20 Great Interviews:
John Huston

T.J. English, Contibutor
October / November 2005

Was it good for you?” asked the legendary director John Huston, his distinctive voice bellowing across the sound stage.

“Fine, perfect,” replied assistant director Tommy Shaw, a stout, white-bearded terrier of a man, who in turn motioned to Fred Murphy, the cinematographer, and asked, “How was it for you?”

“Good,” said Murphy, ever so politely. “Couldn’t have been better.”

With that the 80-year-old director stood for the first time in hours, his familiar white mane and weather-beaten face glistening in the stage lights. “Let’s call that a print,” he said, stretching tentatively so as not to entangle the plastic tubes running from his nose to a nearby oxygen generator.

Immediately the crew descended in a flurry of activity, moving lights and cameras for the next set-up in the on-going family affair that has become The Dead, Huston’s eagerly awaited adaptation of the James Joyce short story and his 36th Hollywood film.

Hampered somewhat by the fact that Huston is confined to a wheelchair most of the time — with the oxygen tanks and generator constantly by his side — the cast and crew often had to strain to hear Huston’s pronouncements — but nobody was complaining. Indeed, the entire cast, led by Huston’s daughter, Anjelica, and including some of Ireland’s most venerable stage actors and actresses, were effusive in their praise of the director of The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen and numerous other heavyweight film achievements.

“Remember, what we want here is the moment, that precise moment when he sees Gretta. Everything else is secondary,” Huston directs. He then sits forward in his wheelchair, gasping momentarily for air. The light from the video monitor illuminates his frail body — the ever-present oxygen tubes running from his nose to the nearby generator — as he waits in silence for his assistant to give the command to commence filming.

“Asking about Joyce is like asking about Shakespeare,” said Huston, a trace of exasperation in his craggy baritone voice. “We’re talking about a man whose work changed the course of history. It would be difficult — impossible really — to pinpoint his influence.”

“What we wanted to do,” he said, of the eight-week shoot in Southern California, “was not so much to adhere paragraph for paragraph to Joyce’s prose, but to capture a certain mood, an exuberance for life that exists in the story.”

Huston traces his own love affair with Joyce back to his youth, when his mother first smuggled a copy of Ulysses into the States in 1928. “It was banned at the time, you know,” remarked the director. “But I remember it vividly, even the blue-paper cover it was wrapped in. And, of course, I’ll never forget reading it; it is probably what motivated me to become a writer and a filmmaker.”

But even with his deep love of Joyce, Huston had always steered clear of tackling the author’s larger works on film because, as he put it, “Filming Joyce didn’t seem practical.”

It wasn’t until Huston was approached by producer Weill and Schulz-Keil specifically about filming “The Dead” — Joyce’s 50-page conclusion to Dubliners and one of his more accessible works — that he began to entertain seriously the notion of finally paying tribute to the man whose work had had such a profound impact on his own development.

Huston’s enthusiasm for the project was further enhanced by the fact that for nearly 20 years he had been a resident of St. Clarens, County Galway, on the west coast of Ireland. A familiar face at hunting functions in Galway throughout the ’50s and ’60s, Huston even went so far as to become an Irish citizen. His conversation is frequently punctuated with loving references to his estate in St. Clarens, which he left, regretfully, in the early ’70s because of poor health and spiraling taxes.

“Has working with an Irish cast made me nostalgic?” asked Huston. “God, yes. But nostalgia for Ireland sweeps over me often, not just when I’m working with an Irish cast. I love Ireland and I miss it very much.”

Consequently, it was at Huston’s insistence that the cast for The Dead be, as he put it, “real Irish, not just people who claim to be.

“It was important that we preserve the integrity of the thing,” said Huston of the casting, adding with a chuckle, “I would think anyone who would go about filming The Dead without an authentically Irish cast should be sent into exile.” ♦

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