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Jeannot Szwarc on making "Somewhere in Time" 41 summers ago

Updated: Nov 22


This summer, I had a wide-ranging one-hour conversation with Jeannot from his home in the Loire Valley, where he was isolating. This is just the first half, focusing on the making of "Somewhere in Time," which turned 40 yesterday.


And by the way, if you're one of the hundreds attending the "Somewhere in Time" weekend at Grand Hotel this year, I'll be posting something special for you to listen to when you get to Mackinac. The best way to get it is to subscribe to the podcast on Stitcher, Spotify, or iTunes. And if you're not going to the SIT Weekend, WWRCD? He'd sit in a wicker rocker with a glass of Scotch and his iPhone, listen to the podcast, and will himself to Mackinac.


Here's a horrible robot transcript of the episode.


Speaker 1 00:00:04 Hello, it's John Ray B calling from the United States of America.

Speaker 0 00:00:08 Well, how long are you a Joan? This is general.

Speaker 1 00:00:11 I really appreciate you doing this. And I would love it. If you would start by pronouncing your full name, including your last name.

Speaker 0 00:00:18 Well, if it's general Zack, Zack, it should be pronounced as if it were written Z V a R K.

Speaker 1 00:00:29 There's a good mnemonic Genos bark. Like Genos Ark. He gathered all the best cast and crew and put them on a boat called somewhere in time. Welcome back to call back yesterday. I'm John Raby and today's episode is dedicated to about half of my interview with director <inaudible>. We spoke for over an hour this summer, and today we're just focusing on the movie. But in a later episode, we'll hear him talk about his incredibly long TV career, which started two years after I was born and only ended last year and included not just the classic shows of the seventies, but a dozen or more episodes. Each of Grey's anatomy, bone Smallville, the practice JAG, and without a trace, if you ever play six degrees of separation Jeno is your Trump card. I'm sitting in a studio in the back of an art gallery because we're under locked down here. Could you describe for our listeners where you are right now?

Speaker 0 00:01:43 Well, I am in the LA Valley. I'm in my little personal heaven. We have a house. Unfortunately, my family can't come because they couldn't find it England, that we have a farm house. We speak stopped into the wild Valley and it's got a beautiful garden and it's got a pool and a, you know, it's got an approved bedrooms for the whole family, and I'm only 10 minutes by car from a little town where there's wonderful food and the whole area is gorgeous.

Speaker 1 00:02:18 So besides missing your family, you're you're doing okay.

Speaker 0 00:02:22 I'm very happy. Listen. The best thing I ever did was to come back here, the America I love and admire. That's not existing.

Speaker 1 00:02:32 Elaborate that on that if you'd like to,

Speaker 0 00:02:34 No, I don't want it to be about movies. It shouldn't be about politics.

Speaker 1 00:02:41 Okay, dope. That's great. If you met somebody at a bar who had never heard of, you didn't know that you were this prolific TV and movie director, all the stuff you'd done. And they said, they, you said, Oh, I'm a director. And they said, well, how many movies and TV shows did you direct? And for how long did you do it?

Speaker 0 00:02:57 Well, I've been doing it for over half a century. Do you remember that? Like when, when did you start? Well, I don't remember exactly, but I think I've been doing it for 54 years.

Speaker 1 00:03:08 There's, you know, you're in luck because I happened to have IMD be open right in front of me with your career as a director, it goes back to 1968. When you directed the first of your two episodes of iron side than you did, three of it takes a thief, two episodes of the Virginian. You did an episode of the bold ones in 1977 episodes of Marcus Welby, 19 episodes of night gallery. We're going to talk about that later on an episode of Colombo, lovely, but lethal from 1973, an episode of the $6 million man, we've got, uh, 13 episodes of Kojak three episodes of the Rockford files, four episodes of Beretta. That brings us up to 1977. Jaws two came in 1978 and then somewhere in time that opened in 1980.

Speaker 0 00:04:00 Look, the way it started somewhere in tinies I did just to, okay.

Speaker 2 00:04:07 Not enough. Man's disease, evil was a reality.

Speaker 0 00:04:16 It was a very big hit. I was very hot. So I was offered all those huge pictures.

Speaker 1 00:04:22 Please introduce yourself and explain your role in somewhere in time.

Speaker 2 00:04:26 Hi. Well, my name is Bert blue steam and I was the first assistant director in somewhere in time, just to know is really good at being on time and, uh, and turning out a good product, which is how he got to do somewhere in time. Universal hired him to rescue jaws too. And he did the best he could with something that was a bad script that had been started by a director who didn't quite know what he was doing or what he had to do. And he pulled it out for universal. And the price that he asked for was, I'll do this for you. If you do one for me and somewhere in time was the one for me.

Speaker 0 00:05:09 And I said, I don't want to do another big picture. I want to do us all teacher. And I want to do a love story. And then Ray stark offered me, they spaced off, right? I said, no, I want to do a small thing. And there was a guy called Steve who worked with him. We said, we have this book we own called big time return that nobody needs seems to understand. And I read it and fell in love with it. And I said, I want to do this. Absolutely. Also Richard Matheson was the author. And I had met before because I was a big science fiction buff when I was young. And also we met online gallery. I even directed an episode he wrote. So it was then that was it. And you know, after that we started the ball rolling.

Speaker 1 00:06:01 At first, it was proposed to be at the, uh, hotel Del down in San Diego.

Speaker 0 00:06:06 No, but what happened is I went to look at the Coronado hotel in San Diego and it didn't work at all. I didn't like it. There were too many,

Speaker 1 00:06:16 Well, it's like TV, antennas and condos and stuff. Right? It's just two moms. Yeah.

Speaker 0 00:06:20 Condos and too many telephone poles and too many. It just didn't have the flavor at all. And Steven BKL, who's no longer with us who was the associate producer. He's the one who brought Maxine Island up because he knew the Island. So I went there in winter. I scouted the Island on a sleigh. Okay. She was in Berlin, no machine, right? No. I was sitting in the back and this guy was driving. I would ask what's here. Do you see here? There's grass and there's there's flowers. And this,

Speaker 1 00:07:01 It probably could be called her, but it's hard to believe everything is covered in snow. The Lake is frozen is, you know, I know this is going to sound like this is your life. But the person driving the snow machine was named Dan Dewey. And here's how he tells that story. The director and the production executive from universal were in this box, literally a box that I hold things across the ice for the grocery store. We're coming along the beach and the owner hotel, mr. Musser says, take them out on the ice. I said, there's a snowbank right there. He says, take them out. So I turned it gunned. It went flying into the snowbank, upper airborne. These two guys are hanging on for dear life. They'd never been where we are. Take them a hundred yards out on the Lake and they stand in any, get a great view of the hotel from out there. And then the director in his wonderful French accent. Now, where is the water? And all three of us, didn't say a word we pointed down and the director goes, Oh, can we leave now? Yeah, that's true. How did you feel at that moment?

Speaker 0 00:08:02 Yeah, well, no, because I remember from my reading that they work, you know, it was by water and I couldn't see the water, nothing. I felt good.

Speaker 1 00:08:12 I grew up in the upper peninsula and, uh, we, we took a snow machine across the entire Lake to get to Mackinaw once. And it's very freaky. It's just a very freaky situation.

Speaker 0 00:08:23 Yeah, it is. But anyhow, I fell in love with the Island and I fell in love with the hotel, but a minute I said, this is it guys. I mean, this is absolutely perfect. I must tell you that I had the picture in my head immediately. I mean, I've never had an experience like that. I had the whole picture in my head. I mean, I knew exactly the tone, the style, the, I mean, I had an enormous affinity for the project. Have you out, or do you

Speaker 1 00:08:56 Know why you had that affinity?

Speaker 0 00:08:58 Well, I always wanted to make a love story and you know, what makes a great loss story is the quality of the obstacles. And this had an incredible obstacle time. I just had an incredible feeling and I delivered the picture I had in my head. Okay.

Speaker 1 00:09:20 You were a romantic person. Would you like to go back in time? Is this something that

Speaker 0 00:09:24 Yes, I am romantic, but uh, I've always been romantic and I've always liked romantic art and painting and romantic art in music. So, um, what I loved about somewhere in time was that there was very little sex, but there was a lot of, okay. It was really what the French call <inaudible> food, you know, crazy love. I mean that first scene when they meet and she says, is he, you, you know, they don't make pictures like that anymore.

Speaker 1 00:10:02 They weren't making pictures like that in 1980.

Speaker 0 00:10:05 Yeah, I know.

Speaker 1 00:10:10 It's John Raby again. I'll get right back to my conversation with Janos bark. If you're enjoying it, please subscribe to this podcast and give it a rating and tell your friends I'm doing this independently and I'm counting on word of mouth next time on the show. I'm talking with the super cool Caitlin Dodi, one of the best thinkers about death and therefore about life. She's a mortician who wrote smoke gets in your eyes and will my cat eat my eyeballs among other books. And we're doing the interview in an actual cemetery. Here's a sneak preview is good. Yeah, that's good. Alright. Check one, two. This is us in the graveyard of the birds, too loud. Birds in a graveyard can never be too loud, I guess. That's yeah, the ambulance you're looking for, right? I just hope there are some crows. There's a Paul Auster quote in that book I gave you that I think is not only appropriate, but right now it's especially accurate.

Speaker 1 00:11:00 If you could read it for us, reach a certain moment in your life and you discover that your days are spent as much with the dead as they are with the living and that great it's topical. I guess that's true for any older person too, and something. Can I talk about the cultural moment that we're in chorus? I think something that COVID has taught us all or forced us all into reckoning with is the experience that older people have of understanding death to be surrounding us at all moments. And most younger people, especially in the 21st century can live their lives without that kind of engagement or have been able to live their lives without that kind of engagement. And all of a sudden, both with the black lives matter protests and with COVID-19, we are forced to have empathy with people who live with deaths surrounding them at all times, whether we like it or not. And a quick shout out to all of you somewhere in time, fans who are going to the somewhere in time weekend at the grand this year, it's happening in just a few weeks. And I am really bummed. I can't go, my husband and I are, we're just not ready to fly commercial and we don't have a Learjet, but I am preparing something special for you when you get there. And you'll be able to find it on this podcast. I think you'll like it,

Speaker 2 00:12:25 It's amazing. You know, we started out for all of us. It's another job. Yeah. You know, we're freelance workers, it's another job, but a great job. We got to go to a great place to be, to be around in this thing. And it, it just, it, it was, uh, basically a labor of love. We had two couples who worked on it, who became couples and guy married crew. I worked on the crew.

Speaker 1 00:12:52 Do you think that you gave everybody who worked on the film an opportunity to, to, to let their guards down a little bit and make this kind of romantic old fashioned picture?

Speaker 0 00:13:04 Oh yes, it was at first, you know, my style of directing is not dictatorial at all. Okay. It's better than that. That's why a lot of crews loved working with me. I get everybody involved. I really explain what I'm looking for and what I want. I'm not secretive, you know, I share. And there was a great atmosphere on the set because first we were not, we were away from universal and universal. Didn't believe in the project at all, by the way, it was the payoff, right. It was, I know it's pale or draws too. So they left us totally alone. Those two, you gave me very little money. I did the picture for scale. He attracted a lot of people. A lot of people came out called me and say, Hey, you know, I want to do this crew people injured. You know? I mean like electricians and grips and they say, I want to do this.

Speaker 0 00:14:07 I want to be part of it. So there was a great atmosphere from the beginning. Okay. They were, uh, there were no ego problems. You know, Chris is very intelligent, was very intelligent. And one of the first things I did with him, remember the scene when he first sees the photo or painting and he walks across the room all the way. Yep. I always let the actors do what they want. So I, Chris, let him do it, you know, and of course he did it right next to the painting. And I said, Chris, that's not at all what I'm looking for. I want you to be at the other end of the room. And I want the painting to be like a, and I explained, and he looked at me and says, my God, you really got going, do way on this. I said, yes, Chris, we've got to go all the way in this in terms of romanticism or we're going to fall on a, okay,

Speaker 1 00:15:07 Because this, the obstacle that you talked about is so big, there needs to be buy in at every single point

Speaker 0 00:15:15 I insisted on no earth, very no special effects. And you know, I really fought out because those two, you wanted to put a lot of visual effects and shit by says, no, it won't work. This is not that kind of thing.

Speaker 1 00:15:32 There's, you know, you've moved. I think you've moved away from your phone.

Speaker 0 00:15:35 Yes. This is not that kind of film. It's gotta have a kind of truth and a simplicity about it.

Speaker 1 00:15:43 Yeah. The moment. And I want to make sure that our listeners can understand what you're talking about. The moment that he recognizes that he actually is in the past. Tell us how it, how that is signaled in the movie.

Speaker 0 00:15:56 Well, in the movie, the way these signals,

Speaker 1 00:15:59 Wait, wait, wait, I just know, I'm sorry. I should set this up for listeners. Makena Island is an Island that back in like 19, I forget exactly when 1914, I think they banned all automobiles. So all they have on the Island are bicycles and horses. Okay. Proceed.

Speaker 0 00:16:16 I remember this scene where he's alone and he decides to hit the ties and stuff. And then suddenly when you go on the bed, you hear a horse and that's what the hell's in his back in the bag

Speaker 1 00:16:31 <inaudible> made it. It's, it's beautiful because, uh, having grown up, spending summers on Makena Island, that is the first thing you hear. Well, the first thing happens, you get off the ferry and you smell horse manure. And then, and then you hear the clip, clop, clop, clop, clop, clop. And maybe you hear a, an a, from a horse, but it's that clip clop. That just, it, uh, shoots you back in time for anybody, not just Christopher Reeve, but if you get off that ferry boat and you hear that clip clap, you are immediately back a hundred years. It's so beautiful.

Speaker 0 00:17:31 I've never worked so hard in my life. And of course my personal life was a mess. At that time. I keep my stuff completely.

Speaker 1 00:17:39 I don't know about the mess in your personal life. Was, was this was making this picture connected with that in any way, do you think?

Speaker 0 00:17:45 No, not at all. I was married to a crazy Swedish girl who was beautiful and the marriage was collapsing. So, you know, that's, you know, it's okay. Isolated myself from that. I mean, I was totally focused on the film.

Speaker 1 00:18:02 Okay. I don't mind. And I don't mean to get all woo. But where do you think that you will put more into this highly romantic project because of what you were feeling yourself?

Speaker 0 00:18:12 No, I don't think so. I can. I'm very good at separating my personal life from my work. And I was lucky, you know, because it's not only that I've got a good cat, but it was the real, incredible chemistry between, um, Christopher Reeve and gene Seymour. Yeah. I think they had a love affair where they were on the Island. Everybody knew about it, but we kept it very discreet.

Speaker 1 00:18:39 And I have to say on that on behalf of all males and females, uh, thank God they did it. Because at that, at that moment in time, they were the two most beautiful people on earth.

Speaker 0 00:18:50 As a matter of fact, I knew it. I had a very serious talk with Jane. I said, Jane, this is gonna get in the way she says, what have you told her about? I said, you went and Chris having an affair. Oh, we're not having an affair. Nobody knows about it. I said, what do you mean? Nobody knows we don't have a location. This is a film crew. Everybody knows everything. I know. At what time you get out of this room this morning, I said, it's gonna get in the way because there's going to be an intimacy. So I watch for that. It didn't get in the way he goes. They both terrific actors. But I watched that a lot, you know, in terms of the body language. And yet it's know,

Speaker 1 00:19:34 Well, you can, as it turns out 40 years later, I think you can pick it up in the film and it's, and it's beautiful. It just adds a layer that

Speaker 0 00:19:42 I tell you took the two of them together were just great. I mean, there was a, there was a magic. I knew it was magical

Speaker 1 00:19:52 In the, I listened to the DVD commentary that you did, uh, just a couple of days ago, just to refresh. And a lot of the comments that you make about how you edited echo, uh, a way that we do journalism, that good journalists do journalism. And that is to show, don't tell and, and over and over, when you talk about your editing and how you, you know, how you, you know, how you, how you made the film, uh, that comes through an echo of that, that you're showing something. You're not telling it.

Speaker 0 00:20:22 I let the audience figure it out. I think that always was what I did. And that's why I loved the film of the forties and the thirties. And the fifties is that you show, and, but you don't, over-explain, you don't masticate it for the audience. You let them figure it out.

Speaker 1 00:20:46 The story of what happened to the movie when it was released, has been told and told and told. So I'd kinda like to just jump ahead to when you first started re when it first started showing on TV and you realized it was gaining an audience on TV.

Speaker 0 00:20:59 And there was a guy called Jerry Harvey was the head of Z channel. And he fell in love with the movie. I mean, he said general, this movie, you want to get Academy awards, blah, blah, blah. And then when the movie died, he said, I'm going to make sure it doesn't die. So he showed it on Z channel for a whole week, every night. And that's how the word got out. And it found the audience. And then of course the thing on Makena Island that helped too, because the word got out and little by little, it became her called see something interesting. I went to Japan or Hong Kong to promote, I think it was George through. I don't remember what in suddenly I am mom. I had all those young girls. I mean, really mom. I said, what's going on? And they said, it's somewhere in time.

Speaker 1 00:22:01 Explain why you think that happened.

Speaker 0 00:22:03 Because I think that's where, where the film is successful is that the love story is genuine. People believe in the loss story and it's pulling them, you know, because they, they, you know, they lose each other, but the love story works. What can I tell you? I'm now many films that you've seen where their love story doesn't work. It was not only the actors do crew. Everybody gave it the best of themselves. So there's this sincerity and an honesty that I think that should be,

Speaker 1 00:22:44 I think a lot of that might have to do with, and I might be biased because I grew up there, but a lot of it might have to do simply with makin Island that it's magic,

Speaker 0 00:22:53 But I use the magic very well. You see? So

Speaker 1 00:22:57 I think the movie touches on something that we all, while that you experienced more and more as you get older. And that is loss. I went back to Makena Island in October to, uh, talk with people at the, at the annual gathering of the fans of somewhere in time. But I also of course, made time to go and visit my parents' grave on Mackinaw Island. They're both buried there. And you know, the, the owner of grand hotel that you dealt with when you were making the movie, he is passed on Dan Musser. So many people are gone now from this golden summer,

Speaker 0 00:23:30 Richard Matheson is gone.

Speaker 1 00:23:32 And it really, it reminded me of a quote that, uh, Paul Auster said in, in a memoir of his, he says, reach a certain moment in your life. And you discover that your days are spent as much with the dead as they are with the living. Oh, that's a great

Speaker 0 00:23:46 Goal then it's true. Hey, listen, I'm surrounded by people. I like solitude by the way. Well, except I miss my family, but he kind of come here now because of the virus. But, um, I watched somewhere in time, about three months, four months, five months ago. And, uh, say I was hooked. I was totally,

Speaker 1 00:24:15 If you could time travel, where would you go?

Speaker 0 00:24:18 Oh, you mean in the world,

Speaker 1 00:24:20 You could go anywhere you want, and this is your ticket. What would you do?

Speaker 0 00:24:23 Oh, my, this is a tough question. I think both with the Italian Renaissance. And what would you do? Well, Jeff check. You're kidding. I mean, can you imagine you're in a period where there's Michelangelo and Leonardo? I mean, in Rafael, I mean, yeah. I would just watch and learn and examine and learn. Would you come back? Yes. You know, there was a great French film called, which you need with one of my favorite actors called <inaudible> where there's this guy that flashbacks in different periods of time. There's always this character. He says, Oh, this period, the shit you should have lived 20 years ago. That was a wonderful period. No, I'm fine. Where I am. I mean, uh, I'm a new country. It's beautiful. I'm very happy. I live where I, um,

Speaker 1 00:25:30 Starline Berry departing makin islands, September 27, call back yesterday, which is online at call back yesterday. Dot com is written recorded and produced by me, John Raby with additional sound recording by Ava, the lilac queen <inaudible> our theme music is performed by the van Dyke parks support from Bermudez projects in Los Angeles. Special. Thanks to Chris Greenspon host of SGV weekly and a graphic designer and punk legend. Michael Yulan cut. Who made my logo? Penny, please subscribe. Tell your friends and come back for the next episode of call back yesterday. Thanks for listening. <inaudible>.


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