WEIRDLAND: "Dark Waters" (Merle Oberon, Franchot Tone), André de Toth Interview

Saturday, August 30, 2014

"Dark Waters" (Merle Oberon, Franchot Tone), André de Toth Interview

André de Toth: Dark Waters (1944) was my second film in this country—the third actually, but we don’t want to talk about the first one. Alex Korda called me about that picture, so I knew it was some special occasion. He wanted to ask me a favor. I was afraid he might want to borrow money, because he was up and down all the time, but I said, “Sure.” He told me that, although she was his ex-wife, he still wanted the best for Merle Oberon; but he had been offered a project for her that was horrible. He wanted to send me the script, to have me take a look and see what I could do with it.

He proposed that if I would agree to direct the picture, he would let Merle act in it. There were seven producers on the picture, and none of them knew what they were doing. The only professional in the bunch, who was like an eighth producer, was Joan Harrison. They had only a short amount of time to fix this script and prepare this picture because of the financing contracts. Joan had a relationship with John Huston. John always needed money—he was very irresponsible in certain ways—so he agreed to do a rewrite; but he wanted one hundred thousand dollars. The producers were astonished. They had only spent twenty thousand for all the rights and screenplay drafts to that point; and the entire budget was only five or six hundred thousand. “Okay,” he said, “then pay me by the page.” It was an unusual approach, but I thought it was fine; so they agreed.

Of course, John expected that by the time he finished, he would end up making more than one hundred thousand; and he got a substantial advance. So we went forward and started shooting [before the rewrite was done]. As we shot, John and I would get together and discuss which scenes we were going to do next; and somewhere between two hours and two days later, the pages would arrive. And, if I approved them, he got paid. Now as one weekend approached, there was a big day of racing scheduled for Hollywood Park, and John sent in 22 pages. I needed five pages. The next morning, on the way to the track, John was at my door with his hand out. So we compromised on the number of pages, and I paid him.

AS: Of course, film noir is not a term that was in use back then, but how did you characterize this movie at the time?

ADT: It’s very funny that some writers about pictures discovered film noir. I must tell you, I never heard of it until years later. That’s fine, of course. Dark Waters was Gothic. Louisiana was just the right background to suggest that the house in the bayous was a Gothic prison. But that had to come out of the characters, out of the actors in the story not from any vistas of location. There were just a few shots of expanses, the car driving to the house, for example; but mostly I wanted everything to be tight on the people. Because, you know, in any film but especially in a dark film, a film of atmosphere, these pretty pictures of locations are just distracting. A little bit maybe, some real locations, some daylight here and there, so you wonder about it; but not much.

The character that Merle Oberon plays, Leslie, this character had been rescued after being in a lifeboat at sea for two weeks. So I didn’t want the usual glamour look. I wanted her to look as if she had had this ordeal. This was an important story point, she looked tired, worn down, and she was trying to recuperate both physically and mentally. On the first day of shooting with Merle, on the first set-up, I said, “Print” on the first take. It seemed like a good start. Merle turned to me and asked shyly, “Bundy, could I have it once more?”

I always assume that actors are looking for the best performance, so, “Sure. One more.” We did it, “Fine. Print.” Then again from Merle, “May I have one more?” The crew looked at me, and I thought about it, and decided I would honor her requests this first time. We did 40 takes. I discovered that [her boyfriend, cameraman] Lucien Ballard was in a doorway and until he nodded to her, she wanted one more. So after 40 takes, I went over to the camera, opened up the magazine, and pulled out a hundred feet of film. I handed it to her saying, “You wanted this, Merle, take it home with you.” I had no further problems with Merle or Lucien Ballard after that. You know, the line on the set is a fine one. If you lose control on a tight schedule, you’re finished.

AS: How many days did you have to shoot Dark Waters?

ADT: I think it was about 25 days, which was not too short a schedule for that time and that budget. And Lucien Ballard understood what that meant. He wanted to protect Merle but he understood that, for the performance to work, she might have to look awful, like she was exhausted and helpless. And the picture had to be dark.

AS: Did you cast all the other actors?

ADT: Yes, only Merle had been cast when I came on the project. I had seen Elisha Cook, Jr. in a couple of things such as The Maltese Falcon; and he would give me what I needed on screen, a little, pitiful slime. We had two villains really, Mitchell and Cook.

AS: Franchot Tone was a rather unusual hero, rather ominous himself. The first time you see him, after Leslie faints at the train station, is a low angle and he seems almost menacing.

ADT: Tone was one of many people up for the part of the doctor. The producers wanted a happy ending. But I wanted something else. I had to create an atmosphere, like an orchestrator, of anxiety, not just from Cook and Mitchell but also from Tone. I had imagined a final scene of them, [Leslie and the doctor], together somewhere else. She would be at the piano inside, and outside it would be snowing. A band would be playing carols, on the corner a man would be selling chestnuts, and Tone, [the doctor], would be walking home. And on the corner, a little girl and her mother would be buying chestnuts. And suddenly the little girl would run over to Tone, yelling “Daddy, Daddy.”

AS: You never got to shoot that ending, of course.

ADT: No. The producers wanted something safe. So I had to be satisfied with Mitchell. But with Mitchell’s white suit and his attitude, I did get something there, that sense of malaise. Source:

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