Sidney J. Furie is one of the most versatile, prolific and accomplished filmmakers working today. At the age of 83, he shows no signs of stopping. His work, beginning in the late 50s, has encompassed early, vivid, personal films in his native Canada (at a time when there was no Canadian film industry to speak of) (A DANGEROUS AGE, A COOL SOUND FROM HELL); British films examining, with poignancy and authenticity, the lives of working class people (THE BOYS, THE LEATHER BOYS); the groundbreaking, influential THE IPCRESS FILE (1965); success in Hollywood directing pictures with Marlon Brando (THE APPALOOSA), Robert Redford (LITTLE FAUSS AND BIG HALSY), Frank Sinatra (THE NAKED RUNNER), and Diana Ross (the Oscar-nominated Billie Holliday biopic LADY SINGS THE BLUES); the brilliant Vietnam War drama THE BOYS IN COMPANY C (1978), which Kubrick acknowledged as an influence on his FULL METAL JACKET (1987); the unforgettable possession drama THE ENTITY (1982), which is one of Scorsese's favorite horror movies; the ill-fated SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE (1987); and the hugely popular IRON EAGLE (1986) and two of its sequels. Not to mention under-rated films such as THE LAWYER (1970), HIT! (1973), SHEILA LEVINE IS DEAD AND LIVING IN NEW YORK (1975) and GOING BACK (2001). The subject of a superb new biography by Daniel Kremer (Sidney J. Furie: Life and Films), in the first part of a two-part interview, I spoke with Furie about the early stages of his career.
Growing up, what were some of the most important movie going experiences for you?
The first movie I ever saw was a picture called CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS (1937) in 1939, with Spencer Tracy. I was 6 at the time. When the picture was over, I told my mother I wanted to be a director. How the hell at 6 I knew there was even a director I don't know, but I guess I did. The George Stevens picture A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951) with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift was great. I have always had a thing for military films. TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH (1949) was incredible. I felt the same way about PATTON (1970), which came much later. THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957) is also great.
CITIZEN KANE (1941) was very important to me but I didn't see it until many years later. It hardly played in Toronto, where I grew up. Once I saw it, that was it for me. Nothing can equal it in terms of style, acting and the whole thing. I also loved AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951) and SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952). There were so many great films. THE APARTMENT (1960) and SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), both by Billy Wilder, and ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) were other films that influenced me.
What are some favorites from later years?
Whenever GANDHI (1982) is on TV I am always happy to pretend that I never saw it before so I can see it again. What an epic! Extras probably cost ten cents an hour! OUT OF AFRICA (1985) is also my idea of a movie. They have made very few films like it since. THE ENGLISH PATIENT (1996) is the only one I can recall, which was a bit more complex. It's terrible that most of these movies are from so long ago, and not more recently. These days the pickings are usually lean. Everyone can get a camera or an I-Phone and make a movie – they just don't have any stories to tell. Ten year olds can understand how to use the technology but that doesn't give you a licence to make a movie. But tell that to all the film school graduates!
Were there any particular films in the back of your mind when you made your first film A DANGEROUS AGE?
I made that film in 1957, and I had pretty much seen everything at that point. I don't think anyone is that influenced by other films. I think you admire certain films but then when you do it yourself you do it your own way. Artistic people just feel it. Obviously you're a product of everything you've ever seen but you're telling a story. My first two films I happened to write and direct, and I told my own stories. A DANGEROUS AGE was based on an elopement when I was twenty years old. We got caught by friends of her parents. I just made a movie about it. My second film, A COOL SOUND FROM HELL (1959), was about the Beat Generation and marijuana and all that kind of stuff. The hero was a square guy like me who was shocked by everything.
When I watch something like LA LA LAND (2016) I can tell that parts of the film are homages to certain MGM musicals and something like THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG (1964), but it's its own thing. That's why it will win the Best Picture Oscar this year. It's original to itself. My thing about a movie is that I can accept any genre but it's got to work for the genre. And LA LA LAND really did. I also thought BIRDMAN (2014) was a hell of a movie.
Some would say the debut film of any director is always the purest and most revealing of any filmmaker. Would you agree with that?
I don't think so. Unless he wrote it himself, and it came from a personal experience, or he had an idea of the story and worked with a writer, it doesn't reveal anything. If he is handed a script, then the film will reveal things about the guy who wrote it. Remember the writer is always the guy who has been shoved aside in this town or anywhere. The producer, being an egomaniac, doesn't want him around. It was bad enough he needed a director.When THE IPCRESS FILE won a BAFTA for Best Film, it was handed to me. Hollywood invented the idea of giving the Best Picture award to the producers, so they could give awards to the people who tried to wreck the movie!
Charlie in A COOL SOUND FROM HELL suffers because he doesn't know what he wants or who he is. Do you attribute your success to knowing who you are and what you wanted?
Yes, I try to follow my passions and if I don't there is no rest in my soul!
Did you feel it was important to explore topics in your early films that were taboo at the time, like homosexuality, drug use, male impotence etc? Why?
It was not pre-planned. It was what was all around me and it just seemed to be true to life.
Given your success at getting your early films shown, and then later made, in England, do you feel British audiences are especially in tune with the filmmaking you are interested in?
I think generally all people react to films the same way. The problem today is marketing. It's so expensive, so small films for niche audiences are doomed.
Do you miss shooting in black and white?
Oh, very much so. Black and white seems more realistic somehow.
When did you fall in love with the possibilities of the widescreen frame?
From the moment I knew what you could do with it, and I have loved it ever since. I haven't always been able to talk producers or companies into going that way. But the bigger and the wider the better as far as I am concerned. I love what you can do with a big screen but you don't see much of it anymore. It's like television has taken over movies. It's fair enough because the audience wants stories. I am an audience member too and I want stories too, but I think if you can get a story and ten thousand Indians and a railroad ... Wow!
One of the great things about your films is your ability to immerse yourself in a subculture and make it very real and recognisable onscreen. Where do you think that talent comes from?
I think it's just the ability to pretend, and having that imagination and passion and being consumed about what I do. I always want to get it right. I was just talking to an actor who will hopefully be in my next film, which will have a very tiny budget. We need to find a European actress who can come off as someone in her 80s, but its very tough. Not many people live to be 80 these days. You can cheat and cast someone in their late sixties, but there's a world of difference. The actor I spoke to is 86, but he seems 76. I wrote the script very fast, polished it for three months, and I finished it last week. What I am doing with the casting is what I do with my movies – I immerse myself in it and every single detail is important. Frankly, that's the fun part, the fact that you're able to do that.
In the past, I have gotten bread and butter jobs, and realised they weren't going to work but I needed a fee. I still pulled myself in as much as something I loved. I have never met a director who didn't do that. You pour yourself into it and try with all your might to make something out of it. Half the time you're thinking ''Why are they even making this film?'' Sometimes your efforts result in a successful movie but that's rare. You think ''If I wish it, I can make it work. '' But it's not true. It has to be something that appeals to an audience and we don't always know what that is in advance. When I first heard about LA LA LAND, I knew it was going to be a hit. My director friends would ask me ''Why?'' I said ''The guy is talking about old musicals like THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, he did WHIPLASH (2014), he's creative ... I just have a feeling this is going to be a very special movie. '' The passion is why you make films. If I had gone into construction, which I was interested in, I don't think I'd still be doing it now and dealing with plumbers and electricians. But filmmaking or writing is something you can do until your dying day. I am writing the screenplay to my next film, which is something I could never do at the height of my career. When I was supporting a family, who had the time to work on a spec screenplay? What if it didn't sell? Now, at this point in my life, that's not so important. I've basically retired in terms of having to make a living. I can write now and writing is the greatest thing there is. It's just you, your imagination, and a computer.
Part two of the interview.
Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2017. All rights reserved.
Sidney J. Furie: Life and Films by Daniel Kremer can be ordered here.
Kremer on Furie, parts one and two.