A View From Behind The Meter : Film Memories
Recently, my wife and I traveled to downtown Los Angeles to the Music Center to see a play that we knew nothing about. It was called “Marjorie Prime.” As it turned out, we were very glad we knew nothing about the play because the impact of the premise was that much more adventuresome. The play was about the frailty of human memory and how we remember people after they are gone. Children remembering parents, husbands remembering wives, and we ourselves desperately trying to accurately remember the past were all explored through the interaction of the characters during the performance. The loss of loved ones, whether in the natural aging process or in accidental tragic circumstances leaves us little but scattered memories of those who have passed on. Those memories are not always accurate and in many cases downright fraudulent, however, our sense of loss sometimes overwhelms us with constant regrets that we were never able to communicate our love in the fullest degree while they were present. It was a very thought provoking premise, and, after the play was over, as we were driving home I began to think about my long history in this industry. I am in my seventy fourth year and by next June will have lived almost three quarters of a century. During that time, I have seen a great deal of changes in the film making process and experienced a plethora of exciting memories. I have a mind filled with sights and sound bites of people, some of whom have already passed away and others who have quietly retired into old age and irrelevancy. There are times when I wonder whether my memories are real or just fabricated to fit my own perception of the past. That fact was present in the play and the characters themselves were constantly careful to forget certain experiences and then embellish others to the point of fantasy.
Are the memories that we treasure real?… or are they constructed by our fertile imagination to represent the past as we want to see it? I spent the entire rest of the evening combing through my memories searching for elements that I purposely ignore and elements that I have created with a disregard for the truth. It was a tough night.
As I began to examine my past I realized that most of the people who truly influenced my life are gone and I only have, in my memory, brief fragments of who they really were. I began to wonder whether we all do that in order to reconcile the loss of loved ones and get past the depression that any such loss brings to us. Our memory becomes so selective and so careful that we avoid painful glimpses of the past and instead create scenarios that we can accept today. I can clearly remember some of my first steps into the film world at USC in the mid-1960’s. Mel Sloan (who was the editing professor through all my time there) was working in an editing room, filled with 16 mm moviola editing machines, tutoring a dark haired intense young girl by the name of Marcia Griffin. I was working with David Dryer in the same room editing our first project for a film production class and neither of us could have imagined that this dark eyed lady would marry George Lucas who was also attending USC at the time and together they would create “Star Wars” changing the film making world forever. Later, when I returned to Los Angeles, in the early seventies, after ten years filming in the United States Air Force Audio Visual Service (AAVS), I went back to USC to view a screening at the invitation of an old friend who was teaching there at that time. Sitting in their small screening room which maybe seated twenty people, I watched the 16mm version of Dark Star while John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon talked about blowing up their then student film project. At least it started as a student project but, with the influx of additional funds, it gravitated to a commercial product and sent both into the studio system. John went on to direct “Halloween” and Dan co- authoring “Alien” anchoring them forever in the film catalogs of substantive movie makers. In that small screening room at that moment it was just two young men trying to decide whether they wanted to spend money on a controversial blowup process: that being 16mm work print to 35mm theatrical release print. Their decision which might even have been made that day sealed their future forever.
During my first ten years in Hollywood, I worked for a lighting rental company called PSI (Production Systems Incorporated) and in the 1970’s Allen Daviau and Steven Spielberg strolled through my life. I was the lead rental manager and I’m pretty sure it was Steven who I remember coming into the shop and setting up a package of equipment for shooting in the desert a sequence for his feature film. The film turned out to be Close Encounters of a Third Kind and the sequence was the Gobi desert scene which was shot by Allen that was ultimately cut out of the final released version. I never saw Steven again but worked on packages for Allen’s vast commercial portfolio, before E.T. became a hit, for many years after that incident. As I look back sometimes I’m not sure that my memories are accurate but each time I go over to the ASC clubhouse for one of the monthly breakfasts I run into one of the DP’s that I worked with and they confirm my recollections to be true. These encounters are such fun and I feel graced to have been part of the almost legendary past of this industry that have I loved so much. I can remember Sam Raimi running across the wooded area that we lit with Par 64’s, rigged into the trees, with a 35mm Bell & Howell Filmmo camera simulating the Evil Dead racing to Ash’s house. He ran that route a number of times until he was quite exhausted and laughed the whole time at himself. He appeared to be having more fun than all of us combined.
I think that some of my most lingering memories have to do with those performers and technicians which were just emerging or on there way out due to age or sickness. In one educational shoot about the game of chess, shot in a small sound stage in Burbank, I met and worked with Orson Welles. The experience occurred while I was finishing lighting the set and almost hanging off one of the pipe grids working on a back light. It started when a voice rang out calling to me, “You there on the ladder…can you tell me where I’m supposed to sit?” I looked down and there was Orson Welles in a wheel chair staring up at me. “What’s the matter cat got your tongue? Are you both deaf and dumb… I’ll say it again …Do you know where I’m supposed to perform?” I was pretty speechless. Here was an actor that I considered a legend and had seen his performance in “Citizen Kane” a number of times and now he was pointing a finger at me and dressing me down for my speechless behavior. In truth, I was delighted. I smiled broadly and told him that where my ladder was at present would be a chair. That chair is where he would sit and that I was placing a back light for that chair at that moment. He was enormously overweight and had to be wheeled around in a large wheel chair, I’m sure because his legs wouldn’t handle the rotund frame. When I finished, his chair was moved into position, and once he moved into the chair he never moved again for the whole day. His food was brought to him and he railed over the stupidity of the script most of the day. He even apologized to me later for being so gruff with me explaining that hadn’t had his morning coffee to that point. I almost wanted to say that it was well into the day and certainly not early in the morning when the encounter occurred but I left it alone.
There is something very wonderful about seeing that your idols are really very human after all. I still smile often when I remember Katherine Hepburn flipping me the bird out of her Cadillac convertible while driving in the Hollywood hills. I was in one of my grip trucks, and was slowly navigating the twisting narrow roads in the area and heard quite a few honks on someone’s car horn behind me. I pulled over after quite some distance and a while Cadillac convertible with the top down whizzed by me with Katherine holding her hand high in the sky, her finger clearly pointing out her ire. I felt honored to be flipped off by one of the greatest actresses of all times.
Over a career that spanned 36 years, I worked on hundreds of sets and in many cases didn’t find out until I got home, and my wife asked me how my day was, that I discovered that I had worked with quite popular stars. I remember my wife relating to me that the woman I had lit on the stage was none other than J-Lo, and she couldn’t believe that I didn’t know who J-Lo was. That actually happened to me on many occasions with stars such as Lindsay Lohan, Cindy Crawford, Cheryl Tiegs, Topher Grace, J lo, and even such big names as Sylvester Stallone, Fred Astaire, and Bo Derek. I used to get so wrapped up in what I was involved with that the recognition factor was highly impaired when it came to the talent. I worked with the Barbara Walters specials team for a number of years and the glamour of the stars no longer was a factor with me. The memories of those wonderfully talented people, while some of them were not so talented, are pretty much of a blur to me now, however every once and a while someone will ask me “did you work with such and such” and I realize that I had indeed. At that moment, I generally felt that I was gifted a lovely series of memories that many people would envy, and I am just lucky to have lived during this time to meet such wonderful people.
Lighting Consultant & Educational Outreach
BIRNS AND SAWYER