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                        Celebrating the Art of Cinema, ... and Cinema as Art


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Leonard Peltier  

     Peltier was (still is) a Native American activist, primarily of Chippewa and Lakota Sioux descent,  who was convicted in a still controversial court case for the murders of two FBI agents during a conflict at South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975.  Considered by many a “political prisoner”, and his case since listed in the “Unfair Trials” category of Amnesty International’s Annual Report (USA: 2010),  Peltier - to date still imprisoned after numerous failed legal appeals, has to many become symbolic of the United States’  not only historically genocidal, but more contemporary litigiously questionable treatment of it’s original indigenous population.  Olmos’ Eddie Holt is in some respects a thinly veiled version of Peltier.  And it’s here where Wadleigh’s film (as well as it’s titular beasts) becomes the “political animal”. 

Mother Nature's domestic "terrorist" 

     It is through Holt that Wilson learns of the existence of the Wolfen and of their parallel descent to near extinction not unlike that of their human “counter parts” - the Native American population.  The Wolfen, a super intelligent lupine species, existed for eons and numbered in the tens of thousands.  But when European settlers invaded the New World, their kind were destroyed and driven to small secret geographic pockets in order to survive.  From these “reservations” - some subterranean and others above ground, but all well concealed below or within heavily populated urban slum areas, the Wolfen would secretly hunt and feed for existence upon the dregs of society - the homeless, addicts and lost runaways. 

     Wilson, Neff and Wittington learn the disappearances and Van der Veer-like mutilations and removal of organs (wolves discard diseased portions of their kill) of thousands of people have been happening across the country for years.  But (as Gregory Hines’ Wittington points out …) “No one gave a leapin' shit till it was somebody who’d be missed!” - referring to Trump-like millionaire Christopher Van der Veer. 

     In Streiber’s novel two rebellious young Wolfen disregard elder rules and choose to kill two “important” humans - the policemen.  This is what sets in motion the story which exposes their existence.  In Wadleigh’s film version, it’s still the action of killing two “importants” which causes the exposition of the Wolfen species.  But in the case of the film’s narrative, Van der Veer and his wife were killed when the Wolfen realized the real estate magnate (and his South Bronx reclamation project) was becoming a threat to the existence of their primary urban hunting ground.

     Wadleigh seldom if ever gives discusses his work.  But in rare a sit-down he reflected upon WOLFEN:

     “ … recently when the Twin Towers went down, a number of people read about WOLFEN and said, ‘That was a film about terrorists’.  There were critics who well-recognized the parallels between my film and, as Barack Obama’s ex-minister Jeremiah Wright said, ‘The chickens coming home to roost’.  America had done many things abroad that were against it’s own ideals, and of course it had been done in the way we treated the American Indians. I don’t think there is anyone who disputes, with hindsight, the fact that we just stole their land and murdered them and drove them out of business - completely unacceptable behavior today“;

     “The whole backdrop is what we did to the Indians, and the reason I killed off Van der Veer is also made clear: that his great-great-ancestor reputedly brought the first machine to America - the windmill (a reproduction of which the Van der Veers were visiting in Battery Park the night they were killed) - and that machine stands for the Industrial Age and the supposedly superior technology of the Europeans that just wiped out the Indians. They really couldn’t compete.  I mean, doesn’t that sound right? It was all there in the film”.

  Finney's New York dialect coach - Al Pacino


     WOLFEN began principal photography on October 22, 1979.  And over the years even those who didn’t care for the film’s socio-political agenda have acknowledged the artistic mastery of it’s craft.  Albert Finney's performance as Wilson has been cited as a masterwork of understated reality, and proof it isn't necessary to chew scenery in order to draw an audience into a character's (in this case harrowing) psychological journey.  Dustin Hoffman had desperately lobbied for the role.  But Wadleigh was a lifelong fan of the multi-Oscar nominated Finney; his nod for MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS just a few years prior, and his next for THE DRESSER shortly to come in '83.  Ever the perfectionist, Finney sought an American dialect coach to help him nail "New York" verbal inflection without cliche.  And he managed to come away with one of the best - another multi Oscar nominated actor, Al Pacino.  Among WOLEN's many other justly lauded technical achievements were it’s stunning Set Design, cutting-edge Cinematography, Visual FX, Sound Mix and Musical Score.

     The impressive interior WOLFEN sets of Production Designer Paul Sylbert (ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, KRAMER VS. KRAMER, ROSEWOOD) were built at New York’s Astoria Studios in Queens; and they’d include Van der Veer’s lush “Kubrick-esque” high rise office as well as the near "sci-fi-ish" base of operations of the “Executive Surveillance Systems” security company.  But it would be Sylbert’s full-sized “burned out/abandoned” South Bronx church - the lair of the titular creatures, which would go down in history as the largest exterior set ever constructed in New York.  It’s charred multi-layered stairwells, pews and cracked and shattered stained glass windows combine to create a dark, light-refracting carnival funhouse behind from which corners the film’s characters (as well as members of the movie audience) are never sure what lurks.  


     The cinematography of Gerry Fisher (JUGGERNAUT, HIGHLANDER, RUNNING ON EMPTY) is an effective juxtaposition of “dark and brooding” (captured in the nocturnal city landscapes), "color-desaturated poverty" (prevalent in the South Bronx), and “high tech slick” (for the security company offices) - an impressive visually thematic commentary on the conflict between man’s modern industrial age vs. the more primal (better?) lifestyle/nature world-view of the title creatures.  The cinematographic highlight of the film however (what audiences remember to this day) is the stunning usage of the (then still new) Steadicam as the WOLFEN creatures-POV device.

Brown & Steadicam with Kubrick on THE SHINING   

     Created in the mid 1970s, and destined to change the film making industry, the Steadicam was the brainchild of Philadelphia-based inventor/cinematographer/documentary film maker Garrett Brown.   With a basic design consisting of a harnessed camera (worn by the operator) attached to an “iso-elastic” arm and a multi-axis counterweight system, it for the first time allowed the filming of extended tracking shots without the need for laying cumbersome camera rails, while also eliminating the unavoidable “news camera-like” bump & jostle of the hand-held units of the day.  After Brown’s first successful test footage (following his wife up and down the Olympian steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum) his invention was licensed and manufactured by Cinema Products, then went on to wow the film industry with it’s first usage in Hal Ashby’s BOUND FOR GLORY (1976), then bowl over the film going public as it raced around Brown’s beloved Philadelphia as Sylvester Stallone’s visual “training partner” in John Avildsen’s ROCKY (1977). 

     Impressed by Brown’s original Art Museum steps test footage, director Avildsen even decided to incorporate the image into his film’s now legendary training montage.  And to this day thousands of tourist from around the world come to Philadelphia to record themselves doing the same.  With it’s usage three years later in Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (following young Danny Torrence and his big wheel through the halls of the haunted Overlook hotel, then later through the snow covered topiary “maze”) the “Steadicam look” became a pop culture icon … even a visual cliché.  But with WOLFEN, Director Wadleigh and cameraman/inventor Brown would give the cinematic tool it’s most innovative visual workout to date: not merely using it to follow characters with speed and agility, but to actually MAKE IT a bonafied living/breathing character with those attributes.

                Brown & Steadicam on WOLFEN with Finney, Venora and Wadleigh (second from right)


     On THE SHINING Stanley Kubrick had asked Brown to “shoot from barely above the floor”, and this lead Brown to create a “low mode” bracket which allowed him to mount the top of the camera to the bottom of an inverted post.  This not only allowed for extreme dramatic angles, but caused the illusion that objects moving by on the left and right periphery were doing so with far greater speed than in actuality.  Wadleigh and Brown would build upon this with FX maestro Robert Blalack in their creation of (what they dubbed) “Alienvision”. 

     Blalack had recently won an Oscar as part of George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic team for their groundbreaking FX work on STAR WARS.  When STAR WARS sudden success spawned a need for more FX facilities, Blalack founded Praxis, which Wadleigh then brought in after an earlier company failed to meet his and Brown’s needs.  The first attempt, jokingly dubbed “Smell-O-Vision”, was to take Brown’s exhilarating color filmed “low mode” footage - captured as the cameraman scurried around New York (over the Brooklyn Bridge, through the rubble of the South Bronx, The Battery, Wall Street, and residential neighborhoods - Brown is 6’ 8” and with the stamina of a marathon runner):  then to superimpose ghostly black and white human silhouettes onto it, thus implying how the Wolfen track by scent.  When however this ultimately proved visually unexciting, they chose a more colorful “psychedelic thermographic” look, one which would just a few years later be imitated almost to a “t” by John McTiernan’s PREDATOR. 

     Stereo sound in films had been around in one form or another since the 1940s.  But the launch of the Digital Age in the early 80s took cinematic sonic design to a new plateau.  WOLFEN was one of the first features to truly capitalize on the new technology.  Multi-hyphenate editor/second assistant director/sound editor Andrew London graduated to Sound Designer on WOLFEN and, in conjunction with composer James Horner, created a three-dimensional “wall of hyper-real audience immersive sound” whenever the film’s POV switches to the “Alienvision” perspective of the lupine creatures; each such filmic “smash cut” heralded audio-sonically by a jarring electronically processed gunshot bent and molded to serve as both sound effect and musical interlude. 

     James Horner would become one of the most sought after composers in modern film, with memorably popular scores to COCOON, ALIENS, WILLOW, 48HRS., COMMANDO, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, FIELD OF DREAMS, BRAVEHEART, APOLLO 13, TITANIC and AVATAR amongst his many credits.  But WOLFEN was the fulcrum point which took him from innovative “B” movie composer to the top of Hollywood’s “A” list.  Born in Los Angeles, Horner studied abroad (London’s Royal College of Music) and at home (at USC), and originally sought the career of an avant-garde composer/musician till veering into film scoring after several assignments with the AFI (American Film Institute) during the 1970s. 

 James Horner   

     From the AFI, Horner would then become one of “B” movie maverick Roger Corman’s “go to” artists on films such as HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP and BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (both 1980) while other fledgling future cinema giants-in-the-making such as James Cameron, producer Gale Anne Hurd, and editor Mark Goldblatt worked side by side with him on the same films. 

     Earlier in 1981 Horner “graduated” to Warner’s small budget thriller THE HAND, written and directed by a young Oliver Stone, and starring Michael Caine as an illustrator who’s severed appendage takes on a murderous life of it’s own.  As a result of his high quality work on those previous projects (coupled with their need to be finished in record time) he was brought onto WOLFEN to replace an earlier score by original composer Craig Safan (THE LAST STARFIGHTER, STAND AND DELIVER).  Horner came aboard in the 11th hour to compose approximately 40 minutes of fully orchestrated music within 12 short days.  While a great break for Horner, the replacement score was but one sign that the creative love affair between WOLFEN’s director Michael Wadleigh and Orion Pictures was beginning to show signs of strain. 

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