Sunday, March 8, 2015


John Tibbetts with Steven Spielberg
Now that I’ve sent off to Palgrave Macmillan publishers in London my new book manuscript, HOLLYWOOD SPEAKS! (slated for publication in Fall 2015), I want to kick back for a moment and talk about the 40 years of my interviews that have gone into it.

Hollywood, as we have come to know it, seems always to have been around. Even back in the dusty nickelodeon days, before that “mystic commotion” of flickering images became the big business of a global industry, we sensed its presence and its promise. Only the benefit of years of hindsight, however, rather than the application of calipers and measuring sticks, can gain us any sense of its proper proportion. Similarly, only now, as I take the long view of these interviews—a selection of which is collected in this volume—can I grasp the composite portrait of Hollywood it affords. I could echo the words of Otis Ferguson, written in 1940: “The movies were upon us before anyone had time to grow up and become a professor in them. They literally grew out of the people, the hundreds of thousands of people who jumped in to produce, distribute, exhibit, direct, write for, or act in a popular commodity.”

Thus, like Hollywood itself, my Hollywood Speaks! just sort of accumulated. Once inside these talks, I am now outside them. I can see that, taken together, they provide a kind of running oral commentary on the history of classical Hollywood. The result is not unlike the classic Grimm tale, “The Juniper Tree,” wherein those scattered bones hint at a deeper, collective shape and meaning.

With Phillip Glass

And the interviews? Most of them are on video, and they include directors Steven Spielberg talking about The Color Purple, Terry Gilliam about Brazil!, and George Miller about the Mad Max films; cinematographers Allen Daviau (E.T.) and Glen MacWilliams (Hitchcock’s Lifeboat); Muppet master Jim Henson and puppet master “Buffalo Bob” Smith; composers Philip Glass and Carl Davis; film historian Kevin Brownlow; and many more.

With Terry Gilliam
And so many moments documented here. . . 
  • Terry Gilliam, when asked what his Brazil is all about, exclaims, “Windmills! All of western civilization! From plastic surgery to terrorist bombing to late-night shopping—We’ve got it all!”
  • Kermit the Frog’s sudden appearance, via Henson’s“naked” hand; who, upon leaving just as abruptly, declared: “This is Kermit the Frog saying goodbye from Dallas. I’ve got to leave now; I’m not wearing any clothes!”
  • Stuntman Richard (The Grey Fox) Farnsworth’s hair-raising accounts of the stuntman’s life: QUESTION: What goes through your mind as you’re waiting for an archer to take aim at you? ANSWER: You just have to be in the right frame of mind! And if you’re not, you just get up and walk away!
  • Australian director George Miller’s explanation for the worldwide popularity of his Mad Max films: “People understand car crashes in any language!”
With George Miller
  • The first time producer John Houseman set eyes on Orson Welles: “I remember how flat-footed yet graceful he seemed; but there was energy and tension coiled up in him. And the voice! Ah, it was a voice of great clarity and power!”
And Hollywood Speaks! becomes more like Hollywood SQUEAKS! when Disney animator Ollie Johnston described how to “act” out Mickey Mouse’s ever-changing personae: “His body would change shape: If you wanted Mickey to be cockney, he could lift up his chest; if he was sad, he could droop his shoulders...”

And we conclude with Kevin Brownlow and composer Carl Davis restoring and premiering Abel Gance’s five-hour epic, Napoleon: “There we were,” remembers Davis, “on a Sunday morning, November 30th, 1980 at the Empire Theater in Leicester Square. . . and I’m conducting with my back to the audience, the orchestra and the screen in front of me. . . attempting to synchronize the score to the action on the screen.”

With Kevin Brownlow
FINAL NOTE: My interviews here span forty years, from 1976 to the present, with video camera and tape recorder in hand. I approached them with respect and affection. The soul of good conversation, after all, is sympathy. Except for a few opportunities in television studios and on Hollywood studio-organized junkets, most were done in the more intimate, casual confines of private homes, classrooms, back stage, even a few bars and watering holes. I have found that in the relative unreserve of such private discourse, as William Hazlitt has observed, “The subjects are more at liberty to say what they think, to put the subject in different and opposite points of view. . . to obviate misconception, to state difficulties on their own side of the argument, and answer them as well as they can.”

I took advantage of my privileged access as a former radio and television journalist for CBS television, pursued inside contacts in Hollywood as editor of the National Film Society’s American Classic Screen, and deployed academic connections as a Professor of Film at the University of Kansas. Finally, I found these people at specific moments in time. Some look back at their careers from the long end of history; while others are in the moment, reacting to the flux and change of their personal and professional lives.

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