Cass Warner Sperling Discusses ‘The Brothers Warner’
by Matt Fagerholm
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Cass Warner Sperling was born with filmmaking in her blood. Her father was Oscar-nominated writer/producer Milton Sperling, and her grandfather was Harry Warner, the founder and president of Warner Bros. Pictures, whose goal was to “educate, entertain and enlighten” through filmmaking. Visiting him at his deathbed, young Cass made a promise to keep her grandfather’s legacy alive, and has done so through various mediums. Her acclaimed book chronicling the Warner studio and family history, “Hollywood Be Thy Name: The Warner Brothers Story,” is now in its ninth printing (under the new title, “The Brothers Warner”), and has been optioned for a feature film adaptation.
Cass’s own production company, Warner Sisters, made an award-winning documentary based on the brothers’ extraordinary story (also named The Brothers Warner), which was released by Warner Home Video on March 9th. The film contains many revelations, from the family’s birth name (“Wonskolaser”), to youngest brother Jack Warner’s family betrayal (and the guilt he expressed in a poignant postcard that Cass discovered). Film Monthly spoke with Cass about the experience of making the film and researching her family history, as well as her feelings toward Jack.
FILM MONTHLY (FM): What are some of the memories you have of visiting the Warner lot with your father?
CASS WARNER (CW): Well the fact that I could go with my father [to work] every Saturday, because they worked six-day weeks, was something I looked forward to. It was like going to the circus, really, but better. And I had total freedom. I didn’t have to be escorted or anything, I would just wander. And if the red light wasn’t on, I would go in and see what was happening on the sound stages. If you don’t get bit by the bug by seeing that…[laughs]. Early on, I was very fascinated by the whole magic of making movies. My father was key in that because he was a wonderful storyteller, writer and producer and used to invite me to sit in on his story meetings even before I could read. He would give me a script like I was part of it, and I would sit there and listen to them talk story. It was very god-like in a way, creating people and characters and [deciding] what happened to them. It was just great.
FM: Were there any particular Warner films that left an impression on you as a child?
CW: Every other Saturday night, we’d have a film night. My father had a 35mm projection booth and a screen would come down in the living room. We’d have people over and watch double features. I’d watch so many wonderful films. It’s hard for me to remember one in particular that really made an impression on me. They all did in some way.
FM: What was the promise you made to your grandfather on his death bed? Did you articulate a promise in your head, or was it something more intangible?
CW: That’s a great question. I was ten years old when that happened, the last time I saw him, and it took me a while to confront the importance of that moment. When I was in my early twenties, I recalled what happened, and understood it better. I do remember that I was told before I went in that he couldn’t speak because he had a stroke. So when I went in and he recognized me and reached out for me and sat up and said my name, everybody kind of freaked out, because he hadn’t been speaking or recognizing people. That was very meaningful. He wanted to take my hand and squeeze it because he couldn’t really express whatever he was thinking. It was left up to me to interpret that. We were so close, and I had so many wonderful moments of spending time with him on the weekends at his ranch and having him come to our house. He was very much a grandfather and very down to earth; a true patriarch, not only of our family but of the studio employees.
When I was twenty-ish, I started to look at how I wanted to make a difference. I thought about [the people] who really impacted my life and gave me certain wonderful foundations and gifts of understanding and kindness and caring. He came up and I went, “God, I really know so little about him.” I started to ask more information about him, and nobody really had much to say about him. Then I realized, as I was researching, what was important to my grandfather and the brothers: to “education, entertain and enlighten” using film. They believed in making socially conscious films, having a certain integrity, and realized the responsibility [brought about by] of the power of this communication tool. That really aligned with my own beliefs. I interpreted the hand-squeezing and the calling out of my name as him sort of saying to me, “Take the torch; get people to remember that this is really what’s important.” So that’s my interpretation of the promise.
FM: It’s hugely inspiring to think of how these four men literally started from scratch and worked from the ground up to eventually form the studio.
CW: Yeah, that was the other thing that was completely inspiring. These guys came from nothing, and had this huge dream. The odds against them were just enormous, but they kept going, they never ever quit. They agreed they were going to do this, and their love for it obviously was there. When they were told they couldn’t do something, they knew that they were on the right track. They would use a challenge or barrier as an incentive to do the next thing, which to me is a philosophy of life that I think is lacking [today]. It takes hard work, there’s no doubt about it. These days, I feel like we’re so easy to quit, and say, “Well that didn’t happen, so I guess I’ll try something else.” But what’s your dream, what’s your original goal, not some goal someone else gave you? What really excites you, and are you just taking the next step and acknowledging that you’ve achieved the next step and figuring out what the next step is? If you think that you can be a prima ballerina, you can’t just instantly become it. Sorry, no fast food here. You’ve got to exercise, do all the steps, and if there’s a barrier, figure a way around it. Get a mentor, get someone who’s done it.
FM: How long did it take you to compile the research for your original book?
CW: For me, the actual research started in ‘77, and it happened because I went to the 50th anniversary of the studio. Jack was the only one alive. He was getting presented a commemorative stamp, and in front of me was an actor named William Demarest. He found out who I was and took me aside at intermission. He confided in me as if he had a deep dark secret. It just intrigued me, because I suddenly became the family private investigator. I was just fascinated by his story and his viewpoint of what happened to Sam [Warner, who started the studio along with Harry, Albert and Jack]. Then I started interviewing family members and found out that my cousin, Jack Jr., was doing a book on the family. So I went, “Oh great,” and waited until that book came out, which was in ’83. He fictionalized it because he was terrified of his father, and his father ended up taking it off the market anyway, because it was obvious who the characters were. Then I pulled my bootstraps back up and started my work. So ‘83 to ‘93 is when it was pretty much full-time, back to interviews and collecting things, piecing it altogether and the book came out in ’93.
FM: Was it difficult for you to reconcile your feelings about Jack, in light of how he betrayed the family?
CW: No, I wanted to be a fair person. I don’t like to judge others, especially when I don’t have all the information. I really was just fascinated by him. There’s a film called Rashomon that changed my life early on, and I decided that’s how I was going to tell this story, because what it does is it gives me distance. The other voices in the book were the people who were there and saw what went on, and I just presented that information. And then from that, as well as other information that’s not in the book, I was able to understand Jack a bit better. The really telling thing, which was quite moving to me, was the postcard [of his] that I found and read a portion of in the film. The fact that he wrote it in his own handwriting is very poignant to me. It means he had a conscience, and that he was aware of his foibles, or some of them. It was very telling that he didn’t trust others. It just had a lot of information in it. And because I grew up appreciating the importance of knowing your characters whenever you tell a story, he’s still a bit of a mystery to me because his reality is so different from my own. His way of dealing with things is so [different]—how he could disown his son and betray his brothers…But at the same time, I’ll tell you this, whoever plays him in the film coming out will win an Oscar.
FM: I was going to wait till the end to ask you about this, but I must know how this deal came about at last year’s Cannes film festival where your book was optioned…
CW: Oh gosh, I get chills when I think about it, because this is my ultimate dream. When I wrote the book, I wrote it very much because of my background in screenwriting. I wrote it in that format, even though it’s a nonfiction book, and I had to have someone help me put it in the nonfiction form because it’s not my forte. But anyway, I thought for sure someone would read this and go, ‘this is a no-brainer.’ I shopped it as a miniseries and a feature film for a good long time, decades, and then when I read a spec script and saw that they were going to focus on all the dirt and scandal, I pulled it. That’s why I did the documentary. In October of last year, the wonderful, talented French producer Alain Goldman, of La Vie En Rose, contacted the family and said that he read the book. He said that it’s become his bible, he’s hired [Goodfellas screenwriter] Nick Pileggi, and this is the story they would like to tell and could we meet? We met, I became a co-producer and they optioned the book. I mean, what an honor. First of all, he’s a true gentleman, as is Nick, and I couldn’t have pulled in a better team. So now where it’s at is Nick is about to deliver the first draft of the script. Here’s a one-liner [for the film]. My father taught me to pitch things with one line. It’s “Cain and Abel Go to Hollywood, Create Camelot, Told Jewish Godfather Style.”
FM: I smiled when I saw the “Warner Sisters” logo pop up at the beginning of the documentary. What led you to form this company?
CW: I’ve been an actress and I’ve been a writer. When I was an actress, I went, “This is embarrassing, the roles they have for women.” I went to writing, and then I asked who really gets the things done? A producer, and I went, “Time to form a production company.” I was in the kitchen with a bunch of friends, and I said, “Okay, what do you think of this: Warner Sisters?” And they just went, “Woah.” [laughs] And that was it. It’s perfect, and it makes people laugh.
FM: And Wonskolaser Sisters is just too big for the logo…
FM: Before we run out of time, could you tell me a little bit about one of your projects in development at Warner Sisters: A Shade of Gray. It sounds reminiscent of the social problem films that your grandfather was famous for.
CW: It’s my favorite project. It’s something I developed from a talk with the writer [Jack Skinner] about an incident that happened to him as a child, and I just went, ‘That’s it.’ I stopped dead in my tracks and said, ‘You’re telling this story.’ It was so close to him. He did it as a short story and a novel, and we worked on the screenplay together. It really is so much like To Kill a Mockingbird, which was another one of those films that changed my life, because it was told through the eyes of a child recalling what happened. This has that same narrative style: a white kid talking about what happened to his best friend, who was black in 1943 in Oklahoma, and how their friendship survived despite all the prejudice and indoctrination. And it’s full of great characters and a time period that’s quite fascinating.
Matt Fagerholm Matt Fagerholm is a freelance writer, film enthusiast and critic in Chicago.
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