Monday, December 29, 2014

Steadicam Pioneer Garrett Brown on working with Stanley Kubrick on The Shining

Steadicam Pioneer Garrett Brown talks with TV STORE ONLINE about the shooting of THE SHINING with Stanley Kubrick.

TV STORE ONLINE:  How much involvement did you have in the physical pre-production planning  on THE SHINING itself?

BROWN:  The Steadicam certainly had an influence on it because Stanley had seen the early demo and one of his first questions was, "Is there a minimum height in which the thing can be used?"  I'm guessing he had the galley for The SHINING and he had already thought of shooting at Danny's eye level for the movie.    I had been over in London at Film '77 Expo and Stanley had asked me to come out to Borehamwood to meet with him and take a look at the sets for THE SHINING.    I took a rig out there that I had come up with which basically had the Steadicam turned upside down.  It was called "Low Mode", and basically it's just the camera placed at the bottom of the rig and the counter weights put at the top.   So I was able to run around there and I think that convinced him that the Steadicam might actually work for what he had in mind for THE SHINING.

Stanley hadn't projected an exact number of takes that he thought that he might do for any particular scene with the Steadicam and the floors of the sets, no matter how hard the carpenters may have tried, weren't level in spots and if Stanley would've tried to dolly some of the shots that he wanted during the shooting he would have gotten a much rougher result, so one of the first things that Stanley and I did was to go through a list of possible things that I might ride on, because given the amount of takes that Stanley had planned on, and it was not a honest assessment, there would have been no way that I could have done all of them day in and day out over the course of the time that I was there working on THE SHINING as 38-year-old man even in the shape that I was in then.

We came up with a bunch of different ideas for things that I could ride on. One being a refrigerator dolly.  Someone had strapped a couple giant barrels to it and I tried sitting on them and then someone pushed me along while trying to balance it and that was a total disaster.  Then we tried a couple skateboards in which I could sit on and someone would push me along behind Danny as he rode his big wheel around the Colorado Lounge set and that was a disaster.  We thought that we would try to use an existing dolly made for filming and while I was able to take out any of unevenness of the floor with the Steadicam itself, it proved to not be very agile as it couldn't turn very well.   What we eventually ended up doing was using this bizarre custom made wheelchair that Stanley had a guy named Ron Ford make.   It was basically a wheelchair front with the wheels and the bogies but the rest was this custom platform with scaffolding on it.  This allowed for a chair to be mounted on it or for some handles to be put in that would allow someone to be able to push it around.

All of the work that went into the Ron Ford wheelchair proved to be worth it because there just would have been no way that I could've followed Danny around those sets on his big wheel on foot for all of the takes that Stanley did of that.  He did something like 40 takes of that.  He was tireless.  Poor "Winkle", our Grip [Dennis Lewis], was anything but tireless and he would be very vocal when he had to push me around in that wheelchair.  To the point actually were you could hear him complaining on the soundtrack for the scene.   Those scenes are wonderful because they have those marvelous sounds in them of Danny riding on the rug then going off onto the floors then back onto the rug...

TV STORE ONLINE:  Right, could you hear that happening with rugs and the floor while you were following behind Danny in your headphones?

BROWN:  No, I couldn't.  I had a mic on the Steadicam rig and a little Nagra recorder that was recording it but you couldn't hear it.  Usually the audio would be sent wireless to the sound man but because of the length of the course that Danny was riding his big wheel that wasn't the case.  So none of us heard it or realized how wonderful and dramatic it was until we saw it in dailies later on.    Then of course everyone rushed to take credit for it.  Myself, of course, for carrying the microphone in the shot and then Stanley for dreaming it up.

TV STORE ONLINE:  The Steadicam has become just as an important character in THE SHINING as any of the humans are...The way the camera moves and follows the actors in the film reminds one of a ghostly presence...I was wondering if you and Stanley ever discussed that idea?

BROWN:  Not ever in so many words, but it was kind of self evident to me.   It was obvious to me in operating on that film that the whole thing had that sort of dark point-of-view about it.   The Steadicam produces something visceral in THE SHINING and it was important to implement it in those shots because if Stanley would have just used a handheld camera it would given off the impression that the Torrance Family was being followed around by some sort of creature. Those shots really are the Director's point-of-view or God point-of-view. They are storytelling shots and with the Steadicam you could achieve that stabilized smoothness that the dolly couldn't afford you because of the floors of the set.  Operating on THE SHINING really screwed my eye up for months afterward because of how Stanley always liked to shoot right down the center of the set.  I always had to be locked on the center line of any set that we were on.

TV STORE ONLINE:   Could you talk about the size and the scope of those sets that THE SHINING was shot on?

BROWN:  They were enormous.  Stanley built them so they were continuous.  Entrances flowed in others.   You were almost unaware when you'd be working and the set would change on you.  It was an amazing effect.  Then there was the second floor and the balconies.  The kitchen set was not directly attached to The Colorado Lounge set but it was enormous as well.    The effect of moving in a place like that is amplified by the amount of background you can generate.   My favorite shots in THE SHINING are some of those on that kitchen set because the Steadicam gives you grace that a dolly doesn't have with it's wheels in that you can go around corners very quickly.   The Colorado Lounge set had a million watts of light going into it.   It was like being on top of a mountain and having a open sky above you.   You could cross that Lounge and not worry about having to change the f-stop on your camera.

TV STORE ONLINE:  I read once somewhere that you had something to do with the shooting of the opening of the THE SHINING?

BROWN:  Well, not the actual shooting but I suggested the "Going-To-The-Sun Highway" that the Yellow Volkswagen Bug drives on.   Greg MacGillivray and his team had shot some footage on the roads below the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and when that footage came to Stanley we watched it and it was just boring so I suggested that they take a look at the Going-To-The-Sun Highway in Montana.

TV STORE ONLINE:   While operating the Steadicam on THE SHINING did you have access to a Video Asst. system that helped with following Danny for example?

BROWN:  Yes.  But I had to create a better version of it because when I showed up I was certain that I didn't want to be connected to any wires going to the recorders.  I thought it would be dangerous because of the way that I was planning to be moving.  I could've gotten hung up by a cable puller who wasn't paying attention and I would've went down. It would've been a form of cattle roping.     I had a wireless video transmitter in an era which there really wasn't such a thing, and after arriving during pre-production, it just wasn't working.  So I immediately hooked up to cables.  Luckily, I found a guy in London who was developing a UHF Video transmitter that worked on the "mains" as they say...Meaning, you had to plug it in near where the camera was going to be.   So I had to convince this guy and at my expense to build me one of these in a huge hurry.   I ended up with this little black rectangular box that was the size of a toothpaste tube.  I sprung it on Stanley and the drama then was then about whether or not we could get enough antennas going throughout the sets so that the signal from the new box could be sent back to the Video Asst. so Stanley could see it and not insist that I be wired.   Eventually we got so good at it that by the time that we shot the scenes with Danny running through the maze that Stanley could just watch what I was shooting on television.

When I first introduced the UHF transmitter to Stanley he was convinced that it would send a signal to people not expecting it.   We were shooting at Borehamwood and on the backside of the studio was a suburb of houses and Stanley was convinced that the UHF signal was going to escape out to the televisions of those living in the neighboring homes over the hill, and that they would be able to see what we were doing if they by chance turned to a particular channel.   He got quite a bit of anxiety about this actually and so I took a little monitor I had and went out walking around the studio and there were certain places that one could stand in and you could catch the signal perfectly and then others were you couldn't see anything.   I memorized the places around the studio where you couldn't pick up the signal and when Stanley asked me to take him around the studio to prove this, I stopped at those places to show him that the signal wasn't coming through.   Plus,  the studio walls had a sort of wire mesh on the walls and when Stanley and I were out there, I pointed out to him that the wire mesh would ground the signal effectively not allowing it to escape out of the studio.

So do you think that the signal actually got out of the studio?

Well, there was a little bit of chicanery there but my thought was that if any bit of the signal did escape it was going to be on a channel that a local housewife would only catch on her television by accident.  I mean, how many housewives were going to change the channel from their favorite soap opera in the middle of the day?    Even if they did, how long would they stick with it?  They wouldn't know what they were watching even.    We would joke about it with Stanley...While we were working on THE SHINING we would joke that the housewives would be tuned in as if they were these Monty Python like characters saying, "Oh...What is Stanley up today? "      It was really pioneering Steadicam work. Because if I had I been wired, then it would've made the scenes in the maze impossible to do because any cords coming behind me would have left tracks in the snow.

Not being hooked up made it that much easier because it was already difficult.  You had the fumes you were dealing with from the chemicals used on the walls of the maze, then you had the salt that would eat through your boots. I went through three pairs of boots working on the maze set.   We were shooting in there for months, and it was exhausting because it was like running through sand and I was carrying weight too.

I had a camera assistant following behind me to pull focus as well as a sound man carrying a boom over my head.  It was a carnival moving at the same time based on where I was going to move which was a result of where Jack or Danny wanted to go.    If you've ever seen a school of birds in the sky and how they can all be flying in the same direction and then suddenly all change together at the exact same time to fly a different direction...That was how we had to move.

It wouldn't do well to crash into the walls of the maze because of how finely decorated they were with chemicals and Styrofoam.  Then there were lights at the bottom of the maze and each of those omitted a thousand watts and so when you combine those, and the heat they gave off, and the Styrofoam, and the salt, and the chemicals and the oil smoke that we were breathing in...It was a lethal situation.     It was over one hundred degrees on the maze set..I still wonder all of these years later if those of us that worked on that won't suffer from that exposure as we grow older in life.    We tried to wear gas masks but because of the heat in there you just couldn't get enough oxygen.

  I feel like I read somewhere that you also had a light rigged up that sort of came up from behind your legs?   It's a miracle that the maze set didn't catch on fire either....

BROWN:  Yeah, at times there was a light.   We always got lost in the maze too.   When we'd finish a take we would be completely lost in the maze.  You couldn't find your way out or your way back so the Assistant Director would have to come in and find us with a map.    You have to remember that nothing that Jack or Danny did in the maze was rehearsed.  They just ran around and it would be marked a valid take if they ran and didn't run into a dead end or into a wall.

TV STORE ONLINE:  There's a particular visual sense in the scenes in the maze too....The walls of the maze almost cure outward.  It's distorted in a way...

BROWN:  Well, it was shot with a 9.8 wide angle lens.  In fact, that was the widest we ever went on THE SHINING.   It's an extraordinarily wide lens.  It was a Canopic lens.   It's one of those lenses where it's very important that you always keep it level and when you push it through space...The narrow walls of the maze became very wide and the speed in which the walls of the maze went by was very satisfactory.   The only time that it would become obvious that we were trying to use this wide angle trick was if I got to close to Danny.   If I got too close to him, or his leg for example, or if I got too close to his trailing leg, it would look enormous coming at me.  There's one shot in the film where you can see that happen.   The effectiveness of the maze sequence is a construction of three parts:  The beauty of the way that it was lit and smoked in.  The nature of the maze with those pristine piles of snow, and most importantly how the lights were timed when the film was processed.   When you watched the raw footage from the maze sequence the footage was a disgusting orange color and it looked nothing like winter.  It looked like hell.  But when they processed the film according to Stanley and John Alcott's presets.... when that was done, and the lights were knocked down, and all you have left all the blues it became extraordinary.   That's why we smoked the set.  So when the lights were timed the smoke became something that looked like a frozen mist.

TV STORE ONLINE:  In the maze sequence we only see one set of footprints as Danny runs through and then retraces his steps...How was that done?

BROWN:   Yeah, we attempted a gag which is in the film...Danny had made footprints and then stopped and walked backward in his own footprints. I went back through his footprints where I had to step without making my own footprints.  In order to do that I had to have Danny sized feet nailed to the bottom of my Garrett sized boots.  In reality, I only stepped in two or three of his footprints for that, but it boggles the mind of those that are intensely interested in that kind of stuff.  It suggests that we used a crane for that but it was just me with the Steadicam and I looked like some sort of old woman trying to walk in his footsteps.   I really learned my craft on THE SHINING and I developed all of the modern techniques that are used today in operating the Steadicam on THE SHINING.  It allowed me to teach others how to use it.  We did a lot of takes on THE SHINING, and I really enjoyed doing all of those takes because it allowed me to reach perfection with the Steadicam and I enjoyed it too because in doing all of those takes it allowed me also to be more creative with it as well.  We'd do a take, then we'd watch the playback, and then Stanley and I would argue about something and then we'd try something else.

  I've seen you mention in other interviews about having arguments with Stanley about where to place the camera's cross-hairs before you'd shoot a scene...

BROWN:   It was my opinion in the end that Stanley would use these arguments with me and any sort of trumped-up complaints about the cross-hairs as an opportunity to do more takes of any given scene.    He wanted 20 to 30 takes of every scene in the can so when he was editing he could pick or choose like he was in an auto-mat.  He got performances from every actor in every scene that went from catatonic to hysterical.   For better or worse, some of the scenes in THE SHINING...The level of intensity in any given scene wasn't created by the actor but by Stanley in the editing room.  He constructed those performances as Svengali.   From my point of view, I thought the arguments that I had with Stanley were for fun and for the sake of ritual.  They were things like "Garrett, I need the cross-hairs right on Shelley's nose."  I would say, "Stanley, you're not going to print the cross-hairs...How close does it have to be?"   I remember at one point during the dailies we watched 13 or 14 identical takes in a row and he said, "Those goddamn cross-hairs get me in trouble every time..."

TV STORE ONLINE:   So the arguments were playful?

BROWN:  They were.  There was no viciousness of any kind on the shoot for THE SHINING.  He could express his fatigue or his disinterest in things that didn't reflect the film getting done but I never felt abused by him ever.    By the time I started working on THE SHINING, the job was to get the film done. The original plan was that we would shoot the film in six months and we would move from stage-to-stage with our little hand carts but that never happened.   We would get stalled on a shot and spend the day on it.  We basically did one shot a day for a year.   Or we would do one sequence per day with many shots.

TV STORE ONLINE:   Were you operating for the sequence in which Jack walks down the hallway of the Overlook Hotel and enters into the Gold Ballroom where he meets "Lloyd" for the first time?  I've heard that that was done over 70 takes....

BROWN:  I can't remember the exact amount of takes now but it was a lot.   I was operating there and when the Jack enters into the Ballroom there was actually a cut.   There was a dolly in place in which the camera tracked along with Jack as he walked through the Ballroom and up to the bar where he met Joe Turkel who played Lloyd The Bartender.

TV STORE ONLINE:   Is there any truth to what I've heard about THE SHINING being shot in continuity?

  It was shot in a loose continuity.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Why was Kubrick so keen to shoot the film that way?

BROWN:  Well, because it allowed Stanley to change things on the go in a way that you couldn't if you would've shoot out of continuity.  It was a very organic operation.  He was always rewriting pages of the script as we went along.  The shooting wasn't set in stone in any way.

TV STORE ONLINE: There's been a story going around for years about the 100 plus takes that Stanley did with Scatman Crothers in the kitchen during the shooting of THE SHINING...Were you operating during that?

BROWN:  No, that was Kelvin Pike [Camera Operator] who was operating for that.  By that time I had been rotating back to the States every other week because when I had signed on to work with Stanley, I had thought that it was only going to be for 6 months, and so, by that time I had to be back to work on another film that I had previously committed to.   So I would shoot on THE SHINING then fly back to the States via a Concorde.

TV STORE ONLINE:   Those flights on the Concorde must have been incredible...

BROWN:  They caused Stanley and Jan Harlan a lot of ire and anger because they had to work around my schedule and shoot some of the more convention shots that were planned.   I really loved that plane.  You could actually eat your weight in Caviar on it and they wouldn't care.     For a while I had the record of having actually logged the second highest amount of flights on that plane.

TV STORE ONLINE:   Did you observe any rehearsals that Stanley had with his actors?  I've read that he shot or videotaped all of his rehearsals...

BROWN:  There may have been rehearsals that I wasn't involved in...By the time I got involved we would start to shoot very quickly.   Film was the cheapest thing that he had and so he wasn't concerned with wasting film stock.  He liked to have a small crew and shoot a long time.   If you have a scene that's seven minutes in length and you're doing 148 takes of it in close-up, that's 700 foot of film out of a 1000 foot magazine.  He would do one take and then chuck the rest away.  He didn't like to use his short ends.  In fact, I would take his short ends and go out and film people walking around Borehamwood in "Low Mode" with the Steadicam.    He gave me his short-ends freely and he didn't care if I used them.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Do you remember shooting the scene that was originally supposed to finish the film?  It was a sequence where Barry Nelson was supposed to visit Danny and Shelley in the hospital?

BROWN:  I do.   It was some of my best work with the Steadicam because by the time that we came to it I had become so good that I thought that I could do anything by then.  We designed some incredible shots for that.   The scene was extremely well done and it took place with Shelley laying in a hospital bed.   It was so good, but it really dragged on.   The film didn't need a coda .  The scene appeared in the first screening of the film when it premiered in New York City and it was ridiculed so Stanley removed it right after that.    The hospital scene was the last scene I shot on THE SHINING.  I shot the last shot we were supposed to do, rounded up my gear, went downstairs, saw Vivian [Kubrick], gave her hug and hopped on one last Concorde flight back to the States.

TV STORE ONLINE:   On the DVD Commentary for the THE SHINING you make a mention that you were in the bathroom during the sequence where Jack puts the ax into the door...

BROWN:  The bathroom was very tiny.  It was only as wide and as a long as a normal bathtub.  Stanley loved tiny spaces.  I was tucked in right next to the door as Jack put the ax through it.  I was operating the camera and I was about eight inches from the blade ever time it came through the door.   I could feel splinters of wood from the door hit me.   The noise and that drama of that blade hitting the door was extraordinary.  That scene was as genuine as it gets because it was terrifying.  When Shelley was standing next to the door across from me she didn't need the method to reach that level of hysteria.    With that being said, there were times when Jack would swing the ax and it would get stuck and he couldn't pull it out of the door and we'd have to stop and reset.  When that happened it would become quit comical, but Jesus, when it worked--it was terrifying.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Were you operating the camera for the moment in that sequence when Jack puts his head through the door and says, "Here's Johnny!"

BROWN:  I was.

TV STORE ONLINE:  How many takes for something like that?   And were there variations on that line by Jack Nicholson or was that always the line that was planned for the dialogue?

BROWN:  I can't remember the exact number of takes but you can guarantee that there were a lot of takes for that.  From memory, there were other lines that Jack tried but none of them quite worked and I think "Here's Johnny" was a late comer.

TV STORE ONLINE:  How about the shooting of the sequence with the gentleman in the tuxedo and the "Dog Faced Man" in the upstairs of the Overlook?   Was that ever discussed in regards to its ambiguity?

BROWN:  No, I don't think it was.   I know that one of the guys in the script was named "Horace Derwent" I believe.   I never asked him what it was supposed to mean.  I just thought it was organic and that it was just supposed to be part of the hotel.   I thought that was just wonderfully weird.

TV STORE ONLINE:  What's your favorite Steadicam shot that you did in THE SHINING?

BROWN:  My favorite shot is were I follow Jack with the ax as he's limping.  He climbs up some stairs and he looks out over the Lobby set and here comes Scatman in the distance.  The technical aspects of that scene are something I'm very proud of because it highlights the way my art is exercised.   To the audience it's nothing, but to me it was almost the height of my craft on THE SHINING.   When Jack was lurching and limping in step, the camera was lurching just as he was.

TV STORE ONLINE:  This is a fan question...But following behind Danny with the Steadicam as he's riding his big wheel through the hotel and you're shooting the scene where he goes around the corner and sees the Grady Twins...Are you ever put off guard shooting something like that?  Does your psyche allow you to be effected in that moment or were you just operating the camera there?

It would be a lie to say that there weren't one or two takes there where I was hit with a certain voltage by that just as Danny's character was.    It wouldn't have been on the first take though just because while you're getting ready to go for the first time you're running all of these internal calculations.  I had seen the Twins beforehand in make-up and I had seen them standing around the set and in Polaroids.    Once you get 4 or 5 takes in,  your mind gives a little leeway and you're able to look up and experience the scene and that's the one that gets you.   I'll confess that there were one or two takes were we came around that corner where I felt Danny's deceleration on that big wheel and the twins' look--kinda frozen and twitching, very much alive but yet also very weird.  It had that Diane Arbus quality to it.

Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung