When interviewing Victoria Riskin, daughter of iconic "King Kong" star Fay Wray and screenwriter Robert Riskin, only one location will do. I sat down with Riskin, 73, in a cafe on the ground floor of the Empire State Building to talk about Hollywood, the art of screenwriting, a certain large ape and her new book, "Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir" (Pantheon, 397 pp., $30). (The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.) Riskin will speak at a screening of "King Kong" at Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington on April 1.
Your mother once said, "Whenever I walk past the Empire State Building, I say a little prayer, because a good friend of mine died up there." Did she ever come to resent the association with "King Kong?" It's the first thing people think of when they hear her name.
I think she sometimes wished people remembered some of the other films that she did because there were so many of them, and there were some wonderful films. But "King Kong" stands in its own class. There's something about it that touches people in a very fundamental way, particularly the 1933 version. There was this humanity to it. But to go back to my mother, I think she enjoyed being playful with the whole aura around the film.
She said that Naomi Watts was too skinny to play Ann Darrow!
Peter Jackson had adored the film, and adored her in the film, and wanted her to have a little short cameo in the remake [from 2005]. And I had to explain to her that he had just won a whole bunch of Oscars for "Lord of the Rings," and so she met with him. And she said, "Yes, Naomi was too skinny." But she also said to me personally, "I think Ann Darrow is in good hands."
Pretty much everyone knows who Fay Wray is. But it was a real revelation to learn about your very accomplished and talented father, Robert Riskin, who wrote all these great movies — including the definitive screwball comedy, "It Happened One Night," which took five Oscars — including his for writing it — in 1935.
He had a strong ethical spine of affection for America. A sense of purpose but a sense of humor at the same time. If there was any statement that summarizes Robert Riskin, it is the big speech in [Frank Capra's 1941 film] "Meet John Doe," where he says, "Can we tear down this fence that separates us and get to know our neighbor? After all, it's all of us, the little guys of the world, who built the pyramids, and are the strength of the country." It's a message that touches my heart right now because there are forces at work that are trying to divide us as people.
Your father once said that the most important rule for screenwriters is that "There are no rules." Have you found that spirit useful in your own work writing screenplays?
I found anything useful, because writing screenplays is so much harder than most people think. It's harder than writing this very thick book that I wrote. You have to distill everything, you have to move the action forward — it's a great art form. And I think perhaps not as appreciated as it ought to be. So many of the formulaic quotes about screenwriting say that by page 30, such and such should happen, crises or turning points, when in fact there are many ways of telling a story.
Was there any part of the book that you especially enjoyed writing or researching?
I was amazed to learn about all that he had done during World War II. [Riskin worked with the Office of War Information making propaganda films that were shown in Europe during and after the war.] I was astounded. It's clear to me that he was impassioned by that work. And it was extraordinary. And it's a story that's not really been told.
No. Maybe this is corny, but here were these men and women who were trying to express something about America that they really believed in, that this country was a force for good.
There were 26 of these films and most of them are preserved in the National Archives. Sometimes, they've been preserved in Norwegian — they were translated into 50 different languages. And that's how my father felt, as a first-generation Jewish family, escaping the pogroms in Belarus. He loved baseball, he loved American music, he loved the horse races, he loved New York. He was in love with everything, in his own gentle way.
Victoria Riskin signs 'Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir'
WHAT Riskin introduces a screening of "King Kong," followed by a talk and book signing
WHEN | WHERE Monday, April 1 at 7:30 p.m., Cinema Arts Centre, 423 Park Ave., Huntington
INFO $16, $11 members; 631-423-7610, cinemaartscentre.org