Danny Huston, 1988, on John Huston – Out of the Archives
Danny Huston, a Golden Globe nominee for his acting, was only 25 years old when he made his feature film debut directing Mr. North with a script written by his father, John Huston, from the 1973 novel Theophilus North by Thornton Wilder. The legendary actor/director, 80 years old at the time, was terminally ill in the hospital and Robert Mitchum replaced him in the role he was to play, as the father of Anjelica Huston, his real-life daughter and Danny’s half-sister. The young Huston talked about his family when interviewed by the journalists of the Hollywood Foreign Press about the film. Danny Huston is in Life Upside Down (2023) with Bob Odenkirk and Marlowe (2023) with Liam Neeson.
It was actually Danny who brought the script of Mr. North to his father asking him to do a rewrite. He said that the second script worked better, so that is the one that they shot: “I read both the book and the first screenplay written by James Costigan literally at the same time, over a couple of days. It had elements in it that I personally valued, I thought the film was worth something, I felt the dialogue was witty and had a pace, the characters were colorful. It had a series of happy endings, and an innocence to it which was unique, something that is really quite hard to come by now. It was elegant, classical and good for my first picture. However, the screenplay was too faithful to the book, which is very episodic, in that each chapter deals with a separate story. And who better to contact as far as structure and plot than John Huston? So I spoke to him, and he felt that he could give it another shape without taking too much time, because we had a certain time limit. The biggest difference between the book, the first draft and my father’s screenplay is that what he did was to intertwine all the stories together so that they meshed and worked as one piece. But the atmosphere was very faithful to Thornton Wilder’s book, so we kept the essence of it.”
From his hospital bed, the elder Huston gave his son advice on directing his first feature: “After a full day’s shooting, I would drive a half hour to the hospital where I would report to my father, almost as a soldier. He would ask me a thousand questions, trying to catch me out, making sure that I wasn’t lying to make him feel good. Thank God, everything was going okay, so I could say it honestly. I wasn’t showing him any of the dailies in the hospital, but when he came out and he saw some cut footage, he was very happy with that material and felt that we really didn’t need any input from him. So that was really all he offered during the shooting of the film, but obviously, the amount of work he did before the film started was of great value in getting the film off the ground; it was enormous.”
The first-time director said he was not intimidated by working with veterans like Robert Mitchum and Lauren Bacall: “They respected my father enormously, so if he felt that I deserved that position, then they were going to go along with that. It was wonderful working with giants like Mitchum and Bacall, it was exceptional. If you can imagine, after reading this dialogue over and over again in my own head, then having someone like Bacall and hearing her voice, it was such an excitement to me. If you give someone like Bacall or Mitchum the slightest direction, they will take it further and create something that is probably far better than you ever intended yourself, so you don’t hesitate to make suggestions. And that is a great kick, a great boost.”
The young Huston said he learned a great deal about filmmaking by being on the set of his father’s films: “I have been on film sets all my life. The first time was on The Night of the Iguana (1964), and I don’t even remember it, I was so young, all I have is photographs to prove it. The first image that I have of my father on a film set was when he was leading animals onto the ark while he was making The Bible: In the Beginning (1966) and he was acting the part of Noah. At that age it was very hard for me to differentiate between what was real and what wasn’t, it was all part of reality in a strange way. And I thought, ‘What a great job! That looks like the kind of thing that I would like to do.’ So I wanted to be a director immediately, even though I didn’t really understand what the business meant. Later on, I went to film school and approached it very seriously. So my father had an incredible influence on my career, more than anything else.”
Among actors he admires, Danny favors his grandfather Walter Huston: “My favorite film is The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). And I never met Walter Huston, so for me that it is the only way I can feel close to him, to look at that film and other films of his. That is why in a sense he is my screen idol.”
Danny’s half-sister Anjelica Huston also played a role in Mr. North. The director described their relationship on the set and as siblings: “We supported each other and I knew that she was there to give me any help I felt I needed, because of her experience in film. The way I approached her was that you have to differentiate between the brotherly/sisterly love and the professional side. On the personal side, we have a certain age difference, I was very young, and she was far older than I was, so we weren’t playing together in the sand pit or anything like that, but I always felt that I had this older sister that could protect me and help me whenever I needed her. There’s a great deal of love between us, and it’s as perfect as could be, because she helped me get this picture off the ground, and she has helped me in every way I have asked her to. It is a very good relationship.”