The Greening of Finian and Magical FX

When the production of Finian’s Rainbow moved inside, it tied up two of the sound stages at Warner Brothers. One had the running brook set that was bounded by steep rock walls (they were sealed underneath to keep the water isolated), the other held the bridge, a pivotal setting that set up the ending. One of the stages had a wooden floor which was removable, giving access to more area, allowing them to build up from the “basement.” (Howard Kazanjian- WB had several of this type of soundstage. You chose it normally when you needed to give your set a dual level. If your set was on the stage floor and the stairway went down, you needed to remove that portion of the floor to accommodate the stairs down).

Both sound stages were “greened in.” Even though one had just recently held the forest for Camelot (also a credit for Howard, see previous posts), it was completely revamped – with new trees, bushes, sod etc. Some of the trees and bushes were fake, but the sod was all real. The sod gave a rich green color to the scenes, but like the grass out at Griffith Park it would turn brown too, but for the opposite reason. (Howard – inside the sound stages there was no sunlight – hence no photosynthesis could take place). They kept having to replace the sod. This green turf also meant problems for the actors. It was slippery, and had a tendency to slide out from under the actors, notably during the duet “That Old Devil Moon” between Don Francks and Petula Clark.

Like for these two, the stages were busy crossroads for the other main actors. Fred Astaire’s character, shadowed by leprechaun Steele, buries the pot of gold beneath the sod. The SFX department was called in to give this crock some “magical” properties. It is quite striking to see Fred’s face illuminated by the golden light when he removes it from his carpetbag, prior to burying it. It was a simple effect. (Howard – it was a 100W bulb on a dimmer. The interior of the crock was sanded thin so the light could shine through).

A more complicated effect was put in place for the exchange between Tommy Steele and the antagonist Keenan Wynn. Earlier, Wynn had magically been changed from a white man to a black man, when Petula wished for this, in exasperation at his bigoted attitude. (This transformation was an effect all done with the camera, the soundtrack, the editing, and another use of the wind machine). After Steele encounters the grumpy antagonist in the forest he sets about to cast a spell to make him good on the inside. The pool beside them begins to swirl and “magically” change colors (from green-yellow, to red, to yellow, and back to red again). It was all mechanical and chemical. Howard told me that FX guys built into this pool a mechanical device that set the water in motion – and the colors were from different dyes whose release was governed by a timer. (Interestingly, Keenan’s transformation back to white was executed by a jump cut, a nicely done edit, in one clip he was in blackface, in the second he was without).

Barbara Hancock’s ballet was probably the last thing done on the running brook set. There was a large area nearby above the brook simulating a meadow. Water was sprinkled from above, and an arc light flashed for lightning, as she glissades, jetes, etc in the “rain.” (Howard – the master shot was done in one take, with many pick-up shots and closer shots captured later). It culminated in her character unearthing the buried crock, and another chance for the SFX department to display their wares.

Up in Griffith Park

Link to a clip for this scene from Finian’s Rainbow

Of all the scenes in Finian’s Rainbow the most memorable to me was the outdoor wash-line scene. The setting is the exterior area of the home that Fred Astaire and Petula Clark have acquired near Rainbow Valley. It begins with an interaction between these two, then moves on to a duet between Petula and Tommy Steele (“Something Sort of Grandish”). The movement, the color, the focus on the passing images are wonderful, and no doubt my delight with it is helped along by the whimsical wordplay of the song. And then Tommy ascending out of the well under the billowing dress perfectly caps the scene. So, of course I had to ask Howard Kazanjian how it was all done.

I was surprised to learn from Howard that it was not filmed on the backlot at WB. Rather it was filmed up in Griffith Park, in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. I had known that James Dean’s film “Rebel Without a Cause” was filmed up there, but had no idea that so many other films and TV shows were shot there as well [Link to wikipedia article]. And that it has been a well used location ever since the early days of film, i.e. D. W. Griffith used it for the battle scenes in his 1915 epic “Birth of a Nation.”

A lot of preparations were necessary first. Permission was arranged with the city for them to shoot there (not Howard’s responsibility). Two structures were put up, one consisting of two facades joined together that stood in for the house, and nearby a structure that represented a well. Despite the presence of lots of vegetation, the greens man had a lot to do to prep the scene. Various plants were brought in to dress the area, including netted over tobacco plants down the hill from the “house” (viewable in the reverse angle from the main scene). And unlike in the backlot where there were sprinklers, all the grass in that area had turned brown, and needed to be sprayed painted green. And as a finishing touch, artificial plants were sprinkled throughout.

Then there was a lot of equipment to co-ordinate. Besides the usual array, two cranes were employed. First, a Titan crane mounted one of the cameras. This was fully mobile, being a truck with the crane attached to the flatbed on the back. And it had seats for three out on the boom – room for the DP, Camera assistant (Focus Puller), and the Director. The second crane was for lifting the actor – Tommy Steele – out of the well structure at the end of the scene.

The other big piece of equipment was the ritter fan wind machine, which was used throughout the scene. It was kept on a low setting to gently billow the clothes on the line and used to choreograph these objects with the music. And was once set at a higher notch to propel one long veil-like piece up against the blue of the sky to complement the lyric of the song. I was left wondering about that billowing dress onto which Steele was hanging. Was there another fan rigged inside of it? (Howard – No. The ritter (fan) was underneath hidden from the camera. The dress had a hoop ring inside the bottom hem to which Steele clung. He had no double. The only stuntman present was there to strap him into the harness).

Altogether it was busier behind the scenes than in front of the camera.

Under the Spreading Cement Tree

Link to pertinent scene from Finian’s Rainbow

It really wasn’t made of cement. It just looked like it.

While Francis Ford Coppola and Howard Kazanjian were busy filming location footage up in the Bay area, the construction crews back at the studio were prepping sets both on the sound stages and in the backlot. One of the structures of note was a tree at the center of the setting for the fictional town of Rainbow Valley. It was scheduled to be used over a period of several days. Though not actually cement it was built of some other sturdy materials and plastered over. It had to be sturdy to support the weight of up to three actors (in one instance, Fred, Petula, and Barbara were all up in its branches). Also, one of the show’s song and dance numbers was scheduled for the platform built around the base of this “tree.”

Filming this number (“Look to the Rainbow”) featuring Fred Astaire and Petula Clark took place over a two day period. A bit of film history occurred under this tree, other than which was recorded on celluloid. On the day that they were working on the dance, Howard got a call from a former USC classmate and DKA Honor fraternity brother – George Lucas. Just two years prior to this, WB had set up an annual 6 month scholarship for a lucky student at USC. George was the second recipient.  (Howard – The first was Joyce Gellar. While there she wrote a script called the Cool Ones, which WB bought. I worked as 2d AD on that film. One of the actors on a day rate was unknown Glen Campbell). George reported to the studio on the day his “internship” was to begin, was assigned an office on the lot, but was given nothing to do. George called down to Howard to tell him of his plight – he was sitting there bored out of his skull.  Howard invited him down to the set.

Gratefully George joined Howard on the set, and between takes Howard introduced George to Francis.

As part of their production routine Howard would accompany Coppola back to his office at the end of a day of shooting, and there they would debrief, talking over the day and planning for the next. Sometimes these sessions led to extra work for Howard. One time Francis casually mentioned that they would be using a crane for a shot the next day – the only thing was, none had been requested on the equipment call sheet. This was the first Howard had heard of it – so he had to put in an order for it immediately. Sometimes the crisis involved people that he would have to line up last minute. If it were for instance the corps dancers, he had to track them all down by phone. It was a terrible chore, and could take hours, not to mention the costume department that needed to be alerted also. But it was also a fun time. George accompanied Howard to the meeting that day. They listened to Coppola with keen interest. Coppola had some strong opinions – he hated Hollywood, its system, and wanted to be out on his own. George was definitely a kindred spirit. Later, George showed Francis his student film THX 1138.  Coppola encouraged him to turn the script into a feature, and then got WB to buy it and he himself stepped up to produce it.

George stayed on, but just as an observer and later was given the privilege of attending the dailies. (Howard – there was one thing that George got to do for the production.  Francis needed to review a particular film clip. Howard couldn’t leave the set, so he asked George to go fetch it from the editor).

Coppola took George on the road with him for his next project, The Rain People. Howard almost went along too – but that’s a story for another day.

Rehearsing Finian

There were three weeks of rehearsals at the studio before principal photography started. It was made up of many elements and Howard Kazanjian was right in the middle of it.

As in his turn on Camelot, Howard was given charge of the stars in the morning call for Finian’s Rainbow. He would check in on them and ask about their needs (had they eaten, etc.). He had one actor this go-around that gave him no end of problems when it came to his make-up call. Don Francks had an attitude problem (it nearly cost him his role in the film). [Howard  – he was not likable – he had that STAR mentality that sometimes infects performers. It went like this – on a first film an actor would talk to you – by the second, you had to knock on his door – by the third stage, who are you? Francks had jumped to the third stage in this his first major film].

On the other hand, Fred Astaire was grand. He and his choreographer Hermes Pan arrived early on the set and would spend the whole day, rehearsing, rehearsing, and more rehearsing. At first the songs were all pre-recorded versions. Later they added a live piano on the set. Howard was in awe of Astaire’s “dance ethic.” Fred was dedicated and meticulous (in his old RKO and MGM days, Fred was known to have rehearsed some numbers for six months before committing it to film).

Astaire had some disappointments along the way in the production of Finian. Fred had preferred one of his experienced dance partners, Barrie Chase, in the role of Susan the Silent. Instead, Coppola opted for a younger unknown dancer, Barbara Hancock (Howard – she turned out to be a real trooper – in the dance number in the rain – Barbara persevered despite suffering from the flu). But his biggest disappointment was the loss of his long time collaborator, Hermes Pan. Coppola let him go half way through production and replaced him with someone far less experienced. Fred didn’t fight it, philosophically he chalked it up to the prerogative of the director. Still, it was a blow to Fred and may have bled into his performance. Howard noticed that the solo dance number that Fred performed in the barn seemed flat and unenergetic [Howard – I had watched him dance his heart out all day long in those rehearsals. He was much more agile than that. He could have done much more and better!]

As part of the rehearsal process, Coppola had a table read through the whole script, just with the principals. And as an additional aid, they booked the rehearsal hall on the WB lot and did the whole show, a full-blown “Broadway Musical” – just no sets. Coppola even brought in his father Carmine to provide the music accompaniment. Howard was the stage manager, cueing everything, including the lights from his place in the theater seats. This was an important step for two reasons. One, Francis got a feel for the flavor of the whole production; and two, the cast got a feel for how all everything fit together, a crucial understanding, especially as they entered film production and its need for shooting out of order.

Be sure to catch next Wednesday for “Under the Spreading Cement Tree,” the next post in The Adventures of Howard Kazanjian.

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]

Howard in the Middle

Howard Kazanjian was all set for the first day of shooting on “Finian’s Rainbow.”

His director Francis Ford Coppola had fixed on an idea for the opening title sequence. He wanted to shoot his two main stars on the Golden Gate bridge. At that time no one shot anything on the Golden Gate Bridge, for the simple reason that you could not even get a permit to do so.

Not to be deterred, Francis set out to do it anyway. He and Howard took a rented station wagon, picked up Fred Astaire and Petula Clark, then headed for the bridge.  Francis dropped Howard and the two stars off at the San Francisco end of the bridge. From there the threesome pretended to be pedestrians out for a stroll, sightseeing. (Of course, Howard kept out of range of the camera). With the tailgate on the station wagon down and the camera set there to shoot, Francis had the key gaffer drive the vehicle past them and then slow down to a crawl, while he and his cameraman caught his stars as they walked the pavement.  By the time they got to the end of the bridge the police had arrived to investigate what was going on. They pulled them over into the scenic turn out on the Marin side.

The production manager from WB for Finian was waiting for them in this parking lot when they pulled in. And he just so happened to know the officer that was threatening to arrest them. Another fine mess they avoided. [Aside – you won’t see a hint of this bit in any of the DVDs. Howard remembers that in the roadshow release a section was used, including a distant glimpse of the flashing red light of the cop car when it came after them.]

A couple of days later they mounted a larger expedition. Again they held on to the station wagon, but added a truck, and a car. They used the car to transport Fred and Petula. With Francis driving, Fred sat in back on the right and Petula on the left, with Howard on the hump in the middle. Their route was all planned out as they headed south out of San Francisco. However, Francis was soon off the route when he spotted some sheep off on a hill. They soon lost the other vehicles in pursuit of their bucolic shot. Once they were up by the sheep, Francis had Howard get out and herd the fleecy critters past their one camera.

By the time they loaded up the station wagon, Howard knew he had to do something to head off the possibility of a meal penalty. It was already late afternoon, so he put the question to them.  He stated did you want to have your meal here, gesturing to the passing scenery with no eatery in site, or wait for the hotel where they had scheduled to stop before their day began.  Fred spoke up and said, “No, let’s wait for the hotel.” And Petula nodded her agreement. So Howard had it on the record that they had declined his offer. The stars had graciously played along with the AD to save the production from the cost of the meal penalty.

[Aside – this sheep footage also did not make the DVD cut.]

Meeting Francis Ford Coppola

As is the usual formula, when beginning production on a film, the exterior shots on location were done first. So it was, that for the production of “Finian’s Rainbow,” Howard Kazanjian flew north from Los Angeles to San Francisco to meet the director and help him shoot exteriors in the Bay area. He arrived downtown and parked his rental car in the basement garage of the Hilton Hotel. He took the elevator up from there. Two men got on at the first floor – an older man and a young man with a beard. About the fourth floor the bearded man turned to the older and asked, “When is Howard Kazanjian going to get here?” That got Howard’s attention. The bearded man of course was Francis Ford Coppola, who had never met Howard before. The older man was the production manager, who did know Howard and quickly made the introductions.

Over the next few days Howard came to know and admire the film making sensibilities of Coppola. In their immediate meetings, no real plan was laid out blow for blow, just some destinations at which they needed to arrive for some opportunities that did have to be planned in advance. They would be on the lookout and stop along the road whenever they saw an interesting backdrop for the stars to gambol across. We would call this style these days, “guerrilla film-making.” This struck a chord with Howard.

The first day would be spent with Fred Astaire and Petula Clark in the environs of the Golden Gate Bridge, both south and north of it. What footage they captured would be used for the title sequence of the film. And when they finished, they needed to be up in the Sonora area, where they had scheduled a complicated shoot with the romantic lead Don Francks and a railroad train.

At the time there must have been a lot on Coppola’s mind. Coppola adored the music of Finian’s Rainbow, but not so much the story. In fact he called the book “klunky” and out of date. To give it a more contemporary feel he added a whole new subplot – the mentholated tobacco hybridization that the Al Freeman Jr. character was working on as a means to save the Rainbow Valley community financially. His activism and sit down strikes injected a civil rights flavor into the story.

Back in LA the production was still being put together. Casting had not been completed. Sets were still being designed and put together. At least they did not have those worries. Coppola and Kazanjian had a week ahead of them free to go where the wind blew them.