Thursday, August 19, 2010
THE NEW ADVENTURES OF HEIDI - June/July 1978
My mother passed away in Iowa in March after a two year battle with cancer. Soon after I returned to the west coast, Robert Jacks, former producer of THE WALTONS, called to inform me that Will Geer had passed away. He said he didn’t want to have me learn about it in the newpspapers. I had been booked to direct their opening episode of the coming season. Andy White, the current WALTONS producer, told me that their plans were to make it a memorial to Will Geer’s character of the Grandfather. He said the episode would start with the family gathered around his grave as they reminisced about the past. It did not take long for me to realize that the combination of my mother’s recent passing and my relationship with Will (you can read in the archives to the right about our final time together on the episode, GRANDMA COMES HOMES) could make this a very painful situation to endure. I explained my feelings to Andy and I was very sympathetically released from the commitment.
A short time after that my friend, Charles FitzSimons called to tell me he was producing a two-hour film for television for Pierre Cossette Productions. It was to be another stab at retrieving one of literature’s seemingly indestructible characters, Heidi, this time in a modern setting. Did I want to come aboard? The chance to work with Charlie again produced a resounding “yes”. As we began work around the first of May, Charlie told me he thought we should turn the John McGreevey script into a musical. I never questioned him as to his reasons; I suspected he felt just another telling of that often-told story, even in a modern setting, wasn’t quite going to justify doing it yet again. I agreed. I had dabbled in musical sequences (THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY, the burlesque theatre sequences in one of THE WALTONS, the musical sequences in CASABLANCA) but a book musical -- that was new territory. I liked the idea. So Charlie and I went to work reconstructing the script, eliminating sequences to make room for the musical interludes we planned. Charlie hired Buz Kohan, one of the fine comedy writers in Hollywood, noted for his contributions through the years to so many Award Shows. But Buz was also a composer, although his musical involvement through the years had been secondary to his comedy writing. Charlie and I met with Buz and told him where in the plot we wanted songs and what we wanted the songs to be. We sent him home to start composing -- music and lyrics. Now I must finally tell you what a daunting task we had set for ourselves. Our projected start of filming was just six weeks away.
We hired my friend Jim Merrick, one of the best casting directors in town, to cast our production. The Grandfather was easy-- Burl Ives. We had three youngsters to cast: Heidi; her friend in the mountains, Peter; and the runaway she meets, Elizabeth. Both Heidi and Elizabeth were going to have to be able to sing. Jim brought in three people to audition for us: Katy Kurtzman for Heidi, Sherrie Wills for Elizabeth and Sean Marshall for Peter. We immediately said yes and cast all three, thereby antagonizing the community of childrens’ agents who demanded that we give their clients a chance to audition. But time was short and we stood our ground.
The two other principal roles were Daniel Wyler, Elizabeth’s father, and his secretary, Mady. They too had to be singers. The secretary again was easy -- my friend, Marlyn Mason. Daniel proved a little more difficult. We checked the availability of a couple Broadway singing stars (I’m afraid I can’t remember who) but they were not available. I don’t know who knew that John Gavin was a singer -- Charlie or Jimmy. But he ended up being our final choice. There was a large supporting cast, but that too was no problem. Most of them came from my list of preferred performers, and I trusted Jimmy’s opinion on those few people he recommended that I hadn’t worked with.
Ideally any Heidi production should be filmed in the Swiss Alps. But this was television. An acceptable substitute was our own Rockies. As difficult as it may be to believe, Charlie and I did not go to scout the mountain locations. We sent our production manager and production designer out to Aspen, Colorado, to do that. Their main chore was to select a scenic location where Grandfather’s alm hut would be constructed. Charlie and I busied ourselves finding the local locations. The first two weeks (ten days) of filming were going to be on locations in Los Angeles.
For Daniel Wyler’s New York hotel we chose the Hotel Bonaventure in downtown Los Angeles. The hotel was very modern, and it was totally circular. The representative who guided us on our tour of inspection told us of an incident when a patron of the hotel had come up to her and asked where he could find a pay telephone. She said, I told him there was one over there in the corner. His reply was, “What corner. There isn’t a f_____g corner in this whole damned hotel.” And he was so right. The hotel would be our base for filming the first four days.
We were going to need a Swiss village. Charlie and I went up to Solvang, but, charming as it was, it wasn’t suitable. Too Danish instead of Swiss. We checked the MGM back lots, but they were in a disturbingly sad state after years of neglect. We decided on the Columbia ranch, where their village setting with some renovations could be converted into our Swiss village of Dorfli. This also pleased me because I had done a lot of filming at this site, mostly on THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY.
In an incredibly short time Buz Kohan came in to play and sing for us the songs he had composed. We were astonished at his speed and pleased at his accomplishment. Now if this had been a feature, the next step would have been to score his work for orchestra and then have a recording session with the singers and the orchestra. Those recordings would then be played back on the set at the time of filming with the actors lip-synching to the prerecorded music. But that could not be done in the short time before we were scheduled to start shooting. So it was arranged for Buz to have individual sessions at a piano with the five performers who would be singing (Burl Ives, Katy Kurtzman, Sherrie Wills, Marlyn Mason and John Gavin). At these sessions he would ascertain the key in which their numbers needed to be played and the tempo. Buz would then be recorded playing these numbers on a piano; these recordings would be used as playback for the actors to sing to in a live performance before the camera. Then Allyn Ferguson would orchestrate and conduct the musical arrangements that would be joined with these original sound tracts at the final dubbing of the film. Sounds simple? It was. Except when Allyn Ferguson heard Buz’s recordings, he rebelled. To put it bluntly he didn’t want his musical orchestration to include Buz’s piano playing. Charlie and I put our heads together and came up with the solution. Rather than having Buz’s accompaniment played back on speakers which the sound track would record, we would have a small speaker (the size of a hearing aid) that the performer would wear in his ear -- the ear away from the camera. The actor would hear the music to sing to, but the sound department would not be recording it. At dailies and in all of the assemblages up until the final orchestrated sound tract was created, the singers would appear to be singing with no accompaniment. And that’s how we did it.
We completed our ten days of filming in Los Angeles on the second Friday. Saturday morning I flew out to Aspen, Colorado, and spent the weekend scouting the other mountain locations I would be needing for the following ten days. One of the areas I found was an enchanting lake surrounded by high peaks. I thought it would be an ideal location to open the film.
But naturally there was a problem. Guided tours went through there starting at 9:00am. We would have to be finished and cleared out of the area by that time. My opening sequence at the lake was a musical number, almost a minute of which occurred at this location. I had planned six camera setups for the sequence at this site plus two more setups for the ending montage. Again my normal average was three setups an hour. With a 5:15am crew call to start filming at 7:00am, that was cutting it very close, but I decided to go for it. So let’s start the show.
There was a fairly recent new ingenious camera tool available -- the Steadicam. But those early Steadicams were not the light, easily maneuverable ones they have today. The one we used was a very heavy contraption. I know, I tried it on to get the feel of it. And I mean -- it was heavy -- but effective.
No, the opening shot in the village was not in Colorado. It was filmed at the Columbia Ranch in Burbank. The matted in mountains were added in postproduction.
After using the Steadicam at the Columbia Ranch, I also planned a more complicated shot in the mountains. As the two children ran away from the Wild Man, the camera was to chase them down the slope. Part way down our camera operator stepped into a hole, tripped and down he went. The gate on the camera upon hitting the ground flew open. Fortunately one of the crew saw it and immediately slammed the camera gate shut, thereby saving most of the take we had shot. The camera operator ended up with a badly sprained ankle that had him hobbling around for the rest of the production.
That sequence looked like it had two steadicam shots running down the hill. That was the genius of Gene Fowler, our great editor. The take started aiming up the hill as the several kids, two-legged and four-legged, came over the crest; the camera then chased them down the hill until the accident. The end of that take as the camera fell to the ground was of course unusable. And there was nothing to cut to. So Gene started with the second part of the shot (running down the hill), and just before the camera veered to the ground, he cut to the first part of the shot with them coming over the crest of the hill. Thus he used every frame of film that survived to maximum advantage.
When I was preparing to film my first wide establishing shot of Grandfather’s alm hut, I went with the camera crew down the slope to where I felt the camera would be set up. As I turned back to the alm hut, I was stunned. There was no roof. I was told the production designer had said I wouldn't be needing one. We didn’t get the wide establishing shot that day. A roof was soon built, installed and then I got my shot.
The interiors of the alm hut were the last sequences to be filmed. To repeat, the first two weeks were local Los Angeles locations; then two weeks in Aspen and a final week at the old Selznick Studio in Culver City, the very studio where GONE WITH THE WIND had been filmed.
Katy Kurtzman was an amazing youngster. If tears didn’t flow from her eyes quite as copiously as they once had from Margaret O’Brien’s eyes, the flow was more than adequate; by the fifth week of filming I had buckets in the can. With two hours of tears ahead, I didn’t want this early sequence to become too tearful. So my suggestion to Katy when she heard Grandfather’s new plans for her was, “You must not cry. You must not let him see you cry!” What a pro!
On our second day at the Selznick studio when we went to the projection room at noon to view the rushes for our first day’s work, we we handed a big surprise. The film projectors wouldn’t work. No matter what the projectionist tried, he couldn’t get them to function. I wasn’t too disturbed by this. In fact I thought it was kind of exciting. Just think -- those projectors were obviously so old they had probably been used to screen the GONE WITH THE WIND dailies. Talk about ghosts of the past. By the following day new projectors had been installed and from then on we were able to view our dailies.
I’m going to let you view the next musical sequence before I discuss it.
To remind you, both Burl and Katy were singing to the piano accompaniment they were hearing in a small receiver in their ear. Their individual solos had respective individual tracks; but for their duet they were singing to the same track. Again if this had been a feature with the singing prerecorded, they would have sung together on the recording stage and everything would have been in sync. But each part of the duet was filmed separately and later put together in the editing. I was concerned when I first saw it by the fact that they were not in sync and asked our editor, Gene Fowler, if there was any way to pull up the film to put them in sync. Gene, whom I trusted implicitly, assured me there was no reason to make any adjustments. And he was so right. Heidi and her Grandfather at this point are not in sync; the fact that their singing is not in sync adds to this. Only when they sing “Amen” are they united in prayer.
In the next sequence the mountain slope where Elizabeth follows Heidi and Peter was the second sequence of my first day filming in Colorado. (An interesting sidebar: the day’s schedule had me filming five sequences on this slope; two of them did not make the final cut because of time.) There was someone from Switzerland visiting the set that day. When asked what he thought of our using the Rockies to fill in for the Alps, he commented, “It’s all very nice. But we don’t have red poppies in the Alps.” Our art department had decorated the slope with plastic red poppies to make it look more real.
It was a beautiful, warm (but not hot) comfortable day on the slope. But at the end of the day I suddenly became violently ill. I immediately crawled into bed, shaking with the chills. I had sunstroke. Our production manager hovered over me, helping when he could and worried about filming the next day. Somehow through the night I recovered so that the next morning I was able to return to the set. But before I did, I went shopping and found a wide-brimmed blue denim hat. Thirty-two years later I still have the hat and can be seen walking the beach of Carmel wearing it.
I had a paperback copy of the novel, HEIDI, which I pored through, using a multitude of paper clips to mark incidents I thought could be included in our script. The following sequence was one of them. But when it came time to trim our show in the editing room (we were very long) I was about to cut this. Charlie, very wisely, kept it in.
I once asked Katy how she approached doing a scene. Her remarkable concentration and emotional involvement truly fascinated me. Her answer was so simple. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “I just believe.”
The sequences in the next two clips of Peter following the Wild Man to the area by the river and then Peter’s rescue from the river were filmed at Independence Pass on Independence Day (and the day after), 1978.
Sean Marshall’s mother, and rightfully so, was very concerned about her son being placed in that "raging river". We had one of the crew go down and stand in the water by the rock where Peter was going to be placed. She felt reassured when she realized the water came to just a couple inches above the man’s knees and the river was not as treacherous as it looked. The cliff was also not that steep. The challenge to make it look more dangerous was met by the use of wide angle lenses and a careful selection of camera angles to film it.
To be continued