Huston Meets Joyce
By Thomas English, Contributor
In celebration of James Joyce’s birthday on February 2nd, we bring you a John Huston interview from the set of what would be his last movie, The Dead. The 1987 drama, based on the James Joyce short story of the same name, was directed by Huston, with a screenplay by his son Tony Huston, and it starred his daughter Anjelica Huston, and Donal McCann.
“Was it good for you?” asked the legendary director, John Huston, his distinctive voice bellowing across the sound stage.
“Fine, perfect,” replied assistant director Tommy Shaw, a stout, white-bearded terrier of a man, who in turn motioned to Fred Murphy, the cinematographer, and asked, “How was it for you?”
“Good,” said Murphy, ever so politely, “Couldn’t have been better.”
With that, the 80-year-old director stood for the first time in hours, his familiar white mane and weather-beaten face glistening in the stage lights. “Let’s call that a print,” he said, stretching tentatively so as not to entangle the plastic tubes running from his nose to a nearby oxygen generator.
Immediately the crew descended in a flurry of activity, moving lights and cameras for the next set-up in the on-going family affair that had become The Dead, Huston’s eagerly-awaited adaptation of the James Joyce short-story and his 36th Hollywood film.
Although the exchange between Huston, Shaw and Murphy may have sounded a bit like the obligatory post-coital courtesy, their communication was, in fact, an expression of familiarity. For the last six weeks they had been honing an agreeable working method on a sound stage in Valencia, California, which was standing in for turn-of-the-century Dublin. Hampered somewhat by the fact that Huston was confined to a wheelchair most of the time—with the oxygen tanks and generator constantly by his side—assistant director Shaw was forced to serve primarily as a courier between the director, who observed the proceedings on a video monitor just outside the set, and the cast and crew, who often had to strain to hear Huston’s pronouncements from behind fabricated wall sand partitions.
But no one on the set of The Dead was complaining. Indeed, the entire cast, led by Huston’s daughter, Anjelica, and including some of Ireland’s most venerable stage actors and actresses, were effusive in their praise of the director of The Maltese Falcon, Treasures of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, and numerous other heavyweight film achievements.
“You learn so much about movie acting by working with him,” said cast member Helena Carroll, the veteran stage and film actress. “And don’t think that just because he isn’t up on his feet all over the place this isn’t a John Huston film. His presence is everywhere.”
Before long, the cast and crew had reassembled for the next scene. In involved the story’s central character, Gabriel, played by Abbey Theatre veteran Donal McCann in one of The Dead’s most poignant moments, at a Dublin dinner-dance circa 1904, Gabriel sees his wife Gretta at the top of a flight of stairs transfixed by the distant rendition of “The Lass of Aughrim.” Gabriel is enraptured by his wife’s beauty, as she appears lost in a private reverie.
“Quiet, for Christ’s sake,” shouts Shaw above the din, “the man has something to say.”
After a brief pause for dramatic effect, Huston says to no one in particular, “Remember what we want here is the moment, that precise moment when he sees Gretta. Everything else is secondary.” He then sits forward in his wheelchair, gasping momentarily for air. The light from the video monitor illuminates his frail body—the ever-present oxygen tubes running from his nose to the nearby generator—as he waits in silence for his assistant to give the command to commence filming.
“He stood still in the gloom of the hall, trying to catch the air that the voice was stinging and gazing up at his wife. There was grace and mystery in her attitude as if she were a symbol of something. He asked himself what is a woman standing on the stairs in the shadow, listening to distant music, a symbol of. If he were a painter he would pain her in that attitude.”
“Asking about Joyce is like asking about Shakespeare,” said Huston, a trace of exasperation in his craggy, baritone voice. “We’re talking about a man whose work changed the course of history. It would be difficult—impossible really—to pinpoint his influence.”
Huston was talking by phone just days after The Dead had completed principle photography. By all accounts, shooting had gone well, aside from such complications as Anjelica coming down with a brief bout of mononucleosis and other members of the cast occasionally being slowed by assorted flues and viruses. But through it all Huston had remained healthy, despite his emphysema and frail physical condition. His current task was to begin assembling the footage at hand, in anticipation of two weeks of location work in Dublin yet to be done by cameraman Fred Murphy and his second-unit crew.
“What we wanted to do,” said Huston of the eight-week shoot in Southern California, “was not so much to adhere paragraph for paragraph to Joyce’s prose, but to capture a certain mood, an exuberance for life that exists in the story.”
Huston traces his own love affair with Joyce back to his youth, when his mother first smuggled a copy of Ulysses into the States in 1928. “It was banned at the time, you know,” remarked the director. “But I remember it vividly, even the blue-paper cover it was wrapped in. And, of course, I’ll never forget reading it; it is probably what motivated me to become a writer and a filmmaker.”
But even with his deep love of Joyce, Huston had always steered clear of tackling the author’s larger works on film because, as he put it, “Filming Joyce didn’t seem practical.” It wasn’t until Huston was approached by producer Weilland Schiltz-Keil specifically about filming The Dead—Joyce’s 50-page conclusion to Dubliners and one of his more accessible works—that he began to entertain seriously the notion of finally paying tribute to the man whose work had had such a profound impact on his own development.
Huston’s enthusiasm for the project was further enhanced by the fact that for nearly 20 years he had been a resident of St. Clerans, County Galway, on the west coast of Ireland. A familiar face at hunting functions in Galway throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, Huston even went so far as to become an Irish citizen and still, to this day, travels on an Irish passport. His conversations are frequently punctuated with loving references to his estate in St. Clerans, which he left regretfully, in the early ‘70s because of poor heath and spiraling taxes.
“Has working with an Irish cast made me nostalgic?” asked Huston, repeating the question put to him over the phone. “God, yes. But nostalgia for Ireland sweeps over me often, not just when I’m working with an Irish cast. I love Ireland and I miss it very much.”
Consequently, it was at Huston’s insistence that the cast for The Dead be, as he put it, “real Irish, not just people who claim to be.” Hundreds of Irish actors and actresses in both Ireland and the U.S. were auditioned before the final ensemble of 30 was chosen. Along with Anjelica, McCann and Carroll, the cast includes well-known Irish stage performers Marie Kean and Donal Donnelly, film veteran Dan O’Herlihy, and Frank Patterson, known as “Ireland’s greatest tenor.”
“It was important that we preserve the integrity of the thing, “said Huston of the casting, adding with a chuckle, “I would think anyone who would go about filming The Dead without an authentically Irish cast should be sent into exile.”
According to the producer Schulz-Keill, it was he and co-producer Chris Sievernich, independent of Huston, who decided to hire the director’s 36-year-old son, Tony Huston, as the film’s screenwriter. Tony’s lifelong affinity for Joyce and his affection for Ireland (Tony and his sister Anjelica both spent their youth at their fathers estate in Galway, along with the obvious advantages of having a writer who could work harmoniously with the director, they felt made Tony the perfect choice.
But even with the triumvirate of John, Anjelica and tony Huston, selling The Dead to investors was, said Schulz-Keil, “an extremely difficult proposition.” An intense, wiry journalist who first met Huston when he was cast as a bomb-throwing 18th-century anarchist in Annie and later went on to produce Huston’s Under the Volcano, Schulz-Keil remembers being turned down by virtually every major studio in Hollywood.
“They saw John’s age and health as a liability,” said the producer on a break between scenes midway through the shooting. “If it wasn’t for Joyce and what he’s meant to so many people, it might never have happened.”
According to Schulz-Keil, after weeks of searching fruitlessly for an American distributor, a person in the story department at Vestron Pictures who had written his dissertation on Joyce, passed the script along to Vestron president William Quigley, who was also an Irish literature major in college. Thus, said Schulz-Keil, Vestron “was fated to do this project” and they put up the bulk of the film’s $5.5 million budget.
Originally, some thought had been given to filming The Dead at Dublin’s Ardmore Studios, but because of Ardmore’s tenuous financial standing, Huston’s ill health and the fact that nearly 90 percent of the story takes place indoors, the decision was made to film at the Valencia studio. Curiously unspectacular surroundings for Huston, who has shot movies in such far-off locations as Rome, Paris, Africa, Japan and Mexico. (“A dreadful setting,” said the film’s co-star, Donal McCann, “but it’s made it a lot easier for everyone to concentrate on the picture. There’s nothing else to do around here.”)
Using Huston as the bait, the producers were able to assemble a production team that might otherwise have been beyond their means. Costume designer Dorothy Jenkins, who won an Academy Award for her work on Huston’s The Night of the Iguana, was lured out of retirement; Tommy Shaw, the assistant director, has worked with Huston off and on for nearly 30 years; and Stephen Grimes, who was hired for the crucial job of production designer, first teamed up with Huston on Moby Dick and has worked with him on 12 pictures since.
Assembling a cast and crew of people that Huston was either familiar with or had worked with before was done, claimed the producer, to facilitate the director’s “special relationship” with Joyce’s work. “I believe there’s a reason that nobody has influenced John, in regards to his filmmaking, more than Joyce,” whispered Schulz-Keil, as Huston conducted business on the set nearby. “The realism that you find in Joyce, particularly in the writings of the young Joyce, and the realism in John’s films are everyday subjects, occurrences and objects and give them a transcendental meaning.”
It is Schulz-Keil’s contention that Joyce and Huston, although generations apart and practitioners of two entirely different crafts, share the same muse. And along with his co-producer he was even willing to invest $400,000 of his own money to develop the project. “It doesn’t take a lot to think of John and Joyce and then realize there’s something very special going on here,” he said.
“The cabman settled his rug over his knees, and bent down for the address. The confusion grew greater as the cabman was directed off differently by Freddy Malins and Mr. Browne, each of whom had his head out through the window of the cab. The difficulty was to know where to drop Mr. Browne along the route and Aunt Kate, Aunt Julia and Mary Jane helped the discussion from the doorstep with cross-directions and contradictions and an abundance of laughter.”
“Too much blarney,” whispered Tony Huston to his father during filming one afternoon.”
Tony was referring to a line-reading by veteran film actor Dan O’Herlihy in one of The Dead’s most rambunctious scenes: at the end of the dinner-dance where the story’s central action takes place, many of the guests—including an inebriated Mr. Browne played by O’Herilhy—are piling into a horse-drawn cab. There was intended to be great merriment and confusion as the various characters shouted instructions to the cabman, but on this particular take O’Herlihy was straining to be heard above the din.
“Use the line as a throw-away,” said the director to O’Herlihy, agreeing with his son. “Don’t be so exclamatory.”
“You want me to throw the line away?” asked O’Herlihy with a trace of uncertainty.
“That’s right, Dan,” replied Huston, “Just throw the line away.”
Tony Huston had been seated next to his father throughout the filming of The Dead for precisely this reason—to maintain the rule of thumb that while improvisational flourishes were appreciated, the integrity of the scene would not be sacrificed. He was especially concerned that none of the characterizations be allowed to get overly cartoonish or stereotypical.
“I don’t believe that I’ve ever seen the Ireland I grew up in accurately portrayed on screen,” he had said earlier, seated on the steps of a deserted set while the rest of the crew took their lunch break. “There are lots of pictures that pretend to be about Ireland—The Quiet Man type of thing with lots of pretty landscapes occupied by cliché characters. I hope that we can at least partially remedy that with The Dead.”
Along with his appreciation for Ireland, where he spent 18 years of his life, Huston, much like his father, developed an early interest in Joyce that precipitated his career as a writer. He remembers collecting a set of Joyce first editions nearly 20 years ago as a gift for his father and suggesting The Dead as a film even then.
As for the script, Huston’s overwhelming admiration for Joyce led him to write an initial draft that was “rigidly faitherful” to the original story. “I remember Dad just had a cataract operation at the time,” he recalled. “While he was in the hostpial, I read him my first drat. We discussed it, and I went off and wrote a second draft using his suggestions.”
Although his and his father’s original conception for the story had been adhered to since the production began, Huston admitted that the cast had contributed a great deal of spontaneous humor to the filming, which may surprise and even outrage some of the more devout Joycean scholars.
“The man’s dead,” remarked co-star McCann about Joyce, “I really don’t think he’ll mind if we play around with his work a little bit.”
Back on set, O’Herlihy had finally gotten his line right, but the horse-drawn cab scene was experiencing other difficulties. First there was the problem of aligning the camera properly so as to get all the characters within the frame. Then there were problems with the electric fog machine. And finally, in a development that would have been comical were it not so late in the day, filming was delayed by the director’s oxygen machine whose humming sound was being picked up by the stage microphone.
Eventually, on the twelfth take—four times as many as Huston usually does on a scene—they got it right. It had been a long day of filming under glaring lights on a closed-in set, and most of the cast and crew were happy to see it end.
The director, looking all of his 80 years, was helped back into his wheelchair and taken to a camper, where he would stay until later that evening when the day’s rushes would be shown to the cast.
Donal McCann, sweat still glistening his brow, grabbed a soft-drink and stood by an open door to catch the mild Southern California breeze. “Like I said, “ he remarked gesturing towards the set, “nothin’ to it.”
“A few light taps upon the pane made Gabriel turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland… His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
When Joyce wrote The Dead in 1907, he was an unpublished 25-year-old writer on the verge of his many years of exile in Paris. The story’s central development—that of a husband’s learning for the first time of his wife’s dead lover—was based loosely on reality: Joyce’s wife, Nora, had a premarital romance with a man who died young of tuberculosis. When he learned of the affair Joyce began writing the story, realizing that his jealousy forced him to confront certain unchartered emotions.
Many of these emotions were laid bare in The Dead’s final passage, in which Gabriel, having been told by his wife that she long ago had had a lover who died, comes face to face with the tenuousness of his existence. While his wife sleeps beside him, he stares out the window at the falling snow and is left with what is for him a bittersweet revelation – the dead do not stay buried, they continue on in the dreams and hopes of the living.
According to Tony Huston, the entire script for The Dead had been sculpted “like a piece of music,” with the film’s many evolving themes coming into focus with Gabriel’s final revelation. Consequently, the film had been shot in sequence—a rarity for a Hollywood movie—to give the actors an opportunity to experience the full sweep of the story’s events.
For John Huston, whose filming of The Dead would most likely be the final chapter in one of the most extraordinary careers in film history, the ending had taken on a deep personal significance.
“In the end, he [Gabriel] stands revealed to himself,” Huston had said, sounding almost as if he were talking to himself. “In a moment, in a flickering moment, he feels his morality. He has to ask himself whether his life has really meant anything at all. And there are doubts, the inevitable doubts that one has.”
But along with The Dead’s darker revelations, there are many moments of sheer exuberance and sensuality, with passages as lush as anything Joyce ever wrote. Certainly this, too, was part of the symbiosis between Joyce and Huston that was such a strong force throughout the filming of The Dead.
Early one afternoon, after the cast and crew had just broken for lunch, the director and his helpers began unhooking his oxygen generator so he could return to his quarters. Nearby, the producer, Schul-Keil, was talking with a visiting journalist about one of his favorite subjects—the similarities between Joyce and Huston.
“There’s a disappointment with religion in Joyce’s writings,” he was saying, “that you also see in John’s work. You see it in Moby Dick, you see it in The African Queen, Wise Blood, Under the Volcano. Many of John’s pictures are about religious people who have lost faith in religion.”
As Schulz-Keil spoke, Huston was approached by one of the cast members who wanted to thank him for the way he had shot a particular scene that morning. Before long, another cast member approached and then another. Soon there was a line of people waiting to offer their thanks and congratulations to the director, who sat patiently in the dimmed lights of the set.
Schulz-Keil interrupted his dissertation and nodded towards the director, whom he had been watching. Even he had to appreciate the irony: for a man without religion, Huston, much like Joyce, had attracted quite a flock.
Editor’s Note: This article was printed in the May 1987 issue of Irish America.
T.J. English is a noted journalist, screenwriter, and author of the New York Times bestsellers Havana Nocturne, Paddy Whacked, The Savage City, The Westies, and Born to Kill, which was nominated for an Edgar Award. He has written for Vanity Fair, Esquire, and Playboy, among other publications. His screenwriting credits include episodes for the television crime dramas NYPD Blue and Homicide, for which he was awarded the Humanitas Prize. T.J., who was a valuable member of the team that founded Irish America magazine in 1985, grew up in Tacoma, Washington and lives in New York City. He is also a co-founder of Irish American Writers and Artists.