Interview with Catherine Wyler
“Being the daughter of William Wyler has given me such a rich life.”
Interview with Catherine Wyler, published in Dec. 2021
BEN-HUR (1959) and ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953) are well-known also by non-movie buffs, but the complete works of William Wyler (1902–1981, director from 1925 to 1970) encompass a much wider variety. During my research on his Word War II documentaries (“35 Millimeter”, vol. 38, p. 24 et seqq.), I contacted Catherine (*1939), his firstborn daughter, who, as a movie producer, often refers to her father’s work. As the exchange continued, “35 Millimeter” editor Jörg Mathieu made a request for an interview, which she accepted, and thanks to him, the task was conferred to me. After a preparatory phone call (during which she, full of joy, said what became this article’s headline), we carried out the interview via email in the late summer of 2021. She openly gave information about her father’s life and work, as well as about her own early memories and subsequent work.
Tonio Klein: To make it clear once and for all: Some sources report that your father’s birth name is “Weiler”, which, in German, is pronounced as “Wyler” and means “hamlet” in the sense of a more-than-small village. But considering the name “Wyler” being common in Switzerland where your grandfather came from, I suppose that he had your name in the actual spelling?
Catherine Wyler: Yes, Wyler is the correct spelling. I ’ve been to the cemetery in Oberendingen, Switzerland, my grandfather’s birthplace. It’s full of Wylers, and I was told that it is a very common name there.
TK: Have you been in Mulhouse, your father’s place of birth? Which was the impact of his German, Swiss, in a way French, and Jewish roots in his childhood and adolescence?
CW: I have been to Mulhouse, where a street is now called Allée William Wyler. He came from an observant Jewish family, and spoke both German and French. His father was Swiss, his German mother (née Auerbach from Strasbourg) had suffered from anti-Semitism and was very anti-German. She insisted that French be spoken at home. Willy was the middle of three boys. When World War I erupted, the boys were pro-German because of school. Later, they became pro-French, because (my father said) when the Germans took the town, they billeted their soldiers with each family. When the French did, the soldiers slept in the park. Later, there was never talk of us children learning anything but French.
TK: It was not possible for me to watch all your father’s early work. Among his feature films he made for Laemmle’s “Universal Pictures”, I like most The Love Trap (1929, “35 Millimeter”, vol. 42, p. 25) and Counsellor at Law (1933), not having seen Anybody Here Seen Kelly? (1928), The Storm (1930), Her First Mate (1933) and Glamour (1934). Which are your favorite ones and which are not available on DVD, but should be?
CW: Some of his early work, like ANYBODY HERE SEEN KELLY, is lost. I may have seen those you mention, but don’t remember. I certainly do like THE LOVE TRAP and COUNSELLOR AT LAW. I don’t know about their availability on DVD, but if you find out, please tell me!
TK: Your father was a perfectionist since when? Fay Wray, who appeared in some of his short westerns (e.g. LAZY LIGHTNING 1926), said that he took more care in making them than others.
CW: I imagine that it came with adulthood. He got into lots of trouble as a young man, including being fired from his job at Cent Mille Chemises in Paris for gambling. That turned into a lucky break, as his mother, at her wits end, introduced him to Carl Laemmle [his second cousin], who brought him to America. The fact that he took so much care with those little westerns probably helped his promotion to bigger pictures.
TK: In HELL’S HEROES (1929), a western, he had difficulties with Charles Bickford who hardly could get on a horse. But the movie doesn’t show great riding scenes.
CW: I think he was absolutely right to expect that an actor in westerns would be able to ride a horse. He and Bickford had a lot of difficulty working together; their personalities just didn’t connect.
TK: Did Wyler have trouble with censorship? In Germany, A HOUSE DIVIDED (1931) was banned because of immoral conduct in 1932. I only know that Paramount refused to release CARRIE (1950/1952) until he agreed to eliminate the main character’s (Laurence Olivier) suicide.
CW: I don’t know about other cases, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more… He was stubborn, especially when he thought he was right, so if the censorship was getting in the way of telling the story realistically, that would be a problem. My understanding of the difficulty with CARRIE is rather different. He told me that the censorship board at the time insisted on removing the scene of Olivier in the flop house. It was 1952, the height of anti-Communist mania, House Un-American Activities Committee [HUAC], etc. and that scene was called “Un-American.” It has since been returned to the film. [TK: Both incidents are true, according to Wyler’s biographers.]
TK: He adapted many stage plays. In COUNSELLOR AT LAW and DETECTIVE STORY (1951), he combined the unity of place and time with elaborate camerawork, which is a great challenge for the cast. How did this work with heavily drinking John Barrymore in the former? And how did he manage to finish the latter before schedule, although well-known for endless takes?
CW: I don’t know the answer to this, but the fact that he did manage Barrymore definitely impressed the studio with his talent. And I do know that he enjoyed working with all those character actors in DETECTIVE STORY.
TK: Can one still see an advancement from WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939) to THE LITTLE FOXES (1941)? Both pictures use a thunderstorm as dramatic effect, but THE LITTLE FOXES does it more subtly in focusing on Bette Davis’s face.
CW: Perhaps we should consider who he was working with. He was forced to use Merle Oberon, because [producer Samuel] Goldwyn had her under contract. Bette Davis was more versatile.
TK: Going back to the ‘30’s, who would you say were the most influential persons for your father? As you may expect, I think, of course, of Carl Laemmle, his long-time friend John Huston and his former wife Margaret Sullavan. Would you agree or disagree, and why? Any other people, such as his brother/your uncle Robert?
CW: I think your list is good. Certainly, he liked having his brother Robert around. Probably also his writers and cinematographers.
TK: When and how did your father deal with upcoming Nazism and Hitler’s rise to power? Being Jewish, he experienced anti-Semitism since his childhood (as I’ve read in a biography). Some Germans harshly criticized Laemmle’s All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone – 1930) even before 1933. Was Willy concerned by that?
CW: Once Pearl Harbor happened, he was desperate to get into the armed services, but I don’t know specifics before that. He was certainly very concerned about what was happening in his homeland and to his people.
TK: Can you tell if the following anecdote is true? In a German biography of Carl Laemmle [Cristina Stanca-Mustea: Carl Laemmle Der Mann, der Hollywood erfand 2013], it is reported that Laemmle, who regularly visited his German relatives, was recognized in a train and warned that an attempt to murder him was on the way and that he should leave the train before arriving. He did so and was so grateful to that man that he offered him a job in Hollywood. The man was Paul Kohner who became one of the great Hollywood agents and, if I see it correctly, a friend of your father’s.
CW: Paul Kohner was a dear friend of my father’s. They were both brought to the US by Carl Laemmle about the same time; they met in the New York office of Universal, where they were first put to work. I don’t know about this story.
TK: Could MRS. MINIVER (1942), the documentary The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944) and THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946) be seen as a war trilogy? War effects on domestic life, soldiers in action and the homecoming?
CW: A good idea, but I doubt my father thought of them that way. During all those years he was consumed by the war, so it does make sense. Hiring a real amputee for a substantial role in THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES [Harold Russell, a non-professional actor who had lost his hands in the war] was part of his desire to make everything as realistic and believable as possible.
TK: When Dana Andrews in THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES is asked what qualifications he acquired in the war to be useful in civilian life, and he reports that he has just learned how to drop the bombs best, I think: This could be one of the men in the Memphis Belle – how could they regain ground? Do you know whether your father had similar thoughts?
CW: I’m sure my father had these thoughts. I remember some of the Memphis Belle crew coming to dinner at our house when I was a child. One of the greatest moments during the production of “my” MEMPHIS BELLE (GB 1990 – the feature film version co-produced by Catherine Wyler), was when the remaining original crew members alighted at our airfield in Lincolnshire, UK, to join us for a few days during the production. I had introduced each actor – long distance – to the original crew member he personified. Harry Connick Jr., playing one of the crew, got the actors together and they serenaded the original crew as they arrived at the airbase. It was quite a sentimental moment.
TK: THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES anticipates McCarthyism: Dana Andrews hits a man who pretended that the soldiers fought the wrong enemy, for the real one is – which is said indirectly – the communist.
CW: I’m glad you mention this scene, because it was so personal to my father. I don’t know that my father anticipated the coming witch hunt, but it was certainly very personal to him. It’s so astounding that it might have been difficult to shoot just one year later.
TK: He then was committed to the “Committee for the First Amendment” [an action group co-founded by him in 1947, giving support to the “Hollywood Ten” who had refused to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in order to give information about allegedly communist colleagues].
CW: The Committee for the First Amendment was very important to my father, and those were terribly difficult times for so many people. I believe that my father was delighted with the opportunity to make ROMAN HOLIDAY abroad, as it put him away from the tentacles of the HUAC. I was twelve at the time, and I remember reading the papers for my passport very carefully, because I had heard so much about people getting into trouble for signing things they hadn’t fully read.
THE LATE WORK
TK: Concerning your father’s works in the ‘60’s (including THE LIBERATION OF L.B. JONES, shot in 1969 and released in 1970): Would you agree that THE CHILDREN’S HOUR (1961) and THE LIBERATION… are your father’s most personal and socio-politically ambitious projects of that time?
TK: I suppose that the motive to adapt Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour (1934) a second time was very strong. In THESE THREE, his 1936 version, he had to replace the hoax that two female teachers had sexual intercourse, by the one that one has an affair with the other’s fiancé.
CW: Perhaps also because of his affection for Lillian Hellman and positive experiences working with her, he thought of remaking THE CHILDREN’S HOUR when it was possible to make it as originally written. It was Lillian who had explained to him when they began to work on THESE THREE that the story wasn’t about lesbianism, but about the power of a lie, and that is the basis of both films.
TK: Do you think critical disapproval of both THE CHILDREN’S HOUR and THE LIBERATION OF L.B. JONES came from the fact that both movies show a reality which was pretended to have been overcome, but which wasn’t? It was said that the former was out-dated. And it was maybe not said that racism was overcome in the U.S. in 1970, but that a movie like THE LIBERATION… could lead to racial riots, instead of the real racism. To me, one is as silly as the other – i.e. that the negative reviews were political hypocrisy and not a fair artistical and political view. What did your father think, what do you think – and was or is it a problem with U.S. critics in general?
CW: I think that THE CHILDREN’S HOUR was behind the times, and THE LIBERATION OF L.B. JONES was ahead. The former was based on a story told in the manner of the 1930’s, even though updated; the subject was no longer as horrifying as it had once been. On the other hand, L.B. JONES was a tough movie about racism, and no one was making those movies then. My father and Lillian Hellman had been searching for a story about racism to do together. Unfortunately, she was not available when he found that story. I watched the film recently, and it holds up well. There are a few things he might do differently now, but it still works, and it’s still tough [cf. “70 Millimeter”, Vol. 0, p. 14 et seqq.].
TK: After the box-office hit The Sound Of Music (1965), 20th Century Fox tried to tie in with costly, lavish musicals, such as Doctor Dolittle (1967) and Star! (1968). They all flopped and were regarded to be out of time, as well as Paramount’s Darling Lili (1970). Any explanation why Funny Girl (1968) was the only huge success of them?
CW: I think FUNNY GIRL was such a success because of my father’s artistry and the relationship between Willy and Barbra [Streisand].
TK: Wyler was never closely linked to a specific genre. What makes a Wyler film a Wyler film?
CW: I’m not a film scholar, in fact have never taken any film courses. My father didn’t believe in them! You were supposed to learn on the job, like he did. But I think his films show a deep understanding of and sympathy for his characters. He liked to make different kinds of movies, to find new challenges, to keep himself interested. For example, after BEN-HUR, he was definitely ready for a more intimate film.
TK: Was your father an actor’s director, by being very demanding but taking acting seriously and able to bring out the best in an actor? Being cast in a Wyler picture seemed to be the staircase to an Academy Award!
CW: As Chuck Heston said in DIRECTED BY WILLIAM WYLER (1986 – a documentary co-produced by Catherine Wyler): “It was like getting the works in a Turkish bath. You thought you’d drown, but you came out smelling like a rose!” I think he was very much an actor’s director, and actors were quite vocal in their approval or extreme dislike of his methods!
TK: How important is the visual style in your father’s work? Deep focus is one of his hallmarks, and in spite of various cameramen [the highly influential Gregg Toland passed away in 1948], I think something specific shows in his work.
CW: I agree that his visual style is apparent in his films and that cameramen were very important to him. I think he liked deep focus because the viewer is in charge, i.e. he has to decide for himself what or whom to focus on – but he is also subliminally guided.
TK: Would you agree that there is no clear prevalence of the visual or the drama in your father’s films and that he paid great attention to both? “We didn’t need dialogue, we had faces” (SUNSET BOULEVARD – 1950), but your father had both, and concerning faces, I’m most impressed by female ones before the fade-out: Bette Davis in The Little Foxes, Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949), Audrey Hepburn in The Children’s Hour, Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, even the small part of Lilian Bond in The Westerner (1940).
CW: He definitely paid attention to all aspects you mentioned and to my knowledge, Willy worked diligently with every aspect of the production that he could influence, e.g. all aspects. And I think he especially enjoyed and was interested in working with writers, cinematographers and composers. Writers were the most valuable people to my father, so you might say that words and faces had equal importance, although one might be preferred over the other at any particular moment… and Willy might completely disagree. I can’t speak for him here.
TK: Directors like your father, Robert Wise or Richard Fleischer, as well as pioneers like Allan Dwan or Raoul Walsh, learned film-making “from the bottom” and thus knew all technical aspects by heart. Others came from writing, like Joseph L. Mankiewicz, or from the stage, like Douglas Sirk. Do you see a general difference in the outcoming movies?
CW: I never thought about it that way, but that’s interesting. Here again, you can see that I never studied film or filmmakers. It was frowned upon at home, because it wasn’t seen as a viable profession: too hard to get a job or to work steadily!
TK: Much has been said about your father and Bette Davis [cf. “35 Millimeter”, vol. 41, p. 14 et seqq.]. But it’s not true that he wanted to force Bette to marry him and that your mother was only kind of “consolation prize”, as spread by Davis’s biographer Charles Higham and copied by others.
CW: As I remember the story, Daddy told us that Bette said in a biography that he had written to her, saying he was going to get married to my mother, hoping she would leap to his rescue… He laughed about it, because it was obviously ridiculous. One great aspect of our family life was that my parents were so obviously in love with each other. None of us took this seriously.
TK: The essence of their mutual affection seems to be their longing for perfection.
CW: Yes, and I think he felt that way about any colleague who was willing to give his/her all to the work. I’m sure Bette’s and Willy’s desires for perfection made working together such bliss… until it couldn’t overcome the end of their personal relationship. They were both strong, principled individuals, willing to take chances for what they believed. Notwithstanding artistic differences, deep respect and admiration remained – for decades. The day of the memorial service for my father, when many people came back to their home, Bette Davis and my mother sat together in close conversation for a very long time, just the two of them. No one would interrupt them.
TK: George Perry [in Schickel/Perry: “Bette Davis – Larger Than Life” – 2009] seems to be of the opinion that in 1937, Bette Davis looked up at Willy who could sculpture her. I consider it unfair, and besides: Would your father have been interested in a “moldable” actress?
CW: I think you’re right. He liked intelligence and people who could stand up to him, understand the essence of collaboration, which should improve the product. Experienced [Bette Davis] or not [Teresa Wright, Audrey Hepburn], they needed to have intelligence and a willingness to persevere.
Beyond William Wyler
TK: Having discussed Wyler’s career, I’d like to know, speculative as it may be, something about missed opportunities.
CW: He started working on THE SOUND OF MUSIC, but couldn’t bear “to make a picture about all those nice Nazis” [cf. Jan Herman: A Talent for Trouble. The Life of Hollywood’s Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler – 1995, paperback 1997, p. 421]. And when the film came out, he said that Bob [Robert] Wise made a much better movie than he would have, because of his intense feelings. He prepared PATTON (1970) – perhaps he and George C. Scott [in the title role] would have come to blows?? [Willy had fired and replaced Scott by Eli Wallach when, on the first day of shooting of HOW TO STEAL A MILLION, 1966, he was three hours late.] As for casting decisions, Cary Grant was offered the lead in ROMAN HOLIDAY [which finally went to Gregory Peck]. It’s possible that he turned it down because the part was less interesting, compared to Audrey Hepburn’s; that rings a dim bell, but I’m not sure.
TK: Concerning Wyler’s reception, one has to state that the “Cahiers du cinéma” didn’t see him as a top-ranking filmmaker.
CW: In my recollection, he had a very difficult relationship with those young twerps of the Cahiers. Although, as he said, he was one of the few directors who could pronounce their name correctly, they seemed to view him as a studio hack as opposed to an auteur. He didn’t make the same kind of movies over and over, and he didn’t also write the screenplays. A director whose ego causes him to imprint a personal signature on his work should be considered better than one who makes himself invisible in the service of the work? Makes no sense whatever, but Willy certainly suffered from this puerile stupidity. On the other hand, he was really appreciated by people who knew him, because he was such a good guy. When I continued to be asked to speak about him at festivals, etc. after I had produced DIRECTED BY WILLIAM WYLER, at first, I thought that I had done my “homage” to my father and should move on to other things. But as time passed, and the requests kept coming, I decided to keep on with the homages, because he wasn’t just an excellent filmmaker, he was also an excellent human being! He was a devoted husband and father (never a hint of nonsense with the beautiful women he was constantly directing after he married my mother). He was a loyal friend and politically involved, standing up for friends in trouble with the HUAC, for example. He was a patriot: getting himself into the Army Air Force at age forty, and flying five missions over Germany, until his senior officer insisted he stand down. He was a great storyteller with a fine sense of humor, and I had a mostly wonderful childhood, because he was my father.
TK: Willy said: “Cahiers du cinéma never forgave me for the picture”, meaning BEN-HUR. Do you see a general tendency in some critics to mistrust those who are extremely successful at the box office and the Oscars?
CW: Yes, although certainly less now than during his era.
TK: Maybe an example for your father’s impact on younger filmmakers: Both Sam Mendes’s Road to Perdition (2002) and Willy’s THE DESPERATE HOURS (1955) are not only gangster movies, but also deal with a family conflict and a father-son-relationship. Both pictures use the image of a broken or fallen bicycle in front of the family home. Pure coincidence?
CW: I haven’t seen Road to Perdition, but I will look for it. I would certainly hope that younger filmmakers learn from their elders!
TK: Is there any connection with the 1959 BEN-HUR and subsequent adaptations, especially the 2016 version, starring Jack Huston, grandson of your father’s close friend and colleague John Huston?
CW: Not with the 2016 one, but my brother, David Wyler, was [as an executive producer] involved with the 2010 version under the same title, which is a two-part TV movie of three hrs. length in total. When he told me he was doing it, I was amazed, and asked how in the world could he do the chariot race? He replied that it would be a cross country race, that they often raced that way in Roman times. I thought that was a very creative solution!
TK: What will remain of Wyler?
CW: I’m not sure if this question refers to whether the films will be preserved (which they surely will, as we can see) or whether younger generations will watch them. I’ve been told by film professors in the U.S. that they are appalled by the ignorance of most kids in film school, how few classic films they’ve seen. Yet, surely, the smart and curious ones are delving into the classics to enhance and inform their own work.
TK: What do you think of theatrical cinema vs. streaming and the new possibilities of home cinema with big HD or UHD screens? Can the big silver screen ever be replaced? Will it survive, especially due to COVID19-restrictions?
CW: I’m not unhappy that movies are now available at home as well as in cinemas. Will the public of today still long for the big screen? I certainly hope so, but they still have to be enticed off their couches, also because it’s so much cheaper to stay home. Critics have an important role here. I’ve just been told that major newspapers, including the New York Times, are no longer reviewing all films that show theatrically. If true, this will kill off the theatres quicker than anything in my opinion, and it is highly irresponsible!
TK: What do you think of CGI? For example, in the 2016 BEN-HUR, one knows that they had considerably less extras than to be seen, but I suppose that in the huge dancing scene in Memphis Belle (GB 1990), you had them all!
CW: When discussing the chariot race in my father’s BEN-HUR, I’m always careful to point out that those are all people in the stands, as well as the extras in the dancing scene you’ve mentioned are all real! But CGI certainly makes things possible that couldn’t be done any other way.
CATHERINE WYLER – MEMORIES
TK: Now, let’s turn to yourself, but first, to your mother, Margaret “Talli” Tallichet. What did she think of her own film career, concerning both minor parts as in A STAR IS BORN (1937) and her leading part in STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940) – which is, to me, an excellent early “b” film noir?
CW: In DIRECTED BY WILLIAM WYLER, she talks a bit about her feelings about her career, but nothing specific. I think she enjoyed it, but she also didn’t mind ending it once she had two children to care for.
TK: She stopped acting after the birth of your younger sister Judy in 1941. Any particular reasons for it? Did she have offers?
CW: I know that my father didn’t want her to work, but in my doc, she says that he was too smart to say that, but she had had enough of sitting around in the dark, waiting for her turn to act, and the career just fell away, absolutely painlessly.
TK: What followed?
CW: Because English was my father’s third language, he read slowly in English, and there were always a lot of books and scripts to read, looking for his next film. So, she became his gatekeeper and reader, and that gave her a status which I think was most welcome for the wife of a director in those days. Everyone knew that to get Willy’s attention, you had to first please Talli, and she was smart and well read… no pushover!
TK: How did World War II, in which your father took part and was far from home for a considerable time, affected your life then?
CW: I was too young to remember. I do remember the day he came home from the war. My sister was in the bathtub, and I had just had a bath, when the doorbell rang. I raced downstairs, completely naked, and flung open the door, and there was Daddy with two other men in uniform! I was six years old and hideously embarrassed!
TK: Willy was Jewish, was it of religious importance to him and you and how did it show in your education? Was your mother also Jewish?
CW: I think both my parents were very anti-clerical, because they both came from very observant families. My mother’s family was Methodist. In fact, my mother didn’t tell her parents she was getting married, because she knew they’d be horrified!
TK: You have small parts in THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES and ROMAN HOLIDAY and you came to visit the sets of many other films directed by your father…
CW: …but I’m sure we were invited on days when nothing hugely dramatic was taking place. I remember getting finger-printed at the police station of DETECTIVE STORY and visiting the set for the chariot race in BEN-HUR, because we’d never seen anything so spectacular.
TK: And what was the impact of the artistic environment at home?
CW: As I’ve mentioned before, most important and valuable to my father were writers, who, of course, were the basis for good movies. Writers were gods in my family. I always read the scripts of the film my father was making, and he would listen at dinner to my comments. I myself wanted to be a writer, but decided at an early age, about fifteen, that I wasn’t good enough. Had I spoken this decision aloud, I’m sure my mother would have told me to take a lot more time and do more work before making such a decision, but I kept it to myself. I’m not sorry now, because it is such a lonely profession. Anyway, at that time, I decided that I would have to be an editor instead, like my idol, Max Perkins, and discover the Hemingway and Fitzgerald of my generation…
TK: What are your childhood memories concerning celebrities? Your neighbors were Charlie Chaplin and Fred Astaire!
CW: Just remember, these are childhood impressions! I only remember Charlie Chaplin on the tennis court, for the Chaplin/Wyler tennis tournament. He always wore long pants, rather than shorts, and looked very elegant, I thought. But also, and more memorable for me, was the rolling silver and glass tea cart laden with goodies, which a butler would roll in among the audience at the court.
I remember Fred Astaire only fleetingly. My father would not buy a television set in the early days, because he was concerned that television was destroying his profession. So, my sister and I sometimes went next door to the Astaires to watch a show. Mr. Astaire would often just waft through the room, blowing kisses at us girls on the couch.
I remember so many writers from Lillian Hellman to Jessamyn West, Ruth and Gus Goetz, Christopher Fry, and lots of great story-telling and laughter around the dinner table. Daddy said that Christopher Fry changed “How did you like your dinner?” to “Was the meal to your liking?” and that made all the difference! If I had to pick one influence, it would be the importance of storytelling, and getting it right, not just any story-telling, but perfecting it, too.
TK: How did you experience your father when working on a film?
CW: He then was very wrapped up in it, although we still had dinner as a family, unless he was shooting. Then we only saw him on weekends. He was certainly interested in his children and their lives, but he was not the main person in charge, that was my mother. And he expected a lot. I remember once coming home with a report card that was all 4 A’s and one C in chemistry. And all I heard from him was about that C in chemistry.
TK: Your parents warned you against going into the movie business.
CW: The propaganda in my home against the business was indeed fierce. I left L.A to go to college at Stanford University [from where she graduated with a B.A. in Modern European Literature] and didn’t live in L.A. again for thirty years. I was set on going to New York and entering the world of publishing. I didn’t follow my father’s work very closely, from the time I went away to college, although I always read the scripts and saw the films.
TK: BEN-HUR surely can be seen as an enormous effort in logistics, money, time and both elaborate and utterly exhausting work, on which MGMs further existence could depend. Let it be consequence or coincidence (do you know?) that producer Sam Zimbalist died of a heart attack during production. What did all this mean to you – did it detract you from going into the business? Could one anticipate the huge success it became or was it uncertain until the release?
CW: My father always thought that BEN-HUR killed Sam Zimbalist. It was a concern to me that my father had to take over his job as well, but didn’t affect me otherwise. I do remember hearing that the fate of the studio rested on the success of BEN-HUR, so great relief when it turned out well.
Catherine Wyler – Work
TK: How did you become assistant producer of IN THE FRENCH STYLE (1963)?
CW: Bob [Robert] Parrish and Irwin Shaw were long-time friends of my parents, and we had all been together in the glorious summer of 1953 in St. Jean de Luz [a small French town at the Bay of Biscay]. I knew Bob didn’t speak French, so when I heard he was directing a film in Paris, I suggested he hire me, and didn’t let up, until finally he said that if I ’d get myself to Paris, he’d give me the job of production assistant. I mostly remember racing through the halls of the Studio de Boulogne-Billancourt on the outskirts of Paris, delivering memos, script changes, etc. Bob and Irwin were very generous with me, and I met all sorts of people like Orson Welles through them.
TK: The IMDb has no record of your work between 1963 and 1986. What were your main interests and occupations during that period?
CW: Returning to New York after In the French Style, I became a story editor, looking for material for films for producers like Joe Levine and Ray Stark. I also got married and had a couple of children. I will send you my cv separately [cf. below].
TK: In the ‘70’s, Wyler was not an active filmmaker, but present at important events, e.g. when being honored with the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1976. What did this mean to you and to your own work?
CW: In the ‘70’s, I was living in New York and raising a family. I was present at events like the AFI Life Achievement Award, and thrilled for my father, but don’t know what it meant to my own work. In retrospect, I know which jobs I probably got because I was William Wyler’s daughter, and there are others where that may have been a factor, but I wasn’t conscious of that at the time.
TK: Three days before his death [27th July 1981], your father gave an interview. Was it already conceived to be part of your documentary DIRECTED BY WILLIAM WYLER, and who took the initiative?
CW: The ‘70’s were the era of the Cahiers du cinéma critics, and he was hurt by their view of his films. In order to counter that, I wanted to make a documentary about my father’s life and work. At first, he was reluctant – I had never made a documentary, what did I know? My mother thought the whole venture was important and talked him into it. But because he wasn’t keen, I had to choose my crew very carefully. I chose Scott Berg to interview him, because Willy liked him after an interview for his book on Goldwyn [A. Scott Berg: Goldwyn – A Biography – 1989]. Then I was thrilled to get a woman director, Aviva Slesin, because I thought he would, at least, be polite to a woman… Also, and most important, she had humor; she was making short films for Saturday Night Live. I specifically did not want to make a pompous biographical doc like so many I saw at the time; I wanted this piece to have my father’s humor.
TK: As the film only was released in 1986, did you have difficulties in producing it or did you have other preoccupations in the meantime?
CW: It’s hard to imagine now, because documentaries have become so ubiquitous, but I had a very hard time raising the money. We had intended to make a 90-minute doc, but eventually agreed that 60-minutes was all we could do.
TK: How came it that THE MEMPHIS BELLE was (re-)made as a feature film, released in 1990? Was it your own idea? And what was your contribution as a producer?
CW: It was David Puttnam’s idea, and, of course, I thought it was a great one. David was a brilliant and very experienced producer, and I was thrilled to work with him. [As producer, he won the Academy Award for CHARIOTS OF FIRE – GB 1982, in the “Best Picture”-category.] He had a wonderful group of people that he’d made other films with, so it was great company to be in. It was a great learning experience, because once we were in production, David rarely came on the set. He left that to me, but he was always available for questions, and because he was so brilliant and so experienced, he always had an answer for any problem that came up.
TK: What do you consider to be the main differences between the two versions and, in a general sense, between a documentary and a feature film? In Memphis Belle (GB 1990), one can find striking parallels (e.g. in the presentation of the crew members in the opening scene and in taking care of the wounded soldier at the end, including the smoke he gets). But the film also emphasizes on private talk and jokes between the men, which your father radically omits in the documentary (other than in Thunderbolt – 1947). Any particular reasons for this?
CW: The differences between the two films can be summed up as the difference between documentaries and narrative films. My father had no access to the back stories of the crew of the Memphis Belle. His story consisted entirely of what happened in the short period in which he was filming the crew and their missions. My film delved into the personalities and the previous lives of the characters in the film, and was able to show greater depth to their stories, albeit all made up.
TK: Some people think that only the director is the principal creator or the “auteur” of a movie. Of course, there are producers who lack creativity and only try to control the purse strings and to make money. But there are others, such as Val Lewton in the ‘40’s. Your father was a director and sometimes both director and producer. You are a producer. Can you describe your influence on Memphis Belle and how the co-operation with the director, the writer and the actors was?
CW: In the case of Memphis Belle, there were a number of creative people involved: writer Monte Merrick, director Michael Caton Jones, editor Jim Clark, and producers David Puttnam and myself. I was involved at every level, but the final shaping was done by Jim Clark and David Puttnam.
TK: Have you ever been, or are you still interested in directing yourself?
CW: No, I have never considered directing myself. I think I saw too much of the downsides, the agony and the responsibility. Also, there were no women directors when I was growing up. It never exerted a pull on me.
TK: When Memphis Belle was released, did it also help keeping in mind your father’s documentary? Did you promote it personally?
CW: Aside from the fact that there was an important opening in London with some of the royal family present, I don’t remember promotional activities.
TK: You have a bit part in a U.S. horror film, The Skeptic (2009). How did you come to appear in it?
CW: That was just a sort of joke among friends.
TK: What is the importance of IndieCollect, an organisation committed to the preservation of mostly independent films? You are a member of the board of directors. How and when did you come in touch with president Sandra Schulberg, a veteran of American independent filmmaking?
CW: I probably met Sandra while I was at the NEA [Wikipedia: “The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) is an independent agency of the United States federal government that offers support and funding for projects exhibiting artistic excellence.”]. She was one of the very first independent filmmakers, and we were very involved in funding them. IndieCollect is particularly important because it focuses on preserving independent films, whose filmmakers often lack the means to do so. Independent films are a crucially important part of our cultural history, and simply must be preserved. Luckily, Sandra has stepped up to this task with her usual dynamism and generous spirit.
TK: Sandra’s father, Stuart Schulberg, is known for his production and direction of Nuremberg: its Lesson for Today (1948) which she restored and which was presented on the 2010 Berlinale. This has something in common with your father’s war documentary which you restored. Is it especially due to the subject that these films – and what they show – should not be forgotten, or do you see your mission in a broader sense?
CW: It should be the responsibility of the US government, which funded these films, to preserve them. Absent that, it’s lucky that we’ve come along to do the job. I don’t know if war films are inherently more deserving of preservation, because, hopefully, they present cautionary tales. I think all the films we are preserving deserve it.
TK: I’ve seen your discussion with Erik Nelson and Chriss Austin on the restoration of The Memphis Belle (1944/2018) when it was presented on Veteran’s Day in 2020 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ravIo2wOqyc). Everyone can see in the restoration clips the brilliancy of the outcome, especially in the colors. Do you see a conflict between technical possibilities and sincerity to the original?
CW: I don’t know if there’s a general answer to this question. I’m sure my father would be thrilled to see the restoration of his THE MEMPHIS BELLE and the little details now visible that weren’t before.
TK: There may be a thin red line between restoration and falsification. Erik Nelson would have preferred to change the aspect ratio to the 16:9 format, you successfully pleaded for sticking to the 1.37:1 original. But when Erik supposes that your father, if he had been still alive, would have agreed with him, you are “sure he would” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ravIo2wOqyc, 16’22). I wouldn’t have expected that! To me, it seems that he took much care in framing, even in the documentaries. How could one ever cut off the top and the bottom?
CW: In my father’s canon, THE MEMPHIS BELLE is a very special case, because he did not usually make documentaries. And given the conditions in which filming was done, I doubt that framing was as important to him as it was for his narrative films. The reason I changed my mind about the aspect ratio when the film was completed was that I thought the film would get more play in theatres if it were 16:9, and Daddy would have been pleased about that. However, I’ve changed my mind again, and am happy that I caused the aspect ratio to stay the same. It retains the historical accuracy of the film.
TK: Tell us about your project THE DALAI LAMA’S GIFT TO THE WORLD, which combines archive footage of a 1981 Kalachakra Initiation in Madison, Wisconsin, with new material.
CW: In 1982, when I was at PBS [Wikipedia: “The Public Broadcasting Service is an American public broadcaster and television program distributor, […] a publicly funded nonprofit organization and the most prominent provider of educational programming to public television stations in the United States.”], Ed Bastian, the Buddhist scholar who shot the Kalachakra at Madison, came looking for funds to finish the doc. I could hardly find anyone who knew who the Dalai Lama was at that time, which is hard to imagine today, when he is renowned throughout the world. So, I wasn’t able to help, but we became friends. He was then working at the Smithsonian [Wikipedia: “The Smithsonian Institution […] is a group of museums and education and research centers, the largest such complex in the world, created by the U.S. government ‘for the increase and diffusion of knowledge’.”]. So he put the thirty hours of footage on deposit at their film archive. Almost 40 years later, it has just been released to a lab, and we’re told it’s in excellent condition.
TK: Can you explain what exactly is a Kalachakra Initiation and what it means for Buddhists or anyone else, especially what the importance of the 1981 ceremony in the U.S. was?
CW: The Nobel Prize-winning Dalai Lama has become a household name and a beacon of love, wisdom and hope throughout the world. Amid the tragedy of Tibet, he has gifted the human family with the universal teachings of Buddhism that resonate with people everywhere. Our film tells the story of how, in 1981, the Dalai Lama gifted America and the world with a spiritual practice that had been secret for 2500 years and never performed beyond Asia: The Wheel of Time or Kalachakra. This revolutionary practice empowers humans to end their suffering, to achieve eternal happiness and to bring peace to the world through compassion and wisdom.
The colorful and elaborate initiation of 1,200 participants took place in the farmland of rural Wisconsin. After fleeing Tibet during the Chinese invasion, the Dalai Lama was understandably concerned that his culture might disappear. So he sent his favorite monks to the west, to open Tibetan study centers and keep the culture alive. Geshe Sopa started an Eastern Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Once comfortable there, he invited the Dalai Lama to perform the Wheel of Time three-day initiation.
All the preparations – building a temple, convincing the town fathers, preparing for the crowds – were performed by Geshe Sopa’s university students. The preparations and the entire initiation were filmed by Buddhist scholar/filmmaker Ed Bastian, who directs our film.
The entrancing music, dance, ritual and imaginal practices of the Wheel of Time are unique among Buddhist practices. Through contemporary footage and interviews with participants then and now, we tell the story of this historic gift, the lives it transformed, and its impact on the rise of Tibetan Buddhism in America and throughout the world. Since 1981, the Dalai Lama has performed The Wheel of Time over 35 times to approximately one and a half million people.
TK: Do you know and appreciate Werner Herzog’s documentary RAD DER ZEIT (Wheel of Time – GER/AUT/IT 2003), also dealing with the subject? A German director who is well known in the U.S.! Do you know him in person, did or will you discuss your project with him?
CW: I don’t know Werner Herzog personally, but certainly appreciate his work. His “Wheel of Time” doc is fascinating, and I expect the two docs will be good companion pieces, since one takes place in Bodh Gaya and Austria, and ours in the heartland of America.
TK: How is your work proceeding and can you already tell when it will be available for spectators not only in the U.S.?
CW: Currently we are working on funding. We expect the doc to be ready for distribution in 2023.
TK: You have also produced Witness to Hope – The Life of Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II (2002). Is it pure coincidence or can you explain what fascinated you about religious leaders? There are great differences between the two.
CW: Pure coincidence. A friend at the Library of Congress alerted me that Pope John Paul II had asked George Weigel to write his autobiography. My friend thought that if George was writing a book, someone should do a doc, so he called me. I met George, and was very taken with him: a serious Catholic scholar with a great sense of humor. I considered myself an agnostic at the time, and thought “who better to do a documentary on a Pope?”
TK: You also restore DIRECTED BY WILLIAM WYLER – no retiring?
CW: IndieCollect is restoring it, which is a difficult task, because the negative was lost decades ago. I am hoping that once it is completed to our satisfaction, it may be seen at the “Il Cinema Ritrovato” in Bologna, one of my very favorite film festivals. There are a few Wyler films which have been restored recently, like DODSWORTH (1936), THE SHAKEDOWN (1929) and THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, the latter being screened in Bologna this summer.
As for your final question, as long as interesting projects come my way, why stop? I think they make my life much richer, and I enjoy working.
TK: Catherine, thank you very much for your extremely rich and detailed answers and comments.
Catherine Wyler has been an independent producer of film and television, a studio executive, and she has held leadership positions at major American cultural institutions. She is producing THE DALAI LAMA’S GIFT TO THE WORLD, the story of a seminal event in the coming of Tibetan Buddhism to America. In 2017-18, she executive produced THE COLD BLUE and a restoration of her father’s 1944 documentary THE MEMPHIS BELLE with Erik Nelson and Vulcan Productions. THE COLD BLUE premiered at AFI DOCS in June, and both films were featured at the New York Film Festival in October 2018. Her previous productions include the celebrated Warner Bros. feature film MEMPHIS BELLE (1990), and documentaries: Emmy-nominated DIRECTED BY WILLIAM WYLER, HOT ON THE TRAIL (The Search for Sex and Romance in the Old World and the New) for Turner, and WITNESS TO HOPE, a biography of Pope John Paul II for ITVS. From 2001 through 2009, she was the founding Artistic Director of the High Falls International Film Festival in Rochester, New York, celebrating women in all creative positions behind the camera. In the 1980’s, she was Senior VP of Production at Columbia Pictures and, previously, Director of Cultural and Children’s Programming at the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). From 1977–81, she was Assistant Director of the Media Arts Program (Film, Radio, Television, Video) at the National Endowment for the Arts. She began her career in publishing at The Viking Press, and served as Story Editor first for producer Ray Stark and then for Joseph E. Levine. She graduated from Stanford University with a B.A. in Modern European Literature. She has served on film festival juries at Sundance, Berlin, Venice, Chicago and Istanbul, and serves on the boards of IndieCollect and the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital.