“Film directors think they always have to be right, but some of us get lucky now and then when we turn out to be wrong.” This was the observation of Arthur Hiller, who directed some 33 films, as he started working on Love Story some 46 years ago. Hiller, who died this week at 92, made some outstanding films over his career – some against his better judgment – but his philosophy about filmmaking ran counter to that of today’s young auteurs.
Hiller was thoughtful and well read, but he didn’t like second-guessing his screenwriters. That’s why gifted writers like Paddy Chayefsky and Neil Simon kept working with him on films like The Hospital and Plaza Suite. Hiller also believed filmmakers should work in many genres; hence he directed one of the first films about gays (Making Love) as well as one of the most memorable anti-war movies (The Americanization Of Emily). Hiller liked to shoot quickly and efficiently, and thus was willing to take on Love Story on a paltry $2 million budget.
Most of all, Hiller liked to work a lot and believed it was good for his craft, even though he sometimes found himself involved in projects he regretted. He shot a satire by Joe Eszterhas titled Burn Hollywood Burn, which dealt with a director named Alan Smithee, who made a terrible movie, then ran away with the negative to hide. Smithee is the code name used by directors when they take their credit off a film because they hate the final cut. Hiller himself ultimately hated the re-cut version of Burn Hollywood Burn and demanded that his credit be removed. That left Alan Smithee with the director’s credit on a film about a director named Alan Smithee.
A gracious and sensitive man, Hiller never got into ego fights or yelling matches, though he worked with some of the toughest producers and studio chiefs in town. His skills at diplomacy won him the presidencies of both the Academy and Directors Guild.
As an admirer of Hiller’s work, I sent him the screenplay of Love Story in 1969. Larry Peerce had been set to direct the film, but withdrew because he felt the characters as written by Erich Segal were shallow. Hiller shared that view, but believed that the piece worked on its own level and would offer audiences a welcome diversion from the the hard-edged movies of the moment. Besides, Hiller had an open slot between The Out-Of-Towners and Plaza Suite, two Simon movies, so why not give this poignant romance a chance? His payday was $250,000 against 25% of the net profits.
Love Story was a difficult shoot. Ali MacGraw was an inexperienced actress, having just completed Goodbye Columbus. Despite lengthy rehearsals, the shooting schedule proved skimpy and reshoots were needed. The ending of the film had to be changed in the final edit (the doctor’s dire verdict had come too early in the script). The theme by Jimmy Webb didn’t work, and Bob Evans rushed to France to recruit Francis Lai who created a memorable score.
When the movie opened to lines-around-the-block business, Hiller conceded its success was a shock to him. Mindful that many stars (and other directors) had turned down Love Story, Hiller acknowledged he’d taken on the project as “a job”; it was smart, he said, for filmmakers to take on “jobs” now and then. “You never really know what films take on a life of their own,” he told me. “That’s part of the adventure.”
Hiller’s cut of Love Story resulted in a $5 million windfall – a good reward for his “adventure.”