Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Being There with Hal Ashby

    Hal Ashby was going to direct my screenplay of Tom Robbins' Another Roadside Attraction, starring Richard Dreyfuss, Robin Williams, Treat Williams, Brooke Adams, and Penelope Milford, with John Belushi as the Pope. I'd been making constant trips out to Malibu when one day he called me out to his house to discuss the script. "Did I ever tell you how I got to direct my first film?" he asked. He proceeded to tell me.
    Norman Jewison was set to direct The Landlord. Right before shooting, he decided not to direct the picture. "Have my editor Hal direct the film" he told the money men. Hal had been his editor on The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!, The Thomas Crown Affair, and In the Heat of the Night, for which he won an Oscar. The producers were forced into a corner so they bit their lips and went with Hal, which turned out to be a wise choice. Hal did a great job, brought the film in on budget, and turned in an incredible film. His next, Harold and Maude, became a cult classic.
    "I'm telling you this," Hal went on, "because I want you to know that I'm going to do the same thing for you on this picture."
    "What do you mean?" I said.

    "I mean I'm not going to show up on the first day of shooting, and I'm going to recommend that you direct the picture."

    "You mean we're committing fraud?" I asked.

    He thought for a second. "Yep, I guess so."

    Of course this was a dream come true, but I pointed out to Hal that I really didn't have any idea how to direct a movie. "Don't worry," he said. "It's easy. I'll teach you." For the next two months, I went to Hal's house every weekend and he gave me my own personal, one-on-one, master's course on how to direct movies.

    Then he died, and it all became clear. Obviously he knew he was dying, and this was his way of passing on the mantle. A lot of good it did me. The high profile actors we had were suddenly not interested in working with a first time director when they had only signed on to work with Hal Ashby. And the producers were REAL interested in my tall tale of how Hal was planning on handing it over to me anyway. The project fell apart and still hasn't gotten made. Here's my treatment for the film.
    Hal's way of teaching me was to tell me stories of how his films got made. During one of our many conversations, he casually mentioned that he had saved every single take of every shot of the film Being There on videotape. I asked him why. "Because I think future film students should be able to put together their own edits of the film" he replied.

    Ten years after his death, I began wondering whatever happened to those tapes. I called Hal's ex-business manager, Larry Reynolds, who told me there was a storage locker they might be in. He put me in contact with Hal's frequent collaborator Pablo Ferro, and we arranged to meet there. In the back of the locker, there was a trunk that we opened. It was full of 3/4 inch tapes all marked Being There. We were overjoyed. I grabbed the first couple tapes to view and we agreed to talk later.

    The tapes wouldn't play in my deck, or the 3/4 decks of anyone I knew, so I called my friend Craig Rosen at the UCLA Film and Television Archives and asked if maybe he could help. I went there and the tapes played perfectly on one of his specially modified players. It turned out the tapes were recorded at 24 frames per second instead of the normal 30 for video. The tapes consisted entirely of the television shows and commercials that appeared on TVs throughout the film of Being There. They were at 24 FPS so they would be in synch with the film cameras. When you see TVs flicker in films, it's because the video is running at 30 FPS while the film is running at 24.
    Pablo and I went back to the storage locker and found that all the tapes in the case were the same. We had found all the video feeds for the film, but no tapes of the film itself. Back to square one.

    Larry remembered that Hal's brother also had a storage locker that contained some of Hal's stuff. It took a bit of arranging, but we eventually got access to THAT locker, and we hit the jackpot. It was full of boxes of tapes. We found dozens of tapes of interviews with Vietnam veterans that Hal did in preparation for filming Coming Home. Apparently at one point, they were considering cutting them throughout the film.

    We opened up one case and there they were, hundreds of tapes marked Being There. I took one from the top, one from the middle, and one from the bottom, and headed to UCLA to check them out.

    They were the real thing. Every take of every shot of the film, and not just bad B&W from the video feed either, but pristine color copies from the film dailies.

    Watching them was a revelation. I've never learned more about the art of film directing than I did by watching how Hal allowed some scenes to grow better take after take. Hal had told me that his average shooting ratio was 20 to 1, and we've all heard how directors like Kubrick do hundreds of takes of the same shot. And I've always wondered why it was really necessary. If Hitchcock could do it in one take, what was the problem?

    These tapes answered that question. In take one of one shot, Peter Sellers exchanged dialogue in a hallway with another actor while extras walked past. The first take seemed perfectly fine. The second take the extras came by a little bit differently and it actually worked better. The third take, the extras were a little bit different, one bumped into Sellers, who improvised a line to the other actor, who responded with the same line as the other takes. The fourth take, Ashby had obviously told Sellers to say the same improvised line, and the other actor had prepared a more appropriate response that was pretty funny, which threw Sellers for a loop. The fifth take, the extras were just right, the first improv line was perfect, the response was perfect, and Sellers had a response to the response that was perfect. For the next ten takes, they tried to repeat the magic of the fifth take but couldn't. The fifth was the one in the film.

    After going through the three tapes, I realized that Hal was right, these tapes were the perfect teaching tool for editors. I was ready myself to start putting together my own version of the film.

    We put the first tape back in the player to look at it again, but we discovered to our horror that it was now full of white noise. The tapes were so old that after only one playing, the magnetic particles were coming off the tape. We stopped playing it, realizing that if we wanted to look at any more of the tapes, we'd have to do a transfer to another medium on the very first viewing.
    I wrote up a proposal for Rosen to try to get up money to do the transfers, but the project is problematic. Hal's dead, Kosinski's dead, Sellers is dead, Lorimar is dead. UCLA could get away with using the tapes for purely non-profit educational purposes, but any hope of actually releasing a MAKE YOUR OWN BEING THERE CD-ROM is a rights nightmare, so there's really not much hope of getting back any invested seed money.

    Rosen told me that Peter Guber, who is a big supporter of the Archives, is a big fan of Being There and might pick up the tab for doing the first transfers just so we can look at the rest of the tapes. So far, he hasn't, and neither has anyone else. This was ten years ago. The tapes are still sitting there in Hal's brother's storage locker.
    Here is the original proposal...
        You put the CD-ROM of Being There into your player and the movie starts playing in the format of it's original theatrical release. The only difference between this and a videotape of the film is the small row of computer icons at the bottom of the screen, items you can click on with your mouse at any point in the action. These icons appear and disappear throughout the picture depending upon whether their function is applicable to what's going on in the film. (i.e. Shirley Maclaine's icon only appears during her scenes)
        Click on the book icon and read the scene from Jerzy Kosinski's original book that the concurrent scene in the movie is based on.
        Click on the script icon and read the same scene from Kosinski's original unused screenplay.
        Click on yet another icon and read the same scene from Robert C. Jones final shooting script.
        The ALT icon lets you see any alternative takes that director Hal Ashby may have shot of the scene.
        Click on any alternative scene and see the film with the new scene inserted.
        Click. See an interview with the editor of the film, Don Zimmerman, explaining why Hal made this particular editing decision.
        Click on jack Warden's head and see an interview with him concerning the current scene.
        At any point in the film, if you double click on any icon, you will see all that's available in that category.
        Hear all the actors or editor's or photographer's comments on the film, individually, in chronological order. Hear something interesting during their segment, click on the film icon, and see the scene they're talking about.
        Go back to the comments, or continue watching the film, or reading the book. While reading the book, click on an icon and hear the production designer, Michael Haller, explain the challenges of designing that scene.
        Compare Kosinski's description of the scene in his book with his description of the scene in his screenplay. Compare the production sketches with the final set.
        Look at alternative takes of any shot, pick the ones you like, and see how the film works with your choices. Save your edit throughout the film and watch your own version of Being There.

    How the "Walking on Water" Shot in Being There
    Actually Got Made

        The script for Being There ends as both Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine take walks in the wood. They run into each other. She says "I was looking for you, Chance." He says "I was looking for you too." They take hands and walk off together.
        But near the end of production, somebody went up to Hal and said "How's it going?"
        "Great," Hal said. "Sellers has created this character that's so amazing, I could have him walk on water and people would believe it." Hal stopped and thought. "As a matter of fact, I will have him walk on water."
        Hal was out on location, miles from Hollywood. The last thing on earth he needed was to contact the home office to discuss the idea of Chance walking on water. It's an idea that wouldn't pitch or read well. If it had been in the script, there would have been endless arguments over what this Jesus allegory was doing in the picture. Only if you've actually seen the film do you realize that it's not a Jesus allegory at all. Chance can walk on water because nobody ever told him he couldn't, not because he's the resurrection of Christ.
        Hal knew he could make it work, just as he knew that there was no way in hell the studio would approve of more money for such a controversial shot that wasn't even in the script. He decided to do it anyway.
        First, he called Robert Downey, who had a scene in Greaser's Palace where the main character walked on water. Hal knew that Downey didn't have a lot of money, so he asked for advice on how to do it. Downey told him it was simple. Just go to an airport, get a certain kind of platform, and place it in the water. Hal followed Downey's advise and got the shot for less than $10,000.
        Second, he had to deal with keeping the shot a secret. There was this one, very well dressed kid around the set who was officially called a PA, but whom Hal suspected of being the studio spy. Hal called him into his office and read him the riot act.
        "I'm going to ask you to make a decision right now that's going to affect the rest of your life," he told the kid. "I'm going to ask you to decided whose side you're on. I know you've been watching me because you want to learn how to make movies. I also know you're watching me to make reports to the studio behind my back. I'm about to change the end of this movie because I've come up with a better one. The studio can't know about it or they'll shut me down. This is it, kid. Decide. Are you on the side of art or commerce?"
        The kid kept his mouth shut. The shot got made. The studio was pissed but they used the shot anyway. Hal didn't give them a choice. He didn't even shoot the ending in the script.
    Why the Film was Released with Two Different Endings

        Hal always wanted to use a series of outtakes for the final credits. Obviously that's one of the things you have to do at the last minute, because until the final edit is locked down you don't know what the outtakes are. So Hal handed in the film with the final credits over a compilation of TV commercials just to get the film in on deadline, then got to work on the outtakes ending.
        When he tried to hand it in, the studio refused to accept it or send it out. The film opened small, to just a half dozen theaters. Hal personally went to each theater, went to the projection booth, knocked on the door and said to the projectionist "Hi, I'm Hal Ashby, the director of the film. The studio put in the wrong ending, but I've got the right one with me. How about if we edit it in?" The projectionists were all thrilled to meet him and gladly helped him out.
        When the studio found out, they got the last laugh. Hal's contract specifically stated that he was to be paid his director's fee "upon proper delivery of a completed film." They didn't consider receiving a film with two endings "proper delivery," and they used that as an excuse not to pay him. Years later, Hal told me he still hadn't gotten paid for directing Being There.

        And the "outtakes" ending is the only one currently available.

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