Finian on the Disney Ranch

Coppola states that for Finian he purposefully kept the cinemacality down. Yet it is interesting to note how he opened up some of the dance numbers to a bigger “stage,” working in fields and shooting with a camera from a helicopter. For these numbers he decided to move from Burbank out to the Disney Ranch up in Newhall, California. This decision meant a few more wrinkles for his assistant director, Howard Kazanjian.

Normally, Howard would put out “call-ups” for extras – but in the case of Finian the call was to SAG members who could dance, with the further qualification – that they have a Southern look.

He also had to have buses on hand for transportation. The extras may have driven to the Warner Brothers lot and parked there, but no one was allowed to drive their own vehicles out to another location. If any of the cast members were to be transported on a bus to a location, the clock started when they left the studio. Thus more records to be kept and submitted to the payroll department.

Besides the large scale dance numbers, “The Begat” number was also done out on the Disney ranch. Or more particularly in the area between the Disney Ranch and the Oxnard area. This was Coppola’s ideal situation, to be out of the studio, on the road, in real places. It gave him the opportunity for those chance discoveries that he longed for. (There was one fantastic instance – a field of red flowers near Malibu that made a beautiful backdrop for the singers to drive through).

After the antagonist Keenan Wynn had been changed on the outside by Petula Clark’s wish/curse, and having been “made good” on the inside by Tommy Steele’s spell, Keenan falls in with a quartet, the Passion Pilgrim Gospeleers (Roy Glenn, Jester Hairston, and Avon Long), who are in need of a fourth.

The number takes place all within the vehicle, a 1939 Plymouth P7 Roadking (a convertible coupe with a rumble seat), tooling along through the countryside, broken down alongside the road, chugging up a hill and then coming down the other side and hitting a tree. All ending by being towed away.

Coppola handles it all masterfully. The camera seems everywhere. Planted beside the road, panning. Running along beside. Mounted on the hood, shooting through the windshield. In the air above.  And whenever the cast is clearly in view (a good deal of the time), their lips can be seen to be in perfect sync with the music.  (Remember the track was all recorded beforehand).

There was one major disaster that had to be overcome. Filming on the segment spanned over the weekend, stopping on Friday and recommencing on Monday. Sometime during the weekend, the report came in that a fire had damaged the vehicle. A similar replacement was found, but this car had one big difference. It had a single full windshield in front, unlike that model’s standard split windshield that was set at a deep vee, and very noticeable.

Fortunately the vehicle with the split windshield can be seen only in the section when Wynn first meets the Gospeleers. Since the camera angle is from the side, and the actors focus your attention on them. You can only see it if you’re looking for it.

In one aspect it was a happy accident, for that single windshield gave the camera a clear and unhampered view of the singers in the car when it was mounted on the hood.

The Education of an Assistant Director

Having just finished one musical – Camelot – Howard Kazanjian was now being put aboard another – Finian’s Rainbow. But instead of a veteran director, he was being teamed with a young film school grad, who had only one other film under his belt – Francis Ford Coppola.

This production marked the end his trial period with the DGA. On his own time, Howard took in all the PGA / DGA seminars he could, seminars that addressed the rules and regulations of the SAG, the Teamsters, IA, etc. As a result, he became quite knowledgeable in these matters, often knowing more than the first ADs, men that were often 25 years his senior. (Aside – Howard was once in William L Schaefer’s office, the executive assistant to Jack Warner himself. A question arose about one of the SAG regulations. Howard explained to him what the rule was and how it would benefit the production. Schaefer had to call the SAG to confirm what Howard proposed. They did. Schaefer who had worked at the studio since 1933, was completely unaware of this particular regulation).

So on the set, as an AD you had to have your fingers on the pulse of all the situations before you, so as to not fall afoul of any of the SAG or other union regulations and incur unwanted monetary penalties that were charged against the production. Chief among these regulations were those governing work hours and meal times.

First, you had your 8 hour day, at your regular rate, but overtime did not kick in until after 10 hours. Overtime would mean time and a half on the pay scale. That means you could work your people 9 plus hours before multiples of their rates kicked in.

If the production did go into overtime, the AD had leeway to send certain crew members home – like a greensman or a certain number of electricians or even unneeded extras. In these instances they were people that had already finished their work, having prepped the set, and were only on standby for emergencies.

And then there were the meal rules –

Beginning the day, actors in for make up at 6AM would be offered a bite of breakfast. Then counting from 7AM the next meal (lunch) had to be offered within the next 5 and half hours. Counting from the end of their meal period their next meal had to be offered within the next six hours. As AD you had to keep all these things in mind and watch your clock, for there were penalties when these time frames were exceeded.                                                                                                                                          

 If they failed to break for a meal within the prescribed time the meal penalty kicked in – the first half hour meant a rate of time and a half – the second half hour double time.

At the end of the day, Howard took his time cards, made all the calculations and handed them in to payroll.  For his attention to detail, he earned the respect and approval of the studio.  They liked him, and he was being groomed for bigger and better things.

On the other side of the coin, Howard Kazanjian was well liked by the actors and the extras. He tried to have answers for the questions they came to him for. If he didn’t have an answer, he told them he would try to get one, especially for the extras.  Howard knew that as extras, if they were not working, they needed to be looking for work. And they did not want to move on, if there were any chance at all there would be something for them. It was the considerate thing to do.

Come back next week for the continuing Adventures of Howard Kazanjian in “Meeting Francis Ford Coppola.”

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.