Sunday, December 27, 2009

THE TRAIN - February 1967 (Mission: Impossible)

You hear that driving pulsating beat of the theme song for MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE? That’s the way I remember it felt like when I was directing THE TRAIN, which assignment could almost have been labeled an impossible mission. But let’s take it step by step.

The series' first season was drawing to its end, and the company was in the process of making plans and changes for its continuance. Steven Hill, the head of the Mission: Impossible team, had had his troubles with the studio, or was it the other way around. For the current production he had been demoted, he would only make the assignments. Martin Landau was joining the team and would be performing the role in the mission that Hill would normally do.

I would like to state here that I found Steven Hill to be charming, cooperative and totally professional. And I think he’s a hell of an actor.

Casting was easy. William Windom as the evil heir apparent had earlier that season been in what I consider the best of my sixteen THE FBI’s. Also in that cast was Rhys Williams, who would be playing the ailing prime minister. Rhys, the previous season had also been in THE NIGHT OF THE DRUID’S BLOOD on THE WILD WILD WEST, which I had directed.

The production was scheduled to be filmed in seven days, six days in the studio, one day on location, but what a day that was. Here is the Shooting Schedule for our day at the train.

The day started bright and early.

The interior of the warehouse would be created back at the Desilu Studio. Within that warehouse set would be the set for the train’s interior. Film making is not unlike a jigsaw puzzle. Each shot is like a piece of a puzzle; put them all together and you have a film. In the case of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, most of the pieces were just shorter than usual and definitely more plentiful. And shots in a sequence were not always filmed at the same time or in the same place. For instance in the following clip the shot with Greg Morris and Martin Landau in the foreground looking through the door window was filmed at the train site. The reverse angle two shot of them intercutting with that shot was filmed later at the studio. The shot of the doctor and guard inside the train car was filmed at the studio. The shot of the exterior of the train as the window shade is raised was filmed at the train site several days prior.

Barry Crane was the associate producer-production manager for MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. (He also was a world class bridge player.) When we scouted the train location we both knew that although the page count for the day came to just under eight pages, the amount of work being scheduled was impossible. To help alleviate this problem a second camera was added, and it was decided that Barry would shoot (with that second camera when I wasn’t utilizing it) any shots not requiring sound. In the following clip the shots of Willie (Peter Lupus) climbing the switching tower and operating the switches were storyboarded by me and directed by Barry.

This sequence was a challenge. It was like filming a sequence for a silent film without the caption cards to help explain the action, which was that the mission of the Mission Impossible team was to get the prime minister and his entourage on board, disconnect his car from the rest of the train and have the train pull out, have Barney (Greg Morris) connect his engine to the prime minister’s car and switch it to the tracks that will allow him to push the car into the warehouse.

You’ll notice the prime minister (Rhys Williams) did not exit the car. Rhys was plagued with crippling arthritis. It was not only uncomfortable for him to exit the car, it would have been painful to watch.

Did you notice the pink sky in that last clip? That shot was filmed late afternoon. Now in our story the whole sequence from the time the first trucks arrived until the prime minister’s car was pushed into the warehouse should have spanned about an hour at most. A feature film with a proper budget would have scheduled the train sequence for three days. But this was television. So hopefully you and the millions of viewers didn’t notice this slight discrepancy.

Have I roused your curiosity as to why they are taking the train and the prime minister into the warehouse? Well you’ll just have to wait a few more minutes. Can you believe we haven’t finished our location filming yet? What ever is going on inside requires Willie to stand guard outside. And here again our television schedule forced Willie to stand guard at night. If we had had a feature film budget he would have stood guard in daylight.

A good location day would be 25 to 30 setups. With Barry Crane’s help (I think he shot 13 or 14 second unit setups) we triumphantly returned to the studio with 69 setups in the can.

Back in the old days there would be one advance screening at the network (in this case, CBS) for the representatives from the ad agencies representing the sponsors of the program. I always tried to go to those screenings of shows I had directed. In those days before tape and DVD’s, there weren’t that many chances for me to see the final results of my efforts. The agency screening of the answer print and the show’s airing were it. The sponsors’ representatives were very impressed. One of them asked me how many days we had spent filming on location. There was general amazement from all when I answered, “One.”

And now welcome into the warehouse. I’ll write about it after you’ve had a chance to look around.

Everything i had filmed outside of the warehouse had been totally real. My job was to transfer that reality to film. Inside the warehouse it was a different situation. I have written before of rear projection. That’s what you are seeing here. Rear projection as seen through the lens of a camera photographing it (the two cameras are synchronized) is very believable But to the naked eye it is not. The human eye looking at a rear projection screen sees a movie screen with all of its flickering. My assignment was to ignore that fact.

Now we have an added problem for our Mission: Impossible team.

I think our writers, Woodfield and Balter, must have been carried away by what they had been viewing. I can’t say this for sure because I don’t think I ever met them, although they were around the studio. But about this time I received pages of new scenes they had written. If the sound system breaking down could create an exciting sequence, wouldn’t it be even more exciting to have the film in the rear projector break. Film spewing out of the projector all over the place. I agreed it would IF there was not a limitation on the running time for the completed film and IF there was not the problem of adding new material to an already overloaded shooting schedule. I pled my case to producer Joe Gantman, a friend from our CBS days, and he agreed with me. The added scenes were not added to the already overloaded filming schedule.

And now the exciting part, both behind and before the camera.

How about a hand for those Hollywood crews of old who NEVER saw a request they couldn’t fill!

And now I’m going to let the film tell you the rest of the story.

Since this episode was filmed near the end of their first season, it was only a short time until the Emmy nominations for that year were announced. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE received a nomination as best television series. When a show for any series was nominated, the producers selected one episode that was submitted to the Television Academy. The Academy then had panels of Television Academy members assemble to view the five nominees in each category. Their vote decided the winner. I was told by a member of the production staff that MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE submitted THE TRAIN as their entrant. It won! MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE was awarded the Emmy as the best television series in its first season on the air.

At the beginning of the following television season when directors were booked for assignments for the season, my agents called to tell me there was a request from MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE for me to do six episodes. I turned it down. It was a marvelous show, but it was a killer. And not too long after the following season began, Desilu Studio was purchased by Paramount Studios. The new bosses imposed even more stringent demands on the shooting schedules. I never regretted my decision to say no.


  1. Thanks for telling us about this great episode, which was so good the series later remade it with a submarine! Hard to believe all the location footage was done in a day. I have heard M:I was called a "director killer," so it's understandable that many directors didn't come back for a second try!

  2. I've only seen a few episodes of the original M:I show (I've seen more of the '80s remake series). This was certainly a nice overview of an extraordinary shooting. "Director killer" indeed. Or even "crew killer"?

    Interestingly, the Prime Minister is called Ferenc Larya. Ferenc is a Hungarian name (Frank). Larya... that's certainly not Hungarian. However his deputy is called Milos Pavel a Czech and a Russian name put together. :-))

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