“The reason why stars are good, they walk in through a door, and they think “Everybody wants to lay me.” - Howard Hawks
Hawks On Filmmaking
Instead of slicing and dicing the Howard Hawks filmmaking style, let’s just read, in his own words, what he has to say about the various methods he used to make what he called “pictures”.
From a wide range of Howard Hawks interviews (spanning over 40 years), we have compiled and categorized some of the essentials that comprise the Hawks Vision.
Howard Hawks directing Today We Live (1933)
“I didn't feel I knew enough about directing pictures. I finally got tired of other people directing and me writing, so I went to see a movie every night for six months. And if I thought the movie was worth studying I saw it twice that same night until I felt I knew enough to direct. I learned right in the beginning from John Ford, and I learned what not to do by Cecil De Mille.”
"I've always been rather mechanical-minded, so I tried a whole lot of mechanical things, and then gave them up completely. The best thing to do is to tell a story as though you're seeing it. Tell it from your eyes. Let the audience see exactly as they would if they were there. Just tell it normally. Most of the time, my camera stays on eye level now. Once in a while, I'll move the camera as if a man were walking and seeing something. And it pulls back or it moves in for emphasis when you don't want to make a cut. But outside that, I just use the simplest camera in the world."
“I was making Red River and we had a burial scene, and the cameraman said, "We'd better hurry, there's a cloud coming across that mountain right behind." So I said to Wayne, "Now, look, you go out there-if you forget your lines, just say anything, keep talking until I tell you to come on in. We'll make the sound afterwards." And I waited until the cloud got near, thought of Ford, and started the scene. Then we started the burial service, and the cloud passed right over the whole scene. I told Ford. I said, "Hey, I've made one almost as good as you can do. You better go and see it.
"On El Dorado, I noticed that the Remington paintings always had a great slash of light across the street coming out of the saloon door. So I said to the cameraman, "How do we get that?" He said, "Use yellow light, but don't walk your people through it-they'll look like they had yellow jaundice or something." He used back light on them and it was a very mellow, pleasant look. We used it in the last picture.”
“Well, when Hecht and MacArthur and I used to work on a script we'd sit in a room and work for two hours and then we'd play backgammon for an hour. Then we'd start again and one of us would be one character and one would be another character. We'd read our lines of dialogue and the whole idea was to try to stump the other people, to see if they could think of something crazier than you could. And that is the kind of dialogue we used, and the kind that was fun. We could usually remember what we said, and put it right down and go working. And sometimes you're so far in a picture, and you get an idea that you're going to change a character, so you just go back and change the lines that you've written for that character and start all over again.”
Faulkner, Hawks and Steve Fisher
“They hammed it up. And I stopped them from doing that in The Dawn Patrol. They weren’t used to normal dialogue. They weren’t used to normal reading. They wanted to have somebody beat his chest and wave his arms. It was the biggest grossing picture of the year. And then they (studio executives) decided I knew dialogue.”
“Any script that ‘reads’ well is no good. If you have to read it three times to understand it, you've got a chance of getting a movie out of it.”
“When I reach a scene that is too sentimental, I try to turn it and keep it from being sentimental. In Only Angels Have Wings, I had a man talking to his friend who’s been in an airplane wreck just say to him, "Your neck is broken, kid." Just a flat statement; just try to keep things from becoming mawkish. Play against it completely.”
“That’s how I hit upon the tempo of my movies. I made a film called His Girl Friday in which the characters spoke so fast that the characters kept stepping on each other's lines. The public liked it. Moreover, the tempo in Scarface was faster than usual in that period. I generally work with a faster tempo than that of most of my colleagues. It seems more natural to me, less forced. I personally speak slowly, but people generally talk, talk, talk without even waiting for other people to finish. Also, if a scene is a bit weak, the more rapidly you shoot it, the better it will be on the screen. Moreover, if the tempo is fast you can emphasize a point by slowing the rhythm. Similarly, when you have a scene with two characters, don't always use a close-up. When you use close-ups sparingly, the public realizes that they are important. I hate movies which, without any reason, are composed completely of close-ups. I don't like them. I don't want to say that they're necessarily bad movies, but I don't like that particular style of film-making.”
“You put a few words in front of somebody’s speech and put a few words at the end, and they can overlap it. It gives you a sense of speed that doesn’t exist. And then you make the people talk a little faster.”
“No, it isn't done with cutting. It's done by deliberately writing dialogue like real conversation you're liable to interrupt me and I'm liable to interrupt you-so you write in such a way that you can overlap the dialogue but not lose anything. It's just a trick. It's a trick getting people to do it too-it takes about two or three days to get them accustomed to it and then they're off. You must allow for it in your dialogue with just the addition of a few little words in front. "Well, I think -" that's all you need, and then say what you have to say. All you want to do is to hear the essential things; if you don't hear those in a scene, you're lost. You have to tell the sound man what lines he must hear and he must let you know if he does. This also allows you to do throw-aways and it keeps an actor from hitting a line too hard. Actually we started to use speed in Scarface and that had probably a twenty percent faster tempo than anything that had been made to date. And, of course, I have a scene today that I don't think is very interesting the quicker I can play it the better off I am.”
His Girl Friday (1940) Textbook Hawksian Tempo and Speed
“I don't think so. I don't think plot as a plot means much today. I'd say that everybody has seen every plot twenty times. What they haven't seen is characters and their relation to one another. I don't worry much about plot anymore. Quite a while ago I made a picture called The Big Sleep. Somebody said, "Who killed such and such a man?" I said, "I don't know." Somebody spoke up and said, "I think so and so killed him." And we said, "No, he couldn't have done it." So we sent Raymond Chandler a wire and said, "Who killed him?" And he sent a wire back: "Joe did it." And I sent him a wire saying, "Joe is out in the ocean; he couldn't have possibly done that." And after people liked the picture and everything I thought, "Why worry about plot and everything?" Just worry about making good scenes and just keep-so that's all that we tried to do, hook it together with something that keeps your interest.”
“We used to use comedy whenever we could and then we got too serious about it. So, in Rio Bravo I imagine there are almost as many laughs as if we had started out to make a comedy. I also decided that audiences were getting tired of plots and, as you know, Rio Bravo and Hatari! have little plot and more characterization.”
“We made a picture that worked pretty well called The Big Sleep, and I never figured out what was going on, but I thought that the basic thing had great scenes in it, and it was good entertainment. After that got by, I said “I’m never going to worry about being logical again.”
“There are about thirty plots in all of drama. But if you can do characters, you can forget about the plot. You just have the characters moving around. Let them tell the story for you, and don’t worry about the plot. I don’t. Movements come from characterization.”
“What's good about them? If you're not good enough to tell a story without having flashbacks, why the hell do you try to tell them? Oh, I think some extraordinarily good writer can figure out some way of telling a story in flashbacks, but I hate them. Just like I hate screwed-up camera angles. I like to tell it with a simple scene. I don't want to be conscious that this is dramatic, because it throws it all off.”
“I tell them, "If you make two good scenes for me, you can make two mediocre ones and one bad one." All I'm interested in is the good one. So they go ahead and take chances, and their work shows it. Because you people pass up the bad scenes, but you really appreciate the good one.”
On Comedy -“That's a particular theory of mine, that if people start a picture and they have a funny main title, a lot of funny things, it's as much as to say, "We expect you to laugh." I think that's committing suicide. So I start out and try to get their attention with a good dramatic sequence, and then find a place to start getting some laughs. We did that with Rio Bravo, we did that with El Dorado, and we did it very much with the new picture. It starts off being very serious and then before the audience realizes it, you're starting in having some fun.”
“But a comedy is virtually the same as an adventure story. The difference is in the situation-dangerous in an adventure story, embarrassing in a comedy. But in both we observe our fellow beings in unusual situations. You merely emphasize the dramatic or the comical aspects of the hero's reactions. Sometimes you can mix them up bit.”
“And the more dangerous and the more exciting, the easier it is to get a laugh.”
On Bringing Up Baby -“I think the picture had a great fault and I learned an awful lot from it. There were no normal people in it. Everyone you met was a screwball. Since that time I have learned my lesson and I don't intend ever again to make everybody crazy. If the gardener had been normal, if the sheriff had been just a perplexed man from the country-but as it was they were all way off centre. And it was a mistake that I realized after I made it and I haven't made it since.”
“A great many of the gangsters I met were pretty childish. We had fun doing it. Ben Hecht wrote Muni a scene when I told him I thought we ought to make a scene out of when Capone discovered a machine gun. Ben said “What do you mean?” I said Well can’t you write a scene like a kid finding a new toy? “Get out of my way, I’m gonna spit.”
“I wanted to do Don Quixote with Cary Grant and Cantinflas. I think Don Quixote’s the basis really for the Chaplin character."
"The finest modern dialogue in the world came from Hecht and MacArthur, so I called Hecht up in New York and said What do you think about changing Hildy Johnson (in His Girl Friday), and making her a girl? He said I wish we’d thought of that.”
“So I went to Jules Furthman and said, "Do you suppose we could make a girl who is insolent, as insolent as Bogart, who insults people, who grins when she does it, and people like it?" He thought it was fun and we started to write the character. I would try out the scenes on Bacall. By the time she got through, you couldn’t worry her about anything. She just would do anything. She got better and better, and finally I said "I’m gonna put her into the lead." It worked out and she became an instant star. And it was that quality of insolence.”
“There’s a certain similarity in the dialogue in all the pictures I make. It’s short, quick, and rather hard. I practically always work in a room with the writers.”
On Actors Reaction To Re-writes - “Well, if it does, they keep awful quiet about it. I don't know. Now, I don't think so. Occasionally they'll say - they'll make an excuse. They'll say, "I didn't have very much time to study these lines." I'd say, "You can do them," and they do it. As a matter of fact, I think a lot of them are a great deal better if they don't have too much rehearsal. A lot more natural. They make some mistakes in the lines, stumble a little bit, and I like it better.”
“If I can make about five good scenes - and not annoy the audience, it’s an awfully good picture. I told John Wayne when we started to work together, "Duke, if you can make two good scenes and not annoy the audience for the rest of the film, you'll be a star." So he always comes up to me and says, "Is this one of those not-annoy-the-audience ...?" And I say, "You better believe it." Or he says, "Is this one of our good ones?" And I say, "Well, this is ‘almost’ that ..." We work that way, and now he preaches that as though it's gospel, and he does a great job of not annoying the audience.”
“Well that's one of the things - for instance, you take Charlene Holt. Charlene was really a good actress but she'd been brought up and-the clue came one day when she said, "I used to watch So-and-so and she was so lovely, just lovely" and I said, "I don't want you to be lovely, I want…" you know. Now she was pretty good in El Dorado but she wasn't so good in the other picture before it. Now in real life you get a couple of drinks in her and look out! I mean, she's dangerous!-and attractively so. But she thought that she ought to be "liked”.
“Marlon Brando started out as a great actor. I had a talk with him when he made the picture called One Eyed Jacks. He said, “Did you like it? And I said, “No”. He said, “Don’t you think I’m a good actor?” And I said, “You take too long to do a scene.”
“If you look at my career, you’ll find that I like actors less than I do personalities. I think Walter Brennan was the greatest example of a personality that I’ve ever used. He was supposed to work on Barbary Coast for three days, and I kept him a month doing Old Atrocity. He got an Academy Award for the next picture I put him in (Come and Get It).”
“I like to edit simultaneously with the shooting, if possible. When I started out in this profession, the producers were all afraid that I made a film too short because I didn't give them enough film for editing. And I said: "I don't want you to make the movie in the cutting room, I want to make it myself on the set, and if that doesn't suit you, too bad." That's not to say that editing isn't a chore, particularly when you haven't done a good job with the shooting. Editing is a horror for me because I look at my work for a second time and say that's pretty bad, and that, and also that - The difficult work is the preparation: finding the story, deciding how to tell it, what to show and what not to show. Once you begin shooting you see everything in the best light, develop certain details, and improve the whole. I never follow a script literally and I don't hesitate to change a script completely if I see a chance to do something interesting. I like to work on the scenarios. Some of my best movies were written in very little time. Scarface took only eleven days, story and scenario.”
“As far as speed is concerned, I was trained in the old two-reel comedy school where all we were after was speed. People seemed to like it, so I thought why not play all comedy fast. The only other picture that was supposed to be fast was The Front Page; I said it had a false sense of speed. In Dawn Patrol we underplayed, dispensing with the emoting and ham-acting which was habitual up until then. Consequently I had one communication after another from the front office telling me I was not taking advantage of my scenes, but I was simply playing them a different way, you see.”
By following the life and art of Howard Hawks one can capture the true essence of the Golden Age of Hollywood, as if slipping on special lenses that suddenly pull away the grain and glare to reveal an unforgettable time of Movie Magic.