Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
After wrapping ALIVE AND STILL A SECOND LIEUTENANT, I flew back to the west coast, packed some fresh laundry, picked up my next script (a COMPLETE one again) and flew back to New York to start work on my third production for Herbert Leonard, another NAKED CITY titled NO NAKED LADIES IN FRONT OF GIOVANNI’S HOUSE. I arrived the morning of Saint Patrick’s Day. I checked into my hotel, and the production people picked me up to scout locations. There was only one major location to find, but we needed to do it before the day’s big Parade took place. That location was Benvenuto’s house, but why don’t I let the author’s script tell you what we needed.
After the turmoil of the search for the isolated house in Corpus Christi for ROUTE 66, it was a relief to find what we needed fairly quickly. As I was being driven back to my hotel, I asked where the company was shooting that day. I was told they were in midtown Manhattan. I decided I would be dropped off at the location, say hello to the crew and then walk back to the hotel. Little did I realize what I was letting myself in for. The company was shooting at a construction site, a new building going up. And when I say up, I mean UP!. Sixty-two stories up. And they were filming on the sixty-second floor. But having committed myself, there was no backing out. They dropped me off at the site, and I was escorted over to the outside elevator that was going to take me up to where the company was filming. I am being generous when I call what I got into an elevator. I swear it seemed like a piece of flooring attached to four tall vertical poles at the corners with horizontal bars about waist high to discourage (but not prevent) anyone thinking of jumping off on the ascent. As we went up, it did not seem as if we were rising; rather that the surrounding skyscrapers were dropping so that we were looking down on them. That ride stopped at around the fifty-second floor. The final ten flights had to be walked. The stairs for those last ten flights hadn’t been completed yet. The structural framing for the risers was in place, but the treads had not yet been built, so loose planks of wood were laid across the openings. I finally reached the top where the company was shooting. Totally open, with a nice cold breeze, no a not-so-nice cold wind blowing. I greeted everyone -- Paul Burke, the crew, stunt man Max Klevin and then found a box dead center where I could sit and watch. Paul Burke was at one end of the building, leaning over to see what was going on down on the street below. I feared at any moment the wind blowing would give him the chance to see it close up. They were doing a fight scene; Max and another stunt man had safety ropes attached to their waists as they struggled at the very edge of the building. I was already wondering if there might be the possibility of my sitting there until they finished the building so I wouldn’t have to get back into that elevator. And then they called lunch, and everyone started leaving. Well I wasn’t about to stay up there alone. Besides I was tired (I had traveled all night) and hungry. So I started down those improvised stairs to the fifty-second floor, where I had a decision to make. It was not a difficult decision. I WALKED down the remaining fifty-two flights, staggered back to my hotel, giving thanks all the way that I had not been assigned the script I had just visited.
The strange things that can happen. On ROUTE 66 when we didn’t have a completed script and had difficult locations, we started filming anyway. This time I had a completed script, a show that was going to film mostly in the studio, and my few locations already selected. I was ready to go, but I sat around for several days waiting, because the current show starring Piper Laurie was behind in its schedule. But even difficult shows finally wrap, and the one waiting in the wings goes into action.
No, you haven’t made a mistake and logged onto a COMEDY CENTRAL blog. That is the opening of NO NAKED LADIES IN FRONT OF GIOVANNI'S HOUSE, my ninth film and my first comedy (on film that is). My stage work had been close to fifty percent in comedy.
The interiors were filmed at NAKED CITY’s New York studio, which was unlike any studio I had ever shot in on the west coast. As I remember, I think it was located on 3rd Street in lower Manhattan. As I further remember, it was not really a film studio. I thought it was an old three story house that had been gutted to provide a couple of large pseudo sound stages; one stage housed the permanent police headquarters set, the other sound stage was for the swing sets, in this case the hallway and the apartment interiors. There was nowhere near the height of the west coast sound stages, so all overhead lighting was from lamps attached to the top of the set walls.
That is Al Lewis as tenant Carrari. The following season I wanted to cast him in the DR. KILDARE episode, MAYBE LOVE WILL SAVE MY APARTMENT HOUSE, but could not get him approved by NBC. So now sit back and enjoy a very funny actor at work, backed up by some fine talent provided by casting director Marion Daugherty.
This was a reunion for me with Harry Guardino. The previous September we had worked together on DR. KILDARE where Harry played an aphasiac. He had one WORD of dialog to memorize for that role -- “Wife.” He had considerably more lines this time around.
I think the influence of live television from the Golden Age of Television of the fifties was still being felt. This script by Abram S. Ginnes could have been produced on any of the New York hour-long live television programs of that era. I appreciated the quality of the writing when I filmed it; I appreciate it even more today when I compare it to the dearth of literate dialog being heaved at us from our screens -- large and small.
And as before, filming exteriors in New York city was an exciting experience. There is a visual energy that not only provides an exciting background to the action, there is another energy that seems to permeate the actors and add an extra coating of reality to their efforts.
The challenge of this script was to reconcile the very broad farcical events with the realism of the series. But then, isn’t that the secret of good comedy? When I was on staff of PLAYHOUSE 90, they did a production of James Thurber’s THE MALE ANIMAL. PLAYHOUSE 90 aired on Thursday night. Friday morning across the country newspapers would carry reviews, people at water coolers would discuss and critique the previous evening’s airing as if it had been a Broadway opening. The response to THE MALE ANIMAL was not good. The reviews were almost totally negative. It was the alternating show, so I had not worked on it. Lenny Horn, the assistant director on the production, was in the office the next morning, totally surprised and confused by the response to the show. He told me he had thought they had a fine production, a very funny show. He asked me what I thought of it. I said I didn’t think it was very good. He wanted to know why I thought that. I said, “Because it wasn’t real.” His response: “But it’s a comedy.” Get my point?
I don’t remember whether we shot the following sequence at a street market or whether we had to create our own market in the street. Strangely of all the sequences in the film, I remember this one most strongly during the editing session. Before I continue I think I should describe the usual procedure for editing a film. When the yards and yards (sometimes it seems like miles and miles) of film arrive, the editor puts together his first assemblage. This then is screened in a screening room for the producer, who will give the editor his requests for changes and cuts. (I am skipping over at this point the matter of the director’s cut. In the early days of television, as I described for you in my dealing with Quinn Martin, this did not exist.) The editor makes the requested changes, and the film is again screened for the producer. Any further changes the producer may ask for, plus the matter of editing the film to the specified length required by the network are made. Then the film is shipped off to the other departments -- sound effects, music, possible special effects -- before it is sent to negative editing. But Bert Leonard didn’t do it that way. During the few days I was back in Hollywood before leaving for Texas for another ROUTE 66, I went to the studio one afternoon. That afternoon at the studio turned into a late night event for me. Bert took me with him to the editing room where he had not one but three (maybe four) editors at work. Each editor had a reel of the picture that he was cutting. The room buzzed with the sound of the several moviolas. When an editor had completed assembling his reel (about ten minutes of filml) Bert looked at it, not in a screening room but right there in the editing room on the moviola. He had his hand on the moviola’s brake so that if he saw a place where he wanted a change made, he stopped the film and gave the editor his instructions, which the editor made note of. When he had viewed the entire reel, the editor went to work on the requested changes while Bert moved to another editor, another moviola. When Bert was satisfied with a reel, he said, “Ship it.” That’s the way he worked his way through the six reels. Never did he look at the film from beginning to end. Never was the matter of the length of time discussed. And for a director it was encouraging to see the care he took to make each moment in the scene work, his fearless intercutting of closeups for reactions with never a thought or care to “speed it up.”
Remember what I wrote earlier about Harry having more lines this time than the last time we had worked together. Now we get to the big climactic scene -- the confrontation between Benvenuto and his father. And Benvenuto has ALL THE LINES. (And I am giving you an abbreviated version.)
The final scene in Benvenuto’s house was in his basement. Somebody got the bright idea that if you needed the basement of a New York house for a set, why not use the real basement of a real New York house. So I was shown the basement of the building which housed the studios for NAKED CITY. It was great. Atmospheric. Sinister. But then some wiser heads prevailed. In the sequence we were to film, Benvenuto starts a fire in the basement. Even with the greatest precautions this posed a dire risk. There was one narrow stairway out of the basement. If a stray spark were to cause a major fire, there would have been 7 cast members, a minimum of 3 camera folk, me and the first assistant director, the sound boom man (the mixer could have been upstairs), at least 2 special effects men to tend to the fire in the scene, at least 2 grips and 2 gaffers and the script supervisor all rushing for that lone stairway. That’s a grand total of 20 people. As I said, some wiser heads prevailed, and it was decided to create a basement set in the upstairs studio.
There were two sequences in our script that took place at the docks; the first when Francesca arrived on the ship (which you’ve already seen) and the final one with the ship sailing away. Well obviously we couldn’t schedule two trips to the docks; that would have been too expensive. So I filmed the second sequence the same day as the first. But all film angles had to exclude the ship. We found out what date the ship would be leaving, and on that day a second unit (just an arriflex camera, no sound) was sent with Harry and Marisa to film two shots involving the departing ship. By the time the film editors put it all together, you would never have known it was not all filmed on the same day if I hadn’t told you.
At the time the three month period with Herbert Leonard Productions seemed to be my entry finally into a film directing career. Within a month after I completed my final NAKED CITY I was booked for ten more assignments, a full season's work. But looking back I realize that three month period was much more than that. The five scripts I had just directed were as varied as could be hurled at any director and placed challenges the likes of which I would never have demanded of me again. I don’t think it was that as I became more experienced, I was better equipped to deal with what was asked of me. NAKED CITY was finished; ROUTE 66 would return, but for its final season. I truly believe that this was the beginning of the homogenization of television. It didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen. Oh, there would be surprise pockets of creativity that crept onto schedules. Four years later STAR TREK beamed into space, and we all know what Paramount and NBC did to it; that it survived and became a classic in spite of, not because of them. A decade later THE WALTONS bloomed. But these were the exceptions, not the norm. Oh television made more money, but creative decisions were no longer being made by visionaries like Bert Leonard; now they were being made by General Electric and Rupert Murdoch.
Thursday, February 11, 2010
I have to confess - I am not a New York type person. My first brush with the big city was a very brief stay in 1952, so my return to New York in 1963 to direct my first NAKED CITY was really my introduction to it. During 1963 I spent a great deal of time in New York, where I directed five more productions.
NAKED CITY was the first police story I directed. It was my follow-up production for Bert Leonard to IN THE CLOSING OF A TRUNK on ROUTE 66, and it was the first time in my career that I knew what and when my next job would be before I completed the current assignment. That was a nice heady feeling. There were just a few days at home between shows, and this time I had the complete script when I flew from Los Angeles to the east coast. Robert Sterling, who had guest starred in PRINTER’S DEVIL on TWILIGHT ZONE was set to guest star in the production.
My New York adventure started on West End Avenue, turning onto either 94th or 95th Street (I can’t remember everything) on a very, very cold winter day (that I remember). It’s the first scene in the film, and it was the first scene I shot.
It is said that the way to teach a person to swim is to toss him into the water and then it’s ‘sink or swim.” My five-picture stay at Herbert Leonard’s Productions was like that. I considered myself very proficient at staging and directing interior scenes on sound stages. But going outdoors for exteriors -- well I was getting a crash course in location filming; it was ‘sink or swim’ time. The wondrous thing was that I was given the opportunity by Leonard. Earlier I had been escorted by my agent to a meeting with Norman Lloyd, producer of television’s ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. Mr Lloyd said to me, “Our next production is a mystery with an advertising agency background. What have you directed like that that you can show me?” I at that point only had a couple DR. KILDARE episodes that were neither mystery nor advertising agency. I didn’t get the assignment. As to how I ended up on the streets of New York after a stint in Texas, you can read about my first interview with Herbert Leonard in the archives to the right of this column. (Just go to September 2009 - IN THE CLOSING OF A TRUNK.) It was now up to me to swim, not sink.
I had already succeeded in Texas, but I was more familiar with that kind of drama. It was theatrical and focused almost totally on actors' performances. It also had a very fine script (even though I received the script in an unconventional manner). New York was a whole new ballgame. There was a gritty reality to the material and to filming on the street that was a new directing experience for me.
Yes, that was twenty-four year old Jon Voight as the son of the slain man. I have to say I didn’t think he was very good. According to the Internet Movie Database this was his first film appearance. The following summer I went down to the Globe Theatre where he was appearing in two Shakespeare plays. Again he was not very good. When I say that, I am not demeaning the actor. I am complimenting him. I give him credit for going out and learning his craft. I also give credit to casting director Marion Dougherty. She was remarkable. Three of the five shows I directed did not have completed scripts when we started filming. I’m not sure what communication there was between her and Leonard, and what was the basis for her casting choices. But she knew actors, she recognized talent. She cast actors who were right for the parts they were assigned, and they turned in fine performances. If this seems to contradict what I wrote about Jon Voight, I disagree. Marion had obviously seen Jon in some off-Broadway production and recognized a blooming talent that deserved a chance. It was only six years later that he exploded on the screen with a magnificent performance in MIDNIGHT COWBOY. He indeed had gone out and learned his craft. And he is still a working actor.
Why do I bring this up? Because I think the rush to stardom for young people barely out of their teens does them harm. Acting is a craft, an art, to be learned and developed. Great stars are not born. They need a place to work and be bad in order to learn their craft. Gable, Cagney, Tracy -- all of them debuted in movies after they had passed the age of thirty. Bogie didn’t become a big star until he had reached his forties. And they are still with us as true screen legends. Where are those big stars of the Brat Pack: Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson, Anthony Michael Hall et al. They had talent, but I think the early stardom without the major studios' supervision of the earlier years harmed them.
In Texas I had my first experience when filming a moving car sequence of using the tow car method. Here I was having my first time use of the camera IN THE CAR. I did prefer both methods to filming sequences with rear screen process. (Strangely the following season when I started working for Quinn Martin Productions, Quinn insisted on rear screen process for such scenes.)
During that crazy ride the camera operator and the camera were in the back seat. So was I.
I think NAKED CITY was one of the great television series of all times. And for me the reason was that Bert Leonard, when it came to editing (and I will be going into a detailed description of my experience with that in the next posting) had the courage to take his time telling the story; he didn’t edit to speed up the action that had been filmed; if anything he enhanced and embellished with the use of the coverage that had been shot.
Jack Priestley was the director of photography for NAKED CITY, and his style of lighting was different from the cameramen on the west coast. But it was a style that certainly worked for the series. Jason’s office set, if done on the west coast, would probably have been built at the studio. The New York studio for NAKED CITY was not nearly large enough to accommodate such construction, so we filmed on a live location. The result was a larger set than a television budget could have allowed for, and it was lit with very naturalistic lighting. I think there is almost a documentary feel to the filmiing which adds to the reality of the series.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the writing of the police in this series was far more realistic than I was going to encounter in my future cop-infested career. This incidentally was the only time I worked with Nancy Malone. But it was not the last time I was in contact with her. Two years later I was booked to direct the first episode of LONG HOT SUMMER, a series at 20th Century Fox based on the classic Paul Newman movie. A pilot had been filmed in which Nancy played the Joanne Woodward role. The pilot was scrapped, and a whole new cast was assembled. Since I was directing the first episode, I also was assigned the task of directing the tests of the replacement actors being considered for the series. All of the roles were cast except the Joanne Woodward role. The tests for that role did not produce an actress that the powers at the studio and the network found acceptable. They then decided they wanted Nancy after all and made the offer to her through her agent. Nancy was properly offended that she had been overlooked all of this time and turned them down. Frank Glicksman, who was producing the series and for whom I had directed TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH the previos season, knew of my association with Nancy on NAKED CITY. He had me contact her to try to influence her to accept the offer of the series. I telephoned her; we had a nice conversation, and I guess I convinced her that she should accept the series, which she did. The series turned out to be a big bomb. I’ve never seen or had contact with Nancy since that time. I wonder if she has ever forgiven me.
NAKED CITY was the first time I filmed a sequence in a cemetery. It wasn’t the last. A decade later I directed five episodes of DAN AUGUST starring Burt Reynolds. All five episodes had a sequence in a cemetery.
This was the second show in less than six months that I worked with Robert Sterling. I think he is a perfect example of Hollywood’s way of developing talent and then wasting it. His work in films reveals a very attractive young man hired for his looks, but the studios never utilized his developing talent. He and hes second wife, Anne Jeffreys, moved over to television in 1953 as the stars of the series, TOPPER. I can’t resist -- Robert Sterling had developed into a sterling performer.
In the follolwing scene Bert Leonard was not happy that I had Jason kiss Paula (which was not in the script stage directions). He interpreted it as a romantic moment, a love scene. I felt it was part of Jason’s desperate attempt to keep Paula under his control, to protect himself because of his crime. I still think I was right.
I started this piece by saying I was not a New York type person. That applied only to living in New York. Once I reported to the set to function as director, New York ceased to be a place to live. It became a movie set. And no art director ever provided me with a better place to film. I think there is no direction you can point a camera in New York and not get a wonderful picture (unless you’re aiming your camera directly into the wall of a building).
For me the power of this script was that it was an ordinary man, a common Joe, involved in a crime -- not a criminal. That was Hitchcock’s formula -- to involve some common man in his nefarious undertakings. Unfortunately there would not be many of these guys in my future adventures in crime.
I never saw Robert Sterling again. There are eight million stories in Hollywood; this was one of them.
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
When I was interviewed by Dave Rohlf for the Star Trek History website, he and I surprised each other. I surprised him when I told him that I did not remember BREAD AND CIRCUSES with any great affection; that it was not on my list of shows of which I was proud. He surprised me when he told me that BREAD AND CIRCUSES ranked as a very popular episode of STAR TREK.