Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Budd Schulberg: Waterfront Memories

On the Waterfront (Directed by Elia Kazan)
Budd Schulberg was born in New York in 1914, son of B.P. Schulberg, production chief at Paramount Studios. Schulberg grew up in Hollywood becoming a script reader and then a screenwriter after completing his education at Dartmouth College. He began to write and publish short stories in the 1930s and became a member of the Communist Party after visiting the Soviet Union in 1934. He would later recall his decision to join the party: ‘It didn’t take a genius to tell you that something was vitally wrong with the country. The unemployment was all around us. The bread lines and the apple sellers. I couldn’t help comparing that with my own family’s status, with my father; at one point he was making $11,000 a week. And I felt a shameful contrast between the haves and the have-nots very early’.

His commitment to the Communist Party ended after it insisted that his first novel be written to reflect Marxist dogma. He eventually published What Makes Sammy Run (1941), about an unscrupulous Hollywood studio mogul, to great critical acclaim.

During World War II, Schulberg worked in the OSS, the intelligence-gathering forerunner to the CIA. Working with director John Ford’s film unit, he documented the atrocities of the concentration camps, then personally arrested the Nazi film-maker Leni Riefenstahl at her Austrian chalet.

After the war, Schulberg published The Disenchanted (1950), his semi-fictionalized account of collaborating with F. Scott Fitzgerald on a screenplay.

In 1951 Schulberg was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) during its investigation of the Communist Party’s alleged influence on the film industry. Having been named himself Schulberg acknowledged his former membership, offering his full cooperation. In his testimony before the Committee, Schulberg claimed he left the party because it refused to break with the Soviet dictatorship, and had tried to influence his work. He publicly named eight other Hollywood figures as members, including the screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. and the director Herbert Biberman – two of the Hollywood Ten who claimed the First Amendment gave them the right to silence before the committee. Schulberg’s testimony was seen as a betrayal. The liberal consensus in Hollywood was that Lardner had acquitted himself with more dignity before the committee when asked if he had been a Communist: ‘I could answer it, but if I did, I would hate myself in the morning.’

In a 2006 interview with the New York Times, Schulberg claimed that in hindsight he believed that the attacks against Communists in the United States were a greater threat to the country than the Communist Party itself. But he said he had named names because the party represented a genuine threat to freedom of speech: ‘They say that you testified against your friends, but once they supported the party against me, even though I did have some personal attachments, they were really no longer my friends... and I felt that if they cared about real freedom of speech, they should have stood up for me when I was fighting the party.’

After his testimony Schulberg worked on the screenplay for On the Waterfront which grew out of a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles written for The New York Sun about the influence of organized crime on the New York docks. The film was directed by Elia Kazan who had also testified before the Committee. Marlon Brando played the washed-up boxer, Terry Malloy, who turns against the power of the mob.

The allegorical parallels between the film and the McCarthy hearings are a subject of continuing controversy. The issue has been played down by Schulberg and Kazan. In his autobiography Kazan claimed he had wanted to do a picture about the waterfront long before the HUAC hearings. For Schulberg the film is a tragedy in which the system comes up against the little guy, a fixed fight in a world where ‘the love of a lousy buck’ and a ‘cushy job’ were ‘more important than the love of man,’ in the words of Father Barry, the crusading priest in On the Waterfront played by Karl Malden.

‘It’s the writer’s responsibility to stand up against that power,’ Schulberg later said. ‘The writers are really almost the only ones, except for very honest politicians, who can make any dent on that system. I tried to do that. And that’s affected me my whole life.’

In the following interview from 1998, Budd Schulberg recalled the making of On the Waterfront after a screening in New York.

Budd Schulberg: When I saw the other day on a list that our old movie was in the top ten... as one of the best pictures of all time, I thought again about travelling to Hollywood - Kazan and me. Kazan who directed this film, who already won an Academy Award for A Gentleman’s Agreement – all the way out telling me what a great script we had. He was saying we were so lucky because [he] had Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar and that [On the Waterfront] is one of the best three scripts [he'd] ever had. And I was worried... I told him I was worried about coming back [to Hollywood]. I told him I didn’t think they would like it out there.

Kazan was annoyed with me. I’ll try to make it brief, but we got off the train and there was no one to meet us and I said, ‘Kaz, there’s no limo’. Now Kazan is a very down to earth guy and he said ‘we don’t need a limo, I hate limos’. So we went up to the Beverly Hills Hotel and got there, checked in and no invitations from Daryl Zanuck – it was a film to be made for Zanuck – no invitation to come down to Palm Springs and play croquet. I said ‘there’s no invitation to play croquet’. Kazan says ‘I HATE croquet!’

And we went up to the room, we had a little suite, and there weren’t no flowers. I looked around and didn’t see no flowers. And I said, ‘Kaz, we have no flowers’. Kazan says, ‘What it is with you, I don’t need flowers. To hell with the flowers.’ And I said, ‘Kaz, you come from New York, I come from Hollywood. And I know the unspoken language of Hollywood and Zanuck is telling us something’. Kazan didn’t believe me.

But the following Monday, when Daryl Zanuck met us, raving about Cinemascope, he said ‘I’m so excited, I’m so excited, we have this great new medium, Cinemascope’. He said ‘that’s the great thing about our business. First it was flickers, and the films jumped, and then we learned how to make them more smoothly. And then we had colour and then we had sound and now we have the Cinemascope. 

Kazan and I looked at each other because we had written that this film should be something in flat black and white. As he went on about what could be done, he said, ‘Can you imagine what Prince Valiant would look like in Cinemascope?’ And finally Kazan said, ‘Daryl, what about our picture?’ There was a long, pregnant pause and Mr. Zanuck said, ‘Boys, I’m sorry, but I don’t like a single thing about it’. And I think I was quiet and Kazan said not a single thing.

He said, ‘Whatta ya got except a bunch of sweaty longshoremen’. And that stabbed me in the heart because when Kazan came to talk with me about doing this movie, I went down on the Lower West Side, in the Chelsea area – you’ll see some of that experience up here in the movie – and I got involved with an amazing man, one of the most amazing I ever met, the waterfront priest – Father John Corridon.

I mean, we’ve learned now that the ILA – the International Longshoreman’s Association – was totally in the hands of the mob. They were killers and thieves. Corridon was really filling the vacuum and trying to guide the rebel longshoremen into making some effort to win back their young and make a real living. This went on for several years and I hung in with these people. I love these people and when Zanuck said that all you got is a lot of sweaty longshoremen... my heart was broken. After that, every studio in town, had the same reaction.

We went to Warners, Paramount, MGM, every single one said no. They wouldn’t make the picture. And as I said... what we were talking about a few minutes ago... one thing that really warmed me to Kazan... and I tried, I really tried... and I turned on him. Back at the hotel... I was so mad. I had spent about two years, I had actually mortgaged my farm, I was going broke doing this movie... and I turned on him and I said, ‘Goddamit, I told you they weren’t going to make this movie’. And Kazan said, ‘Budd, I promise I’ll make it. I have to get on the docks with a handheld IMO and use the actual longshoremen – the rebel longshoremen who were working with Ed Xavier and some of the actors out of the (Actor’s) Studio and make this movie. And that’s pretty much how it was made. It really was the longest of the longshots. It was almost accidental that the movie ever got made at all. It was a longshot.

It was all shot in Hoboken, New Jersey, across the river from the Manhattan West Side docks. It was made for 800,000 dollars and it was shot in 37 days. And every single night, every single night, twelve o’clock, one’o clock, two o’clock my phone would ring and it would be our producer, Sam Speigel and he would say, ‘Budd, you’ve got to make them go faster, you’ve got to make them go faster’. So, the film was a film that was almost like our own film, that nobody would like so we would say to each other, ‘Oh well, it doesn’t matter that nobody likes it, at least we like it’. And so, I’m really pleased that you’re here to see the movie and that there’s still that much interest in it after all these years.

Question: What were the initial reactions after the film was made?

Budd Schulberg: Our producer, Sam Speigel, was still very worried. Columbia had looked at it and they didn’t like it. So Sam Speigel got the idea that maybe it needed some kind of lift, and he got Bernstein to do the score for the film. It was the only one that he ever wrote and he did a terrific job. And when we got all those Oscar nominations and we won... all those Oscars, we were really amazed that Bernstein was left out completely. But the score wasn’t left out, it’ll always be there. Occasionally it’s played in philharmonic programs and it was the only one he did and he did one hell of a job at that.

Question: In most modern films, the score fades into the background, but in your film the score is right up in front. Was that Speigel, or was that your choice?

Budd Schulberg: That was in the mixing. As the writer of the picture, as much as I admired the score, there were times that I thought it was maybe it was a little bit... too loud. (laughter)

Question: I know it’s a general question, but how do you approach writing dialogue. Is there a certain method that you use?

Budd Schulberg: One thing you do in writing dialogue is that you make up as little of it as you can and you listen as much as you can. Watching it this evening, I was reminded how many times something in there was not really written by me, I simply wrote down what they were actually saying. The scene in the hold, after Doogan gets killed, Father Barry comes down and when he talks about Christ and the shake-up, that was something that I actually heard. When I heard the real waterfront priest talk about that Christ is here and he carries a hook and he sees the men who get passed over and who gets the jobs and the wine and I was just so amazed by it that I just had to try and put this old sermon, or whatever you call it, in the film.

Dialogue, you try to build your characters... if you try to get an idea about who you’re writing about, then you listen to that person or those people. When Charlie gets killed, the ordinary cliché for Terry would be ‘I’ll get ‘em’ or ‘I’ll kill ‘em’ or something like that, but I actually heard a longshoreman say ‘I'll take it out of their skulls!’ And it just rang a bell, a loud bell, that that’s the line I should use.  I’ll say what I heard my friend the longshoreman say, ‘I'll take it out of their skulls’. So a lot of dialogue comes out of listening, carefully, to the characters and getting an ear for how they talk and plus, you have to shape your scenes and build your scenes on all of that. I find it very, very valuable, I think. 

– Interview transcript with Budd Schulberg in ‘New York Conversations’, by Mikael Colville-Andersen.

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