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Warner’s Angel – Interview with Cass Warner

I will call her Angel Cass, because she must be one. Her soft voice, sweet eyes– this can’t be a Hollywood Girl.  Surely an Angel to her grandfather, Harry Warner, co-founder of Warner Brothers Studio. Their hands joined for the last time on his death bed where a promise, an idea, a commitment birthed by that moment was fulfilled thirty years later by his Angel and Granddaughter.  Not only has she honored the legacy of the Brothers Warner with a documentary, she is facilitating the dreams of others, who,  like her grandfather, came from little or no means and want to start something from nothing with the launch of Dream Factory. Cass believes that successful people are clear about their dreams and that it is crucial to depart what your dream is. When she says she is committed to inspiring other people’s success, you know it’s not just a line from a movie or something a public relations guru told her to recite. It is coming from the depth of her soul and heart. And of course, her halo.

Harry Warner, founder Warner Brothers with Granddaughter Cass.

Harry Warner, founder Warner Brothers with Granddaughter Cass.

Interview with Cass Warner Sperling

Cass Warner Sperling, writer, director, producer of the documentary film, “The Brothers Warner,” spoke with My Daily Burbank’s Nili Nathan by phone from Santa Barbara.

“The Brothers Warner,” will be screened at the 2013 Burbank International Film Festival Opening Night, at the Warner Brother’s  Studio with and Opening Night Gala Reception at Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant. Get Tickets.

This interview took place just weeks before the opening of the Film Festival.

Nili NathanYour film took a year to make and edit.  It’s been screened at over 35 film festivals and won several awards. It’s aired on American Masters/PBS television, and is now being distributed by Warner Home Video. Congratulations.

Cass Warner Sperling: Thank you.

NN:  “It’s the definitive story of a family who rose from immigrant poverty through personal tragedies persevering to create a major studio with a social conscience,” as described on your website.

How do you feel about today’s films?  Do you see that they are consciously making films that are socially conscience, or are they void of any conscience? 

CWS:  You know it’s a different world. It’s a different time. I can’t really compare then to now, because we didn’t have the same kind of reporting.  During World War Two, they actually became the news of the day; they put out news before the movies. At that time, my family, especially my grandfather Harry felt a responsibility to use that medium in the way that he did. The original motto of the company was to use films to educate, entertain and enlighten. That was their mindset, their consciousness, especially my grandfather. He would travel all over the world and set up exchanges and businesses and see what was going on.  Especially, with regard to Hitler coming into power in 1934. He felt he could do something about that. It was this mindset with my family that caused them to make those kind of films. They were also very keen on making a profit, so they could stay alive, which is why they also made wonderful musicals that entertained. It’s just a different time. The Independents are now doing participant media and people like that have grabbed the torch and are making films that my grandfather would have loved as well.

NN: With the Internet Media, anybody can set up a YouTube channel. I think they would have been in awe of the technology today.

CWS: I think they’d be thrilled. What’s happened is we have democratized the making of film. Because anyone can afford to do it and we’re in a distribution revolution. Which to me is thrilling since I’m an Independent Producer.  Now there is more opportunity for our films to be seen. 

NN:   Today’s world events are plentiful for stories and the opportunity to do what in Frank Capra’s own words express, which I read on your site: ‘We have it within our power to speak to hundreds of millions of people two hours at a time in the dark. No single person before has ever had that power, no emperor, saint, no individual however powerful. We have a tremendous responsibility.” If you had only one social issue to address in a film, what would that issue be and why?

CWS: I would do “Cuckoo’s Nest.” I’m concerned about how many people, children included, are on psychotropic drugs prescribed by psychiatrists. It’s frightening. I belong to a group called the Citizens Commission On Human Rights. There is incredible amount of research, studies and enormous amount of work on this, and it’s out of control.

NN: Do you feel this issue is being largely ignored?

CWS: Yes, although the new Pope (Argentinian) is not keen on this. In fact, he called on someone from this group to inform him of all the ramifications of these drugs. It just happened a week ago. That was very helpful to hear that, that he’s even interested. But, Cuckoo’s Nest to me was just is an exemplary film, across the board, everything about it. One of my favorites because of its message and you’re entertained at the same time.

NN: Of the other brothers – Harry, Albert, Sam who was your favorite Grand Uncle and do you think you inherited any of his traits?

CWS: Oh my goodness, well, I have a real fondness in my heart for Sam. Sam is the visionary. He is the one that really brought forward the idea of them gambling everything on the synchronizing of sound technology.  This launched them. He was a real innovative guy. He found the first film, “My Four Years In Germany,” in 1917, which helped set them up, because he saw a book about the ambassador to Germany. He was a very forward thinker. I hope I have acquired some of that.

NN:  As a little girl you would accompany your father, Milton Sperling, to the Warner Brothers Studio –that must have been so exciting as a young child,  obviously, since you are continuing the legacy with Warner Sisters (I love that). Tell our Burbank readers if you have any special memory or story about Burbank back in those days.

CWS: I use to go every Saturday between the age of 8 and 13, and it was an enclave, like going to a creative castle. Just the fact that I was with my father was very special. And, of course I would see my Grandfather for lunch. I do remember the restaurant that is still there, “The Smoke House” it reminded me of the Brown Derby, which I loved. We would eat on the lot, so that was my recollection. Being on the lot now, I get to be part of the VIP Tour. I’m thrilled to be working with Danny Kahn, who runs the VIP Studio Tour. I get to have lunch every Thursday, on the Deluxe Tour, with people from all over the world and I absolutely love it. There will be a permanent exhibit about the Brothers that we’re working on now because most people don’t know the story.

NN: You describe  your grandfather as being such a down to earth man; kind, and greeting everyone from the janitor to a star in the same manner. I found this so touching, so wonderful and unfortunately not a trait we see very much of the people in the Industry today. This humbleness, where do you think it came from and why is it lacking today?

CWS: With my grandfather, he was an immigrant, he came from a little shtetl in Poland. America was really the land of opportunity and they had that wonderful philosophy of life– which is that when you have opportunity, you never give up. You set a goal and you go for it. And the thing that was so inspiring to me, was that every challenge, and there were huge challenges along the way, was an incentive for them to do the next thing, rather than a reason to quit. That’s a part of their story, the message, that I hope the film communicates. That was part of his personality — that he revered people, he respected them and he cared about them. He was one of the kindest souls I’ve ever met. I mean on every front, the conversations around the table were never about what parties my family went to, who was wearing what and all that, it was more what could they do to help the planet be a better place. I was so fortunate that way, it’s extordinary. My mother continues to be that way. To answer the question, I can tell you Barry Meyer who has run the studio for years and is grooming Kevin Tsujihara, whom I met, seems like a very down to earth guy. I’m not sure why more people are not more like that. Maybe it’s because they’re not comfortable in their own skin, and they have to put up this front. Personally, I have found that people of a status of celebrity are humble and don’t need to be treated differently.

NN: When people begin the task of digging up their family past, the history, often there is this “wow” element when you find out something you didn’t know, that surprised you. Did you have that moment?

CWS: Oh yes, constantly. One of the first wow moments was that I didn’t even know I had a Great Aunt Lina.  Lina was estranged by the family because she was 20 when Sam died at 42. She was married at 18, pregnant at 19, and a widow at 20. She had been a starlet in her own right, she had a young child and wanted to live life, and I didn’t even know she existed. When my cousin told me about her I immediately reached out to her. Flew to New York, met her and interviewed her. It was extraordinary to talk to someone that was there and witnessed the very beginning of their history, 1920, ‘24, ‘25,’26. It was just such an amazing experience for so many reasons. First of all, she had some biased opinions about the brothers. She was there when Sam was trying to be wooed by Paramount to give them the technology rather than the Brothers. She, being an actress wanted to be famous again and thought that was a good move — to leave the family and go with Paramount. So, she told the story which was actually bloodcurdling because I thought “how could you expect him to do that?” But I never gave my opinions, I just asked questions. You know, she wore a Cross, because at that time Jews were kind of shunned. When they went to business meetings, she would wear her cross so people would think he wasn’t a Jew.

NN: Is that piece, story in the film?

CWS: It is, because I fortunately was so excited about meeting her, when I got back home I talked to an Oscar winning documentarian and said you got to meet this woman. He did, and shot some footage of her. The footage that he shot was priceless. Part of it is in the film.

NN: What one message do you hope people will take away from the film?

CWS: That they  are dreamers and have goals and hope they manage to have the chutzpah to follow their dreams like the Brothers did and never give up, never give up, never quit, never buy that you can’t do something and just go for it.

Nili: You have a project, The Dream Factory. How’s that going?

CWS: It’s going great, I’m shooting  more interviews for the inspirational library and getting interest. I’m editing the ones that I’ve done into bite size people so that people can access them, I’m excited and hope to have the non profit set up soon.

Cass Warner Sterling

 The Dream Factory

This series of conversations are unlike any that have been seen before. Free from the usual restraints of the mainstream press, each interview has the natural feeling of a discussion between old friends. Stories are told, moments of humor shared. The end product is a very personal glance into what is most important to these individuals.

Written, directed, and hosted by Cass Warner, these interviews will be used as an inspirational film library for “The Dream Factory” as well as part of an on-going series. THE DREAM FACTORY

Photo: this fine bunch of vibrant youth and I had the pleasure of gathering together
yesterday in front of the gorgeous memorial theater my grandfather,
Harry, built at Worcester Academy in Lewis’s name after his passing in 1931.

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