STEVE VERTLIEB: THE MAN WHO "SAVED" THE MOVIES:
Behind The Scenes Film Production Blog # 3
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PHASE #3: Philadelphia, PA
AND PLANNING ..."
(Sun. Oct. 20th, 2013)
There are endless variations on the venerable axiom as to what constituents go into good work and / or ultimate success. Screenwriters learn early on the three most important attributes of a decent script are “Structure, structure and structure”. There is of course the old joke, wherein a driver, lost in New York City asks a street vendor the best way to get to Carnegie Hall, and he’s told “Practice, practice, practice” (Always liked that one). And when legendary director Terence Young (DR. NO, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE, THUNDERBALL) was asked many years after his involvement his opinion as to what secret ingredients go into the making of a great Bond film, he replied without hesitation “Sean Connery, Sean Connery and SEAN CONNERY”. Heh! Always liked that one even more. At any rate, you get the idea.
In our last Production Blog (#2 L.A. Shoot), a key theme was the dual "irony / though not really irony" of prepping one’s shoot out the proverbial “yin yang”, while simultaneously remaining open to “the winds of sudden inspiration from the Creativity Gods”. And this time around, that philosophy would factor more than ever as it became the mantra of our marathon Philadelphia, PA Phase 3 shoot. “Planning, Planning and just a little more Planning” combined with a bit of fortuitous timing, ... which at first appeared unfortuitous. Here’s how it went down …
A) Earlier this year, upon laying out the tentative shoot schedule (“so many days in Mars, PA.; so many in L.A.” etc.), we’d slated two weekends (with a third as contingency) for the Philadelphia portion. One weekend to be dedicated to exteriors in and around the Center City area, including the Academy of Music, where Steve Vertlieb first met friend and mentor - BEN HUR composer Miklos Rozsa in the late 1960s; the Fox TV Channel 29 building - where during his early 1980s TV career (before the station became a Fox affiliate) Steve headed up the Film & Video Dept.; and other locales. But dwindling finances (the squirrels nibbling at the vine of all creative endeavors) and a rapidly approaching Fall season (when it gets genuinely cold in this part of the country) necessitated getting it all done in ONE weekend (Oct. 19th - 20th), with the following Friday set aside as a “bad weather contingency date” if needed. Then …
B) Joined once again by our cinematographer from the Pittsburgh / Mars, P.A. “Monster Bash” shoot, Cameron Mitchell, we knew ahead of time that a scheduling conflict would preclude our sound man from that earlier “Phase 1” weekend, Ryan Farber, from being available to us this time around. We therefore launched a search for a replacement, which took us up to the very weekend of Oct. 19th; in fact right up to the Saturday in which we’d hoped to commence photography. At the last minute we acquired Charles Bouril, who proved to be a technical dream come true. But, even though Charles was willing to go that Saturday afternoon, and even though everyone, including our documentary subject himself, had altered their schedules accordingly, I made the difficult decision, in order that we might all start fresh and not feel rushed, to scrap Saturday, and begin early A.M. Sunday morning. We'd use the planned contingency Friday.
Filming in a major Northeastern city like Philadelphia, whereupon it’s population is stacked vertically near BLADE RUNNER-like atop one another, is a ballet of dodging traffic and pedestrians; especially on the weekend, and uber especially in and around the historic touristy locales we were planning on utilizing. But having grown up, lived and worked in Philly most of my life, I knew it’s “living, breathing and sleeping” schedule rather well, and hence decided an early A.M. (as in 4:30 A.M.!!!!!!) start would be optimum for the Center City photography for two reasons.
1) Philly (like most metropolises) just looks damned exponentially more beautiful at night, what with the various multi-colored lights and early morning blue hue slowly invading the overhead sky. And 2) Before the sun comes up, particularly in that brief sliver of time between 4:A.M. and 6:30 A.M., the streets of Center City Philadelphia, even around the towering City Hall and central Broad Street thoroughfare, unlike many other U.S. cities, is damned near a ghost town with hardly an auto or pedestrian traffic, as well as with easy parking almost anywhere you wish. If you’ve seen ROCKY (those early morning scenes when Stallone's jogging through town) or Terry Gilliam’s Philly-shot TWELVE MONKEYS, much of that is NOT just a film crew blocking off various streets. That “desertedness” genuinely IS the City of Brotherly Love in that ethereal time phase just before “magic hour”. Shooting during that time had been the plan weeks in advance, and that wouldn’t change. What DID change however was a bit of simultaneous madness and brilliance suggested by our D.P.
After the decision to scrap Saturday and use the Friday contingency, Cameron floated the notion of “combining the entire originally planned weekend”: namely to film both the early A.M. Center City material and the contingency day interiors (on-camera “One on One” interview / reminisces with Steve at his home in the Northeast section of town 17 miles away ) back to back all on the same Sunday. The interior shoot, on whichever day we shot it, was originally intended to begin around 11:30 A.M. anyway - around the time our early A.M. business was scheduled to finish up. So, we'd combine two days filming into one.
Whew! It would be a bitch of an exhausting marathon, because we had lots of LITERAL ground to cover in Center City, hopscotching from one locale to another blocks away; then to another, then to another; finally finishing up on the “high steel”, the center of the city’s Benjamin Franklin Bridge, stretching from Philadelphia across the Delaware River into Camden, N.J. But everyone agreed. And our "Philadelphia Marathon" was off and running.