Norman Jewison (Profile)

IN AN EARLY scene of The Statement, Pierre Brossard, an aging war criminal played by Sir Michael Caine, is pursued along a winding mountain road through the South of France in what must be one of the slowest car chases in the history of cinema.

Jewison, Norman (Profile)

IN AN EARLY scene of The Statement, Pierre Brossard, an aging war criminal played by Sir Michael Caine, is pursued along a winding mountain road through the South of France in what must be one of the slowest car chases in the history of cinema. The assassin, played by Canadian actor Matt Craven, eventually gets ahead of his quarry and blocks the narrow highway, pretending to be a driver in distress. He walks up to Brossard's car window and reaches for a gun, but Brossard shoots him first. Then he has to get rid of the body - and we have this old French Nazi with a heart condition gasping for breath as he drags the dead man across the road, hoists him back into his car, and pushes it over the cliff.

Director Norman JEWISON laughs as he remembers preparing to shoot the scene. Mimicking Caine's cockney accent, he says the actor came up to him and asked, "What do you want me to do? 'Ow am I goin' to get this big lug over there? I'm 70 years old for Chrissake." Jewison, who's a spry 77, replied, "That's why I cast you in the part. Do it! Pick him up by the legs and drag him for God's sake ... OK, I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll put a piece of plywood underneath so he'll slide more easily."

In a movie universe where history has been reduced to a flashy continuum of special effects stretching from Middle Earth to the Matrix, there's something absurd about the notion of two grumpy old men figuring out how to get a body from A to B in a film about a washed-up Fascist fugitive in France. But it's a good scene, and Jewison knows it: "The camera just sees his head, and you hear Michael dragging him, grunting and wheezing. I thought, this is Hitch. This is what Hitch would do. 'Cause Hitch once told me" - here Jewison pulls out another accent, the lugubrious drawl of Alfred Hitchcock - " 'You know, Norman, it's very difficult to kill someone with a knife, because they don't want to be killed. Do you know how many times you have to stab them?' "

Jewison is sitting in his Toronto office, at a conference table piled with scripts and papers. It's more of a suite than an office, with a living room littered with memorabilia, a fireplace, an adjoining kitchen and an upstairs bedroom. As the director tells stories, offering up more accents than Meryl Streep, names like John Huston and William Wyler flit through his conversation like friendly ghosts. Jewison is Canada's living Hollywood legend, a survivor from the same septuagenarian vintage as Clint Eastwood, Robert Altman and Mike Nichols - a small group of old masters still making movies. He's also one of our last great raconteurs, even if some of the stories are well worn. I wish I had a dollar for every time I've heard him adopt a New England accent to recall the time Bobby Kennedy told him, "Nawman, the timing's right."

Kennedy was referring to Jewison's In the Heat of the Night, a racial drama that won five Oscars within a week of Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968, and two months before Kennedy's own. In a career spanning a half century, Jewison has directed an eclectic array of 27 films. Aside from his liberal passion for social justice, and an abiding hatred of racism, there's no signature style that runs through them. "To look at his movies," Caine told me last week, "you'd never guess they were directed by the same person." Asked what makes Jewison special, the actor replied, "He's on your side. He explains things very carefully. He takes you through every little detail of a scene."

Jewison represents a lost world of Hollywood moviemaking, and his glory days may be behind him. He hasn't had a big hit in 16 years, not since Moonstruck, but he's not ready to throw in the towel. To bring The Hurricane to the screen, in 1999, he stepped out of the studio system for the first time and struggled to make the film with independent producers. Now, with The Statement - based on Brian Moore's 1995 novel, and adapted by Ronald Harwood (The Pianist) - Jewison has finally directed his first Canadian production. "There wasn't any studio that wanted to make this film," he sighs. "Who's interested in World War II, Vichy government, old man on the run, Catholic Church? It was the same with The Hurricane - who wants a story about a black guy, an old ex-fighter living in Toronto?"

The Statement is a cat-and-mouse chase movie about a fugitive who runs from one monastery to another, sheltered by right-wing elements in the Catholic Church. He's hunted from two sides - by mysterious assassins, and by a French government team (Tilda Swinton and Jeremy Northam) who hope to capture him before he's killed in order to expose a Church conspiracy that has protected him for almost 50 years. While the story is fiction, it was inspired by the case of convicted war criminal Paul Touvier, a leader of the Vichy militia who, like Brossard, was responsible for executing seven Jews in 1944, and who hid out in Catholic monasteries.

Although he's a pathetic soul, Caine's character elicits some empathy. "Michael had a theory - we're always on the side of the fugitive," says Jewison. "We're always rooting for the hare, not the hounds. It's an instinct. I found the same thing when I read the book: why am I rooting for this distasteful, racist, anti-Semite, religious fanatic who's also a phony?" Then he adds, "I don't think racists ever feel they're racist. When I was 18 I saw apartheid in the South, where a black citizen couldn't have a cup of coffee in Woolworths. None of the people I met thought they were doing anything wrong."

Jewison expects The Statement to arouse controversy in France, where Moore's novel couldn't find a publisher. "Nobody likes somebody from another country coming in. Look what happened on Hurricane. By the time the picture came out they were ready to retry Rubin Carter." By showing how a group of Canadians helped free an American boxer wrongly convicted of murder, Jewison stirred up a hornet's nest. "I couldn't believe the racism ignited by that film. That Canadian flag - I put that at the beginning of the film, and kept pounding it."

While there's no doubting Jewison's Canuck ardour, The Hurricane is his only movie with an explicitly Canadian story. The Statement's lead actors are all Brits, and their characters are all French. But it's his first Canadian-financed movie. With support from Telefilm Canada, Toronto producer Robert Lantos cobbled together the budget from a myriad of sources after the film's original distributor, Alliance Atlantis, backed out of the production. "I guess they thought it was too expensive," says Jewison. "I must say, Robert Lantos has a lot of guts."

For an independent film, this $28-million Canadian co-production with France and Britain is expensive - and it's a tough sell. Resisting both Hollywood formula and indie style, it's a stubbornly old-fashioned picture. Swinton has said it reminds her of "those films in the '70s where everybody is French but speaks with an English accent and wears a raincoat." Jewison says a close friend, a French Jew who escaped the Holocaust, said he wished the director had used French actors. "He felt it would be more truthful. We'll get a lot of that. But when you hear a Frenchman speak English, you start to smile. Everybody's going to sound like Maurice Chevalier, and I'm going to be giggling all the time - there eez something funee about zee French accent." Citing The Pianist and Schindler's List, he says, "English actors can play other Europeans and we accept it."

But the slow pacing of The Statement presents another challenge. Concerned about the opening car chase, the film's U.S. distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, asked Jewison to cut it down, or speed it up. But the director told them, "No, he's an old guy - what are you talking about?" In defending the style of his movie, the director points to the classics and says, "It's the most Hitchcockian film I've ever made." Jewison met Hitchcock when they were both at Universal. "If you were invited to tea by Alfred Hitchcock, you were in. You would go to his bungalow and be served tea with a Limoges china teapot - his secretary poured it. And you talked film. I treasured those moments."

Jewison is nostalgic about those days of being under studio contract. "It was a pretty good deal," he says. "But man, in the last 10 years, they don't want to make the pictures we want to make. Now we're all out on our own." But Jewison seems comfortable. He lives on a 280-acre farm in Caledon, Ont., where he breeds cattle and makes maple syrup. With his wife, Dixie, he has two sons set up in the family business: Kevin is The Statement's cinematographer, Michael is a producer. As he goes to the kitchen to brew some tea - explaining that his personal assistant is not in to do it - Jewison says he had to close his Los Angeles office, but still maintains a house in Malibu. I ask how long he'll keep making movies. But I already know his answer, something William Wyler once told him - "as long as your legs don't give out."

VINTAGE JEWISON

The Cincinnati Kid, 1965

The Russians are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!, 1966

In the Heat of the Night, 1967

The Thomas Crown Affair, 1968

Fiddler on the Roof, 1971

Jesus Christ Superstar, 1973

A Soldier's Story, 1984

Agnes of God, 1985

Moonstruck, 1987

The Hurricane, 1999

Maclean's December 15, 2003