A Classic at Stake

John Clark is an occasional contributor to Calendar

On a recent fall day, playwright Arthur Miller and director Nicholas Hytner got together in a midtown Manhattan hotel room to discuss their film adaptation of Miller's play "The Crucible." Miller, of course, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "All My Sons," "Death of a Salesman" and "A View From the Bridge." Hytner is a theater, opera and film director whose productions include the musical "Miss Saigon" and both the stage and screen versions of "The Madness of King George." Both men speak the language of the theater, but whereas Miller, 81, is an avuncular New Yorker, Hytner, 40, is British and almost boyish. The two men complement each other.

"The Crucible," which is about the 17th century Salem witch trials, was first presented on Broadway in 1953. It was praised--and criticized--for being an indictment of McCarthyism, though in fact it's applicable to any group paranoia. Now, after 40 years, it has finally been made--with Daniel Day-Lewis as John Proctor; Joan Allen as his wife, Elizabeth; Winona Ryder as Proctor's spurned lover, Abigail Williams, who accuses Elizabeth and others of witchcraft; and Paul Scofield as Danforth, the hanging judge. The film opens Friday.

The Times: Who started the ball rolling?

Miller: I wrote the script five years ago. Fox bought it and then began trying on directors and getting next to nowhere because they couldn't really imagine a contemporary audience for this picture. Thank God they sent us Nick.

Hytner: Tom Rothman, who used to work at Goldwyn and therefore knew me when I did "The Madness of King George," arrived at Fox and sent this script to me. I couldn't believe it. The first thing was just seeing "The Crucible" screenplay by Arthur Miller--this is going to be OK. And then I remember thinking, I have no idea why nobody has made this film before, but if they haven't, I will. I remember you telling me later on that people had been nervous of the language. Quite honestly, the way they spoke was one of the first things that made me want to do it. In the hands of the right actors, language of the greatest complexity can sound colloquial and easy. So knowing that, it never occurred to me that that was a problem.

Miller: Unlike most good directors in this country, Nick has a long theatrical experience, so he knows the value of words and that if he sees some dialogue, it doesn't mean the picture is a failure. It's really stupid, because it's been disproved a thousand times.

Hytner: Language comes under attack from two entirely different quarters in the movies. Firstly, from a much-discussed dumbing down of the culture, which we don't have to talk about because everybody else does. But also there's this romantic notion that when the talkies were invented, this marked a terrible wrong direction for the art of movie-making. I don't believe that all movies should aspire to the convention of the silent movie. I don't believe that language is a method of communication of equal stature to other methods of communication. I think it is the method of communication.

Miller: I keep wondering how the average person is going to react to this whole thing. It should be clear because it's running on emotions all the time. It's not an intellectual argument that's hidden in there, thank God. I found it fascinating what happens to a story like this once it gets, so to speak, extroverted. There's an extroverted element in lighting up the place and putting a camera on, as opposed to sneaking on to a stage in semidarkness and saying these lines. What the picture manages to do is to keep its sense of privacy.

Hytner: Which you can do in film much more easily than you can onstage. It's in many ways easier to convey emotion on film because you don't have to convey. If it's there and it's there for real, the camera will find it. I think it's very private. I think the whole film is.

Miller: I guess I get disconcerted by the fact that there's all these thousands of people running around, trucks, horses, and all that noise you never see in the theater. In the theater it's all referred to with words, and this thing is actually there, and you get afraid that you'll end up with a lot of noisy stuff.

Hytner: But I'm in control of the noise in the movie. If you don't like the noise, you can just throw it in the bin.

The Times: One of the original criticisms of the play was that it was too shrill.

Hytner: I'll own up to one or two of the first cuts being too shrill. And we realized pretty quickly that there's a limit to the amount of female teenage screaming that the human ear can tolerate in a span of two hours. You can pull back on that. But I think people sense around them nowadays a terrifying shrillness. Over the last 10 years the level of public discourse has degenerated to the point where you feel that the world is being governed by the man who can shout the loudest.

The Times: The community was more involved in the execution process in the film than in the play. What was the reasoning behind that?

Miller: I adored doing that. That's, of course, the meat of the whole thing, how that community reacts to what happens. In theater we could only talk about it. As it turns out, it's OK, but I always wanted to see that. The writing of the screenplay was a great feeling of liberation--now I could deal with the town as such. All I could do would be to have offstage noises of the crowd going hubba-hubba.

Hytner: The way the movie works, you can actually see the virus spread through the whole community until it comes back to Abigail and it's her personal tragedy again. I can remember stupidly one of the first things I asked you was, "Do you want a film of the play or do you want a movie?" And you looked at me like I'd gone mad. You wanted a movie. Arthur had already opened it out. The script had scenes in the courtroom. It had the opening scene in the forest.

Miller: See, when I wrote the play, it was thought to be absolutely outlandishly elaborate. This was a straight Broadway play with four or five sets and 17 characters. It was insane to think of producing that as a commercial enterprise. By the time you finished paying salaries, there'd be nothing left.

Hytner: One of the amazing revelations of the movie that came clear quite early on was the juxtaposition of the wide shots that encompass the hysteria and the very tight shots that show the hysteria feeding into the individual and how the individual's response to the hysteria feeds back into the hysteria itself. It actually starts to take on a life and a meaning of its own. . . . A lot of people have said to me, "What's changed?" And I've said, "The thing that from the very beginning Arthur was always ready--eager--to do was talk about how the story might be told." So it was the ideal translation from stage to film because it was precisely that which makes a film different from a play, which we were always talking about, and nobody ever asked us to compromise on anything else.

Miller: It's the production of mine that I think was the smoothest I've ever been involved in, whether on stage or in the movies. Remember when we were casting and everybody wanted to be in it? That was fun, to think of an actor, call them up, and they said, "Sure, I want to be there." Instead of haggling about a couple of million dollars here and there.

Hytner: It's haggling just getting them into a room to talk.

The Times: The original John Proctor was Arthur Kennedy. Now it's Daniel Day-Lewis. A little different.

Miller: He's different than almost anybody, Daniel Day-Lewis. He's got a terrific combination of being somebody you figure has a brain in his head and yet is a powerfully emotional presence.

Hytner: He's also a carpenter, just like you are, so he's a man who uses his hands as well.

Miller: Daniel came up to my place a couple of weeks ago, and there was a tree that was falling over, and he couldn't wait to cut that tree down. I gave him a saw, and he was having the time of his life. He helped build John Proctor's house. [Last month Day-Lewis was married to Miller's daughter, Rebecca.]

Hytner: Just so we don't add to the Daniel Day-Lewis mythology, it's because he turned up six weeks early and he wanted something to do. This was not to do with that weird, kooky Method stuff. He offered to help out, so he did, and they elected him to the union. He was turning all the stair banisters and doing all the elaborate detail stuff.

The Times: Did he discuss the part?

Hytner: We talked a lot. We talked round all sorts of stuff. But he's an actor who must be spontaneous. You have to discover ways of talking about the part in generalities and talking about specific scenes obliquely so that you're not, as it were, cutting off options for the day. There is still some alchemy that certain actors have with the camera that I don't fully understand. We were time and again amazed at how powerful Daniel was when we watched the dailies. Stuff where we knew he was good, but when you watched that image blown up, there was stuff you hadn't noticed. I don't know how that happens. I don't think he does either.

The Times: Was Arthur involved in the casting?

Miller: Just on the telephone. I managed to stay home. You saw a lot of women, as I recall.

Hytner: Yeah, we did. As I understand it, Daniel gets offered everything anyway--but of course you offer Daniel Day-Lewis John Proctor first, and he just said yes, more or less immediately. But we looked at a lot of people for Elizabeth.

Miller: Well, also Abigail.

Hytner: Yeah, we considered a lot of people for Abigail. Winona is amazingly accomplished. Not at all the picture of the Hollywood star. Paul--first of all, Paul has a reputation of never agreeing to work because it's almost as if it never seems worthwhile. But he's also renowned for very politely saying no within 24 hours of being offered a part, and he said yes within 24 hours of being offered this. He congratulated me on thinking of him. He told me, "I'm not obvious casting, am I?" I said, "No, but we've asked you to do it because of who you are, not because of who we hope you can turn into." And he said he understood what I was talking about and had realized when he was reading the script that the part was the flip side of Thomas More [the martyred church official he played in "A Man for All Seasons"]. And that reminded me that the historical Thomas More before he made a stand had been an enthusiastic burner of Protestants. Thomas More turned from being Danforth into John Proctor. You don't feel that Danforth is doing this out of any blood lust or out of any innate sadism.

Miller: He created a personality that was full of wisdom and strength and conflict.

The Times: Were there any parts of the play that you wanted to change that you were able to change?

Miller: The play by this time was pretty much set in concrete because it's been done so much. The idea of changing is inconceivable as a stage play. I would never dream of doing it because it would be pointless.

Hytner: There are plenty of theater directors out there changing it for you. When I was last in London, I was reading reviews of a production in Leeds by some Ukrainian director. I think it all started with Abigail alone and abandoned in Barbados and it was her flashback and she wandered through the action. I'm sure you'd have loved it.

Miller: I don't want to know about all that, but I'm sure it happens. You know what Jimmy Durante said: "Everybody wants to get into the act." And you know when he said it? When two monkeys were sitting on top of his piano and they would reach down and hit a key.

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