Friday, January 29, 2010

THE CASHIER AND THE BELLY DANCER - November 1982 (Casablanca)

What a difference a few weeks can make!

When I completed photography on WHO AM I KILLING?, the feeling in the company was very positive and hopeful. It was the second show in the can of a five episode limited series, and the feeling was very optimistic that CASABLANCA would be on NBC’s schedule for the following season. (The fact that it was being produced by David Wolper’s production company was an enormous plus.) I stayed on at the studio, finishing my director’s cut, at which time Charles FitzSimons asked me to direct the fifth and final episode of the series. I don’t know what created this vacancy; one director had been booked to direct episodes 1, 3 and 5; I had been booked to direct episode 2; and a third director had been booked to direct episode 4. As I said, I didn't know why the vacancy but there was no hesitation on my part to saying yes. Directing WHO AM I KILLING? had been a very positive, pleasant experience.

I noticed immediately a change in the atmosphere. WHO AM I KILLING? had gone over the eight day shooting schedule by one day. I don’t know if there were overages on the other episodes (I'm positive there were) and if so what they were, but Charles told me the studio was no longer as confident of having the series picked up by the network, and they wanted the last episode to be completed in the allotted eight days. They didn’t want to add to the deficit spending they had so far experienced. Since the new show did not have a difficult location action sequence like the Indian Dunes sequence in WHO AM I KILLING?, I didn’t foresee any problem.

The chances of casting a trained belly dancer with the necessary acting chops for the role of Queenie were several levels below probable. We met Melinda Fee who could dance, hired an accomplished belly dancer to choreograph the routines, and filmed the closer angles from the neck down on the photo-doubling belly dancer herself. (The set wasn’t large enough for me to photograph the real belly dancer in wide angle shots.) So before we get to the Blue Parrott where the belly dancer is performing, let’s drop in again at what has become one of my favorite night spots, Rick’s Cafe Americain.

During one of our casting sessions for this production, the name of Isabella Rossellini was suggested to play Queenie. David Wolper rejected the idea. He felt it would be tasteless; it woud seem that we were using her to capitalize on the fact she was Ingrid Bergman’s daughter, and we all know Bergman’s connection to CASABLANCA.

We only had one song to prerecord for this episode, but it was a good one; especiallly with the great Scatman dishing out the vocals!

Does anyone remember Astrid Allwyn? She was a movie star (mostly in B movies but some small roles in A features) from the early thirties till the early forties. Melinda Fee, our gambling-losing belly dancer was her daughter.

Now we’ve arrived at the major problem in this script. This movie (and I thought of them as short movies) was a caper film. What does a director do when the plan for the caper is more than unrealistic? I was faced with that same question many years earlier when filming THE TRAIN on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. (You can read or reread about it in detail in the archives to the right of this column.) Well my method of dealing with the dilemma is to cast aside all doubts, BELIEVE that IT IS POSSIBLE, and then put that belief on film as realistically as possible.

Claude’s ‘pacing’ the Banque de Maroc (the exterior) was a return to the Disney studio. As is the next sequence. But I still didn’t get to eat in the Disney dining room.

One producer I worked for wanted everything covered in closeups. Now in the early days of television with the smaller screen sets, there may have been some justification for this overuse of the closeup. I certainly liked to use them, but with discretion. There was a trick I learned during my many years at Quinn Martin Productions. Quinn had been a sound editor before becoming a producer, and he was an absolute fanatic about sound overlaps. When filming a closeup, the people in the scene not being photographed are also not being recorded on mike. So if the actors in the scene talk as people normally do, overlapping each other, there can be a problem editing the dialog. In scenes played at a faster pace and in emotional scenes, people don’t wait until the other person is done speaking before they talk. So the pacing in scenes filmed in closeup is left to the discretion of the film editor. I wanted to set the pacing of the scene. So I realized that when I did an ‘over shoulder’ shot, since both people were on camera and on mike, the overlapping of dialogue was allowed. If I tightened that shot so that I was photographing as little as the ear of the person in the foreground, the overlapping of dialogue was allowed and I was getting a closeup; actually many times a more interesting shot than a closeup.

In the case of the following scene, where I wanted to play it in an uninterrupted shot without any coverage closeups, I was fortunate to have in Charles FitzSimons a producer who understood the language of film. In addition to the dialogue revealing Claude’s explanation for his involvement with Senorita Inez, we visually see him as if trapped in a cage with Rick ominously encircling him.

The change in atmosphere I referred to earlier in the production offices, did not affect the attitude on the set. There the enthusiasm and dedication to quality were as high as ever. Rick had a table in the cafe where he played chess and which he used almost as an in-house office. The following is a scene from WHO AM I KILLING?

Joe Biroc came to me and excitedly told me there was an angle in the set that had not yet been filmed. He showed me where a wall could be taken out, giving us a much more interesting view of Rick and his table. You just can’t beat that kind of enthusiasm.

You would have thought that after directing film for twenty-one years, there wouldn’t be any more ‘firsts’ for me. Well, you would have been wrong. Midway through production my friend Charlie threw me an inside curve. Our script was running long, and in order to finish on schedule some possible cuts needed to be made. Since the scenes that could be cut were scenes in which Rick appeared, Charles and Harold Gast were fearful this might become an issue of contention with David. The potential cuts were pointed out to me. They would remain in the published script, but I needed to plan my filming as if they weren’t there. But if time allowed, they would be filmed, so I also needed to plan for their inclusion. I always planned my ‘bridges’ from scene endings to scene beginnings very carefully. So now in those places where a scene might be cut, I had to plan an ending of the preceding scene that could match either of two beginnings. Fortunately the following scene was not one of the potential cuts.

Rick’s place is wrecked by the Nazis searching for clues to his involvement because of the bricks of gold. Before the scene when Queenie comes to see him, Melinda came to me, concerned about her make-up. It was very bold, and if worn on the street would look like the make-up of a streetwalker. I said, “Let’s go show Joe.” We did, and Joe gave it his approval. The make-up man on the show was “Shotgun” Britton, one of the real old-timers in the profession. He was loaded with great expressions, one of which I have stolen and have used for years. When describing a person of lesser mental capabillity, “Shotgun” would say of him, “He’s two bricks short of a full load.” “Shotgun” certainly wasn’t missing any bricks, as you’ll see from the closeups of Queenie in the following scene.

And you can bet on it too. Rick shows up at the Blue Parrott. Incidentally, so does the belly dancer -- both of them!

Oh that Joe Biroc. His enthusiasm, his ingenuity, his knowledge of his craft never ceased to amaze me. We had a short thirty-five second scene at the main entrance to the Banque de Maroc, when the bank manager is unlocking the door for the Nazis. To film the door in its normal position was too restricting, so Joe took the door and its frame out of the wall and angled it to provide a more interesting composition that included three of the Nazi officers.

There were two safe doors to the room where the gold was stored. Two time Academy Award winner Preston Ames had designed the set according to specifications of research. The first safe door was a smaller door and the safe door into the final chamber was a very large door. Harold Gast, Supervising Producer for the series, came to inspect the sets. He thought the larger door should be the first door. Preston explained to him what his research had revealed. Harold was not to be convinced. He didn’t think it looked real. I remember that moment as being very painful. Preston Ames, a seventy-six year old man who had been a giant in the movie profession, a man whom I considered it a privelege and an honor to work with, a man whose knowledge and taste should have been revered, he was being forced to redesign the set to please Harold. If this seems as if I’m picking on Harold Gast, I’m not. Harold was my friend and I really liked him. But he like so many of the television writers who were elevated to producer status, did not have the background in production to prepare them for their new duties. And he, like so many of his contemporaries, didn’t adjust and adapt to his new role as producer.

Abby Singer was an assistant director, then a production manager, then a producer, but always one of the nicest people in the profession. As the filming approaches the end of a day’s shooting, it is the assistant director who calls out, “This is the last shot.” When Abby was an assistant director he constantly, after his last shot had been completed, would say, “Oh, there’s one more.” So what had been intended to be the last shot turned out to be the next to the last shot. As a result the next to the last shot of the day came to be known as the “Abby”. He is known internationally. Film students from around the world would come to Universal Studio to meet the famous Abby. So in honor of Mr. Singer, may I now present the “Abby” for this production.

And now the last shot.

CASABLANCA did not become a weekly series. Why not? From the advantage point of twenty-seven years later I now wonder if the very thing that launched the project may have ended up being the thing that sank the ship -- the name CASABLANCA. This was not the first attempt to make a series out of the screen classic. Warner Bros. had tried and failed in 1955. And it was not the last. Twenty-two episodes of a series called CASABLANCA were filmed in 1998 in Argentina.

There are some screen classics that defy being remade. When will Hollywood learn to let them rest in peace. And if you have to remake something, how about remaking some of those that weren’t successful. Maybe this time they’ll get it right.

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