The death this week of Arthur Penn, the great film, theater and television director, brought back some memories. I worked as a music editor with him on three films – FOUR FRIENDS, TARGET and DEAD OF WINTER and felt him an amazing collaborator, along with his long-time sidekick Gene Lasko, and a gentle man.
One of the first things I learned from him, though, has very little to do with music, but everything to do with how films grow organically and how none of us can know everything.
It was on the set of the film FOUR FRIENDS, which we shot in the Chicago area. One of the very first days of shooting was a night shoot in which the four high school friends, living in the mid-1960s, met in the middle of a suburban street, approaching each other from opposite sides of the street.
Arthur, who by this time had directed ten films (including the amazing works BONNIE AND CLYDE, ALICE’S RESTAURANT, MICKEY ONE, and THE MIRACLE WORKER), a few TV movies, and something like three dozen episodes of television shows, set up the first master shot so that it followed three of the characters as they danced down the street playing the New World, until they stopped — out of breath.
As the music editor on the film, one of my responsibilities on the film was to work with the four actors so they knew their musical parts (we were recording live, even though we would eventually replace the music in post) and could play it together. I watched as Arthur set up that first wide shot, and worked it until we got it done. We followed two of the characters down the street, as they played a bit from Dvorak’s New World Symphony on their instruments with the other two — who were off camera for most of the shot. Eventually, the camera (which was on Garrett Brown’s Steadicam) moved to the center of the street as the shot turned into a four shot, with the four friends playing to each other. (I should mention that Jodi Thelen’s character was named Georgia, and they all had a major crush on her in some way — hence the choice of the piece by screenwriter Steve Tesich).
After getting a good take on that first master shot, Arthur proceeded to line up the camera for the first piece of coverage. He and the d.p. (Oscar winner Ghislain Cloquet) walked around for a bit with their director’s viewfinders, setting up the shot until Arthur finally looked up and told the first assistant director, Cheryl Downey, that he had actually set up the first (Steadicam) shot incorrectly. Instead of ending up in the middle of the street pointing to the four characters, he really should have ended up with the camera on the sidewalk, pointing to the opposite side of the street for the characters’ four shot.
In other words, the shot we had spent forever setting up and getting would have to be redone.
Arthur looked around, apologized to the crew, and we all went out and prepped for the revised master shot. Which we got in record time. Happily.
Now, the point that I’m making isn’t that even a director of Penn’s stature can make a mistake. We are all human, and we all can make mistakes. No, what I’m pointing out is that the genius of Arthur leading this crew and allowing himself the ability to discover the best filmmaking approach as the film develops. Despite an amazing career, a great cinematographer, and a professional crew surrounding him, Arthur learned something about the scene and wasn’t afraid to take his lumps in front of the crew as he admitted it.
He learned as he shot. And that is an amazing ability. In my book THE FILM EDITING ROOM HANDBOOK, I said it myself (I believe in the first or second edition). I have never had a job in which I didn’t learn something. When I get to the place where I stop learning, it’s time to quit.
There was another time when I found myself amazed at something that Arthur did on that film. We were shooting a scene in which a group of high school students, in an auditorium, stormed the stage during an Army recruiting speech, singing “Hit The Road Jack.” We were shooting coverage onto the audience and Arthur put the camera on a very short dolly track and as the students came up to the front of the stage he pushed in ever so slightly. It didn’t look like much on the stage where we were all standing behind the camera. In fact, it didn’t even look so impressive the next night when we all watched it in dailies.
But, several months later, when I saw the scene as editor Barry Malkin had cut it, as I was smoothing out the music for a screening, that short little dolly move took my breath away. Even on my tiny 35mm Moviola screen.
FOUR FRIENDS came and went relatively quickly, but I learned several things about learning from Arthur Penn on that movie — I learned to question my own assumptions — that shot that I was sure wasn’t that impressive turned out to be just right. And I also learned how to act when something I learned changed my thinking in front of my collaborators. It’s never too late to learn, I learned. It’s only when we stop learning that it comes “too late.”
Categories : Filmmaking, Personal, Production