Author Douglass K. Daniel’s new biography, “Tough As Nails: The Life and Films of Richard Brooks” is an absorbing and in depth look at one of America’s most noteworthy filmmakers, of which little has been written about. Mr. Daniel’s book fills in the gap with a wealth of information complete with backstories on each of Brooks films as well as interviews and anecdotes with family, friends and co-workers.
First, I want thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Can you tell us a little about yourself.
Hey, John, it’s good to be a part of Twenty Four Frames!
I’m a journalist by day — I work for the Associated Press in Washington — and I use my off-hours to write about things that interest me, like the movies. I split my childhood between Richmond, Va., and Garden City, Kan., and studied at Kansas State University (B.S.) and later at Ohio University (M.S., Ph.D.). I worked for the AP in the 1980s between college stints. After having taught journalism at both my alma maters, I rejoined the AP in late 2003.
This is your third book. You previously wrote about two of journalisms most respected and well-known practitioners, 60 Minutes’ Harry Reasoner and the fictional Lou Grant. What attracted you to write about these two?
The Lou Grant book was my dissertation for my doctoral degree in mass communication. I wanted to explore the link between movies and journalism, but coming up with a subject was tough. My adviser suggested looking at how the TV series “Lou Grant” depicted journalism during its five-year run, 1977-1982, to an audience of 15 million to 20 million each week.
The Harry Reasoner book was a project I undertook while teaching at Kansas State. I continued working on it at Ohio University and finally saw it to publication in 2007. Reasoner was a significant subject because of his prominence in TV journalism; little had been written about him.
What inspired you to write about Richard Brooks?
I’ve loved the movies all my life, and I wanted to write a movie-related book. I found that Richard Brooks, a significant filmmaker, had not been the subject of a biography, so that seemed like a promising subject. Plus, his papers at the motion picture academy’s Herrick Library in Beverly Hills offered some solid sources of information.
Another reason Richard Brooks appealed to me as a subject was his background in journalism. He had a reporter’s mindset, even as a filmmaker. He studied journalism during his two years at Temple University, then he was a reporter for most of the 1930s, first at a newspaper in Philadelphia, his hometown, and later in Atlantic City. He got into radio at New York’s WNEW and was a combination broadcaster and commentator.
While in NYC he tried his hand at writing drama, then at directing for a regional theater.
On a whim, in 1940, Richard drove to L.A. and ended up finding work in broadcasting. It was an unusual gig: He would write a short story each day and read it for a 15-minute show. What he really wanted to do was write for the movies, and he managed to get a job at Universal. He built a Hollywood career from there.
For Richard, a key moment in his life came between college and working in Philly. He couldn’t find a job after dropping out of Temple, so he rode the rails for a while. Life on the bum during the Depression gave him an experience far removed from college.
Like Billy Wilder and John Huston, Brooks was a writer first. Wilder once said that he began directing to protect the screenplays he wrote because he felt the directors were ruining them. Why did Brooks want to direct?
Richard had been a writer in his teens. More important, he was a reader from childhood. I think he found escape and solace in reading stories, and he grew up wanting to tell stories. He realized, as a young adult, that he needed to read even more to be a good storyteller.
I’m sure he understood that directing his own scripts would give him control, as Wilder and Huston found. But Richard also saw directing as a form of storytelling. He figured out rather quickly that what was in the script was a guide for what would be on the screen. The director had to make all sorts of decisions to make the written word work in images. Richard realized that directors are indeed “authors” in their own right.
In those early days there were a series of people who helped Brooks achieve his goal of becoming a director, people like Mark Hellinger, Cary Grant, and John Huston. What did they see in Brooks that made them willing, for lack of a better term, go the extra mile, for him?
In a word, passion. Richard Brooks was a passionate guy when it came to what he thought was important. He was passionate about ideas, about politics, about lots of things. That passion impressed other people, and they saw it as fuel for Richard’s creativity and drive. Another word: honesty. They saw Richard as an honest man. And by honest, I mean genuine as well as trustworthy.
One of the earliest films Brooks directed, his third I believe, was “Deadline U.S.A,” which seems to be the first film he felt a strong connection to, or a “passion” for, the word you used. This was the first true Richard Brooks film, one that he wrote and directed. How much did his newspaper background have to do with this?
His newspaper background was essential, just as army service was essential to Sam Fuller’s work. His first two movies, “Crisis” and “The Light Touch,” were decent films that he adapted from the stories of others, but “Deadline U.S.A.” featured an original screenplay about something Richard prized — freedom of the press. He understood that a newspaper’s demise meant one less voice., one less champion for truth. Journalists loved that movie, and still do.
“The Blackboard Jungle” was not a typical MGM type of film, and apparently Brooks and his producers met quite a bit of opposition from MGM and others about making it. Can you tell us a little about this?
This 1955 movie was among those caught up in the communist era, that period in which, with the nuclear bomb a real threat, people feared the Soviet Union and the idea that communism could come to America. Movies that showed the country in a bad light were often looked on as potential communist propaganda, and the studios were sensitive to such criticism.
Although juvenile delinquency was a problem widely covered by the press at the time, some felt it shouldn’t be shown in a film — and certainly not in a film shown overseas, where the “Reds” could say, see, America isn’t so great. MGM chief Dore Schary, an avowed liberal, championed so-called problem pictures and understood that they could be provocative entertainment and carry a message.
When “Blackboard Jungle” came out, it met with solid reviews, great box office, and lots of criticism from public officials who believed such “bad behavior” shown in the film would be exacerbated. There were efforts in some communities to ban the movie, and it was banned or heavily edited in several overseas markets. Of course, it seems awfully tame today.
The film is also noted for being the first to use a rock and roll song, “Rock Around the Clock,” in the soundtrack, a year before Elvis even appeared on screen. How did this come about?
Brooks claimed that he heard the song on the radio one night and thought it would be good for the movie. The song had been out a year or two, had already run its course on the charts, and was on its way to being forgotten when Richard put it in the opening soundtrack. Bang! It soon reached No. 1, a first for a rock song.
By the way, Glenn Ford’s son Peter contends that Brooks borrowed a couple of his records in search of a rock song, one of them “Rock Around the Clock,” and he suggests that’s how the song got into Richard’s hands. That’s certainly possible.
Brooks always seemed to be pushing the limits of the production code, and censors in general. “The Blackboard Jungle” (violence, rape and language), “Elmer Gantry” (religion, sex), yet he seemed to have no problem toning down Tennessee Williams plays for the screen. For example, in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” the homosexuality is glossed over, and in the play “Sweet Bird of Youth,” Chance was castrated while in the film he was instead beaten up and given a broken nose. Was he comfortable making such major changes in Williams work?
I think he was a realist when it came to such matters. The reality, during the Production Code years, was that MGM wasn’t going to make a movie rejected by the Code office. Richard figured out ways to deal with those content matters and keep the drama alive and compelling. I think it was easier for him because, first, these were Williams’ stories, not his, and, second, he could tell himself that no real damage was being done to the story. I think that is a bit of wishful thinking on his part.
“Elmer Gantry,” one of his greatest films, is also one of his most controversial. The film is a brilliant attack on the self-serving and hypocritical moralists of the day, and I am sure it had to ruffle the feathers of many. To me, this film seems as relevant today, maybe even more so, considering the bold face hypocrisy we read and hear about religious and political leaders. Any thoughts?
I agree with you. “Elmer Gantry” still works today because religion is still being undercut by hypocrisy. Critics point to Sinclair Lewis’ novel as an attack on hypocrisy as much as religion, and indeed it is. Richard’s brilliance was figuring out how to make the novel work as a film. Putting the focus on the middle part of the book yet retaining key characters from other sections was inspired.
Brooks worked with the great cinematographer Conrad Hall in three films (The Professionals, In Cold Blood, and The Happy Ending). In the beginning, during the filming of “The Professionals” their relationship got off to a rocky start, in fact, didn’t Hall almost quit?
That’s what Conrad Hall said later. He was one of the many, many people who found that the soft-spoken, agreeable and charming Richard Brooks he knew off the set was a raging taskmaster during filming. Hall was no novice, of course, and he decided he would tough it out to see what he could learn. In the end, he was quite complimentary of Richard and felt that his work was all the better for Richard’s direction. And, of course, Richard’s work was all the better because of Hall’s fine photography.
“In Cold Blood” still stands as one of the most important and powerful films of the 1960′s. There are scenes in the film that are just burned into one’s memory. I know you are from Kansas and your family lived near the town where the murders happened. Any personal experiences you can tell us about those times?
Holcomb, the small community where the Clutters lived, is next to Garden City, the county seat and my mother’s hometown. My grandmother lived there from the mid-1930s on. I didn’t move to Garden until 1970, 11 years after the murders, four years after Capote’s book came out, and three years after the movie was filmed there.
That said, there are many second-hand connections for me: my grandmother was friends with the Clutters, one of my college professors was the editor of the paper during that period, and I’ve known many other people whose lives were touched by the murders.
The film “In Cold Blood” has a personal connection for me because it reminds me of the Garden City that I knew as a teenager. My grandmother operated a beauty salon across from the courthouse, and you can catch a glimpse of it in the movie when the killers are returned from Las Vegas. I used to deliver the newspaper to the sheriff’s office in the courthouse, and the sheriff during my youth is in a few scenes. Later, I played poker just off the jail, in the top floor of the courthouse, only feet from the cells where Smith and Hickock awaited trial some 20 years earlier.
A few years ago I watched the movie again but with my mother. When the trial scene came up — like many, it was filmed in the actual place — my mother pointed to the witness stand in the courtroom and said, “That’s where I sat when I divorced your father!” I couldn’t help but laugh.
Brooks was a compulsive writer, probably to the detriment of his marriages. In the book, you mention Jean Simmons saying, he would come home from work, eat and go to his office and write. What drove him?
I think he believed in the power of ideas, and he wanted to tell the world what he thought about things. He read books by the score (he had thousands in his home) and saw writing as his life. The idea of work as a reason for existing was central to his being. Not just writing, but working in all aspects of film — editing and producing as well as writing and directing. I get the feeling he didn’t want to waste a single moment of the day. I was told that he once found a page missing from his daybook and raged, “Who stole a day from me?!”
I don’t doubt that he loved Jean Simmons and their two daughters; I know they loved him. And there’s no question that he cared about close friends. But daytime was for work, in his mind, and the idea of parties and such was not what he usually saw as a good use of his time.
He seemed to always have done plenty of research for each of his projects; even in his early days as a screenwriter he did a massive amount of investigating. You mention that during the making of “In Cold Blood,” he did not just rely on Truman Capote’s research but went out and interviewed many of the same local’s himself. Was this an instinct leftover from his days as a newspaper reporter?
Definitely. Truth mattered to him. He wanted his movies to be grounded in truth. (He researched evangelism for “Gantry” and endurance horse races for “Bite the Bullet” and singles bars for “Looking for Mr. Goodbar.“) Realism was for the drama, I think, but he wanted the basics of his stories to be true. That’s why he did so much research. Plus, I suspect he found, as many writers do, that facts inspire creativity.
Brooks’ best films seemed to be the ones he felt most passionate about, films with social issues he was personally concerned with like racism, moral stances, the death penalty and fighting for the underdog. Even in a purely entertainment-type action film like “The Professionals,” he worked in issues he felt close to.
Yes, indeed. I think he developed a single theme for his movies, one idea he wanted to get across amid the drama of the story. He kept it simple. For “In Cold Blood,” it was the futility of the death penalty. In “Lord Jim” it was the attraction of a second chance in life. In “The Professionals” it was the idea of staying true to one’s moral code. We can discuss whether his movies were successful in getting such ideas across, but he tried.
Apparently, Brooks was the type who went his own way, a man who seemed at times to be at polar opposites; a tough ex-Marine, demanding on the set, yet he was known to shed a tear or two watching a sentimental love story. He did not necessarily show his softer side to everyone, correct?
He was so hard on people, a man, as Peter O’Toole said, who lived “at the top of his voice.” Yet he cared about humanity, he cared about individuals, he cared about animals. He detested racism, injustice, cruelty — he wanted the human race to be better. Yet, he was an optimist, and that trait leads some to say that his films far short of being as powerful as they could be because he wanted to end his stories on an optimistic note. They have a point, but then that’s how he saw things.
Though he got 10 Oscar nominated performances from his actors, some like Anne Francis and Debbie Reynolds say they received little direction. Shirley Jones at first received cold treatment from him during “Elmer Gantry’ until he watched the dailies of her performance and then made a complete turnaround helping her work through her performance. Was this just a sign of disinterest in actors he thought were incapable of giving him what he wanted, or was it something else?
I am guessing a bit here: I think he expected actors to be able to take his scripts and get a good performance out of his words. He tended to work with the best, top actors and supporting players, and he didn’t have a lot of time for beginners. Where he made his mistake, I think, was seeing people like Anne Francis and Debbie Reynolds and Shirley Jones as beginners who needed to be scolded and bullied into giving good performances. I could be wrong, of course. Perhaps they needed a fire under them.
At first, “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” may have seemed like an odd film for a rugged ex-Marine, being a “woman’s picture,” or at least a film about a woman, yet many of his films had great roles for females, like Shirley Jones and Jean Simmons in “Elmer Gantry,” Elizabeth Taylor in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Geraldine Page and Shirley Knight in “Sweet Bird of Youth” to name a few. Here again, he seemed to be a man of contradictions.
I think it’s fair to ask whether he was rougher on women than men. And it’s fair to ask whether he could write effective female parts. Well, the latter question is answered by the roles you cite — some pretty good female roles and performances. I must say, though, that I didn’t find any hard evidence of misogyny. I think he was hard on anyone he thought might be in the way of achieving his goals, man or woman.
Like many of the remaining directors at the time, brought up in the old studio system, Brooks had a rough time of it in the 1970’s with the onslaught of the New Hollywood. During those final years “Goodbar” was his only film that was artistically and financially a success. Was he, like an aging athlete, just past his prime?
You know, so many directors end their careers on sour notes. Hitchcock did, Howard Hawks did, John Ford did. I think time is the reason — it’s hard to make a movie when you are in your 60s and 70s, and it’s harder still to be in the business for 30, 40, 50 years and have a style that continues to work for audiences whose tastes and levels of sophistication have changed with time.
I think Richard had a problem perceiving what the audience wanted to see and matching that with what he wanted to do. “Bite the Bullet” is a favorite of western fans, but there were not enough of them out there in 1975 to make the movie a hit. Some critics liked it, and some didn’t. His last two films, “Wrong is Right” in 1982 and “Fever Pitch” in 1985, were disasters, but for different reasons. “Wrong is Right” was a satire, and Richard hadn’t tried that before. I don’t think he had the right mindset for that subtle blend of humor and irony. “Fever Pitch” was just wrongheaded in its view of gambling addicts and was melodramatic otherwise.
Yet, Richard was still slugging away, coming up with a story, writing it himself, and trying to get it on film. That drive impresses me even if the results don‘t.
After completing the book did you come away from the project with a different opinion of Brooks?
I must admit, I didn’t have any opinion of Brooks when I started out. I knew nothing about him. I suppose I was most surprised to find that this compelling person hadn’t attracted more attention — that someone hadn’t already written his story.
What other filmmakers interest you?
I am drawn to the making-of stories behind movies I like. I enjoyed reading Michael Sragow’s biography of Victor Fleming and Scott Eyman’s of Cecil B. DeMille. I am eager to read the upcoming book on Nicholas Ray by Patrick McGilligan and the just-released bio of Arthur Penn.
Is there another subject on your plate? Anything you can share with us?
Finding another subject is a challenge. The other day I scanned a list online of “greatest directors.” Just about all of them — at least the ones that interested me — have been written about. I think turning to a contemporary director would be a good idea. Problem is, we don’t know who today will have a body of work that still draws audiences 30 years from now. The best of Richard Brooks has stood the test of time.
Doug, again I want to thank you for taking the time for doing this. The book is a fascinating, informative look at the inside workings of Hollywood and at one of its most interesting figures.
Thanks! I am so pleased you think so!