Director Robert Wise Speaks Passionately From the ‘Rooftops’

Times Arts Editor

Whatever their image as enemies of promise and even killers, critics do have finer feelings. They often find themselves rooting for those orphan, underdog films that have more virtue than commercial viability.

It looks as if “Rooftops” will join that small company of films that you wish--for a variety of reasons--would do better. But “Rooftops,” a romantic drama with music shot entirely on location amid the ratty and ruined tenements of Lower East Side Manhattan, averaged scarcely more than $1,000 per screen at the 1,043 cinemas where it opened last weekend.

Chief among the reasons for wishing it might fare better is that it is the first film in a decade for Robert Wise, one of the industry’s ablest directors.

It will be 56 years ago this summer that Wise came to Hollywood from Indiana, forced to abandon college by the Depression. He began by hauling cans of film to the projection room at RKO. In time he edited “Citizen Kane,” became a director with “The Curse of the Cat People,” did “The Set-Up,” one of the best fight films ever made, and ultimately won an Academy Award for the many-Oscared “West Side Story.”


Wise is now 74, but, remarkably, one of the key characteristics of “Rooftops” is its youthful vitality and its tireless pace. There is only the impeccable craftsmanship--the tight editing, the arresting images and the sensitive performances--to suggest that the film maker had been at his trade for more than a day or two and is not a zealous newcomer.

Along with the last films of Luis Bunuel and George Cukor and the recent hit “A Fish Called Wanda,” directed and co-authored by the 78-year-old Charles Crichton, “Rooftops” is a reminder to a youth-oriented Hollywood that there is much to be said for the sureness of style and craft that comes of experience.

A closer analogy may be to Fred Zinnemann’s last film, “Five Days One Summer,” made in 1982 when the director was 75. The craftsmanship was stunning, especially in some memorable mountain-climbing sequences. But the work, glorious as it was, could evidently not overcome for audiences the problems of a flat and ambiguous story.

“Rooftops,” the first produced script by Terence Brennan, who studied at USC, may be suffering at the box office because it is not what it in fact never pretends to be: a sequel to or lift-off from “West Side Story.”


“It’s about the homeless, not about gangs,” Wise said at breakfast a few days ago.

It does take place low on the social scale. And, as in “West Side Story,” there is a lot of dancing, although it is “real,” not balletic. It is so-called combat dancing in an imported Brazilian form called capoeira. (Part of the film’s problem may be that the phenomenon is less widely known than break-dancing was when it hit the screen.)

The film is thus a curious mixture of social realism--crack, pushers, poverty, young people living as squatters in and atop abandoned buildings--combined with story elements of almost mythic simplicity or familiarity.

The loner hero, his worshipful sidekick, the nice girl reluctantly linked to the villain, the villain himself of monstrous nastiness with a giggling sociopath among his henchmen--all seem identifiable from a kind of collective movie past, as does the suspenseful climactic action and the upbeat choreographic ending.

It’s a good-hearted film, another reason for wishing it better, even if the music has the effect of blunting the edge of the realism. There is also the promise of the young principals: Jason Gedrick as the loner hero, Troy Beyer as the sidekick, Tisha Campbell as the nice girl, Eddie Velez as the villain.

In the decade since he made “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” Wise served two time-consuming terms as president of the Motion Picture Academy, trying, among other things, to reduce the blatant campaigning for Oscars and to bring more youthful members into the organization.

He succeeded in expanding the younger membership. The campaigning, he says, “is a little better but it’s still a problem. Our lawyers looked into it and there’s nothing you can do without infringing First Amendment rights. You can only plead.”

Wise developed several projects, most particularly a musical version of “Zorba the Greek,” working in tandem with Saul Chaplin, John Travolta and Ernest Lehman, a venture that became a casualty of Cannon Films’ deepening financial troubles. It could be revived, but Wise is not hopeful.


He also acted as executive producer on the Emilio Estevez film “Wisdom.”

“Rooftops” came to Wise from a longtime admirer, Taylor Hackford, who made “An Officer and a Gentleman” and now heads an independent production firm called New Visions.

“I was interested in the challenge,” Wise said. “I’m not a kid but I’m not over the hill either. Don’t want to brag but I went running up and down those six flights of tenement stairs with the kids. Our producer, Howard Koch Jr., said, ‘What kind of vitamins are you taking?’

“You don’t lose it; and it felt good.”

It was a homecoming of sorts. One of the rooftops looked down on Rivington Street, where Wise had shot Paul Newman in scenes from “Somebody Up There Likes Me” in 1956.

Production on “Rooftops” began in an August heat wave and ended in a very cold October when the dancers wore blankets until the cameras rolled, and had to be spritzed with water to look as if they were sweating.

“I like to have something to say in my films,” Wise says. “This was about something sociologically important, the homeless, a growing problem everywhere in the world. That’s what gave the project its appeal.”

Wise and his wife, Millicent, are now off to Europe for a month, to Brussels, where several of Wise’s films will be shown at a science-fiction and fantasy festival, and to Italy and Britain where he will also be honored.


When he returns, Wise says, “It’ll be time to think about the next one.”