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AICN LEGENDS: Capone talks IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, ROLLERBALL, MALCOLM X, and more with director Norman Jewison!!!

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.

At almost 85 years old, the Canadian-born director extraordinaire Norman Jewison began his professional career as a writer and actor for the BBC before movie back to Canada to direct TV for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation during the 1950s. He moved into American television, directing mostly musical and other variety shows for the small screen, including "Your Hit Parade" and Andy Williams specials. But it was his Harry Belafonte-starring special "Belafonte New York" that opened the door for Jewison to direct "The Judy Garland Show," a special featuring Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin that was so well received that it led to a weekly series starring Garland in what would be her final hey day.

Jewison's first few feature films were comedies or romance films, featuring the likes of Tony Curtis, Phil Silvers, Rock Hudson, Doris Day, Tony Randall, James Garner, Carl Reiner, Dick Van Dyke, Elke Summer, Angie Dickenson, and Ethel Merman. These were fun, lightweight efforts that Jewison probably could have kept for making for decades. Never interested in repeating himself throughout his career, he helmed everything from searing dramas to works about social injustice to thrillers to musicals to romantic comedies, most of which are films as watchable and relevant as they were when they were released.

Jewison made to great films with Steve McQueen (THE CINCINNATI KID and THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR), three films concerning civil rights (IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT; A SOLDIER'S STORY; THE HURRICANE), one of the great satires of the 1960s (THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING), two musicals covering the Jewish experience (JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR and FIDDLER ON THE ROOF), films about institutionalized corruption (ROLLERBALL; F.I.S.T.; …AND JUSTICE FOR ALL), great romance stories (BEST FRIENDS,; ONLY YOU; MOONSTRUCK), and the list goes on and on.

As producer or director, Jewison has been nominated for seven Oscars, including three for Best Director (IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, MOONSTRUCK) and four for Best Picture (THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING; FIDDLER ON THE ROOF; A SOLDIER’S STORY; MOONSTRUCK). His films have received a total of 46 nominations and 12 Academy Awards. In 1999, Jewison received the prestigious Irving Thalberg Award at the 71st Academy Awards, and he recently received the coveted Lifetime Achievement Award from the Directors Guild of America.

At New York City's Film Society of Lincoln Center, Jewison is being honored from May 25 to 30 with "Relentless Renegade: The Films of Norman Jewison," his first major career retrospective in New York City, with screenings of films that he both directed and produced. Jewison will appear in-person along with Academy Award winners Olympia Dukakis and Lee Grant (who appeared in IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT and was nominated for the Jewison-produced THE LANDLORD, directed by Hal Ashby).

Special guest appearances include Olympia Dukakis, who will join Jewison to discuss the film MOONSTRUCK (Saturday, May 28 at 5:45pm); Lee Grant, who will attend screenings of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (Friday, May 27 at 6pm) and THE LANDLORD (Monday, May 30 at 6pm); lyricist Sheldon Harnick, who will be on hand to talk about FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (Sunday, May 29 at 2:15pm); and Sony Pictures Classics Co-President and Co-Founder Michael Barker, who will attend a screening of ROLLERBALL (Saturday, May 28 at 8:30pm) to discuss United Artists and Arthur Krim, who was Chairman of United Artists from 1951 to 1978.

Jewison will also attend screenings of GAILY, GAILY (Wednesday, May 25 at 8:15pm); JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (Thursday, May 26 at 6:00pm); THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING (Thursday, May 26 at 8:45pm); AGNES OF GOD (Friday, May 27 at 8:45pm); THE CINCINNATI KID (Saturday, May 28 at 3pm); THE HURRICANE (Sunday, May 29 at 6pm); and A SOLDIER’S STORY (Sunday, May 29 at 9:15pm).

The complete listing of films, showtimes, and guest appearances can be found at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's site. I am truly jealous that I can't be there for this. It's a remarkable line up.

Talking to Jewison for nearly an hour last week was truly one of the great pleasures in life. His stories are clearly remembered and immensely entertaining, and he was incredibly honest about his dealing with many of the great talents he had worked with over the years. He also spoke quite candidly about his dealings with Spike Lee and Warner Bros. and the controversy surrounding his directing MALCOM X. Some of these stories are told in longer fashion in his great 2005 book "This Terrible Business Has Been Good to Me: An Autobiography," but many of them aren't. I think you guys are really going to like this. Please enjoy Norman Jewison…

Norman Jewison: Hey, how are you Steve?

Capone: Good, how are you, sir?

NJ: I’m good, thank you.

Capone: Perfect. Let’s start with the reason that we're talking in the first place--this event at Lincoln Center that's coming up. Can you just tell us a little bit about what’s going on there? What are they doing there for you?

NJ: Well it’s the first major retrospective of my work in New York City. It just came out of the blue. I got this call from the Lincoln Center Film Society and they said they wanted to do a retrospective of my work. I think they put together about 16 films.

Some of them were burned in the Universal fire and we lost some of them, the Doris Day pictures and so on. They’ve just sent a catalog, and they're starting on May 25th with GAILY, GAILYm which you can’t even get on a DVD. I don’t know where they got it, but they got a print. And they're doing A SOLDIER’S STORY and AGNES OF GOD and THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR and then on the 26th they're going MOONSTRUCK and JESUS CHRIST: SUPERSTAR and RUSSIANS ARE COMING.

So they are kind of programming four or five films a day, so this is a really interesting thing. I don’t know. I guess the people come and see a film and then they leave or they can see two films. It’s spread over five days. It goes right through the 30th, and then on the 26th they are having a reception for myself and some friends--Olympia Dukakis is coming in for MOONSTRUCK, and I know Meg Tilly is flying in to do AGNES OF GOD. I don’t know about John Patrick Shanley [writer of MOONSTRUCK]; I heard he was on holiday at that period, but I know he was invited. Andre Previn, the conductor of the London Symphony, he’s coming, and I think he’s going to do a Q&A on SUPERSTAR. So it’s really an eclectic group of people.

Capone: It is. It’s fascinating. (Laughs)

NJ: I think Robert…the chap from…Turner Classics?

Capone: Robert Osborne?

NJ: Robert Osborne is coming, yeah. There are just quite a few people involved, and all of the details you can get from Lincoln Center.

Capone: Oh sure. I just wanted to hear what your take on it was.

NJ: It’s an interesting group of films. They're showing THE LANDLORD, and Lee Grant’s going to come in. That was directed by Hal Ashby, but I produced it, and it was one of those films that I was going to do, and then I asked Hal if he wanted to direct if I could make the deal for him. So it was his first directorial film.

Capone: Because he had worked as an editor for you, right?

NJ: Yeah, until that time, and then when we did THE LANDLORD, he was off on his own.

Capone: Famously so, yes.

NJ: So you know, but that’s what it’s all about. It’s about people coming along, and I like to mentor as many people as I can, and that’s why I got involved with the Canadian Film Center, because there’s nothing better than seeing people emerge as young writers and editors and directors, you know?

Capone: Speaking of which, do you remember the films that you saw when you were younger that made you decided that you wanted to work in film?

NJ: I was always a big fan of all of the old musicals of the '40s, and when I was a kid growing up… You have your favorites, GUNGA DIN was probably one of my great favorites. You know it’s funny, I started out in television. I was doing a lot of music in television, and that’s when I had the opportunity to work with Harry Belafonte and do specials. I worked with Judy Garland…

Capone: I was going to ask you about that in a minute.

NJ: And so I was doing a lot of musical shows, "The Andy Williams Show" and so on.

Capone: Like variety shows…

NJ: Right, and I went from television into film. Music played a very important part of my filmmaking career, so I’ve always spent a lot of time with the musical side of things, and that’s when I guess I ended up making FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, but I’ve always had a penchant for the form.

Capone: The TV work that you worked on early on, has that been well archived, or is a lot of that lost right now?

NJ: Well I don’t know. That’s up to CBS I guess, because they control it, but as a network, I think CBS did a pretty good job. Most of that work is on Kinescope and that deteriorates quickly, so it has to be transferred to digital form and get it off the film. I’m not too sure about CBS. I think they probably protected "Tonight with Belefonte" and "The Judy Garland Special"--I don’t know about her weekly show, but that came much later, and I think it was owned by her company, so I don’t know what [show producer and then husband to Garland] Sid Luft did with it. I think he packaged it and sold it.

Capone: As a fan of the musicals of the period you talked about, working with Judy Garland must have been really exciting for you. What was her condition at the time, and how did that go?

NJ: I got Judy at a good time in her life. She had just done the Carnegie Hall concert, and that had been recorded, and the subsequent record took off. So when [executive producers] Freddie Fields and David Begelman came to me, I was in New York, and they asked me if I would do a special with her, because she had never been on television as a performer. I had seen her at The Palladium in London, England. I had seen her performance there, and this performance was kind of patterned on that ,and it was a great success in New York. So I started working with Judy and at that time she and Liza were--Liza would be about 15 or 16 years old--were living in Scarsdale, New York, and so I would go up there and work with her, just work in the house, work with her and her pianist. Kay Thompson was a big influence on Judy, and she was Liza’s godmother, and Kay Thompson also had a big influence on Andy Williams years before. So I knew Kay, and so we worked very intimately and closely in putting together the writing and the connective tissue and so on, putting together the special. And then we got Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, so we needed a couple of guests and so we went for the two top acts.

Capone: You went for broke.

[Both Laugh]

NJ: Went for broke, right. I was much younger in those days of course, this was way back… It had to be… I think it was the '60s? What was the date on that show?

Capone: When did it air?

NJ: Yeah.

Capone: I have it down as 1962. Does that sound right?

NJ: Yeah, that would be about right, and I remember she was performing in Haddonfield, New Jersey, in an ice rink and they were about 7,000 people there. I took a limo over to this venue in New Jersey to see the show, and Mort Lindsey was a very important asset, because he was the conductor and he knew all of her tempos and all of her music. He put together a band, and I remember going over and I went backstage to see Judy, and that was the first time I had met her. They arranged for me to go over and I went backstage, and she was sitting at a little makeup table with all of the old-fashioned lights around it, and that’s where I got the idea of the lights in the special.

I was sitting there watching her put on her makeup and she said how excited she was about going on television and that she trusted me. She had seen the Belafonte show and some of my work. Then she said, “Would you mind if I made a phone call? I just have to make one call.” She called the White House and she asked to speak to the president, and I thought “Jesus!” And then she says, “Mr. President, I just wanted to wish you a happy birthday.” She sang 16 bars of “Over the Rainbow,” and I was knocked out. I just thought, “Jeez, that’s great, she can call JFK and sing to him.” So, I was very impressed with Judy and I got very close to her ,and it was interesting experience with that show.


Capone: When you finally got to make your first few films they were comedies and romantic comedies and other kinds of comedies…

NJ: Everybody was happy and went to the seashore. [laughs]

Capone: That’s right. But then when you got to THE CINCINNATI KID, that was certainly a different kind of film for you.

NJ: I think THE CINCINNATI KID was my kind of breakthrough as a director. I had Steve McQueen, Edward G. Robinson, Karl Malden. It is a great cast. Jack Weston, Cab Calloway. It was one of those films that, I brought in my own writer and rewrote it, because the Ring Lardner Jr. screenplay I felt was kind of turgid and heavy, and I brought in new writers, and I hired Terry Southern. I came in, and we really redid the entire screenplay, and I had the opportunity to work with all of these stars, and it was an exciting production.

Capone: You made a couple of films with Steve McQueen. Could talk about your relationship with him, and what you remember most about working with him?

NJ: Well Steve McQueen was kind of textbook bad boy, you know? He could test you pretty good. [laughs] I said, “I can’t be your father,” because he liked working with older directors.

Capone: So he had a father complex?

NJ: Yeah and so I said “But I will be your older brother who went to college. I’ll look out for you.” So we had a pretty close relationship from the very beginning, and it was simply because I did a little homework and found he had spent time in Boys Town, and he had had a rough upbringing and I think he was looking for a father, for kind of a fatherly influence, and that’s why he liked working with older directors.

Henry Hathaway used to do films with Steve McQueen, and I realized that he could get a better performance from Steve simply because he wanted to be directed. He wanted to be told. He wanted desperately, so I kind of found out a lot about him just by talking to him. So, we became pretty close, and then I did THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR with him with Faye Dunaway, and that was her debut really. She did a film, BONNIE AND CLYDE, but I felt that THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, when it came to style, it was really kind of style over content that film, and I tried to make it something totally different than we had seen Steve do before. So I put him in a $2,500 suit and gave him a different look, and he loved it.


Capone: It was a stylized version of him. It was heightened and classier than we'd seen him before.

NJ: There was something kind of elegant about the picture, and I had [cinematrographer] Haskell Wexler and some talented people working with me.

Capone: What I noticed in looking over your entire filmography you see certain patterns. You mentioned one earlier about FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR tapping into you love of musicals. But when you look at IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, A SOLDIER’S STORY, and THE HURRICANE, those are different sides of the same issue. What keeps bringing you back to themes of racism and social injustice?

NJ: I think from the very beginning, when I started working in America, going back to the early television days with Belafonte, I was always interested in racism in America and I was interested in politics. I guess I was kind of a political animal and I was always trying to find subjects in films that were edgy, that had some sort of impact on the audience. I think when I saw A SOLDIER’S PLAY in New York at the Negro Ensemble Theater on 59th Street, I really was quite moved by the play and that’s why I adapted it for a film, because I thought it had a lot to say about racism.

As a Canadian kid, I was in the Navy at the end of the war. I had just got in around 1944 and I didn’t serve for very long, I was in the Navy for about a year and a half or two years, and when the war was over I hitchhiked in my uniform, because you could get rides so easily and you could go to military bases and get a ride on a military aircraft, because we were allies. Yhen I ended up hitchhiking through Tennessee and I’ll never forget getting on a bus, and it was very hot day and I went to the back of the bus, because the window was open and I was in my Navy uniform and I was very hot and carrying my bag, and the driver looked at me and said, “Are you trying to be funny, sailor?”

I didn’t know what he was talking about and then I looked back and there was a little sign and it was hand painted on tin, hanging from a wire, so somebody had put it there. It said “Colored people to the rear,” and then I realized I was sitting in the back of the bus with four or five black patrons. I realized the effects of discrimination at that time in the south I felt it was lacking in common sense, because young black people were asked to go and serve their country and give their life possibly, and then when they came back from the war and took off their uniform, they couldn’t get a drink of water at a water fountain or they couldn’t get a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. I just felt it was not just. We didn’t have that problem in Canada, because we didn’t have an extensive colored population, so it was just something that I experienced when I was very young.

I was only about 18 when this happened and I didn’t know what to do. I was embarrassed by this guy, this redneck driver, and I was so embarrassed by it that I got up and I knew I shouldn’t protest anything, so I just got off the bus. And it drove away. [Laughs] It left me standing there in the hot sun, and I though “There’s something wrong about this. This isn’t right. It isn’t fair.” So I guess maybe that was my first experience in America that had anything to do with racial prejudice, and I never forgot it. So years later--much later because I started in television in Canada for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and did shows up there--that I had the opportunity to make films like A SOLDIER’S STORY and IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT and work with Belafonte, and so it became an important point in my life.


Capone: I had heard that even though you had shot most of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT in Illinois, that the few scenes that you did shoot in Tennessee were actually a little dangerous for you.

NJ: Yeah, I don’t think anybody really wanted us there with that picture, and in those days blacks and whites couldn’t stay in the same hotel, and I was shooting in a tiny town, I mean Dyersburg, Tennessee--that’s where I shot the cotton fields. I was shocked because at that time, and I'd promised Sidney Poitier I wouldn’t go south of the Mason Dixon line, because he had had some problems with pickup trucks chasing him when he was in Georgia. So I made that promise to him and that’s why I shot the whole picture in Sparta, Illinois, but it was pretty southern. [Laughs] I mean, we were right beside the Mississippi River. What I did is I hired actors and a dialect coach, and we made sure that the southern accents were pretty accurate, and then I just went down into Tennessee for those six or seven days. But yeah, they didn’t want us there, and there were a few little problems. Those were the days when the whole Civil Rights movement was just beginning.

Capone: Was there a moment when you realized the impact of the film at that time?

NJ: I don’t think so. We knew we were making an important film or we were making a film about tolerance and about prejudice. We knew that, but I think timing is everything. I once had the opportunity of meeting Robert Kennedy in Sun Valley. It was in 1965, the year before I made the film, because I shot the film in ’66 and it was released in ’67. He asked, “What do you do?” I said, “Well, I’m a filmmaker,” and he starts “That’s very interesting. What kind of films do you make?” So, I told him a little bit about IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, that it was about a black detective from Philadelphia and cop in Mississippi, and I told him a little bit about what I was doing about the story, and he said, “This could be a very important film, Norman.”

He said, “Timing is everything in politics and in art and life itself.” And I never forgot that. So, I think the timing of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT especially was the reason it had an impact on the audience that was far greater than other pictures, simply because a black man slapped a white man back; that had never been seen in an American film. But I don’t think at the time we were making the film that we thought… You never know when you are making a film the way your film is going to be successful; you’re just working. I think that explains everything. [Laughs]


Capone: In addition to the socially relevant films that you were making, I think a film that a lot of people truly love is ROLLERBALL, which is just fun, but it has some great social criticism as well. And it’s your only science fiction film. Are you not a fan?

NJ: Not really. My only dip into “the not too distant future” is what I said. In the not too distant future, there wont be any wars, there wont be any disturbance of any kind, because the corporations will take over. So, I tried to create a world in which Rollerball would be the big thing to get rid of all of the violence in people. It all started by me going to a hockey game in Chicago [laughs], I think it was, with the white ice and a fight broke out and there was blood on the ice. The moment there was blood on the ice, I watched thousands of people start screaming, and they were getting excited, and I saw the security people go down to the bottom of the row around the stadium and I thought “There’s kind of a fascination. People like violence in sport. There’s something about it.”

The passion and the speed and the agility you need to become an NHL hockey player is remarkable, and it’s such a graceful game. Then, all of a sudden, I saw it changing and I say hockey, which is a Canadian passion every Saturday night where everybody listens or watches the hockey game. I saw it changing. I saw it becoming more violent when it moved into the United States, when it moved into network television. So that gave me the impetus, the idea. I guess sex sells and violence sells; there’s a fascination with it.

And also I think ROLLERBALL is a highly political film. It’s essentially a glimpse into a society that I was frightened by, much like Eisenhower was when he made the speech about the military industrial complex, because when companies start to get so big that they are bigger than the gross national product of Belgium, and I started to do a little digging and I was just fascinated with it, so I tried to come up with ideas like credit cards and ideas like you had to have a card to get in and out of buildings and all of that stuff. There was a lot of stuff in ROLLERBALL.


Capone: And now that’s all commonplace.

NJ: Yeah, and then you know I had that wonderful actor John Houseman. John Houseman became, in my opinion, when he agreed to do the film, he became the most interesting and sinister character that I’ve ever had in a film. Anyway, that was a lot of fun to make. We literally had to invent a game, and that’s not easy to do.

Capone: That’s a complicated thing to come up with a game that has never been played.

NJ: It was so complicated, because it had to be simple and you had to put a ball in the net. We had to build a stadium, build a track, because we now had rollerblades and had to roll and motorcycles, so now we had to design a track. So I went to John Box, who was probably one the greatest production designers in England, and we sat down and literally invented a game. We invented a sport that we thought would be played in the future, so that’s Rollerball.

Capone: I wanted to make sure to talk about your relationship with John Patrick Shanley, you mentioned him earlier. I read somewhere where you said that you still think MOONSTRUCK is amongst the best cast films that you’ve ever made, and I had also read that you've been working on something that he wrote for a while, a remake of sorts?

NJ: I’ve been working on a new project with John. It’s an American remake of an Italian film called BREAD AND TULIPS.

Capone: I’ve seen that film. It’s a wonderful film.

NJ: Yeah, so you know what it’s about. It’s about a marriage going…

Capone: This is the one about the woman who leaves her husband, right? I think it’s a great film.

NJ: Well, he was having a romantic affair with his sister in law. Anyway, it’s kind of emerged in it’s form right now that it’s just a brilliant screenplay. So I’m in the midst of trying to cast it and put that one together, but he’s so talented and he’s a playwright, and I followed his work in the theater. Then when he wrote MOONSTRUCK, it was called THE BRIDE AND THE WOLF and it sounded like a horror film.

Capone: Or at least a Grimm’s fairytale.

NJ: I met with him and worked on it with him, and so we have become very close and somehow we’ve worked on another screenplay.

Capone: Between A SOLDIER’S STORY and AGNES OF GOD and you said you have followed John's work in the theater, have you ever directed plays in your earlier years?

NJ: Yes, I started out in the theater. I actually started as an actor. But I got out of that [laughs].

Capone: This is one of the times that I did not make it down to Roger Ebert’s festival this year in Champaign, and I know you were there because he screened ONLY YOU.

NJ: I actually just got back.

Capone: I actually tried to say to the people who were arranging this interview, “Well maybe I can just talk to him when he’s near Chicago.” Tell me about that experience?

NJ: I’s a real hoot. When I was making a film called GAILY, GAILY, based on an old Ben Hecht novel--and Ben Hecht really chronicled America better than anybody else I thought, because he was so cynical. So I wanted to do a story about an innocent young journalist, newspaper man coming to Chicago at the turn of the century when you had robber barons [industrialists] in one corner and the Wobblies [industrial workers] in the other. Chicago has always been hog butcher to the world. I was attracted to not only the poetry, but to the city and the beginnings of the Tammany Hall Machine.

I just thought it was just fascinating, just gave me a chance to really examine where a lot of the principles and things that emerged out of Chicago at the turn of the century affected America, because it was a center of such creative energy. So, I got to know Roger at that time. He was a reporter for the Sun-Times. And I found out he was really a big fan of Ben Hechts and he knew a lot about early days in Chicago, like the Everleigh Sisters Bordello. He said, “Do you want to see it?” I said, “Gee, it’s still standing?” “Oh yes, it’s a very elegant old mansion. I’m going to show it to you. It's right near the Cardinal's place.”

So he introduced me to Chicago and all of the bars and all of the joints were the press hung out and everything else. And, he’s always been a big fan of the Toronto Film Festival, and so the next time our paths crossed was this year when he and Chaz invited me down to the University of Illinois there in Champaign, and they had a fabulous theater.


Capone: The Virginia is a gorgeous theater.

NJ: It’s got a big screen for 70mm films, and the sound is great, and we had 1,500 people there at the screening. It’s people who love movies. He started all of this by himself. It’s like going back to college and staying in a dorm. It’s really different and very collegial, and you get to know everybody, and Tilda Swinton was there and I know her [she starred in Jewison's 2003 film THE STATEMENT], and I saw a lot of films that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity of seeing. I just enjoyed it so much.

Capone: I was sad to have missed it this year, because I usually drive down for it every year, but this year I had a conflict.

NJ: So, where do you live?

Capone: I live in Chicago.

NJ: You’re in Chicago?

Capone: I am. I would be remiss if I didn’t at least bring up …AND JUSTICE FOR ALL that was Al Pacino at top of his game and the peak of his popularity. What was your experience like with him?

NJ: You know he was very close to the drama coach…

Capone: Lee Strasberg is in that, right.

NJ: Yeah, he’s like his father in a way. So I cast Lee Strasberg as his father in the film, and it gave them a chance to work together, because Al is such a Strasberg fan and this was his mentor. So that made it different for him, and I think he was excited about that idea and I think the film really took a look at the judicial system as it stood at that time and the injustices that were taking place with plea bargaining and all of that kind of stuff. So, we got into it, and Al of course is such a brilliant actor that that last scene in the courtroom is really powerful. I like that film very much. I think they're going to show that in New York.

Capone: That’s great. For a little while, you were attached to direct the Malcolm X story, and the way it was painted at the time was that Spike Lee kind of bullied the studio or somebody into letting him do it, but I’m getting a sense that’s not how it was, because obviously Denzel Washington was okay with you ding it.

NJ: That's right, I had hired Denzel to play Malcolm X.

Capone: Right. But I’m curious what your take on that situation.

NJ: There were many young black people who were involved politically with the idea of a white person directing MALCOLM X. So I think a campaign was organized, a write-in campaign with letters coming in.

Capone: To Warner Brothers, you mean?

NJ: Yeah to Warner Bros., the studio. The studio came under tremendous pressure, and of course Spike is such a talented director, I guess he felt it was a natural thing for him. I had a meeting with Spike in New York shortly before the film was made and I gave him as much advice as I could and I remember I just said “Don’t fuck it up.” [Laughs] I think Denzel and everybody kind of understood that possibly there was a problem here, and of course I knew that working with hundreds of black extras in Harlem was not going to be easy if you were white, so I guess there were certain problems inherent with that situation. But it didn’t bother me that much. I understood and understand people’s feelings.

Capone: Is it ironic that the man who directed IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT was the victim of reverse racism maybe?

NJ: I think it is. I kind of think it is racism in a way, or at least racially motivated, which is unfortunate. You’ve got to understand it. The picture’s done, and I think Denzel was wonderful in it. We got the opportunity to work again a couple of years later with THE HURRICANE, the Rubin Carter story, and I think Denzel really has become one of the finest actors in American film.

Capone: Without a doubt.

NJ: He really is a brilliant actor. I’ve liked everything he’s done. I even liked [August Wilson's play] "Fences." I think that whole area of black filmmaking and theater and so on, I think there’s been a pretty good surge of talent emerge, and I’m very pleased about it.

Capone: Norman, thank you so much for spending so much time talking.

NJ: We really went all over the place. [laughs]

Capone: True, but I wanted to cover as much of your career as I could. Have fun at Lincoln Center.

NJ: I’m really kind of excited about it, because first of all I’m going to have the opportunity to see some films on the big screen that I haven’t seen for a long time, and that excites me. My gosh, GAILY, GAILY, I haven’t seen that in 20 years. That was before they had videos, you know, but anyway it’s going to be an exciting time, and I’m looking forward to it.

Capone: Well, enjoy. Thank you so much.

NJ: Alright, Steve. Take care.

-- Capone capone@aintitcool.com
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Readers Talkback
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  • May 23, 2011, 11:29 a.m. CST

    Spike Lee=Ass

    by Mandolorian

  • May 23, 2011, 11:30 a.m. CST

    In the Heat of the Night...

    by The Eskimo

    ...could definitely work as a remake. Down here in the south there's still a lot of that kind of stuff going on. Just in different ways and for different (well, sometimes the same) reasons. Anyway, I loved that movie. Not so much Roller Ball though. Weird in that way...

  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=8pyW6w5B7Aw#t=20s

  • May 23, 2011, 11:48 a.m. CST

    ROLLERBALL

    by RottNElsewhere

    Harrison's original script for ROLLER BALL MURDER was even more political (and the game more closely resembled the bone-crunching/head-crushing monstrocity from his original story, probably impossible to film in 1974). And (no fault of CAAN), Harrison's Jonathan E (as in Energy) actually said/did more than stand there looking, well, irritated about -something. The one thing that sticks out in my mind (which was omitted from the film): at the games, you got outta line (trying to climb the fences/get onto the track), the Corporate Police simply shot and killed you. Pills (" 'pain' management" -?), comfort and "freedom"... isn't that enough? Dazed conformity, bloodlust only in the arenas (but watch out you don't get too excited). I dunno but the NYC of 2018 looks pretty much like the NYC of 1974/5 (and the fans, well, [when they were actually there during shooting] pretty much look like transported out of mid-70s Munich, or anywhere mid-70s for that matter). If anything, the film goofed on showing us how a Corporate-controlled society beyond the corporate sector would be "contained." I imagine (in the film) home-city fans would go roaring out into the streets and riot whether their team won or not - wouldn't Corporate Police have been waiting with splooge-guns ready? -Or wouldn't have the whole arena flooded with Soma just after the game/return the sheeple to their relatively-humble comforts? (hold on its time for the 3-pill lunch punch) And: Where the fuckin hell is this on Blu Ray?????? I wanna see those empty stands in the background! (or at least cgi some sheeple in there will ya?) (And MGM UA or whomever - Bob Peak art portfolio, game poster kit, standee, silver foil advance sheet, 35mm contact sheets... I'm making that phone-me thing with my right hand [never mind what the left is doing] ). Its all here and ready. As naturally as remakes go... (think I just "went"). Somebody redo this from Harrison's short story as ROLLER BALL MURDER already. ALL GLORY TO THE GAME!

  • May 23, 2011, 11:51 a.m. CST

    I mean these days (and I know "its early")

    by RottNElsewhere

    I can deal with the Corporate-controlled BS and it all (resource-draining, world-wrecking, peoples' brains-smushing) -but where the hell is the ROLLERBALL??? I gotta wait another 6-7 years? Jon E was a 35-yr old vet of the sport by then. (dammit)

  • May 23, 2011, 11:54 a.m. CST

    right

    by RottNElsewhere

    We gotta get thru Zombi-pocalypse first.

  • May 23, 2011, 12:05 p.m. CST

    Good solid filmmaker

    by Samuel Fulmer

    But totally lacking any style (at least post Thomas Crown). Lee was the better choice no doubt. Jewison's Malcolm X would've looked like a made for TV film by that point in his career.

  • May 23, 2011, 12:49 p.m. CST

    I thought Spike Lee's Malcolm X wasn't epic enough

    by tangcameo

    From what I heard about Malcolm X before seeing the movie, I expected a David Lean-sized epic. Maybe my memory's foggy but did Lee's movie even touch on Alex Haley and the book?

  • May 23, 2011, 12:50 p.m. CST

    DANIEL DAY-LEWIS WOULD'VE BEEN A BETTER MALCOLM

    by BSB

    It's not about the color of the skin. It's about casting the best actor for the part.

  • May 23, 2011, 12:57 p.m. CST

    BSB --> that was hilarious!

    by Fah-Cue

  • May 23, 2011, 1:16 p.m. CST

    Houseman was sinister.....

    by westie

    When he's sitting there saying , "The game was created to demonstrate the futility of individual effort." he sounds so ruthless. Great flick.

  • May 23, 2011, 1:46 p.m. CST

    FAH-CUE

    by BSB

    "No chicken? Or they out of chicken?" ROFL!!!!

  • May 23, 2011, 3:45 p.m. CST

    His Bizarro is Norman Gentileson.

    by AzulTool

  • May 23, 2011, 5:38 p.m. CST

    This is more like it, AICN! Real movie chat!

    by Jeff Myers

    Respect!

  • May 23, 2011, 5:48 p.m. CST

    I love ROLLERBALL

    by AsimovLives

    Man, the 70s was the greatest decade of SF in Holywood.

  • May 23, 2011, 8:31 p.m. CST

    Oddly enough, Jewison isn't Jewish.

    by ndally

    Go figure

  • May 24, 2011, 1 p.m. CST

    Rollerball and In The Heat Of The Night

    by Hipshot

    Just great films. "Heat" was a peak experience. A fine, skilled, conscious director, and obviously a good man.

  • May 25, 2011, 11:47 a.m. CST

    Nice racist jab, bsb

    by Huey_Freemans_afro

    I'm sure the ppl in your limited social circle find you hilarious.

  • May 25, 2011, 12:28 p.m. CST

    Rollerball and Soldier's Story

    by Stalkeye

    Two great films within Normie's career.I would have been curious to have seen what he would have done with X.But of course, big mouth Spike saw this as an opportunistic movement to gain control of the project. The Movie itself wasn't bad but WTF is with Lee's lame ass 'walking" effect that looks as if the actor is standing on a moving platform? Jeebsus

  • May 25, 2011, 5:46 p.m. CST

    Stalkeye Is A BITCH!!

    by sanford and gun

    Jewison said in the interview Spike didn't have shit to do with it and that it was a write in campaign. Fucking Idiot!!<p> With that said, I think Jewison would have done a great job, however Spike Lee's version was dope as fuck!! I do have problems with the "Spike-isms" in his film and would like to see another Malcolm X film made.

  • May 25, 2011, 6 p.m. CST

    The Reverse Racism Charge Is Bullshit!!

    by sanford and gun

    The Black community was seriously concerned with a cinematic portrayal of a world renowned Black Nationalist being done by a white man. <P> Unless the masses of white people are cool with Spike Lee or John Singleton directing a big budget Hollywood biography about Thomas Jefferson shut the fuck up!!

  • May 26, 2011, 8:23 a.m. CST

    And sanford and gun is a N..

    by Stalkeye

    ..incompoop. Yeah, way to get your point across by calling me a Bitch. how "typical"". I never said that Spike was behind a write in campaign But Spike did mention how he was more qualified for working on the Malcolm X film.Spike is a good film director but the fucker is very arrogant and you know it unless you have your head up your ass.(which you probably do.) And to call out another black director like Perry is not only petty but , a primary example of hatin. I'm no fan of Tyler's films, but i give him props for starting his own production company from the ground up and not to mention the shit he personally went through, unlike Lee who upped and dissed him. Jealous much? (Like I said before, "typical".)

  • May 26, 2011, 11:26 a.m. CST

    from Crowne to Rollerball to Moonstruck to Superstar

    by Tigger Tales

    I had no idea this was the same bloke.

  • May 26, 2011, 3:06 p.m. CST

    Spike Lee tried the same shyte with Ali

    by DougMcKenzie

    Will Smith gave him a public bitch slap that finally shut him up. Smith came right out and said that Spike Lee does not have the exclusive right to film the black experience in America, and to stop acting like he is the only voice. I think he also put him down for writing in himself as X's spunky sidekick to boot. Since then Lee has been pretty quiet about race....

  • May 27, 2011, 5:55 p.m. CST

    STALKEYE You Bitch Ass Crack...

    by sanford and gun

    ...smoker. This is aintitcool.com, the insults are why we all come here!! <p> I never said that you said Spike was behind the writing campaign either, you BITCH!!<p> If you knew what the fuck you were talking about you would know that Spike Lee was asked about Tyler Perry on 60 mins and he truthfully criticized him. No jealously involved. Tyler Perry is shit!! <p> Have a safe and festive Memorial Day Weekend BITCH!!

  • May 27, 2011, 6:22 p.m. CST

    dougmckenzie is a BITCH!!

    by sanford and gun

    Were you getting this Will Smith smackdown shit from?? <p> Motherfuckers inventing shit!! BITCH!!<p> And if you think Spike has been quiet about race since "ALI" came out, you've lost your damn mind!!<p> @Fuckouttaherewiththatbullshit

  • May 31, 2011, 10:51 a.m. CST

    And the most beligerent asshole award goes to..

    by Stalkeye

    ....sanford and gun. Here's your prize: A DVD copy of both Mandingo and Rosewood. (Something to get your blood pumpin.) And if that won't suffice, there's a DVD release of JJ Abrams' Undercover series...now THAT should send your funky ass over the edge. Have a nice death "ya big dummy". (get it, Lamont?)

  • June 1, 2011, 5:23 p.m. CST

    Melonman Gets Props!!

    by sanford and gun

    I was speaking of Singleton back during his prime and not "2fast2furious" Singleton<p> Yeah, now that guy sucks ass!!

  • June 1, 2011, 5:32 p.m. CST

    Acceptance Speech!!

    by sanford and gun

    I'd like to thank my mother Sharon Bowman, My sisters Lachere and Sabrina, My brother Adrian, My Girlfriend Tara (one day I'll make you wifey for real for real love) The Griffin, Bowman, Diggs, Denton & Grandchamp families. I'd also like to thank the greatest woman on earth!! My 92 year old grandmother "Josephine Bowman" <p> I can't forget Harry Knowles and the Aintitcool.com staff & Capone in particular, for without you guys, it couldn't have happened!!<p> Tomorrow is my birthday and this is the greatest present ever!! I love you all!!<p> I wonder who I'm forgetting here????