Howard Kazanjian: Working With Alfred Hitchcock

Film Producer Howard Kazanjian, to Star Wars fans, is known chiefly as the Producer for Return of the Jedi. Even before that, Kazanjian had an uncredited role in the making of The Empire Strikes Back. But, like most people in the movie business, Star Wars wasn’t their first project. For Howard Kazanjian, his filmmaking career didn’t begin with Lucasfilm. And George Lucas wasn’t the most famous director he’s worked with. To hear more from Howard Kazanjian, listen to Episode 348 of Skywalking Through Neverland!

Howard Kazanjian: A Producer’s Life

In the book titled Howard Kazanjian: A Producer’s Life by J.W. Rinzler, Kazanjian talked about his time in the film industry; previous movies he’s worked on, and how his upbringing played a role in how he treats his crew, and how he’d like to be treated, with respect. Firm but fair. In episode 348 of Skywalking Through Neverland, Kazanjian elaborated by saying, “I think it goes back to the way I was raised by my parents. To treat everybody equally, to be polite yet strong.” Before working with George Lucas on 1979’s More American Graffiti, then Empire and Jedi, Kazanjian worked with the likes of Alfred Hitchcock on the 1976 film Family Plot as the First Assistant Director.

Family Plot

Family Plot was a movie based on the 1972 thriller novel The Rainbird Pattern by Victor Canning. Although the book was a thriller, the screenwriter Ernest Lehman wanted to adapt it as a dark drama. However, Hitchcock had other ideas and pushed for a lighter comedy. Lehman’s screenplay won an Edgar Award in 1977 from the Mystery Writers of America. Family Plot became a modest success at the box office, earning just over $13 million on a $4.5 million budget.

Family Plot centered around two couples: One couple were professional thieves/kidnappers, and the other, a fake psychic and a cab driver. The two couples’ lives intertwine while they are searching for a missing heir. The title of the film, Family Plot, is a double entendre. On the one hand, it refers to a burial space bought by a family in a cemetery. The second is the plot of the film involving various members of the family.

Working With Hitchcock

Serving as Hitchcock’s First Assistant Director on Family Plot was a 34-year-old named Howard Kazanjian, and he wasn’t the only Star Wars alum to work on Family Plot. John Williams wrote the music for it as well. In Rinzler’s book, Kazanjian talks about how his parents instilled the meaning of respect and how to speak to people. Later, Kazanjian invested the same quality as a film producer, treating his crew with enough respect where even if they disagreed with Kazanjian, they would do as he asked regardless.

Kazanjian’s mentoring didn’t stop with his parents. Kazanjian soaked up what he could about filmmaking from Alfred Hitchcock, as “he was the only director that ever mentored me.” Kazanjian felt Hitchcock was easy to work with because Family Plot was not an effects-heavy film like The Empire Strikes Back or Hindenburg, a previous movie Kazanjian worked on. Besides acting as a teacher/mentor to Kazanjian, Hitchcock loved to talk about past films he directed. Still, he also spoke about regular everyday life topics, even his slippers or his dog.

Sharp-Dressed Man

Known for being a well-dressed man regardless, Hitchcock made Kazanjian wear either a suit and tie or a sport coat with conservative colors while working on Family Plot. On occasion, Hitchcock would even admonish Kazanjian for his choice of tie colors. Hearing these stories about a director of such caliber as Hitchcock puts into perspective how human even the most famous people can be. He is human! He breathes oxygen like us!

Kazanjian talked about how Hitchcock wore three different colors of clothing; black, dark grey, and dark blue, and how he would even have numbered labels on the inside of his clothing, and that is how he would match his clothing. It was fond memories like these Kazanjian cherished most. It wasn’t all about the film they were shooting. Hitchcock was not a fan of filming on location, Kazanjian says. He was known for not specifying a location in a movie. Instead, he’d film a famous landmark then let the audience do the math. Hitchcock would get the establishing shot and then want to film the rest on the backlot at the studio.

Hitchcock the Director

Hitchcock was so exacting in what he wanted for a shot that he never bothered to go to dailies and told Kazanjian to check for him and if something wasn’t right, say something. Otherwise, keep quiet. This sounded like how Lucas would act, only saying something when it wasn’t what he wanted. Quietness brought on uncertainty in the crew, which ultimately meant he approved. From a director’s perspective, if you get what you want/expect, there’s no need to be surprised or pleased because it is how you envision your crew performing. It’s only when you see something wrong is when it’s time to speak up.

This backfired on occasion. Kazanjian said Hitchcock had such a reputation, not for being a yeller or being mean, but it was because of his career that the crew were afraid to talk to him. The pressure from working under a director like Hitchcock can be too much to bear. Kazanjian told a story of the director of photography on Family Plot who made a mistake on set, forcing the set to be rebuilt and reshot. The pressure was so great that he quit the next day despite not getting reprimanded or fired. He left because he was afraid to face the legendary director after his mistake. That’s intense.

Conclusion

Howard Kazanjian’s career has seen it all from blockbuster tent-pole movies to low-budget modest successes to working with some of the most well-known directors in the world. Throughout his time in the film business, Kazanjian maintains that the way we treat each other is the way to move forward and collectively get the job done.

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