Metro Retro Movie Love In Conversation

Blake Edwards: Portrait of a Creative Mind

October 10 2019

In a recent archival dig, Metrograph uncovered this exclusive interview with a young Blake Edwards from a vintage, defunct porn magazine called Topper. It’s 1963, and Edwards is hot off the back-to-back successes of Breakfast at Tiffany's and his suspense classic Experiment in Terror, but already cynical about Hollywood and forming his unique perspectives on the filmmaker’s obligation to the audience, sex on screen, and the evolution of the industry.

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In an exclusive interview, Topper discovers just what it may take to salvage Hollywood’s motion picture empire!

Fifteen years ago, at 25, Blake Edwards wrote his first successful screenplay. It was a low-budget Western entitled Panhandle, conceived while playing miniature gold and prompted by the audacious idea that Edwards and a friend could create a better show than the horse opera they had suffered through one night at a neighborhood movie.

As this is being written, both the creative method and resources of Edwards have changed considerably, and he is currently putting the finishing touches to a script which will star Ava Gardner, David Niven, and Peter Ustinov in a tale of international high jinks to be shot in Rome. However, little else has.

There’s a great difference between an empty pasture disguised to look like the western plains and the lavish opulence of a European location. Nevertheless, Blake Edwards seems to have made the tricky transition without much strain. Talking to him at his office, one gets the impression that the energetic, solidly built, friendly fellow across the desk has remained pretty much the same as the young man who wrote and produced Panhandle.

A cigar jutting out of his craggy face, he looks more like a high school football coach planning his strategy for the big game—his tennis shoes propped up in front of him—than the highly successful movie-maker that he is.

“I’ve been lucky in this business,” he says modestly. “I guess I’ve got an angel on my shoulder.” But whatever the reason Blake Edwards attributes to his dramatic rise as one of Hollywood’s most sought after writer-director-producers, one thing is certain: the man has earned his position.

A study of his work should impress this fact upon even the most casual moviegoer and TV viewer. After getting his start in radio, where he wrote the popular Richard Diamond series for Dick Powell, and then producing a few low-budget Westerns, Edwards began writing and directing screenplays for major motion pictures. Although he is extremely versatile, his forte is comedy, and his credits include Operation Madball, the film that made the late Ernie Kovacs, Operation Petticoat with Cary Grant, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s with Audrey Hepburn, which he directed.

In television, Edwards created the popular Peter Gunn series which pioneered the trend to hip, sophisticated detective types, and if it is true that imitation is the highest form of flattery, Edwards’ concept has been amazingly successful.

The accomplished writer-director-producer is a rarity in filmmaking, although the inimitable Billy Wilder and a number of European movie-makers, such as Ingmar Bergman, have been able to carry out all three assignments and do them well. In an age of formula, building block producers who buy material and talent, then hire others to string the ingredients together in a commercial pastiche that passes for a story, these men are both a moving force and a refreshing change. Their films usually bear a trademark, a unique stamp that is unmistakably theirs. And so it is with Edwards.

His characters are not faceless non-entities—ho-hum retreads the audience has seen many times before in dozens of nameless films—stumbling about the set on the pretext of entertaining someone. They are real people with a definite point of view. Even when engaged in comedy or “escapism,” as he calls it, Edwards builds his story about flesh and blood lives. His films are funny, frantic, and sometimes outrageous, but even at their frothiest the audience can identify with the people in them.

According to Edwards, this is perhaps one of Hollywood’s greatest failings—lack of identification—and although the sin is compounded in television, there is more than enough of it on the big screen.

“The movie maker has to relate to his audience,” Edwards contends. “In the realm of comedy or light adventure, this takes the form of escape identification. When the male audience sees Cary Grant as a jewel thief on the Riviera, they say I’d like to be that man. When women see him, they say I’d like to have that man.

“Furthermore,” Edwards continues, “the males can identify with Grant. He’s a shining knight in armor, a Robin Hood type, a person they’d like to be, and just to make it interesting, the writer has also given him a million dollar bankroll.”

But there are other ways in which an audience relates. In serious dramatizations, such as Edwards’ latest suspense thriller Experiment In Terror, a young woman, a bank clerk, is threatened with death unless she agrees to help an anonymous killer rob the office where she works. The girl has never seen this phantom who telephones her at all hours, and in a forbidding, wheezing voice, lets her know he is aware of her every move. As the story builds to a climax, the tension becomes almost unbearable, and aside from the gripping twists of plot, the excellent technical work and fine performances by the actors, the film holds the viewer mainly because the heroine is believable and readily identifiable.

Edwards, who wrote, produced, and directed Terror, believes that winning this audience association for his heroine is half the battle in successful movie production. He explains it this way: “The audience can relate to this girl, who is a bank clerk, whether or not any of them have ever been a bank clerk themselves. They understand her; they understand her job. It’s not too dissimilar to jobs they have. They know her. And therefore, when you throw her into a terrifying situation, you are throwing your audience into the same situation. She’s not a complex person. Her id isn’t all loused up.”

On the other hand, referring to those filmmakers whose productions feature characters from a twisted nightmare, themes which are often perverse and resolutions which are anything but encouraging, Edwards is ambivalent. Describing that pioneer of trauma drama, Tennessee Williams, he says, “I love his work and I hate it. I think that his characters are really extensions of Southern types. Yet, they are as he sees them. On one hand I resent it, on the other, the man writes tremendously powerful things and whether or not you agree with what was said, it elicits powerful emotions out of you... it gets you going. This is because art is terribly personal. People will say that you make movies for the public—which in the end result is probably true—but the real artist writes for himself and the painter paints for himself. The end result is a matter of taste, and if the artist has good taste, the public will dig it.”

Expanding on what he means by taste, and what the word has meant in terms of the pictures Hollywood has turned out, Edwards readily admitted that many so-called motion picture producers were completely without that discriminating quality. It is no secret that for altogether too many years, Hollywood was a great film factory, an industry dolloping out formula pablum, pictures which could be called pictures only because they contained images that moved. In fact Hollywood still produces these abortions that masquerade in the guise of art. However, the motion picture industry is undergoing, by necessity, a drastic and severe change.

“This transformation is due mainly because the word industry is no longer applicable in its old definition,” Edwards told us. “Picture making is still a business, a creative business, but there is so much competition from abroad and from that little box that people watch every night, that the public is becoming more discriminating in their taste. The old industry as we knew it must fall by the wayside—it’s happening—it had its creative moments, its creative people, but it was an industry. The big studios may still make good pictures, but the old industry is now being taken over by the creative people...the Stevenses, the Wilders, the Frankenheimers… they’re the ones really coming into their own—who are making the successful movies.”

In Edwards’ view, you’ve got to give the public something more to make them go to the theatre. Therefore, the days of the B picture, the dull formula film and the people who were responsible for them, are over. The powers that used to mastermind these movies are losing money. The public won’t pay to see in theatres what they can see at home for free. Hollywood has no room for second features, so those who have been able to perpetuate themselves from habit, connections or just tenure, are suddenly finding themselves out of a job, because their product isn’t selling.

Speaking emphatically and frankly on the recent shakeup at Twentieth Century Fox, an excellent example of the attempt to prune some of the dead-wood from the industry, Edwards told us: “Mr. Zanuck is a very bright man, an intelligent man, a leader, and extremely creative. I admire his work. Actually, he was one of the first pioneer, independent producers to go out on his own. He started the trend to freedom in independent production. If he is wise enough now to allow creative minds to follow in his footsteps and do the very thing that he himself fought for, then I believe Fox will again make money.”

In the final analysis, Edwards is certain that the only solution for Hollywood to regain or even retain a portion of the movie making hegemony it once held without challenge, is to allow creative people more freedom of expression. As European imports have so unequivocally demonstrated, Hollywood has no monopoly on movie making. It can no longer afford the luxury of carrying mediocre talent if it is to survive. Perhaps television will be able to absorb these former movie makers, mainly because there is so much product involved in that medium; but Hollywood cannot, and according to Edwards, the reason for this is simply competition.

“We’re in the most competitive business we’ve ever been in,” he warns, clamping his fingers around a long cigar. “We’re not only competing with ourselves for the attention of a more discriminating public—and I believe they are more discriminating—but we’re competing with a gigantic, foreign success where the new directors, such as the Fellinis, are coming into their own and their new, provocative films are making money.”

What then is the remedy, the weapon to combat this threat from abroad? Does Edwards feel that exploitation of certain themes pioneered in Europe in a particularly sensational manner is the answer? Does he feel that duplication or further exploration of the heretofore censored taboos of sex can give Hollywood the impetus it needs to regain its position? Edwards says no! “Sex and sensationalism, by themselves, won’t solve the problem. I don’t like bandwagons, for they inevitably lead to imitations of themes which, upon second examination, didn’t merit the time or trouble in the first place.”

To those who say this is what the public wants and we’re going to give it to them, Edwards is adamant. “I resist completely people who say, ‘that’s not our problem, our problem is to give the public what it wants,’ for invariably, it is not what the public wants but what they want the public to have. I believe we are obliged to educate the public by giving them better things. If the audience has never seen it before, then how can you say they’re going to like something or dislike it. And if they see it for the first time and resist it, that still doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

“Remember, the public is not required to consider our problems in the business, and shouldn’t. In fact, they shouldn’t be aware of anything except going into a theatre and enjoying themselves. And I think if you continue to deal with sensationalism and that kind of basic instinct that the audience has for images like sex and wild orgies, which might make a picture successful, then I think you’re being a bit of a whore.

“An awful lot of people have made money doing this and will argue the point, but I don’t believe it. And neither do I believe that you should become so indulgent and so personal that you say, ‘to hell with the audience, they don’t count, this is my message and I’m going to deliver it,’ because certain aspects of commercialism in the movies, or any other art form, are necessary.

“Shakespeare was a great writer, but he was also a commercial writer. He wrote to make money and make the audience like it. I don’t resist commercialism. It all depends on how talented the individual is who is putting up the property. But in the long run, I think it hurts if the intention is purely to take advantage of a particular fad, whether it be doctors, detectives, or debauchery, because the audience gets tired of it. Somewhere along the line, you chip off a piece of their good, unconscious self, you deprive them, you take it away from them. They don’t lose it consciously perhaps...they just don’t want to see it any more.”

On the other hand, Edwards believes that among the controversial subjects, sex when tastefully handled, is a very necessary ingredient. “Sex is one of the funniest subjects in the world. You can have great fun with it when you sit down and analyze it in terms of our society and the way we think about it.”

Actually, it is the way we think about it, this tittering obsession with sex, that makes it suspect. The competition in Europe has an entirely different outlook. In Edwards’ opinion, “with his cosmopolitan, mature view of sex, the European is not preoccupied with the question of morality. He accepts sex as natural. Therefore, when he does a picture about it, he isn’t delivering an unhealthy commodity. It isn’t tainted. The Europeans have a completely different approach to sex. They think...well...they don’t think about it. It’s just done. It’s an accepted part of life, and therefore, the picture is tasteful. It’s natural. It’s on a healthy level, and if it’s healthy it has to be reasonably good dramatically.”

And therefore, perhaps, is Blake Edwards' entire concept of movie making. Is it healthy? Is it real; does it ring true? Whether it be comedy, drama, or an image conjuring art film, are the emotions elicited genuine emotions? Does the picture have something to say? Does it evoke a valid, substantial feeling, whether mirth or revulsion? Do people react to it? Or is it just another neuter, a jumble of words and blank faces, papier mache figures propelled through a tired world of never-never that doesn’t have the saving grace of interest? To Edwards and the young wave of creative producers like him, these are the criteria by which to judge a picture. Does it do something to the viewer?

To make films that do stimulate the viewer, men like Edwards are literally throwing their entire personality and creative talent into the production. They are in on it from the inception. From an idea in the mind, it slowly takes shape, translating itself into a script, then to actors and a setting, and finally action. True, the writer-director-producer shares his ideas and execution with his subordinates, but his original image is not diluted by mushrooming delegation of authority, and when the picture is completed, it usually stands or falls on the merits of the man who created it.

As Blake Edwards says, “it gets done the way you want it to be done. If you have any creative ability in this business, you have a creative stamp that says this is you. The risks are greater, but the rewards are also greater.” And Mr. Edwards wouldn’t have it any other way!