SHEENA (1984)
Page 2: The Director

JOHN GUILLERMAN (1925 - present)

John Guillerman was born in London, of French parentage, in 1925.  After service in the RAF during the war he spent three years in France learning his trade as an assistant on documentaries and short films (Lloyd).  In the late Forties he worked on a few low budget British films - High Jinks in Society (1949) and Torment (1950) - before going to Hollywood to study film-making methods in 1950.  On his return a more positive approach was apparent in his low budget films - Miss Robin Hood (1952)and Dust and Gold (1955).  He achieved a certain amount of critical acclaim in 1957 with Town on Trial, a film that attacked English snobbery with frankness and realism.  He also showed that he was adept at intensifying the levels of suspense in the murder scenes.  In 1962 he directed Peter Sellers in the tragicomic Waltz of the Toreadors, a touching portrayal of a retired military officer still obsessed by beautiful young women.  The same year he directed Tarzan's Greatest Adventure, one of the best in the series.  His experiences on that film may have increased his interest in the Sheena project when it was offered to him over twenty years later.  His mastery of suspense showed through in The Towering Inferno (1974), despite a top-heavy cast.  His addle-brained remake of King Kong (1976) was close to disastrous and an even worse sequel, King Kong Lives (1986), confirmed for critics that he was not an auteur director, but one of the general entertainment directors who occasionally hit the mark, but more frequently miss it completely (Quinlan and Thomson).


Paul Aratow, the producer who struggled for nine years to bring Sheena to the screen (see Page 1: The Concept for the full story) did not see eye-to-eye with the director Columbia Picture had chosen for the project.  He made these comments in an interview published in the June 1984 issue of Starlog magazine, several months before the film's release:
           I wouldn't exactly say there is animosity between us, but you could certainly call it friction.  John is very difficult to deal with.  He is very opinionated, and doesn't want to be told anything by anybody.  That may or may not be good for the movie.

I shouldn't comment any further at this stage, because what I have to say is not kind.  But I really don't need to say anything else.  All you have to do is speak to the people who have worked with him.  My feelings about John Guillerman are widely shared.
Aratow's relationship with Guillerman deteriorated further when Columbia Pictures supported Guillerman in his differences with Aratow, who commented:
           Any two people who try to shape a concept will have their own opinions about the direction I it should go.  It's only normal that the studio should pay more attention to John - who has been around for so long and has made so many more movies - than to me, a first time producer.
As a result of this friction between the director and producer Paul Aratow decided to spend as little time as possible on location (see Page 5: The Location).  In his place Columbia hired Yoram Ben Ami to serve as the film's line producer (see definition), who for contractual reasons was finally referred to in the credits as "executive producer" (see production credits on the Sheena [1984] Intro page).  Aratow commented on this arrangement:
           It's in my best interests for everything to go smoothly and economically.  The creative balance is very delicate, and I don't want to rock the boat.  Besides, I'm not a line producer, so there wouldn't be much for me to do in Africa.  All I can do is trust the studio and the experienced people we've hired, and hope that do the best job possible.  I'll let them risk malaria.

The November/December issue of Prevue magazine published an interview with Tanya Roberts soon after the film was released.  The article claimed Roberts and Guillerman worked well together, but mentioned that, "the actress exhibits Sheena's own spirit of independence in describing her attitude toward filming".  This is how she described it:
           I don't operate close to the director, meaning I don't go to dailies, and I don't talk to him constantly.  Some actors like those ego boosts, those pats on the back, but I find it a weakness.  I have a good idea what I'm doing, and I do it.  I can't be stroked.  I'm down to Earth, and work better under pressure with a rough director.

John was always screaming at me to give the performance he wanted.  It was horrible and very frustrating, but I bounce back quickly.  I'll cry in front of 200 people and not give a damn, scream, bang around and then come back on the set! 
Roy Thomas, one of the principle figures at Marvel Comics, once contributed to an article called The Iger Counter: Additions and Corrections to Jay Disbrow's "The Iger Comics Kingdom" and provided some fascinating details about Tanya Roberts that may help explain John Guillerman's frustrations at working with her: 
           Roy well remembers meeting Paul Aratow, the man whose dream it was to make a Sheena film, on the Warners lot (it was then called the Burbank Studios) when he and partner, Gerry Conway were selling screenplays together back in the first half of the 1980s.  The Sheena movie was already vaguely in the works, and Paul told them, a bit ruefully, how the star had been cast:  "(Columbia studio head) Frank Price just walked into my office one day and announced, 'Tanya Roberts is Sheena!'"  Not surprisingly, Price and Roberts were an "item" at the time.  Click the image at right to read the full article.  (Many thanks to Frank Bonilla for providing this rarity)
This story explains why Guillerman may have felt a little frustrated working with Tanya Roberts.  She obviously wasn't his first choice for the role.  Considering the abominable performance that she gave in this film it isn't surprising that the director was sometimes forced to yell in an attempt to get the performance he wanted (Tanya Roberts, was nominated for a 1984 Razzie Award for Worst Actress but lost out to Bo Derek for Bolero).  This topic is discussed in more detail on Page 3 - The Star.

John Guillerman is obviously a director with a variable career.  David Thomson makes the following incisive comments about him in A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema: "On the whole, Guillerman, has a taste for violence and tension." and "his larger action films are very impersonal".

The Tanya Roberts Sheena film has been castigated widely but I don't believe the blame can be laid wholly at the feet of John Guillerman.  The main problems with the film are Tanya Roberts' abysmal performance and a weak script.  One thing about the film that is consistently overlooked when critics are disemboweling it is the fact that the climactic battle between Sheena, the Zambuli warriors and Sheena's animal friends against the troops of Prince Otwani at the end of the film, is a well-staged, exciting and visually satisfying sequence.  The ten minutes of footage, from where Otwani's men first enter The Great Forest to the collision between the vehicles driven by Vic Casey and Prince Otwani, during which Miss Roberts hardly speaks a word, is Guillerman at his best.  But a great 10-minute sequence during a film that runs for 117 minutes, doth not a masterpiece make!

To view a full set of lobby cards for this film click on the image below:

The Movie, edited by Ann Lloyd, Orbis Publishing 1982
Quinlan's Film Directors by David Quinlan, Batsford publishers 1999
Starlog magazine Number 83, Jun 84
Prevue magazine Vol 2 No 17, Nov/Dec 84
The Iger Counter: Additions and Corrections to Jay Disbrow's "The Iger Comics Kingdom" by Roy Thomas (date unknown)
A Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema by David Thomson, Seeker & Warburg 1980
• Photo of John Guillerman filming King Kong in 1976 is from Quinlan's Film Directors by David Quinlan, Batsford publishers 1999
• Photo of John Guillerman directing Sheena (1984) is from the Marvel Comics adaptation of this film - Marvel Super Special No 34
• Video capture from the opening credits of this film is from my Columbia Pictures DVD
• The set of lobby cards for this film are from my private collection

SHEENA © is the property of Sony Pictures Corporation
This independent, fan-based analysis of the Sheena material is copyright © 2006-2008 Paul Wickham