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Wyler on Wyler...and Ben-Hur

by David Krauss

Catherine Wyler, film producer and daughter of director William Wyler, chats with dOc about Ben-Hur and her father's legendary career.

"Pull up your tights and light your torches!" That was the order Second Unit Assistant Director William Wyler gave to a crowd of extras during production of the silent version of Ben-Hur back in 1925. Little did the fledgling filmmaker know that almost 35 years later he would be tapped by producer Sam Zimbalist to direct MGM's gargantuan remake of the classic "tale of the Christ," a herculean undertaking that would ultimately win Wyler his third Oscar and further cement his stature as one of Hollywood's greatest and most versatile directors. Although Ben-Hur would be Wyler's most decorated film, movie buffs could argue for hours over which of this master craftsman's pictures ranks as his best. With a gallery of classics on his résumé—Dodsworth, Jezebel, Wuthering Heights, Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Heiress, Roman Holiday, and Funny Girl, to name a very, very few—it's almost impossible to select a favorite. Whereas most directors of his era presided over genres, actors were Wyler's domain, and he nurtured them with a unique mix of firmness and delicacy, guiding Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn, Greer Garson, Fredric March, Barbra Streisand, Olivia de Havilland, and Charlton Heston, among many other notable stars, to Academy Awards.

At the Cinecittà Studios in Rome, Wyler would tour the massive Ben-Hur sets on his Vespa, and his daughter Catherine, then a teenager, recalls often hitching a ride. Wyler took his whole family to Rome for the grueling eight-month shoot, and though her memories of that time have faded a bit, Catherine Wyler remembers two things about the legendary production: the blistering Italian heat and the deafening roar of the crowd during the chariot race. A producer in her own right, Ms. Wyler's credits include the feature film Memphis Belle (1990), and two highly acclaimed television documentaries—Directed by William Wyler (1986) and Witness to Hope: The Life of Pope John Paul II (2002). (The latter raised more funds for PBS during its pledge drives than any other program in the network's history.) Ms. Wyler is currently the artistic director of the High Falls Film Festival in Rochester, NY, scheduled to run this year from November 9 through 13.

When we spoke recently by phone, Ms. Wyler was vacationing on Cape Cod, and just received Warner Home Video's new four-disc collector's edition of Ben-Hur. Although she hadn't yet been able to view the contents, she was "very impressed" with the packaging and meticulous care with which Warner handled the DVD reissue. "I think it's fabulous that so many years after this movie first came out that the studio would go to such lengths to add new material to make it interesting to new audiences," she said.

We then settled down to discuss Ben-Hur and the magnificent career of her esteemed father.

dOc: One thing that struck me as I was watching Ben-Hur was that, on the surface, it doesn't seem at all like the kind of film that would have interested your father. So I'm curious about what drew him to the project, and what sparked his enthusiasm, because he had to have plenty of enthusiasm to produce a massive work like that.

Catherine Wyler: Well, I know one of the things that attracted him to Ben-Hur was that he was really interested in making all kinds of films. And you know, that hurt his reputation a bit when the auteur theory was the be-all-and-end-all. But he just thought it was more interesting to see if he couldn't do everything, and his modus operandi was to be as invisible as possible. I think he was really surprised and excited when he was offered an epic, because he never had the chance to do that before. Of course, when he first got to Hollywood, one of his earliest jobs—when he graduated from sweeping sets to being a third assistant director—was working on the silent Ben-Hur. In fact, he always had a line from that film that he would tell us as kids when he wanted us to straighten up and do what we were supposed to. And the line was, "Pull up your tights and light your torches!" When he was directing a small segment of the crowd in the silent version of Ben-Hur, his instruction to the extras was: "Pull up your tights and light your torches!" This was long before spandex, of course!

dOc: Does it bother you that he's not regarded as an auteur today?

CW: No. There are many different ways to be a director, and I think that his way worked for him, and I can certainly see why he found it more interesting and challenging. At the same time, he was a modest person individually; he wasn't a self-promoter, and didn't feel comfortable calling attention to himself. So maybe that's why he didn't end up being a household name, even though his films were so famous and successful.

dOc: Sometimes a big blockbuster like Ben-Hur defines a director. And that didn't happen to your father. One doesn't remember William Wyler just for directing Ben-Hur; in fact, when one mentions William Wyler, Ben-Hur is not the first film that comes to mind.

CW: That's right. You know, he had the kind of career he wanted. He got to make a really wide range of films, and that's what he wanted to do.

dOc: You know, there were so many Biblical films before Ben-HurQuo Vadis?, The Ten Commandments, The Robe—it must have been a challenge for him to distinguish Ben-Hur and make it unique. Do you know if your father had a particular viewpoint going in on how he wanted to make Ben-Hur?

CW: Well, I think he was very challenged with this idea that the book's subtitle was "A Tale of the Christ," and he spent a lot of time thinking about how he would portray Christ in the film. I think he also decided to really showcase his actors. He was always so great with actors, and I think the thing that distinguishes Ben-Hur from a lot of those epics is that all the intimate scenes are really good and really believable. And the actors are giving really good performances; they're not wooden. That was his hallmark, and I think that's part of what makes Ben-Hur still work so well today. You know, so often people who do epics get so wrapped up in the big scenes, they forget about the fact that the intimate scenes really carry a lot of the sentiment, and I think those are really crucial scenes. And the writing is so important. I remember my father telling me how pleased he was when [the British playwright] Christopher Fry was hired to do some rewriting of the script. And he told me how Fry worked on the scene in which Ben-Hur has dinner with the sheik in his tent. The original script had a line like, "How did you like your dinner?", or something to that effect, and Fry changed it to "Was the meal to your liking?" And you know, that made a huge difference in the way it all sounded. And my father felt all those little details were so important.

dOc: You know, it's interesting that you mention how good he was with actors. I read somewhere that he directed more actors to Oscars and Oscar nominations than any other director...

CW: Yes, that's right.

dOc: ...but I've also read that his direction would often be very vague. He might just say, "Do it again." Or as Charlton Heston says in one of the Ben-Hur documentaries, Wyler just came into his dressing room one day and said, "Be better." So how could he get such great performances out of people with such minimal "direction?"

CW: Here's what I think he did. He was trying to get the actor to find the truth of the moment, so he didn't want to tell him anything too specific. At the same time, after actors worked with my father for a little while, they would see that he knew when their performance was right, when they were giving their best. And I think after they realized they could trust him, a lot of them just relaxed. They felt they could be more adventurous, and feel secure that he would pick their best work.

dOc: Ben-Hur must have been an incredibly difficult shoot.

CW: I think it was a horrific shoot. You know, MGM was in financial difficulties at the time, and they were making the most expensive movie ever made, which was supposed to save the studio, and so all the suits back home were terrified. And my father had a reputation for being slow and doing a large number of takes. And so everybody was pretty terrified.

dOc: Did it take any kind of physical toll on him after it was all over?

CW: You know, he only agreed to be the director. The producer of the film [Sam Zimbalist] had a heart attack and died in the middle of shooting, and then my father had to take over and become the producer as well. Ben-Hur killed off its own producer!

dOc: So what do you think your father might term more stressful, directing Ben-Hur or directing Bette Davis?

CW: Oh, well, he loved directing Bette Davis! Oh yes he did, absolutely! The thing he loved about Bette Davis, which I think he also loved about Streisand, was that they were so interested in everything that was going on. They would come to the set when they didn't even have to work, just to observe. And they always brought so many ideas, and he loved people bringing ideas. He wouldn't use them if he didn't like them, but he wasn't threatened by them.

dOc: What are your personal memories of the production of Ben-Hur?

CW: The whole family moved to Rome for the duration, but I wasn't really involved in it because I was a kid. But I certainly went to the set. The set for the chariot race was the biggest set that had been built up to that time. And I remember zooming around the set with my father on his Vespa. I have two sisters and a brother, and I guess my brother, who was the youngest—he was about 8 at the time—had a little centurion costume.

dOc: He must have loved that.

CW: Oh yeah.

dOc: Were you there at all when they were filming the chariot race?

CW: I just remember the roar of the crowd, and that it was so hot. The whole thing was terribly impressive. It was amazing! They shot the chariot race for something like three months, so it was going on day after day, and you could just go out there anytime and watch them film another piece of the race.

dOc: Was there pressure on your father to make Ben-Hur the epic-to-end-all-epics, or was he allowed to make it the way he wanted to?

CW: Well, I think that they were all in sync about this. It was definitely supposed to be the biggest and the best. No question.

dOc: Years later, how did your father view Ben-Hur in relation to his other films? Did he consider it his crowning achievement, or did it not rank that highly?

CW: I don't think he considered it that way. I think he was always really pleased that he made Ben-Hur, and it was definitely a source of pride. But the movie that was closest to his heart was The Best Years of Our Lives.

dOc: Which was a different kind of epic—a domestic epic.

CW: An American epic.

dOc: Do you think he would rank Ben-Hur in his top five?

CW: Oh sure. I think so.

dOc: Today, the epic is enjoying a bit of a resurgence, with Gladiator and Troy. How do you think Ben-Hur stands up?

CW: I have to say I think it really holds its own.

dOc: I'd seen Ben-Hur years ago on television, but watching this DVD, I felt like I was viewing it for the first time. All the elements just seem so perfectly integrated—the costumes and production design, the direction and the acting...

CW: I know my father was really pleased with the production designer and art director, and I remember him talking about them and how good their work was.

dOc: You know, I've never been much of a Charlton Heston fan, but watching the film again, I can see now why he won Best Actor. And I think that must have been at least partially due to your father.

CW: And that bit about "you've just got to be better." That happened after the first few weeks of shooting, and my father came into his dressing room and said, "You've just got to be better." And Chuck said, "Well, okay. What do you want me to do?" And he said, "I don't know. You've just got to be better." And Heston said, "Well, this is a little hard to deal with. Aren't you going to give me any help?" And my dad said, "No. Figure it out."

dOc: And he did! I guess sometimes that simple kind of advice works better than coming in there and reading a whole litany of criticism.

CW: Exactly! I remember my father saying it was going to be hard work to make this character come off as a real living, breathing person—not too sanctimonious or saintly—and Heston had to figure out how to do that.

dOc: I've always liked your father's films because of the intimate themes. He handles them so well. Even if there's a scene with two people just sitting in a room talking, it's often riveting. And in most epics, those types of scenes tend to be slow and boring, but in Ben-Hur, many of them are just as exciting as the big spectacle scenes.

CW: And that's really the key as to why the movie is so good.

dOc: In reading up on your father, I noticed that from 1936 to 1970 he made 25 films, and there's not a dud in the bunch. I mean, they're all great movies. Now, some might not have been financially successful, but they're all terrific films, and almost all were critically praised.

CW: It's pretty amazing, isn't it?

dOc: How did he keep up that high standard for so long, and never have that little hiccup?

CW: Well, he certainly had little hiccups in terms of how some of his films went over critically or how they fared at the box office. But I think what's amazing today is just what you said—how they all look good today.

dOc: What are some of your favorite William Wyler films?

CW: Well, I was so thrilled a month or two ago when Time Magazine ran an article in which they chose the best American film of each decade. For the 1930s, they chose Dodsworth. And that was such an amazing surprise, considering all the wonderful movies from the '30s. There was Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz; I mean there were a lot of great movies, and Dodsworth won. You know, The Letter is one I really, really like. Beautiful cinematography. I could just go on and on. I'm named for the heroine of Wuthering Heights, so I have to like that one. I definitely had a great big crush on Olivier because of that. And The Best Years of Our Lives and The Heiress and Roman Holiday.

dOc: As you say, they just go on and on. One great one after another.

CW: Some movies didn't get their due at the time, but people are still popping them into their VCRs or DVD players.

dOC: Well, that's true, and along those lines, one film that quickly comes to mind is Carrie. That was released on DVD several months ago, and I remember hearing or reading that it wasn't one of Wyler's best, wasn't well acclaimed, and I popped it in expecting very little. But I was mesmerized almost immediately.

CW: And I must say it wasn't one of my favorites, but a lot of people really like it, and so I've reassessed my feelings about it. I just thought it was such a downer. I wasn't allowed to see it when it first came out (1952), because it was just too racy, but when I did finally see it, I thought it was such a downer, and I went to my father and said, "Why did you want to make that film?" And he said, "Cathy, Larry (Olivier) asked me that every day of the shoot." But it turned out pretty well. Just like Ben-Hur.