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Between the Lines:
How'd They Do That?

(June 2004) By David Pitt

The thing about movies, if you think about it, is it's a surprise any of them ever get made. Really, it's a tremendously complicated procedure.

I mean, you wouldn't think a movie about three guys trying to stop a killer would be all that tricky, would you? Of course, when the killer is a shark, and the three guys are hunting it at sea, and the director wants to film the boat, the guys, the shark, and the sea all at the same time, it gets rather trickier.

The Jaws LogThe Jaws Log, by Carl Gottlieb, was originally published by Dell in 1975, the same year Steven Spielberg's monster (ha!) hit came out. The book was reissued in 2001 by Newmarket Press. It's got a new introduction by Peter Benchley, who wrote the novel that became the movie, and Gottlieb has written nearly sixty new endnotes, updating some of the information in the book. There's also -- I'm not quite sure why -- a new photo section; many of the photos in the original edition do not appear in the new edition.

Gottlieb, in case you're wondering, was in the movie, as Meadows, the newspaper publisher. He also co-wrote the screenplay. His book is a detailed, insightful look at the process of turning a best-selling novel into a movie.

First you have to figure out how to turn the book into a screenplay. What plot lines do you eliminate? What characters do you keep, or change? Then come the big questions: where do you go to film the movie, how much money do you want to spend on it, and, oh yes, where, exactly, do you get a full-size mechanical shark that will do tricks on command, anyway? Trust me, when you read Gottlieb's book, you'll be amazed anybody even tried to make the movie.

While we're on the subject, you should also check out On Location on Martha's Vineyard: The Making of the Movie Jaws, by Edith Blake. Also published in 1975, by Ballantine Books, the book contains a lot of the same information as Gottlieb's, but without the behind-the-scenes feel: whereas Gottlieb was one of the filmmakers, Blake was a resident of Martha's Vineyard, where the movie was filmed. (Blake's book is also pretty poorly written, in places: 'The sharks were an opus all unto themselves,' for example.)

King KongSpeaking of mechanical creatures, The Creation of Dino De Laurentiis' King Kong (Star, 1976), by Bruce Bahrenburg, is a fascinating chronicle of the filming of the 1976 remake of the classic giant-ape movie. Remaking the classic, using the new high-tech special effects techniques (keeping in mind we're talking thirty years ago, now), was a good idea. In fact it's being remade again, right now as we speak, using a whole new set of high-tech special effects techniques.

But the 1976 remake is not very good -- it's bad, in fact. How did it get to be so bad? Well, there are a variety of reasons, most of them artistic in nature, but at the heart of the troubles was the highly-publicized forty-foot mechanical Kong that a fellow by the name of Carlo Rambaldi was building (if the name rings a dim bell, hang on a few minutes). The life-sized beast was to be the heart of the picture, but, wouldn't you know it, the darn thing never worked properly. Or at all.

They ended up making the movie the old-fashioned way, with a man in a monkey suit. The man was Rick Baker, who went on to do special makeup effects for such movies as Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and a whole pile more. He's a genius, and the suit he designed for King Kong was a masterpiece, but it wasn't what the producers had intended to be using. A lot was riding on this movie, and the flamboyant producer had spent a lot of time and money promoting his full-size mechanical Kong, and the bad publicity surrounding its failure to work was too much for the film to overcome.

Bahrenburg, who was unit publicist on the film, packs the book with plenty of behind-the-scenes secrets: details about private meetings, the casting of the stars, battles between the creative people and the folks who controlled the money. If you can find a copy of the book -- it deserves to be reprinted, frankly -- I guarantee you'll find it illuminating.
Still trying to place Carlo Rambaldi's name? Here are two initials: E.T.. Rambaldi's the guy who built the alien who starred in Steven Spielberg's hugely popular movie. When the movie was re-released in 2002, with some new special effects, Newmarket Press published E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial From Concept to Classic, a beautifully illustrated look at the making (and re-making) of the movie.

The book's divided into three sections. The first follows the production from the initial idea to the casting of the actors. Section two is the screenplay, with sidebars about the filming. The third section picks up after the end of principal photography, when the movie was put together, and also goes into some detail about the changes made for the 2002 re-release. If you're a fan of the movie, and you've been wondering how they managed to make such an unbelievable idea seem believable, this is the book for you. It's a perfect illustration of the way a bunch of actors, some well written words, and a clumsy little piece of hardware can add up to pure magic.

While we're talking about Spielberg movies -- you can't talk about blockbusters without mentioning his name -- you should also try to find copies of Bob Balaban's Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary, published by Paradise Press in 1978; and Derek Taylor's The Making of Raiders of the Lost Ark (Ballantine, 1981). Balaban was one of the actors in CE3K, as the movie's called by its fans, and Taylor was a veteran journalist, Both books are quickie tie-ins -- no real depth to either of them -- but they provide useful insights into the moviemaking process.

AlienIf you're a fan of science fiction films, you'll want to read Alien: The Illustrated Screenplay, published by Orion Books in 2000. In addition to the screenplay (which is remarkably scary, even without the visuals), there's a long introductory essay by Paul M. Sammon. The book even includes all of the scenes cut from the various drafts of the scripts -- scenes that never made it into the movie. For fans of Ridley Scott's classic horror-in-outer-space film, it's a must-read.

Paul M. Sammon also wrote Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner (HarperPrism, 1996), a very good, very very interesting look at the production of Ridley Scott's 1982 follow-up to Alien. Sammon, who initially wrote about the movie in a series of magazine articles published while the movie was being made, covers all aspects of the film's difficult transition from novel to screen.

Based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the movie, while visually arresting, made several substantial changes to Dick's story. There were numerous problems, too, during the filming: one actor, cast in a key role, turned out not to be able to memorize his lines; Scott's insistence on absolute realism in his sets and special effects caused some concern for the studio backing the film; and the budget, and shooting schedule, kept threatening to get out of control.

When it opened, the movie was harshly treated by critics, and not especially well received by moviegoers. Still, it's now considered something of a classic (and rightly so), and Sammon devotes a chunk of the book to tracking the movie's evolution from box-office failure to cult masterpiece. The book is an important addition to the whole Blade Runner mystique.

You'll also want to read The Making of Kubrick's 2001, edited by Jerome Agel and published in 1970 by Signet. (I think it's been reprinted recently, but I have the original edition.) The book is like a collage, filled with essays about the movie, photographs, reviews of the movie, interviews, and various miscellany.

Like the movie itself, the book overwhelms us, pulls us in, dazzles us with sight, sounds, imagery. It immerses us in the movie, in its production, in the culture that embraced the film. There's never been a making-of book quite like this one. Also a classic is Final Cut, Steven Bach's insider account of the making of Michael Cimino's notorious movie, Heaven's Gate. (Originally published in 1985, the book was reprinted in 1999 by Newmarket Press.)

If there's a better book about the day-to-day process of making a movie, told from the point of view of the studio financing it, I've never seen it. Bach was one of the United Artists executives responsible for getting the movie made, but neither he, nor any of his colleagues, were a match for the director, a headstrong auteur on a hot streak (his last movie, The Deer Hunter, had won a bunch of Oscars).

Heaven's Gate was a disaster, from beginning to end, one seemingly endless battle between studio and moviemaker. They couldn't agree on a budget, or a shooting schedule; then, when they finally did agree, Cimino wouldn't stick to either of them (he took months longer, and many millions of dollars more, than he was supposed to). They couldn't agree on how long the movie was going to be; then, when they did agree, Cimino made it longer (he turned in a cut that was more than five hours long). The movie was beautiful to look at, but it was almost impossible to make out what anyone was saying, and ultimately it was a beautiful, but unwatchable, movie.

Final Cut is just an amazing book. I've read it several times, and I'll read it several more, and I'll keep taking new things out of it. Bach is a graceful writer, able to make the most complicated aspects of moviemaking clear, but without dumbing them down. He writes about the people involved -- studio execs, filmmakers, actors -- with compassion and respect.

There are no villains here, no heroes. This isn't a simplistic tale of ego gone mad, and Bach doesn't reduce it to that. Instead, he leads us through the story, and we emerge with a deep appreciation of just how much hard work goes into putting pictures on the big screen.
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