The release of "George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey," first in Los Angeles, then New York and now here, has brought a new wave of praise for the movie's subject -- his adagio pacing, his touch for comedy and romance, his artisan's care. And for Washington's George Stevens Jr., chairman of the American Film Institute and the film's writer, producer and director, it has meant a crisp set of laurels, too.
George Stevens Jr., the director, is flying high.
George Stevens Jr., the man, isn't flying at all.
He has contracted pansinusitis, an inflammation of the cavities alongside the nose that, according to The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, makes itself known by headache, nasal and postnasal discharge, malaise, fever, vertigo, anosmia, photophobia and toothache. His doctor, one Gould of New York, has forbidden him all pressurized cabins. He will not be going to Cannes (where his film is showing at the annual festival) or anywhere else not serviced by Amtrak.
But on Wednesday night he went to see Douglas Fairbanks Jr. introduce the film at its Washington premiere. A reception afterwards joined the Mediarati and the Maserati, type As and A-listers. They are mostly friends of Stevens', but they loved it anyway.
"The love between father and son is so obvious," said Ethel Kennedy. "It's much more of an autobiography than a biography," said National Gallery Director J. Carter Brown. "There's so many ways that he's like his father, that there's this terrific resonance."
"This is the first movie I've seen since 'Ben-Hur,' " said Joseph Alsop. "And I enjoyed it very much."
Stevens himself arrived, in the kind of formidable high spirits that a standing ovation tends to spark. "I really made the film for the audience," he said later, "which is what my father was dedicated to. So to see it really work with an audience -- yeah, that's pleasing." And then he was off into a discourse on the way an audience reacts as an organism, how one person laughs in the fifth row, and then the people in the 17th row look and see the same thing, and laugh too. The talk of a film craftsman who used to go with his father to test rough cuts in front of preview audiences.
Stevens says the idea for "A Filmmaker's Journey" came to him five years ago in a storeroom on Ventura Boulevard in North Hollywood filled with his father's films and memorabilia, a site replicated in the opening scene of the movie.
"I had most of his films, and got prints of the ones I didn't have, ran them all, made notes. Made some choices, and tabbed them -- take the prints, send them to a lab, get back a 'dirty dupe' of the scene and the sound track. Then it just became a nightmare, because it was just so much material. And his movies don't have those kind of set pieces, like in Hitchcock, where you can just take a minute and a half and it pays off."
Stevens assembled a production center in a town house on Washington Circle, staffed with editors and technicians from the D.C. area. There was a wall full of cards with each of the scenes on them, which would be shuffled and reshuffled, added to and subtracted from. The first cut of the movie was 3 hours 40 minutes long.
"You have to start getting ruthless," Stevens says. "When you're making a film about someone you're close to and whose life interests you and you care about, there's so many things you want to include. We filmed interviews with Elizabeth Taylor, Jimmy Stewart, Rock Hudson, Shelley Winters, Charlton Heston. We had clips from 'Talk of the Town' and 'Penny Serenade.' But you know, what you take out of a movie is what makes it work. All these things you love, all of a sudden you take it out, and let the audience do the work."
The most difficult thing, though, was the simple fact that a son was making a movie about his father. "I'd done these kind of things at the Kennedy Center, but when it's your father, it becomes an entirely different set of ground rules," Stevens says. "Even what other people said about him, if it was praise -- because the audience knows that I'm making the picture -- I had to clear all that stuff out."
Stevens faced the same difficulty in deciding to narrate the film himself. "I did the scratch narration in the preview, and I'd say, 'Whaddaya think? You think I should get John Huston to do it?' Hoping people would say, 'Why don't you do it?' I was looking for encouragement. And I couldn't get enough votes, so finally, I had to just decide to do it. There's no question now that it was the right decision. But it's that same problem, because it was my father.
"At some point, I got scared. It's that sort of situation where you always have your own reputation at risk, but here I had double jeopardy -- my father's reputation. So then I said, 'I've really got to make something out of this.' And what I really wanted to do was make an entertainment, a story, a little bit like he would have."
While in college and afterwards, the younger Stevens served his apprenticeship on his father's films. "Somewhere along the line in your work," says Stevens, "there's someone who's the influence on you, and in my case it happened to be my father."
He could not have had a better mentor. Throughout his career, the elder Stevens remained dedicated to the details of his craft. You sense the same thing in his son, whose conversation grows livelier when he explains the difference between Technicolor and Eastman color, or the nature and importance of a film's aspect ratio (height versus width), or the difference between 16mm and 35mm in the way an audience reacts.
Stevens' father served in World War II in the Army Signal Corps, recording the war on film, clips of which are included in "A Filmmaker's Journey." The experience changed him -- his later films show a taste for epic and tragedy.
"He came back and he and Frank Capra and William Wyler started a company called Liberty Films, the first independent film company of directors," says Stevens Jr. "Ingrid Bergman was the star of the day, and she wanted to do a picture with him. And Frank and Willie said, 'C'mon, you gotta get going on this.' And he said, 'Okay, well, I'm gonna take the train back to New York, and I'll get the script worked out, and I'll talk to Ingrid.' And he saw her in her play and they went out afterwards for a drink, and she said, 'How's our comedy coming along?' And he said, 'There's not gonna be any comedy.' For some reason, he couldn't do it."
The film includes several recordings of the elder Stevens' own voice, made at film festivals and university seminars. The most striking of them is a meditation on Dachau (he was one of the first Americans to arrive there), spoken during an interview with the English film historian and collector Kevin Brownlow.
Brownlow once joined Stevens and the Nazi director Leni Riefenstahl over tea. "When film people get together, there's a kind of quiet instant communication, and that worked with Leni Riefenstahl, too," says Stevens. "Dad had a kind of sympathy for her on the one hand, because she had to travel around the world under an assumed name, and he had that kind of respect for her as a filmmaker. Kevin said she talked about my father's films, as directors do, and then she said, 'Have you seen any of my work? Did you see 'Triumph of the Will'? And he said, 'Yes.' And then: 'The next day I went out and joined the American Army.' "
Stevens almost always went over budget, but his movies, like "Gunga Din" or "Shane" or "Giant," usually made money. When he went over budget on "The Greatest Story Ever Told," and it didn't pan out, the studios lowered the boom.
"Nobody said George Stevens wasn't bankable," says his son. "He still had all this respect. But things didn't happen."
Watching "A Filmmaker's Journey," you discover that, bankable or not, George Stevens was a heckuva director. You also discover that George Stevens Jr. is not a bad director himself.
"I think I realized, in making this film and completing it, that it was discouraging to think of yourself going back and making movies," he says, "and if you're terrific, still being probably the second-best director in the family. I think I may have exorcised that with this process.
"I mean, you don't have to be Babe Ruth if you play for the Phillies."