Friday, January 8, 2010

THE ESCAPE - May 1966 (The FBI)

June is a notoriously bad month to film exteriors in Southern California. Fog. Overcast days. A sun in absentia. I learned that with a vengeance in 1965 when I was booked (it seemed more like I was condemned) to direct the first episode of a new series, LONG HOT SUMMER. It was a production of 20th Century Fox, attempting to turn their blockbuster Paul Newman starrer into another PEYTON PLACE. But it was being filmed at the MGM studio, just down the road in Culver City. This was my first real association with 20th Century Fox. True the year before I had directed TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, which was their co-production with Quinn Martin Productions, but that show had been totally under the command of QM. LONG HOT SUMMER had a lot of exteriors, to be filmed on the MGM backlots, which I suspected may have been the main reason to choose that studio as the base for production in the first place. The edict from the Fox production office was, sun or no sun, keep shooting. Which we did. The following day when the rushes were screened, the eternal complaint was, “But it doesn’t look sunny.” Added to that were the constant phone calls to the set every twenty or thirty minutes from the Fox production office to check on the status of the shooting schedule. I was not used to that. I put enough pressure on myself to complete the day's work without Big Daddy standing over me. In addition to the present production, I was committed to direct three more episodes. I decided I really didn't want to face another nine weeks of the current situation. I called my agent and asked that he get me out of the balance of the contract. He did and mercifully my LONG HOT SUMMER was shortened.


My first assignment in May of the following season under my new The FBI contract was THE ESCAPE, a hard-boiled love story. Our first day’s location was the Santa Monica Airport. Although this was the last week of May, June weather had already settled over the area, and it was a dismal dark airport that greeted our early morning arrival at the location. We didn’t have the problem I had had the previous year on LONG HOT SUMMER. This sequence didn’t have to look sunny. But it was too exciting a sequence to end up looking drab and dreary. Billy Spencer amazed all of us the following day when we viewed the dailies. I don't know what magic he applied, but the rushes he delivered had a surprising and welcome amount of light and color that had not been evident when we shot it.


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The original script for THE ESCAPE was a very disjointed one with scenes that pulled in all directions. Charles Larson did some remarkable work to pull it together, shape it and flesh out the people and the relationships. But I was amused and amazed at his reaction to Roy Thinnes’ acceptance of the role of Larry. (Roy, I think, was already under contract to QM Productions to star in THE INVADERS, which went into production the following year.) Charles said Roy had turned down two other FBI scripts; he didn’t understand what there was about this script that was better than the other two. Without seeing the other two scripts, I still felt I knew what there was about our script that appealed to him.

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I first became aware of Marlyn Mason when she was fourteen years old and was playing Heidi in a children’s musical based on that classic story at the Player’s Ring Theatre in Hollywood. I was able to cast her in two of my early television directing ventures, and then we lost track of each other for awhile, which is not unusual in Hollywood. In 1964 I bought a house on Sunset Plaza Drive in the hills overlooking the Sunset Strip. Some time within the next year I received a forwarded letter with writing on the envelope. The letter had been delivered to the same house number as mine, but on Queen’s Road. The occupant at Queen’s Road had very kindly forwarded it on to me. It was Marlyn. We’ve never really lost contact since. More about her later.


Roy Thinnes had been the star the previous year of LONG HOT SUMMER. Neither he, Edmond O’Brien, nor Ruth Roman contributed to my reasons for departing that show. I was very happy with his decision to accept our offer to guest star in this production.


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Now are you thinking, “Boy, they really had a big budget on this episode to be able send a car over a cliff!” Wrong! A film clip was found in stock footage of a FORD going over a cliff. Then Tom, our agency rep for Ford conveniently found a duplicate of that car for us to use in our filming.


Coming up is Bill ‘You wanna ride on my bulldozer, honey’ Bramley. And if you have been trying to figure out why he looks familiar, where you might have seen him on the big screen in theatres, Bill played Officer Krupke in the 1961 Oscar-winning WEST SIDE STORY.


The third brother was Steve Ihnat. I didn’t know Steve’s work, and I don’t remember if it was Bert Remsen or John Conwell who recommended casting him. An excellent actor, and I was especially pleased with his pairing as a brother to Roy Thinnes. I thought the two looked like they really could be brothers. I have just checked Steve out on the IMDB (Internet Movie Data Base). He was born in Czechoslovakia, arrived in Hollywood when he was twenty-four. He died in France six years after filming this episode of a heart attack at the age of thirty-eight.


And in both the clips you’ve just viewed and the ones coming up, I hope you appreciate Charles Larson’s scripting. His writing gave the actors room to fill in the crevices BETWEEN THE LINES!


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This was the show that introduced me to Franklin Canyon, a beautiful wooded area with a large reservoir in the hills above Beverly Hills. I scouted it on a lovely sunny day. The sun was filtering through the trees, reflecting off the water of the reservoir, it was truly enchanting. The morning we arrived to film was a different story. The June blues had settled into the weather, and there wasn’t a ray of sunshine within miles of the Canyon. Billy Spencer saw my disappointment and concern. He told me not to worry, the soft, diffused light was very good for filming. Oh, how right he was. (I told you he was my film school.) I think the sequence gains by not having the sunlight, by having the soft light which Billy utilized to the nth degree, especially in the long close-up of Marlyn when she talks about her past.


One other thing I must mention about filming for Quinn. He insisted on process photography for his traveling car shots. No towing or using car camera mounts. He wanted the REEL thing.


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There were no problems filming the scenes between the other two brothers back at the studio. So just sit back and enjoy the sight of two fine actors providing a good lesson in film acting.


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To open the scene at the lakeside after the couple have made love, I decided to have Pat look at the world around her through the pink sheer kerchief she had worn on her head; for the moment life did seem to take on a warmer, rosier glow. Two years later I stole from myself and opened a scene the same way in METAMOROPHOSIS on STAR TREK. You can hear a discussion of this in my oral interview on the STAR TREK HISTORY website at: http://www.startrekhistory.com/interviews.html


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The day of location work at the reservoir started with a sequence in a nearby heavily wooded area. It was very early morning, and it was very very dark. Because of the overcast skies and the large trees it seemed more night than day. And it was too large an area to light, even with our huge arcs. Again it was Billy Spencer who said “Not to worry.” He gave instructions to the lab to force the film when developing it, and I don’t know what else he did, but we got the results we needed.


It was also Billy who gave me the ‘trick’ telephone dial for the shot of Larry calling the FBI. I thought then and I think now it is an interesting shot, but I tend to stay away from gimmickry that calls attention to itself.


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It is so inviting when acting a melodramatic scene to play it to the hilt. How much more effective and dangerous to avoid the ranting and raving and keep it simple.


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The big location problem on this show was finding where we could film the ending. The original script had Larry and Pat going to Cliff Side, where agent Rhodes of the FBI finally tracks them down. Then Steve arrives on the scene, armed with his rifle, and a gun battle ensues. Rhodes climbs down the side of the cliff and works his way around to a position behind Steve to end the battle. Howard Alston, production manager for the series, and I drove the coast of Southern California, seeking a spot where I would be able to stage this action. We found nothing that would work. It was Howard who remembered a deserted recreation area in the San Fernando Valley, and he took me there. With the addition of a big CLIFF SIDE LODGE sign, we converted the Valley into the Coast. And I really liked the opportunities for staging that this unusual setting gave me.


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Unlike the heroine she portrayed, Marlyn Mason has not found herself in any traps. Last year she wrote a very short story that she turned into a screenplay for a ten minute film. Entitled MODEL RULES it was entered in seven or eight of the top film festivals in the country and won three major awards.



Not satisfied with this success, the Madame from Medford, which is what I dubbed her once she became an Oregonian, went to work and wrote another screenplay. This too has been filmed and at the present time is being edited. Entitled THE BAG, plans are to submit it for entry into the country’s independent film festivals later this year. Since I’ve thrown a party for her each time she won an award, I am already saving my money for this coming season.


Some things DO IMPROVE with age!



2 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this. As a fan of Steve Ihnat, I'm glad to see any showcasing of his work.

    I suppose that Thinnes guy did okay, too. ; )

    ReplyDelete
  2. lovely marlyn mason has a website MarlynMason.com

    ReplyDelete