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James Caan Interview

August 12, 2012 1 comment

I am developing a film story-event project that’s piecing together what happened when a confluence of remarkable talents came together to make a low budget road movie in the late 1960s and their production journey brought them to western Nebraska. The road pic was Francis Ford Coppola’s art house special, The Rain People, starring Shirley Knight. That production cemented a relationship between Coppola and a young protege, George Lucas, who was along as a production associate and to document the making of the film.  The project also connected Coppola with two actors who would go on to play prominent roles in his future pics: James Caan and Robert Duvall.  That’s not all.  The Rain People additionally led to Duvall starring in Lucas’ first feature, THX-1138and to the actor directing his first film, the documentary We’re Not the Jet Set, which profiles an Ogallala, Neb. area ranch-rodeo family, the Petersons, whom Duvall became very close to.  As I make progress on the story I will be posting interviews I’ve conducted with many of the principles involved in the films.  What follows is an interview I did with James Caan.  Look for upcoming interviews I did with Robert Duvall, Francis Ford Coppola, cinematographers Bill Butler (Rain People) and Joseph Friedman (Jet Set) and editor Stephen Mack.

 

 

 

 

James Caan Interview: From My Film Connections Project (An In-Progress Film Story-Event Project)

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

LAB: When did you and Robert Duvall first meet? Was it during Robert Altman‘s Countdown or before that?

JC: “Bobby’s older than me. We first met in ’68 when we did a picture called The Rain People for Francis (Ford Coppola). That’s when we met the Petersons. That was first, I believe.”

LB: Except that IMDB shows Countdown was released in ’68, the same year The Rain People, a ’69 releasewas in production, and so I’m thinking you two made Countdown first.

JC: “Oh yeah, you can’t argue with those fuckers. We had a lot of fun on Countdown. That was one of Bob Altman’s first features.

LAB: I thought perhaps you and Duvall might have met before that, like through New York acting circles.

JC: “No, no, because I came out here (L.A.) when I was like 21. I studied in New York. We didn’t study together. I did like an off-Broadway play there for eight months and then I did whatever television was available then. There was one called Playhouse 90. It was a three-camera show. It was like a play they put on live television. And then there was Naked City, which was a series. And then there was that Route 66, which I did in Philadelphia. But then that was pretty much it in New York.

“And then I got called out to California. But I had to know Bobby before that (Countdown-Rain People) because we were already goofing on each other. That’s weird though – I thought I knew Bobby before that, for what reason I don’t know. Is it age, what is it, Jesus Christ?!

LAB: So what is it that accounts for your enduring friendship?

JC: “Just kind of a blatant honesty I think. I mean, it’s not like I don’t like actors or something, but I don’t just much travel in those circles, and Bobby’s not one of those either. I mean, I know made him laugh a little bit and I like that because I like making people laugh and I guess he likes laughing or something. And Bobby’s obviously a terrific actor and really easy to work with. From day one till today I dont think there’s anyone more giving than him working on camera. Some actors are terribly selfish and they think the worse you are the better they look, so they don’t give a shit when you’re on camera, which is a horrible principle because there’s no such thing as bad acting in a good scene.

“And then I think horses. I don’t know if I was into horses. I think it was a kind of freedom and not so involved in being all withdrawn and letting the job overtake your entire life. It didn’t mean we didn’t work but we had a lot of fun. And he was a terrible practical joker. He couldn’t hold a goddamned secret for nothing. I mean, if you had something you really didn’t want out there and you whispered it to your best friend, he’d wait till there were 500 people in the room and blurt it out. That’s Bobby.”

LAB: If I’m not mistaken you were attached to The Rain People project from the beginning whereas Duvall joined the company some time later, and, that in fact he may have replaced another actor.

JC: “I think Rip Torn or somebody.”

LAB: What did you make of the young Francis Ford Coppola?

JC: “Francis at that time was very aesthetic. And he wrote the thing as a play I think, and we did it somewhere up in Columbia or somewhere. We did it as a play. It was sort of like a rehearsal thing that Francis did.”

LAB: How did the two of you meet?

JC: “I met Francis when he came out here. I guess he had seen one or two things I had done. I obviously hadn’t done too many. I think by that time he had written Patton. I think he stayed at my house. I had a little guest house, so he stayed there for awhile. We got to be friendly. Having come from the Neighborhood Playhouse with (Lee) Strasburg and all those people, he was a young guy – I think Francis is like a year older than me. He was from New York (by way of Detroit). As a matter of fact his grandmother lived around the corner from me in Sunnyside.”

LAB: What about The Rain People got you interested in doing the part of Killer Killgannon?

JC: “It was a great opportunity, a great character. Just from talking to him (Coppola) I knew he knew actors and he had already received some notoriety with You’re a Big Boy Now and obviously having written Patton at the age of 23 (24 actually) or whatever the hell he was. But obviously when I started working with him I knew he was     something special. The guy pretty much knew about everything. When you look from there to The Godfather and all the guys Francis hired…if you look at every department head, the biggest today in their departments, whether Walter Murch in sound, Gordy Willis, Dean Tavalouris, they were all pretty much found by Francis.

“There was one Francis at that time. He was the best. I don’t know how many films I’ve done but Francis is still the best.”

LAB: Duvall told me a funny anecdote about Coppola, who apparently confided he was scared of the Petersons. That struck Duvall as funny too since Coppola went on to make films about mafia killers.

JC: “Francis wasn’t a Brooklyn Italian, he was Mediterranean Italian. All art. And, well they’re (the mafia) from New York. He understood them. He never understood what my love for rodeo was by the way.”

LAB: What kind of experience was The Rain People shoot for you?

JC: “I was like depressed through that whole picture, mostly because of this character I played. I was playing this guy with this brain damage, and I’m traveling and my community was not out there with a bunch of aesthetic, ethereal actors and actresses and cameramen. We were on the road, God, for that whole picture. We started out in Long Island and ended up in Ogallala out there. I had really no idea where we were going from day to day. From there (Long Island) we went to Virginia, we went down to Chattanooga and then across the country and wound up, as I’m sure he had scouted and everything, over in Ogallala.

“There was like 18 of us, the crew and the actors. It was just me and Shirley Knight, so every night I’d go to a different Holiday Inn and play with the light switches. I didn’t know what to do, I was a New Yorker. It was tough but it was a good picture I think. It’s really a nice picture. It was critically acclaimed. It won the San Sebastian Film Festival.”

LAB: Were you satisfied with how the script’s story was realized on screen?

JC: “That got a little mixed up,…the whole story kind of took a turn. That’s some personal stuff. People were supposed to be concerned about Shirley’s problem (her character’s problem). In other words here’s a woman who had all this responsibility, not only was she married but she had a baby, it all got too much and so she decided to take this ride and then she picks up some young guy who played college football. The whole idea of the picture is he in a sense becomes the embryo she’s carrying because she had to care for him and so forth. So it was all set up. Shirley played her a little mean and tough. I think what happened with the audience and Francis is they became more concerned with me than they did with her. She was the one you were supposed to worry about.

“Some of the choices were on the mean side, so they (the audience) became more involved with what happened to me.”

LAB: How was it working with Shirley Knight?

JC: “Shirley was a little tough. I like her but she was a little tough. And then by the way when Bobby showed up we started having fun. He’s the funniest son of a bitch. He was playing this motorcycle cop and he told me, “I’ve got two kids and everything, I don’t ride no goddamned motorcycle.’ ‘Fuck it, Bobby, goddamnit you’ve gotta ride the motorcycle, you’re a motorcycle cop on the highway. It ain’t nothin’, I’ll teach you in three minutes.’ So I had to get my brother to come out and double him. Oh, man, we laughed our asses off.

“He had that one scene at night with Shirley on the bike, going literally two miles an hour before I have that fight with him. ‘OK, action,’ and the thing would sputter out. (After multiple takes) finally he made it around the corner and came to a stop. Shirley got off and he threw the kick stand down and got off and he took three steps and the son of a bitch fell over, and he just yelled out, ‘Fuck you!’ Oh, my God…(laughing). Bobby was amazing. When he’d blow up, there was nothing like it.”

LAB: What about the very young George Lucas?

JC: “George was there all the time filming. He did a documentary The Making of The Rain People. He wore a big harness and had a 16 mm camera strapped to his chest. I thought he was born with it or something because I never saw him without it.

 

 

LAB: Part of the fun that came with Duvall’s arrival on location in Ogallala was the two of you meeting up with the Petersons.

JC: “B.A. (the late patriarch of the Peterson clan and the ostensible star of We’re Not the Jet Set) “Yeah, they were a wild group. They would fight in the middle of the        living room, and oh boy I mean fist fight, and he’s (B.A.) sitting back in a chair saying, ‘Now, no hitting in the face, no hitting in the face.’ Those were the rules. With Denny Peterson I got my nose into (branding and roping).”

LAB: You were already into horses by the time you met the Petersons.

JC: “When I came from New York I got a horse right away because I think that was the thing to do. (Growing up) I always played make believe in the streets – it was Roy Rogers or wharever the hell it was. After hanging around with Denny and those guys he took me to my first branding which was at the Haythorn ranch in Bruell (Neb.).  They have a huge ranch out there. I think I had a week off for a little stretch and rather than go home I went to this branding, and then from there it got in my blood.

“Denny picked me up at four in the morning, threw me in a trailer and we drove out there. I didn’t know any of these guys and I tried to look as western as I could, you know. I even had chew in my mouth. I didn’t want to stick out like some idiot from Hollywood on this big branding. Denny and I got amongst some guys, we saddled up and rode out, they were pushing some huge herd and I just fell behind ‘em yelling ‘Ha, ha, ha…’ The first few days I just wrestled these calves. One of the Haythorns said, ‘You guys keep a pushing on this herd’ – toward this water hole. They were going to top these other hills. So a bunch of them ran off and Denny left with them and left me alone with these other guys.

“I was dressed in my jeans and the oldest ranch hat. I never said a word, which for me is really difficult. I just kept spittin’ and yellin’ and pushin’ the herd, and we finally got ‘em to this water hole, and all of a sudden these two or three calves just bolted and ran up this steep old hill, so I whirled around with these old boys looking and I just took off up the hill. A herd or one is not bad but two is near impossible. So I got myself in a sweat chasing one. I’d get ‘em together and one would break to the left. Finally I got the two of ‘em and I started driving ‘em down the hill and I saw those old boys still sitting down at the water hole and one of ‘em looked up and said, ‘Hey,   Hollywood (laughs),’ and I swallowed my chew and I went, ‘Yeah?’ He said, ‘You can leave them go.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘They’ve already been branded (laughs). So that’s the way I gave myself up I guess.

“But boy that was some experience. Goddamned, the work. It’s a great tradition actually. These guys come from all over, the neighboring ranchers, like the Petersons.  And then all the wives, boy what a feast they put out. A spread for all the hands. They’d have all these homemade pies. You name it. By four o’clock, you talk about sleep and sore. I was done, I was hurtin’ boy. It was great.

“These range calves weigh 300 or some pounds, so I got shit on and kicked and pissed on. It was the hardest work. But it was really a big honor. Like on the fourth day they build these big catch pens in different sections and run these cattle from the different sections. And on the last day old Waldo Haythorn, who was the grandpa, gave me the honor of roping. I remember there were guys coming up from Texas, some great ropers. Everett Shaw, who was a big time roper from Texas, came up and roped for old Waldo. They do that, they invite ‘em up to be some of the ropers.

“You’d be tied onto your saddle and just rope these big old calves out of the herd and drag ‘em by the pit. I was flanking ‘em and spread eagling for two or three days. They doctor them and do whatever they do. And they (the Haythorns) bought me a hat as a thank you gift, a nice black stetson.”

LAB: You were a ‘made man’ after that.

JC: ‘Oh, yeah, that was it. I was done right then and there. Yeah, that was pretty good.”

 

 

Waldo Haythorn
LAB: Rodeo became a big part of your life after that.

JC: “I had a friend in Vegas named Dean Shendal (one-time professional steer wrestler and rodeo star and a fixture on the Vegas social scene; he opened his Green Valley ranch and practice arena to celebrities and competitors). All the rodeo champs used to train there and practice there before all the finals in Oklahoma City. I guess that’s how I got into rodeoing. Well, listen, from that point on I became an amateur and I filled my card in a year. I became a pro. It was just in my blood.

“When I started doing these bigger films, I was the first guy they had put in his contracts that I couldn’t rodeo, which is understandable. I could understand why they didn’t want me rodeoing on the weekends.”

LAB: You were heavy into your pro rodeo career when you worked on Funny Lady.

JC: “That’s a funny story. There was an incident where…there was about four weeks left on the picture and my lawyer at the time called me and said, ‘Jimmy, a week from next Wednesday I’m going to ask you to walk off the picture.’ I said, ‘What? What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘Well, they still haven’t signed the contract.’ Mind you, I’d been on it for two months already. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ Well, it turned out they agreed to the same deal I had on Cinderella Liberty and whatever and then they discovered, you’re not going to participate in the music rights, and they weren’t going to add that, which they usually do, to the gross of the picture – whatever little percentage I had. So they were arguing back and forth.

“Ray Stark (the film’s producer) was a tough guy and his lawyer was tough. I was sneaking out anyway (to rodeo). I was roping with a kid named H.P. Evens, who was a world champion at that time. And before that Wednesday I snuck out with H.P. and entered this rodeo in Palm Springs and as luck or whatever had it I roped this steer and I think as I sat back down to (?) it the horse threw me over the front of that saddle horn and that rope just ran through my hands. I wouldn’t let it go because I won like $86 or some bullshit. I could have lost a finger.

“It finally kicked up and dallied but it literally took all the hide off between my thumb and my forefinger. Just ran down to the bone. Oh my God, I remember some guy pouring some new skin in there. I had to go to work Monday. How the hell you going to keep that from the makeup people? I move my hands a lot in this picture, I’ll wrap it up, they’ll never notice it. So I do this scene with Barbra (Streisand). Nobody saw nothing. The minute I came off I headed to my trailer and I started putting some gauze on my hand and there was this guy standing there watching me. It was Ray Stark. He came over and said, ‘Goddamnit, you’ve been rodeoing again.’ I didn’t say nothing. And he said, ‘Didn’t you read your goddamned contract?’ And I said, ‘I don’t believe I’ve got one, Ray, and there’s another rodeo coming up this next week.’ Well, that afternoon the contract got signed.

“They took away my motorcycle from me and my right to enter rodeos.”

Cast and crew of The Rain People 

 

 

LAB: The Haythorns have quite a legacy.

JC: “I knew they were huge ranchers. I think there was some trail they blazed…”

NOTE: In 1890 Harry Haythorn, Waldo’s grandfather, and helpers drove 700 horses from eastern Oregon to the family’s ranch north of Ogallala, Neb., and then to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in south-central South Dakota, and this became the basis for the Duval-starring mini-series Broken Trail.

“So I became friendly with them (as did Duvall, who’s been to the Haythorn ranch several times).”

LAB: Of course Duvall got to know the Petersons intimately when he made his documentary about them.

JC: “I know he stayed close to them, and you know Rex (Peterson) along with Shelly (Peterson) are both out here, they both work in the industry (as horse trainers-wranglers). I haven’t heard from Denny. Shelly, I think she works in the Teamsters Union. Rex is training horses out here. He’s the most like his dad I guess of the guys I know. He’s a tough old sonofabitch. He ain’t got time for a lot of how ya’ doins and stuff.”

LAB: Duvall told me his experiences with the Petersons and the Haythorns informed his portrayals of the western characters he’s played. Is the same true of you?

JC: “My interest in ranching and all that, certainly that was a foundation for Comes a Horseman. And that was a complete fucking mess. I’ll get into that because Alan Pakula (the director), may be rest in peace, I wasn’t very fond of him, but two or three out of a hundred aint bad. But he didn’t know which end of a horse ate and he was the guy I got. I put the whole picture together and I’m not one of those guys that do all that stuff. I’m kind of lazy. I go in my trailer, say my words and go back in my trailer. When that picture was first conceived I went and got Jane Fonda. It was just a story about ranch life in 1945 in Montana. Montana was the last unfenced range in the country in ’45. And this guy (his character) comes back. It was just about the ranch life,. He joins forces with this girl.

“There was no Jason Robards character. There was none of that Bonanza bullshit. And Richard Farnsworth, I gave him his first acting job. He was great. And that’s what it was. I wanted to do a semi-documentary small picture. I went and spoke to Terrence Malick, who I wanted to do it and Terry said, ‘I know I’m going to shoot myself but I only do my own stuff…’and da-da-da. So then my agent got Alan Pakula. I was about to go off and do some picture with Claude LeLouch and I spent three or four hours with him (Pakula) telling him,’ Look, here’s what it is.’ And, of course, I had the best ropers in the world out there, and some of that roping in there was pretty hairy and wicked, 1,200 pounders. I just wanted to see these two people doing their work, trying to round these cattle up and all the stuff that’s entailed, and in the middle of the story, to put it in its simplest form, I wanted somebody from some oil company to come and offer them some silly money for the right to drill a hole where they found some oil on their property, and they say no, at which point I wanted the audience to go, ‘This is bullshit, this is nonsense, they’re working their ass off, who wouldn’t take $2 million?’

“And then when they finish driving the cattle to the station at the end of the picture I wanted the audience to realize that the only reason to ranch in my mind is that you love it, it’s for the right to do it again the next year, like the Haythorns and the Petersons. The idea that most of the people in the audience don’t really love what they do and they realize that instead of that being baloney, they get it. That’s what I wanted to happen. And then I came back from France and I read this thing (Pakula’s revised script) and went to the studio and said, ‘I’m not doing this – people hanging and rape. What are you talking about?’ And one of our guys got killed doing some stunt that was added to the end of the picture. It was a horror. But Jane was great.”

LAB: The way you describe what you were after on Comes a Horseman reminds me of what Duvall captured in We’re Not the Jet Set. You’ve seen his film, right?

JC: “No, what’s so funny, I speak to him three times a week, I mean he’s my best friend, you know. He tells me what he ate the night before (he does a dead-on impression of Duvall intoning, ‘the best steak I ever had…’ I called and said, ‘Bobby, send me a copy, I haven’t seen it.’ I knew all about it. Well, so you’d think he’d have it. He told me to call his assistant but she couldn’t find a DVD copy.”

 

 

James Caan and Robert Duvall - AFI Associates & Sony Pictures Classics' Premiere "Get Low" - After Party
Old Friends, Caan and Duvall, ©Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images North America

 

 

 

LAB: He said the two of you have been looking a long time to do another project together.

JC: “Well, there’s this one project I found called Old Timers. It’s owned by this one company and for some reason they won’t turn it loose. It’s been out there for four or five years.”

NOTE: The project is being made with different actors under the new title Standup Guys.

“Yeah, I’d sure like to find something for me and Bobby. Yeah, there’s nothing I’d like better, you know. I just have fun when I’m working with Bobby. He’s at the point where he doesn’t want to do pictures with too many words anymore.”

NOTE: Caan says he has a Western he’s trying to get off the ground, but he runs into resistance from young suits who don’t know his rodeo and riding background.

JC: “‘What the hell does Jimmy know about horses?’ So I fight that all the time. I’m always Sonny Corleone. These people can’t get it out of their mind. For the first 20 years after The Godfather if there weren’t 12 people dead by page 20 on a picture I never got it. Then all of a sudden I sang and danced (in Harold and Walter Go to New York and Funny Lady) and they said, ‘Well, geez, we didn’t know you sing and dance.’ Well, shit, no one ever asked me. ‘Well, we didn’t know you were a cowboy.’ Well, no one ever asked me. (To me) Talk to some of your friends who can write – time ain’t getting any shorter, you know.”

Alexander Payne Talks Cinema with Kindred Spirit Jane Fonda at Film Streams Feature Event in Omaha

June 24, 2012 9 comments

One of the world’s leading writer-directors and a legendary actress he admires from America’s last golden age of film may just be made for each other, artistically speaking that is, which makes the “tete-a-tete” they will engage in July 22 at the Film Streams Feature Event in Omaha all the more interesting.  The filmmaker is Alexander Payne and the leading lady is Jane Fonda and they will undoubtedly spend a fair amount of time discussing American cinema from the late 1960s through the late 1970s, a period that Payne adores and that saw Fonda do her best work.  There’s also the Fonda Family legacy to be considered, one with deep resonance to Nebraska because her famous father, the late stage and screen star Henry Fonda, was born and raised in Nebraska and began acting at the Omaha Community Playhouse.  That’s where Jane and her brother Peter made their stage debuts.  When the lone picture she made with her father, On Golden Pond, premiered she accompanied the movie to Omaha for a red carpet extravaganza at the Orpheum Theatre.  Now she’s back 30 years later to talk shop with a native Nebraska filmmaker. Full circle.

I have a companion story on the blog that gives details about the Jane Fonda repertory series at Film Streams to run from late June through August 30.  She also selected two favorite films that will be getting screened, her father’s personal favorite among his own films, 12 Angry Men, and the great Preston Sturges social satire, Sullivan’s Travels, which is also one of the most scathing looks ever at the corrupt Hollywood ethos.  Film Streams is also screening Peace, Love & Misunderstanding, which features Jane’s most recent film acting performance.

 

 

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL COVERAGE- Jane Fonda on the Red Carpet for Red Step. www.imageamplified.com, Image Amplified (1)
Red Step
Jane Fonda & Alexander Payne
CANNES FILM FESTIVAL COVERAGE- Jane Fonda on the Red Carpet for Red Step. www.imageamplified.com, Image Amplified

 

 

Alexander Payne Talks Cinema with Kindred Spirit Jane Fonda at Film Streams Feature Event in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

To appear in the July issue of Metro Magazine

 

When Omaha’s own Alexander Payne talks cinema with Jane Fonda at the July Film Streams Feature Event he won’t be at a loss for material.

He’ll converse with an intelligent artist he admires and whose best work came in his favorite decade of American movies, the ’70s. Then there’s all the noted directors and actors she’s worked with and the legacy of her famous father and brother to discuss.

It’s apropos that a renowned filmmaker from Omaha will review Fonda’s own legendary career before an audience of Nebraskans since her family is so tied to this place. Her adored father Henry remains an enduring native son. The loyalty the late stage and screen star showed to the state is not lost on Jane or Peter, who are adopted Nebraskans.

The threesome’s cinema paths rarely crossed. Just as Henry’s career waned, Jane’s and Peter’s took off. But there was a golden moment when they all converged. As the Old Hollywood studio system died out a brash new group of creatives crashed the gates to usher in the New Hollywood in the late 1960s. In that emerging space of permissiveness and artistic freedom depictions of sex and violence reached new extremes, more humanistic stories came in vogue, locations gained favor over sound stages and stylistic devices, like flash cuts, took hold. Amid this liberated landscape the Fondas made films that forever changed things.

Jane paradoxically struck a blow for both misogyny and feminism in Roger Vadim’s sexually bold adaptation of the adult comic strip Barbarella. Henry went rouge playing completely against type as a sadistic killer in the Sergio Leone Western Once Upon a Time in the West. Peter became a counterculture hero in the hippie, Harley, drug-fueled road picture classic Easy Rider.

Then, in a dramatic career transformation, Jane went from frothy sex symbol to first-rate dramatic actress of social conviction, winning Oscars for her risk-taking work in Klute and Coming Home. Later, she found the project that became her ailing father’s cinema swan song and their only film together, On Golden Pond. Fast forward a generation and Peter channeled his father in his Oscar-nominated lead role in Ulee’s Gold.

While the Fondas contributed to the unrestrained new cinema a young Alexander Payne cut his teeth on ’70s films as an audience member at the Dundee and Indian Hills Theatres. As Payne acknowledged in accepting his Oscar for The Descendants last February, his mother Peggy was his most devoted filmgoing companion.

He was an intellectually precocious youth with a preternatural appetite for adult art fare. He made his own short films with an 8 mm camera his restauranteur father, George, received as a bonus from Kraft Foods for customer loyalty.

Payne, a Creighton Prep graduate, considered studying journalism but fixed on history and Spanish literature at Stanford University. He didn’t formally study film until he entered UCLA, where his thesis project, The Passion of Martin, played festivals and netted him a production deal from Universal Studios.

By the time he made features in his hometown in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, repeatedly shooting in the same Dundee neighborhood where he and Henry Fonda grew up, Jane was already retired from movies.

For Citizen Ruth Payne cast a strong, socially committed woman not unlike Fonda in Laura Dern to play the title character of Ruth Stoops. Interested in making uncompromising films akin to those he fell in love with during the ’70s, Payne unflinchingly took on the abortion debate in the picture.

His next movie, Election, placed Reese Witherspoon in the kind of catty vixen part a young Jane would have been just right for.

Payne’s subsequent male-dominated films co-star women in roles that put men in their place. In About Schmidt Connie Ray is a trailer park wife sympathetic to Jack Nicholson recently losing his wife until he makes a pass at her and she throws him out. One can imagine Fonda in that part. In Sideways Sandra Oh is the cool wine pourer babe who goes ballistic when she discovers Thomas Haden Church has been lying to her and Virginia Madsen is the cool Earth Mother who sees past Paul Giamatti’s shortcomings. Fonda’s played similar characters.

As a good woman wronged in The Descendants Judy Greer finds the right balance of tenderness and rage Fonda delivered as Cat Ballou, Bree Daniels (Klute), Lillian Hellman (Julia) and Kimberly Wells (The China Syndrome).

No doubt Payne would have loved to work with Fonda in her prime. Who knows, now that she’s acting again perhaps they’ll be a part for her in one of his future projects. Just not his next one, Nebraska, a road movie that follows an embittered Nebraskan (Bruce Dern) living in Montana hell-bent on claiming a sweepstakes prize his estranged son (Will Forte) knows doesn’t exist. The son is sure his father will come to his senses long before they reach their destination of Lincoln, Neb. The journey revisits the old man’s dispiriting past and en route the sympathetic son decides to give his fool of a father the gift of saving face.

Payne’s angling to shoot the project in Nebraska this fall. He and casting director John Jackson are hard at work trying to find authentic Nebraska types as extras.

Jane Fonda Takes Center Stage at Film Streams, Where Her Life in Film is Celebrated this Summer

June 19, 2012 6 comments

The Omaha art cinema Film Streams is making a habit of saluting prominent American screen actresses.  The way it works is a guest star comes for a special evening in which Film Streams board member and world acclaimed filmmaker Alexander Payne interviews her live on stage, ala Inside the Actors Studio.  A repertory series of her work is part of the deal.  Laura Dern got the treatment the first time.  Debra Winger came next.  Jane Fonda is this year’s feted subject. Depending on your age or aesthetic or political affiliation Fonda means different things to different people.  For some, she’s an enduring star.  For others, a faded one.  Depending on your tastes, she boasts an impressive body of stand-the-test-of-time work or else a decidedly uneven euvre outside a few notable exceptions.  Many still find unforgivable her anti-war protests and vilify her every move.  Many more feel affectionate and nostalgic about her as the daughter of Henry Fonda and as one of the 1960s and 1970s biggest stars.  She’s prettty much done it all as a cinema diva – from ingenue to sex symbol to serious Method actress, the star of box office hits and critically acclaimed prestige pics, gobs of Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, two Academy Award wins for Best Actress, an Emmy for Best Lead Actress.  Retiring from the screen at age 50 and making a comeback at nearly 70.  Now, of course, as a woman of a certain age (74) she’s a supporting player or character actress who brings a rich persona and background to any role she takes.  Part of the context of Jane Fonda today is that her adventurous personal life informs her work.  Her boarding school and debutant upbringing.  Her early modeling career.  Studying under Lee Strasberg.  Her marriages to Roger Vadim, Tom Hayden, and Ted Turner.  Her activist years.  Becoming a Hollywood Player as a producer.  Making herself a fitness guru.  Her forever strained relationship with her famous father.  And her identity today as a healthy aging advocate and author.  You’ll find plenty of film stories by me on this blog.  Many happy cinema returns.

Jane Fonda

Jane Fonda Takes Center Stage at Film Streams, Where Her Life in Film is Celebrated this Summer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in the July issue of Metro Magazine

 

The Fonda Legacy

This summer Film Streams celebrates the many faces of actress Jane Fonda.

She and one of her biggest fans, Alexander Payne, converse live on stage July 22 at the Holland Performing Arts Center for Feature Event IV, the art cinema’s annual fundraiser. A Fonda repertory series runs through August 30.

The Fonda legacy in Nebraska looms large. Her late iconic father Henry Fonda was born here. He started acting at the Omaha Community Playhouse, where Jane and brother Peter trod the boards. Henry retained deep ties to the state and the Playhouse. He once brought the entire production of his Broadway triumph Mister Roberts to town. In 1955 he, fellow Playhouse alum Dorothy McGuire and 17-year-old Jane appeared in a benefit production of The Country Girl directed by Joshua Logan.

Peter, who attended the University of Omaha, occasionally visits the Playhouse.

When the only film pairing the famous father and daughter, On Golden Pond, made its Midwest premiere at the Orpheum she came.

Unlike her father’s beloved public persona, Jane’s is complex.

Incarnations

For much of the 1960s she was a spirited ingenue and sometime vixen plying her cover girl looks and wiles more than her acting chops in cinema trifles. Her comedic work in Cat Ballou and Barefoot in the Park hinted at star potential.

Film Streams founder-director Rachel Jacobson, an admirer, says Fonda “always had a deeper, more introspective quality even when playing the lighter roles.”

When Fonda’s French filmmaker husband Roger Vadim exploited her sex symbol status in Barbarella she could have been typecast. Instead, she did a makeover from vapid party girl and blonde bimbo to social activist and serious actress.

She earned acclaim for her dramatic turns in They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969) and Klute (1971), the latter earning her the Best Actress Oscar. That’s when “she came out from behind the shadow of both her father and brother” (Peter made it big with Easy Rider), says film historian Bruce Crawford of Omaha.

She also drew ire for her anti-war comments and protests. By the time she divorced Vadim and married activist Tom Hayden she was branded “political.” Fonda made socially conscious projects in Julia (1977), Coming Home (1978) (another Best Actress Oscar) and The China Syndrome (1979).

Her career peaked in the late ’70s-early ’80’s with Nine to Five, On Golden Pond and her Emmy-winning performance in TV’s The Dollmaker (1984). By then she’d morphed into a home workout video diva. After divorcing Hayden she surprised many by marrying media tycoon Ted Turner and promptly retiring from the screen at age 50. Her recent return to movies comes on the heels of her best-selling memoirs and healthy aging advocacy.

“She’s continually reinvented herself and her image,” says Jacobson. “She’s just very deliberate about how she thinks about herself and her own evolution. She’s a fascinating person.”

Payne curates the Feature Event and in Fonda, 74, he’s once more chosen a dynamic figure to talk cinema shop, following Steven Soderbergh, Debra Winger and Laura Dern. Jacobson says, “The people he’s interested in having conversations with are really strong artists with great careers.” She says Payne won Fonda over by saying her appearance would support the arts in Omaha. “That’s why she’s coming.”

 

 As the title character in Cat Ballou
As the title character in Barbarella
As Gloria in They Shoot Horses Don’t They? 
As Bree Daniels in Klute 
As Lillian Hellman in Julia 
As Sally Hyde in Coming Home 
As Kimberly Wells in The China Syndrome 
As Judy Bernly in Nine to Five 
As Chelsea Thayer Wayne in On Golden Pond 

 

 

The series:

Cat Ballou

She hits all the right notes as an aspiring schoolmarm turned outlaw seeking to avenge her father’s death. Lee Marvin steals the show in the dual roles of killer Tim Strawn and gunman Kid Shelleen.

Barbarella

She fearlessly plays an over-the-top sex object in highly suggestive scenes bordering on soft-core porn in this tripped-out fantasy directed by Vadim.

They Shoot Horses Don’t They?

Her transformation began with this unadorned portrayal of a desperate, ill-fated dance marathoner under the direction of Sydney Pollack.

Klute

As high end call girl Bree Daniels she’s a raw-nerved neurotic mixed up in a dangerous liaison with small town detective Donald Sutherland in the big city.

Julia 

Fonda plays the kind of strong woman, Lillian Hellman, she clearly emulates. Her playwright character embarks on a dangerous mission abroad for a friend, Julia (Vanessa Redgrave), opposing the Nazis.

Coming Home

She makes believable the evolution from naive war bride to anti-war sympathizer who falls for paraplegic activist vet Jon Voight. The fictional awakening reverberates with Fonda’s own coming-of-age.

The China Syndrome

Playing an ambitious TV reporter fighting to cover a nuclear reactor accident the authorities want suppressed Fonda is in her element. Her subdued conviction is a welcome contrast to high-strung Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas.

Nine to Five

Sardonic Lily Tomlin and sassy Dolly Parton are long-suffering office workers harassed by womanizing boss Dabney Coleman. Pert Jane is the innocent newbie. The women execute a militant plan to turn the tables in this feminist farce.

On Golden Pond

Jane plays out real life issues with her dad in this tale of an estranged daughter starving for affection from a father who has trouble giving it. Katharine Hepburn co-stars in the poignant drama.

Tickets for the 6:30 p.m. Feature Event are $35. For pre and post-event party tickets and for series screening dates-times, visit www.filmstreams.org.

Film Connections: Coppola, Lucas, Butler, Knight, Caan, Duvall

June 3, 2012 4 comments

Shirley Knight and James Caan in The Rain People 

 

 

 

LATEST UPDATE: Interviewed the celebrated actress Shirley Knight, the star of The Rain People and one of the latest puzzle pieces I needed to get to for my Film Connections story-event project highlighted here.  This blog features my interviews with Knight and her Rain People co-stars James Caan and Robert Duvall.  Soon to be posted are interviews I did with that film’s cinematographer, Bill Butler, and  itswriter-director, Francis Ford Coppola.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Interviewed legendary director of photography Bill Butler. You may not know the name but you know his work.  He was the cinematographer for some of the best films of the 1970s, including Jaws and The Conversation.  He also shot key parts of The Godfather and took over One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest from Haskell Wexler.  He’s lensed some of the best made-for-TV movies (The Execution of Private Slovick) and mini-series (The Thorn Birds).  He’s a legend in the film industry, with an Oscar nomination and a lifetime achievement award from the the American Society of Cinematographers.  And he’s still working at 91!  He just completed work on a new feature.

My interview with him concerned the Film Connections story-event project I am developing in conjunction with The Reader and Film Streams (see below).  That project connects the dots of when Butler joined Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Shirley Knight in shooting part of The Rain People in Nebraska, which led Duvall to make the documentary We’re Not the Jet Set about a Nebraska ranch-rodeo family.

Bill gave me some great back story anecdotes about The Rain People shoot.  Pretty much all the dots are connected now concerning the story I want to tell with the exception of my interviewing Shirley Knight and George Lucas.  I’ve made the requests, but so far no go.

UPDATE:  I scored my hoped-for “interview” with Francis Ford Coppola for this project, though he ended up responding by email rather than by phone to a long list of questions I posed.  But at least he took the time to answer my queries.  Look for my Q&A with him on this blog in the near future.

I was a burgeoning film buff in 1974 when the Omaha World-Herald‘s now defunct Magazine of the Midlands ran a piece on a documentary film that Robert Duvall, who had recently gained acclaim for his work in the first two Godfather films, was directiing in Ogallala, Neb. about a ranch-rodeo family there, the Petersons.  The film, entitled We’re Not the Jet Set (1977), sounded promising enough but what really got my attention was the fact that Duvall only came to meet the Petersons and to make his film about them as a result of coming to Nebraska a half-dozen years earlier for a few weeks wors on the art road movie, The Rain People (1969), a film written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola and assisted by George Lucas.  Rain People starred Shirley Knight and co-starred James Caan and Duvall.  The Petersons had a horse pen just across from the motel the cast and crew stayed at and Duvall and Caan got to know the family by riding some of their horses. Duvall became so intrigued with this colorful clan that he returned again and again to immerse himself in their life and to shoot the documentary.  It was the actor’s first directorial effort of what’s turned out to be a distinguished body of work as a director (Angelo My Love, The Apostle, Assassination Tango).

What most struck me then and now is how these figures, who at the time were obscure, except for Knight, would in a few years come to be major players in Hollywood.  I loved the fact that they converged in the middle of nowhere for a small film that led to another film.  And as I’ve come to find out, the experience of making these films in rural Nebraska led to enduring relationships and collaborations and the inspiration for yet another film. For example, Duvall and Caan have stayed in contact with the Petersons, several of whom have wound up in the film industry as wranglers, trainers, and stunt riders.  And it was through the Petersons that Caan and Duvall met a more prominent ranch family, the Haythorns, and the actors’ interactions with them led to Caan becoming a professional rodeo competitor and to informing Duvall’s later Western mini-series Broken Trail.
Shirley Knight & Robert Duvall in "The Rain People"

Jet Set was released in 1977 to mostly strong reviews from its featured screenings at film festivals, in select art house cinemas, and on public television.  Since then the film has pretty much been unseen.  There are reasons for that.  As I have come to find out, its virtual disappearance from the market is a real travesty because the work stands with the best docs from that era.  As it happened, I saw Rain People well before seeing Jet Set, a film that until two years ago only existed for me in terms of the few write-ups I’d found about it. When I finally decided in 2010 to develop a story about all of this, including the connections and relationships around the films, I contacted Duvall’s then-production company, Butcher’s Run, and they were nice enough to both send me a DVD of the pic and to arrange an interview with Duvall himself.  Jet Set was a real revelation for me.  It’s a superb example of cinema verite filmmaking and it comes as close to pure cinema as any film, dramatic or documentary, that I’ve seen from that era, and I’ve seen a lot.

Duvall led me to his good friend Caan, whom I also interviewed.  I also got in touch with several of the Petersons and interviewed them as well.  Since then I’ve interviewed some more of the principals behind Jet Set, notably cinematographer Joseph Friedman and editor Stephen Mack.  I am in the process of trying to get interviews with Knight and Rain People cinematographer Bill Butler.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  For years, decades really, that Herald story about the film I referred to earlier stuck in my mind.  It gnawed at me all the while I worked as a film programmer and publicist in Omaha and then when I transitioned into freelance journalism.  In the era before the Internet it was hard to find much reference to the film.  It certainly wasn’t available for rental through any distributor I ever came upon.  The last 15 years or so I’ve consistently looked for opportunities to write about film and this blog is a good showcase for the many film stories I’ve filed.  The story of Rain People and Jet Set is one I longed to tell.  Since leaving the film programming world in the early 1990s I also longed to organize some film event.  Now I am combining the two longings in one project.  My in-progress story is slated to be published in some Nebraska publications and I’m working with the publisher of The Reader (www.thereader.com) and the director of the Omaha art cinema Film Streams on possible screenings and other events related to my story.

Still,there’s much work to be done: I need to make Coppola and Lucas aware of this film story-event project in hopes of interviewing them and inviting them to attend whatever is planned.  If there’s anyone out there reading this who can get this in front of them or their associates, please do.  Or if you can provide me their contact info, please do.  They are an essential part of the story I’m telling and while I’m prepared to move forward without their participation I’d rather not if I don’t have to.

My main purpose with all this is to bring this story to light and to help revive interest in these films, particularly We’re Not the Jet Set.  Recently, Turner Classic Movies added The Rain People to its rotating gallery of films shown on the cable network.  But Jet Set remains inaccessible.  I would also like to see the Lucas documentary, The Making of the Rain People, revived since its a portrait of the early Coppola and his methods a full decade before his wife Eleanor shot the documentary Hearts of Darkness about the anguished making of Apocalypse Now.  The story I’m telling is also an interesting time capsule at a moment in film history when brash young figures like Coppola, Lucas, Duvall, and Caan were part of the vanguard for the New Hollywood and the creative freedom that artists sought and won.

You’ll note I have not posted any images from We’re Not the Jet Set, and that will soon be remedied thanks to Robert Duvall and Stephen Mack.

And while this is not a film blog per se, you’ll find hundreds of articles here I’ve written about films, film artists, and film lovers.

 

 
The entire cast & crew of "The Rain People"

The entire company of cast and crew on The Rain People

 

 

photo
B.A. Peterson, the late patriarch of the Peterson family that Robert Duvall profiled in We’re Not the Jet Set, ©photo courtesy Stephen Mack

 

 

Film Connections: Coppola, Lucas, Butler, Knight, Caan, Duvall

An In-Progress Story

How a 1968 Convergence of Future Cinema Greats in Ogallala, Neb. Resulted in Multiple Films and Enduring Relationships

From the Melting Pot of Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Shirley Knight, Robert Duvall, James Caan and Two Ranch-Rodeo Families Came ‘The Rain People,’ ‘We’re Not the Jet Set’ and More

©by Leo Adam Biga

The complete story will appear in the Keith County News, The Reader and other publications

 

An unlikely confluence of remarkable cinema talents descended on the dusty backroads of Ogallala, Neb. in the far southwest reaches of the state in the summer of 1968.

None other than future film legend Francis Ford Coppola led this Hollywood caravan. He came as the producer-writer-director of The Rain People, a small, low-budget drama about a disenchanted East Coast housewife who, upon discovering she’s pregnant, flees the conventional trappings of suburban homemaking by taking a solo car trip south, then north and finally west. With no particular destination in mind except escape she gets entangled with two men before returning home.

Coppola’s creative team for this road movie included another future film scion in George Lucas, his then-protege who served as production associate and also shot the documentary The Making of The Rain People. The two young men were obscure but promising figures in a changing industry. With their long hair and film school pedigree they were viewed as interlopers and rebels. Within a few years the filmmakers helped usher in the The New Hollywood through their own American Zoetrope studio and their work for established studios. Coppola ascended to the top with the success of The Godfather I and II. Lucas first made it big with the surprise hit American Graffiti, which touched off the ’50s nostalgia craze, before assuring his enduring place in the industry with the Star Wars franchise that made sci-fi big business.

photo
©poster art courtesy Stephen Mack

 

 

Rain People cinematographer Bill Butler, who went on to lens The Conversation for Coppola and such projects as One Few Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Jaws and The Thorn Birds, was the director of photography.

Heading the cast were Shirley Knight, James Caan and Robert Duvall. Though they enjoyed solid reputations, none were household names yet. Caan’s breakthrough role came two years later in the made-for-television sensation Brian’s Song (1970). The pair’s work in Coppola’s The Godfather elevated them to A-list status. Rain People was not the last time the two actors collaborated with the filmmakers. Duvall starred in the first feature Lucas made, the science fiction thriller THX-1138. The actor went on to appear in Coppola’s first two Godfather pictures as well as The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. After his star-making performance as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather Caan later teamed up with Coppola for the director’s Gardens of Stone.

Among Rain People’s principals, the most established by far then was Knight, already a two-time Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee (for The Dark at the Top of the Stairs and Sweet Bird of Youth).

The experience of working together on the early Coppola film forged relationships that extended well beyond that project and its small circle of cast and crew. Indeed, this is a story about those connections and their reverberations decades later.

Old friends Robert Duvall and James Caan
photo
At New Yorker premiere of We’re Not the Jet Set: DP Joseph Friedman, Robert Duvall, Barbara Duvall, editor Stephen Mack, ©photo courtesy Stephen Mack

 

 

For example, Duvall and Caan were already horse and Old West aficionados when they were befriended by a couple of Nebraska ranch-rodeo families, the Petersons and Haythorns. The interaction that followed only deepened the artists’ interest in riding and in Western lore. This convergence of New York actors and authentic Great Plains characters produced some unexpected spin-offs and helped cement enduring friendships. Duvall and Caan remain best buddies to this day.

Duvall became so enamored with the colorful, cantankerous Peterson clan, a large, boisterous family of trick riders led by their late patriarch, B.A. Peterson, that he made a documentary about them and their lifestyle called We’re Not the Jet Set. The actor returned to Nebraska several times to visit the family and to shoot the film with a skeleton crew. It was his first film as a director and it’s easy to find resonance in it with his future directorial work (Angelo My Love, The Apostle, Assassination Tango).

He and the Petersons became close enough that at his invitation some of them visited the The Godfather set. The family and the actor have kept in touch all these years and some have visited Duvall’s Virginia farm.

On one of Duvall’s visits to Nebraska the Petersons introduced him to the Haythorns and the true-life stories of that family’s early, epic cattle drives became the inspiration for Duvall’s mini-series Broken Trail.

Meanwhile, Caan sufficiently learned the ropes from working alongside the Haythorns and their hired hands to become a professional rodeo competitor, an activity the suits in Hollywood increasingly frowned on as his career exploded.

With their reputation as expert horsemen and women preceding them, several of the Petersons ended up in the film industry as wranglers, trainers and stunt people, boasting credits on many major Hollywood projects. One member of the family, K.C. Peterson, even ended up working on a film Duvall appeared in, Geronimo, An American Legend.

None of it may have happened if that band of filmmaking gypsies hadn’t come west. Their presence certainly got the attention of the locals while it lasted but no one could have predicted the Coppola production would lead, at least indirectly, to other films and deeper connections that played out over several years.

It’s hard to imagine how else Duvall would have happened upon the Petersons as the subjects for a film.

The man responsible for bringing Duvall to Nebraska, Coppola, was a fish-out-of-water here. His parents were musicians and he grew up in urban Detroit and Queens, New York, immersed in a life of art, literature, theater and the movies. The Hofstra theater arts grad entered UCLA’s fledgling film studies program, where his work soon attracted the attention of Hollywood.

At the time he made Rain People he was finding his way at Warner Brothers. Like all the major Hollywood studios then, Warners struggled adapting to changing audience tastes and escalating production costs and began entrusting young upstarts like Coppola with productions traditionally assigned old veterans.

While directing Finian’s Rainbow for Warners-Seven Arts Coppola met Lucas, a Modesto, Calif. native and USC film school product. Eager to break from studio constraints and make their own personal art films, the two were kindred spirits, When Coppola enlisted a small band of like-minded artists for Rain People, Lucas was a natural choice. The experience of making that film convinced them to launch American Zoetrope, a counter-culture answer to the old studio system that like United Artists decades before put the creatives in charge of production. The studio’s first two projects were the Lucas written and directed films THX-1138 and American Graffiti.

The producing partners parted ways in the mid-’70s.

But for a magical time the career arcs of these and other cinema stalwarts intersected to produce some of the most satisfying collaborations of the 1970s. As fate would have it a crucial part of that intersection unfolded in rural Nebraska among area denizens whose rough-and-tumble work-a-day lives were far removed from the distorted, make-believe reality of Hollywood. Lucas’ making-of doc about the experience records it for posterity.

Situated just below the southeast corner of the Nebraska Panhandle, Ogallala was about the last place you’d expect to find a gathering of the soon-to-be New Kings of Hollywood. But that’s exactly what transpired. This is the story of how those connections led Duvall to make We’re Not the Jet Set, an underseen film that may be getting new life courtesy of Nebraska art cinemas.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Editor’s Note: As I further develop the story, I’ll be making more posts.  And when screenings and other events are scheduled in conjunction with the story, I’ll be sure to post that info as well.  I’m posting my interviews with all the key figures in this story-event project..

Dena Krupinski Makes Her Hollywood Dreams a Reality as a Turner Classic Movies Producer

April 30, 2012 9 comments

Whether you’re a regular or occasional visitor to this blog you have by now probably noticed that I like to write about Nebraskans in Film.  That is a function of my being a Nebraskan, a film buff who just happens to be a journalist.  Naturally, I seek every opportunity I can find to write about fellow natives of this place who have and are doing great things in the world of cinema.  It’s not only filmmakers and actors I profile either.  You’ll find pieces about many different aspects of the industry as well as about people who don’t make films but instead showcase them for our entertainment and education.  Take the subject of this profile, Dena Krupinski, for example.  When I wrote this article seven or eight years ago she was a producer at Turner Classic Movies in Atlanta, where she was one of the key figures behind those Private Screenings Q&A’s that host Robert Osborne does with legends.  It was a dream job for her because she’s been in love with the movies for as long as she can remember and that gig put her in close contact with some of the biggest names in Hollywood history.  She’s since moved on to teach at a university but her cinema obsession remains intact.  I too have had the distinct pleasure of interviewing and in some cases meeting Hollywood royalty, past and present, including Robert Wise, Patricia Neal, Debbie Rynolds, Robert Duvall, James Caan, Danny Glover.  I am hoping for an interview with Jane Fonda in the near future because she’s coming to Omaha for a July program at Film Streams that will have Alexander Payne interview her live on stage.  Of course, Payne is someone I’ve interviewed dozens of times over the years and because of that relationship I’ve had the chance to interview Laura Dern, Matthew Broderick, Paul Giamatti, Thomas Haden Church, Sandra Oh, Virginia Madsen, producers Michael London, Albert Berger, and Jim Burke, screenwriter Jim Taylor, and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael.

 

 

 

 

Dena Krupinski Makes Her Hollywood Dreams a Reality as a Turner Classic Movies Producer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Orignally appeared in the Jewish Press

 

For most of us, childhood dreams remain just that — the unfulfilled musings of our starry-eyed youth. But for Omaha native Dena Krupinsky, an associate director with Turner Classic Movies (TCM) in Atlanta, her long-harbored fantasy of working with Hollywood greats has become reality. Since joining TCM in 1994, the year the national cable network launched, Krupinsky has produced dozens of special programs featuring stars and other notables from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Even a cursory glance at her producing credits reveals a Who’s-Who of movie royalty she has worked with — from Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Tony Curtis, James Garner and Rod Steiger to June Allyson, Leslie Caron and Liza Minnelli.

Whether in a digital editing suite or in a sound recording booth or in a television studio, she gets on intimate terms with some of the very luminaries she’s idolized. She might be producing a Private Screenings session in which James Garner recalls his career or she might be pruning a feature with Liza Minnelli discussing her father and his films or she might be recording a voice-over track in which Carol Burnett pays homage to Lucille Ball. “Do I wake up in the morning excited to go to work? Yeah,” Krupinsky said. “I feel like I’m doing exactly what I knew I’d be doing. It is a dream come true.” She has, in the course of putting together various programs, met dozens of Hollywood legends as well as many more obscure but no less significant film industry professionals. “I do feel lucky meeting these people. They were part of that Old Hollywood, which was an exclusive, elite world. And now that I’m part of it, I’m so excited. When I watch the Oscars I’ll see these people up there and go, ‘Yeah, know him, met him. Nice guy.’” That goes for screenwriter Ernest Lehman, a 2001 honorary Oscar recipient whom Krupinsky met while taping a program in which Lehman discussed how scenes from his script for North By Northwest were brought to inspired life by director Alfred Hitchcock.

Somehow, even as a little girl, Krupinsky knew she was destined to work in film or television. Growing up in the Rockbrook Park neighborhood, she was the oddball kid on her block who much preferred watching TV hour upon hour to playing outside with her friends. So enamored was she with whatever the magic box displayed that she would kvetch with her mother for extra viewing privileges. Although her parents, Jean Ann and Jerry Krupinsky, could not then see how such a steady diet of old movies, sitcoms, dramas, game shows, variety shows, soap operas and commercials could possibly benefit their daughter, it undoubtedtly has — embuing in her a deep affinity for popular entertainment that, if not a prerequisite for working at TCM, certainly helps. “It does. It definitely does,” said the perky Krupinsky during a June visit to Omaha for her 20th high school class reunion. She is a 1981 graduate of Westside High School and a former student at Temple Israel Synagogue. “I just always loved television and movies and I’ve just always known I wanted to be in them.”

During her recent visit from her home in Decatur, GA., a community near Atlanta, where she works, Krupinsky, who is single, wore a bright red dress that matched the burning intensity she has for her job. That job entails producing segments for the network’s (Channel 55 on Cox) Private Screenings, Star of the Month, Director of the Month and Spotlight features as well as producing special projects related to individual films, figures or themes, such as a new half-hour documentary, Memories of Oz, which has been well-reviewed in the national press for its informative and fun take on the making of The Wizard of Oz. She has worked with everyone from impish Mickey Rooney to serious method actor Rod Steiger and tackled themes from Religion in the Movies to the Art of the Con. Her work has been recognized in the industry with Telly awards for Private Screenings segments on Tony Curtis and Leslie Caron. a 1999 Gracie Allen Award for a Carol Burnett On Lucille Ball special and the 21st Annual American Women in Radio and Television Award for a series of interstitials (promotional links) on women in film.

Many of the stars that Krupinsky, a graduate of the prestigious University of Missouri School of Journalism, has worked with have since passed away, most recently Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. A Private Screenings installment she did with Lemmon and Matthau remains one of her favorites, if for no other reason than she was enchanted with the man who originated the role of Oscar Madison on stage and on screen. “That was something that I loved to do. Walter Matthau was the greatest, funniest guy I ever met. I loved him. At one point, I was walking with him to show him where the Green Room is and he grabbed my hand. He was so sweet. He called me Charlotte the whole time. I’d be like, ‘No, it’s Dena.’ And he’d go, ‘No, no, I had a girlfriend named Charlotte, and you’re just like her.’ When he died I remembered this line he said that I loved during our taping session: ‘Dear, oh dear, I have a queer feeling they’ll be a strange face in heaven in the morning.’ And I thought of him and that line. Bless his heart.” Krupinsky invited her parents to attend the Lemmon-Matthau taping. She said she often tries sharing her Insider’s position with less experienced co-workers by letting them listen in on phone interviews. “I always like to have people listen because it’s too great a learning experience not to have your co-workers there.”

On one occasion, Krupinsky gathered a phalanx of Liza Minnelli fans in her office for a scheduled phone interview with the star only to have the diva surprise everyone by inviting the producer up to her place instead. “She said, ‘I’d love it if you could come to my house — I really don’t like to do phone interviews.’ And I was like, ‘Well, Liza, I’m in Atlanta and you’re in New York.’ She goes, ‘I’ll fly you up.’ So, I checked with my bosses and they said, ‘Go for it.’ I went to her house in New York and hanging on the walls were these big Andy Warhol prints — one of her, one of her mother and one of her father. Staring at those prints reminded me I was with a member of Hollywood royalty, and that her mother really was Judy Garland and her father really was Vincente Minnelli. She was as easy as an old friend, but I was in awe the whole time. It was great.”

 

 

photo of Dena Krupinsky

Dena Krupinski

 

 

Not at all jaded even after hobnobbing with scores of celebrities, the star struck Krupinsky said she still gets butterflies every time she meets one. “I’m always a little nervous, but the minute they start talking you kind of forget you’re scared.”

She said the stars are real troopers who go out of their way to make her and her colleagues feel comfortable being around them. “So far, they’ve all been so easy to work with and I think it’s because they want to tell their stories. They’re proud.  They don’t do it for the money. They do it because they want to do it.” She said stars are put through their paces on a typical Private Screenings production day, which entails a three to three-and-a-half hour taping session, promotional intros and press interviews. “It’s an exhausting process, but never have we had problems. I’ve never had anyone complaining that it’s taking too long or demanding star treatment. They’re totally professional. When we bring them on to the set, they’re not worried or anxious. They just say, ‘I got it. I know what to do.’ And they love it. I feel like they have as much fun with us as we do with them. I mean, they even sit with the crew and eat lunch.”

With stars flying in to Atlanta for the tapings, opportunities abound for Krupinsky to hang with the screen legends. “We usually take them out to dinner the night before. Tony Curtis, whom we’ve worked with a lot, came with his wife Jill. We took them to dinner and shopping. Tony is a lot of fun. This is a guy who doesn’t want to rest. He wants to go out at night. He has fun with his celebrity. He gladly signs autographs.” Following a Private Screenings session with Best Actor Oscar winner Rod Steiger, Krupinsky was asked to escort the actor to a Florida film festival in his honor and she witnessed first-hand the respect and adulation audiences feel for this “very intense and very passionate” man.

One of the toughest parts of her job, she said, is trying to whittle down the star interviews from several hours to the one hour or less allotted for airing. For several months now she has been working on the edit for an August 2 scheduled James Garner Private Screenings segment. “James Garner’s has been one of the hardest to cut because he told so many good stories. I cut and cut on paper first and when I went to edit I thought for sure I‘d be fine but it was still too long. Cutting stories is the hardest part. Editing is a long process.” In preparing to tape a Private Screenings or to produce a special project like the Memories of Oz documentary, Krupinsky immerses herself in the project, gathering and reviewing reams of materials on the subject, including published interviews, biographies, tapes of movies and archival photos, with the help of staff researchers. “I become totally absorbed in my subject. For three months I can tell you everything about Tony Curtis or James Garner because I study them and I learn about these guys. I’ll know everything — dates, times, movies  — you name it. But then once a project’s done that information goes away as I move on to the next one. The thing I love about my job is that I’m learning all the time. I feel like I’m still in school. It’s like having advanced film classes with experts talking about how they approach screenwriting or directing or acting.”

Krupinsky followed a logical route to TCM, working in local television promotion before graduating to the network level. Once out of college — and with her sights dead set on a career in TV — she took an entry-level job, as a secretary, at CBS affiliate WAGA-TV in Atlanta, where she was soon promoted to associate producer status — developing image campaigns and teasers for the station’s news and entertainment divisions. Even with the new position, she said, it was hard to get by on her small salary. “I was broke. I ate a lot at Taco Bell.” After a brief stint with a station in Knoxville, TN, she landed a spot as a writer-producer with Turner Network Television Latin America, which equaled a step-up on her career path but which also presented a dead-end since she did not speak a word of Spanish or Portugese. Then, in 1994, she heard about the formation of TCM and promptly applied for and won her current post. When she began at TCM, media mogul Ted Turner was still taking a hands-on approach with the fledgling network unlike today, when various mergers have taken Ted’s folksy presence out of the picture and replaced it with corporate suits. “Ted would always come by. One day, we had a meeting with him and he was wearing a cartoon tie and he was just hilarious,” she recalled. Other times, he’d walk by the office and say, ‘Hey guys, what are you doing?’ Everyone who worked for Ted has this feeling for him because he did a great job. Thank God I was there for that regime.”

 

 

Before joining the ranks of film buffs and cinephiles at TCM, Krupinsky acknowledges she was a bit out-of-step with her workmates because even though she loved movies, she lacked a deep knowledge of their history and lore. As an example, she points to Warner Brothers tough guy John Garfield, someone she was assigned to do a feature piece on and knew next to nothing about. “Before I did John Garfield I didn’t know who he was to be honest. I told my mom who I was profiling and she said, ‘Oh, John Garfield, he’s great. You’ll fall in love with him.’ I said, I will?’ And sure, enough, I did. You almost fall in love with all these people.”

The Garfield project led Krupinsky to the late actor’s daughter Julie Garfield, an actress, who provided personal insights into the man, and to former director Vincent Sherman, who directed Garfield in the 1943 drama Saturday’s Children and who worked with many other Warners greats in the 1930s and ‘40s. Krupinsky played matchmaker of sorts when she arranged for the two to meet. “I brought Julie and Vincent together for lunch and it was great to sit back and let him tell her stories about her dad that she didn’t know. I was kind of proud myself because I brought these two together.” Krupinsky feels privileged getting the inside scoop from veterans like Sherman, who at 95, is one of the last surviving directors from Hollywood’s classic studio era. Sherman knew everyone on the Warners lot and hearing him talk about the old days and the old stars is like getting the Holy Scripture from the prophet himself. “I had lunch with him and he was telling me stories about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Oh, God, I’m sitting here with a man who worked with these legends.’ I mean, it is very cool. Vincent’s become a friend of our network’s.

A large part of her producing chores involves developing scripts, which generally include narration read by a star or stars who have some relationship with or enthusiasm for the subject. For example, to promote a month-long salute to the late producer-director Stanley Kramer, Krupinsky hit upon the idea of having comic Jonathan Winters, who appeared in Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, wax nostalgic about the filmmaker, with whom he was quite close. She interviewed Winters by phone and developed a script from his comments that adhered very closely to his own words. The resulting Winters’ salute was a surprisingly sober, reflective and personal reminiscence. When it comes time for the star to record the narration, as in the case of Winters, leeway is given for the star to go off-script and improvise. “They’ll paraphrase and add their own little things,” Krupinsky said, “and so it almost sounds like it’s off-the-cuff, and a lot of times it is.”

Among new and proposed projects, Krupinsky is now brainstorming ideas to promote TCM’s scheduled Coming of Age theme in October. She would like to get a Matt Dillon or Diane Lane or Reese Witherspoon to host the Coming of Age festival. Another idea she has is to get Dustin Hoffman alone or as part of a reunion of the cast of The Graduate. Other projects she would like to see happen range from a special on the Marx Brothers (she recently interviewed Carl Reiner on that comedy team) to Private Screenings segments with Shirley MacLaine, Elizabeth Taylor, James Coburn and Jerry Lewis. She is also busy thinking of some project that would be a good fit for Steve Martin to host/narrate.

Pitching projects is part of what Krupinsky or any producer does. She feels fortunate having superiors who value her input. “The cool part about my job is that as producers we have a lot to say. It’s not like, ‘Hey, Dena, your next assignment is…’ It’s more like, ‘Hey, Dena, here’s the programming we’re thinking of doing and we want you to come up with ideas.’ I can come back and say, ‘Let’s try this,’ and they’ll say yes or no, but a lot of times they say yes. That’s why I love my job. Like the Lemmon-Matthau Private Screenings. That was mine. I wanted to do something on comedy teams and I thought of Lemmon-Matthau and I did it. And the cool thing is you get to do this stuff with people you’ve always admired and wanted to meet.”

For now, Krupinsky is content at TCM, but she can see herself moving on, perhaps to produce feature-length documentaries. “I think about it all the time and I do feel like I am making a slow progression towards it. I’m doing great stuff now but I always feel like there’s something else I could be doing out there. I don’t want to ever get away from this work. Even if I moved on I still want something to do with Older Hollywood. Right now, though, I’m happy where I am.”

Movie Maven Crawford Celebrates 20 Years of Classic Film Revivals that Bring Hollywood to Omaha, Special Guest Pat Boone to Appear at Screening of ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’

April 19, 2012 3 comments

One of my favorite movies as a kid was the 1959 version of Journey to the Center of the Earth. I’ve seen it all the way through perhaps a handful of times but always on television, which is why I’m looking forward to an upcoming big screen revival of the Jules Verne sci fi adventure in Omaha, Neb. courtesy of film impresario and historian Bruce Crawford.  Omaha has had a spotty hisory when it comes to opportunities for seeing classic films on the big screen.  Aside from the occasional studio re-releases of classics that come here there’s been sporadic commercial and nonprofit screenings of classics, and I was involved with some of these myself as a programmer from the late 1970s through the early 1990s.  When the university, independent, and museum-based film series I worked with went by the wayside in the early 1990s, Crawford was there to pick up the slack. What he’s done over a 20-year period now is give film lovers the chance to see old movies the way they’re meant to be seen, namely on a big screen, but he also takes great pains to make these presentations special events by bringing in cast or crew from the pictures along with reenactors and staging Hollywood premiere-like settings, complete with red carpet and all the trappings.  This, combined with the emergence of the downtown Omaha art cinema Film Streams and its regular repertory series of classics, has given the city a robust classic cinema scene.

 

 

 

 

Movie Maven Crawford Celebrates 20 Years of Classic Film Revivals that Bring Hollywood to Omaha, Special Guest Pat Boone to Appear at Screening of ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Metro Magazine

 

When film impresario Bruce Crawford presents the 1959 big screen version of Journey to the Center of the Earth May 19 with star and special guest Pat Boone he’ll celebrate three milestones.

Legends

The 7 p.m. event at Joslyn Art Museum‘s Witherspoon Concert Hall benefiting the Nebraska Kidney Association marks Crawford’s 20th year of classic film revivals and 30th screening. The program also pays homage to the centenary of the movie’s late great composer, Bernard Herrmann.

Growing up in Nebraska City Crawford developed such a strong affinity for movie music and special effects he cultivated friendships with idol Herrmann and stop motion master Ray Harryhausen. He says he never imagined his film passion “would by my life and career and take me all over the country and the world.”

Boone’s the latest in a long line of legends Crawford’s brought to Omaha, following Harryhausen, Patricia Neal, Janet Leigh and Debbie Reynolds. Crawford’s rep as a movie maven and historian finds him contributing to documentaries and hosting movie music concerts. He and Kim Novak hosted a program at the recent TCM Classic Film Festival in L.A. Always a showman, he puts on the dog at his Omaha events with red carpet, searchlights and reenactors. For Journey he’s arranged for bagpipers in quilts and steampunkers in period costumes and gear to set the mood for the Jules Verne Victorian science fiction tale.

Boone or bust

The ultra square pop singer Boone was under a seven-year 20th Century Fox contact when he refused doing a Marilyn Monroe picture on moral grounds. That’s when the studio compelled him to make Journey. He initially balked, preferring romantic comedies and musicals like his idol Bing Crosby. Besides, sic fi movies were usually cheap, B program fillers then. Under threat of suspension he acquiesced when Fox assured him they planned a big budget production with A-list cast (James Mason) and crew director Henry Levin), plus top billing and backend profits for him.

A script rewrite also gave him a love interest and several songs to perform.

Things worked out for Boone when the Cinemascope Deluxe Color film became a hit. It reportedly kept a struggling Fox solvent.

 

 

A production to remember

Making the epic with its giant sets, exotic locations and esteemed co-stars is well-impressed on Boone’s mind.

“For me working with James Mason and Arlene Dahl was not only a privilege and a highlight but it validated me as a movie actor. It was a tremendous experience but it was a very tough picture to make.”

Among other things, there were several nights shooting in the subterranean reaches of Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. Back at the studio he and his fellow players clung to a mock raft suspended on a soundstage that crew rocked and deluged with water to simulate a raging whirlpool scene. He says the look of panic on Dahl’s face is real.

In one shot Boone came close to being smothered on set when buried in an avalanche of gypsum crystals that covered his mouth and nose, pressing down on him with such weight he couldn’t move. As he struggled to breathe he says he heard director Henry Levin checking, one by one, with the four camera operators to see if they got the shot, but the crystals continued falling. Luckily, he says, someone on a catwalk saw he was in trouble and alerted Levin, who finally called cut, as crewmen rushed to get him out. Another time, Boone says he kicked what he thought was a paper mache rock that turned out to be real and broke his foot.

‘Journey’s’ place fixed, Boone’s Hollywood fling flags

The pains that went into making the film account for its enduring appeal. Crawford says, “The movie endures for several reasons – the music, the art direction, the whole way it was put together, the beautiful sets they created, the full use of the technologies of the time. It’s quite spectacular on the big screen and a lot of fun.”

Boone’s film career faded by the late ’60s. As censorship dissolved and new permissiveness emerged., he found fewer scripts conforming to his conservative Christian beliefs. He’s proud that Journey still holds up and entertains. He’ll speak before the film and sign memorabilia afterwards.

Tickets are $25 and available at area Hy-Vee stores.

 

 

Bruce Crawford

Fabulist Adventures in the Deep Blue Sea: Disney’s 1954 Version ofJules Verne’s ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ Gets the Full Technicolor-Cinemascope Treatment

April 9, 2012 1 comment

My guilty cinema pleasures include plenty of kitsch movies, though over time I have less and less patience and tolerance for these less than great films that enthralled me as a kid but do very little for me as an adult.  The 1954 Disney version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea certainly held my attention when I first saw it on television in the late 1960s.  I have maybe seen it in one sitting a couple times since, but mostly it’s one I’ve caught in bits and pieces in the intervening years.  Any film with Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Paul Lukas, and Peter Lorre has to hold your attention for a minute or two, and then add in the action-adventure and fantasy aspects of the story and one can perhaps overlook its sometimes clunky specal effects.  I missed what may have been my only opportunity to see it on a big screen when Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford presented it a few years ago.  He’s been reviving classics for more than two decades and he has a new program planned for May 19, the 1959 version of Journey to the Center of the Earth, that falls in the same camp as 20,000 Leagues.

 

 

 

 

Fabulist Adventures in the Deep Blue Sea: Disney’s 1954 Version of Jules Verne‘s ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ Gets the Full Technicolor-Cinemascope Treatment                                       

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Sure, one can quibble with some of Bruce Crawford’s selections for his now semi-annual film revival events. The Omaha promoter’s picks are not all classics for one thing. Two of his last three screenings — the creaky 1960 The Time Machine and the 1997 bloater Titanic — don’t compare with the stellar, stand-the-test-of-time cinema of, say, West Side Story or The Misfits or The Searchers, all of which he’s presented in recent years. But, like all show people, Crawford has a nearly unerring sense for putting on the dog. His newest foray into extravaganza is a December 17 unreeling of the wide screen spectacle 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Disney’s 1954 film version of the speculative Jules Verne adventure yarn

Working his Hollywood contacts as usual, Crawford’s secured a restored print of the Cinemascope and Technicolor film from the Disney vaults for the Omaha showing at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. The film is the main attraction for another boffo Crawford program, beginning at 7 p.m., that in addition to the flick will feature reenactors in Victorian splendor, a live theater organ performance of music from the film and special guests.

The one-night only screening is a benefit for the National Kidney Foundation of Nebraska.

 

 

You won’t find 20,000 Leagues on any all-time Best list. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a richly entertaining romp. There’s enough going on to please all but the most discriminating viewer. For starters, the story imagines — from Verne’s amazingly visionary 19th century perspective — a host of technological advances. At the center of it all is the fictional submarine the Nautilus, whose limitless diving feats are fueled by a revolutionary power source that modern audiences can only interpret as nuclear-based. Mistaken for a leviathan serpent from the deep, it surfaces to wreak havoc on war ships at the bidding of its creator, Captain Nemo, an inventor turned militant political activist and seafaring terrorist.

With its cold metal hull and soft upholstered interior, Crawford said, the ship makes a striking visual contrast between the Victorian period’s harshness and plushiness. It even has a pipe organ on which Nemo, in scenes reminiscent of The Phantom of the Opera, plays Bach’s “Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor.”

The vessel’s brilliant but bitter skipper, played by James Mason, is bent both on revenge and on a punitive mission to end the war-making ways of the world. Brooding Mason’s Nemo dominates the film and, in true mad scientist tradition, he’s a figure to be feared, revered and pitied all at once. The haunted Nemo’s rather sketchy back story is the impetus for his reign of terror, as we learn his family was killed by mercenary forces seeking the secrets behind the amazing energy that powers his futuristic submarine and underwater domain. Nemo, Crawford said, is “a tortured soul brilliantly realized by Mason.”

The post-World War II story opens with a U.S. naval expedition being launched to investigate reports of “a monster” attacking and sinking ships on the open sea. The expedition is led by a professor Arronax, his assistant Conseil and harpooner Ned Land, a survivor of a ship wrecked by the Nautilus. When the expedition team’s ship is rammed and sunk by what they at first believe to be the “monster,” Arronax, Conseil and Land are rescued by the Nautilus crew. The hostages soon learn they are aboard a man-made vessel, meet the mad genius behind it and witness the wonders of underwater voyaging, deep sea diving and ocean farming.

 

 

 

 

As Ned Land, virile Kirk Douglas hams it up as a singing, dancing, guitar-strumming mariner who plots to escape the sub. He’s the heroic, swashbuckling antithesis to Nemo’s ruthless radical. Bug-eyed Peter Lorre cracks wise as the comic relief Conseil. Earnest Paul Lukas is the idealistic Arronax in awe of Nemo. A pet sea dog, Esmeralda, steals scenes. Oscar-winning special effects and art direction bring the ocean floor to life, capture the destruction of ships targeted by Nemo and realize a climatic battle between the Nautilus and a giant squid. As if that’s not enough, anointing the action is the Disney studio’s seal of family approved entertainment.

Disney, still a newcomer then to live-action films, spared no expense bringing the 1870 Jules Verne novel to life. Originally conceived as another animation feature, company head Walt Disney was convinced by some of his studio artists and technicians that the film could work as a live-action project. To undertake a live-action film of such visionary scale, however, meant animation-based Disney had to out-source many human talents and resources, including renting 20th Century Fox’s back lot water tanks. Known for his demanding, meticulous attention to detail, Disney and his production chiefs assembled a veteran Hollywood crew and cast and gave them a long leash that he only occasionally felt compelled to rein in.

Using full-scale models, as well as miniatures, matte paintings, rear screen projection and animation, Disney threw everything into the making of 20,000 Leagues. The Nautilus seen in the film was built to scale — reaching 200 feet in length. The squid, constructed of rubber, springs, tubing and plastic, had tentacles 40 feet long. A crew of dozens worked the squid’s remote control movements.

According to Crawford, early footage of the squid’s duel with the Nautilus was a disaster Uncle Walt himself nixed. “It was horrifically bad. It looked like Ed Wood with a big budget. They filmed a sunset sequence in bright light. The squid was wrong. It just didn’t work. They wanted to keep it from being optical. Stop motion would have been perfect, but they wanted to make it full size. They were building Disneyland at the same time this film was being made and of course it became famous for its Animatronics, and that’s what they wanted to utilize,” Crawford said.

 

 

The final squid sequence, he said, “was filmed at night during a heavy storm. It works perfectly. It holds up just as good today as it did then. The squid was full size and all controlled through hydraulics and wires and such. It was clever of them to film it at night during a hurricane-like storm because it adds to the eeriness and the fear factor and, of course, it masks any possible flaws in the visuals.” For a purist like Crawford, the old-school special effects rule. “Well, they hold up, don’t they? It’s not CGI (computer generated images). It’s tactile. It’s organic. You can see it and touch it. I mean, two TV films (of 20,000 Leagues) were made. They bombed. You can’t remake a classic. It just doesn’t work, especially one like that. You can’t out-Disney Disney — even with today’s technology.”

Underwater and beach scenes were filmed off Jamaica and the Bahamas. When all was said and done, 20,000 Leagues supposedly owned the biggest production budget for any film up to that time. Matching the production values, Disney signed an “A” list cast. Douglas and Mason were at the height of their fame. Lukas and Lorre were top character players. After a string of highly-regarded “B” film noirs for RKO (Bodyguard, Armored Car Robbery, The Narrow Margin), Richard Fleischer was commissioned to direct the picture and displayed a flair for the fantastic that he would brandish again with such later pics as The Vikings and Fantastic Voyage.

That Fleischer was entrusted with Disney’s first foray into Cinemascope, the super wide screen format that became the tail that wagged Hollywood’s dog in the ’50s, is interesting since his previous work had mainly been with back alley crime tales. But his effective use of small spaces and instinctive handling of suspense action may have been just what Disney was looking for, said Crawford. “Disney wanted to treat the film like a prison breakout story. It’s very clever. It works.”

Indeed, the film largely plays out on the Nautilus, whose mates, we learn, are former prisoners who broke out of bondage with Nemo, only to become hunted outlaws in his service. When Ned Land and company are taken as hostages, they see both the danger and the promise that Nemo and his new technology pose. When they try and fail to get him to end the attacks and to share his discoveries with the world, they hatch an escape plan. The drama then becomes a race against time. Will the hostages escape before the megalomaniacal Nemo self-destructs?

Crawford said what Hollywood producer-director George Pal did for H.G. Wells with his ’50s production of War of the Worlds, Walt Disney did for Jules Verne with 20,000 Leagues. The success of 20,000 Leagues “certainly was a breakthrough” in paving the way for future adaptations of Verne works, including Around the World in 80 Days, Journey to the Center of the Earth and Mysterious Island, the film that first stirred Crawford’s passion for film.

“It set that template for the ones that successfully followed it,” he said. “It ranks at the very top in that genre because it was not only the first, but because Disney spent so much time and effort and money on it to make it the best. Disney wouldn’t settle for anything but the best.”

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