September 2003

Re-Creating History

Nietzsche once said that only strong personalities endure history, the weak ones are extinguished by it. The same can be said for directors who tackle the many challenges inherent in a period film, in re-creating a time, a place, a group of people long since faded from memory. Jerry London, Daniel Petrie and Gary Ross are three such uncompromising filmmakers who, as someone once described, "know history is not contained in thick books but lives in our very blood." They have put their own sweat and blood into re-creating faded eras rarely seen on-screen: Japan under warring samurai, the White House and America during the Depression.


Director Gary Ross (in center of camera car wearing goggles) films Seabiscuit

Although each director's efforts hewed close to their celebrated source material — London with James Clavell's epic Shogun, Petrie with Joseph Lash's Pulitzer Prize-winning Eleanor and Franklin and Ross with Laura Hillenbrand's New York Times bestseller Seabiscuit: An American Legend — the challenge remained the same: how can a filmmaker make history compelling for modern audiences without playing fast and loose with the facts? Moreover, how can directors working within a wide range of budgets — from less than $2 million to upward of $60 million — in different length formats — a 12-hour network miniseries spread over several nights to a 140-minute feature breaking on thousands of screens — successfully transport us to another time and place? The answers, of course, are not found in textbooks; they are there on the screen, preserved for all of history.

Jerry London - Shogun

The challenge in any historical re-creation is to duplicate an experience, regardless of time or budget. Jerry London was allotted $12 million ($1 million per broadcast hour) by NBC and Paramount, and 133 shooting days, to film James Clavell's epic novel of samurai Japan, Shogun. It was a huge budget, even in 1980 dollars, yet it still fell short of London's needs. With both Paramount and NBC unwilling to extend, author James Clavell raised an additional $8 million in pre-sales to international TV outlets so London could complete the shoot. With another $2 million spent on publicity, the grand total for Shogun was more than $22 million. As London tells it, nearly every single dollar showed up on-screen.

"I give much of the credit for the historical accuracy of Shogun to my American art director, and a team of Japanese art directors," London said on the eve of Paramount's DVD release of Shogun. "The art department had done impeccable research for more than five months prior to my arrival in Japan. Since we built nearly all the key sets, shooting in Kyoto, Tokyo, and Nagashima, my job was simply to choose the best visual match from what they provided."

London's job to restage 17th-century feudal Japan brought culture and geography into play. Although he condensed his shooting schedule for weather concerns, a typhoon still swept down after his final day of shooting in Nagashima, stranding his crew and washing sets away. Typhoons seem almost minor compared to London's descriptions of "the culture gap." For Shogun's pivotal earthquake scene, for example, small chambers were dug out of a valley, covered with trap doors and dirt, and set to detonate via linked charges. When the charges failed on two attempts, Shogun's effects supervisor went underground to remedy the situation. The trap doors collapsed, burying the man alive, as Japanese and American crews exacerbated the crisis due to the language barrier. He was eventually pulled to safety, but the next day Japanese crewmembers refused to work. "They said there was an ill omen hanging over the location and they would not go back to work until a Shinto priest had blessed the site," London said.

Actor Richard Chamberlain and the director Jerry London, behind the camera on the set of Shogun

Shogun's culture gap challenged the very essence of London's job — communicating directions. He used female interpreters, many of whom London called "the very best in the country." Yet Shogun still fell behind schedule after the first week. "Every direction I gave to the interpreter would then be repeated in Japanese to the crew, who would talk about it, and then relay back questions to her, which she would then translate for me," London explained. "There was too much back-and-forth and I was losing days. I decided to give my directions directly to the crew in English, and she would immediately translate. After the second week, I was back on schedule. One day over lunch, I bragged to her about how I had saved all this time speaking directly to the crew, and she said: 'that had nothing to do with it. They just didn't want to take orders from a woman.'"

Director Daniel Petrie (left) on the set of Eleanor and Franklin with actress Jane Alexander

Daniel Petrie - Eleanor and Franklin; Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years

Daniel Petrie felt he had won the job of a lifetime, when he was hired to bring Joseph Lash's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Eleanor and Franklin, to the small screen. Petrie's working-class Canadian roots had made him a big supporter of FDR well into his college years. That's why, on the first day of shooting, the period detail of actress Jane Alexander as the older Eleanor Roosevelt, in full dress, hair, and makeup, overwhelmed him. He didn't address Alexander directly, and at day's end told the actress he would have to address her as Mrs. Roosevelt, on and off the set, for the duration; the period transformation was so complete, he simply had to maintain his deference for the woman he grew up idolizing.

"With Eleanor and Franklin," Petrie said, "we had to cover many different eras — from when Franklin first courted Eleanor as a teenager and Teddy Roosevelt was in office, through his three different White House inaugurations decades later. We had to re-create an era that was difficult even to find references for: incredible grandeur in the characters' homes, possessions and dress. We managed to find a close replica of Campobello in Tacoma, Washington. The owner was dead, but her cook, gardener, and chauffeur still lived on the property. We had to augment the foundation just to make it safe to shoot inside. Our production designer, Jan Scott, had to duplicate the original wallpaper and furnishings, all for a very tight budget."

Eleanor and Franklin's producer, Harry Sherman, estimates the miniseries, which ABC gave Petrie $1.8 million to complete, would easily cost upward of $12 million today. "The executives on the West Coast," Sherman said, "insisted on seeing dailies at noon, before we were done working. One executive (after seeing dailies) told us that America wouldn't accept Eleanor Roosevelt not bursting out in tears when she learned of her husband's death, even though that was not accurate or even in her character. The network wouldn't pay for us to re-create the East Room of the White House for a key part of the film, even though our entire cost was around $110,000."

Lack of money meant a dearth of extras to re-create FDR's three inaugural parades, all dramatic plot points in the four-hour miniseries. "We had 87 extras to shoot three inaugurations, plus the concert by Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial," Petrie said. "We shot all three in a single day. For the Lincoln Memorial concert, we made 87 extras look like thousands through judicious composition. We lined up the frame so heads and arms would block rows of empty seats. For the inauguration, we lined up 20-30 extras along the route, at a depth of two or three people — always just enough to contain the shot. The remainder of the extras we started further on, and had them run along with the carriage, waving flags, shouting out their excitement, which conveyed this feeling of thousands on the parade route. We interlaced real stock footage of the route, as well, although the swearing-in was re-created with Ed Hermann [playing FDR]."

Petrie was so intent on historical accuracy he invited screenwriter James Costigan, who had conducted considerable historical research on the project, onto the set. While re-creating one scene in Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years, where FDR's longtime secretary, Missy LeHand, suffers a devastating stroke, Petrie's production designer, Jan Scott, built contiguous room sets into a hallway, so LeHand could walk through them to accommodate the dialogue. When Costigan looked disturbed, Petrie came over, and the writer quietly noted that LeHand suffered her stroke in a room full of party guests, not with another staff member in an empty hallway. Petrie promptly ordered his crew to restage the scene, consciously limiting his camera and lighting to a single set for the sake of factual precision. "Sometimes the historical facts are unclear, and the filmmaker can take liberties," Petrie said. "But when it was documented, we followed it to the very letter. [In Eleanor and Franklin] I often found that the real facts were better than anything we dreamed up. History is like that, of course. It's often so dramatic and vibrant, the best course is just to leave it alone and let the real people and places tell your story."

Gary Ross - Seabiscuit

A racetrack fan since the age of 13, Gary Ross saw the plucky Seabiscuit (and the three men who partnered to make him great) as the perfect metaphor to both educate and entertain modern audiences. Yet he also knew few filmmakers have tried to re-create, stride-for-stride, from gate to wire, a dangerously fast-moving event with real thoroughbreds and jockeys. As Ross explained, "horses are not like cars where you have a smooth acceleration from 0 to 45 m.p.h. They either run full out or are rated (gathered in by the jockey). Making sure an audience can't see the jockeys rate the horses, as we did to maintain historical accuracy, was just one concern, among many."

Writer/director/producer Gary Ross (right) with Tobey Maguire as jockey Red Pollard

Safety was also a prime factor when tracking with such powerful, unpredictable animals. Ross was mindful of this when re-creating large-field stakes races like the 1937 Santa Anita Handicap, where Seabiscuit's jockey, Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), never saw fast-closing Rosemont, and lost in a photo finish. As Hillenbrand described it in her book, man and horse delivered a masterpiece of tactical racing, weaving in and out of obstacles to claim the homestretch lead, only to ease up and be overtaken by Rosemont by a nose. How did Ross accurately position 17 horses over a mile oval, and convey a key dramatic moment like Red Pollard's blindness on the track?

"We invented a playbook for every race in the film," Ross said. "It specified every horse we filmed, with the corresponding camera car and boom operator linked up to that horse's position on the track — the 16th pole, half-mile or four-furlong pole, etc." Ross's playbook evolved out of "chalk talks" he held with 1st AD Adam Somner, DP John Schwartzman, stunt coordinator and second unit director Dan Bradley, jockey Chris McCarron (who helped design the race sequences), wrangler Rusty Hendrickson and production supervisor for the horse unit, Julie Lynn. Three times a week for four months Ross went over the staging of each race (much like a director might physically illustrate blocking for a dialogue scene on the set) via a shot list he had prepared in advance of the meetings. Each thoroughbred could only be used a maximum of three takes a day, 2–3 furlongs per take, before needing to rest for two days, so the team had to cultivate precise time management. 1st AD Somner used a one-line schedule that, instead of having scene numbers, had shots based on the playbook. This allowed Ross to know what time of day he would be shooting races, shuffling each thoroughbred's scenes according to the animal's own internal clock.

Dawn would find Ross's team — camera and Techno-Crane operators, jockeys, camera car drivers, etc. — assembled at period locations like Santa Anita (where many of Seabiscuit's victories occurred) or Saratoga, in upstate New York. The filmmakers would "jog through" each shot with the intent, according to Ross, of safety and of logistics. "There are so many moving parts in re-creating a horse race," he said, "that everyone needs to physically understand all the spatial relationships on the track. From the grandstands we looked ridiculous, like a Monty Python troupe making a pretend movie."

The challenge of staging Seabiscuit's thrilling victories (and losses) was not limited to Techno-Cranes and playbooks: Hillenbrand's novel details the life of jockeys and their unique brands of dirty tricks. The problem for Ross then became how best to isolate Seabiscuit's tenacious jockey amongst a sea of sprinting thoroughbreds? The answer came months before production when McCarron introduced Ross to the Equicizer, a mechanical simulator jockeys use to limber up. Using a customized flatbed camera vehicle so large it was dubbed the S.S. Seabiscuit, Ross put Maguire on the Equicizer alongside real thoroughbreds on the track. The large camera platform let Ross work hand-held, soaking in period details behind Maguire, like the infield rail jammed with fans in period dress.

Horse racing in the 1930s ranked with boxing and baseball as one of America's "big three sports"; most of Seabiscuit's key races were notable for spectators literally overflowing the grandstands. To help re-create such enormous crowds, Ross used digital enhancement. But he also employed inflatable dolls, dressed in period costume. Cardboard cutouts are the preferred method for filling out deep space in a period frame, but Ross found them "two-dimensional with poor reflective qualities." Again, the playbook was a factor. Ross knew the days he was shooting action with horses versus days where he could recruit large crowds and turn his cameras around. "The grandstand was only in frame on the backstretch," Ross said.

Seabiscuit's most thrilling moment on the track was his match race with Triple Crown winner War Admiral on November 1, 1938. The race was broadcast to an estimated 40 million listeners, including President Roosevelt, via radio. Ross used Keeneland Racetrack, in Lexington, Kentucky, to double for Maryland's famed Pimlico. As he tells it, his crews ran two paper plates on poles down the track to give the fans a sightline, while an announcer called an imaginary race over a P.A. system. "The grandstand was filled withextras, on their feet cheering like I have never seen extras cheer," Ross said. "The announcer's call let them imagine the action, and they became enthralled with the race."

Imagining the Depression in Seabiscuit was not left solely to actors, sets, and costumes: the film's prominent use of black-and-white photographs, many taken from the unforgettable WPA work of the 1930s, combined with David McCullough's narration, is a technique more often seen on PBS than in a summer blockbuster. McCullough's voice provided the same veracity and education as a Ken Burns documentary. It not only filled in the context for Seabiscuit's popularity, but provided valuable transitions to move the story along. "David McCullough is the greatest narrator of our times," Ross said, "and he makes what's disappeared from our collective memories immediate. There was a lot of heroism in America's recovery [from the Depression]. McCullough's narration, combined with those you-are-there stills, underscored that for a modern audience."

Period films come alive for an audience through the many colors in a director's paint box. Source music, wardrobe, landscape design, and props all contribute to the feeling of an era, even if the camera is never focused directly on those details. And in turn, history comes alive for the director as well.

"When I go to work at Santa Anita and I'm shooting on the same track where Seabiscuit ran, in the same paddock where he was saddled, in the same barn where he was stalled, I feed off of that history, and channel it into my story," Ross said. "Re-creating a period fuels my imagination because it takes me away from my everyday life."


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