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].

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Shall We Gather in the River

“HOW-WARD!”

The intonation in Peckinpah’s voice brought the normal hubbub on the set to a halt. Everyone fell silent, and all eyes turned to Howard Kazanjian. And Howard braced himself for the tongue lashing to follow. He was getting accustomed to the “attention,” for he realized that he was the one consistent face in the revolving directory of ADs coming on and off the film.  So in this sense, his director was counting upon him heavily to do his job, and to do it well. And Howard did just that.

When shooting ended for the day, the actors and crew knocked off and looked for a bar. Howard, however still had work to do. The call sheets for the following day had to be prepared, then delivered. Which tended to be a problem, for in most locations the members of the cast were spread all over the town. The stuntmen were usually the furthest out, and hence the last ones served. In Parras, all the stuntmen were put up in a well appointed hacienda.  The first time Howard arrived with their call sheets, they were just sitting down to dinner, attended to by servants [Howard – “Wow, do you guys really have a place here.”]. Upon returning from his rounds, Howard tidied up any remaining paperwork before turning in, many times without dinner. (He lost twenty pounds over the course of filming, dropping down to 120 by the end).

The stuntmen were hired on as units – man and horse. The horses were specially trained – to be responsive to their masters, and to be unheedful of noises (i.e. gunshots), horse falls and other distractions on set. The head wrangler saw to their needs and care, and all the paperwork associated with bringing them across the border.

Now they were at a new location, the Nazas River. Things were winding down to the middle (speaking of the story chronology) – or the end of shooting. This last sequence would cover a huge stunt – the blowing up of the bridge while the bounty hunters crossed it in pursuit of the fleeing Wild Bunch – no camera tricks or special effects, just five men and their horses falling off a bridge and into the waters of a river.

Fred Gammon was now the 1st AD. Howard worked under him, having charge this time of the stuntmen. The day they were scheduled to begin shooting this sequence ended up a bust. The flow in the river was judged to be too swift (16 mph) and hence too dangerous for the stuntmen and their horses.

The day following, conditions looked more favorable. Howard had the stuntmen and their horses ready, but Sam concentrated on taking shots of burning fuses – closeups that would serve as inserts. When it appeared that the director was winding up that action, Howard would move the stuntmen into position on the bridge, only to be waved off. This was repeated over and over, with understandable, unintended consequences. The stuntmen were getting more apprehensive as uncertainty grew. Psychologically they were getting psyched out.

And this was not the only problem adding to the tension. One of the stuntmen, Joe Canutt lodged a complaint when he learned that the charges to blow the bridge were much bigger than necessary. (Again, Sam was the mover behind the “bigger and better” explosions). Plus there was the concern about explosions in and around water, and the consequent danger to the men on account of the lethal increase in water pressure. They finally acquiesced to the stunt men’s concern and reduced the size of the charges above, and eliminated those below the water line altogether.

Six cameras were set up to catch the optimum angles on all the action, three on shore; three on barges in the river, secured by cables. Peckinpah and Ballard chose to be with two of the cameras afloat, in one of the barges.

Finally they were set. The stuntmen were mounted on their horses and in place on the bridge. Howard was on the near bank of the river out of view of the cameras, when Peckinpah called “action.”

The charges exploded and the bridge roadbed swung down like a trapdoor plunging horses and riders into the swiftly moving river. Though one of the riders was knocked out and had to be fished unconscious from the water, none of the stuntmen were seriously injured. The only “casualty” was one of the cameras.

Following the form, Howard negotiated with the stuntmen their pay after the stunt.  The SAG set their normal rate for pay, overtime and meals. Special stunts, as I mentioned in last week’s post, called for separate negotiations. By the time that Howard was done negotiating with them, he had earned their respect. They walked away with $2000 a piece, pretty good pay for the time.

Howard had already been subject to the process himself when he met with the studio Production Manager Dutch Meyer before heading to Mexico. And did not fare as well. The normal rate for an AD was one hundred dollars per week – stateside. According to DGA guidelines when you were on foreign soil, an additional foreign location fee was called for. But Dutch was into rounding figures – downward – and made that small increase nearly disappear. Welcome to Hollywood.

But picking up back at the scene, and still on the subject of respect, there was the matter of getting the director safely back onto dry land. With the shot over, some of the hands began to haul on the cable to bring Peckinpah and Ballard back in. As they neared the bank, a voice called out, “Cut the cable! Cut the cable!”

Peckinpah shouted back, “Who said that!”

Some one on the crew shouted in reply. “That was Howard!”

Peckinpah didn’t say a word. Instead an appreciative grin lit up his face. Howard had earned his respect.

Howard had lasted out the entire shooting schedule. But now with principal photography over, he returned stateside.

Back at Burbank, Howard had not seen the last of the mercurial director. When Sam returned from Mexico, he enlisted Howard’s help to shoot some brief inserts – low angle shots of some of the leads against neutral backgrounds that could be cut in with the principal footage.

And then there was that one chance encounter on the WB lot that Howard will always remember. Howard was walking on one of streets between the sound stages, when Peckinpah was passing in his Porsche. Sam saw Howard, stopped the car, got out and hugged him. And thanked him for his contribution to the making of The Wild Bunch.

Howard will return sometime in the beginning of 2015 with the “Adventures of Howard Kazanjian – the Musicals” – Camelot and Finian’s Rainbow and working with Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero; and Petula Clark, Tommy Steele and the immortal Fred Astaire. And with director Francis Ford Coppola.

So stay tuned and Watch This Space.