Stanley Donen: “What Audrey Hepburn had, you couldn’t teach, you couldn’t even learn it”

“Stanley [Donen] is a master moviemaker. His knowledge of film is boundless, from his clever camera technique and choreographic grace to his finely tuned musical ear to his exquisite taste in color design and story sense. Most important, in my estimation, is that he combines these remarkable professional talents with an extraordinary amount of sensitivity and patience, and above all else, a tremendous sense of humor,” says Audrey Hepburn in her September 1992 introduction of Stephen M. Silverman’s biography “Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley Donen and His Movies” (1996).

She appeared in three of Mr. Donen’s films, “Funny Face” (1957), “Charade” (1963) and “Two for the Road” (1967), three pictures which turned out to be some of his most enduring films, although as an MGM director, like his colleagues such as Vincente Minnelli or George Sidney, he was primarily known as an established choreographer and director of musicals which became classics, from his feature debut “On the Town” (1949) to “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952) or “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” (1954). After the musical genre slowly faded away, he became an independent filmmaker, directing some of Hollywood’s best actors in screen classics, such as “Indiscreet” (1958, with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman), “Charade” (1963, Grant with Audrey Hepburn) or “Arabesque” (1965, starring Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren)—films he shot in Europe, where he spent most of his time during the 1960s (residing in London).

Later he returned to America and, unfortunately, made fewer films. His latest films include the comedies “Movie Movie” (1975) starring George C. Scott and “Blame It on Rio” (1984) with Michael Caine and Demi Moore in one of her early screen roles.

In this 1999 interview at the Ghent Film Festival (now called Film Fest Ghent), Mr. Donen (now age 92) reflected on his long and rewarding career as a filmmaker.

Mr. Donen, when you started at MGM, were there any directors you worked with?

I worked with Vincente Minnelli, doing some retakes on one of his films, and I also worked with George Sidney—we were good friends. I also was Charles Walters’ assistant as I had been George Sidney’s assistant. So I worked with a few of them, also with Busby Berkeley.

What is it like to make a movie, knowing that millions of people will see it?

It’s frightening, absolutely terrifying. Because you think the audience won’t like it, and then you’re the one who is responsible for it. That’s what it feels like. When I finish a movie, and somebody sees it and says, ‘That’s the worst movie I’ve ever seen in my life,’ I think, ‘Oh dear!’ And if someone else says, ‘It’s great!’ then I’d think, ‘Well, I understand.’ [Laughs.] So when you finish a movie, you don’t know if it’s good, bad, or even indifferent. Well, no, you do know if it’s good, bad, or indifferent; you just don’t know how someone else will respond to it. The funny part is that it changes: the movie doesn’t change, but the reaction to it changes. At first, “Singin’ in the Rain,” for example, was mediocre; it wasn’t received with great appreciation when it opened, it didn’t have great reviews, and “Two for the Road” was almost impossible. This film hardly got a good review; most critics hated it. The people who first applauded when they saw “Singin’ in the Rain” were the New Wave guys like François Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, and Jean-Luc Godard. They liked it. Later, people’s opinions changed, and the picture got revived over and over again. With “Two for the Road,” it was exactly the same: terrible reviews at first. But we see things very subjectively; they don’t stay with us the way we thought they were. That happens to a lot of things. Take a simple thing like an apple, and look at it from the point of view of a man who’s starving or someone who is full of food and doesn’t want to eat it; it’s entirely different. And an artist sees it as a glorious object. While it’s still an apple. And movies are far more complicated than that.

How do you look back now to “Singin’ in the Rain”?

Well, now everybody likes it, and I’m very proud of it. I’m delighted; it’s a wonderful feeling. When we did “Singin’ in the Rain,” we were young, full of energy and vitality, we didn’t have any fear, we just burst out doing it, and the movie is full of good dancing and funny situations, it’s about something we can all easily understand—movies and the transition from silents to talkies. It just all fell into place.

You co-directed “Singin’ in the Rain” with Gene Kelly. What was that really like?

Everybody asks me that question, and I have no answer [laughs]. We did everything together. We were usually rehearsing in two separate rehearsal halls—he would work on one number, I would do another one, and then often after lunch, he’d go to my rehearsal hall, and I would go into his, and then we worked it out. There was no system. The good part was that he was in the movie, so at least I was always behind the camera while he was going to be in front of it.

Was that easy to co-direct a film?

A director is supposed to be a ‘loving dictator.’ The point of view has to come from one person. If you got two people directing a picture, it’s hell if you don’t have the same point of view because then you have to work it out, and I can tell you, it’s not always very easy to figure it out as well as you’d like to. So honestly, I never loved co-directing, but for those pictures, the opportunity was there. That’s it. At the time, Gene Kelly and I were considered a unit [they co-directed three films: “On the Town,” 1949; “Singin’ in the Rain,” 1952; “It’s Always Fair Weather,” 1955]. We both had worked together as choreographers, so that made it easier, although it wasn’t always fun. I didn’t want to it anymore after we made “It’s Always Fair Weather” [1955], even though I directed “The Pajama Game” [1957] and “Damn Yankees!” [1958] with George Abbott, who had done those on Broadway already.

What would you consider the strength of your films?

I think it is the story, the idea, what it’s about, what’s the point of it. And then you have to do it, with the music, the performance, things like that. Today, I don’t know if I would be able to make those musicals, because most of the actors today don’t have a musical background. That’s the problem. All the great musical performers, like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Barbra Streisand, or whoever, all grew up performing musical numbers and working at it. They all had years of practice and learning. That’s no longer possible today. It’s like telling actors, ‘You play the violin, you play the clarinet, and you play the piano,’ while nobody can play! They can’t play the music because it takes a lifetime.

Was Audrey Hepburn one of your favorite actresses?

Absolutely, and I certainly adored her: she was a fabulous and glorious actress. She was really unique. After she had passed away [January 20, 1993, at age 63], Billy Wilder, who has always been one of my best friends, said, ‘What Audrey Hepburn had, you couldn’t teach, you couldn’t even learn it. God kissed her on the cheek, and there she was.’

There’s this famous scene in the musical comedy “Royal Wedding” [1951] with Fred Astaire dancing on the walls and the ceiling. Now they have all kinds of trick photography to do that, which you didn’t have at your disposal at the time. So how did you do it?

If I remember well, I was the one who came up with the idea of Astaire dancing around the walls and the ceiling of the room. We built an entire room, a simple room, with the floor, the walls, the ceiling, and the back wall. The front was not there. The camera was fixed to the floor, and the room was put inside a giant wheel. Fred was dancing on the floor, and then the wheel slowly turned until the floor had become a wall; we could bring that wall under him slowly, so this wall was now the floor with Fred dancing on it. From the camera’s point of view, fixed to the floor, it also rotated, and you got the impression that he went up the wall, while in fact, he just stayed on the floor. That was the idea, and that’s how we did it. When Fred was dancing on the ceiling, it was the camera that was on the ceiling, but Fred was dancing on the floor, you understand? Because the camera didn’t see the room move, everything was screwed down. In the room, everything was fixed. The draperies were glued to the wall, for example; everything was fixed, things on the table were screwed, the chairs had to be screwed to the floor. That scene took a lot of rehearsal: how quickly and exactly when could we move the wheel and the room, you know. You also have to realize the lights moved with it; they couldn’t be outside the room, otherwise, everything would shadow as the room turned and the lights stood still. The cables then turned into a knot; all of that went on. It was quite complicated to do it. But the shooting was no problem really because we had rehearsed it so much. It only took a few hours to shoot it. I even had shot it as a test. I also avoided too many cuts—there are only two shots—so it looked like that he just went around very smoothly. It was a fresh way of doing things.

“Royal Wedding” (1951), with Fred Astaire dancing on the wall and the ceiling

Is there any footage that shows how the entire scene was shot, with the room turning in the wheel and Fred Astaire pretending there’s no gravity?

Unfortunately—and foolishly—at the time, we didn’t realize it, but we should have had a camera way off the set, which could shoot the whole thing, to see the set turning, seeing Fred struggling down, and all of that. At that time, we didn’t think of it.

All the work you did to get that scene in the film, that’s a big difference from what Donald O’Connor did in “Singin’ in the Rain,” when he simply jumped up the wall.

Yes, that’s right, he jumped up the wall.

Is it possible to compare Gene Kelly with Fred Astaire?

I can’t. They’re two different people. There are differences in their styles, that’s very obvious. One is very athletic and muscular; the other one is very subtle and very limber. Their personalities were also very different. Gene was a brash Irish-American, outgoing and irresistible, while Fred was a very polished, elegant man.

Were you ever intimidated by some of the actors you worked with? After all, some of them were the biggest movie stars around, such as Kelly or Astaire, Audrey Hepburn [“Two for the Road”], Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Ingrid Bergman, and so many others.

Not really. I was never intimidated because I just admired them, and they were aware of that. And when they knew that you admired and respected them, they felt secure and comfortable once they started working with you. It created a certain bond. Your empathy for who they were and what they did, was very sensitive.

In the late 1950s, you also started producing independently. How did this career begin?

Norman Krasna gave me a script he had written, which was eventually made with Marilyn Monroe and Yves Montand [“Let’s Make Love,’ 1960], but I didn’t like it. He then said, ‘You know, I did a play in New York which was a flop, but why don’t you read it? Maybe you’ll like it.’ I read it, and I was very impressed. I told him, “God, this would make a wonderful movie.’ ‘You think so? Every studio in town has turned it down,’ he said. ‘You know what, you own it, if you can get it made, I’ll write the screenplay.’ So I got it made, I got Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, and we made “Indiscreet” [1958]. That was the real beginning of me being a producer, I liked putting it together.

Being a studio director at MGM for many years, that sounds surprising, doesn’t it?

Well, in a way, I didn’t leave them; they had left me. I simply moved on with my career.

What is, in your opinion, the hardest thing about making a movie?

That’s very interesting: you’re making something that people have to pay money for if they want to see it, and then they have to sit in a chair in a dark room. They have to stare at this big square, they have to sit there like this for two hours, and when it’s over, you hope they’ll say, ‘I had a great time!’ So what are you going to put on that wall to give them a great experience? That’s hard! But it also makes it a great adventure to make a movie. I always had a great love for movies, how they are made, what a camera sees or doesn’t see. But be aware that nobody can do everything. You can’t possibly be all things in one. It’s a collaborative form of art: you need actors, writers, cameramen, composers, and so on. You can’t be Orson Welles, Woody Allen, Billy Wilder, or John Huston at the same time. You can’t. You can only give what you got, whether it’s a musical, a comedy or something else.

When will it be your turn to be the recipient of the AFI’s Life Achievement Award?

I don’t know. They never told me I’m getting it; they do what they do. There are many reasons when it happens and why it happens. The American Film Institute has to make money, so they choose people that will look good on television. They’re very worthwhile, but there are several reasons: if I never get it, I’ll be fine. I’ll still be me.

Have you ever thought of retiring?

Good God, no. I would die if I quit. I’m planning to make another movie. I got more going on right now than I’ve ever had. A movie, a Broadway show, a compilation movie. I was going to do a movie with Michael Jackson, but that project got canceled. There must be twelve movies that I was planning which didn’t get done for a variety of reasons. That’s the way it goes. A movie can get stopped for a thousand reasons. If you’re particular about the I don’t want to do certain things; it’s very difficult. And the more I work, the more particular I get.

Film Fest Gent, Ghent (Belgium)
October 6, 1999

“Singin’ in the Rain” (1952, trailer)


ON THE TOWN (1949) DIR Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly PROD Arthur Freed SCR Betty Comden, Adolph Green (musical play ‘On the Town’ [1944] by Betty Comden, Adolph Green) CAM Harold Rosson ED Ralph E. Winters MUS Leonard Bernstein, Roger Edens CAST Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Betty Garrett, Ann Miller, Jules Munshin, Vera-Ellen, Florence Bates, Judy Holliday

ROYAL WEDDING (1951) DIR Stanley Donen PROD Arthur Freed SCR Alan Jay Lerner (alsp story) CAM Robert H. Planck ED Albert Akst MUS Burton Lane CAST Fred Astaire, Jane Powell, Peter Lawford, Sarah Churchill, Keenan Wynn, Albert Sharpe, Mae Clarke

LOVE IS BETTER THAN EVER (1952) DIR Stanley Donen PROD William H. Wright SCR Ruth Brooks Flippen CAM Harold Rosson ED George Boemler MUS Lennie Hayton CAST Larry Parks, Elizabeth Taylor, Josephine Hutchinson, Tom Tully, Ann Doran, Kathleen Freeman, Doreen McCann, Alex Gerry, Dick Wessel, Mae Clarke, Stanley Donen (Man Seated at Table with Gene Kelly), Gene Kelly

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952) DIR Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly PROD Arthur Freed SCR Betty Comden, Adolph Green CAM Harold Rosson ED Adrienne Fazan MUS Lennie Hayton CAST Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen, Willard Mitchell, Cyd Charisse, Rita Moreno, Mae Clarke, Kathleen Freeman

FEARLESS FAGAN (1952) DIR Stanley Donen PROD Edwin H. Knopf SCR Charles Lederer (story by Sidney A. Franklin Jr., Eldon W. Griffiths; adaptation by Frederick Hazlitt Brennan) CAM Harold Lipstein ED George White MUS Rudolph G. Kopp CAST Janet Leigh, Carleton Carpenter, Keenan Wynn, Richard Anderson, Ellen Corby, Barbara Ruick, John Call, Robert Burton, Mae Clarke, Beverly Garland, Anna Q. Nilsson

GIVE A GIRL A BREAK (1953) DIR Stanley Donen PROD Jack Cummings SCR Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett (story by Vera Caspary) CAM William C. Mellor ED Adrienne Fazan MUS André Previn CAST Marge Champion, Gower Champion, Debbie Reynolds, Dolly Sharpe, Bob Fosse, Kurt Kasznar, Richard Anderson, William Ching, George Chakiris, Ruth Clifford

SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (1954) DIR Stanley Donen PROD Jack Cummings SCR Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Dorothy Kingsley (story ‘The Sobbin’ Women’ by Stephen Vincent Benet) CAM George Folsey ED Ralph E. Winters MUS Gene de Paul CAST Howard Keel, Jane Powell, Jeff Richards, Russ Tamblyn, Tommy Rall, Parc Platt, Matt Mattox, Anna Q. Nilsson

DEEP IN MY HEART (1954) DIR Stanley Donen PROD Roger Edens SCR Leonard Spigelgass (novel ‘Deep In My Heart: A Story Based on the Life of Sigmund Romberg’ [1949] by Elliott Arnold) CAM George J. Folsey ED Adrienne Fazan MUS Sigmund Romberg CAST José Ferrer, Merle Oberon, Helen Traubel, Doe Avedon, Walter Pidgeon, Paul Henreid, Tamara Toumanova, Paul Stewart, David Burns, Jim Backus, Rosemary Clooney, Gene Kelly, Fred Kelly, Jane Powell, Vic Damone, Cyd Charisse, Howard Keel, Russ Tamblyn

IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER (1955) DIR Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly PROD Arthur Freed SCR Betty Comden, Adolph Green (story by Betty Comden, Adolph Green) CAM Robert Bronner ED Adrienne Fazan MUS André Previn CAST Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey, Cyd Charisse, Dolores Grey, Michael Kidd, David Burns, Jay C. Flippen, Steve Mitchell

FUNNY FACE (1957) DIR Stanley Donen PROD Roger Edens SCR Leonard Gershe CAM Ray June ED Frank Bracht CAST Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire, Kay Thompson, Michel Auclair, Robert Flemyng, Dovima, Virginia Gibson

THE PAJAMA GAME (1957) DIR – PROD Stanley Donen, George Abbott SCR George Abbott, Richard Bissell (musical play ‘The Pajama Game’ [1954] by George Abbott, Richard Bissell; based on the novel ”Seven-and-a-Half Cents’ [1953] by Richard Bissell) CAM Harry Stradling Sr. ED William H. Ziegler MUS Richard Adler CAST Doris Day, John Raitt, Carol Haney, Eddie Foy Jr., Reta Shaw, Barbara Nichols, Thelma Pelish

KISS THEM FOR ME (1957) DIR Stanley Donen PROD Jerry Wald SCR Julius Epstein (play ‘Kiss Them For Me’ [1945] by Luther Davis; novel ‘Shore Leave’ [1944] by Frederic Wakeman) CAM Milton R. Krasner ED Robert L. Simpson MUS Lionel Newman CAST Cary Grant, Jayne Mansfield, Suzy Parker, Leif Erickson, Ray Walston, Larry Blyden, Nathaniel Frey, Harry Carey Jr., Kathleen Freeman, Nancy Kulp

INDISCREET (1958) DIR – PROD Stanley Donen SCR Norman Krasna (also play) CAM Freddie Young ED Jack Harris MUS Richard Bennett, Ken Jones CAST Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Cecil Parker, Phyllis Calvert, David Kossoff, Megs Jenkins, Oliver Johnston, Middleton Woods

DAMN YANKEES!, UK title WHATEVER LOLA WANTS (1958) DIR – PROD Stanley Donen, George Abbott SCR George Abbott (musical play ‘Damn Yankees!’ [1955] by George Abbott, Douglas Wallop; novel ‘The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant’ [1954] by Douglass Wallop) CAM Harold Lipstein ED Frank Bracht MUS Richard Adler CAST Tab Hunter, Gwen Verdon, Ray Walston, Russ Brown, Shannon Bolin, Nathaniel Frey, Jimmy Komack, Rae Allen, Bob Fosse

ONCE MORE, WITH FEELING! (1960) DIR – PROD Stanley Donen SCR Harry Kurnitz (also play ‘Once More, With Feeling!’ [1958]) CAM Georges Périnal ED Jack Harris CAST Yul Brynner, Kay Kendall, Geoffrey Toone, Maxwell Shaw, Mervyn Johns, Martin Benson, Harry Lockhart

SURPRISE PACKAGE (1960) DIR – PROD Stanley Donen SCR Harry Kurnitz (novel ‘A Gift From the Boys’ [1958] by Art Buchwald) CAM Christopher Challis ED James Clark MUS Benjamin Frankel CAST Yul Brynner, Mitzi Gaynor, Noël Coward, Eric Pohlmann, George Coulouris, Guy Deghy, Warren Mitchell, Lyndon Brook

THE GRASS IS GREENER (1960) DIR – PROD Stanley Donen SCR Hugh Wilson, Margaret Wilson (play ‘The Grass Is Greener’ [1959] by Hugh Wilson, Margaret Wilson) CAM Christopher Challis ED Jim Clark CAST Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, Robert Mitchum, Jean Simmons, Moray Watson, Joan Benham, Elisabeth Orion, Gwen Watford

CHARADE (1963) DIR – PROD Stanley Donen SCR Peter Stone (story by Peter Stone, Marc Behm) CAM Charles Lang ED Jim Clark MUS Henry Mancini CAST Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy, Ned Glass, Jacques Marin, Paul Bonifas, Dominique Minot, Ned Glass, Stanley Donen (Man in Elevator), Mel Ferrer, Peter Stone

ARABESQUE (1966) DIR – PROD Stanley Donen SCR Pierre Marton [Peter Stone], Julian Mitchell, Stanley Price (novel ‘The Cypher’ by Alex Gordon) CAM Christopher Challis ED Frederick Wilson MUS Henry Mancini CAST Gregory Peck, Sophia Loren, Alan Badel, Kieron Moore, Carl Duering, John merivale, Duncan Lamont, George Coulouris

TWO FOR THE ROAD (1967) DIR – PROD Stanley Donen SCR Frederic Raphael CAM Christopher Challis ED Richard Marden, Madelèine Gug MUS Henry Mancini CAST Audrey Hepburn, Albert Finney, William Daniels, Eleanor Bron, Claude Dauphin, Nadia Grey, George Descrieres, Gabrielle Middleton, Jacqueline Bisset, Judy Cornwell

BEDAZZLED (1967) DIR – PROD Stanley Donen SCR Peter Cook (story by Peter Cook, Dudley Moore) CAM Austin Dempster ED Richard Marden MUS Dudley Moore CAST Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Eleanor Bron, Raquel Welch, Michael Bates, Bernard Spear, Parnell McGarry, Barry Humphries

STAIRCASE (1969) DIR – PROD Stanley Donen SCR Charles Dyer (also play ‘Staircase’ [1969]) CAM Christopher Challis ED Richard Marden MUS Dudley Moore CAST Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Cathleen Nesbitt, Beatrix Lehmann, Gordon Heath, Stephen Lewis, Jake Kavanagh

THE LITTLE PRINCE (1974) DIR – PROD Stanley Donen SCR Alan Jay Lerner (novel ‘The Little Prince’ [1943] by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) CAM Christopher Challis ED George Hively, Peter Boita MUS Frederick Loewe CAST Richard Kiley, Steven Warner, Bob Fosse, Gene Wilder, Joss Ackland, Clive Revill, Victor Spinetti

LUCKY LADY (1975) DIR Stanley Donen PROD Michael Gruskoff SCR Willard Huyck, Gloria Katz CAM Geoffrey Unsworth ED Peter Boita, George Hively MUS Ralph Burns CAST Gene Hackman, Liza Minnelli, Burt Reynolds, Geoffrey Lewis, John Hillerman, Robby Benson, Michael Hordern

MOVIE MOVIE (1978) DIR – PROD Stanley Donen SCR Larry Gelbart, Sheldon Keller CAM Bruce Surtees, Charles Rosher Jr. ED George Hively MUS Ralph Burns CAST George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Barbara Harris, Red Buttons, Eli Wallach, Ann Reinking, Jocelyn Brando, Art Carney, Kathleen Beller

SATURN 3 (1980) DIR – PROD Stanley Donen SCR Martin Amis (story by John Barry) CAM Billy Williams ED Richard Marden MUS Elmer Bernstein CAST Farrah Fawcett, Kirk Douglas, Harvey Keitel, Douglas Lambert, Ed Bishop, Christopher Muncke

BLAME IT ON RIO (1984) DIR Stanley Donen PROD Stanley Donen, Bruce McNall SCR Larry Gelbart, Charlie Peters (original screenplay of UN MOMENT D’ÉGAREMENT [1977] by Claude Berri) CAM Reynaldo Villalobos ED George Hively, Richard Marden MUS Kenneth Wannberg CAST Michael Caine, Joseph Bologna, Valerie Harper, Michelle Johnson, Demi Moore, José Lewgoy, Lupe Gigliotti


LOVE LETTERS (1999) DIR Stanley Donen TELEPLAY A.R. Gurney (also play) CAM Mike Fash ED Robert M. Reitano MUS Lee Holdridge CAST Steven Weber, Laura Linney, Kirsten Storms, Tim Redwine, Isabella Fink, Stephen Joffe, Chas Lawther, Patrick Galligan