Now available on Blu-ray and DVD is Houdini, the History Channel mini-series about the epic life of legendary illusionist Harry Houdini, starring Adrien Brody as the man behind the magic, Kristen Connolly as his faithful wife Bess, and Evan Jones as the architect who helped build Houdini’s tricks, Jim Collins.
I recently joined a small group of reporters at The Magic Castle in Hollywood where we got to experience the Houdini Séance and sit down for a lengthy chat with Evan Jones and writer Nicholas Meyer, who adapted his father’s Houdini biography – Houdini: A Mind in Chains — A Psychoanalytic Portrait – for the mini-series. They talked about taking creative liberties with history in order to tell the best story, the personal challenge Meyer faced in adapting his father’s book, filming in Hungary, and more. And since Nicholas Meyer was in the room the conversation naturally steered toward Star Trek. Meyer revealed his thoughts on J.J. Abrams‘ interpretation of the Star Trek universe and shared some behind-the-scenes stories from the making of his Star Trek films and. Hit the jump to read.
EVAN JONES: I was about to go off and take another role, but I had this audition and I liked the script so much I was excited about it. So I thought there’s no way I can do both but I have an idea for the character so I’ll go in and audition… what can it hurt? Then I got offered it, so I had to decide between the two but they were both Lionsgate, but Gerry (Abrams) called me and I was so excited about it that I took it.
NICHOLAS MEYER: Gerry would have killed for you after your audition. He called me up and said “we found him, we found him!”
The Blu-ray for Houdini has some supplements, were you involved with that?
MEYER: No they did not. Over the years I’ve been involved in a lot of DVD extras, I have a notorious history of which I will give you this one sample and then more if they’re popular. When I did the DVD commentaries for Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan, I told the real story of how the movie got made and written and I got a call a couple days later from a lady who’s become a good friend who’s in charge of DVDs over at Paramount and she said “The lawyers say we can’t use any of this.” And I said “Why not, it’s the truth?” And she said “I know that.” And I said “Well why don’t you take my name off it and forget about it. And she said “I was hoping you’d say that, hang on.” And the end result of this was what’s called the Nicholas Meyer clause which all DVDs now have, “the opinions and something expressed represent…”
You’re the reason?
MEYER: Yeah. But you have to understand what that really did is that it opened these DVDs to be sources of oral history instead of puff pieces for the studio, because people involved with them being in fear of being sued by somebody, so it became another form of movie history. I mean I didn’t plan it, but I’m proud that it happened. Which is probably why they didn’t interview me for this DVD.
What would you have said?
MEYER: First of all it was a thrill, also somewhat daunting to adapt, or at least translate in some way, my dad’s book. The saddest part of this for everyone in his family is that he died in 1988, and the book – for which he had high hopes – was not a commercial success. And I think it’s a very good book and a penetrating study. The whole subject of biography has changed in the twentieth century. Up til then, Herodotus or Plutarch something could make a laundry list of what someone did. But post-Freud we want to know why he or she did it. So that opens up a whole new avenue of inquiry, and as my dad’s book said there are many book that will tell you about Harry Houdini, there are many books that will tell you what he did, and some will tell you how he did it, but I think that my dad’s book was the only one that got interested in the subject of why.
So did they approach you with your dad’s book to get you interested in doing this project?
MEYER: No my partner and close friend Gerry Abrams, who produced this movie, sold this to the history channel and when they asked who should write it, he said my name not knowing. When we spoke I said “This is a real coincidence because my dad wrote a book about the life of Houdini, you option the book and I’ll do the movie.” They’ve been trying to make a Houdini movie for years. Ray Stark tried for years to get one made and I used to have these conversations with him. I’d say “Option my dad’s book, and we’ll be in business.” For whatever the fifteen hundred bucks or whatever, but he couldn’t be bothered.
Did you start on this when it was possibly a movie?
MEYER: I only came to grips with it when they said a two night event. And in my mind and in the script it was called “Becoming Houdini” and “Being Houdini” but they didn’t use the two titles. Though the division is the same.
With something that rooted in history like this, how do you walk the line between entertainment and historical accuracy?
MEYER: That’s a terrific question. I wrote an article not so long ago that was published in the Los Angeles Times, and I think I titled it “Movies vs. History.” But I think they had another title for it. I got sort of sick and tired of seeing movies that got picked apart by people because they had taken dramatic or poetic license and I said “These people don’t understand the distinctions.” When you read a history or biography you are entitled to imagine that it is as accurate as the authors can make it. That research has gone into it and we say “This is a history of the civil war, this is a biography of Lincoln” whatever. But you don’t make any such supposition when you say “This is a historical novel.” With a historical novel you know that liberties are being taken. Since Walter Scott, we know that poetic license, dramatic license, that events been conflated and that liberties have been taken, characters ditto, dates rearranged. But people don’t seem to understand that movies are fictions, they are dramatizations, at least historical movies, and we should accord the moviemakers some of the same understanding and latitude. When you go to a movie you know it’s a dramatization and not history.
And I think that the reason that people are so up in arms about movies that have historical inaccuracies is because now that we’ve trashed our education institutions beyond repair, people fear that the only people are getting their histories is through the movies, so the elephant in the room is that no one wants to talk about why we’re so passionately obsessed with accuracy. So the Lincoln movie gets trashed because Connecticut voted for the amendment – not to mention how the people in Connecticut feel – but there’s a lot of that. And I think it precedes from a fundamental misunderstanding of cinema. They are entertainment. And I’d like to say that entertainment isn’t a synonym for disposable or mindless or stupid. Hamlet? Pretty entertaining from where I come from.
How was the historical element for you Evan? Did you do a lot of research for the role, or do you prefer to use what’s on the page?
JONES: I didn’t do too much. I came here (to The Magic Castle) and learned about magic. I read a book, but not his father’s book. Sorry about that.
MEYER: It’s maybe just as well that you didn’t. In fact your character is a composite, again, dramatic license, of about twenty different guys who worked for Harry Houdini. I made him a very specific character, and he became even more specific thanks to Evan. It became touching, it became moving, you made a mountain out of a molehill, in my opinion.
JONES: But, to answer your question, the script was my bible, so I went off of that and whatever the producers or directors said we were going to go with that day.
Mr. Meyer, you were involved with one of the great TV movies of the eighties, The Day After, I’m curious what it’s like to come back to television now, is there a lot of difference?
MEYER: The Day After was a one-off, unique event. And I think I suspected that it was unique enough that it wouldn’t get on TV. And I remember saying when I was offered it, “You don’t really think this is going on network television, they watch The Flying Nun?” And they blithely assured me, “Yes it will get on.” And in the end it barely got on, and with so many disclaimers you would think that nobody at ABC knew anyone who made the movie, and there were no sponsors. It was originally two nights, and I said “This is a good script, I like the script, but it feels like it was padded by like an hour. You think anyone’s going to turn in for night two of Armageddon? Why don’t we do it once, right between the eyes?” And he said “Well, young man, as I was then, you don’t know much about the economics of television. We don’t expect to make much on this, but there’s a limit to how much we can afford to lose. So when we talk about a two night, four hour movie, you’re really talking about ninety minutes a night and thirty minutes of commercials, and we really need that money to offset the losses.”
So I went off to Kansas and shot the whole movie. And then I went to the editing room, and cut a scene and I said, “I like this, let’s put it to bed.” He said “You can’t”, and I said “Why not?”, and he said “Because it’s too short.” And I was now learning that things were being cut to a preconceived notion. So I called up ABC people and said “Can I ask a question? This is hard for me because I’ve never done television. Can’t I just cut the movie how I want to do it, and then show you the best version? And if you want put stuff back in we can do that? Can’t I put my best foot forward?” So he goes “I’ll get back to you.” So the next he says “We here at ABC/Circle films also believe in the doctrine of first impressions, cut the film your way.” What he didn’t tell me is that all the advertisers had dropped out. General Foods, General Mills, General Motors, all the generals headed for the hills and so I got what I wanted: a movie on network television with no ads. [Laughs] So there’s really no comparisons.
A lot of those TV movies had shots of people walking from their car to a door, a lot of shoe leather as it were.
MEYER: Well, I was a bad director of it.
As for Houdini, what’s it like shooting in Budapest?
JONES: It’s really fascinating. I’ve never spent time in a place where they lost the wars, so it was interesting and I didn’t know much about the history of the country. I didn’t know they were under communist rule until the nineties. It’s this whole attitude of being defeated, and frowning on optimism and American way of thinking. If we were laughing, Hungarian kids would be like “You’re so American.”
MEYER: Their economy is in wretched shape, and it’s a country where anti-Semitism is on the rise. I was very surprised to learn this, but the pianist Andras Schiff renounced his Hungarian citizenship while we were there. And I thought “Why, he’s Hungarian?” and then I started hearing all this stuff.
JONES: Adrian (Brody)’s mother, she’s a photographer and was there taking photos, she escaped from Hungary on the back of a bus way back when.
MEYER: I remember way back when a kid who showed up in our class, this is post-1956, he had escaped during the Hungarian uprising. It’s a very beautiful city, it has more legitimate theaters than any other place on Earth, and since Houdini is largely about a Vaudeville entertainer who went from theater to theater to theater to theater, it was ideal because you just go cross town. It frequently doubles for Paris. The Opera House, where he performs for the Kaiser, frequently doubles for Palais Garnier every time they shoot a Phantom of the Opera remake, they use the Budapest Opera, and the acoustics are wonderful, I saw a La Traviata there and it was great. It was all rebuilt after the war, or after all the bombing, so it is strikingly beautiful.
Were you there for the shoot?
MEYER: I was there for some of it. I should have been there for all of it. And I let myself be talked out of it.
Do you like being on set as the writer?
MEYER: Yes I do because you can be helpful.
As a director, do you ever have to stop yourself from directing?
MEYER: I never had that problem with Uli (Edel). The nature of collaboration, which is such a two edged sword, there’s nothing worse than working with someone and not being understood, and you watch what’s going on and you really want to kill yourself or them, or something. And then there’s the other idealized place, which is what I had on this movie, which is that your understood better than you understand yourself. Where somebody takes what you did and makes it more than what you dreamed. And Uli was so intrigued by this material and did so much work to understand these tricks, and also the world of vaudeville that Houdini was a part of.
Were you part of the process of selecting Uli as the director?
MEYER: I was.
Were you a fan of his work? The Baader Meinhof Complex?
MEYER: It was really a conversation that took place in Gerry Abrams house. We had interviewed a couple of directors, gifted people, but he was the one who seemed to have a gut level, intuitive understanding not only of the surface of it, which he so vividly imagined, but also – in my opinion anyway – the whole subtext of it, the father and son dilemma.
My father’s book is about is about a number of things, but about Houdini’s rage to not be a failure like his father, and it’s also about converting X-rated material, namely bondage, into family friendly safe fare, which is what he did. It’s also about death and resurrection, and rising to live again another day when everyone thinks you’re dead. When he was out of the Chinese water torture cell, he was back there reading the newspaper and let the time go on and on. He said “If I escape too quickly it doesn’t work.” The audience had to be coming apart before he came out as the fire chief. I was never that into Houdini, other than having those conversations around the dinner table while my dad was writing the book.
In adapting your father’s material, did you feel closer to him? How much did you re-read the book?
MEYER: I certainly re-read the book, I hadn’t read it in years. It was a bittersweet experience knowing that this was happening and he wasn’t there to see it. I’ve had a lot of conversations about it with my mother and my sisters. It’s strange, to be honest.
You’ve both done movies, you’ve both done television, and we’re at this point now where television is seen as just as good if not better than movies these days, do you have a preference? Or is it work is work?
JONES: I’m happy to work. I know things have changed recently, but I tend to prefer film. I don’t know what it is.
MEYER: It’s bigger than life.
It used to be a visual medium.
JONES: But also movies seem to like me more than television, so I don’t get hired a lot for TV for whatever reason.
MEYER: Watch what happens now.
JONES: But the people I admire have always been people like Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson and Jack Lemmon.
MEYER: The Undiscovered Country, that was the name of the movie. I’m directing the movie. This was the second movie I ever made and I don’t know anything about anything. One of the things I didn’t know was that they had already booked the movie into theaters before there was a script. So needless to say there was a big push, so I’m directing all day and I’m editing all night. My assistant comes up to me and she says, “You know, I think they changed the name of the movie.” I said, “What? Don’t bother me, because I’m very busy right now.” She said, “No, I think it’s called The Vengeance of Khan”. I said, “What? No, no, I can’t talk about this now.” So three days later she shows up again. I’m still on the sound stage and she says, “Yep, a man named Mancuso in New York has changed the name of the movie to Vengeance of Khan”.
So I called him up, “Is this Mr. Mancuso? This is Mr. Meyer, I’m the writer/director of Star Trek 2: The Undiscovered Country. Is it true what I’m hearing that you’ve changed the name of the movie?” He goes, “Yes Mr. Meyer, I have.” I said, “Have you read the script?” He said, “No I have not.” I said, “Have you seen any of the movie?” He said, “No I have not.” I said, “Don’t you think it would have been a little tactful, a little diplomatic, if as the writer/director of the movie you would have touched base with me about this decision?” There was a puzzled silence two time zones away and he goes, “Mr. Meyer, I’m only trying to do what’s best for your film.” I go, “Uh huh, so Vengeance of Khan. Are you aware that George Lucas, with whom you do a great deal of business on the Indiana Jones franchise, is making a movie called Revenge of the Jedi? Do you think he’s going to be very happy with your new title?” He goes, “I assure you that won’t be a problem.” Three weeks later I’ve got Barry Diller yelling at me, “Who the fuck knows what wrath is? What is this Wrath of Khan? Stupidest title I’ve ever heard.” I said, “You’re talking to the wrong guy. It’s got nothing to do with me.”
You got the title The Undiscovered Country for Star Trek 6, was that something of a victory lap?
MEYER: Yes it was a victory lap. When we did Star Trek 6, Barry London and Art Cohen, who were then at the PR publicity and advertising said, “Can we talk to you about the title?” I said, “Sure.” By this time I was the 600 pound gorilla. They said, “We think it’s a little soft.” I said, “You think it’s a little soft? Well, let me tell you my theory about titles; nobody cares what the title of the movie is, nobody cares who’s in the movie, nobody cares what the movie is about. They only care about one thing – Do I have to see it? Do I have to go? Is the tom-tom beating? However, I’ll make a deal with you. Pick another title that you like better and I’ll surrender, but just let me point out we’ve already had the last, the ultimate, the final, whatever, the hyperbole is running dry. Why don’t you throw them a curve ball with The Undiscovered Country? So I remember running to this meeting and there were thirty people from the advertising and PR department sitting in this gigantic room.
In the old days of movies do you know how titles were chosen? It was a contest for secretaries and the secretary who named the movie got the bonus. Now it’s done by computer, there are these huge print outs. They’ll take a word and they’ll play with that word. Take the word “Tomorrow” – Escape from Tomorrow, Edge of Tomorrow, Tomorrow Yesterday. Whatever. “Let’s go through this now. Escape from Tomorrow anybody like that? No, alright.” There was literally a stack. And then they did things like “bridge” – Bridge to Yesterday, Bridge to Tomorrow, Bridge from the Past. I went through those and finally Barry London goes, “Okay, you win.” And when it opened it was the biggest opening in the history of movies to that date. The next day Lucio Ludovico, from the same department goes, “Thank god we didn’t change your title.” And I said, “I don’t think you learned anything.”
Having directed Star Trek movies, they obviously screen all the time. Like comics have their tight fifteen, do you have your tight fifteen, fifteen minutes that you’re going to say about that film if you have to introduce it? Do you know what the questions are going to be at the end of a q&a? Is it pretty well locked after 30 years?
MEYER: I’ve heard a lot of the questions before, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that I know the answers. People say to me, either apropos of Star Trek or Sherlock Holmes, to what do you attribute the enormous popularity? My speculations are no more enlightened or informed than anybody else. I don’t know. I’m just grateful. Arthur Conan Doyle he wrote other books besides Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock was a sideline. He kept trying to kill him off because he said he took his mind from better things. He wrote science fiction, he wrote the original King Kong, it was called The Lost World. He wrote science fiction, he wrote historical novels. The White Company is this great medieval, swashbuckling masterpiece. He remained sort of willfully obtuse about Sherlock Holmes. He could do it, but he didn’t get it, and for a long time I didn’t get Star Trek. I didn’t get it. But I ain’t looking down my nose at it. I think it would be really churlish to denigrate something that makes so many people happy. Half of NASA grew up watching the Star Trek show, so who am I? I’m grateful and I’m proud that I got to be a part of it even if I don’t entire understand or can’t account for it. I’m tearing up; it must be that second glass of wine.
MEYER: It makes me feel damn good. It makes me feel wonderful. After I finished those and they started making other movies, for many years I wouldn’t go look at any of the others because I was so insecure I thought, “I’m just going to want to stick my head in the oven after I see one of these movies.” So for a very long time I didn’t do it. And then they were doing a DVD, and I do lots of DVD commentaries and stuff – I saved The African Queen, that’s my big contribution to movie history. You couldn’t get it on DVD.
I worked on that release. It’s a beautiful restoration.
MEYER: I’m the host of the doc! I wrote and directed this doc and we saved the movie. And it all started because I wanted a copy for myself.
It was the only best picture that hadn’t been released for years.
MEYER: It was on the AFI 100, but you couldn’t get it. I said, “What is that?” It took me six years to do that. So I’ve had a lot of experience doing those commentaries and documentaries.
Did they ever ask you to do a Next Generation movie?
MEYER: No, I was never asked to do that. But I did a thing on Stalag 17, Murder on the Orient Express. I’ve done a lot of those commentaries, things like that, or stuff about these movies or about Billy Wilder Things like that.
JONES: What do you think of J.J.’s versions of Star Trek? It’s Gerry’s kid right?
MEYER: The truth is that I used to read J.J. bedtime stories. He came up to me at the FOX commissary about four years ago and he said, “Do you remember what you gave me for my Barmitzvah?” I said no. He said, “You gave me the annotated Sherlock Holmes and my son is reading it now.” It was the gift that kept on giving.
So you like his movies?
MEYER: It’s very complicated to say. First of all, I should preface this by the observation that artists are not the best judges of what they’ve done and the word definitive does not belong, in my opinion, in any conversation about art. When somebody says it’s the “definitive” something, I’m always recoiling.
I think, and I’ve made this analogy before, that Star Trek is a bottle into which different vintages can be poured. And over the years a lot of different vintages have been poured. To give you another way to look at it, if you know the Catholic mass you know that many composers have set that mass to music. You know that the Braham’s German Requiem has no relation to the Mozart Coronation Requiem, you would never know you were listening to the same piece because the music transforms the words, and the vintage may transform the bottle. So my reaction, and I remember somebody saying “Not your grandfather’s Star Trek” when they were talking about JJ’s stuff, and I was thinking I can’t really be a judge of this because it is so different from what I understood. I made a lot of changes when I came to Star Trek, because I used to say “Why are they all wearing pajamas?” And I made it into the NAVY, it was about the NAVY, but I didn’t think I changed the characters. I thought Kirk and Spock were who they were, and I think the biggest thing that shocked me about J.J.’s was Spock beating the shit out of somebody and thinking, “No, that’s changing the shape of the bottle.” It may be very entertaining and it may make a gazillion dollars, but that’s changing the shape of the bottle. I guess that was my thought.