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!

The Wild Bunch Plays Havoc

The Wild Bunch Plays Havoc

It wasn’t normal for the Renton Cinema to play Warner Brothers films. They were normally exhibited at the Sterling theaters. But for some reason in June of 1969, we opened the Sam Peckinpah film “The Wild Bunch.”

It was a bit controversial at the time. I wonder now if that might have been the reason that we played it instead of Sterling.

The number of Westerns had been dropping noticeably from the studios’ release schedules, at least measured from the baseline of the fifties. But I checked this year – and there were surprisingly quite a few of various flavors – Support Your Local Sheriff, True Grit, Guns of the Magnificent Seven, Undefeated, and the year was sent off with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Paint Your Wagon. More germain to this instance, probably, was the opening of the John Wayne film – True Grit. It came out in the Sterling houses one week before the Wild Bunch. And that might have been another reason that Sterling passed, they might simply have had no room to open the WB title.

The Wild Bunch opened in our small house, Cinema II which only had 500 seats. It was an R-rated movie. And now being old enough to view it, I took it in on one of my days off. I don’t remember a movie to that date in my young life that was so disturbing. Sure, there had been moments in Lawrence of Arabia that played similar notes on my psyche, but they were not as explicit as the Wild Bunch. In LoA you saw the aftermath, not the blow by blow that was put up on the screen by Peckinpah. I have read that Peckinpah, when planning this film, wanted to make it as realistic as possible. He had it in his mind to translate his experiences hunting deer, to this violent story of men in conflict. His memory of the bullet impacting the body of the animal, led him to find ways to replicate that in the shoot outs that he would depict. Another WB movie had led the way in this matter. Bonnie and Clyde was one of the first films to use the squib, that explosive pack of red liquid attached to the body of the actor. Peckinpah set out to out-Bonnie and Clyde, Bonnie and Clyde. And he did.

I remember sitting there sometimes too squeamish to look up at the screen out of fear of what I would see. At times like those, one’s own identity entered into the equation of movie viewing. What if this were to happen to me? What would I do in a similar situation? Run for cover assuredly. I remember being suddenly aware that there was a mind behind all this, at work trying to impact the audience, causing their thoughts to flow in a direction of its choosing. Peckinpah says he intended it as an anti-war, or at the least an anti-violence statement. Was he successful? Not if that was actually his intent, for the violence was actually an attraction for many, and he himself was surprised and saddened by that fact.

The envelope had been pushed and there was no going back. Going forward the Western would not be cast in the sensibilities of the Saturday morning matinee western, a la Roy Rogers or Hopalong Cassidy. Nor was any other film genre left untouched.