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Robert Day: Telling the best story ... An interview by James Rosin

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Posted: Saturday, June 30, 2012 12:14 pm

    Robert Day was born in Sheen, England in 1922. In his early twenties he began his film career as a clapper boy then advanced to assistant cameraman. By age 25, he became one of the most sought-after camera operators in the English cinema, working with renowned directors Michael Anderson, Carol Reed, Terence Young and Guy Hamilton. Over the course of nine years, Day shot twenty high-profile feature films such as 1984, Storm over the Nile, Marriage a la Mode, A Kid for Two Farthings, Twist of Fate, An Inspector Calls, The Man Between, and Paratrooper. The casts of these films included Michael Redgrave, Laurence Harvey, Anthony Steele, Mary Ure, Margaret Leighton, Rex Harrison, Alastair Sim, Jack Hawkins, Diana Dors, Leo Genn, Robert Newton, and American actors such as Alan Ladd, Edmond O’Brien and Sam Wanamaker.  In 1956, Day launched his directorial career with The Green Man which won critical acclaim with its cast of unusual characters combined with comedy and suspense. After directing multiple episodes of the popular television series Robin Hood, starring Richard Greene, and The Buccaneer, starring Robert Shaw, Day directed a succession of films including Two Way Stretch (with Peter Sellers), First Man into Space (with Marshall Thompson), The Haunted Strangler and Corridors of Blood (both with Boris Karloff), Bobbikins (with Shirley Jones), Tarzan the Magnificent (with Gordon Scott), She (with Ursula Andress, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee), and Operation Snatch (with Terry-Thomas, George Sanders and Lionel Jeffries). Arriving in America, Day became one of Hollywood’s busiest directors. Over the next 23 years, he directed numerous episodic TV shows, 32 movies for television and several feature films. He retired in 1991 after a career that spanned fifty years in the film industry.

    James Rosin: After you made the move up to director, was your earlier background as camera operator helpful?

    Robert Day:  Oh yes. It made for a smooth transition. I knew technically what a camera could and couldn’t do, and I was very familiar with the over-all aspects of film production. I was fortunate to work with many of the top film directors in England and absorbed a wealth of knowledge.  Once I began directing, it all came quite naturally.

    JR: Quite early in your directorial career you worked with some very notable actors. One of them was Peter Sellers in Two Way Stretch, the comedy caper film about prisoners who sneak out, commit a robbery, and then return to the comforts of their cells. How did that go?

    RD: It was difficult. I’ll give you an example. When I directed that film, I would come to the set very early before anyone else. I could sit in the quiet and go over all of the setups I planned to do that day. One morning, about half-way through the film as everything was going well, I hear a voice from behind call out to me. I turned around and it was Peter who handed me this beautiful, new light meter. Then, he proceeded to tell me that he didn’t think he was right for his role and walked off the picture. I couldn’t believe it, but kept on working, shooting around him as best I could. Once I finished doing that, I didn’t know what to do. I was really beside myself because I had so much left to shoot with him. Well, after about a week or ten days, the producers and executives of the company financing the film finally persuaded Peter to return and finish the movie. As a result, Two Way Stretch was a huge box office hit and made a ton of money. However, getting to the finish line wasn’t easy.

    JR: Soon after this you did two films with Boris Karloff. How were those experiences?

    RD: They were special. Boris was a very kind and gracious gentleman. Quite the antithesis of the menacing characters he portrayed on screen. Actors like Boris and George Sanders whom I also directed more than once, were wonderful to work with because they understood their characters so well and knew exactly what they were supposed to do. They were also secure within themselves as actors so they were receptive to suggestion and direction. That’s a joy, because good film-making is all about collaboration.

    JR: You directed four Tarzan films and produced a fifth one. These films were shot in Africa, Brazil, Thailand, and Mexico and you worked with three Tarzans, Gordon Scott, Jock Mahoney and Mike Henry. Whom did you feel most embodied the character?

    RD: I thought all three actors brought something different to the role; but if I had to pick the one actor that I felt most seemed like Tarzan to me, I would say it was Gordon Scott.  He was also a real trouper. He was always on the set before anyone else, preparing. He took what he did very seriously.  

    JR: I saw both films recently on TCM and have to admit they were very entertaining, more realistic and different from the rest of the Tarzans. Many fans feel that the last two films Gordon Scott did, Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure and Tarzan the Magnificent, were the two best Tarzan films from the 1950s and 1960s. What do you feel made them special?

    RD: I think there are several reasons. They were both filmed on location in Africa, and the producer’s choice to have Tarzan speak fluent English and take him out of the jungle in certain instances made them more contemporary.  Both films had very fine supporting casts with Sean Connery, Anthony Quayle, John Carradine, and Jock Mahoney. (Ironically, Jock played a very good heavy in my film then turned around and succeeded Gordon as Tarzan in two films.)

    JR: In Tarzan the Magnificent, I was intrigued by the tribal village scene as well as the two scenes with the leopard and the lion.

    RD: We shot that tribal scene you speak of in a place called Lake Naivasha in Kenya. The [Maasai] tribe appeared as themselves with their real chief. None of the villagers had ever appeared in a movie but I thought they all, along with their chief, acquitted themselves quite well.

    JR: I thought Gordon Scott did a good job of speaking their language in his discourse with the chief.

    RD: Yes he did.

    JR: Now, about the animals.

    RD: In one scene we had the leopard positioned in the tree, snarling and ready to pounce on Lionel Jeffries’ character who is standing there frozen with fear. Tarzan enters and challenges the Leopard with a lighted torch, and the Leopard backs off, climbs down from the tree, and runs off into the bush. It came off well. We had the trainer right there and cats are afraid of fire, so it worked. In the other scene, we had the Lion approach our stunt woman, climb on top of her and then we cut. Again the trainer was right there, and after a few takes we got the shot.

    The only problem we had with an animal was with Cheetah. There was a scene where Gordon and the chimp come into a village via the river on a canoe. The chimp didn’t like being near the water so we had trouble keeping him in the canoe; but we finally prevailed. Chimpanzees can be unpredictable. In one of the Tarzan films I did with Mike Henry years later, he went to pick up the chimp and was bitten severely. It wasn’t pleasant.

    JR: I also thought the swamp scene was well done.

    RD: That was the only scene we didn’t do in Kenya. That was shot on a stage at Shepperton Studios in England. We constructed this huge tank that ran almost the length of the stage with a sloping gradation and it gave the illusion of really being in a swamp.

    JR: You mentioned that Gordon Scott was a real trouper. I would say the same for you based on what happened when you were filming Tarzan’s Three Challenges in Thailand.  Kindly explain what occurred.

    RD: I was showing Jock Mahoney the way I wanted this stunt to go which involved some ropes around my hands. When I told the effects people to yank on them I slipped and snapped my neck. I managed to finish the film with a broken neck where I was all bound up and it was very painful.

    JR: How did you come to America?

    RD: I was directing the second Tarzan film in Brazil with Mike Henry [Tarzan and the Great River, 1967] and I met actress Dorothy Provine. We became involved and when I returned to England I found that I was very unhappy without her. So I packed my bags and journeyed to California. Once I arrived, I began to get lots of offers to do television. So I remained and Dorothy and I were married a year or so later.

    JR: What difference did you find in working in the American film industry?

    RD: Well, while I did do a few more features eventually, I was now mostly working in television, and found that to be much more accelerated. When I directed an episodic television show, I had seven days to do it. So it was a challenge to work quickly and get done what I needed to do. I was used to directing features where I had much more time and latitude.

    JR: Later in your career, you began to do television movies almost exclusively. What motivated you to make the transition from episodic TV?

    RD:  There was more story content, character development and I had more time to do them. I was given twenty days to do a television movie that was about 96 minutes or less. It was also more financially rewarding.

    JR: As you look back at your lengthy career, how would you briefly sum it up and what advise would you give to an aspiring director?

    RD: I loved working with actors, telling the best story I could and getting it on film for people to watch and enjoy. You may never be totally satisfied with everything you do, but always strive to do the best you can under the circumstances. That’s all anyone can ask of you.

    JR: Thank you for all you’ve given us.

    RD: It was my pleasure.