Archive for Nicolas Roeg

Plasterworks of the cinema

Posted in FILM, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , on September 2, 2016 by dcairns

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Last week I had the great pleasure of interviewing production designer Leslie Dilley on the set of kids’ TV show Teacup Travels. Les designed James Cameron’s THE ABYSS, and as art director worked on Richard Lester’s THE THREE MUSKETEERS/THE FOUR MUSKETEERS, as well as STAR WARS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, ALIEN, SUPERMAN… not to mention his being one of the whistlers in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, which is the one that made my jaw drop.

The interview was fun, but the conversation afterwards was even better — of course, I wasn’t recording that. But Les relaxed and told a couple of stories of mishaps, both ironically centered around the craft speciality that was his entrée into the film business — plastering. And both involving Gene Hackman movies.

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On LUCKY LADY (Stanley Donen, 1975), Les was working with his mentor Norman Reynolds, and had the job of preparing sheeted several corpses which had to be flung off the side of a boat. I’m not sure if this scene made it into the movie, as I gather three different endings were shot. Les prepared nine or ten chickenwire frames and plastered them over to make good, realistically heavy corpses. But he was rather worried that the Mexican extras who had to commit these remains to the sea might not by hefty enough to actually get them over the side — they were all quite little fellows.

Donen called action and Les hid below-decks, listening nervously. Splash. Splash. He began to relax — evidently the diminutive Hispanic seamen were managing their task with aplomb. Splash. Splash. Then — disaster — sudden hilarity. Generally the very effect you want to avoid in a funeral at sea.

Rushing on deck, Les learned the cause of the laughter — the plaster corpses were bobbing to the surface, one after the other. Despite being extremely heavy, they all contained enough air to be buoyant, something Les had never learned at school.

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The laws of physics will trip the filmmaker up every time. Les ended up skipping RETURN OF THE JEDI to do EUREKA, since he was very interested in working with Nic Roeg. For this movie, he built a tree that Gene Hackman has to sit under in the Klondyke. The tree was constructed at a studio in Vancouver and shipped up north to the snowy climes for assembly on location. All the branches slotted into the trunk perfectly, according to Les’s prepared diagram, and Les secured them with plaster and scrim, working in progressively colder sub-zero temperatures as the evening wore on. They were absolutely solid when he left.

But then he got a call. Gene Hackman had been filmed at his little prospector’s campfire under the tree, and had narrowly escaped being brained by a falling plaster branch.

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What had happened was that as the temperature got insanely low, the plaster had stopped bonding, since the water content of it would freeze before the plaster was dry. This ice would have still done the job and held the branches in place, probably securely enough for people to climb the tree if they’d wanted, except that the heat from Hackman’s fire had risen up the tree and started them thawing.

The lesson: people on movies are always doing strange things under pressure of time, such as building plaster trees in arctic conditions, and this is exactly how accidents happen… and it’s the things you know perfectly well how to do that will suddenly turn treacherous in these circumstances.

 

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The Mystery of the Panting Schoolgirls

Posted in FILM with tags , , on June 6, 2016 by dcairns

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So what’s going on here?

Let me backtrack. Revisiting Nic Roeg’s early, funny ones is always surprising because I find myself seeing things I hadn’t seen before — usually because the BBC censored them. WALKABOUT is a case in point. I knew it had a big long nude swim by teenage Jenny Agutter, but I didn’t recall how fervidly interested in her knickers the director clearly was. It’s upskirt all the way when Roeg’s about.

But the films are certainly great, and intriguing. Full of mysteries. WALKABOUT begins in typical elliptical fashion, with that perfect brick wall tracking shot which will eventually come back and take us out into the outback. And then there’s a classroom full of panting schoolgirls.

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I get false memory syndrome every time I see this. I was a school kid in the seventies, you see, and I keep thinking I remember doing this, that I know what it is, that it’s not just some bollocks Roeg invented to weird us out and make us look at schoolgirls panting. Is it breathing exercises for a language class or something, or yogic exercises (“Start every day with a breath of fire!”) Later, they hum “Mmmmm!” and chant “A-E-I-O-U” so I’m guessing the ritual is linguistic in purpose.

I don’t necessarily want you to write in with boring answers. Sometimes an interesting mystery is preferable. But on the other hand… I am curious.

Litter Louts

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , on December 14, 2015 by dcairns

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Richard Lester has said “Someone should teach a class on film openings,” pointing out that this is where the director is often most free to lay out the themes of the film without the pressure of narrative.

The making of A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM was a running battle between Lester and his producer, Melvin Frank, an old-school Hollywood type. Frank couldn’t comprehend the idea of Lester shooting a musical without a camera crane, refused to let him hire a screenwriter to rewrite the script (Lester eventually did it himself with Nic Roeg, his cinematographer), wrote a long memo explaining exactly why the film must and should contain a water ballet on the theme of “flags of all nations” (Lester framed this and hung it in his bathroom), and eventually locked some of the footage in a vault to prevent it being incorporated in the edit.

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Reading all this in Neil Sinyard’s critical study of Lester, I surmised that the title sequence of the film, climaxing in a collision between two Roman litters, with the producer’s name superimposed over one and the director’s over another, was a sly comment on the fraught nature of their “collaboration.” The first time I met Lester I congratulated him on this.

“No. That wasn’t intentional.”

Chalk up another victory for the power of the unconscious mind.

Titles are by Richard Williams. Editing is by John Victor-Smith. Perhaps it was their idea. The sequence is rather remarkable for the way it shuffles Zero Mostel introducing the story direct to camera (with song), Zero Mostel conducting a crooked game of dice (the start of the story itself), cutaway portraits of the dramatis personae as they are introduced, documentary shots snatched of extras who Lester had actually living in the set, flashforwards of highlights to come (so that the movie contains its own preview of coming attractions), and deleted footage that doesn’t appear in the movie at all (perhaps rescued from Frank’s safe?). Lester told me there wasn’t any more footage of Buster Keaton than appears in the movie, but there are a couple of tiny, suggestive moments here…