes people always ask me what my métier is. Other directors of my generation – Sydney Lumet, John Frankenheimer – our generation came from New York and came out of television. My mentors were William Wyler and Freddie Zinneman. They mentored me when they were in their 70s. I was just a young punk who did his first movie in the 60s. So now everyone looks at me as one of the old timers [laughs]. I don’t know when that happened, but time just passes you by.

THR: How has the film business changed over the years?

Jewison: I think it has gotten a lot more commercial. It’s controlled now by major international distributors. The new electronic age that began about 10 years ago has affected everything. I don’t think it’s been a great help. I don’t think film itself has been serviced that well by the new media, except in the reduction in camera size. And of course you have people making films with video cameras. But I find the image itself a little too sharp. I’ve always liked the softness of film. There is a diffuse feeling to Kodak film. It’s different. It’s not like a lot of electronic dots thrust on a screen. Film is more like an oil painting. When you see a good painting, something that captures you emotionally, it’s closer to how your eye sees things. It’s more like life. With electronics no one cares. The image is too perfect.

THR: Why so so many of your films focus on the theme of social justice?

Jewison: I’ve always been a supporter of protest. I’ve protested myself when I was younger and still do. I got involved with the issue of racism when I was a kid in Canada. When I was 17 or 18 we were at war so I joined the Canadian Navy. I didn’t want to be drafted into the army because they were all being killed. When I got out, I’ll never forget I had a month’s leave which you had to take before they demobilized you. During that time you could do whatever you wanted as long as you reported back. Someone told me that if you go to the States and you’re in uniform they treat you like a king. You can get a ride anywhere for nothing. So I started hitchhiking. I went to Chicago and then I kept going south. I was somewhere just outside Memphis and I wanted to get to the highway. A bus came along and I got on because I didn’t have to pay. So I got on and sat in the back because it was a hot day and the windows were down. About five minutes later the bus stopped and the driver – a big beefy guy – looked at me through the mirror and said “you tryin’ to be funny sailor?” I said no and he said “well can’t you read the sign?” So I look up and there’s a hand-painted sign on a piece of tin hanging by a wire in the middle of the bus. It said ‘colored people to the rear.’ So I looked around and sure enough there were a few black people sitting around me and the white people were in front. I didn’t know what to do. I was so young I didn’t realize there was this kind of racial tension in America. So said “I’ll get off the bus.” He drove off and left me standing on a dusty street by myself.

THR: So that was your first act of protest.

Jewison: Yes! That was my first act of protest. And it was really because I didn’t know what else to do. I thought about it though and I thought it was terrible. I had seen lots of black soldiers die for their country, yet when they got home they had to sit in the back of the bus? Or they couldn’t drink from the same fountain? When I learned this I started to get angry and I didn’t know why.

THR: Did being Canadian give you a better perspective on an issue like this?

Jewison: It gave me a different perspective on America. I’ve always looked at America from the outside. That’s affected my films [like] And Just For All or A Soldier’s Story. I like A Soldier’s Story a lot but I also love Pacino’s speech in And Justice For All.

“You’re all out of order…”

“This whole court’s out of order”!

THR: Could a movie like that get made today?

Jewison: No I don’t think so. They always kind of considered me an outsider. I never really became as much a part of the establishment as I wanted to be. I wanted to be accepted. I wanted people to say “that was a great picture.” I mean I have a big ego like anyone else [laughs]. I’m no shrinking violet. But I never felt totally accepted but maybe that’s good.

THR: You have a great story about meeting Bobby Kennedy. Can you talk about that?

Jewison: I got so upset after the assassination of JFK. I was supposed to meet with Bobby Kennedy the night he was assassinated. I had met him before in Sun Valley Idaho. My son was in a ski race and was hurt, and so was his son. In the same race. So we met in the hospital waiting room. So he just looked at me and said “so what do you do?” I told him I made films and he asked what kind I make. So I told him that I was working on In the Heat of the Night and that it’s about two cops: one a white sheriff from Mississippi and the other a black detective from Philadelphia. I told him it was a film about tolerance. So he listened and nodded and said “you know Norman, timing is everything. In politics, in art, in life itself.” I never forgot that. So he sent me a few things from his office – interviews with people who has protested in Mississippi. So the timing of the film was almost perfect because it was 1967. To this day I think that’s why it won the academy award and that’s why audiences reacted to it. It was the timing and I never forgot what Bobby said about that.

The kicker to the story is that when the film won the New York critics award there was a small reception at Sardis. So I went there to get the award and they announced that the person giving out the award was the Senator from New York – Robert Kennedy. As I went up to get the award he said: “See I told you – timing is everything!”

THR: How did the success of Heat of the Night change your career?

Jewison: Well by the late 60s I was very disillusioned. JFK had been assassinated, Bobby had been assassinated, I had marched in Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in Atlanta. This was 1970 so packed everyone up in L.A. and I went to England. I just wasn’t happy with America at the time. I was so deeply committed to the vision of JFK and Bobby. I made all my films in Europe for seven years. There were a lot of filmmakers working in Europe at that time. I got to spend time with Stanley Kubrick, for instance. Those were good times for me.

THR: And what was that like?

Jewison: [Laughs] Stanley was so paranoid. He had a huge fence because he lived in the country. When I’d go out to visit him he had a big electric fence and I’d ask him what are you so afraid of? Are you hiding gold or diamonds? I used to tease him all the time. He’d say ‘what are you talking about?’ I slowly realized that he was afraid of the outside world. Then I saw Clockwork Orange and it all started to make sense [laughs]

THR: Can you talk a little about the success of the Canadian Film Center, which you founded?

Jewison: The AFI was my inspiration. George Stevens Jr. and Gregory Peck took President Johnson for a walk in the White House garden and they told him that American filmmaking was being dominated by the British and Italians and French. Out of that meeting came the idea of The American Film Institute. A center for advanced film studies. I loved the idea that you could go to this institute and learn from professionals. After it had been established I got a phone call to visit the AFI in Beverly Hills. So I went up there and there’s a group of young filmmakers sitting on the floor and there’s John Ford with a bottle of whiskey. And he’s answering all their questions. I was just blown away. It was very exciting. So I thought gee if I could set up something like this in Canada that would be great. I went to Ottawa and I did a lot of politicking. I tried to get the federal government behind me, I got the provincial government behind me. So that’s how it happened and we’ve been very successful. We had three thousand people at our annual barbecue at the Toronto film festival this year.

THR: Why do you think it caught on so quickly?

Jewison: Oh I don’t know. Timing I suppose. It’s just like Bobby said: Timing is everything!