In the scene where Adam refuses to accept Cal's money, the script called for Cal to turn away in anger from his father. It was James Dean's instinct to embrace him instead. This came as a surprise to Raymond Massey, who could think of nothing to do but say, "Cal! Cal!" in response.
Elia Kazan, in his autobiography "A Life" (1988), said that Raymond Massey came to despise James Dean. Kazan did nothing to dispel the tension between the two, as it was so right for their characters in the film.
James Dean's wild behavior and late-night carousing worried Elia Kazan. At first he arranged for Dean to share an apartment with Richard Davalos. When that didn't work out, Kazan put him up in a dressing room on the Warners lot and moved into the adjoining room to keep an eye on his star.
Timothy Carey, who had a small part as Joe the bouncer, drove director Elia Kazan to such distraction with his bizarre behavior that Kazan, a longtime avowed pacifist, physically attacked him, the only time he had ever done such a thing.
On the last day of shooting, Julie Harris went to James Dean's trailer to say goodbye because she was not sure she would attend the wrap party. She found Dean crying because the production was over. "It was so moving. It was his first picture [sic], it meant so much, and now it was over."
Elia Kazan later called Julie Harris "one of the most beautiful people I've known in my life" and credited her with getting James Dean through the picture. Kazan appreciated her voice, her lack of pretension, her intensity, and what he saw as the perfect combination of purity and sexual awareness the role demanded.
Elia Kazan noted that James Dean's tension and shyness always manifested itself physically, so he allowed the actor to use contorted, awkward postures to convey the character: "It was almost psychotic. He was exactly like the people you see in insane asylums."
Elia Kazan denied rumors that he didn't like James Dean: "You can't not like a guy with that much pain in him . . . You know how a dog will be mean and snarl at you, then you pat him, and he's all over you with affection? That's the way Dean was." Kazan did intervene sternly, however, when Dean started to feel his power as a hotly emerging star and treated crew members disrespectfully.
In order to feel as uncomfortable as possible in the Ferris wheel scene, James Dean refused to urinate the entire day until the sequence was completed. He also refused to play a scene with Julie Harris on a pitched roof. Elia Kazan overcame his reluctance by getting the actor drunk.
When they first arrived in Los Angeles to begin production, Elia Kazan accompanied James Dean to visit his estranged father, who was living there at the time. He witnessed first-hand how badly the father treated Dean and how much the boy wanted to please him. As he got to know Dean better, Kazan saw how this relationship had instilled in him a great deal of anger because of frustrated love, the key to the character of Cal: "It was the most apt piece of casting I've ever done in my life."
During production, Elia Kazan would write letters to his friend John Steinbeck, with whom he had worked closely on the original screenplay for Viva Zapata! (1952), to keep him abreast of the film's progress. Steinbeck thought James Dean was a perfect Cal, and tremendously enjoyed the final film.
Elia Kazan first toyed with the idea of casting Marlon Brando as Cal and Montgomery Clift as Aaron, but at 30 and 34 years old, respectively, they were simply too old to play John Steinbeck's teenage brothers. Ironically, the youthful-looking Paul Newman, who was one year Brando's junior, was a finalist for the part of Cal, which eventually was played by Newman's friend James Dean. Dean was seven years younger than Newman.
Shooting in the fairly new CinemaScope process proved to be a challenge for Elia Kazan, but he was lucky to have a good working relationship with longtime Warner Brothers cinematographer Ted D. McCord. The studio camera department gave him instructions up front to keep the camera at least six feet from the actors, which rankled Kazan. So he and McCord made some tests to see how close they could push in. It caused the side edges of the screen to appear a bit curved, but Kazan decided to use that distortion for dramatic expression. McCord suggested that, as long as they were distorting anyway, they should tip the camera angle in certain shots. This technique was used a few times, most prominently in the tense dinner table scene in which Cal and his father fight over the boy's antagonistic reading of Bible passages.
James Dean hated being made up and, according to Richard Davalos, they would run into the bathroom at various intervals to rub off a little make-up at a time: "I don't think we had any make-up on at the end of the day."
Richard Davalos said the most difficult scene for him was when James Dean as Cal hits him after an argument. Dean didn't really hit him, of course, but the emotions felt so real Davalos believed Dean really did hate him. He left the set when the scene was complete, and cried "for about four hours" until Julie Harris calmed him down.
The film only covers the latter part of the novel. Elia Kazan later said he didn't like the first part of the book, which deals with the youth and marriage of the characters played by Raymond Massey and Jo Van Fleet. It would also have been unwieldy to adapt the multi-generational story. Around this same time, the director had been thinking about the importance of unity in a work of art, and reflected on screenwriter John Howard Lawson's notion that unity comes from the climax. Kazan decided to focus on only the final section of the novel, dealing with the conflict between Cal and his father and brother. He then had to approach the thin-skinned John Steinbeck gently and tactfully about making changes to the story. He also had to approach Steinbeck with his plan to bring in another writer to work on the adaptation with Kazan. The author genuinely liked and trusted Kazan and allowed him to proceed without interference.
Despite the annoyances and difficulties he faced making this film, Raymond Massey called the role of Adam Trask one of the best parts he ever had on screen and one of the few three-dimensional characters he played in movies.
Richard Davalos said that with James Dean's help he got so into the role of the brother that it took him two years to get over it. The two behaved together off set just like they did in the story. When they shared a small apartment for a time, Davalos said, they became Aron and Cal "to the teeth. It crept into our social life. He would do something and I would reject him, and he would follow me down the street about twenty paces behind."
Several cast members reported that James Dean's emotions overtook him so strongly he would frequently cry. Elia Kazan usually just let those moments pass before resuming shooting, but he did leave one of Dean's breakdowns in--the scene in which Cal is crushed by his father's rejection of the money he earned for him.
Instead of using rear-projection process shots for the scene on the Ferris wheel, Elia Kazan rented a real one from a carnival, set it up on the Warner Brothers back lot, and borrowed an additional crane, one used by Disney on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), to hoist lights, sound equipment and crew members up to capture the intimate romantic scene.
At the time of the film's release, many critics were quite unimpressed with James Dean's acting. The most frequent complaint was that he imitated the acting style of Marlon Brando. The "New York Times" and "Variety" were particularly harsh in their reviews, and dismissed Dean as a cheap copy of Brando.
Julie Harris found James Dean very exciting to work with. "He was always inventing; you never knew what was coming. You had to listen, watch; you had to be there." She found him exciting and highly imaginative and was impressed with the way he studied music with composer Leonard Rosenman and played Bach on his recorder alone in his dressing room.
Elia Kazan strove to achieve dramatic effects with color, particularly by emphasizing green throughout. He later claimed to have innovated the use of the wide screen by placing objects in the foreground to film past or through.
Before shooting began, Elia Kazan sent James Dean off to Palm Springs (CA) to gain some weight and get some sun so that he looked like a "real" farm boy. Dean hated getting a tan, having his hair cut and drinking a pint of cream a day to put on pounds.
Many cast and crew members, particularly director Elia Kazan, remarked that James Dean was frequently unprepared on set and didn't know his lines. Dean would deviate considerably from the script in many takes, some of which were emotionally charged and ultimately used in the final cut of the film. Raymond Massey was incensed by what he considered to be Dean's lack of professionalism and grew to despise the actor during the making of this film.
John Steinbeck stayed away from the set during production. His son Tom has said that Steinbeck felt it was Elia Kazan's movie and not his and that he didn't want to be an intimidating factor to the director and cast. "He'd bend over backwards to help if he thought you were going in the right direction, and he thought Kazan was," Tom said. "They worked very well together."
Elia Kazan had high praise for the costume designer, who was a great help to him in the town parade segment. Anna Hill Johnstone did extensive research and then handled hiring the extras, getting them costumed, arranging the floats, and other important tasks.
It has been well-publicized that James Dean and Paul Newman screen tested together for roles in this film, which ultimately led to Dean's big break into the film industry. While Newman did not get the role he tested for in this film, his and Dean's careers were tragically intertwined. Arguably, Newman's big break into Hollywood came in the role of Rocky Graziano in the following year's Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956). James Dean had been set to play the role before his fatal car wreck and the role eventually went to his friend, Paul Newman.
According to Elia Kazan in the first issue special DVD collector's edition, James Dean gave him a ride on his motorcycle after their first meeting. He realized that he thought Dean might not be a good actor but he was definitely Cal Trask.
In the original take of the roof scene, James Dean crawled through the window into Julie Harris's bedroom where he crouches beside her while she sleeps, fondling her slipper like a fetishist. That part was cut from the film, as was another highly eroticized scene between the two brothers in their room.
It was James Dean's idea to do the little running dance in the bean field, and Elia Kazan said he kissed him for that valuable contribution. He also noted that the far more contained Marlon Brando would never have been able to do a scene like that, "but Dean was actually like a kid."
Elia Kazan had to coordinate the filming of the bean field scene with a local farmer so that the crop would be exactly three inches high when the shoot began. Then the sprouts (in reality mustard plants) had to be replanted every five minutes since they would wilt and discolor under lights.
Contrary to the usual practice of composing the music after the film was shot, Leonard Rosenman actually wrote some of it beforehand. Snippets of his score are heard being hummed by Julie Harris early on in the story.
According to Lonny Chapman, Elia Kazan told him on a Monday they would film the scene that Friday in which Roy explains the new Model T car to Adam and instructed him to spend the week learning absolutely everything about the car: "He wanted the actor to contribute as much as the director."
James Dean and Paul Newman were filmed together in a crude screen test in New York that still exists, according to Dean biographer David Dalton in "The Mutant King" (1974). In the screen test, Newman is quite cool and stares straight ahead while Dean is more animated, and is flipping something up and down in and out of his hand like George Raft and his nickel in Scarface (1932). When Dean is asked what the object is, he admits that it is a switchblade, the premier symbol of the juvenile delinquent menace much feared in the 1950s. In an excerpt of the test now available on the Internet, there is no evidence of Dean playing with a knife. Newman's future wife Joanne Woodward read for the part of Abra.
Elia Kazan gave James Dean full rein to approach the role as he saw fit, and encouraged any emotions, however difficult, brought up by the similarities between actor and character. He was impressed by Dean's willingness to take risks: "He'd do anything to be good. He was way open."
Elia Kazan was proud of his use of CinemaScope to get what he thought was the best shot in the film, the train pulling away with all the lettuce on it. In the carefully calibrated shot, the train disappears behind the railroad station and then reappears much smaller, going off toward the distant mountains. "It's a perfect shot because it shows that their hope is going off," he said. "It's sentimental and still emotional." Kazan also liked the shot of Cal and Abra after his father's rejection, standing behind the willow tree, audible but with only their feet showing.
Leonard Rosenman was hired to do the score on James Dean's recommendation. The two men were friends back in New York, and Dean told Elia Kazan to listen to a score Rosenman had done for a stage production, "The Women of Trachis". Kazan was impressed, but Rosenman, a serious composer of orchestral music, was nervous about scoring a film. His friend Leonard Bernstein, who made his film composing debut on Kazan's On the Waterfront (1954), encouraged him.
The conflict between James Dean and Raymond Massey came to a boiling point in the scene where Cal angers his father because of the way he reads from the Bible. Elia Kazan, who found Massey to be a rather rigid and unemotional "stiff" off screen and on, wasn't happy with the way it was going, so he took Dean aside and whispered some suggestions. Dean came back and read the Old Testament passages interlaced with the most offensive curses and crude sexual expressions. The very religious Massey became incensed, storming off the set and threatening to call his lawyers. But before the outburst, Kazan was able to capture the heightened anger he was going for.
The film's interiors were all filmed on studio sound stage sets at the Warner Brothers Burbank Studio lot. During on-set filming, portable star dressing rooms were parked adjacent to exterior walls of the sound stages, near the stage's crew/cast entry door, positioned on a studio alley and/or street between the studio's sound stages. James Dean, assigned one of these dressing rooms, actually lived, day and night, in the assigned dressing room trailer during the filming of this movie. When studio boss Jack L. Warner heard that Dean refused to move out of his trailer when the studio wanted to relocate the dressing room trailer to another location, Warner shouted, "That little bastard better get out of that trailer . . . or else!".
Elia Kazan stated the he felt a personal connection to the role of Cal in an interview several decades after making this film. Kazan said "the image of the boy is very clear to me, I knew a boy like that, in other words, myself."
Elia Kazan was attracted to the story because he also had a strained relationship with his own father, a stern and unforgiving man, like Adam Trask in the novel, who never really approved of his son's path in life. Kazan also wanted to make a film that was an attack on the puritanical point of view embodied by Adam Trask.
The film's premiere, at New York's Astor Theater, also served as the first in a long line of benefit events organized to help pay for the purchase and renovation of the newly acquired home of The Actors Studio, which had itself provided arguably the film's three most powerful performances, courtesy of James Dean, Julie Harris and Jo Van Fleet, as well as strong supporting turns from Lois Smith, Barbara Baxley and Lonny Chapman (and to whom Warner Brothers studio chief Jack L. Warner had generously offered the entire proceeds of the New York premiere). The celebrity ushers on hand included Margaret Truman, Arlene Francis, Jayne Meadows, Marjorie Steele (aka Mrs. Huntington Hartford), Roberta Peters, Carol Channing, Eva Marie Saint and Marilyn Monroe. Moreover, the event's organizer, Morton Gottlieb, worried that patrons would balk at the hefty fee charged for just a movie, organized a lavish post-screening party featuring free entertainment, including Channing, accompanied by Jule Styne, singing the song he wrote for her in Broadway's "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes", "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" (Gottlieb having failed in his attempt to persuade Monroe to reprise her hit from 1953's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)), composer Harold Arlen performing a piano medley, a song composed for the occasion, performed by its authors, Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz and, last but hardly least, a young and still little known Sammy Davis Jr. (less than four months after the near-fatal auto accident which had cost him his left eye, and more than one year before he'd make his official Broadway debut in "Mr. Wonderful"), here making his Big Apple downtown debut and bringing down the house in the process.
In the film Salinas is considered a peaceful town and Monterey is considered seedy. It's completely turned around since then, as Salinas has had serious crime and street-gang problems and gangs and Monterey has actually boomed in part because of tourists coming to see where John Steinbeck set some of his stories.
Early in 1954, while they were still working on the script, Paul Osborn suggested to Elia Kazan that he go see James Dean, attracting much attention for his small role in Andre Gide's "The Immoralist" on the New York stage. Kazan was familiar with Dean from the Actors Studio, the famous theatrical training ground he had helped to found. The two had even worked briefly on a small project there. Kazan didn't think much of Dean but, responding to a quality he thought might be right for the part of Cal, decided to call him into the Warner Brothers office. He said Dean just sat there surly and unresponsive. Unable to carry on an articulate conversation, he offered Kazan a ride on his motorcycle. It was a risky and harrowing experience Kazan regretted agreeing to, but he also realized right then that he had his Cal. He sent Dean to meet Steinbeck. The author's reply after the meeting was that he didn't like Dean personally but "He's it!" Dean gave notice to the producers of "The Immoralist" and was out of the play in two weeks.
Although widely regarded as a 1955 film, because of its March 1955 premieres and April 1955 release and copyright date, the production took place between May and August 1954, so was "in the can" more than six months before being publicly exhibited, and actually bears a 1954 (MCMLIV) copyright statement during the opening credits.