Archive for Robert Powell

Not Acting But Drowning

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Sport with tags , , , , , , on November 14, 2017 by dcairns

I remember being disappointed by Ken Russell’s book Directing Film when it came out. Picking it up again, I was more impressed, but I could still see what bothered me originally — unlike the Lumet and Mackendrick books, which are masterpieces of the genre, Russell divides himself between general knowledge stuff about who does what on a film set — this stuff is suitable for precocious children interested in getting into the movies — and amusing anecdotes from his distinguished career. This is the stuff I enjoyed this time, because Mad Ken tells a great yarn (see below). But there’s so much the book doesn’t cover — the chapter on shooting says nothing about camera placement, camera movement, lighting, which is all stuff Russell knew about and did brilliantly, in collaboration with such cinematographers as Dick Bush, Billy Williams, Douglas Slocombe, David Watkin, Peter Suschitzky, Jordan Cronenweth… Only Ken could tell us how he approached actually filming those musical numbers, nun orgies, peyote trips… the editor should have insisted he write about this.

But the anecdotes are terrific, and some even teach valuable lessons, though what you take away from the one coming up depends on you and your moral compass. Ken has just finished telling us how me made the mistake of casting an actress in a supporting role for THE MUSIC LOVERS, without having heard her speak. She had a strong Canadian accent so he ended up cutting all her lines. We’re on to MAHLER. Now read on ~

Even so, the experience taught me to be well on my guard in future and to take an actor’s talents according to his CV with a large pinch of salt. Nevertheless such is the cunning of the average thespian that they are able to slip through one’s defences and pull a fast one. After all, they are ‘actors’ and learn their survival techniques from an early age, as I found to my cost on Mahler.

Casting the young Gustav was a bit of a problem owing to the fact that he had to ride, swim and play the piano. Most of the boys I auditioned could manage two out of three, but finding a contender who could handle the lot proved difficult. Finally I settled for Gary-someone-or-other, who assured me he was fine so far as his athletic abilities were concerned, but was a bit rusty on the piano. I watched him play and thought if I ever made a film of Frankenstein’s monster as a young piano prodigy, I need look no further than Gary. However, he read his lines well and looked remarkably like Robert Powell, who was playing Mahler the man. I should have remembered my experience on the Tchaikovsky film and been warned.

So, on the understanding that he practised the piano every day, I hired him. After all, he only had to play scales and I assumed he could manage that with ease. He was a bright boy, keen as Coleman’s, and desperate to do the part.

I stopped worrying and got caught up in the hurly-burly of pre-production, but still managed to phone him from time to time to see how he was progressing. Gary was never there; he was always down at the baths, according to his mother, who added reassuringly that the piano tuition was coming on fine. I guess I should have smelt a rat — a water rat — but I had far greater problems to sort out and missed the obvious.

What should have been obvious became horrifyingly so on choppy Derwentwater five weeks later. We had reached the point in the schedule where the young Mahler, wishing to show off to his school chums, attempts to demonstrate that he is as at home in the water as they are, by plunging into the chilly waters of the lake in  foolhardy attempt to swim across it. In the event he only manages a few yards before getting into difficulties and being ignominiously rescued.

So, imagine the scene. There we are, with me and my camera crew in a boat moored a little offshore, and young Gary poised on the water’s edge in his underwear ready to plunge in, swim into close-up, become exhausted, and start to drown. After a few seconds of this I’d say ‘cut’, and he’d be hauled safely on board. Everyone knew exactly what was expected of them and we were all keyed up for the take, when Gary’s forlorn little voice was caught up by the wind and whipped across the choppy waters towards me.

‘Mr Russell,’ he shouted through cupped hands. ‘I’ve got a confession to make… I lied to you, I can’t swim! I can only manage a few strokes.’ So that’s why he was always down at the baths when he should have been practising the piano, I thought, before shouting back at him.

‘Never mind, Gary, just do your best, swim out a few strokes — you needn’t even get out of your depth and then pretend to get into difficulties.’

‘But Mr Russell, I don’t want to, I’m scared.’

‘Nonsense! You can do it if you try,’ I shouted back with a touch of steel in my voice. ‘Ready now — roll camera, action!’

It’s amazing how that word ‘ACTION’ galvanizes the mind. Shout ‘Action’ through a loud hailer with command and conviction and you can get a ten-stone weakling to move mountains and pigs to fly. Even our Gary was galvanized sufficiently to wade into the water and take the plunge, for all the world like a cross-channel record breaker. He got all of three yards, started blubbing, and waded shivering and snivelling back to shore. This was disastrous. Defeat was staring us in the face. True, we’d got him in the water and starting to swim, but that was all in long shot. We still needed a few shots in close-up of him swimming and getting into difficulties. And the drowning scene was crucial to the film — we simply had to have it.

‘Great, Gary, we’ve got it,’ I shouted. ‘Now just jump in and we’ll row you out here to discuss the next scene before the light goes.’ He wasn’t happy, but before he could object an assistant director had bundled him into a boat and started rowing.

‘Here, Gary, let me give you a hand,’ I said as he was brought alongside. Trustingly he did so, whereupon I sort of lost my balance and poor Gary was hurled into the deep — as both boats pulled away from him like mad and the camera, primed for the crucial moment, purred into action. And what do you know? Gary managed to swim half a dozen strong strokes before giving up the ghost. It was the most convincing drowning scene I have ever seen on screen. The little bugger couldn’t ride a horse either — so we tied him to te saddle and whipped the stallion into a gallop — only kidding! HONEST!

Gary Rich was the young actor. He didn’t immediately take early retirement after this rough treatment, as I had feared, and was actually cast by Russell again in TOMMY the following year. A land-based role, thankfully. The following year he DID pack it in, but it doesn’t look like MAHLER was the deciding factor. Looking at the shots, I’m not quite convinced it happened the way Russell remembered it, which may be a relief to some of you.

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