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].

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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].