Actor and writer William A. Wellman Jr. talks with Justin Bozung about his father/director “Wild Bill” Willam A. Wellman, the making of WINGS (1927) and his 2006 book documenting the production.
BOZUNG: Hello Mr. Wellman. I just want to extend a “Thank You” to you for taking the time out of your schedule to speak with me today. Your book The Man and His WINGS: William A. Wellman and the Making of the First Best Picture is one of my favorite books on film that has ever been written…
WELLMAN JR: Well, thanks for saying that. I appreciate it.
BOZUNG: For those that might read this interview…One of my favorite aspects of the book is how you’ve included some of your Dad’s early correspondences inside…In particular I’m impressed with a particular incident that happens to “Wild Bill” William A. Wellman Sr. as a young man in Paris early in his life pre-movies…
WELLMAN JR: Right, when he jumped into the river to save that girl?
WELLMAN JR: The letters that my father wrote are amazing. He wrote 82 letters to his parents during his years in the War. I’ve been thinking about putting out a book of just those letters.
BOZUNG: You also suggest in the book that one day you aspire to produce a film about your father’s days in the War…
WELLMAN JR: Right, I have a script all set. I’ve been close to getting it produced a couple times, most recently, with Disney. Then FLYBOYS (2012) came out and they backed away from it when that film didn’t make the money that it should have. Making a film about my dad is the only thing I haven’t done for him yet. It’s on my wish-list. I’ve done a documentary. I’ve produced the only retrospective on him that happened in his lifetime in the United States. I’ve done two books on him. I’ve hosted screenings of his films in five different countries since 1993. I only have the movie to get made yet.
BOZUNG: I’ve been a huge fan of WILD BILL: HOLLYWOOD MAVERICK (1995) since I first saw the film following it’s original VHS release.
WELLMAN JR: What makes that whole project wonderful is that I still have over 20 hours of interview footage on file with all of those Hollywood icons that appeared in the film. You only get a minute and a half in the final documentary with Robert Mitchum but I actually have forty-five minutes on film with him. I’m looking at putting the film out on DVD and using all of that extra stuff on the release.
BOZUNG: For those that haven’t read the book yet, how did Wild Bill come to direct WINGS (1927)?
WELLMAN JR: He was put under contract in 1925 by B.P. Schulberg at Preferred Pictures. Schulberg, then moved over and began working as the head of production at Paramount. When he moved over there he took with him two contractees–my father and Clara Bow, the “It” girl. My father…No-one paid any attention to him at that time because he was primary known as a director of “B” Westerns. The first non-western that he directed at Paramount was called THE CAT’S PAJAMAS (1926). It’s a lost film today, and even up until the time that my father passed away–he always said that he hoped that THE CAT’S PAJAMAS stayed lost. There wasn’t much of a chance for him to direct WINGS with his resume or on face-value, but B.P. Schulberg was pushing for him. He went to the head of the studio Jessie Lasky, and told him about how my father was the only director under contract that had front-line battle experience as a decorated fighter pilot. Schulberg said that he was the only director that could understand the picture and the battles that are depicted in it because he fought in them.
They gave my father another film to direct before called YOU NEVER KNOW WOMEN (1926). It was successful artistically and commercially. Lasky believed that Paramount was the most successful studio at the time because he felt that he had the best directors under contract. He had: Cecil B. Demille and Victor Fleming… Lasky said to my father, “What makes you think that you can direct this picture better than any of the other directors in my stable…” My father said: “My war record does, and I’ll make it the best goddamn picture this studio has ever had.” Lasky decided to take a chance on him. He was only 29-years-old when he came to work at Paramount and at 30 he was directing WINGS.
BOZUNG: Another incredible story in the book….The story of your father flying his airplane in and landing it on that Polo field during a match to talk with Douglas Fairbanks…
WELLMAN JR: Right. Yeah, that really happened. It was true.
BOZUNG: Some of the pilots that worked in WINGS came from here in Michigan…
WELLMAN JR: Yes, and the picture was shot down in San Antonio, Texas and on the studio lot at Paramount. There was a second-unit team that shot in Paris as well. When Paramount got the support of the War Department–it made sense to shoot in San Antonio because they needed all of the background actors. San Antonio put them in close proximity of all the service stations there. There were 5000 troops in WINGS. Lasky was running Paramount in Hollywood while his partner Adolph Zukor was in New York. Zukor ran the money and he oversaw the 1000-theater chain that Paramount had at that time. WINGS was Lasky’s project, and when he went to Zukor and told him that he needed $1.2 Million dollars to make the film–Zukor wasn’t cooperative. They didn’t want to put that kind of money into a film about planes in the sky. So Lasky was overruled by Zukor and the bankers.
Lasky sent the writer of WINGS–John Monk Saunders–to Washington to see if he could get some funding through the War Department. Lasky ended up sending one of his producers, Lucien Hubbard, to Washington for support as well. They got one General at a time on board at a time at the War Department and the project even went to President Calvin Coolidge. He signed off on it. The War Department gave Paramount $16 Million dollars of support! They gave them 5000 troops, over a dozen tanks, and over a hundred airplanes. WINGS never would have been made had it not been for the help of the U.S. War Department. And that wasn’t the end of it.
The budget actually spiraled up as well. Paramount eventually put in another $2 million dollars to finish the film and promote it. That’s $18 Million dollars in 1926! What is that today? Today, it would cost $1.5 Billion dollars to make if they didn’t use any CGI. There are no special effects in WINGS. In fact, my father made all of the actors take flying lessons so that he could actually shoot them up in the air flying! It’s all real.
BOZUNG: Do you think Wild Bill saw WINGS as a uber personal project? It seems like it was a way for him to re-live his actual combat adventures?
WELLMAN JR: Absolutely. There is no way of knowing…When my father came on board WINGS had been in pre-production for about 4 months. My father and John Monk Saunders, who had both been pilots in the War, sat down and made some changes in the script. We’ll never know exactly what aspects of the script were my fathers and which were those of John Monk Saunders, but there are aspects that I can’t help but think are direct contributions to that script by my father. For instance, the Gary Cooper sequence. My father looked at 35 actors before he decided on Gary Cooper. He had only had one role prior to WINGS. He was a total unknown at the time, but for some reason my father thought that Gary Cooper was perfect for that role. In the War, my father had a close friend named Billy Meeker. They trained together and Meeker was killed in a training exercise just as Cooper is in WINGS. I have to believe that my father added that sequence into the script.
When my father got his wings and was sent into action–he was the only American pilot flying in a squad of Frenchmen. Just like we see in WINGS. Then a gentleman named Tommy Hitchcock joined the squad and my father and he became best friends. They went on two-man patrols together. Just as in WINGS, Hitchcock went lost and my father spent all night waiting on the tarmac for him to come back, eventually leaving out on a crazed-mission on his own…
BOZUNG: Right, just as in WINGS–where Buddy Rogers does almost the same thing, eventually leaving out alone on a dawn patrol to find his friend.
WELLMAN JR: That’s right.
BOZUNG: After WINGS Wild Bill went on to make LEGION OF THE CONDEMNED (1928)…
WELLMAN JR: That’s now a lost film as well today. We know a little bit about the storyline for LEGION but because we’ve never seen it we can’t be completely certain. What I can say is that my father always said that LEGION OF THE CONDEMNED was an even more personal film than WINGS was for him. He cast Gary Cooper to star in LEGION and he managed to use outtakes from WINGS in that film as well. When Howard Hughes saw WINGS he called my father and asked him if he’d like to direct HELL’S ANGELS (1930). My father turned him down because he didn’t want to direct three aviation films in a row. But, he did supply Hughes with the list of the best thirteen cameraman that were used on WINGS as well as a list of names of the seventeen stunt pilots that he had used on WINGS as well. I mean, these guys invented the entire technology of air-warfare as we know it today in movies. None of that had been done before WINGS. Almost anything in aviation in the movies before WINGS was done with miniatures or process shots.
What they did in WINGS…No-one knew if any of it would work actually. They had to figure out how they could even photograph these pilots and planes in the sky. Originally, they tried to photograph the stunt pilot from a second plane but that didn’t work because if you got too close you’d see that stunt pilot wasn’t the actor. Keep in mind too, the cameras that they first started using were hand-cranked as well. After trial and error they had no other option but to mount the camera to the plane and send the actual actors up into the sky.
BOZUNG: Can you imagine Wild Bill trying to direct such? It’s seems so audacious and daunting…
WELLMAN JR: He would go up into the air and direct as they were flying. He’d also orchestrate it all out on a blackboard or he’d even draw it out in the dirt on the ground. Once they’d get set to shoot, the actor and a stunt pilot would go up in the plane. Once they reached the altitude that was necessary, the stunt pilot would duck down into the plane and the actor would have to turn the camera on themselves and in effect not be just the actor, but the cameraman and director as well. Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen, when you see them in WINGS, are flying the planes. There was no automatic pilot, it was all control stick. You had to work hard to fly those planes back then.
BOZUNG: The the way the camera moves on the ground in the film is really special..In particular, one thinks of that overhead dolly shot that goes throughout the Paris nightclub in the film…Scorsese borrowed that shot for his THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013)…
WELLMAN JR: My father loved to move the camera. In almost every one of his pictures you see unusual camera angles. One of my favorites is in THE OX-BOW INCIDENT (1943) because it tells you about his philosophy on camera movement. The scene where they hang the innocent men–the camera is in a set position. Everything that happens is in a big master. We start on the Colonel, who goes over and gives the riding crop to his son so he can whip the horses. The son doesn’t want to do it. The other horses are whipped away, and the character that is played by Mark Lawrence shoots one of the horses. The camera pans over a bit to get the other characters in. There are no cuts to close-ups, or two-shots. It’s all one shot. He’d shoot the lips of an actor because the actors eyes were hindered.
He was an assistant director before he became a director, and he made eleven films before he directed WINGS. He always shot with the idea that he was editing the film in the camera, and he did that because he didn’t want an editor to have the ability to take what he shot and make it his own.
BOZUNG: Could we talk about the shooting of the battle scene finale in WINGS? In your book you talk briefly about the shooting of that scene and the tragedy that befell it with the accidental death of one of the troops during it…
WELLMAN JR: First of all, the Air Force pilot that was killed, he’s not actually in the forefront of the shot, he was somewhere in the back. My father didn’t even know that it had happened during the shooting until later. The weather wasn’t cooperating that day. He needed sunlight but the clouds were cast over the location all day long. They rehearsed it several times and they really had it down perfect. Finally, my father saw a glint of sunlight coming and in minutes everybody got ready. They decided to go for it. They shot the whole thing in 5 minutes. There were 3500 troops in the sequence. Dozen of planes flying overhead. My dad was firing off the explosives himself during the sequence. He had told everyone to not bother him during it. They had built two 100-foot towers and he was up on the third level of one of them. In the middle of the sequence, one of the Paramount bankers came up the ladder and said something to my dad. This caused him to hit the wrong button and effectively, a explosion went off and it injured two of the troops in the sequence. My dad, without turning away said, “Whoever you are you son-of-a-bitch, get off this tower right now or I’ll kill you.”
BOZUNG: It was a very crazy situation and shoot…In the book you also talk about the pressure that was put on Wild Bill by the studio, crew members skimming money from the budget, the death of that trooper, bad weather, Wild Bill scrapping, at a certain point, everything he shot to start all over at beginning…Do you think the film opened up doors which enabled him to go to make even more important films….
WELLMAN JR: I think it followed him for his entire career. Jessie Lasky called it “The Last Great Silent Film.” It won the first Academy Award for Best Picture. It created a rift between my father and the studio once it was all over though. I mean, my dad punched out one of the Paramount executives when they visited the set! They thought about firing him off of WINGS several times. Paramount just didn’t understand the logistics of shooting the aerial stuff. They didn’t get it, and eventually he just grew tired of trying to explain it to them. So he stopped talking to them, and the studio thought that he was just thumbing his nose that them. The studio, also, didn’t know what they had in the picture either. They had released a film five or six months before WINGS called OLD IRONSIDES (1926), which did no business. They were worried that they’d have another flop on their hands. They didn’t even allow my father to attend the premiere of the film in New York City.
When it opened in New York City, it opened very strongly. It played for 63 weeks at the Criterion theater. That theater had almost 900 seats. Then it was moved to the Rialto Theater, which had almost 2000 seats. It played for almost two years solid. Paramount eventually gave my father a new contract, but they never really had a great relationship.
This interview was conducted in early 2012. Copyright Mondo Film, LLC. All rights reserved.