Washington Life Magazine
Washington Life Magazine


One-on-one with Hollywood author George Stevens, Jr.

George Stevens, Jr., is an award-winning writer, director, producer, and founder of the American Film Institute. He has received eleven Emmys, two Peabody Awards and seven Writers Guild of America Awards for his television productions, including the annual Kennedy Center Honors, The Murder of Mary Phagan and Separate but Equal. His production The Thin Red Line was nominated for seven Academy Awards©, including Best Picture. He worked with his father, acclaimed director George Stevens, on his productions of Shane, Giant and The Diary of Anne Frank and in 1962 was named head of the United States Information Agency's motion picture division by Edward R. Murrow. Stevens was director of the AFI from 1967 until 1980, before returning to film and television production. He lives in Georgetown. The author sat down to discuss his new book Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood's Golden Age: At the Amrican Film Institute.

WL: What was the genesis of this project?
George Stevens:
I had been thinking about this book for many years as a way to tie a ribbon around my years founding the American Film Institute and the Center for Advanced Film Studies.

WL: How did you go about sifting through the material and selecting which lectures to include?
There have, to date, been over a thousand seminars at the AFI Conservatory. I looked through the transcripts of the ones that took place during the years I was running AFI and selected 28 filmmakers who had great careers and who were articulate about the filmmaking process. I knew many of the great directors and had been able to invite them to come and do seminars for the fellows who were studying at AFI. We looked upon it as a tutorial tradition that was new to film. I wanted the ideas of the great directors to be in this book.

WL: You include cinematographers and foreign filmmakers: two categories that often don't get the attention they deserve.
Many of the finest cinematographers did seminars at AFI and it seemed to me that including them would give the book a rare dimension. And since four of the greatest international filmmakers had come to AFI, it was a rich opportunity to include Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Jean Renoir and Satyajit Ray.

WL: Was it really a Golden Age?
It was. When you think that most art forms have evolved over hundreds of years, motion pictures started at the beginning of the 20th Century and by the 1920s, '30s, and'40s it was a vibrant art form with a world audience - and the great films of those years are still savored today. The men who made them - and in that era most of the filmmakers were men - will be remembered as the directors of Hollywood's Golden Age.



WL: What followed the Golden Age and where are we now?
During the Golden Age most people went to movies a couple of times a week. The only way to see a film was in a darkened theater with hundreds of other people. Then came television, then VHS, then DVDs. The audience became fragmented and the audiences that the major studios seek to attract today are young people sixteen to twenty-four years of age. That defines the market for major films and makes it more difficult to get funding for the kinds of films that became classics during the Golden Age. Creative filmmakers still make wonderful films, but it is harder today to build the rich careers that were achieved by the filmmakers who were there during the years when motion pictures were the dominant form of entertainment.

WL: When you started this seminar series nearly 40 years ago, did you ever think they would become part of film history?
When we started the AFI conservatory in 1969, I was very caught up in the day-to-day challenges of the work at hand. I was delighted that we could attract these filmmakers to talk with the students, but I never anticipated doing a book thirty years later. With the passage of time, the fact that we recorded these conversations takes on greater meaning, because the filmmakers are gone, but their ideas are still alive and are the heart and soul of this book.

WL: The AFI has continued to have these conversations with subsequent filmmakers, Altman, Scorsese, etc. Will there be a sequel?
Knopf has asked me to do a second book. I'm discussing it with AFI. They control the seminars
and if they are willing to proceed, I will do a sequel covering the next generation.

WL: How would you compare the atmospheres of Washington and Hollywood?
I left Hollywood in 1962 to work with Edward R. Murrow who had come to Washington to run the United States Information Agency for President Kennedy. I loved that opportunity for public service and this led to my founding the American Film Institute. I never got completely back to Hollywood - I started living one of the first bi-coastal lives. I soon discovered striking similarities between the two cities and between the pursuits of politics and movies - largerthan- life ambition, public personalities, and the opportunity for very visible success and failure. Those common characteristics have become accentuated over the years.

Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan and Honorary Chair First Lady Laura Bush


WL: Your intro captures an era when the government had enlightened views for adequately funding the arts. Any chance of a return to that golden age?
In ancient times there was the Age of Pericles, which President Kennedy invoked when he sought support for the arts, which was realized in the National Endowment for the Arts. I think we had our relatively brief Age of Pericles with the Endowment, but I don't see the support in Congress or the administration for that right now. These initiatives are, I believe, cyclical.

WL: You talk in the book about working with your father on Giant, Diary of Anne Frank, others. What is it like working with your son Michael, who is following in the family business?
Two of the rich pleasures in my life have been, first, working creatively with my father, and, second, working with my son. Michael has made his own way but we still find projects to work together on. A creative life is both rewarding and difficult. There's no safety net, you must live by your own initiative and creativity. But when your
efforts succeed it is immensely satisfying, and you
can continue to do creative work for as long as
you have your wits about you.

WL: You are currently in rehearsals for a play about Justice Thurgood Marshall starring James Earl Jones. Could you tell me about it?
We had a three-week run at the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut to break it in. James Earl had commitments that made him unable to block out 16 consecutive weeks for Broadway this spring so Bill Haber, the producer, arranged this run at Westport - an ideal way to launch the play. Thurgood Marshall was a master of the storyteller's art. His stories made his fellow Justices confront walks of life we had never known. He was a man of heroic imagination. He spent his life in public service and made a dramatic difference in the life of his country. It seemed to me that his story might fascinate others as it has fascinated me.


WL: Other projects on the horizon?
I am planning a film based on James Carroll's memoir of his family, An American Requiem, which won the National Book Award. It's an extraordinary story of the 1960's. Jim's father, General Joseph Carroll was the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency during the Vietnam War, and Jim became a Catholic priest, pleasing his father greatly. The subtitle of Jim's book is,"God, my father and the war that came between us." It's a moving story of a family in conflict over a war and it has resonance today.

WL: Almost all the reviews of this book have singled out your introduction, and the intros to each of the conversations, many with delightful personal anecdotes. Is there an autobiography that we might anticipate?
I think I will do one, but I'm busy with new projects and continuing projects like the Kennedy Center Honors. It's hard to look back when you're moving forward.




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