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Director Series: Irwin Winkler

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By Mark London Williams
For those who have glimpsed the white-light tunnel, it’s said your whole life passes in front of your eyes as you die. But no one really ever says how. So director Irwin Winkler may be right in imagining that the life of Cole Porter, one of the key contributors to the American Songbook, played itself out as a musical, of the very stripe that Porter spent his life writing.
But whether it did or not, Winkler—the legendary producer-turned-director of the Rocky films, They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, Raging Bull, and The Right Stuff (in the former category), and Guilty By Suspicion and Life as a House (in the latter)—said he “had a need” to make a film about Cole Porter.
The result was De-Lovely, starring Kevin Kline as the voluble composer, and Ashley Judd as his wife Linda Porter, who provided an emotional safe harbor in which Porter could work. But while the composer was “always true to her in his fashion,” to paraphrase his own lyric, that didn’t include the bedroom—or sexual preference.
Winkler, working with a script created with writer Jay Cocks, gets right into the action, with the angel Gabriel coming for Porter, circa 1964, to show the songwriter his life-as-revue, with scenes spilling out of an empty stage, as the composer revisits or reimagines them.
Similarly, in his interview with Below the Line, Winkler lost no time in launching into his subject, or describing what, for him, was the minimal difference in working with crew when switching from his producer’s cap to the directing one:

Irwin Winkler: I was always the producer who got up in the morning and was on the set with the crew for the first shot, and stayed there until the last shot at the end of the day. And then saw dailies. I was never one of those producers that set up the deal and took off for the south of France and came back to see the first cut. I was always involved with the details of the making of the film. So the crews were not an unfamiliar aspect of the filmmaking process to me. It was not a big transition for me.
Below the Line: Given the importance of music in this film, who was the first department head you worked with? Nine times out of 10, it’s the DP. In this case, was it (arranger/producer) Stephen Endelman?
Winkler: Absolutely. He was hired early on, because we had to do arrangements of songs and pre-record songs a long time before we started shooting. We didn’t pre-record anything Kevin did, other than “Be A Clown,” [in a film-within-the-film sequence], because we wanted to do all his stuff singing dramatically, since he was acting. So we did that all with live recording. But the big production numbers were all pre-recorded.
BTL: Walk us through your process of staging and filming those production scenes.
Winkler: The musical scenes, where we had dance numbers, I worked with the choreographer (Francesca Jaynes) and told her what I wanted. The camera moves, I very often lay out a lot of my camera ideas in the script itself. Because I worked so closely with Jay, I’d say “okay, I have this kind of transition here,” and I’d try to put as many transitions as I could into the script. Sometimes you can’t do it, depending on the location—a particular location doesn’t allow you to do a certain kind of transition. But when I could, I’d put it in the script, and discuss it with my DP, Tony Pierce-Roberts, and we would decide how we were gonna do it, what kind of lens we were gonna use, what kind of camera, how we were gonna lay it out.
BTL: Did this film present additional challenges compared to other films you’ve shot?
Winkler: In a funny way, it’s more like Rocky or Raging Bull—they required a lot of choreography, because fight scenes always require extensive pre-production, as far as training. I would organize the training almost the way you would ask DeNiro or Stallone to train for their particular roles as boxers. And then choreograph the scenes in the rings themselves—not that different from choreographing dancing. So you lay it out well beforehand, so when you get in the ring, or here, when you get on the stage, you have a pretty good sense of where everything has to be. I brought in Tony early, so he could be part of the rehearsals. We would watch the rehearsals together, and I would say “okay, how about we shoot their feet here? How about we have a camera move here, a dolly, that’s going to come on this angle?” And he would add his opinion about that, or whatever ideas he had.
BTL: Tell us about your relationships with some of the other department heads? What loomed especially large as far as pre-production?
Winkler: Everything. because what we’d have is not only costumes, but you’d have hair and makeup considerations [by makeup designer Sarah Monzani, and hair designer Simon Thompson]. You’d have 20 chorus dancers that would have to have their hair bobbed in the morning, and then have to get into a period costume and get ready to dance. It was very complicated. You couldn’t have one hairdresser doing 20 people. We didn’t have a big budget, so we really had to work it out pretty carefully.
BTL: Within the film, you’re designing stage shows, and films, from other periods. Tell us about working with production designer Eve Stewart for the “looks within the look?”
Winkler: When we staged the Broadway plays, we didn’t really have much to go on—the only one I was familiar with as far as the staging is concerned was Anything Goes, because I had seen the London production of it. And there were some stills that gave us a sense of what the set looked like. For the other (recreated musicals), there wasn’t anything we could find that helped us, as far as the set was concerned. So we had to design our own idea. When I had Sheryl Crow singing “Begin the Beguine,” which is from Jubilee—I love the George Cukor version of Judy Garland singing “The Man I Love” in A Star Is Born, so I kinda used Cukor’s version of that, with Sheryl Crow. Although Kiss Me Kate, we had photographs of what the set looked like, so we used that. There was a revival on Broadway a couple of years ago. Most of the stage work was done at the Old Vic in London. We shot almost the whole film in England, doubling for Paris, and Arizona [and Hollywood].
BTL: And everything else was location?
Winkler: Everything else was location. Everything. We didn’t build one set. We spent about four months between the rehearsals and the scouting. I’d spend a half day in rehearsal, and a half a day in the van. (Even the MGM lot sequence) we shot in England. Ealing Studios looks very much like MGM did in those days.
BTL: Would you do other musicals after this?
Winkler: I would love to. I had a good time. It was great living with that music for a couple of years. What could be better?

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