Conquering Sam Spiegel

July 4, 2018
Stephan Wellink and Robert de Young have made documentaries on the lives of Rod Taylor (Pulling No Punches) and Jerry Lewis (The Man Behind the Clown), and now turn their attention to another legend with Sam Spiegel: Conquering Hollywood, about the enigmatic producer behind On the Waterfront, The African Queen, and Lawrence of Arabia.

Why do you think we need to remember figures like Sam Spiegel?

Stephan Wellink: Sam Spiegel was a pioneering independent filmmaker, extremely innovative as a producer and was not afraid to take risks and to gamble on the ultimate long-term success of his films. His ability to craft back end deals was very innovative at the time. What’s particularly impressive about Sam is his dedication to getting the scripts for his films in great shape ahead of production, and he had a very keen literary sense of story structure and dialogue.

Stephan Wellink and Robert de Young

How big is the legacy of Sam Spiegel?

SW: Huge. Between 1950 and 1962, Spiegel made four classic films, each of which was shot at a challenging location. This is an incredible achievement considering he was credited as the sole producer and while some of the later films are less impressive in scale, there is still great production values evident in films like Betrayal.

How did he compare to a Hal Wallis, or a Thalberg?

SW: Spiegel compares more than favourably to any producer past or present. What’s impressive about Sam is that he largely worked outside the studio system whereas Thalberg and other producers, like Zanuck, were studio executives. Wallis was a great producer, but his work is largely under the umbrella of Warner Bros.

Was he ever close to being enmeshed with the House Un-American Committee Communist hunt, as some of the filmmakers he worked with were?

SW: Sam seemed to somehow avoid being enmeshed in the witch hunts in Hollywood. His own early experiences in Europe during the rise of Nazism probably coloured his later attitude to the relationship between politics and art.

Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Robert de Young and John Halliday – DOP, was taken at Rod’s home in Beverly Hills. It was Rod’s last ever interview.

You and Robert, through your companies Inkwell Films and Lowlands Media have done similar stories like this on other entertainment industry figures in the past – films on Rod Taylor and Jerry Lewis; why is this a niche you return to?

SW: We are both fascinated by biography, and the evidence of the lives of actors and creatives to be found in their work. It’s always fabulous to be able to tell the backstories behind some of our best-loved screen classics which have shaped both our cinema history and our popular culture. We have completed three documentaries together and are working on two more – one on The Mavis Bramston Show, the influential Australian satirical program of the 1960s and the second on Ida Lupino who was a major movie star in Hollywood before she moved behind the camera in the 1950s to write, produce and direct for film and television.

You’re obviously both cinephiles; any particular film that changed your life?

Robert de Young: I’ve always loved cinema, and for me two very powerful films that shaped my love of film are Casablanca, because of its wonderful weave of politics and problematised romance. I find myself re-watching that film at least once a year, and always enjoy the experience of seeing it in the cinema. Paris, Texas also resonated with me very powerfully and whenever I view the film I’m surprised that it still holds the same impact that it had the first time I saw it.

SW: Cinema inspires, encourages, moves, entertains and influences me – occasionally all in the one film! It was Bill Collins, through his Golden Years of Hollywood program, who taught me about film appreciation and it was a great thrill to thank him for my film education when I interviewed him for our documentary on Rod Taylor. The films that made an impact on me are Frank Capra’s Mr Smith Goes to Washington and Arsenic and Old Lace, George Pal’s The Time Machine (which inspired me to pursue a career in science) and Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant.

Any favourite films, Spiegel produced or otherwise?

RDY: My personal favourites of Sam’s films are On the Waterfront (Brando is amazing in that film) and Betrayal.

SW: For me, Lawrence of Arabia is up there with the best films ever made and Betrayal because of Pinter’s intricate narrative structure and the wonderful performances by Ben Kingsley, Jeremy Irons and Patricia Hodge.

Bill Collins and Stephan Wellink

Any films that you started and were unable to complete?

RDY: I was trying to do a documentary on horror actor Christopher Lee many years ago, and it was very frustrating not being able to put the necessary finance in place, but I intend to return to this again in the near future.

SW: I think to complete any film is a minor miracle and we are fortunate that our films have been well received. I have been developing a film on Hollywood Producer Saul Zaentz (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, The English Patient) and hope to take it to the film investment market soon.

Sam Spiegel: Conquering Hollywood will premiere on OCS France soon.

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