Skip to main content

Stephen Schiff on How "Lolita" Explores the "Beastly and the Beautiful"

Fresh Air's former film critic returns to discuss writing the screenplay for the controversial film adaptation of Nabokov's "Lolita." The $58 million film inspired such controversy that distribution in the U.S. was delayed. "Lolita," directed by Adrian Lyne (Flashdance, 9 1/2 Weeks) will premiere on the Showtime cable channel August 2nd. It's just been announced that the film will be released in movie houses in September. Schiff's screenplay, "Lolita: The Book of the Film" (Applause books), will be published next month.

34:15

Other segments from the episode on July 22, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 22, 1998: Interview with Stephen Schiff; Obituary for Alan Shepard.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JULY 22, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 072201np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: The Book of the Film
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

You've probably read about the controversial new film adaptation of "Lolita," the one that was made several years ago, has played in Europe and Moscow, but couldn't find a distributor here in the U.S. Well, you can see it soon. It opens in LA today for a week-long run to qualify for the Academy Awards, premieres on the Showtime channel August 2, and opens in movie theaters around the country in September.

The screenplay was adapted from Nabokov's novel by my guest Stephen Schiff. And yes, it's the same Stephen Schiff who used to be FRESH AIR's film critic. He left criticism and his position at The New Yorker to pursue his screenwriting career. His screenplay for "Lolita" has just been published in book form.

"Lolita" is generally acknowledged as one of the greatest novels of the century, but there have always been people who have condemned it on moral grounds because the narrator of the story, Humbert Humbert, is a pedophile who seduces a 12-year-old girl. She's a couple of years older than that in the film. Humbert Humbert marries Lolita's mother, a woman he has no interest in, just to stay close to Lolita.

Here's a scene from the film after the mother's death, when Humbert, now Lolita's stepfather, has taken her out of summer camp, he hasn't told Lolita yet about her mother's death, they're on the road and staying at a hotel together and for the first time they're in the same bedroom. Dominique Swain (ph) plays Lolita.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP OF "LOLITA")

SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING

DOMINIQUE SWAIN, ACTRESS, "LOLITA": Wait a second. You're telling me we're sleeping in one room? With one bed?

JEREMY IRONS, ACTOR, "HUMBERT HUMBERT": I've asked them to send up a cot, which I'll use if you like.

LOLITA: You're crazy.

HUMBERT: I know, darling.

LOLITA: He calls me darling. When my darling mother finds out, she'll divorce you and strangle me.

HUMBERT: Lolita, listen to me a moment. For all practical purposes, I am your father and I'm responsible for your welfare. Now, we're not rich, and so when we travel we will sure to be -- we'll be thrown together. Sometimes. Two people sharing the same hotel room are bound to enter into a -- into a -- how can I put it? -- into a kind of...

LOLITA: The word is incest.

GROSS: Stephen Schiff, welcome back to FRESH AIR. What a pleasure to have you back under these circumstances.

STEPHEN SCHIFF, SCREENWRITER: What a pleasure it is to be back. It's fun.

GROSS: Let's start with this. What do you see "Lolita" as really being about? I mean a lot of people know the novel only as being a novel about a sexual pervert who loves young girls.

SCHIFF: Well, that's it, that's what it's about, all right.

Actually, you know, this is such a hard question and I've been asked it a lot and I wish I could come up with a better answer. Because the thing is, like any great work of art -- and this is, you know, one of the great works of art of our century -- it has many levels and it's about many, many things. And in a way, talking about what it's about is defeating of the novel and its purposes. And, of course, there was no one who was more against interpretation than Vladimir Nabokov himself.

So, you know, yes, it certainly -- the character as its center is a pedophile. Is it a study of pedophilia? No. It's a study of this peculiar character, who sees the world through his obsession and whose obsession finally defeats what we come to recognize as a great, noble and interesting mind.

So, it's about obsession. It's about America in the 1940s. It's -- I mean it takes place in 1947 and that's where we set our movie as well, which is a very unusual time for a movie to be set. It's not the '50s, it's not finny cars and bar hops -- or car hops on roller skates. It's not, you know, rock and roll music. It's before the invention of the great American teenager, really, so you have this preadolescent or budding adolescent girl in a culture that has not yet become -- come into being to serve her consumer interests.

It's about -- well, it's about so many things. But those are some of them.

GROSS: There's one part when Humbert Humbert, the pedophile, talks about the coming together of the beastly and the beautiful. And I guess that's in part what the novel's about, too.

SCHIFF: Yeah, that's right. It's -- well, it's -- it would almost be a beauty and the beast story except that Humbert is very devastatingly attractive and author of the novel. He kind of slyly reminds us that he's often mistaken for a movie star, he's so handsome. I think that's part of Nabokov's way of setting up the idea that it would make sense for a young girl to be attracted to him, as young girls often are attracted to movie stars.

GROSS: The novel "Lolita" is a first-person monologue told by a pedophile who's totally self-deluded and uses this beautiful and ornate language to convince himself and his readers that his perversion is a symptom of his extreme sensitivity and romanticism. He thinks of himself as an artist, someone with that special gift of perceiving this special sexual quality in young girls.

And I thought I'd play a reading that Jeremy Irons, the star of the movie "Lolita," did from the audio book version of the novel. This is from the audio book version. And Humbert has just described the qualities that qualify a girl as a nymphet, and he says that first they have to be between ages 9 and 14, and he says nymphets aren't really nice or cute or even sweet and attractive and only special men can spot the true nymphet.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP OF "LOLITA")

IRONS: "A normal man, given a group photograph of schoolgirls or girl scouts and asked to point out the comeliest one, will not necessarily choose the nymphet among them. You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine.

"Oh, how you have to cringe and hide in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs, the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate. The little deadly demon among the wholesome children. She stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power.

"Furthermore, since the idea of time plays such a magic part in the matter, the student should not be surprised to learn that there must be a gap of several years, never less than ten I should say, generally 30 or 40, and as many as 90 in a few known cases, between maiden and man, to enable the latter to come under the nymphet's spell."

GROSS: That's Jeremy Irons reading from the audio book of Nabokov's "Lolita," and my guest, Stephen Schiff, wrote the screenplay for the new movie adaptation of "Lolita."

Well, that reading, I think, gives us a sense of Nabokov's creation of the inner mind of Humbert. What were you able to do in the screenplay to show how his inner mind works? That's always very tricky to do in a movie, it's much easier to do that through an interior monologue on the page.

SCHIFF: Yeah, it's a very interesting problem in general in adaptation, and, of course, "Lolita"'s kind of a notoriously tough adaptation because the novel by its very nature is something that goes inside. And when you have an unreliable narrator like Humbert and an obsessed narrator like Humbert, there's nothing but his subjectivity to work with.

And so how in translating it to a medium that is basically outsides the surfaces of things, that's what film's about, it's always showing you what's outside, and the outside could only indicate what's inside, how to you do that? Particularly in the case of "Lolita" where everything that we read is filtered through this obsession, so that we know that there are distortions there, but there's no substitute for the distortions except what we might imagine.

In other words, Lolita herself may be a very ordinary, you know, attractive, pleasant child. In the pages of the book and in the sentences that sort of unreel from this fevered imagination, she becomes this goddess-like creature, romanticized to the enth (ph) degree. And yet in a movie she has to have an objective existence, you have to be able to see her and talk to her and imagine what she's really like.

Likewise, their relationship has not real recognizable existence in the pages of the novel because it's so distorted by his obsession. And yet, when you're translated to a movie, you have to -- you have to see the relationship.

And so I had to kind of make it up. I had to kind of extrapolate from what I knew about adolescence and what I could imagine from -- what I could glean from between the lines of what he was saying, what many a reader might glean. You know, I had to invent a Lolita and invent a relationship.

And there's a funny moment where, after they are, in a way, on the road together, after Lolita's mother is dead, when they're sort of driving around this young country and exploring their relationship just as Humbert is exploring an America he doesn't know, when they are a couple. They're an odd couple, they're an extremely odd couple, but it's not all sort of, you know, grime and grit and horror. You know, there are moments when it's something else, and how to imagine that.

So those were some of the challenges and some of the great pleasures, you know, sort of imagining the other side of Lolita, the side outside of Humbert's consciousness.

GROSS: Of course, what made the novel and now the film so controversial is the sexual relationship between Humbert and Lolita. I'm sure when you started writing the screenplay you knew that that could give you a lot of trouble. Did you start with the idea of having to deal with controversy? When you started writing did you say, how am I gonna write a movie that will actually make it to the screen, that will get around all the protests? And, if so, did that have a kind of chilling effect on you at all?

SCHIFF: No. I couldn't really do that. I couldn't begin by censoring myself. I, of course, wasn't naive enough to think that there would be no problems. I was certain naive enough to think that there wouldn't be this kind of problem, I mean, 'cause nothing like this had quite has ever happened before. But to write with that in mind would have been to defeat the process at the outset, and I wasn't going to do it.

And, besides, you know, what's on the page is one thing and then it has to be translated. And what I wrote could have been translated more or less lubriciously. So, in a way I wrote what I thought should be written, I wrote what I thought should be on the screen, and then in a way let everyone else worry about it.

GROSS: Well, good. Let me give you an example and let's see what you wrote on the page and compare that to what was shown on the screen.

Probably the most controversial...

SCHIFF: I'm hoist on my own patard (ph).

GROSS: Probably the most controversial scene in the movie is the scene where -- when the scene opens we see Lolita reading a comics. As the camera pulls back, we realize she's sitting on Humbert's lap. And then, as the scene goes on, we realize that as she's reading the comics and chuckling to herself about the comics, they're actually having sex while she's seated on his lap. And eventually the comics take kind of second place to the feelings that are overtaking her during the sexual act.

How did that read on the page?

SCHIFF: Well, do you -- I mean you have it in front of you, perhaps. I don't. It's very detailed and straightforward and sexy, and, you know, it doesn't have anatomical details on it. There's a fly crawling around on the comics and on her body. There's a moment where I say something like -- well, I can't recall the exact words, but something about there's very little difference in the pleasure she takes from the comics and the pleasure she takes from the sex. And, you know, there's just a slight difference in facial expression, perhaps. So that's -- that gave Adrian Lyne, the director, a great deal of leeway to do with that scene what he wished.

When he shot it, he shot it as I had written it, with a certain amount of nudity -- not much and not graphic certainly -- and that nudity disappeared in the editing room -- partly under the watchful eyes of a lawyer who had been brought in by the company in response to the passage of the Childhood Pornog -- Child Pornography Prevention Act of 1996, which wasn't in existence when we filmed the scene but was when we edited it. And the nudity was removed, and now I think the scene is still very, very powerful and shows exactly what I wanted it to show, but in a way that is very far from being explicit.

GROSS: When you wrote the scene, did you think it would be as clear visually as it was that they were engaged in intercourse?

SCHIFF: I certainly thought it would be -- I thought we had to make it clear, that's for sure, and I thought that there could be no doubt. If the scene left a doubt in the viewer's mind, then the scene failed. If the scene left a doubt in the lawyer's mind, I was happy.

LAUGHTER

And in the editing room at that moment, we managed to convince the lawyer that there was some doubt. I hope there's no doubt and I think, from the reaction to the scene that has been generally universal, that there is not doubt when you see the film.

As it is now, I feel like the scene could have been pushed a little further, and of course it was before the lawyer got into the editing room. But I think there's absolutely no doubt and I think it still has a kind of devastating effect.

And if you're not uncomfortable watching that scene, then I haven't done my job and Adrian hasn't done his job. I mean if you can watch all of "Lolita" feeling light, happy and pleasant and what a wonderful escape, then we have failed miserably.

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Schiff. He wrote the screenplay for the new film adaptatio of "Lolita." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

GROSS: My guest is Stephen Schiff. He wrote the screenplay for the new film adaptatio of "Lolita." And the screenplay has just been published in book form.

When we left off with Stephen he was telling us about how a lawyer was involved in the eidting of "Lolita." Lawyers also reviewed the script before shooting even began.

Did you have to change anything becaseu it was potentially breaking a law?

SCHIFF: No. There were just -- it was about methods of filming. For instance, obviusly, if Adrian wanted to use nudity, he couldn't use Dominque Swain, the young girl who played Lolita, he had to use a body double. Any contact seen betweeen Dominque and Jeremy had -- there had to be this pad between them so that they were never actually touching. At all times when Dominuque was on the set, her mother was on the set and her tutror was also on the set. So there are all these rules that we followed.

But then a curious and horrifying thing happened. A senator named Orrin Hatch -- not, in my opinion, a force for good in this country -- has attached a rider to a spending bill that became the Chidl Pornography Prevention Act of 1996. This extremely vaguely worded and probablh unconstitutional law, which was meant to deter people from doing nasty things on the Internet, putting children's heads on adult bodies, adult nude bodies, and selling all that. And taken literally, it would have a chilling effect not only on movies like ours, but on television shows, on paintings in museums, on magazines, on ads, on just about everyting under teh sun.

But it put everyone involved wiht the production into a panic. And then we suddenly had a lwayer in the editing room demanding that things that were vital to the movie, including that comics scene, be taken out completely because even if they didn't violate the law as it exitsted -- and they did not -- he was imagining new laws that might arise in certain localities and overzealous U.S. attorneys and small-town sheriffs and all sorts of things. He was scaring, basically, the bejesus out of everyone on the movie. And so we had what should only happen to a dog, a lawyer in the editing room. And if that did happen more often, only dogs woudl be directors.

GROSS: Give me an example of what you took out because of the lawyer's advice.

SCHIFF: Well, now there's almost no nudity in the film. There was never nudity below teh waist, but there was nudity above the waist.

I think actually most of it was unnecessary to the film and I'm gald that most of it wwas gone. But it was the lawyer who made it go. And there are moments that would be more -- that would leave an absolute certainty ni the viewer's mind about what's going on that now may leave in somke minds some ambiguity.

GROSS: Another difference between the page and a movie is that in "Lolita," in the book, a real girl doesn't have to participate in the book, it's just all words on a page, where in the movie you need a real actress who is young and who has to enact a lot of these moments. Even if she has a body double, she's still enacting most of the screenpaly.

So, what -- was there any kind of, like, counseling or edcuation on the set to help the actress get what this was about and also not be emotionally disturbed by it? Was that an issue at all?

SCHIFF: Well, by the time we started filming, Dominique Swain was 15. I don't know how many 15-year-olds you know, but a 15-year-old at Malibu High is not perhaps as naive as she would have been in 1947. And Dominque's mother was on the set at all times and Dominique's tuturo was on the set at all times. But, frankly, I think Dominque could have taguth everyone on the set a thing or two. I mean she was not fazed by anthying. She was not disturbed. She was having a good time being an actresss and playing a role.

And nothing that happned to her on the set was sexually threatening at all, becusase whver there was someting that was really, you know, sort of more nitty-gritty, there was an adult body double substituted for her. And there was not even any physicial contact betwween her and Jeremy because there was always a board between them in any scenes where physical contact would be required.

She had read the novel, so its content was not abot to be shocking to her. She had read the novel and had auditioned by performing scenes from teh novel for a video tape that she then ssent to Adrian Lyne. So imagining that we might be destroying some innocence on her part, I don't think we were.

GROSS: Nabokov obvioulsy knwe that he was in for trouble when he was tryign to get "Lolita" published and he answered that in a way in writing a fictional forward to teh novel. And the premise of this forwad is that it's being written by an academic who's been asked to edit "Lolita" fo rpublicantoin after Humbert's death.

So, in this forward written by this fictional editor, he says that "the most important part fo this book is its ethical impact, that's its real worth, the ethical impact the book should have on the serious reader. For in this poignant, persnoal study there lurks a general lesson. The wayward child. The egotistic mother. The panting maniac. These are not only vivid characters in a unique story, they warn us of dangerous trends. They point out potent evils. 'Lolita' should make all of us -- parents, social workers, educators -- apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to do the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world."

That really reminds me of those disclaimers at the beginning of juveline delinquent movies, wwhere right before you got to have a lot of fun wathcing juvenile delinquents tear the place apart and ride their motorcycles, there's a disclaimer that said, this could happen in your town, so, parents, teachers, beware.

Did you kind of go back to Nabokov to help you figure out ways to explain "Lolita" becuse you knew that there'd be some controversy about it?

SCHIFF: The simple answer is no.

LAUGHTER

I certainly enjoyed...

GROSS: A siomple answer to a really long questoin.

SCHIFF: I certainly enjoyed your reading fo that and I could tell from your breathless tone that you know that it's parody.

GROSS: Exactly.

SCHIFF: And it really...

GROSS: No, exactly.

SCHIFF: It's not a genuine disclaimer of the kind that yu're talking about or the kind that probably most famously exists at the beginning of Howard Hawk's (ph) movie "Scarface" in whihc he's abot to go into an orgy of bloodlettting and he says, but these pepole are very, veyr bad, don't forget.

And, you know, we certainly -- that thought didn't cross our mind for a second, that we would turn to Nabokov for moral justification, since Nabokov offered none.

GROSS: Stephen Schiff wrote the screenplay for "Lolita." This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Stephen Schiff. He wrote the screenplay for the new film adaptation of "Lolita."

When Nabokov wrote the novel in teh '50s, he knew it would be controversial and he knew that readers would demand his moral justifications for wrinting frokm the point of view of a pedophile. Nabokov wrote an essay about the book which said that for him a work fo fiction exists insofar as it affords him what he would bluntly call aesthetic bliss, a sense of being somehow connected with otehr states of being where art is the norm.

Aesthetic value is the only justification he said was necessary. I asked Stephen Schiff if he felt the same way aobut the movie.

SCHIFF: Well, in a way yes and in a way no. Becaue, of course, that's -- that is a public position that Nabokov notoriously took, which is to say, as I think I said before, he's against interpretation. He, you knw, it's art for art's sake, what you see is what you get. And yet he, of course, knows that he's packing level upon level upon level into what he's writing.

But it's not the level -- you see -- I mean -- I always feel that we're in a culture that has forgotten how to, for want of a better word, consume and digest art, that we all think, because we're taught so poor in the schools about it, that art shoudl be a message-bearing device for the cultivation fo young minds and whatnot. And that is -- that is so -- that degrades art in such a terrible way. I mean that becomes the Sovietization of art.

And so by presenting this kind of what almost might be deemed an amoral attitude towards art, in a way Nabokov is being disingenuous, beucase, of couse, he knows that there's a lot mre there. But it's not -- but he's not going to invite you to find messages and he's not going to invite you to find moral lessons. He's going to invite yoiu to tak in the whole as an aesthetic object whereby you will also find its real complexity and its depth and its real meaening.

And that, of course, you know, in our own humble way, was our approach, too. This isn't a message movie and -- nor should it be, becuase message movies are too easily shrugged off.

GROSS: Have you had to come up with moral justifications for the movie to people who demanded it?

SCHIFF: Well, I mean, I think that we do feel that when you see this movie you won't come out sahing, boy, that pedophila looks like fun. And I do, you know, I think it was a fortunate thing in a way that the approach that Nabokov took and the appraoch taht we took was that in a way what Humbert does to indulge his obsession is absolutely ruinous to him and ruinous to everyone around him.

So, if message mongers wish to derive a lesson, that is the lesson. There is no -- there is no lesson promoting pedophilia in this movie, nor can there be. The idea that to represent someting is to condone it seems to have crept into the culture in ways that are saddening, you know.

And also, you know, I feel like the culture is shrinking at this moment and that the receptoin of "Lolita" is a kind of litmus test that shows us that, because I think that it would not have had these problems in the late '70s or early '80s. And now I think a lot of movies that we take for granted as classics would have problems. I dont' think you could release "Taxi Driver" now, for instance.

I think, in fact, if you look at the Kubrick movie and our "Lolita," it's as though thyey're bookends of a certain cultural period where, you know, at the beginning with the Kubrick "Lolita" you have this naughty wink and smirk kind of ain't we being cute and funny and daring attitude as the culture expands and new things are being allowed to be talked about.

And now suddenly we seem to be at the end of that era and the culture is shrinking again and there's a feeling of, if you don't talking about it, maybe it will go away; if you don't show people shooting each other in movies, maybe people will stop shooting each other in the streets; if you don't talk abot pedophila, then maybe it will disappear. And, in a way, I think that's a very -- it's a very scary moment, and the reception for "Lolita" is a sign of how scary a moment that is.

GROSS: Is "Lolita" rated?

SCHIFF: Yeah. It got an R rating wiht absolutely no difficulty. Nothing had to be cut for it to get the R rating. It got the R rating first time out.

GROSS: Is this a bit of identity crisis for you? You went from being film critic and journalist to screenwriter to smut purveyor, you know. 'Cuase that's, I'm sure, the way you're seen in the eyes of some pepole who think that "Lolita" should not be a movie.

SCHIFF: Well, Terry, no one's ever said that to me before.

LAUGHTER

So I -- it comes as a bit of a shock, now that you -- you're calling me a smut purveyor.

No, I, you know -- one of the things that I felt surprised by and taht I was naive about was I thought that the status of this novel would in a certain way insulate me from at least the accusation of being a smut purveyor. Becaues, I mean, look, this borad set up by the Modern Libarry at Random House just convneed to name the 100 greatest novels of the centry in the English language. "Lolita" was number four.

I mean, you knwo, this is -- it's not like we jus sort of picked up a Hustler magazine and made it into a movie. This is an extraordinary, extraordinary work of art, and I thought generally that was well known. And I've been so amazed by people coming up to me and saying things like, oh, so I guess you called her Lolita because I guess she was a king of a Lolita, right?

LAUGHTER

GROSS: That's great.

Do you think that some pepole are so literal-minded that they can read a novel like "Lolita" and see it just as bieng about a pedophile, and pedophila is bad, therefore the novel is bad, without picking up on any of the tone or sensibility or larger meaning or anything?

SCHIFF: Like you, I would have thought that was absurd. It is not absurd. Lots and lots of people are doing that. Lots of peple will continue to do that. And that's what I was saying before about the sort of collapse of our understanding of the uses of art.

I think people are getting to the point now where they expect art to be such a message-bearing vehicle and nothing else that when something -- once they identify the subject matter, that's it, that's the end. If this person happens to be a pedophile, thenh it is some strange endorsement of pedophilia and shoudl be banned from the shelves and, of course, from teh movie screen. But it goes without saying that's a very limited view.

GROSS: Was there anyting you were called on to do or to respond to regarding the controvesy around "Lolita" that struck you as just particularly odd or absurd?

SCHIFF: Yeah, well, you know, the whole process has seemed odd and abssurd. I began realizing lately that what happened was partly this. We were making "Lolita." That would attract journalists, of course, and journalists were coming on the set and talking to us. And, of couse, the idea was that this was going to be a pretty hotsy-totsy thing, what with Adrian Lyne directing and, you know, the new freedoms that we falsely -- wrongly imagined that we had. And then the journalists would go back and write, and, of couse, they would want to emphasize the hotsy-totsy aspect, whihc is something I understand.

Then, of course, being journalists, they would say, well, let's get the other side. And they would go to groups -- the family something or other grop or the someting or other for the something of chidren -- you know, all these groups that exist across the country to lobby and make noise and take books off shelves and promote a largely fundamentalist agenda, but it's not always Christian-oriented necesessarily.

So they would go to these groups and they woud say, well, they're making "Lolita," what do you think about that? It's going to be horribying, what are you going to do? And they would, thye are? Well, we will march in the streets, we will picket them from -- you know, they had never known that "Lolita" was being made, but they were being asked by the press for a reactoin.

Now the press prints the reaction, the studios read it and they say, oh, my God, if we release this film we're gonna have picketers up and down the block, we're gonna have to bveef up security, They're threatning -- look, they're threatening to boycott our company and amusement parks. Wait, they're threatening stockholder problems.

So, it all sort of burgeons and burgeons and burgeons. And that, being on the inside of that process, watching, you know, wiht my jaw slack, was very interesting.

GROSS: So, Stephen, which job offers more anxiety, being the film critic or the screenwriter?

SCHIFF: Hmm?

GROSS: The reverse of that: the half-full category would be which offers more pleasures.

SCHIFF: Well, I'm very, very happy being a screenwriter now. I'm not really thinking much of returning to journalism in the near future. The rewards of screenwriting in every way at the moment top those of journalism. But, you know, it's a very nice bubble to be in at the moment, and when it bursts I come flying back to earth, who knows.

GROSS: Well, congratulatoins on your movies, and it's great to talk wiht you again. It's been several years since you were film critic here at FRESH AIR and it's just very exicting to see you go on to such a successful career in screenwriting. So congratulations.

SCHIFF: Well, thank you very muhc. FRESH AIR has a real warm spot in my heart and always will.

GROSS: Stephen Schiff wrote the screenplay for the new film adaptatoin of "Lolita." The screenplay has just been published in book form by Applause Books. The movie opened today for a week run in Los Angeles. It premieres on the Showtime channel August 2 and opens in theaters around the country in September.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 888-NPR-NEWS

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Stephen Schiff
High: Fresh Air's former film critic Stephen Schiff returns to discuss writing the screenplay for the controversial movie version of Nabokov's "Lolita." The $58 million film inspired such controversy that distribution was nearly impossible. Lolita, directed by Adrian Lyne will premiere on the Showtime cable channel August 2. It's just been announced that the film will be released in movie houses in September. Schiff's screenplay, "Lolita: The Book of the Film" will be in stores next month.
Spec: Movie Industry; Cable; Lolita; Jeremy Irons; Culture; Entertainment; Sexuality; Vladimir Nabokov

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The Book of the Film
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JULY 22, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 072202np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Alan Shepard Obit
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:40

TERRY GROSS, HOST: It was made public today that Alan Shepard, the first American in space, died yesterday at the age of 74. We're going to listen back to an interview from our archives.

Shepard was one of the original seven Mercury astronauts named by NASA in April, 1959. In 1961, he rode the space capsule Mercury Seven to an altitude of 115 miles. Ten years later, Shepard commanded the Apollo 14 on a mission to the moon and gathered soil and rock samples.

In between those two space flights, Shepard was grounded for medical reasons, but he helped erect the space program as chief of NASA's astronaut office. He was an essential part of the team that helped America first get to the moon nearly 30 years ago.

I spoke with Alan Shepard in 1994, when he co-authored a book called "Moon Shot." I asked him about his first space flight back in 1961. The trip was brief, so he didn't have much time to experiment with weightlessness.

ALAN SHEPARD, FORMER ASTRONAUT, AUTHOR, "MOON SHOT": My flight was only 60 minutes. We did have about five and a half minutes of weightlessness, and the thing which we tried to cram into that five and a half minutes had to do primarily with my ability to actually control the space craft, actually fly it like an airplane because we knew that so much of the early days of space depended upon the abilities of a pilot, not only under primary conditions with no causalities, no failures, but also to practice for situations where the pilot would have to take over in order to bring it back in safely.

So, most of the five and a half minutes were devoted to my actually controlling the space craft and reporting how I was doing and that sort of thing.

GROSS: How were you doing?

SHEPARD: I did great, of course. I would...

LAUGHTER

GROSS: I mean, how did it feel to control the space craft while being weightless?

SHEPARD: Well, there was a tremendous exhilaration, of course, at being up there in the first place. Also, in the second place, everything -- the fact that everything was going well and then lastly, the fact that I flew it exactly as I was supposed to fly it.

GROSS: Was it what you most wanted to be, that first American in space?

SHEPARD: Oh, I think all of us wanted that. We were a very highly competitive group to start with. We were all test pilots; we knew that only one of the seven was going to get to go first, and you know, everybody wanted to go.

GROSS: Now after you became the first American in space, you got something called Menyear's Syndrome (ph) -- am I pronouncing that correctly?

SHEPARD: Yes, that's correct. Actually, I had been assigned to command the first Gemini mission, which was the first two-manned mission. Tom Stafford (ph) was going to be my co-pilot.

We were probably three or four months into the training cycle when I developed Menyear's Syndrome, which has something to do with elevated fluid pressure in the inner ear which causes dizziness, imbalance, nausea in some cases.

And when we discovered it was more than just a temporary virus, then NASA, of course, grounded me immediately and said you can stick around if you want. There is a maybe 20 percent chance that you might recover from this thing normally, and if you want to stick around and stay in training, we'll be happy to have you do that. We'll give you a job helping Slayton (ph) run the astronaut training program.

GROSS: It must have been devastating for you.

SHEPARD: Very disappointing. Not only the initial reaction to it, to the onset of it, the realization that I wasn't going to fly again right away, and then continuing to watch the rest of the guys go down to the Cape and have all these great flights and pat them on the head before they went, and you know, pat them on the fanny when they came back. It wasn't all that much fun. There was a lot of frustration involved.

GROSS: You were the chief of the astronaut office which meant that you, among other things, had to choose which men went on the flights. What would you look for in an astronaut's personality and temperament before deciding to schedule them for a flight?

SHEPARD: Well what we did for the most part was to choose the ones who -- the individuals who we thought would make the best commander of the flight, and then ask them which of the available astronauts they would like to fly with, so get an idea that we got two folks, or three folks in the case of Apollo, at least friendly with each other. We made a couple of mistakes, but for the most part, things went along pretty well.

GROSS: During the launch pad test of Apollo One, there was a fire and three astronauts were killed -- Gus Grissom (ph), Edward White and Roger Chaffee (ph). What happened?

SHEPARD: Well I think -- let me generalize first. And I think what the situation was at that time was that we had flown successful Mercury missions. We'd flown successful Gemini missions. There was a sense of pride and accomplishment, but there was also perhaps, a little false sense of security.

Maybe a little bit too much pride. Maybe a little bit over confidence if you will and desire, obviously, to get on with the moon landing, to try to meet President Kennedy's schedule. Grissom, who was designated to be the commander of that flight, was not at all pleased with some of the things he found in the manufacturing and the testing processes.

And even though he protested rather strenuously, somehow the things that needed to be fixed didn't get fixed in time and, of course it is a tragedy in fact that Gus was killed in the fire along with Ed White and Roger Chaffee.

But on the other hand, at this stage in the game, although obviously it's traumatic to lose your buddies, all of a sudden the NASA people and the aerospace contracted people said, hey, you know this really -- this thing really wasn't put together as well as it could have been. Maybe we were in too much of a hurry.

There was some redesign, there was a hiatus trying to find out exactly what had happened and with this redesign, with this reassessment, we created a space craft that was obviously so much better than the Apollo One space craft had been.

Again, it was really as a result of that fire that all of a sudden the organization said, yeah, folks we really aren't doing as well as we could have been, and again, that resulted in a really fine program all in all.

GROSS: We're listening back to an interview with Astronaut Alan Shepard who has died at the age of 74. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

Let's get back to our 1994 interview with astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American in space. He's died at the age of 74.

You were grounded for several years because of an inner ear problem, and then you were able to be cured through a surgical process that surprised everybody by working and working very well. So then you got to go to the moon which you'd longed wanted to do.

But when you took that flight -- the Apollo 14 in 1971, February of 1971, you felt that you carried the whole future of the space program with you. Why did your mission have such symbolic import?

SHEPARD: Well, that's kind of an interesting story. Actually, as soon as I was ungrounded and NASA said OK, we think you're ready to go, Slayton and I immediately picked the crew and gave me command of Apollo 13. We sent the list to Washington, they said, oh, we can't do that.

We said, no, wait a minute, you know, Shepard has been training along with everybody. He's just as bright and just as ready to go as the rest of them, how come? And they said, well, it's just too soon. He'd give us a political problem. Shepard is so well known and he's been obviously grounded for so many years, and politically it's just not right, so let's make a deal. Give us another crew for Apollo 13 and we'll let Shepard have 14.

So, as you may recall, Apollo 13 took off with Jim Lovell and Fred Hayes (ph) and Jack Swaggart (ph). They're half way on the way to the moon and they had an explosion which blew out the side of the service module, the mother ship.

It took away all their primary power system and there they were on the way to the moon without the power to do it. Obviously, they weren't going to be able to land. They used the lunar module power systems to communicate, to help navigate, and with the help of the people on the ground, of course, did a fantastic job and came back safety.

But then the next flight all of a sudden, is under the gun. They said, well, yeah, we made a couple of landings, but we had an explosion. Do we really need to keep doing this? Don't we have enough rocks the way it is? So, there was starting to be criticism of the program as a result of the explosion.

Then there was the fact that the two chaps I had chosen to go with me had not flown before, and my buddies didn't give me a heck of a lot of credit for just 16 minutes of space flight, so we were dubbed "the three rookies" -- Apollo 14, the three rookies and that brought a little bit of added interest. It gave us a little bit of additional incentive to absolutely fly the very best flight that had ever been flown before or since and quite frankly, we came very close to that.

GROSS: How old were you with this flight?

SHEPARD: Well actually, when I was walking around the moon I was 47 years old.

GROSS: That's pretty old for an astronaut. That's pretty old for a flight to the moon, isn't it?

SHEPARD: Well I think age is very much of an individual thing. I still feel very young at my current age, which is -- you know...

LAUGHTER

GROSS: Now before you landed on the moon, you lost your radar and mission control was thinking you should abort, but you didn't. Why didn't you want to abort?

SHEPARD: You've got to be kidding. I mean, after going 230,000 miles, you're going to worry about a little radar, come on.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: A little radar. I mean, what was it like for you to maneuver the ship without radar. What was blinded without radar?

SHEPARD: Well, actually let me just back up a little bit. We had a problem earlier on the way out, where we couldn't dock with the lunar module. That was traumatic. We finally got that resolved and off we went with permission to land.

We started down -- we didn't actually start down, but we ran the computer down -- open loop, and it refused to go down because there was a bad switch and so that was point number two. Either one of those would have ruined the mission, so we were pretty objectively oriented when we came to the point where during the descent, one is not looking at the moon. You're looking away from the surface and, in order to be allowed to continue below around 13,000 feet or so, one has to have an update from landing radar.

We were down around 20,000, somewhere along in there, and we were not getting updated on the radar and we were being told from the ground that the radar wasn't working. We said, thank you very much we understand the radar's not working, we can tell that. And they reminded us that we didn't have landing radar in by 13,000 feet.

We said, yeah, we remember all that stuff and it was getting pretty tense and pretty close. Finally some bright young guy in the control center said, hey, this landing radar is working, but it's locked on infinity. Have them recycle, pull the circuit breaker and see what happens.

So we pulled the circuit breaker and sure enough the landing radar came in within a matter of, you know, maybe a half a minute or so to spare. We go on down and land and we're shutting off the switches and my co-pilot Ed Mitchell said to me, Alan, what were you going to do if the landing radar was not in at 13,000 feet? And I said Ed, you will never know.

GROSS: Well, what did you plan on doing?

SHEPARD: I think I would have gone down. At least to the point where we could pitched over and taken a look at the surface because, had great faith in our ability to land from almost any off-nominal case. We practiced that from the simulator for hours and hours and hours. And so I had a feeling that if I could just see it and realize that I wasn't running into any mountains or anything, that I probably would have gone down.

GROSS: What surprised you most about how the surface of the moon looked?

SHEPARD: I don't think we had any surprises about the actual surface of the moon, about the barrenness. We had looked at pictures of our landing site taken by previous missions. We had worked with the models that were made from those pictures. We knew the general configuration of where the craters were supposed to be. We knew the objective of our cone crater, which was the one we climbed up the side of to get rock samples.

There weren't any surprises there. The surprise I had was standing on the surface after we'd been there for a few minutes, having a chance to rest a little bit and looking up at the Earth for the first time. Now you have to look up because that's where it is and the sky's totally black, and here you have a planet which is four times the size of the moon as we look at it from the Earth and you also have color. You have blue oceans and the brown land masses, the brown continents and you can see ice on the -- the ice caps on the North Pole and so on.

It's just an absolute incredible view and then you say, hey, that looks a little small to me. It looks like it does have limits. It's a little fragile, you know, down here we think it's infinite, we don't worry about resources. Up there you're saying gosh, you know it's a shame those folks down there can't get along together and think about trying to conserve, to save what limited resources they have. It's just very, very emotional. I actually shed a couple of tears looking up at the Earth and having those feelings.

GROSS: Astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American in space. Recorded in 1994. Alan Shepard died yesterday at the age of 74.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 888-NPR-NEWS

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Alan Shepard
High: We remember astronaut Alan Shepard with a 1994 interview.
Spec: Astronautics and Space; Deaths; Alan Shepard

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Alan Shepard Obit
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

09:33

Remembering Pete Hamill, A Journalist With A Whitman-esque Embrace Of NYC

Book critic Maureen Corrigan remembers the veteran NYC newsman, who died Aug. 5, as "a tenement kid and high school drop out who never lost connection to where he came from."

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue