Jack Clayton, A.D. (after Disney): battered, frustrated … unbowed

by Glenn Lovell


Jack Clayton, usually ranked with Britain’s most eloquent and unflappable filmmakers, looks like he’s just been through a Gremlins Mixmaster – stuck on the pulverize setting.

Clayton’s bottom lip is swollen and sore from the morning’s root canal. The right half of his face is black and blue from the removal of an eyebrow cyst. “Everybody thinks I was in a fight,“ hWickedPostere says, gently massaging the discolored area. “My doctor didn’t tell me I’d have such a shiner.“

Actually, the physical indignities are but the capper to a decade of frustration. Since making “The Great Gatsby” (1974) with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, life has been anything but a gay Long Island ball. Indeed, there has been so much disappointment, so many false starts, Clayton has ordered his secretary to type up a list of his many scrapped projects. This, he explains with a sigh, saves him going over the bloody business again … and again.

Since “Gatsby’s” release, to so-so box office and cool notices, Clayton, 62, has been involved in developing seven scripts. Only one, Ray Bradbury‘s “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” has reached the screen. The unique mix of nostalgia and the supernatural opened locally this week.

The director of the Oscar-winning “Room at the Top” (1959) and “The Innocents” (1961, from Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw”) has always favored a leisurely pace, opting for quality over quantity. Which is why he said no to such plums as “Oliver!” and “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.” “If I had taken half the films I’ve been offered, I’d be a multi-millionaire today,“ he chuckles. “But I’m very choosy about my films; I never like to do the same sort of thing twice.”

But one film in nine years? That may be being a bit too choosy, he agrees, rubbing a bald pate fringed with long, stringy gray hair.

Clayton‘s “brief résumé of activities” lists screenwriting collaborations with Larry McMurtry, Michael Cristofer and novelist Peter Straub. Each project, he says, was ultimately abandoned either because of studio shakeups or disagreements over funding and casting. For six months in 1978, Clayton was flat on his back with a bad case of hepatitis.

But through it all Bradbury’s “Something Wicked,” now with Walt Disney Productions, continued to be discussed. It finally went before the cameras in mid-’82, with JasClayton5on Robards and, as the sinister Mr. Dark, Jonathan Pryce top-billed. Thus began 18 months of Disney-coated frustration.

“In my time at Disney, I found it a nice little studio run by appalling amateurs in every department,“ charges Clayton, now at Warner Bros. preparing a Burt Reynolds thriller, “The Bourne Identity.“

The problems began at the outset, Clayton recalls. He was up-front with the studio about his lack of experience with special effects. He demanded the best people on the lot, but ended up with leftovers from “Tron” and the studio’s futuristic EPCOT center in Orlando, FL. “I was pinched between ‘Tron,’ which had at least 135 animators on it, and that city over in Florida. It was just the wrong moment to make ‘Something Wicked.’ They should have delayed production by at least six months.”

Some contend that Clayton, known for moody problem dramas, was the wrong choice for a nostalgic fantasy about a satanic carnival. (Author Bradbury lobbied for the director after seeing his Oscar-winning short “The Bespoke Overcoat.”) Steven Spielberg, once linked with the property, would have been a more logical choice.

Clayton shrugs off such talk. While acknowledging much of Bradbury’s lyrical small-town nightmare no longer frightens audiences atuned to Stephen King, Clayton says the adaptation would have been just fine had Disney made good on its commitment to the project.

“I told them I’m a director who deals first of all with story, then character and atmosphere. So please would they give me their very best team. Well, it’s almost like a joke now. Their ‘best team’ turned out to be three old men and a lot of antique machinery. I didn’t realize until halfway through the film that there was nothing being done. So I kept bleating to the executives. And then, only after half the film was finished, did they realize that all the things that I had been asking for were necessary.“

Clayton then found himself wrestling with the opposite dilemma: 30 overzealousInnocents artists who wanted to make the film one long special effect. “I’ve spent the last six to eight months like a policeman, saying, “Whoa! Don’t do that. We don’t need that there.’ “

As for why the unlikely Clayton signed on in the first place, that can be traced to an almost compulsive need to never repeat himself. “I love a change of pace, as you Americans put it. My biggest hate is a director who copies another. I don’t need to tell you there is an awful lot of that about… I’ve never done a fantasy and I wanted to do one. I don’t call ‘The Innocents’ a fantasy; that’s a ghost story.“

But once on board, Clayton decided on a more psychological than phantasmagorical approach “to root the film in reality.“ He wasn’t interested in stock shock moments. “Silence, a strange figure standing alone on the marsh – those are the things that scare me.“

Also, Clayton was interested in flushing out the central conflicts, especially between 13-year-old Will and Robard’s indecisive father. “A lot of the book, although you can read it and enjoy it, wouldn’t stand up on the screen. Like the Dust Witch, for instance. She’s the typical Disney character, with warts.”

The critics be hanged, Clayton sniffs. He’s reasonably happy with “Something Wicked.” If only the special effects were more special. Again, he holds Disney accountable. The studio is in a panic after the back-to-back disappointments of “Tron,” “Night Crossing,” “The Black Hole” and “Watcher in the Woods.”

“The studio is very, very nervous and rightly so. They’re afraid of their own trademark. When I started on ‘Something Wicked,’ the publicity people asked me not to emphasize that this was a Disney film. I said, ‘You must be mad. Everybody knows this is a Disney film. Anyway, what difference does it make? It’s either a good film or a bad film, period.’”

Clayton died in 1995 at age 74. He directed one more feature, the much-lauded adaptation of Brian Moore’s “The Lonely Passion Of Judith Hearne” starring Maggie Smith in one of her finest performances. Some consider it the crowning achievement of his career.

Published April 30, 1983


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