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Wyler, Catherine Interview
Written by Diana Saenger   

William Wyler's Daughter Talks About Her Father and Ben Hur

Catherine Wyler was 20 years old when her father, William Wyler, released Ben Hur his biggest and what would become the most important film of his career. With Warner Bros. release of the Four-Disc Collector's Edition, Catherine not only offers many comments about her famous father and his career on the extra feature The Making Of An Epic (1994), but also consented to an interview as well.

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Catherine Wyler Warner Bros. Home Video

Your father was well on his way by the time you were born.

Q. WHAT'S THE EARLIEST MEMORY OF WHEN YOU REALIZED WHAT YOUR FATHER DID FOR A LIVING?

Catherine Wyler: When I was about seven, I began to notice other "large" people treated him with respect and awe. It was also apparent when I realized he seemed to always get what he wanted.

 

Your dad had a reputation to be thoroughly involved in his work.

Q. SO DID HE ALWAYS BRING HIS WORK HOME?

Catherine Wyler: Yes. What was interesting growing up as his daughter, was that when he was preparing a film or working on the script - which was the time he really liked - we would talk about that at dinner and the problems of the story and the characters or who would play the part. Once he started shooting, we wouldn't see him. He'd leave early, come home late and be totally obsessed with what he was doing until it was over.

Being married to a famous Hollywood celebrity can often be hard on a spouse.

Q. WHAT ROLE DID YOUR MOTHER PLAY IN YOUR DAD'S CAREER?

Catherine Wyler: Quite an important one because English was his second language, and he didn't read it quickly. She did all the reading for him. She would read things, and he would only see them if she liked them so she became the gatekeeper. It was important that she like the script, and I always thought that was an important thing about Hollywood, that the wife could have an important role if she wanted too.

Your dad had his first involvement with the 1925 Ben Hur, which delightfully is also on this 4-disc Collectors Edition. He worked as an extra. So it must have been unbelievably exciting when he recreated that epic in 1959.

Q. DID HE OR ANYONE IN YOUR FAMILY HAVE ANY IDEA AT THE TIME THE IMPACT "BEN HUR" WOULD MAKE ON CINEMA IN GENERAL?

Catherine Wyler: I think the reason he wanted to make that film - and he was interested in making all kinds of movies - was that he hadn't been asked before to make a big epic picture. So he wanted to try his hand at it. But he was such a perfectionist, that once he got into it, he was a perfectionist with every little detail, and I think that's what made the movie so good. I certainly remember him agonizing over the screenplay as he did over every screenplay he worked on. Ben Hur was the biggest set that had ever been built for that time and it was totally spectacular. He needed a Vespa to get around the set, and I remember riding around with him on that.

Several leading men were considered for the lead in the film.

Q. HOW DID CHARLTON HESTON WIN THE SPOT?

Catherine Wyler - from her commentary on the 1994 Documentary Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic, The picture my father made before Ben Hur was The Big Country and Charleton Heston had a leading role in that. At some point he (her dad) realized he'd just worked with someone who was perfect for Ben Hur, and it must have been a great relief for him. I do remember when he was first looking for an actor to play Ben Hur, that there were Italian strong men whose pictures arrived at the house and there was some consternation about what was their accent like. They did have a beautiful body but was that enough?

He shot much of the film in Rome.

Q. DID YOUR FAMILY GO THERE?

Catherine Wyler: We lived there for a year and half, but we had done it once before. The first time he ever made a film on location was in Rome for Roman Holiday, and we had gone there then, so we were happy to go back. I was in college the first time, but my little sister and brother went to school in Rome.

Q. DID YOU DO ANYTHING ON EITHER FILM?

Catherine Wyler: I didn't. I was away a lot. My sister (Judy) and brother (David) were on the set a lot, but nothing like extras as my sister and I were in Roman Holiday. My brother David had a Roman centurion costume, and he looked like a centurion, but he was only about eight.

It's probably hard to think about not going into show business when you're around it all the time.

Q. WHAT GOT YOU INTO SHOW BIZ?

Catherine Wyler: Well it didn't hurt to be William Wyler's daughter. When I was first looking for a job, I was interested in going East and trying my hand in a new place like he did. When I finally took the job I have now, which is the artistic director of the High Falls Film Festival in Rochester, New York, I wasn't sure if I could do it.

had been a producer, and I guess all of those years of watching him make movies and seeing the dailies projected at home, somewhere along the line I had developed an eye for detail.

You must have been around or seen a lot of your father's films.

Q. DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE?

Catherine Wyler: I was named for the heroine of "Wuthering Heights" and I always spent my youth looking for my Heath Cliff, which I did eventually find. My other favorite is the "Best Years of Our Lives. " But the thing about "Ben Hur" is that everybody has seen it, so it's so much fun. That's the movie I name first when the name William Wyler comes up or people confuse it with Billy Wilder.

The Ben Hur 4-disc Collectors Edition has amazing extra features on it.

Q. HOW IS IT FOR YOUR FAMILY TO CONSTANTLY HAVE THESE DVD'S REISSUED AND WITH MORE AND MORE SPECIAL FEATURES ADDED?

Catherine Wyler: We love it. I just got my copy so I can't wait to see all this extra stuff. It's wonderful and there's a new documentary, too.

Author Jan Herman, who wrote about your father, said, "His pictures not only resonate with poetry and humor, they offer psychological maturity and sophisticated treatment of character more typical of literature than movies." His good friend Lillian Hellman called your father, "the greatest of all American directors. "

Q. WHAT DO YOU WANT FANS TO REMEMBER ABOUT YOUR FATHER AND HIS WORK?

Catherine Wyler: Personally, I think the reason "Ben Hur" has stood the test of time so well, is that not only are the epic scenes so epic, but the intimate scenes are really believable because he was so good with actors. They really loved working with him because they knew they could trust him to get the best performances out of them. That's what makes "Ben Hur" so great still today.

Catherine Wyler is the artistic director of High Falls Film Festival in Rochester, New York, which starts their 5th anniversary season November 9 to 13, 2005. She was the producer of the feature film "Memphis Belle," producer of several documentary films and had small rolls in "Roman Holiday" and "The Best Years of Our Lives." Catherine Wyler's past executive positions include senior vice president of production at Columbia Pictures and major leadership roles with the National Endowment for the Arts and PBS. She recently completed the production of a biography on Pope John Paul II, titled "Witness to Hope."

 

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