Shooting Time to Pieces

    “Pieces of Time.”

     Borrowing a phrase from Jimmy Stewart (via Peter Bogdanovich) and repurposing it – what you capture with the camera’s lens (pieces of time) can be reordered and put together in the best way to tell your story. It’s magical. What this means is that you are not limited to a mere chronological methodology in capturing the image, but can grab your shots planned around availabilities of people and locations.

     Thus it was with the Wild Bunch. Here they were only midway through production and they were about to shoot the ending to the film.

     When they arrived at “the Villa” (Hacienda Cienaga del Carmen, in the desert between Torreon and Saltillo) they were four days behind schedule, and as things progressed or rather didn’t, they slipped further behind.

     They launched into it easily enough.  Sam had his vision for the famous walk of the Wild Bunch, the big build up to the last shoot out. [Howard – “Much of the walk was with just the Wild Bunch. When they entered the courtyard Cliff and I staged and directed the extras.”] With the tension raised to the breaking point, their demand for the release of their friend Angel (Jaime Sanchez) is met by his death at the hands of the antagonist, General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez).

    Here, this lead off event in the courtyard ran into problems. The first take of Mapache slashing Angel’s throat didn’t come off. Granted a high degree of co-ordination was necessary –  as Emilio wielded a rubber knife, an out-of-sight crew member manipulated the mechanics of the bloodletting, Jaime who had been fitted with a special prosthetic, a tube under his makeup, was supposed to react. But Jaime just didn’t react like he was being killed. [Howard – “He didn’t react at the right time, his expression didn’t work as his neck was slit nor was the amount of blood enough for Sam.  Sam did want more blood.   I think Sam would have liked to slit Jaime’s throat for real and get the right amount of reaction and blood!”] Sam called for the second take and moved on.

     But what to do next was painfully slow in coming, for Peckinpah was undecided. He took a weekend with his cinematographer Lucien Ballard and finally worked out a plan. Multiple shots were taken of the chaotic action restaged at different distances from the camera. This required lots of squibs and paint. Two squibs for each shot that struck an actor – a splash of blood for the entrance and another for the exit. Ten thousand total, including 500 or so wired into the walls. And because they needed to shoot the scene and redo it again and again the clothing of the actors had to be rendered back to their “before” image. The costumer Gordon Dawson and his crew would tape up the holes and paint over the “blood” stains.

    And despite his superhuman work staging the extras through those multiple takes, this period also saw the exit of 1st AD Cliff Coleman, for he ran afoul of the cinematographer and Peckinpah. [Howard – “During rehearsals and set-ups, Ballard didn’t want anyone in front of his camera — even in the background.  The moment he was ready he would call for Sam giving NO or LITTLE time for the assistants to set the background actors, animals, etc.  Cliff ruined the first master take of the shoot-out.  Though Sam said not a word, Cliff was fired. Cliff had no excuse as Ballard had clearly warned him beforehand to stay out of the view of the camera.”] It wasn’t immediate, Cliff was slowly eased out, first banished to the second unit to cover the rail yard scene when the rebel army came to oust General Mapache and his Federale forces, then back to the States.

     In regards to Ballard, Howard had his own contretemps with him when the company was still in Parras. Near the grounds of the Hotel Rincon del Montero where they were staying, they set up the scene that would be Angel’s village. There the children were playing in this pool of water (unknown to the company their water supply at the hotel). As was his usual practice Ballard wouldn’t let any one in front of his camera while he was lighting the scene. For years he always kept on his person, a stick that he attached to his wrist by a narrow leather strap. He used this as a pointer to instruct a rigger or an electrician what light to move or barn door to reposition, or he would point at you with it and tell you to get out of the way. When Ballard was set, he notified Sam all was ready.  But all wasn’t ready, the extras had not been set, nor told what to do. Howard had been kept from his job and he had had it. [Howard -“In the Mexican village where the little boys were jumping in the water I had it out with Ballard I grabbed his stick (a 1/2” round dowel) and broke it in half looking directly into Ballard’s eyes.”] For days afterward, Howard and Lucien found themselves in a rather awkward situation, neither could look at the other. Lucien would turn and discover Howard, and would immediately avert his gaze. Likewise for Howard. It took a week or two. The 2nd AD and the cinematographer finally felt their way into a good working relationship.

It was a grueling time for all in the company. There was little joy in the grip of their responsibilities. Everyone was being stretched and pushed to their limits and beyond by the singular artistic vision of Sam Peckinpah.

Be sure to come back next Wednesday for “Shooting the Train” the next post in The Adventures of Howard Kazanjian. And Watch This Space!