Indiana University Libraries Moving Image Archive

Interview with Robert Berry

Still Photograph of Robert Berry

Still photographs, this one possibly done by Dave Jackson, were saved by Robert Berry for decades. The deterioration present in this photograph highlights the constant threat to preservation which face archival materials.

Recently Wayne Hastings had the privilege of interviewing Robert Berry. Their phone conversation gave a rare look into the making of House of Dreams, over 60 years after the original release of the film. The conversation brought Berry back to his younger days as a theater student at Indiana University and his time working on the film. Berry provided insights into the creation of House of Dreams that news clippings and other surviving sources were not able to, as well as verify the stories printed for the original promotion of the film. 

Berry revealed that his interest in writing macabre horror stories largely began when his father, Robert E. Berry, and younger brothers, Byron Lee Berry and Jon Cristopher Berry, were suddenly taken away from him in a plane crash in 1961. Writing and performing was his way of confronting the trauma of losing loved ones and acknowledging the fragility of life. His two summer’s acting in IU’s Showboat Majestic earned him the respect of his peers and mentors at Indiana University’s Theatre Department. He credited the environment in supporting his vision of commercially releasing a film. The professors were constantly “slapping me on the back and gave me zero push back” in regards to the production of House of Dreams. Though, work on the film would be undertaken outside of his curriculum. For Berry, Indiana University played a supportive role in helping a typical student, who was put in extraordinary circumstances, create something personally meaningful.

Practically, Berry was driven to commercially release a film because he aspired to become an actor and writer. After his friend Lester Lucas, manager of the New Moon Theatre, agreed he’d show Berry’s film if he were to make one, Berry took advantage of the opportunity to advance his professional career. Set about writing the script for the film, Berry found aspects in common with the main protagonist, Lee Hansen, he would eventually come to play. Much like Lee Hansen’s prophetic nightmares of a failed career and ruined marriage throughout the film, Berry revealed that he shared his main protagonist’s fears of failing at an artistic career. Berry embraced his resourceful side to keep costs within his limited budget as he was driven to complete the project. In one instance of note, Berry recounted having to bargain with the Crawfordsville television repairman to let him borrow the film equipment for $1,100, rather than $1,700. Further along in production, he also reminisced on lighter memories, like how he and his production crew spent several hours trying to disguise a gerbil as a rat for a scene. Other filmmaking choices were more difficult. The entire movie was filmed in one summer, and largely during the evenings, Berry explained, as that time of day had less ambient noise. Audio issues would not end there. About ninety percent of the film had to have audio dubbed in post-production after discovering the optical sound tracks would not have been sufficient for theaters. Getting an in-depth look at the making of House of Dreams highlights Robert Berry’s, and the entire production staff’s, dedication.

The Sam Jordan House was a focal point and a main character. Panning shots like this served to lure Lee Hansen and audience interest.

Robert Berry confessed that he did not seek out to film a ‘hoosier movie’, but rather accidentally created one by being resourceful. The involvement of local residents and inexpensive film sets made the community of Decker one of the most recognizable and unique elements of House of Dreams. Some of the first audiences to publicly see the film were the Decker and Vincennes locals who had appeared in the film. Berry remembered that these audiences were some of the most enthused. He shared that the local barber, who is seen opening and closing car doors during the bus station scene filmed in Vincennes, was elated to appear on screen. The tiny town of Decker, with a population at the time under 400, was buzzing to be heavily featured in a motion picture. Farmers regularly gossiped about the film being shot at the old Sam Jordan House. The ten room farmhouse, stylistically typical for the area, was the “primary character of the film” according to Berry. Moreover the house had a history in the community as a local haunt. Before it was a movie set, older generations knew it as the home where a nine year old girl was mysteriously killed in one of the top rooms. Berry paid homage to the local folk legend by filming the finale in the room where the girl was supposedly murdered. Although the home was immediately demolished after filming wrapped, the legend of the haunted Sam Jordan House vicariously lives on as the mystical tormentor of Lee Hansen. Intended or not, much of House of Dreams is rooted in the local communities of Southern Indiana that make it a regional, and a distinctly Hoosier film.

Interview with Robert Berry