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Tuesday, August 26, 2014
Artist and animator Cal Schenkel talks about working with Frank Zappa on his 1971 rock music culture film satire 200 MOTELS...
TV STORE ONLINE: I'm a huge fan of the Frank Zappa film 200 MOTELS (1971)....Do you hear that a lot?
SCHENKEL: No I don't! (Laughing) I've heard various comments about the film over the years but I don't think I've ever met a "huge" fan of the film... (Laughing)
TV STORE ONLINE: Given it's sort of free-form aesthetic I was wondering if there was actually ever a script written for 200 MOTELS and did you ever see it?
SCHENKEL: I did. I still have a copy of it somewhere. Of course, the script went through quite a bit of changes along the way as you can imagine. The whole thing started...I went to London in November of 1970 about a month or two before the filming started. I went to get together with the art director. I had done some initial drawings for the backgrounds and other elements that were based on some discussions that I had had with Frank. We were shooting the film at Pinewood Studios outside of London. I can't remember now, but it was sometime around the Christmas holiday that Frank, myself and his secretary Pauline [Butcher] had a number of meetings and in those Frank began to dictate the script to Pauline and I took some notes on various things that he wanted to see included. As I said, there were a number of changes that were fairly complex. It was a quick shoot, and we didn't take a lot of pre-production time at the studio either.
TV STORE ONLINE: How about the building of the 'Centerville' sets? What was the inspiration for those?
SCHENKEL: Well, Frank and I talked quite a bit about that. We wanted to keep it simple, and we wanted to keep it flat, and he wanted it to be just this basic average little downtown area outside of the suburbs. Frank had wanted me to do some of the actual painting of the set but the union schedules at the studio wouldn't allow for that. We played with a lot of interesting things. We used vacuum form PVC for a lot of the sets, because it gave a dimensional look to the sets.
TV STORE ONLINE: You designed the blue penis mobile that we see in the film...
SCHENKEL: I did, it wasn't too complicated and I just drew it up in one afternoon.
TV STORE ONLINE: Did Frank ever discuss the idea behind the concept for the film? Did he ever say, "This is a movie about what I think that people actually think that a rock stars life is like on the road."
SCHENKEL: Oh no, not in any way. There may have been some idle talk at an evening out to dinner or something like that but it just wasn't something that would have been discussed. It wasn't a weird shoot or anything like that either. It was a pretty normal shoot at Pinewood Studios. All of the crew members that were employed at Pinewood just did their jobs for us. They didn't ask any questions about what we were doing, but the Orchestra that was used in the film, initially, they didn't take what they were doing very seriously.
TV STORE ONLINE: The film was shot at Pinewood Studios, and in 200 MOTELS we see an homage to 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) with the appearance of the black monolith in a scene in the film...
SCHENKEL: Right, yeah (Laughing). 2001 was such a popular film at the time that we were shooting 200 MOTELS. I don't know if Frank was a fan of 2001 and I'm not sure why he put that into 200 MOTELS. He was always satirizing things, so that may have been why he included it into the film. He may have just included it in 200 MOTELS because 2001 was also shot at Pinewood. The thing I remember the most about shooting at Pinewood was that FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (1971) and one of the James Bond films were also filming there at the same time that we were, so it was fun to go down and hang out around the studio commissary and meet some of the actors and crew members from those movies.
TV STORE ONLINE: A year or two ago there was a new DVD of 200 MOTELS released and there is a audio commentary track on the release by the "Director" of 200 MOTELS Tony Palmer. On the commentary track he says some nice things about the production and also about working with Frank, but yet it's fairly common knowledge amongst Zappa fans that Palmer and Frank had a falling out at the end of the shoot of the film, where Palmer threatened to take the master tapes of the film away....
SCHENKEL: Right, there was a falling out. I think that both Frank and Tony each had their own ideas about what 200 MOTELS should be. I also think that the conflict came because they were both trying to jam so much stuff into that movie and there wasn't enough money for them to each get in everything that they had wanted to include. There were things that didn't quite come out right, and things that just didn't get done. That's the reason why the animated sequence made it into the film, because originally it was supposed to be done live-action. I can't remember now if the filming for it wasn't complete or if something just went wrong, but Frank, in the end just decided that we should just do it as an animated sequence.
TV STORE ONLINE: Didn't you have a hand in doing that animated sequence yourself?
SCHENKEL: I designed it, and I did some of the hand animation for it. The lions share of the work went to Chuck Swenson, who was a master of animation. I did a lot of background stuff and a few of the characters that are in that sequence.
TV STORE ONLINE: I'm a huge fan of Jeff Simmons, and the record of his that Frank played guitar on and released on his Bizarre record label called Lucille Has Messed My Mind Up. Jeff was supposed to be in 200 MOTELS but was fired by Frank...
SCHENKEL: (Laughing). Right, yeah. You probably know the story then about how Jeff was replaced for the film, then? Frank started auditioning people to play Jeff's character in 200 MOTELS and he just couldn't find anyone that fit, so finally he said, "The next person that walks through the door is going to play Jeff." The next person to walk through the door was Ringo Starr's chauffeur...(Laughing) So Frank gave him Jeff's part.
TV STORE ONLINE: I heard once that Frank had wanted to cast British actor Wilfrid Brambell, who played Ringo Starr's grandfather in A HARD DAYS NIGHT (1964), for Jeff's part?
SCHENKEL: (Laughing) He did. Frank brought him to the studio to try out for Jeff's part.
TV STORE ONLINE: That would have been wonderfully insane...
SCHENKEL: It would have been really cool.
TV STORE ONLINE: Did you have anything to do with the movie poster art for 200 MOTELS?
SCHENKEL: I didn't. That is a great illustration. I did do the inside packaging for the 200 MOTELS album though. I was just too busy with the animation in the movie at the time to do the cover.
TV STORE ONLINE: Off subject of 200 MOTELS, one of the things that I really love that you did animation wise was that television commercial that you did for Frank's 1974 album Apostrophe (') with the DJ Dogg....
SCHENKEL: Thanks. I worked with an animator on that. I think the concept generally just came from Frank. To be honest, I don't really remember any of the details now about how that all came about or how long it took to complete. It was pretty basic in that the animation was done around the soundtrack. So Frank did the soundtrack and then gave it to me and I designed and produced it around that. See YouTube here.
Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung
For more with Cal Schenkel please visit his official website here.
by: TV Store Online 0 Comments
Thursday, August 21, 2014
Next up in our 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY Interview Series...
TV STORE ONLINE: Tell me about how you came to work on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)?
BRIAN JOHNSON: I was first approached to work on 2001 by Stanley's office via Liz Bowie. At the time I was working on the show Thunderbirds (1965-66), and apparently Stanley was watching the show. He had a list of people from the show that he wanted to meet with out at MGM Borehamwood and so I went out to see him.
TV STORE ONLINE: He did make an offer to everyone on the list didn't he about a job on 2001?
BRIAN JOHNSON: I believe he did, but as far as I know after that first contact with the studio, I was the only one that pursued the opportunity.
TV STORE ONLINE: What was your first impression of Stanley when you met him?
BRIAN JOHNSON: I knew I had to be out at his office at MGM at a certain time, and when I got there his secretary told me, "Stanley is out on such-and-such stage today..." So I went walking around and ended up on the big stage at MGM. There was a painter in the corner, fiddling around doing a few bits. I went up to him and said, "I was told that Stanley Kubrick would be on this stage." The man turned around and he said, "Yes, that's me." That was how I met him. He smiled at me and we started to talk. He was wearing that old blue jacket that he liked so much. And an old pair of blue trousers. He had like four or five of those same jackets in his collection and they made him look like he was a painter.
TV STORE ONLINE: Did you get on well with Stanley?
BRIAN JOHNSON: Only as well as the next fellow who worked with him I'd imagine. I do remember one time...We were working on the blacked-out sound stage shooting one of the models and we were chatting and somehow the conversation turned to flying. I was quite keen on lite aircraft flying and Stanley said, "You know, I've given up flying and you should too..." Shortly after this, issues of the big glossy American magazine Flying would appear on my desk at the studio ever month from Stanley and he would put notes throughout the issue for me to review. He would comment on various things about flying lite aircraft. Months passed and while we were waiting for some film to develop or something or other, he said, "How is the flying going?" I said, "I'm flying Gliders and some power engines now..." Then he responded with, "You know, I learned how to fly." I said, "Did you?" I had no idea about this when he mentioned it to me. He then went on to tell me about how when he had learned to fly and how when he had went up on his first or second solo flight about how he had frozen at the controls. He said that he got scared but that he had managed to land the aircraft and that after that he decided that he would never fly again even with a professional pilot at the controls.
He also would talk to me about the film he wanted to make after 2001. He said, "I've got a couple things that I'm working on. One I can't talk about now, but the other is a film about Napoleon." I said, "Brilliant." He said, "I just have one problem...I'm gonna play Napoleon!" (Laughing) I thought that he was joking with me because he would do that sometimes, but then again, how many times over the years since 2001 has that been speculated on? (Laughing) I said to him,"I don't know if I like the idea of that!" He said, "Well, no one does..." (Laughing)
TV STORE ONLINE: And the first shot you worked on in 2001 was the "floating pen" sequence?
BRIAN JOHNSON: Yes, it was. There had been many attempts at that shot before the glass plate was introduced but I wasn't there for that. I walked onto the set and I was handed the pens and a bunch of 3M double sided tape, and that was something completely new for the time. We set it up and shot it.
TV STORE ONLINE: I know that there has been so much said and written about the Centrifuge set for 2001.....
BRIAN JOHNSON: Right, yeah, there has been hasn't there? I spent a great deal of time on that set because I had to set up all of the computer readout screens. Those were all set up on 16mm Bell & Howell projectors that were attached at various points on the outside of the Centrifuge set. It was [Special Photographic Effects Supervisor] Wally Veevers idea to use various different types of lenses on each projector. This didn't work because when the Centrifuge went around, the readouts on the computer on the set would eventually be upside down at a certain point in the Centrifuge rotation, so it occurred to me that we would actually need to install a steel plate underneath the projector and add an additional projector that would run at the same time but upside down, so when it rotated, the screen image, the readout, would be right side up no matter at what point it was at in the rotation of the Centrifuge. Wally was insistent that all of the projects had to be in a upright position but when he tried out his rig he was having some key-stoning problems.
Stanley had this thing about having two different people work on the same project at the same time, so as I was getting the lenses around for the Bell & Howell for Wally's project, I was experimenting with my own rig with the stock projector lenses. When Stanley walked onto the set, Wally fired up his rig and it was all over the place, and when I figured up my rig, not only did it work but the readouts on the screens on the set were much brighter. Stanley said, "Right, file yours Wally..." Then he walked off the stage. After that, Wally wouldn't talk to me again, and I moved on to spend the rest of the shoot working with Doug Trumbull.
TV STORE ONLINE: All of those readouts were animated sequences that we see on the computers on the Centrifuge?
BRIAN JOHNSON: That's right. They were all shot by Douglas Trumbull. Each projector had about five minutes of animation on them.
TV STORE ONLINE: You also had a big hand in the shooting of the model spaceships in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY as well, right?
BRIAN JOHNSON: I did. I worked with Stanley on that. I was given the job of getting all of the models ready to do the still photography with Stanley. We had an Electrician, myself and Stanley on a completely blacked-out sound stage. Stanley would work for hours lighting the models and then he would shoot the 4"x 5" plates, and those plates would then be used to make enlargements for the animation. We used Polaroid Land 300 stock. It was the same stock that spy planes used, and it was very fine grain black and white. It was very high process stock, it was fantastic stuff.
TV STORE ONLINE: Could you break down the entire process of how that worked for me?
BRIAN JOHNSON: Sure. So we would go to the storyboards and take the shot that we were doing on any particular day and then I would set it up on the blacked-out sound stage. The electrician would come in and set up the lights were Stanley wanted them. Stanley would set the key light were he wanted it, then we would blanket the exposure. We had problems with processing the film because we at times would work with a f/stop of 128 for about 10 minutes -- which was basically an aperture the size of a pinhole -- this was because we had to get a certain depth of field, but also everything had to always be in focus as well. So we'd shoot something, send it off and it would often times be rejected because it wasn't perfect.
From there, I had to clean the negatives that Stanley had shot. Then Stanley would go over those to determine which part of the image he wanted to appear on the screen. Once he had decided, he would have someone cut out the model from the composite made from the negative with a surgical scalpel and then that would be placed onto the glass plates. Once the glass plates were made, they would re-photograph those with a film camera. They cameras would track along with the image or move in on it as was necessary. We didn't very often shoot the models with a film camera, but we shot more with a still camera really. It was animation. It was important to do it this way because then we could then go back and re-re-photograph those with background projections in place. An example of that would be how one sees space in the background via the windows of the space station.
TV STORE ONLINE: Was the rotation of the space station itself as it appears in the movie today done that same way?
BRIAN JOHNSON: That was actually done in real time. That was a big model and it was lit up with lots of bulbs and we did really really slow camera moves on it. You couldn't virtually even see it turning while we were shooting it, it was that slow moving.
TV STORE ONLINE: I've heard from other crew members and read about the numerous instances were a star would accidentally bleed into one of the models in the animation process and how Stanley would request an insurance claim be submitted for the mistake...
BRIAN JOHNSON: Well, he had lots of those...(Laughing) There was one filed nearly every day. The thing is, all of the images were "held" takes so they could go from one process of the animation to another...For example, we should shoot a track-in on a spacecraft. It would next go to the "blobber" department, as it was called, and they would project each frame of what we had shot and then they would create the matte background that was needed for the shot so the stars could be put into the shot. Then it would go next to the department that made the stars themselves, and then eventually all of it would end up together on a strip of film as one single shot. There were often times when one frame or two would be out of sync in the process and a star would bleed into the spaceship and then the entire thing would have to be done all over again.
For most of the shots that I did with Stanley, there would be like four or five held takes, and one of those would be processed. All of these would be filled into a library, and by the end of the shooting of 2001 we had a library that was beyond belief. It was filled with held takes, undeveloped film and God knows what else. It was also very important for everything that went into the final shot be done first process, because once you start getting into film optics, then you start messing around with positives and negatives and there is a reduction of image quality, and we wouldn't have been able to complete the work in the time that we did. Effectively, the entire process was sort of like shooting with a motion control film camera, except at that time we didn't have the computers to control the cameras.
TV STORE ONLINE: You also assisted in the physical building of the some of the models used in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, didn't you?
BRIAN JOHNSON: Well, Doug Trumbull and I did a lot of the "dirtying" down of them. We also added plastic enhancements to some of the models to give them more visible details for the camera. Myself and [Production Manager] Robert Watts went to the Nuremberg Toy Fair in Germany which was the largest convention for toy models in the world. When I was on Thunderbirds, I had been using a lot of plastic kits on the models for that show that I had gotten from two great companies based in Germany. Robert could speak German so I had him ask one of the companies if we could go to their factory and just hold buckets under their machines to get as many of a single piece that we wanted. I thought this was a better idea instead of buying 1000 of their kits and only using one piece out of each of them. The Germans have always been good about that sort of thing, so they allowed us to come to their factory and we went through all of the bits that they made, picked the ones that we liked and were able to get all of the pieces that we needed. We had thousands and thousands of bits packed and ready to go at customs at the airport when we arrived the next day.
Some of the models that were created for 2001 were kind of plain, so what Doug Trumbull and I did was to take all of those little plastic bits and embed them. We did that on the Moonbase model and on several of the space satellites.
TV STORE ONLINE: How big was that Moonbase model?
BRIAN JOHNSON: The whole thing including the landscape was just 4 feet by 4 feet. I built one portion of it. We photographed it, and because we photographed it with a wide lens with a big exposure, we got the depth we needed right from the start. We made the moon craters by pouring plaster and then taking a 6 inch brush and flicking it with water as it set. That was how all of the craters were made. We had sculptresses Liz Moore and Joyce Seddon helping us. When I was working on Space 1999 (1975-77) I did the exact same thing there to make some of the landscapes for that show. Why not? It worked well.
TV STORE ONLINE: How about the sequence with the Moonbus flying across the surface of the moon? Was that done with animation?
BRIAN JOHNSON: There was some shots that were done that way of the Moonbus, but the majority of that was done with the actual model and the camera moving back and forth on a track shooting it. When we were watching the Moonbus footage in the dailies, Stanley wasn't happen with it because he thought that it was too shaky, but I realized that it wasn't the actual footage that was shaky but that there was something wrong with the projector that was showing the dailies. With Stanley, you couldn't just come out and say that. With Stanley, you had to be diplomatic about how you approached him about things like that. I told him, and he just couldn't get his mind around it, so we ended up shooting it all over again. We ended up shooting it about five times actually.
When we started to create the moon landscapes for 2001 we were working off of NASA photographs that they had sent us, and once we had shot it, we'd have to go back and re-shoot it too, because each time we would complete the shot, NASA would send us another set of photographs that showed the moon landscape in greater detail. That went on and on.
TV STORE ONLINE: How about the shooting of that amazing sequence where the TMA Pod comes down inside the Moonbase and lands?
BRIAN JOHNSON: Right, that was done with a counter-weighted beam that held the pod model up in the air that was designed by Wally Veevers. It had a spigot that came out of the back of it. I noticed how there was nothing on the spigot that would lock the model into place because when the pivoted arm went down there was nothing to stop the model from sliding off the spigot and crashing. I fitted it up with a device that locked it on. It was a system that was designed to automatically raise and lower the pod onto the landing pad, and it took a team of us to have it land down with the air coming out of it as well.
TV STORE ONLINE: There's been a photograph going around the internet for many years of the 2001 space station model laying out in a field on the back lot of MGM Borehamwood....
BRIAN JOHNSON: That's right. MGM didn't scrap the model, Stanley did. After the movie finishing shooting, all of the models were put into storage containers and were put into a storage facility next door to Elstree Studios that MGM had rented out. After a number of years, and when MGM folded, the storage company notified Stanley that the cost for the storage had to be paid for to keep it going but he decided not to pay it. So without telling anyone, the storage company just dumped everything that was in the storage lot into a field. It laid there for years and years and someone eventually photographed it and the picture started to first appear in fan magazines before it eventually made its way onto the internet.
TV STORE ONLINE: I know you also worked with Douglas Trumbull on the Stargate Slit-Scan sequence as well...Was there any rhyme or reasoning behind the organization of the imagery that was created for that sequence for the film? How did you guys which shapes or patterns were to come first when you were making it?
BRIAN JOHNSON: It was very dependent on Doug getting it all sorted out. I think that there were certain aspects of it that were discussed with Stanley and that was then organized and planned out. We had to shoot the planet for the film. Doug had created a planet machine that worked quite well for the film.
TV STORE ONLINE: I've read something in the past where as Jupiter appears in the film today, Stanley had really wanted to use Saturn in the film but the special effects crew fought him on it?
BRIAN JOHNSON: That's true. Stanley was asking the impossible or nearly impossible, and when he asked Doug Trumbull and Wally Veevers, they told him that. Stanley wouldn't get mad or stomp his feet. He would stop and listen to what everyone had to say and he, in the end, decided against it. We had already spent such a long time, like nine months, planning to shoot Jupiter and by the time that he had asked about Saturn it was just too late to switch or try to do that.
TV STORE ONLINE: Do you have any memories of trying to shoot the portion of the Stargate sequence that was to be called "The City Of Light"? It was to be this sort of lighted alien city full of skyscrapers?
BRIAN JOHNSON: I have a vague memory of that actually, but if I recall, we only ever did some test footage for that. It wasn't something that was going to be in the film, I don't think. I also recall helping Dan Richter dress up in a body suit because Stanley had wanted to try to film an alien, and Dan was dressed up and I had to put all of these little balls onto his suit. I know that we did some tests of that, but in the end that didn't work either. I worked on the "Star-Child" as well. Liz Moore sculpted it out of fiberglass, and I built the eyes for it that moved around. We finished that, and we put it on a rig and took a couple passes at it with the camera, and then we went back at it again but with more defused lighting. There was gauze put on the lights and the camera because when we shot it, the image was just too sharp.
TV STORE ONLINE: How did the eyes move in the Star-Child?
BRIAN JOHNSON: They were just full-sized sculpted eyes that had these little model aircraft motors on the back of them.
TV STORE ONLINE: How long did it take for Liz Moore to sculpt the Star-Child?
BRIAN JOHNSON: It didn't take her too long if I recall. I think it just took her a couple weeks to do it after there had been a few different variations on the design.
TV STORE ONLINE: I've spoken to many that have worked with Stanley over the last few years about 2001 and his other films...Do you think that he was a good collaborator?
BRIAN JOHNSON: Well, I think that he was smart enough to surround himself with great people and in turn we all worked together to create some wonderful films with him. I don't think that Stanley deserved to get the Academy Award for Special Effects on 2001 though. I think that that should have went to Douglas Trumbull. There were many people that worked on 2001 that didn't credit for their work. [Special Photographic Effects Supervisor] Tom Howard has a credit on the film and he did absolutely nothing on 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. He only got a credit because he was MGM's resident special effects guy in Great Britain. Back in those days you were lucky to get a credit though...(Laughing). But that all changed when George Lucas came to us to work on the STAR WARS TRILOGY (1977-1983) with him. After that was over, everyone, even the guy that went around the sound stage and emptied the trashcan got a screen credit...(Laughing)
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Tuesday, August 19, 2014
Josh Becker on his still as-of-yet unreleased musical IF I HAD A HAMMER.
TV STORE ONLINE: What was your initial inspiration for what would eventually become IF I HAD A HAMMER (1999)?
BECKER: I was reading Peter Bogdanovich's book Who The Devil Made It...There was an interview in there with Allan Dwan, a director who had been working since the Silent Era in Hollywood. He was talking about a how he had wanted to make a musical but the company that he was working for wouldn't put up the money for the songs, so he made it about Stephen Foster because all of those songs were in the public domain. I thought that it would be cool to make a movie with all of those older songs that were in the public domain. But I didn't end up sticking with that idea because the song "If I Had A Hammer" wasn't actually in the public domain, but most of the songs that we used from the '20s by Huddie Ledbetter for example fell under that. I came up with the idea to use the folk songs in the folk era, but I think that whole idea really came out of my admiration for Orson Welles' THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942). Because that's a film about the ending of an era and the start of another. My story takes place in what I believe to be the last weekend of the folk movement. That movement had been so strong. Bob Dylan had came into the spotlight, Elvis was gone off to Germany via the Army, Little Richard and Chuck Berry had been busted for tax evasion. Rock 'n' Roll had been effectively killed by 1958. There was this rise of the folk movement between 1958-64.
There is no reference to THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS in the film, but it is the concept that I put into the script. The girl in IF I HAD A HAMMER represents the folk era, and the boy represents the new incoming Rock 'n' Roll era. It was the last weekend of the folk era because at the end of that weekend The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show (1948-1971)
TV STORE ONLINE: How long did it take you to write the script for IF I HAD A HAMMER?
BECKER: Oh, not long. It doesn't take me very long to write a script. It probably took me like three months to finish it.
TV STORE ONLINE: Was the folk era something that was of interest to you before you had decided to make the film?
BECKER: Certainly. I've always been a fan of The Weavers. I wasn't a huge folk fan though, but I did like The Weavers because they would cover the songs of Leadbelly. I did a lot of studying up on the movement while I was writing the script, and during that time I discovered this 1964 Playboy magazine from the particular month that The Beatles appeared on Sullivan and inside it there was this really cool lexicon of words that were considered "out" and the words that were also considered "in". For example, it said that "cool" was out, and that "tuff" was in. So I used that in the script. Another hip word was "boss". That all came from that Playboy issue.
TV STORE ONLINE: Is there any aspect of Josh Becker in the "Phil Buckley" character in IF I HAD A HAMMER?
BECKER: Well, I can't play the guitar. I did take guitar lessons as a kid, but it hurt my fingers. There is a little bit of me in every character that I've ever written.
TV STORE ONLINE: What I really admire about the film is that you've created this array of characters that seem on initial introduce to be cliche, but they all transcend that by the end of the film...
BECKER: Everybody represents something except Phil [Brett Beardslee] in the movie. Everyone has a cause and each stands for something. Phil doesn't and he's faking it. Even the heroin junkies in the film care about issues. Everyone cares about something except for Phil. I've always thought that that was what Rock 'n' Roll was all about. Look at Punk Rock, and how the musicians took pride in not being able to play their instruments.
TV STORE ONLINE: The film is very smoky too...
BECKER: I made everyone smoke in the film. I made the Prop Guy go around and give everyone cigarettes. My memories of 1964, when I was a little kid, was that everyone smoked. I remember as a kid seeing a cigarette commercial that featured "Fred Flintstone" smoking. It was a totally different world back then.
TV STORE ONLINE: Was the film easy to cast for you?
BECKER: Oh No. There was a lot of casting.
TV STORE ONLINE: Did every actor that you cast in IF I HAD A HAMMER actually have musical ability?
BECKER: Well, I had a Casting Director. I said to her, "All the actors have to be able to sing, play an instrument and act." She said, "Well you're setting the bar awfully high, aren't you?" I said, "I'm not asking them to dance." If you came to Hollywood back in the '40s you damn well better have known how to sing, dance and act. Making the film in Los Angeles made that fairly easy because there was no shortage of actors that could play the guitar. I had quite a few casting sessions, and I put together my own Weavers with "The Four Feathers". That group had never met each other before they started work on the movie. I had the most challenging time casting the role of "Bobby Lee Baker". I couldn't find anyone for that part. I auditioned actors for that part for weeks. Eventually I just had actors come to my house. Usually I could find someone who could sing, but they just couldn't be angry. Then the Casting Director sent over David Zink. He came over to my house. He lit a cigarette and we started going through a scene. As the character he got really angry and he took his cigarette and threw it down on my carpet and grounded it out. I said, "Fuck, you've got the part!"
TV STORE ONLINE: I like how the film flirts with filmic time and space...The story unfolds in a real time, but it also exists in this interpretation of that particular time. It seems very specific to you... The film feels like it exists in this sort of pop culture purgatory...
BECKER: I get what you're saying...I've always thought that the whole thing is an allegory and I can't tell you honesty that I was intending to do what you're talking about.
TV STORE ONLINE: Most of the characters in your films seem to take stock in their eccentric personalities. I'm thinking about the quirkiness of the characters in IF I HAD A HAMMER but also the characters in LUNATICS: A LOVE STORY (1991)... You seem to be attracted to the eccentric love story in your work...
BECKER: Well, we could mention RUNNING TIME (1997) as well. I went for the happy ending on that. The thing about IF I HAD A HAMMER is that "Lorraine" [Lisa Records] represents a different era. She represents the folk era and so there is no way that she and Phil could have ended up together because of what each of them represent.
TV STORE ONLINE: When I first saw the film I was really enamored with the character that actress Lisa Records played and then over repeated viewings I had become more enamored with the character that Brett Beardslee plays because of how eccentric, goofy and awkward that Phil Buckley character actually is...
BECKER: There are two leads in the film, but Phil is really the main lead. The funny thing about Brett was that he actually plays guitar very well, and it was because of that I think that Phil's awful guitar playing in the movie actually comes across as really convincing. It was a fun movie to shoot because that set was always musical. Because everyone played instruments it was like a non-stop Hootenanny going on. Everyone was playing music with everyone every day.
TV STORE ONLINE: Brett Beardslee is really incredible as Phil Buckley...
BECKER: When he came in for the casting session, he just stole that part. He just nailed it. He really got it, and that is what is great about casting sessions. You'll see twenty people and none of them will be right or they just won't get it, and then that one person will walk through the door and instantly you just know that they are the person that you're looking for.
BECKER: I just wanted as much color as I could get. On IF I HAD A HAMMER I shot a very slow film stock, and I wanted it to look like one of old movies that was shot on Kodachrome.
TV STORE ONLINE: It's like a psychotic Technicolor..... It gives the film a slightly surreal look and feel - there is a way colors hit certain faces in the film and then also how those lights hit those older out-of-place people in the folk club in the tuxedos...
BECKER: I was just trying to populate it with every kind of character that I could think of. It's probably unrealistic because of that. Like when the rich kids show up and start doing impressions of Jim Backus from IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (1963). It was just one of those things where once I had conceived myself of the idea I knew that I had to make it. Along the way, people would ask me, "Who are you making this film for?" I said, "I'm making it for me!" It had no stars. If I would've been smart I would've cast Bruce Campbell in the film as the 'Emcee'. There wasn't a distributor in Hollywood that would touch the film after it was completed, and it ended up putting me in bankruptcy. There just wasn't an interest in a folk music musical....(Laughing)
Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung
Photos courtesy of Becker Films
To purchase a DVD of IF I HAD A HAMMER please visit Josh Becker's official website here.
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Thursday, August 14, 2014
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was divisive, with some viewers of the time being turned off by the unprecedented violence and gore, and others heralding the film as groundbreaking. Original fans praised its gritty realism, which was parallel with the increased violence and gore televised during the ongoing war in Vietnam, and at the height of the Civil Rights movement, the film was one of the first to feature an African-American actor (Duane Jones) as a main character. Despite initial ambivalence from some critics, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was a financial success and allowed George Romero to continue his path as a filmmaker. According to his biography on the Internet Movie Database, Romero was only 28 years old when he made NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and his meager $100,000 budget had been cobbled together by members of his production company, Image Ten Productions.
A decade later, Romero released DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978). Offering more blatant social commentary, the protagonists were trapped by the undead in a shopping mall, again dealing with fear, confusion, and distrust, but also issues of materialism. This film spawned the "zombie apocalypse" genre, with the scale of the undead being far wider, especially urban, and exploring concepts like mass panic, infrastructural strengths and weaknesses, and urban warfare. Trapped in a shopping mall, which they have fortified to keep out the zombies, the protagonists must struggle between living in imprisoned luxury, brutal death always trying to get in, or trying to escape to a place of freedom and peace.
DAY OF THE DEAD, released in 1985, featured powerful new themes to the zombie genre. Set after the nation, and possibly the world, has been overrun by the undead, a group of military and civilian survivors work in an underground bunker to discover a cure. Exploring the divide between military and civilian, the film focused on power dynamics in a confined space. And while DAY's box-office performance paled in comparison to earlier installments of Romero’s series, it is perhaps now, the Dead film which feels the most relevant to our time. The film itself is getting a lot of airplay on TV thanks to screenings on EL Rey Network, which is itself getting picked up by more and more major cable providers (more details on that here), but the themes of DAY also have been explored in more modern fare. For example, 28 DAYS LATER also featured a military versus civilian subplot, and so has the popular television series The Walking Dead. The concept of finding a cure for the plague of the undead has also inspired more recent zombie films, beginning with RESIDENT EVIL and 28 DAYS LATER, when a virus was asserted to turn people into zombies.
Though Romero's zombie fare took a hiatus after DAY OF THE DEAD, there was a dramatic rise of big-budget, mainstream zombie movie in the early 2000s, which typically featured themes around unethical scientific experimentation, viral plagues and contagions, and fast-moving infected, essentially "upping the ante," brought Romero back to the forefront with LAND OF THE DEAD in 2005. This film featured much more direct social commentary and examined class structures through the lens of a city of survivors of a zombie apocalypse. The city offered different roles and lifestyles for different classes of survivors, with the wealthy living in luxury and the poor struggling in dangerous and dirty conditions. Poor people could risk their lives scavenging for supplies outside the safety of the city in hope of being allowed to join the ranks of the wealthy and privileged.
The popularity of zombie films, begun by Romero's work in the 1960s and 1970s, has eventually spawned big-budget parodies and comedies about zombies and zombie apocalypses, including direct spoof SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004) and ZOMBIELAND (2009), which took a humorous look at surviving a zombie epidemic. The recent comedy WARM BODIES (2013) looks at zombie evolution and relationships with humans from a zombie perspective, switching the usual paradigm. In 1968, who could have predicted that Romero's first movie would spawn all this?
Written By: Brandon Engel
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Tuesday, August 12, 2014
Actress / Director/ Choreographer Sylvia Lewis has been dancing since the '40s in Hollywood. She has worked with the likes of The Three Stooges, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Spike Jones, and Ray Bolger, most famous for his work as the 'Scarecrow' in the WIZARD OF OZ (1939). In the '50s Lewis would appear on the landmark comedy television series The Colgate Comedy Hour and go on to work with directors like Jerry Lewis, Frank Tashlin, and Nicholas Ray. Lewis played 'Miss Cartilage ' in the fantasy finale of the 1961 Jerry Lewis comedy THE LADIES' MAN. She shares some of her stories with us here at TV Store Online....
TV STORE ONLINE: How did you end up working for Jerry Lewis on THE LADIES' MAN?
LEWIS: Well, THE LADIES' MAN wasn't the first time that I had actually worked with Jerry. Before I tell you about THE LADIES' MAN, I just want to say that I think Jerry is a completely underrated and gifted performer.
TV STORE ONLINE: He's a very underrated and gifted director too...
LEWIS: True. He was always very visual. I just remember him telling me about how he would get visions in his head when we worked together. He was one of those performers, writers, and directors that just saw it all in his head and if he couldn't figure out how to achieve it he would go to his crew members and he would pick their brains. That was how he learned. That was just how he gathered information and I think that over time in doing that he became one of the most well informed directors working. He really is a comedic genius, but I think that he always wanted to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor too. He is just a ball of talent and you can't limit him to any one particular medium. There were times when he was difficult to work for, like when I was working with him on The Colgate Comedy Hour (1955) on television. I was married to Jerry's head writer there Ed Simmons. I was barely out of my teen years when I did that with both he and Dean [Martin], and at that time I wasn't very focused on what they were doing, but only on the fact that there was this new four-camera thing that was going on in live television.
By the time we got to THE LADIES' MAN, I had gotten to know him better and I saw all of these different sides of him. I spent eleven weeks working on THE LADIES' MAN, and during those weeks I went into the studio every day hoping that I could catch Jerry to talk to him about the sequence that we ultimately did with the Harry James Orchestra. I was there all day, every day for those eleven weeks and I never got an opportunity to talk to him or rehearse for the finale that I was hired to be a part of in THE LADIES' MAN.
But I sat there for those weeks and I just watched him work, and this was when he had just invented the Video Asst. It was a busy set, and it was fantastic. There were tourists coming through, there were set visitors, and it was exciting because people wanted to see these technical innovations at work that he had created. Jerry could wear all of the hats too. He could at the same time, direct the scene and be in front of the camera as a performer and he did it with incredible ease.
At the end of those eleven weeks, Jerry took me aside and we went over onto the set were we were going to shoot the sequence. He had Edith Head design the costume for me. We were standing on that set, and he told me about how he had envisioned the entire set as being done in all white.
He had envisioned me in all black he said, with a white face and that red lipstick. I was a creature to him. He pointed up in the air and asked me to look at the chandelier. He said, "I had that crystal chandelier made in the shape of your body." You can't see it in the film completely, but it was those little details that he focused on that made that movie so wonderful.
He played me the track "Bang-Tail" by the Harry James Orchestra and he told me about how they were going to appear. He said, "I've listened to this track a few times. I just want you to follow me. Do it as a dancer, but just follow me." He put the track on and he started across the set. I was literally just chasing him around the set. What you see in the finished scene is literally just what he asked me to do. We rehearsed it about half a dozen times, and then we shot it. There was no choreography, there were just moves, and they were almost improvised. He trusted me to do that with him.
TV STORE ONLINE: How long did you have to hang upside down as we see you at the beginning of the scene in the movie?
LEWIS: Well, we shot for two days. I can't remember if that was done on the first day or second. I just remember that I could barely walk in that black dress. Harry James and the band were there on the set waiting, and Jerry started to talk about it. Jerry said, "Get the casting people down here. I don't want Sylvia doing that. It's too dangerous. Let's get a stunt double." So he gives instructions to have someone get four or five stunt girls from casting. About four or five hours later, the casting people come and they bring about half a dozen gals with them. Jerry lines them up, he takes a look at them. He seemed like he was starting to get annoyed because none of the girls looked like me. I said, "Jerry. I can do this. The guys will hold me up there! This is really no big deal." So two of the biggest and strongest guys you've ever seen pulled me into the air. One guy held one ankle, and another my other ankle. Jerry gave them specific instructions on how they should lower me right to his eye level. We did a rehearsal of it, and then I went back up into the ceiling and Jerry had the cameras rolling the entire time as so there would be no danger whatsoever.
TV STORE ONLINE: Is it true that you also worked on SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952) as a dancer?
LEWIS: Yes. That was the second movie that I ever worked on in fact. Do you remember the scene with Donald O'Connor where he sings "Make'em Laugh" and he does that back flip?
TV STORE ONLINE: Of course! That's my favorite sequence in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN...
LEWIS: I was actually standing next to the camera as Donald was doing that. I worked on SINGIN' IN THE RAIN for a long time, and as I remember it, it seemed like every dancer in Hollywood was working on the film too. At the time I wasn't a very happy chorus girl, but I knew it was going to be a very good and long job, but we had no idea that the film would become a classic. I had known Donald for a long time, because I had worked with him on television before all that. Standing there, and watching Donald do "Make'em Laugh", it was impossible to have any awareness that what he was doing was instantly timeless and in the minute that he did that no less.
TV STORE ONLINE: You're going to call me out on my bullsh*t when I say that I think Jerry Lewis is just as good of a dancer as someone like Gene Kelly or Donald O'Connor....
LEWIS: You're wrong for one reason, but that's not to say that he couldn't have been. He didn't have the formal training that either Gene or Donald had, and that is what separates the men from the boys. He could've been right up there though if he had wanted to be. Jerry has always had perfect rhythm and a very good pitch when it comes to music. He has all the tools to be a great dancer except the training.
TV STORE ONLINE: You also worked with Nicholas Ray on his film HOT BLOOD (1956)...
LEWIS: Oh Boy! Yes, I did work on that as a choreographer. By that time, I was a fairly well known choreographer and my agent called me one day and said that Nick Ray would like myself and another choreographer [Matt Maddox] to come to see him about a job on his next film. We went in there, and Nick was the most charming and adorable person that you could meet. He was so enthusiastic about his next project. He had just come off of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955). He started telling us about his idea for the movie and it was really his baby. It was a project that he had been working on for a very long time. He spent a lot of time researching these New York gypsies. He said, "This is culture that is so interesting. We don't know anything about them and they are incredibly fascinating." This was during the pre-production for the film. He hired Les Baxter to do the music for the film. Things were moving really fast.
Nick would have me come in every couple of weeks before they started shooting. We would go over the scenes that involved music and dance. As a good director does, he was filling us in on the ambiance of the culture of the gypsies. Around that time he also started hiring his supporting characters for the movie. He hadn't even hired his lead actors yet! It got just a couple weeks before he was to start shooting and he still hadn't hired his leads. I went in to see him and he said, "Well, we might have Cornel Wilde, but we're not sure. I'm getting pressure from the front office also to use Jane Russell in the movie but she's not right for the role." I will say that for Cornel Wilde, he had talents that we hadn't seen of him on the big screen yet up till that point, and he at least, looked right for the part.
In the final week before Nick was to start shooting he became very stressed out and unhappy. He was being backed up against the wall because he was forced by Harry Cohn at Columbia to hire Jane Russell for HOT BLOOD. He became very despondent and was forced to move forward with the movie. Matt and I had only a week or ten days to teach both Jane Russell and Cornel, who were non-dancing actors, what we had come up with for the wedding dance, and that thing with the whip... We tried to make the steps simple so that they would be able to learn them in such a short time. Nick said, "You choreograph what you like and if necessary we'll just shoot you and Matt doing it and then we'll cut in." We worked our asses off trying to teach Jane and Cornel those dances. It was not an easy task. As we got as far along as we could, Nick would come down and watch us. He figured out how he wanted to shoot it as he was watching Jane and Cornel dance. The long shots that you see of them dancing in HOT BLOOD were done by Matt and I, and the close-ups are obviously Jane and Cornel.
As Nick started shooting he got more and more frustrated with Jane and Cornel. It just wasn't working. Nick was a very unhappy man, and he was drinking heavily during the shooting of HOT BLOOD, and it was so sad to see this man who had had this incredibly personal movie that he had envisioned, and then to have it taken away and dictated by the studio really drove him into a very dark state of being.
We did the wedding dance sequence as Nick had planned it out, and a week later the studio asked to see it. The screening didn't go well. They told Nick that they could clearly see where the dancers were Matt and I, and then when they were Jane Russell and Cornel Wilde. They demanded that he re-shoot it. So Nick had to go and re-hire all of the extras that he had used and get everyone back for it. He was so pissed off that he purposely set the camera back as far away from us as he could get it (Laughing). Matt and I are still dancing in the sequence but the camera is so far away that we look like two ants on the screen (Laughing).
But, it didn't matter how far he got away with the camera, you can still tell when we are dancing and when Jane and Cornell are on the screen. Jane and Cornell were both very sweet, and they really tried very hard to get it right, but they just weren't right for those parts. I think that the both of them could tell that Nick wasn't happy that they were being forced on him. It really was doomed from the start. Had the studio left Nick alone to make the film that he wanted to it would've been something wonderful, because the script really was good.
Nick was living at the Chateau Marmont at the time, and on the weekends he would invite all of us over to his bungalow and we would have dinner and booze together. Natalie Wood would show up, and some of the other members of the REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE crew. He would use the time to try to get over the trauma and the week-after-week torture that the studio put him through during HOT BLOOD. He was a very quiet man, and he really was a wonderful director and I've always felt sad about how HOT BLOOD turned out for him.
TV STORE ONLINE: For every bit of criticism that HOT BLOOD has received, the one thing that really comes across beautifully in the film is Nick's attention to that gypsy sub-culture...LEWIS: Yeah, I would agree. But going into HOT BLOOD you really need to be forewarned of that. Any review I ever read of the film when it was released or since, no critic has ever picked up on that. It's really in there but it's lost in a way in the movie.
TV STORE ONLINE: You also worked on a little movie in the mid '70s that I adore called HEARTS OF THE WEST (1975)...
LEWIS: I just recently saw the film for the first time since it was released theatrically. It's a fun and delightful little movie. The cast of it is so wonderful.
TV STORE ONLINE: The musical number that you did in the film is my favorite moment in the movie...
LEWIS: You think? There was so much of it that was cut out! That number, how I came to do that number, it was a point in time where tap-dancing had made a brief comeback. It had been gone from movies for decades and for some reason there was a resurgence. The movie got a lot of publicity for the time because of how tap-dancing had become so popular again. One day when we were shooting, NBC came to the set with a crew, as they were planning on doing a special segment on tap-dancing which was to air shortly thereafter. It was obviously a publicity thing connected with the studio. They shot us doing the entire dance number from three different angles. When it aired on NBC they showed the entire dance number! They didn't cut any of it. When I went to the theater to see the movie I saw that they had actually cut a bunch of it out. I was so mad.
They were able to do exactly that but they weren't happy that they had to do it, and when it came time to record the tap-dancing sound I had to go in and dance it myself. I had to do it twelve times and I was very aware of where I was. I did it on the same floor that Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly had danced on for post-production.
LEWIS: The easiest non-dancer that I ever worked with was Dick Van Dyke. He was just like Jerry Lewis. He wasn't trained but he had this natural ability that made everything so easy. Everything that I showed him he picked up instantly.
TV STORE ONLINE: Who was the most difficult actor or actress that you had to work with in your career in regards to teaching dance?
LEWIS: Jane Russell! I'm sorry...(Laughing)
TV STORE ONLINE: Well, she's dead now...
LEWIS: She was such a sweet person though.
LEWIS: I guess I'm an old grouch because I find the whole idea of competitive dancing very offensive. I can't watch that show. I did try to watch the show, but I had to leave it behind. I will some times tune in near the end of the competition to see who is left and how far they have come along in their training.
Having these non-dancers pushing themselves to see who can kick higher or push themselves to an end point is difficult to watch. I still consider dance to be an art-form and I'm just not sure where that train of thought has gone today....I don't see that in anything in the mainstream today. I've gone back to appreciating the classical "hoofers". I even admire someone like Gregory Hines, and he's not here to show people the art form any longer. I've gone back to enjoying the classic ballet because no one has tried to corrupt that all of these years later. What is mainstream dance now - is not my cup of tea.
Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung
For more with Sylvia Lewis please visit her official website HERE:
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