Prisoner in Sneakers

In an interview midway through my directing career I said:

Directing episodic television is like jumping on a freight train in motion. As a director, you have to jump on and not break your legs. Once you’ve boarded it, you must climb on “top of the train” and run across, get into the engine and take over running it. Much of what happens is that before you can bring anything personal to a story — which you have to do — you have to get acquainted with who the people are. That’s not in terms of who you want them to be but who they already are, because you catch them as ongoing, already established characters. You do that and then you can start to find the warts and different things to do, finding outlets and ways that you can extend and expand.

As I reported on my DR. KILDARE post, (http://senensky.com/special-first-day-first-film/) my major concern that first day was to get off to a clean start:

…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.

And they were! The following 13 months as a director went surprisingly and amazingly smoothly. I only directed 5 films during that period, but 4 of them were at MGM, where I had spent 8 months as the Assistant to the Producer on DR. KILDARE, directed 3 episodes of DR. KILDARE and directed a TWILIGHT ZONE (PRINTER’S DEVIL) for producer Herbert Hirschman, the original producer on DR. KILDARE. I was fortunately associated with people strongly believing in me.

The following 14th month I directed away from MGM for the 2nd time. Like my 1st time it was for Revue Productions, the production division of the giant MCA talent agency, now based on the Universal Studio lot on Lankershim Boulevard in Universal City. My assignment was A HALL FULL OF STRANGERS (http://senensky.com/a-hall-full-of-strangers/) an episode of a new series, CHANNING, set on a college campus. And for the first time I was faced with a totally unexpected situation for which frankly, based on my experience at that time, I was NOT prepared.

The episode involved a concert pianist coming to the Channing campus to give a recital. For our auditorium in which to present that concert we found one not far from the studio in North Hollywood High School. This was the one incident I’m going to relate that didn’t happen on the first day of filming. We arrived at the location early in the morning of our second day of filming. Sitting on the stage to greet us was a WHITE concert grand piano. Now if we had requested a white concert grand piano for our set, we would have had protestations from the set-dressing department proclaiming that no such instrument existed. But that white elephant did exist, and it was sitting on the stage, waiting for its close-up. Stanley Rubin, the producer, apologizing profusely, refused to continue with the filming. He said there was no way a university would own such a monstrosity. The studio was notified, and arrangements were made for a black concert grand piano to be sent immediately to our location. Awaiting its arrival, Stanley asked that I film what I could in the sequence that did not involve the piano. I agreed and started filming shots in the auditorium that faced away from the stage. Scenes on the stage involving the piano were delayed until our black instrument arrived. The plan was that, because of this delay, whatever could not be completed at the location would be filmed when we returned to the studio. Anticipating that our minimal set at the studio would be the piano and a hanging drape backing, I tabled any confined shots (close-ups, two-shots) that could be filmed there. And that was how we continued until we wrapped our location day

But on the day at the studio filming that sequence another problem arose. The studio at that time was a very busy place, and soundstages were much in demand. Because the set for our pick-up shots was so small, we were assigned a room abutting one of the studio construction areas. I remember all of this vividly because at one point during filming I had to leave the set to visit a rest room. When working on one of the regular sound stages, there was always a rest room in the near vicinity. But our small room set on a pseudo-soundstage was in the construction section of the studio, and I had to go looking for one. Universal was a very large lot, and that was my first experience working there. (My first time working for Revue Productions they were still based on the old Republic lot in Studio City.) Wending my way back, all of the work construction areas looked alike, and I couldn’t find my set. I almost panicked. My three DR. KILDAREs and the TWILIGHT ZONE had had six-day shooting schedules. The current film, now complicated because of the white concert grand piano fiasco, had to be completed in five days. On a five-day schedule, I really didn’t have time for my current situation. Somehow I finally found my set and completed the auditorium sequence, and by the end of the 5th day, the film. I had survived my 1st director firestorm!

How long before my next one? Not until my NEXT assignment—ONE MONTH LATER! It was my first film to be shot on a location away from a studio, and it was indeed far away – in Texas on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. It was IN THE CLOSING OF A TRUNK on ROUTE 66. There is a long story covering the 5 days leading to the start of filming Monday morning that you can read on http://senensky.com/in-the-closing-of-a-trunk/. Early that morning, after only 2 days over the weekend of prep spent scouting locations and with only 23 pages of completed script, we gathered at the ferryboat to commence filming. It was a gray overcast, drizzly day, and Jack Marta, our great director of photography, said he couldn’t film. That was the first day in the history of ROUTE 66 filming that they were weathered out. Under normal conditions like that, when a company was weathered out, they moved inside to a cover set. We had no cover set. The only interior in our first twenty-three pages was the script’s protagonist’s house, and that needed construction work and set dressing. The bad news was the weather forecast for the next day was more of the same.

That evening we were told by the producer’s office in Hollywood that the script was finished, and an associate producer would be flying to Texas to hand deliver it the next day — arriving AROUND NOON. That meant we didn’t have anything to film the next morning. So someone in Hollywood dictated three scenes to a secretary in Texas. Those scenes were typed up and distributed to cast members, crew and me. Mr. Leonard phoned me and told me the rest of the plot and the positions in the story where the new scenes occurred. Then while the production manager went out to find and make arrangements for our newly added locations, I planned my staging and camera coverage. I want to point out that for the 6 shows I had directed so far, I would go to the studio on the pre-filming weekend and plan my staging and camera angles on the sets where they would be filmed. For this 2nd day on ROUTE 66 I was filming scenes in a script I had not yet read in places I didn’t see until I arrived at them the following day.

Tuesday morning we reported to a fish house for a scene with five people: Ed Begley, Don Dubbins, Guy Raymond, Harry Hickox and Jon Lormer, all flown in overnight from Hollywood. By the time we broke for lunch, we had completed the six-page sequence. I felt FINALLY we were on a roll. But then Jack Marta came to me and said, “I hate to tell you this, but there was a camera malfunction. We’re going to have to reshoot everything after lunch.” So now a day and a half into the shooting schedule I was still on square one. Immediately after lunch we very quickly reshot the fish house sequence and then the 2 other scenes that had been dictated over the phone. Because the first cut of the film was overlong, one of those scenes did not make the final cut. Here are the two that did.

ROUTE 66, like its sister-show NAKED CITY, was supposed to film in 6 days. I was told the only director who managed to complete a film in that time was George Sherman, a Hollywood “B” westerns veteran. IN THE CLOSING OF A TRUNK took 8 days to complete. But subtracting the day and a half it took to get started, it filmed in 6½ days. The preceding firestorm paled. This was a tsunami! And a sensational experience!

I completed 8 shows (another one in Texas, 5 in New York City, 2 in Hollywood) in the ensuing 6 months before encountering yet another major opening-day problem. I returned to Universal Studio for A HERO FOR OUR TIME, my first SUSPENSE THEATRE and my first film in color. (http://senensky.com/a-hero-for-our-time/). The problem began the moment I walked into the production office. A script was waiting for me, but it was an unfinished script. A week later on my last day of prep, the script’s final scene was still to be written. I had lunch that day with Roy Huggins, the executive producer for the project. He was the one who was going to write the final scene. But he was neurotically nervous because he had a class to teach that afternoon (I think at UCLA) and was trying to figure out when he would have time to do the writing. What was the big problem? That scene was scheduled to be the first scene filmed the next morning. And Roy Huggins was nervous? How about Lloyd Bridges and Geraldine Brooks, the two actors in the scene? How about me? I had been there before on ROUTE 66, but then we still had the scene the preceding evening. This time I would be getting it when I arrived at the studio the morning it was to be shot. I vaguely remember making a frantic call to my agent to rescue me from this disaster. Somehow the schedule was changed and that final scene was filmed several days later. It was a LONG 4½ minute scene between Lloyd Bridges and Geraldine Brooks. It would have been disastrous to have handed it to them that first morning and expected them to film it immediately.

Those 3 happenings occurred within a 7-month period of my second year directing. They were all an important part of my indoctrination, my learning. Through the years there were other incidents, but it wasn’t until 1975 when anything approaching their magnitude occurred. It happened on the first day of PRISONER IN SNEAKERS, my first THREE FOR THE ROAD. Before I tell you about it I have to get technical about our cameras. I’ll start with a photo.

mitchellcamera

The magazine atop the camera (and I apologize if my terminology is incorrect) had two reels. The forward reel contained 10 minutes of raw film. The reel behind was the take-up reel. The assistant cameraman would mount the magazine and thread the film THROUGH the camera and attach it to the take-up reel. Simple? What was the problem? We filmed that first morning on a distant location out in the wilds. As we broke for lunch, with half the day’s schedule completed, Richard Rawlings, a wonderful cameraman, (he was the director of photography on my first color film, the previously discussed SUSPENSE THEATRE) came to me with a repeat of what happened that 2nd morning on ROUTE 66. We had to reshoot, but it was more than a camera malfunction. The assistant cameraman had mounted the magazine on top of the camera but had NEGLECTED TO THREAD THE FILM THROUGH THE CAMERA. We had spent the morning shooting with film going directly from the feeding reel to the take-up reel without going through the camera. 42 years later I am still as stunned as I write this as I was back then hearing it. That afternoon film ran THROUGH the camera; we finished the day. We completed filming the episode. That’s next!

To be continued

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3 Responses to Prisoner in Sneakers

  1. detectivetom says:

    Cannot wait to see what happens next! I love these accounts of your adventures.

    I just noticed at the same time this show was filmed you did an episode of The Blue Knight with George Kennedy.

  2. Jim says:

    Absolutely fascinating recollections Ralph. The teaser/opening of In the Closing of a Trunk still grabs and captures me every time I see it.

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