The Making of Giant
An exclusive interview with Ivan Moffat, co-author of the screenplay for Giant--Dean's third and last movie
(James Dean's third and last movie was Giant which was filmed in the summer and early fall of 1955 and was released in 1956--a year after Jimmy's death. The film was based on Edna Ferber's popular saga about a Texas cattle raising family. Dean played Jett Rink, a bitter ranch hand turned wealthy oil wildcatter. Lee Strasberg, Dean's Actors Studio coach, considered the role Dean's greatest screen performance. Reportedly, Strasberg wept when he saw the movie, grieved by the loss of so promising a talent.
The screenplay was written by Ivan Moffat and the late George Stevens who also directed the film. Moffat and Stevens had previously worked together on A Place in the Sun and Shane which are regarded by some as classics of the 1950s cinema. The former starred Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor whom Stevens selected as the female lead in Giant. Here, in an exclusive interview with AL editor Martin Pitts, Ivan Moffat recalls the making of Giant.)
AL: Did George Stevens actively collaborate on the script?
IM: Yes. Stevens attended every story conference. He paid more attention than any director I worked with. And most of the writing was done at George's house on Riverside Drive. We spent a lot of time making tea in the morning to avoid getting down to work. We took our time. We started the script in March 1954 and did not finish until December.
AL: In filming Giant was Stevens faithful to your script?
IM: Almost without exception, the script was shot as written. And that was not George Stevens's usual habit. His normal routine was to spend a lot of time changing the script--working at night after a scene was shot--and then reshooting it the next morning. After, George wrote me a short letter, saying, "Thank God we worked as thoroughly...as we did because I wouldn't have had the energy down in Marfa, Texas to go through what we normally did..."
AL: In filming East of Eden, Elia Kazan used only the latter part of John Steinbeck's novel. How much did you rely on Edna Ferber's story line?
IM: There are scenes that weren't in the book. For instance, the scene where Rock Hudson fights in a bar while the jukebox plays The Yellow Rose of Texas was our invention. Also, that wake scene at the ranch that gets out of hand and turns into a Texas "whoop-de-do." Edna Ferber didn't like that: She said to me, "You are a lot of necrophiliacs."
AL: The novel wasn't very popular among Texans to begin with. One Dallas paper claimed that if the film was shown in Texas, the screen might be shot full of holes.
IM: Ferber had been a guest of the Kleberg family at their vast spread: The King Ranch. Then, she wrote the novel which appeared critical of them. After the book came out, she tried to avoid the family. Once, she hid her face behind a menu when one of them came into a Beverly Hills restaurant.
AL: Did Warner Bros. ask for changes to avoid controversy?
IM: George Stevens was very independent. He wouldn't take any orders from the studio. Several times Jack Warner tried to have certain scenes modified. Namely, the (derogatory) reference Elizabeth Taylor makes to the oil depletion allowance which favored oil companies. Something like, "How about an appreciation for first class brains?" The oil interests put pressure on the studio, and Jack Warner begged Stevens to take the line out. George said, "No dice."
AL: You observed James Dean on the set. What was he like?
IM: He was rather quiet and somewhat kept to himself. He was practicing this rope trick for a scene. And he fiddled with these ropes like a ranch hand might. He had this funny laugh..a slightly goat-like laugh and a nice, sort of cheeky sense of humor. I know that he and George had some run-ins.
AL: Once, supposedly Dean kept the whole cast waiting for him to show up to do a scene with Mercedes McCambridge.
IM: I was not there, but I heard about it. George told him, "Who do you think you are?" That kind of talk. Stevens thought it was bad manners and unprofessional. It was both. But Dean was extraordinary in that Jett Rink role. I remember looking at some of the dailies. There was a scene where Jett Rink is there with his lawyers discussing the future of this small property he is left in a will. Dean wasn't speaking much in the scene. But George said--I remember exactly, word for word: "He's like a magnet. You watch him: Even when he's not doing anything, you watch him and not the others."
AL: As a product of the Actors Studio, James Dean liked to improvise in creating a role. There are stories that Stevens, and some of the other actors in Giant, didn't appreciate Dean's technique.
IM: Well, Stevens was extremely thorough. He handled everything indirectly. He approached things almost ponderously. He didn't rush it. He would suggest to an actor: Shall we see how we can do this? Or, he might say, We will put a cushion over here. Try this. In that way, he would guide them. In Giant, there was this scene between Dean and Carroll Baker. There is this awkwardness between them. He has a few drinks. He suggests marriage. She plays it coy. It was written that way, indecisive, partly improvised. Dean improvised it even more. He threw in more hesitation and pauses and laughs...
AL: Until it was displaced by Superman in the 1970s, Giant was Warner's top grossing film.
IM: The studio reissued it in a new color format a few years ago. They had this big opening in Dallas. In re-seeing the film, I thought it had become a bit dated. For example, the way Texans treated Mexicans was dealt with rather heavy handed. Today, there are different social issues...And Carroll Baker played a 1950s teenager beautifully. But the '50s were rather priggish in terms of morals compared to the 1960s or now. Back then, teenagers still pretended to learn something in school.