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Exclusive Excerpt: The Film Crew of Hollywood by James Udel

posted by Nell Minow

I am thrilled to be able to share with you exclusive excerpts from one of the best books ever to take you behind the scenes in film production — The Film Crew of Hollywood: Profiles of Grips, Cinematographers, Designers, a Gaffer, a Stuntman and a Makeup Artist by James Udel.  I am deeply grateful to Mr. Udel for speaking with me, for allowing me to publish this excerpt, and most of all for interviewing these unsung heroes of Hollywood.

William Fraker, Cinematographer

the professionalsThe notion of ‘following one’s instincts’ was first put to the test when Bill Fraker was hired by Hall to operate camera on the 1966 classic adventure western, The Professionals, helmed by a gritty, workhorse of a director, Richard Brooks.  When asked about the picture, Billy smiled broadly while remembering his first (and nearly his last) conversation with the old-school director.  About a week into the shooting schedule, a large complicated scene took place involving an Army train with dozens of troop extras and horsemen positioned around the tracks and platform cars.  While shooting the intricate sequence with its secondary focus of a woman riding on horseback through frame, Fraker became fixated with a lucky accident.  Upon holding a pan shot on actress Claudia Cardinale, (instead of cutting away after a three second beat as Brooks had instructed him to do), he was questioned by the livid Director at scene’s end.  “What the hell did you do that for?”  Brooks roared into Fraker’s serene face.  “Because it was so damn beautiful,” Billy replied candidly.  “It better be,” the Director said, turning and walking away.  Certain that he was going to be fired (and fearing for his situation with Hall), on the following day Fraker was surprised to be invited into the screening room, as Brooks’ habit was to share dailies with as few folks as possible.  In addition to directing, Brooks also wrote brilliant scripts for pictures such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, In Cold Blood, Blackboard Jungle, and Elmer Gantry, in 1960 (for which he won an Oscar for best screenplay).  A tough ex-Marine (and no one to fool with by reputation), when the take in question was shown during dailies (with its hold on Cardinale and the horse, neck high flowing through the frame), Brooks had the projectionist in the back of his hotel room stop the machine.  “Fraker,” he began sternly, “you were right to stay on her.  Your shot was better.  Would you like to see dailies with us from now on?”

 Gaylin Schultz, Key Grip

thomas crown mcqueenGaylin’s biggest break in Tinseltown occurred when called by Jack Reddish to take over Key Grip duties on the Thomas Crown Affair, after Morris Rosen (of High Noon and Man with a Golden Arm fame), suffered a fatal heart attack during the first week’s filming.  A case of one man’s misfortune being another’s ‘window of opportunity’ (an often repeated theme of advancement in Filmberg), Schultz was engaged at the suggestion of the movie’s producer, Walter Mirisch; who fondly recalled his heroic action from How To Murder Your Wife a few years earlier.

His first day on the film was a challenge that would mirror much of his career success to come.  Tasked with staging a set of moving shots in an open field featuring a Schweizer SGS-1 sailplane for the picture’s opening montage, the images required fly-by coverage of the sleek machine swooping low over the horizon, and then rapidly descending into a graceful landing, with McQueen and Faye Dunaway exiting the craft at scene’s end.  Told to relax by Rosen’s remaining grips, (who resented the outsider taking over), Schultz was informed that the shot was already worked out by their boss.  Patiently, he watched in horror as a Honda motorcycle (carrying an operator sitting backwards with a hand-held Arriflex camera), attempted to get the shot, but failed miserably with a dozen takes of unusable footage.  Rapidly falling behind his shooting schedule with nothing in the can for his morning’s work, Cinematographer Haskell Wexler thought he had the solution when getting producer Norman Jewison to secure a Cadillac convertible for use as a camera-car; crouching in the cavernous back seat, shooting the sailplane handheld.  Again the results were poor as the heavy vehicle fishtailed worse than the Honda at half the speed.  Finally calling lunch without a single printable take, the mood in the chow line was less then festive.  Approaching Jack Reddish and Jewison for permission to work on an idea during lunch, (instead of eating with the still glum grips), Schultz borrowed a heavy-duty 6 by 6 wheeled Military work-truck from transportation (known as Hanks Helper to the electricians), originally used for laying  power cable in rough terrain locations.  Removing the passenger seat first and mounting a camera in its place, Gaylin and the one grip who agreed to help, John Bearsdick, rigged two stout tow-arms from the rear of the trucks vertical A-frame, then attached the glider to them, keeping the support hardware out of the shot.  Allowing for speeds in excess of 40 miles an hour before the towed glider would buck to become airborne, Schultz’s cobbled together process trailer gave them the shot they wanted without the complications of multiple vehicles.  Although ungainly in appearance, Wexler’s initial skepticism was quickly replaced with thanks after seeing the set-up through a lens. “If it hadn’t worked,” Gaylin chuckled, “I think I would have been on the next plane back home.  But as it happened,” he continued, “That one shot kind of made me; for the rest of the movie, I was walking on water, so to speak.

In addition to impressing producers Jewison and Mirisch with his ability to get the job done, Gaylin Schultz also made an impression on Steve McQueen who would ultimately be instrumental in hiring him for some of the most important films in his career. Recalling a moment of bonding between the two men (who both loved the mechanics of machinery and fast automobiles), Schultz said he was installing a camera mount on a Ferrari 275 GTS Spyder that Faye Dunaway drove in the picture (later purchased by McQueen), when the actor walked up and began observing him carefully padding all the straps and hardware which might come into contact with the pricy sport car’s paint job. After watching Gaylin in silence for a few moments McQueen said, “Christ Schultz, you’re an artist!”   Possibly the start of their friendship, he said the talented actor trusted him implicitly from that day forward to do things right.

 

 



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