Shall We Gather in the River


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.


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!