Arthur Hiller on Directing The In-Laws

On Film / Short Takes — Aug 18, 2016

Beloved Hollywood veteran Arthur Hiller passed away yesterday at the age of ninety-two. In a career that spanned five decades and more than thirty films, he demonstrated remarkable versatility, with credits ranging from Neil Simon comedies (The Out-of-Towners, Plaza Suite) to a trenchant satire (The Hospital) to one of the most successful romantic dramas in film history (Love Story). In addition to his filmmaking, Hiller served as the president of the Directors Guild of America and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

We were thrilled to welcome his 1979 comedy
The In-Laws into the collection last month. As part of the release, we published the following recollection, which Hiller wrote in 2011 as a chapter in his unpublished memoir.

I always thought my tombstone would read “Arthur (Love Story) Hiller,” but I get more comments on The In-Laws than any other film I directed. People say they’ve seen it twenty-six times, or that every time the family gets upset they put on The In-Laws. I hear it over and over from so many people. It was Marlon Brando’s favorite comedy! I thought we made a first-rate film, and I just loved it, but I didn’t expect the level of love that hundreds and hundreds have told or written me about.

The In-Laws came about because Alan Arkin and Peter Falk wanted to work together. They felt they would play off each other so well. Boy, how right they were! Warner Bros. agreed and suggested Andrew Bergman to write the screenplay. Alan worked with Andy on the story line, and then Andy wrote the fantastic script. I was so taken with the project that I agreed not only to direct it but to produce it too, which I usually avoid. In a sense, I did avoid it . . . at least partially. My friend William Sackheim agreed to coproduce with me, and David Silver, our unit production manager, was so helpful too.

When you tell people you’re off to another country to film, they say, “Oh, you’re so lucky.” And I say, “It’s location . . . not vacation.” Well, this was the closest to vacation—not just because of our wonderful cast and crew but because every time I wanted or needed something, the New York police and the Cuernavaca community were so helpful.

Speaking about being helpful . . . Dr. Sheldon Levin, the husband of Dolores Levin, our script supervisor, was visiting with us while we filmed in New York, and he felt that if we had certain medical injections, it would be a “safer way” to go to Mexico. He checked with a few other medical specialists, who agreed, and then got the proper doses of the medication. One evening, after filming, I had the crew all line up in front of the Levins’ hotel room. Imagine, sixty crew members waiting in the hallway, and one by one we go into Dr. Levin’s room, drop our pants, and get a shot in our rear ends. Mexico, here we come!

Before we left for Mexico, there were several times we discussed a particular scene. Andy, Alan, Peter, Bill, and I all felt the firing squad scene was very good but that it needed a touch of something more. While we were in preproduction, every couple of days it would come up. There were good ideas but never anything good enough. In New York, two days before filming, we met in Andy’s apartment to do a read-through of the script, just to be sure we were comfortable and on the same track.

We all felt good afterward. Then someone brought up the firing squad scene, and we started thinking about it again. Andy had a thought, but it didn’t give us a difference; then Alan had one, and it didn’t help; then Peter had one that we also dropped. Then I had a great idea . . . that wasn’t so great . . . and we dropped it. Then Alan said, “What if the firing squad sang ‘Trees’ in Spanish?” We all jumped up happily, saying, “That’s it! That’s it!” Andy rushed to the other room and made the changes. It really added that touch we were looking for.

The firing squad scene was written as taking place against a wall, but when we were location scouting in Cuernavaca, I came across this bullring and thought it would add to the ridiculous fun of the scene. I phoned Andy, and he liked the idea and made the changes. He even changed the lunch scene they have with the dictator, played by Richard Libertini, so that it could be played in the bullring area under a canopy. That added to the “What’s going on?” feel when they realize they’re going to be shot by a firing squad.

Much of the firing squad scene is terrific ad-libbing by Peter and Alan, as they try to stop it . . . and Alan’s improvised actions and moves let me have more “fun” movement than I had planned. It was, however, somehow difficult to coordinate the squad on the song. They weren’t singers per se. It finally ended up with Bill, my coproducer, jumping up and down in front of them, conducting them! I didn’t tell Bill, but when the final film was released, I had added to the end credits, “Choral Director – Bill Sackheim.” An inside joke, as we say, but he got a kick out of it.

In that scene, we needed about twenty-five black-suited CIA agents to come over the top part of the wall behind the spectator area and then down through the seats with their rifles out and pointing. We were wondering whether we could find enough American-looking extras in a Mexican city. Then I remembered that a few weeks before, a couple of young Americans had stopped to watch us filming on a street. I had asked them if they were on holiday. It turned out they were medical students at the university in Cuernavaca. It was where many Americans came who couldn’t get into medical school in the States. (You learn something new all the time!) Anyway, I sent casting over to the medical school to see if they could get some of the American students. We ended up getting all twenty-five we needed.

As wonderful as Peter and Alan were in the firing squad scene, they were equally wonderful in so many others, whether it was an action scene or a normal one. I shouldn’t say “normal,” because each scene was offbeat. What I liked about the picture was that it was rooted in reality. As outrageous or off-the-wall as most of the scenes were, you felt they could happen. You even felt Peter was driving backward on the freeway into oncoming traffic.

In preparing that scene, Jack Roe, my assistant director, and I got a set of model cars, and we sat on the floor and worked out where we wanted the cars to be so that it would look chaotic and dangerous but be safe and let us avoid hitting each other. We also planned where we wanted them when “our car” made a U-turn over the divider and went backward into traffic the other way. We went over it all with the stunt coordinator, Chris Howell, and when we filmed it the cars were driven by stunt drivers, even the one Peter seemed to be driving backward. How did we do it? They took a car and transferred the steering and speed and brake controls to the luggage compartment in the rear, so that the stunt coordinator was looking through two holes in the trunk and driving, while Peter was acting so well, and Alan reacting so perfectly. That’s why you think Peter’s driving it backward!

With Alan, we did a stunt where he runs out of the hotel (which, by the way, was a bicycle shop that Pato Guzman, the production designer, had converted into a hotel lobby because I loved the corner so much, particularly for the next shot I’m going to describe). As I was saying, it’s the shot where Alan comes running out of the hotel to catch Peter, who’s just left in a cab, and warn him that the bad guys are getting into a car to come after him. The reason I liked the corner was that two streets met there in a V formation, so the cab making that almost U-turn would have to slow a little. That would give us a little lag time for Alan to catch up and leap onto the top of the cab.

How did Alan make a dangerous stunt leap? I asked the set decorator to get me a big standing newsstand where the newspaper seller is inside the big cubicle with only the front open and a counter for selling. The camera was on the street racing along with Alan. It passes the back of the newsstand, and then we see Alan leap onto the turning cab, except . . . it wasn’t Alan. As he passed in front of the newsstand, for a moment we couldn’t see him. He stopped abruptly, and a waiting stuntman continued Alan’s run and came to the corner and made the leap. Because the camera was continually moving, it is one continuous shot; you, the audience, think you’re still looking at Alan running. Alan had enough actual stunt work to do in the scene: it’s really him crawling along the roof of the moving cab and hanging over the windshield with his face upside down in that panicky scene with Peter.

I’m just remembering another scene, where one of the villains is chasing Alan around the parked taxi to catch or shoot him and get “the papers” back. I worked out the staging and visuals carefully to enhance our tensions and fears. There were lots of shots, ducking under the window and running, reversing, hiding, and on and on. David Walsh, my cinematographer, suggested that besides all the intricate shots, the ones through windows and the overhead ones, we also do one wide shot of the whole sequence. I said, “We’ll lose all the tension. It needs lots of cuts and lots of moves.” David said, “What’s it going to hurt to do one? We’re in daylight, and it’s simple to set up the camera for it.” We did it and, of course, ended up with most of the sequence played in that wide shot! Do you see why I did so many films with David Walsh?

Even in quiet scenes, Alan and Peter played so well together. When Alan’s upset because his daughter is marrying someone they haven’t even met and they have to host the other family for dinner, it’s very real and funny. Many people comment to me about how hilarious Peter is when he starts to tell stories about his adventuresome past with giant tsetse flies, peasants chasing them with brooms, and the “Guacamole Act of 1917.” I always say, “Yes, he really was hilarious, but watch Alan’s reaction shots. They are a big part of making it hilarious.” That’s what I mean about how wonderful it is when two actors can act a scene “together” by playing off each other. That’s acting teamwork!

Later, we see Peter convince Alan to accompany him for a few hours on a trip that becomes the long-distance trip to the Central American dictatorship I was “storying”—and to one of the most memorable scenes in the film. Their chartered airplane, manned by two Chinese pilots who don’t speak English, lands at this small, one-runway airport, where they’re met by an elegant European gentleman. As the airplane leaves and the gentleman is leading them to his car, the next group of bad guys, who are hidden in the hills, start firing, kill the European gentleman, and then start shooting at Alan and Peter. As they’re trying to avoid bullets, Peter hollers, “Serpentine! Serpentine!” to Alan. When we filmed the “serpentine” scene, I can’t describe how funny these two were, running and “serpentining.” It was hilarious how they did it . . . and even more so when they reach the car and realize they don’t have the keys, and Alan has to run “serpentining” back to the dead body and find the keys.

Yes, Andy wrote a funny concept. And yes, I set it up well. But it’s the skill of the actors that makes it so real and hilarious at the same time. They were so wonderful that I added another moment of serpentining before they got to the car. Most times when people are gushing to me about The In-Laws, the first thing they say is “Serpentine! Serpentine!”

As I think about all these happenings on the film, I give thanks for all the great work and contributions of everybody connected with it. I’m lucky. It’s been that way on all the films I’ve worked on. Well, maybe not every one . . .