It was rare for Otto Preminger to make a miscalculation on the business aspects of moviemaking. But when in 1964, in the middle of shooting In Harm’s Way (1965), he purchased for $100,000, pre-publication, the rights to K.D. Gilden’s epic novel (1046 pages) he anticipated filming a bestseller of Gone With the Wind proportions. Buoyed by the projection of book sales in the millions, he anticipated making the longest-ever commercial movie, running, in roadshow, for an unprecedented 270 minutes, with admission prices set at a record high.
That notion was scuppered when sales scarcely broached 300,000, the alternative, non-roadshow, was a slimmer picture that would come in at under 150 minutes. If you were going to make a picture set in the Deep South the obvious choice for screenwriter was Horton Foote, Oscar-winner for To Kill a Mockingbird.
The writer spent his months on the project, breaking down the unwieldy novel into manageable basic plot and structure. Although describing Preminger as “wonderful,” Foote’s vision clashed with the director’s and he was replaced by the less-experienced Thomas C. Ryan (The Pad and How To Use It, 1965).
The husband-and-wife principals were initially cast as Michael Caine – enjoying a golden period at the U.S. box office as explained in a previous article When Caine Was King – and Candice Bergen (Soldier Blue, 1967). When the latter dropped out, Jane Fonda (The Chase, 1966) was her replacement. Faye Dunaway was signed to a six-picture deal after Preminger saw her on Broadway in Hogan’s Goat and gave her a screen test. He also signed up, to a three-picture deal, John Philip Law (The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, 1966). After Sidney Poitier turned down the role of Reeve, he was replaced by Robert Hooks. The rest of the casting was relatively plain sailing, Burgess Meredith as a bigot, Diahann Carroll as a teacher.
Initially, Preminger planned to shoot in Georgia but, put off by union demands, switched to an area around Baton Rouge, Louisiana. As production designer Gene Callahan hailed from that town his local knowledge and connections helped overcome other obstacles. The house inhabited by Caine and Fonda was an actual Baton Rouge residence while the farms shown in the picture were on land rented from the state prison farm at St Gabriel. St Francisville provided the courthouse, hardware store, and various other locations.
Shooting began on June 6, 1966. For the first third of the shoot, Oscar-winning Loyal Griggs (In Harm’s Way) was director of photography, thereafter it was Milton Krasner (The Venetian Affair, 1966). The New York Times ran a story that Griggs had been fired, but was forced to print a rebuttal to the effect that he had asked to be taken off the picture following a back injury.
This being a Preminger production there was no shortage of tension, the director tending to weigh in on the less experienced or weaker actors. Michael Caine (Gambit, 1966) had accepted the role without reading the script because he was “so flattered and excited” to be asked. He learned to speak with a Southern accent. He received a tip from Vivien Leigh, who told him she recited the phrase “four door Ford” until it came out as “Foah Doah Fohd.”
Aware of Preminger’s reputation, Caine, at the outset, told Preminger that he was very shy and “if anybody ever shouted at me, I would burst into tears and go into my dressing room and not come out for the rest of the day.” Whether Preminger took this seriously, or understood the actor’s little joke, is unknown, but the director responded gently with, “I would never shout at Alfie.”
Others were not so lucky. John Philip Law received “merciless” treatment. This was in spite of the actor liking the director and believing the feeling was mutual, based on the notion that Law “was interested in European culture and other film-makers.” Nonetheless, the actor made few overtures. “He was intimidating enough that he wasn’t a guy I would seek out for a conversation.” Even so, Law appreciated his direction, often minor technical tips like not moving so fast or not to bend down.
In one scene Preminger turned on Law, “tearing him apart and the words were stinging.” Not content with that, he brought wrath to bear on the hapless hairdresser. When Dunaway raced to his defence, “Otto turned on me like a mad dog…I didn’t say anything, I just watched him…it was the only time I’ve really looked into the face at somebody’s who’s just gone into that sort of complete state of rage…I just froze.”
Her kissing scene with Law went to 16 takes, the director only getting the passion he required by literally banging their faces together, resulting in the actress receiving a fat lip. “She just went berserk,” said Law, “I was livid too (but) just gritting my teeth because if you added fuel to the fire he’d just blow.”
Enraged, Dunaway complained that she never wanted to work with him if he was going to behave like this, he muttered that was all right with him, words that she clung onto and sued as the basis for a court suit to end her contract.
But the numerous takes demanded were not confined to Dunaway. The kissing scene between Carroll and Hooks took longer – 20 takes. A scene in the judge’s house required 23 takes, and the scene in the diner a further six. (Though sometimes, the faulty takes were the result of actors not giving the correct line reading rather than Preminger’s imperiousness.)
But there was an overt tension that could not dismissed as the result of a director inclined to bullying. The racism the crew experienced was not an undercurrent. “You can cut the hostility here with a knife,” noted Diahann Carroll. “Down here the terror has killed my taste for going anywhere.” Robert Hooks observed, “You can feel the eyes watching you behind lace curtains…like they could cut your heart out.
Matters were not helped by the cast, ignoring the traditional perspective, jumping into the swimming pool at the motel. That an African American had deigned to join in resulted, according to Jane Fonda, in “reverberations all the way to New Orleans.” Preminger rented out the entire motel to minimize upsetting the locals. Even so, a bomb exploded one night in the pool and trailers were shot at.
Other incidents brought out the notorious Preminger temper. When the soundman switched off the air conditioning during a scene shot in a real hospital the sprinklers drenched the entire cast. Recalled Caine, “I have near seen anyone so near apoplexy. His eyes bulged out of his head.”
For Faye Dunaway, the role of a dirt farmer’s wife waiting for her husband to return from war, resonating too strongly. Her mother had done exactly the same. Dunaway felt “caught in this time warp from my past.”
The last day of shooting was August 13. The critics, almost in revenge for Preminger’s treatment of his actors, were venomous and he received some of the worst notices of his career.
SOURCES: Chris Fujiwara, The World and Its Double, The Life and Work of Otto Preminger (Faber and Faber, 2008), p342-349; Foster Hirsch, Otto, the Man Who Would Be King (Alfred A Knopf, 2007) p410-424; , Michael Caine, What’s It All About? (Arrow Books, 2010), p269-280; Faye Dunaway with Betsy Sharkey, Looking for Gatsby, My Life (Simon and Schuster, 1995) p28, 109, 113-114; Thomas Kiernan, Jane (GP Putnam and Sons, 1973) p200; “Preminger buys Sundown novel,” Film Daily, November 18, 1964, p3; “Conversations with Horton Foote,” On Writing 15, May 2002, p3.