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Interview with Norman Jewison

"You ever look into Ben Hecht?" Norman Jewison asked. "Hecht was one hell of a guy. You can read his stuff and it comes out like it was written today: bitter and tough. He had a lot to say about this country."

Jewison sat on the edge of a chair and did what a lot of people do when they're wrapped up in talking about something. He took his glass between his thumb and first finger and kept twisting it around on the coffee table, unconsciously, and all the time talking about Hecht:

"Hecht wrote 'Gaily, Gaily' about what was going to turn out to be the big theme of later years: the loss of innocence. He came up to Chicago from a small town, and he was simply bowled over by this big city, indifferent as hell about what happened to him."

Jewison said it was that feeling that made him want to shoot "Gaily, Gaily" on location in Chicago. "The feeling is still here," he said. "This is the most American city there is. It doesn't give a damn what you think about it. Sometimes that's good, and sometimes it isn't."

For the past ten days, Jewison and a large camera crew have been shooting the Chicago Hecht, must have known: the B&O station, Lincoln Park, streets on the Near North Side, and the Auditorium Theater. For some of the scenes, he costumed as many as 400 extras in the fashions of 1910.

This week, the company moves to Milwaukee. "They have streets there that still look more like Chicago than anything left here," Jewison said. Then they will go to Galena, on the Mississippi River, which will represent the small town Hecht left when he came to the big city.

Jewison, who is 42, learned his craft as a director of live television drama. He left TV during the early 1960s, part of the great immigration of television directors into the movies. Unlike an earlier generation, which believed you could duplicate anything short of Mount Sinai in a Hollywood sound stage, he shoots on location whenever possible.

"You've got to get out and shoot where it really happens," he said. "You get a feeling of actuality. You get little things happening - remember the gate that kept getting stuck in 'In the Heat of the Night'? The location suggests things to you."

He shot "In the Heat of the Night" entirely on location in Sparta, Ill., which was moved to Mississippi for the occasion. Then he did his latest film, "The Thomas Crown Affair," entirely in Boston. "Think of it," he said, "a movie shot in Boston.

Nobody ever shoots movies in Boston. You get hundreds of movies shot in Los Angeles, a godforsaken place. But never in Boston, or Chicago. And these are cities with tremendous atmosphere, an excitement that hangs in the air without anyone realizing it."

Jewison said he has wanted to make a movie in Chicago for a long time. The city hasn't exactly been crowded with film crews recently. Aside from "The Monitors," the Bell & Howell-Second City production that recently completed production, there hasn't been a major film shot here since Arthur Penn and Warren Beatty did "Mickey One" in 1963.

"I thought then, and I still think, that 'Mickey One' is a great film," Jewison said. "There was a mood, an environment, in it. You got the scent of Chicago." Jewison talks quickly and has a satirist's sense of humor. When he is working on a set, he seems to have more fun than most directors. He wears sneakers, moves around rapidly, tells jokes, and joins in exchanges of one-upmanship.

And unlike most American directors, he likes to talk about the technical aspects of his work. He has this in common with European directors, who are as likely to talk about the camera style of their new film as its plot.

"Many American film critics are completely ignorant about film technique," he said. "They go to a movie and review the story. They don't understand style. You would never confuse the plot of a novel with the style it's written in, but a lot of critics make that mistake with movies. If the director uses a quick pace and moves around in time, a critic is likely to say the story was confused. The story has nothing to do with it."

Style is of particular interest in Jewison's new film, "The Thomas Crown Affair," scheduled for mid-summer release in Chicago. It's one of the first narrative films to use multiple images like those employed in "A Place to Stand" and many other films at Expo 67. At times, according to Jewison, four or five images will be on the screen at once, masked from each other by black borders.

"This picks up the pace tremendously," he said. "You can show several actions simultaneously, instead of one after another, and you can show transitions in an altogether new way: the actions overlap and lead into one another."

Jewison said he also pays a great deal of attention to the color in his films: "I don't agree with the purists who say true movies are in black and white. I've never shot in black and white, and I never will. I think color is more realistic. The thing is, you have to be moderate in your use of color.

"In the old days, Hollywood had a simple theory about color. If it's in color, let's put lots of color in it. But you splash on too much color and you ruin the effect. When I made 'The Cincinnati Kid,' I kept away from all primary colors. Everything was muted. Then, when I needed a splash of red - in the cock fight scene, for example - I could use it and get the emotional reaction I wanted."

Both "In the Heat of the Night" and "The Thomas Crown Affair" were photographed for Jewison by Haskell Wexler, one of the rare young cameramen in an industry largely dominated by the seniority system. "In my own blase opinion," Jewison said, "Wexler has photographed 'Thomas Crown' as one of the most stylistically brilliant films ever done. Of course, we'll be accused of placing style ahead of content, but I say the hell with that. People who say that understand neither style nor content. In the movies, style IS content."

In "Gaily, Gaily," Jewison said, he will try to represent Hecht's essentially radical approach to society. "A lot of the ideas we have today came from Hecht," Jewison said. "He was one of the first to see clearly that the traditional American ideals were in conflict with the way life is actually lived in this country. In a rather unintellectual but terribly succinct way, he mirrored the life of his times."

The part of Hecht's life covered in "Gaily, Gaily" will be drawn largely from Hecht's reminiscences published under that title. Beau Bridges, whose only previous movie roles were in "The Incident" and Sidney Poitier's still unreleased "For Love of Ivy," will play the young Hecht.

Other leading players include Melina Mercouri as Queen Lil, madam of Chicago's most popular brothel; Brian Keith as a hard-drinking Chicago newspaper reporter; George Kennedy as a crooked reform politician; and Hume Cronyn as "Honest" Tim Grogan, a character based on several Chicago mayors who were not as honest as they might have been.

"We had a lot of fun preparing this movie and looking for authentic locations," Jewison said, grinning. "We had a devil of a time finding a house for George Kennedy. We drove up and down every street in Chicago, looking for a big old house that would look like the home of a corrupt 1910 reform politician.

Finally, we found the perfect place: perfect in every detail except one. We couldn't use it. Turned out Cardinal Cody lives there."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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