On the Set with Smithee
(a diary fragment)
Thanks to the tireless efforts of Seth Grendlesen, a researcher at Film Europa, the following diary (most likely by Smithee focus puller Angus MacSnit) of the shooting of an unknown Smithee film (possibly 1979's unfinished Rosary of the Dead) has been unearthed. We invite all to examine this delicious segment of the mystery that lies at the core of the Smithee legacy.
As always, Alan has us assemble on the set promptly at 6:20, as it reminds him of film-school days back in Bucharest (all businesses open at 6:20 in Bucharest, except, of course, for the borscht trade, which runs 24 hours). Alan wears a jaunty pork pie, a rumpled suit, and has applied red makeup to his nose and shot-red lenses to his eyes. He also assumes a wobbly gait, finally falling head first into a puddle of mud and goat ends. The crew is delighted at this comic display, done to boost our enthusiasm. Before shooting begins, he even has Eva Bartok feed him a "breakfast" of what seems to me schnapps. What a kidder!
Our first set-up of the day. And what a location it is! Soot-blackened dead trees, rusting trailer homes, a closed-down factory. The town is Grumpston, Pittsburgh. As is often the case, Alan has kept the story, plot and script a mystery to the crew. Suddenly he calls out, "Get me Karen Black." The crew is silent, wondering if the slightly unhinged actress is actually over there in the actor's trailer, or whether this just Alan creating a bit of mystic ambience (he has been in Zen for months now). To be on the safe side, everyone starts yelling, "Karen Black!" just in case either is true. Meanwhile, Alan has me pull focus for a shot of a gaggle of nuns, who have been staring angrily at us for some time. When asked why, he replies with his usual Smithee-ian sense of the uncanny, "It's always good to have fresh nun footage." Who are we to argue?
Karen Black is in the film, and Alan is not very pleased with her behavior. It seems the actress is fond of how to put this of squatting between shots, as though about to perform an act of elimination. "In Bucharest, the women never squat!" yells Alan. "Well, Alan," Black says in deep squat, "In Hollywood, all the stars do." He does not argue, for he knows this to be truth. After changing into a sexually alluring bio-hazard suit, Ms. Black is ready for her close-up.
Most of us, based on Alan's murmurs and some pages of rewrite from his trusty Clark Nova, have figured out the story of this film: Black is playing a quick-witted bio-clinician rushed to a post-apocalypse Pittsburgh, where a chemical spill has turned the local nunnery into a band of flesh-eating zombies. Lee Van Cleef (in his third Smithee film) and Ray Sharky play rich capitalist scum, who think to reprogram the zombie nuns to fill the ranks of their international prostitution/Tupperware-saleslady ring. Brilliant! A truly Smithee-esque bit of subversive filmmaking, poking fun at capitalism, religion and Tupperware in one narrative swoop! We are about to shoot a tense scene where Black is being seduced by a new actor playing a deranged priest, played by a young fellow named Bogosian, whom everybody loathes. Despite some problems with Bogosian's codpiece (Alan's idea), the shot goes well.
Nobody told us it got hot in Pittsburgh, and we are all sweating profusely. Black is squatting non-stop; she has even suggested adding this to her character. Alan fumes. Luckily, the next set-up is just Van Cleef and Sharky, examining a piece of Tupperware smeared with what will look like human viscera, but is actually chicken livers. The cameraman asks Alan which lens to use for this shot. Alan adjusts his porkpie, smiles rakishly, and says, "A good one, I would think."
An early lunch break. It seems the this new fellow playing the priest, after regaling a confused crew with tales of life in Alphabet City ("Is he on drugs?" we wonder) lost control entirely, resulting with Inga, the film loader, finding him in a sewer, admonishing a pack of unfazed rats. Ms. Black claims she has developed a sudden yeast infection ("It's all that damned squatting!" yells Alan) and has been rushed to a local hospital. She returns, eyes strangely glazed, but apparently yeast-free. Alan, meanwhile, is talking to a raw-bone local girl about Roman Polanski, and discuss her role (which I had not been aware of) of a zombie nun choir girl.
Ms. Black and the local girl (whose named is Brittany) develop an instant hatred of each other, and instead of doing their lines, start fighting. Black pulls madly at the girl's bleach-blond hair, the two fall into the mud, ripping each other clothes, shrieking and biting. Finally, Alan yells "Cut!" There is a tear in his eye. I ask him why. He smiles that mysterious Romanian smile. "The catfight, my young man, is the very essence of cinema." Who am I to argue?
Copyright © 1996-2003 by Ian Grey