Trying Out for the DGA

Trying Out for the DGABefore my encounter with Walt Coy, I had explored a couple other avenues to making films. The summer after my graduation from Seattle University I enrolled in a film class at the UW. As with any college course there were books to read and classroom lectures, but precious little hands on instruction. Our main assignment for the quarter was to make a film. I shot some footage (8mm) around campus, but with no story behind it, it was never finished, (nor for that matter, did anyone else in that class, I believe).

The other track that I explored was a little out of the ordinary. I came across a notice about a film school in Paris, France – the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinematographiques, or IDHEC for short. With a major in French, this seemed to be an appropriate possibility for gaining hands on experience in an interesting location. I took their contact info and wrote out a query letter – what did it take academically to be admitted, what were the costs, etc. And sent it off to them.

I received a reply, but I cannot remember what it said exactly. I have looked for it in my records, to no avail. (I did find a cache of junior high materials, high school and college notebooks, etc., and other correspondence from that time period). I am certain that it came with no offer of scholarship, otherwise I would have delved into it more.

Anyway, life intervened. I was married, and holding down my assistant manager position at the Fifth Avenue theater in Seattle, and was content.

Then, either my friend Pat, or myself caught wind of another opportunity to break into the other end of the business. We learned that the Directors Guild of America was accepting applications for their assistant director (AD) training program. We put our heads together and decided we both would make the attempt.

We sent our applications in, with the required extra stuff (photos). We were both notified that the applications were accepted, and made plans to fly down to LA for the entrance examination. So come that particular weekend, we left our significant others behind, (me – my wife, and Pat – his girl friend Wendy).

After our flight, we drove to Hollywood and checked into our hotel down the street from the Capitol Records building. It was one of those structures with the rooms opening onto the pool in the center. We didn’t swim. We had no time, nor swimsuits.

The next morning, we checked out and drove straight to the USC campus where the exam was to be administered. We didn’t even stop for breakfast. (We probably didn’t have time – Pat always flew by the seat of pants, a fact that would get us into more trouble later). I remember being quite hungry, so I was glad to see some donuts left out for the attendees. A pretty good size crowd milled about the square, grazing on the pastry.

A couple hours passed with number two pencils and the test sheets, then we were free for the rest of the day. Obviously it would be a while before we heard any results.

We drove back into Hollywood to see the sights. We had lots of time to kill before our flight out that evening.  For the most part, we just stayed in the car and rubber necked. We wanted to cover as much ground as possible. Besides, we didn’t have any money with us for tickets to any of the attractions – Mann’s Chinese or the Wax Museum. Ours was the real cheap tour (we didn’t even buy one of the Maps to the Stars).

We did pick up some lunch, but that too we ate in the car. We parked on a little side road somewhere, near a playground. I know it was past the noon hour for the light was coming in at us at an angle that signaled that it was well past the meridian. It had the look of one of those odd things you always remember, for it is so out of the ordinary.

I had been keeping a wary eye on the clock, and was glad when at last Pat pointed the car towards the airport. He misjudged the time needed to negotiate the LA freeways. We got to the airport okay, but we missed our flight. And the next flight to Seattle wasn’t until the next morning. Not having the wherewithal for anything else, we spent the night in the terminal, hungry.

We did get back to Seattle the next day, and waited for our answers.

Neither of us made the cut. Not long after our paths diverged and I lost contact with Pat and Wendy.

Years later, I heard that Pat had continued to go down to LA for the yearly exam, and eventually he did move to LA. But it was his girl friend Wendy who was accepted into the DGA program. She was the DGA trainee on the Barbra Streisand film “All Night Long,” and later the second second assistant director on the Nick Nolte, Debra Winger starrer “Cannery Row.”

[Aside – Wendy once told me that she was related to the inventor of a submachinegun. And I believed her. After all her last name was Thompson].

Going Fishing with Bill Conrad

Bill Conrad wrangled another 1.2 million budget from Warners for his next project – Chubasco – on which Howard Kazanjian would continue his DGA apprenticeship. Besides being the name of the lead character, the title refers to the heavy thunder storms at sea along the Pacific Coast during the rainy season, a fitting metaphor for the troubled, mercurial young rebel (portrayed by Christopher Jones) who becomes involved in a star-crossed relationship with Bunny (played by Susan Strasberg), the daughter of a Portuguese tuna fisherman (played by Richard Egan).

The director Allen H. Miner also wrote the script. It was a passion project for him. He had covered the lives of tuna fishermen before in a documentary for which he wore all the hats – producer, cameraman, director and editor – The Naked Sea, released in 1954 by RKO. Bill Conrad’s connection to Miner dates back to this film. He provided the narration for it, and a few years later he appeared in a western directed by Miner, entitled The Ride Back.

According to Howard “we had a very strong cast for the day, basically all names.” And many deemed Christopher Jones a rising star. He was being boosted as a successor to James Dean. Miner brought Jones with him as his choice for the lead, having directed him in a couple of episodes in the TV series, the Legend of Jesse James. At this time Jones was married to his co-star Susan Strasberg, and a lot was made of that fact in the ongoing promotion for the picture.  Articles appeared in the press asking the question could they be as successful together as Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. Sadly, they split the year that Chubasco was released. Strasberg remained in the acting profession, but Jones, after appearing in David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter, dropped out of sight for a myriad of personal reasons.

Originally Robert Burks was tapped to be DP. He was Hitchcock’s favorite cinematographer, teaming up with him beginning with Strangers on a Train through Marnie (only missing Psycho). Howard does not recall Burks on Chubasco at all. So for whatever reason, Burks must have left the production prior to Howard’s involvement with it. Two DPs are listed instead. Between Paul Ivano and Lew Jennings, I am not sure which was his replacement. Howard tells me that when you see two DPs, one of them is usually responsible for a specialized type of photography.  In the case  of Chubasco this was most likely for the underwater sequences.

The AD on the project, Fred Gammon, handed Howard the usual assignments. [Howard –  “Checking in actors into make-up in the morning, seeing that they get breakfast if needed.  Getting them to the set.   All paperwork, time cards, call sheets, production reports, etc. etc. etc.”] He also set the extras for the scenes on shore, notably the confrontation between Jones and the motorcycle gang that was crashing a party under a pier and Jones’ subsequent arrest. Howard placed extras for the bits when the fishermen brought their catches in.  [Howard – “I remember watching the tuna being unloaded and moving up a ramp bumping their heads on the wooden sides.  And then seeing huge piles of tuna in the warehouse.  I loved tuna sandwiches until I saw how they were handled”].

The first phase of the production was tough. The home port for the story was San Diego. So that is where principal photography commenced for the exteriors. [Howard – “I think we were down in SD only two weeks. I stayed at the El Rey Hotel, that was the place to stay at the time. While on location I got the crew and cast to the harbor and sent them out to sea.  I stayed back on shore doing whatever needed to be done. Shooting on water is always difficult.  Always the fewer at sea the better”]. There were more vessels than one involved. Besides fishing vessels upon which the cast performed, another was set apart as the crew vessel. It also acted as a camera platform for master shots focused on the fishing boats. The studio hired a huge yacht to act as courier between the ships at sea and the company base on the mainland.

Just because Howard was land bound by his responsibilities, didn’t mean that he didn’t get to go out on the water. [Howard – “I recall being taken to dinner by Joe Cramer at the Coronado Hotel on the weekend. Joe was one of the best and nicest guys I met in the business and he took me under his wing. He was the assistant to the head production manager at WB, Dutch Meyer, to whom we all reported]. (Aside – The following year Cramer was the unit manager on “Bullitt” and AD on “The Green Berets”).  Cramer arranged for Howard and a few others to have a short cruise and a meal that Sunday. On location the production was shuttered on Sunday, and this yacht sat idle (you can see it in the above video, beginning about the 10 sec mark). It was paid for, so why not use it. Prior to this Howard’s experiences on the water had all been less than pleasurable (even outings to Catalina with his dad when younger, or on fishing expeditions with his uncle). And so it proved again. He became sick immediately upon the yacht casting away from the dock and had to lie down. Someone suggested a meal. In the dining salon a gigantic table (20 foot long) had been set up. It was on gimbals, so it could move but stay level. The chef brought out the meal. The blood from the meat moved around on the plate ever so slightly, but it was enough to send Howard up on deck to the rail.

After the two weeks in San Diego, the production moved up to the studio in Burbank for interiors. [Howard – I was on the film exactly 30 days.   I don’t recall if I saw the wrap or not.   I know I went onto Cool Hand Luke the next day].

Making a Musical for Bill Conrad

 

The next time Howard Kazanjian worked for producer Bill Conrad, the budget had been bumped up to 1.2 million. Warner Brothers was looking to cash in on the new craze sweeping the young teen audiences in America, represented by the success of such musical variety shows as Shindig and Hullabaloo.

The studio saw potential in a script penned by the first winner of the Samuel L Warner Memorial Opportunity Award, Joyce Geller when she was there for her internship. (I mentioned this in passing on my post entitled “Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree”). Geller’s script told the story of a talented but unsuccessful singer Cliff Donner (played by Gil Peterson) and an ambitious go-go dancer Hallie Rodgers (played by Debbie Watson), who are paired up by a millionaire rock’n’roll entrepreneur Tony Krum (played by Roddy McDowell). The story pivots around Krum’s plan to generate PR for the duo by engendering a perception in the teen audience that they are falling in love – complications, of course, ensue. Geller preferred her title “The Wiggy Plan of Tony Krum,” but the studio wanted something they considered more meaningful, hence “The Cool Ones.” She salted her dialogue with words such as “Ratfink” and “Dingaling,” jargon calculated to resonate with the target audience.

Conrad also put together his team with an eye to this end. For director he selected Gene Nelson, who most recently had helmed two Elvis Presley films – “Kissin’ Cousins” and “Harum Scarum.” Nelson came from a dance background, notably having played the part of Will Parker in the film version of “Oklahoma.” Howard found him to be a very nice guy.

For DP Conrad tapped Floyd Crosby. He had extensive experience working on teen projects, including four of the beach party movies and several Roger Corman horror productions. He had a couple more musical connections of interest, he had been involved with the production of Oklahoma in the 2d unit, so he may or may not have been acquainted with Nelson already. And most interesting of all, Floyd was the father of David Crosby, at this time a member of the rock band, the Byrds – (Crosby Stills and Nash and (sometimes Young) was in the near future).

For choreographer, they brought in Toni Basil. She had assisted her mentor David Winters, the choreographer on both Hullabaloo and Shindig, (she would appear later in Easy Rider; and did choreography for American Graffiti). She brought along her friend and fellow Shindig dancer Teri Garr, whom you can catch in the background in some shots. Both Toni and Teri had appeared in front of the lenses of Floyd Crosby before, in the film “Pajama Party.” Another Shindig member, a guitarist for the Shindig house band was given a small speaking/singing part – Glenn Campbell.

Three garage bands were tapped to appear in the film – The Leaves, The Bantams, and T.J. and the Fourmations. In the main, the music was supplied by Lee Hazelwood, the composer propelling Nancy Sinatra to the top of the charts (“These Boots Were Made for Walking”). He scored ten of the twelve tunes for “The Cool Ones.” One of these – “This Town” has had a long life afterwards. Hazelwood brought in Billy Strange for the arrangements. Strange was a guitarist and a member of the Wrecking Crew, the famous group of studio musicians (utilized by many of the rock groups of the day, including the Byrds). He also supplied one song. The twelfth song slotted in was the 1957 tune “It’s Magic” by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne which was warbled by the novelty pop personality Mrs. Miller.

Howard reported to Assistant Director Gil Kessel. Gil was an old timer at WB, having got his start as a set decorator in 1941 on The Maltese Falcon. He made the switch in 1958 to AD. Howard says he was a little slow, and envious of the younger people coming up. He looked askance at them, not viewing them so much as assistants but rather as his replacements.

The Cool Ones was shot mostly at the studio. For exteriors they travelled to the nearby San Fernando Valley and over to Palm Springs. Most of the scenes shot in Palm Springs were around the town, both day and night exteriors. There was one challenging bit – a musical number staged inside the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway and up on the observation platform. The tramway begins at an elevation of 2,643 feet and climbs the Chino Canyon wall up to a level of 8,516 feet. Howard says that the shoot was further complicated by limited time up on top.

The Cool Ones had one more “musical tie-in” of note. When at work on one of the sets, Howard tells me that Lee Wilson the WB lighting gaffer pointed out to him that the carpet on the floor was the same one that had been used in the Ascot race scene for “My Fair Lady.” At that time there were sets for that film still around the lot, notably the one for Covent Garden – the flower market standing set. (The Cool Ones had a market scene too, but it was on location over in Olvera Street).

The Cool Ones should be so famous.

Working For Bill Conrad

When still in his apprentice days at the PGA/DGA in the late sixties, Howard Kazanjian worked on three productions for William Conrad. Most remember Conrad for his distinctive voice and for his turn as the corpulent investigator in the TV series Cannon which aired between 1971 and 1976 and the much later Jake and the Fat Man. That voice got him his start in the entertainment business for a multitude of roles in radio and as a heavy in films.

Howard remembers him for his rather unique directorial style. He caught him at WB directing a TV show some time before these other productions. The scene was on a set with the light from an arc streaming through a window. He set things in play by calling – “Okay, action.” After one or two takes watching the staging, then he turned his back to the actors and just listened to the dialogue. If he liked what he heard he said, “Cut! Print!” If not he would call for the crew and actors to reset for another take. Howard chalks this quirk up to Conrad’s formative years in radio.

[Aside – I queried Howard for more about this process – Howard – “Directors always rehearse with a walk-through so the DP knows where the characters are.  Then the actors leave the set while the DP lights with stand-ins.  When lit, the Director might rehearse the actors one or two times depending on the budget, the shooting schedule, etc.  Then he shoots.  Often with Conrad the first take was a print.   If there was coverage no rehearsal was needed along with minor adjustments with the camera and lighting.   No rehearsal unless the Director wants some change.  Shoot.  Maybe print, or a second take or even a third”].

His first working experience with Conrad, the producer, was on the film An American Dream. A hot property at the time, it was based on the recent novel by Norman Mailer, and setup with a very decent budget of a million dollars. In some markets it was released as “See You in Hell Darling,” a very apt title if you’ve seen it. The story centers around a controversial TV talk show host [Stephen Rojack, played by Stuart Whitman] and his toxic marriage to a spoiled, one might say insane, wealthy heir and socialite [Deborah Kelly Rojack, played by Eleanor Parker]. The way she sadistically goads him, the audience ends up with little sympathy for her nor any wonder that he lets her fall to her death from her thirtieth floor penthouse.

Howard worked closely with the AD and the DP. The director Bob Gist was difficult, personality wise rather gruff, and had a little bit of ego. (Gist debuted as an actor in the film Miracle on 34th St (1947), and may have gotten this project due to his part as one of the soldiers in the film based on Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1958). He made the change to the director’s chair under the tutelage of Blake Edwards, when he was running the TV series Peter Gunn)). The AD in question was Sherry Shourds, whom Howard thought a very likable guy. He later inherited a ranch, left the business and lived happily ever after.

The DP was Sam Levitt. Howard calls him a good cameraman, having been in film since the 30’s as an operator, and since 1952 as a DP (i.e. Major Dundee, Cape Fear and Exodus). He had just recently added work in TV (Batman and Journey to the Bottom of the Sea). He was one of those “coat, hat and tie guys” then prevalent in that generation working at the studios.

After viewing the film, two of the exteriors stood out in my mind, so I asked Howard for more information about them. The first was the skyscraper from which the wife fell, and the subsequent multi-car pileup. [Howard – “The high-rise building was in downtown Los Angeles once owned by Occidental Oil, now ATT.  We shot exteriors only. Interiors were sets at WB.  While we were shooting the “accident” a fire broke out on the (approximately) 20th floor.  We pulled our equipment back while the fire department handled the situation.  Fortunately sprinklers put out most of the fire. The broken window from the fire and heat didn’t hit us as it crashed to the street.” And about the staged pileup itself. “No storyboards.  Just staged by the director and stunt driver, and extras filled in by me.”].

Another building in LA was utilized for the rooftop safe place called “the Treehouse” by Rojack’s girl friend from the past (Cherry, played by Janet Leigh she sings the Oscar nominated song “A Time for Love” linked above). There was one 360 degree shot from the top of a building, that revealed it was nestled in the middle of the LA freeway system. [Howard – That building was in downtown LA close to the convention center surrounded by freeways.  Anytime a film crew shoots on a roof, expect the owner or landlord to complain about damage.  We had to replace the roof for him]. I was able to find this location on Google maps – I started with the LA Convention Center and looked for the nearby freeways, which turned out to be the conjunction of the Santa Monica and the Harbor Freeways. From the street level view, the building situated on Wright Street is still recognizable as that which was filmed to represent Cherry’s apartment.

There were two other Bill Conrad productions on which Howard Kazanjian apprenticed. I will cover them in future posts.

[Aside – when watching the film, I thought the maid “Ruta” played by Susan Denberg looked familiar. IMDB gave me the reason, she was in a famous Star Trek episode “Mudd’s Women,” (season 1, episode 6). And there is another Star Trek connection to the film, series regular George (Sulu) Takei plays an assistant DA].

Bodega, Stockton and Sonora

There were some scenes that Francis Ford Coppola and Howard Kazanjian captured on their trips around the Bay area that did stay in Finian’s Rainbow. And they were clearly not those done by Carroll Ballard because the presence of Fred Astaire and Petula Clark are unmistakable.  (Ballard was sent out after principal photography with some doubles for the stars – in which he covered the likes of Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty and scenic parks in Utah and Montana).

There is a gorgeous shot, with Fred and Petula, as they walk along a fence line with a small village in the background. Only seven buildings are visible, two are notable, one a church and the other I thought might be a courthouse.  I asked Howard if he recalled the location. (Howard – I believe it was the same town in which Hitchcock filmed The Birds). I looked again. Face-palm! No wonder I thought there was something very familiar about that “courthouse.” It was indeed the building used by Hitchcock. It was the schoolhouse, that set the locale for one of the attacks by the birds. In real life it is the former Potter Schoolhouse, now a private residence in Bodega, CA.

Fred and Petula at one time are viewed from shore traveling up a river on the deck of a boat. I took it to be along the Mississippi River, somewhere in the south. Actually, Francis and Howard had been driving through Stockton, CA when the director spotted the boat and seized another opportunity.

It may have been on the same trip that they ended up in Sonora where they had scheduled to shoot some footage of their romantic lead Don Francks as he is returning home to Rainbow Valley on a train. Coppola caught a lot of coverage with the actor in various parts of the train – inside, outside, and atop.

On the spur of the moment, Francis decided to add a new element to the sequence. He had seen an effect in another film and wanted to replicate it. (The film was a short by Charles Eames called “Toccata for a Toy Train” – see below). The effect gave the sense that the train was hurtling toward the camera, enveloping it and passing on – from the front, right through the back.  No one on the crew could figure out how it had been done without losing a camera. So Phil Lathrop, the DP, made some calls to ask around – this is what they found out – it was done with a mirror.  Howard was sent out to find the biggest one available.  He came back with a huge 6’ by 6’ one which they mounted at a forty-five degree angle across the tracks. Then from the side the operator framed the shot to take in the full size of the reflected image as the train moved towards it. The mirror, however was not of the best quality and consequently there was a bit of a vibration as the train moved down the tracks. There was only one take, for the train smashed into the mirror. And so it was done, the broken mirror edited out of course.

With this the location shoot was finished, and they returned to the studio for a couple weeks of rehearsal prior to beginning production in the sound stages and on the backlot.

[To view the first four minutes of Finian’s Rainbow to see the Bodega and Stockton footage try this link:

http://www.tcmscreenonthegreen.com/watchtcm/movies/19397/Finian-s-Rainbow/

and select the clip Look to the Rainbow]

[Below is the Eames film mentioned above – the effect Coppola wanted begins around the 8:47 mark]

The Education of an Assistant Director

Having just finished one musical – Camelot – Howard Kazanjian was now being put aboard another – Finian’s Rainbow. But instead of a veteran director, he was being teamed with a young film school grad, who had only one other film under his belt – Francis Ford Coppola.

This production marked the end his trial period with the DGA. On his own time, Howard took in all the PGA / DGA seminars he could, seminars that addressed the rules and regulations of the SAG, the Teamsters, IA, etc. As a result, he became quite knowledgeable in these matters, often knowing more than the first ADs, men that were often 25 years his senior. (Aside – Howard was once in William L Schaefer’s office, the executive assistant to Jack Warner himself. A question arose about one of the SAG regulations. Howard explained to him what the rule was and how it would benefit the production. Schaefer had to call the SAG to confirm what Howard proposed. They did. Schaefer who had worked at the studio since 1933, was completely unaware of this particular regulation).

So on the set, as an AD you had to have your fingers on the pulse of all the situations before you, so as to not fall afoul of any of the SAG or other union regulations and incur unwanted monetary penalties that were charged against the production. Chief among these regulations were those governing work hours and meal times.

First, you had your 8 hour day, at your regular rate, but overtime did not kick in until after 10 hours. Overtime would mean time and a half on the pay scale. That means you could work your people 9 plus hours before multiples of their rates kicked in.

If the production did go into overtime, the AD had leeway to send certain crew members home – like a greensman or a certain number of electricians or even unneeded extras. In these instances they were people that had already finished their work, having prepped the set, and were only on standby for emergencies.

And then there were the meal rules –

Beginning the day, actors in for make up at 6AM would be offered a bite of breakfast. Then counting from 7AM the next meal (lunch) had to be offered within the next 5 and half hours. Counting from the end of their meal period their next meal had to be offered within the next six hours. As AD you had to keep all these things in mind and watch your clock, for there were penalties when these time frames were exceeded.                                                                                                                                          

 If they failed to break for a meal within the prescribed time the meal penalty kicked in – the first half hour meant a rate of time and a half – the second half hour double time.

At the end of the day, Howard took his time cards, made all the calculations and handed them in to payroll.  For his attention to detail, he earned the respect and approval of the studio.  They liked him, and he was being groomed for bigger and better things.

On the other side of the coin, Howard Kazanjian was well liked by the actors and the extras. He tried to have answers for the questions they came to him for. If he didn’t have an answer, he told them he would try to get one, especially for the extras.  Howard knew that as extras, if they were not working, they needed to be looking for work. And they did not want to move on, if there were any chance at all there would be something for them. It was the considerate thing to do.

Come back next week for the continuing Adventures of Howard Kazanjian in “Meeting Francis Ford Coppola.”