Underneath and an Elephant
The Making of the Film
I last wrote a piece like this for "Pink Floyd -- The Wall." It was called the "The Making of the Film - Brick by Brick" and served no particular purpose other than to clarify in my own mind just what happened during the making of the film. Vanities and the passing years can cloud many a memory. I also thought it might be of help to journalists who like to know the nuts and bolts of the film making process. The movie industry, with its enormous capacity for make believe, has never been blessed with much historical accuracy because outsiders, rather than the film makers, have tended to write about such things. So, for those writers who like making it up, stop reading. I wouldn't want to bore you any longer. I realize that in an age of semiology and post-modernist structuralism talk of "nuts and bolts" might seem a trifle heretic, if not a little tedious; but, here goes.
We were first sent the galley proofs of William Wharton's novel in 1978. As is usual with us, it was followed a week later by a telex from Judy Scott-Fox, our agent in Los Angeles, saying, "Urgent need to know answer. Book will be optioned." And very soon it was, but not by us. One of the prices we pay for living eight thousand miles from deal-land is that you tend to be late in the queue for the material that gets snapped up by the sharper producers waving the dollars provided by the oilmen, shipping magnets and arms dealers. (Film finance has moved on a bit since the days of the glove salesman.) At any rate, we lost it. Our tardiness was also due to my reservations about the novel. I had scribbled a note to Alan Marshall on the top of the galley proofs, "Great book. Don't know how to do it." The external realities of their adolescence wouldn't pose many problems but so much of the book took place inside Birdy's head. Much of his obsession and madness, which greatly intrigued me, would be impossible to film. I was also a little reluctant to tackle a story with the Second World War as its fulcrum.
Our next encounter with the project was in 1983. I was still enjoying what is pretentiously called my sabbatical. We had made "Fame," "Shoot The Moon" and "The Wall" in close succession. With little time for reflection or rest in between, I had decided to take a year off. Alan Marshall, in the meantime, could get on with the film of "Another Country."
Birdy, the hot novel of 1978, had cooled off somewhat by 1983 and the option had been picked up by A&M Records Film Division. I always thought it was because they were a record company that their tastes were possibly a little off-beat and maybe they saw things in it that the mainstream film studios, forever pigeon-holed and programmed by the present demands of the market place, hadn't. Sandy Kroopf and Jack Behr, two Los Angeles-based writers, with a pile of scripts to their names everyone liked but no screen credits, were commissioned to write the screenplay. Their script was sent to me early in 1983 and I immediately liked what they had done. They'd minimized the internalization inside Birdy's head and cunningly interwoven the past and present. The "one person" schizophrenia of the book had been clearly defined for easier cinematic narrative which made the story very obviously the friendship between two boys. They also moved the story forward so that it was more relevant to contemporary times and now hinged on the horror of Vietnam rather than World War Two.
Logistically, the film took itself in various directions. At first I doubted the necessity to be in Philadelphia to shoot the scenes of the two boys growing up. The metaphor of Birdy rising above the claustrophobia and squalor of the poor Philadelphia streets seemed to me to be pretty transferable. On reading the book, the descriptive passages reminded me of the working class terraced streets and back yards of Islington in London, where I grew up, three thousand odd miles away from Billy Penn's statue on top of City Hall. Originally, I thought of filming in the run-down areas of Oakland but one visit to the Philadelphia of the book convinced me that it really was unique; and, to be truthful to Wharton's story, we had to be in those Philly streets. (Armed with a little prescience I might not have been quite so adamant.) The row upon row of derelict houses, acre upon acre of urban decay sprawled across this once beautiful city were a perverse seduction to us: a background of hopelessness W.C. Fields, Birdy or anyone would yearn to soar above.
As with all major American cities these days, the Mayor's office had a "Motion Picture Department" ostensibly to facilitate filming in order to hopefully coax away Hollywood's celluloid dollars. Everyone at City Hall was extremely cooperative but, in truth, ultimately quite ineffectual in helping us to combat the realities of the Philadelphia streets. No less than 24 different locations had to be found but our first priority was finding Birdy's house. Of the thousands of empty houses and broken down streets that seemed perfect on our first visits, none quite gave us the necessary geographical geometry of Birdy's house, street, back yard and baseball pitch that our story required. My Production Designer, Geoffrey Kirkland, and our Location Manager, Rory Enke, gradually mapped out the City, block by block, and offered suggestions to me on my weekend visits from New York where I was casting. Week upon week went by; but, however sedulous their search, it proved more difficult than we first thought. More often than not, the boarded up houses were occupied by squatters: an invisible army of homeless that no official would admit existed but nonetheless were ready to defend their homes when we pried beyond the corrugated iron. "You from the police? A film company? Go ---- yourself." Gradually the brick walls and the "no is easier than yes" mentality of this exasperating city began to fray everyone's nerves. The way things got done in Philly were different from other places and we were learning the hard way. I had a pleasant "personal" letter from the Governor, possibly to assuage some of our moaning. He welcomed us to Pennsylvania extolling the virtues of his great State, but the xeroxed message was a little hollow and little use to us in the back alleys of West Philly.
Fortunately, half the film would be shot in Northern California which added a little sunshine to those miserable December days tramping around the slush of Philly looking for film sets amongst the rubble that the unfortunates who lived there could barely call home. We had decided to base the film in the San Francisco area. We had made "Shoot the Moon" there and had come to "sensible" arrangements with the local union in order to bring in our British Director of Photography (Michael Seresin), Camera Operator (Michael Roberts), and Editor (Gerry Hambling). Gerry and Michael have worked on all my films and I certainly wouldn't embark upon a new one without them. (This "sensible" arrangement turned into double jeopardy when we got to Philly.) Also, we had grown to like the technicians in San Francisco and it had become our-home-away-from-home in a way that Los Angeles never could be.
Geoffrey Kirkland had narrowed down the choice of hospitals and it was easy picking Agnew State, in San Jose, south of San Francisco. Our task was made easier because the only other hospital I liked was refused to us by the military. Our script, it seemed, didn't fit into their view of themselves or Vietnam. No amount of persuasion from Alan Marshall could persuade an adamant Information Colonel that our intentions were something less than honorable. Our work went before us. As the head of the New York education committee had said years before, on "Fame," when they refused us filming permission in the High School of Performing Arts, "Mr. Parker, we can't risk you doing to New York schools the same things you did to the reputation of Turkish prisons."
We decided to build a set inside an actual building utilizing and adapting existing architecture much in the same way as we had done with Sagmalcilar Prison in "Midnight Express." I took a fancy to some eccentric out-buildings away from the main Agnew Hospital, which we could re-structure to our needs while taking advantage of the strange textures and architectural oddities that such a building offers. Much of our story was to take place inside one cell. This room, then, had to have a personality of its own: the strange buttresses and corners of this peculiar room would become focuses for Birdy's muted memories. A room with enough subtleties and details would satisfy the close attentions of a camera which would explore every crack and tile for days.
In Northern California we found locations in Philadelphia for the rubbish dump and gas-tanks. Most important, though, we found our Vietnam locations in Modesto, in California's Central Valley. We had been directed there because George Lucas had made the Vietnam sequence of "American Graffiti II" in the area, and indeed planned to do the original version of "Apocalypse Now" there, before Mr. Coppola had other ideas. The entire area was flooded when we first arrived. In the five times I subsequently returned, before filming, the terrain changed and transformed itself, as the water table dropped, making it very difficult to pinpoint actual locations. The Art Department scribbled crosses on their maps as I picked possible spots only to find them meaningless when they next returned. Although we had plenty of time before filming tropical grass had to be planted and cultivated in the months ahead.
Back in Philadelphia, we found Birdy's house and back yard and made plans to transform an open area between two streets into an improvised baseball park and waste ground. This was to be divided by a hodgepodge fence of doors and debris, similar to the walls we had seen all over Philly. The narrow porched houses would give us the Irish/Italian community of the early 60's while retaining much of the color that Wharton had described in his book, set three decades before. I scribbled on the backs of envelopes and crossed my fingers it would look something like I imagined it when the snow melted.
The elderly lady who had lived in the 'Birdy' house for forty years seemed agreeable with the idea of a film crew descending upon her. Many meetings with her and the local 'Block Association' seemed to clinch it. Suddenly the lady's relatives, and of course lawyers (as is normal for every human function in the United States), appeared, though, and the price was five times what we were offering. What they wanted for two months' rent could actually have purchased the house over and over again. Why people get greedy when they hear "movies" is easy to se and entirely of our own making. The Hollywood hype and tabloid fodder of untold riches and rewards from our industry permeates everywhere, in every country. People behave as if they've won a lottery and it makes the simplest transaction on a film like bargaining for points in "Star Wars." We couldn't afford to pay what they were asking, so we began to look at alternatives. A bargain was finally struck including sending the lady on holiday to Georgia while we were filming in her house. Very wise.
So work began on the "Birdy back lot." We had to move a tree from a nearby garden to accommodate Birdy's pigeon loft which began to be a focus for everyone's energies, as our over-eager construction crew built what could only be described as the Mill Valley version of a tree loft. We went through many transformations before it fitted the one on the back of my eye-balls. For the desperately short screen time it takes up it obsessively dominated everyone's attention in those early days, I suppose much in the same way as it would have obsessed Birdy.
The Birdy "backlot" was a much bigger art direction task than first planned because of a factor that had crept into our reckonings, and served to plague us, in the weeks to follow. It was called "Sky-Cam."
Garrett Brown, a brilliant camera equipment engineer, invented the "Steadicam" which became standard equipment (well, for the specially conceived shots) on most movies. By a system of balances and gyros it could be strapped to an operator's waist and perfectly smooth tracking shots, in any direction, could be achieved with much more manoeuvrability than a conventional wheeled dolly. We knew Garrett from "Fame" where he had operated just such a shot in the New York subway for me. His latest invention had consumed most of his recent years and, one suspects, most of his money, and was called "Sky-Cam."
This system immediately became attractive to me as in the film I needed to show Birdy's point of view as his imagination took flight. No one had ever achieved it before and we were to be the first. The system had been tried out on a dummy run by cinematographer Caleb on "The Natural" but was abandoned and none of the footage used. The system consisted of four enormous posts (l00 foot or more) from which hung wires (operated by motors and controlled by computer). At the central joining point of these four wires hung a light-weight camera, specially built by Panavision, which would take a small (200 foot) magazine of film. Or, in the case of sports coverage, a video camera. A sophisticated gyro system kept everything on an even keel. The early tests out at the "Sky-Cam" factory were very impressive. We were even offered shares in the company and were very tempted.
The possibilities of joining in Birdy's flight of fantasy were very exciting. I had designed a shot that swooped past the steeple of Birdy's local church across the waste ground strewn with junk, over the back yards, the baseball pitch, down Birdy's street and finally up into the immense freedom of the sky.
"FLYING. Rising as if
This meant an area had to be built and dressed accurately for our early 60's period which covered half a mile square. But we thought it would be worth it to get such a unique shot in the can. It was the very heart of Birdy's dream and our most important chance to climb inside Birdy's imagination. It turned out to be more difficult than we anticipated. Film makers with their feet firmly on the ground were no match for this idea in the sky.
"And HIGHER. Up against the
Funny isn't it, all you need to write poetry is a pencil. Movies, well, that's something else. But more of this later.
I flew between the East and West coasts in search of locations and casting. Juliet Taylor, our Casting Director, is based in New York, but our search took in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, San Jose and of course, Philadelphia. Looking for Birdy and Al was obviously our priority. I met with every possible young actor who could play the parts since late in '83 and my video tapes were starting to take up more room than my luggage. I always
like to interview actors on a one-on-one basis because neither of us has to over perform for an audience. I also like to video tape everyone. This taping process can be a little disconcerting for actors as they try and hold a natural conversation with a strange English director with a Sony Betacam sticking out of his face. Apart from seeing actors and actresses from the usual sources - we had a number of 'open calls.' This is a system whereby outsiders, mostly non-actors, are invited along to be considered for the film. It's sometimes unromantically, but probably quite accurately, called a "cattle call." In Philadelphia we saw over 2,000 in one day, each one reading a couple of pages of the script, smiling for the Polaroid and being shown the back door. We went through the same process in San Francisco and New York. Although exhausting, it can be rewarding to find a fresh face - you never know who might walk through the door. Maud Winchester, for instance, the wonderfully natural actress who plays Doris, came into the open-call in San Francisco. After the film she moved to Los Angeles with all the trimmings, Beverly Hills Agent and all. In Philadelphia we found Rosanne (Liz Whitcraft), a waitress in our local restaurant and Birdy's Mum (Dolores Sage) whose husband's pigeons we had been admiring. Mr. Sagessa, Mario, Mr. Kohler, Claire, and Birdy's Dad all walked in to our open calls.
Winnowing through the video tapes, we gradually xeroxed in on Matthew Modine for Birdy. Originally I read the part of Al with him but his gentle, introverted honest qualities seemed to say Birdy. He never could understand how I cast him without reading a single word of the Birdy part but I had worn out the rewind button on the tape machine examining his every move during the audition. He is a wonderfully natural actor with a built in phony-detector which makes it difficult for him to make a dishonest move. Birdy's obsession had to be strange and believable but I still wanted audiences to keep touch with him, to care for and like him. I had my fill of weirdos bringing in stuffed pigeons and photos of dead relatives for motivation. Alan Marshall and Juliet Taylor, who I would always defer to for such critical casting, (it's very easy to get punch drunk looking at lots of people, and if you get the casting wrong you get the movie wrong) were both in agreement for Matthew.
Nicolas Cage became my favorite for the gregarious Al very early on. During our first meetings I was never sure if he could reveal the vulnerable part of his persona. The first time he came in strong, so assured. Perhaps the Al of Philly, but not necessarily the Al who came back from Vietnam. The more he came in, the more he looked like Al who swaggered through life with big enough shoulders for the frail Birdy to lean on, but deep down, needed Birdy more than Birdy needed him. Nicolas changed felt his uncle's famous name brought. It was a very sensitive issue with him as he was determined to succeed in his own right. I never knew until after I'd cast him that he was Francis' nephew and it was a crucial factor in our subsequent collaboration. I have been fortunate in having many actors give their all for our films. No one gave more than Nicolas, and he did it all on his own.
Our start date had been set for May 15th, having delayed production for six weeks in order to wait for Matthew to finish Gillian Armstrong's film "Mrs Soffel". This allowed us a little more preparation time in sorting out the unfathomable Philly, affectionately known as Philthydelphia to our pre-production crew.
The breathing spaces enabled me to get on with my final shooting script - culling the last gems from the novel that so far eluded us and fixing the hicuups that had been exposed during the many readings.
We found our locations but getting permission to film them was quite another matter. It was continually 'good news' 'bad news' time as doors closed in our faces. By a process of patience, skullduggery, and common prayer, the jigsaw gradually fitted together as we traced supposedly dead owners of properties and the occasional dead dog behind boarded up houses.
Ned Kopp, our Associate Producer, had the unenviable job of negotiating with the local unions. There was, of course, to be a Teamster on every moving object - and even some that didn't move. Philly, as everyone knows, has a long and colorful history of Teamster "activity". The Vice-President of the Local who came to visit us still has a couple of bullets inside him from a past disagreement. As on all movies they have the production by the throat and they never given an inch. Also our assigned Teamster Captain was to be the brother of the Teamster Local President.
Ned Kopp's other task was dealing with the East Coast Camera Locals. Over the last ten years I have worked with the same Cinematographer, Operator, Editor, Production Designer, not to mention Producer, and it is the continuity of this collaboration that gives the identity to our work. I've often said I might be the one with the biggest mouth and the American Express card but truthfully they are as responsible for our work as I am. Film making is a collaborative art but the French invented the daft auteur theory and the academics and directors' egos have naturally perpetuated the myth. The continuity and rapport, between the people I work with, shows in the work and certainly shows during the film making process. We successfully used our British Cinematographer and Operator on "Fame" and "Shoot the Moon." This time we had to employ no less than four extra Camera people to allow the two British technicians to work. Fortunately eggs had to be hatched, watched, filmed and canaries worked with for hours to get two feet of usable flight, so they functioned as a viable second unit for much of the time. They often missed the pigeons in their frame, but never missed a cent nn their overtime dockets.
Gary Gero, our animal trainer, had worked with the birds as far back as January. We had eighty different canaries at various stages of training. Good lookers, good flyers, bell ringers and hoverers. Perta would eventually be played, in the main, by one particular canary (un-romantically named Bird No. 9). But many of her "stunts" were done by a less attractive but much more accomplished Bird called "Queepers." We also had many birds sitting on eggs hopefully to hatch out. I lost count of the times we sent crews to film the magical moment of birth, without luck. My respect for wild life photographers has increased tenfold since.
As well as the canaries Gary was training eighty pigeons, a tropical hornbill for the Vietnam sequence (called Horation), a cat (Birdy was to wrestle an unfortunate Perta out of its jaws), eighteen dogs (for the Sagessa sequence) and a seagull (being attacked by a rat snake). I can't say everything went as planned because, frankly, filming animals is a very imprecise art. The tiny delicate canaries were the most difficult. Always skittish and neurotic, they were almost impossible to "train" in the usual sense, and their flight extremely difficult to capture on film at normal speeds. In the weeks to come, whenever we did a canary shot you could hear an audible groan from the crew. I have to confess, I took every opportunity to leave any insert bird shot for Alan Marshall and his intrepid second unit to pick up later once the main unit had moved on to a different set.
Fortunately, unlike a lot of so-called "experts" in the film business, Gary never said he could do anything that he couldn't deliver and we managed to pull off most things. The ones we didn't pull off ... well, we cheated.
By May 8th we were a week off the start of principle photography and our production offices had begat people and other offices and now spread all over the Holiday Inn.
It would have been nice to have a little more rehearsal time than I had but unfortunately, with Matthew's "Mrs. Soffel" schedule, that wasn't possible. But Nick, Matthew and I did manage to get a week in at the local Church Hall a short walk from Birdy's house where we taped our Birdy's hospital cell on the floor. However long you have, I believe film rehearsal periods can only be exploratory: the beginnings of understanding the parts, rather than polishing or evolving finished performances. True, certain patterns of blocking do evolve, but mainly our time was spent with Nicolas on his difficult monologue and talking about Al and Birdy's relationship. I suppose in doing so we were also feeling out the working relationship between the three of us in the months ahead. This week allowed us final costume fittings, haircuts and walk-throughs of the fights with our stunt arranger Jim Arnett. It was also a time for Matthew to familiarize himself with the canaries. His naturally gentle manner made it easier for him to befriend the timid birds.
The first day of principal photography found us in "Birdy's street" in the heart of West Philly. First days are always tough. You have the 1,000 different shots for the rest of the movie tucked away on a floppy disc at the back of your brain and they keep rushing forward, out of time and place, as you make the first tentative steps on the journey. This was a scene with Rosanne and Mario, two of my non-actors, which didn't help matters, and I had unwisely decided to utilize my unrequested camera personnel by shooting with two cameras. This improves the options but adds to the chaos. Gradually, shot by shot you croak "action," "cut" and "print," working mainly on auto pilot but not letting on. Most directors agree it's not just making decisions that matters; it's appearing to make decisions - to look like you know what you're doing. On the first day I'm not sure I did either, but first days are traditionally a nightmare. As someone once said, you're always a day behind after the first day.
Our second day had us in the wrecking yard with Al and Birdy buying the old Ford. As often happens when you take over a location which is an active business, you outstay your welcome when the business could suddenly be making more money than the location fee. As I was shooting, the juggernauts outside, piled high with scrap, hooted impatiently to be weighed in to the yard.
At the side of the wrecking yard was a railway line where we planned to do the scene where the boys discuss Solari the butcher. A simple scene, it is made up of two shots. One involves a sideways track across the railway lines which we weren't even sure if we had permission to be on. The boys rehearsed the scene showing Birdy's single-mindedness and stubborn wisdom all afternoon. They were as sharp as they'd ever be as I nervously waited for the sun to drop to back light them, throwing the long shadows across the rusty iron walls. I had one eye on the boys and the other eye in the direction of the live track waiting for the commuter express to turn the corner. The man who rented us the wrecking yard was still locked in discussions with our location manager as he haggled for extra money for lost business.
The rest of the week saw us filming around Birdy's yard and the adjacent ball park. My First Assistant, Chris Soldo, just shot "The Natural" and so he was a stickler for making the baseball plays absolutely accurate. I know what he meant. There's nothing quite so awful as seeing Americans ruin a game of cricket. Dolores Sage, who plays Birdy's Mum, had never acted before and so my time was spent giving her the necessary confidence, goading her into what I wanted, but allowing her to be herself, which is why I'd cast her in the first place. Her wonderful Philly accent cut through the air as she overcame her nerves.
Sunday - and our one day off. Working six days a week on a film is apparently sensible from a budgetary point of view. For myself, I think it's hard enough doing a 16-hour day for five days, let alone six. You do build up momentum that a long weekend could possibly dissipate. That's the theory at any rate, although I don't believe it for a moment, because fatigue is the biggest problem for any director. I once said in an Italian interview that a Director had to have the sensitivity of a poet and the stamina of a construction worker. The trouble is, all too many of us get these the wrong way round.
Our second week found us in the house once more. Birdy had to wrestle with the cat, prying open its jaws to save Perta. This worked well, although the cat was naturally a little groggy after a number of takes. Unfortunately we had a negative scratch on this day's filming which meant it had to be done again. It always astonishes me how much technically can go wrong on a film and how little does. Consequently, I'm absurdly superstitious, wearing daft shirts I've filmed in for 15 years, (falling apart at the seams), but this day my lucky shirts hadn't worked, which was an omen for the next four days. Sky-Cam was about to make its debut.
We choreographed an entire area about half a square mile with kids playing street hockey, baseball, mothers with children, old men walking dogs, women chatting in gardens, etc., plus thirty period cars all accurately dressed for the early 60's. Not an easy task in itself. In Production Design terms it's sometimes easier to go back 100 years than 20.
The Sky-Cam, as previously mentioned, hangs from four poles. In our case this was one fixed pole 130 foot high which alone cost $6,000 to erect and the other three "poles" were three giant cranes with their arms pointed directly skywards. Cranes were used to give us "walking" poles so we could change the area where the Sky-Cam would operate, allowing us to gain steeper angles on the wires. We built a scale model to accurately work out the shots and were advised by the Sky-Cam people to lop six feet off all local trees and telegraph poles. We should have known then, but our faith was absolute. Our pioneering zeal and naive enthusiasm knew no bounds.
Firstly, there was rain. This had got into the motors that shorten and lengthen the Sky-Cam wires (never before used in the rain we were then told) and so the first day was lost as we waited impotently, rather than patiently, as the scientist played with our train set.
There was an enormous amount of press interest in what we were doing and I jokingly fielded off questions praising this wonderful camera. Pretentious phrases like "changes the entire dynamics of cinema" and other codswollop rolled from my lips as we drank cups of coffee and waited for the motors to be fixed. "Wouldn't it be easier to buy 20 Eymos (a very cheap camera) and get a shot putter to toss them in the air?" one journalist quipped. We all laughed nervously trying not to let on to the probable wisdom of his remark. "Was Sky-Cam the reason you wanted to do BIRDY?" another asked, and he narrowly avoided having his notebook stuffed up his nostril.
The second day it was much the same, except the test weight the Sky-Cam flyers rehearse with collapsed onto a roof when one of the wires broke. This worried us more than a little. What would happen if a wire snapped when the camera was flying over people? We asked the question, but the boffins didn't hear. They were in a world of their own and it had nothing to do with movies.
The shot I had originally devised had been cut considerably shorter because of the camera's limitations. The control consul has conventional wheel handles our operator could use to change direction of the lens while looking into a small T.V. monitor. The Sky-Cam "flyer" operated the computer on a joy stick much in the same way as you would fly a radio controlled airplane. By the end of the day the boffins finally got it to fly. The shot I wanted was to observe kids playing near a burned-out car from above - drop like a stone and then travel along the junk yard three feet from the ground, rise above the fence at the end, higher, observing the baseball game and move up against the sky ... "touching nowhere." The first take worked, except I didn't think the drop to the car at the front was dramatic enough. The second take looked wonderful as it swooped downwards, except suddenly we lost our picture. The Sky-Cam had over-ridden its computer and smashed to the ground.
"Through the whiteness. Into pure
Well, touching somewhere. Mainly the ground. Our Camera Assistant summed it up as the machine bounced across the wasteground. "Well, it'll never work as a shovel."
We abandoned working with the Sky-Cam for the next few days while they repaired it. There was other conventional work we could get on with in the streets in the meantime. By the weekend the camera was flying again and after rehearsing on Sunday, a day's filming on Monday looked a distinct possibility. On Monday the procedure was again slow and pedantic as we waited for the Sky-Cam to be programmed, trimmed and tinkered with. I began to behave like bad-tempered, neurotic film directors are supposed to behave in times like these, as I counted the cost of the wasted days and the enormous size of the entire production with hardly a foot of film yet in the can. I watched the myopic boffins scuttle around their expensive toy totally oblivious to the strictures and pressures of the normal film process. The Sky-Cam flyer walked over to me as I swore, stamped my feet, and foamed at the mouth and contemplated a little garotting with the Sky-Cam wires. Do I denote a certain hostility from you, Alan?" he said.
The crew occupied their time by inventing new names for the machine like Dodo-Cam and Sky-Scam. Finally the camera flew, but unfortunately it promptly and rather ungenerously hit the tree it was supposed to hop over. The camera shutter was damaged and there would be no chance of any more filming.
The Sky-Cam flyer walked over to me in tears. It wasn't his fault. The invention was years away from perfection, if it could ever be. In sports stadiums it, maybe, had a future, but for movies ... in my opinion it was rather like inventing the space shuttle to cross the street. Suffice to say we didn't buy any shares in it.
On such occasions you can't scream and shout, you have to think on your feet. So far we had 40 odd seconds of screen time in the can. Birdy had to fly and we had to fly with him, with or without Sky-Cam.
We got out the Steadicam and frantically began running down alleyways, across rubble, down the street, in a golf cart, atop a bicycle dolly with me charging behind on a bike. We even built a ramp 20 feet high and 30 feet long to get the P.O.V. of Perta smashing into the window. Anything to duplicate the path I'd expected the Sky-Cam to take. Necessity is the mother of invention and the result is there to see. Of course, no one ever looks at a scene and sees the difficulties in filming it, only the effect on the screen. The cut scenes in the finished film look as if they could only have been achieved by a revolutionary new camera. The shots of flight, sweeping along a foot from the ground twisting and turning in the air were the result of some nimble footwork on the ground.
In the next days at our base at the Holiday Inn I had our editor, Gerry Hambling, cut together all the "flying" material we'd shot. For fun we put Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" to it and showed it to the Crew. Everyone applauded at the end; I think more out of relief than praise, but it helped to raise the morale that had been flagging somewhat while helplessly watching the boffins take over our lives. I'm looking forward to reading the first article on how the flying sequences in BIRDY are done with this marvelous new flying camera. Articles no doubt written before Sky-Cam became Kamikaze-Cam.
The difficulty of filming was the number of variables that had to be got right - outside of the boys' performances. First, we were working above a busy intersection with 38 period cars underneath - with a traffic pattern that had to be accurately repeated for continuity. Our allocated Police Sergeant from the Philly Police was brilliant, working closely with my Assistant Director Chris Soldo, smoothly stopping the traffic for a two-mile radius, feeding in the period cars as we needed them on each shot. We were also working with our lead actors 40 feet up, so safety wires had to be used, and when they couldn't, a 20 foot safety air-bag was edged in below the shot. Added to this I had pigeons trained to join and leave their perch on command (well, sort of). All this in synch with the schedule of the trains which were an intrinsic part of the shot as they thundered past four feet from us showering sparks from the live rail. I was also filming with three camera crews from three different angles on each set up. The back-up "arm-chair army" of trucks, teamsters, catering, make-up, wardrobe ... etc. stretched behind us for miles. Alan Marshall and I leaned on the rail of the E1 stairs looking down at this ridiculous, gigantic travelling circus. Could it all justify a minute and a half of screen time? As it turned out it was, for me, one of the best day's filming I've ever done ... not necessarily for what ended up on the screen, but for the sheer pleasure of seeing an enormous film crew working so efficiently and enthusiastically towards a common end. I've always thought directing was a crash course in megalomania.
That evening we had a party back at the Holiday Inn and the mood was euphoric. To be frank, I'd had better starts to a film. It seemed we'd had more bad luck in two weeks than in most of my other films put together. One of the Teamsters told me it was because we began on a full moon and from now on things would be o.k. I hoped he was right.
The next week we tackled Mrs. Prevost's where Birdy sees Perta for the first time. One of the handicaps I had been working under, I have to confess, is that I don't like birds very much. One at a time is o.k. by me, but in Mrs. Prevost's porch aviary there were 150 of them. I started directing everyone through earphones while perched outside in the rain on a step ladder. It was hopeless and I eventually had to go inside and brave the birds. Funny how you forget your fears when you have to get a shot. Mr. Tate, one of the characters in the porch, blew into a show-pigeon to puff up its breast. I had seen it done once before on a documentary and this elderly gentleman had come from New Jersey especially to perform the grisly task.
That week we shot a sequence with another bird owner, a wonderful character from the book called Mr. Lincoln. I eventually dropped this sequence from the film, as it was rather misplaced within the framework of our story, slowing things up somewhat when the film had gathered momentum.
The Atlantic City/Wildwood Jail Al and Birdy find themselves in was shut at the "House of Correction" in Philadelphia. We were given permission to use a corridor and barred room in a wing of the women's prison and the giant movie circus parked itself in the yard in full view of the inmates. It seemed a bizarre sight as the crew stuffed hamburgers into their faces and the girls on the crew strolled around in their shorts, oblivious to the cat-calls and whistles from the gentlemen behind the bars.
The interior of Al's parents' house was specially designed and built to accommodate the shot I'd planned for Birdy's angry confrontation with Al's bully of a father. The whole scene is one shot beginning on the ironing board, tilting up and panning right as Al moves across taking our focus naturally to Birdy and Al's Dad, who argue in the room at the end of the corridor. Al's Dad walks towards us and locks himself in the bathroom, as Birdy screams at him through the door. Al moves into the shot briefly to silently point out his friend's recklessness. As he does so, he disguises the camera move forwards ready for a tighter shot when Al's Dad angrily emerges from the john. Mum enters left and the camera pans 180 degrees as Birdy moves out towards the kitchen and the back door passing Al on the way, stuffing the money in his hands. It's always lighting or camera position and the resultant effect that a prolonged take has on all the actors can be electric.
It took all day and much film to get that one perfect take. But one is all you need.
The day we filmed the High School Prom, Kristi Zea, my Costume Designer, handed me a card saying, "Good luck on the big day." This puzzled me because, for us, it wasn't our big day at all. This kind of scene, although filled with production details, is comparatively easy to film. It was, of course, the Costume Department's big day because for weeks they had
religiously scoured Philadelphia for authentic 60's prom dresses. The Make-up and Hair Departments were determined that not one face that wasn't accurate to the period should be allowed to slip through. When you're roaming this kind of crowd with a second camera, looking for spontaneous moments to occur, the Wardrobe and Make-up Departments can often be caught out as suddenly a background artist with minimal period attention is elevated to a close-up. I greatly benefited from their thoroughness, although it's a pain in the neck waiting 'til mid-day to get everyone ready.
The exteriors of Al's house (for the boys tinkering with the car), were shot in one of the toughest parts of North Philly. We had been warned off of North Philly by the police when originally looking for locations but, as always happens, this street was the one we wanted. During a local T.V. interview I had mentioned that our experiences in Philly had been less than enjoyable and an alert P.R. person at City Hall promptly persuaded the Mayor to pop along to our location and present me with a tribute plaque. Mayor Goode is Philly's first black Mayor and consequently a hero in the predominantly black area where we were filming. We stopped shooting while he and his entourage strolled along the battered stoops and balconies not missing an opportunity to press the flesh and ooze unctuous platitudes like all good politicians. He made a short speech and then started to harangue the local crowd, ordering them to behave themselves and help the film people. He would have made an excellent Second Assistant Director.
We had a few more days left of Philly before our move to Wildwood. The new casinos and skyscraper hotels had ruled out our shooting on the Atlantic City boardwalk and I had settled on Wildwood, whose tacky charm hadn't changed in forty years. Our stay coincided with "Senior Week" which meant an unusually high level of vociferous "rubber necks." (It's always been mystery to me how people find the tedious, repetitive process of filming remotely interesting, but however much you hide your camera they always seem to be able to sniff you out.) Our most difficult mechanical task was "Zimmy the Human Fish." The gentleman who was playing it, a jeweller by profession, had been recruited at the local swimming club and was thoroughly miserable (and who can blame him) as he held his breath while we filmed, the fishes nosed around, and the construction department prayed that the water pressure wouldn't burst the glass tank.
Back to Philadelphia airport and our charter plane to San Francisco.
We were in Philadelphia, on and off, for the past eight months and I think it's fair to say that no one will be returning for vacations.
Our first week in California was spent filming on a duplicate set we'd built of Birdy's bedroom in West Philly, but the more difficult work we saved for more controllable conditions. A disused cold storage plant near Agnew Hospital in Santa Clara served as a make-shift studio. Make-shift or not, it was wonderful to return to a sane pace of filming where the logistics and madness of a city didn't dictate your every move, every decision. For a while, I thought I was back at Pinewood, except the sun was shining on the way to work.
Inside Birdy's bedroom, we had to show Birdy's imagination once more as it takes flight. Again, the Steadicam was used and a new Steadicam operator entered stage - almost with a cape and trumpet fanfare. There is a new breed of camera operator who specialize in "the Steadicam shot" on movies and arrive rather like a lion-tamer in a circus. The achieved results always wipe out the memory of the tedious and repetitive process you go through to get the shots. American crews have a word for technicians who hog the limelight for the moment, while they play with the trainset: it's called "Grandstanding" and it's the fundamental, if only, difference between American and British crews.
Matthew worked well with the canaries. His gentle and sympathetic handling of the fragile birds was very touching and we did some of our most interesting work during this period.
Birdy's "flight" from the gas tanks was shot at a partially used Gasworks at Hercules on the north shore of the Bay. We built on to an existing structure and working 100 feet up, perched on a tiny platform, wasn't helpful to anyone's fear of heights, especially mine. A director with a fear of Birds and heights making a film about flying? But once again you forget these things when the sheer desperation of getting the shot takes over. Our stuntmen rehearsed the fall on to the sand pile and we shot for what seemed like a bone-crunching number of times. Fortunately, stuntmen always get up and walk away with that John Wayne "I'm o.k." smile on their faces. I'm always reluctant to do these things too many times, but the stuntmen are quite happy to, as they get "adjustments" to their pay each time they give their vertebrae a battering. As always, Matthew was fearless working at height. Nicolas, on the other hand, never seemed comfortable above the first flight of stairs. "I'm in character," he would weakly reply whenever asked if he was scared hanging over the ledge held by a safety wire.
The rubbish dump where Birdy flies his ornithopter was situated in a place rather romantically called "Newby Island." We experimented with a 100 foot wire hanging from a helicopter to allow us to "fly" Birdy into the pond of water we'd constructed at the bottom of the hill of garbage. We planned to land in a real reservoir of water thirty yards further, but a test of the water had shown it to be too risky to our actors' health. We decided to start early, as the light would be good and the wind was at a minimum for the first few hours of the morning. After that, the ornithopter hanging from the helicopter wire tended to have a life of its own. It was difficult to control and there was always a fear that it would end up across the bay in Oakland. Our wire man was an expert from Pinewood, who developed an odd expertise in "flying" from the extensive work that he did on the "Superman" films. (So many strange "experts" are thrown up from a busy film industry.) I wanted the entire area strewn with garbage as far as the eye could see, which presented a few legal problems as open garbage had to be covered after so many hours for health reasons. Once again, the Production Designer haggled, while we got on with the filming. As it was, there was a gentle smell of methane gas given off from the solid mountain of waste we were standing on, and many of us were coughing for weeks afterwards. I once described film making as being "in the trenches" and never before was it quite so apt. The movie circus of trucks and trailers parked itself, as always, atop of this rubbish heap: a most incongruous site - watching people eat their lunch while hundreds of gulls searched for theirs among the freshly turned-over garbage. The wire and harness served us well as we "flew" Matthew and the ornithopter from the brow of the hill into the water. We even strapped the camera to our operator Mike Roberts, and swung him like a giant pendulum, to get Birdy's point of view as he speeds across the garbage. Sky-Cam without tears.
Back at Agnew Hospital the complex of cells, wards and corridors we had built were now painted and aged down, damp patched, chipped and worn to look as lived-in as possible. Using real buildings and constructing a set within it meant real bricks, joists and real planning permission. But I gradually progressed and had a set that could be shot from the many angles I needed, and always had layers, depth and textures wherever the lens would be pointed. Birdy's cell was priority. Its interesting, almost eccentric architecture would enable me great scope to vary the staging, so avoiding a succession of similar two-handed scenes. Cinematically, the most difficult challenge for any director is a bare room and two actors, especially when there are many such scenes in the film. I tried to vary the cinematic possibilities of each scene as much as possible. There were times when I thought I'd run out of ways to use and place the camera. I'm not an admirer of talking head cinema.
In order to help Matthew and Nicolas with the development (or disintegration) of their characters I scheduled to shoot "in sequence" chronologically wherever possible. Dr. Weiss' office we had constructed in the center of a much larger room to once again give depth and layers to our shots.
Matthew had his hair shorn off, down to military length, and strangely looked older, which suited us well. His face and contorted body were all he would be working with in the next few weeks.
Nicolas had taken the biggest step of all in changing his personality. First, he had two teeth pulled on either side of his jaw to simulate the shrapnel damage to his face. Second, we decided he should wear his bandages continuously during these last four weeks on and off the set. The decision was a brave one on his part. It impeded his eating and seriously restricted his social life off screen. But it helped to allow him to sense the feelings Al might have imprisoned within the bandages. Obviously, it had to be an authentic dressing for a serious shrapnel wound and yet I needed to reveal as much of Nic's face as possible to allow him to act and use what remained of his features. Each morning fresh bandages would be applied as Nic kept his eyes closed.
The next weeks were spent shuttling between the two main sets of Birdy's cell and Weiss' office in order to shoot sequentially. John Hark played Dr. Weiss and Karen Young, Hannah. Each became an important element in the chemistry. Weiss was as close as we got to a villain in the piece in so much as he represented the Military and hence the arguments for sending the young men to fight in far off lands.
But he was also a psychiatrist. He had brought Al to help Birdy and apart from his military myopia and lack of patience he was, after all, doing his job.
A difficult character to make unsympathetic, we trod very carefully with his characterization. We had to build the claustrophobia and desperation very carefully as Al, in trying to reach out for his friend, loses touch with himself. Weiss would personify official stubbornness and intransigence of institutionalized minds that made up the walls Birdy and A1 would have to soar above.
Hannah would be the mute, Birdy's only other link with reality. I tried to avoid the usual Angel of Mercy. She was just doing a job; she could just have easily been working the checkout at a supermarket. Her honesty and lack of medical melodrama was important. She would also allow us a glimpse of the old Al, the remnants of the High School jock whose confidence had perhaps vanished with his once handsome face. I was particularly pleased with the scene of Al and Hannah in the supply room as he clumsily attempts to kiss her. It, hopefully, summed up all his frustrations and shattered feelings.
Filming the hospital scenes was probably, dramatically, the most satisfying of the film. The entire film was an interweaving of past and present and only now did the film in the can begin to look something like the film in the back of our heads.
Nicolas made things considerably easier for us by being thoroughly prepared for his longer and more difficult monologues. He struggled with living inside his bandages and rarely went out, spending most evenings alone in his hotel room with the script pages Scotch-taped around his walls. In my past experiences I often found young American actors are prone to "roughly" learning their lines under the guise of greater spontaneity and the search for truth. Although no written lines are ever sacrosanct, it's nice to hear them read as originally conceived before an actor bends them to his needs in the pursuit of realism. So often in films, rambling improvisation is a smoke screen for an entire generation of actors who do not have the facility, or discipline, to learn lines. I had reiterated this in a rather didactic manner in rehearsal and Nicolas wasn't about to let us down. He was uncannily faithful to the text. Matthew had the unenviable task of playing the mute foil to Nicolas' pyrotechnics. At the end of the day his crumpled body would be numb, as he patiently and silently reacted in a thousand tiny ways to Al's emotional outbursts. In the story, of course, Al needs Birdy more than Birdy needs Al. It's Birdy who copes by retreating inside himself. But Al is the one who is more likely to be trampled on, because he takes the world on headlong. Nicolas as a person, as an actor, bore no resemblance to the cocky, handsome youth who swaggered through the streets of Philadelphia just a few weeks before. As we tackled the scenes in the cell, you could see Nic/Al's vitality drain from him as it was transferred to, almost sucked in, by Birdy. No director is sure how other directors direct. Each of us succeeds or fails in his or her own particular way, the only common ground being the words "Action" and "Cut." I have a clear view of what I want from an actor and am always ready to be surprised by it being better than the performance on the floppy disc at the back of my brain. What I won't allow is for it to fall below that imaginary standard. For Nicolas and Matthew, I vacillated between a benign uncle and a demonic school teacher, but hopefully never gave them any hint that I would expect less than what I thought was the best they could do.
Creating this kind of environment, with complete concentration from everyone, is for me the most important contribution a director can make to an actor's performance. Attention to every syllable and eyebrow movement and hours of hand on shoulder motivation can sometimes tend to dissipate the energies. The camera only films the performance, not the chat that goes into it, however erudite and loquacious that might be.
For Nicolas' final, and most difficult, monologue, I decided to use two cameras. Some actors are hot off the blocks and others need a mile and a half of Eastman Kodak before they feel warmed up. Nicolas belongs to the former, and I didn't want to be on the wrong shot for when the magic occurred. For a performance as harrowing as this one, an actor only has one or two performances where he can give his all. Tears don't come all day. Sometimes with the passing takes, it can get more emotionally emphatic and give you the misconception that it's improving, only to find later, at rushes, that it wasn't better, merely louder. The second camera stayed on a tight two shot throughout this early take and I used it in the film in its entirety, without a cut.
The ending for the film had always given me a problem. I don't know that I ever got the ending for "Shoot the Moon" right. It seemed right for me then and still does, but a number of critics disagree and, consequently, I was a little paranoid at concluding BIRDY satisfactorily. Everyone from my children to my agent had begged me not to follow my normal macabre route and kill them. But the dramatic line that we were following seemed, partly at any rate, to lead to this conclusion. As with "Midnight Express," I re-wrote the ending about two weeks off of shooting it, which is close to the wire, but probably the best way. Films have a way of taking on a life of their own and consequently endings tend to present themselves.
Our last days at Agnew Hospital were a mixture of frivolity (the light at the end of the tunnel syndrome), and great seriousness, as we tackled the most emotional parts of the script. The "clients" of Agnew (an active, if partially empty, mental hospital), would wander by on their way to lunch or to therapy (sorting out nuts and bolts, courtesy of Boeing Corp. - a thought I put into the script). It's sometimes a very shoddy feeling when you're creating a charade within a real environment. It means nothing to accurately portray a mentally sick person or show injury with phony blood and plastic dismembered bodies. What is the perverse fascination with the horrors of the real world that makes us so desperate to duplicate them on celluloid? In between takes we watched the really sick people pass our cameras with hands on one another's shoulders for balance and direction, many with special motorcycle helmets covering their whole faces because of frequent falls. We politely ignore their wild, frustrated incoherent moans or smile benignly with sufficient good manners as I selfishly think only of my film and the crew and their overtime penalties. I had had just such a shabby feeling about my job during "Midnight Express" where a "great shot" often meant a captured glimpse of some unfortunate's misery.
Our final lap of filming would be in Modesto to film the Vietnam sequences, with a brief stop in Stockton to film the opening scene of Al on the train drawing the puzzled stares of the little girl opposite.
In Modesto we had helicopters and the full paraphernalia of real War, except we could stop for meal breaks and re-do explosions. For three months we had been growing tropical shrubbery and a dozen Mexican gentlemen had helped us move in the palm trees and build our own burned out forest which Birdy would fly through on his escape from the horrors of the real world. Each burned out tree was especially planted from dead trees found around the area and torched to blackness by our Art Director, who was a dab hand with the flame thrower. Once again we painstakingly recreated a gruesome tableau of charred bodies surrounding Birdy's crashed helicopter and our special effects man laid on the charges for the fifteen 20 gallon drums of gasoline that would simulate a napalm strike. This explosion we shot with four cameras and the heat of the blast was so great the phony blood splashed on our "dead" extras and the burned out wreckage began to boil. Matthew had to be in the front line of this explosion as our closest camera was shooting past his face into the conflagration beyond. The moving helicopters had, in the wake of the "Twilight Zone" accident, involved an enormous number of discussions with the F.A.A. regarding the safety of the shots.
We had almost completed the film. Just the Medivac to go where the injured Al is helped to the medical helicopter. The gentlemen who rented us the choppers, on the final shot demanded double the agreed fee, knowing that we had to complete, threatening to remove the helicopters which were the focus of our shot. Alan Marshall promptly talked some sense in a not very English gentlemanly manner. We completed.
Just then, out of the smoke came a waiter dressed in a white tuxedo and black bow-tie carrying a tray of cappuccino coffees. It was the final gesture of my second Assistant Director who had been ribbed by me since Philadelphia for not supplying a decent cup of coffee. It might not seem very funny now, but in the wilderness, miles from nowhere, up to our ankles in mud, it was very funny. Everyone hugged. We'd wrapped. The end of picture party back at the hotel. More hugging, champagne and tears. Back to England and editing.
I am particularly blessed in the finishing of our films with the help of Alan Marshall ( himself a fine editor) and Gerry Hambling, who has cut all my films and never fails to surprise and amaze me. At the risk of too much syrup, it was enjoyable doing the music with a very successful collaboration with Peter Gabriel, which I would hope to repeat.
Eight weeks after returning to Pinewood from California, we had our first cut and, at the time of writing, we are in the middle of our final sound mix at Elstree Studios. A very rewarding period, this is when all the elements came together for the first time. The diary says it's exactly a year since I first went to Philadelphia to look for locations.
After the slog of my three previous films, particularly the last, I had begun to wonder if film directing was a sensible thing for a sane person to pursue. After BIRDY, I feel my appetite has been renewed.
Alan Parker, Pinewood Studios, November '84.