Grandson of Sol Hurok, Director Peter Hyams was born in New York on July 26, 1943. He was a drummer with such important jazz musicians as Bill Evans and Maynard Fergusson and played at Birdland, Small's Paradise and the Newport Jazz Festival. His paintings have hung in such prestigious galleries as the Whitney Museum of American Art. Peter studied art and music at Hunter College, worked as a CBS newscaster, covered Vietnam as a war correspondent, and later taught filmmaking.
Hyams wrote and produced his first film in 1971: T.R. Baskin which starred Candice Bergen, and then directed the TV movies Rolling Man (1972) and Goodnight My Love (1973). His first feature Busting (1974), starring Elliott Gould and Robert Blake as street cops. Hyams directed Our Time (1974) and Peeper (1975), as well as writing and directing the Mars thriller, Capricorn One (1978), Hanover Street (1979), Outland (1981, The Star Chamber (1983), and his most ambitious project, 2010 (1984), a sequel to Kubrick's classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Hyams made the buddy cop comedy Running Scared (1986) and The Presidio (1988), and the remake of Narrow Margin (1990). Stay Tuned (1992), a TV satire which he directed but did not write, was a flop. Hyams then returned to sci-fi territory for the Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Timecop (1994), and directed Van Damme's next vehicle, Sudden Death (1995). Hyams also cowrote the screenplay for Telefon (1977) and executive-produced the kid comedy The Monster Squad (1987). Unique among contemporary directors, he often edits his films, and also serves as his own cinematographer; he has photographed all of his films since 2010. (From Imdb.com)
According to one view, "Hyams brings to film direction essential elements of music and painting. From music comes a special sensitivity to structure and rhythm; from painting a heightened sense of light and color. These important insights help Hyams to achieve his goal of creating films which reach people's emotions, not their minds."
I sat down with Peter at his spacious office on Third Street in Santa Monica February 20, 2002.
Peter: "I started as an arts student at a young age. I was trained in conservatories. Like many art students and obsessive compulsives, I became consumed with photography. I began writing at a young age. Not well, just precociously. My politicized family worked in the theater. I knew that I wanted to combine imagery with writing and relevance. My stepfather Arthur Lief was blacklisted. I heard of his arrest on the radio."
Luke: "And was he a communist?"
Luke: "Were you a red diaper baby?"
Peter: "I don't know what that means. I was the son of intellectuals and artists. My father Darren Hyams (a theatrical producer and publicist on Broadway) and my stepfather were certainly... I think my father was a socialist and I think my stepfather was a member of the Communist Party though he'd never admit it to me. I'm the kid of people who were young intellectuals in the depression. The equivalent of civil rights marches and antiwar demonstrators in the '30s were socialists and communists. They were also the people who wanted America to fight fascism."
Luke: "Did your dad know Walter Winchell?"
Peter: "Walter Winchell was one of the enemies of my father. Walter Winchell was a right winger. The Ed Sullivans and Walter Winchells and J. Edgar Hoovers and Richard Nixons were names of bad guys. They were right wingers.
"In college, the craft that interested me in combining imagery, writing and documentary filmmaking. I graduated college at age 21 and was hired by CBS where I worked for more than six years (from 1964-70). I thought I was hired to write and they put me on television at CBS in New York. We made an arrangement where I got the opportunity to do the magazine stories I wanted...
"I happened to be very bad [at journalism]. I was much more concerned with taking a photograph that was beautiful than a photograph that was accurate. I dedicated myself to being unencumbered by fact. I thought fact was an unfair restriction to put on writing. I wanted to write something that would elicit a response. Documentary directing is the ability to capture an event. Film directing is the ability to shape an event. They are two disparate talents. I'm scrambling to be good at one.
"I remember covering a fire and coming back and going to the assignment editor and saying, 'I really got some great stuff. I did this cop. It was his job to have his back to the fire and hold people back. He's a real Irish New York hard working Archie Bunker cop. My country right or wrong. But now his son is in Vietnam and he's questioning it all. Some of his friends kids have come back in little wooden boxes. The underpinnings of everything he's almost robotically believed in have come into question.
"And the assignment editor says, 'How many people were injured in the fire?' I said, 'Gee, I don't know. But this guy was so good.' 'Well, what happened to the building?' "I don't know. This guy is really terrific.' That was my level as a reporter."
Luke: "Does anyone get discriminated against in Hollywood today for their political beliefs?"
Peter: "I don't think anyone's that political. Arnold Schwarzeneger is a real Republican. Tim Robbins is on the other side. I think the Hollywood community is probably more Democratic than Republican."
Luke: "Of course."
Peter: "It's not as liberal as you think it is."
Peter: "No. It's more 60/40."
Luke: "Has anyone not wanted to work with you because of your political beliefs?"
Peter: "No. I imagine if I were running around saying, 'Free John Walker. I support the Taliban.' People would be offended. It would offend me. I don't think people in this community care much as long as [your beliefs] don't dominate who you are.
"If I have one gift that I was given by my parents, as dysfunctional as my home was, is that I was brought up with absolutely no sense of color or religion. Everybody is equal. Color and religion are not part of my visual or emotional vocabulary. I've liked to arbitrarily cast a woman in a man's role or somebody of a different ethnicity in a role. It just adds texture."
Luke: "What motivates you?"
Peter: "If I got out of bed in the morning and picked up the Los Angeles Times and saw a banner headline that Russia and China have launched their entire nuclear arsenal at America, my only thought would be, 'Do I have a cover set for that day's shooting?'
"I'm truly obsessed with getting to where I'm not. I want to get good so much that it hurts. More now than ever. I can see better now the gulf between where I am and where I want to go. I see good stuff that people do. That raises the bar.
"When you go to art school, you spend years training your hand to reproduce whatever it is that you see. If you want to play an instrument, you spend 10-15 years training your hands to reproduce the notes. If you are lucky enough enough to be able to do that. I remember where I was. I remember what the light was like coming through the studio window. I realized I could do it.
"That day was the biggest trauma of my life. It's a day from which I still have not recovered. That was the day that the heavens opened up and a shaft of light came down. God reached from the clouds with a celestial hammer in his hand and hit me on the forehead and said, 'Schmuck, being an artist has nothing to do with your hands and only to do with what you see.' It's like fluency in a language. At one point, you can speak. Now, what do you have to say?
"My definition of an artist is someone who has an FM receiver in an AM world. Do I see anything interesting or am I just an illustrator?"
Luke: "Are movies an art like painting?"
Peter: "Of course. It's like saying, is theater an art? It's writing, it's painting, it's music. It's everything. I think it is the most relevant art form. There's nothing in the world that I would rather do than make movies. I just want to do it well. I'm like Charlie Brown. I keep on thinking that one time Lucy won't drop the ball when I go to kick it.
"I carry with me a quote from Sir Carol Reed: 'When you're finally done with a film, and there's nothing left to do, it's like falling out of love. Making a film is all work and worry, fear and panic. Not making a film is worse.'"
Luke: "You left CBS News and you..."
Peter: "I didn't know anything. I had a wife and two little babies. I figured that all I had to do was write and somebody would make it. I had no concept of what the odds were. And I wrote a screenplay and it was made [T.R. Baskin, 1971].
"The early '70s was a time of great retrenchment in the film industry and a very tough time for new directors. Despite all the books Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. The studios had each given a young denim-shirt-wearing director his first film and got back something unreleasable. I was mildly sought after to write and produce films, as is anybody who is new and writes something. I didn't want to do that anymore.
"Barry Diller was head of ABC's movie of the week. ABC made two or three 90-minute films a week. They were shot in 12 days. I consider Diller to be the smartest executive ever in this business. He hired me, Michael Chricton and Steven Spieldberg within weeks of each other.
"I met with him at a time when television was considered by [film people] as a vat of sulfuric acid. If you put your hand in, you'll come out with a stump. I didn't believe that.
"I told Diller I would write a television movie for him if he'd let me direct. I said I had two ideas. One was an attempt by the U.S. government to fake a space shot. He said, 'What else?' 'I'd like to do a homage to Raymond Chandler. A period detective piece.' He said, 'Do the detective thing.' And I did it [Goodnight My Love, 1972] and it was praised. Over-praised. One of the trades called it the Citizen Kane of television movies, which, trust me, it wasn't.
"Nobody in this industry is properly rated. You're either overrated or underrated. And having been both, overrated is better. It pays better and it makes you feel better. Unless you're Jim Cameron or Steven Spieldberg, your temperature can fluctuate widely.
"My first feature, Busting , was all about vice cops. Like a journalist, I went around to New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles and spoke with hookers, pimps, strippers and cops and DAs. Every episode in the film was true."
Luke: "And you were your own cinematographer?"
Peter: "I wasn't in the [cinematographer's] union then, so I had to hire a cameraman. The camera issue has always been a tough issue. It's an acrimonious dispute. They wouldn't let me in the union for a long time [until 1983]. It was grudging. In 1997, Conrad Hall was talking to me on the phone. He's one of my idols. And he asked me, 'How come you're not in the ASC (American Society of Cinematographers)?' And I said, 'Well, they don't like me. It's not that I don't like them.'
"He said, 'That's nonsense. If I [and another cinematographer] sign your application, will you join?' I said yes. So I send in my application and I was summoned to this meeting for 90 minutes. And a couple of days later, this rejection letter came."
Peter has it framed on his wall.
Luke: "I don't understand why they don't like you?"
Peter: "I don't think another director has ever been admitted to the cinematographer's union. There were people who were just opposed to it."
Steven Soderberg is the only other director who officially handles the camera (i.e., is his own cinematographer).
"I know some directors who do it without getting credit and they're not union cameramen - Stanley Kubrick did it. Somehow every movie that Ridley Scott makes is the most beautiful movie you've ever seen.
"Not only am I not in the ASC, there has never been a word written about any of my movies in the American Cinematographers magazine. It's not like 2010 and End of Days are invisible little movies. Academy Award nominations are not going to come my way, and they may not be merited."
Luke: "Why do you like to use natural light so much?"
Peter: "I don't. I never have. I don't like it. The camera is not a recording device. The camera's a negative. I think photography should be heightened. I love shadow. I love the dark. I love changing the color of light. People write about cinematography and they don't know what they're talking about. Nobody knows what natural light is. When you build a set, how can it be natural light?"
Luke: "I guess there's that perception because you work so much with shadow."
Peter: "You make shadow. I love the dark. I love the source of light. I love the bent of light. I remember going to museums as a kid and studying painting. Look at Rembrandt. I think I've spent my life looking for the perfect terminator, for that miraculous moment when light seems to expire of old age around somebody's cheek.
"I think there's no excuse for photography not being adventurous. I think the biggest sin that anyone can commit is conservatism in any art form. I don't think there's an excuse for a photograph to be mundane."
Luke: "You try to approximate natural light?"
Peter: "No. I try to make something that I think is dramatic. Somebody sitting beside a window [as I am], I like to see the window. I like to see the light coming through that window. I like to see the key side of their face X amount of stops over and the shadow side of their face X amount of stops under. And whatever that X factor is is part of the skill of exposure."
Luke: "Our Time, 1974."
Peter: "A romantic comedy. I was trying to do the opposite of what I had done before. I had done a hard tough R-rated movie about vice cops [Busting]. It was not a popular success. With [1975's] Peeper, I managed to combine critical and commercial failure. And that made me colder than ice. Nobody wanted me. One studio signed me to write and direct something specifically so I would write. Then they brought in another director. I remember this one studio executive would not return my phone calls for two years. Then I went off, and under the radar, made Capricorn One . Audiences just stood up and cheered at one point in the film. It wasn't because it was such a great movie, it's just that certain movies strike certain chords with people. In a successful movie, the audience, almost before they see it, know they're going to like it.
"I remember standing in the back of the theater and crying because I knew that something had changed in my life. Sitting on the film cans outside the screening room, I felt my cheeks were wet with tears. A bright man, [studio executive] David Picker came over to me and said, 'You're going to have a lot of new best friends tomorrow. You better know how to handle it.' And I was at home the next morning at eight o'clock when the phone rang. And the guy was talking without saying who it was. It was the guy who hadn't returned my phone calls in two years.
"It was so vulgar and so obnoxious that I was saved from ever thinking that I am good. If it was anything less horrific than that, I might have believed it. I don't think this is an industry that cares about good or bad. It cares about commercial success. A director is hot on Saturday morning. You know Friday at 5PM what the 8PM movies are on the East Coast. Between 11PM-midnight, you know what the weekend gross is going to be. You get a call from the head of the studio and the head of distribution and it's either a wonderful phone call or a terrible phone call. If it is a wonderful phone call, then Saturday morning you are hot. If it is 100 minutes of drivel and it is the number one picture that weekend, you are hot. And if it is Citizen Kane, and nobody's gone to see it, your phone is not going to ring. If your film did well that weekend, then that Monday, that person is getting offered stuff.
"I think that giving directors credit for or blame for the financial success of their films is completely wrong. Directors should be given credit for or blame for the quality of the film. The financial outcome belongs with the studio who chose to make it. Steven Spieldberg doesn't make a movie successful for any other reason than he's wonderful. He makes wonderful movies that we all want to see. When Jim Cameron makes a movie, I'm first in line. If nobody went to see Traffic, it would be just as good a film. If I was running a movie studio and I saw Traffic, and it didn't make a dime, I'd say, 'Get me the guy who made that movie. He's talented. If we put the right material in his hands, it's going to be a monster.'
"Peter Weir makes Witness and Mosquito Coast. One is wildly successful and one is not. Did he suddenly lose talent? Is he not a talented guy because people didn't go to Mosquito Coast?"
Luke: "What happens to me is that quickly into a film, I either buy it or I don't."
Peter: "When you talk about wonderful filmmakers, in the first two minutes of the movie, you feel a hand of talent. So you watch it differently. It's not necessarily buying a movie."
Luke: "Do you have fond memories of working with Sean Connery in 1981's Outland?"
Peter: "I'm not anecdotal. Someone once asked me if I have fun making a movie? I don't know if a heroin addict has fun taking heroin. I would die without it. It is by definition the process of failure. It is falling short of what I wanted to do. If you aim high enough, you have to fall short.
"I'm working on a film right now and I can't tell you how extraordinary that film is in my head. And when the process [of shooting] starts, it's going to pass through me. And what's going to be between it and perfection and is me. The only thing that stands between me and genius and is genius. It's the only thing I lack. I've got all the neuroses of genius. I've got all the compulsions of a genius. I've got all the phobias of a genius. I'm as obnoxious as a genius."
Luke: "When did you start thinking about 2010?"
Peter: "When I was asked to do it. The chairman of MGM asked me to do it. 'Here's this book [by Arthur Clark]. And it's got to be in the theaters 17 months from now.' I was petrified and reluctant and intrigued. When I read the book, I said, 'It's a fascinating book but there are things about it that I really don't agree with. If you want me to do this film, two things have to happen. One, Stanley Kubrick has to say that it is ok with him. He's God and I will not displease God. Two, I want to change the film from the book. The book was written without politics. This was 1984 and Ronald Reagen. I'd like to make this a movie about Americans and Russians not getting along whereas in the book they got along. I want to add something about brinkmanship. And he said fine. They asked Stanley Kubrick and Kubrick said OK
"We arranged the first phone call between us. I was in the office when the first phone call came through and I stood up. I picked up the phone and stood up. Kubrick didn't even say hello. He said, 'In Outland, you've got a shot that went through... How did you do that?' He talked about all the crap he'd gone through with the cinematographer's union and how they wouldn't let him in. He was asking me about shot after shot after shot. I was on the phone with him for almost three hours. I told him everything and he told me nothing.
"A couple of months later, I was sitting around at a club and talking to someone. I asked him what it was like when he first met Stanley Kubrick. And he said, 'We sat on a park bench and we spoke for about three hours. And I told him everything and he told me nothing.'
"Stanley and I spoke a lot. He was so kind and unassuming. I was so scared that right before we started the movie, I got a panic attack. The chairman of MGM sent me a bound volume of the bad reviews of 2001. And all these people who write about the great Stanley Kubrick and the classic film 2001 excoriated 2001 when it came out. It received the worst, and most vicious, cruel reviews.
"The only thing to do with 2010 was to make a film so unlike 2001 that people could not compare it. I met Jim Cameron because I'd seen Aliens. I got his number and I called him up. I said, 'You did exactly what I tried to do. You made a film so unlike the first movie that you can't compare them.'"
Luke: "2010 is often called your most ambitious film."
Peter: "I hope not. I hope that I get more ambitious. I hope that the most ambitious thing I've done is the thing I'm doing.
"I can't look at a film I've made when I can no longer do anything to it. It's too frustrating. When I'm still working on it, I can look at it a thousand times."
Luke: "Does the size of the budget affect your enthusiasm for a project?"
Peter: "No. Enthusiasm? What I lack in talent, I try to make up for in passion. Nobody works harder than me."
Luke: "Have you been passionate about all of your movies?"
Peter: "Of course. How could you do it if you weren't? Isn't every director passionate about his movie? You can't work that hard on a project and not be passionate about it. I work 20 hours a day, seven days a week. I'm not cynical. I don't know anybody who makes films who isn't passionate. I've backed out of a couple of projects because I saw that I would lose enthusiasm for them."
Luke: "How did you come to direct End of Days?"
Peter: "Jim Cameron and I tried to work together on several projects. At one point, we flirted with doing Godzilla. At one point, he was going to write and produce Planet of the Apes. He asked if I would like to direct.
"Right after Cameron made Titanic, he had this idea for a film. He fleshed out a 200 page novella Bright Angel Falling. Then he wanted me to write a script. It was the best thing I've ever written. Unfortunately it was about a comet. Then Disney and Paramount both announced movies about comets - Armageddon and Deep Impact. So we didn't make ours. We didn't want to get in that race. It was like a death.
"One day I walked into Jim's office and he said, 'You're going to do this film End of Days. Read the script. You're going to start shooting in X number of weeks.'
"The budget was over $80 million. When you make a film with a big star, everything gets swollen. Suddenly when you want locations, and they hear it's a big Schwarzenegger movie, they charge more. I'm used to guerilla filmmaking. I'm used to not getting everything I want.
"I'm working on my fourth film with Moshe Diamant. I've never seen anybody manage to get more on the screen for less. He says to me, 'Don't talk to me about money. Tell me how many days you need and what you need, and you will have that.'
"Our last movie was The Musketeer. It opened on September 7th and was the number one picture in the country and was on its way. Then Tuesday was September 11th... But complaining about that is like going through a cancer ward complaining about a hang nail."
Luke: "Do you have a predilection for action movies?"
Peter: "I have a predilection for movies that are larger than life. I love movies that are exotic. I love going to a theater when the lights go down, and I never sit past the fourth row because I don't want to see the edges of the screen, and the movie takes you some place. I love movies that are thrilling.
"When I go to a movie like As Good As It Gets, I'm awestruck at that kind of talent. I couldn't begin to make a film with the kind of intellect that James Brooks has. But I love seeing it."
Luke: "Which of your films has the most meaning for you?"
Peter: "I hope the last one."
Luke: "Which do you think is your best film?"
Peter: "I hope the last one [The Musketeer]. If a film doesn't show lessons learned, then you're not getting better. I didn't start out making Citizen Kane, so I have get better. Someone once described a career as a horse race without a finish line.
"My middle son John, 32, is a painter and a filmmaker and he has the talent that I wish I had. He made one independent film, One Dog Day, in 1997 and he's just finished a documentary, which is the best documentary I've ever seen in my life. I've my three kids talk about directors and if they made a list of their top ten, I would not be on it. I would not be on my own list of my top ten directors.
"Chris (into computers) is my oldest son and Nick (passionate about music) is my youngest.
"I have the kind of personality that makes each person think that they are what stands between me and megalomania. They have to cut me down a peg or two. Everybody I'm with seems to take on that responsibility and they kick the living shit out of me."
Luke: "What's it like staying married (37 years for Peter) and raising kids in Hollywood?"
Peter: "I would be pushing a shopping cart down the Third Street Promenade and talking to myself if I wasn't married. I married out of my league. I met George-Ann when I was 17 and we've been together since. It was the only way I could've survived. I married somebody who is interested in the world around her, involved in the issues of the day, and tolerates what I do because it affords us a nice home. Other than that, if I could've been a congressman, she would've been much happier and more impressed with me. If she could've been elected to Congress, she would've been even happier. Frankly, she should be.
"When I was in that period when my phone calls were not being returned, I wrote two screenplays, one called Hanover Street. We were getting broke and a prominent producer wanted to buy the script for a shocking amount of money. I came home and told my wife, 'All of our money worries are over.' She said, 'Do they want you to direct?' I said no. She didn't say anything.
"I was sitting at my desk when she walked out and closed the door. I felt down. And she walked back in and stood in the doorway and said, 'I just want you to know that if you sell that script without directing it, I'm leaving you.'
"Her name is George, after the novelist George Elliot, and the priest said, 'I'm not baptizing any girl named George.'"
Luke: "Do you guys socialize much with the industry?"
Peter: "No. Our cadre of friends all came from the same school where we were parents. The only exception is my oldest friend in the world, Steven Bochco. Steven and I were born within five months of each other and our mothers were best friends. We grew up together. We were raised together. We bathed together. We learned how to piss together. We clothed, fed, and scolded by each other's mother. And Steven was a parent at the same school. Since then, I've made a couple of friends in this business - Billy Crystal and Candice Bergen."
Luke: "What does your wife think of this industry?"
Peter: "She thinks it is hard, quixotic, ephemeral, overrated and underrated. Underrated in that people in this business are much smarter than they are given credit for. Overrated in the sense that it is glamorous, fun. It's not."
Luke: "Your wife's views sound like your views."
Peter: "They are. They diverge in that she's not compulsive. She recognizes that she is married to a compulsive. Similarly if you were married to Michael Jordan, you would understand that his compulsion was practicing basketball. If I were a professor of history, which she should be me, or if I were involved in some aspect with the government, she would be much more impressed."