Behind the Scenes with a Behind the Scenes Operator: Reel Life

From attending to director Michael Winner’s parking meter and falling foul of the British film censor to interviewing David Lean at the National Film Theatre in London, Tony Sloman’s autobiography casts a fascinating light on the British film industry.  A marvellous string of anecdotes relating to Othello (1965), One Million Years B.C. (1966), Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang (1968), Wonderwall (1968), De Sade (1969) and cult television series The Prisoner (1968) are augmented by insights into the less well-known aspects of how movies are made. 

Most commonly associated with the sound and editing departments, he also directed two British sex films Sweet and Sexy (1971) and Not Tonight, Darling (1971). In addition, he is also a walking encyclopaedia on film – he later lectured on the subject – and a riveting part of the book involves how he fell in love with the movies. I’ve read countless biographies of actors and directors who made it big in pictures and rarely, if ever, do their stories focus on their love of the medium, of the films they saw when growing up and the experiences that entailed. So the first part of this book plays off to the soundtrack of inveterate filmgoing in the 1950s at his local cinema in London and then up to the West End, one expedition to view a revival of Gone with the Wind ending up instead with the saucier Femmes de Paris (1953).

Getting into the business was very difficult for a tailor’s son from Streatham and, having determined to become a film editor, even attending evening film classes failed to open any doors until he responded to a newspaper advert and became a dispatch boy and soon after an editor for a small suite of cutting rooms in Soho in the same building as Private Eye magazine, thus beginning a long apprenticeship in this particular discipline, working in all the  British studios from biggies like Shepperton, Elstree and Pinewood to smaller outfits such as Merton Park.

Except for this book I would be unaware of the how menial are some of the tasks essential for a film to be made. One of his earliest jobs was to attend the screening of rushes and “tick the selected takes in the rushes notebook…and then after numbering them break them out in script order for the editor to assemble the next day in the cutting copy.” He learned not to count frames or measure length when dictating a particular cut but to put himself in the position of the character and the audience, how much of what they see needs to be shown to register.  

One of the refreshing elements of this biography is that the author is happy to own up to professional and personal mistakes. As he didn’t drive he was unable to synchronise car engine sounds in the correct manner. He got into trouble for labelling cans containing film in pen and not stencil. As a result of personal mishap, he learned the hard way never to film anything without a continuity person present.

His second directorial effort “Not Tonight Darling” was renamed “Frustrated Wives.”

And he has a fan’s delight at meeting stars in the flesh, walking down the street with a David Niven determined to be swamped by fans, recounting that Maximilian Schell is shorter than expected, James Mason taller. He reveals that Dana Andrews’ favorite of his own films is not a Hollywood classic like Laura (1944) or The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) but the lesser known Three Hours to Kill (1954) because when the producer ran out of cash he paid the actor in Mexican artefacts that came to be worth a quarter of a million dollars. Former silent film star Bessie Love tried to convert him to Christian Science when the author would have rather she reminisced about her days in early Hollywood. Eating in a restaurant in Cannes he watched at another table Federico Fellini and Luchino Visconti share a bowl of bouillabaisse and later bumped (literally) into Graham Greene and encountered in the hills working as barman a former camera operator for Jean Renoir.

He met the entire Dirty Dozen at lunch in the studio canteen, heard Maggie Smith swear and enjoyed an up-close-and-personal encounter with Raquel Welch over the moviola “pressing closer to me in that tiniest of bikinis.” Working with  Ray Harryhausen on One Million Years B.C. (1966) “my main function with him was to be his own personal soundstage at Elstree with the moviola…to see where his newly-shot material would go into the sequence as cut…Ray needed to see them over and over and do frame counts before shooting his effects.” On the same film he was responsible for writing “dialogue” – in other words” a series of grunts and sounds that would match up with the actor’s mouth movement.”

There are other fascinating nuggets. He played an unsung part in the success of The Prisoner, coming up with the ideal piece for the beginning of the Arrival episode – the “Radetzky March.” He had an unusual job title, too, “Film Librarian,” which consisted of getting all the back projections which had already been filmed ready for the actual set. Supplying library material as and when, shooting inserts, and matching new film to location work.  “The secret of finding music for mute material was not merely finding music that was appropriate but to find music that would positively enhance the image to which it would be matched.”

There are other fascinating nuggets. Donald Sutherland was revoiced in his role in Oedipus the King (1968) but after the success of Mash (1970) his original voice was put back in. The first screening of Wonderwall (1968) was for the Beatles because George Harrison had expressed an interest in writing the score. In the course of this when his Indian-style slippers were ruined  by rain someone on the set whipped up for him a “customized pair of cardboard shoes made from Technicolor delivery boxes.” Composer John Barry was set to co-finance a film called The Jam but the screenplay was shown to Jean-Luc Godard who promptly went out an made Weekend (1967).

Sweet and Sexy” was renamed “Foursome” for the U.S. market, even though no such activity takes place. At one point Scottish actress Quinn O’Hara had been engaged to U.S. pop star Fabian.

He shared a flat with Michael Billington (Alfred the Great, 1968) – who holds the record for most auditions for the role of James Bond. Billington was a lover of Liza Minelli, Barbara Broccoli and Quinn O’Hara and was slated to direct Sloman’s first film but when he was offered a starring role in the UFO series (1970-1971), Sloman took over the directorial reins and recruited as leading man Billington’s UFO stand-in Robert Case. Quinn O’Hara (Cry of the Banshee, 1970), Billington’s girlfriend, had the female lead. It began life with the relatively harmless title of City Suite.

But when it was funded by Miracle Films, the title changed to City, Sweet and Sexy and finally plain old Sweet and Sexy (though it goes by the name of Foursome on imdb). What the Americans called “sexploitation.” The initial budget only ran to £15,000 but was increased to  £20,000. But when submitted to the British Board of Films Censors in October 1970, it was refused a certificate unless 40 minutes were cut. After nearly 18 months of wrangling it was finally granted an X-certificate – minus 21 offensive minutes – and the 69-minute picture finally opened at the Cameo Royal in London in March 1972.

Sloman had better luck with his second feature, Not Tonight Darling (1971) – also known as Frustrated Wives. Luan Peters (Lust for a Vampire, 1971) came on board as star and Sloman had the good luck to snare pop band Thunderclap Newman, who had enjoyed a big hit with “Something in the Air”, for the score. There were also appearances by Jason Twelvetrees, who had also been in Sweet and Sexy, Fiona Richmond (Let’s Get Laid, 1978) and James Hayter  (A Challenge for Robin Hood, 1967).

The book ends in the early 1970s and I can only hope Tony Sloman is hard at work on a second volume as his memoirs are a welcome antidote to the raft of books about big stars which are often far less entertaining. An excellent read, especially if you are interested in the behind-the-scenes aspects of movie making.

EXTRA: This is not in the book but I did a bit of digging on my own account to see if any of his movies were ever screened in the U.S. I found out, as noted in the article above, that “Sweet and Sexy” was released in the U.S. as “Foursome”. Despite the concerns of the British film censor, it was not that out of line otherwise it would not have received an “R” rating when it could easily have been rated “X.” I couldn’t find any sign of a review, either in “Variety” or “Box Office,” the two main trade magazines. But I did find some evidence that it had been screened in some big cities.

It was distributed by AIP in the U.S, and C-P in Canada. “Variety” and “Box Office” had different methods of measuring revenue. The former simply listed the gross. But the latter employed a different approach. It related the receipts for each film according to the average weekly take of a particular cinema. This was in some senses a better idea. Strong figures might not necessarily mean a good result if that cinema was used to movies knocking up big numbers.

In January 1972 “Foursome”, playing solo, had a “sexy” opening week, according to “Variety,” at the 1,200-seat Midtown in Philadelphia (tickets priced at $1.50-$3.00) with $14,000 (equivalent to $96,000 today) followed by s second week of $9,500. The same month, supported by “Freedom to Love” (1969), a documentary about sexual behavior, “Foursome” ran for three weeks at the 609-seat World (tickets $1.25) in Chicago. The first and third weeks both accounted for $3,800 but the second week was tops with $4,000. In April there was a “lusty” (presumably intended ironically) $3,100 at the 2,809-seat Loews Downtown (tickets $2.00-$2.50) in Dayton where it played solo.

In August at the 676-seat Suburban World (tickets $2.25) in Minneapolis it scored a “fair” $4,000, again the only film on the program. In December it turned up at the 250-seat Playhouse (tickets $2.50) in Washington, as the supporting feature this time to “Together” (1971) starring Marilyn Chambers and directed by Sean S. Cunningham, later responsible for the first “Friday the 13th ” (1980). The outcome was a “sharp” $4,500. By comparing seating capacity and ticket prices you can get a better idea of the film performed.

Box Office magazine marked performance on a percentage basis against a basic mark of 100, which represented an average week. According to this magazine, the movie was also to be found in Hartford where it scored 175 (i.e. almost double the average week’s takings), New Haven (175), Boston (150) and Buffalo (100). The takings in Minneapolis were no great shakes according to this method of analyzing results, reaching only 100 on the magazine’s measuring system.

Box Office also noted a couple of outings in Canada, where it played as the supporting feature to “Love Me Like I Do” (1970) starring Dyanne Thorne, later immortalised as “Ilsa”. However, Canada appeared not to subscribe to the percentage system. Instead, in Winnipeg at the Downtown in March 1972 it was judged “very good” while in Toronto at the Coronet in November 1972 it was judged “fair.”

SOURCES: “Variety” – January 12, 1972, p8; January 26, 1972, p10; April 5, 1972, p14; August 30, 1970, p14; December 6, 1972; p14. “Box Office” – September 11, 1972, pB4; “Box Office Barometer,” September 18, 1972 pB4; November 6, 1972, p16; November 13, 1972, pK2; March 5, 1973, pK3.

Selling Sharif – The Pressbook for “Mayerling” (1969)

MGM didn’t know how to sell this. So they came up with three different campaigns. The first was the classical illustration of stars Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve about to kiss. This image was used for the film’s launch in the U.K. and at the Radio City Music Hall in New York. The artwork could be augmented if need be by various scenes from the film. You would categorize this as the straightforward romantic sell. Sharif after all was the most famous romantic idol of the decade following the monumental success of Doctor Zhivago (1965).

But this was the more liberalized 1969 rather the restrained mid-decade so MGM offered exhibitors the opportunity to promote the picture as a more salacious number, not overdone sexually since that would defeat the purpose of achieving a rating designed to attract the widest possible adult audience, but nonetheless touching on enough of the risqué to satisfy modern cinemagoing taste.

Of the two alternatives, one was considerably more spicy than the other. Using the tagline “No one woman could satisfy him…until he fell in love” this presented Sharif as wanton playboy, wine glass in hand, cavorting with cleavage-ridden woman.  The other approach, though technically more reserved, was as provocative since it highlighted Deneuve’s role as a high-class sex worker in Belle de Jour (1967), the sensational arthouse breakout. The connection would not be lost on the more sophisticated members of the audience.

Nor did the Pressbook avoid the more intimate elements of the drama and in fact the biggest article in the promotional material concerned the “emotional incest” between Sharif as the Crown Prince and his mother played by Ava Gardner – “the abnormally close relationship between the two was noted again and again in records of the era” – and in their first scene together “looked like lovers to the silver screen born.”

Historical films lent themselves to the kind of detail that journalists loved and the Pressbook for a movie set in a magnificent Vienna at the end of the nineteenth century capitalized on this.  As you might expect, waltzes played a key role in the social life of high society. The Pressbook introduced newspaper editors to the concept of “left-waltzing,” a particularly energetic form of the dance performed on state occasions. This waltz had a “strict etiquette” in that it is “forbidden to reverse no matter how dizzy one gets,” explained director Terence Young. Auditioning for extras to participate was made simpler by eliminating anyone who collided with another dancer.

The Pressbook, unusually, also casts light on directorial technique, again in reference to a waltz. This is the one where Omar Sharif scandalizes the court by opening a ball by dancing with his mistress Catherine Deneuve. Young wanted to create the effect of the whirling couple revolving into a world of their own.  To achieve this the stars had to “dance in a perfect circle, keeping a constant distance in the center of the ballroom floor from director of photography Henri Akedan and his revolving camera.”

Initially, Young resorted to “two elaborate and – as it proved – punishing devices since the dance had to be done over and over.” The first saw camera and stars balanced at opposite ends of a rotating “see-saw.” But this moved so fast Sharif lost his balance and Deneuve suffered from dizziness. Next, they were connected by a lasso but this metal contraption struck them so often in the hips it was abandoned. Finally, they reverted to the simplest of solutions, working round a circle chalked on the floor. 

To ensure authenticity, Young was able to film at the Hapsburg Palace, the Karlschirche and the Schonbrunn Palace. However, such was the urge to preserve these antiquities, the stars were not permitted to sit on any of the chairs or even get anywhere close to them, so it was standing room only for days at a time. However, the Vienna Opera House of 1888 was reconstructed on Parisian sound stages.

The marketers were able to take advantage of the current fashion for the vintage look as pioneered by the likes of The Beatles. Under the heading “Groovy Gear,” the promotional gurus encouraged exhibitors to target the university crowd and metropolitan areas with a preponderance of young people who would appreciate the “freaky clothes” and “up-town hippy clothing” like the military garb, long topcoats, high boots and fur hats worn in the film. Even so, the Pressbook originators were remarkably unimaginative when it came to dreaming up stunts and promotional gimmicks. Their best suggestions were a Catherine Deneuve look-alike contest and a competition to list all Omar Sharif’s roles. Rather more ambitious was the idea of inviting high school pupils to write an essay on aspects of the period.

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