65 Years | 65 Faces of IES Abroad – Willard Huyck

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Willard Huyck, Oscar-nominated Screenwriter and Director, IES Abroad Paris 1965-66Willard Huyck

Oscar-nominated Screenwriter and Director
Paris 1965-66

As a cinema student at the University of Southern California, Willard Huyck was drawn to study abroad in Paris to be at the heart of the French New Wave. Over the course of the year, Willard frequented two cinematheques where he saw at least 60 films, including a screening and live lecture with New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard. After graduation, Willard became a reader at a B-movie factory where he summarized scripts. Deciding he could write just as well, Willard wrote his first screenplay – The Devils 8, a low-budget action film that premiered in 1969 and launched his career. In 1978, Willard returned to Paris to film French Postcards, a movie about a junior year abroad, and, serendipitously, his role model, French filmmaker François Truffaut, was a regular on the set. Today, Willard is an Oscar-nominated motion picture screenwriter and director whose film credits include American Graffiti, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Radioland Murders. He also worked on screenplays for the first Star Wars and the first Mission Impossible. In our interview, Willard reflects on his transformative year abroad and his career in filmmaking, and he tells us about his other passion, still photography.

IES Abroad: What led you to study abroad and why did you choose Paris?

Willard Huyck: When I started college, I didn’t plan to study abroad. I just happened to be walking down a hall at the University of Southern California (USC) and noticed an advertisement on the wall about the UES program in Paris. I thought, “Wow… this sounds cool. Now how do I convince my parents?” So, I applied first, was excited when I was accepted - then told my parents. Fortunately, they thought it was a great idea. They went with me to New York to see me off as I boarded the Queen Elizabeth with the IES students and we sailed off for France. That’s something you don’t do anymore.

IES Abroad: Did you have any career plans in mind when you studied abroad?

WH: I didn’t have any career plans at that point. I had gone to USC to study journalism because I had been the editor of the high school newspaper, and SC had a famous journalism school. But before I studied abroad I had already switched my major to Cinema – again without telling my parents. One of the reasons I chose Paris was because I was crazy about the films being made by the French “Nouvelle Vague” (New Wave) directors: Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol.

IES Abroad: Did you understand how important French cinema was at the time?

WH: Oh, yeah. Definitely. French, Italian, English, and Japanese movies were the “text books” we studied at film school. When I got to Paris, I remember attending a screening after which Jean-Luc Godard spoke. That was a transformative moment and indelible memory. It was also amazing when I returned to Paris in 1978 to make my film French Postcards and actually got to know François Truffaut. Marie-France Pisier was in the film, and she had worked with Truffaut, so he would come by the set to see her. And because I spoke some French I got extra points with the French crew.

IES Abroad: What are some of your most influential memories from your time studying abroad?

WH: In those days, there were two French Cinematheques, and I would travel on the Metro between them constantly. I kept a list of all the movies I saw – which was about 60 that year. It was interesting because a lot them were American movies that the French loved. The other fond memories of my year aboard came from the traveling we did. We spent a school holiday in Spain, went skiing in Austria. After school finished, I took off with my girlfriend to Switzerland where her parents had a house. And from there I boarded the Orient Express train from Switzerland to Istanbul and on to Greece — where I made a stupid mistake changing money, got ripped off, and realized it was time to head home. The only problem was we didn’t carry credit cards in those days, and money had to be wired through Western Union. Making the call home to get the money for my plane ticket was a day-long nightmare in an Athens phone booth.   

IES Abroad: After graduating from USC, how did you get started writing screenplays? Were there skills learned abroad that you applied in the early days of your career?

WH: My first movie job was as a “reader.” I would read and synopsize scripts that were being submitted to the production company. And I would give my “professional” opinion – even though I was only a green film school graduate. I was working at a B-movie motorcycle and beach party factory. They didn’t exactly hire top tier writers, and one day I told my boss, “You know, I can write as well as some of these people.” And so he said, “Really? Okay, let’s see you do it. So, I wrote a low budget action film with a friend I’d gone to film school with. It was called The Devil’s 8.  It was my first screen credit, and got me into the Writers’ Guild. To celebrate, I invited all my friends to the opening night premiere on Hollywood Boulevard. In those days, they had search lights out in front of the theaters, and there was a also big crowd.  I went to the door with my friends and gave the manager my name. He said, “So? Who are you?” I said, “Well, we’re here for the premiere. I wrote the movie.” He said, “What movie?” I said, “The one you’re showing — The Devil’s 8.” He said, “We’re not showing that. You’re at the wrong theater. That one’s down the street.” He pointed to a dark, funky little theater. When we got there we found about ten people inside. Still, that movie was my lucky break. And it led to other premieres with slightly larger crowds.

IES Abroad: Your love and appreciation of still photography has been a constant in your life before, during, and after your work in film. In what ways did your experiences in Paris influence your interest in and passion for photography?

WH: My wife and I collect photography. It’s an interest that started at film school. In the sixties, before you could make your student movies, you had to learn still photography. You shot, developed and printed photographs that were supposed to tell a story. That came in handy on my junior year abroad. At the end of the year, members of our class put on a satirical play that I wrote. During the play, I used a slide projector to project photographs that I had shot around Paris with our “actors” that dealt with the action on the stage. We thought of it as multi-media, multi-lingual (French/English) extravaganza. It had a short run—one night. But it was big fun. 

IES Abroad: You have been nominated and received many awards for your work in film. What accomplishments are you the most proud of?

WH: It’s wonderful and satisfying when you make a movie that connects with people, that moves them, or makes them laugh. You feel like you’ve created a shared experience. We worked on three films that had that kind of impact: American Graffiti, the first Star Wars, and Indiana Jones And The Temple of Doom

IES Abroad: What is one thing you learned while abroad that remains a constant in your life?

WH: Not to be afraid of doing things that are off-the-wall and adventurous. I had some trepidation about going off for a year. And I did get homesick, and went through a period of gloomy French weather that had me “California Dreaming” of sunshine. But I look back on that year fondly.

IES Abroad: What advice would you give to students in film studies and other creative majors about studying abroad today?

WH: The experience of being abroad, opening yourself up to a different world, seeing new and different things is something that will get your creative juices flowing. If you are involved in the visual arts, or music, or writing, there will be stunning sights, enriching museum visits, and unexpected experiences to inspire you. For creative people, traveling and studying abroad has always been an important part of an aspiring artist’s education.  

IES Abroad: We sincerely thank you for your role as a judge, three years in a row now, for IES Abroad’s annual Study Abroad Film Festival. What has this experience been like for you?

WH: I was really impressed by the videos I reviewed. The finalists’ films were serious, funny, moving and insightful. They were well-crafted and showed real talent. I was surprised by the serious insights and emotions the filmmakers exhibited in their work. There have been a lot of technical advances since my 1965 slide projector—but it’s never the equipment that’s important. It’s the brains and sensibilities of the people behind the cameras that make the kind of interesting films that are coming out of the IES experience.

IES Abroad: Is there anything else that you want to share with readers?

WH: I’ve always thought it was strange how important and memorable the high school years are for most people. I think it’s the same with the experience of studying abroad. It’s a relatively short period of time, but it has a real impact and makes a real imprint on the rest of your life. My junior year in Paris was like that.