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November 27, 2006

MoMA Toasts Hollywood Independent

Oscar-winning producer Walter Mirisch discusses upcoming retrospective of his storied career

Producer Walter Mirisch's films won 28 Oscars, including three Best Picture prizes for (L-R) West Side Story, In the Heat of the Night and The Apartment

Before the Weinsteins, before Jerry Bruckheimer, there was Walter Mirisch. In 1957 the native New Yorker left his job as head of production at Allied Artists to form an independent company with his brothers Harold and Marvin; for a quarter century afterward, the Mirisch Corporation nurtured relationships with filmmakers like Billy Wilder, Norman Jewison, Blake Edwards and John Sturges -- winning 28 Oscars along the way.

Starting Dec. 1, MoMA will feature a month-long Mirisch retrospective, highlighting "the career of a producer who has managed to maintain his independence in the Hollywood system," says Josh Siegel, the exhibition's organizer. The 12 selected films, including his three Best Picture winners, The Apartment (1960), West Side Story (1961) and In the Heat of the Night (1967), offer a glimpse at his artistic and commercial achievements across what Mirisch has described as a "diversified diet" of genres. The 85-year-old Mirisch spoke recently about his life as an independent, his instinct for picking winners and the current state of the industry.

The Reeler: Were you involved in selecting the films for the retrospective?

Walter Mirisch: I think I did want to, but they said they would choose them. It's not too far afield from what I'd have done anyway.

R: Is one of these films particularly near and dear to you?

WM: It's like one's children. Even the children say, "Am I your favorite?" And most people, including me, I guess, say, "I love you all the same." There are different reasons that all of those films are very meaningful to me -- The Magnificent Seven for a lot of reasons. Lifelong friendships grew out of it with John Sturges, Steve McQueen, Jimmy Coburn and Charlie Bronson. It was, I think, the first outstanding film of the Mirisch Company when we started our association with United Artists. And then, of course West Side Story is West Side Story. In the Heat of the Night is a picture that meant and still means a great deal to me. I think what it had to say about race relations, well, has a lesson for us all now just as it did when it was made.

R: Was that the most difficult film to get made?

WM: Well, it was very difficult to get made. It was made right in the teeth of the civil rights revolution. That was all going on at that time and that's what Sidney Poitier, Norman Jewison and myself chose to weigh in with.

R: There was a fear that it might not be shown in the South, right?

WM: We were always afraid of that -- that it might not be shown, that it might be considered too inflammatory.

R: But, it was a huge hit right off the bat.

WM: It was a big hit right off the bat. Its original engagements were in the big Northern cities, where we hoped it would get a big send-off, and it did. The word-of-mouth traveled through the country and ultimately we did play all over the country quite successfully.

R: Did you gravitate towards filmmakers who, in addition to making entertaining films, wanted to make a social statement?

WM: Not necessarily. I gravitated towards the most talented people of my time.

R: It must be gratifying to have this retrospective because many people probably don't realize that you were involved with all of these films.

Walter Mirisch

WM: Well [laughs], with all these movies, some of them were made by some of the great directors of the 20th century, and yet there's a guiding person behind putting all this stuff together. And I was very lucky to have the opportunity to work with some of the great talents of my time. Billy Wilder, of course, with whom I made nine movies. The contributions of he and John Sturges with The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven ... It's rather exciting to have watched the life of these films through many, many decades and how they still seem to resonate with today's audiences.

R: People talk about the auteur theory for directors. Do you feel there is a through-line or connective tissue to all of your films?

WM: No. I think we made all types of films. Many of the great directors of the earlier period also did the same thing. They made all types of films. William Wyler made great dramas, The Best Years of Our Lives, Little Foxes, Wuthering Heights and all those films. He made great comedies and he made great action pictures [like] Ben-Hur and The Big Country.

R: You had a knack for producing movies that were both critically and commercially successful. What were your criteria for choosing a film?

WM: I made pictures to please myself and also pictures that I thought had a reasonably good chance of finding an audience. Because if you don't find audiences, soon then won't let you make any more pictures.

R: How do you develop a knack for knowing that it will find an audience or not?

WM: The only explanation I ever heard for that is, "It's in your gut." Nobody can really answer that question. It's a combination of experience, taste, watching what's happening with all of your films -- all of that.

R: Your films seem to catch what is going on in society. I read somewhere where you said you wanted to "stay ahead of the pack."

WM: You do try and do that. I don't think there is any formula for it. Most filmmakers would answer that the same way and I think most of today's filmmakers would say the same thing. Nobody connects 100 percent of the time. Certain genres all of a sudden catch on and become very popular. The first really successful one of a genre will be a bit hit, but by the time you get to the end, the audience is ready to move onto something else.

R: What was an instance where you stayed ahead of the pack?

WM: I think at the time we did West Side Story, there was a feeling that musicals had about run their course. And in the last 30 to 40 years, there have been few great musicals. It was the beginning, I think, of a period when some musicals did start again, after the great days of the classic MGM musicals. After West Side Story came My Fair Lady and Camelot and a lot of those films.

R: When you started the Mirisch Corporation, independent producers were not the norm, right?

WM: Charlie Chaplin was an independent producer and so were [other] classic people of silent pictures [like] Mary Pickford. They were really independent because most of them were self-financing. We weren't completely on our own. All of our films were made for United Artists and they did our financing.

R: What was the advantage of having your own company?

WM: The number of executives you have to go through to get approvals to do your films is very much cut down. After they approved the project and the budget, they left us alone to make the film.

R: It has been said that this arrangement became a blueprint for relationship between producers and studios today. Would you agree?

WM: It may well have. Because at that point all the other film companies were giving up the old studio system where they tried to control all the talent and had writers, directors and actors under contract. They gave that up and tried to make arrangements with independent companies such as ours who would develop the projects and attract talent to it. And, of course, that's what most of the business is today -- the studios have become financiers and distributors.

R: Were there any times you had to fight with the studio over a project?

WM: Oh, sure.

R: What were those projects, if you don't mind discussing them?

WM: I do. That's all in the past. The relationship with United Artists was a wonderful one and I am really grateful. They were wonderful to work with; they had great confidence in us. During those years they were led by Arthur Kramer. We worked with him, and I think most of the decisions we made were good ones and they were made with his approval.

R: What is the biggest difference that you notice in Hollywood today?

(L-R) Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven

WM: I don't know. It's what the relationships are. A lot of the very successful independent groups of today -- Jerry Bruckheimer, Steven Spielberg-- if they are fortunate to have good relationships with one or two studios, they are able to maintain their artistic freedom and make pictures. It's more difficult for other people who don't have track records. From the beginning, you had to have made a track record that studios wanted to attach themselves to.

R: Do you think it's more difficult today?

WM: I suppose so. The cost of pictures has become so immense; the commitment to them is probably more difficult. In addition to which, I think it's probably more difficult because during that period, it was probably a golden age of great talent -- great writers, great directors, great stars. Of course there are many today, but I think there were many more back then. If you ask me why -- I don't know.

R: Do you feel like the importance placed on marketing decisions might have an impact?

WM: It may, but there's nothing new about that. The distributors would talk to their sales people and say, "What do you think if we make this picture? Do you think if we're going to find an audience for it?"

R: But no one said, "You know, In the Heat of the Night would really be better if Sidney Poitier's character were white?"

WM: [Laughs] They didn't say that -- or they didn't say it to me. You would hear all those things. Someone would say to you, "I've got a great idea -- why don't you put that person and that person in a movie together." And you would have to separate the whatever from the chaff.

R: Is there a film that you loved that didn't make it into the retrospective that you wish did?

WM: I don't know. There were a lot of pictures that suppose weren't as successful as I hoped they'd be ... Two to Seesaw, Hawaii. There are pictures that didn't find as big an audience as I had hoped. They may have been too late in the pack.

R: If you had to add one film, what would it be?

WM: Maybe Fiddler on the Roof.

R: Why?

WM: Because it's a very meaningful picture to me. I love what it's about—it's about tradition, it's about family, all the things that are really most important in life. Plus, done with an incredible score.

R: I was surprised that The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming wasn't included.

WM: I don't know whether or not people identify with it as much in this period when the menace of the Russians isn't felt the way it was back when that picture was made.

R: Do you think some of that was because you were too far ahead or too far behind the pack?

WM: I don't know. You can't give pictures MRI's.



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