Norman Jewison, director of the Oscar-winning hit films "In the Heat of the Night," "Moonstruck" and "Fiddler on the Roof," has turned to cable for his latest project.
Jewison's "Picture Windows," premiering Sunday on Showtime, consists of two evenings of trilogies. Each of the three short films--a half-hour long--is inspired by a classic painting and based on a famous short story. In addition to Jewison, who also is executive producer of the series, "Picture Windows" features works by directors Peter Bogdanovich, John Boorman, Joe Dante, Jonathan Kaplan and Bob Rafelson.
"I got involved in this because it was a director's series," says the 69-year-old Jewison. "I just liked the idea."
Jewison, who began his directing career in Canadian television, says "Picture Windows" was "an opportunity for me to experience terror once more in my life, to make a mini-feature, have total creative control and give that total creative control to [five other] directors."
He warned prospective directors they wouldn't make their customary salaries. "But I felt that a feature director, in between movies ... if someone came to him or her and said, 'Do you have a painting that has always stuck in your mind? Do you have a story, a short story or a classic story, an idea that has always been there that you could associate with something from the world of art? Because if you do, we will give you a budget and you can go off, make a half-hour film and nobody is going to interfere with you.' "
These days, Jewison acknowledges, such offers are few and far between. "There are always studio executives or accountants telling you what to do, or there is some kid who graduated from Brandeis last year and he's now reading scripts and sending copious notes.
"We are going to put up on the screen something, hopefully, we will be proud of," he adds. "It's an experiment, really. We finished the six and it took us a year, I guess, to do it."
Jewison's "Soir Bleu," a dark Fellini-esque tale of love, passion and murder set in a small circus, is based on the 1914 painting by Edward Hopper. Alan Arkin, who starred in Jewison's 1966 classic "The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming," plays the clown driven to murder. Dan Hedaya and Rosana DeSoto also star.
"I shot for five days and half the night," Jewison says, lighting up a cigarette in a large conference room at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Pasadena. "I never worked so hard. I fell in love with the idea of grand opera and 'Il Pagliacci'."
Jewison saw the Hopper painting at the Whitney Museum in Manhattan. "It kind of stuck in my mind," he recalls. "I don't know why. I think it was because of this Harlequin-faced clown with a white cigarette. It was just one of those paintings. There's always a kind of a story behind Hopper's paintings. Loneliness, I guess, is one aspect. People do look lonely in this painting."
Jewison, whose latest feature "Bogus" is due out later this year, also was in the mood to do something over the top. "A little outrageous, like an opera. I wanted a lot of music. I have always been in love with small circuses. I have always been a Fellini fan."
He enjoyed working with Arkin again. "I think he's wonderful in it," Jewison enthuses. "When I finished the writing, I called Alan and said, 'This is just a little piece. It's only five days and there's no money. I think the work might be interesting. I think we could do it. I think you should because I am going to commit to it. It's going to be wild and off the wall."'
Jewison wonders if cable might be the "last vestige of total creative freedom for American filmmakers. These cable people ... when I made the deal with them, we explained to them what [the series] was and they said, 'Do you think you can get these type of directors?' I said, 'Yeah, we can get the filmmakers, I think, but you know we are going to deliver you these films and we can't have any interference.' They said, 'That's alright. But do you think you can get the filmmakers?' We just delivered these pictures. I never heard from anybody."
The experience reminded him of his days at United Artists, the studio where he made "Heat of the Night," "Russians," "Fiddler" and "The Thomas Crown Affair." Says Jewison: "Once you made the commitment to the story and the budget, you were left totally alone, which doesn't happen today, frankly. I think that's why Showtime is an opportunity not only for young directors, but also for older directors like me who are just interested in telling stories and not that interested in what's commercial box office."