Norman Lloyd on Renoir, Hitchcock, Chaplin and Scorsese

Okay, as promised, here are some choice tidbits from my talk with Norman Lloyd. As soon as you finish reading these click your way over to Film Forum and get tickets for “Who Is Norman Lloyd?”

Several years ago, Lloyd wrote a book on directing for the Directors Guild of America. The focus, he says, was on his work with Chaplin, Hitchcock and Renoir. (The book, by the way, is apparently going to be offered for sale at Film Forum for the duration of the Lloyd program.)

“The reason they wanted that was that I had worked in the trenches with Chaplin, Hitchcock, Renoir, and withWelles in the theater,” he says. “Since I’d worked one-on-one with these guys and the Guild didn’t have anything on paper about these guys from someone who had been one-on-one with them, they wanted me to recount my experiences.”

On Jean Renoir:
“Orson Welles and Chaplin both thought Renoir was the greatest filmmaker of all. As a man, I cannot speak enough about him. He was beautiful, witty, brilliant. He was like a great big bear or a great grandpa. We would sit with him often, talking about everything.”

One of Renoir’s traits that Lloyd found particularly admirable was his unwillingness to hold a grudge, his control of his anger. By way of illustration, he tells a story about Francois Truffaut, another of the directors who looked upon Renoir as a father figure. Truffaut was Jean and Dido’s guest in Hollywood for a screening of Lloyd’s TV production of Carola, a late Renoir play about actors in Paris during the Nazi occupation. The plot bears no small resemblance to Truffaut’s subsequent film, The Last Metro, and there is a line of dialogue in which someone says “You can just catch the last metro before curfew.” Several years later, Truffaut’s film came out; by then Jean had been dead several months. Truffaut heard shortly after from Dido who, as Lloyd recalls, merely said to him, “Francois, you have been very naughty.” And that was the last word said on the subject.

On the set, Lloyd says, “What you got from a man like Renoir if you’re an actor standing in front of him, you have a sense – to put it in a broad way – you have a sense of the world. You’re talking about a world citizen, a man who has a view of humanity, of art. It’s so big. That’s the kind of person he was. Physically, He reminded you of a bag of Idaho potatoes. The first time I saw him he was drinking coffee out of a cereal bowl, like a peasant. As a human being, I never had a conversation with him without some illumination taking place that I had never encountered before. He had an understanding of the human race.”

Lloyd says, “He worked in an improvisational way, not like the method, but he’d say, ‘maybe we go to this hill and come down and do thus-and-so.’” And if it worked, they’d keep it. If not they wouldn’t. Lloyd notes, “You were freed as an actor. I was freed to do all kinds of crazy things. Which he discarded in the most pleasant way.”

They talked frequently about his older films. Lloyd recalls a conversation about Boudu SauvĂ© des Eaux. “He modeled the character of Boudu after [Jean’s] dog Jerry. He was just like Jerry. Jerry disappeared one day and they found him in the pound. And the next day he was missing and Jean went to the pound and there he was. And the next day, too. Sure enough, the pound was next door to a butcher shop and they used throw food to the dogs. Jerry kept going back to the pound for the food.”

Towards the end of Renoir’s life, Lloyd would visit every Sunday and the filmmaker would screen a couple of his films. The physical setup for the screening room in Renoir’s home was memorable, Lloyd says. “There were two small painting on one wall that would slide back to reveal a 16mm projector. On the opposite wall, there hung two large Renoir painting and a large screen would be pulled down over those.” This informal Renoir retrospective lasted about a year and a half. Lloyd recalls, “One day, after he had run about 52 of the films, he said, in a ruminative fashion, ‘Everyone said, they’ll give this kid a break and he’ll imitate his father. So I made up my mind that everything I did would be as unlike my father as I could and I consciously attacked the material visually in a different way. Now I realize that I have been trying to imitate my father all along.’”

On Alfred Hitchcock:

Thanks to his long tenure as a producer on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Lloyd had a closer relationship with Hitch than with any other director of note. It was Hitchcock whose insistence on hiring Lloyd enabled the younger man to break the blacklist, and in the film and in conversation, Lloyd is voluble in his gratitude.

“I love Hitch. He meant so much to me in my life on every level. I find it difficult to talk about him. I can’t imagine my life without him.

“As a director he was very easy. He was always dressed in a black suit, white shirt and a black or blue tie. He looked like a banker or an undertaker. When he came on the set there would be a hush. They realized, here was a master, the master of masters, the top of our profession.

“He had wonderful humor. I remember that when he did an episode of the TV show with Billy Mumy (“Bang! You’re Dead”), who must have been about seven years old, he would welcome the boy to the set every morning by saying, ‘Good mooooorning Mr. Mumy.’”

Of course, unlike Renoir, Hitchcock preplanned and storyboarded everything. That meticulous preparation was reflected in his on-set working methods. Lloyd says “He’d look at the set after having rehearsed on it with the actors. Then he’d go back to his trailer and read the Wall Street Journal or the daily newspaper. [When the crew was ready, he’d come back on the set.] Then he’d stand next to the camera. He’d ask, ‘What have you [lens] got on? Where are you cutting [the frameline]? Fine, let’s shoot it.’ He was very specific in what he wanted shot and where he wanted to cut. He’d say ‘Cut it, that’s all you need.’”

Lloyd recalls an instance in which Joseph Valentine, the DP on Saboteur, had finished preparing a very complicated set-up and asked Hitch if he wanted to look through the camera to see the result. Hitch demurred, “Oh no, dear boy, I’ve looked in a camera before.”

With actors, Lloyd says, Hitchcock “was very specific. He would tell you where to look. He had his cuts in mind. He would have a cut to something else in his head already.”

Yet Hitchcock apparently was very conflict-averse. Lloyd says, “He did not believe in confrontation of any kind. He would just ignore you if you disagreed with him.”

On Charles Chaplin:
“Chapllin – now you’re talking about genius,” Lloyd says. “You know the line, ‘Rightly to be great is to find quarrel with a straw’?”. He was fantastic, he fastened in on the earth. He was sui generis. He had all the emotions.

When we were doing Limelight, Sydney. his son. was in it, Nigel Bruce, Claire Bloom and of course Buster Keaton. To Buster and me he was very easygoing, he did just what was necessary to stage the scene. He was wonderful with Keaton, it was wonderful to see them together. It was a thing of beauty and very moving.”

With the youngsters, things were different, to say the least. “With Sidney and Claire he was hell on wheels. He would sit under the camera and move from one to the other as they had dialogue. He was insulting and angry. With previous leading ladies it had been effective. It worked with Claire but she had a tough time. He really directed them by acting the scenes for them [until] they got the idea. That was the way he worked with them.”

As is well-known, Chaplin involved himself in every aspect of the filmmaking process. Lloyd says, “As a director he loved to immerse himself in everything. He wrote the music for the pictures and recorded the music before he shot. He danced to it. If the writing [of the screenplay] wasn’t going well, he’d go to the piano and compose.

“He had an ego that permitted him to ‘suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,’ because this man was attacked in such scurrilous way. But as a director he acted the part or if he respected you, he just told you, ‘you go here.’”

Chaplin’s editing method was probably unique. Lloyd says he printed every take of his own performance and “gave orders to the cutter not to cut anything until he got in the cutting room. Just break down all the stuff and hang it in the bins. Everything on Charlie that was shot was printed, every foot of film, and hing in the bins, because this is what he was going to take his picture from. He liked to take the gesture from one take, a look from another.”

On the modern set:
You could sit and listen to Norman Lloyd talk all day. He’s a great storyteller and a charming man. But time passes quickly, so after he finished recounting his work with three of the greatest filmmakers of all time, I asked him about his experience working on The Age of Innocence with Martin Scorsese. Interestingly, he said that Scorsese runs a rather old-fashioned set, with one notable difference.

“It was very much like the traditional set. We were shooting in a house in Brooklyn Heights. It was a mansion, but not a big mansion. The stuff I was shooting with Daniel Day-Lewis was in one room and Scorsese was in another room with a [video] monitor. It happens I think the monitor is insidious. I cannot imagine Hitch or Jean with a monitor. But as Marty explained to me, on this particular set-up there was no room for him to stand. On his monitor he had a rear-view mirror so that anyone came in while he was shooting, he would know and kick ‘em out. And when he wasn’t working he would be watching other films.”

Which comes as no surprise at all.


Great fun. Thanks for sharing. I'd love to have complete transcripts of all my interviews. 90% of the interview never gets used (at least) and usually it's a lot more interesting to read the interviews than the story I cobbled together. Now if only there was a program that would automatically transcribe for me.... Some day. (Probably the day I retire.)
Daryl Chin said…
Great stuff, fascinating to hear about the working methods, etc. And it shows why blogs have become so invaluable: the material that you couldn't fit into your Jewish Weekly column can still be used.