Courtesy of James B. Harris
It’s a Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles and 89-year-old writer/director/producer James B. Harris (Some Call It Loving, 1973; Fast-Walking, 1982) has agreed to meet me for brunch at Coogie’s Cafe. Coogie’s is exactly the sort of unassuming American diner where girls in pink velvet jackets and shimmery silver skirts go to blend in with the Pepto-Bismol-colored booths. There are a pair of flat screen TVs on the wall, which are mercifully muted. A radio in some far-off corner of the kitchen can be heard playing inoffensive pop tunes of yesteryear. It is also the sort of quiet place where someone like Harris is well-known, well-liked, and referred to as “Mr. James” by the entire waitstaff. The impression is one of polite reverence and earned familiarity, built up over time and solidified through an appreciation of his impressive filmography, as well as his continued business.
Harris is best known as the early-career producing partner of Stanley Kubrick. Together, they made three undisputed classics: The Killing (1956), Paths of Glory (1957), and Lolita (1962). The pair parted ways over an amicable disagreement over the film that eventually became Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964); Harris thought it should be a tense and serious drama, whereas Kubrick thought that it should be a savage satire. There were no hard feelings on either side, though, as the two remained friends—if not business partners—for as long as Stanley lived. But Harris went on to his own notable career as a director, making a small, but potent, number of films throughout his life thus far. His first was The Bedford Incident (1965) starring Richard Widmark and Sidney Poitier, a gripping tale of Cold War terror-at-sea; his sophomore effort—my personal favorite—is Some Call It Loving (1973), a modern erotic fable about loneliness, perversity, and the unwillingness to acknowledge innermost desire. It stars Zalman King at his most beautifully restrained and the fragile Tisa Farrow as a paper doll of a character whose purity is a reflection of her extreme remove from society. Harris’s other films, Fast-Walking (1982), Cop (1988), and Boiling Point (1993), form an inadvertent trilogy of crime dramas—modern noir morality tales about broken men for whom their jobs are the only life they know.
As I arrive to Coogie’s, Harris is already there waiting for me. He’s on the east side of the booth, which—I don’t know why—is exactly where he’s been for our two previous meetings at this place. I read into it too much and wonder if I will ever make it to the other side of the booth, seeing it as some kind of metaphor for success, but put the thought aside as I settle for the booth’s west side.
After we exchange pleasantries, a waitress comes up and asks “Mr. James” what he will have. I raise an eyebrow at the odd salutation. We still need a few minutes, we agree, but order drinks in the meantime.
NOTEBOOK: “Mr. James,” huh? So, how long is it you’ve been coming to this place?
JAMES B. HARRIS: Oh, only about six months or so. It’s mostly just a convenient place to meet. Before he died, Arthur Hiller used to come in here with his entourage all the time. And sometimes you see Roger and Julie Corman in here, too. It’s kind of like one of the old studio commissaries.
NOTEBOOK: I thought for sure you were going to say that you’ve been coming here for decades.
HARRIS: [laughs] No, not quite.
NOTEBOOK: Let’s talk about jazz.
HARRIS: You know, I was a drummer…
NOTEBOOK: Not a musician, but a drummer?
HARRIS: I gave it a go at Juilliard for a while, but it didn’t take. When you go to Juilliard, you’re no longer a drummer: you’re a percussionist. And, suddenly, you have to master all these other things. I just wanted to be a drummer. The only thing I was ever any good at was Music History.
NOTEBOOK: But your love of music—in particular, jazz music—remained.
HARRIS: I understand music, but only in a way that you keep to yourself.
NOTEBOOK: How did you go from being a student of music to a film producer?
HARRIS: It was partially out of a sense of obligation. I needed to make a living, like my father.
NOTEBOOK: And from there you met Stanley Kubrick.
HARRIS: When I met him, he was floating around with Fear and Desire (1953) and The Killer’s Kiss (1955), both original screenplays without a basis in proven material; based on a book, I mean. Everything we did together, and everything I’ve ever done, has had its root as a literary property that I’ve optioned. I’ve always said that it’s the best way to work, with proven material.
NOTEBOOK: Something that already exists in whole form, that a lot of care went into already.
HARRIS: Exactly. And if I did anything for Stanley, it was to accelerate his career. His talent was always there. He would have gotten to his level of success either way, but I think our partnership helped him get there much quicker. At that time, he didn’t really know how to find money. I did.
NOTEBOOK: What was it like to have such enormous early career success alongside Kubrick?
HARRIS: I think it ruined me. I was determined to produce projects of social importance. That’s why you see large gaps in my filmography. There’s a decade between Some Call It Loving and Fast-Walking. I could have had a larger body of work, but I didn’t listen to any of the agents who sent mainstream projects my way or offered to put attractive deals together with their hot clients.
NOTEBOOK: Do you have regrets about the choices that you’ve made throughout your career?
HARRIS: The more you care about something, the more it hurts when it doesn’t turn out like you had imagined it or, worse yet, when it doesn’t happen at all. You know, I’m 89. I will be 90 years old next year. I’ve surpassed the average life expectancy of a man. I’m still trying to get projects made. People tell me all the time that I should retire, take it easy, enjoy the time that I have left...
NOTEBOOK: But they don’t realize, in so doing, they’re asking you to be some other person...
HARRIS: I don’t know whether it’s a blessing or a curse to be so hip when the world is so square.
NOTEBOOK: [laughs] In other words, films are more important to you than anything else in life?
HARRIS: Stories, really. I consider myself more of a storyteller than a filmmaker, actually.
NOTEBOOK: Besides, and not to be pedantic, there are so few actual filmmakers anymore.
HARRIS: It really is an antiquated term, but what else could they be called? Digitalmakers?
NOTEBOOK: That doesn’t really capture the magic for me.
HARRIS: People like you and me, we’ve caught the film bug. And from an early age. Once you catch it, there’s no turning back. It’s an incurable disease, this love of and obsession with films.
NOTEBOOK: What is it that drives people like us to want to spend all of our time on the planet seeing, appreciating, or taking part in making movies so that other people might do the same?
HARRIS: What do you think it is?
NOTEBOOK: I think it’s about seeing and being seen; we find each other and maybe ourselves.
HARRIS: You know, when you have this disease, in trying to get pictures financed you are often willing to overlook potential signs that someone is untrustworthy or disloyal. You so badly want to make the next picture, that anyone who can potentially get you the money to do it is worth taking a chance on. But then you pay them for the commission, the money never comes, and you learn the hard way: you don’t pay people upfront for promises made. You pay them after they deliver.
NOTEBOOK: In other words: “I’ve got a way for us to make $5,000, but I need $500 to get started.”
HARRIS: I know. It’s the oldest trick in the book. But when it seems possible, you delude yourself.
NOTEBOOK: But if that’s what makes you happy, putting projects together, what else can you do?
HARRIS: Nothing else makes much sense, even if there’s no guarantee the project will happen.
NOTEBOOK: What is it that keeps you going, other than the affliction of the film bug, when folks who don’t know you especially well suggest retirement or can’t seem to understand the motivation?
HARRIS: A new project represents hope.
NOTEBOOK: The pursuit of a project that you care about is just as much a part of the process.
HARRIS: Other than your health, there’s nothing more important than the pursuit of happiness.
NOTEBOOK: And that’s why you keep going. Because, ultimately, it’s what makes you happy.
HARRIS: I’ll keep doing it for as long as I have my health.
About an hour-and-a-half into our conversation, critic, filmmaker, and mutual friend F.X. Feeney joins us at the booth. Like Harris, he sits on the east side. They have known one another longer than I have been alive. Harris (as subject) and Feeney (as director) are currently in-production on a feature-length documentary titled Harris Kubrick: Genius Takes Two, about the shared life of friendship and collaboration between the two men who together made three enduring films. Harris Kubrick is currently scheduled for a 2018 release. As our conversation continues about the many projects in the pipeline, scripts written and rewritten, peppered with first-hand and third-party anecdotes about the film business, Harris muses: “You know, you’ve never really ever made it.” I ask what he means. “Here we are, making a documentary about my life and all the films I have made or helped to make. Someone’s given us the money to do it. People that I’ve known for years and worked with are lending us their time and saying nice things about me for this documentary. The films I made with Stanley, and even occasionally one of mine, are in the books as some of the must-see films of all time. Even with all that, it’s still a pain in the ass to get something financed. It’s the past. Hollywood is all about ‘What can you do for me today?’”
What Harris describes is a particularly cynical, but not wrong, characterization of Hollywood. No one would dispute the accomplishments that populate his professional life, but Hollywood really only has two loves: a sure thing and an up-and-comer. When you haven’t directed for years and your career has spanned nearly seven decades, you need an empathic benefactor to underwrite your cause. But Harris isn’t hurting for either money or success. Life is comfortable, as his ninth decade on the planet peeks over the horizon. He should be, and I think is, in some way satisfied with the fortune he has experienced in his lifetime. The allure of the next project is irresistible, but he can take plenty of solace in that while others might ask “What can you do for me today?” life in the real world operates on a different basis. Instead, it’s about “What are you doing today?” If what you’re doing makes you happy, no amount of Hollywood bullshit can sway you from being yourself. For Harris, that is to keep on making films until the last breath. That’s something I can get behind.