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].

Beyond Finian

With the curtain calls in for Finian’s Rainbow, Francis Ford Coppola was hot to get on the road for his next project, The Rain People. But Howard Kazanjian was faced with a dilemma as to what he would be doing next.

Francis had asked Howard to accompany him on The Rain People as his AD. They were going to be on the road traveling light, catching those places and situations that crossed their path, much as they had when up in the Bay area for Finian. So he only wanted one AD for this film. This restriction placed a stumbling block to Howard’s participation.  Howard was a 2d AD at the time, but this arrangement would require him to be a 1st AD. To remedy this problem, Coppola called the DGA to ask for a waiver, or perhaps get Howard “promoted” to 1st AD early, since he was so close to qualifying already. The DGA turned Coppola down on both counts. Coppola turned to Howard and gave him this advice – “Quit the Guild.” Howard had to tell Coppola “No.” He just felt he could not. It would be too difficult (nigh on impossible, not to mention expensive) to try to get back in afterwards.

[Aside – As I mentioned in an earlier post George Lucas did go along with Coppola for The Rain People, not as AD, but as a general factotum, a gopher. He shot a documentary about the making of the film. On the road, somewhere in Colorado, Francis and George took in Kubrick’s “2001 A Space Odyssey.” George told Francis that he wanted to do something in that vein. It was one of the seeds for what later would become “Star Wars.” In tribute to Kubrick, they painted an inscription on one of the vans in their caravan – “HAL 9000” in three inch letters].

Instead, Howard went on to work for Sam Peckinpah and his film The Wild Bunch, (which is covered in other posts on my blog).

Later, in 1971, Coppola wanted Howard to be his AD on The Godfather. Again, the DGA rules intervened. Back then a member of the West Coast DGA (of which Howard was one) could not work within the jurisdiction of the East Coast DGA, where the film was to be shot.

Howard’s Friend Joel Freeman

Howard's Friend Joel Freeman

Camelot as a Warner Bros. project was Jack Warner’s baby. But he only put in a couple of appearances on set. Joel Freeman, listed as the “associate producer” (and Howard Kazanjian’s friend), actively produced the movie.

Howard Kazanjian was at a good age – fresh from the DGA training program and full of questions and wanting to excel in his craft. He found a willing mentor in Joel. Howard learned more from Joel than anyone else in the business.

Joel Freeman is now 93, and still active.  (In fact, Howard talked to him recently about some projects that Joel was trying to launch).   At the age of twenty, Joel started as a messenger at MGM (where his uncle, Dore Schary then worked).  During WWII, he served in an Army Air Force film unit. After the war he became an AD at two of the smaller studios, RKO and Selznick. In the late 40s he made the move back to MGM, where his uncle Dore had taken over the reigns from Louis B Mayer. Later in the fifties, Joel became an independent supervisor for film and TV, then followed his uncle to WB  for two projects – Sunset at Campobello and the Music Man.

Joel was extremely cautious – he would call on Howard to supply him with numbers, lots of numbers.  If extras were used – how many? How many hours did they work? When did they start the day? Could extra crew be sent home early? What time did they go to lunch? Howard learned to count everything, right down to the amount of lunches consumed.  [Howard – (on their next project together – Finian’s  Rainbow) – “buses were used to transport extras to off locations – seats on one bus numbered 32; on the other 33 –  how many empty seats were there? Remember there were no vans in that day. You recorded what time you left one stage and what time you arrived at another, and what time you started shooting.  Optimally you would move around lunch time. All this was recorded in the Production report, from which you could see your money savings”].

But there was another side to Joel.

Once, when they were still in the midst of shooting Camelot, a big press junket was announced for the studio. Joel took Howard aside and told him he was invited.

Howard replied – But I’m not dressed for it. And that he’d have to go home to get a proper change of clothes.

Instead, Joel ordered him to the wardrobe department.  There they fitted him on the spot – selected a suit, marked  and pinned it up and told him to come back. When he did, they were just pressing it. They supplied him with socks and proper shoes and he was off to the junket.

Howard noticed that on the suit there had been a tag with an actor’s name. He attended the press junket in a costume originally made for Christopher Plummer for his role in another recent WB film –  Inside Daisy Clover.

Be sure to return next week for the last Camelot post – The Iconic Ending –  in The Adventures of Howard Kazanjian.