By Christopher Langley, Inyo County Film Commissioner
This year the 2016 Lone Pine Film Festival celebrates directors. I thought as the event begins today, it would be fun to think back to the many talented directors I have encountered working with movies in the area these last nine years.
I have always loved film. Back in college I was a very active participant in the Dartmouth Film Society. So it was no surprise to me, once I retired I became involved in the film industry where I lived. At first I was a volunteer, until the Inyo Film Commission broke away from Mono County. So my first encounters with directors were as a curious “lookie-lou.”
I visited the set of “Tremors” several times, first out on Whitney Portal Road (where they were filming “cold for hot”) and then in the area near Dolomite where they built the aqueduct set. I didn’t get to talk to Ron Underwood at the time but watched him work. That was when I first really understood the role of the director. I also watched them shoot Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward discovering the dead worm that had chased them. They shot the scene in at least fifteen ways, over and over again. The “glamour” of being a movie star I learned includes many trials: hurry up and wait; we needed it yesterday; let’s do it one more time.
It was when Ron and others from the production did a panel I moderated at the film festival that I fully understood the challenges. The panel was after his big film “The Adventures of Pluto Nash” had bombed, and as unpleasant as it was, I asked him “What happened?” His explanation was enlightening. He said the job of the director is to have a vision for a film, and then get cast and crew to have the same shared vision. He had not been able to do that. Star Eddie Murphy and others were each making their own movie and thus “Adventures” never really came together. He was remarkably candid, and also took full responsibility for the film's failure. He is a man of strong ethical character.
Again, I was on the set of the movie “Maverick,” not working but watching. First of all it was a very open set so I could frequently watch Richard Donner direct and Mel Gibson act. For instance, that day an actor was falling between animatronic snakes. He was right on cue but the reptiles were never coordinated or “hitting” their marks. Mel had to fall flat on his face in the earth at least fifteen times and went through several shirt changes.
But it was my luck to also be standing between the two men at breaks in the action listening to Donner instructing Gibson on many of the finer points in directing. I realized how generous professionals can be with their knowledge and time with people who want to learn new skills. Gibson’s first directorial assignment was ”The Man Without a Face,” which was a small film where he played a fire-scarred man. His second outing was “Braveheart,” which won Best Picture and got him an Oscar for directing. It would seem Richard Donner is a pretty good teacher.
The first film I worked on as film commissioner was a low budget short film that told the story ofa white friend who went with his Japanese pals to Manzanar, basically as a protest. The film is “Stand Up For Justice” by writer/director John Esaki. The film was being produced through a grant and John Esaki was directing. For me it was learning by watching. They had some small yet effective sets, simple costumes but professional actors and crew. The film was to be placed in every California high school library. I
It was several years later when director John Esaki brought it to screen at Manzanar that I saw it. John was there and we chatted briefly about the challenges of making it. I was very impressed with the quality of the film, taking a small budget and parleying it into a fully realized film. I began to sense the power and skill a director must have to take limited resources and make it look fully believable while telling the story visually.
Dominic Cianciolo, Director of “Bounty” a western short film, was easy to work with out in the Alabama Hills, dealing with changing light and shadow and matching the clouds, or absence of them, in the sky. Somehow I falsely thought that westerns were easier than other genres, but as I watched them work, location shooting presents unique challenges.
Then I began to work with larger pictures and a different set of problems. First the director and his immediate team were directing hundreds of people, over months of shooting. When a schedule change intercedes, filming can easily slip into chaos. I had heard a lot about director Michael Bay: juvenile, emotive, castigating his crew or actors in front of others. One time he was quoted as saying: “So what if I made movies for teenage boys, they make a billion dollars.” In the case of “Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen,” star Shia LeBeouf injured himself and the section to be filmed in the Alabama Hills was suddenly moved up a month. Although scouting had been done and locations chosen, the team rushed to be ready. Then the crew, I and, two BLM employees waited and waited for him.
Finally Bay roared into camp right on the southern end of Movie Road, screeched to a halt and ordered a tuna fish sandwich. Location personnel said, “Michael, let us show you where you’’ll be filming. “ He answered, “Let me show you where I want to film” and roared off, never having been there before but familiar with the areas from scouting photos I hoped. We all jumped into cars and sped after him. When the dust settled, he had changed several of the sites, but having BLM people there, permitting was ok’d. Since everything was set up for other sites, the crew was confused and soon Bay was yelling at them for the confusion he had actually instituted.
Later he pushed aside the Director of Photography (DP) and took control of the camera and the shot. I was nearby and watched him work. Perhaps he thought I had the power to shut him down, but he remained cordial to me and after a brief explanation, actually pinned on a “Don’t Crush the Brush” button. Later complications ensued when the two tigers on set were to be set free, but be on “electronic leashes.” The production needed a local big game hunter. That story and more next time.