SPECIAL: First Day First Film

Monday, October 16, 2017

So the first episode that you directed called JOHNNY TEMPLE, DR. KILDARE, your first time directing a filmed television show, what was that like for you, stepping out the first day on the set?

That question was asked 6 years ago in my Archive of American Television interview (http://www.emmytvlegends.org/interviews/people/ralph-senensky) and I realize now my answer did not dig deep enough into the inner feelings I was having that day. That interview was conducted about 5 months after I started writing this website, and the time on this website visiting those past years has given me an objective perspective and understanding of what at that time was very subjective and intuitive. I now know that my film directing covered 3 areas: (1) actors, (2) camera and (3) editing. The first area, ‘actors’, I was acquainted with and comfortable doing. In the 13 years between my graduation from the Pasadena Playhouse and my virgin venture at MGM I had directed 45 stage productions, but I realized there was an enormous difference between stage and film. Almost all of those theatre productions I had rehearsed for SIX WEEKS! Intense work on individual scenes and then putting them all together in sequence! Television had a reputation for not having time to rehearse. I was determined to make the time. More importantly as I entered Stage 11 for my first day, I knew that each and every scene scheduled that day needed to be in the can when we wrapped at 7:00 pm that evening.

The other two, ‘camera’ and ‘editing’, were related. It’s what you put on the film in the camera when you shoot that went onto the editor’s Moviola for him to assemble into the film. And I admit, there I was half self-assured. I knew what each of my shots should look like. I just wasn’t as confident as to how they would edit. I was most concerned with my first scene on my first day’s work. It was a long 4-page scene in Dr. Gillespie’s office, so during my preparation week I did something about my concern. I knew that Jack Kampschroer, one of our three film editors, was going to be editing my film. I knew him well. I had been in and out of his editing room for the past 5½ months. So in my director’s script I did my homework on that scene. I carefully blocked the action with the 5 actors involved and described in detail all 12 of the camera setups. I then took it to Jack to have him okay it – 4 TIMES. That’s right! Each evening that week I would change my mind, redo it and take the revised plan to him for his approval the following day. His grin as he approved widened with each assessment.

The morning I was to start filming I arose early. I had set the alarm clock, but I was awake long before it rang. I drove to the studio in Culver City as I had been doing the 5½ months I had been on staff as Assistant to Producer Herbert Hirschman, but this morning was different. During that earlier time I would drive my Renault Dauphine onto the MGM parking lot across the street from the Thalberg Building and adjacent to the studio entrance. On my way onto the lot I would greet guard Ken Hollywood and then I would enter the first building on the left that housed our production office. This morning I didn’t turn onto the parking lot. I drove straight ahead, through the entrance, waving to Ken as I passed, and slowly wended my way past the gray buildings that housed the soundstages to Stage 11, where I parked in an assigned space marked DIRECTOR.

I don’t think I can express what I was feeling. I wonder if you can understand how unreal it was to me, born in the 1920’s, a time when the world, our country were so much larger. MGM wasn’t at the west end of the continent. It was a fantasyland in another universe. I had never imagined that what was happening for me could happen. I’m not sure I believed it even as I parked my car and entered the soundstage.

Awaiting me were telegrams wishing me well: from Paul and Claudia Bryar (Gaby and Hort to me but signed Willie and Linda Loman); from Howard Caine and his wife (he had appeared the year before in my production of GOLDEN FLEECING at the Pasadena Playhouse; from Meredith, who had been the Production Supervisors’ secretary on PLAYHOUSE 90; from Jo Compton, one of the production on-air script supervisors on PLAYHOUSE 90; and a vase of flowers from my friend Amzie Strickland.

At 7:30 the 5 cast members assembled and we did a brief rehearsal to set the camera and mark the actors positions so that director of photography Harkness Smith could light the scene. The cast then returned to finish make-up and wardrobe, the stand-ins took their places in the setting and Harkie and his gaffer proceeded with lighting. I also got my first on-set camera lesson. To set the shot, we looked through the camera lens. But when filming, the camera operator did not look through the lens. He would rack over something inside the camera (I’m not always great with my technical terminology) so that the lens was blocked and the film running through the camera was open to receive imaging. The BNC  camera had a viewfinder attached to its side and the operator had to make the adjustment of the slight difference between what he saw looking through the lens and the image on the finder. As we filmed he looked at the viewfinder. Harkie ground into me that when checking the camera set-up, I must look THROUGH THE LENS, not the viewfinder.

Harkie announced when lighting was completed and the assistant directors summoned the actors. I of course knew Richard Chamberlain and Raymond Massey. I didn’t meet the other three actors until that morning when we had our first rehearsal: Peter Whitney playing Johnny Temple’s father, Virginia Gregg playing Johnny’s mother and Karl Weber playing Dr. Golden, the psychiatrist. None of those actors had auditioned. They were established players and I relied on casting director Jane Murray for what turned out to be wonderful choices. We rehearsed some more and were ready to film.

I vaguely remember there was a strange delay once camera was rolling. We had the okay from sound, the take had been slated, but not until a buzzer sounded could I say, “Action.” (I still don’t know who pushed the button to sound the buzzer.) We shot the master (it ran almost 3 minutes) and continued with the coverage. There were 11 more set-ups to complete the scene. Here again my education continued. I could say, “Cut”, but before I said, “Print”, I would check with the camera operator for his okay. I usually didn’t have to check with the soundman. If there was a problem with sound, we heard from him. And of course if there had been any deviation in dialog from the script, the script supervisor would let me know.

After we completed that scene, my first filmed scene

… there were 2 more scenes in Gillespie’s office totaling 3½ pages. We worked until 1:00 pm and then broke for lunch. As I remember I had 20 set-ups in the can as we opened the large studio door and I had another exciting moment. It was daylight! My years of directing community theatre in Iowa and off-Vine Street theatre in Hollywood were always done at night. I was not used to seeing daylight after rehearsals. I guess I was expecting the same darkness after a session of filming. WOW! I was directing during the day!

After lunch we completed our work in Gillespie’s office and moved to Dr. Golden’s office, another part of the extensive Blair Hospital set on Stage 11. There we were scheduled to do 3 scenes totaling 4 3/8 pages – 1 scene with Dr. Golden and Dr. Kildare and 2 scenes with Dr. Golden and Johnny Temple (Doug Lambert).

We wrapped at 7:00 pm. I had completed the day’s scheduled 11½ pages. How did I feel? As I stated on my Archive interview, “I felt like a veteran director.” My first day had been a great experience. The date?

Monday, October 16, 1961

56 years ago today!

The journey continues

 

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6 Responses to SPECIAL: First Day First Film

  1. Jim says:

    Can’t tell you how much we enjoy reading your always informative and fascinating posts Ralph – glad you’re back to occasionally posting and hope you enjoyed your short respite.

  2. Would love to see the whole episode, this clip is superb !!

  3. Ralph says:

    Bernie: Go to my post for JOHNNY TEMPLE at: http://senensky.com/johnny-temp It is not the complete show, but it is 90% of it. ENJOY!

  4. What else can I say but AMAZING! Not only for your accomplishments Ralph but for you remarkable ability to recall in such astounding detail and then to elequently write it out to share with the world. Bravo my dear friend BRAVO! What an honor it is to have known you for over 20 years now. May God continue to bless you with great health, joy and love.

  5. John Dayton says:

    Oh my gosh Ralph I believe it was this day 44 years ago, certainly this week in 1973 that I first met you on THE CHICKEN THIEF – and what a pleasure to read your new post re your first day and the emotional ride you took – please, please give us more.

  6. Vinnie Vinson (Des Moines, IA) says:

    Ralph, thanks for all of the details. I’ve read a lot about the television production process, but some of the details were new to me.

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